Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Spiritual Journey Resumed

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

 I want to make it clear from the outset that the ideas expressed in what follows are my own. Sure, some of them might resonate of past writers, for I cannot claim that any of my ideas are original; to do so would be patently absurd. After all, I am seventy-seven years old, I have read much during the past decades, and I have no photographic memory which might enable me to cite sources for every sentence. I have read theological and mystical works from the Hebrew, Greek and Chinese traditions, much of which has certainly affected my thought. Nonetheless, I feel impelled to indite here what I now consider my own perceptions and insights, regardless of how hand-me-down they might seem.
¶Incidentally, I will be committing a modern sin by reverting to the old practice of using masculine pronouns even when I am referring to all persons, regardless of gender. When I began writing this essay I used the forms “(s)he” and “him/her”, but it looked so sloppy and distracting that I changed them. My apologies if the changes offend any readers.

I. Religion and Spirituality
¶I doubt that many educated readers will fail to recognize the differences between religion and spirituality without my having to underline them. Still, for the sake of clarity I will here note the most salient contrasts.
¶Essentially, religion involves an established system of beliefs accompanied by a corpus of sacred writings dictating theological and moral dogma. It, naturally then, requires a community of adherents — people who consider it worthwhile, at least for the sake of companionship or fellow-feeling — to accept the dogma and rituals which have accrued around their religion.
¶Spirituality is more individualistic, although the spiritual seeker will not necessarily reject communion with another after “enlightenment”. Still, he most likely will be conscious of the differing tangential and ephemeral qualities of such contacts; for, like fingerprints and snowflakes, each person’s spiritual journey is unique and cannot be matched, either favorably or unfavorably, with another’s. Also, while the seeker might use the spiritual writings (particularly, biographies) of esteemed theologians, both ancient and modern, as guides, succorers, and encouragers of his own sojourn, he must still face a long, dim and paradoxical path with no assurance of a positive and final conclusion. For him there is no dogma or ritual, although he probably will cling to some of the moral teachings learned in earlier years under the tutelage of some religious teachers, notably the very general “Golden Rule”.
¶I am not going any further with profiling religionists, or in any great depth with the spiritual seekers. However, the bulk of this essay will be about the seekers’ paths in general. Essentially, it will be based upon my own search for teleological meaning.

II. The Idea of God
¶If we hold onto the concepts of “meaning” and “purpose” in life, we usually start our search with the idea of a personal god: I did. Despite multiple mystical experiences, however, I found it difficult to reconcile what I learned from those events and reading with a personal god as generally conceived (a sort of abstract Santa Claus). What was truly odd about my searching, though, was that I felt more inclined to give up the noun than the verb: my charisms led me to accept the personal relating while eschewing the personhood of my deity. Most Christians are theologically educated enough to be aware that their god is depicted as having three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Over the lengthy period of my spiritual growth I came to the realization that the “Father” was too abstract for me to recognize; the “Son” (Jesus) was too human in his ambivalence and longing for definition from others; but the Holy Spirit, although invisible and silent, was frequently present to me.
¶Some might insist that the Holy Spirit is always present; I cannot dispute that, nor do I even want to, but I can claim only that what I call the Holy Spirit has made its presence known to me at certain times through charismatic events. Something was tugging at me, nudging me forward, and rewarding me from time to time with provocative insights or charisms. Every time I tried to attach such experiences onto a “higher power” of any shape or form the whole effort fell from my mind and shattered; there were too many unfathomable paradoxes with which to contend. I decided to let the personal god go, let Him do his own thing and I would do mine. If our enterprises met and joined occasionally, then so be it; I wasn’t going to fight against such junctures, but neither was I going to push for them; for there are times when the Holy Spirit, when he is concerned about my situation, seems to have a different goal in mind than I do, and there are times when I doubt that he is even interested.
¶I do not deny that I am exceedingly curious about what I perceive as an inchoate aether with weight to it of some sort and seemingly some secretive intelligence within it. Such had to be there for any sort of “nudging” to occur. Now some exertion is required to keep myself from trying to impose a humanlike form onto the aether. Yes, there is something “out there” or “within me” that yearns for and pushes for meaning. No point in denying it.

III. Answering the Atheists
¶Several prominent cosmologists and other scientists have postulated that, since everything about us and about Nature can be explained without the god premise, there is no need for a First Cause: god. The Idea of God is irrelevant, they claim. I am perfectly willing to accept their postulate — for them — but I do not see why it should affect me any more than the declarations of the preachers in their descriptions of God should affect me. If they do not experience the supra-natural, then that is a “truth” for the scientists.
¶Actually, there still remain some important aspects of Nature which baffle the scientists, the most significant being “Dark Matter”, an invisible substance that occupies all the space between the objects we can see. British logician Bertrand Russell took umbrage at his favorite student, the German logician Ludwig Wittgenstein, when the latter claimed that his studies had led him to conclude that there is a point at which symbolic logic cannot answer our questions, a mystical point.
¶For their part, the preachers never tackle the subject of Jesus’s injunction to put out your eye if it sins, or his advocating love of enemies on one occasion and enjoining his disciples to carry swords on another day. Nor do they satisfactorily answer the question of why the “Trinity” does not constitute polytheism and why statues of Jesus and Mary are not idols. The story of Jesus was written by several different people and then complicated by a multitude of annotators during the following centuries. It’s a muddy amalgam from which many of us have chosen to “cherry-pick” what we will believe. Whether we use those sources or not, we still have to evolve or design our own religion or our own spirituality.
¶Really, I prefer to leave God out of any discussion of scientific research or how we treat each other. Yet I try to understand the relationship between me and the Presence (a term I prefer to “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost”). I think I have researched the Presence too much, intellectualized Him nearly into oblivion. The Presence, I believe, prefers feeling over thinking. He seems removed from me now, and I yearn for his return; I don’t need to understand Him; I need to feel Him. If only I can restrain myself from trying to understand our relationship and how He performed the little miracles I have experienced . That’s hard.

