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.