Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

_____________________________________

[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.

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Remember Who You Are: The Beatitudes, Identity, and Vision

The movie, Wonder, is an inspirational story about a 10-year-old boy, Auggie Pullman, who suffers with Treacher Collins syndrome. After being taught at home most of his life, he started public school for the first time upon entering fifth grade. This required him to leave behind the astronaut helmet that he wore to hide his facial deformities. Sadly, he was ostracized by nearly the entire student body, but quickly became best friends with a boy named Jack Will. On Halloween, while everyone was dressed-up at school, he overheard Jack make fun of his deformities and tell the other boys that he was only pretending to be Auggie’s friend. Feeling betrayed, Auggie had a breakdown after arriving home.

His mother, Isabel, offered comfort by saying, “You are not ugly, Auggie,” who replied, “You just have to say that because you’re my mom.” She responded, “Because I am your mom, it counts the most, because I know you the most.” Since Isabel knew her son better than anyone else, she could see the truth about Auggie, even when he couldn’t see it himself. When the other kids were cruel, it was important for her to remind him that he was a good, kind-hearted, smart boy with a great sense of humor. When Auggie felt ugly and rejected, he needed her to speak truth into his life. Despite continued bullying at school, the words of truth spoken by his mother gave Auggie the strength to be his authentic self. As a result, other kids were also enabled to see below the surface of his deformities and accept him as a friend.

The truth that Auggie’s mother spoke reminded him of his true identity and encouraged him to live into that reality. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus does something similar for us in giving the beatitudes (5:1-12).

Remember that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a group of Jewish Christians who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. This was truly a paradigm shift in their thinking that resulted in big changes to their religious beliefs and way of life. It launched them on a new journey that took them into the heart of an emerging reality that Jesus called the kingdom of God. The decision to live in this new kingdom inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, meant to live under the reign of God in accordance with God’s values. However, these early Christians soon discovered that these values were diametrically opposed to the upside-down values of the world. In their very efforts to align their lives with God’s ways of life, they came face-to-face with fierce resistance, and instead of feeling blessed many felt cursed.

As the author of Matthew drew on the words of the historical Jesus to compose his gospel, the beatitudes became an occasion to remind these early Christians of their true identity in Christ and to encourage to them to keep the faith during times of difficulty. It’s like we can hear Jesus saying: While you might feel cursed when evaluating your circumstances according to the value system of the world, when seen according to the values of the kingdom you are truly blessed by God because you are living in the truth. Therefore, remember who you are and remain faithful. God looks upon you with favor and will vindicate and reward you in the end.

In this way, Jesus’ words gave encouragement and hope to a group of Christians who were struggling to find meaning in difficult circumstances, which were caused by their commitment to God’s way of life. In addition, the beatitudes revealed the marks of authentic discipleship, which not only confirmed that they were on the right path but also provided ongoing direction for their spiritual journey. With each pronouncement of blessing, Jesus says, “I declare by the power of my word that this is who you really are in the eyes of God, so remember who you are, be encouraged, and live into this reality.”

As we meditate on these pronouncements of blessing, Jesus can do the same for us. So, let’s turn to the beatitudes themselves to remember who we are and see more clearly who God is calling us to be.

 

The Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew[1]

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). The poor in spirit are those with no spiritual qualifications, charisma, or influence. No one would think to ask their opinion on religious matters or call on them to pray or teach a Bible study. According to the religious elites, these people were spiritually bankrupt and excluded from salvation without their rituals, teachings, and intercessions. Then Jesus comes along and says: God’s kingdom is open to you. Far from being excluded, God eagerly awaits your entry. While the “holier-than-thou” may look down on you, God sees your value and uses your spiritual poverty to reveal an important mark of authentic discipleship: humility. Those who are poor in spirit know that they cannot be saved by religion. Rather, they are entirely dependent upon God and find their identity, security, and hope in God’s saving action. Consequently, they are truly blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (5:5). Like Jesus, the meek are “gentle and humble in heart” (11:29). The world says, “Assert your will and leverage your power to take what you want,” but the meek renounce the coercive, domineering, and violent ways of the world. In so doing, they expose the dark side of power and the damage it does to human beings. While the meek look foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, Jesus says, “these are the ones who demonstrate real strength and who are truly blessed.” When God finishes the new creation, the meek—not the domineering, forceful, manipulative, or violent—will inherit the earth. You can mock them all you want as impotent and impractical, but God will vindicate and reward them in the end.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7). Like meekness, mercy is often seen as a sign of weakness. The world says, “If you are merciful, people will take advantage of you. If you don’t want to become a doormat, show strength not mercy.” But according to the value system of the kingdom, the merciful reflect the compassionate heart of God. By making the truth of God’s love and forgiveness real in this broken world, they show themselves to be true disciples. While the world may crush them for their kindness, Jesus says they are truly blessed because they reap what they sow—divine mercy.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (5:6). In this pronouncement, Jesus blesses people who sincerely pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth at it is in heaven” (6:10). They long for God to right-wise this fallen world with love, justice, and peace. They ache for the time when God will vindicate His people, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed. Based on this hope, they actively seek to extend the reign of God’s righteousness in the world around them, even at great cost to themselves. Since God is faithful, their hope is not in vain—their hunger for justice will be satisfied when God’s redemptive work in creation is complete.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (5:4). In this pronouncement, Jesus is not saying that mourning, in and of itself, is a virtue. Rather, like those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, he is blessing people who lament the present condition of God’s people in a world subject to sin, evil, and death. According to Jesus, the truly blessed refuse to resign themselves the present condition of the world but mourn the fact that God’s will has not yet been done “on earth as it is in heaven.” They are blessed because they will be comforted by God’s ultimate victory.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (5:9). Note that Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers,” those who fear conflict and sweep it under the rug. Nor does he endorse the kind of peacemaking done by the Romans at the tip of a sword. Rather, he pronounces blessing on those who are courageous enough to engage the incredibly difficult work of reconciliation. Peacemakers work to eliminate hostilities between enemies in hopes that they may be restored to friendship. While the bullies and conflict avoiders of the of the world try to sideline the peacemakers, Jesus says, “In the last judgement, they will be claimed as God’s children.”

