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.

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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.