All posts by Nathan

christianity and culture… the shadow

I have been sitting with this writing for months and months, not to find the right words as much as to come to accept what these thoughts might mean and what effect they might have. First, it must be said that part of growth, of maturity, is to be able to see the shadows, even the darkest ones, in the things that you love – and even if the love is uncertain because the shadows are so dark, to be able to find some light in the things we at times want to disown. It is paradox, and paradox is life, or I should say Life with a capital L. Sometimes the hardest truths hold the greatest paradoxes.

I hang on to Christianity, sometimes by the skin of my teeth. I wouldn’t say Christianity hangs onto me, as I don’t think Christianity would really want to keep the likes of me around. I tend to feel a bit “bad for business” at times, which is likely why Life has me in the hospital, doing my caring there, and as a spiritual director, watching and witnessing those who go through the often-overwhelming growing pains that come with spiritual maturing. There is fruit here and so I haven’t thrown in the towel. Sometimes people really need a companion for the journey.

I have spent a lot of time with many who want nothing to do with Christianity – monotheism generally, but Christianity especially. When we talk, I wonder why I would still call myself a Christian (I’m still working this out) and I often have to qualify it (at least outside the hospital) with, “I would consider myself a panentheistic Christian, to be specific.” I have no defense for Christianity or what it has done. I have no evangelical fiber in my being, meaning I don’t really care if people become a Christian or not. It might help them and it really might not. I do care if people find something that works for them and for the world and if there is enough substance there that they can mature spiritually into places of union, love, and nondualism with Life and the world around them. To me, this is the Christ at play. I guess that’s what keeps me coming back and what I think Christianity has to offer the world, though the division and exclusion that Christianity historically has offered is quite the opposite (more on that in a moment). Christianity can offer a unifying, creation- and physical world-celebrating vision of divine indwelling that no other religion quite offers. But I would have to say that most people miss this because they cling to the shadows as though the shadows are the “good news.”

The shadows. Yes, there are a few, and there is no way that I can list them all out. The atrocities done in the name of the church, under the corruption that comes with power, or even the “good intentions” of winning souls for heaven. There is one great shadow that, to me far out does them all. And it is the reason for my caution in speaking to the truth.

Christianity in its historical trajectory has been a culture-slaying religion. It was founded by orphaned people who didn’t have a home, oppressed, cast out, and enslaved. Traumatized. From the Hebrews to the early Christians, the people of Jehovah were on the move and very often under some other nation’s dominance. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans. This is the history of the Christian religion. And to people who don’t have a home, heaven sounds like a very good place. Traumatized people have to do something with their trauma. It became their message that they brought to the nations: “The Earth is not your home. Your home is in Heaven.” You are a citizen of heaven. No Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. Et cetera, et cetera. In this worldview, any culture or group of people that was at home with their land, with their people, their gods, and their ancestors was a considerable threat. And if somehow, missionaries could get people to question their own belonging and latch onto the “belonging in the family of Jesus,” the battle was won. Look through the history accounts and see how many accounts of truly indigenous expressions of Christianity there are, or mission attempts that honored the local people’s cultures. The early Celtic church may be the closest you will get.

So Christianity and the spread of this religion has been about destroying cultures in the name of being a part of the culture of followers of Jesus. “Believers” if you will. When something like “Christian counter-culture” is so at the heart of a religion, it seems unrealistic that it will ever not be there. It goes the same for politics and Christianity, something that always has been connected. Christianity is a political religion, ever since it was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. Tied to the hip with the ruling class. I think some of these things are changing in some places, and for the better, but I wonder if Christian communities that celebrate various cultures as unique expressions of faith and connection with God are thriving. Many that are growing fast often still cling to this message of dominion. “Every knee will bow, every tongue confess…” The messages of winning the battle against the world and finding our home with Jesus are sung and celebrated in churches the world over every Sunday. It truly breaks my heart to see it still happening even today.

