Monday, October 29, 2012

God is a Terrible Person (A Halloween Meditation)



Because I am a deeply spiritual man I have been praying for guidance as to what I should dress up as this Halloween. No clear answers yet. 

As I try and decide between a ghost, a man in a toga or a sheet salesman, I have another thought in my mind about how I live the rest of my life. Here’s a few brief thoughts that will hopefully serve as a kind of a meditation.
In the Hebrew Old Testament, generally speaking, people are referred to as what could be translated “life-forms”. The word in Hebrew is nephesh (נֶפֶשׁ). It’s applied to people and animals and seems to be a way of delineating life from non-life. Rocks; not nephesh. Geologists and their pets; nephesh (unless they’re pet rocks).

When a person is referred to in the Old Testament, that person is called a life. And it’s largely the same in the New Testament. The Greek word Psuche (ψυχή) loosely means “soul” or “life”  and is often translated as such. When you look at a person, you are looking at life, who does in some way resemble the very Essence and Maker of life. Not to romanticize it too much, but there is a sense Biblically that human beings are thought of matter-of-factly as having depth and substance. 

It seems as though in our modern times, and in the English language, we’ve lost much of this sense. Unfortunately, we now refer to each other as “person”. When it’s a plurality of persons the term is “people”, which comes from populace or population.

But the singular, “person”, literally means mask. 

Rather than refer to ourselves by our depths, we casually call each other pretenders, actors, facades. Not, I believe, because we have judgmental intentions. But perhaps because we’ve grown comfortable thinking of ourselves by our outward presentation, rather than what makes us truly us. In fact, one could argue, we spend the majority of our energy being a good person outwardly without much emphasis on what we really are in our depths. Our focus and much of our life is dedicated to making our mask effective at hiding our inner reality while simultaneously impressing others at all life’s costume parties.

The Biblical story of humanity is one that begins with open, vulnerable, honest nakedness and descends quickly into fig leaves, hides and hiding. What was about mutual, unobstructed access to each other became the nervous mastering of others’ perception through coverings and pretense. Anxiety and an overall terror about being known for what we are (or maybe aren’t) follows through to today. 

We were made to look like God, but Humanity put on a mask and became a scared little person.

How much of the jockeying for position and rank we see in the New Testament or this last month for you and I is really men and women trying to put on the best show in order to win the most social currency? How many of our cares are really the culturally sanctioned fretting over whether we’re producing the results that give us the best shot at admiration, love and respect?


All this has brought me to think about Trick-or-Treat night this Halloween (you know, that one time of year we put on a mask to get something from others) and a brief meditative opportunity to be found where there was only candy and sweaty plastic masks before. 
Hopefully these questions can serve as one more step in us really seeing each other; really knowing and being known by each other. And in this, a little closer to the kind of human existence we know down in our ψυχή that we were meant to live.


If you go Trick-or-Treating with (or as) kids, ask yourself:

How much of your day-to-day life is like this night?

What are your costumes? “Costumes” comes from the word “custom” and has to do with customary dress for the place we find ourselves. So this question is asking what are the customary presentations of your persona that you recognize in all areas of your life? (Some of us pride ourselves on being a social chameleon, able to appear like whoever we’re around....is this a plus?)

Do you present God a mask and costume, in your words or deeds, because you believe that’s what God requires if we’re to be found acceptable? In other words, do you give God only the person or do you also give God all the nebulous, scary, unanchored liability that lies beneath?

What would happen if you really dropped all pretending, whether gradually or all at once? Would you choose the avoidance of this outcome at the expense of remaining an actor? Or would you be willing to embrace the terror of nakedness?

Is it okay to hate whoever it is that passes out those unchewably hard taffies in black paper? Good grief. Spend an extra buck and distribute something resembling a treat.

Monday, October 22, 2012

"The Prisoners". A parable.


The prisoner gathered his courage and offered the guard his own daily ration of bread through the cell bars. 

The guard looked at the bread in the prisoner’s dirty hand and scowled. He opened the door and beat the prisoner with his baton, calling him a worthless dog, kicking him as he fell to the ground. 

That night, the prisoner nursed his wounds, rehearsing his teacher’s emphasis to not ever be overcome by the evil of others, but to trust in the power of serving and loving them instead. The prisoner went to sleep hurting, skeptical, but resolved to brave love again.

That same evening the officer remembered his brutality toward the prisoner and was ashamed. He felt he had wielded his power in a way he wouldn’t later be proud of.

