Summary: The American diet has poisoned our bodies. The American philosophy has poisoned our souls. Of course we are depressed! Jesus offers a solution which almost no one has tried. Try it!
Why Are We So Sick?
As I write this, they are still trying to discover what could possibly have motivated a retired accountant to open fire on a country music concert, killing more than 50 and wounding more than 500. It’s so stupid. So random. So evil. We can’t find words to describe it, let alone explain it.
This tragedy is not just horrible in itself. It touches something horrible in us. As we search for a “Why?” for the crazed shooter we have a sinking feeling. We don’t have a “Why?” for ourselves. We can give no explanation for the meaning of our lives. We go through the motions of living but have no reason to live.
You can see it in our eyes. After visiting the United States, Mother Theresa said that western poverty is the worst she has ever seen, worse even than the streets of Calcutta.
One in six Americans takes an antidepressant. Among white males, the number is even higher. How can people who have so much be so miserable? Of course the brain is just like any other organ. Sometimes it malfunctions. But if one in six people need medication, surely something is wrong. If that many people came down with any other disease, wouldn’t we demand an explanation? How did so many of us get sick?
It isn’t just people on psych meds who feel this. Most medicate by distractions: Netflix, shopping, Game of Thrones, sports, church, eating, remodeling the house, Rush Limbaugh. Diversions take our mind off of our problem. They do not solve it.
The problem lies deeper. It is our toxic way of life. The American diet is killing our bodies. The American philosophy has poisoned our souls. Our bodies ache and our souls cry out. If that’s not a recipe for depression, what is?
Our Poisoned Bodies
Most of what we call food is only vaguely food. It is manufactured in a lab. The only winners are the chemical companies which “fertilize” the fields and the pharmaceutical companies which sell drugs to treat us when we eat the Frankenfoods grown in those fields.
Julie and I have experienced the power of counter-cultural eating. For months at a time we have eaten a primarily plant-based diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, the more organic the better. When we are in this healthy mode, we steer clear of the slickly packaged food-like substances that make up 90% of grocery stores. Most of these are not foods. They are drugs. They are not created to nourish our bodies. They are formulated to give us a rush and make us addicts. By rejecting these “foods” we have lost weight, lowered cholesterol and blood pressure, lessened joint pain, and increased energy. All this is good for depression.
I’m not a nutritionist and I’m not trying to sell you on any particular diet. Diet fanatics can be as weird and creepy as religious fanatics. Our approach to food is like our approach to faith. We learn everything we can and try to make healthy choices. We steer clear of dogma.
The biggest challenge is swimming against the current. Julie and I like to eat out but it is nearly impossible to eat out and eat healthy. Restaurants don’t want you to walk out saying, “Man, that was healthy!” They want you to walk out saying, “Man, that was yummy!” Julie and I have come up with our own definition of “eating out.” We pack up a healthy meal and drive to a beautiful place to eat it. We do our best to “eat out” more often.
Lest I sound like a goody-two-shoes I must confess that we regularly surrender to temptation. My weakness is Cold Stone Ice Cream. Julie is a Baskin-Robbins girl. We sometimes fall into months of debauchery, eating what we know is killing us. It tastes so good! We’re addicted. We inevitably wind up in front of the mirror, looking like crap and feeling like crap. We pick up where we left of and have another go at it.
But as bad as the American diet is for our bodies, the American philosophy is worse for our souls.
Our Poisoned Souls
What is the meaning of life? Americans answer this with a single word: More.
More money in the bank, more square footage, a newer car, more efficiency, a better computer, newer clothes, more channels, better apps, more vacation, more…everything! Upgrade. Supersize.
My dad likes to say, “More than enough is not more than enough.” It’s another way of saying “Enough is enough.” Many are recognizing the empty promise of more. The tiny house movement is one reaction. Another is Project 333, a strategy for cutting down to just 33 articles of clothing. Many are taking Thoreau’s advice to heart: Simplify.
Julie and I are on board with this too. We recently unloaded nearly everything and moved into a 21 foot travel trailer—119 square feet of living space. When we started it was hard to part with the mountains of stuff we had accumulated in 27 years of marriage. But after a while we started to enjoy giving stuff away and taking it to the the second hand store. We grew with each subtraction. We feel lighter.
