Thursday, December 20, 2018
There are two forces in the world that affect our human decisions and our motives. We know them as the political operations of the world and the spiritual operations of the heaven. They are constantly driving us and competing for our loyalty, but as Jesus says you cannot serve God and mammon. (He could have easily said, “You cannot serve God and Politics”) You must choose. Paul even addresses the issue with the following statement, “Jesus made inoperative the principalities and powers of this world.” His point being that we called upon to prioritize between Jesus’ way of life and a political way of life. What do we do? How are we to live amidst the two forces? We have a better idea of this battle and how to choose when we understand what both operations are trying to do in this world. Strangely Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus helps us to glean the purpose of both. In his telling of the story he exposes the motives of the political world and its assault on the life of the lowly of the world, and what God is trying to do in the world.
So what is the operation of politics? It is actually a very good word highlighting the purpose of the state to govern the communities it is responsible for. It is meant to express the desires of people to make decisions for the welfare of the state. It first came into existence during the Athenian Democracy. But what happened over the years in Athens and then throughout the centuries is that those rising to power didn’t want to give up power and they began to shape the political purpose instead of the people. Therefore, politics is a vulnerable operation that needs the voice of the many, but usually only receives the voice of the few. It makes it susceptible to corruption and moves against the spiritual sphere of life to quiet its voice.
In the subtle telling of the story of Jesus’ birth Luke exposes the operation of the political strategy of Rome. Luke says when Mary was pregnant, Quirinius, under obligation to Augustus, calls for a census of the people in Israel and other nations. They needed to put together an evaluation of tax income so it was determined that a census was necessary to provide this information. You can imagine it became a burden on the populace. The poor who did not live in their own place of birth had to travel, and travel was expensive. But for the wealthy it was not. The state did not care about the poor or the economically challenged. They just wanted to know the number. The spiritual sphere of kindness was under assault. The rich had their way of getting off the hook, but the poor had no power. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem miles away from where they lived. Politics, instead of helping all its citizens, burdened them and their livelihood and personal life. Mary had to go while being pregnant. Politics may be necessary but when it is governed by indifference it does not help.
Luke continues with his story and tells of the divine announcement which was not to the powerful but to the lowly. The divine voice often moves the insignificant of the world and then makes them the ones who will hold the truth for those who want to believe. Politics can drown out the voice of the spiritual but it will always be carried by those who walk humbly in the world. The shepherds came running to Bethlehem but I wonder if the powerful would have done so. It is not that the political sphere is against the spiritual, according to Luke, it is just indifferent to its purpose. But Luke, and eventually Jesus himself, proclaims that the real life of the citizens of this world is lived outside the world of politics. We live in the world of the spiritual.
We will never live in a world without politics; that is the ordering of communities by a constitution driven by the powerful. It will always be imperfect and at times will be indifferent to the needs of all its citizens. What we can hope for is that the world of the spiritual will continue to affect the hearts of both citizens and leaders to bend their actions to God’s will. But what Luke reminds us of is that it is the humble who God entrusts with the Good News of salvation. That is a hopeful thing. God chooses the weak of the world to confound the wise. God chooses the lowly of the world to bend the knees of the proud. I love the way Luke describes the response of the Shepherds after hearing the news of the child born in Bethlehem, “Let’s go and see this thing the Lord has done.” No skepticism, no indifference and no ambivalence. In fact the original language suggests that they ran to Bethlehem. They couldn’t wait. The Angel’s excited them with their message. They were not only excited for themselves, they were excited for the world. The Messiah will come and bend the knee of all by his glory, not his message of fear. Politics will not be able to use his coming for its own ends, because the embrace of the message will expose the indifference of power for what it is. Instead the child will attempt to bring the world together, “I am bringing you good news of great joy to the entire world. Today is born to you a savior.”
