Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Joy to the World

I've been thinking about how light figures into our celebrations this time of year.  The lights twinkle on the Christmas tree, we light the candles of the Advent wreath each Sunday, the menorah is lit for Hannukah, the Magi followed the light of the star to Bethlehem, in other cultures bonfires are lit on the winter solstice.  It must be that, because winter has come, the nights are long and dark, the days are often dreary with little sunlight, and we miss the light of summer.  

The night must have held many terrors for our primitive ancestors.  Our vision is poorly adapted for the darkness of night, and the sounds of the night must have been very frightening.  The light of a fire during the long nights of winter would have kept those invisible terrors from being quite so frightening.  So, perhaps the need for celebrations of light in the dark of winter have been with us for thousands of years.

As you and I take part in this season of light, my prayer is that we are reminded that the lights symbolize freedom from fear of both the literal and figurative darkness, that we feel confidence that life is not something to be feared but rather something to be embraced with joy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Great Creator, Still Creating, Teach Us What We Yet May Be

I have continued sending the members of my family notes during each weekday in Advent, and last Friday I sent them a note about my most basic beliefs, those beliefs that form the basis by which I try to live. Here's what I wrote about "my life":

First, I'm not sure that "my life" is a realistic expression.  Life isn't about "me'" Life is, and if there is an "I," that "I" is a part of life.  I believe that there is a great Creator that is the source of everything that is and who is a part of everything that is.  I don't believe that this Creator is a puppet-master pulling the strings of each individual life, but rather that natural laws are in motion, and we are free to live in harmony with those natural laws or to interfere with them and live out of harmony with the Creative force that is inherent in everything.

I believe that within all creation, a part of the God who created everything is present, that in each of our hearts, God resides.  Evil comes when we fail to listen to that of God that is within is.  I believe that all life is good; it is when we refuse to listen for the voice of Good within us that we become less good.

I believe that we are part of Creation and have a responsibility to live so that the beauty of Creation is preserved.  Our highest calling is to serve and honor the creative force that brought everything into being, and because that Creator caused all things to be, we do reverence to the Creator by serving and honoring that which was created.  "Whoever would be great among you, must become a servant," is perhaps the most true thought one can ever have.

In a few paragraphs, those are my most basic beliefs.  My prayer today is that I will live a life that is consistent with those beliefs, and that if you find some truth in them, that your life is also lived according to the truth you hold in your hearts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

O Christmas Tree

One of my Christmas joys is decorating our Christmas tree. My wife takes care of the other decoaring in the house, but the tree is my special contribution to the Christmas decor. To be more precise, once I've hung the ornaments, my wife puts the finishing touch of placing a set of candy canes in just the right places to finish the tree off. This year, our son helped with the tree, and that made my joy even more complete.

As I stood in the kitchen a few days after we completed hanging the ornaments, I was looking into the den at our Christmas tree, thinking how it represents a lifetime of memories.  There are the elves that are like an elf that we have displayed elsewhere in the house that was MY elf when I was very small.  Most every ornament has some signficance, and as it's put on the tree, I recall that this one was from this trip or that trip, this one was given to us to remember one of our children's birth, one of the children made this one, these are the ones that we painted sitting at our kitchen table early in our married life, and so on.  How wonderful it is near the end of the year and during this hurried, harried, magical season to be reminded of what's important in life--the sharing of our lives with each other.

I hope that each of us can find some time to look back on the many wonderful memories and experiences that we've shared with those we love most, these accumulated events that have made us who we are.  What a wonderful life we've been given!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of All Mankind the Servant

Here's one of my favorite quotes (from the Dalai Lama):  “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."  While sacred buildings and communities of like-minded people who are struggling with the same problems and questions are helpful as we try to figure why we're here and what we should be doing with our lives, I have to agree with the Dalai Lama's statement.  If our basic philosophy is to be kind to one another, even those who are not kind to us, we are fulfilling our mission in life.  For me, kindness is the embodiment of everything I believe.I hope that today, each of us will be treated with kindness, and that each of us will treat everyone we encounter with kindness.  If we slip up and react in anger or mean-spiritedness to someone who treats us badly, my prayer is that we'll forgive ourselves and them and resolve to return to "the philosophy of kindness." Happy second Tuesday in Advent.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What Can I Give Him, Poor As I Am?

(while this post won't appear until tuesday, i a writing it on sunday morning as i sit in the home of my wife's sister and everyone else in the house is asleep.)  for christians, today is the first sunday in advent.  yesterday as i prayed about how to find meaning in this advent season, i sensed a leading to do something for the members of my family each day during advent.  perhaps it will be a small gift, a note, or kind action for my wife each day,  and for my children i will send a note of encouragement each day.  there may be days when i cannot follow through on my intentions, and i won't feel guilty if that is the case, but my desire is to give something extra of myself to those who are dearest to me throughout the season.

in our church, as in many christian churches, we light a special candle in an advent wreath each sunday during advent and have a special liturgy around the lighting of that sunday's candle.  this sunday the theme of the liturgy is "hope," so we say that we "light the candle of hope."  during my time of prayer and meditation this morning, i focused on hope.  in a sense hope removes us from the present and as such can be a means of ignoring the present.  it that sense, hope is not a good thing.  but hope is a word that conjures up positive thoughts for me.  it directs my thinking toward positive transformation, toward a pattern of development that says that the next moment will be even better than the present one because the present moment is so precious, that life is moving in a direction where suffering and want are diminished by actions that grow from hope in a better world.

there is an archaic meaning for the word hope that is related to the concept of trust, as in "Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God" (from psalm 146).  in that sense, hope takes on an even more positive meaning.  when hope is united with trust, we have a sense that the present and future are one, and our efforts, though faltering, will move us and the world in the right direction so long as our focus is on the right kind of effort, effort that flows from compassion and loving-kindness.

whether you are a christian, an adherent of some other religion, or a follower of no religion, my prayer during this special season is that despair gives way to hope, that hate gives way to love, and that indifference gives way to compassion.  may we seek transformation that brings us closer to the denial of our selfish attachments and the surrender of our lives to the well-being of others.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I Am Jesus' Little Lamb

a few days ago, i came across a statement attributed to john the baptizer in the third chapter of luke. john is condemnng the religious elite and tells them that God is able to raise up sons of abraham from the stones on the ground, thus debunking their claims of special status because they are part of "God's chosen people." upon investigating further, i found that matthew 3 contains this same incident. reading this caused me to think about our western philosophy of the uniqueness of each person. it seemed to me that john was suggesting that the idea that each person is "special," a soul created by God for a specific purpose, may not be how things really are.

the recent vote on "personhood" in the neighboring state of mississippi ties into what john said in his stinging rebuke to the religious leaders of his time. if we believe that God can create "sons of abraham" as john suggests, is each embryo that has the potential for development into a human life deserving of protection as an individual? is the "self" that we talk so much about in our culture real?

Jesus speaks of denying oneself, and we usually interpret that to mean that in doing so and taking up one's cross, we are to live a life of self-sacrifice. could Jesus be suggesting something more than that? are we part of a "collective self" that binds each of us inextricably together and links us to the God of creation? perhaps it is our own vanity that causes us to imagine that each of us is an independent "self" with a special mission and purpose.

i am not quite ready to abandon the belief in a "self" that is separate and unique, but i must ask myself the question of whether i am a "self" because i think i am such or is this "self" something i have created in my mind that doesn't exist in reality. one day i will have an answer to that question, but it may not come in this life. my prayer today is that each of will see our connection with those other "selves" that populate the world, will see that we could just have easily been one of those other "selves," and that our hearts are filled with joy and compassion for each "self" that struggles for understanding and compaasion.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dona Nobis Pacem

in the united states, we are approaching thanksgiving day. like most families here, we are planning a time with extended family, a part of which will be a huge feast shared by several generations of family members. it will be a joyful time, as we celebrate with this large group, and it will be a stressful time of tolerating spoiled children and yelling parents. after it's all over, we'll look back and complain about the stresses and recall fondly the opportunity of being with all those that we see all too infrequently.

thanksgiving, at least for me, is a time of assessing the past year, and it's a time of reflecting on how my life has changed. i try not to write about me so much in this blog, except about how the teachings of christianity and bhuddism can be applied to my life. in this post, though, i want to write about the continuing transformation of my life as i study and contemplate those teachings, in keeping with the title of my blog.

to that end, here is the list of ways i believe my life has been transformed over the past few months:
i no longer have "bad" days. sure, there are frustrations that arise, and there are days when nothing seems to go right, but at the end of those days, i still can give thanks that everything was as it should have been.
i don't make "to do" lists. if something is not important enough to remember, it's probably not really that important to start with.
i don't have goals, other than to live each day trying to be mindful of what's and who's around me.
i wake up each morning at whatever time my body tells me to (usually around 6:00) excited about spending at least 30 minutes in meditation and prayer. this is, i guess, one of the greatest transformation in my life--to spend this time not as a duty but as an exciting opportunity.
i constantly remind myself that every task can be a joyful offering to god, and, in this way, even tasks that would otherwise have been onerous become pleasant.
i take things as they come, rather than becoming upset when my day doesn't work out as i had planned it.
i'm not as focused on things (possessions), but rather am more concerned about people and ideas.
i'm filled with joy and feel more at peace with myself and others.

