Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

Discomfort with Easter

I have never liked Easter.

Deep down I’ve known this for years but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. After all, Easter is when we Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead and all it implies: new hope of a new life, God’s victory over death and evil. We sing hymns with words like exult and joy and especially alleluia. What’s not to like?

I never had a good answer to that question. For decades I went through the motions, hoping for some real joy to emerge. I attended church on Easter and sang like everyone else. I meditated on the resurrection to glean what meaning I could. Nothing really took hold.

This past Sunday, while driving to church, the reason for my discomfort with Easter suddenly hit me:

It’s all too tidy.

Total victory for the forces of good. The devil loses, God wins. The details are still playing out centuries later, but a joyous ending is assured.

I’ve seen movies with endings like this, and they make me crazy, because life doesn’t work that way.

From everything I’ve seen, life is messy. Good people do stupid things, sometimes with catastrophic results. Nasty people do heroic things out of the blue. We strive to get along with co-workers and neighbors and relatives who stir up ambivalence in our hearts. We compromise in so many places to get through our days. The most tragic events of our lives can bear fruit in our souls—but they’re tragic nonetheless.

The Easter story is not like this. So I don’t trust it.

But here’s the rub: I am devoted to a faith that declares the resurrection to be true—one of the foundational truths of the whole tradition. If I want to align with my home faith tradition, and I do, I can’t just toss the story out. I have to stare it in the face, to hold the tension between the centuries-old truth and my decades-old discomfort—not trying to resolve it, but seeing what emerges, even letting the story change me.

I have no idea how this will come out, or how long it will take. In the meantime, I’m riveted by the resurrection story in the gospel of Mark (16:1-8)—the original text, without the satisfying ending glommed on. Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in this passage. We simply read of a young man in a tomb telling three women that Jesus has risen from the dead. And how did they react? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Fear. Amazement. Questions, undoubtedly. That’s one hot stew of emotions. Like my own.

The solidarity I feel with these women and their reactions gives me a shard of hope. Maybe my response to Easter is not abnormal or abhorrent, but simply human. That’s what the Christian story does so well: it reminds us of our humanity in all its lovely tangled mess—including the joy that, every now and then, rises to the surface.

What Would Happen If You Dropped Everything?

What if you were asked to drop everything and go in a different direction?

It’s amazing how often this crops up in ancient stories. To wit:

  • The Hebrew prophet Jonah preaches destruction to the Assyrian city of Nineveh; the inhabitants drop what they’re doing and repent of their wickedness.
  • Jesus calls a couple of fishermen to follow him; they drop their nets and go where he goes.
  • Wealthy Indian merchants encountered the Buddha, heard his wisdom, and instantly joined the Sangha (the community of his followers).
  • A young Jewish man named Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus—until a heavenly vision inspires him to drop everything and become a follower of Jesus.

What gives here? It’s hard to make sense of these stories when seen through the lens of 21st-century America. Even if we sensed a need to switch directions, most of us would consider it carefully, weigh options, draw up pro-and-con lists, consult family and friends, pray or meditate on it, and draw a conclusion. That’s a pretty mature way to do it. So why all the drop everything bit?

I have no idea what these stories say about decision-making techniques specifically. I do, though, hear a larger message that the immediacy of the stories dramatizes: this thing—whatever you’re dropping everything for—is more important than anything you’re doing, so stop NOW and pay attention.

To put it another way: every now and then, something—or, I would say, someone—breaks into the routine of our daily lives, no matter how good and virtuous those lives are, and commands us to listen, reflect, rethink. On occasion it changes our lives, whether immediately or (more often) over years.

If that sounds scary, well, it is. The good news: we always have the option to say no. The better news: there’s one great reason to say yes—one thing that turns the uncertainty of it all into adventure, and the worry into joy.

That one thing is the essence of the One we’re dealing with here: God, the Universe, Emptiness, whatever term you use.

In short, we’re dealing with Love itself, or the Reason to love. So wherever we go, whatever path we follow, we follow Love. Wherever Love leads us, it may be bumpy, it may be challenging, it may terrify us, but it will be good—for ourselves and whatever corner of the world we influence. No wonder the Bible’s First Letter of John tells us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Many people have done this sort of thing, more than you’d think. It’s what moves a New York financial executive to become a monk, or a successful copywriter to write more fruitful things for much less pay (no one I know, I assure you ; ), or a young gourmand to follow Jesus into the wildest wastelands of the Algerian desert. Sometimes it’s not even as outwardly dramatic as this: the new direction might look “normal” but represents a profound shift for the one who’s called to it.

