|Throughout my life, I have been blessed with jobs that required a lot of travel. Soon after I graduated from the University of Utah, I was a b-list touring musician regularly working with “classics” groups like the Drifters/Coasters/Platters (always on the same bill), the Classics IV, the Marvelettes, and even Herman’s Hermits, once, in Hong Kong, entirely coincidentally (as things tend to happen in Hong Kong, for better or worse).|
Now, you have to understand that at this time—somewhere in the 90s, I guess—there were no longer any original members in groups like the Coasters/Drifters/Platters. Sometimes, there was a loosely associated cousin or something singing tenor, but usually, the tribute acts were comprised of talented musicians who could faithfully recreate not just the songs, but the dance moves and the whole vibe of the acts they were memorializing. Watching them effortlessly interact with the audience was a master class in performance.
To maximize revenues, the agency that owned the act’s names had several versions of each group working around the country. The agency also contracted bands to cover different regions of the U.S. The band I was in played all over the Southeast Coast, from Florida, up to Tennessee and over to Louisiana. Occasionally, we would have to fly elsewhere, and we were the only band that traveled internationally for these shows. Otherwise, there were bands for the Northeast, Midwest, and so on. It wasn’t unusual to play with a set of Coasters one night in Memphis, and a couple nights later, perform the exact same show with a different group of Coasters in Shreveport (these acts did a lot of work on the casino circuit).
I know it all sounds kind of cheesy, but I never considered these acts schlock. Believe me, I worked with plenty of cheeseballs, too, because, rent. But, in the case of the big headliner acts from the 50s and 60s, even the tribute artists I was working with were highly accomplished pros (in fact, some of them were much better musicians than the original artists). From them, I learned invaluable information about both the art and business of making a living as a musician.
When you work as a musician in a backup band, you spend ridiculous amounts of time with all the acts you’re accompanying. There are rehearsals before the gig—even if you’ve worked together before. Everyone has to check sound levels, arrangements, and work through the inevitable gremlins that do things like steal pages of music or short-circuit speakers. The rehearsal sometimes lasts a few hours (depending on the number of acts and grumpsters in the room).
What’s essental about rehearsal time is that you’re connecting to each other musically, either through the music itself or through the lingo of musicians. Music is its own form of spiritual esoterica, really, with its talk of signs and codas, everything notated in an ancient language of dots and lines that must be learned and practiced. As with any language, the ability to speak and read music fluently leads to meaningful connections on a very spiritual level. The language of music eclipses the follies of humanity because from Fort Myers to Hong Kong, music is music.
After speaking musically for a few hours, everyone hangs out in the green room—sometimes for a few more hours, noshing on deli trays and, to pass the time, sharing stories about their lives. Then, we’d play the gig, go back to the hotel, freshen up, and all go out to eat somewhere and tell more stories.
It is one of the highlights of my life to have had the privilege to sit in those rooms and restaurants across America, listening to the artists I was working with—most of them African American—talk about working as a musician and living as a black American, both in decades past and in the not-that-different present.
The members of the Coasters/Drifters/Platters were part of a culture that knew first-hand what it was like to be forced to sit at a different lunch counter, or use a separate bathroom, or not be allowed to see the very acts they were now portraying, just because their skin was a different color.
One of those nights it finally occurred to me that here I was, a youngish, privileged, college-educated white kid, who had never wanted for anything, creating music with these supremely talented artists and fellow human beings who, for a large part of their lives, and all of their parents and grandparents lives, had been treated as less than human. All these creative voices had been silenced as if someone pushed a giant “mute” button on an entire culture. Which, of course, is precisely what continues to happen to the voices of people of color in America.
I still thank God for the opportunity to sit, listen, learn, and create music with such amazing individuals, and for their grace, wisdom, and willingness to share their culture, the stories of their lives, and their music with me. I don’t pretend to have any idea what it’s like to live in a world where you have to look over your shoulder all the time. But all those years and shared stories have affected my worldview and my faith profoundly.
I think that because I’ve met a lot of interesting people around the world, I believe in an all-inclusive God of love that doesn’t care what religion anyone is. I’ve learned that if there is ever to be harmony on the planet, we all need to learn how to play our part while also leaving space for everyone else’s.
On stage with other performers, there is an unspoken conversation going on that keeps everyone in sync, in tune, punctuating the right beats. Making music is an intimate give and take that requires constantly paying attention not only to what you’re playing but also—and more importantly—listening to what everyone else is doing so you can fit in the groove without taking away from theirs.
Music is about every musician finding their perfect space in the song, matching the rhythm and tone of the group, yet also making it something new, moving it forward. Making music transcends language, ignores skin color, and gives everyone space to speak their truth. Every voice adds a new dimension to the composition. When those voices groove in sync, it’s nothing short of a transcendent, mystical experience.
This concept of everyone finding their space regardless of any human attribute is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Paul describes the idea beautifully in 1 Corinthians 12.12-18:
1 Corinthians 12.12-18 (CEV)
12 The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does. 13 Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Now we each drink from that same Spirit.
14 Our bodies don’t have just one part. They have many parts. 15 Suppose a foot says, “I’m not a hand, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the foot still belong to the body? 16 Or suppose an ear says, “I’m not an eye, and so I’m not part of the body.” Wouldn’t the ear still belong to the body? 17 If our bodies were only an eye, we couldn’t hear a thing. And if they were only an ear, we couldn’t smell a thing. 18 But God has put all parts of our body together in the way that he decided is best.
