Category: Faith

Ties that bind

After a blissfully grueling 30-day trek in a small camper, we picked up another passenger, my 91-year-old aunt. The final leg of this vacation was a 5-hour drive for her to have an interview this morning at her potential new home–a memory care facility much closer to her still-breathing family.

We three old folks spent last night in a motel with a curious but flexible canine companion. As we moved toward sundown yesterday, my dear aunt explained to me that my parents (her sister and brother-in-law) are not deceased. I have their death certificates, but I didn’t buck my aunt.

She said my parents were with her parents back in Jellico (their hometown). It reminded me of the biblical phrase applied to several people, including Issac. When he “breathed his last, he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days, and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.”

My aunt’s loss of short-term memory can be exasperating, but it has a whole other dimension that I have observed in her and other people, but do not fully comprehend. In the next few posts, I plan to share some reflections about the institutional and informal ties that bind us together.

Jellico United Methodist Church (Tennessee)

The problem with secularism

The previous several posts may lead one to think that John Cobb favors secularism. While he believes the process of secularizing is a healthy and much-needed activity for (literally) the world’s survival, he sees dangers in secularism. This may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is very important.

In Spiritual Bankruptcy, Cobb acknowledges that “the secularizers have kept the traditions fresh and alive. But as humankind faces the need to make dramatic changes, and seeks the wisdom to guide it, the dominance of secularism is today an even greater obstacle than religiousness.”

I invite you to think about politics in the US; the global rise of authoritarianism, tribalism, and various injustices; the climate crisis; and the role (or absence) of religious communities in these matters. Against this current backdrop, hear this paragraph from John Cobb:

Secularizers in any traditional Way seek to draw knowledge and understanding from the best thinkers of their day. Today experts in all fields are encouraged to be secularists. Secularism builds up its knowledge and understanding out of presently available sources rather than by critical appropriation of a tradition. The result in modern history has been the amassing of vast quantities of information, but in a way that is barren of wisdom.

What wisdom from your Way (Cobb’s term for a religious or non-religious tradition) helps you address one or more of the difficult problems now facing our world?

From “John Cobb on David Korten: An Appreciation of David Korten’s Change the Story, Change the Future,” April 12, 2018 (photo by Thomas Oord)

Healthy self-criticism

John Cobb, in his 2010 book Spiritual Bankruptcy, notes that sometimes those who practice a particular religion may tempted think that their way is “the only way.” The great church historian Roland Bainton noted that “the worst wars are religious wars.” Extreme competition can be deadly.

Against this backdrop, Cobb offers a refreshingly different view, speaking for those of varying faiths who are engaging in the process of secularizing:

We are secularizers who believe that the deepest element in our traditional Ways focuses on actual betterment of conditions in this world. We believe that we are most faithful to our own Ways when we are most open to the wisdom of others as well. We believe that we are liberated by our tradition to evaluate critically every aspect of it. We believe that through secularizing our traditions, we can contribute to the urgently needed responses to the threat of disaster that becomes ever more imminent.

How would you describe “the deepest element in our traditional Ways?”

From “The Worlds Major Religiousities,” by The Best Schools, August 30, 2022

OT and prayer

This concludes several posts about the Old Testament as a resource. As more people submit their DNA to groups like Ancestry.com, I keep hoping my DNA results will show some semitic origins. Whether by birth or by adoption, I’ve always felt at home in Jewish synagogues.

At a long-ago luncheon for Christian clergy at a synagogue, I heard this Jewish prayer for the meal that we were served: Blessed are you, Lord God, creator of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. This was the mealtime prayer we taught our young son.

A rabbi helped us with the key Hebrew phrase from young King Solomon’s prayer for wisdom, which found its way inside our wedding bands: “give your servant lebh shomea (a listening heart).”

This phrase (a listening heart/mind) is part of my evolving breath prayer: Abba/Amma, lebh shomea. I’ve never spoken in tongues and I can write all the Hebrew I know on a popsicle stick, but my heart is being shaped by these ancient words for “father/mother” and for the essence of prayer–listening.

From “Let Me Hear Silence,” by Jan Jarboe Russell, Texas Monthly, August, 1991

OT in evolution of theism

A discussion topic among theologians today is theism. It’s part of the evolution of faith. Our understanding of deity has progressed from ancient, fear-based understandings that led to attempts to appease or placate the gods, to a more intimate, love-based, relational understanding of the divine.

The Old Testament was, and is, an vital part of this history. A key OT story is Moses’ breakthrough understanding in his call to return to Egypt to lead the enslaved Israelites to freedom. Moses’ dialogue with the divine Voice is both quaintly charming and profoundly revolutionary.

Moses asks, “What is your name?” Or, “Who shall I say sent me?” In a time when many gods were worshipped, it was important to invoke the correct name. The Voice responds, in essence, “I am nameless.” The deity of Israel could not be so easily described and was without a “handle.”

The divine Voice in the Moses story was more verb than noun–no idol to be adored, but rather the creator of the universe, to be experienced in the relationships and in human history: Say to them, “the God of your ancestors has sent me.” This was a pivotal step from local gods to a universal God.

The challenge today is to retain a divine objectivity that exposes the moral bankruptcy of prejudice, tribalism, injustice, and every form of discrimination, while not objectifying the Voice, which is inherently relational and made known through the dynamic process of creation and human history.

From “What is Theism,” by the Marcus J. Borg Foundation, March 20, 2018

Pilgrim people

Pilgrimage is a significant Old Testament theme. Abraham and Sarah, first generation migrants, moved (at age 75 for Abraham) from Ur to Canaan. This was the first of many migrations that took place for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they were welcomed, sometimes they were viewed as illegal immigrants. To think biblically includes put oneself in the situation of a migrant–or to at least having empathy for those who journey from one place to another.

