Faith—Historical and Mystical

I have been wrestling lately with the historic tension between the faith life anchored in history and the faith rooted in mystical awareness of the Eternal. In his recent posting in Prayer and Politiks, my good friend Ken Sehested calls it the tension between the mystical vision of the ‘thin space’ experience and the historical struggle for justice, where “Heaven’s ecstasy and earth’s agony overlay.” We need the mystical vision, he writes, in order to “confront history’s ruinous condition,” and, like the early Civil Rights leaders in Greensboro NC, to hear “Heaven’s promise…in the midst of Earth’s affliction.” The historical work of liberation needs the mystical work of King’s Dream and, as he recites in his posting, St Brigit of Ireland’s prayers.

Ken is arguing for the way we need to hold these two together, just as Father Richard Rohr, OFM, does at the Center for Action and Contemplation. But I am also aware of the deep tension between these two orientations. The kind of religion we find in the Bible articulates faith in terms of a historical drama in which God is working out a divine purpose through establishing covenants, renewing them in the face of human rebellion, and drawing us finally to an end point, an Eschaton, in which the divine purpose is realized for all creation. It is a collective, public drama of salvation.

The mystical impulse seeks this realization in the eternal now in which we experience God’s mystery in our immediate life. We release all our impulse to strive, achieve, produce, and gain external recognition in order to surrender to the overwhelming love of God. It is in this intense, ecstatic personal experience that we realize our true fulfillment, our salvation.

It is not hard to see how these two ways can fall into starkly different religious temperaments— one “Hebrew” and the other “Greek,” one political and public, the other individual and private. And it is also easy to see the distortions to which they can lead. The sense of historical faith has been the doorway to countless wars, conquests, and crusades seeking to achieve the absolute envisioned by faith. We see it now in the Christian nationalism eroding the US Constitutional order erected 230 years ago as a bulwark against this kind of religious warfare. In these numerous violent expressions of the history-oriented faith inherited from the Bible we can also see how the search to realize a mystical vision within history (“Thy Kingdom come…”) can easily violate the very peace promised in a mystical vision.

While the mystical embrace by itself does not lead easily to violence, it can readily lead to the belief that we can escape the ambiguities, compromises, and systemic evils that imprison us, ignoring the way our actual lives are part of the degradation of the lives of others, even those yet unborn. The mystical becomes the fantasy of the well-off elites manicuring their souls, as my mentor James Luther Adams put it, in the face of the ethical demands of the often ambiguous historical drama in which the divine is truly active and revealed.

Recent events have only deepened my awareness of the deep tension and interdependence of these two religious paths, not only in my own spirituality but in the world around me. Perhaps this is one reason why St. Paul has moved from being the overbearing eccentric uncle in my religious closet to being a prickly but almost comforting companion in my later years. As a rabbinically-schooled Jew in the Hellenistic diaspora, he was deeply aware of the long historical drama of salvation and the “cloud of witnesses” in which we stand as well as the mystical vision of a resurrection and of a “new city, whose builder and maker is God.” Each of us has to thread together the way we address both the mystical and the historical dimensions of faith as we try to figure out our way in the next days, weeks, and months. The way forward, as our history-laden faith puts it. The way to the Ground and Center, as the mystics might tell us.

 

 

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Bad Memories — Guest Posting by Scott A. Taylor

Readers of these postings will remember that I have spent many months recently helping to lead efforts by members of our church and community to examine our racist history and search for ways to remember it fully and repair the damage of past generations. Rightful remembrance is the first step toward the healing we all so desperately need if we are to flourish in this land.

Scott Taylor is our church’s Director of Music and the Worship Arts and is presently studying toward his M. Div. degree at Candler School of Theology. In connection with his Biblical studies he has written this powerful remembrance about his own origins on a farm west of Winston Salem, North Carolina. We welcome your comments as we struggle with this difficult issue.

 

“What have you done?” Yahweh asked.  “Listen to the sound of your brother’s blood, crying out to me from the ground.”  Genesis 4:10 (Jerusalem Bible)

I grew up on Taylor Road, a two-mile long country lane on my family’s third generation farm.  The farm sits on the banks of the Yadkin River in the North Carolina Piedmont and the road separates the river’s floodplain from the bluffs, rolling red clay hills ideal for growing tobacco and corn.  I remember my childhood on this land with nostalgia: my brothers and I played in the river, fished in ponds, built forts out of fallen poplar trees, and frequently camped out under a wide sky.  Back then, there were only a few houses on Taylor Road and all were relatively modest, with one exception.  At the far end, about a mile from my house, stood a large white house, Greek revival architecture, completed in 1837.  We called it the Glenn house.  I understood that the Glenn family had owned the farmland a generation or so before my family settled, that they had operated a river ferry, and nothing more.

