Thursday, August 25, 2016

If the Universe is friendly, why is there so much hostility?





"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."--Einstein





Daniel Wilcox raised some good questions in response to my recent blog, "Is the Universe friendly?, and they are not easy to answer. If the "arc of the moral universe bends towards justice," why is there so much injustice? Why are people inclined to war and oppression? Why do earthquakes, floods and diseases strike down the just as well as unjust? You might as well ask: Why is there darkness, as well as light?

Asking questions like these implies that there is something inside us that cries out for justice. I know all too well how painful it is to lose someone to disease who doesn't "deserve" to die. When I was a youth director for my wife's church, a twelve-year-old named Christian came down with a virulent form of cancer. He earned his name and was the epitome of virtue, an artistic young man who loved his sister, treated everyone with kindness and certainly didn't deserve to die young. My wife Kathleen and I spent a lot of time visiting him and his family. Christian was a model patient, caring, funny, and eager to live. When he died, his hippie-themed memorial was a beautiful testimony to life well spent, but far too short. Shortly after his death, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we went on a ten-month cancer journey together that tested our faith and our love for each other. Despite the prayers of many people, people of diverse faiths, my wife died all too soon and too young. I grieve such losses. Such deaths don't make sense, unless there is an afterlife in which souls live on to fulfill their destiny. But even if you don't believe in an afterlife, I am convinced that a life well lived is not wasted. Christian and Kathleen have inspired me, and many others, to live a life worthy of their example. They live on in my heart, for which I am deeply grateful.

We don't choose these natural evils that break open our hearts. They are part of the human condition, and the fabric of the universe. Without disease and death, the universe as we know it could not function.


But there is another kind of evil that is not inevitable.  It is based on human choice, the decision to do what is harmful to oneself or others. We usually do this unconsciously, unaware of how our actions are affecting others. But often we are in denial. We rationalize decisions that hurt others because they benefit us. As Scott Peck points out in his book "People of the Lie," this denial is what constitutes evil.


Our Quaker faith teaches that the Light shines in the darkness of every soul, and cannot be extinguished (or understood). It can guide us towards a life of love and justice towards all. But we have a choice. We can live according to the Light or we can deny it. If we deny it, we live in darkness and sooner or later we resort to violence, violence towards ourselves or others.


What physics teaches is that there is order in the physical universe, a tendency for matter to organize itself into more and more complex organisms. These organisms come to embody the Light that we call conscience or morality. As we become increasingly aware, we realize that we are all interconnected, and we need to act accordingly. This is the basis of morality. As Einstein observed:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty."
The delusion of separateness is related to another cosmic tendency: entropy. This is the tendency to disorder, to death. When we embrace separation and isolation instead of connection and compassion, we align ourselves with the forces of entropy and death. This is what religious people call "sin."

These two tendencies are what create the moral Light and Darkness of the universe. Faith teaches us that the light of love is stronger, more enduring than the darkness. As Martin Luther King says so beautifully: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."


As Daniel points out, Einstein was a "strict determinist" and didn't believe in a personal God. He described himself as an agnostic who had a deep admiration for mysticism. He profoundly admired the Quakers, as he made clear when he gave an address at Haverford College in the 1930s. Einstein was not a mystic, but he appreciated the "mystic emotion," a sense of awe at the mystery of the universe. I'd like to conclude with what Einstein had to say about his religious life:

The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties - this knowledge, this feeling ... that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

“Out There: The Homeless Years” by Denise Blue. Giving a human face and name to those living on the streets


Homelessness in America has become so pervasive and chronic it is tempting
to ignore homeless people as we pass them by on the street. We may even come to see them as a permanent and disturbing fixtures in the cityscape, like litter and graffiti.  We are told by city officials not to give them money, and we may be too busy or too anxious to give them our attention. It is easy to forget that those living on the street are people like us. Instead, they are seen as a social problem or as a statistic. We are told there has been a 16% increase in homelessness in LA in the past two years,
44,359 people sleep on the streets and in shelters every night, and chronic homelessness has risen 54% since 2013. These statistics are alarming, but they can also be numbing and can make us forget that each homeless person is unique, made in God’s image, with a name and a story. That’s why advocates for homeless people often bristle at the collective term “the homeless.” 


