Things, they are a change'n!
In church, I became active in a leadership role at age 16. At age 19 I was asked to consider a pastoral position with a small, rural congregation with a long history of service to the community. At age 24, after recently leaving a position of leadership with a fellowship of 10 churches, I planted a church in a state out west. Then, my life took a turn as I pursued graduate degrees and a new career.
At a certain point, I began a lengthy time of "reflection" on my past work in organized religion; and I began an immersion into my deeper held beliefs and desire for actual spiritual experiences. Plainly speaking, I had concluded that I needed less talk about my spiritual life and, instead, needed to primarily focus on mining for meaningful experiences.
The results of these efforts?
Living life is my "religion".
We are at the beginning of an important movement to gather again, a spirituality that is fully natural and rational, yet not shallow or merely technical and descriptive – one that engages all of what it means to be a full and complete human being; not merely an intellectual exercise. Within Spiritual Naturalism, or Religious Naturalism, there are numerous emerging books and articles from a variety of backgrounds.
In these, we often speak of things like: ritual, meditation, awe and wonder, ethics, philosophy, practice, ego, non-attachment, science, virtue, religious experience, compassion, and more. While many of these may seem beneficial or important, it may be difficult to know how they all relate to one another. How do these pieces fit together into a whole system or practice? This big picture is what I’d like to outline, very briefly, in this article. Of course, each part of this can (and should) be expanded upon greatly. In fact, we are developing a course in Spiritual Naturalism that will go into this detail, but for now, let me try to give an outline of a possible system of practice for the naturalist…
We begin, first, with the entire goal of our effort: happiness. Or, the answer to the question as the ancient Greeks put it, “What is the best way to live?” The human being is a natural entity – a part of Nature and with its own objective nature, living in an objective environment. This is a world of consequences. Therefore, how best to live is a matter of engineering. That is, the engineering of our subjective experience, our habits, our character, and our life so as to yield happiness.
By happiness we mean, not mere pleasure or circumstantial delight. This has proven to be a poor predictor of well being or happiness. Rather, we mean a deep sense of inner peace and joy – a happiness that is not contingent upon the vicissitudes of external conditions but also inspires an engaged good life, in both senses of the word. We might call this True Happiness to delineate between it and the shallow forms of fleeting happiness with which many confuse it.
This kind of happiness is difficult if not impossible with the ‘default character’ that tends to emerge without a focused spiritual practice, or some de facto approximation of one. Normally, we are plagued with fear, greed, regret, anger, jealousy, concerns about what others think of us, and so on. These not only infringe on our happiness directly, but they encourage further behaviors and habits that are contrary to it. Such beings, unable to approach True Happiness, cling to the closest thing they can approach – pleasure derived from possessions, relationships, status, reputation, money, and so on. Yet, these are impermanent and shaky things on which to base one’s happiness. Disappointment and suffering are inevitable.
So, for a naturalist, a sensible spiritual practice will be a system by which we achieve character transformation. Perfection in this is unlikely, but the degree to which we can transform ourselves will yield a similar degree of freedom from that egotistical outlook and corresponding levels of True Happiness in life. Further, the practitioner may find that the degree of transformation possible in the human character can be astonishing.
How is such character transformation achieved? Experience will tell us that a few things are certain: reading is not enough, knowledge is not enough, intellectual assent (agreement) to even the best wisdom is not enough. You have read many wise things, and dutifully shared them (along with pretty pictures of sunsets) on social media, email, or in conversations with your friends. Yet you have found yourself acting in discord with them time and again when the rubber meets the road. You “know better” but knowing better is not enough. If you were truly enlightened, your character would be such that it would automatically and naturally react to real life situations in accord with the best wisdom you have read. There is no number of internet posts you can share or ‘like’ that will get you to this place. But this is what our spiritual practice should be designed to achieve.
The bottom line is that spirituality must include practice. By practice we mean your daily activities and your ways of thinking will need to change. And these activities cannot be merely the end products of ‘how a wise person behaves’. In other words, you can’t become more compassionate by beating yourself over the head yelling to yourself “be more compassionate!”
Rather, practice means engaging in practices and rituals designed to reformat your thought and judgment process, altering your inner value system. The key to understanding how and why these practices and rituals work, is getting over your dismissal of the subjective. Society has told you the subjective is ‘less real’ or ‘matters less’ than the objective. Yet, our very goal – happiness – is a subjective state. Therefore subjective things matter; things like: the language we use to describe and frame things, the categories we use, our perspectives on Nature and our place in it, simple outward movements and poses of reverence, how we feel about things, our speech and mannerism. For many, this may seem obvious, but for many naturalists, we are used to looking at the world scientifically and therefore tend to find comfort and refuge in highly technical and impersonal descriptions. Yet, one of the core aspects of Spiritual Naturalism is that we can have a role for good, solid, science – and – inner beauty with a sense of the sacred. One need not contradict or betray the other.
