“I don’t know how to love him…”

I was watching Jesus Christ Superstar this evening, starring John Legend as Jesus. He is a wonderful Jesus! Each time I see it, it pulls me back to a time in my life that was so deep, so intense. I think of Lori and Tom, the best friends I met in my first week of college, and how the three of us were so in love with Jesus, and all he represented–a life beyond the ambition and greed of our society, something radical, something full of love, a life that let go of material things and chose a different kind of joy. We three were in love with all that. But we often asked each other, how can we follow Jesus’ way in this day and age? And so the song, “I don’t know how to love him,” touched something of that powerful confusion and desire in our hearts.

Now, Lori and Tom are gone, dying too soon, so I have no one with whom to reminisce; but the music calls to mind the idealism and passion we inspired in each other.  I have very few pictures of us, maybe none from college. We were so young then. This picture was taken about a year or two after graduation I think, when Lori was making her vows as a Franciscan sister. (Francis of Assisi was another one who inspired our best dreams.) That was how she tried to love Jesus.

Lori, Tom, and I

Me, Lori & Tom, 1977 or so?

Jesus Christ Superstar had debuted on Broadway the year of my high school graduation. We were lucky enough at Aquinas College to have as a professor a Catholic priest, Fr. Philip Hanley, who brought it into our theology class. He said that Jesus Christ Superstar asked all the questions that people had been asking for centuries about Jesus. And that was what theology was all about. Fr. Hanley is dead now, too, but I still remember how he encouraged us to ask all the questions, how he opened up our minds and hearts.

Lori was a nun for most of her life. Tom worked for the church–it was complicated because he was gay. But eventually he was working for the church and living with a long time partner, so that was a blessing. A few years after that photo, I found the Catholic Worker movement, the best example I knew of people trying to actually live the values of the gospel in our day and age. Radical, and a different kind of joy.

Then, in the midst of our peace activism, I found feminism and needed to launch on an even more radical journey that brought me out of the Catholic church, and into a spiritual movement with women becoming free. I came out as a lesbian, and named myself a witch, and eventually became a Unitarian Universalist minister. All of that brought me far from the paths that Lori and Tom had traveled, so we were not as close in later years, though I visited Lori when she was dying from cancer, and our love for each other went beyond all those differences.

The thing is, that idealistic and passionate young woman is still inside, however the years have transformed me. And listening to the musical this time, when Jesus/John Legend sang, “then, I was inspired; now, I’m sad and tired…” it resonated. We had such hope for changing the world, back then. It is hard to see the fruits of our labor as the backlash against social change movements rocks our nation. I don’t know if my life has lived up to the hopes and dreams I held in those days. Did it all mean anything? Yet Jesus asked those questions too, in Jesus Christ Superstar.

And it is complicated for me now, sorting out where Jesus fits into my life as a witch. But he hasn’t gone away. I remember him encouraging me as I set out on my feminist journey.  I am still wondering how to love him.  Still wondering about that radical way of living and loving. It brings tears to my eyes, even as an old tired woman.

Awake in the Night

I wake in the night with pain in my heart for all that is happening in our country, and I feel utterly powerless.  How can we respond to a reign of terror?  How can we respond to cruelty after cruelty promulgated by people in power? Money grabs, land grabs, malevolent neglect, direct abuse, more power grabs.  I have been an activist most of my life, and I believed and hoped that activism might help to change the world for the better.  In some ways, it really has.  But the dream–of a whole society that was rooted in cooperation and mutuality, in care for all of its people–that dream feels lost in a nightmare of empire re-emerging like some multi-headed dragon from the flames of disaster.

In my feelings of powerless, an old friend comes to me.  Jesus sits with me in the dark night. He comforts me, strangely, by reminding me that in many ways I am powerless. I can’t control what “my government” is doing right now.  The idea that it is “my government” is an illusion, democracy has become an illusion, a thin veneer over oligarchy, over fascism.  But Jesus too was powerless: he and his friends had no political power.  He lived his whole life in the shadow of the Roman empire, and that empire killed him.  Yet he was able to respond, to act, to live a life.

How? He prayed, he taught, he healed the sick, he listened, he walked among the ordinary people, in the lowly places.  He recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Holy is upon me,
    that one has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
That one has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the time of blessing from the Holy.”

He didn’t concern himself very often with the emperor or king or governor–he was clear that those powers were evil. Rather, he went directly to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, those were the ones who caught the eye of the divine blessing.  And later, when he painted a picture of the end of the world, this was the measure by which all people were judged:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my relatives, you do for me.”  

