Sunday, July 23, 2017

You Are Always With Me

Lately, I find myself refocusing and reconsidering the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it's incorrectly named. Like so much of what Christ taught and said and did, this parable must have been deeply shocking and troubling to his listeners. To begin a parable with a younger son going to his father, the center of their patriarchal society, and telling him, "Father, give me my share of property that is coming to me." Essentially, the younger son is saying, "Father, you are as dead to me. I want what is coming to me now." This meant that the Father had to sell of half of his property and his livestock (both of which determined his standing in society, so by selling half meant that he was lowering himself in the community). The reverence that was usually accorded to a Father in that culture was being challenged.

Putting myself into the crowd of those who heard this parable, I can only imagine how upsetting it was to hear this opening and how angry it would have made me. "How dare this younger son be so callous and cold! Why didn't the Father berate and chastise his younger son for being so indifferent and selfish? How could the Father just give in to his younger son's wishes?"

I also thought of a time in my own youth where, in a fit of anger, I yelled at my own father, "I hate you!" The expression of pain on his face at my words still haunt me today.

What was the expression of the Father as his younger son said these cold, hard words to him? His heart must have broken. In this culture, he had every right to respond in anger, to cast out his son, to react with, "How dare you? Do you know who I am? Do you know what you're asking of me and what that would do to my standing in this community? Do you not grasp how others would look at me if I granted such a request?"

Yet the Father did. The Father granted his son's wishes, despite the audacity and coldness of it.

And the younger son gathered all he now had and journeyed off to a far country. First, he distances himself from his Father by wishing him as dead and now he is physically distancing himself from him. As if that weren't enough, the younger son then squanders all that his Father has given him on reckless and debauched living. The term "prodigal" literally means "wasteful." It comes from the Latin roots that mean forth and to drive, which means he went forth to squander and waste all that he had. In his book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen wrote, "I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found."

How many of us have gone a far way off from our Father (God) in search of love in places and people and possessions that will never ever be able to fill our needs for unconditional love and acceptance? Even when we marry, we so often choose a spouse who reminds us of our parents and, at the same time, we want them to correct the mistakes that our parents made. It's an unfair burden to place on the one we marry and yet we often expect them to become our world and to make us their world. When cracks begin to happen and difficulties arise, many look at the person they married and wonder just who they really are?  No one person or even many people can fill all the needs we have from all the unseen hurts and wounds that have occurred over our lives.

Many people turn to alcohol, drugs, parties, an active social life, or even becoming involved in causes in the hopes that such things will take away that deep seated feeling of loneliness, loss, insecurity, fear, and the sense that we are nothing more than a fraud and that if anyone saw behind the mask, they would not and could not love us. We flee ourselves in the desire to find someone that truly accepts and loves us, which they cannot because we cannot.

Such is the prodigal son. Despite the love his Father has for him, he flees to another country. A misspent youth. We like to focus on this son because it is easier to condemn his sins. His being an extravagant profligate, who probably spent his money trying to gain friends and loves. I think of F. Scott Fitzgerald's great American novel The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, the focus of this masterpiece, is a man who cannot move on from the rejection of Daisy Buchanan because he was a "poor boy." To change that and earn her love, Gatsby sets out to become wealthy and desirable. When he achieves success, wealth, and has a grand mansion, he begins to through lavish parties in the hopes that Daisy will attend one and see all that he has amounted and who he has become and fall in love with him. It's all success and excess - and emptiness. Fitzgerald expresses it best when he wrote, "There's a loneliness that only exists in one's mind. The loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart and all they can do is stare blankly." This describes accurately not only the characters of this book, but the prodigal son as his money runs out.

Luke writes that a sever famine arose in the country. The younger son is broke and starving with nowhere to turn. Those friends he had caroused and celebrated with are now gone. There is no more pleasure to be bought to hide from the pain. What does he do? He hires himself out and, to the horror of every Jew listening to this story unfold, is tending to pigs. How could a Jew get any lower? The son is feeding and taking care one of the most dirty and unclean of animals in their law. He has sunk as low as one could be. And it doesn't stop there, for Christ adds that the son begins to long to eat the food of that swine. Were there audible gasps from the crowd at different points throughout this narrative? How many of them were horrified that Jesus would even tell such a tale? 

In the midst of his starving, the prodigal doesn't come to his senses so much as give in to his basic needs of survival. He realizes that the servants of his Father live better than he does, so he takes it in his mind to return and ask to become on of his Father's hired men. He is giving up claim to son-ship for servant-hood. 

The next part of the parable is among the most beautiful in all of scripture and, yet, how must it have offended the listeners hearing it? The Father, who has been waiting with longing, has been keeping watch day after day after day, scanning the horizon in the hopes his prodigal son will return to him. What? No male within this culture would understand the Father's reasoning here. And to add insult to injury, when the Father sees his son a long way off, he runs to him. Excuse me? A Father run to a son? That is unheard of. And to run to this son who has shamed his Father in the community? But Jesus says that the Father felt "compassion" for his son. Compassion is something that comes from deep within someone. the Jews believed that compassion came from the bowels. It was that primal and affected the human body that much. And the Father runs to this son and embraces him. A son who is spiritually, ritually, legally and physically unclean. This is a son who has slept with prostitutes, who has touched and fed pigs and is covered in their muck. He is as filthy and smelly as the worst of homeless people. His stench must have reeked so that his Father smelled him long before he ever embraced him. And, yet, his love overcomes all. He embraces and kisses his son. This shows an unconditional love beyond anything anyone who heard this parable could comprehend. 

Those listening must have been furious and disgusted at the notion of a Father debasing himself even further for this child who, by all accounts, is no longer a son and should never, ever be welcomed back into the Father's home or life or even within his Father's sight. He should have been stoned to death. His sins warranted death and the Father choose life. He gave him back his rights as his son. He calls for the best robe (which would have been the Father's robe) to be brought and placed on this child and for a ring to be put on his hand. For the fatted calf to be killed and prepared for a feast to celebrate this son's return. A child who thought himself fit only to be a servant, is now reconciled to the Father as his son. 

Henri Nouwen writes, "The immense joy in welcoming back the lost son hides the immense sorrow that has gone before . . . our brokenness may not appear beautiful, but our brokenness has no other beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it."

But the parable does not end with a "Happily ever after" kind of ending. Jesus wasn't done yet. Now he moves on to the elder son. The older son was in the field. He was hard at work supervising the field hands. He is sweaty doing his duty as an elder son. He is responsible. What we now hear is that the elder son starts to come back towards the house when he hears the music, the celebration and sees the dancing (Had no one even thought to call him in?). The elder brother calls over a servant and asks what's going on. After the servant tells him, the elder brother is seized with anger, with all of the bitter dutifulness of the days he has served his Father faithfully and discovers that his younger brother, who has offended and hurt their Father, is being celebrated for coming back after wasting his inheritance? 

I would imagine that most listening, including myself now, can relate to the elder brother's feelings. This seems unfair. The elder brother's anger is such that he will not go back into his Father's house to join in any of the festivities. I can only picture and hear the muttering and cursing and complaining and fury that this brother expressed, alone, outside. The violence that must have risen up in him. 

