* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Friday, December 23, 2011

Prophecy and the Reason for the Season (Hint: It's not to bludgeon people with religious compulsions)

Prophecy has become a topic of conversation for the Christmas season, as Christians point to the prophet Isaiah, as well as a couple of other Old Testament prophets, to prove Jesus as the son of God.  The word prophecy doesn’t quite mean the same thing that it used to, which is perhaps part of the issue.  Whereas “Prophet” was once the title given to a person who was inspired to proclaim divine will, at some point it came to mean a fortune teller, prognosticator, or predictor of future events.  Thus, at this time of year, many Christians go on a short-term crusade to “prove” the legitimacy of the church’s claims about Christ’s singular divinity, adding on the insistence that people say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” in the hopes that people will remember the “reason for the season” and turn to the Christian God.

My tone may suggest that I have some problems with that attitude.  I don’t actually care what Christians want to believe about Jesus in the privacy of their own homes or churches.  It does bother me, however, when I hear other people attempting to dictate what everyone else should believe.  And here’s why: people can’t see into the future.  Smart and well-informed people might make some insightful predictions about a particular trend, and sometimes listening to those people is a good idea, especially when it concerns the national economy and such.  But a smart person also checks the facts.  A prediction based on faulty information isn’t a very reliable prediction.  Nostradamus (perhaps the most widely known “prophet” outside of the Bible) only has a 9% success rate with his forecasts, but of course some devotees will claim that the other 91% just hasn’t happened yet.

The Jewish prophets weren’t even trying to predict the future, though.  They were “prophets” – proclaimers of divine will.  They were sharing their insights about what was wrong and right with the world in which they lived from a divine perspective.  Later on, people were so insistent on labeling Jesus as the Messiah figure who appears in some of that “prophecy” that they even write some silly things about his actions just to make the story fit together.  The bottom line is that the prophets were writing for their contemporaries.  Incidentally, this goes for the writers of the books of Daniel and Revelation, too, but that’s another topic altogether.

Just as one cannot use a word as its own definition, one cannot prove Biblical fortune-telling by the Bible itself.  Instead, it would perhaps be more satisfying to actually remember the reason for the season, by which I mean, the meaning ascribed to this time of year before it was reclaimed and repurposed by a zealous imperialistic religion.  The winter solstice has meant a lot of things to different cultures throughout history.  Some see the passing of the solstice as a time of renewal, passing from dark to light as the days gradually begin to lengthen once again.  It is a time for generosity, for sharing what we have with an attitude of abundance.  It is a time for human warmth and affection to stand in for the warmth that is lacking from the sun.  Winter reminds us of many things worth celebrating.  We run the risk of missing the actual peace with one another and joy with life itself when we put on battle gear and set ourselves on a mission.

So, whether you prefer “Blessed Solstice” or “Happy Hannukah” or “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or any other iteration of the spirit of this time of year, remember that it isn’t the words that matter most.  It is the attitude we cultivate, the people we honor, the gifts of life we appreciate, the hope we maintain for the future, and the joy we are willing to share in spite of differences.  Which is largely what the prophets were getting at anyway.  We are the reason for the season, actually.  All of us who share this time and place together.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Exodus 14: The Other Side of the Coin (Recognizing When You Are the Leader and When You Are Not)

Thus far in the Exodus story, I’ve suggested that it’s more accurate for us to identify with the personal power of Moses rather than the victimhood of the other Israelites.  I’ve also suggested that what we think of as the divine is not an external intelligence but an inner part of ourselves.  It’s important to remember that the same is true for everyone, that each person has the capability to tap into a deep truth, beauty, and creativity.  Exodus 14 provides a couple examples of what happens when we fail to acknowledge our personal power and the personal authority of others.

Moses leads the Israelite plunderers on a cunning escape route that provokes the Egyptians to pursue them and attempt to reclaim their stolen goods.  When the Israelites see the Egyptians coming, their response to Moses is, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you led us out into the wilderness to die?”  Encouraging words from a devoted following?  Hardly.  And yet, there are probably similar accusations leveled at leaders all over the world each and every day.  While spiritual leadership can be abused, it’s also important to realize when someone else is exercising their capabilities for the greater good.

Every leadership role lives and dies by the trust of other people.  Some people are good at winning trust and fall short on the follow-through.  Some people are incredibly capable but have a difficult time helping other people see a lofty vision.  Some people fail to recognize how their strengths could turn the tide of a situation, so everyone loses out.  And some people are too busy trying to maintain control to recognize where their strengths end and another person’s strengths begin.  There is a balance that must be struck between embracing our own personal power and opening space for the capability of other people to shine.  When we tap into the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us, our perception of equality may be challenged.

