06.28.18

Christ, the non-conceptual man

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:01 pm by Administrator

when i think of the things i am learning through meditation and try to reconcile those learnings with my understanding of the Christian Bible, i am drawn to three stories of Christ.

first, i think of Christ and his forty days of testing in the wilderness. it is written that Satan came to test him after forty days of fasting, and he called on Christ to prove himself by doing the supernatural. “if you are the son of God”, Satan said to him three times—an assertion that the matter to be resolved was the true nature of Christ’s identity. Satan suggested that this should be a straightforward thing; but for Christ, it certainly was not. in fact, Christ refused to affirm that he was the son of God and resisted Satan’s challenge to him to prove what he was. the story reminds me of another biblical passage, in which it was written that Christ did not consider equality with God something to be gained.

throughout his time on earth and particularly at the moment of his crucifixion, Christ was repeatedly challenged to declare who he was and to assert his identity. his unwillingness to do this in the manner expected by his audience is so important to consider, and it demonstrates not only Christ’s values but also his fundamental approach to the idea of identity. i believe that what Christ’s actions and words reflected was a simple and powerful statement about personal identity: that the importance of a person, consummated in worthy identity, should not be her fixation. rather, our ability to simply recognize and respond to what is godly—awareness, in its truest sense—is what Christ sought to encourage, at the expense of all worldly preoccupations and distractions.

nowhere was his posture toward awareness more evident than in his interaction with Mary and Martha. on one level, the story is a commentary on the nature of worship, and it suggests that pleasing worship is most clearly exemplified in direct, intimate interaction. on another level though, it is a story about mindfulness. it is a story of one person (Martha) whose response to the presence of Christ was constrained by her preoccupation with the roles and responsibilities of others, and it is a story of another (Mary) whose awareness of Christ led her to respond to him in a manner that was not only pleasing but also perfectly natural—a posture of devotion.

when Christ allowed the prostitute to sit with him and to wash his feet in the presence of other dignitaries, he was making a poignant statement about what it really means to love and to follow God. love of God does not mean attending to one’s identity; if this were so, then the prostitute could not have approached the Lord. love of God does not mean seeking to receive what God has to give; and in fact there is no indication that the prostitute requested anything of Christ, whether in relationship or in healing. love of God in that powerful moment meant that the prostitute could see and appreciate what was godly, and she responded to the living Christ by demonstrating loving service and utter devotion. a social identity that could have isolated her ultimately did not prevent her entering that house, sitting with Christ, and being at home with him. the act demonstrated her transcendence of identity—sin, shame, separation, and fear—and indeed it was the emptying of that identity, an act of faith as Christ called it, that made her well.

why then all of Paul’s focus on the redemption of identity, on the importance of consecration and election, and on the identity issues of depravity and atonement? the critical factor in exploring this contrast of focus lies in something that Thich Nhat Hanh says—that everything jesus taught “was to a particular person or group on a particular occasion”. the same holds true for Paul, whose passion and calling were significantly different from those of the man jesus. while jesus spoke to Jews about a god that they could not access through their law, Paul spoke to both jews and gentiles about a church that they could not experience through tradition. as such, Paul had to define the rules and principles that would guide community in this new state; the language of identity was critical to demonstrating the necessity of and the framework for Christ-centered community.

it is not accidental that much of Paul’s teaching on holy identity specifically addresses the idea of a justification apart from the Law. like I’ve written previously, much of the substance of the holy identity described by Paul is actually the rejection of traditional forms of identity—identity for example based on observance of the law, social reputation, and ethnic heritage. holy identity, in other words, is not something that a Jew can assert to the disadvantage of the Gentile; it is something conferred by God, at His unique discretion, and it is irrevocable and beyond man’s ability to critique or reconsider. by describing holiness in these terms, Paul was actually establishing a discourse on identity entirely compatible with that of Jesus. he was asserting an identity that could not be derived from or justified by human reason or circumstance; he was presenting an identity designed to shatter all prior identities, by which the tribes of man claimed worth, significance, or superiority over others.

depravity was a concept intended for those with an identity of power and privilege. atonement was God’s gift to those who were made to feel unworthy. but the thrust of Paul’s teaching for the individual believer is most perfectly captured in the emptying of identity. “i have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians, “and i no longer live but Christ lives in me.” and to the Philippians he writes, “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” it is neither Paul’s intent nor his mission to define redemption as the attainment of a fuller, holier, or more worthy identity; quite to the contrary, the strong implication of his overall body of work points to the emptying of personal identity as the redemptive arc of a journey into God.

why is this important? it’s important in the end because the nature of the salvation that God offers depends very much on how we interpret the intentions of Jesus and of Paul. the message of the Gospel can certainly be interpreted in a manner that implies that the salvation of a soul hinges upon an identity one gains when he expresses an explicit and exclusive loyalty to the person of Christ. while this is inherently an interpretable statement, a narrow view of this could also imply that this explicit and exclusive loyalty to the person of Christ in and of itself guarantees a fruitful life, the redemption of personal worth, and a fate of eternal reward. i believe that this idea represents a construct of identity that both jesus and paul worked so hard to dispel, through their lives, their deaths, and their teachings to others. i believe it is more accurate and contextual to regard what jesus offered to people as salvation from a state of existence in which what is godly cannot be perceived, appreciated, and experienced in any meaningful way. Jesus’s true gift to the lost was not his name but rather his example: a living example of personal identity emptied and ultimately relinquished in response to a genuine and transcending awareness of all that is good.