I ask you to look for the truth in this. It might not be all true, but there is some here, as there is in all things. Wonder to yourself about your response. It can be easy to defend, deny, or shut out those things that are just too uncomfortable to bear… Christianity in it’s growth and expansion has been a religion that has demand people set aside their culture and beliefs of place and follow “the one true God” (often this being Western Culture). Another response is often to have more reason to not wanting to have anything to do with Christianity. Fair enough, I say. But wonder too, whether anything can be ALL bad, and perhaps try to find the redemptive places where healing and union in love is still taking place.

There is freedom in being honest about our allegiances and also the traumas of our history. Trauma that is not honored and acknowledged often gets inflicted on others as another form of trauma. If we want to grow into maturity and awareness, we need to look at the things we love and see the shadows. Otherwise, we turn the other way and pretend that certain uncomfortabilities are not taking place. We become co-conspirators then by virtue of our silence, much like the many religious people looking the other way in the midst of the Nazi genocide. We must do the same with our Christian history of culture destruction. Only then can we move into a future of unity, inclusion, and spiritual maturity.

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Prayer

I grew up learning that God always answers prayer. Yes, no, or wait. These were the answers that God gave. Because God always answers prayer. It seems pretty simple and as a neat little formula, it works to explain how “casting our cares” (or wants, wishes, and hopes) out there into the ether could result in them being received by a God who is influenced by my petitions.

How one prays and what prayer means to a person says a lot about who God is to that person. Many, I think, see God as somewhere out there making things happen from his heavenly throne, receiving the prayers of countless worshipers, big enough (or not big enough) to answer them all and respond accordingly. Some would say, pray according to your faith. Expect God to do wondrous things and miracles will happen. Pray “in Jesus’ name” for an extra seal of approval and seek to align yourself with the will of God. Prayer is powerful to move mountains and soften the hardest heart. What it comes down to, most often it seems, is that prayer is transactional, an asking and a receiving, hinged on hope and often destined for disappointment when things don’t go the way we wish.

What I have seen is that people pray for things (with very strong faith, to be sure) and those things do not come to pass… and sometimes they do. And then others don’t pray at all and they are gifted with what many pray so fervently for… and other times they are not. Studies have been done about the power of prayer, yes, and I wonder, is prayer for the one doing the praying, for the one prayed for, or for the one prayed to?

I no longer think of God as a force that is “out there.” As I have come to experience and understand God as Life, as the animating force that sustains, maintains, and contains all things, prayer has changed. What is the will of God when God is infinite, beyond and within time in ways that our linear finite minds could never fully perceive? Will, as we would understand it, would be governed BY time and WITHIN time. God’s knowing, as we would understand it and claim it, would be bound to knowing as we know. I can’t say that this is the case. So praying so as to influence God, or praying so as to better know the will of God, seems like a game of cat and mouse.

Prayer, in it’s essence, is non-linear. I can put so many words to what prayer is not, to how prayer falls short. But attempting to describe prayer that aligns with indwelling Life is to describe an action, an attitude… a way of being. The “will” of God, is what IS. Life happens in its horror and bliss and all is within that Life. To pray is to have our intentions, our desires, our being engulfed, embraced, consumed, and overwhelmed by presence. We don’t cast our prayers out there somewhere… our prayers are taken up and transformed before they ever reach our lips. I do believe prayer is incredibly impactful, not just for our time but for all of time and for all places, but this can only be when God is in all things and all things are in God.

Perhaps we would all do well to release our need to pray with the right words or finding the right things to pray for and just listen for a while. Rather than going through the lists of those we care for and the things we want to see happen in the world, we could breathe… in silence… without the words. When I open my groups or spiritual direction with silence or teaching breathing practice, we are praying, just in a more natural and universal way.

