Attachment, Idolatry and Freedom of Soul

Earlier this week, I ran across these words of Jesus from Luke’s Gospel:

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.   So, therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.  (Luke 14:26-27, 33)

Can it really be true that Jesus wants us to hate our families and renounce all that we have in order to be considered one of his followers?

This particular teaching or saying of Jesus is a good example of how biblical texts can draw us into a conversation which ultimately leads us to a deeper understanding.  Before you read any further, you might first want to spend some time with this text yourself, allowing it to draw your own soul into conversation and discovering where it leads you and what God might be trying to say to you through the text.

As I placed myself in conversation with this saying of Jesus this week, I eventually got past the “shock value” that it contains.  I came to the conclusion that Jesus was not inviting me to hate my family, because hatred is not a Christian value.   It seemed to me that Jesus was using such strong language, such shocking imagery, in order to get my attention and get me really engaged with what he was trying to say.

Once I was able to respond to this text with greater attention rather than shock or surprise, I found myself drawn to reflect on the nature of the relationships that Jesus names at the beginning of the passage:  parents, spouse, children and siblings.  On the one hand, these relationships are among the most sacred of our lives.  We would not be here without our parents, who not only gave us life but also nurtured that life in a way that allowed us to reach adulthood.  Our spouse is our life partner, and that partnership can bring incredible richness to our lives, and in most cases, it is that partnership that gives rise to children.  And children stretch our lives and enrich our lives in amazing ways.  Siblings are people with whom some of us are close, and some of us less so.  But regardless of how close we may be to brothers or sisters, siblings are people who in most cases share something of our experiences growing up in the world, we are linked to them by a common history and by sharing that history together, we have an enlarged sense of what “family” can mean.

At the same time, these relationships can also demand a great deal from us.   Our parents may love us, but they may also have a hard time regarding us as adults.  Sometimes parents can have expectations of their children which, if unmet, can introduce into the relationship a dynamic of disappointment.  Sometimes parents are unwilling to allow us to become what we are sure we are meant to become, and we find ourselves in something of a struggle for our own identity.  In the time of Jesus, parents (and particularly fathers) often had a great deal of authority to determine significant aspects of their children’s lives, including one’s occupation and one’s marital partner.

In Jesus’ time, it was also not common to find marriages in which the terms were equal.  Marriage was not understood as necessarily having a basis in mutual respect, or even in love, for that matter.  Marriages were often arranged, and men had far more rights in those relationships than women did.  It was the norm that a woman’s identity would be tied to husband and children, without much regard for her own needs.   Marriage could be a joyful and enriching experience, but it could also be stifling and oppressive.  The assumptions and expectations that come with marriage today are in some ways significantly different than in Jesus’ time, but it remains true that for some, marriage is experienced as a blessing while for others it is quite the opposite.

There is probably little difference between the time of Jesus and our own time when it comes to the demands that children place upon parents.   While we experience children as an amazing blessing, they also require a significant investment of time and energy which can re-order the priorities in our lives.  Sometimes that re-ordering can lead to a devaluing of things that should be important in our lives, including a devaluing of the spiritual dimensions of life.  Throughout my career as a priest, I have known parents who have found the demands of meeting their children’s schedules leading them away from active or regular involvement in church, and I certainly have known first-hand how difficult it can be to develop a personal discipline of prayer or meditation when small children are needing our attention.

I think that Jesus does value these connections and relationships in our lives, but I think he also values the freedom – the spiritual freedom – that is essential if we are to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with God.  The message, I think, is that while we do need to value and attend to these relationships, the demands of these relationships should not be allowed to get in the way of our relationship with God, nor should they be allowed to determine our identity, since who we truly are can be known only in relation to God.

I think what Jesus is getting at both with respect to these fundamental relationships in our lives and when he suggests that we need to renounce all that we have in order to follow him is the essentially spiritual problem of attachment or, to use more biblical language, the problem of idolatry.   What I mean by this is the tendency to define ourselves in terms of our relationships or in terms of our material prosperity.   We become “attached” to relationships or wealth in a spiritual sense when we understand who we are and what our lives are about primarily or solely in terms of those relationships or that wealth.  Jesus, in this passage and elsewhere, rather forcefully tries to help us to see that our true identity is not found in any relationship but our relationship with God nor is it found in the things that we possess.  Using biblical language, we can understand this in terms of idolatry, which arguably is the greatest sin of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Idolatry is the assigning of ultimate value to something that, in truth, does not possess ultimate value.  It is putting something else in the place in our lives that can only rightfully be occupied by God.

