Looking Back

Photo: Crow looking at her reflection in the pond

We finally have someone to clean our house today, after no one since COVID. (A true blessing for those of us allergic to dust.) So I am in the basement, where I have an office filled with old papers that I still haven’t cleaned out since I retired three years ago. I am allergic to old papers, too, (and old books, which is a real sadness). But it is hard to just throw them out or shred them, they are like messages from my earlier self. I thought maybe if I could capture some of them here, it would be easier to release these reflections of the preacher I used to be. (During the summers, I’d be pondering what to preach during the following year. I’d be trying to get grounded in what was most important.) It is grounding to read them now:

What is my message? What is my good news? God is love. You are loved. You are beloved, you are sacred, each one of you. (Especially to the ones who are on the edges, to women, to lesbians.)

Around to the question–who is my audience, who are my people? What is my message? Love is on the side of equality and we are all brothers, sisters, siblings. Every being is beloved and we are all one family. What is my message to the men and to those who are comfortable? Your privilege does not bring you closer to heaven. If you have privilege, share the wealth. I don’t like being “negative” or challenging. I like lifting up the lowly. Is that true? I like clear thinking–see what is going on and understand the times we are in. What are the big issues we face as a people?

What is my message? Look at the power dynamics that are hidden–Who benefits? Who lies? Organize yourselves–alone we can do something, but together we can really do something. Be smart about change. Hold up the vision of where we are going and also talk about the ways to get there. How to live sustainably? How to live in mutually beneficial relationship with each other and with the earth. The earth is us, we are the earth. We are children of the earth, this is our mother and our home, our only home. Stand with our relatives. What touches one, affects us all.

What gives me hope? The sense of being beloved. The witness of people before us who loved, who created change.

What are my questions? How do I preach about God? What is at the soul of my wanting to preach about God? Anger at the fundamentalists who put God into a box–an idol, who use it to go to war, to condemn other people, including me–who use God as a weapon of hate. Anger at the atheists who argue there is no God–but the only God they argue against is the fundamentalist God that I don’t believe in either.

I experience God–is “God” even the word?–but I want to claim that word “God.” They’ve stolen it, corrupted it, they’ve tried to use it to shut the true gates of heaven. Starhawk reminded us that it is not about belief, but knowledge.

What can I say about my own experience of God? How do I experience God? As the power to leave the church of my childhood, to find the experience of myself as woman, as a whole and equal person. Goddess. (Ntozake Shange “I found God in my self and I loved her fiercely.”) The power to take a leap of courage into the unknown, toward wholeness and strength and transformation. God is a power beyond institutions, uncontained. “The sound in the soul of a man becoming free.” [from the song “Mystery.”] The joy I see in a lesbian couple finding the strength to be proud of who they are and to become public spokespersons for equal marriage. God is the comforter of the lonely. The lover. God is everywhere in everything, imbues the world with beauty. God is the power of creativity. We say “Creator.”

What would be the greatest personal risk I could take? Can I be the minister I feel called to be? Why is it so hard to say I experience the presence of God? To challenge the atheists who ridicule those who experience God? God as personal, the old Universalist idea that God loves everyone so much that we’ll all get into heaven. Can I invite an atheist to go inside themselves to experience God for themselves? To pray?

It is okay to have an image for God, a doorway. We need pictures–as long as we remember they are just doorways into something beyond our ability to picture. The mystical. God isn’t just someone to make good things happen to us. God is a presence in the midst of the hard things. The cardinal who sang when I was lost and lonely. The grandmother who appeared when everything fell apart. Comfort and strength when loss comes. But what about those who don’t experience that. What feeds you? What is large enough to win your allegiance? Any other gods are too small.

Just random thoughts, like looking at my reflection in a still pool of water. After so many days of working in the garden and working on the pond, it is good to be quiet with these old pieces of paper.

Magic Uses Imagination and Action

As I said in my last post, when prayers have been powerful in my life, when magic has happened, there are certain aspects that have often been a part of that prayer or magic. First it is necessary to be aware of the desires of our hearts, and then to send those desires into the larger universe.

Then, it is also important to take some action on our own behalf. These actions might include both mental actions and physical actions. Mental action is using that tool of imagination that I have spoken about. Imagination is a powerful tool for prayer and magic. Notice that the roots of the words magic and imagination are the same. A few years ago, when I lived on Cape Cod, a Wampanoag grandmother gave me a trouble basket. She said: “Whenever you are worrying about something or feeling sad, you can put that trouble in the basket. You can write it on a piece of paper, or hold a stone, and imagine your trouble on the stone, and then put it in the basket, close the lid, and let go. It won’t feel so heavy.”

White Candle MJ DSC09662Images focus and shape the energy generated by our desire, so we can work with it. The image of the stone in the basket can focus our letting go of trouble. Or for another example, if we desire to heal someone we love, we may imagine white light flowing through their body. The image of white light gives a form to our desire for their healing. We can also use material objects to focus our imagination. When we light a candle, the bright light of healing becomes more tangible. The more vivid the image, the more powerful the energy can be.

