Tuesday, September 1, 2015

But the King's Own Army None Can Overthrow

"who is this king of glory?  the lord strong and mighty, the lord mighty in battle."  so says verse 8 of psalm 24.  i wonder how much suffering resulted from this kingly image of God, this god of war.   how many wars have been fought with all sides claiming that God is on their side?  how many victories have been credited to God's favor?  how many have been killed in the name of God?

in our church's wednesday night bible studies, we are investigating the teachings and preaching of charles spurgeon, the famous 19th-century british preacher.  on one of these wednesday studies, we contemplated spurgeon's image of a christian approaching the throne of God, as God sat in majesty.  that image seemed too earthly for me.  i thought of spurgeon, steeped in the the traditions of british respect for the monarchy with great britain at the height of its imperial power, seeing a god who is the heavenly embodiment of the english sovereign and wondered if this is the image of God that we ought to have in our heads, if indeed we ought to have any image of God.

if God has neither form nor substance, should we create such for God?  when we do, are not worshiping a god of our own imagining?  this battle-king god of the old testament is far from the God about which jesus teaches.  we must choose between a God of love and a god of war, the latter being the justification for all sorts of oppression and cruelty that humans visit on one another.

may we never pretend to understand God as a human-writ-large.  instead, may we revere the mystery that is God, not daring to believe that we have found a solution to that mystery.  may we replace certainty with doubt, with searching, with dissatisfaction when it comes to answers that come too easily.  may we see God in every act of love.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

And Sorry I Could Not Travel Both

yesterday was the 47th anniversary of a significant milestone in my life, and i spent much of the day thinking about what my life was like 47 years ago.  i had just begun a new job, my first full-time "adult" job.  it was a job i had taken by default--more about that later.  my boss was unpleasant, and the duties he assigned me were not what i had been promised when i accepted the job.  each day was a torture, but i made it through the year for which i was contractually obligated before moving on to another job.

this was at the height of the vietnam war, and i, like many other men my age, faced difficult choices.  as a college student, i had been exempt from military service, a privilege that i had qualms about, as i watched other young men sent off to the war because they could not afford to attend college or they had not been fortunate to receive an education that permitted them to enroll.  when i graduated, i received a grant to study for my masters in special education, a field that was just emerging, at least in our state.  i had worked in a camp for special needs students the previous summer and felt called to work with these young people.  i knew, though, that if i began my masters' work, the draft board would call me up, and i would be shipped across the pacific, very likely to die fighting a war i opposed.

i had few choices: i could accept the grant and take my chances (which weren't very good), i could flee the usa for canada or another haven perhaps never to return to my home, or i could accept a job that allowed me to continue my exemption.  i chose the last and have always wondered what would have happened had i taken the second alternative, the one i felt most positive about.  yet that choice, too, seems cowardly.  so many of my peers who did not enjoy the privileges i enjoyed had no choice; when they were called they had to go.  there were no draft-exempt jobs or colleges open to them, nor could they afford to flee to another country.

the choice i made set me on a path that i continued for my entire career.  some of the jobs i accepted in my field were wonderful, others, like my first job, were miserable.  yet all-in-all those years were good ones, providing a decent income for my family and yielding a good retirement when the time came.  even the bad jobs provided much personal satisfaction along with the hardships.  it's amazing how a single choice can affect so much of what follows, and in the end it's fruitless to consider "what if" as we look back on the choices we've made.

may we each rejoice in the life we've been given on this beautiful planet.  may we be grateful for our family, our friends, the many joys we experience.  may we do the best we can with the opportunities we're given, without regret for not having chosen another path.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Bible Tells Me So

the voices of the religious right continue to lament the course the usa has taken, what with the rulings of the supreme court in favor of marriage equality and the continuing, though increasingly limited, access of women to abortion services.  some of them have said that we should rejoice because these rulings, along with the proposed agreement with iran, are signs that the "end times" are upon us.  several have warned that "god's favor and protection" have been or soon will be withdrawn from the country to punish us for obeying "man's law" rather than god's.  the god in which they place their faith is very different from the god in which i believe.

