Saturday, April 29, 2006

Exodus as a Macro Story

I know that I promised the second half of my take on Elsa Tamez's interpretation of James - dealing with James' empowering and calling out the laity (though it is important to note that in the church at the time of James there was not yet a clergy/laity distinction). But, I'm sorry, something else came up.

DagoodS of Debunking Christianity has posted a well reasoned and relatively thorough refutation of a literal reading of the Exodus story of the ten plagues. In the comments section of that post I argue for a less literal reading of the Exodus story, saying that it represents a mythologized history whose value is not in the literal-historical truth value of the details of the story, but rather in what that story communicates to us, particularly about how ancient Israel saw their history in relationship with God.

But, of course, the inevitable question is, if the story is not "true" in the sense that we usually mean (literal-historical), then how can it communicate anything of value? I can push that question back a few steps, making arguments for a "truth" independent of a literal-historical truth, but at some point it is incumbent upon me to argue for some valuable meaning that these stories can communicate to us. I can't just say, "If you don't take it literally then it is still true and valuable." I must say something more, something constructive which recaptures what is lost in a literal reading. If I don't, then I'm not really adding anything to the discussion; I'm just saying that we shouldn't be so damned literal, and people weren't always like this.

So, what does the Exodus story communicate to us, apart from a literal-historical reading?

Before I answer that I do want to say that while the Exodus story is not entirely historical, most scholars think that it touches on history. That is, while stories like that of the ten plagues may not have happened, the broader story points to a real people who were enslaved in Egypt, and somehow broke free of slavery, left Egypt, and eventually formed what we call ancient Israel. As such, the Exodus story is not historically bankrupt, even if it is mythologized.

But it is mythologized, and the modern paradigm has been built on de-mythologizing history and religion. Modernity sees myth as at best primitive, and at worst false. If it communicates a truth, it communicates a lower-level truth, the superstitions of primitive minds which can't come up with a literal or scientific explanation for events, so the weave elaborate stories and posit a supernatural explanation.

But we are starting to recapture an appreciation for myth. This is because myth does not communicate falsehood or a lower-level truth, but rather a deeper truth which goes beyond a literal description of events and gets at their meaning. That meaning is a way in which we can become connected to the story, seeing it as something more valuable than just a true description of something which happened at a point in history. It becomes connected to our experience of life. But none of this theoretical framework answers the question of what the Exodus story, re-mythologized, means.

We can see Exodus as one of three Macro Stories within the Judeo-Christian tradition. These stories are found on both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and help us to see how we relate to God. They help us to interpret our experiences, and our deeper experience of life [note: by "deeper experience of life" I mean a broader experience which transcends our individual experiences; the framework within which we interpret our individual experiences and make them part of our life narrative] and to provide those experiences with meaning. These stories are both the stories of our tradition - our collective past - and our own personal experiences. That is why they still speak to us, and are part of an enduring religious tradition.

The three Macro Stories of the Judeo-Christian scriptures are:

1. The Priestly Story (or the Temple Story)
2. The Story of Exile and Return, and
3. The Exodus Story.

To understand the concept of a Macro Story, I will briefly describe the first two stories, before I give a slightly more detailed treatment of the Exodus Story, particularly as it relates to the story of the ten plagues. My understanding of these Macro Stories comes in part from Marcus Borg, whose work introduced me to "Story Theology."

The Priestly or Temple Story is the most familiar Macro Story within the Christian tradition. It is the way in the role of Jesus as the Christ is most often seen, though I must confess that this story does not speak to me nearly as much as the other two. It is the story of our need for atonement.

Something has gone horribly wrong within us. We understand good and bad, we know right from wrong, and yet we so often chose wrong over right. We are corrupted. We do bad things. This creates a problem with guilt. There is a need for atonement, to make things right.

So God provides for us what we could not provide for ourselves, a sacrifice that balances the scales, that atones for our sins. In the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the ritual completion of this story; their way of connecting themselves to the story. In the Christian tradition, the death of Jesus completes and connects.

At the very least the Christian take on this story turns a very bad thing (the crufixion of Jesus) into something constructive. It redeems a senseless death. But can this be taken literally? Can we say, as a matter of literal-historical truth, that Jesus died for our sins?

Certainly many Christians say just that, though they do not have in mind the distinction between mythological truth and literal-historical truth. The statement that Jesus as the Christ died for our sins, as the completion of the Priestly or Temple Story, is a tremendous part of the Christian tradition. It has spoken to Christians for nearly 2,000 years. But as a matter of historical fact, it is simply not true.

Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, was killed by Roman authorities because he was seen as part of a growing Jewish threat. There had been many Messianic figures in and around first century Palestine, mobilizing Jews to revolt against the Roman authorities. Such figures were crucified, a public warning to other would be revolutionaries about what happens when you mess with Rome.

But Jesus was seen very early on as a completion to this Macro Story. Jesus was seen as both a priestly mediator between God and humanity (even to the point of being seen as the way in which God is made incarnate to us), and as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. This was a way to connect Jesus to one of the important Macro Stories of ancient Israel. Its value is found in its enduring ability to speak to Christians, rather than in the literal-historical truth value concerning the primary reason for the senseless death of a spiritual leader.

But I will not here get into exactly how it communicates to Christians for a few reasons. Firstly, because it does not speak as much to me. The Priestly/Temple Story provides us with a solution for our existential guilt. At this point I don't experience that kind of guilt. That simply isn't my problem. But that it isn't my problem doesn't mean that it isn't a very real problem for many, many people. As such it has value, even if it doesn't speak to me, keeping me from being able to say exactly how it speaks.

Also, this Macro Story is not my primary concern here, but is instead offered as an example of a kind of Macro Story, building to the primary Macro Story we are considering, the Exodus Story.

The Second Macro Story is the story of Exile and Return. While this story is principally the concern of Diasporic Jews, it permeates the Jewish and Christian scripture. The story of Adam and Eve, particularly in third chapter of Genesis, can be seen as part of this story. They have been, because of their disobedience, exiled from their home. They live their life "East of Eden," outside not only "paradise," but also the only home they had ever known.

The story of Exile is a story of being far from home. It is the story of being existentially alone, wandering aimlessly with no security and no real meaning. It describes what is too often our human experience. But like all of the Macro Story, it describes both a problem and a solution. For while we are in Exile God comes to us. God is with us, in our Exile, making wherever we are a temporary home, while preparing us for our eventual return.

In the Christian tradition this story is perhaps seen best in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son. The son leaves home only to find himself in a self-imposed existential exile. Yet while he is away from home, he remembers his home, and he remembers his father. He turns toward home, only to find that his father has seen him coming and set out to meet him. While still away from home he meets his father who takes him home. Exile to Return.

Part of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation sees Jesus as the Christ as the way in which God meets us in our Exile. While we are, existentially speaking, "strangers in a strange land," God through the Christ is with us, helping us to make a temporary home while awaiting return. In this way we know not only that our Exile is temporary (there will be a Return), but that we can find a home even in the midst of Exile. It is not the lonely, aimless wandering that it at first seems to be. It is instead a way in which God is made present to us.

But the Macro Story confronting us today is the Exodus story. The Exodus story says that while we were enslaved in Egypt, in bondage and oppressed, God listened to us and heard our cry, and has sent us a deliverer. This story is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures, but it is also a way in Christians see Jesus as the Christ.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God to deliverer us from our slavery and oppression. This can be seen both in terms of spiritual slavery (that is, slavery to our sinful natures, trapped in a destructive pattern of behavior) or in more literal socio-political or economic terms. In fact, it should probably be seen in both ways, since both a very real problems.

This is easy enough to see, even if you don't believe in any sort of a God to hear our cry and answer our prayer, delivering us from our slavery and our oppression. But how does the story of the ten plagues, which presents us with a very ugly a wrathful God who kills the innocent with the guilty, fit into this re-mythologized story?

That is a question with which I have often wrestled, because I simply don't see God the way that God is often depicted in the Hebrew Bible. I can't worship a God who, external to our reality, comes down from time to time to smash those who do wrong, or even those who have the misfortune of living in a place where wrong is often done. As such, it is not immediately obvious how the story of the ten plagues on ancient Egypt could speak to me. Has it lost its voice for those of us who do not serve a bloodthirsty God?

No. It can still speak, and it can still speak to me. First of all, it tells me that the natural order rejects slavery and oppression. In the face of slavery and oppression, water turns to blood (Exodus 7:14-24); that which sustains lives becomes full of spilt life.

In the face of slavery and oppression frogs act unnaturally, leaving their river homes to swarm human dwellings (Exodus 7:25-8:11). The natural order of things has been overturned in response to the unnatural imposition on human freedom and dignity.

In the face of slavery and oppression the natural order, in fact, lashes out at the unnatural infringement on basic rights. Lice, or vermin, pests, are uncontrolled, feeding on the suffering (Exodus 8:12-15). Insects swarm and attack, (Exodus 9:1-7) and even the skin of the oppressor quite literally rises up against them, in the form of boils, as severe skin affliction (Exodus 9:8-12). Hail pounds down on the oppressors, as even the sky strikes out against them (Exodus 9:13-35), and in verse 25 we see that for the first time a human life is taken by the plagues. As the heart of the oppressor hardens, the consequences of the oppression worsen.

