* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, December 29, 2014

John 8:12-30 Being Light

After the story of the woman caught in adultery, the gospel of John narrative continues in chapter 8 with more arguments between Jesus and the Jews. The Pharisees and Jews in these sorts of passages in John almost serve as a sort of literary device. Their words offer nothing new, but they break up Jesus' words and prompt what he says next. Their interjections perhaps help with the flow of the passage, but the actual meat here is what the authors attribute to Jesus.

Recall that our basic framework for John is that the Jesus character is an example of the kind of people we can be. So, the words attributed to Jesus in John 8 are intriguing. He claims to be light for the world, to have valid testimony because he knows who he is, to be non-judgmental, and to live by a different standard that the world's standards. He also makes claims about the Father. Let's take that concept first, because the others will flow more easily from clarifying what that may mean.

Sure, when the gospel of John was written, it was in a Jewish context, which assumes the existence of an almighty supernatural. Lots of people still believe in such a god, but there are certainly other valid lenses through which one might look at the world and oneself. I would suggest that when people refer to "God," they are referring to a deep part of themselves. This may be one reason God always seems to agree with the perspective of whoever is speaking. Many people have written convincing enough arguments against the existence of God, but the idea may still be a useful metaphor for some individuals, especially those who haven't done much work to connect with a deeper part of themselves. From a Humanist perspective, we don't need to toss out the concept completely. We can interpret "Father" here as shorthand for a deepest, most noble self -- a part of ourselves that is a source for our values and guiding principles, a source for our vision of a best possible version of ourselves. 

I say a "deeper" part of ourselves not in terms of a physical location, but in terms of psyche I suppose. Most of the time, we operate out of very surface level reactions to the world around us. We don't always give a lot of thought to how our moment to moment decisions align with our guiding principles. Many of our moment to moment decisions may not even seem to have anything to do with our values or with being a best possible version of ourselves. It takes effort to think through our guiding principles and consider how best to apply them in a particular situation. Most of our thinking is pretty lazy. So, I use "deeper" part of ourselves to indicate a more intentionally thought through identity than our lazy, automatic kinds of decisions.

The Jesus character in John 8 says that he is in agreement with the Father, which we can interpret to mean that his identity is well aligned with his deepest, most noble self. He is claiming that he lives into a best possible version of himself -- that his actions and decisions are impeccably congruent with his guiding principles. This is why we might look to the narrative as a framework for how we can be as human beings. The idealized character of Jesus reflects our potential to live with the same level of integrity, the same degree of alignment to our guiding principles. 

Should we take on that potential and live more intentionally, the claims attributed to Jesus here are a part of the outcome of having greater alignment to our own values. We become light for the world, shining an example of a different way of living than people who are stuck on autopilot and never even consider a best possible version of themselves. Our testimony is consistently valid, because we learn to express what is so for us without demanding that other people agree with us. We know better where we come from and where we are going. In other words, we have an awareness of our own habits and tendencies, and we have a clear vision of who we want to be in the world. 

Perhaps most importantly, we don't need to judge anyone, because our identities are valid in and of themselves. Most of the time, judgment of other people is a reflection that we don't agree with them. They are doing things we don't approve of, and our judgment is a way of lifting up the merits of our own perspective by tearing down someone else's perspective. This is irrelevant when we live with integrity to our own guiding principles. Other people doing things differently than we would is not a threat to the value of our own vision of a best possible version of ourselves. 

Should we choose to judge someone, though, that judgment would look different. The foundation is that we live with congruence to our deepest values and we refuse to be threatened by other people's ideas and behaviors just because they're different from our own. From that space, we might still look at other people's life and recognize that they are acting on autopilot, that they are caught up in the throes of anxiety, or that they don't have a clear sense of their own guiding principles. In a way, this is a judgment against them. Some might call it awareness or even discernment. Maybe it's really just observation. 

When we use this judgment to be of service to others, it looks different from using judgment to bolster our own identities at the expense of someone else's. We might actually help people clarify their values. We could gently knock people out of autopilot mode. We can even help other people to develop a vision of a best possible version of themselves. From one perspective, we'd be using the same processes that we use to judge other people, but now we would approach that process with a clear sense of our own identity, and perhaps with a heavier dose of love and empathy thrown into the mix.

Here we go, then, with a possible interpretation of John 8:12-30.
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “The way I live shines as an obvious example to everybody. Whoever follows my example will never have to worry about fear or confusion, but will have the ability to live with clarity and integrity.” Then the Pharisees said to him, “You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.” Jesus answered, “Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I am telling you what is so for me. I know my habits and tendencies, and I have a compelling vision for my life, but you do not know my history or my future. You barely have a sense of your own habits or a vision for yourself. You judge other people in order to validate yourself; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid; for I don't need to judge others to build myself up. I operate from a guiding principle of love that stems from my deepest, most noble self.
Then they said to him, “Where is this deepest self?” Jesus answered, “You haven't really seen my actions or heard my words clearly because you look through a lens of fear. If you let down your guard and take an honest look at my life, you would know my deepest, most noble self.” He spoke these words while he was teaching in the treasury of the temple, but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come.
Again he said to them, “I'm not always going to be here, and you will search for me, but your fear will persist for the rest of your lives. You can't take the journey I'm taking.” Then the Jews said, “Is he going to kill himself? Is that what he means by saying, ‘You can't take the journey I'm taking’?” He said to them, “You are operating out of habit and anxiety, I am operating out of my guiding principles and a vision of a best possible version of myself. I told you that your fear will persist for the rest of your lives, for you will live the rest of your days with the same fearfulness unless you take responsibility for doing something differently in your life.” 
They said to him, “Who are you to tell us what to do with our lives?” Jesus said to them, “Just talking to you is frustrating! I see your anxiety and your ingrained patterns clearly, and I hate that you keep choosing to live by those things; but my deepest, most noble self is not a source of hatred. I can only tell you what I know for myself, that living from a space of love and integrity is possible. I can't live your life for you, I can only tell you that you have the potential to do something different in your own life." They did not understand that he was speaking to them about clarifying their own guiding principles. So Jesus said, “When you take a step back from your anxiety and imagine an ideal way of being, then you'll realize that I'm living out that ideal, and that I'm not trying to build myself up, but I'm communicating what makes sense to me about living intentionally with integrity to my own values. And my values and guiding principles don't leave me doubting what I've done or said. I have confidence in who I am, and you could too.” As he was saying these things, many began to follow his example.

A Little Experiment: Be nonjudgmental. You don't need to judge anybody in order to validate or bolster your own identity or perspective. Catch yourself in the act of judgment this week and stop yourself. Maybe you want to prepare a phrase like, "We see things differently, and that's alright."

Another Little Experiment: Judge. When you catch yourself being judgmental, consider what the other person may be experiencing. Are they afraid of something? Do they perhaps feel unheard or un-valued? Is there a way you can be compassionate or loving to someone who sees the world through different lenses than you? 

Monday, December 15, 2014

John 8:1-11 Stones, Shame, and Something Better

The story of a woman caught in adultery in John 8 is familiar to a lot of church-goers. Some versions of the Bible include this story without comment, but many will now mention in a footnote that these verses are not in the oldest copies of the text now available to us. Some copies of John insert the story in other places, add it appears in Luke instead in some ancient manuscripts. What this suggests is that the story was not part of the original text, most likely because it was not among the stories about Jesus that circulated in the first century. It may have been concocted by a scribe, added in from a fragment of some other collection of writings, or even invented in Christian community and inserted into the existing text. Even with the knowledge that this was not part of the original book of John, many people still appreciate this story and Bible publishers continue to include it. We might learn something from examining why this is.

Of course, the inclusion of this later tale that clearly is not well-remembered from the life of a historical Jesus might present a challenge to the authority of the Bible. Some believers profess that the Bible is infallible, and others that the book is inerrant. Does the appearance of a story that is obviously a later addition to John cast doubt on the veracity of scripture? Or does it at least call into question where all the other stories came from? If at some point scribes were willing to make an addition that was not part of what they were copying, they obviously did not define the legitimacy of the biblical text the same way many people do today. They apparently were concerned less with historical accuracy and more with some spiritual value of the stories. Is it possible that twenty-first century readers are sometimes so caught up in the superficial arguments about historical accuracy that they miss discovering a deeper value of the texts they defend?

Whether the event actually happened or not, this story conveys a powerful vision of how society ought to work -- of how human relationships could be strengthened. Lots of Christian commentators have explored the nuances of this story. They consider all of the things the woman could possibly have been doing to be legitimately convicted of adultery (anything from smiling at a soldier when she serves him wine to earning a living as a prostitute). They theorize about the fate of the man in the situation (which the story never mentions and thus is pure conjecture). Some commentators make much of the statement that the Pharisees were testing Jesus, recognizing that they seemed to care little about the actual fate of the woman or actual integrity to the "law of Moses."

