* 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, July 30, 2012

Joshua 22-24: Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve

Cultural ideals and values change over time, even within a cohesive culture.  As Joshua reaches the end of his life, he gathers the Israelites one last time to reaffirm their faith and to reinforce their adherence to an insular mono-cultural religion.  Of course, the Israelites in the story agree, especially given the choices Joshua rhetorically offers.  There are lots of choices when it comes to faith and belief, however, and not all of them are mutually exclusive, either-or decisions.

Now, obviously, we are skimming past some passages in the book of Joshua.  For instance, we blew right past the beginning of Joshua 10.  Although we can find spiritual value in any story, it didn't seem particularly important to discuss God responding to Joshua's prayer for the sun to stop moving in the sky to give the Israelites an upper hand in battle.  It's one of those scenes that makes for great storytelling but cannot be taken as factual truth by anyone who understands basic physical laws.  As bizarre as it seems, in modern civilized society, there are people who will fight tooth-and-nail to defend the concept that their god can break physical laws if he wants to, even though no one has ever reliably and verifiably documented such a thing.  If it can just be a nice story that the Israelites told their children, then it's harmless.

We also don't need to spend a great deal of time on Joshua 22, in which a group of Israelite soldiers returns home after years of war and sets up a big altar.  The rest of the Israelites, accustomed to battle and bloodshed, march over there -- ready for war -- to find out what this altar is all about.  It's a testament to how our minds work.  When we are convinced that opposition and threats are all around us, we will see enemies to fight everywhere, even in the faces of those close to us.  The Israelites are portrayed as a pretty bloodthirsty people in this book.  This chapter demonstrates how their single-mindedness about conquering the Other threatened to damage their own society when they ran out of Others to conquer.  In the end, they worked it out, and everything was fine because they were willing to listen to one another -- a practice worth emulating in our personal conflicts.

In chapters 23-24, Joshua tells first the leaders and then the whole assembly of Israel that God will continue to good things for them if they continue to be obedient, and that God will do evil things to them if they are disobedient.  This is very telling.  There is no concept of a devil yet in Israelite culture, there is only their god and other people's gods.  Other people's gods were obviously inferior, and their god was mighty and awesome.  To that end, the Israelite god was capable of doing good or doing evil.  According to Joshua.  I'm not just making this up.  The God of the Old Testament, at least up until this point, is capable of doing good or evil. 

Is this the modern Christian definition of the divine character?  Probably not in most people's minds.  During a period of captivity, the Jews learned all about an Opposer, and this "Satan" became a part of their mythology.  It's convenient to split that capacity for evil away from a god that people are supposed to be able to love and trust.  It's hard to completely love or trust someone who has blatantly threatened to obliterate you from the face of the planet if you do something wrong.  This perception of God softened and changed over time because people needed something different than the Infallible Supernatural Military Leader and Imposer of Order.  People needed something a bit less volatile to believe in.

But this idea still exists, this God who is equally capable of doing great good or doing great evil.  It's in the Bible, after all.  It even leads to debates about the definitions of good and evil.  It's evil for a dictator to commit genocide just because he doesn't like what a group of people is doing, but some people could persuade themselves to think of it as righteous, justified, even good if God were to do exactly the same thing.  It's one of the primary reasons that religion and morality have become strange bedfellows.  If any act becomes good (righteous, justified, "right") if God is behind it, then God has become amoral -- beyond morality itself.  Any definition of good that doesn't contain an exclusion clause for God would seem to create problems for the god some Christians believe in.

Yet, the modern Christian view of God has evolved away from the idea that God is capable of both good and evil.  If God approves of something, in their thinking, then it must be good, because God is incapable of evil.  This is much like Nixon saying, "When the president does it, that means that it's not illegal."  In Joshua's time, there was no ethical confusion.  According to the story, their god had done some pretty impressive things when he liked what they were doing, and he had done some pretty horrible things when he didn't like what they were doing.  He had proven himself mightier than the gods of all the people the Israelites conquered, to the point of providing for the Israelites the security of homes they didn't build and the abundance of vineyards and orchards they didn't plant.  The story-book version of the Israelite god is not someone to whom you can easily say No. 

Which brings us to Joshua's last inspirational speech.  He leads the Israelites in a reaffirmation of their communal faith.  And if they weren't willing to devote themselves to the god that provided so much and threatened so effectively, he commanded them to choose what other deity they were going to serve, the gods of their forefathers or the gods of the surrounding cultures.  Not much of a choice.  It's the kind of tactic that strategic parents use: "Would you like to clean your room, or would you like for me to take away your video game privileges for a week?"  You can defy the logical choice, but there's a cost.

