Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All Things Are Possible, Only Believe?

as i read the gospel of mark, it is difficult to see past the superstitious explanations of the day to the teachings of jesus.  in the next occasion when mark purports to convey jesus' words, jesus has gone away to a quiet place to pray and his followers come looking for him.  when they find him, they tell him that "everyone is searching for you."  jesus replies, " let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that i may proclaim the message there also; for that is what i came out to do.”  mark says that jesus and his companions travel throughout galilee as jesus teaches in the synagogues and casts out demons.

jesus was not the only teacher/miracle worker who lived in galilee, and many common people were followers of these rabbis.  because galilee was ruled by a king placed there by the romans and had more independence from direct rule by the romans, there were more messianic figures who fomented rebellion against rome and the herodian ruling family and who engaged in social protest against the political elite.  to be a galilean meant to be a rebel, a nonconformist, to be a questioner of orthodoxy.  in the southern part of galilee where capernaum was located, there were speakers of hebrew, aramaic, and greek, and more tolerance for diversity.

against this backdrop, it's easy to see jesus as a typical galilean religious/political figure, who attracts followers through both his teaching and working of miracles.  he is not the only miracle worker of the period, and people who struggle to put food on the table from day to day and live under the difficulties of being an occupied population are eager to see miraculous deeds of healing.  what sort of messiah would be unable to perform such miracles?  jesus would have been seen as ineffective and powerless had his teaching not been accompanied by the working of miracles.

the gospel doesn't say what jesus taught in the synagogues he visited as he wandered around galilee, and that's what's more interesting to me than the descriptions of miracles.  there must have been a lot of madmen in galilee at the time, since casting out demons seems to play such a prominent role in the life of jesus.  the widespread belief in demonic possession being the cause of many maladies would have made it necessary for jesus to be able to exorcise demons in order to effect cures, and the power of suggestion, the belief that jesus was indeed a miracle worker, would have resulted in many cures, just as modern day miracle workers appear to be able to do.  i remember as a child watching some of these, like oral roberts, on television as they placed their hands on the ill and commanded their diseases and handicaps to leave their bodies, after which the "healed" would walk away cured and the audience would gasp and applaud.   something of this sort must have happened when jesus and others like him performed their miracles in galilee, if mark is to be believed.

jesus' own words, according to mark, made no mention of miraculous cures.  his desire was to proclaim his message to a wider audience.  this suggests that the healings were less important than the good news jesus wished to convey, that the miracle working was a product of jesus' compassion for those who were hurting and in some ways a distraction from his teaching.  one wonders, though, if jesus would have been able to attract followers without the miracles, if the healing was more important to those who came to see and hear jesus that the words he spoke.  these miracles seem to figure large in mark's gospel here at the beginning of jesus' public life.

may we see jesus in the context of the time in which he lived.  may we seek to understand what made jesus a more important figure that men like judas the galilean or "the egyptian."  may we sort out the superstition from the teaching, the biases of jesus' biographers from the message jesus sought to convey.  may we not accept by faith that which is not reasonable.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Clear Our Thought and Calm Our Feeling

the second time mark's gospel quotes the words of jesus occurs when jesus has been teaching in the synagogue in capernaum.  mark says that jesus has amazed his listeners by the authority with which he speaks.  in the middle of his teaching, a man "with an unclean spirit" cries out  and asks what jesus has to do with those who are listening, addressing jesus as "jesus of nazareth."  the man asks why jesus has "come to destroy us," referring to jesus as "the holy one of God."  jesus replies, "be silent and come out of him!"  according to the gospel, the man convulses and cries out, and the unclean spirit leaves him.

mark characterizes the speech of jesus in this instance as a rebuke.  i suppose we are to understand descriptions of this man's malady and others similar to it as mental illnesses.  the ability of jesus to exorcise this unclean spirit is related to the idea of his authority in explaining the scripture to his listeners in the synagogue.  jesus has no need of traditional rituals associated with exorcism, but simply orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.  we know nothing of what follows and are left to wonder what became of this man, where the unclean spirit went after leaving him, and how those who witnessed this miracle reacted to it.

