* 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

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.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Judges 17-21: A Glimpse at a People without Respect

The final chapters of Judges relate tales of the days when "Israel had no king and everyone did as they saw fit."  It isn't a pretty picture.  There is no hero in these tales, just Israelites behaving badly.  People make idols out of silver, they ask God questions by basically rolling dice, they mistreat strangers who visit their town, they send provocative messages by carving up people, they solve moral conflicts through war, and they kidnap women so that the immoral might have wives.  The Israelites in this series of tales have somehow lost a sense of their humanity. 

Some readers may take this as evidence of the need for God, seeing this deplorable behavior as a sign that the Israelites had fallen away.  Some of the Israelites seek guidance from God, though, even though their faith practices are shallow.  The message may be that people need a strong spiritual leader to keep them from falling back into barbarism.  This is like blaming all of a country's problems on the president.  One person cannot bear the burden of moral responsibility that rightfully belongs with each individual.  A possible lesson from this bizarre series of folktales is that a healthy society is built upon personal responsibility and the practice of accountability.

We have already discussed many times that people are worthy of respect, that every individual holds within the divine characteristics of truth, beauty, and creativity.  There is no one requiring us to treat ourselves or other people according to this perspective, though.  It is up to us to maintain this way of seeing ourselves and the world around us.  We choose in every moment whether we will see the divinity in another person or not.  We decide whether we will hold ourselves as more or less valuable than the people around us instead of seeing people eye to eye.  No leader or deity can force us to treat ourselves or other people with respect.  That's on us as individuals.

But what happens when we fall short of that ideal?  Are we to assume that we will always be completely honest with ourselves and that we will be fully willing to address the fears that lead us to occasionally miss the mark?  Sometimes we might be blind to our own behavior, not to mention the hidden reasons we might decide to act in a way that runs contrary to what we believe.  For the Israelite community in these final chapters of Judges, the real problem is that unhealthy behaviors have gone on for so long that no one can really say, "There's something wrong with this picture."  In our own lives, we don't need to wait until a proverbial body part shows up on our doorstep to be open to the message that something is amiss.

None of us lives as an island, perfectly aware of all that we do and all of the reasons for it, our beliefs and our actions impeccably synchronized.  From time to time, we all think and do things that are off the mark from what we strive for as individuals.  In addition to a practice of self-reflection, we also need the mirror of other people's perceptions to direct us toward aspects of ourselves we might overlook -- the blind spots we have about ourselves.  Of course, we can't always take everything other people say about us at face value.  Other people are dealing with their own dramas and fears, and the judgments that come out of someone's mouth may actually be more about them than about us.  It's easier to hear feedback from people we trust, people who can speak the truth in love, people who understand what we are aiming for in our lives.

So, the personal responsibility is once more on us to gather around us people who will hold us accountable to the things we claim about ourselves.  With self-examination and the feedback of trusted mirrors, we stand a much better chance of treating ourselves and other people like worthwhile human beings.  The answer is not in making sacrifices to something we make from melted down silver, and we aren't going to get meaningful answers from casting lots or dice or a Magic 8-Ball.  These things are just excuses we use to blame something external for the decisions we've already made in our minds.  Perhaps if the Israelites had created a culture in which personal responsibility and accountability were expected, they wouldn't have gone so far off the rails into the realms of indulgence, permissiveness, and impulsiveness.

Ultimately, we already know what we need to know.  It's just a matter of putting it into practice more and more often.  We know whether or not we are treating ourselves with respect.  We know whether we are willing to see the divine when we look at another human being.  When we are honest with ourselves, we know how we really want to live.  Listening to meaningful feedback from people we trust is one tool that can help us create that life.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Judges 13-16: Samson, Bruce Banner, and Finding Where the Spiritual Rubber Hits the Road

It's one thing to speak in the abstract about spirituality and divinity -- to have an academic or philosophical conversation about God and belief and the biblical narrative.  It is sometimes more challenging to recognize where belief impacts how we live.  While we may not always realize it, our actual beliefs are more clearly expressed in our actions than we ever consciously state in an abstract conversation.  Whether a person claims to believe in a loving god who saves people from harm, a vengeful god who punishes the wicked, or something else altogether, those claims don't really have a lot of meaning until they impact daily life.

One can draw all sorts of clever lessons from the story of Samson.  The bottom line is that Samson is a man who gets very violent when he gets angry.  In today's terms, he has an anger management problem.  Of course, because he's an Israelite from the tribe of Dan and the people he kills are Philistines, Samson is a hero.  Today, when someone from one culture commits suicide while killing thousands of people from another culture, we have a different name for that.  Whatever we call him, Samson was obviously a powerful man who was reviled by people because he demonstrated his power in uncontrolled fits of violence.  Conveniently, the writers of Judges attribute Samson's strength to God.  I would submit that the divine character is not the source of rage, vengeance, and hatred.

