* 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, April 27, 2015

John 13: Loving One Another

The foot washing scene moves immediately to several chapters of theological monologue. In some respects, these passages express a sort of theological framework for the community of the authors. In other respects, these passages seem to be intended as encouragement to people who are being persecuted. The obvious intention is for the reader to identify with the disciples in the story, as a recipient of the promises, directives, and encouragement of the Jesus character. We will continue to explore these writings from the perspective that the Jesus character is intended as an exemplar with whom the reader could identity. The concluding paragraphs of John 13 include some plot devices that make this a little more challenging, however, so we'll see what use we can make of it.

First, Jesus finishes washing the feet of his disciples and proclaims that someone among them will betray him. He seems disturbed by this, according to the text, and he and Simon Peter engage in a little subterfuge, working out a secret sign to reveal the betrayer. Of course, the readers already know the tale, but this singles Peter out as someone special -- someone in the inner circle. We've already explored how the metaphor of Satan entering Judas represents him being driven his own fearful thoughts and beliefs. It's odd that Peter doesn't stand up and accuse Judas, given the implication of the secret message exchange with Jesus, but for whatever reason, he doesn't let the cat out of the bag to the other disciples.

This is probably just as well, since by the end of the chapter, Jesus will make the unsettling prediction that Peter will also soon betray their friendship. It's important to remember that the gospels that made it into the Bible are stories with a narrative structure, and stories need some elements to keep the plot moving forward. Probably, we could comment that every relationship will have moments in which one party throws the other under the bus, valuing personal pride or apparent safety over loyalty or devotion. People are complicated, so relationships are bound to be complicated. It's what the authors have Jesus say in between the announcement of Judas' betrayal and the forecasting of Peter's betrayal that actually provides a meaningful framework for complicated relationships.

Here, the authors put forth a "new commandment": Love one another. There are obviously old commandments. Most simply, we could view the "ten commandments" as the old covenant that the Israelites perceived as their responsibility to uphold. There are a lot of other laws and commandments in Hebrew Scripture that are proclaimed as divinely authoritative, but some of these laws are clearly peculiar to an ancient culture. By contrast, the "thou shalt nots" of the ten commandments are generally moral and ethical admonitions that most people can agree with. Don't kill people. Don't steal things. Don't commit adultery. Don't lie. We quickly invent exceptions, of course, but we generally agree with the ethical premises.

The exceptions are where we get into trouble, though. Many times, we make exceptions to moral and ethical principles because we are afraid of something. "I'm afraid I'll get into big trouble, so I'll just tell a little lie." "We're afraid that our loved ones aren't safe, so it's alright if we kill someone else's loved ones to prevent them from hurting us." "I'm afraid that I'm not lovable, so I'll indulge in someone else's affection, even though I know it's wrong to betray the trust of my partner." Our exceptions, whether we realize it or not, are steeped in fear about ourselves or other people, and when we come up with enough exceptions, the ethical principles have little value.

Even when people consider their ethical principles to be commandments from God, they orchestrate clever arrays of exceptions. Then, they orchestrate convoluted processes by which their exceptions can be excused. People wind up with complicated patterns of exoneration behavior (going to church, doing some kind of social work, praying for forgiveness, etc.) in order to make up for equally complicated integrity gaps. "I hold this ethical principle, except in the following 219 special circumstances."

Many believers are even sketchy with regard to the old commandments to honor God and keep the sabbath holy. They define God as a supernatural who agrees with their perspective. They define keeping the sabbath holy as going to church, or watching it on television, or at least praying for their team before they sit down in the bleachers at the stadium. And these principles were already squishy two thousand years ago. This is not really a commentary on current society. The Jewish religious leaders had to invent a convoluted set of laws to put boundaries on just how far one could reasonably go to skirt the ethical principles.

