* 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, April 30, 2013

2 Kings 11-14: Pictures of Human Immaturity

The saga of royalty in Israel and Judah continues in 2 Kings 11-14. Elisha's last crotchety advice and his posthumous miracle-working are included in this passage, although there is little to be said about these stories that has not already been pointed out about folklore of the Ancient Near East. While the recounting of Judah's history in 2 Chronicles matches the tale in 2 Kings closely, there are a couple of interesting differences to point out. The Chronicler includes a bit of information about both Joash and Amaziah that the authors of the Book of Kings either did not know or chose to omit.

It seems like a small thing, but these two versions of Joash's reign hold a contradiction that demonstrates that the Bible is written from a multitude of subjective points of view, and thus cannot be taken as completely literally accurate. The context is the story about Joash having the high priest Jehoiada oversee the collection funds to repair the temple. It takes a bit of time and persistence, but the king eventually gets temple repairs under way. 2 Kings 12:13-14 states, "The money brought into the temple was not spent for making silver basins, wick trimmers, sprinkling bowls, trumpets or any other articles of gold or silver for the temple of the Lord; it was paid to the workers, who used it to repair the temple." It then goes on to articulate how honest the workers were. Compare that to 2 Chronicles 24:14; after all the repairs were diligently completed, "they brought the rest of the money to the king and Jehoiada, and with it were made articles for the Lord’s temple: articles for the service and for the burnt offerings, and also dishes and other objects of gold and silver." According to Chronicles 24:7, this was necessary because Athaliah had misused the items for Baal worship.

It really doesn't matter whether Joash and Jehoiada approved of making some new altar pieces with the money that was collected. The point is that one of these accounts is simply factually wrong. For most readers, that is no problem. One person knew something another person didn't, or perhaps there was some political reason an author had for suggesting that things happened a certain way. It certainly doesn't have any bearing on our understanding of spirituality. However, this passage is one of many that reflects the problem with asserting that there are no contradictions of any kind in the Bible and that it is a completely trustworthy account of history, as some people do.

The Chronicler also includes some details about the remainder of Joash's reign that the version of history in 2 Kings completely omits. Both tell of how Joash handed over temple and palace riches to Hazael, king of Aram, and how this led Joash's officials to assassinate him. In addition to correcting some details about the circumstances of Joash's death and burial, however, the Chronicler reveals that Joash had turned away from worshiping Yahweh after the death of high priest Jehoiada, going so far as to murder Jehoiada's son when the priest Zechariah spoke out against the king. 

Joash's son Amaziah, who succeeded him on the throne, is also a bit more colorfully put on display by the Chronicler, who includes interactions between Amaziah and a couple of unnamed prophets, as well as a reason why folks in Israel might have gotten tired of this king of Judah. Jehoash was king of Israel at the time, and the story tells of him breaking down a wall of Jerusalem and stealing "all the gold and silver articles found in the temple." So, either Joash didn't really give everything away to the king of Aram or Judah had bountiful resources to the extent that they could have things made of gold and silver in the temple again. Or perhaps these articles were plunder from Amaziah's successful military campaigns. In any case, Amaziah's reign ended in assassination as well. It was a tough gig being king of Judah.

Entertainment value of ancient stories aside, a consistent theme through these tales is the wealth and lives that were sacrificed in defending and maintaining a religion. If we take the biblical historians at their word, incredible amounts of a nation's resources were spent on religious paraphernalia that had no practical value to the people, and consistent with the biblical narrative up to this point, thousands of people were killed under the auspices of Yahweh's favor for the Israelites. If a people is favored by a divine being, why couldn't this omnipotent divine being simply protect them from harm and let the "infidels" kill one another off? What can be said about the character of a deity who requires his followers to take up arms and kill those who don't belong to the tribe? The criticism leveled at Islam in the twenty-first century is that this supposed religion of peace promotes violence, and yet, where must Muslims have learned this dichotomy? If the God of Christianity in the twenty-first century is the same Yahweh worshiped by the ancient Israelites, someone somewhere along the way got something very wrong. The divine propensity for violence as a solution to any problem in the Old Testament is incompatible with the message of patient love and compassion conveyed by the New Testament. 

