Being Fully Human, cycle of violence, divine within, domestic violence, Easter, emotional abuse, Jesus, mary of magdala, partriarchy, resurrection, sexual abuse, shame, social isolation, women

A Call to Resurrection

Surviving Domestic ViolenceIn my book Sacred Sex I retell Will Willimon’s experience preaching in a croweded auditorum. He was given an introduction that far exceeded what he thought he would deliver and he remembered a teacher saying something like if you aren’t sure you have enough to say, say it louder. So he got up before the congregation and said, “And what is the most significant event our faith has to offer?” Then he bellowed out the answer, “The Erection!” Now that’s one Easter message I would have enjoyed hearing!

My message won’t be quite that provocative. I believe the Easter story and the Easter myth itself transcends the barrier of religion and that even if we don’t follow the Christian calendar, we can still find value in its premise. So I want to approach this story through the eyes of Mary of Magdala and dedicate this message to the women who have struggled throughout history into our modern times to find a place of genuine acceptance and inclusion as equals in society.

Mary at the Empty Tomb

What a poignant Easter text we find in John 20:10-18, so sad and so beautiful. Mary has come to the tomb of her beloved Jesus. You can imagine how she must have felt. Numbness fighting to still the shock still reverberating in her. Going through the motions of preparing the body, the one last way in which she can feel close to the teacher she followed and the man she most certainly loved. Feeling lost and alone and yet finding some comfort in these rites and rituals.

And then even that solace is taken from her. There is no body to touch or to cry over. There is no last time to speak her sorrow while gazing at the face she held so dear. Instead there is the certain knowledge that the joy has gone out of her life, that feeling of hollow emptiness and despair. The sense of being small and insignificant and utterly alone.

Indeed, 2000 years ago, women as a whole were considered small and insignificant. Women were nobodies. Women were property. They had few of the rights of men. They could not be witnesses in court or file for divorce. They could not be taught the Torah. They were to be nearly invisible in public. Public meals were for men only, and if a woman did show up she was assumed to be a prostitute. Women lived on the margins of society.

Jesus’ Treatment of Women was Scandalous

And for a brief period of time, Jesus elevated Mary and the other women he interacted with to a glorious height of equality. His actions toward women were nothing short of scandalous. He defended them, spoke with them, healed them, ate with them, and even learned from them. Mary was part of the intimate group that traveled with Jesus. She knew personally the warmth of his unconditional love.

And now so profound is her despair that when Jesus speaks to her she doesn’t even recognize him… until he speaks her name. When she is named, when she is recognized for who she is at a time when she feels again as if she is nothing. When she is recognized for who she is at a time when she has lost everything. When she is recognized for who she is, she recognizes her Teacher. She is filled with new life. In a very real sense it is Mary who is now resurrected.

So why in this moment of mystical reunion would Jesus torment her further by telling her not to hold onto him? Shouldn’t he have swept her into his arms and held her as she wept? Shouldn’t he have offered her words of comfort and peace, assuring her of his presence, promising her this was real and that he was there, right there with her?

John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels that were included in the official Canon. In it Jesus is always using common language to say something beyond the obvious. So when Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto me.” Was his statement as obviously cruel as it sounds or could it be that this man who so often used common language to point to the spiritual is at it again? “No Mary, you don’t have to hold onto me. You don’t have to cling to me, because everything you saw in me is now in you. That same divine presence that you sensed in me, I now challenge you to see in yourself. This is what I came to teach and show you. See in yourself the Spirit you saw in me.”

Mary’s Call to be Fully Human

In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a Gospel that did not make it into the Canon, Jesus tells his followers that the son of Man dwells inside them. And Mary responds by saying that Jesus is calling them and us to be fully “human.”

Perhaps to be fully human is to recognize that what Jesus says is true. To understand that it is within our humanity that we are all resurrected. Perhaps it is only in fullness that we learn not to belittle ourselves and dismiss our gifts and abilities. Perhaps it is only in human fullness that we come to realize that we are also fully divine.

The Terror of s

I’d like to tell you now about another women. I was returning with a group from Extended Grace from a Renaissance Festival when we stopped at a gas station. One of the teenagers with us went into the restroom where she was approached by a young lady asking her for help. Her name was Tanika and she looked barely 16 years old. Tanika explained that her boyfriend had beaten her for the last time and that she had finally left him for good. But he had followed her and when she stopped at this station for gas he took over her car with her child in it. I called the police. I left Tanika with the police officers and my card and told her to call if she needed any help connecting with legal assistance or a shelter.

None of us expected to meet Tanika that day or to find ourselves face-to-face with the terror of living in abuse. More often we can ignore the problem. More often it stays behind closed doors. But as unusual as our encounter with Tanika proved to be, there is nothing unusual about domestic violence. In the United States, someone is beaten by their intimate partner every 9 seconds. For 12.4 million people, home is not a safe place. Today even many teenagers view violence as an unavoidable aspect of their relationships, and 1 in 3 will experience physical or sexual abuse or threats during the year.

The face of abuse is shared by all races, all ages and all socioeconomic classes. Domestic violence has severe physical and emotional consequences for its victims. And while 1 in 3 women will be victims of abuse sometime during their lifetime, studies also show that as many as 1 in 4 domestic abuse victims are men. The FBI reports that 2/3 of all marriages will include violence at some point. Domestic violence is just as real and just as prevalent in heterosexual and same sex relationships.

“People Like Her Just Like to Get Hit.”

I never heard from Tanika again. According to the frustrated police officer, her boyfriend was in a lot of trouble for a lot of things, but in the end Tanika never pressed charges. The officer was angry with her – and obviously ill-educated about abuse. I was dismayed when he said to me, “People like her just like to get hit.” I tried to explain. I tried to help him see. I hope I made some impact.

Why would anyone stay in a violent relationship? This is probably the most commonly asked question – and for good reason. It seems so logical and obvious that these victims should just get out of the house. But the reality is that there are a lot of barriers to freedom. The reality is that the most dangerous time for a person who is being battered is when they leave. A full 75 percent of women who are killed by their partners are murdered after the relationship is over or as it ends. But that’s only one of the barriers to freedom.

