Monday, May 26, 2008

The Iceman Cometh - Free from illusions

When I look back on my life there are many writings that affected my life. However there was not one particular piece that created a single moment of insight as to my vocation. My pursuit of ministry has been a life long journey that leads me to this place and time. When I look back over my life, I thought of one particular play that I read that jump started a journey of searching for the truth. It is a play I have continued to think about throughout my life. When I first read Eugene O’Neil’s “The Iceman Cometh” in my late teens, I was cynical and pessimistic about the ways of the world. Due to the lens of experiences I had grown up with, I had given up on the idea that there was a God. I remember that once I started reading this play, I could not put it down and stayed up all night to finish it.

The characters in the story are down on their luck alcoholics. These individuals are on the lowest rung of the ladder in society. They maintain illusions about how they happened to be in such a predicament in their life, and more importantly, how they would change their life one day and redeem themselves and their life. There are certain pairings of individuals, an ex-policeman and a crook, two combatants from opposite sides of a war, a revolutionary and an individual who has a forsaken the concept of revolution, and a pimp and his hookers to name a few of the characters. One day, an old friend walks in the bar and tries to convince them that they will find peace only if they face their illusions and realize them for what they are. His concept is that once they see themselves for what they are, their true inner self, they will see that they are just alcoholics, and they will not need their illusions. As it turns out he believes this because he killed his wife and found peace because he no longer had the guilt of constantly lying to her and knowing she would forgive him. Upon killing her, he felt peace because he no longer had to keep up the illusion that he would reform one day. Yet when he made the cast of characters confront their illusions, they did not find peace. Reality was just too harsh and had become a living death. In the end, the message of the play is that we all need certain illusions to help us make it through life.

Now this may seem like a strange story as an inspiration for ministry. If I had read this story later in life, I might not have had the same reaction. Yet what it showed me was that we all create illusions for ourselves to help us survive in a harsh world. This started me on a search for my true inner self. This also changed my perspective in how I viewed all things in the world. I learned that instead of looking at superficial aspects of something in life, I had to investigate the root cause and complexity of all points of view to gain a true understanding of such a thing. Confronting an illusion will cause the death of that illusion. However, once dead, there is fertile ground for the truth (or possibly another illusion) to achieve life.

At that time in my life I was tempted to take the position that others were under the illusion that there was a God, and I needed to confront others with their illusion. Yet intrinsically I knew that tearing down other people beliefs or illusions would not help me. I needed to understand my illusions and my inner self. My lack of knowledge and experience in the world had led me to certain conclusions about the world. The realization that I didn’t have enough knowledge and experience was the first step to breaking the illusion. I knew if I maintained the illusion of the world that I experienced, I would never evolve spiritually as human being. Without knowing what the truth was, I shed the illusion and started on the search for knowledge and understanding of God, and the way God works in this world.

Another thing I learned from this play was that you have to have a plan. Clearly these characters were flawed and at the end of the line. My perception at that time in my life was that although flawed, if I did not change, that I would end up at the end of my life in much the same manner as these characters. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I knew I had the ability to change. I knew it would be a long and arduous task, but if I focused on end result, I could persevere and succeed. Later in life I have learned to enjoy the road throughout the journey. This did teach me though that we have to choose the path carefully, and make sure we are heading in the right direction. We may have to adapt and take detours along the way, but we must think in advance which way we are heading. I also learned that answers are not instantaneous. The search for the truth can be a long journey until we find the answer. When we reach the destination it may not hold the answer we expect. The answers we receive also may raise new questions which will lead us off on another journey. Yet it is just that search for truth and meaning with love in our hearts and an open mind that will put us in touch with the divine and will eventually give us salvation.

Although this play has a bleak outlook on life, it makes me constantly reassess my self and my actions, to make sure that I am following a path that is right for me and is not based on illusion. This play showed me the need for discernment that continues today through deep thought about life. I do sometimes think that I create an illusion that living a moral, ethical life that is God centered is better because I fear the consequences of actions that society would deem immoral. Yet this is an illusion I would be happy to live with.

