The Divine Journey

The Divine Journey

Matthew 2.1-12 (CEB)
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.” 
 
When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote: 
You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, 
by no means are you least 
among the rulers of Judah, 
because from you will come 
one who governs, 
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
 
Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.
 
11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
 
This story speaks to the heart of what it is to be human. Like the magi (a hereditary Mede priesthood), we are explorers. We are happy to make a discovery by one route and return home by another, for there are things to learn along the way. 
 
From the time we could walk any distance without being eaten by a wild animal, we started exploring our world. Out of Africa, we spread across the entire globe, cataloging everything we discovered and preserving it for future generations. We astonished our children with stories of travelling vast distances and drawings of exotic animals. First orally, and then, after we invented writing, in manuscripts, codices, and books, we recorded our experiments. We discovered tools, cooking, building, reading, math, medicine, and philosophy. We created civilization.
 
We have been exploring for over 200,000 years and still, we wonder why we’re here and what the point is, if any, to being alive. We seek deeper and more meaningful answers to our existential questions by sending mechanical magi into space in hopes of meeting other seekers of truth. We still follow the light of the stars and hope they will guide us to God.
 
Like the magi, we are all on a spiritual journey toward oneness with the Ultimate Light. I have come to consider that our purpose as human beings might be as the explorers we so naturally are. What if we are all on a journey of discovery for God? What if being, and all the things we learn and do throughout our lives, is part of an infinite array of information gathering for God, the meta-consciousness of all realities?
 
What if we are God’s Magi?

Let me tell you why I’m pondering this. First, it helps to know that the Magi were akin to the high council of the Persian empire. They were profoundly religious and created Persia’s civil laws based on their religious ideas. The Magi were also solely responsible for choosing the next Persian king.
 
So, it is a delegation of Persian kingmakers, most definitely travelling with a caravan and all the oriental pomp and circumstance of the era, that go to see Herod. That they were seeking a Jewish baby was significant and rightfully threw Herod into panic. Rome and Persia were not the best of friends, Herod was getting old, and anti-Roman sentiment was high in the region.
 
Yet, even as political motivations drove the Magi to Bethlehem, once they saw Jesus, I think their motive changed. War was coming with Rome sooner, not later (in fact, it would start about three years after Jesus’ birth). A baby wasn’t going to help them. Yet, still they bowed, offered gifts, and worshiped the presence of the God they knew so well (Daniel was the only non-hereditary Magi, and Judaism played an important role in Persian religion and culture). 
 
As so often happens on a long journey, the Magi discovered a new path that enticed them to veer off in a completely new direction–not returning to Herod, but instead heading right toward God.
 
I’ve been playing a videogame lately that embraces the idea that the journey is more important than the goal.
 
No Man’s Skyis the first game in many years that has completely captivated my imagination, and for one simple reason: the only point to the game is to explore the universe. That’s it. There is no evil overlord to eliminate, there are no enemies (although some of the animals can be aggressive). It’s you and your spaceship and an endless, procedurally generated universe.
 
Without getting too geeky, procedurally generatedmeans the game uses math to create everything in it every time you boot up: planets, plants, animals, minerals—each galaxy has a unique fingerprint, and each planet has unique flora and fauna. Most video games are pre-programmed. Everything in the world is created by artists and there is a fairly straightforward path through the game, with a series of goals the player must complete to move on.
 
This is not so with No Man’s Sky.
 
You begin the game with a spaceship and a portable multipurpose tool for mining elements like carbon and oxygen, or metals like copper and silver. Most of the game is spent travelling around planets, scanning flora and fauna, and cataloging itin a galactic compendium that anyone playing the game can see. It’s fascinating, gripping, and compelling. 
 
The joy of discovery present in the game is just awesome, and the first time you enter your spaceship and fly out into space the effect makes you feel like a little kid in a Spielberg movie who just saw an alien for the first time. It’s simply magical.
 
The game is so good, in fact, that I convinced my brother who hasn’t played video games since our Atari 2600 days (“more than one button is crap!”), to give it a shot. 
 
He’s now almost 200 hours into the game.
 
The other day he and I were comparing notes about our No Man’s Sky journeys, and I found the conversation an interesting metaphor for the spiritual journeys the Magi traversed, and we all undertake as well. 
 