“God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ.” Paul understands that Jesus’ ultimate goal is to create a universal community in God’s love. I don’t think either Jesus or Paul ever meant for that idea to imply a single world religion. Instead, Jesus’ vision is like my experience on the road with the Coasters/Drifters/Platters. We listen to each other’s stories, share our experiences, and find our space in the music by making space for other voices.
And listen to how foolish Paul says it is to discard and disrespect anysegment of society: it’s like cutting off our own foot! Relegating people of color to second-, third-, fourth-class status; insisting there is something “wrong” with an LGBTQ brother or sister—Paul makes it clear that demeaning anyone, is like cutting off our own hands and feet.
People of faith cannot say on the one hand, “I love God and I follow Jesus (or Mohammed, or Moses, etc.)” and then on the other say, “But since you’re Hispanic, or gay, or liberal, or conservative, or whatever is not exactly like me, you don’t get to be a citizen or get healthcare or get to eat at the lunch counter next to me, or ride anywhere you like on the bus.” Chopping each other up into little pieces, which is what happens all day long on almost every news station I tune into, is patently not what Jesus wanted to create. We must start learning how to perceive every human on the planet as one of God’s perfectly placed musicians.
We don’t need to change anyone. We don’t need to save people. We just need to love everyone as equal parts of the body of God, learning how to speak to each other in a new, more musical language. Yes, like all musicians, we’ll make mistakes now and then. But when that happens, we’ll learn how to work together on the more difficult sections of our communal composition, until all our voices are harmonically aligned.
Then, once we start tuning into each other, making space for God’s great diversity, hopefully, once and for all, we’ll start playing that cosmic love song of humanity that makes God weep entirely new universes.
Bhagavad Gita 5.10:
Those who dedicate their actions to God, abandoning all attachment, remain untouched by sin, just as a lotus leaf is untouched by water.
Psalm 131 (LEB)
My heart is not haughty nor my eyes arrogant,
and I do not concern myself
with things too great and difficult for me.
Rather, I have soothed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother,
like the weaned child is my soul with me.
O Israel, hope in Yahweh
from now until forever.
One day long ago, when life was less distracting, and we all spent more time outdoors, a little Hindu boy named Arujani was playing outside, seeing what he could see. He danced along the trails outside his village, which was nestled by a lake in the crook of the Himalayas.
He giddily stopped every now and then to poke a bug with a stick or watch it do its thing. He chased flying insects until they were just out of reach and finally, exhausted, he fell on his back into the wheat fields, surrounded by a colorful patchwork of blossoming, abundant life.
As he made his way to the lake, Arujani stumbled upon a lotus seed pod, most of the seeds intact. He excitedly scooped up the pod and raced back toward the mountains, home to his mother, Scilla. “Can we plant the seeds? Can we, Mama? Can we plant the seeds?” He blurted out breathlessly.
Scilla said, “Oh! Of course, we’ll plant them! The lotus is a very special plant. Do you know why, chookra?” (“Chookra” means “little one” in Hindi).
Grimacing, Arujani said, “I do not, mother, but I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.”
With a smile and a little laugh, his mother said, “You are so wise! You know, we have to throw these seeds in a pond. The seed will fall to the bottom, where it will be covered with all sorts of mud and muck.
The lotus sprout grows from the depths of its mud-encased bed, just a few feet below the surface of a lake or a pond. As it grows, it reaches ever up towards the light, the petals of the flower closed so tightly that no water or mud can get in.”
She continued, “Once the lotus is floating on top of the muddy water, the sunlight opens its petals, and the flower blossoms, ready to receive the warm, nourishing love of the Sun. Out of the dirt and mud comes something pure and beautiful. Isn’t that interesting, little one?”
Only half paying attention, Arujani said, “Uh, yeah. Super interesting, mom! So, can we go plant these now?”
Scilla laughed, and together they walked outside to a nearby pond, waded into the water, and dropped the lotus seeds into the muddy bed.
“Now what?” little Arujani asked. “Now we wait,” said his mother. Arujani wondered, “Wait for what?”
“For these seeds to find their path out of the mud.”
Every day after they dropped the lotus seeds into the pond, Arujani would rush to the edge to see if he could make out any growth. But he couldn’t see what was happening below the surface. If anything was growing in the mud, he sure couldn’t tell.
“Mother,” he said, “I think perhaps the seeds have died. How long has it been? Many moons have passed, yet I see no sign of growth.”
“Patience, my dear Arujani,” Scilla said. “Growth takes time! You were not born with the ability to walk and find lotus seeds and ask so many questions! It has taken 10 years for you to become who you are now.
It will not take that long for the lotus, but it’s forming beneath the surface even now, even though you can’t see it. Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” She asked wryly.
Arujani harrumphed, “Yes mother, growth takes place beneath the surface. It was an obvious metaphor.” He rolled his eyes.
Scilla laughed and said, “Perhaps, but you need to understand the significance of the lotus blossom and what it means for our people!”
“Why do I feel another lesson coming on?” Arujani moaned as he melodramatically dropped his head in his hands.
Smiling patiently and tussling her son’s jet-black hair, Scilla said, “the lotus represents purity and beauty, my child, and the unfolding petals of the flower that floats above the muck and mire suggest the expansion of our own spiritual awareness as we grow from infants to children, through adulthood and old age.”
