This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My body, my life

Hike in Abraham Lincoln Park, Rochester NY

I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God,to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this agebut be transformed by the renewal of your mind,that you may discern what is the will of God,what is good and pleasing and perfect. Rom 12:1-2

These two verses from Romans encapsulate the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately this translation used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the lectionary used in the U.S. uses a literal rather than an idiomatic translation for "your bodies."  Most translations use "your lives" as a more accurate rendering of the underlying meaning.  For the Jews of the first century, there was no distinction between "you" and "your body."  An alive body was the reality of an alive person.  When the early Christians professed a belief in the "resurrection of the body," they were professing a belief in the resurrection of the person into eternal life.  This confusion over "body" and "life" has led to a great deal of angst about what our bodies would look like, where in the universe would we be embodied, etc.  The fact is that Jesus talked about life, not bodies, and promised eternal life.

Unfortunately this use of "body" in this passage can send us into a state of inattention.  We have heard all this before about how we have to sacrifice our body because the body with its ever present danger of uncontrolled sexual desire and behavior is what keeps us from the Holy One and a life of discipleship.  How different it is to consider offering our life to the Holy One so that we are transformed by a new way of thinking that does not force us into the mold of our contemporary culture.  With this new way of thinking, we can, perhaps for the first time, think about what the Divine One desires for us and our lives.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The kingdom of heaven is like....


The kingdom of heaven is like....  Mt 13:44
The 13th chapter of Matthew's gospel is known as the Parable Discourse.  It is a series of parables that all begin with the words quoted above:  "The kingdom of heaven is like" a sower, pearl of great price, a field with a treasure, a field with both wheat and weeds, yeast, mustard seed, etc.  Although the early parables are spoken to crowds that contain both disciples and those who are not, especially the Jewish authorities of various sorts, the later ones are spoken only to the disciples and the great explanation of the parable of the sower is only for the disciples, i.e. those who believe.

Those who have ears to hear and eyes to see will understand the message.  But those who are insulated from new understandings by their engagement with the old will not understand no matter if they hear and they see.  If one comes to Jesus without preconceptions and without unchangeable notions of how things are, one will understand his message.  One will understand what he means by the Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is the reality that is hidden in the "world" and yet provides the ultimate meaning of my life in the world.  It is difficult, though not impossible, to arrive at such a conclusion or one very much like it by focusing on the world and my experience in it.  But the great wisdom men and women of the human tradition have always tried to share their insights with us.  Erich Fromm summarized that wisdom in his conclusion that each of us have to make a fundamental choice or our stance toward life.  His question was simple:  What is most important to us:  to have or to be?  His review of those he called the Great Masters of Living concluded that a full and satisfying human life came from a "being" rather than a "having" orientation.  He included Jesus in this group along with Moses, Marx, Mohamed, Buddha, Freud and others.

The good news of Jesus goes well beyond this important understanding, however.  Jesus was not just concerned with the quality of human life as it unfolds but with life everlasting to which he invited us all.  Most the parables end with a description of the "end of the age" when the angels will sort out the righteous from the evil people with the latter consigned to everlasting fire and the former to everlasting life.

Jesus invites us to consider that there is something of vital importance hidden in our lives as they unfold in the world.  It is everlasting life.  Do we hear and understand?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Healing miracles...what to make of them?

Sumac blooms along the Erie Canal

While Jesus was speaking, an official came forward,knelt down before him, and said,"My daughter has just died.But come, lay your hand on her, and she will live."Jesus rose and followed him, and so did his disciples.A woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind himand touched the tassel on his cloak.She said to herself, "If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured."Jesus turned around and saw her, and said,"Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you."And from that hour the woman was cured.  Mt 9:18-22
The readings from Matthew this past week have been filled with stories of Jesus healing people including bringing them back from the dead and with stories of his casting out devils and demons.  These stories are well attested in the canonical gospels as well as other gospels and contemporaneous accounts.  Clearly the early Christian communities knew of and believed in the ability of Jesus to cure and give life.  That these were expected signs of the Messiah does not undercut the accuracy of these accounts.  In fact, today's gospel in Matthew 10 says that Jesus bestowed this power on the apostles as well.

What am I to make of these stories?  How do they fit into my own faith and spiritual life?  When I was younger, it was easy enough to find "natural explanations" for these healings but that misses the point.  The primary miracle, if you will, is the incarnation.  If I believe that the Divine One was incarnated as the human Jesus and that he was fully human and fully divine, what's a few healings and exorcisms.  It is the incarnation that is important for me and my life.

If the Divine One became accessible as a human being, it was to show us how to live a life that would lead to eternal union with the source of all life.  The path he called us to follow is not one that has no difficulties, pain, suffering and ultimately death.  No amount of righteous living can result in a life devoid of these human realities.  The simple rule of Jesus was that we are to love others--even our enemies--as ourselves.  His life demonstrates that such way of living does not eliminate pain and suffering but rather the opposite.  Such a life will bring us into a radical conflict with the world and its values and will result in our crucifixtion in small or large ways depending on our life and the extent to which our life threatens the world and the "powers that be."  This is what happened to Jesus and surely the same fate awaits us if we have courage enough to live out our values in the midst of a culture that encourages just the opposite.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cognitive dissonance is the fountain of learning.

Wetlands in Tinker Park, Henrietta NY

Blessed are all who fear the LORD,and who walk in his ways.
What your hands provide you will enjoy; you will be blessed and prosper:
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your home,Your children like young olive plants around your table.
Just so will the man be blessed who fears the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion; may you see Jerusalem’s prosperity all the days of your life,
and live to see your children’s children.  Peace upon Israel!  Psalm 128
Sometimes the comforting words of scripture come into a profound conflict with our life experience.  Most of the time I, at least, just try not to think about it because it is uncomfortable.  "Cognitive dissonance" is a term used to describe this situation.  "In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values."  (Wikipedia)  It is uncomfortable because something has to give.  Either one belief is accepted and the other rejected or both are changed to eliminate the contradiction.

Psalm 128 is the responsorial psalm in today's liturgy.  It presents a comforting thought:  If I fear the Lord and walk in his ways, I will prosper.  It is a scene of domestic tranquility and peace that is very appealing.  There is, however, another truth.  During the 20th century about 2 billion human beings lost their lives to wars, infectious diseases and famine.  It is reasonable to assume that these victims had nothing to do with these disasters that befell them.  They were victims in the truest sense of the word.  Their faithfulness to their religious traditions could hardly have had anything to do with their fate.

How can one hold both of these realities at the same time?  How can one resolve what appears to be fundamental contradiction?  One thing is certain:  to ignore this and pretend that there is no contradiction does not help very much.  This presents an opportunity of coming to a deeper understanding of my relationship with the Divine One and my role in the world.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Perhaps I should think of myself as an orchard.

Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica, Buffalo NY

Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?
Just so, every good tree bears good fruit,and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut downand thrown into the fire. Mt 7:17-19

For as long as I remember hearing this passage, I think I have thought of it as applying to me and the life I lead.  Clearly I want to be a "good tree" that bears good fruit rather than a "rotten tree" that bears bad fruit.  I desire to be "good" and not "rotten."  Who wouldn't?

But there is a trap here of which I was unaware until I read a reflection on this passage by a fairly recent graduate of Notre Dame University on its excellent prayer web site.  Click here to visit the site and then bookmark.  The trap is the familiar either/or thinking with its bias for perfection.  Either I am a good tree or a rotten one.  This leaves little room for the reality of human life which is a mixed bag, to be sure.

It is the same impossible situation of which St. Paul warns us when he says that the Law cannot save us.  In fact, the Law brings death not life.  The Law must always focus on right or wrong, compliance or non-compliance.  There little room for the doubt or confusion that arises with real situations.  And the rules multiply to cover all foreseen eventualities.  In modern times, it is why the NCAA rule book runs to more than 500 pages with more being added each year.  And still there are violations; sometimes intentional and sometimes not.

This incapacity to deal with ambiguity and ignorance results in the need to make absolute and summary judgments, not just about acts but also about people.   There are good people and bad people just as the passage suggests there are good trees and rotten trees.

A seemingly slight change in perspective can make a tremendous difference.  What if I change my focus to the entire orchard rather than individual trees?  What if I think of myself as an orchard with both good tress and rotten trees?  Then wouldn't I focus on cultivating those aspects of my self which tend toward the good and try to lessen the growth of those that do not?  Wouldn't I have a more balanced view of my self?  I wouldn't have to be perfect but I would try to be better each day.

I find this to be a more wholesome way of thinking about this saying of Jesus.  What about you?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Being close to the Reign of the Divine One is not quite the same as being in it.

Tug with empty barge heading east on the Erie Canal
The scribe said to him, "Well said, teacher.You are right in saying,He is One and there is no other than he.And to love him with all your heart,with all your understanding,with all your strength,and to love your neighbor as yourselfis worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."And when Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,he said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God."  Mark 12:32-34
This conversation takes place in the midst of a series of challenges to Jesus and his authority by the high priests, Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes.  They are all trying to rip him up except for this questioner who asks a sincere question:  "Which is the first of all the commandments?"  Jesus answers that the first and greatest is to love the Divine One with all one's heart and mind.  The second is to love your neighbor as yourself.   This was typical question used to engage people with the law and its fundamental principles.  With hundreds of laws and regulations, the law could be overwhelming and thus it would be natural to figure out the fundamental principles that ran through all the diverse regulations.

The scribe understands the wisdom of Jesus' answer.  Surely Yahweh cares more about fidelity to those two principles than any sacrifice offered in the temple.  Jesus realizes that he understands these fundamental principles of the law and tells him that he is "not far from the Kingdom of God."  This is an intriguing way of saying that simply living by these two principles is not enough to enter the Kingdom.  They are necessary but not sufficient in and of themselves.  Something more is required but what that something might be is left for another time.

What about me?  Living an upright life of loving God and loving my neighbor is also not enough to enter the Kingdom.  Something more is required...but what?

A week has gone by since I wrote the above sentence.  It is a haunting question that has only one answer, however uncomfortable that answer might be.  A life of rectitude is simply not enough.  I have to die to myself.  I have to give up what I want and I can do that because, in truth, I have everything that I need.  I have to somehow let go of my ego and its demands for attention, gratification, recognition, respect and on an on.  This is the path to recognition and acceptance of who I truly am, a child of the Divine One.

Monday, June 5, 2017

I am only a sharecropper

Sea of grass in Brighton NY

"A man planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it,dug a wine press, and built a tower.Then he leased it to tenant farmers and left on a journey."  Mark 12:1
This is the beginning of a parable that appears in all three of the synoptic gospels.  The story goes on to tell of the owner sending servants and finally his son to claim the results of the harvest.  The sharecroppers abuse them all and kill some including the son.  They labor under a mistaken idea that if they kill the heir, they will somehow inherit the vineyard.  Eventually the owner kicks them out and brings in new sharecroppers to manage the vineyard.  Mark's version as well as Matthew's and Luke's are directed at the chief priests, scribes and elders and the ways in which they have distorted the intentions of the owner, Yahweh, and have rejected the incarnated Word of Yahweh, Jesus.  This is re-enforced by the allusions to Isaiah 5:17 in the opening lines and the quotation from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone.

Sometimes, scripture speaks to me in a different way providing me with a meaning that is salient to my life quite apart from the original meaning or intent.  That is what happened today as i reflected on this reading.  It came to me with even greater clarity that all I have , own, control, enjoy and experience is never really mine.  It is on loan from the Divine One who is the source of all life, present, past and future.  No matter how strong a feeling of ownership I may have, nothing ever really belongs to me.  This insight calls me to focus on being a good steward of the blessings and difficulties in my life.

In the end, I turn everything over to the Divine One from whom everything comes.  I am called to use whatever I have been given to draw myself and others closer to the Divine One.  I do this through works of mercy and justice that comes out of the conviction that all I have, especially when I already have enough for a fully human life, is to be used to provide that same kind of life to those who do not have enough.  Catholic social justice teaching is built on this bedrock belief.  It is why I am always and forever only a sharecropper who is called to accountability on how I have used the fields and livestock of the owner, the gracious Divine One and the Incarnated Word.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Open the eyes of my heart

Duck in Tinker Wetlands
May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,what are the riches of gloryin his inheritance among the holy ones,and what is the surpassing greatness of his powerfor us who believe....  Ephesians 1:18-19
This is from the second reading for Ascension Thursday.  Perhaps it was the first line that attracted me so strongly since I have been praying for the Spirit to open my heart to the presence of the Divine One in my life and, indeed, in all life.  That has begun to seem to me to be the only prayer that I can really make.  When Jesus told his followers to believe and then ask the Father anything in his name and it will be given, I think he was speaking about just such a prayer.

If my heart is open to the Divine One, then life unfolds is a life giving, if unpredictable, way.  Jesus told us that the Spirit is like the wind.  We all know when it is present but we have no idea where it comes from or, more important, where it is going.  So it is, he said, with people of the spirit, people whose hearts have been open to the action of the Divine One in their lives.
 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  John 3:8
It is tempting to think that there is some process involved here so that we can know exactly where we are in our relationship with the Divine One.  But any attempt to impose some process can only take us further away from the underlying reality of giving ourselves fuly and completely to the Spirit.

So my prayer has become a simpler version of the passage from Ephesians.

