Monday, January 25, 2016

Are You a “None”?

A growing number of young people (under thirty, also called the Millennials) do not identify themselves with any major religion.  They are “religiously unaffiliated.”  Hence they are being called the “Nones” because in surveys, when asked about their religious affiliation, they check the “NONE” or “None of the Above” category.  (See articles on this topic by the Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life.)

Many of them are not necessarily atheists or agnostics; they’re more like what I would call “Spiritual Independents”?  They don’t disbelieve in God as such, but they reject institutionalized religion.  For one, they have no need for organized religion acting as a gatekeeper to God, believing they have just as much right of access to God (through prayer, for example) as those who belong to a religious institution.  More to the point, they especially dislike institutionalized religions apparent over emphasis on money, power, and politics, not to mention rules.  So, they identify themselves as being “spiritual” but NOT “religious.”

As an acting member and pastoral leader within an organized religious institution (The Mennonite Church, USA), I understand the distaste for organized religion and its apparent over emphasis on rules and regulations, money, power, and politics.  But my challenge to the independent “NONES” respecting spirituality is that, try as you like, you shall never overcome “organizing” and/or “institutionalization” of some sort when it comes to expressing or engaging with one’s spirituality.   Here’s why.

Spirituality is communal by nature.  Humans are essentially social creatures.  No one can effectively embrace a faith or exercise an idea of spirituality as a “Lone Ranger.”  It just doesn’t work that way.  All individuals eventually share their “faith/spirituality” with others.  And, as soon as one or two get together to share spiritual thoughts, ideas, and experiences it becomes de facto a form of “organized religion” and moves toward “institutionalization.”  This would also be true with respect to politics, by the way.

Being “spiritual” or admitting to being a “spiritual person” is in effect also admitting to being “religious.”  That is, to embrace “Spirituality” is to embrace the numinous; it is to embrace and believe in the Supernatural and all that that entails in terms of the Mystery of Life, such as the mystery of Divinity or Divine Essence, or Divine Being, for example; that which is Holy, ethereal, and/or completely OTHER.  And that is what “religion” is all about.  In other words, one’s belief and practices about one’s “spirituality” will have form and substance and defining boundaries.  Thus, it is indeed a religious act to believe in and express spiritual-ness or spirituality.

It seems to me that the real sticking point is religious authority.  Who has the right to determine, define or confine, prescribe or proscribe your spiritual activity, expression, values, beliefs, and practices?  Perhaps the most authentic answer that a “NONE” can give is: “I do.  I myself will determine my own spirituality and define god on my own terms, and decide how I shall then worship this god of mine in my own way.”  Question: if that is the actual case, how do you get beyond your SELF?  In effect your god is no greater than you are, and is therefore no real god at all.  That’s a real problem when it comes to authentic spirituality.

If spirituality were merely a process, an exercise in human ingenuity or skill, no different than let’s say developing a skill such as singing or dancing or some other artistic expression within the human psyche or spirit, well, then it is quite fitting to create one’s own pathway in developing one’s own spirituality.  And I dare say many indeed think that that is all that true spirituality really is.  But is it?

If there is a God out there that is OTHER, qualitatively distinct and different from humanity, a Living Being that is self-aware, with knowledge and volition, and purpose or intent and self-will, then developing one’s own personal skill in spiritual expression falls short.  Question: How does one appropriately prepare to “meet” or “connect” with a God like that?  And who’s to say?  It would seem obvious that only God could say—that is, only God could provide the road map as to how to appropriately connect with God.

Throughout history, there have been quality human beings who have lived here on earth and have pointed the way by sharing their own lived experience: “Look see, this is what I have done, this is what I have learned, how I have come to “taste” a bit of the Celestial realm, the glory of the heavens; do as I do and you too can have a taste of it.”  Jesus, on the other hand, said “I AM,” taste me.  (See John 6:35ff and 8:23-58.)

Yes, of course, it is obvious that major religions clash.  And it is difficult if not seemingly impossible to determine which religion is TRUE, if any.  For, all religions claim, “We are the True Faith!”  At the same time, there is nothing new under the sun.  This generation has not and will not suddenly come up with a whole new religion or form of spirituality that no human has ever practiced before on the face of this earth.  Nevertheless, in the end, all religions agree that only God will have the final word on that score.  God determines how humans will come to know God.  Jesus pretty much claims such knowledge, power, and authority.  So, if you are a NONE, I challenge you to study Jesus; He may just be the enlightenment that you are looking for, or may want to experience.

Monday, January 18, 2016

For Whom Would Jesus Vote?

So, if Jesus were an American citizen (as he was a citizen of Israel during his earthly lifetime), who do you think he would vote for?  What party do you think he’d belong to?  Well, given what he said about Himself and His Kingdom, he wouldn’t belong to any party and wouldn’t vote for any candidate.  Why not?

First of all, let us not forget that there were in fact competing religious/political parties within Israel during Jesus’ earthly lifetime.  There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, to name the top four, for example.  Each of these groups represented a distinctive social, religious, and political vision for Israel and competed for social-political power in their own way, while under Roman occupied rule.  (Indeed, the same dynamic exists in Israel today—competing religious, social-political parties that have distinctively different ideas as to the future direction of present day Israel.)

