On dying and rising: The annual Easter essay

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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 unofficial essays on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Holy Saturday & the Easter Vigil
Revised Common Lectionary readings for Holy Saturday
Revised Common Lectionary readings for the Easter Vigil


I’ve been trying to relax my rational mind in this final Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) of Holy Week. I figure that I try to control, make sense of, and rationalize the other 98% of my life, so when it comes to this faith thing, I’m trying to give myself permission to let it go and lose myself in the mystery as much as I can. And it’s really hard.

I don’t know if I can honestly say with my logical Western brain that I believe the resurrection of Jesus was a journalistic factual account of something that happened at a certain moment in time. Maybe it’s true that much of the resurrection story was embellished well after Jesus’s death to fit in accordance with the earlier scriptures…

Maybe that’s true. 
And that doesn’t discount this whole resurrection thing for me one iota.

I’m so tired of relying on fact. I’m so tired of needing absolute material confirmation as a prerequisite before believing in any one thing. No, I don’t always take the Bible or the resurrection stories literally and coming to grips with that has only enhanced my faith, not weakened it.

If you asked me if the Bible was factual/literal or mythical/parabolic, I’d say… Yes.

Today, we are celebrating an ancient narrative born out of a historical event. We are making intentional and life-affirming meaning out of something that just… happened (or didn’t — however you look at it).

But I believe 100% in death and resurrection. I’m getting there with Jesus, but see it for sure in my life. Looking back, I’ve lived, died and have been resurrected by something other than my individual will several times. The life I live now is nothing like the one I lived when I was 12 or 20 or even 30 and I’ve had nothing to do with that. If it were up to me, I’d have kept everything the same. Because change is scary and death is terrifying but resurrection is holy.

Here’s how I see the resurrection from my fairly low (perhaps middle-ish) Christological viewpoint…

At the time of Jesus, messiahs were supposed to save everyone, not be executed. They were supposed to forever reign in glory on the throne of the law. Therefore, a majority of people wrote Jesus off the moment his heart stopped beating. He’d failed the Messianic litmus test.

But these Jesus followers who’d experienced so much joy, freedom, and liberation from his countercultural, shocking, table-turning, grace-driven message of God’s unending one-directional love couldn’t let it go. (And I even want to believe that they saw him fishing on the shore days after his death.)

To them, this was/is the Messiah. This Messiah, who’d consciously died to the law essentially putting an end to it. As his last words uttered, it is finished.

When Jesus drew his last breath, the chapter of God-as-law-enforcer was finished and a new chapter of grace had been initiated.

The work of Jesus, as vital as it was when he was alive, had really started when his heart stopped. If Jesus is the personification of the divine, then the law is dead and grace abounds. Jesus had absorbed every ounce of retributive violence and wrath that we expected a Messiah to enact as he absorbed it into himself and breathed words of utter forgiveness. Jesus took the violence out of circulation into himself and symbolically ended it.

His apostles started seeing grace — Christ (the more universal term for the logos or divine nature that Jesus embodied) — everywhere. They saw the risen Christ in unexpected physical form on several accounts. Christ had risen.

And so, this day is rich with symbolic meaning from the micro/individual (our own personal deaths and resurrections — some more literal than others) to the macro/religious (in the death and resurrection of the grace-fueled Messiah).

Where I live, in Chicago, it’s spring. We had a several-day stretch where temperatures dipped to almost -50 degrees this winter (yes, that’s negative 50 — with the wind chill). And yet, as I look out of my window, little delicate buds are shooting up in all their fragile glory. Mother nature is giving the big middle finger to death as she triumphs again just as she does every year around this time.

Every spring, death is made the fool again. And on this resurrection day, the violent God is substituted with an ever-loving, merciful, and radically redemptive one.

Happy Easter. May you find new life in every holy moment.

Amen.

On getting your feet washed

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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.

Maundy Thursday
Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


It’s Maundy Thursday. In the tradition I follow, it’s the day we gather and wash each other’s feet.