Has this sort of thing happened to you? How did you respond? What difference has it made in your life?

Finally, an invitation. I’m starting to collect stories of people like this for a book project. If you’d like to share yours—or if you know someone whose story might fit—feel free to get in touch.

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

Incarnation: Maybe It’s Not Just a Jesus Thing

Always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everyone else.   —bumper sticker

 

It’s a little weird when your profound life lesson for 2017 turns up on a bumper sticker.

For the past few years I’ve been getting painful reminders of how I’m just like everyone else. In my loftier moments I’m prone to thinking I’ve made progress in certain areas of my life—that I’ve moved beyond petty envies and dark prejudices and grudges and other schmutz of the soul.

And then something comes up and I realize it’s all still there. I am just like everybody else. Not really worse. But certainly not better.

Just. Ordinary. Average.

This has me thinking about incarnation.

If you’re familiar with Christian thought, you know the word well. The Incarnation is the name given to God’s becoming fully and utterly human in the person of Jesus. This isn’t about taking on a human shell or form: it’s becoming one of us. Which means a lot of schmutzy stuff: pooping his diapers, banging his thumb with a carpenter’s hammer, possibly squabbling with his saintly parents, wandering off like a normal curious preteen in a big city like Jerusalem, having wild visions of his own destiny, making life choices that look scary and strange from the outside.

Dying.

As the Bible says, Jesus suffered and was tempted and challenged in the same ways we are (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). For me, it’s a wonderful doctrine—maybe the best Christianity has to offer. What it says to me is that God, the One force and creator behind the entire Universe, gets us. Firsthand. From the inside out.

What if we’re called to the same thing?

That may seem silly at first. We don’t need to become human. We are human. We’re already “incarnate.”

Well, yes we are. But do we actually live it: mindfully, fully, aware of our ordinariness and therefore—all-important—our ordinariness in solidarity with all other human beings?

This is the lesson I’ve been learning. All kinds of jealousies rise in my heart when someone else steals my spotlight, and I see I’m envious and insecure just like everyone else. I’m suddenly confronted with a deep need or vulnerability—again—and I see I’m needy and vulnerable just like everyone else. Something I write uncovers an insight I didn’t even know I knew, and I see I have these wonderful gifts and talents to share, just like everyone else.

So when I go fulfill one of God’s two most basic commands, “love your neighbor as yourself,” I can see my neighbor as myself. Because I’ve had practice in learning to love myself with all my schmutz, I can learn to love my neighbors with all their schmutz.

Suddenly that horrible thing about my friend X doesn’t seem so horrible because I’ve got it too. Suddenly I can look at the whole person and just embrace them all, beautiful and well short of beautiful. I am them, I can see myself in them, so I can love them as I love myself.

How is this not incarnation? Sure, we’re already human. This is about being fully, attentively human. What Jesus did. What we, just maybe, are called to do too.

A Brief (and Interfaith) Christmas Meditation

This morning, my email brought me a story in which the author delivered a sefer Torah, the long scroll used in synagogues, to a fledgling Reform community in Israel. The actual hand-off, which took place in an airport, involved some initial consternation:

I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, [the community’s] student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren’t sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn’t have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf, ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, “May it bring good things for the people of Israel!”

Without realizing it, the older woman crossed a divide simply by expressing the devotion she holds in her heart every day.

That story inspired the first sentence in a brief meditation I wrote from my own tradition (Christianity). I shared it on Facebook, and I share it with you here:

People can be wonderful. People can be horrible. The gospel story of Jesus’ birth contains evidence of both. One reason I follow my faith is that it, like many other faith traditions, assures us that wonderful wins. Or will. To all of you who celebrate it, have a blessed Christmas.

To all of you, may the coming year bring more divides crossed, more bridges built, and a deeper experience of the divine, whatever you conceive it to be.

 

Why We Must Listen, and Listen, and Listen Again

This isn’t about aural listening per se, but I think the lesson still applies.

