* 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

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mark 12: Vineyards and Cornerstones

In the next chapter of the gospel of Mark, after the business with the fig tree and Jesus' refusal to credential himself, the author includes several teachings that supposedly originated with Jesus during his time in Jerusalem. The author portrays some of the religious leaders of the day as scandalized by most of these teachings, presumably because they interpreted some criticism in Jesus' words. The first of these teachings is in the form of a story, or parable, and it is copied from the gospel of Mark with some slight variation in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke. Many Bibles call this the parable of the wicked tenants, although such titles are much later conventions than the oldest extant copies of the text.

In this story, a man hires some people to run his business (a vineyard) while he is away. They decide that they can keep all the profits for themselves, so they abuse (or kill) every person the landowner sends to collect, including the landowner's son, thinking that they will be able to keep the place for themselves. According to this teaching, there will be dire consequences when the landowner shows up himself. The author of Mark follows the story with a quote from Psalm 118, but the connection is never explained directly. There is only the general sense that the chief priests, scribes, and elders ("they" here referring all the way back to the end of Mark 11) suspected that Jesus had said something derogatory about them.

The interpretation of this parable in the gospel of Matthew is more explicit. In this variation of events, Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees that they are like the wicked tenants in the parable. The author also suggests what the connection with Psalm 118 is, although many ancient copies of the text don't have the verse that clarifies this connection. It was quite possibly copied from the version of the parable in the gospel of Luke, in an editorial attempt to make the different variations match up more closely.

In Luke, the basic parable is the same, but the Psalm 118 quote is shorter. There is no explicit unpacking of the teaching itself, but the author makes a direct connection of the story to the line about "the stone that the builders rejected." Some translators use the word cornerstone and others use keystone to describe how that rejected stone actually functions. In one sense, that stone is a foundational support, and in the other, it is the center stone of an archway that holds everything together. Either symbol is useful, with more or less equivalent interpretation into life application. Still, although it's obviously a reference to the consequences of the wicked tenant's actions, the identity of the symbolic stone is still vague. Even in the original psalm, the bit about the cornerstone is not specific. It is a general poetic statement that what some experts believed to be an unsuitable foundation for action has been demonstrated to be an ideal foundation for action. The credit for that revelation is attributed to God, of course, since that was part and parcel to the culture.

The main point of the parable seems to be that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (Mt 21:43). In other words, the very thing that the tenants were aiming for will become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. The very thing that the religious leaders were aiming for will likewise become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. This is not a prediction of future events, but a warning to people who are trying to reach a destination with a faulty set of directions.

You can't build something truly impressive with rotten materials. You can't build loving relationships with fear. You can't build a lasting, admirable reputation on lies. You can't build the kingdom of God on political power and social coercion. There is more that we can say about this, but there are some terms here that may need to be clarified a bit. What is the "kingdom of God," that it could be taken away from people who claim to be believers? What are the "fruits of the kingdom" for that matter? And what is the foundational stone that has been rejected by the people who claim to be expert builders?

Many of these questions likely had specific answers for the original author of the quoted psalm, and for the original authors of the gospels. Such terms have been subject to interpretation for centuries, and there is little agreement among biblical scholars, although many assume that the stone referred to here is Jesus, because some epistles interpret it this way. For early biblical authors, the kingdom of God was not a synonym for Heaven, as is clear even from some of the words put into Jesus' mouth by the gospel writers. "Kingdom of God" is a tough term for us today, when we don't think very highly of monarchies and when scientific discovery has increasingly eliminated the need for belief in supernaturals. Instead of such a loaded term, we can think of this as the kind of world that everyone really wants to live in, if all of our irrational fears were dismantled and we were honest about what we actually value. The kingdom of God is simply a better world than what we experience right now--a world that is characterized by equity, justice, and compassion. These qualities are the "fruit" (outcome or result) of living like that better world is a possibility.

What would prevent the tenants in the parable and the religious leaders of the first century from practicing equity, justice, and compassion? One might say greed. Certainly that seems to be the motivating drive of the tenants. Greed is just another word for fear, though. Greed is fear of scarcity. The religious leaders may have reacted out of fear of scarcity, too. Possibly, they feared insignificance or powerlessness. Their fear overrode their capacity to find peaceful solutions to problems. Fear prevented them from dreaming big with regard to what their people and their world could become. They were more interested in control--conserving what power and wealth they could among a small number of people. This fear-driven conservatism has never resulted in long-term sustainability for any people. Not only were they not creating as much equity, justice, and compassion as they could have in the world around them, they were also preventing the very thing they claimed to want. The tenants in the story had lost the vineyard, and the religious leaders had lost the kingdom of God.

