Thursday, February 23, 2012

Shall The Meek Inherit The Earth?

Our Lord made some difficult statements, a few of which would have seen him fired from churches who now mention his name in reverent tones. His insistence that the meek shall inherit the earth would not be one of those, probably. It is too outrageous to get anyone fired. Had it not been he who first said it, it would provoke more mirth than wrath. 

Does anything seem further from reality than this? Do you see anywhere in history where the meek have accomplished anything except making themselves insignificant?
How many meek politicians inherit an election, much less the earth?

Do meek businesspeople inherit prosperous businesses?

Do meek preachers inherit great ministries or build great churches?

Well, the only thing Christians can do with this embarrassing disconnect with reality is to redefine the word meek until it means something like “focused power” or “defined ambition”.  

Perhaps we can make the original Greek agree with that if we try hard enough.

We have to do something.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was brave enough to say out loud that making meekness a virtue was destroying Western Civilization. In his view, the ancient Greeks and Romans pulled us out of barbarism and created the economic and political structures that produced our great science and art. Their virtues of manly strength and self-reliance set up an order in which the talented and powerful could create enough wealth to sustain civilization’s advances. The worm in the apple, he said, was the Jewish carpenter’s son who had inspired a system built upon pity and guilt. The Galilean ideology had not destroyed Western Civilization simply because no one had really accepted it, including Christians.  It was time, Nietzsche said, to admit that “the world’s last Christian died on a cross.”

Ayn Rand was brave enough to embrace Nietzsche. She was also articulate enough to teach his philosophy to Americans. One hears her words pouring through the airwaves and in the debates. Sometimes, Christians are among the ones who applaud the clichés of Darwinism as social policy, even as they rage against Darwinism as biological ideology.

We are in danger of silently ignoring the words of the Sermon on the Mount and replacing it with the lyrics of “I did it my way.”

In Genesis chapter four, God asked a man about his brother’s whereabouts. Cain flippantly responded, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He was expressing a philosophy of life that God found repulsive. As punishment, God sent him into isolation, the very thing his philosophy idolized.

For the likes of Cain, Nietzsche and Rand, the blind and the poor are none of our concern. Life eliminates them and their genes from the ever-advancing human quest for progress and quality. To fund them or alleviate their sorrow with stop gap measures only prolongs the inevitable. 

They simply don’t have what it takes. It is the Übermensch; the strong, confident, capable man or woman who takes initiative and who will accept nothing but perfection from himself and from others who creates the future. We must do nothing that hinders this reality. We may feel pity for their plight but there is really nothing we can do that will make much of a difference except allow the fittest to survive as the unfit gradually eliminate themselves.  

So what are we to do with Jesus?

Well, we will praise Him and call Him God! We will build massive buildings and place a cross on them. We will mention His name repeatedly in our conversation.  We will debate with others about the doctrines that describe who he is and what he does for us up in heaven.

If we do enough of those things, it may drown out the voice of the Galilean, “come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The ones who respond to that voice are often an unsavory collection of addicted, brain-damaged, orphaned, misfit, diseased, low-class, wretched people. The powerful of the world who also wish to follow the Galilean are welcome of course. There is no reverse discrimination here. All they have to do is join this motley crew and call them brothers. The gate to this strange kingdom is narrow. Many things we carry around as badges of honor must be left outside in order to enter.

Nietzsche was right. It is dishonest to praise Jesus while quietly rejecting what he taught. 

It is Jesus or the Übermensch.

If the meek do not inherit the earth, the foundation of our faith is built upon the sand and Jesus was, as Nietzsche claimed, civilization’s most dangerous demagogue. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Locating Our Lacuna

The hypnotist had been chanting in a soothing and irregular rhythm to the young woman, who had kept sinking ever deeper into that inner world we call trance.

“When you...become..aware of your will notice...or rather not notice...perhaps we might even say ‘unnotice,’ the chair...upon are now seated. When you will stand...and you will fail to see the chair you have been sitting in. It will...for you...not exist.”

A few minutes later, the young lady, now fully alert and smiling, was talking normally with the hypnotist. He asked her how she felt.

