7- Subverting Religion

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By now you can see the progression in this series. The yeast that emerged in the forerunner John the Baptist has spread throughout the loaf now and the biggest story of our lives enlarges right before us. Today I’d like to share a bit of my story to illuminate the challenge before us.

There is a reason I’m an online pastor and it’s not rebellion, it’s mercy. Don’t get me wrong, I tried climbing. How many twelve year olds do you know who have a life goal of serving as a pastor? That was me. Something big happened in my heart and I wanted to do something big. I wanted to save the world through religion. I’ve given everything to this pursuit. I have a BA, MA, and PhD that prove my skin in the game.  Like you on your journey, my path was also that of assimilation and rejection.

I entered Bible college at age eighteen. Within months I realized I was already being marginalized. When it came to rock music, Stryper was allowed, but Metallica was not. I was fined countless times for integrity to good music, but told that I lacked purity. It’s insane that a tangential issues became central to my college’s character assassination. I figured it was the college, so I left and went to another.

My twenty-five year career pastoring in countless capacities was the same process of assimilation and rejection. Every church wanted to grow, none wanted real change. My jet ski could not tow the ocean liner. My pithy influence meant that our points of disagreement became the fuel to resist change. It wasn’t a matter of denomination, theology, church structure, or any external thing. In each case, leaders were fearful that change would cut off their economic engine.

And what change was i seeking?

Jesus told his religious authorities to “Go and learn what this means… ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (Matthew 9:13). 

I was simply pressing this truth into the system. We needed less structure, less control, less external measuring. We needed inclusivity, and an open handed posture. We needed to rewrite our bylaws, make theology tangible, make worship meaningful. Mercy to the poor, mercy to the gay, mercy to the divorced, mercy to immoral, impure, drunk, hateful, or proud.

When Jesus met the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11) and the religious people were going to stone her, his correction was to address those who would condemn. When faced with their own need for mercy, they dropped their stones and walked away. Mercy led the way. Mercy sent the woman on her way. Mercy didn’t send her to church. Mercy instructed her to start life all over again with better choices. Mercy didn’t leave her dead under a pile of rocks.

 Mercy subverts religion.

Religion must be subverted because it cannot be overpowered. Jesus never established an alternative religion, his teachings and life chart the path of subversion and freedom. Freedom is not the absence of institutional involvement. The goal is not commitment-phobia. It’s freedom from institutional identification–unto–identification in God. Freedom isn’t having no captors, it’s choosing your captor.

Mercy liberates, sacrifice burdens. Mercy compels us, sacrifice obligates us. What seems so obvious becomes muted among rising egos within institutional power. On the inside, those who wield the scripture are those endowed to induce the most ethical violence on others. I know because in my last post I had exchanged mercy for doctrinal precision as if God desired mental attestation to theology instead of mercy. When I left, I forfeited my entire career and vowed to relearn what mercy means.

Perhaps the greatest irony in life is that Religions that promise a path to God or heaven actually reject the idea that anyone can find God without them. All the great figures of our worlds religions were all able to find God without religion. Then those coming behind the founding fathers entombed us all within an institutional framework.

What does an institutional framework based on mercy look like? Is it even possible?

Religion runs deep. It’s a tabu topic at dinner parties because it breeds contention and insides division as we compete to prove our cinnamon roll recipe is the only one that counts. Religion is so long standing and steeped in tradition, that very few will ever break free from its grasp. Our scientific world is increasingly rejecting historical religion without realizing that science is but another version to replace it. “Meet the new boss–same as the old boss.” -The Who

Even if we were to build a religion based in mercy, there are too many can’t or won’t compete in the marketplace that see institutionalized religion as their ticket to full-time vocation. Ministry of mercy compels us to serve. Ministry as vocation puffs us up and creates distinctions.

