Friday, February 24, 2012

The Search for Knowledge

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace.  ... Happy are those who wait for Him...  Then your Guide will no more be ignored, but your eyes will watch your Guide, and, whenever you deviate to the right or to the left, your ears will heed the command from behind you:  'This is the road; follow it!'   --  Isaiah 30:19b-21 (Jewish Study Bible)

May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. ... For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.   -- 2 Peter 1:2-3, 5-7 (NRSV)

I've been thinking a lot lately about knowledge.  A handful of people from our church were asked to prepare a small talk about their faith journey for one of the five Wednesday Lenten services coming up.  I was one of them.  So, I've been thinking about my faith journey, which has been driven by the search for knowledge, and fueled with the connections I find from reading great books and listening to what comes into my life -- and writing.  (I learn a great deal simply by writing out my thoughts.)

In all my 40+ years of going to church, I did not really know God, or myself, until eight years ago when I started to ask questions about what I believed.  Before that, I would say that I lived very unconsciously, very much unaware of the world around me, and God's presence in that world.  But once I started to think about my faith, and wonder about God, and Jesus, and Christianity, and other religions, and so on, I started to see God guiding my life. 

It took a while, but slowly I became aware that there were connections to my thoughts all around me:  in the things that happened in my life, in the books I read, in words spoken to me by a friend or stranger, or from a movie, or a song.  How could this happen, I wondered, unless my thoughts were heard?  And, who could hear my thoughts but God? 

I'm learning that I am far from alone in discovering this link between the search for knowledge and greater awareness.  Not only do Jews and Christians revel in this insight, but so do Islamic Sufis, pagan Greek philosophers, Tibetan Buddhists, and I'm sure, many others.

I started reading Eric Weiner's book, "Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine" --  a very funny, yet sincere, account of one man's explorations of eight religious sects in an effort to find "his God."

He begins with Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam.  Weiner learns from Sufi practitioners that, "Sufism is wisdom school.  All of reality is set up to prompt us to greater wisdom. ...Sufism is the instinctual search for truth."  He writes, "Sufi's see God everywhere.  They are not pantheists -- they don't believe that everything is God -- but they do believe there are traces of divinity all around us, if only we look carefully enough." (pgs. 24, 25, 32)  I agree:  if only we open our eyes to what is right in front of us.

Weiner next studies Tibetan Buddhism.   He learns that Buddhists improve their minds through meditation.  "Meditation is, as the late Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa said, 'a way of unmasking ourselves.' "   Weiner writes, that the word, "Buddha" means, "literally, 'the Awakened One,' or more colloquially, 'the Guy Who Woke Up.' ...Anyone can become that Guy Who Woke Up."  He is told to seek wisdom, first, and that love and compassion will "spontaneously arise from wisdom."  (pgs. 64, 65, 108, 109)  This advice almost mirrors the advice of Peter above. 

At this point, I got sidetracked from Weiner's book.  While browsing in the bookstore the other day, I noticed "Socrates" by Paul Johnson.  Socrates is the pagan philosopher who famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living,."  I like him for that alone.  I read, surprisingly, that Socrates had a monotheistic understanding of God.  "It was precisely because he believed in God that he devoted his life to philosophy, which to him was about the human desire to carry out divine purposes." Socrates believed in a personal god, who communicated with him through a daemon, a spiritual voice, and that God gave him the mission to teach individuals how to become better morally, by asking questions (107, 108).  It seems that all the stars are aligning to tell me the same thing.

Seeing all these similar connections always lights a fire in me.  I am excited by the fact that all these diverse groups of people have come to essentially the same conclusion -- that the search for understanding, for wisdom, leads to a greater awareness of reality, which spurs one to greater goodness, all of which gives meaning to one's life.

Interestingly, I read at the end of Weiner's chapter on Buddhism, a quote from "The Way of the Bodhisattva":

                           Just like a blind man
                           Discovering a jewel in a heap of rubbish
                           Likewise, by some coincidence,
                           An Awakening Mind has been born within me

Weiner writes, "When coincidence works in our favor, unexpectedly, inexplicably, we can't help but feel blessed.  Christians call this grace.  Buddhists call this Suchness or, simply, the way things are." (pgs. 121-122) 

Dear Lord, thank you for guiding me to all these wonderful sources and allowing me to feel affirmed by these similar insights.  I am continually astounded at your care of me.  Love always, Pam

