Archive for April, 2019

The Eternal Now

April 30th, 2019

Heaven Now

The Eternal Now
Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Jesus’ primary metaphors for the Eternal Now are “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven.” He is not talking about a far-off celestial heaven. “Look around you, look at the fields; already they are ready for harvest! Already the reaper is being paid his wages, already he is bringing in the grain for eternal life, and thus sower and reaper rejoice together” (John 4:35-36, Jerusalem Bible). Notice that Jesus says already three times. He is trying to tell us that there is a way that we can live connected to the Real and to the Eternal in this world. That path is surrendering to the here-and-now, whatever it offers us. We might just call this “the will of God,” yet it feels like nothing, like nowhere (now-here), and still it is where everything always happens to us. So be sure to be here now—and not somewhere else! If our minds or hearts are elsewhere, nothing really happens to us that matters or lasts.

Nondual knowing is learning how to live satisfied in the naked now, which some called “the sacrament of the present moment.” This consciousness will teach us how to actually experience our experiences, whether good, bad, or ugly, and how to let them transform us. Words by themselves divide and judge the moment; pure presence lets it be what it is, as it is.

As long as we deal with life as a set of universal abstractions, we can pretend that our binary coordinates are true. But once we touch concrete reality—ourselves, someone we love, actual moments—we find that reality is almost always a mixture of good and bad, dark and light, life and death. “God alone is good,” Jesus tells the rich young man (Mark 10:18). To touch upon Reality requires a both/and synthesis rather than an either/or differentiation where we throw part of reality out (the part we don’t like). The nondual mind is open to everything that comes its way. It does not even deny sin or evil. It is capable of listening to the other, to the body, to the heart, to all the senses. It begins with a radical yes to each moment and to all other people.

When we can be present in this way, we will know the Real Presence. We will still need and use our dualistic mind to get started, but now it is in service to the greater whole rather than just the small self. Start with dualistic clarity, if you can, and then move toward nondual compassion for your response.

John Duns Scotus (1266–1308), one of our great Franciscan teachers, said that God did not create genus and species; God only created what Duns Scotus called “this-ness,” in Latin haecceity. He said that until we can experience each thing in its specific “thisness,” we will not easily experience the joy and ubiquity of Divine Presence. In other words, I can’t be present to all women in general. I’ve got to be present to this woman, right here, right now, in her specificity and particularity.

The here-and-now has the power to become the gateway and the breakthrough point to the universal. The concrete, the specific, the physical, the here-and-now—when we can be present to it in all of its ordinariness—becomes the gateway to the Eternal. Please trust me on that and don’t dare dismiss it until and unless you have tried it. One completely loved thing is all it takes.

Heaven Now

April 29th, 2019

Heaven and Hell
Sunday, April 28, 2019

Lord, will only a few people be saved? —Luke 13:23

But remember, some who are now last will be first. And some who think they are first will be last. —Luke 13:30

Many of the saints said that no one is going to hell unless they want to. God condemns no one to hell, unless they themselves choose to live in hatred, evil, and disharmony. Then they are already living in hell here and now. God just gives them what their lives show they want.

Most of the world religions have some concept of heaven and hell. Why? Because human freedom matters. We have to be given the freedom to say no to love and life, and one word for that is hell.

Pope John Paul II, who certainly was not a liberal, reminded listeners that heaven and hell are not physical places at all; they’re states of being in a living relationship with God or choosing separation from the source of all life and joy. [1] And, if that’s true, there are plenty of people on earth who are in hell now. They often choose to be miserable, hateful, negative, and oppositional. They love to exclude people who are different from them.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), whose feast we will celebrate tomorrow, received a vision of Jesus Christ as a bridge reaching from heaven to earth, forever joining “humanity with the greatness of the Godhead.” [2] Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day (1897–1980) was fond of citing Catherine’s inspiration in her own reflections, often writing “All the way to heaven is heaven.” [3] I’d also add “It’s hell all the way to hell.” You’re choosing your destiny right now. You are responsible, not God. Do you want to live in love and communion? Or do you want to live in constant opposition to others and life itself?

