Thursday, December 28, 2017

We Wish You . . .

with our family home for the holidays and all the activities that involves, i haven't had any time to write during the past several days.  i hope to post again by next tuesday, january 2, 2018.  in the mean time, i wish any who read this blog the happiest of new year's.  may this be all of our best year ever.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What Can I Give Him, Poor As I Am

in these days leading up to christmas, i'm taking a break from writing about mark's gospel to reflect on what i've read and written about so far.  i have read this gospel many times but this is the first time i've journaled about it.  one of the things that has surprised me is how little we know about jesus.  we have the four gospels that were written some time after the lifetime of jesus and a few mentions of him from other sources.  we don't even know who the writers of the gospels were or much about them, though two of them have been attributed to the disciples, matthew and john.

when i try and peak behind the miracles mark writes about to the actual man of flesh and blood, i see a jesus who is filled with compassion for the suffering of others.  the writer wants us to believe that jesus was able to cure all sorts of physical and mental illnesses and diseases and to raise people from the dead, perhaps to convince his readers that jesus was more than a mere mortal, maybe God incarnate.  to accept these supernatural deeds as fact obscures the person i claim to be a follower of and diminishes his true nature, i think.  if jesus were primarily a faith healer in the mold of current-day charlatans, he would not be worthy of following.

i see a jesus who gives people hope in a God who is more loving than the god of the religious authorities of his day, who condemns the rule-based religion that oppresses common folk and colludes with the roman conquerors to exploit a subject population.  this jesus is brave enough to confront false teachers, even at the risk of his own life.

as i think about christmas, i grow weary of hearing that "jesus is the reason for the season."  the appropriation of various winter solstice celebrations for our own religious purposes diminishes the person we christians claim to follow.  insisting that there is no other way to celebrate christmas is insulting to non-christians and to the many christians who believe it is a mistake to commemorate jesus' birth on one specific day in december.  there's nothing wrong with observing december 25th as the anniversary of jesus' birth, but it's not the only way to celebrate the season.  i love hearing the stories of the angels and the shepherds, of the wise men, of the journey of mary and joseph to bethlehem where their child was born in a manger.  i love singing the carols and seeing churches decked out in greenery and twinkling lights.  i love decorating our home for christmas.  christmas is all that and much more.  it is a season of giving to loved ones and to those who are in need, of hoping that there will be peace and good will on earth, of special foods and sweet treats, of gathering together as families.  all these things are possible whether we are observing the birth of a religious figure, enjoying chanukah or any number of ancient holidays, or treating this season as an entirely secular time of year.  why not let christmas have whatever significance it has for each person and allow all to enjoy christmas in their own ways without insisting that our way in the only way?

may you have a joyous holiday season.  if this is a time of sadness for you, may you find solace and peace.  may you give to others as you are able and graciously accept the gifts you receive.  may you continue to seek truth wherever it can be found.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Of the Themes That Men Have Known

again in mark 8, there is a miracle of feeding a large crowd of people from meager resources.  in this instance, it is jesus who has "compassion for the crowd because they have been with [him] for three days and have nothing to eat."  the disciples don't understand how all these people can be fed.  apparently they have short memories, since they have already witnessed the feeding of thousands after jesus blessed a few loaves and fish.  this time jesus blesses seven loaves of bread, has "the crowd to sit down on the ground," gives the bread to the disciples to distribute, and all are fed.  one would think that after the first miracle of creating abundance from next to nothing the disciples would know that jesus would have no difficulty doing the same thing again.  if jesus has this power, why would anyone ever go hungry?  a literal reading of this story makes no sense to me.  are we to understand it as a lesson to us who have so much to do what we can to see that others are fed, to have "compassion for the crowd" as jesus did?

in the next part of the chapter, jesus gives a clue to what we may take away from this miracle.  he rebukes the pharisees who have come to test him, asking for a sign of some kind, asking them "why does this generation ask for a sign? truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”  then he and his disciples leave to sail elsewhere.  when jesus discovers that the disciples have brought no bread for the trip, he tells them to "watch out—beware of the yeast of the pharisees and the yeast of herod.”  the disciples think that jesus is speaking about literal bread because they have forgotten to bring any food with them, but he reminds them of the two miracles of feeding large crowds that they have witnessed and asks, "do you not yet understand?”  mark provides no further explanation, but i wonder if jesus is not telling his close followers that the creation of food is not the significant lesson of the miracles, but what is important is the compassion for the hungry that prompts the miracles.  unlike the pharisees who are concerned about following myriad religious rules that include dietary restrictions and prohibitions against doing good on the sabbath as all around them suffer, his followers should be concerned about the welfare of others above all else.

when they arrive at their destination, a blind man is brought to jesus.  after leading the man out of the village, jesus restores his sight and sends the man home, cautioning him to "not even go into the village.”  in this miracle, it appears that it took jesus two "tries" to cure the man.  first, he "put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him," but the man can only "see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  then "jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly."  there's another puzzle here: why didn't the man have his sight restored immediately?  in the other healing miracles, the effect is seen instantly.  there must be some significance to this two-stage miracle.  perhaps the man's eyes needed to time to adjust to light entering them for the first time.  maybe jesus was suggesting through this miracle that understanding doesn't come easily or quickly in an instant of awakening but require time to cultivate, that his followers shouldn't be quick to judge or take action until they are sure they see things clearly.

traveling on, jesus and his disciples come to villages near caesarea philippi in the golan heights.  here jesus asks his disciples who "people say that [he] is."  they tell him that some believe he is the reincarnation of john the baptist, elijah, or one of the other prophets.  jesus then asks who they believe him to be.  peter answers that jesus is the messiah, and jesus tells the disciples to keep quiet about his true identity.  as he goes on to tell the disciples of his persecution, death, and resurrection that will take place in the near future, peter takes jesus aside and criticizes him for these dire predictions.  jesus rebukes peter in front of the other disciples, telling him to "get behind me, satan! for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

apparently a crowd has been watching jesus and the disciples from a distance, and jesus calls the crowd to them as he continues teaching.  he tells them that all who wish to become his followers must "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  he goes on to say that "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."  he warns that "those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.”  there has been no preparation for these remarks about jesus coming in glory with a retinue of angels, and the crowd hearing these words must have been perplexed.  is jesus suggesting in this teaching that only those who have abandoned everything as his disciples have done are his true followers?  is he calling for complete devotion to himself and his teaching to the exclusion of all else as being essential to one's salvation?  perhaps this is jesus' response to those who come to him solely to solicit some miraculous healing from him.  maybe he is saying that there are more important teachings that are being obscured by the people's fascination with his miraculous powers.  one senses a jesus who is frustrated by the inability of those who come to him and even those disciples who have given up everything to follow him to understand the new approach to life that jesus advocates.

may we see the jesus of compassion that lies behind the contradictions and illogical stories in the gospel.  may we, too, beware of the leaven of orthodoxy and narrow-mindedness of those who prescribe rules for living while ignoring the suffering of those around them.  may we abandon lives of selfishness and free ourselves to love without condition.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Know My Heart Today

finally, in mark 7, some of the teachings of jesus are quoted by the writer.  the chapter begins with a confrontation between jesus and his religious critics.  in this teaching, jesus compares the traditions that his adversaries hold sacred, which jesus calls "human tradition," to "the commandment of God."  the disciples of jesus have been observed eating without first washing their hands, and the pharisees and scribes "who had come down from jerusalem" challenge jesus because his disciples do "not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands."  jesus quotes the book of isaiah in which the prophet says "this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines."  jesus goes on to cite the accepted practice of declaring part of one's wealth as an offering to God, thereby relieving one from the obligation to use that money in the support of one's parents.   this practice, jesus says, is a way of using a human religious tradition to avoid observing the commandment to honor one's father or mother.  jesus goes on to tell his adversaries that "you do many things like this.”

jesus then tells the crowd observing this exchange that it not what one consumes that defiles but rather that which comes out of one's heart and mind, suggesting that the strict dietary laws that have been developed over time are of little consequence compared to the great harm that is done by "evil intentions" that come "from the human heart."  he goes on to list several: "fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, [and] folly."

the chapter ends with two miracles.  in the first jesus is asked by a gentile woman from around tyre to cast out a demon from her daughter.  in his conversation with the woman, jesus replies to the woman's request by saying, "let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  when the woman replies that "even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” jesus is impressed by her reply and tells her, "for saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  this exchange puzzles me.  jesus seems to suggest that this gentile woman's daughter is underserving because she is not jewish and only the intelligence of the woman's reply causes jesus to cure her daughter.

in the concluding miracle of the chapter, jesus cures a deaf man who has a speech impediment.  after the man's "ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly," jesus instructs the man and those with him to keep the cure secret, to no avail.  the writer says, "the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it."

