Jan 052015
 

Recently, a friend asked about how to “grow in the love of Jesus.”  It’s an interesting question, because “the love of Jesus” can mean either (1) love directed at Jesus or (2) the kind of love Jesus gave.  I think 2 is the best way to 1, but I also think it’s helpful to meditate in a way that is similar to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

It seems to me that it’s especially helpful to first become familiar with Jesus as he is actually presented in the gospels, rather than relying solely on what theologians and preachers have said about Jesus. As one studies Jesus and the way he behaves in the gospels, seeing how very human he was, one can meditate on what it would be like to sit and talk with him, to dine with him, to walk and work with him as his contemporaries did.  These sorts of meditations can be done as a merely analytical observer, but one can also respond emotionally as one would in actuality.  Who wouldn’t feel great compassion and sorrow for the agony Jesus felt in Gethsamane and on the cross? Who wouldn’t speak to him with those feelings, trying to comfort him with a gentle touch and let him know he is not as alone as his sleeping disciples would make it seem?  Beyond these scripture-based meditations, we can also imagine him with us in moments of our own lives, supporting us, counseling us, having compassion for us.  In meditating upon Jesus in this way, we cannot continue to regard him as some angelic judge far removed from humanity, but increasingly he becomes known as a real human being who understands what it’s like to be tempted, to doubt, to distrust, to fear, to falter, and to forgive.   We better understand the love he gave to others, and we feel kinship with him and a more immediate sense of his presence in our lives.  All of these things contribute to growing in the love of Jesus in every sense.

Meditations on being present with Jesus in this way have influenced some of my posts on this blog, including this series: Alone in the Wilderness, parts 1, 2, and 3.

 

Maranatha

Agape

Dec 022014
 

The season of Advent is upon us. This is a time when we traditionally meditate upon the themes of Christ’s coming, whether in the birth of Jesus or in the Second Coming. We therefore may be simultaneously aware of the absence of Jesus and hopeful for his return. While it would seem that this is all taken very literally by most Christians, there is another way that it is meaningful for some of us. The coming and ensuing loss of Jesus, and the hope for his return, can be taken as a pattern for the way an individual’s sense of God’s presence can come and go.

While it seems that some mystics claim they never again felt distant from God after realizing mystical union, others acknowledge that they have found themselves passing through periods of greater or lesser awareness of that union, and sometimes painfully so. Furthermore, one of the most frustrating things about this pattern is that there is nothing that can be done about it. No amount of prayer or other spiritual disciplines provides a magical formula that restores the greatest awareness of God’s presence.  Consider the parallel meaning of these words from Jesus:

At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There He is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. So if anyone tells you, ‘There He is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here He is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. (Matthew 24:23-26)

This limitation on our power to realize unity with God should be no surprise; the finite mind of the human soul simply cannot fully comprehend the Infinite, let alone command it.  We may be able to raise ourselves up into higher consciousness in some ways, or remember different forms of God’s presence, but the ultimate fulfillment of our hopes is simply out of our control.  In this context, let’s reflect on the relevance of Jesus’s teaching about the coming of the Son of Man, taking it as a metaphor about the coming of a complete realization of mystical union:

No one knows about that day or hour. Not even the angels in heaven know. The Son does not know. Only the Father knows. … So keep watch. You do not know on what day your Lord will come. You must understand something. Suppose the owner of the house knew what time of night the robber was coming. Then he would have kept watch. He would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him. (Matthew 24:36 & 42-44)

Isn’t it striking that Jesus himself said not even the Son knows when the coming will occur!?  These words are spoken by the man we traditionally revere as the Incarnate Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, whom the Apostle John records more than once saying that he is one with God! And yet Jesus also felt moments of distance from God, as evidenced by his own words on the cross, his agony in Gethsemane, and his temptations in the desert.

