Speak Through Me

Years afterward, I was asked by a peer “How many people go to college, Brian, and come away with a fully-developed philosophy of life?” I was shocked. It had never occurred to me that someone would go to college for any other reason.

I could have seen the difference, I guess, except that it was pretty embarrassing. Every conversation with a stranger unfolded at a million words a minute – a flood garbled in my haste, a defect of expression that I am confronting fully only now in my review of the videos at Love Returns.

My uncle Phil had borne the brunt of these exchanges more than once. Naturally concerned when I was preparing to read a passage at his brother’s funeral, he came by to advise me to draw out my vowels. My aunt had chosen some beautiful words, though, and I was well beyond that in my preparation of the reading. When I delivered the final “He is at peace,” the gathering paused in silence.

That was my first experience of having words work through me. Knowing that my aunt’s choice was an emotional one, I took in the meaning of the words but also received the deep, mature wisdom of the author’s emotional experience. A crescendo of loss wracked the middle of the passage, and when it came through me, the congregation leaned back.

In reading Scripture, the emotions are all that relates to our modern age. The situations are described only briefly; essential social context is often missing. To make them relatable, we project our own situations, along with our own emotions. This can lead us astray.

Monday night at Bible study, we focused on Matt. 20:20-34. The passages relate Jesus’s response to two pleas: one from the mother of James and John that her sons should sit on the left and right of his throne. The other is from two blind men that cry out for healing. In both situations, the onlookers rebuke those making the request. Jesus turns to heal the two blind men. His response to James and John is ambiguous.

Ambiguous? It may not seem that way, for Jesus challenges them with this question [Matt. 20:22]:

Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?

To which the brothers reply: “We can.” Jesus does not dispute this, observing only [Matt. 20:23]:

My cup you will indeed drink.

Commonly, this is read as a rebuke, something like “Oh, you sorry fools – sending your mother to plead for power.” But it can also be read as an affirmation of respect: “Yes, you can.”

The study leader noted that the mother was Jesus’s aunt; her sons were Jesus’s cousins. Given this, the emotions swept in, and I saw the situation in a different light.  They may have known what others were planning, and as family were pleading: “You know that you can trust us. Please let us protect you.”

When I shared this perspective, the woman sitting next to me seemed to expand. I felt her reaching back into that moment, and she began “And did Mary know this as well?” Here was another piece: Jesus had cast aside his mother’s protection, but still she loved him. Was it Mary that had organized this plea by John and James?

From this perspective, the parallels between the two stories are heightened. John and James are blind to the spiritual consequences of their service, but they wish to serve, just as Jesus commands of those that rebuke them [Matt. 20:27-28]:

…whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.  Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

James was martyred by Herod, the first of the Apostles to so suffer, and perhaps demonstrating the determination needed by the others. John suffered a different bitterness, being the Apostle left to grieve the persecution of the early Christians, including all of his Apostolic brothers. In that grief was a trial of bitterness. It was a trial that he passed, qualifying himself to bring the wisdom of Revelation to the world.

Winged

After six months, my masseuse is still trying to dissolve the knots that lie above the parasympathetic nodes along my spine. The visualizations that come have been intense at times.

The lady with the alabaster jar capturing the memory of Jesus before  he suffered the lash, projecting it into the future so he could be restored  to himself when the world was finally ready to receive him.

So she’s made some progress, but those lumps are persistent. Saturday night she was working persistently on the nodes between my shoulder blades, just under my neck, and I shared this silly thought with her:

You keep on doing that and you’re going to make my wings pop out.

We already knew that the lumps are tied to the pressure of the darkness that resists me.

I was working on the first of the scripts on Revelation yesterday down at Renaud’s café in Santa Barbara when a cover of “Blackbird” came on, this one through a woman’s tender vocals:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night:
Take these broken wings and learn to fly!
All your life,
You’ve been only waiting for this moment to arrive.
You’ve been only waiting for this moment to arrive.
You’ve been only waiting for this moment to arrive.

I had to go out into the gentle morning sunlight to let it wash the grief out of me.

At Dance Tribe, the gift from the avian kingdom – the lady that I fell in love with last January – finally returned. Not wanting to torment her, I just kept on dancing, and she fell into the embrace of her lover. As they wrapped themselves into each other, I reached past her for the gifts that she had received from me. He gripped her more firmly in his powerful arms, trying to protect her, but they had chosen me – they were only on loan to her in the hope that she would open herself to the Holy Mother.

When I resumed dancing, they brought the memory of her joy with them. It had been a long time since I danced with such playful abandon, just letting my parts do their work together.

The penultimate number of the session was the beautiful gift from the Wailing Jenny’s, “One Voice.” The souls of the dance surrendered themselves to union as the progression advanced: One voice…voices two….voices three, and then “this is the sound of all of us.”

