Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

Is there any reason for good person to die young?  Why should someone be sentenced to death when they were declared innocent? Why should one dedicated to doing good suddenly have their life cut short?  And how can it be declared God’s will for such to happen?

            And yet, this is exactly the scenario that the New Testament proposes.  Jesus was a man who did good, who healed many and taught thousands to change from doing evil to doing good.  He claimed as a basic principle never to harm another.  But the authorities of Jerusalem branded him a rebel whose goal was to overturn their authority.  And because of his rebellion, he was killed.  And yet, all of this was, according to the New Testament, God’s plan and desire—the God of mercy and justice.  How could this be?

            We need to understand the underlying reasons for Jesus’ death—which from our perspective is insanity and injustice, but for the purposes of God it is right and good.

I. Historic Reasons for Jesus’ death

Jesus died because he threatened the temple of God.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  (John 2:19) Jesus made this statement publicly, right after he cleansed the temple of the impurity of buying and selling.  Jesus never said that he would destroy the temple himself, but he did declare it impure, and he said that it would be destroyed by God (Mark 11:11-20; Mark 13:1-2).  But the temple was the center of Jewish religion in that day, and the leaders of Jerusalem needed it to remain that way.  The temple was the center of the authority of the priesthood and the ruling Council of the Jews.  If it was destroyed, then their power would be wiped away immediately.  Jesus seemed to threaten the temple (Mark 14:55-58), and so, in the mind of the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem, he must be stopped (John 11:47-57).

Jesus died because he claimed to replace the government of God’s people.
Jesus entered into Jerusalem as a great ruler, which was questioned by the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9, 23-27).  When they questioned him directly about his claims to authority, he agreed that he was the one whom God established as king over God’s people and that he would reign over the priesthood and the ruling Council.  That a borderline heretic could rule over them was unacceptable to the Council and they made a final determination that he should die. (Mark 14:55-61).

Jesus died because justice was replaced by mob rule.
Because the Council was under the thumb of the Roman government, they had to ask permission to kill Jesus.  They presented Jesus to the Roman governor of Jerusalem as a rebel wanting to replace Caesar as lord of the earth.  Pilate questioned Jesus, and while Jesus declared himself to be king, it was clear that he was not king as Caesar was (John 18:29-38).  Because he had done nothing rebellious, the governor declared him innocent.  But the Jerusalemites listening to this trial demanded that Jesus be killed for sedition.  Finally, Pilate was swayed by the crowds, and allowed Jesus to be killed. (Mark 15:12-15).

II. Jesus’ Own Reasons for Dying

Jesus died because he chose to.
But Jesus did not die simply because of the injustice of the Jewish and Roman governments.  Jesus declared many times ahead of time that it was God’s plan for him to die at the hands of these governments (Matthew 20:18-19) and he accepted the will of God in this (Mark 14:36).  He could have escaped at his arrest, but chose not to (Matthew 26:50-56).  He could have phrased his answers to be more acceptable to the Council or to Pilate, but he was being deliberately unhelpful toward his release (John 19:9-10).  Jesus was prepared for his death and he did what he could to make sure it happened, even though the final decision was Pilate’s.

Jesus died to make himself king over God’s people.
Why did Jesus make that choice? Why did he act in agreement with his own death?  Because he saw his death as a means to an end.  He determined that he needed to rule over God’s people.  But to be a ruler under God, he couldn’t just be at the head of an army or gain the acclamation of the people.  Rather, he had to be appointed by God.  To do this, Jesus had to prove to be a perfectly righteous ruler, one who would do God’s will rather than act for his own benefit.  Also, Jesus needed to be oppressed by the ruling governments, to prove that they were unworthy to rule.  This would cause God himself to act, to put down the unrighteous who raise themselves to power and to raise up the righteous who lowered their own desires (Luke 14:11).  In this way, Jesus allowed himself to die to allow God to act for his ambition to rule.

Jesus died to free people from oppressive rule.
But Jesus didn’t want to rule from his own ambition alone.  Rather, he desired to rule, because he saw God’s people as being without decent leadership (Mark 6:34).  Jesus saw the people as under Satan, needing deliverance from his rule of misery and death (Matthew 12:43-45).  Jesus saw the teachers of God’s people as being too ready to judge, and unlearned in the ways of God’s mercy (Matthew 12:7).  And Jesus saw the whole priesthood and temple system as impure and idolatrous (Mark 11:15-17).  Jesus desired to sacrifice himself for the sake of all those who truly desired to worship and follow God, but had no way to do it (Mark 10:45).

