Sunday, March 28, 2021


 

Today is Palm Sunday, a day that commemorates Jesus's "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem. This was an incredibly subversive act on his part, both religiously and politically. It was a bit of prophetic performance art, as Jesus and his followers reenacted the ancient Jewish ritual of the king's enthronement (for which Psalm 118 had been written and used). But, as biblical scholar James Sanders points out, in the case of Jesus, "The messiah has arrived and been acclaimed king. He has been recognized as king by acclamation not from those with power or authority but by a rather scragly crowd of disciples and followers."
 
The participants in Jesus entry into Jerusalem shouted "Hosanna!" which means "Please help us!" It was a cry for justice and mercy and deliverance. "Hosanna!" was what a person would cry out to the judge when they came into court as a result of having fallen behind on their crushing debt obligations from having to borrow money in order to pay civic and temple taxes (a few decades later, when violent rebel factions took control of Jerusalem and the temple, they intentionally burned all of the records of debt). "Hosanna!" was a plea from the powerless to the judge to be just and fair and merciful in hearing their case. At the triumphal entry, the people were calling out to God to hear their case against the terribly oppressive religious and civic and economic systems that they lived under.
 
Sanders says, "This enactment of the psalm [118] as a prophetic symbolic act would have been no less blasphemous and scandalous to those responsible for Israel's traditions (and they would have known them well) than similar symbolic acts performed by the prophets in the late Iron Age [such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel]." Those in power, who controlled the systems of oppression, would have looked derisively upon this noisy, unruly crowd and their charismatic leader. Ultimately they would decide that he and the movement he inspired needed to be crushed.
 
So, if you go to church today and see the children waving palm fronds, consider that what they are reenacting is a moment of radical and risky prophetic public action against rulers and authorities and systems of oppression. They were calling for a very different kind of kingdom and king; one marked by care for the "least of these"--the poor, the immigrant, the outcast, the powerless and voiceless. They were crying out for fairness and compassion and kindness and peace and radical inclusion and integrity and opportunity to thrive and grace and love. They were crying out for the kingdom of God.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

 



The other night my reading of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark took me off onto a tangent of learning more about the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Hammer of Witches”), a 15th century book that is generally credited with sparking the witch burning craze in Europe and the New World that lasted for 300 years. Of course the church had been busy torturing and killing heretics—in the most gruesome ways—for many hundreds of years prior to that. But the Malleus Maleficarum—essentially a guide to detecting and trying witches—received wide distribution due to the advent of the printing press. Thus, despite being filled with bad theology, impossible anecdotes, conspiracy theories, pure misogyny and cruelty, it became authoritative in both the Catholic and Protestant Church, and in the legal systems under church influence.
 
According to Sagan, “What the Malleus comes down to, pretty much, is that if you’re accused of witchcraft, you’re a witch. Torture is an unfailing means to demonstrate the validity of the accusation. There are no rights of the defendant. There is no opportunity to confront the accusers. Little attention is given to the possibility that accusations might be made for impious purposes—jealousy, say, or revenge, or the greed of the inquisitors who routinely confiscated for their own private benefit the property of the accused…. The more who, under torture, confessed to witchcraft, the harder it was to maintain that the whole business was mere fantasy. Since each 'witch' was made to implicate others, the numbers grew exponentially. These constituted ‘frightful proofs that the Devil is still alive,’ as it was later put in America in the Salem witch trials.”
 
Sagan continues: “In the witch trials, mitigating evidence or defense witnesses were inadmissible.” If, for example, a husband claimed that his wife had been with with him the whole night, not cavorting about in the forest with demons, the archbishop would explain that the husband had been deceived—such is the power of the Devil—and had in fact shared his bed with a demon masquerading as his wife.
 
Women and girls, in particular, but also men and boys were accused, tortured and killed in the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable. Sagan recounts, “In the immolation of the 20-year-old Joan of Arc, after her dress had caught fire the Hangman of the Rouen slaked the flames so onlookers could view ‘all the secrets which can or should be in a woman.’”
 