Christ did not live in a conceptual space, and the Holy Spirit urges the very same of us. rather than engage in the work of creating and fulfilling identity, the Spirit leads us to undermine false identity and to accept a deeper truth about ourselves—that we are bound to one another as parts of the same body, as interconnected elements that cannot survive in isolation. we are called to commit ourselves to awareness, not simply to be mindful of ourselves but to understand our common identity, as a people of God. is it not for this that Christ died?

today’s reflection

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:10 pm by Administrator

i woke up and began the day with meditation. it was not easy because i was just a little hungover from a work function, but i fell into a state of mindful clarity for a few minutes and found, in my cluttered mind, many things cast about and lurking in the shadows. there was an idea of how today should go. there was an idea of how tomorrow should be. there was a hateful thought about someone i have struggled against. there was an anticipation of my weekend. there was, beneath it all, a belief about who i am and what i am meant for.

i directed my gaze to all these corners of my consciousness, and like dust kicked up by a powerful wind, these ideas came up off the floor and separated in the air, a thin cloud of disparate particles. when i was done moving about in the room of my mind, i sat upon the floor and reflected on what i had learned. it was simple things, really.

there is no tomorrow, and there is no difference between tomorrow and yesterday. they are ideas.

i have designs for today, but these are futile. what i have before me is the moment—the moment that calls for me to breathe, to be aware, and to engage with what is around me.

information seeks me out, through my telephone, my computer, and the voices of others. the information seeks to settle in my mind, like a pile of ashes, like a clump of trash. it is my responsibility to protect my mind. as Christ said, “if your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” there is so much that i am accustomed to feeding myself; but there is so much in all this information—visual information, opinions, news stories—that threatens to clutter the room of my mind with unmanageable and encroaching things. whether these things are factually true or not is besides the point. they occupy my mind—and this cannot be.

today has no purpose. it is not the extension of yesterday; it is not the prelude to tomorrow. whatever connection i once assumed, i sever it now. i sever it with the sharpened edge of my clear mind. today will not bend to another man’s law. it will be as it was meant to be, like an eternal spring of the clearest water, like a cascade of light through the infinite branches of the living tree. God gives me this day, unburdened by the expectations of man, proffered with dignity and grace by the stately universe all around, that i might enjoy it and that i might limit my suffering and the suffering of others as we experience it

preoccupation

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:15 am by Administrator

regarding my diet, I have my occasional “cheat days”, when I gorge on processed carbs and pizza. the way I feel after I eat (heavy and somewhat sick) is always good validation of the usual lifestyle I adhere to.

today was a mindfulness cheat day. and it was absolutely terrible. my head was spinning, my thoughts were racing, and I was continually thinking about the past or the future. I felt exhausted. and in the midst of all this, I realized that this is how I used to live on a daily basis, in the throes of endless preoccupation, until I began meditation two weeks ago. it’s an awful way to live.

twice during the day, I tried to slow myself down by attending to my breathing, but I’m not skilled enough at meditation to do this effectively while I’m on the run. mindfully breathing in and out for five full breaths was about the most I could manage, and it was enough for me to realize how much my posture was stiffening and how much emotional baggage I was beginning to accumulate. I was in a bad place and I knew it. I also knew that there would probably be no way out of it for me until I made it home and could find an hour of solitude to recalibrate.

I would not say that mindfulness is impossible for a career person with a high-stress life—but it is awfully difficult. my experience of trying to maintain awareness in the midst of constant high-intensity communication with others is starting to convince me that there are certain kinds of jobs that are inevitably unhealthy to self. the more I think about it, the more clear it becomes to me that my lifestyle probably matters more than the nature of the work I do. and the worst work I can do is the kind of work that compels me to assume a persona that is untrue to what I am.

there is a profound difference between prayer and meditation for me, and I have to admit that I have not prayed for more than two weeks now. I avoid it because prayer is necessarily a communication between a certain version of myself and a certain version of what I perceive to be god. it requires the work of identification—of assuming a persona, even as I project that persona onto a certain concept of god. that work of identification is emotional work, and it takes me places, and it does cause me suffering, even as it relieves my pain. I realize that prayer in many ways puts both God and myself at a true inconvenience, because I instinctively assume a posture of humility before God, and because I instinctively assume that God’s willingness to hear me or respond to my request will hinge upon the manner in which I present myself. these assumptions are not necessary, but I believe that they are inevitable. who can possibly grow up in the church and read about the biblical God of the Christians and not experience Him as the being full of ego and personality who must be approached carefully and with great deference? it is a relationship full of structure, expectation, and identity, and as such it is a relationship filled with ideas, emotional work, and manipulation—both manipulation of self and of the Other.

meditation, by contrast, projects little and aims to empty of identity. the trajectory I take in meditation is entirely opposed to the trajectory I would otherwise take in supplication. while the latter seeks satisfaction of a desire, the former seeks to thwart the desire itself. there’s little overlap in these two approaches to contemplation, in my opinion

