Jesus was guilty

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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.

Good Friday
Click here for today’s Revised Common Lectionary readings.


On this Good Friday, I hope to bring things down to earth to provide a contrary approach to what is often such a whitewashed and supernatural crucifixion. As if Jesus, this really good church-going soul was put to death by the rest of humanity — us grave sinners. He did nothing ‘wrong’. We just killed him because he was nice.

First of all, Jesus wasn’t really that ‘nice’ as in Ned-Flanders-nice. Jesus and Ned Flanders would NOT get along, I assure you. Jesus was a hellraiser (actually, a heaven-raiser would be a much better term, but the ferocious intensity behind what his work would match that of a hellraiser).

So here we have this heaven-raiser who was consoling sinners, healing lepers, hanging out with people deemed as prostitutes, and vociferously shaking his fist at the Roman dominance system.

The latter is what I’ll focus on here…

As the author and religious studies scholar Reza Aslan alludes to in his book, ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, the forgiving account to Pontious Pilate trying to let Jesus off the hook may not have been super accurate. Instead, he portrays Pilate as a shrewd executioner who showed mercy on no one. Cases that came before Pilate meant case closed and all Pilate did was sign off on the executions. He didn’t deliberate over them.

(Excuse me, I forget where in the book this is from exactly, I just remember my wife reading that part of the book to me and I found it fascinating.)

Aslan claims that Jesus was processed just as harshly as any other defector to the Roman Empire.

As theologian Marcus Borg puts it…

Was Jesus guilty or innocent? Because language familiar to Christians speaks of Jesus as sinless, perfect, righteous, spotless, and without blemish, the question will seem surprising to some. But it is worth reflecting about.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus was not only executed by the method used to execute violent insurrectionists; he was physically executed between two insurrectionists. Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? Perhaps. Why perhaps and not a simple yes? Mark does not report that Jesus taught this, and his account of Jesus’s response to the high priest’s question about this is at least a bit ambiguous.

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes. Mark’s story of Jesus’s final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system. And, as all know, it killed him.

I say Jesus — though absolutely nonviolent — was guilty in the eyes of the law. And leading up to that day, I don’t think Jesus saw himself as this lamb/dove-like nice guy who weeps on the way to the cross.

Jesus had some hell — I mean, heaven-raising — to do. He saw the injustice with the law and how it traced back through his scriptures of the Hebrew Bible. He knew that the law never healed anyone and he had a really good idea that someday he’d be killed for saying it so loudly.

I don’t believe he saw his role as ‘son of God’ (he never called himself this) following a perfectly laid out divine plan from his daddy in the clouds. Jesus of Nazareth was on a mission to extend the radical one-way grace of God to as many hurting souls as he possibly could. He was spreading a subversive and very public (albeit peaceful) rebellion against the violent dominance structure of his day.

I want to share with you the words of my dear friend and religious scholar, Joel Cruz:

Today in history:
An innocent man was publically tortured and executed — lynched — by police on trumped up charges brought on by both religious officials and politicians

Today in theology:
God has shown what side God is on. God identifies with and forever stands on the side of the victims of state and religious sponsored terrorism — whether they are shot in their backyards, separated from their children at the border, sexually abused by prison guards, or gay bashed in a church. And in exposing the evils of such violence God forever judges and condemns it.

In a few days we will celebrate the triumph of the Victim and look to the vindication of all victims everywhere. But for today, let us sit with the ambiguity — the God forever on the side of the poor and the recurring story of human violence perpetrated on others and on God’s creation.

Jesus was guilty-as-charged in the eyes of the law. But in his heart, he was the most innocent being ever. This is the substitution that took place. Strict adherence to the law leads to the death of the innocent. Only grace frees.

Jesus was the living, dying, and resurrecting example of this.

The day God got out of the Law business

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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.

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 is up to a ‘new thing’

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

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


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

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

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

But then, the paradigm is shifted…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I love this so much.)

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

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

Let me zoom in on the important part here…

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

Amen.

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Free to Relax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Alison so lucidly states,

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

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

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

I just love that.

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

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

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

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

Ahhhhhhh…

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Jesus was not just a teacher

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Source]

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Be the created

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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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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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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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Is it right or wrong?

Photo by Harrison Moore

In the Q&O I hosted the other day, someone asked a question that I almost shrugged off as too simplistic. They asked if I thought it was wrong to take something that isn’t yours.

I typically avoid these kinds of questions. It makes me feel morally pious and pious, I am not. But I felt drawn to the question, so I stayed with it.

The first thing that came to mind was that it was conditional. If you’re stealing out of harm, then it’s wrong. But if you’re stealing to feed your family, it’s okay.

But what I’m learning is that, when it comes to the radical grace of this faith, the answer is never so simple. It’s never yes/no, true/false, right/wrong.