All of this is still a warning cry to the representatives of the church in the twenty-first century. While a great hue and cry often goes up against the non-believers or "unsaved" or "infidels," many of the most visible representatives of religion still build on a foundation of fear rather than equity, justice, and compassion. According to this parable, the people who will actually experience a better world ("the kingdom of God") are not just the people who claim to believe certain things or even people who claim to have a personal relationship with the spirit of a centuries-dead Palestinian. The people who will experience a better world are the ones who create that better world through displaying its evidence--people who actually practice equity, justice, and compassion. Many believers and religious leaders seem not to know that their gospel narratives make this assertion.

What is the proper foundation, then? What is the identity of a cornerstone that promotes equity, justice, and compassion. One interpretation of that stone that some have offered is hope, specifically hope in supernatural guidance and aid, and hope in a desirable afterlife. The problem with the brand of hope offered by many religious traditions, however, is that it's based on mythology and folklore. One doesn't claim sincere hope for leprechauns to make personal debt disappear, or hope for Aphrodite to actually intervene in one's romantic affairs. Genuine hope needs something a bit more solid.

Before you defend the legitimacy of religious hope too vigorously, consider the number of believers currently in prison because of fear-based actions, the number of believers who have been caught in sexual scandals, the number of believers who prefer to divorce rather than work on their relationships, and the number of believers who abuse their children and spouses. People who have legitimate hope in a supernatural who loves them and works all things for their good should presumably also have lives defined by less fear, violence, and harmful behavior than people who lack that kind of hope. The actual data suggests that believers have as difficult a time as everybody else--if not greater difficulty--behaving in a way that reflects equity, justice, and compassion, despite alleged supernatural guidance. So, I suggest that hope needs something a bit more solid underneath it.

If the stone is not a mythological savior, and the stone is not empty hope, what could possibly be an ideal that has been rejected as a worthwhile foundation by many people who strive to build a better world? Several candidates come to mind, actually. Reason is one fine foundation, for those who are capable and willing to employ it. Unfortunately, many people seem to lack the skill to reason well, and many people strangely prefer not to reason well. Self-awareness is another fine foundation. The more we understand ourselves, the more we can act intentionally in the world. This, too, may bump up against some limitations of personal ability, however. So, I'll propose a third identity for the foundation stone that has been rejected by nearly everyone: radical, unconditional love.

You may have just rejected that in your mind when you read it. You may have even rejected it out loud. We've grown accustomed to believing that love doesn't solve anything, possibly because of how we decide to define love. I'm thinking here of affectionate concern for the well-being of others. Not merely strong positive emotions toward someone, because emotions are not completely within our control. Not concern for the well-being of people such that we decide we have to manage their lives and decisions for them because they aren't capable of doing it for themselves. That's control, not love. Radical love is a conscious decision that incorporates all of humanity in that sphere of affectionate concern. Unconditional love means that we don't exclude anybody from our pursuit of equity, justice, and compassion. One advantage to calling radical, unconditional love a cornerstone is that it's exactly what the Jesus of the gospel narratives tells people, so it ought to be something with which any believer would agree.

Everyone's cornerstones don't necessarily need to be the same thing. It's important to recognize, though, that violence, oppression, shame, and dishonesty do not create the kind of lives we most want or the kind of world we most want to live in. There is no external supernatural. We are responsible for building a better world. To do that, we absolutely must learn to dismantle our irrational fears and we must strive toward emotional maturity. Beyond that, we can determine what guiding principles to build on. I believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that keystone holds the entire archway of my life together pretty well. Right now, I'm happy with identifying my cornerstones as science, reason, self-differentiation, and radical unconditional love.