Finis

Expectations of the Church and Disciples

©1999, 2016 By Bob Litton.

NOTE TO READERS: A couple of days ago I published another episode relating my spiritual journey. It is a mostly recondite, mystical piece that probably only a few people would be interested in.
¶But today, before getting off the theology train altogether, I want to publish the drafts for a couple of pamphlets which I wrote back in 1999 for my home church, at the time, back in Dallas. They were never published as pamphlets because the minister considered them too controversial. Perhaps some church elsewhere on the planet might view them in a more sympathetic light and make use of them. I should warn you beforehand that they are wordy: the first (What Disciples Expect of the Church) contains 1,761 words and the second (What the Church Expects of Disciples), 1,324 words.
¶One further bit of information: Recently, an acquaintance who is currently quite active in the United Methodist Church (not the same one I attended) looked over these pamphlets and pointed out to me that the UMC’s bishops have added a fifth item to their list of expectations: Witness. I think that was a good move on their part; however, I did not add it to my presentation here for two reasons: (1) I don’t believe witness was in the group when I composed the pamphlet and I want to publish these pamphlet models as originally intended; which leads me to (2), adding witness would destroy the symmetrical balance of my design (four expectations for each pamphlet). I know that sounds self-centered and childish of me, but there you have it, the dark side of Bob Litton. I should add that these pamphlet models have not been sanctioned or approved by the United Methodist Church or by any other denomination. I am solely responsible for them.
¶As noted next to my by-line, I have copyrighted these compositions. However, I don’t expect to make any money out of them. I want anybody who can make positive use of them—even in an edited form—to go ahead and do so. I just don’t want anyone to claim he or she was the original author. Also, even if readers can’t find a practical use for them, the writings might provide material for interesting conversations. I hope so.

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What do disciples expect from the Church?