There is a certain clarity in all of this. A letting go of all that I cannot control. A shift in focus to what is possible, what really matters. An appreciation for the heroes who are risking their lives to look after the sick, those who are bringing food for the hungry.  A remembrance of the One who is with us in the midst of our powerlessness. Thank you.

 

helper 485_108321

Photo Source Unknown

My Mystic Father

Dad at 48

[My dad at the age of 48.]

My father Richard Johnson’s funeral is today, and one of my family members will read this story I shared in my book:

I grew up with a father who was a mystic. My father didn’t merely believe in God, he was in love with God. He had called out to God and experienced an answer. It filled his life like a contagious fire. A spark of that fire ignited in my heart too.

My father later described to me his own pivotal experience, which occurred when I was about eight years old. He told me that one day in prayer he had offered his life to God unreservedly. A few days later he was lifted to a state of spiritual bliss that continued for two weeks. During that time, he could feel no pain, and he said if he went walking in the rain, he literally did not get wet. It was during the time when the Russian cosmonauts became the first human beings to leave the earth’s atmosphere, and when he tried to explain what had happened for him, that became his metaphor—he was lifted out of this world. When he read the Christian scriptures, he was struck by the message that Jesus, who had been in glory with God, left that glory to become a human being. He felt then, he too should let go of this heavenly state, and come back into the ordinary human world of suffering and joy, so he could be of service. And so he did.

Living with a mystical father was a powerful gift for me. From my earliest memories, I was familiar with the idea that God could touch our lives. Learning to pray was like learning to talk—there was an expectation someone was listening. God lived in our house like another member of the family. God was talked about as a source of infinite Love. I experienced moments of being held in the care of a strong and cherishing presence.

Helpers for Finding Our Way Home

Cardinal

Margy Dowzer Photo

There are beings all around us who want to be called upon, who want to help us in this work of returning to wholeness, this work of finding our way home. I have shared stories of a few of the beings who have helped me. The bright red cardinal singing its beautiful song. The four directions beech tree. The waters of lakes and streams. The ground, the very ground we walk upon, that holds me when all around me everything is falling apart.

Now that I know about the mycelial network, the ground feels more alive to me. But it was always true that something happened when I sat down upon the ground. If I sleep on the ground for a longer period of days, there is a glow that surrounds my body. I remember this from my time at the Women’s Peace Camp, where I was living in a tent for four months. I felt alive in some new way that I began to miss when I went back inside an apartment in Chicago. I forget it easily, but I feel more alive when I am outside.

Jesus has been such a helping presence too. First in my childhood and youth, when he was the one who loved me and who called me to the path of love. But even later, when I was leaving Christianity to follow the path of the Goddess, Jesus was a guide and a friend. If we can experience the divine within every being around us, the theological questions about Jesus seem less of a quandary. People have been asking, over the centuries, Was Jesus a man or a God? I would answer, Aren’t all of us both human and divine?

When Winifred Gallagher wrote about her quest for a spiritual home, she described the essential spiritual practice of the Christian tradition as the practice of love for everyone. She commented that it seemed a lot easier to meditate for an hour every day, than to have to practice love for everyone—it was not an easy alternative. It has been a deep tragedy that Christianity has been used to foster hate and oppression. Jesus stays in my life as the teacher of love, the human example of what divine love looks like.

I want you to know that we are not alone. In this time of great challenges and transitions, there are a host of beings who love life and want to help us find another way to live. As we reach out to them, they are reaching out to us. I understand that every person will have their own ways of connecting to earth, to each other, to Mystery. The mycelial network might not be the thing that helps you to experience the connection between all beings. You might not resonate with Jesus or with trees. But I encourage you to find out what it is that does help you. In these times we need critical thinking and activism and also mysticism.

Just as we can now sit in front of a plastic and metal panel and communicate with people across the world, so there are technologies to communicate across species and across dimensions. The threads of life weave us together in ways we have barely begun to imagine. But I know this: we belong here together and we need each other now more than ever. Poet Barbara Deming wrote:

Our own pulse beats in every stranger’s throat,
and also there within the flowered ground beneath our feet.
Teach us to listen:
We can hear it in water, in wood, and even in stone.
We are earth of this earth, and we are bone of its bone.
This is the prayer I sing.

Green Back Yard DSC05265

Love Your Enemy: What?

For much of my life I have been intrigued with the words of Jesus about loving our enemies. It is one thing to love those who are open to loving us. But it is a different challenge to love those who seek to harm us.

