Saturday, March 7, 2015

Kindly LET GO of your "ISM"...
Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast Kelly McEvers’ interview with Maajid Nawaz.  According to McEvers, Maajid Nawaz is “a British citizen of Pakistani descent who himself joined an Islamist group when he was a teenager. He recruited for the group, spent four years in prison in Egypt, and then later renounced the group. Nawaz wrote a book about the experience and is the co-founder of Quilliam. That's a British think tank that focuses on countering extremist beliefs.” 
In the interview, Nawaz described his journey into “radicalized Islam” and described what he perceives as some factors that lead men and women like himself down that particular religious path.  He describes how extremists groups take advantage of youthful feelings of frustration, anger, injustice which they exploit, concretize, and use as a bridge to radicalized ideology.  What attracted my attention most in the interview was Nawaz’s description of the difference between the religion of Islam and what he says is the distorted practice he calls “Islam-ism”…  Here is an excerpt of the interview:

NAWAZ: “So the grievances - you know, you'd expect somebody who's a teenager to be quite angry at the various injustices of the world, but you wouldn't expect someone in their 20s to continue using those grievances as an excuse for the most unjustifiable acts. And that's the bridge. The bridge there is that what the ideology provides. It fossilizes an anger that someone once felt, and then, you know, it becomes the justification for all sorts of atrocities that are then committed by the ideologue.
MCEVERS: “Yeah, it's that final step from the ideas to the acts.

NAWAZ: “Indeed, it is, yeah. And actually, the ideology, what I call the Islamist ideology - the desire to impose any version of Islam over society anywhere - that's Islamism as opposed to Islam, which is a religion.”  (A full transcript of the interview can be found at
I want to observe that this phenomenon of “fossilized” feelings of injustice being used to support religious ideology isn’t exclusive to Islam…indeed it is an endemic problem of all major religious traditions, Christianity and Judaism included. 

In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus observes the frustrations of an occupied people, oppressed not only by the Empire of Rome, but also by the religious authorities of his time.  We read of Jesus speaking out publicly against this authority to offer a message of religious/spiritual liberation.  It was, after all, his subversive spiritual message which led directly to his arrest and execution for religious heresy and political sedition.  Rather than fixating on ideology and strict observance of revealed law, Jesus offered a simple spiritual practice of forgiveness and love of one’s neighbor.
Centuries earlier, Gautama Buddha delivered a similar message of spiritual liberation after observing the suffering of people in his community and the inability of the religious ideologues of his day and time to address this suffering.  Looking deeply at the nature of reality and the processes of the human mind and heart, Gautama Buddha recognized that clinging to anything:  existence, material wealth, religious ideology, only leads to suffering for self and others.  In response, he offered a practice of “letting go” of certainties and ideology for the sake of practicing compassion and loving kindness. 

In more recent times, theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed the fossilization of frustration and anger by extremist groups in post-war Germany.  This fossilization of fear, anger, and xenophobia created a religious and political ideology in Germany which led to the radicalization of his country’s government and state-controlled church; the result of which ended in the horrendous extermination of 6 million human beings.  In his personal struggles to make sense of what was happening, of how the “Christian” citizens of Germany could remain silent (and in many instances complicit) in genocide, Bonhoeffer began to conceptualize a “religion-less” Christianity; a Christianity in which the basic virtues Jesus expressed in the Sermon on the Mount could really be lived out and God’s reign of peace, love, and compassion could be made manifest.  Bonhoeffer’s invitation to practice a “religion-less Christianity” through a “new form of monasticism” is, I think, his contribution for guarding against the trap of fossilized fear and anger, and radicalized religious and political ideology.
Which brings us back to our present period of extreme political and religious ideology and the violence it generates.  One only need turn on the radio, television, or internet and see the effects of fossilized anger and radicalized, religious ideology; not only Islamic radicalization, but Christian radicalization, too.  Western Christians may like to hide behind a veil of self-righteousness and modern “civilization” and point out that Christians aren’t the ones beheading innocents; but historically and culturally, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all have blood on their hands form centuries of violence perpetuated in the name of their faiths.    It should be pointed out that throughout history, scripture has been used by religious groups to justify slavery, war, genocide, child abuse, sexual exploitation, oppression, and other injustices.  The vitriol and hate shouted out by groups like the Westboro Baptist Church (and other harshly fundamentalist “Christians”) and the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIL) is not only identical, but arises from the same seed of suffering in each human heart.

