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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Meaningful Work

We spend most of our waking hours at work, which means that when we don't find our work meaningful we can feel as if our lives are passing us by. While we shouldn't get out primary identity from our work, we should feel as if we are wasting our time, either. How can we determine what will bring us fulfillment?

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for October 27, 2013

Each week join Craig for his unique perspective on the REvised Common Lectionary Readings for the week. This week's readings are Sirach 35:12-17. 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14

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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Language Fails God

Could it be that the real limitation of language is that it has very limited ability to describe the abstract? If you doubt that, try to tell me what love is in fifty words or less. While you are at it try to describe love in five thousand words or less, or the way a spectacular sunset feels, or your internal response the exact moment when you see a child born. The best we can hope for is a very loose approximation that doesn't really do the experience justice.

How many books have been written about God? Whether you have read one of those books or one thousand of them, the odds are they really don't even come close to your experience of God. They may come close to describing things that you have heard others say about God, but the things we say about anything or anybody rarely come close to portraying the experience of meeting them. If they did, all of those dates you went on with someone you were told had a wonderful personality would have worked out much better!

A great segment of Christianity has spent a lot of time trying to describe God in the way we might describe an office building, or the way a car engine works, or the way we would evaluate someone admitted to a
psychiatric unit. We try to attribute behaviors to God, as if God was some kind of superhuman being, in order to convince each other we know how God "works." We read the Bible as if it was a scientific treatise that describes exactly the way God and the universe interact rather than an attempt by people long dead to describe their encounters with the Transcendent in the only language available to them, the language of their everyday lives. We talk about God speaking to us, as if encountering God was some sort of psychotic episode. Preachers speak about God giving them just the message they need to preach while they were driving over to church on Sunday morning, as if God is their speech writer on call. In the end, it's all just so much nonsense because it's all about the speaker trying to convince the listener that the speaker is just a little bit closer to God than the rest of us and so we really should listen to them and empty our wallets into their collection plates. It's all about Harold, and not about God at all. For these people religion is all about literalizing a very abstract concept and then using that distortion to get ahead by any means necessary. In other words, it's manipulative nonsense. It's little wonder that Christianity has a credibility problem.

On the other hand, those of us who have had experiences of God are hard pressed to describe them. Some of us don't find trying to describe God as a "being," human or otherwise, very accurate at all. Fur us God is that which is found in silence; that which pervades, supports, surrounds, sustains, and animates life. For us God is far closer to what Eastern religions call Enlightenment than God could ever be to Harold. When we experience God it is as if we suddenly see everything very clearly, including the best direction to take or decision to make - not because someone is whispering it in our ear or commanding it under penalty of damnation, but because for a moment we share a transcendent viewpoint in which what has been hidden (and often so much more) is revealed. We are not left with any sort of proof that is a collection of bullet points but rather with a knowing that transcends explanation, and that knowing is what matters. That knowing causes us to realize, among other things, that it really doesn't matter if our understanding or description coincides with that of anyone else or if it earns their approval because the knowing itself is enough.

It's not much of a description, but then the only tool I have to use is language.

If the future is going to hold a meaningful expression of Christianity in a community setting we are going to have to find ways to move away from the popular misunderstandings of God as an angry, intoxicated, abusive parent and Christians as the small child that just spilled the milk across the kitchen table at dinnertime yet again. Whenever I hear about "praise and worship" gatherings I am always left with the impression that attendees are kissing up to the angry and abusive parent God while he is sober in the hopes that a little later tonight when he is drunk the beating might not be as bad. In fairness, there are people who love "praise and worship" services for the emotional high often created therein by well trained worship leaders who understand how to use psychology and music to manipulate their emotions. Isn't that just another kind of deception? Those attending such services believe that the Holy Spirit's presence makes them feel elated, but in truth it's nothing more than a contemporary PT Barnum dressed in church clothes.