Today my church’s lectionary (a fixed order of sacred texts for each day of the year) prescribed the reading of Matthew 19:1-12, in which Jesus speaks out on divorce. In keeping with the monastic tradition that I’m associated with, Igive these lectionary passages a slow, contemplative reading, listening to how the passage speaks to my heart more than my head.

The first time through, the liturgy from weddings past echoed in my mind: “That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The second time through, I heard what I’ve always heard in this passage: Jesus holds marriage as sacred, regards divorce as a necessary evil, and has some tough words about remarrying—the sort of thing that does not go down well when your country’s divorce rate hovers around 40 percent.

Something, though, made me linger.

As I wandered through a third time, another insight emerged. Nearly every reference has to do with a man divorcing his wife—not the other way around. As noted in Breakthrough: The Bible for Young Catholics, “Women in Jesus’ culture had very few rights and were basically considered the property of their husbands.” A divorced woman would have been extremely vulnerable economically and socially.

Maybe this passage isn’t about divorce in general, then. Maybe it’s about men and the imperative for them to treat their partners with reverence—along with the implicit message that the women they thought were their property really are much more.

So which interpretation is correct? Both? Neither? I can’t tell you for sure—even the notes in my Bibles don’t agree. The point here, though, is this:

There’s a risk in thinking we’ve listened enough. Just when we think we “get it”—whether “it” is the meaning of a familiar sacred text, the situation of a friend in crisis, or the experience of historically oppressed groups—we may suddenly stumble upon a deeper perspective, or a whole new level of nuance, or a different side to the issue that has completely escaped us. Which calls us to listen first, last, and always.

In any isolated instance, of course, we may have to wrap up our listening for reasons of time or schedule. But we’re on thin ice in thinking we’ve “arrived” at enlightenment on any given issue and therefore need listen no more.

***

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been away from this page for a couple of months. One reason for that involves a difficult experience that I’m starting to think—and write—my way through; you’ll see more on that in cyberspace over the next weeks and months. Another reason has to do with the strategic planning I’ve been doing with regard to The Dialogue Venture. As a result of that planning, you will probably see more of me in places like HuffPost Religion and, I hope, the Christian Century blog (my first post for them—yay!—is here) and the Doing Dialogue blog for the Public Conversations Project and various other places. Because I’m only one person, though, that means I’ll be blogging here on an occasional basis rather than the weekly or biweekly articles I’ve posted till now. Please feel welcome to stay in touch, watch this page, and check my screed elsewhere on the web too.

Moses and Where Change Comes From

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.”                           —Exodus 3:11-12a

 

Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:

  1. God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
  2. We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.

If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.

So what do we do?

I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”

The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”

For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.

Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.

What Good Friday Says About Dialogue

It’s hard for me to compose a blog post on Good Friday and not write about Jesus. He is, after all, the central figure of the Christian faith, and his execution on a Roman cross is a key part of the central event. In Christian theology, the Crucifixion speaks volumes—innumerable volumes—about the love of God.

Does it have anything to do with dialogue? I think it does speak to dialogue, and the message is strikingly nuanced.

On the one hand, the Jesus of the Gospels waxes eloquent about the ideals behind dialogue. He blesses the peacemakers, commands us to love our enemies, calls for unity among believers, and identifies all these imperatives as a reflection of God’s very heart.  We cannot love people most effectively without knowing them, and we cannot know them without listening: deeply, extensively, in the spirit of dialogue.

Then there is the example of Jesus himself.  His mission, of course, involved delivering a message, so in the Gospels he does a great deal of talking. But he also listens and, I would submit, is changed by the listening. He listens in amazement to a Roman centurion and says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:1-9). He listens to a Gentile woman who deftly argues that she too is worthy of his attention (Mark 7:23b-30). He asks his disciples who they think he is (Mark 8:27-30)—and I don’t believe it’s a rhetorical question.

That is the one hand.

The other hand brings us much closer to Good Friday itself. It is the end of a life lived not in dialogue with the religious authorities, but in conflict with them. His penetrating and sometimes caustic remarks offend them deeply. They see him as a troublemaker in a time and place where troublemaking could lead to Roman crackdown. And then, one Passover season—with thousands of pilgrims turning Jerusalem into a security tinderbox—this Jesus goes into the temple and creates havoc, overthrowing tables and chasing out moneylenders.

