Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: biblical observations (Page 1 of 3)

Fullfill All Righteousness: a meditation on Matthew 3

Jesus changes the direction of all our religious quests. We had convinced ourselves that by our careful observation we could be righteous, but we had only just begun. We hade barely gotten to the beginning when we thought we had arrived at the end.

“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.”

John helped the people realize they could begin. Clean off the old and embrace a new beginning! You better at least try since God’s Chosen One is going to show up any minute, and his baptism will be of fire. And his baptism will not just change you; it will change the whole world. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

We still spend most of our time getting ready to begin. There’s a lot of repentance needed in this world, yes; but what we too often don’t remember is that righteousness starts only after repentance. Feeling bad that we were bad. Feeling hopeless that we could ever be good. These pass for righteousness in a world as crooked as ours. But Jesus came to fulfill all righteousness.

“Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”

I like the old language here which captures the insult to John’s sensibilities. John must suffer this reversal of roles. Jesus the one for whom he prepared the way would come to be baptized by him? Yes, suffer this cousin. Permit it to be so. Allow me to show you what my Father really means.

Jesus enters the waters of sin and makes them clean. The ritual that most would use to begin again, again; Jesus uses to fulfill ALL righteousness. After this beginning with John, he went around our world completing things, making them whole, healing broken things, making them sound, finding lost pieces, replacing them to their proper places.

Baptism is a beginning, yes, but for Jesus it was already the end. “And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”

To fulfill all righteousness was to be revealed as who he was. Repentance was more than turning away from sin, something Jesus could not do since he had no sin to turn from; for Jesus repentance was turning to the Father and his love. And so it is with the Son and so it is with us, his younger siblings.

Don’t turn only to let sin see your back; turn to let God see your face. Give yourself to God’s love. Be beloved. Fulfill all righteousness.

 

“Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?”

George MacDonald dreams about heaven a lot. It seems like a good thing to do, especially for the hopeless times. If those dreams draw you into some separating reverie and not into love of thy neighbor, stop. Don’t have a UFO theology. Don’t just wait to get beamed out of here. Here is where you are to love

“Some people are so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good.” Oliver Wendell Holmes is the originator of that quip, but I got it from my friend, Shane Claiborne. It rings too true for much of the Christians of the last century, especially. However, many of my friends in Circle of Hope, in reaction to this error, might be subject to the opposite, “Some people are so earthly minded they can’t imagine what good heaven would do.” The tension is real.

So I keep dreaming with George MacDonald, my chosen spiritual grandfather. I need more hope than I have, and my imagination can help, and George MacDonald always helps. I just want to share one of his beautiful visions from his book of sermons called The Hope of the Gospel. I can’t stop thinking of people with “perfect spheres of featureless ivory.” It freaks me out in a good way.

Did not the Lord die that we should love one another, and be one with him and the Father, and is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love? Can there be oneness without difference? harmony without distinction? Are all to have the same face? then why faces at all? If the plains of heaven are to be crowded with the same one face over and over for ever, but one moment will pass ere by monotony bliss shall have grown ghastly. Why not perfect spheres of featureless ivory rather than those multitudinous heads with one face! Or are we to start afresh with countenances all new, each beautiful, each lovable, each a revelation of the infinite father, each distinct from every other, and therefore all blending toward a full revealing—but never more the dear old precious faces, with its whole story in each, which seem, at the very thought of them, to draw our hearts out of our bosoms? Were they created only to become dear, and be destroyed? Is it in wine only that the old is better? Would such a new heaven be a thing to thank God for? Would this be a prospect on which the Son of Man would congratulate the mourner, or at which the mourner for the dead would count himself blessed? It is a shame that such a preposterous, monstrous unbelief should call for argument.

A heaven without human love in it were inhuman, and yet more undivine to desire; it ought not to be desired by any being made in the image of God. The lord of life died that his father’s children might grow perfect in love—might love their brothers and sisters as he loved them: is it to this end that they must cease to know one another?