Once again, to the shock of those listening, Christ says, "His father came out and entreated him . . ."

A Father come out to a son? A Father entreat and not simply demand his son's obedience? "I am your Father and you will do what I tell you to do! Get in that house, now!" 

The Father entreated the elder son. Entreated in Hebrew means to supplicate. The Father is begging his son to come inside. A Father is begging a son. This was so alien and foreign to that culture that it must have offended every sensibility that wasn't already offended by every other part of this story. This was all counter-cultural. This was all contrary to the law and their concept of fatherhood, patriarchy and the very structure of their entire cultural, political and religious system.

The elder brother's response? Indignation. He bitterly recounts his faithfulness, his obedience. His jealousy and anger lashes out at his Father. He, essentially, is questioning how his Father is running things. "You're unfair! You're unjust!" He is hardened and bitter and resentful - but not just of his younger brother - but more so at his Father.

Once again, we are given a Father who is abused and mistreated by his son. We are also given a portrait of pure unadulterated grace, as the Father replies, "Son, you are always with me..." What a line. It brings tears to my eyes to think of a Father saying this with such tenderness and compassion and love. The Father continues, "... and all that is mine is yours." Even in the midst of his son's tirade, the Father is reminding his son, "You're mine. I love you and will give all to you. Everything that is mine will be yours." He doesn't berate the son. He doesn't criticize the son. He doesn't get offended and ask, "Who do you think you are?" No, he reminds him of whose he is. "You are my son." 

The parable ends with the Father's words, "It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."

I love how Henri Nouwen describes this parable as how we are all of us, at one time, the prodigal younger brother and, at other times, the self-righteous elder brother but that we are all called to be like the Father. And what a call that is. 

To be reconciled to the Father, we must be willing to let the Father be the Father. To love us unconditionally, that we can be healed, restored and renewed. It's all the Father. He runs to us when we're prodigals. He entreats us when we are the bitter elder brother. But, in both cases, he welcomes and loves us and wants most desperately and unashamedly to have us in his family. And this is the very God who created us. He created us for this fellowship, to be a part of his family and He will has debased his worthiness of worship to make us worthy to be called "Beloved," to be called His "son" or His "daughter." He wants only to embrace us, as we are and where we are. This is overwhelming grace. This is all gift and not deserved. The call of the Father is simply, "Welcome home. I love you. You are Mine."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Blessed Are Those Who Hunger & Thirst

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled," Christ announces in what we call the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). If you don't read this, or any of the Sermon on the Mount, and see it as counter-cultural, then you will miss that this is not some ethereal, other-worldly kingdom Christ is speaking of, but the sweat and soil of the here and now. For Christ, spirituality is always rooted in humanity, in community. This was not some teaching for a future time and some far off kingdom, but was meant to be lived out in the place where each and every one of his hearers were. This is a sermon for who you are and where you are, not for some by and by heavenly future kingdom. 

Christ was teaching predominantly Jews. Oppressed Jews under Roman rule. These were dire and poor people, who were taxed 90% of what they made (not only by Rome but by the Temple). They were desperate and hungry, literally. They barely had enough to eat. Much of them followed Jesus in the hopes that he would multiply loaves and fishes because they were starving.

Even among the Jews, they were spiritually diverse: Historians said that there were five sects in Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sicarii. And even among those five sects there were at least two dozen competing belief systems during the first century when Jesus taught. So among his listeners were people caught up among these competing belief systems. Each one was coming to Christ with a different take on even what Judaism was. How much of what Jesus taught was filtered through these belief systems?

Certainly, they would have been shocked by the Beatitudes, which upended the construct of how their religious and cultural life was structured. Even within our seemingly modern world, his words do not resonate with reality but challenge our idea of what reality and how things should work.

How many of them thought the knew and understood Yahweh only to have Christ telling them, "You have heard it said" or "You have been taught this about God, but I tell you" and find that their belief system is skewed and that they don't understand the character and nature of their Creator. How many of them understood law, but not love? How many of them were, unknowingly, starving and thirsting for grace and an unconditional love that never ends?

Were they shocked? Were they offended? Were they somewhere in-between? Did they struggle to fit this in with the religion they believed and held dear? In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard wrote, "The Beatitudes simply cannot be 'good news' if they are understood as a set of 'how-to's' for achieving blessedness. They would then only amount to a new legalism. They would not serve to throw open the kingdom - anything but. They would impose a new brand of Phariseeism." How did those who stood or sat there on the mount, could not work these words into the fabric of their faith? Could they hear what Christ was telling them or did they ascribe this into exactly what Dallas Willard is calling a "new brand of Phariseeism?" Were these words setting them free or simply baffling and confusing them?

The Emperor Constantine I made Christianity legal, though many falsely believe he made it the official religion. Constantine, whose mother was a Christian, understood that he could not be emperor and run an empire if he truly followed the teachings of Christ, specifically the Sermon on the Mount. He, himself, would not convert until he was on his deathbed. It was only decades after Constantine's death that Emperor Theodosis I make Christianity the official religion of Rome. But that's how serious Constantine viewed the Sermon on the Mount.

How many people who would refer to themselves as "Christian" honestly believe the Beatitudes enough to even begin attempting to live them out in daily life? I must admit that, in my own life, at times, any assemblance of a spiritual life is sporadic and a real struggle. During these periods there is definitely not a hungering or thirsting for anything remotely righteous. There are days when I don't pray, don't even have a fleeting wish to pick up my Bible and read it. It is in those times when I cannot even grasp, "You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat" (The Message).

Were there those in that crowd who were like me and these words fell on deaf ears? Were they thinking, "Jesus, we are literally hungering and thirsting because we don't have anything to eat and yet you offer us no bread, no fish but only words. We get enough platitudes from our religious leaders. Our empty bellies don't need more words, more religion." Did they walk away? As Gandhi once said, "There are people in the world so hungry, God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

Jesus was not a people pleaser. Though he drew large crowds, he was not interested in keeping them (clearly from what he so often taught and did). How many left after each of the beatitudes he offered them? How many could not fathom this kingdom and the topsy-turvy way it worked?

How many were angry? "We want Rome gone! We want Israel to be a great nation again. We want a messiah who will rise up, overthrow our oppressors, and make us into what we once were under King David."

Hunger in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek means "famine, dire hunger" So when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger" he is not just saying, "Blessed are those who are hungry for a meal, whose stomachs are grumbling." He is drawing a portrait of someone who is going to die without this hunger being met, or this thirst being quenched. His metaphors paint a stark, bleak one that people in that crowd knew and understood just what real hunger truly was. Many of them were at the bottom of the political and economic ladder and were marginalized not only by the Romans but also by the religious leaders. They were not feeling "blessed" for they did not know abundance, except in sorrows, pains and trials. If I were among them, would I have stayed to listen or walked off in disgust?

The Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran wrote this verse as, "Blessed are they who hunger after truth and beauty, for their hunger shall bring bread, and their thirst cool water."I love the poetics of this translation. Gibran connects "truth and beauty" for the truth that Christ is proclaiming in the Beatitudes is beautiful in that he is telling those who are feeling left out, marginalized, forgotten, and oppressed that you are not unseen, you are not unheard, you are not forgotten. You are the kingdom of God.

