Monday, March 13, 2017

Unpacking The Lord's Prayer

Somewhere before Matthew and Luke was most likely a text that was the source of their common threads, but we'll never see it. So extrapolating from these two storytellers as to what may/must have been said requires more than a literalist view of the two texts' recounting this often repeated prayer (for which most of us seem to have defaulted to Matthew). But the question I have pondered so many times is not “what exactly did Jesus say” but rather, “what was his intent in this teaching?” So despite not having an imprimatur of any religious organization, I am finally going to take a crack at what this itinerant country preacher may have intended for his audience to understand about prayer.

In order to attempt this we first need to understand two things about the speaker, Yeshua of Nazareth, whose name we Anglicized as Jesus. First of all, while there is no evidence that he was formally trained as a Rabbi, Jesus clearly had a good handle on the sacred texts, quoting frequently and selectively from them to make his points. He is, from most of what we can extrapolate from all of these stories, at all times very intentional and consistent about his message, his context and his intent.

Jesus declared himself a “jubilee” messenger – referring to the Deuteronomic rule (Deut. 15:1-11) that every seventh of the seven year periods (that is, every 50th year) is to be a Jubilee year, marked by forgiving all debts, freeing all prisoners, caring for the poor, the widows and the children – using a reference to the same from the book of Isaiah (Is. 61:1-2). However, true to his philosophy, Jesus intentionally left out the last phrase of the passage dealing with vengeance. Jesus was very intentional. He never refers to the wrath or vengeance of God, but rather only refers to the healing, loving and forgiving nature of God. He used scriptures and events to teach a specific message, and that message is the second part of our understanding his contextual framework.

Jesus’ message through all of his teaching was a revolutionary understanding of God, the nature of God, and the nature of “God’s kingdom.” Kingdoms were plentiful in ancient times, and mapped out a domain of influence for each king. Jesus used this metaphor as a way of describing his theological foundation: God was not elsewhere – apart from us, ruling over us – but rather was very real and present, in and among all of us. “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he would say, “as you are in me and I am in them and they in me.” He had a unitive theology; that all things were one and united by the same loving force, like one big family. We are inseparable from God but likewise God is inseparable from us. In an age where Gods were thought to reside on a mountain or in the center of the temple, Jesus taught that God not only belonged to all but was resident in all. So let’s see if we can see his understanding of the scripture and his theology evident in this prayer.

Right from the outset, he changes the game, calling God, “father” (implying the one big family). Matthew’s text even adds the descriptor, “our” (like all of ours, not just some of us). And some translations refer to the idea that he used the word “abba,” the familiar form of father: “daddy.” This was not the El Shaddai of old, nor was it the king who lorded over us like some benevolent master. It was intentionally familiar, familial and personal. And least we get all bound up by the masculinist term of father/daddy (as opposed to mother), let’s look at the role of parents in Judea at that time. Parents were fairly equal, though different, long ago. There was clear understanding that both mother and father were necessary and equally important. Fathers typically taught the trades and mothers taught the values of life. Both were essential. So why father then? Because father’s role was to teach purpose – how and what to do to be a contributor in life. And to be certain a father was not absent – off at work – as in modern times. Dads were always present, in the home, working at the house and very present. A father was meant to be purposeful, helpful and always present.

But what then are we to make of the reference to heaven? Doesn’t that connote the sky kingdom and the sky god? Not if you take a further look at how Jesus defines heaven. Heaven is not out there, not some future destination. Heaven is right here, right now. Heaven is among us and. He even goes so far as to say that it is “within you” (Lk. 17:20-21). So this daddy, this teacher, was a very present member of the community, of the family and of life in the present moment. Jesus’ intent was to demystify the concept of God; to make God real and present and palpable.

“Holy (sacred, blessed) is your name.” If we now understand God to be within the very life we are living, Jesus is calling that sacred. Life is sacred and holy. But remember that, as a Jew, Jesus learned that one could not say/speak the name of God, not because of its specialness, but because once anything was named it became separated – by name – from anything that was not that thing. Speaking the name of God would be suggesting that God was some thing, some entity, apart from other things, and certainly apart from us. That is the most sacred aspect of God; that God, being a very real and present aspect of everything, was inseparable from anything – that God was everything and everywhere. That is what holy and blessed really means.

“Thy kingdom come.” Then Jesus returns back to his core theological construct: The kingdom is
here, there and everywhere, and that life-intent that is God is already in action in every element of all creation (on earth and heaven). It seems obvious at this point that Jesus simply means “god is here, among us, already, right now.” Enough said! But here comes the one-two punch!

