Welcome to Practice Makes Presence!
A Journey filled with candor and compassion
Podcast and Blog of Matt Sandoval
What drew you to read this book?
I have been reading and rereading works of the contemporary historical Jesus scholarship. Over the last ten months, I have spent time with the thoughts of Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and N.T. Wright who, despite vast differences in emphasis and conclusion, begin with a similar assumption from source criticism about the New Testament canon. The assumption is that Mark's gospel was written first, and Matthew and Luke use it as a source while also adding new material from other sources and each expanding on the themes of Mark in their way (Luke is my favorite). However, as the fanciful movie The DaVinci Code made clear, this is not the only assumption on how Jesus came to be understood by early Christians. Elaine Pagel's thesis is that newly discovered Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of John both show signs of having been written by rival factions of the 2nd and 3rd-century Christian church who were competing for followers and also for church authority. Pagel's work is an attempt to tell the story of what these communities might have practiced and believed without the strict interpretation given by the eventual winners of the debates (what we know as Orthodoxy). In fairness, the gnostic/new prophecy/mystery Christians didn’t suffer eradication. They are very much still present in the opinions of many who are willing to contemplate a Jesus who is a human guide to the light that is already present within (compare that to the opening of John for the beginning of the distinctions with orthodoxy).
What are your significant takeaways?
I enjoyed her dive into the historical and social factors surrounding the church fathers such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Valentinus, and Irenaeus. Her thesis is that Irenaeus drove the effort to develop the orthodox canons of faith and, of the scriptures, as a means of protecting the early church from division. Also, it is likely that debates about orthodoxy were emotionally charged due to the rampant persecution of Christians ( a young Irenaeus watched his teacher Polycarp be publicly executed for his belief). Emotionally, one can easily see that if your life is threatened for philosophy, it's very likely that you have already determined what type of philosophy you are willing to suffer for, in order to protect it.
What surprised you the most about what you learned?
I enjoyed the discussions about controversies between the followers of Thomas and John. Pagel believes that John's gospel is more emphatic about the divine nature of Jesus because it seeks to correct growing misunderstanding in Christian communities, namely among the gnostic/new prophecy/mystery Christian groups. Source criticism holds that Mark is the home base of historical Jesus material, but Pagel holds that John became the theological home base for orthodox Christology and then Irenaeus's effort made it the predecessor to the Nicene creeds
What questions do you have for the author?
Your book is a historical reflection and partially personal reflection on loss and grief. How did your own experience affect the way you view the four gospels and their relationship to the apocryphal gospels?
Why should someone else read this book?
Because you may be curious about why John is so different than Matthew, Mark and Luke, and why Thomas is so different than all four of the canonical gospels. If you are intrigued by history, you will enjoy the discussion on Valentinus and Irenaeus as rival theologian philosophers. You may come to see the Gospel of John with a new set of lenses!
How many Burritos does this one get out of five?
4/5 Elaine Pagel made this very accessible and intriguing. She creates space for the diverse views of the works she mentions without favoring one side overtly or creating caricatures of the conflicting views to advance her arguments.
I am the way, I heard
Here is the map
Crumbled and blurry
I folded it
I am the light, I heard
Turned toward the Sun
Blinded and dizzy
I missed it
I am the truth, I heard
Exploring the words
Rehearsing and reciting
I forgot it
I am the silence, I learned
When I began to sit
Breathing and accepting
I heard it
I am the breath, I learned
When I counted the seconds
Inhaling and releasing
I felt it
I am the lamb, I learned
When I opened up
Speaking and trusting
I risked it
Come, enjoy it
In being and spirit
I am infinite
I am sublime
Found in the fullness of time
The way, the light, the truth
Pointing toward the root
An old tree with leaves
That first covered shame
A new growth of branches
Healing for nations again
Silence, breath, and a lamb
They are the friends you find
In the shade of the tree
Provocative acts often appear outrageous, but they also include the mundane performed at the right place and time and are common illustrations in the teaching of Jesus. As a child, the Palm Sunday story sounded more silly to me than sacred. In my 4th grade Sunday School class, our teacher made an abrupt change from the movie like hero exploits of King David to the parables of Jesus. Nine year old me found this to be boring and inconsequential.
