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.

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.