Like many of you reading this, I was raised to believe many religious things. Much of that stuff, however, I no longer believe today.
Make no mistake, I’m still a believer. And, what I believe today is very important to me. But what I believe has been and continues to be subjected to rigorous questioning and self-reflection – which, of course, all beliefs should. As you will read what follows, some of you will recognize many of the beliefs, as beliefs you perhaps held as well or maybe still hold today. In either instance, I hope it will be helpful to you, as you look at what you believe and ask your own questions.
The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe
For the most part, I grew up being taught to believe the following things:
1.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God is up above you and me, somewhere in the heavens but beyond the clouds. I had no idea where heaven was and I was sure nobody else did either. Anytime I asked about where heaven was I got the proverbial “deer in the headlights” response. In other words, almost everybody I knew pretended to know and called their pretense “faith.”
I also remember the day I learned just how big our universe is. Or, more accurately, I remember the day I began to sense the vastness of outer space. Nobody has the capacity to conceptualize just how big this universe is. It’s so big in fact, no one has the capacity to even imagine it.
Light travels at 186,000 miles per second, for example.
“So?” you say.
Well, wrap your head, if you could – but you cannot, around this one thought. The little galaxy we live in – which we call the Milky Way – is so vast itself (and, it is a small galaxy compared to the billions of other galaxies astrophysicists have seen), if you were to travel across our galaxy at the speed of light, it would take 85,000 years to cross the Milky Way.
85,000 years. I repeat the number because this number alone is hard to conceptualize.
When I first learned this fact about our Milky Way, I remember wondering whether that meant Jesus was still traveling to reach heaven. For example, when Jesus ascended from the earth two thousand years ago in what the Church celebrates as the Ascension, if Jesus were traveling at the incomprehensible speed of light, he has by my calculations about 83,000 more years of travel before he will ever be able to sit down “at the right hand of the Father in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3). I hope he remembered to bring along some scraps from the twelve baskets of leftovers (Mark 6:43).
What Do You Believe?
I was an adult before I became aware of the vastness of outer space. Like most religious people, I just didn’t think about it. I know now it was because such thoughts are too scary to think…too frightening to imagine. Such thoughts raise serious questions like, “Where is heaven?” Or, worse, “Is there a heaven?” Or, worse still, “If there is no heaven, does that also mean there is no God?”
I have always had an interest in the moon, stars, and planets I can see. I never thought much, however, about the infinity of space I could not see. Then, one day I realized that outer space is more about nothing than it is about anything, more about emptiness…nothingness…than it is about the few stars or planets we can see on a clear night. Oh sure, what we can see is interesting, intriguing, and invites our study. What we cannot see, however – the darkness itself – is infinitely more mysterious. And, unimaginably more infinite.
2. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: God was like a cranky grandfather who was hard to please. But I never ceased trying, largely because I was afraid that, if I did not, I might just offend him and he would reject me.
Even after all these years, it is still hard not to think of God as a kind of Santa Claus who lives above the sky and watches us like a principal monitoring a playground of school kids.
“Better watch out, better not cry, better not pout I’m telling you why…”
Do You Question the Stuff You Were Raised to Believe?
I know those lyrics are in a Christmas song we sing about Santa Claus. But, the truth is, I was raised to think about God in much the same way. As a kind of parental monitor in the grade school cafeteria who dared anybody to step out of line, misbehave, or disturb his neighbor.
So, I spent much of my early life trying to please God. I never felt too successful either.
3.The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: Heaven was somewhere “up there,” or “out there,” too, and that’s where all the “saved” people would go. I was never fully certain whether I was among the “saved.” Not surprisingly, many raised in a similar environment are not either. I was especially concerned about this when I discovered there were other people beyond Baptists, the group within which I was raised, who said they were the ones instead who were actually going to heaven.
I was taught that Baptist were right in their theology and beliefs.
- Episcopal folks were liberals and, therefore, could not be trusted. They were likely secret Communists, too, and should be viewed suspiciously.
- Presbyterians were rich people and owned local banks in town, as well as many of the businesses.
