Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 22, 2017 - The Dharma of Christianity, Part I: Spiritual Adventurism

            For most of my life I have held a deep curiosity about world religions. I have participated in many rituals, both moving and bizarre. Some individual practices come from a deeply personal, introspective place. They do not flash and wave about for notice. Some appear to be trying too hard to prove their worthiness to God. Or to themselves. But each carries a thread of truth and wisdom. Good advice tends to repeat itself in unconnected ways, faith to faith.
Over the years I have noticed a consistency in philosophy among them. Where all faiths overlap, we might conclude God is most visible.
After years of spiritual adventurism I found that the essence of the very faith I was raised in, Christianity, has this thread, too. So I began pulling on it.
I tested and poked and questioned this faith for proof of its value. I don’t believe that God wants us to just take people’s word for it. We are supposed to develop critical thinking about faith. We are supposed to be asking it hard questions. What is it afraid of? People who think we should adhere to blind faith and ask no questions should give God more credit. They’re not afraid God can’t handle it. They are afraid their interpretation of God can’t.
As far as the Bible goes, I don’t make a claim regarding the miraculous. However, I do believe in miracles. I am astonished at and grateful for even the mathematical unlikelihood of our own existence. I believe people are healed by other people without explanation. I believe that there are mysteries of reality about which we know virtually nothing.
But I don’t know if Mary was a virgin. Nor do I think that possibility changes whether or not Forgiveness is a good idea. I don’t know if Jesus rose from the dead. But I’m certain that Nonresistance, Hospitality, Compassion and Empowerment are good practices to follow on a daily basis for both ourselves and others. I believe these practices are in the process of saving humanity before our very eyes.
When people say, “Jesus saves!” I now tend to believe them. But not necessarily for the reasons they are saying it. I believe Jesus was a spiritual master who knew what he was doing, practiced what he preached, and pissed people off on purpose. He was a spiritual tactician, healer, mystic, radical activist, and on-call diplomat.
But I don’t conclude everything attributed to him was actually said by him. Nor may it have been said the way it was recorded. Some of the same stories are told in several different ways in the various Gospels. A thoughtful student of the Bible would conclude that God speaks between the lines of it all. Read it and listen to your heart to discern the truth from amid the ink.
Universal Love is not linear. It cannot be read letter after letter in a series of words. It has to be lifted from the text as a whole rose bush, not a line of stems and blooms laid end to end.
To be continued.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 15, 2017 - Freedom of Religion to Discriminate? Prove it.


It should come as no surprise that the ultra-religious in this country would prefer to turn to their scripture as proof of the right to exclude, discriminate, harass, and literally reprogram those who do not conform to their idea of a “proper” human being. However, there is no religious law which allows that. On the contrary, religion requires us to exist in a state of welcoming for others. Especially those with whom we disagree. If the LGBTQ community is their enemy, why are they not loving their enemy as their teacher has instructed?
Someday I would like to see a judge ask someone requesting from the court permission to turn away, fire, evict, or attack someone based on their sexuality or gender identity what proof they have that their religion compels them to these actions. When will an officer of the court insist that they demonstrate incontrovertible proof that they are directed to exclude or harm anyone? Even where it says that homosexuality is outside of tradition (which is what the original text actually says, rather than the mistranslation of “abomination”), it does not prescribe hostility as the solution.
Christianity in particular. It would seem to me that the easiest way to end the discussion is to ask: Who is the leader of the Christian movement? The answer would of course be, Jesus. What does Jesus say about homosexuals? Nothing. It’s the difference between Christianity and Biblicanism. Jesus did not agree with everything in what ultimately became the Bible. Christianity is the practice of the teachings of Jesus, including his disagreements with the old ways. Biblicanism is the blind adherence to all things Biblical, including its open contradictions.
Ultimately, it isn’t about what Jesus didn’t say, but rather what he did say that matters. His teachings about nonresistance, forgiveness, compassion, hospitality and empowerment easily trump all scripture to the contrary. We are expected to love our neighbor, our enemies, and be welcoming to those who appear lost. Even prisoners who have committed a legitimate crime are supposed to be visited and cared for, despite the personal feelings of the caregiver about the crime they may have committed. It is explicitly not their place to judge.
Some have concluded that since Jesus didn’t talk about it, he must have been in agreement with the rules of the Old Testament advocating not to lie with man as with woman. But Jesus was not always a fan of the Old Testament either. And while he didn’t offer a law by law commentary on all 613 rules, what he did offer is telling enough. He turns the old rules on their heads. “You have heard it said, ‘eye for an eye,’ But I tell you, turn the other cheek.”
The arc of history is proving this reality for us. The old ways did not bring people together, they keep people apart—exactly the opposite of what religion expects of us. The world is changing for the better in spite of the ultra-religious’ desire to return to the old ways. And that’s exactly how it should be. Take comfort in being on the right side of history. Love those who are incapable of loving us return. It’s just good advice.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Peace is Everywhere