It would take many more years until wise teachers would connect me to the subversive elements of the Jesus story and its connection to David, to Caesar and all empires. The result would be the first of many times that gospel narratives challenged and judged my mental framework of Jesus's work as being nothing more than an idol. I failed to see the protest in the words and actions of the gospels and did not consider the original meaning of the entry Jerusalem.
Conquering Roman generals and even Caesar himself would make a spectacle out of their return from a successful military campaign. A royal procession would come through town and attendance was mandatory. But on this Sunday leading to Passover, Jesus made his entry and Marks notes that many laid down palms and cried out in celebration. This type of procession is fit for a king, one in the line of David. Except this is not the kingdom of David, it belongs to Rome. And Rome does not like competition.
The ride into Jerusalem on a single colt caused a crowd to see one like the old war hero king David, and it caused the local authorities to see a troublemaker. Mark says he immediately goes to the temple but takes no action on that day. This trip was not of convenience but one of confrontation and destiny. The colt is a parody of Caesar's royal procession designed to give one group hope and another very stern warning.
The idol I once made of Jesus did not include a figure that would challenge any religious or political status quo. However, the events of the week leading up to the crucifixion take place during a massive public festival where military forces would have a high presence to keep the peace. Because of this, the Sunday procession occurs to deliberately provoke reactions, even hostile ones from the most powerful people on earth - the Roman empire and 2nd Temple religious devotees of ancient Israel.
Jordan Petersen, in his book 12 Rules for Life says "If you have something to say, silence is a lie. Tyranny depends on lies." I have come to recognize that the crucifixion was provoked, intentionally, with words and deeds chosen on purpose. They confront human tyranny in the form of empires and religious practices that dehumanize, that separate people into worthy and unworthy, that make gods of peace act violently. The parade into Jerusalem is an unexpected challenge to the Roman empire, the temple, as well as any other misguided empire and religious system. The challenge to empire and the temple are linked so tightly that the crucifixion of Friday is the result of empire's love of power and the temple's commitment to remain a "den of robbers."
In the two decades to follow, the first recorded Jesus mystic Paul would take these local events and present them as more than an execution of a beloved protester who picked the wrong week to make his point. To the Corinthians, Paul would write that these actions and provocations are foolish to the world, but they are the wisdom of God. At the end of the letter, Paul would give the earliest written account of the resurrection of Easter morning which is still observed by Christians worldwide. However, his letter starts by proclaiming to know "nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (2 Corinthians 2). Following Christ, for most Christians, has not come anywhere close to the example of a crucified political and religious provocateur and it certainly not on the mind of most Easter celebrants.
Instead, there isn't Christian unity around respect for all people regardless of gender, race, or sexuality. Many of the most dividing voices use obscure biblical references, archaic hermeneutic schemes, inferences from tradition, or outright lies to propagate views that dehumanize. It makes me wonder, if they saw someone ride into your community and then to your place of worship tomorrow, what do you suppose they would have to say?
Jordan Petersen, again, in his book, 12 Rules for Life, turned a familiar Christian doctrine on its head when he said that most teaching emphasis is that Jesus died on the cross, and because of that we are to believe in him. Instead, he has come to accept that Jesus died on a cross because he believes in us. This belief in us means that following Jesus may not be about being weak, agreeable, and accommodating to the forces in our world, especially when they dehumanize on a national or worldwide scale. May the cross propel us to justice and forgiveness for all.
You likely won't see a colt awaiting you tomorrow. You will, however, see many striving to find acceptance, equal opportunity, necessary supplies, food, and peace in their physical and their emotional environment. Following Jesus, on Palm Sunday, means to target the forces that exploit them all. To do so also means provoking and confronting these forces nonviolently, with eyes wide open to the potential mockery and suffering. It demands that we avoid the lies of the heart committed when we are silent by speaking up and against the idols of power, greed, and hatred. In the difficulties that arise we can rest in in the confidence that this way, of a crucified messenger of heaven, is the wisdom of God.