Swimming Against the Current. Still Wondering Why.
As great as it feels to eat right and as liberating as it is to pare down, the big question remains: What is the point? Instead of a bloated life we can’t explain we now have a pared down life we can’t explain. The rejection of a philosophy is not a philosophy. The questions are still there:
- Why does life seem so absurd?
- Why cancer?
- Why mass murders?
- Why go to work?
- How does anything matter since we all die anyway?
Technology intensifies our feeling of worthlessness by making us feel like part of an algorithm. We call to ask about our account and spend five minutes talking to a computer. When we finally convince the computer that we merit help from a real human being we get a short tempered, minimum wage employee who has spent the whole day talking to grumpy people like us.
There has to be more to life than this. We look for an escape to the West, to the East, and to the past.
Escape to the West: Materialism
The Western solution for the meaninglessness of life is to plunge into the material world with fanatic zeal. A sprinkling won’t do. Only total immersion will save. Drive your enormous car down an enormous freeways to the enormous mall to buy an enormous television to put in your enormous house. Would you like fries with that? Of course! And make them sweet potato fries while you’re at it.
If you start to come unplugged from the material world your smartphone will rescue you. Click here. And here. And here. Are you keeping up? Click faster. It is an ever-accelerating merry-go-round. Ask anyone how they are doing. The answer will be “Busy.” When is the last time you saw someone just sitting?
Even western religion is like this. We just don’t just go to church. We go to mega-church where the music is louder, the lights brighter, the seats cushier, the sermons more entertaining, the kids’ program livelier, and the activities never ending. Have you signed up yet? The idea of going to church for contemplation is laughable.
The only way out is to die and go to heaven. Heaven, by the way, sounds ghastly, sitting around with nothing to do for all eternity except sing about Jesus. And who is Jesus? The guy who died on a cross so you could go to heaven and sing about him.
No wonder people are looking to the East.
Escape to the East: Spiritualism
Eastern religions begin with the same questions but rather than immersion in the material world, their solution is immersion in a spiritual one. I like the fact that Eastern religions call attention to a transcendent realm. I also like the fact that they don’t duck the question. Why does life feel absurd? Because it is. Our material existence is an an illusion. Maya. The solution is to escape through transcendence.
But the flight to a transcendent realm strikes me as just that: a flight. It is another way to escape life not a solution that gives meaning to it. To be fair, I have not practiced Eastern religion enough to good judge. Plus, I’m a slow learner. Maybe next time around on the karma wheel I’ll catch on. But so far I’m not convinced the Eastern solution is a solution. It strikes me as another form of escape, albeit a healthier one.
Escape to the Past: Paganism
Paganism isn’t in vogue right now but I’m not sure why. The Greek myths are absolutely spellbinding. Why did we stop telling them? They give keen insight into the world as we face it.
The Greeks didn’t pussyfoot around dreaming of a better place. Their answer to the question of why life seems so stupid is that the gods are stupid. The whole thing was a mess from the get-go. The gods are monsters, corrupted by power and lust just like we are.
This may not make you sleep better at night but at least it explains our experience. The world is a disaster because the gods are dysfunctional. The best you can do is offer a sacrifice—and duck.
What About Jesus?
The one thing most Americans have never tried is Jesus. “Wait a minute!” you say. “Jesus is the one thing most Americans have tried. Eighty-three percent of Americans call themselves as Christians.” How can you say that?
I say it because very few people have any idea what Jesus’ teachings actually are.
In America we think of Jesus as the guy who died on the cross so we could go to heaven when we die. His teachings boil down to, “Be a good person.” Since the whole point of the cross is that you can go to heaven without being a good person it’s a little confusing. This understanding of Jesus is just plain wrong.
If you read the gospels looking for Jesus’ instructions on how to be a good person you will be frustrated. If you search for how to go to heaven when you die you won’t find that either. Jesus’ life and teachings are full of morality and speak of a coming age but his message was not how to get to heaven or how to be a good person. Over and over, Jesus’ message is called “the good news of the Kingdom of God.” What is the Kingdom of God? That’s the right question! This is what the teachings of Jesus are about.