Another is that many women and men don’t think of themselves as being abused. Abuse is generational and those who have grown up in abusive homes are far more likely to become the victims of the perpetrators of violence when they have grown. Abuse at its core is about control. It’s one person scaring another person into doing something. And it’s not just physical abuse but sexual abuse, emotional abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse. Domestic violence may include insulting and name-calling, isolation, intimidation, and threats, which may be directed at children or other family members.

Cycle of Violence

Another important concept to understand is the Cycle of Violence. The relationship doesn’t start out being violent. In fact, the abuser most likely begins as a seducer, buying presents and showering praise and attention on their partner. Eventually, though, this calm gives way to a tension-building period. In this phase, minor incidents begin and communication breaks down. The victim feels the need to placate the abuser and “walk on eggshells.” Eventually, the tension is released in an incident, which may take the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

The next stage is a return to seduction as the abuser apologizes and may cry. A honeymoon stage ensues complete with gifts. And promises are made that it will never happen again. But at the same time, the victim is blamed for provoking the abuse, subtly planting the idea that it was their fault and that they can keep it from happening again. As time goes by, the abuser denies that the abuse ever took place — or at least that it was as bad as the victim claims.

In the calm that follows, the incident is forgotten. Some of the promises are kept and the victim is left with hope that the abuse is over. As the tension building stage begins again, the victim remembers that it is their responsibility to behave in a manner that will not bring about the abuse — which eventually recurs no matter what they do. The entire cycle may take more than a year to complete – or as little as a few hours.

Another barrier is religion. We all know that you cannot possibly use scripture from any religion to justify abuse. Nevertheless, we also know that scripture can be misused. Citing passages to “submit to your husbands” or to “turn the other cheek,” Christian men and women often feel compelled to stay in abusive relationships because of their marriage vow. For this reason, victims of abuse often feel doubly abandoned by God.

Beating Ourselves Up

When all is said and done, I find the best explanation for why people stay in abusive relationships was captured by Don Miguel Ruiz. He said that if you are with someone who is beating you up more than you beat yourself up, you will leave. But if you are with someone who is beating you up just a little bit less than you beat yourself up, you will stay forever. I also believe that people who beat up other people, never beat them up more than they beat themselves up emotionally.

I know Ruiz named my experience. I used to believe in my own unworthiness. My life was so flawed. I was so flawed. There was all this crisis and trauma in my life. I had failed at so many times in my life. I wanted somehow to make a difference, but realized that I probably never would. Then I met Dr. Rudy Featherstone, a truly incredible man. He as a retired professor of theology. A proud black man with snow white hair who spoke glowingly of his wife, his children and his grandchildren. And most joyful person I think I have ever met.

Recognizing the Divine Within

Rudy really shook me up that day. I couldn’t argue with him. Whatever energy permeates our universe, I am part of that universe and that energy is necessarily part of me. When I am fully human, when I am fully me, then I have to admit that the package of body, thought and emotion that is Barbara Lee is not all I am. When I am fully human, I realize that I am also divine.

This is the Good News of the Easter story. It is the refreshingly good news that has been proclaimed throughout the history of all faith traditions. It is the life giving good news that we can never be separated from God because however we define God, we live in THAT and THAT lives in us.

Odds are you know someone who is being abused – even if you don’t know it yet. There’s a good chance that someone hasn’t glimpsed the divinity within themselves. As helpless as we often feel, there are things you can do to help. Let them know you understand domestic abuse. Tell them clearly that it is not their fault and that there is NOTHING they can do to prevent the violence. If they choose to open up, listen nonjudgmentally. Offer to help with childcare, transportation and storage of valuables. Encourage them to contact Every Women’s Place or the Center for Women in Transition or to call the domestic abuse hotline.

A Reason to Hope

Try not to get discouraged. And above all, try not to blame. Victims of domestic abuse are suffering already from a great deal of shame and a sense of hopelessness. Don’t blame yourself if they don’t make the decision you would choose for them. Your role is to offer friendship, hope and a space for the possibility of change. It isn’t your responsibility to fix someone else’s world. More than anything victims need you to model what a loving relationship really looks like. They need a reason to hope.

I am pretty public now about my own history of abuse because I have met too many people who only trusted me with their story after I shared my own – after they knew that I would not judge them for the circumstances they were in.  As a result of my experience, I ended up founding and chairing the Muskegon County Domestic Violence Healthcare Initiative. In that role, I gave a presentation on Domestic Violence at the Lion’s Club. After presenting all of my information, I opened it up for questions. A man sitting in the middle of the room who didn’t even bother to stand up said, “I know someone whose wife won’t let up on him until he hits her. Sometimes there’s just nothing else you can do.” And a number of others seemed to nod their heads and murmur their agreement.

There is NO excuse for violence. Not against women, not against men, not against children. There is NEVER an excuse for one person to use violence in any form against another.

Domestic violence alters the landscape of our lives and the lives of those we love. Violence by an intimate partner, rips deep valleys through the sense of self; builds mountains of shame and guilt and isolation; twists, bends, and distorts notions of love and relationship, and shatters into rough and jagged pieces the spirit of hope.

A Prophetic Voice

We need to be the prophetic voice. We need to be the voice of Jesus and Dr. Rudy Featherstone for Mary of Magdala and Tanika. We need to call all of those who suffer at the hands of abuse by name so that they may also be resurrected to new life.

Individually we can make a dramatic difference in the life of a friend or loved one. Together we can create a society in which we will no longer ignore or excuse acts of domestic violence. It begins with us, it begins here and it begins now.

Namaste

Spiritual Inquiry Discussion Question:

Is domestic violence caused by the patriarchal values of our culture, or is domestic violence caused by individual socioeconomic and/or psychological factors (e.g. substance abuse, mental illness, unemployment)?

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Easter, faith journey, Jesus, Lent, Progressive Christianity, social injustice, Spiritual

The Lenten Journey to Easter

the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of our faithfulnessToday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the Christian calendar. One story that can transcend the barrier of religion is that of the Lenten journey to Easter. It is a journey in which we encounter the catfish of the Christ – one who bore witness to the need to stand up against social injustice, tyranny and violence – even at the risk of one’s own life.

