The curse of naked and ashamed

I try to remember nudity was the original intent. Shame only came later, when the plan went woefully — but not hopelessly — awry. But like most things spiritual, the point of this whole thing is not anywhere near skin deep.

I needed to remind myself of all this as I read the story of the woman caught in adultery from John 8 this morning. I couldn’t shake the imagery. Nor could I nudge the subtle thought that God has been trying to teach us something that can only be learned from being truly naked at that one moment when every instinct in our body seeks nothing but to hide behind clothes.  Only something as powerful as our stripped down selves can grasp it.

But back to John 8: The religious leaders of the day — a very pretentious, uptight, angry group of folks not to unlike religious leader of seemingly every era — crafted a plan to catch a woman in the act of adultery. Obviously she needed a partner in crime, but the man is never mentioned. It’s safe to assume he may have been in on it in the first place because it isn’t so easy to catch people “in the act.” It gives new definition to the term “ugly male.”

The woman is dragged to church without even having time to grab a robe. She is tossed onto the dirt floor in front of Jesus who is teaching there. He ignores her and begins to scrawl in the dirt. The indignant mob asks Jesus if he thinks they should follow Jewish law and stone the woman.

It’s a trap, I tell you! This mob really isn’t so angry at the woman. She is so beneath them in stature they likely don’t think of her in human terms as much as see her as a pawn for their plans, be they plans to use her sexually themselves or in this case to topple this homeless preacher who had turned their lives into a living hell with his radical preaching of love, forgiveness and social justice.  The religious leaders of the day were scared shit-less that such ideas would become fashionable and cut into their monopoly on the market of God. One thing we know for sure: God is good business. Always has been. So there has been no shortage of angry people who exploit it.

The nakedness is purely theatrical. To ramp up the stakes on Jesus. To heighten the moral degradation. To heap the shame on this pawn of woman, because we all know that since the beginning of time shame quickly follows nakedness. Remember Eden: They ate the apple and quickly realized they were naked. Shame and the desperate grab to clothe, to hide, to run from God followed. It’s a powerful myth, one I return to time and time again.

Jesus knows its a trap. He is nonplussed. He merely stoops over and scribbles in the dirt, turning all the mob mentality and theatrics into more awkwardness than a Michael Scott speech in an episode of The Office.

Seeking to regain their momentum, the leaders repeat their demands of Jesus in a “what say you!” type of way. Jesus rises, dusts off his hands and shrugs.

“Sure, stone her,” he says. “So long as you haven’t sinned… go for it.”

The original language in this text is more specific. It suggests that Jesus is saying let the one that hasn’t committed this particular sin throw the fastballs of death.

I once heard a preacher wonder about what Jesus was doodling in the dirt during this encounter.

“I like to think it was the names of they girlfriends,” he said.

Now that’s awkward.

The mob started dropping their rocks, one at a time “starting with the oldest,” the scripture records, until there was no one left but the naked woman the man who called himself the Son of God.

“Neither do I condemn you,” he says. “Go and sin no more.”

It’s a great story. It’s grace in simplest form. Jesus shatters the shame of her nakedness and simply says, live better… for your own sake.

We shy away too often from sin. It’s an abused word, a favorite of the angry mob types who twist it into a weapon of religious zeal. But read through the scriptures and you see God using it often in a much different way.

“The wages of sin are death,” the Apostle Paul wrote. We read this and get all freaked out thinking of it only the heaven and hell terms that the religious dogma of our day insists is fact. But look around. We see what he meant all around us. Hell bent on destruction, we call it.

Sin is living our lives far away from the potential and possibility and zeal that God created us to experience. Too often we live a less-than-glorious life because of our sin… our destructiveness, our selfishness, our lack of control, our immaturity, our woundedness and our fear. God wants us to live, not die. Let’s not make it all about some hereafter. If Jesus taught us anything it centers on the fact that this life, right here and now, is damn important, important enough for him to come in the form of a human being to share it with us and show us a better way to, simply put, set us free from sin.

It’s the same words we have all heard so often. We’ve heard them so often in so many hurtful, dogmatic ways we can hardly shift our brains to hear them ourselves without all the religious trappings and consider what exactly God was speaking about and modeled for us in his own life. If anything God is consistent, so these apparent contradictions say far more about us and our interpretations of things like sin and death than it does about God. If Jesus modeled compassion, grace, forgiveness and anything but shame, then we can rest assured it was the point from the very beginning.

