* 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, August 26, 2014

John 1:1-18 Introductions (meet the book, and meet your ideal self)

We could press forward with Isaiah at this point. The tone shifts dramatically, and the events around which the next chapters were composed are much later historically than the first third of the book. However, our practice had been to look at the “historical” books first, and then to take a look at the “prophetic” books that responded to those events. We also have not spent much time in the New Testament since our completion of Mark. As we saw, Mark has many similarities with the books of Matthew and Luke. John is a rather different reflection on the Jesus story, and it includes a great deal of wisdom that transcends Christian mythology. So, let’s begin to delve into John, and we’ll intersperse that exploration with a continuation of Old Testament texts.

The gospel of John was written sometime between the years 85 and 110 CE, by a Christian (or a community of Christians, possibly in Asia Minor) who followed a distinct mystic path within the Christian cult. This volume is theologically distinct from the other three (synoptic) gospels because it expresses certain traditions connected to a specific interpretation of Christianity. Most likely, this was to ensure clarity and consistency as the influence of this particular spiritual culture grew. It is apparent that the authors know the Jesus stories of the other gospels, which means that these other documents must have been at least partially written and distributed prior to the composition of the gospel of John.

The final version of the gospel of John as we have it expresses a mature, yet distinct, theological interpretation of the Jesus tradition, with less of an interest in chronology and historical accuracy and a greater interest in spiritual truth. It may even be possible that the seven purposefully chosen miracle stories in this gospel reflect sacraments or creeds of a particular community. So, it’s likely that this theology with mystic overtones matured in a Christian community that developed a nuanced set of Jesus traditions distinct from, yet compatible with, Christianity as it was interpreted through Paul and Peter. This document may also have grown over time as the theology of the community developed and spread. 

Often, this gospel is seen as portraying Jesus, Son of God, as the divine miracle worker, through whom eternal life is available (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) because of his death and resurrection. The authors’ seven miracle stories are connected with statements of the character of Jesus about himself, and these “I am” statements have parallels in Jewish Wisdom literature. (Indeed, the identification of Jesus as the Word in this book is a re-framing of the Jewish characterization of Wisdom herself.) However, we will also see that Jesus is depicted here as the ideal example for human behavior, characterized as one who serves out of desire and not obligation, who seeks love and unity rather than making demands of others, and who maintains integrity in the midst of societal misunderstanding and hostility. It is entirely possible to interpret these human qualities and practices as being the source of abundant life.

The introductory 18 verses of John have been analyzed in various ways, with some scholars assuming that the author is commenting on a preexisting hymn because of textual clues. However, there is no evidence of a preexisting text on which this introduction is based, although it could have gone through several revisions before it reached the version we now read. In any case, these first verses set up an authorial tone that is poetic and mysterious, almost as though one needs to be an “insider” to really comprehend the nuances of language. Our goal isn’t necessarily to get inside the author’s head, though. Our goal is just to draw some wisdom or insight that is useful in our own lives.

John 1:1-18 begins with an echo of Genesis 1:1. In the beginning... suggests that something new has happened. We are beginning religious history anew. Capitalization is not a feature of ancient Greek, so turning the Word into a title is an editorial decision on the part of translators. It is apparent that the Word is symbolic of something, though. In Greek, this would be Logos, or the principle of reason and judgment -- more simply, wisdom. Earlier Jewish writings ascribe a feminine gender to Wisdom, but it’s obvious the author is headed in an intentional direction.

So, Wisdom has always been around, and nothing human beings behold came into existence without following the principle of reason and judgment. This thought is often used to justify creationism, even suggesting that Jesus was around before the beginning of the universe. Maybe that’s what the author is actually saying, but without any evidence to support such a claim, it’s just a creative idea. We can say, however, based on all the evidence available to us, that everything that exists follows predictable, natural patterns. There is a certain reasonableness to nature, and we can recognize this even as we continue to learn more about the predictable natural patterns of the world we share and the universe as a whole. The idea of wisdom (or absolute, ultimate Wisdom) didn’t precede human beings, though. Natural processes have been around since there has been anything we might consider natural. Natural processes don’t have any inherent qualities like wisdom, though. The processes aren’t good or bad; they’re just natural. 

