Easter, faith journey, Jesus, Lent, Progressive Christianity, social injustice, Spiritual

The Lenten Journey to Easter

the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of our faithfulnessToday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week on the Christian calendar. One story that can transcend the barrier of religion is that of the Lenten journey to Easter. It is a journey in which we encounter the catfish of the Christ – one who bore witness to the need to stand up against social injustice, tyranny and violence – even at the risk of one’s own life.

This Jesus doesn’t call us into a life of ease and prosperity. He challenges us to bring the saving word of grace to the spiritually homeless, to care for our brothers and sisters in need, to have a faith that shows itself in action. His message is clear – the fate of impoverished people is the litmus test of faithfulness. This is what it means to pick up the cross and follow Jesus.

The call to do Spirit’s work is one that leads down narrow alleys and tumultuous terrain. It is not easy and it is not fast. But it is never too great a burden to bear. And it is infinitely rewarding. Just as our mandate to serve is clear, so is the promise of joy. Cast your bread on the water, Jesus tells us, and it will come back to you 100 fold. What your going to do with 100 loaves of wet bread is up to you!

So it is that seek the  strength to refrain from silence in our ministry, in our assessment of society, and in our witness. So do we seek the courage to bear the burden of the  proclamation that we are one family so that all experience the blessing of reunion.

W.E.B. Dubois once prayed, “Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease or the words of mouths or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us, the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more – but they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death.”

With those words still echoing in our ears, let us speak boldly, pray unceasingly and act with purpose and direction as our faith calls us to respond to heal the hurts and fill the needs of this worldly life.

Namaste

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acceptance, Being Fully Human, Bible, diversity, domestic violence, glbt, inclusion, Interfaith, Progressive Christianity, st. lucia, stories, tension in the tank

Tension in the Tank

Barbara Lee AuthorI write today a message of tension. Now I know a great many of you woke up this morning and thought to yourself, “I can’t wait to read a blog or two because then I will feel more tension in my life!” Am I right? Well, not if your images of tension are all negative – and so often they are. So my challenge today is to convince you of the need for positive tension in our lives.

When this country was still relatively new, fishermen out east started shipping cod across land by freezing it first. But when it arrived it had lost its flavor. So they tried again, sending it live in salt water. Now when it arrived not only was it tasteless, it was also mushy. So they tried one more time, shipping it with its natural predator the catfish. The catfish chased the cod all over the tank. When it arrived, not only was the flesh of the fish firm, it was also tastier than ever. This is the phenomenon of “Tension in the Tank” and it serves as a metaphor for many aspects of our life, including our spiritual life.

When there is no tension, there is the opportunity for complacency. There is no need to act. The result is soggy fish or a soggy life. When there is no tension, the stage is set for us to feel secure no matter how poorly we perform or how little we do. On the other hand, we can find ourselves at times in the grips of crippling tension, living in fear and insecurity about our livelihood, our relationships, our possessions and our physical needs.

Living a good life offers us another option: a life of accountability; a life that is challenging and yet rewarding beyond measure; a spirituality that challenges us to do our best, to not take what we have for granted, to take risks, to set our goals high and to believe they will be met. It’s as if we swim with catfish, but with the confidence that we will arrive whole at our destination.

What are the sources of tension in your life that keep your journey fresh and vital?

Tension Within

Tension comes first of all from within. It is the feeling that stirs us to act when we hear about disaster relief efforts, world hunger appeals or abuse prevention programs. It is the feeling that moves us to volunteer for Family Promise, attend the Summit on Diversity, pack our bags and go on a pilgrimage. It is the feeling that makes us restless when we fail to take time to reflect, to meditate, to pursue our own chosen path.

Tension also comes from living a life that’s not always easy, not always comfortable. Not of us is spared from tribulations and trials. We have known and will know difficulty, hardship and pain. We can choose to let those experiences weaken and defeat us, or we can use them to discover strength, resolve and resiliency we never knew we had.

Does God Love “Those People”?

Tension also comes from other outside forces. Let’s be honest. One of those external sources of tension for many of us is living in a conservative part of the country. In my first year of seminary I had a disturbing experience. No. I had many disturbing experiences. This was among the worst.

The professor asked what we would want someone to know who walked into our church. “We are friendly,” came one answer, “this is a place of worship” came another. “God is here” was followed by “the location of the bathroom”—that might have been tongue in cheek. Then someone said, “God loves you.” Ooh. Hey. Wow. “How does that sound?” asked the professor. “Do we want people to know God loves them?” “Yes, yes,” we all affirmed. Whew, one question I could get right.

Then that young guy with dark hair who always sat on the far right side of the room stood up and said—this actually happened—“Wait a minute. Can we really say that God loves everyone who comes to our churches? I mean I’ve read my Bible and it seems pretty clear to me that God loves some people and he’s really upset with others. I’ve heard you talking about welcoming drug addicts and prostitutes and homosexuals in church and I think God must hate that. I just don’t think we can say God loves ‘those’ people.”

I was dumbstruck. After all, at that time I was the minister at Extended Grace where our whole reason for being was to go out of our way to embrace “those” people. People who had been told or shown that they were not welcome. People who had come to church seeking grace and instead found gatekeepers that would not let them in. Gatekeepers who thought they had the right and the responsibility to impose their truth on other people.

The Real Consequence of Shutting Doors

Of course, when we shut doors, we are merely locking ourselves in, and stopping our own journey forward. Most of us have been disillusioned by institutions that claim to have God all wrapped up in a tight little box they call “truth.” We long for a deep relationship with the ultimate reality that is beyond human description. We seek truth in a way that is not bound to human dogma, or to the boundaries of gender, race, background, ability, or orientation.

And to do that, we pursue Open Inquiry, radically opening ourselves up to possibility and wonder. Seeking to connect the body, the mind, and the spirit with science, nature and art. What truth can be found comes not just from knowledge, but also from feelings and intuition. The truth is not “out there” but right here: in me, in you, in community, in our relationships to each other and to the world. This is a quest that finds us swimming with catfish: the catfish of ambiguity, the catfish of uncertainty, and the catfish of doubt – important companions on any journey worth taking.

Stories Add Tension to the Tank

Another source of tension are the stories we hear and the stories we tell. Stories are formative, whether they come from Aesop or Grimm or Greek mythology or scripture. They tell us something about the world, something about who we are, and something about what we can or should be. They add tension to our life and challenge us to be more fully human.