This added bonus of shame explains why we so often both repulsed and compelled by our nakedness? Something internally tells us that we are completely Effed up. We know it. We live it. We are sick of it. But we fail to change it. “Go and sin no more,” Jesus tells us with something far removed from shame.

He calls us to embrace our intent. That is our nakedness. Our purest self. That part of us that is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We can’t get it back by adorning ourselves with more “clothes,” more of the trappings of wealth, stature, power, success and influence. We get it back by being stripped bare, face to face with our true selves and all its Effed up glory and realizing that God absolutely loves us just the way we are.

A final note: Most Bible’s now point out that this passage of the woman caught in adultery can’t be found in the earliest manuscripts of scripture. Some would say this might discredit them. But perhaps its the exact opposite. Perhaps the power of the story was so important that it not only wasn’t forgotten, but someone insisted on adding it in later precisely because he or she knew that at one time or another we’d all be caught ashamed in our failures and need to hear again about the God of love who calls us back to our intended state of transparent, honest, flawed and yet still glorious life… naked, yet wonderfully unashamed.

Interfaith effort equals acts of courage in age of intolerance

I spent my birthday being courageous and I didn’t even know it. All I felt was blessed.

Those who were paying attention knew Pope Francis was a true profile in courage from the moment he took the name he did and spurned the extravagance of the papal residence. We knew he had a certain fearlessness when he dived into crowds, kissed babies and generally scorned the high-security pope mobile that had long kept our pontiffs, like our presidents, out of our reach. But never have we seen the depths of his courage when Pope Francis humbly faced East, bowed his head and stood next to the Grand Mufti of Istanbul in November.

The act is so simple we might have missed just how courageous praying with those of a different faith can be, especially for the leader of the Church of Rome. But we can’t miss the violence carried out throughout the world every single day by ardent believers of various faiths who simply believe the only way to serve God is to kill in His name. What we believe and who and how we worship can get us killed any day in any country in the world. Such is the nature of divided religion in the 21st century.

Thankfully the Pope did not alone use the lens of the Thanksgiving holiday to draw attention to the need for peace among believers of different faiths. I know similar services likely take place all across the globe, but until my birthday this year I’d never experienced a Thanksgiving multi-faith service like the one I attended in a San Francisco synagogue, hosted by the First Mennonite Church of San Francisco and the Congreation Sha’ar Zahav.

I sat in awe as Jews wearing yarmulkes and Muslims wearing hijabs and Christians carrying crosses or rosaries and Buddhists sounding bells gathered together to celebrate their commonalities instead of their vast differences.

At times it felt like bathing in wisdom passed down through the centuries from all parts of the globe as Jewish poems, Muslim scripture, Christian songs and Buddhist practices were presented.  At least a half dozen languages were represented. Gay and straight were represented. Black, white and in between were represented. Young and old. Male, female.

At one point, as a Jewish cantor and a Mennonite song leader sang, I stared to the rafters where large massive beams held the protection over our heads and I felt for a moment transported. We were those beams, the various shapes, all connected powerfully into a force of collective strength by the One who transcends.

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I had no idea that I’d be given the gift of experiencing just a slice of what heaven must be like on my birthday. It was a memorable present, one that exemplifies the high prayer of Jesus, “on Earth as it is in heaven.”

Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth right?

As it turned out, the simple gathering was anything but. After the service I learned how fractured, difficult and tenuous the planning of the entire event had been. Deference was paid to all. Great care and planning took place, and still some dropped out before the service. It barely came off.

As the service proceeded in its careful, easy pace, I knew that people die for courageous acts like these. I can’t understand why. Especially being there and seeing it for myself, I can’t imagine why we so often use religion as a tool of hate, violence and oppression. But it happens. We know this all too well. We live in an era of religious crusades, as if the first ones weren’t devastating enough.

Hating and killing and degrading are still so much easier than loving, empowering and respecting.

The Pope’s act and this service remind me that God’s mission on this Earth is the unleashing of heaven the way it was intended in the first place. Imagine how much easier that job will be when those God loves so much that She created us in Her image stop destroying that creation and begin to participate in the reclamation project. Because that’s the point of all this here on Earth, isn’t it?

Which is exactly why it is so courageous in the first place.

Jewish advice: Act as if there’s no God

I had a stunning three-minute conversation with a spiritual counselor the other day that became one of those indelible moments that I know will stick with me for a long while.

As it so often happens with me, it started with bread.

It ended with this simple message of Jewish wisdom the counselor said dates back a long, long way. The advice, he said, was “act like there is no God.”