Last year, while doing some research for a church confirmation lesson, I stumbled on the “Tyre Glenn Papers” at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library.  As I read the online description of these 19th century documents, I learned that Tyre Glenn, 1800-1875, was the first owner of the house at the end of my road.  He was a successful businessperson and cultural icon in the region.  He was a founding member of the Enon Baptist Church, where my mother is buried.  He built this large and impressive home where he welcomed notable guests including NC Governor Zebulon Vance.  He was wealthy – and his wealth came from his work as a slave trader.  At its height, his plantation, known as Glennwood, included 6000 acres and claimed 362 souls in chattel slavery.  This makes Glennwood one of the largest North Carolina plantations west of the capital in Raleigh.

Glennwood House, Enon, North Carolina

I grew up believing a version of history that aims to put some moral distance between the South’s poor mountain farms and the large opulent plantations near the coast.  While there may be truth to this, as most slaves were nearer to the coast, in the case of Taylor Road, I fear it was nothing more than a tale of moral convenience.  Since my discovery, shadows have darkened the nostalgia of my childhood.  Even though their story was lost to the bad memory of my forebears, these red clay hills now cry out with the blood of enslaved men, women, and children.

I am not yet sure what to make of this glaring omission or how to respond.  I have found some footing, however, in a familiar and much-repeated phrase from the Old Testament and in a recent poem by U.S. poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey.  From the former, the justice-bending arc of Israel’s history often impinges on the telling of unsettling stories about slavery, defeat, and failure.  Scripture frequently calls readers to “remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.”

This phrase, or a close variant, shows up in sundry theological and political contexts from Sabbath observance (Deuteronomy 5:15) to militaristic strength (Deuteronomy 7:17-18).  The biblical scribes, writing during or after exile in Babylon, likely felt that this memory of slavery and deliverance might bring a measure of comfort and hope to a people dispersed and living in captivity.  More than that, scribes inserted this bad, traumatic memory into law codes, covenant passages, and rituals like Passover to compel a people to re-form their national identity around a kind of freedom not built on oppressive power structures (Exodus 23:9; Deuteronomy 15:15).  Only through the memory of slavery can a people claim liberation.

Why then are people plagued with such a bad memory?  Natasha Trethewey’s poem Incident recalls a horrific event from her childhood, the KKK burning a cross at her bi-racial family’s Mississippi home.  The significance of the event is marked by the first and last lines of the poem, “We tell the story every year.”  Inherent in this line, as well as in the biblical passages noted above, is the understanding that people are woefully forgetful.  As Trethewey puts it, some people would prefer to say, “Nothing really happened.”  This is a familiar lie.  When seven police officers in Minneapolis stood idly by and watched as a fellow officer murdered George Floyd with his kneecap, we heard this lie.  When hundreds of police officers in Washington D.C. stood idly by and watched a murderous group of rioters storm the Capital, we heard this lie.  When I learned that the house at the end of my road was the home of a large Southern plantation, I realized that I had been listening to this lie for a long time.

Equally important as the stories we remember are the ones we forget.  While the stories we silence may offer momentary shelter from the painful truth of our past, they ultimately hold us hostage to the lie, “Nothing really happened.”  Something did happen.  Really!  The importance of a good, true memory cannot be overstated.  We must listen to the Old Testament and never forget slavery.  Though my story is extraordinary, at least to me, it is not unique.  Every acre of this American land cries out with the blood of our brothers and sisters.  We must do all we can to remember them for it is that memory that compels us in our journey toward liberty and justice for all.

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Capitol Desecration and Sacred Conversations

Many commentators have described the assault on our nation’s Capitol as a “desecration,” and indeed it was. We feel violated. We feel waves pounding at the foundation of our fundamental governing institutions. The Capitol, with its wings like Jesus’s mother hen hovering over Jerusalem, has been raped and pillaged. All for the bottomless narcissism of Donald Trump.  This hellish fever may be breaking (what an analogy in the midst of our physical fevers!), but the body politic is weakened, ravaged, and reeling.