— George MacDonald The Hope of the Gospel, Chapter 6, “Sorrow the Pledge of Joy” (Read it all here)

Wow! “Is not the knowledge of difference essential to the deepest love?” Our faces were made for knowing and loving, and it seems preposterous to George (and to me) that God would create the infinity of belovedness that resides in the collection of all human faces and not use it for the bliss of eternal love in the promises of heaven. The key insight I wanted to share was the necessity of diversity for any union to occur. This is simple logic, but it is still blowing my mind. It ignites the potential love in me for so, so many.

MacDonald is here reflecting on this famous prayer from Jesus in John 17.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. — John 17:20-23

Yep! It seems that Jesus’ greatest desire is that we be united, and how can that union express the union of the Father and the Son with there being some diversity to unite? Joining — making one — bringing together — this is the primary metaphor of love that Jesus chooses, and, as such, I think it reveals the primary reality of love, and of the whole universe.

I need this image of our infinite opportunity for union from heaven to fuel my often ceasing resolution to bridge the divides in my life. To cope with the grating power that our differences create, despite our stated intentions to thwart them. They cannot be erased, and if they were, we might as well not have faces, not have love, not have eternity. And yet, because eternity is, indeed, ours, we will forever have faces.

 

How to Read the Most Brutal Parts of the Old Testament

Getting to Know the Bible (Part 10)

I really like the Bible. I am passionate about helping others get into it, too. It’s pretty intimidating to get started so we created an introduction course called Getting to Know the Bible. It’s 10 sessions given every year to whoever is interested. It is one of our Gifts for Growing.

Last week, I hosted 12 people for a session of dialogue and teaching on the Old Testament Histories. That’s Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 &2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 &2 Chronicles. That’s a big chunk of the Bible , so, of course, this was not an in-depth study. I offered an approach to these texts that I think is really helpful. This part of the Bible includes some of the most brutal passages in scripture. The people of God are constantly at war with their neighbors and the powerful people are often evil. How do we approach THAT?!

Longing for a Place You Have Never Been

Reading these ancient books is like traveling to a very foreign land. Your thinking and your understanding will not fit there. It will be uncomfortable. Why go at all?

One of my top destinations in the world is Aberdeenshire in Scotland. I’m sure it’s beautiful, and there is lots of Scottish history and culture to enjoy, but the main reason I want to go is because George MacDonald is from there. George MacDonald was a Victorian author who basically invented Fantasy as we know it. He was also a brilliant theologian. His wisdom and imagination has captured my heart. He consistently stirs up the most noble, good, pure and honorable in me. And so I want to go to the place he so lovingly describes in his books. Simply put, I want to experience Scotland because I love George MacDonald and he loves it. No other reason.

Likewise, Jesus is enough reason to go to these Old Testament stories. Simply put, I also want to experience the story of the people of God because I love Jesus and he loved these stories. When I read these stories, it is a pilgrimage into the territory of Jesus’ family. It is a sojourn with my ancestors because Jesus is my oldest brother. He is the first born of the New Creation. His faithfulness makes my adoption into the People of Israel possible (Romans 8). Go with Jesus, for Jesus and by Jesus’ power.

Approach them as stories and don’t leave yourself out of the narrative.

Henri Nouwen on story:

“One of the remarkable qualities of the story is that it creates space. We can dwell in a story, walk around, find our own place. The story confronts but does not oppress; the story inspires but does not manipulate. The story invites us to an encounter, a dialog, a mutual sharing.

A story that guides is a story that opens a door and offers us space in which to search and boundaries to help us find what we seek, but it does not tell us what to do or how to do it. The story brings us into touch with the vision and so guides us. Wiesel writes, ‘God made man because he loves stories.’ As long as we have stories to tell to each other there is hope. As long as we can remind each other of the lives of men and women in whom the love of God becomes manifest, there is reason to move forward to new land in which new stories are hidden. ” — Henri Nouwen – The Living Reminder page 28

Unfortunately, much of 20th century biblical scholarship, especially what has made it into popular conversation, has been entirely too oppressive and manipulative. I don’t know why much of the church did this, but they boiled the Bible down to principles and simple morality plays designed to do exactly the opposite of what Nouwen describes as the quality of Story.

