Religious CAN be Spiritual

I’m reading the latest issue of “Family Therapy” magazine and there’s an article on the importance of spirituality, especially in recovery. It makes two claims I either find questionable or straight-out disagree with.

1) “Spirituality is not interchangeable with religion” and 2) “Spirituality is not a commodity that is present or absent, or one that is possessed in amount”. Mostly, I dislike the first, but the second is still ripe for discussion, so I want to weigh in on that…

So, first things first. There was a debate recently about a pastor who is sick of the phrase, “spiritual, not religious” because, she said, it didn’t denote or mean anything — other than, perhaps, “I don’t go to church”. Also, in the same category, it seems to me, is a book with a great subtitle. The book is called “Kissing Fish: Christianity for those who don’t like Christianity. I understand both statements and agree with the underlying theme: There are ways to be both religious and spiritual.  Yes, one can seem to be veeeerrrryyyy religious (pious), but not be spiritual (read “nice, loving”) at all. We all know people like that. Unfortunately, they seem to have the biggest TV shows, churches, and egos. One of the reasons I started writing this blog is to combat those people, as I believe Jesus calls us to do. There’s a whole subsection of pieces I’ve written called “Do Your Own Theology” because I believe people can and should know what they believe and why. Further, I trust that they can, even if their church has said otherwise. You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything. I think people can and should take the time to do that. That’s what makes good people “spiritual”, it seems to me and it can be true for any church/religion that you might be a member of (Cathi…).

But — and here’s where it bothers me — for centuries now — people have been using religion to find their spirituality. It’s not my cup of tea, but saying the rosary as many times as you can in a day works for many people. I know people who love the Book of Common Prayer and use it as their model of worship. It wasn;t until seminary that my bias against rote prayers went away, not because I like them — I still don’t — but because it clearly does seem beautiful and holy and — dare I say it — spiritual for some people. Saying Zen mantras and sitting under trees for days or months isn’t my practice either, but it works for people. Being saved by Christ isn’t where I put the emphasis in my faith, but it is a part of my faith. In short, because spirituality is a part of all religions that I know of, it can be found using whatever techniques best work for you, and the introduction to spirituality has been — for centuries — through the church. Not going to church, any more than going to church, doesn’t make you a better, kinder person. It doesn’t. If that’s what you mean when you say “I’m spiritual, not religious”, then ok, but I’m not impressed. It just seems to me that you puff yourself up by contrasting yourself with others. That doesn’t work for me, whether you are in the church or not.  I could get into a lengthy discussion of the need for a “community of faith”, but that’s another matter for another time.

Next up is “Spirituality is not a commodity that is present or absent, or one that is possessed in amount”. If, by that, you mean “no one person is more valuable in God’s eyes than another”, I totally agree with you. But that’s a different question than whether or not one has spirituality or not. To say that “some people aren’t more spiritual than others” is like saying “some people aren’t more emotional than others” or “some people aren’t smarter than others”. There are people for whom spirituality just makes sense and others for whom it requires a great deal of work. While Moses saw the burning bush, there are people who would have just thrown water on it and walked away. There are people for whom it wouldn’t speak, and there are people who wouldn’t care if it did.

This is not to say that people who are spiritual or do spirituality for a living(aka clergy) can take credit for that. God is God and the gift is given by God. The burning bush( metaphorically) was there for anybody to see and spiritual people pay attention to it, but they don’t make The Spirit or the spiritual realm exist. They can use spiritual practices to be more focused on it, and they can possess more of it in that sense. Alternatively, God could just come shwack some people on the side of the head and they then possess spirituality.

Clergy are, I believe, qualitatively different than other people. They, through nothing they did, can see and feel that spectrum of life. There are plumbers who have the natural talent to do plumbing and just ‘get it’. This is why I don’t build houses or clean drains. I don’t have any interest in, or sensitivity to, plumbing or any number of skilled trades. My point here is that — just as you should respect anyone else — you should respect clergy and give them their props. They worked hard to get where they are, and they do know God, in my experience.

