Approaching the Cross

The Christian faith, properly understood, is not a faith in Jesus Christ, but the faith of Jesus Christ. This faith is the willingness to act on the basis of trust that the submission of the Self to the greater good, the sacrifice of the Self for the well-being of others, the extension of one’s Self for the growth of other people, that is Love, is the highest purpose of life and that it is connected to a greater order in the universe than what is readily perceptible at this basic level of carbon-based biological existence. It is the willingness to act on the basis of the trust that deep in the laws of the universe, the math works out in the end if one lives this way. That it is not the squandering of one’s life, but the fulfilling of one’s eternal purpose, disconnected from the temptations of the Ego in the here and now, the illusion that the Self must be elevated in order to survive.

What the Christ taught, and moreover lived, was this humility–“and being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

We are called to place our faith in this example, in the hopeful imitation of this divine person, who embodied all of the traits we would ascribe to godliness. All we must do is take up our own Crosses and follow in his path.

But we must first approach the Cross in order to take it up. Good Friday invites us to approach the Cross in all earnestness, to look upon it and contemplate its significance in our own individual journey of purification and deification. What we see when we look upon the Cross first is the Christ’s body draped across its beams, his pierced side, the crown of thorns upon his head. If we stop there, we might miss the point. If we stop there, if we merely marvel at his sacrifice, we might indeed be completely astray in our understanding of why he is there.

Instead, we must imagine ourselves in his place. What kind of heart would I have to have to put myself there? What kind of intentions would need to emanate from my soul to voluntarily go up myself, to endure all of that pain, to feel that separation from everyone and everything, to endure betrayal by my friends, to wonder at the last moment if I had made a massive mistake that I couldn’t undo, and in all of that, find the grace to forgive my executioners and the cheering masses?

It is difficult to imagine that I would do the same. I would want to do the same, but would I? If I’m truly honest with myself, I don’t think I would. But I want my soul converted into the type of soul that would. This is what Kierkegaard understood as the Christian vocation–that is, the call to become Christian. This is what Orthodox Christianity means by theosis or divinization, the process of the Man becoming Divine by following the way of the Cross.

But as I make my approach to the Cross, I wonder, “if I did the same thing, would I really gain as much as Christ did?” If I could be so remembered, then it would be easy, wouldn’t it? My Ego clings to the allure of the lasting memory. Yet when Christ made this sacrifice, he had no such guarantee, no precedent. Only faith. This is the faith of Christ.

Consequently, there is no clear and literal instruction about how this ultimate act of self-effacement is supposed to play out in each of our individual lives. We are not necessarily called to a literal physical death as the sacrifice, though that may be the case for some. But death is not the worst fate, depending on who you are. And so the example must be taken viscerally. What is there in my life that if I were asked to give it all up for the sake of other people, that the request would make me recoil? This is where the Christian faith must take me. This is where the process of becoming Christian leads.

It is terrifying. The horrific, violent, bloody symbol of the Cross is the only proper representation of the faith of Christ, because the process of becoming Christian is a painful, lifelong endeavor that is never completed. It is a difficult process of stripping away every remaining low desire until only that which is Holy is wanted. This means the complete and total death of the Self and the Ego.

 

With St Paul, may we ever meditate “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Rend Your Heart

“Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and relenting from evil.” (Joel 2:13)

As we approach the beginning of Holy Week and the end of Lent, I have been reflecting on this passage, one of the Lenten prefaces of Morning Prayer in the Anglican prayer book. The commandment to rend our hearts and not our garments is, I believe, the operative part of the verse, and is critical to a deeper understanding of repentance and forgiveness in Christian life. Consistently throughout the scriptures, old and new, the preoccupation of the prophets, the apostles, and Christ himself, is with the interior life of the child of God over and above the exterior life.

This admonition is part of this consistent theme. When we sin–that is, when we fall short of our potential to walk the way of the Cross in imitation of the Archetype–and when we feel remorse for it, it is much easier to make an external show of repentance than to internally repent. It is easier to make a scene, so to speak.

Imagine somebody being confronted with a grave wrongdoing going into hysterics and ripping their shirt from their body. Uninitiated bystanders might be amazed and such behavior, perhaps even thinking that it indicated some profound spiritual realization. But it would seem, by Joel’s instructions, to be a counter-indication of genuine repentance. It might be an indication of genuine remorse, but remorse and repentance are different things.