Imagine it like being in the ocean. You could get obsessed with what you are going to do in the water, what kind of floaties you will have with you, how you can boat, swim, or dive. You could analyze and think about all the little parts of the water and the sand and the aquatic life. But you wouldn’t get the same experience as if you stopped and felt the waves on your body, the movement, the ebbing and the flowing. You would be missing something if you didn’t pay attention to being wet, to being weightless, the salt on your lips. Prayer is similar. It is a relationship. Loving affects the lover, the beloved, and all those in their presence.

Balance is the Foundation

“This cannot wait,” I am told.

We inhale it in the air we breath. Continue to improve upon the past. We drink it in the water. Tomorrow can be better than today. It is our daily diet, the food we binge on. Be all you can be. It is the IV drip that is fed to us in our advertising, catalogs, news coverage, social media, and education. Progress. Advancement. You can have what you put your mind to. Give your children more than what you had when you were young.

It is not the only way. 

It is a hard truth to look at the many problems in the world, the imbalance of resource distribution, the violence, the oppression and consider that fixing it might not be the best way forward. Fixing it is probably the best solution, but what our Earth and all her beings may need is not a solution. As Einstein said, “We cannot fix our problems with the same thinking that created them.” To find the technology that will save us is the same crazy thinking that got us in this place. To push cash at a problem or send in the military is more of the same insanity that got us here. To vote, while perhaps is needed, is a minimal action that ultimately amounts to playing the same political game that created this clown show. 

But isn’t it human nature to try to make things better for the future? Hasn’t it always been this way, that people want to make tomorrow better than today? Isn’t this the name of the game for every teacher, doctor, scientist, engineer, and probably religious leader? I would say NO! For centuries, politics, science, economics, and religion has worked together to push for a vision of a better future, whether it be here on Earth or in streets paved with gold. For this better future, we have created technology, established ideologies and theologies, written laws, destroyed cultures, and ravaged our land, the ground that sustains us. Much good has come out of this, I see that, and many will consider that the mark of our success. But things have gotten out of balance and it has gotten us where we are, which many would likely agree is not a sustainable or healthy place. 

This quest for progress is not human nature, has not always been this way, and is not the only way to move forward. There was a time when people saw that everything was perfect the way that it was. Human beings didn’t have a mandate to progress or make things better, but rather, it was their purpose to do everything possible to maintain the harmony, balance, and right relations with all that was. Being in right relationship to the land, to each other, to those who came before and those that will come after them – this is what they lived for. They didn’t believe they had a right to live, a right to not die, or a right to take for themselves. Every day, every meal, every child and elder was a gift. And because they received so many gifts, they therefore had to give in return. They were indebted to Life and gratitude was expected. To maintain the balance, to restore harmony. This was the Foundation. 

Our home is out of balance. For those that live in gratitude and do not take for themselves and their own, they cannot hold up to the onslaught of greed and consumption. This is a beast that will never be satisfied. Until it consumes everything. The Wild is a fragile thing and it doesn’t “get back” at the two-legged creatures that destroy it daily. It is not like us and will likely be destroyed wildly, maintaining it’s wildness. 

It is the land that will teach us. It is the wild ones that will show us the way forward.

It is a time for heart-brokenness. It is a time for sadness, for grief. To know that in many ways, we are too far gone and that there is no turning back. This has to be the only first response. And then we must learn. Learning does not inherently lead one to fix. Sometimes learning is thorough enough to convince us we need to withhold our hand. To jump to a solution may be part of the problem that got us here. Solving comes from knowing and the way forward seems to be mostly unknown. 


We must do what is needed, which may not yet be known. We must learn from our land. Not control our land, direct our land, or manage our land. We must learn. It is the land that will teach us. It is the wild ones that will show us the way forward. Because they live for balance… and also die for balance. 

I ain’t no saint

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I ain’t no saint, that’s for sure.
You won’t find a halo around my head.
There used to be a time when I thought I could be some kind of spiritual “poster boy.” I was clued in to some revelation of spirituality that no one else had and therefore this offered me some sort of merit or elevated status. It was in my own mind, but of course impacted the way I saw others, especially my friends. How terribly unfortunate, and something which I will always be sorry for.