in the two teachings that begin mark 7, we see a jesus who encourages his followers to examine the rules that constrict them as they practice their religion, abandoning those that are unreasonable, some of which enable harm to be done in the name of religion and some of which are clearly intended to subvert the most fundamental concepts of living in a way that shows compassion for others.  he is portrayed as a man who is fearless in condemning respected religious leaders and practitioners, using the words of scripture against them.

in his conversation with the woman in "the region of tyre," one wonders if jesus is testing the sincerity of the woman's beliefs by suggesting that she and her daughter are unworthy of his consideration.  if she had taken his bait and railed against his seeming prejudice against those who were not jewish, jesus would know that she was uninterested in his teachings and was only interested in what benefit she could gain for herself and her daughter.  still, i am troubled by jesus' seeming lack of compassion for the daughter's plight.

may we examine our beliefs, testing their validity, abandoning those which are unreasonable and harmful to ourselves and others.  may we be unafraid when confronted by those who wish us to conform to their orthodoxy when accepted practice is detrimental to us and to society.  may our compassion extend to all around us, regardless of how different others may seem to us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I Want to See Jesus

for the most part, mark 6 is a continuation of recounting the miracles of jesus.  the chapter opens with jesus visiting his home town of nazareth.  here is resented by the people of the town.  they think he is putting on airs, that he has forgotten his roots.  they remember him as a carpenter, a member of a local family, some of whom are still there.  mark says that jesus "could do no deed of power there" except for curing a few sick people, because the townspeople "took offense at him."  several questions arise from this: what other deeds of power might he have performed there?  the principal "deeds of power" that mark has mentioned so far in his gospel is healing the sick.  the only other such acts that mark has described to this point in the narrative is the quieting of the storm in mark 4 and the resurrection of jairus' daughter in mark 5.  if jesus is God incarnate, why would his ability to perform miracles be dependent on his acceptance by the people of nazareth?  when jarius' daughter was raised from her deathbed, the house was filled with doubters and that didn't prevent jesus from acting.  when he stilled the storm, the disciples lacked faith in his ability.

leaving nazareth, jesus sends his discples out in pairs to heal and proclaim the people's need to repent.  he tells them "to to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts,  but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics." additionally he instructs them that "wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  if any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  there is no explanation of jesus' intentions in sending the disciples out in this way, nor does mark explain the negative tone of jesus' instructions regarding those who will not welcome or listen to the message of jesus' disciples.  does jesus feel no compassion for those who are wary of these itinerant preachers who come to them as beggars?  didn't his earlier parable of the sower suggest that the seed of his message needed time to take root in order to flourish?

when the disciples return from their preaching/healing mission, jesus suggests that they "come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  crowds anticipate their arrival as the disciples and jesus come ashore from their boat, and they flock to jesus.  seeing that the people "were like sheep without a shepherd," jesus teaches them "many things."  the disciples are concerned that the people are far from home and need food, so they encourage jesus to send them away to seek food in the surrounding villages.  jesus says to the disciples, "you give them something to eat.”  the disciples ask where they are going to find the money to feed such a large crowd, and jesus asks, "how many loaves have you" and tells the to "go and see."  only five loaves of bread and two fish are found, but, after jesus blesses the food, there is enough to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.  mark says that "five thousand men" were fed.  how could jesus address that many people at once?  how could all have heard him?  why weren't the people awestruck as they watched a few loads of bread and a couple of fish multiply before their eyes?  mark mentions no reaction from the crowd at such a miracle.  did the twelve baskets for the remaining food just appear when they were needed?

at the end of the day, jesus sends his disciples away in the boat.  as the disciples row the boat against the wind, they see a figure walking towards them on the water and are terrified, believing that they are seeing a ghost.  jesus says, "take heart, it is i; do not be afraid.”  to the astonishment of the disciples, jesus climbs into the boat and continues on with them.  if the doubt of others prevents jesus from performing miracles in nazareth, how is this miracle possible?  mark refers back to the miracle of the loaves, saying that the hearts of the disciples "were hardened," thereby preventing their understanding of the earlier miracle.  what does jesus walking on the sea have to do with the feeding of the five thousand?  what is mark suggesting by saying the disciples' hearts were hardened?  are they great doubters like the people of nazareth?

the chapter closes with jesus and the disciples landing at gennesaret, where they are mobbed by people seeking cures from jesus.  as jesus continues traveling from village to village, people bring the sick, and, mark says that all who as much as touched the fringe of jesus' garments are healed, as the woman in mark 5 was healed earlier.

the continuing descriptions of the miracles of jesus give us few clues about the man behind these miracles.  for the most part, one sees a compassionate man who is regarded more highly for his healing than his teaching.  jesus shows concern for the disciples, as he encourages them to come with him to rest after their mission of teaching and healing, and as he reassures them after they are frightened when he walks to them on the sea.  he feels concern for the people who come to him, despite his desire for time to rest with his disciples, and he never turns away anyone who comes to him for healing.

mark's emphasis on the miracles may have been intended to bolster the belief that jesus was more than a mortal man, that he deserves to be worshiped as a god.  i wish that mark had spent as many words telling his readers what jesus taught the crowd of "five thousand men" as he did recounting the miracle of the loaves and fish.  if compassion for them prompted him to teach them, did he encourage them to show others the same compassion?  did he tell them that even their enemies and oppressors were people deserving their love?

may we continue to seek the whole man that jesus was, not just the miracle worker.  may we take the miracles for what they were, attempts to transform a charismatic roving teacher into a god.  may we, like jesus, have compassion for those around us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Jesus, Thou Art All Compassion

in the fifth chapter of mark, we are told of three more miracles.  first, jesus heals a demon-possessed man in the region of the decapolis, sending the demons from the man into a swineherd.  the 2,000 or so pigs rush into the sea and drown after the "unclean spirits" enter them.  the man asks to go with jesus when he departs, but jesus tells the man to go and tell his friends "how much the lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.  mark says that when the man "began to proclaim in the decapolis how much jesus had done for him everyone was amazed."

next jesus returns to the other side of the sea of galilee, and a man named jairus, "one of the leaders of the synagogue," begs jesus to cure his daughter who is "at the point of death."  on the way to the man's house, "a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years" approaches jesus from behind and touches his cloak, believing that just making contact with jesus' clothes will cure her.  the gospel says that she was immediately cured.  jesus, sensing that some power has gone out from him, asks "who touched my clothes?"  the disciples are incredulous, since jesus is surrounded by a large crowd, and in all likelihood many people have touched him in the crush.  the woman admits that she was the one who touched him seeking a cure, and jesus tells her, "daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

as this encounter is taking place, word comes that the daughter of jairus has died, so they believe jesus can do nothing for her.  jesus tells jairus not to fear, but instead to believe.  taking peter, james, and john with him, jesus goes to jarius' home, where the girl is being mourned.  jesus asks, "why do you make a commotion and weep?"  when jesus tells the mourners that "the child is not dead but sleeping" they laugh at him.  taking the only the girl's parents and his three disciples with him, jesus goes to the room where the girls is.  he takes her by the hand and says, "little girl, get up!"  the twelve-year-old girl arises and begins to walk around the house.  those present are amazed, but jesus tells them to keep what has happened secret and orders them to give the child something to eat.

mark paints a picture of a man with great power, curing a man in great mental distress, healing a woman when she has only touched his clothing, and raising a child from the dead.  in the first two miracles, jesus wants others to know of what has transpired, as he tells the man to go tell his friends about his cure and calls the woman out of the crowd to tell those around him of her cure.  yet he wants this final miracle to be kept secret, perhaps because thousands of others will come to him wanting loved ones resurrected, thus increasing the demands on him.

maybe the writer is attempting to show jesus as one who brought hope to those who were hopeless, making those who were at the mercy of the occupying romans and their native allies see something beyond their desperate plight.  were these miracles exaggerations to give greater credibility to the claims that jesus was a man-god?  did the evangelist feel it necessary to portray jesus as the equal to other god figures in the roman world?  whatever the case, i long to hear more of what jesus taught, more that would show what jesus was like.  surely, there was more to jesus that attracted others to him than the working of miracles.  would the disciples have dropped everything to follow him if that was all there was?

may we seek the man behind the miracles.  may the teachings that caused others to abandon their settled lives to follow him emerge from the little we know of jesus from the gospels.  may we find the same hope that those early followers found.  may the compassion that jesus showed for others be manifest in our lives.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I Am Not Skilled to Understand

in mark 4, jesus tells a series of parables.  he uses tasks and objects that are a part of the everyday lives of his listeners: the planting of crops, an oil lamp, a mustard seed.  these parables challenge those who hear them to figure out their meaning, and jesus seems to be trying to provoke them to think for themselves.  his disciples don't understand the first of these parables, the parable of the sower, and so jesus must explain the symbols in the story.  he tells the disciples that they have "been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables."  it seems that jesus will make the meaning of his teachings explicit to these close followers, but others must figure them out for themselves.