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (5:8). Purity of heart is not about avoiding what some consider impure thoughts, but about single-minded devotion to God. Rather than dividing ourselves among several different loyalties, which will inevitably require us to compromise our values, our ultimate loyalty to God subordinates all others. This means that when the value system of the kingdom comes into conflict with the value system of the world, the kingdom always wins. Instead of serving two masters (6:24), we learn to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind (22:37). We how to live with “undivided heart” (Ps. 86:11). While the world may see the pure in heart as naïve, Jesus says that they are blessed because they will see God in the feast of the new creation.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:10-12).

As we have already seen, the value system of the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the value system of this present world. As disciples of Jesus try to imitate his life by being humble, meek, and merciful; as they hunger and thirst for justice and lay their lives on the line for reconciliation; as they act out of a single-minded devotion to God, they meet fierce resistance. In their imitation of Christ, their very life shines light in dark places, exposing the violence and injustice of the wicked, who, in turn, try to extinguish their light. One strategy for this is persecution: using power to silence, smear, discredit, dominate, oppress, imprison, punish, torture, and even kill. People who experience these sufferings may appear to be cursed by God when seen through the eyes of the world, but according to the values of the kingdom they are blessed because they suffer for the truth. While the powerful may make their lives a living hell on earth, Jesus says, “their reward will be great . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

 

Summary and Challenge

These words of Jesus, reminding us of who we are and encouraging us along the way, are important as we navigate change on the journey to transformation. When all the evidence suggests that we are cursed for embracing a cruciform way of life, we need to evaluate our circumstances in light of the value system of the kingdom. This is no easy task, because challenge, discomfort, and pain cause us to lose perspective, especially since the value system of the world seems to be our native language. But if we see ourselves through its distorted lenses, we are easily discouraged and tempted to give-up and turn back.

In order to cultivate the courage, strength, and hope to keep moving forward with Jesus, we must find ways to stay focused on the value system of the kingdom. We do this by developing a daily discipline of prayer and meditation on scripture (especially the teachings of Jesus). We do this by sharing life with the friends of Jesus who are marginalized and oppressed. We do this by declaring the reign of God’s righteousness in worship and allowing every aspect of our lives to be an expression of God’s glory. We do this by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love.

Focusing on the value system of the kingdom of God sharpens our ability to see the world and ourselves as God does, which is encouraging when all hell breaks loose. By meditating on the beatitudes we are reminded who we are, given direction for our journey, and empowered by renewed vision and hope.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I’m blinded by the value system of the world and begin to think that I’m cursed, remind me of who I am in Christ and help me see the world in the light of your coming kingdom.

(This post is the fifth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

[1] My understand of the beatitudes is informed by E. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes [NIBC], 178-180.

 

 

 

 

The Temptation to Escape Pain: Three Stumbling Blocks to Spiritual Transformation

“I can’t take any more heartbreak.” Zach[1] was a man that struggled with anxiety, loneliness, and a deep fear of being alone. Over the course of many years he had learned to deal with these feelings through serial monogamy. Bad feelings were triggered by a break-up, after which he would quickly go on the hunt. Eventually, he would meet someone new, whose attention and affection would sooth his discomfort. However, the bad feelings always came back after the newness of the relationship wore off, which compel Zach to act in possessive and controlling ways. Predictably, within several months the relationship would unravel, throwing him back into the anxiety and loneliness he was trying to escape. After several years of this vicious cycle, he was sitting in my office at the end of his rope.

I suggested that Zach devote himself to a season of singleness. Instead of focusing all his attention on finding the perfect partner to banish his loneliness, perhaps he should go inward to discover the wounds that were driving his pain. “Zach, as long as you are self-medicating with women, you will never see the roots of the problem, and they will continue to control you behind your back.”

What Zach needed was to find a way to abide with his pain long enough to understand it and to develop some tools to work through it. Instead of compulsively trying to get out of discomfort, he needed to feel it, reflect on it, pray about it, and talk about it. Unfortunately, Zach didn’t act on this counsel, but immediately jumped into another dating relationship, starting the self-defeating cycle all over again.

How often are we like Zach? When experiencing discomfort or pain, how often do we compulsively do things to distract and console? We know in our heart of hearts that this is a fruitless, even self-destructive, way of handling things, but the scream for soothing is louder than the whisper of wisdom.

But wisdom teaches that if we want healing and transformation then we must find a way to deal with the temptation to circumvent emotional and spiritual pain.

 

How the Temptations of Jesus Can Help

We find wisdom for this part of our journey in the temptations of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (4:1-11). As we focus on this passage, what’s most helpful is not a literal interpretation of the specific trials, but an understanding of the dynamics of temptation revealed by a symbolic reading of the story.

 

Trial 1

After Jesus had been fasting in the desert for forty days, the “tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (4:3). In this way, Jesus was tempted to grasp something readily available to him and transform it into something else that would satisfy his hunger.

At first glance, we might not be able to see ourselves in this part of the story, but if we look more deeply it becomes clear that we too face this temptation. Discomfort and pain trigger cravings that we try to satisfy by misusing God’s good gifts. For example, the Bible says that wine, in moderation, is a divine blessing that makes the heart merry, and Jesus’ use of wine in the Last Supper elevates it as a symbol of forgiveness and the full reign of God’s righteousness on Earth. Unfortunately, many abuse this good gift by using it as an emotional anesthetic. Likewise, God gives us sexual intimacy to nurture deep and abiding love, but many transform it into a strategy for escaping pain. Through fantasy and objectification, human beings become objects that can be consumed to satisfy selfish hungers and sooth discomfort. Even emotional gifts like anger can be used to cover-up fear and hurt. God gives us the capacity for anger so that we can recognize and respond to injustice, but we transform it into an obsessive form of negative excitement that hides our fear and brokenness.

