November 14, 2008

tired of keeping your spirituality to yourself?

coffee hour conversationsWhy is it so difficult to discuss spiritual matters at church?     Being social, I have to admit I love to attend coffee hour at church on Sundays, but I can’t help but notice that we talk about everything BUT god.  coffeehouse spiritualityIn fact, I find that all the really interesting conversations about spiritual stuff take place outside the church: for instance, with friends at our favorite coffeehouse sharing the poetry we’ve written or discussing the latest movies we’ve seen.  In my search for relevant and interesting  conversations about God and spiritual things, I’ve even gone so far as to join a Facebook group Coffee Mystics [more info].  Not to mention the discussions I’ve had with folks from other traditions.  For instance, I have a friend who was raised Hindu and who practices Eastern forms of meditation: we can talk at length about our spiritual stuff.  private spirituality

But why can’t I have that same experience in the church?  I’m sure that the folks in the pews have personal beliefs about god and spirituality.  They just keep it to themselves.  Could it be that within the mainline churches, individual faith life has become so privatized, we no longer have permission to discuss it? Is it any wonder then that the church is often perceived as lifeless or just plain irrelevant?  communing with natureIf going to church means keeping my spiritual life to myself, I might as well spend my Sunday mornings communing with nature, or sleeping in.

I have a friend, in her early twenties, I met during an open house at the downtown cathedral, which I attend. She and a group of friends entered the church foyer for the first time, where she announced “I don’t think I can go along with all your dogma, is that a problem?”  While most of the greeters were flabbergasted, I stood up from my seat near the door and said, “No, I don’t have a problem with that.” I felt totally energized and thought “Finally, a chance to discuss the stuff that really matters!”

She sat down and told me about her experiences in Latin America.  She asked me why I thought there were so many crucifixes in Mexico which depict so graphically Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  pub-poster.jpgI was impressed with the question and told her I thought it provides the people, whose lives are full of hardship, with a sense of compassion, because they believe Jesus identifies with their suffering. She seemed to like that.  Then she asked why we place a stain glass window behind the altar, “was it designed to lead people towards the light?”  I answered, “That must have been part of the intended effect.”  And thinking to myself, if only we could see it that way.

What impressed me most was that she was so uninhibited in her conversation.  And in those questions, I sensed that she had already undergone some sort of transformative, spiritual experience.  At the same time she showed a disregard for stale doctrines which can’t possibly communicate that experience.the cost of privatized spirituality

Recently, at Pub(lic) Spirituality [more info], a pub gathering attended by mostly twenty-somethings, the majority of which don’t attend any sort of church, someone just threw out the question, “Does god punish us for our sins, or just let us suffer the consequences of our own behaviors?”  This led to an hour long discussion!  At an Emergent Matrix meeting [more info] which gathers monthly at another downtown pub, the group, a mix of people from different backgrounds, discussed whether or not the Bible has any relevance in today’s world. The conversation was so animated, you couldn’t get a word in edge-wise.  Why can’t we do THAT in the church?facing life's issues alone

Recently a fellow parishioner, a life long Episcopalian, told me she’s thinking of converting to Buddhism, because she longs for that sort of contemplative life.  I immediately responded that Christianity has its own contemplative tradition which is very ancient and profoundly rich.  But as soon as I said it, I realized I sounded like a whole lot of hot air: unless that spiritual practice and the transformative experience it provides is visibly alive in our church, it might as well be nonexistent.

Indeed, slowly but surely the privatization of spirituality has had a corrosive effect on the life of church communities.  Without a shared spiritual life we find ourselves at the mercy of the social forcesfaith should not be private which isolate and separate people.  With the result that no matter how many people surround us in the pews, we end up facing the greatest challenges of life on our own.  The reasons I go in search of conversations with others and why self-help books just won’t cut it has less do with my extroverted nature than with the simple fact that I need hope and inspiration to cope with all the anxiety and uncertainty that plagues contemporary existence.  I just can’t access it on my own, and believe me I’ve tried.

barren tree

I need to hear it articulated by those who have shared the same pains and trials that I’ve had to face in this crazy mixed-up world we live in.  And whatever the source of that hope might be, I need to experience its transformative power in my relationships: which leaves me asking, “why not at church?  As long as we continue to keep our faith lives private, we lose a common life centered around those very things: we lose touch with the central experience of what it is to be a Christian.


