* 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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Inspiration: Leaping Forward to the Tales of Jesus (a sort of prologue)

A few conversations over the recent holidays have inspired a shift in my organizational thinking about these writings. I began with considering the Old Testament primarily because so many loud voices seem to refer to these ancient Israelite writings as prototypes for how twenty-first century Westerners should see the world. It is the poetic mythology of the Old Testament that leads some to conclude that creationism is rational. It is the brutal tribal justice depicted in the Old Testament that encourages some modern day Christians to justify violence in the name of religious superiority. In many cases, it is the pseudo-historical accounts of the Old Testament that some people attempt to prove in order to demonstrate the the Bible is inspired and infallible.

While it is understandably great fun to use the Bible as a weapon of judgment against other people, few who claim to revere its words seem to apply Old Testament prophetic judgment personally in their own lives. They seem instead to live by the principle, "Judgment for others; grace for me." However, there are many people in Christian churches who disagree wholeheartedly with the obnoxiously loud and violently unyielding extremists that can be heard constantly on the radio or seen on the television or online. Perhaps out of a quiet wisdom, they don't buy as much airtime, but in their lives, they intend to purposefully live out the love and grace practiced and taught by Jesus in the New Testament stories. Some people take seriously the revolutionary teachings and admonishments attributed to Jesus, without taking upon themselves the mantle of judge over the rest of humanity. One such person encouraged me to bring the figure of Jesus more fully into what I write here, finding the deconstruction of the Old Testament somewhat tedious. Fair enough.

In a separate holiday conversation, a believer told me, "Jesus was born to die on the cross." My question in response was, "Why are there so many stories about his ministry if the only thing that matters is that he was crucified?" With gentle and utter conviction, this person replied, "so we'd know he was the real deal."

While I realize that this viewpoint is not in any way representative of the whole of American Christianity, I also think that it is lacking in depth. Maintaining a faith of single-minded simplicity may be quite sufficient for some people, and if an individual chooses to stop thinking at a certain point and just do the best they can to make the world a better place, I have no real complaints. My concern is that there are those who would use simple single-minded faith to manipulate others or to justify actions that don't even come close to making the world a better place. It's worth examining closely the actions and teachings of the namesake of the Christian church.

Of course, it was always the intention to arrive at the New Testament after examining the Old Testament. The plan is simply shifting slightly to accommodate a bit of back-and-forth. Thus, over the next several entries, teachings from the gospel writers will be introduced in alternation with a continued exploration of the Old Testament. In light of that, a disclaimer is in order regarding my approach to the Christ figure.

While I do not begrudge anyone the freedom to hold as divine any person or thing they may choose, my personal beliefs do not find any justification for belief in a god, Christian or otherwise. Thus, my personal beliefs do not find cause to view Jesus as any more divine than anyone else. In fact, I find no compelling evidence that the man written about in the gospel stories ever actually existed in the form portrayed in the Bible. We could just as easily find lessons in the tales of Odysseus, King Arthur, or the Norse pantheon, and we could no doubt draw some valuable truths from such a study. Culturally speaking, however, there is a valid reason to look more closely at Jesus than other mythological figures, since so many diverse claims continue to be made about what he said or what he intended for twenty-first century American culture.

Although I do not believe in a historical Jesus as depicted by the biblical writers, I do believe that the gospel authors had a purpose in writing what they did. They were establishing new ways of expressing spirituality and community at a time when the old system was failing. Through the believable figure of a humble god-man, the biblical writers offered new interpretations of ideas that were already ancient two thousand years ago, encouraging people away from rigid legalism and tribalism and toward something different -- something more feasible in the new reality of the Roman Empire. Other Jewish scholars wrestled with the old traditions differently, producing volumes of commentaries to clarify and expound upon the Jewish scriptures. Some ideas held in common between these Jewish commentaries and the early Christian sect are also reflected in the inspirational writings from other faith traditions as well, hinting at the revelation of some universal truths that may hold value for all people regardless of geography or culture, as opposed to the ethnocentric and xenophobic tradition reflected in the Old Testament. Those who wrote what would eventually become the New Testament contributed to a sect that ultimately gained the support of a Roman emperor and established a cultural foothold that has lasted almost two millennia.

In order to legitimize the figure of Jesus as someone worthy of attention with greater authority than other spiritual leaders of the day, the gospel writers wove a unique biography for the Christ figure. On the one hand, they used thematic elements common to many hero tales across every culture; for more reading on the universal hero archetype, one can do no better than Joseph Campbell. The gospels also draw upon Jewish prophetic writings (many of which were not actually intended to predict a future messiah figure) to credential Jesus. This is reflected in the birth story heard throughout the Christian world last week, from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-3.

Obviously, there are discrepancies between the two accounts, in the two genealogies as well as the actual events related. The bottom line is that readers are supposed to conclude that Jesus was special and supremely qualified in spiritual matters. Symbolic and fantastical accounts aside, there is no real value in dismantling the birth story of Jesus here. If one chooses to believe in the unique divinity of a historical Jesus, perhaps that belief will lead to authentic expression of Christian teachings in one's daily life. I believe we will find greater spiritual value in the deeper truths and teachings recorded by the biblical authors through the character of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

1 Kings 12-13: Reading History through Smudged Lenses (or How Beliefs Cloud Our Vision)

A simple search on the phrase, "God told me to do it," will yield all sorts of news stories (most of them rather disturbing) about people breaking into homes, kidnapping people, killing people, and even committing acts of cannibalism, claiming that they only did what they did because of a directive from on high. While we have no way of knowing what is going on inside the heads of other people, it seems fairly safe to assume that there was something psychologically amiss, and not a deity directing their actions. Of course, one strong alternative is that some of these folks knew exactly what they were doing when they pointed the finger of blame at an invisible all-powerful being with whom one cannot argue or debate. And it's worth pointing out that just as many disturbing stories include the claim that the devil is to blame.

We don't like being at fault. We don't like being blamed for something. Even when we haven't decapitated anyone or committed acts far outside the cultural norms, we frequently look for a way to justify or defend our behavior when it feels like we're being accused. This is not new behavior for human beings. Recall how Solomon had allegedly used fellow Israelites for slave labor when the temple was being constructed, and imagine the situation his successor would have to manage.

According to the biblical narrative, when Solomon died and his son Rehoboam took the throne, the people who had been subjected to forced labor under Solomon sent a representative to humbly request Rehoboam treat them with a bit more respect. Rehoboam was too dim to see the correct path on his own, so he asked for guidance from his trusted wise advisers. He didn't like what they had to say, so he sought advice from his young friends. Taking their advice (or perhaps doing what he wanted to do all along), he rashly insulted the representative and ended up losing a significant portion of his kingdom when ten tribes (out of twelve) revolted against his leadership. This is the story of 1 Kings 12, which is duplicated almost word for word in 2 Chronicles 10.

Is there a not-so-hidden moral to the story about age and youth and wisdom and folly? The older men who wrote down the story may have had an axe to grind. On top of that, they were looking back at a failed kingdom and trying to explain it in a way that made sense to them. Rehoboam's failure makes sense when you read their version of the story. Of course, we will never know the objective reality of the situation. (Readers who believe that the Bible does, in fact, provide a narrative of irrefutable historical data are humbly encouraged to read previous entries on the topic.) Something very interesting happens next, however, scribed by the same religious-minded hands who were trying to make sense of why their society was faltering.

Jeroboam (the leader of the revolt against Rehoboam) set up some idols in a couple of northern temples so his people wouldn't have to go to the temple in Jerusalem, which Rehoboam still controlled. This was a no-no, of course, since it implied the worship of a god other than Yahweh, or at the very least, honoring a graven image instead of honoring their actual cultural deity. In 1 Kings 13, a unnamed prophet appears on the scene.  He claims to have a message from God condemning the religious practices Jeroboam had instituted, and he produces a few miraculous signs to back up his claim. Then another unnamed prophet invites this traveler for a meal, but the traveling prophet has been told by God to return home by a different route without eating or drinking any of the food near the heretical temples. The insistent prophet with a penchant for hospitality responds that God told him that the traveling prophet should stick around for a meal, so they share a meal, at which time God pronounces judgment for the traveling prophet's disobedience and a lion kills him on the road.

Now, looking at history, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by a foreign empire before the southern kingdom of Judah. In looking back at why the northern kingdom failed, the Israelite historians concluded that it must have been because God was displeased with the kingdom. Why would God have been displeased? Well, among other things, their worship was all wrong. That's why they fell to a foreign army. It had nothing to do with military or political leadership; it was entirely the result of religious ineptitude. Thus, the story needs to reflect that the traveling prophet who pronounced God's judgment was the true mouthpiece of God, and the man who insisted that God wanted the traveling prophet to stay for dinner was a false prophet, claiming that God said something he didn't really say.