So what can be said about the consistency of the Bible, then? Perhaps it is not a consistent depiction of the nature of a divine being, but rather a trajectory taken by a people on a path of spiritual and emotional maturity. Perhaps in its infancy, humanity's immaturity led it toward violence and clear delineations between Us and Them. Fear was the primary motivator on nearly every level of a people's development, even if they were not conscious of fear as a driving principle. Immature people cannot comprehend concepts like unconditional love and self-sacrificial compassion toward the Other. And yet, love and compassion were necessary at some level for any society to have lasted. The prophets will actually speak into this immaturity before the Old Testament is through. The bottom line is that no human society could never have developed if everyone only did what seemed personally advantageous in the moment. Perhaps the Old Testament, then, is largely about the failure of humanity to thrive in a state of immaturity.

If this is the case, then the New Testament is not about a different deity, but nor is it really about a deity at all. It is about human maturity. The teachings of Jesus become lessons in developing emotional and spiritual maturity so that one is not governed by fear and is thus capable of authentic love, genuine compassion, and unfettered joy. The New Testament is not the story of armies and kings and how many thousands of people God allowed this person or that person to drive off a cliff so their riches could be plundered. The New Testament is about the part in the trajectory toward maturity where individual people learn to live in deep connection with themselves and one another. 

Of course, this message is largely overshadowed by miracle stories and the establishment of doctrinal formulas that reinforce the idea that people are incapable, broken, and weak. What could be developed as a message of hope that people can grow into mature iterations of themselves, and that society can thus grow in maturity, has been used to create the same waste of resources and death tolls as the immature ancient Israelite religion and worse. Perhaps humanity is still not ready for the idea of maturity -- the idea that fear need not have a place in our personal guiding principles. Perhaps humanity is still in its infancy, where violence and fear outweigh our capacity as a species for rational thought, love, and creativity. Perhaps humanity in the twenty-first century is not all that different from humanity as expressed by the bloodthirsty, short-sighted ancient Israelites. 

Whatever humanity's maturity level may be, though, there exist in the world today individuals who are willing to accept their capability to create something better. There are individuals who understand that the welcome conflict of growth is different than senseless fear-driven violence -- who recognize that all people have value and are worthy of respect, even people who don't realize their potential for maturity. There are individuals in the world today who can clearly envision a way of being that radiates trust and hope in the present while still being well-grounded in deep convictions -- individuals who are continually taking time to connect with themselves so that they can connect with others more deeply. There are individuals in the world today who are not governed by fear or judgment, but by a calm sense of purpose, an evocative passion to create rather than destroy. There are individuals in the world today who understand that people who embody personal responsibility and capability can and do influence humanity toward greater maturity. 

Perhaps you are one of them.     

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Mark 4:35-5:43: If Someone Started Handing Out Miracles, Everybody Would Want To Be First in Line

The miracle stories in the gospels reflect many myths about healers and miracle workers in the ancient world. For instance, close parallels to the gospel accounts can be found in the legends of a Greek demigod of healing, Asclepius. The symbol associated with Asclepius is a serpent coiled around a staff, which is similar enough to the "caduceus" of Hermes (two serpents coiled around a winged staff), that many North American medical practitioners have mistakenly adopted the caduceus as a symbol of healing. Hermes, incidentally, was a protector of merchants, thieves, and liars, but we need not read too much into an honest mistake of the medical community. Asclepius, on the other hand, was a supernatural healer who traveled around performing the kinds of miracles we read of Jesus performing in chapter 5 of the gospel of Mark. In fact, various bits of mythology about Asclepius suggests that raising people from the dead got him killed at the hands of another god who was upset about the healer's intervention.

The comparison to Asclepius is particularly relevant because the gospel stories so closely resemble tales of this Greek figure, but every human culture has stories about miracles and magic. We have always been fascinated with stories that suggest the possibility that a loved one could be brought back from the dead, or be inexplicably healed when all seemed lost. Many stories even suggest the penalties or curses that must accompany tampering with the natural order of things. We are still drawn to tales about individuals who can perform miraculous or magical feats, perhaps because there is a part of us all that longs for the ability -- or at least to know someone with the ability -- to defy the natural order of things on our behalf. We want to be exceptional, or at least well liked by someone who is exceptional.

