Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening

“Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”[1] 

These are the words that the priest, Eli, taught his apprentice, Samuel, to pray. There are depths of meaning contained in this profoundly simple and beautiful teaching. Eli gives Samuel a wonderful gift.  It is a gift offered to each one of us, if we are willing to receive it.   It is the gift of a conscious relationship with the mystery we call “God.”

Samuel intuitively knows that Someone is communicating with him.  He has a sense of being addressed by that which transcends him, by a Word that persistently intrudes into his awareness.  He is in touch with this experience, but doesn’t know what to make of it. 

Samuel assumes that it must be Eli, his mentor, who is speaking to him.  Maybe, for Samuel, Eli’s voice had been the voice of God for him.   We all have people in our lives, people we admire, people we aspire to imitate, people who speak with authority.  We internalize their voice.   We can hear them speaking to us; even now, perhaps long after they have died.  These are important voices.  They are formative voices.  We need to listen to them.  But they are not God’s voice.

We know Eli is a good spiritual teacher because he helps Samuel differentiate between G-d’s voice and the voice of human authority.  Eli gently invites Samuel to let go of his need for direction from Eli, and trust that God desires to communicate with Samuel directly.   By affirming Samuel’s capacity to listen to God, Eli allows Samuel to grow up, to mature spiritually, and to take responsibility for his own conscious contact with God. 

No one can have a relationship with God for you. That is good news.  When we realize this, it can be a great relief, bringing a new sense of freedom and dignity.  God desires communion with you directly, unmediated by any other authority or institution.  That doesn’t mean that other people and institutions can’t support us in our spiritual growth.  In fact, as we grow in our own conscious relationship with God, we will likely be drawn to support others in this work.  It takes time and effort to sort out the voices in our head, to identify the deep desires of the heart that are congruent with God’s life and love.  We don’t have to do this work alone, but the fact remains that no one can do it for us.

The first and greatest gift is to affirm that God desires communion with me.  God loves me.  God sees me and addresses me, long before I even know what hit me.  This is the experience of Nathaniel with Jesus in today’s Gospel.  “Where did you get to know me?” he asks Jesus.[2]  It is not we who find God.  It is God who finds us.  We are discovered before we even realize we were lost, before we even acknowledge our hunger for that most intimate communion between the soul and God.

Are we even in touch with this deep hunger?  Do we allow it to come to awareness?  There is so much noise in our world, so much static in the system, that it can be difficult to tune into the voice of God.  We do a lot of reacting, but not necessarily a lot of listening.  Samuel must be taught how to listen for God’s voice.  It takes practice.  Like Nathaniel, we are cynical about the possibility that God could actually address us.  And then when it happens, unexpectedly, when we find ourselves tuned in:  Wow!  Just, wow!

Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.[3]  This is the language of the mystics, of a unified, nondual perception of reality, of conscious awareness of God.  Heaven and earth, divine and human, sacred and profane are all one unmediated direct reality.  The kingdom of God is here and now, within us and around us.  Just Wow.

Spiritual maturity is about growing into this mindful awareness, of seeing things as they are and not simply as we want them to be.  It is about growing in acceptance of what we cannot control and taking responsibility for what we can change.  “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The Good News is that God is speaking.  The more challenging news, is that we must listen if we wish to align our will and our lives with our desire for God’s life and love.    

Genuine prayer operates in the middle voice, to borrow an analogy from grammar.  As Eugene Peterson notes,

When I speak in the active voice, I initiate an action that goes someplace else: "I counsel my friend."  When I speak in the passive voice, I receive the action that another initiates: "I am counseled by my friend."  When I speak in the middle voice, I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates: "I take counsel."  Most of our speech is divided between active and passive; either I act or I am acted upon.  But there are moments, and they are those in which we are most distinctively human, when such a contrast is not satisfactory:  two wills operate, neither to the exclusion of the other, neither canceling out the other, each respecting the other . . .

We neither manipulate God (active voice) nor are manipulated by God (passive voice).  We are involved in the action and participate in its results but do not control or define it (middle voice).  Prayer takes place in the middle voice.[4]

What Peterson says of the language of prayer is ideally how all our speech should operate: as a means of fostering relationships free of domination or submission.  Such speech is concerned with truth and not simply with power.  It must emerge from silence (however brief) such that the thread of the conversation or action that God has initiated can be joined.  It is a speaking-with-God that requires listening.  And listening takes time.