Many of the stories I heard growing up were in the Bible. Now we can criticize the indoctrination we received and the lack of choices we were presented with when we were children, but the truth is there is no culture in the world that does not teach children through story. Those Biblical stories, like Esther that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, still add tension to my life. These stories don’t teach me about science, nor do they teach me about God. They teach me about being human. Story after story illustrates human beings trying to figure out the world and their place in it. Human beings who sometimes succeed in being good and gracious and just. And human beings who fail miserably at those tasks.

There is something to be gained in stories from all cultures, all traditions and all religions. Because when we explore the stories, in context, and with an eye and an ear geared toward new awareness, stories challenge us to be more than we are, to be more fully human. To live a good life. In the story is the excitement about what we have been and what we could be. Stories add tension to the tank.

Your Visiting Catfish

In that way, I hope that this blog also adds tension to your life and, even though the image isn’t particularly flattering, I hope that you think of me as your visiting catfish. Yes, you find here words of comfort and support in a world that is so often hostile and full of fear. But I hope my words also discomfort you. That they challenge you to face your own shadows, to squirm in the reality that we are not being all that we can be, not doing all that we can do.

We are all human beings with different backgrounds and different lenses through which we see the world. And no matter what our vehicle of Open Inquiry it should add the tension to our life that we need in order to make a difference, to motivate us toward the good, toward being part of healing each other and healing our world.

Out of Our Comfort Zone

When was the last time you intentionally did something outside of your comfort zone? That was difficult or frightening? It is in daring ourselves to do what we haven’t done before that we discover new talents, new abilities and begin to develop new muscles.

I stepped firmly outside of my comfort zone when I traveled to St. Lucia last week. I was there to be interviewed on a local radio station. The interview itself went very well and afterward one of the people who heard the show called me as soon as it was over and invited me to come to the International Women’s Day event to be held later that day. I was glad to be there and met some wonderful, inspiring individuals.

But in the midst of all of the motivational speaking and calls to action regarding domestic violence and other abuse so often suffered by women – particularly women in developing countries – there was the continuation of the myth of a male God. These good hearted women where finding encouragement in the midst of adversity by relying on a Father God who would love them, never desert them and who had created them perfect and beautiful.

And I so wanted to interrupt everything to say, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? Stop looking for some Almighty Male God to love you and give you permission to be the amazing beautiful people you are! See that beauty in yourself! See that there is nothing out there that isn’t in here! Claim your own perfection and know that you have the credentials to do so!” Of course doing so was out of the question. It would have come across as arrogant, ignorant and rude. Any opportunity to have a positive impact, to plant a seed would have been lost.

Radio St. Lucia

There was even more tension when I answered the invitation to be a guest on Radio St. Lucia – the national broadcasting network. Having been lulled into a false sense of security in my first radio interview, I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of conservative rhetoric that was going to be thrown my way. The host was far more confrontational. He didn’t like Interfaith to begin, he didn’t like masturbation, and he really didn’t like (or more importantly understand) homosexuality. He said things that were both antiquated and offensive.

Then people started calling in. Offering many of the same challenges to my faith and my perspective. There was even one guy who called in to say, “Why do some people like to have sex with animals?” Seriously! And in the midst of that kind of tension, I was propelled to find new ways of containing my emotions in order to find a way to connect and communicate.

After the fact, I learned that Radio St. Lucia sees itself as an outreach of the church, seeking to reach those who are homebound, as well as the unchurched and the unsaved. The feel the threat of Islam and Rastafarianism. Can you believe it? At the end of the interview, I was longing for the rampant liberalism of my very conservative hometown in Grand Haven, Michigan!

So I have decided that this is my challenge in the coming days. To finding a way to craft that message in such a way that it can reach out and touch people where they are now, affirm them, and challenge them to grow in a way that respects and honors their starting point so that my words do not become adversarial roadblocks, but tools that anyone can use to propel their journey forward.

A Spiritual Life is a Life of Tension

Whatever our path, we should not be content to sit on the EZ Boy recliner of life in inactivity and passiveness. A good life, a spiritual life is ultimately a life of tension because it means choosing to believe in a different reality: one that believes in miracles and promises and the need to reach out in love and compassion toward everyone – even those we feel the least loving and compassionate toward. A reality that embraces all faiths and philosophies as equal and valid and challenges societies that favor only one path, where religious discrimination is the norm and even tolerance can be difficult to come by.

For all of our advances, our world is still a place of violence. We do not live in harmony and tranquility but in a place where wives are battered and parents abuse their children. Where the earth is plundered. Where competition is glorified and losers are humiliated. Where our international relationships are full of conflict and fear and the construction of war systems that virtually assure mutual destruction. Violence is a core structural element of our lives.

Today as people who seek peace we should find ourselves regularly standing in a place of tension, torn between two different worlds, two different value systems. Because the good life does not call us into a place of relief. It calls us very directly, clearly and undeniably into a place of tension.

This work isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. The promise of tension, as much as we long for it to go away, is often exactly what it takes to stir us to do the work we are in fact called to do. The challenges, trials and tribulations we face as we answer the call, the catfish we encounter on our spiritual journey add seasoning, flavor and texture to our lives. Prepares us in ways we cannot imagine to serve our world and to serve each other.

Hmmm… sounds a little fishy to me!

Namaste

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esther, jewish, old testament, Progressive Christianity, purim, social justice

Purim: Celebrating Esther

Purim CelebrationPurim is a Jewish Holiday. This year it begins on March 4 and ends on March 5. It’s a holiday of fun and silliness – and having a drink or two – so I’m going to start with a Jewish joke. What do you get when you eat undercooked chicken? Shabbat-ulism.

The origins of Purim lie in the story of Esther. It is a novella – a fictional story set in a historical timeframe. It is a story of conspiracy, intrigue, and secret identities; of genocidal commanders and beautiful young women; of coincidence, fate and unexpected reversals of fortune. Esther is creative literature that interlaces comedy and tragedy in a way that is meant to entertain its listeners while proving that what goes around comes around and leaving us with a powerful point to ponder. This is the story of Esther…

Chapter 1

We begin in the household of King Ahasuerus, which refers to King Xerxes I who ruled the Persian Empire from India to Ethiopia from 486 to 465 BCE. The King ends a 180-day banquet with a lavish 7-day party. On the seventh day “when the king was merry with wine,” he commanded that Queen Vashti be brought before him so he could show off her beauty to everyone.  But she refused to come. The king was enraged.

