Friday, September 28, 2012

5am musings on Religion and Spirituality

The spiritual life is rooted in reality. It is not a separate experience which is worth-less or less superior than the one which a person wakes up to every day. To assume otherwise robs religion of its ultimate purpose: to act as a framework to understanding the Sacred.

It is often heard in 12-Step circles, or from those who have disgruntled experience with religion, "Religion is for those who want to avoid hell, Spirituality is for those who have been there". I hate to rob the spiritual experience of those who might agree with this statement, as I generally make a point to try not to judge any persons spiritual experience, as my own is questioned by the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Religion has certainly done its wrongs to many, and the word itself can carry its own set of heavy baggage, and to react to those wrongs and to find another pathway to peace is considered  normal psychology. However, the definitions most often used to define "religion" and "spirituality" have seemed to set the words in opposition of each other, a misconception which is worth addressing.

Religion, acts as a framework to understanding the Sacred. In our religious traditions we find not only a moral guideline and history of our ancestors in faith, but we find where God reveals God's-self. More specifically, we find how God manifests God's-self in the profane world in which we live. These manifestations are called "theophanies". Eliade writes that a study of religion could be reduced to a study of these theophanies. In the case of Christianity, God was manifested through the Incarnation of Jesus, and to those whom this theophany was revealed felt the urgency to tell of this theophany as the fulfillment of the Covenants from Judaism. From here, the history, moral guides and laws, rituals, the sacred texts, and the theological interpretation of those sacred texts, are formed into what we call religion. But all of the said is never the focal point of religion, but how God is revealed. It could be argued that even if a person who was raised in a particular religious tradition, that person no doubt was raised to have faith, but has not embraced the meaning of religion in their life until they have experienced a theophany in their own journey, from where they can fit that revelation to the ultimate theophany in which they believe in.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience", writes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Experience is fundamental in spirituality. In experience we hold our trials and errors and hopes and dreams. Experience may be something gathered in fragments (or bulks) from our pasts, but ultimately makes us who we are in the present. In our waking reality, we find what it means to be religious, to practice things which are considered wholly-other from the profane would. In the reality of our religious practice, we find what it means to be spiritual. Spirituality is linked to experience, an inner expression of the experience of religious practice which interacts with the Sacred. It is next to impossible to define spirituality otherwise. 

Through experience, religion over time will change, as will how a person understands God. How spirituality is expressed is subject to change. Life will always be changing, the Buddha went so far as to even teach the world we live in is chaos and suffering. But the experience of spirituality is constant, perhaps the only thing a person could ever truly consider constant in their life. This is the reality of spirituality. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Confirming my faith: how I ended up in the Episcopal Church

As the designated "youth guy" in my parish, preparing the teenagers for baptism and confirmations falls under my jurisdiction. As I've been refreshing myself on the Hebrew Covenants, Church History, the Bible (pretty much Christianity in a nutshell 101) ect, I've been reflecting on my own Confirmation a few years back, and my journey leading to it.

Before I even start there, I have to give a shout-out to my friend Mike. After months of going to youth service on Wednesdays at Canyon Hills, he was the only one to ever say hi, and introduce himself, and sit with me, and be my friend. I haven't seen him in years, but I am still thankful for those early years of friendship. Us gays gots to stick together!

Even though I can pull off the "Cradle Episcopalian", I must confess my roots go back to the Assemblies of God. My Mother raised me several different non-denominational Charismatic-type churches, but after she fell out with a congregation, I was sent with my Grandmother, and most of my childhood recollections in faith take me back to First Assembly, where just about three generations of my family prior had worshiped.  One of my Grandmother's Bible's has it on record where I first "received Jesus in to his heart and put his trust in his Savior". I remember it well. It was a Kid's Crusade type night. I was about seven. I had knowledge of Jesus and his dying on the cross from an earlier age from my other churches, without question I considered it true. I had scrapped my knee pretty bad, and I asked the pastor to pray that God would heal it. Right after Pastor Pete lead me in the "Sinner's Prayer". Now, I have a lot to say about potential misguidance of the "Sinner's Prayer", and I of course did not have the St. Paul Conversion Experience which seems to be so stressed in that wing of Christianity, but I will consider that the first moment I considered myself as Christian.

