Saturday, April 20, 2002

Encounter: Who Was/Is Jesus, Buddha, Krishna?

"Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"(Matthew 11:3)

One day soon after we had started to meet, I asked the kids in our Monday Club (See April 6) if they knew anything about who Jesus was. We talked for a bit and then one of the Thai boys said, "My uncle is a Buddhist monk. I want to know about who Buddha was." I had to admit I knew little about Buddha but I promised I'd find out as much as I could. That started me on a new course of study that continues to this day. I began with the encyclopedia, then checked out books through my seminary library, went on-line to Buddhist sites and perused the bookstores. I even found a Buddhist group that met at the local Unitarian Church and attended a few dharma talks. Over the years I've met Buddhists from Southeast Asia and America and asked questions and discovered that the average Buddhist lay person knows about as much about his faith as the average Christian lay person which isn't a great deal. I also discovered I couldn't tell a whole lot of difference between the faith expressions of most lay Christians and lay Buddhists and that they share many of the same beliefs about moral living, heaven and hell, etc. Of course, there are belief differences, but especially in the popular practice of religion, many things are similar.

I also discovered that in the Buddhist religion as in the Christian religion, there is great vast difference between what is believed and taught and the actual practice and lived experience of average people. There are at least as many varieties of Buddhism as there are varieties of Christians and a wide range of doctrinal differences. There is also a great difference in teachers or pastors. Some are definitely more learned and spiritual than others. As in all professions or vocations, doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors or whatever, half of them graduated in the bottom half of their class and some of them profess in the words of a Methodist pastor I once knew, "I picked the job where I could make the most money with the least amount of work."

I also became curious to learn more about other eastern religions such as Hinduism and Taoism so my quest has expanded into these areas also. As much as I am gratified and fascinated by what I have discovered and as much as I try to learn about these other pathways, I will always be an armchair Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist. At best, these other religious studies have given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my own faith. I am a better Christian for learning more about Buddhism. But as I have agreed with and identified with my brothers and sisters in these other religions, I also am aware that I am not part of the culture that produces and nurtures a primary religious experience in these areas. One cannot become a Jew, Christian, Buddhist by reading some books, taking some classes or being initiated, baptized or confirmed. Religion and faith are a lifetime experience and take place within a particular cultural context. The Native American people insist on these same principles. No matter how fascinated European Americans may be with their culture, you can't be a Native American by attending a few sweat lodges or putting feathers in your hair. One must be born and bred into the culture, or at least, adopt the culture in such a way that your entire life is lived and immersed in the community. Religion is not an interesting and pleasant occasional weekend experience at a retreat center.

As a Protestant pastor, as much as I approve and appreciate Catholic Christians veneration of Mary, and even though I have added recitation of the Rosary to my prayer life, I never will have the "feel" of Marian spirituality that a life-long Catholic will have because it has not been an integral part of my cultural experience. I will continue to study Marian theology, though, because I am deeply interested to learn about anything that people have found to be a window to God. So who are/were Jesus, Buddha, Krishna?

They are icons, windows through which we may gain a glimpse of God. Think of a round tower set high on a hill with an uninterrupted view of the landscape in all directions. All around the tower are windows, each with a different view, but not the same view because each window is focused on and reveals a different part of the landscape. Yet, because the tower is round, each view will contain part of the view of the other windows at the periphery although each window is centered primarily on one aspect of the landscape.

The view from the Hindu window is centered on the universal nature of God or Brahma. The view of the Buddhist window is centered on the interior aspect of the universal spiritual experience. The view from the Christian window is centered on the historical, incarnational aspect of God. This is highly simplistic, of course, and there are other windows besides, each focusing and revealing in greater clarity a different piece of the landscape. The point is, we gain wisdom by looking through as many of these windows as possible, but the views are so complex and detailed we don't have the time to really concentrate on more than one particular view. Besides, what we are able to discern from each view will depend on the tools we bring with us to the search, like the knowledge an astronomer has when looking through a telescope at the night sky. We need language, symbols, a whole thought world in order to understand and interpret what we see. Each of the different religions is a complete and coherent discipline with sets of symbols, language and experience that reveals in greatest possible clarity what humans have been able to learn about a small portion of the whole God experience. We not only see through a glass darkly, but only partially. And as in particle physics, what we see is conditioned by the position of the observer.