What if there were other choices, though?  As far as people or ideals to serve, there are many more choices than what Joshua mentioned in his ritualized reaffirmation ceremony.  Some people serve the ideals of patriotism, some people serve money, some people serve their children, some people serve nature, some people serve a particular corporation, some people serve aesthetic beauty, and more.  Some people serve more than one thing in a meaningful way.  It's worth knowing what you serve, but it isn't necessarily an either-or decision. 

It isn't enough to say, "I serve myself," because that's what everyone does when it comes down to it.  Did the Israelites have a better choice for self-preservation than to agree with Joshua?  It wouldn't have been really self-serving to provoke the wrath of their god.  It also isn't enough to say, "I serve God."  Which one?  The biblical God?  There is no such thing.  The biblical depiction of God is an inconsistent patchwork that evolved over time as a culture developed.  Which version of the biblical God do you serve?  Whatever your answer is, you will be defining the divine character based as much on personal beliefs as on biblical depictions.  What matters to you about the character of God is based on what matters to you personally.

Joshua's admonition still has some value.  You don't have to choose "this day;" there's no pressure.  It's worth a little thought, though.  What or whom do you serve?  It may be more than one thing.  What does it mean to serve?  Does it mean mindless obedience?  Does it mean fear of consequences?  Or does it mean heartfelt devotion mixed with autonomy?  Do you bring your full self into service, or do you shut down part of who you are in order to serve?  Are you trying to serve something that really doesn't matter to you, just because someone said you should?  If it didn't matter what other people thought of you, what or whom would you serve?

As for me, I will serve my divine self -- the insight, beauty, and creativity at the core of who I am.  Through that deep self, I am awed and inspired by the world around me.  Through that deep self, I can trust in my ability to find satisfying solutions to the challenges I face.  Through that deep self, I can see the divine character of other people more clearly, and I can think of them and treat them in a way that honors them, that reflects a respect for their capability, even when they are not fully embracing that capability themselves.  Through serving my divine self, I can be honest about what matters to me and make clear decisions that contribute to a fulfilling life.  And from that deep self I can boldly connect with other people and share life with them.

That service is not easy.  I believe things about myself that are not true.  I believe lies about other people and about the networks and systems we create.  I make decisions out of irrational fear from time to time.  I serve my self imperfectly.  Just like everyone else.  I also forgive myself from that deep well and continue serving, and that brings me delight and satisfaction.

We all serve something.  Know what you serve.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Joshua 9-21: The Truth about Your Superiority Complex and the Fear that Fuels It

As we've mentioned, the book of Joshua was probably written by a collection of different authors at a much later time in Israel's history than the events described in the book.  As a part of the "Deuteronomistic history," this book (and the books that follow in the biblical structure) were most likely created to justify a shift toward monotheism and more prominent leadership role of the priesthood under King Josiah late in the 7th century BCE, with the book possibly being completed as much as a century later.  It's evident that the story being told in Joshua is that the Israelites, empowered by their faith, conquered a large swath of the area around the Jordan River, taking livestock, property, and riches from the cities and killing every man, woman, and child of nearly every kingdom they conquered.  In the parlance of our time, we call this genocide, but in the minds of the Israelites, this was simply claiming what God had promised them.  God was in fact instigator and accomplice in their violence, according to the book of Joshua.

Many of the stories that pepper the chapters on the distribution of land, as well as the tales of conquest, end with statements like, "And there they remain to this day."  This suggests that many of the stories were intended to explain a situation, like why a particular group of Israelites were granted access to a particular well, or why a certain group of foreigners/infidels/heathens became slave labor for the Israelites instead of being slaughtered outright.  The stories are not intended to question the status quo, but rather to justify it in a way that put any questions or objections to rest, much like a parental, "because I said so."  Since we are looking back from a different vantage point, we have the opportunity to see some things about the Israelites' self-identity that they may have been unable to see, on account of their immersion in the culture.  Perhaps we can even use such observations to gain a little perspective about our own worldviews.