In October 2013 I noticed a small patch form under my left elbow. I consulted Dr. Google and came to the self-diagnosis that it was either a fungus or Vitiligo. Several anti-fungal treatments, two dermatology appointments, and a punch biopsy later I had a professional opinion. The doctor diagnosed me with Vitiligo - an autoimmune condition where your body reacts to the cells that create your skin tone as if they were a threat and killed them. Other than its cosmetic effects, it is not problematic and is not contagious. When I first heard the diagnosis, I was stunned, and I remember that the technician tried to comfort me by saying "at least it's not on your face." It's true; I am blessed to have a mild and slow changing pattern. It is also true that it would be years before I could see it that way. When I look at my arm, I remember that it could show up anywhere and anytime, even on my face.
It wasn't until my well-meaning immune system started destroying the pigment on my arm that I realized how much the color of my skin had melded with my self-identity. Cultural resentment and shame cripple a large part of my self-identity. I picked up these cues early; in first grade, my classmates covered my class birthday card with comparisons to Speedy Gonzales. In tenth grade, I overheard "decent" classmates at Christian school tell me how Mexican's look dirty. I have been told, more than once as an adult, that given how I speak and what I have to say, that I must be from East Indian heritage (the implication being: certainly not heritage from south of the border). Extended family relatives of my children have questioned the legitimacy of them being "Latino." Professionally, I accepted pigeonhole assignments and promotions from middle-aged, white males, to work predominately with Spanish speaking communities while also needing to justify that I do not speak Spanish and with few alternatives to grow my career.
It took me three years to stop covering the spots on my arm and hands. I didn't think the cover up fooled anyone, it just made me feel better and usually held off the Michael Jackson (who had Vitiligo) inspired joke for a while. In a year of committing to "show up, just as I am, wherever I am," I stopped covering it up. I continue the medical regime and even see some slowing of its progression, but the real progress has been psychological and spiritual. It is part of my journey to complete self-acceptance. Along the way, I have also learned to accept a few other things:
People will follow the spots with their eyes until they figure out what is going on
Someone always has "that one friend" who also has it, too
I did not become more or less of an American in the spot that lost its brown color
I did not become any smarter/less intelligent as my color shifted
I did not develop the drive to increase or decrease anyone else's access to education, employment, healthcare, or any other version of the American dream as the color changed.
This past fall, I volunteered in three elementary schools and played many hours of math and language arts games with student populations that are 95% Hispanic/Latino. About half of the time, and almost immediately, one of the students will ask about the spots. The inquiries are as sweet as they are surprising. Adults don't ask as often, and usually not out of curiosity, but from something that sounds like fear - "what is up with your arm?". The first time a young student asked me what was wrong with my skin I blurted out "that is just how God colored me." He then reached over, patted the spot on my right hand, and with tender eyes said, "it's okay!".
I supposed that this student's reaction is how God felt when he pronounced all of creation, and all of humanity as "good." Believing that we are born in and carry this "goodness" in all our lives makes it hard to watch the bias and racism that exist toward humans who have dared to live as they were born. Born into bodies where skin color is mediated by cellular function and not inherited superiority. Born into societies where ethnic differences are socially conditioned and not decided by genetic capability. And born in a world that looks the same as we widen the scope of our vision and realize that if we gain enough distance we all look the same and we are beautiful!
I like the Star Wars myth, but it's only a like, not a love and it's certainly not an obsession. I feel the need to see the new movies but not anytime near their release date. In fact, I saw The Last Jedi last week, almost after a month after its release. In the meantime, I absorbed some of the reviews of the movie, many of which were critical of the new tone taken toward the Jedi myth. I grinned twice in my seat at two comments/scenes that I am sure threw gasoline on the fire of the hearts of super fans.
(Spoiler time) When Yoda appeared to Luke, he gave advice and then took part in arson. Yoda's intent was to counsel the emotionally conflicted Luke about his vocation as a Jedi and his sense of calling. This part of myth has always been very appealing to me. Luke's story arc is where the conscious mimicry of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey comes through clearly in the series. After observing Luke's tension, the wise and enlightened Yoda opines something like "we are what we grow out of." Following this, Luke finds the sacred Jedi scrolls set ablaze and finds that Yoda's response is laughter at Luke's shock and sorrow. Yoda knows that Luke has appointed himself as the protector and even preserver of his lineage. A task Yoda willingly allows to go up in smoke. Yoda's final counsel is that the force and the Jedi will always be, even without texts and even without the temple. Cue: star wars fundamentalist anger!
