Archive for December, 2013

JOHN 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

In many ways, the gospel of Jesus is the esoteric (inner-oriented) and spiritual fulfillment of the historical saga of biblical Judaism. If the fall of Adam removed our species from proximity to the tree of immortal life, so that we pain and hope for a life after death, the gospel of Jesus reveals the path back into Eden, to authentic life before (and hence also beyond) death.

If the journey of Abraham was across the geographical terrain of the ancient Near East, that of Jesus is across the spiritual landscape of the soul. If the mission of Moses was to gain the political freedom of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, the work of Jesus is to liberate the human spirit from the prison of guilt and fear. If the old Joshua led the way into the new frontier of the Promised Land, the New Joshua (the Hebrew form of the name Jesus) opened for us the higher frontier of freedom and love, the kingdom (or kin-dom) of God.

This means that there are two ways of looking at the same phenomenon of religion – according to its outward, external, and historical aspect; or its inward, subtle, and eternal aspect. It’s the difference between mythology and mysticism, religious ceremony and spiritual awakening, dogma and experience, logic and insight, worship of God and union with God.

These are not exclusive of one another, but neither should they be thought of as co-equal. The one is meant to be form to the other’s substance, body to its soul, house to its living presence. Nicodemus to its Jesus.

                                                                                            

The problem is that Nicodemus can’t understand Jesus, just as religion will never be able to understand spirituality. It will try. It will try to force its rigid nouns and logical rules over the intangible and elusive mystery of Spirit, but to no avail. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries; words just can’t define the indefinable, can’t capture the ineffable. The deep experience of Mystery simply cannot be translated into the boxes of language, however inspired.

Indeed, the harder Nicodemus tries to comprehend (literally, “to grasp”) Jesus, the more frustrated he is bound to become. This may very well account for the violence-prone desperation one finds in fundamentalist religions.

As Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth, Nicodemus is trying to imagine the gymnastics required to get a full-grown adult back into his mother’s womb for a second go at it. And when Jesus speaks of “eternal life” – literally a life with no beginning, life outside of time altogether – all that Nicodemus is likely to hear is only some formula for “everlasting life” (a life that never ends, and which remains stuck in time).

What Nicodemus needs is a transformed mind (metanoia, the Greek word that most frequently gets translated as “repentance”). His religious ritual of baptism, “being born of water,” must give way to the new creation within, where the inner self is infused by the Divine Mystery beyond.

“How can these things be?” the bishop asks in bewilderment. He will never understand.

ROMANS 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

If we take Abraham as an archetype (a controlling pattern) for understanding the dynamics and progress of faith, then his relationship to God in the period prior to the Law under Moses represents a connection more “primitive” and therefore also more universal than the kind that is defined and validated in the system of religion.

The obvious analogy is the individual development each of us undergoes in our growth from infancy to adolescence. Erik Erikson named this the progression from “basic trust” to “social identity,” with the first being pre-verbal and intuitive while the later stage is more rule-bound and rational. Abraham, then, is the exemplar in Paul’s mythology of heroes of faith in its deepest dimension, coming before reward motivation and obedience to law. God called him, and he trusted. That’s faith.

It was with this deep primal faith in mind that Jesus called his disciples to “become as little children” and warned us that without such simple faith a person “cannot enter the kingdom of God.” It wasn’t a license to act childish (Lord knows we’ve got enough of that going on in our churches!) but an invitation to release ourselves in complete trust to the present grace and providence of God.

This was a point of critical importance for Paul, for he was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the grace revealed through Jesus was more foundational than religion itself. For that reason, it is universal and available to all.

                                                                                             

If the favor of God, according to the Christian revelation, is not our compensation or reward for obeying the law, then its “motivation” must come from elsewhere. That is to say, if it’s not my obedience to the law that wins God’s blessing on my life, then that blessing must be sheer gift, coming out of the essential generosity (grace) of God’s heart.