In her book the Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper writes, "If this news would not lead my oppressed ancestors to shout with joy, then maybe it's not good news at all - or at least it's not good enough." Would this gospel, would this Sermon on the Mount, be heard as good news to those who were enslaved in this country? Or how about to the indigenous people who were brutalized, butchered and had everything from their land to their language to their culture taken away from them? Would they hear the Beatitudes and find what Jesus had to say as good? Would they hunger and thirst for these words? Would they hear truth as beautiful?  Would they hear these teachings as what Frederick Dale Bruner called "God-bless-you's to people in God-awful situations?"

So I ask myself: Do I hunger and thirst after righteousness?

And what did Christ even mean by righteousness? Was he referring to holiness?

Righteousness in Hebrew is sedeq and is not some abstract idea relating to virtues, but is connected to community and a right standing within it. Righteousness is right standing within a court system, in which one has found favor. Do we view righteousness as our right standing before God because we have found favor with Him? Too often, I think we view righteousness as a kind of self-righteousness best portrayed by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live as the busy-body, Church Lady. Do we see righteousness through the lens of God's grace and love poured out on us through Christ Jesus? Righteousness means to be in covenant with, that we are justified and vindicated. Righteousness or right-standing is bestowed upon us.

In the kingdom Christ is speaking of, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness because they will be filled. Just as one is filled after a great and sumptuous meal (of how we eat at the holidays), so too one can be filled by the desire to seek after right-standing with God, in community. This also means that we seek after the right-standing and justice of all. It means we put ourselves in solidarity with those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized, and suffering injustice. John Dear writes in his powerful book The Beatitudes of Peace, "Most translations use the word righteousness as in 'doing what is right before God,' but that usually is seen as referring solely to one's personal integrity. Instead, the word speaks of the pursuit of universal social, economic, racial and political 'justice' that God demands of us."

But do I hunger and thirst after such things in my own life or do I go along with the status quo, even within the Church?

Am I awakened by the Beatitudes so much that I cannot slumber or rest until I am filled? Do I attempt to fill myself with other things? Comfort? Possessions? Popularity? The approval of others? What am I hungering and thirsting for?

Or do I, as John Dear wrote, pursue a righteousness of self that does not concern itself with community? If so, then I am not truly working towards what Christ is calling me to here with "as on earth as it is in heaven." As I wrote in the beginning of this post, Jesus is not interested in merely some philosophical or metaphysical argument, but in practical day-to-day, lived out practice that does not neglect the least of these or those who are trapped within their socio-economic situations of dire poverty, human trafficking, modern day slavery, or the racial bias that goes on within our own political and justice systems.

"Whatever you've done for the least of these," Jesus reminds us. If we attempt to disconnect "hunger and thirsting after righteousness" within the context of our world, then we are not honestly living out the gospel of Christ but merely our own personal religious doctrines that satisfy our safety, comfort and self-interests (none of which is where Christ said he would be found).

So, as I reflect and meditate on Matthew 5:6, I find myself, once again, challenged by Christ. I find myself condemned, not by him, but by my own lethargy and neglect to actually live out what I proclaim to follow. That is why I so desperately need the Beatitudes to remind and awaken me to the call of Christ to be poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness because all of these things make me more like him and, in my reflecting him, living out the gospel to those who most need good news in a manner that honestly makes this news good because it does transform the community around me.

This is why I pray that I will hear and heed the words of Jesus and that I hunger and thirst to live them out for all, without regard to race, creed, social or economic standing. That I align myself with those who are poor, broken, hurting, oppressed, marginalized and the least of these because it is there and there alone that I will find the Christ who sat down on the mountain and began, "Blessed are those . . ."

Lord, help me to be one of those who are, indeed, blessed because others (no matter who I am with or where I am) can see you in me. That is my hunger. That is what I thirst for. At least today.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Belief, Doubt & James Joyce

I have grown tired of ideologies (political, religious). It's exhausting to watch as people constantly draw lines and ask, "Which side are you on?" I get tired of the "Are you for us or against us?" stance that so many take. Even in my own faith, I am often uncertain and am filled more with questions than security. There are times that my belief soars over mountaintops and, at other times, hangs tenuously by a psalm. There are times when my prayers flow like streams and rivers, but there are also times where my throat is so dry and the words seem to choke in my throat like sand.  There are periods when I cannot imagine not reading the Bible and, still others, where I want to toss it aside in disgust at the concept of a God who would call for the annihilation of a people and that others would agree to enact such horrific violence in the name of a God.

Am I neither hot nor cold? Yeah, sometimes.

Am I closer to the doubters, the deniers, the questioners? Definitely.

I take hold of the fact that, at his ascension, as he gave out the great commission, that the Gospel of Matthew included in his conclusion, "And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted." What a glorious inclusion that Jesus welcomes the believers and doubters alike in his mission. Why? Because so often we are inconstant and swing like a pendulum between belief and doubt. The most honest prayer in all of scripture is, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Yet, as much as Jesus so often welcomes this, I find that so much of the Church prefers either not to, gloss over or ignore struggle, or they offer up verses and prayers in an attempt to keep from the honest baring of souls.

There are many who might even label me an unbeliever or lukewarm. Over the years I have been labeled a great many things and have lost friendships because I have attempted to honestly write about my eternal wrestling. I lay bare my soul and can offer only, "Kyrie Eleison" (Lord, have mercy). Is it any wonder that the Psalms are so often what tethers me to God? Like David, I cry out: When I call on thy name, listen to me, O god, and grant redress; still, in time of trouble, thou hast brought me relief; have pity on me now and hear my prayer.." (Psalm 4:2).

One of my favorite authors, James Joyce wrote to Lady Gregory, "All things are inconstant except faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills the inconstancy to light." He was poor, in Paris, knew no one, unable to raise the money for his tuition and desperate. He wrote to her for help. His letter was a mixture of ambition and despair. "I am not despondent," he wrote, "however for I know that even if I fail to make my way such failure proves very little. I shall try myself against the powers of the world. All things are inconstant except the faith in the soul, which changes all things and fills their inconstancy with light. And though I seem to have been driven out of my country here as a misbeliever I have found no man yet with a faith like mine." He would go on to leave his pursuit of medicine to take up literature and his name forever celebrated as one of the greatest writers and his novel Ulysses to be one of the most important. Joyce left the Church, but his work is riddled with theology. In a letter to his brother, Joyce wrote: Don't you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of Mass and what I am trying to do?...To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own."

In Dubliners, he wrote, "Jesus Christ, with His divine understanding of every understanding of our human nature, understood that not all men were called to the religious life, that by far the vast majority were forced to live in the world, and, to a certain extent, for the world."

All of this reveals that, unlike so many self-professed believers, Joyce wrestled and struggled and seriously considered and questioned and infused his work with his intellectual and spiritual striving.

In my own life, I have connected with Joyce's alter-ego Stephen Dedalus from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as he desires to rise above his background with its constraints of religion, nationality, and politics. As Stephen says in Chapter Five of that novel, "When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets."

