Stand Clear of the Closing Dogma

For five years in the 1980’s, I had the wonderful privilege of working for New York University, in the heart of Greenwich Village.  I commuted by train, the first two years by subway and the last three by a combination of commuter railroad and the PATH tubes under the Hudson River.

Unlike the automated trains I took for years at Denver International Airport, these trains had human operators, accelerating, braking and using their own voices to announce station stops and safety messages.  The standard warning on the NY Subway system before departure was, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”  One memorable operator had a deep, slow, ominous and very serious voice, a real attention getter.  “Stand  Clear  of  the  Closing  Doors.”  Never lost a passenger, that one.

And so, in my deepest, most serious and reverential voice, I implore you, “Stand clear of the closing dogma.”  If you must believe any hard and fast set of words, believe the words silent, open and empty.  I mean it.  Take it all and take it all in.  And then throw on that grain of salt.

Every message out there since the beginning of time has contained the whole truth.  It’s just been wrapped up in limited human words and experience.  The stories unfold and circle around, carrying the cloak of their own times and the long since desiccated husks of the messengers who told the tales.

We turn these words and tales into idols when we insist that they are carved in stone, unchanging, hard and fast rules for life and salvation.  “Dogmattit!  Do it this way or go to hell.  Go directly to hell.  Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200!”

My poor Mennonite Church USA is going through the throws of dogmattit right now, with a herd of selective literalist thumpers holding up their marble idols, their rock hard billy-clubs insisting that, “Dogmattit, the divine billy-club says you can only have sex this way, under these circumstances, with one individual from the opposite sex and only for procreation, to boot.  Dogmattit!”

“Dogmat mutual respect or right relationship.  Dogmat the way you were created and the one you love.  Dogmat you both.  Dogmat all’a’y’all.  Dogmat you straight to hell!  And we love you.  We just can’t abide that you don’t kiss our holy billy-club.”

“We stand firm at the holy doors, dogmat billy-club in hand.  Stay out, you that were made to tickle in the wrong place.  Stay out, the one who would give their life and lifetime to you.  Stay out ‘r I’ll club you and all the other vermin that snuck in here when I wasn’t lookin’!  And don’t forget I love ya.’  And God does, too, dogmattit!  Just can’t abide your low down ways.  And by the way, I’m a pacifist, just like Jesus.  Don’t get me wrong.”

Ah, the painters, poets, songwriters and novelists get it right.  We accept and appreciate the changing styles and times when it comes to art.  If only all the religions of the world could do the same with their scriptures.  Take a step back.  See the line, the beauty, the color.  Soak up the kindness and truth in the whole picture, the whole story.  Let it fill your heart and feed your soul.

Make no mistake.  We need to learn the rules and ropes.  We need grammar and syntax.  We need technique, tools and methods.  It is good to teach our children.  But as we master our trade, our art form, we grow when we see and paint something entirely new – something entirely new that will become old and tested in tireless time.  And we need to give it to the world, the gift of picture and story that will be viewed and heard and felt, so long as its communally acclaimed quality speaks a growing, evolving, universal truth.

Scriptures are stories and pictures, dear friends, stories and pictures to show and tell under the Tree of Life.  The ones who see and hear have hearts of flesh and not of stone, hearts that beat in relationship and compassion.  Hearts that grow and evolve and create, radiating kindness and beauty and welcome.  Dogmattit!  Tell me a story.  Sing me a song. Show me a picture.  And please, put down that billy-club.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Creation and the Law of Three

Where did we come from?  Where are we going?  We stand, collectively, in the present.  We piece together, as best we can, stories of the past – myths, legends, archeological and historical evidence.  We reshape and retell the stories to give them meaning and relevance in our contemporary existence.  We create models of the future and test them under controlled conditions.  We make projections based on the extension of measured trends, with the speculative incorporation of newly emerging factors.  Scenarios are published in journals and debated by legislators, corporate leaders and environmentalists.