- Methodists were too much like Catholics.
- Catholics were ritualistic and we thought the statues inside their churches proved they were really idol worshipers.
We were certain, therefore, they worshipped many gods. We blamed their idol worship on the fact that none of them really “knew” the Bible like we Baptists did. It never occurred to us that the Bible was our idol. We regarded it as an infallible, inerrant book written by God himself and in the King James tongue. For all practical purposes, therefore, we regarded Catholics as lost and in need of saving. So, whenever a Catholic made a conversion in our Baptist church, it was like a Superbowl win for God.
- Pentecostals were ignorant country people…snake-handlers, too, and they were those who lived in uninhabitable shacks in the hills and valleys and cooked by a potbelly stove.
We held a lot of strange ideas about people inside our own religion. Which explains why most Christians today have a hard time not stereotyping people of other religions or the religions they believe.
4. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: “Saved” people were the ones who had been “convicted by the Holy Spirit” – which was the only way you could be saved – and they were the ones who responded to that inner conviction by stepping out into the aisle at invitation time and making that long journey to the front of the church during an altar call.
Picture a Billy Graham crusade and the choir singing “Just As I Am” and…well…you’ve got the picture.
The “saved” were those, therefore, who agreed with the pastor or “counselor” that they were terrible sinners, deserving of hell because it was their sin that sent Jesus to the Cross. But, now that they had repented, they could be forgiven, provided of course they asked Jesus to come into their hearts.
Which I did. I did several times, in fact. Not publicly, but at night, lying in my bed and all to just make sure that, “if I die before I wake,” I’d be sure to make it.
I do not mind admitting I never quite figured out this whole salvation thing. It never made much sense to me that God hated sin so badly that he had to punish something, or Someone, in order to feel better about things. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you view it, his own son stepped up and said “I’ll go. Kill me. I’ll be the sacrifice.”
From there, the story only got more convoluted in my thinking.
I never quite figured out how any father, much less a “loving” Heavenly Father, could kill his own son and avoid prosecution. It did not help me to question this, as my religious superiors would look askance at me for pointing out such unexamined inequities in our religious story. Instead, they would just look offended by my questions and reminded me that “God’s ways are beyond our ways,” and that “there are some things we just have to accept by faith.”
Really? Then, why did God give us a mind to think with…and a moral code written into our genes that makes us to know deep down there are some things that are just wrong?
Like killing your own Son.
I always found it odd that what I regarded as their fear of questioning things they did not understand, my religious superiors called “faith” instead. I remember many times asking myself, “How is believing something you’re afraid to question an act of faith?”
Mark Twain didn’t help. He’s the guy who laughingly said, “Faith is believing things you know ain’t so.”
If You Don’t Question What You Believe…
Nobody had the guts to answer my questions. At least in my memory.
I always felt, had God been placed on trial for murdering his own son, what jury would have ever accepted his alibi for doing so, “My ways are beyond your ways…” “Somebody had to suffer and die…” “Sin had to be punished…” “Trust that I know best.”
I don’t know about you but those alibis sound Hannibal-like to me.
As soon as I thought such things, however, or raised questions like the ones I’m raising here, I felt my religious teachers viewed me as a troublemaker because they would say things like, “You’d better watch yourself!” “Don’t question God.” You keep that up and you’re likely to end up in…you know where!”
They would never say it because “hell” was regarded as a curse word. But I knew what they were thinking.
5. The Stuff I Was Raised to Believe: Hell was the place where bad people go. Murderers, except God of course, and rapists and disbelievers and people who believed or followed other religions and we were pretty sure the Catholics were all going there, too. Except for the ones who had repented and joined our church.
And, where was hell? It was “down there” and, although like heaven “up there,” I had no idea where “down there” was, again I was sure nobody else did either. I knew one thing for sure, however: I knew I didn’t want to go there. Which was largely why I got saved. I am also pretty sure that’s why everybody else around me got saved, too. Salvation was to rescue you from hell and take you to heaven when you died.
And, that was all there was to it.
Is What You Believe Worth Believing?