He consulted his sages and lawyers who blow this little domestic dispute into a full-blown national crisis. First they tell him he can forbid Queen Vashti from ever coming into his presence again – in fact, they suggest that anyone who approaches the king without first being invited should be put to death. Then they go on to suggest that this would be an excellent time to issue a decree that all woman give honor to their husbands. So letters were sent to every province “declaring that every man should be master in his own house.”

Chapter Two

The King’s anger lessens and he starts missing Vashti so his servants suggest that beautiful young virgins be sought out and brought to the harem so that the King can choose a replacement.

Hadassah is an orphaned Jewish girl being raised by her cousin Mordecai. Where are the Jews at this time in history? This story takes place one hundred years after the first temple was destroyed and the Jewish people were scattered and dispersed. There is no common homeland for them and they seek to survive in small communities amongst the gentiles. It is a dark time in Jewish history in which events seem arbitrary and their God seems to be absent.

When Hadassah is brought to the harem she is given the name Esther and she is warned by Mordecai not to let anyone know she’s a Jew. When the King finally sees her, he likes her more than all the other virgins and makes her queen.

The King has yet another banquet during which Mordecai coincidentally overhears a plot to kill the king. He tells Esther who warns the King. The accusation turns out to be true and the King has the men responsible impaled. Then he asks for the whole incident to be written down in the permanent record.

Chapter Three

The King promotes Haman to be his prime minister. Haman is the Bad Guy in this story so by Jewish tradition each time his name is mentioned, those who are listening to the story are supposed to boo, hiss, stamp your feet and generally try to “blot out the name of Haman.”

Haman had given orders that everyone was to bow before him. But Mordecai refused and won’t even say why. This insult infuriates Haman, but he thinks it below him to strangle Mordecai himself so he begins to plot have all the Jews killed – and another private affair is turned into a full-scale national crisis.

Haman convinces the king to give him authority to do whatever he wishes with the Jews. Wanting to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire, he cast lots to decide the day for this genocide. The Hebrew word for lots is ‘pur’ from which comes the name of the holiday Purim. Letters are then sent from the king to all provinces giving orders to “destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day and to plunder their goods.” Then the king and Haman sit down to drink.

Chapter Four

Mordecai gets word to Esther about this plan and charges her to go to the king and ask him to save her people. She replies that anyone who goes to the king without being invited is to be put to death. So Mordecai replies, ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’

Esther is moved beyond her fears by Mordecai’s words and tells him to gather all the Jews and hold a 3-day fast on her behalf. She tells him that she and her maids will fast, too, and then she will approach the king. And if she dies, she dies.

Chapter Five

Fortunately, the king is delighted to see Esther and welcomes her into his presence. He asks what she wants and she starts by inviting him and Haman to come to a banquet – obviously she knows how to appeal to this guy. So they’re at this banquet, drinking wine and he asks her again what she wants. So she invites him to another banquet the next day. Again he asks what she wants and promises her she can have whatever it is. So she invites them to another banquet the next day.

Haman leaves the party that night in good spirits looking forward to another party. But on the way home, he sees Mordecai who still refuses to tremble or bow before him, and who spoils his happiness.  Complaining about this insult at home, his wife and friends suggest he build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. He happily has the gallows made.

Chapter 6

This chapter is a masterpiece of ironic narrative.

That night the king could not sleep. He gave orders read the book of records to him. When they got to the story about Mordecai telling about the plot to assassinate the king, he asked,

K: ‘What honor or distinction has been bestowed on Mordecai for this?’

N: The king’s servants said,

S: ‘Nothing has been done for him.’

N: At that moment Haman entered the outer court wanting to talk to the king about having Mordecai hanged on the gallows he had built. The king’s servants told him,

S:‘Haman is there, standing in the court’

N: and the king said,

K: ‘Let him come in.’

N: So Haman came in, and the king said to him,

K: ‘What shall be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor?’

N: Haman said to himself,

H: ‘Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?’

N: So he said to the king,

H: ‘For the man whom the king wishes to honor, let royal robes be brought, which the king has worn, and a horse that the king has ridden, with a royal crown on its head. Let the robes and the horse be handed over to one of the king’s most noble officials; let him robe the man whom the king wishes to honor and let him conduct the man on horseback through the open square of the city, proclaiming before him: “Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.”

N: The King said,

K: ‘Quickly, take the robes and the horse, as you have said, and do so to the Jew Mordecai who sites at the king’s gate. Leave out nothing that you have mentioned.’

N: So Haman took the robes and the horse and led him through the open square of the city, proclaiming,

H: ‘Thus shall it be done for the man whom the king wishes to honor.’

N: After the parade, Haman hurried to his house, mourning and with his head covered. He was telling his wife and all his friends everything that had happened when the king’s eunuchs arrived and hurried him off to the banquet that Esther had prepared.

Chapter 7

The king and Haman went to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther,

K: ‘What is it you want, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. Even if it is half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.’

N: Then Queen Esther answered,

Q: ‘If I have won your favor, O king, let my life be given me – that is my petition – and the lives of my people – that is my request. For we have been sold, me and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’

N: The King asked:

K: ‘Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?’

N: Esther replied:

Q: ‘A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!’

N: Then Haman was terrified. The king rose from the feast in wrath and went into the palace garden, but Haman stayed to beg his life from Queen Esther. When the king returned to the banquet hall, Haman had thrown himself on the couch where Esther was reclining; leading the king to say,

K:  ‘Will he even assault the queen in my presence, in my own house?’

N: Then one of the eunuchs said,

S: ‘Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.’

N: Said the King,

K: ‘Hang him on that.’

N: So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Chapter 8

The king replaced Haman with Mordecai who became the new Prime Minister and Esther approached the king once more to ask him to revoke the order to destroy the Jews. But the king says once an edict is written there is no way to revoke it. So the secretaries are called and another batch of letters are written. This time the king gives orders allowing the Jews to defend themselves, to destroy, kill and annihilate anyone who might attack them. Mordecai and all the Jewish people are very happy.

Chapter 9

In chapter 9 comes the bloodbath. The Jews attack those who would have attacked them. 500 people are killed in the capital alone along with all 10 of Haman’s sons. The King asks Esther what else she wants and she asks for a second day. 300 more are killed in the capital and 75,000 are killed throughout all the provinces. The next day there is feasting and gladness and Mordecai sends letters declaring that this day is to be celebrated with feasting and by sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. This is the day celebrated every year even until today as Purim.

