Friday, March 25, 2016

For us, it is dark . . .

[Note:  What follows is a version of my meditation at DU's Good Friday service today.]  
      For us, it is dark--here, now. We have put out the last candle as part of our reading of the Passion Story (John 18.1-19.42).  All that remains is a wisp of smoke and the scent of wax and wick. If we were here in the evening, it would be DARK.  And, according to the Gospel of Luke, it WAS completely dark during those last three hours of Jesus' life. And it was VERY dark for those early followers of Jesus who, unlike us, did not know "the rest of the story."
      For us it is dark-- not just here, now.  Yesterday we learned of the killings on the beach of the Cote d'Ivoire.  Earlier this week it was Brussels.  The litany stretches back:  Paris, Istanbul, Ankara, Mali, Beirut. Millions of people leaving fleeing the darkness of a war-torn Syria into the darkness of an unknown and, perhaps, perilous future.      The candles go out.  They keep going out.  They've gone out for millennia.  It just seems that it's happening more frequently.
      For us it is dark--not just here, now. Around this country lights are being snuffed out. We read of the deaths of black me. We hear of school shootings, almost every week. We learn of intolerance in the southern states of America, legislation in Alabama and Georgia discriminating against LGBT people. We hear intolerance and hate in the language of our presidential candidates, language that plays to our fear of darkness while imposing its own. 
      For us, it is dark--perhaps even here, now.  A few weeks ago, I officiated at a memorial service for a recent graduate. Less than a year out of school. A light snuffed out.  This afternoon, I'll officiate at another memorial -- this one for a student who hadn't even completed his first year of college. Lights snuffed out. Not just for these two young men, but for their families and friends. There are others around us in the dark as well -- the darkness of depression. The darkness of anxiety. The darkness of substance abuse.
      It was dark.  It is dark.  It will be dark again.
      So, where is the light? Where is the hope? Is it in greater gun control? Or more guns in schools? Is it building walls at borders? Is it stricter laws?  Is it better mental health care? Is it more education? Is it Bernie? Is it Hillary? Is it Donald?       Where is the light?
      Jesus was dead. Dead. Executed as a criminal. A harsh reality that WE didn't live through. But his early followers did. What happened next was beyond his, Jesus, control. One follower pled with the governor for his body, and buried him -- NOT as a criminal, but with respect. We're told that some of Jesus' female followers went to anoint and prepare his body as custom demanded. They did not think it was completely over.  His other followers quickly found each other, both for comfort, and perhaps, for hope. And it was in those gatherings that they came to understand that it was not over, that their leader, their Lord, was still among them, perhaps in an even greater, more powerful way.       So, where is the light? Where is the hope? It is in us; it is up to us. We live out the knowledge that there is, and will always be, darkness. But the wisp of smoke, and scent of wax remains, and entices us to leave our hiding places to go out and make a difference. Conversations one on one. Entering into the polling place. Serving at a soup kitchen. Holding the hand of a frightened child. Listening to a friend in despair.       Here, today, we see both death and darkness. For us it is dark . . . . but it will not stay that way. We have experienced some light that cannot be entirely snuffed out. We carry it with us.


Friday, March 18, 2016

The Temptation of Being Human

     Over sixty years ago, Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis published the provocative novel, The Last Temptation of Christ.  The Wikipedia summary says of it:

The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will without ever giving into the temptations of the flesh. The novel advances the argument that, had Jesus succumbed to any such temptation, especially the opportunity to save himself from the cross, his life would have held no more significance than that of any other philosopher.

I remember reading the book LONG before Martin Scorsese's (even more) controversial film of the same name came out in 1988. I was impressed by the prose, and moved by the premise. On the other hand, the film DID make many of the issues in the book more vivid -- and highlighted some significant themes that were often missed by critics (mostly who hadn't seen the movie, let alone read the book) who wanted to focus on the more salacious dramatizations.*      One of the chief criticisms coming from the more conservative folks was that Jesus was depicted as TOO human -- as the Wikipedia comment says: he was "subject to fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust". But those same critics rarely paid any notice to the end of the book -- that Jesus rose above those "human weaknesses." As was the case in the stories of Jesus' original temptations (recounted in Mark 1, Matthew 4 and Luke 4), Jesus, in Kazantzakis' story, withstood the temptations, including the LAST temptation. I have to wonder whether those critics, seeking to elevate Jesus above "mere humans", also serve to keep us "mere humans" away from any "rising above"?      I have thought about this a lot during this political season when so many of the presidential candidates are playing to "human weaknesses" -- primarily "fear, doubt," and, yes, "lust". We hear precious little about rising above our self-centeredness. There are few resounding sound-bites, let alone sustained conversations, appealing to our better natures.  We humans have been make "little less than the angels" according to the psalmist (8.5), but much of what we hear suggests that we've actually been made little better than dung-beetles.
       While I've been referring here to a story primarily based on a Christian narrative, I suspect that few of our religious traditions would have us adopt such a bleak outlook. Most would invite us to rise above our "earthly" natures, our selfish concerns, to locate ourselves in a universal narrative that provides hope for all. I think Kazantzakis' novel goes beyond telling an alternate story about Jesus, but is a parable inviting us all to avoid succumbing to the temptation of being merely human.