Open the eyes of my heart so I can see the hope you offer, the richness of the life you offer, and the power of faith in you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The only prayer that makes sense to me

Magnolia with visitor
One of them, a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth,from the city of Thyatira, a worshiper of God, listened,and the Lord opened her heart to pay attentionto what Paul was saying. Acts 16:14
For some years I have found it difficult to pray to the Divine One requesting interventions in human life to cure diseases, solve problems, eliminate suffering, right wrongs, etc.  If the Divine One, in fact, does intervene, why in some cases but not in all.  In other words, if I pray to the Divine One to cure a debilitating disease, why would the Divine One wait for my prayer?  Why not just eliminate them in the first place?  Or why would the Divine One help some people but not others?  Did they not pray?  Not pray enough?  Not pray in the right way?  None of this came to make any sense.

Everything and everyone is created by the Divine One.  That includes all the good things we experience as well as all the bad.  Praying to the Divinity to be selective about the good and bad seems nonsensical.  Of course, I deeply desire that I and everyone in my life avoid suffering and pain and want and need.  But that desire probably ought not be translated into prayers of petition to the Triune Divine One.

The above passage from Acts provided me with an insight about prayer.  Lydia was listening to Paul but the Divine One "opened her heart to pay attention."  I believe that the Divine One is present in me and all that exists.  In the ground of my being is the spark of divine life that is the overflowing source of my life.  But for most of the my life and most of the time, my heart has been open to that reality so I have not paid attention to that divine life within.

This is the point at which, I believe, the Divine One can and does intervene in human life, in my life.  The Divine One is there constantly waiting for me to open my heart.  The impulse to open my heart comes from the Divine One is some mysterious way and it is that impulse for which I pray.  And I pray that I respond to that impulse and open myself to the presence of the Divine One within.

That is my prayer for myself and all those for whom I pray.  It is the beginning of the process through I put on "the mind of Christ" and begin to experience the world and everyone and everything in it with the eyes of Jesus the Christ, the incarnated Divine One.  That is what will make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

You can't hold back the greening.

Line of Crepe Myrtle trees in Charlotte NC
"Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its ownunless it remains on the vine,so neither can you unless you remain in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,because without me you can do nothing."  John 15:4-5
One of the advantages of living in the north is that we get to experience a definitive spring.  There is nothing subtle about a landscape that is barren and seemingly dead when it suddenly begins to green and flower.  There is an awesome power that seems to infuse what is barren and through it brings life and vitality.  There is a life force that cannot be denied or delayed.  In its time it bursts through lifelessness and beings forth life in all it fullness.  In vineyards, the brown stalks begin to open and permit bursts of green leaves to come forth.  That life force has been hidden in the vine but now, in its time, beings forth branches of green leaves that will in turn bring forth buds, flowers, and then grapes.  This happens annually and without fail.  it requires no effort on the part of the vine because it is a vine and its nature is to bring forth life.

This is the powerful analogy that Jesus uses in one of his many attempts to explain to followers what his mission is, who he is, and, more important perhaps, who we are.  There are no human words or concepts which can clearly explain the incarnation, redemption, resurrection and all the other central beliefs of Christianity.  So Jesus did what we all must.  He turned to poetics and indirection.  This analogy of the vine and branches is one of the most powerful.

The incarnate Divine One, Jesus, abides in us, his followers, and we abide in him.  He somehow lives in us and we live in him.  This abiding is our pathway to true life, everlasting life of the triune divine One.  In the same way that a branch emerges from the vine and then unfolds in buds, flowers, and fruit, so do we emerge from the Divine One incarnated as Jesus and the everlasting life emerges as blooms, buds and fruit as a natural process of our relationship with Jesus.

There is no sense that we do anything to earn this or that we have to obey a set of rules and commandments.  That approach had been tried and was found inadequate.  There is nothing we can do in our human life to merit or create this everlasting, divine life.  We only have to accept it and let it flow in and through us.  This means that we have to let go of our ego needs and desires and accept the love that is ours by our birthright.

This turns out to be the most difficult task of human life but one which leads to a fullness of life that is not possible in any other way.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

I have everything I need; there is nothing I need that I do not have.

Sunrise on South Beach
The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.  Psalm 23:1

John Jacob Raub, OCD, in his book,  Who Told You That You Were Naked?: Freedom From Judgement, Guilt and Fear of Punishment, repeats the title of this blog over and over again as a refrain for his reflections:  I have everything I need; there is nothing I need that I do not have.  Clearly this insight finds its inspiration in Psalm 23 (22) which has given comfort to Christians and Jews for millennia.  But do I believe that?  And what exactly does it mean that I will have everything I need?  What it possibly mean that I will lack nothing?

We live in a 21st American culture in which the line between a want and a need is constantly being blurred and eliminated by a consumer culture that requires constant and constantly increasing expenditures in order to thrive and grow.  Our presumption that life demands growth makes us vulnerable to the enticements of advertising and competition.  And it is a presumption, a presupposition, which is not present in nature.  No natural system can sustain a constant state of growth or expansion.  The only possible one that comes to mind is a metastasizing cancer which ultimately kills its host and thus itself.

We know how powerful it can be to define a want as a need.  A need requires extended effort to fulfill that need.  If a desire can be understood as a need, it can begin along with other desires to take over our life and resources.  Clearly Jesus and the psalmist wants us to have clarity about our desires and our needs.  If we can maintain this differential in our lives, we still face the certain reality that we do in fact have needs.  We need sustenance.  We need security and safety.  We need relationships.  We need these and other things in order to maintain life and to be healthy.  If we do not have these things, our life becomes something less than the fullness of human life which the Divine One intended.  We know that many people do not have these things, that their needs are met, and that they lack some essential realities in their life.  Perhaps each of us have now or in the past experience these very same unmet needs.

If we do not have enough to eat, adequate shelter, or health, does a firm belief in Jesus the Christ change those realities.  Is there some kind of firm guarantee that if I have faith in Jesus that all my needs will be met and my life protected from the vicissitudes of ordinary human life?  If you think that, then the only reasonable way to explain those unmet needs is by concluding that a person's faith is just no strong enough or vital enough.  In other words, we end up blaming the victim and ascribing true faith to those whose needs are being met.  This reasoning is exactingly what Jesus preached against.

Faith in Jesus will unerringly meet our need for life but it is not the life of this world.  When Jesus tells his apostles,

"I am the gate for the sheep.All who came before me are thieves and robbers,but the sheep did not listen to them.I am the gate.Whoever enters through me will be saved,and will come in and go out and find pasture.A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."  John 10:7-10
he is not talking about the life of this world but the world from which he came, the world of the triune Divine One.  This is the life that never ends and is abundant beyond our imagining.  If we think about what is most important in our existence, we can see that eternal life is our ultimate goal.  The Divine One deeply desires that our life in this world is one in which our needs are met and in which we live a full and complete human life.  Whether that is true for us or anyone is a function of the circumstances in which we live rather than our faith in Jesus.  However, it is faith in Jesus and the Divine One that guarantees we will have true life in wild abundance.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

An alternative translation can change a lot.