So the mystic simply keeps watch.  We make ourselves ready with the prayer of stillness and silence. We tend our house by loving God, our neighbors, and ourselves, remembering that God is love.  We try not to deny our feelings when God seems distant, and we avoid masking them with the vanity and arrogance of false spiritual powers.  We may suffer, but we do so with faith, hope, and generiosity of spirit. We allow that very suffering to transform us into greater vessels of compassion and kindness, greater instruments of God’s grace, and thus more fully realize our union with God.

To close, I offer one of my poems that addresses the waxing and waning of mystical awarness:

A Rose Needs to Bloom

O Beloved One,
how often I wish You were here with me,
always here in the flesh to receive
the misty gaze of adoration from these eyes,
the trembling touch of affection from these hands,
the husky whispers of appreciation from these lips.
Oh that I might see Your acceptance
of such spontaneous offerings
in the joyful sparkle of Your eyes,
hear it in the soothing tones of Your voice,
feel it in the welcoming warmth of Your embrace.

But You are the oracle of my soul,
my Cherished One,
knowing my heart and mind
from within their deepest depths.
So I would be a fool not to know
that the need to have this love expressed
is not Your need but my own.
I need it as surely as a rose needs to bloom
simply because it is a rose.

In this pining I believe I feel
something of the bittersweet pain
of Lazarus or the Magdalene,
reborn, renewed, bursting with gratitude,
and then losing You so soon,
always in hopeful longing
to be near You once more.
Yet You remind me that Your spirit
is ever near, both within and without.

O my sun and rain,
my fertile earth and restful night,
You feed this rose to bloom
and be seen by You through the eyes,
and felt with the skin
and in the heart
of everyone I meet.

rose_heart_cross

Maranatha
 

Agape

Apr 142014
 

During Holy Week, it isn’t uncommon for Christians to take time in reading, meditation, prayer, or dialogue to reflect on the themes of the coming Easter celebration.  For most Christians, Easter is a time to celebrate the physical resurrection of Jesus as proof of God’s love for humanity.  We often speak of everything that led up to it — all the betrayal, physical suffering, and emotional anguish suffered by Jesus — as if those things are just necessary plot elements in an elaborate melodrama written by God.  It’s as if they merely point to that one moment when the laws of nature seem to be overruled so that Jesus can rise from the dead, all with the single purpose of bolstering our hope that we don’t have to fear death.

Excuse me, please, but I find this perspective on Holy Week to be a little vain.  To me, it is heavily interwoven with our desires to hold onto our own self-concepts, to avoid the reality that all things must pass, and thus try to maintain the many illusions that we create for own comfort.  In other words, we can too easily focus on the Resurrection because what we really want from God is a promise of a glorious immortality.   We hope to be delivered into some idealized state of perfection in which we will never have to experience radical change again, and then we can spend all eternity feeling completely satisfied with ourselves.

So, let’s consider an alternative to this way of thinking about the Passion of Jesus.  Let’s deeply consider two moments that many of us find powerfully compelling and hard to reconcile with the notion that the Passion is merely prelude to the Resurrection.  The first is the time Jesus spent in Gethsemane, so desperately fearful about what was ahead of him that Luke says an angel came to give him courage!  Even after the angel appeared, Jesus was still so distraught that he was sweating blood as he prayed.  Does this sound like the behavior of someone who knew it was all going to conclude in a glorious supernatural event?!  Even the miracle of an angelic appearance didn’t snap Jesus out of his horrible dread.  The second moment of this nature is when he was crying out on the cross, feeling abandoned by God.  Once again, we should stop to seriously and prayerfully reflect upon whether or not this is something that would be said by a human being so thoroughly united with God that he knew all things.  No, Jesus obviously doesn’t have complete confidence that he will be resurrected to a life after death the way it is later portrayed by some of the gospel writers.  These moments show us that Jesus was far more like us than many of us want to believe.  He was a human being confronting the facts of his suffering and death, and he was miserable and afraid because of it.

Of what benefit is this view of the Passion?  The short answer is that the story of Jesus is thus an even more meaningful example to us of acceptance, faith, and love.  It wasn’t foreknowledge of his resurrection that carried Jesus through his ordeal, but rather it was his commitment to what he felt in his heart was worthy of sacrificing everything, including his own existence.  What was it that was so worthy of such sacrifice (literally meaning “to make sacred”)?  This is a question we will revisit.