The first hit refers back to a scriptural reference. Jesus reminds his followers not to take more than enough. The reference to “daily bread” comes from the story of manna in the desert. The Israelites were wandering in the desert and supplies were low, so the story goes. In answer to their hunger and prayers, their God provides something bread-like that appears in the morning like dew. But it came with a rule: take only enough for one day. If anyone took more than a day’s supply, it rotted and would become toxic to them. The hoarders actually died. God’s rule of abundance is that “enough” is all you need. So Jesus’ reference to that story is a reminder (not a request) to the pray-er (not the one prayed to) that we only need “enough.”

And right on the heels of that is the knock-out punch about how forgiveness works. It seems to be a bit of a tricky turn of the phrase, but the pivotal word is “as” – “forgive us as we forgive others.” For most of my life I heard that phrase as a meritocracy: when I forgive enough others, I get to be forgiven, or if I forgive others I will be forgiven. But that was never a part of Jesus’ teaching. Or I thought it may have been some hold-over of the eye-for-an-eye morality of the Greeks in the area. But in fact, just the opposite was Jesus’ message: that you are already, and always forgiven. The nature of this loving God, that is love and life itself, is that you will always be forgiven – even before you think to ask for forgiveness. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son? The passage reads that, before the son was able to even ask his father for forgiveness, “while he was still a long way off” his father saw him, had compassion for him and “ran out to embrace him and kiss him.” God’s forgiveness is not dependent on our having done it first. But knowing Jesus’ understanding of the presence of God, god’s forgiveness is part and parcel with our forgiveness. God-in-us forgives us through each other – it’s how God is made manifest. It is seeing the God in the other as we forgive them or they forgive us. That is God’s love visibly in action!

And in conclusion… Jesus ends his prayer instruction with the oddest phrase of them all, “lead us not into temptation” or in other translations “deliver us from the test.” Jesus taught that the purpose of prayer was that it altered the pray-er (your father already knows what is in your heart). So what might he have meant with the reference to temptation. I have a couple of theories that may explain this one. First of all, the time he spent in the desert before starting his ministry is still fresh in Jesus’ mind. He clearly felt led into his path of teaching and healing. Could he have felt led into that time that tested his spirit and was hoping that others might not have to endure the same?

Many exegetes note how fond Jesus was of the Psalms, and certainly the Psalms are a part of every Shabbat service. The Psalms are rife with references of being put to the test and of being tempted (mostly by wealth and power). The Psalmist seemed to wrestle with his own temptation and the fear that God might turn away because of his weakness or, worse yet, that God would put him to the test! That being the case, Jesus might have been drawing on a common theme from worship.

Now Matthew may have a different take on the prayer and adds the element of evil (or in some translations “the evil one”). But that does not fit with the teachings and philosophy of Jesus. It may well be an editorial comment either added because Matthew wanted to appeal to the cultural norms of the people to whom he was writing. Or it may have been added by a later editor as part of the doctrine of the church of the time (a practice that happened with all sacred texts throughout time).

But more in keeping with my hypothesis that Jesus felt that the prayer was more about how one prayed (more to alter the pray-er than to bend the divine ear) he may have included that line as a last piece of training. “Master, teach us how to pray,” may not have been answered by this teacher with a rote formula. More likely he may have said something to the effect of, “It’s not what you say but who and how you are when you say it! Remember, God is already in you, and in me. God has already given you all you need. God has already forgiven before you could even recall the sin. And this God, would never, ever lead you astray!” Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


Our CEO Seth Streeter encourages leaders to focus on "inner abundance" - and also teach it to their children.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Going Deep

Unless we go deep we cannot understand another’s context, emotions or even perspective because we will always be trying to make personal sense out of it first. Going deep requires accepting that “everything belongs,” just as it is, and everything holds within it the power to teach. But understanding this requires first surrendering control; something ego will resist with all his might. And if you can get over that hurdle, you can actually begin to accept that “everything belongs;” that even evil and darkness are part of the whole of the universe. Without that acceptance, however, ego will try to selectively accept some things (the good and useful stuff) and reject other parts as negative and useless.

But because all of creation is one, the so-called (or at least perceived as) negative stuff must be included within “everything belongs” or you risk not fully being open to learning. You have already begun evaluating before opening to what must be learned. And by extrapolation, you are only open to what you have already judged as acceptable within your limited scope. Only after going deep within yourself, and transforming the crushing blows of grief into compassion for your broken and defeated egoic self, can you accept all else in nature as part of the whole, as belonging, and as a perfect reflection of all else - including yourself. Until then you do not have the capacity for compassion. As the Buddha said, you must find compassion for yourself before you can have compassion for others.

