A Series on Jesus Christ: Part 16 – Tribes

Pat and I have not gone to church during the 15 years we have known each other. Prior to that both of us had been deeply involved in church work, Pat for a long stint at Good Shepherd Catholic Church and me a 33-year stint at St. Paul Lutheran Church. But after our respective divorces, and even before that, our rich church lives ended. For different reasons the church just didn’t work for us any more. We do not miss the “tribes” of which we were so much a part and that had defined our spiritual lives for so many years. We wonder why, but not enough to reengage.

On Saturday I attended a retirement party for Rev. Harold Oliver, the pastor who has served my brother Paul’s church, Zion Lutheran Church, for 36 years, all years where Paul has served in leadership in one way or another. The turnout was beautiful to see. The parishioners love their pastor and clearly he loves and serves each and every one of them. Pastor Oliver’s role has been to be present to his flock during all the meaningful times of their lives – births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, illnesses, deaths, and times of grief, job loss, and the inevitable struggles of life. What struck me was the beautiful nature of this tribe, if I can call it that. It had the feel of a safe haven in which each person, each family unit, could live a rich, supported, and fulfilling life. Paul and the others who spoke at the party were emotional, expressing an incredible bond with their dearly loved leader and pastor. Yes, his has been a rich and meaningful life of service to his flock, and his flock has deep appreciation for all that he has been to them individually and collectively down through the years.

An aspect of this homogeneity was their obvious and free confession of love for Jesus Christ. Pastor Oliver reinforced this throughout his comments during the evening. So did the other speakers, including their young and loved assistant pastor, and so did the District President in attendance. This was a beautiful testimony to all the seeds of the gospel that Pastor Oliver had planted.

But I was not a part of this tribe. And in being at this marvelous event I realized I did not see how I could belong to this tribe, even though I could see its loving infrastructure everywhere.  What were my blocks to becoming a part of this tribe or one like it?  Pastor’s greeting to me when I arrived says it all. With mutual laughter, Pastor greeted me with, “So Gary, the 2% guy! I really did not think you would be here.” We had not seen each other for ten years and so I guess my attendance did surprise him. By his comment about my being the “2% guy” he was referring to all the time I had spent two decades earlier in his men’s weekly breakfast bible study where I was always the guy at the fringe theologically. While back then he was always open to me and loved me, he felt he needed to tend the other 98% of his flock who were more aligned with the teachings of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. We would not engage in serious spiritual conversations.

So my struggle is joining a tribe on the one hand and being faithful to my own journey as the “2% guy” on the other. So what are my struggles with this particular tribe: Zion Lutheran Church? My struggle in joining my brother’s tribe is integral to my evolving relationship with Jesus Christ. Since July 2013, I have shared my most recent excursion into this exploration in my 15 blog entries titled A Jesus Christ Series.  What are my points of disharmony, and are they serious enough for me to not rejoin the tribe at St. Paul Lutheran Church I left 15 years ago? To serve as one’s tribe a group has to support the growth and development of that person’s spiritual growth. As I said in my many blog entries since July, this conservative Lutheran Tribe, which is so faithful to the teachings of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), would pull me backward rather than support my growth.

What are these areas of conflict? In addition to my previous blog entries I refer the reader to Pathwork Lecture 88 – Religion: True and False. Here are a few points.

1) LCMS holds that God, in his righteousness, would need to punish us the sinner because we fall short of the righteousness of God needed to be in communion with God. I do not see this as at all necessary – it would be a choice by God to punish or not punish. Thousands of years ago punishment was necessary to curtail evil in the world because of the low level of consciousness of the majority of the civilization. Today the civil courts can easily carry this task out without making a punishing God a central part of our theology.

2) LCMS holds that the death of Jesus Christ, like lambs and goats in the Old Testament Levitical law, was a sacrificial atonement for our sins thereby reconciling us with God, provided we have faith in his sacrifice as the basis of our reconnection with God. I do not hold that sacrificial anything by another atones for my sins. I note that even the Old Testament denounces sacrifice as a means of redemption for sin. For example (and there are many) consider Psalm 51:16-17: You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise. Now why in the New Testament are we reintroducing the idea of substitutionary sacrifice?