¶When a person walks through a church door into a sanctuary full of strangers, what is he or she looking for?  What should they be looking for?  What in fact will they find?  This pamphlet is an attempt to answer those questions as honestly as possible.
¶Four primary elements motivate our search for a church home: Spirituality, Community, Relevance and Mission.  The only significance in that order is in the way these elements correlate, however roughly, with the four contributions the church expects of its disciples: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, and Service; all of which are discussed in a companion pamphlet to this one.  Otherwise, there is no hierarchy in their importance.
Spirituality — Of the four, spirituality is the most difficult to discuss because, even as the Holy Spirit lures us with a yearning to be nearer the holy ground, it thwarts knowledge—even clear perception—of the “holy ground’s” elementary features.  Jesus acknowledged the evanescence of the Holy Spirit:  “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:7, 8)
¶The Holy Spirit can be “described” only obliquely through analogies such as the manna gathered by the Israelites in the wilderness.  The manna was given freely, it appeared overnight when no one could see it, there was enough for everyone, it was sufficient nourishment in and of itself, and it could not be preserved.  Is there anything in that description that is not true also of spirituality?
So how can a church develop and nurture an atmosphere conducive to spirituality?
¶A cross, a chancel rail, and stained glass windows help to a degree in at least keeping us attentive to the reason we walked into the sanctuary.  By themselves, however, they are insufficient to establish a truly spiritual atmosphere.  What is really needed is a yearning in the breast, both individually and as a congregation, to relate to, and depend on, God during a time of communal tribulation or celebration.  That doesn’t happen every Sunday, but it does happen.
¶Traditionally, spirituality in the church has required separation—however temporary—from the world, even from our church community.  Christ, we are told, went alone into the wilderness for his most intense spiritual focusing.  Later, he separated himself even from his disciples and went upon a mountainside to pray.
¶Today, we have retreat centers where we can go for two or more days, either solo or in a small group, to recollect ourselves through extended prayer and meditation.  That means examining our consciences more intensely, asking for and accepting God’s forgiveness, and rededicating ourselves to spiritual struggle.  Such centers are available throughout the U. S.  There is at least one very close at hand—Mt. Carmel Center in Oak Cliff.  Although operated by Carmelite monks, the retreat is open (for a fee) to all Christians.
¶And, of course, we can always have a prayer service here at our home church.  Unfortunately, the modern prevalence of burglaries and vandalism make it unwise for any chapel to be kept open 24 hours a day, but arrangements can be made to allow small groups to gather in the chapel or the sanctuary for a prayer service at any reasonable hour.
¶Frequent prayer, in fact, is the second factor that contributes to spirituality.  But the type of prayer that is most conducive to spirituality is not of the sort through which the pray-er talks a lot.  The most spiritual prayer is the “prayer of quiet”—the prayer that waits and allows the Holy Spirit to work upon the soul.  Such praying is difficult for the novice, for we discover then that our brain never rests; it must always be busy about something. To keep the mind from drifting onto the “stream of multiplicity” different cultures have devised simple, repetitive phrases such as,  “To you, Lord, I lift up my soul!” or “Lord God, come to my aid!”
¶Most disciples—if indeed they are true disciples—want an atmosphere congenial and conducive to prayer.  Yet most of us are uncomfortable with extended periods of quiet; our culture militates against it.  Even in the sanctuary, the ideal of fellowship usually over-rides the ideal of spiritual quiet.  Do we really want it that way?
Community —  In his book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Harold Kushner recalls asking his atheistic father why he went to the synagogue every week.  His father replied: “My friend Garfinkel goes to the synagogue to talk to God; I go to the synagogue to talk to Garfinkel.”  There is much insight in this comment.  Kushner’s father respects, maybe even reveres, his friend Garfinkel enough to go to a place toward which ordinarily he is at best indifferent.  And he goes there to enjoy the wholesome fellowship he covets and that Garfinkel exemplifies.  Moreover, he is not unaware of the irony inherent in the situation: Where Garfinkel is seeking a relationship with the divine; he himself is seeking a relationship with the earthly.
¶Indeed, many people start attending any particular church because a friend, or someone they admire, goes there.  They want both to spend more time in the vicinity of that person and to do the things he does because of a belief that everything that person does must be worthwhile.
¶Once involved, though, the novice may become disenchanted; for, although it is quite possible to find wholesomeness and good-naturedness and kindness in an individual person, expecting every church member to possess all those virtues is naive.  And therein lies the cost of belonging.  While a congregation in the large can be welcoming and nurturing, each member has flaws of character the same as other people have.  Just because we go to church seeking perfection doesn’t mean we’ve attained it; the quest is lifelong.  As someone has well put it, “A church is not a haven for saints; it’s a hospital for sick souls.”
¶The new disciple can find her community only if she reciprocates in the welcoming and nurturing.  Although, to those who have never tried them, welcoming and nurturing may at first seem burdensome, the disciple quickly finds that joy and gratitude are the true recompense for the effort expended.
Relevance — Several years ago, ABC’s Peter Jennings reported of the Yuppie generation’s cynical attitude toward the church:  “They complain that it’s boring, irrelevant, and money-grubbing,” he said.  The churches that were growing, Jennings reported, were the mega-churches which offered programs little different from what might be found in a shopping mall or a country club…with child care added.  And these new churches were offering worship as a multi-media event complete with semi-professional actors and musicians and colored lights.
¶And the message?  The message of the gospel?  It was “feel good”!  In a new rendering of the old 19th century “gospel of wealth”, the assurance of the Good Book was that, in God’s eye, you didn’t earn that Mercedes Benz.  God provided it for you because you deserved it.  But that was years ago.
¶The majority of newcomers to a church today are young marrieds with children.  They say they want their children to receive a good grounding in moral values and community involvement.  They might prefer that they could leave their children in a Sunday school class and go home to their TV football game, but a sense of fairness and decency will not allow them to do that.  So they go to a service and maybe even to a Sunday school.  Let’s begin with the Sunday school and surmise what they hope they will find there.
¶Of course! It’s relevance!  They might be surprised that it’s not a discussion of whether a man can survive being swallowed by a whale or how many wise men actually went to the manger, but instead a discussion of how Christian ideals can be practiced in a secular and mechanistic world on Monday, Tuesday, etc.  Or they might encounter a discussion of particular women of the Bible compared to particular women today. They might find that Christianity is not encased in a 19th century mold.
¶And in the church service, they might find newer songs, different instruments.  They might find a sermon filled more with insight and love than with fire and brimstone.  They might find a balance between the vertical God-human relationship and the horizontal human-human relationship. And above all they might find a renewed sense of values that they can take home with them and share with fellow workers during the week.
Mission  That brings us to the final expectation disciples hold of their church.  They want to go out into the broader secular world and make a positive difference. They come into the church to be spiritually filled and go into the world to empty themselves spiritually.  As the Twelve Step programs put it so succinctly: “The only way to keep it is to give it away.”
¶Our people have expressed over and over again their desire to act outside the local church community.  We have done many kindnesses one to another and contributed, at times sacrificially, for our “little church in the wild wood”. Routinely, we have contributed financially to the community beyond us.  And occasionally we have given of our time and energy to that broader community.  Yet somehow we feel as though we have “hung back” like a shy suitor.  It seems that, considering who we are and what we have, both materially and spiritually, we should be making a more significant impact on the world around us.
¶This impulse may be dangerous because it could be simply the symptom of hungry pride.  Perhaps our contribution may be larger than we imagine; perhaps it is so diffuse and anonymous that notice of it escapes even us.  But in fact, what we want to do is something large, physical and together.  What we want is a sense of focused mission and to encounter that mission as a total church community, not simply as individuals or small committees.
¶That is where leadership comes in.  A true leader is someone who can discern and define the aspirations of a people and then mold and direct those aspirations toward a goal that is realistic, attainable and worthwhile.
¶Our church is in a period of maturation right now, much in the same way that our country is struggling toward maturity.  Won’t you come and help us grow?

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What does the Church expect of its Disciples?