Every summer, we had Vacation Bible School. Since every parent in the neighborhood looked for something that would get their children out of the house, and out of their hair, everybody’s neighbor brought their kids to our church for VBS. I figured out early on that the real reason we had Vacation Bible School was not because anybody really liked it. They didn’t. It was a way of getting the neighborhood kids “saved,” however. Their parents did not have the fear of hell in them like we did in us.
All that really mattered in life, you see, was that people get “saved.” In so many different ways, this was all that was important about anyone’s life.
Which never made much sense to me, either.
I remember thinking, “If what’s important is that we get ‘saved’ so as to avoid hell and spend eternity in heaven, why does everybody bother to get an education, compete for the best jobs, concern themselves with getting married, or having children, or buying a house and cars or saving for their retirement? If this is all there is to this life – getting saved – why does everybody pretend this is what’s important while they’re in church, but then spend the rest of the week trying to get to the top?
The top of the social ladder, that is?
(End of Part One) Originally published on Dr. McSwain’s blog.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith diversity and respect or charitable living and giving.
The illusion of spiritual health and disease may actually run in both directions.
There are those, for example, who regard the Church in almost any of its communal expressions as wrought with a kind of irreversible and terminal illness. And, truthfully, there are times I feel this way myself. Like this branch and its brown leaves, these communions may be attached to the vine but there is no resemblance of spiritual life or health and vitality in any of them. Because of this sad reality, many people have chosen to walk away from the Church entirely.
Is There Spiritual Life in Today’s Churches?
I understand this universal walkout and I blame no one for choosing to do so. From time to time, I have come close to doing the same.
Reminders from creation like this one, however, tell me otherwise, when it comes to spiritual life, health, and vitality within some churches and within all persons.
There are always those individuals who are connected to the Source of spiritual life and health. As a consequence, there will always be some Christians communions that display the spiritual life, health, and vitality that thrives within them. But, generally speaking, it is NOT the ones that presume they are. Yet, there are likely more communions with real spiritual life within them than any of us are aware.
Here is the most salient of all spiritual truths.
There IS Spiritual Life and Guess Where?
Whether there is the appearance of spiritual life or not, whether there are communions and persons green with spiritual health and vitality or brown with spiritual illness and dis-ease, all branches are still connected to the Vine (John 15:5).
And, that means YOU!
Listen, it takes a lot of determined effort to detach from your natural spiritual state. I will not say it is impossible. But I will say this: if you’re concerned whether you are…you aren’t.
And, that’s for real.
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His Interfaith Pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.
His name is Tom Ziemann (pronounced “Zee – Man”). I’m not exactly sure when we met. I do know, however, how we met. It was on Facebook. When? Maybe a couple of years ago, but that’s about all I can say.
When I think of all the people I’ve met – amazing people – on what my mother-in-law calls “the Facebook,” I am grateful. Many of them, like Tom Ziemann, were raised, as I was raised, Christian. Today, however, many of them are still Christian but they have embraced, as I have embraced, an openness to interfaith spirituality.
As I write this, I do not yet know where author Tom Ziemann might be with regard to his faith positions. I’ll learn, as you will learn, during the interview. What I do know is that he embraces an interfaith spirituality, as many do today. This is hardly surprising to those of you who follow my blogs and are familiar with Interfaith Spirituality Pendants
I am more Christian today than I have ever been. I am more deeply committed to Christ than at any other time in my life. Yet, I am increasingly aware there has only ever been one spiritual truth, experienced and expressed in a variety of different ways, idioms, cultures, and contexts.
I suspect I will find the same to be true of Tom Ziemann.
What I do know is that I have made many friends from literally around the world via Facebook. While many of them I would not likely recognize if I met them on the street, I am richer as a person for having crossed paths with them on this brief journey through life.
I suspect I’m going to feel the same about Tom Ziemann during the interview.
Unquestionably, Tom Ziemann is one of those for whom I am grateful to God our paths crossed. No mistake in any of that. I stopped questioning a long time ago – at least I think I have – whether the persons we meet, and the varied ways in which we meet them, is part of a divine destiny. I’m not saying it is. I’m admitting instead that I do not know. I just don’t question it anymore.