I’m guessing one of the big motivators was “Getting it Right.” As science began to tell a different story about the beginnings of humanity and the universe, battle lines were drawn. The Church got distracted by defending God’s honor, and then they ended up defending the heinous acts of the characters in these stories as if they were completely true in every regard.  They were completely true in their historicity, in their claims about God’s endorsement of human actions, and in their revelation of what is acceptable for individuals and nations. This approach lent itself to abuse of power and endorsement of violence which was contrary to the revelation of Jesus.

When we approach these books as story we can get out from under the manipulation and oppression and apply them to the realities we live in now. We see our politicians in the mistakes and triumphs of the kings of Israel. We see our family systems in the wounding nature present in all those lines of succession. We see wisdom and foolishness, success and failure, faithfulness and idolatry; and it all ought to seem so very familiar — in our personal lives and in our common life as communities, cities, states and nations.

“America [noun] is always going to America [verb]” – Hank Johnson

My fellow Brethren in Christ Pastor, Hank Johnson, recently said this to me and a group of Christian leaders from around the world.  I think we best see ourselves in these stories. Humans will also keep on humaning, unless, that is, the Human One, Jesus, gets ahold of us and makes New Creation. And, dear friends, that is exactly what he is doing. So we look for signs of life and love and wisdom in the darkness of our life with God — from the beginning all the way through to now.

Keep at It

So, plese, read the Bible. It won’t always be great. It will almost always be difficult in some way, especially this part of it. Sometimes when you are reading the Bible, heaven gets ripped open and you have some great epiphany, but most of the time it’s a slow and steady process. Doing it every day, or as often as you can, is key. The repetition of time spent with Jesus and maybe with his extended family, the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, slowly chips away at your heart.,

And God is not taking a pick axe to your heart. It’s more like a sherbert spoon — delicate and gentle because God is being careful with you. God’s going to dig every time you show up to the Bible, but it will take a lot longer for God to get to your core to gently transform you there where you are tender if you only show up for your digging once a week on Sundays or less.

It’s Great to Do This in Community

The fact that anyone wanted to have this dialogue with me at all was inspiring. One person came because she is reading the Bible cover to cover for the first time since they were in fourth grade. They were amazed at how much easier it is to read because of the hundreds of books she has read in the intervening couple decades. Another person shared a book recommendation: Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood, a history of how the nation state has used religion to consolidate power. Their super summary: “Her main point is that it is not all religion’s fault.” I added it to my book list — sounds fascinating. A third person came because their cell decided to come together and they were just along for the ride. lots of reasons to engage.

Further Resources

In Circle of Hope, we think that Bible reading is best done in community so we have a lot of homegrown resources on our wayofjesus.circleofhope.net site which is chock full of resources for spiritual journeying

 

What would Paul say to the Church in the Philadelphia Region Today?

At the Getting to Know the Bible event on July 14th, twenty-five of us gathered to have a group project about understanding Paul as he is described in Acts and how he represents himself in his many letters. It was a 90 minute session so it was obviously just scraping the surface. The best part , arguably, was at the very end when we tried to adopt Paul’s voice in writing a letter to the church in the Philadelphia region (of which Circle of Hope is only a part).  Paul often writes his letter to address a problem. The problem that my co-presenter, Scott Shannon,  and I settled on was how Black Lives Matter is a point of division. People started throwing out phrases and ideas on the Zoom call and in the chat, and I took those notes as inspiration to write the following letter. These ideas are mine as inspired by the group and Paul, as he (and I)  are inspired by the Spirit, though I hope those gathered read it and offer me feedback so this can evolve.

To the Philadelphians and their region

We, Paul and his time-separated friends who gathered at the Getting to Know the Bible Zoom Call on July 14th, 2020, send you greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave the city at the center of your region the reason to be and the power to live truly as a city of brotherly love and sisterly affection. We, who are in Christ, and thus New creations in him, send you all of our love without reservation for we know that God’s love is an infinite spring and our ability to love does not end when we reach the limits of our personal depths.

We are thankful for you, Church in the Philadelphia Region, for the way you dedicate yourselves to compassion, loving your neighbors practically in many ways and making a wide space of welcome for hope to grow and the Way of Jesus to be walked by many. You never give up scouting for opportunities for goodness. You see it everywhere and find ways to participate in the movements that aim to make your region and the world a place that looks more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus inaugurated this Kingdom, it has begun; and yet we are still only seeing it dimly — in soft focus through fog or in sharp bursts of clarity that never last very long — but we know it is there and we persevere in our hope that yes, one day soon, the Lord will return to bring all of our broken tries into their fullness, and bring all of the lies to destruction completely. On that day, when we see him face to face as he is, we shall be like him even as now we are becoming when we love and obey him.