Prayers — The Discipline of the United Methodist Church specifies four things the church expects from its disciples: prayers, presence, gifts and service.  The purpose of this pamphlet is to relate to you what we mean by each of those support elements in this local church.  In another pamphlet we discuss what this church has to offer disciples.
¶Each Sunday at the end of the pastoral prayer, our minister and individuals in the audience add brief prayers for specific persons and groups.  Whoever initiates the mini-prayer introduces it as either “a prayer of concern” (intercessory) or “a prayer of gratitude” (thanksgiving).  After each of these mini­-prayers the pastor pauses a few moments to let the congregation add their own silent, individual prayers.  Then he says “Lord, in your mercy…”, and the congregation completes the sentence with “…hear our prayer.”  There are several varieties of prayer.  We haven’t space to discuss all of them here.  Three types of prayer—petition, intercession, thanksgiving—are the ones with which most of us are acquainted.  At our church, we find occasion for all of them.  However, the prayers most frequently used by us as a community are “intercession” and “thanksgiving”.
¶But praying doesn’t cease when we leave the sanctuary.  We try to adhere to St. Paul’s injunction: “Pray unceasingly.”   By that, we do not mean spending all our time on our knees.  No, we interpret “pray unceasingly” in three other ways:
¶Firstly, it means keeping our souls and minds receptive of the Holy Spirit’s nudging; as a result, we often find ourselves praying brief, spontaneous, even involuntary prayers (what Richard Foster has called “popcorn prayers”) at any time, any place. These happen when the Holy Spirit prays within us for us. Many of these prayers are for ourselves, of course, but also many are for the church community.
¶We don’t really need experiential proof of prayer’s efficacy to persuade us to pray.  What is necessary is a feeling of great and genuine spiritual need and a sense of our own inability to satisfy that need.  Even the hardest-shelled atheist, under certain conditions, will find himself praying, as is witnessed by the so-called “foxhole prayers” of our various wars.
¶Secondly, “unceasing prayer” means keeping one’s mind centered on spiritual things, constantly realizing that we are not of this world even though we are in this world.
¶Thirdly, it means making of our lives a prayer, in other words, a life well-­lived glorifies God and sends up “a fragrant sacrifice most pleasing to him.”
¶All we believers need for motivation is love and faith.  True, even for us God sometimes says “no”, or his idea of what we need doesn’t always jibe with ours.  In other words, he gives us what we need rather than what we want.  Jesus articulated that reality when he prayed at Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me … but nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.”
¶Prayer doesn’t come easily for most of us, but with continual practice it gets easier—just like any other worthwhile endeavor. The more we practice it, the more natural it becomes for us.  Prayer indeed is the least demanding responsibility  the church expects of its disciples.
Presence — Primarilypresence means regular attendance at corporate worship services and, especially, active  participation in those services.  Some Christians speak of  the local congregation as  “thecorporate church” and of the larger community as “the scattered church”.  This latter includes district and annual conferences away from the home church.  The former includes the annual charge conference and committee meetings at the local level as well as the regular, weekly worship service.  The church is governed through such meetings, and as many disciples as can should take part in that governing, Sometimes, also, we join other congregations for a special service.  For instance, each Thanksgiving, Cochran Chapel and the Church of  South India combine for worship.
Gifts — There’s a saying: “God provides food for the birds, but he doesn’t put it in their nests.” Yet it truly is amazing how many people think the church simply grows like a plant out of the ground. Yes, we take up an offering.  The offertory is an important part of each service.  It constitutes our return to God of a portion of the bounty with which he has blessed us.
¶It would be nice if everyone tithed. Not everybody is that well off, however.  All we expect is that each disciple give according to his or her capability.  No one here expects anyone else to give so much to the church that they jeopardize their own family’s well­-being, but it is better for the individual disciple’s spiritual and emotional health to “give until it hurts.”
How much is that?
¶Some people have so much and give so little that they don’t even realize they are giving. They should give until it grabs their attention.
Where does the money go?
¶Part of it pays for the utilities, supplies, upkeep and salaries at this local church (General Fund).  Another part, when so specified by the giver, is used to pay for construction of new facilities or for structural repairs and renovations on this campus (Building Fund).  And then there is what the Methodist Church calls “apportionments”, a kind of  denominational tax, based on membership head count, which we as a congregation contribute to the church’s mission elsewhere in this nation—and on this planet.
¶Each of these contribution targets is separate and requires an indication from the giver as to the fund for which the money is intended.  The giver can either use a different envelope for each contribution or write on a single envelope the fund—or funds—for which all or each part of it is intended.
¶Also, once a month when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, partakers are invited to leave at the altar rail a small gift for some special charity.  And about three months of the year our church is asked to be responsible for the lion’s share of food and toiletry items gathered for North Dallas Shared Ministries.
Service — Locally, we are always looking for volunteers to teach Sunday school at least one quarter of the year. The laity also help during the service as liturgists, ushers, choir members, and servers of Holy Communion.  We also have Saturday work days periodically when disciples—those who are willing and physically able—renovate rooms in one of the buildings or improve the Children’s Center playground.
¶From a certain vantage point, Gifts and Service are really indistinguishable. Above, we spoke of gifts as what we give to the church by way of financial support.  But there is also the way of giving through service, both at the local church level and in the mission field.  By  “mission field”  we mean community projects such as North Dallas Shared Ministries and Habitat For Humanity as well as foreign missions—in other words, the Kingdom of God beyond the borders of our tiny church.
¶In the wider community, some disciples help a few hours each week with North Dallas Shared Ministries or the Wesley-Rankin Center in West Dallas.  In the past, those of us who were young enough and apt enough have rehabilitated a house in disrepair.  A group of ladies in the congregation visit the ill who are hospitalized or home-bound each week.  Some classes have adopted a family for Christmas who otherwise would not have had any Christmas.  But, to be honest about it, some of us feel we have not done as much as we ought to improve the wider community—not on a concerted basis at any rate.  Recently, we have awakened to that remissness and are planning community service projects in home renovation and tutoring for the near future.
¶We hope you will be touched by the Holy Spirit and join us in these endeavors.  If you would like to have more information on how you can participate, contact the church office.
—May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.

