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?

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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?

Yes.

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.

Amen.

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.

Mathewwrong

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.

Amen.

Matthewc

Oh How Can It Go So Wrong?

humilityWho among us has not felt the ugly cloak of self-righteousness upon our shoulders? For most of us, it is a humbling and heartbreaking experience, one that leaves us filled with shame and begging to be forgiven for forgetting who and what we are.

Not that I favor the constant not-really-so-humbling- practice of constantly confessing loudly our sinful nature. I find that rather self-righteous actually. I see no need to heap ashes upon my head on a regular basis. My failures and limitations are known to God and to me, and in the quiet of my own heart these things are pondered deeply and acted upon appropriately. All else is for show it seems to me.

Today’s liturgy focuses on the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As we all know, the Pharisee was among his peers an object of piety, a stickler for the details of Jewish law, and always quick to call for perfect compliance in the strictest sense. The tax collector, was an outsider within his community, working for the Romans, taking his pay as a cut from the exorbitant tax bills of his fellow Jews. The more he got from them, the more he got. He was shunned and hated by all those who saw him coming.

The Pharisee enters the temple and begins reciting all his virtues–how he is superior to most of his fellow Jews, especially this lowly tax collector. He apparently thinks that God needs reminding and remind Him he does. On the other hand, the tax collector dares not even raise his eyes heavenward, so ashamed of his sinful nature is he. He begs for mercy.

No doubt the Pharisee, perhaps not with words, but in intent does not beg at all, but merely asks to be given his due, what he assumes is his (wealth, prestige, power) because he is who he is, a Pharisee.  The tax collector expects nothing, but he trusts that this God of love will consider his plea.

We are led to recall the first reading from Sirach:

The LORD is a God of justice,
who knows no favorites.
Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.
The one who serves God willingly is heard;
his petition reaches the heavens.
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay. (Sir 35: 12-14, 16-18)

Can we relate?

If there was ever a story to point out what Pharisees might appear like today it is this story:

A server at a popular Italian eatery in Kansas was shocked to find that customers had left behind an anti-gay message on their bill in lieu of a tip.

“Thank you for your service, it was excellent,” the customers had written. “That being said, we cannot in good conscience tip you, for your homosexual lifestyle is an affront to GOD. Queers do not share in the wealth of GOD, and you will not share in ours.

The customers continued: “We hope you will see the tip your fag choices made you lose out on, and plan accordingly. It is never too late for GOD’S love, but none shall be spared for fags. May GOD have mercy on you.”

No doubt any decent person finds this type of thing utterly shocking. One can easily see the self-righteous arrogance of the writer. So very sure they are right. So very sure they know the mind of God. So very sure they will be properly rewarded for their public chastisement of the young waiter. The slurs make it clear that there is no human love offered, but merely condemnation.

Good people of faith will of course be horrified and condemn this behavior for what it is, an utterly misguided reading of scripture, a failure to recognize the over-riding directive of love that we are all to obey first and foremost, and a blatant exhibition of raw bigotry.

Others will condemn the words used, but claim that the action was still appropriate because they too are sure they understand the bible correctly.

Some few others will remind us that it is our “job” to advise the sinful of their sins, since they may be somehow “unaware”. Christian duty is their cry.

People of no faith will nod their heads and once again point out that this is what “religion gets you”. If there is anything good in religions of any kind, it has long been lost to powerful interests within and their acceptance of “rules” that on their face are unfair, unjust, ugly, bigoted. No God who would create such a rule, they argue, is a God worth worshiping or following.

As I remain separated from my Church, I watch as it struggles with these issues. Pope Francis signals that at the very least, our rhetoric has been ugly and off-putting. It does no good to welcome with the one hand while the other is demanding that to be a member in good standing, one must cease and desist being who you are. There is no welcoming in this. There is only some sick pathetic attempt to portray something one is not.

One wonders how the patron at the restaurant learned such ugliness. Jesus certainly modeled no such behavior. The companies like Hobby Lobby who are suing the government in order not to be required to provide health insurance to their employees that includes coverage of birth control and other reproductive assistance is another example. Where does Jesus model this sort of “my way or the highway” approach. Did he not uphold the Samaritans on many occasions–a sect reviled by ordinary Jews.

