Tuesday, December 10, 2019

We Need A Little Christmas

the christmas season is upon us.  as i look around in our house, there are santas, angels, snow people, fairy houses, lighted trees, snow globes, gaily wrapped packages, crèches, and sleighs everywhere.  outside the house, in front and back, there are wreaths, garlands, trees, and santas, all lit in the darkness of night.  we watch our favorite christmas movies, some sappy and filled with clichés, others moving, but all fun to watch nevertheless.  it is a magical time of year.

the wonderful fictions that have come together to create our american christmas are largely the inventions of charles dickens, clement moore, st. matthew, and st. luke.   as with everything else "american," our christmas is a blend of traditions from many places.  without the dutch settlers of new york we might have a very different santa claus or none at all,  without our german forbears we might not see christmas trees everywhere, and in many different regions of the country we experience the contributions of hispanic culture, african culture, and other ethnic cultures.  if it had been left to the puritans, those "pilgrims" that are recalled each thanksgiving, we might not be celebrating christmas at all.

sometimes i think we go too far in our political correctness in excluding religious traditions when we try to be inclusive in our christmas observances and decor, but i worry, too, that many are pushed aside by the insistence that christmas is strictly a christian holiday.  i tire of hearing that "jesus is the reason for the season," when for many jesus is not the reason at all.  mr. trump and his ilk are insistent that we must wish everyone a "merry christmas," since extending a "happy holidays" greeting would "de-christianize" christmas.  maybe in their minds, only christians should have a christmas.

what is it about christmas that transcends religion?  peace on earth and good will to all are certainly things that should hoped for, and christmas reminds us how important those hopes are.  generosity and providing for those in need are other traits of the season that remind us that we should keep christmas in our hearts all year round, as mr. dickens suggested through the words of ebenezer scrooge.  spreading light throughout a darkened world, refusing to keep our lamp hidden under a bushel, is another of the important messages of christmas.  these are ideals that are not the exclusive property of christianity but ones that are shared by all religions and by those who endorse no religion.  if we are truly generous, we won't celebrate christmas only as a christian holiday but as a universal holiday that reminds us of all that is good about humanity.

may we see in christmas an opportunity to renew our belief in the goodness of each person.  may we fill our lives with peace and good will.  may we carry the message of christmas into every day of the year.  may all that is good be the real reason for the season.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Love One Another Right Now

we spent the week of thanksgiving visiting relatives some distance away.  one of those we visited had experienced deep suffering in her childhood and in her first marriage, leaving her bitter and difficult to get along with.  each time we leave her home after a visit, we feel like never coming back, but we always do because of our familial relationship with her and our desire not to cause her further anguish.

in thinking of her bitterness and deep-seated mental trauma, i was reminded of how much we cause suffering for ourselves by our refusal to let go of the past.  certainly the past is always with us, it is a part of who we are, but, by recalling past hurts and failing to deal with the causes of those hurts, we allow them to injure us over and over.  the question is how to resolve the causes of our pains so that we do not continue to experience them repeatedly.  holding onto our anger at those who injured us and revisiting every incident when another harmed us prevents us from ever letting go of our suffering.

in the case of our relative, it may be that our visits are difficult for her, because our presence reminds her of the past.  our relative has never forgiven either the man who caused the physical injuries or the woman who failed to prevent them.  being able to put the past behind us can only happen when we are able to forgive.  we can only forgive when we understand the reasons another harmed us, when we see the causes of the suffering in them that caused them to want us to suffer.  unless we can understand and forgive, we perpetuate our own suffering and inflict it on others.  it is our responsibility not only to ourselves, but to others, to end the cycle of abuse that can so easily go from one generation to the next.

may we seek to understand so that we can forgive.  may we learn the power of forgiveness to end our continual pain.  may we not injure ourselves over and over.  may we not cling to the hurts of the past as we try to love without condition..  shalom.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

It's the Hope of Hopes

during the past week, i've seen a couple of things on tv that struck me as ridiculous.  the first was a news report in which some people survived when a delivery truck careened over an ice-covered highway and overturned near where they had pulled off the road.  as the truck skidded toward them, they took cover in a ditch in exactly the place where the truck finally came to rest on its side.  these lucky people were left largely unharmed because of the way the truck came to rest, trapping them in the ditch without the truck descending into the ditch.  in an interview a few days later, one of those who lived to tell the tale said that in this event god had been watching out for them.

earlier that week we had watched a movie about a toy shop owner who had been forced out of business by the ruthless owner of a larger toy store that had opened across the street.  the owner of the larger store gloated over his business prowess that had caused the demise of the smaller store.  the out-of-business shop owner told his wife, who was expecting their first child, that god would provide for him.  he stayed at home for months, presumably supporting the family with savings they had put aside, unable to find work until he had an inspiration for a new children's board game that he was able to bring to market with the help of a large manufacturer.  soon he was able to reopen his store, as the larger store was failing due to people discovering the true nature of its owner and refusing to shop there any longer.  as the christian store owner watched his rival suffer, he decided to make him a gift of three hundred thousand dollars to keep his business afloat.  the man's generosity caused the unscrupulous businessman to do an about face, convert to christianity, and become business partners with his benefactor.

as i thought about these two things, one a true-life report of what could have been a disaster for its victims, the other a fictional story with an unbelievable plot intended to convince its viewers that faith in god will solve every problem, i found myself wondering how anyone could believe what was being told.  after the news report about the people who were left unscathed after the accident, i turned to my wife and said that if god were really watching out for those who took shelter in the ditch, the accident would never have happened, they either wouldn't have been in that place when the truck skidded and overturned or the truck would have managed to avoid skidding off the road in the first place.  i'm glad that there were no serious injuries as a result of this accident, but luck was on their side, not god.

as the christian toy store owner summarized the events of the fictional story, he told those watching that god had caused his business to fail, so that he could invent a new game that enriched him enabling him to give a large gift to his competitor, which then caused the hard-hearted businessman to examine his life and convert to christianity.  all of this was a part of "god's plan."  what a conniving god he must worship!  this god made him fail and his family to suffer through month's of worry as they watched their savings vanish in order to bring a heartless rival "back into the fold."  i'm afraid i don't want to worship such a god.

may we see that the events of life are not being controlled by god but that our lives are in our own hands.  just as the bad things that happen to us are not allowed to happen because of god's indifference, neither are the good things the result of god's machinations.  we must take responsibility for ourselves.  when we are generous and compassionate, we can be a blessing to others, not because we are being manipulated to do so by god but because it is the right thing to do.  may we be grateful that we have the freedom to accept life on its own terms and make the best of it.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

My Home Lies Deep Within You

as i sat down to write, i was torn about the subject of my short post for this week.  i wondered if i should write about the ongoing impeachment drama unfolding in washington, about a situation in my personal life, or about a concert my wife and i attended this past week.  in the end, i decided to write about the concert because music is such an important part of my life.

we attended a concert in another town just north of ours and happened to be seated next to two women from a town about an hour west of where we live.  as my wife visited with the two women before the concert began, she told them that we had hope to hear the vienna boys' choir when we travel to houston for thanksgiving but couldn't make the dates work out with our schedule.  to our surprise, they said that the choir was performing in their town in just a few days.  as we waited for our concert to begin, i got my phone out and was able to get us tickets for the concert in an almost-sold-out auditorium.

last weekend we drove to the concert and delighted in the beautiful music created by these children being trained in austria.  they sang a variety of music, ranging from the renaissance to show tunes, with the emphasis on what i would describe as "world music," some of it composed in the style of the country in which it was written and some of it folk music.  after the concert i pondered about the magic of music.  as their conductor said, making music causes you to be happier and makes what is sometimes a burdensome task a lighter one.  i wondered how many of these boys would go on to become professional musicians and how many would go into other fields, carrying their musical experiences and the amazing opportunity of seeing so much of the world with them.

as someone who has worked in the field of music my entire life, i can't imagine a world without music.  in my retirement, i miss the day-to-day experience of practicing music for my livelihood and go as often as i can to hear others make music.  we are fortunate to live in an area where there are concerts of all types available to us at a very reasonable cost.  for instance, in the past month we have gone to a free concert of french classical music at a nearby college, to hear a world-class trio of professional singers, to a series of concerts by several talented ensembles at a nearby amusement park, and finally to the concert we attended this past weekend.  in december we will go hear a singer that we have not heard before do a concert, to a symphony christmas concert, to an organ recital, to a string orchestra program, and to a christmas choral program.  in addition, i will be singing messiah with our local community chorus, which just began its preparations for this annual presentation, as well as playing the christmas eve service at the episcopal church in our town.

what is it about music that makes life so much richer, that lifts us from our humdrum existence, that puts us in touch with some deep longing in our souls?  i remember as a small child listening in rapt attention to the pianist in the small country church i attended with my family and longing to be able to play as she did.  i began begging for lessons when i was five, and, when i was six, my parents relented and let me begin studying the piano, though they thought i was too young.  those lessons began a journey that i have not yet completed, and, in many difficult situations, music has been my salvation.  i will always be grateful to those who supported me along the way, beginning with my parents and my first teacher.

