20170722

“Don’t Live Someone Else’s Life”

Several years before Steve Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer, he gave a graduation speech at Stanford in 2005. The speech itself is on YouTube and received a lot of attention at the time. And for good reason: Jobs had several great thoughts. In his final (and compelling) point about the clarifying effect that our mortality creates, he says, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life” (timestamp 12:31). This has become a popular meme. “You cannot find your wisdom In someone else’s story…” (‘Where Not To Look For Freedom,’ The Belle Brigade, 2011; also the title of a “One Tree Hill,” season 8, episode 19).
      Living someone else’s life – what was Steve Jobs and the Belle Brigade talking about? Jobs’ comments echo an author, Parker Palmer, who wrote Let Your Life Speak (2000). In that work, Palmer comments, “Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail – and may even do great damage.” Both Jobs and Palmer are riffing on Thomas Merton’s insight into the True Self and the False Self. Our True self is who we are as God sees us; while our False Self is the imposition of someone else’s life as a standard, or as an expectation for our own life.
      As Christians who are born again, or born from above (John 3:16), we must acknowledge that we were sinful people profoundly alienated from God who need the savior that only Jesus is. Then we forget The Next Thing. What is The Next Thing? That we have been re-born, that we are re-created, that we have had an Extreme Makeover. This is the often ignored Christian doctrine of “regeneration.” It is routinely ignored in the seats, as well as the pulpit, of our churches.
      As Christians who are regenerate, we are no longer beings who cannot avoid sin. We are now new creatures (rooted in our original selves) who can (and do!) resist sin; who are empowered to do good; and who have a completely changed relationship with God, who we can now call, “Father.” Our True Selves are what God always wanted for us from the beginning.
      While it seems unlikely that Steve Jobs had the Christian truth of regeneration in mind as he prepared and gave his speech; Thomas Merton and Parker Palmer most definitely did and they were calling Christians to live in their True – regenerate – Selves. Those are very important and significant insights.
Yet even common wisdom recognizes that part of our development as fully-functioning adults is to form our unique identity; to separate from our parents, experiences, and self-centeredness; and recognize who we are.
      These notions are a strong thread throughout Christianity – especially in individualistic cultures such as the U.S. or Great Britain in the last half-century. Youth leaders encourage their students to make their faith their own; not the faith of their parents’ or hero’s. Rick Warren’s Purpose Drive Life encourages people to recognize the “S.H.A.P.E.” of their lives.
      And I fully recognize that these thoughts do not have the same traction in strongly communal cultures. So, my trans-cultural friends: love y’guys; but don’t beat me up – I’m talking to my tribe, now. Still, the point to be made is that this notion to “Don’t live someone else’s life” is an application to a specific societal context, not a core Biblical truth. The notion is helpful and healing for those whose psychology, social context, and culture require them to work out their identity in strong individualistic contexts.
      So, what is the core Biblical truth? If distinguishing between True Self and False Self is an application of a core truth – what is the core Biblical Truth?
      Already we have touched on the theological concept of regeneration. But there are other Biblical inputs to consider.
      In the Apostle Paul’s letter to his church buddies in the city of Colossae, he makes a statement that is easy to pass over because it … well, … it just doesn’t immediately make sense. Here it is: “If then you have been raised with Christ, … For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4). What does this mean, ‘I have been raised with Christ,’ ‘my life is hidden with Christ,’ ‘Christ who is my life?’ When did I ever die and then get raised from the dead?? Earlier in that letter: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses … God made alive together with him …” (Col 2:13). Here’s Paul again in another letter: “… even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:5-6).
      Let me cut to the chase: theologically, God has worked such that Christians have the biography of Jesus incorporated into their own biography. When Paul says that Christians “died,” he means that they have recorded the same death that Jesus experienced: a punishment for their sin that Jesus actually experienced. When Jesus was raised from the dead, so too were Christians: raised into newness of life. This engrafting of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is a deep truth that leads to great blessing. If it is true that we have died and been raised – as happened to Jesus – then it is also true that we can live our lives as Jesus did on this earth, in this world.
      So, in this way, I’m pushing back on the notion that we shouldn’t live someone else’s life. I do this because, theologically, our life (as Christians) IS someone else’s – Jesus.
      I will remind good Bible students of all of those references of believers being “in Christ,” or “in Jesus.” Here’s another – a verse that many of us memorized: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). The life I now live in the early 21st century is by my trust and confidence in Jesus who gave his life for, and to, me.
      Our standing before God as Christians is because we have been crucified with Christ. In some way that is not clear to me now – a “mystery,” if you will – even though I have never experienced being crucified, according to God I was in fact being crucified with Jesus of Nazareth nearly 2,000 years ago. I have not yet experienced death; but according to God I not only have died, but been brought back from the dead … with Jesus when he was resurrected. Jesus’ story has become my story in a theological reality that I do not fully understand.