It is the same with religious beliefs. One cannot fully comprehend another’s belief, spirituality, or spiritual crisis, until and unless one has first gone to deep places in which one’s own spirituality does not make sense - at least it does not make sense at the utilitarian, ego-driven logic level. You must allow your own beliefs to be challenged and to push you to deeper meaning making. Comfort with doubt and darkness must be accepted elements of your own beingness before you are able to look with compassion at another's struggles, another's torment, or another’s radical clinging to some fundamental structure. Compassion does not condone the values of the Taliban or ISIS, but rather can see through the hate and anger to the core of doubt and fear that must exist in order to demand such rigid adherence to those beliefs.

Then and only then can you ask, “What must I learn in order to love in such a way that the hurt, fear, and pain from which ‘the other’ must be operating is soothed and mitigated? How do I channel that type of healing love?” In fact, until your innermost self has been opened and transformed, most of us would probably ask, “Why even bother?” But once one has been opened, MLK’s assertion that “hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that,” takes on a new and deeper meaning. And Jesus’ demand to “love your enemies” is no longer spiritual ideal, but a possible reality.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Be Careful What You Ask For

Years ago a friend and mentor told me that every day he said a kind of prayer to know God's will for him. He said it with full earnestness, and then one day he was smacked right in the face with a challenge that was way bigger than he had ever imagined. It became his job but he told me, "Be careful what you ask for - you just might get it."

I have been asking for a way to learn how to stay vulnerable while doing the work for which I trained throughout my adult life. It turns out that there isn't really a way to learn it - like there is no step one then step two. Nor is there a way to just put one's big toe into the pool of vulnerability to test the water temperature. It appears to me that vulnerability, as a state of being, either is something you are
or you aren't. It's kind of like being pregnant - there is no such thing as somewhat pregnant. And my lesson of late is that it is the same with vulnerability. You either are or you are not.

So it has come to the point where I must jump into the deep end of the pool and decide to live this way. There is no other choice - I cannot turn back and and stay defended and closed any longer. It is no longer a choice I will make. And what has opened up the deep end to me is that I had to let go of the fear of "what will people think?" The answer came pretty clearly to me over the last few days of training in which I have been participating: They will think I am being vulnerable. And overall that is not such a bad thing.

Brene Brown says that vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. It's stupidity! So it's not like choosing to be vulnerable and live life from a more transparent stand means walking around naked all day or through a tough neighborhood alone at night. It means creating safe places and conditions for vulnerability to live and pull us all together. And with that it means knowing that home and among friends are some of those places. At least it is where I am starting. And the more I practice that with the ones I love and trust, the more I am able to know how to bring it to life in the public world. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Dawning Light

Over the past few posts I have been writing about what feels a lot like a transformative path. As a part of that process I have been becoming aware of my senses - especially my emotions - in a whole way. It's not that I didn't have emotions; I just did not experience them this way before. 

We all have emotions – they are part of our basic programming for survival. However as with all other things, the emerging ego seizes them for it’s own purpose. Thus the three survival instincts, survival/security, affection/esteem, and power/control, become self-referential in service to the ego. That is, instead of emotions that give us information about safety or security, they become emotions that protect the “well-being” of the ego and turn narcissistic. Emotions like love and affection, which are part of our DNA as relational beings, become schemes for the ego to gain praise and further aggrandizement. No wonder why we don't trust our emotions!

Psychologists tell us that by the age of five we have learned 90% of our total vocabulary. But while we were learning those concepts about the world, most of our world was bigger, faster, and smarter than we were as little children. Therefore, as the ego is forming, it begins working on how to protect itself and how to get what it wants for its self-perception, all of which are based on what Alfred Adler called our perception of “inferiority” as little ones. By the age of four or five, when the ego differentiation is completed, and most of our beliefs about the world (and our place in that world) have been formed, the ego has seized control of our emotional tools and turned them into self-referential and self-centered gimmicks. Innately, we know that this is wrong and for the bulk of us who have not done the inner work of clearing out that narcissistic tendency, we begin distrusting our full set of emotions. We have emotions but they are off-kilter. Oh, granted there are those among our species who don't suffer this malady, and they are truly blessed. But I have not been one of them; in fact, it took a long time to get here!

But here’s the clincher: when the ego is finally killed off – whether through the dark night of the soul or through some deep wound to its self-constructed idolatry – we break through that superficial level of emotional responses back into the real true level of emotion. In this deeper, pure level of emotionality, unencumbered by the need for praise, or coddling, or ego-stroking, emotions are true barometers of the world and directional indicators for effective living. What’s more, we no longer have to “obey” the emotional information (as the tyrannical ego demanded) but can take it in as part of what we need to be listening to as we make our way through the present moment.

