This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, February 8, 2016

If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.

Above the gateway of an Orthodox Christian monastery on Mt. Athos is inscribed the epigram: “If You Die Before You Die Then You Won’t Die When You Die.”  Here we find a basic confession of the spiritual life.  It needs a bit of unpacking because taken literally the sentence makes no sense.  It is more like a koan, designed to short-circuit our ordinary mind and drive it to a different way of understanding.  
Moving to a different way of understanding is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia, which we translate, somewhat inadequately,  as “repentance.”  Metanoia literally means having a new mind or coming to a different way of thinking.  This little slogan is designed to force us to think differently.  It nudges us along towards some other kind of mind.
The mind we are encouraged to grow into is one in which words are taken less literally, and more symbolically and metaphorically.  Indeed, the movement out of the literal interpretation and towards a broader and deeper way of seeing, is what the motto is trying to inspire.  This growth enables us to perceive deeper truth than what can be described merely literally.
First, I want to look at how the saying uses the word “you.”  We see that the word “you” means three different things.  The “you” of “if you die” refers to the ego-centric, personality-driven, “fallen” self, what Paul calls the “flesh” (probably because it is so bound to our physical senses and reasoning), or the “old self.”  This “you” is the normal, superficial, ordinary self of our everyday experience.  It doesn’t know it, but this self is blind, lame, limited, deaf, and all but dead, conditioned and controlled by the structures of time, materiality, personality, habit, and social convention.  Most humans live their entire lives unaware that there is any self other than this ego-self. 
The second “you,” of “before you die,” refers to our physical organism, the biological entity that is our material-temporal body.  Together with the ego-self, this is the “you” that most of us understand to be who we are.  The “you” at the end of the saying once again refers us back to our physical bodies: “when you die.”
The saying also has a third “you.”  This appears in the beginning of the second half: “then you won’t die.”  Here, “you” refers to a deeper, higher, broader, more inclusive, universal, and integrated Self, of which we are normally largely unaware.  The first stage of spiritual awakening is always the dawning awareness, or at least the suspicion, that we have this other Self.  This other “you” is our essence-Self.  The apostle Paul refers to it in Galatians as “Christ living in me.”
The grammar of the sentence does not make sense unless we postulate this third “you” beyond the normal way we think of ourselves.  Even if we do wrap our heads around the idea that there is a part of us that can “die” before our physical bodies perish, that there remains a “you” that will not ever die is unintelligible unless we imagine yet a third way of talking about the self, one that is not limited to what we normally think.  After the first half of the sentence, both earlier “yous,” the ego-self and the physical body, are said to have died.  So we are given a choice of dismissing the sentence as nonsense, or entertaining the possibility of yet another “you,” another Self, within us. 
Looking at that monastic motto, then, we see that it means: 

If you die —   If your ego-self dies 
Before you die — prior to the death of your physical body,
Then you won’t die — then your essence-Self will not die
When you die.  — when your physical body dies.

Briefly put, then: we must let go of our ego-self so that our essence-Self will emerge and remain.  If our ego-self dies, our essence-Self will never die.
Of course, the darker side of this is that if our ego-self doesn’t die, and we remain identified with it, we never become conscious of our essence-Self at all.  In other words, if we don’t die before we die, then we just… die.  

In order to live forever, then, it is necessary to identify with something deeper and more real within us, which means acquiring a broader and higher perspective than that provided by our small, limited, conditioned ego-self.  And the only way to discover this and verify it is to allow your ego-self to die, which is the process called repentance, or metanoia. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jesus Is Lord!

The affirmation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is perhaps the oldest of Christian confessions.  

To the original users and hearers of the phrase, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord has a very specific, pointed, and weighty meaning.  It asserts that 

a Palestinian Jew 
who had been crucified by the Romans for sedition 
is not only still alive 
but is God.  

It says to Rome, “You killed Jesus, but he didn’t stay dead; now he is coming to destroy you, thank God.”  
In other words, this confession is an only slightly veiled way to thumb one’s nose at Rome.  For to dedicate yourself to following a person whom Rome executed says that Rome’s  violence didn’t work and doesn’t scare you like it’s supposed to.  Indeed, it enthusiastically asserts that Rome is doomed.  