Yet, once we start evaluating things -- particularly human behavior -- we certainly find it easy to assess some things as good and other things as bad. We don’t always agree with each other, but we are usually pretty convinced of our own assessment of things. There is a light -- a way of seeing, an insight -- that is available to everyone, and yet not everyone recognizes the value of that perspective. The gospel of John will personify that perspective, that insight, that light. We may not really know what the author’s original intentions were, but we can certainly appreciate the concept of using a character in a story to demonstrate an ideal. The view that many believers take is that everyone should accept that the Light is a unique individual (Jesus) who should be worshiped and upon whom one must rely for salvation. It is an equally legitimate perspective to read John’s Jesus as an exemplar to be emulated -- the embodiment of an ideal that leads to salvation from a very real sort of destruction. 

What we might expect from a more Humanist introduction to the gospel of John, then, could perhaps be expressed:

There is a wisdom and logic to nature. Everything that exists, exists within a predictable array of patterns. Human beings also follow some predictable patterns, even though we don’t always realize that we are engaging in destructive patterns that can’t get us where we most want to go. There is a way of seeing ourselves and other people -- a way of seeing reality -- that creates well-being rather than destroying, and no amount of destructive human behavior can make that way of seeing -- or way of being -- inaccessible.

This is a story. It’s a story about a man who got it -- who saw things creatively rather than destructively. A man who knew who he was, and who knew what kind of world he most wanted to live in. To some people, such a person is really obvious -- a glaring beacon. One of our biggest mistakes would be to assume that we cannot be that person. This is a story about a man, a symbol, an example. This is also a story about all of us.

Such a person who sees the world differently -- who lives differently -- is going to seem unusual to a lot of people. Such a person might be really difficult for some people to accept. Doing things differently is scary. Even if the way we are accustomed to doing things hurts us and the people around us, change is difficult. But, those people who are willing to see themselves, others, and the world a little differently -- those people who follow the example of the man in this story -- they are going to have the power to create something new. They will understand love in a new way. They will understand themselves in a new way. It will be like an awakening -- like a new birth. You could be one of those people.

Imagine that a deeper kind of wisdom took shape in a person. Imagine that there was an individual who didn’t practice the kinds of destructive patterns we all default to when we get scared or anxious. Can you picture what that person would be like? From that image, that ideal, we can derive a new vision of ourselves. Nobody has ever seen any evidence of a supernatural divine being, but we can imagine what qualities such a being would have. A lot of those qualities are qualities we could have -- qualities we already have, if we choose to express them.

If you can imagine a person like that --
          a person who sees the world through eyes of love rather than eyes of fear,
          a person who is personally responsible and conveys honor and respect for all things,
          a person who tells the truth without blame or judgment,
          a person who acts from a place of authenticity --
if you can imagine a person like that, you can imagine a best possible version of yourself. And if you can imagine a best possible version of yourself, you can live into that ideal day by day. And if you can live into that ideal day by day, you can create something new. You can change the world. That’s what this story is about.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Isaiah 38-39: Living in the Present Responsibly

Isaiah 38 and 39 contain two more stories about Hezekiah, both of which are also recorded in 2 Kings, although the version in Isaiah includes a song that does not appear in 2 Kings. Although 2 Chronicles also contains a version of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib (which we explored last week), including some of the strategic preparations Hezekiah made as the Assyrian army advanced, the Chronicler records only a summary of the story of Hezekiah's illness and leaves out the story about the envoys from Babylon altogether. Perhaps the Chronicler didn't want to record anything that made the Judean king look bad, or perhaps the stories evolved and circulated in such a fashion that the Chronicler didn't have the same information as the authors of Isaiah and 2 Kings. Historically, it looks like Hezekiah fell ill and then recovered at a certain point in his reign. What is more interesting is what the stories about the king might help us see in our own lives.

Out of the varied versions of Hezekiah's illness, Isaiah is the only one that suggests a glimpse at what Hezekiah was thinking. 2 Chronicles suggests that Hezekiah was too proud after recovering from his illness, and that his pride brought suffering on himself and his kingdom; only his humility spared them. Without any details, we can only derive that pride can be dangerous, especially for those in positions of power. More details about applying figs to the king's boils and the shadow on a sundial miraculously moving backward appears in 2 Kings, as it does in Isaiah. There is nothing explicit in 2 Kings to accuse Hezekiah of pride, however. Only in Isaiah does the author include a poem or song that reflects Hezekiah's grief that he would die "in the noontide of [his] days," and his subsequent exuberance about regaining his life.