Some will say that the old commandments are still in place, and this is true to the extent that we all agree on many of the ethical principles. To put a Humanist spin on the whole array: We are better off honoring our own authentic selves than trying to live up to some externally defined standard of success or worthiness. We are better off when we set aside time for rest and introspection. We are better off when we are impeccable with our word. We are better off when we consider the loving advice of our elders, even when we wind up disagreeing with that advice and heading in a different direction. We are better off when we are committed to finding non-violent solutions. We are better off when we are honest, when we honor the trust of our relationships, when we recognize our own abundance. We are better off when we manage our own anxiety about not measuring up and we relax into living with integrity and intention. And we are better off when we let other people express their own authentic selves without believing that we need to convince them, compete with them, correct them, or condemn them.

The authors, through the character of Jesus, are trying to simplify all of that. They are attempting to simplify the convoluted guidelines that define the laws that clarify the ethical principles. Perhaps they are even hoping to stem the potential for excuses and complex patterns of behavior to make the excuses palatable. Love one another. Act in ways that reflect genuine regard for one another's well-being. Ask yourself before you say or do what you are about to say or do, "Will this demonstrate love?" If the answer is Yes, go right ahead. If the answer is No, reconsider your decisions.

Who is one another, then? Did the authors mean just the disciples sitting in the room with Jesus? Probably not. They are writing these words to a community of people generations after the events of the narrative were supposed to have happened. Does one another just apply to members of the same community, then? So, show love to people who believe the same things you do, but you aren't obligated to demonstrate love toward anyone else? This is certainly the way some people seem to interpret it. This seems like another clever way of making excuses for claiming an ethical or moral position and still getting to treat people however you want to.

The point of having a "new commandment" is to establish a guiding principle for the community that is in some way superior to the previous principle(s) by which the community made decisions. Meaning, the authors are suggesting that if people "love one another," there won't be any need for rules about avoiding specific behaviors. People who love one another don't kill each other. People who love one another don't lie about each other. People who love one another don't steal from each other. They don't let their fear provoke them into doing harm or taking things personally. If "love one another" is taken seriously, without leaving room for excuses when love is inconvenient or uncomfortable, you don't need a long catalog of rules or an itemized list of what to avoid.

It isn't always clear what the most loving action would be in certain situations. There is certainly room for discussion about how to create the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That's rarely our motivation, though. Our motivation is more often, How can I seem loving at the least cost to my own sense of safety and comfort? This new commandment the authors are suggesting to their community takes a lot of thought and lot of work. It requires people to be very intentional in the way they treat people. It isn't weak or easy, and most people simply don't buy it.

Love people. How many excuses just popped into your head? Who do you think you don't have to love? What problems can't be addressed by love? What are you unwilling to give up when it comes to loving other people?

Part of our problem is a flimsy definition of love. We might reasonably define love as demonstrable concern for another's well-being. There is an element of compassionate connection in the word perhaps, but there is nothing about love that requires permissiveness, or giving up one's own authentic self for the sake of someone else's comfort. Love, as a foundational value, directs us toward actions that align with the guiding principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity. Love as a principle holds us accountable in a very different way from a checklist of avoided misdeeds.

Love one another. Respect other people's boundaries, and be clear about your own boundaries.

Love one another. Do what is within your means to contribute to the well being of people around you without being judgmental or condescending.

Love one another. Care for yourself well enough that you will be able to offer your best to others.

Love one another. Take responsibility for only what you are responsible for, and let other people be responsible for their own feelings, beliefs, and decisions.

Love one another. Listen compassionately without trying to fix people.

Love one another. Seriously. Get to the heart of what that means, and make your life about that. This is no small adjustment or simple task. This is a lifelong commitment to a deep value that permeates every relationship.

Love one another. When it starts to settle in that this is not a platitude, but that this is the very core of what it means to be fully human, you'll be on the right track.

Monday, April 13, 2015

John 13: Washing Feet

As you may recall, a few passages back in the story, Mary (sister of Lazarus) lavished expensive perfume on Jesus' feet, and the disciples were somewhat irate (one in particular). Now, in the first paragraphs of John 13, Jesus humbles himself and washes the disciples' feet. As is par for the course in all of the gospel narratives, the disciples don't quite get it, at least not at the time.