My brother and I play the game very differently. He collects and stores things. I travel lightly and often. He has about 20 ginormous cargo freighters, which he keeps organized in a list on his phone. I have two freighters I recall now and then when I feel like sending them out on missions. Otherwise, I move around the universe, gathering as I go whatever materials I might need to keep the ship flying or to do something interesting (there are lots of alien artifacts strewn about). Every now and then I report into a space anomaly that loves to examine and study all the data I bring it.
 
Interesting concept, yes, bringing the space anomaly data?
 
Because of our different gameplay styles, my brother and I have had quite different yet equally fascinating experiences. Sharing those experiences with each other helped both of us think about new approaches to the game and revealed valuable information about some of the species we’ve met.
 
After we talked for a while, I realized that humans, in general, are sort of playing No Man’s Sky for God. Each of us is on a different journey. When we share our stories, we all benefit from one another’s unique experiences. And because we are literally the substance of God consciousness, every story in our lives is automatically shared with the  original explorer, God.
 
So, between the magi story and the joy of playing No Man’s Sky, I’ve been thinking that at least part of our purpose for being is merely to explore; to branch out and discover new places, people, and things. We innately find such joy in exploration. We are so drawn to the mysteries of the oceans and the vastness of space, perhaps there is a purpose behind our curiosity.
 
We are naturally inquisitive beings, 7.5 billion of us. I think that thirst for knowledge exists because we are an essential part of God’s process of becoming. We are God’s magi ,sent across universes and realities to live without boundaries. We exist—everything exists—to experience the wonders and mysteries of an infinite, procedurally generated reality. Living into that concept, my friends, fills every day with Spielbergian awe.
 
Amen.

Preserving Peace

Preserving Peace

Isaiah 26:12 (CEB)Lord, grant us peace, because all that we have done has been your doing.

On the way home from church the other day I heard a story about the riots in France, over their proposed new gas tax. The scene is horrifying. Swarms of yellow safety jacketed people are sledgehammering buildings, incinerating cars and splaying graffiti all over the Arc de Triomphe.

Graffiti on the Arc de Triomphe! At that moment I was utterly French and appalled at the idea any of my countrymen would deface the Arc.

For me, the Arc represents everything France has historically stood for: liberty, equality, fraternity. One for all and all for one. France has always been the bastion of real democracy, the true light on the hill, whether we Americans want to admit that or not. And nowhere I was imagining a scene from one of those Purge movies, the Arc wholly covered in layers of graffiti, Paris burning in the background, the Eiffel tower’s ribs molten metal, twisted and broken.

Then the light changed. As I stepped on the gas pedal, I snapped out of my dystopian reverie and gasped as I realized what had just happened: listening to a news story, I immediately went to the worst possible scenario. I even went beyond the destruction of Paris and imagined the defaced Arc as the first sign of the apocalypse.

I didn’t see footage of the riots until Saturday morning, a couple of days after I first heard the story, and it was like watching a nightmare come true:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2YCTUm8qSw

Even as we began Advent discussing hope, my first reaction to the riots was not to seek God’s light, not to remember exactly what I said last week—that hope means knowing God is already doing something good, right here right now, but instead to presume darkness would win and we’d destroy each other. That’s not very hopeful.

Our species is stuck. A couple hundred thousand years of evolution, now fortified and enhanced by a dystopian mass communications network, has programmed us to always look on the dark side of life. Our instinct is to presume the worst. We are suspicious not only of strangers, but also of friends, family, and country. Everyone is hiding something. Deals are made to be broken. Facts are superfluous to the truth. Orange is the new black.

It’s no wonder the world is at constant war. If we cannot trust each other about anything, how can there ever be peace? If our every thought is on the inevitability of dystopia, how can we ever imagine, much less create, utopia?

Fortunately, every now and then people come along who see the world differently. I believe these people are inspired by God to show us a different destiny, a future more in line with the flow of the universal consciousness of love (God). We often refer to these people as Prophets. Moses, Isaiah (one of my favorites), and of course, Jesus, whom Christians refer to most often as Son of God (a political rather than spiritual statement), but Muslims call a Prophet (both a political and spiritual statement).

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Christian refer to Jesus as a prophet. Yet, as we journey to the manger this Advent, I have found it powerful to consider Jesus in this way because, unlike Isaiah and the rest of the First Testament prophets, Jesus proclaims a utopianf uture, which he calls the “kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus even shows us how to create this utopia—here and now—in a simple and efficient way: Love God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. That’s it! All we have to do is change everything we are! Easy!

