The True and the New

"It's Only Natural"

Discoveries: many of them have contributed to my life's learnings, just as many have contributed to yours. Life has lessons. In my lifetime, experience has not been the best teacher but the only one. Some have been personal, even private experiences; most have been pastoral and professional. Moreover, animal considerations have enhanced many of these discoveries. As I have attempted to offer a positive and hopeful ministry to parishioners and counselees, what has most struck me and stuck to me has been my inescapable trust in the natural and in nature. Embracing and appreciating the natural world has almost automatically led me to expect and look for a supernatural world. It is a marvel to me how the divine seems woven into and inherent in all existence.

From childhood, I have been somehow led through my own human existence and consciousness to look with wonder within. Going on from there, it has seemed only natural to look beyond myself for more of the same in others and in the world around me. For me, this awareness has been usual, anticipated and normative. Experience of the mystical and mysterious, asleep and awake, infuses my life with excitement. Such mystic moments come to me for the most part with people, while others come within the larger world of nature. I find so much of life right here at ground level wondrous, beautiful, and tremendous, without even looking into the heavens. The metaphysical has always appeared to me in the physical realm. "It's only natural," I often say, for that is how I have experienced what is often called spiritual and divine.

Whenever Jesus used nature stories involving soil, seeds, wind, rain, storms, fishing, friends, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, coins, sheep, doors, water, bread, wine, weddings, faith, life, death and new life, he made it all seem so perfectly natural and real. As he used such down-to-earth examples to deepen our understanding of God by his own, he was speaking my language and still does. Most of my spiritual insights have been of this world and not out of it. I am sure my psychiatrist friends will be glad to hear that!

Professional insights into human personality, character, temperament and disposition have come about for me, other than through my training and God's grace, in what we usually call common sense and a natural empathy and understanding between persons. Perceptions, needs, wants and feelings seem to reside in every one of us, and many of the same elements appear in our animal companions as well. Having initially sensed this wonder within myself, I later came to enlarge that wonder at the marvel of life so that it extends to all animate beings.

Like many counselors today, I have concentrated on feelings as essential to a healthy and whole life. To embrace nature and the natural is to also appreciate what were once called our affections. I understand true emotional health and spiritual wealth as natural realities linked together, ready to doubly bless anyone. I have been richly blessed myself by these dual intensities and immensities and I continue to savor both like good food and drink.

"What's New"

One particular theme that weaves itself into my clinical experience is nativity - newness, birth, renewal and rebirth. The word native, meaning natural-born, shares its word-root with nativity. What is native to us may come to be understood as a nativity, even as an epiphany a manifestation of the essential meaning of something, often coming suddenly, or as an appearance of the divine. We often speak of native sons and daughters as well as native intelligence and refer to the aboriginal population of this continent as Native Americans. When we speak of our native land, the nation we are born into, we seem to mean that such belonging is natural our God-given starting place in life.

At other times, however, we may glamorize the noble savage as an innocent and naïve native, whose so-called primitive ways are automatically good and beneficent. Yet, on reflection we all know better. Obviously, acting in whatever way comes naturally is not always healthy and helpful. William Golding's children, who went brutally native in his book "Lord of the Flies" is one such portrayal of this truth. We have many natural urges that can be destructive. This fact was brilliantly described by Deborah Mathis in her column of September 28th, 2001 in the El Paso Times: "Not every natural reaction is meant to be entertained. Civilization, after all is a constant struggle against the id. It requires many natural instincts to be corralled or calibrated or deferred. If we give into every innate feeling, we may as well be crocodiles." Nevertheless, I sincerely believe that God expects us to be more natural than unnatural, and more naturally human than inhuman or inhumane.

Part of our overall health lies in making contact with the constructive natural inclinations within us - the good while resisting the destructive natural inclinations - the evil. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in Holy Baptism this resistance is incorporated into our baptismal vows when we are asked to "renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." Such evil is indeed powerful and lies within as well as rages without.

For more than twenty years I practiced the art of pastoral psychotherapy and shared over a thousand sessions annually with many persons. To me it was, truly, practice. I prayed often that I would practice long enough and well enough so that some day I got it right. I also prayed that the counselees and I were on a healing path together in each session, leading eventually to what would become good or at least better. Ideally, we would enter holy ground together and find God's benediction.

During these special times, there were only a few meetings in which I failed to ask, "What now? What's next? and What's new?" All three questions generally elicited responses that connected in a practical way with the present and future. I seldom raised these questions, however, without harking back to information we had earlier uncovered from the person's past moving from uncovery into discovery and recovery.

"God's Pleasant Surprises"

A favorite Heaven story of mine is about a bishop who arrived at the entrance to the afterlife and is met by St. Peter. As the bishop is checked in, he was handed a brown paper parcel. In it, he found a gunnysack robe, a wooden halo, tiny wings and flip-flop sandals. Puzzled, he put on his uniform and started strolling around. Soon he heard a commotion back at the gates. A new arrival was being welcomed with songs, cheers and outfitted in silk robes, six-foot wings, a sparkling halo and jeweled shoes. More upset than puzzled, he asked St. Peter why the obvious mistreatment. St. Peter explained, "Bishop, here everyone gets what they deserve. You see, the person arriving was a Greyhound bus driver. When you preached everyone slept. When he drove everyone prayed."