Early spring from inside George Eastman House
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. (I am the one, true way to have life.)  No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  John 14:6-7
This the response of Jesus to queries from the apostles to make clear who he is and to show them how they can follow him.  The initial response is one we have heard countless times because it seems to underscore a belief that Christianity is the sole possessor of the Truth and thus the only path to God.  This belief has led to a great deal of bad behavior by Christians including discrimination and persecution of those who are not Christians.

It is a problematic rendering because it uses a set of three nouns which in most translations are capitalized:  The Way, The Truth, The Life.  This easily played into the Greek love of abstract reasoning and to define concepts as though they were things.  It is hard to believe that this is what Jesus meant.  In addition, as faithful Christian I really have no idea what it means to predicate those nouns of Jesus.  What are the implications for my life, for my belief in Jesus?

There apparently is an alternate rendering which is included in Expanded Bible and I included it in bold above.  "I am the one, true way to have life" says something a bit different than the traditional translation.  We are not so much interested in the concepts as we are in how to follow this Jesus who will lead to life.

Although the apostles seem to have a difficult time understanding what he is talking about, it seems much clearer to us.  Perhaps this is because we do not have a centuries old tradition about what the Messiah would do for Israel.  We experience Jesus as the incarnate Divine One who bids us to see the world and all in it in the way that the Divine One does, with eyes and heats filled with love.

As Cynthia Bourgeault has written, our role in this divine relationship is not to love the Divine One but to let the Divine One love us as fully and deeply as the Divine One desires.  By accepting this infinite love and not clinging to the things of this world, we allow the Divine One (Father) to enter us just as the Father did with Jesus.  This sets the stage for the Holy Spirit to enter as well and thus we participate in the interior life of the triune Divine One.  This is the one, true path to life.  No amount of rule keeping, prayers, alms, good works can take its place even though all those will follow as we allow the divine love to animate us and flow through us to all creation.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Belief in Jesus, the Christ

Vizcaya spiral
So they said to Jesus,"Sir, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life;whoever comes to me will never hunger,and whoever believes in me will never thirst."  John 6:35
After Jesus had explained that the manna in the desert was not given by Moses but by the Divine One, the people naturally desired to have this bread again, to experience as had their forebears the saving, life giving sustenance of the Divine One.  Jesus gave an unexpected answer.  "I am the bread of life."  In other words I am the life of the Divine One who has come "down from heaven" and is living among you as a human being.  You receive that life giving, never ending sustenance of the Divine One by coming to me and believing in me.

The same is true for me today...and every day of my life.  The challenge is not to "believe Jesus" but rather to "believe in Jesus."  That one little additional word makes all the difference.  It is not that I believe what Jesus said is true but that somehow I come to believe in him.  When I believe in someone, it is a judgement about who that person is.  When I believe in someone, I trust them to be who they are in a more or less consistent way.  I believe in what they represent.  I believe in their role in the world and perhaps even in my own life.  Further I want people to believe in me as well.

When I believe in someone, I am placing my trust in them even if there appears to be evidence to the contrary.  I have a relationship that is beyond the simply transactional and goes to the heart of who someone is and who I am.

This is what Jesus is calling me to embrace.  It is only by believing IN him that he becomes the bread of life for me.  It is only by believing IN him that I will never hunger or thirst in my deepest spirit.

So, do I believe in Jesus as the Divine One incarnated as a human being who came to show me the path to everlasting life?  Do I believe in Jesus as my brother who provides me a path into the eternal life of the triune divinity?  Do I believe in Jesus as the way of life that will lead me into my truest and deepest reality?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Born from above

Pelicans off Port Everglades
"Amen, amen, I say to you,unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God." John 3:3
When Nicodemus came to Jesus at night seeking clarification of his mission and purpose, he hears these words from Jesus.  Nicodemus is confused and perplexed.  He asks how it can be that one who is born can be born again.  Do you have to re-enter your mother's womb?  Jesus answers with words that raise more questions than provide answers.
"Amen, amen, I say to you,unless one is born of water and Spirithe cannot enter the Kingdom of God.What is born of flesh is fleshand what is born of spirit is spirit.Do not be amazed that I told you,'You must be born from above.'The wind blows where it wills,and you can hear the sound it makes,but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes;so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  John 3:5-8
If you live your life purely and solely "in the flesh"--purely and solely on a human level--you will be unaware of the principle of life that is in and energizes all life including all human life.  There is another way of seeing reality if you live your life "in the spirit."  If you are in the spirit, if you have been born of water and the spirit, you enter into a different realm of being.  In a real sense, you become a different being.  The life of the flesh continues, for now, but it is no longer the ultimate reality of human existence.

The fundamental value of the life of the flesh is self interest and appropriately so.  The prime directive is to preserve your life and to enrich it.  You may well see your self interest involving the welfare of others and thus we might say that your self interest is enlightened.  But the bed rock is still the self.

The fundamental value of the life of the spirit is love, spending yourself in the service of others.  Jesus came not to fulfill an important role in the world of the flesh but to spend himself in the service of others, especially those whom the world ignores and those who saw him as an enemy.  "Do to others as you would have them do to you" especially your enemies and those whom the world discounts.

This is the different world that Jesus invites me to enter through water and the spirit.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The key issue: Resurrection

Vizcaya, Miami FL
Then he said to them, "Why are you troubled?And why do questions arise in your hearts?Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself.Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bonesas you can see I have."And as he said this,he showed them his hands and his feet.  Luke 24:38-40
After several weeks of scripture readings containing the teachings of Jesus, Easter brings us directly into the narrative of his last days, death and resurrection.  For me, it is relatively easy and even comforting to reflect on the teachings of Jesus and their meaning for my life.  I feel a bit in control because I can understand the teachings and I can use them to evaluate my life:  where I live up to them and where I don't.

But the resurrection demands that I lay all that aside and enter a world in which human understanding does not apply.  My faith and belief in the resurrection cannot rest on my somehow understanding the resurrection because it violates all norms of rational thought.  Once you are dead, you are dead.  Yet here is someone who really and truly died and yet appeared somehow alive to his followers after his humiliating and public execution.  How can this be?

I know Jesus spoke about the "ways of the Divine One" and the "ways of humanity."  He urged his followers to think like the Divine One, not the way the world thinks.  But still I seek to understand, to explain, to place in context, to normalize something as unexplainable as the resurrection of Jesus.  I know this is the missing piece.  Without the resurrection, the life of Jesus becomes a set of ethical norms that lead to a fuller and more complete human life, but a lot of other masters of living have done the same thing with just about the same message...except for the resurrection.