3) LCMS holds that a proper sermon offers law (to remind us of our sins) and gospel (the good news to assure us that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross fully atones for them).  I hold that the good news is that God loves us, sins and all. “Just as I am without one plea” does not need to go on with the words of the hymn made so popular by the Billy Graham Crusade: “but that thy blood was shed for me.” (link to words of the hymn). No, God loves me just as I am. Period.

4) LCMS holds that the most important thing in life is that we go to heaven when we die and for this we need to have faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. The second most important thing in our life of this earth is that we share this message and love with everyone so all can go to heaven. I hold that the most important thing of life is our purification and transformation and out of this we serve the planet out of the love flowing from a purified and transformed heart.

Each of these points was emphasized as central in the messages of the retirement party on Saturday. Of course these are just a few points and there are many other subtleties that are very significant to me that do not fit my life any longer. To me in these central points the LCMS drives home our separation from God at our Essence, saying that at our Essence we are evil and God and Jesus Christ are good – a dualistic good/bad level of consciousness. I hold that at our Essence we are all One with God. Our oneness with God is the truly Good News of the Gospel. Yes, we also are tainted with sin.  We each participated in the Fall. Why? This was due to our misunderstanding about the nature of God’s love (that nature of God’s love being that God’s love is not dependent on our level of divinity). In our illusion of separation from God we live in fear on many levels (see this link to an interesting statement about the pervasiveness of fear due to the illusion of our separateness from our own Divine Essence). From our lower-self nature we combat this fear by strategies of self will and pride, and this behavior takes us deeper into the darkness of our illusion of separation with its resulting ever-deeper existential fear.

OK, based on my experience of the LCMS I discern that I cannot grow significantly from my joining this tribe. But let’s look at this situation another way. Instead of pulling me backward in my growth, could I not be a force for growth to other members of the tribe? That certainly could be the case provided the spiritual head of the tribe (the pastor) recognized that where I am in my spiritual journey represents hard developmental work – personal and spiritual – and my life experience could be meaningful to at least a few others in the tribe who feel called to further growth. Based upon my interaction with the pastor I sense, however, that my 2% status is considered by him to be heresy and is seen as potentially disruptive to the other 98% members of the tribe.  In short, I do not feel welcome. If, on the other hand, he held that where I am represents spiritual and personal growth and that I could be of some service to the tribe by sharing from there, I would be most encouraged and perhaps consider rejoining.

In thinking about this I see that I have assumed that the pastor sees me as a dangerous heretic. Perhaps I should talk with him and explore this matter further. Would he be open to my leading a spiritual/personal development growth class for his tribe, no holds barred?

So if the church as we have experienced it is not our tribe, what kind of a tribe would be suitable for Pat and me? At a recent Enneagram workshop led by Cynthia Bourgeault and Helen Palmer I asked Cynthia about tribes. “For those of us who have left the church and created our own path from a variety of components that support our journey, how do we find tribes where we can grow, serve, and experience a feeling of belonging?” Her answer was direct, “Perhaps you can’t. Perhaps you are at a time of solitude for your growth at this time.” Her words seemed wise to me.

What about the Pathwork Community for me, or Pat’s Awakening Into Presence (AIP) community for her? Last year AIP dissolved, leaving a few subgroups to develop as they see fit – a big shift for Pat. But what about Pathwork? In one of my sessions with my Pathwork helper Moira she emphasized that Pathwork is a spiritual growth path where groups are formed in support of our growth. They are not bound together on the personality level – “feeling community” is not there purpose. I am still open on this point, but do not feel a local Pathwork community developing just now.

What about another church? I find that Pathwork Lecture 88 Religion: True and False offers this (¶45-46) helps in this regard:

QUESTION:  From what you say, it becomes clear that religion is a matter of each individual soul developing to its optimum point by way of search and self-realization.  The Churches have played a dominant role for many years, however, so it would seem that their function would eventually fall away.

ANSWER:  Yes, indeed it will.  When more people follow a path of self-recognition, growing and developing their own resources, they will no longer need authority.  As for those who are not yet far enough in their development, human law will suffice to protect society from their untamed and destructive impulses.  The truly divine can function only in free souls, and this will happen.  The whole trend of history points in this direction.

