Put Your Sword in its Scabbard

I have never commented on a post about a book that I have not read, but I will today. I happened upon an interview on television of Amanda Lindhout, coauthor with Sara Corbett of the book A House in the Sky.  The book is Amanda’s story from her early childhood days until her captivity in Somalia in 2008

Early in her life, Amanda suffered in a home of violence and used her imagination to escape. She paged through the pages of National Geographic magazines and began to dream of he places she might visit. When she became an adult, she began to fulfill the dreams as she traveled to many parts of the world. Her travels brought her to Somalia where she was captured by four men who held her hostage for 460 days. While with them she lived totally alone except when she was taken for torture by her captives. In her aloneness, she revisited all of the places she’d gone in detail. Then one day, she imagined visiting a house in the sky, “high above the woman kept in chains, in the dark”.  She filled her mind with the details of the house, imagined herself being there – safe.

One day (as she reported in her interview) she was being beaten and she imagined herself as though watching down from her house. She could see herself being harmed but as she looked at her torturers she saw that they too were harmed. She saw their suffering and understood why they were beating her. She was able to forgive them in that moment, she said.

I will have to read the book to discover how she was released, but I can imagine that her inner shift influenced the outcome in some way. Since her return she has been involved in an outreach program. Oprah.com says this about Lindhout: “The determination that kept Lindhout alive fuels her now as she runs the Global Enrichment Foundation, which empowers Somali women through education, among other initiatives. Still, at any moment, even a smell can hauntingly trigger a phantom gut-punch, an instant panic.” PTSD

A pacifist, I want so much to tell others that those who are terrorists were once terrorized or they watched while those they loved were terrorized or killed. It is the knowing of this that allowed Jesus to say on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I am absolutely convinced that when Jesus told us to love our enemies, he was calling us to this profound understanding about the roots of terror. I once heard Ernie Larson, near and dear to those in recovery, say “Hurt people hurt people.” The woman that inspired this blog, Peace Pilgrim said, “Violence begets violence.” Jesus’ words, “Turn the other cheek.” The response that Jesus calls forth is not to hurt back – this is what he rejected when he told his disciple to put his sword back into its scabbard after cutting off the ear of one of the men who captured him in the garden. Rather, Jesus calls us to look from a higher place and see the pain of those who inflict pain.

I realize this is the most difficult of paths. It is a tighter squeeze than that of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  Few can follow it. I don’t know if I could follow if I were in Amanda’s situation. None of us know before a time it might happen. But I think I am supporting the Amanda’s in this world when I speak her message of compassion.

I will read the book when I am ready. I just wanted you to know.

 

Enough of politics, already!

I am still trudging through the Old Testament where Israel, once it settled in the Holy Land, established as its form of government monarchies. In the following centuries, the kings sometimes succeeded in pleasing God but mostly earned God’s wrath. One could argue that God basically disapproves of the idea of Israel having a king. In fact there are scripture passages to prove God’s point of view on this matter. But, reluctant as God was, he tried to work with the system. He tried to establish justice and peace through the kings who ruled over God’s people.

Jesus came along during a time when the Israelites did not have a king of their own. They lived under the leadership of a foreign king, Rome’s Caesar. Rome was fairly tolerant of the Jews and allowed them their religious practices as long as they didn’t mess with Rome’s ultimate authority. But there were the zealots who had this idea that God intended that Israel return to the monarchial system with their own king to rule the land. These Rome tried to keep under wraps but eventually the zealots roused up a rebellion and in the end, Jerusalem came tumbling down. Jesus’ death can, in part, be attributed to his association with the zealots. He was accused of promoting a kingdom other than the Roman kind. They did not grasp that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. The leaders of the Jews, the priests, did not grasp it either.

If people today are somehow looking to support their idea of a political system by using the scriptures, I say “Have you ever read the bible?” There were no democracies in the time of either testament. There may have been some little groups among indigenous people, perhaps, that operated sort of like what we would call a democracy. But the only system the Jews “got” was a monarchy – rule by a king. But this didn’t necessarily contradict their ideas about justice. The Old Testament law defines this – justice, fairness, caring for the poor, the widows and orphans, even guidelines about how money and property were to be managed. A good king who followed this plan had God’s approval and support.

Those who wrote our Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution were not the first to consider a democracy. Many of the tribes that the Europeans found in America operated like democracies and there were visionaries in the west that left their dreams of new ways of managing nations without monarchs in writing.