may the gift of music be a part of each life.  may we appreciate those who make music and support them in their work.  may each of us experience the joy that music brings each day.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

When Evening Falls So Hard

last sunday, our son came for a visit.  we were apprehensive about his visit, because he was coming without his wife, and we had just been to visit them a little over a week before.  we were glad to see him, of course, but thought it odd that his wife was not coming with him.  after an hour or so of conversation, he got around to the reason for his driving the hour and a half to our home on a sunday afternoon: he and his wife were separating and would be divorcing in the near future.

he seemed to be handling the breakup well and assured us that this would be an amicable dissolution of their marriage.  they had discussed how to divide up their assets and debts equitably, she had found an apartment that she would soon move into, and he would remain in their home for the time being until a propitious time arrived to sell it and divide the proceeds.  they both have good jobs that appear to be secure, and, while money will be tight for both of them in the short term, they can manage it seems.

i was impressed with the maturity both of them were exhibiting in this process, and i could sense relief on our son's part that they had come to this decision.  as he told us, they seemed to be on different paths in their lives, and they could both see that there was no way to reconcile their personal goals in life.  they had moved back to arkansas from colorado a few months ago, and he longed to return to the mountains with which he felt a deep connection.  while we hate to see him move so far away again, i understand his love for the rockies.  i have long felt more at home in the mountains than anywhere else, but i never had the opportunity to live near them, so i am happy that he finds himself in a position where he can choose where he wants to live once the divorce is finalized and his financial situation is less precarious.  he envisions that scenario taking about two years, and that seems to be a reasonable timeframe.  by that time, his feelings may have changed and new opportunities may have opened up for him.

after he left, i ached for him and his soon-to-be ex-wife.  i believe they love each other, but the course of their lives has set them on different paths.  we are glad that our son can count on our support and that of his sister.  his spouse doesn't have that support from her own parents, who are religious conservatives that don't agree with divorce, though she has other family and friends that will be there for her.  our son longs for time to be by himself to sort his feelings out, and i think it will be good for him to be on his own, something that he has never been able to do before.  he jumped from being a college student into his first marriage, which ended when his wife left him for another man.  when that marriage ended, he moved into our guest house, which put him back with mom and dad, and he went from that situation into his second marriage and a move to north arkansas to be with his new wife.  now he looks forward to living independently and sorting through his thoughts, dreams, and goals.

may each of us have the time we need to search out our own way.  may we do so with compassion for those who are a part of that search and who we encounter on the path.  may we have the space to be our authentic selves and to discover who we are in our deepest hearts.  may we see the opportunities life presents us with and be thankful for the obstacles we encounter that help us become more compassionate, caring, and resilient people, remembering that the rocks are there to be climbed so we can see new visions.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Put On A Happy Face

i want to write today about my wife's mother who died ten years ago.  she was a woman that i admired greatly, and i think about her often.  she was born in rural southwestern arkansas in the early twentieth century.  her mother was the daughter of irish immigrants who settled in an irish community in western kentucky, and her father was a prosperous farmer who had moved with his young wife and several other family members to arkansas from the boothill of missouri, just across the mississippi river from the area where my wife's grandmother had grown up.

my mother-in-law had an idyllic childhood, growing up on a farm that was largely self-sufficient with her two sisters and one brother.  her mother was a kind-hearted, happy woman who loved to sing irish and american folk songs and popular victorian ballads, many of which my wife's mother, juanita, remembered.  juanita had a few piano lessons and loved to play the family piano.  her skills were minimal but she could play all the songs she loved to sing, the songs her mother had sung to her as a child, as well as gospel hymns.  in her young adulthood, before she married and left her family home, the house she grew up in caught fire.  she wanted to make certain that her beloved piano didn't burn with the house and somehow managed to draw it herself to the front door so that the piano would have to be moved out before other prized belongings could be saved.  though the house was a total loss, all the family members survived unhurt, along with the piano.

her father had a fine new home built, but soon after juanita began going out with her future husband, carl, and subsequently they were married.  her father, elmer, believed that juanita's husband was not worthy of his daughter and had an intense dislike for him and all his family.  elmer was even more disgruntled when another of his daughters married into the same family.  from that point on, relations between juanita and elmer were strained, though they continued to see one another and maintain a polite, though distant, relationship.

juanita had been a good student at the small country school where she graduated as valedictorian of her class.  her formal education ended then, and as she began her married life, she and carl moved into the town nearby where carl held a variety of jobs to support his wife and the daughter that was born to them in the early years of their marriage.  by the time my wife was born, the youngest of four daughters, juanita had gone to work in a sweat shop making coats and jackets for the lowest wage required by law while carl operated a mechanic shop that adjoined their house on eleven acres of land he had bought by securing a loan from a former employer.  the shop didn't make much, if any, money, and juanita's meager income was their main source of support.

carl was an abusive father and had become a religious fanatic.  the daughters were beaten mercilessly for the slightest infraction of his rules, and juanita was helpless to protect them.  in those days, men ruled and the law believed that what went on inside a home was none of its business as long as no one was killed.  it was a difficult time for juanita and her children.  the children were required to do all sorts of menial labor around the property and to help in the shop, and there was little time for the sort of play that most children enjoy.  my wife and her sisters remember how hard their mother worked and how much effort she put into making their lives as happy as possible under the circumstances.  through it all she never lost her positive disposition or her sense of humor, and it was only her presence that made life bearable for the four girls.

juanita was a gifted writer, and we delight in reading the stories about her life and the poems that she wrote, writings that she carefully preserved and treasured and which we now treasure ourselves.  she was a great story-teller and loved recalling her life on the farm and the people she knew growing up.  her father never let a visitor leave without first enjoying a meal with the family, and there were always guests at the table to enjoy the fine cooking of juanita's mother.  many family members lived nearby, and juanita and her cousins had great fun exploring the woods and streams near their home and playing games with each other.

carl died after all the girls were grown and married with children of their own, and juanita was left alone.  by that time, an interstate had come through near the family's eleven acres, and carl and juanita had been able to sell their land for a tidy sum and buy a large farm just outside town where they raised cows and chickens.  juanita was left to run the farm by herself, so she got out of the chicken business and leased the pasture land to another cattle farmer, while she continued to take care of her nice new home and the beautiful plants she had set out in her yard at the new place.  when two of her sisters bought homes in the same neighborhood in town, juanita bought a home that was just down the street from one of her sisters, and the backyard of her new home adjoined the back yard of the other sister, so that all three sisters were within easy walking distance of one another.

with carl's passing, she was free to live life on her own terms, and she relished her freedom.  her brother, who lived in michigan, invited her on long trips with himself and his wife, and she jumped at the chance to see the country with them.  her children and their families, including us, always took a long trip together during the summer and invited juanita to go along.  she was always excited to see new sites and spending time with family members made her adventures even more fun for her.  she kept journals of her travels, recording the events of each day of her journeys.  reading about these trips and seeing them through her eyes, the eyes of a country girl who until that point had never traveled more than a few miles from her home except to visit relatives in kentucky as a child, has made us appreciate how fortunate we've been in our lives to see and do so much.  that we were able to share our ramblings with her made them even more memorable.

i wonder what juanita could have done under different circumstances.  with her keen mind and sharp wit she could have gone far if she had a supportive father and husband to encourage her.  as it was, she made the best of life with what was available to her, always trying to make the lives of others better with her kindness and wisdom.  she always said that "you're worthless if you don't have a little 'dink,' and dink she had in abundance.  she lived life as fully as anyone i've ever known, never losing her optimism and good humor no matter what life threw at her.

may we all have a little "juanita" in us.  may we learn from people like her that life only gets the best of us if we let it.  may we never give up on kindness, and may we always look for the best in others.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Try A Little Tenderness

i love to watch british detective shows.  i remember growing up with several american detective series on television, shows like mike hammer, peter gunn, seventy-seven sunset strip, dragnet, and columbo.  as a pre-teen, i read every hardy boys book i could lay my hands on.  when i was older in my teens, and later as an adult, i devoured sherlock holmes stories.  there don't seem to be any great american detective shows on tv any more, except the law and order offshoots.  there are a couple of pretty good police series, but the british seem to have a corner on the market for quality detective shows.  i could sit and watch midsommer murders, the oxford-based police collection that follows inspector morse and his successor inspector lewis, grantchester, vera, and shetland for hours.  it's not so much the ingenuity of the plots, though those are always good, as the interesting leading characters that have me hooked.  they are real human beings with quirks and faults, often living messy lives that are sometimes uncomfortably close to home.