One book that gives a vivid sense of what it’s like to be a homeless person is Out There, The Homeless Years (2009) by Denise Blue, the pseudonym of Denise Williams, a college professor who currently lives in South Pasadena. Her website provides a synopsis of this courageously honest book: “Based on a true story, Out There is a work of documentary fiction that begins by tracing Dr. Dee’s descent into homelessness. We are with her as she discovers the Rules of the Street: how to panhandle, how to feed herself from dumpsters, how to run from fights, how to find places to sleep. We meet her cohorts and come to understand the world as viewed by street people. After chronicling her various adventures, the book shows her miraculous re-emergence as a professional woman who is able to reunite with family and friends and to cope with mental illness and alcoholism.”
What makes this book so powerful is Dr. Dee’s ability to convey what it feels like to go from being a professional woman—a writer, editor, and college professor—to a street person. Because she is a white middle class professional, it is easy for us to identify with her thought processes and feelings. Her story begins in 1979 when she was living in Sausalito and enjoying the good life there, teaching part-time and editing books. She became so addicted to alcohol and casual sex that she began missing her rent payments and is evicted. In shock, she realized that she had sought help from family and friends for so long that she has no longer has anyone to turn to. At the suggestion of a friend, she moved into a van near the waterfront. At first, she treated this move as an adventure. “This was a good life, I’d tell myself. Who needed to scramble for rent, the need to impress others? I was free of my burdens, with no responsibilities. This was real living” (p. 15).
Thus begins a pattern of denial and rationalization as Dee becomes more and more enmeshed in the homeless life, and in her alcoholism. Through realistic dialogue, Dee vividly portrays the people she encounters in her new life, people who teach her how to survive as a homeless person.
Dee quickly learns it is no picnic being homeless. To survive on the street, people lie and steal from each other, especially when they have drug and alcohol issues; and Dee learns to be constantly on guard. On the other hand, homeless people form friendships and communities to help each other. At the end of the book she writes: “I miss the people. They were wild, often destructive, rude and crude. Yet, I loved them. Despite the rough and tumble, they were capable of much kindness to me and to one another—small things like making sure there was water in the camp, like sharing food….” (p. 337).
We learn a lot in this book about the complex social networks that homeless people create. We also see how Dee’s alcoholism leads her into denial about the realities of her life, and how resistant she is to real change. We see how well-intentioned efforts to help this segment of the homeless population often fail. We come to appreciate how important it is for those with addiction issues to find a safe place, a home, where they can begin the recovery process.  
This fictionalized autobiography explores the spiritual as well as social life of those living on the street. Interspersed throughout the book are biblical quotes and moments in which Dee reveals her spiritual condition, her yearning for Christ and God. These little epiphanies are sometimes funny. At a Christian recovery center, she reads a comic book about Jesus and has a fantasy about dancing with him that upset those in charge. On a more serious note, we see how some of the religious people she encounters are unable to understand or relate to her because of their preconceived ideas and agendas. Some are exasperatingly insensitive. They are unable to see how many homeless people already has a relationship with God and Christ by virtue of being homeless. While living in a recovery center with strict rules, Dee writes:
“Funny. Jesus had chosen the same way of life that I had. Street person. Both of us would walk miles in a day—would hunt for a place to sleep each night. Well, such a life has its advantages, I agreed. No rent, no house rules, no job pressures. Out of doors and always on the move. A certain freedom. It pleased me that we were alike in this way. We could even maybe be friends?” (p. 175).
Unfortunately, these momentary glimpses into God’s grace do not prevent Dee from continuing to make bad decisions. As her alcoholism worsens, she finds herself drawn to a group of homeless people who pride themselves on being rowdy and reckless and call themselves the “Dalton gang.” She becomes entangled in a relationship so abusive she is beaten on an almost daily basis. Bruised and broken, hopelessly addicted to alcohol, she ceases to speak and is referred to as a “zombie” by her boyfriend and his cohorts. When a woman sees her bruises and tells her about a home for battered women, Dee goes to this shelter and finally realizes how desperately she needs help. Yet she is once again drawn back to her abusive boyfriend and the Dalton Gang, but on the way she encounters a black woman silently praying for her in the park. Moved by this woman’s concern, Dee prays for God’s help, and realizes she doesn’t have to stay in this destructive life. Like the prodigal son, she can go home.
Fortunately, unlike many homeless people, Dee had a loving family who welcomed her back and gave her the space she needed to heal. Her step father gently encouraged her to join AA, which became a crucial part of her recovery. She found a church and a volunteer program that helped her to find meaningful work and gain self-confidence. A college hired her in spite of being homeless for ten years. During her period of sobriety she realized that she suffered from mental illness (like many people on the street) and found helpful treatment. Through recovery, therapy, meds and a loving family, Dee was able to heal and find a new and fulfilling life. Writing this book was part of her recovery process—a testimony to her commitment to share the good news that there is hope. At the end of the book, she recalls the line of a song: “As low as you go, that’s how high you can fly.” She writes: “I think that’s true. I went about a slow as you can get. Now it’s time for flying. Flying for me is experiencing the flood of joy that sometimes overcomes me in worship. Flying to me is having my normal state be a calm, content and peaceful life” (p. 337).
This book is a testimony to God’s amazing grace and to the resilience of the human spirit. Step by step, Dee shows us what draws people into the homeless life, what keeps them there, and what helps them find the road to recovery. Her book is a “must read” for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to live on the street. It also provides insights about how we can help our homeless neighbors to find not only a home, but a new way of life. To solve the homelessness crisis, we need policies, like Housing First, that provide homeless people with decent, affordable housing. Equally important, we need to offer services tailored to the unique needs of each individual. The government, churches, families and individuals all have important roles to play. There are no quick and easy fixes, but the good news is that there is hope.