What are your cornerstones? Having four corners makes sense to me. Maybe you have more cornerstones or fewer cornerstones. Maybe you just have one keystone that holds everything together. Whatever the case, your foundation is strongest when it actually makes sense to you. Base your life on things you can actually trust and verify. Don't claim things out of shame or obligation when your deepest, most noble self rejects them. Build on truth, not on fear. When you feel driven toward violence, or toward trying to control other people's lives, or toward pretending to be something that you aren't, you're not building on solid ground. You are the only person who can build the life you most want. All of us together can build a better world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Isaiah 11-12: Common Ideals (and the "law of attraction")

It's said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One reason for this is that sometimes when we know a little bit about something, we misconstrue that as expertise. We often think that we have a fuller picture than we actually have -- that our grasp of a concept is more complete than it actually is. This is one reason that some ancient passages like Isaiah 11-12 get interpreted to mean things they were never intended to mean. Of course, this stretch of Isaiah isn't unique in this regard; we are often contentedly ignorant of the larger context of our knowledge. We enjoy having a certain degree of ignorance, because then we can make things mean what we want them to mean. Although it can be a challenge, it benefits us to take a broader look before we draw conclusions.

In the midst of a discussion this week, a friend of mine made reference to using the scientific method to prove the "law of attraction." Essentially, the "law of attraction" suggests that positive or negative thinking can create positive or negative results, to the extent that what one finds in the day's mail can be determined by what one expects to find in the day's mail. The idea started in the early nineteenth century as part of the New Thought Movement and has been promoted by a mixture of well-intentioned believers who are adept at fooling themselves and outright charlatans who are adept at fooling others. Recently, the idea of the "law of attraction" was promoted in the film The Secret and a variety of books that promise to show people how to think themselves into health, wealth, and happiness. They claim that the concept is based on scientific principles, but unfortunately, it's nonsense.

Why do people believe such things? Why do we latch on to an appealing idea and then seek to make it true in our lives, when we know that it doesn't quite make sense? If we were to actually employ the scientific method, we would take this "attraction" hypothesis and develop genuine experiments to disprove it. We would consider other possibilities that would better explain the results we experienced. We would honestly recognize all of the times when our thinking had not produced the reality we most desired, as well as all of the times when our thinking had effectively formed reality. Of course, we would need a controlled way to determine whether our thinking had effectively formed reality. We would not be able to take any actions toward creating what we wanted if we were genuinely testing the theory. We would have to limit our engagement to the realm of thinking positive thoughts and honestly examining the results in our lives. This would possibly be a scientific evaluation of the theory. I encourage you to test it out if the "law of attraction" seems compelling to you, but test it honestly.

There are a number of things we should take into consideration when we draw conclusions. One is that we are susceptible to confirmation bias; we know what we want the answer to be, and we orchestrate our experiments or our results to "prove" what we already want to believe. Another is selection bias; we ignore evidence contrary to what we want to believe and concentrate our attention only on those pieces of evidence that support what we want to believe. We might also consider what our conclusions mean in a broader context. For instance, the "law of attraction" sounds great when it's about getting rich and being healthy, but what happens when you get a diagnosis of cancer or get into a traffic collision? If the "law of attraction" is taken seriously, you thought those realities into being; your negative thinking caused your cancer and your collision.

Our beliefs have consequences because our beliefs inform our actions. Most likely, positive thinking plays a role in success, but not because of any "law of attraction." Positive thinking may encourage people to exert more effort toward their goal, to keep pressing toward a desired result even when the path is difficult. Our belief in our ability to accomplish what we have set out to do fuels our actions, and our actions create results.

So, what does any of this have to do with Isaiah 11-12? For one thing, people often read the Bible or other scripture and assume that what they read there is unique, that their own sacred text is superior to every other source of truth. Our assertions about where truth can be found are often susceptible to confirmation bias, selection bias, and lack of thorough examination. We often choose to believe that we have access to some special knowledge, when honestly, what we see is just one thread of a much larger tapestry.

Nearly every Ancient Near East culture expressed an ideal ruler in language similar to Isaiah 11. Many cultures connected kings with divinity, often in terms very much like Isaiah 11:2, in which the divine grants authority and capability to the ruler. Every Ancient Near East culture praised their deities for victories and successes. Many cultures had a concept of a "peaceable kingdom" in which the threat of dangerous animals was removed, and thus fear had no place. Some of these cultures foresaw a removal of the animals themselves, but Egypt's version matches Isaiah very closely: The animals remain, but their ferocity is removed. The ideals expressed in Isaiah (with the exception of a reunited Israel and Judah) are common to all of the peoples living in that area at that time. Rather than assume that Isaiah is somehow superior, it may be more informative to consider why those ideals resonated with these different cultures.

