Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Removing the Veil, Part 3

As long as faith just remains a belief system as it does for so many Christian people in our society we will just keep creating “in” groups and “out” groups filled with unchanged, unconverted people. Real transformation takes some major surgery, getting the head, heart, and body aligned with the inner working of the Spirit.

A terrified Jewish young man was fleeing the Nazi’s who had just overtaken their small village. He fled to the door of the pastor of the village church seeking refuge. The pastor had been warned that any person or family caught hiding a Jew would not only bring the wrath of the Nazi’s upon their house but upon the whole village. So the pastor had the young man step inside, while he went to pray for guidance and read the Scriptures. As the pastor prayed and searched the Scriptures, he came upon the verse that read, “It is better for one man to die, than the whole people perish.”

The pastor was certain he had the answer. Though it was hard for him to do, he turned the young man out to what most certainly would be his death. That night an angel appeared and confronted the pastor. “What have you done?” asked the angel. The pastor explained how he prayerfully sought guidance through the Scriptures. The angel said, “If you would have looked into his eyes, you would have seen that the young man you turned away was the Christ.”

Until we die to our false self with all its selfish ambitions and desire for control, and open our lives in humility to grace, we will not see the glory of the true God in the other person, or in the community, or in the world, or even in our own souls. The God we will see will be a god of our own making—one that reflects our image, one that is biased, small, and petty.

Until the veil is removed, we will keep running to the Bible, quoting verses to prove that we are right, that we are doctrinally correct, that we possess the truth, that we are the chosen destined for heaven. We will not be changed. The only growth we will experience is a growth in pride, arrogance, and self-righteousness. And in our hands, the Bible will become a dangerous weapon.

“What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live,” said the grey caterpillar to Yellow (see previous blog, part 2). What “looks like you” are all the fears, insecurities, prejudices, biases, dualistic thinking, defense mechanisms, and illusions we use to protect our ego, our false self. Until we let go of our egocentricity, we will just keep using the Bible and our religion in negative, exclusivistic, and self-righteous ways.

But that’s not who we really are. Jesus shows us what it means to be truly and fully human. When we finally quit hiding, dodging, fleeing, and fighting the false self and acknowledge it, then we plough fertile soil for the true self to grow. When we remove the veil, we can begin to see the glory of God’s love and grace everywhere. It will turn up in places and in persons we would never expect.

When the veil is removed, we set the Spirit free to liberate us from our bitterness and negativity, our greed and selfish ambitions, our envy and jealousy, and all the other prisons that entrap our souls and keep us small and petty.

Real change, real evolving, transforming growth from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18) takes time and work and a constant yieldedness and openness to God’s grace. As Sue Monk Kid says, “It isn’t just one step, it’s many steps. It’s a winding, spiraling process that happens on deep levels.” It’s not just about being born again; it’s about being born again and again and again and again.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Removing the Veil, Part 2

One of the problems with some self-help plans is that they by-pass the absolutely necessary first step of all spiritual progress and growth, namely, that we are powerless to change ourselves and must surrender to the power of divine grace. Change that comes about through mere willpower and determination is not real spiritual change.

The veil around our minds is often disguised as some great moral issue that makes us feel superior and asks nothing of us while asking everything from us. That sounds paradoxical, but it’s true.

For those on the theological left, it can mean investing in some great social justice cause at great personal cost and sacrifice, while living one’s actual life in total isolation from any real suffering and without any personal transformation.

For those on the theological right, it can mean investing heavily with great effort and sacrifice in some current political correctness or preaching a gospel of evacuation into heaven (it’s amazing how these two go together in some circles), while ignoring the transformative texts of Scripture that ask us to personally change and adopt a larger vision for the common good of all.

In both cases above, the ego is still in charge; it just wears different disguises. It’s the egocentric self that has to die. When Jesus said that in order to be his disciple one has to deny one’s self, this is the self he is talking about—the false self, the little self, the egocentric self. This is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). The “I” he is talking about is the little, ego-dominated I.

