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Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 9: Non-Violence is Non-Negotiable

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39

throwing a punchI do not know how I missed it, but Jesus modeled unwavering non-violence. That would not be an issue for me, except that Jesus’ most frequently repeated directive was “Follow me.” Based on Christian teachings, as recorded in the Gospels, if we are to be followers of Christ, non-violence is non-negotiable. I cannot imagine any way that we can justify violence of any sort as being consistent with Jesus’ teaching.

We were born into violent times, however, so what are we to do, turn the other cheek? Apparently so. What about wars?  What about those in our military, charged to protect our national interests in sometimes-violent ways? Let me assert that I do not condemn those serving in our military, past or present. These faithful and brave servants do what is necessary for the rest of us to live as we do, and God bless them for it. Even so, how do we reconcile any sort of violence with the Christian teaching of non-violence? I think the key lies within us, as individuals, in our personal lives. Soldiers do not create the conditions that lead to violence; leaders do that. And we elect those leaders. Ultimately, the responsibility is yours and mine, and in more ways than one.

Violence is a daily occurrence on our streets, in our workplaces, and in our homes. I am told that a shared characteristic of essentially every violent person is a violent upbringing. Typically, a violent or absent father (who himself likely experienced a violent childhood) demonstrated that violence is how one gets what one wants. If things are not going as one wishes, a few loud, nasty words, a punch, or a weapon may help bring the desired outcome. Road rage, bullying, name-calling, and gossip are all current examples of violence. We justify them as not really hurting anyone, but is that true? At the very least, our violent reactions – even if they are not physically violent – contribute to the violent environment of our world.

Violence begins at home. If we are to manifest a non-violent world, it must begin with us. Widespread non-violence will not happen in my lifetime, and probably not in my children’s lifetimes, either. But it can and must begin with me – and you. When I feel my anger or frustration beginning to build, I need to examine my choices prior to reacting. What is the most appropriate response that does not do or perpetuate violence? How can I serve to end what is likely the latest in a long string of violent acts, possibly dating back many generations? In what ways can I commit to physical, emotional, and intellectual non-violence in my own part of the world? Within my heart is where non-violence incubates.

Non-violence is non-negotiable. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 8: The Bible is My Story

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

The Bible is difficult for me to read. It is hard to relate to, and harder yet to apply to my life. I am troubled by the violence that is sought and celebrated in the Old Testament, not to mention the apparent support for slavery, the lack of standing for women and children, and the over-the-top laws governing human behavior. Even the New Testament seems dated. I find myself justifying my casual attitude by saying it was written for another time, and times have changed. I now believe the problem is not the Bible, however; the problem is that I have not recognized myself in its pages. I have always read it as someone else’s story.

The first decades of my life were spent building my identity – who I am, what I do, my place in the world. It has been about me, me, and me. This is a common and necessary focus for most of us early in our lives. I shared the life of Greg with others, of course – my wife and children, co-workers, and friends, but it was still my kingdom I was building, my nation, if you will. I dedicated significant energies to winning, even with the awareness that for me to win, others would lose. I believe the Old Testament can be read as the metaphorical story of the first half of our lives. The focus is on nation-building. It is full of win-lose scenarios. A nation is either the conqueror or the conquered, the persecutor or the persecuted, the slaveholder or the slave. I am not proud to confess that has been my story, too, constantly seeking to triumph over others. The Old Testament is my story whether I claim it or not. The Old Testament is also the story of our world today, as is illustrated daily at sporting events, in board rooms, elections, international relations, and on our streets.

The Christian Bible, however, moves to a new covenant, an invitation to abandon nation-building, past win-lose situations, and on to something greater than the individual. It invites me into us. The New Testament is about community and what we can accomplish together. It invites us to look to the good of the group – the family, the community, and the world, and to trust that as the group prospers, so will each member. It encourages us to join a larger body which the apostle Paul calls the Body of Christ. We are each gifted in different ways to serve as various parts of the body, and when we all do our part, the entire body prospers. We need to be careful, however, how we limit our definition of the collective body or we fall back into our Old Testament ways. For the promise of the New Testament to manifest, the body must be all-inclusive or it will be incomplete and vulnerable. As soon as we begin excluding other groups, we tear away parts of the body. It does not matter if they are LGBTQ, Muslim, communist, or left-handed, inclusion is necessary. Some behavioral accommodation will be required on all sides, but not excommunication. Whenever we wonder if someone is worthy of inclusion, we can ask, “Who would Jesus exclude?”

