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?
Finding yourself triggered more than usual with thoughts and feelings of rage, resentment, and judgment? I know I am.
And it's not just toward others (we'll focus on that next week)!
What are we to do with inner voices of critique and judgment, chronic dissatisfaction and frustration? How do we not let ourselves be beat up by them? Is there another way?
Jesus once summed up the entire Scriptures by saying, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-38)
“Loving your neighbor as yourself” is to “loving the Lord your God,” as the moon is to the sun.
The former reflects the latter.
Like the line from his prayer to the Father, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,“ Jesus teaches and prays for wholeness—inner and outer continuity, authenticity, alignment. Oneness with God, self, and neighbor.
“Loving yourself” is inextricably linked to “loving your neighbor.” Think of those best friends necklaces with two halves, both are needed to make the heart whole.
So let's begin with our part--ourselves.
Tell me, how are you loving yourself these days?
How would you characterize your inner conversations? Are they best friends necklace worthy? Is your inner landscape characterized by harmony and peace? What/who is your inner world reflecting?
Given I resonate with a One on the Enneagram, inner critique and compulsive improvement of myself (& others) along with their counterparts of rage and resentment are easily accessible. They are often lurking, looking to supplant the inner voice of Love. When that happens, I cannot relax so compulsive doing is often the result (and a red flag).
Recently, someone brought up a class series I taught a while ago and said that what continues to stick with her most was how I started every class with the invitation to be curious.
I usually write these three phrases at the top of the dry erase board or handout:
“Be curious. Be compassionate. Be aware”
Given the subject matter is designed to go deeper, I know most classes will challenge our surface-level survival self (our ego). In response, people can expect to experience resistance (and all manner of feelings). That's not bad. There's wisdom in the resistance if we look.
Given what we're presented with on a daily basis right now, there's plenty of subject matter to challenge our survival selves, isn't there?!
At any moment, fear may be triggered, or anxiety, anger, resentment, rage, envy, sadness, guilt, shame, even numbness and avoidance. Instead of harmonious, our inner world begins to look like a daily war zone where there isn't the space or ability to give and receive love since it's all about surviving the day.
What can bring peace to the inner chaos? Certainly not more "shoulds"!
Fortunately, God offers us paths of peace.
One that I've found is choosing curiosity over critique. It almost immediately relaxes inner tension, opening me to the inner voice of Love. Remember, it was Moses’ curiosity that caused him to stop what he was doing and take a closer look at the burning bush. From inside the fire, the Voice of Love spoke to him.
Try it. Be curious.
Once becoming aware of the tone, physical sensations, and triggers, then the next time you experience them, rather than continuing down the path of self-condemnation which can lead to inward or outward lashing out, pause.
Turn your compassionate gaze toward that inner burning (or numbness) and be curious:
Let's play with this concept of curiosity with ourselves. Next week we'll consider curiosity with others.
A poem written in 2013 about what led me to meditation & other contemplative practices years ago.
All my old ways of
finding God kept failing
And one rage-filled
day I stopped trying
Sat down wondering
if I was worth finding
Let go of seeking
and began trusting
Many are the ways
seeming right to a man
I started recalling
My ways kept putting
me in charge of
who the Psalmist
found futile escaping.
Who are you not being or what are you not doing because you fear how you will appear in the eyes of others?
What reputation are you trying to uphold?
I've spent tons of energy on my good, Christian girl image for as long as I can remember.
And being in ministry my whole adult life has not provided relief. At times, this has intensified the inner critic that reminds me that I have a reputation as a Christian leader and spiritual guide to uphold.
Quite frankly, I've given way too much thought as to how things like changing my theological stances to not-every-Sunday-church-attendance affect my reputation (case in point, I just gave way too much thought in writing this sentence!).
I have often chosen rule-following over following my heart. And the many times I have boldly followed the still, small voice within, my inner critic who abides there as well, has often stolen, killed, and destroyed the freedom found in the following. Fearing outer criticism causes such unnecessary inner turmoil!
Some say we begin to care what other people think in middle school.
My daughter started middle school this year. She told my husband and I that she wanted us both to be at the bus stop with her. I thought after the first day or two she would probably like us to remain at a safe distance. I was wrong.
She wants us there everyday and even wants a hug before she climbs into the bus! Part of me loves this. And I have to admit, even though she feels not a hint of embarrassment, a part of me feels a twinge of it for her as I see the other middle schoolers looking out the window of a full bus. Maybe I'm feeling over-protective (if she won't protect her image, I will!) or maybe it's the middle school girl in me still caring what others think. Why risk it?
One morning last week I sat at the kitchen table after an all-night headache with little sleep. I told her, "Your dad will have to go with you to the bus stop, I don't think you'll want me along." She said, "Why not?" I said, "Look at me, I'm still in my pajamas!" She replied, "You had a hard night, of course you are, but I don't care, it's not like I have a reputation I need to defend!"
I looked at her bewildered. Have I ever not thought I had a reputation I needed to defend?!
Then I held up my hand and said, "You need a high-five because you'll be good to go if you can keep that sentiment through middle school." She laughed. Oh the freedom to authentically be who you are and do what your heart desires no matter what others think!
We both walked her to the bus stop (although I did change out of my pajamas).
After she climbed on the bus, I looked at my husband and said, "Who is that child?" Then I told him how her response immediately ambushed my weary heart, speaking into my own life of places where I've been overly concerned about how I appear in the eyes of others.
If a middle school girl can wholeheartedly choose what is inside over what others think of her on the outside, then perhaps I can, too. Oh the freedom! God knows it's time.
By the way, the next morning she pointed to us and said, "I may not have a reputation to defend, but let's not do this again!" We had unknowingly put on matching t-shirts to walk her to the bus stop! I appreciated her authenticity. Both of us cringed as the bus drove past.
