On betrayal and public persecution

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Wednesday of Holy Week

Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


So much of the Christian faith has to do with facing persecution. Because why do we need faith in anything outside of ourselves when everyone is treating us with love, acceptance, and fist-bumps (do people still fist-bump)?

But when other humans do the human thing of betraying and persecuting us, it can be a very isolating and terrifying experience.

And in this age of social media where so many of us have our every move on public display, we’re more vulnerable than ever to being stabbed in the back and socially crucified in order for certain people to gain a sense of righteousness in the eyes of their ‘tribe’ at our expense.

Public displays of persecution that used to be reserved for high-profile celebrities are now open for all of us through our social networks online.

(I don’t know about you, but I don’t get paid enough to bear it.)

This week, we’re taken to the cross. As much of an aversion I used to have to this part of the Jesus story, I now give kudos to this faith for not skirting the ubiquity of human despair and suffering. There is no spiritual bypassing in Christianity. It takes us into and through the heart of human suffering and darkness through the central character of Jesus.

Here are a few lines from today’s readings (yes, there’s a lectionary reading every day this Holy Week — hence why you’re seeing so much of me) that I started to see a thread in…

First, from Isaiah:

It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Then, from the Psalm:

Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!”

But I am poor and needy; hasten to me, O God! You are my help and my deliverer; O LORD, do not delay!

Finally, from the gospel reading of John:

When he (Judas) had gone out (to betray him), Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.

This thread is a thread of the despair that comes from betrayal. It’s enough to eat any human soul alive when we’re betrayed. But the glimmer in this thread comes from looking to a freeing and redeeming God in the midst of our betrayal. Something in us turns away from the persecutor and allows the radiance of our divine creator to shine on us.

See, when we’re betrayed, the first place we typically look is within. Sure, we’re mad at them for betraying us, but in the quiet of our own psyche, we can wonder if we’re deserving of this betrayal. Maybe we did something (or didn’t do something) that justifies this betrayal.

Secular culture is always based on performance, value, and merit. If this is all you have, it’s just as bad as believing in a God based on punishment and law.

This weighs heavy on the human soul. Because now, we’ve not only projected our despair onto our enemies, but also onto ourselves.

But this isn’t the God that Jesus showed us. On the cross, he opened his arms to a loving, forgiving God and, in turn, loved and forgave those who persecuted him in his darkest moment of despair.

(Yes, we humans need a spectacle to get something and he certainly gave us one.)

That is grace — the one-directional love and forgiveness from God to us — which this faith is rooted in.

I don’t know how to get through this dark of despair without faith in something… else. Something More-Than. An ever-loving, forgiving, merciful Other who suffers with us. One whom we can lay all burdens on and be renewed in spirit.

It doesn’t matter how ‘smart’ our culture is. It doesn’t matter how many apps I have on my phone to meditate to or get Jimmy John’s at my front door in 5 minutes. When it comes to the despair that comes from human betrayal, darkness sets in really fast. I need God in these moments.

Is this ‘Other’ objective and provable? 
No…

Is it rational?
Hardly…

Is there an app for it?
Not that I’ve seen…

But does it revive the human heart and bring new life?
Oh, hell yes…

Does it make me want to release others from their chains as well?
Absolutely…

I need this faith today even more so in this modern world. Sooner or later, we all fall short of each other’s and our own expectations. We all suffer the pangs of betrayal and it’s more public than ever for more people than ever.

In these darkest moments of betrayal, may we all remember that the divine ground of our very being loves us just where we are and only wants us to be free from judgment and shame.

May our hearts be softened so that we may free ourselves and others from the voice of the accuser that so profoundly creeps into the fabric of the human soul.

God is up to a ‘new thing’

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


As we approach Holy Week, things are continuing to advance in the march towards the cross. Tensions are running high.

But before I jump into Mary’s bold move in anointing Jesus’s feet, I want to reflect on this short yet punchy and powerful reading from Isiah.

It starts out describing a Rambo-like God — a God who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters. One who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.

But then, the paradigm is shifted…

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

And they say that the Old Testament is all about an angry, bloodthirsty God:) But here, we see God adapting Godself. Or is it humans adapting humanself to God? Kind of a chicken and egg thing, perhaps. Anyhow…

The tyrannical, dominance-based God is starting to soften. We are to make way for a new ‘thing’. From Rambo to… Mary Poppins?

(Or from Trump to Jacinda Ardern, perhaps — it’s seasonally appropriate and one can only hope, but maybe that’s just me…)

This Hebrew Bible quote is foreshadowing Jesus. Out with the iron-fisted, masculine God for a more feminine soul one that even the wild animals aren’t frightened of.

I want to jump right quick — as we do — to Paul’s letter to the Philippians…

First of all, he click-baits us with circumcision (really, Paul — we modern Westerners don’t openly talk about such things unless we’re in a doctor’s office or under an anonymous screen name in a dark and musty internet chat room). But then he outs himself in his self-importance and faux righteousness.

All the things he did ‘right’ before the law (his circumcision on the 8th day being one of them, apparently) — he now sees as useless. Not only useless, but he sees them as a loss. Things that set him back a few pegs in his relationship with the divine because they pointed at his own self-justification — a burden he couldn’t shoulder after realizing how flawed of a soul he was for persecuting ‘the other’ (Christians) at the time. The only thing that gave him a release of this burden was Christ. In Christ, he needed none of it. All of it only led to self-absorption and fragile arrogance which led to a brittle sense of self.

So again, we have a transition from an individual upholding of the law (masculine) to a complete self-emptying in Christ (feminine).

Keeping with this masculine = > feminine God theme in this week’s Lectionary, Jesus ends up (in the gospel of John) around a dinner table (because Jesus is the master of the intimate dinner party) with his resurrected pal Lazarus and — fittingly — Mary and Martha. Hair, perfume and bare feet are involved. It paints a scandalous picture to the puritanical soul as personified by the traitor, Judas (so #woke, that Judas) as he calls Mary out for not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor.

Wow… Kinda sounds like five minutes on Twitter if you’re in the progressive religious algorithm as I am. Anyhow, as is written…

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,

“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”

(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)

Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.

You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus knows better (doesn’t he always). Thinking abundantly, prophetically, and contemplatively as ever, he knows that even though he’ll be cruising into town on a donkey with a motley crew of underachievers and nobodies (to the high society of Jerusalem, that is), this moment deserves a little pomp and circumstance. This is a big damn deal and he’s not going to let the self-righteous pettiness of Judas ruin the moment.

(I love this so much.)