Chapter 10

The book of Esther ends by declaring the greatness of the King and celebrating Mordecai as the ideal portrait of a successful Jew living harmoniously in a Gentile world.

So ends the Book of Esther

But let’s back up a minute because there are clearly some things in this story that warrant our further attention. First, let’s talk about that bloodbath. How can we not be disturbed by the enthusiastic account of the violence of the Jewish community against their enemies, which far exceeded any notion of self-defense? I’ll tell you how. By remembering that this is a fictional story. And it is one that uses symmetries and reversals as a way to weave together the comic and the tragic. The bloodshed was only extreme because the order to shed the blood of the Jews was so extreme.

Another unique aspect of this story is its heroine. Most of the characters in the story are stereotypes and caricatures. But Esther changes over time. Beginning as a passive figure, she is notable only for her beauty and obedience. But once challenged by Mordecai to do something only she can do, she embraces her Jewish identity and decides to risk her life for the sake of her people. Ultimately it is on Esther’s authority that Purim is established, making it the only Jewish religious tradition authorized by a woman.

The final thing that makes Esther unique and even controversial (in fact Martin Luther said he wished it had never been written) is the distinct absence of any mention or reference to the God of Israel. Not even once. The book doesn’t even set forth any important moral or religious ideals. This obvious omission makes sense given the reality of the Jewish people who at that time had been scattered and were trying to survive in small numbers living among the gentiles. With the Temple destroyed and no homeland, they certainly must have felt the absence of the anything Divine in their communities or their individual lives.

Divine Absense

People have drawn two different conclusions about the absence of the Divine in this story. One is that God was behind the scenes the whole time, orchestrating each event. It was God who placed Mordecai in a position to hear the plot to kill the king. It was God who had Esther chosen to replace the queen. There are no coincidences, only the hidden hand of God at work.

Another conclusion that can be drawn is that human beings shape their own future. That it is our responsibility to act when we are called to act. In the face of crisis it is not enough to cry out for someone else to deliver us. Instead, we must exercise courage, wisdom and resolve knowing we have the responsibility to work out our own fates. We need to take ownership of our own role in creating a world that is being shaped day by day and whose future is uncertain to us all.

We don’t believe that we are animated puppets being led around by cosmic strings. But if it is up to us to be actively engaged in shaping this world and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us, there is an important question to answer:

What shall we do?

In the face of climate change, war, genocide, AIDS orphans, hunger and homelessness – what are we supposed to do? And what if we don’t do anything? Will help surely come from another quarter if you and I turn away out of disinterest or despair? If we don’t do it, who will?

Esther demonstrates the importance of responding to and taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to us rather than throwing them away in the glib hope that somebody else will do what we are unwilling to do ourselves. Living a good life means that we have responsibilities. We are not meant to passively exist, but to actively participate in our own lives and in the lives of others. Ultimately, it is up to us to “work out our own salvation.”

Shabbat Shalom!

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Being Fully Human, christmas, family, peace, Progressive Christianity, relationships, stress, zen

Home for the Holidays: A Primer in Stress

Leif Christmas TreeIt’s no secret anymore. The holidays are a stressful time for almost everyone. And of course the most recent stressor is the fact that now we are supposed to get through it all without feeling any stress! How are you doing? Before going further, I think it’s important to point out the difference between the holiday blues and holiday stress. According to psychologist Mark Gorkin, holiday blues is what we feel when we can’t be with family and friends who play a significant role in our life. Holiday stress is when we have to be with them!

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 69% of us are stressed out because of a perceived lack of time, 69% because of a perceived lack of money, and 51% because of the whole gift giving/gift getting requirement. One of those people was an elderly man who finally decided not to try to figure out what presents to buy his grandchildren, especially in this high tech age. Instead he wrote them each a check. In their card he wrote, Merry Christmas, Grandpa. P.S. Buy your own gift. He thought that they all seemed a bit distant and remote during the holidays and this gnawed at him into the new year. Then one day as he was straightening out his den he found the stack of checks he had forgotten to include in his grandchildren’s cards.

On a more solemn note, a good friend of mine called me earlier this week because he needed to talk to someone about his family. He was 25 when he came out to them as gay, and now at 44 years old, he is still struggling with their lack of acceptance and understanding. And while that is an all year struggle, the holidays tend to create more obligations for togetherness while promote idealized images of family that can leave us feeling both frustrated and flawed.

In the Beginning 

Since so much of the commotion centers on the birth of a baby named Jesus, I thought we might look at the actual story. The Gospel of Matthew begins…

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ,

The son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,

And Jacob begat Judah and his brothers,

And Judah begat Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

And Perez begat Hezron,

And Hezron begat Ram…

And on and on for 52 generations. OK, it’s kinda long and it’s kinda boring. But it’s interesting because each of those family members add a story to Jesus’ life, just as each of our family members add a story to ours – something that helped shape us, for good or bad, into who we are.

Matthew begins right where we all begin – having been begot by someone or another. And in the begetting and all of the stuff that comes afterward – attention, neglect, permissiveness, punishment, praising, scolding, laughing, crying, screaming, silence – we come to be who we are. Who begot us? Not only at conception, but as we continue to grow?

Adorned with Relationships 

This week I saw a gorgeous Christmas tree. It was the perfect tree in shape, color, texture, even smell. I complimented the owner and she thanked me. But then instead of talking about the tree, she started talking about how it was decorated. And in this regard, the tree also was lovely. A rich and odd assortment of shapes and patterns and colors, some ornaments delicately manufactured, some lovingly crafted by hand. All interwoven with lights and garland and branches and needles. Each carrying with it a story. Together creating a beautiful piece of art.

It seems you and I are a lot like that tree, adorned with a jumbled array of relationships, often more colorful and diverse than any odd assortment of Christmas ornaments. Mismatched and oddly shaped, intertwined with the events in our lives that have brought sorrow and that have brought joy.  Each its own complex story. Together shaping us into a beautiful piece of ever changing art. But with one extra complication that the tree doesn’t have to contend with – we don’t have the luxury of putting away the decorations at the end of the season. Nope – they just keep clinging to us so that we’re stuck with them all year round.

Oh, we can ignore them or pretend they’re something they never were. But once a year at Christmas time when there is so much focus on family, we often experience a profound sense of stress as we struggle with the stories of our life.