By seeing this transaction of grace and faith deeper down and prior to the authority of the law, and further, by acknowledging it as fully sufficient for salvation, Paul was putting religion (law) in its proper place. In this order, with grace coming before religion (and not as its benefit), he confirmed what had been fundamental to Jesus’ teachings as well.

When you see that love, grace, and forgiveness come first, then your religion takes on a whole new orientation and purpose, serving as the vehicle of your gratitude and service rather than the way of salvation you had once mistakenly thought it to be. In the spirit of Jesus’ gospel, we can say that repentance is not making ourselves worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness, but is rather the turn-around that accepts it in joy and thanksgiving.

All along and from the very beginning, the creative and redemptive current of blessing and grace has been “the one thing” that the religions have quantified and tried to manage, under the many names of God.

PSALM 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

This psalm, if written by David, may express the early flush of enthusiasm and idealism that often accompany the individual’s spiritual rebirth. The idea, or even stronger, the expectation that God will protect the believer from every danger and disappointment in life is itself hopelessly naive.

Truth is, hardship comes upon believers as much as on unbelievers, on saints as on sinners. So then what’s the difference? Where’s  the real advantage (if we may put it thus) in the spiritual life for those who make the decision to live for Something More? If it’s not protection and guarantees, what then?

The short answer is that faith in God provides to the one willing to bet life and all its chips on a supreme grace underlying existence itself a deep peace and inner strength that can endure the troubles that come our way.

Sometimes individuals can feel guilty, or that their faith is inferior or insufficient, if they have a hard time believing in the god that swoops in and intervenes for the protection and happiness of his elect. Over time and with maturity, we gradually (or suddenly) learn that God doesn’t drive away the night, so much as offer assurance that “even though I walk through the valley of shadows, Thou art with me.”

GENESIS 12:1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Accepting God’s calling on our life will always involve some sort of “departure” from where we are presently. Sometimes this departure is of a physical variety and takes us to another place, nearby or distant, in order to fulfill what God has given us to accomplish. But whether or not such a physical departure is involved, there will always be required of us a going forth from our current way of life – from our present mindset, our acquired habits of thinking, valuing, and behaving.

Because our worldview is our reality-in-perspective, this psychological departure can often be felt as a death (and rebirth) experience. The most critical phase in this transformation is just after the departure has been made, but before a full view and understanding of our destination is gained. In that vulnerable and frequently confusing time, the thing most needed is our deep trust (faith) in the providence and wisdom of God.

The Jewish people came to an early appreciation of Abram’s call as most significantly a summons from God to leave behind one worldview for another. Abram was called out of the polytheistic culture of his ancestors, with its deep assumptions and ancient traditions, in order to enter a revolutionary and completely novel experience.

His destiny was to be in a devotional and moral relationship with the one God, the one and only God, with that Divine Reality and Holy Mystery beyond all the gods of religion.

                                                                                            

Abram’s departure, being physical, must surely have been difficult. Leaving his tribe, its traditions, its pantheon of deities, the familiar landscape and way of life – not to mention his relatives, his occupation, and whatever reputation he had been able to make for himself – leaving all of this must have been a fairly wrenching experience.

But leaving behind things, particular locations, and even other people is not in itself the most difficult part. It’s the value and meaning, the emotional attachment (in degrees of dependency) and cognitive certainty we’ve associated to these that arouses feelings of anxiety, disorientation, and sadness.

This is where physical departures become psychological departures, where shifts of location initiate shifts of identity.

For Abram, the call of God was not simply and exclusively a summons away from his familiar environment and definitions of self. Along with the call away was the call toward: “Go from your country and your kindred” was followed by “to the land that I will show you.” Abram’s new mission was to serve God’s blessing for the world.

 

Be Still

Posted: December 31, 2013 in ContraVerse

Be Still

MATTHEW 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,and serve only him.’”