here, again, jesus is portrayed as a charismatic personality who attracts followers with a simple command, explains the scriptures with skill that would not be expected from a person from the village of nazareth, and cures mental and physical illnesses effortlessly.  underlying this picture of jesus is a compassion for those who are suffering.  those first four disciples yearning for something more than a life scraping by with their meager income from fishing and this man whose mental illness causes him to verbally assault jesus without cause are changed because jesus has come into their lives.

life lived under the roman conquerors and their allies in the jewish religious establishment who burdened ordinary people with onerous taxes and complex ritual rules was difficult, and jesus presents an alternative.  here is a man who sees beyond the rules to the basic principles from which they evolved, who espouses a philosophy which elevates its devotees above the commonplace difficulties of life as an occupied people.  here is one who dares to live life on his own terms, refusing to bow to tradition or governmental control, but possessing his own authority.

there is the implicit secrecy of jesus silencing the man's outcry when the man proclaims jesus as the "holy one of God."  jesus doesn't tell the man that his characterization of jesus is incorrect, but instead silences him by commanding the unclean spirit to leave him.  jesus seems to be willing to let others think that he has a special calling ordained by God without proclaiming so himself, perhaps because he wants to cause those who observe him to be curious about where his teaching may lead.

whatever mark's intentions, one is left with the impression of jesus as an extraordinary person, a man of great compassion who intuitively understands the needs of those around him and addresses those needs.  whether it the longing for a better life, the desire to understand the mysteries of the scriptures, or the pain of mental disease, jesus addresses the problems of others where he finds them.  it is this ability which makes him stand out from the crowd of people who struggle to get by from day to day.

may we, like jesus, be sensitive to the needs of those around us, doing what he can to relieve their suffering and thereby relieve our own.  may our compassion lift us above our own day-to-day problems and limitations.  may we not simply try to get by but pursue our longing for greater understanding and peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I'll Labor Night and Day to Be a Pilgrim

i've begun rereading the gospel of mark, with special attention to the teachings of jesus.  mark is believed to be the oldest of the gospels, and it seems to me to be the most direct and accessible.  there is no attempt to trace the family line of jesus back to ancient ancestors, no recounting of a miraculous birth, just a simple proclamation that the "good news of jesus christ" begins with the preaching of john the baptist, jesus' cousin, and the baptism of jesus.

today i'm thinking about the first words of jesus in mark's gospel: "follow me and i will make you fish for people."  jesus says this to peter and his brother andrew as he finds them fishing on the shores of the sea of galilee, and they drop their nets and follow jesus.  a bit farther along the shoreline, jesus finds james and john mending nets while sitting in their boat, calls to them, and they too follow him.  the gospel doesn't say that jesus had any prior conversations with these four fishermen, but it seems reasonable that the five men are acquainted.  we don't know why jesus was near their homes in the fishing village of capernaum, or what their earlier encounters were like, but it appears that what jesus had to say to them was compelling enough for them to abandon their settled lives to become his disciples.

probably their wandering with jesus far from capernaum didn't begin immediately, because jesus seems to have used the little town as his base for his early ministry.  so peter, andrew, james, and john could have lived in their homes with their families and continued to fish to support themselves, venturing out with jesus from time to time in the neighborhood of capernaum.  it is possible that these four were already prepared to become jesus' followers and were waiting for his invitation to do so, since they immediately left what they were doing.  to have done this with no prior preparation, no knowledge of the person of jesus or his teachings, would have been the acts of unstable individuals who were willing to turn their lives upside down at the drop of a hat.

i try to put myself in their places and imagine that i find myself dissatisfied with my present life, tired of the drudgery of making a living going out onto the sea every day hoping to make a good catch, feeling an emptiness, a longing, for something more.  i think of the wandering of siddhartha as he began his search for meaning and the pattern of jesus' life.  so much is left unsaid in mark's gospel, and indeed in all the gospels, about jesus' life prior to his baptism.  we know almost nothing of his childhood or of the year's in his adult life leading up to the beginning of his ministry and the calling of his discples.  what we do know is fragmentary and unreliable.  by the time jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, he is a mature teacher, and his teaching must have resonated with those who heard him, convincing some like peter, james, john, and andrew that he had the answers to the questions that gnawed at them.

