Monday, August 12, 2013

Chapter 9 – Be serious

“Much of what is called Christianity has more to do with disguising the ego behind the screen of religion and culture than any real movement toward a God beyond the small self, and a new self in God.” ~ Richard Rohr

     So now we must get down to “brass tacks” as they say.  What is the most serious problem facing those who want to walk the Christian path and act according to the will of God?  The most serious problem is that the lines of communication are closed.  Jesus came to bring the message that man can communicate with God openly, but we immediately threw that concept out the window.  For all of the history of religion the idea has been that certain people are given authority by god to become intermediaries, shamans, priests, oracles, and the like, and it is to these people that we must look for our communications with god.  This is a pattern of control, one that has been established in our collective minds for thousands of years, but let’s look at it reasonably.  
     Once again let us place God as our father, and we as his children, and what if you came to me and said, “today I am going to talk to father about the problems in my life.” And I said, “No, sorry, you cannot do that, father has appointed me as his spokesperson and any talking you want to do has to be done through me, and then I will bring you his answer.”  Would you believe me?  Probably not, but we believe the exact same lie on a much greater level.  We are told that we common folk, the unwashed masses, do not have the understanding, or education, or that special something that will allow us to go before God, so we must have an intermediary to stand in our place and guide us by the answers god gives him or her.  This is the fattest load of crap that the church has maintained for too long.  If God loves us, and we Him, then what is stopping us from going directly to him and talking with Him ourselves?  Nothing is stopping us, except a fear of “not being good enough” and a selfish want not to take responsibility for our own spirituality.  We have been trained for so long to believe that we are not nor shall we ever be good enough to actually go before God and have a direct relationship with Him.  We are told not to question, not to stray from tradition, and most of all, not to interpret God for ourselves.  
     In this country alone the rate of people with self-esteem issues rises yearly.  We believe in the very core of our beings that we are not worthy, and with the church teaching stupidity like “original sin” and redemptive theology it’s no wonder we feel this way about ourselves.  Secondarily, as humans we are just lazy, and it seems so much easier to let someone else have responsibility for my own spirituality while I continue enjoying my worldly distractions.  The basic concept here is that I don’t want to miss the football game, put down the remote, or quit shining my new car long enough to actually consider my own spiritual life, because it seems boring and if I look to closely then I have to start seeing all the junk I've hidden away for so long.  We, by our natures, avoid pain, and living the spiritual life is full of pain.  What we don’t see is that it is the pain of growth, the pain of maturity, and like exercising regularly; it is a good pain, one that will build us into better people.  
     So how do we get off of our collective buttocks and actually sum up the courage to go before God ourselves?  It requires a change in lifestyle, small at first, but greater as we become more mature.  The change begins with some simple questions.  What do I really believe about God?  Do I believe that God loves me and wants good things for my life?  If this is so, what am I willing to give up so that I may focus my attention on God and increase my own spirituality?  Pursuing a spiritual path is a life long endeavor, and not to be taken lightly.  Take time to investigate the various paths around you.  Take the opportunity to oversee your own re-education in spirituality.  There are many great authors and books out there that are not regurgitated idiocy, but actually go outside the box and get you to really thinking about your relationship with God.  Look for a mentor, someone who is ahead of you on this path, someone who can give you some advice or direction when you need it, but isn't prone to trying to force your walk in one way or another.  And perhaps most importantly, do not be afraid to step outside your own boundaries.  Get out of the box, ask deep questions, and analyze all of the answers...even if they seem outrageous at first. 
     Once you can answer these questions truthfully and without regurgitating church rhetoric then you’re ready for step two.  Step two involves some minor changes in behavior; first you need to begin practicing meditation.  Now I know that word brings to mind eastern gurus and chants and such but that’s not at all what it means.  Meditation is prayer in the right direction.  Too often our prayers center on us asking God for something or another, or attempting to coerce God into some action or another.  The problem is that this sort of praying is neither worship nor communication.  This sort of prayer is simply an attempt to manipulate God into doing what we want, getting our own way and it does little or nothing to develop the true spiritual life.  Instead, we learn to meditate, to listen for what God has for us.  We learn to let God do the talking, and we learn to look at ourselves, truthfully, openly and we begin to know ourselves in a much deeper way.  Meditation is simple really, but it takes time to master.  Start by setting aside five or ten minutes a day.  Find a place where you can sit and not be disturbed, and begin by simply relaxing and breathing deeply.  Try to clear your mind of distractions, worries and outside issues, and simply focus on being open and clear.  As things pop into your mind simply label them, and set them aside for future consideration.  At first let this go on for just a few minutes at a time, but as you become more comfortable with it, then you can begin to extend the period of time or set up several times per day to meditate.  Meditation allows us to quiet our minds, to center ourselves down and begin to be open to what God is saying to us.  If the God we believe in is omnipotent and all knowing, doesn't it make sense that He already knows what you want?  Instead, shouldn't you be listening for what He wants for you?  As a minister I am often asked, “Why is it that God no longer speaks to people?”  My answer is this; “God is speaking to us all the time, we have simply lost the ability to listen.”  If we want to get serious about our spiritual walk then we must take action, and the first action we should take is listening to what God wants for us.  Father Richard Rohr has produced several books on the topic of “Christian” meditation and I would suggest them for further study on the topic.       An additional step you can take is to begin looking at the number and type of distractions that exist in your life.  Let me say, there is nothing wrong with having a bit of leisure time, but if our distractions are too many we may find we have little time or energy to put towards our spiritual growth.  Take an inventory of your diversions and then prioritize them.  Figure out which are the most important to you and which you can let go of to make room for spiritual practice.  You will need time for meditation, for reading and discussion, and most of all for actually doing ministry.  Eventually 30 minutes to an hour each day for meditation, perhaps the same amount of time a few times a week for reading and discussion and perhaps an entire day, two or three times a month for going out and actually doing ministry.  This may seem like a lot, but it’s something that you can work up to, and eventually surpass at some point.  If we want to be taken seriously as Christians, we must live and act as Christians.  If a man tells me that he is a baseball player then I want to see him catch and throw and hit a ball, if a man says he is a Christian, I want to see the compassion, love and understanding that come with being a Christian.  It is time to take action, and it is time that we bring to Christianity the action that it should have had long ago.  We must get out of our comfort, live up to our potential and take our spirituality seriously if we want change to happen.