If we look at all of history, all of the kingdoms and nations and empires that have risen and fallen, perhaps we would see consistency in this idea that a kingdom's success is based on the propriety of its worship. But then, we see that the southern kingdom of Judah, which had instituted religious reforms to be as precisely in line with what Yahweh required as they could, also fell to a foreign power. The temple was destroyed and the people were taken into exile. The Roman Empire, which established Christianity as the state religion, fell to hostile invading forces. The Byzantine Empire fell as well. Obviously orthodox Christianity can't keep a political body safe either. When the Muslim Empire conquered much of the world, it was eventually driven back, and yet it still holds power in many countries. Japanese culture has existed since before the Common Era and survived even the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Perhaps, by the standards of the ancient Israelite historians, we should look to Islamic practices or the syncretic Shinto-Buddhism practiced by the Japanese to understand how best to worship God, since they characterize resilient political entities where the nation of Israel fell time and time again.

But the point is not to determine the ideal religious practice to provide political resilience. That is merely the smudged and tinted lens through which Israelite historians gazed at their history. Likely, we can point to specific decisions and practices that had a measurable and verifiable impact on the survival of any culture or nation, without resorting to supernatural phenomena and schemes. Anyone who looks back at history and discerns the will of a supernatural entity is creating an explanation that isn't needed or warranted. The actual facts of history create a feasible enough explanation without inventing an overarching plan from on high. Such inventions inevitably run into problems when scrutinized, but the inventors are not likely to acknowledge those challenges, since they often believe that they have discerned what God wants, which brings us back to our unnamed prophets.

It is possible that prophets in the story are just literary constructs, used to comment on the state of affairs as the writer saw things. Assuming we can analyze the characters at all, we still don't know whether either of them actually believed that they were mouthpieces of the divine. From personal experience, it would seem that people who think they know what God wants are not likely to be swayed by someone else's idea of what God wants, even if a delicious meal is involved. Once a person becomes convinced that the will of an almighty supreme being is known to them, it's tough for them to keep an open mind. It's safer to blame God if something bad happens. If I say, "It was God's will," then no one should hold me personally accountable. I can't get blamed for something that God wanted to happen.

If only everyone agreed on what God wanted, it might be easier to take such assertions seriously. Instead, there is a whole array of claims about what God wants, and although most of them do not involve decapitations or cannibalism, some of them do involve some rather hateful and violent positions. On the other side of the spectrum are those who claim that God wants peace and unity. It seems impossible that an almighty, omniscient deity could want so many different and contradictory things as is suggested by a survey of those who claim to know God's will.

What seems more possible is that everyone who makes such a claim is wrong. Not necessarily intentionally misleading, just wrong about where their information originates. Some people may believe fervently that God wants all war to cease, and others may believe wholeheartedly that God wants all infidels slaughtered. There is amply evidence in various religious scriptures to justify either stance. There is actually evidence for nearly any claim anyone may make about what God wants. Some people are just lying, as the biblical writers suggest of our hospitable prophet. Maybe he thought that he would get some sort of blessing or benefit from his act of hospitality, so he said that God wanted it -- a claim that could not be refuted. Who knows? In any case, it doesn't matter whether or not someone who claims to know what God wants is intentionally lying; the premise in and of itself is faulty.

Within us all, there is a way that we think the world should be. We have created an idealized impression of how people should behave and how events should turn out, and if our idealized impression is challenged by circumstances or by other people's behavior, we get rather put out. Our ideal can't be wrong, so we assume that other people are wrong. The problem is that our idealized impressions of how things should be is not based on any sort of objective analysis. It's based on beliefs into which we have been indoctrinated or that we have gradually accepted over time. And beliefs are often not much better than opinions. We all have beliefs that are not based on any sort of verifiable facts, they are just the things that we believe.

When we determine how the world should work through the smeared, biased lenses of our beliefs, we do not see the world as it is. We try to fix things and people that do not need to be fixed, only because they do not fit with the way we want the world to be. We see trajectories of purpose and intention in coincidences because we want our perception of cause-and-effect to apply to all that we survey. Yet, it's obvious when reality doesn't line up with what we want that something is off kilter. Instead of trying to fix everything else, perhaps our attention should be drawn to our own lenses -- our beliefs. It really is alright to be wrong about something and to adjust beliefs as necessary to accommodate new information. We are not obligated to cling to what we have believed in the past beyond the point at which the beliefs no longer make sense in light of reality. We are free to align our beliefs with the reality of the world around us, to wipe a little bit of the smudge off our lenses, so to speak.

We cannot ethically and morally blame God or the devil for our behavior. We are each personally accountable for our words and actions. This is not always pretty, but it is honest. We don't always know all that we would like to know, and we don't always listen to the wisest counsel. Ultimately, though, our lives and choices are up to us. Even if you believe that there is a God, you do not know what he wants better than anyone else does. You might know what you want better than anyone else, but that's the extent of it. Clarity comes from exercising a bit of honesty about the source of our problems, our beliefs, and what we want the world to be like. Hint: It comes from inside us.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

1 Kings 3-11: Wisdom, Slavery, and Human Dignity

Solomon was reputed to be the wisest man in the world; he was certainly legendary among the Israelites for his wisdom. Of course, some of the tales of his wisdom seem remarkably similar to other tales about other people in other cultures, but such is the way of folklore: why tell a good story about some other people when you can tell it about your own people? Solomon's record doesn't hold up well in the long run, however. As the last king over a united Israelite kingdom, he set the stage for a division that would not be resolved before foreign powers conquered the whole of Israel and Judah. Solomon's deeds are recorded in 1 Kings, and also in 2 Chronicles, the latter author often lifting passages directly from the earlier account.

Building the temple in Jerusalem was Solomon's real claim to fame in Israelite culture. The extravagant worship and sacrifice center was intended to be a unifying feature of religion and community, cementing the culture and the people. As it is described in biblical passages, it does indeed seem like an impressive structure, and Solomon, as he is portrayed in the text, says all of the appropriate pious things. We even know that Yahweh approves, because the ark of the covenant makes it to the temple without anyone dying, a spooky cloud inhabits the temple when it's finished, and Yahweh blatantly tells Solomon that he's put his stamp of approval on the place. He also issues an eerily predictive warning about what will happen if the Israelites are unfaithful. 

One of Solomon's problems is how much he likes the ladies. Seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines worth of ladies, if the author of Kings is to be believed. (The author of Chronicles leaves this embarrassingly indulgent menagerie out of Solomon's biography.) These women, many of them foreigners with their own cultures and their own gods, influenced Solomon to such an extent that he built other places of worship in his kingdom, where people could go and worship other gods other than the Israelite's Yahweh. This undermined his pious image at the very least, and it also triggered the warning Yahweh had pronounced (partially explaining for the Israelites who were taken into exile why their temple was destroyed from a theological perspective).

The real misstep, however, was Solomon's labor force for building the extravagant temple. First, the account in Kings reveals that Solomon "conscripted laborers from all over Israel" and it explicitly refers to "forced labor" (1 Ki. 5:13-14). Later on (1 Ki. 9:20-23) there is an attempt to clarify that only non-Israelite people were made into slaves; this is the passage that 2 Chronicles chooses to include, incidentally. When Solomon's son Rehoboam gains the throne, the hard labor endured under Solomon's reign is enough of an issue for people that the kingdom undergoes a division that would only be reconciled through destruction and exile. Even if the Israelites were not technically slaves, their labor was unbearable enough to spark a revolution against Rehoboam. Allegedly the wisest of men, Solomon was somehow blind to the fact that people will only tolerate oppressive subjugation for so long, even though the story of his own culture is based on this reality.

According to their cultural origin story, the Israelites themselves were once slaves in Egypt, and even though their conditions were not reported to be extraordinarily harsh, they rose up and fled en masse, looting the Egyptians as they went. Somehow, despite this powerful folk history, Solomon concludes that slavery is appropriate when the Israelites are in charge. According to the reports of his wealth, he had abundant resources to pay for the labor that went into building his temples and palaces; he simply chose not to. Slave labor is certainly better from a purely financial standpoint. But Israel's success as a united nation ended with Solomon; his crowning achievement was reduced to rubble. One can blame Rehoboam for being pigheaded, but the unrest stemmed directly from Solomon's policies. Perhaps Solomon didn't really care what happened to his people once he was dead. He certainly lived an insulated life of luxury, along with his thousand-woman harem.