Friday, February 17, 2012

One Community

You are reasonable people.  Decide for yourselves if what I am about to say is true.  When we bless the cup at the Lord's Table aren't we sharing the benefits of the blood of Christ?  And when we break the loaf of bread, aren't we sharing in the benefits of the body of Christ?  And we all eat from one loaf, showing we are one body.  And think about the nation of Israel; all who eat the sacrifices are united by that act.  -- 1 Corinthians 10:15-18

1 Corinthians is a letter almost entirely devoted to persuading the community in Corinth to stop dividing themselves over their differences:  differences in belief (one group follows one leader, another group follows another leader, etc.), in practice (whether to eat food sacrificed to idols or not), and in spiritual gifts (some are teachers, some are healers, etc.).  Paul's letter is full of metaphors of unity:  one bread, one body, one foundation, one mind.  Paul uses the word "one" dozens of times in this letter.   

The world today is very much in the same frame of mind as the ancient Corinthians.  We separate ourselves from other people because of differences in beliefs and customs, even the way we look separates us from each other.  If we are too different, we can't belong.

Each day in the lectionary lately, there have been stories about lepers.  Lepers were the epitome of the social outcast in ancient times.  They were not only isolated because of contagion and deformity, they were thought to be morally "diseased" as well.  If they were ever by chance in a public place, they had to shout "Unclean.  Unclean."

Here too, things haven't changed much.  In, "The Scalpel and the Soul:  Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural  and the Healing Power of Hope,"  Dr. Allan Hamilton shares many interesting stories from over 30 years of experience in the medical field.  While reading this book this week, two stories especially resonated with me as I pondered the Scripture readings.

One story regards a leper colony in Africa to which he gave medical care.  Dr, Hamilton writes that even though leprosy is a treatable disease, and there was no need to remain in the colony once cured, all of the lepers who left to join the larger society would eventually return, because they were still ostracized outside of the colony.  Only within the colony were they fully accepted.

Dr. Hamilton shares a similar story about children who have been the victims of serious burns.  All that these children want is to return to their former lives, return to school and friends, but they all end up returning to the burn unit of the hospital because facing the ostracism they find everywhere else is too painful.

Has the world always been like this?  Always pushing out the stranger, the one who is different?  Has it gotten any better since biblical times?

Lynne McTaggart, in her book, "The Bond:  Connecting Through the Space Between Us," states that we have an inherent need to belong and an inherent need to agree.  So perhaps that is why we seem to be on this downward spiral of placing ourselves in smaller and smaller groupings.  And why, for example, churches (especially Protestant churches) continually break apart and form new denominations (at last count there are something like 30,000 Christian denominations).  And why communities build great walls around themselves.

These gated communities, she writes, reflect "the relentless move toward atomization within our society, our present tendency to create smaller and smaller groups that are more and more homogeneous.  ... Our idea of community is now largely one that, like our relationships, must consist of sameness -- a giant group of "I's" -- in order to work." (pg. 183)

Even gated communities are getting smaller and smaller.  I drove my son to one this week for a slumber party.  The huge new development we drove to consisted of one gated neighborhood after another, all with approximately 30, almost identical, tan-colored houses, each separated by very tall tan-colored block walls.

As I wrote last week, our differences are there for a reason.  We can either separate ourselves from "the other", continually, until we are completely alone -- the course we seem to be presently taking.  Or, we can learn from each other, and finally see the necessary bond between us.

Despite Paul's language about unity and "being of one mind",  he didn't intend to convey the message that we all need to be the same.  No, in fact, he says quite the opposite.  Using the metaphor of "one body", he writes, "A body is not one organ, but many.  Suppose the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body', it does belong to the body none the less.  Suppose the ear were to say, 'Because I am not the eye, I do not belong to the body', it does still belong to the body.  If the body were all eye, how could it hear?  If the body were all ear, how could it smell?  But, in fact, God appointed each limb and organ to its own place in the body, as he chose."  (1 Corinthians 12:14-18) .

We need to be with people who are different, think differently, live differently, even look differently, so that we can be alive and whole.  When we embrace our differences, we learn and grow, and move beyond our small, and isolated, individuality.  Our differences are actually more important than our similarities.  For without differences we would stagnate and die.

Instead of isolating ourselves in homogeneous groups, or pushing others out over differences, we ought to be seeking out individuals, getting to know their unique gifts, and learning from them.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world in which diversity was actually valued?