Asking whether it’s wrong or right has to do with law. And law is a human construct. Necessary, maybe, but limited.

I’m glad there are people who can legally put people in jail for trying to harm me, my family, and neighbors. I’m all for it. But the thing is…

Humans don’t tend to transform when you take a hammer to their heads.

Yes, it helps the victim or would-be victims. But as for the ‘offender’, it typically takes a lot of hammer blows to cause even the smallest change (if any) and then, the only hope is that they see the one thing that will change them at the heart-level.

This is grace. The universal grace that comes from life itself (some of us call it the love of God). It’s the cosmic download that speaks to us in language deeper than words that we loved in such a palpable way that no moral transgression can affect.

What I’m interested in is what happens after said moral violation. How do we respond to life after we’ve done something ‘wrong’ (yes, we’re all ‘guilty’ of these things to some degree)? What then?

If we’re closed off to grace, odds are, we’ll keep running into the human rule of law and the hammer blows will continue. Maybe not even in a legal sense; it could be the law of being ostracized by family and friends, etc.

But eventually, hopefully, something opens us up to this indwelling grace beneath all of our human self-judgments.

That’s when the transformation happens. Because theft or murder or harm or [enter any moral transgression here] doesn’t happen in an interior place of feeling eternally loved. The fruits of that tree are much different.

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The language of story vs. the language of law

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger

Jesus didn’t consider himself to be a priest. If anything, he overtly distanced himself from the temple hierarchy of his day.

His message wasn’t one of morals and edicts. It was rather one that shook people out of their dualistic law-focused stupor and served as a divine cattle prod to the human heart. Through his good word, we are called to die before we die and trade in our petty life for a grander, more generous one.

(I don’t know about you, but this sounds like too much work. I’d rather just keep my ego intact, remain complacent in my biases, and see everyone else as the problem…)

Jesus communicated, not through wielding a scroll and pointing to rules, but through parables — a classic tool of a wisdom teacher (moshel moshelim as some have stated it).

Jesus didn’t seem concerned about returning people back to the law of his day but rather focused his sights on the transformation of human consciousness.

He used the language of story and poetry — the language of the people rather than the language of the law.

A wisdom teacher is a far different role than a law-upholder. They’re into shifting paradigms of consciousness — not maintaining the status quo.

You know that natural aversion you might have towards Bible-bearing law-wielders? Know that they’re likely taking a different approach than Jesus took.

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How do you know it’s true?

Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Well, when it comes to faith, often times we don’t, and that’s what makes this conversation interesting…

How boring would it be if you and I both came to the table with an unwavering stance on faith — if you were firm on perspective #1 and I with perspective #2?

But that seems to be the goal of a lot of Western Christianity. To be the first one to the ‘right answer’.

Our spiritual foremothers and fathers knew better. Ancient Judaic authorities had a name for it: midrash. Though the word has a very deep meaning, one variant of it means holding a text and the narrative surrounding it with a loose grasp.

I love this analogy. Holding faith ‘loosely’. It’s fascinating when we can turn it upside down, examine it from different angles, and hand it back and forth so that differing perspectives could add to the complexity of this sacred discussion.

This is why theology and church overall can be so horribly boring — because we’re so terrified to be wrong, so we keep saying the same thing over and over again.

Please, be wrong. Take me somewhere new. Blow open the doors and dust off this old altar, preacher!

Confusion and wonder are essential elements of the spiritual journey in any faith. Christianity is no different.

I see theology as more art than science. Though both are important, our Western world has been going the latter direction for a very long time (and look where it’s gotten us).

I’ll close with a word by Lauren F. Winner from her book, Wearing God: Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.

As a rabbi with the wonderful name Ben Bag Bag once said of the Talmud, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Look deeply into it, and grow old with it, and spend time over it, and do not stir from it, because there is no greater portion.” Turn it and turn it — there is always more to see. This amazes me. This is why the Bible is different from Pride and Prejudice or Little Women. There is a lot to see in Pride and Prejudice and Little Women. There is much to see. But I do not for a minute believe that even the best novel endlessly overflows in the same way that the Bible does. This amazes me, this endless overflowing.

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Jesus as wisdom teacher rather than personal savior

Photo by Jon Sailer on Unsplash

Our Western culture has assigned Jesus the role of personal savior. The one who died for our sins and rescued us from the wrath of God for what Adam and Eve did.

When coming face to face with fundamentalist Christians, we’re often confronted with the pointed question, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?”

Depending on our answer, we’re either out or in.

For this, we can thank Paul — formerly known as Saul of Tarsus. In his former life, he was a Pharisee and a type-a personality who was adamant about living the Jewish law to a T (which is how he could justify persecuting so many Christians). Saul had a guilty conscience, which he tried to assuage by living the Jewish law even more strictly.