Religion is so steeped into our human experience, it’s power cannot be understated. We will create a religion out of everything. Imagine running a sports team based on mercy and not sacrifice. The hallmark of religion gone bad is competition. If it threatens you, or convinces you there is another team for you to hate, then you are in deep. Religion based in sacrifice will try and reabsorb you through works, but if it can’t then it has the power and the ethos to kill you. If religion can’t kill you physically, it will kill you socially, racially, and economically.

Embracing the identity of Religion is precisely Jesus’ definition of losing our true self and dying in ones sin (John 8:24). Unless we see beyond the light show, we will die imprisoned with a pseudonym instead of our true name.

I know it sounds like I’m suggesting that we all leave our religions or stop going to church. I’m NOT. I am asking you to evaluate whether your religion is a framework of mercy or a tradition of sacrifice. You might be in an organization for the good of humanity or you might be imprisoned in an egoic power structure that is plundering your life.

Does your religion sees insiders as better than others? Then it’s puffed up and not following love (1 Corinthians 13:4). Are your leaders sitting at the top or serving at the bottom? If you can’t access them, then it’s not love (Mark 10:43). Does your religion creates distinctions between insiders and outsiders? Then it is not mercy (Romans 10:12).

Mercy doesn’t wear religious clothes. Mercy doesn’t wield power over others, it subverts the powers over others. Mercy sees oneself in all others. Mercy doesn’t keep score. Mercy doesn’t judge your behavior. Go and learn what Mercy means…

Why would you spend another day being defined by such an organization? Mercy frees you. Perhaps the best test of all is to just walk away. Take six months off. During that time, your organization will reveal itself to you. Mercy frees you into your life, sacrifice will coerce you to stay.  Stay only where you are compelled by love, not obligated by duty. 

See how mercy is subversive? If enough people follow mercy, then institutions of sacrifice will crumble and fall. This was always the goal of Jesus. He offers a replacement that is based in love and free to all comers. Perhaps one day, only that type of religious organization will exist. Until then, mercy will continue subverting institutional evil.

No wonder religion wanted Jesus dead. Religion leveraged its power on Jesus, now its our turn to leverage his.

6-Subverting the Community

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We are going to paint with a wider brush today. I’ve elected to combine the institutions of friendship with a host of similar institutions such as: academics, athletics, the arts, local community groups, hobbies and other interests.

Just like the institution of the family, these institutions of community play a very positive role in our world. On the surface, subverting a healthy functioning community seems like the wrong thing to do.

We must grasp not only the definition of subversion, but it’s purpose. I’ve shown that subversion means to turn from beneath or to undermine an authority. Why would we want to do that to the local scouting troop, marching band, sports team, or our closest group of friends? My thesis is that institutions of community are important and we need them for growth, but it’s imperative we don’t derive our identity from any of them. Subversion is required to prevent captivity to any system.

Institutions of community are not bad or evil, in fact they are vehicles for much good. Nonetheless, each comes with an elixir that anesthetizes us to our true self. Each institution only succeeds if it’s able to keep us “in.” Institutions grow by assimilating outsiders into insiders, and the trade off is that they give us a pseudonym, an quasi-identity, but not our true self–which comes only from our Maker. If we accept the trade, and settle for the identity of an institution, then our masquerade begins as we lose consciousness (doze off) of who we are. The illusion is that we are our activity, our title, our contribution, our participation, as if such things defined us. It’s wonderful to have our passions, interests, hobbies, or pass-times, but it’s another thing for them to have us.

Paul says “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, rulers and authorities…” Romans 6:12. Institutions offer us a surrogate self, it gives us something but then imprisons us.  Paul tells us that when these go wrong, the power is not the people in the institution (flesh and blood) , but the “present darkness and spiritual forces of evil.” This is why in the story of Jesus in the desert, the Devil was able to offer him all the kingdoms of the world, their authority was actually his to give (Luke 4:6). This doesn’t mean that the world belongs to Satan, rather that institutional evil is all his.