III. What Jesus’ death shows us

Jesus died to display the way of faith.
Jesus knew that the one whom God was pleased with is the one who is so faithful to God that he is willing to sacrifice everything he is and everything he has for him (Luke 14:33).  Jesus determined to be a man so wholly devoted to God that he would die.  And he also said that anyone who would gain the life that God has to offer must be so completely devoted (Mark 8:31-38).  And so Jesus showed—not just taught—that the one who loves God most is the one who would obey God to the very end (Mark 13:13).

Jesus died to demonstrate the result of faith.
Jesus knew that if he died that God would act in certain ways.  Whoever, in God’s name, destroyed God’s obedient servant, would be destroyed by God (Mark 12:1-9).  Whoever lowered themselves for God’s sake and God’s people would be raised by God to rule (Luke 14:11).  And whoever died because of their devotion to God, would be raised from the dead (Mark 8:35).  Three days after Jesus’ death, God raised him from the dead to prove the third principle.  After showing himself to the disciples for many days, God rose Jesus up to political authority over heaven, under the Father.  And in 70AD, the temple and the priesthood and the ruling Council of the Jews were destroyed, even as Jesus predicted. 

The power of faith is self-sacrifice for others.

This is the way of freedom.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Story of Stories

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
A rather dense paragraph of an ancient theological treatise, also known as Romans 3:23-26

A long time ago in a land far, far away there was a story.  It was, so to speak, the greatest story ever told, and best of all, it was true.  It was politically and culturally subversive, and explained much of what was wrong with the world, and pointed toward a solution that could really work.  It was told in many ways and many languages and thousands of people believed in this story.  It was beautiful, and the reception of this subversive story by so many was marvelous.

            But there was a problem.  This story was translated into many languages, and crossed many cultures and so it wasn’t as clearly understood by later generations as it was the first.  The story was still openly received, and was clearly subversive, and it was still beautiful.  But there was some disagreement about the point of the story.  Some people thought it was judicial, some thought it was religious, and some thought it was ethical. That’s often the way of stories.  They get over-analyzed and the further from the original cultural context it gets, the harder it is to say what the story is really about.

It was as if the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” was told in the context of a culture in which red hoods was a clear symbol of radical communism.  The details of the story would still remain the same, but the point of the story could be radically different.   Suddenly, Red becomes a na├»ve socialist activist, the wolf is the capitalist system, the grandmother is the helpless proletariat and the hunter is the Revolution.  Or, if someone is a capitalist sympathizer, the whole story turns upside-down and the wolf is the victim and the hunter the evil Red Army.

This is what happened to the story of the cross.4

In different contexts the story of Jesus became a variety of things that wasn’t intended by the original storytellers.5  To be honest, the original point was SO subversive, SO radical that it couldn’t be understood at all by those not trained to look for it.  Thus, the greatest minds in each culture set about deciphering the meaning of the Code of the Cross.  And many of these meanings continue to have significance to today.

In the Ancient world, only a hundred years or so lived a Christian named Alexander.6  Alexander was a Gentile convert from paganism.  And frankly, he understood paganism pretty well.  Gods in the heavens controlled armies and major events on earth, creating chaos.   Gods need to be placated and appeased in order to reduce that chaos to a minimum.  However, many of these gods are capricious and just evil-minded, so pain, suffering, disease and death exist.  Alexander then heard the gospel and realized that all of these gods are actually under the control of this mojo-evil god named Satan.  And there is only one God in heaven, the Father, who has mercy on humanity, and who rules over Satan and all these evil gods.  Jesus died to save us from our sins, which we committed under the rule of these gods.  Alexander believed this wonderful story, and became a Christian—a completely subversive act in his day.

But he was still confused about one thing—how could Jesus dying actually save us from our sins?  Yes, Alexander believed it was true, but it was all a little confusing.  The sacrifices were used to placate these evil gods—what could Jesus’ sacrifice do to deliver us from sins?  Alexander read most of the New Testament, but he was still confused.  Then, in prayer one day, it was revealed to him what the story actually meant.

The real enemy of the story is Satan, the king of the gods, himself.  Although the devil appears in the gospels rarely, all the evil characters were ultimately representing him.  It is clear that all of these people, except Jesus himself, were enslaved to Satan— trapped, tortured and lied to.  How did they get trapped?  By their sin, of course!  People’s sin against God transferred the rule under which they live from God to Satan.  This is because Satan is the Father’s prosecuting attorney and executioner.  Since sin results in death, God has the responsibility to take all of sinful humanity—all of humanity, in fact—and give them over to Satan. 