Here is what I take from all this. Dialogue is a good, to be sure. More specifically, it is a good to be used when it makes sense—and in service to something else. In Jesus’ case, that “something else” involved two higher goods that he practiced throughout his ministry: truth regardless of consequences and love that crosses taboos.

You would think that “speaking the truth in love,” as St. Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:15), would be uncontroversial. Not everyone, however, wants the truth to be proclaimed. At times, none of us want the truth to be proclaimed. Similarly, not everyone wants the unlovable to be loved (and we all have our own “unlovables”). The simple action of upholding truth and compassion, then, can get you in trouble.

Perhaps that is one good message among many to take from Good Friday. Pursue truth relentlessly. Spread compassion extravagantly. Use dialogue where appropriate to pursue these higher goods and others. Together with the other gifts that the Jesus of the Gospels has given us, this legacy deserves our commitment and our praise.

Dialogue and Christmas—the Holidays—Whatever

We’ve talked a lot about the need for precise language, in dialogue and out. Our dialogues could be so much more productive if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them. It is in the spirit of precision that I now wish you:

Happy Holidays.

Every year around this time, there’s a certain level of fuss about that phrase. “It’s the Christmas season, dammit!” goes the line of thought. “Jesus is the reason for the season! Why can’t we just say Merry Christmas?” Happy Holidays, to people who argue this way, is too vapid, too “politically correct,” to describe what December is really about.

I’ll admit that Happy Holidays is kind of vapid. Because of my faith tradition, Christmas is a treasured holy day for me. At church on Christmas Eve, I will be delighted to wish my fellow parishioners Merry Christmas.

Outside of church, though, it’s a different story. The U.S., where I live, is not predominantly Christian as it once was—not by a long shot. Millions of people here are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of no faith tradition, you name it. And often (as with Hanukkah) their holidays and festivals take place in December as well.

So when I encounter people at the store, or on the street, and I don’t know their faith orientation, Happy Holidays seems the best way to greet them with good cheer while respecting their beliefs about life. If I’m addressing a group—either physically present or virtually, as on Facebook—it’s usually a safe bet that someone in the group doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Happy Holidays is a way of showing respect to those people too.

This is a basic principle for dialogue. Without a perception of respect from their dialogue partner, few people would willingly share their convictions in dialogue. That showing of respect creates a welcoming place in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of recrimination.

So…to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To all my friends, Happy Holidays.

Christians and the Call to Dialogue

We Christians are notorious for fighting. We fight among ourselves over subtleties of doctrine. We fight with other faith traditions over what constitutes Truth. The Crusades, an extreme example of fighting if there ever was one, are a horrible stain on our history.

Fortunately, some Christians have made good progress in dialogue over the past few decades, especially in the field of interfaith dialogue. That is a very good thing indeed. It puts us in line with a Savior who, I think, would heartily approve.

It is true that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life make no mention of dialogue. But Jesus in these accounts waxes eloquent about the ideals and objectives behind dialogue. In the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his most sweeping single statement of his approach to faith—he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). A bit later in the same sermon, he exhorts his followers to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).

This label, “children of God,” fascinates me. It speaks, I think, not of mere familial relations but rather of affinity: people who, out of their deep connection with the Divine, reflect God’s orientation toward the world. People who reflect God are peacemakers. People who reflect God are committed to love.

What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, how can I love you most effectively—how can I act in your best interests, for your greatest good—unless I know you? And how can I know you unless I listen to you?

Listening also reflects what we read about Jesus. Among the numerous accounts of him preaching, challenging, probing, and delivering his message, several stories show him listening as well. He heard—and was amazed by—the faith of the centurion who asked for his servant’s healing (Matthew 6:5-13). He listened to the woman who cleverly parried his understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations (15:21-28). One might argue that he posed his famous question—“who do people say that I am?”—not as some test of his disciples’ understanding but honestly to seek their insight.

This same Jesus also prayed for another fruit of dialogue: unity. “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).

That’s what I hear when I read the Bible. What does your faith—Christian or from another faith tradition—tell you about the need for dialogue? I would love to hear your thoughts.