this god of vengeance that picks winners and losers among the nations of the earth causes grave evil to befall those who fail to "follow the rules."  the rules of this god are determined by a narrow interpretation of the bible, and the rules change from time to time, depending on the human interpreters' views.  it appears that this god is controlled by those who believe in Him (because this god is definitely male); it is the believers, not their god, who pick which biblical rules are to be followed and which are to be ignored, and the believers interpret what the rules mean.  those who disagree are doomed and sooner or later will be punished.  these "christians" support israel unquestioningly, not from any sense of redressing wrongs visited upon the jewish people, but because of their interpretation of israel's role in the coming apocalypse based on their view of biblical prophetic writing.

is such a god worthy of veneration?: a god that can be manipulated for one's own political ends, a god that punishes some and rewards others based on standards devised by that god's followers, a god that creates only to destroy, a god that insists that men should control women, a god that allows terrible suffering to occur so that "good" can come from the experience.  i want no part of such a god.  God is not a great santa claus in the sky who gives us what we want when we ask for it, God is not an ogre that causes suffering for all because the first humans ate a forbidden fruit.

may we turn from such a vision of God, either to rejection of belief altogether or to another vision of God.  may we see those who worship this false god of the religious right for what they are: narrow bigots who have created a god of their own imagining to suit their own purposes.  may we proclaim that their god is not dead, but rather that such a god never existed, no matter how many films are made that say otherwise.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You, the Everlasting Instant

a few days ago, someone who was not a christian asked me what it meant to me to be a christian.  at first i replied that it meant to treat others with kindness and respect, and my questioner said that any decent person, christian or not, would act in such a way, pushing me to differentiate my christian practice from that of non-christians.  as i thought about his challenge to me, i told him that first i am a theist and second i try to live my life in accord with the teachings of jesus.  i went on to say that many christians would not consider me a christian because i don't share many of their orthodox beliefs, but it's not my place to determine if someone else is a christian; i can only address my own identity as a christian.  that seemed to satisfy him, and the discussion ended.

as i've thought about that conversation, i have tried to define what being a theist means for me.  i find myself thinking of God as the First Spark that set everything in motion, of God as Beginning.  i think, too, of God as being That which is greater than the sum of the parts, the parts being all that is, each part vibrating with the energy of creation.  i think of the collective energy of every molecule, every being, every bit of matter as containing the essence of the Primal Cause, so that God is at once within and without, and everything-that-is is a part of God but no thing alone is God.  God is the Ground of Being, so that nothing exists without God, and God exists because creation evolved from that initial elemental explosion.

so we are all filled with bits of the universe that resulted when nothing became something.  we are tied together by the impulse of creation.  every object, animate or inanimate, is bound to every other object, and God is present in all.  some would say that makes me a pantheist, and maybe they are right.  but i see God as more that the life force which exists in each part of creation.  God is the Cause, the Great Mystery that breathes life into the void, the Beginning and the End.  Perhaps next week, i'll write about what i think God is not!

may we all seek to understand the reason for our being.  may we embrace all of creation and sense our connection to every part of the universe.  shalom.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

To the Marriage of True Minds

47 years ago this month, my wife and i were married.  we were both 21 and had just graduated from college.  we were so excited to be beginning our "adult" lives together.  we came from very different backgrounds, though we were born within 30 miles of each other and grew up only 45 miles apart.  early in our marriage, our beautiful daughter was born, but we waited ten years after that for our wonderful son to join our family.  one of the joys of our marriage is that both of our children turned out to be kind, loving people that are a pleasure to be with.

over the years, my wife and i have had our differences.  we sometimes allowed insignificant disagreements to make us angry at one another.  at times, we became so involved with our jobs that we defined ourselves by our work.  over the years, we've seen that we're better together than we are separately, and we've learned that a little patience and kindness go a long way towards making our marriage a happy one.  the individual quirks that so irritated each of us at one time have become endearing idiosyncrasies that we not only tolerate but embrace.

last night we watched the movie "still alice" about a brilliant and lovely woman afflicted with a rare and aggressive form of early-onset alzheimer's disease.  alice's family came together to support her and each other, and we were reminded of what it means to truly love your partner, to live out "for better, for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, 'til death do you part."  in an age where it's so easy to give up on one another, we are so glad we didn't.  how terrific it is to take pleasure in being together, to know that we support one another, to have this wonderful life together.

may every person find the joy of loving another for a lifetime.  may we see beyond the petty annoyances of living with another person to the genuine person who is our beloved.  may our love for our partner be molded by patience, kindness, and compassion.  shalom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Are Your Garments Spotless?

