Posts Tagged ‘religion’

HEBREWS 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

2Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
    you have crowned them with glory and honor,
    subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

As “pioneer” of our salvation Jesus opened up for all humanity the frontier of our further evolution. Prior to his coming – and that means prior to our personal realization of the essential truth Jesus represents to us – we were confined by a religious orthodoxy that lacked creative depth and saving power, bound fast by our own fear of condemnation. Up to that point, conventional religion had served us well: shaping our beliefs, our values, and our identity as in a great cultural factory.

The time came, however, for a “second birth” – a birth out of the womb of the inherited faith and assumptions of our predecessors, as well as the popular plastic-wrapped platitudes of the wider culture. But the cost was high: something worthy living for must ultimately be worth dying for, and we must be willing to pay the price.

Jesus was “made perfect through suffering,” as the author says, by following the same path as Job. We will recall that Job refused to either dismiss his suffering as insignificant or fixate on it as the only thing that mattered. Instead, he was able to “pass through” his suffering to the higher realization of God’s self-revelation in the midst of and not outside his ordeal.

In a similar way, Jesus demonstrated through his suffering that a full commitment to the Way of Love can help us pass through the curtain that separates us this moment from life in its fullness. To follow him on that path is to die to our former identity with all its threshold guardians, and be reborn into our True Humanity.

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1 KINGS 8:22-30, 41-43

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. 23 He said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, 24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. 25 Therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ 26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! 28 Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; 29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.

41 “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name42 —for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm—when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, 43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

The compromise, if you can call it that, between the establishmentarians and the hard-line prophets who were against the whole imperial idea, was that only the name and not the full glory of God would be said to dwell in the temple. This gave the temple-boosters a fixed focal point for their religious beliefs and practices, at the same time as it respected the temple-busters in their conviction that God was too immense to be kept in a house. But it was still a compromise and the debate raged on, mainly between priests (boosters) and prophets (busters).

Solomon resisted the idea of the temple serving as God’s earthly residence, as a counterpart to that in neighboring nations where the effigy of a god was honored and adored. In his prayer of dedication he refers several times to heaven as God’s true dwelling place. Before it became, in later centuries, the homeland paradise for departed true believers, the wide expanse of heaven was a symbol of God’s exalted majesty and boundless being.

As he spread out his hands to heaven, Solomon was acknowledging God as essentially Other, beyond human grasp and beyond even existence itself.

JOHN 6:24-35

24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The benefits of the religious life are like the bread this still-hungry mob was seeking from Jesus. He could fill their bellies every six hours and they’d be back for more. Similarly welfare assistance, social membership, and the promise of paradise are such benefits of conventional religion that are unable to satisfy the longing at the center of our being.

This hunger is “not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” It is, in short, our hunger for wholeness, community, and for the fulfillment of what God created us to be as human beings. (We are reminded that the term eternal life in the Fourth Gospel means abundant, full, and authentic life here and now, not life forever somewhere else.) Jesus tried to focus their vision beyond the temporal urgencies symbolized in the belly, but such delusions die hard.

All of this approaches the scale of tragedy when we observe how many have fallen into the trap of a superficial religion. Constantly restless, a great number merely revolve through the cycle from a general anxiety, to a deep but unfocused discontent, to an aroused craving for what might satisfy, to an attachment to the next promising thing, to a fear that it may not be enough (which is actually an opportunity for liberation), and coming round again to a discontent deeper than before.

The path of fulfillment leads through the discovery of our spiritual gifts, and to a growing awareness that God is counting on us to do our part – nothing more and nothing less.

1 JOHN 4:7-21

Beloved, let us love one another, because 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. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

The revolutionary discovery at the heart of the Christian experience is that the ultimate reality underlying and energizing all things is Love. Not a frigid emptiness or a sterile abyss, but a gracious presence sustains and affirms existence itself. Why was that such a significant discovery?

It was significant because, as psychology has confirmed, there is in the formation of our human self-consciousness (ego) an accumulation of unavoidable anxiety. Coming into our own separate sense of self involves a whole series of concurrent losses, very often symbolized as variations on our original “fall” from the prenatal womb. We take with us, as it were, a growing sense of exile – coming into our own, yes, but often feeling alienated or estranged from the source and ground of our being.

Out of this condition arises the great question of religion: Am I all alone, or is there something more beyond me, something more to me, than I presently know? Faith is the risk – and then the assurance – in believing that there is a providential intention behind the universe itself, and that it has you in mind.

JOHN 10:11-18

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Who were, or are, the “other sheep” outside the fold of the twelve, for whose sake also Jesus had come? By the time the Fourth Gospel was written (c. 95 CE) the early Christian movement had been forced into a clean break from the parent traditions of Judaism, so it may be this non-Jewish mission field that the author has in mind.

