Eliminated

The inspiration for this topic may seem gross, but how it applies could be helpful to you…

This morning as I was seated in the bathroom and the normal, natural processes were underway, I thought what an amazing design… I consume food and my body separates it into that which is useful for energy (now and later), maintenance, repair, etc., and then simply sends the rest of to be “eliminated”. When I eat food that is healthier for my system and of better quality, my body is able to use a higher percentage of it, resulting in less waste. When I am unable to consume food or unable to eliminate it, my entire well-being suffers.

Then I contemplated how that same design applies to my thought process and emotional health. I take in the events that occur all around me and have to process them all day long. Some of these things invigorate me, encourage me, brighten my outlook, heal my soul. Others are actually harmful to hold on to and are best “eliminated” from my thought life, not dwelling on them or letting them infect me with poor emotional health. If I am unable to let these negative things go, or if I am only “consuming” negativity, my entire well-being suffers.

It requires an act of the will to consume good, real, healthy food and reject that which is marketed to us as “decadently sweet” or unnaturally manufactured and loaded with unhealthy chemicals, preservatives, dyes, etc.

It requires an act of the will to engage in positive, healthy, compassionate thoughts and reject negativity, bitterness, anger, lust, etc. Unhealthy thoughts are easy, tempting, and addictive, just like caffeinated high fructose corn syrup drinks.

It takes effort. It takes intention. It takes awareness of the harmful effects from consuming that which is unhealthy, and an appreciation for the benefits of that which is truly good for you. When we choose the healthy path, we are living in harmony with how we were designed to thrive on this planet. We are experiencing shalom – peace, wholeness, goodness, health. This does not come by accident; it comes by intentional living that is consistent with God’s universe.

I’m sure someone else has thought of this before, and probably even written books on the subject; I’m unaware of any, but there’s no way this is an “original concept”. As a matter of fact, Jesus (not so surprisingly) touched on this subject as he was addressing a larger issue:

Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man. 
(Matthew 15:17-20, New American Standard Version)

What you consume not only affects you, it has an effect on others. This is true for both the physical and emotional/spiritual aspects of our beings.

And isn’t it strange that there is simply no way to consume things that are 100% good for you, for which no “elimination” is necessary? Everything – I mean everything – carries with it both good and bad; the percentage of good vs. bad may differ, but there will always be both. So it takes discernment, awareness, and an act of the will to choose health. This is by design.

So when Saul of Tarsus (aka the Apostle Paul) writes “Test everything; hold on to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), it is wisdom consistent with this design in nature. We don’t have to fear; instead, we need to discern, consume, and let the natural process of elimination occur based on the choices we have made.

When our life is considered in review, we know there will be both good and bad, both health and sickness. We know we will have helped people and harmed others. But we also know that God realizes this – it’s part of his design.

When the author of the book of Hebrews listed those who were considered heroic for their faith, it wasn’t a list of people who lived perfectly consistent lives; these people were messes like the rest of us, but happened to have periods in their lives when great good was accomplished through them as the took the risk of faith against the systems and powers that existed in their day:

  • Noah, a drunk
  • Abraham, a liar
  • Jacob, a thief
  • Moses, a murderer
  • Rahab, a prostitute
  • Samson, a murderer
  • David, a murderer and adulterer

Regardless of what you’ve done, you don’t have to remain that way. You may be unhealthy physically and/or emotionally, but you do not have to remain that way. Start by making some choices toward health. Choose what is better for you. Focus on that which restores and encourages you. Don’t let your prior choices weigh you down. Break the addiction to the negative. And don’t obsess over getting it perfect, because in the end the bad will be eliminated.

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Willard

In the early 1970s a horror movie was released entitled Willard; it was about a social misfit with a creepy affinity for rats. The movie’s tagline was “When your nightmares end…Willard begins“. Creepy. I can understand why Willard Romney would run for president in 2012 using his middle name Mitt instead. I’m waiting to see the movie poster re-worked with Mitt’s face on it instead of the rat – you just know it’s going to happen at some point. But this isn’t about either of them.

In 1998, a former pastor turned USC philosophy professor by the name of Dallas Willard published a book entitled The Divine Conspiracy. This seminal work had a profound impact on a wide range of religious leaders, including those who ultimately led the short-lived “emergent” movement. It also connected with me at a time when I needed it most as my family fled the oppressive “home church/cult” we had been involved in for six years and sought to rediscover and redefine who we wanted to be moving forward.

Willard’s book provided a fresh focus on the teachings and example of Jesus, especially as it relates to the passage in The Gospel of Matthew 5-7 known as “The Sermon on the Mount”.  Willard asserted:

“Jesus is not just nice; he is brilliant. He is the smartest man who ever lived…he always has the best information on everything and certainly also on the things that matter most in human life.”

