Monday, August 27, 2012

This Teaching is Difficult

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?"  ...And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father. "  --  John 6:60,65

I find this last sentence curious.  Many people interpret it to mean that only some people are chosen by God.  Only some people, specifically those people who believe what Jesus is saying, are "insiders."  The rest are "outsiders," predestined to be rejected by God.  And yet woven in between these words, and immediately afterward, Jesus makes a point of saying that among the chosen twelve, among the innermost "insiders", is one who will betray him.  Jesus says that the one who will betray him was chosen also, just as the others were.  In light of this fact, that last sentence seems to be saying, simply, that there will be different factions, outside of the group and within the group.  All put in place by God.

This understanding certainly reflects the state of things, then, as well as now.  Certainly outside of Jesus' followers, there were different factions.  There were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes (not to mention all of the non-Jewish sects), and probably many shades of greater or lesser extreme, within each of these parties.  Even within Jesus' followers there were different factions. Probably each disciple had a different understanding of what Jesus' message and purpose was.  That would explain why each of the Gospels, and each of the communities founded by different disciples, emphasized different aspects of Jesus' life and ministry.  Today there are many, many more factions of people who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (not to mention those who don't).  And even more factions of Christians, all emphasizing different aspects of Jesus' life and ministry.

Could this actually be God's intention?  That we form factions?  If so, to what purpose?

Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, "Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine."  (11:19)

So what makes us genuine?

Throughout the four Gospels in the Bible, Jesus says, in many different ways, that those who do the will of the Father are true worshipers.  Paul, James, and Peter, too, all emphasized doing the will of the Father.  It is not just a matter of saying, "Lord, Lord."  It is not just a matter of resting on our Abrahamic lineage.  We have to actually do what God asks us to do.

And what does God ask all of us to do?  Love our neighbor as ourselves.  This is what God asks us to do.  Love our neighbor.  Not just those who agree with us.  Not just our brothers and sisters.  Not just those who are self-sufficient.  Everyone.

It is a very difficult teaching.  It is so difficult that many people will turn away from it, and teach something else.  Some of us will actually teach the opposite.  Some of us Christians will actually betray Jesus' message.  We betray Jesus whenever we ignore or oppress the poor, the hungry, the sick, the weak, the downtrodden.  And we betray Jesus whenever we hate, harm or neglect those who think differently than we do.  Instead of teaching, as Jesus did, Love your enemies, and pray for them,  we teach:  hate your enemies; distance yourself from them; make war on them.  Instead of caring for the poor, some of us say, "Well Jesus said, "The poor will always be with you."  -- as if that meant that we should make no effort to relieve their suffering.  They do not wonder why "the poor will always be with us."  It is the same reason why there will always be factions:  " it will become clear who among you are genuine."  That is... who will follow the will of God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

God made all of us.  And God chose all of us to be different:  some Jews, some Muslims, some Christians, some Buddhists, some Hindus, some atheists.  And even within each of these groups, more factions.  And even within these factions, everyone different.  The world is structured the way it is for a reason.

It would not make sense for the world to be made up of people who are all the same, who all think the same, who all behave the same way.  The only way for us to learn about anything is for there to be variety in the world around us.  Differences are a necessity of life.  Conflict is actually a requirement.  What we need to understand is that if we love our neighbors as ourselves -- despite the conflict, despite our differences -- we might actually resolve the conflict, and get to a better understanding of one another.

The world is the way it is so that we learn the true meaning of Love.  It is not easy to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, but that is the will of God.

Dear God, please help me to understand your will anew each day of my life.  Love always, Pam

Saturday, August 18, 2012

What Well Will You Drink From?

Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."  The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."  -- John 4:13-15

Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well.  He is talking about how to live well.  That means, first of all, facing the truth of her life as it is.  When he offers the woman the water of life, and she asks for this water eagerly, he brings up the subject of her "husband" -- well really, the man she is simply living with.  Ouch.  Jesus knows everything this woman has ever done. He knows that the well that she is drinking from contains water that does not satisfy, water that will not sustain her spirit or her soul for long.  She will always be thirsty, always moving from one "husband" to another, if she continues drawing from this same old well.  But if she learns to draw from Jesus' well, she will never thirst again.  That means changing her way of doing things.

This living parable resonates strongly with me today.  While the man I live with is definitely my husband, I do transgress in many other ways.  The transgression that is apparent at the moment is anger.  Oh, I'm pretty calm and collected most of the time.  And I don't normally get upset at people who unknowingly do irritating things.  But, I have a seriously difficult time controlling my temper around people who deliberately do hurtful or provoking things. 

(Warning:  I am about to confess to things of which I am not proud.)

