Friday, July 03, 2009

How Subversive Was Jesus?

Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them,…“I have examined Jesus in your presence and have not found him guilty of any of your charges…. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” Then they all shouted out together, “Away with that fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (Barabbas had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) (Luke 23:13-19)

I cringe a little when people describe Jesus as a revolutionary. The word is so easily used to justify a particular agenda that may—or may not—have to do with Jesus.

Then I run across stories like this one.

From what I have seen and read, Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem came at a time of extremely high tension between the Jews and their Roman occupiers. To make matters worse, Passover week, during which these events took place, inevitably brought hordes of worshippers from all over Israel. Hordes mean instability; the slightest altercation could erupt in chaos—and, in response, a Roman crackdown.

Yet when Pilate (according to custom) gave them a choice of one prisoner to release in honor of the Passover, the religious leaders chose an insurrectionist and a murderer—the very person to ignite the tinderbox of contemporary Jerusaleminstead of Jesus.

Can you imagine how much they must have feared Jesus?

And why? True, he had caused a frightening stir since his entry into the city. Many in the Passover crowds were loudly hailing him as a king who would throw off the Romans. He entered the temple courts and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. But he also spent time quietly teaching in that same temple. More frightening than a murderer with a record of insurrection? Why?

Maybe it wasn’t Jesus’ actions. Maybe it was his words.

We don’t know whether Barabbas had a vision, but Jesus did: what he called “the kingdom of God.” It described a way to transformation, a turning to God from the inside out and a concern for the poor and the everyday. As he articulated this kingdom, he could not help but challenge the authorities around him, who (if the New Testament account is accurate) had lost that spirit in favor of “ritual correctness” and the status quo. In today’s parlance, he spoke truth to power.

An insurrectionist without vision can be suppressed with brute force. A vision is much harder to quash. So they chose Barabbas.

The kicker, of course, is that Jesus’ vision is just as relevant, and as dangerous, today. All too often, our leaders favor the status quo, or tinker at the edges, and avoid looking at transformation. The current debate over health care is the perfect example: while a single-payer system—a complete transformation of the current situation—might prove the best option, no one wants to put it forward because of vested interests.

I don’t see the Jesus of the New Testament wanting to replace Judaism so much as revive it. That’s more evolutionary than revolutionary. Even so, his vision proved too hot to handle; in many ways, it still is. And yet, in a world that desperately needs transformation, how can we not take up his vision once again?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When We Give Up Our Lives

One of the monks at Holy Cross Monastery was telling me about his work with an Episcopal parish in the eastern U.S. He had worked with members to deepen the parish’s spirituality and reflect on its future. I can imagine hundreds of churches needing this kind of help, and I asked him if he ever thought about offering his services elsewhere. “No,” he replied with a smile, “because then I would no longer be a Benedictine.”

He’s right. As part of their vows, the Holy Cross monks pledge themselves to the Benedictine value of a balanced life. This means, in essence, that they must refrain from taking on too much because they have given up their lives to something else, something larger than themselves.

But this “living for something else” isn’t just for monks. It’s really for all of us who seek God. And it can be quite the countercultural adventure.

In what way? Well, a life lived for something else runs us afoul of many cultural expectations. Take the simple idea that if you do something well, you should do more of it. That makes for an excellent business strategy and a solid path to career success. But what if your “something else” pushes back? If you have vowed to live a balanced life, as our monk in the example above, you can’t always do more, no matter how well you do it.

Or consider the value of planning. “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” goes the old maxim. Every company worth its salt has charted out where it wants to be in one year, three year, five years. But what if your “something else” pushes back? You can plan all you want, but God may steer you otherwise. In our “something else,” we have another—larger—consideration, and it may take us in directions we don’t fully understand. No wonder Jesus said of the Divine Spirit, “The wind blows where it will, and you can hear the sound of it, but do not know from whence it comes or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Five years ago, I was passionate about my advertising career and happy to keep expanding it according to plan. But when I became an associate at Holy Cross—essentially pledging myself more fully to God—it dislodged the underpinnings of my life and raised a whole host of questions. Now I’m focusing a large chunk of my time on writing about spirituality, when that vocation may net me no income at all.

So why on earth engage “something else” if it’s so danged disruptive? Because a life out of our hands, and in the hands of the Divine, is much richer for us and more valuable for the world. By giving up control, we can let go our fears and vested interests and sacred cows—the things that often hold us back from becoming fully ourselves. We begin to realize that it’s not about me, but about we—which frees us to love others with abandon and serve them without regard for self-interest. By connecting with the Divine, we live in relationship with the Source of our lives, the Source of extravagant love.

