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Dying Before We Die, Part 1

 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  Romans 8:13-14

Many people fear death more than anything else, including spiders and snakes. This is understandable since the life we perceive through our senses is the only life we know with any certainty. Whenever a loved one dies, our senses no longer receive evidence of their presence, so we assume they either no longer exist or they have traveled somewhere far away from us. We do not know, and not knowing makes us uneasy. When someone dies, he or she is just gone, leaving us with grief and questions. We feel sorrow for those who die young and celebrate those who live into their 90’s and beyond, as if our physical existence were more about the quantity of days than the quality. We cannot get a logical handle on death because it defies logic, and that makes us squirm.

Christian mystics talk about death regularly. So did Jesus. Scientific, irreversible, physical death occurs once for us, and most of us go to great lengths to deny its nearness and delay its arrival. We are not anxious to come to the end of the only life we know. And that is exactly the problem with the education most of us receive – the life we know is but a small part of the life we are. The apostle Paul names two aspects of existence. In his letter to the Romans, as well as in other writings in the New Testament, Paul distinguishes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” making clear that both were present there and then, just as they continue to be present here and now. The word flesh is Paul’s code word for our ego’s interpretation of the concrete world of the senses – what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste. It is easy to read Paul in a way that assumes he condemns the world of flesh, but that understanding is incomplete. Paul wants us to know that our ego’s view of the world of the flesh is only one part of our life. It is the impermanent, temporary part. It is also a beautiful, seductive part that can tempt us into actions that are inconsistent with and antagonistic to the larger, immortal, and invisible part of life, which is the realm of Spirit. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” This is the death we know is coming, the death of the flesh. If we identify solely with our ego’s experience of the flesh, our physical death will be the end of the little we know ourselves to be

On the other hand, according to Paul, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. This poses a difficult dilemma to reconcile – the tangible pull of the flesh vs the ethereal speculation about the Spirit. In fact, the dilemma cannot be reconciled; it can only be accepted, embraced, and lived. Fortunately for us, dying to “the flesh” does not have to mean physical death. Paul encourages us to live in the flesh, tempered with the knowledge and perspective of the Spirit. Our physical existence is a tangible manifestation of the Spirit, so the two are not separate. The flesh is not evil, nor is our ego, but they can be misleading and the cause of much unnecessary pain and suffering, both to ourselves and to others. Paul says, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (emphasis added).

Dying before we die does not mean ending our life in the flesh before its time. Rather, it means letting go of our attachment to and identification with that which has no permanence. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Dying before we die is resetting our priorities, being intentional about what we choose to treasure, and saying “Goodbye” to that which serves no eternal purpose. In this way, our lives are made whole – body and spirit as one – and we become children of God. Both body and Spirit are beautiful and together create the fullness we long to experience in this phase of life.

A contemplative life seeks an inclusive balance between the flesh and the Spirit, experiencing and enjoying the pleasures of the flesh within the context and under the guidance of the Spirit.

This is the 7th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 2

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Last week I began contrasting two aspects of every self: the ego and the essence. Our ego is also referred to as our false self or small self, indicating something less than whole. Our essence is also called our true self or nondual self, indicating something in its wholeness. In contrasting our ego and our essence I describe two extremes of a vertical continuum that extends infinitely in either direction, although the essence is inclusive of the entire spectrum. As human beings we are incapable of manifesting either pure ego or pure essence; rather, we manifest varying degrees of each. In addition, we may act more from our ego in certain circumstances and more from our essence in others. I only characterize the two as separate in order to describe the ends. In reality they only vary by degrees. Our ego manifests a part of our essence; our essence includes but transcends the ego. Our true self is the developmental direction toward which the Spirit invites and encourages us. Our false self resists the urgings of the Spirit, mostly for fear of losing or tarnishing what it mistakenly perceives to be its unique nature.

At the heart of our dilemma is that the world seems to confirm and support the partial truths our ego tells – that the life our senses detect is all there is, that we must live for ourselves and accumulate as much material wealth as we can with the limited time we have on earth. The common wisdom of our world tells us to deny the weaker parts of ourselves, hide our vulnerabilities, and put on a good face for those around us. Ultimately, our ego leads us into a lifestyle that is not true to who we are.  The person we pretend to be cannot exist in any sustainable way.

