After six years, I was finally ready to tell my story publicly. This video is of my talk (and song) from June 2nd.
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I have never felt freer and more interested and excited to learn who and what Christ is than I do now, because I don’t need the answers to be any particular way.
If I was somehow given proof that Jesus never existed and Christianity was a hoax, I would be fundamentally okay, more than okay. So too if I learned there was no such thing as an afterlife. For that too would be a bonus. This life is abundantly more than enough. I’ve experienced an assurance of my “salvation” that does not depend on the truth of any religion, historical account, or theory of reality. All the theories and stories are the wonderful out-workings of whatever it is that this wonderful Life is made of. I trust in Life.
This is the ground from which I can most freely investigate and discover who Christ is—as a gift, a bonus, a Person worth following, a Spirit worth embodying. I do not *need* any of it to be true, for my needs are already met by whatever this blessed existence is in itself. Christianity’s truth does not depend on my need for its truth. I am not threatened by the prospect of its untruth, and its truth is not threatened by my intellectual freedom.
I know that my heart loves me, and I believe that the Universe is infused to the core with love. Maybe it’s Christ’s doing. Maybe Christ is the true name for that love. Or maybe it is one of many true names. These are things I’ll likely be working out for a long time.
But more than understanding, I want the heart of Jesus. It’s a special kind of love. A tear-stained love. What if Jesus never even existed? All I know is that Jesus exists enough.
A perspective is a process
“Every perspective is true but partial.”
I can see the truth of this claim more clearly if I use different wording:
Every perspective is actually a process. That process is truly happening, whether we like it or not. If we are unwilling to tolerate another person’s perspective, it means we are arguing with reality. It doesn’t mean the other person isn’t arguing with reality too; it just means we’ve joined them in doing so.
Is there anything wrong with arguing with reality? Rather than frame it as a moral question, we can treat it the same way as a perspective: it’s a process and it’s happening. You are free to argue with reality. You are free to not tolerate other perspectives. If I told you that you were wrong at some fundamental level to argue with reality, then I would be arguing with reality. It’s something we already do.
But not only are we free to argue with reality, we’re also free not to argue with reality. This may have some benefits, but we won’t find out what they are unless we’re willing to try it.
For example, if I am for increased gun control measures and I hear someone who is absolutely opposed to any form of gun control, what is my response? Can I tolerate their perspective? And if so, can I become interested in their perspective, not only to shoot it down (no pun intended), but also in order to see the truth of their perspective?
Remember: a perspective is a process that is actually happening, no less in you than in them. You’re familiar with your process but unfamiliar with theirs. You are free to choose not to become interested in their process, thereby letting the interaction of these processes continue in the same pattern they are already accustomed to (e.g. increased entrenchment, animosity, polarization, etc.).
But you are also free to explore the unfamiliar process (the truth of the other’s perspective) and see where that might lead. Likely you won’t lose your own perspective; that process is pretty well reinforced if you’re already to the point of having trouble tolerating other processes.
Still, it is risky. There’s no guarantee that you’ll end up on the other side with the same perspective. You might even change your mind in some small or large way. You might have to adjust your process or refine your perspective. Given this risk, the only way you’ll truly be able to explore another perspective is to be willing to change your mind. Otherwise, it will not be an authentic exploration. You’ll remain embedded in your own process while observing the other process from the outside. The only way to truly explore it is to step into the other process. And the only way to do that is to accept the associated risk: the possibility that you might change your mind.
So… if you’re interested in truth—in reality, and especially if you’re interested in moving beyond entrenched cultural patterns, or discovering a new way to work together with all these strange people who are inhabiting the same planet as you, then you have to take one simple step (and keep taking it):
Be willing to change your mind.
Good news: God’s presence
I woke up groggy, as I often do. Then I remember: God is here! And: I may have diminished awareness, diminished feeling, diminished energy, but God is not diminished! My experience or lack thereof need not be fixed for God to be here, pulsing through my veins. My sliver of awareness is just a sliver. And yet: all of God is here right now, residing in the depths of my experience. I may not be able to reach much depth right now. It might feel like I’m floating on the salt-saturated Dead Sea, as buoyant and surface-bound as ever. But my inability to see beneath the surface doesn’t mean there are no depths.
So I remember that there are depths. And God is.
My next tendency is to decry the surface. “Tiredness, numbness—you’re keeping me from God!” No, no, no. Quite the opposite. Here’s the really good news: Not only are there depths, but this experience—this tiredness, this numbness—is the surface of those depths. There is no other surface. There is nowhere else to go. There is nowhere else I can go. I cannot escape this surface, but that’s okay, because the depths are fully here, and this surface—this experience—is the gateway to them. If I want to see God, I need only peer into the experience I am having right now. And even if I don’t notice anything that feels deep, I can trust that what I’m seeing right now, what I’m experiencing right now, is nothing less than the face of God.
Of course this practice of trust makes way for grace, where I get to experience life more deeply, to gain insights, to feel loved. That’s wonderful. But what’s maybe even more wonderful is the fact that this practice of trust—of faith—does not depend on such moments of grace ever happening. In the same way that God is always here and available, I can take the same attitude: I am here. I am available. I am here and available for whatever arises in life, for whatever is needed, for whatever is happening right now. No matter how I feel and no matter how clearly I can see. I am open to receiving the special gifts of God but free from the need to ever receive them.
Again, I eventually but inevitably find the hand of grace reaching out to me. And, again, I want to be less and less dependent on such experiences. In so doing, I might one day find that there are no grace-less experiences, there is no difference between the depth and the surface, and I can’t help but experience God in everything that happens. Until then, I thank God for faith. I thank God for good news: reminders that no matter what is happening right now, it’s happening in the presence of God.
How to save the world for fun and profit
Recognize that Being is indestructible; you can never be destroyed. In so doing, you will lose all inclinations to put your head in the sand.
Be still, and know that I am God.
Celebrate the unprecedented opportunity for global cooperation and moral transformation that the climate crisis represents. Dare to imagine a world that actually rises to the challenge. What would that take?
Embrace the challenge with zest, vigor, and hope. Dare to imagine a world full of people who care for each other, people who are willing to joyfully sacrifice short-term self-interest for the sake of the whole, people who look beyond their differences to embrace what they share in common.
Does that seem impossible? Wonderful! Imagine then how amazing it will be if we actually pull it off! What would this mean? It would mean nothing less than that a widespread awakening has occurred. A newfound appreciation for life, a collective repentance, a mass revival. Hearts changed, communities transformed. A planetary healing of biblical proportions.
Has there ever been a riper time for application of the religious imagination? Has our land ever needed such healing as it does now?
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
—2 Chronicles 7:14
The ball is in our court. It’s the biggest game we’ve ever played. We’re the clear underdog, dismissed as having no hope… Imagine if we actually won!!
Addendum for doubters:
“But what role should I play?”
If you’re already working for change, then commit to strengthening your imagination and renewing your hope. Remember what it’s like to play. There’s no reason this project can’t be the most fun you’ve ever had in your life.
If you’ve been ignoring or dismissing the threat to any degree (who of us hasn’t?), start with repentance. Open your mind and learn about climate change. Don’t take my word for it. Let go of all your past tendencies toward abdication of responsibility, and quit assuming that you already know what’s what.
I believe that our actions will become clear, as soon as our hearts—not only our heads—are in the game. Who or what do you love most in your life? Connect with that love. Ask and pray that your heart might be broken for your fellow human beings. Allow yourself to be moved by the prospect of global suffering. May we shed tears for the life of our planet. Before we can experience the joyful prospect of hope, we may need to experience the devastation and grief of coming to terms with where we are at. This part isn’t fun, but as anyone who has ever experienced true conviction of sin will tell you, it’s worth it.
Psalm 32 is about repentance. Please read it with climate change in mind. It is particularly rich in meaning when read in that context.
Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
you will protect me from trouble
and surround me with songs of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love
surrounds the one who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart!
God wants “you”…to die
True conviction of sin is a high spiritual attainment. It’s when you realize after years of practice and professed surrender that you haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of your rebellion against your True Self, the One Consciousness who is the rightful owner of your life. You get a glimpse of the selfishness that still pervades your practice, and you realize for a moment that you’re never going to get what you want out of this, not if you go all the way. It’s another moment of reckoning: do I keep going, now that I see that so many of the desires fueling my practice will never be fulfilled and were never meant to be fulfilled? So many desires systematically being revealed as false, impure, irrelevant—will there be any motivation left?
You have tasted God, you have seen the light, you still have faith that your true life will be found on the other side of yet another level of letting go. But in that moment of reckoning, when it becomes clear you must give up everything, there’s only grief and fear. It’s dark, and faith is all you have to go on. From here, your true identity is foreign, strange, an unknown quantity. Everything you thought you were has nothing to do with who you actually are. On this side of awakening, you may as well hear it: God wants you to die. Are you still in?