So when I met with the Monday Club the next week, I shared the little bit I had been able to learn about Buddha with the children. Then I told them that if they really wanted to learn more, and learn it well, they needed to encourage their parents to find a Buddhist community to become a part of and they needed to study and participate and practice and pray and learn as much as they could and they would benefit greatly and so would their families and so would their whole community because Buddha had laid out a pathway for them to follow through the wilderness of life that was sure and certain to lead them where God wanted them to go.

I explained that I could not teach them as well about Buddha as I could about Jesus because that was the pathway I had learned. But I could teach them about the pathway of Jesus and if they followed this pathway they would benefit greatly and later if their parents took them along another pathway, they would have discovered a lot that was already familiar because we were climbing up the same mountain, only by different routes.

Sunday, April 14, 2002

Community: "You Don't Always Get What You Want"

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering.
In caring for others and serving heaven,
There is nothing like using restraint.
Restraint begins with giving up one's own ideas.

(Tao Te Ching 48, 59)

Jesus: Peter, do you love me? (agapas me)
Peter: Yes, Lord, I love you. (philo te)
Jesus: Peter, do you love me? (agapas me)
Peter: Yes, Lord, I love you. (philo te)
Jesus: Peter, do you love me? (phileis me)
Peter: Yes, Lord, I love you. (philo te)
(John 21: 15-19)

One of my favorite Easter stories is the one about a conversation between Jesus and Peter after breakfast one day after the resurrection. It's necessary to be able to read the original Greek to get the full importance of this story. Jesus and Peter were best friends and Peter had let Jesus down big time and had betrayed him. Jesus is looking for a recommitment from Peter and he uses a form of the verb to love, agape, which denotes a special divine kind of love, love that doesn't expect anything in return out of the other person. Peter answers Jesus using a different form of the verb, philo, which is a human kind of love, like between friends or brothers. Philo love however, good as it is, has lots of expectations unlike agape. Jesus actually is asking for more than this, but philo is all Peter can manage right now and he gets exasperated with Jesus for asking him three times for more than he feels he is able to do. So the third time Jesus asks, he is willing to settle for what he can get and uses Peter's word, philo.

There is this song from the 70's, "You Don't Always Get What You Want" that is a good Tao song. We very seldom get what we want, but we can live well in spite of it. Two people never have the same idea about how things should be. Conflict is a part of life and people are going to let us down so the capacity to forgive and compromise is the way to keep life flowing. Living successfully in community is learning to give up some of our ideas in order to get along, making sacrifices of some things in order to preserve other more important things. This is where restraint comes in. Relationships are more important than philosophies or theologies or ideologies or always having my way. Jesus was an icon of walking the Tao because of his restraint and humility. He didn't always get what he wanted either, but he needed very little to get along which included people's praise and good opinion as well as material possessions. He didn't force things on others and accepted people for what they were. That doesn't mean he didn't care what they did. It meant he understood them even when they didn't understand themselves and was patient, kind and forgiving, even when they had let him down. He taught by example, not by force and was a master of restraint.

Nothing hurts so much as when someone we counted on lets us down. But because humans are frail, that happens all the time. We don't even understand ourselves very well, much less what others expect or want from us. And often, people want things from us that are inappropriate. Like the kind of love we are unable or unprepared to give. Conflicts are created when people become attached to things and ideas that they think they cannot live without. The truth is, we need far less than we think we do in order to live and get along well; food, shelter, clothing, safety, transportation (in today's world), honest work to provide the necessities for ourselves and families. Many of us have far more of these things than we actually need and too many people have not enough. Successful communities are those in which the basic needs of all the people are important to all the people.

Conflicts arise over ideologies and theologies, greed and lust for power. Peter wasn't ready yet to walk the Tao because he still was into philo love which has expectations. It took him awhile to sort it all out and understand that Jesus couldn't be who Peter expected him to be. When he "got it", he understood and that knowledge opened up a whole new dimension of the universe for him. That is the meaning of "being saved" or "enlightenment"! We can't walk the Tao by philo, only by agape. To walk the Tao is never to place expectations or a thing or an idea over a person.

Sunday, April 7, 2002

One God
No substitute for God
Hold God's name sacred
Save a day for joy alone
Honor your parents
Don't kill
Don't dishonor your marriage
Don't steal
Don't lie
Don't be envious
(Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5)

I can't help but wonder that this code could cause so much controversy. These are the basic principles that make living in community possible. Which of these rules would we eliminate and why?