It may well be that the author of the earliest gospel, Mark, recognized that this story of willing self-sacrifice was not only an important part of the story, but that it was the most important.  After all, the original version of Mark ends with 16:1-8, and thus all we have is an empty tomb, a young man only claiming that Jesus will appear again, and the three women running away in fear.  We are left with a lot of unanswered questions, and Mark therefore evokes both our instinctive fear of the unknown as well as our equally deep-rooted hope.  How fitting this is!  And it is especially fitting for those of us who, like the three women, don’t have the benefit of actually seeing Jesus risen in the flesh.

This is where we can return to that question about self-sacrifice.   For you, what is worth the sacrifice of everything, even your own life, with no promise at all that there would be anything but oblivion afterward?  Surely there are many answers people might offer, but consider for a moment the possibility that they all come down to love in some form — love of family, of friends, of country, of humanity, of freedom, of truth, or, perhaps ultimately, of love itself.

Let’s follow that question with these:  How am I willing and unwilling to make such sacrifices?  How am I avoiding or entering into the darkest unknowns love points toward?  More specifically, how am I letting go of my treasured notions about myself in order to be more completely and wholly devoted to love?  How am I putting a narrow love of self above a more expansive and inclusive love?

If you’re like me, you encounter lots of different “voices” in yourself when you turn within to meditate and pray with such questions.  One voice is critical, judgmental, and unforgiving.  Another voice is accepting, comforting, and encouraging.  Another is defensive, fragile, and desperate. Still another is disinterested, apathetic, and indifferent.  Yet another is tempting, seductive, and self-indulgent.  And there may be others.  From what I can tell, this is all very ordinarily human, and we are all challenged to deal with a complex reality of mixed and muddied attitudes, motives, and intentions.  Penetrating just a little behind these veils reveals that we are mysteries to ourselves, and thus brings into question our pretense of certainty and deep conviction about many things, not the least being our religious beliefs.  Just this little bit of honest self-awareness can be terribly uncomfortable, at least at first, and so it can be seen as a significant step in taking up the cross of Jesus and beginning the work of sacrificing our illusions.

Embracing the mysteries of life, both those within and without, leads back to the very questions that have driven many of us into religion, even if we weren’t fully aware of them.  This can be frightening because it forces us into some degree of confrontation with the truth that we don’t really know everything that we want to know, or even think we should know.  It forces us to, in some way, admit that we have uncertainties and doubts about many things that we would rather be able to take for granted.  In fact, many of us have been raised with religious admonitions that such uncertainties and doubts are unacceptable, even evil.  But Jesus himself experienced them!  Unless we are willing to say part of Jesus was unacceptable and evil, then we have to rethink the notion that uncertainties and doubts have no place in our faith.

Logically, faith cannot exist without uncertainty and doubt.  Where there is complete and undeniable certainty, there is no room left for faith.  Faith is therefore not the opposite of doubt, not the cessation of uncertainty, but rather it is an ongoing response to doubt and uncertainty.   Yet faith isn’t merely the choice of one possible answer among many, but is instead a deep conviction about and commitment to something that we feel in our hearts is worthy of our devotion even in the face of the most threatening uncertainties, like those suffered by Jesus, and worse.  The aim of penetrating into our doubts and uncertainties is therefore not to abandon faith, but to refine it, making it increasingly focused upon the one thing that is most worthy of devotion.

Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings and of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal.  Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all.  Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Now we see only a dim likeness of things. It is as if we were seeing them in a mirror. But someday we will see clearly. We will see face to face. What I know now is not complete. But someday I will know completely, just as God knows me completely.  The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love.  1 Corinthians 13:12-13

Despite what many preachers would have us believe, we don’t need to be obsessed with the promise of resurrection in order to live our faith well.  In actuality, if our faith is like that of Jesus, we love more freely simply because how we express love right here and right now is what matters most to us.  This isn’t a path of works alone, doing good things because that’s what is expected of us.  It is a path in which unconditional love increasingly becomes the driving force of our lives, shaping our faith, hopes, and our works in its own way.

