On Christology IV: “What is that, velvet?”

I grew up in a family business that just so happened to be a movie theater. I remember when Coming to America came to the Little Art, I saw it at least five times. Like millions around the world, the characters with their attenuating voices became a staple of verbal repartee within my friend groups. In our late teens, when drug exploration was a nearly daily activity, about a dozen of us became obsessed with Eddie Murphy Delirious.  "Dammit, Guff!" was a regular exclamation. "A-goony-goo-goo," "She wasn't no Puerto Rican!" and "Oh! My shoe!!" were choked out amidst wails of laughter for an entire summer, and over two decades later, the lines bring a quick smile, like a time machine built of shorthand.

My personal favorite line, without exception, from any Eddie Murphy film (of which there are so, so many classics) is, "What is that, velvet?!" And, God help us, it is this scene I am going to use to address our next pressing questions: How does Jesus Christ relate to human salvation and the end times?       

Saul, the aptly-named elderly Jewish man and one of the many characters portrayed by Eddie, is using his own frame of reference to determine what King Joffrey's wrap is made of; yes, the ultimate goal is a laugh, and the line delivers on that, but let us set that aside and go deeper. We imagine that Saul might have gone through the Shoah; most certainly members of his family did, but let us flirt with the idea that he is a survivor. We could imagine that within the depths of the death camp experience, one fantasizes about what one would eat or drink, about the bathtub in which one would bathe, or the most luxuriant fabric into which one would ensconce themselves, given their druthers. Here, in this scene, Saul touches something so beautiful, he guesses what in his mind is the ultimate: Velvet.

Often Christology can be like touching lion hide and calling it velvet. We imagine the ultimate in terms of human salvation, and we declare it beautiful. How might Saul of the camps have reacted if someone told him that he'd think lion's hide was more luxurious were he to touch and see it? Would he have taken their word, or would he have held onto his own convictions, based on his knowledge and needs at the moment?  I imagine the latter. For Paul and the author(s) of the Gospel of Mark, the best they could fathom was salvation through faith, with Christ returning within a generation.

Here's the rub, though.* Jesus did not come back within a generation. And every other like claim has been proved wrong with the simple rotation of the earth on its axis. This obsessing with Jesus returning sadly goes hand-in-hand with charlatanism and lazy bigotry. The former for obvious reasons, the latter for ones less so. I have noticed that the people who often want Jesus to come back, like "Pastor" Becky in Jesus Camp, feel so disgusted by those whom they cannot terrorize into conversion that they call upon God to end creation, rather than shutting up for five minutes and hearing another perspective without immediately rejecting it because Jee-bus. This Jesus is cool with people being a jerk, something to which I take great umbrage.

I don't want these Christology entries to turn into bashing sessions (not to be confused with bashing Session, which Herr Drumpf seems to be taking care of) quite nicely; that is part of what has people running away from the Church. But in my fifteen years of studying, teaching, and more recently pastoring, I've found that hearing someone "in authority" (and as an ordained member of clergy I am that, whether I want it or not) talk honestly about the ways in which theology and religion have done harm allows them to take risks. Encouraging them to reject the abuse of others can help them to throw out manky bath water of religion while keeping the God-baby in their arms.

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I think our having an understanding of Jesus that privileges the idea that God is soon going to swoop in and destroy all those whom the "Church" deems sinful is deeply problematic. I understand that there are lots of texts on this subject, but why do we somehow have to pretend that they aren't wrong, or at the very least can we admit that regarding the specific phrase "within a generation" as metaphorical, but demanding that everything vague that surrounds it is literal, is just fucking stupid? Can we please stop saying that for God, "one generation could be 10,000 years," or other such claptrap, in regards to this passages? Paul was wrong. Mark was wrong, and seeing that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, this specious assertion of imminent Parousia has been pummeled by the passing of time. Why are we so eager to set up ourselves in the next world by being insufferable dicks in this one?

With all that said, when I took vows of ordination, I made faith confessions upholding the first seven ecumenical Councils, which includes acceding to the Nicene Creed. How can I do that, given what I just wrote? Because I believe that following Jesus results in a resurrection of consciousness; it has in my case. Following Jesus means that I stop mistaking lion's hide for velvet. Yes, the assurance of everlasting salvation is appealing. And I do not reject that this is a potent part of Christian confession. Yet, I am not done with this life. In following Christ, I am able to mindfully deconstruct the ego. I am able to die more completely to the temporary allures of life, and through service to others and love for all touch the center of what it means to be human. Of what it means to exist as one both human and divine. To get in on that wavelength that is the shared consciousness of all things.