However, Jesus also teaches (and shows) us that creating utopia isn’t easy, even for him. He was vibrating at God’s frequency, in perfect tune with all creation, yet stillsuffered along with the rest of us—which, not coincidentally, is what’s powerful about the Jesus as God and as us metaphor.

We need to practice a little more and constantly focus on retuning ourselves to God if we are ever to get out of this dystopian rut. As the body of Christ in the world, we must also assist each other in overcoming the contemporary programming that all is lost. We must be aware for one another of what we say, think, and do. We must encourage each other to focus on Christ’s conviction that our world ends not in hellfire and brimstone but in the intense love of a God who has promised since the beginning of time to never, ever let us go, because God is with us, Immanuel, now and forevermore.

Amen.

Preserving Hope

Preserving Hope

One of my favorite classic films is an old Humphrey Bogart flick called “The Maltese Falcon.” It’s a masterpiece of film noir, all shadows stretched to the horizon and tight shots of faces full of secrets. I’ve seen this film what seems like hundreds of times. The reason I’ve been able to do so is because the film has been preserved for future generations.

In the case of a film like “The Maltese Falcon,” this is somewhat fortuitous. Most of the movies of that era were shot on highly flammable cellulose. To make matters worse, once stored, the film also degraded very quickly.

Fortunately, movements to preserve old films have been mostly successful at saving and restoring classic cinema. Some brilliant works that we know of (from magazine articles and radio interviews of the era) are gone forever, unfortunately. But many early movies have been preserved for filmmakers and filmgoers alike to continue to learn from and enjoy.

What we are doing for film today is what the Essenes, the Gnostics, the Jews, and early Christians did with their books and letters. They saved the works that spoke to their innermost yearnings. They copied them. They added their own commentaries, edited, rewrote, and passed the letters and stories around, creating spiritual concepts and asking existential questions that continue to weave us together (and, unfortunately, tear us apart) today.

Some of these words of encouragement and hope are found in a section of the Bible most people never read: Hebrews, which is somewhat unfortunately named, as the word “Hebrews” conjures a panoply of often negative images and stereotypes.

When this letter was written, however, the intended audience was a group of Jewish followers of Jesus who the author felt were stunted in their Christian spiritual growth. As what would become the Christian church developed, many early, Jewish followers of Jesus returned to non-Messianic Judaism, likely because of a trauma in their community. For the people addressed in Hebrews, that trauma was possibly the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

The author is someone close to the congregation, yet not currently present, who both wants to encourage and admonish them. He writes that God will see them through their current dark times, and then says, “In fact,if you would remember your teachings, you would already know that.” It’s a bit of a dig, but it’s also encouraging because it was vital for these religious rebels to remember, as it is for us, that the path of light—The Way of Jesus—non-Roman, non-Paganized Christianity, is difficult, unique, and anti-establishment. There will be friction, and we will want to give up and go back to what’s comfortable. But Jesus didn’t do that, and through his Spirit, we today are also encouraged to persevere as we walk, talk, and act differently from the rest of the world. If we are truly following Jesus, our rhetoric is contrary to that of the status quo.

We could not follow Jesus—the political activist, social justice warrior, and revealer of our human/divine unity, if the stories about hope and God’s intimate activity in the world had not been preserved. We, too, must persist and ensure the spiritual stories (biblical and other) we are sharing are authentically preserved. Otherwise, future Christians might end up with Cecille B. DeMille’s, not Jesus’, version of the truth. In fact, this is sort of “Hollywoodization” of the Gospel is exactly what happened to Jesus’ movement. In the 4th Century CE, Romans usurped Christianity and changed it into a religion of human sacrifice, turning Jesus into the new Emperor and continuing to practice their old, cultish ways even while calling themselves Christians.

That was not Jesus’ original intent. The movement was never about him, it was always about the way Jesus pointed to God and revealed God in the flesh, with us, Immanuel.

The Way of Jesus (the original name of his movement), was about unbridled, unfettered, unconditional love. In fact, Jesus’ teaching is about a God that is so in love with the universe that it becomes the universe, by becoming each one of us. God incarnates in everyone, not exclusively in Jesus—that’s a Roman Imperial cult idea incorrectly imprinted upon Jesus.