The next afternoon the bruised prisoner approached the door with that day’s ration of bread, as well as his bowl of pale broth. When the guard noticed him, he opened the door and swatted the food out of the prisoners hand and shoved him to the ground. “Keep your rations to yourself!” he shouted.

The prisoner spent the rest of his day angry and doubtful about his teacher’s words and all the years he’d spent learning them. He decided the teaching was unrealistic and was only making matters worse.

The guard spent the rest of his day angry and doubtful about his behavior. Would his own children be able to tell which was the righteous man, and which was unrighteous? The guard decided to break policy and would treat the prisoner with dignity, should he dare to share his food again.

On the third day the prisoner came to the window offering his daily ration of bread, a bowl of pale broth, as well as his once-a-week ration of cold coffee. When the guard saw him with the gifts at the door, he opened it, and stepped through. The prisoner braced for another beating. But the guard extended his hand and received the prisoner's gifts. He ate them eagerly. As he finished the broth and swallowed the coffee, he choked as his throat began to close. The soup and the coffee had been poisoned. 

As the guard lay gasping and shaking on the floor, other guards came in to take their revenge on the prisoner, as well as all the other prisoners on the block. Both the guard and the prisoner, in their final moments before dying, knew their change of heart had been an error.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Profaning the Temple

This past Sunday, Jonathan gave us an overview of the mobile Hebrew tent, the tabernacle.
It's a nutty word. Tabernacle. Similar to Kalamazoo; It gets your whole mouth involved when you say it and has the added value of sounding like a magic spell. (Wave a wand while saying "tabernacle kalamazoo" ominously and then let me know if anything worthy of Hogwarts occurs.)

Tabernacle literally means "observation tavern", which I'd argue makes a great name for a church. Attendance would probably be significant at the Observation Tavern, as long as service wasn't too early. As Jonathan covered sunday, the tabernacle's design and structure was meticulous as well as metaphoric inside and out. Though this mobile tent finally gave way to a permanent structure known as the temple (despite God never asking for that architectural graduation), the original concept of a mobile tent of God, with animal skin on the outside and the Spirit of God at its heart carry all the through the New Testament to today.

It's an astounding concept.

"We are the temple of the living God; just as God said, 'I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people'."  2 Corinthians 6:16

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? " 1 Corinthians 6:19 


"Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?" 1 Corinthians 3:16 


To the extent that I embrace this reality, it makes me say wow. And then, whoa. And then...after some reflection... ugh.

I'm God's dwelling place. You and I tote the almighty. And since you and I are nothing approaching perfect, this means God takes up residence in our love and purity as well as our selfishness and animalistic settling. As the idea of YHWH living in me, and more meaningfully, with in us, takes hold I find myself feeling like a kid thats been doing yard jobs in his dad's car only to find out dad's been in the passenger seat the whole time. Hey dad, how long have you been there? All along? Soooo.... you don't just 'know what I did', but because of my lack of awareness, I've made you part of it. I wish I could magically disappear....KALAMAZOO!...ahem....still here huh?

But there's something about all this far more profound to me as I embrace what it means to take part in being the temple of the Divine. To be skin on the outside and God's Spirit at my center. Once again, as I mature, the whole discussion sprints far past "good and bad", or a tension between behaving and misbehaving. It's something more about the actual transformation of human beings. The faith of my childhood, and of my childishness, is behavior control and being guilted (even intimidated) into a non-naughty conformity. But I'm discovering once again it's more about accepting Christ's invitation into full, whole life.

Today, I've been thinking about the word profane in relation to all of this. We use the form "profanity" more often. When we use these words, most of us think of something bad that's gotten on something good. A profanity is a bad word that's come out of what was supposed to be a good mouth (or a bad word from a bad mouth into a good ear. Either way, something pure has been soiled). A profane image could be a sacrilegious painting or sculpture or even act that flies in the face of accepted morality.

The word is an interesting one. It breaks down as pro fanus, meaning "out in front of the temple". It's not inside the sacred space, but has been cast out. Though this does have the simplistic connotation of not being "good enough" to inhabit the sacred space, it becomes more dynamic as we think about us brothers and sisters actually being the sacred space. More so when what makes us that sacred space, that mobile tent of God's Spirit, isn't our goodness but God's.