There's no question that the Israelites thought of themselves as better than everyone else.  On the surface at least.  Their god was better than anyone else's god.  Their entitlement to property and buildings and livestock was more legitimate than anyone else's.  Even their lives were worth more than other people's lives.  Perhaps there was some kind of collective narcissism at work, much like what happens in today's world when extreme nationalism shoves aside any thought of treating other people humanely.  If we accept the narrative of the Bible as how the Israelites saw themselves, perhaps the vehement superiority was actually a defense mechanism for what they feared about themselves, that they were, at their core, slaves.

When we fear something about ourselves, we can go to great lengths to disprove that fear.  If we fear that we are worthless, we might do everything in our power to demonstrate to everyone how valuable we are.  If we fear that we are unlovable, we might do all manner of self-destructive things just to devour illusions of love from other people.  And if we believe that we are no better than slaves, powerless, worth less than "real" people?  We might go to great length just to show everyone just how powerful we can be.  And how worthless they are.  "It doesn't matter if we were slaves in Egypt.  We're so powerful we can take your cities and all of your stuff and kill every last one of you!  We're not weak and powerless.  You're the weak and powerless ones!"

Either way, the lie wins.  If we roll over and accept the lie, we live like we are worthless or unlovable or powerless or selfish or whatever our own personal lies may be, and we never work up the courage to look at the truth about who we are.  And if we defend ourselves against the lie, we go one step further and create a different lie about who we are.  We live like we are more than everyone else.  We miss the truth about who we are and the truth about the other people around us.  All because of fear.  People don't lay waste to a city and slaughter everyone inside unless they are afraid of something.  And in our lives, we don't dehumanize other people or ignore our own value and capability unless we have given in to fear.

Maybe it doesn't manifest as a superiority complex in your life, but for the Israelites, fear told them that they had to prove how powerful and right they were, and they overlooked the atrocities they committed because they marched under the banner of a righteous and perfect god who approved of their actions.  There was no group of people that the Israelites could accept as equals -- at least not in the book of Joshua.  Those they didn't slaughter, they made into slaves.  That's right.  The people whose cultural identity revolved around escaping slavery in Egypt accepted other people only under terms of forced labor.  The irony seems to have been lost on the writers of Joshua, but hopefully our ability to recognize it will alert us to similar ironies in our own lives.

So, the Israelites failed to see their own authentic value as human beings, failed to see other people's authentic value as human beings, committed genocide, stole property, and engaged in slavery, and they thought of all of this as being righteous because of a myopic religion, all the while failing to recognize that their behavior was fueled by fear.  They bolstered their cultural identity with some admirable traits as well.  When they made a promise, even if that promise was made because of a deception, they kept their word.  The Israelites placed great value on the vows they made.  (Just hang on to this little tidbit, since it will become much more important in the book of Judges.)  The writers of Joshua go to great lengths to detail how fairly the land was distributed.  And whether it was because of a fear that God (or someone representing God) would punish them or whether it was out of respect for one another, the Israelites seemed to treat each other like people of equal value, even if they were from different tribes.  We cannot stomach being "all bad" even when we justify a great amount of ugly behavior.  Somewhere inside of us there is a glimmer of our true selves that insists on being expressed.

The fear tells us that if we examine ourselves and really look deep into the core of who we are, that we will see something less than human.  That the lie will turn out to be true.  That we will really turn out to be vacuous, weak, unlovable, selfish, ugly.  But the lie only has power as long as we are afraid of it.  Confront the lie for what it is, and the fear can no longer govern our behavior.  The Israelites didn't have to be conquerors, murderers, looters, destroyers, or slavers, just as they didn't have to be weak, worthless, or enslaved.  But they believed that their only choices were very clear extremes.  That's what fear will do.

What fear are you ignoring?  What lies are you avoiding about your true nature?  Are you afraid that you are weak?  Stupid?  Worthless?  Unlovable?  What are you doing with those lies?  Giving in and living like you're something less than human?  Or fighting against it to prove the lie wrong?  Are you hurting other people just to show how powerful you are?  Are you hurting yourself just to show how lovable you are?  What is it that keeps you from embracing your identity as a beautiful, creative, capable, valuable, worthy human being?  Whatever it is, it's a lie. 

Here's a little secret: When you want to, you can look at any other person, no matter how much or how little you know about them, regardless of how they're behaving, and you can see the divine within them -- you can see a deep and undeniable value, beauty, and creativity that no amount of lies can destroy.  You can also just see the lies about who they think they are.  Or who you think they are.  What you see is your choice.  The same goes for yourself.  If you look for the truth within you, you will find a deep and undeniable worthiness, beauty, and creativity.  Or you can stop short and just see the lies.  What you see is your choice.  And what you do with what you see is your choice too.   