i don't feel especially virtuous, and i'm filled with doubts about whether i'm doing as much as i ought to make the world a better place. despite my abandonment of establishing goals, making lists, developing action plans, forgetting about life missions and core values, i sense that my life is moving in the right directions. guilt and duty have been replaced by the realization that i'm not perfect and that it's ok not to be perfect. in short, life is good and getting better!

my prayer today is that my transformation continues and that each of us is in the process of being transformed into the joyful, peaceful, caring person that we are intended to be. shalom.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Where Your Treasure Is, There Will Your Heart Be Also

during the last few days, i've been thinking about the second of the four noble truths in buddhist teaching. this "truth" is sometimes stated as "attachment is the cause of suffering" or as "craving and ignorance are the causes of suffering." in that regard, i've also been thinking of what Jesus taught along those same lines. much of Jesus' teaching deals with the concept of valuing the wrongs things in life.

this line of thought struck me as i read the account in the tenth chapter of matthew of Jesus sending His disciples out to teach in the villages of galilee. He instructed them to take no money, to take no extra clothing, and to depend on the generosity of others. Wasn't Jesus suggesting to His disciples that their ministry of teaching and healing among the people was to be free of the worry of how they would support themselves as they went from village to village?

as i thought about this, i recalled other instances where Jesus taught that His followers should be free of attachment to the impermanent physical world. He said that we should not put our trust in the riches of the world, but that we should "lay up treasure in heaven." He taught that we should not worry about how to secure the necessities of life, buth rather to "consider the lilies of the field" whose beautiful appearance could not be matched even by "solomon in all his glory." He taught that His followers should become as little children who live simply and joyfully from moment to moment without thought of the acquisition of possessions or status.

as i examine my own life, i find that i live much more simply than i once did, but i am still attached to so many of the transitory objects that are not necessary for true happiness. my prayer for myself and others this day is that we learn to value what is truly important and that we recognize the difference between what is permament and what is impermanent.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

OUR Father . . . Give US . . . Forgive US OUR . . . Deliver US . . . Lead US

the pattern for posting i've begun is to write new posts on sunday and schedule them to be posted on the following tuesday. during the week i list ideas for future posts and mull those ideas over as i prepare for the following sunday's writing experience. one of the ideas that came to me this week was the use of the plural first-person pronoun in the lord's prayer. i've begun to conclude my morning meditation with a silent recitation of this prayer, and it suddenly struck me that Jesus didn't pray "my father" or "give me this day my daily bread;" He used "our," and "us." was Jesus suggesting that His gospel was one of concern for the common good rather than then individual good?

this concept has been much on my mind as i think about the path our country must choose approaching the upcoming election. while i don't want to make any political statements in the post i write this morning, i can't escapt the solcial implications of Jesus' teachings. i think of his reply to the wealthy man who asked Jesus about how to gain eternal life, a teaching i've posted about recently. in replying to the man, was Jesus telling him that his wealth was causing him to focus on himself, that in order to gain eternal life he had to let go of his self-interest and give himself over to caring for others? when Jesus taught that the summation of the law and the prophets was whole-hearted love for God and loving one's neighbor as oneself, was He teaching that the two are so interconnected that it is impossible to have one without the other? when Jesus taught that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and clothe the naked we are doing these kindnesses to Him, was he suggesting that our acts of kindness to others were truly acts of love for God?

the more i read the gospels (matthew is my currect project after several read-throughs of mark), the more i am convinced that the teachings of Jesus were not about an individual salvation, but a collective one. i have come to believe that when Jesus told us that one must lose one's life in order to save that life what He was teaching is that in serving others we forget "self" and become true citizens of the kingdom of which Jesus spoke. in this real sense, as john greenleaf whittier said, each smile becomes a hymn, each kindly deed becomes a prayer.

my prayer this week is that we will look to the common good, not the individual good, for it is only by looking to that common good that the indivual good is truly realized, that we replace the "i's" and "me's" in our lives with "we" and "us."

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Wise May Bring Their Learning, The Rich May Bring Their Wealth

a few days ago, my wife attended a meeting with some other women at our church. in the discussion, the occupy wall street protests came up. one woman commented that what the protestors didn't understand was that the wealthy were responsible for most of the giving in the country, and therefore should be allowed to keep more of their wealth so that their generosity would be encouraged. another agreed. my wife and the others said nothing, because these remarks had diverted the discussion from the topic of the meeting, and they returned to the topic at hand.

when my wife came home, we discussed what had been said. we were both astonished at the attitude of the two women who had used this occasion to condemn the "occupy" movement. this hit home to me so soon after reading about Jesus' comments concerning the giving of the poor widow in comparison to the giving of the wealthy and my post about my thoughts. again, i was reminded of the great division in our country between those who have so much and the remainder of the people. i cannot understand why there are those who cannot see that the current situation will not sustain our democracy. we must not allow an economic system that concentrates more and more of the wealth of the nation in the hands of fewer and fewer people. we have witnessed a great transfer of resources from those who produce the wealth to those who control the economic system. when huge salaries are paid to speculators and those highest on the corporate ladder are paid salaries and bonuses far beyond what they deserve at the expense of those who have produced the resources for those salaries and bonuses, our economic system is broken, and its brokenness must be repaired.

obviously, i am in sympathy with the "occupy" protestors and admire their efforts to call attention to the economic inequities in our country. my prayer today is that those in power will heed the call of the protestors to make the american dream possible once more, to restore the confidence of our people in the promise of our democracy, and to lead us to address the common good rather than the good of the wealthiest few. the way i read it, the gospel demands that we do so.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

All Things Are Thine; No Gift Have We, Lord of All Gifts, to Offer Thee:

shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus observed those who were making offerings of money in the temple (mark 12:41-44). He saw the wealthy give large amounts, but among those in the crowd was a poor widow. after seeing the widow's meager offering, Jesus called His disciples to Him, and commented that, even though the rich made much larger gifts, the widow's gift was much greater. The gifts of the rich hardly made a dent in their great wealth, but the widow gave "all she had to live on" (mark 12:44).

this teaching of Jesus caused me to think about our present economic situation. the very soul of the united states is being determined by the actions of those we've elected. we have on the one hand large numbers of our people who are jobless--good, honest people with families who are turning to charity to sustain them, who are losing the homes they've worked so hard to buy, who want to work and will take the most menial jobs in order to provide for their families. we have thousands of well-educated college graduates who've invested large sums to acquire their educations, often financing their educations by borrowing money, who cannot find work. on the other hand, we have many wealthy individuals and families who are untouched by the economic problems of the country. their wealth continues to grow, and their allies in government are arguing that to ask them to contribute more to alleviate the suffering of the remainder of the country amounts to "class warfare." Large corporations are hoarding huge sums that could be used to put people to work, and their allies in government argue that these "job creators" should not be required to use their resources for the common good.

for me, the implications of Jesus' words to His disciples is clear. those who have great wealth also have great responsibilities. from those who have much, much is required. the small gift of the poor widow represented a great sacrifice on her part, while the large gifts of the rich required no sacrifice. their remaining wealth was more than enough to take care of their needs, while the widow had little left to provide the necessities of life.

my prayer today is that we see the implications of Jesus' teaching. we are obligated to care for one another, and those who have it in their power to give of their abundance to alleviate the suffering of those who are hurting are obligated by the gospel of Jesus to do so. this teaching applies not only to our private lives, but to our public lives as well.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

One Great Fellowship of Love Throughout the Whole Wide Earth

as i re-read the gospel of mark a few days ago, i wondered about the decapolis, the region in which the man, legion, from whom Jesus cast out a number of demons, lived. i discovered as i researched that these ten cities comprising the "decapolis" were quite different from other areas of palestine. they were, in fact, more greek than jewish or roman, city-states very much on the greek model. this accounts for the raising of pigs like the herd into which Jesus sent the demons that He cast out of legion. it also explains the reaction of the inhabitants of the region, who, unlike the common folk of galilee, feared Jesus and wanted Him to leave.

this discovery that Jesus had gone to an area that was not just hellenistic in culture, but truly an extension of greek ethnicity in the midst of the predominately jewish population led me to think of a part of Jesus' ministry to which i had given little consideration. Jesus later travels to tyre, where he heals the daughter of a woman who lives there. He goes on to sidon, then comes back into the region of the decapolis, where He continues His healing ministry. he travels, too, among the samaritans. Jesus' ministry was not just a ministry to the jewish people, but He reaches out to other ethnic groups and adherents of other religions who live in the same part of the world.

