Pandora and the Pilot or What I Learned From Dia de los Muertos

Like most of the aging pilots I know, the most dreaded date on the calendar is the annual appointment with the Flight Surgeon, the day a previously undetected medical condition might come to light and ground us permanently leaving us to walk among the mere mortals who have never joined John Gillespie Magee Jr. as he “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

There I am, standing before the dreaded eye chart, straining to read the 20/20 line with my left eye. The 20/40 line remains clearly in view, but the ability to read no lower on the chart than 20/40 only qualifies me for the “Third Class” medical certificate. I’m striving for the “Second Class” certificate which qualifies me to be paid for performing pilot duties in any aircraft and in a variety of activities except flying for the scheduled airlines.

Now, there is no practical reason for me to maintain the “Second Class” medical certificate. Flight Instruction, the only professional aviation activity I have ever engaged in, requires the “Third Class” certificate. No, the only reason I have continued to maintain the “Second Class” certificate is for the status of knowing that I could apply for any number of professional flying positions that require that qualification.

I did manage to eke out a sufficiently accurate reading of the 20/20 line of the eye chart that day, but the near miss by one of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” set me to thinking about why continuing to meet the FAA’s standards of the “Second Class” medical certificate and the continued permission to fly airplanes is so important to me.

Until now, I explained my attachment to my pilot certificate and flying airplanes as the fulfillment of my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I was the kid who ran outside to watch every aircraft as it flew overhead. I built model airplanes, read books on aviation, memorized performance data on the airplanes of the day, and fantasized about the heroics of famous aviators and aviatrixes.

I was crestfallen when, as a third grader, I came home from a visit to the optometrist with my first pair of glasses. I already knew that military aviators had to have perfect 20/20 vision to qualify for flight training. That weakness of my mortal flesh however did not diminish my enthusiasm for flight. I would soon learn of “general aviation” the realm of flight occupied by private pilots, airshow pilots, and pilots who build their own airplanes. There remained a whole world of flying opportunities open to me.

After graduating college I entered active duty with the Air Force. Upon arrival at my first duty station, I immediately joined the flying club and began taking lessons. For the next year, my free time was consumed with all things aviation: ground school, flight lessons, and reading every aviation magazine I could get my hands on. After earning my private pilot certificate I enrolled for advanced flight training. Each achievement led to earning additional licenses and ratings. The cycle has continued to this day. Even now, there are flight experiences that I long to add to my logbook.

Coming home from the flight surgeon with my re-issued Second Class medical set me to exploring why the prospect of not passing my next medical exam and having to face the reality of giving up flying someday was so distressing. This brings us to Pandora, the myth, not the jewelry or the Internet radio station.

[The language snob in me feels compelled to interject that it still rankles me that the word “myth” has come to mean a falsehood or misconception. I hold to the classic meaning of myth: a narrative that expresses the most profound and often elusive truths of our human existence.]

As you may recall Zeus presented Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, with an elaborately decorated jar as a wedding gift. Pandora opened the jar releasing its contents, many demons and evils. Realizing what she had done, she tried to replace the lid, keeping the last of its contents, Hope, in the jar. The explanation of this myth as it was first taught to me held that amid the many demons and miseries that Pandora unleashed on the world, Hope was the one that could remedy the “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I later came upon the interpretation that Hope, rather than being a blessing was instead one of the curses that torment our mortal coil. Hope tempts us to remain too long in the misery of a failed relationship; to persist in a dead-end job long after we could have taken the initiative to leave; in short, to refuse to see the truth of our circumstances.

I had to acknowledge that for the 40+ years I have been involved in aviation I have invested my hope in my status as a pilot. I have hoped that being a pilot would set me apart from the average guy. I have hoped that my status as a flight instructor would win me the respect of others and most importantly of myself. The result has been that this misplaced hope has tormented me with the fear that my flying days will some day end. This fear fed my insatiable desire to add more hours to my logbook and ratings to my pilot certificate. This anxiety caused me to look past the joy of each moment I have spent in flight. Hope has led me into a life of achievement and misery.

