Thursday, March 31, 2011

Holy Spirit

"Holy Spirit" by Sara Kay

Sara set out to paint a picture of the Holy Spirit. She picked up her oil pastels and created this picture. What images of God do you see in this painting?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Stay At Home Dad

Our baby's due date is April 17th. That means I'll be a dad very soon. It also means that dad-humor is funny to me now. And Jon Lajoie's song "Stay At Home Dad" is quite funny.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau: An Exploration of Free Will

Does free will exist? Does God give us free will? Does God control everything? Does God make us puppets? Does God cause bad things to happen to us? Does God give us only one "right" path for our lives? Do we choose our own destiny? The movie The Adjustment Bureau explores the idea of free will by following a man who dares to try to choose his own path in life instead of following the one that has been chosen for him. Bruce Epperly then explores the theology of the movie - and comes out on the side of choosing our own adventures in life.
"The Adjustment Bureau, Rick Warren, and Process Theology" by Bruce G. Epperly
The Adjustment Bureau raises issues of God’s plan, destiny, choice, and chance. Rising political star David Norris is destined, yes destined, to become the President of the United States, until a chance encounter with dancer, Elise Sellas. This apparently chance encounter leads to an intricate struggle between the angelic case workers assigned to keep him on the Chairman’s (aka God) pre-established plan and the love struck Norris, who believes that he can choose his own destiny.

The Chairman’s plan takes a page right out of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. According to the movie, God chooses the important events of our lives, steering us toward the course God has determined that will be best for us and the planet. We think we are free, when are really actors performing the script God has already written for us. The death of Norris’ parents and his brother is not accidental, but the working out of the Chairman’s plan to give Norris the hunger for political greatness, thus fulfilling his father’s dream.

Rick Warren’s image of human destiny takes a similar path in making the following affirmations about the relationship between God’s plan and human decision-making.
  • God plans all the important events (genetics, gender, talents, family of origin) in our lives without our input.
  • Every experience, including traumatic events, such as cancer, abuse, the death of a child, or tsunami, is “father filtered,” or planned by God for our growth.  
  • In every event God is testing our fidelity to God’s sovereign decision-making. 
  • God “smiles” when we follow directions and do as “he” says. 
  • God wants us to “color inside the lines.” Coloring “outside the lines” leads to meaninglessness in this life and alienation from God (hell) in the next. Those who seek to thwart God’s plan will be punished.
Warren’s belief in divine destiny led one of my friends to describe his book as the “puppet driven life.” Both Warren and The Adjustment Bureau’s image of God’s plan assert that when it comes to the most important things, freedom and choice are an illusion. Happiness and fulfillment come from following the pre-established plan.

Now the Adjustment Bureau takes two slight diversions from Warren’s spiritual determinism. Within the Chairman’s plan, chance events occur. Norris meets Sellas and the pre-established plan for his life is jeopardized. Second, the movie suggests that God can scrap certain plans in favor of others, and open the doors to choice in rare circumstances. Although neither Norris nor Sellas is aware of it, the Chairman’s plan had once included them falling in love. That plan, however, was scrapped for greater things for each of them. Nevertheless, the energy of the Chairman’s negation unexpectedly draws them together.

For both theologians and lay people alike, divine choice and human freedom have often been pitted against one another. Either everything reflects divine decision-making or we are entirely free. Perhaps, there is another alternative that joins divine vision and decision-making, human freedom, environmental and genetic conditioning, and chance. This is the multi-faceted approach of process theology.

From the perspective of process theology, every event emerges from the intricate and dynamic interplay of God’s vision, environmental influences, genetics, and creaturely choice. In the dynamic interplay of life, accidents happen – cells reproduce in ways that lead to cancer, bridges collapse, and brakes fail. In this same interplay, human choices can lead to cancer, abuse, faulty construction, and genocide. God has not willed these events, but must, like us, live with these events, seeking to make the most out of difficult situations.

