Tag Archives: unity

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #3

     Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

     Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

     Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

~ Postcard #3 THERE ARE MANY PATHS UP THE SAME MOUNTAIN ~

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

THERE ARE 7.3 BILLION NON-MORMONS currently on the planet. I’ve met some of them. In India, we worked together in the leprosy colonies. Some of my fellow laborers found inspiration in the teachings of Guru Nanak or Muhammad or Jesus or Swami Vivekananda. Others were motivated by a love for Vishnu or Shiva or the Mother Goddess Devi. A few held no religious convictions at all, yet seemed as devoted to serving humanity as their god-fearing counterparts. In serving together, I never noticed a hint of difference in the love conveyed by Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Baha’is, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hindus, or non-theists. Any notion I’d carried into India that we Mormons were going to radiate a unique quality of goodness quickly evaporated in the sweltering heat, along with any lingering cultural arrogance. 

My Mormon beliefs have provided a well-spring of goodness in my life, and I continue to be grateful for the ethical grounding and strong sense of moral purpose that my faith system has endowed me with. But when I look around, I witness the same measure of goodness, the same infusion of moral purpose, in my non-Mormon brothers and sisters. I can’t honestly claim that my religious beliefs have been more fruitful in my life than theirs have been to them. This is not easy to admit, having donated tens of thousands of dollars and two years of my life as a full-time missionary inviting people to change their beliefs. Had I been more wise, I might have helped them connect to that well-spring of goodness found at the heart of their own tradition instead.

There is goodness everywhere. But within any belief system, there are lower laws and there are higher, more elevating laws. If we, like eagles, could find in the landscape of our own traditions those rising currents of warm air, those spiritual thermals, we might use them to soar to higher and higher states of consciousness. It was, after all, a rabbi named Jesus who pointed to the higher laws in his own Jewish tradition—leading no one out, but only up.

Huston Smith made the study of world religions his life’s work. The introduction to his popular and illuminating book, The World’s Religions, begins with this observation:

“..the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal…. It is possible to climb life’s mountains from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” 

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) The famous “Stairway to Heaven” to Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

This idea of elevation and convergence echoes the experience of Ramakrishna. The Indian mystic earnestly practiced Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and discovered that, by shedding any religious biases, he could find God in each tradition. He insisted that

“As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways.” 

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

While my Mormon beliefs provide me with a sturdy ladder, well-suited to its task, I now must acknowledge that others are climbing just as high by means of bamboo, stairs, or rope. 

Happily, as we ascend, the fog of provincialism fades, and we find our narrow views giving way to more expansive vistas.

That We May Be One: Healing the Body of Christ

IMG_0744AS MY SPIRITUAL LIFE HAS WIDENED its embrace, I’m coming to understand that the yearning for atonement is truly universal. Spiritual practices in the East, such as yoga and loving-kindness meditation, effect the same soul-change that prayer, baptism, and communion do in the West: they move us from separateness to sacred union. I’ve seen religions doing their finest work when they unite instead of divide, when they lead us to at-one-ment. In fact, the word religion itself means to join together, to bind (as does its Sanskrit cousin, yoga). So when I learn that my religious community–a group whose hearts should be knit together in love–is poised, once again, to rend one of its members from the fabric of fellowship, I’m filled with anguish.

For those not following the issue, this Sunday, a stake president will decide if John Dehlin should be excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Further stoking the flames of a fire not yet cooled after the excommunication of Kate Kelly this past summer, Dehlin’s ecclesiastical censuring has elicited copious amounts of invective from both sides of the debate.

I don’t wish to drive the wedge any deeper. Neither his priesthood leader, nor Mr. Dehlin himself deserves to be vilified. If we could see into their hearts, we would agree that they are both men of good will, following honorable but mutually conflicting motives.

As an unconventional Mormon myself, I cherish an inclusive community, and believe the Body of Christ is strengthened by diversity, not weakened. How I resonate to Paul’s teaching on the subject: “If the whole body were the eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, where were the smelling?” When I hear fellow Latter-day Saints clamoring for someone’s ouster, I want to protest, like Paul, “The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you…those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.” (1 Corinthians 12:17-22)

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And now, it seems, an amputation has been scheduled.

