Reflections

Faith After Doubt-Part 2 Chapters 5-8

  1.  Doubt as Growth

Every day we see trees.  They seem to be the same as yesterday, last month and a year ago, not changing to the extent we don’t even notice them much of the time.  Truth is, trees are changing all the time.  They are extending both with their root system into the soil and their branches towards the sky.  Someone said to me “if we’re not growing, we’re dying.”  If a tree remains truly the same it is dying. 

If you’re ever read any works written by faith development scholars:  Kohlberg, Fowler, Westerhoff, Blake, Rocoeur, Kierkegaard, Jung, Paget and others, we realize that faith is not a static if it is living at all.  The caution about all of this is that in our western culture we can see “development: from the perspective of walking up the rungs of a ladder or stair steps while failing to realize that we are standing also on the previous stairs, else the stairs would collapse.  We can also get competitive and see one stage or phase as “better” as another and then differentiate between people as being “ahead” or “behind” others.  There is one truth that Fowler makes:  If you are more than one phase in your faith development than your previous group, your sense of “belonging” in that group becomes tenuous because you’re living at a different experiential level than your former groups and this is why people will leave groups or even churches because they feel that they are no longer being fed or that they fit.  This makes a challenge for any priest or pastor to vary the “menu” attempting to present the gospel at the level of various phase of the hearers.  The roots go deeper and the branches go higher.  The new shoots come out of the older braches all the way down the tree trunk to the roots.

Doubt is a chief instrument of moving from one phase of faith to another.  Trees have seasons of growth and dormancy as McLaren writes, marked as circular lines that are visible as rings around the tree.   Our brains hopefully if stimulated and used, grow over time.  Our intellect, making meaning in the world, our experiences and the ability to interpret them in the context of Divinity, our sense of belonging, being ourselves (discovering ourselves) and the world along with the Divine expand.  We move from what McLaren calls simplicity of dividing things into two groups, good or bad, called dualism.  Trust is important in others and building our understanding of what to choose and what to avoid. 

Beginning at age 12 or later, we begin to move from the dualism of Simplicity to Complexity.  As we practice living our faith, we move into a wider area where we meet more adults who act as coaches who help us grow in our ability to act more independently.  Life at this phase is one of learning how to master skills for living and involves exploration of the world and oneself in comparison to what is around us.  An example of the Complexity phase is moving into a Bible Study where questions are asked rather than searching for one right answer.  The Bible becomes more than an answer book but rather a complex history of a story of a people with whom we share similar questions and experiences as we attempt to respond to God and make sense of God’s universe.  The zeal of this age often finds a sense of urgency to engage the culture and change the world.   I remember this phase in my earlier years and how later my zeal was tempered by others who brought different perspectives of faith that brought me in to greater complexity and more self-doubt.   An example of this is when seeking to enforce justice, we can create much more damage and injustice along the way of our original intent.  The teens and twenties (and later) and be full of the “me” and the complexity of life can begin to wear the “me” down (which it should in order for us to mature and ascend).  A real conflict at this phase is to either with good intentions to inflict our justice on others or become discouraged and not act at all.  This dualism is transcended through the next phase called Perplexity, a phase of doubt we will address next, leads us to a sense of God unity called Harmony when we discover as St. Paul, that appropriate action is not in what we attempt to do to change the world but in how we awaken to God living in us and allowing God to work through us.   St. Paul: “It’s not me, but Christ within me.”  Discernment between “me” and “Christ within me” becomes an ongoing daily discernment.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Take a moment to review your personal story of faith.  Recall the years of Simplicity and when life and your faith became more complex than simple “right or wrong.”  
  • If you were a tree and examined your own “tree rings” of growth and dormancy, what periods of your life seemed to be more growth wise and more dormant?  Dormancy can be either a plateau of comfort or a period of restlessness.  Recalled periods of your faith “comfort zone” and periods of when you felt restless in your faith.
  • In what ways have you resisted periods of complexity around your faith in your own life?  When have you allowed complexity in your life to carry you past simplicity alone and was there a reward in this for you?
  • What was the most fulfilling times of Simplicity and Complexity in your own life?