06.25.18

working against identity

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:29 pm by Administrator

I arrived at the conclusion about a year ago that I have spent my whole life up to this point trying to be extraordinary; and I will spend the rest of my life understanding what it means to be ordinary.

it’s impossible of course to be without identity, but I am feeling the need to be aware of that identity and to work against the assumption of it. the impetus for all this of course is the emptiness. it is always there, and I have run from it for many years. but when I turn around and face what it is, i sense that it is not what i have named it. i called it death; and i relied on my religion to resist it. i relied on Christ to afford me purpose, above all things, in order to overcome this state of being in which purpose, forward momentum, and self-appreciation seemed impossible. but now Christ is around me and within me as i stand in the middle of the road in a solitude of awareness, and i see now that the emptiness is not the absence of meaning but rather the fundamental meaning.

last week, i spoke to a crowd, and afterwards i received affirmations and commendations. they were kind words, but they were also words that implied something about my potential, about my future. i held those words in the palm of my hand, and i felt the identity that they carried, and i sensed the suffering that this identity would cause me. i tilted my hand, and i felt this heavy thing slide from my grasp. i let it go.

a few days ago, a patient expressed gratitude for my service to her as a doctor, and her words implied her state of helplessness and her dependence on my care. these words too i held, not with the grasp of one who is seeking worth but rather with the balance of interpretation. in fact, she is not helpless, and in truth i gain nothing but suffering if i accept that story of who she and i are. so in that quiet and untroubled space where i sat with this idea, as it flew around me like a butterfly, i saw it for what it was, and i let it fly away, into the darkness beyond me. i am no savior. i am simply one who breathes.

yesterday, i had a thought about the life of a prisoner. i wondered what it would be like to live in a small room without windows, day after day in total isolation. there are men and women all around the world subjected to this pain. might this be my fate someday? how could i survive it? the idea of this overwhelmed me with great pain, and i felt deeply for all the people confined in cages and cells throughout the world. though this was just an idea, i held it, i held it in my hand, and it was singing hot, and i felt the burning work its way through my hand and into the rest of my body. and then, when i could not take any more of it, i turned my hand and let it fall. i do not know if i can endure what other people in this world endure. i only know that the pain is and always will be in my world, and it will press upon my thoughts and reverberate into my soul, and when i hold it for a while it connects me to the universe of lives. i can hold these things without being ruled by them. i can be aware of things beyond myself; i can work against the identity that causes all that suffering.

when i consider my lord, i recognize now that the holiness of my identity is not Her preoccupation. She does not require that I subscribe to one idea or another in order to discern what I am. no, the lord’s fixation is not on my identity but rather on my experience—my experience of love, my experience of Christ. when Jesus allowed His feet to be cleansed by the prostitute, and when He declared that her faith had made her well, what He was saying was that she had, in that profound act of devotion, revealed what is godly in her. we were not made for theologies and ontologies; we were made for worship, manifested in a life lovingly rendered. and so we do not wash the feet of the Lord to be made worthy. we wash the feet of the Lord because when we are genuinely aware of Him, we act in a way that demonstrates in all humility the simple goodness of our design

06.21.18

my message, part 2

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:38 pm by Administrator

like I’ve written previously, it was the point of Paul’s teaching to address Jewish privilege and to create a theological context for the equality of the Gentiles. it is the implication of his teaching that we do the same in our time: to name social privilege where it exists, and to act against it for the purpose of demonstrating Christ’s compassion for the world.

but on a broader level, there is more to say, and it is inspired as much by Buddha as it is by Christ.

the focus of the Christian is on identity, but even in this fixation we must hold identity lightly. I would offer identity in these terms: that we are children of God, and that we are loved by the Lord of all life. but even in this simple statement, I am wary that I have offered too much identity; because love connotes so many things. the love I speak of is one that bears no responsibility or expectation, aside from a sincere and simple hope in the enlightenment of the beloved. and by enlightenment I mean freedom from suffering. as suffering is so frequently the result of identity—untrue, restricting, and undermining concepts of self—what I am actually offering is an identity that exists in counter-identity: the identity of seeking non-self.

this is at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, but it is also deeply embedded in the worldview of the apostle Paul. his exhortation to die to self in order to experience the life of Christ is impossible to understand except by metaphor; it implies that the reduction of ego is prerequisite to transcendent understanding. it is a subtle idea but not mysterious, and in fact it is aligned with Christ’s teaching on the importance of being born again. one might argue that what Christ and Paul are pointing to is the virtue of selfless behavior; but I believe it is no less compelling to view their teaching as an exhortation to abandon personal ego in the pursuit of unity with the divine.

if one can accept this premise, then one can accept also that the elaborate covenantal identity described by the apostle Paul is not psychological or ritual identity but rather counter-identity—the nullification of socially prescribed, traditional identity. by taking issue with social ascriptions (”there is no jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male and female”), Paul is not simply advocating for egalitarian inclusion; he is disrupting traditional ideas of identity which inflict suffering upon the individual. and by expounding a doctrine of atonement with the death of self at its core, Paul disrupts a moral sense of self rooted in a devotion to the Jewish Law. Paul was not doing this to establish a moral order within which a new, prescriptive identity could be achieved; he was speaking, acting, and living against the very constraint of identity, in order to describe unity with Christ in its truest form—emptiness of personal ambition, mindful acceptance of the Holy Spirit, and loving inter-being (as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it).