It is precisely this refusal to listen, the impatience of our speech, that is undermining the civility and truthfulness of discourse in our culture.  We use language to manipulate and divide rather than to con-verse, literally to be turned toward, live, or remain with another.   Genuine conversation, with God and others, requires deep, sustained, and humble listening.  It is from this place that we can then speak and act with integrity and respect for others.  

When we honor deep listening, we can hear and accept difficult truths.  When Samuel listens to the voice of God, he hears a message of judgment on Eli and his sons, who have corrupted the office of the priesthood in Israel.[5]  Eli’s sons have abused their power, and Eli has refused to hold them accountable.  Eli is powerless to change his sons, and must accept the consequences of their behavior.  This is a hard and painful truth to hear.  That Samuel and Eli can share such things together, speaks of a profound and tender intimacy, born of shared vulnerability and patient listening. 

It brings no joy to Samuel to share this news.  There is nothing of the gleeful delight in the suffering of others that marks so much “truth telling” in our culture today.  This isn’t about vengeance or scoring points.  It is about learning to live with the consequences of our choices and those of others.  It is about offering truth as a means of setting us free from vain imaginings and hopeless counsel.  Even when we are powerless, we are not helpless.   We can entrust ourselves to the care of God and one another.

Eli could have been defensive, he could have lashed out at Samuel or tried to silence him, fired off an angry tweet.  Instead, he listened.  It wasn’t about him.  There is a larger communion, a deeper pattern of healing and wholeness that encompasses his failings and his losses.   Eli was willing to suffer the truth in the service of growth and healing for his people.  The corruption had to end.  Samuel speaks to Eli as to one whom God already holds in communion too. 

What if we listened to one another, believing that God is speaking to each one of us, in one great continuous act of communion, and therefore honored one another by carefully and patiently seeking to speak the truth?    What if we believed that each time we spoke, we were picking up on the thread of an action or speech that is initiated by God?  Might we not listen with greater care before we spoke?  “Speak Lord, for our servant is listening.”  Amen.

[1] I Samuel 3:9.
[2] John 1:48.
[3] John 1:51.
[4] Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, pp. 103-104.
[5] I Samuel 3:11-14.

Monday, January 22, 2018

On the hook

Jesus began his public ministry around the Sea of Galilee.  It is a large freshwater lake about seven miles wide and 13 miles long, fed by the Jordan River which flows in from the north end of the lake and out to the south.  Picture this lake dotted with small villages connected to the fishing industry, the most important sector of the local economy.  The major harbors in the first century – Bethsaida, Gadara and Capernaum – are prominently mentioned in the gospel traditions.  In 14 C.E., Ceasar Augustus died and Tiberius became the Roman Emperor.  To curry favor, Herod Antipas, the local governor of the Galilee region, built a new capital city called – Tiberias! –  on the shores of the Sea of Galilee around the year 19.   Name branding is a very old tradition!

It is not too far-fetched to imagine that Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth, like many young men, to work on the construction of this new city.  As an itinerant laborer, Jesus might have moved around the coast to different construction sites.  This was a period of major Roman investment in the Galilee, increasing urbanization and globalization.  New roads, harbors, and fish processing sweat shops were built as the local fishing industry was being restructured for export.  This local staple was now primarily salted or made into a fish sauce and shipped to distant markets for the consumption of urban elites around the empire. 

As a result, local fishing families were marginalized and impoverished by the cost of leases required to operate a fishing boat, increased taxes on the harvesting and processing of fish, and new tolls levied on transport to market. It was not an easy time to be a peasant fisherman in Galilee.   Such folks were experiencing severe downward mobility during a period of increasing economic exploitation and inequality.[1] 

Jesus was an eye-witness to this economic and social dislocation.  As he moved around the Galilee seeking work, Jesus no doubt observed the condition of his people and listened to their stories.   He was also familiar with the various Jewish resistance movements opposed to Rome, including that of his cousin, John the Baptist. So, when John is arrested, Jesus finds himself in the port city of Capernaum.   It is not surprising that Jesus began his community organizing efforts to resist Roman occupation here.  And it is not surprising that a bunch of peasant fisherman, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, responded enthusiastically to Jesus’ alternative social vision.