Many of us have grown up thinking of sacred buildings as things we made. But sacred buildings are things God makes. Us. Profaning the temple is that which doesn't honor what God is up to in us and through us, and is out of accord with the Christ who makes us sacred. So running in church doesn't profane the temple. Yelling at the running kids our of unbridled irritability, or calling the one who did the yelling a grumpy jerk- these are the profaning of the temple of God.

We profane the temple when we act selfishly, a direct contrast to the others-centered Spirit of the Christ. We profane the temple when we treat our bodies, or those of others', as mere centers for appetite and appetite satisfaction.
We profane the the temple when we withhold forgiveness until people pay us for their sins.
We profane the temple when we cease to live in the honesty of faith and mystery, instead demanding answers and shunning natural human doubt and thus demanding pretense.
We profane the temple when we choose self-preserving, self-assured fear over courageous acts of service to others that can't or won't reciprocate.
We profane the temple every time we give into the belief that we are better than others. As though we possess the Spirit by grace while others have to prove themselves to us for that same honor.

In short, we profane the temple of a cosmic behavior police by failing to act and speak in accordance with its purity code. But, for those that tote the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Ultimate giver and lover of others, we profane his temple when we do anything that contrasts his grace and love.

To my fellow sacred architecture: May we be better than good, or merely not bad. May we live in a way that reflects He that lives at our core.




Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Prayer Part 2


I asked my best mate Jonathan a few questions about prayer for your blog-reading pleasure. He and I have had numerous talks about prayer over the years and have different experiences as praying people. I've learned a lot from him, and now you get to:

What is your daily experience of prayer like? I would say it's short. I tend to keep my prayers pretty short and simple. I used to feel guilty about that, but then I realized Jesus taught that was okay--even preferred at times. I often find myself thinking through my upcoming day and the interactions I anticipate, and asking for what I think I may need in those moments. Often when I sit down to talk to someone, I'll quickly ask God to help me listen well, to discern what's being said and what's not being said, and for wisdom in how I respond. Additionally, I'll ask very specific questions of God as part of prayer and try to quiet myself to discern how God may choose to answer. This isn't a daily discipline. But, it's an important part of my prayer experience.

We all have prayer, or a lack of it, modeled for us. Where did you learn to pray the way you do? Like many others, I'm sure I have several influences when it comes to prayer. I'm sure there are phrasal patterns I picked up along the way that I don't even remember where I first heard them. I'm sure my parents played a role in that, as well as influential pastors, mentors and friends. When I was 17 years old I found myself in my bedroom yelling at God. Up to that point, I had always repeated very traditional prayers before meals and bedtime. Yet, in those moments of yelling and letting God have it, a thought came to mind that seemed to suddenly interrupt my current stream of thought. It was, Finally, you're actually talking to me. That was a critical point for me that radically changed my paradigm. One, this was no longer a one-sided conversation. God speaks back. And two, perhaps God wasn't interested in all the great ways I could perform by saying the 'right things' at the 'right time.' Perhaps, God really just wanted to hear the raw version of me. That moment was a catalyst in several ways. A few years later I read a book by author and philosopher Dallas Willard called Hearing God that gave me some handles on how to grow in navigating and discerning an interactive conversation with God. 

How do you ask God for things, and how do interpret whether it's God responding or your own brain, coincidence, botulism-induced delirium via bad fish, etc? Again, I would say my asks are very short but specific. Asking God to just 'speak' has rarely proved helpful in my experience. So, I try to ask specific questions. In terms of interpreting whether it's God responding, or my own thoughts, or delirium from bad fish--I try to approach the whole process with great humility. The reality is I can misunderstand something my wife says when she's sitting next to me on the couch. Therefore, I try to always remember that I can certainly misunderstand the whispers and nudges from an invisible, spirit God. As for discerning between specific thoughts, I tend to pay attention to a few key filters that were greatly influenced by Dallas Willard. 
  • One, does the voice carry a weight of authority? Throughout the Scripture, God doesn't ever seem to try to convince. Or bargain. Or plead. Or argue. He just speaks. It's like the healthiest version of any kind of leader in your life. 
  • Two, is the tone of what I'm hearing consistent with the voice and spirit of Christ we find in the Scriptures? For example, often the thoughts that flood to mind are hurried. There's an anxiousness to them--imploring me to do something right away--typically out of some kind of fear. But Jesus' voice was never marked by hurry or anxiety in the Scriptures. So, I tend to dismiss those thoughts as I'm sifting and discerning through. Additionally, Jesus didn't use guilt, manipulation, or condemnation. So those thoughts of, "Who do you think you are--thinking you can do this? Remember what you did? Remember when you failed?" Or, "If you really love me, then you'll _____." I've learned and am still learning to let myself be free to dismiss those thoughts as not the voice of Christ in my life. 
  • Three, I try to ask myself if what I'm hearing contradicts a principle clearly taught in Scripture. If my thoughts are prompting me toward revenge or are giving me reasons to hold onto bitterness--then I try to remind myself that isn't the voice of Christ. If someone tells me he feels like God is telling him to pursue another woman other than his spouse, I feel like I can say with a fair amount of confidence that God isn't saying that. I've never heard God speak audibly out loud. However, I use those filters to sift through the thoughts that come to mind when I ask specific questions in trying to discern what God may be saying.