But God was not content to leave humanity in this place, because he loved them so.  He wanted them to not be under Satan, but under His own rule, His kingdom.  But what could he do?  Satan had legal rule over humanity, due to their sin.  Ah, says God the Father, I know!  The only way to release the captive is to placate the evil god, to offer him a ransom for the captives.  What price would be equivalent for all humanity?  Why, the death of his son, of course.  And so God sent his son to die to pay the price to Satan to release humanity from captivity.  And since Satan actually arranged Jesus’ death, he was ultimately defeated as ruler of humanity.  Thus, through Jesus’ death, all of the pagan gods are defeated.  And because Jesus willingly died, he becomes the Lord of all heavens at the side of God the Father.7

This is a great interpretation, and very attractive to those who were released from pagan beliefs.  Alexander passed this understanding of Jesus’ death on.  It moved like wildfire among the second century churches.  Alexander never wrote this story down because the most effective means of communication in his day was not books, but oratory.  So the story was passed on word of mouth.  It wasn’t until Ignatius and Tertullian and others that this understanding was placed in a book.  And by then, it so represented the meaning of the “gospel” that it was never actually explained, just referred to.

Many, many years later it was felt that Alexander’s explanation was inadequate.  It was okay, in the eyes of many, but it had some holes in it.  Over the years the story was revised and changed and adjusted and tweaked in such minor ways, that no one really thought they were changing it at all.  Just making an adjustment.  Finally, a guy named Anselm realized that the explanation of Jesus sacrifice was really quite different from what the early Christian writers understood.   So he thought he would put it all down in one full story, along with all necessary explanations. 

The story Anselm told had quite a different beginning point from Alexander’s.  The significant figure that was harming humanity was not seen as Satan, as much as God the Father.  This is not because God the Father hated humanity, on the contrary, he had a real emotional attachment to humanity.  But, you see, God is a judge, and his hands are tied by the laws of the universe.  The law of the universe is that if anyone acts in rebellion against the judge—God himself—then they must die.  It is as simple as that.  It is an automatic judicial process.  God the Father would like to change the rules, but he can’t.  Death must be paid for sin.

However, God also knew that the law had a loophole.  You see, the way the law was worded—Death is the penalty for sin—doesn’t clearly say whose death was required.  Ah ha! says God.  This means that another can die for humanity.  But who would pay this ultimate price?  It must be someone innocent—someone who doesn’t have to pay for their own death.  And it must be someone powerful—powerful enough that the one death would be payment enough for all of humanity.  Who would do?  Well, actually, thinks God—it must be Me.  No one else can pay the price required.

 Of course, God the Father can’t die—he’s awful busy judging and sustaining the universe. So it conveniently works that God actually has three persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  So the Father caused the Son to become a human and to die, so that all of humanity might be delivered from death, the penalty for their sin.9

This is a powerful story, and one that took the Christian world on fire—even as Alexander’s did—and endures as the most popular understanding of Jesus’ death to this very day.  This story became so significant culturally that it has been forgotten by the masses of believers in it that as an interpretation, it is not actually found in the New Testament. 

And the story has been deemed inadequate by many Christians over the years.10  They do not like the image of God as judge, enforcing the ultimate death and torture of every human being.  They do not like the fact that believing in Jesus’ death as the substitution for their penalty of sin doesn’t change people to be any better than before they believed in it.  In other words, it speaks of how the penalty for sin is set aside, but not sin itself.  So much of this story—as powerful as it is—seems so inadequate.

Abelard was a teacher and monk who didn’t live too many years apart from Anselm.  He had a pretty spicy personal life that was told all throughout the medieval world—he and his girl Heloise—a nun— really had the hots for each other and wanted to get married.  They chose to remain faithful to their vows of chastity, rather than break their covenant with God.  Heloise was never completely satisfied with this solution, but Abelard—so deeply involved in theological circles—became as content as a cow in a field of clover and a nice looking bull just across the way. 

Perhaps because he was trying so hard to forget Heloise, or perhaps his love for her colored all of his theology, Abelard took his frustrations out on Anselm’s understanding of Jesus’ death.  Every time he read it, it made him upset.  Where, Abelard complained, is the love?  Isn’t God love?  God is full of mercy and forgiveness and redemption—so why does Anselm’s story of atonement so lacking in love?  It is a story of judicial wisdom, perhaps, and of theological mysticism, but there is no passion, no emotion.  Also, Abelard says, everyone who believes in this story is grateful to such a God, but they remain in their sin.  They have received an unbelievable grace, but there is no requirement to do anything different, to act as God desires us to act.

And so, Abelard wrote in Latin to his other companions in theology, let us set aside the myth of God’s jurisprudence.  God’s desire is not so much that we have a penalty paid, but that we change behavior.  Jesus’ primary message is not “receive grace” but “repent”.  Jesus was sent, not as a scapegoat, a sacrifice for someone else’s sin—after all, sacrifices really did nothing in reality.  Rather, Jesus was sent as the ultimate example.  The ultimate example of love.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself to show humanity that we need to live for others, not for ourselves.  Jesus’ example is so extreme that anyone who desires to be like him even to the smallest degree would so love others that their lives would be changed.  Jesus’ example was so powerful, that many saints lived their lives according to his principles and they showed others how the Christian life should be lived.11 Abelard was seen to be a heretic by many.12 

And the debate rages on, for centuries, for millennia, as to the real meaning of Jesus’ death.  One story gets passed for another which is revised for another.  But the truth is so hard to find.  Unless, of course, one looks at the gospels. 