Several years ago, a close friend of mine in a large church endured horrific treatment by a coworker for a series of months.  Instead of handling the problem professionally, senior staff treated my friend as if he were culpable for the abuse he endured.  Eventually, things came to a head and my friend was essentially asked to resign.  Although it was a traumatic experience for months, it was the best thing that could have happened to him.  The environment wasn't going to change.  The only thing that could change was his role in the system.  In the end, he won by getting out of the abusive situation.

No doubt, people at the church thought they had won as well: The abuser got to keep his position, the pastor didn't have to handle the messy issue, and other people could go about their business without getting caught up in the drama of the conflict.  It's easy to think of ourselves as winners when we get what we want.  But what we think will make us happy in the short term is not always what will satisfy us in the long term.  The things we want in the moment are not always the things that connect us more deeply with ourselves and other people.  Sometimes we want it easy, but we don't grow much through easy situations.  We grow when we recognize the decisions that are in greatest alignment with the core of who we are, and choose to do those things even when they are challenging.

From the outside, it was very easy for me to side with my friend.  I know him better than I knew anyone else in the situation, and I care about his well being.  It was easy for me to value him over the anonymous people that had "made his life miserable."  And yet, I have this belief (at least I claim to) that every human being has value, that every person holds within them a divine self -- a deep core of truth, beauty, and creativity.  How do I reconcile that belief with a person or a group of people who seem to have a very different character?  This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of spiritual belief.  What do we do with situations that challenge the way we want to see the world?

In the midst of an abusive situation, a person might feel justified in feeling hatred, seeking vengeance, and looking for ways to bring the building down around his enemies, even if he gets hurt in the process.  When we start thinking and acting based on what we fear, we lose our sense of who we are.  Feeling threatened can lead us to sever our connection to our values.  We even have the Samson story telling us that God approves of rage and vengeance if it's directed toward the right people.  But does that ring true with what you honestly believe?  It doesn't ring true for me.  I know that rage and vengeance and hatred are the exact opposite of what I want to express to other people, and those uncontrolled and unquestioned emotions separate me from who I most want to be in the world.

Rage, vengeance, and hatred all stem from fear.  In Samson's situation, it might be seen as fear that the Israelites would always be subjected to Philistine authority.  In my friend's situation, there were plenty of things for him to fear, too: that more people might get hurt if he didn't do something, that he might not find another job, that he might be embarrassed, that his relationships would suffer... a lot of understandable fears.  The other people in the system may have had some fears as well: The abuser in the situation may have had some legitimate anger issues that he feared would never be controllable.  The pastor may have feared the ramifications of some difficult and unpleasant decisions.  Other people in the system may have feared for their jobs if they don't cooperate.  Everyone may have feared instability in relationships that mattered to them.  And fear leads us to do some pretty inhuman things sometimes.

We don't have to take that path, though.  When we see fear for what it is and recognize how easily it escalates into irrationality, we can stop our legitimate anger from building into uncontrolled rage or hatred.  Anger is useful.  It helps us to see what we want to change in our lives.  When we use it to determine how we want to control or manipulate other people, we've missed the gift in the anger.  Samson hurt a lot of Philistines, but did his actions really accomplish anything for his family or his people?  Our fear separates us from our truest, most noble selves and we can easily slip into hostile reactivity when we don't manage that fear.

Seeing our fear for what it is and disarming it can also help us see how other people's actions are based on fear and not their truest, most noble selves.  We can have compassion for people who are caught up in hostile reactivity, because we know what it's like.  We know how easy it is to let fear rule our thoughts and actions.  We can't change those people, but we can be willing to see them more fully -- their humanity and their divinity, even in times when they don't see it in themselves.  Everyone has value, even people whose behavior we find deplorable.  The behavior is not the person.  The fear that fuels the behavior is not the person.  The person we are tempted to hate is honestly just like us: a beautiful and creative being who sometimes lets fear get in the way of deep connection to themselves and other people.  

Within us all is the character of the divine, even in the times when we lose sight of it.  We can always reclaim it and reconnect to it when we are willing.  If there is anything of value in the Samson story, it is that possibility of reconnection to the divine.  It is through that connection that we have a chance of seeing our way past irrational fear and into honest hope.  It is through that connection that we have a chance of personal responsibility and meaningful awareness of ourselves and other people and the world we share.  It is through that connection that our deepest truths can be made manifest in the way we live moment to moment, where the rubber hits the road. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Judges 10-12: When Breaking an Agreement Might Be a Good Idea

A couple of leaders get a mention after the wicked Abimilek meets his end, but the next judge of the Israelites that gets any real attention is Jephthah.  His story is a reminder that sometimes people are going to base their actions on personal prejudices rather than a person's capability.  Even though there is some debate about how literally to interpret a vow that Jephthah makes, there is something to be taken from the story regarding the agreements we make.

The story of Jephthah is another tale of an unlikely savior.  He isn't a southpaw or a woman, but he is a bastard.  When his legitimate half-brothers thought he posed a threat to their inheritance, they sent Jephthah away.  Then, when there was a threat from the Ammonites, they wanted him to be commander-in-chief of the tribe of Manasseh.  He was understandably suspicious, but with the agreement that he would be put in a position of power if he was victorious, he set his sights on turning back the Ammonites.