Many commentators also apply the story to the lives of readers in helpful ways, centering on three basic values they find in the story. Generally speaking, the central ideas are: (1) we should not judge other people because we have our own transgressions to answer for; (2) forgiveness is more virtuous than justice; and (3) everyone has the capacity to change what they're doing and live better. These are not bad lessons for anyone, believer or non-believer. If people were less bloodthirsty and more graceful with one another, a phenomenal number of societal issues might dissipate. Of course, a lot of the commentators find it necessary to write about the character and desires of God, but that's to be expected.

This is one of those instances, then, in which a Humanist reading of a story can line up pretty closely with a believer's reading of the story. Whether the event ever actually took place is not an issue worth exploring. It's more worthwhile to consider where we find ourselves in the characters of the story and where we might shift our habits a bit in order to reflect our deepest, most noble selves a little more.

When are we the Pharisees? There are times at which we are eager to catch someone else in a logical or ethical trap. We like to "win" verbal exchanges by uttering the best zinger or tearing apart another person's perspective. From personal experience, I can say that it's hard to know exactly what I have won in those situations. It feels good to be verbally or logically superior for a minute or two, but I'm not sure that there are long-term benefits. It certainly doesn't seem to create the kind of connections with other people that I really value.

When we find that we are being critical of other people's choices, or even so judgmental that we are inclined to do harm (physical, verbal, or emotional harm), we might remember this story. We might imagine the stones that we metaphorically hold in our hands, and the ease with which we hurl those stones at the people we judge and criticize. Our imaginations might even get more graphic about the harm we would do if our harsh words were actual stones, but that may not be necessary.

We know that we don't want someone to harm us, and we know that harsh words and critical judgments can do harm. If we stop and think about it, we also probably know of a few things that other people might judge about us. We've all missed the mark at some point. We could stand to be a little more compassionate and recognize our connection with other human beings.

When are we the woman? There are times in which we feel exposed, either publicly or just to our own selves. There are times when our actions do not line up with who we want to be -- when our behavior does not match our values and our guiding principles. We may feel like curling into a fetal position and giving up, but we don't have to do that. If we know what we want our lives to stand for, we can commit to doing a better job of living into that vision.

Shame is powerful. Shame is a common limiting factor in our lives. When we believe that we are not enough, or that we are worthless, it's a real challenge to live into a vision of a best possible version of ourselves. That doesn't seem to be far off from what the woman in this story might feel. Overwhelming shame, to the extent that no future is possible. It's important for us to find people who will acknowledge our worth and our value, and it's important for us to be willing to affirm our own worth and value.

There will be people who want to tear us down. There will be resistance. That doesn't mean that we can't move forward. We are capable of doing something different in our lives. Of course, we have to recognize what we really want first. We have to know what we're living into. We need to hold a best possible version of ourselves in mind -- a vision of how we want to be in the world. Otherwise, we are more likely to keep repeating the same mistakes. It's easy to miss the mark when we don't know what the mark is.

When are we Jesus? We see in this story one character who is not swayed by the anxiety of the crowd, who is not burdened by his own sense of shame, who is clever without being insulting and loving without being permissive. Certainly, the Jesus character in this story never approves of adultery, and he doesn't disapprove of stoning people as punishment for a crime. The authors of the story are in a particular cultural context, after all. The idea is that there is more to us than that. There is more to us than cold, vicious justice. There is more to us than oppressive shame. If we are willing to see our own worth and value, it's a short step further to acknowledge the worth and dignity of everybody else.

Jesus in this story is the anti-Pharisee as well as the anti-adulteress. He lives by a set of guiding principles that reflect his own sense of purpose, not the ideals and habits of the society around him. He confidently and calmly expresses his perspective because he doesn't feel threatened by the anxiety of others. He has done enough personal work that he isn't uncertain or wavering about his own values. He accepts the authority that other people grant him, yet he doesn't feel the need to do what they want him to do with that authority.

We are like the Jesus of this story when we reach out in love to others and maintain our own integrity. This story actually demonstrates loving action toward both the woman and the crowd. Toward the woman, it's an obviously loving and empowering act to affirm her worth, to affirm her capability of doing things differently in her life, to publicly restore her sense of dignity. We can do that for others if we are willing. Toward the Pharisees, the loving act is perhaps less obvious. Yet, to give violent people pause before they have a chance to do something they'll regret is surely an expression of love. To gently call attention to a moment when actions are out of alignment with guiding principles can be loving. To demonstrate another way of being to people who are caught up in their own anxiety is loving.

So, this story points to the fact that we are all human beings who have at some point fallen short of our deepest values. It's easy for us to find ways to punish other people when they fall short. Sometimes we do this physically. Often we punish people with labels and insults. We can also punish ourselves. We're quite good at that, actually. We can be so overwhelmed with our shame and anxiety that we see no way forward. We have the capacity to do something different, though. We can love other people and ourselves better than we are in the habit of doing. Human beings are innately beautiful and creative, whatever else may be true about us. Sometimes it's just a matter of what human traits we are willing to pay the most attention to.

A Little Experiment: Be the Pharisees. This can be very revealing, but it may reveal some things that make you uncomfortable. Pay attention to your words this week. Count every harsh criticism or judgment you speak against another person. Especially include conversations that you feel like you "win." Do your words in these moments align with your values and guiding principles? Is there another way you could speak honestly with someone without inflicting harm?

Another Little Experiment: Be the adulteress. (Careful, now!) Count the number of times this week you say aloud or consciously think a criticism against yourself. Include moments that you feel shame. Are your statements about yourself really accurate? Is there some truth about your beauty, creativity, and capability that you are neglecting? If your actions aren't lining up with your guiding principles, does it help you to beat yourself up, or is there another way you can bring your actions into alignment with your values?

A Long Experiment: Be the Jesus. Seek out ways to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of the people around you. Listen to people without trying to solve their problems. Set an example of how to live into your values with integrity and intentionality. What changes do you notice in your life and in your relationships after a month? After six months? After three years?

Monday, December 8, 2014

John 7:31-52 Being Living Water

In the second half of John 7, lots of different people are discussing Jesus and prophecy. It's obvious that the authors want the Pharisees to be seen as the ignorant villains of the story itself, but there are some interesting statements that suggest the authors may have been arguing with some of their contemporaries as well.

For instance, one of the points of Jewish messianic prophecy seems focused on the birthplace of a messiah. It's clear that Jesus doesn't fit that prophetic mold, because (according to the authors of John) he wasn't born in Bethlehem. He doesn't fit the prophecies, yet the authors clearly think of him as the messiah. This is a different approach than what the authors of Matthew and Luke seem to take. (The gospel of Mark doesn't have any sort of birth story for Jesus.)

It would seem that the authors of Matthew and Luke invent a story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, including genealogies that don't even line up, just to have the tale agree with prophecy. The authors of John, however, point out that prophecy is less reliable than what people are able to witness for themselves. The people in the story of John 7 believe what they believe about Jesus because they have seen something, not because circumstances line up with predictions from long-dead forecasters.

The criticism of these believers in the story comes from the Pharisees who say that the crowds don't understand religious law, so they can't possibly know what they're talking about. Yet, the Pharisees were supposed to be among those Jewish authorities who instructed others. Any indictment about the ignorance of the students is a denunciation of the teachers. Maybe these fellows weren't really all that bright after all. Or at least, maybe the authors of John wanted them to seem stubbornly unenlightened and ineffectual. In any case, the authors of John point out that prophecies aren't always to be trusted.

Some theological debates seem to have little value. Dare we even go into the business about there not being a Spirit yet? Trinitarians assert that their god is a three-fold entity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One deity, but three somethings. Personalities? Functions? States of existence? Trinitarians don't agree, and it isn't always clear to them what they're talking about. Many Trinitarian formulas, however, assume that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all in some way eternal. Usually, the challenge is to the Son part of the equation, since they equate the Son with Jesus. Being human, Jesus had an obvious beginning, and eternal things do not have a beginning. The observation of John 7, however, seems to be about the Spirit. The Spirit apparently wasn't around at some point, and thus had a beginning, which means that the Spirit cannot be eternal. If you believe John's accounting, that is. All of this is rather pointless unless you are trying to prop up a Trinitarian belief system, which is based on a whole lot of other problematic assumptions before you even get to the bit about people being eternal. But in case it comes up in conversation, John 7:39 challenges the concept of an eternal Spirit.

I would challenge the existence of an eternal Spirit for the same reason that the gospel of John says that people believed what they believed about Jesus. We know what we know about the world by observation and rational analysis. Science continually improves our ability to observe well, but even in ancient times, there was obviously a sense that witnessing something first hand was a key to belief. The people in the gospel of John's story believe because of their own experience. Even Nicodemus, who is among the Pharisees, defends Jesus because of a personal experience.

We know what we know about the world by observation and rational analysis. This is problematic in and of itself, of course, because we don't always know what we're observing. As we mentioned last week, our brains are lazy. If there is an easy answer available, we often stop looking for more complex answers. Lights in the sky? Must be a UFO. No need to consider any other options. An infected person with a 50% survival rate gets better and goes on living? Must be a miracle. It's cold outside today? Must be global cooling. We aren't all good scientists, and even good scientists make mistakes in their observations sometimes.