O Mysterious One we know as Love Itself, help us in every moment to willingly give all for love, to make every moment sacred with love, to greet our doubts and uncertainties with faith in love, to seek the changes love begets as the continual rebirth we most desire. Amen.

Agape

Apr 062011
 

In part 2, we considered the possibility that Satan – the voice of selfishness and the temptation to take the east way out – led Jesus to confront his own sense of existential emptiness and spiritual hunger.  In doing so, it was suggested that Jesus experienced compassion for all others who suffer not only with physical hunger but with these deeper issues, and that he also realized such challenges are not best answered through temporary acquisitions the way physical hunger is by physical food. To attempt satisfying our spiritual needs in such ways would be to put economic power above faith.   It was further suggested that Jesus realized our emptiness and spiritual hunger are not wrongs to be righted, not lackings to be eliminated, but are instead natural symptoms of our freedom and the will to live it.  There is liberation in welcoming and embracing them.

For the second and third temptations, I will offer an expanded hypothetical dialogue between Jesus and Satan.

The Second Temptation

The Adversary’s next pitch, this time for political power, amounts to something like this:

Okay, Jesus, you’ve realized your freedom and your will to do something meaningful with it.  You care deeply about all of humanity, and you realize economic power isn’t the ultimate answer.  After all, a full belly doesn’t solve all the world’s problems, does it?  So think about this:  You could fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah and rule all the nations of this world, and in doing so you could command things to be whatever you wish.  You could end all wars, stop oppression of the weak and the righteous, put an end to hunger for everyone, and make the world a utopia.  Just imagine!  The New Jerusalem!  Heaven on earth!  Now that’s something the Son of God should do, right?

This proposition has got to sound pretty good to Jesus, and we can imagine it would be an even bigger temptation than pursuing economic power alone.  But then Jesus hears something to this effect:

Of course, the rub is that all these ignorant human beings were created with free will, which means not everyone is going to want to get on board with your plans.  Unless you want rebels and insurgents undermining everything you do, you’re going to have to make everyone want to get on board.  And, to be blunt, the only way that’s going to happen is if you acknowledge the fact that it’s my spirit running the show down here.  I mean, Jesus, just look around!  Distrust, selfishness, temptation, manipulation, violence – these are things that really move people!  Embrace these principles and, with your powers, you’ll have the whole world eating out of your hand, and the rebels and insurgents be damned! Literally! Hahahahahaha!

Jesus doesn’t fall for it.  Tyranny isn’t the way to peace and love, and so  he responds:

It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”

Jesus has realized the wisdom that a 20th century bard would express in this way:

There is no political solution to our troubled evolution. Have no faith in constitution. There is no bloody revolution. We are spirits in the material world.  (“Spirits in the Material World”, by the Police, written by Sting)

The Third Temptation

The voice of Satan doesn’t miss a beat:

Okay, okay, so it’s a religious solution you are here to provide. I can dig it!  So come with me.

Whether in a vision or in actuality, Jesus finds himself atop the temple in Jerusalem.

Look at all those people down there, thirsty for God’s grace,  hoping and praying for miracles, and making sacrifices because they believe they have to appease a jealous, angry, vengeful Father.  And no wonder!  This living hell is a long way from the Garden of Eden, and there isn’t a soul down there who doesn’t know guilt and shame.  I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re right that no amount of money and no king is going to cure those diseases.  What people need is to actually see that God really is with them right now, loving them just as they are, and that they can welcome that love and let it live through them. But what is it going to take to wake them up, Jesus?  If preaching, prophecy and rituals were enough, then things clearly wouldn’t be in such a mess, would they?