while we think of Jesus as a reformer of jewish religious practice, His ministry to the people of the decapolis, in what we now think of as lebanon, and to the samaritans demonstrates that Jesus' view was broader than that of a jewish reformer or revolutionary. the true religion that Jesus taught was broader than the religion advocated by the religious elite in roman-occupied galilee and judea. though rooted in judaism, the religion of Jesus was based on human need and the love of God for all people.

my prayer today is that we, like Jesus, reach out to those who are different from us, to those who practice other religions, who are unlike us culturally, and that our love is based on the needs of others. may we have a love that encompasses those of every ethnicity and religion, truly being a neighbor to all.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Man’s Face Fell. He Went Away Sad, Because He Had Great Wealth.

for the past several days, i've been reflecting on ways in which my research into the culture in which Jesus lived might influence my thinking about His life. one of the incidents in Jesus' life that i see in a somewhat different light is the encounter of Jesus with the wealthy man who wanted to know how to inherit eternal life (luke 10:17-25). the man was an observant jew who followed the commandments, and Jesus, who "looked at him and loved him (mark 10:21)," told him to sell his possessions and come follow Him. the man was disappointed in Jesus' answer and left filled with sadness. why did Jesus give that instruction to the man? even the disciples were perplexed.

i wonder if Jesus was commenting on the source of the man's wealth. most likely, that wealth was acquired through the oppression of others, either by the man himself or by members of his family. was Jesus trying to get the man to see that his wealth was an obstacle to his embracing the full teaching of Jesus, since that wealth had been gained through the hard labor of others, rather than through honest work that the man had done? was Jesus also teaching his disciples that there was no virtue in wealth, that the wealthy were no more favored by God than any others, that, in fact, because of how wealth in this culture was acquired, the wealthy were less likely to understand the true religion that Jesus was teaching?

we are engaged in a great battle of conscience in the united states now. those who value wealth and who see personal wealth as the realization of the "pursuit of happiness" which our declaration of independence enshrined as a national value want to continue and strengthen a system that allows the rich to become richer at the expense of the rest of the population. others believe that government, in its role of "promot[ing] the general welfare" as our constitution directs, should see that the poor are cared for, that health care is available to all, that the victims of natural disasters receive assistance, that all who want to work have the opportunity to do so, and that all citizens pay their fair share of the expense of helping to realize the "general welfare" mission of government. which point-of-view is consistent with the teachings of Jesus? are we becoming the "new rome?"

my prayer today is that we examine how our actions in our daily lives and our political lives affect others and that we will embrace the teachings of Jesus that save us from the hypocrisy of blaming the poor for their poverty and seeing wealth as the reward for living a virtuous life.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

O Where Are Kings and Empires Now

during the last couple of weeks, i have been investigating the culture into which Jesus was born. when i first began writing this post several days ago, i reviewed the history of the jewish people from the period of Alexander's conquests to the time of Jesus, but i don't want to write a history lesson. anyone who is interested in this period can easily find the information, as i did. what struck me about the milieu of roman palestine was the great contrast between the rich and the poor, and it was to the poor that Jesus chose to minister.

the wealthy lived in luxury in the cities--in sepphoris, tiberias, caesarea maritima, jerusalem--while the rest of the population supported them. the government was corrupt and unmoved by the plight of ordinary people. none of the major population centers of palestine, except jerusalem, are mentioned in the gospels. jesus grew up in the shadow of sepphoris, yet there is no record that He ever traveled the few miles between nazareth and this home of one of herod antipas' palaces. instead, He visited small fishing and farming villages, He saw the great needs of the people and had compassion for them, He taught them that the kingdom of God was not a kingdom like that of the romans or that of herod, but a kingdom whose citizens care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, the defenseless, in stark contrast to the way life was conducted in roman palestine.

Jesus taught a religion that was lived out in day-to-day life, not the religion of burdensome rules intended to lead to ritual purity as the pharisees taught. He taught that the religious compromises of the sadducees, made to protect their positions of power and privilege and to ingratiate themselves with the wealthy and the romans, were just as wrong. He taught that the withdrawal from life to live in monastic communities to wait for the coming of the messiah like the essenes had done was not the way of true religion. only living out one's religion in love for others was and is the way to the kingdom of God.

the example of Jesus' life, His ministry to those who were forgotten by the rich and the roman conquerors, is striking. no other teacher in His time lived out such a religion. it is my prayer that we learn from the example of Jesus, that we see the parallels between His times and ours, that we confront the growing gap between the rich and the poor and that we work to minister to those who, like the ordinary folk of Jesus' day, are forgotten by those in power.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

When Israel Was in Egypt's Land

last Lord's Day, one of our pastors preached about the first observance of the passover. as she spoke, i tried to place myself in the shoes of an israelite slave in ancient egypt. during the passover meal, i would be sitting with my family, hastily chewing my food in our miserable shack with lamb's blood smeared on the door frame. i would be fully dressed with my walking stick in one hand as i ate with the other hand. i would be ready to leave at a moment's notice. how excited i would be to think that i am almost free of the cruel slavery that has been my lot since birth!

then i began to think of the resurrection. shouldn't i be just as excited to think of the freedom that Jesus showed us is ours? for many generations, human beings feared the finality of death. with Jesus' resurrection, we are free from that fear. we are free to live life, relishing every moment of this life and, all the while, we can look forward to the transition that death brings to another life.

what sort of life will that new life be? we can't know until we experience it. maybe we will be born again to experience life in a different body and to have another chance to make right some of the wrongs we did in this life. maybe we will be in another place where we no longer experience the trials and sufferings of this life. whatever happens after death, Jesus demonstrated that we can be free of the fear of death. death is not the end of our existence.

my prayer today is that we live our lives mindfully, experiencing each moment as fully as we can, because we need not fear the future. we are free of that fear.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Like the Brightness After Rain That Brings Grass from the Earth

we are experiencing a severe drought in our part of the country. grass is brown; trees, especially small ones, are dying; livestock and wildlife are in dire straits. in many areas, though not in our town, water is being rationed. we are beginning to hear calls for prayer services to implore God to send rain.

as i rode on my morning bike ride a few days ago, i looked at the brown vegetation and thought about these calls for prayer. do i believe that God is the cause of the drought? no. if i, as an individual, or we, as a collective, pray for rain, and it doesn't come, is God refusing to listen to me (us) or punish me (us) for some great sin? no. then, is it appropriate for any of us to pray for rain? my conclusion is that it is not. the drought is part of a natural process, or perhaps it is the result of our indifference to the environmental harm that we are doing by emitting great quantities of greenhouse gasses. in any eventuality, God is not the cause of our suffering.

for what, then, should we pray? perhaps wisdom to stop our damage to the atmosphere? perhaps wisdom to deal intelligently with the results of the drought? perhaps wisdom to know the priorities to choose in saving what we can and allowing other living things to perish? do i believe that God could send rain? certainly, but i also believe it is wrong to ask for God to interfere if the drought is caused by natural forces and wrong to ask God to intervene if the drought is caused by our own selfishness. those who are praying for rain will eventually see the rains return and will credit their prayers for ending the drought, but i believe that God has set nature in motion and lovingly helps us deal with the effects of those natural forces.

my prayer today is that we will have wisdom to deal with the effects of the drought intelligently and compassionately and that we neither blame God for the drought nor ask God to intervene miraculously to end it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Silence of Eternity, Interpreted by Love

this week i've been doing some study about topics i mentioned in my last post: i've been exploring the history of the jewish nation in palestine in the period leading up to, and during, the roman occupation, i've done some reading on the saducees, pharisees, and essenes, i've learned a little about jewish scriptural interpretation, i've begun reading the gospel of thomas, and i've read all of the passages in the four gospels, acts, and romans that mention "sin" and related words. as i've read jewish history in the period of the Hasmonean dynasty and the Herodian dynasty that followed, i've begun to think of the intrigues and cruelties that were the norm in the leadership of the jewish nation and of the difficulties common people must have experienced, especially in galilee, as they dealt with the demands of the roman occupiers, of the herodian tetrarchy, and the minutiae of rules that made up the expectations of the religious leaders. this was the world in which Jesus lived, and one can begin to see what Jesus meant when He spoke of taking up His light yoke.

in contrast to the demands of the prevailing interpretations of the law, Jesus taught that one's actions must flow from love, that the inner life is more important that outer ritual actions. He taught that the ultra-nationalism of the dominant religious parties and the zealots was counterproductive, and He encouraged His followers to transform society by looking to the common good rather than plotting against the romans. how remarkable His teachings must have seemed to those who listened to Him! in the face of the oppresive demands of the government and religious elite, some of whom were collaborators with the romans and herod, Jesus spoke of a way of life that honored love for God and others, one that gave women a new and prominent role, one that set aside prejudices that divided people of differing nationalities and religious backgrounds.