Arujani thought about this for a moment. “So, let me get this straight,” Arujani began, “are you saying that we should stay above the muck and mire? That’s no fun! I love playing in the mud!”
“Of course you do!” Scilla proclaimed. “All little boys love playing in the mud. I’m still speaking in metaphors though. Did I lose you?”
“No, you didn’t lose me,” Arujani’s voice trailed off. Then, he blurted out, “I was just hoping we were finished so I could go see if this lotus was blooming or not… and maybe play in the mud!”
Unfazed, Arujani’s mother continued, “The lotus also represents hope, Arujani, that from the depths of our often muddy and messy lives, growth still occurs. Even though you love playing in the mud, chookra, you still desire a bath afterward, do you not?”
Arujani thought about this for a minute. Then another minute. He kind of liked being covered in mud, but he had to admit his mother was right. Eventually, he wanted the mud washed off. “Yes mother, it is true. Once the mud starts to cake and dry, it’s not much fun anymore—it’s just annoying.”
Scilla said, “That’s a good start. Now, think about the lotus—it grows through the mud, but never becomes muddy itself. Once the bud of the flower works through the murky water, it floats gently on top, finally opening its petals—clean, brilliantly colored, and perfect—untainted by its muddy birth and muddy existence.”
“You mean that the flower won’t have to wait for a rainstorm or a caretaker to cleanse it? it was born and will blossom perfectly?”
“That’s correct, Arujani,” his mother said. Eventually, the lotus will bloom, and it will be perfect, just like you!”
“I’m not perfect, mother. Please! my grades are average, and I like to play in the mud!”
Scilla laughed out loud. “But that is perfect, Chookra.It is what little humans do. And life is about more than grades, my love. Life is also about what you learn through living and experiencing.”
“So, you don’t mind if I fail my exams?” Arujani asked, knowing full well this was notwhat his mother meant.
“You know better than that, Arujani and you know very well what I mean. Like the lotus, our life is full of adventure as we allow our inner being—our own lotus flower, to unfold. Like the petals of the lotus, we are many-faceted creatures, and, also like the lotus, our journey to awakening is perfect as it is, no matter how much mud and muck covers us.”
She asked, “Do you know what our job is in life, Arujani?”
He answered, “Well, papa raises cows, and you cook magnificent meals. Uncle Krishna is in the army.” After a moment, Arujani said, devilishly, “There are lots of jobs! I think I’d like to grow lotuses… Which reminds me—do you think that lotus is blooming yet?”
Arujani and Scilla laughed as he grabbed his mother’s arm and pulled her outside. As they walked toward the pond, his mother continued her lesson. “We all have different careers, but our career is not our job. We have one job on this earth, my love, and that is to allow our own lotus flowers to fully blossom, open wide to possibility.”
“I know where you’re going with this, mother,” Arujani said as they walked hand-in-hand to the edge of the pond. “Like this lotus—hey! it’s floating on the water’s surface!” he exclaimed with surprise. “And there are many more, too! They are all so beautiful!”
“Yes dear, exactly,” Scilla said. “There are many more lotuses, all over the world, all working their way through the mud and into the light. There are millions and millions of us, born as clean as we ever will be, working our way through the mud of life, and simply waiting to break through the surface and blossom.”
“To blossom so we can feel the warm light, mother?” Arujani asked.
“Not only that, Arujani,” she replied, “we blossom so we can be the light, and then share it with others—just as I am sharing it with you right now.”
Commentary on Lotus Symbolism from www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org
Both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures abound with analogies of the lotus flower. The word is used as a respectful appellation while describing various parts of God’s divine body. Hence charaṇ-kamal means “lotus-like feet,” kamalekṣhaṇa means “lotus-like eyes,” kar-kamal means “lotus-like hands,” etc.
Another word for the lotus flower is paṅkaj, which means “born from mud.” The lotus flower grows from the mud found at the bottom of the lake, yet it rises above the water and blossoms toward the sun. Thus, the lotus flower is often used in Sanskrit literature as an example of something that is born amidst the dirt, and rises above it while retaining its beautiful purity.
Further, the lotus plant has large leaves that float atop the water surface of the lake. Lotus leaves are used in Indian villages for plates, as they are waterproof, and liquid poured on them does not soak through, but runs off.
The beauty of the lotus leaf is that, although the lotus owes its birth, growth, and sustenance to the water, the leaf does not permit itself to be wetted. Water poured on the lotus leaf runs off the side, due to the small hair growing on its surface.
With the help of the beautiful analogy of the lotus leaf, Shree Krishna says that just as it floats atop the surface of the lake, but does not allow itself to be wetted by the water, similarly, the karm yogis remain untouched by sin, although performing all kinds of works, because they perform their works in divine consciousness.
I’ve been reading about the remarkable history of Islam in the book, Islam, by Karen Armstrong. It’s a terrific, concise narrative about the formation of a community based not on borders but beliefs. It is a story strikingly similar to that of early Judaism, with its revelation of divine law as a blueprint for the way we, made in God’s image, are to behave in this world.
Almost in passing, Armstrong remarks that while Christianity is based on dogmas, creeds, and things you must believe, both Judaism and Islam are ways of life. Judaism and Islam ask us to entirely submit ourselves—mind, body, and soul—to God. In so doing, we are naturally compelled to work for the good of the entire community.
