Tuesday, April 17, 2018

God Mend Thine Every Flaw

it seems that in our country we are punishing those who have the most difficulties in life for having those very difficulties.  as someone wrote recently, "we waged a war on poverty and now we are punishing the poor."  more states are adopting policies that require those who receive government assistance in order to have health care to work, seek work, or take some sort of job training.  yet, we know that most of those who receive government support are already working.  the problem is that the only jobs they can find don't pay enough for them to be able to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families.  the myth that those who get help from the government are lazy and want to "live on the dole" persists despite all the evidence that contradicts this idea.  demagogues exploit this myth to hold onto the support of their base, and too many of us believe them.

we are doing the same thing to undocumented people in our country.  the president talks about the rapists and murderers who are streaming across our borders, but most of the people being deported are not violent criminals.  often the only crime they've committed is entering the country illegally.  we are returning vulnerable people to countries where they will endure the persecution they fled here to escape.  how can we send those who have served in our armed forces back to countries they left after they have defended our country, as we've done with military veterans?  they were good enough to risk their lives for us, but not good enough to live in our country!  how can we return people who befriended us in vietnam, cambodia, and laos because they committed some petty crime years ago?

our country is blaming the victims, and those of us who see it seem powerless to do anything about it.  once we believed in a "new deal" and "a great society."  now we seem to believe in hate and fear.  our highest elected official calls those who criticize him liars and "slimeballs," demands that his opponents be locked up, pays off those with whom he's had illicit affairs and those who know about them, appoints cabinet members who use their position to take expensive trips, and spends tax dollars on vacations in his own resorts.  is this what we've come to in what used to be "the land of the free and the home of the brave?"  woody guthrie sang "this land is my land, this land is your land" in protest to the greed and shortsightedness that created the great depression, and now we watch as those same policies are taking root in our country again.

may we reverse our course before it is too late.  may we stand up to the corruption, the greed, the lies that pour out of the seats of power.  may those who are in a position to stop this rush to madness stop it rather than sitting on their hands with their mouths closed because they belong to the same party as the would-be dictator who sits in the oval office.  may the underlying goodness of our country bring an end to these policies which punish those who have been left behind in our society and those who have come here to escape tyranny and poverty in other countries.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Land That I Love

in a few weeks, my wife and i will leave on a trip to scandinavia.  i am concerned about what people we encounter will think of people from the united states.  we are living in a time when i can't say that i'm proud to be a citizen of this country.  when we traveled to europe during the time when barack obama was our president, we found that europeans held us in high regard because they had great admiration for president obama.  we heard him quoted in sermons in church services, even when we understand little of the german preacher's other words.  we talked with a store clerk in italy who, upon learning where we were from the united states rather than canada, told us she loved our president and wished that her country had such a leader.  we saw posters in austria that honored president obama.  i don't expect to find that our country, our leader, and, as a result, we as americans will be admired as we were during president obama's tenure.

another concern is the gun culture that seems to have taken over our country.  mass killings are constantly in the news, and the ruling party's solution seems to be more guns in the hands of more people.  i read yesterday that some legislators in south carolina have introduced a bill that would have their state secede if there was any federal attempt to cease guns already in a person's possession.  other states have passed laws that provide for the temporary ceasure of firearms from anyone who has demonstrated a mental illness that might cause that person to act upon violent impulses toward others, and have acted on those laws.  i suppose that is the genesis for the proposed secession bill in south carolina.

i went in a health clinic with a relative recently.  there was a warning posted on the door that firearms were prohibited inside the clinic.  my relative's reaction was that the clinic was preventing law-abiding citizens from defending themselves if a "mad gunman" entered the building and began firing.  i hear of many more deaths from police and other "law-abiding citizens" shooting unarmed people because they were faced with a perceived threat, only to find afterwards that the gun they thought they saw wasn't there than i do of lives being saved because an armed bystander has shot a marauding mass murderer.  certainly mass killings are sometimes brought to an end by bullets fired by law enforcement, but only after a number of innocent people have been killed.  it seems that there would be fewer mass shootings if guns were kept from those who have demonstrated a propensity for violence.  the often-quoted cliché, "guns don't kill people, people do," may be true in a sense, but it's much more difficult to kill someone when you can't fire a gun at them than it is with a gun.