Democracy was revolutionary idea It had the potential for justice to work in ways that monarchial systems did not. The specific system drawn up by our founding fathers was a good one. When I stand to salute the American flag and sing our national anthem, I think about these fathers and their vision. But, when I get all choked up, is it not because I believe America is right and the rest of the world is wrong or that we are in some way following God’s will and the rest of the world is heading down the road to perdition. Absolutely not! Here are some thoughts I have had as I watch the United States do its business of developing its democracy:

  1. Just because democracy has the potential for justice to work doesn’t mean it does. Potential is not actual. A monarchy works great for the populace if they happen to have a wise and just king. It isn’t the system that matters so much as the attitude of those in rule.
  2. I have heard of our United States system referred to as “the great experiment.” That is exactly what it is – an experiment. In my opinion, the experiment has failed. It isn’t the system that has failed. There are crazy people in the lab. In monarchial systems, the people may be saddled with one crazy king. We are saddled with as many as 536 crazy people: 435 in the house, 100 in the senate and the one almost-king.
  3. Is the system of democracy really God’s design? The Old Testament and at least the zealots in the New support the idea that God works through monarchies. It would be a stretch to think of democracies being in any way supported by Jesus. I would suggest that Jesus did not support any system. He meant it when he told Pilot that his kingdom was not of this world. But if you look to the Acts of the Apostles and to the letters, I would suggest that the early church, inspired by the Holy Spirit, promoted a government that looks like what we would call socialism today. If you want to join the community, turn over all you own to the leaders to be distributed fairly among the people. And don’t think you can lord it over others in this system. Every part is equal to every other part. Everyone’s contribution is important. As for honoring, the least are first and proud are last.
  4. The problem in the United States and in many other countries is that we fail to see the link between justice and peace. If God gets into systems at all, if he has a “will” about them, I believe this link is the key. People who are treated justly are likely to support, even cheer about, a system that is fair, that works for the good of all. The zealots, who prefer to be in charge of what kind of system they serve, won’t be able to rile people up. They are perceived as annoyances but people who are satisfied with their ruler or rulers will blow them off. The best guarantee against a violent revolution is justice for all.
  5. Since we began this thing we call “rule by the people”  other nations decided to follow us. It was the “idea” of democracy that attracted them. Like here in our country, many of those democracies could only be gained if their monarchs were overthrown. But the structures they developed look different from the one we came up with. I maintain that some countries came up with systems that work better than ours. Some are worse, but let’s be honest and let’s be humble. Maybe some of their ideas work better for their people than ours does for us. Check out information about education, health, crime and violence, and poverty among nations. We don’t fare as well as most Americans dare to believe.  I knew a woman once who was born in England. Listening to the political jargon during whatever campaign was occurring at that time with candidates suggesting that America was the best in the world, she said, “The best at what?”
  6. One more thing. Concerning the world’s view of the United States, I have to ask again the question Americans were asking after 9-11. “Why do they hate us so?”  I find it hard to be proud of a nation that earns its respect with military might or financial power. I am tired of being a bully.

The other day, I asked myself whether there were any countries in the world whose people are okay letting other countries solve their own problems and that just focus on caring for their own, countries that hoped to teach by example, whose systems might be admired because of the happiness level of the people. Costa Rica, which does not even have an army, touts to be the happiest country in the world. According to Forbes, the top five happiest nations are Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden and Australia. The United States ranks number 11. Not bad, but not the best. We really do have to stop the bragging. And we might consider opening ourselves up to trying out some of other nations’ experiments in democracy.

 

Getting to Know the Apostles

I am working on a writing project and in preparation, I did a lot of research on the apostle. I read many commentaries on the scriptures and other writings not included in the bible such as the Nag Hammadi collection.  It has been fascinating and fun to get to know these characters. I learned that in addition to twelve men in his core group, there were also seven women.

