On grace and dying to our expectations

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

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.

Tuesday of Holy Week

Click here for today’s Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I love how, right here in today’s gospel reading from John, we have Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man, not the Son of God as he’s often referred to.

In fact, as I read today’s readings, I see how much paradox is baked into it…

Strength = Weakness
Wisdom = Foolishness
Life = Death
Servitude = Power
Human = Divine

It goes to show that this Jesus story will likely never ‘make sense’ to the egoic, individualized, survival-based part of the human mind. When it comes to the ‘ways of the world’, this faith is innately paradoxical and utterly nonsensical.

The crucifixion and everything leading up to it seems like such an ungodly move. Why this lowly desert mystic, Jesus? Why didn’t this grand God that we imagined (and still do, in many ways) come bursting out of the sky in full glory and tell us exactly what to do so that we could just… do it? Why didn’t some anthropomorphic deity show its face and tell us who exactly is good and bad so that it was settled right then and there?

Maybe it’s because this divine ever-loving creative intelligence that is God knew that demands and commands wouldn’t work. It seems like God tried that through Moses and look where that got humanity. (I mean, what do you do when you’re told what to do? You, my fellow human, do — or want to do — the same as me: THE EXACT OPPOSITE.)

Instead of a clear objective roadmap (oh how simple it must be — albeit delusional — to hold the view of a literal and inerrant Bible), we’re left to sift through the counterintuitive swamp of paradox that is the gospel.

As I read through these texts, I wonder why I’m even doing it. I’m a modern privileged human. I have Spotify streaming into my ears and can play any song I want in seconds on demand. I have Tim Ferriss and so many other brilliant podcasters dolling our more productivity and life hacks than I could ever ask for, for free. I’m vaccinated. I’m drinking nice coffee graced with designer oat milk. We have clean water (I think), my family can pay the bills, and although we’re solidly middle class and not nearly as caked up as our current American royalty, we’re in good health. Things are looking up. I think.

So, why this Bible stuff? What’s the relevance? Maybe we should let the churches crumble and party on…

But then, I’m left with my interior self. I’m faced with the suffering in the world that makes no sense. I’m faced with my impending death, the thought of which I can only block for so long with endless digital content and distraction.

The human condition is messed up. And it’s the most beautiful thing ever.

I need meaning. I find paradox healthy in this age of processed certainty. I need narrative (dare I say that I need a meta-narrative). I need to know how to sit in solidarity with the suffering. I need to find reverence for the mundane and joy in the unexpected beauty of life. I need to know that there’s something… more.

But more than all, I need an ‘other’ that can offer me love and forgiveness when I don’t deserve it. This is my only saving grace and getting it from other humans is a blessing, but a fleeting one.

This God who dies on a cross so as to shift the cultural religious narrative from dominance, power, and control to surrender, service, and self-emptying love is something I… need.

We all wanted Jesus to be a certain kind of king that we could respect. But if he were to be that, he’d be perpetuating the sorrow and despair that come from appeasing the inner accuser (Satan) that lives in us all. Jesus had to die to this to be free of it so that we can as well.

And so, as I trudge through this swamp of paradox that runs counter to my modern American male cultural narrative, I’m finding so much more peace through dying to my unceasing inner demands and expectations than through trying to live up to them. Because the more of an ability I have to control my life that this modern world has given me, the more disappointed I am in myself to be doing such a poor job of it.

Turns out, the last thing I need is more control. 
Instead, what I need is release from it.

This is grace, the one-way love that only God can give us, so well personified (though not solely) through Jesus on a cross.

This is what we celebrate this very holy week. Salvation from ourselves and our inner-accuser. And if that isn’t relevant to today’s performance-based, self-righteous, virtue-signaling world, I don’t know what is.

The day God got out of the Law business

Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

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.

Monday of Holy Week

Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


As I mentioned the other day, modern Western theology has it that the crucifixion of Jesus was a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. This God, Jesus’s dad, was mad at humans for being bad and someone had to pay. Instead of all of us, he took his wrath out on his only son.

Thank you, God — I guess??

Anyhow, it’s called the substitutionary atonement theory, heralded by Anselm of Canterbury who lobbed it out there and it happened to catch on and spread through the medieval church.

Anyhow…

I’m obsessing over this because, if this is TRULY (as if there is such a thing as ‘truly’ in theology) the case, I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian (and this is a big deal being that I’m a seminarian).

I just have a hard time getting behind the notion that God was so cruel and incompetent so as to create a species that offended him so profoundly. It puts humanity and God in a very precarious — irreconcilable, even — position.

So thank God for the so-called ‘nonviolent’ atonement theory heralded by the French philosopher, René Girard and built on by similar theories that align with it.

Here, Fr. Richard Rohr sums up Girardian atonement theory better than I can at the moment…

The ingenious Hebrew ritual from which the word “scapegoat” originated is described in Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. The goat was then beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. It was a vividly symbolic act that helped to unite and free people in the short term. Instead of owning their sins, this ritual allows people to export them elsewhere — in this case onto an innocent animal.

French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) recognized this highly effective ritual across cultures and saw the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational principle for most social groups. The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors and reveals the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives — so much so that we could almost name it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29). The biblical account, however, seems to recognize that only a “lamb of a God” can both reveal and resolve that sin in one nonviolent act.

Jesus was the human scapegoat — showcasing a God who jumps into human skin so as to announce to the world that no more scapegoating is needed because the God who they think demanded it is now… dead.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrews from this week’s reading points to this notion in laser-like fashion…

he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,

how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.

Paul’s missive above points directly to Jesus being the hopeful final scapegoat of all scapegoats.

In Jesus’s day, sacrificial scapegoating was the way we operated — religiously but also socially and politically. Scapegoating was ubiquitous. The only kind of God we could imagine at the time (and for many of us in this day) was one of Law — one that needed payment in blood for wrongdoings. It was the only God we knew.

We expected this out of Jesus. If Jesus was more of a badass, we would have respected him more. If he would have cursed his accusers from the cross and demanded retribution, this whole crucifixion thing would make more sense. It would fit more neatly into our socio-political/religious box.

But he didn’t. This was God dying to God-self in the name of God’s very own Law (at least, that’s the narrative we carried about a Law-enforcing God).

Jesus realized that Law never causes change for the better. We humans don’t do what we’re commanded to do for very long, if at all. If we do, it’s usually with a clenched jaw and a hard heart. But in most cases, we do exactly the OPPOSITE of what we’re commanded to do (from our spouse, kids, boss, coworkers, friends, and God). I’m the dad of a 5–year-old human, so I testify to the truth of this statement.

Jesus knew that humans can only live in accordance with divine Law when they stop telling stories about a God who imposes it on them.

Jesus knew that God had to get out of the Law business and into the heart-softening business. And he was the one to initiate this ginormous cultural shift. It would take something bold.

He also knew that humans only act in accordance with the Law (because, don’t get me wrong, the Law is actually a beautiful thing — we can all agree that this world would be much better without murder, stealing, and all of that nonsense) when we’re forgiven and freed from it. We only act in accordance with Law when we’re loved — especially when we don’t think we deserve it.

Law is lived only from a gracious, loved, and forgiven heart. Not obligatorily.

This is grace and it’s what this innocent and articulate scapegoat was ushering in through his submission to the dominance system he stood against. He knew that it wasn’t God who needed blood, but us.

And so, God had to die to the Law in order to free us from it. Humans had to stop hearing Law from God in order to live aligned with it.

This is an atonement theory that brings me hope. It wasn’t us being sacrificed for God. It was God sacrificing God-self for us.

God tried to get out of the Law business over two thousand years ago. For some reason, we want to keep God employed in this role.

Maybe a different take on things to get us through the bloodiness of this sacred week:)

God would rather die

Photo by Anton Darius | @theSollers on Unsplash

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.

