Old Testaments and Ongoing Revelations

When I was ordained my friend and mentor the Rev Dr. Thomas D. Wintle of the First Parish Church in Weston MA, preached the ordination sermon. He knew that because I was raised Catholic, grew up in a Catholic town, and many of my family and friends were still Catholic, there would be many Catholics in attendance.  His sermon that day was called Take Joseph’s Bones with You. It was about how many people who come into UU come from other religions.  We can’t and we  shouldn’t leave everything of our former religious selves behind. There are good things to bring with us, not just baggae to leave behind. He said:

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him to the Promised Land. Exodus 13, verse 19: “And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying: ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’”
Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. You should too. What does that mean? You had to leave your previous religious home, you needed an exodus to freedom and to a promised land, a land free from the oppression in Egypt. But, in carrying the bones of Joseph with you, you remember this: it was not always oppressive, it was beautiful, you grew a soul there and your soul was fed there. You grew rich there in Joseph’s land. Do you see? “Joseph’s bones” are that richness, that heritage, that which your fathers and your mothers, your grandfathers and your grandmothers, so loved. Take Joseph’s bones with you!  What were the grand things that fed your soul, Tony, in Roman Catholicism? The mass, the rosary, the Catholic Worker movement? Take them with you! Take Joseph’s bones!
And if you came from Judaism to this place: can you bring “the sabbath”? Can you bring the sabbath candles and the refusal to always work, but rather to rest?
And if you came from evangelical Protestantism, can you (oh please, can you) bring those grand gospel hymns? How I love “I come to the garden alone.”
And Lutherans, please bring the chorales, Ein feste burge ist unser Gott,  “a mighty fortress is our God.”
And those of you who come from no religious background? Bring that “longing for something more” that caused you to seek out this place.
Do you see the richness that is ours . . . if we can avoid being just sectarian, being just like us alone?

I believe that most people who come to liberal religion have “old testaments” or prior revelations.  One of the hallmarks of liberal religion, one of its five smooth stones according to James Luther Adams is that revelation is not sealed, but ongoing, continuous, forever.  It’s been my experience that many people who come to Unitarian Universalism feel, at least some of the time, like they want to seal off the prior revelation of their religious lives. They don’t want to bring Joseph’s Bones with them.  Sometimes the bones are too heavy, too painful, the skeletons too scary.  And yet, this is important work to do, this bone bringing.

Steve Charleston is an Episcopal Bishop who also happens to be Choctaw and the son and grandson of Presbyterian ministers.  His essay “The Old Testament of Native America” lays out a vision for a Native American Christian Theology that sees the native spiritual traditions and history as a “prior revelation” of God to Native America in the same way, that for Christians, the “Old Testament” is the first part of the story of God’s relationship with humanity.    I believe we all have prior revelations.  Those of us who end up in a different religious tradition than the one we were raised in certainly do and that includes the majority of people in the liberal church.  We all have “Old Testaments” on our journey, they are neither invalid, nor unimportant to where we find ourselves now.

One of the reasons the essay by Lillian Daniel has struck such a chord, either positive or negative, with so many people is that, as Bishop Charleston writes “theology is biography.” We all have prior and ongoing revelations of the sacred, of the divine, of what it means to human and to be who we are as individuals.  The easiest button to push for anyone is a button that goes right to their sense of self and their sense of identity.

Part of what is making the discussion about Rev. Daniel’s discussion of a certain type of Spiritual but not Religious person so animated, is, in my opinion, our attitude about what we leave behind and what we bring with us on our life’s journey.  I am wondering if some folks are in the leave it all behind camp. These may be the folks Rev Daniels is addressing.  I think that those of us who resonate with Rev Daniels and at least think we understand what she’s trying to say (see Peace Bang and Deep River Faith) understand that the journey, of necessity, means taking the bones with you. We all have an Old Testament.  All of our religion and all of our spirituality builds on what we’ve lived and practiced before.  It becomes extraordinarily  difficult to throw it all away, even if we want to.  It becomes instead the task of our lives to integrate where we’ve been with where we are.  To see our “old testaments” in relationship with our new.

It makes little sense to those of us who do this that people can or should cut all ties with religious or spiritual pasts.   I believe we all understand that serious and profound emotional, spiritual and even physical harm has been done to people in the name of all types of religion.  Yet I’ve been in the ministry long enough to see even people who have been deeply harmed looking for God, looking for community, looking to connect to both the substance and/or form of the religion they grew up with, or to connect with something holy and or divine and/or community – that is still related in substance or form to a religion that hurt or wounded them.  Eventually we have to come to terms, somehow, someway, with our  prior revelation.  Somewhere down the line, as baggage or as treasures, we bring Joseph’s bones with us.

It’s exhausting work being on the front lines of so many peoples’ personal hurt, pain, and trauma in terms of religion and spirituality. Because I deal so much with this pain and hurt and because it is so often genuine and deep, I resonated with Rev. Daniel’s essay.  I’m happy for you that you’ve left religion behind, I think as many people tell me this.   As Peace Bang put it, please don’t take up the doctor’s time, I’ve got real patients to deal with who have real religious and spiritual issues going on, some that have been going on for decades.  It was a relief to see my frustration in print (or online).

My task is to try and help form a healthy religious community where spirituality can flourish and from which justice work can be done.  By necessity, I care for the community as a whole as well as for individuals. Sometimes this leads to decisions and actions that individuals take personally because the decisions don’t meet their individual spiritual but not religious needs. It gets tiring, especially because my professional competence then gets questioned for not meeting their needs.

I have many resources with me, however, both old and new. I have heeded the ordination advice of Rev. Tom’s ordination sermon. I have brought Joseph’s bones with me.  I seek to find and serve a church and a people willing to do the same.

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