From Ama – to -Zing and Beyond: How I put it all together
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A Theological Dictionary
Christian theology is good, as long as you remember that talking about love and doing it are two different things. Theology cannot make us love, or make us experience love; it can only give us language to use when we ponder these things. One of the greatest failures of Christianity is that is has become for many a doctrine rather than a way of living. Our doctrine can easily become an idol, a substitute for the real God that the Commandments warn against. Really, “God is love” is the only doctrine we need. Jesus taught almost nothing about theology; he just healed people, fed them, loved them, and called them to do the same. He didn’t say much about God, other than that God is loving, forgiving, generous and trustworthy in these things. Jesus seemed to see God as intimately present, and continuously creating the present moment with grace. But Jesus didn’t really say much of this; he just lived it, and told stories about it. So as we ponder our Christian beliefs it’s important to keep asking: So what? How does our belief live itself out in a life of love of neighbor, which is how we love God? How does this belief guide us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? A doctrine that doesn’t lead us to love is useless at best, and maybe even heretical. So we keep re-examining our beliefs in the light of the actual lived experience of receiving God’s grace, loving our neighbor, doing justice and living with joy and courage. Keep that in mind as you explore Christian theology.
A lot of this is rather playful. Even when considering evil and suffering and life-and-death stuff, theology ought to be like that. All theological language is approximate, right? Even “God” is a nickname (a kind of wimpy one) for the Unnameable. We can’t really describe or define God; we can only dance around what we mean. So—go ahead and dance.
Love, irrepressible, eternal and radiant, is the Ultimate Reality, and gives birth to everything. Our nickname—and nick-image—for this Love is “God.” God is not a person, or a spirit. God is infinite Love itself—not an object or substance but the flowing of love, not a noun but a verb—at the heart of existence. This Love, “God,” births everything and loves everything they birth. God is infinite, and the whole universe is inside God. And everything is of God. And everything is one thing: everything is a part of the same Creation, the same living organism. And this love is in everything God creates. So God is both infinite, pure unknowable mystery, but also revealed, made concrete and specific, in Creation.
The one place I see that love more clearly than anywhere else is in Jesus. Jesus was in love with this Love—he called Love “Abba,” Daddy. Jesus embodies this Love for us so wholly we see him as the very begotten child of that Love, the “Son of God.” He demonstrated a life of trust, gratitude and compassion. But part of human nature is our inability to trust prefect Love (we call this “sin”), replacing love with the illusion of “deserving,” which leads to systems of privilege, exclusion, domination and violence. So naturally we rejected Jesus, killing him with the lie that he “deserved” it. Still, Jesus responded not based on our deserving, since there’s no such thing, but with love and forgiveness: despite our evil ways, God still loves us. Always, has, always will.
The catch is that love, which is God, can’t be killed. So even though for the sake of love Jesus died, for the sake of love God raised Jesus from the dead. And upon his return we discovered what he had said was true: the spirit of love that so empowered him is actually in all of us. We call it the Holy Spirit. We are empowered to live with the same love, forgiveness, joy, gratitude, courage and mercy Jesus had. Theology is our talk about that infinite love, and how we live with it, how we receive it and celebrate it and share it. So we use a lot of loaded words. Here they are.
It’s OK. Really. If it’s hard for us to take seriously our sin, it seems even harder to trust our forgiveness. When we confess, we hear “words of absolution:” the proclamation, under an ordained pastor’s authority—this is serious!—that God forgives all our sin entirely. “In God we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1.14). Absolution doesn’t mean our sin doesn’t exist; it means God accepts our sin and loves us anyway. The word’s root means to “loosen.” Absolution means our sin is real, but it doesn’t bind us. Absolution does not come as a reward for confession or repentance; it is the context of repentance, like air is the medium of flying.
Adam and Eve
Us. There may have been a literal couple people way back when (but see Metaphor), but it doesn’t do much good to blame them for anything. The point is how we learn to live our lives, not make up for our ancestors. The story of Adam and Eve is about the birth of self-consciousness, the human adventure and burden of having to make choices as. That much is good. But human nature gives way to believing we ourselves can judge good and evil, not trusting God’s way, choosing the Tree of Being Right instead of the Tree of Being In Love, hiding from God, and blaming each other— or at least the snake. This is not about somebody else. It’s about us. The story is not about a “Fall” from some ideal state to a lesser one. It’s about human nature, and both our distrust of God and our freedom and wonderful spiritual hunger and curiosity (“She saw it was good…”). Adam and Eve didn’t suddenly “become” sinners with the apple. That’s just the way we are, all of us, always. (See Sin.) Adam and Eve personify our egoic nature, our blessed free will, our desire to be a “self” distinguished from God. It’s a vital part of what it means to be human, though it means we’re continually having to resist the desire to be separate from God, and the illusion that we are.
The mystery after this one. I don’t care much about the next life. I trust the next one will be fine. This life is the one that has my attention. Jesus didn’t talk much about being dead. Sure, he told parables that assume some kind of afterlife, like the rich man and Lazarus, but those are stories about how to live. Jesus seems to prefer that we focus on the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow….” (Mt. 6.34.) Some people seem to need the expectation of rewards or punishment in an afterlife to make it feel worthwhile to be good in this life. But goodness is its own reward. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall experience mercy” (Mt. 5.7). (See Heaven.)
A visitation from God. Maybe in the form of a person, or a vision, a dream, a feeling, or an understanding. Are they “real?” I don’t know. And I don’t know that it matters. If you believe you have been “visited,” the point is not the material nature of the visitor, but what you received and from whom. In scripture angels tend to have one of a couple of messages. One is “Do not be afraid.” The other: “Expand your imagination of God’s yearning. God intends blessing; cooperate.” (Ask Abraham, Hagar, Balaam, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Cornelius…)
God gets the last word. God isn’t finished with us yet. Early apocalyptic belief, going back to the prophets, looked to the “Day of the Lord,” a future day of reckoning and the revelation or unveiling (“apocalypse” in Greek) of God’s ultimate will for humanity (Isa. 13.6-11). Apocalyptic thought is common among oppressed minorities who see little hope in human “progress” and find hope only in God’s dramatic intervention. God is going to shut down and re-boot human history. Jesus and his early followers seem to have expected some sort of specific apocalyptic event (Mk. 13.24-27; Rom. 8.18). It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus or other apocalyptic writers expected, but it doesn’t seem to have happened―unless you consider the Resurrection to be the Apocalypse, or even that faith is apocalypse (2 Cor. 5.17). After all “apocalypse” means “revelation,” not “future.” Nevertheless, we still trust that God is still creating, still guiding human history, and so we look forward to an “end of the world as we know it,” and the “coming of Christ”―and something new. (See also Day of the Lord, Judgment and Second Coming.)
Unity. We are one with God (at-oned), part of God— and even all our sin can’t undo that. If only we could trust it. Think of it as at-homeness. It’s all about forgiveness, reconciliation and re-integration. God is the Holy Oneness from which we come. We are created as part of the cosmic unity of God. We are God’s Beloved. We are one with God, and always have been. We are part of God’s ecosystem whether we get it or not. Sadly, we don’t get it. We don’t trust it, and we seek life in other ways. (See Sin.) We are not in love with God. But God is still in love with us, and holding nothing against us, makes us God’s Beloved anyway (Col. 2.13-14). Even though we are out of tune with God, God makes harmony with us. We are still one with God, whether we like it or not. And being one with God, we are made one with others, and with all Creation (2 Cor. 5.16-21). The claim in 1 John 2.2 and 4.10 that Jesus was an “atoning sacrifice” doesn’t mean our atonement required that Jesus “pay the price.” Seriously: we didn’t need Jesus to die. God already loved us. Atonement is not an outcome: it’s the fundamental condition. Jesus shows us God’s love, even at great cost (that’s the “sacrifice”) so we overcome our distrust of God (“taking away the sin of the world”) and trust our oneness. (See Cross and Died for your sins.)
Authenticity. They said Jesus “taught with authority” (Mk. 1.22). When he talked about life or love or God he knew what he was talking about. Jesus was “an authority on the subject.” It came from his heart, from his deep relationship with God. In fact it came from God. Having authority means being authorized, having official permission. With God’s approval Jesus spoke on behalf of God. Of course inherent in that authorization is power. Jesus taught with authority because he not only spoke about healing, but made it happen. God’s power flowed through him. Jesus’ authority was authenticity. His teaching wasn’t just words. It was actual love. Forgiveness, healing, food. When he healed a man people said, “A new teaching!” (Mk. 1.27).
In the context of faith authority doesn’t mean control. Scripture has “authority” for us because we trust its authenticity in connecting us with God. We are in relationship to scripture but not confined, manipulated or coerced by it. When we say Jesus is “Lord” is doesn’t mean he controls, confines or coerces us, but that we entrust ourselves to his authenticity. (See Lord.) God, love, Jesus, scripture have authority for us—but not over us. They have authority in us.
A symbol of death and rebirth. God births us and re-creates us as God’s Beloved, sets us free, and empowers us to live by God’s Spirit. As with the waters of chaos at Creation, God’s water breaks and God gives us new birth as people of the Spirit (1 Pet. 1.3-5). We are born again (always) as beloved children of God, and God joyfully claims us as God’s Own (Mk. 1.11). God washes us clean of our past, our shame and our fear. God promises healing and blessing. The Spirit flows through us, makes us alive, and nourishes us like water in our bodies or a plant. God invites us to join Jesus in washing people’s feet. God shares our tears. The trick to being re-born is that first we have to die. We drown in Christ, losing our individual, self-made, self-enclosed “self,” and we are raised to new life as part of Christ’s body (Rom. 6.4; Col. 2.12). We surrender our ego’s insistence on being an individual and “die” into unity with the Holy One. We are all part of one life, one heart, one body. God anoints us as people who love not by the world’s expectations but by the Spirit. God goes with us through the Red sea, setting us free from what oppresses us and charging us to help God set others free. God invites us to let ourselves float in the River of God, trusting that God bears us, letting God take us where God will. We baptize infants because it’s not a symbol of our faith, but God’s “prevenient” action. Baptism is God’s “I do.” Confirmation is our response. The ritual act of Baptism itself doesn’t make any of this happen like some magic trick; it’s already happening. The sacrament symbolizes all this in a way we can experience it and let it shape our living
Reliance. When Jesus says to believe in him he doesn’t mean to hold a certain opinion of him, or think certain things about him. (See Creed.) He’s inviting us to rely on him, to depend on him, to entrust ourselves to his love. It’s relational. The word believe is rooted in German (via Middle English) belieben, which means to love. It’s what we give our heart to. What we believe is not so much what we believe about something but what we believe in. What we give our heart to. What we love and trust. Our sin is not that we’re bad, but that we don’t trust God (See Sin). We are saved by grace “through faith” not by believing certain doctrines about Jesus but by entrusting ourselves to the real power of love to give us life and meaning. The restoration of our trust in Love saves us from the grip of our ego. (SeeFaith, Salvation.)
The journal of the faith community, reflecting together on what it means to be God’s Beloved. It’s not a book; it’s a library. It is not dictated by God. “All scripture is inspired,” but not infallible, or dictated by God. Its authors wrote breathing the Holy Spirit. They may have written something true and profound (“you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”) or not (“ I wish they would castrate themselves”)—but either way, they were in the grip of the Spirit. And that’s how we read it: with the Holy Spirit breathing in us, seeking, listening, discerning how best to love. The Bible is not a historical record, science text, answer sheet or law book. It’s our story, embedded in God’s story, as we reflect on it from many different perspectives in conversation with each other. The Bible is about God’s Story, in which God is always doing the same three interwoven divine acts: creating, liberating, and journeying with us toward a new world. (See The Story.) It was written by dozens of people over hundreds of years, some of whom disagreed with and contradicted each other, but the Spirit moves through all of it. It is all symbolic, every word, including the literal parts. (See Metaphor, Symbol.) It is not to be taken literally but to be taken seriously. The Bible itself is not the “Word of God.” The Word isn’t a book at all, but love. Made manifest it’s a person, namely Jesus.)The Word is God’s living conversation with us: it’s what we hear when we read the Bible with faith. When we speak of “the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation” we don’t mean you have to believe all that stuff to get saved. (You’re already saved. See Salvation.) We mean your salvation is clearly revealed there, and you don’t need any extraneous creed, loyalties or beliefs to “get saved.”
