Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: January 2019

Jesus Was Really a Stand Up Comedian

I’m not the first to articulate that stand up comedians are some of the most influential people in our culture. They perform the important function of saying what is deemed inappropriate to say. Like the court jester who might be able to speak truth to the king (I’m thinking of the fool in King Lear), stand up comedians find a way to say the most horrible things without being destroyed or destroying others (well, the best ones do). Like the poet who sees the world through different lenses, the stand up comedian sees the world as it is but unencumbered by the fatalism of any notion of things being “just how they are.” He or she brings a novelty to the mundane and often the terrible that makes us laugh. And that laughter feels good. It is a cathartic response to the steamrolling pressure of the status quo — an obstinate refusal to accept things just as they are — a glimpse into another story even if the characters and events are similar to or even exactly the same as the one we usually see. And their stories are punctuated by the glory of shared laughter, breeding a generosity and mutuality that is hardly rivaled elsewhere.

I think Jesus is a stand up comedian more than a preacher. He inspires laughter, breeds generosity and makes his stories about the things we all know, especially if we were actually his contemporaries. He is oh so topical.  His task is not evaluation. It is description. He wants to awaken us to how things are, that we might see it all from a new angle. More than how things should be or even could be, Jesus invites us to see as he sees. That’s where he starts and how it will be in the end.  ” For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13 the part that comes after the wedding part.

One of Jesus’ best bits

Here’s an example from the Sermon on the Mount “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

When Jesus is talking you might be tempted to default to your evaluation. Am I healthy or unhealthy? Light or dark? Did I do it right or wrong. Religion has corralled the conversation into moralism for too long for us to do anything else. So don’t feel bad about that if that’s where you always go like the rest of us. The alternative path is to see with Jesus what he’s seeing — to be in on the joke — so to speak. What he’s saying is so true you might just have to laugh, but it’s couched in some old stuff that might be a little confounding. let’s unpack it a little.

We project what’s on the inside

Doesn’t this make sense? The eye is the lamp of the body. We project what’s inside out onto the world. Our perspective matters in how we perceive. If you’re dark on the inside, the world is going to look dark to you. Ancient thinking about how light works actually corresponded to this. Some thought that light came out in a beam from the eyes as opposed to entering it from an outside source. We know a lot more about the physics of light now, but the old thinking adds to the validity of Jesus’ description. Healthy, generous, abundant, enoughed eyes see the world differently than unhealthy, stingy, divided, never enough eyes.

You might be tempted to hear, “Get your eyes right, okay? — Don’t have bad eyes.” But, remember, Jesus is really just making an observation. These words that get translated as “healthy” and “unhealthy” also have the connotation of “generous” and “stingy.” This sense of the word is amplified by the surrounding illustrations in Matthew 6. Just before this little reflection on eyes Jesus is observing that our heart and treasure are located in the same place. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” And just after, he is observing that “you can’t serve both God and money.” It’s a whole little section on generosity and sharing in Jesus’ biggest special (😉).

Enough isn’t always enough

The fact is, our sense of security and value so easily comes from wealth. It is very easy to go to material goods for comfort and relief because they so concretely provide comfort and relief, but if we are dependent on things we can lose our basic sense of safety and self worth. We are in a very precarious position because our basic sense of enough is dependent upon external circumstances. There’s no moral lesson here at all. If you are enoughed by money you will organize around keeping it, plain and simple. If your sense of enoughness comes from material possessions they will begin to possess you, like a master. And how we choose to see the world affects our experience of it. If our eyes are enoughed, there will be enough.

Receive the invitation to see how you work without judgment. Step around the evaluative first instinct. See with Jesus, have a laugh about it and gently make the moves you need to make the changes you know will make a difference — in your seeing and sharing.

Epiphany in Not New Words

Washed by Jan L. Richardson paintedprayerbook.com

There’s this amazing moment in the gospels when Jesus comes up out of the water after John baptizes him and heaven is torn open. The veil between this world and another world is lifted. Such a glimpse beyond the ordinary is an epiphany — a strike of lightning pulsing with inspiration, clarity or God.  From the ripped seam in the sky above Jesus in the water something like a dove descends to alight upon him. And then a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

Last week when we were celebrating Epiphany I heard another translation of this voice from heaven that struck me as its own epiphany. I caught a glimmer of that shimmering dove and heard the voice afresh in my own ears . “This is my beloved son in whom I delight.”  Not too much of a difference, really, but this new language opened a sort of lock in my heart that let the water flow to a new level. I had probably heard this translation before, but something new happened this time, so I had to write it down.