The resurrection and the triune nature of the Divine One are the defining characteristics of Christianity.  I cannot penetrate either of these with my human reason and yet, without any evidence, I believe.  Somehow I set aside my human need to know, explain and thus control and try to enter into a level of being that is beyond me.

Easter brings this central issue into my consciousness in an unavoidable, even uncomfortable, way.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Glorification: right here, right now!

Sun Rise on South Beach

"Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself,and he will glorify him at once.My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.You will look for me, and as I told the Jews,'Where I go you cannot come,' so now I say it to you."  John 13:31-33
These words are spoken by Jesus to his small group of people who will carrying his message to the entire world after his death.  Judas, the betrayer, has just left the group after Jesus identifies him to John.  So now it is just those who are closest to him.  This begins the great discourse to the apostles at what has become known as "The Last Supper."  These are the final words of Jesus as he begins his journey to the Divine One of whom he is an integral member.

He begins with these almost mysterious words.  I have often puzzled over the meaning here.  What follows is only my humble understanding at this time and place.  I know that it deepens my relationship with Jesus.  Whether it would pass any scholarly test or not I do not know.  For me, "glory" is the life of the Divine One, the very principle that is at the core of its being, which animates the being of the Divine One and emanates from it.

Now as Jesus begins the journey of his crucifixion and resurrection, it is as though time became irrelevant; it was as though past, present and future collapse into a deep reality, a different level of being.  Jesus as the Messiah enters into that reality which has always been his life and always will be.  The triune Divine One is three persons interpenetrating the life of each other in a way that is beyond human comprehension.

In today's gospel for the Tuesday of the week before Easter, the next two verses are left out.  I suppose the Church wants to save these for the reading on Holy Thursday where John's complete version is read.  However, these verses are the ones that provide us with the insight Jesus was communicating about the Divine and about each of us.

"I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.  This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  John 13:34-35.
We are called to enter into the glorification of Jesus, the glorification that mutually exists between Jesus and the Divine One.  We do that by entering into the deepest reality of divine life, love.  We are to love each other in the same way that Jesus loved his apostles and in the same way that the Divine One loves Jesus.

Just as the Divine One glorifies Jesus, it glorifies each of us.  Time that seems so important to us is irrelevant in this process.  Glorification is here and now, in the past, and in the future in a way that defies human understanding.

Can I let go of my need to understand (and thus control) so that I can enter into this mystery?

Friday, April 7, 2017

Faith is not transactional

Sunrise on South Beach
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered King Nebuchadnezzar,"There is no need for us to defend ourselves before youin this matter.If our God, whom we serve,can save us from the white-hot furnaceand from your hands, O king, may he save us!But even if he will not, know, O king,that we will not serve your godor worship the golden statue that you set up." Daniel 3:16-18
Many of you may remember this story, as I do, from my religious education in grade school.  It is the dramatic story of the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to worship the idol created by the King.  However I had never really heard the message of their words to the king.  Their faith in Yahweh was not based on any saving action of Yahweh.  It turns outs in the story that Yahweh did save them.  They walked about in the flames of white hot furnace with a divine person.  Nebuchadnezzar converts on the spot.  This nicely framed ending of the story can easily divert us from the fundamental meaning.

The three do not refuse to worship the king's idol because they know that Yahweh will save them.  In fact, they don't really know as they admit to the king.  But even if Yahweh will not or cannot save them, their faith is strong and unyielding.  It is strong because it is not based on any saving action by Yahweh but on a relationship which has developed between them and Yahweh.

Faith is not transactional.  In other words, there is not quid pro quo bout our relationship with the Divine One, at least not in the way that the world understands.  Faith is not based on what the Divine One can do for me or does for me.  This is true as long as I think as the world thinks.  But if I think as the Divine One thinks, as Jesus says, I will have eternal and abundant life in the only way that matters.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Someone is missing. Does it mean something?

Seattle Space Needle from inside Chihuly Glass and Garden
Peter began to say to Jesus,'We have given up everything and followed you."Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you,there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sistersor mother or father or children or landsfor my sake and for the sake of the Gospelwho will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age:houses and brothers and sistersand mothers and children and lands,with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first."  Mark 10:28-31
C. Clifton Black pointed out something in his commentary on Mark that I had never noticed.   There are two lists in this passage.  The first contains what disciples give up for Jesus and the Good News:  house, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, and lands.  The second list contains what disciples receive even here and now and in greater abundance:  house, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and lands.  In addition there will be persecutions and then eternal life in "the age to come."

The one item missing from the second list is "fathers."  This is unlikely to be an oversight, especially given the role of father in first century Roman culture, the dominate and dominating culture of the day.  Paterfamilias was  the head of a Roman family.  As "the oldest living male in a household, he had complete control of all family members."  This is the underlying mindset of  paternalism in which those in power--typically but not always male--hold undisputed control over a group or institution.  The exclusion of fathers from the second list suggests that it is not to be that way with the community of disciples.  This is certainly consistent with the other evidence from the New Testament about the egalitarian assumptions of the early Christian communities.

The life of disciples will not be easy.  There will be persecutions but there will not be dominating power exercised from within the community.  These lines come in the same section where Jesus says that disciples must be like little children, i.e., without the pretensions of power, wealth, and knowledge that "adults" might bring to their faith.  The paterfamilias is not in charge but rather the Divine One who exercises power is a way much different from the way human power is exercised.  Just as Jesus noted there was a human way of thinking and God's way of think, so too there is a way of being together in community that is different in the Reign of the Divine One.

Just to underscore this teaching, Jesus once again announces the Great Reversal that is part of the Reign of the Divine One.  "Many that are first will be last, and the last will be first."

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Good News according to Matthew and Abraham Maslow?

Fruit at the market in Seattle
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.  Matthew 6:33
These lines are the conclusion of Matthew's recounting of the counsel of Jesus about what should come first in life.  After saying that we cannot serve two masters--the Divine One and wealth--and that we shouldn't worry about what we are to eat or drink or wear since the Divine One provides that to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus utters these words about what we are to seek first.  While it is almost too easy to apply these warnings to contemporary American life--just surf through television channels and observe the fashion, cooking, and lifestyle shows along with the overwhelming number of reality shows, I think Jesus is about something even more fundamental.

There are people who do not have enough to eat, adequate clothing or shelter, health security and even physical security.  It would be disingenuous to suggest that these sisters and brothers should not be focused on getting enough to achieve personal and family safety and security.  Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs (1943) was investigating human motivation and desires.  He theorized that until the most basic survival and safety needs were comfortably met, humans would exist in a state of anxiety which would make motivation based on the "higher" needs effectively impossible.  He arrived at this model by studying healthy people rather than looking at a representative sample of humanity.  He was interested in the self-actualizing individuals and what motivated them.

