Category Archives: creation

An Audio Intro to Isaiah

False Self?

I don’t care for the term “false self” – it sounds like something we need to get rid of. We all necessarily grow up with images of who we are. Those images are shaped first and foremost by the adults who cared for us as small children. They continue to be further shaped by culture, peers, extended family, teachers, coaches, and so on. These personas aren’t “false,” but they are closer to the surface than the true inner core of belovedness. The define us, but not completely. 

All of us have these personas. We define ourselves by gender, ethnicity, skills, careers, education, physical abilities, as belonging to a certain neighborhood or tribe. We are part of a story, shaped by our ancestors and our cultures, as well as by our genes.

There’s nothing wrong with that. My friend rightly sees himself as a Native American member of the Haudenosaunee nation with a deep love for nature and athletic prowess. That’s important. 

On the other hand, many of us grow up with personas that mask our true selves. We see ourselves as losers, failures, unlovable, fearful, timid, not good enough, super-saints, superior to others, alone, unlovable, lost, envious. Those personas need to be jettisoned. 

Deny yourself – I think Jesus means the egocentric self, those harmful personas, the superficial images we try so hard to maintain so others will accept us and so we can feel good about ourselves. 

The denial of the superficial or unhealthy personas feels like a pouring out. At first, the pouring out feels like loss, a death, a loss of identity, but it actually makes space to embrace the true self, which is who I am as defined by God. Whereas the false self is who I am as defined by others (especially parents, siblings, teachers, mentors, and peers) and myself, the true self is who I am in the innermost core of my being, engulfed and embraced by God. Following Jesus is the embracing of Truth, which leads to spiritual freedom. 

Through prayer, contemplation, meditative scripture reading, silence, solitude, long walks in nature, deep breathing, stillness, service to the poor, and through spiritual direction with a true elder, who we are truly created to be begins to open up, the positive personas are refined, and the harmful personas begin to fade away.

https://www.theunstuckspirit.com

True Self

We are created in God’s image. But what does that mean? Some have argued that to be created in God’s image means we reflect something of God’s nature, like the ability to reason, the ability to develop culture or language, to create art and music, observe ourselves, or critically deduce conclusions. 

The problem with all those definitions is that they don’t apply to every person. The brain damaged person lies vegetative in a body that is breathing and with a heart that beats, but who is unable to reason, communicate, create, or observe. Is that person no longer in God’s image? If they were born brain damaged, were they never really human beings? Have they no dignity? Moreover, animals and trees communicate, apes display selflessness, and puppies are full of love.

Rather than define the imago Dei with attributes that some humans have and others do not, I prefer to define it as simply the ability to be loved by God. God loves all of creation – sea cucumbers, turtles, and willow trees. Perhaps I’m a speciesist, but it appears to me that God has a special love for humans. I say that because God became a human being, rather than a goldfish. Nevertheless, God cares deeply about goldfish and sparrows and mushrooms. It’s all good. It’s all beautiful.

God is love – perfect self-sacrificial cruciform love. God lavishes that perfect love unconditionally on everyone. Every part of creation reflects God’s love. 

Our true selves are who we are according to God. For all of us, that begins with Beloved. Every human being is beloved of God, deeply and unconditionally. Many of us affirm that truth but have a very hard time truly believing it. Voices within tell us we are only loved if we do good stuff, or reach some level of perfection. We’re reminded of our failings, faults, sins, of those we’ve hurt, of the times when we’ve been selfish and mean. At some level, we doubt we are lovable.

Your true self, the innermost you that God unconditionally loves and cherishes regardless of what you do or accomplish, is Beloved. In my experience, it takes years of contemplation, Lectio Divina, biblical meditation, prayer, silence, service to those Jesus called the least of his siblings (Matthew 25), and spiritual companionship with wise elders in the faith to begin to really believe that I am God’s beloved. 

My goal as a spiritual director and counselor is to deeply listen, pray for, unconditionally love, and walk with people as they slowly discover their belovedness. We’re all created in the image of God and beloved by God. 

Each of us is also an individual. Each of us is unique. It is that unique part that we’re referring to when we speak of finding your true path, growing into who you were meant to be. 

