Friday, January 30, 2015

The Anatomy of a Spiritual Experience

The story of Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus in John 1:45-51 can be read as a parable about the divine-human encounter.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46a)

Nathanael is skeptical and dismissive. The brilliant Johannine scholar R.E. Brown points out that this saying may have been a local proverb reflecting jealousy between Nathaniel’s town of Cana and nearby Nazareth. Certainly it reflects some bias against Nazareth.

Is Nathanael’s reaction not the typical human reaction? Are we not all bound by convention and custom? Are we not all influenced by the biases we have acquired from being conditioned, socialized, and indoctrinated into our particular systems of thought and behavior? And this, of course, can become a huge impediment to spiritual growth.

Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:46b).

This is an invitation to confront the biases of our cultural, social, and religious conditioning. It is an invitation to push back, to give ourselves some space to question and explore alternative possibilities. Closed systems cannot tolerate such questioning. A closed system, whether political, social, or religious abhors self-critique and demands conformity. In a closed religious system the major concern is about performing the right rituals and believing the right doctrines.

When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him . . . (John1:47a).

Let’s salute Nathanael for his willingness to “come and see.” He was willing to take the first step. Many Christians today are not. They think the first step is “a slippery slope” that could begin the slide to their demise. They fail to consider it could be a pathway to a whole new world.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:47-49).

It’s hard to know exactly how this interchange brought Nathanael to his “aha” moment, though it is fairly clear that Nathaniel felt Jesus really knew him.

When Jesus says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” he may mean something like, “Here is one worthy of the name of Israel.” What he doesn’t say is, “Here is Nathaniel a poor, wretched sinner.” 

Maybe this is the first revelation/epiphany necessary for a “breakthrough” encounter that can lead to profound transformation. Namely: The realization that before all our failures at love, before all our blunders and mistakes, we are loved, and the divine love by which we are loved is not diminished by our failures and blunders.

The first and foremost thing about us is not original sin, but original blessing. We are saints, before we are sinners. We are worthy of love, not because we earn it, but simply because we are. When a mother holds her newborn baby in her arms, that beloved child hasn’t done anything to earn the mother’s love. The mother just loves and loves. In such moments we are very close to God’s kind of love. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not worthy of love.

When Nathanael encounters Jesus he trusts his own “inner authority.” If we could ask him, “How do you know,” he would say, “I just know.” We, too, must be willing to trust our own “inner authority” if we hope to move past a second-hand faith.

A second-hand faith is what most Christians have. This is not something necessarily bad. It can be bad, but it can also be very good. A healthy second-hand faith can supply some good structure and principles to live by. It can help us become decent persons, and there is something to be said for becoming decent persons – that’s not insignificant. In fact, we would be far better off in our world if more Christians adopted and practiced healthier versions of the Christian faith that are more inclusive, gracious, credible, and oriented toward compassion and restorative justice. 

But there are limits. A second-hand faith alone cannot radically transform us at a deeper level or cause us to fall in love with God. It can move us in that direction, but we need something more. We need our own personal experience of the Divine. 

There is no one, single, uniform, or exclusive way into such encounters. There is no Roman Road or Four Spiritual Laws or Seven Habits that will lead to highly transformed people. So there is a great deal of mystery involved.

In my little book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls), I tell about the conversions of Malcom Muggeridge and the professor of Paul Tournier.  For Muggeridge it was the life of Mother Teresa that drew him to God. He wasn’t impressed by any of the historical, philosophical, or theological arguments for Christianity, but when he encountered her life he said, “If this is it, I’ve got to have it.”

For Paul Tournier’s professor it was different. Tournier was visiting his medical school after he had written his first book. This old professor whom Tournier admired very much wanted him to read some selections from his book. When he finished reading, Tournier looked up and his professor was wiping tears from his eyes. The professor said, “Oh, Paul, that’s a wonderful book. Everyone of us Christians should read that.” Surprised, Tournier replied, “Professor, I didn’t know you were a Christian. When did you become one?” He said, “Just now as you read from your book.”

The ways we enter into deeper experiences of the Divine Love (Lover) who indwells us are diverse and varied. There’s no single way. Nor can we control or manipulate or manufacture these experiences. (In chapter three of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit is like the wind - it blows where she will.) But while we can’t predict or produce at will these experiences, we can be open and receptive to them.

Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:50-51).

