Author Archives: Mike

Charismatic Gratitude

Read this excerpt from _Grateful_ by Diana Butler Bass, then let’s discuss.

The sign outside read “Trinity,” and a stylized dove hovered above the logo formed from a Celtic cross and triangle. Underneath the picture, the line read, “Assemblies of God.” I wandered into the small church on my own, no friend, no family to accompany me. I was only seventeen, following the path of life’s first spiritual journey, and I had no idea that the Assemblies of God was a Pentecostal denomination, a group emphasizing the power of God through gifts like speaking in tongues and miraculous healing. I was not looking for any of that, however. I was just curious about church.

The sanctuary was simple, more like a cafeteria with carpet and nice chairs than any traditional church. Although the building was new, the congregation was not small—many people filled the seats as a professional-sounding band played music to warm up the crowd. The preacher, in a business suit, an odd choice of vestment for an Arizona summer, stood up.

“Welcome!” he shouted, “Welcome to God’s house! Let’s all thank Jesus for bringing us here! Get up! Stand up! Thank Jesus!”

The music swelled and people swayed, some chanting in a language that sounded like Latin to me, but full of strange intonations, maybe Chinese. The pastor pointed at a woman in the congregation.

“What do you thank Jesus for today?” And the reply: “That my mother was healed!” He shouted back, “Praise Jesus!”

He pointed again, “And you?” The response was tearful: “God paid my electric bill!” “Yes!” cried the preacher, “Thank you, Jesus!”

The music went on—a soft-rock litany of “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, thank you, Jesus.”

“Oh yes!” the pastor shouted, now needing no prompt from the congregation. “Thank you, Jesus! We all thank you! We praise you and thank you!”

It was like a spiritual sea, full of waves of praise, as all around me people with eyes half open joined their words to his as if mesmerized by gratitude, first gently whispering thanks and then shouting praise. From every direction flowed thanks—appreciation for miracles received, prayers answered, healings bestowed, financial provision, good weather, missionaries in foreign lands, heathens converted, children who spoke in tongues, the pastor’s recent sermon, and all who came to paint the new church. Hands were raised, palms facing up, waiting to receive the gifts of a good God; lips were ready with eager words of thanks. Everyone awaited grace, overwhelmed by gratitude.

Everyone except me, of course. I felt nothing.

Well, that is not entirely true. I was bewildered by this polyphony of appreciation. Maybe a bit angry, as I felt left out of their thanksgivings.

Is prayer a transaction?

“God waits for us in the inner sanctuary of the soul. He welcomes us there, where we can experience, in the words of Madame Guyon, a “continuous inner abiding.” And here is the joy: the results are always in excess of the work put in.”
From: Richard J. Foster. “Prayer – 10th Anniversary Edition.”

Critique:
If one believes, as I do, that God is Omnipresent, then there is no place God doesn’t exist. That would, then, include “the inner sanctuary of the soul.” But to imply that God is only there, in our individual souls, seems wrong to me. First of all, what “soul” means is unclear to many people.

Some might say our soul is “the part of me that lives on past death and goes to heaven to be with God who is waiting for me there.” For those people, the notion that God is waiting for you in your own soul would seem strange indeed. Others might define “soul” the way Plato did… or perhaps St. Augustine’s Body-Soul split. How is Soul different than Spirit, for example. To say God waits for us in the soul implies God (the divine) does not similarly wait in our bodies. That’s anti-Incarnational; a part of the theology that allowed us to abuse the planet, other life here, and each other. Considering “the flesh” as “sinful” has had major negative impact on attitudes toward healthy sexuality, marriage, and the roles of women, etc.

Orthodox Christian theology is that, in Jesus, God became flesh and divinized us as whole beings. Paul taught that in Christ crucified and risen all of creation is reconciled to the Creator.

Madame Guyon’s “continuous inner abiding” is taken from “The Way of the Cross” from 17th Century France. She was a Contemplative who kept notes regarding her contemplation. These were later compiled. In one note she wrote:

“To be continuously turned deep inside simply means that, having turned within to God-by a direct act- you have remained in His presence. The only time you need to make a point of turning again is when your abiding is interrupted for some reason. You rest in the continuous inward act of abiding.”

Hmm. Foster is not talking about Contemplation. What Guyon observed is that once you learn Contemplation, you can keep it going a long time. As I understand it, Contemplation is a spiritual practice of many religions, most Buddhism, where one learns how to turn off the Cerebral stream of words and thoughts and rest that part of our brains. It must feel like God’s in charge and present when a person is in the pre-verbal parts of our brains (the brain stem mostly). At least that’s what they report and why they advocate it. I would have to take classes.

