Spiritual practices, like meditation and even church-going, can become spiritual bypass—ways of bypassing reality both outside and inside of us, dissociating from wounds within and without, ignoring the healing work that needs to be done in our inner and outer world.
But spiritual practices can also be vehicles for transformation of both ourselves and our world.
How?—by giving us new ways of seeing and being (which is the whole point of authentic spiritual practice).
Let’s take a look at a few practices...
Conscious Breathing: With as little as 10 slow, complete exhales and 10 full, relaxed inhales, we can calm the fight, flight, freeze survival impulse, allowing us to move from a reactive, closed off, defensive place to a receptive, open, deeper place.
Centering Prayer: Through daily practice of 20 minutes of silent surrendering to God’s presence & action, we let go of our ego-drivenness and receive inner healing of compulsions and soul wounds. Not only does this bring personal freedom but it releases us from projecting our compulsions and wounds on others and passing them down to our children.
Lectio Divina: Spiritual reading allows a word or phrase in a small portion of inspired text, whether sacred Scriptures like the Psalms or a poem, to speak to us. Rather than bringing what we already know or studying it, we allow the text to study us! As we bring our story, our lives, to it, we humbly listen for the wisdom and guidance being offered (which may be encouragement to see a counselor or write a letter to your senator!).
Awareness Examen: Looking over our lives at the end of the day through the eyes of God helps us become aware of God’s life-giving presence and action (and the times throughout the day when we were unaware or resistant). The patterns of what is life-giving and life-draining help us discern who we are and what we are to offer this world.
Silent Retreats: Extended time in silence and solitude creates space for our souls to rest and play which opens us to better hear the “still, small voice” which may be drowned out by the external noise of daily life or the internal noise of comparing ourselves to others.
There are so many practices I could list here but the point isn’t the practice itself, it’s the “fruit.”
Seated meditation may not fit you. You may desire some kind of moving meditation, like dance or qigong. Or you may prefer to spend time in nature or doing art.
What practices have you found that cultivate love in you? What helps you have eyes to see and tend to the suffering both inside yourself and in others? Which ways of wisdom help you discern what is yours to offer this world (not out of compulsion but compassion)? A Spiritual Director can companion you on this journey of discovery of spiritual practices.
But remember, it’s not necessarily the practices, it’s the humans who are transformed by these practices, that this world needs. What do spiritual practices like Centering Prayer offer a hurting world?—YOU!
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Mark 16:8 (NIV)
Sometimes our reaction to resurrection isn’t joy.
Sometimes it’s trembling and bewilderment (or as the NRSV translation says “terror and amazement”).
This Easter, my family of four paused at this ending of the book of Mark before continuing on with the two endings that were added later on.
My teen daughter jokingly calls the latter the “fan fiction endings” (alternate endings or additional info added by those who love the story rather than the original author). She is a reader of fan fiction when it comes to her favorite novels.
Clearly the women's fear and silence was not the end of the story given how it unfolded in the other Gospels and in the book of Acts, but the earliest manuscripts stop at verse 8.
And it got us wondering how many times in our own stories has God presented us with resurrection and we’ve been too scared out of our minds to accept it (let alone tell anyone!).
This might be resurrection in the form of a new dream, calling, or relationship arising just when we thought all hope was dead and gone. Maybe this has happened to you (or is happening to you) and instead of joy, your first response is trembling, bewilderment, and keeping it to yourself. Why?
Why might terror and amazement be our first reaction to the reality of resurrection?
It doesn’t fit our storyline. We’re not expecting it. The women were expecting to see Jesus’ body, that’s what they were prepared for. Their biggest challenge was how they would roll the stone away, that’s the story they were prepared for. They were utterly unprepared for this.
Years ago, my husband had just broken off an engagement. He told God he was ready to be a lifelong bachelor, then less than two months later, I came along…terror and amazement.