If there was a real historical Solomon, he may have been a wise leader. The Solomon of the Bible was short-sighted, self-indulgent, and tyrannical. People intrinsically know that slavery is morally and ethically wrong; even people who oppress others know that it's wrong. Otherwise, their actions would be completely out in the open and matter-of-fact. People would not revolt against slavery or try to escape their oppressive circumstances if it was natural and just. But human beings will naturally reject the conditions of oppressions and slavery, sometimes even when that oppression is only a perception. Those who would oppress or enslave have to go to great lengths to keep people from revolting or finding a way to freedom. This is a big clue that there is something out of balance.

The problem is that we can fail to hold ourselves as equal to the people we would control. When we concentrate on how the Other is different, it is a short step in our minds to deciding that the Other is inferior--and that we are superior. It somehow seems justifiable to subject an Inferior Other to what we would violently reject in our own lives. It seems justifiable, but it never actually seems right or moral.

It creates dissonance within us at some level when we fail to honor basic human dignity, and we may go to great lengths to overpower that dissonance with extravagant behavior. Some people become extravagantly angry; some people become extravagant in their drunkenness; some are extravagant in their isolationism; some are extravagant in the size of their harems. We distract ourselves from addressing the behaviors that do not make sense to us at a very deep level. Perhaps a part of us fears what our actions reflect about our true character. What can be said about a person who is willing to abuse and oppress other human beings? And if we peel back our empty justifications and recognize the sameness of all people, what does it say about us? What does it mean that we have the same human dignity as the people we would abuse, oppress, or control?

Truthfully, we cannot rob people of their worth. We cannot even rob ourselves of our own worth. We can ignore and deny all we want, but just being human grants us a measure of value. When we enslave or oppress other people, it is always an indication of our own fears. "I can't afford to pay other people for their work and still be as wealthy as I want. I'm afraid of being poor, so I'll force them to work for free." Or "I'm afraid that no one will ever sincerely love me, so I'll force someone to simulate the kind of relationship I want." Or "We're afraid that our beliefs and mores are fading away, so we'll force other people to behave the way we think they should." Or any number of other manifestations. Our fears make it seem alright for us to hold other people as inferior and treat them in a way that we know to be morally and ethically wrong. In all honesty, we are capable of accomplishing the things we want or creating the relationships we want without resorting to controlling other people. It just may take a bit of effort and dedication on our part. Recognizing the irrationality of our fear, admitting our own capability and abundance, and acknowledging that we are not intrinsically superior to other human beings, dismantles the justification for oppression.

We want to have our way. This is understandable. It's even understandable that we want to have our way with a minimum of sacrifice on our part. When we determine that it's alright to take advantage of another human being in order to have our way, however, we entertain the idea that we are superior to, better than, more valuable than. We might even find reasons to justify that lie, but in our heart of hearts we know that it is a lie. People have inherent worth and dignity. We each have inherent worth and dignity. When we find reasons to oppress or enslave others to our own wants, we deny that inherent worth and dignity--for them and for ourselves. That denial lacks wisdom, integrity, and honesty, and it will most likely prompt a reaction we won't enjoy. Better to begin from the assertion of human value and find a way to what we want from that starting point. It is not only possible, but in the grand scheme of things, it is necessary. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

1 Kings 1-2: Violence. Easy, Base, Fearful, Primal Violence (and hope for a wiser and more noble future)

One of the primary themes in The Godfather is the infectious spread of violence when a person is willing to kill another in order to make life a little easier. Once dishonorable man thinks, "Why should I negotiate with someone or make less of a profit from my shady dealings when I could just remove the obstacle altogether with a bit of murder?" From there, a cycle of vengeance costs many lives. In one scene, Michael Corleone is walking through an Italian village and asks, "Where are all the men?" His bodyguard responds, "They have all been killed in vendettas." When Michael's father dies and he gains the throne of the family, so to speak, his first act is to order the strategic deaths of his chief enemies. The story of Solomon's rise to power at the beginning of 1 Kings also reads like a gangster tale.

It is somewhat amusing that David admonishes Solomon to keep all of the laws that Moses gave them, and then encourages him to kill troublemakers. Perhaps in his old age he forgot that one of those Mosaic laws forbade murdering people. Or perhaps that law was moot given all of the laws that were punishable by the death penalty. Or perhaps David knew that when the king does it, it isn't illegal. In any case, Solomon is not thought of as evil in the least because of his violent actions; he is deemed wise.
Incidentally, by the time the writers of the Books of Chronicles recorded the story, they summarize in one sentence: When David was old and full of years, he made his son Solomon king over Israel (1 Chr. 23:1). Adonijah is never mentioned as a pretender to the throne, and Solomon's violent rise to power is no longer an important part of the tale. Chronicles contains much more about the preparations for the temple, in which David is more intensely involved before his death than in the Samuel/Kings account. It's possible that this later document's less violent version of the story indicates a shift in the culture; perhaps the Jewish people in Babylonian exile learned to abhor violence. If that is the case, though, we have somehow managed to regress.

After three thousand years, we still haven't quite figured out how to solve problems without violence. Part of it has to do with power. When some people want to feel powerful, they think that violent actions toward another person will do the trick. And when people perceive themselves as powerless, they are more likely to do desperate things. At either end of the spectrum, it becomes challenging to see other people as valuable human beings. Maybe it becomes difficult to see oneself as a valuable human being as well. When a sense of human dignity is discarded, we are capable of justifying some rather shameful behavior. 

In some parts of the world at this very moment, there are groups of people living out the conviction that their survival depends on killing another group of people. Violence seems like the only reaction to their circumstances that makes any sense. And perhaps they are right. There are very few people getting wealthy from trying to end such conflicts. Peace just isn't a lucrative enterprise, it would seem. At least not in the short term. There is certainly money to be made from equipping violent people with implements of destruction, however. Desperation obviously makes for ideal consumers. 

It isn't necessarily wrong that violence is the only possible response for some groups of people whose survival is threatened. In their current circumstances, perhaps they would be quiet victims of genocide if they didn't take desperate and violent action. The real issue, perhaps, is why we are content to live in a world in which those circumstances are possible. We aren't necessarily talking about new dictators killing off the competition like Solomon. Some of the ongoing violence in the world is unnecessary if people were willing to see others as human beings worthy of dignity and respect. That would require certain people or groups to give up something, though, and we are wired to hold on to every bit of money or property that we get our hands on. Our survival depends on it, as far as our subconscious primal fears are concerned.

We have all of history to show us that violence begets violence when we are left to our automatic reactivity. We justify it with righteous indignation when we are the offenders, and we condemn it with vehement outrage when we are its victims -- or when there is some political value to affiliating ourselves with one side or the other. We want it to seem as though we have no choice, but there are always choices. There is a way that honors and respects people as fellow human beings -- that acknowledges the value, beauty, and dignity of all people. There is a way that calls upon our innate creativity rather than our primal reactivity. We can be more than animals if we choose to be.

Finding solutions without resorting to the easy path of violence will require some shifts in our perspective. Fears about survival will have to be confronted and dismantled. The desire for enough wealth and power to subjugate other people will have to be seen for what it is: a bestial response to fear. It will take work to see people differently and treat people with respect, especially since our fearful ways of seeing people are so well-rehearsed. There will be moments when we slip as a species, but we are more than the sum of our evolutionary subconscious reactions. We have some measure of control over our decisions, and the more we strive to make conscious decisions based on a deeper truth, beauty, and creativity, the easier those decisions will be.

Solomon was said to be wise, and yet he was the last ruler over a united Israelite kingdom. If even the wisest Israelite couldn't conceive of a better way than violent reactivity -- if even the wisest Israelite couldn't create a better society with longevity beyond his own lifespan -- what hope do we have? I'm sure at some point, this was the excuse of the Israelite people. It's a tempting excuse to be sure. "Better people than I have tried and failed, so what hope do I have?" Every hope in the world. The only reason we consider some people to be better than us is because they tried. Their level of achievement places no limitation on you.

If we do nothing to create the lives we most deeply want and the world we most want to live in, that is our choice (and not a terribly wise one at that). It has nothing to do with our capability and everything to do with our fear. Solomon was an imaginary figure. Even if he was based on a flesh and blood human being, what we know of him is a fantasy. His perceived limitations do not in any way define the limits of human potential. We are capable of more. We simply must decide to walk a different path. We must persistently determine to see more clearly the value of every person. It is not necessarily an easy path, but it is most assuredly a wise path.

Monday, November 19, 2012

2 Samuel 11-24: Pride and Gratitude (Infusing Our Thankfulness with Honesty and Recognizing the Extent of Our Abundance)

The rest of David's story as recorded in 2 Samuel is fraught with conflict befitting a soap opera, and not one you'd want to have on while the kids are in the room at that. The Chronicles version is somewhat cleaner, eliminating all of the indulgent behavior of David and his offspring and including in its place a riveting catalog of personnel. While this was likely an important account for ancient Israelite culture, such lists do not contain any more spiritual value for 21st century Westerners than any other extra-biblical lists of people. There is something realistic about the indulgent version of David in 2 Samuel, where he takes advantage of his position of authority, sleeps with another man's wife, conceives a child with her, and has her husband murdered. His household is a mess of incest, murder, revolution, and greed. In the midst of it all, there is a military adviser trying to hold things together politically and a spiritual adviser trying to hold David together morally.