That doesn’t mean they’re always moral, or always right or that they should be followed blindly. What it does mean is that — on their best days and their worst — they are more aware of the Spirit than your average person.

The “old ways” do work and they do often. They are not the only ways, by any means, but they shouldn’t be  disrespected or judged either.                     






On the Pending Death of Fred Phelps

I once knew a lesbian whose mother had done some really nasty things to her as a child. Years later, she told me her mother had died, and I responded, “Well, I hope she likes it warm. She’s gonna be there for awhile”. She told me that I was the first person to suggest that her mother deserved the flames of hell for the pain she had caused in this life. She felt relieved because, at the funeral/wake, all of the people kept saying how she must miss her mother and how special she was. So, let me relieve you as well by being the first person to say that I hope Fred Phelps likes it warm, because he’s going to be there a long time. At least that’s what I think intellectually.

For people who don’t know him, Fred Phelps was the pastor and founder of the Westboro Baptist Church which began to picket funerals of gay people or veterans because America was turning gay or not punishing those homosexuals enough or some such nonsense and they thought God was causing these deaths to happen because — in his words — “God Hates Fags”. I hate to repeat that epithet, but I want people to be clear just what kind of person Phelps was.  Apparently, according to the Huffington Post , Phelps was excommunicated from his own church in 2013, has cancer now, is in hospice care, and will die soon. I got the impression from the piece that he and his family were excommunicated from the church because he didn’t hate enough, but that could just be my understanding.

In any case, this vocal bully of a man who traveled great distances to make people’s lives hell — this nearly prime example of bad, un-Christian theology —  is now dying of a horrible illness, and he seems to be dying alone. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, or as John Lennon said, “Instant Karma’s gonna get you!”. The temptation to gloat, to point out how young he is, and how nasty his cancer is almost too much to keep under wraps. If there was any justice at all for Fred Phelps’ life, this would be it — for as many years as he bothered the people at their children’s funeral, he should suffer the pangs of cancer, symbolic of the cancer that his thoughts have been to America’s psyche.

Still, it seems to me that the best kind of Christianity would have me attend his funeral … and be nice — to pray for him and his family as he passes into the next whatever is out there. If you make a place because you believe in it, then Fred Phelps will surely believes in Hell, and it’s going to be nasty and there’s nothing that can save him from it, Well, nothing but God can save him from hell and ours isn’t necessarily the God of justice, but the God of mercy and compassion. That’s what being nice at Phelps’ funeral would symbolize — the merciful and compassionate God that Mr. Phelps never seemed to talk about, the God who would weep for whatever caused Mr. Phelps to be so hateful, spiteful, and mean-spirited.

In the world of psychology, I can’t believe that Phelps’ hate (and that’s what it was) didn’t spring from some sense of extreme self-loathing. Maybe he himself was gay and couldn’t cope, or molested by a man and never got over it, or maybe his parents were abusive, or maybe he is schizophrenic or … who knows. In any case, I don’t like to believe that this kind of hate just happens. So, whatever’s behind it, (if there is something behind his hate), God is the kind of God who would be sad about whatever it was, and we should be too.

But that doesn’t excuse the hate. As I tell clients all the time, I can understand just about anything, but I can’t excuse it if “it” is just too much. Horrible things happen all the time. Some people live their lives to make sure it never happens again to anybody, and some people never deal with it, and simply act out. Phelps acted out and seemed to believe his acting out was a good thing.It wasn’t.

Phelps and his church followers’ action don’t just make him a jerk, they make him  a special kind of jerk. He so excelled at being a jerk, he got press coverage for it. He was not a Kardashian-type reality “star” who was famous for doing nothing. He had real talent and special skills — he earned his reputation. 

