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Aug 21- Checking Out and Checking In

August 21, 2016

Ez. 3:12-15;   Mark 10:13-16

Rev. Ginger Taylor

At the Gunnison Library on a July evening a young author, Shannon Gibney, came to read from and prompt a discussion of her book:  See No Color.  Somewhat biographic, the novel explores the wakening of Alex, a bi-racial adopted girl in a white family.  She has identity reconfigurations with which to struggle like any early adolescent – that is a main developmental task, if we dare to remember.  While this story is truly universal, particularities of racial identity, family identity pertain.

Shannon the author, surprised me when she noted (and I do believe her) that a novel is categorized as “young adult” whenever the protagonist is a youth.  I was horrified and I have struggled all month to come to terms with this literary segregation – maybe even literary exile- of young adult protagonists.  Just one problem is that adults would miss out on some fabulous literature,  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Huckleberry Finn.   And adults segregated from adolescents already, will forget to appreciate the vibrancy and the poignancy, and the sheer hilarity that often characterizes youth.   Even more problematic , we adults may get stuck in our own age bracket and forget how much there is to learn from and to be inspired by adolescents in that unique stage of human transformation.

I don’t want to over sentimentalize what may be experienced as a painful period for kids and parents both.  As my husband used to say when he was a headmaster on opening day addresses to middle school parents:  “Raise your hand if you’d like to be a 7th grader again!”

On the other hand the stage of life where one’s main task is dis-identifying with past unexamined assumptions (like parental dictums) has a wildness and excitement that provide experimentation, edginess, and creativity along with some feelings of dispossession and alienation.  All of my adult life, until my husband retired from school work, I was privileged to live among teenagers.  I confess I thrived on it.  I leaned so very much; gained so much joy and wonderment.

And now I learn that in fiction categories young adult literature is supposed to be a no-go zone for, ahem, those of a certain age?  I protest!

When Jesus is remembered for his comments on children, he brings a prophetic (unsentimental) voice and reminds the gathered, admonishes the disciples, that we adults must take upon us the attitudes, the orientations of children in order to receive the blessings of a good life.  (Jesus was not talking about anything faraway, but rather about a bountiful here-and-now.)

I concur with that prophetic statement; and others that support it – i.e. when the prophet scolds his contemporaries for failing to join in with dances and music,  that they are called to reveries of life.  Or in a parabolic story of Jesus’ 13-year old self, he abandons the family caravan to (astonishingly!  assertively! even arrogantly!) teach the teachers in the temple Torah interpretations.    Then there is the unique story of the adolescent serving the bread and fish to the hungry crowds, implicitly acting as priest who handles the sacred objects and serves all these needy adults the holy meal.  Radical, huh?

We adults worry about teenagers, try to control their excesses (scary, huh?)  etc. etc.  What happened to learning from them how to access the deeper experiences of living out loud?

An article by Frank Bruni in the Sunday Times (Aug 14, 2016) entitled  To Get to Harvard, Go to Haiti presented some thoughts about the experiences of Dylan Hernandez, 17, who attends a Catholic  high school in Flint, Michigan. Dylan notices,  I quote: “an awfully huge percentage of my friends, percentage of  skewing towards the affluent, are taking mission trips to Central America or Africa;  it rubs me the wrong way.”  Though he thinks his friends are well intentioned, they seem not to notice poverty (or reflect on it) unless it comes with an exotic trip.  Dylan has volunteered extensively at the Flint YMCA where he tutors.  He says that these Flint kids would love it if these same peers came around and merely talked to them.

Some of the more cynical college admissions people regard these excursions as a “bloated genre” in admissions essays, and believe that these essays are written by affluent kids of ambitious parents to pad resumes… “My concern” says one “is that students feel compelled to do these things – forced – rather than feeling that they are answering a call.”

I was elated to think that Frank Bruni was reporting on the lives of real teenagers and their situations in an article addressed to adults – hooray for him!  Hooray that editors did not segregate them into a teen magazine.   The article also acknowledged that some of these affluent teens sent off on a mission trip by arguably selfish motivations really were transformed in heart and mind.

That’s a category of adolescence  being open to transformation, which we adults may lose sight of at great peril to our souls!  Poets and prophets and novelists remind us! If only we don’t put their words on separate shelves not intended for adults.  Dang it all!

The teenage soul exercises the capacity to (as Mary Oliver says) “vanish at least a dozen times into something better.”  That is  genius offered to adults by youth if only we take notice.

If only we would “check out” of our regular, seemingly preordained duties and commitments, into the lap of imagination, we would offer ourselves to “call,” to transformation.  Of course some of are resistant to this because as adults we often prefer “the bird in the hand to the bird in the bush”  – a little wisdom proverb that is awfully true, if not very inspiring.