This Jesus doesn’t call us into a life of ease and prosperity. He challenges us to bring the saving word of grace to the spiritually homeless, to care for our brothers and sisters in need, to have a faith that shows itself in action. His message is clear – the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of faithfulness. This is what it means to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

The call to do Spirit’s work is one that leads down narrow alleys and tumultuous terrain. It is not easy and it is not fast. But it is never too great a burden to bear. And it is infinitely rewarding. Just as our mandate to serve is clear, so is the promise of joy. Cast your bread on the water, Jesus tells us, and it will come back to you 100 fold. What your going to do with 100 loaves of wet bread is up to you!

So it is that seek the  strength to refrain from silence in our ministry, in our assessment of society, and in our witness. So do we seek the courage to bear the burden of the  proclamation that we are one family so that all experience the blessing of reunion.

W.E.B. Dubois once prayed, “Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease or the words of mouths or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us, the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more – but they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death.”

With those words still echoing in our ears, let us speak boldly, pray unceasingly and act with purpose and direction as our faith calls us to respond to heal the hurts and fill the needs of this worldly life.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christian, god, gratitude, hardship, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, struggle, thanksgiving

Thanks Giving

Thanks GivingA friend of mine came to the house on Wednesday. She had returned home after being at an aunt’s funeral in Ohio. And she shared that she had never been to a funeral and left so joyful in her whole life. She was joyful because her daughter who left home without a word 11 years ago at 18 years of age and who my friend had not heard from once in all that time – showed up at the funeral and restarted a relationship with her mother. My friend learned that she is a grandmother. My friend has much to be thankful for this year.

Every year we set aside one day to be thankful. Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the dinner table and shares what we are thankful for at the moment. All the usual suspects appear – family, friends, and health. But there is more to thankfulness than that.

As Buddha once said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

And so I realize I have so much more to be thankful for – those things I take for granted like the miracles of sight and hearing, the turning of the seasons, the peace of a good night’s sleep. These things are not always on the top of my mind – but when I do give them ample thought or when someone reminds me of them – I am very thankful. In fact, all of the things that I think about being thankful for are pretty darn easy to be thankful for.

And that struck me as somewhat incongruous with what Jesus is usually calling me to. Because when I really get down with Jesus, I don’t hear him telling me to do what’s easy. I hear him challenging me and making me uncomfortable. I recall a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Plain as day: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Give thanks in all circumstances.  

So I started asking another question this year. Instead of asking what I am thankful for I started asking myself what I’m not thankful for. And you know, that was a pretty easy list to make too. Because quite frankly, some things about life really stink.

Things like illness and poverty, prejudice and violence, unemployment and homelessness, hunger and loneliness, hate and injustice. And broken relationships. There are people and situations that I don’t even want to even think about, let alone be thankful  But here it is, spelled out very clearly for me by Paul: Give thanks in all circumstances.

Wow. Now there’s a challenge. It seems to me that the key to thanks giving, then, is in seeing every thing as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then all persons and situations – including the most difficult ones – have the potential of becoming our teachers.

Now, I do have to say that I don’t believe God gives us bad things because God has decided we have to learn something. I don’t believe God tests us in this way. So every challenge, every resistance, every thorny problem has the potential of propelling us into higher levels of understanding, competence and maturity. But those same difficulties are not assigned from God – and we should not go on an agonizing search for answers trying to discover what it is we are supposed to be learning. Instead, difficulties are just a part of our living in a fallen world. Not all is sweetness and light. Every experience of suffering brings pain that we must endure  – and from which we might grow.

And indeed, the opportunity for growth is unique – because we are challenged in ways we would rather not be. Because spiritual growth demands that we overcome our character flaws. And to do that, we often need something or someone to shatter our incorrect beliefs, our frozen feelings and our self-delusion. We need outside assistance to help us break free of our current, limited understandings. Some way of uprooting the very things in life we are holding onto most tightly in an effort to keep them the same. Some way of experiencing enough pain that we are forced to make the necessary changes that we have resisted for so long.

OK, here’s an easy example. We are called to cultivate an attitude of grace at all times and for all people. I once worked in an office with a nice young lady who could really botch things up – and who regularly did. She was always apologetic and willing to fix her mistakes and I found it easy to be gracious toward her.

I also had a boss – who was a perpetual thorn in my side. When he messed up, I wasn’t nearly as gracious. I may have even told other people he messed up for no good reason at all. Which of these two people presented the greater opportunity for me to learn the golden rule – to treat others as I wish to be treated? Who are the difficult people in my life right now who present a perpetual training ground in which I can practice and learn this most valuable discipline? For them, this year I am grateful.

Seeing hard times as teachers means seeing them in an entirely new way. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who possess great powers. They are also very compassionate. Most are like angels, but there is also a special class of them called reverse bodhisattvas. They are equally compassionate, but have terrible appearances and their mission is to enlighten others through creating difficulties, challenges, and hardships. Such a viewpoint allows us to “flip” our perception of people and circumstances so that they become spiritual practices designed to help us reach new heights of spiritual growth.

Reality, then, is neither good nor bad – it is a matter of how we choose to perceive it. For someone who has mastered the art of seeing this way, the world is always perfect. Our external reality doesn’t have to change to make it so. The secret lies in changing our perception of it. Thanksgiving comes out of inner transformation.

Jesus was an expert “flipper.” Throughout the Gospels, he teaches the art of seeing and the need for internal transformation using the phrase “being born anew.” There are a lot of different connotations to these words nowadays – and not all of them are good. But to Jesus, being born anew wasn’t about accepting a religious belief but about experiencing a spiritual awakening.

The night before Jesus was betrayed, as the story goes, he ate with his disciples. He broke bread, gave thanks and gave it to them to eat saying – this is my body, which is going to be broken for you. Then he took wine and after giving thanks he gave it to them to drink saying this is my blood, which is going to be poured out for you. On the very night before he was betrayed, knowing in all certainty the horrible pain and suffering and death that awaited him, the first thing he did was thank God. Even in the midst of greater difficulty and hardship than I will ever know, my Jesus was thankful.