The allusion here is to Jacob’s vision at Bethel where in his dream heaven opened and a ladder stretched from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending. Here the Son of Man replaces the ladder. Son of Man is the designation for Jesus as the representative or archetypal human being. What this means, I think, is that in our humanity we are connected to God and can experience God.

Jesus is the stand-in for all human beings. What is true of Jesus as Son of Man is true or at least potentially true of all God’s daughters and sons. If Jesus in his humanity is the locus of divine glory, the point of contact between heaven and earth, then we too share in that glory and heaven and earth connect in us. The divine and human connect in our humanity. We are children of heaven and children of earth.

I love the way Gerald May expresses our intimate connection to the Divine,

“All human beings are created in and from the love of God, with an inborn love for God that continually arises from God and constantly seeks God. This love is meant for all people and for all creation. This is our true human nature. It is who we are.”                                                                                               The Dark Night of the Soulp. 51

If that is true, and I believe it is, the more we are open to experiences of love – the more we engage in giving and receiving love - the more we are open to God. The more loving we are the more full of God we are, and that is true whether we are aware of God or not.

When we know that we are held in a Great Love, we are more apt to let down our defense mechanisms and less likely to cling to our insecurities and fears. We are then free to be led by the Spirit into new experiences of God that can change us in profound ways.   

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sharing God’s Love (or not) / A sermon on the story of Jonah

A pastor I know tells about a Bible study group in a church that he served a number of years ago that decided to study the book of Jonah. They got hung up on the whale scene. They read the story not as a parable, but as a historical narrative. They concluded that Jonah must have been swallowed by a sea grouper because a whale’s mouth is not large enough to ingest a human. They even asked the pastor to make an announcement to the church about their findings. Well, the pastor got around it by telling them that he didn’t want to take credit for their research, and they should find some other way to share their conclusions. I don’t know, but I have a notion that these folks probably missed the whole point of the story of Jonah.

A Native American was talking to a group about his tribe and before telling them a story he said, “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.” A story can be true whether it actually happened or not. This is a parable with a powerful message.  

The setting is that God is about ready to destroy the city of Nineveh because of their wickedness. While there are any number of texts in the Bible that depict God as a punishing God and that sanction divine violence, these texts are telling us, not about God, but ourselves. These texts show us the way we project our biases, anger, fears, misperceptions, and negative qualities onto God.

The story of Jonah is great drama. There are lots of interesting characters: a huge fish, some foreign sailors, a city of wicked people, a violent storm, a plant, and a worm. All of them end up doing exactly what God asks them to do except the preacher, except God’s prophet. 

After Jonah gets his assignment, he heads toward Tarshish. No one knows where Tarshish is – the point here is that it’s the farthest place from Ninevah. Usually if we want to flee from God, God lets us, but apparently if you are a prophet of God and you have been given an assignment by God, well, that’s a different story, at least in this story it is.

So God sends “a great wind,” upon the sea. The ancient Hebrews believed in God’s direct involvement in the affairs of the world. So God sends the storm and it is some storm because the sailors, who certainly knew all about storms were scarred out of their wits. Jonah, however, was sound asleep, which may suggest something about his state of mind. Maybe he despaired of life. Maybe he just didn’t’ care.    

The sailors call to whatever god they think might be able to save them. When they see Jonah asleep, they wake him up screaming, “Why aren’t you praying?” What would you have said? I like Dallas Willard’s little definition of prayer where he says that prayer is “Conversation with God about what we are doing together.” If we are not doing anything together, then there is not much to talk about is there? 

The sailors decided to cast lots to discover who was bringing this disaster upon them. This was a common way of discerning the will of the deity in ancient times. We even find the disciples doing this in the book of Acts. Well, Jonah won the lottery, though it was not the kind of lottery one normally would want to win. So they ask Jonah more questions, “What do you do? Where do you come from? Who are your people?” When Jonah tells them that he is a Hebrew and worships the God who made the land and the sea, it terrifies them and they ask what they need to do to pacify this God who is stirring up the waters. Again, the ancients believed that gods controlled the elements of nature and you had to pacify these gods. “What do we need to do?” they implored.

Jonah tells them to throw him into the sea. The sailors didn’t want to throw Jonah into the sea, but when things got desperate out went Jonah. Here Jonah finds himself in the belly of the great fish. And here Jonah prays. When you are closed in, swallowed whole, feeling engulfed by the circumstances of your life and darkness is all around, why not pray for help? It can’t hurt. Of course, if you are mad at God you might not want too.