[Aside] I pray that my church is well stocked up on Purell because I’m much more of a germaphobe than Jesus was (though, if he had Purell in his day, who knows…). I digress…

If we haven’t got the message about the one-way direction of love from God to us up until this point, this story should drive it home.

Here we have God personified in Jesus washing the feet of his disciples — some of whom he knows will blatantly betray him.

God’s Love…
One way. 
One way. 
One way.

(Sorry, I have to repeat this to get it under my thick skull and into my heavy heart.)

From the gospel reading of John

Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”

That last part there, Unless I wash you, you have no share with me. In other words, unless you open your heart to my love and grace, nothing you do matters — no matter how self-righteous it may seem (my translation, of course).

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.

Though God’s grace only goes in one direction, it never stops with us.

The fruits of this grace are multiplied through the faithful souls that receive it (‘faithful soul’ doesn’t mean ‘someone who goes to church every Sunday’, it means ‘one who grasps for abounding and steadfast love from the Divine Other at the ground of their being even when they feel they don’t deserve it’).

So, my prayer for you is this…

May you allow your feet to be washed.

May you have enough faith to set aside all the reasons you’ve cooked up about your unworthiness. And may you humbly excuse any reservations based on rationale.

God’s love is never about value or merit. God rushes straight towards those whose hearts are weakened by not-enoughness and guilt. This one-way grace of God is the only force in the universe that brings new life out of nothing and for no good reason.

May you be washed clean.
And may you see how clean God washes your world through you in response to it.

Happy Maundy Thursday.
Amen.

On betrayal and public persecution

Photo by Andrik Langfield 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.

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 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.

Let’s not forget the older brother

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez 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.

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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Be the created

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

I want to add some nuance to the email I wrote last night about ‘being good’.

When I say being good, I’m not talking about self-righteous piety. I’m not even necessarily talking about ‘being nice’ or having ‘good behavior’ (which is entirely subjective, btw). That stuff is all a slippery slope towards the curse of perfection.

Here’s a better way to explain it. (Let me grab my Bible here, one sec…)

There’s a psalm that lays out all the different things and creatures that praise God. What’s curious is how humans are waaaaaay down on that list. It goes…

Angels
Sun and moon
Stars
Skies
Waters
Sea monsters
Fire and hail
Snow and frost
Stormy wind
Mountains and hills
Fruit trees and cedars
Wild animals and cattle
Creeping things and flying birds
(And then) Kings of the earth and all peoples

Yep, we’re at the very bottom of the list of things and creaturelings that ‘praise God’. So, why? What is this psalm writer getting at? This is, as written, the heart of it (from that same psalm)…

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
 for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever;
 he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

We are created.
Our bounds are fixed.
They cannot be passed.

We can find bondage in this, or freedom. I prefer to go with the latter.

Nature can teach us so much about praising God. The rest of creation (outside of humanity) is simply what God created it to be. The rest of creation does what God created it to do. In merely being itself, it praises the source of its being.

The rest of creation isn’t self-conscious or striving to put on airs of self-righteousness. Cows don’t seem to worry too much about their weight and dogs don’t seem to stress out about improving themselves.

The sun, the moon, the stars, the waters, snow, frost, wind, fire, hail, mountains, and hills are simply what they are: The created manifestation of God in their own specific form.

I don’t think fruit trees have existential crises or anger issues. The rest of nature doesn’t look outside of God for its self-worth.

So what keeps us from this?

Well, if we could rest in our createdness like the rest of creation, it would imply that you nor I am God. You are not the creator and I am not the creator.

The story of Adam and Eve characterized a humanity that was comfortable in its naked createdness until it experienced the inversion of consciousness where it wanted to be in control of judgment. When the individual ego took the wheel and claimed itself to be the final judge of what is good and what is evil.

God said it was good, but the serpent said, try harder.

I know. Being conscious of our limitations as the created isn’t glamorous. It isn’t powerful or motivational in the Western sense. But I’m finding so much liberation in this notion.