Yes, it was a desecration. The Christian Citizen, put out by the American Baptist Home Mission Societies, ran a series of observations by some of its writers about these recent events. Here is what I wrote:

“Many public voices have cried out about the desecration of the sacred temple of democracy that is the US Capitol. As someone who grew up in Washington, I shared in that horror as I beheld the sight of angry mobs storming this treasured edifice. But the sacred work that was being broken into is not a building. It is the very work of argument, negotiation, compromise, and agreement among equals that contains the sacred spirit from which we draw our life. The sacred spirit that has been violated is the presiding authority and power that arises as we gather in these circles of deliberation and search for a greater justice. Too often, both in church and in politics, we have sought to draw our life from a leader, an orator, indeed, some longed-for monarch or despot who might do our work for us. But the spirit that gathers people around a table to recognize the inherent worth of each person and to seek peace, a reconciliation of differences, and the common good coming from the one God—that is the sacred work that is under attack and that needs to be defended and exemplified in our religious assemblies and in our public life.”

These sacred, or as Methodists sometimes say “holy,” conversations are what we have been celebrating and nurturing in our monthly Roundtable Worship. It is conversations like these that are the heartbeat of democracy. They are not merely the heart of self-governance, but of a governance in which we are equally called, by our very being, into the work of the Spirit that seeks the unity, integrity, and flourishing of creation.

And so I conclude with this month’s liturgy, enacted on the weekend in which we remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gift of life, words, and action to our ongoing struggle to live out this holy conversation of all God’s peoples.

 Roundtable Worship

January 17, 2021

Call to the Table

Not in a mob of vengeance and recrimination,

                        But in a circle giving thanks for grace and love.

Not in words like curtains cutting off our vision,

                        But in a simple deed of lovingkindness opening our eyes.

Not in armaments and fortresses,

            But in a hand held out to drowning enemies.

            Not in walls and sepulchers,

           But in a garden by the river flowing with God’s life.

            Not in a frozen desert

            But at a table of your harvest.

            We come to this table,

             This table of peace.

            ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

A Moment of Visualization: “Watch and Wait”

Remembrance

In the face of despots, kings, and tyrants, God sent prophets speaking truth to arrogance and power.

In the midst of chaos God brought order with a covenant of law.

Out of a sacrilege of desolation, God brought a people forth with stories of a gracious liberation.

In a wandering Palestinian healer God revealed the power of a universe alight with beauty.

In the agony of execution God revealed the suffering heart upholding worlds to come.

In a life surrendered to God’s work of reconciliation, we were drawn into the circle of God’s love.

Amen. Amin. Ameyn.

Thanksgiving  

O, Heart of Peace,

For all who bring your justice and your peace in times of awful misery our hearts are filled with gratitude. For the work of King and Lewis, Parks and Evers, we lift our voices up in thanks. For the goodness of the earth despite our thoughtless exploitation, we give you hearty thanks. For the love that gives us strength to live beyond our fear, we lift our voice in thankfulness. For fellowship beyond each barrier of disease and doubt, we give you our unending praise.

We give our thanks to You (4x)

We give our hearts to You (3x), because you first loved us.

A Taste of the Earth’s Bounty

Readings:

 Psalm 5 (condensed)

Mark 9:33-37; 10:15.

Matthew 23:37.

The Conversation:      What are Biblical witnesses saying to us in this time of testing and violence?

Gathered Prayers  (Visualization – “The Spirit Intercedes”)

The Hope Prayer

 O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Reflective Moment “If He Shall Die”

 Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Blessing Song:

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed, Grounded in God, healing and whole.

Go now in peace, blessing and blessed, Grounded in God, filled with God’s love.

“Watch and Wait”

Sylvia Johnson Everett

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2020 Vision

This is the year

humanity

lies sleeping on the earth

          in fevered nightmares

like hibernating bears

claws twitching

           restless

trapped inside a cave

where shadowed fears and memories

            run ghostly in our brains.

It is a year of darkness

where we see with greater clarity

the contours of a holy life

a life made whole

in suffering and death.

It is a year from which we now awake

crawl out the cave

to touch

reflect

breathe deeply

reconcile with trees and

grass and

earth with

greetings to the stranger and

conversations with a friend.

It is a year where darkness finally helps us see the Light

through weary weeping eyes.

Immanuel.

“Come, Great Mystery,” by Sylvia Everett

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