Jesus’ story and teaching are about humankind achieving Christhood. This sounds strange to many Christians today, because we’ve been taught otherwise. But that’s the continued challenge of authentically following Jesus: Just because many Christians believe “Jesus died for our sins,” doesn’t mean that’s what Jesus thought or taught. In fact, if we just do a tiny bit of research online it’s very easy to discover that those ideas didn’t take root until nearly 400 years after Jesus’ death.

So, for those of us trying to return Christianity to its more Jewish, more authentic nature, we swim upstream, against 2000 years of misinformation and Catholic propaganda. It’s difficult. We often want to quit, because the entire exercise seems pointless. But we must remember to stay true to Jesus, and if we are indeed his followers, we must usurp the current Evangelical status-quo and remind everyone this story we celebrate throughout Advent is not about anything other than pure, unadulterated love breaking into the world.

The fortitude that takes requires us to maintain some serious hope. So, here’s some reassurance from the brilliant philosopher-author of Hebrews, who reaches out to us today from thousands of years in the past:

Hebrews 10.32-11.2 (NIV)
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what God has promised. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”  And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.”  But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

Hope is not desire but expectation. Hope is not wishing for something good to happen but knowingsomething good is already happening—and that it is going to get even better! We hope for a better tomorrow because we understand that already, God is inspiring us to create the best possible today. That hope is found in the preservation of our sacred stories about Jesus, from birth to death.

Advent marks the beginning of the Jesus cycle, the start of the Christian year. Ours is a story that begins not with a big bang or trumpets blaring but with a tiny whimper in a lonely manger, as God is born, shining a light of hope so brightly that people from the farthest reaches of the earth immediately begin to follow. May our lights shine as brightly.

I’ll leave us with Paul’s blessing from his letter to the church in Rome, a prayer of hope based on the absolute conviction that God is with us, right here, right now:

Romans 15.13 (NIV)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Monday Meditation: A Thanksgiving Poem

Monday Meditation: A Thanksgiving Poem

As autumn lifts its lazy head
and shakes the leaves
forming winter’s bed,
I, too, awaken.

The chill in the air
is a refreshing slap
that tracks me back
to mindfulness
and considered acts of kindness.

We’re told to be thankful
for this or that,
but in truth,
I’d rather bury myself
under the mat of leaves
so graciously laid
for the start of winter’s nap.

Yet, awoke I am
and more aware
that too many people
don’t want to care
about you or me.
Fear of the other
makes them want to flee
the long, dark nights
of winter’s strangled light.

Thus, thrust into
a snap of cold
that wraps my soul
as a shrink-wrapped scroll
of perfect, preserved hope,
I turn my focus
to the lasting warmth
of the spark of God
that ignites all souls,
and leads me through this
troubled world.

The winter months
are not a blight
but a chance to begin anew;
to start our days with thanks and grace
and spread more love, it’s true.

Night cannot last,
cold shoulders warm
as everyone
around the globe reforms.

Remember, awakened ones!
Every human is sourced the same,
from the flames of stars
whose last explosive breath contains
everything we are:
cosmic lights of love flickering gently,
leading us home to God’s unconditional warmth,
and eternal loving shalom.

Humanity of the Saints

Humanity of the Saints

Psalm 31.23-24:
All you who are faithful, love the Lord! The Lord protects those who are loyal, but pays the proud back to the fullest degree. All you who wait for the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage.

Psalm 148:14
God raised the strength of his people, the praise of all his faithful ones—that’s the Israelites, the people who are close to him.

Today is All-Saint’s Sunday, and this year I’ve been wondering, just what is a saint? Someone who does good things? We all do good things now and then, I would hope. Many people dedicate their entire lives to doing good things. If being a saint means doing good things, then how many good acts does it take to become a saint? I’m asking for a friend.

What is a saint? Someone who lives a life of sacrifice? How much sacrifice? Mother Theresa type sacrifice, Pope Francis style sacrifice, or not-eating-fish-on-Friday sacrifice? Martin Luther sacrifice or Jesus sacrifice? Does any sort of sacrifice qualify one for sainthood? In that case, congratulations, parents, we’re all saints.

Saints conjure images of piously perfect people. That image is reinforced by dictionaries that define a saint as someone who is “distinct because of their special relationship with God”—Moses, or Joan of Arc, for example. Saints are special. A saint’s heroic deeds are memorialized in illuminated stained glass windows of ancient, mystery-filled cathedrals. Yet, all the saints—including Jesus—were human. In some cases, their saintly being only developed after a lifetime of hedonistic (Augustine), sometimes sociopathic (Saul’s relentless pursuit of Jesus’ followers) behavior.

