Sunday, September 27, 2020

Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you

"Bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you" -- Jesus

If ever a nation was in need of prayer, that is our nation today. 

Lord, may we work together with gentleness

And rebuild respect

May we recall your compassion for us

And consider your love for our neighbor

May we put down our zeal to find fault in others

Grant us a Sabbath rest from our own anger

May we see that every fault that can be found

Is nothing but what is common to humankind

And can be found in friend and enemy alike. 

May I extend to those who hate me the same grace that I would to a friend. 

May I bless those who curse me

May I pray for those who persecute me

May I greet those who would turn their backs

If someone aims arrogant words against me

May I win them over without words

May I encourage the timid

And walk the path of faithfulness

May justice and peace be reacquainted

May truth be spoken with love

May those who sow discord find us slow to believe evil of others

May we doubt the evil that we have come to believe

As the evil one is the father of lies

May we forget our enmity and remember our neighbor

May we turn away from the ranks of the Accuser

And weaken the forces of evil by deserting our hatred

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why I am religious, not just spiritual

For many years now, the elite tiers in our culture have frowned upon religion -- specifically on Christian religion; we generally give a pass to anyone else. There is a peer pressure to talk about "meditation" rather than "prayer": though religious people may do both, spiritual people are far more likely to meditate. There is a certain peer pressure, a certain gateway-to-acceptance, to identify as "spiritual, not religious." And the opposition to "organized religion" is so well-established that there are long-standing jokes about "Don't worry about us; we're not that organized" -- long-established jokes meant to deflect the long-established hostile environment. In light of that, I wanted to state why I am religious, not just spiritual. 

For Christians it will come as no surprise that spirituality is part of our faith: that spirituality is the heart of our faith. Some of the best-loved Bible passages are spiritual, such as the ancient Psalmist's cry "Create in me a clean heart, O God," or St Paul's reminders that build on Jesus' teachings: that the law is fulfilled by love. 

Yet spirituality alone, without the framework of faith, tends to be wishy-washy. If it can be anything that I want it to be, then it is limited by myself -- and limited to myself. This ultra-subjectivity means that there are no grounded intellectual discussions to be had with someone who shares the same reality, no firm basis for the growth of understanding, no consensus to be formed. My spirituality can guide me, and your spirituality can guide you; but it doesn't generally lead us to organize for the common good.

And it is that shared belief with its result of organizing for the common good that are among the strong suits of religion. Yes: I'm aware of the long line of people eager to bring a catalog of times when religious people have made bad calls. In a healthy religious system, the bad actors are called out by other religious people based on those shared values and shared rules of life. The moral absolutes of the faith empower even the lowest person to take on a corrupt person who has gained power: the standard outranks the person. A good religion makes the bad actors in its ranks accountable to a higher authority, and so puts a stop to them. It is true that bad people exist, and that bad people will abuse whatever kind of power is handy, whether it's religious or political or economic or educational or any other kind they can find. The fact that bad people use power in bad ways is not, rightly, a call to become disorganized but a call to check ourselves and clean house.

The different values and particulars of each religion have led down different paths, so I will speak here to Christianity, while other faiths can ably speak to their own experience. 

Christianity has from its foundation worked kindness toward our neighbors as part of our faith. In the first years when Jesus led Christianity with his own physical presence, he helped peoples' physical needs by healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He met peoples' needs of acceptance by his presence and his practice of hospitality. He met peoples' spiritual needs by teaching, building up their understanding and faith, their compassion and their hope, their sense of connection to their neighbors. He taught as one who has authority.

Still in the early years of the faith when the New Testament was being written, the early Christians were already organizing to get food to widows and to the poor, and organizing to get disaster relief to famine-stricken areas. We know this because the New Testament mentions some of the efforts there. The organization of religious efforts is a blessing to those who receive the generosity and kindness that are the intent of the organization. Down the centuries, churches have fed countless poor, hungry, and bereaved people in their time of need. Churches have organized to create and sustain hospitals and schools, charitable organizations and disaster relief funds. Down to this day, I have seen churches take the lead in disaster relief. A few years ago after hurricane Harvey, I was grateful to receive some free meals dropped off just-in-time by church groups, as I worked at a clothing distribution center, or helped with a cleanup crew in a flooded home. The people of Christ have been there for me, just as I hope I have been there for others.

Jesus left a clear call to those who follow him, a clear picture of how he judges our actions as good: 

"I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me. ... Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me."

I am grateful for the organization of religion so that we can do greater things to help our neighbors. I am grateful for the fellowship of my brothers and sisters in the faith. I am grateful for the shared music and art that enrich our lives. I am grateful for the intellectual heritage of so many great thinkers. I am grateful for the spiritual heritage of so many saints. And I am grateful for Jesus' authority -- which I recall him citing on these occasions: the authority to cleanse the Temple (that is, to purify religion to what it should be), and the authority to forgive sins.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

To everything there is a season: A time for peace?