Even for people who engaged in a lot of bloody warfare, the ideal was for there to be a ruler who was wise enough to value peace. The ideal ruler is less concerned with personal gain and pride and more concerned with doing what is just and right. Justice, equity, and compassion will be valued more than wealth, power, and prestige. Peace and partnership shall gain priority over conquest and claims of superiority. Isaiah envisions this future idealized partnership between Judah and Israel as crushing their enemy nations to the point that they are no longer a threat. None of these nations ever realized these ideals, however, perhaps in part because they only envisioned justice and righteousness for themselves. Just thinking those ideals had value didn't bring them into reality.

Isaiah sees this idealized ruler as emerging from "the stump of Jesse," Jesse being David's father. From Isaiah's perspective, things had really gone awry for Israel. Although there was a perceived agreement between Yahweh and David, Isaiah was hoping for something even more than the fulfillment of that agreement. Isaiah is suggesting that there will be a new David, even better than the first -- a divinely ordained ruler emerging from what seemed like a spiritually dead line. His interest in a restored and united Israel (meaning both Judah and Israel, which he distinguishes here euphemistically as Ephraim) distinguishes Isaiah from other Ancient Near East writers, but the ideals are not exclusive to Isaiah or Israel.

Some people still hold these same ideals, or at least claim to. Some of us still recognize that peace is better than violence, although we keep finding excuses to solve our problems with violence rather than through peaceful means. Some of us still hold justice, equity, and compassion as ideals in human relationships, although we keep finding reasons to be absorbed by our fears around wealth, power, and prestige. Here's the real secret: just thinking that peace is better will not make us more peaceful. Just thinking that we value justice, equity, and compassion will not create a more just, equitable, or compassionate reality. If we really value these ideals, we have to act in accord with them. If we recognize that violence is not the best solution to our problems, and that struggling to gain or preserve wealth and power cannot create the kind of world we really hold as an ideal, it is our responsibility to do something different.

We can't change the world by just thinking of a better world. We can't even change our lives by just thinking of better lives. We can take our ideals seriously, however, and we can act like we actually value the things we claim to value. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by living more peaceful lives. If we want a more just, equitable, and compassionate world, we start by living more just, equitable, and compassionate lives. Our beliefs and our values matter, because our beliefs inform our actions, and our actions contribute toward creating the reality we most want.

What do you really believe in? What do you really value?
Are you willing to act accordingly?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Mark 11: (Don't) Let Them Eat Figs -- Problematic Lessons on Prayer

Surrounding the story of Jesus causing a ruckus in the temple in the gospel of Mark is a problematic lesson about faith and prayer which begins when Jesus curses a fig tree. The gospel of Matthew includes this fig tree episode, but places it just after the cleansing of the temple. For whatever reason the author(s) of Matthew include the end of the fig tree lesson earlier, after an exorcism story. The gospel of Luke doesn't say anything about the fig tree, or draw the same conclusions about faith and prayer (although the Gospel of Thomas twice proclaims that people can move mountains, not by faith, but by being at peace and in unity with one another). The final passage from Mark 11, dealing with the source of authority for Jesus' actions and teachings, appears in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, more or less just as the gospel of Mark conveys it. In Matthew, this passage follows just after the fig tree episode, just as it is in Mark. In Luke, this passage about authority occurs immediately after the cleansing of the temple.

We should also ask a question about a source of authority, but first, let's examine what happens with this fig tree. It's not the season for the fig tree to bear fruit, but since Jesus is hungry, he curses the fig tree. The next time the disciples see the tree, it has withered and died, and they assume that this is because Jesus pronounced a curse on it. Jesus goes on to tell them that if they have enough faith, they will be able to pray for anything and receive it, even if what they want defies natural law. He also says that people should forgive others when they pray.

Forgiving people is generally a good idea. Yet, this lesson leaves some gaping questions. If Jesus could ask for anything he wanted, including having a mountain go for a walk, why didn't he ask for the fig tree to bear fruit out of season? After all, what he actually wanted was food, right? Or did he really, deeply just want to make a tree wither? What is accomplished by this that would not have been accomplished by causing fruit to appear on the tree? He could have satisfied his hunger and made a very potent illustration about the power of faith. The lesson actually seems to be, "when you are bitter about not getting what you want, you can punish even nature for displeasing you, if you have enough faith." What an immature (not to mention utterly false) idea!

