Archive for April, 2019

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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Twice a year we pause the Daily Meditations to ask for your support. Take a moment to read our Director Michael’s note below about how you can help. Tomorrow we’ll continue reflecting on Jesus’ crucifixion as we look forward to Easter.

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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.”

Christ Means “Anointed”

April 7th, 2019

Christened Reality
Sunday, April 7, 2019

Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he had reached a certain place he passed the night there, since the sun had set. Taking one of the stones to be found at that place, he made it his pillow and lay down where he was. He had a dream: a ladder was there, standing on the ground with its top reaching to heaven; and there were angels of God going up it and coming down. And YHWH was there, standing over him, saying, 

“I am YHWH, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I will give to you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. . . . Be sure that I am with you; I will keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this land, for I will not desert you before I have done all that I have promised you.” 

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Truly, God is in this place and I, I did not know.” He was afraid and said, “How awe-inspiring this place is! This is nothing less than a house of God, this is the gate of heaven!” 

Rising early in the morning, Jacob took the stone he had used for his pillow, and set it up as a monument, pouring oil over the top of it. He named the place Bethel. —Genesis 28:10-19

I believe the Scriptures say that reality was christened or anointed from the very beginning, from the first moment of its inception. The Hebrew text describes the ritual of anointing, pouring oil over something to reveal its sacredness, starting with the Stone of Jacob, Beth El: “This is the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Throughout the Bible we see a growing recognition of God’s all- pervasive, ever-invading Presence. Reality is soaked with Presence from the first meeting of Spirit and matter in the first line of the Bible (Genesis 1:1). The anointing oil doesn’t make anything sacred as such; it simply reminds both the anointer and the anointed of what was already the case.

The trouble is that many Christians have limited that anointing to the unique person of Jesus. Saying God’s presence is only here and not there, deciding what is anointed and what is not, is not our call to make. This entire world is soaked through and through with Christ, with divinity, like an electron planted in every atom. As Paul writes, “Creation retains the hope of being freed . . . to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God. . . . We are all groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:21-22). Unfortunately, most of us were not taught to see it that way. We thought we could torture animals, pollute the earth, kill people who we deemed not Christ-soaked because we thought it was up to us to decide: “She’s got the anointing and he doesn’t.” Only God decides what to anoint—which, thank God, is all of creation and all of humanity from the beginning. No exceptions. Our Christian word for all anointed reality is “Christ.”

We Are All Anointed by Spirit
Monday, April 8, 2019

Remember that it is God who assures us all, and you, of our sure place in Christ and has anointed us, marked us with God’s seal, giving us the pledge, the Spirit, that we carry in our hearts. —2 Corinthians 1:21-22

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. —Luke 4:18-19

We all know respect when we see it (re-spect = to see a second time). We all know reverence because it softens our gaze. Any object that calls forth respect or reverence is the “Christ” or the anointed one for us at that moment, even though the conduit might just look like a committed research scientist, an old man cleaning up the beach, a woman going the extra mile for her neighbor, an earnest, eager dog licking your face, or an ascent of pigeons across the plaza.

All people who see with that second kind of contemplative gaze, all who look at the world with respect, even if they are not formally religious, are en Cristo, or in Christ. For them, as Thomas Merton says, “the gate of heaven is everywhere” [1] because of their freedom to respect what is right in front of them—all the time.

The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. We should not be surprised that the word translated from the Greek as “Christ” comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one or Messiah. Christ reveals that all is anointed, not just him.

Many Christians are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (see 1 John 1–2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the unfolding Body of Christ or the Parousia—Growing Fullness), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18). How can we participate in this Flow?

As Reverend Jacqui Lewis asks:

What if every human being is anointed, Messiahed, Christ? What if the most fundamental aspect of our identity is that we are each anointed and appointed by The Holy One, by Spirit—to preach good news to the poor, liberty to the captive, and sight to the blind? What if we take seriously being the Body of the Christ—that we are the hands, feet, and heartbeat of the Living God? What if we are Word made flesh, Love made flesh, Light made flesh? [2]


April 4th, 2019

Dying Before You Die

Thursday, April 4, 2019

All great spirituality is about letting go. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us how to win by losing. In fact, this “Path of Descent” could be called the metanarrative of the Bible. It is so obvious, consistent, and constant that it’s hidden in plain sight. Christianity has overlooked this overwhelmingly obvious message by focusing on other things. Why did that happen? How is it that we were capable of missing what appears to be the major point? I think it has to do with the Spirit patiently working in time and growing us historically. I think it has to do with human maturity and readiness. And I think it has a lot to do with the ego and its tactics of resistance.

Author Philip Simmons (19572002) shared what it took to awaken him to this wisdom:

We’re stubborn creatures, and it takes a shock to make us see our lives afresh. In my case the shock was the news, when I was just thirty-five years old, that I had the fatal condition known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and would probably be dead within a few years. . . . At some point we all confront the fact that each of us, each individual soul is, as the poet William Butler Yeats says, “fastened to a dying animal.” [1] We’re all engaged in the business of dying, whether consciously or not, slowly or not. For me, knowing that my days are numbered has meant the chance to ask with new urgency the sorts of questions most of us avoid: everything from “What’s my life’s true purpose?” to “Should I reorganize my closets?” What I’ve learned from asking them is that a fuller consciousness of my own mortality has been my best guide to being more fully alive. . . .

