* 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 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.

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