Sunday, September 27, 2015

We Are God's Temple: The mortar is fellowship

It is written that we are living stones in God's Temple -- that God lives within us. Christ is the foundation, and Christ is the cornerstone. We are joined together by fellowship, as the mortar which holds us together. It is an expression of love, the work of the Spirit who lives with in us and the outpouring of our own faith.

The leaders of the church were originally chosen from those who were gifted in hospitality (1 Timothy 3:2): they understood the role of fellowship, and how to cultivate it. The more leaders who are gifted in hospitality, the more closely the church holds together in the bond of love. Such church builders are architects who have understood God's love for people and God's vision of us united, understanding each living stone and finding the right place for each. Each stone builds up the whole, and is more secure itself for being joined together. Compare a finished Temple to a pile of rubble, and know: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The "lone ranger" Christians -- the vast numbers of Christians and Christian sympathizers who are unchurched -- are a sign of the problems with love and fellowship in the church. So many people remain apart from the Temple as a solitary stone that has been knocked out of place, and is content to stay there since at least it won't be knocked down again.

As a wise man once said: There is a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Let our days be days of rebuilding. Let us pray for the architects who would build us together on the foundation of Christ as a Temple of the Spirit.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Organized religion: the DNA of civilization

Think back over the thousands of years of human history, over the continents that circle the globe. Think of all the hunter-gatherer tribes, all the early human settlements. Think of the rise of actual cohesive cultures and civilizations. Egypt, India, China ... each had its own beginnings of formal, organized religion. Babylon ... with the Code of Hammurabi. Ancient Israel, ancient Persia. The various "golden ages" of civilizations in the thousands of years since then have generally been united by an organized religion. Organized religion is the DNA that forms a civilization and keeps it coherent from one generation to the next.

For a people to be united enough to create something that endures, it is necessary to go beyond the everyday concerns, the divisive quarreling, and the self-destructive foolishness that so often describe human life, and to instead reach for something unifying and something enduring. Organized religion plays a civilizing role for the individual people; it also forms the people into united cultures. Religion shapes them by its sense of wisdom or purity or holiness or brotherly love, and encourages them to higher goals than they might think of by themselves. The general common experience of those who participate in organized religion is that it expands our horizons and enriches our lives. And when a religion becomes prevalent enough in a certain time and place, when it has the peoples' devotion and imagination, a united culture arises. When peoples' commitment to its vision of justice or beauty or wisdom or brotherhood are worked out in that many lives, these cultures make enduring achievements, and are remembered with respect.

For a thriving culture to form, it is not only necessary to have laws -- a code of right and wrong and social rules -- but it is also necessary that people generally agree on them. It is not enough to have laws when the people in power merely impose those laws on the rest; that's simply oppression. It is not enough that the ruling class has certain values and goals which are mandated to the peasants or workers; it is necessary for those workers to share those values, to take up the mantle willingly. The religion shapes the culture, what it can attain, what it can achieve, what it values. The culture in turn may give a certain shape to the religion: the Christianity of Russia and Italy show how beauty and art and scholarship can take different directions. The Catholicism of Mexico has a flavor of its own. The history of the world has shown that organized religion has enough breathing room for each culture to make it their own. And so while a culture or a golden age may be proud of its religion, a religion may in turn be proud of its cultures and golden ages.

For a culture to hold together across the generations, it is necessary that something should continue to unite it, and inspire it, and shape its identity. In the modern U.S.A., we are taught to despise organized religion -- usually by people who show no understanding of its benefits, and who make arguments that could as easily be applied to (say) organized government or (in some cases) organized education. While I hope our culture can be renewed or rekindled, there is a consolation for whenever the time comes for it to fall: the mechanism for teaching such hatred of religion will, given time, likewise fall. And after that hatred has gone, it is the achievements of the golden ages that will stand the test of time.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Tree that Fell in the Forest: Why God Created?

There's an old brain-teaser of sorts: "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?" People can have a few moments' mind-sport debating over whether the "sound" is the air-carried disturbance or the perception of it, debating whether we can prove a thing with no witnesses, debating whether it matters if nobody is aware of it.