But change and impermanence seem the only certainties.  How and where do we fit in?  What role do we play?  What, if anything, can we possibly control?

Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, speculates on an interesting model for change, or named differently, the ongoing act of creation.  Much of eastern thought postulates stasis, the balancing of tensions as in yin and yang.  Drawing from the work of various western mystics, and her own knowledge of Christian theology, Bourgeault postulates a dynamic, evolving law of three, where these opposing forces, cyclically, encounter a third catalyzing pole and, together, yield a fourth and previously unmanifested reality.  This, she suggests, is the ongoing trinitarian rather than dualistic nature of things, the essence of ongoing creation.

Bourgeault speaks of this dynamic – the law of three – as being the very nature of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S).  And this trinity has more to do with tensions, process and evolution than it has to do with three distinct persons. 

The basic model works like this:

  • In one corner of the trinity, there is an urge, a pressure – initially the urge to physical manifestation.
  • In another corner of the trinity, we find a countervailing or opposing force – a resistance that creates a discomfort, an itch.
  • In the third corner there is a catalyst that sparks a reaction, something that intervenes or ignites the building tension to yield a newly created fourth, something entirely different than anything in the original trinity.
  • This fourth eventually becomes the new urge, the positive force in a new trinitarian cycle, something that will encounter opposition or resistance, building a tension that becomes available to a new round of catalytic intervention and resultant creation.

This, of course, is an analogy, our chief tool for the understanding of almost anything.  Let’s use an analogy to illustrate it.

I love the Rocky Mountains.  They began as the measureless ache, pressure and breaking caused by the persistent and powerful movement of oceans and continental plates, force and resistance with an urge to become.  The spirit and power of creation resulted in an upward thrust.  The new (fourth) and previously nonexistent reality is seen in the flowers, streams, trees, wildlife, weather systems and human interaction that now distinguish this vast emergence.  And this current reality is now a force in the corner of a new triangle that will struggle with intricate and phenomenal resistance, encountering a creative catalyst that will yield some as yet unimagined and untold beauty of the future.

Bourgeault references a law of seven, as well, postulating that in this full cycle of manifestation – from big bang until the end of the universe and time as we know it – there are seven cycles of major trinitarian creation.  In essence, she describes a cycle of the breath of C/S/M/S from unmanifest, through aeonic stages of maturing creative manifestation, to full return to the unmanifest.  She suggests that the cycle with which we are most familiar, and are about to exit, is the sixth.  It is distinguished by Creator (traditionally Father), Word (traditionally Son) and Spirit (indwelling presence).   The new fourth, the resulting emergence, is a more fully awakened humanity – the Kingdom of Heaven – one prepared to take its place in the corner of a seventh cycle, urging at ever increasing pace toward its own epic climax.

We do indeed live in a time when former structures are crumbling.  Even the individual seems to be disappearing into some mass electronic collective network.  The social changes that have rumbled since the 1960’s, the vision of the Age of Aquarius, the recent end of the age in the Mayan calendar, the relentless breakdown of old religious and social institutions, the exponentially increasing rate of technological and environmental change – all these support that we are leaving an old dynamic and entering something entirely new.

Bourgeault seems confident that this new manifestation is truly the Kingdom of Heaven, and that it will take its place in the corner of a new trinity – Kingdom of Heaven, Creator, Spirit – that will yield Oikonomia, the ultimate divine plan or economy of C/S/M/S.  Andrew Harvey and others enthusiastically name and champion this as a collective “Christ Consciousness.”  I am, admittedly, less sanguine, less optimistic.  I can also envision the clutch of crazies that rushed to the top of a skyscraper in Los Angeles to greet the aliens, only to be fried, in the film Independence Day.

Of course it’s an analogy, and we see only the glimpse that we can see, guessing at what we are making and where we are going.  But that is how it has always been, force and resistance interacting with creative spirit to yield a new reality.

