Epiphany: Awakening to Nature, Spirit, and Soul

Epiphany: Awakening to Nature, Spirit, and Soul

Epiphany touches a simple yet striking thread that we have largely lost access to in our western, industrialized technocracy. The first, is that meaning is essential to nature itself, which speaks a language much older than our own. Second, that perception and intuition are two primary windows or modes of participation in the essential nature and deep meaning of the world itself of which we are an expression.

Rewilding Our Narrative

Rewilding Our Narrative

The key to our uniquely human role in the evolution of the universe seems to be in the power of our story-telling - meaning-making - in the cultivation of the world — the power to tell ourselves stories about who we are, what we really are, and what the world is. In our age we are being invited to rewild the Christian story, to disentangle it from the domesticating forces of imperial ideologies, and reimagine how we 'live, and move, and have our being' in relation, once again, to a living and wild world. 

Sabbath time

“The Evangelicalism of Old White Men Is Dead." 

A friend emailed me a link to this article on the New York Times website by Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne, self-proclaimed “Red Letter Evangelicals.” They commented that 2017 “marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, one of the most significant moments in the history of Christianity. The reformers were navigating many of the same currents and contradictions that we face today. Perhaps we need a new reformation — one that invites Christians to return to the teachings of Jesus and offers our neighbors a truer vision of how he lived and moved in the world.”

The fasted growing religious group in America, nearly a quarter of all Americans and 35% of millennials, are identifying as “none.” And the question that still haunts our congregations and leaders, the question that keeps us stuck is "how do we get them inside our walls?"

The problem seems to be that this "truer vision" we all claim to be longing requires, in the words of Paul from Romans 12, that we no longer conformity to the old paradigm, but are rather transformed by the renewal - the re-formation - of our minds. "But we have a capital campaign coming up! We gotta pay the bills." "transformation is a nice idea, but..." "How about, after Advent and Christmas, let's plan a Bible study that..." "First let me go and bury my father..." And so we settle with just another attempt to solve our problems from the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place, to paraphrase Einstein. 

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is a new Reformation is already upon us.

The bad news is a new Reformation is already upon us. The hour is late. Most of us will continue to conform to the current paradigm, and will miss a great and costly adventure.

What does it mean to be transformed by the renewal of our minds? What will it cost us as leaders who long to say 'yes' to a new reformation - a new Pentecost? Perhaps it will only cost us at first the risk of going off script? There is risk in reorienting our reaction to the barrage of priorities and assignments from chronos time around an intentional cultivation of Sabbath time. Sabbath time is a letting lie fallow of our scheduled lives to create space for the vast, wildly mysterious terrain of the soul.  

Author John Philip Newell says, “The new holiness into which we are being invited is the holiness of wholeness, of coming back into relationship with the earth and what is deepest in the human soul… to have split holiness from wholeness is the neurosis at the heart of much of our religiosity.” 

Perhaps it is the condition of modernity that has forced our full humanity, into hiding in shame from our deepest identity, from our original wholeness that was once our birthright. Our shame comes from the fear and pain of being seen as we truly are, naked, wounded, beautiful. Yet, it is not our original wounding, our brokenness and darkness, but rather our fear and shame - all the hiding and the blaming - that is so destructive, that misses the mark.

The apostle Paul refers to Christ as the New Human, the one who returns us to the New and True Self. The greek word “new” does not mean chronologically new, but refers to its ontological priority. The new self is before the old, in other words, the new self is original. It is in this sense that mystics have referred to Christ as the original, or Natural Self. The Original Self does not deny, repress, or destroy the old self, the small, conformist and fragmented personalities that hijack our actions and relationships - what Paul calls “the flesh” - but embraces, heals and returns or restores it to its original image. Becoming fully human is a return to the ground, the hummus of our humanity, to till the soil of soul, from which we might uncover hidden treasure.

