Friday, September 30, 2016

"It is sometimes said that we are born as strangers into the world and that we leave it when we die.  But in all probability we do not come into the world at all.  Rather, we come out of it, in the same way that a leaf comes out of the tree or a baby from its mother's body.  We emerge from deep within its range of possibilities, and when we die we do not so much stop living as take on a different form.  So the leaf does not fall out of the world when it leaves the tree.  It has a different way and place to be within it."

-- Barbara Holleroth

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Border Crossing

My wife and I took a scenic drive yesterday and ended up in Canada (this is one of the great things about living in Seattle). Thus, we had to cross the U.S.-Canada border there and back. National border crossings always seem a bit absurd to me; an artificial line drawn in the ground by humans, draped with nationalistic trappings and guarded by gates and lethal weapons.

Borders make me think (admittedly a little out of context here) of something Thoreau wrote: "I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise."

The Canadian border guard on the crossing northward was cordial. His main concern seemed to be that we weren't bringing any guns across with us (perhaps the mass shooting a day before in a shopping mall a few miles down the road in Burlington, Washington had created heightened concern). He gave us some tips on sights to see while in British Columbia for the day.

The U.S. border guard on the way back was terse and unfriendly as he conducted his interrogation into our activities and intentions. He conveyed the sense that we were under great suspicion for having left the U.S. for a few hours, and any unacceptable answers might detour us into the land of holding cells and cavity searches. He was a young man, and seemed to have left his sense of humor at home, perhaps stowing it away safely in the metal box where he keeps his sidearm when off-duty from the border booth. I'm guessing (hoping) that his steely-eyed, brusque demeanor is merely an affectation-- a role that he plays, like the actors who portray tough guys in crime dramas and war movies.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Benefit of the Doubt

The benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege I have received my entire life. Because I'm white. Because I'm middle-class. Because I'm male. I didn't earn it and I took it for granted for most of my life. I assumed, naively, that it was given to everyone.

I've been pulled over by police several times in my life. But I never had guns drawn on me. I was never verbally or physically abused by the police. I was always given the benefit of the doubt. As a teenager I was once caught by police after sneaking into a house by climbing through a window (it was my parent's house: I had lost my key and was locked out). No guns were pointed at me. I wasn't roughed up. I was given the benefit of the doubt.

When a police officer shoots an unarmed black man or brutalizes an unarmed black woman, that officer is also given the benefit of the doubt. They will receive cover from their union and a presumption of innocence and justification for their act. When militarized police in riot gear carrying assault rifles and clubs attack a group of peaceful protestors, they will get the benefit of the doubt; they're just following orders.

I've come to realize that my receiving the benefit of the doubt is grossly unfair when people who's lives matter every bit as much as mine--people like Terence Crutcher and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland--are given no such benefit. I don't really know what to do about it except to confess it and try to be more aware of it and look for ways to call it out for the injustice that it is. And to listen to what the people who aren't given that benefit of the doubt are saying, and have been saying for a long, long time.


Monday, September 19, 2016

There is a famous story told in Hasidic literature... A Rabbi was teaching his students that God created everything in the world to be appreciated, since everything is here to teach us a lesson.

One clever student asked “What lesson can we learn from atheists? Why did God create them?”

The Rabbi responded “God created atheists to teach us the most important lesson of them all — the lesson of true compassion. You see, when an atheist performs an act of charity, visits someone who is sick, helps someone in need, and cares for the world, he is not doing so because of some religious teaching. He does not believe that God commanded him to perform this act. In fact, he does not believe in God at all, so his acts are based on an inner sense of morality. And look at the kindness he can bestow upon others simply because he feels it to be right.”

“This means,” the Rabbi continued “that when someone reaches out to you for help, you should never say ‘I pray that God will help you.’ Instead for the moment, you should become an atheist; imagine that there is no God who can help, and say ‘I will help you.’”

-- Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Vol. 2

Sunday, September 18, 2016

So I'm reading in Leviticus 24 where it says "Anyone who takes the life of a human being is to be put to death." (v.17) and "Whoever kills an animal must make restitution, but whoever kills a human being is to be put to death." (v.21)

There seems to be a pretty clear moral hierarchy displayed here: that killing a person was viewed as much worse than killing an animal. Killing an animal was viewed as a form of property damage.

The 21st chapter of Exodus goes into even more detail about who should be put to death for what. But then I came across this at verse 22: "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judge determines." The text goes on to say that if further damage to the woman has occurred, then the appropriate "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" penalties should be applied. 

So again, there seems to be a moral hierarchy displayed here. The penalty for causing a miscarriage (in other words, causing a pregnancy to abort) was not the penalty for taking a life or even harming a person. It was closer to the penalties for property damage listed in chapter 22 of Exodus. 

An interesting implication here is that if the Old Testament penalty for taking the life of "a human being" was death but the penalty for causing a miscarriage/abortion was to pay a fine, what does that say about there being a biblical view that a fetus is considered a person?