What if we burned our sacred text? Dogmas have a nasty habit of becoming self-referencing castles where the drawbridge is permanently up, leaving only the truly devout (if not slightly reckless) to climb its walls to gain entry. In my experience, the elevation of text to mythical status has done this in my own spiritual experience. Faith, for many, has become an exercise in rational proofs of ancient texts. This type of belief bears its membership card, marking out those who belong to the spiritual club and those who are lost. The club sounds infallible, inerrant, and solely authoritative.
Yesterday, I attended the memorial service of a man who volunteered in my youth group when I was a teenager. The church we all attended was a very traditional Baptist church. In the 80s/90s devotion could easily be measured by the size of your leather bound bible. In reflection, some of the types who waved it around the most opened it the least (at least in public). Part of me doesn’t blame them. That book is hard to understand. It is not even one book, but its entries are the bridge between two different faith communities and dozens of geographies (none of them modern western democracies) and was written in three different languages. What is available is what was preserved, the library is fascinating in its brutal honestly about human nature, divine nature, and transformational possibilities.
Also Yesterday, I dropped into my daughter's church youth group where I am considering volunteering. The topic was decision making, and when asked by the leader if they use the Bible in their decision making, most of the students answered "no." I don't blame them either; it's hard to get direct advice about current scenarios that writers of the bible couldn't even imagine. In the discussion, there were a few students adamant that all of life's answers could be found in the book. Other students pushed back with a multitude of "what if's" that made their decision making difficult. How should we answer these sincere questions?
I feel an affinity for Luke; I too prefer to have the temples and wholly protected scared texts. After all, Bible reading and study is required for spiritual growth, or is it? Yoda's laugh at Luke's horror at seeing the Jedi text books demonstrates something modern Christians miss. The fruit of spirit does not include reading comprehension. The threat of what faith would be or could be if we lost access to our sacred text can tell us something powerful about our assumptions. Instead of a Cosmic Christ who's fellow triune partner is the present spirit, we instead elevate cosmic literacy and cosmic textual infallibility and end up appointing ourselves the dogmatic fundamentalist, just like Luke Skywalker.
At this point, some of my dear friends reading may think I have lost respect for sacred texts. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead, we live in a time with unique advantages - widespread literacy and education, quality media production, and the network of scholarship that regularly contributes to our understanding of ancient texts and religious groups. All of these were lacking in the early church. Somehow and someway this teaching was preserved by storytelling and letter writing during a time of widespread illiteracy and massive difficulties in replicating and protecting texts.
With the flames burning high, Yoda laughs and encourages Luke by telling him that the force and the Jedi don't need the temples or the texts. They have always been and will still be - all without his help. If it scares you to lose your sacred text, consider that for eighteen centuries most Christians had access to only portions of Bible books, fewer could read them, and still, its influence (even when negative) spread all over the world.
At the close of the youth group, I was asked to tell youth how I approach life decision's with the bible. I could have said to them that I have a BA in Biblical Studies, 20 hours of New Testament Greek, am a seminary dropout and I still read all I can on historical Jesus scholarship. I could have told them I spent the Christmas break reading NT Wrights 736 page book on the historical issues regarding the New Testament's claim of Jesus' resurrection. Instead, I told them there are many answers in our sacred texts, the time given to look for them is not spent in vain, but to remember that they all come from one example. The example of incarnate wisdom, compassion, and love whose very presence deployed wine at a wedding party, zapped the sick with healing, and restored the dignity of humans that society had branded as garbage.
"Jesus loves me this I know for Bible tells me so" works when you can read and your advantages allow for to own a personal copy. And when your place in the history of this world presents other challenges, the ancient spirit force (you knew that I would use the force didn't you) of wisdom, love, and power will do what it has always done, even without the help of books and our buildings. Ironically, I know this because it's in the sacred text. Others may come to know it if I can read it, ponder it, let it change me and force me to become a contemporary example of THE ancient example. The story opens hearts and minds not when we protect it, but when we tell it, in words and action. Now that's a myth where I can plunge my heart and mind.
