Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Golden Rule

“Blessed are those who prefer others before themselves.” – Baha’u’llah (Baha’i Faith)
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” – Buddha
“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” – Jesus
“Do not unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” – Confucius
“Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” – Hindu proverb
“You are not a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself.” – Islamic saying
“Regard all creatures as you would regard your own self.” – Lord Mahavir 24th Tirthankara (Jainism)
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: That is the entire Torah; all the rest is just commentary.” – Talmud, Shabbat 31a (Judaism)
“Be not estranged from another for God dwells in every heart.” – Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism)
“An’ it harm none, do what you will.” – Wiccan Rede

How many prophets, saints, sages, gurus, avatars, teachers, healers, and shamans need to say it? Instead of fighting over who we get to discriminate against, whose view of religion will exclude them from eternal paradise, or who should be subverient to whom, why can't we just get that if we wouldn't want to be treated a certain way, then we shouldn't treat others in that way. Perhaps the Golden Rule is golden because, like a precious metal, few people seem to have much exposure to it.

Relationship over rules; Love over law. "Peace on earth, goodwil toward all." It's pretty simple, and every religious tradition seems to have access to this truth. So, why all the pugnacity, wars, bigotry, homophobia, and acrimony? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you...I suppose its easier to worship Jesus than to follow his directive to love. But the world needs us to do the hard but important work of loving, forgiving, and sharing. It really is time.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Awareness of (Divine) Being

"Moses discovered God to be [our] awareness of being, when he declared these little understood words, 'I AM hath sent me unto you.' David sang in his psalms, 'Be still and know that I AM God.' Isaiah declared, 'I AM the Lord and there is none else. There is no God beside me..'...The awareness of being is the door through which the manifestations of life pass into the world of form." - Neville Goddard.

Awareness of being. I like that understanding of the divine. Charles Fillmore called God "pure being" while Paul Tillich referred to God as the "ground of being." Such metaphors for ultimate Reality or the Source of life are more useful to me than the anthropomorphic images the Church has traditionally preferred. If we feel the need to talk about the Mystery of life, the Web of existence, the All-in-all, then I believe the most expansive images possible are the most useful.

God is no longer, for me, a big super-human judging my faults, granting some of my petitions and denying others, and favoring some groups over others. That may have been a good starting place in my faith development, but it long ago ceased being a sustaining image for me. I had to change my understanding of the divine, or give up any notion of divinity. I chose the former, though I understand why others have chosen the latter. But so far, spirituality remains important to me, and I revere the Vastness of existence, the heartbeat of the cosmos, the Energy of life. I contemplate All That Is, knowing that the Whole must be more than the sum of Its parts. Such contemplation nourishes me, and I offer all that I can to those who want to journey deeper and deeper into the Mystery that many call "God."

When I came to MCC, I was introduced to "inclusive language." We did more with it in those days, took it more seriously I think. At least we did more to educate ourselves about it. Language that privileged masculinity, whiteness, or physical ability was re-examined, and language about God became more expansive. That was a real gift to my spirituality, and I believe it contributed to my thinking about God in broader terms. If God was Father and Mother, both and neither, then God was more than a super-human. God was an idea or an experience or something impossible to box in. God was, as Jesus knew, "spirit" and the spirit blows where she will!

Of course the god of my understanding is present in people of all religious traditions, all gender identities, all ethnicities, all Nature. Of course the divine is present in the love shared between people of the same gender as well as people of opposite genders. God, the ground of being, is being made manifest in all that is, excluding no one, embracing all equally. This is, for me, the Good News and it is why I remain religious and a leader within a religious tradition. One New Testament writer put it this way, "God is love..." I prefer to say that God is being (or even "non-being" if we want to get highly philosophical), but I think the meaning is similar.

One of our "commandments" from the decalogue warns against having "graven images" for the divine. St. Paul gets at the same concept when he quotes (in Luke's Acts of the Apostles) a Greek poet, saying, "In [God] we live and move and have our being." And the mystic Meister Eckhart also said as much: "You should know God without image, unmediated and without likeness."