The poet of Isaiah 38:10-20 observes a few things worth acknowledging. First, there are some things we can't control. There are some illnesses no amount of medicine will cure, and yet sometimes people recover through no conscious or intentional action on their part. There are some decisions that we cannot influence, and yet sometimes we are the unexpected beneficiaries of other people's decisions. Second, when we are miserable -- even if we are not so sick that we aren't likely to survive -- we often wallow in our misery and act as though that misery completely fills our future. We are sometimes overwhelmed with hopelessness in the midst of temporary hardship. Third, we can't celebrate once we're dead, so if we have reason for celebration, we should express it while we are alive. The dead are not grateful or hopeful, and they aren't selfish or hopeless either. If there's something that matters to us, we have to tend to it while we are alive.

To the first observation, there are some who will point out that Hezekiah's illness in the story actually was cured because of something he did; he was in control of his own well-being. Surely, this is often the case in our own lives. Our own habits are often the causes of our misery. If we are willing to change what we do, we might create greater well-being in our lives. In Hezekiah's case, perhaps figs have a curative property that alleviates certain deadly boils, but we know that prayer in and of itself doesn't have any effect on reality. As has been pointed out, wishing for something and asking a supernatural to accomplish it for you is no different from magic. In the absence of any supernatural, we must conclude that we have to do something different if we want our reality to be different. It is this practice of acting in accord with our prayers or wishes that actually changes things. When we are willing to act in accordance with what we want, we change our lives. If prayer or some other religious practice prepares us for acting in accord, then so be it, but in this case it is still human action that makes the difference.

Even then, there are limits to what we can control. When we accurately recognize the limits of our control, we are less likely to be miserable. When we accurately assess the magnitude of our hardship, we are potentially less likely to wallow in our misery. Sometimes, our feelings of hopelessness are completely justified, and our emotions are always true, whether they are actually warranted or not. The more we are able to step back from our own circumstances and see a larger picture of our lives and of the world, though, the more we are able to place our own experience in perspective. This surely takes a bit of practice.

Having some perspective could also help us find things to celebrate. The poet of Isaiah 38:10-20 suggests that just being alive is something worth celebrating, and I'm inclined to agree, even though I haven't just recovered from a deadly illness. It might even be that every moment of our lives is ripe with things that are worthy of celebration, if we are just willing to look for those sources of joy rather than the ubiquitous reasons to feel miserable. There is something to be said for living in the present moment with gratitude for what we have.

Being fully present in the moment cuts both ways, then. If we dwell in the past or focus entirely on the future, we miss our opportunities to act and to create. We often hear that we should strive to be awake to the present. Yet, without any perspective at all, we could lose sight of a larger context. We could get overwhelmed by our temporary misery. We could make foolish or naive decisions that don't contribute to the kind of lives we want or the kind of world we want. In order to be fully present in each moment, we have to understand something about what matters to us -- we have to know our general trajectory at least. Otherwise, we might keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or we might keep veering off course from the things we care about most deeply. Balance and perspective are important.

As an example, we have one last story about Hezekiah, told almost exactly the same in 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 39. Some Babylonian envoys pay Hezekiah a visit, and the king shows them around to all his treasures. After they leave, Isaiah warns the king that Babylon will one day be a great empire that will abscond with all of those treasures as well as Hezekiah's own descendants. (This is an indication that the story originated after Hezekiah's death during or after the time of the Babylonian exile.) Hezekiah, thinking only of the present moment and his personal experience, is grateful that there will be peace during the rest of his lifetime.