*  Don't get me started on the other problems I had with that film!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Flowing streams; stagnant ponds

     Earlier this week, I was attending my monthly fly-fishing club meeting.  We had a couple of guests who were talking about their book on fishing in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area (west of Boulder).  Most of that area is only accessible by trails; no roads traverse it. That means that anyone who wants to get to some of the best fishable areas needs to pack in all of their supplies. The suggestion regarding water was NOT to take in a gallon of water. “That adds about 8.2 pounds to your gear,” remarked one of the presenters. “It’s better just to take a filtration device. But also, most of the streams are pretty clean; you probably could just drink from those. On the other hand, the same can’t be said for the lakes. For that water, you’ll need the filtration tools."
     I filed that suggestion in the “fishing/hiking” folder in my memory, to withdraw it this-coming summer when back-country expeditions will again be on my list of “to-do’s.” I was surprised, however, yesterday to find that it provided a pretty apt metaphor in an entirely different context. I was in a discussion with a number of other varied religious leaders and the conversation turned to a perceived stagnation among religious groups, a tendency (felt by all around the table) for religions to “harden”, to become dogmatic.  And that when that happened, the group felt, many people drifted away or became positively disgusted by the tradition . . . AND it became increasingly difficult to attract new members.
     The image from the club meeting jumped out at me. It is almost inevitable that religious traditions move from being “living streams of water” into more settled, even stagnant, pools. The sociologists call it the “routinization of charisma”. That is, the leader who has the ability to galvanize his/her followers will, of course, die. Those followers will set patterns in place to continue his/her legacy, and those patterns will harden and be invested with the character of "truth".  It doesn’t take long, and it may happen in direct disregard to the founder’s wishes.  And, so, eventually, most religious traditions give rise to reformers who try to recapture the founder’s zeal and vision.
      As I thought more about this, I recalled the account of the Garden of Eden, out of which four major rivers flowed (Genesis 2.10-14). It was out of Paradise that nourishment flowed, not into it. It seems that we, in many traditions, make the mistake of telling others that they have to flow into our versions of paradise rather than our channeling the waters out. And, to pick up on the imagery from the opening paragraph above, there are rarely "filtration tools" available for most non-scholars to tease out the original freshness of the (probably) now-stagnant pond.
       The challenge, of course, is that most of us cannot, or will not, become reformers, yet we yearn for others to know a less-stagnant version of our tradition. Maybe the most for which we can hope is to recognize the original beauty that flowed into our respective ponds and reflect that in our daily dealings and offer that to a thirsty world rather than becoming mired in the algae and weeds.

Friday, March 4, 2016

They called it puppy love

      Even those of us who may not be pet owners generally will go "Aawww" when we're presented with a photo of a puppy, or a kitten, or BOTH.  Put a picture of those cute animals behind bars (i.e., in a shelter), and the heart-strings are tugged even more. There's something about the eyes, I think. And the fluffy fur. Most of us turn into some kind of puddle of goo. Marketers CERTAINLY know this, and they play upon it -- just remember the animal-themed commercials from the Super Bowl. And it's not just puppies or kittens in television commercials. Those same marketers know that animals as part of a logo increase purchases.
      The larger story is that marketers (and others who want our attention) recognize that playing to our hearts is an effective way of claiming our allegiance. So, whether it's putting an animal on the tail of an airplane, OR a sad-eyed child in an appeal for donations, OR an incredibly polluted (or incredibly beautiful) river asking for letters to a legislator, the visual--as well as the thoughts evoked by that image--seems to have a direct effect on creating an emotional response.  And the hope is that that emotional, internal, response will lead us to a REAL, external, response:  buying, donating, lobbying, voting, etc.
      I certainly fall prey to this. Appeals to my "animal" nature work. But so do appeals to other loyalties:  certain religious causes, various alma maters, favorite sports teams. My susceptibility, however, was challenged this week as I read, and then discussed, noted ethicist Peter Singer's The Most Good You Can Do:  How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (Yale, 2015).* Singer argues very persuasively that, if we want to do the "most good", we should follow our intellect, and not our hearts. We should do research on various "charities" before donating, to ensure that they are actually DOING good. We might even consider taking very lucrative jobs so we'd have MORE money to give away. We should count all lives as having equal value, regardless of whether they're next door or half-way around the world, and, therefore, send our money to help the MOST people.  Much of what Singer says make a lot of sense!
      It makes a lot of sense, yes!  And I've checked out some of the websites he suggests (;; they are ALL very interesting and compelling (and they do so WITHOUT pictures of puppies--although Animal Charity Evaluators uses farm animals). So, as far as I'm concerned, Singer's made his case. But I still can't quite go the whole way with him. In his commitment to valuing all lives equally, he finds little justification in support for the arts.  Logically, I suppose, this makes sense (and he has a good argument about WHY he thinks this way). But, to me, the arts (broadly conceived) can inspire, can cause reflection, can soothe in such ways as to help me do more good.
      So, I'm torn, but I'm not alone. Singer admits in his TED talk, that he falls short of his own ideals as well. But he challenges us -- he challenges ME -- to consider how I might do the most good. A similar call is found in the words attributed to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6.21). Is my heart--my whole being and commitment--REALLY in the places where I devote time and money. Or am I allowing myself to be swayed by puppy-love?



*  In case you don't have enough time to read Singer's book, or you're more visually oriented, here is a link to his TED talk on the subject.