For more about Denise Williams, see http://www.dr-denise.blue/

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is the Universe Friendly?


This is a reflection that I am presenting at the Friday Forum of ICUJP, in response to a presentation by Paul Nugent of the Aetherius Society,  a religion founded by George King in the mid-1950s as the result of what King claimed were contacts with extraterrestrial intelligences, whom he referred to as “Cosmic Masters."
I was inspired by Paul’s eloquent and thoughtful cosmic reflection to take a break from everyday peace and justice activism and look at the Big Picture—how does the work we do for justice and peace fit in with the universe? Was Martin Luther King right when he said the “arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice?” Is that just a metaphor, based on religious faith, or does modern physics support such a statement?
The discoveries of modern science from Darwin to the present have led many to reject God and to see the universe as either indifferent or hostile to the concerns of human beings.
The film maker Stanley Kubrick sums up this modern angst when he wrote: 
The most terrifying fact about the universe not that it is hostile but that it is
 indifferent.”
Albert Einstein pondered this problem and concluded that “the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.
He felt that how we answer this question will determine our ethical and political actions. He went on to describe three attitudes we can take towards the universe:

"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially ‘playing dice with the universe’, then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe. Because power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives."

Like Einstein, I believe that the universe is a friendly place, for reasons that have to do with physics as well as theology.
This morning I want to share with you some ideas about the universe from a Quaker theologian named Howard Brinton.  One of the most important Quaker educators of the modern era, Brinton taught physics and math most of his career, and was deeply influenced by Einstein and modern physics.  In the 1930s Brinton became the director of the Quaker study center called Pendle Hill, where I studied Quakerism. Because he was such a huge influence on me and many other Quakers, I wrote a book about him and his wife Anna entitled “Howard and Anna Brinton: Reinventors of Quakerism in the 20th century.” Brinton was a formidably educated man: he studied philosophy and mysticism with Rufus Jones at Haverford College, went on to study philosophy during its “Golden Age” at Harvard, and studied physics with Nobel prize winning physicists at Columbia University. Throughout his life he sought to reconcile Quakerism and mystical religion with the ideas of modern science, particularly the ideas of evolution and relativity.
Howard Brinton believed that the mystical ideas in John’s Gospel provided us with a way to connect ancient wisdom with modern science. John begins his Gospel by using the Greek
philosophical term “Logos.” What did John mean by the Logos? According to John, the Logos, or Light, created everything and is present in everything and everyone. It is a power that draws everything together—the spirit of cooperation, unification, and ultimately, self-sacrificing love.  According to John, “the Light or Logos that enlightens everyone” was fully manifested in Jesus Christ.
Brinton related this Logos principle to the concept of holism—which Einstein considered the most important idea of the twentieth century, next to his own theory of relativity. Most of us have heard of the basic idea of holism: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Holism helps to explain the evolution of the universe from inanimate matter to sentient life. As simple atoms are drawn together, they become molecules, which can perform more complex functions than isolated atoms. Molecules become cells, which are not only more complex but qualitatively different from inanimate matter because they are self-replicating. Cells join together and become animals that have desires (unlike machines). Animals join together to become communities that have not only desires but a sense of purpose. To form such communities animals sometimes sacrifice their individual desires and needs for the good of the whole. This process of drawing together and forming communities of increasing complexity leads to greater and greater awareness at the moral and spiritual as well as cognitive levels.


In a lecture given in 1933 called “Creative Worship,” Brinton describes this process in poetic terms that evoke the Gospel of John as well as modern physics:

In the beginning there was a swarm of electric particles, the most primitive forms of matter, pushing and pulling on each other from without. The Power which unites uttered the creative Fiat and these participles cooperated with one another to form organisms called atoms. The atoms jostled and fought each other until again the Spirit of Cooperation entered and they combined to create molecules. The molecules were mechanically and externally related and Creative Harmonizing Love fused them into fellowships as living cells which exhibited an unprecedented kind of behaviour. In a similar way cells, by forming new kinds of relation with one another, gradually achieved great societies such as animal bodies and eventually the infinitely elaborate structure of a human brain.[1]

According to Howard, this Power or Spirit is active not only in every aspect of the natural world, but also in every religion. He saw silent worship as the unifying factor underlying the message of every great religious leader:

When Moses saw God in the burning bush or Elijah heard the still, small voice, when Paul went to the desert of Arabia after his conversion, or George Fox on Pendle Hill saw in vision a great people to be gathered, when the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bo-tree or Mohammed listened to an angelic voice in the cave near Mecca, above all, when Jesus Himself faced temptation alone in the wilderness, a great new message to the world was born not because God was spoken to but because God was listened to.[2]

In this passage Brinton reminds us that taking time to be still and listen can help us connect with the Logos. The more we listen and reflect in the silence, the more we realize that we are not alone, separated and isolated. We are all interrelated, and we all have a role to play in the evolution of consciousness. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from Birmingham jail:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

This is the nature of the universe in which we “live and move and have our being” (in the words of Paul—the Apostle, not Nugent). As we come to better understand our place and our role in this ultimately friendly universe, we become friendlier and more just. We learn to hear the still, small voice of the Logos in ourselves and in others more clearly. We are led to join with communities like ICUJP that are seeking to live in harmony with the universe and fulfill its purpose. My prayer and wish for us to day is to take time to breathe in and experience that living Logos which connects us with each other and with the universe. Take a deep breath. Feel the universe within and around you. Feel its goodness. Feel its friendliness. This is the source of who we are. This is our purpose and destiny.