On first reading, I agreed with Armstrong. Yes, Christianity does seem to be obsessed with Jesus as the repayment for the debt we could never repay. Yes, the majority of Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, ask congregants to recite some sort of creed that testifies in some way to Jesus as “the triune God,” or some such verbiage. Yes, I thought, you’re correct, Karen Armstrong! What is the Christian way of life?
While I agree that much of what is presented as Christianity these days bears little resemblance to Jesus’ school of thought, I do take issue with the idea that Christianity is not a way of life in the way that Judaism and Islam are.
I think Jesus is very clear about wanting to turn the present world and its unjust systems on its ear. “The last shall be first,” he says, because he sees a world currently organized not around the Judaic principle of God’s communal, covenantal love, but instead on Rome’s model of individual greed and power at any cost.
Jesus definitely wants the ideas he’s teaching to be part of the culture—the revolutionary counterculture of his followers focused on creating the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, not the next.
I think the reason so many people see Christianity as dogmatic is that too many Christians have forgotten about the Old Testament, the First Testament, the Hebrew Bible which Jesus knew and loved. Because the First Testament is Jesus’ blueprint for the Christian way of life. He preaches about his way all the time.
Jesus’ message—his way—has gotten lost in the mix, as Armstrong suggests, not because Christianity isn’t a way of life, but because Christians have forgotten it’s supposed to be a way of life.
It helps to remember that the New Testament was written by Jews. The authors already understood what their way of life was because their people had been doing their best to live it for thousands of years. The Second Testament is an additional series of thoughts about Jesus’ reminder that Judaism isn’t merely about keeping the letter of the Law, but that the Law was supposed to help the Jewish people live a particular way of life.
The community and its obligations to God and each other has already been defined in the First Testament. Jesus is a Jewish reformer. There’s a lot of stuff not written in the Second Testament because its authors took for granted their Jewish audience would know it already.
So, Christianity isa way of life, it’s just got a lot of added dogmatic and creedal baggage attached, mostly because the Romans got ahold of it and made it their own, non-Jewish religion. Over time, Christians became so far removed from their Jewish heritage that many Christians stopped reading the First Testament altogether.
Consequently, instead of following Jesus and living his teachings, Christians started worshipping Jesus and condemning non-believers. I believe this is mostly the result of Roman philosophical influences. Perhaps Paul unwittingly aided Rome by spreading not Jesus’ instructions for how to live a life in unity with God, but rather, the Roman gospel about Jesus, the demigod. The Roman version of Jesus died to absolve humans from sin, and now demands we not follow him to the gates of Rome demanding justice, but instead, bow down and worship him, the new Emperor, not merely of Rome but of the entire Universe.
In contrast to the religion Rome exported around the world (which became so standard most Christians have forgotten there are other ways to follow Jesus), it was Judaism that informed everything Jesus did. And Judaism is in part about the community of God’s chosen people honoring their covenant—their contract with God to always love, cherish, and honor one another. In Judaism and Islam, the community thrives or perishes based on the faithfulness of the entire people.
And what does the covenant demand? Loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is foundational to Judaism, as well as to Jesus’ message (if not to contemporary Christianity), and to Islam. We are all one great community of God’s children. We owe it to God and each other to take care of everyone. No exceptions.
Acts 2.24-47 reveals just how important the idea of a covenantal, communal relationship was to Jesus’ first followers:
Acts 2:42-47 (NIV)
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Following their great Jewish tradition, the first Jewish “Christians” did exactly what Jesus asked: They created a counterculture.
According to Wikipedia:
“A counterculture is a subculture whose values and norms of behavior differ substantially from those of mainstream society, often in opposition to mainstream cultural mores. A countercultural movement expresses the ethos and aspirations of a specific population during a well-defined era. When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes.”
Paul does seem to understand the power of a critical mass when he preaches. When he writes to the churches he started, he reminds them they are to be a voice for goodness, mercy, justice, and socioeconomic equality:
Romans 12.1-2 (CEB)
So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. 2 Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.
When I stop thinking about Jesus in the dogmatic way of the Romanized Christian world, I remember what Jesus was actually preaching: The Kingdom of Heaven. A way of life. One in which we are dedicated entirely to the goodness of God’s all-inclusive love, and therefore driven to do whatever is required for the good of all of us. To this ancient Jewish idea, Jesus adds, even if we have to suffer ourselves.
The essential construct of both Islam and Judaism is the creation of a new community that perfectly follows “God’s will.” Islam means “to submit.” Mohammed envisioned not just individuals who lived a God-tuned life, but a community whose laws were also based on the idea that God loves all people equally; so, too then, should we.
May God make it so.
Isaiah 43.18-19 (CEB)
Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.
Open the gates of righteousness for me so I can come in and give thanks to the Lord!
This is the Lord’s gate; those who are righteous enter through it.
On Palm Sunday most Christian churches tell the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem for Passover. Usually, going to Jerusalem for this High Holy Day wouldn’t be significant. Jesus would have gone to Jerusalem for Passover many times, perhaps even every year of his 30 or so spent in this spacetime.
This year, however, Jesus is popular among the masses, and the Romans are already on edge because there have been sporadic Jewish rebellions all over the Judean territory. So, the Romans decide to put on a military parade, no different from those of contemporary despotic regimes but for advances in technology. These parades are designed to intimidate, to remind people of the might of their overlord. Rome wanted to make sure anyone planning a surreptitious revolt in the name of their Lord Jesus—a genuine possibility—understood the consequences of their actions.