God’s sculpture of us. The body/spirit dichotomy is false. Michelangelo’s David isn’t just an artistic ida, or a representation of what David might have looked like. It’s a Real Thing. It’s a body. Whatever “idea” might attach to the sculpture isn’t real except as it’s embodied. The body is God’s sculpture of us. You can’t separate us, including our soul, from our embodiment any more than you can separate the soul of David from the sculpture. We are embodied souls. Bodies are good, the stuff of God’s creation. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139.14). The essence of Creation, God’s sacred act, is that God’s word and will is embodied. (See Incarnation.) The body isn’t sinful; it’s our illusion that we’re defined by our body that is sinful. In fact our disparaging the body is sinful. (See Sin, Flesh.) The miracle of God’s grace is that God is present in bodies—in Jesus’ body and in yours. Our bodies are our beauty and our vulnerability. Racism, poverty, enslavement, war and violence exploit people’s bodies. Justice means taking seriously the needs of people’s bodies. A lively faith is an embodied faith.
Our bodies are not God’s sculpture of God. The human body is not the image of God. A male body is not more in the image of God than a female one. The image of God is not a biological form, but the embodiment of love.
We tend to worship the body instead of its creator. We imagine an ideal body and praise those who emulate it. We judge bodies as less in the image of God of they don’t fit our ideal: too big, too small, not the right shape, ugly, diseased, handicapped, old… But God’s image is fully embodied in all bodies. Jesus healed bodies, but he also honored the whole person, not just their body. (See Healing.) Part of Jesus’ gift was that he honored all bodies: young, old, hungry, sick, paralyzed, leprous, even dead. Because our being is in our embodiment.
Body of Christ
All who make love real in this world. Christ is the embodiment of God’s love. (See Christ.) The Church is the embodiment of Christ (1 Cor. 12.27). Yeah, we’re messed up, but we’re what God has to work with. (See Church.) When Jesus was raised he was re-incarnated ―not as an individual but as a community. (See Incarnation.) We all are God’s embodiment of love: a real, physical, earthly Body raised from the dead. In the first century Mediterranean world Paul’s notion that we are all members of one body—Jews and gentiles, slaves and free, women and men alike—was astoundingly radical, world-changing, and liberating (Gal. 3.28, Eph. 2.14-19). Technically the Body of Christ is the Church, but the Body of Christ, the Second person of the Trinity (See Holy Trinity), is not limited to a human institution. Really everything that embodies God’s love is part of the Body of Christ. In fact all Creation is part of it.
Living life that flows from God. Starting over with grace. Jesus talks with Nicodemus about being born “from the top” (that’s what the Greek word means in Jn. 3.). That can mean either from “above,” as in architecture, or “over from the beginning,” as in music. Jesus means both. We live a life that flows from God (“above”), not just our biological life, and is given to us moment by moment, again and again, like breathing. Each new breath is a new life, a New Creation (2 Cor. 5.17), forgiven, open, ready to be transformed over and over. To be born again is to be free to begin anew. (see Conversion, Regeneration)
What God loves doing through you. God gives each of us “spiritual gifts,” ways God’s energy works in us for the good of the community. “The gifts God gave were … to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4.11-12). Our spiritual gifts aren’t skills, they’re energies, the unique energy of God in each of us. Our call is God’s voice—vocalizing, vocation—in us, and our work is to listen for God’s call and answer. It is our vocation to live in harmony with the energy of God’s Spirit in us. Your call is how God loves you to live, which may or may not include a specific activity or profession.
God says “I want you to spread my love. Tag. You’re it!” Israel is chosen not because they are very “choice”— more lovable, worthy or capable than anybody else—but because they have been given the task of spreading God’s love through their own particular story (Dt. 7.7-8). God’s love is a gift—with a string attached: God says, “I love you, and everybody else, and I want you to love me, and everybody else.” Our “election” is not a reflection of our uniqueness but God’s love. Some biblical voices like the idea that we’re special, but others, including Jesus, remind us that in God’s eyes everybody is special. Everybody is chosen, each of us, one by one.
The “Anointed One” of God, the embodiment of God’s love. “Christ” in Greek, “Messiah” in Hebrew (meaning “anointed one”), is not Jesus’ name or even title, but a theological statement about Jesus:he is God’s selfie, an icon of God, the One in whom we see God fully revealed. He lived his life as authentically as a person could (see Son of Man), as the person God created him (anointed him) to be. The Jews expected a messiah who would set Israel free from Roman occupation (presumably through war) and restore the nation as a theocracy. Jesus fulfilled the role of Messiah, but not as a conquering warrior. Instead he was a non-violent lover of all people. His love, not some conquering power, is the hallmark of having been “sent” by God (Jn. 3.35, 17.23), and it is that love that has most profoundly set us free, regardless of any political oppression we may live under (Jn. 8.38-39). Most importantly, we have been set free from “the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8.2). Jesus has established a theocracy, but not in the political world: it’s in our own lives, where God is sovereign, and in the community of love, the Realm of God. Though God’s revelation in Jesus is unique, Jesus is not the whole of Christ: we too are part of God’s embodiment of love, part of the Body of Christ. Through our membership in the Body of Christ we participate in the life of God. (See Body of Christ and Holy Trinity) So really anyone who embodies God’s love as a living member of the Holy Trinity is “Christ,” or at least a “little Christ.” Which is to say, a Christian.
An apprentice of Jesus in the community of love. Being Christian is not what you believe, it’s how you love people. You can learn from anybody; a Christians follows Jesus in particular. Like an artist, musician or dancer, you learn certain truths and practices from a master of the art, developing your own way of living love. We learn how to love by practicing with each other in community, with Jesus always as our master teacher.
Being loving like Jesus. The “marks of a Christian” are not certain beliefs or religious practices but certain ways of relating to God and to people. Christian character is evident in behaviors in harmony with Jesus’ life and teaching such as in the beatitudes (Mt. 5.1-12). As we follow Jesus and learn from him we open ourselves to the influence of the Spirit in us. And “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5.22-23). I’d also name gratitude, non-violence, forgiveness, humility, mercy, courage, empathy, humility, self-sacrifice, wonder, and trust in God. Christian character is transparency to God’s grace. Christian character is embodying resurrection. It’s more than virtue: it’s allowing Jesus the healer and the crucified and risen Christ to live in us.
The crucified and risen Body of Christ. Jesus wasn’t resurrected as an individual: he was raised as a community. We are the Body of Christ. In order to be raised, we first have to be crucified. (The Church has never liked that part.) We let go of everything else to be Christ’s Body. We’re Team Jesus. We are Jesus’ support staff. We are the community God has chosen to help Jesus in the work of healing the world. It’s not our church; it’s God’s. We’re not better than others, we’re just called. We’re not more right than others; we just have a unique story, the story of Jesus, to tell. It’s not our opinions or theology or practices that unite us, but God’s love. We are not here to “recharge our batteries” but to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6.8). We are here to worship God, grow closer to God, and be in service as the Body of Christ. As Christ’s Body we are one, indivisible, whether or not we like it (or each other). “The spirit of the sovereign God is upon (us), because God has anointed us; God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of God’s favor, and the day of justice of our God; to comfort all who mourn…” (Isa. 61.1-2). Through baptism we are “incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation:” God uses us to heal the world. Our work is to “build each other up in love” and grow into the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4.11-16); yet ultimately our “work” is not in our doing but in our being. Our calling is at its heart simply to be the Beloved of God.
Participating in God together. The Eucharist is Jesus’ meal with the community in which God gives us God’s own self—in love, in empowerment, and in community. Jesus miraculously multiplies bread for everyone, enacting God’s generous abundance. The meal is our thanksgiving. The name Eucharist gets at that. God feeds us, body and soul…. renews God’s Covenant to be with us in love always… re-connects us with earth, bread and all Creation…. makes us “one loaf.” The name Communion gets at that. Jesus invites us to one table as kin: he “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies,” and then has us all sit down together. We practice receiving one another, belonging to one another, cherishing one another. We re-enact Jesus’ radical, boundary-destroying table fellowship. We re-enact all the meals Jesus shared and told stories about. The name The Lord’s Supper gets at that. In the Eucharist God offers manna in the wilderness, food for the journey of faith. God strengthens us for discipleship. We eat God; the Spirit in us empowers us for loving ministry, like Popeye’s spinach. We act out being part of God. Remembering Christ’s love and forgiveness even in death, we celebrate God’s absolute forgiveness. God gives us an experience of death and resurrection― in the bread’s rising and in our own dying and rising with Christ. We enter into Christ’s brokenness, and into the suffering of the world. Jesus draws us into solidarity with him and so with all whose bodies are broken and blood is poured out, and commissions us to resist violence and oppression. We welcome each other as equals and share together. We eat with sinners―who eat with us sinners. We are made community—family. We rehearse the banquet of the Realm of God. We experience joy and beauty.
Being fully present and receptive to what is, without judgment, thought or words. We “think” in dualistic categories, separating things into “this” or “that,” attaching words to those ideas, in order to “grasp” them, that is, control them in our minds. Rational categories are exclusive: dark is not light, warm is not cold, bad is not good. We attach values to dualistic categories, judging them as “good” or “bad.” Contemplation, or unitive, non-dualistic consciousness, is letting go of all ideas, words, categories and understanding, and simply beholding, being attentive and present with all of ourselves to what is. This is part of what Jesus meant in saying “Do not judge” (Mt. 7.1). Dualistic thought is the way you read this paragraph. Contemplation is the way you look at a sunset. Contemplation allows for mystery, paradox, grace and miracle. In contemplation you don’t separate good and bad, giving and receiving, infinite and particular. In fact you don’t separate yourself from the world, or from God: all is one. Non-dualistic awareness is the heart of prayer, and the heart of the consciousness Jesus taught. (See Prayer.)
Waking up. Jesus didn’t seem to be interested in getting people to change religion as much as getting people to wake up. “Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (Mt. 13.13). Conversion, or metanoia, is turning your life around. It’s not about switching religions but about switching gods, that is, whatever we allow to give our life meaning, whatever we’re most deeply in love with. Conversion begins with an experience of our eyes being opened—confronting reality in a way we hadn’t expected. Think of Saul awakened on the road to Damascus (Acts 9.3-6), or Jesus awakened by the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15.22-28). Conversion is “the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12.2): the reorienting of our consciousness from dualistic thinking to deep awareness of God’s presence and grace. God’s grace makes you see things differently, which makes you live differently. This waking up happens every moment, every day. (See also Born again, Grace, Repentance and Sanctification.)
God says, “I love you, and I want you to love. And I won’t let you out of it.” God’s relationship with us is not one of an “unmoved mover” who reigns from high above us, but a spouse who is engaged with us and committed to us in unconditional love. And God asks that the relationship be mutual. God says “We’re in this together.” The whole of the history of Israel is about our struggle to stay faithful to the covenant. The Commandments, the words of the prophets, the history of Israel and the prayers of the Psalms all make sense only in the context of our struggle to stay faithful to the Covenant. Old Testament stories often turn around the suspense of whether the covenant between God and us will hold. Every single time God is faithful, and humans— well, not so much. God stays faithful and calls us to faithfulness and mutuality. Jesus invites us into the mutuality of God’s love: “Love one another as I have loved you”(Jn. 13.34). Covenant is the context of our relationship with God and with each other, and the church’s relationship with the world. In communion Jesus renews God’s covenant to be with us forever in blessing, giving his own self, body and soul, as a sign of the Covenant.