Chapter 10 – be a follower of Jesus

“After all, he’s not a tame lion.” ~The lion, the witch and the wardrobe

     For those kind souls who have read this far hoping that this treatise wouldn't really challenge their beliefs, I give one final warning; this final chapter may tap the nail into the coffin.  Let me start out by saying something a bit controversial; Jesus wasn't a good or nice guy.  I know, this sounds contradictory and against everything we Christians have ever been taught about Jesus, but let’s look at this from a logical perspective.  Jesus wasn't a good son, he refused his father’s work, chose not to defend his family against slander and did not work a regular job or own property.  He wasn't a good Rabbi either, as he chose not to teach in the synagogue, spoke against the law, and refused to commit to the basic rituals and habits of Judaism.  Nor can we say that Jesus was a good friend, he led his friends away from lucrative jobs, led them into often dangerous confrontations with government and church officials, and continually harassed them about their shortcomings.  As far as Jesus being a nice guy, just look at some of the things he said, things like; “You must love me more than your family”, or “it will be almost impossible for a rich person to get to heaven”, or “leave the dead to bury their own, but you come and follow me.”  These sayings are hard, even mean sounding and these are only a few examples of such sayings.  Jesus makes many statements that seem completely contradictory to what culture, society or religion say are normal, good, and right concepts. Why would such a learned and wise teacher, who speaks often of love and compassion, say and do such unusual things?  I believe that Jesus said and did such things because he understood something simple that religion and culture have perhaps never known, that living a life of spirituality goes far beyond the temporal and physical state that distracts most every human most every day.  
     To truly become a spiritual being means learning to become more than our physical natures would entail.  Jesus is asking us to go against our nature, to become more than our nature, to become super natural.  Great spiritual teachers all throughout human history have pointed in this direction, and it is for these very reasons that very few religions can truly imitate or follow the doctrines given by such profound teachers.  Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and others have taught these “hard” truths, but mankind chooses to avoid the actual spiritual truths and create systems of laws and doctrines that actually prevent following such concepts.  In this chapter I am going to outline five hard spiritual truths that can entirely change our lives, but be warned before you read much further, I doubt you will like what you see, and my doubt is even greater that many can follow such stringent guidelines.
1.      Love God first – Almost any Christian you ask will claim to love God, but do we really?  Isn't it closer to the truth to say that we have God only as a mere acquaintance?  Will you give up the Sunday football game for God?  Will you give up your lucrative job and security for God?  Will you give up your life for God?  Jesus makes it very clear that God and what God has for our lives must come first, before comfort, before security, and even before family.  God (read here; the study of spirituality and the growth of the inner self) must be put first in our lives, above all other considerations, and unless we can do this, we cannot call ourselves Christians.  Jesus chose the path that led him to the cross. Whether you believe that he was a super natural entity that came to redeem mankind from sin, or if you believe he was a wise teacher looking to change the status quo of religion in his day, either way, he stayed the path, even when it led to his family calling him a nut, even when it led to being run out of town, and even when it led to torture and death.  This is the sort of focus that we are expected to live up too, and it is the very first step in truly grasping and understanding your own spirituality, God must come first.
2.           Take care of the name of God – “God” isn't God’s name…it is a place holder for a concept.  God’s name is what power we give that concept.  When the Judaic law states “Do not take the name of the Lord in vain” it simply means that we should not assume we know or understand God enough to make claims in His name.  As humans our knowledge of God is minuscule at best and often flawed by perspective and selfish desire, so it is foolish for us to use the name of God to validate any particular task or ideology.  The name of God has become so scarred and mangled in our day that people scoff at the idea and laugh at the thought of a super natural creator.  God’s name has been scarred with war, murder, deceit, fear and hate and it is because the idea of God has been used to give authority to one leader or another’s want for power.  The reason that in Judaism there are so many names of God is that each name describes only a singular experience with God, as lord, as comforter, as teacher or unknowable mystery, and it is this sort of naming that helps us to embrace and appreciate the mystery without abusing the name.  God is not a republican, a liberal, a fundamentalist, a Baptist, white, black, or sublime energy.  God encompasses all that is our universe and more, and any attempt to boil God down to some ideological concept only serves to scar the name even more. It is enough that you name and see God in your own experience and expect that others will name and see God differently.