Living in the present could have some negative long-term consequences if we are not conscious of a larger context. Our lives are like threads in an enormous tapestry, and our actions determine our connection to all the other threads. Littering might make sense to someone living in the present, and yet it creates a less habitable world for other people. Large scale pollution from industry would follow the same logic, except that its effects on future generations is exponentially greater than a litterbug tossing a fast food bag out of a car window at a stoplight. Being fully present in the moment without any sense of the interconnectedness of our our lives and actions can be profoundly irresponsible. While we cannot predict the future well enough to know the eventual results of every action we take, we can at least consider some of the obvious consequences of our actions. We cannot consider the long-term well-being of ourselves and the people around us, however, without some sense of perspective. We might be much more prone to seek out quick fixes to our anxiety if we are just attuned to the present moment. Thus, while we strive to be fully present in each moment so that we can most effectively act in accord with what we want for our lives, the lives of others, and the world we all share, we have to spend some time thinking about how our actions in the moment fit into a bigger picture.

One way that we can do this is by connecting with other people, particularly people in different circumstances from us. We might do this just by walking around our neighborhoods and introducing ourselves, or we might get involved in an organized effort to improve the well-being of a certain group of people. For instance, through tutoring primarily Latino students in a local GED program, I was able to connect with people who are taking steps to improve their lives -- and the lives of their descendants. I gained a greater appreciation for the sorts of sacrifices some people make in order to provide for the basic needs of their families, and I became more aware of how challenging the current system of bureaucracy can be for some of those people. They have to confront challenges I have never had to confront. I have a different set of challenges in my life, and a different set of sacrifices that make sense in the context of the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to live. Connecting with people who seem different from you on the surface can help provide a more informed sense of perspective. It's easier to be aware of how your actions affect the lives and well-being of the people around you when you are more deeply connected to those people.

Another advantage of our time is the ease with which we can gain information about the world. It's also true that we can get lost in internet rabbit trails, and we must be ever more discerning about the biases of the information we find. Still, we have the potential to understand a great deal about how the patterns and habits of our lives affect our own well being, and how our actions impact the lives of people on the other side of the world. We don't have to learn all that there is to know, and we don't have to learn it all at once. The willingness to continually place a little bit of new information into our worldview can keep us conscious of a larger context in the midst of our moment-by-moment decisions. It bears repeating that this willingness to take in new information also comes with the responsibility to make sure that information is valid, to the best of our ability. Since everyone has biases, all of the information we find has been influenced by someone's biases, and our interpretation of that information will be influenced by our own biases. Even so, being aware of a larger global perspective can help us live in the moment more responsibly.

There are probably dozens of ways that people could maintain a larger perspective while striving to be more fully present in each moment. I'll mention one final way, since it so clearly connects to topics from previous chapters. When we know our guiding principles, it's easier to make decisions. When we are conscious of our values, it's easier to know what to do in the moment. Our values and guiding principles are necessarily big-picture kinds of ideas. They automatically connect us with a larger perspective. They are tapestry-sized concepts. When we spend a little time each day reminding ourselves of our values, the principles we want to guide us, or what we envision as a best possible version of ourselves, moments of anxiety have less potential to send us into a tailspin. Our temporary misery is less likely to overwhelm us when we know what we stand for. We are less likely to sabotage our ability to express our deepest most noble selves when we regularly spend time being aware of how we want to show up in life. Once we have identified our values and our guiding principles, a few minutes is all that it takes to tune in to ourselves and be reminded of those deep truths about who we are.

Our lives are threads in an enormous tapestry, and our moment-by-moment decisions determine how we connect with all the other threads and the tapestry as a whole. In order to make the most of our opportunities, we strive to be more fully present in the moment, and yet our sense of integrity suggests that we maintain a broader perspective. We can do this by building connection with the people around us, developing our knowledge about the larger world we inhabit, and being more deeply aware of the values and principles upon which we want to base our lives. In this way, we might recognize our limits and boundaries with greater clarity, more often prevent momentary misery from overwhelming us, and more frequently recognize all that we have to celebrate.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Isaiah 36-37: Values and the Consequences of Losing Sight of Them

By now, you may be getting tired of all this business about war between different ancient nations. This, unfortunately, is the basic subject matter of a large chunk of the Old Testament. Of course, the thrust of these writings was usually to reinforce the ideas that Yahweh was in control, that the people of Israel and Judah were suffering the consequences of their spiritual infidelity, and that Yahweh would do what he would do because of his nature, not because of any sacrificial bribery on the part of his people. The message isn't always that cut and dried, and there is certainly some development over the centuries. Still, the exclusivity of the Hebrew scriptures with regard to their supernatural is the basic theme throughout. "Our god is better than anyone else's, and we're his favorite people, even when we act irresponsibly and suffer as a result." In any case, this week and next week, we'll look at the last little bit of the first section of Isaiah, and then we'll take a break from this theme for awhile.