As John Zizioulas, one of my favorite theologians says, “Individualism is incompatible with Christian spirituality.  None can possess the Spirit as an individual, but only as a member of the community.” (”The Early Christian Community,” Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, 27) Contrary to the trend to treat one’s spiritual life as a private matter, Zizioulas says that the Early Christians understood that  “it was through personal relationships that the human person’s union with God was realized.” (”The Early Christian Community,” 23.)

How are we to regain that shared experience of spiritual transformation?  It may be as simple as returning to some of those ancient practices of the Early Church.  So for instance, in my parish we’ve started to practice Lectio Divina in a group[link to Contemplative Outreach for explanation of Lectio Divina]  Fr. Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leading exponent of Lectio Divina claims that “Praying the scriptures in common,” on a weekly basis,  “has proved to be a valuable experience and an occasion of bonding the members together in faith and love.”  As we listen to scripture in the group and wait for the Spirit to create a response in us, some of the most profound spiritual insights have come not necessarily from those who have a seminary education, like me, but from everyday people who have suffered and in that suffering have experienced the power of compassion to lift them from that place.  This is precisely the ray of hope that draws me out of the isolation and toward the light.  - Sue Wright


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September 9, 2008

life beyond the abyss?

sinners falling into hell

Does anyone really believe in heaven and hell anymore? After all, its just an old-fashioned superstition, an out-moded scare tactic to get people to church. movie poster for Dante's Inferno

In the Middle Ages the threat of eternal damnation in the fiery abyss of hell held so much power over people’s imaginations, they were both fascinated and afraid of it. For instance, the most popular book written in the medieval period, Dante’s Inferno [link], describes in vivid detail the punishments used to torture sinners for eternity in the depths of hell: corrupt politicians are immersed in a lake of boiling pitch, thieves are pursued and bitten by snakes and lizards, while blasphemers and homosexuals are trapped in a desert of flaming sand where fiery flakes rain down from the sky upon them.  dante's infernoThe nastiest punishments are reserved for those who committed the worst possible crimes. They are condemned to the bottom most depths of hell where, Satan, depicted as a beast, is held in chains. Satan has Judas in his teeth and rips at Judas’ skin with his claws.  Pretty gruesome.  Thank God, we’re beyond all that superstitious thinking…. or are we?

Come to think of it, the medieval obsession with hell reminds me of our contemporary addiction to graphic horror films, tragic news stories and the like. Could it be we’re hung up on the same things?  After all, our society still divides things up in very similar ways: rewarding good and punishing evil. In fact, that model is so deeply rooted in our cultural psyche, our world-view, which determines how we understand the created order, that its almost impossible to imagine another vision of reality. We just assume its natural.nocountryforoldmenr1art.jpg

Except that lately that order appears to be breaking down: the “bad guys” or the “monsters” don’t seem to know their place.  For instance, in the movie “No Country for Old Men,” which won the academy award for best picture,  the so-called “good guys” (the cowboy who finds the money and the sheriff investigating the case) are pretty powerless in the face of the ultimate “bad guy” who is totally unstoppable.  He is literally the sheriff’s worst nightmare.  Watching the film you can’t help but wonder, what on earth is this guy doing: wandering around and messing with regular people’s lives?  Who let that  monster out of hell?  Needless to say, the movie is very disturbing…blake's fall of the angel

One reason for this is that it breaks down the clear divisions which make people feel safe. Its not just a matter of locking up the really nasty criminals and throwing away the key, separating the “good people” from the “bad people” has always been one of the primary building blocks for ordering society. denial of the abyss

So while many of us assume that in this present day and age we no longer believe in heaven and hell, it could it be that images of the fiery abyss are still so real for us that we’re really just living in denial.  Maybe we never got over our fear of hell, we’ve just had a lid on it. As long as people play by the rules and don’t commit any crimes, they assume they don’t have to worry about it.