While this may be a thick pill to swallow intellectually, it isn’t difficult experientially. Go back to Junior High or High School. Recall how it felt to be excluded, diminished or forsaken. Why did it hurt to the core? Recall your friendships and other groups. Why do you think it was so great to be the captain of the sports team? Remember all the cliques? Cliques provided us an identity as we transition out of institution of family.  We conformed by trying to be someone. It felt good to belong (identity) and horrible to be excluded (isolation). Some adults never get over this and spend all their lives, money and time, trying to prove themselves to some group or maintain possession of a fleeting existential sense of belonging. From where does MOFO come? Most people call this a living hell, that is precisely the bibles’ definition.

Institutional power emerges everywhere. It’s the opposite/(adversary/Satan) of a life of liberty and love. Institutional evil exchanges love for control. The solution is not abandoning our community institutions, but subverting institutional corruption with love and inclusion. Jesus called this being Salt and Light (Matthew 5:13-16). This is impossible if we derive our identity from the community.

Our communities do not define us. They are not our home. The big story of the bible is that community cannot provide true ontology (being). This is why Jesus says we can gain the whole world and lose our self (Luke 9:25). Jesus had friends but they didn’t define him: “faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to bear with you? “ (Matt 17:17). He had local community but it didn’t define him: “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among relatives of his household.” (Mark 6:4) Scholars believe Jesus was a carpenter, but never once does he identify himself as such. Undefined.

The correction is supposed to be the Church.

  • It’s a living organism, not a dead institution.
  • It’s a group of extremely diverse people who serve one another, not a group of conformists who plunder others for gain.
  • It’s a collective that lives by one rule, that of love, that infiltrates every nook and cranny of the world like a virus. It’s not an angry mob locked in arms, governed by many rules and oppressive leaders who wage war on the world.
  • The Church is any person whose life compass is True North, not a corner building, or social club that employs ethical violence on people to gain conformity.
  • The Church is supposed to be all people, entering their favorite communities, and influencing them with love for one another. As such it’s the invisible fragrance (2 Corinthians 2:15), not the annoying contender who gets offended easy at every meeting.
  • We don’t GO to church, we ARE the church.

The message then is much bigger than we see at first. Subversion is the hallmark of the Church, it should make everything in the world better. Instead we have institutions that call themselves the church that scare and threaten people and much violence, hatred and pain is left in its wake.

If you understand what I’m saying, then you know at a very deep level that showing up in your very life every day with love, patience, kindness and gratitude is the path of true friendship and the redemption of all things. You, by whatever framework you define yourself, are The Church. Only those who are free and empowered to leave such communities have the ability to bear light and repair them.

“A tree is known by its fruit.” (Luke 6:44). So is the Church.

Consider the driver who lets someone cut in front of them. Consider the leader who isn’t climbing for a title, power, or benefit, but is willing to risk exposure for the sake of others. Consider those who cannot settle for the status quo but courageously seek incremental change. Consider the clerk, maid, or worker who truly serves others from the heart. Consider those who suffer under the tyranny of institutional power and hunger deeply for things to be set right. To all of you who are tapping into the heart of this message, you, all of you, are displaying the greatest power in the universe.  Your are the church whether you attend one or not.

You are embodying the power of all human evolution, transformation, progression, and hope for the future. Do not lose heart. Do not quit. And as James Finely would say; never ever brake faith with your awakened heart. Go out and live YOUR life from the center of love. Make your incremental difference. Our world is counting on you and because of you, it will never be the same.

 

5- Subverting the Family

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In this series we’ve been learning that subversion means to “turn from beneath” or to undermine the authority of an institution. Subversion presupposes a radical change in power, but too often our only framework for a change in power is to overpower something by might. We look at subversion because the gospel is subversive.

Subversion overpowers not by might. It’s not a display of power, it’s a transfer of power. As we saw last week, the path isn’t to go around, it’s going through then rising up. The gospel is the repatriation of personal power of which institutions lay claim. Thus entering the kingdom of God is not merely an event after we die as it’s commonly taught. Rather it’s following the voice of truth out from over-identification with institutional power into the exile of a new identity and personal freedom (Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 4:18).