[1] Creative Worship and Other Essays. Pendle Hill Publications: Wallingford, PA, 1957, p. 34.
[2] Ibid, p. 28.

Monday, August 22, 2016

An Evangelical Christian speaks out about welcoming refugees into our community

This summer I received an email from my friend Steve Reed, an Evangelical Christian who intentionally moved into a low-income neighborhood in Sacramento with his wife Laura and works with refugees. I came to know the Reeds through Jill and deeply respect and appreciate his commitment to put into practice the radical teachings of Jesus.  For many years, he worked as a missionary in Latin America, and his goal was empowerment, not charity. This letter about an Afghan family that Steve knows and works with touched my heart and shows why we as Americans need to take seriously our biblical, and national, injunction to welcome strangers to our land. The Statue of Liberty proclaims: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.' The apostle Paul advises us:  "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13). If we open our hearts and minds to strangers, as Steve has done, we quickly learn they have much to teach and offer.

Dear Friends,

Greetings from home.  We have been traveling quite a bit.  Laura attended two lawyers' conferences and we went to our first couples retreat in over 37 years.  Our marriage is great but we felt it would be beneficial during this time of transition for both of us.  We spent seven days at the Quaker Center in the Santa Cruz mountains and the conference was amazing.
Wazir and his family are doing well.  The kids are learning English quickly.  They all attended summer school and continue to live right around the corner from us.  I want to share with you a story that Wazir shared with me. 
Wazir, his family, and several other Afghan families went out to Folsom Lake to spend the day.  I estimate that there were between 30-40 Afghans having a barbeque, swimming in the lake, and just hanging out.  As they were cooking their food (lamb kabobs) a man came up holding a $100 bill.  He said the food smelled so good and he wanted to know if he could buy some.  Wazir explained that they were Afghans, in their country they practice hospitality, and there was no way they would allow him to pay for it.  So Wazir  invited the man and his family to eat with them.  They all spent time eating together and the family thanked them and left. 
After about 15 minutes the man came back with his boat and gave boat rides to everyone who wanted a ride.  The kids loved it.  I know it was a great day for our Afghan friends.  I am also convinced it was a day that changed the life of the American family as they met a group of refugees from Afghanistan and shared this special time together.
There was another scenario that could have taken place and I am concerned it takes place way too often in this country.  The American family could have responded very differently to our friends who were from another country, speaking another language, whose women's heads were covered, and who were Muslims.  They could have ignored and possibly talked with anger against them.  They could have easily gone over to them and criticized them, wanting to know what they were doing in this country.  They could have left that day believing the very negative things we are hearing about Muslims, refugees and immigrants. 
Instead they got to know one another, listened to one another, and from what Wazir told me, everyone had a great time together.  The kids got to go on boat rides, the Americans ate great food, and reconciliation and peace took place in the context of civility and new friendships.
This is what we need to be as a people in a diverse country.  And even more, this is what we need to be as followers of Jesus Christ who Himself was an alien in Egypt.
I am very concerned that we are developing another scenario.  One that is based on fear and anger instead of love and respect.  One that is more prone to name calling instead of listening  and speaking with civility.
There is no question that there are huge divisions in this country based on our political, social, and life situations.  If I am a black evangelical follower of Jesus I most likely will be a supporter of the Democratic party.  If I am a white evangelical follower of Jesus I am most likely to be a supporter of the Republican platform.  The divisions are large and in my opinion are coming to the point of being malicious and even hateful at times within the Christian community.
I am very concerned that we are allowing politics to destroy the unity of the family of God.
The Bible teaches us, "All people will know that you are my followers if you love each other (John 13:35)."  The Bible also teaches us that  "There is no fear in love, love casts out all fear (John 4:18).  Paul teaches in Romans 12:14, "If people mistreat or malign you, bless them. Always speak blessings, not curses."
Today, I am concerned that we as a church are allowing politics to divide us.  We are losing our civility as we call each other names and demean one another for secular causes.  The church, the family of God should be a place where we can dialogue with civility and respectfully listen to one another.  We should be able to share why we support Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson (Libertarian) or Jill Stein (Green Party and my choice) and not be afraid of being rejected or criticized.  There certainly will be disagreements and Christians will vote for different candidates, but it should never divide the body of Christ.
As I watch the conventions I see incredible excitement and passion...people volunteering with their time and giving their money with incredible energy.  I am not against this as this upcoming election is very important.  But in the reality of our lives as Christians, it is not nearly as important as our responsibility to proclaim the Kingdom of God and live our lives by the values of the Kingdom: sacrificial love and respect for others. 
I have no idea how the family with the boat on Folsom Lake felt about Muslims before they encountered Wazir and his friends.  I am sure the family was not Muslim.  But he reached out with dignity and respect and everyone had a great time.  I doubt that either group converted but reconciliation took place.
 I know that I want to be a person that treats everyone with dignity and respect.  I want to repent of my anger toward others with whom I do not agree.  I want to listen and try to understand those with whom I do not agree and hope others will afford me the same.  I do not want to speak in generalities that are full of fear and hate.  I simply want to show others the love and acceptance that Jesus has shown me.
Then the world will know that we are His followers and that is much more important than who wins the election or our political positions.  We seem to forget, "If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36.)"  Our freedom does not come from political systems but from Jesus Christ.  And if it does, no political system can take it from us.  That is what we need to get excited about.