When I have reasonably taken care of my physiological and safety needs, I can begin to address those higher order needs.  However, if I remain in those lower needs and become fixated on them--when I don't need to be--I enter into a world of emotional and spiritual dysfunction.  Jesus put it that I cannot serve two masters.  I have to let go of the fixation with safety and physiological well being and move into the realm of love and relationship, the realm of the Divine One which Jesus announced to all who would listen and see.

If I stay in those lower levels, I simply focus on acquiring more and more of what I already have enough.  The more that becomes ingrained in me, the more difficult it is to begin to move into those higher levels without bringing the dynamic of acquisitiveness along with me.  If I think that I can use my wealth, not just financial wealth, to acquire love, belonging, esteem or self actualization, I will be playing a fool's game because the underlying dynamic will make it impossible to achieve my desires.

In the passage that follows this, Jesus interacts with the rich young man who wants to know what he must do to achieve eternal life.  Actually he uses "inherit" which certainly suggests ownership.  One might say along with Erich Fromm, he exhibits a "having" rather than a "being" orientation.  The rich can "have" whatever they want.  They can use their wealth to "make things happen," everything except perhaps eternal life.  This eternal life of the reign of the Divine One comes only to those  who are like little children, without power and possessions and thus without pretensions that they are the potent actors in their lives.

Human culture moves in an opposite direction.  Even two thousand years ago in ancient Palestine, the culture made it difficult to leave those lower levels behind and enter into a different kind of existence.  Those of us who live in 21st century America experience a media drenched and consumer based culture which drives us all toward acquiring more and more things in order to assure our safety and security.  The competitive nature of a consumerist culture means that I constantly am asked to value myself by comparing what I have to those around me.  Economic segregation in housing has exacerbated this.  No wonder it is like a camel passing through the eye of a needle for us to enter the reign of the Divine One where the first become last and the last, first.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fear of the Lord and the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Sunrise

You who fear the LORD, wait for his mercy, turn not away lest you fall.  You who fear the LORD, trust him, and your reward will not be lost.  You who fear the LORD, hope for good things, for lasting joy and mercy.  You who fear the LORD, love him, and your hearts will be enlightened.  Sirach 2:7-9
"Fear of the Lord" is often a difficult phrase to comprehend.  Clearly it does not mean that I am to fear the Divine One as one who would do me harm.  Rather it has more the meaning of awe.  I am to stand in awe of the Divine One as a person who is so different from me that I cannot possibly comprehend him/her.  By definition I cannot comprehend.  Mark writes about "God's way of thinking" and a human way of thinking.  They are totally different.  So different that "God's way" turns everything upside down:  the first become last; the weak become strong; those who desire life lose it and those who lose their life for the sake of the gospel find everlasting life.  These are two different orders of being and the human cannot, by definition, comprehend the divine.

Yet we are touched by the Divine One is ways that are often subtle and require discernment.  Christians believe that the Divine One was incarnated as Jesus the Messiah to open a path for us into this divine level of being.  But even his communications are typically oblique, poetic and ambiguous.  He told stories rather than presented organized theology.  We do our best to grasp the meaning and to make sense of all this but we are only able to use our feeble human understanding.  Even scripture, which is so important to Christianity, is a human creation reflecting the cultural realities of its settings over thousands of years.

Thomas Aquinas constructed perhaps the most comprehensive system of theology in an attempt to fit faith into our human epistemology and sensibilities.  On his death bed he experienced a mystical, direct revelation of the Divine One.  All he could say about this was, "Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."  It was truly ineffable.  All he could do and all we can do is to stand in awe of the Divine One.  If I begin to think that I understand or that I can make sense of the Divine One, I am dealing with so much straw.  I need to step back and realize that any comprehension of the Divine One could only lead to silence.  I would stand in awe of the ineffable.  I would be awe struck.

The first time I saw the Grand Canyon in person and close up, I had a taste of what that might mean.  I had of course seen photos of the canyon.  And I had seen it from the air when an airline pilot was given permission to fly some slow turns directly over the canyon.  But I had never come face to face with it.  I had driven from Phoenix up to Flagstaff and thence to the national park.  As we proceeded toward the canyon along the high desert plateau, everything seemed so flat and dull.  We entered the park and drove into a parking lot.  I got out of the car and began walking toward what I figured was the canyon although I couldn't see it.

As I exited the tress and bushes, the reality of the canyon exploded in front of me.  I was able to walk to the edge and just stood there, awe struck.  It literally took my breath away.  I was transfixed and captured by this reality.  I think this is what it means to live in the fear of the Lord, to live in awe of the Divine One.  There is no attempt to understand, figure out, analyze but just to be there and be captured.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The message is consistent though not always clear.

Chihuly Garden Seattle
At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  Mark 8:33
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.  Mark 8:35
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.  Mark 9:2-3
Each of these passages from Mark are taken from the gospel readings for three consecutive days.  For me each is re-enforcing the same message.  When Peter rebukes Jesus for talking to the apostles about his future death at the hands of those who oppose him.  The response of Jesus is stark and clear.  "You are like the devil that has tempted me in the past to divert from my destiny.  You are thinking in human terms and not the way the Divine One thinks."  There are clearly two ways of thinking at work here.  Jesus is living within a divine reality while Peter is still stuck in a human way of thinking with all its rationality and self-interest.

In the next section, Jesus begins to teach the disciples, the larger group of followers.  (The apostles were a core group so to speak and the disciples were followers but not in the close and intimate way of the apostles.)  Without mentioning his own coming death and resurrection, he discloses for the first time in Mark his theme of the Great Reversal.  However you think things work in this coming kingdom of the Divine One, it is just the opposite.  Not only do you need to take up your own cross and follow Jesus, but your desire to save your life eventuates in the loss of life but the loss of your life eventuates in saving your life.  This is almost a way of saying again that there is the way the Divine One thinks and the way that humans think.  The first leads to everlasting life and the second to death.

This is followed by Mark's telling of the story of the transfiguration of Jesus before Peter, James and John.  In some mysterious way, Jesus appears in this new reality of the Divine One while still in this world.  The three apostles are flabbergasted.  They don't know what to think or say.  The suggestion to build three tents is lame at best.  They realize that this is not just unreal but somehow a new reality and they don't even know how to think or talk about it.  The ways of the world seem inadequate and irrelevant.

Over and over again in so many different ways, Jesus is telling me today the same thing.  There is a life, a reality, that hides within the perceptible reality of the world.  It is this hidden reality that is the source of our life and which will continue on eternally.  It is animated by the spirit of the Divine One that resides in and animates all creation but in humans in a special way.  Rather than base my life on the perceptible reality, I am invited to enter into this deeper and eternal life.  Further I am called to live my life out of this deeper reality.  I am to "think as God does."  I am to "lose my life" in service to the good news of the reign of the Divine One and thus save it.  I am to become a fool for Christ.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians Chapter 3,
Let no one deceive herself.  If any one among you considers herself wise in this age, let her become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God...
 How hard it is to accept that my whole life has been a process of moving away from my life as I have known it and entering into a deeper reality of who I really am and through that entering into the interior life of the triune Divine One.  No wonder so much of what Christ says seems alien and hard to understand...and even harder to do.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Whose yeast do I want to use?

