Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Does Your Soul Really Need?

(Read James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a)

When I was a kid, I loved fairytales. And now my neice, Soliel, loves fairytales. She is obsessed with “princesses.” There’s Cinderella and Bell and Jasmine and Snow White and Ariel and Aurora. They are all princesses to her. Even though Soliel likes me to tell her the stories, if I mess up or change some of the storyline, Soliel stops me, and she corrects me. “No, Mandy. First, the prince kisses Snow White, and then, she wakes up.”

Lately, I have been changing the storyline a lot. Why? Because I feel like I am indoctrinating my precious niece with the idea that the way to happiness in life is to fall in love with a prince, get the prince to fall in love with you, and get married. In all these stories, that’s how one lives happily ever after. As a woman who is 31 years old, single, without children, working in a profession once available only to men, and as one who knows countless women who believe that if they just get married, everything else will fall into place, I cannot in good conscience teach Soliel this fairytale.

Today, I’d like us to question what we are taught by fairytales, movies, and advertisers, and to get serious about seeking wisdom from God, the real teachings we ought to live by.

In today’s Scripture reading, the community that James is writing to is experiencing conflict; people are fighting, disputing. Commentaries say that there were various teachers within the community, and several of them were not wise teachers. It appears that some of the teachings were flawed, and some were downright incorrect, “false to the truth,” contrary to the teachings of Jesus. But since the teachers were filled with selfish ambition, they kept insisting on proclaiming their warped message. It was causing real disorder within the community. As the Message puts it, things were falling apart and people were at each others’ throats (James 3:16).

When you think about it, our community, our society is filled with unwise teachers and teachings as well. And this also creates problems for us. I think that advertising has one of the loudest voices in our society, teaching the masses when we don’t even realize it. And the crazy thing is: advertisers don’t care about us. They are trying to make money.

They make promises to us with their products, but these are promises that their products cannot ultimately fulfill. Just because you drink a certain kind of beer, does not mean you will be surrounded by a great group of friends, where everyone is filled with laughter. Makeup, hair dye and expensive lotion might enhance your appearance, but they can’t make you feel beautiful inside. Certain prescription drugs can be very beneficial to one’s health and wellbeing, but they can’t fix all your problems; they do not guarantee happiness. But advertiers falsely try to convince us that is the case.

James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly.” I think we ask wrongly in that we desire, we go after that which cannot fulfill our deepest needs. We settle for cheap thrills and quick fixes. Sometimes, we do this knowingly, but often, I think we are unaware. We don’t know what will truly satisfy our souls. And earthly “wisdom” (if it can even be called that), leads us astray.

On a surface level, you might desire a donut or a drink (pick your poison), but when you go deeper, when you wrestle with God dwelling inside of you, you might realize that what you are really hungry for or thirsty for is a closer connection with your family or friends or partner. You might pray for time and money to take a vacation, but when the still, small voice speaks to you, you might just discern the Holy Spirit telling you that what you really need is to live every day at a slower pace. You may ask God to change something about someone else, but maybe what you really need is for something within yourself to change.

Vincent Van Gogh said, “I wrestle with nature long enough for her to tell me her secret.”

I think that now is the time for us to wrestle with God long enough for God to tell us the secrets that we need to know. Since God dwells within us, we will find answers when we wrestle with ourselves. Let’s cut to the heart of the matter. Ask yourself: what does my soul really need? With all that you pursue or purchase or are attracted to, what’s underneath it? What do you really need in your life?

Cars and anti-wrinkle cream make promises to you that they can’t keep. But God keeps his promises. And God wants you to be fully satisfied in healthy ways.

What a little girl needs when she grows up is not a prince. She needs a family that loves her, a community that will support her, and strength within herself to walk unafraid through this world. God taught me that when I wrestled with him.

My friends, like there was no shortage of unwise teachers and false teachings in biblical times, there is no shortage of unwise teachers and false teachings in this day and age. It’s time to question many of the messages we have been sent.