Near the close of the eighth century (BCE), King Hezekiah apparently incited a rebellion against Assyria, with the support of Egypt and Babylon. There are several ancient accounts of the event and the outcome, and it is worth noting that the record cannot be set straight because there is no evidence remaining to support any particular version of events, and there is no account that exceeds the others in terms of credibility. In a sudden shift from poetry into narrative writing, the biblical account in Isaiah 36-37 says nothing explicit about Hezekiah provoking Sennacherib (the Assyrian emperor), but it is implied that Hezekiah has at least made some threats of revolution. This account also does not mention the cities that Sennacherib conquered on the way to Jerusalem, but it is understood that, by this time, the kingdom of Israel has already been taken and its people scattered through the Assyrian empire. In Isaiah, an angel moves through the Assyrian army's camp in response to Hezekiah's prayer, and soldiers are struck down by the thousands one night.

Sennacherib's version says nothing about any massive loss of life. According to the Taylor Prism, Sennacherib claims to have taken several cities in Judah and to have threatened Jerusalem sufficiently that Hezekiah paid a tribute of gold, silver, and other treasures, ending the rebellion. Incidentally, 2 Kings first presents the equivalent of Sennacherib's account, then has a story identical to Isaiah. (It isn't at all clear whether 2 Kings or Isaiah was written first.) Herodotus -- writing 250 years after the event -- claims that, on the eve of battle with the Egyptians (not Hezekiah), field mice devoured the bow strings, shield straps, and quivers of the Assyrian army, thus leaving them defenseless and easily slaughtered on the field of battle. Berossus (writing more than 400 years after the fact) reports that it was disease that wiped out 185,000 Assyrian soldiers in one night, and we cannot be sure of the context of that event. None of Berossus' original writings are extant, but he is quoted in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, which was authored near the end of the first century, CE.

We don't really know when the story in Isaiah 36-37 was originally written, but if we hope to derive any meaning from the tale, it is clear that we must look beyond mere historical veracity. Obviously, Sennacherib marched on Jerusalem and then something happened and the city was left standing. There's not much of a life lesson in that, except perhaps that events don't always wind up going the way they appear to be headed. Sometimes, the impending siege just doesn't happen. Sometimes, the layoffs are just a rumor. Sometimes, an extraordinary IPO is no indication of a company's future success. Sometimes, people and circumstances will surprise us. Maybe that's enough of a lesson to keep in mind.

However, there is more to consider in the account of Hezekiah. First of all, it appears that Hezekiah may have made some empty threats. Judah's military was no match for the Assyrian army, and the king most likely knew this. Maybe he had convinced the leaders of Egypt (or parts of Egypt) and Babylonia to join his revolution, but either the plan was toothless or it was still in its infancy when Sennacherib caught wind of it. Hezekiah put his family, his city, and his kingdom at risk because of his bluster. His words were born out of anxiety and anger rather than out of a sense of purpose and integrity, and anxiety and anger can blind people to reality.

When reality hit home, the leaders in Jerusalem were doing all they could not to let the population of the city know just how serious the threat was. They asked the Assyrian emissaries to speak in a language that the rank and file soldiers wouldn't understand, just so they wouldn't be demoralized! Were the Judahites so naive that they didn't realize that demoralization of the people was the real purpose of such talk? Or does this exchange just make for good storytelling? No matter. The soldiers at least did well in the story by not playing into the taunts of the provocateurs. They didn't make the king's problem their problem, even though it could become their problem rather quickly if violence escalated. They didn't take responsibility for something that wasn't theirs to deal with. They just kept silent.

