zeus and the yeast in the dough

Posted By on Jul 23, 2017

Although you are sovereign in strength, you judge with mildness, and with forbearance you govern us; for you have power to act whenever you choose. [i] I’ve preached about this before, this notion that our ideas about God and religion tend to match the stage of our own maturity and the level of our own consciousness. We most of us begin with a magic view of the universe and so we have a magical view of God and religion. And then we tend to move into a more mythical way of thinking, followed by what developmental psychology calls rational, pluralistic and integral views of reality and, of course, then rational, pluralistic and integral views of God and religion. The reason I bring that up is because I’ve been reading through a wonderful children’s book on Greek myths lately. (D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths; I loved it when I was a boy, and a friend of mine bought me a copy for my birthday a few years ago.) And it occurred to me while I was reading it this time, especially the section on Zeus, that so many people are still caught up in magical-mythical mentality about God, and they talk about God not as Jesus introduces God to us, but more as if he were Zeus! Sittin’ on top of a mountain all irritated, jealous, angry and capricious, shootin’ down lightening bolts and causing earthquakes just so we remember how awesome He is. This is certainly not the portrait of his Abba that Jesus paints for us. We might be tempted to blame this magical-mythical view of God on the so-called “Old Testament,” the Jewish scriptures, and the image of God we catch there. Yet here in the Book of Wisdom already we see a pretty evolved idea of who and how God is: Although God is sovereign in strength, God judges with mildness, and governs with forbearance, because God has power to act whenever God chooses. That calls to mind to me one of the best pieces of advice I ever got about leadership. It was, “When you have real authority you don’t need to grab for power.” That’s God. God has real authority and so doesn’t need to jealously grab for power nor make sure that we always feel like little powerless peons––like Zeus and the other gods are always doing to mortals. Jesus shows us instead that the very nature of God is unconditional compassion towards the human world; the very nature of God, as Nathan Mitchell says, is “love without an opposite,” unimpeachable love for creatures and creation. God is that One who cherishes people and...

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I’ve had this conversation with several folks recently about a little kernel of wisdom that has become very important to me. In some ways it’s the reason I get up in the morning and get about my day. But I notice that it’s a piece of wisdom I don’t hear a lot of meditation teachers talk about. And the piece of wisdom is this: “You’re part of something bigger.” Just that simple! You’re part of something bigger. On the one hand, it makes life simpler because that means I don’t have to understand everything; I don’t have to have all the answers. I just do my part and trust that I am part of a bigger picture, a bigger plan of which I may not see the full scope. On the other hand, it sets the bar higher, because I have to think of something or someone beside myself. I’m part of something bigger. Where I got that little piece of wisdom was from the five truths that Richard Rohr gives as a distillation of the main insights that a young man is supposed to learn during the rite of initiation into manhood: “Life is hard. You’re going to die. You’re not as important as you think you are. You are not in control.” Those are the first four. And then comes the one that really stayed with me these past almost twenty years: Your life is not about you. Richard says that this is the essential and summary experience of the rite of initiation for a young man, the main thing he has to learn at some point: You must know that you are a part of something and somebody bigger than yourself. Your life is not about you; it is about God. Henceforward, the entire human experience takes on a dramatically different character. We call it holiness.[i] One of the folks I was speaking to about this is a friend of mine, a wise woman who is recently retired after having been a teacher for almost 40 years. I told her how often young men just can’t hear this. And she said to me that she thought this generation cannot access the humility to accept the fact that their life is not about them, because everything in their world mitigates against that. I think she may have been a little hard on “this generation.” This is a perennial problem for us human beings (it certainly was for me), but I would concur that it is even harder for young people nowadays to reach this insight, even those who are pursuing a spiritual path, because so many of...

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zamzam: God will hear!