One could subvert the institution of education by truancy, or by graduation. Truancy leaves you with none of the benefit of the institution, while graduation allows you to extract everything from the institution prior to leaving. Through this lens we can see how mere opposition or rebellion doesn’t take us to a new level, while transcending and including takes us beyond the institution itself. This is the framework of the kingdom that Jesus promoted.

You might think subverting the family sounds wrong, but it’s actually the design. Every adult was born into some institution that enabled us to survive. Some were barely able or willing to take care of our physical needs, others were loving, nurturing and empowering. At some point every bird needs to leave the nest. It’s tragic when children leave to early or when adults stay too long.

Jesus reveals the architecture of his subversive plan:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34-39

In other words, family is fine, important, and necessary, but it’s not the most important thing there is. If we under-identify or over-identify with our family, it’s impossible to find our true identity in God. The power of a family to imprison people cannot be understated. Most people destroy relationships and their lives because they cannot rightly leave their family. Scripture tells us the design is to leave and cleave (Mark 10:6-8). If we get this right, the family is a springboard for abundant life, get it wrong and it’s bear trap around our ankle or worse.

I’m sure Jesus’ parents were initially confused when he transcended the need to differentiate his family of origin from the greater family of all others.

“And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him.  And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.”  And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”  And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Let’s think about our own family dynamics. If the gravitational pull is too strong, then we will live in a prison that allows the institution of family to control our life. We tolerate horrible things and behave at low levels all in the name of “family.” If the gravity is too weak, we lack the connective fibers that allow us be vulnerable and available for deep friendship or love. In both cases we forfeit life for the sake of the institution. We trade who we really are for the pseudonym offered by “the family.

The Gospel of the kingdom calls us out. Heaven is not a place we go to escape the prison of family after we die, it’s the place we live from that allows us to live in liberty along side of those we call family. I can’t count how many Christians who say they believe the gospel but have never experienced its power to free them from family. I believe much of modern Christianity has made an idol out of the institution of the family.

The gospel is the power to subvert the family by going through and rising up from it. Those who break free of its institutional grasp are the only ones free and powerful enough to pull others in their family up to greener pastures. The subversive gospel keeps us from being lulled back to sleep by the anesthesia of family drama.

Does this idea of subverting the family seem threatening to you? If so, you may have gained your identity or personal power from the institution of family or the family has made you a dependent. You’ll need a transfer of power if you are ever to leave and find yourself. Only by gaining the power to leave, will you gain the power stay and be helpful.

It’s a scary proposition at first, but if we follow the voice of liberation we’ll discover that the family we gain by leaving is much greater than the family we leave.

 

 

4- Subverting Death

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This was supposed to air on Easter. I’m actually glad it didn’t. By now the Easter buzz has worn off and people are getting on with Spring, the season of New Life. This series is a long view of how we do life. We miss life by the micro-deaths that put us to sleep. My purpose is to wake us up from the anesthesia that oppresses us.  For this, there’s no better metaphor than resurrection.

Pastors and teachers feverishly defend the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, telling us it’s the backbone of Christianity, Paul agrees (1 Corinthians 15:19-20). By now, we either believe it actually happened, or we still have our doubts. Little more can be added to the discussion so long as the goal of Easter is historical proof.

Two-thousand years later and our goal is proof? That makes me sad. Our world is asking “Why should I care about Easter?” which begs the question as to whether we understand Jesus’ mission any better than his contemporaries. Of all the Easter sermons over my life 95% focused on a post-death benefit, which comes with strings attached (Join Jesus’ teamvoid where prohibited…). How has the subplot of Easter become a threat? Or else…. The questions emerge:

Is this the best of Easter; to retell the passion? Is the goal of Easter really about substitutionary atonement? Was the death of Jesus merely fire insurance? Is the gospel reduced to naughtiness shampoo? If the death of Jesus is anything of these things, then it’s the end of appeasement. It’s the end of low-level religion. So why do we keep going back to the paper maché rock for our Easter play? Is it the voice of our institutional tradition? Easter seems to be another voice saying, “He’s not in there, He is risen!Could the Easter attraction be a distraction?  I think so.  Is the Atonement open for discussion?