I should stop at this point and offer clarification that not ALL Christians are xenophobic fundamentalists; not all Muslims are radical extremists, not all Jews are militant Zionists.  And groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIL do not speak for nor represent the totality of the faith traditions from which they grow.  But that is part of the point I wish to make.  What sets these violent and dangerous groups apart is their perversion of faith and embrace of hate-filled radicalization.  These groups fossilize their sense of injustice, hatred and anger into a particular xenophobic, hateful, angry, radicalized ideology.  The “problem” isn’t Christianity, Judaism, or Islam per se.  The problem is the distortion and perversion of compassion-based faith into an ideological excuse for hatred, anger, violence, oppression, rape, slaughter, genocide.  The fierce attachment to religious ideology perverts the practice religious faith into a distorted practice of religious-ism.  The problem is NOT Christianity, it is that fearful, angry people calling themselves “Christian” are actually practicing Christian-ism.  The problem is NOT Islam, it is that fearful, angry people who call themselves “Muslim” are practicing Islam-ism.  The problem is that true justice has not been actualized, negative feelings have not been healed, and pain has been fossilized into radicalized ideology to which people become fiercely attached.  In doing so, faith is twisted and distorted, and so what was once supposed to be the solution to injustice then becomes the cause of only more injustice and suffering for everyone. 
As a Christian priest, one solution I hope to inspire people to return to is Bohoeffer’s idea of a “religion-less” Christianity.  In so doing, I hope we can finally release our institutional death-grip on Christian dogma and ideology, stop practicing Christian-ism, and start practicing the compassionate expression of faith that Jesus inspired us to live out. 

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was organizing his Finkenwalde seminary in 1935, living in prayerful community with participants in the underground seminary, he began to develop his ideas of what came to be called a “new monasticism”…
"The restoration of the church will surely come from a new kind of monasticism, which will have nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising adherence to the Sermon on the Mount in imitation of Christ. I believe the time has come to rally people together for this."   ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In a religionless Christianity, I Bonhoeffer is calling for a genuine expression and practice of spiritual faith as taught by Jesus of Nazareth.  What Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is spiritual practice in in simplest and truest form.  In this teaching, Jesus is pointing beyond the fossilized injustice and ideology of the established religious authorities of his time and ours, and inviting everyday people (including people like you and me) to let go of attachment to dogmatic religion-ism, and live more fully into a practice of faith and compassion.  In his time, Jesus invited people to let go of their Judaism, and simply be a compassionate, Godly people.  In a religionless Christianity, Bonhoeffer is inviting us to do the same.  Bonhoeffer is inviting us to let go of Christian-ism and practice being a compassionate, Godly people.  In our current times, theologians like Franciscan priest and teacher Richard Rohr are (thankfully!) leading us in the same direction. 
My own belief is that if circumstances been different, had Bonhoeffer not been arrested and executed, had he been able to continue his work and exploration of religion-less Christianity, had he been fortunate (as we are) to live in a world of communication and connectivity, had he (like the beloved Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton) been able to encounter Buddhist monastic practice and its teachings of non-attachment, Bonhoeffer may have appreciated an integration of his “religionless Christianity” and Zen Buddhist practices of non-attachment and compassion, a practice I call “Mindful Christianity”.

To learn more about Mindful Christianity, visit New Seeds Priory at:

fr. Scott+

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Call me a tree hugger....please!

Two Zen masters, friends for many years, visited one another in the monastery garden.  They strolled together among the stones, ponds, and trees.  They sat together in silence for several hours with no need for words.  Suddenly, one Zen master broke the conversation of silence as he began to chuckle softly.  He pointed towards the blossoming form before them and remarked with simple insight to his friend: “They call that a tree”.

I heard this story a long time ago, but I can’t recall the source.  It stuck with me.