But what about all those actually condemned to the bottomless pit?  All the black men in prison, out of sight and forgotten by mainstream society? What about the mentally ill wandering the streets because no one will care for them? Or the countless lives lost in Iraq, that the media refuses to talk about?  What about the teenagers at risk, who are convinced the world around them could care less; or the elderly confined in nursing homes, without family or friends to visit them?    When I think of the utter abandonment experienced by those who have been condemned, in one form or another, to non-existence, I wonder what on earth did they do to deserve such punishment?Edvard Munch, Anxiety 1894

We may be the lucky ones, with a good job, a home and a loving family, but can we ever feel entirely safe, when there are those around us, who are not so lucky? Indeed, the more we deny the abyss in our midst, the more power it holds over our imaginations, feeding those nagging feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that plague contemporary life. Until we can envision our world, and the social order structured in some other way, we will live in fear, conscious or not, that we could be the next unlucky person to slide down the slippery slope into its depths, unnoticed and forgotten by the rest of humanity.  The result is that we too are held captive, both fascinated and afraid that somehow those “monsters” could get loose.jesus walks on the water

Contrary to common assumptions, parts of the New Testament actually challenge us to consider another vision of reality. It not only contradicts the old-fashioned understanding of heaven and hell, but exposes our contemporary superstitions too.  In Matthew 14:22-33 [link to text] Jesus walked on the water. This action was more than a simple miracle; it was a highly symbolic gesture. For the ancient Jews, the watery abyss was the mythological equivalent to the medieval fiery depths of hell.  In the Psalms, for instance, the sea appears as a synonym for the pit, the place of desolation and abandonment from which the writer of the psalms cries out to God for deliverance:the psalmist cries from the abyss

I am counted among those who go down to the Pit; I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead… (Psalm 88:4-5)

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me…

Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me. (Psalm 69:1-2, 15)

god casting the serpents into the watery abyssBelief in the watery abyss, was closely connected to the Hebrew creation story. In Genesis 1:6-8 the waters are depicted as the source of chaos, which God divided to create the dry land, the basis for the created order. For centuries people assumed that God accomplished this by slaying all the evil demons and throwing them to the bottom of the watery pit. Thus in Jewish mythology the sea was feared as the place where demons, monsters and ghosts reside.

It is highly symbolic then that Jesus not only walked over the face of the watery abyss, he chose to do much of his ministry on or next to the sea. He also chose fishermen as his disciples, those whose life circumstances forced them to live daily on the edge of the abyss. This also explains why the disciples were afraid when they saw Jesus approaching them from across the water: they thought he was a ghost.  Jesus immediately responded, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” For when Jesus walked over the water, it was not merely to perform a miracle or demonstrate that he was Lord over its depths, but more importantly to offer a new vision of the created order itself.

jesus rescues peter from watery abyss

Even so, the disciple’s fear of the pit was still too powerful.  When Peter got out of the boat (out of his comfort zone?) and tried to walk to Jesus over the water, he became afraid and immediately began to sink into its depths. After reaching out his hand to save Peter, Jesus scolded him for his lack of faith; not because Peter did not believe in the miracle, but because Peter still believed in the power of the abyss and the sort of god which creates order by rescuing some and condemning others. Thus Jesus realized that to destroy the power the abyss held, and continues to hold, over people’s imaginations, he had to go one step further.

christ of the abyssUnlike Genesis 1:6-8 or even Moses at the Red Sea, Jesus did not divide the waters, he did not create order by condemning all the sinners to hell, or casting some new demon into the abyss. Instead Jesus allowed himself to be sentenced and executed as a criminal, and actually descended to the depths of hell, to the very bottom of the watery abyss.  He intentionally took the role of the one condemned to the pit in the Psalms, and suffered all the pain and abandonment experienced by those forced to reside there.  As my past professor Tony Bartlett says, Jesus’ own cry from the abyss, is not one of “defiance or despair, but [of] yielding up, the letting go, the for-giving and release of the spirit, his breath” (Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 246). He did this to expose once and for all the presence of the abyss as a false basis for social order, and to blow the lid off our denial, by demonstrating that the abyss does not really contain demons or monsters, creature from the black lagoonbut holds captive all those who have been sentenced to non-existence.

For an important exploration of “the abyss” and Jesus’ “abyssal compassion,” see Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, especially chapter one [Link].