In our own personal experience, we might find it easy to believe that there are supernatural forces at work. Anything that we cannot rationally explain in the first few moments we think about it seems extraordinary. We have to rely on people who have done the hard work of figuring some things out through intentional observation and rational analysis. There are actually scientists who have studied things like prayer and miracles, and the conclusions of every investigation to date that has followed strong experimental standards has been that what we experience falls within natural parameters. Some people do recover from really serious illnesses. Sometimes people do experience the things that they pray for. These experiences may seem extraordinary to the individuals experiencing it, but they are not unnatural. If an illness has a 1% recovery rate, it stands to reason that out of every hundred people who become infected, one of them will recover. To that one person, it seems miraculous, but someone has to be that one survivor out of a hundred infected, even though the physician can't tell who's in that one percent until they recover.

We all have assumptions and beliefs about how the world works. Some call our set of assumptions and beliefs a mental model. We've mentioned mental models before. One major difference between scientific predictions and prophecy is that scientists allow their mental models to be corrected, while people who adhere to prophecy expect reality to conform to their own mental models. Sometimes, scientists change their mental models very reluctantly, but a basic premise of scientific knowledge is that our beliefs have to adjust to new information. A tendency of prophecy is that, when a prediction fails to come true or seems impossible based on new information, any explanation that maintains old assumptions and beliefs is preferable to changing the mental model.

If we are not willing to change our mental models from time to time, we will be stuck in a perspective that doesn't grow. We will be stunted. We won't bring our best possible selves forward. The gospel of John is a story, but the characters in that story reveal some truths about us. When we see a truth right in front of our faces, and we choose to reject that truth in favor of our old familiar beliefs and assumptions, we are like the Pharisees in the story. When we do this, we miss opportunities to create the kind of lives and the kind of world we most want. We miss out on living into a best possible version of ourselves when we don't let reality and truth outweigh our assumptions.

In the story, though, the Jesus character reflects another possibility. "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Incidentally, this isn't a quotation from any known Old Testament scripture, so we don't know what scripture the authors are quoting here. The book of Jeremiah does refer to Yahweh as a fountain of living water, but that's about it. "Living water" refers to clean, flowing water that comes from a spring as opposed to dirty, stagnant water in a cistern. Some people take these words attributed to Jesus as self-referential, as if Jesus is referring to himself exclusively as "living water." The actual words suggest something different.

We've said that to "believe in" someone is to fully trust that person's example as the appropriate way to live. In other words, believing in a person is reflected by emulating what that person does. So, if anyone is not satisfied with a current experience of life, consider another way of engaging in life -- a way that expresses unconditional love for others while clearly defining one's own values. If your mental model isn't allowing you to live into a best possible version of yourself, try on a new mental model built on the premises that all people are worthy of love and that you are beautiful, creative, and capable. If you adopt this new way of seeing yourself, other people, and the world, the effects will flow into the lives of other people around you as well. This isn't a selfish vision, but a vision of transformation.

Old inaccurate assumptions and beliefs cannot contribute to a better world. They will only get in our way. If we want to live into a best possible version of self, we have to base our mental models on truth about ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. This also means that we have to revise our mental models as we get new information. All of this goes back to living more intentionally, considering our values and being purposeful in how we act with integrity to those values. When we do that, we are like refreshing water from a pure spring in the lives of others around us.

A Little Experiment: Assuming. As a way of demonstrating to yourself how many assumptions you make about others, notice a stranger at a meeting or restaurant and make a mental list of all the assumptions you can make about that person. Some of your assumptions may be right. If you're at a conference for accountants, you might assume a person's career pretty accurately. Make your list more detailed than that, though. You probably assume some things about a person's education, family, hobbies, faith, and political affiliation too. Notice how many things you assume about a person you actually know very little about.

A Risky Experiment: Verify. Introduce yourself to that stranger from the previous experiment and see how many of your assumptions were accurate. You might even tell the person that you are working on not making assumptions about people.

If you really want to learn something about yourself, repeat these two experiments with as diverse a group of people as you can for a month.

A Big Experiment: Inquiry. Consider one of your beliefs. If you want to play it safe, use a belief in Bigfoot or something like that. If you are willing to go deep, take a belief in which you've invested a little more emotional energy. Examine the evidence for that belief using the SEARCH formula introduced by Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis Vaughn in their book How to Think about Weird Things:Critical Thinking for a New Age:
State the belief clearly.
Examine the Evidence for the belief.
Consider Alternative possibilities.
Rate, according to the Criteria of adequacy, each Hypothesis.
The "criteria of adequacy" is a way of saying that an idea (1) can be tested, (2) yields observable predictions, (3) is the simplest explanation [that is, makes the fewest assumptions], and (4) is consistent with other trustworthy observations about the world.

As I said, a big experiment.

Monday, December 1, 2014

John 7:1-31 Rules and Restrictions vs. an Internal Guidance System

The first half of John 7 is a convoluted bit of storytelling. Jesus tells his brothers that he's not going to travel with them to celebrate the Festival of Booths because his "time has not yet come," but then he sneaks off after them and makes public appearances anyway. People in the crowd have mixed opinions of him. Some people think he's pretty amazing. When Jesus asks why people are looking for an opportunity to kill him, others in the crowd say, "You must be crazy! Who's trying to kill you?" Then, just a few lines later, people are asking, "Isn't that the man the officials are trying to kill?" It's hard to tell who couldn't get their story straight, the authors of John or the people of Jerusalem.

The Festival of Booths, or the Feast of Tabernacles, is also called Sukkot. It is a seven-day Jewish Thanksgiving, a time to express gratitude for the fall harvest. Sukkot is one of three annual festivals for which first-century Jews would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so it would be a good time to be seen by a bunch of people, and it would also be a good time to get lost in a crowd. In the middle of the Sukkot, there was a water ceremony, which may inform the second half of John 7.

There are a couple of interesting things to lift out of this piece of the story. First, according to the story, Jesus' brothers had their doubts about Jesus. They had a hard time seeing the same problems and possibilities that he saw. Their suggestion to make a public appearance at Sukkot is interpreted as a bit of goading (which Jesus eventually gives in to, but he apparently doesn't want his brothers to get credit for the idea).

Like Jesus' brothers, when we hear or read something that challenges our way of seeing the world, we often reject it or refute it in our minds without really considering the possibility. As a consequence of my personal path, I wind up reading and listening to a lot of assertions that run counter to my own beliefs and mental models. Some of that is repetitive, and once I've wrestled with a particular issue and arrived at a satisfying conclusion, I don't have to wrestle with it anew every time I encounter that same issue. The temptation, though, is to accept or reject something without thinking about it. This is a more emotional reaction that has more to do with anxiety than conviction.

Other people have reactions to some of my assertions, too. And, like Jesus' brothers, one of the most common challenges we fire at someone with whom we disagree is, "Prove it!" Of course, we also find problems with evidence that proves something we don't want to believe. We can be slippery and tricky when we want to be.

Even though he eventually sneaks off and does what his brothers suggest, he says something interesting in response to their challenge for him to prove himself. "My time has not yet come, but your time is always here." The gospel writer uses the idea that Jesus' time had not yet come as a literary device, kind of like fate or destiny. The twist is that second part -- your time is always here. People were not ready to hear and accept a truth that challenges their way of seeing the world and required more personal responsibility of them. In a sense, Jesus was pointing at people and telling them to change, and that rarely goes over well. Jesus' brothers had nothing to lose by living responsible and intentional lives, though. Just like us. They could have set an example of principled action in their own lives any time without risking much. The time for that is always here. It is always our time.

After lying to his brothers and sneaking off to the festival, Jesus is recognized as a confident teacher of spiritual ideas, but people have varied reactions to his ideas. Some people are impressed with his wisdom. Others want to know his credentials. Some people criticize him based on where he was born and raised. Others don't seem to think that matters. When we don't like what someone has to say, their background and credentials still become easy targets. It takes a lot of work sometimes to challenge concepts and ideas, but attacking the letters (or lack of letters) after someone's name or attacking where a person comes from takes a lot less effort. The Jesus character doesn't respond to these petty attacks, and really, we shouldn't expect anyone else to. Moreover, we aren't obligated to respond to petty attacks either. If someone doesn't like what we have to say, they won't like it more just because we can produce a diploma or pedigree.

Jesus does try to point out the flaw in a specific criticism: Jews saw no problem with performing circumcisions on the Sabbath, but they apparently were criticizing him for doing other spiritual work on the Sabbath. This conflict is also perhaps exaggerated in the New Testament narratives. The Pharisees certainly developed a complex array of rules and strictures as "hedges" to keep people from skirting too close to breaking the law, but these rules were not the actual religious law. They were like putting a device on a vehicle so that it could only go 35 mph, just to make sure that a driver couldn't speed most of the time. Jesus' way is depicted as taking that device away and being personally responsible for driving the speed limit. So, his logical argument about circumcision on the Sabbath is a bit of a straw man; he's making a point about something that is not really a major issue.

