This is a continuation of a series of posts called Reframing the Word which is my attempt to “lift the veil” (the true meaning of “apocalypse”) on how we’ve been reading the traditional passages of Christianity through a literal lens for too long. This series will take common passages that are interpreted literally in the name of Christian exceptionalism (i.e. The belief that Christianity is the only one true religion, and Evangelicalism is its only true expression) and seek to reinterpret them through a metaphysical lens. I believe that Jesus and the other prophets spoke in metaphysical terms and never intended their words to be taken literally. I hope you enjoy this series! Please leave your comments below.
Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you’ve gotta pay
We’ll keep pushin’ till it’s understood
And these badlands start treating us good
–Badlands, Bruce Springsteen
Badlands has long been one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, and it’s one he usually opens all of his live shows with, because the theme of the song – like most of his songs – are about the feelings of absolute futility most of us feel at some point – or perhaps at many points – during our lives. I often feel discouraged about my life – about the big, grand dreams I once had of fame and fortune and ill-repute.
I wanted to be a big player on the stage for LGBT rights in this country. I wanted to use my writing and speaking talents to move our nation in the direction of equality and also to move our religious systems toward full acceptance and inclusion of the LGBT community. I wanted to be a national, revered – and reviled – figure, ready to jump into any controversy with both feet and be a leader for equality and equity in this world.
Well, at some point, it all seemed a bit futile. Not the push for rights and inclusion – many of those battles have been won and many continue – but the desire to be the top dog. The desire to be honored and admired and called upon to give big speeches and write big books and whatever else, well, the luster faded for me when I went on my book tour back in 2009 and realized very quickly that traveling the country was a little bit more than this homebody could stand. I enjoyed being places and doing workshops and speeches and book signings. But getting there? I’d rather not.
I think that happens to our dreams a lot of times. They’re grand and wonderful and amazing, but getting there is a battle, a long, exhausting battle. In the end, I felt a lot like the person Bruce sings about. I was tired of the same old played out scenes and all those in-between times when it felt like I was spinning my wheels. I may have said I wanted fame and recognition, but what my soul really yearned for was the heart and the soul of life – that true part within each of us that makes this bodily life worth living.
I wasn’t there, though. I wasn’t in that place where I was living deeply from my heart and my soul.
Instead, I was living in the badlands of the ego – that place where have to wake up every day and experience that heartbreak of feeling like there’s more to life than this treadmill of work and home and chores and other obligations, but we can’t seem to put our finger on what’s missing. We keep pushing and pushing, reading books, attending lectures, listening to spiritual gurus, waiting for that moment of inspiration that just doesn’t ever seem to arrive.
We want to push until these badlands start treating us good … but, I’m sorry to say, that will never happen. The badlands can’t treat us good, because the ego is in charge in the badlands and it’s always telling us that we must strive for more and more and more to make us happy, all the while chanting its motto of, “Seek but do not find.”
These badlands are like the vineyard full of wild grapes that the prophet Isaiah describes in Isaiah 5:1-7. Traditionally, this passage is read as an admonishment to the Hebrew people in particular. Here they are, God’s chosen people, and they can’t seem to live into that chosen-ness. Instead, they chase after other gods or break God’s commandments to love one another, welcome the stranger or help the poor and needy. God planted the people of Israel and expected them to bear good fruit, but instead, Isaiah laments that where God expected justice there was bloodshed and where righteousness was supposed to rein, there were only tears.
Isaiah’s image is one of a vineyard, planted by a loving creator who is disappointed to see that the vineyard he loved and tended with so much care has borne wild fruit, sour grapes that ruin the vineyard. This image is a good metaphor for how A Course in Miracles describes that moment when the illusion of separation between ourselves and God came into being. According to A Course in Miracles, the separation occurred when “the son of God forgot to laugh.”
Our separation from God came when we stopped taking delight in our unity with God and with one another. Instead, we began to take ourselves – that small “s” self – very seriously indeed. So seriously, that we built this whole world around that small ego-driven self. Now, instead of coming together as one to make the sweet wine of the spirit, we are wild grapes, growing apart from one another, taking our wild grape selves seriously and thinking that we are not all part of that one vine.