Liturgy of the Palms
Liturgy of the Passion

Click here for the Vanderbilt Revised Common Lectionary readings.


When Herod would ride into Jerusalem, he’d always be in a Cadillac Limo — I mean, on a mighty warhorse…

Yet, here we have our savior. Rolling into town. On a donkey.

Herod would always come in the name of Caesar...

Yet here Jesus comes, in the name of the Lord.

Herod would be surrounded by chariots and uniformed soldiers with their swords, spears, and bows held high. His military procession, a show of force intended to arouse fear and compliance, not hope and joy…

And yet, here we have our savior, surrounded by a motley crew of misfits and losers holding palm branches and waving their coats.

By contrasting these two kings, the meaning of this account becomes clear. Caesar’s kingdom, the empire of Rome, rules by domination with threats of violence, demanding submission...

But God’s kingdom (the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is always talking about), rules by faith with a promise of peace, inspiring joy.

This is the ‘mind of Christ’ that Paul alludes to in his letter to the Philippians…

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in hum an likeness. And being found in human form,

he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

In the middle of one of the bloodiest periods of history, we have this Jesus — this God made flesh — single-handedly attempting to reverse the massive cultural momentum of human rivalry, armed rebellion, and scapegoating.

The crowd that, just a day before so celebrated him, had turned on him in an instant — just as he predicted it would. Jesus knows all too well that a crowd in a lynching mood is the supreme power (sound relevant?).

Yet this evolved portrayal of God in the human form that is Jesus acts not as an iron-fisted king but a humble, female-spirited, donkey-riding servant who willingly submits to his own crucifixion.

The psalm this week sets the tone for the passion…

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.

The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

This day has been the one that’s been foreshadowed by scripture for hundreds of years. Jesus isn’t a ‘new thing’ while the Old Testament speaks of an ‘old thing’. This is the playing out of an ancient prophecy that people had been uttering around tribal fires from parent to child in the Near East for generations.

Starting with a pascal feast, this servant-God serves his disciples his body and blood as he lays out before them ever so calmly what will happen to him. And his predictions play out to an eerie precision.


On a personal note, I’ve been away from Christianity for more than 20 years. Holy Week is new territory for me and I feel that my footing is a bit shaky.

See, I’ve long skimmed right over this whole Easter/Holy Week thing because I — as with most postmodern, secular Americans — don’t like to feel guilty or uncomfortable. When I was younger, my perspective was as such: I had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, so why should I get all riled up and feel bad for something I played no role in? And what kind of God would make his son suffer such a price?

It seemed like the dysfunctional family across the street that I try to avoid like the plague.

Later on, in recent years, my respect grew for Jesus. But I still merely saw him as a mystical wisdom teacher. So it was like, Ahh man. Why did they have to kill such a brilliant and enlightened revolutionary?

But this time around, my view of Jesus and the crucifixion has taken on a new depth, breadth, and gravity. I’ve adopted a slightly higher Christology, if you will.

Christianity hasn’t stuck around in such a profound way for thousands of years for no reason. Sure, church attendance is down and you can say that Christianity is dying, but I believe we haven’t really even given it a true shot yet. I mean, we’ve tried OUR version of Christianity. The version that plays into the same sense of rivalry, human dominance and scapegoating that Jesus was here to reverse, so if THAT dies, I see this as a win for Christianity.

As I’ve said before, I don’t see Jesus’s crucifixion as a blood sacrifice towards an angry God on our behalf (we can thank the hack theologian Anselm of Canterbury for that theory — yes, a mere THEORY it is — which didn’t come around until around 1100 AD and went viral, so to speak, because it resonated perfectly with where we were in human consciousness during medieval times; I digress…).

Today, I see Jesus as more than just a really profound mystical revolutionary wisdom teacher (though I do see him as this as well).

This was the living God slipping into human flesh so as to effectively say, I understand your human inner condition which leads to oppressive systems and violence. Instead of acting in rivalry to it and perpetuating it, I’d rather die than continue carrying on the role you’ve projected onto your false God(s) before me. I’m absorbing all of it thusly taking it out of circulation for humankind.

Jesus knew exactly what was going down and he completely emptied himself in order to save us from ourselves. This, he understood, could only be done through profound love, mercy, forgiveness, surrender, and service.

Jesus never once blames a soul for this horrid act. Yes, he calmly gives us an uncomfortable play-by-play. And even as he does this at the feast — JUST THE DAY BEFORE— we think he’s off his rocker. But then Judas and Peter and…

Yeah, we do the thing we couldn’t believe he said we’d do.

We killed the innocent servant-king. Because that’s what we do when our world is upended by love.

I mean, really, the football game is just awkward when the players stop in the middle of the game, shake hands, hug it out, and have wine together —like, what’s the point? The same thing goes when we’re wielding inflatable objects, social media stats, or swords and spears.

Rivalry is part of our nature. It’s in our bones. The only way we know how to achieve temporary peace and save ourselves is through pointing the finger at a common enemy — a scapegoat.

Well, we sure did it this time. But this was no typical scapegoat. This was God Godself. And it made ripples around the world that we can still feel to this day.

Because the chance and the choice is still there. Christ has absorbed our transgressions and taken the violence out of circulation. God has washed God’s hands clean in God’s own blood and broken bones. And in so doing, God has washed us clean.

Can we offer our rivalrous ways up? Can we put on the Mind of Christ and empty ourselves?

Can we trust the God on the cross to move us from rivalry against each other to service towards one another?

The work has been done. We are free from ourselves.

I know there’s so much more to this Holy Week. So much that I’m missing. So much that I can’t wrap my head or my heart around. So much I can’t see. I know I’ll look back at this post in years to come seeing how far off the mark I was. As hard as it’ll be seeing this, I’ll take it as a sign that my faith is growing (hopefully).

Because this marks the moment that God hung on a tree. But we know that it’s not the end of the story. Death is never the end of the story.

I pray that I can grow in faith and deepen in understanding the ways that this God loves us. And I pray that we can, in turn, take that revolutionary, subversive, merciful, radical, and nonsensical grace and bestow it on each other. May we all act as conduits of God’s grace so as to heal our humanity, our world, and our planet.

Before it’s too late.

Free to Relax

Photo by Katherine Moran on Unsplash

“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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Religion as dining preference

Photo by Stefan Vladimirov

Note: This is merely a metaphor. I take religion and spirituality very seriously.

Though the edges are softening, religious persuasion is still a big factor for how we divide ourselves. It’s long been a human mechanism for sizing each other up and labeling each other at the core identity level.

You’d think I might be one of the worst culprits of this division as someone entering the seminary at a very specific denomination to become a religious professional. But I don’t see it this way (nor, it seems, do many of my peers, which gives me hope)…

I see choice of religion/non-religion or denomination to be akin to dining preference. Some people like Asian fusion. Others, KFC. And some eat whatever’s in front of them.

As a possible future chef — I mean, pastor — my studies are being informed and inspired by several ‘genres’ of spirituality and religion (which, I hope, will evolve and shift as I go). When I start the work at whatever restaurant — I mean, church — I end up serving (that is, if I make it through this process), I really hope there are people loyal to the ‘brand’ of whatever it is we’re cooking up there. Yes, church is a human institution that’s fueled by human resources, like money, time, etc.

If religious/denominational choice was held in the same light as dining choice, we might look at each other differently.

But like the chef at the Italian restaurant, no one should shame their customers (congregants) if they go try another type of food (church). If they go try Buddhism, I say that’s fantastic. If it’s SoulCycle, great! No one should try to convince them that their soul may be in danger or ontologically compromised. If anything, I’m going to want to hear about their experiences so that I can learn more about the religious/spiritual culture we swim in.

But because religion is so tied into our root identities, it’s easy to see any deviation from the one we currently hold as an existential threat. And we do all sorts of fear-based things to convince ourselves and others to stay put, or else.