In addition, I learned that:

  •  some of these were blood relations of Jesus. James and John, the sons of Zebedee and fishermen, were Jesus first cousins through their mothers, Mary and Salome who were sisters. It made a bit of sense that these were the first that Jesus drafted and that his Aunt Salome (or his cousins, John and James) approached Jesus to ask that they be able to serve beside him in the kingdom which they thought to be earthly.
  • James, Jesus brother was the leader of the early church, not Peter. I have to say that in my readings, Peter does not come up smelling like a rose. He continued to miss the point of many of his teachings long after Jesus death and resurrection.
  • Jesus had brothers and sisters, which many Protestants believe no matter what the Catholic Church teaches. After learning this, I could appreciate Jesus’ mother fussing at the wedding feast of Cana where she showed so much concern about the fact that the wine was dwindling. I used to wonder at her nerve of stepping in and taking over like that. What a buddinski, I thought. But it could have been the wedding of one of her sons or daughters. Without Joseph, I could understand that she would turn to her son to take control of the situation.
  • there was another apostle named Judas besides Judas the betrayer who was called Jude (the name Thaddeus is also used for him.) He is said to be Jesus’ brother.
  • Mary Magdelene was not a prostitute, as  I was taught by the Church. She was a follower and close friend to Jesus. She may have been from Magdela or she may be Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who “chose the better part” after she was criticized by her sister Martha for being lazy. I like this last possibility.
  • Judas the betrayer is said to have been a zealot, but he is not the only one among the apostles. Others are Philip, Nathaniel, Simon Peter and Andrew.
  • Matthew turned out to be my favorite apostle. He was a story-teller prone to exaggeration, warm hearted toward women, and a peace-maker.  He was a bit lax when it came to Jewish law (and he really liked it that Jesus was also.)
  • It is a tradition that there were twelve apostles but I can’t ignore that fact that Jesus brother James was part of his inner circle as well. One writing has Jesus actually naming him to take over leadership of the movement after his death.

So very interesting!

 

Words of Philip

I have mentioned before that I just completed reading the whole of the Nag Hammadi Library collection. These are ancient writings from around the first to the fourth centuries. Some of the texts are considered Gnostic, some known by scholars in the early church, but none were included in the canon, or what we know as the Christian New Testament. I don’t know if any of them were at hand when the councils were considering which gospels and letters to include in the canon, but I can imagine why some were turned down. On the other hand, a few are quite interesting and I wish they were more known among Christians. I’d like to share a little passage from The Gospel of Philip that I think is really neat. I believe the words are attributed to Philip:

“Let each of us dig down after the root of evil within us and pull it out of our hearts from the root. It will be uprooted if we recognize it. But if we are ignorant of it, it takes root in us and produces fruit in our hearts. It dominates us. We are its slaves, and it takes us captive so that we do what we do not want and do not do what we want. It is powerful because we do not recognize it. As long as it exists, it stays active.” (The Gospel of Philip 83:18-30)

I found this passage so interesting because it is what we would say today. We can only change what we acknowledge, right? I also like it because it is clear. So many times I find the bible difficult to understand, difficult to apply, but this little piece seems so clear to me. Gotta love that Philip. Too bad his writings didn’t make the cut.

Living in the Kingdom of God

I am finally coming to the last pages of a thick book, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, the translation of 64 writings from the 1st-3rd centuries. Nag Hammadi is a city in Upper Egypt near where the collection was discovered in 1945. Don’t ask me why I read this sort of thing. I have asked myself the same thing and the only answer I came up with is “I don’t know.”

Most of the ancient texts are Gnostic, though not all. I learned in the epilogue that there are many forms of Gnostic thought even though people tend to clump them together under the umbrella of heresy. I don’t think this is fair. I find much of the writing quite supportive of the teachings we find in the canonical scriptures. Some I found a bit too “out there” to be useful to my own spirituality. Some offer a nice expansion or a deeper understanding of beliefs I already have. Some I found tiresome to read. Others I found extremely interesting, especially those that revealed sides to Jesus’ disciples that are not included in the biblical accounts. I have come to know Matthew, Mary, James, Philip, and Peter in a whole new light. I learned some interesting facts. Did you know that Peter had a daughter named Petronilla? I have come to admire these followers of Jesus more, although some have diminished in my eyes. One day I will share what I have learned about these very interesting and deeply human characters according the reportings of all that I have been finding in extra-canonical work.

There is one theme that I come across over and over again in Gnostic work, that of the “Kingdom of God within” or “Heaven on Earth.” In the Bible we read of Jesus talking about this all the time, of course. I speak for myself when I say that I really didn’t have a grasp of it. For me it has always seemed more a poetic concept than a reality. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the idea of this eutopian where everyone loved one another. Yet the pragmatist in me didn’t really believing that it could ever be a reality on earth. For Jesus, on the other hand, it was a reality as sure as the stool I am right now sitting upon. It was within his consciousness and he tried desperately to communicate it to others. If this kingdom within isn’t real, I think we will have to write him off as a cockeyed optimist worthy of our admiration but not our following.