There are some things we know about the way the world behaves. Sure, there are plenty of things that we still have to learn, but the hypothesis that people's thoughts and wishes alone can change natural law has been tested and disproved. "Natural law" means that consistent observations made over a long period of time, by a variety of observers, has yielded predictable patterns. Trees don't wither because you curse them. Mountains don't move because you pray for them to. Don't believe me? You don't have to. Try it out.

Believe in yourself, or believe in whatever supernatural you like, and curse a tree that's in full bloom. Don't take any other actions to harm the tree; just curse it. Preferably gather some impartial observers, too. If your curse fails to affect the tree, is it really because you don't believe strongly enough? Or is it because curses don't really do anything?

Perhaps the idea of cursing something is too harsh. Try another experiment then. Pray for your lemon tree to bloom with roses. Or for your oak tree to sprout pomegranates. Pray for it. Really believe that it will happen. As the gospel of Mark says, believe that you have already received it. When your experiment is concluded, will you decide that your faith is weak? Or will you recognize that lemon trees don't produce roses and oak trees don't produce pomegranates? And don't excuse a failed experiment by quoting the line about not testing God. The same Jesus that is purported to have quoted that line to the devil is the one telling his disciples they can make mountains dance if they really want to.

Here's a better idea. Figure out what you really want, and do something to create it. If what you really want in your heart of hearts is to kill a fig tree, you can figure out a way to do it. We can even literally move big chunks of earth around with the right machinery. Even when we really, deeply want something, it isn't made available to us just because we want it, or wish for it, or pray for it -- even if we wish with every ounce of our being, and even if we pray with impeccable confidence. Some things are not within our control, even if we want them very badly. We can't wish people back to life; we can't pray disease away. Our wishes or prayers can't eliminate our debt, or make people like or respect us, or land us a job, or allow us to pass a test with no preparation. The studies have been done; the research is conclusive. Wishing and praying don't alter reality. Some things we are better off accepting.

We do have some influence over some things, though. When we are sharp about what we really want, beyond the fears and entitlements and vows that often impede our connection with ourselves, we have some capability to effect change. If we want better health, we have some control over our behavior and environment. If we want better relationships, we have some control over our willingness to listen, to be vulnerable, to love. If we want a more just world, we have some control over how we express compassion and speak out for justice. The things we really want in our lives and in the world are not about withering trees and moving mountains. More often than not, the things we really want are about growing within ourselves and influencing other people in a positive way. We don't do that by wishing or praying; we grow and influence by taking meaningful action.

When the question of authority comes up for Jesus in the gospel narrative, the authors aren't clear whether the priests and scribes are genuinely curious or are just trying to catch Jesus in some scandalous admission. What so many of us fail to realize is that we do not need authorization to create the lives -- the world -- we most want. Understanding that we can't revise natural law with wishes and prayers, and that we can't control other people, we can still accomplish a great deal in our lives and in the world. Of course, we have to dismantle our fears and our inappropriate shame in order to connect with our deepest, most noble selves and understand what we really want. When we understand that, though, we have permission to act in accord with our deepest, most noble selves. When we are ready to act, not out of fear or shame or entitlement, but out of our deep love for ourselves and for one another, we can be self-authorizing.

Often, we authorize ourselves to act anyway. Many times, though, this means we are authorizing ourselves to take or protect what we think we're entitled, or to fight or defend against what we fear. That level of authorization doesn't come from a place of emotional maturity; it's like cursing a fig tree out of season. If we really want a thriving fig tree that produces delicious fruit, we have to take some responsibility for the care of that tree. Our lives are like that. We can take some responsibility for the things we really want, and we can get better at distinguishing between our fears and our deep passions. Prayer won't change reality. We won't ever move mountains with just a thought. Yet, we can change reality -- for ourselves and for others -- if we are willing to create the lives and the world we most want.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Isaiah 9-10: Vessels of Justice

Isaiah's words to Ahaz, king of Judah, as he was preparing to be overwhelmed by foreign armies were words of encouragement. He said that the enemies that seemed so fearsome at the time would be no threat at all by the time Hezekiah -- the son of Ahaz who was about to be born -- was eating solid food. Ahaz didn't listen to Isaiah, not completely at least. He gave in to his fear and voluntarily became a vassal of Assyria. Isaiah criticized that fear and stopped advising Ahaz; he saw hope in the future king.