I remember laughing at the great 90s Saturday Night Live Skit where the two talk show hosts were so paralyzed by their need to be politically correct, that their dialogue became stretched thin and to the point of absurdity. Instead of Christmas carols, they sang holiday carols with language generic enough to mean almost nothing to anyone listening. This awkward comprise of language was played for laughs but many don’t find the humor in this type of cultural compromise. Some have even called the dialogue of the skit a representation of the so-called "War on Christmas."
In the last 24 hours the northern hemisphere has emerged from its longest night and its shortest day. Hundreds of years ago, when your livelihood depended on agriculture, and there was never a chance to head to the supermarket after work for fresh food, the return of the sun was a very welcome sign. How welcome was the sign? One worthy of a massive party (more like debauchery). Eventually, cultural pressure combined the solstice with the Christian observance of the birth of Jesus. This newly merged tradition was observed three days after the solstice. The goal was to contain the solstice party and make it a spiritual event that was more palatable to those who saw a threat in the debauchery holiday.
Today, December 22, the sun is starting our annual process of shortening the night, which has both literal and metaphorical meaning every year. For a desert dweller like me, the temperature dip of winter is offsetting and for many, the season is physically and emotionally depressing. The celebration of solstice recognizes the beginning of the end of the long nights, and its linkage to Christmas joins the expectation of more natural sun with emergence of another spiritually son, notably in just three days (as in the gospel stories).
As our days begin to lengthen, the advent and Christmas calendar implore us to find all of the contemporary areas of darkness and bring light to each of them. I believe that if the message of this season was one of offering the light of truth, justice, compassion, mercy, and hope there wouldn't need to be a discussion about the cultural disappearance of Christmas. Instead, there is ample proof for those with reservations, suspicions, and hostility about that the Christmas holiday has little to do with the end of darkness, literal or metaphorical. Sadly, there are too many heartbreaking and convicting examples that they can provide. There has been much harm done in the name of Christ, in defense of Christmas, and in defense of other professing Christians. These experiences need a solstice of the soul as well.
Tonight will be shorter than the last, and each day that follows will grow in warmth and brightness. Each day's new light is an example of the metaphor of the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus is the light of the world, not the "right" of the world. There are too many examples of where the right words about Christmas and Christ have created the same kind of paralyzed banter as the Saturday Night Live skit. We may speak all we want about values, but if the audience can only see, feel, and experience darkness, then we are perpetually at the solstice and never to arrive at Christmas. The energy spent on the "right" ways to talk about Christmas is better spent finding the means to extinguish the very real darkness that many live in spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
Happy solstice! Now, let us share the light where it is needed most. May the light of each day lengthen through our spirit driven action, may each person inhabit less darkness through our love, and may the light of the world shine without the distortion of our hypocritical words. May we all declare one last war, a war not on Christmas, but on darkness! That is what sun/son is for, after all.
I discovered mindfulness meditation in early 2016 and fully developed a daily practice this year. As meaningful as it is, it ought to come with a warning "Do Not Try This If You Are Not Ready to Work and Become Someone New." Sitting is the easy part, but staying seated and gradually opening space to become aware of the thoughts, feelings, and memories that come and pass is the hard part. This book helped me to develop new tools to offer kindness, care, and space for my experience in the moment.
As I have committed to my mediation practice over the past months, the most accessible analogy for the experience is to describe the practice as if you were developing an extra gear mentally and physically. Driving a stick shift is becoming a lost art, but in the late 90s I had as small Nissan pickup truck that allowed me to learn and enjoy this type of driving experience. Manual transmission have more "pep" when accelerating and that comes in handy getting in and out of tight or congested spaces. I used to wish that there was a gear between second and third on my truck, since I felt second was overworking while driving in residential areas and third made the truck drag. This type of extra gear would have made coasting without speeding require much less shifting. This is the feeling that began to emerge in the weeks and months after I committed to my practice. In moments of true anxiety, fear, and shame, following the prompts back to my breath became that coasting gear.
The book comes with practical examples of the meditations, sets of exercises, and encouragement through some of the common challenges. The author is psychotherapist and a Buddhist and his connection between both of these perspectives adds a great deal to the practice. With these tools, your reliance on external reassurances of safety slowly withdrawal and it's you and your acceptance and awareness that becomes the refuge. To borrow a thought, with mindfulness we can become "the ones we are waiting for."
