2-23-18 - Holy Emptiness

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You have to embrace paradox if you’re going to be a Christian. Our more fundamentalist brethren seem to have difficulty with paradox and nuance, and so twist themselves and the Word of God into pretzels trying to unify it in a linear, rational way. It won’t work. Just ask Nicodemus, whom Jesus told the Kingdom of God was truly knowable by spirit, not intellect alone. The very effort to understand circles as squares takes us further and further away from the Truth, whom we know as Jesus, the master of the paradox.

Here he is again, telling his followers about the cost of being his disciple. They must be prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross – a metaphor for complete helplessness, though in Jesus’ case, much more than a metaphor – and follow him. There’s no room in the suitcase for self-preservation: 
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

How we interpret this hinges on our definition of “life.” If it’s just about breathing, this makes little sense. What person in their right mind would want to lose their physical life before it’s time? If by “life,” however, Jesus means the rich web of interaction and consciousness we call existence, then we might see how a willingness to let go of “the whole world” could make us more receptive to the Life of God, a life beyond what we can make for ourselves.

It is a matter of emptying ourselves and allowing ourselves to filled with God’s power, God’s love, God’s purpose. I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about empty. I do a lot of filling… my time, my inbox, my conscious attention, just to avoid confronting the emptiness inside. And yet that emptiness is where God can show up most powerfully, if we will allow the space to develop and not rush to fill it.

What does it mean to you to “gain the whole world?” Another way of asking that is, what are you the most afraid of losing, of getting taken away from you? That’s the place to start in prayer, asking the Spirit to show us why we’re so attached to that thing or person or status. Ask God to help loosen our grip, to feel the feelings that come up when we think about emptying ourselves of that. Ask Jesus what it looks like to “lose your life” in this world – and to gain the life that truly is Life.

A holy life suddenly filling an empty womb. The inexplicable absence of a corpse filling an empty tomb. From birth to death and beyond, Jesus’ life was one of God showing up in emptiness. As Paul wrote, "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are." (I Cor 1:27-29)

Can we give up our lives – all the “stuff” that we fill our minds and bodies with, and see what God might do with our emptiness if we offer God the space?

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2-22-18 - Losing the Self

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Sometimes I wish Christianity could loosen its association with self-denial. That emphasis misses so much of the Good News – the life-affirming, “and God saw that it was good,” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” “God is love,” “The Kingdom is now!” elements of the faith we proclaim.

On the other hand, we lose the essence if we stress only that happy stuff, and ignore the sin and redemption, cross and glory parts of the story. If we’re going to be faithful to what Jesus taught and lived, we can’t just pull out this thread and hope to retain a coherent picture in our tapestry. This thread is woven into everything, the wholeness of what we proclaim Jesus did for us. Certainly, he said it often enough:

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

It might help if we clarify what is meant by “deny yourself.” For many people, this phrase connotes ascetism, doing away with comfort and frivolity and things that feel good. It’s hair shirts and pinched faces, dull clothing and hard work on behalf of others. It’s all vegetables and no chocolate. To quote a line from one of my favorite movies, Cold Comfort Farm, said in a sermon given to a sect of “quiverers, “There’ll be no butter in hell!” (And look at that! I googled that phrase and as soon as I got to “butter," got a link to the scene of Ian McKellan’s masterful performance.)

What if, rather than focus on behavior and consumption, we redefine self-denial as cultivating an orientation toward others and toward God? Denying self means laying aside our own prerogatives, our gratification, our convenience, our ego strokes, and giving our selves away to help others grow in faith. Of course, the phrase, “Giving our selves away” could seem to promote doormat-ship, a masochistic willingness to do for others until there’s nothing left of us. Certainly we’ve all known people like that – or been people like that.

But try this on for size: What if the “self” that Jesus suggests we lose is the one that is passing away in the first place, the natural human self before it becomes joined with the Spirit of the Living God? That self was never going to be robust enough to move us through life and into eternity. When we give our “selves” away for the Gospel, in the power and love of Christ, we become more fully our truest selves. Whatever we need from what we lay down will come back to us in a form we can use, as we allow ourselves to become transformed by the Spirit of God.

Is that risky? Sure. Jesus demonstrated just how risky, as he laid down his life in this world all the way to death. That will not be the call for most of us. But anytime we give up something, a voice inside – and often outside – says, “You’re going to need that! Don’t give it up.” It takes faith and trust to put aside our own agendas and live a path that seeks to bring life to others, that seeks to allow God’s life to take up ever more space in us.

In what ways do you feel called to put aside your self, your prerogatives or agenda? Think of times you’ve done so successfully. Did you feel like a chump, or did you feel God’s pleasure as you saw someone else thrive? What is your response to Jesus today when he says to deny yourself?

I believe we will experience that, far from a pinched and parched asceticism, denying ourselves is the most joyful thing we ever do.

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2-21-18 - Thinking Like God

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Tiffs between friends don’t usually escalate so quickly. This exchange between Jesus and Peter went from 0 to 90 in two seconds flat. Jesus told his followers that he would undergo great suffering, rejection by the temple leadership – and then be killed:  
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

Peter may have been out of line, but his heart was in the right place. Did Jesus really need to toss around the S word like that?

Maybe Jesus was just calling it as he saw it. Maybe he recognized too acutely the temptation in what Peter said, the temptation to look at his mission in human terms, in which self-preservation and security have the highest value. “Yeah. Who says I have to do it that way? Maybe I can do my father’s will by making more friends and fewer enemies…”

But he recognized it for the temptation it was, and knew full well where temptation comes from: the Evil One. So he called Peter, his closest human companion, “Satan.” And then he explained why he said that: “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

It’s not so easy, this following Christ business. Jesus taught again and again that there is conflict between the values of this world, and the values of God’s realm. When we let what we see, feel, hear, taste, and smell define what is real, we miss a huge dimension of reality, one that cannot be perceived with those senses but with the spirit. Our spiritual work is honing these other senses, becoming more attuned to where God is around us, and where we are being called to participate in restoring, reclaiming and renewing the whole universe.

That means we are invited to learn to think like God instead of in our natural human way. Can we do that? What does it mean? Obviously, the mind of God is much too vast for us to comprehend – and perhaps too simple. So we have to use our imaginations and the revelation we have received – imperfectly, in Scripture, and perfectly in Jesus, whom we have to use our imaginations to understand. Easy, right?

It’s not as simple as “What would Jesus do?” or “What would Jesus think,” but that’s a start. We come at it by asking God to show us God’s view of a situation or a person or a part of ourselves. If we start doing that in prayer, “God, show me what you see when you look at this,” we’ll be surprised at the responses we detect. We will probably find that God’s way of thinking is much more compassionate than ours, and at the same time less lenient than we might tend to be. We may discover that God is much less interested than we are in making sure people “feel good,” and more invested in loving them, which means desiring their spiritual growth.

I can’t tell anyone how to do it – all I can do is join you in asking the question that way and letting the Spirit gradually change my perspective. And I can invite Jesus to be more and more present in my life, in my thinking, in my interactions. As I allow his life to transform my life, I will find myself thinking more like God. You too!

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