It may be a tough pill to swallow, especially with all that has gone on recently in the world, but the fact is there is more peace in this world than war. To be accurate, a lot more. We are currently in the most peaceful time in the the history of known human civilization. Despite the amount of violence we see in the media, which somehow seems to only increase over time, we find the message is grossly disproportionate to reality. There has actually been a steady decrease in violence occurring over the past several centuries. The last hundred years or so show an enormous reduction in particular.
The US is currently experiencing the lowest homicide rate in over a hundred years even though the population has tripled in that time. In the lab, if you put too many rats in a box disease and conflict step in to level out the population. Nature finds a balance. Yet as humans grow in number we are expanding in peace.
However, peace does not lead the news. A 52-year-long conflict in Colombia ended last August. Did you notice it? Did you see it on the mainstream news? No. Amid the US presidential election with all its emails and crotch-grabbing a tremendous moment for world peace occurred. There should have been a celebration. With the end of that conflict the entire western hemisphere knew peace for the first time. Ever. Columbia was the last remaining armed military conflict in the western hemisphere. After four years of negotiations between the government and rebels a permanent ceasefire was established. But hardly anyone even mentioned it.
Since 1989 the has been a curiously dramatic increase in efforts to secure the world according to the Human Security Report Project, despite the statistical reduction of need for such security. Why? Because, frankly, it is more profitable for world leaders to be at war. Peace democratizes the economy naturally. When everyone is happy they give their money to each other, not them. The threat of war authorizes billions in military spending faster than the threat of a blizzard sends New Englanders to the grocery store, whether the threat is real or imaginary. Fear is the literal engine of the wealth gap. It’s easy for the rich to make money from war. But the violence needs to remain front and center at all times to keep that machine going.
Yes, the violence we see in the news is real, mostly, but it’s filtered through biases from both sides of every argument. It’s glorified by those who are best served by its continued existence which only gives violence more room to grow. It’s so very easy to use fear to guide people. Fear is an easy message to launch but the outcomes are hard to control. Things have a tendency to get out of hand and begin to work against the powers who launch them.
Tyranny does not seem to be very popular these days in case you haven’t noticed. We are witnessing widespread revolt against tyranny around the world. We are so used to the revolution we forget to notice that we are winning it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Exegesis on Romans 12:1-8 “The Thrust of Christian Life Practice”


Romans 12:1-8   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern (also prove) what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

These words reveal the practical theology of Paul’s ministry. They concisely outline much, though not all, of his wider teachings. In the writing this particular epistle, Paul is quite possibly illustrating his fear of losing his life on his journey to deliver funds to the Jesus-believers in Jerusalem owing to the controversy surrounding his ministry.1 And while he does not take the time to deliver as legacy his entire philosophy (it excludes his eschatology, resurrection theory, Christology, and views on the Lord’s Supper 2) he has taken the time to explain the basics of how to operate in the world as a member of Christ’s elite. Paul composed it in a concise enough format that one could surmise an attempt to offer a basic primer for a life in God’s service should his ministry be cut short or derailed.
He declares the physical bodies of Jesus followers to belong to God as a “holy sacrifice” in service to God’s will. He advises mindfulness and personal transformation as the platform for understanding the voice of God coming from within. He expects us to remember that we are all one and to deliver our unique talents in the service of humanity.
There are several words in particular within these lines which offer opportunities for further examination, perhaps even hinting at practical applications of Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to be of service to God.  First, through the renewal—or perhaps more specifically renovation—of the mind which then ultimately gives us the capacity to discern God’s truth for us from within. The still, calm voice which emanates from the divine spark we have each been assigned. We are to represent ourselves to God through the talents we each possess.