So here are some things to do to shift consciousness, seek transformation, open yourself to call:  Listen to children, to adolescents.  See if you can be bold enough to experiment  with your persona even re-consider your core identity – try on a child’s perspective.  Read Room in the voice of a 5 year old (don’t see the movie, it comes much more from the adult perspective.)   Read Salvage the Bones set in Mississippi just before Katrina.  You like movies?  See Beasts of the Southern Wild, where the protagonist is 6 or so.   See some Johnny Depp movies like Gilbert Grape or Edward Scissorhands, whose mother gets a new haircut every time Edward gets anxious.

I have a friend who took on the attitude of adolescence (Dianne had a head start since she taught high school and got to be up-close and incredibly impacted)  She opened herself to transformation as she faced retirement.  All those years she had done as expected, almost always a “good Lutheran girl” (though there were a few acting-out incidents but I am sworn to privacy.)   Dianne , married with 3 kids, she and her husband had been civic-minded, church going, high school teachers for decades.  True, Dianne had departed the strict teachings of Missouri Synod Lutheranism for a Congregational Church. Dianne was highly successful, had a good pension, and a community and family more than ready to see her slip into a retirement of Sunday school administration and family ministrations.

Something happened otherwise.  She had an unexpected encounter with a transforming voice; she says it was a “god-thing.”   Dianne checked out of the pre-ordained retirement expected of a truly nice, but maybe way too imaginative, rural town woman.  She checked into her own soul.  She checked in with her childhood aspirations.  She checked out of parental expectations and she checked into the poetry and music of the spheres.  She checked out of social expectations and she checked into her deepest, dearest beloved self.  She dared to share her shy sense of call to a world not prepared to affirm.  She said it over and over.  She said it loud and proud.  She was not much encouraged.

What she wanted was not practical.  It would cost time and money.  Distance herself from aging parents and husband.  She was too old.  A new career would take her out of a good settled life.  She would be disturbing the natural order.  Yep!  It’s all true and she did it!  And disruptive she has been, as disruptive as an adolescent on some sort of inspired quest.

Someday soon Dianne will be ordained as a UCC minister.  She already pastors 2 small churches and has instituted a terrific alternative religious education program for adults that includes several seminary professors.  I guess you could say she’s doings things backwards- She is acting as a minister first, getting ordained later.  I guess you could say she took on the mind of youth and entered the holy space of transformation.

Mostly I am talking about the individual journey here- but truly I hope we explore these from a perspective of a collective journey, as well.  Mainstream churches could use a big jolt of the juice of adolescence – experimentation, bold explorations, checking-out of tired concepts and forms.  Checking-in to soulful excursions that appear risky and may well be regarded as off the map…  As Koinonia re-shapes, revitalizes, reconfigures, expect surges of vitality along with any insecurities.  All of it is part of checking-out and checking-in.  Trust this time of transformation.  I trust you will vanish at least a dozen times into something better.  Better for what’s needed in this community of Grand Junction and beyond; better for the collectives of spiritual centers which are the fruits of Koinonia, better for the individuals who have not yet found Koinonia, better for those who are here now and long for soulful vitality.

This interim time, a time of disorientation, leads to a blessed re-orientation, fruitful and joyful.

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How’s Your Faith?

June 22, 2014

Mary Ellen Ireland — Guest Speaker

I pray that something I say will be useful to you.

 

How’s your faith?


 

“Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”

 

Faith is a verb in Latin and Hebrew and most likely Navajo. Faith is not a singular state that we either have or don’t have.  It is something we do.

 

Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. suggests:  Take the first step in faith.  You don’t have to see the whole staircase just take the first step.

 

Faith is what gets us out of bed.  It is the glimmer of possibility that is the beginning of faith.  Faith inspires us to envision a better life for ourselves.

 

Faith gets us on an airplane to an unknown land, opens us to the possibilities that our lives can be different.  Though we may repeatedly stumble, afraid to move forward in the dark we have the strength to take that magnitude of risk, because of faith.

 

Faith is not superficial or sentimental.  It doesn’t say everything will turn out all right, according to our wishes.  Life is not likely to deliver only pleasant events.  Faith entails the understanding that we don’t know how things will turn out.  Faith allows us to claim the possibility that a helping hand will reach out to us.  Have faith in our own innate goodness and capacity to love.

 

We can’t take faith for granted.  It takes some thought and effort.  I often see people in the hospital who haven’t been fostering their faith during the good times and finding a great need for something to believe in when they hit a rough patch.

 

Finding a spiritual community is a significant step on the journey of faith.  A trustworthy refuge enables us to go against the misleading premises of an unexamined world, to move beyond conditioned attitudes and responses, to eschew superficial or heartless answers to our deepest questions.  The voice of the community reminds us we aren’t traveling alone.