No.  What they need is just what they are praying for – a miraculous sign that makes it obvious God is among them.  If you could pull off a great miracle like that, one that would prove beyond any doubt you are the Son of God, then surely everyone will listen to you.  They’ll know how divine you are and that you speak the truth.  All believers will recognize you as the Great Shepherd, and you’ll have the kind of power to change lives that priests and preachers only dream about or pretend to have.  You could show everyone the way to peace and harmony, and they will listen because they will have seen for themselves that you and your Father are one.

Nothing would prove who you are and open the way for the one true religion better than beating death itself!  Jump off of here and let what is written in the scriptures be fulfilled. Let the angels do their duty and catch you in front of all these witnesses!  Go on! It will be a glorious and awe-inspiring event that all of humanity will remember for all time!

Then, slowly and softly, almost in a whisper, the Accuser adds:

And, if you’re not the Son of God…? Well, then you’ll die quickly in a supreme leap of faith and be freed from all of this mess anyway.

So, what do you say?

Jesus answers:

The Scriptures also say, “You must not test the Lord your God.”

This statement may seem fairly simple, but it communicates more than may be apparent at first glance.   Let’s not forget that a temptation is not tempting if one does not feel tempted.  So how is it that Jesus feels tempted?  If, as so many in the Church believe, Jesus knows beyond any doubt he is the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, if he knows he is possessed with the most miraculous of divine powers, if he knows his path is to offer himself as the Paschal Lamb for all of humanity, then wouldn’t he know that he would survive to complete his mission?  If all of that were true, then how would throwing himself off the temple be a temptation to him and a testing of God?  This act would be tempting to Jesus because Jesus himself is very aware of his humanness and uncertain of the extent to which he is specially divine.  The voice of temptation keeps digging at him, “If you are the Son of God….”  It would be a test of God to prove, once and for all, who Jesus is, and perhaps not only to prove it to everyone else, but also to Jesus himself.    If this is not Jesus’ experience, then there would be little to no temptation or test of God in this moment atop the temple.  In the end, it seems Jesus decides to heed the laws of nature, gravity in this case, and trust God will work through him in other ways.

But what if this line of reasoning is off target and Jesus is quite certain the angels would catch him?  Why wouldn’t he add that miracle to the list of others he’s going to accomplish?  Perhaps Jesus knows such an act would only reinforce the perception that God is most with those who are born special rather than with everyone, including the poorest, the meekest, the sickest, the least of humanity.  Maybe he knows it would only make him seem more an object of worship than a teacher to emulate.  Maybe he knows that kind of confusion is already destined to become a bigger distraction from his message than he would prefer.  Perhaps he knows that even people who might witness such a miracle wouldn’t believe it, and that some of those who at first believed would in time doubt their own experience.  Maybe he knows it would very soon become another point of religious argument and division rather than one of faith and kinship.  It seems reasonable that Jesus could have foreseen all these things and, whether or not it would be a test of God, the temptation to prove God’s love through some grand miraculous event just will not send the messages he wants to send.  In the end, it seems Jesus finds the promise of religious power to also be more of a distraction than an aid to helping people welcome and live with Divine peace and love.

Mar 202011
 

The First Temptation

The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness.  Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles.  That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way?  Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace.  So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.

In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries.  In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others.  It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry.  Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves.  Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service.  Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of  spiritual peace.

None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas.  To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way.  Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions.  This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing.  The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction.  Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.

So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness.  When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy.  But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?

In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  This statement is a more complete reference to  Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah.  So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us.  Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace.  This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter.  In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.

It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”.  But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed.  It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism.  While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort.  From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them.  By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share.  The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it.  In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself.  The emptiness is realized as fullness.

We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.

Mar 152011
 

As often happens, another chain of synchronicities has brought a theme to the forefront.   The comments of friends and acquaintances, and my own recent experiences (including an Ignatian-type exercise related to the beginning of Lent) have highlighted the issue of aloneness for those who intend to follow a mystical path.  Over the coming weeks, I will address this theme in the context of Jesus’ own experiences of aloneness.