What abounds even greater than the false teachings is the wisdom of God available to all of us. We are called to be the wise and to live wisely. It is important for you to know what you need and to seek it directly.

You will be wise if you wrestle with God, if you seek his face, if you seek his kingdom. And in being wise, you will be truly satisfied.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just Thinking Aloud

I used to think that knowledge applied was wisdom. Now, my thought has progressed one step further. Wisdom applied is love.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Following in Jesus’ Footsteps

(Read Mark 8:27-38)

Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion. But in order to do that, he would have had to denounce who he was as a person. If he lied about what he knew to be true, if he denied the God that guided and loved him, if he chose to placate the civil and religious authorities, Jesus could have saved his life.

But in doing so, he would have lost it. He would have had to stop healing the sick and performing miracles. He would have had to stop contradicting Jewish law with the good news. In a sense, Jesus would not have been Jesus anymore. He would not have been the Son of God sent to redeem the world. If Jesus had chosen to save his own life, not even Peter would have recognized him as the Messiah.

Jesus is the Christ because of what he said and did, because he went about the towns and villages healing the people and preaching the good news. Jesus is the Christ because he lived into God’s vision for whom God had created him to be.

Peter knew that Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion. And from a human perspective, that was the way to go. Imagine what their conversation might have been like. First, Jesus said, “[I] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again” (Mark 8:31).

From Peter’s perspective, this must have sounded like a horrible plan. So, Peter took Jesus aside and said something to the effect of: Jesus, don’t talk like that. You are so wise and loving. You are such a great teacher and a profound healer. One unlike Israel has ever known. Don’t worry about the elders, chief priests and scribes. We can avoid them or appease them as needed.

But Christ silences Peter. “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Satan: the tempter. Satan: the one who tries to thwart God. Peter is trying to tempt Jesus to compromise himself. Peter has his mind on human things. Like living a long life. Life being accepted and embraced by all people. These are the hopes of human beings, right? But they are not the true path of the Messiah.

God has greater concerns. The divine mind is not set on whether the religious leaders approve of Jesus. God’s not worried about Jesus shaking things up or if he lives into old age.

God’s greatest concerns are that all people come to love and follow their Creator, that we are reconciled to God and to one another, and that we live into the unique calling that God has for each of us. In order for that to happen, God knows that Jesus must show the rest of us the Way. And in order for Jesus to show us the Way, then he must be faithful to whom God has called him to be and what God has called him to do.

In the book, Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now, Author Sally Brown suggests that God’s greatest concern, that God’s will, was not for Jesus to die on the cross per se, but that God’s greatest concern was for Jesus to be whom God created him to be. She writes:

What God willed…was not that Jesus should die, but that Jesus should pursue utter fidelity to the ways and will of God. It was the utter fidelity of Jesus’ life to whom and what God had called him to be and do that led to his death… [H]is refusal to be other than what he was, his refusal to disclaim his identity and role [lead to the crucifixion]. (Brown, Sally A. Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. pg. 65-66.)

What Brown is implying then, is that Jesus could have opted out, been untrue to himself as God created him to be and been untrue to the God he loved in the process. In doing so, he could have saved his own life. But, in saving his life, Jesus would have lost it. In saving his life, he would have ceased to be himself, to be Jesus.

As it is written: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35). I briefly want to tell you what the original meaning of this text, Mark 8:35, was because it is one of the most complicated, and therefore, potentially misused texts in the New Testament.

The readers of Mark were a community familiar with persecution and martyrdom. Christians were being killed because of their beliefs in Jesus as the Messiah. “The primary meaning of whoever would save his life was exactly that, in a physical sense. The man who saved his life by renouncing his faith in Christ would lose it in the next world, when he came before the judgment seat of God. And he that lost his life through fidelity to Christ would save it in the world of eternity” (The Interpreter’s Bible. Matthew and Mark. New York: Abingdon Press, 1951. pg. 771). Thus, in its original context, this Scripture was an encouragement and an assurance to followers of Jesus Christ to keep the faith even under persecution.