6. Doubt as Descent

“Taking the descent” was told to me by my spiritual director and seminary professor, Jesse Trotter, during my senior year in seminary.   I had just finished my weeklong General Ordination Exams in early January and at the age 25, I experienced the faith I stood on for 25 years, falling out from underneath me. What do we do when God becomes a stranger?   It was the most painful, terrifying and disorienting experience in my life.  It’s also the best thing that ever happened to me.  

Most faith development scholars report that a large number of adults never leave the second Complexity Phase.   For many however, a life crisis can catapult faithful person into a faith crisis.  Real life for them isn’t a simple walk down the “yellow brick road to Oz” (although there were challenges on this road as well).   The life they have experienced in crisis turns out as McLaren says “to be more of a mysterious, less formulaic and more messy” than the “how to formula or checklist” that offer the promise of a prescribed easier, simpler way.  An example of this is the “Prosperity Gospel” whose followers think that God will give them everything they want rather than Jesus who says in the Beatitudes to “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” and all things that we need will be given to us.  I wonder if Janis Joplin ever got the Mercedes Benz that she prayed for.  Another example is when a person is in deep grief, their faith can be challenged because their faith of answers doesn’t reach deep enough into the deep chasm within the spirit where grief resides.

This is the Perplexity phase where we begin to confront that the pieces of life and faith puzzle don’t fit together as much as we thought they did.   Once our beliefs begin to fall apart, we begin to feel uneasy (and others can begin to feel uneasy with us) around our once supportive faith community and often have to leave to search through the questions and emptiness of this phase. 

At times like these doubt grows even deeper because people in the faith community are ill prepared and tend to shy away from the appearing anomaly of the person’s painful faith spasm.  We can only listen as deeply to another as we can listen to ourselves.   With no one to be able to confide in, being met with pat answers or avoidance, some fearing to speak to the clergy who may or may not be able to hear them, they will silently fade away from the congregation. 

Another factor in the Perplexity phase is that doubters begin to see the flaws in systems, authority, purpose, experience a lack of belonging and become suspicious and skeptical of trust except in the company of other skeptics.  If allowed to be themselves in a church community, their skepticism and doubt can lead to the discovery of honesty, humility openness, curiosity and seeking truth.

Being perplexed is an experience of descending into the experience of “not knowing” that feels like dying. We can easily identify with Jesus’ words in Gethsemane:  “Father let this cup pass from me.”  What the perplexed individual doesn’t realize is that God is the light at the end of the dark tunnel and that God is waiting with us. 

Questions for reflection:

  1. Recall your earliest doubts about God, Christ, the Church and your faith.  How did you negotiate through them?  How did they affect your faith and your relationships? 
  • Why is it difficult to find a faith community that is open to the Perplexity phase of doubt?”
  • Is Church of Annunciation (your church) a community where you can share your doubts? If not, what might I be able to do to help create a place for the perplexed doubter to find a home?

7. Doubt as Dissent

Lloyd Geering:  “Expressing or even entertaining doubt sometimes takes so much courage that we may say it takes real faith to doubt.” 

Even though disoriented, McLaren points out that all is not lost even though it seems to be.  We still retain the gifts of former phases.  We still carrying an internal sense of right and wrong from phase one.  We carry the curiosity, flexibility and openness to complexity and growing independence of phase two’s Complexity. 

Perplexity has its silver lining.  Humility, admitting that we “don’t know” helps us remain open for new learning and revelation.  We discover that the more we know the less we don’t know.  Humility opens us up to the Holy Mystery. 

Sensitivity is birthed during this phase as we explore new concepts and experiences looking for nuances in faith that we never bothered to look for before.  We’re more willing to examine things so that we might incorporate them more deeply.   It’s also easier to be honest when we get used to living in doubt and not having the “right answer.”  Instead of attempting to “build our faith” during the Complexity phase, we begin to realize deeper practices of the church that Jesus would call, dying to self and the daily dying of St. Paul.  Faith becomes more wordless as the inner attic of the spirit is cleared out for the presence of God.  Getting used to sitting in the dark, finally after we begin to let go to our resistance to accepting this, actually becomes what McLaren calls a “portal” for the revelation of the presence of God.  In the dark we shift from doing to being and begin to know ourselves and that in some crazy way, emptiness is the prelude to Divine Peace. We begin to gain insight as we are now open to receive wisdom that goes far deeper than human thought.