The various translation of the verb eudokeō εὐδοκέω are the operative elements of my epiphany. Is it “with him I am well pleased” or “in whom I delight”? A beautiful thing about language, and especially Greek, is that it’s both! What we say and what we communicate are two things entirely. That which we hear travels through our hearts and histories before it comes to our comprehension. That which we say can never anticipate the circuitous route between every set of ears and the mind of their owner. Layers and layers of meaning pile up in each individual, and in the collective mind of any one people group. The process of translation brings these often unconscious trails to brighter light.

Malcolm Guite
malcolmguite.wordpress.com

It was in the words of a poet whom I love, Malcolm Guite (in him I delight), that I had this great experience with an ever so slight shift in linguistic direction. Poets spend their lives searching for new paths of meaning in ordinary words and experiences. They specialize in epiphanies. And though these new words were not his nor really new, I credit his trustworthy tongue (it was his mouth in which the newness of these words were found by me).  At least a few translations of the New Testament land on delight for eudokeō (Weymouth, Darby and Young’s) and Malcolm had found them for me!

“I am well pleased” is but two steps to the left or right of “I delight”, but the difference was significant to me.  I grew up with the New International Version translation of the Bible — not for any particular reason, but for the “Thinline” NIV edition embossed with my name in gold letters that my parents gave me when I was twelve. I had read the story so many times that “in whom I am well pleased” had worked its way into my heart track. Partly thus, “pleasing” and “being pleased” are part of the ground on which I stand whenever I cast my eyes to the sky in search of seams that might shutter with heavenly light from other worlds, and words of love from any heavenly father.

There are many reasons “pleasing” and “being pleased” are elemental to my psychological make up, and I haven’t identified all of them yet, but I have definitely observed this pattern of thought and heart when I relate to God. Are you pleased with me, father? Am I pleased with what you have given me, Dad? Have I done all that is required of me? Am I satisfied with this moment? These questions often come to mind when I try to settle into God’s presence, or whenever I am prompted to consider the state of my soul (Every time we gather, following after Wesley and his Holy Club, the pastors in Circle of Hope ask each other “What is the state of your soul?”). It seems I always aim to please and I’m always hoping to please myself and for my life to please me. My mind and heart are stuck on a hook of evaluation. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? I know some of you feel me on this.

But delight! “Delight” is different than “please.” I mean, not really too much though. “Please” and “delight” both have to do with pleasure or desire, but for the twists and turns that “please” took through the English language and the tiny part my life played in the meaning of the word, “please” has acquired an air of approbation resultant from evaluation. That gets me on that same evaluative hook. Please, no.

“Delight” is more effusive — more joyous. Jesus himself delights the Father. I, myself, delight the Father. Something about Jesus and me (and you) is so beautiful and lovely that just the sight of us brings a smile to heaven’s lips. God really likes Jesus, not for what he has done (which by the way is nothing of much import at least to the gospel writers at this point in their stories save being born and maybe learning scripture), but for who he is. I’m sure “I please God” could be trying to get at the same thing, but “God delights in me” is so much better. Plus it is something God is doing, not me, which sounds right. God’s delight is not dependent on me. That frees me up to be and do my best even more than the striving for satisfaction that often drives me.

May you have an epiphany today — in a poem, a new reading of the gospel, a pile of snowflakes, a shimmering sky, a fantastic melody, a good cry, a sincere prayer, your child’s tears, a winter landscape, a soapy dish, the perfect bite, a warm bed.  Pay attention. Look again. See. Hear. Delight.

Epiphany Means Christmas Ain’t Over Yet

My Parents Invented an Alternative Ritual

When I was in first grade my parents dropped a major bomb: No gifts on Christmas! I don’t remember it being too devastating because they made the alternative so fun. Instead of getting gifts form Mom and Dad on December 25th, stacked under the Christmas Tree in a perfect morning ritual of wrapping ripping and childhood joy, we would receive gifts on January 1st, our self-styled celebration of Epiphany. The Feast of Epiphany is actually January 6th (this Sunday in 2019) but my mom says that she did not want us to go back to school, usually on January 2, without our presents. They wanted the family to do something different but they didn’t want us to be left out. I did not keep our alternativity a secret. I told all of my first grade classmates how on January 1st, my parents hid presents all over the house for us to find, each one unwrapped with a little love note from them on it. As I write this, a weird memory of a drawing my friend Josh made flashes through my mind. He had written and illustrated a story about a family of fuzzy monsters who celebrated Christmas and Epiphany like my family. I can still see the crayon drawn blue horned monster on the roof of his house finding a present from his monster parents. I guess I’ve always been an evangelist.