When the disciples asked Jesus for some help with praying, He responded with what we call the Lord's prayer. But the first word in it is "our". How does this inform your experience. Especially when it comes to big decisions, I bounce what I think I'm hearing off a very close, trusted circle of Christ-centered friends and mentors. Again, I'm very aware I can misunderstand God and misunderstand myself. So, I invite communal discernment and feedback, trusting that God speaks through the community He has surrounded me with as well. 

What do people get hung up where praying is concerned, in your experience? Especially when it comes to the listening and interactive side of prayer, I think people get hung up on wanting immediate results. Recognizing one's specific voice in any relationship takes time. There are a handful of people on the planet that if all they said to me on the phone was 'hey' that I could immediately discern who it is. And all of those are relationships that I've interacted with for over a decade. I still have trouble distinguishing my two young boys from one another on the phone. I think that same principle holds true in our relationship with God. But, it's very tempting to bail quickly on learning to discern the voice of God because we feel like it should be obvious to us and if it's not--then it's easy to conclude either something is wrong with me or something is wrong with God or prayer itself. Instead, it may very well be that's just the reality of how relationships work and develop over time, and we're impatient. 
Further, I think we can often get hung up on asking specific questions. We can carry this sense of not wanting to bother God with the questions we're wrestling with personally or professionally. Sure, we can ask him to intervene and heal and fix. But, the idea of asking a specific question and trying to listen causes us to hesitate. One of my biggest hurdles in that regard was simply fear of what would happen to my faith if I asked something and didn't hear anything. I was scared of what that may say about me and I didn't want to have to confront that. I was also scared of what that potential silence may say about this Christ I've put my faith in and I didn't want to risk or confront it. So, it felt 'safer' to keep the conversation one-sided. I imagine I'm not the only one who gets hung up on that. 
Another thing about prayer that's easy to get hung up on is disconnecting it from actual life. It's easy for it to become this separate spiritual thing we do only in a carved-out, specific period of time. To counter that temptation, often I pray with my eyes open. That used to feel taboo to me based on what I had witnessed growing up. Sometimes closing my eyes helps me focus. But sometimes opening them reminds me this interaction with God is very much a part of my actual day to day world--not disconnected in any way. Also, I used to feel guilty when I would get distracted by to-do lists in my head as I was trying to listen. But now, rather than trying to keep listening while simultaneously trying not to forget this 'to do' that suddenly popped in my head--I just write it down on a pad of paper or type a note in my phone and go back to sifting through my thoughts afterward. 
One more thing. It's easy for prayer to get disconnected from your actual life if you don't act on what you hear. Again, prayer isn't a disconnected spiritual experience. If you try to perfectly discern when it's actually God speaking versus coincidence or bad fish--the goal becomes recognizing God's voice over living a life surrendered to the leadership of Christ.  
So, what does this mean practically? When God brings someone to mind out of nowhere, call them. Stop by and visit. When you ask God for specific guidance--and a thought interrupts that you think may be God, after passing it through the filters I mentioned earlier, take a risk and act on it. As you see the leadership of Christ play out more and more in your life, it gives you increased confidence in future moments of discernment. When I've gone through seasons of finding it more difficult to discern God's voice for whatever reason, I've found it helpful to be brought back to surrendering to the leadership of what Jesus has already said in the Scriptures. I recognize in some situations I don't need a new word from God. I just need to surrender to the leadership that's already been given through the life and words of Jesus. As I do that, not surprisingly, I find it easier to 'tune back in' to a more interactive, conversational relationship with God. Not because God was previously holding out on me, but more so because my heart was postured to listen just for listening, rather than for the sake of living.