Perplexity also gives us the opportunity to confess our dissent—that we’re having trouble with the spiritual traps that can only be uncovered in the Wilderness.  Perplexity is the Wilderness.  Jesus practices dissent when tempted by Satan in the Wilderness.   We see the church as a broken vessel made out of broken human beings such as ourselves.  Now that we are beginning to realize this, we have nothing to lose by voicing our dissent.  Faith and its terms become redefined.  Authority is recast by Jesus to become service as we continue to move out of the way of the world.  Liberty transcends self-interest to become concerned about seeking the benefit of others.   Freedom means liberty to love and serve.  I was surprised to learn years ago that local communities would see to the needs of the poor before government welfare became the norm.  The central task of dissenting is to challenge the whole shebang of faith and its six foundational moral values: purity, loyalty, authority, liberty, justice and compassion rather than from the Simplicity phase of right and wrong.  Seeking turns into the discovering of one’s human spirit commingling with God’s Holy Spirit.  McLaren calls this fourth phase, Harmony.  Harmony is being One with the Presence of God.  Or in the words of Jesus in John 17: That all of them may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You.  May they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.  Doubting over time works through many cycles so that we finally come to knowing our birthright of being one with God and seeking that same gift in one another. 

Questions for Reflection

  1. The term, not knowing, in the third phase of Perplexity takes on new meaning and as seen as a strength instead of a weakness.   Think of any of the periods of your life when you have experienced not knowing and how it shaped your faith. 
  • What is your understanding of the dark night of the soul (St. John of the Cross) and reflect on your experiences of this.
  • Have you ever read any of the Christian mystics such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill and others?   What gift do you believe they offer the Church and the world?  Many mystics were noted for their Christian service.   How might “taking the descent” into this contemplative way actually impact Christian service, say in comparison (non-judgmental) to the Complexity phase in stage two.

8. Doubt as Love

To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart—that’s what life is about, that’s its task. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Letters

One of the benefits of moving into the Perplexity and Harmony phases is the gift of revelation one receives such as seeing things in the Bible that one had not yet noticed.  Instead of looking, seeking and thinking, one begins to observing, become aware and seeing.   Doubt, if followed, creates perseverance.  After perseverating, one begins to use Henri Nouwen’s of prayer as walking through life with open hands instead of clenched fists (H. J. M. Nouwen: With Open Hands).  Eventually, leaning into doubt (being where we are) leads us into God because God is always where we are.  All of this leads us into the harmony of what McLaren, Rohr and many other contemplatives call non dual seeing or unitive spiritual awareness or what St. Paul calls, the mind of Christ (Romans 12).  In non-dual seeing as McLaren says, faith and doubt, clarity  and mystery, darkness and light become complementary rather than opposites, two parts of a whole.  The term Jesus uses for teaching us to be “perfect” (Matt. 19) in the New Testament, telios, means to be whole.   We are led into God as we realize as the Wisdom of God pierced the mind and heart of the writer of Proverbs: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5).  McLaren realized my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God.   We leave our old and less developed understanding of God to enter God, himself.  

I usually choose the term “Presence” of God because the term, “love” has been so overused and misunderstood, I doubt that we really understand what love is.  But we may know love as the simple yet omnipotent presence of the Holy One.  Love is being in union with the presence of God.  To love others as God loves us is to allow the Divine Presence to come through us to others so as St. Paul says again, “It’s not me but Christ within me (Gal. 2)….”  McLaren uses Dostoyevsky’s quote from The Brothers Karamazov: “Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.”

Just a note to remember to treat these phases or stages lightly.  It is possible to vacillate back and forth as faith is not a static thing.  Doubt is not our enemy but rather a way of preparing us to go deeper into God.

Questions for Reflection

  1. On your journey of faith, who have been the key people of your life who have supported you through the various peaks and valleys of your faith?   Who has supported you by their presence and who has supported you by their example?  Say a prayer in thanksgiving for them.
  • How has the phrase, “Doubt is the doorway to love,” been true in your life?
  • Notice the four phases of your life and attempt to recall when you experienced a time when you were in Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity and Harmony.  Remember there are no wrong answers. 
Father Mark, Reflections

Faith After Doubt: A Lenten Reflection on the book by Brian McLaren

Introduction:

Why read a book about doubt when the events of the last year or so have tried our faith?  Wouldn’t it be better to read a book about “how to have faith?”  Reason would lead us to seem so.  However there is a higher, Divine Reason, at work in our doubts that I, the author and most likely you have realized that works in our favor.  Notice how I said, “works” as doubt is some of the most grueling inner work we will ever do if we are willing to walk the way of the cross that leads to Good Friday, culminating in Easter’s New Birth. 