Missing the Presence

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶A [person] should shine with the divine Presence without having to work at it. He should get the essence out of things and let the things themselves alone. That requires at first attentiveness and exact impressions, as with the student and his art. One must be permeated with divine Presence, informed with the form of beloved God who is within him, so that he may radiate that Presence without working at it….
¶The effect or expression of love often appears like a bright light, as spirituality, devotion, or jubilation and yet, as such, it is by no means best! These things are not always due to love. Sometimes they come of having tasted nature’s sweets. They also can be due to heavenly inspiration or to the senses, and people at their best are not the ones who experience them most. For if such things are really due to God, He gives them to such people to bait and allure them on and also to keep them away from [worse] company. But when such people increase in love, such [ecstatic] experiences will come less facilely, and the love that is in them will be proved by the constancy of their fidelity to God, without such enticements.
—Meister Eckhart, The Talks of Instruction, §§7, 10
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¶The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we are the [children] of God. This testimony which grace affords to our conscience is the true joy of the soul….And when the soul is in this state of peace, it is also refined in thought….
¶This manna is heavenly food and the bread of angels, as Holy Scripture says. For angels are fed and filled by the clear sight and burning love of God; and that is manna. For we may ask what it is, but we cannot fully understand. One who loves God is not filled with manna here, but while he remains in the body he receives a small taste of it.”
— Walter Hilton (b. 1340-45, d. 1396), The Ladder of Perfection, Bk. II, Chap. 40

¶Anyone who has regularly read my posts since I began it in January 2013 can probably recall that a few of the writings concerned spiritual events and reflections as I experienced them. Off and on in my youth I pondered the option of becoming a Methodist minister and briefly — when I was virtually inebriated with mysticism — even a monk. The late Clark Calvert, who was my pastor and mentor for a few years when I had announced that I was going into the ministry, told me that “once God calls you He never lets you go”. I think Clark meant for that remark to reassure me, but actually it scared me a little. I had my doubts: I wasn’t totally accepting of the Apostle’s Creed and I didn’t relish the prospect of people changing their tone and addressing me as “Reverend” when I approached them.
¶Eventually I became disillusioned with organized religion and quit going to church. I had become weary of church members forming cliques and quarreling with each other; of ministers criticizing other ministers and even off-handedly noting the aging and decline not only of our congregation but of mainstream Protestantism itself. The only religious groups that seemed to be growing were the tiresomely antique Catholic Church; the “gospel of wealth” mega-churches; and the “hard shell” denominations such as the Baptists and the Disciples of Christ, who appeared to believe that the surest metric of one’s salvation was the number of Bible verses one has memorized.
¶Nonetheless, I retained the memories of the better elements of my church-going days: the summer evenings when the windows of White Rock Methodist would be raised and we would be seated in our pews, fanning ourselves with those illustrated hand fans and singing zestfully songs like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Amazing Grace”. And I still ponder positively some of the remarks of Jesus: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”…” “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak….” etc.
¶Then, in midlife, I had my truly major spiritual awakening. I am not speaking here of the assurance of “being saved” about which the more orthodox evangelicals speak, nor of being “called”, although some people might describe it as such. No, while I was out on my morning walk around White Rock Lake one day, I felt a sudden sense of knowing, of a notice within my mind or heart or soul that I was “blessed”. Yes, it was a pleasant insight, it certainly did not harm me, but it did surprise and puzzle me because I did not understand what being spiritually blessed really means.* Of course, I knew that I had been blessed with some artistic gifts (which I had not nurtured to the degree that I should have) but that was history — an established known quantity — and this seemed to relate to a more immediate and singular condition. I did not know for sure what it meant then; nor do I know now; however, I have chosen intellectually to interpret it to mean that the Holy Spirit had extended His grace to me, opened my eyes, and presented itself as my guide to whatever extent I was capable and willing to be guided. If so, then that was indeed a major blessing. But what exactly did it entail?
¶I read many mystical works during that time, a period which has become muddled chronologically after two decades so that I cannot relate the events as coherently as I would like. But that is not necessary anyway. The salient elements are still available: (1) I read all those mystics to find the essence of a few terms: “yearning” [John Ruysbroeck], “the lure” [Meister Eckhart], and “dark night of the soul” [John  of the Cross]; (2) I was practically bombarded, it seemed, by strange experiences, some of which were interpretable as spiritual consolations (mystical encouragements to continue the search) as well as others which were simply weird with no apparent connection to the spiritual life; and (3) I learned that a day would come when the consolations would end, the Presence would leave me in the “dark night of the soul”. And that’s where I have been for a little over two decades.
¶I have posted on this site (March 30, 2015) a much longer account of my spiritual journey. There is not much point in pursuing the discussion any further here. Rather, I want to reveal my plea to the Holy Spirit about the hunger I feel for a return — even if only a brief one — of the Presence. I don’t know for sure why I feel this urgency now; I am aware that my request goes beyond the bounds of the usual spiritual progression and that I should not expect any more special attention. Perhaps my hunger comes out of my getting old, perceiving that the twilight of my life is nigh and hoping that I won’t go to the ashes jar while still in the dark night. Or perhaps it derives from my perception of modern life as a devolution into absurdity and insanity, and my hope that the Holy Spirit will help me make sense of all the craziness. Or perhaps both.