Because EVERYTHING is a gift. From my first breath to the breath I’m breathing now — all of them a finite string of gifts. My health, the paved streets outside my apartment, the educators in my daughter’s school, my pastors, my friends who remain my friends even though I’m horrible at keeping in touch, my wife who somehow decided it was a good idea to marry me — all of them and countless more, gifts.

I am the created. I am nothing but a receiver and a transmitter of divine grace. None of it comes from my individual ego.

Of course, I don’t think that the point here is to just sit around and graze like a cow. It takes effort to do that. We humans are moved towards creation. But not in an individualistic sense. It’s when we discard our creator and try to go it alone that things get wonky.

I believe we were created as co-creators of the divine. This is where I think we fit. Securely in the divine trinitarian flow as the created but intimately plugged into the creator. This takes profound trust in the unseen.

And so, as the psalm suggests, maybe the highest form of praise is to, like the rest of creation, relax. Be the created. Rest in that you and I are created good.

Being the created means consciously assuming our divine role. 
Trying to be perfect is usurping power from God.
Because if you’re perfect, why do you need God?
Why do you need anyone?
You’ve won…
Right?
*Makes evil grin*

Relax in the presence of God as you would in the presence of someone who totally digs you. Not your ego ideal. But you. The you who has always been you — created as such.

Christ brings God to us and us to God without any effort on our part.

Rejoice in the gift of your createdness.

Amen.


This post was begotten and made on my private email newsletter, The Jonas Letters. Dip into the archives and subscribe here.

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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Lead us not into temptation

Photo by Alexis Antoine

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.

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


We live in a temptation-fueled world and maybe always have.

When I speak of temptation, I risk sounding like an overprotective parent. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. (And in Lent) Don’t eat that.

Unfortunately, religion has cheapened temptation by attaching it to petty (and sometimes not so petty) external things like moral and dietary transgressions. We’ve been taught that we’re tempted towards things like these. But if we look deeper at today’s readings, we see we’re directed inward and are warned that the root temptation actually tries to move us away from something.

That something is our identity as a beloved child of the divine. This is what temptation does. The things it seduces us towards are merely surface results of the thing it seduces us away from.

Now, back to this temptation-driven world we live in. This is a good time to step back and see how many things in modern culture try to chip away at our identities in God and substitute their ‘solution’ as our saving grace.

Advertising creates a sense of lack and inadequacy in us and tells us that if we drink the right beer, buy the right products, and subscribe to the right subscriptions, that we’ll be safe, secure, worthy, and wanted.

Even the social media posts of our friends, who may not be trying to sell us anything (unless you happen to be friends with someone who sells doTERRA — those people are ravenous!) showcase only the highlight reel of their lives so as to weaken our identities through comparison.

In Chicago’s mayoral race and in our impending Presidential race, we have a swarm of people who paint a picture that we are unsafe and vulnerable without them in office, but if we can just get them there, peace and justice will be restored and heaven will be brought to earth — through them.

When it comes to temptation, Jesus had it easy with just that one devil character. We get hit from every angle across countless digital devices and mediums.

The devil (also known as the accuser in scripture) seeks to erode Jesus’ confidence that he is enough, that he is secure, and that he is worthy of God’s love. But Jesus is reminded through scripture that he has and is enough. He doesn’t waver from the faith that he — like all of creation — is of infinite worth in the eyes of God.

This is the meditation for today. What if we knew — really knew — that God (or whatever you call the divine) loves us more than anything? That we don’t have to do anything to secure our worth or security but be who we are. And that any move away from this core identity actually makes us weak.

In the Christian tradition, we celebrate that God loves us enough to slip into flesh, take on our human struggles, suffer the same temptations and yearnings, be rejected as we often feel rejected, and die the most excruciating human death imaginable, all so that we may know that God is with us and for us forever.

The crescendo comes when Jesus is raised from the dead so as to demonstrate that God’s love is more powerful than hate and that the life that God offers is more powerful than death.

Today, we remember and acknowledge our true identity as beloved children of God so that we can turn and share that love with each other — even the most vulnerable and marginalized.