We deal most fruitfully with loss by accepting the fact that we will one day lose everything. When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.

To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature. . . .

Only when we accept our present condition can we set aside fear and discover the love and compassion that are our highest human endowments. And out of our compassion we deal justly with those about us. Not just on our good days, not just when it’s convenient, but everywhere and at all times we are free to act according to that which is highest in us. And in such action we find peace.

Dying Before You Die

April 3rd, 2019

Living Fully
Wednesday, April 3, 2019

In the last few decades, I’ve faced my own mortality on several occasions through cancer and a heart attack. Each time I’ve experienced an outpouring of love and care from others and from God. The sky and the whole world take on a nostalgic and fleeting tone. God seems inside, closer than my own skin. I hope I can hear the messages: listen to your body, slow down, live in the precious now, love all that is. How can I not believe in the Incarnation of God in the compassion of so many, in a pattern of discovery, waiting, and healing that all feels like mercy? Facing my death has helped me live more fully.

Anthropologist Angeles Arrien (19402014) described approaching what she called the Gold Gate:

At last we arrive at the Gold Gate, which is glowing and bathed in a numinous light. This is where we awaken to the deepest core of who we are, and are asked to let go and trust. . . . It is the gate of surrender, faith, and acceptance, where we learn to release and detach before beginning something new or progressing forward. . . . It requires us to befriend the death of our physical form. . . .

At the Gold Gate, late in life we learn to befriend death and prepare for its arrival. We acknowledge that we have been born, lived, learned, and loved. We accept our losses, the roads unexplored, the people we miss, and the dreams unfulfilled; we begin to make peace with all that is in and around us. We reject nothing and cling to nothing. We simply observe the ebb and flow of our life.

We practice the art of dying while we live, experiencing endings when we say good-bye to people who will be separated from us for a time, or when we complete something that has significance. Every night we practice letting go when we release ourselves to sleep and the mysterious place of dreams, trusting that we will return. . . .

The Gold Gate offers the wisdom gifts of freedom and liberation. Nonattachment, surrender, and acceptance foster our deliverance, while courage and faith strengthen our capacity to face our own suffering, pain, or sadness. . . . To hold onto nothing is the root of happiness and peace. If we allow ourselves to rest here, we find that it is a tender, open-ended place. This is where the path of fearlessness leads, and where we rest in expanded, unlimited peace. . . .

[We] make the conscious choice of living not in the past or future, but in each present moment. This takes great courage and the ability to make peace with your life: to live without hope or fear, to let go without regret, to know that you have lived fully. [2]

Dying to Ego’s Illusions

April 2nd, 2019

Dying Before You Die

Dying to Ego’s Delusions
Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Dying to the false self before our physical death allows us to be reborn as our more authentic and soulful selves. Today James Finley, one of CAC’s core faculty members, reflects on how hard it is for our ego to surrender to the path of descent, to the transformative process:

In meditation, our customary, ego-based ways of experiencing ourselves yield and give way to more interior, meditative ways of being, ways that transcend all that ego can attain. While we may wish for transformation, realizing it to be the way we awaken to our eternal oneness with God, the process is at times immensely difficult.

It is amazing how a caterpillar spins about itself a hiding place from which it emerges and takes flight as a butterfly with delicate, iridescent wings. Similarly, Christ lived as a human being who freely entered into the hiding place of death to emerge, deathless, filled with light and life, utterly transformed. Our faith proclaims that in following Christ we experience the same thing: “Therefore if any person is in Christ, they are a new creature; the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

We sit in meditation so that the last traces of our tendency to identify with egoic consciousness might finally dissolve as our habitual base of operations. We come face-to-face with how deeply entrenched our tendencies to remain identified with ego consciousness are. The truth is, our own ego-based sense of ourselves is afraid to open to unknown depths, transcending its circle of influence and control. We will go halfway, in a willingness to become a caterpillar with wings. This leaves our ego intact, an ego which has now attained spiritual gifts or mystical states of oneness with God. Surrendering ourselves to something as radical as a complete metamorphosis of consciousness itself is too great a risk. The possibility of realizing a life that is at once God’s and our own is beyond what we can comprehend.

When we sit in meditation, we take the little child of our ego self off to school, where we must learn to die to our illusions about being dualistically other than God. We must also die to any grandiose delusions that we are God. In meditation, we learn to wait with compassion and patience until we are ready to take our next faltering step into a deeper realization of oneness with God. This tender point of encounter is Christ, understood as God in our midst, listening, loving, and helping God’s children across the threshold into eternal oneness with God.

This, then, is one way of understanding how to deal with the ongoing loss of our old familiar ways of understanding ourselves. And this is how we can, with Christ-like compassion, be present to the self-metamorphosing process in which, little by little, breath by breath, love dissolves the illusions and fears born of our estrangement from the infinite love that is our very life.