I don’t always follow that example. I’m not that strong. Often my thanks are given much later and from a safer distance. My friend whose daughter returned to her life last weekend is thankful now. She is able to look over the expanse of time and see the growth that occurred even in and through the pain. But 11 years ago? We humans don’t usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment­ – a day, a week, a month at a time­ — complaining that there is never time enough. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best and no worst hour. There is only now. We must choose how we will view the now and what we will do with it.

I am grateful this because I believe that Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain and the hardship and the struggle. I believe that we are never alone even in the darkest hours of our life. And I know that the Divine is strong enough to support and strengthen me when I can no longer support myself.

We can use Jesus’ way of seeing to foster our own inner peace – not as a device to intellectually solve life’s problem or to understand why bad things happen to good people – but to be amazed by the poignant beauty in the paradoxes of life itself.

  • What good things are you thankful for?
  • What hardship or difficult person are you thankful for?
  • Where did you feel Spirit most present in your life this past year?
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alternatives to war, beign fully human, change, Compassion, democrat, grace, Jesus, justice, politics, Progressive Christianity, republican, responsibility

The Politics of Values

Carl Sagan Quote
According to the Tao Te Ching:
Governing a large country
Is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was at an embassy reception when a rather arrogant senator walked up to her and said, “So you’re the famous Ann Landers. Say something funny.” So she said, “Well, you’re a politician. Tell me a lie.”

Whether her response was funny or just sad, the reality is that lies are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. After coming through the last two presidential elections, I can’t help but agree with Will Rogers that, “The more you observe politics, the more you have to admit that each party is worse than the other.”

Before we know it the 2016 election will be upon us and before then we have mid terms to contend with. As we wrestle with our decisions, it seems appropriate to take some time to look at our responsibility as spiritual people in the political world of today.

One of the teachers I have learned from over the years is Jesus. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus is placed in a political conundrum. He is asked about his view on taxes. If he agrees that taxes should be paid to Caesar he will disappoint the Jewish people, but if he states that no payment should be made to Rome, he could bring about his own arrest.

So he asks for a coin – you might notice at this point that Jesus doesn’t have a coin while the Pharisee does – and as it is tossed to him he catches it in the air. He looks at it and asks the crowd, “Whose head is on this; whose title?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Well, if it already belongs to the empire,” Jesus says, “give it back.” (At which point we might picture Jesus slipping the coin into his pocket.) But that’s not all he says. The second half is really the surprise ending: if we will give back to the empire what is the empire’s, then we are also to give to God what is God’s.

Looking for God’s Image

Caesar’s image was on the coin. That’s how we know to whom it belonged. So our first question is where do we find God’s image? According to the book of Genesis, we find God’s image in us. Humans were created in the image of God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, we have to give God ourselves, our bodies and our souls, all that we are – including that part of us that is involved in the political process.

Here’s the truth that Jesus shares: We cannot separate our spiritual life from our political life. We cannot separate our faith from the problems in our society. Like two sides of the same coin, the two are held intricately together as we bring our faith with us into the political arena. The next question then is how do we apply that faith in the world of politics today.

Jesus said that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor – even when that neighbor is an enemy. And that love reveals itself not in a sentimental fuzzy feeling – but as concrete actions that demand justice – even at the risk of a personal cost. We have a duty and a privilege to participate in the public arena of politics because we have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to exercise our power for the sake of the powerless.

God Does Not Lead a Political Party

And we must also recognize the danger of politics subverting our religion for its own purposes. Sojourners recently ran a wonderful ad in an effort to remind us that God is not a Republican – or a Democrat. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when people use religious language in order to advance their own national or domestic policy. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when my faith is used to as a political weapon that seeks to justify injustice.

We hear a lot of talk about security these days. The Pharisees who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also rightfully concerned about security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They don’t necessarily like the situation, but it seems to be working. And Jesus’ refusal to “show deference” to anyone must seem like an extremely arrogant failure on his part to appreciate the complexity of their situation.

So they try to trap him. But their strategy backfires because Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. Instead of getting into a debate over taxes, he pronounces God’s authority over everything. His answer provides no clear guideline for what aspects of national duty we are to accept and what we are to challenge.

Politics of Values 

But Jesus’ attitude should encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of this nation’s debate when it presumes that military and financial security are unquestionable values. If we take Jesus seriously at all, we will question the very notion that military and financial security are our values at all! And we will do so even when, as Sojourner contributor Kari Jo Verhulst states, it means risking that we will be called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.

The current social climate certainly yields an interesting mix of attitudes about politics from the pulpit. Some people feel very strongly that the church is no place to engage in political debate. Others expect their pastor to address the very real issues of our day and to place them in the context of faith. Martin Luther urged pastors to preach against economic injustice and public policies that work against the well-being of the poor. Well, you can’t get much more political than that.

Loving our neighbor demands that we engage in public affairs because they have such an enormous impact on people’s lives. Loving our neighbor means publicly denouncing oppression and exploitation wherever it is found.

What more important task could we have before us today? In the midst of terrorist attacks and questions of patriotism, we need to look beyond the debates, the media spin and the noise in order to ponder what is right, what is good, and what we believe our elected government should do.

Global Citizens

Groucho Marx said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” The truth of the quote can be so discouraging. It tempts us to hide in despair behind illusions of our own powerlessness. But we are among the most powerful people in the world. And nothing has ever been changed without the action first of a single person.

If we will take our role as a citizen of this country seriously, we will look deeper than political rhetoric. We will look at the whole global situation:  the whole machinery of international power and global capitalism. And we will begin to seriously call into question the values that keep it all in place.

But as we continue to look deeper, we will also begin to see glimpses of God already subtly at work in this world. We will find hope anew that the reign of God is indeed here – being ushered in before us as we hurry to try to catch up. God reign comes even in the midst of our politics and in that reign God’s will for justice and peace is being made visible.

There is no simple application of our biblical text to the political options before us. Each option, each party represents some element of the truth and some element of human fallibility. And no option that I have heard so far takes seriously our role as oppressor in a world where we only continue to grow more wealthy and powerful on the backs of an increasing number of people living in untenable situations.