Finally locusts eat all of the crops, the basis for the economy which was built on the slavery and oppression (Exodus 10:1-10), and darkness descends (Exodus 10:21-29), mirroring the spiritual condition which is the necessary consequence of such hard heartedness in the face of the human suffering caused by their exploitation of foreign workers.

Finally the tenth plague, the death of the first-born sons, the inheritors of this exploitive economic legacy (Exodus 12:29-42). Ultimately an economy built on slavery, a society built on the backs of the exploited and oppressed, ends in death.

Economic exploitation and oppression is often justified in the name of immediate self interest. We say, sure this is a bad situation, but if we take any radical steps to correct it our whole economy will come tumbling down. One of the ways in which the plague stories from Exodus speak to us is that they tell us that when we say those sorts of things, when we engage in that kind of justification, we fundamentally misidentify our own self interests. Because God hears the cry of the slaves, the exploited, the oppress; and because God's nature violently rebells against such exploitations and oppression.

The value of the story, then, rests not on its literal-historical truth value, as though it were merely a report of something that happened once. Rather the value of it rests on its ability to communicate to us the message that God hears the cry of the oppressed.

There is one other contemporary point I want to bring out, before I get very briefly into a more historical point. That is this: in the story, there are no innocents. We may say that some people (Pharoah) bear more responsibility than others for the oppression and slavery of those who eventually became ancient Israel. But, in those who participated in exploitation come to the same end as those who orchestrate it. I'm not comfortable with the end they all come to. I don't worship a bloodthirsty God. But this story says that participating in exploitation and oppression makes one an oppressive exploiter; tolerating a slave-based economy makes one an enslaver.

And when one oppresses, exploits and enslaves, one is opposed to God; and in opposing God one is opposed to the natural order of things. And for that there are consequences, whether I like that image of God or not. I'm not trying to call down hellfire here. I don't even believe in hellfire. But I am saying that if we listen to the voice of this story, it calls us to not participate in economic injustice or socio-political oppression.

But, of course, we don't need the Bible to tell us that. This message, while part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is not unique to that tradition. (And it has not always been heard by that tradition, though that is another story.) We can know that we ought not exploit, oppress or enslave others without reading about how ancient Israel interpreted the role of God in breaking their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. But that failure to be unique does not make the message here less valuable.

This story is not just a moral or a message to us in our historical and cultural setting. Historically speaking, it is also the story of the origin of a people. It is a declaration that ancient Israel saw itself in relation with a God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. It speaks to their identity. As such it has historical value. It is not reducible to that historical value, but that value is there nonetheless. It gives us insight into how these ancient people viewed their own history, the myth of their origins. As such it is a cultural treasure, whether or not it relates a literal-historical truth.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Elsa Tamez on James

In her book The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead, Elsa Tamez, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana (Latin American Biblical University) in San Jose, Costa Rica, notes that while the Epistle of James shows solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and condemns their rich oppressors, James has often been read and interpreted by the rich and the powerful. This is because, since at least the time of Constantine (and there are indications that this trend was beginning even in the time of James) something about Christianity has appealed to the rich.

Today many of our churches, particularly in America, are fully of the affluent and well-to-do. The church I grew up in, in fact, was what I call a "status-symbol" church; that is, membership there confirms social status on the members.

I know of a Methodist pastor who, upon being appointed to a particular church, was give by that church a free membership to the local country club, because his "ministerial responsibilities" would often bring him there. The stories he told me about his "work" there came back to me as I watched the ill-fated show The Book of Daniel, in which the main character, an Episcopal priest named Daniel, would often do "church business" while golfing with an obscenely rich and powerful member of his congregation.

So prevalent in some churches is this "country club" mentality that a good friend of mine, an ordained Elder in the United Methodist church currently serving as the associate pastor of Louisville's largest and wealthiest Methodist congregation, often derisively calls himself "the God pro." He says that his job, as his congregation sees it, is to act like the pro at a country club, giving unchallenging lessons to the rich and their children, providing them with just enough of a distraction that they feel better about their lives.

This is not, of course, to say that all or even most Christians are either rich or powerful. It is to say, however, that far too often the voice which comes from the church, the dominant interpretive voice, is more informed by the concerns of the rich and the powerful than by the concerns of the poor, oppressed and marginalyzed. And when it is the voice of the rich and the powerful which is interpreting a challenging book like James, too often the message of James is either intercepted (as Tamez puts it) or sanitized (as I put it).

So Tamez, a Latin American "liberation" theologian, gives the poor back the book of James, ripping it from its comfortable American setting and placing it farther south, where the concerns are less about which meal we will eat today and more about whether or not there will be anything to eat.

Her book is divided neatly into five chapters, which I will briefly outline here. However, my purpose is to deal less with what Tamez actually says and how she says it, and more to wrestle with how her book made me think. I will particularly run with a very minor point which she makes concerning how a couple of verses in the fifth chapter of the Epistle speak to the role of the laity in the church. But first a brief summary, for those of you interested in Tamez's short but powerful book:

The first chapter is titled "The Intercepted Letter." In it she deals with how the radical message of James has been "intercepted" by the powerful and robbed of its provocative voice. She says, "If the letter of James were sent out to the Christian communities of certain countries that suffer from violence and exploitation, it would very possibly be intercepted by government security agencies." Why? Because it "vehemently denounce[s] the exploitation by landowners (5:1-6) and the carefree life of merchants (4:13-17)," and it "affirms that 'pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world' (1:27)."

Since for James orphans and widows represent all those who are vulnerable to exploitation, and particularly economic exploitation (they have no means by which to make money, and no powerful protectors, and so are at the mercy of charity in an uncharitable world), Tamez sees James as the answer to Christianity's Marxist critics. But in answering Marxist critics by meeting Marxist concerns with a moral challenge, James is far too radical for the church of the first-world capitalist countries. And so they have in their own way, like the hypothetical "government security agencies," "intercepted" the message of James. They have done this by interpreting "rich" and "poor" in "spiritual" terms, rather than in concrete economic terms. In her first chapter Tamez argues why this is a very real loss, and a misreading of the concerns of James.

Chapter 2, "The Angle of Oppression," begins a series of three chapters which take an interpretive angle on the text itself. As the title suggests, the second chapter views the text of James through the eyes of those who have been oppressed, giving voice back to the voiceless poor. It seeks to counter the "spiritualized" interpretation of James rendered by wealthy Christians who miss James' radical message of God's favorable disposition toward the poor. It also deals (a little unsatisfactorily) with the very real concern of what to make, in light of James' condemnation of the rich, of wealthy Christians. She does so by noting that most of the rich people condemned by James clearly do not belong to the church. But what of the ones that do?

Like all members of Christian communities, wealthy Christians ought not favor the wealthy and powerful. They ought not consider their wealth to be a virtue. They ought to work to meet the material needs of the poor and despondent. But they are not expressly condemn in the text, except for perhaps the oi legontes ("you who talk") in James 4:13-17. Of them Tamez notes, "Curiously enough, James does not call this group brothers [his term for those within the Christian community] nor does he call them rich [the oppressors]," but she still argues that "they are members of the Christian community" on account of the fact that "James reproaches them for not consulting the Lord about their plans and for not sharing what they earn with the poor."

Chapter 3, "The Angle of Hope," presents James' positive message for those who are being oppressed. I will not treat this chapter, except to say that it sets up her best argument, put forth in the next chapter, "The Angle of Praxis." Here she looks at how James views "patience."

She says that James calls the poor to a very militant kind of patience, by employing Greek military terms for patience, hypomone and makrothymia. Variations of the first term, which she says means "to persevere, to resist, to be constant, unbreakable, immovable," appear in three key places: 1:3-4, 1:12, and 5:11. Here in calling the poor to be patient James is calling them to have an inner strength, a very active patience which bears with the situation and refuses to be beaten down by it, while working to overcome it.

Variations of the second militant word for patience come in the last chapter, just after James' most brutal attack on the rich. Forms of the word makrothymia appear in 5:7, 8 and 10. Tamez says that this word, while not active like the first word, is not "passive in the traditional negative sense." Rather, it evokes an image of waiting for the right moment to begin activity. It is an anticipatory patience, which looks for the right time to strike.

In recapturing the Greek meaning of the words often translated as "patience," Tamez breaks the intercepted letter of James free from the interpretations offered by the rich and powerful, reminding us that while James does indeed call on the poor to endure with patience, that patience not only fails to justify exploitation, but actively works against it.

The final chapter, titled "An Open Letter to the Christian Communities," summarizes the message of James, and applies it to a contemporary setting. It is this chapter which was most helpful to me, and helped refine my thinking on the role and calling of the laity of the church. Here I will most intently engage Tamez's argument, and the depart from it. My departure should not be seen as a disagreement with Tamez as much as it is a taking from Tamez what applies to my situation, and then using it as a launching pad for my own thoughts.

That, however, will have to wait until next time.

Later tonight or sometime tomorrow I will deal with how Tamez helped me see how James 5:16 and 17 speak to the empowerment and calling of the laity in the church. This is of particular interest to me as I embrace my status as laity in a positive rather than negative sense. When I left professional ministry I first approached it as a loss. Now, however, rather than losing my (semi, I was not yet ordained, but still serving as a pastor and progressing toward ordination) clergy status, I see that I have actively taken up laity status. I'll explain what I mean by that the next time I get to a keyboard.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Coming Attractions

I haven't been posting as much lately for a few reasons. I preached at the early morning chapel communion service at my church, Fourth Ave UMC, Louisville, this past Sunday. Preparing for the sermon took up some of my writing time. Also, I'm preaching again this coming weekend, filling in for one of my best friends at the Saturday evening contemporary service at Christ Church United Methodist, also in Louisville. He's taking the week off because his wife, who has cancer, went into to hospital for a bone marrow transplant.