Prayer, overall, is a generic human practice. Although one might think Christians assume they invented it. There was a fellow at the table beside us at the bakery this week with a sign “Free Prayer.” His sign mentioned his Christian Church. He had a King James Bible open. Did he not know that we live in a community where our Muslim friends pray five times a day (for free). Orthodox Jews pray three times a day (for free). And for the past 10,000 years (before smallpox killed them), the Sammamish People who lived here prayed to their gods both individually and as a group. We don’t know much from before 10,000 years ago, but one has to guess that shamans and priests have offered up prayers since the invention of language.

But the phrase that most bothered me in Foster’s statement is “results in excess of…”

What? Prayer is a transaction in the Spiritual Free Market? Do we pray as an investment with a positive return? “Dear Lord, I hereby give you 50 cents worth of prayer time, time is money you know, and in return I would like you to cover the rent this month. Amen? Deal?”

I think prayer is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. I just don’t think it’s a conversation with God who lives in my own soul, or that it’s about turning off part of my brain, or an investment with an expected positive return.

I learned that the “praying hands” position is from an old practice of binding the wrists of captured people so they’d be unable to carry a weapon or attack the captor. Eventually subjects would voluntarily assume that position before people of power to show submission, just like genuflection. The captor or master was their “lord”… who they might petition for something or other.

I hope prayer doesn’t require any particular posture, gesture, special table, room, or practice. And I hope it is more than going into our souls where god awaits us to reward us for a wise investment of time and effort.

Things to pray about, or meditate on, or contemplate…. or as I put it “to ponder.”

Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–c. 1430): The Hospitality of Abraham

Unity and Relationship

Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–c. 1430): The Hospitality of Abraham
Andrei Rublev (c. 1360–c. 1430): The Hospitality of Abraham

Passover just ended, it is Eastertide, and Ramadan just started. The three Abrahamic religions celebrate Spring differently, but with similar gratitude and hope. Yet we are divided and sometimes violently so.

Perhaps the biggest issue that keeps the Abrahamic religions divided is their seemingly incompatible answers to the question of the nature of God (that is our unique Theologies).

The post-Exilic priests in Jerusalem who invented monotheism in the first place (Isaiah and Jeremiah), made it clear that we can’t answer the Theological question.

Yahweh/Allah/Deus (aka “the Divine Other”) is and must be transcendent (or else we invent God, and whatever we invent can’t be God).

Jews (still) believe that even giving God a name violates the 2nd Commandment and is Idolatry. Early Christians struggled to defy and oppose Roman Emperor Worship, so imbued Christ with the attributes of the anti-Emperor (God, Son of God). Preaching to a very polytheistic culture, Muhammad and his followers stressed that Allah is One / El La, The One.

Early theological thinkers applied adjectives that we can invent; creative, provident, merciful, wise, graceful, just, omnipotent, omnipresent, and so forth. Be careful, however, because it’s almost impossible not to project your own psychological needs and cultural biases.

Early Christians were Jews. They worshipped One Lord. So how did their Trinity idea (a symbol for unity and relationship) become so divisive?

Politics.

By the 4th Century, Jesus, rather than representing non-violent resistance to Roman power, had replaced the Caesar at the top of the power pyramid… or just above it with a direct connection to the man at the top. Not long after that, Islam quickly became the state religion of the Caliphate. Both religions were corrupted to justify terrible violence and murder and theft. Jews were cast in the scapegoat role. However they are just as capable of inhumanity when they are in power.

So where does that leave us today?

Are we freed from the Pharoah or still in Exile? Is it still Lent or Easter? Is Muhammad in Mecca or Medina?

Here’s an icon from the Eastern Church (not influenced by Rome) from before Islam existed. It’s a painting of the Three Angels that visited Abraham and Sarah, hospitality, a shared meal a blessing and a promise. It’s a key moment in the history of all three of our religions.

In this icon, one man/angel is wearing Gold (a symbol for The Creator). One of them is wearing Blue (symbol for the suffering Messiah) and one is in Green (symbol for the Spirit/Advocate/Lord of Life). In those three, Sarah saw the One Lord. This icon omits her laughter. What is important in this old icon is the gesture. One (The Spirit) is inviting the viewer to sit at the Table of Blessing and Promise. Originally there was a mirror attached so you could see your own face in it.

Around a table graciously provided with the hospitality to share everything, there is no divide. Yesterday we took Holy Communion. This month, Linn and I will attend a seminar on resisting anti-Semitism. The Seder is over. We will share at least one Iftar meal with Muslim friends. We are not God but are in Relationship with the Divine and each other, there is just One Author of Love. The gesture to sit at the table is real. The empty place is for you.