My parents wanted to escape the commercialism of Christmas. They wanted to avoid the unavoidable association of Jesus’ birthday and getting stuff. They did not succeed but they did jam a wedge of separation between the actual day we celebrate the incarnation of God and my often greedy little desires.

Unhitch Christmas from Getting Stuff

I’m probably painting myself and all children a little too  darkly. The ritual of Christmas morning is beautiful. We give and receive gifts to celebrate the love of God expressed to us so perfectly in Jesus. And the simple joy a child so easily expresses is something worth instigating and treasuring whenever we find ourselves in its presence.  But it’s hard for any story, even Jesus’ nativity, to outshine getting stuff. My parents’ invention of a new ritual succeeded in unhitching the demand for stuff and the potential joy the extravaganza might create from the celebration of Christmas. Gift giving is not the center of my Christmas celebration. I don’t have any sense of demand about creating a perfect memory for my kids by what I buy them. I want them to receive the story more than anything else. I’m glad my parents helped me feel this way. i think their alternative ritual had something to do with it.

I have not kept up the family tradition with my own children. My wife, Gwyneth, and I give our kids gifts on Christmas Day, but with a nod to the origins of Epiphany — three gifts for each of our sons a la the three gifts the Magi brought for Jesus.

Wait, What is Epiphany?

Friend: “What did you get for Christmas?”
First Grade Me: “Nothing, I got presents for Epiphany.”
Friend: “Wait, what is Epiphany?”

Matthew 2:9-11 “They went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

These strange characters from far away enter Jesus’ birth narrative in Matthew 2. They are led by stars and dreams and they are wealthy, so wealthy they might have been kings. Matthew calls them Magi — wise men (or wizards?). This episode is called Epiphany because it was the revelation of the Christ child to the whole world in these strange foreigners. They recognized him for who he was and worshiped him.  Epiphany comes directly from Greek ἐπιφάνεια (epipháneia). More on our Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body Blog this Sunday (or search for Epiphany there later).

Christmas Ain’t Over

The Christmas Tree in my living room is still up (On January 3rd when I’m writing this) and the lights on my house are still shining (including our very apropos star) because Christmas ain’t over yet. Even if it’s already past my family’s January 1st  Epiphany celebration, I’m holding out for January 6th to take it all down. Remember that song, “The 12 Days of Christmas”? Epiphany is the 12th Day!

I already started my New Year’s diet but the feast of Christmas is still going. Our culture spreads the celebration forward through all of December and most of November, too. We love the most wonderful time of the year so we spread it all out as much as possible. You may have heard me say a million times already, but this is mostly because the marketers and manufacturers love the most wonderful time of the year for money making, and that is the main reason for the Christmas Creep. But we also love feasting and we need a good reason to celebrate. I think we moved the celebration in the wrong direction. I’m trying to hold on to the 12 Days of Christmas as another alternative. There was too much drama in Advent leading up to this celebration for it to be over in one day.

In the Catholic church, the observation of Advent was at one point a fast. Some churches still prohibit any “alleluias” being spoken in the liturgy during the season before Christmas (I love the intensity of that drama!). Our alternative of Advent leaves us with different needs. If you really take Advent seriously you need at least 12 days of Christmas. If you spent December waiting and watching and laboring with new spiritual birth instead of “jolly-christmas-time-november-december”, you need an extended Christmas.

I’m Going For All Twelve Days of Christmas

I did “jolly-christmas-time-november-december” in a lot of ways. We can take what is good from the culture without being spoiled by it. But I also did some real spiritual laboring in Advent. I withheld some of the celebration. I leaned hard into my longing and tried not to ignore the darkness into which the light of the world was coming. I’m not the last one in my neighborhood with lights still up, but I was struck by how quickly so many of my neighbors stripped it all down on the third or fourth day of Christmas. I’m going all the way to twelve! And Epiphany is a Sunday this year so I’m looking forward to a couple more Christmas parties with Circle of Hope at our meetings.

I’m overjoyed I have an alternative community to keep living the story with. Join us if you’re close by.