We don’t want to let go of our old storyline. If we let go of what is familiar (even if it’s painful), what might that mean? What might others think if something is voiced that is out-of-the-norm, completely other than what is expected? They were just ordinary women going about their plan to anoint their loved one’s dead body. Nothing out-of-the-ordinary. Now they are told to be evangelists! Women sharing the Good News with men—of the risen Christ—not so easy, definitely tremble-worthy.
In Russ’ hidden handbook of dating, two months was not enough time in between relationships. What might others think? Could he let go of what others (and even a part of himself) thought?
The new storyline seems too good to be true. Who wouldn’t want to hear that their loved one has been raised from the dead?! Sometimes when something is beyond our own imagining, it triggers all of our insecurities and fears. Given women’s role in society, perhaps the women that early morning felt especially vulnerable in sharing such news. Would they be believed and if not, what then? Could they bear being mocked and belittled?
Entering into another relationship for Russ, meant entering into another possibility of exhausting dysfunction, hurt, and rejection. Staying to himself seemed easier, but after our first conversation, he could not resist the feeling of hope for a healthy relationship. He had to decide if stepping out of hiding was worth the risk and ridicule.
He decided to take the risk that comes with resurrection.
After learning I had just had my wisdom teeth out, he walked up to me after a church service (he played in the worship band and I was the youth pastor) and asked how I felt after the surgery. Awkward? Yes. Did it trigger not only his, but all of my own insecurities? Yes. But, we will have been married for twenty years this October.
As I write this, I’m staring into the face of another resurrection. It has come while I have not yet totally released my grief and attachments to the old, dying storyline (what, how & who I had planned on being part of the unfolding of a dream I had pictured over fifteen years ago). Much like Russ experienced twenty-one years ago, God has raised up a new dream before I have felt ready, causing much trembling and bewilderment!
And like the women that morning, I have been afraid. I have needed time to ponder whether or not the eyes of my heart have been deceiving me. And I have needed to further loosen my grasp on the old while becoming aware of what has been triggered in me so as to open my hands and give my heart to the new. As the Spirit of God gives me courage, I share the good news of this new dream with others. And I imagine it will spread soon enough (as good news eventually does!).
When resurrection happens may your eyes be open to see it. And may the terror and amazement lead not to shame but to solitude with the God who raises the dead and to community with spiritual companions who can give you courage. May you trust that you will not remain afraid forever, but step boldly, no matter how clumsily, into the truth revealed by the resurrected Christ.
I did not think I could do spiritual direction without my dog.
She had been there from the beginning with her soulful eyes. She knew when to sit on a directee's lap, cuddle up beside them, or stay on my lap looking and listening. Her presence and gaze was the topic of conversation during many spiritual direction appointments.
"It's like she's looking into my soul!" one young seminary student exclaimed.
"In my vision, it was your dog that helped me have courage and assured me that I would not fall into darkness; how did she know to come sit with me at just that moment?!" a stay-at-home mom said with wonder-filled eyes.
When asked to sum up what God had been offering him through spiritual direction, the aerospace engineer who cultivated a Zen garden in his backyard, replied, "The image is Annie, your dog. God has shown me grace through her."
My miniature dachshund and I were partners. So when faced with sitting with people by myself, I did not think I had what it took. I was convinced it would not be as powerful of an experience for people. I relayed my fears to Father Carl Arico while on a Contemplative Outreach retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee. And while he believed I would be just fine, he suggested I set out a photo so that she would continue to be with me during the time of spiritual direction.
It was then that I understood how God had companioned me through her during my beginning stages of being a spiritual director. She had modeled ways of listening and discernment, showing me it was not about what I knew, or about any kind of performance, but how I was with people that mattered most. Through her, God had been present to me.
Countless times since then I have met with people whose best (& many times only) experience of the unconditional love of God has come through their dogs. Because of my own experience of how a dog can be a vessel of the Divine, I pay special attention to the relationship people have with their pets. And I integrate this relationship into prayers and spiritual practices, because the love they give counts.