My all-time favorite reformed hedonist is St. Augustine, or as I like to call him, the man who destroyed Christianity.

In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine recalls the significant portion of his life when the theft of a Pear begins a downward spiral of debauchery, licentiousness, and gambling. Augustine wrote that he often committed these acts merely because they were considered “wrong.” He didn’t really want the Pear, he just wanted to take it because stealing was forbidden.

Augustine concluded that his character was inherently flawed. He then decided we must all be inherently flawed because after all, none of us can resist the temptation to do something forbidden. Augustine used the story about Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as the root cause of all our bad behavior.

I’ve written elsewhere about how mistaken Augustine is because his interpretation is Pagan, not Jewish. Today, I want to focus on what caused his change of being, for Augustine does change his behavior (if not necessarily his thinking). His enlightenment came one evening when he heard a child’s voice telling him to read Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, chapter 13.13-14:

Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Paul’s sentiment hit the hard-partying Augustine like a jackhammer the morning after too many shots of rye at the local pub. While reading the passage, Augustine had a mystical experience that changed the way he thought and acted—a literal “sinner to saint” experience.

Now, while I’m not a fan of Augustine’s theology, I love the passage about his epiphany so much I adapted for our opening prayer today. Here it is in classical English (Augustine originally wrote in Latin):

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou wast within and I without, and there I sought Thee.
Thou was with me when I was not with Thee.
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.
Thou didst gleam, and glow, and dispel my blindness.
Thou didst touch me, and I burned for Thy peace.
For Thyself Thou hast made us,
And restless our hearts until in Thee they find their ease.
Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.

Augustine’s realization that God’s love is found within turned his world upside down. Suddenly, Augustine experienced God as the essence of being alive. He heard, saw, and emanated the unconditional, all-accepting love of God.

What I find most interesting about Augustine’s experience is that even after his powerful transformation, Augustine remained a beautiful contradiction. He urged clergy to release their slaves, but also thought God would pick and choose people for salvation. He was a champion of critical thinking, and even formulated a pedagogy for teaching critical thinking to children, yet he interpreted the book of Genesis literally and believed all Jews would be converted to Christianity at the end of time.

You win some, you lose some.

Like Augustine and Paul, we’re all a little bit saint, a little bit sinner. Being human is a rollercoaster of decision-making. I’m not a fan of “good” and “bad” labels. Every decision has a consequence. What Augustine realized is that we can make decisions from one of two places: the selfishness of our Ego, or the selflessness of God’s consciousness. Augustine encourages us to “tune in” to God, which then moves us always toward actions of love and compassion for the communal good.

Saints aren’t born naturally. They’re created by a lifetime of fumbles and forgiveness; of self-reflection on being human and the being of God; and a willingness to let go of our fears, misconceptions, and certainties to be filled with the only universal truth: We are all the beloved oneness of God.

 

The Welcoming Shepherd

The Welcoming Shepherd

“We don’t need to tolerate each other. We need to accept each other.” ― Abhijit Naskar

John 10.2-6
[Jesus said] The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying.

When I was a nascent human being, we lived in a little clapboard house in small-town middle America. My favorite room was an addition to the back that opened the once-tiny family room onto a decent size den. The room was all windows and sliding glass doors, the light inviting me onto the cushy, comfy, autumn gold, orangey flames of fire shag carpet tiles.

In one corner of the room, framed by two picture windows, a black stovepipe fireplace sat on an ash-mortared brick surround. I remember many winters playing and reading in that room as the snow fluttered past the roaring fire and my content little heart.

That room was also where I first encountered The Bible. I remember snuggling into the shag carpeting in front of the fireplace and reading about Noah and Moses in the lushly illustrated “The Children’s Bible” many of you probably had as well. 
 
I don’t remember now exactly what I thought of those stories then, but I was reading them at the same time blockbusters like The Ten Commandments were first airing on television. The Greatest Story Ever Told was in theaters and Jesus Christ Superstar premiered on Broadway. 
 
These were the Marvel Blockbusters of my childhood. These larger-than-life biblical characters—Jewish people, my mother taught me—could do things like talk to God, part waters, and resurrect. I was captivated by the idea of ordinary people—slaves, even, moved by God to free others. In the Bible, God always moves people out of slavery, through the actions of humble, penitent people. 
 
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, my reality was different.
 