When I was a kid, I would not shut up about the dude. I remember so clearly once at school I was feeling sick and laying down in the infirmary. Another kid came in and we started talking. I thought Jesus was way cooler than the fact that we were out of class. The kid wasn't having it, and my missionary attempts were put to a halt when the office lady said I was obviously well and needed to go back to class. Oh, the injustice I felt!

In sixth grade, for whatever reason I have yet to inquire on, my Mother and Grandmother thought I should try a different summer camp. They send me on the bus with Canyon Hills. I was terrified. None of my Sunday School mates were there and we were going to camp which I had no familiarity with. It ended up being okay, and since my Mother and I had not been to church together in ages, I suggested we started going to Canyon Hills. She agreed, and we did...for a month. We quickly became Chriesters (Christmas-Easter Christians).

It wasn't until the spring of my 8th grade year, I went to Camp Keep. My cabin counselor was an exchange student from Germany. Looking back, I honestly think it was a mixture of his strong faith, and the fact that I had no idea that the raging and changing hormones in a 12 year-old gay kid where making me crush on him, which instantly inspired me. I had a conversion experience, I found the faith which has been tossed aside. As soon as I came back from camp the only thing I wanted was to be baptized. So, I went back to Canyon Hills that Wednesday, I actually went to the high school group, and since I looked older, I passed off as a Freshman. Lo and behold, a sign from above, Baptisms were being done that Sunday. I signed up, and on Sunday, February 13 2000, I found myself being dunked in a jacuzzi like basin, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I was involved in the church throughout high school. Singing in choir, and playing cello on Sundays, going out of town to camps, conventions, and the yearly Fine Arts Festival. It wasn't until my senior year and summer before college that Canyon Hills lost its appeal. The pastor and his family had a monopoly on the congregation, it was almost a family business. Worship services were staged to be "spirit led". Flashy lights. Unneeded cameras doing close ups of people in worship. It was the most pathetic attempt at being a mega-church that I had ever seen. So, I returned to First Assembly with attempts to get closer to my family who still attended there, and recover from all excitement at Canyon Hills.

The tides turned five months later. I somehow received a catalog from the National Cathedral. While flipping through it, I came across the Anglican Rosary. I was instantly intrigued. I researched, and made on up of my own. I grew to love the prayers, the Jesus Prayer, Trisagion, and Gloria Patri. I would sneak it in and use it during services at First Assembly. It is easy to conclude that my first introduction to liturgy and contemplation.

Now, my girlfriend at the time and I had been together for almost 4 years, I thought it would be best if she and I started attending church together. She was raised more-or-less in the United Methodists tradition, and I was starting to question the unquestionableness of the fundamentalists. The First Sunday of Lent in 2005, we walked into the contemporary service at St. Luke's Episcopal (now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America). There were only a handful of people there. I instantly recognized prayers from the rosary. I loved the pomp and circumstance of it all. I was there to stay. I experienced God in the Eucharist.

One of the reasons why  I was initially attracted  to the Episcopal Church was how open it is. It was my first year in college. When I was questioned on issues which related to my faith, I wanted to give a real answer. I did not want to give some sort of no-questions-asked sort of answer. This could be potentially offensive, and I don't apologize for it. When a person believes something which is contrary to what the natural world tells us, the answer almost makes excuses for God, rather than promote God through the use of intellect. I knew what I had been trained to say when I had studied Fundamentalism Apologetics, and those were answers which I wasn't comfortable with giving. This left me to come up with the answers myself, and the Episcopal Church gave me room to do so.

I served as an acolyte, and played bass guitar in the contemporary service. I wanted more than anything to be an official Episcopalian.  In October of 2006, on St Luke's Sunday, and the day we celebrated the congregation's 50th year, Bishop Schofield placed his hands on my head, asked for God's blessing, and slapped me ever-so gently on my left cheek. I was confirmed.

What happens next is a major turning point in life, I will greatly condense the story by saying I came out, and Paige and I broke up. I emotionally took a year off from life to come to terms with my sexuality, and reconcile it with my faith. It was without a doubt the worst year of my life. For a time, I felt so guilty for receiving communion and wasn't sure if I had the same faith I had the year prior, so I stopped going for a time. Since I was heavy into meditation at the time, I almost made a conversion to Hinduism (my friend Sandra says there is no difference, I would still like my bells, incense, and shrines...she had a point). I slowly recovered my faith, I knew I was gay, and that God's love would never be irreconcilable. I had to discern whether or not the call to celibacy included me, but that would come in time. I resumed my activities at church.

