“Layers” or “Levels” of God Encounters

Hi. I’ve been away from the blog for a little bit, kind of doing some thinking in a lot of different areas. I’ve mentioned here before that this search for Wisdom in my own life is – as one would expect – spilling over into my thoughts and understandings about my life in ministry.

In pursuit of that type of thing, I ran across an old video of a panel discussion that featured, among several other people, Cynthia Bourgeault, who has been leading my spirit in some fairly interesting directions for the last several months. In this video, someone mentioned how she seems to have left the old model of the church behind in favor of a more direct encounter of the Divine through various spiritual practices, including Centering Prayer, The Work (what students of G.I. Gurdjieff call his “Fourth Way” practices of involving all three energetic “centers” of the human being: heart, intellect, & emotion), chanting, etc.

Cynthia offers a gentle correction, and she does so by mentioning having learned about three “levels” of the church: The Exoteric, The Mesoteric, and The Esoteric.

“The Exoteric church, the one with the doors, that people come into off the streets, the one that needs pastors, the church that’s there when you’re ready to put a bullet in your head in the middle of the night — that church serves an extraordinarily important function, and without access to it, people aren’t ready to go further. Its role is to create a basic welcome container, basic pastoral/ethical nurturance, and a sense of devotional reference points.

“From there on, it opens into the Mesoteric, which is about Path; which is about practice, and that’s where you really sort of bring in the Centering Prayer, the chanting, the psalmody, the Orders of Life. And that, then, drives and makes possible the gateway into the Esoteric, which is badly understood in our culture. It’s sort of equated with the ‘secret knowledge,’ these ‘cosmic PIN codes,” where it really just means the deeper: the deeper understanding, the deeper immersion in what was there all along in the Exoteric, but you didn’t get it before.

“So, the Mesoteric is the real bridge. And I think it’s that bridge that people are hungering for. That’s the place we try and give them in Wisdom School, and that’s certainly the bridge I crossed without ever looking back when I became a teacher of Centering Prayer. [Centering Prayer does most of the heavy lifting] because it begins to change the way people think.

“There’s brain science now to show that meditative practice increases our capacity to bear paradox, to live in ambiguity, and to not immediately react from defensive postures. And it’s the part that was missing from the church. Nobody knew how to do this. Nobody made time and they were drowning in their own sort of ‘surface-ness.’

[There was a comment about the dying of the institutional church. ] “It’s not an either/or. Maybe there will be <strong>fewer</strong> churches. I think the <strong>parish church </strong>may be belly-up. The movement towards greater and more powerfully diverse and impassioned centers – kind of cathedrals in the old way of thinking: vortexes of human energy and then a lot of Mesoteric groups spinning out — that would be the model that I see as viable.

“But I certainly would never recommend going back and starting with ‘the Jesus church,’ because there’s no such thing, at least in our own culture.”

My take-away or reflection on this multi-structured way of looking at the church and spirituality is this: 12 years into my “pastoring gig,” as I like to call it, there are aspects of the Exoteric church that trouble me (institutional racism, institutional sexism, traditionalism over tradition, protection of the institution over living the gospel of Jesus, etc.), and much of it leaves me weary and empty. I NEED that Mesoteric church and sort of aspire to Esoteric practices and embracing integration. At the same time, what the Meso- and Esoteric churches teach me is: IT AIN’T ABOUT ME! There is clearly still a role – “an extraordinarily important function” – for the “regular ol'” church in this world, and I remain committed to it. My hope is that my ministry will help some “transcend” – or maybe simply go deeper into – the traditional church, rather than to just accept it at face value. If I can do that while also being there in the middle of the night, as Cynthia says, when someone wants to put a bullet in their brain, or when Grandma dies, or when someone wants to celebrate new life, I am content. It all belongs.

Still Thinking about In-Person Worship

A couple of you saw and commented on my last post about worship, and at least one person (which means I know more are thinking it) said, “Wow. That means you might not see my spouse and me until as late as the end of 2021.”

That’s true. We might not. On the other hand, we might. We’re still trying to come up with creative ways we could gather, which is desired, while still keeping people safe, which is necessary.

One thing I mentioned is that we’ll continue to be an online presence. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and we all understand that. Some people, we though, might enjoy that option but can’t exercise it for one reason or another. If you know someone who would join us online, either live or after the fact, but can’t because of technological problems, please let us know, and maybe we can work out a way to make that happen.

Something I didn’t mention previously, but has been running around in my head, is doing more worship out of doors. This is also a problem in some ways, because as we enter the summer, the heat can be just as problematic for some folks healthwise as the virus is. But it might allow us some limited singing during worship, depending on who is interested in participating. An added bonus of doing outdoor worship is, as I’ve always contended, it’s great when people have a chance to actually see us. Not that we’re doing it for our own self-aggrandizement, but rather so that folks know that we are open and actively working. It’s evangelism by practicing in public.

Another possibility that I haven’t spoken about yet is adding worship services for smaller groups with the chance to clean and sanitize things in between. I kind of like this option, because it opens a door for building greater numbers of the gathered when the crisis is past its peak. Especially if we did something on, say, a Saturday evening or later on a Sunday, or even some other day of the week entirely. Would it be a lot more work for me? Of course. And something would have to give somewhere else. But it’s an option, and I think it’s a good one.

What other ideas do you have? Use those big brains of yours!