Like the time a friend of my thirteen-year-old son repeatedly picked on him.  I was calm the first time because my son saw this boy as his friend and didn't want him to get into trouble.  So, I spoke directly to the boy about his behavior and he apologized to my son.  Problem solved, I thought.  But then he did it again.  The second time, less calm, I convinced my son to let me speak to the principal and I asked her to discipline this boy.  The third time it happened, I was irate.  My son, too, had finally had enough, and no longer wanted anything to do with this boy.   I spoke to the principal and insisted she talk to his parents, and then I went up to the boy and told him in a very angry, threatening tone, "Stay away from my son."  I was a growling Momma Bear in that moment, but I regretted it immediately afterward.  How could this boy stay away from my son?  They had every class together.  Thankfully, that happened at the end of the school year, and I could forget about it.  But now, at the beginning of this school year, the boy is being nice again, and my son has forgiven him again.  I should forgive him as well.  But because of what I last said to this boy, there is a wall between us that is going to be difficult to overcome.

Then, recently, I again did not control my anger.  Driving home after a very long and tiring day, I needed to move into the left lane to make a turn.  I had plenty of room when I started moving over, but the driver of the truck in the left lane behind me sped up, deliberately blocking my way, and he honked his horn at me.  I looked and saw that he and the other young people in the truck were laughing at what he had done.  "What jerks," I thought.  Since I still needed to get into that lane, I slowed down to get behind them.  As they passed, I saw them all looking out their windows at me, laughing, as if to say, "Ha Ha, wasn't that a funny joke?!"  So, I flipped them off .  And I saw their jaws drop along with their smiles.  As they passed ahead of me, they flipped me off.

"Great," I thought.  "That was not a very Christian response, Pam."  I had just responded to evil (albeit, a mild kind of evil) with more evil, and in the process, I had created more evil.  And here I was, wearing a cross and a shirt with a Christian message on it, for goodness sakes!  I hoped that no one I knew had seen me.  I hoped that I did not know any of the teenagers in that truck.  It was not my finest hour.  As I drove the rest of the way home, I thought that it would have been better if I had flashed them the Peace Sign.  That would have been a more Christian thing to do.  At least then, I would have been responding to evil with love.  That response may have surprised those teenagers just as much as the other one did.  And it might also have been the only response that could have caused them to regret their "joke."  But I only thought of this after the fact.  

I tried to forget about the whole thing.  When I did think about it, I tried to defend my behavior, saying "Well, nobody's perfect."  And, "They deserved it."  Thankfully, God truly knows everything about me, and loves me enough to correct me, and show me a better way.  In the lectionary the next day, I read:  "For you say, 'My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God's sight.'  But O that God would speak, and open his lips to you, and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!  For wisdom is many sided.  Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. ...If you direct your heart rightly, you will stretch out your hands towards him.  If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away, and do not let wickedness reside in your tents,"  (Job 11:4-6, 13-14)  I laughed without humor at the precision of those words:  "If iniquity is in your hand."  Yes.  That's pretty much what it was. The more I thought about the situation, the more ashamed I felt.

It is quite painful to face your transgressions with complete honesty.  But it's a necessary pain.  Only by facing myself with honesty, and feeling ashamed of my behavior, can I even begin to make a change.  If I don't ever face the truth, then I will be like the Samaritan woman, continually drinking from the same unsatisfying well.  Only if I can learn to drink from Jesus' well, will I be truly satisfied. 

There is a reason that Jesus taught us to control our anger, and to love our enemies.  For when we hate our enemies, they in turn hate us, and so on, and so forth, ad infinitum.  Drinking from that well does not satisfy.  Only by drinking from Jesus' well, can we even hope to turn around the evil and turmoil currently in place.  Only by responding to war with a clear signal of peace can we hope to end war.

And there is a reason that Jesus taught us to forgive one another as we would like to be forgiven -- and as God forgives us.  We need forgiveness.  When we do not forgive others, how can we expect to be forgiven?  When we do not forgive, then we are continually drinking from a well that does not satisfy.  Only by forgiving those who hurt us, can we even hope to heal the wounds that are there, in us and them.

You know, I tell my kids all the time to forgive one another, and to not escalate their troubles by responding negatively, one to the other.  My kids are sometimes better at this than I am. I think I need to practice more what I preach.  Don't you?  And I think that I need to apologize to my son's friend for my angry outburst, and ask for his forgiveness in turn.  I think that that is what Jesus would want me to do.