Also I've had a bit of anxiety about law school and my vocation of late. I don't wish to dump the details on anyone at this time, but I've been struggling a little bit with my sense of personal identity since I left professional ministry, and there are days when the prospect of going to law school just doesn't fill the empty hole in my soul. Consequently, I haven't been sleeping this past week. That's how I cope with anxiety; I just stare at the ceiling waiting for morning. That doesn't help me get clarity in my writing, which means that even though I still try to take two hours a day to write something, the something that I write isn't always worth posting.

Also, I'm working on two books, neither of which is likely to see the light of day. The first is as of yet untitled, and is a collection of stories about my raising my son. Not quite a memoir, like David Eddie's fantastic Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad, but certainly inspired by that sort of writing. The second is tentatively titled Drawing Water Out of Rocks, and is a collection of cleaned up versions of my sermons, along with some newer ones that haven't been preached yet. It takes a great deal of my time, because I rarely preach from a manuscript. Usually I put together an outline, with notes like Tell the story of... scattered throughout to let me know where I'm going. The end result is usually a pretty engaging, somewhat scripted but mostly improvised - like old jazz, where the changes are marked, but the details are left to the musician's imagination - series of observations surrounding a text. So I've been taking my old outlines and trying to recapture what I might have said from the pulpit, rewriting each sermon.

Anyway, I have a few ideas in the works for this blog, so right now I'm taking a little bit of time to tease you with them:

1. I've been reading Elsa Tamez's The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead. Tamez is Professor of Biblical Studies at the Universidad Biblica Latinoamericana (Latin American Biblical University) in San Jose, Costa Rica. She offers an excellent reading of James from a Latin American perspective, focusing on James' solidarity with the poor and his call for social change. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that, in light of Tamez's work on James, I'll be offering a couple of treatments of some of my favorite passages from that wonderful epistle.

2. A few years ago I picked up Robert N. Wennberg's God, Human's and Animals: An Invitation to Enlarge Our Moral Universe. Wennberg is a professor of philosophy at Westmont College, in Santa Barbara, California. I swore that I would read it as soon as I had some time off from school, and since this is the first semester in a very long time in which I have been in no way, shape or form affiliated with any school whatsoever, I've run out of excuses for ducking Wennberg's work.

Chapter five of his book, titled Animals and the World of Moral Theory looks at how several different important moral theories deal with the moral standing (or, generally, lack thereof) of non-human animals. He devotes a little bit of time to utilitarian ethics and how it treats the moral standing of animals, and while I think that by and large his treatment was fair, I have a pretty major bone to pick with him on his criticism of utilitarianism. So I'm working up a paper on a utilitarian response to Wennberg's "A Problem for Utilitarianism." The only problem with my paper so far is that every time I try to clean up utilitarian ethics to deal with Wennberg's criticism, it stops sounding very much like what most people mean by utilitarianism.

Anyway, look for those two projects in the coming days. At some point I'll have to finish my sermon for Saturday, so I might only get one of those two done before the end of the week. Having basically just two hours a day (that's how long Adam naps)to do my writing, it gets hard to finish the big projects.

Finally, I want to leave you with a continuation of my last Adam story, The Next Pistol Pete?

The first night that we had the basketball goal up, Adam slept fitfully. We woke up almost every hour, wanting to go play more basketball. He got up for the day at 4 am, which did not work for me. So Sami and I hatched a silly plan. The next night we told him that his basketball goal was very sleepy, and had to go to bed. We told him to tell it goodnight, which he did. Then, he walked up to it, hugged it, and gave it a kiss. He tried his best not to cry as I took it to go "sleep" in the basement.

Since then, telling the basketball goal goodnight has become a part of his evening routine. He won't go to bed unless he's seen his beloved goal put to bed first. He insists on hugging it and giving it a goodnight kiss. But at least he sleeps through the night again.

If only I could.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Next Pistol Pete?

There are a number of legendary stories about basketball great Pete Marovich's childhood. His father was a basketball coach, and it is said that the young Pistol was never separated from a basketball. On a recent CBS special one of his former classmates said that on their rides to school Pete would hang out the window of a moving car, dribbling the ball down the street. Other old friends recalled him dribbling the ball all the way to the movie theater every weekend. Once inside, we would sit in an aisle seat, and dribble the ball throughout the movie. He would start off one side of the theater, then half-way through the movie he would move to the other side of the theater so he could practice with his other hand. And, of course, vice versa.

My son Adam has long shared his father's obsession with Kentucky's real religion, basketball. He already owns four different basketballs, and prefers each ball for different activities. He and his basketballs are nigh inseparable.

We often go to the park across the street from our house to play on the playground. But at that park there are also two full basketball courts, which often sport pick-up games for a variety of skill levels. I've been known to sneak out of the house from time to time to teach the kids from the nearby Catholic high school a thing or two.

Every time we go to the park to play, Adam insists on stopping by the basketball courts on the way home. If no one is playing a game, he'll trot out to the free throw line, bounce his imaginary ball, and then fling it toward the hoop. If there are people playing, he watches in awe before mustering up the courage to try to charge the court and take them all on.

Today was a dreary, dark, damp, rainy day. Adam spent most of the day by the window, looking out, pointing longingly to the nearby park, begging to go out. I continually said, "Adam, it's raining today. We can't go outside when it rains." He didn't much care for that. We had to find something to do.

The other day we went to Target. My wife Sami, upon seeing the perfect treat for her little one, creatively manipulated our budget (as breadwinner she is the queen of the budget) to include a Little Tikes Easy Score Basketball set; Adam's very own basketball goal! Since then it has been sitting in the back of our mini van, waiting for the mechanically hapless Daddy to summon the courage to assemble it.

Turns out courage is easy to summon with the proper motivation. The prospect of Adam spending the rest of our already mostly wasted day staring out a window pleading with the clouds to stop dumping rain on his beloved park was enough to motivate me to get off my ass and, the prospect of disillusioning my child who thinks me a demi-god be damned, try to assemble the goal still sitting uselessly in the van.

It was, it turns out, easy. Really, anybody could do it. Took me five minutes, at the most. (Though that could be because Sami helped!) Adam spent almost the entire evening dunking his favorite basketballs through his very own brand new hoop. He was in toddler heaven.

Tonight it was more difficult than usual to put him to bed. He was clearly tired, but he finally had something worth staying up for. To go to sleep would be to finally surrender his never ending game of hoop. We finally coaxed him into the crib by letting him hold on to his favorite ball, with the promise that at first light the game begins anew.

Liberating Grace

Don't expect anything deep enough to merit the lofty title I gave this post. I've been working on my sermon for this Sunday (I'm preaching at our early morning communion service this week, my fourth return trip to a pulpit since I left professional ministry), along with cleaning up some older sermons trying to turn them into something useful. I've been toying around with the idea of writing a book, tentatively titled Drawing Water out of Rocks, a reflection of my approach to scripture. As a former pastor of mine used to say, as soon as he realized his tangent had gone on a little too long, "I say that to say this," I've spent too much time working on stuff not related to this blog for this blurb here to be much more than a brief observation.

Reading Troy's post on his early experiences with religion (a must read, by the way), I remembered some of my own early experiences with religion. I can't narrate them in any sort of comprehensive story like Troy did. I don't have that kind of self-awareness or mental energy right now. But I can give a couple of observations.

My grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor. [note: I need to clear up some confusion, for those of you who don't already know this. Sometimes I say that my grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, sometimes I say that my grandfather is a Southern Baptist pastor, and sometimes I say that my grandfather is a retired Southern Baptist pastor. The solution to this seems obvious, but it isn't. I am in fact talking about two different people, both of whom I consider to be my paternal grandfather. My grandmother was married to a Southern Baptist pastor, my grandfather, who died when I was in fourth grade. She then married another Southern Baptist pastor - evidently she didn't learn from the first time! - who I now refer to as my grandfather. He retired, but comes out of retirement from time to time to serve as an interim pastor for churches undergoing difficult transitions. Hence the confusion, which may exist only in my mind.]
His son, my father, was not very religious, so my grandfather was primarily responsible for my spiritual education. He taught me about God and the Christian faith, and helped me form my early non-critical theology. Then he died.

While I was just nine and a half years old when he died, I effectively became an atheist. The one who revealed God to me was gone, so, to me, there was no longer a God. My uncritical theology (a belief in whatever my grandfather taught me) was replaced by abject skepticism. He was dead, and as sure as I knew he was dead I knew that everything he had taught me had been a well intentioned lie. There was no God, no heaven or hell, no life after death, nothing. What you see is what you get, and you'd better grab it while you can.

I had a tremendous anxiety about death, but I have no intention of getting into that here, as I don't entirely understand it myself. Perhaps it was an obsession brought on by the contrast between what my grandfather had taught me about God, and the realization that the God that he loved and served had let him die so suddenly, leaving behind only questions and a grieving grandson. I really can't dig deep enough inside myself to arrive at an answer. Maybe there is no answer, there is only the reality of my anxiety. In any event, I was scared of church. It made the anxiety worse.