What is God is more like the ocean and we are fish swimming in it? The God would both surround us and flow through us like water moves through a the gills of a fish. We would draw our sustenance from God as a fish draws oxygen from the water, and God would also support us and comprise our environment. The entire world as we know it would be God, and no other being we encountered would be outside of our God-environment. Trying to decide who was in and out of the ocean would be absurd, as would any claim that the water liked one of us more than another. Every now and then we might swim out of the cove in which we spend most of our lives and get a glimpse of how vast the ocean really is and how varied are the forms of life it supports. No analogy is perfect, but we can see how those with a limited perspective might believe that the ocean is angry when a story stirs it up and create stories of a vengeful, angry ocean. Those living in deeper waters would experience the ocean as unchanging and dependable and reject the stories of the shallows dwellers. A mature faith has found the deep waters not because it is special in any way but rather because it has engaged in spiritual practice consistently. That means it is within reach of all of us!

I don't pretend to have the answers about what our community gatherings will look like. Those questions are yet to be answered. They will certainly be grounded more in honest exchange and sharing of the journey than in attempts to manipulate or coerce one way or another. I suspect, too, that the environment for these gatherings will be much more a level playing field than the Church has historically been. There will probably always be people who facilitate such gatherings and are specially trained to do so, but a good facilitator knows that his or her job is to bring people into full participation rather than provide them with pat answers designed to repress thought rather than stimulate it. We could sing the old songs if they still gave us joy, but we would sing them in a way that appreciated them as metaphorical rather than literal - as any description of Transcendence must be if it has any hope of ringing true.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Theologians, Sex, the Bible, and Other Nonsense

Have theologians finally gone completely around the bend? Has it not occurred to them that healthy, well adapted, and relatively normal people find most of their proclamations irrelevant? Do they really believe that consenting adults ponder what St. Paul might think about the sex act in which they are about to engage? Has it not occurred to them that all of their valiant attempts to justify the patriachy and misogyny in the Bible aren't going to convince any thinking person that the authors didn't really mean that women were property and we would do better to talk about cultural differences than justifications? Why are the theologians silent on the things of real life? We'll explore this today on Interspiritual Insights.

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Weekly Scripture Commentary for October 20, 2013

Join us each week for Craig's unique perspective on the Revised Common Lectionary Readings for the week. Today's readings are Jeremiah 31:27-34; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and Luke 18:1-8.

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Friday, October 18, 2013

Who Was This Jesus?

Dare we say it? In the secret places of our heart - excluding most conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, of course - I believe it's the case that the vast majority of people who would identify as mainline Christians, especially mainline Christians who aren't regular church attenders any more, don't believe in what at one time were the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Since I don't want to put anyone else on the spot, why don't I just play a little Q & A with myself?

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was the biological Son of God?
A: No.

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God?
A: I believe that Jesus was the Son of God in a unique, but not exclusive, way because he was fully awake, fully enlightened, and achieved full union with God while still alive. I also believe that all humans are children of God, and that any of us could achieve precisely what Jesus did (union with God) while still alive. I believe the primary thing stopping more of us from doing so, despite the fact that Jesus himself said we would do greater things than he, is that the church has been insisting we cannot for two thousand years and we believed it. We may see some pretty amazing things now that the church is for the most part no longer credible.

Q: Do you believe that Jesus was God Incarnate?
A: I believe we all, every last one of us, are Incarnations of God. Again, most of us are completely unaware of this and so don't even come close to living into it the way Jesus did, but the potential is most definitely there.

Q: Do you believe Jesus died to pay the price for our sins and meet some kind of payment plan that God insisted on?
A: No. In fact, I find such a notion repulsive even as I understand the reasons a first century Jewish Christian might have arrived at that interpretation. How a twenty-first century Christian arrives at that interpretation is another issue.

Q: Do you believe in the literal Virgin Birth?
A: No. In biblical times you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting someone allegedly born of a virgin. Being born of a virgin was a mythological way of saying that someone was special. It had nothing to do with the status of that person's mother's hymen.