This story has a message for our spiritual life. God often surprises us with a unique version of grace and justice that is extremely realistic and calls us into remembering or to Re Membering. We are welcomed into reconnection, where our broken parts are repaired and put back together. Our members (membranes) are re-joined and re-membered. Orthopedic surgeons often do this operation of sewing up, even providing complete new replacements for our members - our arms, legs, joints and ligaments. Salvation is such a process of pieces coming together, where persons are stitched back together. The Great Physician by means of spiritual orthopedic operations makes our souls and spirits whole, healthy and workable again.

Religion and remember are similar words with almost identical meanings. Re Ligion or re-ligio is much like re-membering. Ligament comes from the Latin word "ligio." To be re (again) ligamented (connected) is what religion does. Our religious forms, rituals, ceremonies and structures put together, reconnect, tie together our spiritual substance and values.

Spirituality is the substance. Religion is the form. Spirituality or faith is the inward and religion is the outward and visible. Spirituality vitalizes; religion shapes. Spirituality is the horse; religion is the carriage. We know that our spiritual vitality is essential and necessary to recovery and life, whereas religion is helpful and nice. Religion is the package not the content, the wrapping not the present inside. I rejoice in my packaging as an Episcopalian, but I could exist without it. Nevertheless, I would have to follow another denomination's wrapping in order to stay within the Christian faith.

I believe that there are no bishops or religious services in heaven only pure spiritual praise and joy. Our religious wraps are a great comfort here in this life, but of no use in the life to come. Some of us have no use for religion now, but I have not found suitable substitutes for the tried and true faith handed down by the saints. Jesus found his religion vital and useful in his life. Who can do better?

Recovery is another word like remember and religion. The core word is cover or covering. When we admit our powerlessness, when we come to believe, when we make a conscious decision to turn our wills over to God, we are running for cover. We are seeking safety in our surrender into the sheltering arms of divinity. Our shield and security is a gracious God who beckons to us to be re-covered, to be covered again, blanketed and tucked in, hidden and protected by love and hope.

Recovery is such a sweet sounding word and reality. What an inviting process recovery is, leading us to un-cover (the old, the tried and true as well as the bad and bitter) to dis-cover (the new, fresh and renewed as well as the difficult and demanding) so can truly begin our life-long pilgrimage of re-covery, (embraced and enfolded by a life full of "priceless gifts of serenity."

The greatest satisfaction of therapy is not just uncovering the past and doing personal archaeology, but having the thrill of discovery and the on-going experience of recovery, especially the freshness of looking ahead and moving forward. That is where the importance of nativity comes in.

Newness is hope beckoning us into tomorrow. Nativity is birth, happening any time, anywhere. Although a natural event, birthing usually hurts and in the King James Version of the Bible, Jesus called it travail and anguish. (John 16:21) Yet, he focused on the joy that follows delivery, which becomes oblivious to the previous labor pain. Such birth and deliverance leaves me in awe, not only witnessing newborn babies in delivery rooms but also being awestruck with new spiritual birth in adults.

I attended the daylong labor of my eldest daughter and ached for her obvious ordeal. Yet the glowing smile that brightened her exhausted face when Sarah was born helped us all retreat from her mother's pain - as we were washed in the joy of this first grandchild.

As a pastor and counselor, I have also experienced the birth of the seventh or eighth unwanted child to a poverty-stricken woman. I have also encountered the burden of young, frazzled mothers suffering from postpartum depression, unable to tend or attend to their kids. I have stood at the bedside of an alcoholic woman who just delivered an underweight baby suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome. Not all human birth is joyous, especially as we witness the staggering birthrate in third world countries, where women seem to have no choices to speak of, but to submit to their cultures.

Newborns in the spiritual world face daunting obstacles as well. It was a grateful and gracious moment of discovery for me when I learned that the original Aramaic usages of our phrase "born again" could also be translated as "born from above." (John 3:1-21) Nicodemus obviously could not fathom a physical new birth. Jesus had to explain that he had in mind a new spiritual birthing in the Holy Spirit from above a glorious rebirthing from God into an abundant new life, new way, and new truth.

This birth, Jesus went on to explain, is as natural as the wind, yet just as mysterious and unpredictable. I admire Jesus' discernment and skill in diverting Nicodemus and many others from a plodding, literal nailing-down of reality. Jesus refuses to let us manage or manipulate divine reality by the same methods we use to try to control our human world.

In my pastoral work, looking for persons' original, authentic and unique spirits often led me into surprising moments of grace that produced fresh new rebirths of life -in individuals, couples, families and even congregations. Some of these moments came like the wind, sudden, powerful, and unexpected. Yet, at other times blessings happened after we looked and dug for them in predictable and obvious places.

Even when just barely emerging, persons, like freshly unearthed raw gems, will shine and glow on the spot, provided someone is there to help with the digging and polishing. Looking for treasure on home ground calls for encouragement and nurture.

Blessings, goodness, holiness and love are treasures that are often hidden. However, I believe they are always richly distributed in all life, in all animated beings, divine, human and animal. God's riches are indigenous and inexhaustible. So, my life as counselor and pastor has not only affirmed feelings as essential to natural and healthy emotional lives, but has also celebrated the blessings of nativity - newness of persons. I trust both nature and nativity. They remain for me the dual highway to emotional health and spiritual wealth. I love this highway. It is the route that leads to a higher way of truth and life.

~ * ~

Copyright by Rev. Dr. A. Philip Parham
All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.
A. Philip Parham, is an Episcopal priest and counselor
who serves on the board of directors of the National
Episcopal Coalition on Alcohol. He holds a Doctor of
Ministry degree from the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

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