But by eighth grade I'd gotten over that, with the help of a girl, my first real crush. I was on the academic team at Morton Middle School (what? You thought I ran track!?!), and we had a meet at another local Middle School. On the opposing team was a cute blonde girl who smiled at me (a first). After the meet (or was it before?) she talked to me in the library. Turns out she went to the church that I was nominally affiliated with. I was a member, having been forced by my mother to go through confirmation class (Mom doesn't remember it that way, but this is my story) but I only went to church when Mom put her foot down and made me. But this girl remembered me from church, and wondered why I never went. I came up with some lame excuse, trying to sound cool. She invited me to Youth Group.

I knew she like me. I was wrong. She was just "witnessing" to me in the way that she knew how. It worked. I went to church just for the privilege of seeing her again.

If this were the story of my first "religious experience," which I used to call my "testimony" (as though there were a single point at which one got "saved," and as though there were a single salvation story) then I would give the long story of how I moved from being a lusty skeptic to someone who drank the religious Kool Aid but didn't die from it (or, perhaps, died and rose again, a new creation). But this isn't that story. I've told that story too much, so much that I don't even know what's true any more. When you are an enthusiastic teenager with some acting skills and a decent conversion story, you can find all sorts of groups who will listen to you tell your story - even and especially if it has been somewhat embellished - and give you the attention you desperately crave for it.

That's what my earliest experiences with religion turned into, a never ending quest for attention. The people at my church, especially those in and around my Youth Group, were very loving people. They saw my emotional needs, and saw it as their duty to try to meet some of those needs. They were, by and large, genuine, authentic people, who felt that God loved them and called them to love others. In that respect it was an excellent environment for me, very unlike my home environment (since I love my parents, and have a good relationship with them now, I won't get into the atmosphere of our house while I was a teenager; they did their best).

But they accidentally fed into some of my neuroses. The theology of that church, especially in and around the Youth Group, was principally concerned with sin and reconciliation. There was a real focus on universal human sinfulness, and the need for repentance. While we had a pretty full description of the word "repent" (not just to "feel sorry" for something you've done wrong, but to "turn around," or "turn away" from the sinful behavior) there was still a very emotional component to this. In order to fully repent, after all, one had first to feel sorry, to feel contrite. This was the way in which the Holy Spirit "convicted" you, so that you could then repent. Without this feeling there was no authentic repentance.

I was a depressed and depressing teenager. I wore all black, had long hair (some would call it a "mullet," but not to face face if they value their lives) and listened to hard rock, heavy metal, "grunge" and what is now called "emo." Like a good evangelical I constantly waged war against my fleshly nature. But, like every other teenager, I constantly lost that war. I was consumed by my spiritual battle, and consumed with guilt. This guilt, of course, had in that theological environment some merit. It was the beginning of spiritual depth.

I recall often talking to people at church about my feelings of self-loathing, using Pauline language. Most of the time they were impressed with my ability to see into human nature, to describe our spiritual condition, and to articulate my frustration over my innate sinfulness. I got a great deal of attention for it.

I was also often asked to pray aloud in public. My prayers also centered on sin, confession, and repentance. Often after I prayed people would, moved by my prayers, compliment me on them. Of course they didn't understand that saying "what a lovely prayer" took all of the spiritual value away from the prayer, feeding into a cycle of pride and guilt.

It was in this atmosphere, this theological and spiritual environment, that I met John Crissman. He was a college student, already married, and looking to help out with the Youth Group at my church. He started co-teaching a Thursday night Bible study with Paul Shafer, another hero in my life. I got to know him there, and started confiding in him. But he treated me differently. Rather than feeding into my feelings of self-loathing, rather than honoring this cycle of sin and reconciliation, he started breaking the pattern. He wasn't amazed when I articulated the wretched human condition, and how I participated in it. He understood how that theology was giving me permission to hate myself. Instead he started teaching me about grace.

Grace for John was not something conditional, not something that you earned by feeling a certain way about yourself or saying a certain prayer with just the right amount of contrition. Grace was not legal forgiveness for particular identified bad actions, called "sins." Grace was God's unconditional love, for me. Grace was God's accepting me as I was, and by accepting me, empowering me to change, not out of guilt or fear, but out of love. Grace was the power of God to break my cycle.

John taught me about the liberating power of God's grace. He also taught me that by thinking and feeling the way that I was, I was accidentally rejecting that liberating grace. He told me that God accepted me, and God loved me. Now I needed to love and accept myself.

John is not a theologian. As I've grown, in fact, our respective theologies have diverged a great deal. But John, because of his theology, and the way in which it has impacted his life, taught me how to love and accept myself, just as the theology which we share teaches me that God loves and accepts me. As such, John taught me two important lessons, which I hope to always take with me wherever I go.

1. What you believe about God impacts the way in which you approach everything else, and vice versa. When I was stuck in a depressive cycle of sin, guilt, and inadequacy, that shape how I viewed God. Similarly that view of God reinforced my negative cycle.

Our theology ought to touch our lives, and our lives ought to shape our theology. This business is not just academic abstraction.

2. How you give attention to people matters. This is particularly true, I think, with teenagers. John had been touched by love and grace, and wanted to share that with others. He came into my life at just the right moment, and motivated by love and grace, helped me to have a similar experience. Now I get to share that love and grace, that divine acceptance, with others.

Thank you, God, for John.

Thank you, John for being faithful to your experience of God, and for having such a constructive experience to be faithful to.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Purity to Compassion in Three Stories From Mark (Part III)

Finally! I'm taking the time to finish this almost forgotten series (even if, in order to do it, I have to type one-handed with a toddler climbing all over me, while watching/listening to the concert DVD David Byrne Live at Union Chapel, London to keep him relatively sedate - writing and parenting are not always compatible!). To catch back up, check out Part I and Part II.

Our third story, found in Mark 3:1-6, comes immediately after the second story, and combines elements from both of the first two stories. It, like the first story, is a healing story. But it, like the second story, also concerns Jesus' relationship with the Sabbath laws. In the NRSV it reads:

Again he [Jesus] entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come forward." Then he said to them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?" But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Before we treat this text, I should note that both Matthew and Luke take this story from Mark. While Luke doesn't really change anything from Mark's version, Matthew contains a significant addition which we ought to discuss. Matthew 12: 9-14 reads:

He [Jesus] left that place [where he and his disciples had picked grain on the Sabbath, another story taken from Mark, whose version I treated here] and entered their [as in, belonging to the Pharisees in question] synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath." Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other, But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

The big change in Matthew's story is that it has Jesus, in discussing the hypothetical fallen sheep, not so subtly reminding the Pharisees of Deuteronomy 22:4(albeit with the animal in question changed).

That verse from Deuteronomy is part of a series of moral duties toward neighbors, found in chapter 22 verse 1 through 4. The first three verses concern wandering animals, and essentially say that if you see anything belonging to your neighbor wandering astray, you must return it to your neighbor. This law applies to the sheep which Jesus mentioned (Deut. 22:1), but is also universalized (Deut. 22:3) to include even garments of clothing and anything else that could be lost.

Then we reach the fourth verse, which more closely parallels Jesus' hypothetical example, though it mentions donkeys and oxen rather than sheep. In the Jewish Study Bible it reads:

If you see your fellow's ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.

In other words, the entire community has a moral duty to help their neighbor, a member of the community, if that neighbor's animal has fallen. This moral duty should be the primary concern of the community, even on the sabbath. And Matthew's Jesus, in implying that the Pharisees would honor this law to the letter, have set some precedent for choosing compassion over purity in their interpretation of the law in the case of competing duties.

If then, they are willing to choose compassion over purity (that is, obeying one's moral duty to one's neighbor instead of obeying the letter of the Sabbath law) in the case of a fallen animal, why should they not make the same choice in the case of a crippled man? Do they not have a moral duty to that man which is even stronger than their duties concerning his property, the hypothetical fallen sheep?

While Matthew's Jesus clearly chastises the Pharisees, making them so angry that they plot to kill him, he at least tries to find some common ground with them. In reminding them, through his example of the fallen sheep, of an interpretation of the law which they might both agree on, his is using a shared position to try to help them to understand his position on healing on the Sabbath.

But Mark's Jesus makes no such attempt to find a common ground. He enters into the Pharisees synagogue, contradicts their teaching, attacks their character, and defies their religious laws, openly mocking their authority within their own community.

The synagogue was, after all, their turf, not his. Yet he calls the man with the withered hand to "come forward," and then asks the teachers of the law a pointed, almost polemical, question:

"Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?"

This is not an idle question. In fact, it may not be a question at all, its grammar notwithstanding. It seems much more like a statement, and a powerful polemical one, which sets up a very harsh dichotomy.

If in Jesus' ministry he makes a sharp distinction between purity and compassion, affirming compassion and rejecting purity (as it was understood in his day, and as it has often been exercised in his name - such as when a Baptist college in Kentucky, the University of the Cumberlands, expelled a student for being gay, ejecting him from their midst out of a fear that his identified "impurity" might make their entire group impure), he is here furthering that distinction in a most inflammatory way:

Imagine, if you will, two columns. One the one side you have Jesus, on the other side his enemies, the "villains" of our Gospel stories, the Pharisees. In Jesus statement which masquerades as a question, he places good on the side of Jesus, and harm on the side of the Pharisees; saving life on the side of Jesus, killing on the side of the Pharisees; compassion on the side of Jesus, purity on the side of the Pharisees.

