* 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

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

John 10:22-42 Trailblazing

When you begin to develop your emotional maturity beyond where it has been, an interesting thing often happens. You might start to notice how many people around you are emotionally immature. It isn’t that everybody else suddenly changed. Your perspective changes when you start engaging in some deeper personal work. It can be tempting to just settle back into a comfortable level of emotional immaturity, particularly since you developed most of your relationships at that lower level of emotional maturity. If we want to cast more inspiring vision for our lives, though, we have to experience the growing pains of developing ourselves into the capacity required to journey toward what we want.

This is largely what John 10:22–42 is about. The crowd meets the Jesus character in this passage with hostility, because he’s saying things in a way that challenges their assumptions. He has insights they don’t have, and he wants to share his knowledge with them so that they might grow. Sharing insights with people who are comfortable where they are is often met with defiance, however, even in the real world of the twenty-first century. The Jesus character sets up an example for us as people growing in emotional maturity and developing a clear vision for our lives.

Primarily, he gently sticks to his insights. When you are in a room full of people who are used to doing things a certain way, and you have a revolutionary idea, that room full of people might not want to hear your innovative thoughts. Even if you have researched more than anyone else and tested theories in your own life, people may not be interested in hearing what you have to say. The Jesus character shows patience, attempts to persuade them to consider the merits of his insights, and gives the crowd a chance to let down their defenses a little bit. Then, he moves on. He doesn’t insist that they agree with him. He accepts their belligerence and moves on.

Of course, the explanations that the authors of John express through the Jesus character are a bit difficult to hear. They don’t use plain language. They use metaphors and provocative terminology. It is almost as if the way the ideas are expressed is intended to rouse the ire of the crowd. This is not an example worth following. If you want people to listen to you, use language they can hear. If you want a small band of friends who agree with you and a massive adversarial population against you, use nuanced, unclear, incendiary turns of phrase.

If we translate the words put in the Jesus character’s mouth into greater clarity, we might interpret this passage (John 10:25–38) as:
The exemplar said, “Listen, what I’m doing is well-aligned with my deepest, most noble self, and if you look at my actions, then you know my values. You don’t trust that, because you are used to living by a set of external rules. You’re constantly reacting to your own anxieties and the anxieties of people around you. The people who are connected to their deepest, most noble selves understand what I’m doing. The example that I’m setting—to live by a meaningful set of deep values—is the way to live a truly fulfilling life. Once you have lived into that level of personal satisfaction, nobody can convince you that you ought to be doing something different. What my deepest, most noble self prompts me to do is more compelling than any set of external rules or societal expectations.” 
The crowd responded with violence. The exemplar replied, “Everything I’m doing contributes to the well-being of everyone around me. With which of those actions do you take offense?” The crowd answered, “We don’t take offense at your actions, but at your arrogance. You talk about connection with your deepest most noble self and your principles like you’re better than everyone else.” 
The exemplar replied, “Do you think I consider myself uniquely capable? Do you not realize that everyone has the capacity to connect with a deepest, most noble self? To develop a compelling vision of a best possible version of oneself? Every person has the ability to clarify meaningful guiding principles and live by them with integrity. If you would choose to do so, you would act for the greater well-being as I do. You can see by my actions that my way is noble and beneficial. Your unwillingness to live by my example is what truly limits you.” The crowd wouldn’t relent in their hostility, so the exemplar slipped away.
No matter how insightful, tactful, or purposeful you are, there will be those who take insult at your intentionality and integrity. Some people will assume that because you have a vision of how you will move toward what you most want, they are somehow prevented from moving toward what they most want, even though few people have connected with themselves deeply enough to know what they actually want.

On the other hand, there will also be people who are inspired by your path. Sometimes, we have a tendency to focus more on the people who disapprove of us, the people who call our ideals or even our value into question. Chances are that there are also a few people who are ready to encourage and support us. Sometimes we may need to let them know when we need a little encouragement and support. And sometimes the people who believe in us also challenge us and help bring us back on course when we get distracted.

