Old Orchard Beach, Maine
Brian K. Wilcox
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Note:"Christ" is a word I do not equate fully with Jesus of Nazareth, though I conclude Jesus embodied what "Christ" denotes, even as Siddhartha Gautama embodied what "Buddha" indicates, yet "Buddha" is more than the man Siddhartha. "Christ" and "Buddha" arise from a subtle, innate awareness of something that connects us with Reality, that lifts us beyond the flow of time sequence. Possibly, Jesus meant this, or something like it, when saying, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw everyone to myself" (Gospel of John 12.32). Some persons might wish to refer to such terms as archetypes in the Jungian sense. Below, as in all my work, I invite the reader to translate words in a manner that fits her view of Life.
Second, the following is based on my experience in the Christian church. There are exceptions to my experience. However, my experience reflects the state of the vast majority of those who identify as Christians and the churches they attend. That is, the vast majority of the church has not evolved to an inclusive consciousness but remains stuck in a consciousness of the past - some call this "tribal consciousness," wherein the group is exclusive as to who belongs in it and maintains belief in its group deity. This tribalism is seen in the present conservative (referred to popularly as "conservative" but more accurately is termed "fundamentalist"), white evangelical church in the United States; hence, this group supports a tribal nationalism - nationalism is another form of this exclusive consciousness. Hence, in the case of much of Christianity, we could say God is not God but a Christian god, despite the claims otherwise.
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I had discovered the Christ outside Christianity, the one that no church could lay claim to, not even the Christian (Christ-ian) faith could. I found this Christ was not welcome to most in the churches. And I could no longer love or serve a Christian christ. After a lifetime of work in the churches, since age 15, where now? I was in my mid-40s, and I was lost, so I thought. The calling to share and be Christ continued, however, now free from a church box. The lostness was a new beginning. It did not usually feel like a new beginning. It most often felt like a dead end.
I arrived with a prayer at the nearby Episcopal church this Sunday morning. The prayer was for a sign. I was not a sign-asker. However, to ask seemed suitable. I was desperate, and I was ready to listen.
After decades of pastoral work, I had left church ministry and soon moved into a halfway house. I was a vowed contemplative and enjoyed the practice and teachings of varied faiths - not a good fit for the mainline Christian sect I had served in or the one prior. The sects wanted persons to tow the theological status-quo. I was certainly not into that. I enjoyed challenging the status quo. I was trained as an educator, and going outside the borders of group-think was natural to me. And I relished the adventure of exploring among claims of truth for truth, in devotion to Truth.
I could not fathom a Christ who was treated like a Christian Christ rather than a Christ free of Christianity. To me, much of the church acted as though they held Christ captive. Even at the Eucharist, in the last sect I served as pastor in, officiants welcomed only Christians to come to the altar for the bread and wine - this was church law. I welcomed everyone. Someone could have been an agnostic or atheist - they were welcome. I, somehow, served this sect for over a decade. Not being ordained in it protected me, keeping me somewhat at a distance. Also, my contemplative life provided a path of inwardness and prayerfulness rather than a wish to be in the in-group or part of the ecclesial politics. So, now, I had no religious home for the first time in my life. I was one of those just outside the church borders, wanting to be home inside, where I once felt at home but unable to find a home there now; I had changed, it had not changed, and it did not welcome the change.
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What does one do when home becomes everywhere? And everyone is seen to belong there - together, equally? What happens when Christ becomes institutionalized as the church emperor, and Christian elitism is par for the institutional course? To me, the loss of my work in the church was a painful divorce, a betrayal by an institution claiming to value truth but holding in a tight grasp what it had already decided was true. Yet, I could not cling so tightly to belief, for, to me, Spirit still speaks and without regard to our opinions - and theology is opinion.
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A room was graciously provided to me by a jail volunteer and CEO of a recovery program with several halfway houses. I had left a prior house, which I lived in a short time after leaving the home provided by the last church I served. A couple in the church had provided me with a room in its home. The wife began expressing sexual advances toward me. The husband could not sexually function as he had due to an illness and surgery.
Due to the sexual overtures, I sought counsel from an elder, a deeply spiritual, much older man. He stressed the need to move as soon as possible. I discerned his advice as wise. At the time, I had nowhere to move to. Thankfully, the jail volunteer made an exception within a week, giving me a room to rent in one of her houses.