      All this to say that, in the unique case of Jesus, it really is OK to “live someone else’s life.” I don’t need to live in the expectations of others, or to try and be someone who I am not. Instead, I get to life the life God always had for me by looking to Jesus.

20170708

Small Things

I'm a believer in being grateful for the small blessings of life. Don't get me wrong, I have many great blessings in my life: family, friends, satisfying work, as well as many more conventional blessings of health, housing, transportation, and a few playthings. Every so often, I need a reality check.
Back in September of 2014, I read this quote by Al Molher: Prosperity Theology is a false Gospel. The problem with Prosperity Theology is not that is promises too much, but that it aims for so little.
I liked the quote for both shallow and deep reasons. Shallowly, because I hate - that is a strong, but appropriate, word - the so-called Health-Wealth-Prosperity ‘gospel. This quote by Molher, whatever it means, clearly is not pro Prosperity Theology. And I agree with that notion. Prosperity “Theology” is an abomination (also a strong term, and a bit old-fashioned, so it grants me gravitas) and a modern occurrence of the Apostle Paul's warning to his friends in Galatia: "... a different gospel -- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal 1:5b-6). The HWP ‘gospel’ is not a gospel - it's a pathetic and corrupting distraction from what Jesus and his apostles taught and lived.
Dr. Molher's quote also echoes C.S. Lewis:
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (emphasis in original, "Weight Of Glory").
And, the same for "Prosperity Theology." We are distracted from great things that can be ours by the minor trivialities that push themselves upon us. We pursue things of our world, now without much thought for the future – our REAL future.
This world is a nice place, isn't it? When the weather is nice (as it is right now as I'm writing), the blue sky, the cooling breeze, the green of trees and grass, the color of flowers are pleasant and meant to be enjoyable. We can enjoy the people we are with, the sense of fulfillment for a task done well, the satisfaction of understanding something we didn't realize before ... all those things are good and bring joy. Again, as they were meant to.
But for many, even most, our joy-happiness receptors are damaged. We want more; we want reward without effort; our imaginations are stunted; our vision is locked into the horizontal. For some, they know joy-happiness as only fleeting and wispy moments. For a few, joy-happiness is so corrupted that they find a substitute in the pain, control, and submission of others.
But it is in the realm of money, riches, 'prosperity,' wealth, and affluence that we tend to go a bit crazy. Why? Because ‘money’ is never just about money. ‘Money’ is not merely a medium of exchange but a key to status, comfort, control, and ‘prosperity.’ Or, so we think.
But, it never works out that way. While it is true that status usually comes with a lot of money, that status also comes with negative notoriety, resentment, and conflict. Comfort can come with a lot of money, but the sacrifices required are very uncomfortable. Control is an illusion. Steve Jobs – very rich, very influential, and still very dead over something that was out of even his control: disease.
There are rich people who are happy. Yet are they happy because they are rich, or are they happy because of other blessings in their lives? Money, for truly happy people, is a small thing. People can be happy with or without wealth – but not all wealthy people are happy.
We work so hard for wealth when wealth doesn’t deliver what we really need or want. To quote Lennon-McCartney, money “Can’t buy me love.” Even more reliable wisdom tells us that, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1Tim 6:10). And, just before that thought is this: “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (v.8). What we need is food and clothing; what we want is … well, more. And that’s where the wheels come off the wagon.
What is the MORE we want? Nobody can explain that.
But. The so-called ‘Prosperity Theology’ guys definitely want you to want more. And through a convoluted and misleading rationalization – including badly interpreted Bible, they assure us that as we contribute to their wealth, God will somehow have us become wealthy as a result.
So, not only does Prosperity Theology promise wealth, which doesn’t create happiness; but they make God into a genie who grants our wishes when we rub his lamp. That is, we can control God and his blessings by giving to the Prosperity Theology guys. If we can control God, then who is really more powerful? Ah, there’s the rub.
Not only is wealth really a small thing that may very well cause the disintegration of the really great things this world has to offer (as well as creating roadblocks to the next world, Matt. 19:23-24), but the Prosperity Theology people would have you embrace the illusion of control – that you can manipulate God himself. A god who can be so easily manipulated in not God.