May you not suffer identity theft from the seductions of this world

May no icon of this world convince you that it is your redeemer

May you forever know your eternal worth as a beloved child of the divine

May you not be lead into temptation

But know that you are forever worthy and forever enough as you are

Amen.

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Emptying and restoring

Photo by Wesley Balten

Welcome to my ‘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.

Ash Wednesday
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I haven’t attended an Ash Wednesday service in 25 years. This morning, as I sat in the pew next to my wife, I realized I was participating in a seasonal religious ceremony that dates back to the beginning of time.

The service was stripped down to the bare essentials. The accents of green from ordinary time were swapped out for the purple of the Lenten season. There was no choir and no grand entrance procession like usual. The hallowed word allelujah has been stricken from all hymnals until Easter.

The tone of the sermon was solemn. The confession was more pronounced. Much like advent, this is a cycle of somberness. One where we bear witness to our frailties and fragilities as mortals. One where we take notice of the fact that these bodies of ours will return to dust.

During this Lenten season, we take a stark look at the shadow side of our humanity. Naming our transgressions is never easy, especially in modern-day America where we’re all so enabled by our confirmation biases and cheered on by the digital applause of whatever algorithm we’ve found ourselves in.

It’s a season of self-emptying kenosis. One where we give up the gluttonies that we use to blanket and silence our inner moanings and groanings wrought from our imagined (albeit indelible) separation from our divine source.

As today’s Psalm says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

The psalm continues, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

Emptying and restoring.
Emptying and restoring.

This is the divine pattern. And it’s what I’ll be meditating on this blessed Lenten season.

I mean, I should also give up chocolate too, but…

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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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The path of descent

Photo by Brett Jackson on Unsplash

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.

Transfiguration Sunday
Click here for Revised Common Lectionary readings.


I wish I had more time and theological expertise to unpack this one. I know there are prophecies from the Hebrew Bible being made manifest and a lot of other nuances going on that are beyond my layman’s proficiencies.

But Jesus is definitely having a mystical God-moment up on that mountain as his appearance changes from a shabbily-clad olive-skinned man to… a luminescent, flowing-robed God-Man. He even channels the prophets Moses and Elijah.

You know that Peter, James, and John — the disciples who accompanied him on that mountaintop — were straight-up frrrreaking out…

A radiant cloud appeared and they all felt the presence of God. A voice out of the cloud rang, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

This mystical God-moment marks the point before the descent. After this passage, Jesus shares — quite possibly — his most disturbing, shocking, and de-centering teaching of all. He’s about to reveal that he must suffer, die, and rise again — and that anyone who cares to join him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

Lent is upon us. A lot of harrowing stuff is about to go down back on level ground.

But why not delay it a little while? Why not bask in his God-granted and human-witnessed glory and be a supreme king for a while before swallowing the bitter medicine that awaits him at the bottom of that mountain?

I mean, really, why doesn’t Jesus just ride out his success? He’s totally winning right now!!

Instead, Jesus must move his feet one step at a time back down that mountain to the valley of the shadow of death. This God, who slipped into skin as a human, must die.

Because it’s not about worshipping a glorious glowing-white king. If so, the story would’ve stopped there.

But it doesn’t.
It keeps going.

The path of descent has just begun.

God has entered flesh
And now walks
Towards God’s own death.

But even that isn’t the end of the story.

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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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Permission is granted

Photo by Mathilda Khoo.

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.

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


Jesus continues his Sermon on the Plain dropping mystical brain-breaking wisdom just as he was last week. Here are the notes I jotted down to give you the skinny…

  • Love your enemies.
  • Do good to those who hate you.
  • Bless those who curse you.
  • Pray for those who abuse you.
  • Lend and expect nothing in return.
  • If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.
  • From anyone who takes away your coat, why not give them your shirt?
  • Give to everyone who begs from you.
  • If anyone takes your stuff, do not ask for it back.
  • Do to others as you would have them do to you.
  • Loving those who love you is no big deal — anyone can do that.
  • Doing good to those who do good to you is no big deal — anyone can do that too.
  • If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, that’s no big deal either.
  • Don’t judge (then you won’t be judged).
  • Don’t condemn (then you won’t be condemned).
  • Forgive and you’ll be forgiven.
  • Give and it will be given to you.