The “gospel” is often understood to be whatever interpretation of Jesus’ death is accepted by those who speak of it.  Proof texts are pulled out, the more vague the better.  And, somehow, those who believe in that interpretation are considered to be “saved”.  Not, God forbid, if they just believe in Jesus himself, but in penal substitution, or Christus victor or ethical example atonement.  As if often the case, Jesus is often traded in for the latest fad “gospel” that is to preached, enforced and sold. 

The gospels are left behind.  The first, best communication of Jesus is not understood, and so deemed inadequate.  Few recommend the open reading of the gospels themselves without a guide to interpret it in accordance with the “right” interpretation.  Why is this?  Because the gospels do not clearly communicate any of these atonement theories that have been described above.  Satan, in the gospels, is a minor character, who seems to take even more of a back seat during the passion of Christ than even the small role he plays during Jesus’ ministry.  In the gospels, God is not represented as needing to punish, but as forgiving—and angry against some groups, but not humanity as a whole.  In the gospels, love is a central theme of ethics, but it is rarely mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ death—and there is certainly something else going on besides a debate about ethics at the heart of Jesus’ death.  As it has often been stated, who would kill a guy who just said “wouldn’t it be nice if we loved each other more?” 


There has got to be something more.  Something we’ve been missing.  Something subversive—because Jesus was killed as a rebel.  Something radical—because Jesus had to die for it.  Something beautiful—because Jesus’ death was meant to deliver us.  And there is.  


Notes
4.            Well, actually, the story of Jesus never did become the story of the socialists. Depending on how you want to define "socialist", anyway.  Jesus’ story could never be the story of the radical communists without some serious rewrite because he willingly submitted to his enemies.  Marxism, Leninism, Maoism—they needed to promote the action of a violent, end-of-the-world-like revolution.  Thus, while quietly denying the passiveness of Jesus, there were some who would uphold the story of the Exodus, especially in Latin America.  Moses becomes the great leader and the violent themes become the revolution itself.  Thus was Liberation Theology born.

5.            Some would say that the New Testament clearly describes the purpose of Jesus’ death.  That may be true, but most theologians, when describing the theology of Jesus’ death, ends up describing in detail a certain word or two that isn’t understood well.  Or they focus on one word that has many meanings—whether in Greek or in English—and then demands that the word have one meaning.  It is problematic when theology sounds like a used car salesman, highlighting certain aspects so we don’t notice others.

6.            This isn’t his real name.  Frankly, we don’t know what his real name is, or if it was a single person.  However, we are going to use the name Alexander because it’s convenient for us.  Also, because we like the alliteration. Sorry.  I assume you’re reading this book because you like your theology covered with a good dollop of entertaining fiction.  That’s what I like, anyway.

7.            This interpretation of Jesus’ death is called the Christus Victor argument, and some form of it is usually understood to be the common interpretation of Jesus death from at least the time of the second century AD.  Passages that confirm this view are: Genesis 3; Colossians 2:13-15; I John 3:8; Ephesians 2:1-7; Matt 5:25-26; Matt 12:29; Hebrews 2:14.

8.            Anselm was a real person, in case you were wondering.  And he really wrote a book.  It’s called “Why Did God Become A Man” He wrote other books as well, but that’s the important one here.

9.            Verses for Anselm’s view: Anselm’s view is the most prevalent view among Protestants today, and the most heard in “gospel presentations”.   II Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; I John 2:2; 4:10.  Many use half of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support this view: a. God’s wrath is against the whole world—Gentiles and Jews—because of their sin (Romans 1-3); Through faith in Jesus’ death, God has established a means of salvation (Romans 4-5);  Because of faith in Jesus’ death, God has given everyone the ability to live rightly before God (Romans 6-8). 

10.          The largest theological difficulty with Anselm’s interpretation is the wrath of God that demands the destruction of every single individual without hope of God’s forgiveness without a sacrifice—it proposes an “Old Testament God” that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t propose.  Another difficulty is the acceptance of human sacrifice.  But biblically, the difficulty with the view is the assumptions that get put with certain words.  The term “for our sin” is assumed to mean “in place of us”, as if an exchange of punishments is assumed, when a more natural reading would be “because of our sin”.  Another problem is the Greek word ilastrarios which is commonly translated “propitiation”, which is usually understood as a sacrifice to appease a god’s wrath.  However, the word, in a general sense, means “the means to forgiveness” (see Louw and Nida, and the UBS lexicon).   Thus, the passages are seeing Jesus’ death, in a general sense, being the means of forgiveness, but they don’t explain how that is done.