No wonder they plotted with the Romans to kill him! It is one thing to teach another way of being religious to your closest disciples. It is another thing altogether to enter into the sacred teaching space of the established religious authorities, and not only challenge their teachings, but openly mock and defy them.

But the Pharisees had, in keeping and even expanding the letter of the law, perhaps forgotten that the law exists to serve God's people, and not the other way around. So one of their own, part of their religious community, within their own synagogue, has a withered hand. And Jesus has come to their synagogue, seen the crippled man, and had compassion on him. But it is the Sabbath. The demands of purity and compassion conflict. Compassion says that the community has a moral obligation to help and to heal. Purity says that the community has a religious duty to keep Shabbat, the Sabbath day holy.

Mark's Jesus sees the conflict, and realizes that the gathered Pharisees will keep their precious Sabbath, even if it means blowing this chance for one of their own to be made whole. Then Mark uses one of the most powerful Biblical images, when he says that Jesus "looked around at them in anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart."

The heart, according to Marcus Borg (from whom I've been borrowing too much lately - he reads just like me, only more so!) is a much more powerful metaphor in the Bible than it is in our everyday usage. It is "a comprehensive metaphor for the self (italics mine)," which encompasses and underlies our entire being. A closed heart, and hardened heart, is a heart which is incapable of moving or bending, it is inflexible, petrified, and as such, dead. It cannot be moved to compassion. It cannot see anything new. It is certain, and so cannot change.

Someone with a hardened heart cannot grow closer to God, because they cannot grow or change. Growth requires a willingness to change, to be moved, to acknowledge that you don't yet have a perfect understanding, and probably never will.

The Pharisees in this story already knew God. They had an experience of God and a relationship with God. That experience was within the system of purity laws, and the relationship was based on the purity laws which gave rise to that experience. The laws were from God, and the means by which to approach God and enter into relationship with God. They were the constant, the given, that which cannot be challenged or changed. The experienced God in purity, and by striving for purity participated in the nature of God, as they understood it.

But Jesus came into their space, and challenged their understanding of God, their relationship with God, and the way in which those two impact their actions. Jesus, of course, had an excellent critique. He called them to look at the fruit of their religion. They chose a strict observance of the Sabbath over the well being of one in their community. They chose a certain observance of the law over the health of one of their own.

But, too often the Pharisees are given too rough a treatment over this. We all ought to be able to relate to them, even if they are, in the Gospel stories, the enemies of Jesus. That's because we, too, are often the enemies of Jesus. We, too, choose to cling to our precious doctrines even when they are no longer serving our needs or the needs of our communities. We, too, have our hearts so hardened on the subject of religion that if Jesus were to enter into our church, mock our pastor, defy our ritual and call our entire way of being religious into question, we might plot to kill him, too.

So, if we see compassion as the way of Jesus, we must learn how to show compassion to those who reject the value of compassion - even if the Gospel writers do not always have Jesus being compassionate to the compassionless! We must fight the lack of compassion within ourselves rather than judging it in the lives of others. We must, in other words, be able to see some of the Pharisees in ourselves, and fight the Pharisee within rather than the Pharisee without. That often means having compassion for our external Pharisees.

Many of you know that I was briefly the pastor of a small country church in rural Kentucky. Not exactly a safe place for a city liberal! That church was a perfect example of the purity focus in religion. I tried to teach them another way to be religious. They, obviously, did not take kindly to that. Even though numbers and giving went up in my time there, many of the people in the church were certain that their survival as a church depended on getting rid of me. That is because God called them to be a pure people, and my teaching was impure. As such, my presence within their church could at any moment bring God's condemnation down upon that church.

Since I left that church, and then professional ministry altogether, I have often judged them for being so, well, judgmental. Their actions brought about a great deal of pain and confusion. But as I read this story from Mark, and as I saw the ways in which they were very much like the Pharisees in the story, I had no choice but to reinterpret what happened there.

I can see why the Gospel writers painted the Pharisees as villains. They must have certainly done Jesus a great deal more harm than my Phariseical church did me. But I wonder how Jesus would have felt about such an unsympathetic portrayal. Mightn't the Jesus who taught compassion have had more compassion on them that the Gospel writers are inclined to mention? Mightn't he have seen how hard they tried to honor their experience of God; how faithfully they clinged to their way of being religious?

That, of course, doesn't make them less wrong, and it doesn't take away the harm their way of being religious inflicted on the people who couldn't live up to their standards for purity. But it does make them more tragic and sympathetic characters, whose best intentions were still not enough.

When we think that we understand God, we become like those who cast out or grind down the one's who disagree with their vision of God. Our hearts become hard, inflexible, and dead. A little compassion for the Pharisees in our lives might just keep us from becoming Pharisees ourselves.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Thoughts on Easter Morning

Today is Easter, the day of resurrection, the foundation of Christianity. I'm not going to give a theological treatment of Easter, or build any arguments. I'm taking the day off from that sort of thing. Instead I'm posting here a homily that I gave at an Easter sunrise service a few years ago, titled Thoughts on Easter Morning.

When I was a kid, I had an irrational fear of death. This fear colored every aspect of my life. I remember staying up at night, thinking about life and death, paralyzed by my anxiety. I also remember running around in circles, as if running from death. I thought that perhaps, if I kept moving, death might not find me.

The great American author and Presbyterian minister Fredrick Buechner once wrote that the fear of death is a fear of life. Likewise, a psychologist once told me, when speaking on thanaphobia, the irrational fear of death, that, until you are prepared to die, you cannot truly live. Life and death are so hopelessly mingled that you cannot think about one without thinking about the other. In fact, you cannot experience one without the other. Everything that lives dies. Likewise, death only touches that which lives. In many Eastern religions, death and life have been represented as different sides of the same coin.

Some of this comes through in Jesus’ teaching on death. He said, in Mark 8:35, that "…whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but, whoever loses his life for me and for the Gospel will save it." (NIV) We are not prepared to live until we are prepared to die.

I know that we who gather here this Easter morning to watch the sun rise are all prepared to die. And so, we are all very much alive, and alive for Jesus. Why else would we gather together this early in the morning to honor God? I also know that we are prepared to die not just because we have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior – though we all have, and that acceptance of Christ is truly what it means to be prepared to die – but also because God has ordered our lives in such a way that life itself, and the world in which we live, prepares us for our deaths.

When I was a child, scared to death of death, death was not the only thing I was scared of. I was also scared of the dark. I hated night time, and, like most other kids, I really hated to have to go to sleep. I think that I intuitively knew that night is the time of death, and that sleep is a form of death. Each night, when we go to bed, we, to a certain extent, die. Each night we close our eyes, kiss a loved one, bid them goodnight, and then voluntarily surrender our consciousness. In the time we are asleep, we are dead to the world, we are dead to our loved ones, and we are dead to ourselves. And yet, we do this voluntarily, laying down our lives, as it were, and trusting God. Trusting God to not only run the world while we are gone (as if God needs out permission), but also trusting God to wake us when the sun rises and the morning comes.

The past week has been Holy Week, the week in which we honor the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, which culminates in today’s Easter celebration. The sun set last night, Holy Saturday, just as it set that Saturday all those years ago, when it set on a world in which Jesus was as dead as death itself. He had been in the grave two days, and surely some in the world had already forgotten him, even as his disciples mourned. But the sun rose the next morning, just like it always does, and as it rose, death turned to life. Jesus rose from the grave as the world rose from its slumber, and with him rose all of our hopes and dreams.

As we gather this Easter morning to watch night turn into day, we also gather to celebrate death turning into life. We gather to celebrate the resurrection of our risen Lord and Savior, and we know that with him, so we too shall rise. Just as we went to sleep last night with the faith that God would wake us with this sunrise, we know that, when it comes our time to die, we shall wake again. As the old day becomes the new day, so too, the old life shall become the new life. So, when we leave this place, let us leave as those who have died and been resurrected with Christ. Let us leave with the hope of our resurrection, and the knowledge that we have, through our salvation, already been changed.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Marcus Borg Clarifies My Thinking on Faith

Yesterday I started reading Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which I picked up on my vacation. I'm ot quite half-way through it yet, but I'm already struck by how similar it is to what I've been teaching the last few years. When I get really excited about something I've read, I read it aloud to my wife (she is very patient with this sort of thing, thank God!). When I read her passages from this book, she says something like, "That sounds just like you... only better!" My thoughts exactly.

Anyway, on the subject of faith, I've often taught that while we often see faith as belief in, or intellectual assent to, statements which can either be true or false, usually concerning the nature of God. But I argue that this is not really faith. That faith is much richer than this. I then teach on faith as "trust," which is personal and relational rather than propositional.

I sometimes include a story about my aversion to flying. I say that I believe that flying in an airplane is safer than riding in a car. I've seen good studies which demonstrate this. If I look at the data, it is clear that flying in an airplane is safer than riding in a car. But, I say, you will have a hard time getting me to agree to get on a plane. Why? Because I have no faith in airplanes. I may believe they are safer, but that belief is merely intellectual assent which in so way impacts how I live my life, because I lack faith.

So I contrast propositional belief with personal faith, saying that faith involves my entire being, not just my intellect. Faith rests in the person of God, and my relationship to and with God, rather than in statements about God.

