* 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

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.