There was a time in my faith journey years ago when I was mad at God for not doing more in the world. I mean, if I was God I wouldn’t let babies die, genocides take place, evil, sick, people do terrible things to the innocent. I wouldn’t let earthquakes and Tsunamis devastate whole populations. And then I began to realize that maybe it was not God who was the problem. Maybe it was my perception of God that was the problem. And gradually I began to let go of this image of a controlling God and started to think more of a God intimately bound with the creation, a God coming to be “realized” in a sense through the creation, a God in love with the creation, a God for and with the creation, a God who suffers when the creation suffers.  

Jonah prays and tells God that he will go. In the last line of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish, he says, “What I have vowed I will make good. I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.” Jonah doesn’t say that he will like it. He doesn’t say that he will proclaim the message with compassion, but he says he will do it. God decides to settle for what God can get, so the great fish vomits Jonah up on the shore and the text says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Get up. Go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to them the message that I tell you.”

I wonder how often God has to settle for what little love and compassion God can get out of us? Like Jonah we stew in our biases and try to justify our prejudices and we take ourselves way too seriously. The good news is that God will meet us where we are and love us as we are. Now, God doesn’t want us to stay there. God wants us to grow up. God doesn’t want us to remain immature children. God wants us to become God’s friends and share God’s compassion and develop a wider view, but God will meet us where we are.

Barbara Brown Taylor says that she has this image of Jonah rolling into town, putting up a big tent, sprinkling sawdust on the ground, arranging the benches, and spreading the word about a big revival meeting. Thousands show up; even the king is there in his purple robes. Jonah pulls out his white handkerchief, clears his throat, and speaks into the microphone, with one hand holding his big black Bible and the other shaking his finger in the air:  “In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.” 

This is a short sermon isn’t it? One gets the impression that Jonah is doing the least he could get by with. There is no alter call, no warmth, no love, no identification with their plight. Just an announcement of what he hoped God would do – overthrow them, destroy them, wipe them off the face of the earth.  

I’m reminded of the church that fired their pastor because every week he stood behind the pulpit and told them they were all going to hell. So they got rid of him and got another preacher. One of the church members was telling a friend about their new pastor. “He’s nothing like the other guy who told us we were all going to hell; you should come here him.” So his friend goes to hear him. After the service the friend says, “I don’t get it. You fired the other guy because he told you you were going to hell. But this guy said you’re going to hell too, or at least some of you are.” The church member replied, “Yeah, I know, but he seems really sorry about it.” Jonah was like the first guy. Jonah wasn’t sorry.

Jonah wasn’t sorry when he announced God’s judgment. But he was sorry about the results. He was sorry that the whole city dropped to their knees in repentance and averted calamity. It’s quite comical really in the way it is told. Even the animals repented. Even the animals were covered in sackcloth. I know some Baptist preachers if that they had that kind of success would be putting their resume together.

Jonah, however, was not thinking of such things. The text says that this upset Jonah so much he said, “Just let me die.” The text says in chapter 4: “This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

What a beautiful, enlightened, breakthrough kind of text, right here in the Old Testament. (Actually, there are quite a few texts like this in the OT.) God is gracious, abounding in loyal, steadfast, enduring, covenant-keeping love, slow to anger and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah trots outside of town and plops down to wait in the hot sun. God causes a plant to spring up and grow overnight so tall and broad that it gives Jonah shade from the hot sun. But as quickly as God raises it up, God strikes it down. And Jonah is so upset he wants to die - again. This is God showing Jonah how selfish he is, how biased and hateful and ugly he is. This is God trying to convert his own prophet. This is God not giving up on Jonah; just as God refused to give up on the Ninevites. Just as God refuses to give up on you and me.    

God’s love and grace are all inclusive. We can be bitter about it, like Jonah, and wish God was more narrow and exclusive and prejudiced like we tend to be, that God will only accept a certain kind of people. And there are a lot of Christians who picture God just that way. God loves our tribe, our group, our church, and if you want God to love you then you have to think and believe like we do. You have seen, I’m sure, the bumper sticker, “God loves everyone, but I’m God’s favorite.” We joke about it, but a lot of Christians really believe that, unfortunately.

Could we dare ask God today to help us see through and beneath all our layers of fear and bias and bitterness, so that we might see a God who loves all people, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, not just with our kind of folks, but with all kind of folks.    