The parade of horrors goes on and on. But the aspect that really caught my attention was the attitude of the church officials who endorsed and perpetrated witch trials. They were convinced of their absolute rightness. There was no alternative explanation other than the one they already believed. To even raise the possibility that they were mistaken was to engage in heresy and commit the mortal sin of attacking the Church. Critics of witch burning were themselves put on trial and burned. “The inquisitors and torturers,” writes Sagan, “were doing God’s work. They were saving souls. They were foiling demons.” Thus any opposition was standing in God’s way and deserved to be crushed.
 
During my time as a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I saw the same type of mass hysteria manifest around conspiracy theories about global Satanic witch covens that kidnapped children for human sacrifice. I see it today with QAnon and claims that Joe Biden (who is cast as a godless liberal despite his devout Catholicism) somehow stole the presidential election from Donald Trump (who is cast as a righteous instrument of God despite being antithetical to everything Jesus taught). I saw in my fundy days the same practice of applying bad theology in an effort to control people’s sexuality (especially LGBTQ people) and to control women via the Pro-Life movement. I saw the same arrogant certainty in leaders (typically men) who claimed to be unquestionably right and to have authority from God which should not be criticized.
 
I’m grateful that the church (Protestant and Catholic) does not today have a shred of the civic power it once had. History has shown that theocracy inevitably results in oppression and atrocity. But I’ve seen with my own eyes that the mindset remains that would plunge us back into darkness if given the chance.

Friday, November 27, 2020

 

I have this weird thing where if I have blood drawn while sitting up I am likely to pass out. It isn't an aversion to blood; it's something to do with the fact that I have rather low blood pressure. So I've learned that if I'm having blood drawn it is best for me to be relatively supine. The last time I passed out while having blood drawn I didn't realize it had happened until I was coming back around to consciousness. One moment I was chatting away to the phlebotomist and the next moment I was being revived and offered juice. In between those two moments was a gap of time in which there was nothingness. When I sleep, I dream. But this was simply... nothingness. Or, at least, nothing I remember.

That experience changed the way I think about the existence of an afterlife. Maybe there is an afterlife, maybe not; I don't know (nobody does). But if death equals nothingness--a complete extinguishment of consciousness--then why fear it? It's only natural. And if there is something more, I guess (like everyone else) I'll find out when I get there.
Schopenhauer wrote, "After your death you will be what you were before your birth." But what was I before I was born? Scattered atoms? A spiritual being? A thought in the mind of God? I don't remember.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I sometimes joke that I entered seminary as an evangelical Christian and departed as an agnostic Buddhist. It's an oversimplification, but in large part true. I think of myself as a Buddhist in the sense that I recognize the genius of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path and the other practical teachings of the Buddha, as well as the transformative power of meditation, but I don't believe in rebirth or other speculative spiritual components of Buddhism. I think of myself as a Christian in the sense that I try to live my life according to the values and teachings of Jesus--particularly as laid out in the Sermon on the Mount--but I don't believe (any longer) in most of the tenets of the classic Christian creeds. In seminary I learned to appreciate things about all of the world's religions, but I also came to the conclusion that the most honest religious view is agnosticism; to simply be able to say "I don't really know."

Jesus was, I think, a remarkable person who made a significant impact during his life. He lived during a time of tremendous socio-political upheaval, under a repressive religious system that was under a corrupt and tyrannical kingdom that was under an oppressive empire (which also provided benefits like capability of long-distance travel, communications, preservation and transmission of philosophy, religious plurality, and relative peace).

Jesus's teachings, and the movement he led, cut like a laser through the multi-layered systems of oppression in which he found himself. He challenged their authority, pointed out their hypocrisy, and highlighted how badly they had missed the mark in their claim of being God's (or, the case of the Romans, the gods') authority on earth. He taught that every person--no matter their gender or race or illness or socio-economic status or profession or how "other" they are--is worthy of care and kindness, deserving of respect and fair treatment, beloved by God. Clearly, what he taught, and the way he taught it, was profound and powerful to the point of being viewed as a threat to the civic and religious authorities. So they conspired to have him arrested, tortured and killed. And that was the end of Jesus the man.