I believe that God companions us in our doubt although the pain of it all can lead us to believe that it is difficult to find God during these empty, desolate times.  As we will discuss, working through doubt is not “white knuckling” it nor does it involve the power of positive thinking like the Little Engine that Could:  “I think I can….”  Doubt is a journey of loss and following that loss until we find ourselves face to face with God.  It seems that Jesus was always getting on his disciples, “O ye of little faith” with a blend of what seems to be chastisement and encouragement.  Jesus also was extremely patient with doubters such as Thomas or the man whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit who said: I believe, help my unbelief.  

As normal as doubts are, we sure keep them to ourselves.  There must be an inner terror we possess about being “found out” by the community if we are having doubts like we will be to be defective and shunned like the Puritans used to do.   I am here to tell you that it takes more faith to accept your doubts than to pretend that you don’t have them.  Only by acceptance (a form of confession) can we begin to move through them to meet Jesus face to face—and to be healed.

McLaren’s text consists of fifteen chapters in three parts.  I will be covering approximately four chapters a week.  I will have a question or two for reflection and prayer at the end of each chapter.  The chapters will be done separately so that you can do them at your leisure. 

I remember the words of Paul Tillich: “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith…. Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt the faithful.”

The outline of this Lenten reflection will follow McLaren’s text with some of his thoughts with some of my 42 years as a priest, spiritual director and counselor woven throughout.  I suggest you purchase the book which is available at any online retailer.

The Chapters are listed:

  1. Doubt as Loss
  2. Doubt as Loneliness
  3. Doubt as Crisis
  4. Doubt as Doorway
  5. Doubt as Growth
  6. Doubt as Descent
  7. Doubt as Dissent
  8. Doubt as Love
  9. A Human Problem
  10. Faith, Beliefs, and Revolutionary Love
  11. Communities of Harmony
  12. Theologies of Harmony
  13. Spiritualties of Harmony for the Rising Generation
  14. Harmony as a Survival Strategy
  15. A Civilization in Doubt
  16. Afterward:  You’re Not Crazy and You’re Not Alone
  1. Doubt as Loss

As in religious language, grief also does not find words to express its experience.  It is mind disorienting and heart and gut aching experience.  Doubt is one of the words that touches the edge of this experience and can follow the phases of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and the beginning of reintegration and acceptance.  The origin of the word doubt means to be in two mindsone that believes and one that doesn’t, with the appropriate reactions of distress and inner division.   Previous to doubt the world, self and one’s faith was coherent.  When doubt rises the clarity of mind, vision and the peace in the heart begins dissolve.  The familiar now lies behind in the past and everything in us desperately desires to return to its comfort zone.  Faith is our map of reality, orienting us to God, self, others and to life, kind of an internal GPS system.   Even Einstein used language to describe the same when his paradigm of scientific beliefs were shattered: It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under one, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere, upon which one could have built.  Doubt carries with it great anxiety as the ground beneath us turns to quicksand.  We may be disillusioned with our faith, the church, our relationships as well as God and other important things when we fall off the precipice upon which we stood for so long, assuming a sense of permanence about life.   I once had a spiritual director who taught me that “illusions die hard.”  When we doubt it is possible to feel that we have lost God or even wonder if God exists.  I recall through the years visiting with church members when I ask how they are, the universal response of “fine” emerges from their lips.  Only later do I find the struggle they carry within which they feel terrified to admit to another as if it was something of which to be ashamed.  One of the most difficult things we face is no matter how much we wish that the phantom of doubt takes hold of us, is to accept it.  After all, who wants to accept life and faith when it feels like a dark hole?   