* * * * * * * * *

Gracious God, we can get upset about so many things and often our frustrations reflect how far away we are from your heart and passion. We care more about what gives us comfort than what breaks your heart. Show us how to love all people the way you love all people. Show us how to love this world, this creation, this earth, the way you love this earth. Help us to grow up so that we might become mature partners with you and serve as agents and missionaries and ambassadors of your steadfast love. Amen.  

Monday, January 26, 2015

Rick Warren's Conundrum (What if . . .)

Mega-church pastor, best-selling author, and evangelical icon, Rev. Rick Warren wrote the foreword to a book authored by Rabbi David J. Wolpe titled, Why Faith Matter (2008). Rev. Warren had this to say of Rabbi Wolpe,

This beautiful book is a gift to all of us. So much of what is published today about faith just rehashes warmed-over clich├ęs and feels out of touch with reality. In contrast, every page of this special volume has the smell of authenticity on it. . . . 

The closer I get to David Wolpe, the more I am impressed by this man of faith. As an author, religious teacher, professor, cancer victim, and television commentator, his unique contribution of experiences has given him a credible platform from which he presents the case that faith in God truly matters at this critical time in our world. 

Regardless of where you are in your own personal faith journey, I’m certain that his profound insights in this book will stimulate your thinking and even touch your soul about the reality of God in fresh and surprising ways.

This foreword by Warren is proudly advertised on the book’s front cover as a selling point: “Foreword by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life.”   

Of course, Rabbi Wolpe’s “faith in God” is not “faith in Jesus” which Warren believes is essential for salvation. In 2012 Warren was interviewed by ABC’s Jake Tapper and was asked if he believed that Jesus is the only way to heaven. Warren responded,

I do believe that. I believe that because Jesus said it. See, I don’t set myself as an authority. Jesus said I am the way. He didn’t say I’m one of the ways, he said I ‘m the way. I’m the truth. And I’m the way. I’m betting my life that Jesus wasn’t a liar.”

Next, Tapper observed that Warren was involved in a lot of Interfaith dialogue with friends of other faiths. He asked Warren,

Why would a benevolent God tell those friends of yours who are not evangelical Christians I’m sorry you don’t get to go to heaven?

Here’s how Warren sidestepped the question,

I don't think any of us deserve to go to heaven. I don't think any -- I think the only way any of us get into heaven is God's grace. Most of us think, well, if my good works are higher than my bad works than I'm going to kind of make it in.

And most of us want -- have enough works to get -- good works to get into heaven, but enough bad works to be fun. But the bottom line is God doesn't grade on a curve. People say, well, I'm better than so-and-so. You probably are. In fact, I have no doubt many non-believers are better than me in certain moral issues.

They probably are more -- have integrity or something like that. I'm not getting to heaven on my integrity. I'm not getting to heaven on my goodness. I'm getting to heaven on what I believe Jesus said is grace. And the fact is it's available to everybody.

Tapper was gracious and let it ride, refusing to press Warren to actually answer the question. Tapper then shifted to a lighter subject saying: “On Facebook we were asked to ask you do dogs go to heaven?”

I would have loved for Warren to have actually attempted to answer the question about his friends not making it to heaven. I would love to know how Warren can say what he says about Rabbi Wolpe, yet still believe that Rabbi Wolpe will be denied entrance to heaven?

The basic problem, as I see it, lies in how evangelical Christians like Warren understand Christian salvation. For most evangelicals like Warren salvation is primarily perceived as a legal, juridical transaction between the believer and God resulting in the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of heaven.

What if, instead of the way that view it now, evangelical Christians like Warren thought of salvation in terms of “healing” and “wholeness” and “liberation," as salvation is, in fact, primarily depicted in the Gospels?

What if evangelical Christians thought of salvation as a reclaiming of original blessing, rather than forgiveness for original sin?

What if evangelical Christians experienced salvation as a process of growth in love, rather than as a reward for believing a particular doctrine about Jesus?

Then Christians like Warren might actually experience the extravagance of a divine grace that reaches every person, not just those who conform to their belief system.

Then Christians like Warren would realize that they have already been forgiven, and have always been loved with an eternal love. Instead of worrying about believing the right things (and getting other people to believe the right things) in order to secure forgiveness and go to heaven, they could glory in a radical, unconditional forgiveness already theirs, accept their friends of other faiths as truly their sisters and brothers, and spend the rest of their days talking about how good God is.