3.           Quit expecting an easy life – Jesus never alludes to the idea that once we choose to follow His lead that our lives will somehow gloriously change and become comfortable and easy.  In fact Jesus proclaims the exact opposite.  Living a spiritual life is hard, uncomfortable and often filled with pain, trial and grief.  It is a life of learning, breaking down and more learning.  We cannot be grown as spiritual beings without pain and suffering and it is these very things that many of us want religion to save us from.  Spirituality is something you practice and live every day, whether good or bad, rain or shine, and it is a constant inward journey to see what exactly we are made of, and growing that stuff into a strong and useful tool for God’s activity in our lives.  The rough spots in your life require rejoicing, because it is these very tough times that grow you and make you into the person you are or will be.  The mistakes you make, the horrible things you have done, or thought about, the shameful dreams and fantasies, and all the junk you hide underneath…all of that is manure for the garden.  Those things don’t damn you, or destroy you unless you allow them to do so.  Pain and sin are necessary parts of our growth and it is through the negative effects of these actions that we understand consequence.  God wants the best for us, but that best requires that we be put to the test over and over again, to become more honed, more useful and more capable of understanding our connection with God and God’s plan for our lives.  When Jesus makes the proclamations “no man comes unto the Father except through me.” The true translation of that statement should sound more like; “No one will understand God’s plan for them unless they walk the same road I have walked.”  And that road is one of trial, sacrifice, pain and grief, but it is the only way that we truly can follow Jesus.
4.            See through the illusion – The world around you is a lie.  Your five senses tell you that it is real, you can see it, hear it, feel it, but as much as it seems real, it is not.  Jesus makes this clear by His life and the way He chose to live it.  Everything you have been told that has value, these things are only distractions, things to take your mind off of the task of following what God has for your life.  Jesus says it over and over again to a variety of souls, “Let go of your distractions and follow me.”  But as people living in a consumer society it seems impossible.  How do we let go of jobs, money, security, family, status, and other such “necessities”?  It’s not really an issue of letting them go as much as it is an issue of giving them over to God, to allow your inner journey towards spiritual truth to guide you in how much these things have a hold on your life.  If you have problems with money…give it away, and you will find that your problems will become less.  If your problem is with anger, then quit defending yourself, and let others get the better of you, and your anger will no longer be a problem.  If you fear a lack of security, then put yourself out in the open, and your need for security will diminish.  I know, sounds crazy, but it’s exactly what Jesus prescribes for us, if someone steals your shirt, give them your coat as well, and if someone punches you in the face, let them hit you in the gut as well.  The way we see the world is illusion, and it is a diabolical lie, one that is so ingrained in us that we barely can believe that there is any other way of life, but there is and Jesus and others like him have showed us that we can, and must live that lifestyle if we want to see change in the world.
5.           Love like you have never loved before – All of the above concepts add up to our final idea, that we must learn to love, not the “mamby pamby” love we think of when that word pops up, but a truly unconditional love based on grace, mercy and faith.   Jesus showed the greatest form of love that man can show, he sacrificed his entire life to better the people around himself.  It is not even the aspect of Jesus’ death that is so great, as the fact that he truly lived his life for others.  Rationally it’s easy to die for someone, you only have to do that once, but it’s much harder to live daily for others, to truly put the betterment of other people before your own.  Jesus makes this clear when he ends up talking with and ministering to people who were seen as outcasts or even less than human.  His constant work with prostitutes, murderers, adulterers, Samaritans, Greeks, and other pagans, shows that He had little or no consideration for where someone was from or what it was that they exactly believed or had done in their lives.  God’s grace was for all, mercy to all people, and true grace and love cannot be earned, they are freely given, without contract, without strings, and without payment.  As Christians it is this sort of love that we should be living, and expressing to others.  Judgment is the love killer, the grace hater, and it is judgment that scars and defiles the name of God.  We must become a people without judgment, a people so full of grace and mercy that we can love the murderer, love the thief, and love the most broken and damaged people we come across.  The love of God is for all people, in all walks of life, no matter their sins, proclamations, or ideologies.  God’s love is for every person, or it is for none, and as followers of Jesus we must live up to this concept if we want to truly say that Jesus is our mentor. 
           The evolution of the church into the future is that we who choose to follow Jesus actually start doing just that, instead of paying lip service to a religious establishment of deceit and fear.  It’s no great wonder the church has sunk to its current level of self-involvement, radical judgment and fundamental clap trap.  The obvious destructive trend of the modern church can be halted, but only when we, the multitude of worshipers see the power that we hold.  The church in its original form was simply believers gathered together to learn about and follow the teachings of Jesus, and it’s time we take that simple plan and put it back into action.  Stand up, get involved, and make enough noise that those around you will begin to see the necessary changes needed.  Take an opportunity to become a leader in your own right, and don’t allow the status quo, or the elite authorities to prey on truly vulnerable church folks.  There is no better person, and no better time than right now, if even a small portion of us will take a stand, the system will change, and the true message of Jesus can actually begin to take hold of our minds, our hearts and our lives.