11.          Some verses for Abelard’s view: John 15:13; Mark 8:34; Phil 2:3-11; I Peter 2:19-24.  One of the main difficulties with Abelard’s view is that he is saying that Jesus’ death teaches us how to love, while these verses all promote Jesus’ death as an example for sacrifice and humility.


12.          One of the main critiques of Abelard’s view is that it doesn’t really discuss past sin, or how Jesus obtains us freedom from that.  Abelard’s view seems most separated from a Scriptural discussion of the atonement, except that it does express a theme of imitation that is discussed in the New Testament.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Why All Activists Should Speak Out about Homelessness

I have a number of friends who are activists for various causes.  And I love the causes.  We are in a water crisis when corporations sell water back to those in drought.  Black men are being attacked by U.S. society.  Indigenous peoples have always been oppressed and attacked.  We live in an age of information and openness, and the realities of racism and sexism in our society are finally being revealed and we are speaking out and taking action.

My plea today, however, that no matter how serious and important your key issues are, you should also be talking about homelessness, and standing with the homeless community.  Again, I’m not saying your issue isn’t essential.  It’s just that the homeless are the focus of abuse of today’s American society.

I’m going to keep this short, so let me just give you a few statistics.

1.       The homeless are seen as worse than any other social group
Sociologists have studied the reaction of different social groups to American minds, using an MRI.  They have determined that we have a “disgust” response in our brain to certain social groups, including welfare moms, undocumented immigrants and Arabs.  Butthe social group with the strongest and most pervasive negative automaticresponse is the homeless.   Dr. Susan Fiske says that the homeless are considered “inhuman garbage piles”. 

The homeless are constantly feared, distrusted and the cause of anger of the far majority of housed people. Cities criminalize the very existence of the homeless, disallowing them to sleep, receive food or finances, and they arrest them for having bedding.  This is due to the overwhelming response of the housed who, without cause, blame the homeless for the ills of their society.

2.       The homeless are life-threatened than any other group

Although most people consider this the fault of the homeless, it is not.  Most of the homeless find themselves on the street through no fault of their own, due to job loss or no cause eviction.  They are thrust into an impossible economic predicament and then treated like criminals, and due to the stress and poor health conditions, they die young.

3.       The homeless are severely attacked

Although the actual numbers seem small, this is because very few attacks on the homeless are reported, because there is such a distrust between the homeless and the police.  If they report a crime, they believe that they will be accused of something.

4.       The homeless can’t hide
The majority of citizens can feel a certain amount of security from the oppression of society if they go into their home and lock the door.  The homeless don’t have that luxury.  Even those who live in cars or tents are just as vulnerable their shelter as they are outside of it.  They are sometimes dragged out of their shelter, only to have it taken from them, because their shelter is not seen to be their possession or to be under the protection of the fifth amendment.

5.       Truth brings freedom
We can change this, if we all work on it together.  The primary source of the suffering of the homeless is the false idea that all the homeless are criminals or immoral.  There are two ways that effectively change this point of view.  The first is spending time working on a project with the homeless, for then the homeless are seen as equals.  The other is if a loud minority continue to speak of the humanity of the homeless.  Not just their pitiable state (like I did here), but about their common humanity with us, the shared citizenship, the joy of life, their hope for the future.


Please, alongside your important issues, please speak about the homeless.  You can help give them the humanity they lack. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Chronic Stress and Poverty

I’ve got some severe chronic stress in my life, and it will take a long time to recover from it.  It’s good that I know about it, and good that I’m working on bringing balance in my life.  Even with the balance, however, it will still take a long time, perhaps years, to recover from the years of emotional and physical pummeling I allowed my mind and body to suffer. 

Studies have shown that every single person who has suffered chronic poverty or homelessness also suffer from some kind of chronic stress condition.  This shouldn’t be surprising, but it isn’t something that we often think about either.  Ninety percent of homeless men suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a hundred percent of homeless women.  A person who suffered from homeless for more than a year is a prime candidate for adrenal fatigue.   The chronically poor person will often suffer from a cognitive disorder related to stress, causing one’s attention to only focus on the short term.

Symptoms of chronic stress disorders might include:

  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Increased feeling of pain
  • Lack of energy
  • Increased need for protein and fats
  • Decreasing ability to handle stress
  • Morning fatigue—inability to feel alert for hours after waking
  • Body pains, usually as a result of tensing parts of the body, such as the jaw.
  • Overreaction to petty annoyances
  • Frequent sighing
  • Weight gain or loss without a change in diet
  • Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol
  • Trouble learning new information

Many of the poor and homeless experience these symptoms, causing increased mental health issues and more severe physical crises. Also, the longer one suffers chronic stress from being poor or homeless, the less likely one will have the cognitive ability to escape such states.
Our society somehow expects the poor and homeless to leave poverty by increasing the stress load they already experience.  If a person has a cognitive breakdown, unable to function in a modern work environment due to accumulated stress, then they are called “lazy” instead of what they really are: mentally broken by severe stress.