Then Christians like Warren would not have to say one thing in the foreword of a book whose author is clearly his friend, and something completely different to his vast fan base who regard the author as an unbeliever destined for hell. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

One Question Fundamentalists Cannot Answer

For several years now I have been asking Christian fundamentalists and conservatives a question. I particularly like to address it to those who think I am “heretical” because my beliefs and teachings do not conform to their version of Christian orthodoxy.

Here’s the question: Why would God care more about what we believe about God, than how we live for God? Why would God care more about the beliefs we hold in our minds about God, Jesus, the Trinity, salvation, etc., than the way we actually love, care, and treat one another in our daily lives?  

Rarely does a fundamentalist/conservative even attempt to offer some rational explanation. Generally, they respond in one of three ways:

1. Some shout louder: “You are denying the truth!” “That’s the wrong question to ask!” “The question has no bearing on what is true!” They respond with accusations and denials, and never get around to actually wrestling with the question.

2. Others simply quote Bible verses or recite the talking points of doctrines they believe.

3. A few try to approach it rationally, but never really respond to the question directly. (For example, they usually say something about God’s holiness demanding that Jesus die in our place and that we have to believe in him, that is, accept substitutionary atonement, which, in the end, amounts to nothing more than a recitation of a doctrine they think essential for salvation.)

And still the question waits and lingers . . .

The reason no fundamentalist can reasonably answer the question is because no reasonable answer exists. No answer makes sense based on common sense, reason, human dignity, and our best intuitive sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and of most value. So about all they can do is quote the Bible, deny the importance of the question, cling to their creed, and stumble around it the best they can.

These responses suggest to me that these Christians are so completely locked into their belief systems that they have relinquished all responsibility for self-critique. They are, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to question, probe, and sincerely struggle with their faith. They settle for a second-hand faith that offers them security (heaven when they die), comfort (God is on their side), and feelings that they are really special (they have the truth).

I think many fundamentalists who are most ardent in their attempts to win/convert others into their system of belief engage in such activity as a defense mechanism. It’s a way of keeping all their repressed and denied fears, anxieties, and insecurities at bay.

True religion is not about believing doctrines. It’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way God loves everyone and everything.

It is much easier to believe doctrines, perform rituals, and enforce policies than actually live in union with God and allow God’s love to fill and overflow in our lives. 

Living in union with God means letting go of our egoism, pride, and false attachments to power, prominence, and possessions. It means letting go of our need to control, label, judge, and create “in” and “out” groups. It means confronting the status quo, challenging false and unjust systems, working for the common good, and extending compassion and mercy to all.

Union with Divine Love means change and who wants to do that? It's so much easier to make one's salvation and one's moral and religious obligations hinge on beliefs and rituals.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Our Sense of God Is Not God

Gerald May is the author of a wonderful book titled, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. May seeks to expound for contemporary spiritual seekers the spirituality of the great Christian mystics, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Here is what he says about our “sense” of God:

“I remember having an almost continual sense of God’s presence as a very small child. The feeling receded as I grew older and other things occupied my attention. Later in life, when I embarked on my intentional ‘spiritual journey,’ I realized how much I had missed that feeling of continual companionship. I sought to recover in in prayer and meditation, and prayed for it to return. I experienced the Holy [God, the Divine, the Really Real, the Sacred, the living Christ, use whatever term you prefer] through other people, through nature, in many other mediated ways. [This is how we most often experience God, namely, through some sort of mediation. When we experience God through the story of Jesus, we experience God through a mediator.] But what I longed for was that old nonmediated, immediate sense of direct, palpable relationship. I searched and prayed for it for nearly twenty-five years. Then, when I was very sick as a result of cancer chemotherapy, it came back to me. And since then, that sense of presence has never left me. I can feel it anywhere, anytime. All I have to do is turn my attention toward it. I love it and surely would hate to lose it. It’s the answer to a very long prayer. But I know it is not God. It is only a sense of God. I don’t think I make an idol of it, so I don’t imagine it will need to be taken away. If at some point I do lose it again, I hope I will be given the wisdom to continue to trust God in the absence of any sense of God.”

Do you hear what he is saying? One’s sense of God is not God. These senses, feelings, experiences of God vary with the ebb and flow of life, but God is always Love, God is always present, and we are always in union with God, regardless to what degree we experience or sense this union. This deeper awareness that goes beyond feelings, beyond the sense of God, is faith. It is trust beyond feelings, beyond experience. It is a gift. It cannot be manufactured or magically conjured up. But we can ask for it and be open to it.