But do I enjoy it?
You bet I do.
Tom Ziemann is a self-described layman. He’s a terrific author. He is a mature person in interfaith spirituality and he possesses a depth of spirituality many self-described clergy persons never seem to either appreciate or possess.
He’s friendly, too. I am guessing this will come across in the interview just as he does on Facebook. Finally, he is a very talented, gifted artist as well. Go here and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
But it’s this book he wrote that has captured my attention.The Department of Zenitation: A Layman’s Guide to Making Spirituality Work in Real Life.
It’s terrific. Full of insight and spiritual guidance. It’s interfaith in nature, drawing from the many wells of spiritual insight found among the world’s great faith traditions.
Interfaith Spirituality: It Works in Real Life
I am so impressed by him and by this book and I highly recommend it. I have this feeling you’ll be purchasing his book and visiting his website just as soon as you hear him speak and respond to my questions in this brief interview. Check him out. Check out his book. Visit his website. Observe his artistic skill. And, enjoy going deeper in your own spiritual walk.
There are 160+ interfaith spirituality devotions inside this book. I regularly read one or more at the start of a new day. I find great inspiration in the things Ziemann shares. I think you will, too.
Enjoy the interview. Then, get your copy of his interfaith spirituality book: The Department of Zenitation: A Layman’s Guide to Making Spirituality Work in Real Life
I think I have finally decided that to believe in hell, as I once did, is really the admission that Love does not exist in you.
How could it?
HELL? HELL NO!
Just imagine. You’re in the imaginary heaven (I say “imaginary” because, I now believe heaven, just as I believe hell, is a dualistic creation of the mind and that both are states of consciousness, not literally places. BTW, before you judge that as “unbiblical” that is exactly what Pope John Paul II believed, too). But, my point is this: just imagine you’re in heaven – a real place, if you wish, and, from that lofty and eternal place of bliss, love, and compassion, you look down into hell below and see a soul who is burning in torment and suffering.
How could you possibly stand it? Wouldn’t you have to turn away? And then, when you turned away, how could get that picture out of your mind?
That is, if you were really filled with compassion…with love…with forgiveness…how could you ever rest and enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven knowing there were people, maybe some of them your own family, suffering eternally?
If you could stand this, which I no longer believe you actually could, but, presuming you could…if you could…I think what you are really admitting is that your heart is devoid of love.
How could it not be?
That’s my conclusion.
You do not have to agree and many of you will not. But this is the conclusion to which I have come.
To believe in hell is to admit your heart is devoid of compassion. And, for me, I want to become more and more compassionate, not the opposite. So, I have no choice but to refuse to live at a level of existence that actually looks forward to justice and punishment being executed on anyone. So, no, I do not believe in any future judgment or ultimate punishment on you, me, or anybody.
COMPASSION? HELL, YES!
I believe only in compassion, mercy, and love. If that makes me a heretic to you, then I welcome that label with as much enthusiasm as a soldier would welcome the Purple Heart.
I want everyone, whether they deserve it or not, to know and experience Eternal compassion.
And, yes, that means everyone. So no need to start listing those you’re sure should be excluded. Leave that where it belongs – inside a cold, compassion-less heart.
Just my morning thoughts.
No! That’s the short answer.
Almost without exception, faith healers are charlatans or just plain misguided spiritual imposters.
Faith Healers are Imposters
That is not to say your faith plays no part in healing. It does. The role of faith in one’s health is documented. I am suggesting here that the phony flock-fleecing, materialistic rich dudes you see on television and hear on the radio promising healing – if you have faith and send them a donation as convenient prerequisites – are more crooked than Lombard Street in San Francisco.
Faith healers who say Christians should regard sickness and suffering as an attack from the Devil or, if they are attacked, that they could overcome all illness and suffering if they just have enough faith are some of the most pitiful, delusional, misguided, and demonic persons I can imagine. They are evil but, and this is the demonic nature of it all, they appear so godly and sincere.