But they weren’t expecting what happened on the last stanza. I spread my arms wide, pushing against the darkness with my palms:

This is the sound of one voice
One people, one voice
A song for every one of us
This is the sound of one voice

Oh, my humbled heart! The sound of a world grieving it’s sorrows.

Somebody must hear them! Oh, if it needs be, use me, dearest Father, use me.

The Anti-Anti Christ

I’ve been laid up with crippling muscle tightness for the last two days, spending most of my time lying on the floor and trying to stretch the inside of my thighs. I guess that no respectable masseuse will work there, so I had no idea how tight my adductors had become. Sunday night after Dance Tribe in Santa Barbara, I got out of the car and almost couldn’t stand up. My foam roller doesn’t have any instructions for that area, but I ended up laying on my side with the inside of my thigh on top of the roller, wiggling the muscle back and forth across its length, working my way between the knee and my groin. It wasn’t quite like the black-out pain that I used to get doing Bikram’s half locust posture, but it was close.

Yesterday I went in to work to push a customer release forward, but at two the pain forced me home. I spent the rest of the day watching movies between sets on the foam roller and trying to get back into cow pose. I caught the last half of Stigmata on Sunday night, and picked up the ending of The Vatican Tapes yesterday. The two movies captivated me, not necessarily because they were compelling, but because they characterize two of the central difficulties I have faced as I attempt to go about the work that I do in the world.

The dramatic tension in Stigmata revolves around the attempt by a Catholic cardinal to suppress knowledge of Jesus’ authentic teachings. This builds around a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas:

Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.

This is consistent with the teachings of the four canonical gospels that the kingdom of God does not reside in institutional order, but is found by looking into our own hearts. That the Church is threatened by this teaching is evident from its conduct, but there are many explanations. One is that, as Jesus taught:

It is not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.

[NLT Mark 7:15]

To tell a sinner to look into his heart is to bear responsibility for the consequences of his struggle with sin.

This is a struggle, naturally, to which priests are not immune. Stigmata relates the experience of the saints that suffered from the stigmata – bleeding from the wrists and feet that reflects the depth of the spiritual bond to the cross.  The more nearly they approach to that perfect expression of love, the more they are beset by demonic influences seeking to enter into that power to work their will in the world. I would counsel any so beset to trust in love, and to do as Jesus did: offer your enemies forgiveness and a promise of healing. But what most stigmatics hold in their heart is a fear of sin, and it is that fear that runs amok as they draw to them the “demonic” spirits that seek healing.

Witnessing that struggle, many of their peers take refuge in religious institution. The institution becomes a substitute for Christ, and eventually of greater value to those that maintain it. This is not merely a point of theology: I was told as a child that a contemporary pope was torn from the throne of St. Peter because he was about to announce the return of Christ.

The Vatican Tapes explores the second great challenge to the return of Christ. This is the common teaching, drawn from the Book of Revelation, that Christ will be preceded by the Anti-Christ – a figure that manifests all of his virtues for the purpose of corrupting Christ’s purpose.

Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.

[NSRV Rev. 13:11-14]

This echoes the words of 2 Thessalonians:

The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.

[2 Thess. 2:7-9]

The interpretation by many is that the Anti-Christ is a man that will beguile the trusting with spiritual gifts, and lead them into corruption. In The Vatican Tapes, that ‘man’ is actually a woman, perhaps uniting both the anti-Christ and the Whore of Babylon in a single figure.

The problem posed by this interpretation is that it leads us to mistrust the presence of Christ among us. Christ brought fire down from heaven – the flames of the Holy Spirit. If we experience that, might we fear that we are being deceived as predicted in Revelation? And Jesus was famously a wonder-worker. Following Thessalonians, would a man that came to perform similar wonders be recognized as an avatar, or condemned (as Jesus was by his contemporaries) as a false messiah?

The way out of this trap is to recognize that Christ is not the man Jesus: Christ is part of the triune God that was, is and will be. Just so is the Anti-Christ: an opposition to Christ that since the dawn of life here on Earth has struggled against the healing power of divine love. Just as Christ’s influence reaches out from the cross through the ages, so the anti-Christ has woven its thread through our history. In the Bible, it can be identified as the serpent in the Garden, Herod on his throne, and the dragon in Revelation that chases the holy mother into hiding.

The only true barometer that distinguishes these two is our heart. Christ demands nothing of us but that our heart be filled with his love for others. Anti-Christ beguiles us with personal gifts that are twisted to command our fealty. Christ leads us because we trust him; Anti-Christ rules our thoughts with pleasures that cannot be sustained.