But I am ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the bread, back when one of my daughter’s texted me and asked me if I wanted to make Challah.

“I have no idea what that is, but I can try,” I texted back.

“It’s a pretty basic sweet bread,” she wrote.

“Ok,” I said.

Then she threw in the kicker: “And it’s braided really pretty.”

Huh? I thought. Suddenly it wasn’t so basic anymore.

I really don’t know a thing about Jewish traditions, except that they are very meaningful and shouldn’t be trifled with. I felt a bit like I may soon be trifling with some ham-handed attempt to make a bread I’d never even eaten. Still, when asked I try to say yes, so…

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The dough part was indeed easy enough.

But the braiding part, well that was indeed “fancy.” I took to YouTube. I figured if I could learn to butcher a pig on YouTube, I could braid some bread.

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Turns out you can learn much of anything on YouTube. Anyone need a surgeon?! I’m willing to try.

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In the end, I was pretty happy with the look of my first Challah.

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Happy enough that I sought out the aforementioned Jewish spiritual counselor for his approval of my effort. I showed him the picture and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic with his praise, which was surprisingly meaningful for me to hear.

He told me how his grandmother would make Challah for the Sabbath meal so that at least one time a week they could eat with knives– without any instruments of violence on the table– since the bread could easily be pulled apart. Since both this counselor and I also share ties to an Anabaptist tradition that value peace over all, it was especially thoughtful and meaningful.

What a legacy, I thought.

So I told him about my daughter, who is not Jewish, but who volunteered to cook the meal for Tuesday night’s observance of the start of Hanukkah for a friend. I explained how my daughter’s friend converted to Judaism and hadn’t gotten much interest in the holiday observances from her family. My daughter decided to cook for her and celebrate together their shared faith, even if under different religious umbrellas.

He looked pleased. That’s when he told me about the old Jewish idiom to act like there’s no God in the world.

He said it just as he was dashing off so I lingered there with the idea on my mind for a while.

If there’s no God, then we must do what God would do. We must be the God others need, which is exactly what my daughter is doing for her friend and gave me the opportunity to participate as well in my very small way of baking and braiding bread (I also made some jelly donuts… though I’m less sure of what part of the meal they play).

So I stood there a moment thinking about this and all that happens around bread and how so often God is in the simplest things like bread and wine, which Jesus gave out on his last night to remind us to think of his life and role in this world every time we eat or drink it, which is pretty much every day.

Jesus might just have heard the same saying as my spiritual counselor did, I thought, because they are saying essentially the same thing.

As I think about these exchanges I realize I am embossed — as if stamped in a way that is hardly visible, yet indelible — with this idea of a significant approach to life as expressed by that counselor. Every time I see a pretty braided loaf of bread I will think of my need to act like there is no God in the world and be forever grateful there is.

Just breathe: first step toward the God of peace

In the late 1990s my so-called perfect life was anything but. Typical of those like me who were relatively affluent, married, career-oriented, I had the accouterments of success. Outside I looked fine, stylish in fact… maybe even adorned. I had a designer purse and a nice car and my husband at the time worked in a successful family business.

And we were miserable.

My misery manifest itself in anxiety. Panic attacks. Fear. Times when my body rebelled against me. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and prescribed medication. But it was also the first time I began to pay attention to the little things that can make life better. Like air.

Breath.

Breathe in, breathe out. It was good advice then and it remains a go-to-medication now long after I have stopped taking drugs and stopped self-medicating with alcohol.

I realized a long time ago how important deep breathing is for physical and mental health. My journey towards a more healthy well-being started with the introduction of deep breathing. I’d simply start each morning by taking ten long, deep breaths in, followed by a long, slow exhale out. I developed a routine that I continue to this day.

As the stresses in my life increased it became important to introduce other methods that would help alleviate stress. Meditation started to become a leading player in my life. The creation of a space in my home that existed and was free of television and other electronic devices was significant. The space with a comfortable chair and a warm blanket, and included lavender scented candles created an environment that allowed me the ability to live in it for as long as I could spare in any given day. Sometimes that was only five minutes, but it was enough time in that day.

Meditation consisted of me closing myself in that warm, safe environment. With closed eyes, I would begin my deep-breathing and would usually think of one word that was significant to me in that moment. I repeated that word (often times it was the word “peace”) as a way of clearing the space in my brain so that I could focus solely on meditating. This extended the deep-breathing to help relieve my anxiety symptoms.