Indeed, the abyss is the domain of all those who have been forgotten, but who continue to lurk in our imaginations, in popular horror films, in urban legends.  Jesus breaks the power of the abyss by demonstrating what it really is; kind of like shining a light under the bed only to discover a dirty sock instead of a monster. monster under the bed

Thus Paul could say that Jesus answers those who cry out to him from its depths:

For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” [link to text]

Just reaching out his hand and pulling Peter out of the water, as “a hand proffered from on high, (Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes, 24),  would not have been enough.  It was only by descending to its depths that Jesus is able to rescue anyone.  And it is precisely for this reason that Jesus is able to respond to every person, no matter their past failings, or their supposed crimes. No plea goes unanswered. As Bartlett says Jesus’ gesture in the abyss is “available to everyone who suffers or feels compassion for suffering.” (Bartlett, 237)

jesus' descent into hell to release the captives

It is for this same reason that Jesus could claim that he had come to set the captives free [See Luke 4:18].  By destroying the power of hell, he released all those, who over the centuries had been condemned to eternal punishment in its depths.  But lets not forget, its not just the monsters and demons which require deliverance.  No longer held captive by our fear, we too are liberated in the process.

rescuing others from the abyssReleased from its grip, we do not need to live in denial.  We may even find that we have the courage to approach the abyss, and with compassion to rescue others.  By dissolving the power the abyss holds over our imaginations, we are finally free to participate in a created order free of its threat.

Escher's Heaven and Hell

As Paul Nuechterlein points out on his website [link], its important to notice that the Book of Revelation ends with the following:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” [Revelation 21:1]

If we could actually give up our old-fashioned superstitions about heaven and hell, and could finally lay all the monsters to rest,  I wonder what would the world look like? Its difficult to imagine… but I have a feeling it would be a much safer place for all of us.   - Sue Wright

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April 15, 2008

is religion just glorified scapegoating?

Have you ever thought that religion, despite all its claims, is really in the business of scapegoating?

Why is it that goodness is always defined against badness? And those who claim to be “saved,” are all too ready to damn the “wicked” to hell. HEscher's Scapegoatow can religious groups, Christian, Muslim or Jewish, claim to offer salvation when they continue to be so divisive? When I look at all the centuries of religious rhetoric on the part of the various traditions, I can’t help but think that scape- goating is one of the oldest games in the book and probably the root of many of the world’s problems.

Imagine my surprise when Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, actually admits that scapegoating is the problem:

scapegoating“The claim of Christianity is both that this mechanism [scapegoating] is universal, ingrained in how we learn to behave as human beings and that it is capable of changing.”

Link to Rowan William's Webpage

In a statement given on Easter Day 2008 [Click here] Williams says that “the Easter story can help humanity escape a lethal cycle of fear and resentment.”

It seems that Williams wants to challenge our common assumptions: “the alarming thing is that anyone should think that the story of Jesus’ death is a story about the triumph of bad men over good ones, with the implication that if we’d been there we would have been on the side of the good ones.”culture of blame

In effect Williams is saying that none of us get to claim “goodness” at the expense of someone else! So for instance, instead of using the Bible to point the finger at others, Williams points the finger at our universal tendency to scapegoat. The real sin, Williams makes clear, is one that each and every one of us is guilty of:

“Much more importantly, the entire message of the Bible on this point is that the problem begins with us, not them. Jesus is killed because people who think they are good are in fact trapped in self-deception and unable to get out of the groove of their self-justifying behavior.”

“It breeds a mentality that always seeks to mirror the one who is threatening you. It generates the ‘zero-sum game’ that condemns so many negotiations to futility.”

Exposing the human tendency to blame others is not necessarily an earth shattering revelation. For Williams, however, scapegoating is more than just a blame game. In fact, his understanding of scapegoating is influenced by one of my favorite contemporary thinkers to whom he makes reference:Rene Girard

“In recent years, a number of Christian writers, inspired by French critic and philosopher René Girard [learn more], have stressed with new urgency how the Bible shows the way in which groups and societies work out their fears and frustrations by finding scapegoats.”the blame game

Girard who is famous for his theory of scapegoating, is concerned with scapegoating that occurs at a unconscious level. In an interview Girard says that “conscious scapegoating is a modern parody of this scapegoating which is of the order of propaganda.” [Link to Interview]

In his book, The Scapegoat [Link], Girard explains that scapegoating occurs in moments of cultural crisis, when people feeling powerless are “disconcerted by the immensity of the disaster [whatever that might be] but never look into natural causes.” Instead there is a strong tendency to explain the crisis by moral causes. “But, rather than blame themselves, people inevitably blame either society as a whole, which costs them nothing, or other people who [they perceive as] particularly harmful for easily identifiable reasons,” but who are, for all intents and purposes, innocent. [René Girard, The Scapegoat, 14]

Crisis creates anxiety which, if not directed onto a scapegoat, may actually break out into uncontrolled violence or lead to some sort of political or social upheaval. We can find numerous examples throughout history, when rising tensions which threatened to tear society apart were redirected onto a single person, a minority or religious group: i.e., the Inquisition or the lynching of black men in the South. The death of the scapegoat has a cathartic effect, producing a period of peace and reconciliation for those who might otherwise have been at each other’s throats.Crucify him!

