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.

A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When we tell our stories, we are transformed. When others hear our stories, they are transformed. The story telling for Project Union Responds stirred up the Union community. We were stirred up because sharing our stories was an action of liberation, affirmation, by re-claiming our selves, our bodies, and our faiths. We were stirred up because sharing our stories required us to reflect on how we had been (and still are) harmed. As a community we received, held, and honored all that has been stirred up in us throughout the process; specifically during an evening, candle-light service on Wednesday, October 13, 2010, in James Chapel.

The following is a copy of the reflection offered by Barbara L. Rice. Ms. Rice has a master of counseling and is a first-year, master of divinity seminarian here at Union. Her employment portfolio includes working with LGBTQ youth. As a community, we are graced by her presence and voice.

—arb

A Love that Would Not Let Me Go

When Zach was a child I loved him. When Elizabeth was a child I loved her. When Luke was a child I loved him. When Erica was a child I loved her.

[Hosea 11:1–12] is one of those passages of scripture that I have always been drawn to, never fully knowing why. I’m sure my 16-year-old interpretations of this text were age appropriately simplistic and egocentric. But there was something in my initial and naïve draw to the passage that was innate—that was calling me back to some womb-like recognition of my connectedness with a love that would not let me go. I would not have used those words, but there was a desire to ingest these images into my being. I wanted to know that type of security, that type of love. I wanted to watch an old home movie of God bending down to feed me when I was a toddler. I wanted to see, feel, and touch these cords of human kindness and bands of love. I wanted to know that they would catch me, would hold that space, would keep me safe. And I wanted the people in my life to know and feel that security and love in their own lives.

And I think in many ways those bands of love were very real in my heart and in my life. At the risk of being stereotypical, I was very much a tomboy, and it was considered cute to run around in my baseball uniform all year long. And I was always picked fairly quickly in the process of choosing kick ball teams in elementary school. I would occasionally be called dyke, but had no idea what it meant, and I didn’t care. I had friends because I learned early in life that if you listen to people they tend to like you. So, I could fit in pretty well and for the most part was spared the personal pain of bullying.

As I grew into adolescence I had that familiar gnawing sensation that many of you can relate to – that sense that something about me just wasn’t right. And it would creep into my thoughts now and then, this utter terror, that there might just be some tiny chance I was gay. This nightmare sat in the back of my mind and would rear its head, and I would think that if this is in any way true then I probably didn’t deserve to live. This belief that, if I were indeed gay, I would be unworthy of taking up space on the earth, mostly came from my family narrative which was passionately homophobic in the name of following Jesus. So, if this secret, this nightmare, was possibly true then it would mean that I was beyond the point of any repair.

And so I would sit with these images that I sought out in the Bible—pictures from Isaiah of loving protection amidst storms and scary things, the intimacy of Mary washing Jesus’ feet and his defense and love for her, and then this one in Hosea of having been known and loved intimately since babyhood regardless of my attempts to escape. And I would try to connect with that love and tell myself that this was enough, and tell myself that I could get through this life devoting all of it to God, and that I would be given the strength to keep myself together (i.e. not fall to the temptation of living in that ‘lifestyle’) until I died and could experience ultimate union with the Divine. My life was full of sports, friends, mission trips, school work, and service clubs. By all appearances I was a pretty happy teenager and as long as I could keep the terror silenced or distant then I was OK.

I wasn’t externally tortured for being gay, but I was internally tortured. I’ve thought about this a lot these last few weeks. I can’t imagine what I would have done if there had been this added layer of ostracism, of being targeted, or being ridiculed. I truly do not know that I could have survived that, and I look around at my friends in this room, not knowing each story, but knowing that for many of you it was a struggle that words can’t capture. And I sit with gratitude and awe realizing you have survived.

In my therapy practice in Greensboro, NC, I had the privilege of working with many teens and adults struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation. Their struggles were often based on their understanding of what religion or the Bible said about same gender love, but they inevitably faced peer and family ostracism. In doing trauma work with my clients incidents of extreme bullying would often come up, and these memories would be so vivid that, as they were described to me, I felt like I was there. It was as if in their description I could see, hear, touch, smell and taste the terror, the fear, the punches, the tears, the shame. As if their spirits had been branded like cattle, we would work together to deconstruct the internalized messages left by these incidents. We would work to untangle and heal those messages, until they could become scars as opposed to gaping wounds, and we would work to take away the powerlessness of the memories.

However, the consequences of some of these marks can’t be avoided. I think about a 26-year-old gay man I worked with who suffered such horrendous bullying and abuse in high school that he stopped going to school to avoid being tormented, which led to him eventually dropping out altogether. He completed his GED and now works a minimum wage job while trying to go to community college at night. He struggles with just making it day to day—not only financially but also emotionally. He stays in relationships with fairly abusive partners because, as he would honestly share, if he didn’t have a partner with whom to live he would be homeless. The bullying and peer abuse that led to him dropping out of school has left its mark and he is trying to dig his way out, and it’s a long, dark path.