And something also stuck with me that I heard at a dharma discussion I participate in at a Zen Center:  “There is a difference between the map and the terrain.”  This was given in response to a question regarding how much “truth” or “authority” to we (as Zen students) should ascribe to Zen writings, commentaries, and koans.  In Zen training, what is more important is our direct experience, not how well we can intellectualize the scriptures.

I assert that the same is true of Christianity and our practice as followers of Christ.  Scripture is one thing, experience is another.  The bible is a map, not the terrain itself.  It is important not to confuse the two.  It is equally important not to elevate the scripture above the level of that to which the scripture describes or points.  Our Christian injunction is to follow; to love and to serve; to walk the spiritual path, not to get lost in over intellectualizing the details of the map.  This is the teaching implicit in the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” 

So I sometimes share with people that there is just as much to learn from a flower, a beetle, a blade of grass, or a tree as there is from any religious scripture.  (This, after all, is how the tradition of Ch’an or Zen Buddhism came to be!).  The trick is to practice our spirituality in such a way that we are open and receptive to what a tree has to tell us.

This is what I learned from an Oak tree once…

Most people are afraid of change.  Some people seem to be afraid of diversity and think of seemingly perpetual differentiation as a worrisome or problematic trend.  And most people seem to be oblivious or resistant to the real and natural processes of life and death…they are afraid of impermanence.

Part of what makes an oak tree an oak tree is the magnificence of its beautifully fractillated, ever-branching complexity.  Germinating from a single acorn, this tree spends decades growing and branching into its unique form.  This form is determined by both genetics as well as by external events such as weather, disease, animals, and other natural and un-natural events.  But throughout this growth process, the oak tree naturally continues to branch in every available direction, each branch sprouting and budding left, right, up and down, in an almost endless process of bifurcation.  New acorns are produced and given to the earth, each containing its own explosive potential to become a fully grown oak tree.  The mature oak tree provides shade and habitat for other life forms.  It gives of itself, never questioning its truth, but always demonstrating its abundance and inherent oak-tree-ness.  And it never tries to be anything other than a fully bifurcated, magnificent oak tree, leaves of each branch lovingly supporting the life of the whole.  At the end of its life, the oak tree, like all living things, succumbs to the natural events of death and decay and surrenders its form to the earth from which it came.

What worries me is the way persons who are unable to hear or perceive what an oak tree has to say or who have failed to integrated these lessons, seem to insist on a world-view in which diversity is resisted, inclusivity is spurned, the reality of life and death is denied.  As if somehow they hold the secret “truth” that diversity, inclusivity, and impermanence are "wrong"; that what is best for the oak tree is to become a comparatively monolithic, eternally static cactus….without too much diversity, without deciduous change; for the oak tree to revert to a "simpler" form that is eternal and unmoving, upright and unbending.  I believe the religious term for this is “fundamentalism”.

Diversity is natural and good.  An oak tree by it's very nature is diverse.  It is impossible for an oak tree to be fundamentalist.

Cacti have spines…I’d much rather hug an oak tree.

fr. Scott+

Monday, May 27, 2013

New Seeds a nutshell.

This past Sunday at New Seeds Priory, we were visited by two gentlemen (a couple), who stayed after the conclusion of our Contemplative Celtic Eucharist service and shared some conversation with me.  I had met one member of this couple when I stopped by a local dharma center to introduce myself and share information about the Priory.  After visiting the Priory website, he and his partner decided to join us for services.  During our after-Eucharist conversation, the second member of this couple asked some very weighty, insightful questions…I felt a little as if I were being interrogated.  But I took it all as an opportunity to clarify and articulate just what it is this New Seeds Priory is all about with someone who was perhaps genuinely seeking a meaningful community in which to participate and find place and have a voice.  It was a good conversation.  It wasn’t until the end of this conversation that this fellow revealed himself to be a retired episcopal priest!

He emailed me today to thank me for sharing service and for entertaining his salvo of questions.  (I think I passed the test!)  