That’s a laundry list, right there. And they can seem like commands. Well, as a postmodern, Western, individualized, liberated, privileged person, it’s easy to roll my eyes at these commands. Because they don’t make any damn sense.

We live in a world of cause and effect, right? So if someone wrongs me, I settle the score by getting back at them. If someone hits me on the cheek, I’ma try to land several strikes on their cheeks. If I give my stuff to everyone who wants it, I won’t have anything left.

You guys, this sounds all nice and peaceful and stuff, but this man is talking craziness. These aren’t bullet points to individual success, they’re shortcuts to the poorhouse. So that crazy guy Jesus can keep his lofty commands because I’m out to get mine…

But there’s gotta be something here. Let’s take a sec to flip the paradigm on this whole thing. What if the lens that we’re seeing these words through is muddy? I’m going to propose that this is not a command, but the granting of permission.

Jesus’ words are rarely commands, but rather invitations to life beyond human creaturelyness.

(Yes, creaturelyness.)

I mean, sure, you can live as our animal instincts tell us to live. That stuff is hard-wired in. But Jesus comes in at a moment where human consciousness is breaking into something new. Our frontal lobes are new, but they carry the possibility of flourishing beyond the laws of old.

Instead of seeing this sermon as a series of commands, see it as a stack of permission slips that give you the go-ahead to be a part of the renewal of the world. Because what if a critical mass of us lived like this? Then we wouldn’t lack anything or have anything (really) to fear. We’d be each other’s caregivers rather than each other’s competitors. We’d see ourselves as stewards of this planet rather than rulers over it.

These permission slips just sit there on the desk. Maybe some, you can’t stomach. I know I sure can’t. I have mouths to help feed and right now, hardly anyone is playing by these rules.

But hopefully, I can take a few of them and accept Jesus’ permission to live in this new way. Not because I’m commanded to. But because I’m invited to.

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God isn’t in the perfection business

Photo by Jake weirick

Before bed the other night (it’s amazing how many fascinating and terrifying conversations take place before bed), Rory was talking about people who are born stuck together — conjoined twins. She mentioned how hard it must be for them to walk. “It’s sad that God would make them that way,” she said with zero apprehension.

I truly think we ask all the hard questions about life and the divine when we’re five before our parents scare us into submission due to their anxiousness.

I sat with her inquiry for a moment. Because she was right. How could we call God a loving one if people are going through such misery? I can’t imagine what these conjoined twins have to go through just to get through each day — and night.

“You’re right. It is sad that God creates them that way.” I just left it at that. But then, as I do, I strained and obsessed about that little conversation for three days as she likely totally forgot about it. Here’s where my reflection got me…

It’s easy to think of God as solely the God of humans. Especially as Christians. It’s like nothing ever existed until Jesus was born (well, maybe a few thousand years before that, riiiight?). But as Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote…

The first Incarnation of God did not happen in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. That is just the moment when it became human and personal, and many people began to take divine embodiment as a serious possibility. The initial Incarnation actually happened around 14 billion years ago with “The Big Bang.” That is what we now call the moment when God decided to materialize and self-expose, at least in this universe.

Seeing God as the creator of all creation, we see a much larger picture.

Since the dawn of physical creation, how many plants, leaves, flowers, and trees have shriveled up and died before they reached their fullness of stature? How many rivers have dried up? How many floods and tsunamis have laid waste to plants and animals with zero notice? How many galaxies have crashed into and obliterated each other? How many stars have burned themselves out before reaching their apex? Just one look at a National Geographic special about the safari will reveal how cruel life can seem to be.

But I don’t know if God has ever been in the perfection business. I think perfection is a human construct — an impossible expectation that we hold life to.