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults…
— Psalm 19:12
The meaning of true commitment
Lisa and I were married in 1999, when I was 21 years old. I pledged to stay with her for the rest of my life: “till death do us part.”
Today, I am not the same man I was then. Of course, I’ve always been changing by degrees, but never had I so dramatically and rapidly changed than in 2012. How does one stay true to a commitment when one is a completely different person than when the commitment was originally made? I am learning the answer to that question now, and I will be learning it for the rest of my life.
For a long time, I’ve struggled with the concept of commitment in general. It seems so final, even arbitrary. What if things radically change? How can you foretell the future? Especially when it comes to smaller commitments, like “I’m starting this business, come hell or high water,” or “I’m committing to becoming a doctor, no matter what”—how can you know that you won’t need to adjust your plan? Or even abandon it? Usually, people will say they’re committed to something with the understanding that they may need to “renegotiate” that commitment later on. It’s about being flexible, honest with oneself, staying present and humble. But then these aren’t true commitments. They’re provisional at best. They’re relative, not absolute.
I like to keep my options open. How could I possibly know what is best for the future? I will always have a limited vantage point. If my perspective is always relative, if I can never be entirely objective, if I can never have access to a “God’s-eye view,” what business do I have making absolute commitments? And yet, I hear about the “power of commitment” all the time.
One way I’m learning to use commitments is to make them absolute, but within a narrow, time-bound context. For example, right now I’m committed to writing six days per week for at least 20 minutes at a time over the course of this month. Previously, I had not qualified my “commitment” beyond saying “six days per week.” But that was absurd. It revealed the lack of my understanding about commitment. What did it even mean? I will write six days per week for the rest of my life? No, it needs a time limit. So this time, I am limiting it to one month, because I know that I will be traveling next month, which could otherwise get in the way of my commitment.
This is all pretty much conventional wisdom about goal-setting. Some people seem obsessed about making “SMART goals.” This always turned me off, because it seems so rigid and anal. What about going with the flow? What about a little humility? What about living in the present moment and responding organically? Even so, my resistance to goal-setting was never itself absolute. I can clearly see that people accomplish big changes in the world, all because they had a plan and they stuck to it, not letting anything stop them. When my “go with the flow” mentality prevents me from ever setting goals, I tend to get stuck in what seems like an eddy in the river of life. Then, something in me gets really angry. Eventually, I make myself swim back toward the current. More often than not, this would involve cutting out addictive behaviors, and taking charge of myself. Eventually, I’d be thriving again. And then, eventually, I’d ease up on all the “goal-setting,” relax more, and find myself in another eddy. Thus the cycle continues.
Call it the “masculine” vs. the “feminine,” I don’t really care. I’ve already done enough analysis to tire myself out, trying to understand the nature of goal-setting, planning, and making commitments—”structure,” if you will—versus receptivity, openness, going with the flow, etc. My strong suspicion all along has been that this is ultimately a false dichotomy, and Life knows how to balance, or mix, or unite the two aspects in perfect health. Even so, this theoretical ideal of the perfect blend of directionality and receptivity has usually remained just that: theoretical. In the end, commitment still seems too final and arbitrary, too ostentatious, even preposterous. Why preposterous? Because when you commit to something, it seems that you’re placing yourself in the position of God. What if God wants you to do something different? What will you say then? “Sorry, God, I have a commitment to keep.”
So too even with marriage. Now, it is easy to simply appeal to the Bible and make an absolute statement: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate.” (Matthew 19:6) But we all must admit that there are times when divorce is totally called for. (Even the Bible admits that.) Besides, if you no longer buy into absolute, once-for-all, written-in-stone morality (as I no longer do), then what? You’ve no longer got that absolute, though external, basis to appeal to. The commitment was, in a sense, not truly yours. It had to appeal to a higher authority.
Now I must qualify myself here. There is one commitment that I have always gotten behind: giving my life to God, to the Whole, to Ultimate Reality, to whatever is the highest possible context for my life. In particular, I’m committing to that dimension of God which desires the best for His creation. In other words, I’m committing to Love. This is what began when I gave my life to Christ, and began again the countless times I re-committed my life to Christ. There is nothing that could ever turn me away from this commitment. There are no revelations that could sway me. At least not after 2012. My faith had been partially contingent, dependent on particular world views, particular cosmological claims. It is no longer contingent on any of these. I may not know who or what God is, but “God,” as I’m using the term, cannot not exist. In other words, it’s not a question of existence. It is truly absolute. This doesn’t mean I will perfectly live in alignment with that commitment. It just means that the commitment will never go away. Though I may stray and become nasty and unloving, selfish, confused, etc., etc., the commitment will remain. I’d rather die than give my life to something smaller. The only way to stay in alignment with this commitment is to be ever-vigilant, keeping my eyes and ears open to all that I don’t know and haven’t the foggiest clue about. Paradoxically, it is itself a commitment to humility, even though it may sound ever-so-strident and proud.
What I am finally beginning to discover is what that “power” of commitment actually is. Previously, whenever I heard about the “power of commitment,” I thought about what power is unleashed in your favor when you finally make a real commitment. The oft-cited quote from Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray captures this nicely:
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.
This is a wonderful thought, and I’m not about to deny that it’s true. But what I’ve finally discovered deep inside myself is the power of commitment itself. In other words, I’ve discovered my own power to commit. It doesn’t depend on “Providence” or any material assistance. It doesn’t require a belief that such things will ever come my way. After all, perhaps the exact opposite will happen, and the world will violently oppose me as soon as I commit. It doesn’t matter. True commitment doesn’t waver in the face of obstacles.
So far, this still sounds just like what I’ve heard before about what a commitment really is. “I’ve burned my bridges.” “There’s no turning back.” Blah, blah, blah. Again, it all sounds nice in theory. But what about the problem I keep raising? In a nutshell, it is this: what if God wants me to do something different later on? And in the context of my marriage, this may sound absurd, but I had to take it seriously when faced with the idea of an absolute commitment: What if one day God wants me to leave my wife? If I can no longer appeal to the Bible in an absolute fashion, and I am absolutely committed to giving my life to God, how can I possibly commit my life unconditionally to my wife also?
Jesus is not going to help me on this matter: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) The kind of commitment to God that he called for puts God absolutely first. No allegiances to anything less can ever get in the way of that absolute commitment, not even to “wife and children.”
Even so, like I said, I have discovered the power of commitment deep inside myself. I’ve discovered that the question “What if God changes my mind?” is an abdication of the divine power that I actually have to commit. To take responsibility for your own power of commitment is to take responsibility for (at least one aspect) of your own divine power. Whether used for good or ill, we do have this power. It is the power of our will. True commitment can only be made by God, and guess what? Humans have this power. With true commitment, you tap into your own sovereign will. The only way to make a true commitment is to put yourself in the position of God, at least in the context of that decision.
Now, by the power of my sovereign will, I declare that my love for my wife is invincible and will never be shaken.
Although it is only 15 years into my marriage, it has taken my whole life to realize what true commitment actually means. My fear has been that God would want me to leave. But true commitment appeals to absolutely nothing outside itself. As far as this decision goes, I AM GOD. When I say my love won’t be shaken, I don’t mean that my feelings won’t be shaken. No, by “love,” in this particular context, I mean a decision. Call it brutal, call it violent, call it an experiment for this lifetime. But I have discovered the power of free will, and I defy all voices in myself or anyone else that would dissent. In the past, my commitment was assumed, based on the belief in an absolute moral standard. But that has been shaken. I have been shaken. Substantially. Upside-down. Inside-out. I’m not the person I used to be. But from now on, all transformations will carry with it this ongoing commitment. I may become a different person a thousand more times, but in each case I will need to come to terms with this same commitment. It is MY commitment, MY commitment to make and MY commitment to keep. Feelings can be shaken. True commitments can’t.
Commitments may sound arbitrary—as “arbitrary” as the existence of the Universe, perhaps? But God is still creating, and true commitment is a creative act. When we truly commit, we declare something, speaking something new into existence. When we truly commit, we are carrying forward the creation of God. God wants us to take responsibility for our God-given creative powers. God wants us to take a stand and show some resistance. God wants a stiffer medium to work with than just watercolors, which swish around on the canvas and drip onto the floor. By making true commitments, we turn our life into an arrow which nothing can stop.
The thing is, this creative power of commitment is morally neutral. We’ve seen wonderful creations and we’ve seen horrible creations. When you commit, you’d better know what you’re doing. When you make a true commitment, you’d better make sure it’s a good one. Commitment is risky. The world we now see is the result of all previous commitments. What kind of a world do you want to create? Are you ready to marry your devotion to God—your receptivity to hearing God’s voice, to obeying and following the guidance you receive—are you ready to marry that devotion with the power you have to lead, direct, and declare as God? Are you ready to embrace the power you have to create? Then please use it wisely. With fear and trembling at the power of your own will.