We may all concede, however reluctantly, that sometimes a limb must be amputated to save a life. So when I hear others reasoning that the health of the Church necessitates the amputation of some of its members, I can’t dispute the soundness of the logic, at least in principle. An organization, like an organism, needs a system for excreting toxic waste, fending off foreign invaders, and sloughing off dead tissue. But amputations are always tragic, and the mortal threat must be real, not imagined. Chopping off a foot because its warty toe doesn’t meet an institutional aesthetic does not constitute a mortal threat. Nor would a wise surgeon remove an organ until fully understanding how its various and sometimes subtle functions are contributing to the overall health of the organism.

And when an amputation is deemed medically necessary, that does not mean that such an outcome was inevitable. It usually represents a chronic failure to provide the attentive care and proper conditions for healing and well-being. This is a perspective borne from my experiences serving with my family in India among the leprosy-affected.

One insidious feature of the disease is permanent damage to nerve endings in the extremities. Fortunately, the micro-bacterium that causes the disease is easily neutralized and with simple treatment poses no further risk to the patient. A leprosy patient’s body is, for all intents and purposes, healthy. However, the patient, whose nerve endings have been compromised, has become insensitive to the pain inflicted on parts of his or her body, such as to the feet or hands.

Let’s suppose such a person steps on shards of broken glass. She would not perceive the injury being suffered by her foot. And when she lifts a scorching hot lid from the cooking pot, she will not know how her hand blisters from the heat. Insensitive to wound after wound, and numb to the need for healing, her wounds become infected and sores spread; ulcers, untreated, eat away at perfectly healthy tissue, until, one day, a doctor will conclude that an amputation has become necessary in order to save a person’s life.

IMG_0741John Dehlin’s ecclesiastical surgeon may reach the same conclusion this Sunday. But let there be no mistake: this excommunication, this severing of a member from the Body of Christ, represents yet another failure. A failure to be sensitive to the very real pain and discomfort some members are feeling, to be responsive to their wounds and attentive to our care-giving. A failure to view lumpy toes and unsightly moles in their proper perspective, as well as the forbearance to put up with some stinky pits now and then. We have need of thee. We have need of thee.

May we come to recognize our inherent and indivisible unity. May we come to realize that the health and well-being of a part is the health and well-being of the whole. These understandings, after all, are key insights into the nature of atonement. As the Body of Christ, may we not lose our sensitivity to the pain and wounding experienced by some of our members. And when injury leads to infection, and we worry that the infection will spread, let us be less keen to maim ourselves. Instead of a surgeon’s knife, let us liberally apply the healing balm of love.

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Divine Union: a Hindu temple-inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

BACK IN NOVEMBER I STARTED letting my beard grow out. After three days, an Indian colleague looked at my face and frowned. “You are looking very dull,” she said. “You are not well?”

“I feel fine,” I said.

“Maybe you sleep not so good?”

“Slept just fine, thanks.”

“Your face is looking very dull.”

After a few more days, the children on campus started reaching up and touching my face, giggling as their fingers skimmed across the bristles. “It’s a beard,” I told them.

An older boy ran his hand across his own chin and then said, “Lon, why you are not shave?”

“I am shaving,” I say. “Every day I’m shaving.” I lift up my chin and point to the neatly trimmed border meeting my jaw line. “See?”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.41.08 PMAfter 10 days or so, the beard was growing in nice and full, blonde and red with some mature white marbling. That’s when I start hearing the whispers. I’m walking by some sari-clad colleagues, and I hear one of them say something and then the others giggling as I go by.

“Lon, sir. She say you must be having the love failure.”

I walk over to them. “The what?”

“Your beard. You must be having the love failure.”

“I’m having love failure?”

“Yes, yes.” The other teachers are wobbling their heads. “You are not shaving. If you have love failure means your heart sad from no love.”