God’s Reign Equals Our Reign

The hard reality is that no matter who wins, they will not usher in the perfect realization of the promised reign of God. Any political ideology can only be a shadow of that truth. So our final question is how do we weigh the various issues at hand? If we are faithful, we must first consider what it means to love our neighbor. Self-interest is never a God-centered stance.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must seek to be what we want to become.” We must start acting now the way we want to be in the future. We are a transformational people. We know we can change – our habits, our practices, and our way of thinking. Our world too can change – for justice, for peace, for community. Grace makes it all possible.

And in that grace you and I are given the opportunity to decide how we will manifest God, how we will strive for justice and peace in this world that we create.

As people of faith, as people of conscience, and as citizens of this country, we can raise our voices to proclaim where we see God at work in this world. And we can raise the question, like Jesus, of how we, including with our political decisions and action, will give to God what belongs to God.

Invitation for Reflection

  • What is the most critical political issue facing us today?
  • How do you participate in the political process?
  • Is not voting casting a vote for change or abdicating one’s responsibility?
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ageism, aging, beign fully human, Being Fully Human, Buddha, change, Compassion, emotional, feeling, grief, Jesus, loss, moses, mourning, pain, physical, Spiritual, stillborn

The Worst Kind of Grief

griefI used to be a Lutheran. Then I changed and became a Christian Mystic Taoist. So my first question is how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t change. How many Taoists does it take to change a light bulb? You can’t change a light bulb. It can only be true to its own nature. How many politically correct clergy does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll never know. Politically correct clergy don’t tell light bulb jokes!

In a past life I was the Project Manager for the Primary Care Network at Mercy General Health Systems. That meant that my job was to know everything that could be known about a doctor’s office– and then to change it. So I spent time with staff, job shadowed doctors and interviewed patients all in attempt to be more efficient, more effective and more customer focused. Then I would present my wonderful ideas for change.

This is where my lack of human understanding would always rear its ugly head. See, I thought that if I explained what was happening and how it was going to happen and all of the reasons it would be so much better that everyone would be happy two go along. Wrong. You see everything I was doing made great sense intellectually, but I was completely disregarding the fact that change is an intensely emotional activity. I was simply disregarding everyone’s fear and pain and assuming everyone would now be happier and more content.

By the time I left Mercy General I had learned a lot about the process of change – the grief and loss that must be met with mourning, the fear that can propel or paralyze, the joy and anticipation that can lead to even more change.  Change is an opportunity for growth, an antidote against inertia and proof that we live in an ever evolving and creative cosmos.

Organizational change is a challenge, but there is other change that is far more difficult, more painful. In my last blog, I talked about the aging process. I challenged us all to embrace growing old gracefully as a sign of hope for those who follow us. I focused on what we gain as we age. Today in true Taoist fashion, it is only appropriate to acknowledge what we lose. Because loss is real. Aging with grace isn’t about denying that loss, it’s about acknowledging it, grieving it and then continuing to go on living.

Aging isn’t the only thing that brings about painful loss. There are accidents and injuries, divorces and layoffs, violent acts and natural disasters. There is death. And there are too many Detroit Lions football games.

Change can overwhelm us when there are too many of them too soon – and when they come not as something we choose and to some extent control, but as something that controls us. These changes are especially painful.

You know what I’m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life – those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.

What is the Worst Kind of Grief?

And what is the worst kind of grief? Your own. The worst kind of grief is whatever grief you are experiencing. The worst pain you will ever experience is your own pain.

Life is hard. And life is hard because we hurt.  We hurt physically, we hurt emotionally and we hurt spiritually. Pain is present from the very beginning of our life until our last breath. First we are pushed and shoved out of the warmth and security of our mother’s womb into a cold and uncertain world.

And from that day on we will know pain as an unavoidable aspect of life – as we cut our teeth, as we learn about gravity, as we realize why we were told not to touch the stove or play with knives. (Side note, when I was two years old I actually tried to shave my tongue. Any idea how much a tongue bleeds? Hard to bandage, too.) We know pain as we stretch ourselves to learn new skills and in the process fall flat on our face. Pain accompanies our journey as we maneuver our way through the sicknesses and injuries of life and keeps us company as our bodies age, reminding us we are mortal after all.

Then there is the emotional and spiritual pain that can bring us to our knees faster than any physical injury. As we are emptied of everything else – hope, dreams, desires, belief – it is the pain that comes into the void and fills us to overflowing. It arises in times of crisis, trauma and loss and serves as a cruel reminder of our own powerlessness and lack of control. And it is universal. None of us can participate in this world and not know its sting.

We have few role models, however, for learning how to deal with the sting. Our society does not encourage emotional awareness, let alone emotional expression. Instead we are offered a continual array of ways in which we can avoid feeling our pain or feeling anything at all. When any glimmer of emotional turmoil threatens to come our way we can choose alcohol, drugs, sex or food instead. We can distract ourselves from our own emotion by yelling, blaming, or trying to appease somebody else. When sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness threaten to descend we can run away, go shopping, or turn on the TV.

Feeling the Pain

The idea of actually FEELING our pain can seem strange and even frightening. But the only real way to get through it is to finally experience it. Fully. Unflinchingly. In all of its terribleness and terror. And the truth is, we can.  We can feel our pain without exploding, going crazy or dying. And when we do, we realize our pain is not endless.

Half of the battle with grief is just accepting the grief and letting ourselves grieve. We have to accept our grief because other people might not. Other people will mistakenly think that we should have “gotten over it” or that our personal loss shouldn’t be “such a big deal.” We may run into people who are so uncomfortable with grief themselves that they would rather not talk about it. Whatever the reason a lot of people will say or do things to discourage us from grieving. So we can’t depend on others to give us permission to grieve. We have to give that permission to ourselves.

And as we allow ourselves to grieve, we move beyond being a victim. It’s actually much easier to let the voice of the victim drown out the pain. The victim is the witness who carries our story and that is a very important role. As Michael talked about last week, there are times we need to tell our story. There are times people need to hear our story told. But our story is not all that we are. And when we choose to see ourselves as the victim in our own story, we choose powerlessness. We choose to remain stuck right where we are. We choose to do nothing to help ourselves or to help those around us.