One day, I hope to have cultured, well-informed customers/congregants to keep whatever community I end up at fresh and vibrant. I want their choice of showing up there to be a voluntary and life-affirming one, not one of obligation.

This doesn’t just go for those of us in the religious trades. Even on a personal level, we could be more open to people of different persuasions (I think the younger generations are making huge strides in this area as a culture as many violently doctrinal/sectarian religions are being ignored into oblivion). I mean, I want to be around people who’ve eaten more than one type of food.

But it’s also fine to have a preference. To be passionate about one over the other while remaining open to all (or, at least, accepting of the choices of others).

Now, all we need is religious/spiritual Grubhub. Buddhism for breakfast, perhaps? Lunchtime Lutheranism?

No? Not so much? 
Yeah, you’re probably right…

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The text serves the human (not the other way around)

Photo by Hiep Duong

The other day, I got an email from someone accusing me of being a ‘secular humanist’. The email was very long. It quoted a lot of Bible verses and pointed the virtual finger at me for my heretical, harmful words.

About a year ago, when I started using the ‘Christianity’ tag, I knew I was entering a minefield of personal and cultural triggers. And I was right. This kind of thing goes with the territory.

Anyhow, I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘secular humanist’, so I had to look it up. Come to find out, this person was close with their assertion (well, he was half-way there).

Secular, I am not. But as for the humanist accusation, I’m guilty as charged— hallelujah!

My guiding light as I stumble through seminary (starting in a few weeks — pray for me, please) is this:

The only thing that matters is the human who stands before me.

If religion can’t be a way to deepen the connection with God and bring healing to the interiors of humans, we/those in/pursuing the religious trades might as well send them packing.

I’m not going rogue here. My favorite theologians, pastors, and personal mentors always place the human in front of them before the ‘literal truth’ of the text. Jesus went off-script from his Hebrew Bible all the time so as to meet the human in front of him where they were*. Shouldn’t this be the example?

Here’s what Jesus is recorded as saying (see how I did that?)…

You pore over the Scriptures, believing that in them you have life, but now you have Life standing right in front of you, and you cannot recognize it.

John 5:39

Here’s the rub…

The text serves the human. Not the other way around.

Now, thanks for reading and I look forward to your email:)

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Red hands and holy cards

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic

Rational arguments against faith make… Sense.

As Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the people.” (Though, if taken in the context of his words surrounding it, his statement takes on a whole new meaning — but that’s not for this post.)

I get it. When I was agnostic, I vibed with this. A part of me looked at religious people with pity thinking they were wasting valuable brain space on belief in a ‘God’ that may not even exist (though I could never quite go all the way in NOT believing).

I conjure up an image of an elderly widow, sitting in her basement apartment after her shift at the grocery store lighting candles, saying prayers, and sorting through her holy cards. A younger more secular me would scoff at her…

Why is she doing this? All that praying and worshipping has gotten her… here? In this basement apartment with an underpaid job grasping to the fraying thread of organized religion? Maybe if she’d have saved her money rather than giving it to the church on Sunday, she’d be able to live on the 1st or even 2nd floor at this point.

Now, it’s so clear to me. Today I see her (nameless in my mind, but I can see her as clear as day), not as some lost soul grasping to existential opiates, but as someone who hasn’t lost her purpose.

Because this woman, unlike so many of us today, has something to live and die with. Who cares if her ‘God’ might not be objectively ‘real’. It’s been real to her and has provided an anchor for her life.

How amazing is that?

I have a new favorite thing on the internet. It’s called the Red Hand Files and it’s the personal newsletter of Nick Cave, the brilliant Australian singer, songwriter, and frontman of the band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds...

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The newsletter is a direct Q&A between Cave and his fans. I particularly enjoyed reading Issue 11 where he’s asked if/why he believes in God…

I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence. I am interested in the idea of possibility and uncertainty. Possibility, by its very nature, extends beyond provable facts, and uncertainty propels us forward. I try to meet the world with an open and curious mind, insisting on nothing other than the freedom to look beyond what we think we know.

He goes on to say…

I am a believer in the inquiry itself, more so than the result of that inquiry.

When Cave gets into talking about his creative process as a songwriter, he says…

I have, for better or for worse, a predisposition toward perverse and contradictory thinking. Perhaps this is something of a curse, but the idea of uncertainty, of not knowing, is the creative engine that drives everything I do. I may well be living a delusion, I don’t know, but it is a serviceable one that greatly improves my life, both creatively and otherwise.

Cave closes his letter with the following…

So, do I believe in God? Well, I act like I do, for my own greater good. Does God exist? Maybe, I don’t know. Right now, God is a work in progress.

Maybe Cave and the hypothetical woman above have something that a lot of us don’t. The capacity to believe without knowing. And the ability to value a relationship with the divine rather than answers from it.

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You’re so dogmatic

Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

I used to be so anti-dogma.

“It’s a dogma-free zone,” I’d tell my friends about the spiritual community I was attending at the time. “We don’t do dogma, maaaaan,” I’d smugly say.

And then, one day, I looked around and noticed… Wow. We totally have dogma here. It’s not the God-will-send-you-to-eternal-hell-if-you-don’t-do-this kind of dogma. But it was there, nonetheless.

We prayed a certain way (pretty rigid). We supported certain types of meditation over others. We read spiritual texts a certain way. We believed, not so much in a G-O-D, but in a ‘universe’ that could bend to our wills (‘intentions’ as we called them).

Though my peers didn’t overtly shame you if you didn’t follow that dogma, there was, for sure, a more subtle and passive-aggressive posturing going on out in the foyer.

I meditate for two hours a day…

I’m attracting so much good stuff to my life right now, I just see the universe showering me with so many gifts.

(Enough of that for now — I gotta stop myself.)

Even my atheist friends have constructed dogma in their lives. These dogmas are based on what’s deemed ‘real’ in the physical world. Life is filtered through the rational mind and anything outside of it is censored. Any sense of the supernatural is not allowed in.

Well, friends, I can say now that I’m fine with dogma.

I think we need to own the fact that we’re dogma-producing people, even in our postmodern world. I’m sure even Kevin Smith, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck have dogma in their lives. (I’m aging myself there.)

This is how we make sense of the world by erecting boundaries and slapping labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ on things. By setting up rituals (we do this naturally from a very young age and it’s good for us). Dogma gives us something to hold on to.

The problem isn’t dogma in and of itself. It’s when that dogma becomes harmful to oneself or others.

When we shame or violently otherize people in the name of dogma, it becomes a problem.

If we’re not conscious of our dogma, it can become a blind spot that lashes out from the shadows. When dogma fades into the illusion that it’s ‘just the way things are’, bad things can happen.

Dogma has to be a conscious choice. We (or those we trusted) set that dogma up. If it’s hurting us or anyone else, it’s our responsibility to scrap it all together.

Just know that you’ll probably build another one. And that’s great. At least, now, it’ll be a conscious one.

Right?

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Religiously indifferent

Photo by Will Truettner on Unsplash

There are a lot of people who are religiously wounded.

These people grew up with a sort of toxic, overbearing religion. Their God was an iron-fisted one with a sanctimonious son. This is what drove many of them to deconstruct everything before returning back to faith from a newfound progressive perspective.

I can’t say this has been my experience.

The challenge I face with Christianity isn’t woundedness, it’s indifference.

Sure, the God I grew up hearing about was a judgmental and wrathful white male in the clouds, but my parents weren’t super religious. I don’t think they bought into this version of God, which is why they never pushed it too strongly in my direction.

I never saw God as a threat, but merely as a toxic deity that I saw no use in paying much attention to. Whenever I found myself praying, etc. — it was always to a far kinder presence than THAT asshole they talked about in Catechism (those few times I actually went).

I was baptized, but not confirmed, in the Catholic church. When my mom passed away when I was 16, what little connection I had to the Catholic church was severed (my dad didn’t attend church — period).

