Thursday, May 27, 2010

Side-by-Side retreat in Citrus Heights

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Tuesday, I went to a retreat, sponsored by Side-by-Side, which took place at a Catholic compound in Citrus Heights called Christ the King Passionist Retreat Center.  The event lasted about five hours, mid-day, and served as an opportunity for the thirteen of us attending to connect with nature and enjoy a few uplifting hours in each-others' company.

Side-by-Side is self-described as a listening ministry which has an office and small meeting room in Loaves & Fishes' Friendship Park.  Reverend Linda Kelly-Baker of First United Methodist Church in Sacramento is the founder of the ministry and Program Director.

Homeless World Sacramento is to an overwhelming extent Christian, mostly of a fundamentalist bent and unbashful about it.  This was one of the things that was a surprise for me when I first became homeless.  Between work and friends I've had in my many many years on this planet, up-close-and-personal Christianity has been very much absent, except for a few rare work colleagues whose religious talk I ignored (believing work was no place for such).  I consider myself to be a Skyhooks Western Buddhist [By Skyhooks I mean I'm not reductionist; I believe there is some sort of force pulling evolution, rather than it just being pushed upward from the dirt.]  Also, of its many sects, I favor Zen, being a bit put off by the Tibetans' shamanist element. 

Even as I have been staying at the Union Gospel Mission for a long time, I haven't really had sustained exposure to Christians' way of thinking.  The retreat gave me some of that experience.

My friend, Lex, suggested that I come with him to the retreat, after telling me it wouldn't be exclusively Christian.  Mark would be there, I was told.  Mark is one of Side-by-Side's listeners/counsellors and is Buddhist, having for a period of years been a monk.

Reverend Linda; her friend from her Methodist Church, Ron; Mark; and a woman named Susan, I think it was, were leaders for the retreat. After introductions and visiting for a short while in a circle of chairs, our first activity for the thirteen of us was for us each, on our own, to go out into the vivid-green landscape, mindfully take in the beauty of it all, and report back in thirty-minutes' time. [I think the actual instructions were more complicated than that, but that is what my simplifying brain made of it.] Having been told there was a laberynth onsite, and given a general direction where it could be found, I headed for that.

The laberynth wasn't the pathway bordered by dense bushes that I hoped for and feared, but something much smaller: a pathway bordered by bricks that took me five or ten minutes to walk. Edward from the group came by to see the laberynth while I walked back and forth and around in circles. I was next lured to walk along the southern border of the property by the sound of my favorite birds, scrub jays that were flying around at high speeds, screeching noisily.

Back at our meeting place, on the second floor of one of the primary buildings at the compound, we each talked about our nature walk and next engaged in creating mosaics.  A large variety of pictures from magazines were laid out on a couple of tables.  By choosing among the pictures we each crafted a miniature work of art on a white card, approximate dimensions of 5" x 8", using scissors and glue.  My simplifying mind glommed on to the instruction that there was nothing we could do wrong and proceeded, happily, with that as my focus.

My finished work was the least impressive of the bunch, but knowing my limited artistic skills, I was fully happy with what I ended up with: bugs, an eagle, grapefruit, an out-of-focus man and a candlestick that somehow conveyed the theme, a quote taken from a newspaper, that "Feeling peace is the ability to remain coherent under stress," a notion that, thinking about it now, I don't really agree with.

Others showed more artistry:  The two Rons' works were wonderful.  FUMC Ron somehow found pictured items that were all round, or garland-like and speckled or gritty that serviced as representations of community and love.  The other Ron used varieties of pictures of people that were well placed on his card/canvas and particularly interesting.  Lex focused on a theme of beaches, capturing ones (or representations of ones) from around the world that he had visited in his life's travels.  Joni's was nice: splayed pics of people and things that related to her life.  Rev. Linda's was the most abstract: a huge vase with arms sticking out of it.  Edward's was more literal, depicting aspects of his relationship with God.

Mark's artwork featured an observatory and above it a time-lapsed view of the sky with the stars as streaks.  Independent of me, but like me, he intentionally left some of the canvas [i.e., the white card] showing through. That is oh so Buddhist!  Rah!

We each held up and talked about our masterpiece. For many of the eleven Christians, this occasioned an opportunity for them to express themselves in terms of having surrendered to God and the absolute need for Jesus. I think that, among the Christians, there generated a sense that they were exclusively among their own. Indeed, I learned from a handout that the retreat was, really, directly, meant as a Christian event.

Lunch we had downstairs was wonderful: a salad bar was set up and clam chowder was available.  Scott would later tell me he thought the chowder was particularly splendid, as indeed it was.  I fully enjoyed my salad.  It's rare to get vegetables and a good quantity of roughage when you're stuck in Homeless World.

After lunch, a second opportunity to go outside for a spell and regale in landscape greenery and visit wild turkeys and hoppy squirrels. And, then, back in our circle of chairs, a round-up as we talked about what the retreat meant to us.

For my Christian friends it was a chance to delight in the flora and fauna of God's creation. After a lot of that sentiment, I was happy to hear Mark express appreciation of what had emerged out of the "primordial ooze." Mark is the furthest thing from being combative, like I proudly am; it was nice, though, to hear a little gentle pushback against the majority Creationist feeling.