when i was a child, catholic-bashers made fun of the roman catholic church by saying that catholics could do anything they wanted so long as they went to confession afterwards and received absolution.  fortunately, i don't hear that sort of talk much any more, but every sunday in churches of my sort the same thing happens: we read a corporate confession together and then an absolution for all of us, clergy included, is pronounced from the pulpit.  as i sat there after the confession last sunday i wondered, "what good did that confession do, if afterward we continue to live just as we did before the confession?"

it seems that confession is useless unless that which follows confession is an attempt to stop doing those things that we asked forgiveness for doing.  this is the problem with "original sin."  it leads to a fatalism that supports the idea that, as creatures who are compelled to sin continually, there is no way of correcting our faults.  therefore, we must rely on God's mercy and seek forgiveness rather than work to change ourselves, to be less sinful.  but if we are incapable of amending our ways in any significant way, what is the point of confession?  jesus said to the woman who was brought to him by his enemies after she had been caught in an act of adultery, "go and sin no more."  in other words, change your ways.  her accusers fled in the face of jesus' reminder that only those who are sinless have the authority to cast the first stone.  jesus asked where those who condemned had gone and said that he, too, would not condemn her.

so, here is the answer.  we have the power to learn from our mistakes.  it is not sufficient to admit them and ask for forgiveness.  the forgiveness comes not from the mercy of God but from our own attempts to lose ourselves in the process of becoming more than we were before.  we must forgive ourselves and make amends to those we have harmed, so that they, too, can forgive us.  confession is the realization that we have erred; forgiveness is an action that attempts to correct the error.

may we not depend on God to forgive us.  it is that still small voice inside us, "that of God," that leads us to the realization that confession is needed, and that same voice leads us to actions that propel us to "go and sin no more."  shalom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Teach Us to Know the Truth that Sets Us Free

one of our pastors has been preaching a series of sermons based on readings from first and second samuel.  one of these, based on a passage from 1 samuel 15-16, focused on the anointing of david to succeed saul as king of israel.  in the course of the sermon, the preacher reviewed the reason that saul had been rejected by God: his failure to massacre all of the amalekites, who, according to 1 samuel 15, deserved death because in samuel's words that he reports came directly from God, "they [the amalekites] waylaid them as they came up from Egypt."

i was troubled that our preacher failed to address this part of the story.  how can we accept the message of the scripture that an entire city-state, all of its people--rulers, men, women, children--and even their animals are to be annihilated because of something that their ancestors had done?  is this the God that we worship when we come together each sunday?  saul could have been faulted for saving the best of the livestock, perhaps to satisfy his own greed or the demand of his soldiers for the spoils of their victory, and sparing the ruler of the amalekites.  there were many other acts that saul could have been condemned for:  his increasing insanity, his consulting a soothsayer, his building of a monument to himself at carmel after his defeat of the amalekites.  but why would he be rejected by God for sparing the lives of some of the amalekites?

another sermon in the series, based on 2 samuel 6, had to do with david's intention to bring the ark of the covenant to jerusalem.  the message of the sermon was david's seeming inappropriate behavior as he danced before all the people in the procession in celebration "before the Lord," an action that was condemned by his wife michal, saul's daughter.  earlier in the scripture lesson, in the early stages of the move of the ark, one of those watching the transport of the ark on a cart, a man named uzzah whose father abinadab had cared for the ark in his home, reached out to steady the ark and was struck dead because he had dared to touch the ark.  again i was troubled that there was no questioning of why God would strike uzzah dead as he was performing a good deed.  in what the scripture suggests was a spontaneous response to the stumbling of the oxen pulling the cart God murdered uzzah.  is that act consistent with a God of love and mercy?

i understand that the preacher was focusing on the anointing of david to be the future king in the first sermon and on david's exuberance in worshiping God in the second sermon, and my intention is not to criticize.  rather, i wonder why we so often ignore passages that give attributes to God that are not consistent with a God who loves that which God created.  why don't we question the "divine inspiration" of such verses?  do others sit through church services and think, "why are we afraid to challenge these teachings that don't make sense to us?  how can we ignore such content in the bible?"

may we not be timid about questioning that which is unreasonable.  may we seek a faith that takes us from blind acceptance to using the mind that God has given us.  may we not attribute a capricious cruelty to God on the basis of a book that is neither "divine" nor, in many instances, "inspired."  shalom.