This brings us to Dia del los Muertos. Early in our time in Santa Fe, I was struck, even appalled by my frequent encounters with the art and imagery of the Day of the Dead. Skeletons dancing in the streets; Catrina adorned in her aristocratic finery; the skeletal couple at the marriage altar. I found myself turning away from these icons in my ignorance of their bold and shocking proclamation.

Then, on the last Sunday of October our first year here, we visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe. Rev. Gail Marriner explained that Dia de los Muertos provides the occasion for families to look past the pain of grief and loss and to remember and celebrate their ancestors’ lives. It is an occasion to again experience the love that those who have passed brought into their lives. I came away with the realization that being reminded of our mortality challenges us to celebrate every moment of our lives and to live without fearing the end that is certain to come.

Now, I didn’t leave that service and decorate our house with depictions of Catrina, or plant marigolds, or learn to bake pan de muerto. I did come away with a new appreciation for the art and icons of Dia del Muerto. And more to the point of this essay, my recollection of that awareness now calls me to acknowledge that the day is coming when I will no longer be able to pilot an aircraft. It further encourages me to appreciate each flight experience between now and that day more fully and with gratitude that I have been able to be a pilot at all.

Returning to Pandora for a moment. It occurs to me that we are asking the wrong question when we ask if Hope is an angel or a demon. Hope is always calling to us to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” The question is not whether we choose to hope. The question is where shall we invest our hope.

The world sends us constant messages offering us opportunities to invest our hope. Invest in drugs to restore our sexual vitality; in cosmetics to revitalize our appearance; in the second opinion of a cancer treatment center to reverse our disease; in the latest analgesic to relieve our pain; in firearms to keep us safe from the deranged gunman; in a well managed portfolio to sustain us in retirement; in the elite sports league to provide opportunities for our children; the latest video game to avoid our boredom; the latest smart phone to end our isolation; and on and on and on.

I’m not a “blood of the lamb” kind of guy for two reasons. First, I’m not convinced that “Christ died for your sins” it is the most compelling expression of the Christian proclamation; but more importantly, like you, I’m not a first century Jew struggling with the theological crisis that arose from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. That said, despite his use of this imagery, I find the hymn of Edward Mote relevant and instructive:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.

Unless we invest out hope in something lasting and transcendent, Pandora’s Hope joins the ranks of the other demons she unleashed on the world and becomes the most insidious, vicious, and destructive of them all.

Black Lives Matter

We hunted you down
like animals in the forest
bound you in chains
and loaded you into ships
like so much freight.

During the long dark voyages
from below deck
we heard your cries of anguish and pain
as murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We sold you at auction
making fortunes in the marketplace.
We bred you like livestock and trained you
to the arduous and dangerous tasks
of building fortunes for ourselves
and our descendants.

We deprived you of your culture
and languages but continued
hearing the murmurs
in the secret meetings around campfires in the night
strange sounds in foreign tongues.

You worked and toiled for generations
while we talked in pious tones
of liberty and freedom from the bondage
of our British overlords
still hearing your murmurs, strange sounds in foreign tongues.

We banned your religions and traditions.
We civilized you and saved you from the wrath of our God
and forced you to sit in our meetinghouses
apart from our families whom you toiled to serve.
In exchange for your myths and sacred truths
we gave you St. Paul:
“Slaves obey your masters”

Your freedom came,
not as a declaration of your humanity
or recognition of your personhood,
or as the fruits of the tireless work of our enlightened few.
We released you from chattel slavery
as a military tactic to undermine the economy
of your rebellious overlords.

No sooner had we changed the law of the land
to make room for you at the table
that we found new forms of slavery
to keep “you in your place”

Jim Crow visited you in the night
shrouded in white
by the light of burning crosses.
As you huddled in fear,
again we heard your murmurs,
this time in a language we should have understood.

At last, you quoted our scriptures back to us
and found strength and comfort in our God and our Jesus.
Still we turned a deaf ear
to your humanity and dignity.

We grudgingly offered you a “separate but equal” place
in the country that you labored to build.
All the while we took steps to ensure that your place
would always be separate but never equal.