————
*For more commentary on the “blessed” question see my blog post of Oct. 26, 2014.

Finis

Thanks

Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.

Goodbye.

BL

Meaningfulness

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Peter: Jesus, you are my Ground of Being!
Paul: Lord, you are my Ultimate Concern!
Jesus: Whaaattt?

This past Friday, my friend Chris and I met in my humble lodging for our regular bi-weekly, two-hour conversation and coffee-sipping. Over the past two months, we have been viewing DVD lectures by the late philosophy professor Robert Solomon, a specialist on Friedrich Nietzsche (N.). Solomon’s wife, Professor Kathleen Higgins, also a Nietzsche scholar, participates in the series. The lectures are about N. — his life, personality, and philosophy — of course; but interspersed among all of them are some comments on previous philosophers who had positively influenced Nietzsche, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (S.), and those who had negatively affected him, such as Socrates. This essay is partly my own take on S.’s and N.’s views concerning the meaning of life. The later part is my own view of purpose and meaningfulness — what the philosophers call teleology.

I have read very little of S. the pessimist, for I don’t need to read anything that will make me more depressed than I already am. Besides, everyone who is literate in Western philosophy, even in the most minor degree, has read or heard that S. considered life as essentially “suffering and death”, and that, given the choice of whether to live or die, the better option would be to die, but that an even better option would be not to have been born.

What I did not know, however, and one of the bits of interesting notions in Schopenhauer’s weltanschauung, is that S. eschewed Immanuel Kant’s view that one could justify life and find meaning through rationalism, and progress through rationalism to the Christian faith, according to Prof. Solomon. A more visceral response, particularly through an aesthetic appreciation of music, was more effective, S. believed. The benefit of music S. attributed to its abstractness as contrasted with the representational character of pre-20th century visual arts. Listening to, and contemplating, music, he held, would lift the suffering human out of his or her pointless individuality into a consciousness of a larger Reality, or “life as a whole”. But, as I mentioned in one of my early poems, that lift can last only as long as the music lasts.

I have read a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works but, unfortunately, not the one which is most pertinent on this topic, The Birth of Tragedy. So, I will have to rely again on Prof. Solomon’s — and Prof. Higgins’ — interpretations. They say that, while N. agreed with most of what S. had to say about life being almost totally a matter of suffering and death, he differed with S. on finding it pointless. Where S. postulated that humans proceed from desire or hunger to satisfaction and back to desire/hunger, always longing for complete satisfaction or contentment (picture a “couch potato”) and never finding it; N. believed that absolute and permanent contentment is not really any human’s desire at all. Rather, N. theorized, meaning is to be found in the passions, i.e. dedication to a person, to a project, or to an art can give meaning to life. Here, again, arises the question of how long that passion can last.

One of the best though tardiest lessons I ever learned was that regular settings and reviews of goals are very important. I recall reading, while a senior at the university, an article that related how frequently college seniors commit suicide. Of course, several reasons can cause young people to kill themselves; the later teens and early twenties are emotionally tumultuous years; but what struck me about this article was that it was specifically about college seniors who were soon to graduate. Either the article stated or I inferred (can’t recall which) that the most likely cause for many of those deaths was that the students had not set any goals beyond college; campus life was all that had mattered to them, and they could not see anything meaningful beyond it.

It is indeed an interesting contrast between S. and N. that while the first sought respite, the latter sought strife (not strife against other people but a continual struggle within the self to make one’s self better). N.’s view is very much in keeping with that of the ancient Athenians. Consider the following passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which a Corinthian ambassador, while urging the Spartans to aid them in their conflict with Athens, criticizes them for their lackadaisical attitude:

“The Athenians are revolutionary, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your way is to attempt less than your power justifies, to mistrust even what your judgment sanctions, and to think that there will be no end to your dangers….So they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than inaction and rest. In a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[1]

As for myself, I believe that the most contented people are also the most active people. To that extent I certainly agree with N. But I also believe that there is a Reality — a spiritual Reality that surrounds us and yet is much too much beyond our capacity to understand. Each of us must search and discover it on his/her own without over-reaching.

A recent NOVA episode on PBS hosted by astrophysicist Brian Greene reveals how the latest frontier of cosmology has forced scientists into theories they are sometime embarrassed to present. One of them is that our universe is actually two dimensional with an edge to it that is comparable to a holograph. Also, they say that space is nowhere empty, not outer space nor molecular space, but that in every part of it “things” are constantly moving, from particles to planets; and that space is not like a vapor but more like a piece of pliable material that can bend and be stretched. Even more nonintuitive: There is no past, present or future; there is only NOW.