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Using the imagery and terminology of Paul’s theory of Christ (Christology) we might define temptation as the down-pulling lure of our lower nature, as our preference for instant gratification over self-control, solid proof over the risk of faith, power and title over humble service. (Of course, we always have the option of saying, “The devil made me do it,” but that only amounts to a refusal of responsibility.)

In fact, these three types of temptation, represented by the words satisfaction, certainty, and superiority are the very ones that Jesus faced during his desert solitude.

The seduction of pleasure is the lure towards what feels good, what gratifies our impulses, satisfies our cravings, and scintillates the pleasure centers in our brains. Jesus was tempted to break his fast with a meal of warm bread, but he resisted for the sake of staying focused on his calling. He turned down the temptation of physical satisfaction and pleasure, which strengthened his resolve but also opened up a higher level of vulnerability.

Passing that test, he was next tempted to demand some sign of supernatural support that could anchor his security in a divine guarantee. We feel this within ourselves as a rising demand for some sign or miracle that will prove God’s presence and commitment to us. Our inner child wants desperately to know that some higher (taller) power is looking out for us.  Instead, Jesus turned it down, choosing to “live by faith, not by sight.”

Finally he was taken up to a mountain so high that he could see all the nations of the world. Here he was tempted to abort his mission as world liberator for the more attractive role of world conqueror. Once again, our lower self (ego) prefers recognition and glory to humble sacrifice. This is difference between the love of power and the power of love.

                                                                                            

A higher level of application in this story takes hold of Paul’s identification of Christ as our “new self” (see Ephesians 4:22-24), whose awakening requires that we surmount the conspiracy of lower needs, drives, and impulses for the sake of our maturity and spiritual fulfillment. Our path will take us from the “river baptism” of our conversion to God’s purpose for our life, through this “wilderness of temptation” where that purpose is tested and made strong, and finally into our “world mission” as liberators in our own right.

In reality, however, our journey will periodically (and unexpectedly, for that is the nature of temptation) double-back into the desert for clarification and realignment. The danger, and the reason why so many apparently “perfected” believers end up falling so hard, is that we might come to regard ourselves as deserving of pleasure, protected by angels, and confirmed in our success as better than others.

Jesus kept his focus. Neither the visceral urgency of hunger, his mental-emotional need for validation, nor the ego’s desire for supremacy and control were able to pull him from his chosen path. In the months and years ahead, he would have to occasionally withdraw into the mountains for meditation and renewal.

The devil would come around every so often, but because temptation equals opportunity plus inclination, genuine temptations became fewer and farther between.

ROMANS 5:12-19

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Earlier cultures, by virtue of being farther upstream and experientially closer to the wellspring of mythological thinking, apparently did not labor as do we, over whether a particular sacred story (myth) was factual or fictional. The story simply was, and its truth lay in the power of the narrative to draw the audience (primitive stories were oral performances, not written texts) into its magical depictions, dramatic situations, and moral conflicts, in order to either confirm or challenge the current worldview and way of life.

It’s important for us to remember that Paul was not a sixteenth-century Protestant reformer, but a first-century religious personality still steeped in the mythological world of his period. The question is not whether or not Paul believed Adam to have been an actual individual who lived as first in the series way back in the mists of primeval time, but rather who is Adam in the constellation of symbols and meanings that is Paul’s present worldview.

When the question is put that way we begin to sense that, for Paul, Adam is an archetype, an ideal type, exemplar, or primary pattern for what human beings are at some primitive level of their psyches. Adam represents what psychologists today call our “inner child,” the part of us that thinks, feels, and reacts out of a center of self-interest, who struggles beneath the burden of insecurity, guilt, and the fear of being out on our own.

His counterpart in Paul’s mythology is Christ, the New Adam, who is the resurrected higher self, our embodiment of grace, freedom, and love.