It's the first day of middle school for my daughter.
In June, a handful of 6th grade girls met in my living room for their first summer prayer group. The practice I had picked out for them was a prayer inviting them to receive God's love through the person who loves them most (I wrote about the practice in an earlier post).
When they closed their eyes, I told them to bring a person who loves them most to mind and consider what special gift that person offers them. Then after they silently expressed gratitude for that person, I asked them if they could receive that this person is a "face of God." And the way this person loves them is the very way God was offering them love right that moment! After a few more moments in silence, they spent some time journaling and then we opened the time for sharing.
Guess what? The special gift of the people that came to each of their minds was the same!
This should offer us some insight.
What was the gift? How was God wanting to love them? Through playfulness and humor!
Was this your image of God in middle school? Is this part of your image of God now?
Yet it is the very image that God, the Originator of Playfulness and Creator of Humor, wanted to share with them. It makes sense too, doesn't it? They (and their parents) will need tons of playfulness and a life-giving sense of humor as they enter and seek to survive middle school!
And on this morning, God has not disappointed. The person my daughter brought to mind in June, her little brother, had her giggling with his silliness and the way he accidentally swapped words around when he said, "The mow looks perfectly yarded!" She laughed all the way to the bus stop.
I could not have asked for a better way to begin her first day of middle school.
It was the perfect reminder to her nervous parents that the playful, humorous God was near.
Can you recall a moment of synchronicity?
"Meaningful coincidences" or moments connected by meaning and means not of your own making? When it happens (or at least when I notice), I cannot help but sense that Something is seeing me and something is being communicated. A word, image, or subject matter is repeatedly offered in a variety of ways (unexpected conversations, dreams, nature, ordinary events, extraordinary events, etc.). When synchronicity occurs, I take it as an invitation from God to pay attention. In my own life, it's often a call to grow (consciously) or a signal that growth is occurring (unconsciously).
I had a moment of synchronicity last week.
On Tuesday, I mentioned Fowler's Stages of Faith Development in relation to listening to the Holy Spirit, so it was fresh on my mind a day later when I headed to Congregation Ohabai Sholom with a friend for a 4-week class on The Heart of Jewish Meditation & Spirituality taught by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Although we had missed the first week, unbeknownst to me, the discussion for the second week was mystical Judaism's 5 Levels of Consciousness! These levels are based on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and walk one through the deepening levels of relationship with/to God...the exact subject material of my latest blog!
Clearly I was to step further into the stages of spiritual growth! So I'm paying attention, perhaps you're beckoned to pay attention, too.
Just as I briefly shared about Fowler's stages, I'll briefly go over the Levels of Consciousness as I understood them in class.
The 5 (Ascending) Levels of Consciousness:
5. Yechida (Spirit) Singularity, pure Soul/God, no barriers between "I-Thou"
4. Chayah (Soul) "Spacious mind," connected to everyone/everything in the Universe, Truth is beyond ideology, more justice & humility expecting nothing in return, no self-seeking, Higher Self, non-dualism, "I and Thou"
3. Neshamah (Mind) "Narrow mind," ego, survival, intellectual comprehension, identity, spirituality reflects back ego/tribalism, "What's in it for me or my group?", dualism, "I-it"
2. Ruach (Heart) Emotions and "spirit" of person, personality
1. Nefesh (Body) Animal existence- breathing, eating, sleeping, walking around
Just as each of Fowler's stages of faith development are necessary, so too, are the 5 levels of consciousness. While the level of Nefesh or body-consciousness is the lowest level, that does not mean it is to be denigrated. After all, we need a body! Rabbi Rami asks us to consider, "Which [level] is calling right now?" If it's the body level, please tend to the body!
The point of the levels is to remind us that we're beckoned to grow beyond simple existence and emotions. At some point in time, we're also beckoned to grow beyond our own ego and tribe. In fact, authentic spiritual practice will always seek to move us from Neshamah to Chayah or from "narrow mind" to "spacious mind." Rabbi Rami describes narrow mind as "seeing the self as separate from and often in conflict with the world and God." And spacious mind he describes as "seeing the self and other as part of a greater wholeness we call God."
In my Christian experience, a lot of Christian reading, teaching and preaching tends to keep people in the Neshamah level or the realm of ego and tribal identity. This can be seen in viewing Christianity as the one right religion (or even narrower, one denomination as the truest or most orthodox) and celebrating being on the "winning side." It's the belief that Christian music is the only music a Christian should listen to. It can also be seen in people's image of God, often a masculine Being resembling the Greek god, Zeus. Remember, such concrete, dualistic thinking whether described by Neshamah or Fowler's "Mythic-Literal or "Conventional-Synthetic," is a necessary stage or level, but it's not the ending point.
Confused? Wondering what spiritual practices can help you shift from Neshamah to Chayah (or move from narrow mind to spacious mind)? Well, they will not look the same for everyone! This is why a spiritual director can be such a helpful companion on your journey. Plus our ego-minds are masters at using religious language to trap us in Neshamah when it's time for us to grow (we are not apt to see it on our own). This is why I have my own spiritual director!
By the way, Rabbi Rami says there are no ways or practices to move from Chayah to Yechida, it is simply pure grace. I'm not surprised, Chayah gets us out of our own way, preparing the way for Yechida, the highest level of consciousness characterized by non-dualism and Union with the Divine. This should resonate with those who practice Centering Prayer, the silent prayer of consent which prepares one for the gift of contemplative prayer or resting in God. If/when one ever gets to taste Yechida, can you guess what the earmark is? Pure Love. Of God and neighbor. Sound familiar?
Next week: More Synchronicity to Share & The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) as a Breath Prayer
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.