Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mourner's Bill of Rights--Tenet Seven

Here is tenet seven of the Mourner's Bill of Rights with commentary from Chelsea:

"You have the right to embrace your spirituality."

~ Alan Wolfelt's seventh tenet of the Right of Mourners
If you are a spiritual person, it is more important than ever to embrace your faith.
If you feel disconnected spiritually, this may be a good time for examination. Many times people find a different type of connection after loss. Other people say their connection grew even stronger.
You may find answers through the spiritual realm when you ask "Why me?" "Why did this happen?" or "Why am I here?"
If you feel angry with God or higher power, know that this is acceptable and experienced by many. It is important to process this anger. You can do this by talking to someone, perhaps a spiritual counselor or minister. You can even look to others that have gone through loss and see how they found strength in their spiritual connection.
There are many books and resources available that can help you understand grief better. You may even find through this experience that what you thought you believed actually isn't how you feel at all. Loss changes your outlook.
Through organized religion we are sometimes told what to believe and how to behave. Grief may even force you to explore your feelings about your own spirituality, which can help to discover a very loving and magical connection.
The important thing to remember is that you have every right to practice your faith and question your faith.
This one is a biggie for me.  Ministers often are seen as the "designated believers" for the congregation.  We believe in the impossible stuff so you don't have to.   I reject this role.  I always have.  My role is not to encourage people to believe in things that are hard to believe simply because to do so is expected.    If you have a hard time believing in heaven or that a divine being answers prayer and think that the role of a minister is to help you believe in those things, I will be a huge disappointment.    The ministers who can find creative ways to rationalize the improbable and pray away the impossible are a dime a dozen and you can find them anywhere.

However, if you are comfortable with questions, including questions that have no answers, I will be an enjoyable traveling companion.  Progressive Christianity is not for everyone, especially for those who desire the comfort of assurance.   I don't object to assurance.  I have no desire to make people less assured.  But my preaching and teaching commitments are not there.   I encourage people to question rather than settle for answers.    I tend to resonate with people who value freedom over assurance.

What does all this have to do with tenet seven? 

I am now in a position in my personal life in which beliefs in life after death and a personal God would be relevant.  However, I am of a particular spiritual type that does not believe or desire either of these speculations.  That has always been my spiritual type at least since my first semester at seminary.  Once I realized that you didn't have to believe in those things to be a Christian or a minister, I ceased trying.

That doesn't mean I don't make use of the symbols and liturgy of Christianity that were created in a pre-modern era.   I am happy to pray with people.  I don't do it because I think my prayer is going to change anything.  I do it because I think it is a way to express solidarity and love.   The liturgy of resurrection etc. is the unique Christian way of saying that a life matters and that the individual has entered the Great Peace and all is well (at least with that person, the mourners have work to do).

Yet I did have this nagging sense that perhaps I hadn't suffered enough, lost enough, or faced my own mortality enough to express this openly.   After losing my son, I think I qualify.  Who wouldn't want the assurance of heaven and a personal God more than someone in my position?   Still I have no interest.  Why?  Why is it important to some and not others?  It isn't because of suffering or life situation.  People are just different.

That is the point of tenet seven.  We are different.  We grieve as we believe.  Some of us are into a personal God and/or life after death, and some of us aren't interested.   If we are grieving, we have a right to embrace our own belief.  That includes the minister. 

Some might argue that while I have the right to my personal beliefs, I forfeit them, or at least I have to silence them if they conflict with the beliefs of the church.   After all, a minister is called to do a job, to preach the gospel.   There are standards, right?  You don't want a biology teacher throwing out the textbook and teaching creationism because she personally believes it.   I don't disagree with that.   My questions are these:  What does the church believe?  Who gets to say what the church believes?   Which church?   Do beliefs ever change?  Are some beliefs more important than others?  What is the gospel?  I have many more questions than that, but that is a good start. 

I don't happen to think that either the existence of a personal God or life after death is central to Christianity.  I think the point of Christianity is about living this life and that those other more speculative matters are addenda. I think we are in the midst of great change and that the best way to be a minister amidst them is to be honest about these changes and to explore them with the congregation.   My task is to be honest with my own journey, to communicate it as faithfully as possible, and to encourage others to find their own path.   The thing we have in common is not the particular path but a shared hospitality to all travelers.    

As far as beliefs go, I believe in love and in the sacredness of life.   Because my home tradition is Christianity, the doorway to a life of meaning is through the teachings and example of Jesus.  That is "good news" or the gospel.  Even though I don't believe in a personal God (that is in a being outside of nature that interferes with it) I do trust in God.   I tend to resonate with Paul Tillich and think of God as Being itself.  It is a name for whatever is.  God is the universe and if there is more than the universe, God is that, too.  God is also a specific way of being in the universe.   Justice, compassion, and love, are characteristics of this way.   

I don't believe in a personal God but I do personify God.  Because human beings evolved to give agency to anything that moves, rather than fight it, I have fun with it.  In my last sermon I personified God as Mama Goddess.  Do I believe there is an actual being, Mama Goddess, somewhere under Earth or in the sky?  Of course not.   It is a language trick that enables us to tell stories and to speak about that which is important.  It also motivates us to reflection and action in a particular way.  In this case, "Mama Goddess" helps us challenge outdated and harmful ideas such as patriarchy and create new and better ones like equality for Earthlings and care for Earth.

Grief is a sacred time, a "thin place" as this writer shows.  A thin place is not just a physical location but it can be a state when the "veil between the mundane and the Sacred is suddenly especially thin."  Here we brush up to the sacred.  Insight may be clearer.  In some ways important matters become more in focus.  Old categories and beliefs can become profane.   During grief little is more annoying than someone who wants to comfort you with their beliefs.   That person is playing in the shallow end of the pool.   You are in the deep end.  Grief is the via negativa, the spiritual path of letting go.   You are letting go of the less interesting, the less true, the binds, the shackles, and you have no idea where you are going.

Grief is not simply a bad thing to hurry through or endure.  This is a sacred quest.  You are finding a deeper sense of you.  Your true friends won't hurry you or worry over you.  They won't try to teach you, heal you, correct you, or guide you.  They will walk alongside you. 

Grief can be a creative time and a draining time.  It is work.  Spirituality is an important part of it.  As Chelsea says:
The important thing to remember is that you have every right to practice your faith and question your faith.


1 comment:

  1. Dear John,

    I have been following your faith journey more closely since Zach died, and I would like you to know that I have found enormous meaning and importance in what you have chosen to share with us, even though I have never suffered such a tragedy. Your public grieving and reflection has also been a gift to me, and no doubt, others.

    On another note, I have met you many times, but never your son. Would you care to share a little story from his life, next time you post?

    Do be well, my friend