Girard says that in the moment when the crowd yelled “Crucify him!” the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders, and the people were all united against a single scapegoat; their prior differences were dissolved (Girard, The Scapegoat, 115). Rejected by everyone, even his own disciples, the Gospels expose once and for all the true role of the victim, who despite all the charges against that person, is always innocent.

This explains why war, despite all the best arguments against it, continues. Because it has the power not only to unify people around a common cause, but to redirect the mounting tensions within our own borders onto a foreign “enemy”. “Worst of all, Williams says, “it gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.” For instance, as economic crisis in the U.S. deepens, as racism persists, and the divide between the rich and the poor grows ever wider, people may become more and more anxious. In response our government may be increasingly tempted to redirect those tensions onto another country: Iraq or possibly Iran.scapegoating

The truth that the Gospels expose, is that Iraq, Iran, gays or even terrorists are not responsible for the problems that plague this country.

blame gameAs the role of scapegoating becomes more evident, we in turn may be tempted to blame George Bush or even the military for all the scapegoating. But pointing the finger at the politicians will only perpetuate the problem and in fact becomes just another form of scapegoating. Every American is to one degree or another complicit with scapegoating at a national level. The point is, when we become conscious of our unconscious motivations which lead us to scapegoating we are in a position to reject scapegoating once and for all. Girard says that “history, for better or worse, is inseparable from the revelations of the Gospel.” Meaning that it is becoming more and more difficult to believe first, that the scapegoat is guilty and second, that the leaders or politicians are the only ones with blood on their hands. As Rowan Williams says, “the New Testament invites every reader to recognize this in himself or herself.”

“For many of our contemporaries, the Christian message is either a matter of unwelcome moral nagging or a set of appealing but finally irrelevant legends. If it has a place in our public life or our national institutions, it is on the basis of a slightly grudging recognition that ‘it does a lot of good work’ and represents something about continuity with our past.”

“But what if,” as Williams says, “the Christian story offered more than this? What if it proposed a way of understanding some of the most pervasive and dangerous mechanisms in human relationships, interpersonal or international?”blame game

What most intrigues me about Rowan Williams’ statement is the idea that whether or not people “grasp what is meant by the resolution that the Christian message offers.” It is at least “possible that they will see the entire Jesus’ Crucifixionscheme as a structure within which they - we - can understand some of what most lethally imprisons us in our relationships, individual and collective.” This allows me to envision an approach to salvation free of divisiveness.

The revelation of the scapegoat actually liberates us from the blame game. As Girard says, Jesus’ words in Luke 23:34 which reveal the unconscious nature of scapegoating: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” are at the same time words of universal forgiveness. Likewise Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles “And now friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” (Acts 4:17) As we become increasingly aware that we are all participants in scapegoating, we should not use that knowledge to punish ourselves or to condemn others. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross exposes our guilt, but through the very act of forgiveness. For since no individual or group deserves to be the next scapegoat, we, despite the fact that we are all complicit, are all innocent. [See Girard, The Scapegoat, pg. 110-111.]

In a world of growing tensions, could anything be more relevant? I can say for myself, as someone who was not raised in the church, that this is precisely what attracts me to Christianity. -Sue Wright

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February 7, 2008

jesus tempted by chocolate?

Jesus' TemptationWhy do so many Christians say they’re giving up chocolate for Lent? What’s the point? [read more] Supposedly Lent is a recognition of Jesus’ triumph over temptation in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1-11 Satan appears after Jesus has fasted forty days and tempts Jesus with wealth and power. Jesus has no problem telling him to get lost. Could it be that Satan got it wrong. Maybe he should have used a box of Godiva?chocolate

Of course people are always coming up with creative suggestions for Lenten fasting. I especially like the carbon fast, called by two prominent bishops in England. [read more] Another option is to “give back” instead of “giving up” [read more]. Problem is, all these ideas are a reaction to a common denominator: the culture of consumerism. Is our consumption so compulsive that we’re unable to think in any other terms. Not to mention the fact that the minute we prohibit something, it becomes all the more irresistible.

temptation in the eyes of the other

For instance, would God, in the first temptation story [Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7], have said to Adam and Eve, “You may freely eat of every treat of the garden; but of the treat of chocolate you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Sounds a bit ridiculous. And honestly, I’m really not interested in picking on people who are giving up chocolate this Lent, but in terms of sin and temptation, chocolate seems to be missing an ingredient.

carmel macchiatoWhat if for a moment we forget forgoing wine, meat, carmel macchiatos, and yes, even carbon emissions and look a little more closely at the text. Is there more going on here?