Prayers of the People

The Prayers of the People,
Redmond United Methodist Church,
February 3, 2019
Led by Pastor Lara Bruce Bolger

Let us pray

Loving and Gracious God
Where Love and Charity are
You are here; You are there.
You are where all Love can be found.
Even in the places where we don’t think it might be.
We praise you that your Love reaches into far places
Of this world and in our community.
We thank you that it reaches deep into our hearts
In our struggles and in our joys
In our hidden places of fear and shame
In our sorrows and disappointments
We’re so grateful that, in your Love, you meet us where we are
You sweep aside any sense of inadequacy
You overturn misplaced dependencies
You open windows of light and hope
So we can see our true home.
Thank you God.

Thank you for your love that comes gently
That sits beside us
That enters into the stillness of our hearts
We are here with You.
Just as you care for every detail of our lives
Help us care for others
Especially for those people who feel overlooked
For those people who are unnoticed
Driven away by policies that do not include them
Pushed away from the corners of our minds and our society and our world.
Just as you give us people who look us in the eye
Who do not turn away from our vulnerability and pain
Help us to have eyes of love so that we may not turn away from theirs
Give us a different way of seeing
May we see with clarity
Your love.

For all those people who are suffering this day
Due to weather, due to violence
Help us to see them.
All the people you have placed on our hearts this day
We take this time now to lift them up.
(Pause while the people in the congregation mention names of those they’re praying for)
We pray for them
Your Love came to us embodied in the person of Jesus Christ
And we can embody your Love as well
Thank you God.

We continue to pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray
(Aloud in unison)
Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed by thy name
Thy kingdom come thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses

as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Amen

Wicked and Adulterous

A question came up in a discussion group yesterday evening. It involved a quote from Matthew 16 in the New International Version translation:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

Jesus then left them and went away.”

The quote was used in the context of “the sign of Jonah” and the ideas that might represent.

The question was not, as one might guess, about “Signs of the Times.” Bob Dylan sang “we don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The question was also not about the Pharisees and Sadducees or why they come off so poorly (after all they were the most religious folks of their day). The question was about this phrase “a wicked and adulterous generation.” The assertion was that this phrase was in Luke. That didn’t sound right to me, so I asked for time to research before sharing my take on it. My guess was that is Matthew’s voice and not aimed at Jesus’ followers (that is, not at the Church) but rather at the employees of Jerusalem Temple, Inc.

I was right on both of counts. I also mentioned that Mohammad refused to give his followers “signs” stating, rather, that there are so many indications of Allah’s existence, wisdom, provision, love, and justice all around us that if our eyes are blind to them no tricks he could perform would open our eyes. That might be the most common theme in the Quran in fact. I remember that more than once he referenced Jesus (Isa) and his phrase “a wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”

Matthew and Luke got this story from Mark.

Mark 8 (CEB)
… After Jesus told the crowd to sit down, he took the seven loaves and gave thanks. He then broke the loaves and handed them to his disciples, who passed them out to the crowd. They also had a few little fish, and after Jesus had blessed these, he told the disciples to pass them around.

The crowd of about 4,000 people ate all they wanted, and the leftovers filled seven large baskets.

As soon as Jesus had sent the people away, he got into the boat with the disciples and crossed to the territory near Dalmanutha.

The Pharisees came out and started an argument with Jesus. They wanted to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus groaned and said, “Why are you always looking for a sign? I can promise you that you will not be given one!” Then he left them. He again got into a boat and crossed over to the other side of the lake.

The context is the miracle of the loaves and fishes and the inquisitors are just the Pharisees. There is no insult. If 4000 families being fed by freely sharing with and trusting each other is not “sign” enough, they won’t get a sign.

Luke 12 (CEB) has it
Then Jesus said to the crowds, “As soon as you see a cloud rising in the west, you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and that is what happens. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It will be hot,’ and it is. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky. Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?

Luke’s version is a condemnation of those who are unaware of their times, but leaves the religious political parties out of it.

Matthew in Aramaic

My answer is that, likely, Matthew added “wicked and adulterous” to Mark’s story because Matthew was writing after destruction of Jerusalem, the burning of the Temple, the slaughter or enslavement of more than a million Jews by Rome and the loss of the Israeli homeland (renamed to Palestine). Matthew and his congregation in Syria knew that the Sadducees and Pharisees’ bad leadership and infighting were partly to blame.

The literary, translational, and historical context and the Sign of Jonah can lead to interesting discussions, too.