The mystical tone and content of this Gospel enabled his community to see in Jesus the revelation – or more accurately, the incarnation – of an eternal and universal reality. If Jesus was the name these early Christians gave to the timely event in history that opened out to include something that was also above or behind history, then might this same outreaching grace of God have been actively present elsewhere and at the same time, but in different circles, throughout the world?

If so, then because God is at work for the redemption of all people, this single divine initiative, refracting into the many rainbow colors as it breaks into the world of time – experienced as red here, green there, and violet somewhere else – can all be known by the name of Jesus.

This is not to say that “all religion” are equally true. But those that propagate a vision for the human future that centers on genuine community, and that inspire their devotees to lives of compassion and forgiveness, might meaningfully be regarded as sheep of other folds, who recognize and respond to the voice of the good shepherd.

MICAH 3:5-12

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
    who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
    when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
    who put nothing into their mouths.
Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
    and darkness to you, without revelation.
The sun shall go down upon the prophets,
    and the day shall be black over them;
the seers shall be disgraced,
    and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
    for there is no answer from God.
But as for me, I am filled with power,
    with the spirit of the Lord,
    and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
    and to Israel his sin.

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity,
10 who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with wrong!
11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
    its priests teach for a price,
    its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
    “Surely the Lord is with us!
    No harm shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
    Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height.

There is a strong (perhaps irresistible) tendency in organized religion to arrange itself around professional services, where administrators (“rulers”), officiants (“priests” and pastors), and ethical agitators (“prophets”) are paid for what they do. So strong is this tendency, in fact, that it’s difficult for us to imagine what a non-professional religion would look like, or if it could even work in our present culture. Just about every role in society has become specialized and valuated to the point where a person can earn a living at it, from presidents to professional parents.

Religion’s primary role is to bridge the inner and outer realms of human experience, to connect our spirituality (inner) to the rest of life (outer). Inevitably religion will get involved in morality and politics, art and science, education and business, working to help coordinate these various arenas and disciplines in a way that honors a deeper sense of the grounding mystery within us.

From one perspective religion begins to fail when its primary role gets overwhelmed by a felt need to occupy and defend cultural market share as an institution. Its tradition rapidly loses currency amid social change, modern innovation, and normal generational turnover. As its worldview slips out of relevance, more emotional investment and less rational scrutiny – in the mental phenomenon called belief – are required to keep things going.  Eventually other people (experts: rulers, priests, and prophets) are employed to manage religion for us and we become religious consumers.

Back in Micah’s day (8th century BCE) religion was already becoming a pay-for-service business. Such an arrangement is a setup for abuse, as religious professionals shift the burden of their livelihoods onto the shoulders of parishioners, and the parishioners, as consumers, start to use their pocketbooks to solicit only what they want to hear. This can give the impression of a religion that’s vibrant and growing, when in reality it may be little more than a personality cult whose roots have lost anchor in the grounding mystery.

Bankruptcy and ruin are its destiny.

MATTHEW 7:21-29

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

If you were to poll a large number of true believers in the world today and ask them what, really, is the point of their religion, they will no doubt answer with a variety of responses. Freedom from guilt, membership in a community, positive values, an enlarged sense of belonging, weekly inspiration, and everlasting security would certainly make the list. Answers to metaphysical questions, participation in sacred rituals, and the cultivation of religious disciplines (prayer, meditation, fasting, study) would probably be somewhere, though not as high as the first set.

Many put their religion on for show, quoting Bible verses, spouting prophecies, calling out the Antichrist, and performing “miracles” before spellbound crowds. For them, religion is a public performance. Popular “evangeltainers” lead personality cults for their own attention, glory, and luxury. A large segment of society is happy to watch (and donate) as they manage the stage and promote their empires.

What about Jesus? How would he have answered the question about the real point of his religion? Going to church? Feeling relieved of guilt? Having a platform from which he could accuse others and grab glory for himself? Getting his soul safely to heaven in the next life? Actually, none of these. For Jesus, religion wasn’t about what the ego needs or believes it deserves. Instead religion is about action – doing the will of God.

But what is that, the will of God? It is about making a difference for others: lifting up the poor, reaching out to the sick, encouraging those who have lost hope, emancipating the human spirit, and speaking up for those The System doesn’t count or care about. Go to church if you want. Ponder and debate the doctrines of orthodoxy if that’s your thing. At the end of the day, the real question is how authentic, fearless, and far-reaching your love is. True love changes things.

PSALM 46

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Religion is often criticized as so much whistling in the dark. Under the harsh and unforgiving conditions of mortality, human beings have a desperate need to believe they are supported by providence and that their existence doesn’t just end in oblivion. The plain fact of the matter is that we’re thrown into existence and fall out of it without so much as a sigh of indifference from the universe.