This dilemma is a problem that is exclusive to humans. Plants and trees make no discernible effort to be something they are not. The same is true for rocks, streams, and clouds. Animals do not make false pretenses about who they are. In his book, Falling Upward1, Richard Rohr identifies two halves of our lives. Our egoic or false self dominates the first half as we strive to build a name for ourselves, establish a profession, start a family, or otherwise enter adulthood. As we age we realize there is something missing in the self-image that has carried us to that point in life. This is when our true self may begin to assert itself, and the ego’s influence over us begins to lessen. As we did in infancy, we identify with our support system, although now we recognize God, working through those around us, as our ultimate support system. We celebrate our interconnectedness and recognize that we build ourselves up by building others up, not by tearing them down. We understand in our deepest being that salvation is communal, not individual – that we are all in this together. We strive to be increasingly genuine and true to who God created us to become.

When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to releasing our ego’s hold over the direction of our life. It can feel like dying; indeed, it is a death. We need to allow that small, selfish, and insecure part of ourselves to diminish in order to make room for our true self to grow. Our essence was never born, nor will it ever die. It is our eternal self. It is where our perfectly unique expression of God resides. Getting in touch with this aspect of our being is especially important as we approach physical death, as our true self is what will survive our passage out of material existence. Contemplative practices help us awaken to our essence. Such practices also assist in seeing the essence in others, even when it is invisible to them. God in us sees and affirms God in others. Namaste. This is true love and is a prerequisite to achieving equanimity within, not to mention peace on earth.

This is the 6th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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1          Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. Jossey-Bass, Hoboken, NJ, 2011.

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Do You Want to be Made Well?

 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” John 5:5-6

In this scene, Jesus is passing by a series of pools near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. There was a belief that when the water stirred, the first person into the pool would be healed. People with various afflictions surrounded the pools. One man had been there many years but had no one to help him into the water at its stirring, and so he remained on the sideline, unhealed. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” At first glance, this question is a head-scratcher. The Bible tells us he had been ill for thirty-eight years. Why would he not want to be healed?

As a college student, I worked at a nursery that occasionally hired people just released from prison as laborers. One man, Harold, was in his fifties and seemed like a gentle, good-natured soul. After a couple of weeks, Harold stopped coming to work. I was shocked to find out he had borrowed a gun, held up a liquor store, and returned to prison. Never mind that the gun was not loaded and that he waited outside the store for the police to pick him up. Apparently, Harold did not want his freedom if it meant hard, physical work and low wages in return for a meager existence. While I could not fathom why anyone would willingly go back to prison, he must have felt life was better there. Sometimes, we gain comfort from what is familiar. Some people, like Harold, may not have the support system required to transition to a different life.

There are numerous examples of people working hard to maintain a status quo that is neither helpful nor forward-moving, let alone one that reaches a fraction of what is possible. For example, our political system is dominated by two parties seemingly more interested in preserving the issues that define them than in finding solutions for those issues. I suppose the fear is that without abortion, taxes, immigration, a border wall, or the myriad of perpetual issues that divide us, politicians would have no purpose. They might lose not only their identity, but also their jobs.

While that may sound ludicrous, I do not believe it is far from the truth. In fact, my guess is that most of us hold onto certain traits because they have become part of our identity, no matter how painful or limiting those traits might be. Our desire for uniqueness is so strong, we may hold onto whatever sets us apart, ridiculous or not. In this context, Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” is not a crazy question at all. There are many reasons why we may not want to be made well. More generally, what is it that we really want? Do we want to hold onto our afflictions? Do we prefer imprisonment to freedom? Are we afraid that letting go of a toxic identity will leave us in anonymity?

I associate these questions with those who have yet to find their identity in the family of God. We have a perfectly unique, never-to-be-duplicated identity at our core, just as we are, without any of our imprisoning afflictions. In fact, the more we hold onto unhealthy, but defining qualities, the more deeply our true self is hidden. On the other hand, the freer we become, the more our true self shines through. Contrary to how it may sound, we do not lose anything worth keeping as our true self emerges; rather, we become more like the person we always imagined ourselves to be – secure, helpful, loving, and loved.

When Jesus asks, “Do you want to be made well,” he is really asking, “Do you want to be made whole?” Is not wholeness at the heart of every longing? I think we fear wholeness because we feel safe with what is familiar. We fear change. Wholeness cannot assure a comfortable, predictable life, but wholeness does assure inclusion into what is. Do we want to be made well? Are we ready for Christ to transform us into the image of God we were created to manifest? If we wish to reach for our potential, we must risk what is comfortable and familiar and, like the man beside the pool, make a conscious choice to be made well.