All people are equally valuable as human beings, but all people are not equally skilled in all things.  It’s simply dishonest to treat life like a game of kids’ “fair and fun” sports, where no score is kept and there are no winners and losers.  A false sense of equality leads to frustration, stagnation, and separation.  We wind up complaining about leaders instead of giving their ideas a chance to succeed.  We sometimes decide that we are being overlooked and spend our time trying to outdo someone else rather than focusing on the things that we are uniquely capable of doing.  Recognizing the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within ourselves and others leads to an honest sense of what we are able to contribute to the world and honest acknowledgement of the contributions of others.

As the story of the parting of the Red Sea continues, the people following Moses become convinced of his capability for a short time.  His connection with the divine was perhaps stronger than theirs was at the moment.  They don’t make much effort to develop their own connections to the divine, though, and before long, they are complaining once again and demanding that Moses’ leadership look like what they want it to.  They complain about things without suggesting any practical alternatives.  They make demands without considering what is required to satisfy those demands.  They expect to have something done for them rather than being part of a cooperative effort to make things better.  And as we’ll see later on, when leadership apart from Moses does emerge, it’s shallow and irresponsible.

Connection with the divine brings a certain amount of personal responsibility with it.  This goes for people who claim the labels of organized religions as well as people who chart their own spiritual courses.  It’s unwise to blindly accept the words of everyone who claims to speak for God.  But it’s also unwise to dismiss everyone who speaks with authority just because they may say something we don’t like.  Hostility and petty conflicts most often result from fears and false beliefs.  Our connection with the truth, beauty, and creativity within us combats those fears and beliefs and opens paths of cooperation.  Paths where we can confidently bring our honest strengths forward while allowing space for the honest strengths of others to shine as well.  Trying to tear other people down, or building ourselves up in dishonest ways, can never yield the same level of satisfaction that honest and authentic partnership brings.  Great satisfaction comes from partnership that places equal value on people as human beings while recognizing diverse abilities.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Exodus 4-13: The Exodus Model of Spiritual Leadership and the Dangers of Blind Obedience

The tale of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt is famous.  When the Israelites were under the heavy burden of Egyptian slavery, Moses compelled the Egyptian pharaoh to release them by proclaiming a series of increasingly costly events, enacted by God upon the Egyptians.  The Israelites were spared the direct cost of the plagues, and eventually left with stolen goods from Egyptian households with Egyptian soldiers in pursuit.  The story of the plagues culminates in the ritual of Passover, a significant piece of Jewish culture that reminds participants of God’s favoritism toward his chosen people and his promise of redemption.

There is considerable doubt in the archaeological community that the Israelites were ever slaves in Egypt, much less that they proclaimed and were spared from an epic series of plagues upon the Egyptian people. Some suggest that the assumed timeline of Egyptian history is incorrect, and at least one researcher has offered that significant volcanic activity could account for almost all of the plagues.  However, to take the story as pure documentation of historical events misses its point.  The three essential messages of the story are (1) Our god is better than your god, (2) God chooses spiritual leaders whom the multitudes must follow, and (3) Ritual has meaning.

While it seems silly to put the first message in terms of a grade-school taunt, there are plenty of people in the world today for whom that simple statement is the summation of their faith.  “My god is better than your god, and therefore you are less worthy as a human being.”  Less worthy of respect, less worthy of societal rights, even less worthy of life in some cases.  It’s a central problem to the concept of an external deity, especially when certain people believe that they can understand that deity’s character and intentions better than anyone else.  It must be incredibly frustrating for believers to hear such a cacophony of voices all proclaiming to know what God wants and rarely agreeing on anything.  Responsible believers would do well to research their own scriptures and decide for themselves what spiritual truths lie therein, but the message “people need leaders to guide them into spiritual understanding” often stands in the way.

When we started looking at Exodus, I mentioned that we would do best to identify with Moses rather than the masses of Israelite “victims” in the tale.  That isn’t implicit in the text, though.  The story clearly suggests that there is a vast gulf between the chosen spiritual leaders and the masses they lead.  The role of the masses is to be obedient to the leader, because the leader is proclaiming the will of God.  To be obedient to the spiritual leader is to be obedient to God.  And if you aren’t obedient, you will suffer – perhaps even the death of a child.  Blind obedience is a fine way to maintain cultural integrity.  Not so much for developing personal spirituality.