when Paul writes that “to live is Christ, to die is gain”, what he establishes as the ultimate reality is not the perfection of the self but rather the utter integration of the individual, to the erasure of personal boundaries and for the experience of a boundless consciousness. this idea of heavenly existence is nirvana. for years, I have described heaven in these terms; and now I understand where this idea came from. it originates in a truth revealed to both the apostle Paul and Gautama Buddha. it is a freedom from self and the redemption of life, made complete when the cycle of suffering ends.

is it all then untrue, all these aspects of personal identity I have gained from my journey with the Christian God through all these years? is God not the one who goes ahead of me into battle to fell my enemy? is God not the one who takes the death out of my life? did He not call to me to be a lion for my people? am I not favored by the Lord, who chooses some but not all? is this God, this jealous, passionate, and penetrating God, a fabrication of my relentlessly preoccupied mind, a misconception that I have created to address my own profound sense of personal insignificance?

I am inclined to believe that God is all of these things I have called Him; and that indeed Christ related to me as I required Him to relate to me—as King of the Jews, as conqueror of the sinful world, as personal lord and savior of my life. but I can see now, as I look back on the journey we have taken, that He was planting seeds throughout, so that when I came here, to the limits of my understanding, I would see at the edge of myself the emptiness that is my truth. Christ led me here, not to make me a Buddhist but to teach me what the Buddhist has had a language to describe, so that I would understand what I am and be free of the suffering that I have called my sin.

I am one who breathes. I am one who speaks. I am one who eats. I am one who listens, to a person, to a bird, to the sound of the air moving past my car. I am one who pees and poos. I am one who puts on underwear and clothes. I am one who sleeps. but above all things, I am one who breathes. the air enters my body and sustains me; I let out the air, and when I do so I recognize the simple beauty of what I am. all love, service, and compassion that I express resides in these things that I do. I worship God and reconcile myself to others by speaking, by listening, by eating, by walking, and by breathing. I do it alone, and I do it with others. I strive to do it as one who is mindful of these simple acts of living by which I am manifest. there is no other identity for me, and thus there is no basis for the suffering I might cause to myself. I am a child of God; I am beloved. beyond this, I am content to be in the breath that God breathes into my being. I am content to be here in this very moment, as one who breathes

06.18.18

reflections from a meditation

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:03 pm by Administrator

I am in the breath. I am in the manner of breathing. it begins with turbulence; it is turbulent flow. there are so many muscles and ligaments and parts all the way down the respiratory tree, and they are full of conflict and passion. but as I breathe, in the awareness of breathing, the flow becomes laminar. the air does not cascade or tumble upon itself. it moves effortlessly, all the way through. there is transformation of the air, as its oxygen is emptied and as it takes on some of my material self, my carboniferous self. the air is changed, as I am changed, but in that change is no suffering. thus, the breathing is good, as my life is good. this is not a goodness that exists in relation to what may be thought of as evil. it is a simple good—a joy.

there is a point when the sensation of my fingers is so keen it is like a tingling or a vibration. it is keen but it is also increasingly removed. my mind can sense many things within and around me, but these things are simultaneously so distant from me. it is as if proximity itself is just an idea, and the place where I reside is deeply embedded within layers and layers of feeling and thought. when I am in the midst of many preoccupations, I feel proximity to many things, and in fact I cannot separate myself from what I feel connected to. but when I am in meditation, I feel the separation, to the extent that what was proximal becomes just as far from me as what I can view at a distance. connection—this is a special thing, an extraordinary thing. but it is also an idea, within which there is the potential for power, for misunderstanding, and for suffering.

the birds perceive the world their particular way, and it is ordinary to them. so too do the potato bugs find it ordinary, as they work their way through the particulate soil. both manners of existence are wonderful. I think upon it, that the potato bug will spend almost all of its life in one patch of soil, working through and feeling the earth directly upon its body, in the intimate experience of our earth. the birds will range across the world and will know air. I will walk upon the ground, and to feel the soil through my feet—to feel that groundedness, and the power that the earth imparts to my stride—is a pleasurable thing. I can think upon this very experience for hours, and it would not become any less wonderful.

there is an idea of being more than what I am, which was imparted to me and has become a preoccupation. I would regard this thing and know what it is for what it is. so too have I come to think of my children. my daughter is filled with delight. I hold the idea of her in my palm, so gently. she is like a sphere of light, and were I to close my fingers over her, her light would be hidden from my eyes. no, I hold her in my open palm, and I bear her up gently, because she is not mine, nor do I own her life. we are connected in some way, and I endeavor to understand that connection, not as power or as ownership but in the manner that renders no suffering. I think of jesus, alone in the mountains, holding up the world in his open palm and losing no one that was given to him, and I realize in that gesture the whole meaning of compassion

