About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2015/09/03

Old-Time Religion

“Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion ...” American fundamentalists of all different stripes bellow against progress in church, culture and theology.
   
“Give me that old-time religion,” I hum along! But there is a stark difference in what they and I understand by the “old-times”. For them it is a nostalgia after unreflected, superstitious, mostly rural religiosity of few past decades. For me it is something substantially older, and also more intriguing, interesting and deeply spiritual. Let me explain.
Epos of Gilgamesh, tablet 11 (the Flood story) in Akkadian
from The British Museum
     In the 19th century, first explorers and later archeologists started to return from Middle East with wild stories about ancient monuments, forgotten cities and cultures: first Egypt, later Mesopotamia, then Syria, Palestine. The spectacularly sophisticated and rich cultures were discovered with their artefacts, inscriptions and texts.
    At first, people of faith welcomed these discoveries as they seemed to confirm biblical accounts. There was also great rejoicing over the ancient texts as they contained similar, sometimes almost identical stories to those in the Bible. Soon this rejoicing turned into awkwardness. Ancient myths were clearly older and they were in their nature non-orthodox(polytheistic). In addition the better understanding of ancient cultures only highlighted discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible.
    Fundamentalists started to ignore, reject or condemn the older versions of these myths.  Mainline theology developed a “clever” strategy in dealing with these shared mythical tradition. Ancient myths were to be taken as a common religious and cultural substrate, while true theological value was to be found not in those original myths, but in the ways in which they were appropriated, twisted, and turned to serve Judeo-Christian theology (orthodox agenda). And right here I call “Give me that old-time religion!” I want back those original ancient stories, I want to take them seriously in their original meaning.
    Those millennia old myths have deep cultural, religious and spiritual value in themselves, not only in the way in which they were (mis)appropriated in the Bible. Take for instance the Flood story. It s not only an inspiration for cute Sunday School murals or a simple morality story about sinful humankind, obedient Noah and the vengeful LORD who eventually gives a “covenant” never to allow Earth destruction again. In its Mesopotamian form it is also a stark reminder of the power of angry nature (or gods of nature) and the always-present potential for broad ranging environmental catastrophe in the finite world. Beyond the orthodox morality story, it is so much more - it is an old archetypal story of great significance, particularly relevant in our times of global warming and shared with the most ancient civilizations known to us.
    Taking seriously this truly “Old-Time Religion” (not just recent nostalgic fakery) can be surprisingly spiritual. This Sunday we will take one such ancient biblical myth -the  Song of Sophia, the song of Divine Wisdom from the book of Proverbs and we will allow her to speak to our current social and religious issues of gender-justice, social-justice and eco-justice. Come to sing with us and rejoice in the Song of Wisdom.

 

2015/09/01

Other Christianity

Stađastađur

Skálholt Cathedral
Recently I returned from my third visit to Iceland. Each time we visited a different part of this enchanted island. Each region had a slightly different climate, different geology, and history of settlement. But over time I noticed a common theme - an abundance of neat little churches sprinkled over the breathtaking countryside. Each prominent farm or a small group of farms would have one such little church. Each church would have its name and be dutifully marked on maps.
     It is a lovely and peculiar reminder of a different church history in Iceland. In the year 1000 (some say in 999), the Icelandic parliament (Alþing at Þingvellir) voted to adopt Christianity. From that date Iceland has had a state church. For instance one of the sinister (and recently hardly ever enforced) remnants of the state church - a state blasphemy law - has been revoked only this year on behest of MPs representing the Pirate Party, and it must be said that with full support of the Church of Iceland. But the State Church remains very much in place in Iceland and it brings with it a completely different spirituality than we know in America.
Vesturhópshólar
     Each larger family or community maintains a representative place of worship; it is a matter of their communal pride. These little churches are hardly ever used for any kind of regular service. Their function is in their very presence, and in being there for occasional weddings, funerals and family reunions. In the thinly populated Icelandic countryside only churches in large places offer regular services and a few historical or famous churches have worship on high holidays. These same historic churches are clearly maintained from the state budget and the state flag flies in front of many of them in a sign of national pride. Children in schools learn about and from ancient Icelandic Sagas their national as well as their church history...
    America loves to brag about its religious freedom and separation of church and state. The result is a highly sectarian, often fanatical, deeply ignorant and intolerant form of religiosity. It is said that the alternatives are worse, that state religion leads to oppression, sectarian strife and bloodshed. Looking at Iceland and its state church, I did not notice anything of it but rather tolerant and cultivated spirituality, albeit different from ours. I am starting to have some doubts about Jeffersonian propaganda, but on the other side, it might just be our best local solution, the only way to keep peace among American religious nuts.