As we observe our politics, antagonism appears to be the primary style of communication today—how to fight and win, how to be suspicious, how to be hateful, how to tell lies. Who can we exclude now? Which race, religion, or group is unworthy? (All in the name of God, remember!) That’s simply hell right now. And an awful lot of people, even those who call themselves Christian, appear to be living in a hell of their own construction. That’s why Jesus can say, “I do not know you” even to those who “ate and drank in his company” (see Luke 13:25–27)!

Heaven is not about belonging to the right group; it’s not about following the correct rituals. It’s about having the right attitude. There are just as many Muslims, Hindus, and Jews who are in love—serving their neighbor and the poor—as there are Christians. Jesus says there will be deep regret—“wailing and grinding of teeth” (Luke 13:28)—when we realize how wrong we were, how thoroughly we missed the point. Be prepared to be surprised about who is living a life of love and service and who isn’t. This should keep us all humble and searching and recognizing it’s not even any of our business who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell. What makes us think that our little minds and hearts could discern the mind and heart of anyone else?

Monday, April 29, 2019

If we could glimpse the panoramic view of the biblical revelation and the Big Picture of which we’re a part, we’d see how God is forever evolving human consciousness, making us collectively ever more ready for God. The Hebrew prophets and many Catholic and Sufi mystics used words like espousal or marriage to describe this divine-human love affair. That’s what the prophet Isaiah (61:10; 62:5), many of the Psalms, the school of Paul (Ephesians 5:25-32), and the Book of Revelation (19:7-8; 21:2) mean by “preparing a bride to be ready for her husband.”

The human soul is being gradually readied so that actual intimacy and partnership with the Divine are the result. It’s all moving toward a final marriage between God and creation. Note that such salvation is a social and cosmic concept, not just about isolated individuals “going to heaven.” The Church was meant to bring this corporate salvation to conscious and visible possibility.

But how could divine espousal really be God’s plan? Isn’t this just poetic exaggeration? If this is the agenda, why were most of us presented with an angry deity who needed to be placated and controlled? Why would God even want to “marry” God’s creation? If you think I am stretching it here, look for all the times Jesus uses a wedding banquet as his image for eternity, and both he and John the Baptist call Jesus “the bridegroom” (Mark 2:19-20; John 3:29). Think how strange that is! Jesus is not marrying anyone, is he? The very daring, seemingly impossible idea of union with God is still something we’re so afraid of that most of us won’t allow ourselves to think of an actual intimate relationship with God. Only God in you, “the Holy Spirit planted in your heart,” can imagine such a possibility (Romans 8:11 and throughout Paul’s letters).

The Eastern Fathers of the Church were much less afraid of this realization; they called it the real process of human “divinization” (theosis). In fact, they saw it as the whole point of the Incarnation and the very meaning of salvation. The much more practical and rational church in the West seldom used the word, despite Peter’s teaching (1 Peter 1:4-5 and 2 Peter 1:4). John also was quite clear about divine union being the final goal in much of his Gospel: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:20-21). It is important not to confuse divine union with human perfection. The choice for union is always from God’s side; our response is always and forever partial and feeble.

Jesus came to give us the courage to trust and allow our inherent union with God, and he modeled it for us in this world. Union is not a place we go to later—if we are good; union is the place from which we come, the place from which we’re called to live now. We wasted centuries confusing union with personal perfection. Union is God’s choice for us in our very imperfect world. Divine Love has no trouble loving imperfect things! That is just our human problem. If God could only love perfect things, God would have nothing to do.

From Darkness to Light

April 25th, 2019

Jesus’ Resurrection

From Darkness to Light
Thursday, April 25, 2019

Anything exposed by the light will be illuminated and anything illuminated turns into light. That is why it is said:

Wake up, sleeper,
Rise from the dead,
And Christ will shine on you.