When I was coming of age, I was religiously free floating. I gravitated towards SBNR (spiritual-but-not-religious) in my 20’s and enjoyed what I discovered in that area.

A decade later, toward my mid-thirties, the pull towards Christianity became stronger. When I listened to and read Christians that I respected (who were progressive in posture), their messages were far stronger than anything I’d come across in the SBNR world.

Thus began my deconstruction of the SBNR faith (yes, it is one) and my movement towards where I am now.

So, I’m curious… What resembles your experience?

Why have faith in a God I don’t think is real and his so-called son who hung on a cross?

How does any of this prove useful to me as a rational individual?

Homophobia = Religion.

Science ≠ Religion.

Fundamentalism = Religion.

And more.

However, unlike the religiously wounded, we religiously indifferent people don’t respond with as much rage as we do an attitude of, psssht — why would I ever need THAT stuff in my life?

And so, for me, it was kinda like saying, my parents never made me eat broccoli when I was a kid, why pick it up in my late 30’s?

However, if they’re like me, something might pull them. Either they experience deep suffering or they hear a perspective that opens up something new for them (as it did for me).

ANYHOW, this is not a piece about anything other than my reflection on how I came to this raucous ancient conversation we call the Christian faith.

Religiously wounded? 
Religiously indifferent? 
Or somewhere in-between or elsewhere?

Leave a response or shoot me a note and let me know.

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Redeemed by blood

By Simon Migaj on Unsplash

I hate to be judgey, but I still catch myself rolling my eyes when people talk about Jesus whilst throwing in the blood and nails and as much graphic carnage as humanly possible (apparently as an attempt to make me feel bad about what happened to Jesus).

I could never buy the story that says Jesus had to die for us in order for God to stop being angry at us. That being said, I’m growing more endeared to the gory symbols of blood and nails and dirt and bone, etc.

Why? Well, here’s a quickie from brother Martin Luther…

He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.

— Martin Luther

(I just love that.)

Here’s what that messy bloodiness means to me…

When I see someone like Joel Osteen up there trying to tell me of a God who redeems through cash and prizes (‘gold and silver’ as ML put it), I call the biggest bullshit I can call on that slick-haired dude.

Jesus willingly went to the cross. And he suffered. Like, really suffered. He suffered so much that he — the human image of what a God-filled life looks like — doubted God in his final human moments. We can’t skip that part.

Before we talk about any kind of resurrection, we have to take note of the death part. It was real. His blood was poured out, not so we could feel guilty about what we did, but quite the opposite. We are redeemed through that act. If I could put into my own words the statement he may have been trying to make, I see it as symbolically saying, I’d rather die than keep up the guilt-tripping business that the powers-that-be are into.

If he would’ve tried to blame, escape or fight his captors, he’d be playing their game. If he’d have built an army and erected a fortress on a hill somewhere, sure, he may have grown powerful in the earthly sense, but instead, he demonstrated God’s redemption through saying, ya know what, I’m more alive when this body is dead than if this body were to do what the power structures of today do. All is forgiven. They know not what they do.

And so he redeemed himself and all of us watching through his blood. And nails. And dirt. And bone. All imagined sin, washed away.

The crucifixion was a God-driven decision that sent ripples throughout time and space forever shifting human consciousness in relation to the divine.

I don’t know about you, but this at least makes me stop and reflect on how I respond to the world.

And for that, I guess I can put up with a little bit of gore.

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The you-ness of God

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

The God of my childhood was a person-like being above the clouds. He (yes, of course, ‘he’) was ‘up there’. Beyond the universe.

He was an interventionist God. He swooped down to bless those who ‘did the right things’. And when people ‘did wrong’, he’d either let them suffer or he’d make them suffer.

Although I was never super religious (just enough to be dangerous), I could at least tell myself that I ‘believed in God’. It helped me sleep at night. I felt a deep concern for those who didn’t believe in this God. According to the lore of this God, they were surely on the verge of a divine beatdown, either in this life or just after it.

This God of my childhood was the God of supernatural theism. The God that’s only a few hundred years old, yet whom our modern world believes as the God of scripture.

The God of supernatural theism is the God of the Enlightenment — a fairly modern one constructed by well-meaning folks who tried to turn the ineffable into the literal.

One day, to make a super-long story super short, I stopped believing in this God. My doubt hardened.

But I couldn’t ever call myself an atheist. Because although I didn’t believe in this God, I had a deep knowingness that there was something… more.

That’s when I found pantheistic spirituality. I changed God’s name into different things like ‘Source’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Energy’, ‘The Universe’, etc.

I depersonalized the divine. And it was nice. It gave me a whole new paradigm to play in. It moved God from being ‘out there’ to right here under me in this world.

But then (to make another long story short), something seemed like it was missing. That God from my childhood, the one that seemed like it was in my room listening to my prayers — there was something very real about that.

It was then that I realized: maybe no matter how far ‘out there’ I thought I believed it was, God never really left my side.

There’s something profound about the human yearning for a God that’s personal. All ancient traditions have their personal God. Who are we to throw this all away?

I wanted that personal God back. But not the old one. I was in a place between two paradigms: the prior (supernatural theism) and the latter (pantheism). Although I’d never go back fully to the prior, something from it was lacking in the latter.

As I look back, the real God of my experience thus far has been one that doesn’t fit into either box…

I don’t know if I believe in the old man in the clouds, but I do know that God feels more real as a personal presence — a ‘you-ness’ rather than a non-personal ‘energy’ or ‘force’.

This personal God carries more of the qualities of a ‘you’ than of an ‘it’. It’s a personal presence that’s more than personal. More than a ‘him’ or a ‘her’ albeit more than an individual ego. More like a someone than an impersonal ‘source’.

Also, God doesn’t seem to be ‘out there’ intervening on occasion. I’ve lived long enough to see countless ‘good’ people get repeatedly screwed over and the most evil of the bunch go to their graves scot free.

This God of my experience has more to do with intention and interaction than intervention. This God isn’t a vindictive dude above the clouds, but a personal you-ness that is both ‘not me’ as well as ‘closer than flesh’.

Yes, it seems I’m pointing towards an invisible friend. But it’s not just that. This God is visible to me in so many ways. If my frantic mental chatter is quiet, I see this God in everything from the spectacular to the despicable.

This is God to me, at the moment. That which I live, move, and have my being in. That whom I can commune with and hand over my deepest burdens. That who suffers and rejoices right along with me as I make my way through this human existence.

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More human than human

My previous spiritual path (New Thought/Religious Science/Unity) was light on Jesus — an attribute I quite liked.

See, like so many of us, I used to equate Christianity with the Pat Robertson variety. As a kid, I remember flipping past (yes, past) the 700 Club trying to find cartoons. This American mainstream fundamentalist Evangelical Christian phenomenon had to do with being white, male, clean, judgmental, righteous, race-driven, tidy, ‘pure’ (in public), and — to cut to the true sentimentality of the matter — boring, mediocre, and prudish.

This sect of Christianity found it important to be good at NOT doing things: Not cussing, not drinking, not listening to rap music, not hanging out with people who aren’t straight or white, and essentially not being human.

I’m happy to have fairly recently come upon the notion that Christianity is not a behaviorist ideology. It’s not really even a belief system. Sure, a change in behavior/belief may be a byproduct of Christianity, but from what I’m seeing, it’s not the main point.

Having your shit together in a socially acceptable way is not a prerequisite to Christianity. Christianity — at its core — directly addresses and walks into the blood, bone, messiness, dirt, and ambiguity of the human condition.

It’s about the ever-present cycle of death and resurrection on micro and macro levels of life that we encounter all day, every day.

Jesus never said that God will only love us if we’re part of the upstanding, mediocre, mainstream, well-behaved, wealthy, healthy Roman (insert whatever tribe happens to be in charge at the moment here) establishment. In fact, he seemed to hold the stance that these types were often the least ready for his message.

