Hometown Welcome!

Hometown-Nazareth-Sign-e1428950184677 Mark moves us back to Nazareth in today’s Gospel reading. And it’s far from a pleasant visit.

It would not be unusual should a hometown boy return and be asked by the locals to speak in the synagogue. That being the case, the reaction of the people surprises us, though at least initially it should not. After all, what would one expect of a carpenter or general construction worker?

They are taken aback by the power of this man’s words. And they define it as “wisdom” curiously, suggesting that they realize that Jesus speaks with some power. Moreover, they recognize that his words are not his own creation but result from wisdom “given” him. The question then becomes who–God or satan?

Apparently the people decide it is the latter. They insult him greatly by referring to him as “Mary’s son” rather than the proper appellation, Joseph’s. Various explanations ensue, but in the end, most agree; it was meant and received as a direct insult.

It was probably worse than that. People in the profession of carpenter, stonemason, and such were often required to travel in order to seek employment and make a viable living. This allowed that their families were left unattended and more importantly unprotected. Such workers can be “shamed” by their very occupations.

Thus Jesus goes about his usual business of teaching and healing. He finds the response to his actions lukewarm at best and dismissive at worst. He counters by insulting them first. He quotes a well-known phrase: “no prophet is ever welcome in his own country.”

It is apparent that he cannot heal under these conditions, and only a few healings occur, rather than the “mighty” deeds done elsewhere.

Herein lies a problem.

Jesus remarks at the lack of faith in his hometown and equates that with his powerlessness to do “mighty” deeds. Forever more, people who pray long and hard for help that never comes,  conclude that their faith is insufficient to invoke God’s mercy and assistance.

And this is surely not the point of the periscope, nor do we find it in the commentaries. It seems more directed toward the growing theme in Mark that Jesus is not understood, least of all by his own disciples. We the readers are the only ones “in on” the true nature of Jesus. Others misunderstand him, and thus fail to gain all that he has to offer. He can only “lay hands” on them, and offer some paltry healings.

Of course not understanding Jesus is the point and it leads inexorably to the cross.

Similarly I think, when our faith is tepid, trotted out once a week for public display in churches throughout the land, we are getting only the laying on of hands sort of infusion from our faith, instead of the full cleansing breath of renewal that faith truly offers us.

If we would work “mighty deeds” on behalf of our fellow humans, our faith must be real and solid, touchable, close as a caressing breeze in the garden. If God is in all, sustainer of all, the energy that infuses the universe at every moment, than only by immersing ourselves fully in that light of love can we too project the power given to us in every moment. We must seize it, and use it.

No doubt a good many of us will also be rejected by our hometowns–who is she but the daughter of that woman who worked in the factory? Who is he but that son of a mechanic? How can they saying these things? Who are they?

More importantly, the real point of the question is not who is the prophet, but why did God not favor me with the task? Why that neighbor and not me? I am surely better, brighter, a superior speaker. Yet, they speak with authority and nobody listens to me. Let me remind everyone that they came from nothing!

Can we not see ourselves and our families in all this?

What might we do if we believed in ourselves the way God does?

What might we do if we stopped believing in what they say about us?

Toward A Fair Balance

images (4) I’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with Paul. A fair reading of the entire corpus of Paul, well it leaves something to be desired from a woman’s standpoint. Later, when I learned that there is wide discrepancy between “authentic” Paul and non, he fared a bit better. The worst texts were probably not written by him at all.

It has been a truism that in talking with fundamentalists, it’s my experience that Paul is quoted about 4-1 in making any conservative point. I guess that stands to reason, since pseudo-Paul fits the conservative ticket much more than the liberal side of life.

However it does seem odd that the very people who “confess Jesus as their personal savior” so infrequently quote Jesus for how Christians should behave.

It almost makes one wonder if they somehow use the scriptures to substantiate personal opinions rather than “learn how to behave”.

Plenty of so-called Christians have offered me the following gems of pseudo-knowledge:

  1. Paul endorses the notion that if you don’t work, you don’t eat, negating the present government’s attempt to “give” people stuff rather than make them get a job.
  2. Paul of course echoes God in decrying homosexuality.
  3. Paul believed women should be seen and not heard.
  4. Paul believed women should be obedient to their husbands who are their natural betters.

When it comes to Jesus, they become more brazen. Jesus, they tell me, favored owning guns for self-defense, didn’t want the government involved in taking care of the poor, and didn’t believe in minimum wages.

In today’s reading, (2Cor 8: 7, 9, 13-15) Paul finds himself in a bit of a pickle. He literally begs the Corinthians to be generous. He has, it turns out, been exhorting the Macedonians to give generously by touting the largess of the Corinthians and vice versa. Macedonia has come through with great giving and Corinth so far has not.

Paul is concerned about the contribution to the Jerusalem “saints” for a couple of reasons. First, they are genuinely in need, and Paul recognizes that the hallmark of this new way of being requires serious attention to the problem of the poor. Second, the Gentiles that Paul “leads” are still quite suspect as far as the very Jewish Jerusalem church is concerned. Paul hopes a good contribution will do much to ease the tension between the two groups, and unify them in their common quest to spread the Gospel to all nations.

