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.