there are so many unanswered questions in those simple words that are jesus' first utterances in mark's gospel.  i long to know what led up to these encounters along the seashore.  surely the lesson to be learned is not that one abandons everything on a whim to become a follower of jesus.  it seems to me that jesus is saying that his teaching will enable these four to relate to people in a new way, to see life in a new way.  by following jesus, they will draw people to them, just as their nets draw fish from the sea.  people will come to them to hear their teachings, their answers to life's questions, just as these first followers came to jesus.

may we each be seekers of the answers to life's mysterious questions.  may we use our minds to reason through what is presented to us, rather than blindly accepting what our forebears believed.  may we choose the path that speaks most clearly to both our hearts and our minds.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My Heart Will Be Peaceful and Calm

one of the things that i'm trying to understand is my own reactivity, the idea that the actions of others and the circumstances of life are not the cause of my suffering.  rather my suffering is caused by my reactions to these actions and circumstances.  when someone says something to me that causes me hurt, it is not their words that hurt me.  it is my reaction to those words and the stories i tell myself about the person and the reasons for their words.  when things go wrong, life is not out to get me.  i allow myself to blame external events for painful feelings in my mind.

i've been trying to notice these reactions that cause my suffering and interrupt the stories that accompany them by analyzing what's going on inside myself.  it's not helpful to blame what's outside me for my internal responses.  as i do this more and more, i find myself less likely to be judgmental or to slip into a mental funk.  i'm not always successful, of course.  yesterday, i was a little under the weather, and my reactions to many of the events of the day were negative.  at the end of the day, i felt badly about my failure to deal with the day's events in a more skillful way.  still, i was able to set those feelings aside and accept them as natural.  when my body was achy and tired, it's not surprising that my mental state was not up to par either.

today is a new day, and i am grateful that i have another opportunity to practice living with greater acceptance.  the day is not mine to control, and the way it goes is not dependent on external factors.  my internal life is under my control if i live mindfully, taking time to take note of my reactions to those things that are beyond my control.

may each of us learn to recognize our own reactivity to the stimuli that act on us.  may we not waste our energies assigning blame.  may we deal with the vagaries of life skillfully, reasonably, logically, rather than allowing our reactions to create new problems when we could be solving existing problems.  may we see life for what it is, not what we want it to be.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

All the Planets in Their Turn Confirm the Tidings

one of the things that i feel more deeply now as i know that most of my life is behind me is the interconnectedness of all things.  from the tiniest particle of matter to the tallest mountain, everything is a part of the vast universe, and that universe enters into all its component parts.  i don't dream of heaven but of returning to the earth to nourish and replenish it.  i hope i'm not entombed in some watertight container that keeps what remains of my body from contact with the soil that surrounds it.  rather, i want my body to be burned and scattered so that i live on in the soil that nourishes life.

the self that i have so long protected is a creation of my mind.  the "real me" is not the collection of thoughts and stories that run through my brain.  we are all parts of something much larger, of that creative consciousness from which everything arose and to which everything returns, continually arising and returning.  if there is a God, all of creation is a part of that great mind which inhabits all that is.  nothing is ever lost, only changed, transformed, as our bodies are in death.  we have always existed, only in different forms, parts of one another and the universe.

to return in another body, to try to get life right the next time around would be lovely.  second chances are wonderful gifts.  but if that's not how things work, to become part of the earth, to nourish new life, is lovely, too.  may we each find our place in the grand scheme of things.  may we see our connection to everything else.  may we be part of the environment, not set apart from it.  may we honor the majesty of creation by loving ourselves and others as part of the mystery of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

For the Beauty of Each Hour

my wife has gone with her sister to visit her sister's daughter and her family, leaving me at home alone.  this morning as i ate breakfast, i left the door leading onto the deck open so i could look out across the back yard at the trees with leaves that are already turning.  we've had an unusually mild summer, with lots of rain in june and the first half of july and cool temperatures in august and on into september.  as a rule, the colors of fall are not in evidence until late october in this part of the country but this year the maples and dogwoods are already changing color and losing their leaves.  the other trees haven't begun to turn but they can't be far behind.