Prosperity “theology” is not anything about the God who I worship. Prosperity Theology is the study of the god, Mammon.

20170626

The Imitation Of Christ?


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So, I have been pressing into a more “contemplative” spirituality over the last few years. This has been difficult as my temperament tends towards being an “activist.” I have made progress; even if it has been from ‘abysmal’ to merely ‘awful,’ that is still progress.

As part of my contemplative retreat process, I do some devotional reading. For years, people have been encouraging me to read The Imitation Of Christ by Thomas A’Kempis. It is an interesting work which can be positively challenging or negatively terrible – all in the space of a page.

A recent reading was one of those terrible sections – let me explain. Book Three, chapter 51 bemoans the horrible realization that we cannot be in a state of rapturous spiritual bliss all the time. OK, right off the bat, this strikes me as a Captain Obvious moment.

Our friend, Thomas, moves on: ‘… but you must need to, sometimes, because of original corruption lower yourself to inferior things’ (I paraphrased that because the translation I use has lots of “thees,” “thous,” and the like). Now our friend clarifies this: ‘As long as you carry a mortal body, you shall feel weariness and heaviness of heart.’ So, let me summarize: You should be always in a state of ecstatic spiritual bliss – but the world is awful because we are flesh and all physical existence is terrible and because of that, we sometimes have to accommodate our wonderful spiritual selves to the horrible world around us because we are stuck in a body.’ This is not an unfair reading of A’Kempis, here.

It seems to me that this reflects a “Platonic” or “Dualistic” view of life (popular among Greek and Persian philosophers and mystics). That is, that everything “spiritual” is good, perfect, and holy; but anything “material” is bad, corrupted, and evil. That notion is contrary to my understanding of the Bible.

God said, after he created the material world (Genesis 1:31), that all of it was “very good.” So, right off the bat, the ball of God’s material world was very good, not bad. Let that roll around your brain-pan for a while. The physical world was declared to be Very Good by holy, perfect, and good God. There is nothing INTRISIC or ‘of itself’ to the nature of the physical world that makes it bad, corrupted, or evil.

Then, in Genesis chapter three, we see that the spiritual world is broken by sin; specifically, in the relationships between humanity and God, humanity with each other, and humanity with the natural world. There seem to be concrete and physical effects, as well; but those are not (according to the Bible) the most devastating effects of sin. The apostle Paul, much later, comments that “… the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22).

If, according to A’Kempis, we are to imitate Jesus; then what was Jesus’ attitude towards this (apparently awful, no-good, horrible) place?
First, holy God became human (John 1:14) – there was nothing incompatible with holy God becoming human flesh.
Next, Jesus liked being a human being (Hebrews 2:11b) and had a whole host of experiences that showed he enjoyed his life as a flesh-and-blood human being and did not spend his time mopping around because he was ‘stuck in a body,’ as our friend Thomas would have us believe.

Ultimately, it seems that A’Kempis was a product of his times (as are we all, of course) who was highly influenced by the Roman church. The Roman church, at that time, was very influenced by Plato and (again, very simplistically) tended to view the Bible through the lens of Plato’s dualism.

But here's The Thing: to imitate Christ is to embrace the physical world and the flesh of humanness, not to denounce or reject it. Christ came and redeemed the world, not to abandon it.