Dear Lord, you know everything I have ever done.  And yet I still feel your steadfast love for me.  I know that you want only what is best for me.  And I am grateful for your guidance.  Love always, Pam

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mysterious Ways

Saul had expelled the mediums and the wizards from the land.  The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem.  Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa.  When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.  When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.  Then Saul said to his servants, "Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her."    -- 1 Samuel 28:  3-7

This is an intriguing passage.  I find it especially intriguing because I have been feeling very much like Saul lately.  I find myself in the midst of a territory that is surrounded by the occult, and I want to push it all away.  At the same time, however, I am wondering if there might be something worth exploring, worth listening to, in this territory.  This passage in the Bible perfectly illustrates this odd dichotomy, the fine line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in terms of the occult:  dreams, Urim and Thummim, and prophecy, are acceptable, but mediums and wizards are not acceptable.  In the Old Testament, divination is a sin, but reading omens is acceptable.  But isn't reading omens and using Urim and Thummim a form of divination?  And didn't the three wise men from the east read the skies and follow the star to find Jesus?  It's a little hard to figure out what is right and what is wrong sometimes.

The reason I am thinking about all of this is because I've been trying to understand these connections that I find between my thoughts and the things that come into my life, and that has led me into some readings that are too close for comfort to the occult.  My search for enlightenment in this area began when I wrote Divine Intervention, a few weeks ago.  Then, I had just discovered that Jung had given this meaningful connection between external events and internal thoughts a name:  Synchronicity.  To illustrate the concept, Jung tells the story of a patient of his, a woman 'who always knew better about everything.' Everything he said to her was dismissed.  She was very rational.  Nothing could break her resistance to alternative ways of thinking.  Jung hoped for something unexpected to happen that would crack open her walls of rationalism.  In therapy one day, she was describing a dream in which she had been given a golden scarab broach.  As she was talking, Jung heard a scratching sound at his window.  He looked and saw a flying insect pecking at the window as if it was trying to get in.  Jung opened the window and caught the insect as it flew into the room. It was a scarab beetle.  He handed it to the woman, and the coincidence of the scarab beetle coming into the room just as the woman was describing her dream provided exactly the unexpected, irrational, event that was needed to reach her inner psyche.

It's a cool story.  One I've read in several different books recently.  And I believe that Jung was spot-on in seeing something of great significance in these synchronous events and letting them guide his practice and his life.  For I think, like Jung did, that these synchronous events point to some underlying unity.  For me, this unity is God.  Jung, however, explained synchronicity as the result of a "collective unconscious" based around "primordial images" or archetypal figures that become activated when we need them.  His theories were just a little too complicated and "out there" for me. 

The most recent book I've been reading in this line of exploration has been "Cosmos and Psyche," by Richard Tarnas, who takes the subject of synchronicity even further.  Richard Tarnas, well-respected author of "Passions of the Western Mind," (one of my favorite books) thinks that synchronicity has the potential to unite science and religion.  And in "Cosmos and Psyche" I was delighted to read examples of synchronicity which mirrored my own experiences.  St. Anthony, St. Augustine, and Petrarch all had similar pivotal experiences in which their private thoughts were echoed in the words they heard or read.  But when Tarnas started talking about archetypes and I looked ahead and saw that he was going to discuss planetary alignments and natal charts -- all aspects of astrology -- I balked.  As much as I admire Tarnas, and as much as I felt  compelled to read this book, I just did not want to explore astrology.  Half of me was thinking that Tarnas had gone off the deep end.  But the other half was simply afraid.  I could think of a few Bible passages in which astrology is taboo, expressly forbidden by God.

The day after I paused in my reading, unsure whether to continue with it or stop, as I was walking to my car in the church parking lot, I saw a beautiful iridescent green scarab beetle in front of my car.  I was immediately reminded of Jung's scarab beetle.  I saw that this one was dead, probably petrified by the summer heat rising off the asphalt, and I carefully picked it up and put it on my dashboard.  As I drove home I wondered about the significance of finding this green scarab beetle.

I did not remember what symbolism Jung had attached to it.  So, I searched online and found that the scarab beetle was an Egyptian symbol of rebirth, renewal, transformation, and protection.  The scarab beetle was also used to represent Jesus in early Christian writings, since scarab larva hatch underground and fly out of the earth into the sky at their birth.  The scarab beetle was also thought to be a symbol of guidance, a light of wisdom through periods of darkness.

Looking back in "The Tao of Psychology," I read again about the patient of Jung's who had had the pivotal experience.  Jean Shinoda Bolen M.D., writes, "Interestingly, the event symbolically paralleled her situation. ...When the scarabaeid beetle entered the room, transformation of a rigid attitude could begin, new growth could happen."  (pg 15, "The Tao of Psychology")  I realized that I was very similar to this woman.  I was resistant to learning about archetypes and astrology.  And I, too, unexpectedly found a scarab beetle right in front of me -- something I have not seen since I was a child.

Is this just a coincidence?  Or is it an example of synchronicity?  Either way, I am letting it guide me.  I suddenly find myself open to exploring these archetypes of Jung, and trying to understand what the "collective unconscious" is all about, and reading the rest of Tarnas' book.  Maybe, in the process, somewhere along the way, I will grow a little closer to understanding God.