Paul says some interesting things. God, Paul claims, gives Christians the grace to give lovingly and generously. Using the Macedonians as an example, he explains that God gives to those who give generously, and their generosity is met with God’s largess to them. Further he points out that if they take care of Jerusalem’s needs now, in the future Jerusalem may well be in position to help them in their hour of need.

There should be a “fair balance” or equality between them, as he puts it.

“. . .[Y]our surplus at present may fill their deficit, and another time their surplus may fill your deficit.”

No simpler explanation need be given. You give when you can, and trust that if the tables become turned in the future, others may do the same for you. Or, as Jesus might have said, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Lest there be a doubt, Paul explains that God will make it so. Quoting Exodus wherein God provided manna to the complaining Israelites in the desert:

“No one who had collected more had too much, no one who collected less had t little.”

In other words, you human need not keep score. God will take care of that. Just do what you are called by God to do: take care of those in need.

Somehow that message seems lost to many Christians today.

Continuously I hear this from conservative Christians: I object to paying taxes for “handouts” to those who are too lazy to work. I was taught to work and to not expect stuff to be given to me, but rather earned. These folks are all about give me. Our government has taught them that. The bible tells me to give to the poor, and I do so. But I decide how much and for what. That is as it should be. I’m tired of supporting dead beats.

What follows is almost always a rendition of all the wonderful things this person has done for the poor. Each believes with their full being that they have purchased salvation by their acts, although they would deny this as a blasphemous negation of Luther’s main thrust of justification by faith alone. Yet they will, as proof, point out that Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you.” This they claim shows that government cannot solve the problem. What they don’t say is what they also believe–the poor are there to be the recipient of charity offered to secure one’s own salvation.

What kind of God is this?

Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians suggests a different arrangement. You give the very most you can, and let God take care of the rest. God makes sure that it’s all evened out in the end.

God it seems (along with Paul) is a Marxist.

Talk of “equality and fairness” are concepts unknown to a winner-take-all free market analysis. What is fair in such a system is that smarter and harder working people are supposed to gain while slackers sink. Of course it isn’t at all smartness or hard work that make the difference really. Luck and favorable opportunity count for as much if not more. But that doesn’t feed the scenario being offered.

The very point Paul makes is ignored by the conservative Christian who prefers to focus on interpretations that support their own needs and wants. This goes along with Susan B. Anthony’s remark:

“I distrust those who claim to know what God wants when it always so perfectly coincides with their own desires.”

Paul is very crafty in his explanation: Give exactly what you feel is appropriate, but remember God will make sure you are given all you need to give generously. In other words, the more you give, the more you prove that God is indeed actively supporting you. Who could ignore that incentive?

There is no reason at all theoretically why one cannot take as much satisfaction in the paying of taxes for equitable redistribution as to give personally. But theory pales in the face of our very human need to feel superior and to be noted. So we insist that somehow it’s better if I choose what and where to offer my alms. At least we do if we aren’t really about the help so much as we are being sure that we are duly credited publicly for our benevolence.

We must recall as well that Paul is exhorting Gentiles to be generous with those who are making their lives more difficult–Jerusalem Christians of Jewish descent, who are still not quite sure these Gentiles are properly God’s children without converting and adopting Jewish traditions and codes of behavior.

Paul recognized that we are called to give no matter how well we relate to the recipient. We could do well to emulate that notion in our own giving. None of us will necessarily agree with every program that seeks to improve the imbalance between rich and poor, but we can be mindful of Paul’s assurance that God will sort it all out and make it “fair.”

Don’t we have enough to deal with without taking on God’ job as well?

An Excellent read on the subject of charity: Treasure in Heaven

Do You Not Yet Have Faith?

god Once upon a time in a land far away, an editor had an idea. He solicited a number of authors and asked them to write a story given the following given: Jesus returns in a very public display of power and glory.

The editor collected the stories and put them in an anthology. I bought it. I read it. You can guess the stories. Almost universally, somehow, someway, every story centered around a theme that Jesus was denied, questioned, or sought to be exploited. There was no “happy ending”.

You would think that people would be satisfied with Jesus’ second coming. It would be a time of world-wide rejoicing. The end of strife, the beginning of heaven on earth?

But somehow we don’t get it. We never did.

Mark’s rendition of Jesus’ calming the storm tells us that.

It’s confusing I admit.

A lady who saw the shooter from South Carolina was adamant that God had made her be on that highway, had forced her to pay close attention to the news, all because she was His instrument to bring the man to justice. She is utterly convinced, so she says, that God directed it all. Yet, that must mean he directed the shooter to kill innocents too. If God controls, well, he controls the good and bad. If he pulled you off a flight that would eventually crash, he failed to do so for the hundred or so who perished.

We aren’t very good at defining God.

We are even less good at describing how God operates.