What it comes down to is asking these questions:  what is eternal, truly lasting?  And what is temporary, passing away?  Much of what we put our energy into is temporary.   Our relationships, even with the most important people in our lives, will ultimately pass away, if for no other reason than the people in those relationships will one day die.  The things we possess, the wealth we amass, will also pass away.   We can’t take it with us, as the saying goes.  Even our bodies will one day be gone.  What is left, according to our faith, is the essence of who we are, the heart of our being, what we might call the soul.   And it is at the heart of our being, in the soul, that we experience most intimately and authentically our relationship with God, the Eternal One, and it is toward the soul that much of our spiritual practice is directed.  The most sublime form of prayer in the Christian tradition, as in most spiritual traditions, is to be in silence, seeking to simply rest in our souls so that we may experience the presence of God.  Those who practice this kind of prayer regularly witness to the fact that, over time, this way of prayer does help us to find our true selves, “hidden with Christ in God”, and to define ourselves less in terms of our relationships and our wealth.

It is precisely this cross, I think, that Jesus invites us to bear:  to let go of all the traditional ways in which we value ourselves and each other (which is a kind of crucifixion of the ego) in order to stand vulnerably before God, ourselves and the world simply as we are, recognizing that our value comes not from our parentage or how successful our marriages are or whether we have children or how successful those children are; recognizing that our value does not come from our wealth or how good we are at our jobs.   Rather, we are meant to recognize that our value comes simply from the fact that we are, that God has given us being and life, and that we are loved by God and rendered lovable by God simply for that.

If we are able to bear this cross and to truly recognize our value solely in relation to God and God’s love, there is an incredible freedom in that.   I cannot claim for myself that I am able always to live with this awareness.  Too often do I develop an attachment to things or define myself by how well (or how badly) I think I am doing my job or parenting my children or being a husband.   Yet, I have had those wonderful, graceful moments when I have gotten a glimpse of myself simply as loved by God, and known in that glimpse that nothing and no one is able to take that from me.  And in those glimpses, I have tasted that joyful freedom of Christ, the peace that passes all understanding.  I am grateful for those glimpses, and in many ways it is those moments that sustain me in my spiritual life, that urge me on.  Because it seems that those moments are truly the moments when I have experienced the kingdom of God.  And as much as my life is enriched by my most precious relationships and by the satisfaction I have from the successes of work and life, there is nothing as enriching as these glimpses of eternity.

And in the end, when all has passed away, it is this that shall remain:  God, the Eternal One, and the Love which keeps our souls.

The Necessity of Self-Reflection

Recently, President Obama was criticized for being critical of BP, the oil company ultimately responsible for the horrendous ecological disaster that is unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.  The President’s critic felt that, for some reason, leveling criticism at a business like BP was “un-American”.  Though, I must confess, I don’t quite see how.   This is surely not the first time, however, that a public figure has been labeled as un-American or unpatriotic for being critical of this country, or for admitting that America has made a mistake.   For some (many?) people, admitting that as a nation we are less than perfect seems equivalent to treason or giving aid and comfort to our enemies.

In the Christian tradition, along with most other spiritual traditions, the kind of self-criticism that arises from a healthy and reasonable self-reflection is considered critical in terms of one’s spiritual progress.   Jesus pointed to this very clearly when he counseled his followers to take the log out of their own eyes before presuming to take the speck out of another’s eye.   In other words, judgment begins at home, and self-reflection and self-examination should be part of everyone’s spiritual practice.   It is common advice, for example, that near the end of the day, we take some quiet time to think about the day that is ending, to reflect on our experiences of the day and to try to see those moments where we could have done better, where we could have responded out of a centeredness in God’s love rather than react instinctively, where we could have offered a word or an action that could have built up another person rather than tearing that person down.

