The Untimely Passing of Rachel Held Evans

As many if not most of you probably know by now, beloved conservative cum moderately progressive Christian author and speaker Rachel Held Evans passed away on May 4th at only thirty-seven years of age from complications of the flu and a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. She is survived by, among others, her husband and two young children.

And the moderately progressive Christian world reeled.

How could this be? They were shocked, some even outraged, by the unfairness of it all. Not Rachel! Not her, of all people! Oh, there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of RHE bookteeth across the Twitterverse, the Facebookverse, and every other social mediaverse you might imagine. It seemed to me to go beyond what one might expect, even in light of the passing of such a young, talented, and gracious woman.

And then it dawned on me.

Deep inside, in places we don’t examine very often or very well, many of us believe that if we are good enough, or talented enough, or devout enough, or pretty enough – and most of all if we are all of those things – God will save us from adversity and at least untimely death. There’s only one thing wrong with that belief.

It doesn’t work that way.

Everybody dies. None of us are getting out of here alive. None of us knows when it will happen, although there is some indication that at least some of us will have a sense when death is close beyond looking up to see the grill of a bus as we cross the street. We all have different ways of dealing with it and different ways of explaining it. In fact, trying to explain it may well be at the root of most religion. The important thing is that not dealing with it is no way to deal with it. Denial never solved anything, unless the problem was not having enough problems.

As hard as this may be to accept, Rachel Held Evans died because we all die. Some die sooner, others later, but we all die. She didn’t do anything wrong and her death makes no statement about her life. The best thing we can say to the loved ones she leaves behind is, “I’m sorry.” The best thing we can do for them is simply be present. The best thing we can do for ourselves, after the mourning is over and the morning has come, is to come to a better understanding of the great teaching that is death.

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Alyssa Milano’s Sex Strike

In light of the Governor of Georgia signing a bill that bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat can be detected (which is often before the woman is aware she is pregnant), Alyssa Milano has suggested a sex strike by women until they “have legal control over our own bodies.” In case you don’t know, Alyssa Milano tries to get attention these days by fashioning herself a social and political commentator. Her “strike” is a good example of why it’s a bad idea to let just anyone be a commentator.

Believe it or not, Alyssa, sex is not a reward for men who are good little boys. Nor is it a way to get one of us to bring pressure on others of us who are not doing the things you believe they should. Despite that, women have a history of using their vaginas as if they were some kind of a reward for good behavior and acting as if physical intimacy with their partner is something that really doesn’t matter to them except as a tool of influence and blackmail – a commodity, rather like a chocolate chip cookie, that doesn’t really care whether it is eaten or not.

In a country where one in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, there is no shortage of relationships whose physical intimacy is both a major challenge and an area of profound unmet need. Some of us in those relationships persist, doing our best to keep the relationship together despite the challenges. Others are unable to continue through no fault of either party. The last thing that those of us in relationships that are challenged need is nonsensical input from you. As a self-reported survivor of sexual abuse you should know better, but apparently you do not. As a forty-six year old woman, you are likely aware that the odds of you becoming pregnant are not great – so what is really at work here, other than your desire for attention? Nothing good, I’m afraid.

 

Naked Practice

Calm down. It’s okay, and yes I do sometimes descend to cheap titillation. I can’t help myself. The truth is, though, that we need to ask ourselves a serious question: if Linuslinus and snoopy went on a meditation retreat, would he take his blanket to the meditation room? Since he is an American, the odds are he would. He would also be wearing yoga pants with matching top, be wrapped in a meditation shawl, have at least three wrist malas on as well as at least one full size mala, have his own meditation cushions, and his MP3 player would be loaded with his favorite meditation and yoga music. There’s nothing wrong with all of that, but it does beg another question: If Linus was stranded on a desert island, could he meditate?

For many of us, the answer is and emphatic, “NO!” We are profoundly attached to our spiritual blankets, so much so that they actually get in the way of our practice. If you are the kind of contortionist who can actually sit full lotus, would you be able to practice if you developed a hip problem and could no longer sit that way? For far too many of us have become attached to non-essentials that we carry around with us as symbols of dream-of-nuditylegitimacy that serve only the ego. What’s the point of having a spiritual practice if we can’t spontaneously pull up a piece of beach or a mountain vista and just “do it?” There is no point, because such attachments are anything but practice.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t support the sweat shops that churn out your official gear. I am saying you should learn to go naked on a regular basis. It will do wonders for your practice.