A hint of spring in the midst of winter
Jesus enjoined them, "Watch out,guard against the leaven of the Phariseesand the leaven of Herod." They concluded among themselves thatit was because they had no bread.When he became aware of this he said to them,"Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread?Do you not yet understand or comprehend?Are your hearts hardened?Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?  Mark 8:15-18
This confusing little story takes place as Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee for the last time on his way to Bethsaida.  It comes between the stories of the feeding of the multitudes and the teachings on the identity of Jesus and the responsibilities and role of his disciples.  It is confusing because the disciples focus on the lack of bread and Jesus is teaching them a fundamental lesson about his message.  Their persistent inability to get his message is frustrating to Jesus and surely to them.

Jesus uses the metaphor of leaven or yeast to make his point.  Yeast was seen to be an almost magical element which caused dough to expand, to change in some elemental way.  The Jewish insistence on unleavened bread was meant to convey a reliance on unadulterated bread without this magical, other worldly substance.

The message of Jesus was not about unleavened bread but about what kind of "yeast" one should incorporate into one's life.  His message constantly stressed that there was a reality, the world of the spirit, that was the true and lasting reality for us.  Any attempt to live life without this yeast would lead to a superficial life of the "flesh."  Such a life would never be able to experience the fullness of what it meant to be human, to be creatures of the Divine One.

Jesus here cautions the disciples against not yeast but the yeast of the Pharisees and of the followers of Herod.  As yeast will, this kind of yeast works to change the dough in fundamental ways almost magically and invisibly.  Jesus critiques the Pharisees as hypocrites.  They study and know the law in every detail and lay heavy burdens on those they teach and yet do not follow those same regulations in their own lives.  Or worse they become fixated on the rules and details of the law and forget the purpose and goal of the law.  Or as Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for humans; not humans for the Sabbath."

Herod has been described earlier in Mark's gospel as a person who is guided by his own pleasure and need for recognition and admiration.  He and his followers are hedonists and that kind of yeast can also change the dough quietly and invisibly.

I think the point that Jesus makes is not anti-yeast.  We are faced with a choice about which yeast we want to use.  Yeast is metaphor for the way in which the spirit works within and through us.  It is other worldly is a profound way.  It works powerfully to change us.  The spirit or yeast of the Divine One works to change us bit by bit into the beings we are meant to be, focused on the family of the Divine One into which we are adopted as children and heirs.  The yeast of the Pharisees or of the Herodians hardens our hearts, blinds our eyes, and stops our ears so that we cannot see and feel what is right in front of us.  It is the work of hypocrisy and hedonism that distorts our true nature.

I think Jesus uses metaphors and often confusing statements because the more you talk or write about this "spirit of the Divine One" the more you drain away its power and elemental reality.  Poetry, ambiguity, creative imagination and confusion mark the pathway to meeting this reality of the spirit in our lives.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why not give us a sign? It can't hurt, can it?

Sunset over Seattle sky line
The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with Jesus,seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said,"Why does this generation seek a sign?Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation."Then he left them, got into the boat again,and went off to the other shore.  Mark 8:11-13

This display of frustration is pointed and something we tend to not want to hear about Jesus.  Clearly he was frustrated with this demand for signs to the point where he refuses to provide any.  It almost sounds punitive which is out of character for our ideal of Jesus.  Why might he have said this?

First, he may simply have been tired of being tested.  He perceived correctly that the Pharisees were simply looking for fodder for their attempt to silence him, one way or the other.  It would be very understandable--human, in fact--that Jesus would have tired of this constant game with the Pharisees.

Second and related, he could simply have had enough with providing signs--miracles and healings--which didn't convince anybody except a few disciples who chronically misunderstood what he was about.  Why do more when the ones he had already performed didn't make any difference?

But third and for me most important, he wasn't really performing signs to convince anybody of anything.  If someone believed that he was the Messiah and accepted his message because of his miracles, they were still operating in the realm of the world and human wisdom.  Paul learned later that his attempt to preach to the Athenians using human wisdom was fruitless.  He decided from then on to preach "Christ crucified which is foolishness" in terms of human wisdom.

Jesus was not preaching much that was new.  He was calling his Jewish brothers and sisters back to a more rigorous and ancient understanding of Yahweh and the Divine One's relationship to humanity and creation.  His message depended on his audience connecting with the spirit of the Divine One within, not on human wisdom focused in the external world of the "flesh."

What people might see as signs were not meant to convince anyone but rather to express the reality of mercy and compassion of the reign of the Divine One.  They were an inside out expressions of the spirit within Jesus to which we are called to respond from our deepest spirit within.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Is that any way for a Messiah to talk?

Pleasant Hill CA backyard oranges
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.* For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  She replied and said to him, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”  Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.”  Mark 7:25-29
It has always been easy for me to gloss over this story and its language and focus on the merciful healing action of Jesus.  A closer reading always brings me to an uncomfortable place.  How am I to understand the clear fact that Jesus the Messiah engages in demeaning, perhaps even hateful speech, when speaking to a "Greek," a term of convenience for all Gentiles?

Jesus in other settings and perhaps at later times makes clear his mission and the commission he gives to the apostles includes the Gentiles.  Mark typically contrasts the faith of the Gentiles to the lack of faith of the Jews.  This is given as explanation of Jesus' inability to perform healing miracles in some localities.  Yet here we hear Jesus refer to the woman and her relatives as dogs, not fit to eat at the table with the children of the family.  While Mark is traditionally listed as the second evangelist, his gospel is universally regarded as the earliest, probably written within 30 years of the death of Jesus.  It thus has a claim to coming closer to the actual words and actions of Jesus.  Why would he include this jarring story if it were not accurate?

I understand the importance of this story as telling us something about Jesus and something about the way to relate to those in power.  It is easier for me to think of Jesus in way that stresses his divinity rather than in a way that stresses his humanity.  Our faith tradition makes clear that he is "fully human and fully divine" as paradoxical as that appears.  As fully human he became Jesus the same way I have become Bill.  He grew up in a specific culture with its unspoken but nonetheless powerful norms of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.  We become our own persons as we become conscious of these dynamics and aware that these norms do not always have to govern our behavior or speech.  If we cannot quite rise above them, we can act out of an awareness of the power and often destructive nature of these norms.