In reality, I’m just a mess. And I think it’s better that way. I had a patient the other day ask me if I could call a priest in so she could give confession. “It has been a long time, so I have a lot of things to confess,” she said. “Do you think that it would be too much to do that in the hospital?”

“I think it would be fine,” I said. “I’m not Catholic, though… so I just confess my stuff to everybody all the time!” She laughed and said she could never do such a thing. Of course, I don’t do this, but I knew the good protestant response would have been that I can go straight to God with my confession. But I don’t want to be a “good” protestant anyway.

People put halos on folks all the time. I know, as I am technically “clergy,” how it is. People apologize for swearing around me and my response is usually, “Don’t worry about it. I hear worse language in my own house daily.” I think as a chaplain, I’m able to dodge those projections a lot more easily than some. And it may be me, too. I do tend to be a bit of a “dodger.” I was encouraging one of the doctor’s yesterday for being able speak to a Muslim patient in her native tongue and I noted that the only other language I can speak in is hipster.

Let’s stop pretending, shall we? Our culture glorifies supermen and superwomen, people without limit and capable of doing extra-ordinary things. The truth is, most of us have pretty significant limps. It’s pretty hard to hide a limp, and for those that try when it is glaringly obvious, it just looks pretty ridiculous. We can limp together and laugh about the fact that some things are just really damn hard. Perfection is a myth. Progress is overrated. In our family, we call disabilities, “special abilities.” I’d rather this than have what we claim for ourselves as a “special ability” be glaringly an obvious dis-ability.

We do have saints in our traditions. We have ancestors, prophets, teachers, and elders. Some of them seem more perfect than others, but I’m pretty sure each of them has their quirks and their limits. They get elevated because they show us that we can be normal, ordinary human beings and still be blessed by Life. What more can we ask for? Probably the most extra-ordinary thing I do regularly is get up at 4:30 every morning. That might be discipline or plain foolishness. Probably a bit of both.

Dissolution of self

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Art by Gaia Orion

I lay in bed, my hands on my head, feeling as though the thing that I had spent so long crafting, so much energy understanding, so much heartbreak wrestling was slipping away.

Self. What a popular thing these days… Know thyself. Differentiate your self. Autonomous self. Self gratification. Self glorification. As one of my teachers has said, “Psychology is monotheism with out a God. It replaces God with the Self.” As the title of James Hillman’s 1992 book states, “We’ve had 100 years of psychotherapy and the world has gotten worse.”

I write the things that come to me. I put into words considerations that come through me. How do we find ourselves in the right place at the right time? or have the words to say when we planned nothing in advance? How can we take credit for the food we eat and especially the food that grows from the land we occupy? Soil that has been there much longer than we have, often persevering despite our best efforts to control, eradicate, and propagate so that it has the appearance of neat and tidy, refined and orderly. In fact, the earth is a delightful chaos and order unique to herself, giving almost endlessly to her children, all of this infused so thoroughly with Life. Attempting to control life, kills it. How is it me that “makes” things happen? “Manifesting my reality” is so deeply dissatisfying.

As I lay in bed, in the thin space before sleeping, the only thing I could think was, “Where is my Self if I am on the receiving end of everything?” If I live in gratitude and indebtedness to Life as it comes to me, always and everywhere, Self seems so utterly overrated. What’s the use of a Self? I am not a self-made man. I am not autonomous or inevitable. In that moment I felt the dissolution of my self. “Dissolution”… the breaking apart or loosening or untying. Turning from a solid into a fluid state.

Dissolution. Dissolve. Use whatever word you want, but essentially the solid loses its form and becomes virtually indistinguishable from the environment around it. A stone in the sea maintains its form, sinks to the bottom, separate from the world around it. How similar this is to how so many go through life, not aware that Life goes through us! To dissolve in the ocean is to lose form and become one with the ocean. This is what the mystics call union. What more is there after this? What else could be more desirable? Perhaps everything.