Part of our own challenge is not to fall into the same trap the crowd of John 10 falls into. When we see someone doing something inspiring or admirable, we might learn something from them that can contribute to our own journey. We may not agree with their reasoning or their beliefs, but if we can tell that they are contributing to building a better world, we can hopefully accept some differences of opinion in service to a greater goal. We don’t need to dismiss the good work that someone does just because they believe something different from us. In fact, we can appreciate and acknowledge someone and still challenge some of their ideas respectfully.

So, it’s important for us to find those people who are more emotionally mature than we are—who are a little further along in their journey than we are in ours. And it’s important for us to recognize that, as we move forward, a lot of people we know are going to resist that forward motion. The people who know us and approve of us as we are today would be most comfortable if we stayed just as we are today. When we grow, we can expect that some people around us won’t like it. Hopefully, they don’t actually pick up stones to throw at us, but even their words of derision or hostility can hurt. Even so, our deep values most likely steer us toward compassion and not retaliation. Most importantly, there will be people who see what we are doing and decide to journey with us, even if they are not the people we started the journey with or even the people we hoped for. 

A Little Experiment: Speak. Practice speaking what's so for you without insisting that others agree with you. It may be tempting to get defensive or "persuasive." How do others respond when you just speak for yourself? Is it different from the way they respond when you try to convince them of something?

Another Little Experiment: Focus. It helps us to grow when we have others sharpening and challenging us in a supportive and empowering way. Lots of people think they know better than you. You may receive advice or "correction" from a great many people if you're willing to listen. Not all of those people are wise, however. Consider how other people are living out their values in their own lives, and choose the people who will offer you the best consistent challenge and sharpening.

A Big Experiment: Forecasting. It is said that if we look at the people we spend the most time around today, we can see what we will be like in five years. So, take a look at the people you spend the most time around. Do they reflect who you want to be in five years? Are you being influenced in a direction that makes sense and is satisfying to you?

Monday, February 9, 2015

John 10:1-21 Being a Good Shepherd

Translation becomes a little more challenging with passages like John 10:1-21, in which the authors of John identify Jesus as the "good shepherd" and every other teacher as a coward, thief, and liar. Many readers tend to treat Jesus as a unique figure and take the passage at face value without much thought. Considering our definition of "divinity" as something inherent to every human being and our rational conclusion that there is no external supernatural intelligence guiding human life and decisions, finding value in this passage requires sticking with the understanding that the Jesus character in the gospel of John is intended as an exemplar.

As with many of these passages, we have a few characters (or groups of characters) to examine. First, there are the sheep; then there are the hired hands, thieves, and bandits; then there is the good shepherd archetype. Let's consider the sheep first. Calling people sheep is not flattering. Sheep were easy for people to domesticate because of their flock behavior. If one sheep heads toward a new grazing area, the flock has a tendency to follow right along. For a sheep, leading a flock of sheep is as simple as moving before anyone else does. Sheep also have a tendency to run away if anything not-sheep gets too close. So, controlling sheep is easy for people who know how to exploit the flocking and fleeing tendencies of the animals. Sheep also seem to quickly adapt to getting food from people, which leads them to treat people as safe.

However intelligent sheep may be, they don't seem to be particularly thoughtful. It's understandable that people -- especially large groups of people -- would be likened to sheep. Human beings have a fairly strong drive toward togetherness, too. And human beings aren't particularly thoughtful when they shift into mob mentality. Like sheep following whoever happened to move first, people sometimes seem to gratefully follow the first person with an idea. It's almost like we appreciate not having to think through an issue for ourselves. Someone else's impulsiveness saves us the hard mental work of evaluating an issue.

The description of sheep in John suggests that sheep-people know the difference between people who intend harm and people who intend to contribute to their well-being. This is a bit confusing, though, because people have listened to a wide variety of teachers, and it has historically seemed difficult for people to distinguish between good ideas and harmful ideas when they are part of a flock. Individuals can be brilliant, but those same individuals in the midst of a reactive group might behave just as impulsively as everyone else, grateful for the opportunity not to have to think. The quote that comes to mind is from the first Men in Black, in which Tommy Lee Jones observes, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals."