I abused drugs. I drank my way through no fewer than one marriage and one engagement. I was reckless, hiding in plain sight, and in pain. Once I got serious about following Jesus, making decisions based upon the demands of the gospel, I was able to stop drinking. My heart, which has always been tender, has grown strong in love. I look at people differently, as walking specks of God whom I want to know and love. I'm imperfect. I'm literally crazy, but I deal with it. I'm filled with joy even as I am sliding into a depression that, if tradition holds, will have me catatonic in a day or so. Maybe not. I'm developing new coping mechanisms that, no surprise, relate directly to following Christ.

It is important to think about what believe regarding Jesus and soteriological eschatology, a fancy way of saying ideas about Jesus, human salvation, and the end times. I am outside the orthodox views, to be sure, but not outside of the tradition. Views such as the ones espoused here can be found in the Sayings Gospel of Thomas. I don't wish to argue doctrine, though. From my praxis-based approached to following Jesus, I offer the witness that there are many types of death and resurrection, and I'm more interested in those I can experience here and now than I am fretting over those that will come. As Caesar says in the eponymous play, "Of all the wonders I yet have heard, it seems to me the most strange that men should fear seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."

Stay tuned for our next installment, which will concern Jesus' relationship to the sacraments and how it pertains to human salvation.

*See what I did there?

Killing Caesar, Resurrecting Lloyd

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Saturday night, the Yellow Springs Theater Company (YSTC)'s production of Julius Caesar gave up the ghost (click here and here to catch up on the series). Reviews were mixed but weighted heavily toward positive. Shakespeare purists were insulted, and legitimate criticisms of the concept and its implementation were given and received. We all left everything we had on the stage, including blood. Ya' know, with the stabbing 'n all.

Last night, I presided over the memorial service of Lloyd Webster Kennedy. Lloyd was born in 1914. He started living in Yellow Springs in 1938, renting a room in the house he would eventually purchase and make his home for 79 years. He was the Johnny Appleseed of our little village, ensuring through planting and maintenance that we have more trees within our village limits than we do people. And when a tattooed, be-earringed, loc-wearing pastor assumed the pulpit of a church he had been a member of for almost as long as he was a local citizen, Mr. Kennedy made himself known. He made introductions the first week I assumed the pulpit, my hair not yet in locs and numerous tattoos, of which Lloyd was fascinated, to come. The second week, he approached me and asked: "Do you remember my name?" I stammered: "Dr…." He shook his head. "No, not a doctor. Just a mister. Lloyd Kennedy. I expect you to remember it next week."

I did.

Lloyd was a tenacious man; in the four years I was blessed to serve as his pastor, Lloyd gave me marching orders three times. The first you just read; the second was work with kids and the YSPD, which I did (although other village-based groups have done much more, as they should, being as they are represented by those who can more accurately describe the challenges youth of color face); and the third was for his memorial last night, and what I am to do for the future of First Presby. Yup. Just weeks away from dying, he wasn't interested in talking about himself or beliefs about what might happen. He wanted to make sure the church is taken care of. That's just how Lloyd rolled.

I wrote in the last installment about how there was a dichotomy in portraying Caesar on Saturday night and then leading service Sunday morning. I noted that I felt the work of God in these two experiences. I must confess a similar happening last night. I didn't know if I was going to be able to gather myself; a hypomania careening toward depression had only a few hours until the crash. My greatest fear was having Lloyd's memorial service be detrimentally impacted by my illness, so I showed half an hour before and I left right after.

But God is good, and from the opening number–a stunningly beautiful rendition of "Longtime Traveller–to the closing song, "My Way," performed by a congregant, longtime friend, and a man who could give Frank Sinatra a run for his money, the Spirit was present. I forgot my anxieties and had the blessed ability to be mindfully present in the moment. Per Lloyd's instructions, we sang more than we spoke. We did go over the 1-hour allotment Lloyd had demanded. I imagine that when I arrive at the pearly gates,* Lloyd will be waiting for me with a word or two about that, but as Lloyd's son said, "He was a taskmaster, but he also was very forgiving."

The sanctuary was packed. PACKED. Many of Lloyd's contemporaries have already gone to the sweet by-and-by, a song sung last night by our very own Soulstirrers. There were numerous pastors who could have given Lloyd a more accurate or apt pastoral eulogy. But with it falling to me, I say thanks be to God for the ways in which the events of life help me enter more deeply into the imitatio christi, the imitation of Christ. Putting on the skin of Caesar was the closest I have come to glimpsing for myself the allure of absolute power. All around the village, people are still saying, "Hail, Caesar!" I generally respond with "Yes, hail me. Hail me." Then we laugh. But being Caesar engaged my ego on myriad levels. Generally, I try to cut people off when they pay me compliments, but I have stopped doing that; I understand that these are words that are meaningful to them and that I should receive said words with gratitude and humility. My challenge then becomes not thinking that I am more important than anyone else.

Below is the eulogy I delivered for Lloyd. I imagine he would say it was too long, even though it is under 500 words. Lloyd had an iron will and was lovingly called "slave driver" by members of the church with whom he worked. He never did so, however, because he wanted to be praised or he wanted to exert power over others. Lloyd sought solutions and action; he believed in community and treating each other with kindness.