Be careful not to lose your namesake of Philadelphia, for it is possible. Brotherly love and sisterly affection takes practice and is easily lost entirely. The lies of the evil one have taken root in your region and I see they are encroaching on you too. Are you too blinded? Have the lies already committed you to their cause? Have you bent the knee to a different story letting yourselves be tangled? Hack away, brothers and sisters, for you must not lose sight of what you have seen and who God has shown you to be in the reflection of Jesus’ eyes. Have you lost sight of those loving eyes. Have you lost your way along his Way?

I don’t care what you call it but you must live like Black Lives Matter. If you can’t find Jesus in this mess you will find him with those who are mourning comforting them with his presence. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with the least among you as he always said. If you can’t find Jesus you will find him with all those crying for justice for the oppressed for Jesus, for did not the Lord himself say that he came to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, to restore the sight of the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? You are not blind, so I am telling you, “See!”

See the way you value your money and property above the human lives of the poor. Yes, even you who are in the streets at the rally’s, the weeds of the world need your constant vigilance otherwise you will be choked like the Lord’s sower’s seed. Do not be haughty or think you are safe. Only Jesus makes you safe, keep your eyes on him and ask him daily for protection. See the way black and brown people are treated in your society and refuse to be satisfied until this has changed. Do not give up hope! Keep fighting the good fight. But do not fight each other, you need everyone you can get to actually make a dent in the evil of racism that has so ensnared you. See how you are divided? This will not do. You must bear with one another in love even as you continue to take down strongholds of the evil one’s power. This will not be easy but it is not either/or. We must do both.

White people, yield your privilege so you can learn to be subject to one another? White men in particular, as much as possible resolve to be silent in church and talk with your spouses and friends at home. Too long has the conversation been dominated by convenient correspondence with these strongholds of the evil one’s power. Too long has racism been able to take hold of your conversations even when the speakers were unaware of their submission. 

Listen to the people of color in the body; there are many in your region. Your commitment to togetherness will require you to listen longer than you ever have before. But be not afraid, the Lord will help you. The body is strong enough in the Holy Spirit to withstand this transformation. Persevere in your listening that you might see new things.

Now may the God of hope give everyone of you courage to go beyond your current vision. All of you will learn new things, of this I am sure. Walk by the faith planted firmly in you and watered by everlasting streams. Hold onto the vision of the future Jesus has promised and live from that until he comes again. And once the pandemic is safely behind you, begin again to greet one another with a holy kiss.

Peace,

Ben for Paul and maybe those on the call on Tuesday night

For more Gifts for Growing Events like this one visit wayofjesus.circleofhope.net/giftsforgrowing

How do Yoga and Christianity Intersect?

Talking about Yoga with Some Christian Yogis (#kamikazeyogi)

I’ve been looking for someone like the Reverend Kevin Flynn, an Anglican priest from Canada who practices yoga and writes about it. Yoga is a major part of the life of many people I love, and many people in the region to which God has sent me. I need help developing the theology of the intersection between Yoga and Christianity. I have tried yoga some, especially through the influence of my friend Anita Grace Brown. For Lent one year I listened most mornings to her podcast It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere in which she offers guided meditations with body movement suggestions. I liked the physical submission of doing what I was told in my earbuds and the variation of prayer, which was both distinct and similar to my usual practice of stillness and contemplation. It was a great way to focus.

Not surprisingly, Anita and I talk about this intersection all of the time. This week, she shared this post with me from Flynn, World religions: Christian Approaches and Reflections on his website christianspracticingyoga.com.  Anita is writing a book about her experience with Jesus and yoga called Kamikaze Yogi. I can’t wait to read it. It seems like she and Flynn are on the same wavelength, so I appreciate premeditating with this post.

How Inclusive is Jesus? (and How Exclusive are we?)