From what I was able to gather in the ensuing conversation, a clean-shaven man who stops shaving is the Indian equivalent of a metro-sexual who begins wearing sweat pants out in public. It’s very worrisome, and likely signals that the individual has recently experienced heartbreak of such staggering proportions that they can no longer muster even the minimum effort required to maintain basic social conventions such as shaving, or matching belts to shoes.

I continued to be hectored for the entire month of November by the India staff, before shaving it off on the first day in December. To be fair, one person liked my beard. He was a former Christian pastor who now serves as the hostel manager on campus. He brought his palms together one evening at the dining hall, smiled at me shyly and said, in broken English, “When I am seeing your face, I think of Jesus.”

(This was around the time that the New York Times and other media were reporting on the humiliations heaped on the Mormon student attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake who’d been granted a rare exception allowing him to sport a beard while appearing in a LDS produced film about Jesus Christ, but who was required to wear an explanatory sign around his neck while on campus. Also, he was told he must compensate for his outward display of spiritual slacker-hood by wearing dress slacks and a tie. I wasn’t wearing a tie or a sign around my neck when Pastor John was thinking of Jesus. And I don’t think it was the beard, either. I think Pastor John sees Jesus in everyone’s face.)

When the beard came off, the staff were relieved, and they let me know.

Very sharp, Sir.

You now are looking more healthy, Sir. You were very, very dull.

You and Miss Rebecca having no more love failure–is good.

It is good. And just in time for our 20th wedding anniversary.

TO COMMEMORATE THE BEGINNING OF our third decade together, we packed a light picnic and took a lovely walk down a village road whose winding path was almost as full of twists and turns as our own marriage has been. Around every corner some new, unexpected delight. And plenty of opportunities to reorient from time to time, to get our bearings. We wound up–appropriately enough–at a temple alongside a lake. We were married in a temple–the LDS temple in Oakland, California–all those years ago, and could never have imagined that we’d be spending our 20th anniversary in India standing beside a Hindu temple. It was late afternoon and the slanting sun spilled its gold on everything–on the temple, the pond, the palm trees and herdsman’s goats, the cattle egrets and pond herons stepping through the marsh grasses. Rebecca’s hair shone gold and copper.

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We settled onto a spot near the temple, overlooking the little lake. The temple was in the southern Indian style, with a pyramidal steeple adorned with hosts of vividly-painted gods and goddesses, devas, and even gargoyles for scaring away the asuras, or demon spirits. Ecstatic devotional music trumpeted from loudspeakers in four direction as we sat together and looked back and looked forward, it being the turning of the year and also that tipping point in our marriage where, after 20 years, we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart.

The temple includes a shrine to the god Shiva, (whose seemingly contradictory associations with both Destruction and Creation might better be understood as Regeneration, not unlike a farmer who discs a harvested field to prepare the ground for next spring’s crop.) Shiva is represented by a polished phallus, called a lingam.

Lingam and Yoni

Lingam and YoniLarge enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. If you look at some of the oldest statues of the Hindu god, you will see that only the right half is Male; the left half is Female. They, together, Shiva and Parvati, comprise the Divine Whole, co-equal in power and capacity, but each reliant on the Divine Union to unleash their creative energy.

Five red-headed bundles of creative energy later, I think of how inseparably entwined our lives have become. To borrow a term from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our marriage has invited us into a kind of inter-being, an ecology of relationships that recognizes, beyond the arbitrary epidermal boundaries, a complex system of inter-dependence that allows us to do more together than we could apart. To the extent I’m learning to yield to that inter-being, I expand exponentially.

This is what I couldn’t have fully understood at the temple 20 years ago. My Mormon tradition, too, has an audacious and sublime vision of Divine Union, which I cherish. But sometimes it’s obscured by ego-baiting rhetoric promising celestial dominions, kingdoms, glories, hierarchies of status. And perhaps it’s tainted, too, by a troubling history where polygamy seems to have been leveraged by its earliest practitioners not as a way for co-equals to enter a sacred partnership, but as a kind of celestial multi-level marketing scheme where the reach of a man’s exaltation was proportionate to the number of brides over which he presided.

