Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We're Marching to Zion

a few days ago, my wife and i watched the way back, a movie inspired by the book,  the long walk, by slavomir rawicz.  since i haven't read the book, i can't say how faithful the movie is to rawicz's account of his journey of escape from the siberian labor camp where he was imprisoned.  i found the movie inspiring, and i'm sure the book is no less so.  in this story, which begins during the second world war, a group of men of various nationalities find themselves bound together in their desire to escape the hell in which they are imprisoned.

once they have managed to flee into the bitter siberian winter, the camp authorities have little interest in capturing them, believing that the freezing weather will end their lives, and one of the escapees soon becomes separated from the others and dies from exposure within sight of their campfire.  along the way, a polish woman who has escaped from a soviet collective farm joins them.

ultimately the group makes it way to the mongolian border, where one of the men, a russian criminal, turns back, unable to bring himself to leave his homeland, preferring prison there to freedom somewhere else.  the rest begin a difficult trek across the gobi desert.  the polish woman and one of the men die in the desert.  the rest of the group continue, crossing the himalayas with the assistance of tibetans who befriend them.  finally, they reach india and are able to return to the west.

the man who i admired most was a polish soldier.  i'm sure his character is based on the book's author.  he was sent to the gulag from communist-occupied poland because his wife was tortured until she went along with the stalinist authorities by testifying that her husband was a saboteur and a spy.  he is driven onward throughout his long journey by the desire to be reunited with his wife so that he can let her know that he understands why she condemned him to imprisonment.  his heart is so full of love and forgiveness that he must free her from the prison of guilt in which he knows she is suffering.

at the end of the movie, the two are finally reunited, but not until the end of communist dominance in poland many years after the end of the war.  we see them as an elderly couple, the man taking the woman's hand in his to convey the compassion he has for her.  this man could have given in to hatred and bitterness, blaming his wife for the hardships that were inflicted on him, but from the start of his ordeal, his first concern is his wife.  when he is interrogated in his wife's presence, his interrogator taunts him with her testimony, but he doesn't lash out at her.  instead he asks his interrogator, "what have you done to her to cause her to give this false testimony?"  he carries his compassion for her throughout his long struggle, always encouraging his fellow escapees to move forward, refusing to let them give in to discouragement.

my prayer for each of us today is that we look beyond the suffering that we endure, seeing that our suffering is not inflicted by others, but rather by our own clinging to a false vision of what ought to be.  may our compassion for the suffering of others propel us forward, just as the polish officer was motivated in his journey by compassion for his wife's suffering.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Song Called "Lovely"

we're taught in calvinist churches that human kind's most basic tendency is to be sinful, that, in fact, we are by our very nature “sinners.” we look back to the story of adam and eve and recall their “fall."  there is an old lutheran chorale that pretty much sums this idea up in its first line: “through adam's fall the human race was doomed to condemnation.”  i think this is a very unhealthy, dangerous point-of-view, and i'm not sure that is what the story is intended to teach.

if we insist that the adam-eve story is literally true, we're presented with some serious limitations and contradictions.  we are shown a god who wishes human beings to be unable to distinguish between good and evil, a god who desires that this first couple should remain innocent and incapable of reason.  this god is unable to prevent the force of evil that is embodied in the serpent from persuading eve to eat of the forbidden fruit or to reach adam so that he does not eat the fruit.  a literal reading suggests that god is ignorant of the events unfolding in the primeval garden and only learns of them during a walk through the garden looking for adam and eve.

we know from the evidence of science that this story can't be factual, and those who insist that it must be read as literal truth miss the point of the story altogether and are led to what i believe is a mistaken interpretation.  we each relive this story in our own lives; we are adam/eve.  god does walk among us.  we see god when we engage with nature, when we admire the beauty that is creation, when we feel the tug of love in our hearts, when we use our minds to reason, when we are touched by the lives of others.

every day we make choices.  some are the wrong choices, some are right.  discerning which is which is difficult.  the knowledge of good and evil is not as simple as checking off our adherence to a list of rules.  the complexity of reasoning out what is right and what is wrong demands that we listen to both our hearts and our minds.  the forbidden fruit that gives us the absolute knowledge of good and evil is the wrong-headed notion that there is a code that applies in every situation, that we can easily determine the right course of action as we switch off our brains and allow some external system of morality to be imposed on us.