If you haven’t figured this out by now, you need to be told loud and clear that being human means you will suffer. You will have problems. And it isn’t the Devil – whatever you think that creature is – who is inflicting the sickness or hard times on you. Nor is God “testing” you to see whether your faith is strong enough or you’ve offered up enough prayers to warrant his attention.
Suffering is the nature of life.
Spiritually-mature people know this.
Spiritually-gullible people, however, believe in faith healers like children believe in Santa Claus.
Mature followers of God are those persons who embrace all of life’s experiences and they do so while practicing mindfulness, faith in the Eternal Presence, and personal, inner peace. This all takes discipline and practice. It isn’t a reward you get for an all-night prayer vigil or the right kind of oil anointed on your head. Spiritually-mature persons are those who are learning the secret Jesus taught – indeed every spiritual master taught – and that secret is how to be in the world but not of it at one-and-the-same time.
The Buddha said, for example, “Suffering is the nature of the human experience.”
Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation”(John 16:33).
Here’s my advice: Make spiritual maturity your aim. Let go of the religious nonsense you see and hear peddled across the religious marketplace on television and radio. I don’t want to call any names here. Frankly, however, I do not have to. Almost any of the religious hucksters you see or hear on television and the radio are guilty of this faulty gospel of wealth, health, and prosperity.
If there was one iota of truth to what faith healers claim, why is it then that you have never…I repeat…you have never…again, I repeat, for those of you hard of hearing…there has never ever been one instance when a faith healer, in one of their circuses of miracle healing, restored or healed a Down Syndrome child.
So, why is it you cannot see this phoniness on their part? What is it that has blinded you to this trick of theirs that you would still be willing to send your last dollar to them so they can jet set around the world selling their phony formulas they call faith and the “Gospel?”
Yes, the question is: What is wrong with your capacity to see evil for what it really is?
If faith healers were real, which of course they are not, wouldn’t they be able to release God’s power to heal at least ONE Down Syndrome child? Is God only able to take away crutches from those with pains in their backsides or tumors in their chests?
Come on! Wake up! Give me a break! Stop being sucked in by these charlatans masquerading as spiritual leaders. Live real. Be real. Stop making a mockery of your own faith.
It just ain’t so!
It isn’t evil in this world – although there is plenty of it on the streets everywhere – that is destroying the Christian faith and our culture. It is religious hucksters like I’ve just described who have doing more harm to the Christian faith than anyone or anything else in this entire world.
What this world needs is for people like you and me to grow up! To let go of childish faith. And, at the least, turn away from these charlatans pretending to be God’s servants.
Walk with God instead, in and through all of your experiences, the good days and the bad days, the days of triumph as well as the days of suffering. You’ll have both. So, do not try to escape from either. Step into your problems instead. Do so with courage knowing you are not alone.
Because you’re not!
Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.
Luke 10:38-42 New English Translation (NET Bible)
Jesus, Martha, Mary and the Spiritually-Mature Person
38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted with all the preparations she had to make, so she came up to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work alone? Tell her to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her.”
For years, I have read this story from Luke as have most all Christians, as well as the church traditions out of which they come, as preferring a contemplative life over any other kind of life. This interpretation works well, especially if you are among the clergy and have chosen to career path of a minister or, better still, the life of a monk.
Over the centuries, this story has been read as a kind of condemnation of Martha who admittedly appears slightly obsessed with her service. The story has also been viewed as a praise of Mary for having chosen “the best part” – namely, to be as a good student in school, contemplative…a good listener, and one who follows instructions.
To Be in Service or to Be in Silence?
But herein lies the problem with this traditional interpretation. It praises Mary while rebuking Martha. It makes Mary’s choice to sit look better than Martha’s choice to serve. While that interpretation has been the Church’s popularly accepted interpretation for centuries, it misses Jesus’ real point altogether.
Whatever else he was saying, Jesus was not setting up an either/or proposition, one choice being better than the other. Had he meant to do this, he would have used the word “better” to draw a distinction between the two choices available in the story, Mary’s choice clearly being the better of the two.