    Chapter 11 – A final note

           I am continually astounded by the capacity of people to simply accept authority just because someone says that this or that is authoritative. Obviously some authority is necessary to maintain the peace, and support civilized living, but we seem to live in a system inundated with various and sundry minor authorities on everything from what to eat to what to believe. I think this has happened because of an increased laziness among the people, and a form of idiocy that has become rampant ever since the induction of public schooling. Since the very beginning of my familiarity with religion in college I have heard time and again the “four pillars” of authority quoted over and over.  These pillars are based on four concepts that we seem to require to validate our religious and spiritual life.  The pillars were quoted to me as such; Tradition, Scripture, Reason and Experience.  Each of these concepts lays a foundation for the entire construct of our belief system and is given immense power to sway our active belief system in one direction or another.  I have found in my own experience that these pillars are woefully misused and some are given more power than others, which in the greatest effect leads to an unbalanced view of our spiritual growth.  
           Let’s take for example the pillar of tradition.  Tradition is based on the idea that our forerunners have somehow filtered down the basic concepts of spirituality to such a condensed and useful form that we must adhere blindly to their previous choices of action to preserve the “purity” of our belief.  This is a crock of dung in its smelliest form.  I hear often of how some church or another wants to get back to the “first century” tradition, or revitalize their practice of dogma based on some ancient methodology that created a “golden age” in their religion.  If I read my history right then this concept is ridiculous at best, as historically speaking each and every stage of growth that the church and religion has gone through has been strongly affected by the current cultural and political state.  This is to say that no change in the church has happened without outside influence and that any attempt to “return” the church to some previous “beatific” state is unreasonable at best, since we are attempting to create a static state for the church within an active environment that will and must influence our systems of understanding.  All of this to say, that we must allow for growth and change within the church and within individual people and not try to force our dogma or our congregations to exist within some time warp of behavior and belief.  Tradition is useful as a guideline to how we can better understand our forward motion but it should never be used as a blueprint for our direction.           Second, we must look at the pillar of “scripture” as this is probably the most over powered and misused of the concepts.  Scripture in and of itself is a beautiful and useful tool for the believer to use, but it requires some training to properly understand and employ.  As we have discussed earlier the bible can and has been used to uphold some very dangerous and horrific actions that are by no means Christian or spiritual.  The bible as we know it has been translated through at least five different languages and by many different hands each guided by cultural and political concepts held during the time of said translation.  This causes much confusion as to what the actual translation of any particular verse is or should be.  The only way to deal with this concept properly is to train each reader to understand the bible in multiple ways.  We must consider language, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, are the original languages and we must become at least somewhat familiar with them and how they work so that we can better understand the text in its near original form.  Secondarily we must be able to understand the bible as a metaphorical and symbolic set of stories that can in no way be taken in a literal sense, that the bible is not “infallible, or inerrant” because if this is so then the bible becomes our god, and we lose the ability to properly understand it and use its wisdom.  The training of our congregants is of paramount importance; each and every believer should become familiar with biblical interpretation methods, and be made aware of concepts such as symbolism and metaphor, so that each believer can have a personal experience with this wonderful text.   
