Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On the Road Again

this week my wife and i are traveling in the mountains of tennessee and north carolina, and i plan to write about our experiences in the next couple of posts, but, for now, i'm taking the week off.  may we all have safe and enjoyable travels wherever we happen to be.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire

what do we hope to accomplish when we pray?  our pastor suggested in her sermon yesterday that God desires our prayers because God wants to establish a relationship with us, just as a parent might not give something to a child until the child asks.  perhaps she's right.  it seems to me that prayer doesn't cause God to change, but rather prayer changes the one who prays.  when we pray to be spared from a hurricane, does that mean that we won't prepare for the destruction a hurricane brings?  would we ask for deliverance from the hurricane and then sit in our homes assuming that God will direct the hurricane elsewhere, or would we realize that our best hope is to make whatever preparations we can to protect our property and remove ourselves from the path of the storm?

how often have many of us misplaced some precious object and prayed that we would find it, only to discover it after we've prayed?  i can't believe that we received some message from God that directed us to the lost object.  instead, our prayer triggered a memory in our subconscious that reminded us where to look.  as i've written before, i have serious doubts about the efficacy of intercessory prayer and tend to believe that such attempts to manipulate God border on blasphemy.  so should we pray at all, and, if we do, what should our prayer be?

i think prayers of gratitude are the most important prayers we can make: gratitude for God as a presence that supports, encourages, comforts, and cares for us, gratitude for God as the creator of all things and the source of all good, gratitude for life itself, gratitude for the gifts of reasonable minds and the resources to solve our problems.  i think it's appropriate to express our anguish and pain in the face of the trials of life, not because God will remove that suffering, but because in doing so we acknowledge God's presence and we accept that our suffering is a natural response to events in our lives rather than a weakness to be suppressed.  i think it's ok to confess our failings when we pray, not to seek forgiveness for them, but to express our humanity and to enable us to move beyond them through giving voice to them when we can share them with no other person.

so, i continue to pray, but most often i pray that i will be changed rather than asking God to change things for my benefit.  most of my posts end with a series of prayers: may i take responsibility for the way in which i live my life.  may i look to my own potential to solve my problems, even if i ask God for wisdom and strength to find the solutions.  may i be grateful for all that i am and have, for the gift of life itself.  may i be a better person today than i was yesterday, and, if i'm not, may i forgive myself and figure out what i need to do to be a better person.  may we all live lives of gratitude, kindness, and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bound to All in Bonds of Love

as i write on this sunday morning before the second presidential debate, i think of the words of donald trump from the tape of his conversation with billy bush that have been played and commented upon incessantly over the past couple of days.  trump has been condemned for what he said and for the thoughts and actions he describes and rightly so.  soon after this recording came to light, damning recordings of his appearances on the howard stern show were discovered and replayed.  the sum of these past words of the republican nominee paint a picture of a man who seems compelled to objectify women and to brag about his sexual prowess in the crudest terms.  his critics have been quick to say that such a man is not fit to be president of the united states, and they are right.  many of his former allies have abandoned him, and the pundits have decided that hillary clinton has already won the election.  one wonders how trump will conduct himself in the debate and how secretary clinton will respond if he attacks her for the past actions of her husband.

i was as disturbed by the trump recordings as any of those whose condemnations were reported in the media and agree that such a person is a poor choice for president.  but as i think back on my life, i remember many words that i regret, immature comments that should never have been made, crude remarks that would have led those who heard them to think less of me.  i dare say most people have similar memories.  donald trump is not unique in this respect.  his roles as both a media personality and a prominent businessman given to frequent public pronouncements mean that what he says is often recorded, creating a permanent archive of comments that would remain private for most of us.  the fact that he knew his comments on the howard stern shows were being broadcast live and would be recorded for posterity demonstrates that he was unconcerned about how he would be perceived and that he believed at least some of his listeners would admire him for what he said on topics that are usually regarded as private.

while one can't support mr. trump or anyone like him for public office, it's hypocritical for most to castigate him for his remarks without admitting that we, too, have been guilty of similar lapses.  one hopes that trump has matured and changed his philosophy, though the evidence suggests otherwise, just as i hope that i am not the same person that made regrettable and inappropriate comments in my youth.  as one sage i respect commented, such remarks would not be so damnable if they were uttered by a youngster who lacked the maturity to know better, but the fact that trump said these things when he was in his mid-fifties leads one to conclude that he was past the age when his personality was still being formed and makes him culpable for them.