What follows is an excerpt from my email reply to this retired priest.  I share it with you because it offers what I hope is a clear and concise explanation of what I want New Seeds Priory to be about…

“One thing I would like to share with you about my Christian-Buddhist practice that didn’t segue into our conversation is my understanding of the Diamond Sutra, or at least one portion of the Diamond Sutra.  The sutra is a dialogue of question and responses between Buddha and the disciple Subhuti (much like our exchange on Sunday!).  In one exchange, Buddha explains to Subhuti, ‘That which you call the Highest Truth, may not be the Highest Truth.  It is only what you conceive of as the Highest Truth, therefore you call it the Highest Truth.’

“In a nutshell, I take this to mean that no matter what we think of as the highest truth, it is still only our conceptualization of what the highest truth is.  As a Christian, I see that this teaching is true of almost everything the Church has offered me as “the truth”.  As Christians, we have a two thousand year inheritance of other people’s conceptualization of “the highest truth”, from Paul to the Gospel Authors all the way to today, with each author or commentator interjecting their own political, theological, or societal agendas.  I’ve come to see that no matter how much authoritative weight one wishes to throw behind biblical scripture, it’s still just someone else’s conceptualization of God and of the teachings of Jesus.  If I’ve learned anything in my few years of study and experiment, it is that God is ineffable and well beyond my finite conceptualization, and that my conceptualizations are a means of putting God in a neat little box.  How can God fit in my box or anyone else’s box?  (For our sharing on Easter Sunday here at the Priory, I offered my point of view on the Easter story as an allegory for how God, no matter how we may try to conceptualize God, will not be contained by our boxes!)  

“The practice of Buddhism, Zen in particular, is to have an experience; a direct, clear, awake, experience.  Mindfulness training is about becoming fully awake and fully present with the reality of each moment, without conceptualization, without agenda, without a preconceived meaning or outcome.  In this regard, the practice of Zen is not a ‘religion’, but rather a practice of empirical spirituality.

“So what I hope I’m doing is creating a space at the Priory where people can feel free and comfortable in letting go of their theological boxes and move beyond the theological conceptualization they were given by ‘the church’.  I want people to feel free to drop their doctrinal conditioning and engage in an experiment and have their own direct, empirical experience of ‘the highest truth’.  To do this, I hope to open a door for people to participate with Christianity not as a list of doctrinal ‘beliefs’, but as a spiritual practice.  A practice grounded in humility, love, service, forgiveness, and mercy.  I like to think that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was headed in this direction when he speaks of ‘New Monasticism’ and ‘Religion-less Christianity’.  Participating as a ‘New Monastic’ with the Lindisfarne Community is my way of experimenting and hopefully making a small contribution to continuing some of his work.” 
I am wishing you a pleasant and cool evening,

fr. Scott+ 


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Reeboot: May 2013

It’s certainly been a while since I last posted a blog…but I have gone through some good changes lately that have opened up some time for me to get back into the habit.  So starting today I begin cultivating a discipline of making regular entries.

So let me begin by briefly getting you updated on current goings-on…

I met a wonderful woman to share my life with.  Her name is Emma Churchman.  She is a Quaker by tradition of origin and continues to practice in that community.  She very happily graduated from seminary in May of this year with her M.Div. from Earlham School of Religion, a Quaker seminary in Indiana.  She completed her first unit of CPE at Rutherford Hospital and is now in her first leg of a CPE Chaplain Residency at the hospital in Johnson City, TN.  Emma is also a Shaman, and works with clients and groups in spiritual direction as “the Quaker Shaman”.  Emma is awesome and I am happy to share life together with her.

We have a small farm cottage in Black Mountain, NC where we care for our two dogs: Noah, Emma’s older Black Lab/Rottweiler mix, and our young rascal Eadmünd, who is half Dachshund half bunny rabbit.  Very cute, but very obstinate.

We are trying our hand a gardening this year for the first time.  It’s still early to report on, but the radishes seem to be doing very well.

As for myself, I am very, very happy and content.  I bailed on that chaplain residency in Spartanburg, SC.  Being a chaplain in the rural south just isn’t a paradigm in which I feel supported or empowered.  I had a really hard time in Spartanburg trying to orient myself and discover my pastoral identity in that community.  Ultimately, because I am neither Baptist nor Pentecostal, I could not.  So I left.  Which was a difficult decision to make, breaking a commitment, abandoning my 3 other residents; but the experience there was really sucking the life out of me (financially and spiritually), and I felt it was necessary for my personal, emotional and spiritual survival that I extricate myself form the environment.  In the end, the decision was a good one.