My deep-breathing techniques have recently been enhanced by my introduction of yoga. I try to practice yoga three times a week for about an hour. Yoga has allowed me to strengthen my body, while also strengthening my mind. Yoga incorporates my deep-breathing and meditation. It has brought these two calming techniques together and taught me how to stay in the moment. It has become a mainstay in my life.

Yoga’s benefits for the mind and body are important for keeping me in control and ensuring that anxiety and stress stay away.

Within these practices of breath, meditation and yoga I have found a greater sense of purpose in prayer. In these times with God I find the root of my anxiety, which grew from the absence of God in my life during those so-called “successful” years. That generalized anxiety was more specific than I ever thought.

First I learned to calm my breath, which helped me calm my mind, which empowered me to calm my body, which infused my soul with the sense of calm that flowed me wholly like a gentle river back into relationship with the God of my youth.

I still struggle with anxiety from time to time. It’s still woven in my DNA and my brain and my biology. I know that’s a part of it. But I also know like all things, there are other parts as well. I don’t worry about a “cure.” Instead I use the anxiety for what it was designed to be, a reminder to stay close to the God who created me.

Whenever I start to lose my way, I can find it again… with that first, long, deep, wonderfully cleansing breath.

Is God a thinker?

When my eyes open each morning its like my brain hears a starters pistol fire. My mind is off to the races.

At times throughout a given day I will find myself stalled, like this slow computer I work on, frozen, eyes staring out at some sort of nothing and my mind does its work without me noticing for a moment a too. I feel in those times how fast my mind races beyond me.

I have often been criticized for “thinking” too much. Yet I often let it fall away, convinced my thinking is part of the best of me.

So it’s little wonder that the most difficult and most necessary part of my spiritual discipline is to slow my mind down and simply try to not think. Mediation is hard, really hard. Yet the more I think the more I realize I need to think less to think better and be better.

For some reason one of my greatest strengths as a person, my ability to think critically and thoroughly about all that which interests me, is a powerful obstacle to my relationship with the Divine.

So as I continue to sift through the detritus of my recent spiritual slump, I return to one of the fundamental parts of who I am. If I am made in God’s image, it seems fair to ask, is a God a thinker too?

On hand it sounds absurd. Of course God’s a thinker right? It’s the one trait more than any other that makes us fully and uniquely human, crafted in God’s image. He had to think all this up in the first place, right?

But on the other… what the hell does God have to think about anyway? She already knows all the answers, right? Wouldn’t thinking for God be sort of like doing the same crossword puzzle over and over and over and never getting a new one?

My identity is fiercely tied to my thinking. So it serves to reason that my ego is also closely tied to the power of my mind. Where the ego goes, I have learned to be wary.

So I have to pause, reset and think some more. Have I made an idol of my brain in a way that blocks God off from my heart?

God is fiercely jealous. Idolatry seems to be the central focus of scriptural laws in the Old Testament. When Saul tries to “out think” God, Samuel calls it witchcraft and forever removes God’s anointing. Jesus seems comfortable with prostitutes, boozers, course talking men, and swindlers, but he has nothing but harsh words for the religious “thinkers” of his day.

So what do I do with these thoughts? Why, of course, I think some more. I think about how I’ve seen truly intelligent, brilliant, wonderful people bereft of the human connection and ability to connect heart-to-heart with another person. I’ve seen dedicated followers of God who have so little love for others. I’ve seen people blessed with beautiful minds have nothing but scorn and elitism for others less fortunate.

Never one to let a good thought lie idle, I think so more. Like Tevye I say, “on the other hand…” I’ve seen far too many believers with their heads checked at the door. All that happy clappy Christianity lacks what Alan Jones in Soul Making called spiritual maturity. And it’s often not harmless. I’ve spoken to too many religiously intolerant who unthinking barf up Bible verses as excuses for abuse, hate, racism, excess and any number of things I think to be wrong.

Clearly God has some thoughts about all of that right? And round my thoughts go, both a sprint and marathon, a restless always of thought that makes me tired just thinking about it.

I often ask The Bride what she’s thinking. She’ll say, “nothing.” I call bullshit. “You can’t think nothing,” I’ll say. She’ll smile and say, “you can’t think nothing, but I do it just fine.”

See when I set out to write this post I set a goal of 400 words. It’s far longer now… typical…

 

Perhaps, just perhaps, I’ve been thinking about this all wrong for a long, long time. For example: go back to St. Paul, one of the truly great thinkers of the Christian faith, who ironically doesn’t list thinking as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: (Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control). In the great Romans crescendo of Chapters 12 and 13, Paul doesn’t hail his mind, but : “love, joy and peace… and the greatest of these is love.”  The great song of love that follows comes from a most unlikely source, a zealous celibate with vastly limited appreciation of women.