Questions for Reflection

  1. Can you recall periods of doubt throughout your life or perhaps some doubts that you presently are experiencing?  Who has taught you about doubt in your lifetime either in their discussions or in the way they modeled their own behavior in either denying or dealing with it?   Was doubt presented to you as something to resist or accept?
  2. Have any of the examples or descriptions of doubt listed above something that with which you can identify?   How is your experience of doubt in your life both similar and different?  Sometimes our dreams even reveal the struggle between the two worlds of where we were and the nowhere that we seem to be now. 

2. Doubt as Loneliness

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving. –Frederick Buechner

Even introverts need others.  William Turner @ 1545, who was credited with the idiom: birds of a feather flock together reveals that people seek out people with whom they can identify with similar, character, values, tastes, interests and beliefs.     We have the human innate need to connect with others to find support, be a support and cultivate friendships.  We tend to be clannish, searching to be with those who are like minded.   However, after a number of years or a major life event, our personal experiences may cause us to not identify with members of our peer group as much as in past years.  This process usually evolves slowly unless we are shocked into it by a crisis.  In the case of groups that hold to a set of values and beliefs, to find that we are questioning them can begin to open a caveat of loneliness and isolation that can be quite painful.  We once felt that we belonged. Now we wonder sometimes if we feel that we will belong anywhere.   Social pressure upon which so many of our personal relationships depend can become unstable.  How do we speak of our varying experience with those with whom we once identified? 

Every group, especially religious ones have their “code” of beliefs, practices and values.  Religious groups especially can be sensitive to doubts in any of these areas.  I have rarely met an individual of a religious group who do not feel great stress about admitting and disclosing their doubts in fear of ostracism.   Doubt in this case can lead to a terrible sense of loneliness.  I remember mid-year during my senior year of seminary, when I went through a doubting time known as “the dark night of the soul” when God felt almost non-existent which had never happened to me before.   Even my seminary friends who did not know how to relate to me during this time of doubt withdrew from me and I felt completely isolated except for a professor and chaplain who knew exactly what was happening to me.  This “dark night” began to see rays of light by the time I graduated but I worked with a spiritual director for another year and a half in order to shift from the beliefs that died to the rebirthing that the Spirit was leading me. 

The questions that remain for me are:  can a community of faith with the acceptance and compassion of God be open to those who are doubting and feel alone.  I do not see much of this in the church.  I notice that people who doubt generally tend to drop out of the church community after a period of time.  Members may say, “I wonder what happened to Sam?”  But few if any will go to Sam and ask him how his heart is.   This is all private because it might open a can of worms that might make everyone uncomfortable.  The second question is, do I have the faith to expose my doubts to a few in the community that might hear me?   It takes faith to doubt and even more so to disclose them

Questions for Reflection

  1. From you earliest memory, what did your church, parents, relatives, peers and others teach you about doubt from their words and examples:  What doubt says about your value as a person; and what to do with doubt.  Is doubt something about which we should be ashamed?
  • Can you remember a time in your life when you felt alone in your group “herd” because your doubts about what you once held to believe began to fade?   What did you do with your doubts and how did you choose to relate to your community?
  • We were created to be in a community of faith and to also be ourselves, living in the tension between the two.   Is it possible to do both:  to be able to be ourselves in a community?   How have you managed this tension in your life?   Must there be tension between being oneself and being a part of a community?

3. Doubt as Crisis

Faith is a core foundation of our identity as is the meaning we receive from relationships in the faith community of which we are a part.    Doubt about our faith can leave us experiencing loneliness and lead to an identity crisis especially if doubt is not accepted in the faith community. McLaren states that we live in the tension of wanting to belong while at the same time we desire to be free.  We also want to be honest while at the same time of wanting to be accepted.  There is something within us that wants us to be good while we want to be thought as good by others.  We are tempted to suppress our sense freedom and honesty for the security of belonging.  At my ordinations I had to sign a document called the Oath of Conformity.  We do a similar act when we take our vows for Baptism and Confirmation.  Ideally a mature community allows room for doubt in its various forms and supports a person through their desert experience.  But most communities do not openly advertise this and so people do not know if it is safe to be themselves.  If we suppress doubt enough the resulting tension will eventually lead to a moment of choice to disclose or leave.  The Church could model Jesus’ interaction with Thomas.  We can have compassion and understanding as doubt seeing doubt as a way of our faith development while at the same time encouraging others to search for their faith.   Shaming people for their doubt is a winless situation and does not reflect the nature of God’s revelation. 