I left the hospital and took a job at a doctor’s office starting off as a phlebotomist and winding up as the Clinical Coordinator for the practice.  I like it…I’m relied upon, I’m respected, I like the work that I do, and the best part is I’m only there three days per week.  Dropping to part time was another good decision.  The only bad part was the significant decrease in take-home pay which give cause for some creative budgeting.  But I am significantly less stressed.  I rest well, I have time to do more self-care and maintain our country cottage and property.  But most importantly, I have adequate time for ministry…meditating, networking, reading, blogging (as you can see), and specifically the ministry of cultivating a Christian-Buddhist contemplative practice community, the seeds of which I planted last year with my Abbot +Andy at my Lindisfarne Community retreat in June 2012. 

I call the community “New Seeds Priory” in homage to Thomas Merton, my monastic hero.  We are just getting started.  I have been slowly spreading the word about the community with flyers, word-of-mouth, free ads in community newspapers, etc.  Earlier this week I gave an interview on a local independent radio station for a program about spirituality.  And I am stepping up efforts at networking with local Episcopal clergy, exploring opportunities to lead retreats or workshops, or just let folks know I exist.  It is slow work, and the challenge is to resist the natural feelings of discouragement and simply keep practicing and letting go of conceptualizations of how things “ought” to be.

New Seeds Priory has a website:     Please visit. 

And please do me a favor and help spread the word if you know anyone who is interested.

One last important thing to share is my “official” transition to practicing Zen as my primary meditation & spiritual practice.  Just before the Lindisfarne Retreat I mentioned earlier, I paid a visit to my Tibetan Buddhist teacher and explained to him what was going on in my life and how I had discovered that Zen Buddhist training was a much better practice for me.  He agreed and encouraged me to take up the practice of Zen.  My Spiritual Director, himself a former Carthusian Monastic and also a Zen teacher encouraged me in the same way.  I am happy to have found Jules Shuzen Harris Sensei, director of Soji Zen Center in Lansdowne, PA, and he has taken me as a formal student.  I am engaging in Koan study and making trips to visit Shuzen sensei and the Soji Sangha as often as I can.  This practice is good for me.

So that’s about it for today.  I just wanted to get the world updated to the goings-on of ol’ Scott Elliott.

I will be posting more in the near future and hope a few people will be interested in tuning in.

Be well,


Saturday, July 30, 2011

At the crossroads.

Some of you may know that I am engaged in a Chaplain Residency at a large regional hospital…and in addition to visiting patients and families, my fellow residents and interns and I have lots of class-work, reading, paperwork, and group sharing.  The whole thing is a tremendous opportunity to encounter suffering (the suffering of others and one’s own suffering) and to learn about one’s self in the midst of all that.

Anyway, in a recent class discussion on a book we’re all reading called “God & Human Suffering”, I was invited to comment on my experience of the intersection of my Christian practice and my Buddhist practice.  At the time, I was exhausted; I had been on call for 24 hours and hadn’t had any sleep.  I really couldn’t put two sentences together.  But after I was able to go home and get some sleep, I came back the next day and shared this with the group…

What I’ve come to experience in Christianity, at least in its “traditional” expressions, is a spiritual system that primarily keeps its focus on how things “should” be.  Traditional church systems do a good job of teaching people what to believe…about God, about Jesus, about “the kingdom”, about how the world is “supposed” to work.  This traditional expression of Christianity provides us with an “ideology” to believe in and attach to.  And what I’d like to point out is that the root of the word “ideology” is “idea”…that is, what we have been taught as Christians to believe in is just that: a bit of a fantasy, a construct of our imaginations, an IDEA. 