As exciting as the story is, the spiritual message is somewhat odd. This immoral man is Yahweh's hope for the future of his people, despite his lack of capability when it comes to making the truly difficult decisions? Well, yes. No person can be perfect, so anyone chosen as leader will come with weaknesses and challenges. Somehow the Israelites who recorded the earlier version of their history understood that being in a position of power--even with the approval of the almighty--didn't make a person a better human being than anybody else. We might not sleep with another person's spouse and then conspire to have someone killed on a battlefield, but we are occasionally going to do things that are selfish and fail to value other people as much as we ought. We might not have children who try to usurp power and prove their superiority by sleeping with our harems in public, but from time to time we will be challenged by other people's behavior. And in spite of all of that, we have plenty of reasons to feel and express gratitude.

David expresses his gratitude in a song to Yahweh, whom he credits with victory in battle. David believes that his deity has protected him from human adversaries and has given him authority as king over foreigners. This is all well and good for a primitive society. Thousands of years later, however, we seem to still hear claims that God has protected us from harm and given us victory over adversity, even that God has made us prosperous or worked out circumstances for our benefit. In David's song, he comes close to claiming that he deserves God's blessing. The person who committed acts of adultery and murder just a couple of chapters back is claiming that:
"The Lord has dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I am not guilty of turning from my God.
All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees.
I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.
The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to my cleanness in his sight." (2 Sam. 22:21-25)
Really, David? What an interestingly blameless vision of yourself you seem to have cultivated. Perhaps you think that because you had a military victory or were otherwise fortunate that your previous behavior is unimportant to the point of being forgettable? Well, that's not an unfamiliar perspective to us, after all. When we dodge a bullet, slide in just under the wire, or avoid getting caught, it's tempting to think that what we did must not have been so wrong, because God protected us--he made sure we were safe and successful, so everything must be cool. A ludicrous claim, when you think about it. Gratitude is surely an attitude worth cultivating, but so is honesty.

Rather than a Davidic claim to superhuman holiness, it's worth recognizing that we Americans did nothing to earn the privilege of being born in one of the wealthiest places on the planet. We don't live blameless lives, not a one of us. We turn our backs on people, we give in to fear, we wrestle with moral and ethical issues, and we don't always come out smelling like a rose. None of us is perfect. None of us is truly worthy of a better life than anyone else. Many of us are lucky. Many of us are fortunate. Some would even say many of us are blessed. But what we have in our lives is not the result of our utter righteousness. And here I don't just mean the number after the dollar sign in our bank accounts, I mean clean water, abundant food, access to medical care, a level of safety that is unexpected in many parts of the world.

In this time of year when we think about gratitude a little bit more and acknowledge our undeserved privileges a little more easily, let's be honest as well as grateful. We haven't done anything to deserve our lives or our relationships. Whatever we have, it isn't because we did anything to be more worthy of it than anyone else. We have more to be grateful for than we ever take the time to realize. We aren't chosen, set apart for some greater purpose--we are simply fortunate. What we do with what we have is our responsibility. We can cultivate pride, or we can do all that we can to contribute to a better world. This is what gratitude enables us to choose. Honest gratitude allows us to recognize the worthlessness of our pride and to focus instead on our opportunities to practice generosity.

So, I invite you to take a moment--without needing to be clever or funny for an audience, without needing to impress anyone with your depth or insight, and without any reason to guard a sense of dignity or pride--just take a moment to be grateful for the many undeserved gifts of life. Through gratitude we have a chance to recognize our real abundance in life. That abundance doesn't mean that we should stop striving or growing. It simply puts that growth in a context: We don't need more, although we may want more. And when we have more, it means we have more to offer, not more to guard and protect. If we are honest, most of us will see that we truly have enough. Enough time. Enough money. Enough skill. Enough to be happy. Enough to share.

Monday, November 12, 2012

2 Samuel 6-10: Beliefs Are Worth Examining

The story of Yahweh's promise that David's throne would be established forever was nearly as important to the ancient Israelites as the legendary agreement made between Moses and Yahweh. After the kingdom of Israel split, the promise to David was understandably more important to Judah, the Israelite kingdom that kept the temple and the throne. Although David wanted to build a great temple to the Yahweh, it is his son Solomon who gets credit for that achievement in the book of Samuel. By the time the book of Chronicles was written, however, David was seen as having a much greater role in the temple planning. David's legendary status for the culture led the author(s) to leave out his human mistakes and failings that were recorded in Samuel. Incidentally, 1 Chronicles records the promise of Davidic rule in chapter 17 more or less identically to the version in 2 Samuel.

The challenge for the Israelites was the same as it is for many people today: Once you take a stand on a particular belief, you look at the world through that lens. If the belief and the world seem to be in conflict, we try to figure out why. Typically, we don't want to give up our belief (because then we would have to admit that we were wrong about something), and we can't change the world. So, we invent some reason that the conflict might exist. The ancient Israelites eventually had to invent reasons why their kingdom was overthrown and they were taken into exile. Some people decided that the promise to David was not unconditional, and that the nation's unfaithfulness toward their cultural religion had landed them in hot water. Others decided that the promise to David meant that restoration was imminent. Later, some people in the Christian sect would trace the lineage of Jesus back to David, thus establishing Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise of eternal rule.

History is a strange and liquid creature. We do not report every detail when we recount history; we concentrate on those events that seem to form a pattern. We look at events that seem significant, either because of their impact on the world or because of their place in a sequence of events. We learn about the inventors of significant machines or processes, but we do not learn about the inventor of the spring or specialized wing nut that allowed the larger machine to function. We remember the names of assassins or generals, the dates of battles and victories, and when we delve into the systems and subcultures to gain a clear understanding of what led up to significant events, we know what we're looking for. We seek to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that make sense of history. Some people recording the history of the ancient Israelites saw certain cause-and-effect chains, while other people had a different perspective. In the biblical narrative, both are preserved to a certain extent, but they are every bit a product of their culture.

Israelite historians -- at least the ones that wrote anything that wound up in the Bible -- always traced their cause-and-effect chains back to God. When God was pleased, he allowed their country to prosper. When God was angry, he allowed foreign powers to destroy their cities. We have the same kind of thinkers in our world today. "I'm wealthy, and therefore God must want me to be prosperous while others struggle." "I'm sick or injured, so God must want me to suffer for some reason." Hurricanes become messages from God rather than natural events. Elections are interpreted as punishment or blessing rather than democratic process. Our personal lives become mysterious chains of cause-and-effect that are beyond our control if God is seen as the one moving the pieces on the board, while we are left to figure out why. When we look back at history, whether it is our own personal history or the history of a larger community, are we honestly seeing rational chains of events? Or are we crediting supernatural forces with some intelligent purpose in the course of history that we can only observe?

In the biblical narrative, when David hears the promise from Yahweh for the first time, it is delivered by the prophet Nathan. There haven't been a lot of prophets in the narrative before this point, but they become more important in the generations that follow David. Prophets in the Bible speak for God. They call people to accountability, and they make predictions based on the signs of the times. Sometimes their prognostications are intended to tell people to shape up, and sometimes they offer messages of hope. Ancient peoples relied upon prophets because they didn't believe that just anyone could have direct access to the divine. Of course, people didn't always listen to the prophets' messages. It all depended on how much the prophet was challenging something the people believed.

Many people today have very adamant beliefs. Some of these are religious beliefs, but most people wind up with a whole catalog of beliefs about themselves, other people, life in general, the government, the economy, and on and on. Most people are not well practiced at examining those beliefs when something in reality doesn't line up with their beliefs, however. It's easier on some level to concoct another auxiliary belief to explain any discrepancies between our beliefs and reality. We might wind up with an enormous pile of beliefs all designed to support one thing about which we've decided to dig in our heels, never examining how reasonable or beneficial those beliefs are. Our entire view of reality -- including our view of ourselves -- may be clouded by a mass of beliefs we've never really examined.

