guilt and shame
anger and hatred
doubt and insecurity
DROP IT ! turn it over and give it up! the Master baggage handler will set you free.
“so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” JOHN 8:36
There currently is a television commercial depicting a hiker walking on a beautiful, unfamiliar wooded trail using GPS as a guide. In an instant he drops his backpack, runs ahead on the trail. The last scene is disconcerting to me, even though I have seen it many times. Running at full speed, he jumps off a cliff several 100 feet high into a beautiful shimmering lake awaiting below.
Would you trust your GPS that implicitly? Could I? Trust it enough to jump off a cliff to certain death if the data is not correct? What if there is no deep water at the end of my jump to cushion my fall?
We are asked to do the same with our faith. Nobody has returned from death to tell us about the glories of heaven or the depths of hell. Nobody has seen Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. NOBODY! So why should we believe? I am a rational, reasonable human being who has spent numerous decades trying to determine what life is about and I have as much certitude now as I did when I came into this world.
BINGO! Faith is not about certitude. Faith is trust in the mystery which tells us that light will overcome the darkness, that love will prevail, that peace on earth will occur when mankind becomes peaceful in all his affairs. Faith is not at the end of the trail, a destiny to be attained. Rather, it is the trail itself.
We read scriptures for many reasons. The history of the Jews is an interesting lesson in the human condition. All the trials, the greed, the intolerance, the violence are balanced by victory over ego, insights about communal living, stories that reflect man’s search for God.
The writings by the contemporaries of Jesus relate His message that relieves followers from the 613 Laws of the Old Covenant observed by ancient Jewish culture. Some Christian leaders today carry across the B.C / A.D line those Old Covenant laws attempting to override the simple message of Christianity regarding laws (commandments).
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind and all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark: 12:30-31
Pretty simple, straight-forward theology, is it not? We don’t need anything more to trust that our faith is heading in the right direction. Forget all the ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt not’ from the ponderous teachings and preachings of modern Christianity which have done more to oppress than enlighten. That is what John said:
“If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
He’s talking about freedom from the oppression of ancient theology and theological laws. We can trust a simple faith which places God and love for fellow-man at the center of our beliefs. Nothing more is needed.
How we live our faith is a choice we make every day. The rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous urge us onward with this daily choice by slogans on the wall. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid – is one of them which embodies a way of living, a faith walk if you will, that frees us from concerns about religious correctness. The fellowship which occurs in those rooms attests to the success of making sober-living people out of drunkards through a simple spiritual program. Have you KISSED today?
How many times as children during an electrical storm have we run to hide in a room without windows or pulled bed covers up over our heads? We felt we were safe because we could not see the lightning flashing outside. And then, when the thunder cracked in the heavens, we plugged our ears with little fingers.
As an adult I thoroughly enjoy an electrical storm, smelling the air, feeling the energy in my body, hearing the claps of thunder and seeing the spectacular display of lightning in the skies. I no longer hide as I did as a child, but that doesn’t mean I will stand outside in an electrical storm under a tall tree, or on a golf course with putter in hand, or on the water in a boat. Why? Because I know today not to tempt the power of nature and I don’t believe God protects foolish men on golf courses or fishers on the lake.
But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” Mark 4:37-38
Naturally, the disciples feared for their lives. This body of water on which they were being tossed about furiously was not some little backyard pond. But, instead of taking measures to save themselves by bailing water out of the boat, they awakened the sleeping Jesus and questioned his concern for them. Don’t you think in that situation, one would awaken Jesus and throw a bailing bucket to him yelling, “Get ready to jump, can you swim?” How many times in my life have I confronted God, “Don’t you care about me? Why are you allowing this to happen?”
The passage from Mark goes on to say that Jesus woke up, calmed the waters and told the wind to be still. In the same manner when I begin to panic, God says to me, “Relax, son. Be cool. I’ve got this under control.”
“I sought the Lord, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Psalms 34:4
Seeking the Lord in times of turmoil and surrendering the outcome to his mercy and grace is easy. In the storms of life I usually have no other options and the resulting relief is welcome. Conversely, seeking the Lord when life is good, the skies are sunny, and I’m enjoying a great day is a challenge. I’ve retrieved my white flag of surrender, the crisis is over, and I am once again doing the driving. “OK, Lord, thanks for the help, but I’ll take it from here.” It would be wonderful if I could surrender my will and my life just one time and be done. But my life simply does not work that way. I am still a work in process and apparently have many future lessons to learn.