Hezekiah, on the other hand, decided to plead with Yahweh, to make the actions of Sennacherib about God rather than about Hezekiah's irresponsibility. Sennacherib wasn't at Jerusalem's gate because he had a problem with Hezekiah's god; he was there because he had a problem with Hezekiah's attitude. Dealing with Sennacherib wasn't really Yahweh's responsibility. Yahweh didn't tell Hezekiah to incite a rebellion. Yet, Hezekiah wanted to provoke his god into taking personal offense at Sennacherib's actions, which were pretty predictable actions when you think about it. In the story, Yahweh isn't controlled by Hezekiah's desperate prayer. He decides to act based on what he wants, not based on what Hezekiah wants. The king will still experience the consequences of his actions. His convenient faith in a desperate moment doesn't remove his personal responsibility for his own decisions.

The book of Isaiah assumes the reality of Yahweh, and yet we can conceive of analogs of this story that understand divinity as inherently human rather than externally supernatural. We also are prone to ignore our deepest values, and we too sometimes experience the negative consequences of reacting out of our anxiety. In fact, a lot of the automatic things we do to alleviate our anxiety often exacerbate our anxiety. Quick fixes are perhaps the best example of this. Seeking a quick solution just to make our anxiety go away rarely gets us the results we really want. Hezekiah's problem was not that he was dishonoring a supernatural until he really needed help. His problem was that he wasn't acting with integrity, and then expected another quick fix to take care of the consequences of his integrity gap. Many of us can probably relate.

We have an alternative. We can commit to expressing our deepest, most noble selves more authentically. We can learn to dismantle the irrational fears that produce unnecessary anxiety in our lives. We can recognize our values -- the things about which we care most deeply -- and act with integrity to those values. This is the same as being true to our inner divinity, of honoring whatever qualities we imagine represent the divine. We don't need to talk a big talk and make unrealistic promises or threats; we just need to be our authentic selves.

There will still be consequences to our reactionary behavior when we slip up. Shifting back to a more intentional and principled way of being doesn't eliminate the results of our integrity gaps. There may even be consequences we don't like about living with intentionality and integrity. Some people may not respond to us the way we want them to. We might have to do things differently if we align our actions with our deepest values. Yet, we can bring greater clarity to our decisions when we understand the values upon which our actions are based. In understanding and honoring our values, we allow ourselves to be more complete people, better equipped to make decisions that reflect our deepest, most noble selves. And each time we are willing to act with integrity to ourselves, we build our confidence and ability to keep doing so.

For us, then, the message of Isaiah 36-37 need not be about a supernatural wiping all our problems away in an overnight killing spree. It can be about our willingness to trust our deepest values to guide our actions and decisions. We can be encouraged to recognize our own deep beauty, insight, and creativity, and to honor our selves by acting with integrity -- showing up authentically. We don't have to make demands on other people or insist that everyone else's values line up with ours. In honoring our own deepest, most noble selves and exhibiting integrity in our lives, we open space for others to do the same. Not everyone will take advantage of that space we open up, and that's alright. Our job is to live our own lives the best we can, and that means acting with integrity to our deepest values.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Isaiah 34-35: Creating Our Own "Holy Way"

The next two chapters of Isaiah are contrasting predictions about the fates of "Yahweh's people" and the fates of everybody else. Some of the symbolic themes from previous portions of Isaiah return here. The blindness and deafness that Yahweh commanded the prophet to enforce (Is 6:9-12) will now be removed. Water, symbolic in much of the prophetic literature, is used here as an assurance of life, but of course only Yahweh's people will have access to the streams and pools of water in the wilderness. After acknowledging the literary context of these prophecies, we might gain something from recognizing one last time the flaws in the suggested dependence upon a supernatural and the Us vs Them perspective of this prophetic writing before considering a more intentional perspective that might better align with our guiding principles.

These are the final poetic chapters of "Proto-Isaiah"; after a short narrative, the book of Isaiah continues with words written at a much later time, as indicated by specific historical references in the text. Recall that no autograph of the book of Isaiah has been discovered, and that the earliest copy we have is from the early first century BCE. On top of that, there are thousands of differences between existing copies of the book. One prevailing conclusion by scholars is that the book was assembled by an editor from disparate writings (perhaps by the same author or school of authors). Thus, the sequence in which the writings appear may have been determined by someone at a much later time than when they were written. The only thing we can honestly assess is the end product, because we don't have anything earlier to examine. At the same time, honest assessment must include the fact that we cannot know the intentions of the author, and that the sequence in which texts are read has an influence on their interpretation.

