23 July, 2014
This morning, I yelled at an apple. I fed the dog, did yoga for half an hour, and then I yelled at an apple.
More specifically, I yelled at the sticker attached to the apple, but I can’t imagine the apple’s feelings weren’t hurt. It was right there.
I can’t say why I got so upset that the sticker wouldn’t come off, but it’s even more pathetic since I had so recently finished putting my body through a calming mindfulness practice. That’s a life lived as a human for you, I guess.
If nothing else, my little outburst reminded me that any religious/mindfulness practice is just that—practice. It’s an effort to ground yourself in the present, to reconnect the mind and body. They need reconnecting because your normal state (if you’re like me) is apple abuser. The effort is one to be made again and again, the centering attempted in the face of one soul-destroying piece of fruit after another.
I’ve written about ritual and mindful awareness here before, but failing at the practice is a different part of the process. Failing is the reason the practice exists. No one needs connection if they never become disconnected. Maybe there’s more than fifteen minutes between the connecting and failing, but sometimes there just isn’t. Resting in the failure, then, can become its own ritual, its own physical interplay between the grumpy children we are and the slightly-less-grumpy children we want to be. That’s hard, though, and there’s a wide gap between failing like you normally do and working through the failure via ritual. It’s the difference between “namaste” and “namaste, dammit.”
Rowan Williams contributed a great section to a recent article on ritual practice in daily life.1 He describes his time of sitting prayer, preceded by a walking meditation, as “a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts.” Unfortunately, it’s a messier reality given that the vehicle doesn’t always take you where you want to go and doesn’t always move when you want to go there. Williams gets this, too:
"So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again."
What we’re left with, then, are broken brains and bodies that listen to our broken brains. But as Williams points out, this isn’t cause for despair; rather, it’s a chance to reorient and try again. When the focus shifts from actively seeking to improve ourselves to noticing what needs improvement in a kind and mindful way, something fundamentally different happens. The practice becomes more than the original effort to have some kind of awakening or breakthrough. The practice becomes attempting the practice.
Getting the body involved in where we want the mind to be gives us an out when our minds start to dump on the present. The bodily practice brings it back. This is the failure ritual, and doing it enough helps eliminate the failure distinction altogether. Getting out of sync and realigning becomes the wider ritual at play. The morning yoga isn’t the practice or the ritual; the morning yoga followed by emotionally damaging some produce followed by a breathing prayer is.
The rest of the article is great, too. Read it after you read this one. ↩
16 July, 2014
I’ve written before about the dangers of trying to have a discussion via social media (spoilers: it’s terrible), but I continue to do it. I’m an idiot, though, so I forgive me.
Recently a friend posted the Facebook status referencing the humanitarian crisis on the U.S. southern border in which thousands of foreign minors are fleeing their homes in Central and South America and attempting to gain refugee status here. He wrote, “Jesus wouldn’t deport 52,000 children.” To which Logan responded “No. I mean…he wouldn’t. But he also wasn’t a head of state.” This led to Logan and I having a lengthy offline discussion about what the original thought implied and what our reactions were to it and why they were so immediate.
It’s important to look at what’s going on when we talk about what the government is doing or should be doing and what Jesus said we should be doing in the same breath. On a historical level, it gets murky when we try to grant Jesus political authority. There was a separation and a tension for him (the “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” thing1), so outright conflation of the two doesn’t sit well.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that what Jesus was all about had no political implications. The social and economic status quo is very much the business of the government and has been since the invention of the concept of governmental authority. But that’s where the crux of my reaction to the statement lies: Jesus was about something so much more than government business.
For the record, I don’t believe deporting those kids will do one damn bit of good. Maybe it’ll encourage others to seek asylum here2, to make the dangerous journey that might cost their lives, but if the crisis at home is bad enough, those deported back will just leave again. I also believe that it is morally necessary to care for them while they are here, to do as much as we can to help them begin a life here, and to also make the life in their home countries good enough that they don’t feel the need to flee in the first place.3
The flip side to all this, and what I think my friend was going for when he wrote what he did, is that such an invocation is usually the tool of the Christian Right in this country. In that sense, he was turning it back on those who commonly use Jesus as a way to justify political and social action, often for causes that look and sound very un-Jesus-like. However, this tension between what Jesus was all about and how governments operate doesn’t really let the technique work for liberals, either. No matter which side uses the lingo, problems arise.
That being said, if we’re going to think through an issue that holds government action and religious conviction in conversation, we have to think about how much the two have to do with each other and how action in one sphere might affect the other. For my friend, the issue came down to how we begin to focus our responsibility to those children in great need and what our top representative’s response should look like given that responsibility. To which I replied, in part:
If by “our responsibility” you mean the responsibility of the federal government, its representatives, and the people who elected them, then no. It’s not “our” responsibility. Obama’s responsibility is constitutional, to do what he can for our national interests while following federal law. If he does more, it’s above and beyond the actual responsibility of the position.