This would seem to be something of a choice. Yes, we have a tendency to follow the flock thoughtlessly, but we're capable of thinking through a situation and connecting our values to our behavior. If we're capable of doing that as individuals, we're capable of doing that in a group of people, even if everyone around us is mindlessly following the flock. Should the sheep analogy hold true, we may end up being inadvertent leaders, just because we choose to move in a direction before anybody else.

Sheep don't choose to lead, though. There's no voting. There's no volunteering. Among sheep, leadership is an accident. This might be the case among people sometimes, too, but it doesn't have to be. We can be more intentional in our decisions and in our influence. If we understand that people in groups are going to be mentally lazier than individuals, we have the potential to influence people through our intentional action. Some individuals step into leadership with the idea that they can get their way by being persuasive in front of a group of people. Through manipulation and coercion, some people wind up leading a flock into dangerous territory. These kinds of leaders are reacting to their own un-confronted fears, and the fears that lead us to seek wealth, power, and safety are never satisfied. Even the wealthiest people often think they need more money to be happy, and even the most powerful people are concerned about their vulnerabilities. Leading because of fear does not create a better world, and it does not create a more satisfying life.

The thieves and scoundrels of the story in John 10 are these sorts of leaders, wrapped up in their own fear to the extent that they bring harm to the people who listen to them. We see and hear this sort of fear-laden persuasion and coercion all the time. They don't really have the best interests of anyone else in mind. If something tragic happens to one of the people they've persuaded, the fear-driven leader might quickly disown that unfortunate soul. Like the hired hand who runs when one of the sheep is snatched up by a wolf, fear-driven people are quick to distance themselves from people who might jeopardize their influence.

A good shepherd isn't consumed by fear. Good leaders know their values and guiding principles, and they also work at dismantling the fears that are likely to be a distraction. They accept that people are often going to stop thinking when they get into a group and start reacting to something, Instead of using this information to take advantage of others for personal gain, a good leader chooses to respond out of a space of those values and guiding principles, influencing a flock toward greater well-being, even when the flock is too busy not thinking to realize what's going on.

You may be skimming past these statements about leaders because you think that you aren't one. The point of the passage, though, is that you are. If you are even thinking about living by a set of meaningful guiding principles, you are in a position to make clearer decisions than the average mob or committee. You can choose to be a sheep, of course. You can shut your brain down when someone else in a group has an idea. You can stop thinking when someone else moves in a direction. That is your prerogative. If you choose to act with integrity to your guiding principles, though, you will influence people. The reality of humanity is that most people will not be willing or able to think through purposeful, intentional responses to the things that spark their anxiety, and being in a group of people diminishes that capacity even further. Should you be willing to act with integrity in the midst of an anxious flock, you might influence people toward well-being that they cannot even imagine in that moment.

Now, the authors of the gospel suggest that a good shepherd lays down life itself, and so many believers look at this as a rather unique role for Jesus. The authors also say that the good shepherd takes life back up again, which becomes interpreted as a resurrection -- another unique role for Jesus. The passage is filled with metaphor, however. What if laying down one's life actually means setting aside one's fears and accepting the vulnerability of living with intention and integrity? What if laying down one's life actually means sacrificing a sense of personal security in order to contribute to the greatest well-being of greatest number of people? Understanding the nature of systems, we cannot actually have well-being in every dimension of our own lives if the people around us aren't experiencing well-being. In this way, perhaps we take our lives back up again. Or perhaps taking life back up again is what happens when we channel our energy toward living with integrity where we once devoted it toward alleviating our irrational fears. It's possible that we can set aside one way of being (fear-driven or sheep-like) for another way of being (intentional and principled). We are potential good shepherds. This is not a unique role.

The authors of the gospel also suggest the value of unity -- one flock for one shepherd. This is perhaps based on a fear of diverse opinions or some other fears. Maybe even rational fears of other people's reactivity. Even in the twenty-first century, people are killing each other over differences of opinion. Unity under one banner would seem to be a superb vision, and yet I can't imagine how such a unity would be accomplished without coercion or manipulation of someone. It may be enough to recognize the palpable tension in society at the time this gospel was written and to accept that the only unity worth achieving would be a unity of free-willed individuals with shared values, living intentionally with one another. Hold it as a vision if you like, but don't let it become another reason to mistreat people who disagree with you.