06.14.18

identity is the problem

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:56 pm by Administrator

on the way to work this morning, I engaged in a guided Buddhist meditation, and it altered me. it began with a mindfulness of my physical state; it guided me to an awareness of my mental state; and it pushed me ever so gently to an awareness of others and of things beyond my immediate experience. I became aware of air. I became aware of sounds, of movement, of the perception of birds. with this context established, when I came back into myself, I experienced presence in a way that I generally only feel when I am tipsy with alcohol and just on the verge of disinhibition. but there was a difference. the difference was that through the meditation, I was leading myself. I was not being led by anything or anyone. thus, it was not a serendipity or a gift; it was not a moment i stole from the relentless universe. it was simply the truth.

in my first meeting of the day, I told myself not to listen with my heart but to listen with my clear mind. what I experienced was strange, even unsettling. what I observed was many people talking, and sometimes there was a thread to be discerned, but mostly it was just words. I did not have an intuitive sense about how to connect those words, or how to react to those words. I felt a part of my brain, the seat of my soul, agitating to be engaged and pushing to make sense of the conversation. i felt this part of myself, but i did not integrate it, so it flickered and then faded, like an idea unable to spawn a memory. in this way, i listened to people without preconception and without a need to respond.

i felt many things. i felt irrelevant. i felt detached. i felt meaningless. there were moments when i felt confused, because my perceptions would not coalesce into an impression or a feeling. but i regarded these feelings as the observer; i did not identify with them. and as a result, they passed through me, like water through a vertical pipe, and there was no pooling of sentiment, only a movement that was clear and effortless.

at one point, i offered a response to a question. i felt many senses activating, and i felt emotion, though i had not summoned it, and though the content of my answer did not strike me as emotional. and that’s when i learned an important thing. among others, and particularly in public situations, i create emotion in order to connect with others and their ideas. in fact, in most any meeting context, i naturally summon and weave emotion in order to establish the context for my relevance, always with an eye to the words i will express that will register my identity and my importance. to express myself in public is invariably a performance for me, and because i require emotion to deliver that performance, my performance is inevitably emotional. this is the reason why i am always perceived as being passionate about what i say, when the fact is that much of the time my words have little purpose other than to state my presence.

my strategic mind sees the evident intersections between Buddhist practice and Christian theology. but there is in my thoughts also a distinct recognition that there is something inherent to my reading of the Christian worldview that triggers me in uncountable ways. it is the Christian fixation on identity. all sin arises from an error of identity. the path to redemption is in the correction of identity. the importance of relationship is derived from mutual identification. election and salvation are predicated upon conferred identity. identity itself is rooted in felt connection, at a deeply emotional and intellectual level. in fact, the Christian sense of identity is enormously complex and demanding, existing at many layers, each demanding nuance, interpretation, and practical application. the Christian obsession is identity. and it is all suddenly strange for me, because identity itself has become the problem. it seems so unnecessary.

perhaps if i could, i would ride the endlessly surging wave of emotionality to ceaseless and expansive connection with all living beings in the universe. that for me has been my sense of God consciousness, the heavenly experience. but when i allow myself to be emptied of self, this seems like a lot of work. and it seems like futile work. because in the end, i am not my emotions, and though i have used them for years to create connections with others, they have rendered me as a performer, not as an authentic man, and as such these intense feelings have caused me much suffering. it does seem much simpler to acknowledge that i need not manufacture this performance of emotions in order to be present. i can listen with my clear mind, and the heart which is my mind and which is my spirit and my whole integrated self can be realized in my thoughts for what they are—light, free of agency, and meant for hope, not for suffering

06.12.18

sunyata

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:44 pm by Administrator

yesterday, I struggled with Monday emptiness. I’ve described the experience before; it is just a taste of what I experienced on a daily basis at my last job ten years ago. it is a nuisance nowadays, but it was intolerable back then. i cannot identify its root cause, but i can describe my mental state in those moments with great specificity. it is a lack of forward momentum. it is a striking lack of emotional connection to my surroundings and my work. it is a state of purposelessness that makes me feel unrooted, vulnerable, and listless all at the same time. and it dissipates as i gradually reassume the roles and tasks inherent to my daily routines.

because it is a weekly and recurring state of being, i have labeled it my “Monday funk”. but lately I’ve felt a need to reframe that experience, because the intuitive side of me senses real meaning in it. perhaps it is not a deviation from what is normal. maybe it is a window, a fleeting insight, into the truth of what i am. and perhaps the truth of what i am is that i spend most of my week abiding in a manufactured sense of purpose, and the discipline forced upon me by my strandedness is a reflection on this strange life of self-manipulations. i cannot live a purposeless life—but this is only because i am addicted to an existence of relentless preoccupations.

i’ll go a step further and contend that what is wrong, if there is indeed something wrong, is not the experience of listlessness but rather the identity that i assume in response to it. after all, if the identity were resonatingly authentic, then i would not dissemble at the foot of every work week’s looming mountain. i think that the emptiness of what i perceive is the truth; and the psychological connection to my world that i reinvent week after week is the lie. this does not mean that the work that i engage in is inherently meaningless. no, what it implies is that the story that i tell myself about my work, my responsibility, and my life in general is insufficient. it is insufficient, and i know that intuitively, and so week after week i shed that foolishness and find myself terribly and truly naked, alone in the world.