—Ephesians 5:13-14 (Jerusalem Bible)

At the resurrection, Jesus was revealed as the eternal and deathless Christ in embodied form. Basically, one circumscribed body of Jesus morphed into ubiquitous Light. Light is perhaps the best metaphor for Christ or God.

For most of the first six centuries of Christianity, the moment of Jesus’ resurrection was deemed unpaintable or uncarvable. [1] The event is not even directly described as such in the New Testament. All we see are the aftermath stories—stunned guards, seated angels, visiting women, and other resurrections: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of those who had fallen asleep were raised up” (see Matthew 27:51-53). Note how resurrection was already corporately understood in this telling verse.

After the resurrection stories, more followers dared to see Jesus as “the Lord”—or at least as one with the Lord, understood as “Son of God.” One could say Jesus is gradually revealed as “Light,” especially in the three accounts of the “Transfiguration” (Matthew 17:1–8; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36). These are likely transplanted resurrection accounts, as is the story of Jesus walking on the water.

Most of us, if we are listening and looking, also have such resurrection moments in the middle of our lives, when “the veil parts” now and then. Jesus says, “Believe in the light so that you also may become children of the light” (John 12:36), letting us know that we participate in the same mystery, and he is here to aid the process.

Back in 1967, my systematic theology professor, Fr. Cyrin Maus, OFM, told us that if a video camera had been placed in front of Jesus’ tomb, it wouldn’t have filmed a lone man emerging from a grave (which would be resuscitation more than resurrection). More likely, he felt, it would’ve captured something like beams of light extending in all directions.

In the resurrection, the single physical body of Jesus moved beyond all limits of space and time into a new notion of physicality and light—which includes all of us in its embodiment. Christians called this the “glorified body,” and it is similar to what Hindus and Buddhists sometimes call the “subtle body.” This is pictured by a halo or aura, which Catholics placed around “saints” to show that they already participated in the one shared Light.

This is for me a very helpful meaning for the resurrection of Jesus, which might be better described as Jesus’ “universalization,” a warping of time and space, if you will. Jesus was always objectively the Universal Christ, but his significance for humanity and for us was made ubiquitous, personal, and attractive for those willing to meet Reality through him. Many do meet Divine Reality without this “shortcut,” and we must be honest about that. Only “by the fruits will you know” (Matthew 7:16–20). People who are properly aligned with Love and Light—“enlightened”—will always see in holistic ways, regardless of their denomination or religion.

Raised from the Dead

April 24th, 2019

Raised from the Dead

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Nothing is the same forever, says modern science. Ninety-eight percent of our bodies’ atoms are replaced every year. Geologists, with good evidence over millennia, can prove that no landscape is permanent. Water, fog, steam, and ice are all the same thing but at different stages and temperatures. “Resurrection” is another word for change, but particularly positive change—which we tend to see only in the long run. In the short run, change often looks like death. The Preface to the Catholic funeral liturgy says, “Life is not ended, but merely changed.” Science is now giving us helpful language for what religion rightly intuited and imaged with mythological language. Myth does not mean “not true,” which is the common misunderstanding; it actually refers to things that are always and deeply true!

God could not wait for modern science to give history hope. It was enough to believe that Jesus “was raised from the dead,” somehow planting the hope and possibility of resurrection in our deepest unconscious. Jesus’ incarnate life, his passing over into death, and his resurrection into the ongoing Christ life is the archetypal model for the entire pattern of creation. He is the microcosm for the whole cosmos, or the map of the whole journey, in case you need or want one. 

Nowadays most folks do not seem to think they need that map, especially when they are young. But the vagaries and disappointments of life’s journey eventually make us long for some overall direction, purpose, or goal beyond getting through another day. All who hold any kind of unexplainable hope believe in resurrection, whether they are formal Christians or not, and even if they don’t believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead. I have met such people from all kinds of backgrounds, religious and nonreligious.