I recall checking my voice mails early one morning before work, and listening in heart breaking horror, as I learned that a queer mutual friend of several of my teenage clients had hung herself the previous night. I was familiar with this girl, who had committed suicide, because they both frequently spoke of her. When I saw these two clients that same day, they were both obviously wracked in pain with all the things that go along with the ones left behind by suicide—what could we have done, why didn’t we see this coming, why wouldn’t her parents get her help? But, as if that wasn’t enough, one of the girls, who also identified as queer, sat sobbing on my sofa as she told me how unsympathetic her parents were to this devastating loss. By her reports her parents were not at all accepting of her orientation, and did some ridiculing of their own. So, the night my client learned of her friend’s death she was hysterical, and went to her mother for comfort, only to have her mother respond by saying, “well, that’s what happens to gay kids, they end up hanging from rafters.”

Well, I’m here, we’re all here, to say ‘no.’ That’s not the inevitable fate of gay kids. Swinging from rafters, jumping off bridges, shooting themselves in the head… this is not the unchangeable fate of our queer kids!

How I wanted to transmit to these clients, to my friends, and so many others, a sense of the tenderness of God’s love, of these totally devoted images such as this passage from Hosea. I wanted them to know that they too had access to a love bigger than all this pain; that they too could tap into a love that would not let them go. This is our job – to take this love to the people, to be living examples of this determined devotion.

As some of us have been telling our stories for the video, I’ve wondered about who didn’t make it among us. Who would have been here, sitting with us now if they could have made it a little longer? How has God grieved for the lives cut short due to hate? Who are we missing? What ghosts are among us who dreamed of seminary and theological education, but who didn’t survive the crucible of a queer childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood? Where would they be sitting right now? How would they enrich our community and our lives here at Union? Who would be their boyfriend, girlfriend, their partner? Who would be their best friend on the hall? And so I look out at your faces and am filled with gratitude that you made it, that we have the chance to become the beloved community; that we have the chance to share our stories with each other. I also am grateful to have made it, and grateful that I have been able to cling to my daughtership during dark times.

And out of Egypt I called my daughter. Out of Egypt I called my son. Out of Egypt I called my child. Daughtership, sonship, beloved child…. What does it mean to be called out of Egypt, out of bondage, out of slavery? What does it mean to be called to freedom, to life? Sometimes we prefer the bondage we know over the freedom we don’t know. But we are called, if we can hear – and I believe we can hear when something inside of us is ready to hear – to take the first steps of a journey towards freedom. Sometimes that first step is a commitment to find support, to find somewhere you can be honest.

For me I heard the call towards freedom one day in 1997. I was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,a conservative parachurch ministry, and I reached a point after years of being in reparative therapy, where I could no longer live with my internal incongruence. I reached the point where I didn’t care if I was indeed going to go to hell, because I was already in hell – my life was hell, my internal struggle had driven me to the brink of again wanting to be on the other side of this existence into the next one, just wanting Jesus’ arms around me. So I picked up the phone and called my supervisor. And, as I suspected, I was asked to resign, I was then asked to leave my non denominational church, which led to loosing most of my friends, and my family relationships experienced a type of death from which they have never fully recovered. And, it was in this wilderness space that I spent a lot of time reading and praying and wrestling with what to do. Regardless of what others said, what did God say? Could I still have a relationship with God and live this earthly life in a way that honored all parts of me, including my sexuality? I had wanted to be in vocational ministry since early childhood, and I thought that dream was over, and I was not sure who I was without this dream. I knew I did not want to live without a palpable connection to God, because to me that has been the only thing that gives life meaning. So, I decided I would take the first step. I would just move forward with what I could, and live, and see what happened. It was kind of an experiment because I was out of options, other than suicide. Of course what I found was more connection with God, and that God did not forsake me, but met me in ways I could have never known without taking that first step.

In this way, I was experiencing something similar to what Hosea describes at the end of the 11th chapter: “They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes.” The freedom of flying, even though you’re trembling. The sense of soaring even though you’re shaking – but heading to your true home. I happen to believe that home is always and only coming home to that love, that Divine love, that claims us and declares us perfectly made. In essence I believe coming home is a kind of coming home inside of ourselves, to rest in the love that waits for us there. As these tragedies in our queer community have moved us to share our own stories, as we have been moved to do anything we can to give a struggling kid hope for one more day, I have come to feel that we can become, that we are becoming the beloved community. And I believe it is from that grounded place that we move out into the world to serve, to stir, to rage, to liberate, to mourn, and to ultimately heal. As Hafiz said, “God revealed a sublime truth to the world, when He sang, ‘I am made whole by your life. Each soul, each soul completes me.’”

When Tyler Clementi was a child I loved him.

When Billy Lucas was a child I loved him.

When Seth Walsh was a child I loved him.

When Asher Brown was a child I loved him.

When we were children God loved us.

—Barbara L. Rice, MS LPC

©2010 Project Union Responds. Reprinting available with permission.

Union Responds to LGBTQ Youth Suicides

When we heard about the death of Tyler Clementi, the most recent in a string of queer youth suicides (a list which gets much longer if we take into account all of the queer suicides that we don’t hear about) we asked ourselves whether there might have been something–some act, some word–that could stop other queer youth headed down the same road to complete self-destruction.  In this video, a whole community has mustered just that.  Seminary students, post-docs, faculty members, and the President of Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York speak to LGBTQ youth at risk and to those who find themselves being bullied and ostracized just for being who the Divine created them to be.
– Atticus Schoch Zavaletta

Click on the image below to view the video:

Click to view

–Video coordinated and produced by Project Union Responds team. ©2010 Project Union Responds