it struck me this morning as i was sitting in a meeting that if my emptiness is truth, then perhaps it should not cause me the distress that it does. the distress, as i previously implied, is the result of an addiction—an addiction to a sense of emotional connection that enables me to give myself to others and devote myself to labor that is both demanding and against my grain. i would liken it to an addiction to caffeine or another performance-enhancing drug; the story that i tell myself is a deception of a kind, and as it suppresses my conscience, it permits me to abuse myself in innumerable ways. i overexert myself; i sleep poorly; i push myself to my limits; i see myself and others as things to be managed, persuaded, owned, and consumed.

one could argue that this is the direct result of the job i have taken, which is stressful, alienating, political, and inflicted with many ambiguities. but my listlessness was even worse in my previous job situation, which i found to be highly structured and unchallenging to the point of being boring. i would have to say that the high stress of my work actually caters very much to my capacity for self-deception; it fuels the emotionality that enables me to endow purpose and urgency to all the intrinsically empty things that i must manipulate to preconceived ends.

all of this is context for a revelation that also came to me during the meeting i was sitting in. (and by the way, i was engaged throughout the meeting and learned quite a bit during the presentation; i have this strange and keen ability to simultaneously perceive outwardly and inwardly with high intensity and focus.) i am uncomfortable with this experience of purposelessness because i have been trained my whole life to derive purpose from what i am and what i do. purpose—prescribed, articulated, and socially congruent purpose—has become prerequisite to my satisfaction and fulfillment as a human being. this might seem very basic, but in fact it’s a construct. I’ve never been content to be simply material, in a state of coexistence with others. I’ve had to be a builder, a synthesizer, a learner, a master. I’ve been trained my whole life to manipulate others and myself, and i would have been more than content to continue on this trajectory if my basic design—what i might describe as my spirit—were not so actively opposed to these manipulations.

religion is part of the problem. and when i blame my religion, i am not blaming the deity who defies definition and convention, the God that i credit for my path and its many turnings. i blame the collective intellectual effort of the church to ascribe meanings to things that intrinsically resist meaning. i blame a bible that put the first man adam to work naming all the creatures of the world. why were these creatures named if not to be manipulated? adam named them in order to have dominion over them. this is senseless. in fact, adam sensed the intrinsic emptiness of all living things, and the idea that he had intrinsic purpose in spite of this became his suffering, and this is why he required a like-minded companion to be formed from his rib, that he might not suffer alone.

the bible of the Christian religion is filled with prescriptions, laws, and rituals designed to structure and contain an existence that would otherwise collapse upon frank and truthful self-perception. moreover, the biblical narrative is filled with emotion. how can a story of a God delivering His only son unto sacrificial death not engender emotion? there is so much intense emotion inherent to the scriptural story and demanded of its subjects that truly a Christian discipline of abiding in the absence of strong feeling is virtually impossible. there is no precedent in biblical teaching for the recognition of emptiness. there is no room in the Christian life for existence without an imposed narrative. there is no worship of God that does not require the manipulation of self—a moral self-assessment, a categorical identification, a fixing of positionality. the Christian tradition is all about the manufacturing of an emotional connection to a man-like deity who imposes moral structure upon an entropic universe; to abide in emptiness is to reject faith.

to arrive at this conclusion is at once saddening and enlightening. it is saddening because it suggests that i have gone as far as i can go with the paradigm of religion that i inherited from my society. but it is enlightening as well because it suggests that my spirituality is genuinely extant, thus implying the transcendence of human existence and the possibility of God. it makes me wonder if God—the Lord Jesus as i would have it—is opening a door for me into new explorations. Buddhism for example is a religious tradition that defines a place for emptiness (sunyata), that state of being in which stories and feelings are not necessary to experiencing the truth of self and others.

i do so dread the experience of emptiness, but i think i must recognize that what i fear is not emptiness but my emotional reaction (or lack thereof) to it. my mind wishes to reject it, to obscure it with purpose, to escape it with familiar preoccupations and designs. but my spirit turns back and faces it, like Ged to his shadow, and she tells me she will not run from this thing. and that is when i sense a truth among many truths: that time does not exist to be filled, that the future is not a story of my own making, and that the suffering of my moments is the consequence of my lies. true worship is not the creation of my immortal self but rather the submission of what i am to the simplicity of the moment before me. i don’t want to reclaim my life; i just want to understand what it is

06.11.18

dinner

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:28 pm by Administrator

one of the hard things about losing bourdain is the implication of his suicide: that his last meal was not enough to create an anticipation of the next.

I connect with my soul through the body. sometimes, when everything is just right, my body relinquishes its hold on the past, and its other hand lets go of the future, and I spin in a lazy circle beneath the stars and feel it—not weightlessness but a being beneath me, holding me up as it effects its slow pirouette with silent affection.

I used to feel it after a glass or two of wine. but now I cannot feel it even with the right company, the perfect food, and an abundance of spirits. it’s like studying beauty without the sensation of desire. it’s as if aging has bonded my fingers to my burdens, my feet to the earth, my eyes to my sorrows.