I will continue to pray for our secular leaders as commanded in scripture.  But I will put my hope and trust in the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and I pray that I live in harmony with the rest of the family of God.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Healing on the Sabbath: Freeing a Woman Unable to Stand Tall or Speak Up

She was huddled in a corner of the church, so twisted and broken by poverty and suffering she couldn't stand up. She had come into the church to get out of the cold. She liked to listen to the preaching and the music...so different from the harsh sounds of the street where she often spent the night, frightened and alone.

She was glad that no one in the church paid any attention to her. She felt ashamed of her poverty, her broken body. She wanted to be invisible.

A man entered the church, a famous Teacher that everyone was talking about.  He saw the woman and walked over to her.  Everyone's eyes were upon her and she knew something extraordinary was about to happen. 

"Stand up," he told her. "You are free!"

She couldn't believe this important person was paying attention to her. She was frightened, and at the same time excited. When he said, "You are free," what did he mean? She felt his loving gaze and began to feel alive again. The Teacher believed in her, and she began to believe in herself. Maybe she could stand up and straighten out her back and her life. With great effort she raised herself up and stood tall, for the first time in nearly eighteen years. Tears of joy welled her in eyes.

"Thank you, God," she said in a loud, confident voice. Everyone in the congregation saw what had happened, and were amazed. Some whispered, "It's a miracle."

The pastor came down from the pulpit and confronted the Teacher.

"Our worships service is beginning," he said in a booming, indignant voice, loud enough for all to hear. "Why are disrupting it? Couldn't you have waited till the service was over?"

The Teacher fired back at the pastor.

"You hypocrite! If the church's electrical system failed and the lights went out, you would have given it your immediate attention. But here is a woman, made in God's image, living in darkness and pain and you complain when I help stand on her own two feet and shine with the Light of God."

At these feisty words, some in the congregation began to cheer, and many silently praised God. The pastor decided he wanted nothing to do with this disruptive street person who pretended to be some kind of prophet and was obviously unhinged.


****


This story came to me after we read Luke 13:10-17 during our Bible study at the Kinsler's this morning. (Ross and Gloria Kinsler authored an important biblical study called "Jubilee Economics and the Struggle for Life.") Our discussion focused on how this story about Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath was all about liberation.  This woman who was "bent over and couldn't straighten at all" for eighteen years was "in bondage to Satan." (According to the Gospel, Satan was the tempter, the deceiver, and the originator of illness.) In what way was she deceived and broken? Was it because of the oppression she suffered as a woman, as a woman living in poverty, under Roman occupation? We don't know what caused her infirmity, whether it was physical or psychological, but we do know that Jesus "freed" her.