Well, after giving the last few months dragging myself through this book (I could only handle a few pages per day), I actually think I am “getting it”. I don’t know if I can really explain what happened, but I was thinking about all of the things that have been troubling me lately and this idea came to me:

In heaven there is no money
In heaven there is no technology
In heaven there is no aging
In heaven there is no danger
In heaven there is no pain
In heaven there is no death
In heaven there is no fear

I asked myself, if I believe in Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom why I was fretting over these things. My answer to myself: I don’t know. But I am going to work at living in the Kingdom of God starting now. As for the earthly responsibilities this list points to, I have given them enough thought. It is time to move on.

In the Beginning was the Word and the Word was not the Bible

I am pondering the meaning of “word” as it is used in the world of theology. This is not a scholarly presentation. It is more of a reflection.

I have read, as most people who appreciate scripture, the beginning verse of John’s Gospel. For Christians, this is probably the best place to go to get a sense of what “Word” might mean. I think it is important to point out that accepting John into the cannon was not a unanimous consideration. It included stories of Jesus and his teaching, but it also resembles some of the Gnostic writings from the first couple of centuries in the life of the church. I have been reading some of these Gnostic writings has gotten my mind into a less literal mindset than I am used to. In the past, it made sense to me, when people used “word”, to mean the writings in the bible. But looking at this first verse of John makes using “word” to mean bible seem a little silly.

First of all, according to John, the Word existed before the world was made. That would mean before the creation of land upon which human beings could walk and talk and write books the Word existed. In fact, the Word existed before there was anyone with two ears to receive, to hear the Word. That makes me think that maybe that Word in John’s theology means something more like “thought” or “idea”. Perhaps that first sentence in John could be rewritten: “Before the world was created, the Idea already existed.” In other words, God had an idea of what he wanted to create before he created it. Any artist or inventor would understand this. Artists and inventors have a sense that their ideas seem to come to them rather than from them. This seems more like “inspiration”, My dictionary offers this definition: “a sudden brilliant, creative, or timely idea”. Some people talk about having “a leading”, a little nudge to do something or say something.

Where does such a nudge, or leading, come from? This is where belief comes in. For me, such nudges, come from God. I can’t say I am always positive that a nudge comes from God, but I have little ways to test that. Examining my motives is one way. Another is to pay attention to wisdom. Where do I get my wisdom? From my life experiences, my limited knowledge of people and the world, and the many words of wisdom spoke by wise people today and in the past. I appreciate that so many of these words have been written on the pages of books I read so I can avail myself to them. Especially important to me are thewords that were spoken by Jesus which have been passed on by the writers of the scriptures as best people could recall. I like them so much that they form the center of my spirituality. However, what moves me are not the physical words themselves, but the spirit behind the words. Jesus promised his followers that the same Spirit of God that guided him would be the one that would guide them after he was gone.

I believe Jesus and I believe that Word means the Ideas of God. When I seek to do God’s work in the world, that is, to share in the continuing work of creation, I have to pay close attention to listen, to listen WITH MY SPIRITUAL EARS, to what God is “telling” me to do.

For those who continue to assume that the bible is the way to know God’s will, I would like to suggest that they at least try to accept that the bible is not the only way. God’s cannot be restricted to something physical as words on paper or even words formed with our physical mouths. We have the Holy Spirit to help us first, hear with our spiritual ears and then guide us in how to bring this creative, life-giving…something of God…into the physical world.

 

I Am Christian

In the first chapter of her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference, Eileen Flanagan invites readers to examine the influences in our lives that assist or deter them from knowing and doing God’s will. She deals with family, cultural and religious influences. I think that if a person truly wants to be free they will eventually have to delve into these three. They comprise the soil in which our seed, which is ourselves, is planted. Jesus pointed out in his famous parable that the environment surrounding a seed has everything to do with how well it flourishes.

Jesus was particularly conscious of the impact of being raised in the Jewish Temple religion of the time. This, after all, was the soil he himself would have had to consider in his spiritual search. Had he not freed himself of the image of the distant God, would he have discovered the new image that he passes on to us, that of a loving, ever present, and intimately engaged Father?