Dear Lord, teach us to honor the differences between us, teach us how to share our own uniqueness with the world, and bring us into lasting understanding.  Love always, Pam

Friday, February 10, 2012

Between Us and Them

...But the people of the city were divided in their opinion about them.  Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.   A mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them.    --  Acts 14:1-4

After some time Paul said to Barnabas, "Let's return to each city where we previously preached the word of the Lord, to see how the new believers are getting along."  Barnabas agreed and wanted to take along John Mark.  But Paul disagreed strongly since John Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not shared their work.  Their disagreement over this was so sharp that they separated.   -- Acts 15:36-41

I've been thinking this week about potentially divisive disagreements.  Both of these readings from last Monday and Tuesday show serious differences of opinion.  One ends in violence and the other in separation.

Is this how all major disagreements have to end?  Can people on opposite sides of an argument hold together?

They hold together in the Bible.  The Bible contains many opposing positions.  Yet, even though various people in the Bible contradict each other, the ones who compiled the Bible were able to accept these contradictions.  Why is that?

I know that disagreements don't have to tear people apart.  My husband and I disagree on a lot of issues, but we have stayed married despite that.  We love each other despite our differing points of view, and we know that we are better together than we are apart.

On Tuesday, a friend shared a devotional by Max Lucado which describes this very thing.  It is in a parable about two people climbing a snow-capped mountain.  When the climbers keep their eyes on the peak, they make good progress.  But when the peak is obscured by clouds and they cannot see their ultimate goal, they start to quarrel over minutia.  Lucado writes, "Pilgrims with no vision of the promised land become proprietor's of their own land.  ... The result?  Cabin fever.  Quarreling families.  Restless leaders.  Fence-building.  Staked-off territory.  "No trespassing" signs are hung on hearts and homes.  Spats turn into fights as myopic groups turn to glare at each others weaknesses instead of turning to worship their common Strength." ("The Gift", pg. 46)   Is that the key?

Do people on opposites sides of an argument hold together only if there is a greater love or purpose that lifts us above our disagreements? 

I read yesterday in Lynne McTaggart's "The Bond:Connecting Through the Space Between Us", of a classic experiment about inter-personal relationships that was first tested in 1954.  Twenty-two eleven-year old boys from the same town, and of very similar backgrounds, were bussed to a summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma.  The boys were divided into two groups, and each group was first engaged in bonding activities:  they choose names (Rattlers and Eagles), team songs, and exclusive practices that signified their group identity.  Also, the two groups lived apart from each other and, for this first stage, had no interaction with each other.  Then the two groups were brought together in a highly competitive and frustrating tournament that pitted the teams against each other.  Over the four days of the competition, the animosity between the groups grew to a boiling point.  "Good sportsmanship gave way to name-calling, invectives, and refusal by every boy even to eat when a member of the other group was present in the same food hall." (pg. 185)  Attacks were carried out by one group, and retaliated by the other group.  "The growing animosity ended in a fierce fistfight that the counselors had to break up." (ibid)  These two groups had become in-grained enemies.

In the next phase of the experiment, the boys were given activities that encouraged the groups to mingle with each other.  "But no amount of jolly, getting-to-know-you evenings, movie nights, or festivities on the Fourth of July seemed to lesson the tension." (ibid)  Something other than mutual entertainment was needed to bring these two groups together. 

Finally, the investigators created a series of crises in the camp that required all boys to work together to solve:  to fix a problem with their drinking water, to clear a partly cut-through tree that posed a danger, and to help get a truck, which carried food for both groups, out of a rut.  These activities lifted the kids out of their "us vs. them" mentality.  "After the groups worked together to finance a movie, the boys began eating together in the mess hall, Rattlers freely mixing with Eagles.  On the final day of camp the boys unanimously voted to travel together on the same bus.  Rattlers and Eagles sat together, arms draped around each other."  (pg. 186)

Only when the Robber's Cave kids were guided to see a common goal between them, an essential goal with a purpose beyond themselves and their group, were they able to work together cooperatively, and understand that the other did not have to be their enemy. 

When we put aside our differences, and see what is more important -- the health and welfare of the community, for example --  or our shared love of God -- we begin to also see each other as human beings, each with legitimate concerns and perspectives.  Then, not only do our differences not get in the way, but our unique qualities become valuable contributions to the whole.  When this happens, we have filled the distance between us and them.  In fact, we are no longer "us and them", we are just "us."  We have made a lasting bond.