my prayer today is that we walk in the way that Jesus taught, practicing the religion of caring for one another and treating each other with kindess and respect. may we see the light of God in each person we encounter and remember that what we do to and for others, we do to and for Jesus.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Make Thy Way Plain Before My Face

this morning as i prepared to read my daily gospel passages, i discovered that the site i use to access those passages was down. i have been reading the gospels in a parallel version so that i can make comparisons between them with the intention of discovering the differences between them and of having a more complete picture of Jesus' life. i am nearing the end of that process, having reached the point at which Jesus dies on the cross. since i couldn't read as i intended, i decided to take stock of what comes next and where my heart is leading me in my studies.

i plan to do two things: first, to learn as much as i can about what life was like in roman palestine during the lifetime of Jesus, and, second, to explore what "sin" is. in christianity there is such an emphasis on sin, but i don't feel "sinful." i am not overwhelmed with guilt, and that is something about which i am puzzled. when i attend our church service, there is much said about sin. we confess our sins as a congregation, we sing about sin, we hear sermons about sin, we pray for forgiveness from our sins. i'm not sure i understand what "sin" is. is it analogous to the "suffering" of buddhism? are we each "totally depraved?" one of the psalm paraphrases we sometimes sing says, "i am evil, born in sin." is that so? this is a topic i feel compelled to investigate.

here is my plan once i complete my readings of the gospels in parallel: i plan to alternate between studies about life in roman palestine and readings from the new testament about the nature of sin, journaling as i read on both topics. following those studies, i plan to reread each gospel individually, but this time in large "chunks," rather than a few verses at a time. by so doing, i hope to have a broader picture of each gospel, reading each one as a more complete narrative and journaling about what i learn from that approach.

my prayer for each of us this day is that we listen to what our heart tells us, that we pursue what we believe our inner voice, which i believe is that of God in us, is leading us toward, and that we are constantly seeking to learn and grow.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

In Lowly Paths of Service Free

when Jesus said, "I am the way . . .; no one comes to the Father except through me," (john 4:6) what did He mean?  did He mean that only those who are christians could have access to God?  do we correctly interpret this teaching when we assert that only christians can be "saved?"  what do we mean by "being saved?"  these are questions i think about daily.  recently i wrote of my evolving convictions about "true religion."  i am struggling to share my thoughts about what the truth is concerning our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

i wonder as i think on the context of Jesus' teaching about being "the way" if He is not making a statement about the truth of His teaching when compared to the legalism of the prevailing jewish religion in roman palestine.  might Jesus be saying that the perversions of the law taught by the religious leaders is a false religion, but His way, as evidenced in His ministry and teachings, is the true path to God?  Could Jesus be saying that it is the law of love, not the law of twisted rules that enable one to act contrary to the law of love, that is the path that leads to God?

long ago i rejected the definitions of being "born again," of "being saved," as those phrases are used by conservative evangelical christians.  for me the notion of being born again or being saved simply means turning away from the seflishness of the past and commiting oneself to living a life of service, to making the needs of others as high a priority as one's own needs, to living in the light God gives each person.  when that commitment is made, we are new people who live a new reality, we are saved from lives of self-serving narrowness and reborn as servants of others.  we come to believe that "whoever would be great among [us] must become [a] servant." (mark 10:43)

for me, this is the path of true religion.  those who walk that path have been led to "the way" of which Jesus spoke.  that way is not a path that excludes those who are not christians.  instead, it is a path that admits all who pay the toll of abandoning a life of selfish pleasure in favor of a life of compassion for all who suffer.  my prayer this day is that we would each find our way along that path, picking up those along the way who have stumbled and need our help.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Who Serves My Father as His Child Is Surely Kin to Me

a friend wrote me about one of my posts recently, and his comments prompted me to think about how my belief in a creator God influences how i live my life.  one of the blogs i read frequently is an atheist blog (atheism.about.com/b/) which often questions the notion that belief in God causes one to live a more moral life.  as i watch the behavior of many of those who are the most vocal about their christian beliefs, i wonder if religion, and more particulary christianity, motivates one to live a moral life.  i suppose the question of what one means by "morality" is the key in making such a determination.  

for me, a moral life is one that is concerned about the well-being of others.  Jesus teaches that we should love others as we love ourselves.  are we moral people if we ignore the plight of the homeless, the hungry, the poor, the elderly, and the sick?  are we moral beings if we prosper at others' expense?  must one accept orthodox christian theology to practice the teachings of Jesus?  when Jesus said that those who love others as they love themselves are children of God, did He mean that those who don't believe in God but love in this sense are God's children?

the essence of true religion, i have come to believe, is to have this sort of love for our fellow creatures.  one cannot love the Creator without loving the created.  in loving those created by God, one expresses love for God, even when one rejects the notion that there is a God.  in this sense, i am convinced that it is possible to be a christian while rejecting most of christianity's orthodox beliefs, including belief in God.   if there is something of God within each of us, we can be led to true religion without agreeing that there is such a thing as "true religion."  

each day as i read, pray, meditate, and think, i am brought more and more to an acceptance of universalism and rejection of christian "exclusivism."  we are all part of a human family struggling to understand what it is to be truly human, and the more we come to love and care for one another, the more human we become.  my prayer today is that each of us grows in love for ourselves and for one another and that we place a higher value on compassion for each other than we place on "stuff" that has little lasting value.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

as i rode my bike along the park trail a few days ago, i began zooming down the one steep hill on the trail.  to my great disappointment, i saw a car driving along the street at the bottom of the trail, which meant i'd have to slow way down rather than flying into the turn i make onto the street when i reach the bottom of the hill.  my first reaction was, "why is this happening to me?"  then i realized this event wasn't about me.  it was simply one of those random happenings that change our plans.  as i rode on, i thought about how often we think that life is about "us."  it's not.  things happen, we deal with it and accept that things don't have to work out as we planned.  

are these events that cause us to alter our plans part of some grand design?  was the car preventing my planned flying trip down the hill and into the street placed there so i'd think about the alterations we are sometimes forced to make in life?  i don't think so.  most of the events in our lives are random.  they are the intersections between where others are going and where we are going.  frequently those intersections prevent us from going on as we had planned, and we need to accept the changes they require without aggravation or going into the "why me!" mode.

life isn't about "me."  life is about acceptanace, about giving up control, about just breathing and being.  how wonderful it is to realize that i am not in control and that accepting life as it happens is the source of great joy.  God is in my heart, so everything's OK.  my prayer this morning is that each of us can let go of the idea that life is about us and that we can give up the futile efforts at controlling the events of life.  may we accept what comes and rejoice in it, even when it's not what we planned.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Clear Our Eyes That We May See All the Things That Really Matter

it's a quiet morning.  i have had my morning time of meditation and prayer, have been for a bike ride, have set out fresh food and water for the cats inside and out, have started a sprinkler on our japanese maple that is stressed by the heat, have done my daily gospel reading and journaling, and am dressed for the day.  as i sit in my chair, i am reflecting on what a wonderful life i've been given and looking forward to the challenges of the day.

in a few minutes, workers will arrive to work on the remodeling of our front bathroom (my bathroom!) and the quiet will be ended.  my wife is still sleeping and i hope that she can sleep as long as she wants and needs to, since every other morning this week she has had to rise earlier than she would like because of the obligations of the day.  i have some catching up to do on posting grades and attendance for my summer school class, i have some tax business to attend to, i have a stack of papers in my inbox that need my attention, and i have some work to do for the symphony.  it sounds like a busy day, but i've been planning this day all week, saving up these chores that will require some longer periods of focus.  this is my day off from my class this week, and the banks from which i need to get tax information will be open.

i am grateful for these minutes of quiet when no chores demand my attention and when my morning routine is completed.  i don't get such "empty" time often, and i am relishing it.  the perfection of each day amazes me.  i sometimes wish i could relive my life with the knowledge that i now have of the goodness of life, the great gifts of God, but i know that all my past experiences have led me to this point.  it has taken me over sixty years to realize that life is much more simple than i used to believe.  God loves and cares for me, there is great joy in the unpredictability of life, and i have everything i need.  i am content.

how do i share that contentment with those i love most?  can i communicate to them the great joy and peace in my heart and mind?  this is my prayer today: that each of us can find that "quiet center" for our lives and help others to find theirs.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love

a few days ago, i came across a great post by brian mclaren (http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Debt-Ceiling-Dreams-Brian-McLaren-07-14-2011.html/) in which he discusses the current debate in congress concerning the national debt and the debt ceiling. mclaren's post cites the epistle of james several times, so i decided last night that i would reread it. in reading, i was reminded of the epistle's practical advice that a faith that does not compel one to action in the service of others is not a real faith, and i wondered if the writer was rebutting the position that good works are not sacramental. the dangers of an uncontrolled tongue hit home, bringing to mind the buddhist emphasis on effort in achieving the desired result and the teaching that self-control is a necessary virtue. the God of james' epistle is a God of love. the writer very clearly says that God does not test (or in some translations "tempt") us, but it is our own cravings and desires that cause us to be tested, or tempted. showing preferential treatment to those who have wealth or fame, while demeaning those who are poor, is condemned, and we are cautioned to treat everyone as a neighbor.