You will notice instead, however, Jesus said Mary had chosen “the best part” meaning, both service and silence are good. But clearly, the best way to live is to serve in silence. That is to say, to be like Martha and serve while being like Mary in silence. Service in silence. A silent service. To live your life publicly while nurturing your soul privately. There are many ways to say this.
But this IS the trick, isn’t it?
The Spiritually-Mature Person is Learning to Serve IN Silence
It’s far easier to serve…to do good…but lose yourself at the same time in serving. We do all the time. We get up and go to work and live for the weekend when we can rest. To learn to rest while working…now that’s a trick! Maintaining your connectedness to Source while the office is coming apart at the seams? Master that, and you have become a spiritually-mature person.
Conversely, it is far easier to withdraw from the world…to enter a monastery, for example, and devote oneself to a rigorous discipline of contemplation, silence, and prayer and never get around to serving either. Just sit all day at the feet of Jesus. Well, it might look spiritual but it isn’t. Feeding yourself spiritually may be better than living a purely materialistic life, as Jesus made clear through one of his own temptations (“Man shall not live by bread alone – Matt. 4:1ff). But God is not interested interested in detached followers any more than I’m interested in decaffeinated coffee.
Mary’s choice and Martha’s choice are both good. The best, however, and certainly where the majority of us are in our lives, is to do balance our service with connectedness to our Source. I have found this is the biggest challenge facing those interested in becoming spiritually-mature persons.
A spiritually-mature person is learning to balance outer service with inner silence…to listen within while doing your duties without.
Don’t think this is tough?
That could only be because you have not tried it.
Make no mistake. The spiritually-mature person is neither spiritual nor mature because he or she can quote from memory endless chapters of the Bible or because he or she goes to church six days a week. Neither does living life like a monk in total seclusion and silence make one more spiritual than a broker on Wall Street.
A spiritually-mature person is the one who practices the art of listening while living…of being while doing…of hearing while hammering…of serving while seeking the Sacred through solitude and silence.
Mark Nepo, in The Book of Awakening, puts it like this:
“Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world, but to unglove (or, undress) ourselves so that the doorknob feels cold, and the car handle feels wet, and the kiss good-bye feels like the lips of another being, sold and unrepeatable.”
Wish to become a spiritually-mature person?
Make it your practice to serve outwardly while seeking silence inwardly. This is the secret to YOUR BEST LIFE NOW!
Jesus was “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness, as the Gospel writer Matthew describes in detail (Matt. 4:1ff).
That wasn’t by limousine either. But, as I pointed out in the first of this four-part post, life will take you, even if it has to drag you kicking and screaming, into whatever you need for the evolution of your spiritual consciousness. I learned this from my spiritual guide. I heard it beautifully articulated by Eckhart Tolle. And, I know it from my own experience as well.
This does not mean, however, I regard everything that happens to me, or everything that will happen in the future, as God’s will. There was a time in my life when I spoke regularly and definitively about “God’s will,” as many do still, as if I actually knew what it was. In recent years, however, I’ve decided it is presumptuous, even arrogant, to even remotely assume I, or anyone else, knows the will of God. Except perhaps in one place, where Saint Paul said, “Be thankful in all things…for this is the will of God” (1 Thess. 5:18). You’ll notice he did not say, “Be thankful FOR all things.” He said instead, “Be thankful IN all things.”
The most I will say, and I cannot say this with absolute certainty, is this: the great paradox of human existence is that God seems both inextricably interconnected to everything I experience and, at-one-and-the-same-time, not responsible for or connected to any of it. I do not try to explain this because there is nothing to explain. I simply make it my practice to look for the Presence of God in every life experience.
Therefore, if the first detour to avoid in your spiritual journey is the mistaken notion that you can live a trouble-free, problem-free life — that you can live life on a mythical “Easy Street” — the second detour to avoid is thinking there is an “Easy Path” to the life you imagine living — that you can achieve something or get something for nothing…that success without sacrifice is actually possible.