                                                                                                

In an earlier letter to the congregation in Corinth, Paul makes explicit use of this functional contrast between Adam and Christ, referring to Christ as “the last Adam” who has become for us a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). This creative duality between the two great exemplars of our human mythstory (history interpreted through the templates of myth), one representing our lower and the other our higher nature, was clearly Paul’s theory of choice for explaining the mystery of salvation in Christian terms.

As he set forth this mystery, it was imperative for Paul that his prospective converts to the Christian way see Adam not as simply a figure of past history but as a present force in their own personalities, and the same with Christ as well. Very early in his missionary career Paul had declared, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I [Adam: my lower impulsive self] who lives, but it is Christ [my higher self: the spirit of wisdom and love] who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

As we can see, then, early Christian mythology as formulated by the apostle Paul and others offered to the world a new way of conceiving the nature and destiny of human beings. The revealed path is one of growth, discovery, awakening, breakthrough, and fulfillment.

PSALM 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

An exceeding majority of human beings live out their lives “east of Eden” with a dark image of a wrathful deity criticizing and condemning their every step. Jean Paul Sartre, a principal voice in the early twentieth-century philosophy of Existentialism, daringly suggested that human beings are a living contradiction – “condemned to be free” and burdened with immense guilt for the “offense” of having to choose our way in this world.

Another voice of that period, Erich Fromm, commented on how an entire culture seemed willing to surrender its freedom to one authoritarian system or another, just to lighten this burden of insecurity. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it; only don’t hold me responsible, because I’m just following orders.

According to Fromm, religion has too often interfered with human development by playing the threshold guardian against our progress into maturity and responsible adulthood. So many of us never gain our liberation from guilt. Even as adults we are trying desperately to please God and win the favor of immortal life.

For its part, much of conventional religion supports this adolescent spirituality. Only in rare exceptions has it been willing to follow Jesus as far as saying, “You’re already forgiven. Now, let go of the past and get on with your life!”

GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-17

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.

The creation story from Genesis is a creative composition, not an historical record, which means that its primary purpose is not to impart factual (what we today would call “scientific”) information about the universe in its beginnings, but rather to awaken our mystical sensibilities to the cosmos as an epiphany of divine power, grace, and beauty.

Frankly, the Bible has no interest in history as such, for history has no meaning until it is caught up into some narrative or other that tells of its deeper intent, larger design, and higher purpose. Those who treat the Genesis myth as if it were a factual account of cosmic origins unwittingly (perhaps) drain the story of its true power.

Our challenge instead is to drop the judgment between fact or fiction and simply enter the myth at it is given. Only then can it do its work in shaping our vision of “the way things are” by pulling back the veil of habit and belief that screens our minds from the full glory of The Real.

Using this same approach to the interpretation of myth, we can read the subsequent chapter in the story, of Paradise Lost, as imaginative reflection on the fall out of union that each of us experiences in the rise to self-consciousness. The truth of the myth is very clear: The moment we eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or once we are faced with the necessity of choosing our course in life), we find ourselves in a race against time and death.

                                                                                             

The storyteller of Genesis was perceptive to a great paradox that lies at the center of human consciousness. Our ability to rise above animal impulse and to choose a course of action requires a freedom from the urgencies and blind drives of instinctual life. And yet, such freedom of intention brings with it a new-found capacity for reflective self-awareness, by which we come to see that we are mortal. Hence the blessing and the curse of our evolved intelligence.

Our moral freedom is surely an exquisite flower of God’s created order, but at the same time this very freedom exposes us to the eventuality (and anxious anticipation) of our own death.

Interpreters over the centuries have pondered this paradox, and many have come to the view that paradise must be lost if we are to have a chance at maturity. It is only Eden’s god, the nursery deity, that seeks to prevent our progress from the Garden of Delight. Just as the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable had to leave home and find the limits of a self-centered lifestyle before he could awaken to the experience of his father’s unconditional love, so must we venture forth and finally die to ourselves.

Only then can we enter the kingdom of God.

Christmas Joy

Posted: December 29, 2013 in ContraVerse

Christmas Joy