We walk in faith.  I believe we are, collectively, one corner of some new trinity.  I believe that corner has the potential to be the Kingdom of Heaven.  Even more, I believe that whatever it is eventually named, it will be the sum of our collective human choices, and it will be the irrepressible urge toward a new round of trinitarian creation.  Who knows what mountains may rise, or what flowers and streams may appear.  May kindness and compassion – Tree of Life choices — be the character and essence of our collective expression, with trust in the catalyst of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source as together we urge forward in the friction and itch of creation, to be resolved in some new beauty beyond our sight and imagination.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Who We Are

Tradition has it that Jesus was born to a virgin, conceived in an immaculate flash of union with the Holy Spirit.  Tell me, how is that different from the way you or I were born?  Creation is creation.  Or perhaps becoming is becoming, if we think of things in an evolutionary frame.

We can explain the mechanics of conception and birth in great depth and detail.  But it seems we will not touch the complete mystery of life and spirit anytime soon.  Even Jesus looked around at the rocks in the field and said that Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source could make children of them.

We are who we are, no more nor less.  We are a particular mix and match of Higg’s Bosons – the very same quarks and electrons that make rocks, stars and all that is – coming together under the right conditions.  Where did the self-awareness step in, and how?  Does it matter?  Despite the insistence of some religions on our fallen nature, we are children of the universe, beings with the gift of self-awareness, being and becoming what we will become.  Let’s relax with that.

Is there a creator God behind all of this, pushing around the Higg’s Bosons, mixing and matching the quarks?  Perhaps.  That is a question of faith, not science.  I believe (the faith piece, the confidence in things not seen, but perceived) that there is, indeed, a vast and beautiful creative source and energy.  I believe that we are somehow emanations and expressions, actual part and parcel of that immaculate energy.  And the essence of that energy is creative expression, not manipulation.  There is no offended judge ready to burn our bodies and spirits for eternity in hell because we didn’t say this, we didn’t do that or we broke somebody’s holy rule.

What are the grounds of my belief?  Simple.  The cells of my body literally rejoice when I contemplate and trust connection with the energetic whole.   They are flowering and at peace in the sunshine and rain of all that is.  And I know, as well, when they despair, hate, fear and retreat.  This happens whenever I drift into belief that I am disconnected and alone, an isolated and completely vulnerable ego-self.

We cannot really separate ourselves from what we are.  We can only imagine that separation in the awakening process of our self-awareness.  And when we imagine that separation, we create our own little imaginary hell in which to live.  It is a hell of worry and fear, expressed in grasping this and fending off that.  It is a hell that is, most of all, scared to death of death, of perceived annihilation.

But my spirit soars, it thrills, at rest in a stream beyond the speed of light, basking in the unseen power and evanescence of being, of becoming.  It is this perceived knowing that is the experience, essence and expression of faith.  It is knowing beyond comprehension, seeing beyond observation, joining in union beyond touch.  It is being and becoming.

We waken to life, conceived in that immaculate flash under what appears at first to be the tree of duality, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We grasp at good, we ward off evil, we run, scared as hell, from death.

But when we stop, when we set down our grasping and defending, we find ourselves at peace, being and becoming under the Tree of Life.  Come rest with me in that streaming stillness beyond the speed of light.  Drink the refreshing tea of the leaves that heal the nations.

There were two special trees, planted as crown jewels in the metaphorical Garden of Eden.  Yet they are one.  It is our faith that makes us whole.

Scripture today from Cat Stevens, “Sitting:”

Oh I’m on my way, I know I am,

Somewhere not so far from here.

All I know is all I feel right now.

There’s a power growing in my hair.

© Jerry Kennell, Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please reference the source.

Sex and the City of God

My Mennonite denomination (Mennonite Church USA) finally seems near the point of over-determination on issues of human sexuality.  That is to say, the tipping point, however long and tortuous the path, seems imminent on elevating the gospel message of loving relationship over the ancient purity codes around human sexual preference and practices.  Recalling the early church’s angst over circumcision, I find it interesting that two millennia down the road, the hottest topic in the church still revolves around what happens with men’s penises.  At least today vaginas are on the table, as well.  We can be grateful for small steps.