While I was reading these amazing stories and seeing these epic movies, everything I heard on the radio and saw on the Facebook of its era—Television—was all about civil rights and Jim Crow and an end to “separate but equal;”  all faces of outrage followed by extremely graphic, horrifying images of soldiers in Vietnam, followed by more faces of outrage. I saw these things a six-year-old doesn’t exactly understand but sees and hears, and in whatever imperfect way, remembers.
 
Forever.
 
For a kid like me, in a mixed-religion household at a time when religion was still vital in American life, what I was reading of God painfully contrasted what I saw in the world. So, I started to wonder: If God could part the waters to save people so long ago, if God could live and die as a human in order to truly comprehend and reveal an end to our suffering, then why didn’t God end our suffering already? 
 
Many of us ask this question still today. Why doesn’t God DO SOMETHING?
 
The typical Christian response is that God did something already, in Jesus. Unfortunately, for many Christians, this has come to mean Jesus is the only way to God/Heaven/Salvation and until every person on the planet becomes Christian (whatever that means, since Christianity is comprised of, appropriately, a bountiful diversity of incarnations and beliefs), the world will continue to be a conflicted potentiality rather than a fulfilled and fulfilling paradise. 
 
Many, especially American Christians, read John 10 and see Jesus gathering the faithful into the fold, INTO the sheep pen, keeping everyone else out. They say Jesus welcomes the few, not the many. It’s a pretty un-Jesus like interpretation.
 
Jesus’ Jewish interpretation is that for God to be God, all must mean all. This passage from John isn’t about keeping everyone penned up, keeping believers in and nonbelievers out, or only gathering the select few into the fold. This parable is about leading people out of those ways of thinking and being, away from the idea that God is exclusively for them and nobody else, or worse, for them and against everyone else. The Shepherd represents God. Jesus is the guard who opens “the way” for us to follow because God is calling “all of his sheep.”
 
All of God’s sheep. No exceptions.
 
John 10 harkens back to God’s great I AM statements in The Ten Commandments. This makes sense because John writes Jesus as a Moses-like character leading not only Jews but also Gentiles, out of the pen, through the parted waters, and into a new and bountiful life of perfect God connection. No exceptions.

Prayer: May we all grow to understand, appreciate, and respect, the beauty of the Christ found within every single one of us.

What is Necessary? Part 6, God

What is Necessary? Part 6, God

Isaiah 40:18 (CEB)
So to whom will you equate God;
to what likeness will you compare him?

Isaiah 40:25
So to whom will you compare me, 
and who is my equal? says the Holy One.

Psalm72:12–14:
Let it be so, because he delivers the needy who cry out,
the poor, and those who have no helper.

He has compassion on the weak and the needy;
he saves the lives of those who are in need.

He redeems their lives from oppression and violence;
their blood is precious in his eyes.

For now, this is the last topic in our What is Necessary? series. The journey was inspired by a question someone asked me at one of our 9am Sunday morning discussions: Why is God necessary? In a post-industrial, postmodern, post-superstition (mostly), information (and disinformation) based society, why is God necessary? 

I think it’s an important question for people of faith to ask themselves and each other. When we no longer require a God that controls the weather, causes and cures disease, or chooses sides in wars (although we still use God as an excuse for those things), why believe? Why have faith?

Why have God?

Honestly, I’ve been wrestling with that question most of my life. My answer as someone who appreciates the beautiful mystery of being, has been to conceive of God as the interconnecting love energy of all physical matter.

Part of my process is what we’ve just worked through, together, over the past few weeks: asking What is Necessary? about our beliefs—in our case, our Christian beliefs, to discover what God looks like and how God acts for us right here, right now.

We’ve looked at some of classical Christianity’s most familiar ideologies and dogmas with critical, postmodern eyes. We’ve given ourselves permission, as was the tradition of Jesus’ Jewish ancestors, to comment on everything, adding our voices to a many-thousands-of-years-old conversation.

We discussed the Bible not as literal historical fact (it isn’t), but rather as a library of human religious and existentialist thinking.

We’ve looked to Jesus as a mystic, perfectly connected to and made from God—just as are we all.

We examined the different types of Gospels (“good news”) and discovered there are many more than four gospels about Jesus. We also learned that there are both gospels about Jesus and the gospel he teaches and models.

Our examination of sin reminded us that biblical stories about sin connect individual sins as they relate to the sins of the people as a whole—systemic, corporate sin.

