Tuesday, December 11, 2018

That Old Time Religion

having been raised a christian and hearing repeatedly how some things just have to be accepted on faith colors how i think of so much in life.  it's easy for me to see how people get trapped in the fundamentalist sort of religion, whether that religion is christianity, islam, or some other belief system.  if we believe certain things without requiring any proof of their existence, it's not hard to move on to deeper and deeper commitments to other unprovable beliefs.  for instance, if one insists that the virgin birth is essential to being a christian, then those who call themselves christians and yet think that the virgin birth is a myth can't be true christians.  believing in the virgin birth leads to believing other things about jesus: that he is divine, that God violates the rules of nature by becoming a human being, that the purpose of jesus' brief life was to be the ultimate blood sacrifice for humanity's sins and to then come back to life, that jesus could read minds and cure the sick, that jesus could walk on water and perform other impossible feats.

the more committed a believer becomes to these unbelievable characteristics of jesus, the more intolerant that "person of faith" becomes of those who refuse to assent to the jesus-born-of-a-virgin.  as i sat in church yesterday and listened to what was being said, i wondered if i should even be there.  i didn't subscribe to much of what was proclaimed from the pulpit, primarily by lay leaders who were tasked with bringing devotional messages at certain points in the service.  the minister's sermon was easier for me accept as he talked about the inclusion of the magi in the christmas story as a symbol for inclusivity in our own lives, of being accepting of those who were "foreign" to us, just as the writer of matthew's gospel included the "wise men from the east" who were probably astrologers who looked for portents in the night sky.

as i looked around the congregation, i wondered how many others were like me, skeptics of the mythology that passes for truth in christianity.  i saw so many kind, caring, generous people, people that it's easy to love, and i knew that many of them accepted the myths without questioning the philosophy that "if it's in the bible, it must be true."  few of them are fundamentalists, because the whole reason for the denomination of which this congregation is a part is tolerance for diverse beliefs and a refusal to insist that members of the church accept any specific interpretation of christian orthodoxy.  in a conversation with a member of the church not long ago, she recounted how she couldn't accept ideas like the virgin birth and remain true to herself.  it was like a breath of fresh air to know that i'm not alone in this group of christians, even though many, probably most, members of the church do accept the tenets of orthodox christianity.  the wonderful thing is that people like her and like me can be accepted and our ideas respected even if they are different from what the majority of the others in the church believe.

the disturbing thing is that congregations like this are in the minority in christianity.  in most churches, there is no room for those who doubt the literal truth of the bible, no room for those who question, no room for those who don't subscribe to a particular set of orthodox beliefs, no room for those who can't throw logic out the window and accept ideas "on faith."  this is the dangerous aspect of christianity, that intolerance is assumed to be the "godly" way to live, and such close-mindedness is what leads to the twisted reasoning that requiring equal rights before the law for gay people is a violation of someone's religious freedom or mandating that all employees have access to birth control infringes on an employer's liberty.  fundamentalism and intolerance go hand in hand, regardless of what religion practices the intolerance.  islamic fundamentalism and christian fundamentalism are both equally abhorrent.

may we respect widely divergent views, remembering that respect and acceptance are very different things.  may we be able to express our own views without fear.  may we love those with whom we disagree without allowing dangerous ideas to go unchallenged.  may civil discourse lead to greater understanding of and respect for those who believe and live differently from us.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

A Part of the Main

there are many types of hunger, thirst, and poverty.  in jesus' teachings, we are taught that those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" will be filled, that the "poor in spirit" will receive the kingdom of heaven, that those who give food and water to those who hunger and thirst are caring for jesus himself.  during his lifetime, jesus spent most of his time with those who lived in poverty and with those who were condemned by "devout" society.

in reaching out to people who,  like matthew and zaccheus, were shunned by most of their contemporaries because they had allied themselves with the romans as tax collectors, jesus recognized that, though these two men were "rich" in the sense that most people define the word, they were poor in spirit.  both matthew and zaccheus were aware of their own spiritual poverty and became followers of jesus, abandoning their old ways of living and embracing the good news that jesus preached.

jesus saw the suffering of common people who bore the multiple burdens of roman occupation and taxation, oppression by the jewish allies of the romans who enriched themselves by taking advantage of those who could not pay the roman taxes, and perversion of the jewish religion to protect the positions of the religious leaders so that the religion became a curse to ordinary people rather than a blessing.  with all these forces working against them, those to whom jesus reached out were hungry and thirsty for righteousness, as well as being physically hungry and thirsty.  in following jesus and his teachings, these disadvantaged people saw hope that they would be filled, as they looked beyond their own needs to the needs of others.  jesus showed them that by serving others they were filled themselves.

just as those ancient followers were filled and their spiritual lives were enriched, we are reminded of the core of the good news that jesus delivered: to love our neighbors as ourselves.  during the christmas season, we see love made manifest in the birth of a child in an obscure judean village to poor parents.  this child is the personification of love, demonstrating that we, too, can be filled with a love that seems foolish to much of the world--a love that embraces people of all races and genders, a love that demands that we "love [our] enemies and pray for those who mistreat [us]."