In Hope for the Flowers by Trina Paulus, a kind of picture book for adults, a yellow caterpillar comes upon a gray-haired caterpillar who tells her about becoming a butterfly.

Yellow asks, “How do you become one?” Gray says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” “You mean to die?” asks Yellow. “Yes and No,” says Gray. “What looks like you will die but what’s really you will still live.”

“Isn’t that what matters most? That which is really you? Jesus said that we have to lose our life to find it. Jesus said a kernel of wheat has to fall to the ground and die in order to produce many seeds (John 12:24).

The biblical word for this is repentance. It is a turning from and turning to. It involves a relinquishment of our egocentricity, our need for position, power, prestige, and prominence, of all denials, excuses, and rationalizations. It also involves a surrendering in humility to divine grace. It is relinquishment and surrender.

This turning to the Lord and removing of the veil is not a once-for-all experience. Father Richard Rohr points out that this “does not happen in one moment but is an extended journey, a trust walk, a gradual letting go, unlearning, and handing over.”

Paul says it is a transformation into Christ’s image from one degree of glory to another degree of glory (2 Cor. 3:18). It is a process. But it begins with a decision—not a feeling or emotion, but a decision—that we must reinforce daily. According to Luke’s version of Jesus’ saying, we have to take up our cross daily (Luke 9:23).

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Removing the Veil, Part 1

In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts the letter of the law with the living Spirit. He is writing as a Jew who believes that the Jew, Jesus, has inaugurated a new covenant—not only for Israel, but for all people. Paul sees his mission as one of bringing the Jewish Messiah to the Gentile world.

Paul, at times (such as in this text), can be a bit disparaging toward his own people, the Jews, which is understandable in light of the opposition he encountered from them in preaching a crucified Messiah. In passages like 2 Cor. 3 his frustration surfaces.

But the veil Paul is talking about is not just a veil over the minds of his Jewish brothers and sisters, it’s a veil over all our minds. It keeps us from seeing the glory of the Lord and being changed by that glory.

This is why when unconverted, unchanged people, without genuine God encounter, read the Bible, they often use the Bible in life diminishing and denigrating ways. We all know how the Bible has been (and in many cases continues to be) used to support slavery, male dominance and patriarchal structures, war and violence, capital punishment, vengeance, segregation, elitism, sexism, exceptionalism, homophobia, and all sorts of other destructive attitudes, behaviors, and policies. You can find a verse in the Bible to support just about anything.

In the Synoptic Gospels, just before Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be rejected, suffer, and be killed by the religious powers. Then he tells them that if they are going to be his followers they too will have to die—to the false self, the ego-driven self—and be willing to suffer with him and follow him to the cross (see Luke 9:21–27). But a veil covers their minds and they do not understand.

So Jesus takes three of the twelve with him upon the mountain. Maybe these three will grasp what is happening and what Jesus is calling them to be and do. Jesus is transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah—representing the Law and the prophets—appear with Jesus, though Jesus takes center stage.

Luke’s Gospel tells us that they talked about his departure, his exodus, his approaching death, but once again, the disciples didn’t understand. Peter wants to camp out on the mountain. Forget about Jesus’ mission and the other disciples engaged in a struggle in the valley, he wants to camp out on the mountaintop. “Let’s build some huts and stay here a while. It’s good for us be here” (see Luke 9:33).

Luke says that Peter didn’t know what he was saying, and while he was talking a cloud enveloped them and the Divine Voice says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (9:34–35). Listen to what he is telling you about discipleship, about dying to your false self, about the way of the cross. But they still don’t get it; their minds are veiled.

They come down from the mountain and join the others who are engaged in a struggle with an evil spirit. Jesus casts out the evil spirit and then says, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered over to human hands” (Luke 9:44). Luke says, “But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it” (9:45).  The veil still covered their minds.

According to Luke’s version, even after Jesus tells them three times he is going to be rejected, suffer, and die, on the night of his arrest, just after he eats the Passover with them, the disciples get into an argument about who is going to be the greatest in God’s kingdom. The veil is still wrapped around their minds and hearts.