If one believes that this is from God, then surely one must be horrifically wrong, for this is not love, this is not compassion, nor is it forgiveness, welcoming, community, support, loving kindness. There is nothing good here at all. There is only hatred, fear, and self-righteousness, that suggests that in finding you lesser I am somehow better.

And this cannot be so.

This cannot be God.

 

Always in Hope and Prayer

Our_Mother_is_CryingAfter witnessing another round of Washington gridlock wherein all too many of the players jock only for their own personal best position, it is all too easy to lose hope.

All too easy to give up the fight when so many are aligned in an evil dance of pointing the finger at each other rather than at ourselves.

Our selfishness, our greed, our pride, our self-righteousness, our ambitions all serve to pit one against the other in an endless dance of death where neither can let go for fear of being dealt the final death-blow, and yet we slowly bleed  each other to death.

People are really suffering in our world, and people are really afraid. The two often don’t coincide. Those who live in fear, fear the one’s who are suffering and clutch all the more tightly those miserable things they have acquired, all the while attempting to build a fortress to contain these things from being taken.

Those who suffer do so in great silence, too weary from the struggle to just exist. The pain in their eyes echoes but one question: how can you let me die? Worse how can you let my innocent child die?

We argue over whether a human has the RIGHT to food, to shelter, to health care, as if it were a real question and not one created by forces that control the means of food, shelter and health and want only to exact a price for them in order to afford yet another jet, or condo, or island for their pleasure. It is all too awful at times, all to hard to fathom.

We were created in the image of God, yet we have distorted it by all the ugliness we continue to hold within us. Worse, we look at ourselves and see through this distortion our God become like us. How unnatural, how grotesque!

Yet there is this:

JUST ONE

I ask for just one miracle this weekend:
that I will no longer believe the impossible is.

That I will find the faith to believe
that liberation will come
for those who are imprisoned by their own
– or another’s –
fear and judgement.

That I will find the faith to believe
that the most intractable minds can be changed
– even my own.

That i will find the faith to believe
a different world will be born
from the empty hells of this one.

That I won’t stop living for the end
of all that would destroy us.

From Hold This Space

And from this praying upon unholy knees, we rise again to continue on, learning, teaching, reaching upward in love, in goodness, in equality, in justice, crying forth for a miracle of salvation for the human race.

Explaining the Inexplicable

hidden-3d.com-gallery-x-3Dimka_Chel_CamelIt is surely true that one of the greatest lessons I learned as I ventured into the blogosphere is something that cannot be learned easily in the real world, unless over long periods of time.

It is that everyone’s brain does not work the same. We tend to think that they do. When we come up against a person who seems unreasonable and without logic in their thinking, we tend to say “it’s just them”, as in something is wrong with them individually.

But when, via the Internet, you meet dozens and then more dozens of people who have this same “problem”, you realize that there must be really different ways to organize thinking.

The two groups that have frustrated me the most are fundamentalists and atheists. I probably should subdivide that somewhat because not all atheists are the same, nor probably all fundamentalists. Let us just say that the most fervent among either group share this trait–a perfectly ironclad belief that they are right, and a perfectly ironclad belief that there is no fact out there that can change their mind. They basically don’t acknowledge the latter of course.

Fundamentalists insist that I suspend all my senses and the accompanying logical deductions that seem to support conclusions in accord with those senses and believe that for whatever reason God wants us to believe a completely different scenario of “how things came to be”.  Our senses serve double duty–allowing us to function in a natural world, yet designed apparently to lead us terribly astray if we follow them to their logical ends. In other words, see the dangerous animal ahead, but don’t look much further into what composes the animal.

Atheists, at least the vocal ones nowadays, say all such God-talk is utter nonsense, and there is no point in trying to debate a fantasy. No one who believes in God, whatever their education can be other than a dolt. They are reduced to making fun of believers, mining the Bible for quote after quote, ridiculing the logic and implications. If you try to point out history, context, literary genre, or anything similar, they point out that “progressive” explanations are merely attempts to not dump the baby out with the bath water.

Atheists reduce all religion to fundamentalist definitions because that is the easy target. It is would be akin to defining and then criticizing all political parties using only the Tea Party model.