I recall as a child being told that repentance was not just feeling sorry, but feeling sorry enough not to do it again. In all of the theology I have read, there seems to be little way to improve this simple understanding. The Anglican prayers of confession petition for “true repentance” and “amendment of life,” and the two certainly go hand-in-hand. There is no true repentance without amendment of life.

And this is why Joel admonishes us to rend our hearts–the breaking down of ourselves, our core, our ego attachments and identity, at the very root, this is what is necessary for the amendment of life. Otherwise it is just a spectacle for the viewing of others, an ego-enhancing response to sin, rather than an ego-denying one.

Moreover, the rending of garments, while it may carry a minor economic cost, bears no personal cost–no physical or spiritual suffering. The kind of legitimate suffering required for personal growth is absent from the mere rending of garments. It’s an attempt to acquire what Scott Peck describes as “cheap grace.” There may be some superficial catharsis in the rending of garments, but if it does not sting, if it does not dig deep into the flesh, it will be of fleeting result.

The Way of the Cross, on the other hand, must eventually pierce one’s side. All that is flowing inside of the natural man must be purged to make way for the Resurrection of the Spirit. The rending of garments falsely pretends to remake the man from the outside-in. But the heart must be rent asunder in order for mercy and grace to fill and repair it and make us new from the inside-out.

It is a difficult saying, indeed.

The Strife is O’er

The strife is o’er, the battle done,
the victory of life is won;
the song of triumph has begun.

Deep within the soul of every man and woman resides the spirit of God, burning like a fire to transform the man into the likeness of the Unknowable. But there is a struggle between our infinite, immortal selves and our finite, physical selves. Our finite, physical selves fight for our evolutionary urges to survive. Our infinite selves want us to embrace the paradoxes of living and put our survival concerns aside in favor of a higher and more spiritual way of existing.

This is why the Resurrection is so essential to embracing the mystical, immaterial way of living–if we fear death, our evolutionary impulses will always override our spiritual yearning. If we live in fear of the grave, or in its shadow, we are incapable of putting aside the gnawing concerns that lead us to seek self-preservation and immediate gratification. For death follows us from phase to phase in our life, reminding us that we have only a certain amount of time. Aging is a sort of slow death that pushes people to waste their youth in pursuit of the most vain pleasures. It pushes older people to go to extreme measures to recapture their youth. All of this is counter to a spiritual existence.

But the Resurrection frees us from these concerns. The reality that Death has been conquered for us, that the grave is not the end of our existence gives us hope eternal that we can quell our evolutionary urges since we can see them as the farce that they are. In the angelic light of the Empty Tomb, we can know that if we make the decision to live in mercy and love, yielding to others, lowering ourselves to serve, we are not actually sacrificing anything, but rather gaining everything by living and walking in unity with the Divine Presence of I AM THAT I AM.

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By forgoing all of the distractions and medications we normally employ to reduce the pains of existence, we paradoxically suffer more in order that we might eventually cease suffering altogether. The more unified we are with the spirit of the Unknowable dwelling inside of us, the more we give power to the Infinite and the more we see the absurdity of being governed by the Finite, the more we are able to embrace our true freedom, and the less our existential pains cause us to suffer.

Indeed, the Resurrection is the ultimate solution to the pains of existence, for those pains are brought about by our coming to terms with our smallness and limitedness. The Resurrection gives us insight into our Limitlessness through the Infinite existence of God who dwells within our soul and who is ever-present in our life and struggle. The Resurrection gives us new life because it bears witness to the gift of immortality bought for us by the suffering of the Living God Incarnate on Good Friday.

Living in the glory of the Resurrection our strife truly is over. Our battle and victory are truly won. But we must then become conscious of this blessed reality and begin living and moving in its Truth.

 

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Nineteenth century evangelical preacher D.L. Moody once told the following story,

On a dark, stormy, night, when the waves rolled like mount­ains, and not a star was to be seen, a boat, rock­ing and plung­ing, neared the Cleve­land har­bor. “Are you sure this is Cleve­land?” asked the cap­tain, see­ing only one light from the light-house.
“Quite sure, sir,” re­plied the pi­lot.
“Where are the low­er lights?”
“Gone out, sir.”
“Can you make the har­bor?”
“We must, or per­ish, sir!”
And with a strong hand and a brave heart, the old pi­lot turned the wheel. But alas, in the dark­ness he missed the channel, and with a crash upon the rocks the boat was shiv­ered, and ma­ny a life lost in a wat­ery grave. Breth­ren, the Mas­ter will take care of the great light-house: let us keep the low­er lights burn­ing!