In that moment of separation, Isaiah says that God has “lowered the hedge” around the vineyard and will allow it to run wild, to take its chosen path to become these bogus badlands we inhabit when we live into our small, ego self. That lowering of the hedge, the breaking down of that protective wall is seen, traditionally, to mean that God gave up his chosen people to their sin, and it can be read that way through a metaphysical lens, as long as we remember our only sin is believing the lie of separation.
That “lowering of the hedge,” merely means that God will allow us to live in the illusion of the wild ego driven vineyard for as long as we like. This is the essence of free will. We can remain in these badlands our whole physical lives if we like, never even dreaming that there’s anything but our small, egoic self to be in this world.
Or, we can remember to laugh, to take joy in the world that lies beyond the ego and come back again to the unity that is our higher self. We are still God’s chosen people. We just have to keep choosing to live in that vineyard where we know we are all one.
Messengers of Love
Isaiah isn’t the only prophet who talks about vineyards in the Bible. Jesus too, has grapes on the brain. In Matthew 21:33-43, he tells his own vineyard story, with a little bit of a twist.
Before we get to that, however, let me give you just a little bit of background on the Gospel of Matthew. This author’s account of Jesus’ life is often called the most anti-Semitic because it’s passages, down through the centuries, have been used to build the case that it was the Jews who killed Jesus because they saw him, not just as a threat to their authority, but as a heretic.
This parable is often used to reinforce that anti-Semitic tone, because the story is overtly a prediction about how the Pharisees, who are listening in on this story, will treat Jesus, who Christians consider the only true son of God.
The story goes that a landowner planted a vineyard. In the traditional reading, the vineyard is the earth. Instead of living on the land himself, the owner hired tenants to keep the land for him. Those tenants represent humanity. When the harvest time comes – when it’s time for the tenants to pay back what they owe to God, meaning the justice and peace they are supposed to be bringing forth in this world – God sends messengers to them to “collect the harvest.”
But, each of those messengers, in turn, are abused or killed. This, Jesus is saying, is what we do to the prophets and messengers of love and justice God sends to us. We beat them, jail them, kill them. Their messages are not welcome. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, and the tenants kill him as well.
So, what do the Pharisees think the landowner will do when he shows up himself? Why, the Pharisees say, he’ll kill those sorry-ass tenants and put new ones in charge. Of course, the Pharisees don’t see that Jesus has cast them in the role of the violent tenants.
A flat reading of that story leaves us thinking that, yes, the Pharisees are the bad guys here, but, even if the author of Matthew did have anti-Semitic ideas in mind, which history suggests he did, a whiff of the true gospel, that eternal good news emerges when we can read this story through a metaphysical lens.
Yes, the vineyard is our blue boat home and we are the terrible tenants who keep killing the Holy messengers of love that are sent to us – but that’s not the point. The point is, no matter how many messengers of love we abuse or kill, God keeps sending more and more of them to us. The true message here is not how bad the tenants are. The true message is about how good God is, and how relentless God is in sending us messages, and messengers, of love every single day.
The truth is, we are terrible stewards of our world. We think this ego projection is our true and only reality. We squabble with our brothers and sisters and accuse them of being wrong, or hateful, or evil, but it’s just our ego being triggered by their ego. We think we have no choice but to live in these bogus badlands where we are separate and constantly defending whatever turf we have claimed as ours.
But, Jesus, in this story, is inviting us to leave the badlands by doing two things: First, we must learn how to receive the messages and messengers of love in our own lives. Secondly, we must dedicate ourselves to becoming those messengers by living into our higher self so we can become and open channel for God’s love to come into the world.
Oh, but we’ve heard the story about what happens to those messages and messengers. If we dare to go there, we will be abused, ignored, vilified, ridiculed, and some of us, if we’re really doing it right, may be killed for our efforts to bring the truth of God’s uniting love into this ego-created world.
But, this is our only purpose in this world, to be givers and receivers of love. To bring that love into our own heart and mind, and pass it on to everyone we meet, no matter how they may react to those messages of love.