Joyce writes honestly of the struggle between obedience and disobedience, of the discovery of self that comes through such a struggle. In my own life, I have been in flux, in an ebb and flow of belief and unbelief, doubt and faith. And, yet, each time I find myself wandering away, I find myself pulled back by the simple and undeniable and unshakable love for Christ.

No matter how much I tire of the Church and so-called believers, I am drawn in and by Jesus. Christ and Christ alone. I return to his Sermon on the Mount and his vision for the way the world should be and discover time and time again that it is rooted deeply in love. It is a call to love. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." This I cannot reject. This is what I cling to when I find myself unable to hold tightly to any of the rest of it.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce writes: The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.

Whenever I find myself considering God in such a manner (unconcerned, distant, removed), I must look to the source of my belief: Christ. Christ is never distant, never removed, never callous or indifferent. When I feel myself at the margins, I must remember that it is exactly there that Christ made his home. He seated himself with the doubters, the marginalized, the forgotten, the broken, the hurting, the hopeless, the deniers, the unbelievers. Those who realized they were, at best, shaky and desperate, Jesus loved and reminded them to not be afraid because he would always be with them. It was only for those of such religious certainty that they were secure in their own belief that Christ has no time. Their rigid belief made no room for him. The walls of their self-assurance in their own perfected holiness kept Christ out.

For the misfits who struggle, wrestle, doubt, question, cry out, wane, wonder and wander, know that you are not alone. Know that you are welcome to the table and will find yourself embraced by a God who loves you. As Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 4:10, "We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around" (The Message). I love that! The Messiah's misfits. What a humble, rag-tag bunch that is. And I feel welcome there. I feel that my weakness is his strength. I cannot embrace my own virtues any more than I can my own vices, but lay them all down and proclaim, "In Christ alone." And, know, that this will always be followed by, "I believe. Help me in my unbelief." Why? Because I am not rooted in myself, my own certainties, my own strengths and weaknesses. I love how Eugene Peterson describes this, "All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us."

So, you can label me or love me as you wish. You can judge me or join me. You can exclude or embrace me.

But no matter what, you will find me at the table with the beggars, the battered, the bruised, the hurting, the humble, the marginalized, the lonely, the oddballs, the misfits, the weirdos, the freaks, the poor, the doubters, the deniers, the questioners, the outcast and the peculiar. Why? Because that is the table of our Lord. That is where Christ is found. That is home.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Note To My Sons Before Father's Day

One of the greatest joys in my life is being Papa to both of you, my sons, and I wanted to take some time to put down a few thoughts on what I want to impart to you two on what I find important in life so that, when you have children of your own, you can pass on your own to them.

First off, seek wisdom and not wealth. There are so few who still choose the path of wisdom over the path of wealth. If wealth should come, that's fine, but don't make it your ultimate goal. I hear so many people say, "If I only had more money, I would be..." There is no being in wealth or acquisition of it or possessions. Being is never found in the external but is only an internal work of maturity and  practice formed in daily habit.  Wisdom is begun in wonder. Never be afraid to invite the question. Only be afraid of the places and the people who don't and won't allow others to, either. And every question does not need an answer. Sometimes it is enough to just ask and to simply be present in the mystery that cannot be answered. Always keep an open mind. A closed mind shows open ignorance.
Truth is not found in facts. Facts are too dusty and frail to contain Truth. Information is not wisdom. the world is too full of information and too lacking in wisdom.

Choose delight over terror, joy over fear, amazement over judgment, and curiosity over cynicism. Cynicism is far too easy in this world. It is much braver and harder to be open and compassionate. It is difficult to find optimism in a society that promotes distrust and creates the "other." There are no others in this world. Just as you were created in the image of God, so, too, are everyone that you meet. Sometimes it's harder to find that spark within them, though it may be buried deep within the hidden wounds we cannot see.

Many people will try to tell you what success is, but do not become misguided in the desire to make a name for yourself. It is not about who people claim or believe you to be, it is about who you really are when no one's around. Your choices will determine your character. You will make mistakes, learn from them. Allow them to shape you but not define you. Failure is not failing but allowing that failure to stop you, from blinding you to the opportunities they provide for growth, maturity and understanding.

Don't let hardships make you hard. Hurts can heal if you don't choose hatred. Too many in our world often express their pain through anger, hostility, and violence. Don't be one of them. Learn to lament because only by mourning or grieving can one know peace. It is only when we try to avoid sorrow that we keep ourselves from wholeness. Those wounds you suffer are also ways to reach out to those who are suffering and to help them heal. This requires the strength of humility and vulnerability with others. That is not an easy choice but it is the right one, even if you get hurt by them in the process.

What is the trait I want most for both of you?


I want you to become kind men. There need to be more of them.

Don't try to be tough. Masculinity is not found there. It's found in tenderness, in not being afraid to cry, or to express one's thoughts and feelings. You do not have to prove yourselves, you just need to truly be yourselves. Be the caring, thoughtful and generous people I know that you both really are.

Let your love be unconditional, your imagination be infinite, your passion be filled with compassion.

Be present. Only when you are awake and aware can you see the miracles of life that are all around you. Never neglect the small and insignificant because, when one draws closer to them, one may just as well discover the Infinite.

Know that I am always proud of you both. Not because of what you achieve, but because of who you both are. My approval is never based on awards or accolades, but on the simple fact that you are my sons and I love you.  This means I love you for exactly who you are and not on what grades you get, awards you're given, or material success you have in life. My love will not rise and fall with the tides of accomplishments. Love does not withdraw when you fail and then return when you have achievements because my love is not an elevator that goes up and down with how you perform. That's not love.

Seek contentment and joy, which are not found in circumstances but in the rootedness of who you are and Whose you are.

Love music, not noise.

Be a creator, not a consumer.

Encourage others. Build them up instead of tearing them down, as we have too many people in this world who do the opposite. While it's easy to find fault, its more Christ-like to find beauty and goodness, especially in the frailties of others.

May your hearts know love. Your arms, embrace. Your mind, dreams.

Let your lives be filled with the little, simple joys of life because they alone are the ones that make for a truly rich life. One of those, I pray you find, is hearing yourself called, "Papa."

I love you both. I love you dearly.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Modeling Meekness

As a Papa to two sons, as I approach the verse 5:5, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," I began to ponder: How does one best model meekness for them? It's certainly not something we see in our culture very often. More often, boys look up to athletes who arrogantly brag and boast. We certainly cannot imagine them in terms of "meekness." In fact, I would dare to say that if men and boys were polled they would defined meekness as weakness. They would see meekness as timid, fragile, and wimpy. Is that what Christ is referring to when he said the meek would inherit the earth? Is he referencing those who are spineless, frail and are push-overs?

Was Jesus really saying, "Blessed are the weaklings and cowards, for they shall inherit the earth"?

The Hebrew word for meek is anav and means: poor, afflicted, humble.
The Greek word is praus and means: mild, gentle

Most of us would hear words like "poor and afflicted" with disdain and are definitely not quick to embrace them. How many of us want to model that for our kids?

Meekness is not a lack of confidence. It is not being a doormat. It is not being indecisive.