After doing a decent number of these Lectionary reflections, I’ve learned to look deeper into the context of these readings to give me a bigger picture. As I read the account from John, I went back a chapter to John 11:49–52. It’s here that I noticed something profound when it comes to Jesus crucifixion story…

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

Let me zoom in on the important part here…

You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

There it is, in scripture: the human propensity to bring momentary peace through scapegoating. This is what we do, friends. In the midst of our rivalrous bloodbath (literally or metaphorically), the only thing that saves us is when we can stop killing each other and point out the group/person on the margins of our culture to otherize, band against, scapegoat, and sacrifice.

This scapegoating used to be more rampant and blood-laden than it is now, it seems, but turning on the news will reveal this propensity alive and well within the human condition to this day. It’s a spiritual exercise to be honest with yourself and ask yourself just who you’re scapegoating right now — either in your head or in-person.

Jesus was our scapegoat. We needed a blood sacrifice. Not God. God leapt into flesh and jumped in front of us to take it on in the experience of Jesus of Nazareth.

The difference between Jesus and all of the other countless scapegoats throughout time is that Jesus gives us a play-by-play beforehand (during his life), while it was happening (during his crucifixion), and afterward (during his resurrection). And the kicker is, as a spokesman for this masculine/feminine and human/divine God, he loves and forgives us even more because he knows that only God’s love and profound forgiveness in the face of this atrocity can restore humanity.

May it be so.

Amen.

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Free to Relax

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“Faith is what enables me to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than I could imagine.”
- James Alison

Christianity used to stress me out. And when I say ‘used to’, I mean, up until about a year ago.

When I was a kid and I used to look up at Jesus hanging on the crucifix at church, I’d feel so guilty. He looked so sad. So disappointed. So bitter, even. Like, how could I ever make it right? I felt I had nothing to do with his death, but I also felt complicit. The message I got in the Roman church was that I needed to be fixed in this life so that I could sit before Jesus and his angry dad on judgment day.

It was too much. I didn’t know how to handle it. Eventually, I wandered away from Christianity for various reasons and got into other things. Now that I’m back, I’m so fortunate to have been introduced to good, healthy, and wise theology.

I want to bear witness to what this Christian faith has revealed to me this last year (yep, I’ve been a tried and true practicing ‘Christian’ for a year), in a small(ish) digital nutshell.

James Alison — one of my favorite theologians — nails this concept in his book (which I’m geeking out on now), Jesus, the Forgiving Victim.

We are all born into a world created by the ‘social other’. This world is already set in place through generations of humans laying roads, constructing languages, figuring out how to measure things, setting up systems, voting, not voting, waring, peacing, and making an infinite amount of choices on a daily basis for gajillions (or so) of years. When you see how powerful this ‘social other’ is, you see how little we have to do with our lives (I truly don’t understand how I was an individualist for so long.)

This ‘social other’ gives us our identity. There’s an element of love and stability in this — maybe even a slight majority of it, depending on where and when you happened to pop out of the womb. But it’s not reliable. It’s so easy to depend entirely on the social other for approval, for identity, a sense of who we are and whether we’re ‘worthy’ or not. This is when we lose ourselves in trying to win or keep approval from people. Sometimes, the approval comes and everything seems fine. Until things go awry.

It’s a very fleeting and unreliable beast, this social other.

And then comes Jesus, who nudges us into daring to let go of our need to get a quick fix of immediate approval from this ‘social other’, but rather from this God (whom he personifies), which is not really a God like the gods who came before. Alison describes this god as a sort of ‘Other other’ not part of or in rivalry with any part of the ‘social other’. This god expects nothing from us and can only love us.

Jesus empowers us to discover ourselves as being liked and loved into being by someone who has no ulterior motive — someone who doesn’t hold the same wavering tendencies as so much of the social other does.

As Alison so lucidly states,

Faith is what enables us to relax enough to be stretched into being something much more than we could ever imagine. One of the odd consequences of this is that, as it happens in life, it ceases to become so important to be good.

And this is something unique about Christianity compared with other world religions… Its starting point is that we’re kind of a beautiful trainwreck. We don’t start nice and tidy and then screw up. We start screwed up and as we find ourselves loved, so we are able to let go of our attempts at being good, which are usually dangerous and hurtful.

In fact, as we find ourselves loved, we’re all the more able to give up trying to manipulate people into loving us. This is when we also find ourselves able to do genuinely good things out of soft-hearted generosity rather than out of a need to prove or justify ourselves.

I just love that.

This is the promise that we are to trust as Christians: that we are loved more than we’ll ever know by the divine. This love came at the beginning of creation, long before our human fall, and will have the last word. We are freely forgiven, no matter how much we muck things up. God’s love redeems us. We are reborn in it. It revives our hardened hearts and sets us free to love without obligation.

I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of this several times a day — and even then, it often doesn’t compute. But when it does, I see why this Jesus thing is still around today. And if they’d told me this when I was younger, I may have never left:)

Yes, I’m a wreck. Yes, I strive for your approval. Yes, I’d do anything to get you to share this post to all of your friends. And this is super stressful.

But in Jesus, I am free of it. I can relax into the love that he personifies — the love inherent in the ground of my being itself.

Ahhhhhhh…

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Let’s not forget the older brother

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Fourth Sunday in Lent
Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


This week’s readings include Jesus’s most infamous parable: the prodigal son. You’ve probably heard the story a few times (a few hundred times?).

If you know how the parable goes, jump down to the next divider line (the three dots about five paragraphs below).

For the uninitiated, real quick, this parable is the one about the king and his two sons. The older son is a do-gooder who follows all of his dad’s rules and doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. The younger son is a hell-raiser who walks up to his dad one day and basically says, “Hey, Dad. Give me my inheritance now,” (which is effectively like saying, “You’re dead to me,” in those days).

Without question, the king goes along with his younger son’s request and off the younger son goes to Atlantic City to blow the money on booze, drugs, and prostitutes (or something like that).

After a period of debauchery, the younger son runs out of money and has to resort to working as a pig-feeder, which no one will even pay him for.

So he tucks his proverbial tail between his legs and returns to the king to confess his sins and apologize. Upon his return, the king sees him walking up the road and runs out to meet him. He interrupts his son’s confession and apology by telling his slaves to go fetch him a robe and slippers and to fire up the BBQ because they’re going to be grilling up the fattest calf they can find. It’s gonna be a party, y’all.

Meanwhile, the older son is stewing. Like, “Why in tarnation (yes, ‘tarnation’) does my horrible younger brother get a party and all the praise while I’m here working my face off in the field?! That’s bullhockey!”

Then the father says to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


Before I get into the meat of my reflection, I want to point something out… In past years, I’ve always heard this parable called The Prodigal Son. Yes, ‘son’. Singular.

But as I research theological resources, I see it called The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother or The Parable of a Father Reconciling Estranged Brothers.

So, brothers — with an ‘s’. Plural.

Most reflections and sermons on this story seem to focus on the younger brother (typical, the ‘bad kid’ always gets all of the attention, right?). The younger brother is the one who was healed. Who’s been ‘brought back to life’.