Begin this advent by clearing space in your schedule to "let your life speak", in the words of Parker Palmer. Wander for a couple hours from the office into the wooded creeks of your deeper life in conversation with the wild, natural world. 

- Matt Syrdal

Thank You for the Conversation

Over the years I have worked alongside my church with the Oglala people (Lakota) of the Pine Ridge Reservation. I learned a prayer from an artist named Thurman Horse, who shared his life and shared his song, his unshakable and indigenous experience of Jesus - Mitakuye Oyasin (roughly translated, “all my relations”, with the sense that “everything is connected”). It is a prayer of profound gratitude meaning, I am part of a Greater Conversation.

Thurman’s gratitude was not a platitude. It was deep. Gratitude arises from a place of prayerful presence which we inhabit. A Gratitude which sails beyond our little self, from a living universe in which we are oriented in the directions and seasons and patterns of life - connected to one another, to the plant and animal worlds - a deep kinship - to the mysterious, deeply incarnating God of creation.

We have LOST the art of conversation in our culture. We keep our neighbor separated from us and enclosed through our exacting words. We label those we fear - just look at this election year. A single word can dissect, divide, dam, and disillusion. With a word we rant in racist, faceless, complacence. We have lost our sense of wonder and wild kinship with the natural world, lost our connection to our bodies and through our bodies to the earth itself. We are lost, alone in the woods.

“In the beginning was the Conversation, and the Conversation was with God, and the Conversation was God…" John 1:1.  I want to credit a good friend and colleague Victoria Loorz, founder of Church of the Wild, who has spoken and shared on the significance and magnificence of this exact translation from the Gospel of John chapter one. She pointed me to an article written by Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle who discovered that the earliest and nearly standardized Latin translation of logos among the early church fathers until the fourth century was actually sermo, not verbum

"In the beginning was the Conversation… not the word." A tradition now forgotten, from Tertullian to Theodore Beze and John Calvin, Erasmus’ defended the most ancient translation of Logos - Sermo not Verbum. Perhaps he saw the danger of losing something in translation we might never recover. The Word comes from outside the world, the Conversation comes from within. Words set humanity above the world, not as cultivators and co-creators but as colonizers, not belonging but estranged. We have lost the depth and fullness of this deep Conversation - this Christ among and within - and the human soul torn out of kinship with a living universe. Poet David Whyte says that the soul “is the largest conversation a person is capable of having with the world.”

As John Philip Newell shares in Christ of the Celts, “[Christ] shows us not a foreign truth but a truth that is hidden in the depths of the human soul. He comes to wake us up, to call us back to ourselves and to the relationship [the Conversation] that is deep within all things… Christ discloses to us the sacred root of our being and all being. This has enormous implications for how we view ourselves and one another and how we approach the deepest energies within us and within all things.

I remember as a young child spending hours upon hours exploring the woods behind my house. On a Saturday morning, I would cross a small creek, by way of a split log bridge between the overgrown blackberry bushes that separated our property from the uncultivated, undeveloped wild woods. As I wandered with only my imagination to lead me, I became lost in conversation with the felled trees carpeted in dew laden moss, enchanted by the earthy, rich smell of peet and the decomposing leaves of the forest floor. The fortresses of old rotted and hollow stumps, perfect to explore. Lost in the natural world, time slows to near stop. When you lose sight of the wardrobe, something magical happens. Rather than panic, I experienced a feeling of belonging. A childlike apprehension of the beginnings of a deeper longing, a longing that I wouldn’t understand until much later in my adult life. It was a sense of the numinous inviting me into a relationship with the mysterious life of God.