i'm particularly fond of sidney, the detective-priest in grantchester.  i feel for him as he tries to interpret his role as a clergyman in a time of changing social mores in the period following the second world war.  his assistant, leonard, is a gay man who is under pressure from his superiors to marry and avoid the stigma of being homosexual in an era where being gay is considered not only immoral but illegal.  sidney is in love with a friend of his sister who has been forced into an unhappy marriage by her father.  after leaving her husband with their small child, she moves to grantchester, and sidney struggles with his love for her and hers for him when divorce is not permitted by the church of england.  they both know that he would have to give up his vocation in order for them to be together, and, at the point in the series where i now am in my viewing, their love relationship is an on-again-off-again affair.  sidney's partner in crime-solving, police inspector geordie, is having an affair with a woman who works in his police station, while his wife stays home raising their family.  trying to maintain their friendship while prodding geordie to end his dalliance with his co-worker, sidney is having difficulty figuring out how to counsel his friend without coming across as a judgmental member of the clergy.

by now, i've become so involved with the lives of these characters that the mystery-solving aspect of the show has become secondary for me.  while i can't condone geordie's behavior, i feel for him as he tries to sort out his feelings.  he finds that he loves both women and can't bring himself to break off the affair with the younger woman or to admit to his wife that he is being unfaithful.  my heart aches for sidney and the woman he loves, knowing that to give their feelings for one another full expression would end his career in a vocation that he enjoys and is good at.  i watch with sympathy as sidney's assistant tries to deal with his homosexuality in a small rural parish where his every action is under scrutiny, as sidney counsels him with a sensitivity that is lacking in most of the others in their society.

life can be so messy, and i am grateful that there are some television shows and writers on whose stories these shows are based that remind us that there are real people out in the world struggling with difficulties that are hard for many of us to understand.  it's easy to condemn the geordies of this world for having affairs outside their marriages that end up hurting all those around them, but these geordies are human beings with complicated emotions that it's hard to fathom from the outside looking in.  it's easy to say that leonard should be true to himself and live life as a gay man but there are so many leonards who feel trapped in roles that don't allow them to express their homosexuality openly because doing so would cause great hurt to their families and careers.  it's easy to say that sidney should abandon his position as a member of the anglican clergy to be with the woman he loves, but there are many sidneys who love their vocations as much as they love another person and who cannot figure out which is the more important love for themselves or how to reconcile the two.

may we accept the messiness of life and love the human beings who cause that messiness.  may we not be so quick to judge and condemn.  may we learn to deal with the suffering that is a part of life as we stumble down the path.  may a deep sense of lovingkindness, compassion, and respect for the difficulties that others experience fill us, and may we extend the same to ourselves.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Thorougfare of Freedom

we've returned from our travels.  as usual, we have been reminded that wherever we go people are very much the same.  they may speak with different accents, may live in homes that are of a different type of construction, and may have mannerisms and expressions that are unfamiliar to us, but they have they same struggles to make sense of life, want the same things for themselves and their loved ones, have the same needs, and are in the most essential ways just like us.  we saw only one genuinely angry person, a man who was filled with rage about what he seemed to believe was the desire of too many motorists on the four-lane highway to impede his progress, and he ranted about the stupidity of the drivers who surrounded him to everyone who would listen at the service station where we had stopped for gas.  as soon as we could fill our tank, we left, hoping that we would not encounter this driver on the highway.

what i want to write about today, though, is not our experiences with people we encountered on our travels or the beauty of nature that we witnessed.  instead, i write about a short trip i took with several family members to a nearby amusement park.  one of those relatives was our great-nephew, a sweet young man of about 13 who attends a "christian" school.  he sat between my wife and me in the middle row of seats in the van in which we rode, and we engaged him in conversation about school and his plans for the day at the park.  he is a witty kid, with an off-kilter sense of humor, and a delight to be around.  we were disturbed, though, when he began to talk disparagingly about public schools and those who attended them.  we knew that he was repeating what he had been told at home and at his christian school.  he told us how awful the public schools in the small community in which he lives were, though he had never set foot in one of them.  he told us how dumb the students that attended those schools were, because students who transferred into his school from them were ignorant of many of the things that he was being taught.  one such student, he went on, couldn't even tell time using an analog clock because public schools didn't bother to teach that skill.

as my wife and i talked later, we lamented the narrowness of his education and upbringing.  he will most likely go through life believing that those outside his circle of evangelical christians are inferior to him and his kind.  he will look on these "outsiders" with pity and condescension.  he and his siblings will have only limited contact with people of other cultures and will experience little to none of the diversity that is our country at large.  it will be easy for him to accept the philosophy of the make-america-great-again crowd and hope for a return to a u.s.a. that never existed where everyone was the same skin color and was a born-again christian.  this gentle child won't hate those who are different from him, he'll simply pretend that they are not there, since he'll seldom see them in his closed world.

his mother has the same sweet disposition, loves her family and provides a secure environment for them in their home, while her husband goes out and earns a good living for them all.  she listens primarily to "christian" music and watches "christian" movies and television.  she delights in "christian" comediennes.  even her ringtone is "christian."  her oldest son attends a "christian" university, where, after twelve years in a "christian" school, he will be surround by students and teachers who are just like him.  as he and his siblings marry and raise families of their own, they will probably perpetuate the myth of a "christian" america founded by devout founders that never existed except in the minds of people who think like them.  maybe some glimpse of the outside world will break in and awaken one or more of them to what life is like outside their "christian" bubble, as it has with other children raised in this environment.  one hopes that will be the case.

i want to dislike these evangelicals but they are kind, generous people.  their hearts are not filled with hatred.  they are not angry like the man we tried to keep away from on our trip.  they don't want children who cross our borders to be kept in cages.  they tolerate trump and trumpism because they believe it is better than the "socialist" alternative, but they don't wholeheartedly embrace it.  they are just people like me, but they've closed their minds to the wider culture that surrounds them, isolating themselves from it by worshiping with, doing business with, attending school and cultural events with, and as much as possible only associating with people who look and think like them.  in their view, they are the "real" america; the rest of us are an aberration.  if we are white like them but not evangelical christians, we have been led astray by left-wing politicians and the media.  if we are non-whites, we are not part of true american culture, unless we've separated ourselves from our ethnic identities and become like them except for the color of our skin.

their lifestlye and philosophy frighten me.  polls tell us that their numbers are diminishing but for now their politics is ascendant.  i fear that it is from their ranks that radical right-wing terrorists will emerge, as this us-against-them way of viewing society becomes more threatened.  i worry that it will be too easy to go from tolerating the broader culture while maintaining their isolationism to attacking those they now disdain and pity, fearing that the rest of us are a threat to their way of life.  they are part of the "they're coming to take our guns" movement, the "they're going to send christians to concentration camps" movement, the "it's ok to say merry christmas again" movement.  theirs is a way of viewing themselves as victims who are being forced to live with same-sex marriage, women's rights, and a diverse society that the see as violating their religious freedom to discriminate against and control these "others" that are not true u.s. citizens like them.

may we never give in to this way of thinking.  may we learn to love those who think in this way without endorsing their ideas.  may we promote the multiculturalism and diversity that is america, the america that the declaration of independence envisions.  may all of us, whether we live in this country or elsewhere, see the basic sameness of us all and have compassion for one another as we struggle together along the path.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Stopping By Woods

my wife and i are traveling in new england for the next couple of weeks, so my posts will not return until the middle of october.  may all be well, may all be happy, may all be at peace.  shalom.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Don't Go Changing

it is a natural human inclination, i suppose, for each of us to want others to conform to our expectations of them.  we want to remake others into what we desire them to be.  if someone close to us keeps things to themselves, we may wish that person would be more open and willing to share with us.  acquaintances may be abrupt and surly, and we want to change them so that they are more pleasant.  a friend is easily angered or offended, unable to disagree without being disagreeable, so we fume about his propensity to take umbrage at every little thing.

as we go through life wishing that others were what we want them to be, we make ourselves miserable.  it is too easy to find fault in others while overlooking those in ourselves.  as jesus said in matthew 7, "why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"  all of us has our own quirks and foibles.  none of us is perfect in the eyes of another.  we all stumble and make mistakes.  why is it that we have so much difficulty loving another despite those traits that irritate or trouble us?  those things that we perceive as character flaws are a part of who that other person is, and we would be so much happier if we could accept what we perceive to be the bad along with the good.

i have a friend who constantly complains about her spouse.  everything she says about him is right.  he is thoughtless much of the time.  he does spend too much time on facebook.  he is content to sit while she does most of the work to keep the household running.  he does become angry too easily.  but he has many admirable qualities as well.  he can be generous.  he has a great sense of humor.  he is a wonderful musician.  he is a loyal friend and husband.  rather than work together to find common ground, both my friend and her husband pick at and find fault with one another, and the end result is that they are often  miserable.  i watch their misery and feel compassion for them.  truth be told, i want to remake them into the people i want them to be so they would be happier with one another.  i can't and shouldn't be able to do that.  my task is to love them despite the faults that are so readily apparent and to accept them just as they are, with the hope that they can accept and love me just as i am.

