It’s Not About Me

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,  make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father. Philippians 2:1-11

I didn’t write last week because I was on a youth work mission trip, along with twenty-eight youth and thirteen adults from seven different churches. I’m also diverging from my plan to use the liturgical calendar readings for this week as a writing prompt. Instead, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about our mission trip and how it relates to something I learned a long time ago on my faith journey, but of which I constantly have to be reminded: it’s not about me.

I am, and always have been, an introvert by any definition of the word. I particularly identify with the MBTI/Jungian description of a preference for introversion. I am energized by time spent alone thinking about matters of consequence, or discussing them with one or two close friends. I have learned to extravert myself pretty well when necessary, but it’s exhausting to me, particularly when it goes on for a week. Nevertheless, I will persist. It’s not about me or what I find comfortable; it’s about doing what is right regardless of how I feel. My husband describes these mission trips as “fun”; I’d probably choose the word “important.” They help the people whom we go to serve in concrete, tangible ways; they help the young people who go on them by developing leadership skills and fostering self-confidence; and they are always a spiritually transformative experience for me.

Paul reminds the Philippians of the unfathomable nature of the sacrifice Jesus made to become one of us, and tells them they ought to have the same mindset! The passage reminds me that there are plenty of things in life that I ought to do, not because I want to, or because they’re easy, pleasant, or comfortable, but because they are the right thing to do. Jesus was the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s individualistic Objectivism, which is probably why I have such a great deal of difficulty relating to her devotees, especially when they also identify as Christian. For me, to be a Christian is to be a follower of Jesus, and to be in the process of being transformed into the mindset of Christ, to be other-centered rather than self-centered. The writer of the letters of John spoke of “many antichrists” in the world in which he lived, and if we can get away from the Hollywoodized perception of “antichrist” as a specific, spectacularly evil person, we will see that the spirit of antichrist is present in our world as well. Where Christ is selfless, antichrist is selfish. Where Christ is self-giving, antichrist is greedy and grasping. Where Christ is humble, antichrist is narcissistic. You cannot serve both God and Mammon, and you cannot simultaneously claim Jesus and Caesar as Lord.

Paul goes on to say that because of Jesus’s humility and obedience to the pattern of other-centeredness laid out for him, God “highly exalted him“. Jesus’s teachings were full of the paradox of losing one’s life in order to find it, and as usual I find psychological as well as spiritual truth in his teachings. The pursuit of happiness as one’s Prime Directive is ultimately unfulfilling and counterproductive. As an introvert, I have a tendency to over-think, over-analyze, and ruminate about everything, which sometimes sucks me into an emotional black hole. Cognitive-behavioral psychology teaches that the way to escape negative feelings is not to think, but to do. I have found that the most effective kind of doing is not something to merely distract or entertain myself, but to do something for others. Sometimes this can be as simple as smiling and saying hello to people you meet; it’s not so much the magnitude of the act as the direction of the focus that is important. The more you practice the change of focus from self to others, the more you will be changed, and the more the world will be changed through you for the better.

“O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”
-from a prayer attributed to St. Francis.

 

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Not All the Voices in Your Head Are From God

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:1-14

This week’s Old Testament reading, the binding of Isaac, has always been problematic for me. I’m aware of traditional explanations for why God subjected Abraham to such a cruel test, but those explanations exacerbated rather than relieved my unease.  I’m also aware of some of the more liberal explanations of the story as an apologetic for the development of animal sacrifice and temple worship, but I’m not entirely comfortable with those either. Although I don’t necessarily take all the stories in the Bible literally, I do take them all  seriously. The best way I can understand troublesome passages like this one (and the story of Jephthah’s daughter, where God failed to intervene) is to remind myself that there are many times when people think God is saying something to them, and he isn’t. Not all the voices in your head are from God.

I don’t think God asked Abraham to kill Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic tradition) and offer his body as a burnt offering. I think Abraham thought God asked him to do that. Abraham lived in a time and place where child sacrifice was commonly practiced, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to think that Abraham might have thought that was something his God might have wanted him to do, too. If his God was greater than all the gods of the neighboring cultures, surely his God would require the same level of “skin in the game” from his worshippers. The son of Abraham was more fortunate than the daughter of Jephthah, because Abraham heard another message from God, countermanding God’s first order, and he stops just in time. Relax, says God. This was a test; it was only a test. I can’t help but wonder about how this experience must have scarred Isaac for life and how it must have negatively affected both his relationship with his father and with God. Isaac’s son Jacob later describes God as  “the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac,” which I find pretty telling. And what happened between Abraham and Sarah? Did they separate over this incident? In the chapter which immediately follows, Sarah dies in Hebron, and Abraham apparently has to to go some distance to mourn her passing and obtain a burial place. Apparently, there’s a lot going on between the lines of this story, with neither Isaac nor Sarah hearing the same voice from God that Abraham heard.