So how do I square my commitment to God with my commitment as God? That will be a question I have to continually ask and answer for the rest of my life. But here’s one quick stab at it. By “God,” we sometimes mean different things. If God means the Power of All Creation, then it doesn’t make much sense to say I am aligning my behavior with God in that sense. As I’ve said, creation is morally neutral in the sense that, in the world, we see every form of what we judge to be good and evil. This impersonal God, this Blind Force, which keeps chugging along, indifferent to anything that happens in the world, might give me raw power, but it doesn’t give me True North. It doesn’t give me a compass by which I can direct each step. But when we speak of God as Love, God as Lover, and we speak of the glory of God and the kingdom of God, we’re talking about something very special. We’re talking about a Divine Agenda, a Preference for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We’re talking here not just about God’s raw power of will, we’re talking about a specific will that creation would proceed in a way which manifests Love in the world.
These two ways of talking about God are what cause so much confusion around the concept of “God’s will.” Sometimes you hear people say, “if it happened, that means it was God’s will.” Well, yes, at least in the sense that there is no power apart from God. You might say it was God’s will power at work. But it makes the idea of aligning ourselves with God’s will meaningless. For those who would seek to align themselves with Something Higher—with the will of God, “God’s will” doesn’t just mean God’s will power. It means God’s specific will to manifest the highest and best possibilities. This is what Jesus was onto when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven.
When it comes down to it, God has given you free will as well. You share in God’s power. You have the power to commit, and thereby to create. But if you have awakened also to the Love of God, then you now have a higher standard by which to live your life and a higher purpose for which to use that creative power. Like I said, please use it wisely. What the world needs is more people not just to realize their raw power, becoming that Blind Force. What the world needs is for more people to become that Blind Force for the sake of Love.
I have decided that in this lifetime, I am using my God-given power of will to commit this man’s life to this man’s wife. I have taken a stand to be there for her until the end. Not because it’s the “right thing to do.” Sure, I’m still interested in doing the right thing, but now there’s a context. Within that context, I’ll have to use discernment and moral reasoning. But the context itself no longer requires any of that. It’s a fixed point. I have adopted these words as my own, appealing to nothing higher than my words themselves: what God has joined together, let no man separate.
Addendum (2021-11-04): From now on, I will only make congruent commitments, aligned with my heart, soul, mind, and strength. When I am not clear, I will humbly accept and be with my uncertainty. For the times I have allowed my mental will to go too far, rationalizing headstrong but heart-weak decisions based on fear, causing damage to myself and others, I humbly ask for, and open myself to receive, forgiveness.
Did Jesus pray to Jesus?
“Did Jesus pray to Jesus?” This is one of those questions that, when asked, makes us immediately suspicious. What’s this writer up to? Is he making a joke? Is he trying to be provocative? How could asking such an absurd question do us any good? And if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, then you have all the more reason to be concerned. The prospect of dishonoring your Savior, your Lord, your Master, or however else you conceive of Jesus, is not to be taken lightly. The safest thing to do would be to not read past the title. Right? Again, what good could come from asking such a question?
But I want to assure you of this: I am not interested in being provocative or silly for the sake of being provocative or silly. And I most certainly am not interested in dishonoring my own or anyone else’s faith. The only reason I am posing such a question is that it may, even if only temporarily, shake up our habitual ways of thinking about Jesus (and God). And the only reason I care about doing that is that such shake-ups have the potential of improving, deepening, and enriching our lives and our relationships with God. Looking through a different frame could produce new fruit, and I’m only interested in fruitful frames. Could asking such a question and looking at Jesus in a new way yield such fruit? Want to find out? Then join me in this contemplation.
One of Christianity’s most important contributions is the idea of a personal relationship with God. In Jesus, we see this relationship modeled. He called God his Father, and not only that, he used the word Abba, an Aramaic word that would be used in the same way we use the word, “Daddy” or “Dad.” He prayed directly to God as his Father and taught his disciples to do the same. He related to his Father as Other, as beyond himself. Intimate, but still distinct.
And yet he also related to himself as part of, or even identical to, God. This is where intimacy of relationship crosses a threshold and prayer is no longer the way of relating. Instead, ultimate intimacy has been realized, and Jesus says things like, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9) This is where things get really mystical. Jesus is messing with our categories. How can we pin him down if in one moment he’s praying to the Father and in another he’s speaking as the Father? Was he confused? Could he not decide who he was? Was he God’s son, or was he the Father? Was he distinct from God or identical to God? It suddenly appears that we aren’t going to get an easy answer.
This is where orthodoxy, or “right belief,” can be helpful. It gives us a set of claims about God and about Jesus that we can affirm, even if we can’t explain how they relate to each other. Even when they appear contradictory (“Jesus is the son of God” vs. “Jesus is God”), we can still use these ideas as seeds for contemplation, and they can support our spiritual growth. In practice, however, the human tendency is to try to sort everything out in a way that our minds find comfortable. If that means contradicting ourselves, no problem. We’ll just hide one thought from another and pretend there’s no contradiction. In other words, we’ll deceive ourselves into believing that our belief system is nice, tidy, and internally consistent—indeed, that it’s a system. Each belief fits into place. And we’d better not mess with them, or the whole thing will come crashing down.
So orthodoxy, as represented in statements such as the Nicene Creed, can be helpful, providing us seeds for contemplation. For example, when recited in liturgy, it can become something like a communal koan. Precisely because it contains paradoxical statements, if we are honest, we are forced to engage it contemplatively, in a way that our either/or thinking cannot fully comprehend. But in practice, we are often not honest. Instead, we tell ourselves that we fully understand. Rather than allowing ourselves to be subjected to the contemplative tension, we resolve the contradictions and arrive at a comfortable, self-assured, dogmatic stance which can do and has done lots of harm, inciting everything from discord and bigotry to murder and holy war.
In the end, we don’t get an easy answer to the question of who Jesus was, neither from the creeds nor from Jesus himself. In fact, he appeared to not want to give us an easy or even clear answer, at least not that’s clear to our normal level of consciousness. Could that be why he so often answered one question with another question? And taught in stories and parables? It appears that Jesus is less concerned with giving us answers and more concerned with awakening us to deeper truths that can’t be contained by simple statements or formulas.
Now, what about this idea of “praying to Jesus”? What is this about? Well, over the centuries, Jesus has been Christianity’s icon for God, the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,” (Colossians 1:15) as the Apostle Paul put it. Jesus put a human face on the cosmic Christ—that Reality “in [whom] all things were created.” (v. 16) “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (v. 17) We’re talking about a transcendent, primordial reality that lies at the heart of the Cosmos, and Jesus embodied that. He represents and points to the very Presence in whom “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) We can pray to God, because “he is not far from any one of us.” (Acts 17:27) And regardless of how biblically faithful “praying to Jesus” is (some theologians would emphasize that we are to pray to the “Father”, not to Jesus), it is still praying.
Among Christians today, particularly evangelicals, you will hear about the importance of having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” This is sometimes bandied about so cavalierly as to lose all meaning or even to gain new, negative connotations of superiority and arrogance. But in its authentic forms, a relationship with Jesus represents such a pure, lovely, amazing and truly beautiful thing, that, when witnessed, is something people are naturally drawn to. It is an inner relationship in which all your needs are already met. It is an intimate, loving relationship with God, an intimate, loving relationship with Reality, an intimate, loving relationship with yourself. You have surrendered your life to Something Greater, and you now know that you are taken care of. From this place of perfect sufficiency, your life can be “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17). In committing your life to Christ, you have committed to a life of love. And, far from needing to be convinced to love people, when you are experiencing the fullness of this relationship, that is what you automatically do.
Doesn’t that sound wonderful? But how well does it line up with reality today among the Christians you know? And, if you are a Christian, how well does it line up with how you experience your life? I’ll leave those questions open for now. But I will affirm that, however rare it is, this phenomenon is most certainly real. It does happen. There are people who have surrendered their lives. There are people who love. And even if those same people don’t always embody it, there is no denying the reality of the love we have seen overtake them. And, of course, if we are honest with ourselves, such people are not always Christians. Sadly, it is quite possibly true that they are more often not Christians. I say “sadly,” not because Christians are “my people,” but because they’re Jesus’ people—not because he selectively picked them out, but because they chose him. They chose to take on the same “Christ” anointing, at least in name. And Jesus is one person who possessed this transcendent yet personal relationship in full measure.
This is what I want to emphasize. What we describe as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is something that the first-century carpenter from Nazareth possessed in full measure. In fact, that is why we look up to him. That is why we follow him. We have been drawn in by the depth of his sacrificial love. In this way, he has led his followers to God. In leading us to God, he is already our Savior, even before we begin to contemplate what it means that he “died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In this sense, Jesus most certainly “prayed to Jesus,” if by that we mean that he had an intimate relationship with God.