i wonder if the northern europeans we will meet on our trip will think that my wife and i are part of the insane american culture that promotes turning the united states into an armed camp.  i fear for, and am embarrassed by, my country and hope that we won't become so accustomed to mass shootings that we accept them as a fact of american life.  i am astounded at the ridicule and the hateful remarks directed at the young people who are leading the fight for sensible gun laws in this country.  these teens are our best hope for a sane future, and i pray that they will prevail where we adults have failed at reining in the national rifle association and their allies in government.

may we change the direction in which the united states seems to be heading.  may we disparage violence of all kinds rather than living an "eye-for-an-eye" sort of existence.  may we love others no matter the hue of their skin, the language they speak, or their national origin.  may we have reverence for life even when we are afraid.  may we work to create a country that we can love and be proud of because it is a refuge for those who have no other refuge.  shalom.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Peace There Is That Knows No Measure

i've been reading jack kornfield's book, a path with heart, and was reminded of a congregation where i worked as a church musician several years ago.  many in the congregation, myself included, had participated in a weekend retreat experience, though not all of us on the same weekend.  in this retreat program, men and women attended separate retreats, and over the course of a couple of years a significant number of the church's members had participated in at least one weekend of retreat.

one of the outcomes was that several participants believed that sunday worship in our own congregation should be like the worship experiences in the retreat program.  this meant a radical departure from our usual form of worship, and many of us were not in favor of making such a change.  we believed that it was not realistic or healthy for the church to try to recreate the unique retreat experience every sunday in worship.  while the retreat was a wonderful program, it was not intended to take the place of our regular style of worship, that what made our participation in the weekend retreats meaningful was that it was a departure from the norm.  it was a "mountain-top experience" that energized our lives, but life is not meant to be a continuous series of exhilarating experiences, else such experiences become normative rather than special.

the push of some to change our church eventually split the church with some insisting on their own worship service created in the image of the retreat worship services, while others continued our usual pattern of worship at a separate service.  in the end, many people left the church.  the retreat and the response of many people to it left the church weakened, rather than strengthening it.  it was not the design of the retreat that was at fault but the response to it, when some failed to realize that the retreat's true purpose was to call us away for an intense period of worship and reflection so that our individual spiritual lives were strengthened to better serve one another when we returned to our day-to-day lives.  trying to maintain a continual retreat was an untenable and unhealthy goal, and our congregation paid for it when some attempted to realize such a goal.

so it is when we take something good and cling to it, grasping after fleeting moments of pleasure and trying to continually recreate them.  may we recognize both pleasure and pain as temporary passing sensations that are not the true meaning of life.  may we accept them as they come to us, enjoying the pleasure and enduring the pain, and letting them go as they pass away.  may we not flee pain any more than we try to prolong pleasure in an unhealthy way, but accept both as part of the stuff of life.  may peacefulness be our goal rather than avoiding pain or grasping after pleasure.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

But First It Bent and Then It Broke

lately i've been thinking about the transitory nature of life.  we think of things as fixed and permanent but they're not.  the parents that we thought of as solid, permanent parts of our lives die.  we knew that would happen.  we witnessed our grandparents' deaths, and we know that our parents would also die, but we pushed that thought away.  we didn't want to think that like all other humans our parents would one day stop breathing.  it is the same with our own lives.  we live as if we will continue forever, but we won't.  like all who have gone before us, one day we too will stop breathing.

the aches and pains i feel tell me that my own body is wearing out.  it has served me well, but after i've done lots of bending or lifting, my hip and knee joints scream with pain.  ten years ago that wouldn't have been the case.  i can't consume tons of food and not gain weight because my metabolism has slowed down.  there was a time when i had to force myself to eat lots of calories and consume them quickly so that i could maintain my weight, but no more.  now i have to restrain myself to watch the quantity i eat and to slow down while i eat just to keep from gaining weight.

i look around at the things i treasure--my piano, beautiful pictures and objects--and i know that one day those things won't be around.  my treasures will wear out or be discarded sometime in the future by those who follow me.  my maternal and paternal grandmothers' crystal sits packed away in boxes or on shelves in my garage because i can't bear to part with them.  this is the common experience of many of us.  i know, because the value of these beautiful glasses and plates is a fraction of what it used to be since there is a surplus of lovely crystal on the market, and people don't use such things much any more.   it isn't valuable to them.  my brother-in-law jokes that his children would use the china cabinet they will inherit to store their empty pizza boxes because they will have gotten rid of the china and crystal.