In my own life, I grew up with a strong example of meekness in my grandfather, who I called "Papa Fred." He was a quiet and humble man, who was strong of character. At his funeral, everyone spoke of him being a "true gentleman" and it that he never said an unkind word about anyone. I cannot recall a single time he ever raised his voice and yet I saw him as strong, as someone to emulate and want to be like. When I first read the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, I could not help but see the character of Atticus Finch in terms of my grandfather. There was that quiet strength that both men have. They do not brag or complain, but live their lives in a manner that reflects their dignity and the dignity of others. They do not see the need to put others down to make themselves look better. Atticus tells his son Jem, "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what." My grandfather, like Atticus, understood that one made the choice to do the right thing, even when it wasn't the easy thing to do, and that the majority is not one's conscience and should never be. He was the one who taught me that a closed mind showed open ignorance. His strength was a deep, inner strength.  He may not have been what the world deems successful, but to me, he was what I wanted most to become. I saw how a man who was far from wealthy, still did what he could to help others, including taking in family members in need to live in the small, two-bedroom house he and my grandmother lived in. 

One of the strongest examples in our modern culture of meekness is Fred Rogers. Like my grandfather, Mister Rogers was a mild, quiet man who treated others with dignity and respect. As a child, I loved watching his television show on PBS. His voice and demeanor was always calm and gentle. He spoke directly to the camera, to us, and made us feel we mattered, that we were important, and that we really was his neighbor. I saw in him a living example of someone who took Christ's words that all were our neighbors literally. He brought viewers into his community. "Mutual caring relationships," he once said, "requires kindness and patience, tolerance, optimism, joy in the other's achievements, confidence in oneself, and the ability to give without undue thought of gain." When I read those words, I thought, "He just encapsulated the Beatitudes." And everyone who knew Fred Rogers would vouch that the man lived his life just as he presented on television. There was no on-screen Fred Rogers and a different one off-camera. Even when he accepted his lifetime achievement award, he used the opportunity to make those in the audience feel good about themselves, he made this award not about himself, but about others and kindness. "We live in a world," he said, "in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say, 'It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.' Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes."

Fred Rogers was not a weak, indecisive man. No, he was a true leader who led by example, by compassion, by seeing the worth of each and every person. I think of men like him when I read Matthew 5:5, especially in how Eugene H. Peterson translated this verse as, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought."

Meekness is drawing one's strength not from bullying others or bragging about one's own accomplishments or from what one has attained and owns. It's not boastful or flexing one's muscles. The strength one has in meekness is realizing that one does not need to do any of those things to be noticed because they aren't seeking to be noticed. They are simply living their lives in a manner that exhorts and encourages, lifts up instead of tearing down, reaches out in mercy and compassion instead of always trying to angle for what they can get out of a situation or relationship. They realize that the best way to approach interactions with others is not as transactional but as transformational.

This is why I try to model meekness for my sons. I want them to grow up and become the kind of men who aren't cocky and arrogant, who don't need to put others down but to treat everyone with dignity and respect. I attempt to live my life in a way that is not pushy, self-serving and filled with self-assertion. I don't want them to believe in the survival of the fittest, that the strong should devour the weak, but, instead, that the they should identify themselves with the weak and to work for the equality and justice of all who are oppressed or discriminated against.

I teach my sons that no matter how smart they are, there is always someone who is smarter (and to learn from them) and those who are not (and to help teach them). Whatever talents they have, they are to be used, not to make a name for oneself, but to humbly use whatever gifts they have to establish community and the best in others.

Meekness is stepping outside of self to serving. When I look up meekness, the first image that appears is of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Meekness is setting aside one's pride to humble oneself to serve. It is not thinking too highly or too lowly of oneself, because one isn't thinking of oneself. One is focused on others.

Men like my Papa Fred and Fred Rogers lived this out in their daily lives. When others saw their humility, they did not mock or deride their characters, but spoke highly and admired them for their peaceful natures, their givingness, their tender-hearted and kind natures. These were not men who were seen as weak but as self-less helpers. They both treated all as their neighbors.

Fred Rogers said, "When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed."

I strive to model meekness because the world needs more people who understand the strength that comes with humility and integrity, mercy and compassion, kindness and generosity. If we view meekness that way, why wouldn't we want the meek to inherit the earth? It would be a better world for it.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Well Of Wonder

Ever since I first read the Narnia and Middle Earth series by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R, Tolkien, I have been fascinated by the lives and faith of both men. Over the years I have continued to read more of not only their own writing, but books on both Lewis and Tolkien, as well as their group The Inklings. Needless to say, I am excited every time a new book comes out in the hopes of learning more. The latest offering is Clyde S. Kilby's A Well of Wonder: Essays on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. Like most books on the subject, it's heavier on Lewis and Tolkien. Kilby, who was a professor at Wheaton, founded Marion E. Wade Center, which became the center for studying the Inklings, Dorothy L. Sayers, and their influences (including George MacDonald).

The book begins with a wonderful poem by Luci Shaw that's a tribute to her late professor, Clyde S. Kilby that not only encapsulates the man she knew, but those about which this book is written, and the world of imagination and faith they all brought to the world. She writes how he "swung open for all of us the wardrobe door" and caused us to ""re-explore" the worlds these men created (Middle Earth, Narnia, Utter East, Prelandra) and ends the poem with:

There in that room
we smell the past, untainted by decay or death
but fragrant, for in there
the mallorns bloom
and all the blessed air
is warm with Aslan's breath.

It's library as eternity. The wonder is Eternal Wonder. Shaw encapsulates what all of these men were doing in their own work: imagination and mythology pointing heavenward. 

Kilby's A Well of Wonder is a collection of essays, discussions, talks and interviews that are broken up into three sections:

1. C.S. Lewis
2. J.R.R. Tolkien
3. The Inklings

Each of the sections have small portraits of the men they are covering, but most of the essays focus on topics of theology, mythology and the shape all of these men have had on imagination. While Kilby only met Lewis once, he did strike up a friendship with Tolkien whereby the two men began writing to each other. Kilby would return to Oxford to help his friend with the publication of The Silmarillion.

One of my favorite essays in this collection is the one on Dorothy L. Sayers, best known for her mystery novels (with her sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey), but who, like Lewis and Tolkien, knew a great deal about classical and modern languages. Like Lewis, Sayers was also a Christian apologist, with her best known book being The Mind of the Maker.

Throughout the book, Clyde S. Kilby takes up the subject that Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings held: that at the heart of all myth is symbol and truth and that all mythology is meant to point one to the reality of the Truth that is found in Christianity (the True Myth). It was the argument that Tolkien used to convert Lewis to the faith.

Like the authors he is writing about, Kilby brings a sense of wonder about his subject, which is not really the men he's writing about, but about the Source that inspired all of their writings. For those who might be intimidated by reading a collection of essays by a noted scholar, Kilgy's writing style is more conversational and easily approachable to anyone interested in the subject.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Begin In Wonder

Recently I've begun a new blog that asks the question, "How can we lead a more meaningful life?" It is an exploration of curiosity, asking questions and finding new perspectives through literature, poetry, the arts, nature, science and philosophy. It's a place to undertake wondering and wandering in this glorious world around us. It's meant as an encouragement and a place of nourishment. It's about finding new ways to learn how to pay attention and be present. It's about making the connections between creativity and creation, thought and awareness, science and spirit. If this is something that interests you, here is the link for you to check my new blog out:

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Glory To God In The Smallest

How much of the world have I missed until I kneel, as if in prayer? 