God’s self-expression in physical form. God is not separate from Creation. God is infinite, and Creation is within God, part of God, an outflowing of God’s being and of God’s desire for relationship. The story of the Seven Days is a symbolic story of God’s work, but God is not a retired Creator: God is still at work, continually creating everything new each moment, including us. God is breathing us into life. God is the vibration that is the essence of Being. Life is flowing continually from God. (See Eternal life.) This is the day the God is making. Rejoice and be glad in it!
Getting the story straight. Our faith is not s set of beliefs. It’s a story. (See Belief.) It’s tempting to list the doctrines that define a Christian, but the Bible is no help. It tells stories, prays prayers, and sees visions. (In the beginning…Hear my prayer, O God…And then I saw…) Jesus is no help. He tells stories, asks questions and posits koans (A sower went out… Lose your life to find it… Blessed are the poor…). What we believe may include some ideas that we call doctrines, but at heart it’s what we’ve experienced most profoundly to be true. So our creed is really our story. As Jesus says, “Go and tell what God has done for you” (Lk. 8.39).
The cost of love. In Jesus on the cross we see God’s suffering love in the face of our sin and violence. Jesus did not die “so that God could forgive us;” he died because we killed him. God did not arrange for Jesus to be killed; that was our doing. God didn’t “plan” the cross. Jesus didn’t set out to die; he set out to do justice. Jesus opposed unjust religious, political, economic and social systems of oppression, and the powerful struck back. In his death we see evil exposed. We see God as the victim of all injustice and oppression (“Whatever you do to the least of these…”) And we also see God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our evil (“Forgive them…”). Jesus suffered our judgment, and brought God’s judgment in return: God’s absolute, eternal, infinite love and forgiveness. In the cross we see the scandal of God’s vulnerability with us. God doesn’t demand suffering; God suffers with us and even because of us—to stay with us. In the cross God lives out the reality of being in a body, with all the beauty and pain and even mortality that entails (See Incarnation). God suffers with us. In the Cross God absorbs everything that separates us from God: our fear and violence, our shame, our judgment, and our death― and God embraces us with nothing in between. In the cross we exercise the power of death and violence and God receives it and transforms it, overcoming even the power of death with love. Because Jesus trusts God absolutely, and serves God fully in the cause of justice and healing, he is not afraid to face violence. Having already given his life to God, Jesus enters into life that is eternal (see Eternal Life). On Good Friday the Resurrected One was crucified. (see Died for your sins and Resurrection.)To take up your cross is to be willing to suffer for the sake of love and justice. (See Take up your cross)
Day of the Lord
This moment. Jesus seemed to expect some future “day of the Lord” in the sense the prophets described: a specific time when God would reveal God’s true designs for humanity and correct our evil ways (see Apocalypse). But Jesus also discouraged speculation about future events and drew us toward deep presence and awareness in the present moment (Acts 1.7-8). “Do not worry about tomorrow…” (Mt. 6.34). “This very night your life is demanded of you” (Lk. 12.20). (See Judgment.) Certainly something New is yet to come; but the real Day of the Lord is this one. This is the day the Lord is making!
1. Moving on. Living things die. Death is simply the doorway to the next thing. Mortality is the boundary that makes us pay attention to this life instead of wasting our time hankering after another one. Our fear of physical death has great power over us (see Sin). We imagine ways to avoid death, through power, security and status. But that’s all illusion. Mortality isn”t the enemy of life. Death isn’t the end; it’s the guardrail. Music would just be noise if each note didn’t end at some point. Death is neither to be desired nor feared. It just is. “Teach us to number our days” (Ps. 60.12).
2. Losing God. Since God is the source of life―in fact God is life―when we distrust our oneness with God we experience a kind of spiritual death, an inner lifelessness. “When the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away” (Mt. 13.6). This kind of death is to be avoided. Maybe this is the kind of death God has in mind in talking with Adam and Eve about the fruit: “In the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2.17). Physical death was already present: everything they ate died. But in the day they took it upon themselves to “know good and evil” they would lose their intimate connection with God.
3. Letting go. We let go of the illusion of “self,” separate from God, and instead participate in God’s infinite love. Jesus shows us God’s infinite grace that holds us through this life and beyond, saving us from the losing-God kind of death and our fear of the moving-on kind of death. He shows us how when we participate in God’s love we become part of something eternal. (See Eternal Life.) When we trust this, death no longer scares us. Death no longer has dominion (Rom. 6.9).This empowers us to risk boldly for the sake of love and justice. (See Take up your cross.) Loverequires death, in fact: deep self-giving and letting go for the sake of another. “There is no greater live than to lay down your life for a friend” (Jn.15.13). Resurrection requires death first. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12.24). This kind of death leads to resurrection that is not just change but complete transformation. Jesus says, first you die. Then you really live.
Be the whole world, not just a speck of it. We are not separate individuals; we are all part of one body. (See Body of Christ.) To “deny yourself, take up your cross and follow” doesn’t mean to abuse yourself, neglect your own needs, or deny any truth about yourself. It means to reject the illusion that you are a sole, independent “self.” “You are not limited to the flesh; you are in the Spirit” (Rom. 839). Stop thinking of yourself as just your little “skin bag” and be part of the whole Body of Christ. Be in service to all of yourself (the whole) not just your little visible part. In love we pour ourselves out (kenosis, in Greek), knowing we don’t end with our skin. We become our whole selves.
Died for your sins
Jesus willingly nonviolently suffered the consequence of our evil. A popular understanding of the idea that Jesus died for your sins is some variation of this: “We disobeyed God and owe a penalty, which is our whole life, which we can’t pay, and Jesus steps in and pays the fine for us.” In this scheme if you believe this you get to go to heaven. And if you don’t believe this you go to hell—which means, in your case, Jesus died for nothing. This is all baloney. Jesus didn’t die so God could forgive us: God had already forgiven us. There was no “payment,” no exchange, no quid pro quo. God does not demand suffering, nor demand our life in that way: God wants our living, not our death. And God doesn’t exact payment; God forgives―God renounces any repayment. Jesus stood up for justice and paid for it. He suffered at the hands of our fear and distrust―he died because of our sins. But, embodying God’s grace, he responded with love and forgiveness. He rendered our sin powerless to keep us from God. So we can trust God and live in harmony with God. Jesus’ love changes our hearts, and sets us free from our fear, especially of death. Death no longer has dominion. We are set free from sin and death. Jesus did not die to pay for our sins, but he did die setting us free from our sins. (see Atonement, Cross)
Listening for God. Seeking to to distinguish God’s delight from our fears and attachments, we root our hearts in God. Sometimes discernment leads to our hearing God’s Word, but not always. Sometimes we just go on trusting and not yet seeing. It’s an open, unending process. (And it’s not judging, by which we sinfully attach and rank value. See Judgment.) Sometimes discernment is simply letting what is be what is.
Apprenticeship under Jesus. A disciple is someone devoted to following Jesus: learning from Jesus how to live as authentically and faithfully as he did. We follow Jesus not just by having “Christian” beliefs, but by practicing the kind of living he taught. In many ways discipleship is “imitating Christ,” but only as Jesus would if he were us, living our lives. Being a disciple of Jesus means that his life, ministry, death and resurrection is what our lives are all about. This requires discipline: intentional practices that help us stay centered in God. (See Christian Character, Lord, Spiritual Practices, Take up your cross.)
Wondering. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. (Disengagement is.) Doubt is not knowing, which is very close to wonder, which is the doorway to God. It’s a twin sibling of humility, knowing we don’t know everything. Or even much at all. Doubt can be merely skepticism and sour into cynicism, which is a kind of death. But it can be a form of longing, which is a kind of faith―especially if we pay attention―since all our longing is for God.
The part of yourself that thinks you’re a self. The egoic mind is the part of our consciousness that manages our boundaries: what’s me and not me, and how I protect what’s me. That’s good if you’re just a physical body. (It keeps you from swimming with crocodiles.) But as Paul points out, we’re not limited to our bodies (“the flesh”). We’re part of God’s wholeness, the Body of Christ (see Rom. 8.9-13). The ego doesn’t get that. It’s obsessed with power, safety and belonging. (See Jesus’ temptations in the desert, Mt. 4.1-11.) Because the ego is the part of our consciousness that thinks we’re separate from God it is the root of our sin. So we constantly need to hold it in check. (One way to think of salvation is that God saves us from being overpowered by our own egos.) Unconscious and unchecked, the desires of the ego become fears, and the fuel of evil. Angels can fly because they take their own ego lightly. (See Body of Christ)
Living in God’s infinite love. That is, God’s infinite love flowing in us. Eternal life isn’t ridiculously long. (Seriously. People hate a worship service that goes a few minutes over an hour, and they want to live 13 billion years??) It’s not infinitely long; it’s infinitely deep. Nor is it just the afterlife: it’s the nowlife, too. Eternal life isn’t a destination: if it’s eternal, it’s already here. It’s eternal because it It’s eternal because the Infinite is wholly present in each moment. Biological life is like finite battery power; eternal life is like electricity, an unending source of life that flows through us. “The water that I give will become in you a spring of living water gushing up with eternal life” (Jn. 4.14). We are the well; God is the water. We enter into eternal life whenever we are fully, lovingly present in this moment. That’s where God is. God is love, and God is infinite. When we love we let go of the illusion that we are separate. We are one with God and with all things. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14.20). So ironically we have to “die”―to let go of our illusory separate self―to have eternal life. Eternal life is life in harmony with God. In love we participate in the life of God; we enter into eternity. “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 Jn. 3.14). In love we have life that can’t be taken from us like physical life can, and is in that sense everlasting. In his baptism Jesus surrenders his life to God’s love. In that moment he is raised to eternal life. He is resurrected. On the cross the Resurrected One is crucified. Jesus invites us to enter into the love of God and experience life that is infinitely deep. (See also Heaven.)
Eucharist —See Communion.
Selfishness. Fear + power = evil. Sorry, there’s no big bad powerful Devil or Darth Vader with superpowers. No “thing” out there called evil that assaults us. Just selfishness. We are created as living images of God’s love. But we can’t seem to trust that (see Ego, Sin). Our ego takes control of us, fueled by fear. We look elsewhere than to God for power, security and belonging (see Temptation). When this goes on unchecked our lives and our souls become self-enclosed. Fueled by the powerful freedom God gives us, our selfish, fearful desire can take on a life of its own. Malignant selfishness becomes an addiction that controls the person who harbors it. And because it taps into deep and universal fears and desires, evil spreads easily, and whole groups of people can become addicted. So it may take on enormous, tragic societal dimensions. Evil in its worst and most powerful forms is systemic, not personal. Paul speaks of the systemic dimension of evil: it’s like a cosmic force that has us enslaved. It’s more than individual flaws we need to be forgiven for; it’s a systemic power we need to be delivered from. But it’s still just plain old selfishness at heart. Selfishness is evil, whether it shows up in little things like cutting in line, or huge things like war, genocide and tyranny. Evil has a couple of sneaky tricks: it usually masquerades as good, and it most often takes the form of systemic injustice that’s hard to question—just “the way things are”—like racism. The only deliverance from the power of evil and cure for its sickness is God’s grace, and love that heals our selfish fears. (See Cross)
God sets us free, and delivers us from the experience of not belonging. Liberation is as basic to the work of God as creation. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, and again was taken into captivity in the exile, they went through an archetypal experience that we all know: the experience of uprootedness, un-belonging and bondage. Imprisonment, dislocation and separation are basic to the human experience. When God set the people free to come home, they had a concrete experience of how God liberates us from what imprisons us. God judges the forces of oppression, disrupting unjust social and political order, and accompanies us to new freedom. Crossing the Red Sea was not just escaping through a marshy swamp: it was crossing the Sea of Chaos present at Creation, and entering into a New Creation. The process continues: God leads the people toward a new world, a peaceable Realm, a Promised Land that we are still journeying toward. (See The Bible, The Story.)