The problem, of course, is that people eventually abuse that spiritual authority.  It would almost be a respectable system if those leaders cared first and foremost about the spiritual well-being of their flocks, but when a spiritual leader develops a personal agenda, it becomes a personal crusade.  People with the authority of a pulpit or a microphone speak for God and proclaim who should be persecuted, who should be defended, who people should fall in love with, what people should legally be allowed to do with their bodies, who should be elected to office, what country the United States should bomb, what movies to watch or avoid…  They strive to influence all manner of beliefs, behaviors, and decisions.  And within the context of a religious culture teaching people that obedience to spiritual leaders is equivalent to obedience to God, people sometimes fail to use their own personal discernment in the face of messages from these authorities.

Then there is the matter of backlash in the face of disillusionment.  Some people, upon recognizing that a spiritual leader has in some way failed them or led them astray, decide to take charge themselves.  Religious institutions are filled with people on a quest for personal power, sometimes with a sense of righteous purpose, but almost always fueled by a measure of vindictiveness toward a person or group that didn’t quite fill out the role of spiritual leader satisfactorily.  In many cases, these selfish campaigns for personal power ignore the impact on the broader spiritual community, and the negative ripples may spread further than the crusader even realizes.

It’s probably fortunate for some people that there is not an intelligent divine being looking on to the chaos caused by those who claim to be his mouthpieces.  It’s dangerous to believe that you have a corner on the market of understanding what a god wants from his followers.  Prophets and their devotees spend more time and energy arguing with one another than they spend on actually living spiritually meaningful lives.  Unless, of course, arguing incessantly has some spiritual merit in a person’s belief system.  I suppose that’s possible.  I believe that there is a more satisfying way to live.

Leaders are important.  I don’t mean to suggest otherwise.  Innovators, visionaries, and mobilizers are necessary to propel a system forward, whether it’s an organization or a nation or a world.  The key is for people to realize that these human beings are just that.  Leaders are not granted divine immunity from fault or criticism.  There are a lot of people who speak for particular beliefs or causes, but there is no one who speaks for God.  Anyone in leadership benefits from people who are willing to think for themselves and evaluate the direction in which they are being led.

Which is where the third point of the Exodus story comes into play.  Ritual is powerful.  The Passover probably began as a bit of witchcraft, smearing lamb’s blood on a doorframe to keep evil spirits away.  It evolved into a colorful story about a people’s relationship with their god and a practice that preserved a culture.  The ritual embodies what is held to be spiritual truth, and it is a powerful symbol that touches the deepest parts of the human psyche.  The Passover ritual also becomes translated into Christian communion, the church having converted the ritual into a new spiritual context, as organized religion so often does.  Without the ritual, people may understand a set of beliefs intellectually, but the ritual reaches into places that the intellect doesn’t tread.

People have created rituals for a very long time.  Rituals were initially ways to connect people with the natural world around them.  Some of our contemporary celebrations (religious and otherwise) have been adapted from rituals honoring the natural occurrences of solstice and equinox.  The key is to recognize what beliefs a ritual is establishing for you.  Don’t take part in rituals that are not in alignment with what you truly believe.  If you want to become more deeply in touch with the divine, be a part of or create your own rituals that speak to that truth.  That goes for any belief system.  If the rituals you participate in have become habitual and empty, find a way to revitalize the practice.  When you are more deeply aware of who you are, you are more apt to see that value in others.  This goes for people who believe that they are forgiven children of God as well as people who believe that the divine is something they embody within themselves.

When we are honest about the deep and undeniable truth, beauty, and creativity within us, we are able to inspire that awareness in others and we are able to guide progress in a direction that truly honors our connection to ourselves, the rest of humanity, and the natural world.  In those moments of clarity when we set aside fears and personal agendas in order to consider the truths that run deeper than doctrines, then we stand a chance of speaking for the divine.  And in those moments of clarity, it doesn’t matter who we convince. Truth does not need a bullhorn.  Truth does not need to attack anything.  Truth does not need defending.  Truth does not need anyone to agree with it.  Truth is simply and undeniably true.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Exodus 3-4: Purpose, Passion, and "Calling" Come from Within (no shrubbery conflagrations required)

Moses’ story continues in Exodus 3-4, in which he is called by God to return to Egypt and negotiate the release of the Israelites from the country. When Moses argues that he isn’t capable of the task, God teaches him some magic tricks (gimmicks that were known by other “sorcerers” of the time). When Moses still resists, God angrily suggests that Moses’ brother Aaron can help. God also promises that there will be “dramatic displays of power” that will convince Pharaoh to do what God wants, and that God will forcibly keep Pharaoh stubborn until the displays of power have run their course. If Pharaoh acquiesced after the first couple of plagues, it would be like the audience leaving before the grand finale. As icing on the cake, God promises Moses that the Egyptians will heap wealth upon the Israelites when they leave, going so far as to label it a robbery on the part of the Israelites.