We took comfort in our rationale
that you just weren’t ready for full citizenship
you couldn’t cope with the complexities of urban life
you were essentially and fundamentally different
and need our continued guidance and direction.
(read: our oppression and exploitation)

You labored on, and on,
finding your dignity and strength
in the truth we refused to hear.
This time your murmurs rang out loud and clear
We shall over come…
Someday…

And that day came and went
and we pointed to Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays
and Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan
and Tiger Woods and an African-American President
with an African Name.

We declared a post-racial America had finally arrived
and we continued to stop and frisk your young men on the streets
and lock them up and throw away the key
and hunt them down so we could stand our ground
and choke them to death in police custody
and shoot them down
and break their backs
and shoot them down
and turn a deaf ear
to the murmurs that have haunted us down the years
the murmurs that we cannot silence by declaring
“All lives matter”

Let’s Give Joel A Break

Just before Easter this year, someone posted to Facebook a picture purported to be the Houston area mansion of Joel Osteen. Superimposed on the picture were the words “Jesus died so that Pastor Joel Osteen could purchase a $10.5 million home in Houston Texas.”

Needless to say, this post evoked a flurry of comments, among them,

Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook

You think that home is helping the homeless?

He’s not guiding them to salvation, he’s bleeding their bank accounts dry to line his own pockets. When will people wakeup to the biggest scam that has ever been perpetrated on mankind, by mankind…

A chart showing the six- and seven-figure salaries earned by Osteen and various other televangelists followed that post a few weeks later. I always find it interesting when this topic comes up. I also must admit to a degree of ambivalence when faced with the popularity of the many televangelists and their attempts to feed the insatiable appetite of the media for content. Further, many of the disparaging comments resonate with my own reactions to the high-profile ministries of the more well-know televangelists. However, I think it is time we give Joel a break. After all, behind the aforementioned comments are some assumptions that are interesting to unpack.

Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook

Is Joel a crook? Well, he was not one of the six televangelists targeted by Senator Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee investigation in 2007 – 2011. He does seem to be scrupulous in his handling the complexities of his finances and in navigating the subtleties of IRS regulations regarding the tax status of 501(c)(3) organizations. Further, it is not clear how profiting from the sale of his feel-good books constitutes “stealing form the poor.” In fact, the profit from the sale of his books is the source of his income, as he does not take a salary from the Lakewood Church. There remains a question of whether he inappropriately promotes his books on his telecasts; but that gets into some murky subtleties in tax law. So, a crook, I think not.

You think that home is helping the homeless?

This is perhaps the easiest of the allegations to dismiss. I dare say that few if any of us routinely share our homes with the homeless in our midst, so why might we expect Joel and Victoria to open their doors to the homeless of Houston?

He’s a thief stealing from the poor by using God

His telecasts stand apart from those of the televangelists that drew the attention of the Grassley investigation in that he never asks his television audience for money. In fact, he might be better thought of as a successful author and motivational speaker than as a Christian evangelist. In that light, I have never heard such criticism leveled at the likes of a Zig Ziglar or a Wayne Dyer. No one seems to care about the number of bathrooms in Zig’s house, nor of the amount of his net worth. No one accuses Dyer of stealing from the poor or of failing to help the homeless.

Who is Joel Osteen?

Joel studied radio and television production in college but dropped out before graduating. He got his start at Lakewood Church producing the television broadcasts of his father’s Sunday services. His father encouraged him to begin preaching at Lakewood shortly before his father’s untimely death from a heart attack.   At his mother’s insistence, Joel took the reigns at Lakewood Church. If anything, Osteen is a dutiful son who took over the family business when his father died.

Joel hasn’t attended seminary and there was no mention in the articles I read of his ever being ordained. Parenthetically, historically among Baptists, neither college nor seminary attendance are prerequisites for ordination. Likewise, ordination is not a prerequisite for public preaching. So, if education and training are to be considered, Joel clearly has what it takes to oversee the production of a television broadcast, conduct an appealing Sunday experience, and run a profitable enterprise. He also has a talent for tuning into the zeitgeist and offering a message that soothes anxiety and inspires hope in his followers.