If you are poor or homeless and recognize that you are suffering from this level of extreme stress, there are some things you can do.  We need to recognize this: any change in our lives has a cost.  Any new discipline takes time or energy or both and if we are going to see improvements in our lives, we will have to sacrifice something we consider essential in our lives so we can make an overall change.  I know for me, I realized that I couldn’t keep expressing fury at small slights, because I was breaking down trust.
The other thing that made me realize that I had to deal with stress is because the stress I was experiencing was bleeding out to my wife, children and others I lived with.  Everyone had to deal with my stress, not just me.   If I was going to bring health to everyone (or anyone) I knew, I had to get to a place where I could control myself.

Here are some things that we can do to deal with our stress, bit by bit.  There are no quick answers here.  If we have dealt with (are dealing with) severe stress for years, it will take years to overcome those symptoms completely even after we get out of poverty.  This sounds overwhelming, but it’s not.  It just takes time. 

1.       Eat differently
In our moments of deep stress (which might happen parts of every day), our body wants to eat a lot of calories, usually filled with protein and sugars and fat.  It’s okay to treat ourselves with that every once in a while, but we need to keep it as a treat, not as a regular part of our diet.  There are three ways we can eat differently that will decrease our stress: 

-Eat fewer calories
-Eat frequently and regularly
-Eat more fresh vegetables, less meat and fats
I know that eating more veggies seems tough because fresh veggies are expensive.  One thing I’ve found is helpful is that carrots are pretty cheap, tasty and they are filling.  Some folks don’t have the teeth for carrots, so I’d recommend spinach, which is full of great nutrition and not expensive if you buy it in a bundle.  If you don’t like spinach plain, throw it in casseroles or sandwiches. Just look at your grocery store and see what sales you can find.  

Again, I know this transition is tough.  It’s hard for me, especially the reduced calories when my body is demanding food to have more energy to deal with the stress.  But you will get used to it eventually.

2.       Increase activity
This is usually known as “exercising”.  The problem with exercising is that we have to create a time and place to do it, and we might not be able to.  But we should just generally be finding ways to increase our activity.  If you have a car, instead of taking it everywhere, walk.  Or just walk around the block a few times.  I found that if I do a few sit-ups or push-ups in the morning right after I wake up that I’m generally more alert.

But what killed me early on in trying to exercise is doing too much.  When we lead a stressful life, what might be considered a beginner’s pace of exercise will exhaust us, and then we don’t have the energy to do what we need to the rest of the day.  Take it slow, ease into it.  Gentle, slow exercise is great to start with, and then increase it as you feel you are able.  Just don’t quit.

3.       Get in the zone
In my family, full of creative people, we have what we call “the zone”.  It’s a mind-space, a kind of self-hypnotism, where we can do creative work or deep thinking.  My one daughter writes novels, another daughter draws, my son paces and listens to music, I write essays, and my wife reads.  When we do this activity, our primary mind shuts down and we become really focused on our task.  I can get in the zone watching movies, or through prayer, others do this through meditation or listening to music.  The important thing is that you aren’t allowing your mind to “shut off” or to be passive.  Rather, we are focusing our energy on one activity.  This can replenish our whole mind to accomplish all kinds of tasks that we otherwise would be unable to do.

4.       Laugh
Depression is a real thing, and it results in sapping the energy from our lives, so we feel we can’t do anything.  And enjoying ourselves really helps us build our energy again, if only for a while.  Find someone you really enjoy being with and spend time with them.  Watch a movie you really enjoy or read an entertaining book.  Read stupid puns and jokes until you laugh out loud.  Once you start, you’ll find there’s a lot of things around you that are funny, even tragic circumstances in your life.  You’ll feel better and have more building blocks to deal with things in your life.  Try not to use alcohol or some other substance to instill joy in your life, though.  Because while it will temporarily fill this need, the overall cost is greater than what it gives you, throwing you into a deeper depression. 

5.       Get time off of the internet
Most of us have the internet now, and it is great.  We are able to communicate with people we never had before and we have so many more jokes to laugh at.  However, spending time on social media also sucks energy out of our lives.  I know that I would spend time on Facebook in order to feel like I’m connecting with others while I was also keeping at arm’s length from them.  It provided me with a false rest.  Recognize that interacting on the internet is work, although a low-level work.  So let’s take a break from it.  Instead of the internet, read a book, talk to a friend, take a nap.  Then get back on.  Because you need to…

6.       Get support
Honestly, the best place to find support for your chronic stress issues is the internet.  In general, most people don’t understand.  But there are plenty of people who do.  There is a support group called “stress.supportgroups.com”.  Find a place you feel comfortable with and an online group that you can vent to, and they’ll help you and you can help them.  If you can find a doctor or therapist (covered by Obamacare!) or pastor who can help you out, that’s great, too.  But don’t try to overcome stress yourself.  It’s too stressful.

