FOR GREAT IS YOUR REWARD

You can think of the reward of friendship in two ways. You can think of it as the benefits that accrue to you from the outside, or those that accrue to you from the inside.

The benefits of friendship from the outside are manifold. Friends provide the pleasures of companionship, which themselves come in many varieties. Whatever enjoyment we get from dining alone is a different and more constricted enjoyment from that of eating the same food in amiable company. A walk in the woods gains depth from the resonant experience of shared peregrination. Conversation with another taps into wellsprings of wit and perspective and information that freshen and stimulate the dry grounds of our private reflection. The list goes on and on.

And the outside benefits can, of course, also be less ethereal and aesthetic. In times of our need, friends provide succor and support: a visit to relieve boredom, a financial assistance, a ride to the hospital. The list here is also endless.

But it’s of the benefits from the inside that we need to speak. The mere reality of being someone with a friend makes you different, deeper than you would otherwise be. This is true, regardless of the nature of the friend, but the nature of the friend does affect the nature of your new depth.

We find ourselves drawn to and affectionate towards goodhearted people. Why? Because the part of our own spirit that is grounded in charity, perhaps unknown to our conscious awareness, has found a source of nourishment for its own growth. We find ourselves respectful towards and attentive to some people, but not to others. Why? Because the part of our spirit that is grounded in humility senses balm for its own painful pride, and a source of nourishment for its own growth. We yield to the attention of some while remaining suspicious of the attention of others. Why? Because our purest heart warms to their transparent light.

Jesus often talked about the greatness of the reward from knowing God. He was talking about the reward from the inside.

IT IS FINISHED

Most of the great and often tragic misconceptions that have plagued Christianity through its long history have their roots in the attempt to force the Way of Christ back into the mold of the religion local to the time and place in which Jesus ministered, and from which all of his followers emerged with many of their native commitments still intact: thus the doctrines of hell, of the wrath of God requiring a sacrificial atonement, of the Manichean battle between darkness and light, and many others. Perhaps none of these misconceptions has led Christian hope and faith farther astray than that of Christ’s second coming, which was introduced into the Way almost from its inception as a means of salvaging the Hebrews’ Day of the Lord. Utterances of our Lord were wrenched out of context, parables were amended, and fantasies concocted (Revelation) to recast that established idea of a transitional period of upheaval and retribution, only now with Christ himself as both the warrior of destruction and also the dispenser of justice.

But on the cross, Jesus himself said of his earthly mission that it was concluded, and successfully so.

We are not waiting for Christ. He is waiting for us.

THE ATONEMENT

Christ did not endure suffering and death in order that we might be spared suffering and death. That is obvious, because we suffer and die.

He did not endure suffering and death to redirect God’s wrath/vengeance/justice away from each of us, as a partridge hen might lure the fox away from her hatchlings, and sate its hunger outside the nest with her own flesh. That is one of the darkest and most twisted thoughts ever to foul Christian theology, a mindless caricature of God and the Son.

On the cross, Christ sanctified suffering and death, as in his life he sanctified every reality of what it is to be human. Christ’s suffering warrants to us and reveals to us that our own suffering has meaning.

SHADOWS

Because of the nature of the problems to which they purport to offer solution, all religions give rise to their own dark doppelgängers, their evil shadows. Occasionally, as in historical Christianity, the shadow is personified, even anthropomorphized: thus the Devil. But in all cases, because of human perverseness and rebellion, the shadows host the corruption, and often the mockery, of that particular religion: human greed and envy foul its practices; human weakness dilutes and human pride twists its doctrines.

The Way of Jesus superseded the temple worship of the Jews (as it supersedes all other religions). But Jesus nonetheless cleansed the temple, out of respect for the religion itself. He argued with the scribes, not with Moses. His opponent was not Judaism, but its corruption.

For Christians, the instruction is twofold. The first is to respect the heart of all religions. The second is to illuminate the evil shadows of our own.

BRICKS

When you finish your course of studies at a medical school, you are awarded a degree that allows you to practice medicine. The degree is a testimony to your accomplishment. What you do with that accomplishment is thereafter up to you. You may proceed to practice medicine, or you may move on to a career in laying bricks. What you do from thence forward has no impact on your accomplishment. You will always have your degree. That part is done. It is finished.

As Christ himself testified, the cross accomplished his work. What was his work? The forgiveness of our sins and our reconciliation with God. That part is done. It is finished.

Nothing we do or fail to do thereafter has any effect on that accomplishment, any more than the certified doctor’s choice of profession has any effect on the certification itself.

The only difference is that the doctor personally earned the degree, where Christ earned our spiritual accreditation on our behalf. The medical degree is a qualification; the spiritual degree is a gift.

It is a grace to be aware of that gift, to believe in it. But the belief doesn’t affect our possession of it.