Given that this is the most explicit biblical instruction related to abortion, it is not surprising that for most of history most Christians (and Church teachings) were not stridently "anti-abortion" but instead held nuanced and flexible views. The idea that a human being exists instantaneously after the moment of conception and that, therefore, abortion is tantamount to murder, is not a historical Christian view. It became the position of the Catholic church in the 16th century but didn't become an established position among conservative Protestant Christians until the latter half of the 20th century. The majority of Christians throughout history were not "anti-abortion" and many (if not most) Christians in the world today have moderate views about abortion--which is appropriate given the complexity of the subject and the lack of clear biblical teaching on it.

And yet, in the U.S., many conservative Christians are about to endorse (via their vote) a man whose words and actions have been the antithesis of biblical moral teachings, because they hope he will elect Supreme Court justices who will outlaw (or at least eliminate federal funding for) abortion. And so, in the name of Christ, they will vote for a man who demonstrably does not follow Christian teachings in the hope that he will enact laws which likewise do not follow biblical or historical church teachings.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

"I am a Christian. I am a Methodist. I have been raised Methodist. I feel very grateful for the instruction and support I received, starting in my family but through my church, and I think that any of us who are Christian have a constant conversation in our own heads about what we are called to do and how we are asked to do it, and I think it is absolutely appropriate for people to have very strong convictions and also, though, to discuss those with other people of faith. Because different experiences can lead to different conclusions about what is consonant with our faith and how best to exercise it. …

My study of the Bible, my many conversations with people of faith, has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do, and there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up, to find faith themselves, that I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith."

-- Hillary Clinton

Friday, September 16, 2016

"By appreciating other perspectives we learn to broaden our own, without losing it.  In fact, our understanding of our own tradition is likely to deepen through contact with others."

-- Brother David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence

Thursday, September 15, 2016

"In my experience, most of the time, God doesn't command.  Rather, God sings, and I sing back.  The singing, I mean, can be as jubilant as the red of God-made tomatoes, as the soaring of a kite or the splashing of children in a pool.  The singing is my heart's joyous response.  But God's singing can also be as heavy as the fragrance of lilies in a funeral home, heavy as the news of a friend's grief.  God's singing can be as light as harpsichord music or a spring outing, as sad as the howling of a night train or the evening news.  It can be cheerful, enchanting, challenging, amusing.  In everything we experience we can hear God singing, if we listen attentively.

Our heart is a highly sensitive receiver; it can listen through all our senses.  Whatever we hear, but also whatever we see, taste, touch, or smell, vibrates deep down with God's song.  To resonate with this song in gratefulness is what I call singing back.  This attitude of prayer has given great joy to all my senses and to my heart."

-- Brother David Steindl-Rast, The Way of Silence

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (6:12) that "we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Theologian Walter Wink suggested that we should think of these "powers that be" in terms of structures of oppression and systems of domination created by humans. They are not supernatural demonic beings, but they do take on a life of their own. Given the oppressive structure of the Roman Empire, I tend to think that Wink interpreted Paul aptly.

This came to mind over the last few nights as Carla and I binge-watched the mini-series "The Night Of" on It is a beautifully gritty and sometimes graphic tale of a young man who is charged with the murder of a young woman, but is likely innocent. As the legal apparatus kicks in and begins to grind forward, we see its dehumanizing effect on those within the system: from defense attorneys to prosecutors to detectives to jail guards to inmates to the accused and his family.

John Turtorro is revelatory as a despised bottom-feeding defense lawyer--riddled with eczema, self-doubt and cynicism--who manages to maintain a genuine concern for other beings. At its heart, that's what "The Night Of" is about: the struggle to hold on to one's humanity and see the humanity in others while enmeshed in systems intent on stripping it away.

Monday, September 12, 2016

"One of the painful signs of years of dumbed-down education is how many people are unable to make a coherent argument. They can vent their emotions, question other people’s motives, make bold assertions, repeat slogans– anything except reason."

— Thomas Sowell

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Remembering today the thousands of innocent Americans who died on 9/11/2001. Also remembering the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis who died as a result of our misguided response to 9/11.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

"If by intellectual you mean somebody who works only with his head and not with his hands, then the bank clerk is an intellectual and Michelangelo is not. And today, with a computer, everybody is an intellectual. So I don’t think it has anything to do with someone’s profession or with someone’s social class. According to me, an intellectual is anyone who is creatively producing new knowledge. A peasant who understands that a new kind of graft can produce a new species of apples has at that moment produced an intellectual activity. Whereas the professor of philosophy who all his life repeats the same lecture on Heidegger doesn’t amount to an intellectual. Critical creativity—criticizing what we are doing or inventing better ways of doing it—is the only mark of the intellectual function."

-- Umberto Eco

Monday, September 05, 2016

Faith and Works

Something I've been pondering for quite some time...

The form of Christianity that I've been ensconced in over the last 30 years (evangelicalism) places paramount emphasis on believing in and adhering to a set of doctrines (often expressed in creedal statements).  These doctrines include: the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the immaculate conception and virgin birth, the sinless life and the crucifixion/death/resurrection/ascension of Jesus--which resulted in forgiveness of the sin which every human is guilty of, the exclusivity of Jesus as the means of salvation, the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible (both Old and New Testaments), the eventual return of Christ (and spectacular events surrounding it), the final judgment of all humans, an eternal and irrevocable assignment of each person into heaven or hell depending upon whether or not they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior during their life on earth.

