Jesus in word and deed was almost violent in his call for death, for denial, for stripping, for abandoning, for letting go, for leaving all, for the journey up by going down. . . . This whole dialogue runs deep in us and all things. One could say, with complete honesty, that life is really no more than a series of heart-breaking good-byes, so full is it of having and letting go, of embracing and parting.
-- from My Song is of Mercy by Father Matthew Kelty
If only we could have what we want and not have to change so much for it! "Lord, I'm a decent person at heart. Oh, sure, I have faults, but I don't mean anyone any harm. Why can't you just help my life to work better? Why does everything have to be so hard?"
Is this your usual conversation with God? Do you want the joy of resurrection without the pain of crucifixion first? Why must life require so much constant work? Why must change require so much change? It's exhausting! Life often seems to be one enormous obstacle standing in our way. Or as Father Kelty put it (above), life is really no more than a series of heart-breaking good-byes, so full is it of having and letting go.
On the one hand, take comfort from all of this. If your life seems to be an unending struggle, a ceaseless procession of hurdles requiring you to jump higher and higher, well, don't feel so alone. This is life. Life is hard. We all face a lot of difficulties, it's not just you.
And on the other hand, take even greater comfort, because the sages and saints of all time have assured us there is a great purpose to all of this; it's not just "Life's a bitch and then you die." Not at all. Once we surrender to what life is really about ¾ which is the spiritual journey ¾ then we find there is plenty of advice, instruction, and comfort amid the difficulties. When we take the advice of the great religions, we discover that 90% of our obstacles and pain are caused by us in the first place.
It's easy to call yourself a Christian or a Jew, a Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu, a Taoist or Wiccan, but it's another thing entirely to really live according to the teachings of any genuine religion. Christ said that many will come in His name, but we must look for the ones actually doing His Father's work. When the American sage Joseph Campbell was asked whom he considered to be the greatest living Christian, he replied, "His Holiness the Dalai Lama." The Dalai Lama is the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, he's not considered to be a Christian at all. Campbell was using Jesus's own instructions about who is and who isn't a Christian: the Dalai Lama's life is entirely dedicated to compassion, mercy, love, justice, charity, humility, forgiveness ¾ all the qualities which Jesus described as His Father's work.
Many people go to church on Sunday and then pass by a beggar on their way home without stopping to help in any way. They choose a church which will comfort them in a self-centered lifestyle rather than challenge them to be true Christians. Being a true Christian is a terrifying prospect. Being a true Buddhist, Jew or anything else is a terrifying prospect. All the religions stress that we must die as self-centered little idiots in order to discover new life as selfless, loving, generous, fearless souls.
Die to my own plans and dreams? Die to my countless preferences and aversions? Die to my pride and greed? Yes, yes, and yes. Die.
Father Murray Rogers, the beloved elder on our board of directors, had a powerful experience along these lines many years ago. Father Murray is a Christian who has been involved in the interfaith dialogue for over fifty years. As part of his interfaith experience, he went to Japan to spend time in a Zen Buddhist temple for a few months. The Temple was a serenely beautiful place, extremely neat and orderly, extremely quiet, like most Zen temples.
The abbot, a small, courteous man of few words, showed Murray around for a half-hour or more, whispering "This is where you will eat," "This is where you will be meditating," "This is your room," and so forth. In his room, just before turning to leave, the abbot leaned forward toward Murray and whispered, "There is just one more thing." And then he thrust his face directly into Murray's with a wild look and screamed at the top of his lungs, "YOU MUST DIE!!!!!"
The abbot turned and left, with young Murray trembling like a leaf, thinking, "Oh no, I've gotten myself into some bizarre cult, this man is crazy, what do I do now," and so forth. But after a while, as the adrenaline settled and his mind regained a little composure, Murray began to think, "Well, isn't that actually what my Lord Jesus said as well? 'You must die to self and be born again of Spirit?' Perhaps I have just never taken it seriously before. Perhaps this Zen Master is not so crazy after all. Perhaps Zen and Christianity are not so different. Every Christian prayer I have ever uttered is essentially my willingness to die and be reborn in Christ."
Father Murray did complete his stay in the Zen Temple. Today he is an eighty-one-year-old joyful and humble Christian elder who has recognized that this message of dying into Christ is found in one form or another in all the great religions.
No great sage or prophet has suggested that this "dying into life" is fun. Obviously, Jesus's own crucifixion and resurrection were no light matter. That's why being a good Christian or anything else is a terrifying idea. We are called upon to actually give our lives away in duty, service, devotion; to worship God through kindness to His creation. Jesus was not vague about this at all; he made it crystal-clear: "Whatever you have done for the least of my brethren, you have done for me."
In the free world, "the least of my brethren" include the growing numbers of homeless people, the hookers and ex-cons, the crippled and disfigured. In prison, the "least of my brethren" would apply to sex-offenders, homosexuals, snitches. Anywhere we ever find ourselves, there will be a population we can conveniently exclude from our glance, from our friendship, from our respect; a population we can frown upon and feel superior to.
I assure you, if Jesus appeared in a prison today, he would offer his friendship to the very lowest cons on the totem pole, and most of the supposed Christians would scorn him for it. When will we learn that "everyone is invited to My Father's table?"
That does not mean everyone accepts the invitation, but that is not our business. It is our business to be respectful to all, open to all, no matter what they look like or what they may have done in the past. "Judge not, lest ye be judged." And most of us have plenty to be judged for!
It is very easy to fall into hatred, superiority and racism, especially in a place like prison, where we hardly have any power over who does what to whom. But easy or not, it's the "broad way which leads to destruction." We must resist the impulse with all our might. Keeping a daily discipline of practices and readings can help a great deal by giving us a bigger view than what we see out on the yard.
True tolerance and respect are not easy in today's world, especially in prison. The Christmas Story is not an easy story: The perfect child, the lamb of God, the Prince of Peace, is born in a barn among cattle, then has to be hidden in foreign lands for many years, then comes out to get scorned and crucified. What was easy or fair about that? And he didn't even do anything wrong!
You and I have done lots of wrong things, lots of selfish things which have hurt others, and yet our life is still easier than the life of Jesus. He showed us that Love is superior to power, yet we constantly struggle for power in our lives rather than open ourselves into His Love. He showed us the way which leads to life and the way which leads to death, and we continue to choose death over life. God's patience with us is amazing.
Christmas season is a good time to give birth once again to the Christ child in ourselves. Born in a manger or a lock-up cell, what's the difference? What needs to be born is our willingness to die, in a sense. Our willingness to dedicate our lives to the common good, our willingness to spend our time giving rather than taking, comforting rather than abusing.
You and I make dozens of these choices every day, and you know that's true. May we be blessed to feel this Christmas season seriously enough that we surprise (and even frighten) ourselves with the way we make those choices. Study spiritual truths every day. Look upon all beings with kindness and respect. Pray not for things to go your way, but for yourself to go God's way, even if that takes you to the cross.
The world is very much in need right now for ordinary men and women like ourselves to take the great teachings seriously. Anger, selfishness and religious divisiveness are choking the planet. It's time to be the teachings instead of arguing them. "No greater love hath man than to lay down his life for his fellow man." And what happens when we do? That's the Great Irony: We discover all the freedom, peace and bliss we had been unsuccessfully trying to find through selfish living. We die as self-centered little insects and we are born into Life as children and servants of the Living God.