[You know, I am sorry, but the proof of evolution is absolute and undeniable. "Facts are God's arguments; we should be careful never to misunderstand or pervert them," theologian Tryon Edwards wrote. I don't know that Edwards believed in evolution when he lived, in the 19th Century. I doubt he did. But now Evolution is as certain as one plus one equalling two. Get used to it, you crazy Christians. You, like me, are all spin-offs of baboon/chimpanzee-like creatures. Believe it! Edwards also wrote, "Right actions for the future are the best apologies for wrong ones in the past." The story of Adam and Eve is a parable, at best! Knowing that, believing that, can be your best apology, you knuckleheaded Christians!]1

When I spoke during the wrap-up session, I remarked on Nature Enlightenment [though I should have said "Nature Mysticism"]. Over hundreds of thousands of years, we have evolved alongside nature [seeing it as that greenness outside of us]. But, indeed, WE are natural; truly, we are fully in it. In a sense, it is the background that delights us when it comes to the fore. It is the white canvas showing through, that can make us jump in appreciation.

Oop. I told Lex I would write a blogpost that was 90+% positivist. I failed to do that; my feisty self has shown through. Still, I think this post is 70+% positive (and 100% correct).
1  In emotion-dead simple text it is hard to know whether someone is serious or kidding.  My 'rant' in this paragraph is kidding/teasing, but at the same time I do think that Christians' disrespect for earnest, truth-seeking Hard Science is a real and serious danger to life on this planet.  AND that there needs to be 'pushback' against the clear nuttiness that many, or even most, Christians express with regard to how physics and nature operates.

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Blogger Nagarjuna said...

If your "finished work" truly was "the least impressive of the bunch," that's only because I wasn't there too. :-)

You say you disagree with the newspaper quote's definition of "peace." Could you elaborate? Speaking for myself, I tend to see internal peace as a kind of deep 'settledness' of mind and heart no matter what's happening outside, and it seems to me that this may result and/or be the result of a kind of "coherence."

I'm glad you were able to attend the mini-retreat and be exposed to a Christianity that may, perhaps, have gone a little deeper than what you've typically encountered elsewhere, even if you felt somewhat at odds with the "majority Creationist feeling."

I suppose that someone of a Wilberian disposition could reconcile the Christian "Creationist" view with the understanding that the universe is, indeed, the outpouring or "creation" of divine "Spirit."

May 27, 2010 at 2:46 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

I'll have to think more about what my definition of peace might be. The problem I now realize I have with the newspaper quote is that it seems like it reduces peace to a matter of self-control, rather than your better definition that it's a matter of transformation.

[more later; only two minutes of computer time left. Eek.]

May 27, 2010 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

There's a coverage article in a recent issue of NewScientist called "The Age of Denial: Why so many people refuse to believe the truth." Of course, Evolution is one of the many truths people refuse to believe.

There are some things that just aren't a matter of opinion; they are determined by data collection. Bible believers have come to believe that the earth circles the sun, rather than the other way around, as the Bible would have. And that when the Bible says "as far apart as the East is from the West," that is, literally nonsensical unless one maintains that the earth is flat and not spherical. Evolution has as much "standing" as either the orbit or spherical "problems."

Holding on to "Creation six-thousand years ago" is something people need to give up. It didn't literally happen that way. The returns are in.

"Denial" problems are becoming a hazard to our planet, indeed, to life itself. Because, yes, the earth really is warming up and we need, without prejudice, believe what's true and address the problem.

May 27, 2010 at 4:36 PM  
Blogger Nagarjuna said...

I agree that internal peace can't be entirely reduced to self-control. Yet, it seems to me that OPTIMAL self-control is a crucial component of that peace. In other words, one can't be enduringly peaceful without skillfully exercising the right amount--neither too much nor too little--of self-control over one's thoughts, emotions, and actions.

As for Christianity and evolutionary theory, I suppose that the majority of hardcore Christian fundamentalists continue not to believe in it, but don't you think that many Christians, including some at your recent retreat, do believe in some version of it as a process designed and set into motion by God?

Of course, if that's the case, it raises, at least for me, the thorny issue of how these Christians can interpret biblical verse about creation non-literally yet take other verses very literally that you and I would find equally dubious as literally true.

That is, by what criteria do Christians draw the line between verses that are literally true and verses that are symbolically or metaphorically rather than literally true?

May 28, 2010 at 8:36 AM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...


I think the sentiment at the retreat was that nature was created by God and that the spendor of it was a miracle we must credit God for. I don't know what each person thought.

I believe that we are 'tuned' to appreciate the nature that we evolved with.

In the New Testament, I believe Christians diffentiate between actual and parable based on whether Jesus used names of people in the story or not. In the Old Testament, they believe it is all inspired directly by God, and, the fundamentalists try to believe absolutely everything as literally true and that there are no contridictions, but know that there are problematic areas.

More liberal Christians believe that more of the Bible is inspiring and instructive and not to be taken literally.

May 28, 2010 at 10:18 AM  
Blogger lex186 said...

Well let me say hello.I just got reading your comment's about the retreat.I also enjoyed it too.But I also enjoy myself there.But I gotten a inner peace with myself.But I enjoy making the collage.I need that to get things in myself straight in myself.Thank you for the positive thoughts.I'm glad you went to the retreat.I hope you will understand more of oneness..See you in a couple days..lex

June 1, 2010 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...


Hey, hey, Lex! I look forward to you being back in town! Good to hear from you!!

-- Tom

June 2, 2010 at 8:07 AM  

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