We say that all we think about God is nothing more than what God is not. Augustine said that or words to that effect at the very beginning of this adventure in Christianity. We can forgive him perhaps since God was in his Christian infancy and nobody could be expected to “get it right.”

Atheists complain that believers continue to narrow where God fits as science expands the world we do understand. God is no more the creator of thunder and whirlwinds. We have science for that.

The problem with atheists is that they just figure that everything that we now don’t know, we will someday figure out. And the ever shrinking God will finally be reduced to a comical pinhead. They assume this is true because history has proven to be a movement from lesser knowledge to greater. Why won’t it continue?

But there are unknowns that will always be indescribable and never pinned down and defined or explained. What of beauty? Define it in absolutes and you will soon have no hair on your head from the tugging and twisting. I issue nothing new in this, for such vagueries apply to truth and freedom and other states of being that defy us to establish any perimeter that will hold.

Mystery abounds and will always do so, no matter how science probes and explains all manner of phenomenon. Reality is a constant shifting, not quite in focus thing. The present becomes the past in each blink of the eye, and future shrinks as it becomes present, all the while expanding at the horizon, infinitely.

We spend almost no time with these thoughts, deeming them curious and shrug worthy after brief bouts of wrinkled brow thinking. But these are the thoughts of God. Time spent slipping over the event horizon into the abyss of unknowing brings counterintuitively, what? Clarity? Yes, surprisingly so.

We don’t have to land on an outcrop of rocks to break our fall into forever, we suddenly realize that we are floating, and we can look around at all this. We can examine time and we can move into no time. As our comfort increases, we open, relax, given up and give in and give out in one inexplicable action. We rest in God, and we KNOW that we do.

Yet we can describe it barely at all. It is reserved for the hushed tones of pure sound and pure color, and pure movement. We touch it briefly and we cause it, by the attempt, to leave us. For it will not bear the focus of intent to SEE it for what it is. It will remain on the periphery, fuzzy, undefined, graspable but elusive. Like the soap bubble that bursts leaving us but a dampness on the fingertips as a passing reminder that we were in the presence of something much more real than what passes for reality.

We bask in the warmth of safety and of peace. Love hovers over all, providing a blanket of such quiet joy that we feel our hearts wrench. The atheist merely cries, “wow, one hell of a sunset” and moves on, retracing his steps to the car, gunning the engine and heading for the bar for a beer and a burger. We sit shaken by the experience, hungering for more, but realizing that such moments are gifts offered for the moment, then snatched away before they becomes routine and common.

Jesus speaks to his disciples and is mildly amused. He plaintively asks, “do you not yet have faith?”

What does it take?

Why must we bind it to saving our souls and accomplishing feats of healing and other tangible results? Is it not enough on its own, or must there be a payoff to count? Yeah, lady, God may love me but what has he done for me lately? We want a servant God. We want him like that genie in a bottle to just wait upon our needs. We want to be saved, and blessed, and presented with bounty. If we are going to do this thing, God better pay off!

He has.

Once you enter into the mysteries and stop fighting to logically deduce.

You can call it something else, and you probably will, but that changes nothing. There will be other opportunities and perhaps one day, you will let go and Let God.


Thinking About Religion

religionYou hear it from both atheists and some believers. Religion does more harm than good. And what’s often pointed to as the rationale for this belief is all the death and misery caused by differences between religions.

They point to the Crusades, to Ireland, to India, and of course to the Middle East as proof that all too much killing has occurred “in the name of God.”

Since religious identities are apparent in all these situations, it’s an easy argument to make and is not often dissected. In other words, the conclusion that religion is at fault is usually not questioned by anyone. It becomes the backdrop to an argument, a given, while debaters continue on to argue whether other religious functions do or do not make up for the bloodshed.

A couple of articles I’ve read lately suggest that I and others who have taken this “truth” for granted, may be fairly off the mark. Benjamin Wiker tackles this problem in The Myth of Religious Violence. I think he makes some excellent points. Relying on William Cavanaugh’s book of the same name, he argues most so-called religious wars are really political in nature and have much less to do with religion as the subject. According to Cavanaugh, religious differences are easily abandoned when some greater issue unites the otherwise religious opposites.

This is confirmed in John Wilkins, Undefining Religion. Wilkins, who is in my estimation, a thoughtful and deep thinker, argues that religions get blamed for many (but not all) wars based on a thing called the reference class problem, i.e., the tendency to ascribe fault based on an easily identifiable “class” rather than on actual facts, or the fallacy of composition. An example would be, I’m for Obama and I’m Catholic, you’re against Obama and Protestant, thus Catholics are for Obama and Protestants against him.

Wilkins argues:

Even the so-called religious wars, such as The Troubles in Ireland or the Crusades, were the outcome of social, economic and political processes, for which religion stood, not as a cause, but as a proxy for the opposing sides. This is not to say that religion never causes problems of this kind – of course it does. But often enough it is not the cause so much as the banner under which other issues are being resolved. The Irish Catholics and the imported Protestants were representative of ethnic groups with different social status and power, and so being Catholic was not so much the root of the Troubles as the honest signal of group identity.