At that time, the Episcopal Church in the area was very conservative. I loved my congregation, but knew I could never come out. There were, and still other parts of me, so that did not matter as much to me. I figured one day I would move on to an Episcopal Church elsewhere that would include me. All that changed when the Bishop announced that the diocese would cease to be affiliated with the Episcopal Church over the issues of Biblical interpretation, ordination of women to the priesthood, and inclusion of gays and lesbians.

It was a sad time. I tried to be involved with St. Luke's and the local Remain Episcopal group (now Grace Episcopal), but in the end I left St. Lukes (the Sunday one of my priests made a very nasty remark about my involvement with the "heretics"), and remained Episcopal.

One could say the spiritual life could be a series of conversions and confirmations. Of course, God see's his Church as we are, potentially good and potentially bad, but in need of guidance and salvation, and God see's us and accepts us as we are created. But on our end, we are still working on it, confirming our faith that we will be brought to the full conversion to be more Christ-like. In the sacrament of Confirmation, a person accepts and professes to their faith as an adult. The first of many confirmations to come.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thoughts on sin

...but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Romans 5:20

Much of my theology of sin has been influenced by the 20th Century Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. I was first introduced to him by my dear former therapist, David Atkins. I cannot for the life me recall what I was specifically going through at the time, but he knew that a copy Tillich's sermon "You are accepted" would help tremendously (he had a copy on hand, so it must have proven a useful tool to him often).  For a period, the sermon nearly changed my life, you can read it here.

In his sermon, Tillich explains that sin is a state of separation; a separation from a persons individual self, from their neighbors, and from God.  He also makes a point that sin since sin is life-long problem, it is erroneous to pluralize our own sin(s), a conclusion which left me to drop the "s" in sins when saying the Creeds on Sundays or in the Office adn in the Lord's Prayer.

I think the implications of the contemporary Confession found in the American 1979 Book of Common Prayer (pg. 79) paint a good picture.

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

In a standard Collect, the intent for the prayer is mentioned after God is addressed as being the one whom makes the intent happen through an invocation, or address. In this prayer, the address is make in the first three words, Most merciful God. This address implies that the petition for the forgiveness for sin is found in God, and that God is merciful to forgive, and that God alone is the forgiver in the word "most". 

What I didn't mention is my previous post (but might have implied) is that prayer a gift. God knows our concerns and what we are thankful for, but it is our lifeline, and is a gift for us to recollect ourselves in a healthy way. What follows in this prayer is a reminder or recap for those who pray it.

Though it can be argued that sin is a state of separation, and that individual sins are not what keep us in need for forgiveness, this prayer states the ways in which we sin. We sin generally in our actions: thoughts, words, and actions. And in those thoughts, words, and actions we place separation between us and God, us and our neighbors, and ourselves (I would argue that loving and forgiving yourself is key to making reconciliation between those around you and God, and should be close to priority, but alas; that could be my Western individualist talking). Sin is also done in not doing what God has given us to do (neglecting our responsibilities, not caring for those we should, ect.). An Eastern perspective would argue that in not doing something is action itself, and I agree that there is a point there, but that is a duality to be explored later.

Next, the confessor reacts to the sin committed, regretting what was done, and making a new. "delight in your ways" implies being forgiven of sin and living in a right state with God is God's intentions for creation.

Though the option of private confession with a priest is in the Anglican tradition is available, this prayer is intended for corporate worship.  That being said, the confession is made by those present, but the specifics are kept private to each individual. Surely, it is healthy to unload a heavy burden to a minister, or to a fellow Christian who will pray for them and stand with them as Christ does. But confessing to another person implies a potential judgement, whereas with God we know that we will receive forgiveness if we ask. And I think this implies two things. One, no matter, we ought to have the confidence in St. Paul's words that nothing can keep us from the grace of God. Two, that one must deal very carefully when being approached with another persons sin. Sin might have different and "greater" consequences, but separation from God cannot get bigger than what it already is. 

Thoughts and comments are most welcome.