But as I've been reading Marcus Borg's take on faith, I realize that I've been over-simplifying again. Borg identifies four kinds of faith, three of which are personal, and only one of which is propositional. He gives both Latin and English names to these faiths, and even identifies their opposites as a way of giving a fuller depiction of these faiths. Since I don't have the time or the energy to give a proper treatment to his accounts of these faiths - or views of faith - and since I have no desire to just type out the chapter which deals with this subject, I'm just going to briefly list them in a sort of rough chart. Hopefully this will lead to some decent discussion.

1. Faith as Assensus - that is, faith as intellectual assent (the English version of the Latin assensus, or "belief." This is the only propositional faith. Its opposites are "doubt" (soft) and "disbelief" (hard).

2. Faith as Fiducia - that is, faith as "trust" in the person of God, rather than trust in beliefs about God, which would be just another form of assensus, anyway. Its opposite is "anxiety" or "worry."

3. Faith as Fideltias - that is, faith as fidelity, "faithfulness" to our relationship with God. It is a kind of commitment or allegiance. Its opposite is "infidelity," which is described by the Biblical metaphors of "adultery" and "idolatry."

4. Faith as Visio - that is, faith as vision, a way of "seeing." This kind of faith colors how we perceive everything around us, everything that is. It impacts our view of the whole. Borg goes into great detail about this, but I won't go there because I'd like to know what this kind of faith means to you. How does your faith impact your way of "seeing" that which is?

The opposite of this faith is, as Borg puts it, "seeing reality as hostile and threatening or as indifferent."

Significantly, while faith is often seen in our churches as primarily propositional, that is, as concerning statements which may or may not accurately describe reality and the nature of God, three out of these four approaches to faith are personal, grounded in a personal relationship with an experience of the person of God which transforms our persons.

How does this speak to you?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Purity to Compassion in Three Stories From Mark (Part II)

Finally, the second story from this series, which in my amazing longwindedness I actually thought could be a single post:

The second story which demonstrates how Jesus (per Marcus Borg's paradigm) shifts the emphasis in the religion of his day from purity to compassion is found in Mark 2: 23-28. It concerns the Sabbath (Shabbat), and in the NRSV reads:

One day he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."

The law of the Sabbath was one of the most important and distinctive laws of ancient Israel. Observing the Sabbath entails at least two things:

1. Refraining from work.
2. Honoring God.

In the Decalogue the Sabbath law, found in Exodus 20:8-11 reads (in the Jewish Study Bible):

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

This Sabbath law, then, points to one of the creation myths of ancient Israel, found at the beginning of the Biblical book of Genesis. The first chapter deals with God's activity in creation, God's "work." But, while the "work" of creation ends at the end of the first chapter, the story continues through the fourth verse of the second chapter. In the Jewish Study Bible Genesis 2:1-4, the conclusion of the first creation myth of ancient Israel, reads:

The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.

So the importance of a day of rest is built not just into the laws of ancient Israel, but also into the mythology. As a myth is a story which is to convey meaning rather than a literal truth, we can look into this myth to see part of the meaning of the Sabbath law, which Jesus, in our story from Mark, violates.

The passages from Genesis and Exodus, in connecting the creation myth to the law of the Sabbath, connect the nature of God to the nature of humanity, which has been made in God's image. The creation myth, then, says that it is natural, is in built into the very fabric of nature, to take one day off each week.

The economy of ancient Israel, like that of the lands and peoples which surrounded in it the Near East, was built on agriculture. This was a tremendous step up, which allowed for the formation of permanent dwellings, leading nomadic peoples to settle and form civilizations. But if land is worked constantly, in becomes barren and wasted. Similarly, if people are worked constantly, they wear out and are ruined.

Thus, it is not natural to work all the time. It violates the patterns we see in nature, and as such it must violate God's design. On a simple level the seventh day, the day of rest, is included in the creation myth as a way of saying: "Even God took a day off, so you should too!"

This law mandating a day of rest was - as best as I can tell (I'm no expert on the Ancient Near East, but I've read a little bit on the subject) - unique to ancient Israel. It set them apart from the peoples around them.

To be holy - a word which comes up often in the literature on the Sabbath - is to be set apart. Thus, this law, which set ancient Israel apart, was very important to their notion of holiness. And holiness is what the purity laws are all about.

In its earliest context, the Sabbath law (which does not, in and of itself, spell out exactly what counts as "work") was a liberating law. In a world in which people worked constantly just to survive, it said that humans were made for more than just work. It gave a much fuller description of human nature, and gave those who were under it the space they needed to be more fully human.

How liberating must it have been, for the average worker in the fields of an agrarian society, to get to take a day off from work each week! Remember, this is the era of the seven day work week, not the five day work week we've all come to love. The Sabbath day, Shabbat, was a day to get out of the fields and into a sacred space. It was a day to be something other than just a worker; to be more fully human, someone sacred, made in the image of the Sacred.

But by the time of Christ the Sabbath was not always such a liberating concept. While the passages which we looked at did not specify what counted as "work," religion is not always comfortable with ambiguity. A definition of "work" would be forthcoming. Two tractates of the Talmud spell out "work" in more detail. And while this too must have been initially liberating, the Pharisees, the keepers and interpreters of the law in Jesus' day, wielded this law as an instrument of enslavement, not liberation.

[note: I'll deal with the Pharisees, the "villains" of the Gospels and the enemies of Jesus, in more detail in Part III of this series. While they are presented as the "bad guys," I can relate to them, and see them as being honest and noble defenders of the traditional faith which Jesus is attacking. They are complex characters who, while they oppose Jesus, cannot be reduced simply to the power hungry oppressors that they are sometimes reduced too.]

In our story, Jesus and his disciples, a wandering band of his inner circle who traveled with him and helped his ministry, are passing through a field. It is the Sabbath, but they are hungry, so they pick some grain from the field. Inconveniently for them, the Pharisees, religious authorities who specialize in the law, see them picking grain, and call them to task for it. They then rip into Jesus. What sort of a spiritual teacher, a religious "holy man," allows his best students to flagrantly and selfishly violate such a sacred law?

But Jesus says that the Pharisees have missed the whole point. "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath." The law in question was designed to liberate workers whose basic humanity had been denied by their constant state of work. It taught that humans were made for much more than just work; they had been made in the image of a God who even in the midst of actively creating the world and everything in it, took some time for rest and reflection. This is built into the very fabric of the universe.

Picking grain in a field is considered "work" because ancient Israel was an agrarian society. Most people worked in the fields for most of their time. But these disciples are not farmers who need to be liberated from their labor. They are hungry travelers. In this case the Sabbath law is not freeing them up to be more fully human, it is oppressing them by not allowing the hungry to eat.

Thus purity (the strict adherence to the letter of the Sabbath law) becomes compassion (the recognition that the law exist to serve those under it, and not the other way around). In this case following the letter of the law violates the spirit of it. Jesus is not trying to undermine the Sabbath altogether, as the Pharisees mistake him for doing. Rather he is trying to recapture the liberating spirit of the law and transpose that spirit to his day.

Religion can be very conservative, and this is not entirely a bad thing. Many ancient traditions ought to be conserved, because they speak to a great wisdom. But that which is conserved must also be translated. It does no good to keep ancient laws if the wisdom behind those laws is no longer understood, and so the spirit of those laws can be translated for a new generation, and a new context.

So if we seek to conserve the wisdom of our religion, we must also understand the wisdom behind our tradition, and constantly translate that wisdom for a new generation and a new context.


I got online to give my treatment of the second story from Mark (coming, I promise), when I say this, courtesy of the AP:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (April 10) - A Malaysian man said he nearly fainted when he recieved a $218 trillion phone bill and was ordered to pay up within 10 days or face prosecution, a newspaper reported Monday.

Yahaya Wahab said he disconnected his late father's phone line in January after he died and settled the $23 bill, the New Straits Times reported.

But Telekom Malaysia later sent him a $218 trillion bill for recent telephone calls along with orders to settle within 10 days or face legal proceedings, the newspaper reported.

It wasn't clear whether the bill was a mistake, or if Yahaya's father's phone line was used illegally after after his death.

"If the company wants to seek legal action as mentioned in the letter, I'm ready to face it," the paper quoted Yahaya as saying. "In fact, I can't wait to face it," he said.

Yahaya, from northern Kedah state, received a notice from the company's debt-collection agency in early April, the paper said. Yahaya said he nearly fainted when he saw the new bill.

Government-linked Telekom Malaysia Bhd. is the country's largest telecommunications company.

A company official, who declined to be identified as she was not authorized to speak to the media, said Telekom Malaysia was aware of Yahaya's case and would address it. She did not provide further details.

Now I'm going to start working on that story from Mark.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Touching the Leper, Revisited

[note: Sorry, I still haven't taken the time to give the treatments of the other two stories from Mark which were going to be included on this post. I got distracted by Palm Sunday and a vacation. I'll post those treatments as soon as I take the time to write them up.]

In a couple of weeks I'll be stepping behind a pulpit again. That doesn't happen as often as it did before I quit professional ministry, but it happens often enough for my taste. This afternoon I started thinking about what I might want to preach on. I keep coming back to the story of Jesus touching and healing the leper in Mark. In my previous post on that story, I asked a couple of questions:

1. Who is your leper?
2. How can you touch them?

Since then I've been wrestling with those questions, while also looking for sermon material. In the midst of that, I remembered a piece that I wrote many, many years ago, before I got into the ministry racket, and long before I left it. It is a simple devotional that I wrote during my first failed attempt at college, called He Did Not Have a Home. I wrote this as a freshman English major at the University of Kentucky, just after I got back from spending a week doing mission work at a homeless shelter, and just before I got kicked out of school for never showing up to class. Here it is:

Most of us feel a Christian duty to help the homeless, and this is good. But, I wonder sometimes about the effects, both on our souls and in the lives we are trying to help, of our execution of this Christian duty.