May explains why we do not have more experiences of God than we do. It is because God is both too close and too far. The theological words here are immanence and transcendence. On the one hand, we are at one with God. God is too intimate to be an object separate from one’s self. This is why when we are most in touch with our true selves we are in touch with God, because our nature is fused with the Divine. The writer of 2 Peter talks about our being partakers of the divine nature. God is so close, we cannot distinguish God from ourselves. On the other hand, God is beyond our capacity to comprehend and so too ultimate to be an object we can grasp or hold on to.

So, for most of our waking lives we can only really experience the things of God, like beauty, generosity, compassion, gratitude, honesty, vulnerability, humility, integrity, all of which are facets of love.

This is why that when we open ourselves to love, when we love well, we are most open to experiences of God. 1 John 4:7-8 puts it this way: “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Where Is God? (A Sermon from John 1:1-18 explaining why it is not necessary to believe that Jesus is God)

John’s prologue is actually a poem that introduces major themes that will be developed in the unfolding of the story that follows. It is a beautiful poem about the mystery of incarnation.

I love the story about two mischievous boys, Tommy the oldest, Jimmy his little brother. One summer the two boys became quite popular in their community, but not in a good way. Families were waking up to lawns covered in toilet paper. One lady who liked to hang up her laundry to dry found a dead rat hanging next to one of her clean sheets. Something had to be done. So a few members of the community went to the pastor of the church where the boys and their parents attended; the pastor also lived in the neighborhood. “Pastor,” they said, “would you have a talk with the boys.” He reluctantly agreed.

A couple of days later he looked out his living room window and saw Tommy, the oldest, walking up the street. He stepped out of his front door and motioned for Tommy to come inside. Since this was his pastor and he trusted him, he conceded though he was certainly curious why the pastor wanted to talk to him. The Pastor decided to initiate the conversation with a probing question. So he asked, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy made no response. The pastor asked again . . . again no response. Then a third time with emphasis . . . Tommy raced out the door, down the street, into his house, zipping past his little brother, into his room, and slammed the door. Jimmy had never seen his brother in such a state and decided to see what was going on.

Inside his brother’s room, he noticed the closet door slightly ajar – closed but not all the way. He crept over and just as he started to open it wider, a hand reached out and plucked him out of the air, “Quick, Jimmy, get in here. God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”

Let me ask you that question: Where is God? If you were having a religious conversation over coffee and someone asked you that question how would you respond? This poem, I think, has something profound to say about that.

This poem does not say that Jesus existed in the beginning with God. It says that the Word – the Greek word here is Logos – existed in the beginning with God. Jesus Is not introduced until verse 14 and is not named until verse 17.

So what did John mean by the Logos? Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible and other Jewish literature most likely would have understood this image in three ways. One, they would have connected the Logos to the creative word in Genesis one where God speaks creation into existence. Two, they would likely have made a connection with the revelatory word of the prophets who often claimed to deliver a revealing word of the Lord. And three, they would have identified the Logos with Divine Wisdom.

In ancient Jewish literature and in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) Divine Wisdom was sometimes personified (symbolized) as a woman who, among other things, was God’s partner and helper in creation. For example, in the book of Proverbs the Divine Wisdom is symbolized (personified) as a woman who “cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice” to offer instruction (Prov. 2:22). This is what interpreters are referring to when they use the term “Sophia” as a translation for this feminine personification of divine wisdom.

In Proverbs 8 “Sophia”/Lady Wisdom is present when God creates the heavens and the earth. Sophia says: “When God established the heavens I was there . . . when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limits . . . when he marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.” This sounds very similar to the poetic language employed in the John’s prologue doesn’t it? 

So, then, according to John, the Logos – the creative, revelatory word of Divine Wisdom becomes incarnate – embodied in flesh and blood – in Jesus of Nazareth. John says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14). John is saying that the creative, revelatory wisdom of God became incarnate in Jesus who is named in verse 17: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

So Jesus, as the Logos incarnate, becomes the model, the archetype who incarnates through his body and soul, through his words and deeds, the creative, transforming wisdom of God. This is why we Christians can talk about Jesus being the face of God (not literally of course, but symbolically), because Jesus reveals the character and nature of God – Jesus shows us what God is like.

This beautiful poem is the interpretative key to the rest of the Gospel of John. For example in John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” In light of the prologue, John 14:6 does not mean that one has to believe certain things about Jesus in order to know God. What it means is that one has to give oneself to the things that Jesus embodied in order to know God. One must give oneself to the grace and truth and love Jesus embodied/incarnated in order to know God. To love selflessly and sacrificially the way Jesus loved is to know God, regardless of what one actually believes about Jesus.