This is all fine so far as it goes, and I’m happy to see some clarity brought to an issue that has always been troubling in discussions about the value of religion. But unfortunately, Wiker takes it a step further, and enters into what I think is simply a sea of illogical conclusion.

Wiker contends that this false premise, that religion causes wars and strife, death and misery, is the reason why our country rejected a religious-state connection. He argues as Cavanaugh’s beard, that this belief is necessary to those who wish to create secular states. Notice the innuendo here. Secularists (bad) conspire to make religion the cause of bad things in the minds of the people which allows them to strip religion from the state apparatus, and thus make a secularist state (truly bad).

Wiker goes on to carry Cavanaugh’s argument that the case of Everson v Board of Education, is seminal in this regard, wherein Hugo Black borrowed Jefferson’s words from a letter of 1802, interpreting the 1st Amendment, non-establishment clause, as “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Wiker argues that forever after “secular-minded” justices have used the violence excuse as the basis for their secularization of government.

Somehow I fail to see the connection, and nowhere does Wiker point me to any other verbiage in the opinion or other opinions for that matter from which I may logically deduce such a conclusion. Wiker claims that but not for this dastardly act, we would still be the Judeo-Christian country that he, no doubt, feels was intended.

Funny, but throughout my investigation of religion and the 1st Amendment, I’ve never come across the “violence” argument before. Actually what we find is a constant reverberating chant of argument that relates to the sanctity of religious freedom being maintained through its separation from government. Enlightenment founders were aware no doubt of the sordid an often ugly connection between religion and government in Europe. Indeed Wiker makes his own argument for this, in explaining to us that religion is merely the vehicle used by governments to effect results having little to do with faith. The argument actually becomes circular.

While we can be safe, I think, in our historical conclusions that the Clause was erected and maintained to protect religious minorities their freedom to exist and practice as they wished, Wiker has unknowingly it seems, add the very argument of religious violence to the pot. Religion and government together too often makes religion the tool of government. And that tool is a powerful one indeed, giving rise to passions that can be far greater than any other argument as a call to arms.

Just what I have been thinking about this week.


Resurrection City

ResurrectioinCityI approached Resurrection City: A Theological Improvisation with some skepticism, I admit. The message of Jesus seen through the eyes of jazz? Somehow it seemed rather implausible and frankly a bit gimmicky. After all, I guess one could do the same with weather or baking a cake if one tried hard enough, but would one actually learn anything?


Professor Heltzel has in fact not only pulled it off, but offered us a truly meaningful way of looking at the ministry of Jesus, the message of God, and how we as mortals upon this flawed earth can bring forth true justice amongst ourselves.

I have indeed listened, during one portion of my life, a fair amount of jazz. I am not a musician and thus I can only say that I liked a good deal of it, and found some of it harsh and difficult. My expertise is sorely lacking.

Such is not the case with Heltzel, who obviously knows his stuff. He uses the idea of jazz and how “good jazz” works as metaphor for how we must approach the fractured world we live in, in hopes of resurrecting our lives to reflect the mishpat envisioned by God.

We are taken on a tour of the Hebrew Scriptures wherein we are reminded that throughout the pages of Isaiah and Jeremiah God’s people are continually called to do justice and to care for the weak, the dispossessed, the widow, orphan, and the stranger. We are reminded of God’s call for Jubilee, a time reserved to “re-balance” the scales of economic inequality.

Jesus, Heltzel tells us, was the improviser, taking the old laws, the old prophetic calls to justice, and re-imagining them in new ways. Jesus in effect gives us a new way to see and interact with God. The Jesus Way, the way of love, which moves beyond love of neighbor to love of enemy, replacing violence with loving resistance to inequity in the world.

This is what jazz is all about, improvisation. It is taking the old, well-known song, and changes it, probing and altering, tinkering, imprinting one’s own voice upon it, making it anew. We still hear the strains of the old, but we are revived in this new way of hearing.

As examples of the Jesus Way, Heltzel focuses of John Coltrane as his Jazz improviser, and Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. as theological improvisers. Each made a seminal and world-changing offering to the “old” way of seeing, listening, and doing.

Heltzel maps out how the Christian Church has been, over the centuries, molded into something far removed from God’s loving call to mishpat. It has strayed into a patriarchal, white seat of power, that justified slavery, and the oppression of women throughout the ages. What is required is a “new way” of being church, one that returns us to the radical Jesus Way, and calls us to improvise in order to achieve that social justice that God desires.

In that social justice, all of us are freed as we learn the truth of our past, while we gain the tools to begin the process of building our resurrection cities, where communities operate for the benefit of all their people. We must start that process, as he points out, by looking clear-eyed at our past. Through the stories of Sojourner Truth and MLK, Jr, we examine with honesty the past that still haunts us, and how both of them improvised solutions to the problems before them. Each surrendered totally and followed the call for justice.