When is the veil removed? Not until Jesus appears to them alive after his death. They had fled the arrest scene in fear. They proved to be cowards. No longer are they arguing about who is the greatest. If they are having any argument now it’s about who is the biggest loser or failure.  

When they encounter Christ alive what they experience is divine grace. When Christ meets them in their fear and failure, he meets them in their humiliation, which he turns into humility with his unconditional acceptance and forgiveness.

Paul says to the Corinthians that when one authentically turns to the Lord the veil is removed (2 Cor. 3:16). If we can draw any conclusions from the experience of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels, then surely the first step in this process is about realizing our powerlessness and our very real need for grace.

Until we come to the limits of our own fuel supply there is no reason for us to sense a need for a more high octane fuel. It is not until our normal resources are depleted and shown to be wanting, that we are ready to draw upon a larger and greater source. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

No Greater Force for Change

There is no greater transformative power in the universe than the kind of love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. As all the mystics tell us, Divine Love is at the heart and core of all reality. It is what connects everything together.

It’s interesting how this ode to love begins: We can do some great things that benefit others, but if we do not do them in love, then our doing and giving does not change us. Even heroic sacrificial deeds may only serve to boost our ego or sense of pride, if love is not the motive or source of our actions. Paul says, “I may give all my possessions away to help the poor and even die a martyr, but if I do not have love, if love is not the source of my actions, then I gain nothing.” My sacrifices may benefit others, but they will not change me, except make me more self-righteous and arrogant.

Whenever genuine love is expressed and extended to others an invitation to change is being offered. I am reminded of this rough, brawly mountaineer who lived in a small town in West Virginia. He worked construction and operated a little tree trimming business. He was known for his drinking and brawling at the local tavern. He would fight at the drop of a hat. Except for his close friends, most steered clear of him.

One day he was introduced to a woman who had recently moved into the town to teach first grade at the local elementary school. He was attracted to her and asked her out for dinner before she had time to learn about his reputation. She said yes and they started dating. His friends noticed how he began to change. He didn’t drink as much and wasn’t the same angry person. He loosened up, even to the point where he could laugh at his own mistakes. He asked her to marry him and to the surprise of everyone she said yes.

He was in the tavern with his friends celebrating, and one of them said, “Jim, I’ve noticed that you are not the same man. You don’t want to fight anymore. You are more pleasant to be around. You seem calm and together.” With tears in his eyes, he said to his friend, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.” He was becoming a different man.

Can love do that? It can. Fear cannot. This is why, I think, the writer of 1 John says that God’s love casts out all fear (4:18). This is why any religion that is based on the threat of punishment will never change anyone. It will just us make more fearful and insecure, and we will project our fears and insecurities on others. We will create “in” groups and “out” groups. And our capacity to love will be limited to our “in” group, and even within our restricted group love will often be conditional and limited.

Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten tells about playing hide and seek in his neighborhood growing up. He says there was one kid who always hid too good. After a while they would give up trying to find him. Later, after they had quit the game he would show up and he would be upset. 

Fulghum writes, “There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide and seek not hide and give up, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that.”

Fulghum goes on to comment that it didn’t matter what they said, sure enough, the next time they played hide and seek he would inevitably hide too good.

We can hide too good. Paul says that love rejoices in the truth and that it bears all things. Surely that means facing our own truth, being willing to explore the deep and see our illusions, deceptions, betrayals, and addictions—not ignore or deny or project them—but bear and face them.

Since divine love “keeps no record of wrongs” (v. 5, NIV) and it bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things (v. 7), we have no reason to hide in fear or intimidation.

Any authentic personal transformation involves an inventory and acknowledgement of all the non-loving ways and habits of which we are aware (and the ways and habit we are not yet aware of—so much is buried in the unconscious). Then we allow the waves of God’s oceanic love to wash away all the dirt on the shores of our souls and take it out to sea. The more we allow the waves of God’s unconditional love to wash over us, the more garbage will emerge from the sands of our souls. Layers of ego protection are stripped back and we are given glimpses into the many ways our false self has controlled our motives and actions. These are humbling experiences.