Here is the measure of goodness: not in what it offers us, but in the joy that it awakens through the boons received by those we cherish. Here science affirms that we are made in God’s image: if given a gift, our happiness lasts longer if we use it to benefit others.

This should be familiar to many of my readers. What may not be familiar is the allocation of spiritual gifts. This is the greater wonder, in my mind, and something tells me that it is an experience that others should now be encouraged to attempt.

Prior to Dance Tribe on Sunday, I stopped down the street at Hope. The pastor was just beginning his teaching, the concluding lesson in a series titled “A Freight Train Called Desire.” The lesson “The Loco-Motive” explored the damage we do to ourselves in seeking approval from others. I could feel a recognition in the congregation; they all knew this frustration. With that experience established in their minds, the pastor then reminded them that only one trustworthy source of approval exists: that of Jesus’ Abba (Daddy), the one that loves us without conditions, who welcomes our repentance with honor no matter how prodigal our sins.

In these moments prepared by a gifted teacher, I feel the congregants lifting their minds and hearts to the heavens. I am moved, recognizing the integrity of their desire, to guide it to the heavens with my hands, reaching up and up until I feel the angels’ responsive awareness. There is always a moment of surprise at this sense of being among the angels, and we pause there. As on Sunday there was nothing but gratitude in the experience, I raised my hands again to call them down.

Then comes the hard part: all the sorrows of this world come to the fore. Sometimes this is a defensive act – an attempt to protect ourselves from dissolving into love. But more often it is an act of healing. What comes to the fore are the experiences that must be surrendered if we are to hold on to the grace of the angels. So on Sunday, I found myself rooted to my chair as the tears rolled down my cheeks, heart breaking for the suffering of those I sat amidst.

Finally it cleared, just as the pastor completed his message. I don’t remember his closing prayer, for he had called the worship team up to lead the final song of praise. All the hours of practice focused in that moment. Sitting behind the rest of the congregation, I lifted my hands, imagining the stage cupped in my fingers, focusing the angelic presence. The introductory instrumental meditation resolved as a harmonic line, and the female lead sang directly into our hearts:

Oh, how He loves us, oh.
Oh how He loves us, how He loves us all.

Dave Crowder Band, How He Loves

It is an experience that I absolutely do not control. It is a relationship between angels and the congregation. It is something they do together when both see the possibility of service to love: us in manifesting healing in the broken world, the angels in amplifying God’s presence among us.

I am simply the witness to that possibility.

So I beseech you: open your minds and hearts to those possibilities. Do not allow fear to corrupt your love: have faith in Christ, immerse yourself in that security, and know that no power can stand against the strength of the healing we bring to the world with his angels. His love is the anti-anti-Christ. It erases the power of the anti-Christ. It makes the anti-Christ a lost, forlorn and confused figure – a withered shadow from our past that dissolves into the future we are creating together.

Dying in Peace

Standard Christian theology is that Christ died so that God could forgive our sins. But I think that Jesus said something a little more subtle: that he would die for “the forgiveness of sin.”

As I understand it, God is not about choosing those worthy to live in his presence, he is concerned with healing. A sin is a sin because it leaves a wound in the soul. That wound cannot be healed until we are ready to forgive the sin – to let it go so that it may be displaced by love. When that occurs, even the most vicious criminal becomes qualified to enter paradise.

Even better, though, is to hold on to the sin. It is to do as Jesus did – to allow the sin to take hold of us, and then to forgive it so that it may be suffused by love, and so made noble.

Death is a sin because is separates things that cherish one another. That cherishing reflects a mutually beneficial relationship. So for death to enforce such separation is to deny the parties those benefits, and thus to wound them.

In dying, Jesus allowed the servants of Death (the priests that slaughtered innocent creatures on the altar) to have their way with him, and forgave them. He suffused death with love, and so became the Prince of Peace.

How does that work? Because warring parties need to be separated. That can be accomplished in death, but what Jesus does is offer a spiritual refuge in which we can reflect until we figure out how to share strength with the ones we war against.

Sometimes, of course, that is our selves. Peace starts within, and when we accept Jesus, we allow him into our hearts and minds and grant him loving dominion over the conflicts that rage within us.

As Cain learned, it isn’t easy, but God understands that sin cannot be healed unless we wrestle with it. Terrible things happen: Cain murdered his brother Abel. But even then, that most heinous of sins was not punished with death. Instead, Cain was sent away to think, reflect, and become stronger.

Recidivism

When contemplating the selection from among the disciples of the Apostles, Luke records [6:12]:

Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.

Now this is an interesting proposition for prayer: the junior partner in the triune turning to himself for wisdom. Illogical, even bizarre? I can understand it only by assuming that Jesus was a pseudopod emitted from the Holy presence, not in possession of all his spiritual faculties.