Which group did Jesus identify with?  None!  Jesus simply said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  (See John 18:36.)  As far as Jesus was concerned, His place, power, and position was superior to all worldly governments, political systems, and religious orders, both within Israel as well as outside of Israel, including that of Rome.  This is why he was denounced as a rebel and a threat to Rome and why Rome sanctioned his execution on the cross.  Jesus simply presumed authority over all, while also claiming that His Kingdom was not of this world.

But it seems that many American Christians have overlooked or have forgotten this truth.  Jesus (and by extension, God) is NOT an American.  Christ’s Kingdom is separate and qualitatively different from any earthly kingdom or nation on this earth.   The Kingdom values, truths, principles, and practices of Christ, stand over and above all earthly nations, dynasties, governments, and political systems.  And the Body of Christ, the church, is to represent and bear witness to the superior rule of Christ within one’s heart, mind, soul, attitude, and spirit.  Hence, the Body of Christ (The Church), and the Kingdom of Christ, is not to be confused with American patriotism, nationalism, or the American Way.  Indeed the “American way” is a far cry from “The Way of Christ.”

The Apostle Paul may serve as an example for Christians.  (Important Note: in the ancient world of Paul’s day, Roman citizenship was as prized and sought after, as American citizenship is prized and sought after today.) Yes, Paul was a Roman citizen; but he only claimed Roman citizenship as an advantage for serving his primary purpose, which was the spreading of the Good News of the Gospel.  (For example, see Acts 22:25-29.)  The Apostle Paul essentially devalued his Roman citizenship as subservient to the greater value of his service to the Kingdom of God in Christ.  That is, Roman citizenship for Paul was of little importance compared to his citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom (Colossians 1:13).  In effect, the Apostle Paul was not a Roman first, and then a Jew who also happened to be a Christian.  Rather, he was first and foremost a Jewish Christian—a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, along with what all that entails—who also happened to be a Roman citizen.

It seems that we American Christians have turned this upside down.  Our American Christian witness to the world seems to be saying this: We are first and foremost Americans!  We are Americans who happen to be Christians.  Hence, we are more concerned about America’s strength, power, and mastery over the world than we are about the Lordship of Christ.  We are more concerned about America’s wealth, riches, and resources than we are about spreading the Good News of Christ’s coming Kingdom rule with justice and righteousness.  And we are more concerned about American success, safety, and security than we are about spreading the hope of salvation in Christ around the world in contrast to the evils of war and hatred. 

In that sense, in terms of spirit, attitude, and purpose, how are extreme right wing Christian Americans any different than adherents and perpetrators to extreme radical Islam who want to see an Islamic State become master of the world?  Both extremes are driven by religious ideology, national pride, and a desire to maintain and sustain an earthly dominion of power and control and wealth in the name of their god.  In reality, neither of these groups give real thought or loyalty to the teachings and practices of Christ, ignoring the fact that Jesus’ very claim to BE Christ is a claim to be God’s ONLY truly Anointed One of God—that is, the One person God has chosen and ordained to be THE Ruler over all Humanity!

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Being Healthy for 2016

Fitness gyms are especially popular at this time of year, most notably because of New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and/or get physically fit.  And that’s a good thing.  Good health translates into good living.  That is, it is hard to live well if one is ill.  Just note how miserable everything becomes because of a simple toothache.

But good health is more than a sound body.  We need mental, emotional, relational, and spiritual good health as well.  Our whole being needs healing and wholeness.  Yet how often do we overlook holistic personal health needs?  How often do we tend to focus on the body, for example, while avoiding the possibly more painful aspect of giving attention to our mental or emotional ills?

Constant  break-ups, persistent lying and/or cheating, addictive and/or co-dependency behavior, explosive outbursts of anger over trivial matters, mean-spiritedness, unresolved resentment and/or hatred, bitterness, loneliness, shame, unhealed hurts and grievances, all these and more are signs of ill-health—mental, emotional, spiritual.  Indeed these may be the reasons for also having persistent physical ailments as well.

Mental health is as critically important as physical health.  So, for example, there should be no shame in going to see a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist anymore than seeing a medical doctor or hiring a fitness manager.

You’ve heard the saying, “Hurt people, hurt people”?  It means that if you have been deeply and emotionally hurt by someone and that hurt has not been addressed, healed, or taken-care of properly, you are bound to turn around and hurt someone else as much as you yourself have been hurt—someone that really does not deserve it, as you most likely did not deserve to be hurt by the one who hurt you.

We need to address our deepest hurts in order to be healthy people.  It does not work to pretend that they’re not there.  Thinking that time will take care of these hurts by sweeping them under the rug or ignoring them is misguided.  Their effects do not go away and they tend to surface here and there in most inappropriate ways, if not adequately and properly addressed.