i am puzzled by jesus' statement.  why would he wish to obscure his teachings to the larger audience, while explaining them privately to his disciples?  perhaps he hoped that those among his hearers who wished to entrap him in what they considered false teachings would find little to accuse him of if he spoke in this way, leaving the interpretation of his parables to be figured out with no public explanation.  maybe the explanation is in the first parable in the gospel, in which only those who are "seeds [that] fell into good soil"  can understand, while all others are seeds that fell into rocky ground or among thorns.

the chapter concludes with one more miracle.  jesus and his discples sail toward the opposite shore of the sea of galilee, and, as they are crossing, a storm comes up.  the disciples are frightened since the boat is being swamped by the waves and ask the sleeping jesus to awaken and protect them.  jesus says, "peace! be still!" and the storm subsides.  then he rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.  it is as if mark cannot describe the work of jesus without throwing in a miracle.  this is the first chapter of the gospel that is devoted for the most part to the teachings of jesus, but in the end, there has to be a miracle.  it is as if the series of teachings presented in mark 4 are taken from another source of "sayings of jesus;" one parable follows the other in a way that seems unnatural as a pattern for imparting jesus' teachings, with only an explanation of the meaning of the first of the parables.  maybe the writer thought, "i'm leaving the impression that all jesus did was walk around performing miracles.  i'd better throw in some teachings to demonstrate the jesus did more than that."

as i read the gospel of mark, i find this chapter to be puzzling, leaving me with more questions than answers.  i suppose i am one of those without ears of whom jesus is speaking when he says, "let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  after more time to digest it, i'll have to come back and try to ferret out each parable individually to make sense of them.

may each of us seek the truth, not looking for simple answers to complex questions, but taking the time to think for ourselves so that we "have ears to hear."  may we look beneath the surface to discover the beauty of what lies underneath.  may we be mindful of the miracle of life as it presents itself to us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Scenes by the Wayside

in the third chapter of mark, the conflict between jesus and the religious establishment continues.  in the act of jesus healing the withered hand of a man on the sabbath, jesus deliberately provokes them, asking, "is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  when the devout around him remain silent, jesus is angry that keeping the sabbath rules is more important to them than aiding the man with the injured hand and proceeds to heal him.

jesus continues around the countryside teaching, healing, and calling more disciples before returning home, one supposes to capernaum, but perhaps he is in or near nazareth since his family is nearby.  here, he is confronted by his family and by "scribes who came down from jerusalem."  these scribes accuse him of using the power of "beelzebul" and "the ruler of demons" to heal and cast out demons.   jesus asks why these dark powers would wish to attack their own minions, in effect dividing their house or kingdom against itself.   he goes on to suggest that the scribes are committing an "eternal sin" by attacking the work of the holy spirit that resides in jesus.

when he is told that his mother and brothers are outside the home wishing to see him, he asks, "who are my mother and my brothers?”  continuing, he indicates that those seated around him "are my mother and my brothers!  whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  earlier, mark says that the members of jesus' family wishes to "restrain him" because people are saying that "he has gone out of his mind.”  perhaps jesus is offended that the members of his own family are more concerned with gossip rather than they are with supporting the work jesus is doing.

it seems that jesus is making it clear that he has no use for the opinions of the devout proponents of the religious laws and that he will not be hampered by the seeming embarrassment of his family who are concerned about their own reputation.  the attraction to jesus continues to center around his ability to heal the broken in body and spirit, with people coming not only from the immediate vicinity but also from "judea, jerusalem, idumea, beyond the jordan, and the region around tyre and sidon."  by stating the widespread fame of jesus, mark lets his readers know that the final conflict with the religious powers is inevitable.  jesus refuses to back away from his questioning of their oppressive laws or to modify his work among the people so as not to offend, though it is clear he knows that the more people are attracted to him the less secure the power of the religious leaders over the people becomes.

may we, like jesus, be fearless in "speaking truth to power."  may our compassion be greater than our love for standing in the community.  may we not be passive conformists in order to get along.  may we act and speak wisely, living skillfully, embracing our common humanity.  may we follow the path that does the most good and the least harm.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Who Makes the Woeful Heart to Sing

in the second chapter of mark, the writer tells of the beginning of jesus' conflict with the religious "fundamentalists" of his day.  he describes several incidents in jesus' life.  in the first, a paralyzed man is lowered through the roof of a house where jesus is surrounded by a large number of people, so many that those who have brought the man for healing can reach jesus in no other way.  jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven.  then, sensing that some of the "scribes" sitting in the room are whispering about jesus having the audacity to proclaim that the man's sins are forgiven, jesus tells those gathered around them that it is as easy to say "your sins are forgiven," as it is to say, "stand up and take your mat and walk."  he tells them that he has forgiven the man's sins so that the scribes will now that he has the "authority on earth to forgive sins."  the story concludes with jesus telling the man to stand up, take his mat, and return home.

in the second incident, jesus calls levi, a tax collector, to follow him.  the tax collector obeys jesus' instructions.  later, at levi's home, jesus is eating with an assortment of "tax collectors and sinners."  the pharisees who have been watching jesus, ask his disciples why jesus eats with such people.  overhearing the question, jesus tells them that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; i have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

subsequently, the pharisees want to know why jesus and his disciples are not fasting along with them and the disciples of john the baptist.  jesus replies, "the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day."  he continues, according to mark, "no one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. and no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

next, mark says that jesus and his disciples are going through some grain fields on the sabbath, and, as they walk, some of the disciples are plucking heads of grain.  this is considered "work" that is forbidden on the sabbath, and the pharisees that are observing them are quick to ask jesus why he allows his disciples to violate the religious sabbath laws.  jesus reminds them of the time when david and his companions ate the forbidden "bread of the presence," when they were hungry, even though only the priests are permitted to eat this bread.  he goes on to say that "the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”

in each of these stories, mark asserts jesus' authority over that of the religious leaders and their interpretation of the law.  he has the power to forgive sins; he is not made unclean by eating with those are considered unclean; he wants his disciples to enjoy their time with him, saving their fasting for the time when he is no longer among them; his good news is like a new unwashed cloth that can't be used to patch old fabric, suggesting that the "old cloth" of rules and regulations must be replaced by the "new cloth" of his teaching; he, as lord of the sabbath, is restoring the sabbath to be a time of rest rather than a chore that weighs people down with complex rules for its observance.  mark portrays jesus as a leader who confronts the religious establishment, siding with ordinary people, tax collectors, and sinners, lifting the burden of religious practice that has little meaning for those on whom it is imposed.

may we, like jesus, look for meaning in life, not practicing an orthodoxy that distorts the ideals of love and compassion, the very essence of true religion.  may we not set ourselves up as paragons of virtue who are above the "sinners" that surround us.  may we see our common humanity, the suffering that is shared by all of us.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

For All--Not Just for Some

of the five sayings of jesus in the first chapter of mark's gospel, three are related to healing miracles.   jesus' first miracle is casting out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue in capernaum.  the second miracle is the healing of a man afflicted with leprosy.  the man implores jesus to choose to make him "clean."  using the words of the man, jesus says, "i do choose.  be made clean!" and as he speaks, jesus reaches out and touches the man.  after the man is healed, mark says that jesus warned the man sternly to leave and "see that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  the man fails to do as jesus has instructed but tells everyone he encounters of his healing.  we don't learn whether he ever followed religious protocol by having the priest confirm his healing when he offers the appropriate offering as described in leviticus 14.

as in the first miracle, one wonders if these miracles are legends attributed to jesus, if they are tricks of a charlatan faith-healer, or if they indeed occurred.  i'm inclined to the first view, that these were later additions to the life of jesus that supported the belief of some followers that jesus had supernatural power, just as superhuman powers were attributed to other religious leaders by later followers.  what is striking to me is the fact that jesus touched the man, a person who was "unclean" according the religious norms of the day.  in doing so, jesus demonstrates that his compassion is greater than the taboos that would prevent him from coming into direct contact with one who is afflicted with a contagious skin disease.  as he often did, jesus refused to bow to rules and regulations that prevented people from showing kindness to those who were in need.

jesus was also concerned that the man's place in the community be restored as jesus instructed him to follow accepted practice by having a priest declare him cured and therefore no longer unclean.  in his excitement, the man tells everyone of his miraculous healing at the hands of jesus, resulting in jesus avoiding population centers so that he would not be overwhelmed with people coming to him to be healed.  nevertheless, mark says that people "from every quarter" sought him out, suggesting that they wanted to be healed or witness others being miraculously healed rather than coming to hear the teaching of jesus.

human nature being what it is, we are more attracted to extraordinary events than to simple teachings that help us live more skillful lives.  we yearn for the sensational when commonplace is far more beautiful.  we are not content to accept jesus as a teacher who showed his followers how to live a joyful life in a difficult world, but are compelled to give him attributes that overshadow the simplicity and directness of his teaching, to transform him into a god rather than a great man.