Finding your true path involves discovering the unique ways God created you, the unique gifts God has given you, and the unique bit of kingdom work God designed you for. That also takes a lot of prayer, contemplation, and guidance. And, it changes. Different seasons of your life open up different roles. It’s about the journey.

https://www.theunstuckspirit.com

What is life?

What is life? The typical biological definition includes the ability to reproduce. We think of plants and animals. Yet stars also reproduce. They live and die, and when some of them die, they scatter the elements necessary for carbon-based life. We are literally made of stars. 

Our indigenous friends and ancestors were on to something. In some sense, the ocean is alive and breathing. Trees communicate via underground mycorrhizal networks. In some Aboriginal languages there are far more verbs than nouns because many of the things post-Enlightenment westerners consider to be inanimate objects (like the wind, forests, and streams) they think of as living. There is a sense in which the Spirit of the Creator pervades everything in the natural universe. That is not pantheism. Pantheism says that nature is God. God is in creation and also above, over, beyond creation. God is both in and outside space-time.

What is creation? All that there is. This universe. Multiverses if that’s the case. All of nature. And, the heavenly realm as well. God is there in it all. There is nowhere where God is not. God is omnipresent. If I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the earth, or dig down into hades, or rise up into the heavens, God is there. There is nowhere to escape God. 

That is bad news for the person who is greedily destroying the earth, oppressing fellow humans, spreading deadly conspiracies, or promoting white supremacy or religious nationalism. 

It’s wonderful news for those who care for creation, care for the sick, homeless, displaced, poor, and incarcerated. If the Creator is reflected in all of creation, I am obligated to care for creation. All of it. 

Life is the breath of God. 

What does it mean to be human?

What sets us apart from lichen, aspen groves, dolphins, and chimpanzees? In the past, we have tended to define humanness with attributes such as speech, the ability for altruistic action, or empathy. We said that humans are the only creatures who can reason, who can observe themselves. One by one, what we thought were distinctions disappear. Trees communicate with one another. Chimpanzees display unselfish behaviors. Many of us are convinced that our pets love us. How do we know other species can’t observe and reason? 

And yet, it also seems self-evident that humans are different. Humans discover the quantum universe and build computers and robots, send telescopes into space, and work for justice. We are also responsible for massive environmental destruction, create weapons that threaten to exterminate the planet, and are capable of cruelty unmatched in the animal kingdom. Is our uniqueness to be found simply in the size of our brains? Are we headed for planet of the apes? 

The biblical response is that we humans are created in God’ image. The imago Dei. But, what does that mean? It’s not that we physically resemble God, for God is Spirit. It’s not that we can reason like God, for God’s ways are high above ours. 

Genesis is a temple story. In the ancient Neareast, virtually every society had a creation story. Those stories all had things in common. In them, the gods created humans to be their slaves. If humans are good slaves, the gods protect them – they are victorious in war; their crops flourish. If they are unfaithful slaves, the gods punish them with plagues, disaster, and defeat. 

The job of the human slaves is to build houses for the gods, feed the gods, and in deference tell the gods how wonderful they are. So, humans build temples – vacation homes for the gods. They build ziggurats, staircases so the gods can come down into their temples. In each temple, the human slaves place an image of the god. At the temple’s dedication, the high priest of that particular god breathes into the statue and everyone now believes that the spirit of the god is in it. From then on, the human slaves dutifully offer animal and vegetable sacrifices to feed the gods, and they worship in rituals to keep the gods happy so the harvest will be a good one and enemies will be defeated.

Genesis uses that common story and turns it on its head. In Genesis, there is only one God. His name is YHWH. God created God’s own temple. It’s not a building made by human hands. The entire cosmos is God’s temple. Then, God placed his own image in his temple – humans, male and female. Unlike the pagan temples made of stone, God’s temple is living – oceans teeming with marine life, mountains draped in snow, forests filled with creatures, stars living and dying, exploding and scattering the building blocks of life as we know it. The humans God created are not slaves; they are God’s beloved children. Their task is to care for the living temple, to take care of nature.