But then, Saul had a profound conversion on the road to Damascus (as he was on the way to murder more Christians) where he was struck by the realization that he was forgiven and saved by Jesus (a few years after Jesus’s death).

We can also thank Augustine of Hippo for adding to this narrative of Jesus-as-savior when he drummed up the notion of original sin. He had the same kind of story: Dude with a complicated background who had a profound mystical conversion experience.

But then, as we humans do, we took this notion of Jesus as the light for our darkness and throughout history, blew it way out of proportion. We soon grew to see ourselves as being worthless scraps of dung until we proclaim Jesus as our savior.

I’m going to out myself as a heretic right now by saying that I’m in the camp with those who see this is a severely limited Western way of seeing Christianity. Because I have to think of all the people I’ve known (and merely known about) who identify as Sufi, atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim… I can’t believe that any of them are placed any lower (or higher) in this contrived ranking system with the divine.

So, how can I call myself a Christian when I don’t believe what some proclaim to be THE core tenet of Christianity? Because I see Jesus as a wisdom teacher more than just my personal savior.

And no, I’m not just some guy on the internet making this up. By looking outside of Western Christianity to that of the Near East (yes, where Jesus was from) and beyond, we see the Western view as a small slice of the pie that is Christianity.

As Cynthia Bourgeault so eloquently states in The Wisdom Jesus,

As the evidence begins to pour in from the other 270 degrees of the Christian circle, we begin to see that it is the West that holds the variant position. From the Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi collection in general, from the Syriac liturgies, from the African desert fathers and mothers, from Celtic poetry and Chinese ‘Jesus sutras’ the same sophiological message emerges. ‘Yes,’ says Jesus, ‘as I am, you, too, can and must become. I will be here to help you. But you must do the work yourself.’ Whatever theological premises you may or may not choose to believe about Jesus, the primary task of a Christian is not to believe theological premises but to put on the mind of Christ.

Maybe you’re someone who threw out the whole Jesus thing thanks to this limited Western narrative of Jesus as savior. Maybe you think that’s the only way and it’s not your way, so adios Jesus.

But I don’t see ‘putting on the mind of Christ’ and seeing Jesus as wisdom teacher and giver of life as hurting anyone.

In fact, it just might change everything.

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Why you shouldn’t listen to me (not that much, anyway)

Photo by Oliver Ulerich on Unsplash

Today, thanks to the internets, anyone who has a way with words and presents themselves a certain way can become perceived as being an ‘expert’ at anything. An authority.

Get some good photos, learn some SEO hacks, be willing to speak/write your mind — and you, too, can become an ‘internet influencer’ equipped with your very own soapbox. If you have enough money, you can spam your way via ads towards internet stardom.

I happen to have a soapbox. It’s kinda busted and splintered and it’s not very tall, but here I am standing on it (though I’m not here because of the things above).

Now, this would be relatively harmless if I wrote about flowers or Tupperware or bocce ball. But I write mostly about faith and spirituality — a topic that cuts to the core of our lives as humans.

Anyone can be a guru now. Piece together that soapbox and suddenly you have influence over a lot of people’s lives, unchecked.

And so, I’m taking this moment to tell you NOT to listen to me. (Not that much, anyway.)

I’m a passionate layman with opinions. If you like my opinions, fantastic. If they help shift your perspective, great. I love this stuff and I’ll continue to share. But please know I’m still at beginner-level status when it comes to this thing called the Christian faith (hopefully that’s okay with you).

As I mentioned the other day, I didn’t really grow up with this stuff. I’m not what anyone should call an expert at this juncture.

That being said, I understand my responsibility as someone with a soapbox of sorts and I never weaponize my work. I wish I could say the same thing for everyone.

Side-rant: When it comes to practical spirituality and meditation, I’m a little more versed in that, but that’s different. The Christian faith is based largely on a book I haven’t read much of (yet). The way I see it, spirituality is about our core. Christianity — as with any denominational ‘faith’ — has to do with the layer of humanity on top of that. It’s the book(s) and the stories and the words we’ve put on top of it that carries its cultural impact.

This is why I like having a pastor. My Lutheran pastor has been through four years of seminary where he’s apprenticed in his craft and served the sick and dying. He’s translated and pored over ancient scriptures. He’s also served as a professional pastor of a vibrant congregation for almost 20 years.

I can’t speak for him, but one of the reasons why I say he’s a good pastor is that he probably wouldn’t ever say that he has this thing called faith figured out either. He might say that this isn’t the point of faith, to ‘figure it out’ or provide ‘magic bullets’ for others to do so. His authority carries a humbleness to it, which for me, adds to its impact and authenticity.

