God Loves Everybody
Phil Madiera and Hymns for the Rest of Us *
"There are those who hope, like I do, that God is love
and what is love but a mother holding up a lantern
waiting for her children to come home."
* This article is dedicated to the Madawaska Institute for Religion and Culture in Ottawa, Canada, whose creative community introduced me to Phil Maderia's Mercyland project and to much more. I am especially grateful to Reverend James Murray, who sent me links to the Mercyland material and to Dr. George Hermanson, a columnist for JJB, whose guidance and wisdom take me ever more deeply into the baptismal waters of jazz.
One thing I was reminded of again and again among my friends at the Institute was how progressive the United Church of Canada is in so many ways. It was natural for them to take me to a restaurant whose two hosts -- Matt and Jenn Brearley -- grow, forage, prepare and present locally-grown food. The social vision of process theology is all about developing multi-faith communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, ecologically wise, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind, and with restaurants whose menus are inspired by the land.
God Loves Everybody
A Process Appreciation of Mercyland:
Hymns for the Rest of Us
by Jay McDaniel
Are you just a little turned off by religious exclusivism? Yes, me too. And sometimes when you hear hymns, or even sing them in church, do you have to cross your fingers or keep silent when the exclusivist lyrics come up? Lyrics that say that Christ is the only way and that God will not be content until every knee bends to him? Same here.
And are you troubled by the fact that some people are not troubled by these lyrics. I am, too. I don't know about you, but I find myself most judgmental, most self-righteous, when I am around people who seem to me too judgmental and self-righteous. I find it easy to see the splinter in their eye without noticing the log in my own. I admit it. I am a sinner among sinners.
I only wish that I could be a better Buddhist. I wish that I could carry in my heart the spirit of the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, who shares in the suffering of all living beings and who seeks to help all of them. Forever and ever and ever.
Her love is boundless and I'd like to be boundless, too. When it comes to images of boundless love, it seems to me that Buddhists with their images of heavenly Bodhisattvas do a better job than most Christians and Muslims. Their Bodhisattvas promise never to enter final nirvana until all sentient beings can join them. These Bodhisattvas are patient and kind and non-prejudicial in their love. More empathic, too.
I have known Christians who convert to theistic Buddhism because they find in it images that seem to them deeper and wider -- indeed more Christian in some way -- than what they find in Christianity. They see Jesus as a revelation to Bodhisattvic love. They say that he was a Jewish Buddhist, formed in the image of many other Jews who, like him, were drawn to the tender side of God.
In any case we Abrahamists have a bit of a problem with exclusionary images. When it comes to God we like to tidy things up and draw boxes or triangles, with clear cut distinctions between inside and outside.
We have even been known to think that our very own souls are self-contained substances, cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin. Indeed some of us have even imagined that Christians and only Christians would have a happy journey after death.
Maybe we need a good strong dose of the Buddhist doctrine of no-substantial-self. Maybe we need to be ecological selves, whose individuality is composed of felt relations, moment by moment, and of other people and animals and plants and spirits and ancestors. Maybe we need to be able to say, with the Bodhisattvas, "I promise never to enter final blessedness, whatever it happens to be, until all living beings can join me."
What about Hell?
Moreover, Buddhists don't believe in everlasting damnation. That's primarily a Christian and Muslim image. Jews are not as concerned with life after death in the first place.
Yes, some Buddhists speak of hells into which we might enter after death. But the hells are not everlasting.
Some of us may have a little work to do in the continuing journey after death, repenting of our sins and coming to understand the harm we've done to others. I think of people and animals I myself have harmed, not really understanding their pain. I might need to open up my heart and share in their suffering, seeing things as they saw things, empathically. I imagine it might be very painful to realize all of this, almost hellish in the remorse I would feel and in the wish that I could change what I had done. If hell is a widening of the heart into boundless empathy, it may be a helluva place to spend some time.
But the hells in Buddhism are purgative not final. We can work our way out of them. The heavenly Bodhisattva never gives up on us. She is patient and kind. She doesn't hold grudges. She believes in a billion second chances. She is forgiving in a future-giving way, as Richard Rohr explains forgiving in Hope Against Darkness:
"Without forgiveness there will be no future. We have hurt one another in too many historically documented and remembered ways. The only way out of the present justified hatreds of the world is grace."
Was this what Jesus was about? Did he sense that the love of God is more like that of a boundless Bodhisattva than like that of a jealous overlord? Did he seek words to name this new way of thinking and feeling? Is this why he spoke of the divine reality in such intimate terms, as Abba or Daddy.
The Mother Holding the Lantern
Abba or Amma? Does it really matter? I only hope that the Mother holding the lantern can forgive even me. I hope that her light can melt away all the prejudices, including my own, and we can all just admit that God loves everybody: the Muslims and Jews and Christians, the Democrats and Republicans and Independents, the whores and fools and karaoke singers.
