A fresh look at scripture. The Native American perspective.

Currently I am reading a book by Randy Woodley, titled “Indigenous Theology and the Western Worldview.” The author is a native American theologian who unlocks a fascinating way looking at scripture through the lens of native American culture.
He finds, that “The Bible was not written from a Western worldview, it was written as story. In fact, 90% of Scripture is story. If you do not understand how to interpret story, you really do not understand the Scriptures.” (Not read – Randy Woodley)
Humans have used stories since the dawn of time to transmit wisdom, identity, and purpose. Stories are the means for unlocking our deepest sense of self. Native Americans transmit spiritual knowledge to this day by means of stories. Therefore, Randy Woodley reads scripture, not as a scientific textbook, but as stories with the purpose of revealing knowledge about the nature of God and the human condition.
I could not help thinking that healthcare professionals –and I am including myself in this group – are easily tempted to see patients not as “stories” but as “scientific textbooks.” On the other side patients in their suffering can quickly forget that the nurse, the food services employee, the custodian, or any other healthcare professional are more than a service provider but a “story” of their own. Today, I invite all of us to seek the “story” in the other. Be curious what you might discover about yourself when finding identity, meaning, purpose and the sense of belonging in the other.

The “World”

Today I would like to invite you to reflect on “the world” around you. The Christian tradition often ascribes negative connotations to the terms “the world” or “worldly.” Many Christians, but also other spiritual Traditions tend to establish a “us vs. them” mentality when thinking about the inside group –such as the church- and the outside group –such as everyone else. The “us vs. them” mindset is a natural human tendency to define oneself as a member of a “tribe.” I observe this behavior often within the hospital context. Many staff members expressed their frustration with “the others- out there” who don’t wear masks or don’t get vaccinated, while we here in the hospital were doing our best caring for our community within the COVID pandemic. I also observed the tendency of care givers, including myself, of becoming frustrated with family members, who just didn’t seem to want to understand visitation policies or projected a hostile attitude toward the healthcare system.

As a person of faith I have to remind myself that the God who created “the world,” loved it so much as to become part of it, living in the midst of it- intermingling even with the outcasts of his day. Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Buddhist monk and famous teacher of Zen meditation wrote about the interconnectedness of all things and the understanding that we are linked to one another –like it or not. As you go about your day I want to invite you to try and identify the groups or areas of your life where you have separated yourself from others. Try to allow yourself to “fall into communion” with “the other.” Spiritual healing of communities can only occur when we engage in love with our neighbor. Moreover the healing of a community will also help you to heal spiritually. In the end we at Methodist are all about healing- aren’t we?

Please join me in this short prayer:

God of love and grace; Help me to see you in my neighbor. Help me to step out of the prison I put myself into, so I can live more fully, as to your purposes, within your creation. This world is a gift to us and you made it good. Help me to be an agent of healing and reconciliation on this wonderful earth. Amen

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar was a master of the sitar, a traditional Indian instrument. I recently “discovered” his music, or better said the Amazon Music algorithm discovered Shankar for me.

Ever since I have been listening to his music which is what I can describe as a type of Indian classical jazz. He generally performs in a group of three with a tanpura player and a hand drums player. While laying in bed, listening to his tunes in concert with the other two player I couldn’t help but think of the Trinity and the complete interplay of love, individuality, unity, creativity and ease which is displayed in Shankar’s work.

I believe Shankar can serve as a musical approximation of an explanation of the Trinity. Try it sometime.

Spirituality and Depression

I wonder sometimes if melancholic/depressed people simply have a enhanced spiritual sense of being separated from God? Let me be clear depression is a serious and real mental illness based on chemical imbalances in the brain. What I am trying to say is that I have observed people during my lifetime who tend to be more of a somber/blue mood most of the time. Often they are seekers of …what? The true self? God? Nirvana? Whatever it is they are seeking they have somehow this natural disposition to going on “the way.”