I remember the same tension I felt for years when I struggled to accept the Virgin Birth of Jesus.  My reason could not fathom how this might have happened.  This had no bearing on my belief in God.  Then I read Augustine: “Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.”  This comforting line at least cut my sense of shame because I knew the saints often struggled with doubt.  But it was one day I found myself saying the Nicene Creed and when I got to the part by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man, I no longer had that wrenching in my gut and shame in my mind but was rather set free from it.   I learned important lessons that day.  God still loved me enough to come to me and by revelation lift the doubt that I had carried about this for almost a decade.  To this day I have no problem with the concept.   The purpose of doubt is to lead us into God and that God is in charge of this mystery.   Our identity as children of God is not fully defined for us yet and God continues to reveal to us who we are by our experience of who God is.  The doubt will feel like a crisis because we are letting go of a belief or doubt that we once depended on.  Yet we are trading it for God, himself.   Of course when in the midst of doubts, we have a difficult time remembering this.

Questions for Reflection

  1. McLaren writes: “The greatest threat to our moral and spiritual health wasn’t questions or doubts but rather dishonesty or presence” in our attempt to maintain “moral theological certitude.”   How has doubt led to your moral and spiritual health?
  2. Can you think of a doubt that you had in the past and how you approached it?  What have you learned in your own life about doubt? 
  3. McLaren asks:  “How would you describe your identity as a person of faith at this season of your life:  solid and stable, solid but with a few small cracks, a little uneasy, deeply conflicted, fin full-blown identity crisis, or something else?”   What action on your part might be the best thing for you at this time?

4. Doubt as Doorway

McLaren talks about the difference between certainty and faith to when he played with Legos as a child, saying that later he likened theology to be like a “massive Legos project.”  He would gather answers for beliefs to arrange his world view.  What we don’t realize is that we place our faith in beliefs instead of the living God.  McLaren gives Saul as an example in the Book of Acts where “we have tried to convince ourselves that we are fighting for God, but we begin to wonder if we’re actually fighting against God.”  In our inner need for a sense of safety we can easily choose beliefs for certainty instead of honesty and charity including the experience of the author of Hebrews who wrote: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  McLaren reveals that faith is not like building a Lego like fortress of beliefs but that faith is more like a road and that beliefs are not the destination, God is.  Beliefs are like road signs on the way to what I like to call our merging with God.  Only God is certainty and truth—much of the time without the details.   Doubt therefore is a doorway to discovering God.  I have often noticed that my beliefs are not destroyed when I choose to follow the path of faith but that they are expanded or transformed, re-fit and adjusted along the way.  It’s like Jesus saying (Mt 5):  Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Questions for Reflection

  1. McLaren was once told by a person who described himself as “addicted to certainty.”  How and why do we sometimes seek certainty instead of God?   Do you recall an episode in your life where you sought certainty instead of trusting the mystery of God?
  2. McLaren:  “How would you describe your own faith using the metaphors of fortresses, prisons, thresholds, doorways, road, and adventures?”  Choose another word(s) if these do not fit your experience.
Father Mark, Reflections

St. Groundhog Day

Our Furry Little Friend Has Much to Teach Us.

St. Groundhog Day

Years ago, I made the uncanny connection between “Punxy” Phil (I can’t spell his full name) the famous groundhog who is the wise determiner of the length of the winter season as a metaphor for the spiritual life.  We in Texas don’t pay much attention to him because winter here, well, it just isn’t.  The metaphor runs so strong for me that I personally “canonized” Punxy in my personal favorite collection of saints.  

During the years I lived in Wyoming and Colorado, I would pray that “Punxy” wouldn’t see his shadow and that the severity of the winters there would be cut short.   I especially prayed for “Punxy” to not see his shadow while living in the sunless overcast dreariness of Ohio where I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the winter.  A shortened winter would mean sunshine in March which would not have been witnessed for but on the average of 5 days a month since Thanksgiving.   

What caught my attention about “Punxy” Phil was the idea that he is about looking for his shadow.  That idea grabbed me, having studied the concept of the Shadow in the role of spiritual formation and life. 