Then fall Caesar. And rise, Lloyd.

I honestly don’t know if I ever heard Lloyd say the name, Jesus. But three years ago when there was 7 inches of snow on the ground, Faye and Lloyd, dressed as always in his jacket and tie, were in their usual pew and our mighty dozen had a powerful worship. I got my first “nice sermon” from him that day, which made my heart jump, but that was really the closest we came to God talk when he held court in Westminster after services.

But I stand here today to say that Lloyd Kennedy was perhaps the most truly Christian person I have met in my life. He followed Jesus in all that he did. In his commitment to his work, both professionally and after retirement, in his marriages, the first one with Mary for 53 ½ years and 5 days and the second one with Faye, which enabled him to live the rest of his years, in his words, “happily ever after.” Lloyd was a loving father and family man, a dedicated community member, and a stalwart congregant of this church for three-quarters of a century.

That alone does not make one a Christian; many people in and out of the faith are good, loving persons. For me, Lloyd tops the list because he did it without bravado or the need for praise. He spoke little about Jesus because he was busy doing what Jesus tells us to do. He was a good disciple of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Just a few months before he passed, Lloyd was out front of this church overseeing the installation of Kentucky Bluegrass he donated to us because the planted grass was, in his words, “all wrong.” When I visited with him last, a visit that stretched over two hours, Lloyd wasn’t interested in speaking about spiritual matters, he was giving me marching orders for today and for the future of the church.

Please don’t hear this and think that Lloyd was not a spiritual man. He most certainly was; Lloyd knew who Jesus was to him, a good teacher, and he spent his life following those teachings. He said many times that he had lived a good, full life, and that his final years with Faye were a great blessing. For a man who spoke so little about religion, calling his wife a blessing still brings tears to my eyes. Lloyd didn’t need to talk about God because he made God a verb, and for that I say, thanks be to God. Rest in power Lloyd. We’re better for having known you, and we’ll always look for you in the trees. Amen.    

*I don't actually believe that there are pearly gates; click here for some thoughts on the afterlife. Ultimately, I know that I don't know, and Jesus gives me enough to do on this side of the veil without being obsessed with death and its aftermath.

After the Sermon: Love Jesus; don’t be a jerk

A little Theolonious, just because now is always a good time for some Monk.

I’ve studied Paul, but not in the way I have studied the gospels, most especially the Gospel of Mark. However, one can’t earn a master of arts in theology and a master of divinity degree without knowing a thing or two about the Apostle, as Thomas Aquinas rendered him in the Summa Theologica. There are things I legitimately don’t like about Paul–his emphasis on the Parousia (the second coming) and his rather arrogant approach to Peter and James–but some of my disdain has been alleviated through prolonged, in-worship study of individual epistles. I’ve written before about why I think biblical literacy is essential, but I began my faith journey as a scholar. It is only since serving as pastor at First Presby that I’ve realized how talking scripture in worship helps head meet heart. Two weeks in, and I feel that what’s happening in service is special and powerful.

Our narrative lectionary passage comes from Ephesians 2:11-21. We’ve already considered the context and approach of our current study. We focus on thematics this week while looking towards consideration of the structure, as it pertains to life in Christ, further down the road in our journey through Ephesians.

Paul begins with a simple statement that has complex implications: “So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.Y’all, remember that you once were on the outside looking in; you know what it is to feel alienated and left outYou know where that desperation lives.”

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.,” he continues. I’ve written previously about blood atonement theology, and I will once again caution us to approach Paul shed of the contributions that Sts. Anselm and Aquinas later provided. For Paul, Christ going to the cross was an act meant to bestow upon Gentiles a pathway to God. But even more importantly, this act was and is meant to break down the walls that separate us. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Paul often is criticized as anti-Jewish, but that rips him from his own context. Paul was a Pharisee, meaning that he most likely had memorized the Torah and he was a keeper of the oral law Pharisees claimed had been given to Moses, was then passed to Joshua, and so on until the time of Jesus. Pharisees are not remembered well or accurately in popular culture, largely because Christian apologists and officials have oft-depicted them as the driving force, along with Judas, behind Christ’s execution. Further, in Church imagination, Jesus and eleven disciples became Gentiles, leaving Judas the only Jew. We Christians cannot downplay the horrors that were visited upon Jews in the name of Christ, but I also encourage Christians to not blindly support Israel, especially given the terrifying existences the Palestinian people have to live under Israeli rule.

“He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances,” Paul continues, “that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Paul recognizes that there were many stumbling blocks for Gentiles to enter the covenant community. Circumcision, an image Paul uses often, is an external sign of an internal commitment. Paul, like Jeremiah before him, says that God is more concerned with a circumcised heart than he is a circumcised penis. 