 

James Fowler in the Stages of Faith reminds us that the faith of our childhood does not last.  For our faith to mature, we have to weigh what others tell us against our own experiences of truth.  We honor ourselves by relying on our own experiences more than the experience of others…parents, teachers, pastors, priests and ancient spiritual texts.

 

A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a wide stream.  The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it.  The younger cows, less mature, stumble apprehensively on the shore, but eventually they go forward and cross the stream.  This leaves the calves, trembling with fear, some just learning how to stand.  But these vulnerable, tender calves also get to the other side.  They cross the stream just by following the lowing of their mothers.  The calves trust their mothers and, anticipating the safety of reunion, follow their voices and cross the stream.

 

We need to verify our faith through our own experience and practice examining to see if the teachings hold up in our own lives.  Having questions, being uncertain or maybe believing in some aspects of religious doctrine and not others, does not mean we have a lack of faith, as we may have been told as children.  It means we have not had the opportunity to verify our faith by examining our beliefs.  We can question our beliefs freely without fear of losing our faith.

 

Faith in contrast to fear reminds us of the every changing flow of life with all its movement and possibilities.  Faith allows us to relax into the vast space of not knowing.  How comfortable we are with uncertainty is a sign of a mature faith.

 

We may be going along in life when suddenly the bottom falls out from under us.  We receive a diagnosis of cancer, perhaps, or a loved one is injured or dies.  This is trauma–an intense, abrupt and complete alteration of our circumstances–and it can throw us into the depth of despair–the opposite of faith.

 

Despair is the sense of utter isolation and disconnection.  We are unable to access our faith.  We are consumed by hopelessness.  Yet our suffering can be a springboard to faith over time.

 

Consider a specific occasion when your faith was tested.  What did you learn about yourself, your relationship with god, and your relationships with others?

 

Is it necessary to go through despair on a spiritual path–a proverbial dark night of the soul–in order to deepen our faith?  I don’t know the answer to that.  I do know that as human being it is necessary to let go of many things, undergo loss and unhook from the world’s insistence that we cover up our pain in order for us to see what is really important in our lives.  With just a glimmer of a little bit of faith there can be sufficient energy to get help or keep getting help, to accept support, to begin or begin again walking the spiritual path.  You never know when a slight touch, a kind word, a friendly smile may give someone the inspiration to keep going.

 

At times when someone’s suffering seems to have no end, when it is too much to bear, we can lose faith in our ability to make any difference at all.  This is exactly at these times when faith is needed most.  How do we cultivate a faith that enables us to take positive action in the world against seemingly overwhelming odds?

 

Where can we place our faith that enables us to make a difference– especially when it seems no matter what we do–it’s not enough.  Even when we don’t know what to do to make things better for someone, we can have faith that we are not isolated individuals in a fragmented world.  We are all interconnected and our lives are intertwined.

 

We can place our faith in something that endures–A bone-deep, lived understanding of who we are and why we’re here.  It is our ultimate concerns, such as justice, sense of purpose, nature and the environment, loving our neighbor, remembering God… These are ultimate concerns.  What we rely on for when things get rocky or a sense of comfort on a bad day.  It is what we count on.

 

The connection between our faith and our health is getting to be pretty mainstream now.  Faith gives us the ability to make sense of illness and its meaning.  It can give us a sense of purpose and meaning in the midst of a crisis or calamity.  Along with having a supportive family and friends, having a community that acknowledges, respects and supports our beliefs is a proven indicator of health.  Faith can give us a reason to get our minds off ourselves and focus on others, putting our own concerns in perspective.  We can take responsibility for our health and happiness and use coping skills to reduce stress and monitor anxiety. Faith can give us a sense of feeling connected and cared for.  Our faith lets us acknowledge our mortality and accept the mystery of life.

 

Hopefulness is a sign of spiritual health.  Hope can remind us of light when we are in darkness but when, our hope is based only on getting what we want, in the precise way we want it, then we bind hope to fear rather than faith.  When hope and prayer become strategies to avoid facing what is, then we having nothing on which to base either effective action or real peace of mind.  Faith allows us to relax into that vast space of not knowing.  Hope is the power of letting go in the face of the unexpected changes of life.  We have a choice between acting out of fear masquerading as hope or acting with faith.

 

Of course as humans we hope and plan and arrange and try.  We can be fully engaged at the same time as realizing that we are not in control.  As long as we are alive, we will experience fear–no matter how deep our faith, when our life is threatened, or we think it is, we will feel afraid. We are not going to stop falling but we can find faith in the midst of the fall.