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Joshua 7-8: Our Spiritual Identities Are Strengthened by Landmarks and Reminders

We've called Joshua's attack on Jericho a cautionary tale of how fear can discolor inspired ideas.  As an image of a strong Israelite leader at the time, though, the character of Joshua fit the bill.  He spoke and acted with authority, whether he was punishing someone who had gone against his orders or slaughtering people who didn't believe in his god.  His story continues in Joshua 7-8, as Joshua leads the Israelites in claiming by force a land inhabited by people who had legitimately built cities, bred livestock, and raised families.  From an outsider's perspective, Joshua was a barbaric warlord who claimed to act on God's authority -- the sort of person we might emulate if we were ambitious narcissists, but not a model of how to create a better world. 

Not everything in Joshua's tale needs to be taken as cautionary, however.  His leadership demonstrates three important practices that could be of benefit to anyone on a spiritual journey.  Joshua has the Israelites create landmarks to commemorate every major event in their communal experience, both the successes and the disappointments.  He also adapts to issues within the community by changing his expectations, and he makes a significant event out of reminding the community of their identity.  All of these practices are demonstrated in chapters 7 and 8, even in the midst of overseeing a violent invasion.

In the story that is told here, Joshua had commanded his men not to take for themselves any of the spoils of war from Jericho, but not everyone listened.  This disobedience resulted in the Israelite soldiers losing a battle against the defending forces of Ai.  Joshua does two noteworthy things in this difficult situation.  First, he punishes the person who went against his orders, as one would expect from a strong military leader.  But the second remarkable thing is that he changes his expectations of the soldiers, commanding that they are free to carry off the livestock and plunder from the next city they attack.  After they are victorious, Joshua arranges for the Israelite community to be reminded of their spiritual and cultural identities in a ceremony that recounted the entirety of the law to which they were committed as a people.

At this ceremony, they left relics of the occasion, just as they had done at every significant event since Joshua's leadership began.  They left piles of rocks when a significant part of their journey was complete, when a city was successfully destroyed, when a member of their community was punished, every time something memorable happened in the life of the Israelite community.  The memorializing of the events presumably made it more difficult to forget them, thus strengthening cultural memory and identity.

Whether or not Joshua was a real person, these are practices that we can adopt in our own lives.  We may not be invading cities or sentencing people who disobey us to death by stoning, but we are all on our own journeys.  We all struggle from time to time with our identities, especially when there are people around us (or an entire society) with conflicting impressions of who we should be.  Standing with conviction about who you are and what you stand for isn't always easy, and it can be helpful to have a few practices in place to reinforce our personal responsibility and integrity.

Just like the Israelites, we occasionally need reminders about who we are.  We get into patterns of behavior that can almost become automatic if we let them.  Sometimes we are susceptible to what other people expect from us, to the point that we may lose our own integrity in the process of living by someone else's expectations.  Taking time to remind ourselves what we believe and what we want our lives to be about can be a powerful reinforcement in our lives, whether it's something we choose to do monthly, weekly, or even daily during times of exceptional duress.  Of course, this requires knowing what we believe and understanding who we want to be in the world, which is really what the journey is about anyway.

Based on our beliefs, we set goals for ourselves.  Sometimes these goals are very intentional and sometimes we are barely conscious of where we are headed.  The more time we spend examining our beliefs and our identities, the more opportunity we have to be aware of what we're expecting of ourselves.  When we encounter challenges, whether those challenges are because of our own capability at the time or because other people aren't doing what we expect or want, it's important not to let those challenges overwhelm us.  The challenges are there to help us hone our beliefs and expectations, not to punish or restrict us.  It may be that we are demanding some unreasonable things from ourselves (or other people), or that our beliefs about ourselves or the world around us are somehow being influenced by our fears.  Whatever the case, the challenges we encounter give us an opportunity to assess what we're making important in our lives, whether our expectations are reasonable, and whether there are some changes we can make to better enable us to have lives built on what matters most to us.