Old Testament prophets usually use emotional metaphors for God’s love, like that of a lover, mother, shepherd and passionate protector. Rarely is our relationship with God defined by how we think about God.

In short, that which makes me most Godlike is also that which so often keeps me from God.

In someways its simple: Too often my relationship with God is in my head while his heart goes untouched by mine for far too long. I become the old adage of the farmer who tells his wife, “I said I loved you when I married you. If I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”

Too often I become the loveless, passion-less, heat-less lover of God who thinks of Her often but embraces her never.

Have you ever been in love? Have you experienced the all-consuming enrapture of that falling off a cliff love for someone? Does it last? Not often, but do we want it to? Always.

And I think God wants it too as well. I think the other side of this life will be a place where love endures with all its thrilling, all-consuming intensity. I know there will be plenty of time for my brain to do its best work in heaven too, but as I pursue the idea of Jesus prayer here “on Earth as it is in heaven,” I realize that this slump is not one I can think my way out of.

Holiday musings: Does God like to shop?

On the surface this is an inane question isn’t it? Does God like to shop? Does the supreme creator being, maker and ruler of all, like to buy stuff? Of course not, right?

And Jesus, well we know he couldn’t care less about such things. He tossed coins away, found them in the mouths of passing fish and never knew how much food he and his band of merry followers had. He couldn’t be bothered with “stuff” at all. When he sent seventy followers out on a do-good mission he gave them few rules other than “take nothing.” Leave the stuff behind, he said.

So of course Jesus didn’t like to shop. The problem is Jesus said he doesn’t like stuff. He never said much about shopping. That sucks for me because I don’t like shopping, but I sorta like my stuff.

Buddha didn’t shop, at least we don’t read of it. He sat. Maybe if he lived now he’d be into online shopping since he could both sit and shop, but somehow I doubt it.

I’ve spent the last day or so returning to this question again and again, looking for any form of counter argument that God in any way would like to shop. It’s been a barren search. The best I could do is the passage where Jesus chides us in a sermon saying if we who are basically daft can give good gifts, how much better can the Father do with his gifts.

I liked that because though God has little interest in shopping, She does like to give gifts. God gives the birds a nest and the lilies of the field sun necessary to grow and in fact gives us our daily bread. God is incessantly giving. 

But giving and shopping are very different things, even it turns out when we are shopping to give, which is mostly what the frenetic activity is about this time of year. We even have holidays dedicated solely to the concept of shopping for gifts: Black Friday (which is now Thursday too) and Cyber Monday.

I thought about this when I wandered into Union Square the other day, having completely forgotten what day it was (see photo above): Black Friday. The place a crush of bag toting, money spending humanity. People clearly like to shop. With this many people THIS into shopping it seemed worth wondering what God thought of all that.

Think about it: It didn’t sound quite so silly in my last post when I mused on whether God is a sports fan. With so many people so obsessed about sports, it makes sense to consider the spiritual implications of our time and money focused on shopping and the attendant “stuff” we so badly want (be it to give or to receive).

Of course, I want to go negative here and rail against the materialism and capitalism of our day. I want to point out the hypocrisy of the American church that is so commercial, so material and so often oblivious to the poor, homeless, downtrodden, addicted, and needy among us that without a doubt every major religion touts as extremely important to God.

Who would dare to try to say excessive spending on all the things we adorn ourselves and our homes and our ears and eyes with is little more than Solomon’s vanity?

But I’ll step down off the preacher soap box here because I do like… stuff. I like trinkets and adornments and cool sunglasses and a fashion mix of evolved-thug type style. I like decorating and like making my wife and daughters (all of whom adore shopping) happy by taking them to shopping.

In fact the main reason I’m thinking about all this is because of my own spiritual slump that likely resides in part from my own inner selfishness and vanity that cares a bit too much about all the stuff of this world. The reality is it’s never as easy to know what God likes as we want to believe, or better yet, what WE want God to Like.

So rather than answering the question definitively, a better course of consideration for me in my spiritual slogging is to consider why I like the stuff that shopping brings. I don’t like to shop. But I do like the stuff as much as the next guy or gal, and until I admit that, I have no place wagging a finger at those who do love to shop.

Besides, I don’t much about what God likes, but I do know He isn’t much into the finger wagging business anyway.