 

What I’ve described are determinants of a healthy, mature faith.  They are believing in something greater than ourselves; having a spiritual community that affirms our beliefs; believing that our faith influences our health; having traditions, symbols and rituals that support our beliefs, and having hopefulness. These are the things we can do to foster faith in our lives.  As Sharon Salsberg writes, Whoever we are, we can proclaim that we are no longer standing on the sidelines but are leaping directly into the center of our lives, our truth, our full potential.  No one can take that leap for us; and no one has to.  This is our journey of faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Work, the 4-letter Word

April 27, 2014

Susan Deininger – Guest Speaker

Paul and I had a Chemical Engineering professor named Dr. Holman. And at the beginning of every course he taught he would always say, “This is going to be an interesting semester.” At hearing this, most of the class would groan because we interpreted that phrase to mean, “This class is going to be difficult and hard work.” I now find myself wondering if Dr. Holman really did think the semester was going to be interesting and if any of my classmates were able to see all of those homework assignments and tests as interesting. Is it possible to see difficult tasks and hard work is interesting?

Do you view work as a necessary evil to be avoided like the Mark Twain quote? Or do you believe Confucius that if you choose a job you love; you’ll never have to work a day in your life? What if you have to do a task you don’t like?

I want to test you here. What emotions come to mind when I say, hard work, effort, obstacle, challenge, exertion, toil, labor, chore, or task? Do these words elicit excitement, interest, and I can’t wait to get started emotion? Or, do they elicit negative emotions in you like they do me? Would you like to be able to change that?

I have often found myself wondering why I feel so negative about concepts involving work and effort. I have also pondered what I could accomplish and how much happier I could be if I could see the effort of overcoming an obstacle as an exciting and interesting challenge to be learned from, rather than with more negative emotions. Why I’d probably even procrastinate less!

I find my negative emotions about work go back to an early age. When I was little I found picking up my toys, cleaning my room, and organizing to be things I didn’t want to do. My mother found fear and negative consequences to be great motivators to get my brothers and me to do our chores. Sometimes she would set the timer with enough time to accomplish the assigned chore and tell me that if I didn’t complete it to her satisfaction by the time the timer rang I would be spanked. Then I did get spanked if I had not completed the chore by the time the timer rang. So most of the time, I got busy and completed my chores whenever Mom threatened. Other times I couldn’t leave to do what I wanted to do until my room was cleaned up. But I still procrastinated anyway. I realize now that I did this because I saw it is a battle of wills and as being manipulated by my mother from her position of power and my position of weakness. It was the only way I knew how to rebel.

There is also this culture in our education system where every child by the time they hit middle school needs to say that they hate school and school work in order to fit in. Moaning and complaining about work becomes a way to fit in and a habit.

Carol Dweck says fear of effort comes from a belief system she calls the fixed mindset. In my new favorite self-help book, Mindset, she explains that we can look at the world from two different mindsets, the fixed mindset or the growth mindset. These mindsets are the lenses we used to view and interpret the world. From my experience I’d say that our culture and most people in it are dominated by the fixed mindset in many areas of their thinking.

The fixed mindset comes from the belief that IQ, talents, beliefs, personality, and character are fixed traits that we can’t do much to change. It’s an either – or type of thinking. You’re either smart or your dumb. You’re either talented or you’re not. You’re competent or incompetent. You’re either a winner or a loser. There is no middle ground. Once dumb, always dumb. And God knows, none of us wants to be seen as dumb, not talented, incompetent, or as a loser.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about how our society values natural, effortless accomplishment over achievement through effort. Our heroes have superhuman abilities that lead them towards their greatness. Christians usually see Jesus is this way as a kind of superhero, born with superhuman wisdom, knowledge, and abilities because he is, after all, the son of God. He’s truly Jesus Christ Superstar complete with a magic golden halo. And as a result of this thinking, Christians then don’t really believe they have a chance of becoming like Jesus, because he’s not really human.

From the fixed mindset perspective, if you are already a great genius and were born that way you don’t need to work at. Just needing to work at it then casts a shadow on your ability. From this perspective, effort is only for people with deficiencies and those losers that don’t have talent. The idea of trying and still failing is the worst fear of the fixed mindset. It leaves you without excuses if you do fail. People who have a fixed mindset are always trying to prove themselves because they desperately want to be worthy. From this viewpoint, failure means that you are a failure – that you lack competence and potential. And that hurts! This is the real reason we avoid risk.

In contrast to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset sees failure as an opportunity to learn something like Thomas Edison suggests. A growth mindset understands work and effort are necessary to improve intelligence, talent, and any skill we want to attain. Scientific studies now debunk the old, long-held belief that a person’s IQ stay’s the same throughout life. A person can grow their IQ by indulging their curiosity to figure things out and continue learning throughout life. Duh, we grow smarter through learning.