Pulling weeds in my garden, I moved one of the stones around the edges and discovered a small snail. For some reason that day, I stopped and watched as it very slowly, slowly made its way along the stone. 

"You're moving at a snail's pace." is a complaint we have for someone who's being poky or lazy, though I have often heard it whenever I get caught up in my Walter Mitty moments. Snails travel at only one meter per hour. For some reason, watching this tiny garden snail, made me think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's statement, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God." How contrary that is to our own human nature. We are so caught up in our frenetic pace and everything must be quick as if to slow down means to die. Yet, as I knelt there observing the snail, I imagined Christ saying, "Consider the snails . . ."  The peaceful pace of its slowness caused me, that day, to pause in my own as I watched it make its trail of broken, slimy, white mucus on the rock as it moved along in its deliberate progress. What would the world be like if we all moved at such a slower pace? If we move determined, but not rushing mindlessly. Instead, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, "Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience."

I came to nature not through a scientist or naturalist (though I would later love the works of Thoreau, Muir, Eiseley and Dillard) but through a poet, Emily Dickinson. She wrote of the miraculous minutiae of a fly or a bee. Her poetry first introduced me to the spiritual concepts of paying attention, being aware, and being present. My guess is, if I had not discovered her poems, I would probably not have stopped to watch this snail, observing its otherwise unobserved existence. How many of us do? Most of us never notice a snail until its eating the leaves of one of our plants. 

I had become so caught up in watching this snail that I had not even noticed that the clear blue sky had become first and ashy gray and then a darker one. It was only when it began to rain that my attention was broken from my studying this small snail. As the rain came down heavier, I dashed inside the house, where my older son asked, "What were you doing out there for so long?"

"Watching a snail," I replied and waited for him to respond with, "Why?" 

But he didn't. 

He must be used to my peculiarities (such as my habit of watching clouds or my fascination with rocks or leaves or shadows).  Ever since I was a child, I could be caught up in curious absorption of the world around me. It came from my finding solace in two things: books and exploring the woods behind our house (both of which were solitary activities for me).  My pockets were filled with my finds: small animal skulls, smooth stones, owl pellets. Or I'd bring home an abandoned wasp nest, bird's nest, or turtle shell. These would join my collection of sea shells, a stingray's shell, arrow heads, and petrified wood. Out in the woods, I would watch birds, rabbits, a fox, frogs, turtles, and it was where I experienced God long before I experienced my Creator in any church. In Gravity and Grace, the French philosopher Simone Weil wrote, "As Creator, God is present in everything which exists as soon as it exists."

"The heavens declared the glory of God," the Psalmist wrote, "and the skies proclaim his handiwork." How easy it is to gaze up at the stars or an ocean or a mountain range or even a bird in flight and be filled with a sense of awe and wonder, but what about the minuscule?  Do I find traces of God in the insignificant and small?  As I watched this snail, I thought about how gastropods existed 500 million years ago compared to humans, which are only around 6 million years ago. Unlike ourselves, snails were a part of the Cambrian explosion of life forms. How many immeasurable events over the course of history have they survived? According to the Carnegie Museum of Natural Sciences, they have thrived so much that there are over 800,000 known species of gastropods. 

The latest discovery, according to an article in the journal ZooKeys, is the Acmella nana (nanus being Latin for dwarf) and is the smallest known snail in the world at only 0.5 to 0.6 millimeters across and can only be seen under a microscope. To give you a perspective on its smallness, ten of them can fit into the eye of a needle. And it's only one of 48 new snail species discovered in Borneo according to the Naturalists Biodiversity Center. In Borneo alone there are 500 native snails, that's as many as all of North America. The limestone caves they inhabit are 16 to 20 million years old with voluminous, intricate chambers where it can take a century for the limestone to form just half an inch. The snails have evolved smaller and smaller so that they can utilize microscale environments their competitors cannot access as they feed on the microbial films that grow on the rock. If these caves were to be destroyed, 500 snail species would be completely wiped out. To quote Simone Weil once more, "The vulnerability of precious things is beautiful because vulnerability is a mark of existence." 

 Imagine the child-like delight God must have taken in creating these snails so small that they would not be discovered until a few years ago. How many more are unknown to us even today? And how much do we have to still to know about the ones we have discovered both on land and in sea? Certainly, thousands of new species of animals and plants are found each year. In 2012 alone, there were 20,000 new species discovered from insects, to plants, to microbes, to fungi, to mammals. There is so much that remains unknown on this planet alone that it makes me agree with the English essayist Leigh Hunt, "If we can conceive of no end of space, why should we conceive an end of new creations, whatever our poor little bounds of historical time might even appear to argue the contrary." It' overwhelming and to know that God did not have to create such diversity and with such complexity. How can one not be so overwhelmed that one doesn't fall to one’s knees in adoration and worship?

The human brain alone is astounding being composed of 100 billion neurons. Compare that to the humble snail, which has only two. Despite that, scientists at the University of Sussex are studying the brains of snails to better understand how the mind works in terms of explaining how complex behavioral decisions are made. They did this by watching how freshwater snails searched for lettuce. Using electrodes to record small electrical charges, called action potentials, in individual neurons they "discovered a controller type neuron which lets the snail's brain know potential food is present and a second neuron which transmits signals telling the snail's brain what its motivational state is, i.e., whether it's hungry or not," according to Professor George Kemenes, one of those working on the project. "Our study," he told Lynsey Ford, "reveals for the first time how just two neurons can create a mechanism in an animal's brain which drives and optimizes complex decision making tasks. It also shows how this system helps to manage how much energy they use once they make a decision."

As soon as my shadow falls across the rock, the snail quickly pops into its shell. This is because they have light sense cells that warn them. I pick up the shell to study it more closely. 

It's amazing to think of how long gastropods have been around. How much of their survival is due to that heavy wheel of its shell? Each one's unique. The snail I watched had an acorn-colored shell with spiral shape. Made of calcium carbonate the shells are secreted from the part of the body known as the mantle. Its structure and mechanical properties are being studied by biologists and engineers to improve everything from airplane hulls to sports equipment to orthopedic applications. 

The more I watch this snail, the more I, like the Psalmist, want to cry out, "O Lord, how manifold your works: in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures" (104:24).  Or at least break into the hymn "This Is My Father's World." Being attuned to such a small creature made me understand how the excavation of the eternal can begin in the external earth. God can be found in His creations. As Colossians 1:16-17 reminds me, "For by him all things were created, in heaven and earth, visible and invisible . . . all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together." In a sense, seeing this snail gave me a glimpse of the numinous, a glimpse behind the veil of the invisible by the visible before me in the world. 

It also made me aware of how, when we are aware, we are connected to each other. Charles Darwin wrote that we "may all be netted together in one gigantic mode of experience." How can one not be filled with awe, wonder, amazement and worship when we realize that science and faith need not be at odds, that both are meant to point us past our concrete certainties to something grander, greater than ourselves: The Divine Mystery that has formed and shaped and created all things. And isn't it amazing to be reminded of this by something as seemingly small and insignificant as a snail? So, next time you're in your garden, pause for a moment and, "Consider the snails."