Jesus’ social vision was rooted in the prophetic tradition of Israel, which made an important distinction between the normalcy of violence and exploitation in human kingdoms and the promise of justice and peace in God’s kingdom.  This tradition sought to recover the liberating power and social egalitarianism of God’s covenant with Israel, creating out of a former slave people a kingdom of priests to be a light to the nations in the service of the renewal of God’s creation.

The center of Jesus’ message was simple: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”[2]  Jesus was clear that God’s kingdom was not only future event, but also present experience.  The good news has both a temporal and spatial reference: the time is fulfilled (now) and the kingdom has come near (here).  Two imperatives follow from this reality:  repent and believe. 

Repentance or metanoia literally means to transcend your mind – to move across it – or to move from your small mind into a larger consciousness or awareness.  Jesus is raising people’s consciousness, inviting them to perceive how God already is present and at work in the world.  Belief here has the connotation of trust:  trust your perception, this expanded consciousness, this awareness of God’s power and presence.  Jesus is organizing a resistance movement, an alternative culture (the culture of God), a pre-figurative community in which the justice and peace for which we hope is being lived here and now.  

Jesus is saying, “Wake up and trust God’s power at work in you and among you here and now!  Claim the promise of an alternative culture of forgiveness, mercy, justice, and peace.”  The signs of the culture of God are enacted in Jesus’ practice of free healing and open table fellowship.  In the Jesus movement, anybody can be healed and everybody gets what they need to eat, without exception.  The Jesus movement is God’s nonviolent revolution.  It is energized by the power of common people rather than brokered by elites, and it is offered by invitation rather than imposed through force.   It is a radical social vision that still inspires, confounds, and challenges us.  It still evokes conflict and opposition.

From the very beginning, Jesus had no illusions about that. In the prophetic tradition of Israel, “fishing for people” was not about recruiting new members.  When Jesus tells his disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” he is calling them to the prophetic work of resisting oppression.[3]  It was about putting leaders on the hook for their corruption and exploitation of the poor.  It was about holding elites accountable to the common good and responsible for the common wealth. 

Jesus knew his Bible.  Jeremiah envisioned God sending for many fisherman in order to catch the wayward people of Israel, specifically those who have polluted the land with idolatry.[4]  Amos targets the elite classes of Israel, warning that God will haul them away to judgment like so many fish on a hook: “The time is surely coming upon you [who oppress the poor and crush the needy] when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”[5]  Ezekiel denounces Pharaoh in an anti-imperial diatribe.  God vows to yank the “dragon” of Egypt right out of the Nile River along with all the fish to which it claims exclusive rights.[6] 

You get the picture? For Peter, Andrew, James and John, this was a call to put down their nets and follow Jesus into conflict with the unjust powers of this world.  In their day, it was the forces of Roman imperialism and globalization that were driving the rural poor in a race to the bottom.  The disciples were not sent out two by two to invite people to accept Jesus so they could save their souls and go to heaven when they die.  Jesus sent his disciples out two by two to organize communities so that God’s will would be done on earth as it is promised; that each would get the bread they need for today, forgive the burden of crushing debt, and be delivered from evil.  That was the prayer that Jesus taught and lived.  We have forgotten that the Lord’s Prayer sets forth a radical social vision.[7]
What does this mean for us 21st Century people, mostly affluent folks living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the Tiberias of the Bay Area?  How do we respond to Jesus’ invitation to follow him and fish for people?  I suggest four commitments that we might make together, inspired by another prophetic Jewish leader – Rabbi Sharon Brous – in her powerful TED Talk entitled, Its time to reclaim religion.[8] 

The first commitment is to be willing to wake-up!  This is the heart of Jesus’ call to repent, to allow our consciousness to be awakened and expanded by encountering reality as it is.  Religion should not be a way to escape from reality, a palliative to keep us numb, quiescent, and acquiescent. Like Jesus wandering around the Sea of Galilee, we must recognize how people are living and listen to their stories.   Our ministry is not inside of these walls.  It is out there!  What do we see?

It isn’t always easy to be awake.  It can feel overwhelming, tempting us to numb out or find ways to distract ourselves.  As followers of Jesus, we must be willing to be uncomfortable and make others uncomfortable, to fish for people even if we find ourselves on the hook.  Social change only happens when we are awake enough to move from apathy to anguish to action. 