In Dante’s Inferno, there’s not just one big pit of hell, where all evil is equal. There are levels of hell to distinguish between people who made logical mistakes (soldiers who were absolved before they killed anybody, so the absolution didn’t count) and, say, Judas Iscariot, who killed Jesus. Phelps’ words and actions would put him closer to Judas’ level and farther from the soldier’s. Here’s why: Phelps didn’t just besmirch his own reputation with his words. He made a mess of God and Jesus’ reputation with his words. People would look at him and his press coverage and they would say, “How can you believe in that God?!” They would say “If that’s Christianity, I don’t want it!”.

I often felt like Clousseau in the Pink Panther movies when a man accused him while being bitten, saying “I thought your dog didn’t bite?!” and Clousseau answering, “It is not my dog”. My God does not bite, but Fred’s did. People were amazed when I would say, “If that’s Christianity, I don’t want it”, and then I would get to explain myself. What bothered me was the people who never said it me, or never listened when I answered back, or never thought they could approach a Christian and ask what I — or others like me — thought. Those people are gone, or lost, or angry at a God that loves them and forgives them when they need it, and reaches out to them every night they can see the stars. It is those people that make Fred Phelps a real jerk. Rather than drawing people closer to God, people like Fred drew them away from God.

There is a scripture that says that the only sin God will not forgive is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That means God will not forgive people who say the Spirit is bad or evil, or un-holy in some way. That, for my literalist friends, might be the one that gets Fred sent to hell. Certainly, I would agree to it if asked.

But here’s the thing: as angry as I get at the likes of Fred Phelps, I am not the one who makes that heaven-or-hell decision. There are some who would say that Fred himself made that decision. But even Fred may not have that kind of power. In the end, the faith teaches that God (or Jesus) is the one with that decision. We are not to judge. To judge would be to give into the very hate we despise in others, to become more like Phelps and less like Jesus and I don’t want to go there.

By the way, for those who believe (or worry) that just because Phelps may have “confessed Jesus as his Lord and Savior”, that he can’t go to hell, I quote Jesus: “And don’t claim that your heritage makes you above it all. God could make these stones turn into sons of Abraham”. (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). In other words, “Don’t think your faith gives you a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. It doesn’t”. If Phelps abused the Spirit for his own political ends, if he didn’t recognize the Spirit in his LGBT brothers and sisters and instead tried to kill it, he shouldn’t plan on an easy time in the after-life. A just God won’t let him have one. The question is “Do we worship a just God or a merciful one?” That question can only be answered by God Him/Herself. I remain convinced that God is big enough to make that decision so I don’t have to.

So how does a good Christian respond to the news that Fred Phelps will likely soon die? With prayers for his healing, and his true repentance, and a life with God that heals people instead of hurting them, that sees The Holy Spirit in all of his brothers and sisters, that doesn’t disrupt people at the most important times of their lives.

So, until he is dead, that’s what I will do. After he’s dead, whenever that is, he’s on his own, as far as I’m concerned, and it’s better that way.

Where does Fred’s death leave the Christian world? In the same place his life did: picking up the pieces of what he’s done to the world and trying to live, preach, and act on the gospel of Jesus, trying to correct false impressions of the faith, trying to believe that it’s possible if I could love them, then perhaps God could, too. With time, the damage that Fred has done to the faith will be forgotten and people will think that evil like his life is only a myth. Until that happens, though, I and all of Christianity have some work to do.




A Bridge Over “Power”

Last night, I was reading The Nation (THE best magazine ever, in my opinion — I come back to it all the time) and I came across an article on online feminism and the fact that it has apparently gotten nasty between radical feminists online. A few weeks ago, a client and I got into it regarding authority. I was saying that I, as therapist, had power in the relationship by nature of my role. Further, while I knew of people who had taken advantage of their clients,it was my job not to. She argued that I didn’t have power, that’s we were collaborating on her treatment and, while she also knew people who abused power, she didn’t have to believe a damn thing I said if she didn’t want to.  Oddly, we both believe the same thing, because there is nothing so misunderstood, controversial, and divisive as power — for liberals and conservatives. We use the same word and mean totally different things by it. All of this got me to thinking about conflicts between me, my liberal friends, and my conservative ones.