The Myth of “Easy Street”
The first temptation, or trial, of Jesus was at the point of his greatest strength. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was spiritually strong, certainly in touch with himself and with Source itself.
But herein was the danger he faced.
While spiritually strong, he was physically hungry and weak. Having had no food or nourishment for more than a month, his extreme hunger made him extremely vulnerable. In that state of vulnerability, he looked at the smooth, round stones lying on the ground and was immediately reminded of the small, round balls of dough his mother would knead into loaves of bread. As he recalled this, it was as if he could smell the aroma of fresh, baked bread.
“You have the power,” whispered the devil, which was really his shadow self and the same shadow self inside your own head. “Why not use your power to turn these small stones into bread and satisfy your hunger.”
This was his danger.
It is our danger, too.
Jesus refused to use his personal power to circumvent the normal processes of bread making to satisfy his hunger. In other words, he refused to succumb to the temptation of seeking something for nothing. Therefore, he not only avoided the myth of EASY STREET, he avoided seeking an EASY PATH to satisfy his own hungers or desires.
I think about this every time I buy a lottery ticket. Which, thankfully, isn’t very often.
In fact, I only ever buy a Powerball ticket when the amounts get staggeringly high. And, “high” is relative and always changing. For example, “high” used to be $10 Million. Remember when Publisher’s Clearing House first got into full swing? Ten million seemed high, almost beyond imagine. With the Powerball Lottery sometimes reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, however, who bothers with Publisher’s Clearing House anymore?
Isn’t our state-sponsored lotteries only an attempt to get something for nothing?
Lawmakers know they can’t get elected by being honest enough to tell the voting public that we have to raise taxes to fund education, pave our highways, fund our public programs, etc. What public official ever got elected telling such truth? Or, trying to run a winning campaign by admitting, “A vote for me is a vote to raise taxes.”
What politicians have learned to do is play a foolish game of deception. Voters are complicit in this, too, because we help make the rules and then support it by buying lottery tickets.
Lawmakers, therefore, avoid the more honest approach and use the lottery proceeds to essentially raise tax revenues. However, it isn’t the well-off you see standing in long lines to buy lottery tickets in convenient stores, is it? I seldom see it, anyway. No, I suspect the real truth is, this method of raising taxes takes advantage of the poor. It actually preys on those whose resources are clearly limited.
We seek something for nothing.
Personally, we do this, too. I have often wondered, for example, what I would actually do if I ever did when the hundred million dollar Powerball. Oh, sure, I pretend like the best of them how generous I would be and how much of it I would give away.
When I am honest, however, and that’s only when I avoid the lure of buying a ticket, I know that all my imaginary generosity is only to appease the guilt I feel. Anybody who has ever stood in line to buy a lottery ticket will have to admit far too many of those standing with you should probably be spending what little discretionary income they have on something other than the promise of an Easy Path to the mythical Easy Street.
Here’s another example of the Easy Path people seek to recognition, success, power, position, whatever.
Have you ever noticed that almost every fundamentalist preacher in America who is anti-education, anti-scholarship – and that would be a great many of them – and yet, in spite of their vitriolic anti-education rhetoric, virtually all of them have “Dr” in front of their names?
Why? If the real truth were fully known, many of these want the prestige even they associate with education but they have neither the discipline nor the honesty to take the hard road…the road of sacrifice…to secure a real education. They want something for nothing, to change the stones into bread and enjoy the taste of recognition.
There Is No Easy Path
Here’s one other application for consideration. Those interested in spiritual things quickly discover there is no Easy Path to spiritual awareness…spiritual growth. There is no spiritual success with the discipline of study, reflection, meditation and prayer.
Jesus put it like this…straight from Deuteronomy 8:3…”You cannot live on bread alone.”
But that never stopped anyone from trying.
The real truth is: there is no way to live a truly sacred life on a purely material level.
There is no Easy Street anywhere.
There is no Easy Path to a life worth living.
What’s really priceless in your life always comes with a price.
And the price?
Your life itself.
“So many roads. So many detours. So many choices. So many mistakes,” says the actress Sarah Jessica Parker.