The inability to sustain and maintain long-term healthy relationships with friends and/or family is also a sign that there is something internally wrong.  Constantly blaming others for one’s own problems and/or running from and denying the problem are also signs of the need for addressing mental/emotional health issues.  The next relationship that goes sour, instead of immediately cutting off and blaming the other, ask yourself, what is it about me that contributed to this break-up?  What do I need to change within me as to how I relate to others?

In short, as in physical health so in mental/emotional health, we need to take ownership, accept and admit that there is a problem and be willing to address it, acknowledging that we are responsible for ourselves not others—only we can fix our own problem.  That is, we must not expect others to fix problems that arise from our own bad choices.  I am responsible for me.  You are responsible for you.

Likewise, we must not take on someone else’s problem(s) as if it is our own.  It is not.  We must avoid playing the Messiah, as if we can save the world—or save those closest to us.  We can give counsel and advice.  We can delineate principles and help define parameters or mirror back to the other what we hear and see the other is saying or doing, but we cannot and should not take control, force him or her, and/or make decisions for him/her, decisions that he/she must responsibly make for him/herself.  In short, we must always maintain proper and healthy personal boundaries—which is a sign of good mental and emotional health.

Among other things, having good mental emotional health means being a person of honesty and integrity, having personal confidence and equilibrium and self-respect with humility; it means having inner peace with energy and focus and direction.  It means being a well balanced person of sound mind and body and heart (physical and spiritual).  In other words, the truth is, none of us have complete perfect physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  We are a work in progress.

As such, it means we must be “in touch,” or be “real,” or as the 4th step in the 12 step AA recovery method says, “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”  Or as the Greek philosopher said, “Know thyself!”  The point is that in a world such as ours, where so many things go wrong and so many challenges arise, we do ourselves a favor by making sure that we are physically fit and able to cope—not only physically fit, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit as well.

So, how fit are you?

Monday, January 4, 2016

Living with Hope in 2016

No one is self-sufficient.  No one can “go it alone” and really “make it” on this earth.  No, it is not simply that we need each other.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, as true as that is, we need more than just one another; that is, collective humanity needs more than itself to survive.

I believe that we also need a Higher Power.  We need hope beyond ourselves.  Putting hope in ourselves ALONE is a dead end.  Humanity alone, by itself, in and of itself, just doesn’t cut it.

Why not?

For one, contrary to popular opinion, Religion is not the bad guy.  Belief in God is not the cause of all the evil that humans inflict upon humanity.  We humans are the problem; we simply use Religion (or other belief systems) to justify the ugly things that we do to one another.

Person(s) filled with pride, lust for power, hatred toward others, or with greed, anger, or with self-righteous indignation and a desire for vengeance, or with simple selfishness, for example, whatever his/her religious belief, creed or persuasion may be, or the lack thereof, will inevitably hurt, condemn, or oppress others in the name of his/her Belief System—be it National Pride, Family Honor, Fatherland, Motherland, Nazism, Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, or Religious persuasion.  “I do this in the name of _________________!”  Fill in the blank.  History is full of names that can fill-in such a line.

So, the problem is within us.  We Humans are simply not to be trusted.  Give us enough power, money, knowledge, and the freedom to do what we will, and we’ll ruin things—always!  Are we not ruining the earth even as we enjoy great strides in scientific discovery and electronic engineering?

That’s why we need a Savior.

I now bear witness to Christ.

No, not to Christendom or to this or that Christian church or denomination; I bear witness to Christ Jesus, the person, the man—the one of whom all the various Christian sects and creeds and Christian movements and rites, rituals, and teachings are centered upon.  I dare you to read Him, hear him, and take him in.  I dare you to do so with all serious intent and purposes, and think you won’t be changed.

Obviously I solidly disagree with those who believe that there is no God and presume that we are on our own, left to our own devises to give ourselves meaning, purpose, guidance and direction toward ultimate ends.  That’s putting too much faith in humanity.  The fact is that we humans are ruining the earth.  We cannot stop fighting and hating one another.  It seems that our human nature dooms us from the get-go. 

We humans also abuse our faith in God.  Why are young people willing to become suicide bombers for the likes of ISIS, for example?  What leads them to submit to such radical beliefs and practices?  Is it not the need to believe-in and hope-for something larger and better than our present humanly constructed economic, social, and political systems?  They long for a better order and they want personal meaning and pride and the status to go with it, beyond just surviving.  They want a promise fulfillment that only a god, a heavenly god far above humanity, can ever fulfill.

The hope of eternity is in our hearts.  It’s in our DNA—to believe-in and hope-for something better than this.  We believe that we can be, and should be, better than we are: hence our unceasing search for that ever evasive existential experience of eternal joy, happiness, love, beauty, purity, and truth.  Who or what is the ground of our being?  What is the direction of history?  Who are we humans, really?

In comes Jesus.

Jesus enters into the scene of unfolding human drama and claims He knows.  I dare you.  Listen to what Jesus has to say about… about what?  About God, humanity, himself, and human destiny; I dare you to listen to Him with all seriousness.  You just may begin to see the world differently and have a newborn hope you thought you could never have.  Go ahead.  Face Jesus and dare to receive the HOPE he gives.