And why stop there? Surely God loves the animals and plants and rivers, too. And the stars and planets and galaxies. Surely the Mother with the lantern loves all her children and not just the human ones.
I guess that's part of why I am attracted to process theology and Whitehead's understanding of God. In Whitehead's philosophy God is the sacred yet living whole, who can be understood as a transpersonal spirit of love and wisdom at work throughout the universe and also as a beloved You who, like a Mother holding a lantern, loves all of us. God is boundless and God's love is boundless. It is not contained in a box or even a circle called "God." It's more like a spiral.
If God is like a Mother holding a lantern, then perhaps we are beckoned to be a bit more motherly, too. I have a friend, an Episcopal priest, who says that we are all meant to be Mothers of God. I think she means that are made in God's image, which is love, and that we can grow into God's likeness. Teri Daily is a pediatrician and a mother herself. She knows that being a mother is not all sweetness and light. It involves and requires grittiness. She calls it the grittiness of love. Sometimes it is hard to hold lanterns; maybe this is why we need the divine Lantern when we might otherwise lack light and warmth of heart.
Teri Daily also believes in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and speaks of the Space within the Trinity as a space within which includes everybody, not just the Christians. I am grateful to her for providing me with an image of how orthodox Christians can speak of boundless love.
I look forward to a time when orthodox Christians learn more from Buddhism: not just its idea of being mindful in the present moment and awakening to the interconnections among all things, but also to its images of heavenly beings whose hearts are as open as a lantern-holding mother.
Whitehead wasn't a Buddhist. He grew up surrounded by the Anglican tradition, like Reverend Daily. But he doesn't beat around the bush. God is all-loving but not all-powerful. God loves every creature at every moment; God shares in their suffering; and God gets a little pissed -- like any good mother -- when she sees human beings forgetting that they are all contained in the spacious horizons of a love beyond their understandings.
Can you imagine what it must be like for a mother of life to see her children killing one another? I am a father myself. I have two sons. I think it would kill me and my wife, Kathy, for our sons to kill each oher. And how ironic it would be if they killed each other in our name?
Is this what was happening when Jesus was killed? Was it a matter of brothers killing brothers? Is this what it means when Christians say that part of God was killed in that event, too? Is it that when brothers kill brothers -- and sisters, too -- the killing takes out a little piece of God's heart as well?
We process thinkers believe so. We believe that the lantern-holding Mother not only gets the blues when we are so horrible to one another and to other animals and to the earth, but that she becomes the blues. She gets angry. We miss the mark of who we can become and along the way we do so much harm to one another physically, psychologically, socially.
That's what sin is in the process tradition. It is harming others, harming ourselves, harming animals, harming the earth.
Do you think the lantern-holding Mother ever goes fishing? Do you think that she sends out lures for feeling, invitations for becoming, which somehow attract us, as allurements or intuitions or felt goals, which we feel within our hearts. Lures to let the boundaries fall away? Lures to embrace the beauty, including the beauty of differences? Lures to love?
This is how process theologians see things. We think that God is continuously present in the world as a holy and healing spirit who is always fishing for love within our own hearts. We speak of her lures as initial aims. They are fresh possibilities that we discover and feel within our mind-hearts for responding to the circumstances of our lives: the people with whom we are interacting, the memories we hold, the lands we inhabit, the animals around us. These lures are divine guidance, understood as a persuasive but not coercive power in the world. They are goals toward which we are drawn and sometimes goads by which we are challenged and prodded.
The fisherman doesn't want to catch us and eat us. The fishing metaphor can only take us so far. Yes, the Mother wants to hook us with the light of her love. Yes, she wants to catch us. But she doesn't want us to be so absorbed in her love that we cease to be unique, different from others, and different from her. She likes differences and contains differences within her own life. She is a unity but also a multiplicity; shaped by her differences.
Buddhists say that Kuan Yin has a thousand arms, each of which reaches out to people in need, each according to their situation. She is ever so flexible, exhibiting what process thinkers call divine relativity.
We process thinkers imagine these arms as prehensions, or feelings, that dwell within the very heart of God. They reach out to others, but through them the others also reach in to God, forming part of what makes up God. The fisherman needs the fish and would not be a fisherman without them. Still the fish transcend the fisherman and the fisherman transcends the fish. Whitehead puts it this way in Process and Reality: It is as true to say that the world transcends God as that God transcends the world.
Let a Thousand Kirtans Bloom
The fisherman knows that the fish have lives of their own and value in their own right. He has no desire to skin them alive or to eat them. He always wants to let them go.
But the fishing metaphor can only go so far. The fisherman loves the fish, too. He loves that they transcend him. I don't think the fisherman ever puts hooks in his lures. That would be coercion not persuasion.
I have a Jewish friend who laments that too many people wish they were God. She says: "We Jews like being not-God." She thinks that wanting to be God is a neglect of what it means to be beautifully singular, beautifully unique, beautifully different.