In the second half of my life, I find I am not so much interested in the nation of Greg as I am the Body of Christ. The nation of Greg will fall, as do all nations, and another nation will consume it for its own narcissistic purposes, unless the nation of Greg surrenders and devotes its resources to building the Body, as described in the New Testament. We can and must do better. One place to begin is to accept the Bible as our story.

The Bible is my story. It is your story, too. How did I miss that?

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 7: Resurrection is a Reoccurring Reality

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. John 12:24

wheatI do not know how I missed it, but resurrection is all around us, all of the time. To be sure, it is called by different names – the changing seasons, graduations, marriages, childbirth, death, sunrise, sunset – but the changing from one stage of life to another is constant. The cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth is forever present in us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

As a Christian, I associate resurrection with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What I missed, however, was that the same pattern is repeated in all of life as a natural, ongoing process, albeit not always in as dramatic a fashion. The resurrection of Jesus is the core belief of Christianity, and the resurrection – having its central figure return to life from death – is the distinguishing feature separating it from other enduring religions.

Among Christians, we debate about how much of the biblical record we believe literally, but we tend to overlook how much of the lives recorded therein serve as a metaphor for our lives and the life around us. Science confirms that rebirth is an ongoing process. Every cell in our bodies is replaced at least every 7 years, so we are entirely remade many times over the course of our lives. Jesus talks about wheat in the passage from John 12. He says unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and “dies,” it will forever remain only a single grain of wheat. Once the seed dies, however, it grows into a plant that forms a seed head with hundreds of grains of wheat. When those grains fall to the earth and die, thousands of grains of wheat result. Knowing that, did the initial grain of wheat die, or did it transform its existence? Clearly, it was transformed, and so are we whenever a part of us dies. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was not the same person in the same body. He was transformed. Even his own disciples did not recognize him until he spoke.

The moral of resurrection is that change is good and necessary. New life cannot begin until an old life passes away. This is rebirth, and death is its prerequisite. It is what provides second chances and new starts. Much as we may feel safe and secure in our current life, nothing remains the same for long. We are designed for change, and we are led into numerous transformations over the course of a lifetime. We can change willingly, or we can go kicking and screaming. Either way, we will die to our old self and be reborn to a new one.

Resurrection is a reoccurring reality. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 6: Judgment is Self-Incriminating

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Matthew 7:1-5

finger pointing.pngI remember being taught that whenever I point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at me. It was a lesson in judgment – as in, be careful when tempted to criticize others. Most of us are at least partially blind to our own shortcomings. The very traits we loath in others are frequently the traits we dislike in ourselves. Author William Wharton writes: “What we all tend to complain about most in other people are those things we don’t like about ourselves.”

I am ashamed to confess how judgmental I can be. I not only judge the words and actions of others, I judge their motives. There is no way for me to know the motivations of another. As individuals and as a society, we gossip ruthlessly, we bully, and we discriminate. Rendering harsh judgments has become such a common and accepted practice we hardly realize we are doing it. When we judge behind another’s back, we do it not so much to tear others down as to build ourselves up. How did we become so insecure as to desire to build our self-esteem by tearing others down?

The tendency to judge others is not new. Two thousand years ago, Jesus spoke harshly about casting judgment, telling us to attend to the “log” in our own eye before worrying about the “speck” in the eye of another. We will be judged by the same measure we use to judge others. He called us “hypocrites.” None of us is perfect or righteous enough to stand in judgment of another – especially when that criticism is unfair and unfounded.