Perhaps the most striking image for me was his reference to the famous theologian James Cone, who writes:

“Theologically speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black people in America.”

This is a powerful metaphor, and comes at the beginning of our journey through the ugly past of American slavery. It informs our thinking, in a deeply powerful way when we juxtapose that against the determination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to maintain a non-violent resistance to Jim Crow in the South. How does the anger and hatred that the Cone statement engenders get translated into the sedaqah (righteousness) of the love-based non-violent resistance of King, or his mentor Gandhi?

Heltzel steps forth with his jazz references. The “blues” of slavery meld into the spirituals that both bespeak that evil and pain while yet pointing to a better time and a better life. These are grafted by the jazz musician into the new music of a world to come, one infused with power and new directions.

We see the Poor People’s March on Washington and in our own time, the Occupy Movement, as similar jazzy improvs–people joining together in their pain and anger, and forging a loving yet determinedly non-violent response to the powers that oppress and dehumanize us all.

Heltzel informs us, and then calls us to action in our place and in our time to create the new songs that God calls forth from us to build a new world, one of justice and for all.

Read this book. You will be transformed.

**This book was sent to me for review. The opinions contained within this review are mine and mine alone. No other agreements exist between the writer and anyone connected to the book or its dissemination.

Religion vs Spirituality

A friend of mine posted this a few days ago on Facebook. religionspirituality

I commented that “I could agree with that.”

And I can.

But like all memes it suffers from simplicity.

Often memes are just plain wrong upon further reflection. Sometimes they are right “most” of the time. Maybe they are mostly wrong except in a few circumstances.

This one I think is mostly right, but with a few caveats.

First of all, most religions are not “someone else’s experience.” They are a lot of someone elses. Where Christianity is concerned that numbers in the dozens. And that only relates to its scriptural base, the bible. If you add all the other writings not canonized, but still reflective of how people of generally the same time frame came to see the Jesus experience, then it grows substantially.

And of course, that says nothing to all the theologians and biblical scholars that have expanded our knowledge of exactly what that experience was, and how it should be conceived of. They number in the thousands over the years. And of course the mystical writers have their own experiences to relate.

So we actually have a lot to dig through in discerning what that “experience” is. Much the same could be said I suspect of most other religions. The end belief system is the product of hundreds if not thousands of minds. And of course, there is much conflict between minds.

But religions have surely set dogma and told believers that they should adhere to those beliefs. They divide them often into those that “must” be adhered to, those that should be, and perhaps those that are “up to your conscious”. And these change too, moving from one category to another. That is where the trouble begins.

Do we dare question the insights of a St. John of the Cross? Or The little Flower Theresa? Are their visions and spiritual deductions sacrosanct because of their sainthood? Is mine less so because I lack the imprimatur of the Church? That is where one’s spirituality conflicts it seems to me. And it is where the Church, standing for religion errs.

For the Church seeks, based upon its self-defined expertise, to tell the parishioner  what she must believe to remain within the good graces of said institution. An institution made by humans I might add, whatever your current theology might be about what Jesus intended when he laid the mantle upon Peter’s shoulders. This is error as I see it.

The Church has a serious and important role. That role is to nurture, care for, and raise up the individual who comes seeking. It can and should not judge, but only facilitate  with love and forgiveness, warmth and understanding, that relationship between God and creature. It should in no way be a barrier, EVER. When it does so, well as Jesus said, better tie a millstone around its neck and drown it.

And of course many would do just that. In the name of God.

And they are just as wrong as those who see the Church as God, speaking for, judging for, and forgiving for God.

For that purpose of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and ministering to all who are suffering, is the primary goal and purpose of religion, or Church. And if, I would argue, it limited itself to that purpose, it might well effectively reduce suffering in the world in a degree that would stupefy modern governments.

That is not it’s only purpose however. It serves to be the gathering forum for believers, and that is of no small importance. For the scriptures make clear to us, throughout them, that the gathering of the people in “church” is valuable and necessary. In some sense the Trinity teaches us that–one God in three forms operating in perfect community. We are communal creatures, and Church can and should mirror that perfect community. We are called to act selflessly, and no better place to learn it SHOULD be the Church.

Instead of course, we find nothing but judgment and rejection for so many. As if God needs humans to prevent other humans from approaching the altar. As if somehow the Church sanctifies and not God.

Spirituality is not a substitute for church in this sense. All too many people are walking around proclaiming their spirituality and their self-interpretation of scripture. The trouble is, scripture is not something that one can “just understand with an IQ of 100” as a self-proclaimed atheist recently told me. Although not a believer, he insisted that our “debate” be limited to the four corners of the bible, and using the common sense meaning of the words themselves. Of course such a notion is absurd.

Millions of unchurched Christianists proclaim what God wants, needs,  and hates. They then insist that we conform to their beliefs. Church can and should be the counterpoint to this sort of self-serving Christianity. If it is wrong for a church to speak for God, how much more so when an individual seeks to tell another what God wills or punishes? Here faith is simply used as a defense to calls of bigotry. We hear, “I personally don’t care about _______, but God is against it in the bible, and it’s my Christian duty to speak up.”