The real issue seems to be much more complex. The authors of John are attacking a legalistic spiritual system, not a specific practice. Where we restrict ourselves within a narrowly defined set of acceptable behaviors, we prevent ourselves from personally responsible growth. For instance, when we decide that if we can't say something nice, we shouldn't say anything at all, we never learn how to speak difficult truths gently. When we restrict ourselves to the rules of polite society because of what other people might think of us, we never learn to be the kind of people that we most want to be. And our anxiety about all the rules we try to follow probably winds up bubbling over in ways that we don't like.

People know the difference between right and wrong. We know what causes harm and we know what creates greater well-being, and we are still learning more and getting sharper in that knowledge. We also forget a lot of that when we feel threatened. In this story, Jesus says, "You know where I'm from," which is kind of like saying, You know what I'm saying makes sense, even if you don't like it. Your deepest, most noble self says more or less the same things to you that my deepest, most noble self says to me. Living according to the values of our deepest, most noble selves is sometimes messier than living by a set of contrived external rules, though. We have to be more thoughtful and more intentional in our lives, and that can seem like hard work.

Our ways of thinking can be lazy sometimes. We don't like to put in the effort to consider other possibilities. Yet, if we want to have more fulfilling experiences of life, if we want to live into our authentic selves, if we want to contribute in some way to a better world, we have to grow beyond the easy restrictions of external rules. We have to develop what some might call an "internal guidance system": clear principles to guide us toward greater well-being in our own lives and in the lives of others.

We've gotten so accustomed to making lazy decisions based on external rules that we often don't pay attention to our deepest values. They seem less important or less attainable somehow, so we stick with safe decisions. Our restrictions aren't the same as the ancient Jewish restrictions, but they serve the same purpose. They usually start with words like must, should, have to, or need to. When we think those words or say them out loud, this is a cue for us to stop and think through what we're doing. It's possible that we've set our guiding principles on a back burner in order to take a lazier route.

Don't get me wrong. Lazy thinking is very useful, and our brains have developed fast and efficient decision making processes for a reason. There are some decisions, however, that we need to engage more thoughtfully, through the lens of our guiding principles. At first, we may not trust that we can make wise decisions without our collection of should's and have to's, but like anything else, we can become more confident with practice.

We begin by recognizing when we are being thoughtless. When we are accepting or rejecting ideas without actually considering them. When we are going along with a set of restrictions or rules that actually don't align with who we most want to be in the world. From that point of recognizing, we can engage our guiding principles more intentionally. More work? Yes. More fulfilling life? Absolutely. But I can't prove it to you. If you want proof, you'll have to test it out in your own life.

A Little Experiment: Noticing. Pay attention to the language of your thoughts and words this week. How many times do you say "should" or "have to" or something similar? How accurate are those statements? Do the things you decide from that space of restriction align with your deepest values and guiding principles?

Another Little Experiment: Listening. As you listen to people this week, consider that their perspective might be valid. This doesn't mean that your perspective is invalid. You might just have different ways of seeing the world. Can you learn something from listening without judging or demanding proof?

One More Little Experiment: Sharing. This is similar to some of our earlier little experiments, but once you've listened without judgment to another perspective, try sharing your perspective. The goal is not to convince the other person that you're right and they're wrong or that your way of seeing the world is better than theirs. The point is just to say what is so for you. Whether they accept or reject your perspective doesn't matter. You're just sharing your point of view.

Monday, November 17, 2014

John 6: Fully Consuming Our Values (or how a Humanist interprets symbolic cannibalism)

As with the previous chapter, John 6 is arranged as a miracle story followed by theological commentary. It's possible to take shorter passages and comment on them as distinct ideas, but the text obviously connects the ideas of Jesus providing food for the masses and claiming to be "bread of life". While we strolled through the gospel of Mark, we took a look at some possible lessons from the story of the five thousand being fed. The version of the story in John doesn't diverge all that much from the story as it appeared in Mark, so we can perhaps just make a few comments about that miracle story and move on into this "bread of life" business.

Some have implied that the feeding of the five thousand suggests a creation miracle. This is one possibility, since there's nothing to require miracle stories to match practical reality. Certainly, the people in the story seem to think that it is an impressive trick, because the author has them pursuing Jesus to see more magic. One might wonder, though, what is the point of creating so much more than needed? Twelve baskets full of food is wastefully more than what was necessary to feed the people there. Either the character of Jesus is a poor judge of appetite, or the twelve baskets are symbolic rather than literal. As to what they symbolize, your guess is as good as anyone else's.

It is apparent from the story, however, that people are impressed enough with Jesus' ability to meet their physical needs that they want to coerce or force him into a position of leadership of their own design. Quite possibly they are revolutionaries, ready to find someone to lead them against Rome. Maybe they are less willing to work for their own well-being if there is someone for whom it is effortless. Strange that the crowds will travel great distances and inconvenience themselves in order for someone else to provide for them. Maybe we are simply meant to see these people as those who couldn't provide for themselves—people who were able to pursue Jesus around the countryside because they had no prospects for work that would provide for their basic needs. Or maybe they are just characters in a story that represent something. Maybe the reader is meant to identify with this wonderstruck crowd.

There's some indication that the Jesus character in the gospel of John is positioned as a "new Moses," a spiritual leader who is superior to Moses and who will lead the people of his generation into freedom. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Israelites are led by Moses out of Egypt and into a barren wilderness, where they eat manna (literally "what is it?"), which Moses tells them is the bread that the Lord has given them to eat. So this passage equating Jesus with a provider of food connects him to Moses covertly, but the author(s) of John make this connection explicit in the theological exposition that follows the miracle story.

Incidentally, we're more or less skimming past the bit about the Jesus character walking on water. There simply isn't much to the scene aside from a fanciful bit of Christian mythology. Perhaps this is intended to demonstrate that Jesus is God, since in a Jewish context, God is the one who controls nature. This is an understandable assertion given the beliefs of Christians, but there just isn't much else to draw from it except that Christians find their supernaturally divine version of Jesus to be compelling.

After recounting the tale of miraculous provision of bread and fish for five thousand ill-prepared revolutionaries and Jesus’ escape from their seditionist desires by walking across the sea, the author of John expresses something about the identity of Jesus and the requirements of participating in the kingdom of heaven. We might gain some insight from this passage about our own identities and how we build a better world. True to an internal formula of the fourth gospel, the author conveys this teaching through discourses between Jesus and the hungry crowd, Jesus and the Jews, and Jesus and his disciples. The distinction in these verses centers around “bread that perishes” versus “true bread from heaven.” With the hungry crowd, the author establishes that there really is no comparison between Moses and Jesus, though both spiritual leaders provided sustenance. According to John’s author, Jesus turns the traditional concept of manna on its head. No longer is manna contextualized as heaven-sent, life-giving provision, but it is rather one more example of food that perishes. Everyone who ate of the manna in the wilderness died; by contrast, there is a spiritual bread which nourishes more deeply and abundantly.

Jesus is portrayed here as cunningly insightful with regard to the crowd’s intentions. As with other conversations in the gospel of John, Jesus expresses dismay that people continually want to be amazed with signs and miracles—more eager to have things done for them through supernatural means than they are to assume personal responsibility for their own spiritual maturity. Thus, “bread” in John 6 quickly becomes about much more than physical food; Jesus suggests that preoccupation with one’s appetite for material things will cease to have priority once one gets a taste of more substantive spiritual food. An unfortunate quality of the “bread of life” Jesus offers is that it is a bit more challenging than his listeners are willing to accept, and it is perhaps a challenge to the Jewish authorities that seek to define the spiritual lives of their flocks through precise legalism. While many believers find a reflection of the communion ritual or an assertion of the redemptive power of Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s more likely that the bread of life offered here is a way of being—a path of genuine, fearless love—that threatens to undermine societal structures of control and power.

This isn’t stated explicitly in the gospel, however; the gospel writer simply has Jesus proclaim that he is the bread of life. When the Jewish authorities start to get upset that Jesus claims to have come from heaven, he exacerbates their frustration by claiming that people need to eat his flesh as if it were bread. In fact, he claims that he offers nourishment for the entire world. Jesus even goes a step further and claims that people can only experience heaven if they eat his flesh and drink his blood. At this, even Jesus’ disciples blanch (which in and of itself is enough to suggest that this passage symbolizes something other than a communion ritual, with which an early Christian audience would presumably have been familiar). Beyond that, Jesus then clarifies that he is not talking about physical nourishment but about spiritual nourishment, noting that the spiritual way of life he promoted was something that many people simply could not stomach.

Miraculous provision of food and causing a stir at the temple is all very inspiring, but people even today seem less interested in a teaching that challenges them to live with greater integrity and intentionality. Some Christian thinkers have also seen this passage as dealing with something beyond an uncontroversial communion ceremony. Martin Luther considered this discourse to be a teaching about faith. “Belief in” Jesus is what is meant by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. At the time that Luther was writing on this passage, however, it was apparently unimportant to define what it meant to “believe in” Jesus. Luther doesn’t go into specifics.