Friday, December 14, 2018
We are moving thirty years ahead from the Wise-Men’s trip to Bethlehem where they came to pay tribute to the baby Jesus. We find ourselves beside a stream with a man that has taken up the vocation of a prophet, in the spirit of Isaiah and Elijah. He is rough and stern. He demands transparency from those that come to him confessing and demanding baptism of purification. He warns them that the day of judgment is coming but that God is merciful. He goes on to tell them that being a child of Abraham is not enough to escape God’s eventual judgment. God is going to judge us from the heart and not by our ethnicity. He also tells them that one is coming to baptize them with the Holy Spirit which is much stronger and purer than what he is offering. In other words, they are in the vortex, the crucible of danger and they need to repent from their dishonorable ways. John the Baptist proclaims a message of preparation while being a formidable advocate for God and for the coming new world.
Why does Matthew draw us into this story on the heels of Jesus’ birth? It is simple. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world is now on the brink of becoming real. The child is now coming into his own. He comes to John the Baptist demanding that John would baptize him. But why? Why would the chosen child need baptism? It is a complicated question, but it is a part of his purpose. Jesus is not coming to judge others; he is coming to love and let the love judge the hearts of others. John’s words burn with fear and apocalyptic intention. But when John says, “he will baptize with the Holy Spirit”, he is announcing a different kind of reason for repentance. That reason is that Jesus’ message will burn the hearts of people with his offer of love instead of his message of hellfire. Both have their place but Jesus wants to save people from themselves so they will be able to see God through a different prism.
Jesus’ purpose is to bring redemption to the world. John is rounding up all those who would listen to him. He pronounced a future where God will sift people through his truth and there will be people who will be found wanting. When religious leaders would come he wasn’t really excited. Before they came to offer their repentance he said, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His point was unless you change your behavior you will have no part of this new redemptive world. Don’t count on being a Jew to save you. Those days are over.
This message is a far cry from the stories of Jesus’ birth that are filled with hope. There are no angels announcing “peace on earth” to people of good will in John’s message. Even when he announces “the one coming that is greater than I” it seems as though he is presenting someone who will be more exacting in their judgment on others. But what do the words mean “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Redemption is not complete unless people change. Confession is not enough. By baptizing people in the Holy Spirit Jesus is opening up their hearts through the spirit of truth. The Holy Spirit is truth. What John is getting at and what Jesus demonstrates is the building of a community that is based on humility. The spirit of truth stands before them and they are judged by their own convictions. In this way Jesus’ judgment is greater than John’s. It is also more impactful in the world. By Jesus creating people that stand under their own judgment through the spirit of truth the world then has a chance at peace.
We all know from experience that when we are confronted with the depth of our sinful self, realizing the pain we have caused, we are our most exacting judges. The gift of the spirit is the gift of life because it is the gift of freedom. So John is right that Jesus’ judgment in some way is more powerful. His judgment comes with the possibility of real change in people’s lives and therefore opens up the possibility of the experience of redemption here and now. After all, redemption is the experience that our sins are forgiven. The spirit of truth is not only revelatory but it is healing as well. When the spirit comes into our life we not only hear the words of condemnation, but we hear the words of forgiveness. Thus begins a life of renewal and hope. This is the purpose of the Christ child. He brings peace on earth because he brings truth and forgiveness.
Friday, November 16, 2018
The world received a new chance in Noah. Not only has God decided not to destroy the world again, but God also made a covenant with Noah to protect and enhance justice in the course of human relationships. There is a new hope that humanity will improve its place in the world creating relationships of goodness, grace and forgiveness. But in just a few pages of this new history things fall apart.
Most of the stories in Genesis are character sketches of individual of faith. In them God places trust, confidence and covenant. It is through these important people that God’s plan and judgment is revealed to the people of God. But in the story of the Tower of Babel the narrator steps back to look at the cultural landscape after Noah to see a dangerous pattern developing.
The migration of the mass of people continued east until they came to a large plain with everything they needed. Instead of setting up an altar to God they decided to build a tower to rival the heavens. They wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted admiration, power and security which they would get themselves without the help of any divine power. By their striving and willful self-reflection they desired fame, unity and political strength against God. They wanted what Adam and Eve wanted---freedom. But what they received was punishment.
God’s response to this new endeavor of humanity was not affirming. God saw it not as a rivalry, but as a dangerous experiment that will end in evil. God says, “Soon they will be able to do anything they desire.” God’s meaning is clear. The same behavior and violence that was in the world during Noah’s era will soon return with a vengeance here in the land of Shinar. However, unlike the world during Noah’s time this world is organized. They have teams of laborers and elites who tell them what to do. The leaders are providing the message which is one of power, freedom and security against anything outside themselves. They will soon exclude, demonize and abuse people who do not come under their shared vision.