Our Fascination with Foreign Practices

Americans are fascinate with things we perceive to be exotic. I became acutely aware of this truth when I became an Episcopalian and was suddenly exposed to people who had never left the United States but had somehow acquired a British accent. Another british-1600x720example is that people just love to take their shoes off at yoga centers, meditation halls, any place that even seems vaguely Eastern. I don’t think it would take a lot of effort to convince people that going to the bathroom is a deeply spiritual practice if we would just place a mat for them to leave their shoes at the entrance. Almost as popular is contorting our Western bodies into positions that Eastern folks regularly assume but those of us raised with, say, chairs never do.

We assume that doing all of these rather unusual external behaviors by definition make us more spiritual. The problem is that they don’t. There is nothing about sitting in full lotus that would prevent a raging ass hat from assuming the position. In fact, you can see it at just about any spiritual center. The truth is that there isn’t anything about any external behavior that transforms us internally. Those external practices can actually Does-He-Have-Bones-Nigerian-Contortionist-Murphybecome a barrier if they reinforce our ego by supporting the idea that we are better than our fellow practitioners.

In the end, if bending yourself into a pretzel shape helps you with your practice then that is a beautiful thing and you should keep right on doing it. If you can’t manage to turn your body into a piece of origami, you should know that sitting in a chair will neither hinder nor accelerate your practice. Perhaps we need to be asking ourselves whether we could practice if we found ourselves on a deserted island with none of our objects (or positions) of attachment.

Compelled to Organize

You would never guess it to look at some of our closets, but we human beings seem to be Family-Nature-Walk-Patterns-in-Naturecompelled to organize. When someone comes up with a new idea and shares it with a few friends, it might grow in popularity. At that point, someone is bound to step forward and attempt to institutionalize the idea – and that movement spells the beginning of the end of the new idea. It might last for quite a while, but when it dies out it almost certainly will be because the weight of the institution drags the good idea under water. Let’s look at an example.

Suppose that Fred discovers how much he enjoys walking along nature trails. He tells a few friends about his walks, and a couple of them decide to accompany him on a walk. His friends find the walks rewarding, too, and share his desire to spread the word about their walks. The get a website, or go on Meetup.com and form a group. After a while they learn that other people are starting walking groups, too, but they are walking at different times of the day than Fred and his friends do. Not only that, but some of them are wearing hiking boots while Fred and company only wear running or walking shoes. Others aren’t walking on clearly identified trails. Then there is the issue of clothing. Fred and his friends wear shorts or sweatpants and a t-shirt, but these new people are wearing Under Armor clothing only.

Clearly, this will never do. Fred’s colleague Frank decides to write down some rules for Lewis-Black2nature walking. True, orthodox nature walkers walk in the morning on clearly identified trails, wear comfortable clothes suitable for other purposes and athletic shoes. They declare hiking boots, Under Armor, and afternoon walking in random locations heretical and not real, authentic nature walking. The afternoon people respond in kind, declaring hiking boots, brand name apparel, and afternoon walks the only orthodox practice. Soon, both groups learn of a group across town that walks in the evening wearing flip-flops. Son of a bitch! These people have to be stopped! After all, the morning and the afternoon groups have had their disagreements, but flip-flops are simply beyond the pale! How could anyone call the way that you have to shuffle your feet along to keep those things on your feet walking? And that little plastic post between your first and second toes would surely drive any sane person around the bend! These people must be stopped!

imposter_o_6086169Did you notice, in all the fighting, what everybody seemed to forget about? Nature. Presumably they all went out for a walk in nature in order to enjoy nature, but they got all weighed down in secondary concerns that impacted their ability to enjoy nature not one bit. If you think that’s silly, just look around. It’s everywhere. Everybody wants to have the only “official” whatever it is they do. Why? Who really cares? Nobody who truly cares about the purpose of a group would give a rat’s behind what some other group did – unless they were very unsure of their own legitimacy. Unless what they are really concerned about is that they don’t feel that they are legitimate nature walkers and so worry that at any moment someone will find them out – and the misdirection of scrutiny begins.

The solution, of course, is to simply and clearly declare everybody legitimate. If you are walking in nature as you understand nature, you’re a nature walker, period. This will heartily offend the control freaks in the group, which is a good thing because we might encourage them to get some help. More importantly, these principles can be applied to any organization. We can examine our rules, particularly our rules of exclusion, to see if they have a legitimate reason. I suspect we will find most of them do not. As we eliminate these inappropriate rules, we can get back to the original purpose of our group. Imagine the possibilities!