At the heart of this passage, then, we have choices to make. We can choose to thoughtlessly follow the groups in which we find ourselves, or we can act with our own sense of individuality. Should we choose to act, we can act out of our fears or we can act with intentionality and integrity to our guiding principles. However we choose to act, we will influence others. We can lead others toward doing what we think will alleviate our own anxiety, or we can lead others toward greater well-being. In the words of the passage, we can be thieves and bandits or we can be good shepherds. Or we can be sheep.

A Little Experiment: Move First. Sheep don't lead intentionally, but people can. If you aren't accustomed to making decisions, see what happens if you offer the first suggestions to a group about where to go and what to do. Maybe others will offer their suggestions as well. Leading doesn't mean digging in our heels unless we get our way.

Another Little Experiment: Wait a Minute. Sheep don't lead intentionally, but the first one to move in a direction often influences the entire flock. If you're the usually the first one to offer a suggestion in a group, try hanging back and see if anyone else moves first. You might be surprised what you learn.

A Bigger Experiment: Shepherd Well. When you are in a group, be particularly aware of how your guiding principles inform your behavior. If the group seems to veer in a direction that doesn't align with your guiding principles, state your principles and your concern clearly, and propose the course of action you will take. The group may still head off in a direction that doesn't work for you. You get to decide whether to head off with them or to stick with your principled decision.

Monday, February 2, 2015

John 9: Being Willing to Have Our Perspectives Challenged

As we observed in last week's interlude, the miracle story in John 9 assumes that there are clear lines that one can draw between people. It is as if people reside in well-defined boxes, and we only want to show approval for people who live in the same box we do. However, there are no "good people" or "bad people." Rather, there are actions which contribute to greater well-being and there are actions that do harm. The same person might engage in "good" and "bad" actions. In fact, we all do.

Perhaps that's the first flaw of the Pharisee perspective. They ask how a "sinner" can offer healing. They operate under an illusion of the world as clearly divided between worthy and unworthy, clean and unclean, loved and unlovable. These are labels that people apply to other people, but they are not reflections of reality. If the same individual can contribute to harm or to well-being, then there is always possibility in human decisions. This offers one reason to recognize that every person has worth and dignity. Every person is worthy of love and respect, even though every action isn't.

Some people will read this story and walk away with the impression that it's about Jesus healing people and the Pharisees judging people. It runs the risk of becoming a "Jesus and Christianity vs the Pharisees and Judaism" debate. This is unfortunate, even though it's probably one of the goals of the authors to lift up Christianity as superior to Judaism. The reality is that physical inconveniences exist even among believers. Belief in Jesus doesn't cure blindness, deafness, epilepsy, cancer, or any other actual physical condition. We get more from this story if we set aside the miraculous backdrop and look at the actual truths involved. When we recall that Jesus can be seen as an exemplar for human beings to emulate rather than a unique superhuman, we stand to get more from the story.

The authors of John portray Jesus as a bit of a provocateur. The character does things that he knows will agitate the Pharisees, but he does some of these things purposefully. John's version of Jesus is willing to publicly acknowledge the flaws in the religious/social system, and he is willing to care for those who are written off by their society. He can't care for every one of them, of course, but he contributes to the well-being of enough people to make a point.

Something is broken about the easy categorization of people into dichotomies. People are not static entities, and we are not made worthless by a bad decision or a bad day. We don't separate easily into neat boxes. The Pharisees can't wrap their minds around someone who doesn't meet their approval performing an action that ought to meet their approval. In the story, they keep questioning the recovered man to find the loophole that will allow them to maintain a worldview that is comfortable and familiar. Instead, they are told that, since they claim to understand things, they are culpable for the harm they do.

Thus, the story says something about ignorance as well. The same harmful action might be more easily forgiven if someone is ignorant about what they're doing than if someone does harm with full knowledge and awareness. We feel no guilt when we don't know we've done something harmful. It's only when we have awareness of the harmful results of our actions that our guilt kicks in to prompt us to set things right, insofar as that's possible. The Pharisees claimed to be knowledgeable and aware, so they must also be accountable for their actions. As they perpetuated and upheld a flawed system that benefited them and harmed others, their own responsibility was magnified.