We expanded our definition of sin to begin disassociating it with subjective, dualistic, moral values, instead focusing more deeply on sin as any thought or action, especially systemic, that separates anyone from profoundly experiencing God’s unconditional love.

Then we reignited our desire to repent, because admitting when we mess up is good for our soul and is an essential part of renewing our covenant commitment to God. Confession is a useful spiritual tool because done penitently it leads to renewal that leads to atonement—at-oneness with the Loving Originator of Realities. Repentance helps us fulfill our covenant responsibilities to God.

Now, we can start putting all the pieces together and examine how our views on Jesus, the Bible, sin, and repentance affect the way, and what, we believe about God.

I love the First Testament concept of God as utterly incapable of doing anything anyone in any universe could ever conceive of as evil. Simply, God is love, and the universe, because it is formed from God, is love and will always move toward love.

So even through the ancient, unfortunately current sins of xenophobia, homophobia, love of country over love of God, and irrational fear of anyone whose skin is a different color, God is necessary because otherwise, where do we place our hope in fixing the mess of our current reality? Are we to rely on the evolution of Human beings into a more socially conscious species? That has been a very good plan so far.

I don’t mean to imply that I expect God one day to wave a magic hand in the clouds and make everything all better. God is not a puppet master, laying out reality before us like a cosmic highway. That would be a cruel being.

Instead, I find God is necessary for hope, as the light of peace and love that infuses every soul on the planet. If we’d all just light that fuse (or, if you prefer, if we’d all just let down our guard long enough to let God light that fuse), one by one we change the world.

For the billions of people around the world whose voices are muted and souls enslaved, God is still necessary.

For the billions of people fortunate enough to live in relative comfort, God is necessary because believing in something that is more than all of us, yet also includes and interconnects all of us, frees us from the hubris of even moderate success and the sin of greed.

God is still necessary because I believe in the idea of covenant, of a relationship between two eternal entities committed to loving each other. I like that idea because it makes we humans responsible for each other in the unconditional way we believe God is responsible for us.

I think God is still necessary because God is love and without God, there is no love. Without God, the universe is just a cold piece of math. There is no justice, no compassion, no forgiveness. There is no Jesus, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or any other enlightened soul, because, in a cold, uncaring universe, their teachings are unnecessary.

Without God, there is no need for any moral or ethical code because the universe doesn’t care about us. I know many people who are fine with that concept. I am not. I have felt a presence that transcends time and space; that has shown me visions of realities beyond the grasp of my imagination. I have felt pure, accepting, forgiving, at-one-ment with God. I have heard the love song of the universe vibrate through the molecular core of my being into this 4D spacetime of God’s imagination.

God is necessary because I don’t think there is any way out of fear and war until we become God’s love; until we look and act a lot more like Christ. That’s why God is necessary. Even if the universe is, in fact, a cold, dispassionate place, I need to believe in a God of love—in an entire reality in which love ultimately triumphs.

Amen.

Question:Why is God necessary (or not) for you?

What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

What is Necessary? Part 5: Repentance, Atonement, Forgiveness

Jeremiah 24.4-7 (CEB)
Then the Lord said to me: The Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims: Just as with these good figs, I will treat kindly the Judean exiles that I have sent from this place to Babylon. I regard them as good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up and not pull them down; I will plant them and not dig them up. I will give them a heart to know me, for I am the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.

Let’s continue our discussion about the “classical” elements of Christianity and whether they are (or what about them is) still necessary for a 21STCentury, postmodern belief system.[1]

This week we’re considering the ideas of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness.

We recently observed Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement. Jesus would have celebrated this holiday for 30-odd years. He would have understood its rituals, prayers, and meditations as his covenant responsibility to God. Repentance was Jesus’ honor, an act of love witha partner in eternal, multi-dimensional spacetime.

The ancient Hebrews celebrated the Day of Atonement just after the New Year as a way for the Jewish people to restore their side of their covenantal relationship with God. Through rituals, storytelling, prayer, and confession, individuals renewed their vows to a God of overwhelming love.

In Judaism, God is a covenant partner who always holds up God’s side of the partnership. Humans, on the other hand, are easily sidetracked, manipulated, and otherwise tempted into acting less honorably. Emptying ourselves of the crap eating our souls (and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what that crap is), is holistically healthy. Penitence is good for the soul.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all today continue the ancient tradition of repentance. All the people of the book have special seasons of atonement that act as a “reset” for both our personal relationships with God and the entirety of God’s people. In the 21stCentury, I say that is regardless of what we arbitrarily call our religions.