But nothing can stop the tide of God’s never ending love. As we allow the oceanic spray of God’s love to keep showering us with affirmations that nothing can sever us from God care and compassion, we find the courage to dig deep and confront “what is” in all it ugliness and beauty. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Vision of What Can Be

The kind of love that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 offers us a glimpse of what “the new creation” looks like (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15). The actions Paul describes must, however, be nurtured and cultivated. Richard Hays, who teaches Ethics at Duke Divinity School says, “One cannot merely decide in a day’s time to start doing these things. They are learned patterns of behavior that must be cultivated over time in the context of a community that models and supports such behavior . . . the church should be a school for the cultivation of these habits and practices.”

Yes, the church should be a school for the cultivation of the habits and practices of love. Because the church is called to be the incarnational presence of Christ in the world and an outpost for God’s kingdom on earth. Are we going to fail? Of course. We are human after all. The habits opposed to love run deep and are hard to break. This is one reason why forgiveness is such a central theme in Jesus’ teaching and stands at the very heart of the gospel. Nurturing the kind of love Paul delineates in 1 Cor. 13 in the community will require us to forgive one another when we fail. And we are certainly going to fail.

The movie, Open Range, is an old fashion western about a conflict over land rights between free-wheeling cowboys and a land-owning rancher. Kevin Costner plays Charley Waite, one of the cowboys who decides on revenge when the rancher kills some of his friends. As he plans for the violent confrontation, memories of terrible killings he committed during the Civil War come back to him, deeply disturbing him. When the shooting is all over, Charley is wounded, but alive.

A woman in town, the sister to the town doctor, loves Charley and he loves her. He tells her that he needs to leave town, he needs some time. She tells him that she will wait for him, but not forever. She says, “I don’t have the answers, Charley, but I know that people get confused in this life about what they want, and what they’ve done, and what they think they should have done because of it. Everything they think they are or did takes hold so hard that it won’t let them see what they can be.”

That is a profound insight. “Everything they think they are or did takes hold so hard that it won’t let them see what they can be.” The sins and failures of our past can blind us to any hopeful or faith-filled vision of the future. We can become so ensnared and demoralized by guilt over the ways we have hurt others or by resentment over the ways others have hurt us, that we cannot imagine how we might become someone different. It becomes difficult for us to imagine that we could be more than what we are. 

Paul believed that Christ had inaugurated a new creation. It’s not complete by any means, but it is underway, though it sometimes works incognito. The power of the new creation is here—within us, among us, and for us, working for our ultimate good (Rom. 8:28). Our task is to lean and live into it, so that we begin to experience the power of the new creation now, which Paul says is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

We must let God love us in all our imperfections and incompleteness, allowing God to welcome, embrace, and accept us as we are. When we receive God’s love, when we accept that we are accepted, the past loosens its grip, our fears, anxieties, and insecurities loosen their stranglehold, and we learn to breathe freely. Faith and hope rise up. The scales start to fall from our eyes and we begin to see what life can be. Our eyes are opened to the new possibilities love can create and sustain.  

We are set free to trust the Divine Spirit to form the habits of love in our souls and bodies, and particularly in the body of Christ we call the church.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Transformative Encounters

I believe biblical texts reflect degrees or levels of inspiration. Our ability to discern the redemptive value of a biblical text and to apply it as an instrument of transformation largely depends on our state of spiritual consciousness and our capacity for spiritual discernment. Frankly, it depends on whether or not we know God, whether or not we have had authentic God encounter.    

Some biblical texts are simply regressive. Those texts, for example, that sanction divine violence are most likely projections of the community’s fears, insecurities, and blood thirst. When we read accounts of God ordering Israel to put an entire civilization under the ban, to kill men, women, children, animals, and destroy everything, we know that cannot possibly be the God of Jesus. Those of us who have encountered the God of Jesus know that the God who Jesus says loves his or her enemies would never order genocide. Some biblical texts are human projections that reflect humankind’s deepest prejudices, animosities, and fears.