What made their attempt at becoming this powerful nation so dangerous was that they all had the same language. They shared the same internal ways of interpreting the world through this common language, and were able to communicate with the same understanding of their experience. This common use of language was a powerful tool to build unity, which could be a good thing. But in the hands of those that use it to build a fortress of exclusion and justified abuse against others, it turns devilish. For this nation of people “sameness means rightness and power.”
This, of course, is an old sin of the communities of the world. Diversity, while it may be publically tolerated, is internally unacceptable and fearful and must be eliminated. We even have a word for this---stranger. The word comes from the naming of others who are different as strange. Once we are able to use this label with complete acceptance in the community then we are able to discriminate, exclude and even worse. God saw this inevitability as harmful and shameful. Instead of destroying the world God took the opportunity to scramble their languages. In fact the word used in Genesis is “confuse.” God’s intent was to bring confusion into the experience of the world through language for the purpose of avoiding more abuse, and the possibility that humanity will find tolerance instead of hate. But God created anxiety and fear to establish a dependent experience.
In Jesus the world was opened up to a new vision of tolerance and righteousness. Through his ministry we have all learned that those we have labeled as not worthy are worthy in God’s eyes. Therefore to walk in the vision of God we must learn how to see others as worthy as well. Jesus ate with those others saw as sinners, evil and unworthy. He was called out for it, but it didn’t stop him. He continued to show the heart of God to the victims of communities that say, “sameness is rightness.”
Then on a day when Israel celebrated a festival called Pentecost, the world was given an opportunity to share in God’s vision for the world. After the resurrection the disciples went out to preach, having received the power of the Holy Spirit, when something unique happened. Those from every nation were able to understand what Peter was saying. God had broken down the walls of language which God created to stop the possibility of harm to others. Now he is restoring common understanding through the Spirit. They were one in God, but only through the Spirit. Under the direction of the Spirit and in the guidance of God we are made one. We are an invisible Kingdom without walls with a mission to break down more walls of indifference derived from the faulty ideologies based on that evil assumption that “sameness is rightness.”
Friday, November 9, 2018
Noah’s story was not that of an old man who built a boat, but of a man who built a whole new world alongside and after an evil and corrupted one. Vigilance, cunning and an endless expenditure of energy and faith were needed to maintain his place in the world. Noah faced a world filled with people engaged in the lust for power, which they used to force and intimidate those around them. Their evil divided the world corrupting any decency they might have had. They became leaders over groups of people building a society that was devoid of justice but a kind of servitude to the heroes of the world.
He faced a world that didn’t temper their actions through knowledge of God in which justice and love were part of their consciousness. They instead confirmed if their actions were right by the rules of survival and need of the leader who brought fear to every person.
He faced a world that had grown up on lies because they had negated the truth. Justice was defined as fulfilling my need. Anyone who took that away from the group deserved punishment. All this negation led to violence.
For years Noah found a way to live among this system of abuse and evil. To do this he not only needed to be courageous, fearless, but he needed to be wise. He had to show he was not a threat to them while proving that they needed him in some way. The only way he and his family could have survived was through the constant spiritual direction from God. Noah managed a life among people who had lost their sensibility toward others, and used violence as a means to settle disputes, which perpetuated the illusion of righteousness by excluding others from their community.
In the midst of all this chaos Noah also managed to build a ship. He, also, built a life of integrity with God and others. He built a family with this same integrity while he built this ark. He stepped out of his role as a farmer and rancher to spend his time building a boat. I don’t think they had invented the term “mid-life crisis” during his era but I am sure they had a similar word for him, as he began this project. He became a man who was on the outside, even with his family. He was the man in his garage tinkering all day trying to build something nobody understands, like a computer, software program or an invention that no one see’s the relevance of. Therefore, his courage was not only his ability to negotiate his neighbors evil but his families’ ridicule, as well.