may we show compassion where compassion is needed, as jesus did.  may we not allow the demands of orthodoxy to prevent us from reaching out to others.  may we see our common humanity rather than accepting the prejudices which separate us from those who are different, viewing them as "unclean" in the same way the people of jesus' day viewed those who were unlike them.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All Things Are Possible, Only Believe?

as i read the gospel of mark, it is difficult to see past the superstitious explanations of the day to the teachings of jesus.  in the next occasion when mark purports to convey jesus' words, jesus has gone away to a quiet place to pray and his followers come looking for him.  when they find him, they tell him that "everyone is searching for you."  jesus replies, " let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that i may proclaim the message there also; for that is what i came out to do.”  mark says that jesus and his companions travel throughout galilee as jesus teaches in the synagogues and casts out demons.

jesus was not the only teacher/miracle worker who lived in galilee, and many common people were followers of these rabbis.  because galilee was ruled by a king placed there by the romans and had more independence from direct rule by the romans, there were more messianic figures who fomented rebellion against rome and the herodian ruling family and who engaged in social protest against the political elite.  to be a galilean meant to be a rebel, a nonconformist, to be a questioner of orthodoxy.  in the southern part of galilee where capernaum was located, there were speakers of hebrew, aramaic, and greek, and more tolerance for diversity.

against this backdrop, it's easy to see jesus as a typical galilean religious/political figure, who attracts followers through both his teaching and working of miracles.  he is not the only miracle worker of the period, and people who struggle to put food on the table from day to day and live under the difficulties of being an occupied population are eager to see miraculous deeds of healing.  what sort of messiah would be unable to perform such miracles?  jesus would have been seen as ineffective and powerless had his teaching not been accompanied by the working of miracles.

the gospel doesn't say what jesus taught in the synagogues he visited as he wandered around galilee, and that's what's more interesting to me than the descriptions of miracles.  there must have been a lot of madmen in galilee at the time, since casting out demons seems to play such a prominent role in the life of jesus.  the widespread belief in demonic possession being the cause of many maladies would have made it necessary for jesus to be able to exorcise demons in order to effect cures, and the power of suggestion, the belief that jesus was indeed a miracle worker, would have resulted in many cures, just as modern day miracle workers appear to be able to do.  i remember as a child watching some of these, like oral roberts, on television as they placed their hands on the ill and commanded their diseases and handicaps to leave their bodies, after which the "healed" would walk away cured and the audience would gasp and applaud.   something of this sort must have happened when jesus and others like him performed their miracles in galilee, if mark is to be believed.

jesus' own words, according to mark, made no mention of miraculous cures.  his desire was to proclaim his message to a wider audience.  this suggests that the healings were less important than the good news jesus wished to convey, that the miracle working was a product of jesus' compassion for those who were hurting and in some ways a distraction from his teaching.  one wonders, though, if jesus would have been able to attract followers without the miracles, if the healing was more important to those who came to see and hear jesus that the words he spoke.  these miracles seem to figure large in mark's gospel here at the beginning of jesus' public life.

may we see jesus in the context of the time in which he lived.  may we seek to understand what made jesus a more important figure that men like judas the galilean or "the egyptian."  may we sort out the superstition from the teaching, the biases of jesus' biographers from the message jesus sought to convey.  may we not accept by faith that which is not reasonable.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Clear Our Thought and Calm Our Feeling

the second time mark's gospel quotes the words of jesus occurs when jesus has been teaching in the synagogue in capernaum.  mark says that jesus has amazed his listeners by the authority with which he speaks.  in the middle of his teaching, a man "with an unclean spirit" cries out  and asks what jesus has to do with those who are listening, addressing jesus as "jesus of nazareth."  the man asks why jesus has "come to destroy us," referring to jesus as "the holy one of God."  jesus replies, "be silent and come out of him!"  according to the gospel, the man convulses and cries out, and the unclean spirit leaves him.

mark characterizes the speech of jesus in this instance as a rebuke.  i suppose we are to understand descriptions of this man's malady and others similar to it as mental illnesses.  the ability of jesus to exorcise this unclean spirit is related to the idea of his authority in explaining the scripture to his listeners in the synagogue.  jesus has no need of traditional rituals associated with exorcism, but simply orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.  we know nothing of what follows and are left to wonder what became of this man, where the unclean spirit went after leaving him, and how those who witnessed this miracle reacted to it.

here, again, jesus is portrayed as a charismatic personality who attracts followers with a simple command, explains the scriptures with skill that would not be expected from a person from the village of nazareth, and cures mental and physical illnesses effortlessly.  underlying this picture of jesus is a compassion for those who are suffering.  those first four disciples yearning for something more than a life scraping by with their meager income from fishing and this man whose mental illness causes him to verbally assault jesus without cause are changed because jesus has come into their lives.

life lived under the roman conquerors and their allies in the jewish religious establishment who burdened ordinary people with onerous taxes and complex ritual rules was difficult, and jesus presents an alternative.  here is a man who sees beyond the rules to the basic principles from which they evolved, who espouses a philosophy which elevates its devotees above the commonplace difficulties of life as an occupied people.  here is one who dares to live life on his own terms, refusing to bow to tradition or governmental control, but possessing his own authority.

there is the implicit secrecy of jesus silencing the man's outcry when the man proclaims jesus as the "holy one of God."  jesus doesn't tell the man that his characterization of jesus is incorrect, but instead silences him by commanding the unclean spirit to leave him.  jesus seems to be willing to let others think that he has a special calling ordained by God without proclaiming so himself, perhaps because he wants to cause those who observe him to be curious about where his teaching may lead.

whatever mark's intentions, one is left with the impression of jesus as an extraordinary person, a man of great compassion who intuitively understands the needs of those around him and addresses those needs.  whether it the longing for a better life, the desire to understand the mysteries of the scriptures, or the pain of mental disease, jesus addresses the problems of others where he finds them.  it is this ability which makes him stand out from the crowd of people who struggle to get by from day to day.

may we, like jesus, be sensitive to the needs of those around us, doing what he can to relieve their suffering and thereby relieve our own.  may our compassion lift us above our own day-to-day problems and limitations.  may we not simply try to get by but pursue our longing for greater understanding and peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I'll Labor Night and Day to Be a Pilgrim

i've begun rereading the gospel of mark, with special attention to the teachings of jesus.  mark is believed to be the oldest of the gospels, and it seems to me to be the most direct and accessible.  there is no attempt to trace the family line of jesus back to ancient ancestors, no recounting of a miraculous birth, just a simple proclamation that the "good news of jesus christ" begins with the preaching of john the baptist, jesus' cousin, and the baptism of jesus.

today i'm thinking about the first words of jesus in mark's gospel: "follow me and i will make you fish for people."  jesus says this to peter and his brother andrew as he finds them fishing on the shores of the sea of galilee, and they drop their nets and follow jesus.  a bit farther along the shoreline, jesus finds james and john mending nets while sitting in their boat, calls to them, and they too follow him.  the gospel doesn't say that jesus had any prior conversations with these four fishermen, but it seems reasonable that the five men are acquainted.  we don't know why jesus was near their homes in the fishing village of capernaum, or what their earlier encounters were like, but it appears that what jesus had to say to them was compelling enough for them to abandon their settled lives to become his disciples.

probably their wandering with jesus far from capernaum didn't begin immediately, because jesus seems to have used the little town as his base for his early ministry.  so peter, andrew, james, and john could have lived in their homes with their families and continued to fish to support themselves, venturing out with jesus from time to time in the neighborhood of capernaum.  it is possible that these four were already prepared to become jesus' followers and were waiting for his invitation to do so, since they immediately left what they were doing.  to have done this with no prior preparation, no knowledge of the person of jesus or his teachings, would have been the acts of unstable individuals who were willing to turn their lives upside down at the drop of a hat.

i try to put myself in their places and imagine that i find myself dissatisfied with my present life, tired of the drudgery of making a living going out onto the sea every day hoping to make a good catch, feeling an emptiness, a longing, for something more.  i think of the wandering of siddhartha as he began his search for meaning and the pattern of jesus' life.  so much is left unsaid in mark's gospel, and indeed in all the gospels, about jesus' life prior to his baptism.  we know almost nothing of his childhood or of the year's in his adult life leading up to the beginning of his ministry and the calling of his discples.  what we do know is fragmentary and unreliable.  by the time jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, he is a mature teacher, and his teaching must have resonated with those who heard him, convincing some like peter, james, john, and andrew that he had the answers to the questions that gnawed at them.