Jesus always went away and hung out among the sinners, the sick, the heartbroken, the marginalized, and the needy at the fringes.

Side Note: He also sat with tax collectors, which were the equivalent of today’s hated Wall Street types; more on this on an upcoming post, though —so stay tuned.

Christianity — at its core — directly addresses and walks into the blood, bone, messiness, dirt, and ambiguity of the human condition.

It’s in the hearts of sinners — those who realize their human fragility — where he found the people who are thirsty for the grace of God. It’s they, who’ve suffered greatly. It’s they, who’ve loved deeply.

When we’re on our knees with nothing left... 
When we look into a newborn’s eyes…

These are the moments when we can finally surrender our brilliant ideas about life, lay down our capacity to hurt others for our own tribal/personal gain, and accept and put into action a love from something… greater.

This is where grace can take root. Not in a McMansion at the good side of town where the stock market plays the part of god. Because grace never really tastes good.

Grace isn’t something you spoon feed yourself after your chia seeds and hemp supplements.

Grace is a profound love from the divine that’s thrust onto us even though we don’t believe we’re worthy.

When we hit the lows of life — or when we experience profound, unconditional/nonsensical love — that’s where this God finds us. Yes, this God is always coming to us wanting to be known. She follows us into our deepest, darkest depths, grabs us by the shoulders, and — through the smallest opening in our consciousness of faith — loves us.

Grace isn’t something you spoon feed yourself after your chia seeds and hemp supplements.

Jesus straight-up goes there. He comes to us. He walks in the mud with humanity. He never spiritualized things away from a pulpit. He grabbed the soiled hands and looked directly into the eyes of leapers, tax collectors, prostitutes, and beggars and told them, plainly and directly, you are a beloved child of God.

Yes, it’s true.

I’m finding this God endlessly endearing at this point in my life.

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When your calling resembles a drunk tattoo more than it does a ‘call’

by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

My uncle is a pastor — a Protestant of sorts, on my dad’s side. I was enamored with him when I was a kid. He’d sometimes stay with us when he was in town. He played a mean guitar and sang with so much soul that I felt those fuzzies down my spine when he hit his choruses.

He wasn’t an in-your-face Christian. He was what he was and he didn’t get off on going around converting everyone in sight. Which I liked, even before I understood why.

I remember asking him how he came around to doing what he did, vocationally. He told me that he had a calling and answered it.

Hmm... Simple enough, I thought…

I didn’t get it, but throughout my young life, I kept hearing it, especially in the clerical context.

As a Catholic (my mom won that argument, it seems), I once to ask my mom why anyone would want to become a priest.

God called them to it, she told me, which elicited visions of a dude hanging out at home minding his own business and God (who I understood at the time to be a grumpy old cigar-munching man in the sky) calling him up and letting him know that he’d been drafted for service. I saw God notifying him that he wouldn’t be making very much money or having any more intercourse for the rest of his life.

Awesome?…

As I grew older, I still saw a lot of rhetoric about ‘calling’ even outside of the clerical vocations. In my professional creative field, I’d read books and blog posts of those who’d merely ‘answered their calling’ to do what they do as a writer, designer, developer, etc. It was a sort of secular call, but a call nonetheless.

I never got a call like this. Not about my j-o-b as a copywriter or about my path to ministry (this latter part of my life is the one I’ll be referring to in this post).

Although I’ve never received a ‘call’, it does seem that something outside of my own individual agency is making an indelible mark on my life.

For me, my ‘calling’ has been more like waking up with an unexpected gigantic tattoo on my back than an informative phone call from above.

No warning. No remembrance or understanding of where it came from. All I know is that it’s there, and I can’t undo it or get away from it. And then I start to think… How long has it been there?

Which takes me back to when I was probably six or seven. My mom took my black turtleneck and stitched a little white square to the front-middle of it to resemble a clerical collar. I’d don a huge crucifix around my neck and would walk around with a medallion that she gave me that was used (at least, she told me) for exorcisms.

Yes, my first-ever career interest was as an exorcist.

I’d exorcise everyone and everything I could. I’d perform exorcisms on the dog, the goat, the chickens, and of course, my family and anyone else who happened over when I was in character.

I loved religion even if I didn’t understand it. I loved my rosary and my cards. I always slept with this necklace that my mom fashioned out of a cloth symbol and yarn that would supposedly protect me against demons. I wasn’t scared or frightened about evil spirits, necessarily. It’s not like my parents threatened me with a narrative of dark forces lurking in the shadows. On a scale of 1 to 10, when it came to their focus on religion in my upbringing, they were at a 3 — maybe 4, at most.

No, it wasn’t them. I got a kick out of this stuff.

My first memory of questioning my Catholic faith was when my American Evangelical uncle came over and was like, why are you wearing that sh*t to bed? You really think it’s going to protect you? No, kid! You gotta get saved!

I was embarrassed. I felt naive. Slowly, the medallions and beads and cards started making their way into my bedroom drawers and my night time prayers were eventually replaced by… silence.

Fast-forward a couple decades — long before I started writing spiritual things on the internets or even considered ministerial school — I was approached by my cousin and her fiancée to officiate their wedding, which I gladly did. As much as my knees were shaking the whole time, I felt strangely in the right place.

And now, as I’m recognizing this vocational (or is it avocational?) tattoo of sorts, I now see that it’s been there for a very long time. I just haven’t seen it until recently.

I mean, not to knock on the tattoo. It’s a nice tattoo. But I often ask — is it really… me?

I’d never consciously get one like it. All it’s doing is costing me money at this point. I have no paid career aspirations in the ministerial field, currently. I’m even getting ready to drop a healthy amount of well-earned funds towards studying mystical Franciscan Catholicism (?!) and I sure as hell am not planning to become a priest. I much like intercourse with my wife and all the trappings of a life that a priest can’t partake in (yet — c’mon Pope Francis!).

People who take their proverbial shirt off and openly flaunt tattoos like mine seem so different than me. I have a hard time believing they doubt as much as I do. They’re not as sarcastic or cynical as I am. They’re not contradictory. They’re much more pleasant to be around. They don’t say the wrong things when people need to hear the ‘right things’…

Right?…

Besides, I swear, I don’t really want to write about religion or spiritual things. At least, the part of me that wants to be liked and accepted by everyone doesn’t want to. Even writing this now is downright terrifying.

There are so many more glamorous and lucrative things that I can be giving my gift of the written word to. I see so many artists who do such amazing things in the secular world that would be waaaaay cooler, less egoicly threatening, and far more socially acceptable (and profitable) than writing about God and Jesus and spirit and grace and whatnot. Why can’t I just stick with what makes commercial sense and be happy with it?

But no matter how much I try to fully secularize my art, I just… can’t. I’m constantly pulled back to this stuff.

No matter how far away from it I try to walk from it — no matter how bad of a fit I think I am for it — that tattoo follows me.

When people ask what I’m up to in life, I’ve tried so hard — after telling them about my day job as a copywriter (which I love, btw) — not to say that I write about spirituality and am going to divinity school. But when I leave it out, I feel… incomplete.

The tattoo is there. My calling, right there on my back. God — or whatever you call my wisecracking roommate — sure did a good number on me, it seems.

And I wasn’t even drunk…
Or was I?

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A love with open arms

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash

I’m not used to crucifixes.

It’s been ten years since I’ve been in the same room as a crucifix. And now, since stumbling back to the Catholic church about a month ago, there it is. The stations of the cross adorning the walls on each side of the sanctuary.

Rory’s reaction was the obvious existential one to be expected from a 4-year old. So many questions.

Dad, what’s happening there?

Mom, who’s that?

Dad, what are they doing to him?

Why?

Mom, who’s that lady, crying?

Why?

So much drama on those walls.