I have no context for the original telling of the story, so I don’t know what Moody was subsequently using it to say (a safe bet I probably wouldn’t have agreed), but it is a powerful gem of a story. Contemporary Christians in the West are preoccupied with trying to manage the great light-house–“saving” society from the great “evils” that modernity and post-modernity have brought in the wake of social progress. They are busy being cultural warriors when we should all be resolutely committed to being humble servants. Yet we find little such service and even less humility amongst our ranks.

It seems that the reason for this is we have been wrongly led toward false vocations within our Christian life. Our job is not to save other people’s souls. We can’t even save our own. Salvation seems like a great light-house kind of matter to me.

Our job is not to keep society from “going to hell in a hand-basket,” the public life of billions of people around the globe sounds like great-light house stuff too.

But the lower lights, those we can turn on anew each morning. We can show kindness to friend and stranger. We can yield our own interests to the needs of others. We can humbly serve the people around us. We can be beacons of peace in a world torn apart by violence. Yet all too often we do not do these things, because as it turns out, keeping these lower lights aflame is a lot harder than it sounds. So we would rather give up trying entirely or else dress up in spiritual warfare fatigues that make us look like some sort of Christian Don Quixotes and pretend we are holy and righteous in the way that we wring our hands about the loss of God in society.

This is a grave hypocrisy, the gravest hypocrisy of the Christian today, and it is no wonder that the Church is being evacuated en masse in the West. The outside of the bowl is clean, but the inside is filthy. We must reconsider what it means to be a Christian, because our current Western cultural conception of it is bankrupt both spiritually and ethically.

We need a more humble Christian to match the humility of the suffering God we find on the Cross at Calvary.

We need a more loving Christian to match the sacrificial love of our Lord in his death.

We need a more accepting Christian to match the way Jesus kept company with tax collectors and prostitutes.

We need a more meditative Christian to match the Christ who withdrew himself from the presence of others in order to defeat the temptations of Sin.

We need a more giving Christian, one who can keep the lower lights burning as Jesus himself met the temporal needs of the hungry, the sick, and the lonely.

If we do not become this kind of Christian, the Church will fade from memory within another generation. If the leaders of the institutional Church led the way, much of the remaining membership would no doubt make their way to the exits. This kind of Christianity will run off most church-attending Christians in the West. But such a purge is urgently necessary. The dead branches must be pruned away. The demagogues and pharisees need to be shown the door.

Then, perhaps, the ear of the world will be open to the message of love, forgiveness, and adoption of the Jesus I know.

The Noisome Pestilence

“Surely he shall deliver us from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence,” declares David in the 91st Psalm. Indeed, he proclaims, we may find refuge under the shadow of the Almighty.

Pestilence is not a word we encounter often in our contemporary vernacular. Likely it is due to the fact that pestilence comes from 13th Century Middle English and described contagious diseases such as the Bubonic Plague. That we in the 21st Century have all but eradicated communicable, infectious disease as a common cause of death is a great achievement of modern science. The fear that stalked people in their interactions with others for most of human history is something for which we have no point of reference. Yet there is merit in attempting to recover the metaphoric value of the word pestilence as we consider our post-modern society and the ills that plague us today.

For we are infected with a communicable disease of the soul, one as ravenous to us spiritually as the Ebola virus is to its victims physically. This pestilence has been around no doubt since Cain and Abel–the drive for outward success and the internal self-flagellation we encounter when we fall short. But in the era of Facebook and Twitter, FourSquare and Klout, it is a mutated virus that not only spreads faster, but is far more deadly.

The Advertising Age showed us images of people consuming products that we were then supposed to want as a result of having seen them. The real-life Don Drapers of the 60s and 70s pioneered the mass marketing culture that spawned sentiments like “Keeping up with the Joneses.” We could see the idealized movie star or model on TV wearing a particular article of clothing, driving a certain car, or wearing a cologne, and we could see our neighbor and perhaps our co-workers with those things as well. We might think that envy would be the result of this, and perhaps for some people it is, but I would submit the far more pervasive reaction was an internal sense of inadequacy–the feeling that “I’m less of a person because I have not been successful enough to afford that thing.”

