We have our intentions for our lives, our purposes, our goals, wishes, wants, desires. And then, we have our possibilities. There are the conditions within which we live, under which our intentions and desires, etc. are worked out. It is exactly here, in this clash between what we want and what we can have, that all of the important questions are answered: How contentious and combative will we be? How gracious and receptive? How hard and demanding? How soft and accommodating? How manipulative and controlling? How open and accepting? How war-like? How pliable? How masculine? How feminine?
The more adversarial and oppositional we are in relation to the things that meet us in life, the more hard and sour, bitter and brittle, we are apt to be. How do we deal with not having what we want? How do we know what to want? Every religion that I know of, every spiritual system for living in relation to the world in which we live, recognizes, in one way or another, that we can want what we cannot have, and we can want what we have no business having, and that “There is a time to be born, and a time to die…” And advises it’s adherents something to this effect: “If it don’t fit, don’t force it, just relax and let it go—just ‘cause you want it, doesn’t mean it will be so.”
Softness overcomes hardness, and force creates resistance. Jesus recommends the way of being a seed in the earth, yeast in the dough, light in the darkness, and tells his followers to “turn and become like children,” not warriors, or combatants, or even “Christian solders.” We live in relation to our lives much like a river lives in relation to its channel. The river takes the way that is open to it. The river cuts the channel and the channel shapes the river. Which is in charge, in control, in command, at the helm? It is the wrong question. And it is wrong to think that our lives are ours to do with as we will, or that we can make anything happen, or keep anything from happening, if we just try hard enough.
We belong to our lives as much as our lives belong to us. We are limited by the time and place of our living, bound to the possibilities and opportunities of the way things are. Our choices are our choices, and the consequences are the consequences. Our degree of “success” with life is as much about who we become through the process of living our lives as about what we make happen. How well we live is as much about who we show ourselves to be as about what we achieve, accomplish, do. The work of the Spirit is evident in things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, goodness, faithfulness and self-discipline”—which are possible for all of us within every circumstance and any condition of life.
What we do is colored by how we do it. The how is more important than the what. The who is our work which impacts the world. Our work is the work of being “at one” with the heart of creation. “Thou will be done!” It is the work of godliness, the work of being true human beings, the work of artful living—and allowing our lives to take shape around that. “Do your work, and step back,” says Lao Tzu, “the true path to peace.” How we say “No!” is as important as that we say “No!” How we say “Yes!” is as crucial as what we say “Yes! to.
We are stuck on the what, and think our lives are about arranging things “out there,” in the environment, to suit ourselves. We think we are here to fix things up, coordinate colors, eradicate poverty, and homelessness, and war, and institute something on the order of a grand society, where everyone can have happy little lives in the suburbs, or in the wilderness, or wherever their little hearts desire. And, of course, as we work hard at wishing the grand life in the suburbs and wilderness into being, we treat one another in the worst kind of way.
We are cold, and sniping, and harsh, and snarly. We talk about one another unmercifully, and insist that everyone do it our way or else. The How is the one thing we can do something about, but we throw it aside, and focus on the What. But, the What is not the glorious wonder we give it credit for being. The question is who will we show ourselves to be through the process of living our lives?
We can live as decent human beings no matter what our circumstances are. We can treat one another with acceptance, and respect, and goodwill, and loving-kindness regardless of our place in life or our living conditions. This doesn’t mean we will be best friends with everyone, or even like everyone. It means we can draw our lines with compassion and separate ourselves from those who are not good places to be with generosity and consideration. We can take up the practice of being decent human beings. We can be loving without being victimized and used.
Too often, love is just another weapon, or a carrot, we use to get people to do what we want. “If you want me to love you,” we say in a thousand ways, “you have to do it the way I want it done.” And, we say it sweetly, so we think it isn’t the same as saying, “If you are going to eat here with your feet under this table, you are going to cut your hair and get that ring out of your nose.”
Of course, we justify our actions by saying there must be rules, and standards of behavior, and limits, and boundaries. We have to establish what goes and what doesn’t go. And, that is true. We will not tolerate certain language, for instance, certain jokes, racial slurs, lying, stealing, physical or emotional abuse, etc. There are lines within which relationship can exist and beyond which it cannot exist. And, here we engage the What and the How in a different way.
Everything rides on What we take seriously and How we express that in our lives. What are the appropriate lines? How will we establish and enforce them? We can set limits in ways that are decently humane, and we can set limits in ways that are dehumanizing and brutal. To live well, we have to be aware of both the What and the How, and step with mindfulness into the service of each. That is, I think, the way of Jesus.
A case can be made for the life of Jesus being simply about What to take seriously and How to express that in our lives—about the limits and the way they were set in his world. Jesus lived to call into question both the What and the How. And, died in the service of his idea of what and how things ought to be.
Jesus’ words were directed to the Jews, not to the Romans. Jesus’ work was to reform the way the Jewish leaders were governing life among the Jewish people. He honed in on the central problem affecting the lives of the people—the temple tax. If you wanted to secure the blessings of God for yourself and your family you had to make the proper sacrifices and worship in the proper way in the temple. In order to be admitted to the temple, you had to be current with your temple tax. That’s a good deal for the temple and those who administer the affairs of the temple. That’s a bad deal if you are destitute, or living on the edge of destitution, or just have a hard time making ends meet.
If you couldn’t pay the temple tax, you were considered to be a sinner and cursed by God. It was a nice, tight little circle of reasoning. God blessed those who found favor with God, and cursed those who were sinful. If you could pay the temple tax, it was obvious that God looked favorably upon you. If you could not, it was obvious that God knew you were a sinner, which made you fair game for the righteous people of God.
We get a beautiful snapshot of this with the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, where the Pharisee thanks God that he is not like that publican over there. And, Jesus said it was the publican that God favored and not the Pharisee. You can imagine the impact that had on the Jewish social order. That was the thrust of everything Jesus did.
Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and the radically poor “people of the land.” Jesus forgave sins, and said that, in so doing, he was acting in the spirit and name of God. And, to top it off, Jesus healed people as if to give weight to his words, as if to validate his claim to be speaking and living in behalf of God. How could God heal sinners if they were out of favor with God? Not only that, but Jesus healed people on the Sabbath! How could God favor someone who deliberately broke the laws of God?
It was too much for the Jewish authorities to assimilate. They had to kill Jesus in order to restore their own equilibrium, and that of Jewish society. Jesus was executed for calling into question the What and the How. Radical stuff. Revolutionary stuff. It doesn’t get more subversive and iconoclastic than this. When we examine what we are doing and how we are doing it—when we question What is to be taken seriously and How it is to be expressed in our lives—when we scrutinize what we think ought to be done and how we think it ought to be done—we open ourselves to the possibilities. And, when we become aware of the possibilities, anything can happen, everything is on the table, and nothing is off limits. Which makes that the scariest place of them all to be, and the most fertile and alive. And that, of course, is exactly the place we need to be, for our sake and the sake of the world.