If by “our” you mean Christians, which I assume you do by invoking Jesus, then yes, it is our responsibility. However, as much as fundamentalists want it, we’re not a Christian nation and our president, of all people, shouldn’t be acting based on one set of religious virtues. This doesn’t mean he can’t act morally within the grounds of his public office, but it also means that he can’t base such action on what Jesus wants.4
Essentially, we can’t expect Obama or any other politician to abide by WWJD bracelets. Nor should we. Government will do what government does, especially in this country where we at least claim to stake some identity (I’m sighing as I type this because it’s ridiculous to keep saying it given current American politics) on the separation of church and state. That leaves those with a religious responsibility to respond in their own way.
"What does that look like?"5 is the million-dollar question. A lot of things, actually. Electing representatives that favor domestic and foreign policies that speak to the tenets of your religious beliefs (and if you’re a Jesus follower, I sure hope you’re thinking first about major social and economic reform and not gay marriage or birth control) is a place to start. Giving your financial resources to trustworthy groups that seek those same goals is another quick way to jump in. But most importantly, giving of yourself, your time and body, is the best way we can demonstrate commitment to our responsibilities. If you truly believe we have a commitment to those children, to the humanitarian struggle they’re facing at home and here on our soil, then how are you actively, physically planning to help them?
Am I helping them? Have I taken a leave of absence from my job to go down there and touch those in need with my hands and tell them they are loved and show them that someone cares? No. But I’m a bad Christian. It’s important to know these things. I’ve known I’m a bad Christian for a while, actually, since I have a house full of stuff and a car and money in savings and I’m planning for retirement. Jesus said something about selling what you have, giving the proceeds to the poor, and then following him.6 I haven’t done that. Most Christians haven’t. But we can try to do better. We can think on how we failed the least of these, breathe in and out a few times, and then try to do better. We can then do our best to help those in need all around us. We can even ask Obama to do the same thing. Just don’t get mad when he allocates funds to speed up the deportation process because you think Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Jesus wouldn’t have agreed to be commander-in-chief, either.
Mark 12:17 ↩
Though if they did, the Bible has something to say about that, too. Check out Leviticus 19:33-34. That’s in the chapter before the one certain folks like to wield. ↩
We’re up against some decades-old Reagan-era policies toward Central and South America here which, frankly, haven’t gotten much better with presidents since. This one’s a toughy. ↩
Feel free to substitute another moral/religious system in place of Christian here. I’m arguing from a Christian perspective because that’s a) where most of my experience lies and b) where the discussion started. ↩
Matthew 19:21 ↩
11 July, 2014
Say you serve Christ every Sunday by making and serving a breakfast for the poor and hungry, and about every fourth Sunday a church neighbor screams in your face. That neighbor is clearly not experiencing the love of God. Right? And you clearly are. Right? The kingdom of heaven is at hand and you’re there reaching out to touch it. You’re building it. And these neighbors—the ones using words like nigger, cunt, pedophile, drunk, lazy, bum—they’re trying to tear it down. It’s clear. Right?1
So there you are in God’s kingdom and there are your angry neighbors who definitely are not. Having God on your side feels good. Knowing where you stand and that what you’re doing is the right thing is the greatest. And, of course, you owe it all to yourself. You’ve been responsible for making all the right decisions about your life. You go to the right church and have right-headed opinions about love and mercy, politics and economics, wealth and poverty. You would never call someone a nigger or a cunt, and you would never deny even the most distasteful person a hot meal and a cup of coffee. You’re on God’s side, and God’s side is over here with the poor, the stranger, the widow, the afflicted, and the suffering. You’re over here and those angry neighbors are over there. Good job.
Except you know down deep God is more than that. You sort of try to deny it or kind of ignore it. But it’s there in the back of your mind. And it hangs there in front of you beckoning you forward. But you’re over here doing God’s work with God’s people, keeping these outsiders, these so-called neighbors, at bay.
In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” Mrs. Turpin knows just who she is and just where she stands in relationship to God and to everyone else in the world. She has worked it all out. She is thankful to be just who she is and no one else. That is until a girl named Mary Grace throws a book at her head and calls her a warthog from hell. Suddenly the bottom rail has been placed on top. The violent force of grace O’Connor illustrates for the reader has irrevocably converted Mrs. Turpin. Mrs. Turpin then has a vision. She sees her social order turned upside down —the bottom rail on top, she and others like her from the top rail on the bottom. She sees her world turned over and everyone singing and marching toward heaven. Among everyone singing and marching, she sees herself and the people with whom she has classified herself:
"They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away."
Thus the mystery of grace, at least as Flannery O’Connor sees it. Well, far be it from me to criticize a mystic such as she.
We should continue to respond to Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, in communion with our divine Mother-Father and all the souls who join us for breakfast each Sunday, or for PB&J in the park, or at an AIDS clinic, or in recovery from addiction, or… name a place where the church is doing its thing.
But let us not be deceived. We can no more know the true shape of the kingdom by our good works than we can know the shape of the future. Maybe we get a glimpse here and there. But our glimpses are an incomplete revelation of an ultimate reality that is surely populated by people who we would rather find their end somewhere else, away from us, with their distinctions intact. But there in the back of your mind, beckoning you forward, you know the grace of God is burning it all away.
My thanks to “Juanita” for helping me work some of this stuff out. She requested an alias, so she got one. ↩