Some pilgrimages were permanent life resettlements. Some were occasional or annual, such as journeys to Jerusalem for Passover. In the OT, Psalms 120-134 were sung as pilgrims made their way to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. The one biblical story of Jesus’ youth was about his separation from parents during a pilgrimage of Nazareth folks to the Jerusalem Temple. Pilgrimage can be a way of remembering our roots and i can be a journey to new and better days.

As part of a month-long camping trip, much of yesterday was spent at the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, just across the Maine border in Canada. Unexpectedly, I became emotional. The park’s spirit of international cooperation, the leadership role played by the US, and the extraordinary leadership of Eleanor Roosevelt reminded me of the America I remember before our detour into lesser things with the rise of Trumpism. Campobello was a healing pilgrimage, a homecoming.

Friar and a piltrim

OT as resource

In 1991, I was part of a team that introduced Disciple Bible Study to a large suburban congregation. DBS is a small group, 34-week Bible study with reading assignments equivalent to a seminary class. Seventeen of the weeks were devoted to the Old Testament. The OT may seem long ago and far away, which it is, but that’s not all it is. The OT is a life resource for anyone, regardless of one’s faith tradition.

The next few posts will be about the Old Testament as resource. As one gets into this material, it becomes clear that OT stories form a significant part of the foundation of the western world. These stories are relevant for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, three monotheistic faiths that sprang from the OT, as well as other faiths and secular persons who identify with no particular tradition.

The OT drops a plumb line into our midst (an image used by the OT prophet Amos), an objective voice that calls for impartial justice and fair treatment of all persons, regardless of their status or wealth. In these times, when political ideology prioritizes the end (election victory) over means (or any ethical consideration), the OT is a much-needed resource to help society find its bearings.

The recent exercise of political power by a US governor to send immigrants to Martha’s Vineyard is the kind of thing that the OT plumb line exposes as abuse. In ancient days, poor people were considered pawns to be used at will by people, as in King Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. The OT says, “No.”

From “DeSantis criticized for sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard: ‘It’s un-American’,” by Richard Luscomb and Nina Lakhani, The Guardian, September 16, 2022

Sabbath justice

My friend Kathy asked about Friday’s post, “What do you mean by relational justice?” I replied that I see all justice as relational. I added the word “relational” because sometimes we think of a transgression as a violation of an arbitrary rule that has been established by a hierarchical power (civil or religious). Some religions believe in after-life punishment for violations of religious law or purity codes.

Many people carry a load of guilt around because they have internalized a parental voice, a teacher’s voice, or a “divine” voice that has accused them of having “gone wrong.” Many times it’s false guilt that we carry around needlessly. While some religions focus on individual transgressions or sins, with faith a matter of individual repentance, much of the focus of biblical faith is corporate, or social.

I see justice (regarding both individual and corporate wrongs) as the healing of brokenness. In the Jewish tradition, Sabbath is the weekly celebration of being one with all creation. It’s the one day when every beggar is royalty. It’s a recognition of how things ought to be and one day will be. Sabbath justice and all forms of healing restore and reconcile our brokenness. It’s the process of wholeness or salvation.

From “Sabbath Justice and Community: A Global Southern Perspective,” by Jonny Ramírez-Johnson, Fuller Theological Seminary

The heavens

When ancient people sought to convey divine reality, they looked to the heavens for words or images of majesty, grandeur and power. From Psalm 19.1: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” One of my childhood memories is reclining on the trunk of our family car, with my head propped up by the rear window, looking at the blue sky and the formation of clouds–thinking Someone had a great idea.

The Christian church post-Constantine consolidated power and stifled dissent. When someone began to think “outside the box” by proposing that the universe is more vast than previously thought, the church was intolerant. Ironically, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) have endured as great minds who have helped the church think bigger about the cosmos.

This week we visited our son, who is making plans to work at the south pole for several months. When he points “up” the heavens, he points in a different direction than those of us in the northern hemisphere. “Up” for heaven is an archaic by-product of the time when people thought the earth was flat. Our minds have moved well past that ancient metaphor for heaven, but our language hasn’t caught up.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), another voice the church sought to silence, helps me think beyond this earthly existence. I don’t grasp the noosphere, but I’m encouraged by the direction of his thought. My favorite resource for thinking about “the beyond” is a novel written by Scott Peck, In Heaven As On Earth. The key principle of the afterlife, in Peck’s novel, is “freedom.”

From In Heaven As On Earth, by M. Scot Peck

Eternal life

My early life was influenced by what Marcus Borg called an “earlier paradigm” of Christianity. I was not as focused on life after death as some folks, but Billy Graham (in the 1950s) and the dominant Protestant culture of my youth gave me a consciousness that included afterlife.

In my mid-20s, coincident with my time in seminary, I began to view life after death as “sheer bonus” (a Theodore Runyon phrase). I saw it not as an extension of earth-ways, but a cosmic, universal reality that is without beginning and without end. Eternity is now, and always.

A dear friend, shortly before his death at a relatively young age, told me that he had heard a definite though not audible Voice say, “You take care of things on your side of the river and I’ll take care of things on this side of the river.” The “river” became a comforting metaphor.

About a decade ago I studied with Richard Rohr for three days in Albuquerque with a peer group. I was helped by Rohr’s focus on a non-dual, unitive view of the Universe and on the generosity of a radical, grace-based, inclusive hospitality.

Add some Borg, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and others I’ve mentioned, and you get a Jesus-flavored universality that includes all creation, rests entirely on unmerited favor, or grace, and sees reconciliation, relational justice and healing as inherent to cosmic union and eternal life–a great celebration.

From Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God’s Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe, by Daniel Erlander