This is the side of Noah we know well. But he was also a man of sacred understanding. He is not only a man of action he is a man of silence and quiet before God. During his voyage he was alive to all the necessary tasks to maintain life on the boat. Animals, family and damage to the boat needed to be attended to. There was little time, most likely, for worship or prayer with the kind of silence and intensity he was used to. But when they landed, the waters receded and it was safe to get off the boat. The first thing he did was to build an altar to worship God.
It was time to show his gratitude, take time to listen to his own heart and to listen for the redemptive purpose of God. He was not interested in God’s new ethical demands for this new world, he was most likely interested in what God’s purpose was for him and this new world. He needed to listen as best he could in the silence of worship to figure out how to live out his life. As a man of action he figured out how to survive; as a man of sacredness he needed to figure out where God was walking in this world and follow him.
Being grateful reveals our inward understanding of God’s gifts to us. The reason for building the altar was to allow this inward understanding of God to show itself. Noah did not build this altar because of duty, but because he felt an overwhelming desire to stand before God in the most humble way he knew how. The narrator said that God was pleased with Noah’s worship. God was so overtaken by Noah’s heart reaching out in hope, God promised never to destroy the earth again even though the human heart is filled with evil. Noah’s vulnerable and open heart reached God’s heart touching it with the gratitude of a man who loved God above all things. God wanted to protect that genuine heart, therefore God promised never to destroy the earth and then instilled the basic covenants of justice that would guide humanity to more honorable relationships.
Behind justice and mercy for every living thing stands the necessity of worship. In order for our hearts to remain open and turned to the world with grace we first need to be silent before God. We need to build our altar in whatever fashion we like. For some it is sitting on a patio, walking down the street, sitting in our car or standing on top of a hill. Whatever altar you build it must be visited for it to be the kind of reminder useful for spiritual development.
We cannot afford to be like many leaders in the Old Testament who built altars for the people but never visited them. When this happens we forget our purpose. Paul reminds us of this truth when he says in Romans 12:1-2, “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Present yourselves as living sacrifices unto God which is your reasonable worship.” The only way to maintain our spiritual perspective is to visit our altars which then remind us of where we are and where we are going.
Friday, November 2, 2018
Christian inwardness is our chance to throw off the less than spiritual forces in us and put on the power of the spiritual goodness of God.
The world is becoming less compassionate and sensitive to the lives of others says one of our leading sociologists. This insensitivity arises from a kind of moral blindness created by an acquiescence to what we call normal. Instead of reaching beyond the banality of the world to our created purpose we accept the easy way. We were created in the image of God to care for each other and the world; yet we seem to be getting in the way of following that divine purpose. We don’t seem to have time for God, let alone the other people in our lives. The driving force behind this ever increasing loss of the other is our own selfishness. This is not new in the world of relationships, it has haunted us from the very beginning of our consciousness. Adam and Eve, as our historical and abiding parents, reveal to us that our problem is rooted in our own desires. These desires, most of the time, turn to fulfilling the self alone, not the needs of the other. It is difficult for us to get out of the way of our own self to find our true selves in God.
When we enter into prayer we must lose ourselves in this encounter in order to benefit from the relationship. We must be honest, open and authentic in this encounter with God to have any chance of speaking to us in the silence. We must get out of the way in order to come away from our time with God a changed person. The change that God is looking for in us is to become more aware of who God is and what God wants. From Jesus we know that God wants us to embrace the lost, the victims, the suffering of this world. God wants us to become more compassionate by losing our self in the divine wisdom and mercy. Selfishness prevents us from benefiting from our encounters with God. When we continue to allow our mind to control our prayer life with thoughts of what we want alone, then God can only speak to us in yes or no language. This limits God’s ability to speak to us in the silence. We push God into a corner without entrance into our life.
Dietrich Bonheoffer writes in 1942, “A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me.” When we forget that our prayers are to reach beyond our inner walls of separation we remain selfish, instead of a selfless expression of what Jesus calls us to be. The prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane continues to teach us the real heart of prayer. In the garden he is wrestling with his destiny, his purpose in life. His suffering was because in following his purpose it meant his death. His struggles culminated in his cry to his Father, “Take this cup from me.” Like all of us who face such things, we would cry out to the one who can change the direction of our history. But Jesus wants something else more than his own life. He wants to do the will of God. So the last word was not “Take this cup from me,” but “Not my will but thy will be done.” This is not just a set of words that show respect to the power of God. This is a change of being in the world with God. His inner life and vision of the world is in step with God. This is the benefit of prayer in a world that is losing its sensitivity.