To believe in Jesus in John’s Gospel is not about believing doctrines or propositional statements about Jesus. To believe in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the grace and truth and love of God which Jesus revealed, expressed, and incarnated as the Logos, the living Word. True religion is not about believing doctrines; it’s about falling in love with God and learning how to love everyone and everything the way Gods loves everyone and everything. That’s true faith and true religion. And we Christians are not going to help the cause of God in the world until we get that right – namely, that God wants us to do the right things (like loving our neighbor as ourself) much more than God cares about our believing the right things.

Now, what is true of Jesus is true of us or can be true of us, because the Logos, the Light and Life that came to expression in Jesus abides in us. Jesus models what can be true for all of us, because the Divine Life resides in us. The light and life that is the Logos dwells in us and longs to be incarnate in us and through us the way it was incarnate in and through Jesus.

John says in verses 4-5 that the Logos “was the light of all people” and it “shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” – it shines not only in the world in the person of Jesus, it shines in the darkness of our own hearts and souls. This “true light” says John in verse 9 “enlightens everyone.” This is why, as John says in verse 12, we have the power to become children of God. Each one of us has residing in us the Life, Power, and Wisdom of God that can empower us to live as God’s daughters and sons in the world. The very life, power, and wisdom of God abides in you and me.

Why did we need the particular incarnation of the life, wisdom, and power of God in the person of Jesus, if this life, wisdom, and power is available to all of us? Because we needed to see this lived out in flesh and blood. We needed a model, an example, a visible and tangible representation and mediator of this Divine Life lived out among us, and so “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

I believe that the uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation is unique only in terms of degree. What you believe about Jesus in terms of his divinity is irrelevant. How you incarnate the Life that found expression in Jesus is what matters. The incarnation of God in Jesus is the incarnation God wants to see in all of God’s children.  

This is what John means, by the way, when he talks about possessing “eternal life” or simply “life.” To possess eternal life is to allow the life of God, the Logos of God, the transforming power, the self-revealing character, and the paradoxical wisdom of God to find a home in us, to creatively dwell and be embodied in our lives and relationships. That’s what it means to possess “life.”

In John 10 Jesus is attacked by the religious leaders for “making himself God.” They want to stone him. In response Jesus doesn’t deny the claim nor does he defend it. He invites them into the same unitive experience he enjoyed by quoting Psalm 82:6. The text reads in John 10:34-36:

Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? [He is quoting the Psalmist who described human beings as gods] If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – [Jesus accepts the Psalmist’s depiction of human beings as “gods”; Jesus accepts that in some sense this is true] can you say that the one whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?”

Jesus is arguing: If scripture says that human beings are gods, then why are you upset with me because I said I am God’s Son? Jesus is basically arguing that the divine union he experienced with God is God’s intent and design for every human being. He invites them to believe that he is in the Father and the Father is in him and this union with the Divine is true of them as well, they just have to claim it and live in the reality of it. As a result of this interchange the Jewish leaders tried to arrest Jesus. And basically this is how the structures and systems of Christendom have reacted to this message both in the past and the present.

The power structures of religion (this is true of Christianity as well as any other religion) would rather have doctrines to believe, rituals to perform, and policies to enforce, rather than actual union with God. Because actual union with God would mean letting go of our incessant need to control and label and judge and create “in” groups and “out” groups. To be in union with God is to allow the Love of God to fill and overflow in our lives. Being in union with God means allowing the light of God’s grace and truth to expose our dark, hidden parts. It means letting go of our egoism and pride and our false attachments to power, prominence, and possessions. Union with Divine Love means change and who wants to do that?

So let me end where I started. Where is God? Is God up there somewhere in the great Beyond? No, sisters and brothers. The great Beyond is Within. If one of the goals (if not the goal) of Christian spirituality is to be like Jesus, then union with God the way Jesus experienced union with God is not some empty wish upon a star; it really is a human possibility. Sisters and brothers, we are both children of heaven and children of earth, flesh and spirit, divine and human. We are a living paradox, just as Jesus was. Don’t go looking for God up there, look for God in here and let the transforming power, will, and wisdom of God become incarnate in you.  