Þingeyrar
Víđimýrarkirkja
Búđakirkja
Ingjaldshóll
Bólstađarhlíđ
Knappsstađir
Hólar Cathedral

2015/08/27

Arctic Ocean

Last Friday my wife Martina and I went to visit the Arctic Circle. We took a 40-mile long ferry ride to Grimsey, a tiny island off the northern coast of Iceland.
      As soon as our ship left the port, a junior steward appeared and diligently handed out paper bags to every single passenger on board. When we left the relatively calm waters of the fjord Eyjafjörđur, it became clear why. Our reasonably sized ferry was rocking up and down and from side to side. Sea water was splashing and pooling on all three open decks and spray driven by the wind was shooting above the ship from bow to stern. Soon almost all the passengers were seasick.
     For those few of us who were not sick even standing upright was demanding and getting around became a quite strenuous exercise. It was the longest three-hour ride I have ever made. And mind you, this was what local seamen call nothing more than “choppy sea”. The weather more or less normal for the end of summer (temperature in the 40s, low clouds, some drizzle, some rain with a little bit of melting sleet). Our short sail through the coastal Arctic Ocean made me acutely aware and deeply respectful of the elemental nature and almost mythic power of waters.
     These same choppy waters rewarded us with sightings of a whale, some dolphins and a number of seabirds. I could not take a single picture, I needed both my hands to keep steady. But on the island I was able to photograph (in short window between sleet showers) Atlantic Puffins just before their migration south. The very same waters can be life threatening and life giving, harming and balmy, threatening and healing.
     This Sunday in worship we will attempt to reconnect our faith with waters, a tamed but ultimately unbridled elemental force of God’s creation. This reconnecting can have a cleansing and healing power for us and our faith. Come to sing with us the Song of Waters.




2015/08/12

Humus Spirituality

On June 21st this year I received a very special gift. It was Sunday and I preached about caterpillars and worms. A thoughtful parishioner brought me a bin full of composting earthworms (Eisenia Fetida). Ever since I have been keeping them, feeding them and observing them on our balcony. It has been for me a real and highly rewarding spiritual exercise. 
     Earthworms are amazing creatures; very quickly they turn any food leftovers (but especially fruit and vegetable scraps) into amazing dark rich humus. Our compost bin has almost no smell, we have only a few little fruit flies and only an occasional minor flair-up of mold. But all of those “unpleasantnesses” are actually parts of a natural process of soil making. Worms are amazing, but the very humus and soil making is even more amazing. It might look like a bin of dirt, but in reality it is like a small city, a small microcosm of diverse organisms living together and transforming our refuse into a life-giving substance - the soil. It is pocket-size ecology in action.
    Pope Francis in his recent encyclical letter “Laudato Si” wrote: It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms.
     Francis is absolutely correct, well informed and oriented not only in spiritual but also ecological matters. We usually don’t pay much attention to what we call earth, ground or even dirt. But soil is not inert; it is very much alive and our lives depend on it! Without soil teeming with well-balanced life, all other life of plants and animals would be impossible. 
   Interestingly our faith tradition shares this deep appreciation of earth. These aspects of our faith have been long neglected, but our faith tradition respectfully and consistently ascribes to earth personality and even an independent agency. 
     Join us this Sunday for a celebration of earth - ground, dirt, dust, soil teaming with life. God in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus of the New Testament called her partner and collaborator in bringing forth and nurturing life.
Now imagine what industrial agriculture does to this fine-tuned equilibrium of living creatures in the soil. Blasts of industrial fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides are poisoning microorganisms. Antibiotics leaking and leaching from gigantic animal farms are exterminating the whole spectrum of soil bacteria leaving behind impoverished biodiversity and often virtual deserts. Some fields are so degraded that without artificial fertilizers they would not be able to support any crop. True soil is not inert, it teems with micro-life and our lives depend on it!


2015/08/05

Imperialism and Lion Hunts

Shooting a lion with an arrow? Wounding him and finishing him up later in a volley of more arrows? That was a pastime of ancient nobility and kings, but especially beloved by Neo-Assyrian kings.


I saw this basrelief in the British Museum - it was discovered in ancient Nineveh. In fact, the original lion hunt relief covered an entire wall. On that wall were several dozens of lions and lionesses transfixed and killed with arrows, swords and spears. This gory display decorated a wall of the private living quarters in the north palace of King Ashurbanipal, and was by no means the only Assyrian depiction of a lion hunt.


Now imagine that all these ancient basreliefs were originally painted in vivid colors: dark red blood running from the arrow wounds, bright blood gushing from lions’ throats.


We even know that when they hunted their own lions and other big game to extinction, they started to import animals in cages from subjugated lands.

 
Is it any surprise that these psychopathic Assyrians did not have many international friends and had one of the worst reputations among ancient empires?
    Recently we were reminded that America has its own subculture of hunters with a similar regal itch. Walter Palmer is just one among a number of those who travel the world and buy so called “canned hunts,” which means to pay large amounts of money for killing protected and endangered animals. Thankfully, public outcry (even in Minnesota!) showed that we will not tolerate such brutalization (Assyrianization) of our society.
    This Sunday we open a series of seven worship services dedicated to the environment and inspired by the Earth Bible project. The series is called Songs of Creation and this Sunday we will sing the Song of Sanctuary - discovering and restoring the sanctuary for lions and all living beings.