Challenges along the journey are rarely outright roadblocks.  We are capable of adapting to the challenges, refining our sense of who we are, and aligning ourselves more clearly with the truth, beauty, and creativity within us.  Whether we overcome our challenges with ease or we struggle against them, whether we see the immediate results as successes or disappointments, the challenges are worth commemorating.  We may not pile stones around our houses and workplaces, but across the landscape of our lives, we can create markers in our minds for significant events and how those events helped to define who we are and what we believe.  These significant events may be the kinds of things that are similar in everyone's life -- marriages, births, deaths, the plundering of cities -- or they may be things that are significant because of what you learned about yourself.  They landmarks remind us of the pitfalls we have faced and the bridges we have built, and our awareness of them can help prevent fighting the same battles over and over again in our lives.

What we believe may change over time -- if we are growing as human beings, it's likely that our beliefs will grow too -- but what we believe and how those beliefs inform our behavior is always within our control.  We are responsible for the lives we create and the impact we have on other people and the world.  Establishing spiritual landmarks and taking time to remind ourselves who we are helps us be more aware of that personal responsibility, and our willingness to be flexible as we face challenges with integrity keeps us growing in satisfying ways.

It may be that you are unsure what you believe, and that all of this seems rather impractical or unrealistic.  That's a fair critique at this point.  It's easy to say "create spiritual landmarks," and it's a much more difficult thing to clearly explain how one might go about doing that.  The easy answer is that you already know how to remember significant events and that there is no right or wrong way to remind yourself who you are and what is important to you, as long as you are willing to be honest with yourself.  It requires a bit of time away from the distractions of all the other noise -- perhaps a stillness and quiet that can be intimidating if it's unfamiliar.  No one can really tell you who you are or what matters to you. I can say with some confidence that the truth about you is not based on any fears you may have, but rather on a deeper, calmer, quieter place within you.  The moments when you are aware of the deep truth, beauty, and creativity within you or within other people -- these are the moments worth commemorating.  These are the moments that will help you get back to the core of who you are and what matters most in life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Joshua 2-6: When Divine Inspiration Gets Sidetracked by Fear

About half of the book of Joshua is folklore about how incredibly successful this man was as a military leader when the Israelites were slaughtering innocent people and taking their land, wealth, and communities.  It's difficult for rational people to look upon some of the content as factually viable, since the stories include things like the sun standing still for a day and such.  That being said, there is powerful allegorical value in these stories, particularly the first and most highly developed story about the fall of Jericho.  These Old Testament stories were written from the standpoint that the Israelites were better than everyone else because God said so, and all the other people who were living in the area around the Jordan River at the time were expendable because they weren't chosen by God.  It isn't a stretch from that perspective to draw "spiritual" lessons from the story about trusting God and overcoming enemies through faith.  But what if one approaches from a different set of assumptions?

If we start from the belief that all human life is valuable, that people are worthy of respect regardless of their beliefs, Joshua's acts seem deplorable.  The Israelites' actions dehumanize their enemies.  If we start from a belief in abundance rather than scarcity, it seems at the very least misguided to drive off or kill people just to claim their resources.  Yet we still haven't outgrown that behavior in some respects.  And if we start from a belief that houses the character of the divine within every human being, Joshua's actions are inspired, representative of the kind of creativity available to any of us if we are willing to tap into our internal resources and trust ourselves.  The problem is not with Joshua's outlandish tactics, it's with the fear he entertains regarding the people of Jericho.

One challenge in reading or hearing any sort of story as adults is that we typically have a set of beliefs in place before we determine what the story has to offer.  Our opinions of any new information are based on what we already believe about the world, other people, and ourselves.  It is nearly impossible for us to approach new information with a truly open mind, free from any beliefs about reality.  For many people who grew up in a Christian context, biblical stories were even used to help frame our beliefs about the world, other people, and ourselves, but we weren't really able to understand the nuances of the stories beyond what adults were telling us to believe.  As adults, we have the opportunity to reassess our beliefs and to re-contextualize the stories we know or encounter anew.

If it is true that all human beings hold within themselves the deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we associate with the character of the divine, then we are capable of doing incredible things when we push past the layers of fear that have accumulated over time and embrace that truth, beauty, and creativity within us.  With calm patience, we can collapse seemingly insurmountable obstacles that would hold firm in the face of the greatest display of force.  Our strength is not in our ability to be violent, but in our ability to be intentional.  What happens after the walls come down and we are granted access to new territory, though?