Circumcision is a requirement that stretches back to Abraham. It is a way of drawing lines and boundaries between those who belong and those who don’t, similar to the clean/unclean dichotomy that fuels much of the Torah. This makes sense given the context of the Semitic peoples vis-a-vis other religions. For much of the ancient world, that which played out on earth was divinely ordained. When the Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians who were defeated by the Persians who fell to the Greeks who so greatly changed the face of greater Mesopotamia that the next Egyptian and Syrian empires were Hellenized, it was always understood as god or gods defeating one another. The Jews offered a different theological context: their God was acting through opposing armies to punish them for violating God’s law.  

So when Paul says that Jesus has eliminated the need for “commandments and ordinances,” this does not necessarily translate into an abolition of the Torah itself. When he writes that reconciliation comes through the cross, that does not necessarily mean that everyone has to approach God through the cross. I think Paul is arguing that God has provided a way for Gentiles to be in relationship with God, much as the prophet Mohammad will do centuries later for Arabs and Africans. Today, there are people of all backgrounds and ethnicities in each of the Abrahamic faiths. Each tradition establishes, in various ways, paths for people to connect with God.   

The most important part of the epistle, at least for me, is that God is in the business of pulling down boundaries. The blood of Christ is connected to redemption, yes, but in Ephesians we learn that redemption must involve other people. Christ’s mission is meant to erase hostility and produce peace. Paul clearly argues for a new community. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” The problem, in my view, is that Christianity quickly became about drawing boundaries similar to those transgressed by Jesus and declared irrelevant by Paul.  

Paul is writing to a group who clearly feel they have been left out. Abraham was given bloodline and land by God, according to Jewish tradition, and Gentiles do not have the bloodline. But Christ on the cross is not just about reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, it is about the hostilities we hold in our hearts as individuals. Paul uses body imagery, particularly the Body of Christ, Σώμα του Χριστού, to demonstrate that God provides to all the means of grace through faith, and this produces a community dedicated to eradicating hostilities. It is a sad irony that a vast majority of Christian history has been defined by the violent drawing of lines, the transgression of which frequently resulted in torture, death, condemnation to hell, or all three.

“In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God,” this week’s passage concludes. Paul has a mystical side we often miss, at least I have because, as previously noted, there are some major stumbling blocks with Pauline theology. But Paul believes that the breaking of Christ’s body replicated in the Eucharist should be juxtaposed to the unity of the Body of Christ, the community God forms. 

I imagine that some reading this might accuse me of special pleading; elsewhere Paul appears to make it clear that the only way to God is Jesus, most especially in Galatians 3:23-29. In fact, 3:28–“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”–is so special to me that I have it tattooed on my left forearm. However, I reject the notion that it is about exclusivity and supremacy.

Paul had lived on both sides of the wall, as it were. The author of Luke claims that Paul was a Roman citizen, but Paul never makes that claim. He was, however, a Pharisee involved in the trial and sentencing of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. His world was bifurcated by two factions, his faith tradition and the occupying power, Rome. It is most reasonable to see Jesus Christ as the way in which God reconciled Judaism to Gentiles. Paul believed that nothing short of complete destruction of all cultural barriers would bring peace. It is so telling that Paul sees Jesus as a peace agent on both the micro and macro levels.

But Paul was wrong in some fundamental ways. He based most of his ethic on the belief that Christ was coming back within a generation (see especially 1 Thessalonians), so for him community was the primary focus. He spent his life trying to reconcile people to one another, with Christ as his guide and justification. I lament the ways in which Paul’s ministry was interpreted or used as a template, because Christ has not come back. I am doubtful about the Parousia, something I’ve touched on before, but I believe deeply that Jesus is peace and joy. In my own life, I have been able to transgress cultural boundaries and decry institutional injustices because of Christ. Internally, I have been able to destroy those labels bestowed upon me by others, or as is more often the case, by myself.

I see nothing to be gained by telling other people to abandon their religions or traditions. I see no reason to be obsessed with telling atheists and agnostics they are going to hell. First, they aren’t because hell is constructed through superstition, misreadings of texts, the desire for power, and, most especially, the influence of Dante and Milton. Second, Jesus only got worked up and started shouting at people was when they were not doing what God requires, which is extending grace, compassion, love, mercy, and justice. Y’all have likely seen the signs on the interwebz:

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So what we can take away from Paul, those of us who are not that jazzed about blood atonement, is that taking care of one another is so central to following God that Jesus went willingly to the cross as an act of solidarity with those denied blood. Jesus calls to him those who are willing to get rid of labels that divide, but not in abstract ways. God calls us to come to the table as siblings, and to speak our truths. But let us not be more focused on getting other people to believe in Jesus than we are in following Jesus ourselves.