 

2015/07/23

Biblical Beer Making

There is an archaic English idiom, To cast your bread upon the water. It is said to mean “to act generously or charitably with no thought of personal gain.” Only a few people know that it is actually a quotation from the Bible. Some eager people of faith are particularly keen on this enigmatic pearl of wisdom although many of them would have real trouble finding it in the Bible. It is in the book of Ecclesiastes and it goes like this: 

    Cast your bread upon the water,
        in a number of days you will get it back.
    Offer a share to seven or to eight (people),

        you never know what risks lie ahead.

The opening advice sounds rather strange. Bread placed on the surface of water would hardly return in days, it will probably float for a moment, soon it would soak up water, sink and start to disintegrate. This does not resemble a gesture of selfless generosity; it is rather a blatant example of an insane wastefulness. This strangely disjointed advice certainly looks a little crazy, until we hear that this was exactly how ancient people made and enjoyed their beer! 
     They would malt(sprout or germinate) barley, grind it into meal, bake it into loaves (thus caramelizing the sugars), float bread in a water-filled jar (holding several gallons). The bread would  dissolve in the water, catch yeast from the air, start fermenting and in a few days they would have the brew. They would season it with spices, honey or date sugar and there would be enough for seven or eight people to enjoy this ancient variety of beer (it was about 2-3% alcohol). Most commonly they would drink it through long straws made of reeds with strainer tips at the bottom to keep the dregs out.

Bronze age strainer tips from Syria

This beer making is documented by artefacts, reliefs, inscriptions and archeological finds from all over the Ancient Middle East. It has also been re-created by modern experimental archeology. In the summer you can try it yourself at home. Just cast your bread upon the water; in a few days you would be able to invite friends for a really strange (some would say disgusting yet certainly unique) drink. Poor fundamentalists, if only they knew! Largely ignorant of ancient history and archeology, they endlessly sermonize about the blind trust and their conservative do-gooding.
    Come this Sunday, we will celebrate another, similarly surprising aspect and use of the barley crop. We will rejoice in an ancient model of unlocking of the harvest, redistribution of wealth and feeding of the multitudes.


2015/07/15

Apostolic Bedbugs

When you read the Little Red Riding Hood story, you know that speculation about talking wolves or the size of their stomachs is missing the point. You know it, because you are familiar with other similar stories such as Snow White, Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.
    When you watch Tom and Jerry, you are not upset by the horrendous level of violence and abuse, because you also know The Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, South Park, Sponge Bob SquarePants and many other cartoons. 

    In both these cases we have a basic frame of reference; we understand the game. But when people hear about the grotesque, self-serving, even malevolent miracles in the Acts of Apostles - for instance St. Peter killing people by a curse - many modern people are left disoriented, perplexed, and vulnerable to unscrupulous and abusive manipulations by fundamentalists. It is so because the Acts of the Apostles is the only book of its kind in the Bible and thus people don’t know the coordinates, don't know its literary genre. Yet there is a whole bookshelf of similar ancient literature - books of the acts ascribed to different apostles: Thomas, John, Paul and Thecla to name just a few of the oldest and best known. These books are not in the Bible, but they can help us understand and appreciate this early church’s most popular and entertaining genre of literature.     
    This Sunday we will continue our intermittent series about biblical (or in this case almost biblical) insects; allowing apostolic bedbugs to introduce us to this peculiar genre of the early Christian Acts of Apostles. An ancient burlesque miracle story about these most unpleasant insects will teach us how to resist similarly unpleasant, abusive and manipulative christian fundamentalism. And don't worry, as much icky/itchy as it sounds it is actually eye-opening fun. Grotesque, scary or funny miracles are a natural part of the genre of Acts, just like talking animals are part of fairytales, or the exorbitant violence of a cheeky mouse is a part of cartoons.


-----------------------------------------------
And here is the text from the Acts of John §§60+61:

Obedient Bedbugs
On the first day we came to some godforsaken inn, and when we were trying to find just any bed for John, we experienced this amusing event. In one corner there was a bed without any mattress, so we covered it with our cloaks and asked John to take a rest on it while we prepared to sleep on the floor. As soon as John lain down, bedbugs came out and started to bother him. They pestered him more and more. It was almost midnight, we all heard him say to them, ‘I ask you all, you bedbugs, be considerate; leave us your home for this night and go to rest in a place which is far away from the servants of God!’ And while we chuckled and talked for a while, John fell asleep. We chatted a little longer, and thanks to him we were undisturbed all night.
    In the morning, the next day, I got up first, and with me Verus and Andronicus. And right behind the door of that room in which we slept we saw this entire regiment of bedbugs lined up on the doorstep. We went all the way out to see this spectacle, we even woke up other brethren- John was still asleep. When he woke up we showed him what we had seen. And sitting up in bed and seeing all those bedbugs, he said to them, ‘Since you have been so reasonable, and heard my rebuke, you can now return to your place!’ And as soon as he said this and got up from the bed, the bedbugs ran straightaway from the door to the bed and up the legs and disappeared into the joints. And then John proclaimed, ‘This creature listened to the human voice and kept quiet and was obedient. We hear divine voice, and yet don’t take God’s command seriously. For how long would this go on?