This is why I grow so weary of political campaigns – candidates consistently try to build themselves up by pronouncing judgments of unworthiness upon their opponents. The fact that I am so bothered by this, unfortunately, is probably an indication that I tend to do the same thing. Ugh. Perhaps it is like a collective balloon being squeezed at one end, causing the other end to expand. Whenever I deny or repress undesirable parts of myself, those thoughts or actions enter my awareness through others.

One of the clearest commands of Jesus was to love each other. Mother Teresa (of Calcutta) said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” This may capture the core evil of judgment – that we cannot love and judge at the same time. Perhaps, instead of criticizing another, we should be looking within for something we can improve in ourselves. In the words of Fr. Richard Rohr, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

Judgement is self-incriminating. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 5: Sin is Separation

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:1-2

At an early age, I learned I was a sinner. I believed my thoughts and actions were unacceptable to God, and the only thing I could do about it was try to hide my awful nature. I pretended to be a “good, little boy” to friends and relatives, and especially to people at church, so they would consider me one of them – the “good” and the “chosen” – instead of the wretched misfit I thought myself to be. I am not certain how I came to believe I was such a terrible person – I suspect it was at church. I do not recall my parents instilling an aberrant self-belief, but sin was a weekly topic in the church where I grew up. That God knew my every thought and watched my every action convinced me I would undoubtedly spend eternity in hell. As an adult, I accepted I was not worse than other folks I knew, so if I were condemned to hell, I would be in good company. I realized that everyone sins, and sin is a common and shared characteristic, more than something I alone struggled with.

Today, however, I view sin differently. I read once that sin is separation, and that concept opened up an entirely new understanding of sin for me: Sin is what sets us apart – apart from God and apart from each other. When I sin against you, I do something that divides us, something that harms our relationship. In order to restore our relationship, I must confess my sin (admit I did wrong), repent (meaning “turn around” or change or apologize), and seek your forgiveness (ask you to reengage our relationship). That sounds like a pretty natural and common progression in any relationship worth maintaining.

Traditionally, we track the “original” sin to the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve defying God’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their “punishment” was expulsion from the Garden, where they had enjoyed a direct, unfettered relationship with God. In other words, they separated from God. I now believe the original sin was not the eating of the fruit, but the leaving of the Garden itself – their willful separation from God. The very act of a soul taking on flesh and blood and becoming human is an act of separation – a sinful act, if you will – because as humans we enter a reality that appears individualistic and separate. From our human vantage point, we cannot see God, and we cannot see our interconnectedness with each other. We believe ourselves to be separate, independent entities, and that separation is the illusion at the root of most of our problems.

At times, we Christians are quick to point out the sins of others and equally remiss in pointing out the divine grace and forgiveness that is as close as their next breath. In the very act of judging another, we commit sin by driving a wedge between another and ourselves.Sin – creating division with others – is its own punishment. God need not punish us further. In fact, God reaches out to rejoin with us. When I was a child, I had a miserable self-image because I did not feel worthy to be in close relationship with others. Yet, close relationship is what we were created for, and is the reality behind the illusion. Without it, we are miserable.

Sin is separation. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 4: Our Possessions Possess Us

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  

Matthew 6:19-21

Front yardMy wife and I are blessed to live in a large house on 5 acres of land. It is located in the rolling hills south of Lawrence, Kansas, among a beautiful mix of field and forest. We enjoy stunning sunsets on a regular basis and can view much of the night sky that is invisible to our city brethren. Even when our children were home, we had plenty of room for everyone and everyone’s stuff. Musical instruments, clothes, books, music, furniture – you name it, we probably have it.

As I age, I notice that much of what I was excited to possess in earlier days requires an amount of time and resources that is disproportionate to its current value to me. So many things I simply had to have in my younger years now have me wondering I was thinking. Even trying to thin out the excess, however, is a difficult process. First, one never knows when something might come in handy – or when a friend or family member might need it. Second, there is sentimental value in much of what we have. It is difficult just to throw that away. Third, passing things on to others means cleaning, moving, and organizing. It is often easier to hoard (or to leave the problem for my children).