Gran Desierto de Altar

When I lived in Yuma, Arizona in the early 1970s, I crossed the border with Mexico many times. I delivered bottle water south of town; Summerton, San Luis, and rural dwellings in between. The border was unmarked, unpatrolled, unfenced, and unwalled. Sometimes I gave people who lived in Morales a ride home after a few days working in Yuma. Sometimes I gave people rides north, too. Families live on both sides of the border in the green belt along the river.

But away from the ancient Colorado River floodplain stretch seemingly endless “oceans” of sand dunes. To the west, the Imperial Desert had been a formidable barrier to travelers until a wooden road, then a train, and paved highways connected Yuma to El Centro. It is a playground for campers and dune buggies. It was also where the dune scenes for Star Wars were filmed.

To the east of Yuma, past the Marine Corps Air Station and citrus groves, are the barren Chocolate Mountains; to their south, Mexico’s Gran Desierto de Altar. I rode my Kawasaki dirt bike that way once, trying to find and follow the old Camino del Diablo. From up on a high point on the south end of a mountain ridge, I looked into Mexico; sand so deep it covered ancient mountains and volcanoes. No one and nothing, Just sand and wind.

The actual Devil’s Highway crossed the border and ran just south of it around the mountains. Now, the signs directed me to a new dirt road just north of it. Not far east on that road, I came to a sign from the United States Air Force, Luke Air Base, stating that without written permission of the base commander, all moving objects past that sign would be considered targets for bombing practice. I had heard that part of the desert was their bombing range. People who have gotten permission and explored the Camino del Diablo have taken pictures of the old cars, graves, and shacks. No water was there. There were supposedly “tanks” up in the eastern foothills that retained seasonal pools. Far to the east another mountain range marked the location of permanent springs. I wanted to see the rare pupfish there, but was unprepared. I turned around.

The blue route is the new “stay in America” version of the Devil’s Highway. The big mountain just south of the border midway between Ajo and Yuma is a huge volcano. West of it is sand; a dune field stretching to the Gulf of California. No one walks that way. It’s deep shifting sand.

We actually bought that land from Mexico. The reason the border runs at an angle there is the sand dunes. The surveyors could not traverse them, so hugged the mountains and headed to Yuma.

Stand at the Grand Canyon and ask “where did all that material go that used to be here?” The answer is the Gran Desierto de Altar.

We don’t need a fence to secure this border. Take a look. This is not where refugees or migrants enter the United States. Let’s not spend billions of dollars building any more fences here.

An Epiphany

Edward Burne-Jones - Scanned from Stephen Wildman,Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, ISBN 0870998595
Edward Burne-Jones – Scanned from Stephen Wildman,Edward Burne-Jones: Victorian Artist-Dreamer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998, ISBN 0870998595

Matthew included a scene in his Infancy Narrative that was probably based on an actual event in history… arranged to make the point that Jesus came for all people, not just Jews. The Magi were an ancient sect in Persia, scientific thinkers, observers of the heavens, trusted with the task of reading the signs and identifying, as a child, the next King of Persia. That tradition lives on in Tibetan Buddhism in fact, where a similar process is used to identify the next Dalai Lama. So Magi showing up, following a star, to bring the gifts that designated royalty would, to his readers, helped them understand Matthew’s answer to Who do you say Jesus is?”

Matthew is clearly answering, in context of the entire Gospel, “The new Moses, God’s chosen leader, for the whole world.”

There were three Buddhist missionaries in Judea who brought ideas like the Golden Rule and Love is the highest commandment. Traditionally they were named Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. The ancient Church used those names for the Magi of Matthew’s story. In that conflation it becomes Three Wise Men (Matthew doesn’t number them). Balthasar is an Arabian name. Melchior is Persian and Gaspar is Indian.

Today it is conflated into the season and day of Epiphany (the Magi followed and saw the Light). But that is another layer of meaning in the conflation. The Epiphany at this season was, in Northern Europe, the day folks realized that all human hierarchy, in families, between men and women, in the economy between owners and servants, lords and tenants, in government… all of it is just an invented institution. On Epiphany our ancestors woke up basking in the realization that goodness and provision are gifts none of us owns nor earns.

No matter which layer of the story appeals to you; men on camels, the magical recognition of the next King, Eastern wisdom showing up in nascent Christianity, or pagan traditional world-upside-down celebrations, the meaning is about the same. We are loved by the Author of Love, gifted resources to spread that love to the whole world as a bright star, a light that leads others to truth, forgiveness and healing.

Luke’s Context

We’re studying the Gospel of Luke.

Scholars don’t know exactly when it was written. In reality, it was probably composed over a period of time. Luke traveled with Paul until Paul’s arrest and death in Rome just before 70 AD. Luke may have started writing then. Parts of Luke’s Gospel were added later, basically adding new material on the front. It matured and eventually became the only gospel included in the first canon of scripture used by the Church (with Paul’s first five letters).