People everywhere have these stories, and yet so often we get wrapped up in which stories are truth and which are fiction. Today, no one actually believes that there is a sun god Apollo, much less that he had a half-human son who went around performing miracles until his beneficent actions crossed a line that worried Hades, god of the underworld. Some of those who insist that any tale of Asclepius must be patently false would believe the story, however, if the names were changed a little bit. Tell any story of Asclepius and substitute the name "Jesus," and suddenly the miracle story seems more believable. This is a rather remarkable phenomenon, actually. Instead of recognizing how much people everywhere long to be exempt from the natural order of things, some people insist that they are, in fact, exempt from the natural order of things.

Here is something to consider: If every culture has stories about magic and miracles, and we do not witness any magic or miracles on the scale of these folktales, then perhaps all these stories say more about human culture than about any specific miracle worker. "But miracles do still happen!" Sure, if you want to shift the qualification of a miracle to "something I didn't expect," then we have modern-day miracles. However, none of the "miracles" we might see in the world today are on the scale of these mythological stories of Jesus, Asclepius, and others. We have lowered the bar on what constitutes a miracle, perhaps, but this also says a great deal about our longing to ignore the complexities of the natural world in order to consider ourselves in some way exempt, special, important, or even powerful.

After all, why do people believe that God will answer their specific prayers? Is it not because they believe that they are in some way special? More beloved, more important, more powerful than other people? Perhaps some people actually expect that God will defy the natural order of things for anyone who prays sincerely, but most people are keen enough to realize that this would mean God could favorably answer the prayers of people they don't like -- or that God could potentially be faced with sincere yet contradictory prayers. In other words, there would be no natural order of things if God disrupted the natural order of things in response to everyone. Which means that, if God works miracles for anyone at all, some people must be special, set apart, chosen, better than everyone else. At some level, we all want to be exceptional enough that someone considers us worthy of being exempt from the natural order of things.

Miracle stories are wonderful tales that can grant us insight into the things we want and fear most. When we begin to insist that they are factual accounts, and that we can realistically expect the same sorts of results in our own lives or the lives of people around us, we miss the point. Religious justification keeps us disconnected from reality and from the people with whom we share this world. We are all the same, at the end of the day. Whether one believes in God or not, mature wisdom will lead one to reconcile faith with the reality that everyone fears sickness and death to some extent, and everyone is attracted to some sort of story that suggests that sickness and death -- even the weather -- can be overcome. Tales of boy wizards or fantastic stories of Middle Earth touch on this very thing. We want to believe that someone we are exceptional enough to be free of pain. If the miraculous is possible, then perhaps we can be the beneficiaries. Isn't that better than not believing in the miraculous at all?

Actually, no. Recognizing that the unexpected can happen is a brilliant way to bear witness to the wonder and complexity of nature. Belief in the truly miraculous, though, usually comes with a set of false expectations about life. When we are honest, we realize that people are all pretty much the same. No one is more worthy of a miracle than anyone else. We are responsible for our own well-being. We must care for ourselves in a way that does not consider an "escape hatch" miracle to be a plausible way of handling our lives. We must bear our grief and our pain, and hopefully we can do so in connection with other people. There will be pain, and no one is exceptional enough to avoid it. And while it is comforting to believe in an afterlife, we do not have any convincing evidence that people experience anything at all after the brain shuts down. Quite the opposite, actually. We know with certainty that we have this life, though. If there are no miracles in store for us, and we may have just a brief time in this life to experience all that we can, learn all that we can, and love all that we can, let's do that.