Process theology asserts that God is intimately involved in our lives, providing possibilities, inspirations, and intuitions; working through the interdependence of life to promote synchronous encounters; inviting us to use our limited freedom to create a just and beautiful world; and giving us strength and creativity to respond to personal and communal calamities. God is not in absolute control, nor do we create our own realities.

Still, God is constantly innovating, working within the world as it is to bring forth the right balance of order and novelty. Within the limitations of the many factors of life, humans are also constantly innovating, using our limited freedom moment by moment to choose our pathways. While creaturely freedom may be quite limited, given the influence of the past, environment, genetics, politics, economics, and divine influence, human choices made moment by moment can lead to life-changing expressions of creativity and beauty. Sadly, they can also lead to pain and suffering.

Life is a dynamic interplay of call and response in which God calls and we respond, and God calls again, adjusting God’s vision to our choices rather than forcing us to follow a pre-ordained script. Still, from the perspective of process theology, God provides many possibilities and opens the door to many vocations, or personal destinies. There is God’s vision for a particular moment in time but this vision is part of many broader visions, embodied over a lifetime. Moreover, process theology asserts that God’s vision is neither coercive nor competitive. God creates the context for maximal expressions of freedom and creativity, congruent with the well-being of the global and local communities. Freedom is limited, but it is real.

Like a good parent, God hopes we make the right decisions for ourselves and others. But, God also welcomes surprises. Contrary to Rick Warren and the Chairman’s initial plan, innovation leads to greater and more energetic revelations of God’s presence in our lives. After God has given us the most creative visions to integrate with our freedom and the impact of the environment, like a good parent, who has supplied crayons and paper for our recreation, God whispers in our unconscious, “Surprise me. Bring something new into the world. Do something beautiful and unexpected.”

The Adjustment Bureau provides much food for theological reflection. It invites us to ponder the intricacies of freedom and destiny and God’s role in determining who we are and what we do. It suggests that we may not be puppets of fate after all, and that our calling is to take risks for love, beauty, and healing. These risks rewarded with greater opportunities for freedom and creativity in partnership with the source of all freedom, creativity, and possibility.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexedand Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On The Way: New Spiritual Music

Sara Kay's CD "On The Way" (our music project) has been recorded and is in the process of getting finished up. It will be officially released in April. In the meantime, all the songs can be heard on our website for free. Check 'em out. The songs focus on spirituality, healing, lament, peace, social justice, images of God, hope in the battle against breast cancer, etc. They were inspired by words from Scripture, Brian McLaren, Harold Kushner, Monica Coleman, Peter Rollins etc. Our goal was to write an album that combined spiritual depth, acoustic energy, and a breadth of topics. The hope is that these songs help listeners to experience a deeper spirituality in their daily lives.

Our music can be followed on Facebook and ReverbNation.
Stay tuned for updates!

Plus, if you want to be a super supporter, click here for t-shirts, hats, bumper stickers, etc. We'd love to get help with spreading the word about the music.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Healing the Memory of the Crucifixion

For Lent, we wrote a series of reflections on the crucifixion of Jesus. Year after year we struggle to find something "good" about Good Friday. So this year we decided to explore the topic of Jesus' execution directly. What if the crucifixion of Jesus caused major trauma in the life of the disciples? What if that unresolved trauma got passed onto us through their traditions and theologies? What if some of those traditions and theologies are distorted due to unresolved trauma in the memory of the Church? What if we could heal that memory? What if something more healing and hopeful could emerge? What would that mean for our current rituals and theologies? What if things like the Eucharist could look radically different? Those are a few of the questions we'll explore. To whet your appetite, here is a synopsis for each part in the series:

Part 1: Did the Crucifixion Cause Grief and Trauma?
We'll explore the possible impact of the crucifixion on the people who knew Jesus. Then we'll explore the impact of their trauma on the memories, traditions, and theologies in the Church today. Maybe things could look different.