While not likely, it’s possible that the gospel writer intended to convey that faith in Jesus is the one true way to an eternal spiritual life that begins at the moment of one’s death, having little to do with one’s actual earthly existence save the singular decision to believe and perhaps the drive to persuade others to make a similar singular decision in anticipation of earthly death. The portrayal of Jesus' commandments, however, suggests something beyond a mere decision to believe. There is a call to live differently, which may or may not have any connection with a belief in an afterlife. There are behavioral implications to eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus, and it is likely that the author of John had strong reasons for pointing this out to his own community.

So, we can read John 6 from a perspective that acknowledges Jesus as a model of expected behavior. In the story of the ancient Israelites, Yahweh (through Moses) had provided physical sustenance. Yet, physical sustenance does not provide life; it only delays death. Deep, meaningful, satisfying life must come from something deeper, more meaningful, and more satisfying than mere physical sustenance. Spiritual sustenance is gained through commitment to a way of being, represented here by Jesus’ life and actions. (We can also acknowledge different people who provide equally powerful examples of an inspiring way of being.)

You can’t experience abundant life in small doses, only attempting to exhibit deep love, compassion, and justice when it's convenient. Instead, you have to absorb deeply the very human identity of being loving, compassionate, and just in order to experience abundant life. In the terms of the author of John, you have to take in the very essence of the way of being Jesus represents. “Believing in” Jesus thus becomes synonymous with trusting that the way of life he promotes is possible and preferable. “Believing in” Jesus means recognizing that one must set aside all objections and fears, and consume his way of being into the deepest core of oneself. You don't have to believe that Jesus was a historical fact or that he was any more divine that anyone else in order to wholeheartedly imbibe a loving, compassionate, just way of being.

Incidentally, interpreting the passage this way also takes into consideration the author’s frustration with demands for miracles—actions that ordinary people can't perform. Expecting miracles causes people to rely on some external means of fixing their problems, an external provision of abundant life. What the Jesus character suggests is that there is some personal responsibility for abundant life, fueled internally by individual willingness to transform one’s way of being.

This is as difficult a teaching as cannibalism. Some people have managed to justify actually eating flesh and drinking blood. Fewer people have lived with fearless love as a primary guiding principle. This is an offensive suggestion for both those who have nothing and those who believe they have much to protect, as challenging a call to those people who are oppressed as to those people who benefit from the oppression of others. Living by a principle of universal and fearless love might be exactly what is intended by abundant life, and yet it seems to require more from an individual than it offers to that individual. This is why one must take in that identity completely—to figuratively consume everything about a loving, compassionate, just way of being—to believe in the possibility and desirability of that identity without reservation. Otherwise, our own doubts and fears will always stand in the way of abundant life.

We have to decide where we are in this story about us. Are you a member of the crowd waiting for someone else to be responsible for providing you with a deeply satisfying experience of life? Abundant life can't be given, it has to be lived out. Perhaps you're ready to recognize your own responsibility for living into an identity that reflects a best possible version of yourself. 

Are you in superficial agreement with guiding principles about being loving, compassionate, and just, but doubtful that you can live out those principles in the world? Our guiding principles are there to guide us. When we set them aside for what seem like more reasonable courses of action, we are letting fear get in the way of what we claim to believe. Perhaps you're ready to imbibe your principles more deeply—to take them in completely so that you draw on those values with confidence and conviction.

Are you finding it a challenge to live with integrity and intentionality by guiding principles that contribute to greater well-being in the world, because you seem to give a lot more universal and fearless love than you get in return? Sometimes we have to seek out relationships with other people who are as deeply committed to their guiding principles. And when we aren't getting what we want, it may be because we aren't asking for what we want. If it matters to you that your life reflects your deepest values, perhaps you're ready to seek out the kinds of people who will empower and encourage you in a meaningful way. These aren't always the people who have known us the longest. At the same time, no one can provide the kind of support and encouragement you most want if you don't let people know what you want and need.

A Little Experiment: Act the part. Our actions are fueled by our beliefs, and yet sometimes we have to act on our values even before we are completely confident in our ability to do so. This week, take responsibility for a behavior that reflects a best possible version of yourself, even if you think it won't go so well. If you know what a best possible version of yourself would do, then your behavior will build your confidence in that vision of who you can be.

Another Experiment: Imbibe deeply. If you've done the work in previous weeks of writing down your guiding principles, read over them every day and notice when you have opportunities to live them out. When we make decisions on auto-pilot, we are more likely to let our fear or anxiety guide us. When we are more intentional and thoughtful, our guiding principles can play a bigger part of our decision-making.

One More Experiment: Speak up. Have a conversation with someone you typically expect encouragement and empowerment from. Let that person know what you are trying to change in terms of living more intentionally and with greater integrity to your deepest values. Also, let that person know what you would like from them. They may be excited to be a part of your journey. They may say, no thanks. This can be very difficult to hear, but either way, you will know better what to expect from that relationship. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John 5:16-47 Values and Personal Authority

After the man from last week's passage was healed, the story goes on in John 5 to describe how the Jewish leaders persecuted Jesus. In a classic case of miscommunication, the Pharisees in the story hear and interpret Jesus' words in the most controversial way possible. The Jesus of this story tries to explain himself more clearly, but the concepts he is describing are difficult to understand and his audience doesn't really want to understand. 

Even though some of the ideas the authors insert into this passage are intended as literal, we no longer find them credible. Today, some may still contend that the dead are going to rise from their graves and be judged by a mighty supernatural. While this might encourage a morality of fear in some, it is obvious that many people are not persuaded to behave differently because of this threat. Even some people who claim to believe in this sort of judgment leading to eternal punishment or reward seem quite willing to do things that most folks would consider to be evil. There is no evidence to suggest its veracity, yet people have believed it for centuries. In all that time, belief in an afterlife has not perfected humanity. So, whether or not we want to believe in the mythology presented here, it doesn't seem fruitful to consider its merits. We are very sneaky in our beliefs, and we will find a way to believe what we want, no matter what is actually written on a page or spoken by a religious authority. There is a bit of the Pharisees' mode of listening in all of us.

What can we gain, then, from this exposition? Jesus seems to be defining his connection to and relationship with God, and he seems to be doing so in a very specific context of an ancient Jewish culture. Since we are not ancient Jews, we have to reframe a few things in order to make it meaningful in our own context. Let's first take a look at exactly what is being said.

First, Jewish leaders were angry because it seemed to them that Jesus was doing something unlawful. Jesus' provocative response was that God was still at work, so there was no reason for people not to work if they chose to do so. The story suggests that the Jewish leaders took umbrage at the implication that Jesus was making himself equal to God. This is a little bit odd, since Jews referred to God as Father long before Jesus -- the Old Testament often compares God to a loving parent, nearly always in the masculine sense. So, this may say something about the authors of John.

Next, Jesus tries to explain himself more clearly, saying that people can only do what is modeled for them, and he considers God to be a worthwhile model. He promises great and astonishing works, and forecasts a future grave-emptying judgment of all people, based on their merits. That is, Jesus promises that people will be judged by their deeds. He doesn't seem to have any other criteria in mind by which people might attain life abundant.

Finally, Jesus says not to take him at his word, but to verify what he says with other reliable witnesses and by the evidence in his life and actions. He points out that people have a limited perspective, and that sometimes they maintain a limited perspective by choice, especially when they can see themselves as superior. Yet, they do not realize how their own perspective ultimately condemns them to a life that is less than what it could be. Specifically, the Jews were relying on their scriptures and their legalistic sense of morality and ethics, yet in so doing, they missed the point of their identity as human beings. 

It's easy to look down on the Jewish leaders here, especially since the authors of John paint such a hostile picture of them. We can all see in ourselves a bit of the behavior we despise in others, though. We all choose not to listen to what someone is actually saying sometimes, especially when we hear something we can pounce on or be offended by. Sometimes, we all choose to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. We make sure the laws and rules we live by work in our favor, and we let some of our own behavior slide, even though it is "wrong" by our own standards. And we expect other people to behave the way we want them to behave, even when they haven't agreed to our set of rules. We want to be judged based on our best days, and we want our worst days to be forgiven and ignored. Yet we sometimes hold grudges against other people, and we are loathe to let others live down mistakes. 

It doesn't have to be like that. We don't have to be like that. The problem in all of that messy behavior is that we let our fear count for more than our hope. We are afraid of all sorts of things, and we may not even realize it. Some people are afraid of being overlooked, or of being wrong, or of being caught making a mistake. Being unacceptable. Being judged. Being unimportant. Being taken advantage of. Being alone. Being mistreated. Being ridiculed. Failing. Succeeding. We're afraid of all sorts of things. If we don't manage our fears, we can't live fully. If we don't manage our fears, we can't begin to approach a best possible version of ourselves.

As much as we can see ourselves in the Pharisees' behavior, we can also see ourselves in a different light. We are first and foremost accountable to ourselves. As much as we fear about how other people see us, we can't control other people. We can be responsible for ourselves. One key way for us to manage our fears is for us to have a clear sense of who we are -- to be self-defined. When we allow other people to define us, we fail to take responsibility for ourselves. And often, we take our definition from what we think other people think of us, without ever even verifying if our suspicions are correct. Even when we know what other people think of us, though, our identity is up to us.