Author and spiritual writer Richard Rohr offers a good rule of thumb. If in the text, God is operating at a level lesser (not as loving, patient, kind, forgiving, just, etc.) than the best person you know, then the depiction of God in the text cannot be authentic revelation. Some texts portray a God less than human. God is certainly better than the best of humanity.

But there are other biblical texts that are nothing short of breakthroughs in human consciousness. They are epiphanies that reflect such a high level of encounter and revelation that they carry immense potential to redeem and transform individuals and communities. 1 Corinthians 13 is such a text. If one decides to live with this text for a year, meditating on it everyday, I have no doubt this would inspire genuine God encounter with much potential for human transformation. Meditating on this text is an invitation for the Spirit to fill us and form Christ in us. 

1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful poetic exposition of love that appears in the middle of a section where Paul is dealing with the exercise of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian worship gatherings. Some of them had placed an inordinate emphasis on showy displays of spirituality. Some were flaunting their gifts even to the point of disrupting and dominating the worship service. Some were “puffed up” in their knowledge, thinking themselves to be spiritually above those they called the “weaker” members.

Paul says, “I will show you the most excellent way.” Here’s the way out of all your quarreling and divisiveness. Here’s the way forward, says Paul. Then he launches into this beautiful depiction of Christian love. We don’t know if Paul is the composer of this poem or if he is drawing upon traditional material, perhaps he is doing both. But what a magnificent text this is. 

There is no greater transformative power in the universe, which is why I believe that love is at the very heart and core of Divine Reality. Whenever love is expressed and extended to others an invitation to change is being offered.

Fear, on the other hand, can only promote behavior modification as a result of the threat of punishment; it cannot produce deep, core change in the heart and soul. This is why, I think, the writer of 1 John says that God’s love casts out all fear. This is why any religion that is based on the threat of punishment cannot produce genuine God encounter. This is why Paul includes this ode to love in the midst of a discussion about the use of spiritual gifts in their worship gatherings, rather than warnings of judgment, though Paul does employ such warnings where he feels appropriate.

Whenever authentic spiritual experience and growth happens in fear systems it occurs because love has somehow slipped in through the backdoor. Fear systems create “in” groups and “out” groups and imagine a tribal, exclusive, wrathful God.  In fear systems one’s capacity to love is usually limited to the “in” group and even within the “in” group love is usually conditional and restricted.

In describing love, Paul is actually describing what redemption looks like. This is what it means (to use the language most traditional Christians were taught) to be saved. This is a major part of what Christian salvation is.

How did we ever get to the place where we thought of Christian salvation primarily as escape from this world or evacuation into heaven, when the truly transformative texts teach us that the good news is about how to be more fully engaged in life and relationships in loving ways?

I certainly believe that we have a bright future beyond this world/life. Paul talks about that too in 1 Cor. 15 and 2 Cor. 5. In 1 Cor. 13 he simply calls it completeness—“when the complete comes.” When the complete arrives, then what is now partial will give way to fullness/completeness. We see now in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. In other words, in the future state of completeness (whatever this involves) we will experience the kind of encounter with God, other human beings, and the rest of creation that is more open, free, honest, rich, and full than we are able to now experience.

This is what Paul calls the new creation: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Well, not yet in any complete sense, but it has begun. We still live in an incomplete world, but the power of the new creation archetypally expressed in the resurrection of Jesus is within us and among us.

Our job is to lean into it and experience the new creation now. Paul shows us in this beautiful passage on love what face to face encounter with God and others looks like. Our task, as Paul instructs in 1 Cor. 14:1, is to “pursue love.” To pursue love is to live in God’s new creation, to encounter God, and experience God’s healing and transforming power in more honest, genuine, truthful, generous, accepting, compassionate, “face to face” relationships.