may we see others as complete human beings, not as the sum of their faults.  may we love in spite of, and sometimes because of, the unloveliness.  may our compassion extend to everyone, including ourselves.  may we see that we are all the same, with plenty of good and bad qualities to go around.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Gladly I Follow

in the christian religion, and i suppose in most if not all other religions, we use some language that is archaic and has little meaning in the modern world.  indeed, some of it has negative connotations that were not part of the original sense of the words.  some of this arises from our lack of terms for referring to God, this nameless deity.  the ancients considered the name of God to be so holy that it was unutterable.  we continue this practice today, so we must capitalize the word that refers to this supreme being in order to distinguish that God from other gods that we regard as fictitious.

we use the word "lord" to talk to or about the "real" God or to talk about jesus.  what does "lord" mean?  there is that use of the word in the reference to a nobleman, an honorific that is meaningless in much of the world.  in our religious usage, we are talking about one who is our master, one who rules over us, but in our practice of the ideals arising from belief in equality of all persons, it is unnatural to refer to God or jesus as our lord.  when we do so, we are reverting to an old structure based on feudal understandings of the various ranks and worth of human beings, a caste system that is foreign to democratic ideology.

we speak of the "kingdom of God."  again we are going back to that hierarchy that places one person as the supreme head of state with absolute power over all others.  such terminology would have had great meaning in a world ruled over by a caesar or a king of an ancient empire but for our minds a "kingdom" is anathema.  if the "kingdom of God is at hand," then we have surrendered our right to think, to reason, to make our own decisions.  we are regarding jesus as our "lord," our "master," with God as the ruler who takes over our lives, leaving us powerless.

this language and the beliefs flowing from it are, i think, a stumbling block to practicing the christian religion in a modern, democratic world.  rather than a feudal worldview, we need religious language that sees jesus as our leader rather than our lord and that empowers us to think for ourselves.  we need language that imparts a sense of a God who is the embodiment of love, rather than a dictatorial and sometimes capricious ruler who is the pattern for earthly tyrants.  we christians are disciples of jesus, not his slaves.  we learn from jesus, we don't pledge him our fealty.  perhaps we should simply give God the name Love and realize that each time we commit an act of lovingkindness we are worshiping that source of love.

may we not become stuck in a mindset that is out of place in today's world.  may we realize that language is important and that, when words cease to serve our needs, we should search for better words to use.  may our worship be true worship rather than something based on a pattern that we have come to view as not just antiquated but immoral.  if we are christians, may our aim be to follow jesus and to be expressions of a divine Love.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Till All Our Strivings Cease

my wife and i have been watching the first season of the british detective show, unforgotten, in which the police are trying to discover the person who murdered a black teenager in the 1970s.  the young man's body has been discovered buried in the basement of an old building some forty years later.  in the process of the investigation, we are introduced to a number of people who are linked to the building and the neighborhood surrounding it.  as the series continues we learn how their actions four decades earlier have affected their lives and the lives of their families.  we meet an anglican priest who had a brief affair with a teenage girl shortly after his marriage to his current wife, a woman who was involved with a racist organization that made the lives of many non-white londoners miserable and who has spent the rest of her life trying to atone for her actions as a young woman while covering up her past life, an elderly wheelchair-bound man whose wife suffers from dementia but believes that her husband was responsible for some terrible crime years ago, the mother of the murdered young man who has grieved for him since he left home to escape an abusive father and who suddenly stopped communicating with her for reasons unknown to her, a woman who was the girlfriend of the murdered man, and a prominent businessman being considered for an important political appointment who has tried to cover up a career as a member of an organized crime family in his early adult life.

many of these characters try to deny their past lives, excusing the ways they've harmed others as past history that is now irrelevant.  others feel great remorse and beg the forgiveness of those who love them who are seeing their lives destroyed by the ongoing investigation.  the mother of the murdered boy feels a sense of closure as she learns of his death, visits the site of his burial, and follows the investigation that will ultimately lead to her son's killer and the reasons for his murder.  as i've watched, i've thought about how i, like everyone else i suppose, have done things in my past that i'd just as soon forget and that i hope others don't find out about.  these youthful indiscretions may have had profound effects on others that i know nothing about, just as the actions of the characters in this show have done.  i can't help but wonder if any of my earlier regrettable actions may come back to bite me at some point.  i hope that nothing i've done has caused anyone else great suffering or put someone on a destructive path.

i think about how our attitudes toward the role authority figures play in the lives of those over whom they have authority, especially over children.  when i was growing up, it wasn't unusual for male high school teachers to date and sometimes marry their female students.  somehow to us teenagers it seemed romantic that one of our classmates would fall in love with and marry a teacher that we looked up to.  today such a relationship is not just inappropriate but illegal.  as we've become more sensitive to the rights of women, we've seen how wrong the patriarchal attitudes of men towards women are, but not so many years ago actions that we would now call sexual harassment were viewed as matters of course in the natural relationship between men and women.  standards of conduct have changed for the better but it seems wrong to use today's standards to condemn past actions and to belittle others for what was, at the time, acceptable behavior.  that is not to say that crimes should be swept under the carpet and ignored.  sexual abuse ought to be prosecuted regardless of how many years have passed between the time of its occurrence and its discovery by the legal authorities.

what i'm trying to say is that i wish i had realized years ago how my actions may have affected others, not that i was ever guilty of abuse or anything illegal.  i certainly did things that caused hurt to others and failed to understand that as someone who was looked up to by young people i should have been more mindful of how my actions might influence them.  my thoughtless use of tobacco as a young teacher, for instance, may have led some of my young charges to take up the habit and become addicted.  my taking advantage of my authority to snap at a student for some violation of the rules or for making a mistake caused hurt and may have inspired cruelty in impressionable minds.  my use of coarse language and innuendo when among young male students may have caused them to think that such behavior is acceptable for young men, as indeed it was many years ago, though it certainly wasn't right--something that i knew and should have acted on.

cruelty and thoughtlessness are never justifiable.  what we do has an impact on those around us and may start a series of ripples that can touch lives that we never dreamed would be affected.  i can't change past actions, nor can i live my life dwelling on them.  i can remember and try to live with greater lovingkindness and mindfulness.  i can, as the formerly racist woman in the detective series did, try to make amends by the way in which i conduct myself in the present.  we can all try to forgive ourselves and reach out to those who we know may have been hurt by what we did in the past.

may we not dwell on past mistakes but learn from them.  may we take responsibility for the harm we've done.  may we live in each present moment with the knowledge that it will never come again, filling our hearts with love and showing that love towards all those whose lives we touch.  may we be ready to forgive ourselves and those who injure us.  may we be grateful for the opportunities life gives us and for the lessons it teaches us.  shalom.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Come to Me, O Weary Traveler

i wonder what people in other countries think of the usa.  when i read or watch the news, i am ashamed of my country.  i think about the hope that i had as i watched the power of the ussr unravel, first in eastern europe and then within its own borders.  as communist dictatorships were overthrown and democratic governments were established, it seemed as if the power that was unleashed by the american revolution had come to full flower.  then there was the "arab spring" when it appeared that there was hope that all of the middle east would join the progressive wave that had earlier engulfed europe.

as i look back on that earlier promise, it seems impossible that now so much has changed.  hungary has turned into a neo-fascist state.  xenophobia flourishes in italy.  ultra-nationalism is rife in the united kingdom.  trumpism rules in the usa.  i want to be able to tell the world that all of us in this country are not like trump and his supporters.  my small voice is one of many here that decries everything trump stands for.

we watch in horror as the most desperate who are fleeing violence and poverty are thrown into virtual prisons where conditions approach those of concentration camps, where medical help is denied and children are ripped from the arms of their parents, where inedible and unhealthy food is provided, where private companies who operate these facilities make profit off the misery of others at the expense of the taxpayers.  how can we tolerate these deplorable conditions that those who have suffered so much are forced to live in?  we hear the hatred being spewed out at political rallies and the cheerleader-in-chief is our own president, a man who rules despite having lost the popular vote because of a peculiar quirk in our constitution which allows smaller states to have power that belies their population.  we recoil at the repeated horrors of mass shootings all over our country while the president and his party refuse to take steps to curb this violence, pointing to our constitution's words that give our citizens "the right to keep and bear arms."

at least in the united kingdom, there are those in the ruling party who refuse to be a part of the prime minister's rush to leave the european union and who denounce the prejudices that propelled the brexit movement into prominence.  here in this country, the members of the president's party who have dared defy him are few and far between and, for the most part, those few have been forced to retire from their positions.  even the weather reporting in this country has been politicized because those responsible for it dare not contradict the false and outlandish tweets of the president.  we stray further and further from our democratic ideals and the president's party abets the dictatorial power grab of trump.  we who oppose the current course of the country must hope that the next election will bring an end to this madness and that republican control of the senate and presidency will see its last days.

may we work so that all may live in a world where kindness and love towards one another is the rule, rather than cruelty and hatred.  may we build bridges between us, not walls.  may we resist the siren call of racial and religious divisions and see that we are all human beings first.  may we learn to disagree amicably while condemning in the strongest terms the hatreds which separate us into warring camps.  may we provide help and comfort to those who suffer regardless of the color of their skins or the language they speak.  shalom.