Historical data is not the big story of Easter. What if Jesus’ purpose goes beyond busing our table of sin? Jesus says his purpose is to bear witness to the Truth (John 18:37). He goes on to say that everyone who is of the truth listens to his voice. Last week I showed how this (phonés-voice) is that which awakes us from anesthesia. This changes the Easter message from sin management, to consciousness of the truth.

Easter is Jesus’ story of subversion which begins, not ends, with death. There was never a doubt in Jesus’ mind that bearing witness to truth would get him killed. Awake people are disruptive. The herd kills the strays it can’t re-absorb. We might think that subverting death means we avoid it, but Jesus reveals we go through it to subvert it.

The resurrection of Easter, is proved by our waking up in exile. All new life begins in exile where we are detached, isolated, uncertain, but free. Institutions train us, educate us, but unfortunately try to contain us. Death is the final institution of all humanity.

Institutional power needs us to survive. Institutions look out for themselves and thrive on assimilation. They gain power by turning outsiders to insiders. Each institution offers us a version of ourself, a mold into which we are to be pressed (Romans 12:2). Jesus was no different, except molds and ultimately tombs couldn’t contain him. While he participated in institutions, he could not abide. He was in but not of. He went through (transcended) family, friends, community, religion, and his government were all transcended…at a price.

The Easter story reveals our last institution is death itself. Death demands mandatory compliance. Colossians 1:18 says Christ is the firstborn from the dead. This doesn’t mean he was the first to rise from the dead (Jairus daughter, Lazarus) but that he is superior to the institution of death. This means that following Christ is to be willing to die for the truth (“take up your cross” Matthew 16:24). The promise of Easter is that death itself cannot hold us. Resurrection subverts death. Rising up (resurrection) is how we regain power. Going through and rising up is the path of subversion.

When the gospel frees the captive, it juxtaposes us with our institutions as a dissident, and the herd lashes out. The greater the institutional power, the more likely it will criminalize our independence from it. In Jesus’ case, neither Church nor State could tolerate such a stray. Neither could accept the possibility that Jesus told the truth. It’s the same for us. We can subvert through rebellion or through transcending.

Easter is more than naughtiness shampoo. It’s the living drama of healthy subversion retold in our lives each and every day. Easter is the dying process on our way to death.  We either die each time we make a concession and trade authenticity for group think, or we die alone on a hill where the herd vilifies us. The Easter resurrection is going through and rising up to the new life after each little death. It’s the living process on our way to life.

When we would rather be penniless, alone, forsaken, or relegated to the sidelines than lose ourselves in a pseudonym given by some institution, then and only then can we say we’ve been raised from the dead. If we trade our true self for the surrogate offered by the safety of the masses or if we really believe the Kool-Aid of the climbers, then it means our faith has not taken us very far. If our faith has not the power to free us from the small cages, what makes us think we will be delivered from the ultimate cage of death?

Let’s examine the institutions in our life. Our captivity in them determines whether Easter has had any power for us. Following our forerunner means we too will subvert death and every other institution, but not by avoidance, rather by going through and rising up.

 

 

 

3- Three Tests of Anesthesia.

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Our study now transitions from John the baptist to Jesus. Today we start at the beginning of Jesus ministry.

After John baptized Jesus, we’re told that the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:1).  Mention the devil and half of the modern world checks out. Before you do, please keep in mind that this story is describing, not prescribing (indicative not imperative).

To argue the existence of the devil is to miss the teaching of the story, which is that we will all face a wilderness experience where our true character and faith is tried. It’s a test to see if we are awake. Waking up to new life (higher consciousness/ enlightenment) means we trade in the wide road for a constricted path (Matthew 7:13). The hard way is always a trial compared to the easy way of the masses. The subversive kingdom Jesus is inaugurating comes by not being lulled to sleep via mass transit of the herd .