In these practices and rituals, we open both our thoughts and our feelings. We use metaphor, poetry, art, iconography, music, dance and other movement, and more. We use these because our minds have multiple ways of approaching the world. It is by a distributed connection to the deeper truths of wise teachings that all of these aspects of our natural soul are touched. And, in that multi-sensory and emotional/intellectual mixture, they become an increasingly deeper part of our way of looking at the world. Here, intellectual knowledge becomes intuitive. Character is transformed such that ‘ways of living’ becomes ‘ways of being’.
This is a path of continuous epiphany, profound experience, and deeper understanding. But to engage in such a practice requires a few things. For one, it requires the naturalist to give up any deep seated animosity and resistance to anything with the tinge of sounding too religious. This means not caring if others might misunderstand and think we have given up reason. It also means having the confidence that it is possible to set aside the ‘culture war’ against religion in our hearts but still be able to act in the world against ignorance, intolerance, and improper religious political actions.
Another thing this path requires is the willingness to change our life – you know, that thing that goes on when you finish reading this article and get up from the computer. It means doing something different when you wake up in the morning than you did before; and sticking with it. It means actually driving to new places, possibly bowing, ringing bells, lighting candles, vocalizing ritually, and so on. Many will read this and agree with it, but then their minds will resist change and quickly convince them that the answer is to click onward to read more things – as if that’s the next step. But you will never reach a point where you have read enough, fully understand, and then are ready to engage in practice. If that is your process, you will die having only read.
Practice as a SystemSo, as a system, this begins with the basic facts provided to us by reason. And, by reason, I mean that we believe knowledge comes to us through observation and what we can infer rationally from those observations. We are limited in our ability to know all things. This process includes science, but also the use of reason in our own lives, and most importantly – humility. That is, a humble approach to knowledge and the claims we make. In addition, humility in the sense that I focus on what I believe rather than worrying so much about telling others what they ought to believe.
But these facts about the world and ourselves are just the beginning of wisdom, not the end. From here, what is important is our perspective on those facts. Often, people point out that something is a ‘value judgment’ as a way of dismissing it. But value judgments are what we must make. They are critical. And, getting them right is critical to our happiness.
Yes, there are correct and incorrect value judgments; at least within such a system. We can say they are correct if they fulfill the purpose of humans making value judgments. In other words, if these judgments guide us toward positive thoughts and actions which are really conducive to a good life, then they are correct because they are consistent with their purpose.
For example, science will tell us there is a glass, and half of its inner volume is occupied by dihydrogen monoxide. We can look at that glass of water and we can judge that it is half empty or half full. This is the difference between a claim and a perspective.
One of the ‘advances’ of naturalistic spirituality is that we do not use our spirituality to make claims or rest parts of our spirituality upon those claims. Unlike some belief systems which get their facts from faith or revelation or scripture, we leave fact finding to those who are putting in the hard work of observing and recording them. But perspectives on those facts is where philosophy and our spirituality pick up. In this way, our spirituality is not opposed to science. Nor are the two “non-overlapping magisteria”. Instead, science has become a respected and functional department within our spirituality, with no need to put words in its mouth or corrupt the purity of its method.
Now, to the strict intellectual/skeptical naturalist, the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is just a silly little word game and the terms are interchangeable and of little consequence. But another of the crucial realizations of Spiritual Naturalism is this: the difference is monumental. This principle, extrapolated to the rest of our life, can be the distinction between two people in the same external circumstances – one with a full and happy life, and the other ending it in suicide. When we come to terms with the significance of our conceptualizations and judgments, the rest of spiritual practice begins to make functional sense – from meditation, to ritual, to all of the other many practices, sacred language, and more.
As we build habits of value judgment through various practices, and find new perceptions of wise teachings through rituals designed to elicit epiphany and peak experience, our baseline responses will begin to shift. That deep perspective shift includes the little often subconscious judgments we make and the emotional responses that kick in following those judgments. There has been a wealth of wisdom developed along these lines, going back to Taoism and Buddhism in the East, and Stoicism and Epicureanism in the West, and many others. But, again, putting that wisdom into practice is when the process begins. Now that you’ve reached the end of this article, what you do in your life is what will make the difference.
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We clergy can use the power of the sermon to project our will for the good. But I feel we can over use the sermon. What are your thoughts?
Have We Overplayed the Sermon Card?January 16, 2017 / LiveStream.com
By Wayne Jacobsen in a continuing series on The Phenomenon of the Dones.
I SAT DOWN to lunch with a good friend of mine one Tuesday afternoon, while I was still a pastor at a local congregation. We couldn’t even get our order placed before he exploded with excitement over the sermon I had preached two days before. “That was the best sermon I’ve ever heard. It changed my life.”