Monday, September 2, 2019

I Feel Pretty

one day last week i went to hobby lobby, a home decor store here in town, to pick up a candle my wife wanted.  i have mixed feelings about shopping at this store because it is part of the chain of stores owned by the family that went to court to keep from providing birth control as part of the employer-provided health care mandated by the affordable care act, or "obamacare" as its detractors call it.  this family also funds the museum of the bible in washington, d. c., which was called to task for stealing antiquities from iraq to add to its collection.  we shop there anyway, because we're not convinced that economic boycotts of businesses which are operated by people we disagree with is a good idea.  it seems to be another way of polarizing our society, and we generally don't participate in these sorts of boycotts as a way of expressing our opinion.

at any rate, that's a topic for another post.  what struck me as a i walked through the store were all the little cutesy signs that said things like "be grateful" or "family gathers here."  some people like to put these up in their homes, and that's okay if that's what you like.  one sign really bothered me, though.  it said, "a gurl [sic] is a bit of glitter wrapped up in a giggle," or something to that effect.  i immediately thought of the old nursery rhyme that goes, "snakes and snails and puppy dog tails, that's what little boys are made of; sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of."  i wondered if someone would buy such a sign and put it up in their home and if so, if that what they think of girls and women.  the thought sent chills through me.

one of the problems with evangelical christianity is its attitude toward women.  we have a large community of mennonites in our area.  while i think there is much that is admirable about the mennonite version of christianity, i am disturbed by its requirements that girls and women must wear little veil-like coverings on their heads, must dress in homemade clothing that usually looks like it came from the last century, and must go without make-up, while mennonite men dress in "store-bought" modern clothing and are indistinguishable in their appearance from non-mennonite males.  this whole approach that seems designed to keep "women in their place" and overtly assert male dominance is deeply disturbing.  my wife and i know many marriages where the wife, no matter how intelligent and well educated, always defers to her husband because they both believe that in a "good christian marriage" the husband is the final authority in the household.  they say, "that's what the bible teaches, so we believe that's the way it must be in order to be faithful christians."

when i think of the hard-fought battles that women have fought and continue to fight to gain equal status with men, i can't believe that any woman would settle for second-class status in marriage or relationships with men in general.  how could any man worth his salt want to be the ruler of the woman he loves?  i have to agree with my wife that marriage is a partnership between two equals, not a patriarchal bargain based on antiquated views of gender roles.  we've lived this way throughout our marriage and think that we've taught both our son and daughter to live their lives in the same way.  "gurls" are certainly much more than glitter and giggles, just as boys are more than snakes, snails, and puppy dog tails.  there's so much we don't understand about gender and identity related to gender, and i hope that our society is evolving into one that is broader than the stereotypical views of male and female that we once held.

may we think before assigning gender roles to ourselves and others.  may we see fellow humans as being more like us than different from us, regardless of their gender.  may we see that each of us is never wholly male or wholly female, that we all share common traits.  even when we disagree, may love and compassion win out.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

All Nature Sings

i'm using what i write today to "think out loud" about some things i can't come to any conclusions about.  i'll probably never be able to have any finality about these matters, first because i lack the necessary scientific knowledge and second because these questions have no real answers.  i suppose there are lots of things in life that fall into that second category.  what i wonder is how necessary human life is to the continuation of other life on this planet.  would there be any great loss to nature on the whole if human beings disappeared from the earth?

we think of ourselves as somehow above the rest of nature.  those who take the bible literally remember passages that tell us we are to "have dominion" over the natural world, or that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made," or that we are created "a little lower than the angels."  christians think of jesus' words, "if that is how God clothes the grass of the field [speaking of the 'flowers of the field'], which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?," which suggest that human lives are superior to other natural lives.  but aren't we elevating ourselves because we have minds that do so?

if we think of ourselves as part of nature rather than something apart from it and slightly above it, we may not be so important in the overall scheme of things.  i wonder how dependent the rest of life is on us.  i think nature is much more necessary to us that we are to the rest of nature.  perhaps there are some organisms that wouldn't exist apart from us, bacteria, for instance, that are unique to human beings, but i don't know if that's the case.  on the whole, i don't see that we're all that essential to the remainder of nature.

certainly, there are some domesticated animals that would change radically, reverting back to their feral forms.  some food crops would disappear or evolve different characteristics because they are dependent on human cultivation in order to flourish in the way they do now.  we've developed new plants and animals that didn't exist in nature without our intervention by methods of hybridization.  we are now experimenting with manipulating genes in ways that were not possible in the past and have the ability to transplant genes from one form of life to another, thus changing the basic structure of dna.  we have the ability to clone and are not so removed from the horrors or huxley's brave new world.  but these "unnatural" creations are not necessary for the continuation of life on the planet.

our unique ability to think, to reason, to imagine sets us apart from other beings and causes us to believe that we are the only beings, that other life forms are inferior to us because they lack the intellectual powers that we possess.  the longer i live, the less i think that is the case.  i'm not so sure that many of the "lower apes" lack these mental capabilities.  when i look into the face of a dog that loves it master, i'm not so sure that this "inferior creature" is so inferior after all.  so many of the attributes we characterize as human may simply be mechanisms to insure the continuation of our species, such as our care in parenting our offspring or our ability to manipulate the natural world.  probably, we're not as special as we would like to believe.

may we not be afraid to ask "big" questions.  may we see ourselves as part of the natural order of things, and not such an important part at that.  may we show reverence for the natural world around us, not reveling in greediness that sees nature as ours for the taking.  may we honor nature in ways that insure our continuation as part of it, rather than destroying it because we think ourselves superior to it.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

In All Life Thou Livest

i've been thinking about the nature of God and what we mean when we use the word "god."  i wonder if we're trying to talk about and contemplate something that is so far beyond our comprehension that words are incapable of describing.  i wonder, too, if many of us who disagree about the existence of a god aren't really talking past each other because of the limitations of language.  are religious naturalists, adherents of various theistic and non-theistic religions, and even atheists and agnostics using terminology that ultimately means the same thing in their quest to understand life and our purpose in the grand scheme of things?

i struggle with how to refer to God.  when i pray, i usually being my prayers with the words, "o gracious God,"  but i could refer to God as the Great Mystery, Great Creator, Source of Being, First Cause, Divine Providence, Being Beyond All Knowing, or any number of similar appellations.  some avoid any name for God, using G-d, for instance.   but how does one verbalize g-d?  we can avoid thinking about how we came to be here and why.  we could choose not to think about such matters and live rewarding lives that are full of love and compassion.  for me, it is important to try to ken such things even if i can't get beyond the search for answers.

if that Great Intelligence did indeed create everything that is by causing that first creative impulse, perhaps whatever we mean by God, or whatever name we use, is a part of everything, every molecule, every atom, every fiber of every life.  perhaps all matter vibrates with the creative energy that we call God.  perhaps the collective consciousness of everything that exists, even those things that we don't think of as having "consciousness," is what makes up God.  perhaps God is a part of all things and all things taken together are God.  whenever we sense the presence of something greater than ourselves, perhaps that is God becoming known to us.  so many "perhapses."

may we seek truth, even though we are unable to fully comprehend it.  may we not be so eager to separate ourselves into our various clans and religions.  may we look for what we have in common rather than what divides us.  may we listen more than we speak.  may we value silence.  whatever we do, may we be filled with love and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Touch Me and Heal Me

a few days ago i read an article written by a man whose father, a devout christian scientist, had died in terrible agony because he refused to see a doctor for a condition that could easily have been cured by competent medical treatment.  i thought then that i would write about the absurdity of christian "scientist" teaching, but then i began to think of the issue more broadly.  we humans are easily persuaded to adopt the most bizarre beliefs, choosing superstition over science so often.  it's easy to ridicule another's religion without a thought to the farfetched beliefs that are part of our own faith.

christians point to the ridiculous basis of scientology, with its teaching that the "thetan" that is the embodiment of one's true self lives multiple lifetimes both on earth and extraterrestrial planets.  we make light of the central role of mohammed in islam and the reverence his followers have for the koran.  the buddhist teachings about reincarnation and enlightenment are condemned by christians.  yet, we don't stop and think about how outlandish many central christian beliefs seem to a non-christian.

is it possible that the creator of the universe would cause a virgin to become pregnant and give birth to a child that is the embodiment of that powerful creator?  would a loving god require that "his only son" suffer the agony of crucifixion in order to atone for the sins of humanity?  are we to believe that "the son" who died in that way rose from the dead three days later and subsequently ascended into heaven with his disciples as witnesses?  when we examine orthodox christian teaching in this way, our religion doesn't appear any less fanciful than many of the world's other religions.  our willingness as christians to only see what we want to see in our own and in other religions puts up barriers between us that don't have to exist.