Sermon notes: parable of the widow and judge

After the service today, a parishioner told me that her hearing aid had broken and she didn’t catch everything I said. Would I give her a copy of my manuscript, please? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t use a manuscript today, but I said I’d offer up my sermon notes, such as they were. That’s what you have here.

But I also wanted to say a couple of other things: First, this sermon was deeply inspired by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on the Judge and the Widow in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The whole book takes on the topic of anti-Semitic prejudices spewed from the pulpit (often unwittingly so), the ripping out of context of the various parables in a lectionary setting, and the seeming need to domesticate parables by turning them into analogies or fables or some other form of story with easily identifiable moral examplars. Levine warns preachers against doing that.

Second, with that in mind, I struggled in writing this sermon. With the ideas of justice, vengeance, persistence, prayer and so on so abundant in this parable, I really, really wanted to make this a social justice sermon. It would fit so easily, and this was my first inclination. I know a lot of preachers will have done that this weekend, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, with Levine fresh in my mind, I really needed to preach a sermon that disturbed and challenged preconceived notions about this parable. In the end, I know there was ambiguity in the message I delivered, but I do think there was also challenge in the sense that our parable doesn’t give us any clear role models to be found in either the judge OR the widow. The only model we have, finally, is Jesus himself, who is THE righteous judge who refuses to judge (Luke 12:14, John 5:21 – 25; 8:15-16 where Jesus illuminates human history by the criterion of the victim who is the judge AS victim, and whose judgment is mercy, ultimately).

So, with those things out of the way, here’s a bit of the notation. Make of it what you will.

We read the entire lectionary passage, Luke 18:1-8, but re-read and focused on just vv 2-5, because this is the parable proper, without any commentary by Luke or Luke’s Jesus. Just the bare bones of the story.

What is a parable?
(Someone said it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.)

Story.
Stories have 5 basic parts. (People named them: Theme, Setting, Characters (Antagonist and Protagonist), Action or Conflict that drives the final element, Plot. We mentioned that there’s sometimes a title in a regular story, but parables are a bit different: In the original manuscripts, there is no title, which is a good thing, because when we impose a title on a parable, we’re revealing something about what we think the story is about, who the protagonist and antagonist are, etc.

This parable is set in “a certain city” (that is, just some nameless city. Could be anywhere) some time in the past (indicated by the past tense verb “was”).

The characters include a judge, a widow, and the widow’s adversary.

The conflict occurs between the widow and her adversary, an between the widow and judge (and vice versa). When prompted, 3 people picked with widow as the likely protagonist. Nobody picked the judge, which leads me to believe that about 39 people abstained from the vote. 🙂

We identified the plot in the following way: There was a judge whom a widow kept pestering to grant her vengeance against an adversary. At first the judge refused, but eventually he relented, because he wanted the widow to stop giving him work to do.

The theme wasn’t terribly clear apart from Luke’s “help.” It was a matter of interpretation, and how we interpret it reveals something about us and about what we believe about the character of God (given that Jesus was telling the parable).

Protagonist and Antagonist?
People weren’t confident choosing.
I asked what a first century audience might have thought about which was which by asking, “What do we know about widows? What do we know about judges?”

Most people said that widows are marginal characters, oppressed, lacking rights, vulnerable.

But we mentioned several passages from the scriptures that indicated how widows (along with orphans and aliens) are a protected class, preferred somehow by God as vulnerable people.

People noted that judges were a bit of a mixed bag: meant to be righteous, but that was the ideal. Many were appointed injudiciously and were corrupt.

Then we challenged both of the preconceived notions we have about widowns and judges: THIS widow of the parable doesn’t appear helpless or voiceless. If anything, it’s the opposite. We don’t know that she’s financially oppressed. She couuld be well off, but the text doesn’t tell us. It just speaks of her persistence against an adversary, whom, frankly, we don’t know is a “bad guy,” either. Maybe her complaint against this adversary against whom she seeks vengeance (not “justice”) is itself unjust.

We know a little about the judge. He neither fears God (which the scriptures tell us we ought to do) nor does he regard human beings. Not fearing God need not be construed negatively: We can have very good Atheist judges, or Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of judge, who does his or her duties conscientously and justly.

And it’s possible to construe this judge’s disregard of humans in a positive light – he can’t be swayed to injustice by reputation or wealth or anything else. Isn’t that what we desire in a neutral, objective judge?

But this judge finally IS corrupted by the widow’s persistence. Not by the justness of her cause, but simply because she’s a pain in the neck and he wants to get rid of her.

What we end up with between these 2 characters is no clear moral example to follow. Neither widow nor judge is CLEARLY in the right.

And with this kind of ambiguity, we’re left to wrestle with the parable. We’re left to allow it to disturb and challenge our presuppositions. We’re left seeking some kind of way to let this story by Jesus lead us to an ethic that can’t be found among people, but CAN be found in him — in his life, his teachings, his ministry, where the things that comprised HIS ethic were things like love, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s also what we find in his death (Father forgive them) and his resurrection (Peace I give you, not as the world gives).

Once Luke puts in his two cents — that this is about persistent prayer, that this story can only be understood as an allegory where we are the widow and God is the judge who will do what we ask him if we just pester him enough (Prosperity Gospel, anyone?) — he really ends up killing the joke, domesticating the parable, solving the puzzle for us so that we don’t get to do the work that Jesus intended us to do.

At the end of the sermon, people DID seem baffled, disturbed, and challenged. Mission accomplished. 🙂