The Shadow is the part of us (beliefs, attitudes, feelings, faults etc.—the “dark side”) that we’re not comfortable with which is held in our unconscious.  The problem with all of this being held in the unconscious is that it can influence and direct our lives without our being aware of it, creating chaos and suffering.  This is where the words of the gospeler John come into play:  The Light has shined in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.   Allowing the Spirit of God to shine light in our dark places points to our main task during the upcoming season of Lent.  Seeking out and exploring our Shadow takes work, far much more than simply giving up chocolate or things such as this.   Looking into discovering our shadows requires that we go down deep with the groundhog into our hole within to await the Light from God.

Once the Spirit shines light on our shadow, that which was unconscious begins to become conscious and starts to lose its hold upon us.   The church terms used for this process of uncovering is “purgation, forgiveness, reconciliation, awakening, salvation and the like.   Once the shadow is exposed to light, beings to fragment and release its power over us, we begin to return to our original selves that God has created in His Image and Likeness.   Such is an experience of the greatest freedom of all: the uncovering of the soul to live in communion and harmony with God.  Only then can we begin to experience what it’s like to begin to live in harmony with ourselves and with others. 

So, Happy St. Groundhog’s Day!  May the groundhog in you and the groundhog in me encourage each other to seek our shadows so that we may be raised with him in the Light of Jesus’ resurrection.  

Blessings,

Fr. Mark   

Father Mark, Sermons

What Do With Evil

Epiphany 4: Mark 1:21-28

I recall a Wizard of Id Sunday comic strip.  One Sunday morning Rodney, the king’s night servant noticed the king was in a blue mood and suggested, “Sire, perhaps you’d feel better if you went to church.”  So the King and Rodney headed off to the Church.  When they arrived, they noticed the title of the day’s sermon on the church sign which read: “The Evils of Greed.”  The King turned to Rodney and said, “What’s playing at the Presbyterian?”

Isn’t that so human?   We eschew the uncomfortable.

In the same vein, the man with the evil spirit didn’t much like having Jesus around and told him to go away.   Sometimes when our defensiveness or anger escalates there may be something within pushing us that we might benefit from looking at. 

We get information that we don’t like and just like the King, our instinct is to “change that channel.”   And the weakness continues to live within us waiting to arise again another day. 

I recall a couple of summers ago.  Vandals were stealing purses and other items out of people’s vehicles.  The police department advised us to not leave our windows open or our cars unlocked else we be broken into.  

I remember Jesus telling a story about a householder who if he had known when the thief was coming, would have kept watch and not allowed his house to be broken into.   Sometimes we just get careless about our vehicles and homes…and about our souls. 

Such is the subject today:  Is it possible to be possessed by evil?  OK, now it’s time to get that channel changer and change the channel to a little bit happier subject. 

After all, evil is one of those creepy dark sludgy things that we just can’t get our heads around and it’s something that we can rarely if ever control—why? 

Because evil is subject only to divine intervention—to help from above.  Paul in Ephesians 6, through his own experience tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of darkness and against the spiritual forces of evil.  These forces of evil, if we are subjected enough to them can begin to gnaw away at our minds, hearts and begin to split our souls, causing chaos.  Chaos is often a symptom of evil gaining a foothold. 

To minimize evil or Satan as mere delusion or as something less than it is, leaves our car door unlocked and windows open to our inner world to compromise us. 

Check on the chaos in your life—both inner and outer—and pray for the presence of God to come and in the words of Jesus, deliver us from evil. For thine is the Kingdom and the Power….  God’s presence is rooted far deeper in the world than the chaos within or without can bear.  

I remember on a healing retreat years ago I was praying for someone for healing and in the midst of the prayer, the woman began shaking and her personality changed like she was a different person.  I had never experienced anything like this before.  All I knew to do was to say God, take me over and manifest your healing power.  I felt like a presence had filled me that rooted itself in me down to the earth’s core.  And the words, not mine, but God’s, said in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be healed.   And in a matter of moments, the woman became still. 

We’re all susceptible to absorbing evil, like we are the COVID virus.  If we hang around the evil for too long we can get too much of its contagion within us often without our knowing it.  If we’re steeped enough in the presence of God that can only come through a diet of ongoing prayer, we can sense evil and then distance ourselves from it—praying for the others and ourselves.

C.S. Lewis, who in his book, The Screwtape Letters, reveals how subtle, Satan is, being nicknamed the father of lies.    