it would be a wonderful world if each of us could live in the way that the epistle of james suggests. there could be no better summary of the good news of Jesus that this short letter. i pray that each of us will take the words of james' epistle to heart and that we will learn to live in obedience to the perfect law of love.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

To Worship Rightly Is to Love Each Other

(This post was written on July 17, but was not posted until July 19.)

today i am returning home from a music conference that i attend each summer, if i am able. some years, there have been date conflicts that have made my attendance impossible, but this retreat is so energizing and enriching, i attend if i possibly can. over the years, i've made many friends who attend regularly, and, even though we don't stay in touch through the months between conferences, as soon as i see them it is as if we are seeing long-lost family members. we spend many hours catching up on what has happened in our lives.

the husband of one of those friends has just lost his job, and earlier in the year she had been pushed out of her church job by an uncaring and insenstive pastor. as we talked, i thought of how often this happens in churches. i am guilty of the same insensitivity. all too often, we come charging into positions in the church thinking we have all the answers, we know how things ought to be done, and, by god, we'll do things OUR ways. i pray that i no longer think in that way, but i know in the past, i've been too certain of my own "rightness" and too indifferent to the opinions and feelings of others.

how sad it is that we, who call ourselves christians, impose our lives on others, rather than heeding Jesus when He says that in order to gain one's life, one must lose it. i am reminded of the dalai lama's words: “This is my simple religion; . . . the philosophy is kindness.” my prayer this day is that we will gain life by losing it in service and that we practice the simple religion of kindness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Want to Be a Christian in My Heart

i am reading the four gospels set out in a parallel format (the link is www.parallelgospelsinharmony.com/). i have reached the point at which the four gospels converge at the end of Jesus' ministry when He returns to jerusalem for His last observance of passover just before His crucifixion and resurrection. during my morning meditation, i was led to think about what i've learned about Jesus as i re-read the gospels using this process. i am not a theologian or a bible scholar. i can only write what is in my heart, and the place where i am now is by no means a final destination.

here's where i am in understanding what Jesus came to teach us: it seems to me that Jesus is saying to the jewish people (and ultimately to us who choose to follow Him), "what you've been taught about the law and the nature of God is wrong. the law is not about the ritual observance of myraid rules and regulations intended to restrict the enjoyment of life. it's not about actions that will save you from a wrathful, judgmental God. the law is about love, love for God and love for you neighbor. you ask 'who is my neighbor?' well, your neighbor is anyone you encounter that needs your help, that needs to see the love of God through how you treat your neighbor. God is a god of love, always ready to welcome one who has strayed, just as a shepherd rejoices in finding a sheep that was lost or a father rejoices in the return of a son who has wandered far from home. don't listen to those who teach otherwise, who seek to control you by making you believe that God is a tyrant that wants you to be saddled with the heavy yoke of useless regulations. these folks do this to keep you under their thumbs and protect their positions of privilege and power. instead, come and rest in me, live a life of abundance and joy, be free of thirst by drinking the living waters that flow from my teachings about love."

this is certainly an oversimplification of what and who Jesus is and was, but right now, for this searcher, this is the very core of what the christian faith is. quarrels over theology, arguments about original sin, debates over the divinity of Jesus are beside the point. i believe that christianity is a simple religion--it's about how to live for the benefit of others, how to accept that life isn't fair and we can't control it. Despite life's vagaries, God is good and wants us to enjoy living in God's presence, in the kingdom here and now. everything else is the stuff that Jesus came to banish from our thinking.

My prayer this morning is that each of us senses that of God that is in us and that we allow that "divine spark" lead us to truth and love.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Onward, Christian Soldiers?

last sunday, i attended church with my dad at his church. the theme of the service was a patriotic one, and the sermon addressed the topic of religious freedom. as the minister spoke about religious freedom being the reason our ancestors came to this country so long ago, i wondered if the baptists and quakers in colonial massachusetts found those who governed massachusetts to be proponents of religious freedom. this myth of religious freedom being the reason that the early colonists came to this "new world" is another of those "founding father" myths about an idealized colonial america that didn't exist. rather, many of those who came here wished to make their own brand of christianity the "established" religion rather than the church of england. true, there were some colonies where religious freedom flourished, such as rhode island and pennsylvania, but many of the early colonists wanted to establish their own theology and polity as the official church. it was against this history of religious tyranny that the real founding fathers proposed to establish a government that was free of any hint of religious preference or establishment, that was "religion-free" and "religion-neutral."

as the sermon went on, i wondered how this preacher, and many others in the current religious-political climate, could on the one hand extol the virtues of the religious freedom practiced in colonical america and at the same time call for a return to the dominance of evangelical christianity as the religion of the land. can we be a "christian nation" and have religious freedom? where do jews, muslims, hindus, universalists, pantheists, agnostics, and atheists find religious freedom in this return to an imagined christian united states? doesn't this call to return to roots that never existed betray the very reason our country came into being?

my prayer today is that we speak out against those who suggest that we are or ever were a christian nation and that we learn to respect those whose light leads them in another direction.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

His Life Seconds Numbering (Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock)

a few days ago, i listened to part of a conversation on public radio about the effects the widespread use of clocks had on people's lives.  how many expressions that we use owe their existence to time-keeping devices?  or, for that matter, how contradictory is the term "time-keeping?"  does a device that measures time really "keep" time?  we're "off the clock" or "on the clock."  we've "clocked out."  we rock "around the clock."  we are asked if we "have the time," when what we mean is "what time does your watch tell you it is now?"

could people really be late for something before there was a precise mechanism for accurately telling what time something was to begin?  before clocks, the only days that had twenty-four hours were the two equinoxes.  the other days went from surise until sunset, while the nights went from sunset until the next sunrise, and the seasons determined the appropriate times for our activities, rather than a device which divided each day in twenty-four hours, each hour into sixty minutes, and each minute into sixty seconds.  the rhythm of life was more natural, and chances are people moved through life more deliberately and mindfully.

i cannot imagiine what life would be like without a watch or clock.  i wouldn't know when it was time to move from one activity to another, when it was time to take a break, when it was time to eat, when it was time to sleep.  would i be able to rely on my senses to tell me these things?  could i depend on my natural clock to say, "you've spent enough time on this, it's time to move on to something else?"  would my body determine when it was time to eat or sleep, and would i be mindful enough to pay attention to my body-clock?  when i'm brave enough, i'll try to spend a day without referring to a watch or clock, i'll shut off the two chiming clocks in the house, leave my watch on the dresser, and see what happens.

my prayer for this day is that we all become more mindful of our bodies and the world around us as we search for the natural rhythms of life a little more rather than relying on a mechanical or electronic devices to determine what we do with the time we're given.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

We Wither and Perish

the story of abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son, isaac, continues to be in my thoughts. the writer of the devotionals i have been reading suggests that perhaps God was not so much testing abraham as God was using this incident to allow abraham to discover the depth of abraham's faith in God. this is a more satisfactory explanation for me, but not one that is in accord with the bible's account, which clearly says (at least in the translation into English) that God was testing abraham. what has been occupying my mind from this story is isaac. here is a father that he loves and respects who takes him far from his home, binds him, lays him on an altar that the two have built together, and raises a knife above him. what terror isaac must have been feeling, how desperately his mind must have been racing to understand abraham's treatment of him. why would a loving God ever subject a child to such treatment? my only answer is that God would not, and this story has some other meaning, one that i continue to pray to be led to.

the current talk of american exceptionalism has also been much in my mind. it seems to me that this belief that the united states is somehow ordained by God to be better than, more moral than, superior to all other countries is highly offensive. those who are promoting this view are, not surprisingly, evangelical christians who also believe in christian exceptionalism, and their views of both american and christian exceptionalism go hand in hand. smugly, they tell us that as americans and christians we are ordained by God to become wealthier, healthier, smarter than everyone else in the world, and i fear for our country and the world if their view becomes ascendant. isn't this the very attitude that Jesus railed against in his condemnations of the jewish leaders who proclaimed jewish exceptionalism while collaborating with the romans, who used the law to perpetuate a system which gave them power and prestige while the rest of the nation suffered?

today, as i sit in my home during the quiet of the early morning, i am filled with peace, knowing that everything is impermanent, that the current political turmoil is only temporary, that the cycle of life will continue. that very cycle is the permanence God set in motion and the cause of impermanence. my prayer today is that we will all know peace and the confidence that God dwells in us and around us and that God loves us despite our human frailties.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Allow the Little Children to Come to Me

i have been reading a series of devotions based on the Genesis 22 story of God commanding abraham to take his son, isaac, and offer him as a burnt offering.  this story is especially troubling to me, because it raises some difficult questions if i take the story literally:

does God test us as the story suggests God tested abraham?
is the story consistent with what Jesus taught about the nature of God?
is the story consistent with what Jesus taught about children?
why did God speak to abraham through an angel?
what does the story say about abraham if he was willing to kill his own son?