Opening to God. Faith isn’t having a certain belief system or even strong trust in God―it’s just reaching out for God, however weakly we reach. Sometimes it’s our unknowing and even our doubts that get us to engage. Notice how often Jesus says to people who seek healing, “Your faith has made you well.” To be faithful is not to “get it right,” but to be reaching toward God, engaging with God, participating in God. Faith goes hand in hand with belief, which is not thinking, but trusting (See Belief). God is also faithful: always reaching toward us.
Saying no. Fasting is re-directing our desires. Fasting is not self-punishment; it’s saying no to one thing to say yes to another. It’s not a way of dieting. It’s prayer. In fasting we become aware of our hungers, our dependence, our fears, our need for energy from beyond us, the hunger of the world. We let go of that hunger for a deeper one. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5.6). Ultimately fasting turns us toward God, who is the heart’s most abundant feast. “My soul thirsts for you…. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast” (Ps. 63.1, 5).
Physical reality. God’s love isn’t just a warm feeling. It emerges into physical existence. The Word is made flesh (John 1.14). Flesh has gotten a bad rap from a misreading of Paul and his contrast of living in the flesh and living in the spirit, particularly in Romans 7.14 – 8.17. It has led to the erroneous thought that our bodies (and especially sex) are bad, and that the physical is inferior to the spiritual. But despite puritanical admonitions about bodies and their urges, God creates bodies and calls them good, and chooses to incarnate the Word in living flesh full of all its human desires, abilities, allurements and foibles.
The flesh isn’t bad. What’s bad is thinking that’s all there is. By “living in the flesh” Paul means living under the illusion that I am this isolated, limited, individual biological entity defined and contained by my body (see Ego). But in fact, Paul says, I am part of God’s vast Creation and God’s infinite love, part of the Body of Christ. (See Body of Christ.) So really my “body” isn’t just this lump of biological stuff; it’s the whole Body of the resurrected Christ, including the community of God’s Beloved (Romans 8.9-11). When we speak of the “desires of the flesh” it doesn’t mean sex. (C’mon, focus.) It means the temptation to think of ourselves as isolated individuals instead of members of God’s One Body.
Letting go of the score. To forgive is not to forget, or to excuse or even to tolerate. To forgive someone doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt you, and it doesn’t mean you trust them. It means you accept the hurt as part of “what is.” You let go of feeling something needs to happen for you to be OK—usually that the other person needs to repent, or apologize, or learn from their error, or pay you back, or suffer some consequences, or even just suffer. Forgiveness means you carry no unfinished business. They might indeed need to learn, or repent, or suffer consequences, but you don’t need for them to. You are whole as you are. When you refuse to forgive you carry the hurt with you; you’re still hurting—they’re still hurting you. When you forgive you accept yourself as hurt but still whole. So really forgiving someone for hurting you means forgiving yourself for being hurt, and trusting that you are both wounded and also beautiful at the same time. This is how God forgives. There’s no “deserving,” no prerequisite of repentance, no score. No payback, not even Jesus dying on the cross. Just love. It’s a free gift. “God forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us” (Colossians 2.13-14).
Infinite energy of love. God is not a Big Guy. God is not male, or even human. God is The Great Mysterious. All our words, and ideas about God are stick figures. God is Spirit, and personal, but not a “person” like a bigger version of us. God is not a being; God is being itself. In the burning bush God says, “I BE,” — “I WILL BE as I be.” God is the spirit of love, universal and omni-present. God is not just a loving being: God is love itself, the source, energy and flowing of love. It doesn’t really matter if you believe in God. Just believe in love. Love is pretty much what we mean by “God.” God is the Life Force, the Love Force that is the source of all reality. God is a field of energy: the Field of Love, like gravity, that pervades and connects and affects all things. God is infinite and beyond our knowing. As The Cloud of Unknowing says, God can be loved but not thought. So to describe God we grasp for human metaphors, including personal ones. But God isn’t a human who has emotions like anger and jealousy. God is love. Where there is love, there is God. My theology is panentheistic (not pantheistic):God is infinite, and the whole universe is a little tiny bit of God, inside God―since there is nothing outside God. We don’t “believe in” God, like thinking something about God; we actually participate in God. (See Belief, Holy Trinity, One)
Love. God doesn’t have the future all planned out. God has a desire. God’s plan is that we will be loved and loving. God leaves it up to us to work that out. As John Irving says in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, “God is the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.”
Love. Love doesn’t “do” things like maneuver people into place. But Love is energy that creates a kind of force field that influences stuff. Like light doesn’t “make” plants grow… but with light– they grow! God doesn’t “make” things happen– but under the influence of Love, things happen. Processes move forward, harmonies emerge, hearts are changed, and what we think of as “miracles” occur. God doesn’t “control” them, but God makes them possible. God didn’t “put” that person in place to help you when you needed them; they would have been there anyway. But love opened their heart to you. Many ask: Why doesn’t Godstop wars and end hunger? God does. That’s exactly what God sends us to do. When people cooperate with love they do stop fighting and help the poor. Love makes that happen. But as long as we close ourselves off to love, the war goes on and the poor are hungry. But love is still there, even in the war or the disease, radiating the energy of healing, forgiveness, self-giving and joy– whether we receive it or not.
The good news that we are God’s Beloved. It’s the mind-boggling truth that Jesus taught, embodied and lived and died for. It goes against all the instincts we have to impress God and count credits and penalties.The Gospel is not a doctrine or proposition. It’s a story, a story about grace. The four Gospels in the New Testament (and other non-canonical ones) are not histories but symbolic stories meant to help us fall in love with Jesus again. (See Scripture.) The Greek word translated as“gospel” in the New Testament is evangelion, whichreferred to the good news of a king’s victory. According to Paul the “good news” is that the crucified and risen Christ is ruler of the cosmos, supplanting all powers and authorities, including the cosmic forces of evil, the power of personal guilt, fear and shame, and all human power structures. The gospel is good news that encompasses our forgiveness, our freedom from death and fear, and liberation from oppression.
The unexpectedness and unconditionality of love. God’s love does not follow our rules. It does not “compute” according to rational, dualistic thought, according to cause-and-effect, reward-and-punishment schemes. God’s love is not limited. There is no such thing as “deserving.” Grace is a freebie. Always. God brings blessing out of difficulty, birth out of pain, life out of death, sanctity out of sin. There is blessing in suffering, hope in loss, holiness in our failures, companionship in solitude. We give up our lives, and God gives us new ones. Amazing. Always, love wins.
The thing about grace is how badly we need it. Our sin is our inability to get over ourselves (see Sin). And we sure can’t get over ourselves by ourselves. We need to be rescued from our self-centeredness—and God, in love, does that. Though our will is self-enclosed, God centers our being in God. God relates to us not according to our sin, but according to God’s love. Though we are trying to be independent from God, God’ s love won’t let us go. It rescues us from our own self-entrapment. We are saved by grace.
John Wesley talked about three movements of grace (not different “kinds” of grace). Grace is prevenient (coming first, pre-veni in Latin): with grace God is in every moment and event, before we know we need it. Grace is justifying: by grace God sets us free from our guilt, shame and fear and assures us that our lives are justified in God’s eyes. Grace is sanctifying:when weknow ourselves as God’s beloved, it changes us: we allow ourselves to be filled with God’s love more and more, continually transforming us and perfecting us in love, and re-creating us for God’s sacred (“sanctified”) purposes. (See Born Again, Conversion.)
Making whole. Restoring one’s wholeness, one’s holiness (see Holy). For Jesus sometimes healing meant curing a disease or altering a physical ability like paralysis or blindness. But the healing was usually broader than that. Forgiveness is healing. Jesus healed people’s hearts and lives and their relationships with themselves, God and their communities. He healed their faith, or their self-regard. Sometimes healing meant curing a disease. But not always. And he didn’t heal everybody. He wasn’t trying to fix all the suffering of the world. He was showing us what God’s love is like. Sometimes what most needs healing isn’t our bodies but our souls. We need whole spirits to be able to live with all our physical failures and frailties.
Watch out for the ableism that identifies what we call able-bodied as “normal” and stigmatizes illness, disability, or difference. There are many kinds of beauty. Our variations, imperfections, gifts, strengths and weaknesses are all part of our embodiment (see Body). A blind person is not less whole or normal than a sighted one. In fact when the lights go out they’re more able-bodied than the rest of us. Healing doesn’t mean correcting. It means re-connecting.
The heart of God. Heaven is not the afterlife but the heart of this life (see Eternal Life). Heaven is God’s love at the heart of this world, and God’s ideal for this world. It’s the grace at the center of each moment, and the loving interconnectedness of all Creation. Heaven is being in love with God. We enter it whenever we live in awareness, gratitude and love. We leave it whenever we live in distrust of God, refuse to love, or deny of what is. Heaven is not “up;” heaven is in. (See also Kingdom of God.)
Life without God. Of course there’s no such thing. Hell is thinking we’re without God. If there were a hell, nobody would be in it, because God is always with us no matter what. The notion that God would stop loving you the moment you die because you weren’t good enough to please God, and leave you there to suffer eternally, is cruel. God is not that selfish, tied to the past, or willing to let go of you. God’s love is eternal, infinite and unconditional, and even your worst sin can’t change that. Our sin is that we always live close to the edge of hell, but Jesus keeps pulling us back, sometimes having to grab us by the hair, and often having to get on the other side to push.
Loving. Holiness is not some otherworldly quality of purity or being better than everything else. It means being whole, wholly divine. Whatever or whoever is holy participates wholly in God. And God is love, so to be holy is to be wholly loving. One definition of holy is “set aside for God’s purposes.” Well, that’s true of everything God has created. God is holy, of course, but so are we, at least relatively. It is the hope of our lives to honor our holiness, to mirror our godliness, to reflect the image of God (love) in us. “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3.18).
God in everything—especially us. God is Spirit, and God is infinite. We are made from God, so God is in us. The Spirit is the aliveness of our bodies (See Body.) God breathes in us. (Both ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek mean “spirit,” “wind” and “breath.”) Respiration = inspiration, in-spirited-ness. After his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciple, not to prove something, or make them feel better, but to breathe his Spirit into them (Jn. 20.22). Of course they already had it, but this is the Gospel’s way of showing it. The Spirit is in all of us, so we are all one: “There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4.4). (See Body of Christ.) Jesus spoke of the Spirit as God’s presence in him, and said his spirit would be in us. “I am in God, and you in me, and I in you (Jn. 14.20). Sounds a little spacey, but it’s literally true. God is infinite; we are within God. The Holy Spirit is our inter-penetration, our inter-being. Jesus was both human and divine; so are we. The Spirit unites us, guides us, and empowers us to love. When we love, that’s Holy Spirit doing its thing. (See also Holy Trinity and Spiritual Gifts.)
Holy Trinity See Trinity
Confidence in the unseen. Hope is not wishful thinking, optimism or blind trust. Hope isn’t wishing, or even waiting. It’s knowing that God and grace, Goodness and Meaning are beyond what we can see at the moment. “We hope for what we do not see” (Rom. 8.25). Hope is not only about the future. It’s confidence in what God is already doing right now, even when we can’t see evidence of it.
God’s Beloved: God’s holy, screwed-up, forgiven people. We are created good. “Very good,” in fact (Gen. 1.31). We are a living image of God: not a visual image of God’s appearance, but a living icon of God’s love (Gen. 1.27). We are made of God and in God. We are God’s self-expression. “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and whole before God, full of love” (Eph. 1.4). Our baptism reminds us that God says to us, “You are my Child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1.11). But we fail to trust that (see Sin); our fears and desires get power over us (see Temptation); and we fall prey to the powers of our selfishness (see Evil). But because of God’s love there is still hope and holiness in us (see Grace). “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as Christ is, so are we in this world” (1 Jn. 4.17). We are continually in the process of recovering the image of God in us, “being transformed into the God’s image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3.18). Jesus is devoted to that divine nature, the image of God in us, and never gives up on that. He is especially concerned for those who society assumes have no divine image: the outcast and despised, the judged and condemned. As God’s image, we are all one. Jesus seeks to restore our unity, creating a community in which there are no insiders or outsiders, “good” or “bad,” but the beloved family of God. (See Kingdom of God.)