Maybe the object of consumption is not the most important issue.

For both temptation stories, temptation originates with the prompting of another person.the crafty serpent So for instance, in Genesis the “crafty” serpent suggests to Eve that God, by prohibiting them from eating from the tree of knowledge, is withholding something from them. And probably by a similar suggestion Eve is able to lead Adam astray. In fact the Hebrew word for “crafty” arum is from the same word group as the word for “nakedness” arummim and may be an intentional pun. [see Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary]

1) subtle, shrewd, crafty, sly, sensible
a) crafty
b) shrewd, sensible, prudent [See Strong’s]

“The craftiness of the serpent (arum) awakens them to looking at objects of desire through the eyes of others, which then leads to looking at themselves as naked (arummim).”

Likewise, in Matthew Satan prefaces every temptation with: “if you are the Son of God…”, tempting Jesus to recognize himself through the eyes of another. After all, would any of us want fame, fortune, beauty or power, if it didn’t draw the attention of others? If we don’t have those things, we feel that we are lacking, not because those objects hold any power in and of themselves, but because without them we feel unimportant and undesirable to others.

driven out of the gardenIsn’t that what Jesus’ is being tempted by: “how can you possibly be the Son of God, when you lack immeasurable wealth and unlimited power?” It was the power of suggestion that could have led Jesus astray. By claiming to have power over these objects, Satan is no doubt going to use them to control Jesus. As long as we focus on the object as the problem, whether its chocolate or carbon, we will be unable to resist a source of temptation that has significantly more power over our lives. Jesus Resists TemptationThink about it, why, when gas prices are so high and scientists are warning us about the negative effects of carbon emissions, do so many Americans insist on driving SUVs?

For Jesus to resist Satan’s crafty suggestions, he must have broken free from that persistent feeling of lack which drives our consumerist world. Maybe this is why Jesus could drink and eat as freely as he did. He was unencumbered not only by feelings of lack but also by the accompanying sense of guilt associated with our longing for objects. In Jesus’ resistance to temptation we find a model which frees us from the negative dynamic produced by any and all prohibitions, including the very first one: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat”. [See James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, 248]

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November 14, 2007

which family will i live with in heaven?

Have you seen thMormon Ade late night TV ads,”Truth Restored” from the Church of Latter Day Saints, in which a young women asks, “I can be married forever?”  She’s totally wowed when she discovers that she will be with her husband in eternity. trauma of divorceAs comforting as this may be for some people, many of my gen-x friends don’t buy the whole resurrection thing. Not to mention that having been totally traumatized by the divorce of their parents, they feel ambiguous about commitment. Indeed, with the prevalence of second and third marriages many of us have such complicated family trees that the idea marriage is forever poses all sorts of problems: which family will I be with in heaven? My mom’s or my dad’s; my step-parent’s?divorce-girl.jpg

In fact, many of us are not interested in a continuation of the status quo in eternity: it sounds more like hell than heaven! I wonder how many people who have been married 50 plus years really want to be together forever? Certainly there are couples that have discovered the power of love and forgiveness to renew their relationship. The rest of us are thinking how unfair it is that we should have to make such a once and for all choice to begin with. As long as resurrection is treated this way, it doesn’t have much to offer.

In Luke 20:27-38 Jesus says there is no such thing as marriage in eternity: this was good news for some, especially since the status quo in his society was so abusive to women. He says this in response to a trick question. The Sadducees, who supposedly don’t believe in the resurrection want to know what man a women will be married to in the resurrection. Her husband has died and left her without children. According to the Levitical law she must marry her husband’s brother. When the brother dies, she then must marry the next brother and so on down the line, she ends up married and widowed seven times.

Why is it so important that this women should immediately remarry? Sexual desire provokes rivalries, which can tear human communities apart. Therefore, one of the primary foundations to any society is the structuring of sexual relationships. In many traditional societies a woman is passed directly from the father’s household to the husband’s ensuring that she’s always under the authority of one man. She is allowed no control over her own sexuality or more stoning For instance, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 demands that any woman who has sexual relations outside of marriage be dragged from her father’s house and stoned by the men of the community! Such acts of punishment are carried out to this day under oppressive regimes in Iran and Afghanistan.