Ultimately, we have to grapple with the pain itself in order to move through it. I can complain about my bad luck all day and all night, but until I’m willing to experience my pain, I will never know joy. For the same energy I use to avoid embracing my own damaged self with all of the hurt it carries, is the same energy that keeps me from embracing my own original joy and wonder.

For many of us who prefer to stay in our heads, this may not seem like good news. We cannot think our way into healing and health. We cannot think ourselves out of our grief. It takes great courage to listen to the damaged self, to stay with the painful emotion, explore it, and own it.

The Process of Grief

Grief is a very individual process. There is no roadmap. We all have to go through the stages, but we will do so in different order. We may thing we’ve worked through a stage and then suddenly find ourselves in it again. That’s okay. It just means there is something else that needs to be worked through. We need to let ourselves do that work.

How long does grief last? As long as it takes. In one sense our grief will always be with us. Those things that we’ve lost – people, pets, jobs, abilities, youthfulness – they will never be replaced. In another sense, grief does end. Eventually pain subsides, memories bring more smiles than tears, and the future appears more hopeful than foreboding.  There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe for grief. There’s only your unique and personal timeframe. That’s the only one that should really matter to you.

A Personal Story

Every year on February 1st I take time to intentionally sit with my pain. It is the anniversary of the date my son Malachi Aaron was delivered stillborn. He was a perfect little boy with 10 fingers and 10 toes, my chin (poor kid) and his brother’s nose. And his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his little neck, twice. It was horrible in every sense of the word, pain more intense than I had ever felt before. Physical pain. Emotional pain. And especially spiritual pain. I felt as if a part of my very soul and very being had been severed from me. This is the feeling I still know when I return to the cemetery every February 1. A deep and abiding ache that I surrender to once a year. A bleeding wound that I take time to expose, to kiss and to nurture and then to gently rewrap in bandages of remembering.

In fact, an important part of my healing was in creating a time to intentionally feel the wounds once more. In the midst of my grief there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay again – that didn’t want to let go of the pain. I didn’t want to simply blink and then pretend that everything had returned to normal. And yet my normal routine was beckoning me and the time came that I had to return to life. And so I returned. But I returned not to the same old world I had known before, but to a world where I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I returned having survived something I didn’t know I could survive with strength I didn’t know I possessed.

Spiritual Pain

Today spiritual pain is recognized as a very real factor in our total well-being. Health care providers are taught to recognize signs and symptoms and to help bring healing. Even the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation requires that routine spiritual assessments be part of every hospital patient’s care.

Spiritual pain is about feeling separation. It can include loss of meaning, loss of hope, and loss of one’s own identity. It can include anger, a sense of betrayal and abandonment, and a disruption to one’s core beliefs.

When we allow ourselves to move into our spiritual pain, to experience it fully, we can find new meaning and understanding in the midst of it. A community that welcomes individual questions and doubts can offer consolation and the promise of building relationships of care and of witness to one another, while assuring us of abiding grace and unconditional love.

This is what we seek to know and feel underneath all of our life long struggles. “Our problem,” according to David Richo, “is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adults they are still un-mourned. The hurt, betrayed, bereft child is still inside of us, wanting to cry for what he missed.” Because without that expression and the release it allows, we stay stuck. We don’t let go of the pain. We continue to feel stressful neediness. In fact, that neediness tells us nothing about how much we need from others. What it tells us is how much we still need to grieve a barren past that cannot be changed as it urges us to call upon our own inner sources of nurturance.

Pain comes out of nowhere, hitting us when we least expect it in the place that hurts us the most. When we do our grieving work, when we admit our powerlessness and express our mourning, when we whine and complain and yearn and yell and then take another step forward, we realize that we always have alternatives, no matter what our predicament might be. Knowing we always have choices keeps us from getting stuck in depression, apathy or the paralyzing stance of the victim. Instead we get on with our lives in powerful and productive ways.

When my oldest son Jackson turned 9 I remember his being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I’m already 9 years old. I’ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I’m 18. I’ve already lived half of my life with you. It’s just all happening so fast.”

As we grow, there is much we leave behind. But as mature human beings, there is also much we can recapture. As we live our lives more fully and deeply, we can even move outside of ourselves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people in their grief.

Entering Into a Broken World

It was the sight of pain that jolted the Buddha out of royal complacency and set him off on one of history’s greatest spiritual journeys. It was the sight of pain that made Moses give up his privileged status to lead a political and cultural revolution that is called the Exodus from Egypt. It was the sight of pain that stirred Jesus to follow the call of social activism in such a way that his teachings would influence history and get him killed.

There’s a story of two men in a hospital. One is able to sit up and the other can only lie flat on his back. Day after day the man who sits describes the picture outside the window – the trees, the sunshine, the children playing. His descriptions give the other man comfort and consolation as he struggles with his own failing health. One day the man at the window dies and is moved from the room. The other man asks to be moved to the other side of the room. He is very excited to finally see for himself the wonderful activity taking place outdoors. But when he is moved there is only a wall. The nurse explains that the man who had died was blind.

Indeed, one of the most significant changes for grieving people happens on the inside. Nearly every grieving person becomes more caring and compassionate with others who experience loss. They know what it’s like to lose something or someone precious and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs. Look to your own heart for your motivation. When you are ready and when you feel it deep inside, reach out to help someone else who may need it. When people give of themselves, they also receive.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, Buddha, Jesus, self help, Spiritual, worthiness

An Epidemic of Unworthiness

mimes When I was a freshman in High School I went to the Luther League National Convention. This was a gathering of young people in the American Lutheran Church as it was known at the time. 40,000 young people strong, we gathered in Kansas City, Missouri for fellowship and fun. I remember the mimes and the toga party most of all. Oh yeah. And the keynote speaker. He was fantastic. And he spoke directly to my 14 year old heart and soul.

This was way back in 1979 and Jesse Jackson was our keynote speaker. For those of who wonder what it was like to be alive way back then, it was a hopeful time. Jesse Jackson was a young black activist and his message was I am somebody. He yelled and we chanted back and it was inspiring and oh so hopeful.