If we truly live our deepest intentions and do all that we can to make this world a better place, then we will actually be quite exceptional. But it still won't mean anyone's worth more than anybody else.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

2 Kings 8-10: Locating Moral Authority (and Considering the Concept that Everything Happens for a Reason)

It is a difficult day to write about moral authority when a part of me wants to write about mourning in the wake of the bombing at the Boston Marathon. In sticking with the next portion of the Book of Kings, however, I am hopeful that there is some pertinent value that can outlast grief, or at least stand alongside it. Here is the story from 2 Kings, in a nutshell: First, the prophet Elisha provokes Hazael to murder the king of Aram and take the throne. Then, after a short series of successions, Elisha sends an unnamed prophet to anoint Jehu, a commander in the Israelite army, as king of Israel. So, this is essentially the story of a military coup. Jehu murdered Ahaziah (the king of Judah), Joram (the king of Israel), Jezebel, 70 descendants of Ahab in Samaria, 42 relatives of Ahaziah, and an untold number of priests of Baal, whom he lured into a temple through deception. The Chronicler tells an abridged version of the story, focusing as one would expect on events in Judah.

There are a number of ways to approach this kind of story. Some would like to assume that earlier prophecies about Ahab and Jezebel were fated to come true, but it is much more likely that the entire story, prophecies included, was written long after the events transpired. We cannot even be sure if the actual historical events are accurately represented by the biblical narrative. Even if we assume that divine prophecy foretold these events, what does that suggest about the biblical God? How can it be that one of the Ten Commandments forbids killing, and yet so much killing receives God's stamp of approval? If divine commandments are that malleable, then they are essentially worthless. If murder has its exceptions, we can assume that there are times when God may actually want us to disobey other commandments as well. Since there seems not to be any clear agreement among believers as to what God wants, the whole premise of using the Bible as a moral authority falls apart. Of course, if all of the capital punishment clauses in the Hebrew Scriptures were taken literally, there wouldn't be any believers left, since just about everyone has done something that merits execution by the literal standards of the ancient Israelites.

We could approach the tale with the assumption that the actions were not approved by God (although the biblical narrative suggests otherwise), but that an omniscient deity knew what would happen, and that his prophets would potentially be privy to some of this foreknowledge. This assumption that God knows about everything that will happen, but chooses not to intervene creates a rather impotent version of the divine that is a far cry from the personal deity that most modern-day believers espouse. What use would it be to petition a deity in prayer if that deity already knows all there is to know and allows things to carry on without his influence? Moreover, what would be the use of sending a prophet to anoint a king, if a murder or military coup is predestined? It is obvious at the very least that the ancient Israelite storyteller believed that it was in God's nature to intervene and influence human behavior.

Perhaps we would like to believe instead that God understands more than people understand, and that there is a larger purpose at work than we can perceive. Believing that everything happens for a reason is at least more comforting than just thinking that God knows what will happen and chooses to sit back and watch. Thus, we could see it as acceptable that Jehu led a military coup that resulted in the murder of a large number of people, because God had a larger purpose in mind. Once again, we have the same problem that murder and deception become acceptable moral options in the right circumstances. Other biblical texts do not support this idea, but there are some for whom this is not an issue. It is only a problem if one wishes to assert that the Bible is a moral authority. If God always has a larger purpose in mind, then no actions can truly be judged by human beings. Perhaps this is a good thing at some level, since we spend far too much time and energy judging other people. It ultimately means that we cannot have a valid sense of morality for ourselves, however. Nothing can truly be deemed wrong or sinful if God condones it (or just allows it to happen) because of a larger purpose that we simply cannot grasp.

Here is another possibility for the biblical story: People behaved as people behaved for their own reasons, and someone came along after the fact and tried to make sense of it all within the context of a culture's religion. There is no need to assume that a deity was responsible for any of the events that took place in ancient Israel any more than there is a need to assume that a deity is orchestrating events today. Human beings naturally look at the events transpiring around them and try to make some sense of those events. In so doing, we often draw some conclusions that have no basis in data. Where we lack data, we do our best to fill in the gaps, and we use our beliefs about people and reality to do so. This is not a moral issue; this is just how we interact with the world around us. Morality comes from within us, not from a temperamental or inscrutable deity.