Now, I’m not saying that having ideas or living out a life of “faith” is wrong.  And if I sound critical, I really don’t mean to.  I’m simply pointing out something I observe to be kind of true.  Our invitation as Christians, at least as far as I can remember about what I’ve been taught, is to live out a life of “faith”.  Again, having ideas or “beliefs” isn’t inherently wrong or bad.  It just is what it is.  It's good to have faith and hope, especially if our faith and hope is something that helps us function in the world and put one foot in front of the other.  Where I think we get into trouble, though, is when we become attached to those beliefs and when we confuse our ideas with reality.  Our egos fool us into thinking that because things “should” be a certain way, that they are that way.  And I've encountered some Christians who have been taught that if we have enough "faith" or if we believe in something strongly enough, it will become if God were Jiminy Cricket telling us that if we just did the right things and believed hard enough or had enough faith we could someday turn into "real" boys and girls.  And that is simply not the case. 

But I’ve come to understand that we all do this to some degree, we all create narratives for ourselves about who we are and what we believe; and that we all do it for a similar reason…to protect ourselves from overwhelming emotions like fear, anger or pain; or on a deeper level, clinging to our ideology protects us from facing the biggest fear of all: our own mortality and impermanence.   Living in our ideology provides us with a welcome escape from the unbearable suffering in the world and inside of us and from a world that is constantly changing and finite.  But constantly living in a state of denial about reality, or living in a world entirely composed of our ideas, can bring us into conflict with how the world actually is.  Which sets us up for all kinds of trouble.  I believe the psychological term for this is “psychosis”.  I hate to say it, but a Christianity that is focused solely on adherence to an ideology at the expense of reality creates a kind of psychosis.  Hhhmm…I'd better be careful, I'm one step away from calling Christianity psychotic.  Luckily, this is where my Buddhist practice steps in…

The invitation of the Buddha's teachings, that is the “practice” of Buddhism, is to let go of these fantasies, let go of these ideologies, and awaken to “reality”.  Buddha invites us to simply sit and conduct the experiment of observation and analysis of what is “real” and “not real”...internally as well as externally.  Zen Master Dogen was able to ofer a most profound summary of the entirety of the Buddha's Teaching in just three simple words: "Not Always So".

When I sit on my meditation cushion and focus on my breath and settle into a gentle, focused awareness, things come up: anger, pain, sadness, joy, fear, lust, rejection, attraction, loneliness, inclusion…all kinds of things come up into my consciousness for me to look at, feel, and investigate.  I dialogue with these things and ask them, “where did you come from”?, “where are you going”?, “what are you all about?”, “what are you teaching me”?,  “what do you need from me”?, “what do you have to say about me”?, “what do you have to say about reality”? And as these things come up, fear, anger, pain, joy, etc., I invite myself to remain present with them and not turn away.  I spend time with my fear.  I spend time with my anger.  I spend time with my sadness and my joy, and I allow them to become familiar.  As they become familiar parts of me, I learn that they arise from within me and that they do not come from outside.  And as they become familiar, I see that they lose their power to control me.  I learn to differentiate these conditioned states of emotion and thought from any external reality.  I am liberated from my own ideology and the ideology of others.  I learn that there is a big difference between ideology and reality.  And I learn to live in a world that is constantly changing.  I learn to bravely accept the reality of impermanence without retreating to a fantasy about “eternal life”, because there is no such thing.

And this is where I see the beautiful intersection of these traditions…right in the spot where my hope for a better world meets the reality of the world we have. 