Personally, I do believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus because it affirms what the whole physical and biological universe is also saying—and grounds it in one personality. Resurrection must also be fully practical and material. If matter is inhabited by God, then matter is somehow eternal, and when the creed says, we believe in the “resurrection of the body,” it means our bodies too, not just Jesus’ body! As in him, so also in all of us. As in all of us, so also in him. So I am quite conservative and orthodox by most standards on this important issue, although I also realize it seems to be a very different kind of embodiment post-resurrection as suggested by the Gospel accounts.

Saved by the Cross

April 23rd, 2019

Saved by the Cross

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who was like us in every way, experienced every temptation, and never backtracked. —Hebrews 4:15 (my translation)

Jesus walked, enjoyed, and suffered the entire human journey, and he told us and showed us that we could and should do the same. His life exemplified unfolding mystery in all of its stages—from a hidden, divine conception, to an ordinary adult life full of love and problems, punctuated by a few moments of transfiguration and enlightenment, inevitable and deep suffering—leading to resurrection, a glorious ascension, and final return.

We do not need to be afraid of the depths and breadths of our own lives, of what this world offers us or asks of us. We are given permission to become intimate with our own experiences, learn from them, and allow ourselves to descend to the depth of things, even our mistakes, before we try too quickly to transcend it all in the name of some idealized purity or superiority. God hides in the depths—even our sins—and is not seen as long as we stay on the surface of anything.

The archetypal encounter between doubting Thomas and the Risen Jesus (John 20:19-28) is not really a story about believing in the fact of the resurrection but a story about believing that someone could be wounded and also resurrected at the same time! That is quite a different message and still desperately needed. “Put your finger here,” Jesus says to Thomas (John 20:27). Like Christ, we are all indeed wounded and resurrected at the same time. In fact, this might be the primary pastoral message of the Gospel.

I’ve often said that great love and great suffering (both healing and woundedness) are the universal, always available paths of transformation because they are the only things strong enough to take away the ego’s protections and pretensions. Great love and great suffering bring us back to God, and I believe this is how Jesus himself walked humanity back to God. It is not just a path of resurrection rewards but a path that now includes death and woundedness. Or as I teach our Living School students, the sequence goes order —> disorder —> reorder!

Jesus the Christ, in his crucifixion and resurrection, “summed up all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This one verse is the summary of Franciscan Christology. Jesus agreed to carry the mystery of universal suffering. He allowed it to change him (“resurrection”) and, it is to be hoped, us, so that we would be freed from the endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside of it.

This is the fully resurrected life, the only way to be happy, free, loving, and therefore “saved.” In effect, Jesus was saying, “If I can trust it, you can too.” We are indeed saved by the cross—more than we realize. The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.

Jesus’ Passion

April 22nd, 2019

Friday, April 19, 2019
Good Friday

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan continue reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death:

Jesus was not simply an unfortunate victim of a domination system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion, his message, was about the kingdom of God. He spoke to peasants as a voice of peasant religious protest against the central economic and political institutions of his day. He attracted a following and took his movement to Jerusalem at the season of Passover. There he challenged the authorities with public acts and public debates. All of this was his passion, what he was passionate about: God and the kingdom of God, God and God’s passion for justice.

Jesus’s passion got him killed. . . . Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God led to what is often called his passion, namely his suffering and death. But to restrict Jesus’s passion to his suffering and death is to ignore the passion that brought him to Jerusalem. To think of Jesus’s passion as simply what happened on Good Friday is to separate his death from the passion that animated his life. . . .

According to Mark, Jesus did not die for the sins of the world. The language of substitutionary sacrifice for sin is absent from his story. But in an important sense, he was killed because of the sin of the world. It was the injustice of domination systems that killed him, injustice so routine that it is part of the normalcy of civilization. Though sin means more than this, it includes this. And thus Jesus was crucified because of the sin of the world. . . .