females are not evil because eve allowed the serpent to persuade her to disobey god.  males are not evil because adam allowed eve to persuade him to eat of the fruit.  the lesson that the first sin was commited by eve, thus condemning all females to lives of subservience to males, is perhaps the second most dangerous lesson that literalists take away from this story, the first being that human beings are innately evil.  this ancient story has so much more to teach us than a literal reading can ever discover.

my prayer for us today is that we will sense the presence of love in everything around us, that our lives will resonate with the hum of the powerful love that vibrates in every molecule of creation.  may we use our powers of reason to discern what is good and beautiful and to reject what is evil and unlovely.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

More Than the Simple Words I Try to Say

my wife and i love the bbc comedy, "keeping up appearances," and watch an episode most every evening on netflix.  the leading character in the show, a woman named "hyacinth," is the epitome of self-absorption:  every encounter with another person is about her and never the other person.  she loves to entertain in order to impress her guests with the elegance of her home and her abilities as a hostess.  she connives to create situations that will enable her to have her own way when others don't seem to giving in on their own.  she sends christmas cards to herself on the pretext that others would have sent them if they hadn't lost her address.  she believes her husband, family, and neighbors exist only to bask in the glory of her presence and to satisfy her needs.  tradesmen and acquaintances avoid her, and the milkman and postman try to make their deliveries in such a way that they avoid encountering her.  she is embarrassed by her married surname, "bucket," insisting that it is properly pronounced as if it were spelled, "bouquet."  i suppose the joy of watching hyacinth's machinations comes from seeing how horribly wrong things go, as her schemes and pretensions backfire, and in the end she is put in her place.

of course, hyacinth is amusing because she is such an exaggeration of people who do actually exist.  in the real world, such people are not fun to watch or be around.  they never express interest in the lives of others.  they talk but fail to listen.  they seek to control every encounter.  offers to help are not about a genuine desire to serve, but are instead about creating an opportunity for self-aggrandizement.   one wonders how such people can be so totally oblivious to how others are affected by their behavior.  what sort of upbringing creates such complete selfishness?  what inner needs for love do they have that cause them to view others as objects to satisfy their quest for recognition?

the hyacinths of the world do us a great service.  they challenge us to give love to those who are difficult to love.  they provide an opportunity for us to move beyond our initial impulse to avoid them and look for ways to address their suffering.  certainly there are times when we must refuse to give in to their need to control situations in order to protect them and others, and there are times when we must avoid being around them to protect ourselves.  even in those circumstances, we can still wish them happiness and a release from the motivations that cause their selfish behavior.

my prayer today is that we will look beyond the faults of others to see the person inside who longs to be loved.  may we understand that love doesn't mean giving in to the whims and schemes of others, but is the genuine desire for true happiness that eliminates the need to scheme.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Wrong Will Fail, The Right Prevail

during the past few days, i've been confronted with several situations in which i've had to make decisions that i know are the right ones but, in so doing, i know that others will experience suffering because of my decisions.  when i look at a situation with the knowledge that i must be the one who weighs the options and who chooses the option that is most fair and reasonable, it is difficult to make that choice, knowing that others will disagree and that someone will experience suffering because of my choice.

am i responsible for the suffering of those who prefer to let wrong continue because failing to take action is the easier path?  have i done a service to others when i permit wrong actions which in the long term will be injurious to continue unchallenged?  doing the right thing is not always easy, especially when one must confront the wrong actions of others in order to do the right thing.  it is easier to avoid the moment when a decision must be carried out and wrong actions must be confronted, but in the end no one is well served if that decision is never made, wrong actions are never confronted.

as i've faced these hard choices, i've tried to look at the ways in which my decisions will be helpful to those who must be confronted, even though suffering will be the immediate result.  i've tried to explore ways to help those who will suffer look at the ultimate benefits of the change of course that must be made in order to do what's right.  we are confronted with these moral dilemmas every day.  sometimes, there are choices we must make about our own actions, and we know in choosing the right path we will experience pain in the present as we move toward the better outcome.

my prayer for each of us this day is that we will not shirk our responsibility to do what is right, that we will make wise choices even when those choices are painful, and that our choices will be made with fairness, reasonableness, and love.  shalom.