Dear God, you enter my life in a multitude of ways.  I cannot begin to fathom the world you have created, and the richness of the souls that permeate it.  Please continue to be with me and light my path.  Love always, Pam

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Believing in God

"This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent." So they said to him, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?   --  John 6:29-30

Faith really all boils down to this:  Belief.  In the passage above, some of the people want proof that Jesus is who he says he is.  All they need is a sign.  They need irrefutable proof before they will believe.

Personally, I have to wonder.... Have they not been watching Jesus?  Have they not been listening to Jesus?  Clearly not.  Otherwise, how could they ask such obtuse questions?  

But maybe... maybe, they just didn't know how to look.  Maybe they expected a sign to come in a different manner.  Maybe they wanted rain to start and stop on command, or the waves of the Sea of Galilee to part, or to have a sheep skin soak up water on dry ground.  After all, God had performed some amazing signs in the past.

So, why doesn't God make himself obvious to everyone?  Wouldn't that just make belief so much easier all-around? 

Well, according to the Bible, God did make himself absolutely obvious to everyone once.  When Moses rescued the Hebrew people from eternal Egyptian slavery, God performed TEN signs, of increasing power, just to be obvious about it.  Yet even then, whenever things became difficult in the wilderness, the people still doubted God.  Moses had to continually remind them of the God who had rescued them. 

So it doesn't seem to matter what God does.  Even when he is obvious, we doubt. 

Thankfully, there are many examples of people who believed in God's existence.  Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Jonah, Mary, etc. all felt God's active presence in their lives.  And many people throughout history have felt God's presence.  St. Augustine, St. Francis and Gandhi come to my mind immediately.

Why is it that God only becomes known to some?

Does it have anything to do with the spirit with which we view God?  Richard Tarnas describes this understanding in a beautiful parable of two suitors in his book, "Cosmos and Psyche:  Intimations of a New World View":  Imagine that you were being courted by two suitors.  One "approached you as though you were essentially lacking in intelligence... who thus saw you as fundamentally inferior to himself... and whose motivation for knowing you was ultimately driven by a desire for increased intellectual mastery, predictive certainty, and efficient control over you for his own self-enhancement?"  And the other "viewed you as at least as intelligent and noble, as worthy a being, as permeated with mind and soul, himself, [and who] seeks an intellectual fulfillment that is intimately linked with imaginative vision, moral transformation, empathetic understanding, aesthetic delight....[and whose] act of knowing is essentially an act of love and intelligence combined, of wonder as well as discernment..." (pg39).  Which suitor would you show yourself to?  Which suitor would you turn away from?

These hypothetical suitors of Tarnas' at least believe in the one they are courting.  If we do not even believe that God is a possibility, then how could God show himself to us?  Every move on God's part would be ignored entirely, or explained away, or even medicated away.  Which is, as we see to a large, and increasing, degree, the way things are today.

While driving up to Phoenix on Tuesday, I was listening to a lecture about the beginning of  "modernity" (The Great Courses, "Philosophy and Religion in the West", lecture 17, by Prof. Phillip Cary), which is when our modern way of viewing the world began to take place.  Prof. Cary states that with the Reformation, the Pope was no longer seen as the ultimate authority in matters of life and faith.  And because Catholics and Protestants interpreted the Bible differently, it too could not have the final authority for many people.  And so the question became:  what, or who, could determine the ultimate truth?  Rene Descartes reasoned that the only authority we could trust for sure was our own power of reasoning.  John Locke followed this by reasoning that the only way we could trust our reasoning was if it was based upon empirical evidence -- that is, upon whether we could see, hear, touch, smell, or taste what we believed to be true.  So, since many beliefs cannot be tasted, seen, heard, smelled, or touched, they were discounted.  And this seemed reasonable to a lot of people.  And it still seems reasonable to a lot of people.

Which is why many atheists do not believe in God.  Since God cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, God cannot be real.  One person who thinks this way recently told me that my belief in God is all in my mind.

Well, where else could my belief be?  However subjective Descartes thesis may be, it is true that everything we know is founded upon our powers of reasoning.  Even whether the sky is blue.  Recent developments in science have determined that sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch, are also essentially "all in our mind".  Our brain takes the input we receive from these five senses and then "makes sense" of what we are seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, and touching.  Does that make the sky any less blue?  Does that make the taste of ice cream any less sweet?  Not to me.

In the same way, my brain processes the input I receive from simply being aware of the amazing intelligence, beauty, and connections in the world around me.  My brain takes this input, tries to make sense of it all, and concludes that I am a witness to God's presence.  How is that any different from how my brain processes the fact that I am witnessing snow when I experience white fluffy cold flakes floating down around me?  However my brain interprets the input, the experience itself is no less real.

Dear God,  thank you for all the wonderful insights brought into my life this week.  Thinking about you only makes me more aware of how truly present you are in the world.  Love always, Pam