To demonstrate the task  of examining one’s early life influences, Flanagan tells the stories of several searchers, one of which I so identify with, I would like to share it here. “Hilary Beard grew up afraid of God, particularly God’s ability to judge and inflict punishment.” Okay, I am already hooked. This was my beginning. Even as a small child, I was caught in the fear that if I were to die, I would go to hell. There were so many rules in the Church, that I couldn’t help but trip up.  Hal went through a fundamentalist stage, which I did also. It was a great consolation that I could be assured of salvation and I left the Catholic church in favor of a fundamentalist bible study group, led by a Baptist elder who first introduced me to the bible. After a while, however, I began to get wind of some negative attitudes in the community in the form of harsh judgment about those who did not believe the way they did. They justified their attitudes by calling it “concern” for the unsaved. Of course, they saw their condemnation as simply a reflection of God’s condemnation…they were just the messengers. Meanwhile, I was beginning to question the whole idea of God being so condemning at all, no matter what the bible said.  I asked myself whether I could send someone to hell just because they hadn’t come to believe in Jesus and decided that, no, I couldn’t. That became somewhat of a heresy…I was more loving than the God I was supposed to be worshiping. So be it, I finally decided. I defaulted to honesty about what I was realizing.

Hal came to the same place. Flanagan shares his words:  “I remember praying, ‘God, I really have been trying to believe, but my doubts often outweigh my belief. I have decided not to try to believe everything in the Bible.’” Even though that seemed like sure hell-fire, he admits that after his honest confession, he felt a deep sense of peace. Here is the part I really appreciate: “After that he decided that he was still a Christian, though not in the narrow definition of his family.” When I abandoned the community that told me what it was that I had to believe about Jesus Christ in order to be saved, I too felt peace. It is as thought I had finally found out what it is to be Christian, but I didn’t dare admit it to anyone. For sure, neither those in my Catholic upbringing nor those in my new bible study group would agree with me. So, I kept it to myself. I continued to read the scriptures but felt free to ignore or reject portions that I knew in my heart Jesus himself would reject. I loved the bible. I even went on to get a bachelors degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis in the Scriptures. It was a liberal Catholic institution where I was fed scholarly information about the history and theological development of the bible.

Eventually I returned to the Catholic Church where I had a 20 year career coordinating religious education programs in several different parishes. I liked the work but eventually I grew just as disillusioned with the heady theological doctrines of the Church as I had with the rigid theology of my fundamentalist friends. Neither seemed to fit real life. Neither seemed to have a pulse on the suffering in the world. Neither seemed to offer any solutions.

I began to explore Eastern religions such as Buddhism. Buddhism is not a theistic faith, but rather a way of looking at life. I did not find a conflict with my experience of Jesus. In fact, I began to see parallels between Buddhist thought and what Jesus taught. I never really said to myself, “I am not longer a Christian”, but I could clearly see that how I related to Jesus was different than others around me.

Hal explained the change in his understanding of Jesus. He said that he came to believe that he can meet Jesus in any person, so he had to always be on the lookout. “In a way, I didn’t give up (the idea of) the return of Jesus. I put a different spin on it.” One of the parishes in which I served, there was a beautiful group of elder free-thinking adults who were always watching out for me. These were the most supportive among the parishioners when I decided to leave my work. One day one of the women said to me concerning the second coming of Christ: “He has already come again…inside each of us.” She seems to have discovered what Hal discovered.

The idea of seeing God in each person is what eventually attracted me to the Quakers. It appeared to me that they, more than any Christian group I had ever identified with, understood what Jesus meant by love of neighbor and enemy. It is the foundation of their non-violence testimony. I no longer worship with the Quakers, but I still hold their beliefs in my heart.

The long explanation of my journey may lead a person to believe that I am bereft of any theology. Well, in a way, this is true. Quakers taught me to “hold theology like a loose garment.” They were humble enough to know they don’t know everything. They are always in tune to further leadings by the living, always-active spirit of God both in the community and in their own hearts.

I have moved on, yet again, to another Christian community. I needed to find more personal direction in my prayer and practice. But even as I attach myself to this new group, there is something within me that continues to open further yet. As theological formulas fall away, more and more the original image of the distant, judging God fades. I cannot say much about where I will go after death. But I can say that my relationship with myself and with those I love has been transformed. Whatever God intends for me to be and do here in this life on earth is my only concern.  I am still a Christian, for there is no one who has been more central to my understanding of what God wants of me than Jesus.