There is a lot of beauty in the world.  There are also many lies floating around tempting us in areas of our lives where we are vulnerable and spiritually insecure. 

Realize that Jesus doesn’t pass by the possessed man because he’s a living freak show.   Jesus walks right up to him.  Why?  Because he loves him. 

If Jesus loves the Gerasene Demonic, how much the more will he love us, even with all those inner warts, insecurities and chaotic places where evil has had its way with us?   We too will often react by wanting to escape.  Our initial reaction to “get away from me” due to the demon’s fear and shame which has its hold on us.

All we need to is to simply ask him one more time to come into our minds, hearts, wills and to make his home in our souls.  That’s all we need do.  He will take care of the rest. 

Even though evil is deceptive, evil can never hold a candle to God.  Honest. 

The man healed from the unclean spirits will tell you this.  So would the woman I prayed for in that healing service. 

Father Mark, Sermons

Remembering Our Mission to Our Children

Christmas II:  Luke 2; 1/3021

I wonder if you ever were separated from your parents when you were young, or perhaps lost track of where your young child.   Then it would be easy to identify with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph when they couldn’t find Jesus—especially in the big city of Jerusalem when it was time to leave for home.

How could something like this happen?  Men, women and children all worshipped in separate places in the temple.  After worship, each group gathers together in their own group for a meal.  

There was a separate group for educated teachers to gather and during the meal, discuss and sometimes argue to the point of quarreling, about the Torah and spiritual practices.  

Showing great interest, Jesus was invited at age 12, as a new young adult to join in the meal and to listen to the teaching and discussion.  The story indicates that Jesus also was involved in the discussion and teaching.

Joseph and Mary expected Jesus to be with his peers and when discovering he did not return with the group to the caravan to return home, with great angst returned to Jerusalem, searching all over until they found him at the temple. 

I remember a decade or so ago how during the late news, the announcer would say, “It’s time for the evening news.  Do you know where your children are?”  In this case, Mary and Joseph did not know where Jesus was.  They also were not aware of where his mind, heart and intentions were at the time which led him to leave his peer group and to seek God. 

Jesus’ seeking wasn’t finished after worship.  His seeking continued.  

I think this story has much to teach us as adults:

Christianity is counter-cultural.   Children tend to follow the culture and the culture of the family.   Jesus at age 12, after his bar-mitzvah, continued to seek God in contrast to the majority of the youth and adults in church who after Confirmation, tend to have the mindset that they’ve graduated from church.  Other things in the culture that appear to be more exciting tend to take priority.  

Children and youth are more capable and hungry for God than we are aware of. 

What do we model, not only for our children but for others?   Do we include children and youth and other adults in discussions about our faith at the dinner table?   Children on average watch 4 hours of TV a day often during meal time, not including cell phone internet use. They are waiting for us to lead them.  If we don’t someone else will.  I hesitate to compare how many minutes a week are given to teaching and nurturing in scriptures and tradition.  Without God growing at the core of their being, children and youth are left with the maze of confusing and sometimes dangerous messages that leave them at risk.  Jesus put a child on his lap and told his preoccupied disciples to forbid them not—by forgetting them.  Are we aware of where our children are—not just their location, but what they are carrying in the minds and hearts? 

One of the great realizations as a parent is that I have regular conversations with my two daughters in their late thirties about their spiritual journey, talking about how to negotiate the present world in the context of their faith.   I have learned that parenting never really ends.  It just changes in its process.  As we share the journey our relationship continues to deepen. 

We have the authority given to us by Christ to be his hands and feet to the younger generation.  Sometimes, just spending a few minutes with a young person that we might not even know well will create a blessing.   This was reinforced to be when the old track was open in the mornings and I was able to converse with members of the cross country and track teams.   +Without realizing it, we may just be Christ to a young person without realizing it and influence their lives in a positive way.  Many young people feel isolated and alone even when their persona may cover this. 

Summing up, each of us, no matter our age, have the opportunity to reach out to the young.  Think of the adults in your younger days who gifted your life with blessings.  Now it’s our turn to be that blessing for them.  We can model to others by our own choices that prioritize Christ first over cultural aspirations and values.  

There are many ways we can metaphorically hug a child.  Allow Christ to hug a child through you so that they may experience the Presence of God in the temples of their hearts.