I’ll close with this: I once met a young man who asked me in line at Subway if I had heard the good news. I responded with, “the good news about what?” He said, “well, about Jesus.” I calmly told him I was a pastor, and he broke into a big smile. I found out through conversation that he had converted just a few weeks before, went to a non-denominational church, and was “just starting my walk with Christ.” My blood was almost boiling, but I focused on Jesus and extended compassion. “Brother?” I asked, “what would you have said had I said no?” He didn’t know, and I told him that was a problem. “My brother in Christ, why don’t you focus on your own journey instead of asking others about their own, unless you are willing to listen and respect them, not proselytize. Because, frankly, I don’t want you out there representing us when you ain’t got a clue about what it takes to assume responsibility for someone else’s spirituality.” I might not have said exactly these words, but it was something like that.

Love Jesus; don’t be a jerk.

#bipolarstrong: Like Thundershirts, but for People

I used to hate hashtags. To me, they were number signs, pound signs, or tic-tac-toe boards, in that order. Alas, when I began integrating them into my Facebook use, I began to appreciate the subtlety and nuance that emerge. The ways in which people are able to communicate thoughts, be humorous, connect with others who can relate, educate those who cannot, and connect to communities that are trying to affect positive change.

#bipolarstrong is obviously a take-off of “Army Strong,” which I didn’t like when it debuted, for myriad reasons, but mainly because it meant the retiring of the “Be All You Can Be” jingle, which my friends and I repurposed many times for the purposes of D&D and pretty much any other riff on it that our addled teenage minds thought was funny. But as I grew in experience and through challenges, I began to understand that there are particular strengths that go with specific disciplines. Nurse strong is different than Army strong, but they both are strengths. Ofttimes, there is a sense of connection within the various communities of strong. I remember listening to a report on NPR when the new slogan was released; everyone who was interviewed didn’t like it, except for one person. A soldier who said, “I know what Army strong is, so, yeah. It’s true.”

I am at a good place right now, but people who live with chronic and invisible illnesses will know that “good place” often means managing at least half of the attenuating challenges. I have excellent doctors now. Insurance is working in some major areas, but not in others. However, given what the present Administration wants to do to healthcare, I’m pleased. The surgery on my ears has helped. All wonderful things. But I also am not sleeping; I had one good night in which I had one cycle of uninterrupted REM. Since then, it takes at least 3 hours of actively trying to sleep (please; no advice, as I have tried everything and simply have to go with a system that works for me), and when sleep comes a myriad of things wake me up: apnea symptoms, snoring, having to pee (I dehydrate incredibly quickly, so I drink water constantly), or the cats. The tinnitus is so loud now that I have to have both white noise and another form of low-volume sound to be able to attempt mentally blocking it out.

A big problem has been clothes. My tactile issues have impacted my life more than I’m really willing to talk about now, but I have finally found some items that work. Therefore, I have bought these articles in every color I could find/afford. Thank Jesus, if he has a hand in textiles, that these items are also very good on our budget. I need flowing clothes that are also fashionable.

Today I received a new element. While I want flowy clothes, I am also a bit like Temple Grandin in that I also need to be constricted to remain calm and secure. So I bought three compression shirts, and I have been wearing one for about 4 hours. It is not so tight that I can’t breathe–seriously, how do people do corsets?–but tight enough that I feel held together, literally and metaphorically. They’re like thundershirts, but for people.

#bipolarstrong to me means knowing both my limits and my needs. It is addressing that which I can before asking others to help but asking for help when I need it. It means communicating with people and acknowledging that it is strange to have some of these conversations, I get it, but for the betterment of our relationship, having it necessary. I hope that, in return, people will feel that I will receive the needs of others as their statement about what I can do to help them feel heard and safe.

Bipolar strength is born of weaknesses addressed.

#thisishowijesus

jesus is a verb
I didn’t pay the phone bill on time, got zinged for $25 and the service is suspended. Paid what we needed to get hooked up again, but phones are out for 4 hours or so. But that’s now why I am writing.
If I did not have the security net I do, that extra $25 could have meant I did not eat or I couldn’t get gas.
I try not to talk too much about specific acts of charity because I do believe that charity done for personal satisfaction or accolades centers the act of giving rather than the conditions that require people to need charity in the first place. We shouldn’t encourage more charitable organizations, we should encourage eradicating the structures that necessitate them.
With that said, yesterday there was a woman in our local grocery story. She had two kids who were adorable, but she was stranded in YS and needed to find out about bus service. I could tell that they were exhausted, the kids were troopers but I sensed worry in them, and the mother explained why she needed help. I listened and empathized with her, and I identified the help I could give. When I handed her the money, she teared up and said, “This means we get to eat tonight!” We hugged, I gave her my card, and I moved on.
The amount I gave was significant for us both. Mimi and I make enough to live and have tiny cushions, but we both agree that I can make decisions about dipping into our own money. I gave what I knew we could afford, but it also means a few other things will wait until our next paychecks.
I did not give to feel charitable. I gave because I allowed myself to hear her and feel their energy, and to know that it is simply happenstance that I am not more vulnerable or battered about by the system and peoples’ ignorant judgments than I already am.
The fee from the phone company is my “fault.” It’s a case of hating the game more than the player because I hate this GD game. We have a powerful minority in this country who give not one shit about anyone but themselves. Some genuinely care about their families, but not for anyone outside their rigid community. The slavish devotion to capitalism has produced defenders who, ironically, are among the most abused by it.
The young mother seemed genuinely shocked that someone would stop and help her. I’m glad she was stranded in YS and that God led me to her; we hugged the hug of appreciation and gratitude, and that was worth every single cent.
#thisishowijesus