We take action in our imagination, but also in our daily life, to bring our desire to life. Prayer is not a substitute for action in the world; rather it goes hand in hand. For example, if we want to find a place to live, usually we must go out looking for one. Years ago, five of my friends and I wanted to rent a big house in Jamaica Plain so we could live as a community. We lit a candle, and then we went out and looked at all the houses that were advertised in the paper. But nothing seemed right all day, so we finally stopped for ice cream. Next to our booth was a bulletin board, and there we found a new poster for a house to rent. We called and it turned out to be our perfect house, three doors away from the ice cream parlor.

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says that when we are firmly committed to a course of action, the universe responds. I find it often responds with humor and quirky irony, and in ways we don’t quite expect. We didn’t find our house in the paper where we looked. We found it after looking while getting ice cream. I will never forget a prayer in which I imagined a white horse coming to take me to visit a loved one I was yearning to see. The next day, someone in a white pickup truck offered me a ride to my destination. Synchronicity!

New Ways to Think About Prayer

Larry Dossey is a physician who attempted to study prayer scientifically. He challenged the way we have been taught to think about prayer and God. He said people think of sending prayers “up there,” as if God were a spiritual communications satellite, granting or denying requests at whim. He felt the studies seem to point, not to the arbitrary power of that kind of God, but to some inherent power in the human being, something that linked us together beyond the limits of space and time.

That also helps with a problem raised by Episcopal Bishop John Spong. He asked, “Should prayer work?” When his wife had cancer, thousands of people prayed for her, since he was a well known bishop. She did live longer than expected, but he began to be troubled by the implications of it being due to all the prayers. Would this mean that God cared more to relieve the suffering of those who were lucky enough to be well connected? Suppose there were a poor sanitation worker, whose wife wasn’t high profile, or well-connected. Wouldn’t it be a capricious God who would treat her differently, according to worldly standards of human importance? It didn’t fit the kind of God in which he wanted to believe.

Perhaps we can let go of that idea of a God granting or denying requests at whim. If prayer is a way of opening up a connection to the larger whole, then it means that our energies are tuning in to larger energies, and we can be influenced by those energies, and also influence the energy of that whole, in subtle and significant ways. Rupert Sheldrake put it in terms of scientific field theory. Prayer could be understood as an activation of our energy within a larger field of energy, similar to how magnets exert an influence within a magnetic field.

Now, that is all very intellectually stated—but the experience is felt more in the heart. So it helps to be able to imagine the larger Mystery in some tangible form. We just need to be aware of the kind of image we choose. A capricious granter or denier of favors may leave us feeling betrayed and hurt. But other images feel more true to a transforming power of kindness.

We may imagine the Mystery as a God full of unconditional love, or imagine the power of the bountiful Earth. We might envision Jesus who fed the crowds, or a vast River of Life, or a great web of connection. Images are the best way to focus and direct energy. Our minds might be hesitant about such images, or think of them as childish. But I find I can understand with my mind that these images are images–symbols, metaphors–and yet assent with my heart to engage in a relationship to the Mystery through them. What images help you to engage in prayer?

Prayer is a kind of paying attention, a doorway, a silence. A recognition of smallness and largeness. Prayer creates a relationship between our individual self and the universe. Or rather, prayer creates an awareness of that relationship which already exists. Prayer opens up our experience of divine power manifesting within us. Right in the midst of our utter helplessness, we discover a limitless energy beyond our own personal effort.

Sunset Crescent MJ DSC09460

The thoughts from Bishop Spong were from an article in IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) #51 

What kind of God do you believe in?

Winter Sun DSC09206

I have never believed in God. Not in your God anyway; the one who looks down onto his chessboard and moves the pieces according to his pleasure, occasionally glancing up at the face of his Adversary with the smile of the one who already knows the outcome. It seems to me that there must be something horribly flawed in a Creator who persists in testing his creatures to destruction, in providing a world well stocked with pleasures only to announce that all pleasure is sin, in creating mankind imperfect, then expecting us to aspire to perfection. …There must be something else, I told myself repeatedly; something beyond sin and solemnity, dust and devotion; something that loved life as indiscriminately as I did.
                                                                Joanne Harris from Holy Fools, p. 32-33.

Throughout history, people have wrestled with the mystery of powers greater than themselves. There are many ways that people have understood these powers—some peoples believed in a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses who ruled various aspects of life; others claimed that there was only one Supreme Being, while still others espoused a belief in natural processes that have unfolded to create the universe as we know it today. We often hear the question now framed simply as: “Do you believe in God?”

Many of us, as children, are presented with one idea of God, framed as if it were the only possible idea of God. If that idea doesn’t work for us, or even hurts our spirits, we may reject the whole notion of God, without further reflection. But there is not just one idea of God, there have been many. People imagine God in one form or another, and it is important to realize that our images of God are not what God really is.

God is a name that some give to the mysterious forces that sustain and uphold the larger reality of which we are a part. These forces are beyond our capacity to actually know or define. We understand them through the use of symbol and analogy. We say God is like this, or God is like that. So, rather than ask, “Do you believe in God,” I think it is much more important to ask “What kind of God do you believe in?” or perhaps even, “What kind of God do you not believe in?”