Indeed, virtually every good gift of God can be converted by the sinful use of power into a strategy for escaping emotional and spiritual pain. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). Jesus refuses to misuse people and things to deliver him from discomfort but endures these experiences as necessary for the life to which God had called him.

 

Trial 2

Then the tempter led Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus responds, “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (4:5-6).

How often do we try to get God to perform a magic trick that will exempt us from the natural consequences of our own actions? The temptation of immature and false religion can be seen in our attempts to leverage God’s love and faithfulness to get miraculous relief from pain. Of course, there is nothing wrong with expressing our desires to God, and God certainly works in mysterious ways to help us through difficulty, but mature spirituality always gives way to the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, Matt. 26:42).

Nevertheless, when wrestling with the negative consequences of their own actions, religious people sometimes spiritually and emotionally regress. “God, what have I done to deserve this? I have been faithful to you, so if you love me, if you are faithful and just, then rescue me from this pain!” Some even act as if the request for a magic trick is completely selfless: “God, miraculously deliver me from this bad situation I’ve caused for myself so that unbelievers will come to know your power.”

In this way, we put God’s love, faithfulness, and power to the test, while indulging ourselves in magical thinking, entitlement, self-righteousness, and self-deception. Instead of focusing on doing God’s will, we try to get God to do ours.

 

Trial 3

Finally, the tempter took Jesus “to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world . . . and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). According to the story, the devil had the kingdoms of the world to give because he, in some sense, ruled them. Interestingly, to worship the devil in this case meant to accept that he was the rightful ruler of this world and to endorse his methods and strategies. He was essentially saying, “Jesus, if you accept the world on my terms and play by my rules, then I can make you successful beyond your wildest dreams. But you must put your faith in me and do it my way.”

As odd as it might sound, “worshiping the devil” in this way this also is a temptation for us. We are encouraged to figure out how the world works and then leverage our power within this system to gain worldly success at the expense of others. If you can accept the brutal facts about how the world works, curry favor with the rich and powerful, leverage the right resources, and intelligently navigate the politics of it all, then you too can be the envy of all your friends and banish all your anxiety. This will require you to compromise or sacrifice some of your most deeply held beliefs and values, but the payoff is incredible!

Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (4:10). When we are tempted to capitulate to the value system of the world and accommodate our lives to escape pain through the acquisition of success, Jesus says, “It’s a trap.” Worldly success does not magically heal your pain and make you happy. There are more miserable successful people than you might imagine, and while they appear to have everything you’ve ever wanted, deep inside you can hear the crickets chirping in their souls. Without deep spiritual transformation, they are invariably haunted by the question, “Is this all there is? Is this what I practically killed myself for?” (“Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

 

Illusions that Drive the Dynamics of Temptation

These trials of Jesus in the desert disclose three things that perpetually threaten to derail our journey toward transformation, and at their core they disclose the same compulsion: to escape discomfort. All of us are tempted in innumerable ways to leverage our personal power to escape pain, compulsively grasping for things and experiences that promise immediate relief. We do this by transforming God’s good gifts into various kinds of anesthetics, leveraging our relationship with God to force a divine magic trick, and sacrificing deeply held beliefs and values to attain worldly success.

But the temptations only work if are duped into accepting three assumptions.

  1. All forms of discomfort and pain are unproductive and bad.
  2. We can circumvent discomfort and pain and still get everything we want.
  3. There are shortcuts and magic tricks that if shrewdly applied will give us immediate gratification.

Of course, these assumptions are false.

Experience teaches us that not all the discomfort and pain we experience is bad. In fact, spiritual and emotional growth require us to abide with these feelings to learn the lessons they teach and to tend to the inner wounds that drive them. At the beginning of our Bible story, we read the words, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (4:1). Jesus was baptized by John and given a vision of his true identity and mission, and before his shirt was dry God drove him into the desert. Why? Because abiding in this lonely and uncomfortable place was necessary for him to become in reality what God had already declared him to be. Likewise, God leads us into desert places and exposes us to challenge and pain to create the necessary conditions for healing, freedom, and transformation. We cannot experience lasting change without working through our pain (which requires us to cultivate the virtues of longsuffering and forbearance).

Finally, experience teaches us that there are no shortcuts and magic tricks for receiving the gifts that make life worth living. It takes time to develop loving relationships. It takes time to develop character and cultivate virtues like faith, temperance, patience, kindness, humility, and courage, all of which are necessary for a truly happy life. It takes time to attain wisdom, develop our gifts and talents, and find the best ways to share them with the world. It takes time to let go of ego and live into the reality of your true self in the unity of all things. The tempter says, “You can bypass the pain and get it all now if you’re willing to misuse your personal power.” But, Jesus says, “Be true to yourself and faithful to the life which I have called you. Trust God’s goodness, faithfulness, and timing, and God will give you abundant life.”

And Jesus would know, because after enduring temptation, God eventually gave him everything the devil offered ahead of schedule (Robert Capon, The Romance of the Word, 192-195). The devil tempted him to turn a few stones into bread, and Jesus would later multiply two fish and five loaves to feed 5,000 people (by any account, a much greater feat). The devil promised relief from hunger, and Jesus would later feast with his disciples and talk about the heavenly banquet that he would host for all eternity. The devil promised the ministry of angels, but as soon as Jesus sent him away, “suddenly angels came and waited on him” (4:11). The devil offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and a few years later God raised him from the dead and made him the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

If Jesus had taken matters into his own hands and used his power for immediate gratification, it would have corrupted the very gifts that God had promised and would have led to his downfall. But he waited for God and received them in ways that no one, including the devil, could take away. God promises the same to us. If we are willing to abide in a desert place, God will use it in God’s time and in God’s way to transform us in ways that lead to abundant life.