We tend to treat the homeless as moral objects, or a test. We have a duty to feed them, clothe them, and provide them with shelter. And this is very good. They need these things which we provide, mostly with honest motives. But, we tend to treat them the way that we feel about them, as burdens or moral obligations. Then, we feel good about ourselves, for we have done our duty.

They need more than that. They need love, and they need humanity. They need to be alive, feel alive, and feel loved. They need to feel like they belong, and that they have something of worth to offer. In fact, they need the same things that we need, because there is no "us" and "them". We are all children of the same God, and so we are all family.

There are so many things which we take for granted in everyday life, but perhaps (at least for me) the most crucial of these are conversations. Can you imagine what life would be like without the everyday give and take with our family and friends? But, among the homeless there are people who have literally gone years without anyone truly listening to them as if anything they say might have some worth.

Every man [note: I didn't have any idea about gender inclusive language back then!] has a story, and a need to be validated by having others listen to it and learn from it. So, if we really want to help a homeless man, perhaps this is what we ought to do: listen to him. Talk to him, and with him, as you would with any friend. Dirty your hands with his life, learn from his struggles and, in doing so, struggle with him.

We should remember, whenever we look into the face of someone who is homeless, that we are, in fact, looking into the face of Jesus. He too did not have a home.

Shortly after I wrote this devotional/meditation my best friend Travis and I decided to take the main point in it seriously. On UK's campus is an excellent greasy spoon, Tolly Ho. The perfect college hang out. But it is right by an area of town where many homeless people congregate. We'd often go to Tolly Ho late at night (our first real taste of freedom, after all), and have to pass the assortment of homeless people on our way there. They'd often ask us for money. Sometime's we'd given them some, sometimes we wouldn't.

Handing out money on the street was a morally troubling issue for us. On the one hand we felt called to help. On the other hand, many people find themselves homeless because their lives have been ripped apart by addictions of one sort or another. Giving cash to an addict just helps feed the addiction.

Then it hit us: these people didn't need our money, and we didn't have much of that to give them anyway. They needed us to affirm their basic humanity. But how could we do that?

We decided that every time we went to eat at Tolly Ho, we would ask a homeless person to join us. Many of them were suspicious. Two college kids asking them out for dinner. What game were they playing? If our parents had found out, they would have probably killed us. But for as long as we had enough money to spend on milkshakes and onion rings late at night, we had enough money to share those milkshakes and onion rings with people who hadn't had a humanizing experience in a long time.

Each time we took someone out to eat at the Ho, we'd ask them questions about their life, and listen to them tell stories. It could be awkward at first, but as soon as they realized we were trying to get them to join a cult or anything, they'd relax, open up, and keep us on the edge of our seats for at least an hour. Many of them simply loved to tell stories. I wonder how long it had been since they'd sat in a diner relaying the sad but often comical story of their life to such idealistic kids.

Reality inevitably set in. We couldn't keep that up forever. We didn't have much money, and most of the people who knew what we were doing thought we were crazy. I flunked out of college. Travis dropped out, got married, joined the Marines, and had a lifetime's worth of heartbreak in just a couple of years.

We're different people now. But at least for a little bit we weren't afraid to touch lepers. And, in touching our lepers, we found that they weren't really lepers at all. We didn't heal them, of course. That's not in our power. We may not have done them any real or lasting good at all. A cheeseburger and a conversation don't often change the entire course of a person's life. But at least while we were touching them, open to and affirming of their basic humanity, they stopped being social lepers, and starting looking like real people, just like you and me.

Of course, they were people even when we weren't touching them. But, until we touched them we hadn't bothered to notice that.

Textual Observations on Palm Sunday

Today, as many of you know, is Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week. This morning the text for both my Sunday School class and our pastor's sermon came from Mark 11:1-11, in which Jesus finally enters Jerusalem, riding a colt. The text is an interesting one not just because of the story contained in it, but because it is one of the few stories which can be found in all four canonical Gospels. In addition to the version found in Mark's Gospel, you can also find it in Matthew 21:1-9, Luke 19:29-38, and John 12:12-15.

The story is often held as an example of how the Gospel writers told stories to try to connect the life and ministry of Jesus to sections of the Hebrew Bible. In this case, as Matthew and John disclose, the verse to which the story connects is Zechariah 9:9, which in the NRSV reads:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The textual problem, for those who see the Bible as being literally penned by God, without any sort of contradiction, is a simple one: What sort of animal did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on? The passage from Zechariah contains a single animal, but the way that animal is described leads to some confusion as the Gospel writers connect that passage to Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

In the Hebrew poetry, the donkey is the colt. So you have a single animal, which is a donkey, also describes as a colt, the foal of a donkey. Mark sides with the description of the animal as a colt, saying, in chapter 11 verse 7:

Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it; and he sat on it.

Luke also sides with the colt. But John, who unlike Mark and Luke quotes the verse from Zechariah, describes the animal in question as a donkey, saying, in chapter 12 verse 14-15:

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
"Do not be afraid, daughter of
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey's colt."

Matthew (who also quotes the passage from Zechariah), however, failed to appreciate what one commentary calls "the parallelism of the Hebrew poetry" in which "donkey is equivalent to colt." As such, he has Jesus riding on both a colt and a donkey! Consider his version of the story, through the 7th verse of the 21st chapter:

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent the two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will send them immediately." [some manuscripts read: 'The Lord needs them and will send them back immediately.'] This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

"Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your kind is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on
a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of
a donkey."

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

So, what kind of animal did Jesus ride, some critics ask: Was it a colt, a donkey, or both? And, of course, this is a good question, particularly if you are clinging to a notion of the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, literally penned by an omniscient God. But phrasing the question like that, with three options, is repeating Matthew's mistake. This is because the verse from Zechariah, to which each of the Gospel stories points, uses colt and donkey interchangeably, to refer to the same animal.

But that doesn't solve the problem of reading the Bible literally, as though it were a systematic work which never disagrees with itself. After all, even if colt and donkey are the same thing, bringing three of the four Gospels into agreement on this point, Matthew with his two animals instead of one still sticks out. There is simply no way to twist his version to make it conform to the other three, as best as I can tell.

But does this pose a problem for those of us who read the Bible as a book which, while neither systematic or always literally true, still in a very real and powerful way reveals the nature of God to us? If we read the Bible first for meaning rather than truth value, it does not.

How then do we read these apparently conflicting Gospel stories for meaning? By looking at the verse from Zechariah to which they all point. In doing so we will see how early Christians understood Jesus, and Jesus' role in revealing the nature of God. Then we can bracket off the question of whether or not the stories are inerrantly true, or whether they just reflect Christian memories of Jesus interpreted through the lens of the Hebrew Bible.

The ninth chapter of Zechariah, which contains the verse to which each of these Gospel stories point, tells the story of the Divine Warrior, who is to restore Diasporic Israel. Verses 1-8, which set up the verse in question, have the Divine Warrior triumphally moving toward Jerusalem, in anticipation of the "day of the Lord."

Jesus in each of the Gospel accounts also moves triumphally toward Jerusalem, anticipating the climax of his ministry, which we remember during this Holy Week. Each of the Gospel stories in question today, with their reference to Zechariah 9:9, have Jesus finally entering Jerusalem, the Holy City at the center of the religion of ancient Israel. Jerusalem was the most significant city, the home of the Temple, the only place where sacrifices could be offered. Jesus, in his mission to invert the values of the Judaism of his day, had to at some point "conquer" Israel.

So, with images from the Divine Warrior, the Gospel writers bring a triumphant Jesus into a captive Jerusalem, where he is greeted as a hero and a liberator, a Messianic figure who will, like Zechariah's Divine Warrior, restore Israel.

This brings us to the verse in question, Zechariah 9:9. In it the Divine Warrior enters Jerusalem as a king, set to rescue the oppressed Daughter of Zion. But the imagery of the verse doesn't quite fit what would be expected for such a warrior. This triumphant king arrives "humble and riding on a donkey." This, according to one commentary, indicates "his peaceful intentions."

Of course, the story of the Divine Warrior does not end in peace, whatever his intentions in verse 9. After all, after the Lord sounds the trumpet in verse 14, we read this in verse 15:

The Lord of hosts will protect
and they shall devour and tread
down the slingers;
they shall drink their blood like wine,
and be full like a bowl,
drenched like the corners of
the altar.

The Lord's allies, then, not only triumph over their enemies, been even sacrifice them! They "drink their blood like wine," and become "drenched like the corners of the altar." The altar was the place where animals were sacrificed. It was drenched with blood!

The Gospel writers still use some of this imagery in parallel to their story of Jesus. Jesus, like the Divine Warrior, enters Jerusalem with peaceful intentions, and is received like a hero and a liberator. And the story of Jesus also ends in violence and (per the Priestly macro story) human sacrifice. But it is Jesus, not the supposed enemies of God, who is the victim rather than perpetrator of the violence. And it is Jesus, not his vanquished enemies, who becomes the human sacrifice.

And, in the Eucharist, it is Jesus whose blood (at least metaphorically) is drunk like wine.

Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, a week which begins and ends in triumph, but has tragedy throughout.

This morning our pastor gave each person at worship a cross made from a palm branch as a visual reminder that the journey which starts with a road full of palms eventually leads to the cross.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sexual Politics

Check out this story from the Lexington Herald Leader about a gay student being kicked out of a Baptist school. Not a big shock. But, interestingly, I'm not sure that this student even violated the misguided rules of the school. After all, their policy (if the article is accurate) pertains only to sexual behavior, not orientation or identity. So claiming to be gay on would not violate the policy unless that statement were also accompanied by some evidence that he had, as a student at the school, engaged in homosexual sexual acts.

In other words, this looks a lot more like fear and discrimination than strict adherence to a moral code, unless they claim that thinking about sex counts as sex. And, of course, if they do, then they'll have to kick out all of their students, and probably most of their faculty!

[note: I need to read more carefully. Their policy also forbids promoting forbidden sexual behavior. Evidently the school thinks that someone claiming to be gay promotes homosexual behavior. I wonder how that works. I'm certainly not more likely to engage in homosexual activity because I heard that a twenty-year-old college student thinks he's gay!]

My Budding Bodhisattva: A Vacation Story (or, What Do My Son and the Dalai Lama Have in Common?)

To say that this is a vacation story is to abuse the English language. Really this is several stories from a single vacation, lumped together under what I hope is a nifty title, a mingling of Buddhist terminology with Rocky and Bullwinkle. Anyway, here goes.

Wednesday, just after noon, we headed out on our mini-vacation. I'd made reservations to stay in a small cottage about half-way between Nashville (Brown County - not Tennessee!) and Bloomington, Indiana, called Woods Edge. That's all I knew. We picked the cabin because it was available, not because we really knew anything about it. In other words, for the first time in a long time I had few expectations.

Our first stop was the Realtor's office, where we picked up a map and the keys to our cottage. Sure enough - according to the map - the cottage sat almost exactly half-way between Nashville and Bloomington. And sure enough, the name Wood's Edge seemed appropriate, as it lay just inside of Yellowood State Forrest, a very pleasant surprise.

We drove through Nashville, turned toward Bloomington, and entered Yellowood State Forrest. Wood's Edge my ass! This is more like Deep Forrest. It was gorgeous, situated deep in the heart of the forrest, where we could see literally nothing but trees. Looks like this is going to be a good vacation.

Wednesday evening we drove into Nashville and ate dinner at my favorite little corner diner, a former drugstore. None of the stores were open, turns out they all close by 5pm. But we had a good time strolling through the town, planning out our next day.

Thursday morning, I got up before everyone else, fixed a bowl of my mother-in-law's fruit salad for breakfast. What she lacks in charm she makes up for with her culinary creations.

I'd love to say that after that I did something spiritual constructive, like a devotion or a prayer or a meditation. But actually I took advantage of the fact that this cottage came equipped with ESPN and about 100 other channels that I don't get at home. I sat like a spud in front of the television, watching Sports Center until Adam finally woke up to join me.

What's the attraction to television on vacation? Is it the familiarity of it? We go off to get away, only to find that while away we are basically the same people we were at home, doing the same things we do at home. I remember one time going to the beach, swearing that I wouldn't watch a minute of TV. I was going to maximize my time there, seizing every moment. At the beach I would do only "beach things." It was my version of a "mindful vacation." The first night there I turned on the television to watch my favorite show.

After everyone else woke up, a handed the kid off to his mother and her mother, and set off for the woods. Our cottage was right by a formidable hill. I wondered what was at the top of it.

Our vacation, as some of you have noticed, lasted only about 48 hours. I was hoping for some ideal or perfect 48 hours; some transformative 48 hours in which everything happened just right. When I stepped out of the cottage to explore the woods and the top of the hill, I realized that God or nature has little interest in conforming to your expectations. Rain everywhere. I may as well have been in Washington state.

But rain, in and of itself, is not bad. It only becomes bad when we label it "bad." Trying to salvage my perfect vacation, I refused to label the rain "bad." I simply walked in it, feeling it fall on my, all around me. I didn't label it or the way it felt on my skin. I didn't judge it, or the experience. I simply felt it. It didn't have to be bad.

The hill was harder than it looked from the bottom. Its been a long time since I was an eager Boy Scout, with the energy to hike all day and climb mountains. Five minutes into my trek I already noticed that I'd set a bad pace. I was wheezing, my asthma uncontrolled. I slowed down, literally and metaphorically. This is a vacation, not a race!

Legs and lungs burning, cursing my lack of fitness, I reached the top of the hill. Standing there, between the tall, thin trees stretching out for light and air and moisture, feeling the rain fall on and around me, I had what in Zen is known as a moment of satori, a flash of enlightenment. A religious experience. The rain really wasn't bad, if you didn't label it as such. The rain just was. It was a fact.

I stood in the rain for what seemed like a lifetime, stretching out with the trees, drinking in the moisture. It may have only been a minute or two. Time didn't matter. I just stood, 'til I didn't need to stand anymore. Then I set back out towards the cottage.

I got back just in time to head out for the day. Everyone else was complaining about the rain, just like I would have been if I hadn't been out in it all morning, realizing that rain is simply a fact, not a nuisance. I didn't need to judge the rain. I certainly didn't need to let it ruin my vacation. Doesn't do any good to complain about the weather, and all that. The weather isn't listening. The weather doesn't care.

We had a good time in Nashville. Ate lunch in a neat little coffee shop, the kind of place that's probably right down the street from my house, but I'd never notice because when I'm not on vacation I live my life with a sort of agenda, moving from task to task trying just to make it through the day, waiting for my "real" life to begin. Vacation opens my eyes, slows down my time, gets me off my to-do list and into each moment.

I went to my favorite little independent bookstore, The Book Loft, run by a retired Lutheran pastor with whom I have great discussions. It is one of two bookstores where, every time I visit, I have to walk away with something, out of a sort of moral obligation. Anyone who runs such a lovely shop has to get a little money tossed their way for their effort, even if technically speaking I don't have any money to toss. The other bookstore is the Twin Sisters Bookery in Wilmington, NC. At The Book Loft on Thursday I bought Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith and Thich Nhat Hanh's Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism.

Thursday afternoon we dropped my mother-in-law off at the cottage and set out for Bloomington. Our first stop was Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling Buddhist Monastery, but when we got there, no one was home. I stood outside in the driving rain for a little bit, while Sami and Adam stayed dry and warm in the car. This lasted just long enough for me to feel quite silly. Then I got back in the car to head to our next stop.

It turns out that it may have been just as well that I couldn't get anyone at Dagom Gaden Tensung Ling to open the door. I didn't know it at the time, but they are a schismatic group opposed to the Dalai Lama, and are often considered to be a cult. They have been criticized by most other Buddhists for using a particular deity as a rather scary moral enforcement mechanism. This deity will curse you and your family if you don't do what the group wants. Not exactly the sort of Buddhism I wanted to encounter on vacation! Reminds me a little bit too much of my former job.

Our next stop was the Tibetan Cultural Center, founded by the Dalai Lama's older brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu (a former professor at Indiana University), in 1979. This is no schismatic group, and no cult. They were extremely friendly and welcoming.

I got to brush out my mad Sanskrit (the sacred language of Buddhism) and Pali (the "original" language of Buddhism, predating Sanskrit) skills in philosophic conversation [note: my Sanskrit and Pali are as bad as my Hebrew and Greek; I know only a few key words here and there] while they let Adam roam around playing with everything.

We had to take off our shoes to enter the Kumbum Chamtse Ling interfaith temple, which was dedicated by the Dalai Lama in 1996, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 2003. It is their sanctuary, full of sacred relics. To my surprise and their delight, they let Adam play in the temple. He ran around climbing on everything, and generally making mischief. Ordinarily I would have been embarrassed and stopped him, but they wouldn't let me. They kept saying how nice it was to have such a small and pleasant child around, and that we should be proud of him.

The highlight of the day was when they let Adam climb the step to the sacred chair reserved for the Dalai Lama. No one but the Dalai Lama is allowed to sit in their chair. It is sacred space. While Adam was not allowed to sit in the chair, they did let him become the first person other than the Dalai Lama to climb up to the chair and touch it. It was quite an honor, and I wish that he would be able to remember it.

They said that Adam was a budding bodhisattva, who brought great joy to their temple. A bodhisattva is an enlightened being who puts off nirvana so that they can help end the suffering of all other sentient beings. It is the ideal of Mahayana Buddhism. Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is one of many forms of Mahayana Buddhism.

We finished our day of Tibetan culture in Bloomington at Little Tibet a Tibetan restaurant in the international district. Sami has some assortment of noodles, vegetables and tofu (a staple in our diet), while I had Mo Mos (a Tibetan dumpling) filled with assorted vegetables, with a spicy dipping sauce. Adam feasted on assorted vegetables, and Temo, a Tibetan steamed bread. The only word that comes to mind is Greek, ambrosia, the nectar of the gods.

The next morning, hoping to share my satori point with the people I love most, I put Adam on my back and set off up the hill with Sami. This time I knew better than to set a frantic pace. We reached the top together as a family, with no asthma attacks or pulled muscles. The climb wasn't so hard. I had just made it hard by not knowing myself well enough to set a decent pace.

After our hike, we all packed up the car and headed into Nashville for one last day in the town.