We read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Jesus said, “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well…” and then “We once were told, ‘You are to love your neighbor’ and ‘You are to hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.”

According to the Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar, these phrases are two of three passages that are the most likely to be the actual words of Jesus, rather than edited or added by a later commentator or preacher. They are at the very heart of his teachings. They are also among the most misunderstood.

The injunction to “turn the other cheek” has fostered a kind of doormat approach to conflict. Christian preachers have used this teaching to admonish those who were suffering to simply endure, rather than try to make a change. Until very recently, most ministers or priests would tell a battered woman that she should remain with her abuser, and suffer abuse as a Christian virtue.

But Biblical theologian Walter Wink says this is not what Jesus meant by loving your enemy.  He has offered a new insight into this passage by looking more closely at its cultural context. Jesus said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” As we hear it, this saying does seems to counsel surrender. But let’s try to hear it as his listeners might.

First century Palestine was a right-handed culture, even more than our own. A blow from the right hand would normally fall on the left cheek. So, if someone wants to strike me on the right cheek—as Jesus is referring to—he has to do it with the back of his right hand. This kind of blow was intended to humiliate, to put an inferior in his or her place. It was a blow that masters gave to slaves, husbands to wives, Romans to Jews.

Dr. Wink suggests that “By turning the other cheek, the person struck puts the striker in an untenable spot. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the other’s nose is now in the way.”

The only target is now the left cheek, which would have to be hit with a fist. But in that culture, only persons who were equals would fight with fists. “…By turning the other cheek, the oppressed person is saying that she refuses to submit to further humiliation. This is not submission, as the churches have insisted. It is defiance.”

Of course, this turning the other cheek was “no way to avoid trouble; the master might have the slave flogged to within an inch of her life. But the point has been irrevocably made: the ‘inferior’ is saying, in no uncertain terms, ‘I won’t take such treatment anymore. I am your equal. I am a child of God.’”

Jesus was not just giving people a new commandment. He was revealing a new option, a new tool. Our instinctive impulses are fight or flight, but he showed a third way to engage with an enemy that simultaneously offers and demands respect and equality. It is surprising, and it is creative. Don’t respond with violence, but don’t accept humiliation either. Don’t be a doormat, but choose equal human dignity for each person.

MLK March 2011

MLK March 2011

See also: Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way

Guilt or Love?

Steeple MJ DSC01914One of my hopes in this blog has been to expand our understanding of what God might be, what Mystery and Spirit might be, because so many people have been wounded by the false Gods of our culture. I want to take a closer look at one of those false Gods that I believe has hurt many people. If you have rejected the idea of God, perhaps you’ll recognize the one I am talking about. So I invite you to persevere with me as we explore it a little bit.

I think we can identify two approaches that people have taken to our relationship with the powers greater than ourselves. In one, the powers, the Gods, the Spirits were dangerous forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to appease these forces, and make the people safe from them. In the other, the Gods, the Spirits were benevolent forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to call upon the forces for help in dealing with the challenges of living. I am simplifying it of course, but still, there have been particular times in history when this battle between dangerous or fearful forces and kind and loving forces was in full blaze, and sometimes within the same religion.

When I was a child, I learned about one such conflict between a judging fearful God and a loving God. As a Catholic, I used to read about the lives of the saints, and one saint I liked a lot was Margaret Mary Alacoque. She lived during the 17th century in France. Just before her time, there had been a theologian named Cornelius Jansen who emphasized the idea of original sin. He believed that people were unworthy and evil, and only a few would be saved. Jansen discouraged people from participating in the communion ritual that happened every Sunday, saying it was reserved for only the very holy.

Sacred Heart

But Margaret Mary began to have visions—in her visions she saw Jesus, and she saw his heart, as if it were outside of his body, burning with love. He told her that God was full of love for people, and that God wanted to help people. Now, for those of you who have been Catholic, you may remember seeing pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It became an important devotion in Catholic life.

For me, this story was a gift—first of all, I thought it was cool that she had visions, and could talk to Jesus. But more importantly, this story told me that I was loved by God. All Catholic children learn a lot of guilt, and lessons about original sin, and mortal and venial sins, can weigh heavily upon us. But this story shifted the balance for me—it helped me to know deep in my heart that God was love, and that God loved me.

Now, I am guessing that very few people have ever heard of Cornelius Jansen or Margaret Mary, but perhaps you have your own memories of a church in which you felt guilt and shame, in which you learned that you were a sinner, or unworthy. Those ideas are just as pervasive today as in former centuries. The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the teachings of someone much more famous that Jansen. More on that tomorrow.