* 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, 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.

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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.

Monday, October 13, 2014

John 3:22-36 Religious Privilege and Being "from Within"

When a person comes from a particular culture with a particular set of traditions and practices, it can be shocking to encounter a person from a different culture with a different set of traditions and practices. Sometimes, our reaction is to find things that look similar and assume that other people think like us -- we validate our own perspective by equating other people's perspective with our own. There might be actual similarities between cultures, and noticing this can be a very connecting observation. However, I have also had some conversations in which people point out how "Christian" my worldview is, because they are Christian and they assume that God is working through all people and situations, no matter what those other people believe.

On the one hand, this is generous of the Christian in question. Assuming that people are like you is much more connecting than assuming that people are so different that they are dangerous. This other extreme is still an unfortunate reality throughout the world -- the Other seems so dangerous that some people justify violent reaction. On the other hand, assuming that people are like you -- for instance, saying things like, "That's a very Christian thing to do," when someone engages in an act of kindness or compassion -- forces an identity onto another person. Perhaps in that person's mind it is a very Buddhist thing to do, or a very Muslim thing to do, or a very Wiccan thing to do, or a very human thing to do. To equate everything good with one's own identity and incorporate all good acts under the umbrella of one's own subculture robs other people of their identity and ignores the diversity of humanity. It's also very difficult to learn anything new when you assume that you already know why people do the things they do.

As human beings, we learn to look at the world through a preferred set of lenses, and we have a tendency to focus on the things that affirm that perspective and dismiss the things that challenge it. When we encounter data, our first impulse is often to find a way to neatly fit that into our "mental model" of the world so that we don't have to change in any significant way. A believer recently told me that the similarities between the basic teachings of world religions convinced him that there was a God. Aside from ignoring some vast differences between world religions in order to arrive at this conclusion, this individual had a belief in God before learning about some similarities between world religions. Seeing some data about similar teachings and ignoring some other data about differences, this belief was reinforced. This individual didn't change religious identity, though. He remained convinced that his religion's understanding of God was more correct than the views held by practitioners of other religions. The similarities of beliefs were held up as proof that his opinion of God was right, and that other religions had a glimmer of truth. His beliefs were still the measuring stick by which truth was measured. Where there were differences, the other religions (and other denominations) were obviously the ones that had gotten it wrong.

At a certain level, we can't help this sort of thing. Being aware of it, though, might help us to take in a little bit more information and maybe even be a little more honest with ourselves about what we take in. Of course, I write this from my own perspective that seems to be confirmed by my experience. No one else can force me to evaluate data in a particular way. I am the only person who can ultimately assess whether my perspective is working for me or not, but when my experience of life is not going the way I would prefer, chances are good that something is amiss with my perspective. Knowing that may help me to grow and change when I need to.

At the end of John 3, Jesus and John the Baptist are in geographic proximity, and some of John's followers interpret this as a turf war. They had a particular mental model about authority and popularity that suggested that if John lost followers to Jesus, then it would mean that John was somehow less of a leader, less capable, less trustworthy. In this passage, John pretty much agrees with them. In rather Highlander-esque fashion, John suggests that "there can be only one." From the Christian perspective, this passage legitimizes the uniqueness of Jesus and the necessity of being obedient. Without assuming anything more about the ancient writers, and without forcing any Christians into a different label, we might draw a different message if we look through a different set of lenses.

To be clear, we start off with some assumptions about reality. Everyone brings their own assumptions to the text, particularly to a text that is held by some to be sacred. Sometimes it seems strange that I am still commenting on a text that holds one perspective when my (conflicting) perspective holds that there is no supernatural and that the closest thing to divinity with which we can connect is within us, not external to us. Part of the reason this seems strange is because Christian privilege in the United States means that the Bible is rarely used to promote another belief system. People who are not Jewish or Christian typically don't try to derive any value from biblical texts. Another aspect of Christian privilege, though, is that the Bible and its supposed contents are constantly present in American life, particularly in political debates and matters of public policy. It seems worthwhile to approach the text with a set of assumptions that might broaden its potential message.