The Best Laid Plans…Aren’t

Somebody once said that God writes straight with crooked lines. That’s a little to cute for my tastes, but it’s nevertheless true. We try, we plan, we decide, we get it all figured out – kickassand what we end up with is epic failure. We lock ourselves in only to find ourselves in chains and quite mystified at our circumstances. We grasp our plans so tightly that we choke them to death, or step out so timidly that what we produce is far too tiny to have any impact. In the end, we are much better off to step out boldly!

Notre Dame

notre dame post fireHow sad it is that the wealthy are willing to donate hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild a finger pointing at the moon, but aren’t willing to be equally generous to the starving and dying around the world. Idolatry is like that. It convinces us that we are following the precepts of Divinity when in truth we are only whitewashing tombs.

It’s fine to want to rebuild Notre Dame, but if starving children yemeyou suppose that is God’s priority then you worship a God I do not know. What’s more, if you think that God cares more about any building than a child, then you are surely worshiping evil while believing it’s good. You see, the wealthy tend to be all about easy solutions, about throwing money at a problem – especially when it will enhance their next vacation. When the problem is complex and not likely to be resolved so quickly, their attention wanes rather quickly. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant about a camel passing through the eye of a needle.

Life in the big city

I happened on a young couple the other day. In front of their building were several shell casings accompanied by evidence markers, several police cars, and a liberal application of yellow crime scene tape. It was about eight-thirty in the morning and the police had been there a short time. The shooting happened at one in the morning. Trusting that the high-tech system that locates gun shots would locate the problem and not wanting to become a target themselves, nobody called the police in the middle of the night. Luckily for the intended victim, he was not in his car smoking weed (as is his practice) when the shooters came by looking shell casings and markersfor him, but his windows were so deeply tinted they thought he was inside. The weapon seems to have been a fully automatic 9mm.

The couple’s young son, whom the mother told me had a great sensitivity about what she called “energy shifts” in the neighborhood, had asked to sleep on the floor when they went to bed. After the shooting, they all moved to the floor, the intended victim’s car having been parked near their bedroom window. They know the target from seeing him in the neighborhood and said that, although they knew it was wrong to judge people by appearances, he seemed to be a shady character. They also said he was now lying low somewhere unknown, and hoped that the shooters wouldn’t return.

The mother shared with me that they had repeatedly moved to different parts of the city trying to avoid this sort of things, but everywhere they moved it seemed there were shootings nearby. The father recognized the police department evidence technician from seeing him at other shootings, and they exchanged greetings and pleasantries. This is what passes for normal in our cities, and the truth is that we always have more than enough money to fight wars but never enough money to address the issues in our cities. We need to be clear that is a choice, and that choice is negatively impacting our children – killing them, in fact – while our politicians prostitute themselves to the military hookerindustrial complex.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee politicians are announcing increased efforts to curb prostitution, doubtless in an attempt to clean up the city for the Democratic National Convention next year. After all, you can’t have the low rent prostitutes cluttering up the streets when the professional whores have their convention…

Religion is not Truth

One name for God might be Truth, with a capital “T.” Some people are mightily turned off by the term God, through no fault of their own and no fault of God’s. Rather, they are turned off by the term God because of the behavior of those who claim to have discovered Truth through their religion. There is no small irony in that!

quote-true-religion-is-not-about-possessing-the-truth-no-religion-does-that-it-is-rather-an-john-shelby-spong-89-12-36Religion can’t be Truth because it developed after Truth – long after it, in Truth. At its best, religion tries to point us toward God, point us toward Truth, which is very useful but not the same as being Truth. You wouldn’t know that by watching many, but not all, religious adherents. They claim to believe in God, but what they really believe in is their religion’s view of God rather than God Itself. A Presbyterian God, or a Roman Catholic God, or a Lutheran God can never actually be God. The best it can hope to be is an image of God, or a picture of truth, or a slice of Truth, and there isn’t anything wrong with that unless you start believing it actually is Truth. That view is like carrying around a picture of your loved one and starting to believe your picture is the person themselves. It seems silly because it is silly, but when it comes to Truth our judgment gets obscured.

Why is this important? This is important because we too easily get caught up in debates about who has the best religion, as if religion has any impact on Truth! Every religion is the equivalent of a third grader doing an artist’s rendering of a Picasso painting. There are some things in every tradition that might give us a slight idea of what it’s trying to depict, but most of it is a confusing (if charming) mess. The Truth is that is you really want to get to Truth, you are going to have to eventually go where religion cannot. You are going to have to move to the direct experience of Truth.