To grow beyond an image of God that looks too much like us (with all of our prejudices and preferences) is essential if we are to live peacefully in a world of diversity. It's also important if we are to ever be liberated from the fear of God which drives and torments so many of us throughout our lives. I refuse to give up God, but I also refuse to let God be a tyrant in the heavens of my imagination. God must be better, more. God must be Love, or the Mystery in which I live and move and have my being, or the Source of my I Am-ness, or perhaps even the thread that connects me to all other living beings. Yes, my awareness of being expressing in, through, and as life...this is a God that remains relevant and accessible to me, and that can continue to grow as I do. Praise God.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Accepting the Challenge: 5 Things I Dig About Jesus

OK...apparently this is quite a popular game (who knew?). A friend of mine "memed" me (I still don't know what the hell that means) but mostly it seems to include my sharing 5 things I dig about Jesus and asking 5 others to do the same. We clergy types have our sense of fun, so let us have this. Anyway, I have accepted the challenge and here are MY 5 things about Jesus which I admittedly "dig":

1. He was nobody. Not he's huge! Everyone knows Jesus or something about him. He's so popular his name is even a swear word! He's infinitely famous. But in the beginning, conceived by an unwed mother, born in a barn, raised in a backwater...he didn't start out famous. That a nobody touched so many lives and in some ways continues to do so shows that maybe there is no such thing as a nobody.

2. He told stories. I love stories. Sleeping Beauty is one of my faves, but all the Harry Potter stuff is great too and anything written by Gregory Maguire. But Jesus was no slouch in the story-telling department either. One of my faves is when he tells the story about a person in need who was ignored by religious authorities. But a "good" Samaritan came along (Jesus' group would have had some prejudicial assumptions about Samaritans and would have been amazed to hear of a "good" one) and showed compassion to the person in need. The punchline of the story is, "Go and do likewise." His artistic use of story drove home a point in a way that nothing else could.

3. Jesus liked action. When he told the story of the Good Samaritan, he didn't conclude it with, "Go and believe this that or the other thing." He said go and kindness, compassion, fairness. That's what it means to follow Jesus. It's active. We're entitled to our beliefs and doubts and opinions, but our mandate is to "be" Christ in the continue to be his hands and feet, his love in action. Gotta love that!

4. His first miracle was turning water into wine. That one doesn't even need comment, it's just super cool! (Don't worry about if it really happened; its a great story which Jesus himself would have appreciated).

5. He gave people their dignity back. By touching the untouchables and loving the unlovable and forgiving people who had made terrible mistakes...he demonstrated (there's that action again) to people that they had sacred value. No wonder he was loved so much that he became a mythic hero who now has the honor of being the topic of reflection on this blog!

What are some things you dig about Jesus?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Affirm This

I was asked recently why at our church we do "affirmations." If it isn't part of one's spiritual practice, it may seem silly to say something is true when it doesn't seem yet to be true or when even the opposite appears to be true. So what is the purpose of saying, "I am healthy" when in fact, you feel like crap?! Why say, "I am abundantly prospered" when you're behind on all the bills? Why say, "There is lots of love in my life" when you feel betrayed or lonely? Is an affirmation just wishful thinking?

I can explain why I use affirmations. First, they immediately make me feel better. To say that something is good or valuable or hopeful immediately lifts my spirits, at least a little. That alone is worth the price of admission! A moment of relief is nothing to sneeze at (pardon the misplaced preposistion).

Secondly, some people have always believed that language has magical qualities. Say the right words in the right order with the right intention and right feeling, and presto chango, you get a desird result. But what if we don't buy that?

Then there is a third reason to give affirmations a try. The Word-Faith/Charismatic types tell us that faith is a force that is activated by "confessing" positive intentions. Faith pleases God, they maintain, and using words to activate faith then moves God to bless us. That's really not so different from point number two, so if we didn't sign off on #2, then #3 might not be that much more persuasive. But...

Possibility number 4: Our New Thought buddies believe we live in an intelligent, self-aware, responsive Universe. Our wishes, comments, intentions and desirs are seen by the Universe as requests, and so the Universe then uses Its vast resources to meet the request. Affirming our Good is a way of letting the Universe know that we have a desire that we would like to be fulfilled. We could say, "Please Mr. or Ms. Universe, grant me my petition," but that might sound as if we didn't really expect the blessing to occur, and if we expect it not to occur, then that is actually the request to which the Universe responds! So, we claim our Good in the affirmative, and the Universe days, "OK," and the blessings flow.

Of course, #4 is also not terribly unlike two and three! Each of these positions understand the divine nature a bit differently, but each agrees that how we think makes a difference in the quality of our lives, and changing our speech changes our thinking and the Divine responds to the sustained, positive thought in some way. If the magical thinking folks and the Word-Faith folks and the New Thought folks all agree to some degree on this point, then maybe there is something to it! Maybe they ahve each in their context discovered that such practices work, at least often enough to make it worth the effort.