Ford, Lynsey. "Snails Reveal How Two Brain Cells Can Hold the Key to Decision Making."The University of Sussex. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Apr. 2017. <>.

Geggel, Laura. Micro Mollusk Breaks Record for World's Tiniest Snail. LiveScience, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God: A Must-Read Review

I first encountered Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" while taking an American Literature class in undergraduate school. It was a horrifying piece of writing that, according to accounts, had his congregation weeping and wailing and repenting to escape the terrors of hell fire and damnation. It also presented an angry, vengeful God who held sinners over the flames like a boy might an insect over a small fire.

Though it wasn't until college that I encountered Edward's sermon, I had come across this portrait of God when I was a young impressionable boy. It wasn't in the preaching or teaching of the Presbyterian church we first attended, but in something called a "Chick Tract" by a cartoonist named Jack Chick. I loved to draw cartoons and illustrations. I read comic books and newspaper cartoons voraciously. When my mother took me to a Christian bookstore in what used to be an old church, I noticed a rack of small comic books over by a staircase leading downstairs. It was roped off so customers couldn't go down there and the lights were off, so it was creepy to a young boy with an overactive imagination. This fear was worsened when I began to read this small comic books with titles like "This Was Your Life," "The Choice," "Are Roman Catholics Christians?" and  "The Beast." This were horrific comics that ended with a faceless God tossing people (sinners) into the fiery lake of hell. Why I kept reading them, I don't know but those comics deeply shook me, so much so, that when I put the last one back on the rack, I gazed down into the darkness of that lower level and fully expected to see hell.

But those tracts did great damage by making me wonder: Was this really how God was?

"Chick Tracts" along with some of the non denominational churches we would later attend, would further this angry God and how one could easily make the wrong choice and, should one suddenly die, and end up in eternal damnation.

I wasn't the only one to encounter this theology. In his latest book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, Brian Zahnd writes of his own experience with Jonathan Edward's sermon and Jack Chick's tracts. This book asks: Does God's wrath or God's love define Christianity?

It's a question I have been wrestling with for years. I believe that how we view God will impact not only our faith, but how we see others as well. If we view God as angry, vengeful, bloodthirsty and desiring retribution, then my attitude towards God is based out of fear and a desire to escape punishment. It also affects how I look at and treat other people, especially those who I consider nonbelievers or sinners. But if my perspective of God is one that is shaped by love, and not fear, then I will view all through the lens of His grace, mercy, compassion and, ultimately, through Christ.

All of scriptures must be read through the lens of Christ. If it matches with Jesus, then it reflects God, but if it doesn't, then it is not a reflection of our Creator but the creation. We see a lot of that throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, where Israel projects onto God their fears, their hatreds, and their tribalism. So much of the God they present reflects both themselves and the pagan gods they saw in cultures around them.

On reflecting on the cross, Zahnd writes:

"God did not kill Jesus; we did. What God did was to raise Jesus from the dead and in Christ give us a new way of organizing the world. Instead of being organized around blame and ritual killing, the world is to now be organized around forgiveness and co-suffering love. The cross is not the place where God vents his wrath on Jesus. The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God's eternal love and recycled in the saving mercy of Christ . . . The cross of Christ is the end of sacrifice. It's not the appeasement of a vengeful deity but the supreme demonstration of God's everlasting love."

Throughout this book, Brian Zahnd confronts the theology of God as loving and not one of vengeance, by using scripture and other theologians (from the early Church Fathers to Saint Augustine to C.S. Lewis). He covers everything from "The Crucified God" to hell (Hell is the love of God refused), heaven and the book of Revelation.

Which is the gospel?

A wrathful or a loving God?

Which would be good news if you were to hear it for the first time?

That is exactly what Brian Zahnd presents as he writes of his own story and how he came to embrace the reality that: I am a forgiven sinner now being healed in the hands of a loving God.

This book by Waterbrook has not yet been released, but will be on August 15, 2017.

Brian Zahnd's official website and blog:

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Being In The Beatitudes: Beginning Blessed Are The Meek

"Blessed are the meek," Jesus begins the third of the Beatitudes and, I must admit, whenever I hear that, my mind immediately goes to one of my favorite films, Dead Poets Society, and the character of Steven Meeks. He's one who walks the line between being a rebel and a good student. While he and Pitts, who also has an unfortunate name, covertly build a radio together to listen to rock n' roll music, he tends to not stray too far into disobeying the rules, like Charlie Dalton and Neil Perry. But is he a good example of meekness, at least in terms of what Christ is referring to in this beatitude?

All of the beatitudes are a portrait of the character of Christ. Each one is like a piece of the puzzle that, when looked at all together, form the whole of his identity and how our identities are to be shaped by following him. So when we filter meekness we must do so through Christ and not how the term "meek" is considered in our culture. If asked, most would admit that the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word "meekness" is "weakness."

In Hebrew the word for meek is anau and means "humble." In Greek the word is praus and means "mild, gentle."

When Christ said, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," he must have been alluding to and it would have been connected to in the minds of his Jewish listeners with Psalm 37:11, "But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity." I wonder how many who heard this thought, as many do today, "Is he kidding?" We live in a world that promotes the Darwinian survival of the fittest. Be assertive. Be aggressive. Be in control. Be the boss. Like Sinatra singing "New York, New York":

I wanna wake up in a city that doesn't sleep
And find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap.

It's all about getting ahead. We prize domination. To the victor goes the spoils. As Julius Caesar once said, "If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it." Our own current President bragged, "My whole life is about winning. I don't lose often. I almost never lose." 

Live large. Be in charge.

There are no bumper-stickers promoting meekness. No Nike ads using meekness in their slogans. And yet Christ is telling all those who were listening that meekness is real power, for they alone shall inherit the earth. Humorist James Thurber once quipped. "Let the meek inherit the earth - they have it coming to them."

Of course, Christ also said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Not exactly what one would hear from the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, a politician running for President, or an football player before the Super Bowl. Yet Jesus is unconcerned with the way the world operates because he is focused solely on how the kingdom of God operates and how that should be the way it is on earth as well. 

When Jesus announced that it was the meek who would inherit the earth, one wonders what the reaction of the Roman soldiers standing at the edges would have been. Snickering? Scoffing? Sarcastic laughs or looks at each other? They knew that Rome was ruling the earth and it wasn't because of any kind of meekness. They understood it was due to war, taking charge through violence and aggression. The meek were those trod underfoot. The meek were the ones who were victimized and suffered injustice at the hands of the rich and powerful. How many in our own government, if Christ was addressing Congress would also mock and ridicule him? How many in the Pentagon would dismiss Jesus as a peace-loving hippie? A kook? Dismiss him as a simple-minded dreamer? 

Even when Constantine declared Christianity to be the national religion, he did no convert because he knew he could not run an empire and live by the Beatitudes. In fact, he did not become a true believer until his deathbed when it would no longer cost him his political power. 