    Romans is arguably Paul’s most important existing document. His letter to the Roman people in advance of his first visit there formed the Christological foundations for many of history’s most influential theologians including Augustine, Martin Luther and Karl Barth; people who would ultimately spread their understandings of Paul’s words to untold thousands over the generations.3 It is Paul’s salvific thesis on the workings of God through Christ.
This epistle was likely composed from the Greek city-state of Corinth in the autumn of 57 CE prior to his return to Jerusalem.4 Romans was a public letter to the Roman people. It was Paul’s attempt to clarify under one theological umbrella the various Christian teachings—some of which he considered erroneous—spreading across the city in advance of his intended stopover en route to Spain.
There was unrest between the Jewish and Gentile Jesus-followers in Rome. Among other of Paul’s concerns, Gentiles antagonized the Roman Jesus-believing Jews with the claim that they were equal to them. Jews believed that Gentiles must become circumcised to claim that equality.5 Romans was composed to help settle disputes such as these which fomented unrest in the fledgling fellowships of Christ popping up ahead of Paul in Rome. Christianity was developing in its own ways, without him.
Regarding its literary style, scholars debate on whether Romans was an epistle or a letter, a particular distinction in analysis. To clarify, 20th century German Protestant theologian Gustav Adolf Deissmann describes it this way:
“An Epistle is an artistic literary form, just like the dialogue, the oration, or the drama. It has nothing in common with the letter except its form: apart from that one might venture the paradox that the epistle is the opposite of a real letter. The contents of the epistle are intended for publicity—they aim at interesting “the public.””6
    Through its writing style and breadth of those to whom the composition is directed, it is apparent that Paul was not writing a private letter, but a public document meant to be read aloud to multiple persons for wide effect.

    Earlier in Romans (1:16-17), Paul explains that he is not ashamed of his gospel because it holds power. That power is exemplified in 12:1-8. After outlining the doctrinal character of God in the previous chapters, Paul gets to the practical meat of Christian praxis in what might be considered the penultimate moment of Romans, beginning with chapter 12: deliberate and intentional transformation through faith.
    This passage launches the portion of Romans (chapters 12-15) which outlines the transformative power of the gospels. Through faith we are transformed into servants of God’s will. Contemporary New Testament scholar, Douglas J. Moo, specifies this portion as “the heart of the matter.”7 And indeed we are finally given the tools at this point to make active use of the gospels as principles.
There are a few words which stand out in particular regarding the methods through which this transformation will occur as well as what that transformation is. Namely words like sacrifice, conformed, renewing and prove.
The word sacrifice (θυσίαν) is defined as an offering to God. Today, we look at the word sacrifice and deem it to be indicative of deliberate hardship endured for the sake of a higher goal. And while offering ourselves to God often comes with hardship, the sacrifice itself is less about its implicit difficulty and more about explicit commitment. We offer ourselves to God’s service and in faith believe that any hardships experienced will be companioned by God’s love in exchange for that offering. The word offering is itself value-neutral to suffering, although one could surmise that suffering might be the result of it, but it is not the thrust of the intent to offer ourselves.
Paul’s warning to “not be conformed to this world” is a reminder that the biology, while both constant and real, is not the subject of our desired transformation, it is one of the beneficiaries of it. Taking action based solely on the needs of the physical is to eclipse our view of the divine and negate any potential transformative powers it may hold for us.
At the risk of delving into near-pointless semantics, ἀνακαινώσει means to “make new” leading to the common translation of “renewing.” However, ἀνακαινώσει derives from the word ἀνακαιν which means “restore.”  Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible would seem to agree (while it does also use the word renewing) that the “mind” referred to in Romans 12:2 is not changed in its material substance, but reordered—renovated, if you will—through conversion to God’s desire for us: “Conversion and sanctification are the renewing of the mind; a change, not of the substance, but of the qualities of the soul.”
In Romans 5:12, Paul outlines the fall of Adam as being the moment when sin came into the world. Does he seek to return to that state or to develop a new one using the tools already at hand? To renew, or even restore/reboot ourselves to the earlier version of our sinless state, would not be the same as to renovate it. To renew in this way does not offer “new-ness” as much as it implies “same-as-the-old-ness.” To re-new something is not exactly the same thing as to re-novate, even if it is etymologically similar. It does not have the same nuanced meaning.
    Grammarian Malcom Pemberton explains the difference in usage. “Renovate and renew are very similar, both meaning to ‘make new’, but they are used in different contexts. We renovate things like buildings, old vehicles, canals etc, which are very concrete things.  It is not necessary that the things are particularly old, or indeed broken in some way. It is enough that changes are needed, and those changes may involve change of use.”8 Renewal, by contrast, vaguely implies a return to the past rather than embarking on a new path.
    I believe it is a change of use that Paul is asking of the Romans rather than to simply make new again the mind. Jesus brought something different to the world than had existed before, requiring a different use of the mind than before. A transformation is to “make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.”9 This coincides with the view of renovate in place of renew.
    And, finally, prove. In Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers we see “Prove.—As elsewhere, ‘discriminate, and so approve.’ The double process is included: first, of deciding what the will of God is; and, secondly, of choosing and acting upon it.” 10 In the NRSV translation the word discern appears. In various other translations we also see the words test, learn, determine, distinguish, and experience. Prove is most common. But the breadth of other word usage is illuminating for the overall power that we are given to conclude for ourselves the workings of God without intermediary once transformed. We are exhorted to serving at the behest of God, while “not, however, annulling the moral freedom of the believer, but, on the contrary, presupposing it; hence the exhortation: to be transformed.”11
    In Romans 12:1-8 Paul is giving us the keys to self-empowerment through the observance of and practice deriving from the principles of the Gospels themselves. He has first illuminated the process and then identified examples of how individuals may serve based on their own talents and abilities.
    Service is our offering, but hardship is not necessarily required. With God the burden is light (Mat. 11:30). Remember that this physical world is not God Itself, but God’s created gift to us. The world is merely the classroom for the understanding and expression of God’s will. Biology and the physical world is our obstacle course. Observing this is to acquiesce to God’s desire for us to be transformed by our experience. Transformation will naturally result in a deeper ability to awaken ourselves to the fuller experience of the Divine Intention, clarifying our own personal pathway of service to mankind, to which we are all inextricably entangled. A path is illuminated where we operate less from the centerpoint of our own egos and more from the divine spark within each of us.