may we be forgiving without endorsing either words such as those spoken by mr. trump or the actions those words describe.  may we not try to remove a splinter from another's eye while there is a log in our own.  may we not forget that each of us has said and done things we regret before castigating another for past misdeeds.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In Halls of Wealth and Power

as my wife and i watched the first debate between donald trump and hillary clinton, we hoped that secretary clinton would do well and demonstrate her mastery of both domestic and foreign policy.  at the same time, we hoped the debate would allow a larger audience to see the donald trump that has attracted the angry, racist supporters that one sees in clips of his rallies.  both of those hopes were realized, but in the course of the debate, i began to feel compassion for mr. trump.

as he interrupted secretary clinton, lambasted rosie o'donnell, denied well-documented statements he has made in the past, and praised his own temperament while criticizing that of his opponent, i thought about how much he must suffer.  his need for self-aggrandizement and his insistence that he is always right, that he has never failed at anything made me certain that his inner life is filled with turmoil.  his mind must be filled with a constant stream of chatter and distractions that prevent any semblance of self-examination or contemplation of ideas beyond those which will increase his own wealth and importance.

he appears to be devoid of basic notions of compassion, as he refers to "miss piggy," "crooked hillary," "little mario," and "lying ted," ridicules a handicapped reporter, makes fun of secretary clinton's stumble caused by her bout with pneumonia, and holds everyone who criticizes or disagrees with him in contempt.  as evidence comes to light of his dealings with those he employs, his cheating of private contractors, his use of the income tax code to avoid paying taxes while at the same time criticizing those whose poverty excuses them from paying income tax, his apparent manipulation of the charity that bears his name for purposes that are anything but charitable, one sees a portrait of a man who has become the embodiment of the worst of exploitative capitalism, a man like the fictional "citizen kane" that one might expect to utter "rosebud," on his death bed.

beyond his unsuitability to be president of the united states, mr. trump is a reminder that wealth and power are not the sources of happiness, and in fact may interfere with the human capacity for happiness, compassion, and kindness.  in him and his most ardent supporters, one sees an anger that dehumanizes their opponents, thus justifying the ridicule and venom directed at all who disagree with or oppose them.

may we have compassion for those filled with anger and hatred.  may we oppose their policies and tactics without losing sight of their humanity and hoping that they will see the source of their own suffering.  may we remember that the lust for wealth and power is the great enemy of happiness.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

An Instrument of Your Peace

those of us who profess to be christians spend so much time trying to understand our religion.  over the centuries we have debated, fought wars over, and struggled with what a genuine christian religion is or ought to be.  we've fractured into countless expressions of christianity, in the process alienating ourselves from one another and the adherents of other religions and the non-religious.  i'm not sure any of our attempts have moved us any closer to what jesus was teaching over two thousand years ago.

i wish i had a definitive, complete, and true answer to the questions of who jesus was and what he intended the practices of his followers to be. i believe i know some of the things he didn't intend for christians to do or become.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to live in separate compounds from those who were different from us or to force them to live in their own separate compounds.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to live in luxury while those around us were in desperate circumstances, in need of food or shelter.  i am certain he didn't intend for us to solve our differences by making war against one another.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to enrich ourselves by cheating and taking from others.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to follow a religion of rules that teaches that everyone who doesn't follow our rules is bound for an eternity of torment.  i am certain that he didn't intend for us to preach that our narrow system of beliefs is the only correct system of beliefs while all other systems are wrong and those who fail to adopt our system are doomed.

maybe what we need to do is follow the idea of jesus, rather than the physical person who lived so long ago.  maybe jesus is the concept that true religion is to replace hate with love.  maybe we should stop trying to convert everyone else to our own version of christianity and simply do good in the world.  maybe we ought to do whatever we can to clothe, feed, and shelter those who need care.  maybe we ought to stop taking from the earth without thought of the damage we are doing to ourselves and future generations.  maybe we should make health care available to all.  maybe we ought to stop seeing "others" and accept that we are all in this together.  maybe we ought to stop arguing about religion and start helping one another.  maybe we ought to be content with what we have rather than constantly striving for more that we don't need.  maybe we are all brothers and sisters, parents and children.  maybe we ought to throw away the rule book about which we've spent eons debating and fighting and just care for each other.