Was Jesus guilty or innocent? Because language familiar to Christians speaks of Jesus as sinless, perfect, righteous, spotless, and without blemish, the question will seem surprising to some. But it is worth reflecting about.

As Mark tells the story, Jesus was not only executed by the method used to execute violent insurrectionists; he was physically executed between two insurrectionists. Was Jesus guilty of advocating violent revolution against the empire and its local collaborators? No.

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of claiming to be the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed? Perhaps. Why perhaps and not a simple yes? Mark does not report that Jesus taught this, and his account of Jesus’s response to the high priest’s question about this is at least a bit ambiguous. [Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies, “You say so” (Mark 15:2).]

As Mark tells the story, was Jesus guilty of nonviolent resistance to imperial Roman oppression and local Jewish collaboration? Oh, yes. Mark’s story of Jesus’s final week is a sequence of public demonstrations against and confrontations with the domination system. And, as all know, it killed him.

The Death of Death

April 22nd, 2019

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The seeds of Easter are already found in Christmas. If God can become flesh, incarnating in the material world, then resurrection is a natural conclusion. Nothing divine can die. Easter isn’t celebrating a one-time miracle as if it only happened in the body of Jesus and we’re all here to cheer for Jesus. That’s really not the point, but it is the message most Western Christians have been told. When Christianity split into East and West in 1054, both sides lost a piece of the puzzle.

Looking at artwork can help us understand the two different theologies. John Dominic Crossan studied images of the resurrection and found that Western art often shows Jesus walking alone out of the tomb carrying a white flag, as if to say, “Look at me! I made it!” Western theology declared “Jesus rose from the dead” as an individual. This fourteenth century painting by Italian Andrea di Bonaiuto is an example. [1]

The Eastern Church saw the resurrection in at least three ways: the trampling of hell, the corporate leading out of hell, and the corporate uplifting of humanity with Christ. [2] In Eastern icons of the resurrection, sometimes called “The Harrowing of Hell,” Jesus is surrounded by many people as he stands astride the pit of hell (as shown by this week’s banner from a medieval Byzantine church in Istanbul). [3] There are chains, bolts, and locks flying in all directions. In many interpretations, Hades—the god of death, not to be confused with Satan—is bound at the bottom of the pit, while Jesus pulls Adam and Eve, symbols of all humanity, out of hell. This is a very different message that never made it to the Western Church, either Catholic or Protestant. Eastern imagery suggests a hopeful message that is not only about Jesus but about society, humanity, and history itself.

Brothers and sisters, if we don’t believe that every crucifixion—war, poverty, torture, hunger—can somehow be redeemed, who of us would not be angry, cynical, hopeless? No wonder Western culture seems so skeptical today. It all doesn’t mean anything, it’s not going anywhere, because we weren’t given a wider and cosmic vision of Jesus’ resurrection. Easter is not just the final chapter of Jesus’ life, but the final chapter of history. Death does not have the last word.

Christ is not just pulling Adam and Eve out of hell. He’s pulling creation out of hell. Christ destroys death. We sing that in our songs and read it in our Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15), but for many Christians it seems to be “pretend.” For most of the past 2,000 years, the West tended to threaten us with death and hell: “If you don’t do it right, you’re going to hell.” Within many Eastern Orthodox churches, we see Jesus literally pulling people out of hell. Christ is the overcoming of hell and death in a very real, promised way. That’s what we’re celebrating today. You might consider joining an Orthodox service next Sunday, April 28, the day the Orthodox church observes Easter, and experience their excitement. Human beings do not tend to get deeply excited about things unless we are somehow a part of it.

Monday, April 22, 2019
Earth Day

To believe that Jesus was raised from the dead is not really a leap of faith. Resurrection and renewal are, in fact, the universal and observable patterns of everything. We might just as well use non-religious terms like springtime, regeneration, healing, forgiveness, life cycles, darkness and light. If incarnation is real, then resurrection in multitudinous forms is to be fully expected. Or to paraphrase a statement attributed to Albert Einstein, it is not that one thing is a miracle, but that the whole thing is a miracle!