So maybe you are one of the people who need to hear that the way your dog loves you is God loving you through your dog. If that's the case, a spiritual practice for you is spending more time with your dog!
I know a woman who has three precious dogs, I call them her visible Trinity. Being with them is so life-giving, filling her with such love, that she is able to be in the world and interact with people differently than before the time with them. Her dogs usher her into the mind of Christ and is that not what the best spiritual practices do for us?
Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
We all experience the "voice" of the Sacred Presence. Whether or not we pay attention or correctly identify it requires ongoing discernment. One thing is for certain, it's hard when you're hangry (hungry + angry)!
On Sunday mornings, my family spends a little time in guided prayer. We often get ideas from Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry: A Guide to Transforming Your Students' Spiritual Lives into Journey, Adventure, and Encounter by Jeannie Oestreicher and Larry Warner (I'd use this resource even if I didn't have kids!).
The past two weeks, we were "present" in the desert with the exhausted Elijah who needed to rest and eat. Then we were with Elijah again as he experienced God's voice. We, too, received God's invitation to rest and eat in the desert as well as recognized God's voice as we stood beside Elijah on the mountain.
After some time in silent reflection, we share what we experienced. I'll share mine.
"What are you doing here?" is the question Elijah hears God say to him in I Kings 19:13, twice.
As I stood at the mouth of the cave on the mountain in my mind's eye, I realized the power of gentleness through that question. It took me a while, though. The first time, I felt criticized.
Tone matters. How we hear God's question to us reveals our current condition, our image of God, and how we interpret and then respond to the question.
When I am exhausted, I can hear things in a particular way that perhaps the speaker never intended. I can also miss things the person intended me to hear. My response often reflects my tone deafness. My husband and kids can attest to this!
Only after resting and eating, did Elijah have the strength and ability to look, listen, and recognize God's response to his complaint.
In Chapter 19 of the book of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament of the Bible), we're told that God had Elijah go stand on the mountain and watch for the Lord. A whirlwind, earthquake, and fire came and Elijah did not recognize God in them. It was in what followed the fire...a gentle whisper (the sound of sheer silence some translations say)...that Elijah recognized the voice of God. And God asked Elijah for the second time, "What are you doing here?"
The second time, I became curious as to how we were all hearing it in our imaginations. I had my family try something after the time in silence. You can try it, too:
For me, the question changed completely! It went from a judgmental, accusing, you-should-be-doing-more tone, to one of care and concern. The voice in the whisper reminded me of the caring words and actions of the angel of the Lord who had offered much needed rest and food to Elijah forty days earlier.
And this reminded me of how the gentle whisper of God never fails to silence my inner critic and relax my body. I no longer feel the urgent need to run and hide (or get compulsively busy). When I listen to the still, small voice, I am ready to hear more-- even if that more is something that in a hangry moment I would not be open to hearing. Like, "What are you doing here?" which could be literal (in this physical place) or metaphorical (in this place in your life).
God (& my family) knows that after food and rest, I am ready for an honest conversation!
How does your body let you know?
Here's how mine lets me know that the chaos is starting to overwhelm:
...eyes feel strained and tired.
...brain feels like an electrical storm of overstimulation.
...breathing is shallow or I'm holding my breath.
...adrenaline surges, making it hard to be still.
...chest feels heavy and tight with anxiety.
...shoulders and neck get tense.
...head begins to ache from all of the above!
This is a sure sign to me that it’s time to step away from the phone, stop scrolling through social media, or reading/watching/listening to the news. I won’t find what I’m really looking (or longing for) anyway!
And no, I'm not not talking dissociation (disconnecting with reality) and ignoring what is going on in the world. I'm talking about connecting with reality as it is experienced and revealed by our bodies so that we can connect to reality as it is outside of our bodies in a healthy way.
