The Spiritual Quest

When a core group of us began Sacred Journeys almost three years ago, it was with the intent to create a place where people were free to explore their faith without fear of being told they were wrong, or that it was wrong to question or to doubt. We deeply desired a spiritual community that was free from an institution that would try to dictate our spiritual journeys, and tell us what to believe and how to behave. This place would also be one where every person was safe to be who God created them to be, and safe to mess up and still be loved no matter what.

Contrary to how this might sound, it didn’t quite make this endeavor a free for all. In fact, in some ways it has meant much more work for each of us personally than it might have otherwise. Instead of signing on to a set doctrine and dogma, we signed on to learn and grow, to explore and change, to study and try new things. And while we come at spirituality from a distinctly Christian point of view, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other faith traditions. None of us believes we have it exactly right.

So, it was interesting to get to a point in our corporate existence where we had a few young women who were approaching traditional “confirmation age.” The problem was that we didn’t have a set of rules and beliefs that we wanted them to learn and confirm their belief in.  Nor did we believe that joining the church should be the end goal of this sort of process (in our minds the girls already belong, they didn’t need to jump through hoops to prove it), so we set about doing things differently. We decided to call our program Quest, and set the girls on a spiritual adventure to learn more about God, religion and, most importantly, themselves. We did not set out to give them answers, but to help them learn to not be afraid to ask the questions and to glean what they could from every experience.

Yesterday these three girls celebrated the completion of their one-year spiritual quest. During that year we talked about how the journey is not simply somewhere we go and something we do, but it is an interior journey to finding the Divine within as we discover our true selves. We talked about how to look at scripture from different points of view, and how to look at Bible stories metaphorically to find the deeper meanings. We talked about prayer and practiced meditation, we played with art and spirituality, talked about the body-mind-spirit connection, and explored other religions and other Christian denominations. We had fireside chats to talk informally about God, our questions, what we’ve heard and what we believe. They did service projects at a food pantry, the Eco-Justice Center and volunteering at church on Sunday morning. I am proud that they have engaged this journey in the way they have, freely sharing their questions and thoughts and being willing to try all kinds of new things. In fact, they have probably done a number of things that most of us probably have not done. I know that they have grown.

My deepest hope is that this has given them tools for their future. For the spiritual journey is not just a one time thing, but lasts lifetime. There are always new questions and new places inside and outside of ourselves to explore.

Die and Become

Jesus told him, “I myself am the Way – I am Truth, and I am Life. No one comes to Abba God but through me.” (John 14:6, The Inclusive Bible) 

I cringe inside every time this scripture reading comes up because it is often used by Evangelical, fundamentalist and conservative Christians to “prove” that believing in Jesus is the only path to God. (Can you hear my sigh?) The problem is that these folks have taken the most symbolic and metaphorical gospel and turned sapped it of all of its spiritual power by reading it literally.

In the Gospel of John we hear that Jesus is the light of the world, the bread of life, the true vine, the door and the good shepherd. Does that mean that Jesus is bread or a vine or a door?  No, of course not. So, why would we understand his comment “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” as literal?

The way was a path, a journey, NOT A SET OF BELIEFS, and in this case, a path to the Divine. So, what exactly is that “way”? To get a sense of what the author of John was pointing to, we need to take a little closer look at his gospel. Without getting into a great amount of detail, we find that the entire movement of the gospel of John leads Jesus to his death and ultimate resurrection. To have new life with God we must die and rise again… metaphorically. This is the way of personal transformation, the way of new life, the psychological-spiritual process at the center of the Christian life. The path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being is the only way to God. It is also the way exemplified in every other major world religion.

The goal of the spiritual path is to shed the layers of baggage, ego, protective coverings that we’ve donned to try to keep us safe in the world, but which have essentially separated us further and further from the Divine within. As we shed the layers we get closer to our authentic self, the one which knows and recognizes itself as ONE with the Universal Energy, one with God, one with creation.

There are two fallacies to this process. One, that it will be easy. Letting go, willingly or not, is most often not easy. It can be a gut-wrenching, scary, heart-breaking endeavor. But it is necessary for growth. The second fallacy is that you will be supported in your dying and becoming. Changing something in your life almost always means that other people’s lives must change as well and they may not be terribly thankful to you for that. However, we cannot grow without going through this process, usually over and over again. The beautiful thing is that as we realize our becoming, we find ourselves feeling freer, lighter, more filled with joy and more authentically ourselves.