Delving into the text itself, then, it is obvious that some of the nomenclature is derived from a particular view of reality. Spiritual things are not "above," but we might consider them to be "within." The "one from above," then, is the person who is connected with a deepest, most noble self -- a person who has identified a set of deep values and guiding principles and who lives more intentionally by those things. "Obedience" and "disobedience" in this context would equate with authenticity and inauthenticity. The more authentic person lives with less anxiety and greater purpose, or intentionality. Less authentic people are more anxious, less thoughtful, and more prone to blame others or circumstances for their experience of life. Lacking integrity between our values and our actions creates more suffering and robs us of well-being.
The one whose decisions and behaviors are derived from within -- from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles -- is better able to resist being reactive and can influence others toward greater well-being. The one who habitually reacts based on a set of default behaviors is less able to contribute to a better world, and is less able to recognize the value of acting from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles. The very idea will seem foreign and misguided.  
Whoever accepts the premise that it is better to act from a set of deep values and clear guiding principles, also recognizes connection to a deepest, most noble self -- an integral aspect of being human that is more stable than the irrational fears that often prompt our habitual reactivity. Connection with one's deepest, most noble self yields a more full and satisfying experience of life. Living out of habitual reactivity yields a life of experiencing the same misery over and over again (John 3:31-36).
Considering this, the sentiment of the John the Baptist character in John 3:29-30 becomes significant. When we are connected to our deepest, most noble selves, and when we are living with integrity to a set of deep values and clear guiding principles, we don't want other people to suffer. We don't revel in feeling superior. We don't think of ourselves as "better than" others. When other people get it, we can celebrate that. When other people start living out of their own deep values and clear guiding principles, our joy can be more complete. This may mean that other people accomplish things in their lives that we don't get to accomplish, that they have access to arenas that we do not. Life is not a competition against one another. Life is a collaboration. When one person experiences greater well-being, others experience greater well-being, too.

It bears repeating that well-being doesn't equate with wealth. This is not about some kind of strange trickle-down economic formula. Well-being is holistic, and it is primarily tied with being less anxious and more empowered to create a better life and a better world. Certainly, having a certain threshold of financial well-being helps to meet basic needs and reduces anxiety. As we are able to help break the cycle of poverty and provide for healthy food, clean water, and safe shelter for the people with whom we share this planet, we do indeed create greater well-being. After a certain point, however, greater wealth does not bring greater happiness or alleviate anxiety. Some wealthy people are profoundly reactive and anxious. Well-being is about our experience of life, not wealth in and of itself.

Perhaps connection with our deepest, most noble selves helps us be more curious about other beliefs, rather than feeling threatened by them. Perhaps clarifying our values and guiding principles also helps us have clarity about whatever amount of privilege we might have because of our skin color, beliefs, or sexuality. Certainly, living with greater intentionality and integrity can help us dismantle some self-sabotaging behaviors that keep us in a state of habitual reactivity. We can be more authentically ourselves, and thus potentially make it seem safe for others to be more authentically themselves as well. We might also begin to recognize that when others act with intention and integrity and create greater well-being in their lives and in the lives of people around them, they aren't acting "like us" -- they are acting like themselves. If we are going to put labels on people's behavior, maybe it's best for us to label them as human, and acknowledge how much we all have in common based on just that one category.

A Little Experiment: Consider your privilege. There are lots of things that can give people a privileged status in society. Skin color, sexuality, and religious identity are three of the most commonly acknowledged facets of privilege. What is one thing that you take for granted about how you are accepted in society that people of a different skin color, or sexuality, or religion are not automatically granted?

(If you're having trouble with the idea of religious privilege, you can see a list about Christian privilege in the U.S. here. Peggy McIntosh also has an insightful list of white privilege here. A quick list about heterosexual privilege can be found here.)

Another Little Experiment: Celebrate. Are there any people you know who has accomplished something or has created greater well-being for themselves and the people around them? Acknowledge them. Celebrate them. And let it be sincere. Let your joy for them be complete.

One More Little Experiment: Be curious. The next time someone does something or says something you find admirable, ask them why. Don't assume that they are guided by the same things as you, or that your perspective is the only valid one. They might have the same beliefs as you, but let them express that rather than assuming agreement.

Monday, October 6, 2014

John 3:1-21 Waking Up

One of the biggest problems with reading the Bible is that so much of it was written a bit cryptically. The language is simple, but laced with mystical terminology that doesn't have a clear meaning. Most likely, those more mystical words were defined in the context of a community, with a particular culture of terminology. The intent of the writing was not to convey meaning, but to provide a framework on which meaning could be placed. So, the language of the writing is subject to interpretation, especially by people who aren't part of the community in which the original words were written. Lots of scholars, preachers, and everyday believers have their own opinions about what the biblical text means, but since no one is a part of the ancient community in which all the biblical terminology was given meaning, it becomes a matter of whose opinion is most convincing.