Finally, my fifth reason for believing in affirmations is because I believe in the power of mind. If consciousness is non-local (as the quantum theorists tell us), then affirming good for someone else may just plant a great idea in that person's consciousness or in the consciousness of someone who can help that person. More personally, stating something as if it were already true plants the seed of that truth in our own subconscious minds. So, If I affirm abundance (even if it isn't being demontrated yet), my subconscious mind will eventually think that abundance is the natural state of things and will start to work to bring me into harmony with what it perceives as natural. So, after affiming abundance for a while, perhaps I get a raise or a bonus or a nice gift or a roommate or some other blessing that makes my financial situation better. It not only makes sense to me that this is possible, but experience tells me that it works.

So, why do affirmations? Because at very least they can make us feel better for a while. They also may help change our thoughts and attitudes enough that our experiences improve. And just maybe, they move divine energies to assist us as well. They're free, so why not give them a try. At least sometimes, they're bound to work.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Pentecostal Musings

Tonight I had the honor of preaching an ordination service for an independant Pentecostal Church. It was quite a lovely experience.

I serve a church that identifies as "progressive," but of course, ours is as diverse a church as any. We have people whose thinking differs only slightly from the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church and we have people who grew up in small, rural, evangelical congregations and who still find some of the "old time religion" appealing. We also have people who are scarcely religious at all except for their appreciation of the community that religion helps to form, and we have "New Thought" folks...positive thinkers who believe any idea is a seed that properly nurtured will take root and one day bear fruit. Some of us even fit into more than one category! So, "progressive" doesn't mean that we are any one thing, only that one is likely to hear a great variety of things in our church and is free to contribute his or her own view to the on-going faith discussion.

Still, for all our diversity, I am by most yardsticks a liberal. I'm a universalist (believing that no one is eternally damned, least of all for the religious opinions that they may hold). Critical thinking is important to my belief system, though so is a generous spirit. I love the bible but it is not the only source of inspiritation for me. I am a follower of Jesus but not because I believe that gets me closer to heaven or that failing to follow Jesus would land me in eternal peril. The ancient creeds are not especially relevant to me personally and I believe that people of religious traditions other than mine (and those who are not religious at all) have sacred value equal to my own (at least).

Quantum theory, process philosophy, transpersonal psychology, performance studies, social sciences, and lived experience are all as likely to inform my faith as scripture and religious tradition are. So, though I am a Christian, my room in the house of God is clearly on the left side of the structure.

And yet, for all my progressive theology, I still enjoy sharing worship with people who see things differenlty but who are as committed to their faith as I am to mine. So tonight, worshiping with my Pentecostal friends, I had a wonderful time. I am delighted that I was able to participate in the ordination ceremony and even preach for the service. It was a reminder of how really we are all one.

We may not understand everything the same way and we may not express what we do understand using the same vocabularies, but really, most of us are just decent people trying to be even better, wanting to improve the world a bit if we can, and hoping to learn some things along the way. That seems so clear to me tonight. I hope others catch on to the "we're all in this together" revelation. When that happens, peace and justice and equality may finally be a universal reality. Let's keep hoping.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Happy Solstice

“…Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Cosmic Source.” – Jesus, Matthew 5.16

In the fourth century of the Common Era, Christianity became the imperial religion of Rome; that is, the Roman emperor embraced and endorsed the Christian faith. Old images of the Roman sun-god were reinterpreted to symbolize Christ. The rays of light that had artistically signified the divinity of the sun-deity now radiated as Christ’s halo.

I recall these images from church history and from art today because today is the Summer Solstice. This is the longest day of the year, when the astronomical commonwealth seems to feature the powerful, life-giving sun.

In ancient times (in northern lands), the Summer Solstice became a time for celebration. The snow was all gone. The days were long and warm and Nature seemed full of life, which would be birthed in abundance in the later autumnal harvest. It was assumed that this happy time of life and warmth and renewal was a divine gift, and so the sun-god was revered and praised for his rich blessings of life and light. Rather than cosmic rays radiating from his head, he often was seen in these cultures with cloven hoof, impressive antlers, and lush greenery demonstrating the richness of summer.