looking out at the beauty of nature, i began to think of many things:  the controversy between God being in control of every detail, like when we have an early fall, and what is called "divine Providence," the idea that some unseen hand set nature and motion and left it to takes its often random course; the question of what we used to call "global warming" and now call "climate change" being the result of human abuse of the atmosphere or part of a natural cycle that is inevitable regardless of human action; whether or not our mild summer, early fall, and the destructive storms during this hurricane season are caused by climate change or random events unrelated to the larger question of our changing atmosphere; of how so many along the gulf of mexico are suffering as a result of these storms while we in our area are relishing the cool weather we've enjoyed over the past several months.

i wonder why we are wasting so much time debating the cause of warming temperatures on our planet.  even the climate change deniers can't question the temperature measurements that demonstrate that the earth is steadily warming.  we know that continuation of this warming will cause worldwide catastrophes.  the sea levels will rise and low-lying islands will disappear.  coastal cities will flood.  arctic and antarctic ice will melt, destroying the ecosystems of humans, plants, and animals.  the permafrost is disappearing, releasing huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, causing large swaths of frozen tundra to become unstable, and releasing disease-causing organisms that had been frozen into the atmosphere and ground water.  regardless of the cause of this warming, there are steps we can take to slow it, if not halt it altogether.  why not take those steps?

of course, the main reason for our failure to address the impending crises is economic.  more money can be made in the short term if we ignore the earth's warming.  we can continue to pour greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we can continue to blow the tops off mountains to extract the coal to burn in our power plants, we can continue clearing land to grow crops and to make the riches of the rain forests more accessible, and some will get richer in the process.  more concentrated wealth in the hands of a small number of people won't be worth much to them if their beach homes are washed away by the rising tides and they and their children are infected with diseases that were dormant until the melting arctic ice released them.  wealth won't do much good if the ecosystems that produce the food we eat are destroyed by flooding and drought and verdant farmlands become vast deserts.

whether one is a "God-is-in-control" fundamentalist, a "divine-Providence" deist, or a "we-have-to-figure-it-out-on-our-own" atheist, there are clear choices to be made.  either we take steps now to save our planet or our race will not survive on this planet.  the science fiction writers who saw visions of humankind lasting into the distant future only by abandoning a once-green earth will not be writers of fiction, but prophets.  i'm grateful for the pleasant summer and early fall.  i'm sorry that so many people are suffering from the hurricanes that have destroyed their homes and livelihoods.  the future is more important than my transient emotions.  it's time to put aside futile debates and take action.

may we do all we can to stop the destruction of our planet.  may we contribute to causes that protect our environment.  may we elect leaders who have the courage to address the causes of our present situation.  may we stop denying science in order to enrich ourselves.  may we do what we can in our individual lives to mitigate the causes of climate change, and may we do so with courage and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

As in Our Daily Life We Struggle to Be Human

i can be very arrogant.  too often i witness the actions of others and think, "how wrong, how mistaken, this person is.  if only this person would do things as i would do them, life would be easier for them."  i create little stories in my mind of the way other people should behave and long for control of their lives, as if i have the answers while they proceed in ignorance.  this is something i work on constantly, and i hope i'm having some success in understanding myself better.

when these thoughts pop into my mind, i'm trying to be aware of what's happening.  i can't just tell myself that i'm mistaken, because this attitude of mental superiority is ingrained in my psyche.  instead, i have a little conversation with myself, telling the "me" in my head that i'm doing it again, recognizing that i might be right about the wrong-headedness of others while reminding myself that they are not mine to control.  it might just be that i am wrong and they are right, that i can only live my own life, that i have no claim over the lives of others and the actions they take.

since i've begun to remind myself of my lack of control over others, indeed of the time i waste thinking about how others should live their lives, i've discovered that i'm much happier and have better relationships with those who have to put up with me on a daily basis.  it is enough to try to make right decisions about my own life and how to live more skillfully without trying to manage how others live their lives.  this is not to say that i won't intervene if others are doing harm to themselves or someone else, but i have to recognize the possibility that they could be right and i could be wrong.  maybe their decision is the best one for them, but it won't hurt to have a discussion about other courses of action as long as i admit my inability to control what others do and deal with my arrogance in thinking that i have the answers to their problems.

may we be honest with ourselves, recognizing our shortcomings.  may we deal with them in compassionate ways.  may we not condemn ourselves for our failings, rather may we be mindful of how to live more skillfully through awareness of the stories we tell ourselves and how those stories affect our relationships with others.  may mindfulness bring us peace and greater respect for others.  shalom.