times pass.  things change.  it is a fact of life.  while we try to hold onto fixed ideas of how things are, we are deluding ourselves.  change is the only constant in life.  while that is acceptable as an abstract concept, we cling to what we don't wish to have change, believing that by our grasping we can stop, or at least slow, the inevitable.  the object of my meditation is often to come to grips with change and to end my clinging to a present that is already disappearing as i try to grab it.

may we see that we are not fixed beings.  we change, all around us changes.  there is a flow to life and we are part of it.  we can swim against the tide and be miserable, wearing ourselves out, or we can swim with the tide and let it carry us to where we need to be.  may we let go of our clinging and grasping and enjoy life on its own terms, not trying to force it to be something that it cannot be.  may we be peaceful and at ease.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Imagine All the People Living Life in Peace

i am in a quandry about what to write today.  should i write about a narcissistic president who is destroying long-held alliances and whose impulsiveness may lead us into war?  should i write about my wife's difficulty in shaking off a bout of bronchitis or should i write about my experiences spending several weeks doing a daily session of walking meditation?  maybe i'll just try to write briefly about each.

let me start with donald trump.  i am astonished that only a few republican leaders have spoken out about trump's attacks on robert mueller, the special prosecutor investigating possible connections between the trump campaign and russian attacks on our elective process.  so far as i can tell, lindsey graham, jeff flake, and trey gowdy are the only republican legislators who have personally addressed the issue, while spokespersons for paul ryan and charles grassley have said that ryan and grassley are in support of the continuing investigation by the special prosecutor.  the more trump attacks that invesitgation, the more guilty he looks.  the firing of former fbi deputy director, andrew mccabe, appears to be politically motivated, after he has been repeatedly attacked by trump, and firing him just before he intended to retire seems vindictive and unnecessary.  this is an administration that is attacking the foundations of our democracy, using its power for the enrichment of the trump family, and if trump is allowed to continue in office, i fear for our country and the world.

i have watched helplessly as my wife is wearing herself out coughing from the bronchitis that seems to have gone on far too long.  her doctor has assured us that the medications that were prescribed will knock this infection out within a few days.  in the meantime, she is exhausted and miserable.  i think our bodies have not recovered yet from the stresses of our move, and this is contributing to her inability to fight this illness off.  she has had the good sense to take it easy, resting as much as her cough will allow, and i've tried to make sure she has plenty of nourishing food and keep the house in order.  beyond that, i don't know what to do, but if this doesn't clear up soon, we'll have to go back to the doctor's office and see what the next step may be.

my sessions of walking meditation have been very helpful to me.  i've lost a little weight, and the knee and hip pain i've experienced in the past seem to have lessened substantially.  in addition, i've found it easier to focus, my mind is more quiet, and i find that i am much more at peace with myself and with the world in general.  i've lengthened my meditation time by about five minutes each day and am surprised each time i complete a session at how quickly the time has passed.  i took a break from walking during meditation yesterday and today, doing seated meditation instead, and find that i look forward to resuming walking as i meditate.  one more thought on my practice: i have devoted a special time to meditation every day for almost 300 days now, and i find that it has become part of my life, just as essential as food and sleep.  i can't imagine not setting aside time for meditation.

now, enough of my scattered thoughts, especially after writing about focusing my mind.  may each of us find time to stop and let our minds settle this day.  may we have compassion for ourselves, those we love, and all sentient beings.  may we never stop crying out for the human spirit to be free of suffering.  may we elect leaders who inspire the best in us rather than the basest self-promotion and greed.  may each of us be well and happy.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

He Will Teach Me How to Live

as i think about the life of jesus and what little we know of it, i am troubled by how we have distorted his teachings by regarding him as God.  it is apparent that his earliest followers did not know what to make of him, with some considering that he was "adopted" as God's son at the time of his baptism, others believing that he became divine at the time of his conception, some regarding him as divinized when he was raised from the dead or when he ascended to heaven, while still others believed that he was a divine being who was present with God at the time of creation and for all eternity prior to the creation.  finally the doctrine of the trinity which taught that jesus was God, as was the holy spirit, so that there were three expressions of the godhead--father, son, and holy spirit--became the orthodox explanation of the relationship between jesus and God.