That cross... I’ve always had bad juju with that thing. I think a lot of us have. It’s often shoved in our faces like, see what he did for YOU?

Or better, see what he did BECAUSE OF YOU?

I’d always be like, lady, I had nothing to do with that, so get outta my face, okay?…

That said, my reaction to that scene was defensive. I wanted to cover Rory’s eyes (but that would’ve just spoiled the fun).

On that first day back, the annual parish mission just so happened to be that evening, so everyone was invited back to listen to a special speaker and join in discussion about the spiritual direction of the parish for 2018. The speaker — a balding 80-ish-year old man — stood up and gave a small blurb during mass introducing it. Alex and I were intrigued. We liked his wit and warmth. So that night, we went back to check it out.

The speaker’s name was Michael Leach. I’d never heard of him before, but apparently he’s one of the most well known Catholic book publishers and authors out there. Although he was getting on in age, his youthfulness and humbleness came through in every word.

He started talking about how God is love, God is both masculine and feminine, and all-inclusive. He spoke about the Cosmic Christ (?!) and how, although the Catholic church talks about hell, they’ve never mentioned anyone actually going there.

He spoke of how, yes, the Catholic church has its flaws, but that there’s so much more to see than that. He spoke in support of gay marriage (and even hinted at support for abortion rights in a very non-direct way).

This guy was setting fire to belief after toxic belief of my conservative Catholic upbringing. If he would’ve given that talk at the Catholic church in our home town back in rural Nevada, he would’ve been welcomed out of the building by pitchforks and torches.

We were eating it up.

Then he started talking about the cross...

He pointed out how he didn’t see Jesus as being up there to take the brunt of punishment for humanity from an angry god. He emphasized Jesus’ open arms on the cross as being symbolic of a loving embrace towards all of humanity in spite of it all.

His final statement in human form seemed to be that God — this principle of life — is unconditional love and radical forgiveness. All the rest of it is made up, harmful, and utterly unnecessary. Yes, we can make a mess of things. Yes, life is complex. But the reality underneath it all is this ever-present possibility of love — even amidst hatred and execution and bone and blood being poured out.

I started to see how large this tradition is. How much room there is in it to hold such a wide spectrum of belief, from conservative to progressive. To say that the Catholic church sees things one way is like saying the United States sees things one way or any other large body of people (or even to say that one person sees things absolutely consistently).

I don’t know if Leach’s depiction is theologically sound (he seemed to back it up pretty well — however, I also know that you can back pretty much any point up via the Bible if you dig hard enough), but in that moment, what mattered was, the image of Jesus hanging on the cross totally changed for me. I looked up on that wall behind the speaker and saw something totally different than I’d seen before.

As far as I can tell, the story of Jesus being the human shield between humanity and a damning God’s wrath serves no one today. Maybe when the consciousness of humanity was more based around paternal allegiance and punishment — I can see that as a message-to-market match (sorry, I can’t help it).

But that narrative was made up by humans and perpetuated by humans (just like every other narrative in the Bible as well as Leach’s narrative and the one you’re reading now from yours truly — we’re all just trying to make meaning of this thing called life through metaphor, symbology, and narrative).

I’m still a little jarred by the crucifix, for sure. But my vision is changing and softening around it. I love the raw sacredness of it. A man, put to death for being an enemy of the state and defying the violent god of the day and preaching love in a world wrought with fear, greed, and death.

He absorbed the violence instead of perpetuating it. 
It stopped with him.

I can feel those open, loving arms when I see that crucifix now. And it’s soothing. Because guilt and shame and doubt are real human emotions. We’ve all done things that we regret. We’ve all crucified another out of fear and for our own gain at some level. I think that feeling damned — if even on occasion — is something inherently human.

But there he is. Hanging up there. Those open arms saying, it’s okay. Sin no more. It’s okay. Sin no more. You are loved. You’ve never not been loved. Go forth in God’s love knowing that scapegoating and human sacrifice is no longer necessary.

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So, I got baptized…

On Saturday evening, I got a text from my friend/mentor/boss, Mark.

Wanna do Soul City Church tomorrow? 8am service? It’s baptism Sunday!

Soul City is a church in downtown Chicago. It’s Evangelical, but fairly progressive and caters to younger people (when I speak of ‘younger people’, I don’t mean it as a number, but rather an internal measure).

As comforting as that is, I’m still a little terrified of mainstream Christian churches. As big of a Jesus fan that I am, I still don’t buy into the hard-line belief that Jesus is the one to be worshipped. I could go on and on about the theological and metaphysical underpinnings of this, but I’ll leave it right there for now.

Anyhow, a part of me was open to it. Since we’re starting a church of our own, it’d be good to at least go down and see what a ‘successful’ church in Chicago looks like. So I said yes. And we headed downtown early on Sunday to attend the 8am service.

As soon as we got there, I was struck by how much care they’d placed on making Soul City an experience. It’s totally the church equivalent of Soul Cycle — almost in an overbearing way. But I dug it.

In the commons (is that what they call it?), I met some people, all of whom were incredibly nice, welcoming and so not in-your-face about the Jesus thing.

We walked in and sat down in the dark, low-ceilinged, nightclubesque room that was their sanctuary. The band rocked out on stage all wearing the latest fashionable ware and sporting the hippest haircuts of the morning, making me feel kinda lame a dad like. They were good — really good — although I couldn’t get my cynical mind to quiet down about the über-Jesusey lyrics.

Stop it, Jonas. Stop it!… Enjoy this experience.

I settled in just fine. The sermons was fantastic (I say that as a plural because it’s lead by a husband/wife team). They’d just gotten back from a hiatus and were charged to be home. They opened with a tribute and call to service for Houston and spoke out against the horrific acts in Charleston.

And then came time for the baptism…

Damn, do I want to do this? 
For real?

I was baptized at 8 years old (on the same day my wife was born, divinely enough) in the Catholic church. My elders told me that baptism was a one-time deal. Was I overriding that? Did it even matter? I’m not really a Catholic anymore. Was this a rebellious act?

All the questions ran through my mind. 
And arguments…

But I don’t even fully agree with this church. Sure, they’re nice, and we’re about 80% on the same page, but getting baptized? Isn’t that a bit much? Plus, I won’t even be attending here since we’re starting our own church down the street. Isn’t that kind of slimy to make them think I’m totally committing, but then to go off and betray them like that?

My lizard brain was having a field day. 
And then it struck me.

No… This isn’t about them. It’s not about pleasing the Catholics or the super cool Evangelicals. It’s not even about pleasing Jesus, really. It’s about starting anew.

Jesus spoke of how this being born again thing was a possibility at any and every moment. He spoke of how it’s an inside job and that the water is merely a symbolic gesture of that inner spiritual shift.

Truly, I could use a rebirth. No, I haven’t done anything horrible (well, there was that one time). I haven’t committed any grave sins to be forgiven for (maybe the occasional minor infraction here and there, but only to keep things interesting).

But I’m stepping into something new here in this phase of my life. I’m helping start a church and am becoming a minister and spiritual counselor. I’d like to give my relationship with my wife a fresh start after four years of partnership in keeping a little human alive for the first time — that’s not an easy thing for anyone to undergo. We’re living in a new city, which is scary no matter how secure things seem now.

And I’d like to start a closer relationship with Jesus. Not in a worshipping way as he clearly stated how he didn’t want that (and would probably feel uncomfortable in the midst of the hoopla and fanfare in that sanctuary that day; not hating — you gotta do what you gotta do to get people in the door, and I think Jesus would understand that).

But I want to look closer to where he was pointing. I want to walk beside him, not stop and stare at him.

So, after fighting my cynicism for the greater part of an hour, I decided to take the dunk. It felt great. Something got washed clean that day, although I can’t put into words just what.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BYlTt22l4Qg/?taken-by=jonasellison

And they kept the water lukewarm, which was nice:)

[embed]https://upscri.be/90caa9/[/embed]

Stop worshipping the quarterback and carry the ball forward

Image: Abigail Keenan

I feel most Christian religious orders are well-intentioned (although, some not), but have missed the mark in a big way when it comes to Jesus.