Of course, some people claim to be knowledgeable and wise when they aren't. The call to accountability might have been intended to allow people a chance to step back and evaluate their awareness. Perhaps our knowledge or wisdom is not as thorough as we believe. Perhaps our easy answers fail to take some portion of reality into consideration. The instructive piece of the story might be found in the differences between the behavior of the Pharisees and the other characters (a trope that is becoming familiar in John).

The characters of Jesus and the blind man and his family were calm, reasonable, celebratory, self-aware. While others may have asked whether the blind man was suffering because of his own sin or his parents', he wasn't perpetuating any such ideas as far as the story tells us. All we know about him was that he was simply unable to see. The Pharisees and their religious worldview tried to concoct an explanation for the blindness that would make sense to them, and in so doing, they gave themselves a reason to look down on the man. They were able to judge people who were (in the Pharisees' opinion) flawed without having to acknowledge their own flaws. That's a pretty comfortable position.

Most likely, the Pharisees said and did what they did because they were afraid. That's what "sin" is after all -- fear put into action. People in positions of power have plenty to be afraid of. They were afraid of acknowledging their own weaknesses or flaws. They were potentially afraid of change, since their system kept them comfortable. They might have been afraid of being wrong. Their way of being wouldn't make sense anymore if they couldn't trust their assumptions about reality. They may even have been afraid of being just like everyone else. Fear prompted them to keep poking at a person who had been made well, rather than celebrating his well-being.

You can probably reason what the implications of this story are for our lives. When our fear drives our behavior, our perspective becomes skewed. We can start looking for ways to protect our worldview rather than looking at the world more honestly. When we choose to live into our principles and values rather than our fear, we can be more tuned in to what we can do to contribute to the well-being of others. We can also be purposeful in our approach to injustice and prejudice, and we can recognize our own flaws and weaknesses without being ashamed of them. This last one may seem a bit odd, but when we can embrace our own humanity, we are less inclined to judge others harshly because of their humanity. When we recognize that there is more that we all share in common than there is that makes us all different and unique, we can partner more easily with one another. At the same time, when we are conscious of our own weaknesses, we can engage intentionally with people who have complementary strengths -- we can learn something from other people.

We do better for ourselves and for the world around us when we don't try to figure out whether a person is worthy or unworthy, good or bad, wise or foolish -- and instead start from the awareness that everyone has worth and everyone has the potential to contribute to a better world. This isn't as easy as pointing at people and making snap judgments based on a little bit of information, but it creates a better foundation for our lives. When we feel prompted to call out someone's beliefs or behavior, maybe we can find ways to do so calmly and without malice. We create better lives and a better world when we are honest about our strengths and weaknesses and we seek out the strengths of others before we start judging their weaknesses. It might even serve us well to keep in mind that what we think of as weaknesses, other people might think of as strengths. The bottom line is that we all still have something to learn, and if our worldview tells us something different, we need to examine that worldview very carefully.

 A Little Experiment: Be curious. When you see someone doing something well, or even doing something differently than you would do it, be curious. Observe what they do. If appropriate, ask them about their process. Don't offer advice or judge, just learn how they do what they do well.

Another Little Experiment: Catch yourself. It's easy to use short, dismissive labels for other people, especially when we want to write them off or explain away actions we don't like. This week, when you catch yourself using a dismissive label for someone, especially when you're feeling judgmental or angry, stop. Often we use the word "just" along with these labels, as in, "She's just clueless," or, "That's just what you can expect from overweight people." Stop yourself when you reduce people to a stereotype or a one-word label and consider what you might not know about them.

One More Little Experiment: You too. Sometimes we use one-word labels to self-criticize and judge ourselves too. We may not know enough about other people to honestly understand their behavior, but we can know ourselves. Be honest about who you are. Don't go overboard in either a positive or a negative self-description, but acknowledge the truth about yourself. Rather than self-critical language -- like, "I'm just stupid," or "I'm worthless" -- be honest. Maybe you didn't have all the information you would have liked when you made a decision. Say that instead of deciding that you're stupid or foolish. Just tell the truth. Try it for a week or two and see what happens.