Power, in the conservative political  world, is a good thing and we all have it. We can all rise above our circumstances if we just believe in ourselves enough. Freedom gives us that, and government doesn’t allow us freedom, so it dis-empowers, even –if its motives are good.

Power, in the liberal political world, is different altogether. For liberals, the world is sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, ageist and so on. We might have individual freedom and the moral responsibility for standing up for ourselves, and others, but the world/ the “system” is the problem, and government must act to protect people from the -isms by making more laws.

My “guru” in the psychological world, Virginia Satir, didn’t deal with political and societal power issues in the sense that it wasn’t her frame of reference. She doesn’t subscribe to a particular world view, so the lens of “power” and “dis-empowered” isn’t a given. She (and I) are much more “reality based” in her approach. If the way you’re living is working for you, fine. If it’s not, it’s “dis-functional” (a word she coined) and you need to do something about it. She believes a non-hierarchical approach is healthiest in systems, like couples, families, and societies and is about breaking those down when she can and when it applies. In short, there may be hierarchies, but you don’t have to subscribe to them and it’s not healthy to do so in any case.

Jesus, my religious and spiritual inspiration, is quite clear about power — “You are not to lord it over others”, he says in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 20:  25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”

All of this is to say that some people will always want power over others, some people believe they have no power in their lives. Some people feel oppressed, some don’t. Some people feel they don’t oppress others, some do. In the words of the songs, “people everywhere/just want to be free” (the Rascals, in the 1960’s) and “everybody wants to be/closer to free” (the Bodeans, in the 1980’s).

Here’s where it gets tricky: What if you don’t see oppression and you are (supposedly?) oppressed?. Does seeing it mean believing it? Does denying it mean not believing it has any power in your life? If you don’t believe you are oppressed, are you?

If  you’re one of those “in power”, supposedly, the same questions apply. If you don’t believe in lording it over others, are you anyway? Is “white privilege” the same thing as “being racist”? Is “male privilege” the same thing as “being sexist”? It depends on who you ask.

The reality is this: we live in separate worlds and we can’t know each others’ experience until we experience it with them or through them in some way — like literature or art. Years ago, when my friend Greg Coles and I went to a yacht club for lunch (he’s Black, I’m White, He’s richer than I — he chose the place), we were ignored for the 45 minutes until we left after Greg tried to get their attention. When I was growing up, people didn’t think women needed as much money as men. Why should they? Today, we fight the battles over whether LGBT people have the right to be included in every facet of society. As someone who grew up poor, many of my peers later in life had no idea what it was like and saw me as having more power than they did. I saw myself as poor.

So, yes, racism actually does exist. You can still get pulled over for Driving While Black. Sexism still exists — women still make less money than men do for equal work, generally. Homophobia still exists. Ask gay couples who go to Jamaica or Olympians in Russia. Classism still exists, but is seldom, if ever, acknowledged. If you never bounce a check in your life because you have a thousand dollars in the bank, you pay less than someone who bounces a check so they can get milk.

Actual political oppression has always existed. The Romans in Jesus’ time oppressed the Jews and everybody else. Within the Jewish world, a woman with no husband had no power to vote or make a “legitimate” living. At the same time, as Monty Python’s Life of Brian points out, there was also “progress” in the areas conquered by Rome — roads, running water, etc. Does that mean the people were less oppressed? I don’t know. I bet some felt like they were and some didn’t. I bet some Romans believed they were doing the right thing while others had reservations about expanding the empire. In any case, I bet that you were more likely to be happy with the status quo/less likely to see yourself as an oppressor if you were a Roman and less likely to like the status quo/more likely to see yourself as oppressed if you were one of the annexed or conquered communities.