I do not mean to imply that all of this new scientific theory-developing is an argument for a higher being: most of the scientists, I think, would deny that absolutely. All I am saying is that, as S. and N. should have, we should refrain from placing absolute designs on “the real world/universe” until a good deal more evidence is in, probably beyond my own remaining lifespan.

In the meantime, we can each discover our own Higher Power (I read that there must be 7.4 billion of them about now), purposes and life-meanings. Let’s just don’t try to impose them on others.

Bob Litton, March 1967, reading An American Tragedy in Wesley-PCF office

Bob Litton at Southern Methodist University in 1967.

[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book I, ¶70.

Finis

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment, even if it just to say “Like” or “Don’t Like”. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Bob’s Apology to the Children of the World

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

O little children, how I regret the need to write this letter to you. If we big people had done our duty for many years now, this apology would not have been necessary. You might not be able to read or comprehend by yourselves what I shall say here, so you perhaps should wait until you are a little older and have learned more and bigger words. (I will try to rein in my tendency to use complicated words, but that is very hard to do.) Or your parents might sit down with you and reduce the content to your level of understanding. I doubt that they will, because it could be too embarrassing for them.

I don’t have any children of my own, but there was a time when I deeply wanted a baby. However, I was already past the age when being a good daddy was practicable; and, anyway, I didn’t have a wife. A mommy is just as important in a child’s development as a daddy, usually more so. But my being childless is not really important: I am still just as responsible for our troubles as any parent.

But, let’s get on with the basic message I want to share with you.

The world is in a sad situation right now, both in an environmental way and in a social way. Perhaps the primary cause of that sad situation… (Let me introduce a new word to you here: dire. I would rather use that word than “sad” because, although it contains much the same meaning, it also means more. You see, a situation can be “sad” and yet limited; it might affect only one person or just a few people, and it might be just a temporary mood. “Dire”, however, adds more meaning — the element of threat. If something is a threat then it is neither tied to a mood nor likely to be temporary; it could mean the end of all life, even all things.)

One current threat is Climate Change. The Earth’s temperature is increasing; at least that is what about 300 of the world’s scientists have told us. And many things that we can see, if we look at them, appear to back up the scientists’ claims: the Arctic ice is melting, threatening the habitat of the polar bears and the Eskimos; the coral reefs, on which many sea creatures depend for food, is receding; the schedules and flight patterns of migratory birds are changing; and, perhaps the simplest test of all, the recording on temperature gauges is inching upward year by year. And those are just a few of the observable changes.

Now, a sizable minority of the world’s population refuses to acknowledge these changes or to attribute them to Man’s use of energy sources that come out of the earth, such as coal and oil. And other people, who might recognize Man’s guilt in all this mess, don’t have the political will to do anything about the problem. What hinders them is that to take the urgent actions needed to try and reverse, or at least moderate, disaster would require eliminating some industries, such as coal-mining and oil/gas-drilling, which have employed many people — perhaps your daddy or mommy — for a long time. You can understand, can’t you, why your parents, if they work in one of those industries, would fight to keep their jobs? They want to be able to feed and clothe you just as they have always done. And when the cost of a solution closely affects a person’s family his or her range of vision becomes severely narrowed.

Another threatening element in our world’s scene is tribalism. If you are Americans, you probably think that only the Native Americans (formerly known as “the Indians”) live in tribes. Actually, though, we are all members of tribes in that our facial features, skin colors, cultural attitudes, political arrangements, and even spiritual beliefs are shared by varying fractions of the world’s population. Throughout the centuries, tribes have often been in conflict with one another; this is very noticeably the current case in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But it is also an issue in Europe and the United States, where mass migrations of peoples who are fleeing oppression and poverty in their homelands continue. Especially when a bunch of them move to any one country, they tend to congregate in the same area so that they can share themselves with others of their own culture and language; thus, we have neighborhoods that become known as “China Town” or “Little Mexico”. Large influxes of peoples bringing with them their traditions, religions and other cultural habits appear threatening to native peoples, who want to protect their own cultural norms from alterations. Now, some of the native people — particularly the farmers — often welcome the foreigners because those refugees are willing to do work that some natives do not want to do. That causes quarrels between the farmers and their urban neighbors.

There are also, naturally, more practical problems that come with mass migrations: how to house, feed, clothe, educate and medicate the foreigners. The governments in Europe, the United States and some African countries are wrestling with those problems right now. A subtle and dangerous aspect of this social turmoil is the element of racism and religious bigotry involved. Ethnic jealousy and political partisanship also are part of this poisonous mixture. Such a seemingly small matter as whether a Muslim woman should be allowed to wear her religion-prescribed head scarf in some places has engendered debates in parliaments and the media.

Religion itself is a major element in the world’s general conflict. In the Middle East, one branch of Islam attacks another branch over the question of who was the rightful successor of Mahomet as leader of their religion. In China, the government is again trying to extinguish Christianity. And here in the U.S., one political party is working hard to infuse the Christian religion more deeply into our political system; they want to establish Christianity as the official religion of the U. S.. In all our conflicts, a primary element is the “us versus them” mentality, and that is especially true of the religious divisions.