Most of Christ’s instruction has to do with how best to make use of our spiritual certification, how to practice medicine rather than lay bricks.

A BAG OF SAND

When you lift a bag of sand from the ground and put it in the back of your car, you’re not opposing gravity’s pull. You are not in opposition to anything, you’re for putting the sand in your car. At most we might say that the gravity is opposing you. If you were doing the same thing on the space station, there would be no opposition. The local situation produces the form and strength of the opposition.

In the same way, if you are sailing across a lake, you are not opposing the water or the wind. You are simply heading towards your destination. Should a storm arise, then we might say the water and wind are opposing your boat, sometimes fiercely, sometimes to the point of sinking your boat. But the boat’s simple intention has never changed

Jesus preached the gospel of God’s love in a certain part of the world at a certain time. We may think of the Sadducees as the gravity of that place and time, and of the Pharisees and high priests and Romans as the windy waves of that place and time. Jesus did not oppose them; they opposed him. Jesus was simply lifting a weight and putting it in a new place, simply steering a boat to a fixed destination.

We must never define Christ and his gospel by the nature of those who opposed him (This was an early mistake of Paul, although he grew out of it. Christ never opposed the Law, scribal or otherwise. The representatives of the Law opposed his gospel.) Different types would have opposed him, wherever and whenever he brought his message.

Different types oppose him and his gospel today.

GOD’S DREAM

When the potter sits down at the wheel, it is with a certain image in mind: a bowl, perhaps, or a cup, perhaps a vase. Whether it’s something small or large, oblong or some other shape, the potter dreams of a thing unique, and perfect of its kind.

And so with each of God’s creations.

Theologians struggle with the thought of God creating each of us in God’s own image. They waste their intellectual energy on meaningless concepts like free will, dominion, responsibility, and then proceed diligently into abstractions and jargon that have no reference to life

They should instead focus on the potter at the wheel, and this particular potter’s infinite ingenuity and extravagant love.

Look at the grasshopper; look at the microscopic virus; look at the whale; look at the prisms of light in a drop of dew. Each was originally a thought of God.

We are all of us thoughts of God, made real by God’s grace, and invested with God’s plan for our perfection.

There is no such thing as sin without awareness of the alternative. Wrongdoing and immorality, as normally understood, have no weight with God. There is no sin in a shark eating a dolphin, or a madman murdering a child.

Original sin, the sin with weight, is knowing God’s imagining of your own perfection, and choosing something less.

Socrates said that to know yourself is the beginning of wisdom, but that’s not the heart of it. The heart is to discover and pursue God’s dream of you.

THE DOOR

We cannot control our feelings about the person standing on the threshold, but when we open the door, we grant permission to come inside. We do control whether or not to open the door.

We cannot control our emotions. What would that even mean? My fear is not something separate from me, that “I” can master. We affect our emotions the same way we do our muscles, by voluntary exercise. We lift weights and our muscles grow. We climb rocks and gradually our fear of heights diminishes.

This is true of the interior life in general, up to and including love, that mysterious thing. It is through what we do and neglect to do that our love receives its shape and health – for better or worse.

Christianity asks of us only that we do the things we can do. We cannot dictate our own thoughts or emotions. But we can take time to pray and meditate, to read the Bible, to attend church, to assist our neighbor.

Doing these things is, in effect, granting God permission to come inside.

THE OAK AND THE KATYDID

An ancient oak tree cannot be more stately than it is; it is perfect. The katydid’s luminescent green is beautiful beyond improvement.

God meets us where we are and offers to reveal our own perfection, and aid in its accomplishment.

In dreams and books and company, God speaks to you in the language of your particular life. The instruction offered is tailored to your true self.

THE RAINBOW

Since our language is a human creation, devised to reflect human concerns and to respond to human needs, we are very limited in what we can communicate regarding God. But it follows that, through language, very little regarding God can have been communicated to us. We may hear that God is omnipresent, for example, that God is everywhere; but hearing that doesn’t familiarize us with God. What does it do? It increases our ability to participate in a way of speaking called theology.

What would it even mean to familiarize yourself with omnipresence?

A blind person could theoretically become a skilled optician, could even teach university courses on optics. She might lecture effectively on rainbows, without ever having experienced one. In theory, she might even be productively lecturing to a classroom full of blind students, and they might go on to become lecturers themselves.

The analogy isn’t perfect, because the blind optician might possibly regain her sight, and then be able to experience a rainbow, to familiarize herself with a rainbow, while there is nothing that might happen to the theologian such that he could now experience or familiarize himself with omnipresence. Or omniscience. Or omnipotence. Or spirit. Or perfection. Or eternity.

If we insist on learning about God, what we are in fact insisting is that we be taught a language, the language of theology, so that we may participate in the sociology of theologians. This is what Wittgenstein used to refer to as a language game.

But we want something more, don’t we? We want something like the optician finally seeing her rainbow.