What if we asked ourselves, "Who is the me I'm bringing to the world (and to the issues at hand)?" Am I bringing my frantic, survival self or my grounded, truer self? Which would you prefer, by the way?
How do we do we connect with our true self (hint: not through more social media or news!)?
By diving under the chaotic surface of the waves (remember they’re connected to the calming deep but few venture to go there!), we discover our truer self. In the deep we surprisingly find we’re able to breathe, rest (physically & more!), and receive what’s next (or what isn’t next).
Instead of my frazzled, overstimulated, chaotic mind making decisions, I can bring to the world (& all its issues) the contemplative mind…the mind of Christ.
So here’s some permission. Dive (or if you’re extremely tired, sink) into the deep for a while.
Still don’t know how? Are you breathing as you read this? That is your starting place. Then maybe some Spiritual Direction for further exploration.
How many of you are giving, giving, giving? Or producing, producing, producing?
Years ago, a Spiritual Director offered me a great image after hearing my story of burnout as a youth pastor. She said, “People in ministry often stand by the Well passing out cups of Living Water to others and forgetting to drink from it themselves!”
I was so busy being productive and constantly giving of my time and energy that I had neglected my own soul. I mistakenly thought my stamina and ability to be productive was soul food because after all, it was in service to God! My subsequent burnout said differently. EVERY area of my life was impacted…physical, emotional, mental, relational, & spiritual. No area was left untouched because all areas are interconnected.
We have a tendency to separate the body and soul, but according to the Hebrew language, there is no division between the soul (“nephesh”) and the body. So, YOU DON’T HAVE A SOUL YOU ARE A SOUL! You may have heard this before, but it’s true. You are a living, breathing, physical being, A WHOLE MADE UP OF MANY PARTS. Any of those parts can be trying to get your attention and tell you the truth.
My own dualism 20 years ago, viewing my body as separate and of lesser importance than my soul caused me to not listen to the wisdom my body was offering me. My body became a hurdle to my spiritual work and this was a major reason I burned out.
Over the years, I’ve met with countless pastors, ministry leaders, those in nonprofits, and care-givers of all kinds who come to Spiritual Direction in a similar state…weary and parched from trying so hard, giving so much, and on the verge, if not in the middle, of burnout.
What were their indicators that their souls were parched? Here are some…
Any of these sound familiar?
How about you, what are the indicators that your soul is parched?
I know Thanksgiving is coming up, but what if you stop giving to others just for a moment?
Offer a cup of Living Water to yourself by listening. Are there any parts of you (or your life) that are trying to get your attention? Do you need help listening? Or help stopping?
Spiritual Direction is a great place to stop and listen for the wisdom within your own life, your own body. I promise, these parts of you are eager for you to listen to the wisdom they hold. They are only a moment’s notice away—and will give thanks when you finally pay attention!
Next week we’ll take a look at what your soul is craving (& it's more than pumpkin pie!).
“Must be hard being 10 and already going through dark night of the soul,” 14-year-old, Lainey, said as the two of us drove back from her fencing lessons.
Her comment about her brother caught me off guard.
As a Spiritual Director, I companion adults going through Dark Night of the Soul, but I had not considered how children may, too. I know that children suffer depression which in adults can coincide with Dark Night, but I had not seen Dark Night through a child’s eyes (even though our most memorable moments with God often happen when we are children).
For those not familiar with the concept, Dark Night is a stage in the spiritual journey that Saint John of the Cross experienced and wrote about in the 16th century. He gave words to the “spiritual crisis” that occurs for those seeking union with God or to embody Perfect Love.
Whether happening gradually or initiated through a tragedy or hardship, Dark Night can be felt as emptiness and dryness. Our go-to spiritual practices no longer “work.” Those activities and places of belonging that once brought us enjoyment, no longer do so. We suffer disappointment, doubt, disorientation, discomfort, disillusionment, and even the utter disintegration of our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and life. In experiencing this loss and grief, depression can occur.
We ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who and where is God?” “What’s going on?” “Why can’t things go back to ‘normal’?” “What is normal anyway?” “Will this ever end?”
This liminal space is entered into many times in our lives as we find ourselves in places and situations we would rather not be (like in a pandemic!). We are in that “in-between” of who we were before and who will be after…it’s definitely uncomfortable. My 10-year-old joins the rest of the planet in this communal Dark Night of the Soul.
He’s asking, “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” “Do I even have friends anymore?” “Will friends recognize me when I do go back to school?” “Is virtual school even school?” “Will I ever play baseball or basketball again?” “Will I even love sports again?” “Things are too stressful in the world right now, is it always going to be like this?”
Now here’s what makes Dark Night different from depression. When depressed, it’s a good idea to seek counseling and/or receive medication which hopefully helps us emerge from the darkness of depression with great relief. And while there may be inner relief from the suffering (which is something to celebrate), there may not be inner transformation. One may be grateful to simply return to oneself.
During a Dark Night, rather than seeking a way out of the darkness, we are led deeper into it (a Spiritual Director is really helpful in the dark!). This is the place where God loosens our attachments to all we may mistake for God, life, and our true selves.
It can be painful to have these attachments revealed and painful to let go of them. After all, we might really love being known as the athlete, whether spiritual or baseball! We might cherish the feeling we get in imaging and relating to God in a certain way.
However, when we emerge from Dark Night, we not only find relief but we are also transformed. We no longer see or exist in the world in the same way we did prior to the darkness. In other words, we do not return to ourselves, but are a new, truer Self!
An expanded heart is the fruit of the Dark Night. We see God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways and we are free to love God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways.
A different 14-year-old girl shared an image that came to her during our Girls’ Group-time of listening to the instrumental song, Unfolding. It offers a beautiful and striking image of what it’s like to come through Dark Night of the Soul:
I saw a newborn fawn.
The fawn had outgrown the only world it knew and she was witnessing the moment of it breaking free of the old and opening its eyes in the new one. As her words convey, the birth process is messy--so is being “born again” into a new way of being and seeing! This is my hope for our world. In the words of Matthew Fox, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the meantime, we have the birth pains.
Last night I talked with my son about his struggles and the possibility of counseling. With his permission, I share what he said: “Mom, I don’t think I need counseling right now, I have no problem discussing my feelings with you and Dad. And yeah, I’m learning new things about myself, but I’m mad and nothing helps. I hate sports right now. Lainey’s discovered a sport and mine are gone. I can't do anything right. I don’t know when it will end, maybe it never will. But I don’t need any other voices right now, what I need is you.”
At 10, he’s being led deeper into the dark and I’m going to sit with him there, as a Spiritual Director and Mom. Together, in this womb-like darkness, we’ll wait and trust that the God we cannot see or feel, is truly Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
As a Spiritual Director, I’m on the lookout for “fake Jesus.”
Whether during the very first session or sometime later through conversation, Ignatian contemplation or other kinds of guided prayer, the Jesus that a person has internalized arises.
Remember, a person doesn’t have to be a Christian to have an image of Jesus that dwells within them, impacting the way they think about or view anything Jesus-related.
Our image of Jesus, like our image of God, matters.
This image is often pieced together in childhood. Early paper cutouts with fuzzy backs stuck to flannel boards, the voice and actions of a parent, pastor, or Sunday School teacher, experiences in Vacation Bible School, childhood books and pictures...
In fact, it appears that even the Gospel writers may have pieced together a “Jesus” that didn’t always align with the authentic Jesus. Stephen Mitchell in his book, The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers, reveals how the early church writers included not only words and actions that Jesus likely said and did (since he didn't write anything down himself), BUT they also included words and actions they and their community needed him to say or do to fit their own beliefs!
If what “Jesus” says is in opposition to the authentic Jesus’ main teachings (especially loving God and your neighbor as yourself), there’s a good chance the writer is making Jesus in his own image. This same “making-Jesus-in-our-own-image” and having him align with our own beliefs is on blatant display this political season!