And I love that part of the story. God (yes, you totally get that the king in this story resembles God) loves and forgives us no matter how bad we transgress against ourselves and others. All that matters to God is that our hearts are softened. And the younger brother’s heart was softened through his suffering after his ill-fated debauchery. Beautiful stuff.

But what about the older brother? I mean, seriously. This is who I want to focus on in this short message today. Because it’s THIS GUY in our culture today who needs some love. I want to see HIS healing. He’s the one who concerns me. Maybe even scares me.

As the story shows, being so focused on self-righteousness and rigid responsibility is as big of a transgression in the eyes of the king as drunken debauchery is. Both are going the opposite direction of the grace of God. They’re both forms of turning in on oneself and away from the love and acceptance of the divine.

The only difference is, the younger son, through his suffering, had the awakening to repent and be absolved by the king.

Now, repentance isn’t necessarily a requirement from God (nor from a pastor/priest/parent). It isn’t something we obligatorily do with head hung low in resentment like, “Okay, fine — I guess I’m sooorry.”

True repentance is a natural human response when we royally botch things up. It’s done in passionate longing — often while on our knees looking up at the sky, for some reason — to feel love again. We need to be forgiven by another (even an eternal other) because we sure as hell can’t forgive ourselves.

Ever been there? Anyhow…

The younger son straight up went there. His heart was revitalized, the king welcomed him with open arms, and there he was eating fat cow burgers as big brother looked on in resentment.

It’s a bummer the story ends there because this story isn’t about the brother who’s right and the brother who’s wrong. It’s not about the younger brother turning the table and ‘winning’ against the older stuck up one. It’s supposed to be a story about the reconciliation of two brothers. But nothing seems to have been reconciled. If anything, the brothers seem to be more resentful of each other than ever.

When the king said to the older brother, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours,” what did that do to his son’s heart? I hope it softened it at least a little.

The king didn’t say, “You were always the stuck-up snooty one. Why don’t you lighten up and live a little like your younger brother. Here, go to Vegas and don’t come back until you end up in rehab. Then we’ll talk.”

No…

You are always with me.
All that is mine is yours.

The return is just as possible and the father’s love is just as real for the older brother than it was for the younger one.

I don’t see the older brother as a particularly ‘bad’ kid. And that’s kinda the point. He’s not ‘bad’, he’s just… uptight. Kind of like a suburban white kid with well-to-do parents. He’s not a rebel. He gets good grades. He probably plays football. He thinks he’s checking all the right boxes unlike the kids at the other side of town.

The older brother is trying to get something from his old man. His thought is, if I do the good works, I’ll get my father’s inheritance. He has the same greed as his younger brother, but it’s masked in obedience. At least his kid brother was upfront about his disdain and greed.

I know, he sounds like a total jerk (you might even hate him more than the younger brother).

But we can’t forget that the father’s love goes for both brothers in this parable.

As we learn, the older brother doesn’t have to live that way. His father would have given him anything if he’d just have been real about it. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. See, the problem with the older brother is that he likely never experienced deep suffering. It seems the self-righteous have to fall on their face before their heart softens. The older son must come to the end of himself before realizing the grace the rests at the ground of his being. Before seeing that he was loved all along and that all the father has is his without having to check any boxes or demonstrate his perfect performance in the eyes of the father.

I pray for the older brother and all who can identify with him among us. May his heart be softened without having to fall first. How he returns isn’t up to me. But I pray that he feels his father’s love sooner than later. And I pray that we can hold this space in a more God-aligned way so as to speed that process along. Because it doesn’t behoove us for either brother to be ‘more right’ than the other. But for the brothers to be reconciled in the steadfast love of their father who holds nothing against either and wants both to feel and know his love.

Amen.

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A lament: On the shortness of time

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Our time here in these bodies is short. Why do we spend so much of it peacocking, posturing, and one-upping? Why do we fill our precious minutes comparing, positioning, and straining?

I know my culture tells me that I have to differentiate myself from you. My survival instincts and the cultural collective — they command me to play chess with my personal relationships and focus on coming out ahead. Or at least capitalizing on every interaction.

I pray that I can become free of this curse. 
May I never forget that this very breath is a gift. 
Help me to love. 
Help me extend comfort and joy and caring.

Why is this so hard to do?

We are beloved children of God. We have been free and forgiven since before our first breath.

Our harmless flaws and imperfections are beloved and our hurtful transgressions are unnecessary.

Only human senses and the voice of the accuser — Satan — can define us by these things.

But God only sees the anointed one in us, no matter how much damage we inflict or how far we think we stray.

God, help keep me turned to you. And help me remember that this is impossible if I don’t turn towards my siblings here on Earth.


This lament was first published in The Jonas Letters.

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Jesus was not just a teacher

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Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Third Sunday in Lent
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


Belief in an angry, damning God is not an easy one to shake — even for those of us alive today in our increasingly secular times.

I’d even say that many of us believe in an angry God — even atheists, in a certain way. They might not pray to or worship that God, but this is the idea of God that they either walked away from or decided never to buy into in the first place.

Nevertheless, the idea of an angry, damning, judgmental God remains.

Even though I didn’t grow up strictly religious and barely attended church, I still considered myself a ‘Christian’. In my conservative central valley California town, I couldn’t avoid hearing of a God who was spoken of as damning homosexuals, people who cheat on their spouses, thieves and liars (who tended to have a different color of skin than I did), etc. I saw Jesus as being the only son of this God who was put to death because of the whims of this God.

How can anyone develop a friendship, sonship, daughtership, or any kind of loving relationship with this God?

When bad things happen to us — no matter how religious or secular we are — a lot of us have at least a sneaking suspicion that God had something to do with it. Whether it’s the God we currently worship, or the one we left long ago, the question beckons from the back of our minds, “What kind of God would let/make this happen?”

These are the questions being posed to Jesus in this week’s gospel reading from Luke about the sacrifices concerning Pilate and the tower falling on those poor people the tower of Siloam fell on.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

Jesus nips this notion in the bud and tells his questioners that they were not killed because of anything they did ‘wrong’.

I would’ve been fine if Jesus would’ve left it at this. But he has to throw in a contemplative zinger…

“‘No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.’”

Which brings us to the word ‘repent’. This word has such a loaded meaning in our day. It means something like, feel really bad and guilty for the things you’ve done. But the Biblical interpretation of the word ‘repent’ ties into the word ‘metanoia’, which means ‘a change of heart and mind’.

So, here’s, in effect, what I take Jesus to be saying…

No, these people weren’t punished by a damning God. But unless you change your heart and mind about death itself, you’ll die in vain just like they did.