Christ reveals in us that to become found we must first become lost in the deeper Conversation. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it. Jesus' wisdom wordplay on the greek word “psyche,” speaks to the value and the cost of this deeper Conversation. Building up the first identity a first half of life task is crucial and important for all of us. In fact it is necessary to complete the developmental tasks of a healthy adolescence. But Christ invites his disciples to take up their own cross and come follow him if they would enter the the kingdom, discover the deeper life of the soul. To experience this deep gratitude we must often journey through a crisis of grief and loss. Our old way of seeing, and believing, and living no longer seems to work. What's more our center of gravity shifts, and those relationships that once brought us a sense of security and belonging suddenly feel empty because they no longer serve the demands of the soul. Our career goals, acheivements and dreams for our future lose their luster and meaning. It actually feels vulnerable, lonely, even humiliating at times as if we are being dismantled piece by piece, with the fear that underneath the rubble of our old lives and identities their might be nothing left. But this is where a profound grace comes into play, a mysterious depth of encounter and belonging we have never before known. This is what Parker Palmer calls, our one "true life," the life of the soul, the place we were born to inhabit in the Great conversation of cosmos, Christ, and community.

Lifestyle gratitude comes from discovering our true place in the Conversation.

As pastors, elders, and leaders we are called to preach and to minister, to heal and make whole from that deeper sermon, Conversation. We are called to participate in what Thomas Berry called “The Great Work” and Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning.” This is what it means to be Reformed Always Reforming. We all want to be in deeper service to the world. But we must first learn to listen

WilderSoul explores ancient Celtic and indigenous Christian practices of learning to listen in Conversation of the Spirit, scripture, nature and the soul. To cultivate and lead from greater wholeness and healing, and to live in deeper service to the world. Practices such as solo wanders and deep conversation on the land, the way of the circle and art of mirroring to give others the gift of the dignity of their own experience and to witness the deeper story emerging in their lives.

Just as the prophets, poets, mystics, and Jesus Christ drew inspiration freely and deeply from the natural world, using language alive with gratitude and earth-based metaphors of abundance, so we are called to intuit the deeper patterns of the mystery of God in our world for a time such as this. We are called to invite others into this wild and grateful Conversation.

Aho Mitakuye Oyasin - Thank you for the Conversation

Rev. Matt Syrdal


The Indigenous Christ

The word indigenous literally means “produced, growing, living or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment,” or ecosystem. Indigenous originates from the latin indu meaning “within” and gignere meaning “to beget.” In other words, something indigenous is that which is born from within. This definition applies to that which is human in origin, or aboriginal, and of natural origin in the cosmos itself, with the implication that it has not been introduced from somewhere else.

The mystical creation poetry of John chapter 1 speaks of this primordial begetting from within, “The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him…” 

An important semantic and theological connection is made in this passage between this indigenous “light” and “the one and only Son, who is himself God…” through the greek word monogenes, meaning uniquely begotten

Let’s call this perspective a deep theology of creation, which, as you can see, becomes increasingly inseparable from a deep theology of incarnation. From this shift in consciousness, Christ isn’t thrown into the world from some neoplatonic realm of ideas, rather Christ is emergent in the universe itself - Christ is the truly Natural One

This is the Indigenous Christ. 

According to author and theologian John Philip Newell, “[Christ] remembers the dance of the universe and the harmony that is deep within all things. He is the memory also of who we are. He shows us not a foreign truth but a truth that is hidden in the depths of the human soul. He comes to wake us up, to call us back to ourselves and to the relationship that is deep within all things. The emphasis is not on becoming something other than ourselves but on becoming truly ourselves. Christ discloses to us the sacred root of our being and all being. This has enormous implications for how we view ourselves and one another and how we approach the deepest energies within us and within all things.

To make the point even more clear, the Indigenous Christ presents us with a paradigm shift in our theology and practice as a church. The first paradigm shift is that the light is no longer separated from the darkness in the way we have come to understand it. God is not separate from the universe, it is a living revelation of the divine. As the imago Dei, Christ is the soul of the universe, the deepest pattern behind all things. The universe itself participates in what the Jewish mystics call the Ein Sof, or Holy Darkness.

