“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

A Post-Christian Hindu Yogi In Communion

 

James Memorial Chapel at Union Theological Seminary

The James Memorial Chapel is a truly sacred space within the sacred space that is Union Theological Seminary.  During the week, we gather in the Chapel to pray, exult, meditate, and commune together in expressions of worship which are resonant for Christians and for peoples of all spiritual traditions.

Chapel has been a remarkable experience for me so far, as I come to be reunited with the sacrament of communion.  Communion was something that, as a Catholic child, I never thought about too deeply, and which I took for granted along with the whole experience of worship.  I was usually more eager to get home and watch Barry Sanders juke-and-jive his way for a touchdown for my beloved Detroit Lions.  Returning to communion for me is a chance to reclaim a part of my spiritual identity, to fully form and own an understanding of my development as a seeker and servant of God.

This reunion has opened up emotions and contemplations both deeply moving and challenging.  My experience in Chapel, in communion, has first of all made me realize how disconnected I am with the mood and meaning of worship in general.  Even though I would worship everyday during my time as a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition, often I would not be there mentally or emotionally even though I was present physically.

It was sometimes a “familiarity breeds contempt” kind of experience.  Experiencing the power of worship through the lens of other traditions has often acted as a reminder for me of the unique gift of worship I carry with me everyday as a practitioner of bhakti-yoga Through the grace of my time in Chapel, I am already experiencing a sense of reunion in my own practice as a Hindu, as I feel distinctly at home again worshiping in the temple of Radha-Krishna at The Bhakti Center, and in my own daily mantra meditation practice, chanting the names of God.

Weekly and monthly kirtan (spiritual music) worship at The Bhakti Center

This sense of reunion is truly an upwelling from the heart.  During one of my first experiences taking communion together in Chapel, I was moved practically to tears by the combination of the intimate and vulnerable ceremony of taking the sacrament, of the stirring music that surrounded us, and of seeing very clearly a moment of unity in the intense diversity that we have here at Union. The emotions emanating from my heart were the kind of rare but exquisitely special feelings we get as gifts of grace from the Divine in our life, in which we intuitively know we are with something much deeper than ourselves.  For me, it was a sign that I had come to the right place in my life, part of the larger gift God has given me in being here, at this time, in my own way, at Union.

I come to these experiences no longer identifying as a Christian, and while being in a Christian service does not make me uncomfortable, there are aspects of the worship that I don’t literally believe anymore. My relationship with Jesus as a person, and as an ideal, is framed through my Hindu lens, where we see him as a great teacher whose example is to be emulated.  We don’t see him in any particular or exclusive theological position.

I continue to wrestle with, even more directly through my studies at Union, of the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus which underlies the communion experience.  I do not look at the Christian experience with the literal eyes I had, more or less, as a child. Yet my upbringing identifying as a Catholic stays with me, if it is not something I particularly belong to anymore.  I can intellectually and theologically identify with critical and historical approaches towards Christianity, but there is also a strange reluctance in my heart to let go of some of the literal beliefs I have had in my life in relation to Jesus and the Christian doctrine.

Yet, I am beginning to understand that to let go of my sense of belonging as a Christian is a natural evolution of my spiritual journey here at Union, and it doesn’t preclude me from fully understanding and living and being in the natural and correct resonance I can and should have with the Christian tradition as someone who deeply identifies now with a Hindu tradition. How funny that I come to a a Christian seminary and realize that I no longer belong to Christianity!

How then am I resonating so much again with the sacrament of communion?  Is my experience with communion something has become too emotional or sentimental or nostalgic?  I brought some of these issues to the kind presence of Barbara Lundblad, who is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching here at Union, and who is also a pastor at Advent Lutheran Church in the Upper West Side here in New York City.  I wanted to hear from her what exactly communion meant to our community, what it meant on a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level, and what it meant to her personally.

For Prof. Lundblad, the experience of communion at Union has also re-formed her experience of the sacrament in a maturing way from her childhood experiences. In the Lutheran churches of her youth, she recalled communion as being a somewhat solemn, austere, and even alienating experience.  “The very word communion was belied by what was actually happening,” she recalled. “We tried to forget we were there with other people.”

Being part of the worship team here at Union, along with her experiences as a Lutheran pastor has helped her to become aware of communion as something that truly bonds a spiritual community together.  “This is the thing that is different for me here,” she says of being at Union.  “I experience people coming together from so many different traditions, from Catholics who believe something different about this than what I believe, and Unitarians who are welcome to come for a simple blessing if they so desire.”

In this diversity, the meaning of communion can no longer be such a fixed or static thing. Prof. Lundblad adds that “if you ask every person there what does this meal mean to you, you would get as many different answers as the people who were there.”  In our Chapel at Union, communion becomes part of the fabric of our diversity, which shines new and dynamic colors on the essential prism of our spiritual identities as individuals and as a community.