I feel the same way about my children. I don't want them to become me. I want them to be not-me. I want a relationship with them but I don't want them suffocated by my fatherhood. When I think about my own relationship with my two sons, I don't think of undifferentiated unity but rather of trinity. And when I add Kathy and all our relatives, I think of multiplicity. Is this what Christians really mean by the Trinity? Is three too small a number?
One thing is clear. Like so many others, including orthodox Christians, I yearn for hymns to sing in church that proclaim the dignity of difference, I long for hymns that were written, and could be sung, by the rest of us?
That is why I commend to you Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us. Here is what you read if you go to the website: "The producer and writer Phil Madeira set out with an initiative to affirm the common ground and positive qualities of faith. In an expansive and spacious conversation through song, artists The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, Buddy Miller, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Madeira, Mat Kearney, Cindy Morgan, Amy Stroup, The North Mississippi Allstars, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, and John Scofield contribute 10 original and 2 traditional songs."
The hymns are very American. They complement another kind of hymn that I hear in traditions of chanting, such as those found in the worldwide Kirtan community. And, of course they complement kinds of spiritual music found in many other cultures: African, Asian, Latin American. If by "hymns" we mean music that inspires a sense of openness to the divine by means of melody, percussion, harmony, our soulfulness, there are so many kind of spiritual music today. And more than a few people, unsure about institutional religion, turn to music and nature as sources for inspiration.
There's such a longing these days for a more open, more relational way of being in the world. There's such a longing for a way of living in the world in which the well-being of life, not the well-being of empires either religious or cultural, is the norm by which people live.
The Rest of Us
And there's also a rather profound disillusionment with institutional religion. Perhaps it's time for a messier, less understandable, less hierarchical, more democratic, less dogmatic, more hospitable form of religious life, emerging within and outside recognizable religious traditions.
Isn't it good that God is so much bigger than religion? And isn't it also good, as process thinkers believe, that God is present in the world through a creative transformation of individuals and also communities, including communities of faith. We see this today in progressively minded Christians such as those whom I met recently in Canada, as the Madawaska Institute for Culture and Religion.
Christians such as those whom I met in Canada are beginning to think of healthy Christianity, not as dogmatic and rigidified belief, but as practices of hospitality, discernment, healing, contemplation, testimony, diversity, justice, worship, reflection and beauty. The categories come from Diana Butler Bass' Christianity for the Rest of Us.
I am pretty sure I am one of the rest of us. I am a Christian but I know Muslims and Jews, Hindus and Buddhists, Jains and Humanists who are the rest of us, too. I learn from them all the time and know that they, in their traditions, make the whole of life -- and the whole of God - richer.
I have a sense that there must be more us than them than they quite recognize. But I'm not really sure who they are? And who needs us-versus-them categories, anyway? In God there are no thems. Only us small and fragile creatures on a small planet, filled with terror and love, filled with sadness and beauty.
Whoever we are, we need to sing, or chant, or pray, or somehow find God in beauty. And for some among us, steeped in the sounds of folk and blues, rock and pop, jazz and classical, music and art, along with the natural world, are primary sources of beauty. This is why Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us, is a breath of fresh sound. Want to buy it? Click here.
Want to create your own? Write on.
Want to listen alone instead of hamming it up with a group? No problem. Contemplation is a practice, too. The emerging religious sensibility is multi-religious and also wise to the need for solitude as well as community.
Let a thousand flowers bloom.
If you are interested in spirituality and beauty, art and music, as interpreted with help from process theology? We have lots of this in JJB because, for us, beauty is a window to God. Try these for samples:
Trust in Beauty: The Heart of Faith
Sadness and Beauty
So Much Sky by George Hermanson and Jay McDaniel
How Jazz Changed my Life by George Hermanson
Let the Dead Bury the Dead by George Hermanson
Can Atheists Sing at Funerals by George Hermanson
The Spiritual Vocation of a Jazz Singer by George Hermanson
Deep Calls to Deep by George Hermanson
The Courage of Novelty by George Hermanson
Listening in Jazz by George Hermanson
God Sets Down the Melody by George Hermanson
Theology of Jazz by Monica Corsaro
Love's Oblivion: Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet by Teri Daily
The Space to See Things Differently by Teri Daily
Savoring by Patricia Adam Farmer
The Numinosity of Rocks by Patricia Adams Farmer
Lennon/McCartney by Patricia Adams Farmer
Replanting Yourself in Beauty by Patricia Adams Farmer
Dave Brubeck: Theology in 5/4 Time by Patricia Adams Farmer
The Gift of Revelation by Rabbi Bradley Artson
Fearing Water: A Spiritual Exploration by June Xie
The Culture of Possibility: Art, Artists, and the Future
The Art of Melissa Cowper-Smith
The Photography of Maxine Payne
Hare Krishna and Amazing Grace: Krishna Das and Sting
Sunlight, Moonlight, and the Craziness of God
Kirtan and Process Theology: Singing the Mantras