Jesus was against the very apparatus of sacrifice itself, which was so ubiquitous in his day. Sacrifice is a part of scapegoating. And nothing stops a rivalry better than a scapegoat. When two masses of humans are killing each other, nothing brings peace like a scapegoat that they can unite and rally against. Before Jesus, most scapegoats were either too terrified/powerless to reveal their victimhood or they were animals/newborns who couldn’t speak at all.

Jesus was the scapegoat who gave us the play-by-play along the way.

He knew he was going to be the scapegoated sacrifice. He was revealing how humans get their fix, not through life, but through death. He came, not to save us from sin, but to save us from the obsession on death.

The metanoia Jesus was trying to bring about in his listeners was to be conscious that, if they continued believing that ‘God’ was the one doing the killing, they’d never see the truth that it was this false belief that was baked into the culture doing the killing. If they died while still unaware of this insight, they’d die a meaningless death like those they were so concerned about.

To the people of Jesus’ day (and, I’d say, this modern day) death is the end. We’ve long romanticized/obsessed about/feared death. We make epic stories out of death — even Jesus’.

Jesus asks us to see death, not as the end of the story, but as the thing that is transcended. He exposed our cultural bloodlust in order to reveal something new — a dying-and-rising universe.

Jesus was saying that without metanoia (repentance), we can die either by participating in the old sacrificial scapegoating system and finding ourselves the victim of its backfiring (such as those under Pilate), or we can die deaths that are fundamentally accidental and therefore meaningless (such as those killed under the falling tower).

Jesus knows that his words would fall short of the hearts of his listeners. This is why Jesus’ main role wasn’t as a teacher. Sure, he taught. But if he was just a teacher, he would have tried to live as long as possible, so we could learn as many lessons as we could from him. But he knew those intellectual teachings hardly ever stick. Therefore, he knew he had to succumb to his impending execution to really drive this home.

Jesus wasn’t just a teacher — he was a revealer, the icon of the living God.

(A God that many of the loudest American Christians have failed to recognize.)

And so he begins to prepare his followers for the metanoia that will happen after his crucifixion. That was what the fig tree parable was likely about: “I’m going to work the soil right now so that next year…” — which is just another way of saying that a little while later it will bear fruit. The “it” that will bear fruit is the cross.

Jesus wanted to change our hearts and minds from a god who is both good and bad, who loves and who punishes, to a perception of God who is only love, in whom there is no darkness at all.

The God Jesus revealed had nothing to do with the deaths — horrid or accidental — of anyone. Those who believe so are trapped in an understanding of God which is meshed in by death. He wanted to urge them otherwise so that they wouldn’t follow suit.

Jesus completely de-sacralizes the incidents that his questioners were putting so much divine weight on. Death has nothing to do with God. If we get caught up in the world of giving sacred meanings, then we will be caught up in the world of reciprocal violence, of good and bad measured over against other people, and we, too, will likewise perish.

Here’s the takeaway for me this week: There is no connection between the evils that strike us and any specific judgement of God. Persecutions are real persecutions and accidents are real accidents.

God loves us and suffers with us through our deaths into new life both before and after our physical bodies perish.

[Source]

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Subject-to-subject

Photo by Baylee Gramling

I’ve long heard of this spiritual/mystical concept of relating to each other ‘subject-to-subject’ vs. ‘subject-to-object’.

Every time I’d come across this concept, I’d nod my head in agreement, but couldn’t quite grasp what it even meant. Doesn’t everything we relate to become an object? Like, it’s over there, I’m over here, I look at it, and thus, it’s an object. Right?

It’s probably because I’ve robbed myself (up until now) of any formal philosophical education. But after dancing with this concept off and on throughout the years, the perfect mental image just happened to jump into my brain palace to show me what it ‘means’…

(If you already grasp this concept, close this post now because you’re way ahead of me.)

Subject-to-object is what happens when I look at a sushi roll. I’m going to devour this object and every single other one that floats down that lazy sushi river within my grasp (btw, why do the sushi rivers seem to be going out of style these days?).

Subject-to-subject is what happens when I notice an incredible sunset and I run over, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you to look out the window at THAT! As we look at the sunset, we’re standing subject-to-subject. This is the most harmonious way to relate to each other, subject-to-subject (though we are humans who are handicapped/blessed with object-making lizard brains, so there’s that).

Now let’s take this concept into our relationship with the divine…

Yes, I can (and do — often) try to objectify the divine. But, as is written in Exodus- we can see God’s back, but God’s face shall not be seen. That’s because an objectified God isn’t God. God can only be experienced subject to subject.

I like to envision God appearing with God’s back turned to me and me stepping into God’s presence and looking out through God’s eyes.

Might be worth it to enjoy this short human experience relating subject-to-subject with each other and with the divine.

(It’s just really hard to get my mind off of sushi now.)

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Grace comes first

Photo by Kendal James

I used to see church as the place where we get right with God. We go there, we listen to the religious professionals, do what they say, and then we (hopefully) get in God’s good graces (for whatever that’s worth) — right?! So, I saw it going like this…

Church => Works => Grace => Afterlife Guarantee

This is the purpose of a works-based religion. We do the works and then we get the grace. Baddabing. Baddaboom.

Side-note: It’s funny how this works-based theme also translates to the secular world. We do the Peloton, we eat the ketogenic things, we do the Headspace app, and then we feel worthy.

I see it now in reverse…

Grace => Works => Church => This-life guarantee

According to scripture, God’s grace came before we were born. And so, by believing the promise that we are eternally worthy in the eyes of our creator, we can be free to do good works without the chains of obligation. Then, we go to church to bear witness to our faith in this promise and share the good news with the community.

Of course, you can try this grace-based switch in the secular world too. Instead of doing the Peloton and eating the ketogenic things in order to feel worthy, feel worthy first and then make your daily life a testament and celebration of this (through your good works of Peloton and Keto or whatever your secular sacraments may be).

I might be wrong, but when I start with my worthiness — not in the works I do, but in the promise God made — my life feels a lot freer and less like a chore. Give it a shot??

P.S. Yes, I know, you could say that you don’t need church. And you kinda don’t. In fact, if the churches in your area are horrid, you’re better off staying home. But if you have a loving and inclusive church community in your area, why rob yourself of the opportunity to go feel small and loved for a while?

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God’s Love is too radical for any of our churches

Photo by Nam Hoang

What can I say, we’re humans. We’re biologically wired to wall ourselves off from things that seem foreign to us. We’re granted with defense mechanisms that are designed to keep our bodies alive. And they’re pretty reliable. They’ve kept us around for a long time, I’d say.

The only thing is, these defense mechanisms often wall us off from what’s best for us and for our neighbors. We do a lot of ridiculous things that we seem perfectly justified in doing.

Some of these mechanisms still make sense. When an Audi SUV whose driver is late to drop off his kid to school almost hits me as I walk my dog, I’m glad I naturally flinch and jump out of the way.