I knew it had gone well. Anyone who preaches regularly knows there are times when some sermons are just okay, and other times when everything comes together—the content, the crowd, a great illustration, even a move of the Spirit—that makes it incredibly special. That had been one of those times, but I was nonetheless intrigued by his last comment.
“Really? How did it change you?”
I could immediately see my question caught him off guard. I saw his mind churning right through his eyes but nothing was coming out of his mouth except, Ahh… Ahh… Ummm…” His lips had tightened and his hand pulsated in front of his chin, but he couldn’t think of a thing to say?
I tried again. “Can you tell me one thing you took away from that sermon?”
“Let me think,” he said buying time. “Remind me again what you talked about.”
“Oh no you don’t,” I responded playfully.
“At least give me the text,” he pleaded. I shook my head. After a bit more silence, we both started to laugh. Only forty-eight hours after the best sermon he’d ever heard and he couldn’t even remember what it was about.
This was one of those wake-up moments in my life. I used to love preaching sermons and having a roomful of people hang on my every word. I thrived on their laughter to a funny story or their wetted eyes when some truth touched their heart. I knew my friend was not given to flattery for he was as apt to criticize as he was to complement. That sermon had touched him powerfully if not enduringly.
I had already grown suspicious that the Sunday sermon is one of the most ineffective ways to help people grow spiritually. I have seen good sermons go by before without having any impact on the people who heard it. I have binders full of notes from sermons and teachings I’ve heard and while I can repeat the content of some of the more memorable ones, I can’t say that any of them actually changed the trajectory of my life.
Strange, isn’t it? It’s one of the two most important reasons people go to Sunday services. One is for what many call worship, that time of singing, prayer, praise or even celebrating the Eucharist, and the sermon. Any serious Christian will have a regular dose of both, or so the prevailing thought is. But how much time did Christ spend doing either? Did he ever teach is disciples how to facilitate a good “worship” experience, or how to craft a powerful sermon?
Perhaps we’ve overplayed the sermon card.
Looking back over the Gospels I’m amazed at how few sermons he actually gave and even when he did how little impact it had on those who listened. Not one of them was ever scheduled in advance. He simply talked to whomever he was with, whether it be an afternoon with a Samaritan woman, or her friends and family later that night. It could be his disciples in a boat or 5,000 scattered on a hillside, but it was never a prepared text, a scripted lecture, or a flourishing finish with a well-thought out application for the people to go and obey.
He talked about his Father’s kingdom and how they could embrace it. He wasn’t teaching doctrine, ethics, or rituals, but helping people discover how to live with God inside the reality of their own challenges. It was no wonder the most transformative moments came in personal conversations and why our preoccupation with sermons, seminars, and classes produce a Christianity that some complain is a mile wide but only an inch deep.
Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote, “Christians have preferred to hear something Jesus never said: ‘Worship me. Worship of Jesus is rather harmless and risk-free; following Jesus changes everything.” He went on to suggest that the Sunday teaching is “like a secret social contract between clergy and laity, as we shake hands across the sanctuary. We agree not to tell you anything that would make you uncomfortable, and you will keep coming to our services. It is a nice deal, because once the Gospel is preached, I doubt if the churches would be filled. Rather, we might be out on the streets living the message.” He called it a co-dependent relationship that actually keeps the Gospel from spreading in the world.
This is one of the major reasons the so-called “Dones” are giving up on the Sunday morning delivery system. It is proving increasingly irrelevant to their spiritual lives. They can get good teaching in other places, what they need is less a Sunday morning pep talk to try harder and more of an exchange that is relevant to their own journey. They seek a vibrant spirituality that fulfills the promises they’ve heard about in sermon after sermon. To help them discover that we need to move beyond lectures and books, to the kind of encounters with people that Jesus had.
I got my pilot’s license when I was seventeen. While I did attend ground school and learn all the intricacies of aerodynamics, navigation, weather, air traffic control, and how to load a balanced aircraft, I never learned to fly. That took climbing into an aircraft along with an instructor who could show me what to do to actually fly a plane. That could never happen in a class; it had to happen with a tutor.
So I’m not saying that sermons have no value, only that the value is limited. They can provide valuable information and inspiration, but their impact on spiritual transformation is fairly weak and all the more so as people get used to hearing the same voice each week. They may find it informative, inspirational, even entertaining, but at the end of the day it cannot show them how to live. For that they need a more mature friend with whom they can share their experiences, questions and even doubts as they explore their own connection to God.
Listening to sermons, even taking notes and trying to live out the application is probably the worst way to discover how to live inside the love of the Father and to follow him.