This is what comes from unfettered “spirituality” absent the restraints religion heterodoxy. But heterodoxy is in the end a human endeavor, and should never be confused with God, now with eternal truth. It is the best of what we understand now, and not what we may realize tomorrow.

Smart churches do this. All churches should do this.

Churches should be spending more time helping its members explore and think. As in all things, critical thinking skills apply. The dogma of the present church should but serve to start the discussion, and the exploration. God gave us these marvelous thinking instruments and they are meant to be used. Only by the deepest and broadest searching will we be rewarded with the most meaningful experience of God.

So, it’s not all one, or all the other. Each goes wrong by itself. It is the blending of both, and the value of both that enriches the individual.


The Hypocrisy of Treating Jesus with “Tough Love”: Here’s a Riddle for You . . . (Sunday Homily)

Because I can’t say it any better.

About Things That Matter

the least

Readings for Third Sunday of Advent: IS 35: 1-6A, 10; PS 146: 6-10; JAS 5: 7-10; MT 11: 2-11 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121513.cfm

Recently, Mary Shaw contributed a well-received article to the pages if OpEdNews (my favorite online news source). The article was called “American Hunger and the Christian Right.” There Ms. Shaw pointed to the irony of predominant elements within the GOP adopting as their two main goals cutting social services such as Food Stamps and eliminating labor unions while at the same time calling themselves “Christian.” In Ms, Shaw’s analysis, such inconsistency does not jibe with the personal poverty of Jesus himself, or his concern for the poor manifested in mass feedings on more than one occasion.

In the light of today’s liturgy of the word, I would go even further and argue that the GOP position flies in the face of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition expressing (as it does) God’s…

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Unstructured Thoughts

EinsteinWe can never explain God simply can we? Never, no matter how much we try.

Oh we can pretend that we can. We can for instance call God, “love”.  All that needs saying right?

No, it but starts the conversation surely. How does this “love” allow for all this hate and misery and pain and suffering in this world of ours? And even before these creatures called humans deigned to stand up and gaze over the grasslands, it was so. Some animals are carnivorous, feeding off other passive creatures. How “loving” is that?

When the opposable thumbed ones stood up, did they do so out of a desire to see the world in a bigger context or because it enabled them to see danger when  it was still far enough away to do something about it? Before they too became somebody’s meal?

Creator of the universe? Yes, but is this “our” universe, or a lot of “ours” universe? Is it our playground or simply our small slice of this one? Are there many? Do they each have a God, or is this one running them all? Is Jesus our Jesus, or is Jesus, Jesus everywhere?

Oh you know the answer? Confess, it’s only a guess. You guess you know. You choose to believe you know. You don’t really know.

Is that the essence of God? Is it determining to believe what you can’t know? But perhaps I cannot know what came before the “Big Bang”. Astrophysicists tell me that I may not ever be able to. Is that where God is?

Are we all just struggling humans trying to make human sense out of what is not human? After all, did the psalmist have it right when he said, “how hard for me to grasp your thoughts”? Can I grasp them? What exactly is “in my image” mean after all?

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But then there is this: “if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge to be able to investigate the world, how have they been so slow to find its Master?”

We are tantalized with both you see, the confounded frustration of never “getting it” to the assurance that we can. Or at least the belief that we can. For that image thing surely means that we must “think” in the manner of God, in the sense that 2 + 2 = 4, and if A = B, and A = C then B = C. It must be like that, surely?

So why can’t we KNOW for God’s sake? Actually why can’t we know for our own sake, for surely God doesn’t need us to know, but we desperately need to know. Or don’t we? Is there some delicious wonderment in believing rather than knowing? Is that comforting and empowering somehow that cold factual knowing can’t be?

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After years on his cushion, a monk has what he believes is a breakthrough: a glimpse of nirvana, the Buddhamind, the big pay-off. Reporting the experience to his master, however, he is informed that what has happened is par for the course, nothing special, maybe even damaging to his pursuit. And then the master gives the student dismaying advice: If you meet the Buddha, he says, kill him.

Why kill the Buddha? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed he will only stand in your way.

If that’s true, and it may well be, then what are we to do then? Toss the bible in the trash? Stay away from every edifice that signifies the place of knowing, i.e., Church? Don’t read what anyone writes about the subject? Because the minute you think you have a handle on God, like partially set jello in your hands, it slides away? The minute somebody makes sense, or assures you that they know, you can be very sure they don’t?

I don’t recall wherein his Confessions, he said this, but  Augustine said, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.”

How much clearer could that be? And pray tell, why does Augustine then proceed to tell us so much about God? We are driven to explain what is inexplicable, and by its very nature is probably clearly not what we explain.
Perhaps it is what keeps me in the Catholic church and out of it at the same time. I don’t trust the messenger any more, yet I know God is there. It’s all very funky in my head when I try to sort it all out. Perhaps sorting is the wrong thing to do. Just let it ferment old girl, just let it ferment. It will take care of itself.