The Palm Sunday sequence (Luke 19.28-40) is one of the most blatantly political stories in the Bible. It forces us to focus on the contrast between Jesus’ message of peace through God’s ruling love and the Empire’s Pax Romana,rule by intimidation. It is a contrast Jesus wants us to notice. That’s why he rides a borrowed donkey through the serviceentrance into Jerusalem while the governor rides in on a War Elephant followed by a legion of blaring trumpets, another of drummers, and finally several legions of armed soldiers.
The Empire enters Jerusalem, which Jews like Jesus considered God’s holiest place on Earth, with noise, pomp, and weapons of mass destruction. The Empire wants to show us who’s the boss. Jesus enters through the service entrance. Humble. He also wants to show us who’s the boss, but points beyond himself, to God.
I love the political aspect of the Palm Sunday story, but the politics are only there because of Jesus’ deeply spiritual understanding of both rulers and the rule of law. Jesus is a fanatic about his people’s covenant with God. If we focus on what Jesus is reported to have said, it becomes apparent he has a singular vision for the people of Earth: The Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus reminds us that our entire existence is to be in service to God, not empire of any sort. This means God is the ruler of everything we see. For example, since the land and everything it produces is God’s, we have no right to hoard any of it. In fact, Jesus says, recalling the prophets that came before him, we have a duty to make sure the entire community is healthy and nourished, physically and spiritually. That’s the different realityJesus sees—one that harkens back to an ancient Jewish value of wealth redistribution—something we call “socialist” today, but an idea that is as Jesus—and as Jewish—as it gets.
The Jerusalem gate through which Jesus enters is ancient, a symbol of Jesus’ call to return to the earlier ideal of God as our one and only sovereign, our king, our President, our Prime Minister, our Comrade Number One. Jesus, the perfect manifestation of Universal Love, calls on his followers to also value communal wellness over individual power. Where Pilate and the Roman contingent demand adoration by creating a ludicrous, earth-shaking spectacle, Jesus instead redirects his adoring throngs to God.
Jesus entering Jerusalem is a powerful metaphor about the instantiation of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus’ vision of a world ruled by the power of love instead of the love of power. He invites us to follow him through the service entrance into a world in which every member of the tribe is responsible for the well-being of the others. And we’re all members of God’s tribe, without exception. One God, one world, one people, in all our glorious diversity.
Jesus sees beyond the veil of Pax Romanainto a new world government that can be reached without firing a single gunshot. And he challenges us to follow him, to take the alternate entrance, to proclaim the different worldview, to resist the empire in its barely-veiled modern forms, to humbly serve our fellow human beings.
The great psychologist and philosopher William James once wrote, “The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.”
That’s good advice. For millennia Christians have believed in a perverted form of Jesus’ teachings that exalts the power of Popes and Bishops over the power of the people. Most denominational churches tow the corporate line, just as the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem 2000 years ago towed the Roman line.
Jesus has another idea and urges us to follow him through the unremarkable door that allows us to perceive differently God doing something new—in the world, and in our Christian faith. Even better, Jesus says, our new perception compels us to be God doing something new.
May God make it so.
Psalm 126 (CEB)
When the Lord changed Zion’s
circumstances for the better,
it was like we had been dreaming.
Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter;
our tongues were filled with joyful shouts.
It was even said, at that time, among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them!”
Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.
Lord, change our circumstances for the better,
like dry streams in the desert waste!
Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed,
come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!
Isaiah 43.18-19 (CEB)
Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.
This is our last week in the desert, and for some reason, I’ve been thinking about Shakespeare’s Macbeth.Hey, after five weeks the mind starts to do funny things, okay?
I think Macbeth comes to mind because it’s in part about a person who is easily corrupted by the lust for power, which is precisely the opposite of what Jesus exemplifies in his desert experience.
In the desert, we’ve been learning how to resist the temptations of greed and lust by remembering God offers us something more satisfying than any amount of earthly wealth and power. God offers to nourish our yearning souls in a way nothing else can.
Yet, power is tempting. When a cadre of witches first tell Macbeth he will be king of Scotland, he is surprised and resigned to let fate take its course. However, Macbeth is ambitious and unable to resist the whispering temptations of the many devils around him. Slowly, he succumbs to megalomania, committing ever more treacherous acts against former friends and family, beginning with regicide.
So, as I’ve been contemplating Jesus and pouring over the desert temptation sequence, and Jesus’ ability to just hold steadfast in the face of evil, I think Macbeth appeared to me as a sort of anti-Jesus, a face of evil that represents everything that’s wrong with a civilization built on power and the concept that might makes right.
Macbeth is a fictionalized account of real events. It is a tragic reminder that any of us could easily succumb to the temptation of power. Don’t we all think we could do a better job ruling the world? I do! Yet, in the desert, Jesus resists Satan’s offer to rule all the kingdoms of the Earth. Why does Jesus succeed where Macbeth fails, where, likely, most of us would stumble as well?
And here it’s important to not merely declare Jesus can overcome adversity because he’s “God’s only Son,” because first, Jesus refuses to use that power, and second, excusing everything Jesus did because he was supernatural misses the point of the real question posed by both the desert parable and Shakespeare: how do we resist the temptation to become Macbeth?