This physical existence which we experience gives no guarantees to our survival. Car wrecks, disease and illness, crazy shooters at our local WalMart – we are not assured that tonight we will return home safely to loved ones. But, it’s always been that way. Rocko, the cave man, never knew whom in his neighborhood had a bigger, more deadly club. The Jews, during Jesus’ time were at the mercy of the Roman conquerors and the religious hierarchy. Jesus was not the only one crucified. History tells us that thousands were hung on a cross during the rule of the Roman Empire.
Rational fear in the temporal world is probably a good thing. It keeps me alive and out of harm’s way. I have learned not to run around my neighborhood looking for a hairy caveman with a big club and I don’t seek out soldiers wanting to crucify me. But what about fear in my spiritual world? As a child I became an extremely fearful person listening to the stories of a judgmental, white-haired, bearded, vengeful, fire-breathing, old man sitting in the heavens just waiting for an opportunity to BBQ me in hell. The people telling those stories were not evil; they were merely misinformed.
That childhood fear was irrational, not based on truth. Today, I have the truth in front of me in the words and teachings of the man whom Jewish countrymen hoped to be the deliverer from Roman and religious oppression. He was not that messiah. He died like many other victims ignobly hung from a cross. Centuries later the Roman church fathers assembled writings about Jesus into a plan for successful living which suggested we could have freedom from fear.
I believe that is what the book of John tells me.
“If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
It’s not rocket science. In his lifetime, Jesus spoke to his disciples and his followers in parables. Analogy and metaphor detailed what he was trying to teach about the spiritual world in which he dwelled. Essential to delivering those teachings was not only the faith of his followers in who he was, but also Jesus’ faith in an eternal, everlasting presence which he named as God, his Father.
Scriptures tell us that Jesus suffered the human condition just as we do. He displayed anger, compassion, doubt, disappointment, and fear. The lowly carpenter from Nazareth probably suffered the same concerns about clothing, housing, and providing food for his family as we do. He enjoyed the company of his Jewish brothers and sisters, attended weddings, and partied with sinners. That’s what gives me hope. Jesus was not a saint when he was alive on earth. He became divine centuries later only when the fathers of “Christianity” proclaimed him to be so. But, while alive on this earth, Jesus was just like you and I.
That gives me tons of hope and reason to have faith. I, too, can be a better version of me. Temporal fear is a life-preserver, but soul fear is merely an absence of faith in what Jesus can do with me as a child of God. A Psalmist from long ago told me to not be afraid of walking this earth even when death and darkness surround me because the love and compassion of God will protect my soul, will lead me out of that deep valley into a place of gentleness and kindness where I will dwell forvever in His mercy and grace. Amen, my cup is overflowing.
As a young man I was indoctrinated into the belief that Christianity alone held the answers to the mysteries of life and the hereafter. I did not see it as a nefarious attempt to control my thinking nor kidnap my soul. It was merely the traditional theology handed down generation after generation from father to son, mother to daughter because they truly believed this was the only path to goodness and eternal life. My first taste of religious intolerance occurred within my closely knit community, when an upstanding Catholic parent thought he was worthy of a seat on the school board, but was met with vehement opposition from the “true” Christian community fathers. I became familiar with the words, “We love you as Christians, but you don’t qualify”.
That screaming “but you don’t qualify” became the signature arguing point in my withdrawal and subsequent denial of anything religious. Unfortunately, it also enabled the demon of alcoholism to replace all that had been taught to me as a young lad. I recognize today, as a sober man, that not everything of those early learning years was errant and repressive. When reading familiar scriptures, I can now agree and reflect on the truth contained in many of those verses. But I also recognize that the tradition of my Christ-centered faith is not exclusive. It is not the only way. AA’s concept of a “God of my understanding” led me to find sober salvation along with millions of others who could not swallow a narrow, wrathful and vengeful entity sitting upon his throne breathing fire and damnation.
Today I hold to the thought that a truly loving and compassionate God does not have the capacity to hate or deny God’s love based on man’s theological interpretation. Period. God is love, love is God. It is impossible for God to not love. That is cemented by none other than Jesus, the Christ.
“If therefore the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
Believing in Jesus, not as the man nor as the divinity, but as the way to a lifestyle free of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”, as a path to unconditional acceptance and compassion for all of God’s humanity regardless of race, creed, sexuality or ethnicity – that is the freedom expressed by every one of the world’s major religions and especially in John 8:36. I can realize a life which is no longer bound by the shackles of judgement or hatred or intolerance. Free indeed!