The second commitment is to have hope.  Hope is the capacity to see and trust creative possibilities that the powers that be would rather we ignore. I saw hope this fall at a Faith in Action gathering at a black Baptist Church in Indianapolis, in what has become one of the ten most violent cities in America.   They had the police chief on the hook at this meeting, and they were reeling him into an agreement to promote best practices for violence reduction and community policing.   The Chief joined the congregation singing, "I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive."  This is what religion is about – providing hope that our dreams for a better world can be realized. 

The third commitment is to claim our power.  Rabbi Brous recalls “a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ It's not all about me. I can't control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, ‘For my sake the world was created.’ Which is to say it's true that I can't do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation.”  We can take responsibility for doing our part. 

The fourth commitment is to community.  We can do our part, but we can’t do it all.  We need each other. Jesus created an alternative community, one that transcended social divisions and ethnic nationalism to include Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female in a discipleship of equals.  We need to continually expand our sense of community to include more of God’s people. 

This is what it means to repent and believe the good news, to follow Jesus and fish for people:  Wake-up, choose hope, claim your power, prioritize community.  The culture of God is here and now.  We are God’s nonviolent revolution. 

[1] Ched Myers, “Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice” at https://radicaldisicplesship.net/2015/01/22. 
[2] Mark 1:14-15.
[3] Mark 1:17.
[4] Jeremiah 16:16-18.
[5] Amos 4:1f.
[6] Ezekiel 29:3f.
[7] Matthew 6:9-13.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Baptized into the Resistance

Of all the things we know about Jesus, one of the things about which we can be most certain, is that he was baptized by John.  Accounts of Jesus’ baptism are provided by three independent witnesses in nine separate canonical and extracanonical texts, including the earliest stratum of textual materials about Jesus.[1]   While these accounts differ in important ways, they all agree that John baptized Jesus. 

John’s activity as a prophet in the wilderness who baptized people in the Jordan River is well documented in the Christian Gospels, as well as by the Jewish historian, Josephus.  John preached an apocalyptic message of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and preparation for the new age that God was about to inaugurate.  In John’s time, apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent among Jews who opposed the Roman occupation of Israel.  John’s message and ritual action were aimed at developing and supporting a subversive resistance movement.

John’s movement was subversive in three ways.  Perhaps most obvious to us, is John’s call for repentance and individual moral renewal.  To accept John’s baptism was an act of resistance to ego, requiring the humility to admit one’s failure to follow God’s way and the willingness to submit to God’s will. Going out into the wilderness, undergoing baptism in the Jordan River, and re-entering the Promised Land was a ritual act of political resistance to Roman rule as well.  One by one, those who were baptized recommitted themselves to the sovereignty of God, rather than that of the Emperor, with the expectation that God would soon intervene to overthrow the Roman occupation.  Finally, it was a ritual act of resistance to the authority of the Temple system and its priesthood; think of it as resistance to religious orthodoxy.  Note that repentance was being mediated by baptism in the wilderness, rather than by the offering of sacrifices in Jerusalem, and it was free.  John subverted the Temple’s monopoly on access to God.[2]

John and Jesus lived during a tumultuous time in which Jewish resistance to Rome was endemic.  Prophets and messiahs, protestors and bandits, regularly disrupted Roman rule and challenged the complicity of Jewish elites.  Roman legions stationed in Syria had to march south to quell violent Jewish rebellions in Galilee and in Judea.   It is no wonder that Herod Antipas had John arrested and executed.  As Josephus tells us in his Jewish Antiquities,

When others too joined the crowds about [John], because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed.  Eloquence that has so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did.  Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake.[3] 

John’s baptism constituted a subversive of ego, of empire, and of orthodoxy, creating a powerful resistance movement.  The combination of prophet and crowds, desert and Jordan, was too much for Herod.  Later, Pilate would come to the same conclusion with respect to Jesus.  

Mark’s Gospel is unapologetic about the continuity between John and Jesus.  Jesus was baptized by John into the resistance.   In Mark’s account, Jesus’ baptism is a profound epiphany in which the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit comes soaring into him.  The boundaries between heaven and earth, divine and human, are transgressed.  What Jesus previously perceived as divided is now perceived as a single integral, non-dual reality.  He is claimed as God’s beloved, given a new identity, and becomes transparent to God’s power.  He is born again.

