* 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, August 31, 2015

John 16: Birthing

As we've observed many times, no one was transcribing the conversations of a historical Jesus. The author of John often writes about the issues and experiences of his community and places predictive or instructive words in Jesus' mouth as a way of establishing authority. If Jesus said it, after all, it has to be right. The obvious problem, of course, is that nobody can even verify that there was a historical Jesus who matched the mythical character in the gospel narratives, much less verify what such a person actually said. Thus, the author of John uses the characters of the disciples in the story to provide additional validation. Toward the end of John 16, for example, the disciples are made to say, "We know that you know all things, and no one needs to question you," and so the reader is expected to believe what the characters in the story believe, through a sort of vicarious trust. It is not all that different from the readers of a Stephen King novel believing in vampires or ghosts because the characters in a fictional story encountered them.

We will set aside this sort of vicarious trust based on fictionalized accounts, even though there may be some historical basis for the account as the author of John recorded. Instead, we'll look at what the author of John wrote, keeping in mind that he and his community faced a great deal of hardship and persecution from the Roman Empire. (We won't get into the myriad causes of that persecution.)

As John 16 continues from the promise of an internal guidance system, the author of John has Jesus speak cryptically about the disciples not seeing him and then seeing him, and pain that will turn to joy. Then, the author has Jesus promise the disciples that anything they request in Jesus' name will be granted to them. Finally, as the chapter closes, the author asserts that Jesus has conquered the world. Let's take a look at these three aspects of this passage in more detail.

How Not to Be Seen

The bits about seeing Jesus and not seeing him and then seeing him again are even written as confusing enough that the disciples in the story don't understand it. Some would read this passage as foreshadowing for the resurrection story, and it certainly makes dramatic sense to view it that way. In this case, it is a literary device that is more or less useless to us in terms of practical application. There is something else here, however, that may point in a different direction. The author compares the experience of the disciples to that of a mother giving birth. Some commentators read this bit as a reference to the earth giving birth to the resurrected Jesus, or some other reference to a rebirth of the Christ figure. Just reading the passages indicates that this cannot be what is intended. The disciples are the ones in pain, and they are the ones who will metaphorically give birth to something that will bring them joy.

Perhaps the author is writing about the birth of the Christian sect, that the disciples will give birth to a new movement within Judaism and away from Judaism that will bring joy. The author of John didn't have the advantage of seeing what monstrosities religious organizations can become when they have power, but rather saw the command of Jesus to love radically as a game changer from previous religious traditions. This idea to love one another first and foremost is what conquered the world for the author of John. So, if the disciples are giving birth to a new religious movement, the author is writing from an optimistic perspective that hasn't been entirely borne out in the history (and current reality) of the Christian church. Certainly, a global political powerhouse designed to control a population through shame and fear does not seem like something that would bring its creators joy. Maybe I just don't find joy in the same things as some other folks. 

What if the author is not thinking in terms of a global political powerhouse designed to control a population through shame and fear, though? What if the author was thinking in terms of how people and communities grow and mature? We considered in the first portion of John 16 that the Jesus character had to disappear in order for the disciples to take the responsibility of living into his example of radical love. When the Exemplar is around, doing all the work, taking all the risks and responsibility, life is pretty easy for the followers. When they are suddenly faced with doing the work of radical love themselves, becoming personally responsible for living into the principles they have embraced, life can become a little more challenging. Painful even. But that sort of commitment to integrity pays big dividends in terms of personal satisfaction and joy. And that joy originates from an individual's own innermost being, so it cannot be taken away by anything external. And that intentional life of integrity has influence that reaches beyond the individual.

The author of John may be envisioning what he hopes for his community -- that they take seriously the example of radical love exemplified in their image of Jesus and that they take personal responsibility for living by that example, even when it seems difficult and painful. Then, his community would see Jesus again, not because of any sort of miraculous return, but because they had each become a living embodiment of radical love -- each one of them an Exemplar for others to learn from and imitate. Maybe conveying these ideas directly seemed less effective than contextualizing everything in the Jesus myth, but somehow many people have glossed right over any suggestion of personal responsibility in the author's words.

In Jesus' Name

The apparent guarantee about receiving from God anything asked for in Jesus' name hasn't done anything to bolster a sense of personal responsibility. People read these promises from the author of John, placed in the mouth of the Jesus character, and they draw all sorts of conclusions about the magical formula of prayer. (For the sake of ease, let's define prayer here as petitionary -- asking a supernatural for something. All prayer may not fit into this category, but petitionary prayer is really what we're talking about.)