may we seek this sort of love in our lives, not just during this season but in all seasons.  may we feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty.  may we reach out to those who live in literal and spiritual poverty.  may the truth that is in each of us be expressed by transcending the narrow bounds of religion to its universal manifestation in caring for one another.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Long Time Ago in Bethlehem

this is the time of year when we hear phrases like "jesus is the reason for the season" or "keep christ in christmas" or "it's ok to say 'merry christmas.' "  this obsession with christmas as a religious holiday is offensive.  there are millions for whom jesus is not the reason for the season and for whom "happy holidays" is a far more appropriate sentiment than "merry christmas."  even most christians don't really celebrate christmas as a religious holiday.  if they did, they'd avoid the commercialism that is the season's most striking feature, they'd eschew decorating their homes weeks or even days before christmas eve, and christmas would be celebrated until the day of ephiphany, rather than ending abruptly on december 26.

as far as i'm concerned, the christmas season has become, and ought to be, a time that is primarily secular.  i can't subscribe to the mythology that is part and parcel of observing christmas as a religious holiday.  it's likely that the historical jesus was not born in december.  the vision of angels in the sky proclaiming good news and extending wishes of peace to judean shepherds is lovely, but unlikely.  wise men traveling from the east as they follow a star to a barn where a holy child lies in a manger is fun to sing about, but that's probably a fiction as well.  that a virgin could give birth to a member of the godhead is a myth appended to the story to elevate jesus from a man to a god.

we can try to " honour Christmas in [our] heart[s], and try to keep it all the year" as dickens has scrooge saying in a christmas carol.  "peace on earth and goodwill to men" is an admirable wish that we would do well to recall during this season and throughout our lives.  reverence for the poor, as the holy family certainly was, is a worthy lesson to take away from the scene in the cattle stall, and the elevation of the status of a young jewish woman can serve as a call to address the ill treatment of women everywhere.  there is much to learn from the christmas story, but to insist that the story in the bible is literally true diminishes the larger truths that are the reasons for the story.

christmas is a universal holiday, not just a christian one.  it is a part of the traditions found in many faiths in many parts of the world that look to the light in the darkest time of the year.  these celebrations of light are a sign that the human race has hope that darkness is a temporary state, that the light will return, that the cold will be replaced by warmth that nourishes life, that love will triumph over hate, and that, as martin luther king said (paraphrasing theordore parker), "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  this, for me, is the message of christmas, rather than the narrowly christian view that the season belongs only to christians who espouse orthodox theological beliefs.

may we keep christmas in our hearts, as dickens would have us do.  may we not worry about how to properly celebrate the season, but rather may we take joy in the prospect of peace on earth and goodwill to all.  may we not worry about whether jesus is the reason for the season or about keeping christ in christmas.  may we instead kindle the spirit of the loving jesus in our hearts and extend that love to all.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

On the Road Again

my wife and i will be traveling for the next couple of days and will not have internet access.  i will try to post later in the week when we return from our trip.  until then, may we all have a happy thanksgiving.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Let Every Heart Rejoice

what is happiness?  lately, some events have occurred that caused me to feel sad and hurt.  yet beyond the sadness and the pain, i've been surprised that i'm still a happy person.  i can address the suffering without the underlying sense of well being in my life going away.  at the end of each day, i go to bed glad that i'm alive and filled with a sense of joy and accomplishment and looking forward to the new day that i hope will come.  i can't account for this happiness, because it's something that's relatively new, something that has happened over the last two or three years.

my wife and i have been through some difficult times: making a move that was physically and emotionally draining, having to adjust to a new locale where people have different customs and points-of-view and where the climate and topography are not what we're accustomed to, separating ourselves from old friends and our church, living farther from our daughter and her husband.  despite the pain of these adjustments, i've still been happy.  it's hasn't been nearly as hard to give up so much that is familiar as i thought it would be.  our lives are filled with so much natural beauty, and many of things we enjoy most, like a variety of good restaurants and wonderful shows and concerts, are easily accessible.  as we looked at our calendar for the coming weeks last night, it was filled with day trips to places we love and events we look forward to participating in.

but my happiness is more than these superficial activities, more that the busy-ness of every day life.  i can't describe it, but i know that it is something that is different within me that i wish i had experienced throughout my life.  part of it is, i suppose, an awareness that passing joys and pains are just that--passing.  they are not the core of who i am.  while i may enjoy a concert of beautiful music as it happens and have fond memories of it far into the future, the joy that it brought and continues to bring is not the source of happiness.  my happiness is far deeper and much more a part of the "me" that i am.  it's something i don't fear losing, because i know that it can't be taken away by external events.

as i go forward, i hope that this sense of happiness deepens and that i can share it with others.  may each of us find such happiness.  may others be made happier by our own happiness.  may we see fleeting joys and sufferings as passing moments in our lives that leave our basic happiness intact.  may lovingkindness and respect flow from us because we are filled with lovingkindness and respect for ourselves.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