Lacking formal training or the ambition to be a minister, it is little wonder his sermons are often criticized for their lack of depth or theological content. He is usually lumped in with the preachers of the prosperity gospel (topic for a future post). In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “Osteen agrees, offering his own definition of the prosperity gospel: ‘I never preach a message on money,’ he said. ‘I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn’t going to be rich — if we’re talking about money.’” (Nov 29, 2007)

Osteen does not preach the traditional “Jesus died for our sins” evangelical message. This fact makes the accusation that Jesus died so Joel could purchase a mansion ludicrous on the face of it. As a matter of fact and content, Joel has more in common with a motivational speaker than with a Christian evangelist. So what are we to make of Joel Osteen? I think it is clearly unfair to lump him in with the thousands of women and men who are out in the world doing God’s work in the churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and places of worship of the myriad religious traditions in this country and then criticize him for having an expensive house and a large net worth. In many significant ways, he has more in common with a best-selling self-help guru, a successful motivational speaker, or an Oscar/Emmy/Tony/Grammy award-winning entertainer. Judged by the standards of those icons in our culture, Joel looks rather modest and responsible in all aspects of his life.

While his sermons may not be intellectually rigorous, or particularly Biblical, I’d rather his be the public face of Christianity than a hate monger such as the late Fred Phelps or a fear monger like Pat Robertson. And although his lifestyle may have  more in common with oligarchs, celebrities, and the 1% of capitalists than with the majority of his followers; he does seem to stand for marital fidelity, hope, optimism, and positive aspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather go skinny dipping in a lake of burning sulfur than to attend one of Joel’s feel good rallies he calls a worship service. That said, I am keenly aware of the Biblical admonition not to judge and condemn others. For, who of us can say with certainty who is and who is not doing God’s work in the world (see Matthew 25)? After all, in a time of declining church membership and attendance, he has managed to put church on the weekly agendas of 16,000 Houstonians, and that can’t be all bad. Further, what tends to happen in mega-churches is that they experience rapid growth then settle onto a plateau. New members continue to arrive, while others leave in search of a deeper and more fulfilling experience. So if Joel is nothing more than a gateway into the Christian conversation, he is indeed doing God’s work. So, lest that burning lake of sulfur become my eternal destiny, I say, “Let’s give Joel a break.”

The Reason for the Season

Preface: Despite what the reader may think, this is not a lament on the state of the celebration of Christmas. That topic is in the queue for future treatment. A reflection on college football follows.

Having grown up in Texas, I was infused with enthusiasm for football; as inescapable a part of the culture as The Alamo, country music, and of course, revival preachers and the Southern Baptist Church.

My hometown team (and later alma mater) is the Baylor Bears, who had about five winning seasons in the last half of the twentieth century.  Recently Baylor’s teams have had more success than I could have ever imagined as a child: a Heisman Trophy winner, and now, back-to-back conference championships. So, at last, with a quarter-billion-dollar stadium to call home, and a season in which they were serious contenders for a shot at the national championship, the Mighty Bears seem mighty indeed. No more “wait until next year.” Baylor University has finally arrived in the promised land of big time football.

But, as with all promised lands, there are new challenges and new grief to bear. The 2014 Fiesta Bowl gave me the greatest disappointment of my 57-year fandom: a one-sided loss to a relatively unknown upstart University of Central Florida. I later learned that rather than bringing a windfall of profit, the University barely broke even on their appearance. The expenses of travel for the team, band, and official entourage plus the cost of 8,000 unsold seats of their ticket allotment resulted in a financial disappointment as great as the on-field performance. As an ever-hopeful Alumnus I can only hope that this season’s Cotton Bowl appearance, sited in the heart of “Bear Country”, will be both an on-field and back-office success as great as last season’s disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, who is more disappointed than the TCU Horned Frogs? Not only were they Big Twelve Conference Co-Champions (sharing the title with the Mighty Bears, from whom they received their only loss); they were also ranked #3 until the selection committee met and selected the Ohio State Buckeyes to take their place in the inaugural national championship playoff.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Urban Meyer and his coaching staff put on a National Championship quality season winning their Big 10 division title under the leadership of their second-string quarterback, and the Big 10 championship game, decisively, with their third-string quarterback at the helm. Clearly a demonstration of great talent, great play, and great coaching that rivals anything Alabama, Oregon, or Florida State bring to the show.