If divine incarnation has any truth to it, then resurrection is a foregone conclusion, not a one-time anomaly in the body of Jesus, as our Western theology of the resurrection tried to prove—and of course it couldn’t. The Risen Christ is not a one-time miracle but the revelation of a universal pattern that is hard to see in the short run.

Our job is to figure out not the how or the when of resurrection, but just the what! Leave the how and the when to science and to God. True Christianity and true science are both transformational worldviews that place growth and development at their centers. Both endeavors, each in its own way, cooperate with some Divine Plan; whether God is formally acknowledged may not be that important. As C. G. Jung inscribed over his doorway, Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit, “Invoked or not invoked, God is still present.” [1]

God has worked anonymously since the very beginning—it has always been an inside and secret job.

The Spirit seems to work best underground. When aboveground, humans start fighting about it.

You can call this grace, the indwelling Holy Spirit, or just evolution toward union in love. God is not in competition with anybody, but only in deep-time cooperation with everybody who loves (Romans 8:28). Whenever we place one caring foot forward, God uses it, sustains it, and blesses it. Our impulse does not need to wear the name of religion.

Love is the energy that sustains the universe, moving us toward a future of resurrection. We do not even need to call it love or God or resurrection for its work to be done.

Layered Meanings

April 18th, 2019

Jesus’ Death

Layered Meanings
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Holy Thursday

Two theologians I deeply respect, Marcus Borg (1942-2015) and John Dominic Crossan (b. 1934), offer important historical and symbolic context for the crucifixion. The theory of “penal substitutionary atonement” only became dominant in recent centuries. [1] Over the next two days, consider their advanced perspective on Jesus’ death on the cross:

This common Christian understanding goes far beyond what the New Testament says. Of course, sacrificial imagery is used there, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’s execution. They also see it as the domination system’s “no” to Jesus (and God), as the defeat of the powers that rule this world by disclosing their moral bankruptcy, as revelation of the path of transformation [dying and rising], and as disclosure of the depth of God’s love for us. . . .

Though Mark provides the earliest story of Good Friday . . . Mark’s narrative combines retrospective interpretation with history remembered. . . .

Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits.” The Greek word translated “bandits” is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome, who were either “terrorists” or “freedom fighters,” depending upon one’s point of view. Their presence in the story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority. Ordinary criminals were not crucified. Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome. . . .

[When Jesus died,] “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38). As with the darkness from noon to 3 PM, this event is best understood symbolically and not as history remembered. . . .

To say. . . that the curtain was torn in two has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, it is a judgment upon the temple and the temple authorities . . . who colluded with imperial Rome to condemn Jesus to death. On the other hand, . . . [it] is to affirm that the execution of Jesus means that access to God is now open. This affirmation underlines Mark’s presentation of Jesus earlier in the gospel: Jesus mediated access to God apart from the temple and the domination system that it had come to represent in the first century.

Then Mark narrates a second event contemporaneous with Jesus’s death. The imperial centurion in command of the soldiers who had crucified Jesus exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:30). . . .

That this exclamation comes from a centurion is very significant. According to Roman imperial theology, the emperor was “Son of God”—the revelation of God’s power and will for the earth. According to the same theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who had brought peace on earth. But now a representative of Rome affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God. Thus the emperor is not.

April 17th, 2019


I am so honored that you take the time to read my Daily Meditations! As I grow older and limit my travel, they are one of the most meaningful ways I can continue teaching and ministering.

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While all religious language is metaphor, I believe that words are important. We have all seen the damage that a mis-use of the Bible can cause. The words I use aren’t dictated by any religious institution or outside influence. I simply try to be a conduit (as my German last name suggests) of Spirit and share my evolving understanding of Scripture, the Christian tradition, and my own experience. I believe the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, even when it’s unpopular.

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Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

Dear Friends,

Father Richard often describes his work as keeping God free for people and keeping people free for God.