7.       Be grateful
One of the greatest things to give you happiness is to regularly express your thanks for the people and things and situations that make your life better.  It isn’t enough just to think about it for a moment.  You need to speak how much you appreciate them.  The best thing is to find a person who has really helped you and express your gratitude to them.  In a letter or in person, but just do it.  After that, think of another person and do the same thing.  You won’t believe how much better you feel.

8.       Help others
One of the best ways to get out of our own stress is to help others with their stresses.  It is a key building block to happiness, and it exercises parts of our brain like compassion and hope that we might not otherwise be able to utilize.  It may be we can cook something for a friend, or seek to volunteer at a place that has helped us out.  But we will find our stresses reduce when we think about how to improve other’s lives.

One last thing I want to mention.  Any organizations out there that help the poor or the homeless, hear me out.  Part of our main task should be to reduce the stress of our guests.  If we give them too many hoops to jump through, especially when they are unnecessary, we aren’t helping them, but piling on stresses that make their lives more difficult.  Let’s provide entertainment for them.  Let’s see if we can give them breaks.  Let’s help them with better food and opportunities to volunteer.  But most of all, let’s be gentle and hopeful.

The American Society on Stress-- http://www.stress.org/stress-effects/

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Secret of Isaiah 40

Isaiah 40 is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible, although few can find it.  It is full of famous lines, that many people don’t know where they came from.  “Comfort ye my people.”  “Do you not know, have you not heard?”  “A voice is calling in the wilderness…”  “Let every valley be raised up and every mountain be made low.”  “All flesh is grass…”  “Those who wait on the Lord… will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not get weary.”

Some might know the passage as a great treatise on the power and nature of God, expressing his omnipotence, creation and eternity with powerful language, beautiful and majestic.  It is certainly one of the greatest sermons ever taught.

But it is also often misunderstood.

The original context was written to refugees, forced immigrants to a strange land that is not their own.  They were forced to move out of the land God gave them, the land which they grew up in and loved to a land of oppression, under a people who mocked them and even tried to kill them.  They desperately tried to make a home in their new land, but every time they tried, they failed.  They wanted to move back to the land where they were raised, but they were not allowed.  They were a people between, a nation with no home.

After many decades of living as refugees, they were ready to accept that they would have no home.  They were giving up on their faith in God, realizing that He had forgotten them, that they were no longer on God’s agenda.  They would never find justice.

At this crux point, in which they were about to give up, that’s when God called a preacher.  Not a preacher to tell them how sinful they were or to tell them that they were bound for hell.  Rather, this preacher was to give good news.  He was to proclaim hope.  And faith.

“You homeless, you refugees, you people between lands, listen to me!
God has not forgotten you.

"You have spent too many years being pushed around by men without mercy.
You feel so weak compared to those who shove weapons in your face and scream at you.

"But I’m here to tell you that your God is more powerful than they!
Your God created the heavens and earth and they cannot even put their clothes on right!

"Your God takes the most powerful rulers in the world and disposes of them without a thought!

"Stop worrying about these fools!

"God doesn’t look their way, they do not concern him at all.

"They throw around their gods, money and power, but they are only man-made, empty of power. 
Your God orders the stars!

"They think they know all wisdom, and can determine your fate. But your God controls all the seas. Your God tells them what to think, not the other way around.

"You may think that your God has forgotten you—but he hasn’t.
"You may think He has forgotten his promise to deliver you, to give the poor justice—but he hasn’t.
"He is ready to release you, to give you another chance.
"He is approaching you, opening the road up, giving you a new home.
"Don’t give up on God, because he has not given up on you.
"Feel within yourself the strength you need to keep walking, to keep running.
"He is there and your oppressors will fail to keep you under their thumb.”

And it is amazing to note that within a few years, the nations that had oppressed these refugees for decades were suddenly no more and they were going back home.  After oppression and long travel, they finally arrived back home, ready to make a new life with God.

That is the story of every refugee, every homeless person who waits on God.
We just need to wait on Him.




Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lifestyles

One of the most mysterious of cultural phenomenon is lifestyle.  Not the fact that different lifestyles  exist, and some of the main characteristics: those are well known.  Some in the third world live in mud huts with no electricity, and they are content with this (having visited one of these huts, I found that the insulation was so grand that it was cool in the midst of a humid afternoon.).  Some find it necessary to live in large homes with more than ten bedrooms with servants to clean the place, for no family, unless they spent all their time doing so, could keep it clean.  Some live slovenly, filthy; others live so clean that they would not have visitors lest they muck the place up.  Some prefer jobs that cause them to work in sweat and filth, while others insist on learning and educating, while still others organize workers forced to go to a gym to get their exercise.   This is all well-known.

What is mysterious about lifestyle is that we are forced into one without really considering which we would prefer.

There is a moral manner in which we must live.  Our views on environmentalism, social justice, economics, cleanliness, community life, aesthetics, communication, kindness and work ethic all conspire in our minds to create a lifestyle that we did not choose, but we must live with.

The way we must work, the amount of money we must have left over past expenses, the accommodations we allow ourselves, where we “cut corners” when we don’t have enough to meet expenses, what we consider “clean”, what we feel we can let go when life gets too hard—all of these are necessitated by an inner need.  When we choose a spouse, we compromise our inner sense of lifestyle, combining with them what manner of life is necessary, in some areas taking on their standards, and in some areas enforcing upon them our own.  And when we raise our children, we raise them in the hopes that they might live the same lifestyle, or perhaps a better (either up the social ladder or up the moral one) one.

We try not to judge other people’s lifestyles.  Everyone lives differently, and not everyone has the particular set of resources we collected to suit our moral arrangements.  But often we can’t help it.  We don’t understand why people poorer than us “have” to live that way.  We don’t appreciate how those wealthier than us live with such luxuries when there is such need in the world.  We complain because a neighbor doesn’t keep their yard according to the same standards as we do—we might even take action in our neighborhood association.  We support public policies that change other people’s lifestyles so that our communities might accommodate what we feel are moral and necessary standards, which happen to reflect our lifestyles.  

The “normal” are those who function near to our own chosen lives.  These are the ones who join us in our churches and our social groups and our neighborhoods —not only those who believe in the same or similar doctrine, but those who uphold the same rituals, who approve of same eating mores, who live in the same economic strata, who speak in the same tones and volumes and language forms, and have the same hopes for society.  Social clubs are not just a matter of connection, it is continuously supporting our lifestyle choices.

Of course, in our groups, there are always the one or two who live different lifestyles.  These who are unlike the rest always seem so strange, and so angry.  Some wonder why they don’t find groups that suit them better, while others find that they offer spice to their group, while their uniqueness confirms that the group’s lifestyle choices are the right ones.

All of this is the ebb and flow of living together, and those with the most powerful voices win the lifestyle battles.  We live according to the driving force of practical ethics and aesthetics, and we want those around us to do the same.

The crisis of placing concrete on our practical philosophy of life comes when we no longer have the resources to maintain that lifestyle.  It could be something as simple as losing a key friendship which then unravels the house of cards our social lives relied on.  But more likely it is the loss of something essential that our lifestyle depended on.  Losing a job and unable to find another at the same income or status level we have become accustomed to.   Losing a home and unable to find a similar one at the price we can afford.  Losing the ability to maintain the mental health that is required to live in a particular lifestyle.  The loss goes far beyond one portion of one’s life.

To have a drop in lifestyle necessitates a reduction in security.  If a person who is used to living in a large house suddenly lives in an apartment, it is frightening if one had never done it before.  You can hear your neighbors and at times they seem violent or addled.  You have heard rumors that drug addicts or criminals can live in apartments, and the walls and doors seem so thin.

The stresses increase.  There is a desperation at first to get back to the original lifestyle, a clawing for resources.  When that doesn’t work, then there is a grasping at straws, making unlikely plans and dreams of deliverance back to what we considered “normal,” all to no avail.  Finally, there is an acceptance and depression sets in.  Because once one accepts the loss of all that was considered good and moral and right, then one must also accept failure and a moral compromise.  We are not only inadequate people, but we are also, in some way, bad.

Many of us have had to accept a severe reduction of lifestyle.  It is always stressful, somewhat less so if the change is by choice—but it is always difficult to accept. 

Now consider those who suddenly find themselves an immigrant, a refugee, or homeless.  These are lifestyles that we do not make of our own accord.  Those who are forced into this role are also forced into an ethical and economic bind that they could never choose for them or their families.  Many swear that they would never find themselves in an address-less condition, for it would mean the surrender of all they hold dear.

And yet millions of people each year find themselves in this situation, at the bottom rung of the social ladder, with the next rung too high up to reach.  They used to think of themselves better than that, more honorable, of better position.  Yet millions find themselves there.  Unable to pull themselves back up or forward.   They now rely on other’s kindness, which they find is often not kind at all.  They are completely vulnerable, and easy to take advantage of.


All other lifestyle changes and reductions seem petty when one is at the bottom, without pride, without hope.