So when the Sadducees recite the transference of a women from one man to the next, they are completely blind to the insensitive treatment of women in their society. Not to mention that the idea a woman would continue to be constrained by such oppressive rules completely contradicts the resurrection as Jesus understands it.

Ironically, the emphasis today on marriage and family values has contributed to the loss of community. Isolated and without adequate social support, families are forced to rely on their own resources. hectic family scheduleThe day to day stress on families has increased significantly as both parents are pressured to work more hours than their parents. Children hardly get to be children these days, passed as they are from one activity to the next, one parent to the next. The pressures and tensions are just too much for individual households to bear and literally pits family members against each other.

So beware of political candidates who claim to support family values, it actually demonstrates a lack of vision, an inability to imagine a better basis for our society.toll of stress on a marriage

Marriage cannot serve as the foundation of our society. Like Atlas trying to shoulder the weight of the world, marriage is crumbling under a burden it cannot possibly bear. Attempts to artificially reinforce it as the basis of society only make it a rigid and oppressive structure. And worse, insisting on this false foundation deprives us of the firmer ground we so desperately need.

Does this mean we shouldn’t get married? No, but marriage needs to be grounded in the larger context of a human community founded on compassion rather than oppression. If we remember to view marriage as a fragile relationship rather than an institution, we are much more likely to honor the humanity of the people involved. In this light the idea of resurrection becomes more attractive. For unlike the Sadducees whose understanding of social order originates as a response to death, Jesus’ response demonstrates a vision of life in which death plays no role, with the result that heaven starts to look more like heaven and less like hell.

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November 3, 2007

was jesus pc?

Imagine being trapped in a world where everyone believes that sex is evil. How would this affect your body image, your understanding of nature and your relationships with others? Not to mention what would happen to those caught in the act.puritans in the stocks

Imagine someone coming along and saying sex is good, really good, a gift from god. If you could believe it, wouldn’t that change your entire understanding of yourself and your world?birds and bees talkpoor body image

Now imagine a world in which everyone believes that homosexuality is evil. If you were gay, how would that affect your self-image, your relationships? You may even be trapped in self-denial and self-loathing.

In Luke 6:20-31 Jesus proclaims that the poor are blessed. In a world where wealth was considered the reward for virtue and poverty was definitive proof that you were a loser, this is very counter-cultural. Not only does Jesus revolutionize people’s self-concept, he is clearly turning the tables. In fact for every blessing he announces a parallel woe: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.”

But this is precisely where Christians get into trouble. They tend to treat the Beatitudes as Jesus’ blueprint for the Christian society; a kind of “Jesus PC” - his version of political correctness.pc_sheriff.jpg So that before you know it, the rich, or the conservatives and fundamentalists are being thrown in the stocks.

Jesus comes off as the ultimate PC sheriff, except for one point: he also says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” It is all too easy to hate the ones who oppress us and to scapegoat them when the tables are turned. Indeed in Jesus’ world, where poverty was used as a form of scapegoating, it was all too easy to demand an eye for an eye.

But what if Jesus is really saying, “Woe to anyone who constructs their definition of order by scapegoating those who are different. Woe to you if your wealth is founded on the exclusion of the poor, because he is going to turn that order upside down.Woe to anyone who derives comfort from the suffering of their enemies”? Likewise, we can say, “Woe to you if your definition of family is founded upon the exclusion of gays, lesbians and trans-gendered,” because Jesus subverts all order founded on any form of scapegoating.

puritan marriageJesus understands that mutual care and respect for all members of society is the only lasting foundation. External structures no matter how rigid cannot replace the internal bonds of love and affection between family members or Christian community. There is no need to condemn anyone to the stocks. In fact the more rigidly you reinforce your definition of order the more likely you are to fail because more and more people are giving themselves permission to reject it.back in the closet

Its hard for us to imagine what a radical message this was. It had the power to liberate people not just from the condemnation of society, it also allowed them to reject all those negative messages which poisoned their self image.

The real miracle happens when all those people who were once oppressed by rigid attitudes begin to treat each other with mutual respect and tolerance. Free not only from self-hatred, but also the need for revenge they become the foundation for a new human community.

puritan unions

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