A good start is understanding the root of our problem. Our Psalmist today provides a useful analogy by comparing us to dry streams in the desert. We are thirsting for God’s pure, nourishing love. We don’t open ourselves to being fed by the God stream.
If we shuffle, zombie-like through our busy lives without stopping to experience something beyond our own egos, if we don’t give any thanks, or even curse and shout at God, we are like dry streams in the desert. Nothing is feeding us. There is no current, which leaves us feeling empty and disconnected. In place of the God stream, we are filled with a river of garbage caused by our own hubris—and it feeds itself. Garbage in, garbage out.
We shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much, though. We are in the process of becoming. We aren’t all-aware beings, perfectly in tune with God’s love in the same life-redefining way of Jesus. He teaches and shows us how to get into that state of consciousness, but while we’re practicing, we often have a gaping spiritual hole in our psyche that is quickly filled by the lust for power and control.
We too easily forget about God, the Psalmist claims, and all the miraculous things God has done for our people and us. The Psalmist writes, “Remember when God made everything better! Remember! God is with us, right here, right now!” Then, the Psalm turns into a prayer to God: Lord, change our circumstances for the better.
Notice the prayer isn’t Myself, change my circumstances for the better, it’s GOD, change our circumstances for the better.
Everything is getting better as long as we have faith that God does indeed turn the universe toward justice and love. Everything gets better when we recognize this journey we’re on is communal. It’s about all of us, not just me. It’s about human rights, not my rights.
The mistake Macbeth makes is so typically human (and it’s the same mistake Satan makes in the desert with Jesus). He chooses his own worldly power—fleeting, often based on treachery and lies—over the power of God, which is pure, unconditional, life-altering, heart-shaping, and all-inclusive.
It often seemed to Psalmists, and prophets like Isaiah, that the entire community suffered when individuals started taking their own supremacy more seriously than God’s. Jesus argues passionately against despotism and urges us to action in the name of communal love. Because, when the community is led by Macbeth instead of Moses, we the people must ever more vigorously keep our covenant with God.
The ancient Jewish people of the Psalms are called to remember their divine covenant. As God’s people, our relationship demands that we act in accordance with the way we believe God acts toward us—with complete devotion and a cosmic sense of justice. Most importantly, though, both the Psalmist and Isaiah remind us there is something wonderful and beautiful on the horizon. God is bringing about a new world, right now.
As horrific as the world around us is—especially in these polarized days— we must remember that God is with us, always—especially when we are most tempted to stop believing that God cares.
When we’re at our lowest point, when we’re about to sign our souls away to be the CEO of Global Evil Industries (a subsidiary of Comcast), that’s when God takes us by the neck and reminds us of the beauty of the world. That’s when Jesus reminds us of our covenant, of our responsibility to God to just do the right thing. And the right thing is always, and only, the action that creates love and obliterates evil.
This parable about Jesus in the desert we’ve been obsessing over all Lent is about not letting the world win. Jesus shows us how to resist Satan and the temptation of fleeting power by doing the one thing Jesus always tells us to do: love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and love our neighbors as our selves.
When we don’t love, when we’re ready to give up—on ourselves, on the world, on God—that’s when we must remember all the astonishing ways God has previously led us through deserts. Isaiah reminds us that there is hope, that the future will be peaceful and prosperous because instead of personal power, we will eventually, finally recognize that we’re all happier and more successful when the world is organized from and through God’s love.
Just before Macbeth goes on his final, insane, bloody rampage, he again visits the witches who had earlier prophesied his rise to the throne. This time, as he approaches, they say, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” It is over for Macbeth, but we who have read this cautionary tale still have a chance. By remembering the lessons Jesus taught us in the desert, we can resist the temptation to rule the world, and remember that as long as we remain steadfast in God’s love, nothing wicked, but something wonderful, this way comes.
Like Jesus, we began our Lenten journey in the desert confronting ha-satan: the ideas, people, habits, influences, and uncharitable actions (to both others and ourselves) that falsely convince us we are not God’s beloved children.
Satan’s desert challenges force us to reconnect to God, if only in fleeting visions that leave our hairs on edge. The solitude of the desert reminds us that we are not alone. Every human is connected through universes of cells in the all-being of God. And we are amazed, and we are changed.
Awareness of God as the metaphysical fabric of everything is transformative. Remember, the term meta refers to a thing’s underlying structure, not the supernatural. The desert and Satan’s temptations awaken us to the idea that God is perfectly natural! Don’t underestimate the power of recognizing God as natural instead of supernatural. St. Francis loved that idea.
Natural God is the total sensory beauty of changing seasons. Natural God is the gently wafting hint of salt in the sea air, the towering power of 1000-year-old Redwoods, a baby’s laugh, the wind tussling your hair at the beach, in the mountains, forest, desert, suburban backyard and city street. Natural God is my neighbor and the stranger in need. Natural God is everything.
Once this idea of God as perfectly natural starts to creep into our consciousness, we see the world from a new point of view. Even nanosecond bursts of certain awe in God reveal a more profound reality beyond this world of bad news. Paul suggests we see our world in a mirror, dimly, and preaches an alternative to our bad news world: The Gospel of Jesus Christ—the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul and I differ on what the good news actually is. For him, it is mainly about Jesus as a cosmic human sacrifice. For me, Jesus brings good news about the interconnection of God in, among, and through all things.