As theologian Marcus Borg has said, “Jesus is what the way embodied in a person looks like. He is what the truth embodied in a person looks like. Jesus is what the life (real life) embodied in a person looks like.” (Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, 217)

Emmaus always happens

John Dominic Crossan has said, “Emmaus never happened and Emmaus always happens.”

You see, the post-resurrection story of the walk to the city of Emmaus where Jesus appears to two followers, is mostly likely a parable and not a factual story. The stories of Jesus in bodily form walking, talking and eating with folks are not found in any of the earliest Christian writings (Paul and Mark), but only appear 25-50 years after Jesus death. So, Emmaus never really happened.

But Emmaus always happens. In the ordinary moments of life – walking and talking with a friend, sharing a meal, holding a child, working in the garden, enjoying the sunset – we suddenly have flashes of insight into the Divine. And if we are particularly astute, we realize that the Divine was with us all the time, we just weren’t paying attention.

We talk about our God as a God of the unexpected and a God of surprises. But why? If we know God is everywhere and with us all the time, why are we surprised when we suddenly sense that presence? Perhaps it is simply because we are too focused on other things. The two people on the road to Emmaus were too caught up in their own grief and confusion that they couldn’t see clearly who it was who walked with them until he made his signature move of blessing and breaking the bread. How much do we miss because we aren’t practicing awareness and attentiveness to the flow of the Divine underpinning all the ordinary stuff of life? We believe we are awake and alive to all of life, but are we? Perhaps we are functionally asleep when it comes to spirituality and paying attention to the Divine.

The only way to change this is for us to change. We need to expect that God is moving in any given circumstance and so move to align ourselves with that movement. Asking questions like: if I were acting out of love at this moment, what would it look like? can help us move as one with the Divine.

Yes, God walks the road with us all the time… Emmaus always happens. God, help us to pay better attention!



To Doubt or Not to Doubt

So, here are two interesting facts about the story of the man history has dubbed the “Doubting Thomas”. First, did you realize that none of the earliest Christian writings – Paul’s letters and the gospel of Mark – report any appearances of Jesus after the resurrection? These accounts weren’t part of tradition until 25 to 50 years after Jesus’ death. We can only then assume that they are parables about Jesus, told to convey a specific message.

Second, the story of Jesus appearing to Thomas is one of a handful of scripture that is proscribed by the churches to be read every year (for those of you familiar with the Common Lectionary, you’ll see that John 20:19-31 is the gospel reading for every year).

Both of these observations move me to ask “why?” Why did the author of John tell this story of Thomas? Why does “the church” want us to hear this story every year right after Easter?

I believe the answer to the first is relatively simple. John’s audience was generations after Jesus was gone and therefore had no personal experience of him or his disciples. In this parable, Thomas will only believe once he has seen and touched Jesus. And, while Jesus complies to his demands, Jesus also says, “blessed are those who have not seen and believed.” This was a call to faith, to trust in that which people hadn’t seen with their own eyes.

I’m a bit more cynical about the answer to the second question. Sadly, I believe the church has often lifted this passage up to make a negative example of Thomas. It has suggested that Thomas has fallen short and twists this parable so that we see Thomas as being shamed by Jesus into believing. This becomes a helpful tool in controlling the people. How many of you have been told don’t doubt, don’t ask questions, just believe, have faith. The implication is that if you doubt then obviously your faith isn’t strong enough.

Personally, I’m glad that the Thomas reading comes up in the rotation every year, but for exactly the opposite reason. It is a good and healthy thing for people to doubt and question and realize that Jesus will meet them right where they are without judgment. Why is it good and healthy? Because every story of spiritual growth that I have ever heard has begun with someone asking the tough questions, doubting what they’ve heard or been taught, struggling with the belief systems that don’t work. I pulled a bunch of spiritual and theological books off my shelves and, sure enough, author after author talked about how and event, or series of events led them to seriously question their understanding of God and themselves and set them on a journey to discover the truth.

We hardly ever receive answers as quickly as Thomas did. In fact, all of the people I read about spent years exploring their questions. They lived their questions, walked with them, discussed them with people they respected, and trusted that God was walking with them, providing what was needed until the pieces came together in ways that made sense. However, I never got the sense that any of these folks felt like they were “done”. They simply realized that it was ok for their beliefs, their understanding of God and the relationship with God to change and grow.

So, question, doubt, claim Thomas as your patron saint, and allow yourself to grow.

Love & Light,