Part 2: Crucifixion as Unresolved Grief and Trauma
The crucifixion of Jesus likely caused a great amount of grief and trauma for the disciples - especially the ones who knew Jesus personally. The emotional "stuff" remained unresolved and was eventually passed on to us through some of the memories, traditions, and rituals of the Church. Some of these things passed onto us were distorted and may need to be addressed and healed.

Part 3: Grieving the Crucifixion to Heal the Church
Grieving the crucifixion is an important step toward healing the memory of the Church. We'll use Judith Herman's steps for healing from trauma from her book Trauma and Recovery: (1) naming and remembering the loss, (2) mourning the loss, (3) honoring the Church's resistance and survival; and then (4) integrating and expanding the story. While residual parts of the trauma will continue to be a part of our collective memory, we no longer have to allow it to dominate our theologies, traditions, and rituals.

Part 4: Adult Education Program of Healing and Hope
What now? We'll bring the ideas from the series together in a practical way to explore healing the Church's memory through an adult education program. First, Brian McLaren’s book, The Secret Message of Jesus, will be used to explore the content and meaning of Jesus’ message. Second, Marcus Borg and John Crossan’s book, The Last Week, will be used to explore what led up to, and contributed to the execution of Jesus. Third, the movie Pay It Forward will be used to tie together the major themes of both of the books through a narrative that symbolizes the great life and unjust killing of Jesus. Finally, the group will be invited to create a Communion liturgy that expresses their understanding of the ministry of Jesus and theology of the Eucharist. Things like the Eucharist might look different after working through the trauma of the crucifixion. In fact, maybe Communion should look more like a party than a memorial. The party could celebrate things like the persistence, resilience, and survival of the Church and Jesus' vision of love, justice, and mutuality.

Want more details? Click on the links above to read each part of the entire series. Plus, in a few years Christopher Grundy will have a book that explores these ideas in much greater detail. It's a heavy topic. But it ends in hope. We are an Easter people. And this Lenten journey leads to the joy of the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35).

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rob Bell: Rock Star or Easy Target?

Rob Bell has written a book called Love Wins. It's a well-written book. But it's also a little predictable. Let me just say that there are no major surprises. Well, I guess there is one surprise. Conservative Christians are going nuts over this book. Bell is being attacked all over the internet by them. They are trying to accuse Bell of heresy. I won't even bother defending Bell against heresy. Suffice to say, he's not a heretic. But the conservatives decided to pounce anyway. So it seems like one of two things is happening. Option 1: They see him as too big of a pastoral rock star and they want to knock him down a bit. Option 2: They see Bell as an easy target and want to bully him around. Either way, it seems silly that he is being attacked so much. Let the guy write his books and give his sermons. He's an amazing artist when it comes to communication. Let him share his gift with people who find it meaningful. Besides, in the end, it will be God who judges us. And if you listen to Bell, love will win. So let's move on from this banter and enjoy God's love instead of fighting over it. There's enough divine love to go around!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Prophetic Spirituality: Changing Lives, Changing Worlds

Brian McLaren has written an excellent book called Naked Spirituality. The book focuses on twelve spiritual practices: Here (opening to God's abiding presence), Thanks (expanding our sense of gratitude and enoughness), O (soaking up the joy of life and God), sorry (living honestly and transforming wrongs), Help (empowering ourselves to ask for help from God and others), Please (relying on the support of God and others to get through difficulties), When (aspire after a better life and world), No (allowing ourselves to acknowledge pain, lament about our troubles, and refuse a problematic life and world), Why (allowing ourselves and others to ask God the difficult questions that arise from pain and doubt), Behold (mindfully noticing and appreciating the indescribable goodness of God and the world), Yes (joining and engaging in the sacred mission of God) , and [...] (enjoying moments of silence and contemplation).