We are often led astray by the advice of Jesus and the apostles to ask God for what you want and he will be happy to grant it. Those who are true prayer warriors know that it is not all about asking, it is about stepping out of the way so you can hear and see where God is moving. Prayer as only asking becomes one sided because we only hear our own voice. That is why the Psalms must be reevaluated for more than just expressions of wants and gripes with God. They must be seen as the tensions of the self that is in danger of becoming the louder voice in the relationship. These prayers are not prescriptive for our behavior. They are the soundings of both the false self and the real self trying to come to grips with the presence of God. Therefore when the Psalmist demands of God to kill his enemies or to make their enemies suffer, he is acting from that selfish part of his inner world that needs to be heard but then also healed. The worshippers are called on to sing and pray these liturgical writings, not to put them into practice by killing their enemies, but to bring the pain behind these words to God and wait for healing.
Prayer is a wrestling with God, as Jacob did, but it is also a wrestling with ourselves. We are called upon through the process of prayer to get out of the way so God can have his way. Prayer is drawing closer to God and those around us. Compassion and sensitivity are the end result of this wrestling.
Friday, October 26, 2018
Most people want to be loved and want to give love back. But history is filled with the stories of tragic stories of those that tried to give their love but, within the process of giving, they failed in reaching their desired purpose. They instead were mocked or dismissed. Upon this knowledge they feel lost and unwanted. We miss giving the very thing that is worth giving away. But why do we miss this opportunity when we know that it is what we want to do? When we know that giving this one precious gift will add to our life and to those we give it? The useful and truthful answer is that our understanding of our self and our flirtation with our image is the ultimate obstacle, as well as the indifference of others. Some may say that it is our upbringing, our tragic experiences or even our biology. But this observation seeks to dismiss those that do not show love because we were not given the capacity by nurture or biology. I don’t want to diminish those that struggle with illness and damaged psyches, but encourage all of us that with God all things are possible. If this is the case, then we can’t be fatalists who tragically call God into question for making us with these flaws and the misguidedness of giving. Love is a free act that must be measured by the sacrifice we offer it and the hope it produces.
Paul, the Apostle, says, “Love does not seek its own.” To say it another way, “Love’s obstacle is an obsession that is hindered by the self—our false self---that tries to engage the faces of culture instead of the face of God.” When we are working on how we look before others through the template of cultural protocols we miss the genuine presence and life of the other. Instead we are thinking about how we look before others. When this is our major concern all our relationships are tainted with concern for our own image. We are called to get over this practice of obsessing on our false self for the practice of finding the true self in others and in ourselves. When we can’t get over ourselves we are unable to see the real person in front of us. We need a new spiritual focus to overcome this constant habit.
Jesus and Paul’s teachings on love understand that love is an inward movement before it is an outward display. Both point to the need for an inward change in our self perception before we can properly move to a relationship of mutuality and trust. In order to do this our first relationship of change must be with God. Before we can truly extend the love of God and our love to others we must first be educated by the only true teacher---God. Our relationship with God educates us toward recognizing and embracing the uniqueness of others. When we begin to see the other’s distinctiveness and not judge it, we are moving from our false self into a truer perception of the world.
We see Jesus take his listeners through this education process in two important stories. First, there is the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. These two men, that don’t see one another but instead have their own inward concerns, go up to the Temple to live out their religious duty. Neither one has a spiritual concern for the other, but both have their own interests in what is happening. The Pharisee has his religious concern and pride about who he is in relation to others. He does not see others for their distinctiveness but sees them only in comparison to himself. He cannot love the Tax Collector because he really cannot see him. His time with God has not proven to be a valuable experience. He has not become a person who can love others. The Tax Collector cannot see the Pharisee either because he is concerned about finding God in his inward self. His relationship with the world cannot be established yet because he needs to engage God and be educated.