I’ve suggested that the transformation sequence in Luke 9.28-36 is an extended metaphor about human potential. Honestly, my take on the entire Jesus cycle is one of metaphor about human potential. Unlike Paul, who teaches we are all worthless, Jesus teaches that we are already exalted. God is good with us. We are the ones with authority issues.
I do think Paul understood the idea of Christ potential, that all of us, no matter how rich or poor, slave or free, male or female, etc., etc., have the innate ability to think and act like Jesus. In fact, Jesus insists that if we are serious about following him, we cannot help but live into our potential by simply first knowing that there’s nothing unnatural about believing in God. Then, once firm in that belief, we will be compelled to act just like Jesus in this world.
I think the author of Luke understood Jesus as an archetype, a harbinger of a new way to be human. Early followers of Jesus (called People of The Way) believed part of this transformation happened by being blessed by God, which they referred to as the Holy Spirit. Today, we might say we’ve had a “spiritual experience.”
Luke 4.16-30 (NRSV)
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
“But the truth is,” Jesus continued, “there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
As I was studying this passage recently, I realized I had misremembered it. This is a well-known passage, but for some reason, I always thought the crowd was outraged after Jesus declared he had fulfilled scripture. But, they aren’t. Notice that after he reads, then claims that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” the crowd is amazed and appreciative, even complimentary!
But this just aggravates Jesus. He’s not there to receive their approval or be lauded with accolades. He’s there, as he is here now, to wake people up! The people in the synagogue make the same mistake as Paul: they are dazzled by Jesus’ light—his wisdom, his oratory, his sizzle. So they miss entirely the meat of his argument, which is that they are all hypocritical jerks, sitting in ivory towers pontificating the absurdity of their navels, while people starve in the streets.
Jesus’ interpretation of Isaiah is that we are all supposed to fulfill the law. This means endless intellectual study, yes, but that study is supposed to drive us to action. We are all to bring good news to the poor, support the brokenhearted, and most importantly, release and liberate the oppressed.
The crowd doesn’t get upset when Jesus says he has fulfilled Isaiah’s demands. They get upset when Jesus calls them out for ignoring the one rule God gave them: Love God by loving your neighbor.
Isaiah 61.1 (CEB)
The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me
to bring good news to the poor,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim release for captives,
and liberation for prisoners.
This passage is a demand for us to live better. Isaiah understands life as service to each other in the way God serves us: as the sustaining love of the universe. Jesus wants us to be, like him, the sustaining love of the universe. For me, that means we must rethink our relationship to Jesus and rather than bow down to him, become him. For there is no better way to honor one’s master than to embody the master heart, mind, body, and soul. We do this by continually recognizing God within us. All of us. No exceptions.
1 Corinthians 13.12 (NRSV)
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
2 Corinthians 3.18
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformedinto the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Last week, we talked about Jesus’ transfiguration into pure, loving God energy as an example of all humankind’s potential. In the revelation of his true nature, Jesus shows that we, too, are conduits for God’s unconditional love. We talked about reaching a new, transcendent human potential by following Jesus into utter submission to God. In the transfiguration we see anindividualawakening to God. Jesus understood that it would take a billion individual awakenings to change the world.
The idea of individualawakening isn’t discussed much in the Roman Christianity of Paul and Popes. Most Christians have been taught (or intimidated) focus on thankfulness to Jesus for his cosmic sacrifice for humankind. As long as it’s making us more loving, all-accepting people, there is nothing wrong with that (Roman) interpretation, but it’s also not the entire story.
Jesus also, and I think more importantly, was a mystic. He presents us with a more mystical way to live that is designed to brings us to an enlightened view that is the result of a change at the core of our being. By following Jesus, we are transformed into a more accurate reflection of God, who is love. One by one, the world changes before our eyes. Hatred disintegrates. Love prevails.
Of course, we don’t live in a world of unconditional love. and we could convincingly argue that the systems Jesus raged against are worse than when he first started preaching about a new, more universally connected world. Paul grasps the breadth of the problem, realizing that, unlike Jesus, we are only dimly awareof our true being as God’s love incarnate. Or, at least, Paul understand that we are the potential of God’s love incarnate.
Again, awareness is the key. Jesus is aware. He knows who he is and encourages us to do the hard work of achieving that same awareness. It’s a difficult path, the way of Jesus, because it forces us to work against our human survival nature and instead rely on the unambiguous, ubiquitous love of God. As God begins to light us from within, our Ego fights back by filling our minds with fear. Ego doesn’t want to lose control. Becoming like Jesus means being caught in an existential struggle for balance between our egoic and divine natures.
Paul was excruciatingly aware of the conflict between these two operational modes. He understood that all of us,regardless of physical appearance, are reflections of God. He intuited the string theory idea of God as a single element that forms itself into everything. God isn’t just creator, God is also the created; not apart, or even a part, but a holistic inner emanation.
Paul poetically suggests we are “seeing in a mirror, dimly.” We see our reflection, but it’s only a physical reflection, and even that is distorted. Our spiritual perception of God is even worse. It’s almost as if there is some haze around us that prevents us from seeing God’s reality more clearly, from connecting to God as unwaveringlyas Jesus. I sometimes wonder if we’re not living in a cocoon trapping us in an infinitesimal shard of illusory reality, a more capacious point of view just beyond the veil.