These propositions form a narrative.  To openly question or deviate from any of these propositions (and even to question or deviate from more tangential propositions about things like abortion or homosexuality) is to disrupt the narrative and thus invite "correction", ostracism and denunciation from the faithful defenders of the narrative.  This doctrinal narrative creates a creedal framework which provides a fairly easy way to stay within the lines of what is deemed "orthodoxy." 

So, evangelical Christianity--as I've experienced it--is essentially a religion of doctrinal conformity; of faith in the veracity of a narrative and the associated collection of theological propositions.  In fact, the Abrahamic faiths as a whole (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism) center upon doctrines which are constructed into narratives (and narratives which are parsed out into doctrines) and which demand creedal allegiance in order to belong.

And yet when I read the scriptures I see a competing emphasis, which places practice (what we do) above doctrine (what we believe).  Old Testament prophets castigate Israel and Judah for--despite their belief in God--not enacting social justice; for allowing the rich and powerful to oppress the poor and powerless.  The New Testament book of James (one of the oldest New Testament texts) says (in chapter 2) that faith without actions is dead.  As an aside, Protestant reformer Martin Luther had great ambivalence toward the book of James because its message challenged his central belief in "salvation by faith alone" (sola fide).  When Jesus speaks of judgment in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, it is those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the incarcerated who were blessed and called righteous and were granted access to the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life.  Those who did not do these acts of compassion and justice were called accursed and were rejected and sent away "into eternal punishment".

My point in bringing this up is not to rehash the age-old debate about "faith vs. works"--a false dichotomy which goes back at least to Augustine and Pelagius--but to say that in my experience what will cause you to get kicked out of your evangelical church and lose your Christian friends is much more likely to be expressing nonconformist doctrinal views about abortion or same-sex marriage or hell or the virgin birth, rather than not volunteering at the soup kitchen or participating in prison ministry.

In the last few years I've been studying Buddhism as a supplement to my Christian faith.  The word "Buddhism" is problematic given that most "Buddhists" for the last 2,500 years have not called themselves "Buddhist."  "Buddhism" is a term created by Western academics in order to classify and catagorize those who follow the teachings (the Dharma) of the Buddha.  The title "Buddha" means "awakened one" and so the label "Buddhist" literally means "awake-ist"--someone who seeks awakening (which, in a nutshell, equates to experiencing reality as it is in each moment without the illusions caused by our perceptions, projections, internal dialogues and transitory mental states).  What we nowadays call "Buddhism" was typically referred to throughout history simply as practicing the Dharma--the teachings of the Buddha.  Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, tends to use the term "our practice" rather than "Buddhism" in his many books and talks about the Dharma.  Many Buddhists suggest that the Dharma is simply reality "as it is" and thus predates the Buddha's explanation of it.  This is similar in some ways to the apostle Paul's appropriation of an earlier recognized truth: the 6th century B.C. philosopher/mystic Epimenides claim about Zeus that "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

What strikes me about Buddhism--as I've come to understand it--is that it is based upon practice: upon walking the eight-fold path of right (appropriate, skillful) view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.  Sure, there are (lots of) Buddhist doctrines, but what is emphasized is practice.  "Show me your faith without actions," said James, "and I will show you my faith by my actions."  The practices of "awake-ism" (Buddhism) are initially more inward-focused (meditation being the prime example) than outward-focused but they inevitably (or at least, purportedly) lead to a life of compassion towards and solidarity with all living things--and thus bring about external positive change.  It is through the practices (again, particularly meditation) that one realizes the truth of the doctrines (such as impermanence, no-self/ego, contingent arising, suffering caused by craving, etc.).  The Buddha taught his followers that they had to test his teachings for themselves and only accept them if their own experience confirmed them.

And so I come back to the thing I've been pondering for the last few years:  Christianity, as I've experienced it, is a religion primarily about believing.  Buddhism, as I've experienced it, is primarily about practicing.  Faith and works.  I've lost track of the number of sermons I've heard over the years which admonish Christians to do something (such as have more faith, or not sin as much) without ever giving them the practical tools to do it.  Many Buddhists in the West, on the other hand, eschew non-essential historical (culturally derived) doctrines such as rebirth and karmic reward/punishment and choose to emphasize the techniques (such as mindfulness and metta) which result in practical transformation.  This is where I find that the two faiths can coexist and enliven each other (as the eminent Catholic theologian Paul F. Knitter stated it, "Without Buddha I could not be a Christian."): Christianity tells me who God is, who Christ is and who I am in Christ--while the practice of the Dharma enables me to become more and more awake to the reality of this life, this world, this universe, in which I live and move and have my being.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Saturday, September 03, 2016

"It comes as a great shock to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance has not pledged allegiance to you."

--James Baldwin, The American Dream and the American Negro, 1965