Yes, we have to decide what to do with the assertion that the devil put something into Judas' heart that made his impending betrayal a foregone conclusion. Actually, the way the gospel of John keeps preparing the reader with dramatic foreshadowing about Judas' betrayal is quite interesting. It's as if the authors recognize that everyone already knows the story, and their job is to help place meaning on the details. They do this from their own perspective, of course, but they can't actually know some of the things they assert. 

Case in point, they can't know that a supernatural influenced Judas in any way. It was part of their worldview that demons and angels were active in the lives of people, primarily because they had no other explanation for some of what they experienced. Disease was mysterious. Epilepsy and depression and schizophrenia were not even meaningful concepts. As with many people today, luck and coincidence seemed less likely reasons for certain turns of events than the idea that supernaturals were influencing reality in one way or another. We are still prone to making up stories about why people do the things they do, and the idea of demonic influence is still a hot topic in our fictions. 

Human behavior has human causes. I don't know that there was an actual Judas, but even in the story, I don't know what was in the mind of the character Judas. I know what the authors of John believed about the situation, but I also know that human behavior is never the result of a supernatural force. Judas' "devil" was his own thoughts and beliefs, his own fears about himself and others. This is influential enough to account for the whole spectrum of human behavior. 

Beliefs are powerful, especially fear-laden beliefs. When we read of Judas' betrayal later in the narrative, it would behoove us to interpret the devil entering his heart as his own fears running rampant and unchecked. Although Judas presumably has the same capacity as anyone else for rational thought and intentional management of his fear, he will choose to let his fear guide his behavior. We know people (and we ourselves may sometimes be those people) who continue to let their fear guide their behavior. If we know what to look for, it's easy to see it when it's happening, just as the Jesus character may have seen the telltale signs of fear in Judas' demeanor.

The Jesus character doesn't react with his own fear about Judas. He doesn't kick Judas out. He doesn't plead with Judas. He doesn't berate and embarrass Judas in front of everyone. He doesn't tell Judas that he's wrong. He doesn't argue with Judas. The Jesus character just continues with his own intentional actions with the barest acknowledgment that he knows what's cooking in Judas' mind. The Jesus character keeps teaching and modeling a way of being, even though he is fairly certain that all of his instruction will be lost on this person who is so wrapped up in his own fear that he can't see anything else. 

Much has been written in Christian circles about the foot washing scene. It's often a highlight of religious services the Thursday before Easter. In some traditions, this day is called "Maundy Thursday," a name derived from the Latin for "mandate" or "command," taken from the statement at John 13:34, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another." The demonstration of love in washing their feet is only the most recent of many examples of Jesus' love for others. The example set in the story is that love is more powerful than fear -- that in our lives, love-centered behavior is preferable to fear-driven actions.

This is true in our personal relationships as it is true in our professional decisions. If we are driven by fear, we will inevitably act in a way that harms other people and ourselves. If we are principled in our decisions, we are more apt to make decisions with integrity. Saying that love should be at the heart of what we do is not to say that foolish decisions are justifiable if we make those decisions with loving intentions. Wisdom and thoughtfulness are still worthy ideals. We might get side-tracked by a flimsy definition of love as an affectionate emotion. If love is defined as demonstrative concern for another's well-being, however, it becomes clearer that we must be thoughtful in order to contribute meaningfully to actual well-being in someone's life.

The Jesus character in this passage demonstrates concern for the well-being of his closest friends by serving them in a way they don't expect. He takes a vulnerable, humble position with them, and yet he still has his own clear boundaries. When Simon Peter protests, the Exemplar doesn't shift his actions, he gently and firmly explains that he is being thoughtful and intentional in his decision. 

