I still remember my dad's sermon that he gave at the end of 2018, looking forward to 2019. I don't remember the details of it, but it was something about hopelessness as we enter the New Year. He asked, "How many of you look forward to next year? How many of you hope it’s better but don’t really have faith that it can be?"
He spoke of the way that the world works, about karma. About cause and effect. He told us a story about this revered monk that he knew while he was in school, who once preached, “A mountain is a mountain. Water is water.” At the time, my dad considered these words very wise. The message was about the unchangeable nature of things. Karma. Cause and effect. That you cannot escape your past.
My dad also spoke of a revered pastor that he met later in his life. The pastor had an encounter with this monk in early adulthood, years before he became a pastor. This pastor came from a long line of Buddhists. He was due to inherit enormous wealth as the head of a monastery and was well on his path to doing so. However, one of his close friends died at the tender age of 22. Traumatised by this, he went to the monastery in his grief and asked the revered monk why his friend died. After a long time of deliberation, the monk replied, “Because of his karma.” On hearing this, he walked away from his Buddhist faith, later becoming the revered pastor that my dad got to know.
I’d like to interject here and note how similar that pastor’s feelings sound similar to mine hearing Christians say to me, “It’s God’s will,” when my brother died. This post isn't a criticism of any faith, although I criticize the insensitivity and idiocy of those who say such things.
Karma is conventional wisdom
Rob Bell, a person I admire greatly, speaks about conventional wisdom and post conventional wisdom.
I think of conventional wisdom as being like the rules you learn when you’re growing up. What’s good and bad. What will harm you and what will nourish you. The black and white rules that we're taught, which are absolutely necessary as we learn to navigate the world as children. How to act professionally. How to behave in a socially acceptable, polite manner, such as not chewing with your mouth open (although many never learn this lesson).
Post conventional wisdom comes only after you have fully digested conventional wisdom. When you start to see the limits of conventional wisdom. When you can decide what parts of the old order you want to leave behind, so that you can push forward into something new. It’s when you realise that conventional wisdom gave you boundaries, but that these boundaries are mere ‘form’ that points to ‘spirit’.
It’s when you can decide that you can break some of the rules of what it means to be “professional”. When you decide, well I’m just going to take this stick out of my ass and eat this pizza with my hands. When you decide I’ll very well wear colourful patterned socks with my otherwise plain formal suit.
Karma in its most basic sense is conventional wisdom. "You reap what you sow" as reference in the Bible too, in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. You are the result of your past.
This is all conventional wisdom. Water is water. Mountain is mountain.
What, then, is post conventional wisdom? Rob Bell refers to it as punk wisdom. The stories of Jesus are full of it. Right from the beginning and reflected throughout his life in his actions and also in the stories (parables) he told.
Post conventional wisdom takes conventional wisdom and turns it on its head, because conventional wisdom can only take you so far. People who hold tightly onto conventional wisdom end up getting distracted by the 'form' of the wisdom. Post conventional wisdom captures the 'spirit' and expresses it in a new form.
When Jesus was born, who was ‘invited’ to witness it? Outsiders from the East. In the very Jewish world that Jesus and the early Christians lived in, these guys weren’t Jewish - and the Jews were very conscious of their ‘in-ness’ and others’ ‘out-ness’. The wise men from the East would have been referred to as ‘Gentiles’. People outside of the Jewish covenant with their God.
Who else? Shepherds. If you see the Christmas decorations and children’s books, they seem wise and clean and respectable. They weren’t. No-one wanted to be a shepherd. They stank. They were unkempt. They were social outcasts.
And Jesus, the promised Messiah and King of Israel, was born in modest circumstances, surrounded by outcasts. Get ready to be punked.
His first miracle
My dad also spoke in his sermon that day of Jesus’ first miracle, when he turned water into wine. Water is no longer water. It can be transformed into something new. This is the new world order that is shown by Jesus' post conventional wisdom - the Kingdom of God, as Jesus claimed.
When the world tells you that you are water, the Jesus tradition tells you that you can be wine. The delicious wine that brings joy and merriment to the party (I love how Korean churches can preach about this and yet they preach against drinking!).
This message really hit home for me. It’s something that I’d struggled with my whole life. The weight of my past mistakes. Sins, if you will. The accusations of the Judge inside of us that uses conventional wisdom to bind us in his chains.
Let's break free from these chains. Let's tell a better story.