A Time to Every Purpose Under Heaven

it is that time of year when the trees are covered in leaves of red, yellow, and gold just before they fall to the ground.  here in the mountains, fall has been especially colorful this year, and, as we drive through the countryside or look from our deck, we see displays of nature at its most beautiful.  we've had our first frost of the season and the first freeze is predicted for later in the week.  the pilot on the gas logs has been lit.  the flames have danced in it for several evenings already.  the hvac system has been switched from cooling to heating.  daylight saving time has ended, and all the clocks in the house have been reset to "real" time.  we're already a week into november.  before we know it, thanksgiving and christmas will be over.  2018 will soon end.

there's something magical about autumn.  you breathe it in as the crisp, clean air enters your body.  the cycle of change that occurs each year takes precedence over the humdrum of everyday life.  i'm reminded that there are large arcs that govern our existence.  the changing seasons are a part of these patterns.  like the regular rhythm of nature, our lives have a rhythm.  we move from the dependency of infancy to the increasing independence of childhood and adolescence to young adulthood, then middle age, followed by becoming elderly, and finally our lives end as surely as the year comes to an end as december becomes january.

i've reach the next-to-last stage in my life's cycle.  like the characteristics of the seasons of the year, each phase of life has its own beauty.  i must say that old age has been a wonderful time of life for me.  i have the luxury of planning my days without being governed by a clock.  i can rise when i please and go to bed when i please.  i can eat when i'm hungry, rather than eating to conform to someone else's schedule that is imposed on me.  i can plan my days around what i want to accomplish rather than what an employer tells me i must accomplish, and, if i want to be lazy, i don't have to accomplish anything at all.  i have a freedom that i've never had before.

sure, there are aches and pains.  i don't move as fast as i used to.  i take more pills.  i tire more easily.  in spite of all that, life is good.  it is as if i spent my whole life preparing for this time, and i'm enjoying being in the last chapter of life before death puts a period at the end of the last sentence.  last night, my wife and i pulled out our calendars and began noting the dates when we are going to concerts and going to visit family during the upcoming holiday season.  we got excited about the future that is ahead of us.  it's so wonderful to know that our lives are not bound by the requirements of getting up at a certain time to do the work that someone else has decided that we must do.  instead, we go when and where we want to go.

may each of us look forward to a life filled with expectations of good things to come, and may we have memories of happy times past.  may we appreciate each season of the year and of our lives.  may we celebrate the changes that life brings.  may we relish the living of every moment.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

My Tears Fell Like Rain

recently, two people that my wife and i care for deeply have said things to us that were very hurtful.  one of those who said these things was voicing some longstanding grievances he had with us, grievances that we didn't understand and that he couldn't explain to us.  i thanked him for making us aware of his feelings and committed to make an effort to avoid doing anything that would cause further damage to our relationship.  the other person who hurt us spoke out of anger, that anger ostensibly arising from a remark my wife had made as we were playing a game.  in truth, he didn't really want to play and was irritated because his wife, my wife, and i had persuaded him to play so we would have a foursome, so his mind wasn't really on what we were doing together.  my wife's reaction was one of hurt, and his outburst pretty much shut down any further conversation for the rest of the evening.

my wife and i have very different reactions when someone says hurtful things to us.  i look beyond the words and try to figure out what the person's motivation was in saying words that injure.  that doesn't excuse their behavior, but it does generate a sense of kindness towards them that make my wound less painful.  my wife, on the other hand, becomes angry and wants to avoid contact with the other person as much as possible.  after a period of time, her anger subsides, and she is able to kindle a spirit of forgiveness and move on.  she has difficulty understanding how i react as i do, seeing my failure to be angry as agreement with the hurtful words that have been said, and i am troubled by what is, to me, an unnecessary anger that seems to make the hurt even more painful.

i think there is validity in both our approaches.  i tend to ignore my own feelings or to examine my behavior that prompted hurtful words directed at me.  this leaves me with a guarded relationship with the person who has injured me that doesn't go away until that person and i have a discussion about the incident and reach a mutual understanding.  my wife's initial anger and her re-examination of the incident that causes her hurt fails to put her in the other person's shoes, so to speak, and is focused entirely on her own hurt, but once she gets past her first response and a period of avoidance and cooling down, she can put the incident in the past and come to a deeper relationship with the person who caused her anger, often after a conversation with them that gets both parties' feelings out in the open.

i suppose the key to resolution for both my wife and me is having a conversation with the person who hurt us, a conversation that occurs after we have time to reflect on the initial experience.  in the heat of the moment, neither my seemingly passive reaction or my wife's intense anger is helpful in having a constructive dialogue.  it is only when we get past that initial reaction and are able to address the situation with some air of detachment, to express ourselves with some objectivity, that we are able to move in the direction of healing a broken relationship.  when the person who caused us pain refuses to look at things from our point-of-view or to accept any culpability in causing our hurt, we know that is a person who is isn't healthy for us to continue to have a relationship with, but more often, we are able to see fault on both sides and to move forward in the relationship.

may we each think before we speak words that cause hurt.  may we learn to express ourselves honestly but without the intention of causing harm to another.  may we learn to forgive without accepting blame when no cause for blame exists.  may our hearts heal through the power of love.  shalom.