I even recall stories from the Hebrew Scriptures that show a fascination with or reverence for solar power. Days before and after the solstice, the sun appears to stand still. It remains high in the sky (from our view) and the light just keeps shining into what at other times of the year is night. There is a story in the bible of Joshua making the sun stand still. Realizing that the sun doesn’t actually travel across the sky, I assume the image is meant to suggest that time appeared to stand still; but I also wonder if the story doesn’t refer to a time of solstice when the sun does appear to linger in our view. The prophet Malachi also predicts that the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. Summer is a time when vitality seems to flourish.

What does the Solstice mean to you? How might it reconnect you with a sense of wonder or awe or hope? How might the Solstice remind you that divine energies are very active within and around you? How might divine Life shine forth brightly in your experience today?

In his sermon on the Mount, Jesus is said to have told his disciples, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.” Maybe that’s a good word for us today on this Solstice. We are light and love and energy and brilliance and possibilities. We are meant to shine and thrive. Perhaps the sun shines a bit longer today in hopes that we will remember our own light and that we will let it shine in powerful and world-changing ways. Happy Solstice!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Examining the Texts Homophobic Christians Are Fond of Quoting

Leviticus 18.22, Leviticus 20.13, Romans 1.26-27, and 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 are probably the most often quoted passages used against LBGT people. The story of Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and 1st Timothy 1.10 are also often used. Earlier today someone from Texas emailed me asking me to refute the homophobic ways these texts are often used. Below is my response:

Deconstructing (and possibly redeeming) these passages is a purely academic exercise for me. I do not do it out of a need to be validated by the bible. The bible, as much as I love it and as central as it has always been to my life, is all the same in my opinion a collection of human documents. I do not give the bible final authority over my life nor do I believe it to be divinely authored. Still, the bible is part of my consciousness, part of my spiritual DNA, and studying it/wrestling with it/deconstructing and reconstructing it have all enriched my life significantly and it remains for me sacred literature if not "divine" literature.

The humans who wrote the bible were often wrong about history, science, and even ethics, and yet, in all their frailty and faults they bravely and honestly tried to find meaning in life and they sought to understand their relationship to the Source of life, often called "God." It is their courageous and honest searching that empowers and encourages my own search. I don't read the bible because it is infallible; I read it because the people who wrote it were asking important questions and many of those same questions are my questions, so it remains an important and relevant text for my life.

Now, for the passages in question (more briefly than they deserve, but its the best I can do at the moment):

1. Genesis 19 - The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a strang text to use as an argument on any moral issue. Lot (the "hero" of the story) is willing to sacrifice his daughters to a rape gang. From the moment we see that, the story loses any moral authority we may have assumed it had. By the end of the story, our "hero" again behaves in reprehensible ways by commiting insest with both of his daughters. A story of attempted rape followed by incest where the "protagonist" is willing to be an accomplice in his own daughters' rape and later commits incest with them is hardly a story that can be credibly used to condemn same-gender love or attraction!

Of course, mutual attraction or consensual mating rituals are no where in the story, so again, to use a story of such horrific violence to condemn the consensual, adult relationships that occur between persons of the same-gender is at best ridiculous and at worst nefarious. Finally, the story ends at the conclusion of the chapter by telling us that the Moabites and the Amonnites are the descendants of the incestious unions between Lot and his daughters...and THAT I believe is the point of the story. The story isn't meant to condemn same-gender love, but is rather a bizarre sort of fairy tale insulting the writer's perceived enemies, the Ammonites and Moabites. The writer accuses them of being entire races born from incest. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah shows what strang series of events could lead a father to be isolated in a cave with his daughters and why they would initiate sex with him so they could procreate. The attempted rape of angels, the willingness for Lot to sacrifice his daughters, the unfortunate death of Mrs. Lot all lead to where/when/why Lot and his daughters had their unholy unions. A myth to be sure, but a myth meant to make the insult that "our" enemies are innately damaged and flawed because they are the products of incest seem plausible.

2. Leviticus - these passages are just annoying. They come from a legal code of an ancient (and now defunct) theocracy. They are in a book that doesn't allow women in the house of worship for weeks after giving birth, that forbids tattoos, that condemns the wearing of mixed fabrics, that forbids the eating of shellfish and pork, and so on. I've never met a single person who takes any of Leviticus as a divine mandate for their lives...except when it comes to the two isolated passages that can be used to justify homophobia.