Perhaps it is because this particular code has been given to us by the Jewish religion and people who think they must disavow religious claims on their life feel compelled to reject it out of principle. This is a good case in point for reflecting on what religion is all about anyway. In the first place, God is not defined in the code. Religions agree that God is not capable of definition. Whether we call the Ultimate Principle God, Tao, Allah, Jehovah, Wakantanka or Brahma makes little difference. This code is ethical, not religious. If there is a theological point in the code, it is that our human tendency is to try to make temporal things ultimate in our life which is the meaning of idolatry. It doesn't matter whether we make family, work, pleasure, friendship, material possessions, popularity, power, church (yes, I said church) or a flowering stick ultimate in our lives, if we place our ultimate allegiance to anything above our ultimate allegiance to God we commit idolatry. Eastern religions in particular emphasize that our human dilemma is grounded in our inappropriate attachment to things that are impermanent, another way of talking about idolatry. One of the most profound explanations I've studied on this principle is found in the famous Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita which is a treatise on sacred duty in the field of honor or disciplined action within the context of devotion. These principles govern spiritual discipline in all religions.

The second point I would make is that this code, and other similar codes, for there are others and this one may have been derived in part from the Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylonia in the 18th Century B.C.E. (Before Common Era) found inscribed on a column at Susa, these codes are outgrowths of people struggling to figure out how to make community life possible. They are products of that great stream of Ancient Wisdom and they are universal in nature. It really doesn't matter what is their source and I am perfectly ready to believe they are God-inspired. If there is a creator God, it doesn't make much sense that God would create people and not help them discover how to live and get along in the world. Even creatures of the animal kingdoms have their "codes" which are instinctual that help them get on the best they can to their maximum benefit. We humans, being much more complex beings, have fewer instincts it seems and we puzzle over and are capable even of rejecting what is in our best interest and try to invent rules to suit ourselves that will make room for our inappropriate attachments.

I am fascinated by anything science or religion can teach me about our human condition and living in community. Community is our key to survival. When the concept of community is in so much disrepair with the danger of war raging in so many places, I can think of nothing more important than some code for how to get along together. The movie spectacular, The Ten Commandments, keeps showing up on television during religious holidays. People are hungry for a religious experience, even Hollywood style. Think about the story for a minute. A group of culturally similar but distinct nomadic tribes with a history of being at war with each other, probably not dissimilar to some of those found in parts of our world today, find themselves squatting in exile in the land of a neighboring superpower which eventually conscripts them into forced labor. After some time, a charismatic leader helps them revolt and they stage a trek back to their land of origin but it takes them a number of years. (They are nomads, after all and have to stop frequently to pasture their animals, marry, give birth, die, etc.) Along the way all the old tribal animosities surface and they must forge some sort of unity in order to survive in the wilderness. The code of conduct they developed, or were given, the Ten Commandments, helped them set boundaries for community survival and mutual benefit.

When I was serving a mission church in Sioux City, Iowa, we developed a ministry to a group of about 15-20 children between the ages of ten and sixteen or so living in the vicinity of our barrio neighborhood who were unsupervised and at loose ends during the day while their parents worked in a nearby meat packing industry. They were of Southeast Asian, Hispanic and Native American origin and the Asian children were Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian so we had quite a disparate group. We met together once a week for games, snacks and some sort of organized activity and they wandered in and out of our mission at other times. They called our once a week meeting The Monday Club because that was the day we met. Things generally went pretty well but they were prone to occasional bouts of mischief and there was not a small amount of ethnic bickering in the group.

One day our weekly activity was a visit to the public library which was an easy walk a few blocks away down the main thoroughfare. I made a small parental type lecture about good behavior before we left which they paid a minimum amount of attention to but the visit turned into something of a rout anyway. I was so annoyed by their rude and disruptive behavior that when we returned to the mission I announced that that would be the last field trip until they had agreed on a code of conduct and demonstrated in the group that they could follow it. I talked with them occasionally about religious things so one of the boys suggested we post a list of the Ten Commandments on the wall. I said, fine, if that would help and could anyone tell me what they were. No one really knew much apart from not lying, stealing and killing which they all were pretty familiar with so I said that I thought it would be a good idea for them to think through their situation and come up with their own list. We had a group discussion about why I was so upset and with a little coaching on my part they easily conceded that their behavior had caused me to be mad, sad, scared and embarrassed. So the list started out that way.

Don't make anyone

So much for the negatives, I said, but I thought it might be even more productive if they could outline what they though good behavior might look like. This one took a bit longer because they, like most people, tend to think about rules in terms of what not to do. The first thing they came up with was their concession to me because they knew I was a pastor although they weren't exactly sure what that meant since none of them had any religious experience with their families, or minimal at best. But it had something to do with God, whatever that was, so the first rule was "Love God". The rest they really did come up with on their own. It was in their hearts from many different sources even if it wasn't always in their behavior.