It is an adventure. It rarely moves forward in a straight line. But travel that road far enough, and it’s hard to go back—because everything else pales by comparison.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Is This What Humility Looks Like?

I was humble the other day, and I want to tell you about it.

OK, that does sound strange, so perhaps a bit of context is in order. Two weeks ago, a member of a professional organization nominated me for the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award. I am quite capable of reacting badly to this sort of thing in one of two ways: with an “it’s about time they appreciated everything I’ve done for them,” or (far more often) with a reluctance to accept the nomination because, after all, it’s just little old me.

But my reaction was neither of these. Rather, it was a simple acceptance of some basic facts: I’ve been in my profession for 20 years, I spent six years on the board of the organization, it’s a small club with a limited flow of available nominees—all of which meant that I would probably be nominated at some point.

And I wondered: was this reaction an example of humility?

Not if you buy our culture’s understanding of the word. In the U.S., we generally equate humility with low self-esteem, insignificance, giving short shrift to one’s gifts and uniqueness. Does anyone really want to eat humble pie or be of humble means?

I don’t believe the saints and sages had that definition in mind when they encouraged their followers to be humble. Rightly understood, humility is simply complete clarity about our individual selves and our place in the universe. As the
Rule for Associates of Holy Cross puts it, “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”

When we honestly appraise ourselves, we see our place in the universe quite clearly. Specifically, we see that:

  • “I’m only one person.” As a result, I have only one person’s view of the world—and the views of other persons might hold just as much truth as my own.
  • “I am one person.” As a result, I can make exactly one person’s difference in the world.

This kind of humility can release all kinds of potential within us. It opens our minds and our hearts to others. It enables us to let go of our need for certainty. It liberates us from feeling powerless in the face of the world’s overwhelming problems; instead, we can start on the problems before us—serving this homeless person, making this city safer. By pointing up our limitations, humility also makes us realize our need for one another, and the exponentially greater impact we can have as we instead of me.

We need this kind of humility to live in harmony with what is. The world needs this kind of humility to move forward. With humility in our souls, we can work together more effectively and come to peace more readily. It is a virtue well worth cultivating.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Out With the Stale, In With the Fresh

Sometimes a venerable spiritual practice
jumps the shark—and opens a fresh opportunity to introduce people to the Divine.

This has been happening at
Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless, our local homeless agency. In the absence of a clergy member at board meetings, I’ve been asked to give the opening prayer, asking God to bless our efforts, etc., etc. Perhaps this was once a valuable exercise, but now—with few connections between Interfaith and local faith communities, and many secular folks on our board—it’s lost most if not all relevance.

So a few months ago, inspired by a saint whose story I’d run across, I decided to scrap the prayer and tell her story instead.

The reaction was palpable and immediate. As the tale unfolded, I could see the faces around me relax, the eyes light up, the expressions take on the look of wonder we get when we’re looking deeply into life.

Since then I’ve told other stories to start our meetings. One involved a saint who served the homeless several hundred years ago. Another involved the lesson that a homeless man in Boston taught a tough-guy member of our church youth group. All of them include some insight about homelessness, or the human condition, or the value of each human being. Each time I see how much people welcome these stories.

This tells me two things. One involves the power of storytelling to stir us to our souls. It is at once a conduit for profound wisdom and a simple delight to the inner child. (Say the words “Tell me a story” and see how you feel.)

The other lesson has to do with this moment in time. Many thinkers believe we’re at a watershed in the history of spirituality—a time in which established faiths clear out the deadwood in their liturgy, doctrine, and practice and new forms emerge. This strikes me as especially true in the way we engage the secular world. I don’t know, for instance, that it’s most effective to “preach the gospel to all people,” especially when it implies that we have The Answer and they don’t. I see too much skepticism, if not downright hostility, in the public square for that.

So it’s just possible that overt displays of religiosity, like evangelism and public prayers, have run their course. In the marketing world, these displays are known as “push marketing”—telling your message to your audience—and “push” is out of favor. But the appeal of stories is universal. They express a desire not to sell, but to share, to genuinely connect, to “join the general conversation” with other faiths and those with no faith at all.

This could get exciting. It invites us to seek and discover new ways to share the extravagant Divine love with all creatures. In the process, it just might clear out some of our own deadwood and give us fresher, and broader, perspectives on the Divine.

