Posts Tagged ‘freedom’

ACTS 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
        before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

When Peter raised his voice above the blend of voices giving praise to God, to address the skeptical few who were wanting to pass off the entire event as drunken disorder, he cited the prophet Joel who long ago had seen this day approaching.

Joel had lived in a time that was spiritual stagnant in many ways, with the institutional structures of religion effectively suppressing the deeper life and hope of the common people. In pure and challenging language, the prophet pictured a future day when God’s Spirit would no longer be domesticated by the bridle and harness of conventional religiosity, but would break out upon all people in wild and creative energy.

For the prophet Joel this was both good and bad news, depending on who was considering it. To those in power, especially the priests and other brokers of orthodoxy, this vision was a portent of disaster – “blood, fire, and smoky mist.” No more would blessing be distributed retail by a religious management, or forgiveness the reward for submission to due process. For the great majority, the coming day promised new release from old burdens and access to God that was both direct and personal.

What Peter and the rest were witnessing, they believed, was the fulfillment of Joel’s prophetic vision. God came through the cathedral ceiling to dwell among and within “the little people.”

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1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

We are already acquainted with the situation in Corinth where certain factions were forming within the Christian congregation there, tending to pull the larger group into divisions around Paul (the evangelicals), Peter (the traditionalists), Apollos (the intellectuals), or Christ (the charismatics). Each party represented a distinct perspective on what it meant to be a Christian – missionary outreach, a strong tradition, Bible knowledge, or spiritual gifts. Then as now, it was easy for “insiders” (of one of these persuasions) to regard the others as missing the real point.

In this situation, though Paul might well have been flattered by the fact that some church members were championing him and his priority on outreach, the apostle reminded his readers of something Jesus reportedly had taught during his ministry a generation earlier: Don’t judge.

When we judge another person, we take something about that individual – their background, reputation, appearance, socio-economic status, lifestyle, voting preference, sexual orientation, current beliefs, or just about anything else you can imagine – and draw a conclusion concerning their dignity, virtue, and worthiness as a human being. This kind of judgment helps us deal swiftly with people we don’t really know, or care to know. With a strong judgment in place, we now have the justification we need to dismiss them, exclude them, exploit them, violate them, or even destroy them if need be.

Jesus had taught that none of us has the right to judge another person in this way. His entire ministry had been dedicated to reaching out and touching people in their humanity, their brokenness, and their need. Roles and labels and stereotypes are all part of that inhumane way in the world we call prejudice (and all that follows) – pre-judging someone and thereby sinning against their nature as a human being created in the image and likeness of God.

Living by this rule (“Don’t judge!”) gave Jesus the necessary courage to renounce prejudice, along with the freedom to carry on as one beyond the judgment of others. In his time, the apostle Paul found a fresh application for this important rule of the spiritual life.

PSALM 16:1-4, 12-19

I love the Lord, because he has heard
    my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
    therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
    the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
    I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”

12 What shall I return to the Lord
    for all his bounty to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord,
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of his faithful ones.
16 Lord, I am your servant;
    I am your servant, the child of your serving girl.
    You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
    and call on the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
19 in the courts of the house of the Lord,
    in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

You have loosed my bonds. There are many metaphors used in religion to represent what is commonly called “the human condition,” but the most popular by far is that of captivity, bondage, imprisonment, and oppression. Salvation in light of this metaphor can be understood as escape or emancipation if the accent of meaning is on the circumstances of bondage, or as awakening, empowerment, and transcendence when the liberative move is more about an inner shift of consciousness.

What is it that holds us in bonds? Repressive governments do this, but so do the heavy circumstances of poverty and economic hardship. The prison of consciousness that we call the status quo can keep us in a consensus trance our entire lives. And we cannot forget the multiform delusion of orthodoxy, where the mind is strapped and chained by convictions that hold captive an otherwise creative intelligence.

Is it correct to say that mortality is another form of oppression? Are human beings “stuck” in time and “condemned” to die? Many feel so. But upon closer inspection what we find is that it’s not really the conditions of mortality that keep us hostage, as the widespread fear we have attached to this fact of facts. We are prisoners, then, not of death but of the fear that the prospect of dying provokes in us.

Of course, other animals die as well, but we have no evidence that they worry over it quite to the extent that we do. So much of the world we construct as human beings – at both the cultural and individual levels – are little more than shelter, distraction, and insurance against death, not to mention a major campaign for its denial and temporary postponement.

It’s not long before we find ourselves locked inside a prison of our own making. We invest in layers of insurance that obligate us to monthly payments, which makes it  necessary to pursue higher-paying jobs and work longer. We purchase gym memberships and a growing pharmacy of supplements in an effort to stave off the creeping menace of age, dysfunction, and disease. We might hand over our freedom and intelligence to a religion that promises everlasting life in exchange for our doctrinal consent and a weekly offering.

But perhaps the greatest liability in the construction of this fortress we build has to do with how it prevents us from full participation in reality, constantly shuttling our awareness away from this present moment, from the real presence of mystery. The spiritual traditions name this mystery the ground of existence, the presence of God, radiant being, and Abundant Life – but whatever it’s called, the referent is acknowledged as beyond all names and forms.

When we stop running and hiding, fretting and fighting, looking away and waiting for later, there is in that moment, in that very passing moment, the possibility that we might fall into the gracious support of the present mystery we call God.