It is frustrating to “explain” belief to a non-believer. It is hard to explain because if you have not had that “moment” its hard to make it understandable. It requires a willingness to think outside the box I guess.

I have no answer for the fundamentalist. Mostly life either throws them a curve that upsets their apple cart or it doesn’t. For those to whom that happens, they discard fundamentalism rapidly thereafter, and alas often any belief in God at all. This is the unfortunately reality. The Internet abounds with various “help” blogs for “recovering fundamentalists”.

But there are a vast number of atheists out there who are not of the vocal and hysterical variety. They are just quietly what they are, much as I was for many years. Contrary to the “new” atheists who claim they are discriminated against, I and I dare say most atheists have never felt this. Frankly it’s something that seldom comes up in any conversation.

Among my atheist or agnostic friends, still the subject of “why do you believe in God” does arise in a friendly way, and as I said, it is hard to explain.

This is all to say, that I have found what I believe is the most cogent and helpful explanation of what believing is all about. And it’s all about stereograms.

Stereograms are pictures that contain other images within. For some, the other picture is apparent almost immediately. For others, it takes some minutes, maybe longer. For some few, it never happens. The beauty here is that even those that “never can”, can at least recognize that others can.

Thus belief is seen as “another way of thinking” or “another way of seeing”. Some can “see” this way easily, some after a while, some only after a long while, and some never. But the nevers (atheists) can at least know that others can see this different way.

If that all sounds confusing, then I urge you to go to Making the Spiritual World Real. I’m quite sure that David Flowers explains it much better than I. If we can make inroads in our differences, at least to understand each other, then we have moved miles.

Blessings this day.

Trying to Understand You

shoesIn reading Luke this week, I find Jesus’ missing a bigger issue.

Yeah, I know, what chutzpah!

Jesus tells us on the one hand to be humble lest we be embarrassed by being taken down a peg or two if someone more illustrious shows up. And then he pretty much trashes that whole idea, but telling us that, we should avoid the whole patron/client thing of his time, and be really radical and invite only the poor, the forgotten, and the rejected of society to our banquets. God will repay us for that–we repay each other with the former.

Jesus says that we do this because “they can’t repay the debt”–the poor. And so, I assume that means that our largess in giving this big food binge is truly a giving.

Ask anyone who gives of their time at any sort of aid organization. They will tell you that they “receive much more than they give”. This always seems a problem from my point of view. If I am getting more than I give, then I’m getting my debt repaid quite well aren’t I? And it doesn’t matter whether I am getting repaid by all those who see me and think I’m something else for being so giving, or whether I’m getting my reward from God. I’m “buying” something in either case, am I not?

I work at a food pantry once a week for a couple of hours. I work in the back with the food. I notice that when I leave the facility, those who have come there to get food tend to not want to engage with me. They don’t look my way, they often don’t respond to a hello. I don’t engage with them inside the facility because I don’t do “that part”. I know there is a lot of filling out of forms and questions.  I’m sure it’s not pleasant to be questioned like this, all to obtain a few bags of groceries once a month.

The point is, I’m always a bit shocked at this. I’m the benefactor come to help, aren’t I? What’s not to like?

Now, please understand I am not there for that, but I do admit it surprises one when people are sullen, look away, and aren’t beaming with happiness. After all, we are all beaming, smiling, and admiring each other in the back for our willingness to extend a helping hand. Oh, yeah, that’s that “I get more than I give” thing isn’t it? We feed off admiring each other for our goodness. Even the average “random act of kindness” involves SOMEBODY seeing what you did.

And that all just bothers me a lot. I don’t feel that I should take away more than I gave, or even break even.

And I realized that there is really no way around this dilemma, for there are precious few circumstances where one can give meaningfully and be totally anonymous too.

But there is one way we dive deeply into the issue.

And that is to try to immerse ourselves in what it must be like to be the one who “cannot repay the debt.”

Such a journey is fraught with danger. One of the worst things any of us can do is to think or say, “I know how you feel.” The reality is that we can’t. Even when we have “been there, done that” we can’t truly know how anyone else feels in the same circumstances since they come with their own sets of experiences and personality skills that are always going to be different from ours.