Furthermore, the proclamation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is a deliberate and intentional twisting of a common propaganda slogan of the Empire: “Caesar Is Lord!”  Anyone hearing someone say, “Jesus Is Lord!” immediately understood it to also mean, “and Caesar isn’t!”  To say that “Jesus Is Lord!” is to participate in the sedition for which Jesus himself was executed.  It is an essentially subversive, revolutionary, insurgent, and radical statement, and Rome took it to be so.  

To join in this new movement centered on Jesus is an explicit act of resistance to empire.
In addition, since “Lord” is the name for God in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, “Jesus Is Lord!” is also a theological proclamation.  When Caesar claimed to be “Lord” it was not just as supreme leader of the Roman Empire, but a claim to be a god.  “Jesus Is Lord!” means that not only is Jesus now alive, but he is also in some sense identical with the one Jewish God who created heaven and earth, and therefore far more powerful than Caesar could ever dream of being.
The God of the Jews is the One who liberates a band of Israelite slaves from Egypt, delivers the defeated Jews from exile in Babylon, and is always siding with the rejected, the defeated, the broken, and the lost.  

This God is thus a threat to all empires and entrenched human powers.  

First century people who assert that “Jesus Is Lord!” are basically saying that what this God did to Egypt and Babylon is about to happen to Rome.
The entire ministry of Jesus has to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which is God’s reign of peace and justice.  It involves a wall-to-wall reversal of social orders: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor are blessed, the possessed are freed,  the hungry are fed, the rich and powerful are sent away empty-handed, and even the dead are raised.  Jesus rejects secular power, fame, and wealth when the devil offers it to him.  He empties himself in identification with the broken, even to the point of dying on a cross, which was even itself cursed!
His new community thus rejects earthly power, fame, wealth, and privilege, and gathers in oneness and equality, all qualitative differences having been wiped away.  Paul talks about the members of the church having different gifts; but all the gifts are of equal value.  It is the empire that imposes social strata, in-groups and out-groups, superiors and subordinates, and divides people by race, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, education, class, religion, and philosophy.  This radical leveling is the basis for and expression of the love God has for the world.  

Thus the followers of Jesus’ Way are known by the divine love they share for one another and for all.
So: “Jesus Is Lord!” does not identify Jesus with the lords who manage this world by violence for their own profit.  Jesus is not a lord like the foolish and pathetic lords who wield power in our own lives, the owners and bosses and executives and leaders and investors and generals and presidents and chair-persons and trustees and judges and representatives and managers and so forth.  Just the opposite is the case.  His Lordship, because it is the Lordship of the One the world’s leaders crucified because of his resistance to them, and yet who is risen to reign, is an absolute contradiction of the lordship they maintain by lies, fear, and violence.  

Jesus’ Lordship is an indictment and condemnation of all human lords.

So let’s remember what we are saying when we say “Jesus Is Lord!” even today.  We are saying that we will follow and obey Jesus Christ alone.  We are saying that the system of domination and privilege, in which the wealth and power of a few is preserved and extended over everyone else, is evil, false, and doomed.  And that in anticipation of the inevitable Day when truth and goodness finally triumph, we choose to gather with others in communities of peace, shaping our lives by the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and his commandments. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016


This piece is mainly about the third chapter of the Foundations section of the Presbyterian Book of Order (F-3).  This chapter presents the basic principles of Presbyterian polity, virtually intact from the late 18th century.  I relate it to the new first chapter (F-1), which is a call to move out as people sent by God in mission to the world.  F-3 is about how we organize ourselves, supposedly to do this.  I am reflecting on the tension and discontinuity between these two sections, and what we might do about it.