I am – somebody!
I am – somebody!
I am poor – but I am – somebody!
I am young – but I am – somebody!
I make mistakes – but I am – somebody!
My clothes are different
My face is different
My hair is different
My skin is different
And I am – somebody!
I am – Somebody!

I am somebody.

I went to the pastor’s prayer gathering in July. Tri City Clergy are invited to gather once a month at somebody’s place of worship for prayer, lunch and a program. In July they were meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church and I was looking forward to meeting Jared Cramer who leads that community since Henry Idema retired so I attended.

We started by gathering in the alter area where one of the pastors asked what we needed by way of prayer. Numerous requests were made and then we got on with the short order of service for noonday. When we got to the prayers, I felt myself in a perpetual cringe as one after another the pastors declared themselves and all of us to be unworthy of love or mercy or grace. Then our liturgy continued with this, “have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.”

Oh we are unworthy. We are sinful. We are a hopeless lot people.

And I have to wonder, don’t these people of the cloth know that they are ministering to broken people? Do they really think that we don’t spend enough time beating ourselves up and we really need to go looking for others to beat us up to? Flagellation and hair shirts for everyone!

A Collective Meme

As we talk about diversity, I’ll be honest with you. I think one of the smallest minority groups in the United States today are people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the teachings and the ways of Jesus. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the ways of the Buddha. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the tenets of humanism. Because Jesus, Buddha and humanism all teach us that we are inherently precious and altogether worthy.

Now it’s easy to go all judgmental on the church and religion, but this is not a church issue. It’s a cultural phenomenon in which we have collectively swallowed the poison meme of unworthiness. It’s an epidemic.

And let me be clear here. The issue I’m addressing right now isn’t the need to accept people who are different from us. It’s the need to accept ourselves. WE are the ones who must come to terms with the fact that WE belong, that WE are somebody, that WE are worthy.

Most of us have been alive to see some pretty significant shifts in our world. We have addressed, continue to address and are just beginning to address really big ideals: Civil rights. Women’s rights. Gay rights. Prisoner rights. Elderly rights. Rights for the disabled. Rights for practitioners of different religions. Rights for the mentally ill – and in this moment I want to call attention to the sad loss this week of Robin Williams in recognition that mental illness is still largely stigmatized and misunderstood but that this is also an area where we are making great gains in recognizing that we are diverse people and that we do need to honor and respect each other. 

Exposing the Lie

What I’m not so sure we are clear on, and I’m including myself here, is our own worth and value and dignity as human being in this world that would just as soon tear us apart. Everything – EVERYTHING – in our culture tells us we aren’t good enough. We aren’t pretty enough, we aren’t wealthy enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t sexy enough. We aren’t enough. We are nobody.

Well, it’s a lie. It’s a big fat industrial sized Madison Avenue lie. We have been infected with a toxic germ. It has become an epidemic. We are having an outbreak of self-unworthiness.  

This illness takes hold and then we take hold of it. We busy ourselves with blame or by trying to ascend to higher spiritual or philosophical levels of awareness or perfection and further integrate the idea that we aren’t quite good enough – yet. When all we really have to do is stop, relax and pay attention. See the lie of a culture of shame and unworthiness and explore how it has infected us. This awareness alone is the key to awakening, rebirth, salvation.

The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a night-long encounter with the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. Jesus confronted his demons through a 40 day retreat in the desert. We face our shadow when we start paying attention to the feelings that arise in us that we would just as soon dismiss — feelings of judgment, depression, anxiety, and anger. Now fear and shame are not fully conscious but they are often underlying emotions. When we focus on our feelings and discover there is fear or shame at the core, then we have a unique opportunity to “think” about our “feelings.”

In the midst fear or shame, we can ask ourselves, “What am I thinking?” “What do I believe?” We usually discover an assumption that we are falling short or about to fail in some way. We contract in fear and shame when we expect to be rejected. Ultimately, our sense of unworthiness comes from our sense of being separate and alone, from forgetting that we are connected to each other and that we play an important part in the operations of the whole. When we follow our emotions and our thoughts to the end, we can recognize that we are simply accepting a mental story, and the illusion of our unworthiness begins to disappear.  

The Myth of Separation 

Every one of us is unique, our own little bundle of human diversity. Just look at your own life! Look at the ways in which you have stood out and stood up! What you have accomplished and what you have overcome. We are more than the sum of your past experiences. We human beings are hardwired for resiliency. Life just sucks sometimes. And yet here we are in all our individual beauty and worthiness!

The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness.

Any path that reminds us that we belong, to each other, to this world, eases the artificial belief in separation and unworthiness. We are not walking this path alone, working slowly toward becoming more perfect. Instead, we are discovering that we are interrelated, our bodies to our emotions, ourselves to each other, and to the whole world. In dissolving the illusion, we no longer feel compelled to blame or to hide in fear and shame. Instead we are filled with love and the unshakable realization that we are worthy.

We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody!

Namaste

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Bible, change, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, Spiritual

The Fiction of the Rapture

raptureLast week we started looking at the “real” meaning of the Book of Revelation in the Christian Bible. Frankly, we’re bombarded with so much information it’s hard to tell what to believe any more. So it is even more important that we spend time checking things out for our self – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

One way to do your own research is to actually read what the Bible and other supposed “evidence” says. As we do our own discernment, we find ourselves embracing a spiritual journey that includes a deepening reflective nature. We discover new insights and we find ourselves challenged to bring even more awareness and depth to our relationship with the Divine.

Each of the world’s great wisdom traditions suggest truths about the qualities of God/Goddess. For those of us who follow the lineage of Jesus Christ, we do not discover a murderous warrior, but a God of mercy and grace immersed in a mystery we cannot fully comprehend.

We do not find a get out of jail free card that allows us to escape the pain of this life while others stay and suffer. Instead we are given the promise of hope and healing for all of God’s creation. We do not watch on as others cry out in anguish. Instead we know the reality of Christ joining us in the midst of our suffering. We do not walk away from the uneasy questions of this life with a pat set of easy black and white answers. Instead we find ourselves awed by mystery and motivated by love to engage in the struggle for God’s new world of salvation with justice.