But there’s also an absurdity implicit in the concept of Jesus praying to Jesus. What’s that? He prayed to himself? Of course he didn’t! Right? He prayed to God. For example, when faced with the prospect of his own death, he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Here he made a distinction between his will and the Father’s will. There was a separation, or at least the potential for separation. He had free will, and he saw his own tendencies toward survival at all costs. Yet he freely chose to disregard those tendencies toward independence and survival, instead aligning his will with a Larger Will beyond his own. He also affirmed his own lowliness to others: “By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” (John 5:30) And, as we said before, Jesus intimately and lovingly related to God as his “Dad.”
So, Jesus was God’s son. That settles the matter, right? And we too are children of God. And he taught us how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13). And we can look up to him. And we can aspire to be like him, relating to God as a Loving Parent, yielding our will to God’s will, surrendering to a life of love. And we can empty ourselves and make ourselves nothing, just as “he made himself nothing.” (Philippians 2:7) In a word, by identifying with Christ, we can become humble. Let us become like Jesus, the humble servant. Let us serve like Jesus served. Let us give our lives in love, like Jesus gave his life in love. Even if it is very difficult to accomplish, all of these things are things we can at least relate to. We’re aware of the resistance inside ourselves to do these things, so we can relate to the resistance that Jesus felt too. In other words, we can relate to Jesus’ humanity. He lived an appropriately human life: a life of humility. He accepted and embodied the reality of being human: “for dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)
But that’s not the whole story of Jesus, not by his account or any of his followers’. He was much more than God’s son! In fact, he identified with God! (And the creeds agree: he is said to be “very God of very God.”) We find this much more difficult to relate to. Sure, we can relate to his humanity. But his divinity? Not so much. And yet, we have the audacity to hope that, as with Jesus, death is not the end of the story for us either. The story of his life, his death, and his resurrection brings his followers great hope. Hope that death is not the final story, that Life goes beyond death, that death is not the end of Life, that death has no sting, that death need not be dreaded, that we need not despair of death, that death is not our enemy. But how can we do this unless we relate to Jesus beyond his humanity?
How in the world can someone be both God and human? The Christian doctrine of Incarnation can help. Jesus is said to be “fully God and fully man.” Christians affirm this everywhere. Yet rarely do we realize its ramifications. In particular, if Jesus was fully human, that means he was one of us. He was one of our own. Conversely, we are of the same species as Jesus. If Jesus was human and we are human, then we have to conclude that he was no different than us, at least in terms of nature and potential. But in how he fulfilled that potential? That’s where we can affirm Jesus’ radical uniqueness. That’s why we honor and even worship him throughout the earth, 2,000 years later. So we can’t simply say, Jesus was the same as the rest of us. He was different too.
But how was he different? Our answer here has huge implications on our ability to follow him and be like him. Many will be quick to point out that He is God and we are not. In other words, he is different in nature than us. He had a different potential than we do, a potential that none of us will ever have. But wait a minute. All of a sudden, Jesus no longer sounds human. He sounds superhuman, or humanoid. The Incarnation was a nice thought (that Jesus was actually a human being like us), but the prevailing operative viewpoint among Christians holding to orthodox theology, though unconscious, is that Jesus was of an alien species. He was “human,” but he was not our kind of human. There is an essential dividing line between us and Jesus which we will never be able to cross. This too is unconscious (and ironic), because the very nature of the gospel message is that all such dividing lines between us and Jesus, and therefore us and God, have been removed!
What if we conceived of his potential in a way that does not keep us forever separated from him? The Incarnation says he was fully human. If we are fully human, you might say we’re no different than Jesus, because he was fully human. But are there ways in which we might say we are not fully human? Yes. We say this all the time. Any time a person abuses an animal, we say that they are being inhumane. So too whenever we are cruel or lack compassion. In our very language, we imply that to be human is to be compassionate, gentle, and kind. So although we don’t consider cruel human beings to be of another species (even though we may call them “monsters”), we do consider them to be living out of alignment with their humanity. They are not being fully human. They are falling short of their human potential. To be fully human then doesn’t just mean you’ve got unambiguous DNA, it means you are fulfilling your human potential. From this perspective, Jesus can still be special to us, but the path is left open for us to actually become like him. He is not on another road which we’ll never reach. He is further along on the same road. Now wouldn’t that be good news! Shouldn’t that give us more hope than any other account? Isn’t that the point? That Jesus was really human, and so we can be like him?
Christians everywhere desire to be like Jesus. How audacious! I suspect that most of us don’t realize how audacious this is. Again, it’s because when we say we want to be like Jesus, we don’t really mean it. Sure, we’d like to exude some of his characteristics, follow his commands, look up to him. But to actually be like him? We won’t go there, not really. That would have huge implications. That would imply that we would take seriously what he said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these.” (John 14:12) No, we’ll have to explain around that one. After all, Jesus said, just a few verses up, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, emphasis added) We are quick to point out that he didn’t say we are the way, and thus we conveniently take ourselves off the hook. It is the singlemost often cited verse for affirming that Jesus is God and we are not. What we less consciously affirm at the same time is its corollary: “I am human and Jesus was not.” The problem is this: there’s no getting away from the union of divinity and humanity that Jesus’ life and teaching represent. What if Christianity’s best-kept secret, hidden in plain sight, is that to be fully human is to be fully God?
So did Jesus pray to Jesus? In a sense, yes he did. If Jesus identified with the Father, then when he prayed, he prayed to Himself. Of course, that’s not how he was relating to Himself at the time. He was relating to the Father, or you might say, his “Higher Self,” as other. That’s what you do in prayer. But when he spoke “I AM that I AM,” he was not praying. He was not principally identifying as human. He was principally identifying with the Whole Shebang. Here was God speaking through a dust-made man, a dust-made man who had flesh and bone, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, hair, teeth, skin, and sweat. In other words, Jesus incarnated God. In yielding his life fully to God, he allowed God to live as him. In identifying with the Father, the Creative Principle that continues to give rise to the Universe, he gave God the opportunity to experience God—to glory in God—like never before. And when he told us we would do the same, he wasn’t limiting this opportunity to himself. His desire was that we would be like him. His desire was that we too would give our lives to God, that we would be filled with the Spirit, that we would identify with Christ, that we would realize our “sonship,” that we would live as one, that we would trust God and be at home in the Universe. And that, as we move further along this road of manifesting the glory of God, the real truth of who we are and the truth of Who lives within us would be given the light of day so that what he called “the kingdom of God,” or “the kingdom of heaven,” would be realized at higher and deeper and richer and richer levels.
Now, what seemed like Jesus’ rambling, confused, imprecise prayer for us in John 17:20-26 makes a lot more sense. In this prayer, he is glorying in the absolute interconnectedness of all of us and all of Reality, including all of us “from the future” who weren’t even on the scene yet. He intimately knows this interconnectedness that spans all of space and time and he wants that experience for all of us. If it seems that he is blurring the distinctions between him and the Father, and him and us, and us and the Father, he is! Let them be blurred! For this is what enables Love to flow. When you see your neighbor as yourself, then the natural consequence is that you will “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) And when you see yourself as a creation of, an emanation of, an extension of the Father, you see that there are no absolute dividing lines between you and God. You see that forgiveness and reconciliation are eternal realities. You see that your sin has been your blindness, your choice to stay in the dark, your choice to keep believing the endemic lie that sums up the tragedy of the human condition: the belief that you are separate and disconnected from God. And once you see that, you are no longer blind. When Jesus prays for you in John 17, this is what he wants for you.
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Jesus’ prayer for you is that when you pray, the same distinctions that are so blurry with him might be just as blurry with you.
Give it all away?
What if you were so generous with your consciousness in every moment that you held absolutely nothing back? What if you gave no thought to the maintenance and management of your own identity? How much of the burning power of your presence could you give away right now? What if you gave it all away? Is this possible? Would you run out? What would it mean to give all of your attention to Life, in each and every moment? How far could you go in letting go? How far could you go in trusting Life? Is Life trustworthy? How would you know? How could you find out? Would you ever know the final answer? Would you ever stop having to trust? Are you willing to find out? Is Life for you and not against you? If you answer “Yes,” how big a “Yes”? If you answer “Yes,” what other protection do you need? Why hold back at all? Why not give your whole life away, back to Life, which has your back? What will holding back do for you? What is it achieving for you now? What will it achieve for you in the end?
How tragic would it be if Life was always there for you, and you never found this out? If you chose to continue living in fear, burdened by the thankless, oppressive task of self-maintenance? What if, all along, self-maintenance was a completely futile and unnecessary job? What if freedom had been always available to you, had you only been willing to find out, one leap at a time? What leap can you take today? Is it safe to give your life away?
The truth of the Resurrection
Who is this person? Can we trust him? He is not coming in the package we have known, the context in which we’ve loved him. How do we know he’s the same person? He is strange, foreign, unfamiliar. How did he get in here anyway? The doors were locked! We never welcomed this person here!