The book of Ecclesiastes has a well-known and timeless poem:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to harvest;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

I am having trouble reading the times right now. The atmosphere in the U.S. is tense, strained, distrustful. There is a near-expectation that the November election will bring orchestrated riots across the nation, much as it did four years ago. While there may be a certain amount of poor sportsmanship (to say the least) in rioting over election results, that's not at all enough to explain what happened. For the most part I chalked up the 2016 election riots -- or I should say, the susceptibility of many otherwise decent people to join the riots -- to the extreme levels of fear and hatred that had been carefully built by political rhetoric during and after the campaign cycle, both on the part of the politicians and their allies in like-minded media outlets.

Where do extremists come from, if not from extreme levels of hatred and fear? 

We, all of us as human beings, have a blind spot. We assume that not only are our thoughts and feelings justified (never mistaken or manipulated), but also that their scale is justified (never out-of-proportion). Back in the real world though, extreme rhetoric is a prime cause in moving people to be extremely angry, extremely hateful, extremely fearful, and to do extreme things. All the while, the new-minted extremists are fully convinced that they have a justified and proportionate response. A person's response is generally proportionate to something, but to what? In these cases, it has been proportionate to their fear or anger or hatred. But is their fear or anger or hatred proportionate to what is happening?

Imagine that you could measure anger. Maybe 1 point on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to an aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic. Maybe 10 points on the angry scale would be a proportionate reaction to a drunk driver who endangered you and your loved ones. Here's the thing: if we're angry at a 10 point level, we start with the assumption that the other person did something 10-point bad. We don't consider "What if they did something 1-point bad and someone else exaggerated it or portrayed it in the worst possible light?" Or "What if it didn't actually happen as reported at all, or if someone is keeping certain facts out of the picture to make a good story better?" It is a natural human bias that the information we already know is the information that matters to us; there are people who abuse that trust. But we're so invested in believing our own reasonableness -- so invested in justifying our feelings and reactions -- that we easily recruit ourselves to defend the integrity of people who withheld vital information, in an effort to prove we can trust ourselves.

We're human: We do not have full knowledge, and information is brokered through notoriously unreliable channels. There are people in a position to manipulate us every time information is passed along. Basically every media outlet on the market is known to keep certain facts out of the picture, to filter information to suit the confirmation-bias of their party. We even find ourselves in the unfortunate situation where a reliable slant creates brand loyalty. It follows that, regardless of our preferred media outlet, our reactions are probably out of proportion to what they would be if we knew all the facts. If we consume mass media, we will quickly encounter areas where people are actively trying to manipulate us, starting with the emotions. The more volatile emotions can act like a hallucinogen: for example, fear distorts both our perceptions and our thinking. So does anger or hatred. Eventually the bias can get to the point where the contempt or fear persists and is the automatic reaction to the targeted person or view.

To mass-create extremists requires the willing participation of mass media outlets, the willing consumption of bias, and the willing justification of an extreme reaction. It also requires a willing disinterest in whether another point of view may have legitimate concerns. Each of those points is an opportunity to turn back the tide on the mass-creation of extremists. It takes discernment and (in these times) some amount of patience and courage. We can try to broaden our sources of information to find the information that is being filtered out. We can actively wonder what piece of the picture we are missing; the additional information may support views we haven't considered yet. We can entertain some skepticism about our own emotions after consuming political media, much as we might after watching a scary movie. We can think twice about justifying extreme reactions. And we can hold the media outlets accountable when they withhold or distort information, or manipulate volatile emotions. 

With the state of information today, I find it helpful to work from the premise that any politicized story is uncorroborated until seeing if the other side has possession of facts that are not being reported through the first outlet. Assuming that any political story is uncorroborated leads to a certain "Schrodinger's Cat" view of the news: any given story may or may not be true. I find myself with a whole zoo full of Schrodinger's cats. I will bet that it is more accurate than some of the certainties on the market.

I hope it is still a time for peace. But as anyone who watches the international scene knows, peace doesn't just happen. It takes willingness. That willingness is eroded by hatred and suspicion and fear. I'd encourage anyone who loves peace to tune out voices that promote hatred, suspicion, and fear. 

A time for peace -- I pray it's not too late.
(Slightly altered version of the lyrics to Turn, Turn, Turn -- based on Ecclesiastes)

Sunday, September 06, 2020

In honor of JRR Tolkien, Professor of Ancient Beauties

This last week marked the anniversary of Professor Tolkien's passing. This graphic is done as a memorial tribute.

 The origins of Smaug, (c) 2020, original done in Inkscape

Tolkien understood something about the act of creation. His creations breathed life back to him as well. Incidentally, please don't over-estimate my artistic skills; the dragon is very closely based on some old drawings by Tolkien himself.