Jews had wanted to repel the Romans since they occupied Israel in 63 BC. Judea was ruled by Roman procurators, whose chief responsibility was to collect and deliver taxes to the empire. Whatever the tax collectors got over and above their quota, they could keep. Rome also took over appointing the High Priest.

Luke refers to all these issue indirectly, by naming rulers or contrasting genealogies; Jesus’ and Herod’s. About the time Luke reports Jesus’ birth a group arose among the Jews: the Zealots. Some people think John the Baptist was a Zealot. They were active until about the same time Paul was killed.

The anti-Roman feelings reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 AD declared himself a deity and ordered his statue in every temple in the Roman Empire. The Jews, alone in the empire, refused his command; First Commandment stuff.

Caligula threatened to destroy the Temple. A delegation of Jews was sent to pacify him, to no avail. Caligula raged at them, “So you are the enemies of the gods, the only people who refuse to recognize my divinity.” Only Caligula’s violent death saved the Jews from wholesale massacre at that time (it would come soon enough).

In the decades after Caligula’s death, Jews found themselves subject to gross indignities, Roman soldiers exposing themselves in the Temple and burning a Torah scroll. Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome’s unbridled contempt for Judaism and the favoritism extended to gentiles living in Israel brought about open revolt.

In the 66 AD, Florus, the last Roman procurator, stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple. The outraged Jewish masses rioted and killed the Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in neighboring Syria, sent in a larger force of soldiers. The Jewish insurgents routed them, too.

The Romans returned with 60,000 heavily armed and highly professional troops. They launched their first attack against the most radicalized area; Galilee. An estimated 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem did almost nothing to help.

The refugees who succeeded in escaping the Galilean massacres fled to the last major Jewish stronghold: Jerusalem. There, they killed anyone in the Jewish leadership who had not helped. All the moderate Jewish leaders who headed the Jewish government at the revolt’s beginning in 66 AD were dead by 68 AD; not one died at the hands of a Roman. All were killed by fellow Jews.

Roman troops prepared to besiege the city camped outside. Inside the city, Jews were engaged in a suicidal civil war. The Romans would have won the war in any case. The Jewish civil war both hastened their victory and immensely increased the casualties. In expectation of a Roman siege, Jerusalem’s Jews had stockpiled a supply of dry food that could have fed the city for many years. But one of the warring Zealot factions burned the entire supply, apparently hoping that destroying this “security blanket” would compel everyone to participate in the revolt. The starvation resulting from this mad act caused suffering as great as any the Romans inflicted. Either way, there was great starvation. As Luke put is “he was very hungry.”

During the summer of 70 AD, the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem and initiated an orgy of sadistic violence and destruction. They destroyed the Second Temple. It is estimated that as many as one million Jews died.

Around that time, Luke wrote.

Fluttering Beauty

Seven years ago I was road-tripping with my dog, Rocky. We were following the Monarch Butterfly migration in my Jeep. Sometimes man-made roads take the same route the Monarchs take in the multi-generational migration. Sometimes the migranting beauty follows waterways and routes with only trails. Driving one of their routes took us through places we’d never seen and would never have seen. We met people we’d never met and would have never met.

The Monarchs were dense in the air around us and on the plants we passed, more than you can imagine. It was a fantasy world of movement and color. But there was no one to share it with. As wonderful as it sounds… well and was… my life is better now. Next time I want to do something “crazy” like drive a Jeep on one of the migration routes while the butterflies are heading home and get the feeling of that land, those creeks, those flowers, that sky, that air, and all those butterflies… yes. If we can do it, we will. To echo an old adage: shared beauty is doubled, shared boredom is halved.

I chose not to post the picture of my hand and a Monarch seemingly perched on my index finger. It was a lie. I didn’t want to disturb them. But I noticed a dead one on the side of a dirt road. It looked undamaged. So I posed that shot. I did see a live one land on a little girl’s head in Iraan, Texas. But I did not have time to get permission to take a picture, even to get my cell phone to switch into Camera App. So that one, well, the sense of that ugly town and the ugly situation of the people living and growing up there, contrasted to the Monarchs who invade there twice a year… will remain a memory.

Have a beautiful day with beauty fluttering over you and around you and gently landing on you.

Summer Reading to Reset Christianity

Instead of complaining about “them” I suggest we learn from these great thinkers and historians, perhaps to change and grow personally and in community. I am reading some of these, will try to read the rest. Nearly all beg for group discussion. Thanks to everyone who suggested reading material, listed in alphabetical order by title.

Continue reading