“I feel great. I’m sorry I couldn’t be hypnotized. It just doesn’t work on me.”

“That’s fine,” the hypnotist replied, “it happens. Why don’t you sit here and let’s talk about it for a moment?”

The woman looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. Puzzled, she asked “where? There is the only one seat on the stage and you are sitting in it!”

“No, sit in the chair right there,” the hypnotist replied, pointing once again to the chair in which she had been sitting five minutes before.

She laughed at first, but after the hypnotist kept insisting that she should sit in the chair and she continued to insist that there was no chair there to sit in, her replies became noticeably more agitated. When he explained that she was responding to a post-hypnotic suggestion, she became angry. She said he was trying to cover up his incompetence as a performer and was resorting to just making things up.

The people in the audience watching all of this were delighted. They could clearly see that the chair was exactly where the hypnotist claimed.

The question for us though is “where did that chair go?” Of course, it went nowhere at all, objectively speaking. What I mean is, where did it go for her?

The answer is that the chair went into a lacuna.

A lacuna is a mental space in which we store things we believe we are not supposed to notice. Everyone has them. They are personal blind spots in our will, imagination, cognition and emotion. When an idea, emotion, object or situation moves into that blind spot, it ceases to exist for us.

Consider another trick our minds play on us.

The hypnotist could have told the woman there was a snake in the far corner of the room. He could have claimed that the snake would not come near her if she would remain in her chair. That is what we call an implanted hallucination. Had he done that, the awakened woman would have continued to look nervously over at the corner of the room. She would have refused to get out of her chair no matter how much the hypnotist insisted. Had the hypnotist asked her what she was seeing in the corner, she might have said something like, “there is nothing there. I just can’t stop looking in that direction.” If pressed, she might have added, “I just don’t have a good feeling about that part of the room.”

Our minds, continually interpreting the world in the light of what we have been taught and what we have already experienced, often refuses to see anything that does not conform to what we wish were true. That is why we continually invent reasons for retaining our accustomed beliefs, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I took two courses in medical hypnosis while in graduate school. I learned that we continually drop into states of naturally occurring periods of trance for short periods throughout the day. In our trance, we recall messages spoken to us when we were learning to make sense of the world and do reruns in our imagination of things we have experienced or expect to experience. When we do, the objective, “real” world, disappears or diminishes for us.

It is is rather easy to lead people into trance because they are so accustomed to putting themselves into one. A good stage hypnotist can induce trance rather quickly. Advertisers do it less dramatically but more effectively. Politicians do it with slanted statistics and other official sounding props. Storytellers do it. Musicians do it. Parents do it. Everyone does it.

The difficult thing then, is not to lead people into trance. The difficult thing is to awaken people from the trances in which they have been living most of their lives.

To awaken people out of trance, one must locate their lacuna.

That is impossible to do unless a person wants to locate it, which is difficult. After all, a lacuna is a blind spot we do not realize is there.

If you want to locate a lacuna that hides stuff from you, ask yourself the following questions.

What are the subjects you cannot easily discuss?

What are the emotions you refuse to feel?

Does this blog make you feel uneasy for reasons you cannot clearly articulate?

Can you listen respectfully to a person of another religion explain his or her beliefs? Can you listen to a person explain political beliefs that are different than yours without interrupting them or becoming angry? When in situations like that, do you pretend to listen as you become inwardly agitated? Do you tune the speaker out and began ruminating on ways to refute him?

Can you tolerate a conversation in which a friend explains his reasons for doing things or thinking things you do not like? Can you ask open-ended questions, such as “tell me what you mean by that word you keep using?” Or, “Would you mind taking a few minutes to tell me how you formed those opinions?”

When the friend finishes speaking, are you able to give a summery of what he said without sarcasm or cynicism?
Or, do the words of a person with whom you disagree fall into a lacuna?