But the effect of his brief life was so great that people continued to tell stories about him. And, of course, those oral tales and eventual written accounts became more and more exaggerated and weighted with symbolism. In trying to express the significance of his life and teachings, people incorporated popular Mediterranean tropes: surely he was sent from God; like others sent from [the] God[s] in Greco-Roman-Egyption-Persian theologies, he was born of a virgin; he performed authoritative miracles over sickness and nature; yes he was killed, but like Osiris and Adonis and Castor and Romulus and Heracles (etc.) he rose from the dead; he ascended to Heaven, like other Greco-Roman god-men had purportedly ascended to Mount Olympus; and his death carried a sacrificial reconciliatory significance. Jesus gradually became linked to Greek philosophical concepts such as the Logos, and Neoplatonic cosmology, and Manichaen dualism.

Jesus became a mythic figure and an object of veneration (the same fate that happened to the Buddha). The man who told people to follow him (not worship him) became an object of worship. The man who criticized the hierarchical and puritanical Jewish temple religious system became the diety at the heart of a hierarchical and puritanical gentile religious system (with temples of its own). The man who challenged the empire was appropriated and transformed into a god who endorsed the empire.

I could go on, but suffice to say that studying and pondering things like this is how I became a Buddhist who doesn't subscribe to Buddhism and a Christian who doesn't subscribe to Christianity and an Agnostic who has opinions but freely admits "I don't really know."

 

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Guest post: Rich Lewis

I'm honored to share a guest post from Rich Lewis, from the blog Silence Teaches Us Who We Are.  Rich is the author of Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara.  This post contains excerpts from Rich's book:

Quaker Silence 

In March of 2014, I experienced a Quaker silent service. The church I attended traced its roots to 1699, though the meeting house where I sat in was built in 1823. The service had no minister. I sat in silence for an hour with one hundred others in a simple room with only benches, windows, and wood floors. 

On three occasions, individuals shared a thought. Then back to silence. I heard the rain gently pummel the windows. I heard human sounds: coughing, sniffing, breathing. I heard the wind blow and wood floors creak. I heard my thoughts. Sometimes I had no thoughts, just the spaces between thoughts. The room became a container filled with peace, love, community. 

When we are silent we are naked before God. We empty our mind of its thoughts and emotions. We let God’s gaze shine directly on us. I do this as part of my daily centering prayer practice but had never done it with a group this large. 

At the end of the service, we prayed for each other. We greeted each other and passed the peace. We are meant to experience silence in community with our God. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, often exclaimed that the most powerful kind of worship is silent worship or what Quakers sometimes call “waiting worship.” 

Because we live and move and have our being in God, whether we realize it or not, we constantly pray (Acts 17:28). I had heard that life is a prayer, but I did not understand how this could be true. Now I understand that I live in God. I am always connected to God. I cannot disconnect, even if I try. God’s presence always remains. Only my own awareness of God’s presence comes and goes, depending on the quality of my contemplation.

Be Open to New Experiences of the Divine 

Richard Rohr wrote that, “Prayer is not about changing God, but being willing to let God change us.” God is not a genie that grants wishes. I need to rethink how I approach God. I need to let go of my desires, dreams, and wishes—and instead, be open to the desires, dreams, and wishes that God has for me. 

In May of 2015, I visited the Won Buddhism Center of Philadelphia. Before I entered the temple area, we removed our shoes. I liked this idea. The first thing I do when I enter my home is take off my shoes. It makes me feel comfortable, relaxes me. Doing this at the Buddhist center, I felt at home. 

We began the service with a five-minute chant. I had never chanted for five minutes straight. It seemed like it would be an eternity. Yet before I knew it, we were done. 