It is a comfort for some people to believe that there is a reason for everything. However, it turns out that the reason for an awful lot of things is human beings acting on fear. When we lack personal responsibility and have poorly developed means of dismantling false beliefs, we are prone to react. And when we react, we are often not reacting to reality; we react to our beliefs about reality. Our limitless creativity can work against us in this regard, inventing all sorts of possibilities that have no foundation in fact. Our morality depends on our ability and willingness to be personal responsible for honestly assessing reality, and this means being personally responsible for managing our own fear.

Everything doesn't happen for a reason. I suppose one could say that hurricanes happen because of weather systems. Fine, that does constitute a "reason" by definition. Perhaps it is better to say that there is not a larger purpose behind everything that happens. Often, the only meaning to be found in a set of circumstances is the meaning that we create. We have the capacity to respond to our experiences in a way that propels us forward and nurtures us toward greater maturity. We also have the capacity to respond to our experiences in a way that feeds into our fears and false beliefs. Either way, we are the ones that create meaning.

When an individual initiates a military coup and incites other people to murder, that individual is acting on his own fears and playing upon the fears of other people. Fear takes many forms: Greed is often based on fear that we do not (or will not) have enough. Hatred is often based on fear that other people will somehow harm us. We act on fears that we will not be understood, accepted, or respected. We act on fears that life will not go the way we want it to. All of this is understandable but unnecessary. Fear by its very nature is immoral. We cannot make wise, responsible decisions that take anyone else's well-being into consideration when we are reacting to irrational fears. We are capable of doing things differently, as individuals and as a collective.

When things do happen for a reason, people are the reason. Acts of violence happen because of people. Acts of peace happen because of people, too. Fear is easy. Fear is natural. Dismantling fear and facing difficult truths can be hard work. But if we are willing, we can be the reason that something incredibly hopeful happens. We can be the reason that something powerfully graceful happens. We can't control other people, and we don't control the weather. We can be responsible for ourselves, though. What if we were to determine that everything we do will happen for a reason? What will your reason be?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mark 4: Sowing Seeds of Authenticity

The parable of the sower in Mark 4 (and most of the material that follows) is also copied in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. With a rare bit of transparency, the meaning of the parable is even explained so as to leave little room for interpretation. If people didn't invent so many different versions of the "word" that was to be sown, this story would leave little to the imagination. Even with a lack of agreement about what exactly the "word" is, this can be an encouraging passage for anyone.

The message of the story is really this: You will not be understood and accepted by everyone. You must live by your own guiding principles, and it's a good idea to freely share what motivates you. Some people will be hostile to you if you aren't doing what they think you should do in your life, but you cannot live a fully authentic and satisfying life just doing what other people think you should do. Some people will think your guiding principles are fantastic; they may even be inspired by how you live your life. When push comes to shove, though, they will keep living by their old habits. Some people will be inspired by your guiding principles, and they will strive to live more authentically by their own ideals. Their own irrational fears and beliefs (about themselves, other people, and life in general) will win out, though, at least in the short term. Some people who bear witness to your authentic life based on deep, meaningful guiding principles will be so inspired that they start doing things differently in their own lives. They will dismantle their irrational fears and deepen their own guiding principles, and they will live in such a way that inspires other people --  people you don't even know and may never meet.

You don't have any control over what other people do. You only control your own actions and beliefs. If you are living authentically by a meaningful set of inspiring guiding principles, your life will be like a lamp on a stand -- people won't be able to miss it. You will not see the full impact of your life and actions -- the ripples will spread out further than you can perceive. You don't get to control how other people grow as a result of your own life and actions, but even the smallest moment of authentic action can have tremendous impact on someone else's life. What we do matters, even though we cannot control what other people do with our example.