Flynn wants Christian to consider their posture toward other religions. He offers some common perspectives to help us identify. Anita and I are essentially always dancing around the divide between what Flynn calls the “Exclusivist View” and the “Inclusivist View.” Personally, for right now, I think I am closer to Flynn’s more generous subset of the “exclusivist” view, but I share his generosity and posture, or try to, toward other holy people.
This is Flynn’s paragraph that gets close to my perspective:

“A variant of [the exclusivist] view sees value in the human search for God but holds that God’s self-revelation in Christ fulfils and perfects these aspirations. This approach often speaks of non-Christian religions as “natural religions” and Christianity as “revealed religion.” While this variant ascribes real value to the natural religions, Christianity remains nevertheless inherently superior.” — Reverend Kevin Flynn

The language of superior or inferior is not quite right. I would say salvific or not salvific. The aim of Jesus is not well-being or holy living of his followers, though they are by-products of relationship with him. I don’t know how God will judge on the last day, so I don’t have to make any conclusions. In fact, Jesus tells me not to (Matthew 7:1-6); but I do know what Jesus said about himself and the great lengths that he went to in order to center himself as the means of salvation for all people. He seems to frustrate other paths intentionally, especially those which try to center religious practice. In the Gospels he seems like he really wants people to connect with him for who he is, not for what he offers. He wants a love connection, not a subscription to a system.

I want people to experience that connection with Jesus and I think anyone can through an explicit relationship with the real, living person Jesus is. He may be up to other things he didn’t talk about in scripture but these other ways are speculative. I’m a Bible guy, so I offer what I have been given without much sense of responsibility to codify things happening beyond that. Though I am intrigued and interested in the actual yogis I know, especially my friend, Anita, but also her friends and the others folks I’m always meeting. There are A TON of people interested in yoga, so I am interested too.

Following Paul in Athens (Acts 17 is the G.O.A.T.)

When it comes relating to World Religions I think a “yes, and” posture is the best. Like Paul in the Areopagus in Athens.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

I would liken the technique of yoga to the gold or silver or stone in Paul’s speech, but not in a dismissive way (I don’t think Paul is being dismissive either). I see yoga as an amazing means for personal well-being made by human design and skill. At its best it brings people very near to an understanding of themselves as people who are in God — living and moving and having their beings. But the means of salvation which is Paul’s proclamation, and, according to Paul, God’s command, is that we need to repent — turn around. I think among the plurality of yogis I know, this repentance is turning from trusting the technique that they can control to trusting the living God that gives them the breath that leads their focused movement. Unfortunately, yoga in the United States is more often than not a commodity to be sold. The product is self-control, which when submitted to the Body of Christ as a gift from the Holy Spirit is incredibly fruitful, but when wielded for purely personal well-being it ends up being another source of misery.  It’s even worse when it is as a means of wealth generation alone. The maintenance of the tyranny of self that separates so many from God can be found as ubiquitously as the God who is “not far from any one of us.”

Thank God for Christian Yogis like Anita (and Kevin Flynn)

That’s why I’m so glad Anita is doing what she does. Yoga needs Jesus. But yes, the church also needs yoga, because the Western Church has been so dominated by Enlightenment rationality that many are divorced from their bodies completely and miss out on the wholeness of human experience that yoga undeniably affords many who practice it. Anita always says, “It’s East meets West.” God is doing a new thing. What Paul did in Athens was shocking then, so we must listen now to the Spirit and move with where God is moving next. Because God is not done calling all nations to himself, and humanity is still reaching out and finding him in surprising ways.

It’s ok to say the Bible is unbelievable

At my weekly Bible Study in the cafeteria of Rowan College of South Jersey, a community college near me, we are studying the Gospel of John.  This week we were reading about when Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fishes. (John 6) It’s a pretty incredible story. And by “incredible” I mean it is not credible –“Credible” as in “credo” — as in “I believe.” This miracle and all of the miracles the gospels record are unbelievable. They cannot be believed, And yet I believe them to be true.

The college students who had gathered around the pepperoni pizza were wondering what to do with this. I agreed that these miracles are indeed unbelievable and yet I still believe them. I asked them what they think. Am I an idiot? Am I just comfortable with being that inconsistent? Am I just okay with the Bible being laughable and weird? 