Families in Conflict

Of course, in conflicted relationships, someone is usually identified as the problem – maybe even you or me. When a family is overwhelmed by prolonged stress and anxiety it usually will identify the problem as a child, as the marriage, or as the spouse who has developed alcoholism, depression or some other symptom. But when one person or one relationship is labeled the problem, other issues become clouded from view. The greater our anxiety, the greater the tunnel vision and the more likely we are to ensure that nothing will change.

Because in the end we can’t change problems, we can only change our self. All of us have ways in which we normally interact with others. We may pursue or distance ourselves, fight or give in, overfunction or underfunction. And whatever our normal style, we will do it that much more when conflict and stress get elevated. Stress makes us reactive. So the answer to stress is to simply remain calm and rational. Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that.

Therapists and counselors are quick to point out that our reactions have deep roots. As we have grown we have been formed and shaped by our experiences and our relationships. Our reactions and the things we react to are an important – but not unchangeable – aspect of who we have become. And who we have become is important. All that we are and do has come about for a very good reason and serves an important purpose.  But sometimes those very important traits outlast their usefulness and we find that we need to let some of them go, cull some of them out, prune some of them off, if we are to be healthy and whole.

If our goal is to be less reactionary, more capable of handling stress, and more effective at healthy relationships we always have to start with our self. This means identifying both our strengths and our vulnerabilities, being clear about our beliefs, values, and priorities and then living them. And it challenges us to address painful and difficult issues and relationships that we would often rather ignore; to stay emotionally connected to significant others – including our first family – even when things get pretty stressful.

Staying Connected 

Whether you believe the way they tell it or not, you gotta feel sorry for poor old Joseph of the Jesus birth story. Now here is a man under stress! Can you imagine the tension when Mary and Joe get together with the in-laws – on either side? Can you appreciate the predicament at work here? Who would look forward to a family reunion with that kind of dynamic in place? I know I’d be looking for an excuses to get out of it…

But according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, “Slowing moving toward more connectedness rather than more distance with members of our own kinship group is one of the best insurance policies for bringing a more solid self to other relationship.” And she says, “The degree to which we are distant and cut off from our first family is directly related to the amount of intensity and reactivity we bring to other relationships.”

Of course no matter how successful we are at uncovering and healing old wounds, at changing patterns, at recovering our true self… No matter how calm and relaxed we become – things will go wrong, unexpected events will occur, life circumstances will suddenly change. Divorce, disease, death. We will discover that there is much we do not and cannot control.

We cannot avoid stressful events in our life, but we can learn not to respond with more stress – by becoming fearful, anxious and depressed. And we do that not by following the example of a baby still in need of a self, but of a grown up Jesus who has become fully himself.

Some Things We Cannot Change

Jesus and other teachers throughout the ages have repeatedly told their followers not to worry, not to be anxious. But they never paint an idealized picture of the world. Instead they reveal to us that death is certain, that life is fragile, that dangers abound, and that human beings are full of limitations. And in revealing to us our powerlessness to change these certainties, they tells us not to try to do the impossible. For it is in learning to let go of that which we cannot control that we finally find peace and the ability to live in the/this moment.

There is a Zen meditation koen called “Tale of the Unfortunate Traveler.” A man was crossing a field when he encountered a tiger. He ran and the tiger chased him. Coming to a ledge, he grabbed a vine and swung himself down the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

What can we do when there is nothing we can do?

Living Life Fully 

Life is often painful. Every day people like Joseph and you and I are required to do things no one should have to do – to endure things no one should have to endure. We can let life thrash us as we become increasing agitated and stressed out or we can take steps to identify the source of our deepest pain in order that it be healed.

My friend cannot change his family. None of us can change anyone else. Nor can we change the inevitable stresses that come as an every day part of our living and our dying. This realization, accepting our own powerlessness, is a profoundly spiritual state – and one that leads us to inner freedom, and inner peace.  It is in accepting death that life becomes more abundant.

That Christmas tree I mentioned? It has been cut down and is already dying. Department store trees, on the other hand, never die. And they are amazing to behold. All lights and glitter. Perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, cold, artificial masterpieces of human design. My wish is that our lives look more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A few branches broken, needles dropping, ornaments held together with tape and Elmer’s glue … an honest tree, a genuine tree, that has know life and known it fully. That tree is the most beautiful one of all.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, buddhism, christian, god, gratitude, hardship, Jesus, Progressive Christianity, struggle, thanksgiving

Thanks Giving

Thanks GivingA friend of mine came to the house on Wednesday. She had returned home after being at an aunt’s funeral in Ohio. And she shared that she had never been to a funeral and left so joyful in her whole life. She was joyful because her daughter who left home without a word 11 years ago at 18 years of age and who my friend had not heard from once in all that time – showed up at the funeral and restarted a relationship with her mother. My friend learned that she is a grandmother. My friend has much to be thankful for this year.

Every year we set aside one day to be thankful. Every Thanksgiving my family sits around the dinner table and shares what we are thankful for at the moment. All the usual suspects appear – family, friends, and health. But there is more to thankfulness than that.

As Buddha once said, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.”

And so I realize I have so much more to be thankful for – those things I take for granted like the miracles of sight and hearing, the turning of the seasons, the peace of a good night’s sleep. These things are not always on the top of my mind – but when I do give them ample thought or when someone reminds me of them – I am very thankful. In fact, all of the things that I think about being thankful for are pretty darn easy to be thankful for.

And that struck me as somewhat incongruous with what Jesus is usually calling me to. Because when I really get down with Jesus, I don’t hear him telling me to do what’s easy. I hear him challenging me and making me uncomfortable. I recall a passage from 1 Thessalonians. Plain as day: Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Give thanks in all circumstances.  

So I started asking another question this year. Instead of asking what I am thankful for I started asking myself what I’m not thankful for. And you know, that was a pretty easy list to make too. Because quite frankly, some things about life really stink.

Things like illness and poverty, prejudice and violence, unemployment and homelessness, hunger and loneliness, hate and injustice. And broken relationships. There are people and situations that I don’t even want to even think about, let alone be thankful  But here it is, spelled out very clearly for me by Paul: Give thanks in all circumstances.

Wow. Now there’s a challenge. It seems to me that the key to thanks giving, then, is in seeing every thing as an opportunity to learn and grow. Then all persons and situations – including the most difficult ones – have the potential of becoming our teachers.