“Peace be with you.”
He looks frightening…but he speaks blessing.
“I don’t believe it! You are all being hoodwinked! This man is an imposter. I know my Lord, and this is not him. I want physical evidence and nothing more. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
Thomas was concerned about his friends. They all had freaky looks on their faces, like they had seen a ghost and were happy about it. “Snap out of it!” He was sure they were being led astray. He knew what the Scriptures said. There was nothing in there about this craziness.
A week later, Thomas got the evidence he was looking for. “Here, I’ll give you what you want,” the man said. Thomas touched the nail marks. He put his hand in the man’s side. Still, he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. But he also couldn’t deny this powerful presence. It still frightened him. “My Lord and my God!” He felt defeated, like he had been missing the point his entire life.
He also panicked, fearing the loss of control. Faced with evidence he couldn’t deny, he had to admit that Jesus was not the man he thought he knew. This experience was different. It was wild and unorthodox. Out-of-bounds. Uncharted territory.
Have you ever had such an experience? Have you had to face evidence that goes against what you believe? How did you handle it? Did you try to deny it? What about unique experiences that challenged your worldview? How do you handle those? Do you allow yourself to be interested? Or do you push those away too?
These are not loaded questions. They would be loaded if it was my agenda to convince you of Jesus’ resurrection. No, this story of Thomas’s experience of the risen Christ has much to teach us. But if we find it comfortable and easy to digest (for example, because we ourselves believe in the Resurrection), then we are missing the point. If we decide that the story is simply about “doubting Thomas” and his failure to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then we’re cutting ourselves off from how the story’s wisdom might apply to us. The story is not just about the particulars of the story. The wisdom lies in the structure of the experience. There is a pattern to it. It is the story of a worldview in crisis. A worldview unraveling.
Now that is certainly applicable to us. We are bound to have experiences or be confronted with evidence that challenges how we see the world. Thomas was lucky. Jesus didn’t let him stay in the dark, in the prison of his own mind. We might not be so lucky. We may be allowed to return, again and again, to our own comfortable views. Our tidy theories of the world. Our tidy moral beliefs. They may remain nice and tidy until we’re forced out of our complacency by something even more persistent, such as sickness, tragedy, or unbelievable love. If we had to choose, we’d probably prefer it to be love, not suffering. That appears to be what Thomas received. The powerful love of Jesus quickly dismantled the worldview he was holding to so tightly. But, in the end, the change is the same, and the cost of that change is the same. When your worldview or your self-image is dismantled, it feels like you are being dismantled. But the truth lying behind this story—and the truth of the Resurrection—is that it’s only a feeling. You are not dismantled. Your true identity lives on, far beyond the death of all that you thought you knew.
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
—1 Corinthians 15:55
Living from fullness
Live from fullness. Recognize your absolute Self-sufficiency. You need nothing. You have absolutely everything you need. Life is not about fulfilling your needs, for all of them are already fulfilled. Life is about pouring out and expressing your fullness. To love is to live from fullness.
I’m not just talking in some theoretical sense. I’m talking about you, right now, wherever you’re sitting, whatever you’re doing, whoever you are. Right now, you have absolutely everything you need. There is no lack. You are not missing any pieces. There is nothing missing in this moment. There are no empty spaces, no places to fill, no imperfections to correct. You are wholly and completely full.
These words are useless unless you let them sink in. I don’t expect you to believe them fully. Treat them like a hypothesis. To what degree do they seem true to you? What evidence in your experience supports these claims?
It is easy to cite evidence to the contrary. But when we do, we’re missing the point. We’re missing the deeper truth of fullness. Because this truth does not depend on everything being “hunky-dory” in all the surface ways we can think of. It doesn’t depend on there being no pain or suffering in the world, no hunger or illness or heartache or violence or tragedy. The truth of fullness transcends all of these and lies at the heart of all of them. If you are offended by such a statement, good! It means there is still life in you. You see the ills of the world and you want to heal them. That impulse is an impulse of Love.
But guess what? Love flows from fullness. Love gives everything it has, because it needs nothing. It needs nothing, because it already has everything. It is already full. So even if you have trouble believing in the truth of fullness, can you see how belief in fullness could lead to love? How it’s a very practical thing for healing our world?
But this isn’t mere pragmatism. I don’t use the word “truth” lightly. It just turns out that the truth is quite practical. Life is quite functional, thank you very much. All we have to do is agree with Life. To align ourselves with it. To see whatever glimpses we can of the truth of fullness, of sufficiency, of provision, and then live out the truth we have seen. You can also live as if it were true, which itself can lead to seeing. In other words, you don’t have to wait for anything. You can start living the truth of fullness now, keeping your eyes open to seeing it yourself. Your life will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, but not just any self-fulfilling prophecy. It will be a true self-fulfilling prophecy.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
—2 Corinthians 12:9
Walking by faith
Faith is necessary, because we can’t always see. Faith is possible, because we have seen.
“Faith” is a word that has many meanings. As a Christian, I would mean different things by it at different times. For example, I might “have faith” that God will answer a particular prayer. This is like the faith that Jesus spoke of (“faith that can move mountains”). But most of the time, when I would refer to “my faith,” I was referring to my belief system. How strongly do I believe X, Y, and Z about God? How sure am I that those beliefs are true? So my “faith” equated to my belief system, and to strengthen that faith was to hold to those beliefs more confidently or assuredly—to have greater certainty that those beliefs were true. Conversely, to be less certain was to have a weaker faith. After all, Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (emphasis added)
When my beliefs were challenged and I began to seriously question whether they account for the whole story of Reality, it felt like my faith was being threatened. And of course it was, because whatever I meant by faith, even if it was a general trust in God, that God is good, or that Life is good, it was inextricably linked to my belief system. If what I believed about God turned out not to be true, then I would be facing hell itself. Life would be meaningless, and I would be hopeless and lost.
The thing is, that’s not actually true. The truth is deeper than that. The truth is not so easily codified into a belief system. The truth transcends belief systems and thus survives their demise. I had been believing this: If I am wrong about reality, then that means life is meaningless, and I am hopeless and lost. Yikes! That is a huge burden to put on one’s belief system. You’d better get it right! But what if life isn’t meaningless, even if I’m wrong about who God is? What if I still have hope and a home, even if I lose God as I’ve known Him? In other words, what if the image I’ve made of God is false, but God, and hope, and meaning, and purpose, will always survive even if my beliefs turn out to be wrong?
I can hear the objections already. Are you saying it doesn’t matter what I believe? Well, yes and no. What you believe is not intrinsically important, even though, extrinsically, it can be incredibly important. In other words, what you think about the nature of reality is not important in and of itself. After all, you could think one thing one day and another thing another day, but if you don’t speak it or share it or act on it, then it hardly matters what you believe. What you believe doesn’t make any more difference than the thousands of random thoughts that pass through your head each day. But how do your beliefs impact how you live? How do they shape your actions? That’s where beliefs start to matter.
If we are resistant to this idea, then it’s because we have been making an idol of our minds. This is part of the human condition. We feel an intense need to be in control, and one of the ways that we can feel most in control is by substituting reality with our conceptions of it. But if right thinking serves no other purpose than right thinking, it also serves no other god than itself.
Does this mean truth doesn’t matter? That you may as well throw in the towel instead of trying to find truth? That’s what your mind would have you think. It wants to be the arbiter of truth. “If I can’t be certain, nobody can!” But that’s just a tantrum, and it’s not true. You can know truth, even and especially if it doesn’t fit neatly into your mind.
There is a kind of knowing which does not depend on an external delivery of the truth, which you then must carefully evaluate. No, it is contact with the truth inside yourself. In a sense, you become the truth, which is then validated in manifold ways by the wisdom of the ages, the Scriptures of your tradition, and even the science of today. Jesus oriented to truth in this way when he said “I am…the truth.” (John 14:6, emphasis added) When God awakens inside you, even if only for a moment, your very own spiritual eyes are opened. This is what makes faith possible, and not merely “blind faith.” Very often we are told that following Jesus is not “blind faith,” because we also have reasons and rational arguments we can point to for doing so. But what really makes faith possible is not arguments. What really makes faith possible is spiritual sight. The Apostle Paul describes this kind of seeing in his second letter to the Corinthians:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
—2 Corinthians 4:6, NIV
This kind of seeing does not come from rational deduction or rightly interpreting the Bible. No, it comes from direct revelation. There is a light that shines on our very hearts, the center of our being. Moreover, Paul tells us, it is “the light of…knowledge.”
Okay, so faith is made possible by spiritual seeing. But if we can see and know, why is faith even necessary? Ah, that has an easy answer. We don’t always see. In fact, we rarely do. That’s why Paul says shortly thereafter,
So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
—2 Corinthians 4:18
In this case, “what is seen” is what we see with our unenlightened physical eyes. Paul himself was struck down with a vision of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He had a profoundly life-changing mystical experience in which the eyes of his heart were opened to eternal dimensions of reality that we don’t see every day. But eventually he did return to everyday life, where he did not see as clearly as he did on that road. At that point he had a choice. Shall I “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, KJV), willing myself to live in alignment with the truth that I’ve seen? Or shall I pretend it was a hallucination and go back to living the way I lived before?