Sexuality is powerful.  Where there is power, there is danger of abuse.  Perhaps a good measure of the power of sexuality is the immense catalog of abuses it has accumulated over the millennia.  The major sections of the book would include slavery, domination, profiteering and the threats of damnation used to perpetuate religious institutions.

Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil.  It just is.  And the biblical lens on sexuality reflects this.  We each have power – whether sexual, monetary or otherwise – in various measures.  The primary tasks – and the biblical admonition – in our connection to power are to submit it in relationship and to use it in the service of justice.

For Christians, perhaps the most instructive biblical lessons on sexuality and power are in Matthew’s less than subtle but almost completely ignored inclusion of four women, all notably not Israelite, in his genealogy of Jesus.

The first among them is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Tamar seduced Judah and bore his son in order to shame him into honoring his obligations to care for family, whether Hebrew or other.  When all else failed, she effectively used sexual power in the service of justice.

The second is Rahab, the Canaanite woman who ran a house of prostitution on the walls of Jericho.  It is interesting that Joshua and his band of spies stayed with her and was protected by her on that holiest of land grabs, the retaking of the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt.  Rahab apparently married one of the troops and was elevated to the status of a progenitor of the Christ, despite the fact that the ancient world thought women played only the role of incubator in the process of procreation.  Sexual power, here, was turned to relationship.

The third is Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of the Hebrew Naomi.  Ruth, with the direction and support of her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz, effectively claiming a rightful inheritance and protection for these socially vulnerable women.  Ruth was the grandmother of King David.  Sexual power, here, was used to secure protection.

And finally, there is Bathsheba, the Hittite who withstood the murder of her husband and the uncontrolled sexual urges of King David, becoming the mother of Solomon in the royal line of the (biblically) chosen people.  In an act of redemption and justice, Bathsheba is elevated, at least in Matthew’s genealogy, to the position of matriarch in the messianic line.

People point to the story of Sodom to illustrate divine hatred of homosexuality, if not just sexuality in general.  What was hateful in Sodom was the wanton pursuit of sexual satisfaction without regard to the safety and welfare of the other, yet alone any thought of relationship.  The men at Lot’s door would not be satisfied without violent and abusive sex.  And the worst among them was Lot, who was ready to submit his own daughter to rape and murder in order to save his own sorry self.  That city burned itself down with self-centered violence.

The point of these tales is not that God (as the Bible names and perceives Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source) somehow had a negative view of homosexuality (in the case of Sodom) or on sexuality as a force in human relationships.  Rather, it is that sexuality was recognized as powerful.  Like all biblical stories of power, the consistent message is that it is used appropriately for relationship and for justice, and never for violence, greed or anything at the expense of others.

Under the Tree of Life, sexuality is a thing of astounding beauty, magnified in relationship.  It is, in the words of Jackson Browne (“Looking East”), “the power of a sunrise, the power of a prayer released.”

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we become lost in rules, social norms and false morality that have everything to do with the abuse of power and nothing to do with beauty, relationship or justice.  Our sexuality, when we own and celebrate it in relationship, travels with us as a lovely companion – strong, true, beautiful and useful – on our journey to the Tree of Life, at the center of the metaphorical city of God.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Quote as useful.  Please mention the source.

The Village Green

In his book Grassroots Spirituality (2004, Imprint Academic), Robert Forman documents a huge sociological shift in the last generation away from strict barriers between religions and toward a shared spirituality.  His metaphor (pp. 89, 98-100) is a village green:

It is as if the residents of the various religious houses have wandered into some huge village green to chat with each other.  Then they’ve taken what they’ve learned from each other back to their respective houses, and have taught their followers (in their own respective languages) what they’ve learned.  (Parenthetical insertion mine)

That’s a beautiful image, and I hope it is so.