On Christology, Part III: Hector quae prominebat and human isness

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The Abrahamic faiths begin with a sense that things are amiss. Death, suffering, toilings: they all boil down to there being a schism between the Source of Creation and creation itself. The covenant with Abraham entails two foundational promises: a bloodline and land. The requirements to benefit from these offerings differ amongst Abraham’s children. Textual Judaism established regulations on living, offerings within the Temple, strict observance on matters of ritual cleanness (understood literally and symbolically), and proscribed fundamental responsibilities for the treatment of those both within and without the covenant community. This manner of living, in broad and inexact terms, was believed to afford one the best path toward restoration to the life God intends us to live within Beloved Community.

This is replicated in Islam; the Qur’an incorporates much of the Tanakh and the Christian Scriptures.* Mohammad provides teachings for Arabs (originally) who wished to follow the Abrahamic God, much like Jesus and the early disciples/apostles provided a pathway for Gentiles. Spiritually, I do not know how to follow Jesus without understanding the ways in which our God has communicated to the Chosen People and the heirs of Ishmael.
Central to Christian theology, largely owed to Paul, is that Jesus fundamentally alters human anthropology. Another oft-used term is ontology, which is a big word for even bigger questions: What is the essence of the human person, in contrast to the Greek concept of accidents? What is intrinsic to us, what is a priori; what is the substance–in Greek, what is the ousia–the “isness” of the human person?  Pauline theology argues that in Adam (embodied sin) all persons die, in Christ (embodied redemption), all people live. The way to access this redemption is through faith. Without question, though, Paul did not advocate a lazy, meaningless faith of the lips unsupported by a faith of the heart. Implicit in the mandate of faith is a radical entry into relationships, with priority given to those who are in need and who are within the community.

For Paul, there was a foundational shift in human ousia as a result of Jesus’ resurrection. God broke through all the boundaries and offered reconciliation to all persons who had faith. I like this on its face, but not in practice. As discussed in a previous entry, Christian history is filled with violent, horrible examples that have nothing to do with a free coming to authentic faith, but rather required confession of belief at the tip of a sword or the end of a gun. This is what turns canon into cannons.

Christian doctrine rests upon a belief in original sin, which is really not a biblical principle. It’s an Augustinian hermeneutic; a belief expressed in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. I took an online course in seminary that only had four students; not that many people want to study Augustine in-depth. I did because I wanted to be sure why I object to him so ardently. Augustine is responsible for the idea that human sin passes down through the sex act; Augustine had a longtime mistress, a son whose death Augustine interpreted as God’s judgment on his sexual life, and a complicated relationship with his mother. In Latin, we’d call him Hector quae prominebat, or Hector Projector.  His term concupiscence begins the streak of sexual repression and shame that has come to define much of Western guilt about our own sexuality and obsession with that of others.

For Augustine, using a Pauline framework, original sin is wiped away by Jesus on the cross. I give more treatment of that in another series I am writing, but suffice it to say that the blood atonement theology that emerges with St. Anselm does not present a vision of God or Jesus that resonates with my experience of them both. Stripped of the loaded and problematic language, the theory does have a profound kernel: the God described in the Tanakh offers a salvific avenue to those outside the bloodline and land, one that begins and ends with spiritual faith.

Christianity has been sin-obsessed for too long. In no way am I denying the reality of sin, nor am I saying that we should simply ignore it. Not at all. But we really don’t need to make it the alpha and omega enemy of faith. In fact, I see the idea of Jesus’ incarnation as a step away from sin obsession. We are brought into right relationship with God, so we need not fear that sin is the final word; instead, we should focus on living lives that are imitatio Christi, imitations of Christ.

For me, following Jesus has affected a shift in consciousness and spiritual awareness, away from fear into one of love. I do not believe that something magical happened when Jesus came to earth, and our fundamental isness changed. I do believe, though, that in committing myself to Christ I have been able to move stridently toward a more authentic expression of what it means to live honestly and holistically.

Stay tuned for the next installment, which will focus on Jesus’ relationship to salvation and the end times. Please share with friends!