Knowing you’re as beloved and precious as everybody. It’s not self-abasement, just realism: we’re all equally loved and worthy. You don’t “think more highly of yourself than you ought” (Rom. 12.3) but also not more lowly than you ought. You are, after all “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139.14). Humility also implies an awareness of mortality. The words human, humble, humor and humus all come from a root meaning basically compost. Organic soil. Dust of the earth, which God scoops up and fashions into a living being. So: ordinary, marvelous stuff with which God does regular, miraculous things.
Images of God
You know we made them all up, right? There’s no such thing as “the” image of love. But every instance of love is an image of it. So it is with God. There is no single image, but all our images. God is infinite, eternal and beyond our human comprehension. The only way we have to imagine or talk about God is using images from our experience. So our images of God are limited by our human memories, values, assumptions and socialization. (Since we’re human our image of God is human. What a coincidence, that we make God match our biological form!Why don’t we see God as a whale? Gentle, sociable, vast, and singing! And, really, we don’t understand God any better than we understand the songs of whales.) Given the varieties of human experience, almost anything can be an image of God. Whatever attunes you to the presence and nature of God works. In Scripture God is imagined as everything from a rock to an illness, a lion, a shepherd and a woman giving birth. No image is complete, or even really “true.” It just points Godward. Since God has no y chromosomes, God is not male. Since God is eternal God is not “old” with white hair. Since God is infinite God is not human. All we can do is use a thousand images, and let them speak. Some of the best images of God are those that perplex us, reminding us that God is beyond our knowing. (See Holy Trinity, Parable, Symbol.)
God in Jesus. And everything else. Since God is infinite, there is nothing and no one who is outside of God, separate from God, or not made up of pure 100% God. A painting is art because of the physical paint and canvas. A Van Gogh painting is not just paint. It’s Van Gogh. God’s love is enfleshed in physical reality (See Body.) We are not just molecules; we are God’s painting. But we don’t trust that (see Sin), so we bury the Divine Presence in us. We hide it and betray it. Jesus doesn’t do that. He is 100% human, and shines with the light of the 100% God that is in him. He perfectly embodies God’s love in a way we only approximate (Col. 1.15-20). But he doesn’t do it in majesty and power; he does it in humility, vulnerability and powerlessness (Phil. 2.5-11). (See The Cross) When we look at Jesus we see God at work. Because Jesus allows God to be fully present in him, we see God in a special way there, but he keeps showing us that we are all divine. Jesus embodies not just God’s love and majesty and power: he embodies God’s vulnerability as well, and our bodies are both our power and our vulnerability. So Jesus embodies God’s presence in people we think of as lowly, worthless or powerless. In Jesus God lives in a body, blessing and redeeming our own bodies, all of them, including their brokenness and finitude. Since God is the energy that creates all things (Jn. 1.3), that energy is in all things: everything is the love of God made flesh.
God’s selfie. Jesus is not God, but a pretty good image of what God might be like if God were a human. He’s a good picture of how we are made in the image of God. Jesus is the matchmaker who introduces us to God. God is the bread of life. Jesus makes my mouth water.
There are four versions of Jesus. There’s the historical Jesus who lived 2000 years ago and did some stuff. After he died and rose from the dead his disciples kept experiencing his presence. They came to know this risen Jesus in a new way and attributed all that new stuff to the Jesus who lived in Galilee. He became a second Jesus: the one we read about in the Gospels, which is partly historical but mostly theological. Thirdly, there’s the Christ of the Church, the purely theological Jesus of our creeds, doctrines and liturgies. We believe all sorts of stuff about this Jesus that isn’t in the Bible. And then there’s our Jesus: my Jesus, your Jesus, the one we actually know and have a relationship with. Our Jesus comes to us through all those other versions—in scripture, in worship, in doctrines, in images and traditions of the church— but each one of us knows a different one, who is not exactly any of those others. Mine, for instance, speaks English, plays Frisbee, and met me when I picked him up hitchhiking outside of Seattle. He’s my teacher, friend, forgiving lover and companion, a cosmic presence and the face of God, my guide and source of energy, my coach and cook, my chief, my leader, my joy. The historical, scriptural and doctrinal Jesuses are all different, and all of our own Jesuses are different, but they’re all up to the same thing: trying to get us to fall in love with God and stay there. (See Christ, Lord)
God’s truth-telling. In particular, the awful truth that you are God’s Beloved whether you’ve been acting like it or not. There’s no big Judgment Day when you die. God is judging you right now. God’s judgment isn’t a harsh critique of everything you’ve done wrong. It’s just truth, like the X-ray that finally shows you what you hadn’t seen. “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see” (Jn. 9.39). God’s judgment is the A-440 you aren’t quite in tune with (See Sin). God doesn’t condemn you for being out of tune. God just keeps playing the note so you can get in tune. “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world” (Jn. 12.47). When we’re out of tune that note can sound discordant, but it’s sweet that God stays on it. When we do tune up we might have to crank that string farther than is comfortable: repentance can be pretty wrenching. But it’s always full of grace. God’s judgment is mercy. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world (Jn. 3.19). God’s judgment is that you are God’s Beloved, and have been acting both in and out of tune with that truth.
God’s judgment is seeing things as they are. In our dualistic way of thinking we attach “good” and “bad” values to that. But Jesus discourages this. “Why do you call me “good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk. 10.18). Because we too easily poison the truth-telling of judgment with the opinions of our own fears and desire, we leave judging to God (Rom. 14.10-13). Judgment is God’s truth-telling. Not ours. Jesus tells us not to judge because we can’t. We judge others as “good” or “bad” but we don’t actually know. We can’t see what’s really in them. (And honestly we don’t really know good from evil. The sin of Adam and Eve was that they thought they could accurately judge good and evil.) Every person is way more than the part we judge, so our labels are untruthful. So just don’t even try. The best we can do is to try to discern God’s truth and be in tune with it. (See Discernment.)
Everybody has what they need to participate in the wholeness of life. Justice does not mean getting what you deserve. (There’s no such thing. See Grace.) People often think of justice in terms of reward and punishment, or even worse, winning and losing (outside the courthouse, the winning side always says justice was served, the losers say it was betrayed). Though we think it means punishment for evil, notice that in scripture it is most often characterized as, or paired with, mercy (Is. 30.18, Hos. 2.19, Mt. 23.23). God’s justice is not individual but societal: a society in which everybody can live the life God creates for them: everybody gets loved and included and is able to receive God’s love and express the Spirit’s gifts fully. Justice requires the mighty work of undoing systemic evil and injustice (see Evil) not only with laws but with loving relationships. Justice means dismantling systems of privilege and exclusion, and restoring the full participation of those who have been hurt by those systems: the poor, the powerless, the outcast (Ps. 82.3; Is. 1.17, 58.6; Lk. 1.50-53). There are few books in the Bible that fail to repeat God’s care for the poor. The prophets were all about justice, not personal piety. Jesus’ ministry and especially his death has been mightily “spiritualized” but it’s really all about justice. Our Methodist baptismal vows charge us to “resist evil , injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This requires that we confess sins of both omission and omission, since we are all guilty of silent collusion with injustice.
Freedom with God. We don’t have to impress God. We can just be ourselves. In our sin we think we have to justify our existence. God lets us know we are justified simply in being God’s Beloved, like a baby whose existence is justified simply because it is there. “What love God has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 Jn. 3.3.). We can’t make that happen. Only God’s love can. We are justified from the beginning. Our struggle is coming to trust that. Justification is guaranteed; assurance is a journey. (See Grace, Salvation)
Kingdom of God
God’s field of love. The ecosystem of God. (Call it the Empire of Grace, Kin-dom of God, Reign of God, World of God, Realm of Heaven, Commonwealth of God, Beloved Community…. ) It’s perfect relationships among God, all creatures, and all Creation. The image has multiple dimensions.
It means the the absolute sovereignty of God, the reliable mystery that Love, our Abba-Amma God, is the Creator, center, power and law of life and the universe. It’s like gravity. We may ignore it but we can’t escape it.
It means God’s hope for this world that isn’t fully realized yet. God is still creating a world of justice and wholeness, attested to by Jesus and the prophets, but not yet fulfilled. It is still “coming.” We don’t have the power to force or prevent it, only the choice to live in harmony or out of tune with God’s will.
And Jesus especially means it as God’s field of love, like an electrical field or magnetic field, that we can choose to participate in (“enter”) or ignore. It’s an image of loving, trusting and just relationship with God and others. It is not the afterlife, though it transcends death. It is available in this life, right here, right beneath the visible surface of things. (“The Realm of God has come near” Mk. 1.15.) It’s not a separate place or time but a way of being in this time and place. Like a marriage, it’s invisible but it’s right here. It’s an ecosystem of love. You belong to it, but you also have to choose to be part of it. It’s harmony with God, others and Creation, which is open to us every moment: all we have to do is choose it. When we live in harmony with it we “have life, and have it abundantly.” In disharmony, we find ourselves in an “outer darkness.”
The Greek word for “kingdom” in the gospels, basileia, actually means “Empire.” It means both a geographical place and a political structure with a ruler. The Empire of God is a subversive alternative to the Roman Empire, and to all human structures of power and domination, privilege and exclusion. The Realm of God is radically inclusive of every person, race, religion, ability, identity and so on (Rev. 7.9). The Kingdom of God is all about justice (see Justice.)
The Kingdom of God is not the afterlife. It’s now. (See also Heaven.)
Love God and love everybody else. That’s it. God has one law: “I love you, and everybody else, and I want you to love me, and everybody else.” Jesus identifies that as the greatest commandment (Mt. 22.37-40). There are no “teeth” in this law, no demands, no punishments, just the inescapable invitation to give and receive love. It’s a law like the law of gravity. The first part of it is that God loves us. Loving God and loving others are two sides of the same coin (1 Jn. 4.19-21). All the other commandments are footnotes to the law of love. Jesus was clear that the point of the law is not to be legal but to be loving (see Mt. 5, especially 43-48). Jesus says you can either be right, or you can be loving. Not both. Sooner or later you’ll hurt somebody to be right, or you’ll break the law to be loving. God’s true law is love. And the root of righteousness, even more basic than sharing God’s love, is to receive God’s love. That’s the law Jesus teaches, models and upholds.
Light (and dark)
….There is no one definition. Which is the point. We reflexively think light is good and dark is bad, right? “God is light.” “You are the light of the world.” there are a couple of problems with that. One is that we live in a culture that is chronically distorted by racism that judges people by how light or dark their skin is. So dark people seem bad and lighter people are good. It’s not just semantics. It’s instinctive, even among dark-skinned people. So watch out for this. Sometimes when we speak of darkness we mean not knowing (“I’m in the dark”), or gloomy, or evil, or sad, or… lots of things. Sometimes when we use that language we reinforce the binary idea that light = good and dark = bad, and reinforce its racist overtones without meaning to—but we do. So watch out for it. Be clear what we mean (and don’t mean) by light or darkness. And be aware that sometimes dark is good. God dwells in darkness… Creation begins, life is conceived and seeds sprout in the dark…darkness allows sleep and Sabbath rest…. And sometimes light is bad: w wear sunglasses… light pollution prevents our seeing the stars… a whiteout in a winter storm can be deadly. The light can still shine in the darkness, and the darkness is unable to overcome it, but be careful to define your terms and attend to your context.
Just kidding. There’s no such thing. Nobody takes the whole Bible literally. When Jesus says “Take up your cross,” nobody walks around with a big piece of wood ready to get executed. We all pick and choose what we take literally. Some choose the virgin birth. Others choose “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.” But nobody takes it all literally. Even the most literal chunks of the Bible are symbolic (see Symbol).