I read a story in a book that said that God was playing hide and seek with humans, but we were not looking. Well my driving search for truth about myself, has forced me to face the fact that I believe in a divine presence in the universe. It also forced me to face the fact about myself that I want to do good, and I want to help make the world a better place to live. I also want to help others see this light of goodness in the world and in their lives. My search for truth has shown me that there are many paths to reach this divine presence. There is great knowledge and insight we can learn from different world religions that can lead us on this path. In addition, there are many underlying truths that are similar in many world religions that can bind us together as we evolve as humans.

One of the last lines of this book, one of the characters states “Be God, there’s no hope! I’ll never be a success in the grandstand – or anywhere else! Life is too much for me! I’ll be a weak fool looking with pity at the two sides of everything till the day I die! May that day come soon!” These lines have always haunted me. I have for much of my life looked for balance and tolerance in this world. Yet sometimes we must act as a counterbalance to society at large to maintain such a balance. We must be willing when necessary to take a stand. We must take a stand for righteousness and justice when the rest of society stands idly bye. So just as this character has stood in the grandstands of life watching the game but not intervening, and at the end of day wishing for death, I submit that we cannot just sit idly bye and watch others manipulate the world for their own means. We must take action to educate and change the world, to help shape the world in the image of the divine. Although I do not agree with the message that the play offers, the ideas offered within it sparked such deep thought within me. These thoughts started me on my journey and continually keep me honest along the way.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Christian Scriptures - On Circumcision and Slaves

As with all the Christian Scripture readings I find different passages inspiring, challenging, and intriguing. 1Thessalonians Verse 5.14-22 are words to live by. I especially like the phrase to “test everything”. This would also include the words of the Paul, which if true should hold up to the light of truth. I was also inspired by Galatians Verse 6.1-10. It combines the concept of self-reliance and works for the “good of all” with a reminder to forgive and help those who are not as strong spiritually. These are messages that are universal.

I do not understand Paul’s obsession against circumcision. It is one thing to not require circumcision in order to be Christian, but why does he totally disparage it. In Galatians Verse 5.1-3 he indicates that if you get circumcised Christ will be of no benefit to you. I find it hard to believe that the basis of ones entire faith rests on a small piece of foreskin.

Paul also argues that if you are circumcised you are obliged to obey the entire law. This is clearly a way to discourage circumcision. Yet Jesus never stated all the laws had to be followed. In fact he argued against strictly following the interpretations of law regarding working on the Sabbath. I contend that the law on circumcision was installed for health reasons. Possibly individuals of Jewish descent had a proclivity for infection in that part of the body and the healers found that if a person was circumcised the infection did not occur. We have found this to be true in the modern age, so why do we assume that Jewish people did not realize this at that time.

I found the opening sentence in Philemon to be fascinating. I would be interested to learn the Greek, but the English translation states that Paul is a prisoner of Jesus Christ. This infers that he believes in Christ against his will. Is this saying that believing in Christ is against our nature? Or is it saying we are not free to escape the confines of our environment?

I prefer to read the scripture before reading others interpretations. I find by following this order my perceptions are not tainted. It is important to understand the traditional analysis of the scripture. However, reading most of this for the first time, not reading the traditional analysis in advance allows me a pristine view from my mind’s eye which often ends up giving me an alternative understanding. One such example would be in the reason why Philemon sent the slave Onesimus to Paul. I believe instead of coming to help Paul himself, Philemon sent a slave, and due to this, Paul in his response is trying to embarrass Philemon in front of rest of the community. I am sure I am no the first person in the history of the world to come up with this analysis, (although I have not read it elsewhere) I enjoy thinking about scripture independently and then comparing it to others’ analysis. In any event, although one of the smaller books in the Scriptures, I found Philemon rich in social questions.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Jesus the Tax Resistor

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s

The three synoptic gospels start this story with the Pharisees trying to “entangle” “entrap” or “deliver him (Jesus) up to the authority” Therefore there must have been an expectation that Jesus believed in tax resistance to Rome but they needed him to publicly state this to have him arrested. I think this is also supported by Luke 23.2 whereupon handing Jesus to Pilate the assembly says “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor”

Many tax collectors over collected taxes so as to make a profit. This put an even heavier burden on the largely poor agricultural population of Israel. Often people had to mortgage their lands. Upon the ever rising taxes eventually the people would lose their land to the money-lenders. In the time of Jesus, there was still a strong sense of God haven given this land to the Jewish people and the land was God’s and should not be transferred to Romans or used to facilitate payment of taxes to Rome.

