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Divine Violence, Part 2

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come… Mark 7:21a

Last week I reflected on how we can read the violent sections of the Bible in a metaphorical way that helps us reconcile a loving God with a sometimes violent text. This method of biblical interpretation is based on the foundational belief that our inner struggles not only mirror the violence recorded in the Bible, but also mirror the external violence we witness in our world today. These inner struggles occur between our ego-self – the part of us that is overly identified with our mortal, physical being – and our true-self – the part of us that is inseparably wedded to God, others, and the eternal. These two selves, both of which are us, find themselves in frequent conflict because their goals, values, and perspectives differ widely. Unfortunately, the violence in our world is not metaphorical. The murder of innocents, physical abuse, oppression, and the heartbroken victims and families left in their wake are all very real.

Let me restate the proposition that some will find silly or heretical: The world outside of our selves mirrors the world inside of our selves. As such, our eternal fate is inseparably tied to that of all others. Salvation is not an individual achievement; rather, it is a communal awakening. The traditional view of heaven would not be heaven if we were there alone. That would be hell. We have neither the wisdom nor the perspective to judge who is worthy of either glory or damnation. What we have is a commandment to love each other. Followers of Jesus, by definition, try to do what he did. Jesus reached out to and served those on the margins of society – prostitutes, tax collectors, widows and orphans, the sick and lame, immigrants, the blind. In no uncertain terms he told us to go and do likewise. This command was not simply because loving these people is a nice thing to do, but because bringing them into our circle of care is a necessary step for our own entry into the kingdom of heaven. Remember, our inner life mirrors what we witness externally as their life.

A common question I hear in discussions of mass tragedies like the Holocaust is this: Where was God? That question is as wrong as it is reasonable. We are far too quick to blame God for evil manifestations of human brokenness and ignorance. The correct question is: Where were we? Granted, most of us were not alive during the Holocaust, but where are we with the immigrants at our southern border? Where are we in the mass shootings occurring throughout our country? Where are we in human trafficking and the myriad of other continuing forms of human slavery and oppression? If we are God’s hands and feet on earth, where are we? We are an integral part of the fabric of this society and the communities where we live. We help perpetuate that which we do not oppose. What public action have I taken on gun control, global hunger, immigration, or human trafficking? Personally, I have done far too little.

So here is our dilemma: If the outer world mirrors our inner world, what are we doing about the senseless violence within? I think the answer begins with the degree to which we consciously identify with our ego self. The ego has no problem with personal gain at the expense of another. It has no problem looking the other way when someone else is being beaten or robbed, as long as the perpetrator does not come after it. Is it any wonder we live in a violent, self-centered society? The ego has no social conscience, and a lack of social responsibility is at the heart of mass human tragedies. Assuming personal responsibility for the suffering of others is lacking. The ego is very quick to assign blame elsewhere. And the first to suffer and last to recover are those at the margins – the ones to whom Jesus dedicated his ministry.

Once we identify more strongly with our true self, our connection to others becomes more apparent. We can no longer stand by and witness the persecution of others because their persecution is our persecution. Refusing to consider scripture and the life around us as a reflection of our inner world is like praying with one eye open. We allow into our awareness only those parts of reality that support our ego-self. And those at the margins pay the price for our ignorance.

I will attempt to wrap up the loose ends of this discussion next week.

This is the 33rd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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Divine Violence, Part 1

 Let burning coals fall on them! Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise! Psalm 140:10

There are a number of methods to interpret what we read in the Bible and other sacred texts. One common method, although it is relatively recent in Christian history, is the literal interpretation. This assumes that God dictated the Bible as opposed to inspiring it, as Timothy states in his Epistle.[1] “It is in the Bible, therefore God said it, so I believe it,” is a common sentiment of those who apply a literal interpretation. Others follow a historical reading, meaning they see the Bible as a historical record that may or may not have current relevance beyond recording events from long ago. Another method of interpretation is the allegorical or metaphorical, which bypasses questions of factuality and seeks the story-within-the-story the reading attempts to impart. For example, Jesus used parables in his teaching, which are not factual accounts but are relatable stories with an important moral lesson. There is a use for each type of interpretation, depending on the scripture passage and our stage in life, but I find the metaphorical reading most useful for spiritual growth and understanding.

One concern that turns many away from the Bible is the violence recorded, requested, and alluded to throughout its pages. Particularly for those who read the Bible literally, God appears to play favorites and sometimes violently so. For example, as the Israelites were seeking their freedom from slavery, God caused a series of plagues to fall upon the people of Egypt in order to convince Pharaoh to grant them their freedom. The tenth plague brought death to all the firstborn in Egypt, both children and livestock.[2] As a firstborn myself, I find this very disconcerting! Not only were the plagues caused by God, but God purposely hardened Pharaoh’s heart following the previous plagues so that Pharaoh would not set the Israelites free.[3] A literal reading of Exodus would mean that God not only caused thousands of deaths to innocent people and animals to send a message to Pharaoh, but God was manipulating Pharaoh in such a way as to prevent him from relinquishing. One must be a nimble biblical apologist to reconcile the literal Biblical record with what we want to believe is a loving and just God.