In this year’s Daily Meditations, he’s helping us move beyond harmful ideas about God that have locked us in fear and violence. At the same time, he’s reclaiming timeless wisdom from contemplative Christianity to help us connect with our truest selves, each other, and God. Will you help us keep the Daily Meditations free with a donation?

I love this familiar saying Richard quotes in his new book The Universal Christ:

Everything will be all right in the end.
If it’s not all right, it is not yet the end.

Sometimes it’s hard to hold out hope for our politics, our planet, and even our faith tradition. Thankfully, we’re still in the midst of evolution. This is not the end.

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As director of the Center for Action and Contemplation, I hope to see this work protected and continued to serve future generations and to help shape a more transformative and hopeful Christianity.

Thank you for being an agent of peaceful change in this ongoing evolution of Christianity and the world!

Peace and Every Good,

Michael Poffenberger, Executive Director

Michael Poffenberger
Executive Director, Center for Action and Contemplation

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Doing the Victim Thing Right

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The deep-time message of Jesus’ death is presented through a confluence of three healing images from his own Hebrew Scriptures: the scapegoat whom we talked about on Sunday; the Passover lamb which is the innocent victim (Exodus 12); the “Lifted-Up One” or the homeopathic curing of the victim (Numbers 21:6-9) who becomes the problem to reveal the problem.

Numbers 21:6-9 New International Version (NIV)

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

The victim state has been the plight of most people who have ever lived on this earth, so in all three cases we see Jesus identifying with humanity at its most critical and vulnerable level. It is God in solidarity with the pain of the world, it seems, much more than God the omnipotent who, with a flick of the hand, overcomes all pain. But Jesus walks the victim journey in an extraordinary way.  He neither plays the victim card himself for his own aggrandizement, nor does he victimize anybody else, even his murderers. He forgives them all.

In the Hebrew tradition, the Passover lamb was a perfect, unblemished sheep or goat that apparently lived in the family home for four days before it was sacrificed (Exodus 12:1-8). That’s just long enough for the children to fall in love with the lamb. What could this symbolize? I personally think it is an image of the first (false) self that is thought of as good, adequate, and even innocent. It is who I think I am before I do any shadow work and see my own dark sides. It is when religion stops at the “cleaning up” stage and never gets to “growing up,” “waking up,” or “showing up” for others. Only when we let go of our attachment to any good, superior, or innocent identity do we begin to grow up spiritually.

It is precisely the beloved and innocent “lamb” that must die. We must accept that we are all complicit and profiting from the corporate “sin of the world” and no one is pure or innocent. “No one is good, not even one,” as Paul daringly quotes Psalm 14:3 (Romans 3:10-12). This is an offense to our ego, and is precisely the status that Jesus accepts and allows. This is a huge but necessary recognition and surrender for most people. 

The “Lifted-Up One” is the image of the bronze serpent that Moses lifted in the desert which has become a symbol for doctors and healers to this day. YHWH tells Moses to raise up a snake on a standard, and “anyone who has been bitten by a serpent and looks upon it will be healed” (Numbers 21:8). The very thing that was killing them is the thing that will heal them! This is the nature of vaccines and other medicines that give us just enough of the disease so we can develop a resistance and be healed from it. The cross was meant to be an inoculation against all sacralized violence and hatred. The cross dramatically reveals the problem of ignorant killing to inoculate us against doing the same thing.

Jesus becomes the seeming problem and the cure for the same—by exposing it for what it is, “parading it in public” (Colossians 2:15) for those who have eyes to see, and inviting us to gaze upon it with sympathetic understanding. The prophet Zechariah calls Israel to “Look upon the pierced one and to mourn over him as for an only son,” and “weep for him as for a firstborn child,” and then “from that mourning” (five times repeated) will flow “a spirit of kindness and prayer” (12:10) and “a fountain of water” (13:1; 14:8).