The Pharisees, both then and now, want to remain in these badlands and defend it against the messengers of love – but Jesus says the realm of God – that vineyard of ultimate unity – will be given to those who can welcome – and become — God’s messengers of love.
So, the question becomes: Do we stay in our ego and defend the vineyard from that Holy love, or do we have faith in the love that God has given us to raise us up above these bogus badlands?
“Tell him he’s right …”
When I was working on being a big player in the LGBT rights movement, I spent a lot of time arguing with people who were wrong, either on the internet or in person. It was easy to spot these wrong-headed people because they insisted that God hated LGBT people and would send us all to hell unless we repented of our sexual orientation or gender identity and got our lives, literally, straightened out.
Back in those days, wrapped up in my egoic need to be right and prove all the haters wrong, wrong, wrong, I would have openly scoffed at the advice A Course in Miracles gives us in Chapter 9. It’s still a hard reading for me wrap my mind around – since my ego still screeches about how crazy it sounds.
“When you correct a brother,” the Course says, “you are telling him that he is wrong. He may be making no sense at the time, and it is certain that, if he is speaking from the ego, he will be making no sense. But your task is still to tell him he is right.”
That’s crazy. The Course is saying, that even if somebody is wrong, wrong, wrong, you must tell him, or her, that they are right. Well, thankfully, the Course goes on to say, “You do not tell him this verbally,” which is great because that feels a bit impossible. But, the Course reminds us that “he needs correction at another level, since his error is at another level. He is still right, because he is a Son of God. His ego is always wrong, no matter what it says or does.”
Whew, this is a tough one, but it’s one of the main keys to escaping these bogus badlands. As long as we keep judging people as wrong, wrong, wrong in this world, then we’ll remain caught up in this world’s collective ego of blaming and shaming. What the Course is inviting us to do is to look beyond the ego of the person in front of us, no matter how difficult it may be, and instead of judging them, or arguing with them, or pointing out just how wrong-headed their opinion may be, we simply send them God’s messages of love.
The people before you who challenge you – those terrible tenants that we’re sharing this earth with – your job is to love them, no matter what they say, no matter what they do, no matter who they vote for, no matter how wrong-headed you think they are. Your job is to send message of love, because all that fear they’re broadcasting with their opinions and actions are simply calls for love. It’s your duty to answer that call.
Will you do it every time? No! Simply because in that moment, you may be the one caught in your own fearful ego and calling out for a messenger of love to visit you. We end up in arguments and fights when two people – or groups or nations of people – are calling out for love and no one is willing to send the messenger to comfort them. This is the culture of our bogus badlands, where we’re all calling out for love and either not receiving it, or we’re rejecting the messengers that are sent to us.
None of this means that we don’t work to make this world a better place. We may disagree with positions other people take or the actions they take in this world and we must be about the business of doing justice and spreading love and compassion in this world.
One of the reasons God has allowed us to stay in this reality – in this wild vineyard – is so we might channel love and justice into this world. Why should we if it’s just an illusion? Because, the ego’s grasp on us, both individually and collectively, is very strong and we will live out our physical lives in these badlands, so we’d better be about creating the best possible reality for us all right now.
We must work for justice and peace in this physical realm, but we don’t have to do it by seeing our brothers and sisters, who have different ideas and opinions, as enemies. Instead, we must stop seeing them – and ourselves – as wild grapes and instead look deeper for the divinity that resides within us all. When we can stop seeing other people as evil, or angry, or wrong, then we can go about the business of loving them, even as we seek to keep their ideas and actions from become practice, policy or law in this reality.
I am still a big advocate for LGBT equality and I always will be, but now I see my opponents differently. I don’t have to tell them that I believe they are wrong, instead I try to cultivate a sense of compassion for them, knowing that they don’t have all the facts about my community, and they hold some erroneous beliefs about it.
I’m also hoping that those who oppose my ideas and actions will come to the same place of compassion for me, because when both sides work from a place of good will, if not agreement, then we’ll both be sending and receiving those messages, and messengers, of love. While these egoic badlands may never be able to treat us good, when we dedicate ourselves to sending and receiving messages of love, we will be able to transcend these badlands to that higher consciousness where we all know how to treat each other good.