maybe this is what great teachers throughout history have been trying to get us to choose.  love over hate.  generosity over grasping.  peace over war.  kinship over enmity.  embracing over pulling apart.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Work, for the Night Is Coming

last sunday, our minister preached on the collection of aid from the church in antioch for the church in jerusalem, mentioned in acts 11.  she suggested that the jerusalem church was in need because those who were part of the church sold their possessions and the proceeds were then distributed as needs arose.  this practice, she said, resulted from the belief that the second coming of jesus was imminent, so there was no need to plan for the future.  she cited the words of jesus in matthew 16, where jesus is quoted as saying that "there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom," a saying of jesus found in the other synoptic gospels as well, as the basis for this belief among the christians in jerusalem.

she went on to say that this was a misinterpretation of the teaching of jesus; because the return of jesus did not take place during the lifetime of his hearers, she said jesus clearly meant something else when he made this statement.  i found this disturbing.  jesus' statement seems clear.  if he indeed said this, he believed what he said would happen and intended for his followers to believe it also.  perhaps this passage came into the canon because many of his followers believed that jesus would soon return to establish his kingdom and the saying was added to the received teachings of jesus to support this view.  it seems standard practice that, when a prophecy is not fulfilled, those who gave credence to the prophecy find a way to reinterpret it so that it still has the possibility of being true.

i found the suggestion that the cause of the need in the church in jerusalem was their practice of sharing their resources in support of one another troubling, as well.  it is well established that there was a famine in judea in the mid-first century ce, and from the passage in acts the offering was clearly intended to offer relief to hardships resulting from this famine.  the verses in acts say that the offering was collected on the basis of a prophecy by a visiting prophet, agabus, from jerusalem before the famine had taken hold.  how convenient it was that this prophet came to antioch so that a collection could be made in anticipation of the coming famine!  one wonders if the prophecy was not added to this passage in order to strengthen belief in the power of such prophecies.

the twisting of biblical passages to support one's own political beliefs is all too common in the church, as it probably has been through the ages.  if all biblical scripture is unerring and divinely inspired, how could an entire generation of the first christians have been so wrong in interpreting the clear teaching of jesus regarding his return to establish his kingdom?  how could the first christians in jerusalem, led as they were by jesus' very disciples, have been so mistaken when they sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds equitably among themselves?  wouldn't it be more honest to admit that jesus, or some ancient collector of his teachings, was mistaken about jesus coming back in the near future?  why try to find some political justification for the hardship of the christians in jerusalem when the well-established judean famine is the simplest explanation?

may we stop trying to explain away the contradictions and errors in the "sacred" text and accept that human beings created that text.  may we use our minds to interpret what has been written without fear, abandoning the notion that the bible cannot be examined critically.  may we stop worshiping a book and using it for our own ends.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Land of the Noble Free

in considering the direction of this year's election is the united states, i am astounded at the level of hatred and bigotry that's been unleashed.  the racism and fear that many feel free to express is surprising to me, and it seems that, while much of it is directed at and prompted by the evil playing out in iraq and syria, our home-grown anti-democratic and intolerant outbursts are much like those expressed by the "islamic state" and the syrian dictator's forces.  the desire to "make america great again" by turning back the clock to a time when anglos ruled without challenge, women "knew their place," and poverty and oppression of racial minorities were standard practices is not unlike the intolerant practices of the forces of repression in the middle east.

the hatred directed at undocumented immigrants, muslims, and the lbgt community during the election and the tacit (and sometimes vocal) approval of it by the republican nominee has shown an ugly side of our country that many of us thought had been left in the past.  the party of the right has played to the undercurrent of racism in the country for many years, and the rise of donald trump and his disaffected followers has let the genie escape from the bottle.  watching trump rallies is too reminiscent of the nazi party rallies that brought hitler to power, and one begins to understand how a man like adolf hitler could have gained control in a country like germany, the same country that gave rise to many of the giants of philosophy, music, and literature.

we think of our democracy as being secure, but one wonders about it when mr. trump praises vladimir putin and his "control" over russia, and many elected republican leaders remain silent.  when both the presidential and vice-presidential nominees of the republican party laud putin's "strength" and decry our own president's "weakness," and other republicans fail to call them out for making such statements, we have to ask if those on the right are committed to the principles on which our system is based.  when we see trump's followers attacking those who protest against trump and calling for the democratic candidate's imprisonment, we have to ask if our cherished democratic values are endangered.  when hateful rhetoric and braggadocio take precedence over civil discourse and substantive policy debate, something is very wrong in this election and in this country.

may we decry the hate, bigotry, and intolerance which have given rise to donald trump's nomination.  may we embrace the values of equality, mutual respect, and freedom of thought on which our country was founded.  may the remainder of the election be devoted to serious discussion of the problems facing us and how to solve those problems.  shalom.