But we can try to put ourselves in their shoes. Think of any time when you were utterly in someone else’s hands or worse, you were simply in the hands of “facts” that you couldn’t know yet. Anyone who has waited for the week to transpire to learn the results of a medical test starts to see my point. When did you feel helpless? When you had no control of your immediate future?

Letting those feelings wash over you I suspect gives you a view of at least how it feels to be one of those who stands in long lines to receive something called “free.” Free food, medical care, housing, clothes. A whole statement comes in the bag of food. You are presumed to be lazy, incompetent, a failure in life, or some combination. That may be, and usually is, far, far from the truth. You have made poor decisions probably, but so have all of us. Most of us have had the family safety net to ensure that we didn’t have to go public with our limitations.

When I see a group of men standing around talking as I leave the pantry, I still smile and say hello, but I don’t seek a response now. I don’t wonder why they don’t answer. I just try to imagine how painful it is to need like this. And I can appreciate their desire to be anonymous in their need.

It may not be walking a mile in another’s shoes, for that is not really a possibility, but it is growing in empathy, and it cuts against judging. Those are both good things. It’s the best I can come up with so far.

Letters to Pope Francis

LetterstoPopeFrancis-cover-224x359One might start with the premise that this book, written by a former priest and Dominican to the Roman Catholic Church’s new pope, Francis, and about what is wrong with the institutional church, would appeal only to Catholics. One would be wrong, quite simply.

Matthew Fox delves into the rot at the center of the Catholic Church with the precision of a surgeon, and cuts out the cancer with deft sure hands. Yet what he speaks of, with slight alteration can be laid at the doorstep of much of Christendom. If I were more familiar with other faith systems, no doubt his criticisms would also find purchase.

Fox starts with charging that the two previous papacies, that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were schismatic. He makes this claim since both quite obviously tried to roll back the progress of Vatican II, and as he rightly suggests, “a council takes precedence over papal directives.” In other words, to the degree that both worked to ignore or undue reforms of the Second Vatican Council, their work was illegal and should be ignored.

Fox goes on from there, and he leaves no area of the church’s dirty little secrets left unaired. From the utterly disgusting coverup by church hierarchy of the pedophilia scandal, to the Vatican bank, to the vile treatment of religious women under Benedict, they are all unmasked. Curia members buy “sainthood” and known fascists find canonization while true martyrs of the church such as Oscar Romero are “held up” due to false charges of Marxism.

Matthew Fox who is now deeply involved in his own spiritual enterprise of bringing people to the Cosmic Jesus, urges Pope Francis to return theology to true theologians, replace suspect organizations such as Opus Dei from their powerful positions, stop the war on women, end required celibacy, and the simple end of Catholic obsession with sexual matters. It is a call to recognize the basic intelligence of lay people. It is a recognition that if the Church is losing adherents at an astounding pace, it is largely because the church is failing to be relevant to today’s problems and the needs of its people.

With tenderness but with firmness, Fox employs the Pope’s own words and is relentless in drawing the parallel between today and the Pope’s chosen namesake, Francis of Assisi, who, Fox makes out the case, would dismiss the great wealth of the Vatican, converting it to food for the poor, and would speak out loudly and insistently on issues of income inequality, working conditions for workers, and our rape of the environment.

He offers real solutions, the obvious and those which deal more with the inner workings of the Vatican, a subject that many lay persons are unfamiliar with. Indeed, it is these revelations that so shake the reader. How could such evil and behavior be tolerated in the Church?

This is a call to justice. It is a call to the Pope and the Church to return to its beginnings. It is a call to return to Jesus. Relentlessly, Fox recounts that Jesus was about the poor. He was about justice. He was about speaking truth to power. He indicts the Church as becoming the very things that Jesus gave his life for, and that if we can drop the mantra of individual salvation and return to demands for justice, work for justice, this church and others like it can be saved.

This a call to recognize that religion is the not same thing as faith. Fox sees faith as alive and well, and it is religion that has lost its way. It has become part of the ruling portion of humanity. It no longer serves people. Moreover he makes it quite clear that the only way for religion to continue must come through a recognition that ecumenism is the solution. We must get off this crazy notion that there is only One way to salvation, which each and every (or most) faith traditions claiming that they are that ONE.