We humans are special objects of God’s love. We are God’s beloved children. God loves all of nature. God loves Perrigin falcons and opossums, cutworms and puppies. But humans are special objects of divine love, created with the capacity to love and be loved, charged with the care of all the rest of the planet, given the awesome responsibility of stewardship. Those who pollute, kill, coerce, and hate are not reflecting the imago Dei. Those who wash feet are.

Everything in the Universe Changed. Audio on Mark 15:38-47

Gently Drawn By Love

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24 NRSVUE)

I hear the gentleness of the call. “If you wish to follow me…” No pressure. No coercion. No psychological or emotional manipulation. The call to spiritual formation, to discipleship, to true worship (which is simply doing what Jesus said to do, as unpopular as that may be) is given in freedom.

Deny yourself – I think Jesus means the false, egocentric self, the false personas, the superficial images we try so hard to maintain so others will accept us and so we can feel good about ourselves. Deny, set aside, the ego-driven self that cares about success, achievement, reputation, legacy, and honor.

Denying ourselves feels like a pouring out. At first, the pouring out feels like loss, a death, a loss of identity, but it actually makes space for to embrace the true self, which is who I am as defined by God. 

The true self is soul-drawn. It is not driven. It is beckoned by grace. It is invited into wholeness by Love. It is free. It cares nothing for accomplishments or prestige. Drawn by divine love, it loves to serve, to take up the banner of justice, to be identified with the weak, rejected people on the margins. It cannot be offended because it has no ego to offend. It joyfully takes up the way of the cross, the way of cruciform self-sacrificial love. 

The Most Important Prayer in the Old Testament

Shema Yisrael is the most important and central prayer in the Hebrew Bible.

·      Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 

·      (Or, The Lord our God is one Lord; or, The Lord our God, the Lord is one; or, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one)

·      Hebrew: YHWH ‘elohenu YHWH ekhad

·      English: Lord our God, Lord one.

There is no verb “is” in the original. It must be supplied by the context.

Deuteronomy 6:5: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Leviticus 19:18b: you shall love your neighbor as yourself

Which commandment is the most important, the one that ties together all others?

Mark 12:29-31: Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love YHWH our God with all your:

·      Heart = kardia = center of being, that which controls everything, the drive behind all thoughts, feelings, and actions

·      Soul = psyche = breath, life-force

·      Mind = dianoias = thinking, reasoning, logic

·      Strength = ischuos = anything that gives us agency, free-will, power, choice, such as physical ability, talent, position, privilege, reputation

In other words, love in four directions:

1.     Love the God of Israel with your whole being

2.     Love others, all others

3.     Love yourself

4.     And, from Genesis 1, Love creation

Love is cruciform, self-sacrificial, altruistic. It involves loyalty, justice, doing what is right and best for others. It looks like Jesus on the cross forgiving his enemies as they were torturing him to death. 

I came across a sermon recently in which the preacher was giving examples of loving. Among them, mow your lawn, go to church, be on a church committee, use whatever skills you have in a church.

That kind of preaching makes me want to scream. There were no church buildings for the first 300 years of church history. Christians loved God and others by taking in orphans, tending to the sick, visiting and advocating for the incarcerated, refusing military service, eschewing weaponry and violence, and forgiving their enemies. 

As a result of their cruciform love, multitudes were attracted to Jesus, and through Jesus they came to know and love YHWH, the God of Israel. They loved God with all their beings. They loved others – all others, no exceptions – with self-sacrificial love. They loved themselves, not egotistically, but by recognizing their belovedness to God. They loved creation by caring for natural world.

There are a lot of such folks around today. You can find them in hospitals, nursing homes, hospice in-patient units, prisons, among the homeless, in soup kitchens, shelters, mental health agencies, visiting the sick, frail, elderly, and broken. You can find them standing firmly against racism, antisemitism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny. You find them adopting babies, welcoming immigrants into their homes, and disobeying unjust laws. 

You’ll find them caring for the environment, never exploiting it.

These people come from all backgrounds, are of all nationalities, and speak every language. They identify as citizens of the Kingdom of God, not any particular earthly nation or kingdom. They are pro-life, opposing war and capital punishment. They fight poverty, disease, and addiction. They see every person as created in God’s image and deeply loved by God.