Bottom line for me is that this freedom is a choice I make every day. Do I bow to the God of my understanding or do I submit unquestioningly to the God of my tradition? Ironically, they are the same God, but do I follow the narrow interpretations of theologians or do I live my life according to a God understood by me? Today I know that God is God is God, the One and the same universal entity referenced by Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity, but never intending to be exclusive to any one faith walk. Man has encouraged that exclusivity. Man has kidnapped, pigeon-holed, and taught lies about God which are contrary to the core tenet of each of the 5 great traditions.
In Exodus 3:14, the writer reports that when Moses asked, “Whom shall I tell the people you are,” the vision he was seeing replied, “I am that I AM.”
I AM is the same supernatural power which mankind from the beginning of time has searched within himself for the answers to these questions: 1)who am I? 2)why am I here? 3)what am I supposed to do here? The cave man in his natural questioning painted pictures on the cave walls to express his connection to nature, the world’s first mystics knew they were one with the universal power to which they chanted, the shepherd boys in the hills marveled at the star-lit night ushering the arrival of a new messenger to show THE WAY to a lost tribe. I AM has always been with us and in us throughout eternity. I AM does not belong to any man’s theology or doctrine. I AM cannot be humanly defined, cannot be humanly described. I AM simply is.
“Just as the same lump of clay can take on infinite form and remain itself unchanged, so God takes on infinite form while never being other than God.” – Rami Shapiro, Perennial Wisdom for the Spiritually Independent: Sacred Teachings—Annotated & Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing: 2013), 66.
I was not a Bible fan when my first days of recovery rocked my world. If anything, I was quite the opposite, arguing and ridiculing Bible promoters. I soon learned that it was not the message which I disliked, but the messengers who misconstrued, misinterpreted, and outright lied about the message.
My recovery fellowship shed light on the misconceptions which I had developed over the years of pain and brokenness. Slowly, I adjusted my attitude to a more tolerant view of Scriptures and began listening to other voices which were proclaiming the greatness of a Higher Power. Surprisingly, that Higher Power was not the same God of my childhood. My earlier concept had maligned and obstructed any reasonable desire on my part to surrender my will to God. Not until I was able to wrap my mind around a universal Essence, which they called Higher Power, was I empowered and freed by writings of Scriptures.
Many years into my sobriety sojourn I enjoyed a job on the grave-yard shift which allowed enough self direction to listen to the radio. A favorite must-hear program was UNSHACKLED from Pacific Garden Mission out of Chicago. It’s theme verse was John 8:36. There is so much hope packed into those few words of encouragement that I made it my lifetime favorite. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”
Initially, I associated this verse only with the power of alcoholism and drug addiction. Yes indeed, faith in the Son and living by principles of a sober fellowship had freed me from the hell of substance abuse. Over time it finally occurred to me that this very same Son had the power to also free me from the concerns of life, from behavior abuses, and ultimately from devotion to the great “me.” It was a simple but astounding revelation.
Each of us has the capacity to interpret “the Son” as directed by our conscience and our spirit. We don’t need religion nor men/women with a divinity degree behind their names to define “the Son.” But for me, a personality and human form as presented in Scriptures and clarified by ancient mystics defines with simplicity the life necessary to make me free. It tells me what I must do to be aware of dirty politics and societal injustice, to struggle with the downtrodden and oppressed, to uphold the homeless and poor, but not be burdened or controlled by those same issues. Jesus can do that. ISAIAH 61:1 defined the mission of Jesus when Isaiah wrote:
The Spirit of the Lord, the Eternal, is on me.
The Lord has appointed me for a special purpose.
He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to repair broken hearts,
And to declare to those who are held captive and bound in prison,
“Be free from your imprisonment!”
If you, like I, went to Sunday School and VBS as a child, you probably memorized the 23rd Psalm, the Ten Commandments, and maybe the Beatitudes. The eight short sayings of the Beatitudes give the core teachings of Jesus in a concentrated format.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” —Matthew 5:3
Oh, how I struggled with this one. This proud country boy did not want to be “poor” in any way, shape or form when he grew up. Although my family, as farmers, provided adequately for our needs, we could not afford the vacations other people took each summer nor the fancy new car every 2 years. Fortunately, designer jeans were not a necessary fashion statement in high school in 1961 and most often I started the new school year with last year’s clothes augmented by new shoes or a new shirt. Life was pretty good but, when I considered the first of the Beatitudes, this 13 year-old farm boy raised up a few secretive, quiet prayers, “Lord, anything but poor. I don’t want to be poor.”