The Beatitudes aren't practical. They aren't the way to get things done. They aren't the way to rule and reign - at least not for long. Not in this world. That's why so few even attempt to.  Even among those who claim to be Christians. That's why we express such admiration for Saint Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa but we don't actually want to be them; after all, they never make the Forbes 100 or People's Most Beautiful list. We prefer our comforts and our way of life. I'm certainly no exception. As someone who grew up bullied for being quiet, shy and an introvert, I definitely don't want to be labeled "meek." We see being called "meek" as a stigmatization, as a humiliation. It is an insult. Meekness is mocked and reviled.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher whose philosophy has influence much of modern thought, wrote in works like Beyond Good and Evil that Christ teaching such things as "meekness" only acted to weaken a people or culture. His view was that meekness stifled great individual potential and held back Western culture. Nietzsche rejected meekness as a parasitic revolt by the lowly against the lofty and powerful. Ayn Rand would continue this assault on the idea of meekness and she even rewrote the Sermon on the Mount to reflect her own philosophy. She changed this Beatitude to say, "Blessed are the bankers' trust-funded sons and daughters, for they shall inherit the Earth." Ayn Rand is cited as someone who deeply influenced Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.

On the flip-side, Mahatma Gandhi embraced the Sermon on the Mount. Every day, for forty years, he studied and lived them out. For him, he saw meekness as strength by choosing nonviolence over violence, compassion over aggression, and peace over war. The only picture that he had on the wall of his ashram was one of Christ with the words "He is our peace." He wrote how reading the Sermon on the Mount for the first time "went straight to his heart." It was by living out the Beatitudes through peaceful nonviolence that Gandhi would go on to influence Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Meekness as seen in Christ, Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day is not weakness at all. They had a deep inner strength that reacted to violence and hatred and fear with peace, love and compassion. Their outer lives revealed the depth of their inner lives. They grasped that to be meek was to walk in peace, abide in mercy, live in kindness. But the structures of power are not built on such a system as put forth by Christ. It's all about force and sustaining the status quo (much of which is rooted in injustice and inequality).

Christ calls us to learn from him because he is "gentle and humble at heart." This goes against human nature. We tend to hold tightly to our pride and balk at the mere idea of meekness, gentleness and humility because those will only get us taken advantage of. That's why there are Christians who dismiss the Beatitudes as not meant to be taken literally. Why? Because they fear everything they have will be taken away from them. We understand that meekness means that we can no longer put ourselves and our own wants first. This call of Christ to meekness requires of us to let go of the spotlight and grasping after platforms and self-promotion. It means we are not the center of attention, the focus or the most important. Meekness does not seek to sit in the seat of importance, as Jesus warned in the Parable of the Guests. His warning: pride will bring you low, but humility beings you true honor in the eyes of God.

Mother Teresa wrote, "The only thing Jesus has asked us to be is meek and humble of heart, and to do this, he has taught us to pray. He has put 'meek' first. From that one word comes gentleness, thoughtfulness, simplicity, generosity, truthfulness. For whom? For one another. Jesus put 'humility' after meekness. We cannot love one another unless we hear the voice of God in our hearts."

Meekness is contentedness. It is acceptance of what God gives us and not wrestling for more or the pie. It is not a clamoring to get to the top of the ladder. It is not Frank Sinatra belting out, "I did it my way!" Christ is calling us to the opposite. Not our way, but the way that calls us to die to self, to deny self, to pick up our cross and follow him. In The Message, Eugene Peterson translated Matthew 5:5 as, "You're blessed when you're content with just who you are - no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought." This is truly counter-cultural and revolutionary. It is a break from all that our world holds important and dear. It is going against the grain of  our wants to, instead, unite our will with the will of God. It is a redefining of success to wanting what's best for all of humanity. It is realizing that if even one is suffering, we are called to go them and relieve that suffering. As Nelson Mandela once said, "As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest."

Meekness is identifying ourselves with the least of these, no matter who we are. It's realizing that if we build a wall, Jesus will always be on the side of the wall of those in the most need. Christ identifies himself with the marginalized, the victimized, the persecuted, the oppressed, the poor, the broken, the hurting, and the forgotten. He is with those at Standing Rock, not with the ones who want to take the land for profit and gain. He is with those who are trapped in human trafficking, not those who are making their billions off the backs of the impoverished (in industries like chocolate, coffee, technology and pornography). He is with those who suffer atrocities, not the mighty powers who are committing them in the name of self-interest. If Christ aligns himself with those who suffer injustice and oppression, how can we, as his followers, not do the same? To do so requires the true strength of meekness.

Are we willing to no longer be neutral or indifferent and become meek? Only meekness will be able to tear down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. Only meekness is revolutionary enough to be able to end poverty, famine, war, injustice and the evils of inequality of any kind. Is it any wonder then that the meek shall inherit the earth?

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Jesus Journey: A Must-Read Review

How often do we meditate on or even think about the humanity of Jesus? I think the reason why is churches focus so much on his divinity and are extremely uncomfortable confronting the humanity of Jesus. We preach the Christ not the man.In his book Jesus Journey: Shattering the Glass Superhero and Discovering the Humanity of God, Trent Sheppard does just that: examines the humanity of Jesus. And he does so in such a way that it makes the reader long to go back into their Bibles and see Jesus with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

So often we come to the scriptures with our preconceived ideas of God and Jesus, or our perceptions are shaped by Sunday school stories (many never move past those), and so we never delve deeper into what did it really mean for Jesus to be fully God and fully man. But what exactly does that mean? Do we wrestle with this mystery of incarnation fully? Do we honestly stop to think about how Jesus was, indeed, flesh and blood? That the Word really and truly became flesh? That he was born an infant just as we all were, that he was breastfed and had to have his diapers changed as we all do. As he grew, did he struggle to fit in? If he had a hard time, is that where much of his connection to the outsiders and the fringe of society came from?

Do we think of Jesus experiencing pain, loneliness, joy, hunger, exhaustion, and the gamut of emotions and experiences that make someone human? Or do we prefer the Jesus from the felt board of our Sunday school classes?  Do we simply make him a kind of spiritual superhero?

Do we stop to think about his disciples and how young they really were (all between the ages of 15 and 25)? Certainly stopping to consider that makes me more compassionate towards their foibles and flaws; after all, when I consider what I was like in my own youth, what kind of bumbling and misguided disciple would I have been? What must it have been like for these young men, all good monotheistic Jews, to even begin to consider this man, their Rabbi, as God? Sheppard even makes the connection that Peter, stepping out of the boat to come to Jesus on the water, possibly did so, not because he understood that Jesus was divine, but because the man Jesus was walking on the water before him.

What Trent Sheppard does well in this book is to make us see the humanity of Jesus. By using the four gospels, the author takes a closer examination of Jesus' relationship to his parents Mary and Joseph and to his heavenly Abba, to his fellowship with his disciples, as well as his final days on earth. The book is an invitation to the reader to explore the life of Jesus as a Jew from Nazareth who is the son of God. In writing of Jesus' humanity, Sheppard does not, like Thomas Jefferson focus on the humanness and deny the divinity (as Jefferson created his own New Testament with only Christ's teachings and he cut out any mention of the miracles or the resurrection). This book restores the humanity and embraces the divinity. And Sheppard offers beautiful insight into both.

Jesus Journey is meant to be read as a 40 day devotional and each section ends with a call for the reader to Ponder, Pray, and Practice what they have just reflected on.