One way that we define ourselves is by being very clear about our values -- about the things that matter most to us. This requires a bit of thought, and many people simply don't take the time. When we know what we value most, we can set clearer boundaries for our own behavior and in our relationships with others. We will likely have to go back over our values a few times, especially if we are used to making decisions based on fear. Our first run at defining our values might be based on our fears without us realizing it, and we have to ask some challenging questions and dig a little deeper if we want to get at the principles that we most want to guide our lives. 

You may think that you have a value of keeping someone in your life happy. This is misguided. You do not control another person's happiness. What are you afraid of if this person is unhappy? What belief about yourself is underneath that fear?

You may think that you have a value of making enough money to live comfortably. What is comfortable? Is your definition likely to change as you earn more? Is there a fear of scarcity underneath that value? Or a fear that you won't be acceptable to others if you don't have a certain lifestyle? Money is necessary, but money is just a way for us to do the things we value. Money accomplishes nothing on its own. What is the actual value that will direct what you do with the money you have?

This work is not quick, and it may take a lot of introspection before you arrive at a clear expression of the things that matter most to you. We might not be accustomed to doing this sort of work. It takes a bit of adjustment from our normal way of thinking. And once we've clarified some values, it takes some practice to live by them. Reminders every morning, thinking more intentionally about our decisions, and even talking through possibilities can help us adjust to living with integrity to the values we define.

Our values are part of what I think of as a deepest, most noble self -- a piece of us that is not based on fear, but on a sense of our capability, creativity, and beauty as human beings. Our deepest, most noble selves are always present, even though we often lose connection with what it means to be fully human. We second-guess our own sense of values -- our own identities -- because our fears get in the way. Our own sense of authentic personal authority comes from our deepest, most noble self, even though we sometimes look to other things to feel a sense of authority.

We have the potential for everything that we do to be sourced by our deepest, most noble selves -- for all of our actions and decisions to be based on our real values and guiding principles. If we work toward this level of integrity and intentionality, the results in our lives and in our relationships can be astonishing. We can experience life in a new way, with less of a sense that we are victims at the mercy of our circumstances or other people's whims -- a more vibrant life in which we have a clear sense of purpose and empowerment.

None of this happens by accident in our lives. We cannot continue on auto-pilot and expect anything to change in our lives. As we listen more deeply to ourselves and consider what a best possible version of ourselves might look like, we can live more intentionally into that vision of us. We are inclined to make up stories about ourselves, like "I'm working on that issue," or "One of these days, I'll figure out how to..." We often like affirming, positive words about ourselves. We'll know that what we claim about ourselves is true by what others see in our lives and by the actual evidence in how we behave. Other people won't necessarily approve of changes in our behavior, but when we change how we do things, the people around us will probably notice. If nothing looks different about how we live, chances are, nothing has really changed about how we are living.

The idea is not to have a different set of rules to live by. We have a habit of taking rules and twisting them so that we still think it's fine for us to do whatever it is we want to do. The idea is for us to claim responsibility for our own identities, for our own actions and decisions, so that our experience of life is more fulfilling. And if we are really paying attention to our values -- to our deepest, most noble selves -- our lives are more fulfilling when we are doing things that contribute to the well-being of others. We cannot define ourselves in isolation from everyone else. We are defined in part by the way we relate to others. So, our values and our guiding principles connect to how we are in relationship with other people. 

If the Jewish leaders in the story of John 5 had their way, they wouldn't pay any attention to someone needing help on the Sabbath. Their rules were strict, and they were afraid of what would happen if the rules were not obeyed. When we set aside fear, we can more easily see people as human beings of inherent worth and dignity, and our values can direct our actions more clearly than a set of abstract rules for behavior. This is the point of understanding our values. If we have a clear sense of personal identity and a clear sense of what matters most to us in life, we can more easily make decisions about how we will connect to other people and to the world around us. It is a different way of living than simply going with our automatic reactions, and I would offer that it is a more satisfying and fulfilling way of engaging in life. 

A Little Experiment: Know thyself. This is a repeat of a little experiment from a few weeks back, when I suggested that you write down your values -- the things that matter most to you in life. These are not the ways that you think you need to protect yourself from a hostile world. These are the things that you believe would make the world better for everyone. How do you most want to show up? What do you want to contribute to a better world? Write down your values, even if you aren't living by them very intentionally right now. Read over them a few times this week.

Another Little Experiment: Find the fear. Take one of your values and examine it carefully. Is there some fear about yourself or other people underneath that value? What would that value look like if you let go of that fear? Would it still be something you hold as important? Or is there something more important to you once the fear is out of the way?

One More Little Experiment: Intentional decisions. When you are faced with a decision this week, take a moment and consider your first impulse. Is it reflective of a best possible version of yourself? If so, celebrate that! If not, what option would be a better representation of who you most want to be? What is keeping you from making a decision that lines up clearly with your values?

Monday, November 3, 2014

John 5:1-15 False Identity, Blame, and Healing

Similar to the stories that we observed some time ago in the gospel of Mark, the next passage in John 5 is a healing passage in which Jesus oversees the healing of a paralytic man on the Sabbath and catches some heat for it from Jewish religious leaders. As has become our habit, we will not get bogged down in fruitless discussion about historical accuracy. There is simply nothing in that debate to empower us in our lives. There are a couple of interesting details worth noting in this passage, each of which we will unpack a little bit. First, Jesus does nothing apart from talk to the man. Second, the man then carries his mat around of his own volition. Finally, there is an implication that there will be further consequences based on the man's actions.

Unlike many biblical healing stories, there is no ritual action that takes place here. Jesus simply talks to the man and tells him to get up. Actually, first he asks, "Do you want to be well?" And then he says, "Get up and go on about your life." Perhaps something miraculous took place, or perhaps this man had convinced himself that he was incapable of living his life fully. Once the identity of "cripple" is taken on, it might be easier just to give in to that label and reinforce it through daily actions.

What are the labels in our lives that we accept and carry around for years? Lazy? Incompetent? Worthless? Ugly? Selfish? Stupid? No-talent? Damaged goods? Even though none of these are physical labels, they can be crippling nonetheless. It's likely that someone else put this label on us first, but we had to determine whether to accept that identity and live it out. When these kinds of words come from someone important or influential to us, it's really tough not to accept it as truth.

For many of us, it is not as simple as discarding the label and living into a different identity. The first step we have to take, though, is declaring that we want to be well. We have to know that we want to have a different vision for our lives. As long as we are willing to look for evidence to support the crippling labels we have taken on, we will find plenty of evidence. When we are willing to live into a different identity, we can begin to find supporting evidence of a more empowering set of declarations. This takes time, because we've probably developed a habit of reinforcing a crippling identity. So the story shows us a moment that is symbolic of a long trajectory of personal work. Taking on a more authentic and empowering identity is certainly worth the effort. I point out that it's going to take some time so that we don't get discouraged when our habits don't change in a moment.

The story doesn't end there, though. When the man with the mat recognizes that his identity as a cripple is a false identity, he gets up and carries his mat. He probably knows that it is unlawful to do certain things on the Sabbath in his culture (although the authors of John may be engaging in a bit of exaggeration here, since it was still permitted to carry personal items short distances on the Sabbath). Maybe this fellow was just on his way home when he was accosted. Maybe he was running around town telling everyone that he had recovered from his false identity. There's no telling. It doesn't really matter for the story to make its point.

Whatever he was doing, the man with the mat was not taking responsibility for his own behavior. He was the one carrying a mat. He was the one who had stood up and started walking. Yet, when he is confronted about his behavior, he shifts the blame to someone else. "That other person told me to do this, and so I did it." Really? We recognize immediately how weaselly this response is, and yet, we often say very similar things in our lives.

When anxiety builds, especially when we are personally confronted about our behavior, we often try to make that anxiety go away by finding someone else to blame. "I was only following orders." "This is how I was told to do it." It seems like such a good excuse, but the bottom line is that we are claiming not to be able to think for ourselves. In blaming others for our behavior, we are claiming that we should not be held responsible for what we do. We even go so far as to blame other people for our anger -- and the things we do and say when we're angry.

The bottom line is that blaming others is a dishonest reaction to anxiety. We are responsible for our actions, even if we do something based on another person's advice. It's unfortunate that we are often rewarded for effectively laying blame at someone else's feet. That we get away with it sometimes still does not make it laudable. If we want to become more emotionally mature -- if we want to have a more satisfying and fulfilling experience in our lives -- we must reject the temptation to shift blame to someone else. Certainly, we should be honest about our actions and the influences that we are able to identify. We can do this and still be responsible for our own decisions.