The new grief that TCU has the misfortune of experiencing first-hand is the new reality of life in the promised land of big-time college football. Whereas collegiate athletics in general and football in particular were once undertaken for the sake of the university; now they serve a new master. At one time, the Saturday afternoon game gave students, faculty, alumni, and friends an occasion to come together for a few hours, loosen their neckties and clerical collars, yell and cheer, and loose themselves in a collective experience of support for their team and their colors. Attending the game, whether win or lose, strengthened the bonds of friendship among the fans, the affiliation of the fans for the school, and the support of the alumni for their alma mater.

Now, the teams have become the minor leagues for the National Football League. The colleges have undertaken the expense of and liability for maturing each year’s crop of aspiring athletes without compensation or support of the NFL.

The promise of great riches from big time football is as elusive as the Rainbow’s End. Baylor’s $250,000,000.00 new stadium lies less than 100 miles from Texas A&M’s $400,000,000.00 renovation of Kyle Field. Salaries for the coaching staff run into the millions, as does the cost of equipment and practice facilities. I suspect that if the fully-loaded cost of the football programs at the top-tier schools were revealed, few if any would show great riches. Great revenue, great expenses, but hardly great profits.

The selection of The Ohio State University over Texas Christian University for the national playoff is explained by the spectacular conclusion of OSU’s season and the triumph over adversity it represents. The cynic in me suspects that the driving reason is the selection committee’s conclusion that a match-up that included The Ohio State University would draw a bigger television audience than a contest with Texas Christian University no matter how spectacular TCU’s performance might be. Name recognition, the number of alumni spread around the world, and a long history of success carried the day in favor of The OSU.

The bottom line for big-time college football is the bottom line of the accounting ledger; not the college’s accounting ledger, but the accounting ledger of the broadcaster of the game. Big time college football has ceased to serve the interest of the college, its faculty, students, and supporters. Big time college football has become a content provider for the entertainment industry. As a result it is more important that a star quarterback be kept eligible to play in the championship game than that he be held to account for his behavior off the field be it merely boorish or clearly criminal.

The show must go on.

The risk of life altering brain injuries is a small price (read no price to the broadcaster) to pay for the audience-pleasing play of a talented young quarterback.

The show must go on.

The criminal misbehavior of a Jerry Sandusky was kept secret for decades to preserve the reputation of an iconic coach.

The show must go on.

As the evidence mounts, the conclusion is inescapable: college football has sold its soul to the highest bidder.

College football has had its critics for a long time. In 1897 the Religious Herald of Richmond Virginia reported that its editor “agreed with another editor in failing to see what pleasure cultured ladies and gentlemen and university professors could derive from ‘that dirtily clad, bare and frowsy headed, rough-and-tumble, shoving, pushing, crushing, pounding, kicking, ground-wallowing, mixed-up mass of players, of whom any might come out with broken limbs, or be left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals’”.

In that day, the focus of concern was on the physical and moral well being of the participants of the game. Today, it is time to reflect on the moral well being of the institutions that are “left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals” and on an entertainment industry that demands their complicity.

The Poor are not a Problem to be Solved

Recently, I posted two somewhat provocative statements on my Facebook wall. I was a bit disappointed by the relatively few comments generated by the following:

The poor are not a problem to be solved.

The opposite of poverty is not wealth,
The opposite of poverty is justice.

The first statement was conveyed to me in a conversation with my Spiritual Director several years ago. Regrettably, I did not note the source of the second (Probably a Facebook post).

It is not a topic we like to discuss. Haven’t we all been annoyed by panhandlers asking for money as we enter the grocery store? Pastors and parishioners alike are vexed by how to handle the person stopping by on Sunday morning asking for gas money so he can make it home to his family, buy medication for his children, or complete an emergency car repair. After hearing enough of these requests, it is easy to slip into cynicism and conclude that it is all one big con game.