His initial diplomatic message to the Ammonite king suggests that either Jephthah had a sketchy idea of Israelite history or he was trying to pull the wool over the Ammonite's eyes.  Or perhaps the writers of Judges and the writers of the book of Joshua were working from different historical perspectives for different purposes.  Whatever the case, Jephthah's version of history isn't the main point to his message.  His primary thrust is, "Our god gave us this land.  Be happy with what your god gave you and stop trying to take our land."  Since the history is a bit fuzzy, there isn't a great deal to be gained from considering how boldly ironic this statement is.

The Ammonite king, of course, disregards the message, battle ensues, and Jephthah is blessed by the Spirit of the Lord.  He vows to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if he returns victorious, and he wins the battle.  Unfortunately, the first thing out of his door is his daughter, but being a man of his word, he sacrifices her.  It isn't entirely clear what this means, since translators disagree about some of the nuance.  Obviously, sacrificing anyone as a burnt offering has never been an approved act of worship in the Israelite tradition.  The only thing that came close was Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but in that story, God intervenes and stops the sacrificial act, distinguishing his values from the supposed values of the other gods of the area.  As the story reads, God seems to be fine with Jephthah's vow -- he doesn't intercede in any way.  But it may be that Jephthah's daughter was simply dedicated to God in some less brutal way.

Still, killing one's daughter because of a vow doesn't seem that far out of context for the behavior of the ancient Israelites.  They committed some fairly barbaric acts when it comes down to it.  When the men of a fellow tribe challenge Jephthah for not letting them in on the opportunity to claim some Ammonite spoils, these two tribes of Israel become adversarial, with the Gileadites killing an astonishing forty-two thousand Ephraimites before all is said and done.  It's perhaps a small comfort that when someone makes fun of the way you pronounce a word these days, you usually have only a bit of pride at stake.

In any case, the Israelites' view of God is different here.  Yes, bad things are punishments from God, and good things are rewards from God.  Human endeavor is given very little weight in the grand scheme of things.  It is a pervasive cultural dismissal of personal responsibility.  "If we killed all those people, then obviously God wanted us to kill all those people.  Otherwise he would have done something about it."  "If God let insects eat your crops, then obviously he was angry at you."  I suppose one could say that the Israelites were in the position of power because they could stop their worship of other gods at any time and be the kind of people Yahweh wanted them to be, but they were obviously getting something out of their decisions.  That something may have been freedom from responsibility.

When we are criticized or looked down upon because of who our parents are, or because of our accents, or because of what our leaders have said, it's important to remember that the people doing the criticizing aren't seeing us.  They are seeing a characteristic that represents a personal fear for them somehow.  When we can behave in a superior way toward something that represents fear, we think we are being courageous.  Many times we are just being bullies to people.  Other people don't deserve to be punching bags for us to work out our innermost fears in an outwardly violent way.  Whether they take the shape of judgments, prejudices, or outright hatred, our fears are ours to own.  When we recognize the symptoms of fear gone out of control, it's our responsibility to manage that fear in a way that doesn't bring harm to other people.  That becomes easier to do when we recognize our personal responsibility for our actions and beliefs.

We make all sorts of agreements with ourselves.  Some of those agreements are based on fear, but some of them are based on legitimate striving for a more satisfying, fulfilling existence.  We want to protect ourselves, or we want to give ourselves incentive or encouragement, and so we start making deals.  "If I get this job, I will allow myself to celebrate."  Or "If I lose this job, I'm going to give myself permission to get revenge."  We don't necessarily do this consciously, but we are making deals like Jephthah all the time.  If you want to think of it as making deals with God, that's fine.  At the end of the day, though, God isn't going to hold you accountable to reckless vows.  You will.  Or you will let yourself be human and realize that you can break the vows with yourself that are harmful to you and other people.

It's easy for us to dig in our heels when we think that there is some divine power looking down on us and rigidly judging what we do and think.  We think we are obligated to follow through with something because we've made a commitment, even after we realize that what we've committed to may not be the wisest course of action.  Whether you believe that the divine is within you or outside of you, the character of the divine is not unreasonable, unyielding, or unforgiving.  We often misplace those characteristics on the divine because we are unwilling to be reasonable or forgiving with ourselves.  We think that it means something horrible about who we are if we go back on our word.  Breaking the reckless, harmful agreements with ourselves actually means that we are able to learn, that we are able to be wise, that we are able to forgive.

There will be more opportunity to look at the character of the divine, and more opportunity to look at the agreements we make with ourselves.  For now, the story of Jephthah seems to be saying these three things: Verify that your information is accurate before you go to war in your life.  Deal with your fear (judgment, prejudice, hatred, ...) in a healthy way, not in a way that brings harm to you or any other person.  Examine the agreements you've made with yourself about who and how you must be, and develop a willingness to break those agreements that do not reflect the deep truth, undeniable beauty, and inspiring creativity you possess.  You are capable of creating more in your life than strict adherence to reckless vows.