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I do know that this passage has stayed in my head for more than a week. I can’t shake it. I guess I ask God a lot for wisdom. Maybe because that is one of the few things in the Bible where a feminine aspect of God is clear. Wisdom is SHE, damn it, and if you don’t like it, well too bad.

Anyway, I long for this:

There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy,

unique, manifold, subtle,

mobile, clear, unpolluted,

distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,

irresistible, 23 beneficent, humane,

steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,

all-powerful, overseeing all,

and penetrating through all spirits

that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.

24 For wisdom is more mobile than any motion;

because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.

25 For she is a breath of the power of God,

and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;

therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her.

26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,

a spotless mirror of the working of God,

and an image of his goodness.

27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,

and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;

in every generation she passes into holy souls

and makes them friends of God, and prophets;

28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.

29 She is more beautiful than the sun,

and excels every constellation of the stars.

Compared with the light she is found to be superior,

30 for it is succeeded by the night,

but against wisdom evil does not prevail.

8 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,

and she orders all things well.(Wis. 7: 22-8:1)

Until God so chooses to grace me, I remain but a God Seeker. But then, truly, whether we know it or not, aren’t we all?


How Can You Mean This?

MatthewdIt is claimed that Susan B. Anthony once said something like this: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. Have you ever know anyone to say in their defense: “I myself wouldn’t have a problem with THAT, but the Bible says that God is against it, so I must follow God first.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the GOP is intent upon cutting SNAP by 40 BILLION dollars. All the while, a significant number of them are receiving PERSONALLY tens of millions of dollars in farm subsidies. You see, we must do this they claim, because these people who are receiving free food are lazy, they are becoming a “take” culture, while they themselves are simply being given some help, ironically in the food production arena, to keep America’s food shelves healthy and full.


And do you know what they claim is their moral justification for what they do? Why it is Paul’s statement in Thessalonians:

“In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

They do not of course answer the burning question of “where are the jobs”, a bellowing demand they make of this President every week, if not every day. Yet, someone people should starve because those who receive food assistance are undoubtedly unwilling to work. Work at what, they don’t say.

Yet of course all this is so much a lie. Forty-seven percent of all recipients are children under 18. Eight percent are seniors. Forty-one percent live in households where someone works full or part-time. Less than 10% of recipients receive any other type of assistance. Nobody speaks louder or more clear than the GOP when it comes to veterans. Yet over 900,000 veterans currently receive SNAP.

Those are the facts.

What of the moral argument?

It too is utter nonsense and bespeaks the usual literalist reading of scripture that these fundamentalists indulge in.

I have some personal experience here for I’ve talked with a number of people who I’ve known since childhood who tell me all about Paul’s statement in defense of their agreement with Republican goals to cut SNAP funding. They of course first start by telling me of their personal anecdotes, stories of acquaintances or relatives who get assistance and either brag or are “known” not to really need it. This is almost immediately followed by complaints that “I’m tired of working so hard for these freeloaders. My taxes are already through the roof because of Obama.” (Note that taxes in general have gone down under President Obama’s administration, but of course people believe what they want to perpetuate the myth they are living with.)

Then of course comes the scripture. “Even Paul said that those who do not work shall not eat” This is often followed by the incredulous statement that “Everyone knows that Jesus was against government!”

So there we have it. Jesus doesn’t like government and so as all  fundamentalists tell me, these things should be left up to the Church. Yes. Well, nothing is preventing the “Church” from taking on the job. Nothing has been preventing them from doing so for over two thousand years. Somehow or other, they haven’t gotten the job done. So please don’t tell me the Church should do it.

And the thing from Paul? Well, IF one were to actually read Paul with some understanding of what his letters are about, one might get a clue that this is not a statement that should EVER be taking literally.

Looking first at Paul’s overall theology, it is clear that he, like many others in the movement, expected the return of the Lord within their own lifetimes. Indeed, in his first letter to them, he calms them and reassures them that those “who are still alive for the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1Thess 4:15) Much of Paul’s teaching on marriage for instance is based on his believe that the Lord would return within most of their lifetimes. Thus he counsels that those who can maintain celibacy, should not marry. Those who find it difficult should marry rather than engage in promiscuity.

Secondly,  it is not completely accepted that 2Thessalonians, from which the “no work, no eat” comes from, was actually written by Paul. Be that as it may, Paul is writing again to Thessaloniki because a crisis has arisen. Indeed, many of Paul’s letters are in response to crisis within the believing community. New people sometimes arrive with new teachings, something teachers get off on tangents. In other words, Thessaloniki is in crisis.

The crisis is quite obvious and is stated in the letter itself: Someone is telling the people in the community that the day of the Lord’s arrival has actually come!

“. . . Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us, suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already arrived.”(2Thess 2:2)

This is what has caused the problem. People are in panic. There is conflict. As is the case in all the cities, the household churches are supported financially by the more wealthy members. It seems that some in the community are no longer working, and are looking for the Lord to appear, and simply living off the largess of the wealthier among them. Paul says this must stop. According to him, there are various things that must transpire before the Lord returns, and these have not occurred. Everyone is to return to normal activities. Return to calm. Go back to your jobs and your normal pursuits.

What is pathetic in this use of a single sentence out of context, is that even to the most limited of readers, the context should seem most clear. Paul is not out of the blue announcing that it is a teaching of Christ that that no one who fails to work shall not eat.

This flies in the face of Matthew 25 which says something quite different:

Mathew25aThis is the great teaching of Christ.

This is what needs be followed by all who would claim the name of Christian.

While we keep these writings about scripture and faith, we urge readers to contact their congress person and demand that the cuts in SNAP be restored.

Surely we are better than this.



And Yet We Try

Father GodOh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord
or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given him anything
that he may be repaid? (Rom 11:33-35)

This is a troubling passage for most of us. It suggests that no matter what we do, we are too small, too limited to understand God. When faced with some calamity or other that we cannot understand, we say oh so mysteriously “God has his reasons, and someday we will understand.” Such nonsense is less than helpful to the one suffering, but we are at a loss and so we say such inane things.

For a variety of reasons, many biblical scholars conclude that the real first attempt to set down in writing the oral traditions of the early Israelites didn’t occur until the tribes had secured the land of Palestine. That is only a beginning of course, relating to the ancient times, the exodus, the wandering and the entering into the land. It is no little stretch to see why this might be so. Given the bloody history of the take over of the land by the various tribes, it is not unexpected that some effort would be made to tailor the stories to defend all that invasion and mayhem as God-ordained.

Similarly when we look at the histories in Samuel, Kings, and so forth, we see justifications for the political lifestyle that was being faced by those returning from exile. We see theology melded around political necessity and reality. We see the winners proclaiming truth. The losers no doubt had their own version.

So what do we make of this thing called “THE BIBLE”? A collection of writings, all unknown today, and perhaps largely unknown at the time. At least the source of much that was put down in written form had come from hundreds if not more than a thousand years before. Traditions oral, handed down from generation to generation. And more than one in some cases for the same basic “history”.

We can of course make it all quite easy. We can simply declare that it is all written at the direction of the Almighty Himself–not exactly dictated, but placed within the mind of various scribes exactly as God desires, and they faithfully scribbled it down as if it was being read to them in their mind. To make it a “human” endeavor, we are told that each writer used his own “words” although it is hard to explain why God’s words wouldn’t be considered the best.

We can do this, making the Bible the “word of God”, smiling smugly and going on with nary another thought, glad that that problem has been laid aside as solved. No matter that it is not remotely true of course, or that someone so grand and perfect could surely “write” a manual of behavior much simpler and easier to understand. And do not say it is not hard to understand. If that were so, then pray tell why are there so many (30,000 at least) various “churches” all claiming that they have got it right and nobody else, quite right. To say nothing of all those millions who actually in their arrogance eschew “experts” and find the document easy enough for the average person to understand as written.

We actually know that the bible, or should we say the various writings that would one day be declared, by men long dead, the bible, have been rewritten more than several times. They are not all the same, there are longer or shorter versions of some books, parts left out, and new parts added. We can tease apart a good deal of this, but it all leads to something called an “oral tradition” that is not capable of being “located” or known. Our oldest copies are not so very old when we look at what they refer to. Most are from the Common Era, after the birth of Christ.

They are copies of things we no longer have, and they are probably copies of other things we don’t have either. And on it goes.

And the most we can say, is that God, we trust, has held these minds in loving embrace while they struggled to explain their history and times and how God had occupied their world and influenced it, changed it, and directed them. If we are to believe that God really means free will, then he did not put words or thoughts in their minds, but loved them fiercely and from that relationship trusted that they would speak truthfully as they understood.

So some of what they believed is true, and some is just not. But they were well-meaning, honest, and dedicated to showing this wonderful God as the center of the universe they lived in. And that is the best we can expect.

And it is humbling, this knowing.

For we are no different. We are well-meaning, and we are honest, and we too are dedicated to explaining to ourselves and to each other how this God we so love works in the world and in our lives.

And we struggle with words, and ideas, and concepts. And we don’t get it all right, but we get some of it right. And a thousand years from now, others will continue doing the same.

And bit by bit, perhaps we will piece together some mosaic of this Godness. At least enough to know that it is too grand for each of us, for all of us.

It is a process we experience, this doing God. It is touching ourselves in our aloneness, and in our neediness. It is discovering that the only important thing is love, and from that all good comes. And when we feel that perfect loving peace for short moments, then we know in some place deep inside that we have for a brief instance brushed aside the veil and we have seen.

And we scribble hurriedly before it slips from us, as it must. And others will judge if we have hit the mark or failed, far from now.

For we are creature.

And yet we try.

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