there are so many unanswered questions in those simple words that are jesus' first utterances in mark's gospel.  i long to know what led up to these encounters along the seashore.  surely the lesson to be learned is not that one abandons everything on a whim to become a follower of jesus.  it seems to me that jesus is saying that his teaching will enable these four to relate to people in a new way, to see life in a new way.  by following jesus, they will draw people to them, just as their nets draw fish from the sea.  people will come to them to hear their teachings, their answers to life's questions, just as these first followers came to jesus.

may we each be seekers of the answers to life's mysterious questions.  may we use our minds to reason through what is presented to us, rather than blindly accepting what our forebears believed.  may we choose the path that speaks most clearly to both our hearts and our minds.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

My Heart Will Be Peaceful and Calm

one of the things that i'm trying to understand is my own reactivity, the idea that the actions of others and the circumstances of life are not the cause of my suffering.  rather my suffering is caused by my reactions to these actions and circumstances.  when someone says something to me that causes me hurt, it is not their words that hurt me.  it is my reaction to those words and the stories i tell myself about the person and the reasons for their words.  when things go wrong, life is not out to get me.  i allow myself to blame external events for painful feelings in my mind.

i've been trying to notice these reactions that cause my suffering and interrupt the stories that accompany them by analyzing what's going on inside myself.  it's not helpful to blame what's outside me for my internal responses.  as i do this more and more, i find myself less likely to be judgmental or to slip into a mental funk.  i'm not always successful, of course.  yesterday, i was a little under the weather, and my reactions to many of the events of the day were negative.  at the end of the day, i felt badly about my failure to deal with the day's events in a more skillful way.  still, i was able to set those feelings aside and accept them as natural.  when my body was achy and tired, it's not surprising that my mental state was not up to par either.

today is a new day, and i am grateful that i have another opportunity to practice living with greater acceptance.  the day is not mine to control, and the way it goes is not dependent on external factors.  my internal life is under my control if i live mindfully, taking time to take note of my reactions to those things that are beyond my control.

may each of us learn to recognize our own reactivity to the stimuli that act on us.  may we not waste our energies assigning blame.  may we deal with the vagaries of life skillfully, reasonably, logically, rather than allowing our reactions to create new problems when we could be solving existing problems.  may we see life for what it is, not what we want it to be.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

All the Planets in Their Turn Confirm the Tidings

one of the things that i feel more deeply now as i know that most of my life is behind me is the interconnectedness of all things.  from the tiniest particle of matter to the tallest mountain, everything is a part of the vast universe, and that universe enters into all its component parts.  i don't dream of heaven but of returning to the earth to nourish and replenish it.  i hope i'm not entombed in some watertight container that keeps what remains of my body from contact with the soil that surrounds it.  rather, i want my body to be burned and scattered so that i live on in the soil that nourishes life.

the self that i have so long protected is a creation of my mind.  the "real me" is not the collection of thoughts and stories that run through my brain.  we are all parts of something much larger, of that creative consciousness from which everything arose and to which everything returns, continually arising and returning.  if there is a God, all of creation is a part of that great mind which inhabits all that is.  nothing is ever lost, only changed, transformed, as our bodies are in death.  we have always existed, only in different forms, parts of one another and the universe.

to return in another body, to try to get life right the next time around would be lovely.  second chances are wonderful gifts.  but if that's not how things work, to become part of the earth, to nourish new life, is lovely, too.  may we each find our place in the grand scheme of things.  may we see our connection to everything else.  may we be part of the environment, not set apart from it.  may we honor the majesty of creation by loving ourselves and others as part of the mystery of life.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

For the Beauty of Each Hour

my wife has gone with her sister to visit her sister's daughter and her family, leaving me at home alone.  this morning as i ate breakfast, i left the door leading onto the deck open so i could look out across the back yard at the trees with leaves that are already turning.  we've had an unusually mild summer, with lots of rain in june and the first half of july and cool temperatures in august and on into september.  as a rule, the colors of fall are not in evidence until late october in this part of the country but this year the maples and dogwoods are already changing color and losing their leaves.  the other trees haven't begun to turn but they can't be far behind.

looking out at the beauty of nature, i began to think of many things:  the controversy between God being in control of every detail, like when we have an early fall, and what is called "divine Providence," the idea that some unseen hand set nature and motion and left it to takes its often random course; the question of what we used to call "global warming" and now call "climate change" being the result of human abuse of the atmosphere or part of a natural cycle that is inevitable regardless of human action; whether or not our mild summer, early fall, and the destructive storms during this hurricane season are caused by climate change or random events unrelated to the larger question of our changing atmosphere; of how so many along the gulf of mexico are suffering as a result of these storms while we in our area are relishing the cool weather we've enjoyed over the past several months.

i wonder why we are wasting so much time debating the cause of warming temperatures on our planet.  even the climate change deniers can't question the temperature measurements that demonstrate that the earth is steadily warming.  we know that continuation of this warming will cause worldwide catastrophes.  the sea levels will rise and low-lying islands will disappear.  coastal cities will flood.  arctic and antarctic ice will melt, destroying the ecosystems of humans, plants, and animals.  the permafrost is disappearing, releasing huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, causing large swaths of frozen tundra to become unstable, and releasing disease-causing organisms that had been frozen into the atmosphere and ground water.  regardless of the cause of this warming, there are steps we can take to slow it, if not halt it altogether.  why not take those steps?

of course, the main reason for our failure to address the impending crises is economic.  more money can be made in the short term if we ignore the earth's warming.  we can continue to pour greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, we can continue to blow the tops off mountains to extract the coal to burn in our power plants, we can continue clearing land to grow crops and to make the riches of the rain forests more accessible, and some will get richer in the process.  more concentrated wealth in the hands of a small number of people won't be worth much to them if their beach homes are washed away by the rising tides and they and their children are infected with diseases that were dormant until the melting arctic ice released them.  wealth won't do much good if the ecosystems that produce the food we eat are destroyed by flooding and drought and verdant farmlands become vast deserts.

whether one is a "God-is-in-control" fundamentalist, a "divine-Providence" deist, or a "we-have-to-figure-it-out-on-our-own" atheist, there are clear choices to be made.  either we take steps now to save our planet or our race will not survive on this planet.  the science fiction writers who saw visions of humankind lasting into the distant future only by abandoning a once-green earth will not be writers of fiction, but prophets.  i'm grateful for the pleasant summer and early fall.  i'm sorry that so many people are suffering from the hurricanes that have destroyed their homes and livelihoods.  the future is more important than my transient emotions.  it's time to put aside futile debates and take action.

may we do all we can to stop the destruction of our planet.  may we contribute to causes that protect our environment.  may we elect leaders who have the courage to address the causes of our present situation.  may we stop denying science in order to enrich ourselves.  may we do what we can in our individual lives to mitigate the causes of climate change, and may we do so with courage and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

As in Our Daily Life We Struggle to Be Human

i can be very arrogant.  too often i witness the actions of others and think, "how wrong, how mistaken, this person is.  if only this person would do things as i would do them, life would be easier for them."  i create little stories in my mind of the way other people should behave and long for control of their lives, as if i have the answers while they proceed in ignorance.  this is something i work on constantly, and i hope i'm having some success in understanding myself better.

when these thoughts pop into my mind, i'm trying to be aware of what's happening.  i can't just tell myself that i'm mistaken, because this attitude of mental superiority is ingrained in my psyche.  instead, i have a little conversation with myself, telling the "me" in my head that i'm doing it again, recognizing that i might be right about the wrong-headedness of others while reminding myself that they are not mine to control.  it might just be that i am wrong and they are right, that i can only live my own life, that i have no claim over the lives of others and the actions they take.

since i've begun to remind myself of my lack of control over others, indeed of the time i waste thinking about how others should live their lives, i've discovered that i'm much happier and have better relationships with those who have to put up with me on a daily basis.  it is enough to try to make right decisions about my own life and how to live more skillfully without trying to manage how others live their lives.  this is not to say that i won't intervene if others are doing harm to themselves or someone else, but i have to recognize the possibility that they could be right and i could be wrong.  maybe their decision is the best one for them, but it won't hurt to have a discussion about other courses of action as long as i admit my inability to control what others do and deal with my arrogance in thinking that i have the answers to their problems.

may we be honest with ourselves, recognizing our shortcomings.  may we deal with them in compassionate ways.  may we not condemn ourselves for our failings, rather may we be mindful of how to live more skillfully through awareness of the stories we tell ourselves and how those stories affect our relationships with others.  may mindfulness bring us peace and greater respect for others.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

My Life Will Be in Your Keeping

this past week my wife and i celebrated our 49th wedding anniversary.  as we reflected on our lives together, we realized that, unlike most of the couples we know, we are partners in most everything we do from grocery shopping to decorating our home.  for instance, when the mail arrives, we usually sit down together and go through it.  each night before we go to sleep, we set goals for the next day and plan what we can accomplish together and what tasks we need to complete independent of one another to get everything done.  we've never had gender roles in our marriage.  i enjoy taking care of the yard, so that's something i do on my own for the most part, but when i'm down in my back or pressed for time, my wife will help out with the edging and string trimming while i'm on the mower.  she loves lots of bric-a-brac, and i'm very clumsy around these little tchotchkes, so she's the duster and i'm the vacuumer when it comes to cleaning the house.  we both share cooking duties.