I believed for many years that when the pastor recited the first Beatitude, he forgot the last two words, “in spirit.” A more likely scenario is that I did not hear them because I was too enamored by the cute neighbor girl sitting beside me on the pew. I think that maybe I missed a lot of the things I needed to hear in church because I was distracted. Whenever I heard “blessed are the poor,” my mind pictured a crowd of people saved by grace mulling around heaven in tatters and rags. What is so blessed about that?
I’m sure my boyhood pastor recited the Beatitude in full. I simply was not ready to hear it in full just like so many other lessons and teachings from Jesus. That could explain why for many years I stumbled through life filling my God hole with everything but God. Ranging from alcohol to sex to pot to pornography to numerous other idolatries, I did not become ready to listen to all the words from Jesus until I was utterly defeated by my own life. No enemy could have defeated me as soundly as I defeated myself. Finally the sweet words of surrender filled my heart when I put some verses into that God hole.
“Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted….” Psalm 46:10
“If the Son, therefore, will set you free, you shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
“Create in me a clean heart, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Those were the first verses I memorized. And yes, I finally heard the full verse of Matthew 5:3. It happened only when my mind understood “poor in spirit” to mean that I need to be fully open and receptive to Jesus, I need to find a state of nothingness and then let Jesus fill the void. I need to go to that space where there is only God. When there I am as a beggar on the street seeking alms, begging for the bread of Life which feeds, the living waters which quench. I have then been impoverished, made poor in spirit, and Jesus will relieve my poverty.
Sure, my mind still shuts down God’s space sometimes, fills it with junk. My thinking says that I should pursue a spirituality based on knowledge, surety, certitude. My ego begins reviewing the spiritual advancement, the learned theology, the numerous books, the good works. I can very quickly become haughty and self-assured within my own religious arrogance. But then, when I have suffered enough from running my own show, Jesus says, “Come back, you will find assurance in me.” cac.org
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!”
Frances J. Crosby
“Jesus Christ is not valued at all until He is valued above all.” St. Augustine
The world does not understand nor wish to understand these few simple words. My personal choice to name Jesus as Lord of my life, my Higher Power, directs me to place everything else whether it is employment, friends, family, spouse, achievement, money, desires, lust, as sub-topics under the primary heading of Jesus, the Christ. I am nowhere near a state of perfection, but, when I place the one who is Perfection at the top of my list in my lifestyle and my devotion then my life becomes g.o.d. – Good Orderly Direction. That is the most I can expect in this lifetime and I am OK with it because g.o.d brings bliss, a state of peace and serenity.
We are freedom fighters! I believe I have been forgiven by the same almighty power which freed me from the bondage of my former self and replaced ego-driven lust, greed, anger, pride, and desire with a devotion to a new way of living with living waters and daily bread to sustain me in this earthly journey. I am no longer imprisoned. Jesus fought and died for my freedom and he has won the battle.
But, it is not free. I must daily pay the price of the world’s derision, hatred, and scourge for the Way of life which God has chosen for me. You and I, as followers, understand this and accept the necessary payment. Friends who are amused by devotion to a church fellowship, neighbors who ridicule tithing, family members who question a loved one’s sanity, a boss who mocks Jesus equating that belief to the Santa Claus myth are all part of the price to be paid for following the greatest freedom fighter of all time.
And I am OK with that. I regret that a majority of people refuse such a simple answer to the world’s problems, but, each person must find his own personal path to freedom if indeed freedom is what they pursue. For them, sometimes dedication to power and riches at the expense of liberty and contentment are the main pursuit in a life filled with like-minded pursuers. Jesus and God do not make the top 10 on their lists of priorities.
I know this because that was me many years ago. I prayed only in times of desperate need, in times of absolute loneliness, in times of crushing personal defeat. I advocated a Jesus who gave people nice cars, fancy homes, and steaks for dinner every night. When times were good God did not make the top ten. In all other times, Jesus was a convenient Santa Claus who bore gifts, a big sugar daddy in the sky. There was no dedication nor devotion and, as a result, life was chaotic and tumultuous. In my life there was no peace because I did not know the Lord of peace.
I do not claim perfection but I know He who is perfect. That power has freed a sinner from the prison which sin will impose. I will stumble often before my earthly time is over because I am still a part of a humanity which is inflicted with character defects. But, I no longer need to be imprisoned by my character defects. One by one they will be overcome and defeated by my personal freedom fighter.