Citations

  1. Romans 15:30-31, and Longnecker, Bruce W. and Todd D. Still. Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014. 167-8
  2. Longnecker, 168
  3. Longnecker, 165
  4. Longnecker, 167
  5. Clarke, Adam. Commentary on the Whole Bible, VI. 1831, 3
  6. A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East, 2nd ed, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927, 218, 220
  7. Moo, Douglas J., The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 748.
  8. Pemberton, Malcom. article “Word(s) of the Day 11 – Renovate and Renew and Restore” website: Malcom’s English Pages, December 8, 2012, https://malcolmsenglishpages.com/2012/12/08/words-of-the-day-renovate-and-renew-and-restore/ (accessed April 2017)
  9. Google definition. https://www.google.com/search?q=transformation+etymology&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8#q=define+transform&* (accessed April 2017)
  10. Ellicott, Charles J. A Bible Commentary for English Readers (8 vols.) Cassell and Company, 1905        
  11. Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm, ThD. Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Part IV, vol. 2, Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1881, 254


Note: This academic work was an assignment for Dr. Christopher Hoklotubbe for a class entitled: The Letters and Legacy of Paul. Exegesis on Romans 12:1-8 “The Thrust of Christian Life Practice” April 3, 2017

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Confessions of a White Undocumented Immigrant

Today I live exactly seven tenths of a mile from the exact spot where I was born in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. But on July 1, 1995—Canada Day—I crossed the Peace Bridge into Canada where I lived as an undocumented immigrant for over four years.

It didn’t really occur to me to be concerned as I was doing it. Perhaps I was wrong for being so cavalier to just waltz into another country simply because I felt like it. I also recognize that I was not leaving the US out of concerns for personal safety or even prosperity. I just went because I liked it there. The privilege of being a white male in our society was entirely lost on me during this time. I simply took it for granted. Today I feel differently. Today I know.

Toronto, Ontario is a beautiful city. I had immediately felt at home there a year before, in 1994, when left my New York apartment by invitation of a friend from acting school to co-write, build, produce and perform in a stage production at the Poor Alex Theatre in the Big Apple of the North. I loved the city immediately. I learned my way around so quickly it impressed the locals. I felt pangs of loss when returning back to the States after the show closed.

Following the break up of a relationship in New York one year later I decided to move back to Toronto permanently-ish. I knew I wasn’t leaving the US forever, just for now.

The one overarching principle I lived by was adventure. When faced with a choice, I always choose the more adventurous option. There’s something in even the failure of a bigger venture that deepens the experience of life. Failing smaller adventures produces smaller benefits, in my mind. Succeeding at a larger gamble is of course the preferred option, but I seem to learn more from my failures than my successes. I know I am far from alone in this reality.

But larger gambles also come with larger stresses. I was fortunate to have a small amount of money to last me the first six months, but as that money dwindled my anxiety increased. I wanted to break into acting there full time—Toronto is a hub of television, theatre and  film—but my immigrant status gave me short shrift with casting directors. I even tried to volunteer with the Toronto Film Festival, but was booted out on my first day when they realized I had no paperwork. I never got to see even a single celebrity.