Religions, like any institution, are nothing more than the collective expression of the individuals who comprise them.  We project the level of our maturity and development onto these institutions and they become magnified by the power of the collective consciousness they embody.  Governments, for instance, can be like the government of Costa Rica, which reflects the collective expression of a people who have decided that an investment in a standing army would compromise investment in things like education and health care.  Whereas the people of North Korea have invested to the extreme, it seems, in paranoia and its protection.  In the United States, we worship wealth so much that we are willing to give it to a very few, just to dream that someday it might be possible for the rest of us.  In each case, collectively, we believe that this is the way things should be.

The unique thing about religions is that they reflect our collective approaches to mystery, to the unknown and to our longing for meaning.  In the presence of mystery, many things are contrasted:

  • Trust and fear
  • Meaning and nihilism
  • Pattern and accident
  • Time and eternity
  • Obligation and freedom

These are scary issues.  Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we address them with the gods we make and the religions we construct as their playpens.  In essence, we create metaphors for an unnamable mystery.  Trouble comes when we begin to believe our metaphors, to make them real and concrete rather than beautiful poetic expressions of our experience with mystery.  And when enough of us agree strongly enough that our metaphor is the real deal, we cannot possibly admit that another may have relevance.  That is, in fact, the true meaning of idolatry.  Our levels of judgment, when we have solidified and latched onto our religious creation – our idol – will vary on a scale from a knowing toleration of the misguided to violent annihilation of the infidel.

Who knows, someday someone may even take this two trees metaphor and build a new religion with which to judge, measure and exclude others.  There will be shrines to the trees and people will bring offerings to avoid damnation, the certain consequence of irreverence.  And non-believers will be hung daily from the branches.

But true reverence in the face of mystery requires nothing more than silent awareness.  There are those in every faith that have gone deep into that silence, who through practice have stripped themselves bare of all the trappings in order to experience whatever touches them.  The deeper they go, the closer they approach oneness with the mystery.

Whatever tent they hale from, these beings move freely about the village green.  They know that the ground that supports us and the air that enlivens us are the same for all, in all places and all times.

We stake out the shelter of our little communities of faith, fine and good for protection and a sense of family.  But the ground and the air are never ours alone and our tent shelters no one if it is less than welcoming to all.  Our true home is the earth and the air, the ground of all being and the breath of life.  We need not fear it.  Nor should we fear the tents that are not ours or their inhabitants.

Let’s enter and engage freely on the village green.  Let’s share together the sustenance of the Tree of Life and the river that waters it.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

The Diamond of Our Hearts

I turned 20 in 1972.  Somehow, in that year of moving out of my teens, I must have felt some necessary transition.  Whatever the cause, I got the urge to read all the way through the Bible, cover to cover:  the creation myths; the twists and turns of Old Testament characters; the tortuous law; the romances; Psalms and the wisdom literature; the histories; the prophets, great and small; the gospels, letters and finally that wild apocalypse at the end.  What a slug it seemed at the time!

There were ups and downs of interest.  I know I spent a lot of time in Proverbs, punctuated with prayers for wisdom.  I have always been blown away by the crystal calls to social justice of the minor prophets, especially Amos.  And Paul’s ego was very annoying (Was I struggling with my own?).  But I will never forget that one particular passage captured me and brought me home.

Somewhere in the middle of Jeremiah, there are several chapters sometimes referred to as The Little Book of Comfort.  In chapter 31: 33-34 it says:

33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts . . . No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord (read Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source),’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  Something in those words gripped my soul.

Hebrew scripture was written, of course, for the Hebrew people from a particular cultural and historical perspective.  It has the trappings of time and place and the personal limitations of any individual author.  But like all good scripture, the universal Truth of it breaks out of those limitations and speaks where and when it will.

We live in a time that demands that breaking out.  Few in the postmodern world can accept or live entirely or exclusively within the narrow strictures of any particular religious tradition.  We are simply too aware of the variety of paths, the spiritual journey of all the great traditions.  We are cognizant of the human and institutional flaws that have inevitably tainted each – the flaws that reflect, simply, the struggle of our own hearts, the urge of ego toward power and domination through intimidation, force and fear.  We may choose to live in one house, but we will be engaging, dialoging and welcoming across the global community.