Of course, the term “Kingdom of God” has been slapped onto every imaginable human agenda. The Roman empire used the term to justify their empire. A pastor I knew called everything he wanted his people to do “kingdom business.” In this way he attached God’s name to his agenda and made people feel like they were disobeying God if they did anything else. I could give examples like this all day.
Even though the term “Kingdom of God” is used as heavenly validation of human agendas it must not be abandoned. It must be rescued. It is the central theme of Jesus’ teaching. What did Jesus mean by “Kingdom of God?”
The best way to answer this is to read the gospels. But here are seven highlights to give you a taste.
1. The Kingdom of God is a revolution. When you read the gospels you find that Jesus is constantly in hot water with the authorities. This not because he set out to attack them. He was not on the offense. Neither was he on the defense. He was another page. Human revolutions seek to replace one human Kingdom with another. The results are always disappointing since fallen humanity cannot rescue fallen humanity. Jesus came to replace all human Kingdoms with the Kingdom of God. This is how Jesus managed to offend just about everyone. No group could claim him. He was against us all—and for us all. Jesus’ greatest act of subversion was to surrender his body to be crucified. This revealed the love of God to be the greatest power in the universe, a power that makes atomic weapons look like children’s toys.
2. The Kingdom of God is a triumph. We look at our world and wonder if God has fallen asleep at the switch. Jesus revealed a God who is very much awake. God is hope for the poor. God is healing for the sick. God is with us in suffering. God is the end of injustice. We have many questions about why this world is the way it is. The resurrection leaves no question about how it will end. Every created thing will stand and cheer at the triumph of God.
3. The Kingdom of God is a coming age. The fullness of the Kingdom of God has not yet been revealed. We do not yet understand how every sorrow, every trial, every sickness, and every grave will be swallowed up in victory. But they will. We yearn for this. It’s why we pray, “Thy Kingdom come!”
4. The Kingdom of God is hope. Because we believe in the coming age, we have hope. Often, this defies explanation. It is something we feel, not something we can put into words. This hope hits us most dramatically in the darkest times. We experience a peace that passes understanding. We are feeling a direct connection with the Kingdom of God.
5. The Kingdom of God is present here and now. The Kingdom of God is not just something in the future. It is very much present, in our midst like yeast in dough, like a mustard seed in a field. The age of man may overlook it but not for long. Soon it be the most obvious thing in the universe.
6. The Kingdom of God is a reason to live. The Kingdom of God is not like the western escape to the material world or the eastern escape to a spiritual one. The Kingdom of God is the transformation of all worlds. It gives a framework in which all of life matters. One beautiful statement of the Kingdom of God is the Peace Prayer of St. Francis.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Everyone recognizes the beauty of those words. What they may not realize is that this is a description of the Kingdom of God. When we live this like this we are not just anticipating the Kingdom of God. We are living in it.
7. The Kingdom of God is a gift. We do not build God’s Kingdom. We enter it. We receive it as a gift. We do not work to create something that does not exist. We live within something that is already real and our lives become an expression of it.
Why Most People Have Never Had a Chance to Follow Jesus’ Teachings
Most people have never had the chance to follow Jesus’ teachings for the simple reason that they have never heard them. I have devoted my life to the study of the New Testament. As I went along in my life of ministry I experienced growing tension between the Master I met in the pages of Scripture and the things being done in his name.
Jesus taught a way of life centered on the Kingdom of God. This teaching was soon modified by Rome to control an empire. Later, the message was morphed into a doctrine of heaven and hell and used to keep peasants in line. The Reformation made an effort to return to the teachings of Jesus but failed to break free from centuries of dogma and the political kingdom. American Evangelicals took Jesus’ teachings and presented them as a free ticket to heaven. None of this even vaguely resembles Jesus’ message.
The distortion of Jesus’ teachings is so complete that many despair of ever making sense of them. I felt this myself. Who was I to question centuries of Christian tradition? Did I think I was Martin Luther?