Yes, and on the spiritual journey, there are four roads, mistakes, and detours to avoid. But what are they? They are the same detours Jesus sought to avoid, even as I suspect all other spiritual masters sought to avoid…indeed every spiritual seeker.
The roads or detours Jesus sought to avoid are described in Matthew 4. I’ll describe the four roads he avoided in four different posts.
The first road to avoid is the proverbial, but mythical, “Easy Street.”
Who seeks a trial to endure or a difficulty to navigate? Don’t we all secretly long to live on “Easy Street?” Does this not explain our fascination, even our veiled enjoyment, whenever we hear of the trouble that comes to those whom we regard as people of privilege, power, or possessions? Having envied their lofty position for so long, we find strange enjoyment in the misfortune that has befallen them.
Easy Street – Isn’t It Really Just a Myth?
At the outset of his public ministry, Jesus endured trials. But not because he chose them. Like you and me, I suspect he sought to avoid them. Which is why in Matthew’s gospel account, we are told the Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness (Matt. 4:1). That’s a literal reading of the Greek text, meaning something similar to what we’d say “forced” him into the wilderness.
Life has a way of taking you where you need to go for the evolution of your spiritual consciousness. You cannot avoid difficulty. Nobody lives on Easy Street. The only difference between any of us in terms of the difficulties we do face is that some seem to face far more than their fair share.
Job’s counselors explained, and of this much they were right, “People are born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).
Life will try you. Sometimes, relentlessly.
When I hear Christians opine, however, “God will never put on you more than you can handle,” I recoil, just as I would if I saw a snake on a path while hiking through the woods. I do so for a couple of reasons.
First, God does not put anything on anyone, any more than you would make your son or daughter’s life more difficult or miserable than it is already. Just the opposite is in fact the case for most loving parents. They do all they can to help their children avoid difficulties. Stop attributing such nonsense to God.
Second, there are times in life when the trial…the burden IS greater than any human could possibly bear. If you don’t think so, then consider yourself lucky. But do not consider yourself special or, worse, as “protected” or “spared” by God.
God does not protect anyone or spare anyone. And, don’t bother to quote scripture in objection to this. Just because people in old scriptural times attributed everything to God and believed God would rescue them or protect them from all trials and difficulties – if of course, they prayed and lived right – …and, just because they attributed to God their victories as they stood proudly holding the decapitated heads of their enemies doesn’t mean it is so. Stop reading the Bible as a explanation for everything or a justification for shallow thinking.
God simply is. Now, of this much I’m pretty sure, you can be sure: God’s presence is with you always. God’s presence can be known in every experience, too.
And, yes, there are times when it appears to you that something, or Someone, has spared you or protected you or blessed you with something wonderful and unexpected. But do not make the mistake of thinking the avoidance of tragedy means the hand of God has spared or protected you, even as others died going through the same thing.
Furthermore, do not think that picking the winning lottery numbers is the hand of God “providing” for you. Even if you are inclined to say, and who would not be after winning the Powerball lottery, “Thank you Jesus!” Say it to yourself, if you wish, acknowledging the feelings of gratitude do need to be expressed, but be spiritually wise enough to remember, God had nothing to do with either.
Be Grateful, Prayerful, and Assured…But Do Not Be a “You-Know-What!”
God has created this world and her presence permeates it all. But God is not running around placing shields of protection over some, while withholding his protection from others. Such explanations only reveal just how shallow much of the spiritual thinking is both America and in the Church today.
Here’s what I would suggest instead:
Be grateful when an unexpected blessing comes your way.
Be prayerful when you find yourself facing trials and difficulties.
Be assured God is with you in any and all situations of life.
Isn’t this enough? Isn’t this spiritual maturity? Isn’t this avoiding the myth of “Easy Street?”
Do not be so shallow as to genuflect and cross yourself when you score a touchdown.
Do not be so insensitive, even anti-Christ, as to carry a sign around the edges of an incomprehensible human tragedy declaring, “God Hates Fags and this Tragedy is His
Judgment against Sin!”
May God help us!