The Church accommodated the mass marketing culture, but it did not roll over to it entirely. Materialism and consumerism were attacked from the pulpit as antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Certainly the ‘health and wealth’ heresy of the Joel Olsteens of the world stands as proof that the denouncement of materialism was not uniform, but nevertheless it could be reasonably predicted that a conversation with a pastor in most of America’s prominent denominations of Christianity would yield a greater or lesser degree of disdain for this part of the culture. The counter-cultural movement that emerged from secular radicals similarly decried a change in values away from people and toward stuff.

Then something strange happened. My generation was born. Generation Y could be said to have come up during the denouement of mass market materialism. The Dot-Com Era in which we emerged from adolescence and into college and adulthood began to radically reshape our values. No longer is conspicuous consumption the mark of achievement, but a host of other external validation checklists against which we now judge ourselves. In the Start-Up world, these things can range from the quality of one’s Venture Capital investors to whether you were invited to TED or had a speaking slot at SXSW or rubbed elbows with David Cameron at Davos. It could be the number of “exits” or how frequently you travel for business. The extent of the list is obvious to people living it.

The 70″ TV and Mercedes in the driveway are not this generation’s metric for success. Indeed it seems my generation doesn’t want to own much of anything at all and could even be said to be characterized by a yearning for nomadicism, a no-strings-attached approach to life, unanchored by family or church, or any other encumbrance. Child-rearing is viewed as something that must nearly always be delayed until one has the resources to not be encumbered by the children either. And so we see many people, including many of my friends, becoming more anxious about their biological clock ticking over and against a seemingly uncooperative professional life that can’t quite move fast enough to give us the leeway to do these things that our instincts tell us we ought to be doing.

All of this leads to the pestilence infecting Generation Y. On the surface we are the most optimistic, even bubbly generation that has ever lived, particularly if you run in the technology or non-profit circles. Everybody is changing the world by day. But by night we are addicted to anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. Ritalin turned to Adderall turned to Xanax as we grew up. Although alcoholism is not the same as it was in the days of the blue collar factory worker coming home drunk and beating his wife, there is a more subtle form that pervades Generation Y, acting as a numbing agent against the anxieties and depressions we suffer but don’t talk about.

This suggests a level of cognitive dissonance we would do well to acknowledge. Our external optimism does not flow from our internal state of being, but from the belief that we are expected to behave in that way and that behaving in that way is a sign of success in life, the same way that driving a BMW was an external sign of success to our Baby Boomer parents. While we are no longer measuring ourselves by the price of our car or the square footage of our house, we are nevertheless measuring ourselves against the achievements and abilities of our peers.

When I talk to people my age about questions of faith, religion, and theology, most have either come to treat it as a sterile, almost academic subject about which they have this or that theory, or else they view it as one category of their life that supports their professional development or their philanthropic checklist. They go to church the same way they go to a bar, for a quick fix or a cheap thrill. This isn’t our fault, though. We aren’t really offered any decent alternatives.

It is no wonder that “organized religion” is almost a curse word to Generation Y. Even worse are the few exceptions, churches genuinely trying to walk a path commensurate with Christ’s teachings, who ask us to renounce the pursuit of worldly success. How could I possibly renounce the pursuit worldly success? What would my friends think? How can I stop caring about whether I’m on a panel at SXSW–everybody will be there!

Surely our parents thought the same thing about BMWs and 10,000 square foot houses. But it is worse for us. There is something prima facie inconsistent with the 10,000 square foot house and the teachings of Jesus to sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Generation Y’s raison d’être is deceptively less problematic. We are changing the world, after all! Isn’t that what Jesus told us to do?

I chose the phrase “pursuit of worldly success” rather intentionally. Worldly success–that invitation to TED isn’t really the problem. The problem is when we want it, and we orient our actions to its pursuit. As Christ said “Seek first the kingdom of God and all of these things will be added unto you.”

But there is a far more important truth to comprehend here. Our renunciation of the pursuit of worldly success does not happen in isolation. That alone would also not resolve the pervasive anxieties of our generation. Rather, it comes as a package deal with another kind of renunciation–one that is in fact more difficult, but immediately rewarding: the renunciation of worldly failure.

When we come to understand ourselves in our true state, as Kierkegaard might frame it “alone before God,” we understand the reality of Kipling’s exhortation to “meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” The freedom that comes in renunciation, of seeing ourselves alone before God, is the freedom from all of our failures, from beating ourselves up over lost opportunities, shortcomings, and the painful comparisons to the people we follow on Twitter.

Perhaps if we so freed ourselves from the tyranny of failure on the inside, we might just be capable of truly changing the world, and smiling on the inside while we do it, knowing we are protected from that noisome pestilence.