Some people even today believe that their financial, physical, emotional, and social well-being are ultimately dependent on their faith and their prayers. Some people even today believe that when something undesirable happens in their lives, God is punishing them or testing them. It would be a lot easier if passing the test involved taking more personal responsibility and trusting the advice of competent professionals, but usually passing such a "test of faith" seems to involve trusting or waiting on God to act on one's behalf. It's rather like being passive aggressive toward an imaginary supernatural, but doing it with an attitude of abject dependence.

I grew up in this sort of culture, in which prayers were believed to be answered directly by the supernatural, and I have the benefit of experiencing life on both sides of this belief. Now, with over a decade of prayerlessness under my belt, I can attest that life is better without prayer. What I may have expected God to do for me before, I now recognize as my own responsibility. Some things are beyond my control, of course, and for those things I can seek the advice of competent experts. Some things are even beyond the control of competent experts, and in those instances I can hope for a desirable outcome, realizing that it doesn't mean anything one way or the other about me or how acceptable or worthy I am. I know that things will go the way I want them to just as often whether I pray to God (in Jesus' name or otherwise) or I pray to my toaster -- I will get the experience of a Yes, No, or Wait answer regardless of the object of my prayer. In which case, why pray at all? 

I'm not sure how many believers read this commentary, but if there are prayerful people reading along, here is an experiment that you can conduct in your own life: Stop praying for two months. See how things go. Continue to be mindful, meditate, and be introspective if you like.) Also be aware of your own temptation to self-sabotage your life. Not relying on God to solve your problems for you means that you have to take responsibility for your own life. Try it for two months straight and keep track of your good days and bad days, your tragedies and celebrations. Then go back to petitioning God for two months. Keep track of your good days and your bad days, your tragedies and celebrations. Is there a difference? If so, maybe your experience of prayer has something to it that I never experienced. If the practical reality of your life is essentially the same whether you pray or not, maybe you would want to reevaluate your expectations of prayer.

In any case, we should also consider what it means to ask for something in Jesus' name. We have no idea what this may have meant to the author of John. Maybe he believed, as some people still do today, that one's prayers must include the words, "in Jesus' name," in order for them to be effective. As we have observed before, this is the very epitome of magic. If I do the right things, say the right magic words, make the right symbolic gestures -- Poof! I get the results I want. Such prayers are just a Christian version of magical incantations. Maybe that fits with the cultural beliefs of the late first century. 

Maybe the author of John had something else in mind, though. Maybe asking for something in Jesus' name is another way of saying, "If you are following the example of Jesus, if you have his heart and his mind, if you are walking in the way of compassion and radical love, the things you wind up desiring will flow naturally from that way of being." Maybe the author of John is even suggesting, "If you have the attitude of the Exemplar, and you recognize your own power in your life, you can accomplish things you never dreamed possible."

Conquering the World

Whatever he meant, though, the author follows up by directly admitting that much of the words he attributes to Jesus are figures of speech, in other words, not to be taken literally. He legitimizes the scattering of the disciples with predictive statements of Jesus (written over fifty years after any scattering might have occurred), and then he has Jesus proclaim that he has conquered the world. Indeed, some segments of the church do seem in many ways to still be on a crusade to conquer the world and make everyone behave the way certain religious leaders want them to behave, but the author of John had no clue how imperialistic and politically powerful Christianity would become. What could he have meant by asserting that Jesus had conquered the world?

Most likely, the world is a metaphor here for the widely accepted cultural and societal assumptions about what matters most and what gives life value. Today, we might interpret the world as the glorification of capitalism, the perceived importance of having an expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood and all the toys and entertainment devices one can possibly grab. The world may be the perceived separation of people based on skin color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality. The world is certainly the idea that wealth and power make life more worthwhile, that the promise of wealth and power are worth any sacrifices necessary. 

Jesus in the gospel of John is also a metaphor. The Jesus character is an exemplar of radical love that places people and community as more important than possessions, an exemplar of fully inhabiting one's identity and deriving satisfaction from living authentically rather than from living according to an externally derived set of criteria, an exemplar of engaging in building relationships and focusing on human connection rather than engaging in building empires and focusing on stockpiles of useless distractions from the messiness of human connection. 

Perhaps the author of John believed that people would recognize the futility of the socially perpetuated myth of wealth and power if they experienced the fullness of human connection and authenticity available to people. Perhaps he believed that people would be wise enough to choose what is deeply meaningful and satisfying in life over what is ephemeral and fatuous. Millions of people seem not to be wise enough even to understand that this is the choice before them. 