The heart of Presbyterian polity is the third chapter of the Foundations section of the Book of Order, what I am calling F-3.  Carl Wilton rightly and brilliantly bases his new book on demonstrating the way the principles in F-3 support and connect everything else in our polity.  F-3 expresses the heart and soul of American Presbyterianism.
And F-3 is magnificent.  In it we find principles that not only would we not want to lose, but which we may confidently carry into every ecumenical conversation as an example of what our branch of Christianity does well.
The basic and underlying genius of F-3 is the insight that power in the church has to be diffused and distributed, wielded only by gathered groups and never allowed to congeal in individuals.  We are allergic to concentrations of power, a sense that is a direct consequence of our sensitivity towards, and rejection of, idolatry.  Only Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.
F-3 emerges out of the struggles and values of the 18th century and the American colonial experience.  This is its great strength, for it identifies with all who languish under persecution and the yoke of colonialism, and boldly proclaims the independence of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his people from all oppressive regimes.
But at the same time this context is its greatest weakness.  For the framers of F-3 were strangely both colonized in their relationship to Great Britain, and colonists in their relationship to the indigenous peoples and landscapes of the continent.  They were exploited, but also conquerors thoroughly permeated by the values of mercantilism, imperialism, and Christendom.  So while they did not want interference from the extractive superpower across the ocean, the framers of Presbyterian polity also did not identify with, felt no responsibility for, either the Native populations they were aggressively displacing (not to mention murdering wholesale) or the enslaved Africans they were importing and forcing to lives of degradation and hard labor.
So while F-3 expresses the genius of limiting power over and within the church, it remains largely blind to any missional concern for those outside of it.  This is a structural reality that has kept the Presbyterian church stuck in a modernist framework and mainly Anglo-Saxon in makeup.  F-3 has been mis-used to lock us into this status quo.  
Not only that, but we have spent a lot of time and energy undermining even the beneficial aspects of F-3, by finding ways to circumvent its restrictions on the accumulation of power by a few.  This happened when we started importing bureaucratic corporate categories like trustees, executives, and heads-of-staff into our polity.  A search of the Book of Order (to say nothing of the Book of Confessions or the Bible) has scant mention of the phenomenon of the paid “staff.”  It’s buried deep in chapter G-3, almost as a grudging concession.  But because it is so vague it has been exploited as a huge gap through which has been driven a truckload of corruption basically saddling the church with exactly the leadership structure F-3 vociferously militates against, with power lodged with a handful of bureaucrats and well-compensated pastors of large churches, not to mention wealthy donors.
One of the weaknesses of F-3 is that it talks a lot about power, and not at all about wealth.  This massive blind-spot reflects the status of the people who framed the basic principles of Presbyterianism as mainly middle-class merchants, bankers, and professionals.  They did not want “government,” in their case the King, meddling in their economic affairs.  Thus they developed a polity correctly resistant to State power, but completely unconscious of the economic power wielded by individuals and private institutions.  Were we to have read F-3 with a sensitivity towards money, perhaps we would not have ended up with a system in which, in practice, cash has way more authority than God.  A circumstance explicitly rejected by Jesus, who is supposedly the Head of the Church (Matthew 6:24).
My point is that we have undermined the heart of F-3 by finding several ways to centralize power, while at the same time allowing F-3’s liabilities to thrive as tools to maintain the ethnic and procedural status quo. 
The 2011 Form of Government takes a significant step in balancing and framing the liabilities of F-3 by placing it in the context of the robust missional affirmation of the new beginning to the Foundations section of the Book of Order, F-1.  This is really important and thoroughly underestimated.  What we need now is a way to infuse the corrective insights of F-1 into F-3 and the rest of the polity. 
The flexible, permission-giving character of the 2011 Form of Government is a great improvement over the 1983 polity, which was habitually used in a regulatory and legalistic manner.  But several unhelpful approaches to this are now congealing.  In the first place, we see the view that flexibility is now somehow mandatory, and that councils should be restricted from restricting just about anyone doing anything.  This violates the spirit of F-1 which at least grounds the church in the mission of God, which has specific content and direction.  Such a view sends us into the chaotic neverland of “each doing what is right in their own eyes,” (a situation frowned upon in Judges 21:25 and Jeremiah 18:12).  Secondly, there is the fact that many presbyteries used their new flexibility simply to codify locally the standards and practices of the 1983 polity.  Often this is introduced as a provisional and stopgap measure… which then persists year after year.  This approach then has a tendency to bleed into a third response to the 2011 Form of Government: the use of “flexibility” to entrench the power and advance the agendas of in-groups and leaders.  (This is exactly why a group like ACSWP opposed the new Form of Government in the first place.)  
What is not happening in any coherent and systematic way is the infusion into our whole system of the insights and affirmations of F-1.  Is the reason for this the fact  that we left F-3 basically intact, right down to the barely intelligible 18th century language of most of it?
If not a major rewrite, I suggest that we need to intentionally reinterpret F-3.  In this we would (a) lift up and preserve its shining insights about decentralizing, diffusing, and distributing power; (b) give it more teeth by explicitly addressing economic and bureaucratic power; (c) clarify the missional context by talking about how our principles of polity are not intended to close the church off from the world, especially the broken and disenfranchised, but showing us how best to gather in order to be sent out with the good news of God’s love.