There’s a lot of good in church history. Christians invented hospitals, science, charity, hospice programs, care for widows, orphans, poor, the marginalized and displaced, etc.

There’s a lot of bad in church history (empire-embracing nationalism, violence, wars, crusades, inquisitions, support for despots, greed, etc.)

I choose to identify with those, then and now, whose lives reflect the self-sacrificial, cruciform love of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, ethnicity, culture, gender, nationality, or sexual orientation.

Historically, they were the Christians persecuted by other “Christians.”

The Day That Changed Everything in the Entire Cosmos. An audio teaching on Mark 15:1-37

a film review

A Film Called First Reformed

My son turned me on to a deep movie. All really good art lends itself to a variety of interpretations. The film First Reformed is one such work of art. 

Trigger alert: It is dark, at times surreal, and contains a graphic suicide scene. It’s also brilliant.

The Plot: 

First Reformed is a 2017 American drama film written and directed by Paul Schrader staring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles. 

It’s the story of a divorced, bereaved, isolated, 46-year-old pastor of an historic colonial era Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York.  The church building is well-preserved, but has become not much more than a museum.  The pastor, a former military chaplain who talked his son into joining the army only to learn he was killed in action a few months later, is struggling with probable gastrointestinal cancer and self-medicating his pain with alcohol. 

The surrounding countryside is stark, cold, and bleak. Old gravestones, barren trees, dirty cars, empty spaces. The soundtrack is often more the moan of a dying creation than lyrical. Traditional hymns about the comfort and transformative power of Christ are interspersed.

First Reformed church is supported by a megachurch called Abundant Life that is itself buoyed by the large donations of an industrialist who denies climate change and pollutes the environment. Abundant Life never challenges the sins of its financiers. 

Mary, one of only a handful of congregants at First Reformed, is pregnant and married to an environmental activist who is filled with existential angst over humanity’s destruction of the planet. A central theme: “Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” In despair, Mary’s husband commits suicide in spite of the pastor’s counsel. 

Later, she and the pastor share an out-of-body experience in which they see the beauty of creation and what humans have done to it. It is beautiful and surreal, transcending space-time. 

The combination of his struggle with the relevance of his faith in the light of human greed, his physical sickness, the loss of his son and then his marriage, leads the pastor to the brink of destroying himself and the church at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration, which is attended by the industrialist, the governor, and the megachurch pastor, among many others. Seeing Mary entering the building, he quickly decides against mass destruction and opts for intense self-flagellation. Mary enters, they kiss passionately, and the screen goes black.

Some Thoughts: 

The lead pastor of the megachurch is a good man. He wants his church to do good things to help people. But, to keep it solvent, he compromises truth so as not to offend his biggest donor.

Abundant Life is huge and modern, but in the film, is never abundant. Its choir has four members; its youth group has maybe a dozen. When we see it, it is always mostly empty, just like its theology.

Mary’s husband is kind, caring, and brilliant. Everything he researches and reports is well substantiated. He sees no hope for humanity, no hope for the planet. 

The protagonist is struggling with existential anguish. He is grieving the loss of his marriage, feels guilty over the death of his son, is sick with probable cancer, and is alone. He hates being nothing more than a docent, and longs to be relevant in the world. He reads Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton, and keeps a journal. The parsonage in which he lives is almost void of furniture. It is dark and empty, like him.

Mary is pregnant, like the Mary in the nativity stories. She alone has hope. She agrees with her husband’s conclusions, but still wants to bring her baby boy into the world. Like the Virgin Mary, she brings light into darkness, hope into despair. At the very end of the film, her love saves and redeems the pastor.

So many lessons:

  • Speak truth to power. Ignore the budget.
  • Stand for justice. 
  • Steward God’s creation.
  • Eschew violence. In the end, it accomplishes nothing.
  • Let yourself love and be loved.
  • Love is redemptive.
  • Love brings hope.
  • Love conquers despair.
  • The industrialist lost his way through greed.
  • The megachurch pastor lost his way through success.
  • Mary’s husband lost his way by abandoning hope.
  • The pastor of First Reformed lost his way through grief.
  • Mother Mary never lost her way.
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