Others, in contrast, don’t make so much sense. Like when I think someone who has a different shade of skin is out to get me. Or when I feel offended by who someone loves or identifies as.

Case in point, organized religion. It’s a long history of personal and organizational walls being erected and torn down.

In short, our defense mechanisms wall us off from love because they wall us off from the other. Love requires vulnerability. It requires us to stand bare and defenseless before the other.

A tall order for any lizard-brained human.

I’ll add, standing before human love is child’s play to standing before God’s love.

God’s love is more radical than any of us or our churches can handle.

Even ‘progressive churches’ wouldn’t be so ‘open and affirming’ if a red hat-donning republican sauntered in with an American flag button-down, wranglers, and white tennies. (I’m with you, I’d be like, get this dude out of here, whuuuuuut?!)

If anything, we need a shield for God’s love. It’s just too much. If we actually were to accept it, all heaven — I mean, hell — would break loose.

We’d have to take care of each other, address the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized, soften the hearts of the rich, sit with those who aren’t like us, wish our enemies well, and all other kinds of insane things. We’d have to stand vulnerable before each other even more than we already do with no walls between us.

I don’t know about you, but I need a bit of a wall up (sometimes a big one). My defense mechanisms serve me quite well, thank you very much.

Dear friends, we have to have mercy on each other. Being human is quite the predicament. It takes time for our collective to release our grip on these defenses.

But we are.

It’s happening, I can see it. I can feel it. Can you?

Maybe God is breaking past these defenses against our will.

I’m so sorry for anyone who currently has to suffer from our current collective posture. But please hold fast and have hope that God is moving us in the right direction.

And while you’re around, might as well surrender to that love and make a ruckus:)

[This one goes out to my friends in the UMC who are grieving over the loss of the proposed One Church Plan to give more discretion to local churches and annual conferences in LGBTQ inclusion, ministry, and mission.]

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We are the body of Christ

Photo by Artiom Vallat.

I’m learning a lot sorting through Fr. Richard Rohr’s latest content surrounding the Universal Christ (the title of his new book that comes out on March 5th — preorder here if you’re into that sort of thing).

It seems that our Western theology has mistakenly made Christ (the anointed one) exclusive to Jesus when it’s actually a universal concept. All of creation (physicality) is anointed as Christ. God deemed ALL of creation GOOD. Jesus was just the one to bring this concept into human form and bring humanity into the fold.

By making Jesus the exclusive Christ, he became an icon to be worshipped. Instead of delivering on the original purpose of uniting humanity, it divided us in a million ways. We got into countless subsects and declared that we are the ones Jesus approves of. We’re in, you’re out.

I’m no expert in this concept, so I won’t even attempt to make this a comprehensive post about it. But my big takeaway so far is that the body of Christ is all of us.

The human collective, our planet, and all of creation make up the body of Christ.

None of us go through this thing alone. We all live interdependent of each other. From the clothes on our bodies to the streets we drive down and the water we drink — all of it comes not from any one of us, and I’m grateful. It is not to be expected, it is to be revered.

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The power of confession

Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

Growing up in the Roman church, I always thought private confession was odd. I was glad my parents never made me do it (we were partial church-goers, at best).

Something seemed weird about sitting in a small booth with a priest and telling him (yes, always him) all the things I’ve done ‘wrong’.

I grew up with a strong distrust of clergy (as highly influenced by my dad) and saw confession from a rebellious point of view. Like, what should it matter if that guy in the robe forgives me? Isn’t the point for God to forgive me? Why should I go through him? Pssssht.

This mindset carried through until recently where I’ve returned to a confessional theology in the Lutheran faith. And I have to say, confession is one of my favorite parts of worship.

I haven’t done a private confession yet. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know if our church does them (we don’t have booths like the Roman church does, so I wouldn’t know how to even go about it).

We do a communal confession at the beginning of the service where we all kneel and recite a confessional rite that goes like this…

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
Forgive, restore, and strengthen us
through our Savior Jesus Christ,
that we may abide in your love 
and serve only your will. Amen.

Isn’t that beautiful? I get a little choked up every time.

It’s all about what lens you see this through. If you see this as an obligatory ‘work’ towards a begrudging God, it feels a lot like groveling. And groveling has never softened anyone’s heart.

But if you see this through a grace-based lens, you know that the source code of all creation — both human and otherwise — is as beloved, forgiven offspring of the divine. We are, by nature, forgiven beings.

It’s not that we have to confess.
It’s that we are free to confess.

From obligation to freedom. This is the power of grace. The grace that our confession reminds us of.

Confession reminds me that we, as humans, do heartless, hurtful, transgressive things to ourselves and each other. But in the recognition of grace, we are innately forgiven and free to realign with the nature of life itself (God’s will).

Our society has such an aversion to guilt. No one can feel ‘bad’ anymore. Modern spirituality bypasses guilt faster than grief, shame, or anything else.

But guilt is an integral human emotion. We need to name our guilt in a healthy way. Being direct about the ways I’ve hurt myself and others (and thusly, God) is incredibly cathartic and cleansing. Confession is one of the most powerful and transformative kenotic rituals we can perform.

I highly suggest it.


This post was begotten and made over at JonasEllison.com.

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When you realize you’re ‘just’ a dad

She wanted a Hatchimal (like, a deluxe one), but I’m not spending $60 or whatever, so I made her this out of newspaper, masking tape, and wood glue (decorative elements credit: Rory Ellison — which looks more like the Joker than a Hatchimal, but is cute nonetheless).

I remember reading an interview (which I can’t find for the life of me) a long time ago with Guy Kawasaki, one of Apple’s original evangelists (in the marketing sense). The interviewer asked him to tell the audience a little about himself. I was expecting some bloated answer about Silicon Valley entrepreneur extraordinaire, blah, blah, blah, but his answer was short and shocking.

“I’m a dad,” Kawasaki said. 
Straight face. 
End of sentence.

I was reflecting on this the other day. I’m in a season where I’m trying like crazy to answer my vocational calling in midlife (or, maybe, slightly pre-midlife). I feel like I’ve wasted some time (give or take a decade or so) and have all these lofty plans and schemes and goals to catch up and ‘make my mark’ (whatever that means) in the short amount of time I have left.

(Listen to that… Me, me, me.)

Anyhow, I was reciting these things to myself the other day when one thought led to another and then another (as they do) and I eventually found myself thinking about how my daughter is doing in school and her upcoming play date and how I wonder if she’ll remember to bring home her water bottle today and…

Holy hell…

After all these lofty goals and expectations I have for myself and ego ideals I strive to match up to...

I’m just a dad. 
Period.

Now, that’s a big JUST. It’s, like, everything. Maybe I should put quotes around it…

I’m ‘just’ a dad. 
(There, that’s better.)

I wrote the other day about how many past lives we have. As I reflect on the concept now, I realize there were really only two lives: Pre-kiddo and post.