I was working as an interfaith jail Chaplain. While I was glad to be out of the stress of the pastorate and free of the constraints of church ministry, I was stuck at an in-between place - neither there, neither somewhere else: so it seemed to me. I was, also, alone. I would go to the house, close the door - and had learned I must lock it at all times when absent, for I could trust no one in the house. I learned thieving was standard for recovery houses, seeing everyone was a moment away from relapse and, so, stealing anything to get a fix.
I lived with my two dogs in that one room for two years. I did not once have a reciprocal conversation with anyone there - it was always about them - there was no expressed interest in me. I had talks with persons there, but they were more monologues - my doing the listening and the other talking on and on about himself. I learned this was addictive behavior. Even the clients' rehab became a fix. Talking about this new drug of choice was a fascination. Persons came and went, most relapsing or getting removed from the house for other reasons, like not meeting curfew. For much of the time, no one lived in the house but my two dogs and I. And I never knew who or when someone would show up and move in. So, there was no stability and no friendship, certainly no spiritual connections. I, of course, was the outsider, the odd one, not being in the program. Succinctly - this was not a place I would have wanted to be in - or wish on anyone in my realm of family or friends -, but it was better than being homeless.
So, yes, I felt some desperation to hear from "God" that Sunday morning. And, yes, a sign would be welcome. Yet, I did not have much faith in a sign appearing. And, as noted, I did not prefer such asking for signs anyway.
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After the worship time, as persons are leaving, I remain in the pew, standing prayerfully. Attention moves to the stained glass window behind the altar, extending vertically almost to the full extent of the height of the building. I had looked at it during the worship, but now I see it differently - it is speaking to me. No, not speaking in words, but like the Quakers "opening." In such opening moments, something, even seen before as ordinary, can become a means of revelation. We see stories of this in Zen of spiritual awakenings.
Yet, it is not just the stained glass image that speaks to me. It is the image of Christ, arms open wide, welcoming children into his embrace. This image is taken from a Gospel story. For me, the outstretched arms are the focus of what resonates: the sign. What I feel is, "Brian, live like that. Live with open arms. Be like Christ." I feel the message. I leave with an affirmation of my person, a renewed sense of purpose - living with arms, so a heart, open to all. That posture had been a factor in the Christian denomination I was pastor in saying, "You no longer fit with us." Apparently, a pastor living with open arms - an open heart to all - was too radical for them. Seemingly, they did not want a Christ that would not belong to them but everyone. I left that Sunday with a renewed sense of purpose and person. I had been deposed and disposed of by a ministry committee, but I belonged to Christ, and no one could take that from me.
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Now, over a decade since that Sunday, I pray and seek to live with an open heart to all. I need the grace to do this. Christ is in the world, and arms open wide. I am glad, with others, to live to be that Christ. And, even as I open my being to others, I am learning to accept their opening their arms and heart to me.
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We are all human. We have all been wounded. We all need to be held in someone's arms. We all need another human to affirm our person and purpose. By leaving the pastorate, I was released to learn more about letting myself be loved and served by others, letting them tend me. I, the past pastor, needed pastors - persons who could help me onward on the journey of healing.
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We can be the Buddha, the Christ, the Beloved for each other. We can form communities of belovedness - whether that is a group of many or two.
We cannot allow institutions of any kind - political, religious ... - to define truth for us or who belongs in Christ, the Buddha - belongs together as the human family. Love remains free of control, definition, and boundaries, or it is not love. Sadly, however, groups get institutionalized and turn away persons who do not fit but whom they need to challenge their prejudices. Groups need persons who step outside their borders and defy rules that limit the scope of life of the collective. Social systems need persons who do not fit. When a group excludes the non-fitters, it can easily relax into its prejudices and claim its beliefs are the same as truth.
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Follow Love, and you will become Love, living with open arms, mind, and heart. That may sound too simple. I have learned it is simple - profoundly so. Look outside what is said to be true; there Love waits for you, for us, beyond belief. Sure, most persons will not go there, but will you?
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*© Brian K. Wilcox, 2021
*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.