 

Challenge

How do you deal with discomfort? What happens inside of you in response to feelings like sadness, fear, loneliness, guilt, anger, anxiety, or boredom? Do you compulsively try to get out of pain, or have you learned how to stay with it long enough to get curious about the lessons it can teach? Do you distract and console or do you allow yourself to feel, reflect, pray, journal, and talk about it?

Which of the three strategies illustrated in the temptations of Jesus do you most frequently employ as an escape hatch? Do you misuse your personal power to transform the good gifts of God into anesthetics? Do you leverage your relationship with God in hopes of a divine magic trick? Do you abandon your most deeply held beliefs and values in executing strategies for worldly success? What would it mean for you to recognize at least some of your pain could be a pathway to spiritual transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the strength to abide in my pain long enough to learn the lessons that only it can teach.

 

(This post is the fourth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[1] The name of the person has been changed to protect his identity.

Faith and Courage: Overcoming Fear of the New

When was the last time you experienced a big change?

For me it was a few years ago. After living alone for ten years, I was remarried in August 2015. My wife, Emma, had an estate sale, packed-up her belongings, and moved into my home with her two small children, Evie and Isaac, who I loved as my own. This was a big change for everyone involved, including my two older sons, Jobe and Jackson, who returned home for visits.

Six months later, just as we finished unpacking the last boxes, I received a call from my District Superintendent who said, “Mark, you’re moving to Cocoa Beach to become the new Pastor at First United Methodist Church.” Before we could even establish a new normal as a blended family, we had to relocate and start all over again with new jobs, new friends, and new schools for the kids.

These two major changes evoked a host of feelings, including fear.

 

The Gift of a Paradigm Shift

There are many stories in the Bible that help us deal with fear, but one of my favorites is the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 2:1-23.

As a recap, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem in search of the newborn king of the Jews. When Herod got word of this, he freaked out because he was already the king of the Jews. The prospect of a new king was a direct threat to his seat of power, so he decided to eliminate the threat by killing the baby. After calling all the religious leaders together and learning that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod lied to the wise men, saying, “Go and find where he is, then come back and tell me, so I too can go and pay him homage.” The wise men found the baby Jesus and honored him by giving gifts to the family: frankincense, myrrh, and gold. These specific gifts are important to understand an important lesson in the story.

Remember that something horrible happened to the Jews in the year AD 70, their temple was destroyed. The one thing that gave meaning and value to the whole world–the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life–was demolished. This led to a massive loss of meaning as they struggled with the question, “How can we make sense of the world anymore?” Some Jews thought that the destruction of the temple signaled the end of the world. Others thought that God would rebuild the temple if the Jewish people would perfectly keep the sacred covenant made with their ancestors.

In contrast, the author of Matthew had a different view, which he symbolically communicated by his account of the gifts brought by the wise men. According to Alexander John Shaia, frankincense and myrrh were essential components in the most important temple rituals and were as costly as the gold of the Temple’s vessels (Heart and Mind 82). Myrrh was an aromatic resin added to the oil used for royal and priestly anointings, and frankincense was burn during the highest sacrificial offerings. By having the magi give these gifts to Jesus, the author of Matthew symbolically transfers the components of the old physical Temple to Jesus, the Messiah and emissary of a new inner temple. The author is essentially saying, “Don’t focus on the physical rebuilding of the Temple but on how God is building a new temple inside of you!”

This was a paradigm shift that required a new spiritual journey to make sense of it all.

 

A Call to Radical Transformation

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as calling us to new life, and a call to new life is a call to radical transformation—a paradigm shift in our thinking and believing, a spiritual revolution. The most obvious example is found in John 3 were Jesus is recorded as saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (v. 3). The call to new birth is a call to new life. The implication, of course, is that we must leave our old life behind. We are called out of the familiar and comfortable and invited into a space that is foreign and challenging, which typically evokes fear.

As human beings, most of us are afraid of the unknown. However, we also experience times when old ways of thinking, believing, and doing no longer work. This creates a tension between the impulse to move in a new direction and the impulse to remain in familiar territory. Eventually this tension forces a decision. We can either turn backward and to try to recover a lost past, or we can face our fears and move into a new future.

Jesus calls us to move forward by calling us to new life. He also helps us see that we can muster the faith and courage to navigate change if we understand that this is precisely how God intends to transform us, and also that God will guide and redeem every step we take, even those that lead us into dangerous territory.

 

 Abiding in Dangerous Places

If the story of Jesus’ birth is any indication of what God may expect of us, we must prepare to abide in dangerous places.

Shortly after Jesus was born, God called Joseph to take his family to Egypt, the place where his ancestors were enslaved and abused. This must have been a terrifying prospect, but it was necessary to protect the newborn King from Herrod’s murderous plot. Like the holy family, God sometimes calls us to scary places to protect the new birth happening within.

This means different things for different people.

Sometimes we are literally called to relocate to a risky place. Think, for example, of men and women who feel drawn to dangerous mission fields in places like Central America, Africa, or the Middle East. Listening to their stories, it’s clear that God radically transforms people who make personal sacrifices to help others. Sharing life with people in dangerous places can give us a radically new perspective and exponentially grow our faith.

For others, the call is more symbolic. Some people are called to scary emotional places. If we struggle with old wounds that keep us stuck in dysfunction, our transformation may require us to abide in scary emotional places to work through memories of loss, neglect, abuse, or moral failure. Some are even called to scary spiritual places, to a time of great questioning, doubt, and even loss of faith. Tradition teaches that most people experience a crisis of faith before a genuine spiritual transformation.