1) Am I just an idiot?

Well yes, but for other reasons. However, I am comfortable with not knowing all the answers. The word miracle originally had more to do with wonder and mystery than the inexplicable. Around the end of the 19th century Christians by-and-large conceded to an understanding of the world in a dualism of natural and supernatural — explicable and inexplicable. What scientists could describe by means of cause-and-effect was deemed natural; and what they could not was still available for interpretation as miraculous but that space would one day be reduced to nothing. Everything would be explained. The word “belief’ got split on either side of the duality. Scientists believed in theories.  Religious people believed in their God, too. Uh-oh! I think the scientific side became the concensus meaning without too much debate.  So now religious people like me believe as a scientist does, we’re just idiots.

So now, one hundred or so years later, when we ask “Do you believe that Jesus fed five thousand people plus with just five loaves and two fishes?” what does that question mean? The tendency in our group at the Bible Study seemed to lean in two directions.  1) I guess I believe it but I kind of feel like an idiot if I do;  and 2) It’s unbelievable but I suppose if you could explain to me how, I guess I could believe it.

But when I say “I believe it” I confess I mean something not much different than “I have decided to live as if it is true” or even “I want it to be true.” According to the rules of belief largely accepted today, I guess that makes me an idiot. But my heart has something to say to my head. I don’t accept the split in the first place. I believe the miracles because I believe in Jesus. I believe him. I trust him. And if he is a him to trust — if he is a living person with whom I relate — then yeah, I believe what they say about him. I believe he fed five thousand people plus with five loaves and two fishes.

2) Am I just comfortable with being inconsistent?

Well yes, but for other reasons. I don’t have to know everything in an intellectual way for it to be true. I believe Jesus in the present tense because I have experienced Jesus in the present tense.  My heart and soul seem to speak to me. Jesus grabs me by my love and pulls me along. I don’t have it all figured out but it seems that when I say yes to where he is leading me I find enough confirmation along the way.

Can I prove it to you? No. But if you come along, I think you might get what I’m saying. That’s all I’ve got. I can’t prove it to you before you come. There are some parts of the unbelievability that I can clear out of the way for you, but believing is believing, not seeing.

3) Am I just okay with the Bible being laughable and weird?

Well yes, but for different reasons. It’s laughable because it makes me laugh for joy sometimes not because I fear being laughed at for believing it. When I make a connection I hadn’t before, or I learn something new and exciting, or when I’m doing the Bible (and this is the best and most common for me) I laugh for the life I’ve been given and the gifts God delights in me finding. And sometimes I laugh because, yes, the Bible is very weird. This is part of its appeal for me, though. Something in me longs for a different world than the one in which we live. Something in me dreams of a fuller version of myself living in that world. I want both of those things very badly. Of course, they are weird because they are not yet real the way I want them to be. Whenever I get a glimpse or take a step toward that future it does feel strange. The Bible was very weird to those who wrote it because they were recording those sorts of faltering steps. They were stepping into new territory in almost every verse. Ever thought about it that way? It’s so old it’s kind of a head trip to try. But try it!

I’m glad to have found a group of students who want to try it at Rowan College of South Jersey and I’m looking for more.

Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

Many people turn to the Bible when they don’t know where else to turn. Even my friends who haven’t been to a church meeting in years, or maybe ever, often revere the power of this holy book. That’s one benefit of living in a culturally Christian country. The Bible is everywhere, and that’s not such a bad thing. I think God has done amazing things with the Bible. It’s incredible. I love it, and I would love it if all my friends loved it too. If you’re feeling down, depressed, anxious, grieved, hopeless or tired, the Bible is a great tool. But how do you use it? How does God use it? How can you find some comfort or relief in the Bible?

What are these words going to do?

It’s a tool. It’s not just the words that change you it’s what we (us and God) do with them. If you google the title of this post you will get 100’s of sites with lists like this one. I think that’s a pretty great place to start. But it’s not like just reading through 100 verses will make me feel any better. It might actually make me feel even more discouraged. I might be like “Yeah, I know that this is how it’s supposed to be. But it does not feel like that right now!” And what if it hasn’t felt like that for a long time? What if you have never read the Bible? How are these words supposed to mean anything?