JOHN 4:5-15

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“I thank the Lord, blessed be, that I was not born a woman, a Samaritan, or a dog.” Such was one of the prayers that Jewish men might frequently utter on the street corner or in private, directed to a god who was all about separation, purity, and control.

This poor soul, born as a woman and a Samaritan, was in a bad place culturally speaking. Her people, the Samaritans, had made the unfortunate decision centuries earlier to give up their Israeli pedigree and intermarry with neighboring groups. Just as your typical dog in the street would have been a mongrel and half-breed, so this Samaritan woman was literally a hopeless mix of nonredeemable elements.

And a woman? Maybe even worse. She – Woman as mythic archetype – was the one who first disobeyed god in the Garden and listened to the serpent instead. And the serpent – again as archetype – was a representation of slithering darkness, the slippery principle of metamorphosis, bound to the earth and the very embodiment of rhythmic time. She had fallen for the snake, which subsequently made her a captive to the dark forces of night, moon, and blood.

Woman was dangerous.

But she is also necessary to the tribe’s continuation through the generations. So, woman needed to be carefully controlled. Strict rules about when and how she could be seen in public, what roles she was permitted to occupy in society, and where she stood in the sacred hierarchy of things – all of it kept her busy, distracted, and safely out of the way.

In first-century Judaism, woman was saved by association – not for what or who she was, but for where she belonged, and to whom. So when she found Jesus (a Jewish man) in her path, this Samaritan woman was probably tracing out her proper avoidance maneuvers.

                                                                                             

Everything could have gone without a hitch, but then Jesus spoke up and requested a drink of water from the bucket she had drawn up from the well.

We need to pause briefly here to acknowledge a few metaphorical signals that the author has placed on the stage of this story. The time of their meeting is “almost noon,” just at the apex of the Light principle and before the day begins its slide into Darkness. They meet at a well, a symbol of depth and mystery, provision and life. And then of course there’s the woman herself – archetype of Earth-power, embodiment, and generativity.

This may help us appreciate Jesus’ “living water” as more than a conventional reference to running water, or water drawn from a moving stream rather than a still well. This living water will slake the thirst of the soul for eternal life – not everlasting life later and somewhere else, but abundant life now … now … now.

Every human being, in his or her inmost self (soul) longs for wholeness, fulfillment, and communion. In the spirit of the story’s central metaphor, we all thirst for “deep wellness.” Not life derived or siphoned off some external source, but “gushing up” as a living spring from within.

Precisely because it is not derived and secondary but always accessible by a deep descent into the spiritual ground of every individual’s existence, this living water – this answer to the soul’s quest and fulfillment of its deepest desire – cannot be managed by religion, qualified by orthodoxy, or confiscated by any empire.

Conventional systems of division, hierarchy and control cannot allow for a spirituality that is mystically oriented, direct and spontaneous, transcendent of doctrines, and instantly available to all.

Letting that loose into the world could foment a revolution. And no empire wants that.

 

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!”

JEREMIAH 31:7-14

7 For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
    and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
    “Save, O Lord, your people,
    the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
    and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
    those with child and those in labor, together;
    a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
    and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
    in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
    and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
    and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him,
    and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
    and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
    and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
    and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
    and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
    and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
    and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the Lord.

There is a critical difference in significance between those things that happen to us, those that are made to happen by us, and those that happen through us. Considered from a spiritual perspective, we might distinguish these distinct modes of experience with the words encounter, achievement, and evolution.

Each of these, in turn, calls forth from us a response that is peculiar to its own dynamic: sustained attention in the case of what is happening to us, moral commitment with respect to our goals and objectives, and radical trust in the guiding wisdom of our personal growth and transformation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, if only we could raise the degree of sustained attention, moral commitment, and radical trust in our lives, the world would be a totally different place.

Staying with these themes a while longer, we begin to notice that they correlate to the major trimesters in a human lifespan – youth, maturity, and late adulthood.

In the first trimester of youth our experience is predominantly focused on what is happening to us, which must mean that the skill of cultivating sustained attention is one of the major tasks of this period of development.

As we mature and find our place in the culture-play of our profession and family life, we become producers, managers, custodians, and laborers – responsibilities that call upon our moral commitment to achieve outcomes of real value and lasting impact.

And in our later years we begin to relax into being, and come to rediscover ourselves as vehicles of a timeless (but always timely) wisdom and inner peace.

                                                                                          

After a detailed explanation of the great themes and their respective trimesters of emergence in a human lifespan, we must press on to acknowledge the obvious fact that, in any given moment, life is happening to us, by us, and through us.

Furthermore, depending on where we are in our life at that moment, our urgent need and higher calling may be for greater attention, stronger commitment, or deeper trust. (The theory of trimesters in human development is still helpful nevertheless, as it highlights the shifting accent of concern and opportunity throughout the course of life.)

Jeremiah envisioned the day when God’s people, both young and old, women and men together, would join as one chorus in praising their redeemer. It is important to remember that at the time these words were being proclaimed, God’s people were languishing in exile.

To this oppressed and dispirited community Jeremiah announced that something extraordinary was going to happen, that they needed to prepare for its coming, but that its accomplishment would require their full surrender to God’s unfolding purpose through them.

In a sense, the circular path of Israel’s biography represents the journey each of us is on: beginning in God, advancing into ego-consciousness, and coming home again.