When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
The word "free" reminds us that the Sabbath was given by God to the Jews as a sign of their freedom from bondage and oppression. In Egypt, they had to work seven days a week, 365 days a year, if the King so demanded. Once they were free, God granted them one day a week to be utterly free from all work. What a blessing!

Like all good things, however, Sabbath had a dark side. For some Jews, especially those in power, there were harsh penalties for those who "broke the Sabbath." Even today some ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel throw rocks at people who drive their cars or ride bikes on the Sabbath.

The leader of the synagogue was angry when Jesus disrupted the Sabbath worship with his healing. He threw verbal stones at Jesus and tried to make him look bad in the eyes of the congregation:
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
Jesus responded to the religious leader, and to those who agree with him, with righteous indignation:
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
The word "hypocrite" means "actor" in Greek. Actors in antiquity typically wore masks (called personae in Latin) and pretended to be someone they were not. By speaking truth to power, Jesus "unmasks" the leader of the Temple and shows how he utterly misses the point of the Sabbath. It is to bring liberation, not more oppression.

It is clear from this passage that Jesus is not only on the side on the oppressed, he also honors women. With heavy irony, he reminds the leader of the synagogue that this woman is not a beast of burden, but a "daughter of Abraham." His deep love and respect for her as a child of God and "daughter of Abraham" is what frees her from her bondage. She no longer has to be bent over and silent. She is now able to stand tall. She has a voice. And the crowd cheers and praises God. 

During our Bible study we talked about how important it is to help the oppressed and downtrodden stand tall and have a voice. We talked about going to our elected officials and speaking the truth that they don't necessarily want to hear. We talked about the Sunday service at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church where homeless people and church members worship and break bread together, and where we feel that Jesus is present for that reason. When Jill preached there, she greeted each homeless person and got to know them by name. This is how we begin to break through the class walls that separate us from each other. 

This is the essence of the Gospel, the good news that liberates us from prejudices that prevent us from loving our neighbors, especially our poor and homeless neighbors. We give thanks each day that Jesus has shown us the way to free ourselves and our neighbors from bondage to ego and to an oppressive system that makes the poor invisible. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Is the "Lord of the Dance" pagan?


When a newcomer attended a Quaker gathering, she was shocked to hear them sing “The Lord of the Dance.”

Why are you singing a pagan song?” she said afterwards.

The only time she had heard “Lord of the Dance” was at a science fiction conference. There it is sung by “filkers” (a humorous variant on “folk singers”) with pagan lyrics. (See The Westerfilk Hymnal, Volume 2, now out of print). Many filkers believe that this was the original version of the well-known Quaker hymn:

I danced in the morning when the World was begun
I danced in the Moon and the Stars and the Sun
I was called from the Darkness by the Song of the Earth
I joined in the Song, and She gave Me the Birth!

I dance in the Circle when the flames leap up high
I dance in the Fire, and I never, ever, die
I dance in the waves of the bright summer sea
For I am the Lord of the wave's mystery

I sleep in the kernel, and I dance in the rain
I dance in the wind, and thru the waving grain
And when you cut me down, I care nothing for the pain;
In the Spring I'm the Lord of the Dance once again!

These Tolkienesque lyrics are actually by Gwyddion PenDderwyn, Amy Falkowitz, Ann Case, Len Rosenberg, and many others. 

Friends should be not surprised or shocked that “filkers” and Wiccans have “stolen” their song. Sydney Carter, the Quaker author of “Lord of the Dance,” stole the tune from an old Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” (T.S. Elliot, himself a great literary borrower and/or thief, wrote: “Minor poets borrow, great poets steal.”)