Creation and new creation, birth and rebirth, are represented by the Spirit or wind blowing over Jesus, descending like a dove.  Attentive listeners will hear echoes of the first creation story in Genesis, as well as the new beginning after the flood, when Noah released the dove to discover that life had begun anew.  The resistance into which Jesus is baptized is the resistance to the powers of this world that oppose and obstruct God’s creative, life-giving, renewing energy.   It is resistance to all that seeks to divide us from God, from one another, and from the natural world of which we are apart and that sustains life, in favor of a unitive vision of reality as intrinsically and profoundly interconnected.  It is resistance to all that diminishes and destroys the dignity of the creatures of God, affirmed as good, as beloved. 

Mark’s narrative moves quickly from baptism and epiphany, to vision quest in the desert, where Jesus undergoes a process of purification.  He must detox from the impulses of self-centered ego, unjust empire, and deadening orthodoxy that he has internalized.  The first revolution is internal.  It is only after he has engaged in this process that Jesus emerges from the wilderness – from the margins of society, the space beyond imperial domination – and engages his public ministry of resisting evil and empowering a liberation movement.   Baptism initiates a process of ongoing de-creation and re-creation, of letting go and becoming open to the energy of God working through us. 

Jesus’ baptism blew his mind.  It exploded his narrow, dual consciousness and opened his inner eye to a nondual awareness, transcending his small mind to embrace Big Mind.  When John is arrested, Jesus continues the resistance movement, but takes it in a different direction.  Jesus goes beyond John’s message and activity, to preach a message of God’s immanent and imminent kingdom, here and now; not then and there.  We need only repent, cross over from our small mind to an expanded consciousness, to realize this.  We don’t have to wait for God to act in the future.  God is waiting for us to act now to realize God’s kingdom, God’s gracious will for the fulfillment of creation, through us.  Jesus enacts this reality in the gathering of an alternative community of unconditional hospitality and healing. God is not our violent revolution.  We are God’s nonviolent revolution. 

In Mark’s Gospel, the heavens are torn apart when Jesus is baptized.  They are torn apart again, when Jesus is crucified: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”[4]  Our friend, Josephus, informs us that the outer veil of the temple, separating the outer court of the Gentiles from the inner court, where only Jews were allowed, was an 80 foot-high curtain.  It was, he says, a

Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill.  Nor was this mixture without its mythic meaning: it typified the universe . . . Portrayed on this tapestry was a panorama of the entire heavens.[5] 

Mark understands Jesus’ death in terms of his baptism, as a mind-blowing explosion of God’s power into the world, expanding our consciousness and empowering us to resist evil.  The crucifixion is not the end, but rather the beginning of God’s subversion of the violence and injustice of the world through Jesus and through us.  For we, too, have been baptized into the resistance, and the same Spirit that informed Jesus’ vision and animated his ministry, blows through us. 

Michael Coffey gently invites us to embrace the resistance to ego, to empire, and to orthodoxy, in his poem, Melt.

When all fine things melt away,
platinum and books and Chagall oils and jazz
and even memory becomes
another drop in the liquid cosmos
there will be, as in the beginning,
light, an emanating presence permeating darkness,
absorbing all disparate thoughts and persons
into one, and this one you may call Christ,
the story of all that lives, dies, and is renewed.
And when you are one with flowing truth
and love has enveloped you and accepted
you into its infinite pool
where will your beliefs be then?
What utterances of your small mind
and self-satisfied tongue will survive?
What contrivances of the god you
once held firmly in your breast pocket
next to your fountain pen
will you cling to then?
For which inflated mylar balloon of yourself
will you still hold the string?
None!  You will gladly, freely,
lovingly let each one flow like water
through your fingers and you will be satisfied
to be a part of what you once
wished to have mere distant, controlling knowledge.
So why, if this same fluid universe
has baptized you already into your belovedness
and puddled you up with everything and everyone
have you not yet let go and melted
you fine thing.

[1] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 234-36. 
[2] See Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building A Beloved Community of Resistance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015).
[3] Quoted in Crossan, p. 230-31. 
[4] Mark 15:37-38. 
[5] Quoted in David Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic Inclusion,” Journal of Biblical Literature (110:1, Spring 1991), p. 124-125.