Jesus had to find a way to give his tax resistance message to the people so as to maintain his integrity, without publicly denouncing the Romans which would lead to his arrest. His wording is highly ambiguous just for that reason. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – which is nothing, Render unto God what is God’s – which is everything, particularly the land.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


I just wanted to touch on the issue of Intention and its importance to ethics.

It is a critical issue, which I have struggled with all my life. Really just how important are intentions as opposed to the actions taken or the results of those actions. There is the old adage that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Does intention matter? Without proper action, intention may be immaterial, or even harmful. In a simple example, I may intend to lose weight so that I can live a healthier life. Yet if I do not do the requisite study of nutritional education, or exercise and / or change my eating habits, it really doesn’t matter what my intention is, I will not lose weight.

What if someone who is torturing someone has the good intention of thinking they are saving lives. Does it really matter what the intention is, if the act itself is unethical. Suppose someone steals money but does it with the intention to give it to charity. Does that make the act of stealing any less unethical. What about a doctor or pharmaceutical company whose intention is only to make money, but they save thousands of lives.

Is it the intention, the act itself, or the result of that act that determines the ethics of the situation?

Ah, these are the questions that have plagued minds for millennium.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Movie Review - "Blow" with Johnny Depp.

This one gets a 7 on the J Scale

Johnny Depp is a great actor….I cant really say this was a great movie, or that it was done in a unique way or told a compelling story, or that it developed it character over time. However I gave it such a high mark because it did move me, and in an odd way saddened me, and made me think, which to me is one of the main purposes of movies (of course other than entertainment) .

There were a couple of lines in the movie that I thought were really good, The first was when he said “my ambitions far exceeded my abilities”. I think many of us can relate to this. Because many in life are un-ambitious, merely having ambition can take one far. But at some point, a person is limited by reaching the capacity of their ability. The thing is most people don’t see their own limitations, especially ambitious people. Many people, underestimate their ability, whereas ambitious people tend to overestimate their ability and in this case shows how negative that can be.

The second comment which touched me was that he said, “some people’s lives go by without their realizing it, but his life had several poignant moments”. I think this is true to some extent, that people just let their lives go on, and let life take them where it will, without much planning, or direction. And they blame the fates, or destiny, but in truth, it is their lack of action, or thought that led them to their position in life.

His was a tale of a sad life, that he did not realize what he wanted out of life until it was too late, and he was unable or unwilling to change…Another poignant point, was the stark comparison of the value of money versus integrity. How one lives their life, and what one does with their life is important and that it is never too late to turn back, it is never to late to start again.

OK, so most of the points made here are self evident….and the movie although completely lacking in subtlety certainly gets it point across for all to see. But I guess that was the point!!

Movie Review – Kite Runner 8 of 10 on the J Scale.

I usually like to wait a day or two before I write a review of a movie to let it all sink in. But I was just so moved by this movie. It was the story of two children growing up together in Afghanistan (pre soviet invasion), their life together, events that tore them apart and events in life that bind people together in ones heart forever. The story had such a depth to it. Dreams of children,. Dreams of parents for their children….the secrets children keep from parents and from each other…the secrets parents keep from children and from each other….triumph…shame….finding a purpose in life…fear...redemption….honor…courage…loyalty.. It also dealt with the dilemma of fight or flight in the face of danger...and how the stories we tell and hear shape our lives.....I can not say enough about this movie….The only fault I found in it was a sentimental and improbable escape from danger that occurred late in the movie as well as the ending of the movie seemed quite rushed, but I am just picking….a must see movie…

Descriptions of Salvation

I was recently asked "what descriptive word for salvation (justification, redemption, ransom, etc) you prefer and indicate its usefulness in today’s world."