For the Jewish ancestors of Christianity and Islam, repentance was an act of the heart that leads to at-one-ment with the conscious being of everything, God.

Let me stress that this is how the Jewish Jesus would have understood atonement (which we must think of as at-one-ment, reuniting with the perfect love of God) as well. Atonement isn’t necessary because God is mad about something we did or didn’t do. It’s required because our actions and thoughts often naturally separate us from God.

That separation is the definition of sin we talked about last week: sin is all the stuff, habits, activities, thoughts, doubts and fears that keep us from experiencing God’s love. Worse, sin often makes us falsely believe we don’t deserve God’s love.

Well, the ancient Jewish practice of repentance is a powerful way to remember that God’s love is unconditional. God’s the perfect partner, remember? God never turns God’s back on us.

From Moses through Jesus, the biblical story of God is of a force that is somehow compelled by its nature to always do the right thing. God is good. All the time. Humans? Not so much. That’s where repentance comes in. Repentance is soul Yoga. It allows us to work out our spiritual kinks and knots with God as our Guru.

For the Jewish people we read about in the Bible, repentance is about turning back to God both individually and collectively. In the earliest writings, the idea is more often used to express collective guilt than individual guilt. When the nation felt it had done things contrary to their notion of God’s perfect action, the people responded with fasting, lamentation, and confession.

Over many centuries these meaningful rituals became somewhat rote celebrations, which the 8thCentury BCE prophets like Amos and Jeremiah criticize.

Jeremiah emphasized that repentance had to be an inward returnto God which would then manifest in acts of kindness, compassion, justice, and humility. For Jeremiah, the nation is penitent only when her individuals first turn their souls back toward God, who forgives everyone. Because, God is righteous, all the time.

There is a pattern to repentance throughout both testaments of the Bible. First, one must recognize the habits and attitudes separating them from an intimate relationship with divine love. This creates space for atonement, where we are again “at one” with God, where we discover we are forgiven for our human foibles.

This is more than an action to restore ourselves to God’s good graces, though. In the Bible, especially by the time The Gospel of John is written, people think of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness as spiritual rebirth. The idea of being “born again” is the result of penitence and at-one-ment.

In confessing the habits and attitudes that keep us disconnected from the Divine Source of Being, we commit to a new (or renewed) lifestyle, one lived more fully in the awareness that God’s love surrounds us all the time, even when we think we’ve been abandoned.

Contemporary American Christians tend to view the idea of repentance differently. Evangelicals, whose Christianity is based on the Romanization of Jesus, think people need to repent because God is punishing us for “wrong” actions. This viewpoint does not reflect Jesus’ Jewish concept of repentance.

We repent not because God is angry, but rather to rid ourselves of spiritual garbage and reconnect with the One Love of the universe. We repent to atone—to become “at one” with God. We repent because our actions are making us spiritually unhealthy.

In the Bible we see people repenting, reuniting, and then falling back into old habits. Repentance and at-one-ment are cycles in most lives. In Revelation, the author calls for entire churches to repent, a shout out to the Jewish tradition of corporate guilt and sin.

If you’ve ever tried to give up smoking or some other habit you knew was bad for your physical body, repentance is the same idea for our spirit (and consequently also for the rest of our being). John the Baptist, Amos, Ezekiel, Jesus—all the great prophets tell us over and over to stop doing the things that separate us from God.

Jesus teaches us to do this by allowing the Spirit, the flow of God, to work through us, renewing us and reconnecting us, as it did in him. We do this by praying, meditating, serving our fellow human beings, forgiving and asking for forgiveness, and working our mind, heart, and soul into a place where think about the consequences of our actions before we act.

Most importantly, we atone—we reconnect—when we remember that God is pure, accepting, unconditional love. God will never turn us away because we smoked a pack of cigarettes or drank some wine. God will never turn us away if we are biologically predisposed to addiction or substance abuse. God will never shun us for any reason because God is pure, unadulterated love.

Question: How do you practice turning back to God? Does it contain elements of penitence?


[1]Discussing any “system” in postmodernism is somewhat the antithesis of postmodernism. However, nature tends to organize into systems (or humans have the habit of classifying objects into systems). In the postmodern world, human organizations will be more fluid, perhaps breaking or nullifying our current definition of “system”.