I don’t know if God has ever been in the perfection business. I think perfection is a human construct — an impossible expectation that we hold life to.

And so, I don’t really know how to reconcile it. I’m not sure if anything was ever meant to fit the illusory human construct of perfection (which changes from person to person and from season to season).

Perhaps, if we release our grasp on perfection, we can cease trying to get life to fit in that impossible box and instead hold all of it with deep reverence. Because it truly is a miracle that I’m breathing. And you’re breathing. And we can even wonder about this.


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


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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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Ode to the nude

Photo by John Doyle

In the locker room at my gym, I often see older men hanging out, shooting the breeze… Naked.

I never see anyone younger than 65-ish years old doing this (my wife tells me that there’s this same phenomenon happening in the women’s locker room).

I always awkwardly/begrudgingly walk by like, c’mon now, guys… No one wants to see that.

But the other day, something shifted.

I was walking through the locker room and there were two old birds walking to the sauna with it all hanging out. One of them was as skinny as a rail with long gray hair. The other one was taller and more stout. And they were just chatting away like no biggie talking about the grandkids and their wives and what have you.

And I realized I had to give kudos where they were due. I was the weird one here, not them.

“Who told you that you were naked?”
 — God

Seriously, why do we carry such shame around our bodies, particularly in the US? If we could only be more comfortable in these God-granted skinsuits of ours, I think a lot of the toxic dynamics around sex might fizzle out.

And so, kudos to the older people for showing us how to be naked. I’ve got a lot of American prudishness to get beyond before I’m comfy doing that, though.

Maybe when I’m 65:)

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Blessed be the inner-poor

Photo by Jonathan Borba

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.

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


This week, we have Jesus’ most profound sermon — The Beautitudes. This sermon is accounted for in both Matthew and Luke. In Matthew, it’s more extensive and it’s called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. But this week, we have Luke’s account, which isn’t quite as extensive and is called the ‘Sermon on the Plain’.

I think this is fascinating. Same event. Two writers. One (Matthew) has Jesus up high on a mountain in glorious splendor. The other (Luke) has him on level ground with ‘the people’.

These writers blatantly take creative license over how they portray the story. I take it that Matthew was an accountant and Luke was a physician turned social activist (from what little I know about them).

So, focusing in on Luke’s account, we have Jesus on level ground with the people, not on a mount of any sort. I love how this brings this ‘newborn king’ down to Earth (quite literarily). He stood with them, not above them. Very strange for such a highly esteemed social influencer of his time. For some, it was refreshing. For others, offensive. Either way, it was de-centering.

From a contemplative approach, this sermon is pure gold. Jesus is dropping non-dual wisdom that makes Yoda look like a schoolboy.

Here are some things I scribbled down as I was taking notes on this sermon…

Poor => Kingdom of God
Hungry => Filled
Weep => Laugh
Hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed => Blessed
Rich => Woe
Full => Hungry
Laughing => Mourn and weep
Spoke well of => Possible false prophet

At this point, it’s important to talk about Jesus’ use of the words ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. And I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface here…

There were no ‘conscious capitalists’ in Jesus’ day. There wasn’t anyone creating a successful lifestyle brand on Instagram selling cupcakes. If you were rich, you were likely a slave owner, part of the domination system, and overall horrible, murderous person.

So there’s that.

[Please don’t feel bad if you’ve become financially well-off while adding to the world (or even making cupcakes). We can actually do that these days. Thanks be to God.]

Contemplatively speaking, when Jesus talks about poverty and richness, we can see him as talking about inner poverty and inner richness.

This ‘inner poverty’ that Jesus points to acknowledging how poor we are, in and of our small selves.

This ‘inner richness’ that Jesus describes someone who thinks they have everything they need, in and of themselves. They disregard the forces surrounding them — human and non-human — that has aided to their worldly success (know anyone like that)?

The former — the inner-poor — have humility and can laugh at the fumbling experience of being human. They’re open to being integrated into the body of Christ (human community) and acknowledge the health of the planet for allowing them to live and breathe and eat and whatnot.