Sydney Carter stole not only the tune but the idea for the “Lord of the Dance” from the Shakers. The Shakers were a celibate religious sect whose worship included ecstatic dancing. Hence, their nickname: “Shaking Quakers.”

As a good Jew, it is likely that Jesus also danced, at least at weddings. Carter wrote:

Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.”

Carter regarded Jesus as a universal phenomenon, not simply a first century Jewish teacher/prophet/savior: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

I don’t know whether or not Carter was aware of the mystical tradition of dance described by Evelyn Underhill in her classic work Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Underhill talks about the Christian mystic Plotinus who described the spiritual life as a kind of choral dance with God as the conductor or dancingmaster (Corypheus in Greek): "We are like a choir who stand round the conductor but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move around the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One" (p. 233). In ancient Greece, choirs danced as well as sang.

The image of Christ as "Lord of the Dance" (Corypheus) is found in the apocryphal "Hymn of Jesus" that dates back to the early period of the Church. The Logos or Christ stands in a circle of disciples and says, "I am the Word who did play and dance all things." "Now answer to my dancing." "Understand by dancing what I do." Again, "Who danceth not knoweth not what is being done." "I would pipe, dance ye all!" and "All whose Nature is to dance, doth dance."

A few years ago some Friends were exercised because one lyric of this song implied that Jesus was crucified by Jews rather than by the Romans. Carter of course did not intend this line to be an attack upon Jews, but rather upon those who try to kill the Christ spirit with religious formalism and judmentalism.

What fascinates me about “The Lord of the Dance” is that it is the only hymn that I know of in which the singer must identify with Christ. Hymns are usually addressed to Jesus or are about Him. But in the “Lord of the Dance,” we become Jesus, or the Universal Christ. No wonder we feel such joy in singing it!

Postscript: This piece as written many years ago and published in a British Quaker publication. Since then, some Friends, including many Friends of Jewish background, have objected (and rightly so) to a stanza of this hymn that seems clearly antisemitic (as well as inaccurate):

"I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame; 
the holy people said it was a shame. 
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high, 
and they left me there on a cross to die.

The "holy people" did not whip and strip Jesus, as the Gospels make clear. It was the Romans who killed Christ, with the complicity of some segments of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. To imply that the "holy people" (i.e. the Jews) killed Christ is a distortion of history and evokes the "blood libel" that accused all Jews of being "Christ killers." This idea fueled antisemitism, pograms, and unspeakable persecution of Jews by Christians. It needs to be utterly rejected.

Quakers have altered offensive lyrics of hymns in the past and should do so in this case. I'm not sure how to do it. Maybe something like:

"They watched as the soldiers hung me on high

and left me there on a cross to die."

That change feels more honest to me. It was the Empire that killed Jesus, not the Jews. And the Empire continues to try to kill the Christ spirit in us, and in others. A more complete discussion can be found at:

http://www.friendsjournal.org/2010033/


"i have tasted paradise": a poem plus a reflection on William Stafford


According to Paul Lacey, the poet William Stafford had great self-discipline and used to write every day. He started the day free-writing every day in CPS camp. “I owed the government my time after breakfast, but before dawn my time was my own.” He once was asked:“What if the poem you write doesn't meet your standards?” He replied, “I lower my standards.” What this implies is there is something important other than standards. The poetry was a way of gaining health. If you ask yourself, “Why isn't your poetry like Yeats',” it gets in the way of the Light. 

This free-written poem doesn't rise to the level of Yeats, but I hope it brings you closer to the Light.

i have tasted paradise
in the first light of day
in a walk to the kitchen
in a piece of homemade bread
in a glass of orange juice and the smell of fresh coffee
in the question of a child
in the smile of a friend who doesn't need any explanations
in the stillness of the trees just before sunset
in the stillness of this library where the books feel like old friends
and invite me to muse in companionable silence
as dusk settles in

but of what use is paradise
if it cannot be shared with You?