if i take this story literally, the god of this story is not the God that i worship.  i cannot believe that the God of love would ask someone to do such a thing to see if that person was completely obedient, because God already knows our hearts.  God knows the depth of our faith and does not need to test us in such a way.  no father who is grateful for the gift of a son would ever sacrifice that son because of the command of a capricious god.

what, then, does the story mean? why is it in the Bible?  perhaps the point of the story was to teach abraham that the practice of human sacrifice was not consistent with true religion.  the conventional interpretation is that the story prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus; isaac represents Jesus and abraham represents God; as abraham was willing to sacrifice isaac, so God was willing to sacrifice God's Son.  that interpretation is problematic for me, because the relationship between Jesus and God is so different from the relationship between an ordinary father and son.  i continue to struggle with the meaning of this story and pray for God's leading.

my prayer this morning is that God gives each of us light to understand as much as we can of God's true nature, given our human limitations, and that we have the integrity to question what we read according to the light God gives us.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Let Your Moderation Be Known to All

enthusiasm is a good thing, but if it is used unwisely it can be a bad thing.  so often, i begin a new project or embrace a new goal with great enthusiasm, pouring all my energies into it, only to see my attempt fizzle and my enthusiasm disappear.  one thing i am learning as i age is that moderation is a great virtue.  when i find myself abandoing some worthwhile pursuit, i now look at the time and effort i'm investing in it.  is it taking over my life?  am i becoming stressed because i can't cram everything i want to do and everything i need to do into the waking hours of the day?  am i resentful of the demands others make on me because meeting those demands is crowding out time for this worthwhile pursuit?  when the answer to those questions is "yes," i know that i better reassess my allocation of time.

for example, i follow a number of blogs.  all are helpful, but i found myself feeling stressed because i couldn't find time to keep up with them all.  the solution was to select a smaller number that i felt were the most helpful to me.  the three that were of the greatest benefit to me are checked every day.  the others are divided between the days of the week.  so now i check on five blogs each day, and when i find that i have an extended period of time available, i check on those that i can't get to on a regular basis.  this plans has relieved me of a great deal of anxiety, and as Leo Babauta puts it in his blog, zenhabits, to "get all the goodness."

when i began meditating, i wanted to pursue my practice several times a day with the goal of extending the time i spent in meditation to longer and longer periods.  i quickly realized that this was a prescription for meditation becoming a stress producer, rather than a stress reliever.  i was relieved when i discovered several practioners who recommended using a timer for meditation.  now i spend thirty minutes the first thing in the morning, divided into three ten minute segments back-to-back, and i don't include any additional meditation time in my regular schedule.  if additional time becomes available, then i can spend more time later in the day.

the same pattern was true in my exercise plan.  instead of just enjoying my bike ride, i found myself trying to take longer and longer rides.  that would have been great, except that longer rides consume more time, and that was time i didn't have.  so now i ride a fixed route that takes a fixed amount of time and concentrate on enjoying the ride.   every now and then, i may extend it because i have extra time.  when i returned to resistance training, i pushed myself to lift heavier and heavier weights and found myself frustrated because my progress wasn't quick enough.  i thought about what i had done and realized i was turning a joyful and beneficial activity into a stress producer.  instead of pushing myself now, i concentrate on form and breathing and let my body decide what the right amount of resistance should be.

what i'm trying to suggest is that setting limits is a good thing.  balance is important and keeps us from burning out.  when we seek to moderate our activities, to follow the Middle Path if you will, there is time for everything and we enjoy all the pursuits that help us and bring us joy and peace.  my prayer this day is that we will learn to have balance in our lives so that there is time of each thing that is truly important.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Render Unto Caesar . . .

in my posts, i try to avoid writing about politics, but i have become increasingly alarmed at the ongoing attempts to rewrite american history and the willingness of a large segment of the public to accept these revisions.  the role that the "religious right" is playing in this activity and the dissemination of false and misleading pronouncements about our past in churches and particularly from their pulpits is especially disturbing to me.  yesterday i read that david barton made a statement to the effect that our "founding fathers" had come down on the side of creationism in the creationism-evolution debate years before darwin had written about his observations leading to the development of the science of evolution.  this follows accounts of supporters of sarah palin rewriting the article on paul revere in wikipedia so that the article conforms to palin's misstatements concerning the famous "midnight ride."  thoughts of orwell's 1984 came to mind.

there is little doubt in my mind that our country grew out of the ideas of the enlightenment and that in large measure the founders of our country were influenced by the religious manifestation of those ideas.  many were clearly deists who rejected the beliefs of orthodox christianity, particularly the literal interpretation of the bible, the divinity of Jesus, and the concept of the trinity.  their experience with established religion as a partner of government led them to create a new form of government that was wholly secular, showing no partiality to any church or creed.  the later inclusion of the "establishment clause" in the first amendment to the constitution is further evidence that the early leaders of our revolution eschewed any role for a particular religion in the government of the new united states.

this idea that our country was established with the intention of "judeo-christian" religious thought dominating our political life is abhorrent to me.  certainly, the founders accepted the idea of a "creator god" and the extent to which many of them rejected christian orthodoxy varied from person to person.  in making of them mythic heroes rather that flesh-and-blood people who dared to defy conventional thinking about the how and why of government does them and us a great disservice and leads us down a dangerous road towards the very establishment of religion that our early leaders feared.

my prayer today is that we examine the pronouncements coming from the religious right about our country's origins and those most prominent in its formation with great care and that we question the ideas that come from all ends of the political spectrum before embracing any of them.

Monday, June 6, 2011

There's a Song in Every Silence

"lawn day" is a day that i look forward to each week.  something about making our yard look neat and well cared for is deeply satisfying to me.  the most onerous part of the job is cleaning around our magnolia tree.  magnolia trees thrive in our area of the country, though they are not natives.  i read somewhere long ago that they were brought here from china.  they are an ancient tree and quite different from the pines, oaks, and gums that are the most numerous trees here.  they remain green throughout the year, they have large, beautiful, fragrant blossoms in the spring, their leaves are large and leathery, and they shed leaves throughout the year.  each week i must clean up the leaves and other debris produced by our magnolia.  one of my wife's aunts became so tired of cleaning up around her magnolia that she had it cut down.

as i cleaned up around ours this past week, i thought about the aunt's reaction to her magnolia.  i looked at our tree and thought, "this tree is a wonderful gift.  it provides cooling shade to a large part of our home and yard.  it's flowers are a joy.  it is an example of an amazing variety of tree, different from every other tree type in our neighborhood.  why should i consider it such a task to clean up the mess it makes?  my work is a gift back to the tree and our yard.  it is a joyful offering that i make out of gratitude for the enjoyment our tree brings."  i continued with this line of thinking, realizing that the little work that we must do in order to sustain joy is worth the price, and, in fact, the work is part of the joy that life gives.

later, as i rode in the park, i was laboring to get up the steepest part of the ride, and the message of the magnolia tree came back to me.  in order to have the feeing of exuberance that comes when i sail down the hill, i must ride up the hill.  the climb is part of the joy of rushing headlong down the hill; they are two sides of the same coin.  all of life is like that.  pain is part of pleasure, suffering is part of enjoyment.  every act has its corresponding opposite, and they are part of the same experience.  all are gifts that we are given to make us whole.  

today i pray that each of us experiences the full measure of the gifts of God, giving thanks for the climb that precedes the exuberant descent, for the labor that produces satisfaction in a job well done.  may we all embrace every aspect of life, living it as a joyful offering to God.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Love Shall Tread Out the Baleful Fire of Anger

as i age, i begin to think about death more.  each day i'm given is a perfect gift, and i've come to appreciate each new day more, looking forward to the tasks that lie ahead, thinking of them as joyful opportunities to serve God through serving others or by bringing something of beauty or utility into the world.  the other day, i decided to write a post about what i hope others will say and think of me once i am no longer here.  as i pursued those thoughts, i read jen's "my smiling heart" blog where her thoughts seemed to be turning in the same direction.  here's the list of ways in which i hope i'll be remembered:

He was:
a kind person.
a generous person.
a happy person.
a loving person.
a forgiving person.
a thoughtful person.
a patient person.
a calm person.
a peacemaker.
a good husband.
a good father.
a friend of children.
a person who put service ahead of possessions.
a sensitive musician.
a lover of beauty.
an advocate for the poor and the powerless.
a tolerant person.
a person who could disagree agreeably.
a good cook.
a person who was hungry for knowledge.
a person you could depend on.
a person who had his priorities in the right order.