As my funding dwindled I placed an ad in a local paper advertising my services as a private “cater-waiter” and housekeeper. I built a small, but steady clientele of homes whose toilets became weekly companions of my quest to survive in a place where I was regularly reminded of my status as an “other.” But I folded the ends of the toilet paper into neat little points just the same. I took pride in my work even as it slowly took my pride away from me.

As an undocumented worker I had few rights and little recourse. Clients often took advantage of me knowing I was in a poor position to complain. One even had me clean his entire basement—a long and filthy undertaking—with no intention of paying for it. When I showed up to collect my fee he lied and said that Immigration agents had just called him asking about me. From that point on I lived in a state of panic that I would be arrested and thrown out of the country. It was months before I stopped looking over my shoulder and realized I’d been had.

I did eventually manage to get some under-the-table acting work in non-union productions that looked the other way because of my singing and acting ability. It’s hard to find white leading males who fit into the costumes of low-budget productions. But the larger shows had more options and never gave me the offer of union work I needed to gain a landed immigrant status.

And then I got sick. Really sick. As an undocumented immigrant I did not enjoy the benefits of universal healthcare enjoyed by Canadian citizens. I knew what it was like to get sick in the US without insurance. They let you die. But I was not in the US.

That was the realization point for me. Despite my immigration status I was being treated with dignity by the Canadian healthcare system. I was even given a private room in the hospital. Was it because I was white? Was it because Canada’s universal insurance included me in its universe? I assume a little of both. Back in the States I didn't have insurance. I would not have fared as well.

Leviticus 19:33-34 (NIV) 33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

I was treated like a human being by the government of Canada, even if not by a few of its citizens. I was treated like a guest, not a criminal. Of course I can draw conclusions as to why this was the case. But the fact remains that the world did not stop spinning because I was treated with dignity in a foreign country. What would happen if we Americans decided to treat the foreign-born as if they were native-born as scripture encourages us?

Christians who today call for the building of walls would do better to build friendships instead. They pick and choose which Mosaic laws to follow as suits their fears. But they are colluding with the wrong side of history.

What must it be like to be a brown-colored undocumented immigrant in the United States today? How can I imagine my own small, decades-old anxiety multiplied by the factors of color and politics? I cannot. I can only remember my own small fears and do what I can to pray for those who seek a better meal but are denied a place at the table.

May we all one day know both safety as well as prosperity in our chosen lands. It is our birthright as humans and children of God to know both.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Hopeful Thinking - Saturday, April 1, 2017 - We Shall Overcome

           We are in a divisive time right now. This country feels as if it’s being torn apart. But we designed the seams of our government like a pair of Levi’s. Double stitched. Extra rivets. Yes, jeans wear out, so the metaphor isn’t perfect. But when jeans are sewn together they are meant to survive hard use. We have been refining our government systems for quite some time. And we can tell there is more ahead of us than behind us. Google Sisyphus. But what is behind is is all we need.
We see the holes in our system and feel empowered to do something about it because we have been systematically training ourselves for hundreds of years to do so. It takes time before the grown elephant realizes he’s being held with nothing more than mere rope. Imagine the huge worldview shift that takes place as people begin to awaken to inherent freedom? What must it have been like in France as the Revolution was occurring? What must it have felt like in Britain to watch it happening on their doorstep? Change is like the Hindu goddess Kali. Google Kali.
If our founding men and women of this country were given the opportunity to answer the questions: How long will it be before women vote? Before blacks will be free? Before health care is a priority? Before we truly democratize the world? what would their answers have been? What were they imagining for a timeline? Did they envision the day of Emancipation? Did they consciously think, ‘someday they’ll free the slaves’ and design the documents to allow for that future to occur in its own time? Were they that cognizant of how we would turn to those documents again and again to help us know how to move forward with grace and decency? They might have guessed that we would at times proceed with such little of either.
It had to be that they knew their document was scalable. It had to be that on some level, some deeply personal, quiet central spark within them knew and understood the moment that was before them. They cannot have consciously known it all or the true enormity of their generations-long impact would overwhelm them. They cannot have envisioned a national discussion on transgender bathroom rights. And yet their documents scale to even that debate with an answer as plain as the ink itself. If we are courageous enough to follow it.
The rock that we have been given to push up this hill is enormous. No single person can do it. Our division began as soon as the ink was dry because now there was something upon which to debate. But we will survive it. And we will be stronger for it. We will one day know what it feels like to be a people united.
We are doing so much better than we realize. The arc of history is still bending in our favor. We shall overcome. It’s in our jeans.