For just a few moments, imagine yourself as Jesus, being baptized in the Jordan by the charismatic preacher of repentance and righteousness, your cousin, John.  The water flows over you, and as you lift your eyes up to the sky you receive the Holy Spirit’s message that you are God’s beloved child.   In that moment you know you have a special mission to teach about rebirth to the peace of God’s infinite love, and to do so at all costs.  Somewhere deep inside you sense just how radical and threatening that mission will be to the powers of this world – political, religious, economic – and, at the base of it all, to the powers of the vices in the human psyche.  You have seen for yourself what such powers have done with people who were too radical, and what the final costs will likely be for you.

Retreating to Encounter Self

Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit would lead you directly out into the wilderness to fast, meditate, and pray about this calling?  A thoughtful and cautious person might think: “Am I really up to this?  Do I really have what it takes?  I had better take some time to double-check myself, my motives, intentions, and desires, before I try to take on that kind of responsibility.”  I believe Jesus probably had such thoughts, that he walked off into the wilderness not only knowing he would be tempted, but to actually discover and deal with his temptations, allowing God’s prosecutor to put him on trial; in essence, Jesus was putting himself on trial.

Many of us have heard sermons making it seem as though Satan’s temptations were little more than formal confirmations of Jesus’ divine wisdom and commitment to his mission as the perfect Lamb of Atonement.  It is as if there were no true temptations, just staged opportunities for a barely human Jesus to prove a rebellious Satan’s foolishness.  Well, I don’t buy it.  Unless Satan is less insightful than the average con artist, he wouldn’t waste his time offering temptations that weren’t really temptations at all.  I see Jesus’ experience as parallel to the trials God allowed Satan to inflict upon Job, which were a real test of Job’s faith in the justice, mercy and love of God, a real test of his own commitment to actually hold fast to them even when it seemed God was being anything but just, merciful and loving.  As with Job, Satan’s job is to test Jesus where he is most vulnerable and, being a different man with a different life, he is tested in different ways.

So it is that by reflecting on the temptations Jesus faced alone in the wilderness, we get a deeper look into the psyche of a real human being, one with whom we can relate and feel a real sense of kinship and togetherness.  I believe that in doing so we can find his example far more inspiring and encouraging than that of a man’s body merely being used by the Creator like a sock puppet.  In part 2, we’ll consider the first temptation from this perspective.

Jan 272011
 

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 8:58)

In light of the Logos-centered Christology reviewed in Part 1, we can revisit John 14 and hear Jesus speaking to his disciples both personally and spiritually, his voice moving back and forth between the unique humanity of their loving teacher and friend and the divine universality of the Logos, and sometimes richly speaking with double-meaning:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these….

“If you love me, keep my commands. … Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

“All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. …”

For now I’ll leave it for you, if you wish, to work out how these various statements might fit into the view we are considering.  My concerns at this point are the keynotes in Jesus’ call to know the Logos as the Way of realizing union with God.

If Jesus is telling his disciples that knowing the Logos is the Way, then he is telling them that the Way is within themselves just as it is in him.  This is not at all surprising when we recall that he has also said the Kingdom of God is within.  If we, like Phillip, want to see the Father, Jesus is telling us we must look within ourselves, behind the mask of human personality and deep into the root of our own consciousness and being, into our own “I am-ness”, and thus come to know the Logos within ourselves.  His instruction is nothing less than a prescription for mystical practice, but a contemplative opening inward isn’t all there is to it.  Jesus is quite clear that an indispensable part of the Way is following the commands of the Logos, Its compassionate inspiration, to do loving works in the world.  Actually, this must be so because to really know the Logos that was speaking through Jesus, and that also lives and speaks in you, is to know It is present in everyone.