if i'm remembered for having these qualities, i will die a happy man.  if this is the legacy i pass to my children, i know that my life will have an influence for good long after this present life is over.  my prayer this day is that each of us seeks to develop those qualities that transform the world into a better place and that i can aspire to live a life that leaves behind wonderful, gentle, happy memories in the hearts of others.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, And wither and perish—but naught changeth Thee.

while riding through the park yesterday on my bike ride, i was mindful of two things.  the first was the movement of my legs as the pedals revolved.  i sensed the fluidity of the motion of the joints and muscles as they propelled the pedals in their circuit, moving the bike forward.  i am not a naturally graceful person, but as i watched and felt the motions of my legs and feet, i was struck by how graceful this circular motion was.  the complex machine that is our body is amazing, and my thoughts turned to the great complexity of all natural things, the wonder of grass and trees and the human body.  it is impossible for me to believe that all the interconnectedness that works together to produce the physical world and the cyclic nature by which everything is related could be an accident.  i am compelled to believe that there is a great Intelligence that has caused all things to be.  so as i rode the mindfulness of the work my body was doing led me to think of the wonder of Creation and the presence of the Creator in everything in and around me.

secondly, i was mindful of the wind.  until the last couple of years, strong winds were a rare occurrence in our part of the country.  now we have a strong breeze blowing most of the time.  i noticed how the wind seemed to disappear as i rode in certain directions, but as i topped the hill in the middle of the ride and changed direction, it was as if a strong wind suddenly began pushing against me.  this breeze continued without letup until i once again changed directions.  i began to think about my sensation of the wind.  certainly it was there at my back when i was riding in the direction it was blowing.  the wind did not suddenly come up each time i rode against it.  yet my experience of the wind was quite different from the wind's reality.  the wind was there all the time.  it helped ease my effort when i rode in the direction it was blowing, even if i could not sense its presence except indirectly in the feeling of less effort when i rode up a hill with the wind's assistance.  the same wind that was a help when i rode in one direction was a hindrance when i rode into the wind.  it was not the wind that changed, but my direction and my perception of the wind.

this realization led me think about my (our) perception of God.  one's perception of God can be quite different from the reality of God, and one's perception of God can change when circumstances change.  the change exists in oneself, not in God.  how can any of us ever have a complete understanding of God, changeable creatures that we are?  we apprehend only a small portion of the immensity of God; our minds are too limited and limiting to ever fully appreciate all that God is.  God is the "I AM," the great first cause of everything.  My prayer today is that each of us will be open to the experience of God, that we will never come to believe that our experience of God is all that there is of God, and that each of us will respect another's experience of God though it may not correspond to one's own experience.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

In the Rustling Grass I Hear God Pass

today i am at the home of my father and his wife.  my mother died about fifteen years ago, and my father remarried a few years later.  his wife is only about ten years older than i, and i have never been able to regard her as a "step-mother".   their home is out in the country in a beautiful setting.  a long drive lined with trees leads from the highway to their home, and there is a meadow dotted with trees in front of the house.

this morning i took a walk along with drive, walking slowly and praying as i walked.  it rained last night, and the drive was damp.  there was a gentle breeze blowing.  near the house there is a lovely garden in which a variety of lillies and roses are blooming.  it was the pefect setting to experience the presence of God, and i thought of the hymn, "this is my Father's world".

i thought, too, of the dalai lama's words:  "we have to cultivate contentment with what we have. we really don't need much. when you know this, the mind settles down". my mind did feel settled.  my wife remarked a couple of days ago that i had simple needs, being content with what i have, and that's very true.  what more could i need?  i have a wonderful wife, two great children who are gainfully and happily employed, shelter that is more than adequate, resources to take care of all my physical needs, dear friends, opportunities to serve others through my church and other organizations.  life for me is good, and i have time to think about how to share my joy with others.

in this morning's walk, i experienced such peace and contentment.  my prayer for each of us is that we can be content with what we've been given and the time to contemplate how we can help others to be content.  may each of us learn how to "be" in the world, rejoicing in the experience of each breath that we take!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In Christ There Is No East or West

somehow the hours in each day have been fewer in the last several days.  i can't account for how that can be, but that's the way life has been going.  there are a few thoughts buzzing in my head that I'd like to write about in a post, but until now I haven't been able to find the time.  maybe they needed more cogitating before I put fingers to keyboard.

as i rode my bike through the park the other day, i began to think about how much those who insist on interpreting all the bible's contents literally are missing.  if there must be a literal "adam" and "eve," that diminishes the adam and eve in each of us.  the story then becomes about the two parents of all humankind rather than about the relationship of each of us with the God of creation.  if there has to be a literal "noah," the story becomes one about a vengeful God who ends the lives of almost every creature on earth because most of them were so sinful rather than a story about the noah in each of us that the ark of God's love lifts above the turbulent waters of life.

why must we spend so much time searching for those proof texts that we can use to "prove" our narrow theological arguments, rather than seeing the bible as a living testimony to the great theme of God's love and God's unceasing effort to reconcile us to each other and to God?  when we try to make the bible a history book, when we ignore it's discrepancies or go to great lengths to explain them away, when we reduce the bible to a static document that can't have different meanings in different ages, we reduce it to a finished product that is much more limited and limiting than i believe God intended.  the bible is a living document that must be read with the light God gives us in our own time, and we must seek it's truth without forcing it to be something that it is not.

i have been troubled recently about the effort to portray the "Allah" of the muslim religion as a different God from the God of christians and jews.  this attempt to demonize muslims and inflame those inclined to bigotry is deplorable.  couldn't we say that the God of some biblical writers is a different from the God of other writers.  if we are honest, many passages seem to describe very different gods, and the perspective of one writer or one era regarding God may be very different from that of another writer working in another time or place.  do these differences mean that the God described by one biblical author is a different God than the one described by another?  no christian would answer that question in the affirmative.  

because one perspective about God is different from another, one can't assert that these perspectives describe different gods. it is not God who is different, but our perspectives about God that differ.  God is so infinite, so great, that we can never fully apprehend the true nature of God.  we must not allow those who would drive wedges between us to succeed in turning our perception of muslims into "those people" who worship a false god, when we have much in common with our muslim brothers and sisters.

my prayer for each of us is that we see beyond the limitations of the literalists to the underlying truth of God's love for us as described in the bible and that we seek those truths that bind us together rather than creating divisions that arise from fear and prejudice.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Service Is the Golden Cord

my wife & i are spending a couple of days with old friends in a resort town not far from where we live.  these friends rented a condo for a few days & asked us to come up for a visit.  we get to see them only two or three times a year, & i am struck by how quickly the health of both is deteriorating.  this is a second marriage for both the husband & wife, & they've found great joy together after very miserable first marriages.  the husband is in his mid-90s, twenty years older than the wife.

the point of my post is the devotion of the wife to her husband's care.  she has sacrificed so much of herself to his well-being, giving up most of her pursuits outside their home.  one can see the toll this is taking on her, yet she feels no resentment for having given up so much of herself for his sake.  such a great love and sense of devotion is rare, and it is wonderful to behold.

in my morning quiet time, i thought of how this love we are observing is like the love God has for us.  God is constant in caring for us, always present, always ready to meet our needs, always loving us.  yet unlike the human devotion we see in our friends, God never tires, there is never any relenting in God's concern for us, there is never any sense that God would need a time away from caring for us.  it is amazing that there is such a Being who is so filled with love for creatures who are often so lacking in love & devotion.

my prayer this morning is that we can be committed to caring for each other as our friend is in caring for her husband, recognizing that in order to find one's life one must lose it, & that we remember that our love for another is a reflection of the great love God has for each of us.