Sharing in our Coffee Time Sunday 1/5/14

Pat: From your sharing I can see that the LCMS message has been imprinted on your Soul – as Pathwork would say, this imprint is a Soul “dent” to be worked with and through and healed during your incarnation. It is there alongside your attachment avoidance disorder that led you to lead an independent life, avoiding connection with others because you did not know the feelings of love and could not recognize your need for connection in a healthy way. All of this still lives in you still, or you would not be triggered in these matters. How do we integrate all of this and heal this LCMS conditioning? How do we experience that healing that would propel us to deeper truth and the light? Gary: I am reminded of Jesus’ words after his resurrection, “Behold my hands and my feet.”  He still had the scars from his incarnation. Perhaps I shall always have scars of these wounds.  The wounds are being healed, but I shall carry the scars beyond the grave.

Pat: But isn’t it still true to say that when and as you get into places that call these energies forth, energies that trigger you, that they still live in you? You have this LCMS imprint somewhere in your being or you would not be triggered.

Gary: I remember times when I felt very threatened in the presence of these Christian Fundamentalist messages, but I did not feel that so much on Saturday at the retirement party. I do not really feel threatened but rather I simply do not know how to connect with folks in this tribe at a deep level.  It would be like Galileo having a discussion with the Catholic church – how do you discuss things when your own understanding and experiences are so different from those of people leading the tribe?

Pat: Is it enough to be the listening presence to these fellow human beings who, like us, are caught in the inherent limitations of our humanity? We are not fully awakened to the Truth of our True nature, the Truth that the Divine lives here, in us. The Truth is that the Divine is us! Maybe your personality (small “s” self) doesn’t want to feel the awkwardness.  Gary: Yes – over Christmas with family and friends there were times when I felt awkward, did not know how to connect or what to say – I was a deer in the headlights. I was not feeling at all part of the tribe I was in at times.

Pat: We have to be alert, attentive, aware of our inner and outer dynamic – the entire field that is here rather than sitting in our separate small “s” self saying: “I feel awkward, separate, uncomfortable.” We need to bring in all the voices of the field, then the Big Heart that doesn’t say, “I’m separate,” can come forth. That Big Heart sees and loves. The small “s” self says, “I ought to feel close to these members of the tribe.” Pat then turned and read pages from Wallace’s Seven-Point Mind Training book – pages from which she had read earlier (open quote from which she read).

Pat: I am not sure how you and I get to live our lives the way we do – let us use our time wisely.

In all our coffee time Sunday went on for nearly 2 hours before we adjourned to the National Exemplar for breakfast and our Sunday morning ritual of spending a few hours with the New York Times.

Before closing, I want to emphasize that Pastor Oliver is a model pastor for his beautiful tribe. His life has been fulfilling and rich. I do not have pastoral skills that he possesses, as a test I took many years ago when considering going into the ministry pointed out. So whoever I am, I do not fit the pastoral mold and I honor those who have the breadth of skills and qualities to do pastoring well.

Shared in love, Gary

I am reading other material that seems to relate to tribes as explored in this post – some are books, some articles. Some I am reading and others I am ordering or have received but not yet read. I share this list for your possible interest.

1) My Promised Land – The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. I am very much enjoying this book that describes the developing of Israel from 1897 to the present. Such a search for identity from lives spent in Nazi Germany, in Russia, in Iraq, etc. and then integrating, or not integrating, with the Arabs whose land the Jews had bought. I find this very complex story very worth reading.

2) Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion on Israel – 12/29/13 NYT article by Laurie Goodstein – discusses challenge of openness in the Hillel groups on college campuses, some of which want to invite in Palestinian students for conversation and others who will not allow this. I’m struck by the role of nationalism as a separating force.

3) German, Jewish, Neither – 1/5/14 NYT article by Yascha Mounk – a very good article on individuation and seeking identity.

4) Stranger in My Own Country: A Jewish Family in Modern Germany by Yascha Mounk – I want to order this book by the same author as preceding NYT article.

5) Moral Tribes Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene. I bought this book because of its exploring the topics of me vs. us and us vs. them – certainly germane to this topic of tribes.

6) Big Gods – How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict by Ara Norenzayan. I bought this work because it deals with how tribes organize into larger tribes and how this forms the complex structure we have for world religions.