Higher power. The Word “Lord” carries sexist and oppressive baggage I don’t like, but I haven’t found a good substitute. “Chief,” maybe. Christ, the embodied love of God is sovereign, ruler and commander over all Creation (Eph. 1.20-23). Love is the organizing principle of the universe. Jesus, crucified and risen, has triumphed over all the powers of this world, including human domination and violence. The love Jesus embodies is more powerful even than cosmic powers, even death itself. “Death no longer has dominion” (Rom. 6.9). Christ—love— is the heart of all Creation, all reality. In this sense Christ is “Lord” of the universe. Evil and injustice still happen, of course. But Christ is the “Chief” of this world, including its evil, in the same way one is a loving parent of children even when they’re fighting. Christ is still the parent, still loving—and we are still beloved. I think of the “lordship” of Christ like gravity: powerful but not coercive or manipulative. Lying down or flying, you always have to deal with it.
Jesus is also my Lord. Jesus, as the human icon of the divine Christ (see Trinity), is our unquestioned leader. We follow him, and we willingly submit our lives to his guidance, not simply because he has supremacy and we don’t, but because he connects us with the Source of Life. Unlike human “lords,”Jesus is also a loyal companion. It’s like being in love. It doesn’t force you to do anything… but it makes you do stuff, and even sort of overtakes your life, doesn’t it? So Jesus “rules” my heart. He is my will, evoking my willingness instead of willfulness. The first steps of AA describe our devotion: “1. We admitted we were powerless over sin – that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to wholeness of life. 3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” To honor Christ as “Lord” is to let Christ replace my ego at the center of my will. It is also to acknowledge that I am a member of a Body, a family, an Empire, greater than myself.
Being for another’s sake. Love is not a feeling but a commitment to the full life of another. The New Testament speaks of various kinds of love: the “brotherly love” of philios, the desire of eros, and especially the unconditional care of agape. The Old Testament speaks of God’s chesed, often translated as “mercy,” “compassion” “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.” It has a sense of overflowing without boundaries. Scripture also speaks of God’s “womb-love:” the visceral devotion of a mother to her child. God is love. Love is God. Jesus asks us to love unconditionally as we have been loved (Jn. 13.34). He describes love as laying down one’s life for another (Jn. 15.13). Our tendency is to dilute our love with other fears, desires and agendas, but Jesus demurs. He asks us to love even our enemies—not necessarily to like them, but to lay down our life (or at the very least our agenda, superiority and selfish wants) for them.
Messiah. — The Hebrew word for anointed. See Christ.
Language that’s truer than right. “Jesus taught the crowds everything in parables; he told them nothing except in parables” (Mt. 13.34). Because God and the truth (see Truth) are beyond our knowledge or language the only way to point our consciousness toward them is through words that exceed their own meaning. You can explain commitment, devotion and adoration to someone in rational language or you can say “You mean the world to me.” That phrase is not factually correct in any sense, but it’s true. This is what we mean when we say the bible is “true.” (See also Bible, Symbol.)
Embodying love. An ordained pastor is a specialized minister, but baptism calls each of us into ministry and proclaims that we’re given spiritual gifts for ministry: to embody Jesus’ love for others, not only as a vessel of God’s grace, but also as a representative of the whole Body of Christ. Ministry is the work of the Holy Spirit and not only a person’s skills or character. Many activities can be ministry. What makes it so is doing it with Jesus.
Something that wakes us up. A miracle is not necessarily something that breaks the laws of physics; it’s something that breaks through our assumptions and dullness of spirit and leads us to suspect the presence of God. Walking on water or healing a sick person may be a miracle; so is forgiveness. So is daily bread.
There is only one thing, and we’re all part of it. When I speak of God as the Holy One, I don’t mean, among many ones, the particular one who is holy, I mean the holy, sacred, ineffable ONE. The Oneness of all things. (See God.) Our rational thought is dualistic, dividing things into “this” or “that.” But ultimately things just are.
Spiritual consciousness is non-dualistic, simply receiving things in their wholeness. Jesus says “If your eye is whole, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not whole, your body is full of darkness” (Lk. 11.34). The KJV says if your eye is “single,” which is closer to the Greek. Other translations use “healthy,” or “clear.” A single eye is one that sees the One—like, you know, the whole elephant. Not just angles and perspectives, parts and pieces, judgments and opinions. Maybe that’s why Jesus says “Do not judge.” Just let things be.
The Body of Christ is an image of our Oneness. Forgiveness is an act of Oneness. “I am in the Father and you are in me and I am in you” (Jn. 14.20) is a statement of Oneness.
A story meant to confuse us toward God. A parable is not a moral fable. A parable has no point, lesson or “moral”— and multiple ones.(What is “the moral” of the parable of the yeast?)The word parable is derived from the same root as parabola, parallel and paralax (look it up). It’s a story with a curve, one that takes us to a new perspective “along side” our habitual view. Jesus tells parables to shake our assumptions about God and life and get us to see in new ways. We give up on our logical thoughts and open ourselves to wonder. “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” (Mt. 13.13). Jesus’ parables usually involve a paradox or unexpected turn. (See Paradox.) Every parable can be interpreted in multiple ways, and harbor a high degree of mystery, uncertainty and even contradiction. Jesus not only tells parables, he acts them. His healings and miracles are all parables. His discussions are parables. His whole life is a parable. The cross is a parable. Watch for God showing up in the lowest, least likely places.
A truth you can’t think through. A paradox can only shed light for you through non-dualistic consciousness (see Contemplation). You have to lose your life to have life. The last shall be first. Crucifixion is victory. Death comes out of life. Jesus’ parables and other paradoxical teachings help us let go of our dualistic thinking and open our minds to the mystery of God. (see Parable.) Paradox forces us to let go of the control we exercise in “understanding,” and simply let God be.
Systemic evil. It may seem odd that the bad guy, is the only person other than Mary mentioned in our creeds. But the phrase “under Pontius Pilate” reminds us that Jesus’ ministry, and ours, takes place in the context of political oppression and systemic injustice and abuse of power. Jesus was not crucified by a “bad apple” or an angry mob, but by a system of state-sponsored terrorism. Discipleship is revolutionary. “Jesus is Lord” is seditious speech in the realm of worldly power structures.
Pilate also represents the Oppressor in all of us. He is the archetype of the old, sick, dying patriarchal ruler in us whose desire for control and dominance of our consciousness impedes our growth and freedom. It’s the Pilate in us who kills the sacred in us.
Openness to God. Prayer may include “talking to God,” but the heart of it is listening for God. “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps. 62.1). There are many forms of prayer; anything that gets you to open your awareness to God counts. Prayer is not just asking for stuff. God already knows what you need. Prayer is a way of aligning ourselves with God. It doesn’t change God’s mind; it changes ours. When we are in tune with the field of love that is God, we create heightened energy; we produce additional vibrations like overtones in music—and this can produce unexpected, even “miraculous” results. We can “ask anything of God in Christ’s name and it will be given to us” (Jn. 16.23). (See God, God’s Plan, Love). But prayer changes the world in ways we can’t discern (and don’t need to). Prayer is ultimately beyond even our thinking: it’s simply being present with God. Prayer is what God does while we hold the space. “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit prays in us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8.26). You are the wire; prayer is the electricity.
Knowing we’re as beloved as we really are. When you redeem a coupon you exercise its value. When slaves were redeemed in biblical times, they were paid for and set free. The world assumes people’s worth is determined by their abilities and accomplishments (basically capitalism). We are in slavery to this brutal way of seeing ourselves and others. Christ loves us and re-deems us—sees us in a new way. He deems us worthy even of dying for, and when we grasp this truth we know our own worth, and we are free from slavery to the world’s judgment. (But we aren’t freed from God’s judgment, since God’s judgment is love.) To be redeemed is to be set free, not from God’s wrath but from the controlling power of our egoic fears and desires. We are set free, born again, free to start anew.
Being created by God—right now. We think we’re already alive and have a history and all that. But God loves us with such brilliant radiance that it’s like “Let there be light” all over again and we’re created brand new any time we allow it. When we know ourselves to be forgiven we fall in love with God. We want to live our lives in tune with God’s grace instead of the world’s pressures and expectations. We are born again: we allow God to re-generate us with new life, and we start over. (See Born Again.) Though it may happen in dramatic moments, being born again isn’t a one-time event but a way of living. We are continually being re-created. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5.17). Once we are regenerated, we don’t go back to old ways (Rom. 6.1-4, 2 Cor. 5.16). (See Repentance.)
Starting over. And over. And over. Repentance is not feeling awful about yourself, but letting God’s grace start you up in a new direction. We are easily knocked off track (see Sin). God continually awakens us and invites us to turn our lives around, to engage with God. To repent doesn’t mean to be perfect or correct all our mistakes: it means to repoint our lives toward God. Metanoia is the Greek word for it, from meta, “beyond,” and nous, “mind.” It means more than changing your mind: it means letting your consciousness be transformed and taken to a new reality beyond where you were. (See Born Again andRegeneration.) Repentance is a changed consciousness, and a changed heart. It’s “being transformed by a new mindfulness” (Rom. 12.2).
When we give our life in love, God gives us a new one. It’s not exactly like the old one. When we love we step out of our little self-enclosed “self” and enter into a life that is eternal. Jesus says, “No greater love can you have than to lay down your life for your friends” (Jn. 15.13; see Cross). When we give of ourselves in love God gives us new lives, lives full of the power of love. Because that life is from God, it is infinite and eternal, and can’t be taken from us (See Eternal life). Resurrection is not a “comeback.” It’s moving into a new life that God gives us when we “die,” when our ego fails us and we have nothing but God. Such death may come in many forms of loss, powerlessness or brokenness, by fate or by choice. Some people think of resurrection as the afterlife, but they imagine us as disembodied spirits, as if our spirit is apple juice and our bodies are the glass. Then they imagine resurrection as tossing the juice into the air, leaving the glass (the body) behind—as if resurrection is nothing more than becoming disembodied. But that’s not the resurrection of the body. Resurrection is a new embodiment. It’s more like this: the apple falls to the ground, and it dies, rots and disintegrates. (Alas, resurrection begins with death.) Then the seed breaks open and becomes a new apple tree. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” ( Jn. 12.24).
Resurrection is pure gift (“By grace you have been saved,” Eph. 2.5). It’s a gift that supersedes and transcends and transforms all sin, death, suffering and loss. It’s not a happy ending after a rough passage: it’s a new beginning. We are transformed. “We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6.4). Maybe that’s why people didn’t recognize Jesus when he rose from the dead: he’d been changed (See Regeneration).
A kiss from God. The sacraments are physical, shared, symbolic experiences in which God conveys God’s love to us. We experience God’s loving presence and self-giving in the physical experience of water or bread and cup. Like a kiss, the act is more than a description or metaphor: it actually enacts the reality. God is actually present in a physical thing. Of course God is always present. In the kiss we experience that. And the more aware we are the more every moment is sacramental. (See Baptism and Communion.)