The divine is somewhere underneath that pile of beliefs. If there is any guidance to be had from the divine, we have to clear away some of the irrationalities to which we've grown accustomed and make sure that our beliefs make sense. No prophet can come along and tell you what the divine wants from you. No one knows what the divine is doing in someone else's life. When anyone claims to know what God wants for somebody else's life, that person is lying, whether they realize it or not. The prophets in our lives might point us toward the divine within us. Our prophets can hold us accountable to the agreements we have made. But people can not know what the divine intends for anyone but themselves. Whenever someone claims to speak for God, all they are expressing is their own personal values and desires. They are speaking from within their own big pile of unexamined and unquestioned beliefs, describing their own clouded view of reality as if their perspective is the only possible way to see the world. It is an understandable perspective. After all, their view is honestly the only possible way for them to see the world in that moment.

Here is a view of reality for you to test against your own beliefs:
People matter.
What we do has an impact on other people, and since people matter, what we do matters.
And if what we do matters, then it's worth being conscious of what we are doing.
It's worth being conscious of what we are doing because the people we touch matter.

And if people matter, then we matter.
If we matter, then we are worth our own care and attention.
What we do is informed by what we believe,
so our beliefs are worth some care and attention as well.
If we take the time to examine what we believe and consider the impact of what we do,
we stand a better chance of living the kinds of lives we want to live,
because if people matter -- if we matter -- then it only makes sense to live like people matter.

If we insist on believing and doing things that devalue ourselves or other people,
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that people don't matter?
What purpose does it serve in our lives to believe that we don't matter?
Are we alright with that?
I believe that there is no intelligent supernatural being orchestrating events in history or making promises for the future. I believe that our stories as individuals and as a people are accounts of human success and failure, of intentional and unintentional human actions that have consequences. Our histories and our futures are stories about us, not merely stories that we witness from the sidelines. And since all of our stories are human stories about people, I must conclude that people matter. I cannot do otherwise. For me, this is truth. Against this truth, all of my beliefs can be weighed, all of my actions evaluated.

What is your truth? Really? Do your beliefs and actions reflect that truth? Are you happy with that? Does it lead you to the life you most want to live? To the world you most want to create?

Monday, November 5, 2012

2 Samuel 1-5: God Does Not Appoint Leaders, Send Hurricanes, or Determine the Outcomes of Wars

Back in chapter 16 of the First Book of Samuel, the biblical narrative suggests that God chose David to be the next king of Israel.  He had chosen Saul before, but he wound up regretting that decision, so apparently he was hoping for better luck with David.  When one reads the first five chapters of the Second Book of Samuel, it's apparent that not everyone agreed with God's decision.  David and his supporters apparently had to fight for acknowledgement from the rest of the Israelite people, at least in the account in Samuel.  The book of Chronicles doesn't mention all of the infighting among the Israelites, since this would presumably be poor form.  After the fact, it's easy to read some kind of intelligent plan at work, but the truth of the matter is that it was the actions of people that determined leadership, just as it is today.

In this election season, as with some previous elections, certain Christian leaders are suggesting that the outcome of the presidential elections will reflect either God's blessing on America or God's judgment.  To listen to some people speak, it is as if the elections have nothing to do with voters or the electoral college and everything to do with divine intervention.  While there is nothing inherently morally or ethically wrong about seeking comfort from a belief in a divine plan, the ramifications of that belief are potentially dangerous, especially when people stop thinking for themselves and allow other extremist views to abuse their belief in divine providence for personal gain.

It's healthily optimistic to say that good can come from any circumstance, or that there is something to be learned from every situation.  This kind of thinking prompts people to take some measure of responsibility for outcomes in their lives, and it encourages awareness of opportunities rather than restrictions.  When this thinking shifts to some external entity, however, it becomes more dangerous.  It blurs the clear lines between the things over which people have authentic power in their lives and the things that are beyond their control.  On the one hand, if it becomes God's responsibility to work everything out for good, then personal power is minimized.  People develop a perception of themselves as weak and incapable.  On the other hand, if people believe that God is going to work things out for their benefit (often at a cost to someone else) this can lead to a sense of superiority that is unwarranted and harmful.

To address the first scenario, people are simply not weak and incapable.  There are systems in place in various parts of the world that are oppressive, and there are natural limits to what an individual can control. In terms of how one is going to live in the midst of one's circumstances, however, people have power over their own choices and decisions.  Even in America, where most twenty-first century citizens know nothing of real oppression, if circumstances don't line up to our desires, we cry out as though our value as human beings was at stake.  Some people believe that they are oppressed when someone merely voices an opinion different from theirs.  Of course, some of this is for show.  Melodramatic righteous indignation can be convincing.  People are not really so weak that another person's opinion can harm them.  And yet, we often play the victim rather than create the lives we truly want.

There are places in the world in which dictators and tyrants take action against defenseless innocent people.  Some people would suggest that the United States military takes action against defenseless innocent people.  This certainly reflects an authentic powerlessness to control the behavior of those who are willing to abuse their authority at the expense of others.  Our power as human beings does not extend to the actions of others, but everyone everywhere has the personal capability to manage their own thoughts and behaviors if they choose to do so.  Sometimes this is admittedly a challenge.

Belief that God is in full control of all the world's activities often gives people a skewed sense of reality, though.  If God exerts such active control that he chooses leaders, then God is also responsible for all of the tyrants and malevolent dictators in various parts of the world.  If God sends hurricanes to punish a group of people, he is also responsible for every natural disaster that has made life more challenging for deeply religious people.  He is responsible for every earthquake, tsunami, and mudslide that profoundly impacted the very impoverished people the Bible says are worthy of compassion.  If God chooses sides in war and justifies the military actions of believers, then he is accountable for all of the "collateral damage" in terms of innocent lives and economic and political turmoil that results from those military actions.  Is he also responsible for traffic collisions?  Plant explosions?  Gang violence?  The housing bubble?  Where does his control over people's actions stop and personal responsibility begin?  

The ancient Israelites looked at their history and saw successes and failures, heroes and tyrants, and they determined that their god was responsible for their circumstances.  Other peoples in the ancient world had similar perspectives.  Various Roman emperors, ruling a thousand years after David, even believed that declines in Roman culture could be remedied by returning to more fervent worship of the Roman gods.  Due to the tenacity of their beliefs, the Israelites would eventually claim that their god was responsible for placing foreign oppressors in power, for allowing the Israelites to be taken into exile, for orchestrating the outcomes of wars of all the nations around them.  It is a perspective that ignores the capability and responsibility of individuals and communities and places control squarely in the hands of an imaginary figure that cannot be controlled.

Except that God can be controlled, in the minds of the ancient Israelites and in the minds of twenty-first century Christians.  For the ancient Israelites, God was susceptible to their behavior.  If they were faithful to the requirements of their cultural religion, then God would show them favor.  If they misbehaved, then God would exercise judgment and wrath.  The actions of the people controlled the actions of God.  Today, some people believe that they can pray circumstances into being, that fervent prayer will convince God to sway the election in their favor, will help the poor and oppressed in other parts of the world, will change laws about abortion and marriage rights.  Prayer is thought to keep people safe on the roads, when actual skill and awareness as a driver probably has more of an impact in that arena.  In the minds of some people, if enough people pray with enough faith, no other action is required.  As if God will take care of the details and work everything out to benefit us, often  at the expense of the less faithful -- or at least at the expense of the people who do not agree with us.  The twisted ramifications of this kind of belief are staggering.

We are responsible for our lives and our actions.  As individuals, we are responsible for our personal choices and decision, and as a collective we are responsible for the outcomes of our collective decisions.  God did not put David on the throne of Israel; a bunch of people with swords and the will to use them put David on the throne.  God does not send hurricanes to punish sinners; hurricanes and other disasters are just a natural part of the world we inhabit.  God does not determine the outcomes of wars, and belief in God does not justify any measure of violence against other human beings.  Violence in the world is fully the responsibility of the people who carry out the violence, whether they be gang members or decorated soldiers.  God is not a valid scapegoat for human atrocities. 

And God is not responsible for elections.  Whoever wins or loses, God is not trying to send any sort of message of approval or disappointment.  Elections are determined by people.  Perhaps there are problems worth addressing in the system by which leaders are elected, but those problems are within the sole purview of human beings, not an external divine agent.  If we want our lives to be better, it is our responsibility to make them so.  If we want other people's lives to be better, then we must do more than toss pennies into a wishing well.  If something within us is calling us to take action to connect with other people, then we are responsible for taking that action.  If we want our country to be a better place, then it is up to us to connect with other people in this enormous community -- to connect with them and listen to them, without being so self-assured of our superiority that we will accept no view but our own.

God did not appoint David to leadership, and God is not pulling strings today.  But the divine nature within us is constantly at work, calling us to act in ways that are congruent with our deepest selves, seeking connection with other people, challenging us to set aside fear and take responsibility for our impact in the world, for our impact on other people.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for people to set aside personal responsibility, it is time to examine that belief very critically.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for feeling superior, it is time to examine oneself very critically.  When belief in God becomes an excuse for hatred and violence, it is time to look in the mirror and ask, "What do I stand for?" 

