Friday, March 27, 2009

On Revelation and the Problem with "Ministry"

This is not so much a Burning Bush as it is a kind of "aha" moment. I understand something I've been mentally chewing on for a very long time.

Note: In this piece I am going to use the word "prophet" to refer to people who have received direct revelation in some manner, whether or not they are actually Biblical prophets.

Recently I have been writing about my newfound ways of expressing my spirituality outside the bounds of institutional Christianity. [I have given up the expression "organized religion". There's nothing organized about Christianity as I know it.]  The benefit of this way of living is that there are no middle-men with an agenda.  I have direct access to the Holy with every breath I draw, and the Holy has direct access to me.  "Wonderland" is my short-cut term for living spiritually naked in the Holiness of Creation, which appears to me to be a kind of alternate Reality from the day-to-day world as I usually experience it. My purpose in writing about this is to figure out how to reconcile the two Realities in my life.  I find the experience of living in Wonderland to be exhilarating and empowering.  The kind of interior solitude and stillness that goes with it is cool for me, too. 

I acknowledge and I understand that not everyone responds to the invitation to live in Wonderland with the same joy and eagerness that I do. (Come to think of it, I was sort of driven to the Wilderness originally kicking, screaming and swearing at God.) The Christian churches that grew the most rapidly in the last quarter of the 20th Century were the churches that had the most rules and the clearest teaching on what God was up to in the world and what God expects of people.  In the uncertain and frightening world we live in, people want certainty. They want answers.  They want someone to tell them what to do in order to have their ticket to Heaven punched.

We are not the first generation of folks who want a short, easy way to "do" spirituality. The Israelites, standing at the foot of Sinai, with the Lord's invitation to a direct  relationship still ringing in their ears, responded by asking Moses and Aaron to handle all that spiritual stuff for them. The Israelites wanted priests to deal with the Lord God. That way the people did not have to undertake the scary business of looking directly into the face of God. Thus was born the Yahweh cult, and Western religion.  God have mercy on us all.

People are hardwired to be spiritually schizophrenic, I think.  On the one hand, there is something in humans (that Gnostic god-spark, perhaps?) that yearns for the Holy; some people spend their lives eagerly exploring the Spirit world.  On the other hand, we also tend to be fearful and risk-averse and we too often want other people to do the really heavy lifting for us (spiritual or otherwise).  Religions are virtually all founded by people of the former type who wanted to help the latter type understand what they found on their Journey through Wonderland.  The problem is that too often the prophets who received Revelation misunderstood its nature. Revelation is intended to be personal and private.  What is revealed to me is true for me alone.  It does not apply to anyone else. Too often prophets try to make their revelation applicable to other people.

That does not mean there are not some things that might be broadly applicable.  "Thou shalt not kill" is a pretty good rule of thumb regardless of who received the initial revelation.  Actually, the Ten Commandments are pretty good rules across the board.  I personally like "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your god."  There are a lot of excellent revealed truths.  It is important to understand that the initial revelation was personal and private between the prophet and The Holy.  The fact that others may find something that rings true for them in the revelation is totally and completely incidental.

If it turns out that a lot of people agree that a revealed truth is widely applicable, that revelation may become encapsulated in some kind of code of law, religious or civil.  "Thou shalt not kill" is incorporated into laws against murder in probably every country on earth.  In the U.S. and some other western nations we have tried to codify laws encouraging justice and fairness, equality under the law, and all those other good things that started out as revelations to individual prophets. That's not a bad thing. It's a good thing... provided we understand that we are doing it because there is broad consensus it is the right thing, not because God revealed it in a vision to Moses, or Jesus, or Mohammad.

Prophets (especially prophets who are already ministers in an institutional church) too often mistake personal revelation for Divine Directive.  Some revelation is so personal and so private it cannot be shared. Other revelation is so beautiful we cannot keep it to ourselves.  The key is that I share what is revealed to me not to instruct or encourage others to live the way I do or to understand the Holy the way I do.  I share it because it is too lovely and sweet not to share. I toss it out there for the enjoyment of those who might appreciate it and/or to encourage others to seek their own revelation.

I share what I learn because I have been encouraged and empowered by others who have passed this way before me, and I want to let others know what is available to anyone who chooses to look.  Maybe it's something akin to marking a trail for others to follow.  They may or may not have the same experiences, but I can at least break branches and drop bread crumbs to let them know that they are not alone in traveling the road.

My message is simple: Burning Bushes are everywhere.  They speak to me with words I need to hear at this point in my life.  Next month or next year they will probably say something quite different.  It is not important what they say to me. What is important is to let others know the Burning Bushes are there.  It should not matter to you what they say to me.  My message is : Go, see for yourself. Listen to what the Burning Bushes have to say to you. 

For me sharing revelation is kind of like the natural tendency people have when we see something wonderful. We turn to those around us, saying, "Look at that!" What "it" appears to be and what "it" means will be different for each person who bothers to look.

That brings me to the subject of ministry.  Based in part on the passage from Exodus and even more on my personal experience with an incredible array of incompetent, arrogant and abusive ordained ministers, I have long been very anti-clerical.  My focus and principal "ministry" during my church-lady years was the empowerment of the laity.  I was devoted to the notion that lay ministry would counteract the dreadful clerical bullshit that was, as I saw it, destroying the Church.  

Responses to the lay ministry movement varied.  Certain priests were so threatened  by it, they simply blocked all overtures from the laity; I found myself in a church like that once --  briefly.  Certain priests welcomed lay ministry, so long as we remained within the bonds of the church, and were willing to submit to the authority of the ordained priest-in-charge; I willingly played that game ...  for a while.  Some laity responded well, because they saw it as a way to increase their influence in the congregation. Some responded well because they truly saw ministry as a way to serve the people.  A lot of laity resented the hell out of it because it (a) put demands on them they did not welcome and (b) gave certain laity power over other laity.  

I sort of missed the nuances of that last point for a long time.  Years ago, a visiting speaker at our church tried to explain the dangers of lay ministry to me.  She said that, while the lay ministry movement may have originated from the worthy idea that we are a "priestly people" and therefore all called to serve God as we are called, the practical effect of the movement in most churches was to create another layer of ministers between God and the people in the pews.  Moreover it made the lay ministers second class priests instead of priestly people of God.  She said it was her opinion that lay ministry simply added a new layer to the church's caste system. She viewed that as a very bad thing.  Her comments pissed me off and hurt my feelings at the time, because I was devoting so much energy to the empowerment of lay ministry.  That entire conversation festered in my heart and never really healed.  

I think I now understand now what she was trying to tell me.  The Priestly People exists already.  We already have everything we need to understand and respond to the Holy in Creation. We don't need spiritual training or formation or classes or consecration ceremonies. We sure as hell do not need ordination ceremonies! Instead of creating layers of ordained, vowed, and consecrated ministers at various levels, we need to understand that none of that is necessary.  In fact all of it could be very damaging to the spiritual development of the people, because it robs us of the opportunity to develop our own spiritual muscles. 

What is worse, it makes the People of God dependent on professional or para-professional "experts" to take care of that which we should be doing for ourselves and, at the same time, puts the Ministers in a position where they are in danger of feeling superior to the people to whom they minister.  

In other words, ministry is a slippery slope for all concerned. 

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