I mourn you, Anthony bourdain, because your life was the best of our lives, and your death was the end of all ends. for a moment, she lowered her hand from the small of your back, and you dropped from the heights, and because you did not want to grab hold of just anything, you held onto nothing, and so you fell all the way through

06.07.18

my role, my message

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:59 pm by Administrator

at work, I’ve had some time recently to dive into my strengths finders results, which have somewhat changed since the last time I took the assessment six years ago. my top five (strategic, context, relator, individualization, and empathy) fall into the strategic and relationships areas, which makes a lot of sense to me now. in essence, I’m a cerebral guy with above-average relational skills; and my gift is translating patterns into insights that connect my audience to both purpose and feeling. I’m a natural coach; I’m an inspiring speaker; I can be a good teacher.

i’ve always known that I’m uninterested in the details of execution, but more recently I’ve come to recognize that I’m not as naturally influential as I once believed myself to be. the problem with being so strongly philosophical is that my natural self-involvement comes across to others as impenetrable rumination. I can connect deeply and strikingly with my audience without being able to move them toward mutual commitment; and in fact, this is very much characteristic of my style. my focus on individualization is often so extreme that I unconsciously tend to steer my audience away from a sense of collective purpose or shared goals. the WIIFM (”what’s in it for me”) is my obsession; the need for conformity, adaptation, and standardization is something that I tend to mitigate or even dismiss, in a variety of unintended ways.

it is for this reason that I have been criticized for being unable to hold others accountable. moreover, I’ve been encouraged to restrain my emotionality and to focus on being more practical and directive in my leadership interactions. in retrospect, I think that my natural emotionality has not been the problem; when properly leveraged, it enhances my ability to influence others. the more important factor is that I struggle to both command and to woo my audience in a manner that drives loyalty and action. this is my principal shortcoming as a leader, and it is part and parcel of my general inclination to take exception and to seek exceptionality.

I can choose to be a better-rounded leader, but then the commitment I must make is a simple one. I must commit myself to being a vessel for the collective good. I must believe that my role is not simply to demonstrate authenticity but also to drive change that advances a specific agenda. I’m more ideas-oriented than people-oriented, though I’m often misinterpreted in this regard. to be an influencer, I must have an agenda for each and every relationship of importance. because this does not come naturally to me, I do not develop people; I don’t naturally push them to go against their grain; I don’t instinctively work toward organizational alignment and integration. at some point, if I am to become a more effective leader, I must contend with my inherent and deeply felt belief that community and teamwork are secondary in importance to authentic individual self-expression. this may end up being a predominant theme over the remainder of my work life.

all of this is important context for my message, which is evolving in fascinating ways. I’ve scripted a talk that captures some of the important themes of this message, and it goes something like this:

———————————-

I’ve spent most of my life in the church feeling ambivalent toward the apostle Paul. I’ve often found him to be overly assertive, preachy, self-involved, judgmental, and picky. his teachings about the role of women, the attitude of slaves, and the morality of sexuality have struck me as mostly irrelevant and not infrequently offensive. I’ve met many people in the church that remind me of Paul—structured, detail-oriented, highly critical, and meddling enneagram 1s—and I don’t like them. I find them intensely annoying, overly fixated on proper scriptural interpretation, and generally bad for the church.

now, I say all these things as an individualistic and nonconforming enneagram 4 who has been repeatedly challenged to prove his worth within the church through intellectual debate and contextual knowledge. I’m a highly intelligent and insightful person, but I’m not scholarly, I don’t like to read theological texts, and I’ve never had any interest in learning the Latin and Greek etymologies of scriptural terms, so pardon me for not enjoying these abstruse exchanges about the enduring greatness of brother Paul’s many opinions. i’ll grant that my main objection to Paul is an aesthetic one; more than any particular judgment or sensibility, it’s his didactic approach to the Gospel that has rankled me to the core. There are times when I have really wished that some of his letters hadn’t survived to be incorporated into the canon.

but as I’ve matured in my outlook, I’ve come to recognize that there is also worth in Paul’s ideas, and moreover I’ve come to recognize that perhaps we have held Paul to quite an unfair standard. it is preposterous to presume that Paul intended for his letters to reach an audience two thousand years in the future; the man didn’t even think that the present world would survive him by more than a century. I think it’s more than fair to suggest that Paul did not seek to elaborate a moral code that would have enduring relevance across all time. on account of this, I’ve learned to forgive Paul for the ways in which he has unintentionally inconvenienced us—and I’ve learned to demonstrate some grace toward church leaders of the present time who’ve continued to elevate Paul to unreasonably transcendent heights.

the beauty of Paul’s revelation, I believe, lies in his utter commitment to one idea: the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s new covenant. this was the thrust of Paul’s theology; it was what mattered most to him. he was nothing if not a lion for the Gentiles, and the book of Romans demonstrates from start to finish his intention to prove and to sustain the importance of this expanded covenant. seen in this light, Paul’s ideas about atonement and depravity might have less to do with a soteriological preoccupation; atonement and depravity were so critical for Paul to emphasize because, among other reasons, they were essential to understanding and actively supporting the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church.

we must understand that to the Jews of Paul’s time, the messianic purpose was justice. justice for Israel, to the humiliation and destruction of her many enemies. justice for the Jews, to the judgment and even death of her oppressors. perhaps in the context of the Roman empire, Israel was a small and broken nation, but to those who embraced the Jewish religion, the Jews and their religious leadership were the privileged few, and all else were distinctly on the margin. for Christ to come and to demonstrate his messianic calling by allowing himself to be bodily murdered by the Roman oppressor was beyond folly; it was insulting to the whole Jewish nation.