“If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” John 8:36
I’ve never had a problem with the concept of ‘repentance’. I remember repenting many times at the altar of the toilet. “Oh, Lord, get me through this night and I promise to never drink again.”
Years later, I followed the exhortations of my Christian brothers who recited the verses in the Gospel’s plan of salvation, I knelt at the sanctuary altar, and I called myself ‘born again’. That was simple. I immediately knew that I would spend eternity with them in heaven sitting at the feet of Jesus. Or, at least, I hoped so. Unfortunately, it was a brain job, not a heart job. My character defects were still there, my old self was still there, my heart remained stone cold despite being born again. The promise of a new beginning was not the miracle which I expected that would change me in an instant, in a heartbeat, in a brilliant flash of divine renewal.
After many years of stumbling within my own self-will and pretending to understand renewal, regeneration, and rebirth, I once again found myself at the altar begging my Higher Power, Jesus, to clean up the mess I brought with me to kneel at his feet. “Just as I am, Lord, take me and fix me.”
There were no bursting fireworks, no hallelujahs, no light shows to welcome me; instead there was a simple peace, a knowing that this time I was sincere in my plea and I now had the work of engaging in a new beginning. I had to do the leg work, I had to do the soul-searching, I had to do the inventory of character defects, I had to make the amends necessary to cleaning up my mess. I was finally serious about that decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood God. But, I found great comfort knowing without question that God would walk with me every step of the way.
“17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:17
This verse from the author of James in the New Testament is often quoted in recovery programs to teach us that our sobriety is dependent upon working the 12 steps and extending ourselves to encourage other drunks like us to attain sustained sobriety. Faith is fine and absolutely necessary, but, for a recovering alcoholic, works are equally important.
The same is true when I apply this inwardly to my own soul. I believe that I have always had faith; however, I was never able to follow through with a plan of self-renewal. I was weak and unwilling to give up my favorite character defects. I prayed, bowed, meditated and then prayed some more, but never developed a sustained plan of action. Oh yes, the New Year’s resolutions were always written on paper and the desire to live by them was there on January 1st, but the action to follow through was missing.
Today, I do my best to live by my Higher Power’s plan. As a result life is more than I ever expected, better than I deserve. I am an unworthy Jesus freak who knows that each day is a new beginning underscored by a mindset of repentance.
“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36
The clean air, the smell of pine straw, the miracle of butterflies and bees give our brains a necessary airing-out from the challenges of our day. We accomplish great things and solve many of the world’s problems as we stroll, march, or jog around the trails which meander aimlessly through our woodlands. It’s as if this is exactly how God intended our lives to be before we stepped up to the plate and took over. Thanks God, but I’ll handle this myself. Those of us in recovery are especially proficient in running our lives our own way. And we paid heavy tolls along the ego highway. “Self will run riot.”
Those of us who profess Christianity are now observing the season of Lent leading up to Holy Week. In my younger days Lent was a dreaded time of year because it meant sacrificing something which was dear to me. Favorite foods, movies, sex, alcohol, and sweets were among the suggested targets of abstinence. Needless to say, with the ensuing alcoholism of early manhood, I chose to abstain from Lent.
In my personal quest for truth, celebration, and relevance in faith, Lent now has become a particularly solemn occasion. It is a soulful journey with Jesus to my personal cross. I stumble, I endure temptation, I become fearful, and I question God’s will just as Jesus did. I feel the humiliation, the stripes, the blood running down my body just as Jesus did. I feel the nails in my wrists and feet, the sword in my side, the unquenchable thirst just as Jesus did. Two thousand years ago Jesus and I were one essence, just as we are today, and I was there with the historical Jesus of Nazareth when he was crucified.
In 2017 Lent will culminate with the crucifixion of ‘self will run riot’ and will celebrate the resurrection to a spirit filled life with whatever name we ascribe to that Higher Power which now directs our lives. Our journey is a soulful expression of meditation and dedication. It is a time of refreshing renewal. It is a time of discovery and rebuilding. We don’t need to call it Lent, Holy Week, Good Friday, or Easter and we can practice it throughout the year.
In a nutshell isn’t this what our recovery programs are all about? Bill W. and Dr. Bob demystified religion, revealed God as an inclusive and loving essence, and built the program of Alcoholics Anonymous on ancient spiritual principles. It works because those of us who were losers, misfits, and runaways now have a spiritual home with a loving Higher Power.
“If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” JOHN 8:36