Jesus teaches that only God can destroy the cocoon of lies preventing us from living life in tune with God here and now, lies like worthlessness and limitation, and the ever pervasive and perverse myth of lack—there isn’t enough to go around. These lies form a cocoon that extinguishes, rather than nourishes, us.
Yet, even as the cocoon is a barrier to a larger universe, it is also where transfiguration takes place, where we caterpillars are nourished while evolving into a new form. We aren’t trapped in the cocoon, we are momentarily resting as God nourishes us on our way to freedom, as we change from one divine form to another. The caterpillar is as divine as the butterfly, but the butterfly sees reality from an entirely new point of view.
Paul is clear that all forms of human being—from caterpillar to butterfly—glorify an unconditionallyloving God. He writes that we are moving “from one degree of glory to another.”For him, every human is beloved and perfectly good with God. Still, we are cautioned to be aware of the cocoon because, like the caterpillar ready to continue life from a new point of view, once we know the cocoon is there we can begin to break through it. Otherwise, what was once our womb becomes our prison.
So, let’s shake the dust from our eyes and begin to focus on a new reality. Let’s poke holes in our cocoons. Today, let’s stay in tune with God and perceive a truer, more total, more holistic, more interconnected reality. Like Jesus, let’s see God everywhere, in everyone, and encourage each other to spread our wings. By so doing, we’ll all begin to see our planet, our cultures, our politics, our religions, and our governments, from a brand new, much more exalted, much more conscious and conscientious point of view.
Luke 9.28-36 (CEB)
About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem. Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him.
As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.
Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen.
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration—of his physical change into a pure being of light, anointed in the way of Moses and Elijah—is for me the most profound of any biblical account.
It is this story, more than any other, that points to Jesus’ true nature as perfect, loving, God energy. Transfiguration—a complete and utter change of being—is the point of the Christian story. Others will tell you Christianity is about sin, redemption, and the necessary death of Jesus on the cross. Theirs is a Roman interpretation of Jesus that turns him into a supernatural demigod. I prefer the more Jewish, more mystical approach to the Bible in general, and the Second Testament in particular.
Throughout the Second Testament I read about Jesus and see a beautiful, peaceful, loving, perfectly in-tune manifestation of God. Importantly, Jesus was conscious of his God-bearing nature. He understood the divinity energizing his humanity. We think of Jesus as fully human and fully divine. It’s important to remember that he also knew he was fully human and fully divine, and that he wants us to know that same intimate relationship of Oneness with God.
Today we might say Jesus was aware of his quantum nature, the sub-molecular energy that created and sustained him. Like him, we exist in a state of quantum superposition, simultaneously human and divine.
Jesus’ intimate knowledge of himself as God, the entangling nature and constructing mechanism of reality, compelled him, as it should anyone serious about following him, to act in astoundingly counter-cultural ways. Remember, Jesus taught students who were expected to not only understand his lessons but also to become just like him. In his day, if you were a rabbi’s student—a disciple—you didn’t just learn from your master, you strived to become your master. In fact, if you really wanted to make your master proud, you strived to surpass your master. Jesus, like any other Rabbi of his era, would have expected his students to not only follow his teachings but to live his way of life, becoming perfectly in tune with the loving movement of God.
It’s no accident Peter, John, and James witness the transfiguration. Jesus takes them with him on purpose, to reveal to his three best students the result of letting God utterly control their lives: total transformation of mind, body and soul.
Communion with Jesus, Elijah and Moses.
Oneness with All-Being.
Many Christians have been taught that the transfiguration scene is about Jesus finally revealing his true nature to his disciples so they’ll know, without a doubt, that he is the “Son of God.” But that again is Roman theology and language (the Emperor was also referred to as “the “Son of God).” Jesus wants so much more than to merely be exalted as God’s “only” son. Rather, Jesus wants to help bring about the complete and total transformation of human civilization. He knows that starts by first transforming every one of us. And he recognizes that a change in our nature only comes from being moved more into our God state than our human state.
THAT’S what we’re after, folks. TOTAL and COMPLETE transformation. Humans are more capable of the mystical experiences that lead to the compassionate lifestyle of Jesus, and ultimately a more Utopian global civilization, than we have been allowed to believe. We’re not just flesh and blood. We are sub-molecularly entangled beings in the God stream which is the foundation of all reality.
Simply pondering the concept of more-than-physical existence leads to all sorts of amazing, intimate interactions with God. Our physical being—all physical being—is the result of an intricately interwoven dance with the unseen, yet entirely pervasive, presence of God. Our physical construct means we are the very substance of God in the flesh. Just like Jesus.
Therefore, all the things we read about Jesus, all his activities, blessings, speeches—as his disciples we also are meant to say and do the same things. We too are intended to wake up and recognize we are so much more than mere meatbags. We too are meant to transform into an entirely new being by awakening to our true being, Christ. Just like Jesus.
And I’ll tell you what, this realization—this realization that the transfiguration is the point of life—it’s frustrating. Because, while Jesus knew who he was and had the humility to let God guide him, we humans, well, let’s just say we’re in a very different place.
Some of us are just beginning to realize Jesus had something more to teach us than what we’ve been taught about him. Christianity today is evolving through a change in the way we walk with Jesus, talk about him, think about him, and understand his presence with us. We can’t rush the sort of transfiguration Jesus embodies, but we can at least start talking about the idea that instead of merely worshipping Jesus, we could instead be transfiguring into him.