Now, please know I’m no Bible scholar (yet), but from the blips and blurps I’ve read and heard, Jesus didn’t want to be worshipped in a physical sense. It seems that the thought of a religion being named after him would make him roll over in his grave (wait, I guess that analogy doesn’t work here, sorry).

Yes, he said things like, “I am the way,” but this must be taken into context from the original translation in Hebrew, etc. When we do this, we see his statements like this in a more subtle, metaphorical, lyrical, non-direct way. (People have written volumes on this and I may go deeper into it someday, but this little daily blog post isn’t the place. Google away, friends.)

Essentially, I feel like Jesus was one of many quarterbacks whose intention was to hand the football of the Christ Consciousness off to humanity, but rather than taking the ball and running with it, they stopped, got on their knees, and started worshipping him.

I feel like he’s kinda like, WTF, guys?! Go!!

Jesus was the quarterback. Our job is to catch the ball and run with it. Not to stop, get on our knees, and worship the dude.

Learn from the great teachers, love them, get lost in them, but you have to realize the divinity they speak of rests in you. Hero worship does no good. They’re pointing to the divinity in you and me.

We have all we need to live a divinely-guided life. This has nothing to do with being religious or pious.

It has to do with having a good business. 
It has to do with having a table full of healthy food.
It has to do with fire pits on cool summer nights.
It has to do with community.
It has to do with making sure people’s rent is paid.
It has to do with making sure our fellow man doesn’t starve.
It has to do with good politics.
It has to do with being true to your word.

I could go on for a long damn time here.

Now, before I close, let me say… If meditating/praying on the name/thought of Jesus helps you connect with that consciousness so you can better make that next play in the proverbial football field of your life, more power to ya.

But treat it like a huddle. Not the point of the game.

Now… Go get ’em, champ…


Jonas writes microsermons and meditations here in Higher Thoughts on the daily. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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Dirty spirituality

Image: Pascal Frei

I used to think spirituality had to do with fleeting, evanescent, ephemeral stuff. I saw it as a form of escape, whether it was with knees digging into a pew or sitting on top of a cushion.

But, no. The further I follow this spiritual path, the more I come down from those clouds…

I see now that spirituality is about the dirt, the bones, the blood, the food, and the sweat.

Spirituality is about good business, date nights, amazing workouts, and getting that last hole in before the sun goes down.

It’s about ear infections and crying babies.

It’s about shaking hands, making amends, and those awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

It’s about our politics, our agreements, and the way we direct our feet and heart through this physical life.

Spirituality isn’t an escape from this life. It’s about how we engage with this life.

This whole thing is a temple. Pew and cushion are included, but they seem to merely be the starting point.


Jonas Ellison is a spiritual writer, teacher, practitioner, and an interfaith minister-in-training. He helps people deepen their lives through applied spirituality while documenting his journey along the way.

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How religion made sex hot

Image: Quin Stevenson

It framed it a transgression (or most forms of it, at least), which made it hot.

Now, if we blindly buy into the guilt this can bring, it can ruin it for us in two ways…

Either we’ll resist it by trying to make sex into this stale, lifeless, passionless, mechanical, practical thing. Or we’ll accept the shame and blindly take on the label of sexual deviant. Neither of which is beneficial.

The good news is, as with most things, there’s a third way…

Find a conscious state of playfulness in the raunchy nature of sex.

No need to get consumed by it (that just never leads to good things) but there’s nothing wrong with seeing life in the mischievous nature of sex.

I get it. Sex is a warm, sacred, divinely inspired act between two people in love. But without a little bit of impishness, sex is pretty zestless.

Do keep in mind that safe, warm, secure relationships can live in the same place with deviant, erotic, lustful sex. It requires a higher level of awareness to dance this dance. But it’s a gift if we can.

Thanks, religion, for making sex hot.


Jonas writes shortish preachments and meditations here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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The religion of the rebel and the pursuit from happiness

Image: Søren Astrup Jørgensen

I often wonder why we’re such a depressed, anxious culture here in the west.

We have so much. We have clean water, amazing WiFi, central heating, indoor plumbing, and every song and movie ever produced at our fingertips for the price of a hamburger or two a month.

We can swipe left or swipe right for hookups at-will.

We hardly ever fix our cars anymore because they just… Run. Soon, they’ll drive themselves.

If we look at the data, we see that poverty, child labor, food costs, infant mortality, teen pregnancy, homicide, violent crime, and Guinea Worm (yes, Guinea Worm) are all decreasing.

But, at the same time, more Americans than ever before are stressed, depressed and anxiety-ridden.

A little Medium post doesn’t do this subject the justice it deserves, but here’s my nacho-sized idea (which I’m merely playing with — so have fun with me here) of why this might be so.

It has to do with one of our core tenets as Americans…

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness

The pursuit of happiness. 
That’s the one they should have expanded on, right there.

We Americans, at our core, are chasing a utopia of ‘happiness’ — in whatever form that may take for us on an individual level.

Looking at the data, we’ve done an incredible job creating a fucking fantastic world. But we’re emotionally, spiritually, and physically killing ourselves while we’re at it.

I believe it’s unnecessary. We should be absolutely ecstatic right now.

Allow me to edit this in the Constitution (if any of you have any connections in DC, let me know)…

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit FROM the idea of everlasting happiness.

If you’re reading this and were raised in the US or have lived here for any length of time, you’ve been in a culture that’s beyond wealthy, in the sense of what’s available to even the poorest of us on a material level.

We live in the Garden of Eden. We really do. But is this a good thing?

Depends… Adam and Eve was a symbolic story that serves us perfectly if we could see it for what it is.

The serpent is the idea in our head that says, “If you do X,Y, and Z, you’ll be whole and complete.”

But every single time, when we pursue and get that thing the serpent in our mind tells us to get (and in America, we usually do), we may find ourselves totally stoked at first, but eventually, ‘life happens’. Always does. And the serpent returns. And moves the carrot out further.

The religion of rebels

So how do we get around this? How do we find freedom FROM the pursuit of everlasting happiness in the world?

To illustrate this, I’ll share an example of three types of religion...

1.The religion of the conservative is based on the reality principle. It says that you can get rid of anxiety by removing yourself from desire and leaving the world the way it is.

2.The religion of the revolutionary is based on the pleasure principle. It says that you can get rid of anxiety by getting and having everything you want by creating a sort of utopia.

What I’m interested in is the religion of the rebel.

3.The religion of the rebel takes the vigor of the revolutionary and mixes it with the pragmatism of the conservative. Members of this religion say we’re going to constantly work for a better world and more fulfilling life, but we know there is no such thing as a utopia. In fact, we say that a utopia would actually be hell for a human. (Eternal happiness? How… vanilla. And monotone. Ugh…)

When we believe in a utopian endgame…

We believe there’s a President who can bring it to us.
Or a drug.
Or a zip code.
Or a prayer.
Or a partner.
Or a food.
Or a look.
Or a bank account size.

But the rebel realizes that it’s all an illusion. That all of these are false idols and none of them will succeed in bringing us everlasting happiness.

However, instead of getting depressed and defeated (and turning to the above things in a co-dependent way), the rebel sees the perfection in this.

The rebel finds wholeness and perfection in both the struggles AND delights of being a divine human. The rebel enjoys and accepts the full spectrum of emotion and finds happiness that she’s alive one more moment to experience the depth of them.

When the rebel does this, he doesn’t stack on extra layers of frustration, anxiety, and “Oh shit, my spirituality isn’t working” on top of the situation when things get hairy. He lets himself feel. And be. And he lets it pass. And he enjoys the sunset afterwards.