When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, he used one word to summarize that ideal: love.  The ancient Israelites didn't get it.  Their histories are full of the evidence that they floundered to make sense of their cultural religion.  Their beliefs led them in many directions as a result.  If our belief leads us in any other direction than love, then our belief serves neither us nor the world.  Whether you believe in God, in the divine within each person, or in something else entirely, the only valid application of that belief is ultimately love.  How is that love being expressed in your life and speech and actions today?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

1 Samuel 13-31: More about Fear and Abdication

Fear is the hallmark of Saul's reign as first king of Israel.  Although the narrative in the book of Samuel gives God credit for selecting him as king, right out of the gate he's told that God is disappointed in him.  The Jewish folklore recorded in the Bible paints Saul as a madman, possessed by demons that induced fits of rage.  Perhaps he had a bona fide psychiatric condition.  Or perhaps if there was a historic King Saul, he became a fictionalized caricature to serve as a literary foil to David, arguably ancient Israel's most legendary folk hero.  Whatever the case, the writers of the book of Chronicles relegate Saul's entire existence to a suicide and posthumous humiliation contained in a single chapter.  This was not the great leader the Israelites had in mind when they asked to have a king appointed to keep order.

Still, there are a couple of things we can learn from the story of Saul.  To begin with, he displayed a profound lack of trust in the people who were in his life to help him.  Fear that his army would desert him led him to take over Samuel's job, fear about the might of the Philistines paralyzed Saul on the battlefield, and fear about David's popularity and cunning drove Saul to spend a significant portion of his reign chasing David around the countryside.  Fear that God was on David's side provoked Saul to kill all the priests that could have guided him, and fear that God had abandoned him led him to consult a medium, against his own proclamations.  When he was mortally wounded in battle, alongside his son, he took his own life out of fear that he would be humiliated if his enemy killed him.  The Philistines took his corpse and humiliated him anyway.

Saul accomplished nothing, according to the biblical narrative.  He was so subject to fear that his entire reign was spent reacting to it.  It must have been a frustrating and exhausting life, constantly fearful and paranoid, never quite realizing that his reactions were only going to make matters worse.  Saul could have addressed his fears differently, but unfortunately there was no one in his life who could be trusted to tell him how.  Samuel was all but useless as a spiritual advisor, ready to condemn Saul the first time he stepped out of line.  And as far as we see in the story, Samuel is the only real spiritual presence after Saul's coronation.  If Saul had recognized divinity as an inner characteristic rather than an external entity, and if he had been guided by some insightful spiritual teacher, his fears may not have had such power.  Of course, Saul's behavior was an important aspect of the story to show how incredible David was by contrast, but we aren't bound by the same rigid cultural identity as ancient Israel.

Imagine for a moment that Saul is a real, flesh-and-blood human being with choices.  In every moment, he can choose whether to react or respond, whether to take action without thinking or contemplate his options and their consequences.  If Saul believes that divinity is an intrinsic part of his identity as a human being, he might be more inclined to reach inward and find meaningful, centered guidance.  But, if Saul has been told that everything in his life is under God's control, that he is essentially powerless to accomplish anything on his own, that belief might contribute negatively to his leadership ability.  If Saul is told that God made a mistake in appointing him to his position and that God now stands against him, what ammunition does Saul have against his fears?  Given the culture of his time, Saul's inability to conceive of personal power and personal responsibility cripples him when his concept of the divine is turned against him.  Placing God outside of ourselves means that he abdicates his authentic control over and responsibility for his own life and choices.

People aren't born knowing how to take personal responsibility, though.  People do not automatically see clearly the bounds of their own control.  Some people want to control more than they can, and some people give up more control in their lives than they have to.  Most people benefit from meaningful wise counsel in order to hone their ability to accept appropriate control over their own lives and decisions.  Based on the story told by the biblical writers, Samuel was the one person Saul should have been able to count on in his early kingship, and Samuel was unfortunately poor support.  Perhaps he was insecure in his own ways, too preoccupied with his own fears to be of service to Saul.  That doesn't change the fact that their relationship could have been something more.  

For the ancient Israelites, it was a challenge to acknowledge personal responsibility.  It isn't often in the biblical narrative that consequences are logically connected to the actions of human beings.  Instead, consequences are a response from God when he is upset about what one of his subjects has done.  He punishes and rewards with fickle intelligence in the Bible stories.  In reality, consequences are directly tied to the actions that produce them.  We muddy the waters of our own personal responsibility and control when we place an imaginary intermediary between our actions and their results.  Once Saul was convinced that an imaginary all-powerful being was unhappy with him, there was no possibility of dealing with his fears rationally.  We are not characters in a story, and we are not limited to the worldview of the ancient Near East.  What we do matters, and the consequences are ours to own.

When we realize that we are ruled by fear, we can take some actions to start doing things differently.  We don't have to conclude that we are doomed or cursed.  When we realize that things are not working out for us the way we want, we can examine our own behavior and make adjustments.  We don't have to look for someone or something more powerful than ourselves to blame.  We don't have to throw up our hands and assume that God must have a different plan for our lives.  And when we know that we want to do things differently and don't quite know how, it's alright for us to find other people that can provide meaningful insights.  The trick is that we have to be discerning.  People that just tell us what we want to hear are not valuable.  And people that tell us that there is something inherently wrong with us are not going to empower us to take personal responsibility in our lives.  We are responsible for the lives we create, and we are responsible for the impact we have on others.

One last note about Samuel and his relationship to Saul.  We sometimes fail to recognize when there are people around us who could benefit from our graceful and loving support.  We get caught up in our own lives, our own fears, our own insecurities, and we forget that we are in relationship with one another.  Samuel is a warning for us.  Saul could potentially have been a much better leader if Samuel had been a better mentor.  We do not always see clearly the boundaries of their personal responsibility and capability.  We need one another.  Our own clarity is refined through meaningful connection with each other. 

Eighteen chapters is a large chunk of the biblical narrative to take in at once.  We could dig into Saul's decisions in greater detail, but ultimately I believe we will find the same dynamics at work time and again.  Fear can cripple us.  We are personally responsible for handling our fear healthily and finding a way to assess our circumstances more honestly.  We are responsible for our actions and their consequences.  Our integrity matters.  And we need one another to stay sharp in all of this, because it isn't always easy.  If we all just did a little more to take appropriate responsibility in our lives, just imagine what kind of impact that could have in our families, our communities, our world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

1 Samuel 8-12: Heirarchies of Power and Why We Love Them

Over the next several chapters of the first book of Samuel, the Israelites ask for a king, Saul is selected, and Samuel tells them how evil a thing it was for them to ask for a king.  Several different stories about these events are bundled together here, but the general theme is that the people think they will be better off with a leader.  They have a good reason to want some kind of change: after Joshua's less-than-total invasion of Canaan and the decreasing effectiveness of local "judges", Israelite society had degenerated into people chasing after personal satisfaction without regard for anyone else.  They wanted a king to bring order and justice to their society, because they weren't willing to do it for themselves.

We are not so far off from the ancient Israelites in this respect.  We often abdicate personal responsibility to authority figures.  We like to be able to claim that we are "just following orders" when we honestly know that what we are doing is out of alignment with our most noble selves.  We like it when some loud and angry person on a soapbox gives us permission to feel righteous indignation, even when there is nothing righteous about it.  We like having someone else to blame, and we don't like making decisions if personal risk is involved.  As long as we have a chain of command, we have a place to point when something goes awry.  Especially when what we know is right seems uncomfortable or inconvenient to us personally, we would almost rather listen to anyone else than our inner selves, whether it be a religious leader, a political leader, someone in a position of power in our workplace, or some other voice of authority.

Leadership is not a bad thing, however.  There are leaders who organize people into incredible acts of service and creativity.  It isn't an evil thing to have a leader over a country or a company or an organization.  Samuel's rebuke of the Israelites was about something other than organizational structure.  He was pointing out to them that they already knew what they needed to know in order to create the society they claimed to want.  A leader can't change our willingness to live based on what we already know.  If the Israelites were really looking to sharpen their capacity for living out the truth they already knew, they could have done that without a king.

When people are willing to live in accordance with their most noble selves, a leader can be of service by reminding people what they already know and encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their actions and beliefs.  When a leader is more interested in personal gain or personal power, or exclusively represents the interests of people who are not living in alignment with their most noble selves, that leader can not ultimately usher in the kind of reality we most want, whether that be in our places of work, our personal lives, our nation, or our world.  We have the responsibility to create the lives we most want, based on our deep awareness of truth, beauty, and creativity that glimmers beneath the fears and lies we have accumulated.