Now, I do have to say that I don’t believe God gives us bad things because God has decided we have to learn something. I don’t believe God tests us in this way. So every challenge, every resistance, every thorny problem has the potential of propelling us into higher levels of understanding, competence and maturity. But those same difficulties are not assigned from God – and we should not go on an agonizing search for answers trying to discover what it is we are supposed to be learning. Instead, difficulties are just a part of our living in a fallen world. Not all is sweetness and light. Every experience of suffering brings pain that we must endure  – and from which we might grow.

And indeed, the opportunity for growth is unique – because we are challenged in ways we would rather not be. Because spiritual growth demands that we overcome our character flaws. And to do that, we often need something or someone to shatter our incorrect beliefs, our frozen feelings and our self-delusion. We need outside assistance to help us break free of our current, limited understandings. Some way of uprooting the very things in life we are holding onto most tightly in an effort to keep them the same. Some way of experiencing enough pain that we are forced to make the necessary changes that we have resisted for so long.

OK, here’s an easy example. We are called to cultivate an attitude of grace at all times and for all people. I once worked in an office with a nice young lady who could really botch things up – and who regularly did. She was always apologetic and willing to fix her mistakes and I found it easy to be gracious toward her.

I also had a boss – who was a perpetual thorn in my side. When he messed up, I wasn’t nearly as gracious. I may have even told other people he messed up for no good reason at all. Which of these two people presented the greater opportunity for me to learn the golden rule – to treat others as I wish to be treated? Who are the difficult people in my life right now who present a perpetual training ground in which I can practice and learn this most valuable discipline? For them, this year I am grateful.

Seeing hard times as teachers means seeing them in an entirely new way. In Buddhist tradition, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who possess great powers. They are also very compassionate. Most are like angels, but there is also a special class of them called reverse bodhisattvas. They are equally compassionate, but have terrible appearances and their mission is to enlighten others through creating difficulties, challenges, and hardships. Such a viewpoint allows us to “flip” our perception of people and circumstances so that they become spiritual practices designed to help us reach new heights of spiritual growth.

Reality, then, is neither good nor bad – it is a matter of how we choose to perceive it. For someone who has mastered the art of seeing this way, the world is always perfect. Our external reality doesn’t have to change to make it so. The secret lies in changing our perception of it. Thanksgiving comes out of inner transformation.

Jesus was an expert “flipper.” Throughout the Gospels, he teaches the art of seeing and the need for internal transformation using the phrase “being born anew.” There are a lot of different connotations to these words nowadays – and not all of them are good. But to Jesus, being born anew wasn’t about accepting a religious belief but about experiencing a spiritual awakening.

The night before Jesus was betrayed, as the story goes, he ate with his disciples. He broke bread, gave thanks and gave it to them to eat saying – this is my body, which is going to be broken for you. Then he took wine and after giving thanks he gave it to them to drink saying this is my blood, which is going to be poured out for you. On the very night before he was betrayed, knowing in all certainty the horrible pain and suffering and death that awaited him, the first thing he did was thank God. Even in the midst of greater difficulty and hardship than I will ever know, my Jesus was thankful.

I don’t always follow that example. I’m not that strong. Often my thanks are given much later and from a safer distance. My friend whose daughter returned to her life last weekend is thankful now. She is able to look over the expanse of time and see the growth that occurred even in and through the pain. But 11 years ago? We humans don’t usually think in terms of forever, but in terms of the moment­ – a day, a week, a month at a time­ — complaining that there is never time enough. Gratitude means we are to make the momentary eternal by using what we have been given to the best of our abilities here, today, in service of love for others. There is no best and no worst hour. There is only now. We must choose how we will view the now and what we will do with it.

I am grateful this because I believe that Spirit is with us in the midst of the pain and the hardship and the struggle. I believe that we are never alone even in the darkest hours of our life. And I know that the Divine is strong enough to support and strengthen me when I can no longer support myself.

We can use Jesus’ way of seeing to foster our own inner peace – not as a device to intellectually solve life’s problem or to understand why bad things happen to good people – but to be amazed by the poignant beauty in the paradoxes of life itself.

  • What good things are you thankful for?
  • What hardship or difficult person are you thankful for?
  • Where did you feel Spirit most present in your life this past year?
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The Politics of Values

Carl Sagan Quote
According to the Tao Te Ching:
Governing a large country
Is like frying a small fish.
You spoil it with too much poking.
Center your country in the Tao
and evil will have no power.
Not that it isn’t there,
but you’ll be able to step out of its way.
Give evil nothing to oppose
and it will disappear by itself.

Ann Landers, the advice columnist, was at an embassy reception when a rather arrogant senator walked up to her and said, “So you’re the famous Ann Landers. Say something funny.” So she said, “Well, you’re a politician. Tell me a lie.”

Whether her response was funny or just sad, the reality is that lies are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. After coming through the last two presidential elections, I can’t help but agree with Will Rogers that, “The more you observe politics, the more you have to admit that each party is worse than the other.”

Before we know it the 2016 election will be upon us and before then we have mid terms to contend with. As we wrestle with our decisions, it seems appropriate to take some time to look at our responsibility as spiritual people in the political world of today.

One of the teachers I have learned from over the years is Jesus. There is a story in the Bible in which Jesus is placed in a political conundrum. He is asked about his view on taxes. If he agrees that taxes should be paid to Caesar he will disappoint the Jewish people, but if he states that no payment should be made to Rome, he could bring about his own arrest.

So he asks for a coin – you might notice at this point that Jesus doesn’t have a coin while the Pharisee does – and as it is tossed to him he catches it in the air. He looks at it and asks the crowd, “Whose head is on this; whose title?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Well, if it already belongs to the empire,” Jesus says, “give it back.” (At which point we might picture Jesus slipping the coin into his pocket.) But that’s not all he says. The second half is really the surprise ending: if we will give back to the empire what is the empire’s, then we are also to give to God what is God’s.

Looking for God’s Image

Caesar’s image was on the coin. That’s how we know to whom it belonged. So our first question is where do we find God’s image? According to the book of Genesis, we find God’s image in us. Humans were created in the image of God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, we have to give God ourselves, our bodies and our souls, all that we are – including that part of us that is involved in the political process.

Here’s the truth that Jesus shares: We cannot separate our spiritual life from our political life. We cannot separate our faith from the problems in our society. Like two sides of the same coin, the two are held intricately together as we bring our faith with us into the political arena. The next question then is how do we apply that faith in the world of politics today.