I think these words of Jesus to the Syrophoenician woman fall into this category.  Wherever Jesus ended up on this issue, he at this point viewed his healing miracles as restricted at least in terms of priority sequence to the Jews of his own culture.  Referring to others as dogs makes that point clearly and without reservation.    It is not that he is refusing to heal but rather that since she fell into a different essential category--god versus human--she would have to wait her turn and not be so "uppity" as to directly request a healing.  I think most of us can relate to being either the source or the object of such speech; perhaps both.  The fact that ultimately Jesus rises above these cultural norms is the important message.  He rises above them, not because he is "fully divine" but rather precisely because he is "fully human" and thus has the ability to experience, reflect, learn, and change.  We can see this played out in this story.

The Syrophoenician woman is a powerful example of "speaking truth to power."  Staying within the confines of her culture, she doesn't object to the characterization but calmly points out that however one might think about her and her relatives, even dogs ate from the crumbs dropped by the children.  Because Jesus is open to experience and to learning, this appears to have been enough for him to recognize his own cultural flaw.  He somehow realizes through this interaction that his message and ministry is not to be restricted by cultural norms and prejudices.  This is similar to his interchange with the Gentile woman at the well where he learns the same lesson.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Perseverance for the sake of the joy that lies before us.

January contrast
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to usand persevere in running the race that lies before uswhile keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,the leader and perfecter of faith.For the sake of the joy that lay before himJesus endured the cross, despising its shame,and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.Consider how he endured such opposition...in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  Hebrews 12:1-4
Every Christian strives to be like Christ and thus every Christian knows from experience the challenges of that mission.  In our private and public lives we are called to the two commandments which Jesus said encompass the entire law:  love of the Divine One and love of our neighbor.  He made clear on several occasions that everyone was our neighbor even our enemies.

Jesus certainly exemplified both of those in his own life.  His love of the Divine One--his Abba Father--was evident in his constant move into periods of prayer.  These were not the public, ritual prayers of religion but the personal, quiet experience of the Divine One deep within.  What today we might call contemplation or meditation.  These periods of prayer were essential to his ability to live out the second injunction of love even in the face of opposition, often violent opposition.  The very end he was able to forgive those who were murdering him because his life was an indictment of their own failure to live up to the demands of faith.

The author of Hebrews asks us to confront the inevitable opposition we will face with a faithful and constant consideration of the story of Jesus.  In short, today we might say that the author urges an evangelical approach, a return to the gospels and epistles of the New Testament.  In this way we can experience the touch of Jesus who was both fully human and fully divine and in that touch we can experience the enduring love of the Divine One for us and all creation.  The joy that was before Jesus and that can be ahead of us is not, I think, the joy of completion and fulfillment but rather the joy of process and movement.  There can be a joy in our striving to lead a Christian life even if difficult, even if misunderstood, even if opposed and rejected.

Today in America we face great divisions.  Regardless of election results and government policy, these divisions are not going to go away any time soon.  These are difficult times for all of us; more difficult for some than for others.  These are not happy times and it will be a long time, if ever, before these divisions subside.  Good faithful Christians disagree about many things and it is tempting to think about resolving those by dividing ourselves into "real" Christians and "misguided" Christians.  That would be a mistake.

If we follow the advice of the author of Hebrews and return to Jesus, to deep prayer, and unconditional love of others including those who oppose us, we will be able to persevere and "not grow weary and lose heart."

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Parabolic Kingdom of the Divine One

Snowy backyard in January
Jesus said to the crowds:"This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come."  Mark 4:26-29
It is interesting that "parable" and parabola" come from the same Greek word, παραβολή (parabolē.)  The root word means placing two things side by side.  So in the first sense it is a metaphor or simile and in the second, " a two-dimensional, mirror-symmetrical curve."  The difference is that a parable presents two things that are in contrast or even conflict, the better to stimulate thought and reflection.  In a parabola the two images are the same or at least mirror images.

Here is a classic description of a parable from C. H. Dodd as quoted by C. Clifton Black in the Abingdon New Testament Commentaries:  Mark:
At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.
The passage from Mark is a great example of this.  Chapter Four of Mark contains several parables, one after another.  Today's reading actually contains another parable about the mustard seed.  But the one I have quoted above was surely a shock to those who heard it.  After all, Jesus begins by saying he wants to talk to them about the Kingdom of God and what it is (will be) like.  His audience would be expecting the long promised Messiah to speak about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and establishing its preeminent position among the nations.  Instead he draws from the everyday world of peasants of his day.  We scratch our heads as surely they must have and wonder exactly what the point is.  Recognizing the inadvisability of trying to immediately "understand" a parable and after some prayerful reflection, I offer the following tentative understand, at least for the time being.

Imagine field lying fallow with no plants.  It is desolate and forlorn, much like the winter landscape in the Finger Lakes Region of New York where I live.  Nothing is growing other than a few volunteer weeds or left over crops.  Further imagine you are a peasant farmer in First Century Galilee.  When spring arrives, you sow seeds in the field and then go about your daily life, sleeping and rising in a continuous cycle of life.  Without any care on your part, the seeds sprout, grow into plants, set fruit and become ready for harvest.  It is almost as though there is a reality of which we are unaware that brings life to an otherwise dead field.

There is an inevitability about this process that takes place reliably without our intervention.  There is a principle of life that is hidden from us and at the same time impacts our world.  It is not magic although it might seem that way to some.  When we look at the field above and the field to the right, we see what we see but we don't really understand that the reality is not what we see but the principle of life that transforms one into the other.  Jesus says that this is how it is with the Kingdom of God.

The Reign of the Divine One has already come.  Remember that Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is already here, within us.  And yet, we know that the justice and mercy that are integral to this kingdom are not uniformly and often not at all present in the world we see and experience.  And yet the Kingdom is here and working is inevitably way toward fruition at the end of time:  the field ready for harvest.

We have nothing to do with this process.  It is set in motion and sustained by the Divine One whether or not we recognize it, facilitate it or try to frustrate it.  It is the Divine One's work and it will be brought to completion.  All we can do is recognize it and accept it.  Even that is not our work but somehow made possible by the action of the Divine One in and through us.  This was not what his audience was expecting to hear from the Messiah.  And it is not what we expect to hear.  It leaves us with no where to go, or so it seems.

Jesus is clear about the implications for us.  We are to do the will of the Divine One, who sent Jesus into the world.  In the midst of injustice, evil, hardness of heart and all the other characteristics of "the world," we are to love the Divine One which means that we enter into prayerful union and try to be part of that underlying and almost invisible life that is working its way to fruition.  And we are to love one another and all that the Divine One has created.  And we are to do in the way that Jesus did:  without reservation and with any return.  He even loved those who murdered him.  We can live our lives that way because we have the assurance of faith that the field is greening and maturing and that all will be well.  Our efforts to manage human affairs--political, social and economic--in ways consistent with our call to love each other are important and need to be ongoing.  The ultimate success is not ours but the Divine One's.