Freedom: being rescued from the solitary confinement of our ego. In our sin we disbelieve our place in God (see Sin). We believe our ego’s illusion that we are separate from God, that we have no place in God—so we become self-enclosed (see Ego). That illusion generates fear, and desperate desire for power, security and belonging (See Temptation). We believe we need to justify our existence, and become slaves to that anxiety. God rescues us from this death by staying connected with us in love, even in the worst of our sin. “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5.6). We erroneously believe we need to be good enough—to do something—for God to claim us, for us to have a place in the universe. This is a self-imposed coffin we can’t escape (see Rom. 7.14-25). But God stays connected with us. God simply loves us and forgives us, freeing us from the necessity to justify ourselves. We simply belong. God’s grace saves us from the power our sin (our illusion of separateness) has over us. We are freed from our ego’s fears. We are saved from the eternal hell of a past we could never escape in in the world of rewards-and-punishment. Jesus’ love and forgiveness, most clear on the cross, reveals to us our salvation. Salvation is not a singular, one-time experience, nor a category that some people have and some don’t. You don’t have to “get saved.” It’s the permanent state we are in. We can lose our belongings but we can’t lose our belonging. We are saved by grace; but coming to trust that—through faith— is our ongoing journey. (See Grace, Sin and theAppendixon Sin & Salvation)
Becoming more divine. As we allow the Holy Spirit to live and work in us she takes over more of our being. We become less controlled by our sin, our ego and our illusion of separateness form God, and more open to God’s love flowing through us. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2.20). When the Spirit gets hold of us we are continually made into increasingly faithful vessels of God. “We are being transformed into God’s image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Holy One, the Spirit.”(2 Cor. 3.18). It’s the process of becoming more God and less other stuff, being “perfected in love,” as John Wesley said. It never stops. We never “arrive.” We keep becoming more divine. (See Grace, Holy Spirit)
Stay open. When we say “Christ will come again” it means at least three things. One meaning, the most literal, is that Christ will come in a specific person at some specific time at the end of this chapter of human history when God reveals God’s actual plan for humanity, and Christ will reign over us in a more literal, maybe even physical way than now. Not many of us worry too much about that; it’s not likely to be soon, if at all. It’s more of a symbol than a prediction of the future, though surely some people think of it literally. It’s not really right to say “Jesus” will come again. Christ will come— the living, human embodiment of the Second Person of the Trinity, that is, God’s love embodied among us—but maybe not in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. But most people who believe in a literal Second Coming picture it being Jesus. In any case, the image points to a future that is God’s, marked by God’s power and grace. (See Apocalypse.) A second meaning is that God continues to send messiahs (“Christ” is Greek for messiah): God sends “anointed” people who reveal God’s will, embody God’s love and initiate a new world. We should keep our eyes out for those folks all the time. They don’t have to be the subject of a religion to be God’s anointed. (See Christ) The third way Christ “comes again” is all the time, in our hearts, in our lives, in the world around us. The point of proclaiming that Christ will come again is not to predict a future event but to remind ourselves to stay open to Christ’s presence right here and now and Christ’s continual surprising appearance, and to maintain hope for a future that God isn’t done with yet. “What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk. 13.37)
The you God gives you. Not just our flesh-caged ego. Our ego is pretty sure we create, delineate, sustain and protect ourselves, as discreet objects —but this is an illusion. Most of that is what we often call the false self. (See Sin.) Paul struggles with this in Romans 8. Your identity is a gift from God. As we gradually learn to surrender our self-made, illusory “self” we more fully inhabit our real self, which is divine, an image of God’s love. Our true self is not a discreet, individual object, but a living part of a great whole, the Body of Christ. Our self is in God. The heart of who I am is I AM. Part of who we are is everybody else, too. While we’re busy trying to separate ourselves from others, Jesus invites us to find ourselves in the Other. This is what it means to love your neighbor as your self.
God’s native tongue. Silence is not the absence of words. It’s the openness beyond language, the vastness that includes all noise and soundlessness, the truth that words can’t encompass. It’s the substance of eternity. Silence is the permission to let be all that is before it, without closing it off with words. It is God’s answer to our prayer. When God speaks it’s in the language of silence so we can’t hear it. We just have to inhabit it. Prayer is our attempt to achieve silence before God, to be open and listening. In prayer silence is not something we wait for our surroundings to provide; it’s something we practice. “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev. 8.1).
Being out of tune with God. Sin isn’t just willful disobedience. Ask any singer: we’re out of tune when we don’t know it. We’re born good, not evil (Gen. 1.31). We come from God. We are part of God. But human consciousness includes self-consciousness: what’s me, what’s not me, and how to protect what’s me. It’s the ego. It’s good. It keeps us from walking out into traffic. But it’s inherently anxious and self-centered. It believes we are a “self,” a separate, isolated being in the universe, contained and limited in our physical body. (That’s why Paul calls it “living in the flesh.”) Sin is this deep, inherent self-centered individualism. Our sin is not that we’re not bad; we’re just anxious and self-centered. It’s part of human nature. It’s “original.” It’s a strong illusion. We’re each in solitary confinement in our own bodies, in denial of our divine source, nature and belonging, and outside God’s sustaining love. We’re out of touch with Being itself. We don’t trust love as unconditional, but assume it must be earned. So we’re unconsciously desperate for life and the desires of our ego: power, security and belonging (See Temptation). This clinging is suicidal: only God can give us true power, security and belonging. Trying to sustain our own lives, separate from God (and all of creation) cuts us off from the true Source of Life. So sin is not just the cause of death, it is death. The state of sin we are in, and the deep, subconscious craving it engenders, leads to all our evil, and all the sins we commit.
Sin is not just personal disorder. It’s systemic, like racism. Sin is not just individual acts; it’s a universal human condition, a cosmic energy field that infects not only our consciousness but our politics, our public relationships. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6.12). The power sin has over us is profound: we can’t work our way out of it. Our fearful illusion overpowers even our best efforts at trying to prove ourselves worthy of love. “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7.20). We are enslaved. We need to be saved (See Salvation). The only antidote for sin is not punishment, but love. It’s God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, which saves us from the power our fear has over us by giving us a place in God, harmony with Being, that we can’t create or earn. (See Grace, and theAppendix on Sin & Salvation.)
Son of God
The Beloved. God doesn’t have chromosomes, right?So Jesus isn’t the biological son of God. The image suggests that Jesus is “born of God:” his source is in God, and God has “sent” him to fulfill the work of love. He bears a family resemblance to God. The phrase “Son of” has two connotations. One, it means a “person who is a product of,” like “son of the soil.” It means “chip off the old block.” Jesus is a representative, an embodiment, an example of God. The second is specifically theological, that Jesus is God’s “only begotten”―that not only is he “born of God,” a beloved child of God as we all are, but that he has a unique identity as the Second Person of the Trinity, the Beloved Son of the Loving Parent, and a unique relationship with God. Jesus is both human and divine, in completeness and in harmony. Jesus participates perfectly and wholly in the life of God. “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2.9). Jesus’ love is not just the product of an exceptionally evolved person, but the product of God, of God’s intentional self-out-pouring. Did “Jesus” exist in some form before he was born? Did God “send him to earth”? I don’t know. It doesn’t help me love God or my neighbor to speculate. “Son of God” is an icon, not a “fact.”
Son of Man
One of us. Jesus didn’t refer to himself as “Son of God.” But more than once he seemingly referred to himself in the third person as the “son of man.” It means literally a child of humanity. Jesus reveals what it means to be human in the same way he reveals who God is. In fact he reveals that humanity is divine. He reveals us as we are—the Fully Human One—and also as we are created to be: the New Human. For Jesus’ culture the phrase “Son of Man” also had messianic meaning, based on Daniel 7.13-14, where the prophet sees “one like a human being” who is given dominion. The essence of the image is not the maleness of either the “son” or “man,” since it means “human child.” Its essence is that it is someone through whom God reveals the depth of humanity’s divinity. Jesus is one of us, even as the Messiah―our chief and best representative, since we all are children of God, divine in our humanity. So when Jesus says “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2.10) he means himself… and really all of us.
God. God is not a spirit; God is Spirit. God is the process of living, the reality of being. Spirit is the aliveness of God from which the world is birthed and in which all things exist. Spirit is the field of energy in which everything is; therefore there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual any more than there is a separation between the melodic and the musical. E=mc2. The physical is a manifestation of the spiritual, and Spirit shines and breathes and vibrates in all things.
How God is at work in you to love. Paul mentions a few gifts (Rom. 12.6-8, 1 Cor. 12.1-10, Eph. 4.11, etc), but there are a million of them. They’re not talents or skills, but ways the Spirit acts in us that produce grace, especially for others—“to equip that saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ (Eph. 4.12). Healing and speaking in tongues are spiritual gifts; so are appreciating beauty and a sense of humor. Paul makes it clear that we all have different gifts, except for one that we all have—the greatest—which is love. (His magnificent chapter on love in 1 Cor. 13 comes out of his discussion of spiritual gifts.)
Whatever focuses our attention on God. Deep trust and engagement with God doesn’t come easily. We have to practice. We need intentional habits, disciplines and practices that help us open to God. Many forms of prayer do this. So can many other things, especially if they engage our souls, circumvent our dualistic thinking, connect us with the praying community and aim us toward God. Words like practice, habit or discipline suggest that whatever they are they are intentional and consistently repeated. (See Prayer.)
God creates, liberates, and leads us toward a new world. That’s the story of the Bible in a nutshell. God is always doing this three-fold thing. God is always creating, bringing reality into existence. This means creating stars and setting evolution on its course, and it also means creating us, as every moment we are born anew. God is always liberating us from what binds us, whether that’s social injustice or personal fears, habits and attachments. And God is always accompanying us toward the new world—the Promised Land, the Realm of God, the New Jerusalem—the future God has in store for us that God is still creating. God’s story never ends with “The End.” Or even “happily ever after.” It always ends with “And then…”
What we don’t like. A lot of suffering is subjective. One person’s pleasure can be another person’s hell; one person’s suffering might be nothing to another. Suffering is not God’s punishment. It just happens.It’s a function of being open to the world, which is actually good. Suffering itself, whether mild or profound, physical or psychological, is neither good nor bad; it’s just unpleasant. There’s nothing inherently evil about it, though there definitely is evil in causing needless suffering. There’s nothing inherently redemptive about it, either, as in self-flagellation. The pain of childbirth, or withdrawal from a drug, or the agony of repentance, is not necessarily good, but it can be a natural part of a good thing. Again it’s not the suffering that has value, but the good thing it’s a part of. Jesus does not save us because he suffered on the cross; he saves us because he forgave on the cross.Love involves suffering, but what’s good about that is the love, not the suffering. We generally spend too much energy trying to avoid suffering instead of trying to be loving. Jesus invites us to enter into the suffering of the world for the sake of love. If we aimed more for love, we would probably suffer more but mind it less. (See Take up your Cross)
Something that means more than it is. (See Metaphor.) All of religion dwells in the land of symbol. We live in a reality we’re only partly conscious of, a reality that exceeds our capacity to know, understand or describe. So our language is entirely symbolic. A symbol is a word, idea, image, object or experience that engages us beyond what is seen or stated. A symbol isn’t just a sign, euphemism or allegory, a substitute of one word for another. It’s something that invites us into a whole world hidden in itself. Like a kiss. It’s more than just the abutting of lips— and you know it. It not only expresses something but creates it as well. (see Word.)
The cross is a symbol. It was a literal object they used to kill Jesus. But it invites awareness of and relationship with all sorts of meanings, realities and possibilities, none of which can be adequately described in words. When we talk about “the cross” we don’t mean that piece of lumber: we mean Jesus’ act, a perspective on the world, the way we understand God, a way of living…all sorts of things beyond the literal piece of wood.
Symbol has power in several ways. It is not just expressive, but experiential. When we encounter a symbol it engages us in more than rational thinking. It engages senses, memory, emotions, even physical sensation and muscle memory. It has many meanings, opening to our imagination and especially the unconscious, where the Holy Spirit works. It is not subject to the manipulations, projections and delusions of our rational, egoic mind. In this sense there is a conflict between science and religion. Science demands proof with literal facts, each of which means one thing. Religion speaks in symbols that mean many things and can’t be proven, but only trusted. Ironically, people who try to make the Bible literal have given up on religion and turned to science and its facts. But everything in the Bible is symbolic. Even the literal, historical parts.
Desire for life, twisted. Our sin is that we’re unable to love and trust God perfectly. So we grasp elsewhere for life, especially for our deepest needs for power, security and belonging. Consider Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: the power to turn stones to bread; the security of falling unharmed; the belonging, pride and esteem of owning the world’s kingdoms (Mt. 4.1-11). It’s not bad to want those things; humans need survival, agency and belonging. But it’s suicide to seek them anywhere but in God. When those needs are not met, they go bad: unmet need for power turns to anger, which leads to manipulation and violence. Unachieved security turns to fear, which leads to greed and defensiveness. Loss of belonging turns to shame, which leads to untruthfulness and people-pleasing. Temptations are the true, deep hunger of our souls; they’re just aimed poorly. A good way to righteousness is to really feel our temptations, to explore them to their depths until we find the deepest, truest hunger they represent, which is a hunger and thirst for God, and to follow them―not toward the things of this world, but toward God.