Posted By on Jul 5, 2017

There used to be a little store tucked off the street in Santa Cruz with the most unusual name. It was called Zamzam. It was obviously a place the catered to Muslims especially Sufis because there were all kinds of Islamic items for sale there. They carried lots of prayer beads (sometimes called a tasbih), and it was the first place I ever saw a poster of the 99 Beautiful Names of God, in gorgeous Arabic script. There was a sweet elderly man working there the day I went in, obviously of Middle Eastern heritage, and I complimented him on the store. And then I said, “But this name is so strange! Zamzam? What does it mean?” And he told me the story of Hagar, almost the same story that we heard from the Book of Genesis today (21:5-20) but with a few extra details. According to Muslim belief, he said, Hagar (Haajar, in Arabic) was the daughter of an Egyptian king and she was given to the prophet Abraham as a slave by the king of Egypt. Hagar subsequently bore a child, and named him Ishmā-el, a name which means “God will hear.” But after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah began to feel jealous, so she asked Abraham to send them away from her. God revealed to Abraham that he should take Hagar and the infant Ishmael to a far away desert in Arabia, to the place we know now as Mecca. So he traveled with them all the way to Mecca, and left Hagar and Ishmael in a bleak, isolated place where there was no water, while he went back to Palestine. Because of the scarcity of water in the desert, it was not long before both mother and son suffered immense thirst. But Hagar believed that Allah would provide and she started running between two hills called al-Safa and al-Marwah looking for water for her son. After the seventh run between the two hills, an angel appeared before her. He told her that God had heard Ishmael’s crying (after all his name means “God will hear”) and would provide them with water. At that point, God caused a spring to burst forth from the spot where Ishmael’s heel touched the ground, and thereafter Mecca became known for its abundance of water, an oasis in the desert. And that spring that burst forth from the spot where Ishmael’s heel touched the ground was subsequently called Zamzam, the holy source of water. Islamic tradition says that after that Abraham would travel back and forth between Palestine and Mecca to visit Hagar and Ishmael, and that Abraham and Ishmael would later...

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welcoming the word

Posted By on Jul 2, 2017

  (13th sunday in ordinary time, cycle A) I often find myself having these internal debates not only with the scriptures themselves, but also with the compilers of the Lectionary. It’s so interesting, the way the liturgy weaves the scriptures together. At first, looking at today’s gospel selection from Matthew,[i] I was annoyed that they left out the few verses before it, which obviously go with it, when Jesus says: ‘Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother… And then we hear the call to radical discipleship: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy to be my disciple… and that’s when we find out that the sword we wield is actually the cross that we have to bear; and who we have to slay with it is the false self: Those who would save their life would lose it, those who lose their life would save it. As Paul explains in the reading from Romans today,[ii] that is exactly what our baptism is about: dying with Christ, but only so that we can really live with him. But there’s something else going on in these readings too, the way the Church presents them to us. I was in India in 2006, in Tiruvanamalai, staying at Sri Ramana Ashram with our friend and former monk Michael Christian, and one day he took me to visit some friends of his, the Krishnamurtis. They were an older very dignified couple. Mr. Krishnamurti had been the head of Indian Railways for a time but he had retired and the two of them had moved to Tiruvanamalai to devote their lives now to the third asrama, the third stage of life––vanaprasta, to devote themselves to the spiritual life. As we walked in the house, before we began to eat lunch, the two of them started chanting something in Sanskrit as a kind of grace before the meal. Afterward I asked them what it was and they told me it was from the 15th chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, and she said, “We always sing that when holy men come to visit.” Everyone there considers Michael to be a sadhu; he always dresses in the white of a sadhaka. And of course they knew I was a monk and a priest; I was in the khavi robes that our monks wear in India. But I found it embarrassing, to be welcomed as if I was a holy man! I remembered the teaching from the Bhagavad Gita that it’s better...

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padre serra

Posted By on Jul 1, 2017

(cyprian) It’s hard to speak about St. Junipero Serra (whose feast we celebrate today), especially in California, without addressing at least a little bit about the controversy surrounding him. I hope someday we will be able to speak about him without the apologia pro sua vita. Some of the First Nation peoples of the Americas charge that Padre Serra was part of the Spanish colonial system that exploited the native peoples, besides bringing diseases with them that decimated their populations. Pope Francis asked forgiveness for all of this some months before he beatified Padre Serra, during his trip to South America in 2015, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called “conquest” of America, admitting that, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.” St. Junipero gets tainted with that whole same brush. The other issue was Padre Serra’s own personal treatment of the natives under his pastoral care, stories at least of them being exploited, and others of them being subjected to corporal punishment, some of which have been verified by his own writings. There’s a theory about spiritual development that has deeply affected and convinced me in a number of areas. It starts out like this: God’s grace can intervene at any moment, even in horrible conditions and even on people who are in a state of grave sin and serious dysfunction. Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many stories of people finally “hitting bottom” in drug and alcohol abuse, for instance, grace intervening just when things get the darkest. But the state of the recipient of that grace––the “receptor,” you might say––, the health of that recipient, even the intelligence and the cultural background of the recipient of that moment of grace, all those things are going to determine at least these three things: one––if that person is going to be receptive to the grace and allow themselves to be transformed by it; two––if and how that person is going to understand it, interpret, make sense of it; and three––how that person is going to be able to pass it on. If and how they are going to be transformed by the grace; how they themselves are going to understand the experience; and, I think particularly in the case of Junipero Serra, how they are going to pass it on. Just because someone, like Junipero Serra or Francis of Assisi himself, has had a real startling experience of the grace of God, doesn’t mean that they are going to get everything else right, especially how to...

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