Both these men have turned inward. But the Pharisee did so to elevate himself over others. He operates from his false self that he has received from his culture’s promise of admiration. The Tax Collector has moved inward in order to shed the falseness and destructiveness of his life. He knows that it can only be done through a relationship with God. His repentance is his desire to be educated by the one true teacher. Therefore, he is in a position to actually love once his education is complete.
The other story is the Prodigal Son. The Father sees the son as someone worth loving. In order to do this he must put out of his mind all the other voices from the community and his family. He doesn’t allow any of them to be obstacles to loving his son. His inward journey has resulted in accepting what is true about God and what is true about his son. From this experience the son has a chance to change his perception of himself and others.
The process of being able to love is what John was trying to convey to his church in his letter I John 4:13-16. He says, “My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”
Friday, October 19, 2018
I’m always amazed that Jesus pressures his audience and his disciples to accept some new level of direction for living. He never lets you rest in some banal or cozy concept of life, he pushes forward to a greater capacity to see life in some exciting way, in God’s way. For instance, life is not just finding happiness; it is finding a way through the hang-ups and spiritually oppressive dimensions of life to find freedom. He is never complicated, but always simple. He doesn’t make you jump through mental puzzles but presents this new life simply. He says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” It is up to us to figure out what he means by “self” and “deny” however. All we have to do is reflect on what it is we desire instead of God. Once we can imagine it and come to grips with it then we are in a position to contemplate our real selves. We can reach beyond our immediate concerns that trip us up. We can let go of the dreams that link us to dissatisfaction and failure, not to God.
To deny ourselves is not to hate ourselves but to love ourselves in God and our purpose. We are not to think that we need to get rid of all our worldly possessions and live without pleasure. We are to think about what it means to be a true self in the world. This can only be understood through the life of contemplation. We will miss Jesus’ call if we stay too long listening to the enticements that turn us to the satisfactions of life and not the hope of life. Contemplation breaks the dark spell of the spin of affirmation and admiration we seek in order to make us happy.
So much pain and suffering goes down the road of acquiring and seeking admiration. We are constantly disappointed in that adventure. I can’t help but think of the movie Citizen Kane in light of Jesus’ call to follow him. Here was a man with everything given to him. Somewhere in his life he wanted to do the right thing, he wanted to help humanity. But his inward life was so damaged by his childhood that he could not find a way for the emptiness of his to be filled by something other than power. His whole life was driven by this desire to be admired but it could never fill him up. He was constantly dissatisfied. At the end of his life all he wanted, amidst all his money and fame, was his childhood. The mysterious last words of his life reveal what he really wanted, but couldn’t get out of his way to get---his childhood. Of course his last words were---Rosebud. This was the name of his small sleigh that he used to ride in his happy moments of childhood. He couldn’t get off the road to fame; collecting things or his desire for admiration long enough to reflect on what it is that is important. We all have a bit of Citizen Kane in us, which is why Jesus says so clearly, “Take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.”
It would be a mistake to think that only a few people can achieve what Jesus requests. That it is only for the courageous and well disciplined that enter monasteries without the distractions of modern life. We would do a disservice to the hope of Jesus if we do. Jesus believed that anyone can turn their life around, deny themselves so they can follow Jesus with clarity and integrity. We can’t let ourselves off the hook by saying that Jesus only meant this for a few. He meant it for the economically challenged and the ones who have all they need. He meant it for the emotionally damaged and those who have more stable emotional life. There is no excuse for not pursuing his admonition to “Take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow him.” Saint Francis was not an extraordinary man in this regard; he was instead a humble man who followed the vision of Christ simply and beautifully. His story can become ours as well.
To deny ourselves can be understood as we look at the way Jesus lived his life. He lived his life according to the purpose he was called. In order to achieve his purpose he had to think outside the box of what it means to live in his beloved community and under the direction of God. To achieve his purpose he needed put aside the need to fulfill all the desires inside him. He needed to put aside seeking admiration of his fellow community, build his wealth and to think of his self before others. To do this he needed to discoverer his true self and his real purpose in life. Then he directed his life toward that purpose. This is our task as well. To deny ourselves is not to limit our pleasure, but to increase our pleasure in God.