Of course, as a demonstration it is instructive to read  of the devotion and trust that Jesus invested in the Father. If he was moved to pray, how should not we as well? And conceiving of him as a man, I would not rue Jesus that comfort.

A common elaboration of the Crucifixion is that it was not just physically agonizing, but also spiritually devastating. We have the great heart-rending cry:

Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?

[Mark 15:34]

There was no answer, because there could be none. God took on flesh because it was only through flesh that evil could be healed. Once Jesus assumed that burden, it was his and his alone.

The angels cannot change their nature – it is the grace and curse of humanity to possess that capacity. Thus God testified to Cain:

Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

[Gen. 4:7]

Jesus was the culmination of this seeking after strength. He arose out of a culture devoted to the seeking after purity, and chose to allow sin into his heart so that its consequences could be healed.

The bulk of the BIble demonstrates the difficulty of this accomplishment. The men raised to greatness always struggle with their frailty. Jacob’s lust makes him little more than a seed dispenser to two competing sisters and their handmaids, and his favorite Joseph leads monotheism into subjection to a polytheistic culture. David succumbs to desire, clearing the way for marriage by sending his friend into battle to die, and Solomon again opens the door to polytheistic practices.

This recidivism illuminates the challenge of loving unconditionally: to be merciful is to grant power to those lacking the ability to discipline their behavior. Every parent confronts this in the two-year-old and adolescent, but somehow we believe that grace given by God is proof against this corruption. To the wise, though, the recidivism of the Bible is the greatest possible proof of God’s compassion for us. He pursues the loving embrace even against the evidence of our unfaithfulness.

Of course, in demonstrating the infinite depths of divine compassion, the heroes of the Old Testament are problematical role models. This came to a head in Islam, which largely sanitizes the evidence of personal frailty. A Muslim scholar disputed with me over David’s betrayal of friendship, explaining that the sanitized history was enforced by Muhammed’s (pbuh) son-in-law, Ali, and justified in that opportunists used David’s behavior to justify their own lecherous license.

The consequence of this idealization of Biblical heroes is that the program of monotheistic escalation (the only God worth worshipping is perfect and infinite) extends to the heroes of the Bible. They are no longer human but gods themselves, immune to temptation and error.

So what of Jesus, absorbing the burden of human sin on the cross? We know that he showed reluctance and despair in the event. This supports my sense that divine love comes at the first possible moment. In the New Testament as in the Old, the manifestation of grace is subjected to pressures almost certain to destroy it. Among those are the unfaithfulness of those to whom salvation is offered. Returning to Nazareth early in his ministry, Jesus is astonished by their cynicism, which makes him unable to offer power in any great measure.

So I conclude: as monotheism is the pursuit of a truly human god, in that pursuit Jesus is truly our god, struggling against our sinfulness while healing us so that we may sin again. Paradoxically, as we approach more nearly to his grace, that struggle intensifies. The assault on his virtues are more focused, the wounds more intimate. As God cried out again and again in the Old Testament, would we not expect Christ to be tried by anger and fear?

Even perhaps, at times, to be overcome by human impatience and frustration?

Steven Fry’s Challenge

Rocket Kirchner addresses Steven Fry’s critique of God out at Dandelion Salad. Fry interprets the existence of suffering as proof that the Christian God is a fantasy. My response to one skeptic follows:


Here is the conundrum: If the “fantasy God” made a perfect world in which everything unfolded according to his will, then there would be nothing to love, because his will would be all. Since love requires an object to exist, the creation of such a universe would be a form of self-annihilation.

So we are granted the option to not heed the will of God – we are allowed our own free will. Unfortunately, many of us chose to play at being gods ourselves, and it is in imposing our will upon others that sin occurs.

The Christian proposition is that if we learn to submit ourselves in service to one another, we obtain access to enormous amounts of power. I won’t bother you with how that manifests in the New Testament – you’d simply assert that science disproves the possibility of the events that transpired. But to the person of faith, the healing accomplished by Jesus and the Apostles indicate that many ills that we suffer are not of God’s will. In fact, if we surrendered ourselves to the dictates of love as Jesus did, those ills would be unable to obtain purchase upon us.

So Rocket is right: we are misguided to refuse (or worse, misuse) the gift of love and then decry the consequences of its absence. And it is hypocrisy for Fry to say “God, you didn’t intervene to save the children!” when God created Fry and gave him wealth to so intervene. We were made in God’s image, which can be interpreted as “we are his intervention.”

And, given the huge amount of charitable work and giving provided by people of faith, to challenge faith is also counter-productive. The faithful understand that the world is imperfect. We simply choose to keep on giving, in part because we feel our hope sustained by the endless love that arises in our hearts.