 

 Sometimes We Can’t Go Home

In my own experience, the journey to transformation is long and challenging. As we see the light at the end of the tunnel, our hope is often to go home, even if in a different way. This is the journey of the hero, which we see, for example, in Greek Epic Poems such as Homer’s Odyssey. However, we sometimes discover that we cannot go home because home will not nurture the new birth emerging within. Home no longer fits who we are.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph are from the region of Judea and probably lived in or around Bethlehem. This is very different from the story told in Luke where they lived in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem late in Mary’s pregnancy because of a Roman census. However, a careful reading of Matthew suggests that the Holy family already lived in Bethlehem and experienced a home birth. This is an important detail because after living as refugees in Egypt, they were hoping to return home after the death of Herod. However, this hope would remain unrealized because Archelaus, son of Herod, assumed control of Judea and presented an ongoing threat to the baby Jesus. Thus, God warned them in a dream not to go home, but to build a new life in Nazareth, which was considered a dumpy little town in the region of Galilee.

Sometimes we too make a hard journey only to discover we cannot go home. Again, this means different things for different people. Sometimes we get the feeling that we, literally, cannot go home. Think of how many young people go off to college, experience transformation, and decide to move to a new city after graduation. As we grow and change, we sometimes need a new start in a new place, so we can build a new life that fits who we’ve become.

For others this is more symbolic. Some people cannot go home emotionally. When thinking about the true meaning of home, we usually focus on our most important relationships, and as we experience transformation we often discover that we cannot return to these old relationships in the same way. Some relationships need to end, and others need to be redefined by clear boundaries. As we renegotiate old relationships and nurture new friendships that support our new birth, it often becomes clear that we cannot go home emotionally.

Likewise, many can’t go home spiritually. Sometimes we must walk away from (or drastically reinterpret) what we were taught in the religion of our youth. The old ways of thinking, believing, and acting just don’t make sense anymore; they don’t fit who we are and what we have come to see as beautiful, valuable, and true. Sometimes these old beliefs even prove to be hurtful, exclusionary, and death-dealing, requiring us to actively resist them. This often requires us to find a new church, a new denomination, even a new religion. Sometimes we cannot return home spiritually.

 

Faith and Courage

Every aspect of this journey requires enormous faith and courage, gifts that God is ready to give to those who have open hearts and minds.

First, God gives us internal resources. In Matthew 2, we see that the magi followed a star, which is an enduring metaphor for a spirit that guides us. The English word “disaster” literally means “dis-star,” and to be separated from your star is to be separated from a deep, inner wisdom (Shaia, Heart and Mind, 82). Likewise, angels in the Bible are messengers that God uses to communicate important things to human beings. Understood symbolically, they can also represent a deep inner wisdom.

From a Christian perspective, we often speak of the Spirit of Christ living in us. Since Christ resides in the deepest part of who we are—what is often called the soul—Christians are encouraged to go deep inside themselves to meet Christ there, so that we can hear the wisdom he whispers. Most often this happens in stillness, solitude, and silence as we pray and meditate on scripture.

In addition, God sends us external resources. Just as God sent the magi to the holy family, God sends us wise people who bring good gifts to support our journey toward transformation. Often these people are the ones we least expect, people who are foreign, strange, different, weird, even disagreeable. They could even people be people of a different religion or no religion at all. (Remember, the magi were Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia.) The messengers God sends can come in the form of close friends or passing acquaintances, and their voices can come to us in personal conversations or through their writings, songs, art, or films. Furthermore, the gifts that God gives to us through them take different forms. Some will be small, like a piece of the past resolved, and others will large, like the call to new life.

Whether these gifts come from within or without, we can trust that they will be powerful and precious. They will give us the faith and courage we need to start the journey, to travel through dangerous places, and to build a new home to support a new life. However, to receive them we must keep expectant watch, and when divine messages come we must be attentive so that their wisdom can unfold as we travel.

 

Challenge

Have you heard the invitation to new life? Have you mustered enough faith and courage to take the first step? Have you been willing to go to those scary places that require more personal and spiritual work? Have you met the challenge of building a new home? Where are you in all of this? Have you been able to find the faith and courage you need to walk the road of transformation?

 

Prayer

God, give me the wisdom, faith, courage, and support I need to continuing walking the path to radical transformation.

 

(This post is the third in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

The Power in the Bad Parts of Your Story

More people purchased genetic ancestry tests last year than in the four previous years combined. To date, approximately twelve million people around the world have used this service. The jump can be partially explained by the affordability of these tests and the millions of dollars spent every year in advertising by companies like ancestry.com and 23andMe. But these sales strategies wouldn’t work if people didn’t already have an interest in learning their history. The desire to feel connected to the story of our ancestors seems like a universal phenomenon, and the Jewish people living during the time of Jesus are no exception.

 

The Loss of Meaning

It’s difficult to describe how important the Temple was for first century Palestinian Jews. The beautiful structure was located in Jerusalem high atop the pinnacle of Mount Moriah. For a 1,000 years it had been the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life. It was the one thing that gave meaning, value, and purpose to the entire universe.

During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled Israel, and while the relationship between the native people and the occupying power waxed and waned over the years, something catastrophic happen to the Jews in the year C.E. 70. In response to a revolt around Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian destroyed the Temple. It’s high altar was shattered into tiny pieces, scrolls of the Torah were burned, holy vessels were destroyed, and the walls of the temple were dismantled and removed from the city stone by stone until nothing was left. If this weren’t bad enough, Roman soldiers executed almost all the Temple authorities, including the priests, scribes, and their families, and also killed many innocents who were on pilgrimage. In this way, the Romans annihilated the one thing that made sense of the whole world. This unimaginable loss initiated a time of massive change, requiring the rebirth of a people.

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a small group of Jews who were trying to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in the context of their belief that Jesus was the promised messiah. Given this historical background, we can understand why the author of Matthew would start his gospel with a genealogy.

 

What’s Up with All Those Names?

Many contemporary readers skip over the genealogy because most of the names are foreign to us, and long lists of unknown names seem boring and irrelevant. But for a first century Jew undergoing seismic change, this genealogy would have been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope.