Who is this book for?
I have heard that one of the most often repeated commands in the Bible is a version of the phrase "Do not be afraid." I have also never heard those words at a moment of personal fear and been able to appreciate them. In fact, I am so good at fear that I actually struggle with fear of strong emotions in general. I would like to propose we reinvent our fear language. Even though fear is a basic biological impulse designed to protect our safety, its daily presence erodes our enjoyment of life. My friends, what should we make of fear?
The strangeness of each of the accounts in the Christian sacred text leads me to think that the real issue behind our fear is something going on just below the surface. It is important to note the verb in "Do not be afraid" is "be" rather than the word "feel". The difference is regularly overlooked, but vital. Take a look at some of the accounts of individuals "being afraid", you'll find them running, hiding, collapsing, mute, catastrophizing, blaming others, etc. These are the same things that happen when we give away our sense of being and where we have been overcome by our darkest feelings.
Most of the commands to not be afraid come with a reason. When the truth is revealed, it's usually a unique combination of radical change and surprise. Let's reflect on that cause and effect relationship. The divine reassurance is provided exactly because the situation actually is terrifying. Why else would there be a need to give an explanation? It is senseless and even cruel to dismiss the fearful experiences of others, and even more cruel to do it to ourselves.
I suggest we make room for the feelings of fear, recognize its sense of alarm, and open our awareness to its source. We can make room by first recognizing the feelings present in our body. These feelings are the pit in our stomach, the quickening of our heart beat, and the sudden urge to fight or take flight. It takes real courage to sit (and only sit) and acknowledge these feelings in real time. As we make this our practice, something amazing happens - we can learn that our feelings are temporary. When we become a witness to their rise and fall, much like bobbing on the water from the safety of a boat, we allow temporary fear to switch places with a permanent peace that is laying just below our emotional surface. This is how we can "not be afraid" while still recognizing that our old annoying friend named fear has come for a visit.
Feeling fear without being afraid also means developing an awareness of true threat versus perceived threat. We cannot rid ourselves of fear, it is our body's alarm system and its warning can save our lives. For most, there have only be a few "life or death" fear inducing moments in life. The rest of these moments however, are often threats to our ego, despair over our lack of control, and frustration coming from our resistance to circumstances. Giving in and responding to these perceived threats can also fit the definition of "being" afraid.
When our sense of being has given over to fear, we have a choice. Living in constant reactivity to every ego slight or need for control does nothing more than induce more fear. A better choice looks like the process of accepting fear, re-framing our situation, and pursuing a new direction in real time (maybe this is what working out salvation with "fear and trembling" means). These choices will not remove fear from your life, and you wouldn't want that any more than having non-functioning fire alarms in your home. However, It will help you remember that there are real alarms and fake ones. The fakes ones are much more prevalent. Even as the alarms sound from time to time, it's possible to feel fear but not permanently overcome by it. When you doubt this check out some of my favorite fear encounters in the Bible:
Exodus 14:13 A time God followers feared that they were being led to their death by God
Deuteronomy 7:18 For the faithful and forgetful, a reminder to the same group who had already lived through the Exodus 14:13 incident
Proverbs 3:24 For the times the quiet of the night is what keeps you from sleep
Psalms 23:4 For the time it's your memory of God's previous acts that keep you alive
Matthew 1:20 For the time when one door shuts and another door doesn't open because God is removing the roof of the reality of your existence
Matthew 10:31 For the times we think we are invisible, inconsequential, and unimportant to God
Matthew 17:7 When you realize you had all the right facts but in all the wrong order
Matthew 28:5 A surprise reminder of God's opinion of nightmares like tombstones and mortal failure
Mark 4:40-41; 6:50 A surprise reminder of how God and nature relate
Luke 1:13 When a man named "Yahweh remembers" learns what the name means
Luke 2:!0 When good news became the victory of God
Parker Palmer is an established thought leader that I recently came across via the “On Being” podcast. In particular, I was drawn into the podcast episode as he described his various adventures in activism, the Quaker community, and his reflective poise in a complex and changing world.