I’m convinced that ninety percent of teaching and preaching occurs in a conversation where questions are being asked, doubts considered, and difficult realities contemplated. The life of Christ doesn’t flow well in three-point outlines on a topic they are not even considering until I bring it up. Christ comes to them “in life”, not far removed from it in the comfort of a sanctuary. Learning to live inside his reality is very different from learning the routines of Christianity as a religion.
Yes, I still talk to larger groups, but far less as a lecture and far more as a conversation that allows people to learn in their time and through their own experiences. What are their questions, doubts, and struggles, and how might I frame a question or observation that leads them into a wider world where God makes himself known to them? I’ve come to value the time in cars and homes with people far more than I do standing on a stage, and I see far more impact from it as well.
This kind of teaching enthralls me. Oh, it is more difficult than preparing a lecture on the topic of my choosing. It demands that I engage them, listen carefully to their story and concerns with an ear tuned to the Spirit so that I can respond not with a pat answer, but with something tailored to them in that moment. After all the life of Jesus isn’t about teaching people a set of doctrines, but assisting them in finding their way into living in the growing awareness of his life.
Sermons give the mistaken idea that there is a well-crafted answer to every question, but that’s only because we set up the question to fit our answers. They can unwittingly intimidate people from engaging others with real questions because they don’t have all the answers. The very positioning of a lecture sets up an expert in the front of the room that everyone should listen to rather than a fellow-struggler in this amazing adventure of participating in the mystery of Christ in us.
In fact it may be true that the one teaching the sermon gets the most value out of it. It usually is attached to his or her life, wrestling with content important for their journey. But if we want to serve others, wouldn’t we want to reverse that? Instead of sharing what has value in our lives, we would be teaching what most makes sense in theirs.
Studying just to share a teaching and then rush back to your closet to prepare another, doesn’t even give time for it to sink in on your own life, much less theirs. I remember sharing on many topics that were fresh to my own journey, but as soon as I taught about them I moved on to something else that interested me, without embracing the very realities about which I was teaching.
Our preoccupation with sermons is built on the underlying assumption that we grow best by hearing a truth and then applying it to our lives. That may work for writing computer code or cleaning a home, but it will not teach people how to follow him. For that they need an encounter God in their unfolding circumstances and the insight to lean into his reality. It’s not the preaching of the Scriptures we need more of, but the preaching of Christ that helps people see him in their own lives and follow him.
What we need are men and women living the life themselves, who can freely pass it on to others in conversation. Our emphasis on the Sunday sermon as the center of the local congregation and the focus for spiritual growth causes us to keep raising up generations of young men and women who academically equipped to teach sermons, but are ill-prepared to be a companion alongside someone’s spiritual journey. They can write an outline and talk with eloquence, but they have no idea how to help someone find a transformative relationship in the midst of the circumstances life throws at them.
In recent decades an old word has re-emerged to describe this approach: spiritual director. The word places a greater emphasis on professionalism and control than I like and is often only available to the wealthy or well-connected. Can you imagine of older brothers and sisters who’ve been on the journey for a while would be willing to share their encouragement and wisdom with the authority and control that so easily sidetracks it? All you have to do is come alongside someone as a friend and share your journey and insights allowing the Holy Spirit to help them see what’s best for their journey.
The church in the west is not withering for lack of knowledge, but for a lack of knowing him and being transformed by him. We teach Christ as a religion to follow that is empty and futile, rather than helping people live it with freedom. The early church had the same problem. Paul wanted them to learn that it wasn’t. His admonishment in Colossians 2 is as applicable today as it was to his listeners:
My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you’ve been given. You received Christ Jesus, the Master; now live him. You’re deeply rooted in him. You’re well constructed upon him. You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out; quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.
Watch out for people who try to dazzle you with big words and intellectual double-talk. They want to drag you off into endless arguments that never amount to anything. They spread their ideas through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings. But that’s not the way of Christ. Everything of God gets expressed in him, so you can see and hear him clearly.
The power of the Gospel is demonstrated not in our programs or lectures, but in a transformed life living freely in the world. We are the sermon the world needs, and the sermon that can help others grow to know him. It’s our living in him that makes the difference, not just talking about.
This is part 17 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at TheGodJourney.com. You can read the first half here and subsequent parts below:
thanks to au.org!
The pledge reads:
As a person of faith, I cherish the fundamental guarantee of the freedom of religion and belief. I share this conviction with people of all faiths as well as those who profess no faith. It protects our right to believe—or not—as we see fit and ensures we can act on our beliefs so long as we don’t impose harm on others.
I pledge to use my faith to lift up and encourage people, rather than tear down or demean.
I pledge to use my faith to stand alongside all those whose basic human and civil rights are being denied, and to advocate for justice.
I pledge to stand up for real religious freedom, and against efforts that would allow religion to be used to harm and discriminate against others.
S.L. Brannon, B.A., M.Ed., D.Div. You can learn more about me on facebook and linkedin.
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