When you are in the midst of a spiritual awakening, and you clearly see “God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ,” in the face of Creation, in the face of other people, then you can’t help but live in alignment with it, at least during those moments where you see it clearly. There is a sort of “choicelessness” that happens. You hardly need to exercise your will, because you are caught up in the love of God and you can’t help but become one with that love. You have absolutely no reason for doing otherwise, and it wouldn’t even occur to you to do so. Moreover, you think there’s no way you could ever forget this. You assume that your life has now changed for good.
But then life goes on and the glow begins to fade. You’re confronted once again with your old, habitual ways of behaving and seeing the world. Life takes on its normal dreary complexion again. You think, “What happened?” You weren’t expecting this. You seem to have forgotten what you saw when on the mountaintop. It’s dark here in the valley, and you begin to wonder whether you ever actually saw anything.
Enter faith. What a gift this is! You have a choice. To “walk by faith” is an act of the will. This is incredibly good news. You want to know why? Because it means you don’t have to wait for anything! You have the power to live the truth of what you have seen, starting right this very moment. As wonderful as the gifts of spiritual sight are, you can’t control when you will be given them. But you can control what you will do about it now. Here’s what I think the real role of faith is: transformation. Again, faith is an act of the will. “I will live in alignment with the truth that I have seen.” In so doing, your life will be transformed.
SPOILER ALERT. If that weren’t great enough news (you can be transformed, and therefore you can transform the world), wait until you see what tends to happen next: your eyes are opened again to newer and deeper truths! When you surrender to life being the way it is, and commit wholeheartedly to living the truth whatever happens and no matter how you feel, something magical happens. You increase your capacity to receive new spiritual experiences, insights, and awakenings. You may still not be in control of when these occur, but now you are in the position of a humble servant on whom Life is eager to bestow more blessings.
I don’t really know why this is the case, but it has been the experience of people throughout the ages. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) One possibility is that, until our hearts are proportionately purified, we won’t be able to handle the revelation of God. It will be wasted on us. We’ll see the imminent dissolution of our identity as we’ve known it, and we’ll be too afraid. We’ll turn back. But if we have been “work[ing] out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), actively and deliberately dissolving our self in how we now relate to the world, we’ll gain confidence that it’s a trustworthy path to let go even more. It is safe to take up our cross. It is safe to die, one attachment at a time. When we have seen for ourselves that life keeps going on, even after we have let go of major parts of our self-image, we will be ready to see even more of the truth. Put another way, we’ll be blown away a little bit at a time.
So, what do you know about God? I don’t mean what have you heard about God? What do you know? What deepest truths have you directly known and experienced? Think back to the deepest spiritual experiences you have had, or if you don’t think of them as “spiritual,” just think back to the deepest knowing you have had. When did life seem most meaningful, or good, or beautiful? What truth lay behind that experience? What did you see?
Once you’ve gotten a glimpse of what it is, don’t stop there. We tend to wistfully pine for the experience we once had, the communion we once felt, and leave it at that. No, ask yourself some more questions. What would it mean to live in alignment with that truth? How am I failing to do that now? What needs to change? This is your opportunity to say “YES” to the truth of your experience, to take a stand for what you have once known and clearly seen. Few people are willing to do this. Few people are willing to take this kind of responsibility, assuming the power they already have to transform their lives by faith in action. Are you willing to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1)? Are you ready to grow up and “no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves” (Eph. 4:14) of your shifting feelings and desires?
Because you have seen, will you now walk by faith, not by sight?
[Many thanks to Craig Hamilton, whose teaching has unlocked within me a greater appreciation of the role of faith, and a greater commitment to living the truth regardless of how I am feeling. I know the ideas in this article aren’t ultimately his or any one of ours, but he has been the one who has challenged me the most recently and successfully. The questions I ask at the end of this article are closely related to the model of transformation that he teaches.]
Ten guidelines for the reading of sacred texts
- Remember that they are human in origin.
- Remember that ultimately nothing is human in origin.
- Don’t too quickly play the “fallibility card.” It might be your own fallibility that is causing the discomfort, rather than the text’s.
- Don’t too quickly try to resolve the question of who is right or wrong. Welcome the tension of not knowing. Allow entire passages to remain a mystery to you.
- Extend reverence and an open ear to the text. Assume there is something for you to learn. Be innocent. Have a beginner’s mind. “Become like little children.”
- Take the stance that you are not there to resolve the text; the text is there to resolve you.
- Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Wisdom at earlier stages of development is still wisdom. Don’t let the author’s flaws blind you from seeing the truth in their words.
- True words are words that convey the truth; they are not themselves the truth. For that reason, allow the words to speak to your heart and not merely get stuck in your mind.
- Allow a lack of understanding to remain indefinitely. Open your mind not only so that you may receive new understanding, but also so that you may practice keeping it open even when no understanding is forthcoming. Allow this frustrating tension to chip away at your habit of needing to be in control.
- At the same time, devote yourself to understanding whatever you possibly can, so that you can take responsibility for the truth you have seen, putting it into practice.
Unity in diversity
Religious exclusivism gives rise to a not-so-subtle form of polytheism. “Our God is better than your god.” No, you might say, it’s about which God is the real God. But don’t you see that the answer to that question must be none of them and all of them? The real God can never be adequately described or conveyed or captured by human language and tradition. The real God can never be simply equated to a particular culture’s version of God. Otherwise, we’d have to admit that God is a purely human creation. To be God, God must transcend all human custom and theology. Yes, some expressions more effectively reflect the Divine nature than others, but none of these expressions are comprehensive. Always more is needed, and no number of them will ever be enough. God must always be speaking, or God is as good as dead.
So… If we want to serve a graven image made to serve the purposes of a few, then let us vehemently declare that the outsiders are wrong, damned, mistaken, lost, and confused.
But if we want to serve God and free our own tradition’s expression to be all that it can be, let us humble ourselves, bowing before the Mystery, keeping our eyes open to the manifold ways in which God is always speaking, celebrating the diversity of all of God’s Creation, and welcoming the unity that naturally ensues when diversity is celebrated.
How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!
It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.
Spirituality sometimes reminds me of math. When you resolve all the equations, there’s nothing left to do. There’s just identity, the one thing. All the parts have been resolved to the whole, and there’s nothing left to be said. Yet here I am writing, the mind keeps on going, and we keep yearning for truth because we haven’t yet received it in full measure. We don’t yet know the answer, so we’re driven to find out what it is.
But math seems pointless. If you already know where you’re going, what’s the point of going through the exercise? As soon as you start talking about it, you realize that “2+2” is just another way of saying 4, so why ever say “2+2” in the first place? Let alone some more complicated formula? I’ll have to leave it to the mathematicians to explain what the big draw is. But I suspect it has to do with something more than just finding the right answer. There’s something about the process of getting there that is intrinsically cherished. (Otherwise, why not just look at the back of the book for the answers whenever you can?)
My mind goes down the same road with regard to spirituality. We learn from those who have tasted Enlightenment that God is all there is. For a mind looking for complex, interesting answers, that’s potentially anti-climactic. Okay… so God is all there is. Great. I guess we’re done then. Let me go…umm…do nothing… because there’s nothing left to do. So much for that instinct inside me that told me I was on a mission. “Pssst, hey you, the answer’s already at the back of the book!” Whaaa?! I can’t believe you just spoiled it for me. Thanks a lot! Now what?
Maybe we can learn from the mathematician, who takes the stand that the process itself is good. Perhaps it is cause for celebration. What if God is not just “all there is” but that God is also unequivocally, absolutely, undeniably good? After all, if God needs absolutely nothing, why did He create the world? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is going on here? Yeah, you, I’m talking to you! Somehow, some way, this is where you are right now, reading these words. How did you get here? What exactly are you doing here? This isn’t rhetorical. Please tell me. Why do you exist?
The fullness of Life
If I were to die right now, my parting thought for you would be this. Life is more complete than you know. Though we would object and note how tragic such an “early departure” would be, the truth is that there are no early departures. At the heart of Reality is a pure fullness that can never be compromised. This fullness includes and encompasses every aspect of our lives. It is not just a theoretical thing. It is immensely practical. It can be directly experienced. Only it requires new eyes—the development of higher faculties of seeing and hearing and knowing. This is not beyond our reach. It is here for us right now. It is speaking to us in every moment. No matter who we are, we can get glimpses of this truth, and that can be enough to carry us through all our days. We can choose to cultivate this hope, this faith, and, ultimately, this knowing. We are all on a beautiful journey, and our lives are guaranteed to take us to our destination. All our needs are taken care of, and we could not be more deeply loved and cared for.