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)

So it is that our love for others, as manifested in the works we do for others, is evidence of how much we know and love the Logos, and thus God.  The internal and the external are repaired, reintegrated, reunited by the loving grace of Logos. It’s love for us and our love for It is one and the same love flowing out and back upon Itself, as it is written in 1 John 4:7-21 (emphasis added):

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

God is love, and God’s first-born, the Logos, the rational animating principle, is love.  One does not truly know love without being loving, thus to love is to know the Logos and so realize union with God.  The practice of love is mystical practice; to be loving is the Way, the Truth and the Life, in silent contemplation of the One and caring for others and ourselves.  This union of both passive devotion and active participation is the bhakti yoga of Jesus Christ, as encapsulated in his assertion of the Great Commandments.  The degree to which we have such faith in and experience with Divine Love as the meaning of our unique yet interconnected lives is the degree to which we are anointed, “christed”, and have died to the illusion of separation from God and others.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:3-4)

Of course, this way of understanding Jesus and his message is not the only way, and there are many Christians who would not agree with it.  Let it be so.  After all, love is more than the effort to “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge”.  So, to reiterate, the purpose of these reflections has not been to attack other views, but rather to offer another possibility to those who are seeking, and to greet those who are also on this way.

Maranatha!

Jan 252011
 

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

For most Christians this quote is typically supposed, with others like John 3:16, to clarify beyond any doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, was the one and only incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, and from that point forward is the only guide we should trust to lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Such quotes have been regarded as divine declarations that Christianity is the one and only religion acceptable to God, which has in turn been wrongly considered as justification for every form of disregard, condescension, discrimination, and cruelty against non-Christians.

But is that the only way we can understand this statement? Are there other ways of understanding Jesus’ words that make theological sense and also harmonize more completely with the message that God’s love is for all (Acts 10:34-36, Romans 2:11)?

Yes, there are such ways to understand this and other passages dealing with the divinity of Jesus, and they can make a profound difference in how we live our faith and relate to other human beings.  I am about to dive into one of those views and I caution the reader that it may be challenging to your beliefs.  Please understand it is not my intention to dissuade anyone from the common view, but instead to present an option for those who are interested, and to reach out to others who see things in a similar way.

The view presently offered begins by noting that the original Greek of the first chapter of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as an incarnation of the Logos, which is usually translated into English New Testaments as “Word”.  Logos literally means “word”, “speech”, or “reason”, but long before the time of Jesus it had become a philosophical term, especially among the Platonists and Stoics, referring to the rational spiritual principle emanated directly from the One to animate material existence.  In this role, the Logos serves as God’s “only begotten son”, the cosmic architect and intermediary between heaven and earth.

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  (John 1:1-3)

The Gospel of John’s view is remarkably similar to Philo the Jew of Alexandria’s identification of the Logos as the “Angel of the Lord”, or God’s messenger as mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  Although Philo’s work was largely unacceptable to Jews of the times, early Christian theologians found much to admire in it.  Philo’s life (approx. 20 BCE to 50 CE) closely predated the Pauline Epistles (approx. 50-60 CE) and the Gospel of John (approx. 85-90 CE), and the ideas and language in these texts is at times so strikingly similar to Philo’s that some scholars have suspected more than a coincidental relationship, perhaps much more.  In any case, it remains that early Christians equated certain Jewish ideas about a messiah with Greek ideas of the Logos, and saw them embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, whom they therefore honored with the Greek title equivalent to Messiah, “Xristos”, meaning “the anointed one”.   A highly significant point in making this connection is that the Logos was considered inherently present in all creatures, which is also to say that Christ is present in all people, whether they realize it or not.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

So Christ is the Logos, the rational animating principle of Spirit that is the bridge between heaven and earth, present in every human being, even those who lived before Jesus, those who have never heard his name, and those who never consider him their savior.  The simple fact that someone exists is proof of the Logos present and active within that person.  The uniqueness of Jesus is therefore not in being an incarnation of the Logos, but in being the most celebrated exemplar of one who has fully awakened to himself as an incarnation of the Logos.

From this perspective, when Jesus speaks about being the only way to the Father, he is not speaking of himself as a historical figure with whom one must be acquainted in order to be with God; he is instead speaking on behalf of the Logos that can be recognized and embraced as God’s presence in each of us, its precious unique manifestations.  The Logos is the life in our own bodies, the spiritual Breath breathed into us by God that makes us one with God, the Inner Light of mind that makes it possible to realize the depth and fullness of “I am”.