All of the spiritual practices that McLaren names are wonderful. In fact, I gave the book a fawning review. And I meant every glowing word about that book. It's awesome. However, some of the spiritual practices that McLaren names are pretty conventional - and even a bit individualistic. Standard spirituality tends to focus on one's relationship with God at the exclusion of one's relationship with others and the wider world. When I picture conventional spirituality, I imagine a person listening to Gregorian chants while meditating on a line from Psalm 23. Or journaling while sipping on green tea. Or praying alone in a darkened room. Or something like that. Not that there is anything wrong with that kind of spirituality. Actually, it's a very good thing. It can help us find inner calm and serenity. But conventional spirituality tends to focus less on helping the wider world become a better place.

Don't get me wrong. It's obvious that McLaren is committed to building a better world. His book Everything Must Change is all about helping to transform the world in positive ways. That's one of the many reasons I respect McLaren so much. The problem is that he doesn't name these world-changing activities as explicitly spiritual practices. And he's not alone. In fact, I'm focusing on Naked Spiritality because this is just the latest book on spirituality that doesn't explicitly enumerate spiritual practices that involve prophetic action. While I know that McLaren is committed to peace and social justice, I'd like to see him - and other authors - specifically name these things as spiritual practices.

I'd like to suggest twelve additional spiritual practices. All of these spiritual practices involve prophetic action. They help us to connect with God by working to build a better world. Here is the list:

Love (sharing unconditional connection, support, security, etc.), Justice (building a more equitable environment on a personal, national, and global level), Mutuality (living in a way that honors and supports our interdependence), Liberation (moving from oppression to freedom), Empowerment (advocating, equipping, and gaining voice), Pride (gaining a healthy sense of self-respect), Change (transforming conflict, injustice, pain, etc. in proactive ways), Resistance (confronting people or systems that cause harm to others), Diversity (celebrating the dignity of difference), Context (honoring people's unique background, culture, race, etc.), Accountability (attending to personal responsibility and social responsibility), and Fiesta (partying as a community to celebrate the hard work of striving for greater justice and peace).

These spiritual practices can be done in a variety of ways. The list above is meant to describe broad concepts, not prescribe specific acts. The important thing isn't practicing them in any one way. The important thing is practicing them in the way that is most meaningful, faithful, and spiritual. But just in case it's helpful to move beyond the concepts, here are some examples of how these spiritual practices can be done:

Love (proactively work on improving relationships with family and friends), Justice (join a rally in favor of basic human rights), Mutuality (take turns doing the hard work as well as the fun stuff at home and work), Liberation (volunteer at a detention center that does restorative justice), Empowerment (mindfully give everyone the space and time to speak up), Pride (let LGBT youth know that they are okay - and be sure others know that, too), Change (support the work of a local domestic violence shelter), Resistance (politely yet assertively let bullies/antagonists know their behavior is inappropriate - and then help them find healthier ways to communicate), Diversity (learn more about a culture that is different from the predominate culture of your city/town/neighborhood), Context (encourage people talk about what's important to them as individuals), Accountability (ensure that personal finances and national budgets are managed in responsible ways), and Fiesta (set attainable goals and then celebrate those goals when they are reached).

These prophetic spiritual practices can help open us to the transforming presence of God that surrounds us every day. The same God who led Moses and the Egyptian slaves to freedom, continues to beckon us to greater freedom today. The same God who inspired the love and mutuality shared by Ruth and Naomi, continues to beckon us toward deeper love and mutuality today. The same God who brought the disciples of Jesus together despite their diversity, continues to beckon us together despite our diversity today. The same God who empowered Jesus to resist the injustice of the Roman Empire, continues to empower us to resist injustice today. The list could go on and on. God has been in the business of changing lives for a long time. And God is doing it right now - and every moment in life. These spiritual practices plug us into God's ongoing, transforming work in our lives. If we choose to do these practices, they will change our lives, homes, neighborhoods, and world in amazing ways.