"I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. . ." (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

This is the list they came up with next.

Love God
Be a friend
Show respect

Is there anything else really that we can say? Can we possibly do anything that causes pain or suffering to another single person in the world or even harm to ourselves if we live by this simple code? We would, in fact, do an enormous amount of good, not only for the world, but for ourselves. Because the root of showing respect to anyone else or for anything else in the world begins, I believe, in respect for oneself. Knowing that oneself is worthy of respect and wanting to give that same respect to others. Wars are fought over ideology, theology, partisanship, greed, lust for power. We do not make war on those we respect, with whom we wish to cooperate, with those we call friend. It is only when we build separations between ourselves and others due to our "inappropriate attachments" that all the misery in the world is created, all the unjust and unnecessary suffering. It is lack of respect that sets us against one another and makes community impossible.

Our Encounters with God are by definition individual and personal. But for an Encounter to bear fruit, it must be worked out in Community. In the Genesis creation stories, after God created the world, God created community. It is not good that we live alone, but it is not easy to live together. As Ann Landers said, "Whenever I hear about two people never having an argument, I submit that one of them is unnecessary." As Scott Peck said, it is community and our struggles to reconcile with our enemies that makes us mature spiritually.

In the beginning, God made a garden.
In it put everything, lovely and true.
Rivers were flowing, flowers were growing,
But the most wonderful thing there was you.

Monday, April 1, 2002

Easter: John 20:1, 11 - 18


Only the women remained behind after the world collapsed
Only a few crows picked over the refuse left behind
By the crowds on a hill that was muffled in perpetual gloom
As God lay dead in a borrowed grave.
The whole world lay silent and still in a shroud of death.
No child laughed, no bird sang, no one even quarreled.
It was as silent and still as that moment before creation
When the earth was without form and void and darkness
Covered the face of the earth, before God had said,
"Let there be light."

The heavy leaden overcast sky did not even permit
A shadow to play over the sunken corpse of the landscape.
The veil of the temple hung listlessly to one side
ripped and shredded and a slight breeze moved it slightly
Rattling against the columns where once was enshrined
the Holy of Holies.
The mercy seat lay empty and exposed.
God was not there.

Only the weak remained behind after the world collapsed.
The authorities had gone home.
Back to their barren seats of power,
Back to their struggles against each other,
Their interminable bickering and jockeying for position,
Back to the things that really mattered.
It had been an interesting diversion,
but who was this fellow anyway?
A disturber of the peace . . .a rabble rouser . . .
blasphemer, some said,
But certainly no one of any real importance.
An itinerant from some dusty little hovel of a place
That had gained some small degree of local notoriety.
Definitely not a contender.
Nazareth? Nothing of any value had ever come from there.
The whole incident would be forgotten in a few days.

(Interesting, though, about this new alliance
of Pilate and Herod.
Politics make strange bedfellows,
It will be of great interest to the power brokers
To watch how this develops.)

Only a few janitors remained behind
to scrub the blood off the pavement,
To put the tables and chairs back in order
For the next week's round of business and activity.
Off in a distant part of the city a party was in progress
And a soldier exhibited a seamless robe to his friends
That he had won in a lottery two days earlier.

Only those without hope remained behind
after the world collapsed.
The disciples had all fled, the "Official Twelve", that is,
Only a couple of timid ones crept out of the darkness
One of whom we have heard nothing before
And another who, because of fear of the authorities
Had always remained out of sight, unknown to anyone
who might have challenged them.
But those who had gambled on the success of this enterprise
On the fulfillment of this mission
Who had counted on inheriting places of honor and prestige
In the new Kingdom . . . .these had all gone home
Or fled into hiding.

What point could be gained in sticking around now
when all was lost!
What practical reason could remain,
What possible good could obtain
From remaining behind in this God-forsaken place
When the whole miserable business had ended
in complete failure.
When hope had ended in total humiliation and defeat.
The smell of it, the taste of it, the sound of it
Rankled their souls like hot gravel
Lay on their tongues like ashes, like broken pot shards.

Only the women, the weak, those without hope
Remained behind after the world collapsed.
Waiting, waiting, for what?
With nothing to console them but their sorrow.
That curious emptying out of the soul
That comes after endless weeping.
The loss of hope that somehow, somehow,
Purges, cleanses, purifies the mind.
When there are no resources left
No strategies remain. Every last penny is spent.
Where might we have been?
There was certainly no thought that
there might have been anything more.
The events of the past week had left them drained
and exhausted.
What kept them there, clinging to the foot of the cross
After everyone else had gone.
Weeping beside a silent tomb?