in the process, jesus-the-human-being was obscured, and jesus became the object of christian worship.  as jesus was elevated to being regarded as God incarnate, it seems to me that we lost a great deal.  as i was reading mark's gospel, i saw in it a jesus who would have been deeply offended to be regarded as God, a man who insisted on his own humanity.  certainly, jesus thought that he was ordained by God to proclaim teachings about a soon-to-be cataclysmic event that would turn the old order topsy-turvy, but in the process of delivering that message he preached a way of life that was quite different from the religious legalism that passed for the "true" religion among his fellow jews.  at the heart of his message was a path that emphasized love and compassion, service rather than conquest, respect for all people--women and children included, forgiveness rather than punishment, belief in a God who was more like a father than a king.  this is the message that turning jesus into God eclipses, and it is a message that i want to recapture in my own life.

may we place more value in the teachings of jesus than in a theology that veils those teachings.  may jesus speak to us in very human terms, not as a god but as a fellow being who struggled as we do.  may love, compassion, respect, and mercy be our goals, not a religious orthodoxy that hides those qualities from us.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fill My Soul with Peace and Love

the concluding chapter of mark is troublesome because there are several different versions of its ending.  in some the chapter ends after verse eight, without recounting any appearance of jesus after his resurrection, and the women who have seen the empty tomb and the young man clothed in white inside it keep what he has told them secret.  in others it continues with a shorter ending in which the women go and tell peter and those around him what they have seen, after which jesus appears and sends them out to  proclaim "the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."  still others have a longer ending in which the resurrected jesus appears "in another form" to two disciples who are walking in the country and then to all eleven of the remaining disciples before being "taken up into heaven [where he] sat down at the right hand of God."  there is yet another ending that contains a conversation between jesus and the disciples concerning "this [present] age of lawlessness and unbelief [that] is under Satan" and a statement about the purpose of jesus' crucifixion.

which is the "authoritative" version?  there is no way of knowing for certain.  if we accept the conclusions of most scholars, the "shorter" and "longer" endings of mark were later additions, though they came very early in the common era, and read mark as concluding with verse eight, the resurrection of jesus is not corroborated by the appearance of jesus to anyone after his death.  we have only the statement from mark that jesus will appear to the disciples in galilee, suggesting that the disciples are being instructed to leave jerusalem and return to galilee.  it is interesting that mark says the women are to tell "peter and the disciples," and so one wonders if peter, after his denial of jesus, is out of favor with the others.  what do we make of the statement that the women "said nothing to anyone" about what they had seen at jesus' tomb?  it makes no sense that they would have kept quiet about their amazement at finding the tomb empty when they returned to the followers of jesus, and so the shorter ending is a logical conclusion to the chapter.

at any rate, the writer of mark does not seem concerned about trying to convince his readers that jesus was resurrected by citing various witnesses to the risen jesus, just as he didn't include elaborate details about the birth of jesus.  it seems that his chief purpose was to record what he knew of the life of jesus during his ministry on earth in order to preserve the oral traditions that had been passed down.  perhaps the details of jesus' birth and the accounts of his appearances after his crucifixion were unclear because there were many conflicting oral traditions about these events, and the writer didn't want to choose some accounts over others.

i have been puzzled about how much of this first gospel is consumed by the miracles of jesus and how little there is about the teachings of jesus, as i've picked it apart chapter by chapter.  when i first began reading and writing about the gospel, i intended to concentrate on only the words jesus spoke, but i soon discovered that the words of jesus made little sense without the context in which they were spoken.  here's what i have concluded from this reading of the gospel and writing about it:  jesus believed that he was a messenger whose mission it was to alert the common people to a coming cataclysmic end to the rule of rome in which he and his disciples were to be elevated to rule in righteousness over the world, jesus had great compassion for the suffering of the people among whom he lived, jesus thought that women were deserving of great respect and were maltreated by society, jesus was angered by the use of religion to enrich some at the expense of others, jesus insisted that his purpose and that of his followers was to serve others, jesus loved children and thought that they were worthy of care and respect.  this is the jesus that i follow, and all else obscures that jesus.  his belief in a coming kingdom where righteousness will prevail is a natural outcome of his desire to see an end to the oppression of those with whom he surrounded himself.  i'm not concerned about miracles, atoning death, or resurrection.  the essential jesus for me is the jesus who is great because he serves others.

may we become more like this jesus.  may we oppose injustice and exploitation.  may we care for those who are unable to care for themselves.  may be share love, respect, tolerance, and forgiveness with those around us, and may our intention be to make the world a better place because we have lived.  shalom.