When we find ourselves becoming unreasonably uncomfortable with words or some spiritual practice or data in some report, we may be trying to avoid acknowledging something we have been forbidden to see.
Fossils of sea creatures on a mountaintop; petrified tree trunks in a coal mine; DNA sequences that show graduating differences between species of plants and animals – a surprising number of Christians find such things alarming. They rush to explain and, hopefully, to explain away without wanting to learn more.

However, our Lord said, “you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

It is the pursuit of truth – not a stubborn loyalty to what we wish was true – that points the way toward spiritual maturity.

When the hypnotized woman stares at the chair and passionately insists that it does not exist, her sincerity and passion do not alter reality, except in her private world. Unfortunately, too much private reality is another word for mental illness.

She could have asked the hypnotist why he believed in the existence of the chair. She could have asked members of the audience their opinion. She could have walked over to the place the hypnotist claimed contained a chair and felt around for it. Had she decided to take that approach, she probably would have begun to remember the words the hypnotist had spoken to her while she had been under trance. In that case, the chair would have come back into focus.

Despite claims to the contrary, all hypnotism is actually self-hypnosis. The hypnotist is merely a trained coach. A hypnotized subject actually wishes to perform as he or she does but may feel too shy or inhibited to do so under normal conditions. The opportunity to “blame” a hypnotist for one’s actions is probably what creates the conditions in which stage hypnosis performs.

In other words, hypnotists are people who specialize in coaching people to do what they do to themselves everyday, at least in some area of their lives.

“Don’t believe that!” someone says as we read an article they don’t like.

“I don’t have to have a reason; I just don’t like it!” someone else insists.

“I don’t want to hear the reasons you made that choice, I don’t believe in it!”

“My saintly grandmother believed this; that’s good enough for me.”

“I don’t need reasons, I felt in my heart this was the right thing to do.”

And so forth.

A little child hears an angry parent scream: “YOU WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYHTHING.” He accepts the marching orders for his life and will recall those words every time he will be presented with an opportunity. Success is in his lacuna; he is not allowed to see it.

After hearing a respected person say,  “you can never trust a Jones. Every Jones I know has stabbed me in the back,” the child knows what the Jones are like.

It is useless to talk to anyone about the irrationality of their opinions about the Joneses, or their conviction that they will never do well in life, or their anger over the religious or political opinions of others. We are wasting our time unless they are mature enough, or love us enough, to actually listen and consider our opinions. We cannot speak louder than the voices in their heads. Sometimes, neither can they. Their lacuna was formed long ago. The context in which it was formed is long forgotten and even the pathway to its location is lost.
There is only one way to confront a lacuna and that is humility.

We must become aware that we all have them, which ought to be easy because all of us do. Realizing that, we simply learn to remain mindful that our automatic reaction could be wrong when some new idea or practice makes us unusually uncomfortable.

At any rate, the only way to discover if we are creating a private reality is to remain inquisitive, respectful of others, and push our self to probe deeper into the matter beyond allowing our automatic response to guide us into our blind spot.

Lent is coming. This is a time for repentance, another word for humbly evaluating our lives and thoughts, and perhaps, for making visible a few lacunas that hide the truth about life and the world from us.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What Is Holiness?

With gratitude to Jeri Cagle Vandiver, whose song once led me into the presence of God.

I met him while visiting a long-term care facility. He had lost a leg to diabetes and was sitting in his wheelchair, leaning slightly to the left.

“Hey, young man,” he said. (I was a young man!) “Come sit here a spell. Let’s talk.”

He had been a Nazarene pastor. He wanted to reminisce about old times and thought I might be interested.

“Wanna hear a funny story?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“We had a minister’s conference once and everyone went to it ready to fight. (Of course, we always had some issue, in every conference.) The issue that year was sanctification and whether it was instantaneous or gradual. Well, sir, the debate about sanctification got so hot that a few guys finally got out into the aisle shoutin’ at one other, faces red as beets. They got so furious and worked up. I thought sure they’d come t’ blows. But just when I thought they would have and honest t’ God fist fight, someone shouted out;

“Brothers! It doesn’t matter if sanctification is instantaneous or gradual. Ain’t none of us sanctified no how!”

“Bwahahaha,” the old man snorted. “I like that story.”