We can’t just cram our head with new thoughts and expect the old ones to fade out. There’s no such thing as “believing enough.” When the darkness of our lives seems to crowd out the light we used to love, words alone are weak. It has been easier for me to do something with the Bible. I need to get it into me as a way to relate to God. I don’t need the Bible. I need God. One way God has used  the Bible to good end with me (and many others) is with a meditative prayer.

Bible mantras

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

I suggest taking just a little bite. Whether you are new to this or coming back for forty-thirds, one way to read the Bible is to breathe it. Sure, start at “100 Bible Verses About When You Feel Down and Out” on google. Or some paper Bibles have suggestions like that in the back. A lot of different passages can work, follow whatever you’re drawn to. If it strikes you it might be the right word for you. All that really matters is that it resonates with you.  Maybe whatever you remember from when you were a kid. John 3:16? “For God so loved the world” ? The Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father in Heaven”?

Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.” When I’m feeling down I need something that does not require me just to change my mind. A Bible mantra is something I can just do. When I’m not in such a tough spot, I keep at the mantra, building a foundation to stand on for when the darkness returns. There’s a recording at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net I made that might help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

You’re life is bigger than the Bible

It might seem counter intuitive that taking just a little bite of the Bible actually makes it bigger, but it does. And if you’re like many of the people I know, the Bible needs to be bigger for you. Not like more important but bigger, more expansive, more pervasive. The Bible needs to fill you up and it can’t do that if it’s just a book. It can’t even do that if it’s just better ideas than the ones you have. The Bible is usually too small.

And it’s too small because it’s just a book and you are a human being. You are in possession of a vessel that the creator of the universe chose to use to communicate infinite love to humanity. Jesus had a body a lot like yours. And Jesus’ bodily life couldn’t even fit in any book (John 21:25) let alone his resurrection life that lives to include all of humanity in it. Your bodily life is too big for a book too. It’s hard to even explain everything that happened in one dream you had to anybody else. You feel me?

The quest of the poets is to try to say one true thing about the essence of the human experience, and they’ve spent thousands of years and billions of words trying. One human life is bigger than the Bible. So the Bible needs to be brought into your life to be rightly sized. It fits you by filling you. Breathe it, live it, do it, love it. Then it will be big enough for you when you need it.

This is hard to do of course, especially when your motivation to do anything is sapped, or you’re on the edge, or you’re desperate for relief. Bring the Bible to your breath, or maybe even a song (try out our songs at Circle of Hope Audio Art). Give yourself something to do with the Bible that could be as big as you are.

Just reading, or trying to change your mind by wrestling with the cognitive dissonance doesn’t often do the trick. Try this practice and let me know how it goes. Or if you’re a regular practitioner, fill in what I missed!

 

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.

People are better than ideas

People change people, much more than ideas do. The best way to bridge divides is bringing people who are different form one another together in love. An idea is a powerful tool but it is limited, I think, to political power. Jesus was most interested in people’s allegiance to him as a person not to his ideas. He was not creating a political movement, he was creating a Jesus movement. He himself was at the center of it, and he still is.

Jesus ‘ plan was to be with us

That’s why I hate the term “biblical principles.” It is a reduction of Jesus’ personhood to ideas, and that was not his purpose in becoming a human being as far as I can tell. He wanted a relationship. He wanted us to rely on him for who we are and what we think. he wanted to renew our minds and transform our thinking. He does this as a person. He expected to be with us always, and he is.  When he was with people in a more immediate sense, walking around ancient Palestine, he was always trying to undo ideas that were too concrete. He confounded people on purpose. He refused to weigh in on the established debates. Here’s an example from Mark 12:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

And they were amazed at him

Folks have been wondering what exactly Jesus meant ever since. We are still amazed, confounded, perplexed. Jesus’ inherent answer is, “I am doing something deeper than Caesar and his Empire. I am God’s. You are mine if you are with me. And then we all belong to God.” In John 18, he says to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not of this world” and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus wanted us to know that he is it.  Jesus, himself is the solution. I believe this, but I am still wondering with Pilate, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I think that’s right where Jesus wants me to land.