Then there is this tricky little scene that is so fraught with pronouns and euphemism that every translation says something slightly different. Basically, when Moses fled Egypt and ran to Midian for safety, he married Zipporah and adopted the cultural and religious practices of the Midianites. As such, Moses’ son went uncircumcised. When Moses and his family set off for Egypt, after God has gone through a great ordeal to convince Moses to even consider the journey, the Lord decides that Moses’ son needs to die because he wasn’t circumcised. So, with her son in the throes of what appeared to be a life-threatening illness, Zipporah gave in and circumcised her son. Depending on the translation, this was either something done with an understanding of symbolic ritual, or it was a repulsive act she performed out of desperation for her son’s life. Either way, once he’s circumcised, the boy gets better.

The matter of free will is certainly central to how things play out for the character of Pharaoh, and there will be plenty of opportunity to explore that in later passages.  Having established the character of the biblical patriarchs and their god in our exploration of the book of Genesis, it is not of utmost importance to go through each verse in meticulous detail to point out further moral, ethical, and psychological issues with the narrative and its characters.  It is more useful to look beyond the assumptions of the text and draw spiritual insight that can be meaningful in everyday life.

Accepting that the divine is something within us rather than outside of us, there are some significant ideas in Moses’ confrontation with the divine that are worthy of consideration. The divine is displayed as a burning bush which is never consumed. Fire can be frightening and fascinating. We talk about a people having a “fire in their bellies” or being “on fire” for a particular cause because we recognize the similarities between actual fire and human passion. Passion for an ideal or for another person can at times be frightening as well. It may threaten to overwhelm us and take precedence over everything else in our lives. Some of us tend to be afraid of being controlled by our passions, but it’s foolish to try to ignore them completely.

The things that we are passionate about stem from our essence. They are deep truths about us becoming manifest. Everyone isn’t passionate about the same things or in the same way, but there is something that burns within every person, untamed, unquenchable, and ultimately unavoidable. When we stoke our passions, they burn brighter, and when we ignore them, our own energy and sense of purpose gets consumed. There are ways to focus our passions and maintain them in a way that doesn’t run roughshod over every other aspect of our lives. However, in order to manage that fire, we have to embrace that it exists and that it is divine.

To say that the passions we have are divine is to acknowledge that they originate in that place of deep truth, beauty, and creativity within us. If it seems that the most obvious way to express our passions is to do something harmful to ourselves or another human being, we are missing something. The fires of our true passions are not about gaining power, but rather they inspire us to exercise the power we already possess in a meaningful way. That may seem like a challenge sometimes, but the reward is authentic connection with ourselves.

When Moses asks the burning bush for a name, the response is “I am who I am” (depending on the translation). While this is often interpreted as an indication as to the character of the Israelites’ god, it is also a healthy point of view for us to adopt about ourselves. We spend so much time worrying about being healthier, skinnier, more beautiful, wealthier, happier, more socially connected, more influential, more knowledgeable, more vindicated, and on and on. We are who we are. We can aim for lofty goals, provided those goals are tempered in the reality of our capabilities. That is precisely what our passions drive us to do. But any time and energy we spend detailing the ways in which we don’t measure up to some arbitrary ideal is squandered time and energy.

All of us can name some essential truths about ourselves. They may be character traits or things we experience for just a moment. We may think of them as positive or negative, but truth is simply true. If a person is sad… or unsociable… or fearful… or obese… or angry… or whatever, judging that state of being as inappropriate or wrong is a denial of truth. People are able to take action and make changes, but in order to travel to any destination, you have to be aware of your starting point. You are who you are. I am who I am. That is a divine truth.

Acknowledging who we are includes acknowledging the passions that blaze within us. If your passion is making birdhouses, it doesn’t make sense to spend all of your time campaigning for a political cause. There are other people who are passionate about various political causes, and it wouldn’t make sense for them to spend all of their time building birdhouses. Other people do not have to validate who you are. Who you are is simply true. People will not always agree on what is most important in life, in politics, in industry. But no one can determine what is most important to you except you.

Like Moses, we often make excuses as well. Fire is scary. Passion is scary. Truth can even be scary if we are accustomed to thoughtlessly accepting other people’s opinions as our own truth. There are plenty of resources on the market to help people stop procrastinating, stop making excuses, and take action. The key is that you know when you are making excuses. You may fool yourself into thinking that the excuses are true, but the part of you that burns with inspiration knows better. The truth of who you are is not a secret to you, although for some there are decades of excuses piled on top of that unquenchable fire.

Within each of us, that which we call “divine” burns with a passion for something that honors the truth of who we are in congruence with the value of every human being. It may be birdhouses. It may be freedom for people suffering in addiction. It may be dancing. You are who you are. You know what your excuses are. You can be done with them whenever you are ready.