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William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, said: “all religions begin with the cry, help!” The Gospel of Mark records the dying words of Jesus of Nazareth to include “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which is itself a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures found in Psalm 22:1. Despite the different paths of faith present in this graduating class and even in this room of friends, I have heard and witnessed the experiences of many that echo this cry.
I suppose it will be hard to find a traditional fundamentalist in this crowd. Even so, the inclination to speak more broadly of the things for which we cannot entirely know for sure does not ever leave any of us. Be what we do know is that in the words of M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is Difficult.” Just listen to the dramatic language of those finding faith, those who are losing it, or those who find themselves on one side wishing for the other. My friends, we can take heart and have courage, life is difficult, but less so when you see vulnerability as a strength and stay open to healing love.
I share this with you as someone who started this program having just washed ashore after a series of spiritual shipwrecks and a considerably long time of being lost at sea – a sea called “unfinished business.” I think I still have the distinction of being the only person to sign up for this class after reading an ad; because at the time, I hadn’t met Gil or Cathy. They don’t run those ads anymore, so I guess you know how that worked out. Anyhow, I am glad that this space exists, as scary as it was for me at first. Not because of anything done or said by people of this class but because of the semi-truck’s worth of religious baggage that I was towing around town. George Harrison in Rising Sun said, “On the avenue of sinners, I have been employed, working there until I was near destroyed. I was almost a statistic, inside a doctors case, when I heard the messenger from inner space, sending me a signal for so long I had ignored.” You see, I didn’t ever intend to open the doors to that space of storage, but life, and yes, perhaps God, have a very interesting habit of blowing up your neat containers (that’s the nice way of saying, life fucks you up, sometimes; but, it often disguises it as various forms of constructive criticism).
I want to say thank you for all that listened to me and most importantly taught me how to listen better. The tools of introspection, of recognizing the complexity sitting next to you or across from you, and of witnessing the longing for oneness and healing in others are great gifts. It was here that I met people who understand how much it could hurt for seemingly loving people to betray you and how isolating it is to be given ready-made, superficial answers to deep questions. But also, I met people who were life giving in their support on the rocky path to working out your life, even if it comes with a semi-truck size shipping container of bullshit. It was here, among you that I learned, as the Beck song goes, to “wade the tides that turn until I learn to leave the past behind.”
Two summers ago, re-carpeting my home office gave me an existential choice. Do I toss out my old dusty, neglected, but seemingly haunted theological library? Do I let go of this once prized possession full of tools I trusted and not look back? And to my surprise, in the weeks leading up to joining this group and in a moment with a familiar spirit’s whisper toward a new trajectory, I heard a distinct voice that propels me even now. Despite our common experience crying out for “help,” I believe that we are all truly offered the gift of presence. The images, words, doctrines, creeds we cling to, often to the point of weaponization, are time bound human symbols of the transcendent powers of life and love. They are the clues that look like the surprising scene of a heart broken parent who melts with compassion at the reappearance of a lost child, of the dramatic quest through self-doubt that ends with loving enlightenment, and with luring images of divine love present within, and not separated by, the joy and suffering of the highest highs and lowest lows of our lives.
As I reflect on the lessons learned through the various speakers, I am still drawn back to the roots of all Abrahamic faiths. The origins of such being a story of creation, separation, exile, and faithful rescue. Far too many, take only parts of this story, the parts that make it easy to turn the narrative into one obsessed with control that dehumanizes its perceived enemies. And, we must be careful as we go forth because inside all of us, we still can perpetuate this type of oppression, even while standing in any faith tradition, ancient or newly forming. However, I speak today as one inspired by experiences with a transcendent and immanent godly love for all. This vast love flows from an intimate and ongoing relationship with creation, demands its redemption, and announces our vocation as caretakers of the gift of life itself. May this vocation bless our physical world, support those we love, and compel us all to reach for those unloved and liberate those who live in present separation and exile because of oppressive attitudes, governments, philosophies, and yes, even oppressive theologies.
Gil threatened to write our statement if any of us tried to get up and extemporaneously give this speech. He seemed confident that he could imitate any of us, and I would love to hear what he thinks I’d say in three to five minutes. But until that happens, here’s what I have. A Steely Dan voice once said, “I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long, this brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be.” We came here each in our path of pain and longing and have found each other. Our cries for help may have been the initial cause of our introduction to a deep relationship, but they are not the end. Imagine, if you can, a world where a silent, loving friend catches every tear shed. Every anxious, sad heart has many deep listeners who stand the test of time. And, a place where everyone seeking the presence of the great mystery can find what I hope to find, love and light, and the fulfillment of the promise that God is in all, and all is in God. We’re never alone, that is the great lie because if we look around, we can see how the cries of others, the unfinished business of our personal religious experience, and the simple ads placed by retiring priests are the invitations to create the world in which we wish to live. By the way, I kept the library, but I also await the day those books take their place as prequels for a new world and presence that is beyond our creeds, symbols, and even our wildest imaginations.
Now, I hope you can excuse me; I have some ads of my own to place.
June 2, 2019