To me the wonderful thing about using this mindset model to evaluate my thoughts and actions, as well as those of others, is that it’s easy to use. I am working at changing my beliefs from seeing things as fixed and seeing work as something to be avoided. I am working on developing a growth mindset in all things. Having a growth mindset will give me the ability to embrace challenges, develop persistence in the face of failures and setbacks, learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration in the success of others (rather than needing to put them down to build myself up), and to see work and effort as the path to learning, growing, and getting better at things.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Blessings on the person who has labored and found life.” Even in Ecclesiastics that is written by an existentialist, writing mainly about the meaninglessness of life, the author comes to the conclusion that we should enjoy our work and see it as a gift from God. This is in contrast to the Augustine view that hard work in life originated as a punishment for disobedience to God when Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. He felt that all of mankind had to pay the price for this original sin with hard work – which by the way stems from a the fixed mindset view of the world. My understanding is that the Jews actually interpret this story in Genesis from a growth mindset point of view which is very different from the Augustine one I learned.

I want to share a brief story of our son, Keith, with you to illustrate what it looks like to shift your viewpoint of work from negative to positive. Keith was one of those kids who didn’t want to grow up, to work hard, or take on responsibility. He was always the smallest kid in his class in spite of us holding him back a year, before starting school. He had problems learning to read and was diagnosed with a learning disability, some type of dyslexia in the first grade. He qualified for Special Ed. and was either pulled out of the classroom to be given extra help or given that extra help in the classroom because of his disability until he started high school. He thought he was dumb. It also didn’t help that we lived in Los Alamos where a third of the kids qualify for the gifted program and most of them are science and math nerds.

Keith always had a great imagination and spent his time dreaming up and designing new video games and worlds on paper when he wasn’t playing Nintendo, Dungeons & Dragons, Magic, or one of those games with little painted figures with complex rules. He was able to read and assimilate the rules of each of the figurines in the game that filled these half-inch thick rule books. I knew he wasn’t dumb and was capable of learning complex things. But he still struggled with his schoolwork and reading for school because it was hard and boring. As a young adult in college he partied too much, started smoking, drank, struggled to find employment, and struggled with depression. He was mad at his parents for ruining his life and we were naturally upset with him as well. As a result of all these hard feelings, there was a period of four years when he refused to communicate with us.

Today at age 32, I think that he’d agree that hard work along with finding his passion has given him a real life, a life free from depression with a lot of satisfaction. He has become a writer and he works hard at it. He spends several hours writing every day and feels deprived when he can’t write for a few days because of other activities. He has found that job that Confucius talks about, a job that he loves and doesn’t feel like work.

His first novel was published last summer and he has made a few thousand dollars from its sale. Another novel of his will be published in just a couple of months. Keith currently holds a job to earn a living working in a bookstore, but has the goal of making a living entirely from his writing in the next few years. He knows he can do it if he just keeps working at it. He can already see his progress. His latest book is better than the one before it and he gets excited seeing his own growth.

When it comes to writing, Keith has a growth mindset. He has read biographies and autobiographies about writers and he knows the stories about new writers coming out of nowhere with a successful first book are just that – stories! The true stories are that they had been writing for years in obscurity and have written at least several books that haven’t been published and probably never will be, because they are their early work and just aren’t as good. This early work sitting on a file in the computer, in journals, and on bits of paper are evidence of their learning and growing process, and the hard work of learning the craft of writing. Keith knows you have to put in the time and lots of effort to become a good writer. He is offended by the thought that somebody is a natural born writer because he knows, it’s not true! He is proud of how hard he’s worked and so are we.

Jesus said don’t stop seeking, struggling, working, and learning until one finds. He then says that when we figure it out we will find it troubling and then we will marvel at our new perspective, which gives us a deeper understanding of life. At least that’s how I find a switch from a fixed perspective to a growth perspective for me. It totally changes how I approach life! I believe a shift to the growth mindset is a step towards enlightenment. When our view shifts, we change. This change isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a process. Growth is an ongoing process! We learn more, grow more, and get better and better.

I’m glad I won’t go to my grave with the fixed mindset that my mother has. My mother sees aging as being a process of giving up more and more things and abilities until you finally give up life. I find that point of view depressing. Instead, my plan is that as long as I keep my mind, I am going to keep learning and growing until I take my last breath and then who knows? I’m beginning to believe what Jesus says in John, it is possible to do even greater things than he did. So in conclusion I would like to challenge all of us to see work or effort as a means to learn, grow, and achieve a higher and more fulfilling level of living.