On the surface, Matthew is clearly trying to make two important points in listing all these names. First and foremost, he was giving evidence that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the answer to Jewish prayer. Second, the author was saying, “Take heart because this is your heritage. You came from a long line of people who endured tremendous loss and prevailed. You came from heroes like Abraham and David, and like them you are strong. You are heirs of the promised messiah and are special.” This was an important message for a people who desperately needed encouragement in the face of deep loss and change.

However, a close reading of this passage discloses another important message.

 

Breaking with Tradition

It’s important to note that genealogies were not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Sumerians, Egyptians, and other groups wrote genealogies to show how their people were exemplary by tracing their lineage through the most admirable and powerful people in their past. When doing this, they were careful to omit anyone that might evoke embarrassment.

What’s striking is that the author of Matthew doesn’t do this.

If you look at the list of people in Matthew 1:1-17, you’ll notice that the genealogy breaks with Ancient Near Eastern custom in important ways. Most notably, he included women in the genealogy. This is strange, because in the ancient world everyone traced their lineage through men. Men were thought to contain the seed of life, and women were expected to provided their bodies to simply grow the fetus until birth. Since the person growing inside the woman was thought to come entirely from the man, genealogies didn’t typically include the names of women. So the author of Matthew broke with established custom and did something that he didn’t have to do, something that nobody would have expected him to do.

What’s even more striking is that Matthew included names that evoked scandal.

Take, for example, the mention of Tamar. There was a patriarch named Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. But before Er and Tamar could have children, he was killed for being wicked in the sight of God. Since Tamar was childless at his death, she fell under the ancient custom of Levirate marriage and married Er’s brother, Onan. The expectation was for her to bear children to continue the family name. But he also did things that were wicked in the eyes of God, which resulted in his untimely death. Judah, her father-in-law, convinced her to remain unmarried until his youngest son, Shela, was old enough to become her husband. However, in the interim Judah came to see Tamar as a curse on his family and reneged on the deal. Heartbroken and desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law. She became pregnant, and when Judah heard the news he sentenced her to death until she was able to prove that he was the father of her twins, Perez and Zerah. This sounds like an episode of the Maury Povich show!

What’s interesting is that Matthew could have avoided evoking all this scandal by simply saying, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah,” but he intentionally continued, “by Tamar” (1:3). It seems odd that Matthew would not only break with custom by adding a female name, but choose a name that would evoke such an embarrassing story.

The same is true of the unnecessary reference to Bathsheba. When listing the heroes of the Jewish faith, the author could have simply said, “David was the father of Solomon,” but he intentionally continued, “by the wife of Uriah” (1:6). Why reference Bathsheba, and why do it in a way that would intentionally evoke another scandalous story? It’s like Matthew was saying, “Hey remember when our most admired king was overcome with lust and selfishness, misused his power to force a married woman into having an affair with him, got her pregnant, and then had her husband murdered on the battlefield? Yeah, that guy!” King David was remembered for some pretty great achievements in the history of Israel, so why refer to Bathsheba and draw attention to his biggest moral failure?

Also, in Matthew 1:5, the author names Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who rescued Hebrew spies on a recognizance mission in Jericho prior to the conquest of the Holy Land. Again, why add a Canaanite prostitute to a Jewish genealogy?

 

The Power of the Bad Parts of Your Story

Perhaps one reason Matthew mentioned these women is to remind us of the power of the bad parts of our story. The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was not to give a sanitized version of Israel’s history, so they could delude themselves with ethnic pride. Rather, its purpose was to remind the Messianic Jews of how God had remained faithful throughout the generations in both the good times and bad. Of how God worked in and through their people, not only when they were faithful covenant partners but also unfaithful covenant breakers. Of how God used the good and the bad choices of ordinary human beings to transform them, and through them the world.

The author of Matthew knew that the power of their ancestral stories was not in the moral perfection or nobility of their national heroes, but in God’s ability to work through success and failure to reveal truth, love, justice, and healing. Indeed, people like Abraham and David, Rahab and Ruth, didn’t become heroes of the faith because they always did the right thing, but because they experienced incredible suffering (which was often the result of their own bad choices) and came out on the other side stronger and wiser because they trusted God and believed in themselves.

Matthew shows us that the dark parts of our story can be the most powerful, that when understood in the context of God’s providential and redeeming love they can be great sources of courage, strength, and hope. We see that when navigating disorienting change, we needed the power of our whole story, because a story without bad parts is a story without redemption, and a story without redemption is a story that’s incapable of transforming us for the good.

 

Embracing and Sharing Your Whole Story

All of us want to see ourselves as good people, and we want others to see us as good people too. As a result, we often try to deny, minimize, or hide the bad parts, not only from others but also from ourselves. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from the most inspirational and transformative parts of our story. We need to remember the times when we were at our worst, because it is here that we see most clearly God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption manifest in our lives. Remembering the bad parts and how God used them to transform us can provide a wellspring of memories capable of renewing our courage, strength, and hope as we move through new seasons of change and loss.

And it’s not just our personal stories that can help, but also our family stories and the stories of our spiritual ancestors. Reading about our forerunners in the Bible empowers us to remember that if God helped them, then God can help us too. Reading about the saints of our own time, like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., gives us hope that if they could faithfully navigate change, then we can too. Remembering our family stories can also provide wisdom as we make decisions and move into a new future.

 

Challenge

Take some time this week to remember the bad parts of your story. Some may have experienced real trauma and will need the help of a skilled therapist, but most of us can safely recall memories of things we would rather forget or hide. It can be healing to recall these dark spots and reflect on good questions: What happened? What was changing or shifting? Where was God? What did I learn? How did I experience redemption? How did it transform me? How can I draw from this story as a source of wisdom and strength when dealing with change and loss today? And how can I make my story available to others who also need inspiration and encouragement?

I also encourage you to surround yourself with people, poems, books, stories, music, art, and films that inspire you. Let them nurture your soul and give you strength.

 

Prayer

God, help me see my whole story in the light of your redeeming love so that I can receive the gifts of courage, strength, and hope that it has to offer.

 

(This post is the second in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Radical Transformation: Introducing the Quadratos

I used to be significantly overweight.