And so, in the spirit of looking at the world through the lens of a rebel…

Let’s keep envisioning a brighter future. But let’s also know life is in a constant state of unfoldment.

Let’s keep praying for the best. But let’s also know that there’s never an ending to creation.

Let’s keep serving others. But let’s also know that ours is the work of a lifetime — or many.

When we take out the idea of a utopia of happiness, we take the pressure off of our spiritual faculties and have fun with them. We know we’ll always be working to create a better world, but we also know that when this world comes, another grander one will be waiting for us to get started on.

It’s then that we’ll be free from the pursuit of happiness.

And then, maybe we’ll be happy in all of it. 
Free at last.


Jonas writes short daily stories and preachments on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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A restoration of Resurrection Sunday

Image: Amisha N

If you’re like me, you may have been told the story that Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that you could go to Heaven someday. It’s a lovely message, but from what I’ve recently learned, there’s a lot more to this day than just that…

Maybe when you hear the above story, your nonsense detector goes off (and has been going off since you were 9 years old, but you’ve muted it so as to keep the peace and not ruffle any feathers).

And so for a lot of people, Easter is about a guy dying so that we can go somewhere else after we die.

Here’s some history…

A little over 2,000 years ago, the Roman Empire — a massive military, economic, social industrial complex bigger than anyone had ever seen — ruled the world all the way from England to India, conquering everyone they could.

This empire was run by a series of Caesars (yep, you’re probably way ahead of me, but I just found out it’s not just one guy). They believed that they were the sons of God who’d been sent to Earth to impart a universal reign of peace and prosperity.

A catchy tagline they used was this: 
Caesar is Lord.

So what they’d do is march into your town, knock on your door, hold a sword to your throat, and say, “Confess that Caesar is Lord.” If you submitted, your town would become part of the empire. You’d begin paying taxes to the Caesar and the Caesar would take those taxes and expand the empire even more.

If you said, “No,” they’d introduce you to a specific form of punishment that showed people what happens when the empire was defied. They perfected a way to keep people in the most amount of pain without killing them too soon — in public — in order to bring the point home as profoundly as possible. They had a thing called an ‘execution stake’ that they’d crucify you on (located in the center of town for all to see, of course).

Their message was simple: 
This is what happens if you don’t submit to Caesar.

What a fail-proof way to grow an empire, right?

Soon, a movement started in the corner of this massive global empire. A group of people kept insisting that their leader and Rabbi, Jesus from Nazareth, had been crucified by the empire, but had risen from the dead.

They made up their own catchy slogan that said the following: 
Jesus is Lord.

From a historical context, can you see how punk rock this was? They were taking Roman military propaganda and subverting it for their own purposes.

These early ‘Christians’ would have gatherings where they’d provide bread (Caesar gave out bread as a way of showing how he provided for his subjects) and wine (because they were Jewish) and they’d have meals called Agape Feasts (‘love’ feasts) where they’d remember their Jesus.

Good tax-paying Romans would look at these nutty Christians going, “You guys, Caesar is going to totally crucify you.” (I’m paraphrasing.) But the Christians would respond with their defiantly subversive slogan: 
Jesus is Lord.

These Good Romans would look at them with frustration and ask, “Dude, what has your Jesus done besides getting his ass crucified? Caesar is creating a world of peace and prosperity, man. Get with it.”

To that, the Christians would respond, “Hey, man, why don’t you come with me this Thursday night. We’re having an Agape Feast. We’re from all backgrounds — Romans, Greeks, Jews, Gentiles, men, women, etc. We gather around a table. We put some bread and wine out to remember this Jesus whose body was broken and blood poured out. But before we eat, we go around and make sure all the single mothers have their rent paid. We make sure that anyone sick is brought food and care. We make sure everyone’s practical needs are met. And we make sure that those with more than enough feel free to share with those who don’t. We do this because we believe Jesus is Lord. And we believe there’s a whole new way to be human.

So, if you were a Christian back then, you’d invite your friend. When you were walking home that night after the Agape Feast, you might ask them, “So, whattdya think? Who do you think is making a better world? Caesar or Jesus?”

Basically, what you’d be asking is this:

Is the world made better through coercive military violence? Or is the world made better through sacrificial love?

What this is really all about

And so the contrast was made: maybe the question isn’t, “How can I crush my enemy,” but, “How can I serve the most downtrodden among us?”

The resurrection said that all oppressive power and brutal regimes are, in fact, temporary. That there is a power in the world greater than the bully. It was hope for anyone who had the boot of an empire on their throat.

Here’s the thing: People who live in wealthy, triumphant empires can easily miss the power of this story. This is why modern Christians living in the western world can’t really relate. They turn it into Jesus forgiving you of your sins, which makes the whole thing about YOU. Our me-first, affluent culture (God bless it) has turned this message into here’s how I can go to heaven someday when I die.

But for the first followers of Jesus, sure it was about the individual, but it was largely about a whole new kind of world. This world. Here and now. It was about providing economic, societal, visceral help and healing for this very world that desperately needs it.

Resurrection says it’s good to be human.

And it can all be healed right here, right now. This was about the resurrection of the body. Not the order of the day that said the body was bad and you had to leave it behind and float off to another realm after death.

The resurrection and incarnation is the radical idea that the divine and the human can exist in the same place.

It says it’s okay to be alive and human, here and now. It speaks to the inherent goodness of the material world. It’s about laughter, wine, sunshine, fresh snow, good coffee, great books, sex, more sex, tacos on a summer evening, babies, dogs, big meals with friends, Cubs games, stargazing, hot spring-poaching, and fixing that garage door. It’s an affirmation of the sweat, blood, dirt and all the grittiness that we know of the human experience.

This tradition starts with the divine who announces: it’s alllll gooood. Resurrection is the climactic announcement that it’s still good. And it’s worth being renewed, restored, and reconciled.

Please don’t let that priest or preacher tell you it’s just about saving your soul after death.

It’s about your skin, your society, your kids’ school, and all the way you use your sacred spirit to DO something with your life and make the world a better place.

Creation is good and it is to be cared for. Resurrection is about our air, our soil, our food, and our water. It’s about feeding those who are hungry, being trafficked, being marginalized, being exiled, trying to get a small business loan, and helping parents and grandparents in need.

This world. This world is good. It’s good to have a body. It’s a resounding YES to all of this.

Do NOT let anyone shrink resurrection down to a nice little selfish doctrine that can fit into your Dolce and Gabbana purse.

This is about our world being healed, life restored and renewed to the paradise it is at its core.

What this has to do with us

Now… Given all of this, what do we do when someone wrongs us? If you’re like me, everything within you wants to lash back and get revenge. But if we do this, what we’re doing is keeping the violence alive. We’re keeping the aggression in circulation.

You bomb us? We’ll bomb you. 
(Or today — you THINK of bombing us? We’ll bomb you.)

It happens in marriages, town hall meetings, and national diplomacy and has been for ages.

But the story of resurrection is about a Jesus who, when injustice comes his way, when he’s betrayed and crucified, DOES NOT retaliate.

He does the strongest thing anyone can do, which is, he takes the violence and absorbs it. Not because he’s weak or passive, but because he understands that the greatest strength is that which absorbs all that pain, and when it does, it takes the pain, violence, and evil out of circulation.

In that very moment, Jesus showed us the God of life. The God of renewal. The God of resurrection.

Jesus took the violence out of circulation.

Looking around today, it’s too bad he seemed to die in vain. If we would have gotten the message and lived it these last couple thousand years, we might not be staring down the barrel of a nuclear holocaust this Easter weekend. Maybe this world would look a hell of a lot different than it does now.

I’d say it’s not too late. Happy Easter, my good friends.


For more on this, check this outstanding account by Rob Bell from a couple years back.


Jonas writes short daily stories and preachments on the daily here in Higher Thoughts. Get one to enjoy with your coffee every morning by subscribing below.

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