i remember as a child watching faith healers like oral roberts on television.  there in black-and-white reality were these charlatans who laid their hands on the sick and prayed for or commanded their infirmities to disappear.  the "cured" walked away convinced that a miracle had occurred.  my family watched these so-called religious services in fascination and disbelief, but we were drawn to watch them again and again.  as i think back, i am certain that the emphasis on miraculous cures in the gospel accounts of the life of jesus have led to belief in faith healing with disastrous results for those who are desperate for cures that medical science can't always provide, and indeed those who are convinced that jesus really did cause the lame to walk and the blind to see are often willing to substitute "faith healing" for medical treatment even when scientific medical practice could cure, or at the very least, ease their dis-ease.

may we examine our own beliefs dispassionately.  may we stop substituting superstition for science.  may we be willing to admit that faith in the supernatural is no panacea for what ails is, both physically and as a society.  if we believe in a god, may our belief be in a god that encourages us to use our minds rather than accepting illogical teachings that have been passed down to us, a god of logic and love.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Family All Are We

in the wake of mass shootings in el paso and dayton coming on the heels of the recent shooting in california, it appears that racial animus is not only alive and well in our country but being encouraged by many of its leaders, particularly the president.  while the motives of the shooter in dayton remain unclear, the other shootings are hate crimes inspired by similar shootings elsewhere and by the perpetrators' hatred for non-white people.  some of the actions, or failure to act, on the part of the president and his supporters in congress include:

  • refusal to close loopholes in gun laws that allow the purchase of weapons without background checks
  • refusal to ban weapons that are designed to kill many people quickly, weapons that have no place in sport shooting
  • blaming mass shootings on everything but the availability of such weapons and the incitement to violence by politicians, citing video games, the "breakdown in the family," violence in movies, mental illness, and same-sex marriage, among others, as causes for such shootings
  •  making a joke out of calls to shoot immigrants at one of the president's political rallies
  • glorifying people, like colby covington, who engage in violent racist rhetoric while vilifying athletes like colin kaepernick and megan rapinoe who disagree with the president's policies and public statements
  • attacking elected people of color such as members of "the squad" and civil rights hero elijah cummings
  • using disparaging terms when referring to countries with majority black or brown populations
  • attacking the public media when it accurately reports racist statements by the president and others who support him
  • describing immigrants as criminals, rapists, and murderers
  • threatening to label members of the antifa movement as a terrorists while ignoring white supremacists
  • saying that "there are fine people on both sides" when talking about the violence perpetrated by white supremacists at a charlottesville, virginia, rally

the list could go on.  while a few republicans are beginning to speak out in opposition to the party's and trump's racist pronouncements and actions, most have either supported him and their party or remained silent.  there is little doubt that trump's language has given the most vile racists in the country courage to speak out rather than doing their dirty work under the radar as they once did.  the richard spencers of the world are emboldened by the president's speeches and tweets.  racist nationalism is on the rise in places like hungary, france, germany, russia, myanmar, and the united kingdom, and we are all endangered because of it.  those of us who believe that we must work to end the scourge of racism around the globe and particularly in the usa must speak out against this hateful philosophy.  we must look in our hearts for the racism there and work to end our own racist tendencies.  we must vote out those who encourage and promote such vile ideas out of conviction or for their own gain.

may we look within ourselves for the courage to admit our own complicity in racist ideology.  may we support those who promote solutions to ending racism.  may we see beyond the color of another's skin and the religion or lack thereof of another to view the person who is like us.  may we love even the most hateful while condemning their despicable philosophies.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

As I Go Walking That Freedom Highway

when i was quite young, probably nine or ten, my maternal grandmother gave me "the talk," a lecture that most white children of my generation who lived in the south of the usa heard at some point in their lives.  now, my "mamaw" was a kind, considerate person, in most respects a political liberal, a believer in the role of government in improving the lives of the people it served, but on one particular point she, like many, perhaps most, adults in this country held views that were inconsistent with her other ideals.  she was a racist who felt it her duty to pass her beliefs on matters of race on to her children and grandchildren.

i well remember her saying to me that, while one must always treat black people with courtesy and kindness, "colored" people were our inferiors, incapable of the same mental development as whites.  she cautioned me to always remember that when dealing with a person of color.  she and my grandfather ran a mom-and-pop grocery store on the edge of the "quarters," the area of her town where most black people lived.  most of her customers were black, and i watched her and my grandfather as they waited on them.  true to her word, she always behaved with courtesy and kindness to each one, engaging in an easy banter with them as if they were old and valued friends.  part of this was, no doubt, because her livelihood depended on them returning to her store for their groceries and paying their charge accounts at the beginning of each month, but it appeared to me that she had a genuine affection for them, many of whom had been her customers their entire lives.

later in life as i looked back on my beloved grandmother, i wondered if she really believed the words she had expressed about the inferiority of people whose only real difference from us was that their skins were darker.  like many of her peers, she was able to hold two opposing views on the matter of race simultaneously.  she would have been among the first to decry injustice against a person of color, and yet she would have insisted one could view another as a human being without believing that other to be one's equal.  this notion has become ingrained in our national psyche, making it incredibly difficult to rid ourselves of its insidious presence.  this awful inheritance of the evil of slavery colors much of our country's life and politics.  no white person here can imagine what it must be like to be black in the usa.  many of us have worked our entire lives to rid ourselves of the racist thinking that has been pervasive for so many generations, but no matter how hard we try, we still have no idea of the black experience in our nation.

i look back over my life and remember instances when i have used words fraught with racist undertones in the minds of black friends and acquaintances and puzzled over why those words were offensive.  they were perfectly innocuous to me and had a completely different meaning.  for instance, in a conversation with a person of color, i used the word "minority" in the sense of referring to the opposite of majority.  yet to her, that word was a reference to her race, and she took exception to what i said.  in her mind, i was talking about exclusion, while in my mind there was no racial connotation at all.  it was as if we were speaking different dialects of our common language.  in another instance, i remember with shame intervening in a fight between some boys from my neighborhood with other boys who were strangers to the neighborhood.  the neighborhood children were white, and their opponents were black.  as i stopped the fighting, i ordered the black children to "get out of our neighborhood."  they stopped and stared at me, before running away.  as soon as the words came out of my mouth, i realized that what i had said was racist, though it wasn't my intention.  in the minds of the boys, both black and white, i was saying that the black children didn't belong here in a "white neighborhood," that they needed to return to the "black part" of town.  that incident continues to haunt me as a reminder that no matter how hard i work to rid myself of racist thinking, those words of my grandmother from so long ago still inhabit a dark part of my mind.  any white person in this country who believes that racism has been banished from his or her mind is wrong.  it is inescapable and the ugly outpouring of it that the election of donald trump has unleashed  should convince any person that racist thinking continues to be something that we must struggle to overcome.

may we be honest with ourselves when we consider matters of race.  may we work to see all people as our equals, regardless of the color of their skins.  may we recognize our shortcomings and seek to make amends for them.  may we see that we are all human, with good and bad residing in all of us, and that the bad can only be overcome by honesty and lovingkindness.  shalom

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When the Storms of Life Are Raging

last sunday in the church service one of the hymns described what i would call a "transactional god."  the words were based on second chronicles 7:14.  the hymn says that "if my people . . ." "then i (god) will . . . "  i suppose that the hymn was included because it was based on a scripture passage, and the thinking was "if it is in the bible, it must be true."  of course, the hymn doesn't include the context of the verse on which it was based.  in this portion of second chronicles, king solomon has just completed the construction of the temple, and god appears to him to tell him that god accepts the temple built to be the sacrificial center of worship for the people of israel.  god goes on to tells solomon that when natural calamities befall the people, they can come to the temple with humbled, repentant hearts and god will hear their prayers.  god promises that so long as solomon follows god's commands and honors god as his father david did, then he and his descendants will rule israel in perpetuity.

there is much in the passage that i find disturbing, particularly the idea that the natural disasters named in it are caused by god in retribution for the sins of the people, but the central idea of the particular verse on which the hymn is based is one that has been adopted by evangelical christians in this country to suggest that all the suffering in the usa is the result of the nation "turning away from god" by allowing such things as same-sex marriage and the separation of church and state.  their idea is that we can "make america great again" by turning by the clock to an imaginary time when all was right, everyone went to church, schools were filled with prayers and bible readings, people of color "knew their place," people of british descent controlled government and commerce, and english was the only language spoken.  all that is needed is for those of us who live here to humble our hearts, to pray, and to seek god's face, resulting in god hearing our prayers, pardoning our sins, and healing our land, so the trump crowd of evangelicals believe.

in contrast, the semon, based on luke 8: 26-39, told of jesus healing a man who was called "legion" because "many demons had entered him."  in his sermon, the minister emphasized that the man had done nothing to deserve the cure he received, and, in fact, had asked jesus to leave him alone.  when the man begged to stay with jesus, jesus told him to go tell others "how much God has done for you."  the minister pointed out that god's grace did not depend on the actions of the man but the freeing of legion from his mental illness was a gift that was entirely undeserved.  in introducing the story, the preacher pointed out that jesus had traveled across the sea of galilee to the region of the decapolis, an gentile area that would have been avoided by orthodox jews during the time of jesus, but according of matthew 4: 23-25 many of jesus' followers came from this region.  it seemed to me that the point of the sermon was to counter the "if you, then i . . ." message of the hymn that had just been sung and to insist that the religion of jesus was one of inclusion, not exclusion.