Friday, April 29, 2011

This Is a Day of New Beginnings

since easter sunday, i have been thinking about the meanings of the resurrection.  we dwell on the victory of Jesus over death that portends our own immortality.  we assume that, because Jesus experienced a certain sort of resurrection, our own will be much the same as that of Jesus.  it seems to me that scripture is pretty ambiguous on this, and the actual experience of what happens after death or what our own resurrection experiences may be is not of great concern to me.  i have faith that Jesus did indeed rise from the tomb, that He did appear to a number of His followers after His resurrection, and that he left this earth just as the scripture says.  i have faith that each of us has an immortal soul and that we, too, will experience our own resurrections, though they may be quite different from that of Jesus.

my thoughts have turned to other implications of Jesus' resurrection.  first, because death was not the end of Jesus' life, He continues to perform His work of ministering to the world.  second, Jesus' resurrection teaches us that life is full of new beginnings, that we experience the joy of resurrection each time we turn from an oft-repeated sin and are raised to a new life free of that sin.  third, Jesus' resurrection and appearance in His resurrected body to His followers teaches us that His revelation continues, that it did not end with His ascension, nor with the completion of what is recognized as the scriptural canon.

my prayer for each of us is that we experience the miracle of the resurrected Jesus and all the mysteries that are a part of it.  may we not limit the resurrection to what it has to teach us about our own immortality, important as that is.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Into the Woods My Master Went, Clean Forspent

today is thursday of holy week, a day when christians observe the anniversary of Jesus' last meal with the disciples and His betrayal and arrest. as i sit writing this post, a much-needed rain is falling.  my thoughts turn to what Jesus may have felt on this occasion.  He knows that He will soon be betrayed by judas iscariot.  according to john's gospel, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples, teaching them the meaning of servanthood and, during the course of the evening, teaches them several other lessons about His nature and what it is to be His follower.  Jesus knows that the religious leaders, who have perverted the jewish religion to collaborate with the romans, will arrest Him, try Him, and condemn Him to a horrible death at the hands of the romans.  Jesus' heart must have ached, knowing that He had so little time remaining to be with His most faithful followers and knowing how terribly He would suffer, first at the hands of the religious authorities and then through His humiliation and crucifixion by the romans.  one can only imagine then emotions that must have been tearing at Jesus.

as i listen to the rain, at times gentle, while at other times a right downpour, i pray that i will come to understand the ministry of Jesus and the true significance of His death and resurrection.  my prayer this day is that each of of us will rejoice in the gift of Jesus' life and will learn the lessons that these last hours leading up to easter have for us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Forty Days and Forty Nights

this is the third day of holy week, and lent is coming to an end as easter approaches. i am thinking back over my experience of lent this year. my spiritual discipline of using the words, "lovingkindness, compassion, generosity," to remind me to be less critical of others has made a huge difference in my day-to-day life, prompting me to look at the motivation of those that i would otherwise criticize. i can't say that i was completely successful in my intentions, but i can say that i was less prone to make negative comments about others and more likely to look for alternative explanations of actions that displeased me. now the challenge will be to enlarge on this attitude of lovingkindness, compassion, and generosity towards those of whom i would otherwise speak or think ill. my prayer is that each of us will become more loving and tolerant, respecting others and believing in their innate goodness even when they behave in ways that we fail to understand.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

I Believe

the word "faith" has been much on my mind over the past few days.  during his life on earth, Jesus spoke often of faith and belief.  there are those who teach that bad things happen to us because we don't have enough faith, that one's failure to prosper is the result of a lack of faith, that one is overcome by sickness or financial problems by insufficient faith.  i reject that teaching completely.  this morning as i prayed, i asked God to lead me to a deeper understanding of what faith is and how we experience a life of faith.  i was moved to begin making a list of the things that i believe, the things that are the basis of my faith, and i want to share some of those core beliefs in this post.

  • i believe that God is the prime cause of all that is, that God set the laws of nature in motion, causing all of creation to exist.
  • i believe that God loves what God caused to exist.
  • i believe that God desires only good for God's creation.
  • i believe that evil exists because of our failure to embrace that good that is God.
  • i believe that inside each person is the capacity for both good and evil, that what God has created cannot be evil, but one's choices can result in evil.
  • i believe that God is always present, ready to assist us when we call on God.
  • i believe that God allows us the freedom to ignore God's presence, but that God is constantly at work calling us to that which is good.
  • i believe that God is in and around us everywhere.
  • i believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the embodiment of all that is good in God's creation.
  • i believe that service and worship are so closely entwined that the two cannot be separated.
  • i believe that God has provided many paths for us to discover God's nature, that God is much larger than the narrow confines of any one path.
  • i believe that each of us is an immortal soul.
as i continue to explore what i believe and to think about what "having faith" means, i know that God will lead me towards the truth God wants me to experience.  my prayer for each of us today is that we experience the faith that God leads us to embrace and that as we follow the path before us, we experience the joy of serving God through serving others.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Help Me to Live for Others . . .

. . . that i might live for thee.  as i prayed this morning, i thought of the great kindness of the people we've encountered in our travels in the upper mid-west.  we have not had to deal with one person who has been rude to us.  having grown up with the myth of southern hospitality, the genuine kindness of every person with whom we've spoken has been a revelation.  we southerners could learn a great deal from these folk here who have a true concern for our well being that goes beyond simple courtesy.

in the back of my mind the refrains of two old hymns began playing.  one says, in a halting rhythm that lingers over the word "others,"
" 'others, Lord, yes, others'
let this my motto be.
help me to live for others
that i may live for Thee."

the other has a similar message:
"make me a blessing,
make me a blessing,
out of my life may Jesus shine.
make me a blessing,
o, Savior, i pray.
make me a blessing to someone today."

the words may not all be exactly right, because i'm relying entirely on my memory of hymns from my childhood that are hardly ever heard now.  it struck me that these were the central beliefs i was taught as a child.  they were what being a christian was all about then, and for me, these beliefs are still the core of being a follower of Jesus.  in today's church, it seems that the idea of "being Jesus" to others has taken a distant back seat to discussions of abstract theology and arguments over how to achieve church growth.

in our brief stopover in chicago, i had a conversation with a homeless man.  it was rainy and cold, but we were inside the restroom of a restaurant away from the elements.  we talked about how he manages during the bitterness of chicago's winters and how much he was looking forward to summer.  he was courteous and clean, and i would never have suspected that he lived on the streets from his manner and appearance, and, perhaps, he was only scamming me.  as we ended our conversation, i wished him well and told him i hoped that warm weather was just around the corner.  later, i wondered why i had not offered him a meal.  there we were in a "high-end" fast food restaurant, and my wife and i had just enjoyed a delicious warm meal.  why had i been so focused on our need to continue on our journey that i failed to address this man's need?

my prayer for myself and you this morning is that each of us will have a genuine concern for the needs of those that are placed in our paths this day, that we will look for ways to serve and bless them, that we will be concerned with being kind to others, even when those others are not focused on our needs.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jesus Calls Us O'er the Tumult

my wife and i are traveling and where we are staying now has no internet access.  to my surprise, i'm not missing it much, but i know that there are many relatives and friends who communicate with me by email, and i am out of touch with them.  other than that and being unable to keep up with the blogs i follow or to post to my own, the internet has become another source of entertainment and a way to find information that i can do without.  when i return home, i will post whatever i have the opportunity to write as i travel, so my posts will be later than the time i've composed them.

yesterday we drove through the wisconsin countryside using secondary roads as we traveled to spring green.  there are gently rolling hills with a few fairly high elevations.  what struck me was the care the many dairy farmers seem to lavish on the land.  we saw few properties that were unkempt, a marked contrast to what we are accustomed to in our part of the country.  farm houses were well cared for with lovely trees.  barns were large and beautiful.  the land itself was the picture of what i imagine farmland should look like if we were the agrarian society that jefferson envisioned.

the purpose of our drive was to take us to the site of frank lloyd wright's home, taliesin, near spring green.  as we drove through the beautiful farms, i thought about how this landscape must have influenced wright.  i could see how these carefully plowed fields, the dark earth, the ambers and tans of the dried grass and remnants of crops, all found a place in his designs.  one understood his idea that a building should develop as a part of the land rather than an imposition on it.  in his structures one senses the farmer's love of the land and the concept that the land is something more than a way to earn a livelihood.

the first wright creation we saw was the building that now serves as the visitor center for the taliesin complex.  we saw it first from a park on the wisconsin river where we faced the back of the building looking out over the river.  as we crossed the river and turned into the visitor center parking lot, we saw the front of the building looking toward the hilly farmland.  from this side, the building clings to the side of the hill, and its tan stone is a part of the hill.  the red roof of what is now the office area of the visitor center makes reference to the red barns, while the shape of the roof reminds one of the tops of the many silos one sees.  the spire of the roof is wright's interpretation of the weather vanes or perhaps the windmills that are sometimes seen on farm structures.

we drove on along the banks of the river and through the wetlands that extend out beside the river until the road ended at a major highway where the former visitor center, now a motel, that was designed by one of wright's students occupies a plot of land at the intersection.  turning around, we drove back along the river and followed two other roads that took us by the structures that comprise taliesin itself.  since winter is in its last throes here, with damp and rather cool weather, the complex is not yet open to the public, so we had to content ourselves with looking at the outside from a distance.  the buildings were quite beautiful, disappearing into the land, barely visible through the leafless trees.  one imagines that wright intended this to be the effect of the structures and their relationship to the land from which they grow.

while i longed to see the buildings up close and to wander through their interiors, it was enough for me to see them as i saw them yesterday, as a private sanctuary for a great mind and for those who cared for him and came to learn their craft under his guidance.  after all, this was wright's intention.  perhaps i will return again when the buildings and grounds are open to the public and experience them in a different way.

as i sit and write about our experience yesterday, i am filled with a great calm and a sense of satisfaction.  i am excited about what the new day will bring, what new sights we will see, what sorts of people we will meet, what great gifts will be given us this day.  my prayer is that each of us will have a wonderful adventure today, rejoicing in what God gives us, and thinking of how we can each be a servant to those we encounter.