Just as a reminder, in John 3, Jesus and Nicodemus are characters in a story written by someone in the late first century or early second century. This is not a transcription of a historical conversation. No one can legitimately claim, "Jesus really said that," or "Jesus never said that," because no one has any clue what Jesus said, or even if he said anything at all. Our goal is not to prove anything about Jesus; our goal is to find some value for our own lives. I'm not going to pretend that I know what the original authors intended by their words. I suspect that I probably wouldn't agree with their worldview, since people two thousand years ago they believed an awful lot about the world that we now know just isn't true. So, instead of pretending to express the authors' meaning, I'm going to translate the terminology of John 3 into something that I think is more useful.

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Now, there was an important spiritual teacher named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus at night in secret and said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are an authentically good person; for no one can do the good things you do without being empowered by goodness."

Jesus answered him, "Listen carefully, no one can be aware of the significant action of good in the world without being awake. No one can see the full potential for well-being without being conscious."

Nicodemus said to him, "Are we not awake now? Are we not conscious? Does a person get out of bed and go through the day and yet remain asleep?"

Jesus said, "Some do. Listen carefully, no one can experience abundance of life without being awake to the self. Physical wakefulness is only partial wakefulness. Those who are aware of their deepest, most noble selves are more fully awake. Doing those things that reflect intentionality and integrity with one's deepest self has greater power and impact in the world than merely satisfying physical needs.

"Do not be astonished that I am telling you to wake up! Once you are fully conscious, a whole new process of growth begins. The wind blows all around, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. The wind isn't concerned about end results; it is simply wind. So it is with those who have awareness and integrity to their guiding principles and their deepest, most noble self."

Nicodemus said to him, "How is this possible?"

Jesus answered him, "Are you a spiritual teacher, and yet you do not understand these things? Listen carefully, we are only able to teach what we know and have experienced, yet those who are still asleep cannot understand what we say. If I have told you about the most basic things and you do not accept it, how can you accept any deeper truths? No one has truly delved into themselves except the person who returns enlightened. And just as the old story says Moses lifted up a bronze serpent in the wilderness [to magically heal poisoned Israelites by presenting a visible object] so must the awakened be lifted up as an example, that whoever is willing to emulate the awakened can find healing for the poison of fear, and discover within themselves the way of integrity and intentionality. If you believe in the possibility of living without irrational fear, you will have a more abundant experience of life."

For our deepest, most noble selves do not lead us to harm, but lead us out of our habit of being consumed by fear and into a deeper, more fulfilling experience. This is possible for everyone. Indeed, our deepest, most noble selves lead us toward greater well-being for everyone, even those who are still asleep.

Awareness is not a weapon. Belief in the freedom to exhibit intentionality and integrity based on your guiding principles without being limited by irrational fear "saves" you from your default future -- changes the course of your life from reactive to responsive. Those who emulate the awakened and trust in their own ability to be more conscious have hope; but those who accept their default future remained trapped in their fearfulness and reactivity. This is the real tragedy, that their deepest, most noble selves are available to them to open the way toward a more fulfilling experience of life, yet they are so accustomed to fear that they ignore the opportunity. For those who see the world as a threatening place do not want to be left vulnerable, and yet some part of them feels shame and guilt over the harm they cause because of their fear.

But those who practice truth recognize that the true character of every person desires well-being for all, and their action gives meaning to their belief in themselves and in others, so that it may be clearly seen that people are capable of being guided by a sense of well-being and creativity that runs deeper than their fear -- that another way is possible for human beings.

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A Little Experiment: Wake up. What is one little thing you can do to be more aware of your own vision for yourself and for the world? Try spending 10 minutes in silence and solitude every day for a week. Don't judge what comes up for you, just be aware of it. This is the beginning of connection with yourself. 10 minutes not long enough for you? Give yourself permission to spend more time in introspection.

Another Little Experiment: Know thyself. Write down your guiding principles -- 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 guiding principles, even if you aren't living by them very well right now, and read over them a few times this week.

One More Little Experiment: Be the wind. How often do you not do something you think is right because you are afraid of what other people will think of you? Try pushing through that fear and acting with integrity. This is not about being impulsive or letting yourself react out of anxiety. This is about acting with integrity to your deep values or guiding principles. If you haven't clarified your deep values yet, don't try this experiment.