The second shift in perception is the understanding that we as humans participate in a living universe which is itself rooted in God and of God. The physicality of our bodies, emotions, our experience of the world through story and memories, even our imagination is rooted, in our depths - in God. “To say that the root of every person and creature is in God, rather than opposed to God,” Newell confesses, “has enormous implications for how we view ourselves, including our deepest physical, sexual, and emotional energies.

The apostle Paul says, “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” Rom 8:19-23

Paul is not just speaking of the creation metaphorically as our mother. Rather he is offering a profound insight that is both mystical and ordinary. It is an insight of cosmicintimacy - in a very real sense we are engaged in a courtship with the world in which we participate, a courtship expressed through the deep perceptions and movements of the soul. This includes a recovery of the divine feminine including the erotic energies which celebrate full bodied life to the fullest of all creatures and bioranges, By virtue of our creaturely humanity, and our capacities of soul, the depths of our inner nature is rooted in a greater conversation with the whole realm of nature itself. In other words, we are not only enculturated beings, creating and being created by our cultural environment. We are not merely “human” beings separate from other species. What makes us truly human is that we are incarnated beings - sharing in Christ, the “fully human and fully divine” One. In other words, the essential qualities that makes us distinctively “human,” are also revealed, in some mysterious way, within the deeper matrix of Creation itself. This is the mystery of the Indigenous Christ.

The evolutionary goal of both the universe and humanity are inextricably bound together, and in order to discover our planetary role and calling we must reconnect to the deep wisdom of nature, the Indigenous Christ.

"Where nature, spirituality, and life meet in Deep Conversation"

As a pastor "by day," and one who has grown up in the Christian household of faith, I believe the divine Mystery is present in creation and can be understood through creation (Romans 1:20). This is not an exclusively Christian belief but a deeply recognized truth common to infants and elders of all races, tribes, religions, and world mythologies. The ancient Celts understood the natural world as the First Book, or the Big Book of divine revelation. The World for the ancient Celts was the primal matrix, the mother, the womb of the Word. "Matter" and "matrix" both share a common latin root with the word for mother. "Nature" and "natal" also share a common root meaning origins or birth. The emergent Christ in creation is the truly Natural One - the one who participates in the Wholeness of being. "I am the one who comes from that which is Whole," Christ says in the Gospel of Thomas. 

We cannot fully understand the meaning, the poetry, of deep nature and the part we play as a species as long as we continue in an old, modern theological paradigm that views the Triune God as wholly other than, separate, from the world. We cannot live a life that is fully human, when we split off the qualities of the wild feminine who delights in the fragrances and textures of earth, full-hearted emotions, the erotic juice of life, and the dark mysteries of romance, deep longing, and dying, that are close to the Beloved's heart. We cannot live a life that is divine without being fully human, without living from our deepest wholeness.

What we understand as the divine is emergent within the natural world, what Fr. Thomas Berry called inscendence, or the depth dimension to divine transcendence, and scientist and priest Teilhard de Chardin’s understanding of the Cosmic Christ in "Hymn of the Mass on the World." This, I believe, was Erasmus' intent in his translation of Logos in the Gospel of John chapter 1 - from Greek into the latin Sermo, rather than Verbum: "In the beginning was the Conversation..."

We are in the sermon, and the living and life-giving readings come from the First Book of God, nature. We participate with the Creation rather than stand apart from it. Nature is not just physical. Nature is in our blood, our memory, our emotions, our imagination. The wild landscapes of the human soul are a part of the same nature as damp forest, still mountain lake, and red sandstone canyon walls. The message, the speech, the conversation, are not just "words" (Psalm), but the shape and trajectory of evolution itself - Life itself. If this is true, this is a full-bodied God we can know, a Deep Incarnation we can indwell and embody. "The whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth" awaiting the children of God to be revealed. The children of Earth today are "groaning inwardly," "with sighs too deep for words" (Rom 8:19ff).