No matter what kinds of awesome things I may think I’m up to for my own sake, truth be told that all of it boils down to one thing.

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Grace, all the way down

Photo by adrian

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


Like the Chicago River, reversing the flow of God in my head is hard work.

I used to see the direction of faith going from us towards God. We do the works — the prayers, the following of the commandments, the repenting, the confessing, the tithing, and sacrificing of the bread and the wine; and then maybe God will love/accept/grace us.

But my Lutheran friends have taught me this is backward. According to their interpretation of the gospels, instead of waiting on a throne for us to do the right things, God rushes in toward us.

From God to us. From God to us. From God to us. (Let me repeat that a few thousand more times and it may start to stick.)

This week’s readings provide one fantastic exhibit after another of this incoming direction of God’s grace.

Exhibit A

Starting with the passage from the prophet Isiah, he proclaims himself a tainted blasphemer before God. In his eyes, he’s long gone — doomsday is upon him and his people (who are all as messed up as he is, as he says).

Nope. Not so fast…

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Exhibit B

The Psalm is all about God increasing the strength of our soul, regarding the lowly, preserving us in the midst of trouble and delivering us from the wrath of our enemies. It showcases a God who works with God’s hands — a God fueled by steadfast love.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
 you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
 and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
 your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
 Do not forsake the work of your hands.

It’s God who does the work. 
<Repeating as mantra.>

Exhibit C

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he’s really down on himself. He’s feeling guilty and claims that he’s unfit to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church (yep, Paul — erm, Saul — killed some Christians in his day). The reading ends with this…

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

God towards us. 
God towards us.

Exhibit D

The gospel reading this week from Luke tells the story about these fishermen who were out trying to catch fish and having a really rough day. They essentially gave up and docked their boats. As they were washing their (empty) nets, they noticed a crowd of people getting uncomfortably close to this one guy who seems to be teaching them something. They back him right up to the water and he jumps in Simon’s boat.

He calls Simon over and has him push out a little way. They go out and Jesus (the crowd-gathering mystic) has him lower his net. He’s like, man, I’ve been trying this all day, but okay (or something like that). Suddenly, bang. Fish-on. And a lot of fish-on.

And then Simon does the thing humans do. He suddenly feels unworthy to be in the presence of this master teacher and miracle worker.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Nope… Not so fast. Jesus doesn’t roll with those who believe they’re pure. His posse is intentionally composed of self-proclaimed sinners.

God, moving towards us, against our will.

The point

In all of these, God rushes in. God’s grace comes to us. All of these people who received gifts from God deemed themselves unworthy. But God didn’t care. God, in various ways, imposed on them and redeemed them. Using the body of Jesus, God jumped in the boat uninvited and started reeling in fish. When God jumps in the boat, our job isn’t to ask questions. Our job is to accept that grace and run with it.

Our job isn’t to do anything to deserve God’s grace, it’s to live in response to it.

It’s grace, all the way down to us.

We are redeemed. 
Now what?

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From sacrifice to sacrament

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer

We humans used to focus our worship on offering things to god(s). Plants, animals, delicacies, gifts — even fellow humans in our darkest seasons. It was all about sacrificing something to appease whatever god we were worshipping at the time. This is how status with the divine was established.

That’s how a lot of Christians in modern times see Jesus. As a form of human sacrifice to a bloodthirsty God. Now, maybe it’s my layman’s naivety and ignorance, but I think this misses the point (hugely). I think Jesus came around and flipped this entire principle on its head.

It seems to me that he took the opportunity in the last supper to showcase that it was time for us to accept God’s sacrifice this time.

Jesus offered his body and blood via bread and wine to us. Now, instead of having to feed God through sacrifice, we were being fed by God through sacrament.

This meant that the sacrificial status game was over. This God that Jesus represented needed nothing from us. All this God wanted was for us to receive Godself into us. To stop the obsessive feeding and become fed. To step away from the spiritual ranking system, sit down at a table together, eat, drink, and be merry.

From sacrifice to sacrament. What if this was the paradigm shift that Jesus ushered in?

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The Bible, not as shield or weapon

Photo by Jaanus Jagomägi

I have an upcoming Q&O (questions & opinions — my first ever — which you should be a part of, btw).

The thought occurred to me that someone may come on and challenge me, theologically (I know, I’m paranoid). My first reaction was to head to the Good Book to start jotting down the possible openings in my recent theological musings and plan my rebuttals. To steady my theological shield, if you will.

But then, something occurred to me that disarmed me (in a good way)…

Even if I was well-versed with the Bible (which, I’m getting there, but I consider myself an intermediate student, at best), that flawed-yet-sacred library of texts isn’t best used in that way.

From what I can tell, the Bible makes a horrible law book.

Yes, there are a lot of laws in it, but they’re so varied in so many ways that it’s useless as any sort of objective source. Sure, I could cherry-pick the verses that served my particular worldview and argue to the hilt that they’re more ‘right’ than the ones you pick, but then we’d both walk away from the conversation even more rooted in our self-righteousness.

We can do better.

The gospels can change us. But they’re only going to do that if we show up willing to be wrong.

If you were to ‘come at me’ Biblically (bro?), I’d probably get frustrated and defensive, but hopefully, the holy spirit would give me the wherewithal to thank you for showing me something I haven’t seen before. And I hope you’d afford yourself the opportunity to do the same.

How amazing would it be if more theological discussions were like this? The Bible, not as a weapon or as a shield, but as a decentering transformative sacrament that opens us up to the moreness of the divine in this clunky human experience.

Hope to see you on Friday.

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40 Things I Love

Photo by Ksenia Kudelkina

I’m late to the game here, but I was so inspired by Jon Carl Lewis post, “40 Things I Love as well as Tre L. Loadholt’s post, 40: “These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things,” that I decided to take up the challenge and list forty things I love, in no particular order and with a minimum (I hope) of thought.