Your life is already full, and my hope and prayer for you now is that you would know that fullness, and that you would enjoy and be grateful for the great privilege of being alive. This knowledge of your completeness will then lead to a life of purpose, a life of wholeness, grace, and peace. For in needing nothing, you will have everything, and you will it have it to give to the world.
Another grateful traveler
The truth in your eyes
When we look at people, we tend not to see them, but rather our projection of who they are, who we think they are, what we think they’re thinking, etc. Between us and them stands a thick layer of judgments based on our own past experiences. What if we were able to see through all of that nothingness to the people themselves? I am telling you, we would be blown away.
Postmodernism has made significant contributions to our understanding of the world. It has shown that perspective matters. We always see things from a particular vantage point, which includes our culture, family, language, etc. It has essentially refuted the Enlightenment ideal of purely objective truth, showing it to be a false construction. We are always fundamentally rooted in our perspective. We can’t not be. We are a very part of the reality we are observing. Sometimes this insight is amplified into a pure relativism, in which the concept of truth itself becomes useless. There is only “your truth” and “my truth,” if we are to speak of truth at all. Such language can be useful, because of course you will have access to truth that I don’t have access to, but, taken as an absolute, it nullifies the concept of truth itself. Any desire that you might feel to pursue or even find the truth? You may as well forget about it, because truth is a fantasy, according to this view.
Thankfully, neither pure relativism nor the belief in pure objectivity hold any water. They are both outgrowths of a way of thinking that idealizes separation (a false belief!). In the first case, pure relativism adopts the Enlightenment definition of truth (“seeing from no place”) and then points to the Postmodern insight that we are embedded in what we’re looking at. Therefore, we are to lament that truth is impossible. And pure objectivity is doomed, thanks to the same insight. But the idea of truth that is being refuted is a very strange one. If anything, we should celebrate its demise, rather than lament it. It comes from a desire, essentially, to see a world that doesn’t include ourselves. It illustrates the self-destructive tendencies of the mind. Dystopian sci-fi stories may scare us about the prospect of machines taking over someday. But we need look no further than our own minds to see that a far more sinister thing is already happening. We are those machines.
Yet we are more than machines. We are more than our minds. Minds are good at analysis, breaking things down into their separate parts, naming them, and making distinctions. They are very useful. Without my mind, I would not be able to write this sentence. But as much as our minds don’t like the idea, they are not the basis for our being. They don’t have the final say. When our minds become our servants, rather than our masters, we can begin to see a way out of the “What is truth?” quagmire.
A mind in proper perspective knows that it is only a tool, a part of me, not all of me. And it can be willing to let go of the need to “be on top” and see things from that place of separation that it so idolizes. These would be true thoughts, true judgments. These would be thoughts that lead toward health and peace and greater insight, because they would be self-subordinating thoughts. Thoughts that acknowledge their own self-construction. Thoughts that acknowledge their own limitations. A humbled mind, a mind that recognizes that it does not really know, is in the best position to receive insights into truth. A humbled mind is a mind that has oriented itself toward truth. In contrast, a proud mind is oriented toward confusion; it will never get what it wants, whether it idealizes objectivity or laments its impossibility.
So the good news is that truth is real, and it is possible. The “bad news,” to our habitual way of thinking anyway, is that the mind can’t have the final say. To be given access to truth, it must relinquish its desire to be the arbiter of truth.
It’s hard to blame the mind for doing what it does. Who really wants to be “blown away”? Our minds protect us from falling apart. It’s for our own good that they filter what we see. But when the mind starts to recognize its role as a filter, it can begin to, little by little, let go of the controls it places on our perception, allowing more light to come in. Little by little, we can begin to let go of our habitual judgments. We can begin to actually see each other.
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Meditation is about letting go, allowing everything, wanting nothing, having no preference, and simply being. It’s about resting in the presence of consciousness itself, transcending all separation, abiding in union. There are no words in meditation, but if there were, they would simply be “I AM.”
Prayer on the other hand is much messier and much wordier. For example:
God, I don’t know what to write about. I hate trying to sound clever or coming up with wisdom. When I try to do it on my own, it only produces garbage. I need you. All true insights come from you. Everything else is wasted energy. I see myself even now putting on a show. Help me, Lord. Show me how to pray. I come before you with all my anxiety, all my desires, whether wholesome and God-ordained or not. Show me the error of my ways. Draw out the good that you see in me. I don’t know how to live life. I need your help. I so badly want to awaken. Don’t I?! Lord, what am I even doing? I don’t know how to do this. You HAVE to show me how. I am completely hopeless without you. Show me the way!! Lead me. Comfort me. Guide me. Give me hope. Give me joy. Give me energy. I can’t manufacture this stuff on my own. I need you.
I am so confused without you, and so anxious. Give me a word, Lord. I need a word for today. I need a word to sustain me. What can my anxious, hungry mind latch onto? Throw me a bone. But don’t stay far away. I don’t want to spend one moment apart from you. I drive my life into the ground when I do. Yes, Lord, make it even more painful to spend even one moment in separation. Let it drive me back to you. Make it unbearable. Drive me to you. But how can I even tell who you are? Who are you? I haven’t the slightest clue. Show me yourself.
Lord, I choose to believe in you. I believe you hear me and that you love me. I believe you are watching over me, guiding me, keeping me safe. My life is in your hands. I affirm this today. I am not alone. You are with me. I take comfort in your presence. I receive your peace. I rest in the knowledge that you are with me. I will wait patiently for you. You have shown me your face before. I take comfort in trusting in you. I choose your timeline, not mine. I would only screw it up. Help me to receive the gifts you have for me today. Open my eyes to your presence, open my ears to your word. I will walk with you today. I will abide in you today. No matter what happens, I will look to you. Help me to trust you to carry me through every experience, every challenge, every decision.
Thank you Lord for your peace and your presence. You mean I don’t actually have to change anything? You mean I can have peace right now? But I was in such turmoil and I was WANTING so much just a moment ago. You won’t forget about my desires, will you? I know better than that. You who made me, who formed me in my mother’s womb, who breathed me into existence—how could I ever doubt that my deepest desires come from you and that they are meant to be fulfilled? You mean I can and should just settle down and live in harmony? I don’t know, Lord. I don’t want to give up on my dreams. If I don’t hold onto them and pursue them with all my might, how will they ever come to fruition?
And then there is listening. When one person talks to another, it’s only a conversation if both people speak:
My son, I hear your pleas. I hear your cries. I know your desires better than you do! Your desires run far deeper than you even realize. I will show you how deep they go, and I will fulfill them beyond your wildest imagination. But you must trust in me. You confuse matters by opposing action to trust. I will guide you to take action when action is appropriate. Until then, yes, you can rest and live in harmony. Fulfill your duties, knowing that I am always with you. I will show you the door; you need only walk through it. You don’t need to find the door, but you will miss it unless you keep your eyes open. The only way you can do this is to completely trust in me. How can I guide you if you are always looking to the left and to the right? No, just look straight ahead. I have never left you and I never will. Rest in my love for you. This is my gift for you right now and always. You can commune with me now and know to the depths of your soul that you are loved.
I encourage all three practices, as they allow you to traverse the depths of your being, from the pettiest concerns and tantrums of your ego, to the highest wisdom that is available to you now. These practices will enable you to live a deeper, more fulfilling life, accomplishing the purposes for which you were born.
The kingdom of heaven
In July of 2012, I felt inspired to record some improvisations on the piano. I seemed to be tapping into a wellspring of creativity, so I decided to start recording an improvisation every day. All in all, I recorded about 25 improvisations and posted them to my account at soundcloud.com. I was impressed with some of them more than others. Towards the end of the experiment, they started sounding the same to me. So I stopped. I was getting into a rut. Perhaps I wasn’t opening up to inspiration as effectively. Perhaps I was getting in my own way.
Now that I reflect on it, I can see that I was beginning to practice independence. That word often has a positive connotation, but that’s not the sense I’m going for here. Another way to put it is that my ego started taking over. I stopped cold-turkey, rather than let it evolve into whatever the next structure should be. As with my career explorations, I have been so invested in defining what I will be doing that it can prevent me from taking action without first knowing everything up front. This is not living a life of faith. Instead, it’s attempting to control life, demanding to know what’s next before taking a step forward.
It’s a normal part of the human condition. When we see something working, we want more of it. We figure that we’ve found the answer, and we don’t need to search anymore. We go with what works until long after it doesn’t work anymore. Then we suddenly realize we need to start searching again. What if we instead kept that sense of wonder and openness alive continually? Even when we have a big breakthrough and want to exploit it for all it’s worth, what if we at the same time kept our eyes and ears open to what goes beyond even that? Must life always be a series of stops and starts? What if it could actually flow in a continuous stream of insight and revelation?