it's been a very satisfying way to live our lives together, and i think we are closer than most couples that we know.  it's awkward when we go to another couple's home for a meal, because we feel forced to conform to traditional gender roles, with my wife helping out with the kitchen chores while i sit relaxing in another room with the male of the couple.  we prefer to have other people at our house, because we feel comfortable sharing kitchen duties and visiting with the other couple as we prepare to put the meal on the table.  when we travel with another couple, we invariably find the men sitting in the front seats with the women in the back.  by the end of the trip, my wife and i are glad to be home so that we're not separated by sitting in our "assigned" seats.

my wife and i are not only partners in marriage, we are each other's best friend.  i can't imagine having lived all these years without her, and i think she feels the same way.  we haven't given up our individual identities, but there is a shared identity that is the result of being partners/best friends/lovers for so much of our lives.  i count myself fortunate to have shared this wonderful life with someone who cares for me so much and hope that we have many more years of enjoying each other's company.

may you find someone to share your lives with.  may each of us relish the loves and friendships that enrich our lives.  may those of us who have a life-partner never grow apart from that person and may we always put the well-being of that partner on a par with our own well-being.  may we love deeply, richly, and well.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

While the Coward Stands Aside

what is left to say about the events in charlottesville?  the actions of the white nationalists protestors and that of one of their number in killing a counter-protestor and injuring others are reprehensible.  every person, including president trump, should condemn these nazis, racists, white supremacists, members of the alt-right, or whatever label should be applied to them.  such views must be strenuously opposed by anyone who believes in human dignity and equality.

in a democracy such as ours it is difficult to balance the right to free speech for even the most repugnant points of view with the danger of allowing hate to fester and multiply.  the alienated and hopeless of a society are attracted to those who provide them with a scapegoat to blame for their problems.  it is too easy to blame those who are different from us in some way or other for our problems rather than looking for real solutions and recognizing that we are all in this together.  we look to our leaders to develop solutions but what we are getting with the current regime is a frightening attitude of blaming the victim, sometimes in veiled terms and, in the case of mr. trump, overt bigotry.

the issue of racism in this country is a difficult one.  in the south, we've been taught to revere people such as robert e. lee.  for those of my generation, he has been proclaimed as a reluctant leader of the confederate forces, a man whose loyalty to his place of birth superseded loyalty to the nation as a whole, an anti-slavery advocate who would have freed the slaves he owned through marriage to his wife had the civil war not erupted.  we were taught that stonewall jackson and others like him were heroic defenders of their homes, rather than traitors to their country.  this myth of southern heritage runs deep in the confederate south, covering up the enslavement of a millions of people who toiled to enrich a land-owning aristocracy that lived in ease--an inhuman system that endured far too long in a country that proclaimed itself the bastion of freedom.

we look at jefferson, washington, madison, monroe, and other "founding fathers" who advocated noble ideals and served honorably in the early years of our republic, while participating in the "peculiar institution" even during their presidencies.  we honor them and at the same time abhor their complicity in the scourge of slavery.  many of us who have deep roots in the south have ancestors who owned slaves.  my great-great-great-grandfather and his son from whom i am descended were slave-owners.  are we to disavow them because of this immoral practice?  how do we live with our families' role in such evil?  does the depraved ownership of other human beings negate the good things our ancestors accomplished?

many more generations must pass before the corruption wrought by slavery can be ameliorated.  in the meantime, we must resist the calls of those who would divide us into black versus white, native-born versus immigrant, english-speakers versus spanish speakers, or any other artificial boundary marker.  we must be one people, one common humanity.  we must speak out against the hate-mongers and those who use hate for their own purposes of controlling others and enriching themselves.  people like donald trump have no place in our government, and the sooner he and his ilk are gone from positions of power the safer our republic will be.

may we never pretend the great cancer of slavery was excised at the end of the civil war.  may we work to eliminate the lingering effects of slavery.  may we not fall into the trap of blaming scapegoats for the problems that exist.  may we fight demagogues whenever and wherever they appear.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

All We Like Sheep

one of my favorite television shows is granchester on pbs's masterpiece mystery.  i find its exploration of the conflict between organized religion and the struggles of its characters to be much like the conflict many of us deal with in our daily lives.  the three characters i find most fascinating are sidney, leonard, and geordie.  sidney, the male lead, contends with the disconnect between his love for amanda, who is in the process of divorcing her husband, and his role as an anglican priest.  leonard, sidney's curate, is trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his priestly duties.   geordie, a police detective and sidney's friend and partner in solving the crimes that are the focus of each episode, is an athiest with a large family and is involved in an affair with a clerical worker in his police station.

sidney finds it increasingly difficult to continue his clerical responsibilities.  he feels that he is asking of his parishioners a perfection that he himself is unable to fulfill and condemning himself and those who worship in his church to lives filled with guilt and unhappiness.  on the other hand, he understands that, as a priest, he can show the compassion that he believes the church ought to embody to his congregants in ways that he could not if he abandons the priesthood to marry amanda.

leonard tries to follow the archdeacon's advice and becomes engaged to a woman he has befriended in the period when she is caring for her dying father.  he feels a deep love for her and wants to deny his true sexuality.  leonard realizes that sidney is right in advising leonard that the engagement and approaching marriage would be unfair to both leonard and the woman he plans to marry, and she she senses that he is filled with conflict about his sexuality and breaks off the engagement.  in his anguish over the end of his engagement, leonard turns to the local photographer with whom he had a prior relationship.

in one scene that i love geordie talks with sidney about his love for his wife and children as he ends the affair with his fellow employee.  geordie is filled with remorse and longs to return to his family.  sidney assures his that god forgives him, but geordie will have none of the talk about god.  geordie is concerned with the harm his affair has done to all those he loves, including sidney, realizing that he has put sidney in a difficult position as sidney maintains their friendship while showing compassion for geordie's wife and children.  at the end of the scene, when geordie has repeatedly said that god's forgiveness is meaningless in the face of his unbelief, sidney says, "then i forgive you."  geordie's stoic facade breaks down as he bursts into tears and lays his head on sidney's shoulder.

in the face of the trials each of these characters face is the embodiment of the church in the persons of the archdeacon, who tries to maintain priestly discipline in sidney and leonard, and their housekeeper, mrs. maguire, who struggles with her own strict orthodoxy and her longing to express herself as a person and as a woman locked into a conventional life.  this is the struggle many of us face:  we see an institutional church that places adherence to rules that are inhuman above compassion for the hurts that are part and parcel of being human.  in the face of everything we've learned about sexuality, we see a church that treats those who cannot conform to traditional male/female gender rules as sinners who must be shamed into conformity.  we see a church that uses guilt to beat its adherents into submission.  we see a church that is more concerned with maintaining its traditions, buildings, and status than it is with suffering.  we see a church that denies the very message that jesus preached to his early followers.

may we, like sidney, see that showing compassion for those who are in pain is more important than maintaining orthodoxy.  may we accept our humanity and that of those around us and stop seeking a perfection that cannot be attained.  may we stop judging and start loving.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

To Love, To Laugh, To Cry

yesterday some dear friends celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.  i suppose "celebrated" is the wrong word, because they spent much of the day cleaning out their garage and the rest of it moving furniture.  it was also the husband's 74th birthday.  my wife and i helped them with the furniture, and they in turn helped us swap the positions of a couple of large pieces of furniture in our house.  they exchanged gifts with one another and received cards from several family members, as well as getting a congratulatory call from a relative.  my wife and i were amazed, and a little troubled, that such significant milestones in their lives were observed with so little fanfare, but this was their wish, apparently.  the husband did comment once that this was some way to recognize their anniversary and his birthday, but the wife had the attitude that "it is what it is."

as i reflect on the non-event that was their anniversary/birthday, perhaps this is the way it should be: a perfunctory recognition of events many years ago and then carrying on with life as it comes to us.  we are cooking dinner for them and two of their family members, and that's the most party they'll get.  it is part of our nature to create special days commemorating significant events in our own lives and those of others--birthdays, anniversaries, national and religious holidays--and i suppose we should call to mind these events and honor their significance.  we crave such celebrations and invent occasions like mother's and father's days, chocolate day, hot dog day, secretary's day, bosses' day, and the like to satisfy our desire for things to celebrate.

 maybe just celebrating life each day ought to be enough.  every day is a day to be honored and recognized.  the continuing ability to awaken, to take the next breath, to see, hear, touch, smell, taste, the joy of just being alive is a cause for celebration, one that we often fail to observe.  so today is the first "joyful living day" that i'll try to remember each day that i continue in this life.  after all, at a few months past seventy, there are fewer days left to embrace the joy of life, and i need to celebrate every one i'm allowed.