This interpretation is not particularly relevant to 21st century Americans, although it is important to acknowledge that in other parts of the world, Christians are still being martyred for their faith. As we explore the spiritual truth offered in the words, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” we are not going to equate losing our life with actual physical death and saving our life as eternal life in heaven. Although, as I just explained, this is a traditional interpretation. We are going to focus on losing our life as a spiritual loss of life that happens to all of us in the course of living, and saving our life as a spiritual rebirth that happens when we become intentional in our relationship with God, and from that, we live into our divine calling as Jesus Christ did.

God has created each of us with a unique, divinely-infused spirit, a spirit we are to live into, a person we are to become. Like Jesus had a calling to live into, which required him to be true to God’s vision of himself, so do each of us have a calling to live into.

The world we live in however does not always encourage such faithful living. Our culture tells us that we should pursue flawless bodies and material gain. Our schools tell us that the most valuable students are the ones who receive straight A’s. Even our religion sometimes mistakenly gives the message that to be a “good Christian” we should come off as nice and polite, perfect and without any problems. As we try to live up to these expectations, we have to hide our true identities, our spiritual selves.

Our families try to love us well, but often as children we experience shame, causing us to feel vulnerable and exposed, and without the inner resources to handle such strong emotions, our ego defenses grow. As we move from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood, the pain and hardships of life build up our walls and our hearts begin to close and harden. As a way of coping with our own insecurities and fear, we feel we have to become people that we are not. We build up false selves in order to fit in and get by. We compromise ourselves as we assimilate into the expected norm. We try to save ourselves in the eyes of other people and protect ourselves against the world, but we end up losing ourselves according to God’s vision. We lose our lives spiritually speaking.

But this is not our destiny because our God is in the saving business.

To illustrate the point, let me tell you a humorous parable that comes from contemporary Wisdom teaching. (A version of this parable is found in Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Fransisco: Jossey-Bas, 2003. pg. 64-5):

Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns, nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree. Since the citizens of this kingdom were high functioning, Westernized acorns, they went about their business with purposeful energy. They worked hard and were very accomplished. They had full social calendars, and they even took time to get their shells polished so that they would shine, at least on the outside.

One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, apparently dropped out of the blue by a passing bird. He was a capless and dirty acorn, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. He seemed content to lay beneath the oak tree, soaking up the sun, not rushing or trying to fit in. The others thought he was lazy and uncivilized. One day, while crouching beneath the oak tree, he stammered out a wild tale. Pointing upward at the great oak tree, he said, “We…are…that!”

The other acorns thought he was delusional and basically ignored him. But one of them continued to engage him in conversation: “So tell us, how would we become that tree?”

“Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground…and letting our shell crack open.”

“Insane,” one woman cried. “That’s horrible,” another yelled. The final words on the matter with these: “What a waste of a life! Because then, we wouldn’t be acorns anymore.”

Obviously, the acorns don’t get it. No, they wouldn’t be acorns anymore, but they would become oak trees. That is the acorn’s destiny. And if God has that kind of destiny planned for an acorn, imagine the kind of destiny God has planned for his beloved children, for us.

Our destiny is not to be people in hiding, but people who glow with an inner light. Our destiny is not to act from defensive positions and to squeeze bits of love from our hardened hearts. No. Our destiny is to be receptive and open, so that our lives can be filled with peace and beauty, love and joy. Our destiny is not to please people in power, but to live into the vision that God has for each of us.

Jesus showed us the Way.

When Jesus Christ surrendered his life, not only did God save him, God resurrected him. God completed and perfected him. And as you and I surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, God saves us as well. Spiritually, we are being reborn, transformed from the inside out until we are completed and perfected in love, and live into God’s vision for our lives.

Jesus shows us the Way. Follow in his footsteps.