This amazement points me toward another way. It leads me to reject simple answers and almost every binary. Many of the ideas we still hold dear are at least as old as the gospels, and they have always been unsatisfactory. Jesus thinks we know this, deep down, and he’s still doing everything he can to wake us up to that dissatisfaction. To his disciples in John 14 Jesus says,

“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.”

The world gives you coins with emperors’ faces on them who deliver “peace” through war, “law and order” through militarized police with not enough accountability. Our money today ironically says “In God we trust” on the back of portraits of our dead emperors. Jesus does not confront these emperors the way the world does. His peace comes through another way. He offers us himself. His resurrected body that was once killed for the kind of peace the world gives.

Jesus undoes our debates

This is a hard teaching still, because we are still afraid. For the most part, conventional wisdom teaches us that to not fear is to be a fool. Paul has something to say about that in 1 Corinthians 3 but you can follow up on that later. Jesus’ peace comes in the form of question marks behind the assumptions that have define who we are. This side or that side. Up or down. Left or right. Safe or in danger. Jesus undoes our debates and asks better questions. Our worldly identities are only as real as the world makes them. Let us let Jesus define us. Let us attempt to answer his questions which will most likely end in amazement. And in our confusion — in our “I don’t know” — in the wonderful wake of another Jesus zinger, let us be content to be next to him. This will change us.

His answers didn’t satisfy many of the established sides of his day. He is the solution, himself, and that looks different for different people in different contexts. We bring that wonder and that expectation of fresh answers to our own time and place, to each of our relationships. the goal is being next to Jesus together. The truth is a person who is available here and now. Paul kept going with this single minded flexibility throughout his evangelical efforts. He would literally say one thing to one group and another thing to another group (This post on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net gets at how we imagine following his footsteps as we do theology in our context). Paul wanted people to get next to Jesus and then see what happens. The presumption is that Holy Spirit is actually alive and active convincing people. Jesus is present and he will make more of a difference if we let him than we often give him credit for.

Let’s be together next to Jesus and see what he does next

So our goal is to keep people together, especially people who are different form one another. Teaching dialogue and speaking the truth in love is the work we must do. You actually have to love the person you disagree with. You have to have a strategy for their transformation, not winning the argument. I am still learning to do this in every situation, but I have already seen it work, so I persist.

The folks who are stuck in a talking point, stirred up to follow their worst instincts by a corporate media machine need to prejudice their togetherness in Christ over their ideas. We die to those allegiances to follow Christ. The most practical way to do it is to love a real person. That media machine, which a friend of mine recently described as a means of demon possession, is designed solely for making money — not for truth or love or even solving the worlds problems. My hope is in creating a viable alternative to those lucrative lies. To do this I trust Jesus among us to do miracles in our relationships. I am banking on his living presence to move people where they need to go. I don’t think we will ever have worldly power over the machines (media, military, politics) but I think we already are an alternative to that power. The church is oriented around a deeper power that we can rest assured will triumph in the end. For now, we are faithful to it — to Him — and persevere even if it often seems to be failing. We lead people to claim the freedom Jesus gives us over those machine powers. It doesn’t always look like it is working. It’s like yeast or a seed — as Jesus said — unseen expansion, underground growth.

Our personal relationships are the foundation of our prophecy

I don’t think this means we ignore those machine powers. This is not a push toward individuality. Our love for neighbor compels us to speak. Those we will never know still matter to us and our voice may help. We address evil in the world with our prophecy in creative ways. We ally with movements that seem to be the best options for the poor and the oppressed. We mock the powers with subversive alternatives. We tell the war machine to stop killing in our name. But we create at least as much as we tear down. We must have a real alternative from which we speak. We must be already doing in micro what we call for in macro. I believe we have that place to stand together with Jesus. We are making an environment where it is safe to lay down the burden of being right all the time. We kindle a fire of bewilderment that opens us up to new possibilities. Our new vision gives us more imagination, offering us insight into better criticism of the powers, asking those better questions that Jesus loves. But our first work is being the alternative, making love and discipleship happen, building a foundation of intimacy with the living Lord that incites those open hearts that can see a different world and bring it closer to fruition with different questions. If we don’t share the best thing we have with those immediately around us, why would we share anything with those beyond?

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