i may not believe that jesus was capable of curing a serious mental illness by speaking a sentence or that people can be possessed by demons, but i can believe in a god who loves us despite our failings, a god who cares about our suffering.  i cannot believe in a god who causes suffering to punish our shortcomings, but i can believe in a god that is present with us in our suffering, whatever the cause, and i can be a follower of a teacher who tells us about a god of love and compassion.

may we abandon belief in a god who is more about punishment and retribution.  may we not believe in a god whose actions are controlled by our own.  whatever our belief about the reality or unreality of god, may we seek to love and respect others, to include rather than exclude.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

In the midst of faults and failures

a few days ago, i read a post in a blog that i check in on each week.  the posts on this blog are written by various authors, all of whom have rejected belief in anything supernatural and abandoned the christian faith, some of them having served as christian ministers, some of them continuing to serve in parish ministry despite their unbelief.  i understand their points-of-view and agree with much of what they say, but the post that i write about today (the jesus nobody wants)was one that i found troubling.

in it, the writer describes a "jesus cult" and says that jesus "remains a stained-glass phantom and caricature."  his position is that christianity is a sham because of the apocalyptic emphases that we find throughout the new testament, and he includes a quote from another author who describes jesus as a "failed apocalyptic prophet," citing evidence by way of quotations from the new testament, particularly the gospels, to support this position.  later in the post, the writer says that "the gospels are all about the theologies of their authors, culminating in john’s egregiously egotistical jesus."  for me this is the key to coming to an understanding of who jesus was and what is essential in his teachings as we find them in the gospels.

to reject everything that jesus is supposed to have said because of the apocalyptic beliefs of some of his jewish followers and many other jews of his time is akin to the current mindset of many who insist that we must do away with anything that honors some of the leaders of the american revolution because they did things are offensive to us now or because those who interpreted their lives to us in writings and artworks wrote and painted images that we now find objectionable.  we have to ferret out the totality of jesus' life and teaching, just as we have to come to an understanding of a figure like washington as a human being with faults as well as virtues.  can we know whether jesus was really an apocalyptic teacher who expected that the end of time was imminent or were these beliefs imparted to him by the biographers whose writings became part of the canon?  if jesus did believe and teach that god was soon to intervene in the affairs of the world to create a new order, does that negate everything that he taught, making all of his teachings less than credible?

the blog author says that "there is no way to reconstruct the real Galilean peasant preacher—if there was one."  i'm not certain that's entirely true.  as we look at the contents of the synoptic gospels, i think that certain consistencies emerge, and those who are skilled linguists with knowledge of new-testament-era greek and those who are authorities on the culture of palestine during the period can tell us a great deal about this jewish "peasant preacher."  those of us who are less informed and who struggle to understand who jesus was and what his teachings mean to us today do well to suspend judgment about final conclusions as we seek to be disciples of the man many christians honor as their teacher.  our job is to do the best we can to examine the teachings of the jesus of the sermon on the mount and see if we can use them to make life better for ourselves and those around us.

may we weigh all the evidence as best we can.  may we never stop learning.  may we not ridicule those whose beliefs are different from ours.  may we learn to live with doubt and uncertainty.  may we be tolerant and respectful of and compassionate toward those with whom we disagree.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

I'll Take You Just the Way You Are

my wife and i are friends with a couple that we often make short day trips with to eat out, shop, or attend concerts.  as a rule we enjoy being with them, but sometimes the husband in the other couple is difficult to be around.  while his wife is very agreeable and easygoing, he sometimes insists on having his own way despite what the rest of us want.  as an example, we had planned a trip to see a show and were on a tight schedule with him as the driver.  along the way, he decided he was hungry and had to stop at a fast food drive-through to get something to eat.  he could see that the line was quite long, and i told him that this restaurant had slow service at their drive-through.  nevertheless, he plowed ahead and even daydreamed in line, allowing another car to go ahead of us when it was our turn.  as a result we were late for our show, had to wait for a later show, and had to rearrange all of the rest of the day.  when we finally got to see our show and left for dinner, he drove us to a restaurant other than the one at which we had all agreed to eat when planning the trip because he didn't want to eat where we had planned, though he never voiced any objection when we planned our day together.

my wife and i were quite irritated at his behavior, and his wife was miffed as well.  we ended the day without voicing our frustration to him, but we fumed over it for several days.  as i thought about what had happened after getting over my anger, i tried to understand why this friend behaves the way he does.  this incident was  typical of a pattern of behavior that he has exhibited as long as we've known him.  this man was born when his parents were older and was doted on by his mother and his sister all the time he was growing up.  his sister was thirteen years his senior and regarded him as her child more than as a younger brother and still mothers him.  his wife, who would rather avoid confrontation than assert herself, has tolerated his selfishness, though she fumes about him in private.  his treatment of others is so ingrained that i'm certain he is unaware of the pain he causes.  he can be a kind and considerate person, but his needs and desires always come first.  if we didn't enjoy his wife so much, we would avoid being with him.

yesterday his wife called and asked us over to eat dinner today.  my wife told her we'd have to get back to her because my wife didn't want to commit while she was still angry with him.  after talking it over, we decided that the relationship with his wife was more important to us than avoiding him.  so my wife called back and told her we'd love to come to dinner.  i felt badly about letting this man get under my skin so much, but with enough distance between the last incident and now, i can be a little more objective about our relationship.  i'm able to see his manipulations for what they are and deal with them in order to maintain our friendship as couples.

we're all guilty of a certain amount of selfishness and can all be insensitive to the needs and desires of others.  what is important is that we don't allow our selfishness and insensitivity to become a pattern of behavior.  we need to put ourselves in the shoes of others as much as we can and try to look at life from their perspectives.  while our emotions often get in the way of making rational decisions, it's best to hold our tongues until we can get some distance between our initial emotional reactions to a situation and can deal with our frustrations in the most intelligent and compassionate way.

may we allow ourselves the space to become calm and to consider various possibilities.  may we discipline our tongues and our minds so that we don't speak before we think.  may we forgive without excusing behavior that is harmful.  may our hearts be filled with lovingkindness and compassion rather than anger and frustration.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Two Roads Diverged in a Wood

i wrote last week about what it means when i say "i have a precious human life."  the sentence that follows in the opening of my morning meditation is "may i not waste it."  this past week i've been thinking about what that means.  how does one waste a precious human life?  there are so many answers!

the key to them all, i think, is found later in my meditation when i recite the four noble truths.  understanding that suffering is common to us all and that suffering is caused by our clinging and craving leads us to a path that makes our lives worthwhile.  as we become more aware of our clinging to things that are destined to change or disappear and craving that which we do not have, our journey through this life is directed toward a more rewarding and less wasteful road.

one doesn't find happiness by chasing after it.  it is there all the time if we stop to recognize our constant pursuit of it through our clinging to those things which we think make us happy but are subject to change just as everything is and our craving things that will make us happy but only lead to more craving once we possess them.  the very process of clinging and craving, of pursing happiness, is detrimental to that thing we desire most, lasting happiness and real purpose.  letting go is how we stop wasting our lives, i think.

ending our clinging and craving is difficult, perhaps impossible.  we always wish that life were different, that loved ones didn't get sick and die, that financial problems didn't arise, that things didn't break, that harsh words were never uttered.  yet all these things inevitably happen.  they are part of the fabric of life, and no amount of wishing will cause them to cease.  but wishing these realities away won't solve the problems arising from them, the suffering they cause us.  the only solution is to face them and deal with them as intelligently and with as much compassion as we can.  in the face of our suffering, recognition that clinging to a past before suffering arose and craving a different outcome than the one that is our reality helps us to accept the suffering and learn from it.  we change our path from wasting our energies on that which cannot be or cannot be again to one of accepting what is and coming to terms with it.

may we not waste our precious human lives by clinging to that which will change despite our clinging or by craving that which cannot satisfy us.  may we let happiness come to us as we let go of our pursuit of it.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

By This We Worship and Are Freed

every morning i give thanks for having "a precious human life."  what is it that makes my human life precious?  what is unique about being human?  that's been the object of my meditation for the past week.  i'm not sure i can say with any certainty what makes the human animal different from other animals but i want to write about some of the things that might be characteristics of our humanity.

first, we have the gift of language, of being able to communicate in complex ways through speech and writing with our fellows.  other animals have a limited capacity for a sort of language but it is our ability to articulate our thoughts by speaking to one another and by writing them down that makes us special.  as i type these words on my computer, i am acting in a way that no other animal can.  the fact that i am doing this is a demonstration of my humanity.  it is a precious gift.  but if i were to have a stroke that prevented me from speaking or writing, i would still be just as human.