Once again, if it is true that all human beings hold within themselves the deep truth, beauty, and creativity that we associate with the character of the divine, then this truth should inform all of our dealings with other people.  When we seek to do harm to others, we are harming a system of which we ourselves are a part.  We cannot bring violence to other people without doing some harm to our own identities and well-being.  Honestly, our only reason for intending harm toward others is fear, and that fear is almost always irrational.  In Joshua's case, there were likely manifold fears that prevented him from seeing the divinity in the people he conquered.  He was afraid that his culture could be corrupted, that his people were too weak to hold to their beliefs in the face of alternative practices.  He was afraid of death at the hands of the defenders of the cities the Israelites were assaulting.  He was afraid of how his people would see him, whether they would hail him as a hero or reject his authority.  Understandable fears, but unnecessary fears.

Joshua is a character of fiction, a bit of folklore to build cultural identity for an ancient people.  But we experience fears that may seem insignificant by comparison to a leader of an entire society, and those fears still manage to derail our creativity and inspiration.  We fear what people will think of us, and we fear what people will do to us.  We fear things about ourselves as well, that we will be found out, revealed as imposters or weaklings.  We fear that we have to fight for survival, that we have to defend ourselves at every turn.  We learned to fear from a variety of sources, and we have practiced that fear until it frames our reality.  We have to look beyond that fear to see the truth and beauty and inspiration in the world around us, and we have to look beyond that fear to see the truth and beauty and creativity within ourselves.  The more ingrained the fear, the more dismantling we need to do to see what is true.

Dismantling fear is easier said than done.  Even the prospect of it brings up a whole new onslaught of fears.  Our entire society is addicted to fear, and the thought of disregarding fear is counter-cultural to say the least.  It will not happen all at once, but as we are willing to see our own beauty and creativity, and as we are willing to see the beauty and inspiration in others, we will build confidence in that truth.  We can bring the walls down with confidence and discover ways to make the world a better place rather than a more violent one.  We can create a life that serves our most noble intentions rather than our most fearful ones.

The message of Joshua is a cautionary tale.  We have within us immense power.  When we tap into that divine essence, we can find inspiration to do incredible things in our lives and in the lives of other people.  But when we unleash that power out of fear, we can destroy instead of create.  We court the power of judgment and death instead of bringing hope and life.  We are capable of either path.  The difference is that when we identify ourselves as destroyers, we act in defiance of our true nature.  The fear that convinces us that destruction is the only option will never bring us satisfaction, peace, happiness.  That fear will always be restless.  But we are not destroyers.  That is not our identity as human beings, no matter what we have been led to believe or what we have accepted as reality.  We are creators.  At our core we are capable, strong, life-affirming creators.  To deny that is to deny our humanity.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Joshua 1: Courage Is a Vital Ingredient to Living with Integrity

About half of the book of Joshua is folklore about this Israelite leader's success in conquering the Promised Land.  The other half is about how the land was divided up among the Israelites, which reads about as interesting as any tax roll.  Joshua's life as depicted in the Bible would make a very exciting movie, and let's face it, telling stories with the community gathered together was the ancient civilization equivalent of a movie theater.  We can draw spiritual truth from these stories as easily as we can draw spiritual truth from the stories of any culture, but the book of Joshua begins with one of the most blatant and timeless admonishments found anywhere in scripture.  Be strong and courageous.

Moses was dead, and Joshua had been selected to fill his shoes.  The Israelite people hadn't been entirely respectful of Moses' leadership.  They were quite an unruly lot from time to time.  Now a new leader has to manage a rather belligerent young society, while they most likely did what any classroom of students do with a new teacher: test boundaries and see what they can get away with.  Now, the Bible doesn't include much about the Israelites' bad behavior in the relatively short book of Joshua, but if the previous books are anything to go by, Joshua had his hands full.  Fortunately, most of his reported leadership was a series of successful military battles, so his popularity was probably much higher than his cantankerous predecessor who was always telling people what they couldn't do and meting out punishments for their constant complaining.

The biggest problem when someone new takes charge, or when we enter some new phase of life -- a new job, a new city, parenthood, retirement -- is that we have gotten accustomed to things being a certain way, and now we have to deal with change.  Some people aren't wired to enjoy change.  They like the appearance of a predictable, secure existence, even if that includes a predictable level of stress.  Unpredictable pleasure is almost more threatening than predictable pain to some people.  While I respect the preferences of those people and understand the comfort to be found in predictable patterns, I would submit that very little in life is truly predictable and consistent.  We are faced with a certain amount of upheaval over the course of our lives, no matter how well we may have planned everything out.  Since there is no way to truly avoid change, what matters most is how we handle it.