            The third pillar, Reason, is the one I have most been discussing in this text and it is one of the least used of the pillars. This has created an imbalance towards tradition and scripture, (as obviously these are what we can see and perceive in a much more tangible way), but it is reason that can truly give us a better understanding of God and our spiritual path.  We must learn to look at God and at spirituality with a reasonable and thoughtful aspect.  Years of being spoon-fed scripture and tradition have weakened our abilities to think and reason about our spiritual experiences.  Reason has often been seen as the enemy of religious fervor, and that concept is exactly true.  Our fervor leads us to dangerous acts of prejudice and fundamental extremism that is tearing Christianity and many other spiritual schools apart.  Our congregants must be taught to use their reason and listen for what makes sense about God and what is obviously human fear and deceit getting in our way.  This will protect us from making horrible mistakes like the crusades, and witch trials again, and help us to spread the true, graceful and loving words of Jesus of Nazareth.  
            Finally we come to the concept of experience, because this particular pillar is truly the most maligned and weakened.  Our personal experience of God in our lives is the most important contact we have with our spiritual path.  We have not been trained or even encouraged to perceive our own connection with God, because it takes away the power of the priest, the power of the authority and puts that power in the hand of the congregant.  Jesus spread the message that each and every person is connected to God, and that each person can access that connection, without the help of a priest, a temple, a book, or any other mediator.  It is this concept that the current church fears the most because it leaves the authorities powerless to effect the congregants’ behavior and understanding.  Our congregants must be encouraged, to use all four pillars, to grow themselves and become personally responsible for their own beliefs and actions.  We are given authority by Jesus to teach these things, and to bring others into this teaching.  Each and every person is ultimately responsible for his or her own spiritual growth and connection to God, and this gives the individual power to listen, to grow and to be guided in his or her particular purpose by God.  
              The current generations that live on this planet have already been fouled by the current system of control and deceit, but our children can be taught more readily to embrace these concepts of self-responsibility and carry them forward into successive generations.  It is our responsibility as congregants and church leaders to begin teaching our children about a God who loves them, who loves all people, who sees no race, no creed, no sin as some reason to separate and persecute mankind.  If our children could grasp such a God, and we could teach them how to reason, how to experience and thus better understand tradition and scripture, our world would change for the better, and the true message and love of Jesus of Nazareth and the God he follows would finally ring true in the hearts and minds of humankind.  The final analysis of all of this is that we must begin anew, to try and understand where we have gone wrong as believers, and how we can re-educate ourselves and future generations to put our feet on a new path to peace, forgiveness, unity and love.  This will take time, and much effort to accomplish.  Our current generations are too deeply affected by these damaged teachings to make for a quick change, but if we begin now in teaching these concepts of reason, questioning, open discussion, and de-centralizing the authority of the church, we can begin to make steps towards that change.  In a generation or two our children may be ready to make large steps towards creating a world that is similar to the one Jesus of Nazareth envisioned.  The effort comes in this generation though, an effort that will cause much discomfort for those involved.  If you take what I have written to heart, and begin to practice such concepts, do not be surprised when you find yourself ostracized, oppressed or even openly hated.  The system will not fall easily, and it will be to each of us to stand our ground, to make many false starts and to feel the sting of the great beast long before it begins to weaken.  So we are left with a final question: who will it be?  Will you be the one to stand, to forward the cause of love, reason, peace and truth? If not you, then who?  

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