Life is full of stress and anxiety. Even though we may not have a friend and teacher about to be executed, and even though we may not be driven into hiding because our group has attracted unwanted attention from authorities, we have no trouble finding things to be anxious about. When we are humbly thoughtful of how we might be of service to other people, it might shift our perspective away from the focus on anxiety that tends to be our default. The Exemplar in this story is not seeking after his own power or fame or reward. He is committed to a particular way of being because it resonates with his deepest values. He wants his closest friends to get that, to see their own potential for living that level of integrity.

We cannot honestly care only for ourselves. Our actions influence other people. We can't not be connected to others. This being the case, it's worth a little consideration how we will influence others. Our fears will suggest certain courses of action. Our deepest values will suggest a different way of being. We get to choose which we will follow. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

John 12: Walking in the Light

The remainder of John 12 is a bit scattered. Jesus says some things to the gathered crowd, then runs away, and finally shouts some parting words. It's unclear in the text whether he cries out as he's slipping away from the crowd or calling out from a hiding spot. Actually, this passage is probably just a piece of the tradition that settled into this spot in the narrative because it seems to continue the theme of light and darkness.

We've already addressed the matter of looking at "prophetic" scriptures and telling a story that seems to be a fulfillment of those words. The book of Isaiah was not written about Jesus. We've actually looked at the first third of Isaiah, and we'll return to the later additions to the book, but none of it is about Jesus. When other people don't see things the way we do, it's easy to write the other people off and say, "God must be blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts." After all, if other people knew what we know, they would see things as we see them, right?

Wrong. People have their own complex reasons for believing and thinking what they do, and we are not usually in a position to sort through another person's psyche to judge their perspective. Writing people off doesn't explain their position -- it just prevents us from having to examine our own perspective. When we believe that God sees things as we do, and that God has blinded others and hardened their hearts against the truth, we have no reason to consider that our own perspective may be off-kilter. Better to spend our time and energy expanding and focusing our own beliefs and ideas instead of judging other people as blind and stupid.

This passage also begins with a confusing event. Jesus is speaking, and then there is a sound. Some people heard the sounds and concluded that it was thunder. Jesus apparently acted as if there was something intelligible in the thunder, so some people hypothesized that he was hearing angels -- that he was hearing something no one else could hear. The explanation, however, is that the voice was not for Jesus' benefit, but for the benefit of the people... who heard only thunder. Should the reader assume that God also deafened the people against his voice, even though it was for their benefit that the words were uttered? Probably best to leave this aside and chalk it up to the mythology of the ancient community in which the authors of John lived.

Of the portions of this passage that can be useful for us in our lives, we can trace a couple of ideas. The authors have Jesus say that if he is lifted up, he will attract everyone, and the authors interpret that as a foreshadowing of the passion story. What if that phrase means something different? What if it means that his way of being would be appealing to all people if they only saw it clearly? This is followed by the theme of walking in the light, and then there is mention of the fear that prevents the Pharisees from being honest about their agreement with Jesus' teachings. The concluding paragraph gently asserts that Jesus has authority and should be listened to, returning to the metaphor of light.

The authors generally present Jesus as fearlessly loving toward other people. He doesn't worry very much about what other people think (although he is sensible enough to run away when people seem to turn violent). He acts out of his own deep values. He is authentic in his expression of himself. And in being his authentic self, he expresses love and care for the people around him. His deepest, most noble self doesn't lead him toward tyranny or abuse, but toward kindness, compassion, and cooperation. He wants other people to have the same freedom to express their own deep values authentically, because he trusts that human beings share certain guiding principles in common. Once the fear and false beliefs are out of the way, he seems to think that people are, at their core, loving and peaceful beings. If people cast aside their fear and live into a best possible version of themselves, then the world can be a better place.

One of the problems, though, is that people can't imagine what that would look like. People need to see that kind of authenticity modeled in order to even believe that it's possible to be directed by one's own internal guidance system of deep values. Thus, the statement that if Jesus' way of being authentic is lifted up, people will find it attractive -- people will believe that it is at least possible to live in a way that authentically reflects their deepest, most noble selves.