Readings:

Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.
Mark Twain

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.
Thomas Edison

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise to all whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil – this is the gift of God.
Ecclesiastics 5:18-19

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.
Confucius

Jesus said, “Blessings on the person who has labored and has found life.”
Gospel of Thomas 58

Jesus said, “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all.
Gospel of Thomas 2

Gathering Words:

The Power of And
By Susan Deininger

One: Belief in Or makes winners and losers.
All: Belief in And builds teams.
One: Belief in Or closes minds.
All: Belief in And grows minds.
One: Belief in Or stops discussions.
All: Belief in And encourages discussions.
One: Belief in Or shuts people out.
All: Belief in And invites people in.
One: Belief in Or divides and limits.
All: Belief in And unites and expands.
One: Belief in Either-Or separates,
While thinking And unifies.
All: Let us gather our wisdom into one giant force
With the power of And, with respect for all.

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Faith and Reason

March 30, 2014

Craig Little – Guest Speaker

I’ve been reading two books off and on lately. One is The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. The central tenet of the book can be summarized by a few sentences from the Afterword where he says “For anyone with eyes to see, there can be no doubt that religious faith remains a perpetual source of human conflict. Religion persuades otherwise intelligent men and women to not think, or to think badly, about questions of civilizational importance.”

A review from Publisher’s Weekly says:

Harris calls for the end of religious faith in the modern world. Religious faith, according to Harris, requires its adherents to cling irrationally to mythic stories of ideal paradisiacal worlds (heaven and hell) that provide alternatives to their own everyday worlds. Historic and modern-day of violence, he argues, can be attributed to a religious faith that clings uncritically to one set of dogmas or another. Very simply, religion is a form of terrorism for Harris. Predictably, he argues that a rational and scientific view—one that relies on the power of empirical evidence to support knowledge and understanding—should replace religious faith. We no longer need gods to make laws for us when we can sensibly make them for ourselves. “

It struck me, at first, as a pretty negative book. One that speaks against a lot of things. But it has its bright spots for me, too.

Harris is critical of Christianity for reasons such as the Inquisition, the Crusades and the insertion of Biblical certainty into modern-day politics and policy. Although the book was published in 2004, he would have lots of other examples from current events. He could cite the comments of Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia who was quoted as telling a told a church group in 2012 that evolution and the Big Bang were “lies straight from the pit of hell,” that “the Earth is but about 9,000 years old”. Or the late Fred Phelps, whose Topeka church picketed veteran’s funerals to protest homosexuality in America. I could go on, but we’d all get depressed.

And Harris spends a chapter on Islam and its religious dogma of jihad, with its suicide bombers, and sectarian violence. I won’t go in to detail here.

Suffice it to say that, Harris is sort of against faith of any kind. That is FAITH, in capital letters. Religious faith.

And what he says rings true to many of us, I would guess. The fast-growing number of spiritual, but not religious, people in our culture, show that many no longer relate so well to the stories people used in the past to explain our existence. This includes many of our children.

But, Harris has no problem with what I call faith in small letters. The sort of faith in the statement, “have faith in yourself.” Or the sort of thing that I mean when I say “Things always work out for me.”

And he isn’t against reason. In fact, he’s highly in favor of it. He says “While there is surely an opposition between reason and faith, we ….there is none between reason and love, or reason and spirituality.” In the epilogue has says “Nothing is more sacred than facts. No one, therefore, should win any points in our discourse for deluding himself. The litmus test for reasonableness should be obvious: anyone who wants to know how the world is, whether in physical or spiritual terms, will be open to new evidence.”

I found a fascinating blog called Faith Beyond Belief. One blogger pointed out that
“It seems a basic trait of human nature to want to connect with something outside the self. For some of us, immersion in family, community, profession, and hobbies takes us sufficiently outside ourselves to satisfy that need. But others sense the presence of something else – something beyond the material reality that beckons them even farther outside themselves. They sense a numinous connection to others, to nature, to whatever might be our ultimate reality. And they seek a way to express this yearning, a way to practice it and even enhance it.

And this is how our religions got started – not just Christianity, but all the religions the world has ever known. The problem is that each culture tried to express this yearning in terms that made sense for its own people, and that may not immediately make much sense to people outside that culture. In the worst cases, the forms of expression these cultures chose had to be simplified – reduced to something readily understandable to children and sharable with those who did not feel the mystical connection that inspired the religion in the first place. So…the vast, incomprehensible yearnings of highly spiritual people have been reduced to simple stories with magic figures that were supposed to be symbols of the divine.”
And with the reading from Harris this morning, he more or less points out that religion, or spirituality, if not misguided, could create extraordinary experiences.

And I would say that many of us would agree with that sort of thing in our experiences here at Koinonia or elsewhere.

And now for the other book I’ve been reading. This one’s about science.

It’s called the Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power Consciousness, Matter and Miracles by Bruce Lipton. Lipton is a developmental biologist and cell biology researcher who has taught at U Wisconsin and Stanford medical schools among others. While teaching at a medical school in the Caribbean, he came to question the Central Dogma of biology; the premise that genes control life. In his view the major flaw of that thinking is that genes can’t turn themselves on and off. Something in the environment had to trigger the gene’s action.