Jesus said that we have a responsibility to love our neighbor – even when that neighbor is an enemy. And that love reveals itself not in a sentimental fuzzy feeling – but as concrete actions that demand justice – even at the risk of a personal cost. We have a duty and a privilege to participate in the public arena of politics because we have a duty to be the voice for the voiceless, to exercise our power for the sake of the powerless.

God Does Not Lead a Political Party

And we must also recognize the danger of politics subverting our religion for its own purposes. Sojourners recently ran a wonderful ad in an effort to remind us that God is not a Republican – or a Democrat. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when people use religious language in order to advance their own national or domestic policy. The most troubling aspect of politics for me is when my faith is used to as a political weapon that seeks to justify injustice.

We hear a lot of talk about security these days. The Pharisees who ask Jesus about paying taxes are also rightfully concerned about security. They have chosen to compromise with Rome in exchange for some degree of religious and political freedom. They don’t necessarily like the situation, but it seems to be working. And Jesus’ refusal to “show deference” to anyone must seem like an extremely arrogant failure on his part to appreciate the complexity of their situation.

So they try to trap him. But their strategy backfires because Jesus refuses to accept the terms of their argument. Instead of getting into a debate over taxes, he pronounces God’s authority over everything. His answer provides no clear guideline for what aspects of national duty we are to accept and what we are to challenge.

Politics of Values 

But Jesus’ attitude should encourage and embolden us to refuse the terms of this nation’s debate when it presumes that military and financial security are unquestionable values. If we take Jesus seriously at all, we will question the very notion that military and financial security are our values at all! And we will do so even when, as Sojourner contributor Kari Jo Verhulst states, it means risking that we will be called a friend of terrorists and a national traitor.

The current social climate certainly yields an interesting mix of attitudes about politics from the pulpit. Some people feel very strongly that the church is no place to engage in political debate. Others expect their pastor to address the very real issues of our day and to place them in the context of faith. Martin Luther urged pastors to preach against economic injustice and public policies that work against the well-being of the poor. Well, you can’t get much more political than that.

Loving our neighbor demands that we engage in public affairs because they have such an enormous impact on people’s lives. Loving our neighbor means publicly denouncing oppression and exploitation wherever it is found.

What more important task could we have before us today? In the midst of terrorist attacks and questions of patriotism, we need to look beyond the debates, the media spin and the noise in order to ponder what is right, what is good, and what we believe our elected government should do.

Global Citizens

Groucho Marx said, ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.” The truth of the quote can be so discouraging. It tempts us to hide in despair behind illusions of our own powerlessness. But we are among the most powerful people in the world. And nothing has ever been changed without the action first of a single person.

If we will take our role as a citizen of this country seriously, we will look deeper than political rhetoric. We will look at the whole global situation:  the whole machinery of international power and global capitalism. And we will begin to seriously call into question the values that keep it all in place.

But as we continue to look deeper, we will also begin to see glimpses of God already subtly at work in this world. We will find hope anew that the reign of God is indeed here – being ushered in before us as we hurry to try to catch up. God reign comes even in the midst of our politics and in that reign God’s will for justice and peace is being made visible.

There is no simple application of our biblical text to the political options before us. Each option, each party represents some element of the truth and some element of human fallibility. And no option that I have heard so far takes seriously our role as oppressor in a world where we only continue to grow more wealthy and powerful on the backs of an increasing number of people living in untenable situations.

God’s Reign Equals Our Reign

The hard reality is that no matter who wins, they will not usher in the perfect realization of the promised reign of God. Any political ideology can only be a shadow of that truth. So our final question is how do we weigh the various issues at hand? If we are faithful, we must first consider what it means to love our neighbor. Self-interest is never a God-centered stance.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “We must seek to be what we want to become.” We must start acting now the way we want to be in the future. We are a transformational people. We know we can change – our habits, our practices, and our way of thinking. Our world too can change – for justice, for peace, for community. Grace makes it all possible.

And in that grace you and I are given the opportunity to decide how we will manifest God, how we will strive for justice and peace in this world that we create.

As people of faith, as people of conscience, and as citizens of this country, we can raise our voices to proclaim where we see God at work in this world. And we can raise the question, like Jesus, of how we, including with our political decisions and action, will give to God what belongs to God.

Invitation for Reflection

  • What is the most critical political issue facing us today?
  • How do you participate in the political process?
  • Is not voting casting a vote for change or abdicating one’s responsibility?
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altruism, Being Fully Human, belonging, Compassion, eveolution, faith and science, process theology, Progressive Christianity, selfishness, tribe

The Altruism Gene

dnaWe all seek to be more compassionate people and to demonstrate that compassion in our daily lives. I’ve mentioned that I have two boys. My firstborn, Jackson, is 22 years old. Twenty years ago when Jackson was just a toddler in the process of potty training, grandma came over to babysit. As the morning wore on, she found the need to visit the restroom. Shortly after sitting herself on the commode there was a gentle knock on the door. “Yes?’ She asked. “Whatcha doin grandma.” “I’m just going to the bathroom sweetheart.” “You want me to help you wipe your butt?” Not that’s being willing to take one for the team!

And it is an example of altruism. The unselfish concern for others. Altruism is the active practice of love and compassion.

So where does altruism come from?

Evolutionary Biologist Edward O. Wilson suggests that arose as part of our biological development. But that’s only half of the story. In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, he also suggests that selfishness is part of our biological development. Hence, human beings have evolved in such a way that we are in a continual inner struggle with the contradictory forces of selfishness and altruism.

Altruistic and Selfish DNA

It’s all there spelled out in our DNA. One on hand our genetic makeup is the result of a process in which only the strongest individuals survived. This individual survival instinct continues to play itself out in the choices we make to pursue our own interests, needs and desires. But on the other hand, our genetic makeup allowed us to survive as a species through collaboration and sacrifice for the good of the whole. So we also have this altruistic instinct that automatically thinks about caring for others, even when we derive no benefit from it ourselves, even when we pay a personal cost in doing so.

As a result of this multilevel selection, individual selection and group selection, we now live with inherent internal conflict. Within groups, selfish individuals are more likely to survive than altruistic individuals. But groups of altruists are more likely to survive than groups of selfish individuals. So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that our common language is protective of the group with individual selection promoting behaviors we label as sin, and group selection promoting behaviors we label as virtues. We gain an advantage as an individual by being selfish, but our group is more likely to survive if we act altruistically.

Are Humans Essentially Good or Bad? 