In the creation story of Genesis, after creating every living thing on the earth, God created humankind and pronounced the whole of creation “very good.”[4] This story does not distinguish the Israelites as better than non-Israelites, although much of the Bible refers to them as God’s “chosen” race (never mind that most of the Bible was written by these chosen ones). My point is that a God who created all things and all peoples and pronounced them “very good” seems unlikely to take sides in squabbles among God’s creation, let alone initiate or support such violent and fatal action against either side. The Psalms are full of accounts of exactly that sort of vicious favoritism, either requested by someone feeling offended or granted on their behalf. My belief is that God’s part in these stories is either a misunderstanding on the part of the author or an allegorical truth-sharing using a non-factual story.

Fortunately, there is another way to understand such texts without portraying God as arbitrary or violent toward innocents. As followers of Jesus, who was unquestionably non-violent, we need another option. A metaphorical reading, while not taking a position on the literal or historical accuracy of the passages, leads one to ponder how the message applies to one’s own life. For example, we can read the story of the exodus as the story of our own struggle to free the true and pure part of ourselves from the ego-self and its bondage to materialism. Pharaoh represents our ego, and the Israelites are our true self. The various plagues represent the numerous attempts we make to free ourselves from the addictive consumer-mentality of our culture. There are many plagues because we must persist with sustained efforts at self-change. The death of the first-born can represent the “death” of some of our “first-born” ideas about life and God that are either wrong or that we have outgrown, many of which we inherit from ancestors. Those ideas and beliefs can be stubborn entities, like Pharaoh, that do not easily relent.

Such metaphorical, internal violence is one thing. The very real and tragic violence in our world is quite another. I will reflect on that next week.

This is the 32nd in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[2] Exodus 12:29.

[3] See Exodus 11:10.

[4] Genesis 1:31.

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A Beautiful Soul, Part 3

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15

The last two weeks I have shared my thoughts about our individual souls. On the one hand, our soul needs to express in physical ways. On the other hand, our soul is not of this world, but is an extension of God’s eternal realm. As such, we can feel wounded when a sincere expression of our deepest essence is not received with the same level of respect and care from which it came.

One of the hardest things to grasp is that we are quite literally one at the soul level – one with God and one with each other. An indication of how much we identify with our physical nature is in how much we feel separate from others. The truth is that we sink or swim together. When others suffer, we suffer, regardless of whether we feel the direct impact that tragedies across the globe have on us. This is why Jesus of Nazareth and other great spiritual leaders manifested as suffering servants. They knew who they were at their core, and so they recognized the suffering of the world as their own suffering. Author and teacher, Richard Rohr, writes, “Becoming who we really are is a matter of learning how to become more and more deeply connected.”

Because the soul is not bound by time and space our connections with others are not limited by time and space, either. That is how we can maintain a close friendship with someone whom we seldom see and pick up conversations from where we left off years before. It is why we can be moved to tears by a symphony written centuries ago by a composer we never knew personally. It explains why certain paintings of long-dead artists can connect so intimately and emotionally with something deep inside of us. These connections are soul-to-soul and they spring from a realm beyond the physical. The concept of soul mates has been hijacked by romantic notions, but it really refers to deep connections with others that transcend space and time. Truly, our soul knows no boundaries.

I attended a presentation by a poet in college. He drew a distinct line between those who opened a channel to their soul for others to experience and those who did not. In his opinion, there were two choices – live life as an emotionally unstable but serious artist or live life as a stable but mediocre (at best) artist. In my opinion, he probably succeeded on the emotionally unstable front, but I found his poetry to be more an expression of his egoic insecurities than reflections of something terribly profound or deep. I do not believe our choices for manifesting the spiritual, soulful part of ourselves to be nearly so stark. In fact, I believe we are meant to allow our souls to embody in all the ways we are gifted to manifest. With an awareness that not everyone will receive our soulful expressions with the appreciation and respect we believe they deserve, we can learn to express from the deepest parts of our being simply for the joy of such expression.

Our ego becomes overly identified with our mortal bodies and with the opinions of others. It is our ego that is fragile and easily wounded, not our soul. When we overly identify with our ego and with our physical being, we will almost certainly turn into an emotional basket case, like the poet mentioned above, anytime anything that springs from our essence is rejected. As we learn to identify more with the eternal, spiritual part of us we are less likely to be wounded by the words and actions of others.

When the veil between the physical and spiritual begins to thin, we can allow our beautiful soul to shine through and touch others. This is evangelism beyond words. We allow others to be touched by the Spirit through us. Whether we manifest great works of art, poetry, music, or just comforting presence is beside the point. Our beautiful soul will draw out the beauty in others, and there is no art form more beautiful or impactful than that. This is how we manifest the healing presence of God; it brings the peace that passes understanding. It is how we live our lives to the fullest, beautiful body and beautiful soul.

This is the 31st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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