*I rarely use the term “Old Testament,” as it seems an insult to those who regard the Tanakh (Ta=Torah, the first five books; Na=Nevi’im, the Prophets; Kh=Ketuvim, the Writings) as living and ever-relevant. Similarly, I am loath to use the term “New Testament,” but do so regularly when speaking because it is just easier. I prefer “Christian Scriptures” or “Christian Testament,” terms that also allow for non-canonical texts that, despite the rulings of Councils, I believe are wells of wisdom.

On Christology, Part II: “But what is Truth?”

As I’ve written about beforeJesus Christ Superstar has been formative to my faith journey. My earliest memory is connected to Pilate counting the lashes and asking my sister, “Are they nailing him to the cross?” Portraying Pilate planted the seed of needing to know who Jesus is, a seed that germinated in my becoming a religion major in college. But what is Truth, is truth unchanging law? We both have truths, are mine the same as yours? 

My Christology is somewhere between “Personal Jesus” and “Losing My Religion.” A Jesus who guarantees us personal salvation but allows us to spend most of our times telling people what they cannot do or be is odious; a Christianity that permits us to do whatever we want, to engage in pleasure while simultaneously causing and contributing to suffering is equally problematic. One detail that is non-negotiable to me is that Jesus pulls us into community. I simply cannot understand how one can follow Jesus outside of being a servant of God for others. This does not have to be a church. I love the church, but I came to faith as an adult and have been lucky enough to find communities in which an others-based, radical love approach to Christianity is practiced. Many others have not been so lucky, so they have formed their own communities. That’s our hope with the Beloved Community Project. But I reject out of hand the idea that confessing faith in Christ is the alpha and omega of salvation.

As I wrote yesterday, my aim here is to set forth a working Christology. There are two goals: the first is presenting a cohesive vision of Jesus, the second is that in so doing I will create a starting point for conversations with others that are not initiated by me. Over the next several years, I will write an entire systematic theology but I gots to get that doctorate first. So, if I am working with someone else and they want to know what I think of Jesus, we can start with this and then talk in person. Enough qualifications, let’s get into it.

“Be you angels? Nay, we are but men.” –Tenacious D

One of the biggest intellectual stumbling blocks I’ve had even post-conversion is the divinity of Christ. The doctrine of “fully human, fully divine” took several centuries to develop, and a not insignificant number of lives were cut short for daring to hold contrary views. And while I have always been fascinated with theology and the study of religion, I grew up outside the Church. I was not indoctrinated, I was not abused. So while I have been and continue to be disgusted with how supposed followers of Christ have used God to justify horrendous things, I believe in a Jesus who has helped me battle demons while growing in love. Still, one cannot claim to know Jesus and not have a biblically-based understanding of the man from Nazareth.

I am not intending to inundate the reader with lots of biblical references and theological jargon. I have other writings for that if people are interested. When I do use specialist language, I will define it but this obviously is not meant to be the Christology section of an ordination paper. This is honest reflections on a vastly complicated subject.

The first thing to establish is Jesus’ relationship to God. There are myriad texts that present him as a preacher, a teacher, a miracle worker, a revolutionary, as one predicted by the prophets, a Son of God, and even as God himself. I have found that those who take Scripture literally rarely emphasize the various aspects equally. To be fair, that is true for me as well. The difference is that I emphasize the things that will help me be a servant to others while far too much of Christian history has been filled with and those by who emphasize the things that make others afraid. Vulnerable. Subject to persecution. A person who is willing to wield violence unto death in order to extract a confession that Jesus is fully divine does not seem like the sort of person who really knows Jesus Christ. But what do I mean by that?

For most of human history, people lived in a comfortable gray area as it concerns human-divine hybridity. Across cultures and time, it has been reported that heavenly beings came to earth, often using rape as a tactic, to impregnate. An early documented accounting of Haley’s comet postulated that the streaking across the sky was the soul of Julius Caesar becoming fully divine. Comic books are filled with modern examples of ancient cosmogony. Full humanity and full divinity became a modern sticky wicket, though, especially for monotheism. How can corporeal flesh, with all its attenuating limitations and imperfections, contain the fullness of the divine, which is the ur-perfection of all things? This rabbit hole is interesting, but it is filled with sub chambers that burrow to the center of the earth. We’re aiming with a bird’s eye view.

My Christology began in and with Buddhism. Siddhartha taught that we are the cause of our own suffering, which we perpetuate as a result of constructing and defending ego. I read widely and deeply on the Four Noble Truths, particularly the Eightfold Path. I examined myself regularly to untangle the web of ego within myself, an ongoing process. I began to understand that this is what Paul writes about in Romans 6-8. When I am feeling anger or I’m engaged in envy, I remind myself that such feelings more often than not are rooted in egotism. Dying to that self and being clothed in Christ, to me, means that love, compassion, mercy, and grace are always abundant, but only if I commit to seeing them. If I am not able to love even as the temporary situation elicits other emotions, I have some dying to do. This does not mean allowing oneself to be trod upon as if a doormat; rather, it means that in this walk of life, one steps mindfully and aware of how the footfall impacts others. Jesus has helped me understand that sometimes we need to love people from a distance, as their toxicity cannot be addressed by anyone but themselves.