In fact, "interpretation" may not even be the right word for what we do with such texts. We often read through the lens of our own wisdom and values, and we judge what we read based on what we already believe. The Unitarian Universalist tradition, for instance, currently recognizes six broad sources: direct experience, the words and deeds of prophetic people, ethical and spiritual wisdom from the world's religions, the call to love our neighbors in Jewish and Christian teachings, Humanist teachings, and the spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions. The intrinsic values of Unitarian Universalism were not drawn from these sources, however; the accepted values informed the choices of sources. The whole of Jewish and Christian scripture is not compatible with Unitarian Universalism, just as the whole of Islamic or Humanist teachings is not compatible with Unitarian Universalism. Our values are the scales on which the merits of a particular text are weighed.

This is true of everyone. American Christians reading the Bible do not honestly accept everything within its pages as legitimate timeless ethical and moral truth. They all recognize, to varying degrees, that there are cultural differences between twenty-first century Western society and the ancient Middle-Eastern societies in which the biblical texts originated. They determine the validity of a particular portion of scripture not based on the fact that it is in the Bible, but based on a set of values that they already accept as guiding principles in their lives. To be sure, those values are also supported by some portions of scripture. The call to reconciliation and love in human relationships is a major theme in the Bible, for instance. Yet, this theme is in conflict with passages like Isaiah 34-35, in which it is clear that the enemies of Judah are considered to be the enemies of Yahweh, and proclaiming their destruction is justified in the name of religious superiority. This is incompatible with the values of reconciliation and love.

Even if one interprets Isaiah as saying that human beings are free to seek reconciliation and love because God will take care of those other people, this does not resolve the conflict. The Bible also suggests that human beings are supposed to be emulators of God, and a perception of God as vengeful and destructive creates some problems. Readers of the Bible have to be selective and discerning, and that selectivity and discernment derives from the values through which the pages are read. We are always going to be biased readers. We can only strive to have biases that reflect our deepest values rather than our fears.

This brings us to a couple of flaws in the writing that we have noted before, but which bear repeating. Isaiah 33 and 34 both express a reliance on a supernatural to either punish or provide. There is surely some comfort in the idea that God is going to punish the people you don't like, although laying waste to the environment may be a bit extreme. There is surely some comfort in the promise that everything will be alright for you because God will provide what you need. There are problems with the implied converse of these assumptions, though. What happens when you do not have the things that you need? Has God abandoned you? Are you wicked? Are you being punished, or are you supposed to take comfort in the eventual good things that God is going to do, even if they happen long after you are dead? What about other people who suffer? If God has promised to provide for what his people need, doesn't it follow that people who are hungry or thirsty or oppressed are not God's people, and are thus wicked? The implications of God's partiality and the impossibility of interpreting "divine will" make such promises very problematic, even though they provide some shallow comfort.

Seeing the world as Us vs Them is a natural perspective for people to adopt. We are fearful by nature, and if we let our fear be in control, then we might imagine anything and anyone as a threat. We want to be right, and thus in our anxiety about possibly being wrong, we construct a worldview in which everyone else is wrong and blind to it. Thus, we get to be right at the expense of connection with other human beings, or at the expense of ever growing beyond what we are currently able to do in the world. Our fears are not values.

The people of ancient Judah were put in a position -- as the result of warfare -- in which they were in a constant state of acute fear. Foreign soldiers were laying siege to their cities and taking them into exile. They were not in a position to live by their values. They were living desperate lives. This happened multiple times in the history of Israel, and it is happening in some places today. People cannot live by a set of deep values when their lives are constantly threatened by legitimate, real dangers. It's important to know who is safe and who is dangerous when your life is literally on the line, and it's natural to invent some stories about the people who seem dangerous. In those stories, the people you perceive as dangerous are obviously going to be the bad guys, and when you feel desperate and powerless, the most hopeful story you can tell might seem to be that a powerful superhuman force will punish the bad guys and rescue the helpless victims.