Now rather than being threatened by Mitchell’s idea, I find it’s helpful in developing skills in discernment. Remember, Scripture is “living” which means it “speaks” to us as we wrestle with it (which is to join in the lineage of the literal name of Israel!). It changes as we change and grow. Try living with a particular text, a story, a single Scripture for a month and notice how it changes (& how it changes you)! There is no end to new and deeper insights.
Back to our images of Jesus…these images are rarely questioned.
When an internal voice is associated with Jesus, a person automatically thinks it’s Jesus!
So rather than simply agreeing with them, I listen to the person describe their interaction (always keeping in the back of my mind Jesus’ authentic teachings and his nature as revealed by his authentic teachings). Sometimes I’ll hear them say things like “Jesus has to knock me upside my head to get my attention.” If during a guided prayer, a door or a place of darkness often appears, “Jesus” will tell them not to look or go through it, to only focus on the light.
Curiosity is helpful here. I’ll ask, “Whose voice does Jesus’ remind you of?” or “Why don’t you go back into your imagination and simply observe Jesus for a moment, what do you see?”
Every single time, there is surprise.
The response is often:
“My whole life I thought it was Jesus’ voice I was hearing but it was actually my father’s!”
"Oh wow, now that I'm looking closer, He looks like a flannel board Jesus. Kind of flimsy, not able to open the door.”
“Jesus doesn’t really have much substance, he’s ghost-like, but as I watch he’s becoming more human.”
And when Jesus becomes more human, more of his authentic self, they experience His great tenderness and strength. In doing so, their own tenderness and strength is called forth.
With this Jesus, they find they are able to open doors and enter into places of darkness they never thought they could. With this Jesus, they are able to love the parts of themselves and the people they never thought possible.
In other words, in coming in contact with the authentic Jesus, they are able to love their neighbor as they love themselves!
It’s what we tend to do. Most Christians have an entire theology built on it. Someone/something must pay for others’ sins.
Sin is burdensome, whether it’s our own or the world’s!
It can’t be ignored (at least not forever). If ignored, it will still be felt in our physical bodies or relationships. The more it's ignored, the greater the natural consequences from the unacknowledged harm to ourselves, others, and/or the created world. So it’s no surprise that people have been trying to figure out what to do with the problem of sin for millennia.
We are a ritualistic people. In Leviticus 16 found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), it was a ritual with an actual goat (hence the term, “scapegoat”) that helped relieve the communal burden. The impurities of the community were transferred to the goat through the “laying on of hands.” Then the goat was beaten and released into the wilderness to take away the sins of the Israelite people. The despised goat symbolically took on their sins and carried them away from the community. In the New Testament, the writer of the book of John records John the Baptist pointing out the role of the scapegoat being taken on by Jesus when he proclaims, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."
It’s human nature to look for a scapegoat, especially when we do not want to or do not know how to deal with sin. Watching small children (as well as our current politicians) will make that apparent quite quickly. Their mantra: "Make it someone else’s fault!"
It’s especially natural if we’ve grown up with a theology that espouses it. It’s too easy to believe that when Jesus takes away my sin, I no longer have to deal with it or the consequences of it (someone else has paid the ultimate price after all). The danger of this theology is that it can shift the focus to worshipping Jesus because of his offering of “fire insurance” for the life to come rather than following Jesus as a disciple in this one.
If we happen to be Christians who believe Jesus paid the price as the ultimate scapegoat (which made him the last needed scapegoat), why do we still continue to scapegoat others?—Democrats, Republicans, Black people, Indigenous people, White people, LGBTQ people, police officers, protestors, teachers, certain members of our families…
If Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat, that means we are now freed from scapegoating others!
We are a ritualistic people in need of a new ritual. If we don’t have anyone to blame or transfer our sin to, what happens next?
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.