However, he’s done the work, and it shows in the community he serves.

Listen, I believe (as well as you might) that in no way should clergy members automatically be given an authoritative hall pass. I know there are droves of them who are completely full of shit (even harmful). Please use the same discretion with clergy as you do with your neighbors or us internet people.

I’m sure my pastor has stumbled a time or four. He’s probably let people down — even offended some. He’s human.

But here’s the thing…

The older I get, the more I like the idea of old-fashioned, time-tested, earned expertise, especially in our deconstructed, postmodern, internet-driven world.

The older I get, the quicker my bullshit radar detector gets triggered. It’s why I read theologians these days instead of bestsellers.

Even these big-name pastors who’ve been through ‘seminary’ but have seemed to rush immediately to the big stage with the Megatron and the smoke machines, strobe lights, and rock band accompaniments — I just don’t know. They’re so… epic. And I’m really liking small these days. (I think a lot of us are.)

My pastor and other clerical professionals like him (mind you: ‘professionals’, not ‘megastars’) have an ancient yellow brick road that their peers attempt to keep them aligned with. They’re not reinventing the wheel (although, the good ones add their particular personal spins to the wheel). They’re assigned by the communities they serve to spend their days studying and talking through scripture and putting it into the context of real life for their congregation.

They don’t sit solely behind paid webinars, massive stages, and pricey exotic retreats. They’ve spent ample time in the hospitals, graveyards, living rooms, and banquet halls of those they spend their working hours… serving.

Much of this work goes unnoticed. It’s merely (?) imprinted on the hearts of those they serve.

I don’t do this at the moment.

Please don’t listen to me (that much).

Here’s to the ones who’ve done the work.

(And thanks for listening to me a little.)

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The idolatry of ideology

Image: Jonathan Pielmayer

Idolatry has been the essence of mainstream religion to this day.

Idolatry is derived from eidos (essence). It speaks to any attempt to make God accessible either aesthetically (in form — like in a pair of Air Jordans) or conceptually (a theological belief system — like Crossfit).

Both are idols. One is physical while the other is intellectual.

What’s interesting is, the Bible repeatedly attacks idolatry.

Unlike most churches say, the Bible doesn’t just give one objective definition of God. It gives us a gazillion (or so) depictions of God — ranging from a loving God to one who kills a shitload of people with no mercy. From a static God to one who is omnipresent. I could go on.

The Bible is a dynamic text constructed from an array of human perspectives through a variety of mediums (poetry, prose, history, law, myth, etc.) all having one huge, confusing, awkward orgy.

The writers and editors of the Bible had no shame about this. They didn’t even try to change these inconsistencies. If anything, they celebrated it.

It seems the key point of the Bible was to keep us from forming an idol/ideal (like what I did there?) about God.

The Bible is not an ideological text. It’s anti-ideological. It tells us that creative tension and inconsistencies are all we can expect when we speak of God. (Hell, they even give God a name that’s impossible to pronounce, YHWH. WTF?)

God cannot be pinpointed, objectified and defined through the human mind.

The writers of the Bible make this clear through their countless descriptions of God as darkness, mystery, a veil, cloud, etc.

This is intentional. Everything they said about God was about concealment, hiding, and keeping God a secret. This God of the Bible is one beyond all figuring out. Think of it: how many theology nerds over these last couple thousand years have failed at this?

Our definition of God always comes up short…

If I say God is good, I get rear-ended at the stop light driving to Starbucks (because I’m basic like that). If I say God is an asshole, I get a winning lottery ticket (just kidding, this has never happened).

It’s impossible to capture the entirety of God in our human minds, using human words. That said, in my opinion, this doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

I wrote yesterday that experiencing the divine is a lot like standing before an incredible work of art in a museum (again, these are just words, they fall short, but bear with me). If you and I are standing there gaping at this art piece, I think we should tell each other what it means to us. The problem is when we make an idol out of our ideals about the art. This is where we get into a — shall we say — kerfuffle?

Great art renders us speechless due to the enormity of the experience we have before it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to capture that experience in words, music, poetry, etc. Quite the opposite, in fact. We should allow this divine moment to spark off an infinite discussion about it. If we give each other the freedom to do this without defending our idols to the death, we can allow ourselves to grow from this never-ending discourse.

The nice thing about the divine is you don’t need to go to a museum. I had an encounter with the divine just yesterday at the gas station.

When we embrace the mystery that is God/life (which are one in the same) we deepen our experience rather than limit it into a set of dogmatic boundaries (yes, I’m talking to you atheists too).

P.S. I can’t take credit for that awesome title, btw. That was all Meister Eckhart. Gotta give credit where it’s due. Also gotta give credit to this book for the inspiration for this post (and probably many more to come).


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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