There are a lot of people going around saying God told them to do this or that, and whenever I hear those kinds of statements, I am skeptical. They may think God told them something, but I question whether the voice they heard was actually from God. I am especially suspicious whenever money or politics is involved with such epiphanies. I do not think God told Oral Roberts he would die unless his supporters sent him a certain amount of money by a certain date. I do not think God told Harold Camping when the world would end.  I do not think God tells any of the innumerable candidates of office that they are God’s chosen one. If God was actually talking to all the people who claim he was talking, he would be a very irrational and disturbed deity.  I’m not sure how many of these people actually thought God was talking to them, but I’m pretty sure that, if there were voices in their heads, those voices weren’t from God.

When I first started reading the Bible, I used to wonder why God doesn’t seem to talk to people today as clearly and obviously as he seemed to do in the Bible stories. Recently I read a rather interesting article in the Atlantic, “Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be on to Something”. The article was about the ways “healthy voice hearers” might help people with psychotic disorders, and seemed to have a lot in common with Julian Jayne’s much earlier book, “Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”. Both the article and the book postulate that what most of us perceive as our own thoughts, some people perceive as originating from an external source. Ancient peoples, some aboriginal cultures, children, and mentally ill people seem to be more open to the latter perception. I can vividly remember an experience I had in the third grade, when I was convinced the devil was tempting me not to believe in God. I now understand that experience as the immature perception of my own subconscious doubts, rather than any need for my parents to consult an exorcist. But at the time it was very real, very scary, and probably the origin story for why I have always been very interested in matters theological.

So does God really speak to people, and if so how do you know it is God and not your own thoughts doing the talking?  I think the answer to the first question is yes. As my friends in the UCC are fond of saying, “God is still speaking”. The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated. I think it takes practice, what is sometimes called spiritual formation, to learn to hear the voice of God correctly. As John wrote to some of the first Christians, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God. For John, the main criteria for discernment seem to be (a) Jesus and (b) love. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”.Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.Those work pretty well for me, too.  If you think God is telling you to do something that is incongruent with the character of Jesus, it’s probably not God doing the talking. If you think God is telling you to do something that is hurtful to yourself or others, it’s probably not God doing the talking. As James put it, “ No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.”

I also like the Wesleyan quadrilateral approach, which considers Scripture, tradition, and reason along with personal experience. I have found that the more I read and study the Bible the more I find verses float into my consciousness just when I will find them helpful. The same holds true for the words and melodies of hymns, as well as traditional prayers. I’m glad God expects us to use our minds, too. If you think that God is telling you to do something ridiculous like jump off a building as proof of your faith, it’s probably not God doing the talking. (as Jesus observed)  Deuteronomy is quite pragmatic about the use of reason, although helpful only in retrospect: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken.” 

Is it God speaking, or my own thoughts? Does it matter? I can’t help but think of Paul’s advice to the Roman Christians:  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. I understand this passage to mean that, as much as we will allow, God works to change our thoughts.

His mind to our mind, his thoughts to our thoughts, with the end goal that God’s mind and our mind become one.

The Letters of John: God is Love

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

The three letters of John, like the letters of 2 Peter and Jude, were probably written as the first century AD gave way to the second. As those who had been eyewitnesses to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection began to die out, new problems faced the embryonic church. One of the most dangerous of those was the attempted synthesis of Gnostic with Christian ideas. Gnosticism is dualistic: spirit is wholly good while matter is wholly evil. Christianity is incarnational; as John asserts in his gospel: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. According to Gnostic teaching, God would never have lowered himself so far as to take human form, much less allowed himself to be crucified; therefore Jesus only appeared to be human. Because it was only the spirit trapped in a person’s body that mattered, you could do whatever you wanted with your body, and that might take the form of either extreme asceticism or extreme “anything goes” hedonism. Such behavior is almost always self-centered, which puts it in direct contrast to the other-centered, self-giving life of Jesus.

John directly confronts their mistaken ideas: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God”, even going so far as to say the Gnostic preachers were antichrists. Like James, John says that stated beliefs mean nothing without corresponding actions to back them up. “Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar… whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.”  I don’t think John was talking about commandments in the legalistic sense of the Pharisees, who tithed mint and dill and cumin but neglected the weightier matters of the law”, but in the sense of the principles identified in Matthew:36-40, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” and John 13:34, a new commandment I give you, that you love one another Jesus tells his followers to do many things, particularly in the collection of his teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, but the principle behind all of them is love.

It is love that John talks about most in his letters, the love God has for us and the love we ought to demonstrate for our fellow human beings. The very nature of God is self-giving love, love that he extended to us when we were doing everything we could to distance ourselves from him, love that knew no limits. That is the kind of love we are to show to others  “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another… Whoever does not love abides in death…We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The only way we can truthfully say we love God is by acting in love toward others. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” 


When I read what John has to say about knowing and loving God, I am reminded of a poem I had to memorize when I was much younger, “Abou Ben Adhem”. Here it is:

Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.

The concept of God is not easy to grasp. As John says, we can’t see God, so how can we say we know him, much less love him? We come to know him through Jesus, whose whole life was love. We come to love him through loving our fellow human beings. God is love, and we were created to be expressions of that love.

And that’s good news to me.