For many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the focus is on the writings of Paul and Jesus is only important so far as the crucifixion and resurrection are concerned. For those who primary aim is to reach a blissful afterlife, the teachings of Jesus are of little interest compared to “the finished work of the cross”. But Willard argued that what Jesus taught (and lived) is actually the most profound and important of all.

Vision

The order in which Jesus presented his good news, values, and principles reveals a keen understanding of human nature and the sequence in which inner transformation occurs most effectively. He starts with the good news of the “Beatitudes” as he proclaims who is included and welcome and “blessed” in his society: misfits, outcasts, down-and-outers, the hassled and marginalized. These are the people who have the most to gain and the least to lose, those who need really good news outside the social/economic/political/religious systems of the day. He first of all provides hope and vision of what could be.

Civility

Jesus continues on to the inner attitudes we need to cultivate to truly be in harmony with his way (his torah). First stop: anger. Our dealings with one another should always be with civility and kindness, because the seed of anger grows into the weed of brutality and murder. We live in a very angry generation – just listen to an hour of talk radio or read the comments at the bottom of any online news article if you doubt this. Road rage. Hate speech. Shout-downs.

The media leverages this frenzy to sell more advertising so they make more money. Politicians and media have a vested interested in this divided country, and we are doomed unless we let go of anger and instead embrace civility, love, kindness, and a willingness to understand one another without necessarily having to agree.

Respect

Jesus then moves on to the topic of pleasure, especially sexual. We are a society that indulges our appetites without restraint. Telling someone else they should consider delayed gratification, self-denial, public propriety… might fall back on us and we would have to restrain ourselves.

In this culture, that would never do. But in Jesus’ society it is part and parcel of how we achieve harmony with one another. We don’t view each other as objects to manipulate for our personal pleasure, but rather as humans created in the image of God… as brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers… as family.

Harmony

When anger is diminished and mutual respect and care are fostered, then his other topics like adultery, divorce,  business integrity, peace-making instead of revenge, etc. become possible. When sacrificial, compassionate love become the hallmarks of our society, we can live at peace with one other (both at home and abroad).

When these attitudes are in place, then our good deeds, spiritual practices, etc. are not used to draw attention to ourselves bolstering our pride, but are truly motivated by heart-felt charity. The spiritual disciplines of giving, praying, fasting/self-denial, serving, trusting without worry, accepting without condemnation or condescension – these practices strengthen us and transform us into the kind of people who truly reflect the way of Jesus. As we cultivate these, as we let them do their inner work, we become ambassadors of a new society that can restore this planet.

“[Jesus] matters because of what he brought and what he still brings to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives and coping daily with their surroundings. He promises wholeness for their lives. In sharing our weaknesses he gives us strength and imparts through his companionship a life that has the quality of eternity.”
– Dallas Willard

Can I get an amen?

The Big Idea

A number of years ago I watched the movie “The Russia House” with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer. I don’t remember much other than I didn’t enjoy it, felt Michelle’s attempt at a Russian accent was awkward, and… the scene where British Secret Intelligence Service (the “Russia House”) wanted Sean Connery’s character to contact a Russian with a list of verifying questions to determine if the document is as valuable as they hope it is. It included this dialogue:

Sir, the “shopping list”… It’s only questions, isn’t it? It wouldn’t tell anyone anything?

Everything. It would tell what we know by telling what we “don’t” know. And it would tell what we would most like to know. If the Sovs get the list, we might as well have published the notebooks…

The questions we ask betray our perspective. They reveal what we really think is important, what’s truly at stake.

Typically when I hear people discussing the topics like “salvation”, “heaven”, “hell”, “the church”, and “universalism”, it reveals what they think is “the big idea” behind it all: insuring that your destination in the afterlife is a good one.

If you’re on the wrong side of that question, you’re essentially screwed forever and ever and ever. So you don’t want to get that question wrong.

But is that really the big question? Is that what the good news Jesus proclaimed was really about?

Certainly people have packaged something they call “the gospel” as having to do with getting into heaven and avoiding hell. This is sold regularly at most corner churches. Join our crowd, believe our dogma, engage in our practices, and you’ll be certain to have an afterlife of bliss (regardless of how hard you might have it down here). The important thing (to them) is to make sure you’re escaping this planet to the right place. But this smacks more of the Greek Plato’s dualistic view of things than the good news Jesus the Jew actually proclaimed in 1st century Palestine.

The idea that the physical is bad and the mental/spiritual is good, that we need to escape our bodies… this is way more of a Greek idea than a Jewish one. The Jews were focused more on tikun olam (“repairing the world”). They still are to this day. They cared about shalom – peace, harmony, wholeness. The torah (what we call “the law”) literally means the way. In other words, if you want to know how to live in shalom with your fellow humans, follow this way. It includes not only how we should behave with God and one another, but also what to do when we misbehave.