“I like it too,” I said.

“Don’t forget it,” he added.

I haven’t.

After the American Civil War, millions of Americans became part of what we call the “holiness” movement. A blog doesn’t offer enough space to tell much about its history and theology. However, if you are a Pentecostal or any other kind of Wesleyan Christian, it would be well worth your time to read about it. It is enough here to say that holiness churches – Nazarenes, Pilgrim Holiness, the various kinds of Churches of God, nearly all Pentecostals – a huge percentage of American Evangelical groups -- are the products of American Methodism. That means of course that they are the spiritual children of John and Charles Wesley.

At various stages of their development, nearly all of these churches encouraged a radical separation from the world. Most of them were at first pacifists, then conscientious objectors. They were poor for the most part and profoundly conscious of their lower-class origins. That is evident in the gospel songs they wrote, and which many of us still sing but no longer believe. (“Though cabin or cottage, what should I care, they’re building a mansion for me over there.”)

Most importantly, the holiness movement taught that a believer’s dress, speech and behavior ought to clearly reveal that he or she was “sold out to God” and separated from the world. In time, it was these cultural markings that became most identified with the word “holiness.”

For one who grew up in the holiness movement, the verse, “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” clearly means that unless we observe the distinctions of dress and behavior taught by our church we will not go to Heaven.

I love that verse, and all the passages that call us to holiness. However, they mean something quite different.

The word “holy” actually means “different, alien, other, and apart.” To experience holiness is to experience a profound otherness, a sense of something otherworldly, something beyond time and space. Holiness provokes something akin to terror. Holiness shakes the soul. It breaks up the encrusted toxic scar tissue of our hearts.

Holiness is an awareness of sacred things. It is a radical humility that leads to continual repentance. It is a sense of human dignity rooted in God’s promise that we will soon be different creatures than we are today. It is our first feeble steps into a new nature. It is stumbling toward the outstretched hands of an encouraging Father.

In short, holiness is the presence of God. Without it, no man shall see the Lord.

If we do not have times and spaces where we leave everyday life behind; times and spaces that evoke a different kind of behavior, speech and attitude; time and spaces in which we truly “come and bow down and rejoice in God our Savior;” will we ever experience “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord?

Does what we now call worship lead us into holiness? And if not, to what does it lead us? If what we experience at church is not different than what we experience at the mall, concert or at Starbucks – all good places to be sure – where will we enter holiness?

Lest I be misunderstood, this is not a dig at contemporary worship. I have been in contemporary worship settings where God was very present. I have also been in traditional services that felt like an injection of spiritual Novocain. It’s not about either contemporary or traditional.

It is about what happens between our soul and God. It is about whether or not we ever enter into “the beauty of holiness.”

The holiness movement made a mistake in focusing too much on dress and other surface issues. That’s why the old preacher’s story is so funny. The fact is, if we encounter the presence of God, it is very likely that our values and tastes in all sorts of things will begin to change. We may indeed start dressing differently. We will stop using bad language and all other kinds of abusive speech. We will flee gossip as though it were a cobra. We will just quietly abandon the world’s values and set our hearts on things above.

But we will never mistake any of this for holiness once we have actually experienced holiness. And, we will not be consumed with the behavior of others, trying to force other people to conform to our way of life.

Instead we will be like the early followers of the holiness movement, who echoing the words of the Prophet sang this piercing invitation to life:

Ho! Every one that is thirsty in spirit,
Ho! Every one that is weary and sad;
Come to the fountain, there’s fullness in Jesus,
All that you’re longing for: come and be glad!

“I will pour water on him that is thirsty,
I will pour floods upon the dry ground;
Open your hearts for the gifts I am bringing;
While ye are seeking Me, I will be found.”

Child of the world, are you tired of your bondage?
Weary of earth joys, so false, so untrue?
Thirsting for God and His fullness of blessing?
List to the promise, a message for you!

Child of the kingdom, be filled with the Spirit!
Nothing but “fullness” thy longing can meet;
’Tis the enduement for life and for service;
Thine is the promise, so certain, so sweet.