Q: Do you believe the birth stories found in Matthew and Luke are actual, factual accounts?
A: No. They were written much later, some seventy years after the birth of Jesus. Of course, that's not to say that they cannot inform us about how Jesus was understood by his contemporaries - or how he might be understood by us, for that matter, if we learned to abandon our insistence on literalism. Jesus was born in a backwater town long before birth certificates or hospital births. There was nobody there recording events for the record.

Q: Do you believe in the bodily resurrection?
A: I am an agnostic on the bodily resurrection. I wasn't there. I know that something about Jesus, more accurately the Christ in him, did live on - whether physical, spiritual, and/or something else I do not know and it doesn't really matter to me. Something continued, and it was so powerful that it changed the course of human history. It is beyond plausibility that a fictional account contrived by a handful of peasants did all of that. So I believe in the resurrection without feeling the need to define it to death (pun intended).

Q: Who killed Jesus, the Romans or the Jews?
A: The Romans, no doubt about it. The biblical accounts of Jesus "trial" are mythological - there were no court reporters in those days. All of it, including the whole, "release Barabbas" business, is a story designed to convey a truth but not a literal newspaper report. Maybe Pilate did wash his hands, maybe he didn't. The point is we will never know. What we do know from independent sources is that Jesus was crucified. If we choose to, we can spend the rest of our lives pondering the minutiae that may or may not have surrounded those events but to me they matter little. Much more important to me is to discover what the biblical writers were trying to convey and what the stories are calling me to do.

I could go on and on for some time, but by now my point is clear. What's more, I believe if we snuck into most church coffee hours this weekend and spirited the pastor out of the room for safety's sake we could have interesting conversations with the run of the mill church member and get pretty much the same answer to most of the above questions as I gave. In truth I believe we'd get the same answers from the pastor as long as their members weren't around to witness the interview. The question is, why does anyone play the game? I understand it's a requirement of membership, but what organization worth belonging to forces its members to lie in order to remain members? Mind you, there will doubtless be at least one angry comment to this blog post that announces that I am not fit to be called a Christian, and that's fine with me because if Christianity has become a religion where seeking the truth in an honest way is a problem them I don't want to be a Christian. The goal of my spiritual journey isn't religion, it's God, and we have seen far too often in recent history how the former gets in the way of the latter. So why go on pretending? Is Christianity the goal of our journey or is God the goal? I believe there are more than a few churches that have that equation backwards!

Just imagine what might happen if we could have honest conversations about the important questions on the spiritual path. Fortunately, you don't have to imagine. There are places like the organizations I founded, The UAC, and the RHIMES lineage of Interspirituality, where that can happen. There are blogs like this one and sites like my main website where these discussions can be had with honesty and integrity. Why not check places like this out today, and start asking those important questions? Don't let peer pressure keep you from asking the important questions of your life!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Personal Integrity

Personal Integrity - where has it gone? There was a time when people kept their commitments, but today it seems that time is long gone. There was a time when a handshake was all that was needed to seal a deal, when the elderly and children were left alone even by criminals. What has happened, and how do we fix it?

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Friday, October 11, 2013

The Hopeless Killing the Helpless

My eighty-four year old neighbor was murdered in his home yesterday. From what I could overhear the police talking about outside my home, it seems that a fifteen year old broke into his home and killed him, then stole his car, somehow got into a traffic accident and then set the car on fire. This led the police to Bob's house where they found him murdered. Of course the specific details could be incorrect because the police spread a lot of misinformation during the early stages of an investigation, but the broad picture is probably essentially correct. Bob is dead, someone broke into his house and killed him - or knocked on the door and forced their way in - and then stole his car. Somewhere there was a fire involved because members of the police department's arson investigation team were on site yesterday.

How are we to understand all of this? At the very least, we know a tragedy has occurred. If a teenager was involved, we can say that it was most likely gang related. Trying to arrive at a "reason" for murder that makes sense is always a fruitless task. People of sound mind would never kill someone, and so whatever reasons the killer might have had won't make much sense to those of us on the outside. Certainly, from a Buddhist perspective the reason for anything has to do with causes and conditions being ripe for something to occur, but trying to sort all of that out from the outside is often difficult if not impossible. If the brakes on our car go out we can be relatively certain that a lack of preventative maintenance combined with the passage of time are the causes and conditions. When someone is murdered the causes and conditions become more complex. We can, however, point to at least a few possibilities.