Buddhism also helped me to wrestle with the human-divine conundrum. From the beginning, Christianity has been home to metaphorical and allegorical hermeneutics. In other words, interpretations of Jesus Christ have always included symbolism. Jesus used parables to teach; does it change the truth of the stories if factually there was no prodigal son? Of course not, so how does it follow that the evangelists wrote only what is literally true? Jesus used stories, so did the evangelists, and so do we as followers of Christ. There’s a Buddhist teaching that I have consulted much over the past 15 years. The unenlightened person is like one who will ask the master about the location of the moon, only to stare at the pointing finger rather than the object in the sky.

I began with understanding Jesus as the master pointing to the sky, showing the way to the moon (God), but not as the moon itself. This is not unique or original to me, and in fact, stretches back to primitive Christianity.

This intellectual conception of God allowed me to engage more confidently in following Christ and working for Christ within both Christian and non-Christian circles. I came to God through Jesus, which satisfies a basic requirement for those who wish to seek ordination. But more importantly, it propelled me into relationships with others while focusing on service and genuine community. Jesus transgressed cultural and religious lines, proclaiming as the Beloved those especially who had been abused and shut out by prevailing powers. Following Jesus means loving your enemies, and not just saying that you do. It means not looking at others as inferior or less-than; again, this does not mean anything goes. It does not mean that people aren’t held responsible here and now for what they do. It means, though, that God doesn’t say, “take care of those who think like you, look like you, and only those whom you feel deserve it.” God says that we are our siblings’ keeper. And everyone is a child of God. Following Jesus means abhorring the argument that everyone who cannot meet all of their needs is lazy, asking for a handout, is holding others back, or is asking for special treatment. It means that you are more disgusted by a society that has failed to clothe, feed, affirm, and protect all people than you are by the needy people themselves.

Jesus being fully human means that we do not lack an example of how to live an authentic life. The fully human Jesus does not have anything extra or lack anything necessary; he is one of us.

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The trite expression “What Would Jesus Do?” sadly was more marketing tool than ministry truth, but there is a kernel of usefulness present. Knowing what I know about Jesus, where would he see God in this situation and what would be his response as a servant of God to and for others?

Beginning with the fully human aspect of Jesus helped me explore the divine. I don’t say “fully divine” because I think the phrase is overused by those who don’t fully understand what it entails beyond being a litmus test for those who want to be card-carrying members of Team Jesus. Right now, I believe this: through his life, Jesus was filled with the Spirit of God. His manner of life led him to an execution at the hands of religious and civil authorities who saw his message as inherently dangerous. Jesus submitted himself to judgment because he knew no other way to live a genuine life, and if this world wouldn’t let him he would simply leave. He did all things in love. I remain agnostic as to whether Jesus is ontologically God–that is, eternally and absolutely divine–or if Jesus experienced an awakening that, like others across time and space, propelled him to perfect union with God. In other words, I can make arguments that Jesus’ identity was an evolutionary process, just as it is for all other humans. I’m a modified Gnostic (or perhaps a Gentile Hasidic) in that I believe there is a spark of divinity in all of us; the purpose of our lives is to identify the spark, and allow the Spirit to stoke it into an all-consuming flame.

Through following Jesus, submitting to the Gospel, orientating myself toward the priorities Jesus identified, I have grown closer and closer to God. I’ve done a shit-ton of drugs and drank oceans of booze, but the all-encompassing feeling of being connected to the source of Love is beyond the high produced by anything I ever put into my body. The more I live the Gospel, the more I am able to let go of the false self. I know that there are some things worth dying for, and while I do not wish to perish I know that the spiritual death of being a slave to capitalism and American nationalism will be far worse than even crucifixion. We turn to Rome to sentence Nazareth. 

Is Jesus God? In my mind, there is no separation between Jesus and God. I refuse, though, to participate in theological-purity witch hunts. A fully-human Jesus who reveals God, but whose resurrection is symbolic is still a very powerful cat. A Jesus who provides us the perfect paradigm for how to live an authentic life? Why would we want to shut that out? How does that understanding prevent someone from following the Gospel? I’ve Hindu and Buddhist acquaintances who see Jesus as an istadevata (a figure to whom one dedicates one’s religious life in exchange for divine benefits) or as a great teacher. The respect they accord to him and the ways in which they live their lives is far preferable to the hateful destruction I’ve seen from Christological purists.

For me, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. But I believe in a God much bigger than one interpretation or even one religion.

In the next installment, we will consider how Jesus does or does not alter human anthropology. Please share this with friends!