One of the most enduring philosophical debates is whether we as human beings are at our root good or evil. Sinner or saint?  The answer is yes. We are both team player and whistle blower. We buy from our local farmer’s market and from the shelves at WalMart. We donate our money to peace initiatives and invest our money in stocks that produce the machinery of war. We obey the rules and we break them. We are simultaneously champions of truth and hypocrites – not because of a religious or philosophical failing, but because of the way we originated across millions of years of biological evolution.

It isn’t the forces of good and evil with which we struggle at all – it is conflicting biological traits. These conflicting pressures have produced an unstable mix of innate emotions and shifting moods. We are in turn proud, humble, angry, loving, vengeful and empathetic. This unique combination of self focused and other focused traits is the essence of our humanity and the source of our creativity.

So if altruism is nothing more than a biological development, what does that tell us about god?

Faith and Science

There were no debates in my house about evolution vs. creation when I was growing up. My mother’s approach was one of simple faith. She believed God created the universe – and that God could do that anyway God chose.

And so I learned to see science and faith, not as competitors but as complements of each other. Science itself was borne out of a desire to understand the “mind” of God, and science-based theological reflections have never been difficult for me to make. As Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

And yet in some places and in some hearts, battle lines between faith and science were clearly drawn. The explosion of scientific knowledge, the accuracy of mathematical physics, and evolutionary science based on random variation resulted in intolerance as people painted themselves into either the corner of science that would seek to disprove the existence of God or the corner of Faith that would shut its eyes to the very wonder of scientific discovery.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, science and faith have a comfortable connection in process theology. So, let’s first define theology not as the study of God, but as the study of the human understanding of God. Alfred North Whitehead introduced the idea of process theology and gave us a whole different way of understanding God. I still use words like “god” as placeholders in order to have precisely these kinds of conversations.

Meant to Be?

But to get a feel for what I mean by God, and to understand process theology, we have to let go of the image of God taught in so many of our Christian churches and households. And I don’t just mean giving up the idea of God as an elderly white grandfather figure. I mean letting go of definitions of God that necessitate a faith that contradicts scientific reality. That means letting go of three beliefs about God:

First, that God is a cosmic moralist who keeps a record of our sins and will punish us for our trespasses.

Second, that God is unchanging and absolute.

Third, that God is a supernatural controlling power.

It is belief in these three attributes of God – that God is all knowing, that God is all powerful, and that God keeps score – that leads to the teaching of predestination. Predestination is the idea that God has already determined who is going to heaven and double predestination means that God has already decided who is going to hell. The big catch is that you have no idea where you are destined to end up, no matter how piously or horribly you behave. In my first theology class I learned that Pine Rest Mental Hospital was founded in large part to care for people who had literally driven themselves crazy with worry about what would happen to them after death.

While collapsing under such uncertainty is an extreme reaction, I am fascinated by the way in which we routinely use predestination language to explain even the most mundane occurrences in our life. I guess it was meant to be. It must be part of the plan. It’s Fate. Destiny. God’s will.

In marked contrast, process theology affirms that everything is in the process of changing. Like the teaching of impermanence in Buddhism, nothing stays the same. Every new thought, every interaction, every gain and every loss changes us in some way. Everything we do makes a difference, however subtle. We can’t, as Heraclitus said, step in the same river twice. And because we are continually sloughing off cells and growing new ones, we can’t even take a step with the same foot twice!

Claiming the Power to Create

Which means we are at the very least co-creators. Every decision that we make has the potential of changing every other possible decision in the whole cosmos. So we owe it to the cosmos to be about something more than passive existence. It is up to us to claim our own power to create. Because here and now, in this relative world, our choices make a difference in influencing our own lives and all of creation for good or for ill. What we do has consequences for our self and for others.

And we humans are intensely interested in the behavior of others. Just look at the racks of People magazines and the proliferation of reality television shows. We are gossips and social media sponges. Our minds are constantly evaluating everyone in terms of trust, love, hatred, suspicion, admiration, envy and sociability.

At the same time, we are compulsively driven to belong to groups and to define ourselves in relation to others. Not only that, we all tend to think of our own group as superior – no matter how gently we try to express those sentiments. In fact, studies show that not only do we sense our own superiority, but we also quickly come to think of members of other groups as less able and less trustworthy, even when we know the groups have been selected at random.

The truth is, we have the intelligence and the capacity for altruism that is necessary to turn this world into a utopia. But we are handicapped by the dysfunction of our species: we are addicted to tribal conflict. It’s amusing when we watch the Detroit Lions play or when we root for our kid’s soccer team. But it is deadly when expressed in real life ethnic, religious and ideological warfare. We have hereditary myopia. It is just harder for us to care about people beyond our own tribe and country, or about those whose births are one or two generations away.

The Future We Choose 

So what choices will we make? We have the social intelligence and the memory necessary to evaluate scenarios and predict consequences. We can imagine different futures, then choose which we would like to see while planning our path forward. What path will we follow?

My mom tells the story of three scientists got together and decided that by using all of their knowledge, they could create a human being. So they approached God and told her that they could create a human being without any help from her at all. Then they asked if they could prove it. God was very skeptical, but finally said, “Sure, let’s see what you can do.” Excitedly, the scientists started running around collected dirt and putting it in a pile. But after a few minutes, God said, “Hold on a minute. If you don’t want my help, you’re going to have to get your own dirt.”

We are quite literally on the precipice of abandoning natural selection and truly taking on the role that we once reserved for nature or for god. Now that we have mapped our own DNA, we can also alter it. What will be the consequences as we step into the ability to change the genetic makeup of unborn human beings? should we? If so, how much? Shall we have longer lives? Better memories? Less aggressive behavior? More pleasing body odor? Will our choices err on the side of individual conquest or group survival?

And how much more do we just not now yet? Think about it. Scientific theories are consistently proven wrong over time. Our images of God are also consistently proven wrong over time. Maybe god finally equals the right answers. Or maybe there are no right answers and no permanent resolutions. The Jewish name for God YWHY is usually interpreted as I AM WHAT I AM. But another equally valid interpretation is I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Nothing absolute. Nothing concrete. Nothing even particularly well defined. Hmmmm. God as a process…

And if God is a process, then we are a process. Continually evolving and developing. So if we are both selfish and altruistic, if we need a tribe and we need to stand out, then let’s stand out because it is hard for people to understand the depth of our compassion. And let’s join the tribe of the entire Cosmos so that the only limits to how far we extend that compassion are the limits of our imagination.

Namaste

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