In America today, it’s much the same among liberals and conservatives. I wonder if people like Clarence Thomas or Herman Cain are oppressed simply because they don’t acknowledge racism. I find it hard to believe that a gay man or a lesbian running the halls of power on the White House staff is really all that oppressed, and I find it easy to believe that any person on the White House staff is in power. And yet, they are both true in different forms and to different degrees.  There are some who would say that the very existence of Barack Obama as President of the United States means that he is no longer oppressed and that racism no longer exists. See? That one’s in the most powerful position in the world, so he can’t be oppressed”, goes the logic. Furthermore, “because The Most Powerful Man In The World is Black, they have an ally in power and racism can no longer exist”, they say. If there is one thing that this administration has taught us, it is that even The Most Powerful Man In The World can be held back by racism. How else do we explain the unprecedented gridlock in Washington? I don’t know that any other President was called a “sub-human mongrel”.

(A brief detour here: Is “authority” necessarily  the same thing as “power over”? Obama’s got authority, clearly, as the President. Does he have power? Yes, of course. Does he have power over anybody? That remains to be seen, if he doesn’t take it.  Caring people, people with a conscience, try not to “lord it over” others. Hitler had both oppressive power and authority. Hitler would have killed Ted Nugent before the sentence about “mongrel” was complete and no one would have questioned him about it. Obama’s Secret Service detail “had words with” Nugent. Did they rob him of his free speech? Maybe, but he’s still a free man, and he can still speak.)

I have two white male friends who believe what I believe — that real authority is the antithesis of oppressive power. My minister growing up, Bob Kyte, once told me that “the only power we (ministers) have is trust”. A colleague in therapy-land, Will Foremaker, once said “a relationship can either be about power or it can be about love. It can’t be both”. Both of these men have power as politically defined, by nature of their jobs, by nature of the their gender and sexual orientation, and yet both men are about as egalitarian as they can be. Are they racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, classist, or the new one in the news this week, “transphobic”? By some far-left standards, yes. By some far-right standards, no. The more important question is this: “Are they jerks?” and the unequivocal answer is  “no”.  They both have authority in certain circumstances, but they don’t abuse it. Their having power over themselves means that they don’t need it over others and this is the thing that liberals don’t get in their power analysis. At the same time, this is the thing that makes conservatives cringe because “good” conservatives know this.  Power-analysis liberals get into these dysfunctional battles about “who’s the most oppressed?” as though “being oppressed” gives you power in some way. In this way, we eat our young. Feminism has suffered because there are mean feminists and nobody wants to be mean, so women distance themselves from the label. The fact of the matter is that there were feminists who were feminists who didn’t like men and there were feminists who liked being strong women. The second group is alot more fun to be around, while the first kept everybody — men and women — away. It seems to me that this first group are still around, still arrogant, and creating the “toxic environment” that the Nation article talked about.

It is this way, by the way, for any liberal group. Conservatives don’t go there. For them, if they’re not trying to be racist or sexist or homophobic, they aren’t.What I learned in seminary is this: labels like “sexist” and “racist” and “homophobic” mean nothing to our souls if everybody is racist, sexist, and living in a homophobic society.  Some people internalize their oppression (and are thus racist to themselves and others externalize it (and are racist to others). If that’s the case, the answer to the statement, “You’re a racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobe” is “Yes, but I’m trying not to be”.  Anybody who is trying to be is a jerk, but most people aren’t trying to be. They aren’t jerks — and that is where the bridge can be built among people of left or right persuasions and within each camp.

We shouldn’t waste our time on whether the -isms exist. They most certainly do, in all of us. We shouldn’t be wasting our time on who but ourselves is a racist, sexist, etc. Nor should we be wasting our time fighting over who’s most oppressed, because it doesn’t matter.  The important thing is who is being a jerk and who is not, who is intentionally being a jerk and who is not. The important thing is that we look at ourselves honestly, take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and do what we can to fight those people who are jerks to others — intentionally so. If you are doing that, labels don’t matter to me. Conservative or Liberal mean nothing. Nice and trying mean everything.