He says that the world if full of people who fear that their genes will turn on them and they wait for cancer to explode in their lives as it happened in the life of their parents or siblings. Based on that, millions of people attribute their failing health to inadequacies of their body’s biochemical mechanisms, rather than a combination of mental, physical, emotional and spiritual causes.

His research and experiments by others that followed have validated his skepticism that DNA was prime in controlling life. These and other experiments lead to creation of the field of epigenetics, the study of molecular mechanisms by which the environment controls gene activity.

Epigenetics research has shown how the environment in which a cell resides influences the behavior of cells without changing the genetic code within it. This happens because the cell membrane, sort of the skin of the cell, is what Lipton considers to be the brain of each one of our 50 trillion or so cells. Even though the membrane is only 3 10-millionths of an inch thick it has a set of what we might call gates and channels or turnstiles that allow what is known as integral membrane proteins to pass through or not depending on the environment. Insert a toxin into a cell’s environment and it will shrink away and try to avoid it. Insert a nutrient and the cell will approach it. It’s a lot more complicated than I describe it.

Couple these processes with what is continuing to be learned about quantum physics and things get really interesting inside our bodies. I’m kind of a fan of quantum physics, which is the study of the behavior of matter and energy at the molecular, atomic, nuclear, and even smaller microscopic levels. (I don’t understand it, but I’m a fan of it.). The science of quantum physics or quantum mechanics was created in the early 20th century, when it was discovered that the laws that govern macroscopic objects do not function the same in such small realms. In the realm of quantum physics, observing something actually influences the physical processes taking place. Light waves act like particles and particles act like waves. Matter can go from one spot to another without moving through the intervening space (called quantum tunnelling). Information moves instantly across vast distances. In fact, in quantum mechanics we discover that the entire universe is actually a series of probabilities and not of certainties.

Some of the inventions that have come from quantum physics are well known to us: transistors, lasers, atomic clocks. We haven’t quite mastered teleportation and beaming each other around yet, but doctors have learned how to break up kidney stones using wave therapy known as constructive interference mechanics.

It’s clear that living organisms, whether single cells or larger plants or animals, must receive and interpret environmental signals to stay alive. Especially in acute situations, survival of an organism is directly related to the speed and efficiency of signal transfer. The speed of electromagnetic energy signals is 30 billion cm per second, while the speed of a chemical diffusing inside a cell is maybe 1 cm per second. Given what we’ve learned about quantum physics and what is continuing to be learned and how our bodies can react to certain stimuli, it seems likely that quantum processes are at work within us.

Lipton isn’t the only one who suggests that cell and various cellular processes have quantum physical aspects. Other researches are studying topics such as photosynthesis, the process of vision, the sense of smell, or the magnetic orientation of migrant birds.

Lipton tells a story about a young British physician in 1952 who made a mistake. It was a mistake that was to bring short-lived scientific glory to Dr. Albert Mason. Mason tried to treat a fifteen-year-old boy’s warts using hypnosis. Mason and other doctors had successfully used hypnosis to get rid of warts, but this was an especially tough case. The boy’s leathery skin looked more like an elephant’s hide than a human’s, except for his chest, which had normal skin.

Mason’s first hypnosis session focused on one arm. When the boy was in a hypnotic trance, Mason told him that the skin on that arm would heal and turn into healthy, pink skin. When the boy came back a week later, Mason was gratified to see that the arm looked healthy. But when Mason brought the boy to the referring surgeon, who had unsuccessfully tried to help the boy with skin grafts, he learned that he had made a medical error. The surgeon’s eyes were wide with astonishment when he saw the boy’s arm. It was then that he told Mason that the boy was suffering, not from warts, but from a lethal genetic disease called congenital ichthyosis. By reversing the symptoms using “only” the power of the mind, Mason and the boy had accomplished what had until that time been considered impossible. Mason continued the hypnosis sessions, with the stunning result that most of the boy’s skin came to look like the healthy, pink arm after the fist hypnosis session. The boy, who had been mercilessly teased in school because of his grotesque-lookng skin, went on to lead a normal life.

Mason was never able to replicate his success with the boy with other icthyosis patients. He explained decades later that his own beliefs that it would work on warts didn’t carry over to a lethal congenital disease.

Lipton asks “how is it possible that the mind can override genetic programming, as it did in this case?” And how could the doctor’s belief about that treatment affect its outcome? Lipton makes the suggestion that the energy of the mind and the matter of the body are bound just as suggested by quantum physics to suggest that our beliefs and our perceptions can affect our cells and even our bodies.