Here is an opportunity for clarity in your life. No supernatural is going to do the things for you that are your responsibility to do. All of the wealth and power in the world will not make your life more satisfying; these things just bring different kinds of anxieties. Your willingness to prioritize building connection within yourself and with the human beings around you is the key that unlocks meaningfulness and satisfaction in life. Your willingness to grow into greater authenticity with confidence is what allows you to transcend the pettiness of living from distraction to distraction until you're put in a box. Connection and authenticity can be painful, more painful than the numbness of being disconnected and irresponsible. But along with that pain comes the opportunity to give birth to something amazing -- You.

Monday, August 24, 2015

John 16: No Messiah Needed

When reading words attributed to Jesus, it is important to keep in mind that we have no record of Jesus from the time during which he was supposed to have lived. We know that some other individuals mentioned in the gospel narratives were historical figures, but we have nothing written by or about Jesus during the first half of the first century. In the case of the gospel of John, it's likely that more than 50 years passed between the supposed time of Jesus' crucifixion and the recording of the gospel text. If someone gave a substantial speech in your presence half a century ago, would you remember it word for word? The long term memories of the gospel writers weren't any better than yours. In John, we even see what appear to be attempts to correct (or at least play upon) earlier gospels.

It is for this reason that we ask, "What might the author have meant by this?" rather than, "What might Jesus have meant by this?" when we read the gospel narratives. Jesus is a character in a story, and we have imagined for our examination of John that Jesus is an exemplar, a representative of an idealized version of ourselves. There are some instances, however, in which it is obvious that the author is writing about something specific to his own community of persecuted believers. John 16 is one such instance.

We have just read the bit about the world hating the disciples. The author follows this by indicating that the followers of Jesus will be ostracized from Jewish places of worship and community, and that they will be killed by people who think they are being righteous. These things had already happened to the author's community by the time the gospel was written. Placing these predictions in Jesus' mouth helped to legitimize the experience of the author's community as part of a divine plan. "If Jesus knew about all of this terror ahead of time, then we can trust that he knew we would survive."
These words, then, are not really to Jesus' disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. They are to a community of people struggling to survive in a world that seemed highly committed to harming them. 

There have always been these people, and the descendants of the gospel writer's community have sometimes been on the side doing the persecuting. Africans were brought to the United States as slaves and treated as less than human, and some of the people in power justified it by their Christian scriptures. Even today, the educational and justice systems in place in the U.S. seem orchestrated to persecute people with darker skin tones. And many people think they are being righteous in perpetuating injustice. Some of those people are Christian. The author of John might suggest that such people have never known God or Jesus.

The LGBT community is another group facing constant persecution in many parts of the world, including the United States. Progress has been made, but there are still places of worship and community where LGBT folks are ostracized. There are still people who inflict harm on LGBT people and think they are doing God's work. The author of John might suggest that such people have never really known God or Jesus, else they would never be able to hate so intensely.

The author of John also provides an answer, and surprisingly the answer is that people do not need Jesus. In fact, in this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he must be out of the picture so that they will learn to trust an "Advocate" or "Helper" within themselves. The author of John suggests that this internal guidance system cannot function if Jesus remains, perhaps because the disciples would never learn to trust their own sense of what it is to love radically, to live with purpose and integrity to their own principles, to be agents of transformation. 

Whether there was ever an actual Jesus or not, the example set by the gospel narrative is not that far off from the guidance of our deepest, most noble selves. We know what fear looks like, and we know what love looks like. We know what it is to be guided by our anxiety, and we know what it looks like to be guided by solid values. We lift up people who live with purpose and intention because we think of them as extraordinary, but the truth is that it could be very ordinary human behavior to live with a sense of purpose, in impeccable alignment with a clear set of guiding principles. 

Integrity need not seem so extraordinary. 
Our human fears do not have to carry more influence than our human connection. 
Our anxiety need not be more powerful than our ability to love and thrive together. 
We do not need a messiah. 
We need to pay attention to our own selves, our internal sense of what is ultimately true about ourselves and others, once we have cleared away all of the irrational fear and anxiety. 
We are so accustomed to listening to our anxiety that many of us have forgotten what the voice of actual truth sounds like. 
We don't need a savior. 
We just need to learn to listen to ourselves better. 

And that takes courage. 
Integrity seems so extraordinary now because living by clear principles is counter-cultural. In many ways we are addicted to anxious reactivity. 
It takes courage to stand for something besides fear. 
It takes courage to establish values in our lives that acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of every person. 
It takes courage to recognize that violence and entitlement always come from a place of fear. 
It takes courage to stand calmly in the midst of reactive people and not be swayed by their anxiety.
And no one else can be courageous for you. 
No one else can dismantle your fear for you. 
No one else can have integrity for you. 
This is the human work of human beings, not work to entrust to a supernatural. 
Others can support and encourage and empower you, but the work is yours to do. 
It's what human beings do when they are ready to be fully human.