At the end of the passage, the Jesus character tells the man that his new identity still needs care. "What you do next will have consequences." Now, Jesus says something here that suggests that being crippled was a result of some sin that the man committed. This is contrary to what the gospel says elsewhere, and it doesn't help that it has some language that has become rather loaded. Another way to think about it is: If your actions do not line up with your guiding principles, you will know it by the consequences you experience. Even when your actions do line up with your guiding principles, there may be short-term consequences you don't like. All of our actions have consequences. When we live into a best possible version of ourselves, we will have greater peace about how we handle the consequences of our behavior. When our actions are more principled, we stand a better chance of having the experience of life that we want.

The man was either a bit dull or he didn't like the threatening tone of Jesus' warning, because he went back and reported to the Jewish leaders. Even when we claim a new identity, we will be faced with difficult decisions. It takes practice to keep showing up as the people we most want to be in the world -- as people with clear guiding principles, growing in emotional maturity. If we choose not to take responsibility for our identities, we will have plenty of opportunities to slip back into old lies about who we really are, and we will have plenty of opportunities to start believing new lies about who we really are. It's helpful sometimes to consider what others see, but if we choose to take on what others see in us, that's still our choice. We are responsible for our own well-being. We are responsible for our own identities.

Do you want to be well? Stop living into the false identity you've taken on and live into a better vision of yourself. Start now. Take responsibility for your own actions and your own identity. As you clarify your values and guiding principles, commit to aligning your actions and decisions with those values. This is the way of healing.

A Little Experiment: Taking responsibility. The next time you find yourself starting to blame someone else for your own behavior, stop and take responsibility. See what happens when you are authentic and honest.

A Big Experiment: Rebranding. What inauthentic label do you need to be done with? What would it take for you to adopt a new label that more accurately reflects your values and principles? If you can identify one lie about yourself that you've taken on, you can probably extrapolate something true about yourself to live into. For instance, if you have been carrying around that you are incompetent, you might start looking for honest evidence of your competence. It will take time to get rid of an old habitual lie, but this is the path toward a best possible version of yourself.

Monday, October 27, 2014

John 4:43-54 Who We Know and What We Know

Much of the "travelogue" passages in the Bible are easy to gloss over, since Westerners living in the twenty-first century have little awareness of or attachment to the cities of ancient Israel. John 4:43-54 has a bit of that travelogue feel to it, but it may help to note that many people have compared the area in which Jesus was traveling to the size of New Jersey. That's not a value statement one way or the other. The two areas are just very similar in size. You don't have to know the locations of the geography and how they relate to one another to get the gist of the story. People are not traveling in particularly awkward or unusual paths here.

This passage follows immediately after the story of Jesus' encounter with the woman in Samaria. On the surface, it probably seems that the main point of this passage is about Jesus' power to heal. This may have been a part of the intention of the author, but healing stories like this are abundant and are told about a wide variety of people in the ancient world. Rather than picking apart the healing story itself, it may be beneficial to dig down to different level and notice another focus of the passage: belief.

First we see that people in a prophet's hometown are not likely to believe what he has to say. Then, we see that people who have witnessed something first hand have a persistent belief. The Jesus character levels an accusation that unless some demonstration of power is offered, then people will refuse to believe. Yet, the royal official believes Jesus' words, seemingly because they are spoken with authority. He then receives information that seems to confirm that his belief was well-founded. Let's look briefly at each of these problems of belief.

"A prophet has no honor in the prophet's own country." Once people think they know you, it's challenging to get them to see beyond what they think they know. Likewise, once you think you know a person, it's tough to notice when that person develops in new ways. There is some truth to the observation that people don't change, which makes it all the more challenging to recognize when a person does change. The reality is that many people continue along a predictable path in their lives, journeying toward a "default future." People who become more intentional in their lives, however, have the capacity to journey in new directions.

Sometimes, we form snapshots of people -- we get an impression of them based on a particular moment in time, and we draw conclusions about their entire being from that impression. In our minds, those people always look like their snapshot. Often, we might wind up being pretty much on target when we do this, because many people keep following the same unconscious patterns throughout their life. A prophet is someone who has something important to say, though. And prophets learn their wisdom somewhere. They are changed people once they learn something they didn't know before, and they have the potential to express what they've learned in a meaningful way. People who are only willing to hold an old snapshot in front of them aren't able to hear something meaningful, though. They are stuck on an old impression of the person.

We may have some prophets in our lives. It's important for us to listen. There may be people who have learned something and are living their lives differently as a result. If we mentally trap them in an older version of themselves, they don't suffer from that -- we do. They have learned what they have learned, and they're going to use that knowledge in their lives. By dismissing them, we miss out on sharing in their wisdom. It pays to be awake to the people around us -- to pay attention to people and notice when they seem to be outgrowing our old impressions of them.

We may be prophets for others. We may have learned some things in our lives that we want to share with the people close to us. Some of them aren't going to listen. They have an impression of us that was formed a long time ago, and they aren't able to see past that. We could spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get through to people who can't see us clearly, or we can spend our "prophetic" energies on people who are more willing to listen intentionally. The choice the authors of John commend is to speak to those who will listen.

"Until you see signs and wonders you will not believe." This statement has a double edge to it. On the one hand, it seems to suggest that if you don't see something with your own eyes, you will doubt that it happened. On the other hand, it seems to accuse people of wanting to be entertained and amazed -- "If I don't entertain and amaze you, you won't place any value on the spiritual truths I have to offer." Both of these concerns are problematic in their own ways.

Taking the latter issue first, it still seems to be a problem that we are more willing to accept "truth" from someone who can entertain and inspire us than we are willing to accept a potentially less appealing "truth" from someone who doesn't take the time to amaze and captivate us. From mega-churches to TED talks, we are more prone to believe things said by people who in some way entertain us and keep our attention. Entertaining delivery does not make something more true, however. We connect a person's ability to be entertaining with their ability to have meaningful insights, and there is simply no connection there.

If we want to know truth, we have to assess truth statements based on our experience of those statements and our thoughtful evaluation of those statements, not based on how entertained we were when we first heard them. We are swayed by shock jocks and talking heads because we are in some way being impressed and entertained. They could say anything that generally fits with our worldview, and we believe it because we are being entertained. This is irresponsible on our part. If we never seek objective sources to verify what we are told by an entertaining person, we are most likely believing a number of things that are not true. It is better to evaluate our beliefs carefully, so that we can have a more accurate assessment of reality.

Seeing is believing? The other issue of not believing something if we don't see it with our own eyes is problematic for different reasons. To begin with, what we see with our eyes is not always what we interpret with our minds. The royal official in the healing story experienced a series of events that had no clear correlation -- there was no  direct link between Jesus saying something and the little boy's turn toward better health. The official's mind, however, interpreted a cause-and-effect relationship for which there is no evidence. This is, apparently, the interpretation of events that the authors of John intend.

It is popular among some circles of believers to discount empiricism -- the idea that knowledge comes from sensory experience. Some people create a straw man definition of empiricism in order to demonstrate a perceived flaw. "We can't see oxygen in a room, and yet we know that there is oxygen in the room. See, empiricism is bogus." Just in case it needs stating, empiricism includes sensory experience that is provided by all senses, and it includes information that we can collect through machinery. If we can measure the oxygen levels in a room in any way (including by using a piece of scientific equipment or by breathing comfortably enough to assert that the air is breathable), we can have empirical knowledge that there is oxygen in the room, If we can't measure it in any way, we can't actually say that we "know" it.

The problem, of course, is that we rely most heavily on our natural senses, and we draw conclusions based on incomplete information. We see something or hear something and our brains fill in the gaps between what we experience and what reality must be. We see lights in the sky and sometimes our brain leaps to UFO, for instance. Just because we have seen lights in the sky doesn't mean we have seen a UFO, but we often don't make that distinction. We think we know things that we do not know because we are not clear about what we have actually experienced. Some people believe that David Copperfield actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear in 1983. They aren't clear about what they actually experienced, and so they have a belief that isn't based on reality.

With some things, we have to trust authorities. For example, scientists conduct experiments to arrive at some knowledge, hopefully under controlled conditions that eliminate their personal biases as much as possible. We can't repeat a lot of those experiments, so we are left to trust the scientists within limits. Even scientists have biases, and new knowledge emerges all the time. One facet of empiricism is that we are never done making observations about reality, which means that we are never done understanding new things and revising our beliefs about the world.

Clearly, it's a good thing that we develop a healthy skepticism about things that we don't experience and can't measure, and it's also a good thing that we develop thoughtfulness about the conclusions we draw from what we experience. The authors of John do not necessarily agree with this statement, and that's fine. Even though some of our information must necessarily come from other people's observations, our lives can be more effectively lived if we do our own thinking rather than allowing other people to think for us.

So, we recognize that our beliefs are fraught with challenges. We dismiss people and the things we might learn from them because we think we know them well enough based on where they came from. Some people will do the same to us. We sometimes mistake being entertained for being enlightened, and the two experiences are not synonymous. We have to trust authorities on some matters. Yet actual knowledge only comes to us through experience, and even our experience can be misinterpreted by our minds. We have to be thoughtful, then, and examine our beliefs to make sure that we aren't living by a set of ideas that don't line up with reality.