We can't rationally expect leaders to fix things we have collectively broken, and we can't create the kind of world in which we can thrive by abdicating our personal responsibility to someone up a chain of command.  Leaders are valuable to us when they empower us to peel back the irrational fears that keep us from connecting with our deepest selves.  Leaders are valuable when they remind us of our personal role in our lives.  The responsibility is ours to create a world in which everyone has what they need and no one has a legitimate reason for fear.  We do not need a king, or a president, or a CEO, to tell us how to live or to take responsibility for our decisions.

Our lives -- our world -- our society -- our relationships -- are ours to nurture or destroy.  We don't need an authority figure to bear the weight of responsibility for us.  We need connection with our deepest selves and connection with one another so that we can live out our authentic personal responsibility in the most meaningful way possible.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

1 Samuel 4-7: Adventures of the Magical Ark (and distinguishing between the spiritual and the physical)

After the character of Samuel is introduced, the Israelites misuse the ark of the covenant, assuming that they could manipulate their god into serving them in battle if they were carrying his throne with them.  Eli's sons, who abused their positions of power, died.  The ark was captured by Israel's enemies.  When he heard the news, Eli himself fell and perished.  In foreign lands, the ark went on merry adventures, creating chaos among Israel's enemies until it was returned with gifts.  The ark still put people to death if they looked at it, so this relic's power didn't really favor the Israelites even when it was back on home turf.  Finally, Samuel directs the Israelites to put aside the foreign idols they had begun to revere, and he conducts a religious ceremony involving a ritual sacrifice.  After this, the Israelite god beats back the Philistine threat and Israel has peace for a time.

It is a rather primitive mindset that assumes that a god can be carried around and persuaded because his "throne" can be transported wherever the people want him to be.  And yet, we still enjoy stories about magical artifacts and items that hold great power, whether its the lost ark of the covenant or the trappings of a school for wizards.  Magic is cool.  Magic is intriguing.  Somewhere inside us, we like the idea of things that will give us access to power or abilities that we don't possess all on our own.

The story of the ark's adventures reminds any who believe in God that believers cannot manipulate God into doing what they want him to do.  God doesn't choose sides in a battle based on the geographic location of his throne.  He doesn't pop out like a jack-in-the-box whenever the right magical formula is recited.  Unfortunately, the biblical narrative goes on to suggest that the god of the Israelites can be manipulated if people demonstrate a bit of loyalty and give him blood.  The Israelites eventually got their god to defeat their enemies, they just had to get the magical recipe right.

The divine doesn't inhabit fancy boxes or thrones any more than it inhabits magic wands or cauldrons.  We don't need to recite the proper words or kill the right animals in order to convince the divine to help us and hinder others.  One of the most disappointing things about the biblical narrative that so many have come to accept as truth is that God is portrayed as choosing sides, often arbitrarily.  Some people walk away with the impression that the Christian God can be "for" them and "against" other people, like the fickle Greek gods of Homer.  It is as if some people's prayers are more worthy of God's attention than other people's prayers.  And if this is the case, then we arrive back at the assumption that God can be manipulated into doing what people want, as long as they do the right things to convince him.

There is certainly meaning in ritual.  Ritual can help remind us of our place in history, our values, our identities within the larger pool of humanity.  And when we focus our energy toward a specific intentional purpose in ritual, we can tap into our inherent creativity and capability quite powerfully.  We can also use ritual to cement our fears and beliefs about our own weakness in place, reinforcing the idea that we are incapable of living without some supernatural intelligence working on our behalf.  Ritual simply reinforces what we believe, and as such it can be a powerful tool.  It's important to recognize what beliefs we are reinforcing when we engage in ritual, though.

Magical arks, magic lamps, magic wands, magic mirrors, and magic altars are fictions.  The concept of reciting the proper words and performing the right physical actions to work magic spells, or prayers as it were, reflects a primitive desire to call upon something more powerful than ourselves to do something for us.  Most often this also involves working against someone else in order to get what we want.  It's the spiritual version of carrying a gun around.  Except that if we are able to manipulate God into doing something, then we think our hands and consciences are clean because whatever happens is God's will.

And yet, it is very honest to say that we often feel weak and incapable of confronting the challenges we face in life all on our own.  It can be a great comfort to think that something bigger and more powerful than us is on our side, standing against any people or circumstances that seem threatening to us.  We have bought into an identity of powerlessness, convinced of our smallness in a world of big dangers.  This is nothing more than fear gaining control of our thoughts, creating a perception of the world in which we need something superhuman to help us survive. 

The truth is that we do not need to be more powerful than other people.  We do not need any magical trinkets or magical formulas in order to manipulate an external power to work on our behalf.  What we need is within us and in the connections we have with other people.  We already have access to all the real power we could ever need.  It isn't a power that will grant our every superficial wish, but we have the power to be personally responsible for our lives.  The more we build our connection with our deepest, most noble selves and our connections with other people, the more we see the real spiritual power available to us.  We have the power to create, to nurture, to inspire, to heal -- the power to set aside self-centered fears and be present in the world.

This personal capability can be difficult to see through the belief that we are small and powerless.  When we believe that we need some sort of magical accoutrements to call upon some power outside of ourselves, we are essentially believing in our own weakness -- and that weakness is inherent in humanity.  Believing that we are weak gives us an excuse to be less than our most noble selves, and to expect the same from others.  But we are not weak.  We are not powerless.  Sure, we need one another.  We benefit from relationship.  This is a source of strength, not a sign of incapability.  We are capable of forging meaningful connection with ourselves and other people, but in order to do so, we must set aside the self-deprecating fears and beliefs that convince us of our own weakness.

Monday, October 1, 2012

1 Samuel 1-3: Our Divine Calling

The two-volume book of Samuel presents a history of the three legendary kings who ruled over a united Israelite monarchy: Saul, David, and Solomon.  In the story, Samuel is a prophet, both in the sense of proclaiming God's message and in the sense of being a seer.  He is directly involved in placing both Saul and David on the throne.  Before we get to the kings themselves, however, the mythical story of Samuel is recounted.  Born as a result of fervent prayer, Samuel is raised by a priest, Eli, whose sons are an embarrassment to their holy stations.  Even Eli seems to be so far removed from sincere and authentic ministry that he has a difficult time telling the difference between drunkenness and prayer.  At least he eventually recognizes that Samuel is hearing a calling from the Lord and not just dreaming, otherwise the story may have been much shorter.

In Samuel's origin story, his dedication is contrasted to the behavior of Eli's sons, who are self-serving and indulgent to the extreme.  For some, this out-of-control self-indulgence is the image conjured when they consider looking within themselves to find Truth.  If everyone did that, they believe, the world would collapse into selfish violence and disregard for others, because everyone would believe whatever they liked.  This is an understandable fear, especially when some prominent belief systems teach that people are rotten and broken and need some outside supernatural assistance just to hold society together.  And yet, a quick glance at the world suggests that people already twist prominent belief systems to suit their own self-interest.  Against the teachings of their own holy books, they justify violence, bigotry, and oppression as it suits them.  What keeps people from self-indulgence at the expense of other people is not an imposed set of rules, because those rules are easily twisted and broken.

Although it's easy to look at the caricatures of Eli's sons and see them as vaudeville-style villains, it's important to remember that all self-indulgence, violence, bigotry, and oppression is based ultimately on fear.  Eli's sons are no different from a lot of people today, afraid that they will suffer if they don't take what they want by force.  They abuse their position as a way of addressing their fears about their lives and their identities.  The pattern of bullying in which they engage is a symptom of profound, unaddressed fear that has taken over their beliefs and runs the majority of their lives.  We don't know what that fear may have been, but based on our own internal dialogue, we could probably guess a great portion of it.

That fear is not what people find when they look within themselves deep enough to find Truth, Beauty, and Creativity.  Although fear does come from within, it is based on untruths or half-truths.  Fear always seems perfectly reasonable, but when we examine many of our fears, we find that they are based on assumptions.  Fears are almost always given power by unverifiable beliefs that we have developed over a long period of time.  Looking within and basing our lives on the Truth we find there involves dismantling those fears and getting beneath them to something deeper, something that is not threatening, something that connects us to other people rather than fueling animosity. 

Developing this level of spiritual maturity is not necessarily an easy thing, even for people who live their lives doing holy work, like Eli's sons.  It seems easier to react to our fears and build beliefs that look like protective concrete walls with barbed wire and booby traps.  We feel protected for the moment because our fears have been addressed, but fear never shuts up.  We can never be insulated or guarded enough to be completely safe and secure from irrational fears.  All of our efforts just strengthen the power of our fear and create patterns of behavior that cement those irrational beliefs firmly in place.  Reacting to our fears expends a phenomenal amount of time and energy.