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the notion of animal sacrifices being an acceptable form of restitution for wrongs done, the focus was on the here and now. And in reality, the animal sacrifices were ultimate a giant barbecue that the priests got to eat (and in certain cases, so did the people who brought the animals). Sacrifices were a costly way to settle a score; these days it might be kind of like giving your car to your pastor/priest/bishop to show true repentance (and because he needs a car since his rustbucket-on-wheels recently died). Sacrifices were a way of sharing out of what we had so that nobody – especially those busy with “the Lord’s work” – went without their needs being met. They met a need in the here and now, not the afterlife.

When you look at the scope of Jesus’ good news and teachings for what they actually are (rather than how some Church, Inc. outpost packaged it to benefit them), you see that he is primarily concerned with the here and now. He was concerned about relationships. About restoring shalom – in our homes, villages, nations, planet. He called himself “The Way”, and the earliest disciples were called “Followers of The Way”. And remember what the word torah means?

The night Jesus was betrayed, just before his “ultimate sacrifice”, he basically said this to his disciples (John 13:34-35):

I give you a new command:
love one another as I have loved you.
By this shall all know that you are my followers.

Love. It’s the force that repairs the world, that restores shalom, that heals all wrongs. Love.

That’s the big idea.

Why Bother?

We say we aren’t attempting to change anyone’s mind.

We say we aren’t trying to start yet another group the world doesn’t need.

We say we are simply expressing our thoughts and if it resonates with someone then great.

Why bother?

  • First of all, I think this is what sets us apart from the animals. What animal creates great works of art, muses on philosophical alternatives, encodes thoughts into printed symbols (writes) understood by others of its kind (reads)? Certainly there are some common things all creatures do, but these higher functions seem to be reserved for humans. Whether this evolved or was created to be this way we cannot know for certain and isn’t our concern. These are matters  that go beyond “survival of the fittest”  kinds of activities and elevate the human as something special (however that came about). We think, we express, we share – on levels that appear to exceed anything else in creation.
  • Secondly, we aren’t trying to start another group because we suspect this group already exists anyway. Its members are floating around like us alone, isolated, misfits in the culture that bred us (or outcasts from it). We believe there are a number of people with whom these ideas resonate deeply, but they haven’t been able to find the words yet that articulate what they feel and think and have experienced. So we’re suggesting that if you feel the way we do, if these thoughts resonate within you, then maybe you (and we) won’t feel so alone in an oppressive, judgmental, intolerant religious world. And maybe you’ll find some peace that has been lacking as you take the leap of doubt into the freedom of uncertainty. It’s really OK to not have to have all the answers. Really.
  • Third, maybe you’ll begin to enjoy the freedom of embracing truth wherever you find it. It doesn’t have to come from the Bible or from Church, Inc. (though if it does, that’s OK, too). No human has jurisdiction over your thoughts – especially not us. You’re even free to reject this idea – it’s your choice to honestly follow what you believe in your heart to be true. In the end this is what everyone does; it’s why people leave one church or denomination for another (or for none at all) – everybody makes up their own mind in the end, and that is GOOD. Just be honest with yourself – it’s OK.
  • Fourth, putting our thoughts into writing provides a self-check for us. If you can’t write it down, then you don’t really know it. If you are unable to articulate it, then you haven’t really thought it through enough yet. And if once it’s written down people find massive holes in your logic, you have the opportunity for additional reflection, self-correction, re-direction, etc. In other words, putting it all out there exposes us, but we aren’t afraid of that because it will in the end only help sharpen us (when coming from friends) or give us opportunities to cultivate peace and grace (when dealing with enemies). We are pretty sure we’ve got some things wrong (like everybody else on the planet)… and that’s OK. We’re not afraid of being corrected in matters of truth or faulty logic, and we’re not afraid of saying “I don’t know” in matters that cannot be verified.

We distrust anyone who has gone their whole life completely certain of themselves; these are the kind of people who typically lack empathy and/or want to dominate others and/or are social jerks. We fully admit we’ve changed our minds, beliefs, practices, etc. many times in life and probably many more before we’re through.

We believe that we humans need to work together in gracious opposition to the natural order (“kill or be killed”). We believe the way of living that Jesus taught is a concise collection of attitudes and practices that help us rise above and cultivate harmony, peace, cooperation, shalom as we work together to repair this world that all too often operates under the natural order.

We don’t view ourselves as merely capitalistic animals who greedily consume to dominate others. Neither are we socialist or communist where we take from others and distribute equally among us all. We respect the rights and choice of each individual, and encourage all to be willing to voluntarily make the sacrifice of love on behalf of those in need. It’s when we resist dominance over others and instead share out of what we have for the good of others (not out of guilt but out of true compassion and good will) that we best emulate the way Jesus taught and lived.

Any religion or philosophical school of thought that includes this as part of their scaffolding is appreciated. Just be careful to not shift focus from the life you’re building over to the scaffolding used while building it; scaffolding is a tool to assist, not a master to serve. We believe there is only one master to serve, and helping people develop a society consistent with his design and wishes is ultimately the reason why we bother.