I’ve been a Christian all of my life, and I’ve been thoroughly steeped in its mythology and its ideology.  But by sitting on my cushion and cultivating a brave but gentle practice of really examining the nature of myself and reality, I have been able to discover a beautiful, meaningful practice of Christianity based not on fantasy and ideology, but on reality.  I’ve slowly been able to extricate Christ from Christianity.  What I mean is, by trying to understand this Jesus dude outside of the ideology and mythology of things like the immaculate conception, royal Davidic lineage, walking on water, “miracles” and even the resurrection, and letting go of those things that for most people define their Christianity, I’ve discovered something I feel is truer, more authentic,  more healing and more empowering (for me, anyway).    I’ve tried to look beyond the ideology and the mythology and look directly at the life and teachings of this man called Jesus.  What I see is a man with a deep understanding and appreciation for the transcendent divine.  I see a guy who understood both the spiritual and religious life of his people and the role that spirituality and religion played in their lives.  But I think he also understood the reality of a brutal life in first century Palestine.  He understood the crushing poverty, brutality and oppression of life under Roman occupation.  He understood the corrupt, inhumane governance of Herrodian rule.  And he understood the hypocrisy and impotence of strict religious life under the Pharisees.  And he was pissed off about it!  He taught empowering lessons of a different, compassionate spiritual life in relationship with a loving compassionate God and lived out a life of selfless care of the poor, the sick, the homeless and the oppressed.  He never really required people to “believe” in him, he asked people to “follow” him and to love.  Jesus, as a true spiritual master, gave us his own summary of the spiritual laws of his own time and culture: "Love God, Love your Neighbor as Yourself".  But I think more importantly, Jesus gave us an example…an example of how to practice loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  He gave us something more powerful than ideology and more powerful that beliefs, He gave us a practice.  Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha saw the same things in his world and gave us the same thing: a practice of seeing reality and generating compassion for and in that reality.

I can hope for a better world.  I can believe that things should be different.  But hope doesn’t change anything.  My hope doesn’t change the reality of a suffering world.  I still have to do something about it.  If I want a better world, I have to make it happen.  If I want the “kingdom of heaven”, I have to make it here and now.  My hope doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to love and to do the work required of loving.  In the world of suffering, at the intersection of Christianity and Buddhism I discover a powerful practice...a practice of compassion in the midst of a reality of suffering and of joy.

And so this is where I try to abide and work and discover the kingdom, at the intersection of hope and the crossroads of "Love Your Neighbor" and "Not Always So".


Thursday, June 30, 2011


In June of this year, I began a year-long residency as a Chaplain at a regional hospital. My peer group of fellow residents, chaplain interns, as well as my supervisors, is composed of “Christians”…specifically “Baptist” Christians. In some ways, I am the “token Buddhist”…I have experienced so far that I can be both a novel curiosity and a threat to my peers. And in an effort to respond to a recent Facebook note I posted about my confusion about what it means to be “Baptist”, I hope, as one of my learning objectives, to figure that out. “What is a Baptist”? But that is another blog post for another day…

But today’s question is a little broader:  What is a CHRISTIAN?

Well…I don’t really know. I know I’ve been told what a Christian is, what a Christian does. And I’ve mostly been told that being a Christian means that I’ve accepted a set of “beliefs” about God, about this Jesus fella. And I know that a lot, if not most of that meaning of Christianity has been handed to us for centuries by the “church” and its authorities…as part of our “tradition”. I also know that most of that tradition is founded on the writings of Paul and the narratives of the gospel writers…our “scripture”. But my experience is that what we have inherited, as both tradition and scripture, is just that… “narratives” – narratives of other people in a specific historical geo-political context, narratives with specific political and theological agendas to advance, narratives to be understood by those people in those times. But why do those narratives have to be MY narrative(s)? 

It’s clear that belief in the Resurrection was important to Paul; but does it have to be just as important to me? It’s clear in the first chapter of Matthew that establishing Jesus’ Davidic lineage was important to the author(s) of that gospel…he(?) was writing a persuasive story to a mostly Jewish audience. But does Jesus’ Davidic lineage have to be important to me? The author of Mark emphasizes Jesus’ role as prophet as a fulfillment and continuation of Jewish Midrashic narratives. John seeks to establish Jesus’ divinity. But these are the narratives of and for a specific community authored by specific individuals with their own specific personal narratives. Why do they have to be MY narratives? Can I not have the freedom to experience my own narrative?  I hope you get my point. 

What worries me is that “belief” in these narratives (or adoption of these narratives as one’s own), has reduced Christianity to a meaningless, lifeless, rote repetition of creeds and doctrines. I feel that people who have chosen to live out a Christianity based solely on “beliefs” have abdicated their courage and responsibly to live authentic spiritual lives in exchange for the leisureliness of going to church on Sunday, going through some liturgical motions, and leaving it at that. I am ashamed that the simple recitation of a “belief” in Jesus has supplanted the PRACTICE of Christianity as the valid definition of what it means to be a Christian. To me, such a reduction is offensive; it is weak, fraudulent, cowardly, vapid and lifeless. Reducing Christianity to nothing more than a formulary of doctrinal “beliefs” renders it impotent. Such a lifeless Christianity is a slap in the face to what I feel Jesus was trying to teach and do. Bishop John Shelby Spong has written: “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”. Let me be the first (although I doubt that I am), to pronounce that Christianity is, in deed, dead. That is, so long as it requires nothing more than a simple profession of “faith” and belief in a bunch of other people’s narratives.