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified and to realize that God the Father suffers with Jesus. This softens our hearts toward God and all of reality. We see that God’s heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

The Scapegoat

April 15th, 2019

Sunday, April 14, 2019
Palm Sunday

The ingenious Hebrew ritual from which the word “scapegoat” originated is described in Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. The goat was then beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. It was a vividly symbolic act that helped to unite and free people in the short term. Instead of owning their sins, this ritual allows people to export them elsewhere—in this case onto an innocent animal.

French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) recognized this highly effective ritual across cultures and saw the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational principle for most social groups. The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors and reveals the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives—so much so that we could almost name it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29). The biblical account, however, seems to recognize that only a “lamb of a God” can both reveal and resolve that sin in one nonviolent act.

We seldom consciously know that we are scapegoating or projecting. As Jesus said, people literally “do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In fact, the effectiveness of this mechanism depends on not seeing it! It’s automatic, ingrained, and unconscious. “She made me do it.” “He is guilty.” “He deserves it.” “They are the problem.” “They are evil.” We should recognize our own negativity and sinfulness, but instead we largely hate or blame almost anything else. Sadly, we often find the best cover for that projection in religion. God has been used to justify violence and hide from the parts of ourselves and our religions that we’d rather ignore. As Jesus said, “When anyone kills you, they will think they are doing a holy duty for God” (John 16:2).

Unless scapegoating can be consciously seen and named through concrete rituals, owned mistakes, shadow work, or “repentance,” the pattern will usually remain unconscious and unchallenged. The Scriptures rightly call such ignorant hatred and killing “sin,” and Jesus came precisely to “take away” (John 1:29) our capacity to commit it—by exposing the lie for all to see. Jesus stood as the fully innocent one who was condemned by the highest authorities of both “church and state” (Jerusalem and Rome), an act that should create healthy suspicion about how wrong even the highest powers can be. “He will show the world how wrong it was about sin, about who was really in the right, and about true judgment” (John 16:8).

This is what Jesus is exposing and defeating on the cross. He did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.

Savior of the World

Monday, April 15, 2019

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. —1 Corinthians 15:57

How does Jesus the victim transform us? How does the lamb of God “take away” our sin (John 1:29), to use the common metaphor? How does Jesus “overcome death and darkness,” as we often say? Is it a heavenly transaction on God’s side, or is it more an agenda that God gives us for our side?

Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that be what we mean by calling him “The Savior of the World” (John 4:42)? Jesus is, in effect, saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good. I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed, or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over death.”

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing the real sin of the world (which is ignorant violence rather than not obeying purity codes); by refusing the usual pattern of revenge, and, in fact, “returning their curses with blessings” (Luke 6:27-28); and, finally, by teaching us that we can “follow him” in doing the same. There is no such thing as redemptive violence. Violence doesn’t save; it only destroys—in both short and long term. Jesus replaced the myth of redemptive violence with the truth of redemptive suffering. He showed us on the cross how to hold the pain and let it transform us, rather than pass it on to others around us.

Both the lie and the strategy have been revealed in one compelling action on God’s part. It is not that Jesus is working some magic in the sky that “saves the world from sin and death.” Jesus is reframing our past and our future in terms of grace. Jesus is not changing his Father’s mind about us; he is changing our mind about what is real and what is not.

Jesus on the cross identifies with the human problem, the sin, the darkness. He refuses to stand above or outside the human dilemma. Further, he refuses to be the scapegoater and instead becomes the scapegoat personified. In Paul’s language, “Christ redeemed us from the curse . . . by being cursed himself” (Galatians 3:13); or “God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him [together with him!] we might become the very goodness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Wow! Just gaze upon that mystery.

Like most spiritual things, it cannot be understood with the dualistic or rational mind, but only at the level of soul. It is a transformational image and message that utterly rearranges one’s reality and idea of the very nature of God. Evil is not overcome by attack or even avoidance, but by union at a higher level. It is overcome not by fight or flight, but rather by “fusion.”