He gives the example of the placebo effect, which is only slightly taught in medical school. In a study published in the 2002 New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Bruce Moseley from Baylor School of Medicine knew that knee surgery helped his patients, but he wanted to know what specific treatment was giving his patients relief. He divided a group of patients into three groups. One one group he shaved the damaged cartilage, on another he flushed out the knee joint to remove material thought to be causing inflammation. The third group got fake surgery in which he made the standard incisions and then pretended that he was conducting real surgery, including splashing saline to simulate the knee washing procedure. He treated all three groups the same after surgery.

He found that, as expected, the groups who received surgery got better. But the placebo group improved just a much as the other two groups. Placebo patients weren’t told for 2 years about the experiment and they continued to show improvement. One man who used a cane prior to his “surgery” played basketball with his grandkids afterwards.

But placebos have another side: nocebos. On a Discovery Channel program in 2003, Dr, Clifton Meador, a Nashville physician, described the power of the nocebo on a patient in 1974. He had diagnosed the man with esophageal cancer, considered at the time to be 100% fatal. The man was treated for the cancer, but Meador and his team knew it would recur. He died a few weeks after the diagnosis. To everyone’s surprise, an autopsy showed a couple of spots on his liver and one in the lung, but none in the esophagus. Certainly not enough cancer to have proved fatal. Meador says that he’s afraid that he removed all the patient’s hope and that led to his early death.

Biology and Belief was written from the viewpoint that the mind is far more powerful for controlling our cellular and bodily responses than most of western medicine would give it credit for. Lipton says that “learning how to harness your mind to promote growth is the secret of life…but it’s not a secret at all. Teachers like Jesus and Buddha have been telling the same story for millennia.”

So, how does Lipton’s book relate to Harris’s? Harris suggested that we should use reason and rely on data, which he called sacred. And Harris admits that we can’t live by reason alone. That when the terrors of the world intrude on our lives: death, illness, grief. But he says that “science will not remain mute on spiritual and ethical questions for long…we can see the first stirrings among psychologists and neuroscientists of what may one day become a genuinely rational approach to these matters.”

Lipton’s insights into beliefs are rooted in data from observations of cloned endothelial cells. He noted that those cells, which he grew in a culture, monitored their world closely and would change their behavior based on information they got from their environment. When he provided nutrients, they gravitated to the nutrients. When he created a toxic environment, they would retreat in an effort to protect themselves. When both growth and toxic materials were introduced they would protect themselves before trying to grow. All very similar to multicellular organisms, like humans.

Lipton describes himself as a spiritual scientist. He says that from his “newly acquired spirituality” his cellular insights serve to emphasize the wisdom of spiritual teachers throughout the ages. In other words, as suggested by Harris he used data and followed it to its conculsions.

At one time it was necessary for scientists to split from what they might have seen as the truth because of the power structure that was the church. Copernicus started changing that when he observed that the earth was not the center of the universe, which was published as he lay dying, so great was his fear of the Inquisition. Nearly 60 years later, a Dominican monk dared to speak out in favor of the Copernican view. He was burned at he stake for his heresy.

We know dogma still exists, but we don’t burn people at the stake anymore. It certainly exists in other cultures. And remember the quotes I shared earlier from various politicians. Clergy can be excommunicated or charged with heresy today, too, for various transgressions.

But dogma and heresy occur in science too. Lipton talks about a draft of his paper to describe how a single-cell’s mind could override it’s body. He wanted to spell out the implications, but his colleagues wouldn’t hear of what they saw as a new age idea independent of the DNA-driven cells. He would also point out that western medicine has is dogma that discounts concepts such as belief, placebo, and nocebo on disease and healing.

I find myself to be a what I might also describe as a spiritual scientist and as a cultural Christian, if not what some might define as a “true” Christian. I think it’s important to continue to look for answers and understandings that lead us away from dogma. That lead us to new understandings, new awareness, and new relationships.

As in the reading this morning from Jesus and Man’s Hope. “Here is a message that has to do with man’s potential perfection…. I would not let this array of values suffer because one element–in view of the present environment–has to be interpreted allegorically or be divested of its pristine meaning and given a different meaning. I agree that the world too badly needs Christianity at it’s best.

And for the to happen all of us, need to be at our best.

Readings:

At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one’s experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses or attention – we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream –most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.
- Sam Harris in The End of Faith

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
- Albert Einstein

I think, if I understand right, the issue about the resurrection …. stems from the fact that what was once readily credible is in our environment not credible…. If I were a Christian, I think I would not be dismayed by the idea of resurrection. I think I would [find simple prose] that would say: Here is a message that has to do with man’s potential perfection…. I would not let this array of values suffer because one element–in view of the present environment–has to be interpreted allegorically or be divested of its pristine meaning and given a different meaning. The world too badly needs Christianity at its best
- D. G. Miller and D. Y. Hadidian, editors, Jesus and Man’s Hope, 1971, p. 324].

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