Advice to the troubled parishioner or the harassed shopper sometimes alludes to Jesus telling his disciples “for the poor you have with you always” in an attempt to mollify their discomfort with ignoring these requests. Politicians often cite this passage to give their plans to cut welfare programs an air of respectability. I also hear it used in fatalistic resignation to the enormity of the task of assisting the poor.

The statement, in fact, comes from the narrative of the anointing in Bethany found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12. Judas asks, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”… But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.”(John 12:5,7-8, NRSV)

Far from dismissing the plight of the poor, Jesus is saying that concern for the poor is not the only agenda for his followers. This passage foreshadows his death and burial and affirms that the disciples have responsibility for both the immediate concerns of Jesus and his followers, as well as an on-going ministry that clearly includes concern for the welfare of the poor.

Looking at the ethics and teaching of all three Abrahamic Traditions, we find that hospitality to the stranger; protection of the sojourner; and care for the widow and the orphan are foundational ethical teachings of the prophets of each tradition.

So, in response to statements such as “the poor are not a problem to be solved” and “the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice,” I would say that we dare not appeal to Jesus (“for the poor you always have with you”) and say that the plight of the poor is a constant in society, regardless of the political and economic system of the day.

On the contrary, I challenge people of faith to be critics of the status quo. Follow the lead of the prophets and bring the highest principles of your tradition, not the values and structures of the status quo, to the debate. Rather than try to “solve the problem of poverty” acknowledge that whatever political/economic system is in place, some will be poor, some will be prosperous, and some will rise to the top and enjoy wealth.

The challenge of the faithful is to continue to examine the structures and dynamics of the status quo for the ways, intended and unintended, that confer advantages on some and disadvantages on others. See if the economic system of the day is designed to form and perpetuate a permanent underclass whose labor is available for exploitation by the wealthy and powerful. And finally, ensure that the political process gives equal access and equal voice to the concerns and needs of poor, the prosperous, and the wealthy.

A postscript for the church: For those of us called to ministry, it can be a subtle, but real temptation to be caught in the trap of trying to solve the problems of the poor. See Henri Nouwen’s treatment of the Temptations of Jesus (Downward Mobility, The Selfless Way of Christ, Sojourners Magazine). He finds in Jesus’ response to the temptations to do something relevant, something spectacular, and something powerful and influential, the true calling of Christians: to be faithful to the highest calling of our tradition.

As we try to find ways to respond to the panhandler at our door, I think much wisdom can be found in the narrative of Acts 3 in which a beggar confronts Saint Peter at the temple asking for alms. Peter says “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” (Acts 3:6, KJV)   It may be tempting to think that preaching the Gospel and maintaining a prophetic critique of the status quo isn’t “doing” anything about the plight of the poor. On the contrary, keeping the ethics of our tradition in the forefront of the minds of the people and constantly looking for ways to make a more just society is “silver and gold” enough. It is “doing” what we are called and uniquely qualified to do.

A New Vision

2014

In my reflections since I posted my thoughts on gun violence last year, I have reached the perspective that addressing gun violence by enacting new and more restrictive gun laws is rather like addressing climate change by issuing snow shovels and air conditioners to every household in the country.

More effective ways of addressing climate change include accepting the scientific method for analyzing the problem, gathering data relevant to the problem, and collectively agreeing on reasonable and effective changes to our ways of living and doing business that will not further aggravate the problem. (This, of course, assumes we can agree that there is a problem in the first place).

With over 100 million gun owners owning over 300 million guns, (not to mention the tens of thousands of individuals who earn their living in the arms industry) any action to address the issue of gun violence that alienates and demonizes these individuals is doomed not only to failure, but to create a backlash that will only make matters worse.

I think a recent Gallup Poll (October 28, 2013) points the way to a more productive direction to focus our concerns.  When gun owners were asked why they purchase guns, the number one reason (60% of respondents) answered, “fear”.  This immediately raises the obvious question:  Why are so many people so fearful?

Some of us are fearful of a changing world; others of new ideas and new ways of being in the world.  Yet others fear unfamiliar cultures and religions.