Uncharacteristically short for me, I know, but this is the core of this parable: Live big. Live authentically. Live fearlessly. Know what your guiding principles are and let them inform what you do. Continually weed out irrational fear and detrimental beliefs about yourself, other people, and life. In other words, be personally responsible in your life, and learn to accept that other people will do whatever they do. Your responsibility is just to live like it matters.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

2 Kings 5-7: Leprosy, Cannibalism, and Faith

More stories about Elisha fill the next few chapters of 2 Kings. The book of Chronicles does not duplicate these legends, since Elisha was apparently running around Israel and her neighboring countries, Aram and Ammon, and the Chronicler(s) were primarily concerned with goings on in Judah. There is no telling when these stories actually originated, but if they are to be placed in a historical context, they must coincide with the reigns of Ben-Hadad I and Ben-Hadad II, kings of Aram Damascus between 885 and 842 BCE. If these stories are intended to occur historically after the death of Ahab, then they must be placed after 853 BCE, since in that year a coalition of eleven armies (including Ahab’s), fought against the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III in the battle of Qarqar under the leadership of Ben-Hadad II. Being legendary in nature, the stories may have originated in later Judaic culture. The stories in these chapters include the tale of Naaman being cured of leprosy, a short legend about a floating axe head, a story about Elisha befuddling an army, and the tale of an Aramean siege that caused a famine so serious that Israelites turned to cannibalism.

Making an axe head float on the water is a charming little story, obviously meant to demonstrate that certain special people, through the power given to them by Yahweh, could create supernatural effects. The story of Elisha blinding, misleading, and restoring sight to the Aramean army is along a similar vein, although the merciful act of throwing a feast for them before sending them scampering home is a nice touch. Along with the other stories in this collection, it conveys the message that violent retaliation is not the only way to deal with those who mean harm. Of course, the value of this perspective becomes questionable when the Arameans later lay siege to Samaria and women are so desperate that they start cooking their own children to survive. Still, by the end of the story, the most unexpected people—namely, four lepers—bring news of salvation to the city, and the guard who doubted Elisha’s prophetic word was killed in the stampede of people rushing to claim whatever provisions the Arameans left behind in their camp.

Of all of these stories, the legend of Naaman’s healing is probably the one most often heard in Christian churches; it just preaches a bit more easily than the whole cannibalism thing. There are many lessons one can glean from this tale. Regarding the nature of Yahweh, this story suggests that he cares about more than just the Israelites, and that he is more concerned with the condition of one’s heart than with elaborate ceremonies. Regarding the nature of people, we might relate to Naaman in our unwillingness to create the lives and world we most want because it seems too simple. We might relate to the Israelite king who interpreted a sincere request for healing as a potential trap or an excuse to incite violence. We might relate to Gehazi, Elisha’s greedy sidekick, in realizing that we are sometimes anxious about what we will get from our dealings with other people that we lose sight of a bigger picture. Gehazi gets punished either for his greediness or for lying to Elisha, but despite the curse that his leprosy would cling to Gehazi and his descendants forever, the king of Israel is chatting with him by 2 Kings 8:1–6, so it must not have been too severe.

One valuable aspect of folklore is that it explains something, perhaps why a certain lineage has lighter skin than other folks or perhaps how political allegiances or animosities developed. Understanding what explanation was initially intended by a story is not always easy, and we more often than not interpret our own messages and lessons without having any real certainty that we have tapped into the original intent of the story. Thus, it serves our understanding to identify the characters with which we most associate ourselves, and we also benefit from challenging ourselves to identify with the other characters as well. When we judge the king of Israel in the story of Naaman for being faithless, suspicious, callous, or whatever else we think of his response to the letter from Aram, we forget that we are sometimes prone to reactivity. From time to time, we hear or read a piece of news and become immediately stricken with anxiety. The story of Naaman teaches us that we don’t have to solve every problem all by ourselves, and that we fail to consider our options creatively when we give ourselves over to anxiety. When we judge the cannibal woman who has eaten her own son, we forget that we are sometimes persuaded by others to do things we would not normally consider doing, that our own desperation and fear can cause us to compromise on values that we believe in deeply, or that our desire for fairness sometimes blinds us to the dissonances between our own actions and beliefs. While most of us have not ever cooked and eaten our own children, we have probably overlooked our own anxiety-driven behavior in order to demand that someone else sacrifice what we have sacrificed, even though our own sacrifice was unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy.