 may each of us rejoice in life, in the mundane and the extraordinary, in the sickness and the health, in the noisy and the quiet, in every facet of life.  may we be grateful for life's trials that make us stronger and help us to deal with adversity, just as we are grateful for those moments that are free of challenge.  may we see that every day is a gift, that each day we awaken we are fortunate to be alive.  may we be filled with joy.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Then Shall All Shackles Fall

the other day, i was sitting at our kitchen table visiting with my wife and another couple.  i was talking about my difficulties in dealing with the social security administration to have our new address change entered into the ssa system and having our ssa checks depositied into our new bank account.  the husband of the other couple compared this to the problem they had a couple of years ago when the state revenue department questioned their tax return.  "every time we called we got some black person--and i'm not being racist--who could not understand our explanation of our tax return" he said.  "we didn't get it resolved until we finally reached a white person who knew what we were talking about."  i bit my tongue as i listened to his comments about black versus white people, despite his disclaimer, so that i wouldn't lash out in anger.

as i thought about that conversation, i realized how often i am guilty of associating "otherness" with incompetence, as if having a skin color or some other physical attribute that is different has anything to do with competence.  i am just as guilty of such prejudice as my friend.  i remember how, after the 9-11 attacks, i was quick to condemn muslims in general because i didn't hear news reports of vociferous condemnations of these acts of terrorism by prominent muslim leaders.  in a conversation about this lack of outcry immediately following the attacks, a friend reminded me that these were acts committed for political reasons rather than religious ones, comparing these terrorists to the attacks of ira terrorists on the united kingdom.  he pointed out that "you would not have condemned christian leaders for failing to condemn those terrorists because the terrorists were christians; you would have recognized that these were political acts, not religious ones."

after this conversation regarding the 9-11 conspirators, i saw that i was ready to attack an entire religion because of the acts of a few misguided adherents of that faith.  muslims in general were no more guilty in that instance than were roman catholics in general because of the terrorist acts of some ira fanatics.  why is that we have a propensity for lumping people in groups because of their ethnicity, religion, or some other common trait or belief?  there is no muslim population, no gay population, no christian population, no black, white, red, or yellow population; there are only people, all different, all individual.  when we think and act as mobs who are quick to attack others because they are part of some vague "other," we forget that we are all so much more alike that we are different.  we all are pursuing happiness for ourselves and those we love, we all crave the necessities of life, we all struggle to find the right path, we are one human race.

may we recognize the log in our own eye rather than seeking to remove the speck in the eye of another.  may we see ourselves and others for who we are: fellow creatures stumbling along the path.  may we look beyond physical, religious, or lifestyle traits to see the person like ourselves.  may we love without condition.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

To Love Them As We Find Them

a few days ago we went to a concert in a nearby town.  the performers were excellent, and i was impressed by their talent and skill.  in the course of the concert, they performed a few sacred pieces with obvious sincerity.  they were not a "wear-your-religion-on-your-sleeve" sort of group, but from the sacred pieces they performed and a couple of comments during the concert, one could tell that their religious beliefs were central to their lives.

i caught myself thinking smugly that these performers were gullible to be taken in by orthodox fundamentalist christianity.  "how could musicians who were so classically well-trained espouse such nonsense," i thought, as the concert proceeded to its conclusion.  later in the evening, when i had some time to reflect on my reaction, i was ashamed of myself.  who was i to belittle, even mentally, anyone else's beliefs?  though i don't agree with their implied beliefs, there is no reason for me to look down my nose at others because they believe differently from me or because they are not shy about communicating their faith to others.

i've rejected much of christian orthodoxy and think that christian fundamentalism is a harmful influence on our country, but there are many good, bright people who espouse orthodox, fundamentalist christianity.  i have no monopoly on the truth, and i have to right to condemn others unless the practice of their beliefs results in harm to me or anyone else who disagrees with them.  the performers i heard didn't rail against any political or ethnic group; they didn't belittle anyone else's lifestyle.  they expressed their faith sincerely without any attempt to convert members of the audience and without ridiculing anyone.  from their public persona, it appeared that they were the sorts of folks with whom one could have a polite discussion of opposing positions, rather than the rabid, angry fundamentalists that are ready to send those who disagree with them to eternal damnation.

may i not be so ready to put down those who hold beliefs that i've come to view as superstitions.  may i look beyond someone else's faith that seems naive to me and see the person who is often kind, gentle, and generous.  may i love those who disagree with me.  may i abandon smugness and feelings of superiority towards those who embrace beliefs that i see as unreasonable.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

All Your Dreams Are on Their Way

i realized as i awakened from last night's sleep that our lives are settling into familiar patterns.  our house is more in order.  my wife worked hard last week to straighten up two small rooms that have been piled high with boxes and small items that we hadn't figured out a place for, and now they are lovely rooms that we're not embarrassed to have guests go in.  there are still lots of unfinished tasks, but the house looks nice and we are no longer reminded of how much is left to do as we look around it.  that garage is still a mess, but we have storage cabinets coming that will allow us to unpack the remaining boxes and store their contents in good order.

we're having our family who live here over for lunch, and my wife has cooked a great meal from scratch for us to enjoy.  this is the second "from scratch" meal she has cooked in our new kitchen; last week the two of us had a meal of delicious vegetables and pork chops.  i've worked out a system for getting the yard mowed and the weed-eating done that doesn't leave me completely exhausted after it's all done.  so life begins to feel more normal.  we've even planned a trip that will last almost two weeks for late october and early november, our first pleasure trip since we put our former home on the market in late january.

the long journey from the home we lived in for thirty years to a new home several hours away and 250 miles north now feels like it has come to an end.  our fatigue at the end of each day is not so hard to bear because an end to the days of unpacking, sorting, and placing the contents of several hundred boxes is in sight.  what felt like someone else's home that we had taken over begins to feel like it belongs to us, as we look around at familiar objects arranged the way we like them.  the second house guests from our old locale will arrive later today for a couple of nights' visit, and it's good to be welcoming old friends into what has become "our" home.

this transition has taken a lot out of us, but as i look back on the difficulties i am convinced that it was worth it.  being able to feel at peace here and to look off the deck at the beauty of nature--the mountains, the forest, the sky--makes the move worth it.  breaking free of our old routine and establishing a new "normal" here has reinvigorated us, despite the aches and pains.  as i think back on what we've been through and the journey to where we are now, i am inspired to examine my interior life and question the old routines i've brought here with me.  perhaps it's time for a re-examination of those stale patterns and the development of new ones to animate my heart, mind, and spirit.  more about that later!

may each of us find ways to renew our lives, to cast off old ways that no longer serve us well.  may we see that the pains that are a part of big changes are worth it in the end.  may we be grateful for the strength to carry on despite the pain, and may we embrace the pain as a necessary part of realizing our goals and dreams.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

All That Have Life and Breath

as we've worked through the chores of moving--packing, loading, unloading, unpacking, lifting, tugging, reaching--i've been reminded of the process of my own aging.  i hurt, from the bottoms of my feet to my facial muscles i hurt.  the aches and pains that used to be relieved by a couple of good nights' sleep don't go away so easily.  those aches and pains remind me that the end of my life is not so many years away, that most of my life is in the past.

i think of the frailty of life and how life can be snatched from us when we least expect it.  a young woman we knew in our former town was found dead recently in the home of a friend for whom she was house-sitting.  she was expecting a baby, and both she and the child she was carrying died instantly when she fainted and hit her head, snapping her neck.  she had been filled with excitement about life, as she looked forward to the birth of her child and had just moved into a new, larger apartment so she would have room for a nursery.  now she's gone, and the life she had imagined with her baby was taken from her in a flash.

here i sit at age seventy, having lived a full, rich life.  i've seen so many things as i've traveled all over the world.  i have two wonderful children.  i've spent almost 49 years with a wife that i adore.  i've had a rewarding career.  though there's much i want to do before my life ends, if it ended right now, i would die happy and fulfilled.  every day we wake up is a gift that needs to be appreciated.

may we relish each moment we have breath.  may our lives be filled with gratitude for the amazing gift of lives filled with rich experiences.  may we pay attention to the small joys that are ours throughout each day.  may we live each day as if it were our last.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Our People Drift and Die

i have been so focused on the difficulties of our move that i have largely ignored what is happening in our government and the difficult issues that confront us.  now that my wife and i can begin to see an end to the unpacking and organizing of our belongings in our new home and as we celebrate the anniversary of our country's beginning, i'm becoming engaged with politics and governance once more.  two things have captured my attention.