The Spirit leads Jesus to remote testing grounds where he faces what I will call the three forms of anesthesia. These are:

  1. The desires (lust) of the flesh. (Turning stone to bread- Luke 4:3)
  2. The desires of the eyes. (The kingdoms of the world-Luke 4:5)
  3. The pride of life. (Invincibility/-Luke 4:9)

1 John 2:16 calls these “all that is in the world.” Translated, this means that the governing systems and institutions of the world are based in the desire for these things (They were Satan’s to give). Think about it. How much of our world is pulling on the strings of pleasure, status, possessions, fame, luxury or power? From where are the greatest sources of corruption emanating?

Many well meaning pastors and teachers have told us that such desires are bad and to be avoided. I respectfully disagree. Before you join the Amish or begin labeling and hating everything as “worldly”, please consider that the Greek word epithumia (translated as “Lust” or “evil desire”) is actually rendered as “over-desire” or extreme longing.

I teach in my book “Getting Better When You Can’t” that people don’t do bad things, rather we go after good things in bad ways. Desires are not bad, it’s how we fulfill them that shows our true colors.

This means that pleasure, status or possessions are not wrong in and of themselves. They are what they are. However, the over desire of such things means we have been lulled to sleep by their anesthesia. For example, if I want fame so bad that I’ll do anything for it, then I’ve lost my true self (sold my soul) because I’m under the spell (anesthesia) of fame. See? We lose a core part of our humanity when lulled to sleep by over-desiring.

Another way of saying this is that we are deriving our identity (ontology-being) from the desires of the flesh, the eyes, or the pride of life. This can only be a false-self. A self that Thomas Merton says God knows nothing about. The true self is the self given and known by God, the identity offered in the gospel as I showed last week. By finding our identity there, we’re free to fully enjoy all of these things because they don’t define us-God does.

This is precisely the point of this story. Jesus counters the gravitational pull of each form of anesthesia with an adrenalin shot of Truth. His source is the voice or word (rhema) of God. In like manner, we too are awakened by this voice or sound (phoné) that calls us (like Lazarus) to wake up (John 11:43).  You want a nice job, car or house? Fine, just don’t ever define yourself by such things. If you think you are what you drive, or you are what you do, or you are where you live, then you are asleep (deceived).

Too often I see Christians vilifying the world. Viewing it as though it’s all evil and under the control of Satan. This is in fact God’s world, and we are called like Lazarus to wake up and come fourth and redeem it, transform it, and ultimately bring heaven and earth together. Unfortunately, the church has made Jesus an evacuation strategy, not the redeemer of the world. Only a kingdom that isn’t engulfed by the the three anesthesias has the power to effect change. It’s not supposed to be a counter culture, but through the renewing of culture. Do not call unclean what God has called good (Acts 10:15).

Hope comes not beyond this world, but through God in the world.

Without this lens, we cannot see this kingdom Jesus is always talking about. We have to actually be awake to see it depicted in scripture as well as to see it playing out in life. I can point it out and you’ll see it, but the lullaby is always playing in the background.

In the coming weeks, I’ll show how Jesus goes after the religious for their ethical violence on people. I’ll show the various institutions from which Jesus is able to separate because he is awake and not lulled into their seductive pattern or power plays. Like his dessert experience we too will follow his pattern in our own lives. We’ll deal with the institutions of our parents, friends, employers, groups, colleges, religions, and our government each in turn. Each institution offering anesthesia that traps and stalls us.

The Gospel is the voice that wakes us up. The starting place of Jesus ministry was tested at his loneliest, hungriest, and most isolated time. It’s the same for us. His clarity and far sightedness set on truth kept him from the short cuts of immediacy. Like him we are all facing the same options and all of life follows this same pattern. Sadly, many of us will just join the rank and file on the superhighway to the lost, sleeping self, but some of us will follow in his footsteps along the path to true life. Will that be you?

We must arouse the sleeping world. May we awake from our anesthesia to this subversive, paradoxical kingdom and may we wake as many as possible.