God is ready. Are we?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

God Is Here

Our song "God Is Here" is about the spiritual journey through Lent.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Naked Spirituality

Naked Spirituality is Brian McLaren's newest book. It's also one of his best. Naked Spirituality is for anyone who wants to strip away the clutter of traditional religious trappings and dive into a deeper, purer, and more meaningful spirituality. Reading it feels like a quick dip in a cool pond on a hot day. For those of you who didn't grow up on a farm, that is a good thing! Totally refreshing. 

Let me allow McLaren to introduce the book. In the Preface of Naked Spirituality, he says, "This book is about getting naked - not physically, but spiritually. It's about stripping away the symbols and status of public religion - the Sunday-dress version people often call 'organized religion.' And it's about attending to the well-being of the soul clothed only in naked human skin" (ix). Then, in an interview on my blog, McLaren said: "In a single sentence, I hope the book helps a wide range of people become more vulnerable to a genuine and transformative experience of God's presence in their lives." Indeed, it does that. Naked Spirituality invites people to leave behind the masks and pretences that most of us drag around. It then helps us to find practical ways to enjoy a better, more authentic, and more spiritual life.

Naked Spirituality is focused around twelve meditative words that serve as spiritual practices: here (opening to God's abiding presence), thanks (expanding our sense of gratitude and enoughness), O (soaking up the joy of life and God), sorry (living honestly and transforming wrongs), help (empowering ourselves to ask for help from God and others), please (relying on the support of God and others to get through difficulties), when (aspire after a better life and world), no (allowing ourselves to acknowledge pain, lament about our troubles, and refuse a problematic life and world), why (allowing ourselves and others to ask God the difficult questions that arise from pain and doubt), behold (mindfully noticing and appreciating the indescribable goodness of God and the world), yes (joining and engaging in the sacred mission of God) , and [...] (enjoying moments of silence and contemplation).

McLaren weaves together pithy writing, evocative Scripture, powerful stories, intriguing quotes, enriching poetry, thoughtful song lyrics, etc. in order to help the reader dive deeply into these spiritual practices. Straight up prose would have been too dry - and boring. Thankfully the many different kinds of writing that McLaren uses keeps the spiritually thirsty reader both satiated and engaged. He also provides an appendix with suggestions for group practice, body prayers, and spoken prayers.

This book is not a cheesy self-help book that provides the 10 easy steps to spiritual enlightenment. Those books are a dime a dozen. Instead, Naked Spirituality provides 12 meditative concepts to consider, and then allows each reader to develop the spiritual practices that will best help them embody the spiritual ideas. In other words, McLaren dignifies the reader for having a brain, heart, and context that might be different from his own - and other readers. Instead of spoon-fed religiosity, McLaren invites others to dive in and explore the waters with him.

To conclude this review, here is a taste of how McLaren describes the spiritual life:
"There is a river that runs like a song through this world, a river of sacredness, a river of beauty, a river of reverence and justice and goodness. I know that some people have only rarely seen or barely sensed it. But I also know that you and I are learning to live like green trees along its shore, drawing its vitality into us, and passing it on for the healing of our world. Its waters are clear, refreshingly cool, and clean, and if you care, you can strip naked, dive in, and swim" (237).
Naked Spirituality is full of quality writing like that quote. If you want to connect more deeply to God and your own authentic self, treat yourself to this refreshing, rejuvenating book. It will help you strip off the rags of tired religion and dive into the Healing River of God.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Roots

The Roots are coming to Iowa City for a show. If you're not familiar with them, they are excellent musicians, thoughtful songwriters, and socially-conscious dudes. They are also Jimmy Fallon's house band. Their recent collaboration with John Legend, "Wake Up," is an outstanding musical call for greater peace and justice in the world. Good stuff. Here's a taste:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Eve's Fruit": A Song Inspired by Rabbi Harold Kusher

"Eve's Fruit" is an alt-folk song we wrote based on Rabbi Harold Kushner's quote: "The story of the Garden of Eden is a tale, not of Paradise Lost but of Paradise Outgrown, not of Original Sin but of Birth of Conscience."