* * * * * * * * * *  

Our good God, it seems too good to be true, that you have taken on human nature, not just in the one we call Messiah and Lord, but in our very hearts, minds, and souls – that your Spirit infuses our spirit. Give us the faith to believe it and claim it. Show us how to be in tune with you, to allow your love and truth and grace to shine forth, to materialize in our bodies, in our work and play, in the way we react and relate to one another, in the habits we develop and in our attitudes and motivations. May the living Word, your transforming power, your self-revealing nature, and your wisdom, find expression in and through our bodies and souls. Amen.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Keeping Hope Alive


One way to read the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple in Luke 2:22-40 is to read it as a story about keeping hope alive. Simeon and Anna, both prophets, were well along in years. For many years they had been waiting for “the redemption of Israel” and for God’s salvation “prepared in the presence of all peoples” as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” In eschatological terms they were looking for a world of peace and restorative justice, a world healed and put right.

This is what the early Christians were longing for when they talked about the second coming of Jesus. They were looking for a new world order of equity and equality (Gal. 3:28), in essence “a new creation” (Gal. 6:15; 2 Cor. 5:17). The early Christians employed the language of “apocalyptic” to talk about this new world, which is the language of poetry, of metaphor and symbol, of exaggeration (hyperbole).

Some Christians think that God will intervene at some point in the human struggle to bring about this new world. Other Christians think it will come about through the collaborative, cooperative work of human beings as they work with each other (and with the Spirit) to bring it about. I align with this latter group, if indeed, the kingdom of God will ever be realized fully in this world. Sometimes I wonder.

In terms of our spiritual and moral evolution as a species we can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution seems to be outpacing our spiritual and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. We have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, even local organizations, can become pervaded by injustice and evil.

How do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? That our lives have meaning and purpose? That we can contribute to a more just, loving, peace-seeking society?

I do not have answers, but I can offer a few suggestions based on my own faith journey. One way I nurture hope is through the discipline of quiet. I set aside time to simply be with God and listen to God. I believe prayer is much more about listening for the Divine whisper than asking God for stuff - even good stuff. It’s primarily about being tuned in to the passion for love and goodness that is the essence of the Divine.

When I am in solitude my intent is to simply be with God, to give God my time. If nothing happens, if I fall asleep, if my mind wanders, I don’t beat myself up. Sometimes I hear God speak in those wanderings. Many times I can’t say anything happens at all. But somehow these times of solitude help keep my life oriented around a greater God and a greater good (what Jesus called the kingdom of God). Life changes from good to bad, and from bad to good all the time. The important thing is to have a Center (a greater Some One and a greater cause) that helps us to keep it all in perspective.

Another way to cultivate hope is by refusing to give up on the relationships and practices that can sustain us through difficult times – even in those times where we may be feeling the weight of the world. This can be as simple as maintaining connection with a faith community.

Spiritual writer Joan Chittister tells about the last year of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. when she, as a young person, was quarantined with sixteen other people. One woman cried incessantly day and night. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very alone. One day, a man in a wheelchair came rolling in her room inviting her to join their wheelchair races. She said,

“Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.”                                                                       The Sacred In-Between, p. 71 
Being faithful to the practice of community may be very difficult when we feel so bad, and yet this is one of the practices that can help keep hope alive.

One final suggestion: Do for others. We can give some of our stuff away. We can try to encourage someone every day. We can be kind. We can take the time to listen to someone’s story and empathize with their feelings. We can work to correct some injustice. In these ways, we can tangibly and personally participate in a story much larger than our little stories, and break the hold egoism often has over us. We are, of course, limited in time and resources, but each of us can do something for the good of others.

It is important to remind ourselves daily that our attitudes and actions have consequences. We can pollute the world with negativity or we can strive to make things better. After Jesus instructed a religious leader to love his neighbor as himself (which he illustrated with the parable of the Good Samaritan who went out of his way to help an enemy) Jesus said, “Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). This is how we say “yes” to life.

Our attitudes and actions can foster despair, or they can nurture hope. By committing ourselves to do good to others, to sow seeds of compassion and mercy, to work for fairness and the common good, especially for the disadvantaged and the most vulnerable, we are choosing life over death and we are choosing to keep hope alive.

Sometimes I wonder how it works: If people first give up and then a cloud of hopelessness descends, or if people first lose hope and then give up. Maybe it works both ways. What I do know is that if we want to be hopeful, then we need to be faithful. We can’t give up. We must keep listening for the still, small Voice. We must keep engaging in the practices and relationships that can sustain our lives. And we must break the power of the ego and the temptation toward negativity by doing for others, giving to others, and investing in a greater cause than our own self-interest.