Getting to the heart of who we are, at the deepest core of our being, may also take considerable time and energy.  But the results are very different.  Instead of ultimately ineffectual protection against irrational fears, by recognizing and living in accordance with the deep Truth within us, we create connection with other people.  We have the opportunity to turn our creativity toward more meaningful pursuits, building the lives we most want rather than the walls that we think will make us feel safe in the moment.  Through reaching beneath the fears and false beliefs, we have the resources to build ourselves into the people we most want to be rather than the people we think we must be in the face of all that seems to threaten us.  The process still requires some effort and dedication, but in reality, we are exerting that effort every day; the choice is merely a matter of what we are building.

Eli's sons built for themselves lives that seemed secure and happy.  Samuel built a life of dedication to something deeper, something more meaningful, from a very early age.  In the story, he is called by a voice he doesn't recognize.  At first, Eli doesn't recognize what Samuel is experiencing, either.  The divine reaches out to Samuel, and for the biblical writers, this was most easily depicted as an externalized calling from a deity who was enthroned upon the ark of the covenant.  When we think of the divine calling us today, we have a much richer symbolic palette from which we can draw.  Although we may envision it in myriad different ways, it is the character of the divine -- that deep Truth, Beauty, and Creativity -- that calls us from beyond all of the irrational fears and false beliefs we have built up in its way.

Make no mistake, the divine does not call to a select few who have drawn some spiritual lottery, even though it may seem like only a select few respond earnestly to the call.  Within all of us, there calls the voice of our divine self, not in any audible sense, but as an internalized spiritual awareness that tugs at us.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, this calling from within is continuous and relentless.  Our divine self does not give up.  It calls us to see other people through compassionate eyes, so that we might recognize the value inherent in everyone we meet.  It calls us to see our impact on the world, to be purposeful about creating something meaningful.  It calls us to see ourselves as beautiful and capable.  It calls us to fearless connection.  It calls us to unashamed love.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Ruth: A Lovely Story about King David's Great-Grandparents (plus a few lessons in respect, integrity, and trust)

Following the book of Judges in the Protestant canon, there is a short story about a woman named Ruth and how she and her second husband, Boaz, met and fell in love.  On its surface, it is a charming tale about all the things that sell romantic books and films.  Digging a little deeper, however, we can find some interesting tidbits, even though its themes are steeped in the cultural norms of the ancient Israelites.  While the original intent of the story may have had something to do with demonstrating the kind of people David's ancestors were, we can still glean a lesson or two from the story itself.

After losing her first husband, Ruth travels with Naomi, her mother-in-law, back to Naomi's home country, where she remarries one of her husband's closest relatives.  In the culture of the time, this Levirate marriage was an honorable way for childless widows to be cared for, and it was an expected way for the family line to be carried on.  There are other elements of Ruth's relationship with Naomi and her "courtship" of Boaz that readers may assume, but much of what is implied is doubtless lost on us modern readers, since we are not of the story's culture.  Some people wish to read sexual themes into various aspects of the story, and while this is titillating, it doesn't truly add much value to the tale.  There are actually three slightly more important spiritual themes at work in this short book. 

First, it bears mention that Ruth is from Moab, a country whose culture was often at odds with Israelite culture.  Moabites were polytheistic, and the biblical narrative suggests that Israelites were tempted into worshiping Moabite deities from time to time.  The Moabites are said to have been spawned from the incestuous relations of Lot with one of his daughters, and they are the people who hired the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Israelites.  In other words, Moabites are not often depicted favorably in the literature of the ancient Israelites.  So, Ruth's culture is a big deal.  Especially since her great grandson is going to be the one and only King David.  Obviously, the inclusivity of the story is a significant change from the conflict-riddled language of earlier portions of the Israelite tale.  Yes, the fact that Naomi's boys marry Moabites is mentioned, but throughout the story, people treat one another as human beings.  Their heritage is a matter of fact, not a source of embarrassment.

As has been mentioned, Boaz also behaves in an honorable way toward Ruth.  Although he quickly develops feelings for her, there is another man who is first in line by the cultural expectations of Levirate marriage.  Boaz deals with things in a straightforward and honest manner, even though it could potentially cost him the relationship he wants.

Thirdly, the primary characters in this story display a profound trust.  There is little inherent anxiety in Ruth's decision to return with Naomi, and there is a sense of calm in the integrity Boaz displays.    Ruth does take action instead of just sitting back and hoping that things will be alright, but even this action is taken with a sense of quiet confidence.  We could learn a great deal from this depiction of calm and purposeful human interaction.

So, after chapter upon chapter of Israelites treating everyone around them shamefully, including other Israelites, we come across this vision of how things could be if people treated one another with mutual respect, behaved with integrity, and trusted themselves and the people around them.  We might almost wonder if we're reading the same book.  People don't always behave as characters in a storybook, but we have choices about the kind of people we are going to be.  We can choose to treat other people as human beings of equal value, irrespective of how we are treated.  We can choose to act in accord with our most noble selves, to embody authenticity and integrity, even if there are people around us who choose otherwise.  We can choose to approach situations with calm trust, even when others become anxious or fearful.

Your decisions ultimately determine how meaningful and satisfying your life is going to be.  Even if your experiences don't look like the story of Ruth and Boaz, your choices matter.  It's not like anyone told Ruth that she was going to be great-grandmother to a famous king.  She simply did what mattered most to her in that moment, and life took its course.  We are not responsible for orchestrating some strategic master plan in our lives.  We are responsible for the choices we make here and now, in this moment, to be people of integrity.  People who see irrational fear for what it is.  People who see the inherent worth in others.  People who know and value themselves.  If we are able to choose moment by moment to be true to our innermost selves, our lives will never fail to be fulfilling.  And as an added bonus, our impact on the world could be tremendous.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Summarizing Joshua and Judges: The Israelites' Downward Spiral Does Not Need to Be Reflected in Our Lives

Beginning with looking at the very first chapters of Genesis through a new lens, this recontextualization of the biblical narrative has been based on the foundation that all people are capable of recognizing and living out a deep truth, beauty, and creativity within them.  This deep self lies beneath the fears and beliefs we accumulate throughout our lives and is the very character of the divine.  If we choose to do so, we can see that divine character all around us, that undeniable truth, deep beauty, and fearless inspiration being present in all of nature and in every other people, however hidden or prominently exhibited.

As the biblical narrative continued, it became a tale of how people paid more attention to Fear than to their own divine natures.  Fear led people to do some horrible things to themselves and to other people, and those actions sometimes had far-reaching consequences.  Even though the Old Testament narrative is not historical fact, we can clearly relate to the truths it reflects about human nature.  We sometimes do regrettable things because we give irrational fears too much power in our lives.

Moses attempted to create a society focused outward, toward an externalized deity, with a prescribed set of laws, beliefs, and behaviors designed to connect people to the divine and to one another.  Many other cultures also strove to quantify the divine in some external way, even as many cultures strive to do today.  Stepping out of the narrative of the ancient Israelites as it is presented in the Bible, the religious laws and regulations in the Old Testament were actually created over a long period of time and written back into a pseudo-historical context in an effort to provide a strong spiritual foundation for a specific society.  These went beyond merely specifying punishments for the kinds of moral issues on which nearly every society agrees.  These laws and regulations were, in a certain sense, an attempt to define the divine in a meaningful way.

When Moses died, Joshua took his mantle of leadership, and various judges followed him in the recorded history of the Israelites.  The story told in Joshua and Judges is a downward spiral of a culture falling prey to its own fears and losing its sense of identity.  Their propensity to see their joys and sorrows as manifestations of divine approval or rejection robbed them of personal responsibility, and the tendency to place the character of the divine somewhere outside of themselves left them spiritually vulnerable and immature.  In short, the social experiment is showing some weaknesses, but the hardships to come for the Israelites will give them reasons to cling to their culture with grim determination.

We are not a part of the ancient Israelite worldview.  We do not have the same cultural or geographical background as the ancient Israelites.  We are more knowledgeable in every field than they were, as we should be after a few thousand years of development.  We have choices about what we believe, and in the Western world, we can largely make those choices without fear of death.  Whatever beliefs you choose about the divine, hopefully those beliefs give you a reason to confront your irrational fears and make decisions based on a deeper truth.  Whether you prefer one religion or another, or no religion at all, the bottom line is that we are connected to one another and to the world around us.  Our actions matter.  The ancient Israelites understood this, even as they wrestled with their cultural identity.  It is not beyond us today to recognize our need for connection to the world, to one another, and to ourselves.  It is not beyond us today to put aside irrational fear and take personal responsibility for our actions and our beliefs.  To call upon a word that is overused and often abused, it is not beyond us today to love, deeply and sincerely, ourselves and the people with whom we share this existence.