In Isaiah 9, the prophet (or someone writing in his name) waxes poetic about how great Hezekiah is going to be. He will be a king who is pious and wise; a king who will rule a land that is no longer oppressed by foreign powers; a king who leads with justice and righteousness. Then, the chapter becomes a rebuke of Judah's previous sister kingdom, Israel. The prophet accuses Israel (or its rulers and prophets at least) of pride and wickedness. He sees the destruction of the kingdom as the consequence of the utter depravity of the people, who wrote oppressive laws that benefited the wealthy and trampled the poor. The people of Assyria will also be punished for the pride of their king. Isaiah says that the king was intended as a tool for Yahweh, but thought himself more important than the god who wielded him. Yet, there will be some from Israel who are spared. Isaiah sees these as the ones who turned sincerely to Yahweh in their time of desperation.

We've discussed many times that decisions have consequences. Whether someone is ruler of a nation or barely ruler of a household, human decisions have consequences. This explains a fair bit of suffering (and "evil") in the world, and it certainly explains a considerable amount of what the people of Israel and Judah experienced at the hands of the empires around them. Some suffering is not the consequence of human decisions, though. Earthquakes, storms, disease, and the like cause a great deal of suffering, but their cause is natural. Maybe human behavior causes suffering in deciding to live in a place frequented by hurricanes, but every locale has its natural threats. In any case, natural causes of suffering don't occur because of human behavior. 

People like explanations, though. Belief in some higher power that orchestrates reality suggests for some people that all the suffering that people experience is ordained, whether that suffering comes from natural events or from human decisions. God is behind the earthquakes and typhoons, and God is the commander of invading armies. This is the perspective of the Hebrew scriptures, but it's not a viable way to live. It would be one thing if every person who lived as a devout believer survived unharmed when missiles or tornadoes struck, but they don't. Plenty of devout people suffer right alongside "wicked" people. The prophets' idea that the righteous are spared while the wicked suffer is based on a flawed perception of reality.

We like to be able to point fingers at something, though. When Israelites got raped, enslaved, or killed by the Assyrians, it was easy for the people of Judah to point and say, "Those Israelites must have been wicked to the core, every last one of them. That's why God made this happen to them." Certainly, that sort of belief might encourage some people to straighten up and fly right, for awhile at least. It's not reality, though. The reason people suffered was, in part, because their leaders made some bad decisions. Their suffering wasn't even necessarily the consequence of decisions those individuals made, but it was the consequence of human decision. Instead of pointing fingers and deciding that people who suffer must deserve it for some reason, the people of Judah could have had some compassion.

Isaiah does have some compassion when he writes that the people are going to suffer because of their oppressive decrees; he understands that poor people don't inherently deserve to be poor. If society was doing its job, he suggests, there would be an end to oppression; there would be light where they had been darkness. This isn't what a supernatural is supposed to do. A supernatural didn't invent their unjust laws; people did. So a supernatural isn't responsible for creating justice and equity; people are. When we understand suffering as either a natural occurrence or the consequence of human decisions, we can begin to take responsibility for the kind of world we live in. As long as we claim that a supernatural is in control, we may create the illusion that we can estimate the worthiness of people by the degree of suffering they experience, and we may fail to recognize how often our experience is the direct result of our own decisions and actions.

If people are responsible for creating what many people call Isaiah's "peaceable kingdom" (in the next chapter), then we have a guide for our day-to-day behavior. If people are capable of behaving with justice, equity, and compassion as priorities, we have the power -- and the responsibility -- to build a better world. We can vote with issues of justice, equity, and compassion in mind rather than a fear of losing power or a sense of entitlement. We can use our personal resources in a way that reflects our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion rather than fear of scarcity or an implied commitment only to our own comfort. We can speak out (in love) when we have the opportunity to address issues of justice, equity, and compassion, rather than staying silent out of fear of reprisals or a sense that someone else's suffering is none of our business. The idea that something is "none of our business" often means only that we think it inconvenient.

Isaiah put his hope in Hezekiah's rule and in the faithfulness of his god. We know now that one person cannot create a better world; we can all have a role in building a better world. We can bring the light of justice, equity, and compassion into dark places. We don't have to be messiahs or kings or any more than ourselves. There will be more to say about the peaceable kingdom and about how we connect with the "divinity" within us -- our deepest, most noble selves. For now, it is enough to read the words of Isaiah and recognize our capability -- our responsibility -- to be vessels of justice, equity, and compassion, to contribute to a better world by our intentional acts of integrity, and to engage with others in a spirit of hope and celebration.