There were several reasons for this, but one contributing factor was the habit of eating six fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies every night after dinner. Before I knew it, the scale was reading 226. This might not seem too bad since I’m 6’1”, but due to a small bone frame, my ideal weight is around 170.

For my body type, I was obese. This not only affected me physically but also emotionally. So one day I got fed-up and made a decision to change. I was going to lose weight and transform my health.

I started educating myself about proper nutrition and exercise, which helped me understand the specific actions I needed to take. When reading the experts, I believed what they were saying and, based on their suggestions, I created a change plan. I trusted that this plan would work if I acted on it daily. So I went to the gym almost every morning and did all the exercises the best I could, even the ones I hated like lunges (which are from the devil). I also ate healthy, properly portioned meals.

Through consistent, daily, disciplined action, I gradually transformed my body, going from 226 to as low as 156 . . . at which point my mother told me to eat a sandwich. Nevertheless, I was in the best shape of my life.

While I have never returned to 226, my weight has fluctuated over the years. The reason is simple: I stop working my plan. Sometimes I recognize that I’m gaining weight, which creates a desire to get fit. But my awareness and desire is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even make a decision to get healthy again. “On Monday, I’m going to start eating right and exercising.” But the decision by itself is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even return to the fitness and nutrition literature and create a new plan. But my knowledge and planning are not enough to transform me. I can even believe in my heart of hearts that the plan will work if I follow it. But my belief in the plan is not enough to transform me. Sometimes I even take a step in the right direction by buying healthy food, rejoining the gym, and working my new plan for a couple of days or weeks. But these initial steps are not enough to transform me.

Transformation only happens when I put all these things together in a consistent way over a long period time, which is the whole point of a fitness plan.

 

Christianity and Transformation

Similarly, the whole point of Christianity is radical transformation. While Christians take comfort in knowing that we rest in the eternal care of a loving God upon death, being a Jesus follower is not primarily about dying and going to heaven. Rather, it’s about a radical transformation that happens over time as we daily follow Jesus, a transformation that makes us more loving, just, kind, compassionate, peaceful, and joyful. In this way, we enjoy life to its fullest and become a blessing to others.

Jesus says in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Likewise, in Ephesians 4 we are called to renounce our former way of life, our old self, and to be renewed in the spirit of our minds. This is an invitation to a new way of life, which leads to a new self.  

Being a Christian is about being a disciple; being a disciple is about being a follower; and being a follower is about learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in our daily lives until we draw our last breath. This is the path to radical transformation—what the tradition calls sanctification—and there are no magic pills or shortcuts.

This means that being a Christian cannot be reduced to an awareness, for example an awareness of our need for God. It’s not simply about confessing sin in a moment of heighted guilt, or even believing that Jesus can save us. Nor it is about giving intellectual assent to a set of biblical or theological propositions, like when a church gives you a checklist of religious claims and says, “If you can tick-off all the boxes with a clear conscience then you can join our tribe.”  Christianity is not about becoming a member of a church. You can do all these things and still not be a true follower of Jesus. You can do all of this and still not experience radical transformation.

Why? Because Christianity is a way of life under the Lordship of Jesus the Christ. The earliest Christians were called “Followers of the Way,” referring to the way of life Jesus revealed in his life, death, and resurrection. Being a Christian is about deciding every day to completely surrender our will and lives over to the care and guidance of Christ. This decision is manifest in action as we learn more about Jesus through diligent study and prayer and practice these teaching in our daily interactions. This is a long, challenging, and even messy process, with many ups and downs, successes and failures. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But if we dedicate our lives to learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus and keep moving forward then we are promised radical transformation. To hope for anything less is to embrace a partial or false gospel.

 

The Quadratos as a Guide to Transformation

Fortunately, we are not without guidance on this journey toward transformation. We have scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to help us. Regarding scripture, we are gifted with the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which contain the core teachings of Jesus.

While there are different ways of reading these Gospels, one that is particularly helpful is called the Quadratos (Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind, 2017). This interpretive tool helps us see the Gospels as a fourfold path to transformation, disclosing four major movements in the life of faith.

The first path begins with the Gospel of Matthew, where we are reminded that human beings desire permanence and resist change. Nevertheless, the world is in constant flux, and at various points we all experience significant change and loss, which evokes fear, betrayal, grief, and confusion. If we don’t handle these experiences wisely, they can throw us off-course on our journey. Facing life during significant change requires new spiritual resources, which the Gospel of Matthew helps us cultivate.

The Second path of the journey continues with the Gospel of Mark. In the first path, we are called to confront our fears and insecurities in the face of deep change, but as we continue to the second path these fears and insecurities fight back. The Gospel of Mark speaks to people who are undergoing intense emotional and spiritual suffering, people who are feeling isolated and abandoned. This season of life is like crossing a stormy sea or walking through an arid desert, but Christians have the Gospel of Mark to help them move through suffering on the journey to transformation. This is by far the most painful and difficult path of our journey.

As we faithfully follow Jesus, he leads us through change and suffering with the promise of great joy, which is the fruit of the third path revealed in the Gospel of John. As we remain faithful through the difficulties and missteps of the first two paths, God gives us times in which we experience the joy of intimate communion with the mystery of the world. These are sometimes described as unitive experiences, where we feel the oneness of all creation in the deep embrace of the divine. While this ecstatic experience is difficult to describe, people universally speak of a profound sense that everything—the totality of reality—is a pure gift of grace, which generates a deep sense of gratitude. This season of life is like resting in beautiful garden, and the Gospel of John helps us to recognize and receive these moments of joy in ways that are generative and productive for our journey.