The latter — the inner-rich — think they’re self-made successes. They did it all themselves. Their duty stops at the boundary marked by their skin. Anything outside of this boundary is fair game.

We, as petty ego-driven identities go, are poor AF. We got nothing. All we can do is put out our cup and receive.

Everything is a gift. This very breath is undeserved. This very beat of our heart is as well. There is no guarantee that the water is drinkable or remains drinkable. But it is.

All we can do is acknowledge, cherish, hold it sacred and receive.

Amen.

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A rant on Lutheran theology and contemplation

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

I’m taking a Lutheran theology class on Mondays and my brain is on fire by the end of the three hours.

Maybe it’s partly because I haven’t been in a traditional classroom for 20 years, but it’s also because Lutheranism is known as a ‘bookish’ theology (though, I’m learning that Luther was quite heart-centric in his own flawed way).

Luther was violently prolific. The combination was this:

Passionate and articulate German theologian (and his cronies) + his/their love of beer + the advent of the printing press = Lutheran theology.

As much as it is, I love that it stimulates my brain space.

But then, the other half of my spiritual life is my practice of contemplative prayer which is more mindful and meditative. Unlike theology, contemplative prayer is all about self-emptying and releasing thoughts, not refining them.

So how do I live with both? It seems they’d cancel each other out.

But this is what’s so great about looking at things contemplatively/non-dualistically (as bad as I am at it)…

Contemplation doesn’t cause us to shy away from opposites. Rather, it allows us to embrace both polarities and create a new, third thing.

When it comes to opposites, the small self frantically yearns to pick one or the other. But it’s fascinating what happens when we sit with both for a while.

As for the example I present today, with these two seemingly disparate spiritual premises, here’s what occurred to me…

Lutheran theology (especially before the death of Luther, after which a lot of really ‘smart’ humans and committees of humans got their hands on it) was radically a gospel (grace)-centered theology. His premise went something like this…

Humans are justified (loved, accepted, etc.) from birth through the grace of God. There is no ladder to climb. The only task is to recognize and live in response to this grace.

In contemplative centering prayer, the task is to sit still for 20 minutes and bask in this grace. And it’s really hard. Because I don’t feel I deserve it. My ego feels like it has to do this, this, and this.

Stop sitting, you loser! Get up and perform! Produce!

There’s just so much to do and so much to prove.

But, the task is to let that stuff bubble up and bathe in the grace that Luther banged on about. It takes practice to do this, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be constantly aware of the love God has for me and all of creation.

I’ll take a glimpse every now and then, though. And if I just had a fresh beer and a digital printing press, I might be able to write about it too.

There we go…

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No happy ending necessary

Photo by Artem Sapegin

False hope is a huge industry. Like any narcotic, it provides a temporary high as one is consuming it and shortly thereafter. But then sobriety returns and crashes the party.

This is the brand of optimism that bypasses reality. It holds to the miracle while turning a blind eye to the suffering under its nose.

And we eat it up. Because as vulnerable beings, we can’t bear to face that stuff. Nope.

Blind optimism puts God in the business of producing happy endings.

[Note: As with any case, you can substitute ‘God’ with ‘life’. So blind optimism puts life in the business of producing happy endings. The happy ending becomes the thing we hold our lives hostage to — namely our relationships to self, others, and the world around us.]

Meanwhile, we’re alone with the mess of the world.

This way of looking at the world conflicts with lived experience. Happy endings come so naturally in television and movies, but human life is much more complex.

False hope bypasses reality. True hope acknowledges and transcends it.

Pure hope doesn’t override pain. It acknowledges and transcends it. Its focus is more on sustaining than escaping. It says, Lord, sustain me through these times. If I’m in pain, I pray this ends, but I need you with me in this mess. If I’m not in pain, bring vibrancy and color to the mundane moments.

True hope invites the divine in no matter how far from our ego ideal our lives have gotten. And when we invite God in — in time — we’re healed and restored.

No happy ending necessary.

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