John Wesley wrote about spiritual senses, spiritual sensibility. Faith is sometimes defined as a belief that there is a mystery in reality. I guess I want to ask is it possible that we feel sad about our separation from the divine without knowing what we are feeling sad about?

My approach to pastoral care

I am appointed by The United Methodist Church in an extension ministry as chaplain to Methodist Charlton Medical Center (MCMC). I grew us as a Roman Catholic and converted in my teens to Pentecostalism. In my twenties I became aware of United Methodism through my marriage.  The emphasis on the various dimensions of grace which is a centerpiece in United Methodism as well as the denominations mission to bring about the Kingdom of God in the here and now have shaped my theology of pastoral care.  One of the centerpieces of this theology is “radical love” – meaning a love that is unconditional, ever-present and inexhaustible.  It is this love I try to emulate in my day-to-day interactions with patients and staff alike.  This love calls me to be mindful and respectful of the religious beliefs of the other, or the lack thereof.  This love does not judge, first and foremost it recognizes the divine in the other and his/her inherent dignity. This love does not seek to lecture but to listen.  This love persists even when it is rejected.  Finally, it is a love that celebrates life, but also doesn’t hesitate to support the other during the raw moments in life.  I am aware that I am a recipient of God’s loving grace, a gift I have not deserved, not can I do anything to deserve it.  The Methodist emphasis on social justice and the Kingdom of God in the here and now commands me to do my part in moving our world a little closer to Christ’s return. 

During my faith journey from Catholicism followed by Pentecostalism and ending in Methodism has caused me to value the many spiritual practices present in the Christian faith and other religions.  This awareness has caused me to put special attention to the way patients and staff connect spiritually with the divine.  As God is unlimited, I believe there is an unlimited “toolbox” of spiritual practices allowing us to connect with Godself. This has caused me to incorporate smell (aromatherapy), sound (music), touch (blessing with oil), taste (communion), centering prayer and sacred art in my pastoral practice.  Being attentive to the spiritual needs of the other has made a real impact on the quality of healthcare provided in my hospital setting.  

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Suffering and Grace?

I recently was pointed to the movie “Ram Dass – Going Home” by the Netflix algorithm.  The short 30 minute movie features Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert) sharing thoughts on his life after suffering from a stroke.  Ram Dass died in 2019 and was a widely recognized spiritual teacher in the US popularizing eastern spirituality and yoga starting in the 1960’s.  I would like to share with you a short excerpt from the movie which particularly stuck with me.  Ram Dass says this about suffering and death:

“So when I sit with somebody,

the first thing I have to do

is open myself to all my reactions

to their predicament.

All of it, all of the pain of it.

Grieve for the other person’s loss.

And when they feel heard in the grief,

then we can start to meet

behind the grief.

And I’m faced with the paradox that I,

as a human, with a human emotional heart,

want to take away your suffering.

And at the same moment,

there’s another part of me

that understands that suffering is grace,

that suffering is the sandpaper,

from the spiritual point of view,

that is awakening people.[1]

I have seen the shock, despair and pain in the hospital and I believe, as Ram Dass said, that we can meet another “behind the grief” after working through the pain together.  While I don’t believe that suffering is grace, since suffering is not caused by God, I do believe that God can use even something as terrible as suffering as a means of grace if we are open to it. A good chaplain friend of mine said once “I do not believe there is a reason in suffering, but I do believe one can find a purpose in suffering.”  This is what Ram Dass refers to “the sandpaper, […] that is awakening people.”  God’s grace is always “out there” available to us.  If we invite God’s grace to enter into our suffering it can help us to connect more deeply with God and as a result connect to life and living itself.  If you suffer or are journeying with someone in their suffering it is my prayer for you today that God’s love and grace will transform your painful experience into something bigger, something that results in you finding refuge in your most trying times.

May God bless you and keep you.  May he shine his face upon you and give you his peace.  Amen

Click the picture to see Ram Dass going home on Netflix (subscription required)

[1] Movie: Ram Dass “Going Home” https://www.scripts.com/script.php?id=ram_dass%2C_going_home_16554&p=3