What I want to ask is this: Is it possible to re-define Christianity as a PRACTICE, rather than a “faith”? Is there such a thing as a “faithless” Christian? (The German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer has invited us to share his idea of a “religion-less Christianity”; maybe this is like that). Can I still call myself a Christian if I’ve let go of the narratives that seem to define it for other people? 
Well, it better be possible, ‘cause that’s what I am determined to do.
What inspired this blog (wandering diatribe), is this little poem that was shared by a fellow chaplain in our morning group/devotional: 
“What does your Master teach”? asked a visitor.
“Nothing”, said the disciple.
“Then why does he give discourses”?
“He only points the way, he teaches nothing”.
The visitor couldn’t make sense of this, so the disciple made it clearer…
“If the Master were to teach, we would make beliefs out of his teachings. The Master is not concerned with what we believe, only with what we see.”

So what I want others to stop and consider is this…What if we took this little dialogue/exchange and applied it to Christianity? What would happen if we stopped “believing” everything the bible says, or the church says, or the tradition says, and just tried to practice what this dude Jesus asked us to practice: “Love God; Love your Neighbor as yourself”. Isn’t that the essence of what He was trying to teach in the first place...That despite what the Pharisees and the Temple/Church authorities try to tell us to do or do "to us",  or no matter what they tell us to "believe", that it’s more important to love and serve than to follow the script or believe the “right” thing?  Isn't LOVE and the PRACTICE of LOVE the most important thing?  Isn't LOVE and the PRACTICE of LOVE more important than "orthodoxy"?

I want to try and see what happens!
Now let’s hold hands and sing a song… 
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one
John Lennon

A little context and introduction

At the urgings of a few individuals very close to me, I have finally put up this blog.  In this blog, I will attempt to explore what it means to be a human being in the context of practicing some kind of meaningful Christianity and some kind of Engaged Buddhism…

Briefly, so that you may have some context in which to appreciate my spiritual efforts, I will share that I was raised in the Episcopal Church and first felt a call to the Priesthood at the age of 8.  My childhood was violent, chaotic and unstable, and the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Eucharist (Communion) were extremely important to me in maintaining my sanity and experiencing at least one stable, unconditional source of love.  These Sacraments remain just as important to me today.  I came to the practice of Buddhism first through my own readings and exploration of Zen Buddhist writings as a teen-ager and later, as a young adult, through an invitation from a friend to experience a retreat with his Tibetan Buddhist teachers 1995.  I took refuge in the Buddhist practice on that retreat and maintained my study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism for 12 years.  But in 2007 I encountered the teaching and practice of Zen Buddhism through the writings of Claude AnShin Thomas and his book: At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Story from War to Peace, and The Eight Gates of Zen: A Program of Zen Training by John Daido Loori Roshi.  My encounters with Claude AnShin and my resonance with Daido Roshi’s Eight Gates returned me to a sincere and committed engagement with Zen Buddhist Practice.  And lastly, in my years of processing, healing and growth, I have had the tremendous fortune to become a professed member of a New-Monastic Community that encourages and strengthens my ongoing practice of Christianity and Buddhism…the Lindisfarne Community, a Celtic-inspired community of deeply spiritual individuals journeying together and exploring a modern-day expression of monasticism.  I was ordained to the Priesthood by the Lindisfarne Community in 2008.  For this community’s witness and encouragement and inclusion, I am deeply and forever grateful.  In this community, I am free to be both a practicing Zen Buddhist and a Christian Priest…and to explore this Priesthood “Ontologically”, that is: through my total being.   

And this blog is meant to be part of that exploration.   

So here we go…