In researching the rapture, I came upon a 2001 news item. According to press reports in Arkansas City, Georgann Williams was killed after leaping through her moving car’s sunroof during an incident best described as a “mistaken rapture.” Apparently Mrs. Williams was convinced that the rapture was occurring when she saw twelve people floating up into the air as she passed a man on the side of the road who looked like Jesus. Her husband said, “She started screaming, ‘He’s back! He’s back!’ and climbed right out of the sunroof and jumped off the back of the car.” He said, “She was convinced Jesus was gonna lift her up into the sky.”

It seems Ernie Jenkins was on his way to a toga party dressed up like Jesus, when the tarp covering the bed of his pickup truck came loose and released twelve blowup sex dolls filled with helium. He pulled over to the side of the road and lifted his arms in the air in frustration shouting, “Come back here!” just as Mr. and Mrs. Williams drove by. Mrs. Williams was sure it was Jesus lifting people up into the sky. When asked for comment, truck driver Ernie Jenkins replied, “This is just too weird for me. I never expected anything like this!”

Well, you can’t believe everything you hear – even if it comes to you over the Almighty Internet – and neither the story nor the Rapture are true. Amusing perhaps, entertaining, but entirely fabricated.

Apocalyptic Literature

So if the book of Revelation is used to support the idea of the Rapture and if there is no Rapture to be found there – then just what is the book of Revelation all about? In a nutshell, the message of Revelation is something like this: Things are bad. Things are going to get worse. But in the end everything will be okay.

The Book of Revelation is what we call “Apocalyptic” literature. Apocalyptic literature arises out of the tiniest bit of hope that remains at the point of despair. Despair is certainly not a new development in this world. People of all generations have always wondered whether they were living in the end times. An Assyrian inscription carved in stone in about 1500 BC reads: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book; indeed, the end of the world is approaching.”

Faced with times of despair, the prophets call for reform and write about looking forward to God balancing the scales of justice within history. But apocalyptic writers have given up on history. Things are so bad that they can only be made right by God bringing a radical end to history itself, destroying all evil and beginning again with a whole new world. What we need now, they say, is a great big super-size God who will break in and shake things up so that they’ll never be the same again.

The Book of Revelation was probably written around the year 90 AD, the same time period as the Gospel of Matthew, when the Christian churches in Asia (now the western part of modern day Turkey) were experiencing severe oppression. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Jesus had not returned. His followers continued to be martyred. The Roman Empire had such vast political and economic power that it was now contending with God in trying to secure the allegiance of its people. Against such a backdrop, John uses this cryptic form of writing – complete with bizarre visions, weird dreams and mysterious symbols – to tell his readers to hold on and to stand firm in their faith.

Resistance While Staying Alive

You might notice that John never speaks of Rome directly. There’s an obvious reason for this. If you’re going to criticize your own government, it just might be safer to talk about an earlier time so that the politicians who aren’t so smart anyway won’t know that you’re really talking about them. John can easily recall the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem some 600 years before – so in Revelation Rome is referred to as Babylon. Think of the movie M*a*s*h. The film was about the Korean War – but it was written during the Vietnam War which allowed it to make some pretty pointed remarks that really hit home in the time it was written. 

Revelation was written for 1st Century Christians. Its symbols and the assumptions behind them were not taken from the 21st century to be interpreted 2000 years later. Instead they were drawn from the language, experience and culture of the time – written to a particular set of people in a particular set of circumstances. So just what are we who are living in this time and place to make of this book?

The answer varies. For those who continue to live in a state of severe oppression and persecution the book continues to offer the same encouragement to endure in the faith in the certain hope that God will prevail.

But I think it’s a difficult stretch for us who live in the United States today, who worship in any way we choose, who consume far more than our share of this earth’s resources, to make a hard case for persecution. And I say that in spite of all of the emails I receive every year from people who are mightily oppressed because their sales clerk said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” to them while they were at the check out counter engaging in rampant consumerism.

The New Roman Empire

In fact, I think a much more cogent case can be made that as a nation we are not the oppressed at all, but have instead become the new Rome, the embodiment of a new global empire. We are not only the most powerful nation in the world; we are also the most formidable military power that has EVER existed. There are 800 US military bases that span around the globe and that reach from the depths of the ocean to the vastness of space.

On the basis of our own military strength we grant ourselves permission to launch wars, torture enemies, gain control over resources like oil, and produce nuclear weapons that can literally destroy the world. Meanwhile our economic ideology has led to widening economic and social disparities both here at home and abroad. In fact, our own survival at this point seems to be dependent upon the war machine and the industrial military complex that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about as he left office in 1961. 

If Revelation is only supposed to address the persecuted, we might be hard pressed to find a reason to resonate with the book at all. But what if the author had more than that in mind? What if he also wanted to reveal an alternative to living in empire? What if he wanted us to think beyond our cultural conditioning and embrace a way of life consistent with a God of peace and justice?

If we read it from this direction then we find a vision that exposes the empire for what it is in such a way that we have no choice but to oppose the way things are, even as we know we will suffer persecution as a result. In discovering a God of healing and wholeness, the fractured sickness of Rome – the violence, the corruption, the ecological destruction – becomes apparent. As we are swept up in the drama, two contrasting images become clear before our eyes and we decide we must embrace a new vision and withdraw our allegiance to the status quo.

Today and through time the Book of Revelation presents a cosmic drama of conflict between God and the Empire. It is a struggle against domination, economic exploitation and political idolatry. It is a call to political protest and to resolute resistance in the face of injustice. And John, two steps ahead of us, already knows and tells us, too, that this will get us into a lot of trouble.

According to New Testament Professor David Rhoads, apocalyptic literature challenges readers to question the core values that make the society work and dares its readers to imagine a different world. The Roman Empire with its wealth, power, and glory certainly looked as if it were blessed by God. But John urges his readers to see it as an idolatrous, oppressive and destructive empire. John gives his readers the hope to struggle, the courage to resist, and the faith to endure. 

So why has such a large segment of the US population come to view this book as a wrathful testament of God’s punishment of unbelievers? How could Christians in this country have come to believe that they are the victims that will at last be saved from the evil forces around them? How can we as a culture read this book today and fail to notice any resemblance to the old Roman Empire?

More next week…

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