Therefore Jesus said to them, When ye have araised man’s Son, then ye shall know, that I am, and of myself I do nothing; but as my Father taught me, I speak these things.  (This is the Wycliffe translation of John 8:28, which remains faithful to the original Greek text and does not add “Him,” “He” or anything else after “I am.”)

In Part 2 we’ll look more closely into Jesus’ message about knowing the Logos as the Way to realize union with God.

Jan 152011
 

Dedication

Today Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 82 years old. Monday is the USA’s national day of remembrance for him.  It is a great privilege to have witnessed the way Spirit worked through him to directly impact the world in which so many of us lived and matured, and into which so many more have since been born and raised.  With heartfelt gratitude to him and the One who gave him to us, I dedicate today’s post to beloved Brother King, may he rest in peace.

Click here for his speech, “A Knock at Midnight” (duration 7:24).
Click here for his last speech, “Mountaintop”, given the night before his assassination (duration 1:16).

The Humanity of Jesus

Mainstream Christian theology holds that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Even so, many of us have been schooled in a vision of Jesus where his humanity is accounted for by little more than his birth and death in a body of flesh and bone.  Yet the Gospels and other reports of his life do indeed show us something more of the human who called himself the Son of Man.  Let’s ponder the person revealed in these passages:

As a Boy

Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52)

After Baptism by John

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,  where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.  And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here.  For it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.  (Luke 4:1-13)

When Asked to Heal a Boy

On the next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. And a man from the crowd shouted, saying, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only boy, and a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams, and it throws him into a convulsion with foaming at the mouth; and only with difficulty does it leave him, mauling him as it leaves. I begged your disciples to cast it out, and they could not.”

And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” (Luke 9:37-42)

After the Miracle of Feeding Four Thousand

The Pharisees came out and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him.  Sighing deeply in his spirit, he said, “Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (Mark 8:11-12)

Responding to Being Called “Good Teacher”

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Luke 18:19)

Before Raising Lazarus from the Dead

Therefore, when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her weeping, he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.  And he said, “Where have you laid him?”

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept.

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” And some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again groaning in himself, came to the tomb. (John 11:33-38)

On the Road from the Mount of Olives

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it [because he saw that it would be destroyed.] (Luke 19:41)

In the Temple

And he found in the temple those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  And he made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and he poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables; and to those who were selling the doves he said, “Take these things away; stop making my Father’s house a place of business.” (John 2:14-16)

Foretelling the Return of the Son of Man

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

At the Last Supper

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Before His Arrest

And he was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and he knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from me; nevertheless not my will, but Yours, be done.” Then an angel appeared to him from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony, he prayed more earnestly. Then his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.  (Luke 22:41-44)

Upon the Cross

And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is, being interpreted, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

What are the Implications?

Other non-canonical texts even paint a picture of Jesus as a temperamental boy and then a man with a special love for his disciple Mary Magdalene. But leaving those aside, the canonical Gospels do more than enough to challenge the notion of a Jesus untroubled by normal human feelings, like: curiosity, frustration, humility, sadness, anger (even to the point of aggression!), fearful agony, and even despair.  The Gospels certainly do not portray a being fully conscious with the transcendent all-knowing mind of God Almighty; in fact, they make it clear that Jesus considered himself less than, and subordinate to, the One he called Abba.

Please understand that none of this is intended to be a denial of the divinity of Jesus or that he was an incarnation of the Logos or Second Person of the Trinity.  It is instead offered as an opportunity to rethink what such words and ideas mean, to meditate upon the mystery of how Jesus could be divine, the Light and Word of God, and also thoroughly human.  For many of us, these considerations naturally connect with considering our own natures, and in that context let’s review two more passages in addition to one previously listed:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:1-4)

“Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came —and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:30-38)

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

Maybe it’s enough to trust God and just sit quietly with all of this, letting Christ speak to each of us, and the Holy Spirit move each of us, as they will.