There is of course an assumption that salvation is necessary, and the concept of salvation is useful to society today. Looking at the world from a multicultural and pluralistic perspective I cannot start out with that assumption. As is required from different cultural contexts, translation of words into other words that can be meaningful is necessary to bridge understanding among different groups of people. The word salvation, as well as most of the words describing salvation is so laden with history and assumptions that its mere use negates its usefulness to many.

The use of the word ransom has such negative connotations in society today. The concept of redemption although a more commonly used phrase today presupposes sin and guilt. I like the Hebrew concept of sin described as “missing the mark”. Thus sin is not living up to fullest potential as humans, or in the manner that God has called us to. Most humans do not consider themselves sinful (whether they are or not). If one does not consider themselves sinful, there is nothing to be redeemed from. Therefore I do not think most people would react to this description. I feel the description of justification will not be useful because it is a theological construct for Christian Salvation that does not have the same impact in the Vernacular. In our culture the use of the word justified indicates that someone’s actions were correct. If someone needs to be saved, they are being saved because they did something wrong. Therefore intuitively the use of this word does not resonate for me. I like the description that described justification as “a change of status in our relationship with God”. I think this is an important concept. At some point in our life we need to come to an understanding for ourselves separate from what we have been indoctrinated with in our youth. Relating it to salvation, though is a challenge as I think our relationship with God changes over time and that would mean there would be multiple salvations.

The first description I feel would be useful would be re-creation When I first thought of this I looked at the word as recreation as in leisure activities. Immediately I thought what a unique theological concept. Salvation through leisure. And although I came back to reality after a moment, the thought of taking time to enjoy the splendors of the world that God created could be a form of salvation, and certainly something that people could relate to. I do find it interesting that the words are homographs, but I do think the concept of re-creation is something that people can relate to. People have experienced creation within their lives. People have created children, shelters, food, and artistic expressions of ideas. This last is one of the things that make humans uniquely human. Humans have also had the opportunity to re-create their lives. We use the phrase second chance, or a do-over. We are constantly changing our lives, every day with every decision we make. People have the opportunity to re-create their view and perspective on the world every day. Seeing the world through the perspective of others can help us better reconcile differences with others (reconciliation is another description of salvation that is useful, although I think it is a subset of re-creation.) Even people who have had horrible experiences in this world can and often do use those experiences to change the world and help others avoid the same experiences. I think this is another factor in the development of salvation that is critical when we recreate while working with others.

If we were made in the image of God, why would we not have the same ability (on a smaller scale) to create and recreate? I believe in the Unity of God with all of God’s creations, and if we are one with God, we should have the ability to create. And just as God had the ability to create, God also had the ability to destroy such as displayed with the Flood. Yet always in the Jewish Scriptures, God recreated humans, or allowed humans to re-create themselves and try again and again, after each failure, to try to rise up again to strive for the maximum potential of humanity.

I was moved by a statement attributed to the Cappadocians that When God assumed a human form and nature, the purpose was not only to participate in human life, but also “to enable man to participate in divine life”. God did participate in human life in Genesis directly and though human actions throughout the Jewish Scriptures. Although I would argue that the divine spark is within each human being, although that is different and not as comprehensive as participating in divine life.

Another important description of salvation is deliverance and liberation. I think this description is something that people can relate to. Many people have felt the sting of oppression and marginalization in some way in their lifetime. Dealing with this is the great need for religion. Salvation can be seen as the hope for deliverance and liberation from oppression. As the world becomes more connected, people will become more aware of the disparity in power which will create conflict. Such conflict will lead to the need for reconciliation amongst all people. I like the concept which speaks of both vertical and horizontal elements of reconciliation. I think before we can reconcile with God, I think humanity needs to reconcile with each other. I think both humanity and God need to meet halfway in the abyss. I think it will take entering into the abyss for humans to reconcile with each other. Entering into the abyss is a matter of unconditional trust. It is a trust that there is a purpose in the universe and that purpose is working towards justice for all. I believe that by entering the abyss in search of reconciliation and justice within humanity, we will find our reconciliation with God and only then will we have salvation.