Take up your cross
Love people, even if it kills you. Some say if you give your life to Jesus everything will get easier. Baloney. He didn’t say “Take up your lawn chair and follow me.” He did say, “You can have no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends” (Jn. 15.13). To take up your cross is to surrender your life (or at least your power, security, privilege, comfort or belonging) for the sake of love. The cross is not unpleasantness, nor piety, nor a set of beliefs, but the willingness to love others even at great cost to ourselves. To take up your cross is to willingly enter into the wound of the world, to stand in solidarity with those who suffer. It is to identify with the marginalized, dehumanized, condemned and excluded. It is to seek justice at any cost. It is to accept the tremendous power of God hidden in powerlessness. It is to trust the power of forgiveness and the reality of resurrection even when those are not apparent and their fruits may not appear during our lifetime. It is to share Jesus’ love for the world. It is to be yoked with Jesus, one with him, to be “with him in paradise” in even in suffering for the sake of healing, because being with him transforms all suffering. It is not, however, suffering for its own sake, or because God demands it, or because it somehow makes us like Christ. To take up your cross is to trust Jesus when he says, “‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt. 11.28-30).
The present moment. When scriptures, especially the Psalms, speak of the “house of God” don’t think of a building: think of where God lives– and that’s this moment. This moment is the Holy of Holies, where God dwells, where holiness radiates into all your life. The temple in Jerusalem was the site of sacrifices. The temple symbolizes whatever we offer to God. When Jesus “cleansed the temple” (Mk. 11.15-17 etc) he was inviting us to eschew sacrificing other beings, and instead sacrifice ourselves to God, to be lovingly present in this moment for God.
God is Lover, Beloved and the Love that flows between them. The Trinity is not a doctrine, a logical proposition you can either “agree” or “disagree” with. It’s an image, an icon, a symbol. It’s a picture of God as Lover, as Love, and as Loveliness. It isn’t “true” in the way 2+2=4 is true. It’s true the way music or art or a parable is “true.” It reveals. It suggests. It envisions. It helps us wonder. And in fact it confuses—denying our attempts to define and categorize with dualistic thought.
God is Love. God is Mother, Heavenly Lover, source of all Being: “Father.” God’s love is infinite and eternal. When God’s love exists as pure energy we call it “Spirit.” When God’s love is embodied, made finite and mortal, we call it “Christ.” (Remember energy and matter are interchangeable. E=mc2.) Christ is not an individual but all of God’s embodied love, which is all of Creation: it’s all God’s embodiment of love, God’s energy appearing as matter, Word made flesh.
Jesus fully embodied the Christ of God. He was not just Jesus of Nazareth, he was Jesus of Christ. He was Christ appearing as Jesus. We too are finite instances of the infinite love of God, just as Jesus was. God’s spirit, which we see in him, is in all of us.
The Trinity is not three men and a bird. God is not three beings. The Trinity reflects the multiplicity of the ways we experience God—in particular, the way God is more than we think. It’s a way to keep our images of God slippery so we can’t have just one image. The Trinity is an image of God’s three-dimensionality. God is the Eternal Creator, Infinite Source, Reality Itself, Ground of Being, beyond all knowing or understanding. Yet God also comes to us in real, revealed, embodied form, in spoken Word, as God does in Jesus. And God also is within and among us, neither beyond us nor coming to us but arising from within us as Spirit: whenever we feel love—that’s God.
The Trinity is an image of God as relationship. God is love, and love flows from one person to another; God is the flowing. So the Trinity is as image of God as community— God is familyhood. Jesus called God Abba, or “Daddy.” Jesus experienced God’s Spirit in him, and shared that Spirit with his followers. God is Parent, Child and Spirit. Therefore as God’s children we are part of God. We “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1.4). We are the fourth person of the Trinity.
The Trinity is also an image of God as unity. Even though there seem to be three persons, they are One. And we’re part of that One. “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (Jn. 14.20). This is what Jesus tells us about all of life: there’s only one thing, and we’re all part of it. The Trinity is an image of God’s mystery. Whatever you think of God, God is also the opposite of that, and also something else entirely. God is both parent and child, and also neither of those things. The Trinity is Silence, Word and Listening. God is beyond our rational dualistic categories. Therefore it directly contradicts the insistence that the Trinity be understood only as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” If God is both parent and child, God is also both male and female. The Trinity is Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Holy Trinity is also an image of God as energy. With God one plus one equals three, because you also count the “plus.” God is the “proceeding” of Son from Father, and Spirit from both of them. (There’s a big controversy about whether the Spirit proceeds “from the Father” or “from the father and the Son.” The very nature of the Trinity is that they can’t be separated or distinguished. The Spirit proceeds from their relationship.) The Trinity is not a static organizational chart but an electric field, a living process, a loving flow, a divine dance. The Greek word for it is perichoresis (from peri, which means “around,” and chorein, which means “to give way” or “to make room”). The Trinity is God’s dancing-to-make-room-for-the-other.
What is. “I AM who I am” (Ex. 3.14). We can’t have complete or accurate knowledge of what is, but what is still is. What is is evolving, but what it is is absolutely what it is. It’s our consciousness that’s relative. Truth is not a fact; it’s reality. There’s a difference. A fact is a little verifiable nugget of the truth. The truth is everything that is, much of which exceeds and transcends our capacity to understand, verify or even recognize. Ultimately, Truth is God. Because the truth so exceeds our knowledge and language, the only way to talk about Truth truthfully is with metaphor. (See Metaphor, Symbol.)
Love. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to Abba God except through me” (Jn. 14.16). Some people think this means believing in Jesus is the only way to be close to God. But God is love, and Jesus embodies God’s love. The only way to get close to God is through love, which is what Christ is, whether you know it or not, whether you’re a Christian or not. When the disciples ask Jesus to show them the way to God, he says, “I am the way.” The way to God is not to believe certain things about Jesus but to have a relationship with Jesus. There’s no program, formula or religion, there’s just love.
What is—often but not always spoken. God’s “Word” is not words, but the Truth. It’s What Is (see Truth). God’s truth is the Absolute, which created all things (John 1). But we struggle to hear it. When we do it’s usually in silence. The Word of God is not an abstract idea (”logos” is misleading), but a living Being, in fact, Being itself. The Word of God is not scripture—that’s words. The Word is what we hear when we read the Word with an open heart. It’s what God is saying to us in the moment.
The words we usually use refer to things: when we say “table” we are referring to a thing in the room, or in our imaginations. But the words in scripture are not referential. They are presence. They bear the Word, if we listen. So in the Bible the Word “God” is not a pointer to God; it’s a door through which we go and meet God. The God we meet, the Word we hear may or may not correspond to an idea we usually associate with the word. In this way scripture is all symbolic (see Symbol ).
Jesus was the the Truth of God made flesh, the Word spoken out loud. Jesus embodies the reality of God. When we encounter Jesus, he doesn’t just point us toward God or tell us about God; he offers experience in which we encounter God.
Total surrender. We give lip service to many gods and idols, but the ones we worship are the ones we actually entrust ourselves to. The question is usually not how you worship but who or what you worship: what’s absolute in your life. For many it’s capitalism; for most of us at times it’s The God of Being Right. To worship God is to entrust yourself wholly to God. It’s not just feeling awe. If you Google images for “worship” the first hundred images you get are basically a rock concert. But worship doesn’t have much to do with an emotional high, of the “I just want to praise you” sort, or even awe or gratitude. It isn’t an emotional experience. It’s a commitment. Anything that deepens our commitment may be an act of worship. Really, how we live is our worship. To worship the God of Jesus is to choose to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Worship can certainly engage us in awe, but to worship God is to commit to God regardless of our perceptive or emotional state. Actually worship is more akin to humility than a feeling of inspiration. “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51.17). In a worship service we might “recharge our batteries” or “hear something to think about through the week,” but the real purpose of a worship service is to engage us in re-living the story of God’s grace, entice us to fall in love with God all over again, and move us to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to God.
The center of the world, wherever that is for you. The Psalms speak often about Zion. Literally they mean the hill in Jerusalem where the temple stood. It was thought of as the center of the world. And that’s what it means: the center of your world, whatever is the seat of power in your soul, the root of your will.
Appendix: Sin and Salvation: a little more detail
God is love, through which all things exist, including us. We are in our very nature love, and lovely, and loving, We are part of God, beloved members of the cosmos, instances of the embodiment of God’s eternal and infinite love. “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12.27). Our “self” is actually part of the whole. But we don’t naturally trust that. This is sin. It’s just human nature—“original” not in the sense that it originated with Adam, but that it’s foundational to self-consciousness. It’s original to human nature. We succumb to the ego’s illusion that our “self” is this little individual enclosed in our physical body. Paul calls that illusion “living according to the flesh,” as opposed to living by the Spirit, living in harmony with our oneness with God. (See Rom. 8.1-11)
Believing we are separate individuals, we are in chronic fear of not belonging and not being good enough. We don’t naturally trust God’s promise: “You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased” (Mk. 1.11). In its profound distrust our ego is pretty sure we have to protect our little self and prove we deserve for God to approve of us, and earn our place in the world. Our sin is chronic self-centeredness. We are powerless over this anxiety, slaves to the fears, desires and demands of our ego. In our anxiety—our sin— we unknowingly justify all sorts of selfish acts and attitudes—our sins—that wound ourselves and others and our relationships with them and with God. The harder we try to justify ourselves the worse it gets. We are enslaved by our sin; we are exiled from our true selves, and long to get back, not realizing that we are already there. (Hence exile and exodus are powerful symbols.)
We can’t get over ourselves by ourselves. Our only hope is to be saved from the power of the ego’s hold over us. Which is what God does. In our anxiety we both cry that we’re not good enough and try to prove that we are. And God says, “Oh, my dear, you’re more messed up than you think. But you’re mine.” Christ Jesus occupies our sin: embodying God’s love, Christ lives inside our fear and distrust, bears our pain, and the pain we cause. This is the mystery we see in the cross. Christ even lives inside our feeling of alienation from God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But even in our deepest evil we are still part of God. God is still one with us. In the cross we see God sharing our experience with us. God overcomes our distance from God by becoming the gap between us. Even in the worst of what separates us from God, suffering our worst evil, and accused of the worst evil, Jesus still embodies God’s presence. Even in our despair we are one with God and beloved by God, despite our deep belief that we shouldn’t be. “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5.21). It’s not that God made Jesus sinful, but in Jesus’ vulnerability God shows us the powerlessness of our distrust to separate us from God. Even in our fear and distrust God is still one with us, no matter the state of our hearts. We are reconciled to God. “In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to God all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1.19-20)— that is, through God’s union with us in our alienation and self-centeredness, in our mortality and suffering, and even in our evil. We are saved from our self-centeredness, saved from the demands of our ego, saved from the illusion of our separateness, and all the evil power that illusion has over us.
Jesus radically and fully embodies infinite love. He receives his life not from his biological survival but from God, from the infinity of God’s being-alive-ness. (This is what it is to be born again, to receive life continually from God.) Having given his life in love, Jesus receives new life from God, from this same immortal spirit of love. God raises Jesus from the dead. And just as Christ is one with us in our sin and death, Christ is one with us in resurrection. We are raised with Christ. We are saved from the power of death and, the evil influence our fear of it has over us. When we give up our lives in love, we receive new lives from God.
These new lives aren’t like the old ones. Regeneration gives us new lives to live. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6.4). We are set free from the hopeless, never-ending battle of trying to be good enough (see Rom. 7.21 – 8.1). We’re set free from from having to please God. God is already pleased. Rather then trying to justify ourselves, our life energy is free to give itself to love abundantly, to “love one another as I have loved you.” This process of being born again into a life of deeper, freer, fuller love, which we call sanctification, is unending. We continually give up our little, doomed, flesh-contained, self-centered self (we “deny ourselves”), and receive new, infinite, loving life from God—life that nothing can take from us, not even our sin or our death—therefore life we call eternal life. God’s love takes over our lives until we become pure love.