There is still a lot of fear to wade through, though. As is the case with the Pharisees, there are a lot of social controls that work to keep people behaving according to societal expectations. Should we suddenly start living by our own deep values and guiding principles, other people will talk. We might be ostracized or abandoned by some people. The authors of John judge the Pharisees and say that they were more interested in glory from people than the glory that comes from their own deepest, most noble selves. Our relationships with other people are important, though. Being part of a group makes us safer, and human connection is vital to our existence. It's a legitimate fear that if we start living differently, we will put some of our social safety in jeopardy.

Social constraints are like blindfolds. We can be led around by other people's ideas of propriety, but we can't know where we are being led. When we allow the habits of people around us, the marketing that constantly bombards us, and other external directives to determine our behavior, we are essentially walking around in the dark. When we recognize our own deep values and live with integrity to those guiding principles, we are able to walk around in the light -- to have a clearer trajectory for our lives. This is a big challenge, especially when we look around us and find that many of the people closest to us are content to live in the dark. It doesn't seem safe to start walking in the light when everyone around you is happy with the dark.

We can judge those other people, of course. We can call them lazy, shallow, or spineless. We can say that they can't think for themselves or that they let themselves be led around by the nose. We can believe that they are stupid, irresponsible, complacent, or apathetic. Really, though, what reason does anyone around us have to live with integrity to a clear set of guiding principles? What example do they have that living intentionally into a best possible version of oneself is even possible?

Whatever the example of Jesus might have been, that story has been contorted to be about human weakness rather than human potential. The Jesus figures of current Christianities are rarely expressed as exemplars and are much more frequently portrayed as unique divine individuals with superhuman capability. Even historical or living people who do extraordinary things are more often seen as extraordinary people, while we are all normal, ordinary -- incapable of anything more than shuffling through a mediocre life. How can we expect anyone to walk in the light when there is no real model of what that looks like?

This is one reason that living intentionally is so damn scary. We see so few people even trying to do it. It seems far-fetched. Outlandish. Unrealistic. Yet, there are people living intentionally into a best possible version of themselves. We may have to look for them, but there are models we can look to. It's scary to risk being thrown out of the synagogue, but sometimes we have to get ostracized from our familiar exemplars so that we can see another possibility. Our confidence in our own guiding principles is won by pressing through the uncertainty of doing something so few other people are doing, realizing that it isn't that we are extraordinary people, we are just doing something extraordinary. Just about anyone can walk in the light. Just about anyone can live into a best possible version of themselves. It's work, but just about anyone can do it. Few choose to do so.

Paraphrasing the summary of Jesus' teaching at the end of this chapter of John:
If you follow my example of living intentionally and fearlessly by a clear set of deep values, you aren't just trusting me -- you're trusting yourself. You're trusting your own deepest, most noble self to guide you well. If you watch me, you'll see my deepest, most noble self. There isn't a barrier between the way I behave and the deep principles I hold. I'm living this way because it's an authentic expression of who I am, and I'm living this way visibly and publicly so that you can discover how to live authentically in your own life. If you choose to keep living by your old habits, that's fine. It isn't my job to judge you or criticize the choices you make. Something deep inside you knows if you aren't living with integrity, and you're going to put yourself through enough torment without me adding to it. I trust that living intentionally in alignment with the values I hold most deeply means that my life is full and rich and satisfying. I know that's possible for you too. I hope that when you look at what I'm doing, you see possibilities for your own abundant life.
There is no reason this cannot be the message we carry to the world around us. Yes, it is safer to stay within the confines of our familiar social constraints. Yes, it is scary to start doing something different from the people around us. If we care about those people, though -- if we want their lives to be full and rich and satisfying -- one of the greatest gifts we can give is to let them see us living into those possibilities. We live intentionally for ourselves. We get the benefit of living into a best possible version of ourselves. We also influence others, though. And our authentic lives aligned with our guiding principles are going to have a positive influence on the people around us. It is never just about us.