Just what is conservative and liberal?

Last night I was listening to talk radio on the way home, and I heard Shawn Hannity say something to the effect, “Just how high do gas prices have to go before Americans agree to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska. This was shocking to me. Every attempt by the Bush Administration to allow drilling has been rejected by the Senate. Yet now there is a consistent call from conservative talk radio trying to drum up support for this environmentally indefensible idea.

Now first let me say that my conservative friends find it amazing that someone with my views on politics and religion would listen to conservative talk radio. Yet I believe in my heart, I need to hear all sides of the story before I make my decisions. I do believe there is a mainstream media bias, so I like to read, listen and watch the fringe media from both the liberal and conservative positions to try to interpret what is really the truth. One of the principles of my Unitarian Universalists religion is the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I would not be responsible if I did not investigate all views. Another principle of my religion is the respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. I cannot sit idly by and do nothing while forces within America want to destroy and pillage the earth’s resources. We must realize that there are consequences to drilling that could effect the future existence of this planet. Therefore I ask all Americans to contact your governmental representatives immediately and say NO TO DRILLING FOR OIL in the ANWR.

As I listen to talk radio more and more, I find I am more confused about what is conservative and liberal. I always thought I was middle of the road with liberal leanings on social issues. More and more as I listen to talk radio, I am shocked to learn that what I thought were conservative views are radically liberal. Take the drilling in ANWR. I believe we should conserve our natural resources and live simpler lives. I think it is radically liberal to want to drill for oil in a pristine environmental location merely to give the oil companies extra profits with having no real impact on prices to consumers or the long term energy problem. So protecting and conserving the environment is now considered liberal and not conservative?

I think we should invest in alternative fuel programs, finding the most cost effective method with the least disruption to our planet. I am not opposed to business (even oil companies) making money on this. But let them make money based on a strategic plan of the government (by, of and for the people) to create an energy independent, eco-friendly product. Investment in long term business projects seems to be quite a conservative idea, yet talk show hosts seem to label alternative fuel sources as radical liberalism.

I also once thought that having a balanced budget was a conservative issue. Yet the Republican President and Republican led congress took a balanced budget, strong economy, and secure social security system left to them by President Clinton and ran them into the ground. They breached their fiduciary and moral responsibilities with openhanded tax giveaways for the wealthy and big business, and unconstrained military and domestic spending. These acts seem like wild liberal radical actions….yet the talk show hosts call them conservative.

And lets talk about our foreign policy. I think most people would argue that going to war in Afghanistan was in our country’s best interest. Yet it seemed clear to me and to many others that there never has been a valid reason to enter the war in Iraq. A conservative would be one who should be hesitant and reluctant to engage in foreign wars and would try to resolve things diplomatically. A conservative would be one who set up policies to avoid the need to be entangled in foreign intrigue and would want to follow isolationist policies. I think it is quite a radical liberal idea to create a global network of business and social interests. I think it is a radical liberal idea to try and impose our way of life and government on others. Yet the talk show hosts call this conservative.

When Mike Huckabee was running for President, he was the “conservative” and the conservative talk show hosts were ripping apart John McCain. Now these same people are supporting John McCain as the “conservative” choice, not bringing up their previous vehement diatribes against him. They are now using the same smear tactics in their invectives against Democrats. My point is, there seems to be little integrity in the news media, and we move the word liberal and conservative around as labels to fit our needs.

As a seminary student (and future minister), I hope to transform individual lives and society for the better. Therefore we must look deep within our selves and our society to see what the truth really is. Merely accepting labels others have used to define people is self defeating. Truly listen to what is being said. Listen to varying views that are available, be open to different ideas, and above all, let us work together to achieve our common goals and visions and not demonize people who disagree with us. Lets use our hearts and our heads to make this world a true Heaven on Earth for both Conservatives and Liberals however you view yourself!!