But experience teaches us that we cannot stay in the garden. After receiving the joy of intimate communion with God, we are called to walk the road of loving service and to share our gifts with others. We are called to the fourth path revealed in the Gospel of Luke. Through patient trial and error, we learn to author our own life in service to others, especially those around us who are most vulnerable and needy. Filled with new energy, excitement, and perspective on the third path, we step out of the garden of John into the gifts and challenges of daily life. As we remain in the courage of our journey, we find more joy and transformation than we ever thought possible. On Luke’s fourth path, we are shown how to cultivate patience, faith, and equanimity. Our hearts and minds are reshaped by humility, compassion, and love.

It’s important to note that we do not simply walk these four paths once, but cycle through them repeatedly throughout life. This repetition is not a vicious circle but a spiral that moves us forward in productive ways. As we experience each part of the fold-fold journey, we learn important lessons, develop new spiritual and emotional resources, and acquire helpful tools, all of which, when integrated, help us mature. As a season of life returns (e.g., a time of seismic change or intense suffering) we experience it in a new way because we have seen it before and have learned important lessons. With each cycle of the four paths, we become wiser, stronger, and more courageous, all of which provides evidence for our ongoing transformation.

 

Challenge

As you pray and meditate this week, spend some time reflecting on personal experiences of significant change. What was the change? What feelings did it generate in you, both good and bad? How did you handle it? How did you get through it? What lessons did you learn? What did all of that teach you about facing change in the future?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, give us ears to hear your call to radical transformation and help us discern the first step of a new journey.

 

(This post is the first in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter three in Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

 

Staying at the Table with Enemies: Rejection and Reconciliation

(This is Pastor Mark’s Maundy Thursday meditation for March 29, 2018)

We live in a time of division and polarization. Our natural, albeit sinful, reaction is often to demonize those who are different and withdraw our friendship, which can make things very uncomfortable when we see each other at church. But church is the place where we are called to transcend our differences and work together to declare the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and to accomplish his mission of making more and better disciples for the transformation of the world in love. As we study the teachings of Jesus we see that there is no Christ without a cross, no resurrection without death, no discipleship without sacrifice, no salvation without suffering. We slow down during Holy Week to acknowledge these difficult truths, lest we run too quickly to the empty tomb and distort the gospel into another story of human triumphalism.

What’s surprising is that I am still surprised when people betray me, when people misrepresent my ideas or intentions, say hurtful things, push me away, write me off, or try to hurt me. This is especially true when the person is a close Christian friend. I am still surprised by the divisions around me and the division within. But when I return to the teachings of Jesus, I feel naïve because he told me to expect it.

Jesus knew that our struggle with division and disappointment was part of being human, part of journey of salvation, part of discipleship, part of sharing life together in community. Speaking to the early Christians, the author of Mark narrates Jesus saying:

You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (13:9-13)

Again, in Matthew 24:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . . Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

 Again, in John 15:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.

While these words were written to first century Christians undergoing persecution in the Roman Empire, they disclose the corruptibility of the human heart. Consequently, Jesus says, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) This applies to all of us, regardless of the period of history in which we live, and experience teaches us that sometimes our cross comes in the form of betrayal.

Which raises an important question: How do we respond to people who disappoint and betray us? How do we handle being rejected, mistreated, abused, deceived, or even persecuted? Jesus helps us answer this question when he stays at the table with those who will betray him. The most obvious example is Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, and gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. Peter was there too, the one who said he would never deny Jesus but did so three times. Knowing this, Jesus still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. But it wasn’t just Judas and Peter who would walk away from Jesus. According to the synoptic gospels, as Jesus made his way to the cross all his disciples abandoned him. Only the women remain. Knowing that his friends would fearfully run into the shadows, Jesus still invited them all to the Last Supper, taught them about the new covenant, and gave them the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation.

And not only this, but Jesus also washed their feet. He humbly surrendered his position and power as their Lord, took on the role of a slave, and in an unimaginable act of lowly, intimate, vulnerable service, Jesus washed their feet. Why? To set an example of how to treat others, even others that will break our hearts. In this way, Jesus’ actions at the end of his life embody what he taught all along.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48)

None of this makes sense in a world where we are told to hit back, holler back, and hate back; to reject, push away, disown people who hurt us. But Jesus is teaching another way. Knowing that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, rejection begets rejection, Jesus gives us a way out of the vicious cycle of destruction—love. As he makes clear in his teaching, as he makes clear at the Lord’s table, as he makes clear in the cross—the whole point of the gospel is reconciliation, and if reconciliation is always the goal then the only way to get there is love made real through forgiveness.

This does not mean having a close and trusting relationship with everyone. When people violate our trust, we sometimes redefine the nature of the relationship and draw new boundaries. After a major betrayal, things may never be the same again. Forgiveness is not pretending that the wrong never happened and blindly going back to the way things were before the violation. There should be natural consequences for bad actions. However, this is very different from striking back in kind with an angry or vengeful heart. In contrast, Christian discipleship requires us to relinquish our right to take revenge, to balance the scales with a tit-for-tat retaliation, or to harbor hatred in our hearts. We are called to forgive our enemies and to show them the love of God. Why? Because we cannot overcome evil with evil; we can only overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

So how do we respond to those who disappoint and betray us? We must eventually, with God’s help, find a way to forgive them. We must show them the love of God in the very least by being respectful and kind, even when they don’t deserve it—especially when they don’t deserve it. This is the only real hope we have for their conversation from hatred to love, from an enemy to a friend.

This is why Christians regularly gather around the Lord’s table to share Holy Communion, to declare and live these difficult truths. As we reenact the Last Supper in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to us in a special way, a sacramental way, to forgive our sins so that we will have the power to forgive the sins of others, to heal our wounds so that we can be agents of healing in the lives of others, to reconcile us in love to God so that we can be agents of reconciliation to others—especially our enemies and betrayers. At the end of the day, this is what should distinguish Christians from everyone else.

How does this apply in your life? What does it mean for you to share a table with your enemies, to stay at the Lord’s table with people who have disappointed or betrayed you? This is certainly something worth pondering as we move from Holy Thursday to Good Friday in the holiest of weeks. Let us do unto others as God has done unto us.