And on any given day, in any given body of scripture, when we mine with an open heart, the gems show themselves.  Somehow when I encountered this diamond, I knew I had found my home – or, of course, it had found me.  Somehow the vision and realization that words don’t matter; that names for Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source are inconsequential; that our hearts at their core are true beyond teaching and language; somehow that message took me completely apart and put me back together, all in an instant.

Humpty Dumpty, of course, has fallen off the wall many times – at least daily – since that encounter.  But hold back the king’s horses and all the king’s men.  Let me fall.  Let us all fall until the last speck of clay is shattered and polished off that diamond of our hearts, and all that is left are the words love, justice, peace and compassion, shining with gentle brilliant welcome, reaching beyond voice to all we encounter.

There is fruit on the Tree of Life.  Its bark is studded with diamonds, a gem in every leaf.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.

Keeping the Appointment of Our Life

I’ve been reading a lot lately about second half of life tasks – Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward and two books by James Hollis, Hauntings and Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life.  I guess people of a certain age (right now, perhaps especially children of the ‘60’s) become concerned about these things.  In Hauntings, Hollis speaks often of “showing up” in our lives.  He says that “what Jung called the Self, the natural wisdom, the organic drive, and the will to meaning, lives in all of us and waits for us to show up, keep the appointment.  How many of us really keep the appointment in our lives?”

Good question.  The “second half” of life is more about a place than a time, a point of response to a confrontation with Self.  The first half place is the place of constructing an ego, a place of defining our fit and space in the world, of making ends meet.  How will we make a living?  How high will we climb the ladder of organizational hierarchy?  How will we dress the kids and what activities will we steer them towards?

These are, for most of us, necessary tasks, if only for the sake of finding out who we are not.  I have known just a few souls who seemed to grasp their true task, following it with joy and deep satisfaction, almost from the start.  Sometimes I have wasted time envying them, time that might have been used figuring out what the real difference was between them and me, the difference of acquaintance with true Self.

If we are not one of those clear-sighted souls who, from childhood, know and follow their call, it generally takes a crisis of some kind to wake us to the emptiness of our first-half pursuit.  The Peter Principle comes to mind:  “An observation that in an organizational hierarchy, every employee will rise or get promoted to his or her level of incompetence.” (Investopedia)  The disparaging follow-on assumption in the Peter Principle is that people just stay stuck in place when they arrive at their incompetence, constructing a mask and pretending until retirement or an early death, contributing little of worth to the organization – most certainly, missing the appointment with their Self.

But if we are half awake, if we are listening or open to God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, we will know when we encounter that incompetence in any area of our lives.  Maybe it is in relationships, maybe it is in professional contribution, maybe it is in following a path other than the call of our hearts.  The Angel of Truth will stand in our way, will challenge us to a fight.

G/C/S/M/S stands always at the ready to break us open, to remove the mask of whomever we think we are, to offer us not a new name, but our real name.  The encounter inevitably involves suffering and pain.  It is never easy to admit or to accept that we have chased a lie in any area of our life.

But if we engage it, if we turn toward it and walk through it, the encounter is not forever.  It is just a marker, a place on the road, a directional sign.  It is not the road ahead.

The road ahead is our second half place.  It is the opportunity to let go of the struggle to construct something false and to embrace a free and useful truth.  It may mean something very different and new.  Just as likely, it may mean a new engagement with our present surroundings, an engagement that relinquishes the fight and becomes one with what we thought was our opponent.

Achievements are replaced with relationships.  Performance is replaced with people.  We begin truly to see, encounter and embrace others because we have seen, encountered and embraced our true Self.

We will know when we are there, when we are truly in this second half place.  We will know because we will have eaten the true fruits of the Spirit.  We will encounter and become “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5: 22-23a, NRSV)

We will have shown up for our appointment under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Please quote the source.