the first is our president's continuing attacks on the press and particularly his latest tweets on msnbc commentators joe scarborough and mika brzezinski.  mr. trump's cruel remarks about brzezinski's appearance and intelligence, his belittling of their show, and the name-calling ("crazy joe," "crazy mika," "psycho joe") are unworthy of the office of president.  his pattern of attacking those who criticize his policies in the most personal, and often untruthful, ways is contemptible.  moreover, they are dangerous to our democracy.  mr. trump encourages those who choose reportage that reinforces their own preconceived beliefs and who refuse to examine facts that are presented to them in an unbiased way, labeling any news that contradicts their point of view as "fake."  without a free and vigorous press, our democratic values cannot survive.

the second issue that is worrying to me is the ongoing push to repeal the affordable care act and replace it with legislation that will be harmful to millions of people, including those with serious medical conditions, the poor, children, and the elderly.  the callous posturing of the leaders of the republican majority in congress who have relentlessly portrayed the aca as a complete failure and their indifference to the suffering their replacement legislation will cause demonstrates their lack of concern for ordinary americans and their desire to further enrich those at the top of the economic ladder at the expense of everyone else.  we are fortunate to have several republicans who have opposed their efforts and refused to go along with the legislation put forward in the senate.  now mr. trump and some republican legislators have suggested that the aca be repealed with no replacement adopted in its place, a move that would throw health care in the usa into a panic that will cause further suffering.  the republicans have painted themselves into a corner with their constant campaigning to repeal "obamacare" and are incapable of taking the more reasonable and compassionate route of tweaking the existing legislation to make it work better.

one can only hope that those who voted for the present regime will regret what they have done and take a different course in the mid-term elections and the next presidential election.  may we resist those in power who threaten our institutions like the free press.  may we vote for a more compassionate and reasonable government when we have the opportunity.  may we condemn rhetoric from those in power that belittles and insults those who question their policies and actions.  may we return to civil discourse that respects opposing points of view.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Still There Is Hope When the Doors Are Closed

this morning as i sit to write, my body aches from lifting many, many boxes and moving many, many pieces of furniture.  i have bruises and cuts on my legs, arms, and torso.  around me in the kitchen bowls and dishes are piled on the counter tops.  but slowly, things are being put in their proper places.  the stacks of boxes in the garage are getting smaller.  two of the three cats have adjusted well to their new home and are now residing on the back deck instead of in the garage--we're not certain when the last cat will make the transition.  the three bedrooms are in good order, and we can sit in the den without boxes surrounding us.

it's amazing how things are beginning to shape up.  for a while, we were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task of unpacking thirty years worth of accumulated precious things, but, as we've bitten off little pieces each day, the end of what seemed impossible is now in sight.  we can even begin to think of getting outside and working to bring the overgrown shrubbery back under control and ridding the beds of the vines and other weeds that have begun to take over.

life is full of seemingly impossible goals that can only be accomplished by hacking away at the work to realize them steadily, a bit at a time.  we can't make world hunger disappear but we can help feed a few of the hungry in our own communities.  we can't eliminate poverty everywhere all at once, but we can contribute to organizations that are enabling poor families to support themselves.  we can't house all the displaced people in the world, but we can promote efforts to open our country, state, and town to refugees of war, famine, and persecution.  if each of us does a little, a lot will be accomplished.  we must not give up because the needs are so great.

may we do our part each day to make life better for others.  may we not be so absorbed in our own lives that we forget that others are suffering just as we are.  in loving ourselves, may we also share love with others.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto the Hills

from the windows of the kitchen in our new home where i sit each morning for my daily meditation i can see the mountains in the distance.  each day they have a different appearance.  one morning the clouds were dark and flowed over them rapidly in our direction; another morning the pink glow of the new day peeked over them, bathing them in a beautiful light.  this morning the peaks of some have disappeared in a mist, while others are barely visible.  i am amazed that each day a new picture presents itself from the kitchen windows.  the mountains are unchanged, yet their appearance is always different.  how fortunate i and all others who look in the direction of the mountains are!

when i consider the beauty that presents itself each day, i am enveloped in a great peace.  the mystery of nature's wonders is the deepest sort of religious experience.  in the face of such an experience, all things seem possible:  the elimination of poverty, hunger, and homelessness, the cessation of our inhumanity to one another, the end of prejudices and the persecution that flows from them, protection of our planet from the ravages of our greedy ill treatment.  one wonders how our race can allow so many evils to continue when it is within our power to change.  what is our motivation to harm others and the planet on which we live?

it seems to me that we are presented with two opposing visions of our purpose here.  one vision promotes competition between us to control more and more, a constant striving to enrich oneself at the expense of others.  the other sees us all in the same boat, needing to paddle in the same direction without any one of us striving for control of another's paddle as we all move in the same direction in a spirit of mutual cooperation.  we have the ability to end the suffering caused by hatred, war, greed, and pride, to stop craving that which we do not need and to stop clinging to that which is not necessary for our existence.  will we give up the quest for power and control and work together to end as much suffering as we can, or will we continue along the path that pits us against one another?

for me, the mountains are a silent testimony to the right course of action.  the mountains make no deals, they do not strive for more and more.  they simply are, gracing us with beauty that is fresh each morning.  we can be like the mountains, content to be, new each moment yet somehow always the same.  we can let go of our clinging and craving and, in so doing, allow suffering to dissipate for ourselves and others.

may we see our common humanity.  may we let go of those things which cause suffering for ourselves and for others.  may the struggle for power and control cease, as we embrace loving kindness and compassion.  shalom.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Rest Comes Sure and Soon

we continue to unpack boxes and spend much of our time looking for things we've unpacked and put away in places that are unfamiliar to us.  yesterday, though, we spent the day traveling to, attending, and returning from my uncle's funeral.  he was the last in our family of the generation that preceded ours.   our parents and all their siblings are now gone.  my dad's brother celebrated his 100th birthday last february and was in good health then.  in may he came down with the flu, then with pneumonia, and he didn't have the strength to recover.  his passing marked the end of an era, making my generation the elders of the family.

his funeral was held in the cemetery where he is to be buried beside his wife and son.  as we set in the covered pavilion open on all sides to the beautiful trees in the cemetery, i thought about how fitting the site was.  my uncle loved the outdoors.  he had carried on the family tradition of operating a sawmill and was an expert on every kind of tree that is native to this part of the country.  the views of the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze reminded me of how he had lived his life, as had my dad, his father, and his father's father and generations before them.

as the minister spoke the usual words of comfort, assuring those present that my uncle was now reunited with loved ones that have gone before, i wondered whether those words are true.  i'm not content to take scattered passages of the bible about life after death and resurrection as literal truth.  it doesn't worry me that i may not spend eternity with my parents and grandparents wandering around a city with gold-paved streets after passing through gates made of pearl.  i can't accept that anyone can speak with authority about what happens after our bodies take their last breaths.  i'm content to wait for whatever may happen.

i want to believe that there is something for us after this life is over, but i'm more concerned with what happens now.  what's important is how i live my life in the present; the future can take care of itself.  i hope that i get a chance to improve on the failings of my present life, but my greatest hope is that i will live a good life in the here and now, a life filled with loving-kindness and compassion.  i hope that each day i will live more skillfully than i did the day before.  i hope that when i pass i will leave a legacy of having made life better for those my life touched.  i hope that i will live on in the memories of others and that those memories will be good ones, just as my memories of my uncle are.

may each of us live fully in the present, unconcerned about what happens after this life is over.  may our hearts be open to all of life's experiences and may we rejoice in the gift of each breath we take.  may our troubles be transient, tinged with the joy of living mindfully.  may we love and be loved.  shalom.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My Song Is Love Unknown

during the past several days, we have been in the process of moving and getting settled in our new home.  now that most of the furniture is in place, the task of unpacking and finding room for everything that we spent many weeks packing up is well underway.  last night, it dawned on me that i had not posted anything in my blog last tuesday, and this catch-up post will be short.  i have been able to revive my meditation practice but other parts of my daily routine will have to wait until more order emerges from the chaos of boxes and packing materials.

as i type, one of the three "outdoor" cats that we moved with us is rubbing his small head against mine.  we rescued him after a friend found him abandoned in the park near our former home and was unsuccessful in adopting him.  he lived in a large bed of bushes and flowers at the park entrance but could be coaxed out by bowls of food and water.  it took several attempts before we persuaded him to move into our yard.  now he trusts us and is the most loving cat anyone could wish to share life with.  somehow he injured his neck in the storage room that was to be his temporary shelter, along with our other two cats until they were acclimated to a new place, and he has moved into the master bedroom while he recuperates.  his transformation from an alienated, wary creature to a loving pet and friend is gratifying and reminds me that all of us are alone in this vast and often difficult world until we are adopted by others who share their love with us.

may each of us find a family that loves us without condition and may we return that love.  may we appreciate that even the most unlovely among us deserves love.  may we embrace the transformative power of love.  shalom.