Well, no. But it is time to start calling a spade a spade. It is time to look critically at the path we call “following Christ.” I’m not the only one doing this. One of my favorite authors is N.T. Wright. He has forced us to reexamine the message of Jesus, especially our understanding of heaven and the cross. Unscripted is my own attempt to assess the 20th century evangelicalism I grew up in and rediscover the message of Jesus.
I have no doubt that N.T. Wright has made mistakes. I am even more certain that I have. But we can’t let perfection stop the way of progress. It is time for an army of Martin Luthers to dive in and try to hear the message of Jesus. We will make the most progress, not by looking back through the channels of our twisted history but directly in the first century documents of Jesus’ first followers, what we call the New Testament.
We can take comfort in the fact that Jesus did not say, “Follow me and I’ll explain everything to you.” He did not go around founding theology schools and threaten a test of orthodoxy on Judgment Day. The invitation was to a way of life. For the past two years I have been seeking to live this life. I’m not very good at it. But as with my beliefs, so with my life. I can’t let the fact that I fall short stop progress.
A Way to Follow Jesus
Let me share with you a way to follow Christ. This is not the way. It is a way. For the past two years, I have been focused on Jesus’ seven core teachings, seeking to practice one each day.
- Love of God
- Love of Neighbor
This is a path I walk each week in the Kingdom of God.
I begin at rest. The Kingdom of God is not something I build. It is something I enter. From start to finish, this is grace. Brokenness reminds me that I cannot fix myself, let alone the world. I admit my need and trust in Jesus. As I follow Jesus, I experience the Kingdom of God. This gives me hope. I experience the love of God and share this in love for my neighbor. Life has purpose.
They say that being a good teacher means repeating the important things. I repeat these seven truths every week. They are finally starting to sink in. This is no small thing. It is a fundamental shift in the foundation of my life. You might even call it brainwashing. I get up every morning and wash my brain in the Kingdom of God.
If you don’t like the term “brainwashing,” let me point out that your brain is being washed in something. In all likelihood it is marinated in the sewage of American consumerism. As I started out by saying, there is an excellent chance you are on a fast track to depression and can give no reason for your existence.
Here’s my proposal: Try washing your brain in the teachings of Jesus, the Kingdom of God. Don’t think this will be easy. You will be swimming against the flow of the entire fallen world. It’s very hard to eat right when everything around you points in the wrong direction You have to drive past a lot of McDonalds and Taco Bells. It’s even harder to live right when you are bombarded constantly with the wrong message.
But you are not alone. God is on your side. Or perhaps a more accurate way to say this is that you have gone over to God’s side. As you fight this fight you will experience the Spirit in your heart and Christ by your side. As Paul put it, you will feel the freedom of the glory of the Children of God.
So try this: Every morning get up and get your head on straight. Live by Jesus’ teachings. This is not just mental gymnastics. It is a way of life. It is more important to do it than to understand it. I like how in Greek there is the phrase, “doing the truth.” We think of truth as something to believe. Jesus saw truth as something you do.
That’s the point of the story Jesus told at the Sermon on the Mount. The wise man built his house on the rock. The foolish man built his house on the sand. You probably think the rock represents Jesus. That was not Jesus’ point at all. Reread it. The rock is hearing Jesus’ teachings and doing them. The sand is hearing Jesus’ teachings and not doing them.
In other words it’s not enough just to wrestle with ideas. We must wrestle with our lives. The Teacher came to show us a way to live, not just a way to think.
The way of life Jesus taught is the answer to your problems. All of them. It is meaning for your life. It is a purpose for living. It is hope for the future. It is not an escape to another realm. It is life from another realm that saves you right where you stand and leads to even greater glory in the coming ages.
In the fall season of Curb Your Dogma I invite you to try something. Try following Jesus. And by that I don’t mean I want you to believe in him so you can go to heaven when you die. I mean try living by what Jesus taught. Enter the Kingdom of God.
If you’re already doing this, great! My guess is that you’re not. Try it! Try doing the truth. This fall will look one by one at Jesus’ core teachings but much more importantly, we will seek to live by them.
We begin next week by meeting the Teacher.