This is the 31st in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 15: Brokenness Leads to Wholeness

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17

The egg shell must be broken at the right time for the chick to emerge. The caterpillar must be broken and bound for the butterfly to emerge. The skin of reptiles must split open for them to grow into their next stage of life. And, painful as it often is, our current state of life must be broken in order for us to move to the next stage of our development. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths, and being broken is at the heart of the process. I do not enjoy it, but I can either be broken willingly, or I can fight it tooth and nail, but broken I will be.

The central problem is that a full and satisfied heart has no motivation to change. When we are satisfied, we fight to maintain the status quo. We do whatever we can to minimize change, even when a change is necessary to improve the lot of our self and others. In political contests, one candidate is often portrayed as the “change” agent and the other as the “establishment.” The former makes the case that the political system is broken and needs to be rebuilt (or reborn). The latter claims the current system is good enough to provide a solid foundation from which to improve. In many cases, who we favor depends on the level of brokenness of our current state in life. While I do not advocate change for the sake of change, brokenness, in its time, is necessary for the sake of growth.

I am not advocating that we break a perfectly good life – destruction is a process that happens naturally enough, with or without our prodding. When we feel the status quo of our life starting to bend, however, it may be time to embrace a change. It may be the Spirit moving in our lives in a way that will lead us to a new level of wholeness. Sometimes, that may mean breaking away from negative influences by ending a toxic relationship, leaving a disrespectful employer, or receiving help for an addiction. Other times, we need to break away from our own inertia by intentionally committing ourselves to a new relationship, forming new, healthier habits, or beginning a regular prayer or meditation practice.

Sometimes we have already been broken, but we do not yet recognize the possibilities. We, like Humpty Dumpty, have fallen off the wall, and we expend energy and resources trying to rebuild what once was instead of taking stock of what is now. Being broken opens a new world of possibilities for us, but we will never see the possible until we willingly let go of the shattered past. An old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Realistically, there are times when we do need to break something in order to move ahead in life.

Brokenness leads to wholeness. How did I miss that?

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An Allegorical Christmas, Part 1 

He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Luke 18:27

There are those who shun the biblical telling of the Christmas story because it is too difficult to believe factually. From the impregnating of Mary by the Holy Spirit, to Joseph agreeing to marry his pregnant fiancé (as opposed to having her stoned to death), to the bright star in the sky, the shepherds leaving their flocks, and the wise men journeying from far away to pay homage to this Prince of Peace. Truly, it is an incredible story. While I believe that all things are possible with God, I also believe we can discern God’s will allegorically, and not just physically and factually.

What can one learn from the Christmas story who is not ready to make the leap of accepting the Biblical record as written? Let us begin with the Immaculate Conception. This story is foretold in the Old Testament book of Isaiah (7:14): “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’” Fast forward a few hundred years to the first chapter of Luke where an angel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Mary responds, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.” The angel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

The virgin birth is a profound element of the Christmas story. Typically, virginity refers to one who has not had sexual relations. The word virgin, however, has a larger meaning. It also means pure, undefiled, new, and inexperienced. For example, a virgin forest is one whose trees have never been harvested. The Christmas story tells of the birth of a child – a child with an earthly mother and a spirit Father. Heaven and earth came together in this child. The Christmas story is not just the story of Jesus, however, it is the story of us.

We all wish to express our physical and spiritual natures. To do so, the spirit must impregnate us by entering to awaken and develop our spiritual nature. That experience begins to make us whole – fully human and fully spiritual. In order to awaken our spiritual nature, however, we must be sufficiently pure for the Spirit to enter. We must be submissive and willing not only to conceive but also to receive the new creation that will result. When that happens, we too have experienced an Immaculate Conception, not exactly in the way the Bible describes, but in the way the Bible implies can be true for all of us. Seen allegorically, this is our blueprint to achieving wholeness – becoming pure enough, open enough, virgin enough for the Spirit to express through us.

When we are willing to explain what the Christmas story means at its deepest and most personal level, the love of God will reach a mass of humanity who otherwise will continue to celebrate only the secular version of Christmas. Allegorically or factually, we find the same Savior.

Come home to church this Sunday. Allegorical Christmas blessings!

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