  1. Alex (my wife): She was born on the day I was baptized, so there’s some seriously weird voodoo going on there, at least.
  2. Rory (my daughter): I mean, she’s my female mini-me. My little sage. And she drives me crazy. Which is good for me.
  3. The rest of my friends and family (no, I will not list all of you).
  4. Coffee: The dark old-school stuff. Not the newfangled hipster kind. I want bold and burnt, not orangey and raisiney. (This is not me macho-signaling. On the contrary, it’s because I put a lot of cream and sugar in my brew and actually want to taste the coffee.)
  5. Oatly oat milk: I used to buy cartons of it in bulk, but now it’s not available to non-commercial customers. So I mostly go with Trader Joe’s soy creamer, which is delicious but isn’t very healthy.
  6. German beer: Preferably bock beer or Oktoberfest. We live in an old German neighborhood in Chicago, so I’m in German-beer heaven.
  7. Open fires of any size: From a candle to a bonfire, doesn’t matter.
  8. Cabin porn: My Instagram feed is full of the work of cabin pornographers. I wish I could be one myself. Gotta figure out that business model.
  9. Books about hygge: Yes, the hygge craze these last few years has got me good.
  10. Contrast: Warm inside spaces with cold weather outside: Or cool inside spaces with hot weather inside.
  11. Early American Hymns: It’s one of the things I love so much about our particular Lutheran church. Chamber music and early American hymns. Just puts me there.
  12. Bach Sonatas: Especially via Chris Thile on mandolin.
  13. A certain subset of modern bluegrass musicians: including, but not partial to all musicians in the following bands — some of whom overlap: Punch Brothers, Hawktail, I’m With Her Band, Nickel Creek, Crooked Still, and The Wailin Jennys.
  14. Traditional Liturgy: Candles. Robes. Incense. Scripture. Stained glass. Bowing. Kneeling. Bread. Wine. It’s a tradition that’s in my bones. Brings me home every time.
  15. Good conversations: If you talk about sports or politics, you’ll be talking to yourself.
  16. Sarcasm: If done well.
  17. Mountain lakes: I prefer these to oceans because I like to be able to see the other side. Again, I like contrast and the mountains and smooth water bring it in a big way. Tahoe is my favorite and closest to my heart.
  18. Learning new things: Because there never is enough.
  19. Being wrong: Because this is the only way I actually learn.
  20. Being right: Because it feels so good, yeeeah!
  21. Ireland: Perfect climate. Great pubs. Fantastic storytellers. Kind people. History. Ahhhh…
  22. Pubs with no TV’s: Again, Ireland.
  23. Playing golf with friends: Walking, not riding in carts. Golf was my first life, and it’s fading from my current one, but it’s still a part of me.
  24. Hiking: Alex and I used to hike a lot when we lived in Nevada. And then we had Rory. For the first year or two, we could throw her in the hiking backpack. But then she got too big to fit but too small to walk for more than 20 feet without complaining. She’s almost big enough to start hiking, so I hope to be back at it soon.
  25. Skiing: I learned at age 37 and am not very good, but I love it.
  26. Writing: Obviously.
  27. Reading: Mostly non-fiction. But this year, I’m FORCING myself to read fiction consistently. Nothing helps my writing more than reading fiction.
  28. Good sermons: I used to like sermons that made me feel awesome, but these days, I love sermons that make me feel small (but that make me see how awesome God is).
  29. The audacity of humanity: kindness, courage, and compassion that’s beyond human reason is God in motion.
  30. Jesus: Of course. But a different Jesus than a lot of Christians in America worship (I write about this A LOT, so I won’t explain here).
  31. Chicago: Stormy, husky, brawling — this is the city of big shoulders. Classy. Hard-working. Big-hearted. Architecturally astute. Well-planned. I could go on. This place where I live is incredible.
  32. Lake Tahoe: It’s still home to me. Driving around that lake never gets old. Swimming in it never fails to cleanse the soul. And there is no sky like the sky above Lake Tahoe.
  33. Lutheran Theology: Luther was a maniacal genius and I love him for what he did with the gospels focusing on grace through faith rather than works. I’m not crazy about some of his personal opinions, but this is where I exercise my faith in the grace he spoke of by knowing he is a flawed, forgiven human — perfect in his imperfection.
  34. Cubs home game days: Not that I watch sports. I only know two of the players' names (one happens to live down the street from me). And the games are super expensive. But there’s something about Wrigley Field and the buzz of a Cubs game day that I love being around (we live 1.5 miles from the park).
  35. Family gatherings: I have a (very) small family, but my wife has a big family out in the suburbs that I love hanging out with. Even though it makes me a bit neurotic to have dinner with that many people, I always wanted a big family and it’s nice to have been brought into one through her.
  36. Laughing: I mean, right?
  37. Crying: Even better. And something straight, white, cisgender males don’t allow themselves to do nearly enough. I learned that you can only cry when you feel safe. And they produce healthy cleansing hormones in the body. So unlike many of our fathers may have suggested, tears are good news.
  38. Good stories: Again, Ireland. The Irish tell the best stories, hands down. I can’t stand it when people’s eyes dart away when I’m telling a story, so it’s something I’m constantly working on. I can write one, but speaking one is a different — well — story.
  39. Poetry: It shows me that I can be loose with my words. Writing poetry is extremely therapeutic. You can let the words take over and do their own thing. Reading a good poet reveals the color and richness available in the human language.
  40. Hot springs: When we lived in the Sierras, we had access to a number of natural, inhabitable hot springs. There’s nothing like sitting in a bath of mother nature’s bubbling brew surrounded by snow and staring up at that wide sky.

Now… What’s your fav-40?

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Time is running short — love hugely

Photo by Jedd

This one’s short — a little reminder, if you will…

It can seem that there are so many wrongs to right. So many dragons to slay. So many minds to change.

But just like the length of this post, our lives are also short. Therefore…

Life is short. There’s not much time left to love others.

We humans can do this. We can love, purposefully and deeply, with no reason at all, against improbable odds.

Don’t rob yourself of this sacred opportunity.

Time’s a-wastin’.

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The divine Jesus

Photo by José Alejandro Cuffia on Unsplash

[This is part two of a series — part one is here.]

The other day, I wrote about how enamored I am with the living, human Jesus vs. the one ascending into the clouds as the masses gape in awe at his supernatural glory — like this painting…

And it’s true. I love the human Jesus. The one who went to the margins of society, fed the poor, and taught an alternative form of anti-egoic perennial wisdom that applies to life in the flesh today.

I also wrote the other day about how I consider myself a religious humanist.

There’s been a lot of human-talk coming from my corner of the internet lately (hooray for humans!). But I have to say, as much as I love humans, I’m also aware of how we seem to be wired with the innate propensity to muck things up.

In and of ourselves, we’re pretty great (if I do say so myself), but there’s something about us — a proclivity of sorts — that makes us turn in on ourselves and thereby others at certain points throughout life.

Sometimes things get really dark inside the human heart and mind (maybe you know what I’m talking about). And there are a lot of really well-intended feel-good personal development/spiritual self-help books out there that tells us if we just change our thoughts and beliefs, we can be rid of this kind of proclivity forever.

But I beg to differ (and I think Jesus did too)…

Enter, grace.

When we live with the profound and radical awareness of God's grace, we become superhuman.

[Note, I didn’t say ‘suprahuman’, I said ‘superhuman’ — there is a difference.]

With grace, worthiness goes out the window. There’s nothing to ‘do’ here. There is no ladder to climb or 7-step process to get God’s grace. Grace is built into the source code of the human condition.

Grace… We can be resurrected from the many deaths we experience as humans when we recognize a presence that’s closer than flesh yet lies beyond the personal ego that we can surrender our despair to.