From the chant, we moved to a twenty-five-minute silent meditation. I knew that this would not be difficult. When I practice centering prayer, I do so with my eyes closed. The silent practice that I was asked to participate in was with my eyes open, looking down the bridge of my nose. Similar to centering prayer, we were told to let go of all thoughts. We were told to ignore any itches. Let them pass. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was easily able to meditate with eyes open. The time passed quickly. 

We moved from silent meditation to walking meditation, something I had never done. Fifteen of us formed a circle fifteen feet in diameter. We walked slowly in a circle, our pace extremely slow. I estimate the movement from when I placed my left heel down and rolled it until my toes finally touched the ground was three to five seconds before I performed the same action with my right foot. It took some time to adjust to this snail’s pace. I needed to focus to maintain balance. Within a few minutes, however, I felt comfortable with the pace and began to enjoy it. Like the sacred word in centering prayer, each step I took during walking meditation was an opening to God. We walked one full circle. I do not know how long it took. It was a wonderful experience. I lost track of time and was at peace. I entered the spaces between my thoughts. I was in the Presence. 

The Buddhist temple experience taught me that contemplative prayer, the pure presence of God, can be found in chanting, silent meditation, and walking. God is everywhere. God waits for us to meet Him in the practice that best suits us. I am certain there are many other forms of contemplative prayer that I can practice, where I will also meet the pure Presence of God.

Rich Lewis

Silence Teaches

Silence teaches us who we are. 

When you subscribe to my web site you will receive my Free Centering Prayer ebook. 

 Sitting with God: A Journey to Your True Self through Centering Prayer published by Anamchara Books is now available!

Saturday, October 03, 2020

 If I still thought along the lines that I did when I was a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I could easily conclude that God was sending judgment upon Donald Trump and the Republican party, except if I actually were a fundamentalist charismatic Christian I would not be able to separate Trump and Republicanism from God's favor, so I would have to instead conclude that it was an attack from Satan.  In other words, whether something was interpreted as being from God or from Satan was very much a matter of personal bias.

Friday, October 02, 2020

 My theological beliefs are such that I don't believe God controls viruses or changes outcomes if lobbied by enough people.  I do believe that God (for lack of a better term) is constantly "nudging" all of us toward goodness, and it is up to us to position ourselves to be able to discern those nudges and respond.  So my prayer for Donald Trump is that this experience (of contracting coronavirus) helps him to become more empathetic and circumspect.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

 I remember in 2008 when Republicans began attempting to smear Barack Obama, and ruin his chances of becoming the Democratic nominee, by attacking his faith. Specifically, they went after Obama's association with the fiery pastor Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and the teachings of Liberation Theology. The media jumped on board, fanning the flames of controversy. Lots of misinformation was thrown around.


I hope the same thing doesn't occur with Amy Coney Barrett, Trump's presumptive Supreme Court nominee. Yes, she apparently is a long-standing member of a somewhat fringe ecumenical charismatic Catholic group called People of Praise. They are a lay community within the Catholic fold. Like many other Catholic lay communities, they seem to have an orientation toward social justice. They are an intentional community--including communal living for some members--with some internal practices that look remarkably similar to socialism. They follow the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola in practicing discernment. Like several other charismatic Christian groups that started up in the late 60's and the 70's and 80's, they are internally hierarchical and practice a form of "shepherding," in which members submit to more senior members for direction in their lives. Although they are non-partisan, they are conservative on matters such as abortion, a wife's submission to her husband, and limiting women's authority within the church (in other words, they're in step with the official positions of the Catholic Church).

They are not a cult. Personally, People of Praise is not a group I would want to belong to. I have experienced first hand, over the course of many years, how damaging charismatic Christian groups like this can be. But at the same time, I think we have to respect a person's religious choices (including the choice of no religion).

So, as much as I don't want Republicans to confirm a Supreme Court Justice mere weeks before the election, I really hope Democrats don't take the bait on this one. By all means challenge her positions, her public statements, her legal and constitutional views. But leave her faith out of it.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

"Abortion" is a word that can make some Christians vote contrary to everything Jesus talked about, because of something he never talked about.