So, are you ready?

Monday, August 17, 2015

John 15: Criticism Is Not a Righteousness Indicator

Immediately after having Jesus telling the disciples to base all that they do on love, the author of John observes a dichotomy between the way the disciples are supposed to live and the rest of the world. The author of John asserts in John 15:18-27 that the world will persecute the followers of Jesus because they do not know (or willingly remain ignorant of) the truth of Jesus' message.

Some people wear persecution as a badge of honor. Some people even read in the Bible that they should expect persecution if they follow the example of Jesus, and then they go out of their way to make sure others will criticize them. The problem is that some people believe that if other people criticize what they are doing, they must be doing something right. They use persecution as confirmation that they are being righteous. This is horribly misguided.

When we decide that other people's derision is a sign that we are headed in the right direction, we walk a very dangerous path. We need other people's insights and observations, because we cannot see everything ourselves. We have blind spots. When we refuse to consider the feedback other people offer to us, we miss opportunities to adjust our behavior when we are misaligned with our deepest values.

The author of John is suggesting that if people take seriously the call to radical love, then there will be others who attack that position out of fear and ignorance. The point is not that if people criticize you, you're doing something right. The point is that if you're doing what is right, some people will criticize you. There is a huge difference. Criticism is to be expected, and we should prepare for it so we don't get knocked off course. Criticism is not a measurement tool, though. We can't assume that all criticism is an indication that we are effectively basing all that we do on sound principles in alignment with our deepest values. 

Anxiety causes people to base their decisions on all manner of things that are worthy of criticism. People crave more wealth, more exclusive neighborhoods, more toys, more isolation from people who seem different, more access to high quality healthcare and education and food and entertainment. We see suffering and we often run the other way, trying to escape it in our own lives because we can't stand seeing it in other people's lives. We build walls of protection around ourselves so that we don't have to face a reality that might cost us something. We fail to love because we are too busy being right, we just don't always know what we're trying to be right about. We lose our sense of our principles and our values because we are too focused on making our anxiety go away.

We have to know what we value first and foremost, and we have to live with integrity to those values. If we envision ourselves as loving people, for instance, that value is the guide by which we evaluate our behavior, not people's criticism. If we want to be loving, and other people give us feedback that we aren't being very loving, we need to pay attention to that feedback. Using criticism as an indicator that we must be on the right path can lead us far astray from the principles upon which we most want our lives to be built.

As the author of John suggests, we have within us an internal guidance system. Some of us may not pay a lot of attention to it, especially if we are accustomed to writing off criticism as validation. Yet, we know when there is something off about our behavior, or when there is something off in our relationships. The author of John probably experienced some persecution as he and his community strove to build their behavior on the foundation of radical love. The radical love was the goal, though, not the persecution.

There are those today who believe that their religious liberties are threatened when other people gain equal freedoms under the law. When they speak out in hatred and fear, they are sometimes criticized, and sometimes they turn to passages like this one and claim that the people doing the criticizing are misguided and ignorant. Such fearful and hateful people often miss the context of the passage, that love is intended to be the foundation of every action. 

Hatred and violence are worthy of criticism, and any belief system that promotes fear and violence is worthy of all the admonishment we can muster. We can speak words of admonition without becoming hateful and fearful ourselves. We can be loving and still provide strong corrective feedback when others allow their fear to run away with them. We absolutely must offer boldly loving admonition if we want our world and our relationships to be just and equitable.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"If people hate you for being loving and for living with integrity, be aware that people have always done so. If you had their level of unchecked anxiety, you would fit right in and people would accept you more easily. Because you have taken on a more intentional way of being, some people are going to hate you. You are not alone. Many other people before you have been persecuted by fearful people. But there have also always been people who sought a better way of living.

"If people had no resources to manage their anxiety and live more intentionally, it would be easier to forgive their ignorant hatred. By now, though, there have been plenty of examples in every religious tradition that could equip and empower people to live with integrity to the deepest value of love. When they hate you for being loving, they wind up hating the very thing they say they most value, even their own gods. They have no justifiable reason to be anxious, but they refuse to realize it.

"You have a connection with your deepest, most noble self. Nurture that connection and let it guide you into integrity with what you value most. Your very life will be a testimony to those who are willing to listen, and a model for those who are willing to follow your example."