What do you think? Can you see other spiritual practices that are actually blocking our way to the Divine or to others? Feel free to share them here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Talk With Your Adversaries Without Throttling Them

I almost never use this space for self-promotion, but we’ve been discussing spirituality and dialogue at www.interfaithforums/interview-zone, and I thought you might like to take a look. The moderator was kind enough to interview me on the topic, partly because I’ve been writing a book on preparing the soul for dialogue (working title: Why Can’t We Talk? Living the Way of Dialogue in a Shouting World).

God and my easily diverted brain willing, I’ll post more about this topic here as time goes on. For now, feel free to check out the interview. (You may need to register at Interfaith Forums to access the interview thread, but I’d recommend that you do; some really interesting discussions take place there.)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A Portrait of the Prophet as a Human Being

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people! O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors. (Jeremiah 9:1-2)

Have you ever been sick of someone you dearly love—but whose failings drive you nuts—and just needed to get away for a while?

The prophet Jeremiah found himself in just this situation. The people of Israel had lost their way, committing the grossest injustice and idolatry; God had withdrawn from them and warned of judgment. Jeremiah, caught in the crossfire, expresses his intense ambivalence about Israel in this passage: wanting to weep for “my poor people” one minute, dying to get away from them the next.

This is so, well, human.

The Bible is full of moments like these. The psalmist asks God to do terrible things to his enemies. Jesus, in agony, prays in Gethsemane that he may skip the cross entirely. Ruth, a complete foreigner to Israel, pledges undying loyalty to Naomi, her people, and her God. David grieves long and loud over the waywardness of his son Absalom.

I wonder how many people know about this Bible and the faith it expresses. It tells me that the journey toward God is also the journey to become fully human, fully ourselves. And that means the full range of emotions and experiences. No curse or plea or grief is too intense or too offensive for God. These things are part of us, and so God embraces them because God embraces us. They are part of being human.

Contrast this with, say, the holiday season in December. There is tremendous pressure—from our shopping malls, from the movies, from our own expectations—to be happy. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” remember? It feels as though we’re supposed to set aside our complete humanity for a shallow facsimile thereof. No wonder so many churches hold Blue Christmas services for those who find the season difficult.

I wonder what Blue Christmas attendees would think if they read about the agony of Jeremiah—if they read the story of Gethsemane as well as Bethlehem. Would it give them comfort to know that even the darker emotions are welcome in the house of God?

In this week, the holiest in the Christian calendar, those emotions find their home. Peter weeps bitterly after denying Jesus. Judas suffers extreme remorse and hangs himself. Jesus, in all his humanity, begs God to take away the shadow of the cross. In doing so, he reflects a calling that is ours as well: to bring ourselves, with all our strengths and baggage and hidden darkness, to the One who loves us without pause, without conditions, without end.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Love Behind "God Loves You"

Maybe a friend tells you, or you read it on a bumper sticker, or you hear it in a sermon: God loves you. What’s your gut reaction?

I’ve heard the words uttered so often—and sometimes so glibly—that I draw a blank. It makes sense in the abstract. I can agree with the idea intellectually. But it doesn’t come alive for me.

Then something happens to make it come alive.

It happened last Sunday at church, when I was thinking about my Lenten vow to have more fun. (
Lent for the Unusual explains the details.) This wasn’t a frivolous decision; it was, rather, about becoming fully human—and fully the person God intends me to be. As someone who suffers from an excess of intensity and often finds life a relentless grind, I have badly neglected the fun aspect of me over the years. In a way, I felt a Divine nudge to attend to this.

What does this have to do with God loves you? Think of it this way: If I’ve interpreted the nudge correctly, God actually cares whether I (and you) become fully human. In fact, God cares enough to guide us in certain directions that are good for us. Doesn’t God have better things to do? Granted, it does seem awfully frivolous in the face of war and financial disaster and other catastrophes.

Yet it speaks profoundly of a God who tends not only to his whole garden, but to every plant therein.

That “tending” also speaks to the very nature of love. Anyone can say “I love you.” It’s an entirely different matter to listen to another being, learn about her soul, and do things to bring that soul to fruition. That is love. It’s less like the automatic “I love yous” I toss out to my wife and more like the times I take care of a chore to give her more time in the garden, because the garden is so important to who she is.

God doesn’t stop with saying “I love you” or “God so loved the world” or other words. No, God acts for our good, always, even when it costs him. As we approach the Christian Holy Week, this is what we see in Jesus: a God who was willing, not only to tend to us, but to become us—to live our daily grind—and give himself away for our good and the good of the world.