Our tendency, though, is that we sometimes see ourselves as victims when we aren't. We sometimes feel threatened when we aren't. We sometimes believe we are powerless when we aren't. And we still make up stories about the people we perceive as dangerous, even when they aren't an actual threat to our safety and well-being. We have to learn to recognize the difference between actual threats to our well-being and anxiety that originates and thrives inside our own heads. There may be a lot of different people on the planet with a lot of different beliefs and a lot of anxiety prompting them to tell stories about how the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be saved, but in actuality, our well-being depends upon the well-being of everyone else. There is no Them. There is only one big Us. This idea may be as much of a hard sell to the oppressors as it is to the oppressed, but those of us who can recognize this simple truth and start living it out in our lives can influence things toward greater hope for everyone.

This is the real power that Isaiah 34 and 35 miss: Human beings are responsible for human relationships. The problems we create will not be resolved by supernatural intervention. We are responsible for living according to our values. We are responsible for finding solutions to the challenges in our lives. We are responsible to the people around us -- the people with whom we share our lives, our communities, and our world. There is no more empowering and hopeful truth than this. It just isn't necessarily what we want to hear when we look around and see evidence that other people are not behaving very responsibly. Since we can't really control anybody but ourselves, it's tempting to want a more powerful entity to take care of all the irresponsible people in the world and reward us for being so awesome. That isn't going to happen. We need a more reliable approach to navigating our own awareness of human responsibility and the apparent lack of awareness around us.

First, we can be more aware of our values. We are constantly interpreting the things we read and hear through the lens of our values, but we don't often take the time to articulate just what those values are. When we are aware of the ideals that matter most to us, it's much easier to determine how we want to be in particular situations, and it's much clearer when we are reacting out of anxiety or fears that are not aligned with our values.

Second, we can stand to see a larger perspective. When we are willing to bear witness to the actual suffering that takes place in the lives of people in more poverty-stricken countries, for instance, or even in the lives of people in our own neighborhoods, our own sense of suffering might be more realistic. We might be less inclined to play the role of victim inappropriately, and we might be less inclined to demonize other people for petty reasons. Our lives have value, and we need not be so self-sacrificial that we deny ourselves what we need. Still, being honest about our own positions on the spectrum of human suffering can help us live more intentionally.

Third, we can recognize our role in the world. Once we know what we care about most deeply, we can start living more intentionally according to those values. When we are willing to see the realities of people's lives, we can start to see opportunities to influence things toward greater well-being. This might mean funding education for a girl on the other side of the world, or it might mean spending time with people in our own neighborhoods. Our values and our own personal passions will guide us toward ways that we can influence the world, even if it is in some seemingly small way. I personally don't like building or fixing up people's homes, but I know a lot of people who love swinging a hammer. I really love teaching and tutoring people, whether its educating people about human trafficking or tutoring folks in a GED program. Some folks would be terrified to stand up and speak to a group of people. We all have values and passions that can direct us toward meaningful action.

This is how we contribute to a better world. We cannot wait for a supernatural to sweep in and destroy all the people we choose to see as villains and create a lush and thriving landscape just for us. This is not a realistic hope. Such stories might symbolically represent something to us, but our real hope is in our values and our willingness to live intentionally by them. Our ability to recognize our values and live intentionally is not impeded by other people's lack of awareness. This doesn't have to create an Us and Them dichotomy, but it's alright to acknowledge that some of us are becoming more practiced at managing our anxiety. We may be frustrated sometimes by other people, but if we look around, we will probably also spot some people who are living more intentionally. Two or three people with shared values and a willingness to live intentionally might be able to create more together than one person can create alone. Having community with people who have shared values can be a source of hope when we start to feel angry or frustrated.

So, what are your values? What ideals matter most deeply to you?
Where are you on the spectrum of human suffering? Do you need to focus on your own well-being before you consider how you can positively influence other people's lives?
What actions do your values and passions call you toward?
Who are your potential collaborators? With whom will you build partnership and mutual support?

The answers to these questions strengthen weak hands and make feeble knees firm. The answers to these questions inspire courage and help to dismantle irrational fear. The answers to these questions help us see and hear and act and speak with greater clarity. The answers to these questions are our streams in the desert, our refreshment and empowerment in life. The answers to these questions are our Holy Way, and all are welcome to travel on it. (cf. Is 35:3-8)