A Little Experiment: Listen. Take some time and listen to someone you've known for awhile. Reevaluate your "snapshot" of that person and see if it might need some revision. Is there any growth or change in that individual that you haven't noticed until now? What can you learn and apply in your own life?

Another Little Experiment: Cause and Effect. Pay attention the next time you interpret a cause and effect relationship. Is it possible that you are seeing a connection where none exists? Or is it possible that there are other causes for the results that you notice? Sometimes our assessment of cause-and-effect is spot on, and sometimes we unintentionally let our brains fill in gaps in our knowledge with assumptions.

A Big Experiment: Knowing. Sharpen your sense of what you know. Examine your beliefs and ask yourself "How do I know this?" Maybe some of your beliefs have been handed to you by sources you trust. Is there a better word than "knowledge" you could use for these beliefs? Maybe some of your beliefs are based on personal experiences that you have interpreted a specific way. Are there other ways your experience could be interpreted? Are there other things that could be true about your experience? If you become sharper about asking and honestly answering "How do I know?" it could change your life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

John 4:1-42 Conquering Shame with Truth and Inspiring Others

In John 4, we proceed with what may be a familiar story about Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well. A seemingly editorial feature can be seen in the parenthetical explanations about various details in the story. Some things apparently required more explanation than others, but we can imagine that the original audience would have known that needing to go through Samaria was culturally distasteful. If the Jesus character speaks freely to people who are culturally unclean, or "less than" people, then either this behavior is unique to the Jesus character or it serves as a model for human behavior.

The text itself paints a picture of Jesus as a fairly unique individual. He apparently has some psychic ability, to be able to know specifics about the woman's life that she had not shared, and the authors imply that he does not require physical food but is rather sustained by spiritually-motivated action. In the text, the Jesus character claims a unique identity for himself as the Messiah. If we were to leave things there, however, there would be little value in our lives. If we adopt the perspective that Jesus is used here as an exemplar of human behavior, we must get past the obviously unique characteristics the authors grant him. So, we should not try to emulate psychic powers, and we should not claim a unique position for ourselves in a spiritual hierarchy.

What human behaviors can we see at work in the story, then? To start, there is the blatant issue of prejudice. Samaritans are obviously undesirables, based on the context of the story. There are complex historical reasons for Jewish animosity toward Samaritans. To begin with, Samaritans were not of pure Jewish lineage, but had intermarried with people of various ethnicities, which made them inferior people in the eyes of the Jews. The Samaritans had their own temple and their own religious tradition that had branched away from "proper" Judaism, influenced no doubt by the Samaritan propensity for being conquered by foreign powers. Samaria was synonymous with impurity and sacrilege in the eyes of many ancient Jews.

The Jesus character cares nothing for these prejudices. Human beings are human beings. There is no judgment for the lineage or the religious practices of Samaritans (suggesting that the authors had a more virtuous position as well). Yes, Jesus does make a snide comment about salvation coming from the Jews, but his general demeanor is not judgmental. Instead, the Jesus character looks ahead to a time in which spiritual identity will not be connected to geographic location. Indeed, the book of John was written after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and apparently the authors interpreted this upheaval as an opportunity to redefine the center of spiritual identity. One need not go to a particular mountain to find divinity; one need only look within oneself.

There are essentially two things taught in this passage. The first has to do with spiritual identity. Whatever you call divine, divinity is not a physical thing. Personal identity is first and foremost about honesty. Identifying with a particular tradition frivolously is of no real value. To connect your identity thoughtlessly to a particular place or even a particular culture is to give away some of your personal responsibility. Taking appropriate responsibility in your life requires telling the truth about who you are. You cannot bring your authentic self forward if you are pretending to be someone you aren't.

For the Samaritan woman, there were plenty of untrue things that she could have believed about herself -- things that others most likely had claimed about her. As a Samaritan, she was "impure" and potentially "blasphemous." She also had a string of relationships that had the potential to imbue her with shame. What is wrong with me that I have had five husbands and am now in a relationship with someone else? After things went badly in my first relationship, I'm 'damaged goods.' No one will want me now. I am lucky with whatever I get at this point. In fact, the profound shame with which she lives is implied by her late-morning trip to the well, after all the "respectable" women have already come and gone. There are plenty of lies she could be telling about herself, plenty of things on which she could base her identity that would not reflect her authentic self.

We do very similar things. Sometimes we adopt identities that are handed to us by society, and sometimes we just make things up about ourselves. We feel shame because of the things that have gone differently than we would have liked, and we often blame ourselves for things that were not entirely ours to control. This is not a true reflection of who we are. Shame does not create anything worthwhile; it only keeps us from bringing ourselves forward fully.

The message here is that you know better. You know that there is more to you than a failed relationship, or a whole series of failed relationships. You know that there is more to you than getting fired from a job. You know that there is more to you than what other people say about your ethnicity or religion. You might know what it would be like if you showed up as a best possible version of yourself. It's wise to acknowledge the circumstances of your life honestly, but they don't have to define you. When you are willing to be honest, the truth about you is that you are enough. You are capable of being your authentic self without all the false pieces of identity you've accumulated over the years.

Here is the second thing taught in this passage: If you look around you, you'll see an awful lot of people wrestling with the same things you wrestle with. You'll see a sea of people who are living with shame and anxiety rather than honestly showing up as themselves. It's good to feed yourself -- to develop your own integrity and intentionality. When we enter into other people's lives with the ability to tell the truth about ourselves, we can influence others toward greater well-being. When we are willing to stop allowing shame to govern how we see ourselves, we can influence others to do the same. Not everyone will get it. Not everyone will be willing to tell the truth about themselves, because sometimes it's easier to give up personal responsibility to a false identity. Some people will see your way of being and take notice, though. Some people will recognize that they could be engaging in life differently -- defining themselves by their values and guiding principles rather than the labels other people put on them.

So, spirit and truth. We can look within ourselves to define our deep values and guiding principles, and we can be honest about our authentic selves. We are not restricted to identities derived from shame. And we are influencers. How we show up has an influence on other people's lives. What we do for ourselves cannot be just about us, because human beings are relational by nature. Because of our connection with others, what we create in spirit and truth will have meaning for people beyond just ourselves.

There are three things that are exemplified in Jesus' behavior here that can offer some guidance about how we can be living water -- or manifest a best possible version of ourselves more often. First, he is non-judgmental. He is unwilling to allow shame to be a part of how he sees others, just as he does not allow shame to define himself. Even as he is honest about the Samaritan woman's home life, he does not deem her unworthy as a result. He engages with her as a human being of worth and dignity. It doesn't matter what color people's skin is, what ethnic or cultural background they demonstrate, what religious identity they embrace, or what sexuality they embody. No human being deserves our derision or shame. When we judge other people, we reinforce our own self-judgment. When we are willing to see the inherent worth and dignity in others, it is easier to see our own.

Second, the Jesus of this story is willing to engage. He does not simply look kindly upon the woman and smile. He engages with her about her life and suggests some possibility about her identity. He offers her hope. Likewise, we can express what we see of value in other people, not to force on them a positive false identity to replace a negative one, but to open the door of possibility. We can sincerely express what we appreciate in others. In this story, Jesus does not demand that the woman see things the way he does; he states his perspective and allows her the freedom to define herself.

Third, the Jesus of this story speaks about what is important to him. When he is offered food by the disciples, he seizes on the opportunity to express what he cares about most -- his values and his passions. It is as if he is saying, "This is what feeds my soul." Of course, Jesus is made to suggest that the disciples should care about what he cares about, but this is a characteristic of their relationship. We don't have to insist that other people be passionate about the things that feed our souls. When we are willing to let people know what we value, though, it has the potential to bolster our own commitment, inspire others, and perhaps even find collaborators in building the kind of world that we most want to live in.

We see two layers of possibility in this tale, then. First layer: Use introspection to define your deep values and guiding principles, and let these things define the truth about your identity. Be aware of the multitude of people around you, wrestling with the same issues of shame that you wrestle with and just as in need of hope as you. Second layer: All of those human beings have inherent worth and dignity. It doesn't matter what their lives or circumstances have been like. If you are willing to engage, you can grow in connection and live into your authentic self more easily. When you engage, speak about the things that matter most to you -- your values and guiding principles, your vision for yourself, your creative purpose and personal life dream. This is how we build a better world.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

A Little Experiment: Be aware of your shame. Notice the next time you find yourself thinking or saying something prejudiced about a person based on skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion. Consider, to what fear is that prejudice connected? What judgment about yourself is connected to your judgment of that person? What would it take for you to see the inherent worth and dignity of that person?

Another Little Experiment: Be more aware of your shame. Notice the next time you limit yourself or pass judgment on yourself. On what is this self-critique based? Are you being honest? How does your personal shame prevent you from living out your deepest values (or how does it prevent you from being a best possible version of yourself)? Are you OK with that?

One More Little Experiment: Be living water. What feeds your soul? What is it that nourishes you emotionally or psychologically? How does this nourishment reflect your guiding principles? Tell someone in your life. Ask them what nourishes them.