To adopt a consistent practice of self-reflection should not lead us into a sense of worthlessness or self-loathing, but rather into a sense of humility and a realization that along with our strengths come areas where more growth is necessary, and that along with our successes come mistakes.  Far from making us weaker, such self-reflection has the power to make us stronger and better able to act positively in the world.

If such a practice is good for us as individuals, it is surely good for us as a nation.   No individual human being is perfect, and neither are collections of human beings, whether those are countries, churches or other organizations.  We do make mistakes, and our nation has made plenty of them.   A healthy sense of national self-reflection does not mean we are unpatriotic, but that we care enough to want to honestly see how our country could do better.   Far from giving aid and comfort to our enemies, it shows that our national character is strong enough to look in the mirror with honesty and integrity.  Admitting faults and failures gives more integrity to our successes, and fosters a sense of humility rather than arrogance.  And nations that become arrogant, who believe that they can do no wrong, are nations that inevitably overstep and get themselves into trouble.  One could argue (though certainly not everyone would agree) that a better national practice of self-reflection might have avoided the wars in which we have found ourselves over the past several years, and one could even more easily argue that the lack of self-reflection at the highest levels of our financial firms led to the economic crisis which has impacted us all.

When asked by his disciples how they should pray, Jesus told them to avoid long public prayers that were designed primarily to impress onlookers and God (one might call it the prayer of the arrogant) and instead to go into the privacy of their innermost rooms and there humbly place themselves before God honestly and simply.    And, I think he would have certainly expected that in that private place, we would spend some time honestly and simply pulling the logs out of our own eyes, that we might better see ourselves and others.   Such a regular practice will make us better human beings, and that will improve the quality of our national life and the decisions we make that effect the lives of so many around the world.

Speaking of God

Recently, I got word from my former stomping grounds of Knoxville, Tennessee, of a dispute that had arisen over a biology text book.  It seems that the book approved and recommended by the committee responsible included a description of creationism as a myth.  This raised the ire of at least one parent, likely a Christian of a more literal frame of mind when it comes to the Bible, who insisted that the book should be prohibited on the basis of this statement.  Apparently there was enough “umpf” behind this sentiment to bring the matter all the way to a hearing in front of the School Board.

My interest here is not to explore the vicissitudes of text book approvals in public schools (though, it seems to me, that it should be clear that the text book should be approved).   Rather, the situation gave me occasion once again to reflect on the way in which we speak of God and the sacred, and how so very often these days, people seem (in my humble opinion) to get it wrong.

It is interesting to me that the woman who pushed forward the case against the text book objected to the characterization of creationism as a myth.  I’m sure that she defines myth as something that is untrue, for that is the way that the word is most commonly understood today.  It is not, however, the only possible meaning for that word, nor is it the way in which the word has most commonly been understood for most of human history.   Far from being something that is untrue, a myth is something that is deeply true.  So deeply true, in fact, that it cannot be straightforwardly described.  So the deep truth in question must be put forth in the form of a story or a poem, in which the indirect language of metaphor can express the depth of the truth in a way that engages us and connects with us deeply.

In the case of the creation stories in Genesis, the deep truth which the biblical authors were keen to convey was that God created everything.  The stories themselves, when we delve into their details, contain more truths than simply this, speaking deeply to the relationship not only between God and creation generally, but between God and humanity, between humanity and creation, and of the sense of alienation which came to characterize the human experience of life that did not live up to a dream or vision of paradise.  We don’t have space to explore all of this here, so it seems best to keep it simple:  these stories are meant to assert that God is responsible for creation, it exists because of God and it has a relationship to God.   The ancients who put together the Bible probably never thought of these stories as describing the way in which God created.  That was a mystery to them, and it was not until the modern scientific method showed up on the scene that humanity began to understood the “how” of creation (though we do not understand the how completely yet).   They were simply keen to express the why of creation and to give meaning to creation by linking it to God.  The stories are myths:  deeply true in their meaning, but not in their details.

Please note that I am not suggesting that all biblical stories are exactly like the creation stories.  One basic and essential way that the creation stories are different is that they speak to something that no one witnessed.  No one was around as creation began and formed, and so there were no “eye-witness accounts” to draw from.   There are certainly many biblical stories which are based on events that people witnessed (like episodes in the life of Jesus, for example) and yet still contain mythic qualities, in the sense that as the stories are told in the Bible, they are designed to convey deeper truths.  We can think of it as a basic account of something that happened meeting the imagination and skill of a poet or writer.  The story that emerges from this encounter  preserves something of the original event, but it becomes at the same time more than the event itself.