Now it may be true that religion frequently ascribes to its god more supremacy and control over what’s going on than he or she genuinely deserves. To an outsider it can sometimes sound as if God is nothing more than a personification of what the ancient Greeks named Fate – the universal principle or ultimate agency by which the order of things is presumably prescribed: a.k.a. “God’s sovereign plan.” Such belief in an absolute necessity behind everything is at least more comforting than the idea of it all as random and utterly pointless.

But maybe it’s not human insecurity that best explains the phenomenon of religion. Could it be that a mystical insight rather than neurotic anxiety underlies our many concepts of God? Perhaps it’s not primarily our fear of death that compelled the first thought and stories of God. More likely it was the intuition that our existence is grounded in a present mystery we cannot explain, but which supports us, inhabits us, confronts us, and transcends us in the marvelous adventure of being alive.

What’s more, this present mystery is provident – for here you are! The breath in your lungs, the beat of your heart, your living body and the countless life-lines connecting you to the earth and its moon, to our Sun and the spinning planets, into the galaxy and out to that One Song (uni-verse) that’s been topping the charts now for the past 15 billion years – all of it is conspiring to open a window of awareness on this very moment.

You blink, and it opens again.

PSALM 131

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.

It is easy in life to let your focus slip from the moment at hand and drift away like a loosed balloon into abstractions, reveries, and daydreams. This ability, in fact, is one of the distinguishing talents of the human mind, making possible the countless achievements of culture. If we were not able to detach our focus from the urgencies of animal survival, our species would never have advanced to the point we are today.

Along with this wonderful talent of ours comes a terrible liability, of removing our conscious engagement from where we are and ending up lost and disoriented. We get so caught up in our high hopes and big ideas that our tether to the present moment is forgotten.

For example, the idea of God in religion is a very “high” thought – so high, in fact, that our minds put God up in heaven and far above where we are in this moment. Once we get lost in this idea of God “up there” we proceed to invent ways (prayers, rituals, sacrificial offerings) of getting him to pay attention to us and condescend to our need. Religion thus becomes a complex (and many would be quick to add complicated) system of utilities for keeping God interested and favorably disposed toward us.

But take another look. Who put God up and away in heaven? Who kept qualifying the divine nature in theological terms and supernatural categories that he ended up so far away? We did. The truth is, God is just a name for the present mystery of life, grace, and provident support that is always right here – within us, alongside us, and all around us.

The psalmist knows how his heart (the Hebrew word for our deep center of longing) can quickly look to heaven or over the horizon for the assurance it seeks. Like a nursing lamb that anxiously scurries after its mother and is always vigilant to her whereabouts, we can busy ourselves looking for God – and in the process overlook his presence! A weaned lamb is by contrast calm and quiet, set free from urgency and able to fully rest in God’s care.

JOHN 7:37-39

37 On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

The author of the Fourth Gospel was very careful in setting his portrait of Jesus inside a framework that revealed both his messianic relevance to Judaism and his universal relevance to the human spiritual quest. By reconstructing the “life and message” of Jesus into the Jewish yearly cycle of festivals, the author translates his significance in terms of Deliverance, Covenant, Atonement, and Kingdom of God – the major phases and layers in the identity of his people.

Water is a powerful archetype throughout the Bible – from the primordial waters of chaos, which according to Genesis is the only thing God did not create, and the streams that flowed through the garden of paradise; to the parting sea that made way for the Hebrew fugitives; to the cool refreshment that sprung from a rock in the desert; to the Jordan River that marked their entry into the Promised Land; and on into the numerous uses of water in daily hygiene and ritual purification before meals and sacred ceremonies.

There is every indication that Jesus took inspiration for his kingdom movement from the OT prophets, and his greatest influence was Isaiah. The Bible book by the same name actually spans almost two centuries, with the themes of the eighth-century BCE “First Isaiah” taken up and developed by “Second Isaiah” during the Babylonian Exile (c. 540 BCE), and then further adapted by the so-called “Third Isaiah” after the exiles returned to Jerusalem  (c. 525 BCE). The major lines of concern for all three writers have to do with social justice on behalf of the poor, suffering, and marginalized populations of empire.

In Isaiah 55 (Second Isaiah) we read:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.

This sounds very much like what the Fourth Gospel has Jesus say as he calls out into the marketplace. As the religious ceremony is wrapping up and people are on their way home, Jesus invites them to an experience that is inwardly deep (the heart-center of faith, longing, and love) in contrast to the public liturgy of the festival.

External religion is not sufficient to satisfy human spiritual need. No matter how interesting or necessary religion can make itself for the individual, however many relevant services it can offer the religious consumer, it cannot save us or make us whole. The difference between (outward) religion and (inward) spirituality is like the difference between using water to wash dirt off your skin and taking a long drink after working hard in the sun.