3. Romans 1...actually a fascinating passage. In in St. Paul says that people who worship "idols" have earned a strange curse from God...God will confuse their nature and they will behave sexually in ways that they otherwise wouldn't. For Paul, homosexuality isn't the sin, its the punishment for the sin (of idolatry)!

Of course, I disagree with Paul, but what is funny (and tragic) is that a passage that clearly condemns idolatry is used to make an idol of heterosexuality. Secondly, if it is bad to have one's nature changed, as Paul suggests, then wouldn't it be bad for someone who is as a matter of ontology "gay" to then "change" his/her nature and become heterosexual (as if it were even possible)?

Still, Romans 1 condemns idolatry and says that some who commit that sin have been cursed with being turned gay (they were presumably straight before that). It's an odd passage that paints a strange picture of God, and one that does not have any contemporary understanding of human sexuality!

The other two Pauline passages I mentioned (one Pauline and one deutero-Pauline, no credible scholar believes any longer that Paul wrote the letters to Timothy) seem to be condemning temple prostitution.

The bottom line is that mutual attraction, consensual relationships, or commited partnerships are never condemned in the bible (they aren't even mentioned), and if they were condemned, we've a learned a thing or two in the last few thousand years and we would be free to disagree (Joshua makes the sun stand still, but we don't believe the sun travels? The book of Revelation mentions specifically the 4 corners of the earth, and yet a round earth has no corners. The two creation myths that open the bible contradict each other on almost every wonders WHICH creation story the "creationists" believe to be literal. Paul sends the run away slave Onesimus back to his oppressor, act which surely horrifies modern readers.. I for one don't believe that a 90 year old Sarah had a baby, and I don't know of a single fundamentalist who believes Leviticus' dietary prohibitions apply to them).

Finally, I just don't believe the bible is a good enough excuse to hate anyone. We disagree with other parts, why not disagree with the (only) 6 passages that seem to be homophobic. And, on closer inspection, even those passages don't address honest, mutal attraction or sexual orientaiton as we understand it today.

Celebrating Pride with Faith

The bible is too often used against same-gender loving people. The bible has historically been used to defend slavery, racial segregation, child abuse, the divine right of kings, exclusion of women from professional ministry, and other atrocities. Whenever the bible is used to promote discrimination, hatred, or fear, it is being misused; and eventually, society has to reinterpret the ill-used passages. The day will come when bible verses will no longer be used as weapons against gay and lesbian people. Until that day, I'm thankful for faith communities that celebrate the sacred value of ALL people (such communities include the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Metropolitan Community Churches, the United Church of Christ, Religious Science International, Reform Judaism, and others).

There were undoubtedly people in ancient times who did not understand homosexuality. We do know that there are a few biblical passages that have been used against LBGT people, but they are largely taken out of their historical, literary, and cultural contexts. We also need to remember that bible writers thought the sun traveled through the sky, that the earth was flat, and that slavery was acceptable. We disagree with each of those positions today. Similarly, we deny that homophobia has ever been part of God’s plan for the world. We believe lesbian and gay people are part of the wonderful diversity of God’s creation.

Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are probably the most often quoted passages used against LBGT people. The story of Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and a passage in 1st Timothy are also often used. Each of these passages can be refuted when we look at the cultures that produced them and when we apply literary and historical criticism to the texts. These isolated and ancient references seem to be condemning abuse and exploitation. They are not condemning consensual, healthy adult relationships or genuine love. In fact, the bible is really a collection of stories that is meant to help us love ourselves and each other. So, when our actions are rooted in love, we can be sure that divine Love, aka “God”, is very present with us to bless us as we seek to share and express love.

The bible is a collection of stories left to us by our religious ancestors to encourage us on our individual faith journeys. Our ancestors experienced God in their own way, and they boldly shared their experiences in the language and imagery available to them. With their stories to guide us, we too are free to experience God for ourselves and to share our experiences in ways that are real and meaningful to us. Our faith vocabularies may include the language of biological and social sciences, psychology, activism, and philosophy, but even if our explanations differ from our ancestors, our experiences can be as real.

Those of us who have experienced the joy of loving another person (of any gender) while also worshiping the God of our understanding faithfully in a progressive spiritual community know that our experiences are real and sacred and powerful. Inspired by the biblical authors, we enter boldly into our experience of God’s unconditional and all-inclusive love, and we share and celebrate our experience just as they did. In this way, the bible is our friend and not our enemy, our helper and not our accuser, our tool of liberation and not our yoke of oppression.