Perhaps, contradictions and differences are there for this very reason:  to lift us beyond our individuality.  For we are all different, one from the other.  So, when we recognize these differences, we have two choices.  We can separate ourselves from "the other", continually, until we are completely alone.  Or, we can work together, and learn from each other, and finally see the necessary bond between us.

Dear God, thank you for directing my thoughts along this path again.  It is a lesson worth repeating many times.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, February 2, 2012

How Great Thou Art

"To whom will you compare me?  Who is my equal?" asks the Holy One.  
   Look up into the heavens.  Who created all the stars?  He brings them out one after another, calling each by its name.  And he counts them to see that none are lost or have strayed away.
   O Israel, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?  How can you say God refuses to hear your case?  Have you never heard or understood?  Don't you know that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth?      --  Isaiah 40:25-28

I have been spending a lot of time lately reading Genesis, and reading about the Old Testament.  And I am struck anew by all the very human stories:  Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Joseph.  The Jewish Scriptures are primarily about people very much like us.  They are not about super-humans, or perfect people.  They are about plain folk, their troubles and triumphs.  

As far as ancient writings go, this is absolutely amazing.  Just think about it.  We have heard of, or read, the ancient stories of other cultures:  Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the Odyssey, Iliad, etc.  What do they depict but stories of many gods or demi-gods, and various monsters.  In contrast, the ancient Israelites were most interested in telling stories about quite average people:  how they interacted with each other, and with their very personal God, YHWH.  Just people, not heros, not cyclops, not mermaids.  Just people, like you and me.  Isn't that remarkable?

The God of Israel is also described very differently from the gods of other cultures.  Again, in contrast to those surrounding them, near and far, the Israelites did not believe in a Sun-God, a Moon-God, a Sea-God.  The stars were not gods, and God was not an animal.  The heavens were not filled with various gods vying with one another for power.  The God of Israel is One Being, who created all the things that the other cultures worshiped.  The God of Israel is far above and beyond what other people were able to comprehend.

But what makes this concept even more remarkable, is that the God of Israel, the Great Creator of the World and everything in it, is also mindful of each and every thing he created.  He is both transcendent and immanent.  Both above us and with us.  As Isaiah writes, God named each star as it was created.  Or, as Jesus said, God has counted each hair on our head.  The stories in Scripture are all about God's care for us.

Huston Smith writes, "The Greeks, the Romans, the Syrians, and most of the other Mediterranean peoples would have said two things about their gods' characters.  First, they tend to be amoral; second, toward humankind they are preponderantly indifferent.  The Jews reversed the thinking of their contemporaries on both these accounts.  ... God is a God of righteousness, whose loving-kindness is from everlasting to everlasting and whose tender mercies are in all his works. ... Are we surprised, then, to find the Jews exclaiming with exaltation of frontier discovery:  'Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?", "What great nation has a God like the Lord?" (The World's Religions, pg 275-6) The ancient Jews knew their God was unique, to say the least. 

Why?  I wonder.  Why was their insight so much different from anyone around them?

Well, clearly, one reason is that this is how they personally experienced God.  This is certainly how many of us experience God.

But, I think they must have also been influenced in an odd way by the cultures surrounding them.  For our beliefs are solidified in large part by their opposites.  We often do not even know where we stand on an issue until we hear someone make a statement that runs contrary to our own experience.  For example, when I was a mathematics teacher, I heard someone say, "Girls can't do math."  I knew this wasn't true, and said so.  But I would never have said, "Girls are just as good at math as boys," if I had not first heard the opposite statement expressed.  It had never crossed my mind before.  And, the more often I heard people downgrade girls' mathematical abilities, the more adamant I became in my opinion. This is often how beliefs are formed.

So, I think the ancient Israelites, being surrounded by depictions of God, or gods, that ran contrary to their experience, quite possibly, wrote down some of the foundational stories we find in Genesis specifically to counter the opinions of the surrounding culture.   

And thank God they did.  For these stories continue to speak to us today, about ourselves and about our God, in ways that those other stories never could. And, I think, we gain an even greater appreciation for these ancient Jews, and these stories, when we realize just how unique they were in their day.

Dear and Glorious God, thank you for showing me once again how great thou art.  And for showing me what a wonderful, remarkable gift we have been given in these ancient stories of the Hebrew people.  Love always, Pam