In any case, many of us have no place to turn with our fears, except to turn inward and reject new technologies and new ideas; to reach for our chosen symbols of power and autonomy such as our firearms; or retreat to the certainty and security that fundamentalism (whether religious, economic, or political) offers.

We believe that if we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who share our fears and gravitate toward our idea of a safe haven we can shout down those who disagree with us and create a utopia for ourselves where we don’t have to concern ourselves with the needs, desires, hopes and fears of anyone else.

During the Christmas season just passed, you may have heard these words from the Prophet Isaiah of the Hebrew Bible:

He shall judge between the nations,

    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

    and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

    neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

These words, familiar to many, are set in the context of a vision of a new and transformed world in which all of the nations of the world come together in search of a new way of being together in the world.

In this prophetic vision, the change comes when the people are confronted with the judgment of God on the status quo of their world.  I think it may be useful if we think of the judgment of God not as coming in some future time as envisioned in these writings with the coming of a Messiah; or in the end times as some believe.  I think it will be useful if we see the status quo of our own time as the judgment of our time and our ways.

Since the horrors of the school shootings at Columbine High School, we have seen shootings at Virginia Tech; a political rally in Arizona; a theater in Aurora; and Sandy Hook Elementary School; not to mention, in the same time frame, wars that have produced not peace but a perpetual state of chaos and violence.  Surely these are judgments on a society that lives in fear and turns to armaments (read gun rights) and violence (read war and militarism) and coercion (read legislation) to allay our fears.

The answer lies, I believe, not in praying for the end times to come when a God will intervene from on high; nor waiting for a Messiah in the form of a political leader who will lead us into a new ways of being; nor in turning to our legislators to enact new laws and restrictions on how we may choose to live our lives.

I am quick note that in the Biblical vision from Isaiah it is not through legislation that the people turn away for their love of armaments and violence.  It is not through confiscation of their swords that the people seek a peaceful and safer world.  It is the people, themselves, empowered by a new vision of a transformed world who beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

The answer lies, I conclude, in a change of heart; a decision on the part of each of us, the fearful and the proud, to cease our worship of power and of arms.  It is a change of heart that comes when we, the people, are confronted with a new vision of righteousness, and justice, and mercy; when we cease to find comfort and safety in our arguments and our isolation and turn instead to find safety in a new vision of community and dialog with each other.  It comes from acknowledging that we are all in this world together and that security for each of us is found in an ongoing pursuit of the common good for all of us.

Spiritual but not Religious

Starting this thread, I am reminded of Home Room Class my sophomore year of High School.  Stacy Albert Thomas sat behind me.  On the first day of class that Fall, the teacher handed out a survey.  As the rest of the class worked away in silence, I could hear Stacy reading aloud his responses as he filled in his questionnaire.  When he got to hobbies, he said, as only an overly bright and under-challenged teenager might, “Experimental Theology.”

Experimental Theology!  Can you even say that in Waco Texas, Jerusalem on the Brazos?  I waited for the rumbling thunder and lightning bolts.  The sky remained clear, hot, and silent.

In a small way Stacy, you helped set me on the path of working out my understanding of theology for myself.  Thanks.  If you are out there somewhere in cyberspace, look me up.  It is time we had a reunion.

I recently learned that “spiritual but not religious”, or in cyber-speak “SBNR” is a search term that will land you on a sites devoted to this subject.

The first blog that I visited via this search term remains under construction, so I could not find an answer to the question that always comes to mind when I hear the statement “I’m, spiritual, not religious”, namely what are your objections to religion?

I am sure there are as many answers as there are people who utter those words.  From my own observations, let me start the discussion with what I think underlies this statement.

I’m spiritual not religious:

  • †  I don’t go to church anymore, but I am still a good person
  • †  the religious tradition that I once practiced no longer meets my needs
  • †  I think much of what goes on in church is irrelevant
  • †  I find other pursuits more meaningful
  • †  I was wounded as a child by what I experienced in church, so I won’t go anymore
  • †  I don’t like being told what to think and believe
  • †  I am just too busy and don’t have time for church
  • †  I don’t like the people I meet in church

I invite you to add others to this list while I work on my next post.