Our beliefs determine a lot of our decisions.  What we believe about ourselves and other people (and life in general) informs how we respond to changes, however slight they may be.  Whether the change is someone moving our coffee cup or someone firing us from a job, whether it's a little rain on our picnic or a natural disaster destroying our home, our beliefs are the source of our responses.  And those beliefs are constantly being challenged.  If we believe that people are inherently good, there will be evidence to the contrary whenever we get around enough people who all want to get to the same place at the same time.  If we believe that people are inherently selfish, there will be generous acts that challenge that belief.  Whether you believe that you are attractive or unattractive, there will be people who disagree with you, some more vocally than others.  Our beliefs cannot remain intact by mere observation of things around us.  Strong beliefs originate from someplace deeper.

Not all of our beliefs are beneficial to us.  If we want our beliefs to be useful, we have to sort through them and stake our claim on the beliefs that truly make sense to us.  Our beliefs also change over time.  We may start off thinking one way about a particular group of people and wind up changing that belief when we gain new information.  When we are aware of how our beliefs are affecting our decisions, we can take a bit more conscious responsibility.  There aren't a lot of people who are going to confront us on what we believe, so we are best off taking some initiative to confront ourselves. 

Plenty of folks claim to believe one thing and then act completely contrary to that claim.  These people are being dishonest somewhere along the line.  Either they know what they believe and are unwilling to admit it because they fear what people will think of them, or they don't know what they believe and make a claim based on what they think they're supposed to believe in.  Some of these people even have strong convictions that are essentially empty of meaning because there is no real thought behind the convictions.  It is spiritual laziness to express unexamined beliefs with vehemence and passion.

When we are willing to engage in some self-examination, both of what we believe and how we behave, we can see clearly enough where the disconnections are, and we can address those disconnections.  We might revise what we believe so that our beliefs clearly line up with the decisions we want to make, or we might change our behavior so that it best reflects what we believe.  We might discover that we have some beliefs that are in conflict with one another, and we can make a clear decision about which we will strengthen and which we will jettison.  Without this level of integrity, we will always be struggling with conflict that comes from within our very being, and everything we do and experience will be to some extent impacted by this conflict.  Living a satisfying life depends upon knowing what we believe and having the integrity to make decisions based on those beliefs.

Being spiritually strong involves knowing who we are and committing to a life that reflects that identity clearly.  It doesn't mean bullying people who believe differently, and it doesn't mean being louder than anyone else.  Spiritual strength is about how well our behavior reflects what is at our core.  I am convinced that the beliefs that arise from that core will ultimately reflect the truth that human beings have value, that we are all imbued with creativity, and that we live in abundance.  A lot of the beliefs that seem contrary to those truths are actually fears that we have clung to for so long that they seem true.  Beliefs about needing to be wealthy, or needing to make people behave the way we want them to, or needing to eradicate a certain type of person in order to make our own lives better.  Fear is not great at disguises, but it's often enough for us to convince ourselves.  When we begin to examine our beliefs, though, we can start to recognize fear for what it is.  We can work to let go of irrational beliefs about ourselves and other people and the way life must be, and we can strengthen the beliefs that better allow us to create the kind of life we most want with integrity.

And this requires courage.  There will be challenges to what we believe.  Some of the challenges will arise from within us, as those irrational fears continue to crop up.  Some of the challenges will arise from outside of us, in the way that other people behave, or the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  It takes courage to stand in the face of violence and claim that all human beings have value and are worthy of respect.  It takes courage to look at a difficult situation and trust that you have the creativity and resources to find a way through to the other side with your integrity intact.  It takes courage to keep living by a certain set of principles when other people seem to be doing just fine -- even better than you perhaps -- by taking advantage of people or lying.  Fear is enticing, and it takes courage to live from the core of who we are rather than be distracted by whatever fears may seduce us away from that. 

Be strong and courageous.  Do not give fear a foothold.  Do not fall prey to discouragement.  You have within you the capability to live a satisfying and fulfilling life.  You will have an impact on the world around you, and you have the power to choose what kind of impact that will be.  Build integrity between your beliefs and your actions.  Verify that your beliefs serve you and the world around you, and be fearless in the knowledge that you embody an undeniable beauty and creativity.  Be strong and very courageous.  Fear has done enough damage in the world and in our lives.  Fear destroys our integrity.  And even though fear will always be present in our lives, we don't have to give it control of our behavior.  Be strong and courageous, and live like you mean it.