so, while language is a part of our humanity, it is not the only demonstration of our uniqueness.  we are capable of a thought process that is different from other animals.  our thoughts are not confined to figuring out how to carry on our species and acquire food and shelter.  we can ponder what it all means, and our search for meaning leads to the development of much of our civilization and culture.  we form bonds that are beyond the demands of species survival.  we can ponder abstract concepts and relate those concepts to our daily lives.  indeed, our very ability to think in the abstract may have blunted some of the instincts that are manifest in other animals.  other animals do not seek out danger as humans often do, craving the rush that comes from the surge of adrenaline that results from risky behavior.  our curiosity leads us to new discoveries, we are filled with the desire to understand how things work and how it all fits together.

we are compelled to express ourselves by creating works of art, music that is carved from organizing sound in time, visual art works that organize materials in space, performance and written literature that captures the range of emotions, and combinations of these various creative pursuits.  these are not necessary for sustaining life, but human life would not be human without them.  the compulsion to create something that is beyond the basic needs of life is special to us.  our lives would be empty without our creative impulses and the art that results from them.

humans beings have choices that other animals do not have.  we can choose how we live, in what locality we reside, how to relate to one another and the environment of which we are a part, how to put bread on the table and a roof over our heads, what to believe.  we can train our minds or choose to live in ignorance.  we can choose what we eat and how often.  we can choose to be trim, obese, or something in between.  our range of choices is far beyond that of any other creature.

one of those choices is how we relate to one another.  when other animals are cruel, that cruelty is a survival mechanism.  they kill in order to sustain life.  we humans often choose to be cruel in a deliberate, calculating way, to get something we crave, something entirely unnecessary for our own survival.  we can be greedy and grasping, clawing our way past others in the most callous ways in a rush of blind ambition.  when other animals love, it is from an instinctual need to love in order to carry on their species.  perhaps much of human love is the same, but we can choose to love that which is unlovely.  we are capable to turning the other cheek, of responding to cruelty with forbearance, even with lovingkindness.  we are an odd mixture of deliberate cruelty and altruistic love.  when we are our best, love wins out.

certainly these few paragraphs don't exhaust what it means to have "a precious human life."  they just skim the surface, admittedly from a non-scientific approach and in a superficial way.  i will continue to ponder what makes up our humanity and perhaps write of it again.  i am grateful that i've been given this life and hope that i can make something worthwhile of that gift.

may we choose love over hatred, kindness over cruelty.  may we continue to search for meaning.  may we think reasonably, abandoning our clinging, craving tendencies.  may we train ourselves to use the gifts we've been given for the benefit of all sentient beings.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day

"i am fortunate to have awakened.  i am alive.  i have a precious human life."  this is how i begin each day's meditation.  i repeat these words but until a few days ago i didn't spend any time pondering their meaning.  "to have awakened" can have the meaning of having awakened in the sense of gaining enlightenment, but in this context it means that i have ended the night's period of sleep and begun a new day.  that may be a metaphor for abandoning an old life where one is mindlessly going through the motions of living and awakening to a new life of bringing the practice of mindfulness into every part of our lives, but my meditation on awakening had to do with the more basic meaning.

i thought of the gift of life which could come to an end at any moment.  during the night i might have taken my last breath and there would be no awakening, no life, no new day.  my time of having a "precious human life" would have come to a stop.  i thought of my younger brother who had unexpectedly taken his last breath one evening not long ago.  i thought of the fragility of life and what life might be like for those near to me if i was no more, or what my life might be like if i lost my beloved wife.  i thought of the countless others who had ceased breathing over the thousands of years human beings have walked the earth, of the animals who die every day, giving their lives so that another animal can have food.  i thought of how all of these deaths nourish the planet, so that even in death we can give life to those who follow us.

just as life is a gift, so is death.  few of us long to die.  there are more experiences we want to have, more love we want to share, more need for closure.  seldom do we have adequate time to prepare for death.  we put off thinking about it, hoping against hope that we will live until we feel that all our plans come to fruition.  perhaps those who have terminal illnesses are blessed because they have foreknowledge that death is coming on a more-or-less definite timetable and can prepare for their end of life.  i suspect that most often even those of us who know that we will die in the next few months spend most of our time fighting the inevitable, denying the diagnosis that tells us that we have little time left, seeking treatments that will effect a miraculous cure.

even in dying, we give back to those who remain, our bodies providing nutrients that the earth needs, living behind a treasure of memories for those who loved us.  if we've lived a good life, we've made the planet a better place for others.  we've encouraged others to life a better life, to live with compassion and kindness.  we've paid forward the gift of life we were given.

may we not leave thinking about our own deaths until it is too late.  may we do all we can to leave a legacy that will inspire others.  may we demonstrate our gratitude for having lived by filling each day with compassion and lovingkindness for ourselves and others.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Shining Frame, Their Great Original Proclaim

so, what is God?  we want to believe in a god who is focused on us, our needs, our desires, our problems.  when we look at the vastness of the universe and the small role we play in it, we cannot even fathom a god from whose mind everything sprang, much less expect such a god to be human-centric unless it is a god that we've created for ourselves.  God has to be so much more than that.  it is easier to say that there is no creator-god and to believe that everything that has come to be resulted from forces we don't yet fully understand.  it seems to me just as reasonable to believe that those forces are what God is, the source of the beginning of everything, the first cause.

perhaps the buddhist approach is best: we simply ignore the question of whether there is a creator-god or not and proceed to live our lives as best we can, seeking to understand ourselves and to relate to one another in the most compassionate way possible.  after all, that is the highest goal of most religions or at least of those worth following.  if a religion doesn't help us to get along with and help each other, of what use is it?  i suppose that is my basic approach to my christian religion.  i see in jesus someone who turned from traditions that made life less tolerable and espoused an ethic that taught us to love one another, to do good to one another, to reject prejudices that belittled women and those who were different from the dominant society, to choose nonviolence over violence and generosity over greed, someone who was worth following.

i don't worship jesus, i seek to be his disciple.  i worship God as the cause of all that is, the source of all goodness, the great mind that is beyond all imagining.  as joseph addison wrote in 1712  in an essay that introduced his poem, "the spacious firmament on high.": "The Supreme Being has made the best arguments for his own existence in the formation of the heavens and the earth, and these are arguments which a man of sense cannot forbear attending to who is out of the noise and hurry of human affairs,"

if we worship a god, may it be a God of reason and mystery, a God that is larger than our imagining, a God who inspires our own imagination.  may we express our worship through the way in which we treat God's creation, seeking to preserve the gifts of the natural world rather than exploiting them to satisfy our own greed.  may we see in each creature a reflection of the mind of God and seek to do good to all that lives and breathes.  shalom.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

And Spread the Truth from Pole to Pole

last sunday i filled in as substitute organist at a church in our town.  the sermon was delivered by a representative of the gideons organization.  this is a group that raises money to give away bibles, especially copies of the new testament and psalms in a little pocket-sized edition.  they work all over the world.  when i was a child they gave these little books to all the fifth graders in school every year.  now they are prevented by court order from doing so in public schools because of the freedom of religion clause of the constitution, but in many countries they continue to give bibles to school children.

the speaker had some interesting stories of people who were converted to christianity by bibles given out by the gideons.  of course, these conversions were attributed to god having placed the bible in the right person's hands at just the right time.  as he spoke, i thought about how easy it is to make a coincidence into a miraculous occurrence.  i can't believe that God is busy meddling in people's lives by causing a series of events to lead to a predetermined result.  belief in such miracles gives us hope that the unlikely can happen, and that such "miracles" are the work of god.  perhaps such faith is helpful when we are at a low point in our lives and are ready to give up.  if i were to come down with an incurable, life-threatening disease, i would want to believe that i might be miraculously cured, and if i were, i would be thankful for being free of the disease.  i don't think i would believe that God caused me to be healed but rather that i was one of the lucky ones that was cured by some unexplained cause.  i wouldn't think that god singled me out for a cure while letting others in the same circumstances suffer and die.  what sort of god would do that?

it is that sort of god that it is dangerous to worship.  blind faith in a god that chooses some to bless and some to curse without any reason is ludicrous.  life just happens.  sometimes we are the ones who are lucky, sometimes we are not.  we can choose paths that lead to happier, more fulfilled lives, and we can work to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.  often, though, we find that in spite of our best efforts bad things happen to us.  those bad things are not the doing of a puppet-master god, just as the good things are not God's doing.  the miracle is the unfolding of life around us, the beauty of the world in which we live, the loved ones who support us, the gift of reasonable minds.  i can worship a God who sets such possibilities in motion, but i can't worship a god who orders every detail of the life i live and who constantly interferes to make "god's will" happen.

may we search for the answers to life's questions with honesty.  may we not be afraid to refuse to accept the pat solutions that require little thought.  if we believe in a god, may it be a God that is larger than the god of pettiness.  shalom.