Jesus warned us not to store up for ourselves treasures of the earth. Actually, I think his point has to do with what we value, more than what we possess. If we keep things we do not need, however, we are assigning a value to them – even if only the value of not having to get rid of them. There are reasons, however, that holding onto stuff in excess of our need is inconsistent with Christian teaching. First, there are those who really need some of what gathers dust in our homes. Second, there is a maintenance cost associated with everything we keep, and those costs are resources unavailable for other, more important uses. Third, and most important in my opinion, our possessions possess us.

In too many ways, I am a slave to my possessions. When I spend my weekends maintaining my large yard or trying to keep our big house clean, I have neither time nor energy to dedicate to other needs of my family, friends, and community. If I must first rearrange my old stuff to make room for new stuff, I accomplish nothing of value – for myself or others. If my heart – my time, my attention, and my God-given resources – is consumed in caring for my stuff, where, when, and how can I have a heart for others? It is a challenging spiritual dilemma, and one I will likely wrestle with the rest of my life.

Our possessions possess us. How did I miss that?

Life Notes

How Did I Miss That?

Part 3: The Way Out is Through

Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:34a

                       “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”

Sympathy for the Devil, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

We live in a violent time. Pundits of every persuasion speak with certainty about the causes and cures for the current violence. I am unconvinced. What I am listening for, but not hearing, is anyone recognizing and accepting personal responsibility for a solution.

Long ago, I was taught that one cannot solve a problem without accepting some level of responsibility. Once I recognize my part in a problem, I am able to begin making meaningful changes that may actually have a positive impact. The change, however, must begin within. If not, I join the legions of complainers, finger-pointers, hand-wringers, pontificators, and other reactionaries that only perpetuate the problem. As Christians, we have the audacity to claim Jesus took the sins of the world – past, present, and future – to the cross to purchase our salvation. But do we understand the nature of that sacrifice? Do we know how to apply it in practical ways? One lesson of the cross is how to participate in the reconciling of social ills. What Jesus modeled for us is this: The way out is through.

Jesus, an entirely innocent victim, knew a horrible death he did not deserve was waiting. He would endure the worst torture that humanity knew how to inflict at the time. The social systems of Jesus’ day, like today, were unjust and violent. They wrongly believed, as we believe, that progress – however the culture defines it – comes by force. Jesus recognized the corrupt underlying system and, in his humanity, refused to participate in or perpetuate it. Once accused, he did not get defensive, or try to shift the condemnation onto others. He knew the only way out of the situation – to begin a social healing process – was to accept his condemnation, take up his cross, and go through it. And in that act of civil disobedience, Jesus modeled what happens when we go through a difficult challenge – we come out the other side changed. All efforts to avoid, go around, or deny a problem leave it for another day.

What are my roles in today’s issues? Where are my actions toward others discriminatory and unjust? Which of my cultural assumptions are repressive? How do my words exclude others from kinship as fellow children of God? Specifically, what am I doing, or not doing, that is contributing to the problem? As a Christian, American (the only category of American without an ethnically-based prefix), heterosexual, white male, I have no meaningful experience with discrimination. I am near the top of the socio-economic ladder by accident of birth. Until I understand and accept my role in perpetuating a violent, discriminatory culture, I remain firmly a part of the problem – without ever pulling a trigger.

From the cross, Jesus looked with mercy on those who inflicted the horrible injustice upon him and asked that God forgive them. They did not know what they were doing; and neither do we. The spiral of violence we find ourselves in will only be solved when a critical mass of people accept responsibility for their part, say “Enough,” take up their cross, and go through the problem, including acceptance of its inevitable consequences.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only love can do that.” In these dark times, only love can carry us through to the other side. We underestimate how rare that sort of love is, however, let alone the level of sacrifice and focus it requires. Not all of us will survive, at least not physically, but deeply-imbedded social ills require much sacrifice for the future good. Jesus showed us the way. Non-violent leaders like Dr. King and Gandhi gave their lives for it. They faced evil head on, absorbed the worst evil could throw at them, and came out triumphant on the other side.

The way out is through. How did I miss that?

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