In relation to God: if there were no creatures capable of perceiving awesomeness, would God be an awesome God? If God had not created, he would not be Creator (or Redeemer, or Sustainer). If there were no Time, he would not be Ancient of Days. If there were no creatures with families, he would not be Our Father. If there were no earth, he would not be Our Rock. If no one could see, he would not be our Light; if no one had ever walked, he would not be our Way. If there were no minds to perceive reality, would not be our Truth. If he were all that existed, he would not be the Lord of Hosts. Without a flock, he would not be the Good Shepherd. If there were no places, would he be Omnipresent? If nobody else existed and nothing ever happened, would it mean anything to be Omniscient? If he never did anything, would it matter whether he were Omnipotent? Without creation, God could be compared to the tree in the forest -- the one that nobody heard.

When God said, "It is not good for man to be alone," I wonder whether he spoke from experience there. Without Eve, then Adam was the tree that fell in the forest. And as God sends us to love our neighbors, I think that's part of what we do for our neighbors. We see them, we know they're there, we take notice of them, and when they fall we remember them. The more we do that for our neighbors, the more they matter. So they are not the tree that falls in the forest, and neither are we.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

"Three things are above me, four I cannot fathom ..." - the counting proverbs

Proverbs chapter 30 is full of "counting" proverbs. The verse is introduced with one number, and then continues with a higher number. Consider:

  • The leech has two daughters ... three things are insatiable ... four never say "Enough!" (Proverbs 30:15)
  • Three things are beyond me ... four I cannot fathom. (30:18)
  • The earth shudders at three things, at four which it cannot bear (30:21)
  • Three that are stately of stride, four that carry themselves well (30:29)

I think their author made a point, not just with his words but with his format as well:

If we ponder a matter, we add to our wisdom. If we ponder how many things we do not understand, we add to our humility. And while we cannot add to the word of God, we can always add to our understanding.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

What brings joy to our days, and makes them good?

Pondering the texts in the style of the ancient Biblical scholars; I'm fairly fond of some of their approaches.

What brings joy to our days, and makes them good?
It is to see the wonders of creation, as it is written that the Holy One said, "He saw that it was good." 
It is to do something of value and worth, as it is written that he made it, and saw that it was good.  
It is to be a companion to another so that they are not alone, as it is written, "It is not good for man to be alone." 
In all these things, we walk after the ways of God.

  • The artist walks after the way of God, to bring forth a thing of beauty. 
  • The craftsman walks after the way of God, to bring forth a thing of worth. 
  • The gardener walks after the way of God, as it is written, "He planted a garden in the East."
  • The companion walks after the way of God, as it is written that he walked in the cool of the evening. 
  • The husband and wife walk in the way of God, as it is written that they brought forth a new life. 

There are other acts in which we walk after the ways of God:

  • An act of justice, as it makes people bless God.
  • An act of mercy, as it makes people bless God. 

Is there a contradiction? On the one hand it is written, to do your alms in private, and in another it is written, "that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven"?
There is no contradiction, for "Do your alms in private" refers to works that bring praise to yourself, as it is written, "they have already received their reward", while the other refers to works that bring praise to the Holy One, as it is written, "that they may glorify your Father in heaven."

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Why not wear linsey-woolsey clothes?

There are some rules of the Old Testament that are generally acknowledged as healthy, upright, and reasonable. The commands against murder, stealing, false witness, and adultery are prime examples of laws that are well-regarded. And then there are the other laws whose inclusion is puzzling to say the least, since we cannot determine any possible purpose of that law. One such puzzling law is the restriction against wearing clothes made of both wool and linen:
You shall not wear cloth combining wool and linen. (Deuteronomy 22:11, JPS)
Maimonides, one of the renowned Jewish scholars of the Middle Ages, claimed to have determined the reason. On the view that some of the obscure rules were intended to teach monotheism and to distance the Jews from surrounding nations' idol-worship, Maimonides had reviewed some of the books available to him that gave details of pagan rituals. He writes:
For the same reason [that it was the custom of idolatrous priests], the wearing of garments made of linen and wool is prohibited; the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal material, whilst they held in their hand a seal made of a mineral. This you find written in their books. (Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, Chapter 37)
Apparently, back in the day, wearing animal/vegetable mixed clothes was to dress like a pagan priest who was prepared 2 parts out of 3 for an idol-worship ritual. At that point he did not mention exactly which books he was citing, though based on books he mentions elsewhere, the first place I might check is the ancient work Nabatean Agriculture, should an English translation ever become available, or an on-line copy available via web translation software.