The sacrament and experience of communion is something meant “for you”, no matter where you are coming from, or how literally or symbolically you want to take it. “Here in this community, these words “for you” are very personal, but we say it surrounded by everyone else,” Prof. Lundblad shares.  “This has been the huge change for me from my childhood. The word communion for me is being recovered in my life.”

I am still learning what the sacrament of communion means for me.  I can speak of essentials, of having faith that God is present when I chant the holy names of God in my own practice as a bhakti-yogi, or when we are drawn together in our worship in Chapel.  That faith for me is the bond of communion with the Divine, a faith that draws me closer and closer to knowing and acting in the reality of my loving relationship with God.  It is also a faith that draws me closer to knowing what it means to have an active communion with God in this world, fighting for justice through courage and compassion.

I am deeply grateful for Chapel here at Union. I yearn for it actually, even though adjusting to the rush of academic life here in my first semester makes it difficult to always be present there. There is no doubt that I need it to ground and shape my daily life here at Union, and to draw me forward through my misconceptions and aloofness towards the sacred space within my own heart, the space we all share together here.

Many New Collections Available for Use

During the tenure of my Luce-funded project archivist position at the Burke Library, I will be processing, arranging and describing all of the collections in the Missionary Research Library Archives and the William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library Archives. MANY new collections are available for use and research. These original, unique, primary source materials can greatly add to a Union student’s research. And, as the saying goes, ‘those who fail to study the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.’

Have you looked into any of these archives lately? You may be surprised how much they can add to what Union in Dialogue stands for: a discussion of social analysis, interreligious dialogue, embodiment, poverty, and a number of other pressing topics.

You can always look at the Burke Archives page, specifically at the Missionary Research Library Collection and William Adams Brown Archives links. We also make sure to post direct links through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

One other option is through the Burke Archives Blog, which is specific to the Hidden Archival Collections of the Burke Library project. If you look at the tab called Completed Collections, you will see all of that which has been done since the project began in August 2011.

Any questions? Please don’t hesitate to contact me!

 

The Miracle of Mindfulness and the Miracle of “Being in Christ Jesus”

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of “the miracle of mindfulness.”  Indeed, as so many people are discovering, the practice of mindfulness does have what seem to be miraculous powers. Something happens when we succeed in really being mindful of the thoughts and feelings and reactions that crowd into and try to take possession of how we feel about ourselves and what we think we are.

When we recognize a feeling of fear or discouragement or inadequacy or hatred, when we recognize a thought that tells us that this person doesn’t like me – when we identify such feelings as thoughts and, as it were, look them squarely into the eyes and face them for what they are – just thoughts or feelings –- then the miracle can happen. They lose their reality; or at least, they lose their power to identify who we think we are, or who we think other people are.

And when they lose their power to identify, something else can take their place.  “Something else” – that’s the mystery part of this experience; it’s something else that brings peace, or strength, or reassurance.

This is where “mindfulness” and my Christian experience seem to connect.  St. Paul identifies what it means to be a Christian in his powerful, pithy statement: To be a Christian means to realize – with a realization that is a transformation – that “it is not I who live but Christ who lives as me.” (Gal. 2:20) This is where mindfulness can perform its miracle for Christians, for in the practice of mindfulness, as Buddhists teach it, the exercise of being mindful of what I am feeling or thinking is an exercise that identifies this thought as “not I” –this is not who I really am.

Mindfulness, in other words, clears my consciousness of “I” so that the consciousness of “Christ” can move in.

Mindfulness is a means that Buddhism offers Christians to really allow the “it is not I” to be felt, to be realized.  And once that begins to happen, then the realization can take place that what really defines me, what I really am, is “not I but Christ.”

For Christians, to be truly mindful is to be “in Christ Jesus.”

God Is Gay

I'd Rather Love A Jesus Who Loves Us All

It’s National Coming Out Day today. We’ve also heard a lot lately about LGBTQ teen suicides. If you haven’t yet, I implore you to read Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng’s Huffington Post article on the suicides, Rev. Irene Monroe’s Huffington Post article on bullying and homophobia and spend some time in thoughtful reflection on what your church has or has not done for LGBTQ people whether they are teenage, pre-teen, adult or senior.

I am not gay, and cannot therefore offer a queer perspective on these issues. I defer to others that they might speak for themselves as regards their own pain and joy. But homophobia is my problem too. It is my problem because it hurts people I love. It is my problem because too many people cloak their prejudice in the language of faith and that hurts every person of faith. It is my problem because every day straight allies neglect to speak out against it is another day that homophobia remains a “socially acceptable” prejudice. It is not acceptable. If we profess that we are made in the image of God, then God is also a gay man, a lesbian, transgender, transsexual, gender non-conforming AND yes heterosexual too.

If God is a God of justice, mercy and righteousness, then God is queer. God is with the terrorized young people of our world–never in judgment but always in love.