This isn’t how I’ve come to understand my marriage. Those with a sublime vision of Divine Union aren’t embarrassed at the mere mention of a Heavenly Mother, nor fail to find a place for her in their temples, particularly during depictions of the Creation.

So it is fitting that we are here, where the Hindu temple at our shoulder can reminds us, perhaps better than our own temples dare, of the vision that has inspired our marriage for two decades and counting. A vision where we learn to embrace the other, loving and accepting until dualities dissolve, until that improbable partnership of opposites becomes a dynamic union of inter-beings, one in soul forever.

I didn’t know much twenty years ago when I married Rebecca Leavitt in the LDS temple in Oakland, California. The wedding rites hinted that we would one day rise to a fully divine nature. Now I better understand that our temple sealing wasn’t just a box to check off on a list of required ordinances that had to be satisfied. Now I see that the work of sealing was in truth the work of a lifetime spent together, learning to let the ego-boundaries of self melt away in the presence of the beloved. And if we do rise, we will rise as angels who, having each only one wing, ascend in each other’s embrace.

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Circles of Inclusion: A letter to my community from the leprosy colonies.

BEING WITHOUT AN INTERNET CONNECTION so far from home can feel like being marooned on an desolate island. The tower that connects us to our loved ones was overthrown in a violent storm a few weeks ago. We’d only been in the remote village here in India for a day and half when a tropical gale ripped the tower from its rusting anchors and hurled it to the ground. No more internet. We didn’t know how much we relied on it and now we’re really struggling without it. The hardest part is the feeling of being severed from our community, isolated, cut off.

With that in mind, you may understand the mixture of sadness, disappointment, and utter helplessness I feel as I’m getting weather reports from back home. It seems that a climate of fear, mistrust, and hostility broods over the Mormon community. Storms eventually blow over, but this is something different. This is a foul, pestilential vapor hanging over our community, although, in one of the many ironies inherent in being human, we are asphyxiating ourselves even as we fume at others.

I have no breath of fresh air to offer. No breezy expressions to sweep away the reeking miasma. In an emergency, they say, an oxygen mask will drop from above. But clearing the air will take more than some deus ex machina.

It was not the gods who did this–they did not command us to kick each other out of the church; they did not whisper that TRUTH was such a fragile thing it needed protection from IDEAS; they did not inspire us to pick up stones and hurl them at one another; they surely did not teach us that moral influence and power should be maintained by virtue of priesthood office, nor by exercising control, dominion, or compulsion, nor by contracting out the dirty work to modern-day hirelings, the PR Department.

Sadly, it seems to me that the hand of inclusion and acceptance we’d been extended by a few apostolic leaders seems to have been withdrawn. Now it’s all jabs and sucker-punches.

BUT I ALSO HEAR REPORTS OF KINDNESS, of inclusion, of individual ministries where institutional ones have failed. I rally when I hear these reports. They tell me that pockets of fresh air are possible where two or more are truly gathered in His name–a kind of rescue breathing where words of acceptance and inclusion resuscitate the dead and dying.

To those who have been excommunicated from the body of believers, whether formally (institutional punishment) or informally (social punishment), my heart aches for you. I’ve been working among the leprosy-affected here in India enough to witness how dehumanizing it is to be shunned, marginalized, even banished from a community. I’ve also come to understand the fear and ignorance lurking under the surface of such behavior. But you are not unclean for questioning injustice. You are not filthy for calling foul. You are not untouchable for challenging the status quo.

Every time someone, in fear, draws a circle that excludes you from the Mormon community, please know there are others of us drawing circles wide enough to take you in. And as your brothers and sisters, we will continue our commitment to inclusion, through renegade acts of radical acceptance, until we find ourselves—all of us–circumscribed into one great whole.

 

Here outside the tiny village of Thottanaval, there are plans to rebuild the tower that pulls internet fire from the sky. It could take a month or a year. But in the meanwhile, I still find my most meaningful relationships intact, needing no intermediary to connect us. May it be so for all of us.