This is a disheartening book if you are a Catholic, but refreshing too, as we recognize that the movement to re-vision what it means to be “church” is being led, not by hierarchies within institutional structures, but among common every day people. They are the true leadership and those institutionalized “leaders” had best get on board, or be left behind to burnish their gold and buff their Prada slippers in empty cathedrals everywhere.

Read this. Read it and join the growing legions who seek Jesus and His Way, the one that was intended.

Dealing with Wealth

Luke12v13to21_2013Money.

Some call it the root of all evil, parroting the bible verse. Some see it as the means to accomplish great things of value to all mankind. There is every position in between.

The first reading today from Ecclesiastes is the dilemma I often see for the atheist. Life is harsh. Life is all about working. And in the end, it is all for naught. One ends up leaving their property to people who don’t deserve it. What is the point? The writer of Ecclesiastes seems like someone in deep depression.

Paul, in Colossians points out that greed is one of those nasty “earthly” evils that we must turn from in our quest to live in the heavenly realm.

And Jesus reminds us that greed leads us to focus on that which at a moments notice can be taken from us. For it will do us no good in the end.

As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

So how do we relate to wealth?

Jesus points to the answer surely in suggesting that hoarding wealth will not serve us at all. Yet much of what we do is just that. We think it’s good business to plow back profits “into the business”, growing it even larger. We are all concerned with the “bottom line”. We want to read our balance sheets as improving each and every year. We want that bank balance to grow.

Not all of this is bad of course. As much as we do know that our lives can be forfeit mere moments from now, we are obligated as good citizens and good family members to take care of ourselves in our older years. We invest, save, and plan for the days when we are not going to earn a salary any more.

Yet how much is too much?

Jesus’ parable is not just to suggest that greed is bad. He also speaks to what we do with our money. The rich farmer, rather than save up his grain to enhance his own wealth and perchance sell it at exorbitant rates in lean years?, should, after providing for the lean, offer the rest to those less fortunate.

Spread the wealth. Jesus asks, if something happens to you tonight, to whom will your wealth belong? A good question that takes us back to Qoheleth who moans that it will end up going to those who have not worked for it.

A ran into an interesting quote from Bill Gates, Sr., from something he wrote in Sojourners Magazine:

Society’s claim on individual accumulated wealth is … rooted in the recognition of society’s direct and indirect investment in the individual’s success. In other words, we didn’t get there on our own” (Jan-Feb, 2003)

In other words, it is the height of arrogance to make the claim that “I’m a rugged individual” and “I got where I am by hard work.” Surely these things may be true but they are hardly the entire story. People have died for your ability to set up a business and operate it in a manner that brings individual wealth. People have paid taxes so that you could enjoy free schooling. People have toiled in your factories because of their own pride in a job done well. People have protected your inventory because others raised them to be honest and fair.

Nobody gets there on their own.

Another point Jesus seems to make is that the uncertainty of our future should lead us to another thought.

We often put off charitable efforts until we “have more time.” We put off our families because the business needs our full attention. How many marriages suffer from the parent or parents who are too busy to get home for dinner or attend the soccer game? How many of us are too tired on Sunday to get dressed and attend our church? How many say we will get to mediation, that spiritual book, soon but just not now when we are so busy with LIFE?

What excuse will we use when the time comes and we may be asked to explain why we couldn’t be there for a friend in need, or spend that time in prayer? Will we say, “Gosh Lord, here are the numbers of my accounts. The money is all yours!”

The vanity is not the work. The vanity is not the desire for a nice home or a comfortable retirement.

The vanity is losing sight of all that is just as important, and that is not something to be put off until tomorrow, because that is a profound vanity. The vanity of thinking that we are in control. If we can see that God is in control, then we can order our lives accordingly.  We can prioritize more effectively when we step aside and get out of the way of our egos and recognize who is our guide and boss.

Wealth, work, and planning then fall into perspective. They are service to the kingdom, and nothing more. We work and accumulate to achieve much greater goods than our own small visions. We position ourselves to be of service in whatever manner is presented to us by a loving God.

Amen.

 

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