Interestingly, the word “breakthrough” may no longer apply at certain levels. For example, if you have been sick and suddenly find out what has been causing your illness, you could call that a breakthrough into new levels of health. You have broken through a wall of resistance to your own health. But once your pursuit of greater physical health begins to accelerate, there are fewer and fewer walls to break through. Now it’s more a matter of continuous improvement, no breakthroughs required.
What then becomes possible in the other areas of your life? If your physical health and vitality are improving every day, what new breakthroughs might you see in other areas? In your career? In your relationships? The learning process can now begin to accelerate in those areas as well; increasingly frequent breakthroughs eventually give way to a smooth progression of continuous improvement.
How can we free ourselves from the things that hold us back? How can we break through our walls of resistance? One way is to increase our awareness of the limitations themselves. Shining light on them has a tendency to dissolve them, as we naturally start doing what needs to be done to overcome them. To do this, we need to cultivate a heightened sensitivity to what is happening in our lives. When we have a breakthrough, we need to keep our eyes open. Yes, receive the gift of the breakthrough, but don’t stop there, assuming that all your problems are solved now or that you’ve “arrived.” Enjoy the revelation or healing or new success—enjoy it fully! But keep listening for what even better breakthroughs might be awaiting you.
If I had to summarize in one instruction how to do this, i.e. how to launch your life on an upward spiral of success, happiness, and fulfillment, it would be this: receive each moment as a gift. This puts you in the best possible position. You are recognizing that you did not create your own life (at least not the little you that you usually think of when you think of yourself). Instead, it comes from a power far greater than you, to which you owe your life. When you receive each moment as a gift, you are not rushing to get what’s next and forgetting to enjoy what you already have. No, you’re enjoying it fully, grateful for the free gift that is your life. But when you receive each moment as a gift, neither are you avoiding the future nor giving up on your dreams. That’s because the future, and your dreams themselves, always appear in the next moment. The moment is where your gifts and your aspirations meet, your desires and their fulfillment. The more that you can stay in that place, the more your life will become smooth, an ever-expanding, upward-spiraling flow of continuous improvement and celebration.
Faith helps here. What if you believed that everything that happened to you was for your own good, your own growth, your own learning, your own guidance? How differently would you relate to the events in your life? What if the entirety of your experience was actually a love song being continually composed for you, including all the ups and downs, the sad parts and the happy parts, the difficult parts and the easy parts? What if you could receive it all as a gift? What if your faith was so strong, your stance so firm, that, no matter what happened, you chose to receive every moment as a gift? Does that sound…perhaps…rather powerful?
I anticipate this objection: “But I’m going to die eventually. So much for the ‘upward spiral.'” Ah! That’s where there’s even greater news and an even more powerful perspective. What if your body’s life was not the sum of your real life? Regardless of whether your individual consciousness survives beyond death (whether through an afterlife or reincarnation or some other means or combination thereof), I can prove to you now that you already have existence beyond death. All you have to do is open your eyes to a truth that we’re all already aware of (it’s just that we usually don’t grasp its significance): when a body dies, the Universe doesn’t. Do you think that’s any less true for your body? All you have to do is see the life of this body and mind as yet another cycle in the upward spiral of your true life.
Okay, I admit that’s easier said than done. But here again, it can start with faith. Imagine that you saw your life as extending beyond the life of this body. What if you placed your identity not in this death-destined body but in the larger whole of which it is only a part? Where would fear come into play? Would it even apply anymore? Imagine what your life could be like if you were totally free to be yourself and fulfill all of your deepest desires, living in total alignment with your true nature—all because you received every moment as a gift and did not fear your own death?
Now, finally, what would the world be like if we all did that? What if so many of us woke up to our true identity that there was no longer any way to prevent all of us from doing so? What if we saw ourselves in each other, and each other in ourselves? What if we all celebrated the gift of life that we are all always receiving? I dare say that this is what Jesus meant when he spoke of the “kingdom of heaven.”
Why I am (still) a Christian, part 2
I am a Christian because, from an early age, God called me to be a Christian. I was born into a Christian family so that I could receive the upbringing and the training in Scriptures and devotion to Jesus that I would need in order to serve him. The name “Jesus” is etched into the corners of my heart. Jesus was my icon for Love and my icon for God.
Many Christians have had a “born-again” experience. I did not experience this until I let go of what I thought was the only way to be a Christian. God died, and I was born again. That created the fertile ground God needed to really wake me up to the Power I had always been dealing with. I had been hoping it was true, believing it was true, getting glimpses of insight here and there, moments of feeling loved by God, senses of being guided at key turning points in my life. But my world view, with all of its limitations, constrained my ability to truly believe, because it included many things that my rational mind or love-impressed heart had trouble with: divine punishment in an everlasting hell for those who don’t believe; denial of evolution or at least an inability to square evolution with traditional evangelical theology; God as a person who is separate, outside of our Reality, the Creator but not the embodying Spirit. These were chipped away at, until, with the help of severe chronic illness and depression, my faith was wrenched as if forcibly from my hands and I was left not knowing who I was or what life was.
Then it was only a matter of days, weeks, and months for the Spirit to start swooping in with flashes of insight and moments of awakening. Gradually yet quickly it dawned on me that, yes, God has called me to be a Christian. My spiritual experiences—direct encounters with powerful manifestations of God’s presence—have grown exponentially in the last year and a half. They are pointing me to the fact that I was always on the right track. It’s just that I had a lot of baggage that was holding me back. For me, this baggage was very heavy and burdensome. For many other Christians, the pain of such baggage hasn’t reached the breaking point. It is entirely possible to officially give assent to some pretty quirky doctrines and yet still be filled with the Spirit and love people with a seemingly supernatural love. We all have blind spots that hold us back, yet God still uses us anyway!
That’s why I have far from given up on the church, even, if not especially, conservative expressions of Christianity. Evangelical Christianity is my heritage, my community, my culture. It has been the locale for my encounters with the divine for most of my life. Although I do not hold tightly to the doctrines like I used to do (in a literal, must-make-this-system-internally-consistent-at-all-costs sort of way), I still see a powerful ethos and expression of God’s Spirit that seems to only be possible when coupled with a strong sense of belief. Having the conviction that the power and presence we call God is actually real makes a huge difference in what you will be open to seeing and experiencing.
On the other hand, if you don’t really believe in your heart that it’s real, or you’re so used to saying you believe it without any sense of wonder or excitement, then your faith is as good as dead. And we sadly do see that in many churches as well. Usually it’s a mixture, a few bright lights mixed in with a sea of ashen faces. What is one to do? Let the light shine! Draw it out, encourage it, celebrate it, point to it, focus on it, let everything else fade. This, I believe, is the way transcendence works. To combat war, you don’t fight war. You celebrate peace! To combat bigotry, you don’t fight bigotry. You celebrate inclusion! To combat doubt, you don’t fight doubt. You celebrate faith! To combat blindness, you don’t fight blindness. You celebrate sight!
Not just in the church, but everywhere I look, this is my commitment: I will see the good, the true, and the beautiful. As I see it, and as I point others to it, we as humanity will eventually forget that there was anything else. As your eyes are opened, if you are a Christian, or a heartbroken Christian, or a “recovering Christian,” you may also see the goodness, truth, and beauty in your own religious heritage, like I am seeing. It will be like Jesus’ radiance on the Mount of Transfiguration. In those moments, Peter, James, and John saw Jesus for who he really was. They saw into the deeper dimension that surrounds them always. That dimension didn’t only exist in those brief moments on the hill. The hilltop experiences could now inform their way of life in the valley, where everything might otherwise appear mundane.
So for you Christians who might have read part 1 of this post, left with a feeling of banal flatness, thinking “Where’s the power?” I hope this has begun to show you that I have no agenda to rob you of your faith. On the contrary, I want you to see the truth! The power you serve is greater and more expansive and all-encompassing than you realize! It is of cosmic scale and importance. Christianity points to that cosmic scale, but it can never contain it, for it is a human religion on one single planet. When you put the horse before the cart as it should be, you’ll be able to see that God is bigger than you thought, and Christianity was way more true than you ever realized. The Good News is better than you think!
I know this post will probably raise more questions than it answers. What exactly do you believe? How do you read Jesus’ words here? Etc. About this, the words of Paul come to mind: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” (1 Corinthians 3:2) The Scriptures are like milk to us, and we as humanity are still infants in Christ. We must grow into maturity in the Spirit before we will begin to directly see the light of truth. At that point, the spiritual wisdom of the Bible will become an expression of our own experience. Until then (and it will always be “until then”, only at subsequent levels in the spiral of learning), we must tread lightly. We must be curious, we must ask for insight. We must stop practicing independence, as if God sent us these words from afar for us to figure out on our own and will return later to see if we got it all figured out right. That’s far from the Christian message. No, God is here now, and I pray for myself as well as for all of you:
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.
There is hope for humanity, and Christianity needs to come into its own as a clear, undeniably positive expression of that hope.