Then there is the question of how you children are going to earn a living when you grow up. Robotics and mechanization are already reducing the number of humans who are needed for many types of jobs. In Japan, I read recently, they are already using robots to work the reservation counters at airports. A batch of sociological studies all indicate that many more positions will be taken over by robots over the next 25 years, including those of lawyers, doctors, and news reporters. So, what will you do? How will you spend all your “free time”? How will your food and shelter be paid for? Don’t expect the owners of factories and other businesses or the political officials to care: they want to eliminate the need for human employees because doing so will save them money. Why should they spend that savings on your needs?

Now, I should give credit to those grown-ups who are trying to solve some of the problems I have too briefly described above. There are many individuals, companies and even governments who are altering their practices regarding gaseous emissions from factories and vehicles, which are a major cause of the Climate Change problem. There are also some statesmen who are trying to tamper down the social strife caused by religious and cultural differences.

And there are your parents, who had enough faith in humanity to bring you into the world. I feel some mental and emotional conflict within myself at this point because, on the one hand, I wonder at their wanting to bring children into a world full of direful and daunting difficulties; while, on the other hand, I admire them for their faith and for providing us with you. The solutions will require people — intelligent, energetic and loving people — to discover and put them into practice.

Thus I leave you, Children of the World, with my most heart-felt apology for the messes we have left for you to clean up, and with my earnest hope and encouragement for your success.

Bless you,

Bob Litton

More on the Separation of Church and State

© 2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  In my January 7 post, I related the beginning of a local controversy involving the placement of religion-oriented decals on the windows of county vehicles driven by our sheriff’s deputies. In concert with similar episodes in this state and other states, this incident has swelled into a debate about the “wall between church and state”. Actually, though, such events have peppered our nation’s history almost ever since the U.S. Constitution, together with its first ten amendments, was ratified by the legislatures of the thirteen original states between 1787 and 1791.

My homeland is now agitated by disagreements over a few parts of the Constitution. Some citizens, known generally as “strict constructionists” or “originalists”, are in verbal conflict with other citizens loosely describable as “believers in a living, evolving constitution”, over a few sections of the Constitution, particularly those concerning immigration, women’s rights, appointments of judges, and the right to bear arms. The First Amendment issue of separation of church and state is not currently the subject of a national quarrel, but it does pop up occasionally in pockets around the country.

The decal debate here apparently is of interest only to a few vocal citizens, including myself; however, the Texas governor has weighed in; and so has the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the latter of which announcing that they would enter the legal fray if any local citizen would file suit in court. Like me, however, most of the people here are not financially able to pursue a lengthy court battle with an undeterminable outcome. And I prefer to fight my battles in the newspaper.

Which brings me up to the present. This past week, one of my letters-to-the editor was published in one of the local weeklies. (I did not submit it to the other paper because the publisher/editor there has a bad habit of excising sentences from my letters.) For those of you who were interested in that first letter I re-published on this blog, you might find this one just as entertaining.

Enjoy!
—BL

The brown-and-blue cross decals on sheriff’s deputies’ vehicles here in Brewster County have reportedly attracted the attention of state politicians. Gov. Gregg Abbott, in a “brief” to State Attorney General Ken Paxton, is quoted as saying that ‘the cross has a long history in America and elsewhere as a symbol of service and sacrifice’. I suppose he is referring to the historical practice of burning crosses on the lawns of colored folks, and to those red plus-signs on the sides of Red Cross medical vans. He did acknowledge that the cross does have “its religious significance”.

Now, Abbott’s message is what I call a capital case of sophistical demagoguery. A Republican politician who is trying to establish his position early as a religious conservative in preparation for the next gubernatorial campaign, Abbott is diving into an issue that he apparently hopes will give him an advantage with the evangelicals in this state.

Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said at the beginning of this cross decal controversy that he views the sticker as a symbol of the cross that Jesus died on and of the religion that evolved from that incident but that he would allow any Jewish deputy (if he had one) to apply a Star of David decal, or any Muslim deputy (if he had one) to apply a Crescent-and-Star decal. He said he sees the decals as a way of invoking God’s protection for his officers. Therefore, the religious significance of this decal is the primary accent to be interpreted, and as such it amounts to an intrusion of religion into what is supposed to be a non-sectarian government.

Now, I am not opposed to the deputies sticking those decals on their own, private vehicles, i.e., those vehicles not purchased with funds derived from taxes. But when the decals are stuck on the windows of official government vehicles, then they constitute a violation of the First Amendment principle of prohibiting any law respecting the establishment of religion. (Jews and Hindus have helped pay for those vehicles.)

The religious conservative crowd wants to involve their personal religion into every governmental activity they can. They do not realize what such an approach can lead to. But a bunch of them in Phoenix, Arizona, got a jolt recently when the local Satanist church petitioned to have their turn at giving the invocation at a city council meeting. The nonplussed council members — faced with the dilemma that any officially recognized religious organization must have its opportunity to share in invocation presentations and yet unwilling to allow the Satanists their chance — discontinued prayers at council meetings altogether.

I am not an atheist and definitely not a Satanist, but oh, how I wish we had a Satanist church in Alpine! That would be a hilarious scene to watch! And it might benefit us defenders of the doctrine of separation of church and state (Everson vs. Board of Education [1947].

 

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