the challenge for Paul, once he recognized the heart of Christ for the Gentiles, was to prove that Christ’s death was not simply a prelude to His resurrection but also necessary for establishing the basis of a new covenant people—one defined not by history, culture, and law but rather by forgiveness and grace. by loving His enemies and dying by their hands, Christ demonstrated the spirit that He expected Jews of the covenant to demonstrate toward their most bitter enemies. moreover, in the declaration of His self-sacrifice, Christ also made it clear that the inclusion of the Gentiles would not be defined at the discretion of the Jews; it would be mandated by God Himself and validated by His blood, by which all believers would be made worthy.

depravity, in this context, is both subservient to the meaning of atonement but also uniquely important in emphasizing Christ’s purpose in disrupting privilege. by repeatedly asserting the universal human need for forgiveness and grace, Paul was specifically attacking a core tenet of the Jewish elite within the new church—the importance they gained from being heirs of and followers of the Law. throughout the epistles, Paul reserved his most passionate ire for the Judaisiers, the camp of Jews who attempted to maintain their position of privilege in the church by requiring Gentile submission to the Law. Paul’s unique interpretation of the importance of the Law—that it existed to illuminate depravity rather than to justify its follower—distinctly undermined the significance of the Jew within the context of the new covenant, turning assumed privilege on its head and forcing the Jew into a position of humility. the doctrine of human depravity, in other words, was intended to address those with privilege, in order to establish meaningful equality within the newly forming and delicately balanced church.

in the present times, we must be sensitive about how we apply the doctrinal concept of depravity within the church context. it is theologically untenable, I believe, to force the marginalized and oppressed to first embrace a lowness of positionality as prerequisite to covenantal belonging in the church; and Paul did not do this to his Gentile brothers and sisters. the psychology of depravity is Paul’s gift to the privileged—those who consider themselves the insiders, those who navigate society with ease and bear the responsibility of actively including those on the margin. Paul himself demonstrated a particular application of doctrinal depravity, by naming himself in spite of his Pharisaic credentials as the least of all God’s people and the worst of all sinners. to lord over those who are already persecuted goes against the grain of Paul’s core teaching. for the apostle Paul, atonement was to make worthy those who were without dignity; and depravity was to humble those who would otherwise exercise their privilege to undermine God’s covenant of grace.

the present-day debates and discussions about systematic injustice in society are bleeding into the church discourse in America. some church leaders are boldly taking on the issue and actively advocating for those at a disadvantage—undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ people, and persons of color. other church leaders are engaging in what I’ve previously called “the evasion conversation”—a deconstructive stance that aims to minimize or compartmentalize the broader social conversation on these issues. I’ve called that an irresponsible stance, but my beliefs have evolved to the point now that I would declare that an untenable stance as well. in other words, you cannot be a believer in the Pauline doctrine of Christ the atoning sacrifice if you are not also committed to naming social privilege and actively dismantling it. to those who enjoy this privilege, doctrinal depravity is Paul’s gift to them in their journey to transcend this barrier to sanctification; and Christ commands us to embrace this diction and indeed this self-understanding when we speak as man to a woman, as straight to gay, as white to a person of color, as citizen to the alien among us.

it is tough for our white brothers and sisters in the church. some of them don’t recognize that they enjoy privilege derived from America’s long history of systematic oppression along racial lines. some of them understand it in theory but do not feel personally responsible for addressing or reversing it. still others have a felt necessity for being part of the “solution” but cannot fathom how this is possible. and others are actively involved in the work of racial reconciliation; they find meaningful ways to name their privilege and to lay it down in the service of the Pauline vision of redemptive inclusion. I’ve seen more than a few white brothers and sisters do this magnificently well, and they have in turn taught me how to address and to lay down my privilege in ways that I would not have understood otherwise.

in these particular days and times, I believe that we’re called to live out faith boldly by naming and laying down privilege in all forms, and we need the white brothers and sisters in particular to do this consistently and effectively. they haven’t been taught how to do this, and it’s not an easy or straightforward thing. people of color in the church have to give them space to do it, and they must invite their white brothers and sisters to do it. but ultimately, privileged whites have to take personal responsibility for stepping forward and making it happen. too often, the conversation on race is initiated by people of color and revolves around issues specific to their needs. the fact of the matter is that the message of Paul’s gospel to white people in America is pretty clear: the conversation on race is about you, and the rest of us are waiting for y’all to start making some real progress in your mindset, your attitude, and your relationship with God.

no, the message of Paul to the present-day church isn’t all about white people and their privilege. his words are powerful and relevant for those of us who are wounded and seeking to be made whole; to them, Paul’s doctrine is one of great hope, because the sacrifice of Christ has made them holy. to women, his words are liberating, because they remind us that a woman’s worth is not determined by her marriage or her children. to people who are poor, Paul’s teachings remind us that our fate is wealth—true wealth that satisfies and fulfills identity. but my message is not to all these folks; my message is to the white people, because I’ve shared in their privilege even as I have been dragged down by the yoke of their preoccupations. there is freedom in the Gospel even for them, but they must seek it at the cost of their lives. to God, there is no white or black, but to us, the unreconciled, there is nothing but the burden of our colors, and to lay down that burden is lifetime upon lifetime of work, for generations

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