That is the part I have been trying to find words for: that breakthrough to a deeper level. And as an added benefit, with the death of the ego, intellect is freed from it’s demand to show up as the smartest kid in the room and can be in service to others.  Freed from ego's tyranny, my emotions and my intellect can be used as they are meant to be. My inner witness just needs to keep ego out of the room and both intellect and emotion can inform my whole self in right action, right work, … It may be the beginning of what the Buddha called "the eightfold path."

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Error of Ego

There is a wisdom that only humility can teach. But it does not come in the form of some factual knowledge - some thing to be possessed or known - that the ego would love to grab hold of and claim as its own. Tis wisdom is merely an opening through which far more than the ego could imagine flows.

I cannot claim to know that wisdom, because my teacher has told me it is not mine to hold or mine to claim and name. It is something that only has existence in letting it go and in giving it away. This wisdom is quite simple in its message: that I am a human, like every other human on this planet. In learning this, through humility, one has to accept that what lives in the most wretched terrorist is also resident in me. It is easy to claim brotherhood with the mystics (and loads of fun for the ego to claim as his understanding!). But to know that I am no different - NO DIFFERENT - than the poorest of the nameless untouchables or than the foulest and most hate-filled zealot, is the humiliating (humbling) lesson.

But least I get ahead of myself, let me walk you through the steps of getting here. For whatever reason and by whatever means, I have been recently opened up to a new level of understanding and feeling emotions. And with that level of perception came the awareness of other people's emotions as well - not some people's emotions, not just my friend's emotions; all people's emotions. It is the one thing we all have in common, irrespective of circumstances, history, culture, gender or any other aspect of life. The bottom line of the human experience is that we are blessed or cursed with that region of our brain that produces emotions.

Now, truth be told, many are not aware of their emotions, or if aware of them, do not know how to access them, or may not know the full extent of what they are and how they work. But we all have them. That translates into something like seeing a picture of a Syrian father grieving the death of his child and knowing full well that you do not need to know his religion or speak his language to
understand his pain or well up with tears.

But if that is true - that we all are given the same capacity of emotion - it levels the playing field. It means that we are actually, on some level, all the same; created the same, evolved the same. We all bleed the same and die the same way. By placing myself apart from, or different from another human (which is what we do when we outcast them, vilify them and make them "them") I am living in the state of egoic superiority and denying my fundamental humanness. I guess I can no longer do that.

And now that I have painted myself into that corner, we are left with the question of what to do. I will try taking that on tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Rising Strong

Recently I have been reading Brene Brown's new book Rising Strong, and I love every page of it - take that as highly recommended reading! But I would like to offer a slightly different take on the comeback from adversity.

Modern cultures, and predominantly the cultures descended from white, Anglo-Saxon, alpha types, have adopted the mindset that obstacles are to be overcome. We are programmed to set goals and pursue them with abandon. I even have a t-shirt with the motto, "I don't stop for obstacles; I destroy them!" and another with a Gandhi quote about power being derived from "indomitable will." But the wisdom of mystics from all traditions tells us that there is another way. According to mystical wisdom, the goal is not to knock down every hurdle and barrier so that we remain unchanging, but rather to allow ourselves to be bent and shaped by nature so that we emerge as re-formed and wholly new creations of that encounter.

Listen to how Rilke describes it in his poem The Man Watching: "If only we would allow ourselves to be dominated, as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names." And the modern mystic poet, David Whyte puts it this way in Working Together: "We shape ourselves to fit this world and by the world are shaped again. The visible and the invisible working together, in common cause to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way the intangible air passed at speed round a shaped wing easily holds out weight. So may we, in this life, trust to those elements we have yet to see or imagine, and look for the true shape of our own self, by forming it well to the great intangibles about us."

This journey of transformation has been one of learning to trust those great forces, and to listen to the creaks and moans of my branches and bones in the immense storm. It is allowing the forces in so that I might become one with nature, and in doing so, take my place as one with all humanity.  Like so many of us, I have spent my life amassing knowledge without understanding, chalking up credentials like so many bullet points on a resume. But in the words of Pope Francis, "Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it."

Rilke ends The Man Watching by saying, "Whoever was beaten by this Angel went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater things."

I have been awakened. I am feeling deeply (because I finally can). And while I may walk with a limp, like the Biblical wrestler of the angel, I have been resurrected as a stronger, and more fully alive human.