* * * * * * *
Only love.
It is only for love that anyone remains behind.
Only love that doesn't calculate the cost,
the size of the loss
Or regroups to decide on the next move.
Love, that has its own internal logic.
That knows nothing of sensibility, or power,
or playing the odds.
Love that remembers.
Love that clings to the lingering smell, the taste
That still feels the touch of a gentle hand,
Still stirs to the sound of a voice
that even yet vibrates in the air.
Love, that still is warmed by the memory of a smile,
A certain gesture, a funny little tune that was hummed.
Only love that still clings to the warm moist earth
Of a freshly covered grave.

* * * * * * *
Sometimes, early in the morning
After a storm has passed the night before
There is a strange sense of peace.
Instead of looking haggard and heavy-lidded
After a night of fitful or no sleep
The world looks calm and rested.
Dawn creeps quietly into the streets of town
And the trees stir gently.
There is a clean fresh look to everything.
The earth has a kind of hum
And the clouds are first tinted dark purple, then lavender
and pink streaked with flecks of gold
And the air is soft and filled with a fragrance of blossoms
and aloe and myrrh and spices.
Then the miracle, the incredible
The incalculable, the unbelievable.
At first, it was something . . not . . .quite . . .right.
Something out of place.
She was probably not quite alert,
not noticing things too closely,
Still spent and exhausted from the night before.
But faithfully, came to pray once more, to keen once more,
To lovingly anoint the body once more.
But yes, she saw rightly, the tomb lay open.
A stranger, two strangers, something familiar
Uncomprehending and suddenly fearful,
"If you've taken him away . . ."
"MARY", her name!
Turning . . .slowly . . . around,
Looking up, a sudden flash of recognition.
The heart wells up into the throat, her mouth goes dry,
She catches her breath. "Rabboni, rabboni!"
Her beloved friend.
The one who had lifted her out of her misery.
The one person in all the world who had looked
past her brokenness Into her heart.
Her friend, her healer, her savior.

She was so confused she hardly remembered
what he said to her as they stood there briefly together
in the garden by the empty tomb.
But spurred on by the urgency of his command
She left to find the other disciples
Moving slowly at first, still overwhelmed with the emotion
the love, not yet quite knowing
but hope and joy welling up and spilling over
And something more, something new, something
Never before experienced.
Recognition giving birth to an awareness
Deeper, deeper, than anything else she had ever known.
Some incredible new thing was growing inside her.
She hurried on.

And like an island that is born from within the depths of the sea
when on the surface of the water there is first only a faint stirring
but deep below on the ocean floor
the sand and rock and shell stir slightly
from a low rumble in the bowels of the earth
and the crabs and fish and sea animals
scuttle quickly out of the way
as suddenly a fissure appears
and a plume of lava shoots up from the ocean bed
and the earth heaves and strains
and pushes a mass of molten rock and lava from its womb
that like an inverted avalanche rumbles upward
from the depths and the sea foams and churns
and with a mighty blast the mass bursts forth
from the water and explodes upwards towards the heavens
before falling back into the sea
and an island is born.
A new creation!

She's running now!
And all the hope of all the ages
All of history and all of prophecy is moving along with her.
All the creeds of all the councils,
All the art of all the ages
All cathedrals
All the anthems of choirs
All the stained glass windows
All candles, all incense, all Easter lilies
All Christmas trees,
All the blown glass gold globes.

She's flying now.
Her feet scarcely touch the ground
And with her heart pounding so that she can hardly breathe
and her robes and hair flying out behind her
she bursts into the room where the disciples are gathered
and with a gasp of joy and exaltation,
"I have seen the Lord" . . . . ."I have seen the Lord!"

* * * * * * *
At an earlier time he had said,
"I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
that Thou has hidden these things from the wise and understanding
and revealed them to babes."
and now, at the time of his exaltation,
To whom did Jesus first appear?
Who was entrusted with the only direct, personal commission
Of the news of the resurrection?
He didn't summon the authorities.
He didn't stride triumphantly into the temple
or send word by official courier.
There were no trumpets or fanfares for the populace.
But instead, he appeared to the weak one, the helpless one,
The one without personal honor or power or dignity,
The one who had no hope in herself.
The one who had remained behind.
The sensual one.
The one who could see only
with the eyes of love.
Only love . . . .can see love.

The Lord is Risen.
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen indeed.