Because this stuff — the dark stuff — is real for us humans. I don’t think it ever goes away, no matter how ‘spiritual’ or how ‘secular’ we become.

But with grace, we’re forgiven, renewed, and enlivened. Time and time again. We’re able to love and live more fully no matter the history of the situation.

And so, yes… We have the propensity to royally muck things up. But we also have the propensity to love each other and ourselves more deeply if we can get beyond ourselves.

Jesus, the embodiment of the divine meeting flesh, just put a face to this principle. Jesus, the prime example and wayshower. 100% human and 100% divine. Just as we all are.

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About the whole ‘Messiah’ thing…

Photo by Vadym Lebedych

I once sat in a room full of burgeoning ministers (this was back in my SBNR days). We were prompted to talk about ourselves (an excruciating exercise for yours truly) and where we saw our ministries going. Eventually, it got to the woman next to me, I heard these words come out of her mouth…

“Well, when I think of myself and ministry, the word Messiah comes to mind…”

Right then and there, I knew I was in the wrong room.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time containing my skepticism when someone claims to be a Messiah of any sort (especially if they’re still alive and they proclaim it themselves). And so, I’ve always felt kind of weird about Jesus proclaiming himself as the Messiah — the chosen one.

Until I realized the context of Jesus’ world…

In first-century Near-Eastern culture, the coming of a Messiah wasn’t a question. People believed in a Messiah — period. The only questions were who, where, and when.

We can’t relate to this today (I mean, I’d argue we each have our own individual Messiahs, but that’s for another post, perhaps). In our postmodern, skeptical, individualistic, materialistic, rational world (not knocking it — yay for doubt, money, and science!), we roll our eyes at anyone who comes along proclaiming they’re the chosen one who can save us (unless this person wears a power suit, appears on reality TV, and owns a real estate empire, I guess — again, I digress).

In Jesus’ time, strong rulers like Herod and the Caesar proclaimed to be the son of God anointed from on high. But then Jesus came around and there was talk of a new kind of Messiah from the lowly outskirts. Eventually, he grew and claimed to be the true Messiah, the son of Man (I love how he did that, btw — from ‘son of God’ to ‘son of man’).

Mind you, this messianic proclamation wasn’t some guy trying to pull a power move on social media. It was a subversive middle finger to the Caesar and it led to his public execution (not because of some epic mythical father/son drama).

This is why I believe Jesus called himself the Messiah. Because if he didn’t own that role, no one would’ve given him the time of day. I’m not saying he didn’t believe it, I’m just saying it’s different in Jesus’ historical/cultural context than ours.

I think Jesus wanted to direct people’s wandering idolatrous eyes off of robust military power and dominance and instead, see that his living example of love, forgiveness, and radical grace were the qualities that were going to bring heaven to earth.

It was as if he was getting their attention and saying…

The kingdom of God doesn’t reside under the thunderous roar of boots, horse hooves, and spears — or anywhere in this world. The only way to the kingdom of God is through me and if you watch where I’m pointing, you’ll see I’m pointing to a place beyond myself or any individual human. Because my rule is not defined by power and dominance in this world, but by my complete self-emptying surrender to the living, loving God that sustains and unifies all.

This is alternative wisdom and it gets people killed.

And so, maybe we can let Jesus off the hook for calling himself the Messiah. I’ll admit, I have a higher Christology than this. I see this Jesus as more than merely a wisdom teacher.

But it’s a good place to start.

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We find our significance when we lay our individuality down

Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Click here for Lectionary readings.


It’s easy to get caught up in our small, individual identities — especially in today’s connected world fueled by social status and individual persona. Our digital footprints follow us everywhere. Most of us mere mortals haven’t figured out or wanted to escape them and they’re on display for everyone to judge and condemn (just as we do — to some degree — to everyone else).

This week’s readings are profoundly practical in this light. We’re at a pivotal moment in time. We can live in a way where the ego runs rampant using our digital tools as weaponry to tear others down (either to their face or not) in order to bolster our individual image… Or we can realize just how interdependent we actually are and use the tool of the social web for good.

I want to focus in on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this week. (I’ll include the Message translation in its entirety below because it’s just that good. If you don’t feel tingles down your spine as you read it, I don’t know what to say.)

This letter gives me such profound hope for humanity. Because if we can come to realize the perennial root of wisdom that Paul points to — in whatever way we come to it (no, it’s not exclusive to those who read his letter or even who call themselves ‘Christians’), we might just fulfill the prophecy of the great John Lennon and come together, right now

Okay, cheesy Beatles references aside, this letter is profound now, but back then, it was paradigm-shattering. People in first-century Near-Eastern culture were used to a hierarchical religion. One based on certain people ranking higher than others in the eyes of God.

Paul lays waste to this notion in this letter...

In it, he points to the spiritual truth that we find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.

We find our individual power in God when we lay our individuality down.

Like a body that has many different parts and pieces, the human race makes up the body of Christ. Each part is significant and crucial to the whole. An eye doesn’t wish the ear wasn’t around. The foot doesn’t become envious of the hand with all its rings. All live and function fully as themselves while serving and living amidst the ecosystem of the whole.

Yes, we each have different roles, but no one is more significant than the other. Every part needs every other part.

In Paul’s depiction of this Christ-body, there is no more ranking. We are all forgiven, healed, and restored in the eyes of God. Our role is to recognize this in both ourselves and each other so that we can live as such.

Speaking of living as such, what would that look like?…

Maybe we could see each other flailing through this life and — instead of holding each other to impossible, ridiculous standards of perfection — release each other from it.

Everything works together. Yes, things can get sick and out of balance just like in any system. But when this happens, the rest of the system moves in to support those areas for the whole to begin functioning properly again.

It’s not about getting everyone to look and live the same way. This goes for the church as well. Whether it’s a room in the suburbs full of silver-haired people in button-down shirts and Dockers or a stadium in NYC full of hip young people donning Supreme and skinny jeans.

We see that we are brought together in the Christ consciousness. Life becomes bigger and more integrated. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

We can take this societal approach and turn it inwards on ourselves as well. When we do this, we notice that we have inner elements that we deem good and bad, pure and impure, healthy and sick. But in the body of Christ, all of it is used. In fact, as Paul alludes to, the hidden and shameful parts are the parts where God is working the most intently. We can’t try to hide or suppress those parts.

The awareness of our unity in the body of Christ makes us more significant, not less.

Here it is, from Paul to the Corinthians…

You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts — limbs, organs, cells — but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain — his Spirit — where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves — labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free — are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way — the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

You are Christ’s body — that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in his church, which is his “body”:

apostles
prophets
teachers
miracle workers
healers
helpers
organizers
those who pray in tongues.

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts.

But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.
 — 
1 Corinthians 12:12–31 The Message (MSG)

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