Economic conditions in urban areas are abysmal, and most of our country simply doesn't care enough to change them. This leads to the development of alternative economies in poor areas, chief among them the drug trade. By and large, street gangs control drugs in our neighborhoods and so are perceived to have some power by kids in those neighborhoods. Healthy rites of passage are all but absent in our culture, and in urban areas gang membership has become a valid rite of passage that often requires some senseless act of violence, theft, daring, or some combination of those three. Bob, by virtue of being aged and a bit infirm, made an easy target for pseudo tough guys to prove their mettle.

There are deeper causes and conditions only hinted at in the above paragraph, including economic injustice and lack of opportunity. As I have written and spoken of in other places and spaces, there are very few employment opportunities in the City of Milwaukee that pay a living wage. Access to employment opportunities in neighboring communities and counties is limited by a racist public transportation system which primarily has routes running into the city in the morning and out of it in the afternoon. This means that if you want to get a job in neighboring Waukesha County, you will need a reliable car to do so. When you add to this equation the fact that in every community bordering Milwaukee County the city police wait on the border and stop vehicles with people of color in them in disproportionate numbers, the picture takes on a particularly insidious quality.

Before we get too busy screaming about racism as the only factor in a complex equation, let us not forget white folks like Bob who have stayed behind in the city and not partaken of white flight. Some stayed out of financial necessity, others stayed because they believed in integrated neighborhoods and were not scared away when people of color moved in next door. Bob's female friend of thirty years cried on the curb last night, a black woman bemoaning the loss of her friend. It's easy to believe that the lives of white people and people of color in the city are not intertwined, but it's amazingly simplistic thinking perpetuated by those outside the city who never venture into it. Then again, our gang culture has decayed to the point where people and places previously off limits are not fair game and so we see children, the elderly, schools and playgrounds with children on them are now the victims of violence on a regular basis.

It would be easy (but ineffective) to say that we need to ramp up police patrols, or to increase incarceration, or any of a number of other knee jerk reactions to tragedies such as Bob's murder. The truth is that we have tried those solutions and they have failed miserably. There are no quick fixes. The only thing that will begin to address the violence that is so rampant in our society is to address the causes and conditions of it: lack of economic opportunity and lack of valid rites of passage. To accomplish the first will require all of us to abandon the perverted notion that greed is a virtue. To accomplish the second will require us to develop spiritual and religious systems that speak to people and offer meaningful rites of passage. Neither of these will happen overnight, which means we need to get started right away.

As hard as it may be to hear, the first step toward developing meaningful spiritualities is to recognize that Bob was not the only tragedy in the events of yesterday. Somewhere in the city there is a fifteen year old child whose life has also been lost. Perhaps it can be reclaimed, but we can be certain that none of the systems currently in place will help him reclaim it. As a soon to be convicted felon, we can be fairly certain that he will be unemployable until this country changes the unjust requirement that applicants for employment reveal felony convictions to their perspective employers. As it is, this requirement means that the only way he will be able to make money will be through illegal activities. For a country supposedly founded on Judeo-Christian values, we are a singularly unforgiving lot. Who among us does not have a mistake in their past they would rather forget? Who among us would not rather forget our biggest mistake? What makes us think this young man is any different? Can we see the irony in the fact that our condemning this young man to a life where he cannot move beyond this horrific mistake creates more Bobs rather than leading to justice?

We need to wake up. Sadly, most of us don't start down the path to awakening until some tragedy strikes our lives. If we wait for the numbers game to cause tragedy to strike in enough people's lives to make a change then it will never occur because people are constantly being born and dying, leaving us a new generation to convince. I believe this is where engaged spirituality comes into play. We simply must speak out. We must lovingly yet firmly challenge the status quo and not stop until justice is achieved. Both Bob and his killer deserve our best efforts.