Still, these are folktales, and the characters in these stories are not real people. We can extrapolate lessons to whatever extent we like, but there is nothing about these folktales that makes them more credible vessels for truth than any other legends. If we are careless readers, we could interpret some strange lessons from the stories of ancient people, as we have seen with other Old Testament tales. While we might see a new perspective in a folktale if we are open to it, the truth of how we can best represent our most noble selves in the world is already at work within us. We experience anxiety and fear and hatred and desperation when we act in a way that is incongruent with what we already know about the kind of people we most want to be. Stories serve as reminders for things we already know, but sometimes forget when we become wrapped up in irrational fear. We don’t want to get so desperate that we consume our own children. We don’t want to be so rigid in our thinking that we resist our own healing. We don’t want to be so caught up in greed that we cause suffering for ourselves and the people around us. When we see these lessons reinforced in stories, it resonates with something we already believe about ourselves and helps us stay oriented in a meaningful direction.

Here’s something to consider, though: We haven’t stopped telling stories. I’m not just thinking of television and film or the anxiety-driven inventions of political activists keeping their respective teams riled up. We tell stories about people on the roads with us, people shopping in stores with us, people working with us. Our minds create a story about everyone we see. More often than not, those stories are ways for us to compare ourselves with other people, and we wind up either judging ourselves as worthy or worthless based on how we measure up to the stories we tell about other people. Just as we subconsciously select which characters to identify with in folktales, we selectively compare ourselves to what we believe about other people in real life, too. And just as we learn something by empathizing with a broader range of characters in a folktale, we learn something by empathizing with the real people rather than using what we invent about them as measuring sticks for ourselves. We are all of equal value, after all.

Although it’s easy to use comparison as a basis to see how we measure up, our value is not based on comparison with anyone else. In fact, our value is not even based on how well we are living by our own standards. Human beings have value, and that value cannot be increased or decreased by anything we do. We can, however live in alignment with our deepest beliefs—our deepest creativity and nobility. This is, in essence, what is meant by "living a life of faith". When we become aggressive or desperate or anxious or overwhelmed, we have replaced faith with fear. Our deepest truths become neglected in favor of lies about ourselves, other people, or life in general.

In folktales of the ancient Israelites, faith was directed outward toward an entity that they believed controlled all of reality, as we’ve discussed along the way. Many people today still express faith in these ancient terms, looking toward something outside of themselves as a source of hope, truth, or justice. Faith does not have to be oriented outward, however. The assertion that human beings have innate value is a statement of faith. Assuming an inner reserve of creativity and nobility is a position of faith. Whatever our statements of faith may be, we will find ways to support our beliefs in life; we will see evidence of what we want to believe. When our actions line up with our deep statements of faith, we gain a sense of being grounded, at peace, in alignment. When our actions are dissonant to what we claim to believe, we experience anxiety, frustration, and desperation. The challenge is to distinguish between those beliefs that are statements of deep faith and those which are based on irrational fears.

Since our beliefs directly inform our actions, we can examine our actions and see our beliefs. If our actions reflect anxiety and fear, if our actions demonstrate a sense of desperation or aggression, then the beliefs that inform those actions are most likely irrational lies that work against a deep sense of faith. If our actions reflect things like acceptance of ourselves and others, calm integrity, or joyfulness, then the beliefs that inform those actions are perhaps closer to our underlying statements of faith. When we nurture beliefs based in lies, we get lives that are anxious, fearful, and desperate. When we nurture beliefs based in truth, we get lives that are connected, deeply satisfying, and inspiring. We nurture beliefs, in part, by committing ourselves intentionally to actions that reflect the beliefs we want to nurture. The more we act in accord with our deepest statements of faith, the more we will immunize ourselves against the irrational fear and anxiety that occasionally threatens that faith.

Stories like those in 2 Kings are intended in part to reinforce a cultural sense of faith. Our own culture is different from ancient Israelite culture. In a sense we define ourselves by many different subcultures, but in another sense those subcultures are becoming more and more global. Our beliefs and actions affect more than just our own lives—none of us lives in total isolation. Thus, whether we act on irrational fears or deep faith makes a difference. It matters how we decide to see ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. So, what do your actions reflect? Are your guiding beliefs leading you toward anxiety and fear? Or is your deepest, most noble self being drawn forward consistently in acts of faith?