I have heard it said by some that the biblical stories are problematic, but I don’t think they really are.  The stories are just fine.  It is our reading of them that’s problematic.  Beginning probably in the 19th century, where the beginnings of Christian fundamentalism are to be found, Christians began to read these stories differently.  People began to read them as factual accounts.  The way we saw these stories shifted, so that instead of reading them for inspiration, instead of allowing them to engage our hearts and souls in imaginative ways so we could drink deeply of the truths they offered, we began reading them for information.  As science asserted itself more and more, we came to see truth in terms of facts, and going down that road eventually meant that in order of the Bible to be true it had to be factual.  And that opens the door to biblical literalism.

But the Bible was never intended to be factual – though it does contain many facts.  The biblical authors were not writing textbooks of history.  They were writing poetry of proclamation, seeking to convey the deep truths of life and of God as best they could.   The Bible is a tremendous resource as we seek to live faithfully as followers of Jesus, but in the end, it is a resource that points us toward God, that helps us into a relationship with God.  But it does not replace the relationship itself.

So to speak of God is a dangerous thing, for the language we have at our disposal is by its very nature limited, because it is a human thing.  Fortunately, we have the richness of metaphor and poetry that allows language to ultimately transcend itself, to point beyond itself much as our lives and all of creation point to something more, something greater:  to God.  Let us not impoverish the biblical texts by imposing upon them an alien framework that insists that they be factually accurate.  Let us allow them to sing us their song and lead us beyond the text into the reality of God.

Common Ground

We recently observed a National Day of Prayer in the United States, a tradition we have been carrying on for a while now.  Of the most recent observance, Diana Butler Bass (a seminary professor who will be speaking at Trinity Church in January) asked whether it hadn’t become a National Day of Fighting About Prayer.  The fighting on this particular Day of Prayer revolved mostly around the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist, who was dis-invited to a Pentagon prayer event he had been initially scheduled to lead because of some ill-considered comments he had made about Islam – a faith to which some of the members of our Armed Forces subscribe.  Mr. Graham was unwilling to apologize for his remarks, believing them to be appropriate.  And many Muslims remain offended by what he said.

This smaller drama is a chapter in a much larger drama: the place of religion in public life.  America values its institutional separation of church and state, but not so much the separation of religion and politics.  And so we grope along trying to figure out what the balance should be between the two, and how religion should or should not play a public role.  So we have chaplains for the House and Senate, and the legislative days open with a publicly led prayer, but graduation ceremonies in public schools must avoid any prayer all together.  When you think about it, these distinctions don’t make much sense – Congress is not as diverse as your average public school, but still, not everyone in Congress is religiously on the same page – but, there you go.  The fact that we don’t seem to have a consistent position on the public role of prayer is a reflection, I think, of the difficulty of resolving the tension between America’s religious legacy and our commitment to being an open and diverse democratic society.

It’s unfortunate that the National Day of Prayer should become an occasion for highlighting what a difficult time we have dealing with this tension.  Of all things, prayer should not be a battle ground but a common ground.  Rather than something that becomes a source of conflict and division, it should be something that brings us together.  For prayer, in its broadest and simplest form, is simply the lifting up of the soul and the opening of the heart to the Sacred, no matter what name any of us may use to name the Sacred or what theology or doctrines we utilize to conceive of the Sacred.  That lifting up and that opening up provide a connection not only to the Sacred but to our common humanity, as well.  In prayer, the hopes, fears and aspirations of the human community are offered up, and those are not particular to any given religious tradition.  They are the hopes, fears and aspirations that all of us share.

We live in a cultural time when religion in general has become a battleground.  And there are 364 days in the year when that battle can play out, if it must.  But perhaps the National Day of Prayer should become the common ground on which we can stand together as a human community.  Those of no religious faith could use it as an opportunity for reflection.  It could be a day when all doctrinal speech ceases, and we simply take some time to be aware of the fragility of our common humanity, and our united desire to somehow make more of our humanity than meets the eye.