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."

2013/12/27

Prayer Flags for Broadway

How do you meet with God? How do you recognize God’s presence? How do you discern the divine will?

Ancient people practiced “Phyllomancy”. In sacred groves and under special holy trees they waited and listened. Fluttering leaves announced to them the divine presence and whispered to them sacred tidings. We can find an echo of this practice in the Genesis story from the Garden of Eden: “people heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the form of the daily breeze(RUACH)”. (Genesis 3:8) There is number of other similar instances in the Bible - even Jesus in the Gospel of John famously remarks: “Just as wind (PNEUMA) blows wherever it fancies and you can hear its sound, but cannot fully grasp its paths, so it is with everything of spiritual (PNEUMA) origins.” (John 3:8) Even our languages preserve this inkling: Hebrew RUACH, Greek PNEUMA, just like English SPIRIT from Latin SPIRITUS, all cover the broad spectrum of meanings of wind, breath and spirit.
    I do not think that God is literally present in any meteorological phenomena as complex, stochastic and unpredictable, as they might be. This connection between wind, breath and divine spirit is just a metaphor for the subtle, yet discernible and efficacious divine presence in our lives. It is a marvelous reminder, God is as close to us as the air we breathe.
    In our urban setting we can forget about whispering leaves as the visualization and reminder of this divine mystery. In our climate, leaves are gone for long periods of year, and anyway their shiver would be easily drowned out in the constant din of our cacophonous environment. On Broadway and in our neighborhood we need something clearer and “louder”.
    This Sunday, at the brink of the old and new year, we will connect this old wind-spirit metaphor with the similarly ancient practice of prayer flags. Two years ago we made our first prayer flags and they blew in the wind, filling our neighborhood with their prayers until they were destroyed by the scaffolding and repair workers. On this Sunday we will make our new prayer flags, this time vertical ones. Our new prayer flags will stand on Broadway and 73rd Street sidewalks and visualize, accentuate, and summon again the presence of the divine healing, peace, and grace for our neighborhood and environment.


2013/12/23

Messiah prophecy in paraphrase

Recently I received a challenge to paraphrase Isaiah's prophecy (chapter 11) into a modern idiom, here is my attempt:

Imagine the National Tree which had been cut down; it’s just a stump, its life is gone. But from the root of that tree a new shoot starts to grow and it becomes a strong proud tree again. So do not give up hope! Just like the new branch that grows from the stump of the tree that seemed dead, a new leader will come! This leader will follow closely God’s will, and will possess the fullness of the divine knowledge and understanding. This person will be a good leader, will not take bribes, will not be corrupt but will rule the way God has always wanted - care for the poor and bring fairness for the exploited. The whole world will take notice when he will let the rich and arrogant know their limits!
      That way God will make all things good and safe again. No one will hurt anybody, even all the animals will live together in peace, they will not hunt and kill each other, not even for food. Just imagine! All the animals will be vegetarians and live peacefully together, and a little child will be able to lead them all. Not the ancient sages and scholars, but a child will be so full of wisdom to teach the world about divine rules and plans. There will be no more destruction, plundering, or pollution. Everyone and everything in the entire world will know about God’s peaceful ways. They will know that God permeates everything, even the darkest depths of the outer universe! They will know that all the people have always been an  integral part of God’s plan and of the divine future.

It is not particularly accurate translation or even paraphrase, it misses to translate or even to represent some Ancient Near East cultural and religious phenomena, but I think it is still interesting. And thousands of years later, it remains just a hope. More and more I am convinced that messianic prophecies are aspirational rather than fulfillable. Their function in religion and society is to present an ideal model and mirror to our ugly politicians and leaders.

2013/12/20

Incarnation in Ultra-Deep Field


In September, 2003 astronomers made a courageous decision.
They aimed the current most powerful telescope at what was believed to be absolutely nothing. It was a minuscule piece of sky of a size of a poppy seed held at full arm’s length. This small square was just south of the constellation Orion and in this miniscule field were no known stars or other astronomical objects, only empty nothingness. So they aimed the telescope, opened the shutter and waited. They waited through January, 2004 collecting individual photons. When they processed the image they received this picture - it is called the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field (HUDF). In it are a few small stars distinguishable by their diffraction spikes, and then ten thousand galaxies! Some of these galaxies are currently the oldest and most distant known objects in the universe, more than 13 billions years old. In addition to those few individual stars every single bright puff or dot is a unique galaxy, each composed from millions to billions of stars. What was originally considered to be an empty piece of the sky the size of a poppy seed actually contains in those galaxies about ten trillion stars. Now extrapolate this finding all around the sky in all directions.
    It is virtually impossible not to be in awe of this enormous and beautiful spectacle of deep space. The Universe is an unimaginably and humblingly LARGE place. We live in one minuscule, tiny littlest corner on even a smaller speck of dust. Now what does it mean for us and for our religion? Suddenly we realize that old religious and dogmatic answers are not satisfactory any longer. We need to search anew for an answer to the ancient incarnation question Cur Deus Homo? - Why God (became) human. We are forced to re-ask the question, to re-formulate it, Why should God become human? Why should God become human, here and now (and two thousand years is “a now” in scales of billions of light-years). Perhaps we need to abandon logic, even theo-logic, and venture beyond mytho-logic into the realms of mytho-poetry. Come this Sunday to seek insight into the simple, almost childish, yet still inspired mytho-poetry of the Gospel of James.

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It was the scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury who asked Cur Deus Homo - Why God (became) human. And he even though he found the answer in his deeply feudal and troublesome soteriology (the satisfaction view of atonement). But his asking and his answering were utterly anthropocentric (like so much of theology throughout history anyway). Anselm asked and answered as if there was nothing else but the Earth, and as if God was some kind of a medieval brutal feudal lord.
As we look into the true depth of space and time the mystery or incarnation looms exponentially larger and requires us to ask different and more uncertain questions Cur Deus Homo - Why (should) God (become) human?

2013/12/13

Two Births Of Jesus

Was Jesus born twice?
What a silly question, of course not!
But in the Bible we have two different and mutually exclusive birth stories.
       In one gospel, baby Jesus is born at home in Bethlehem (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus is born away from Nazareth home in the famous Bethlehem stable (Luke). One baby Jesus is visited by shepherds, ancient migrant workers, who are instructed by angels (Luke), while the other baby Jesus is visited by the royal-grade visitors from the East who are led by astrology and instructed by Jerusalem priests (Matthew). One baby Jesus has to escape to Egypt before finding new home in Nazareth (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus returns effortlessly home to Galilee (Luke). One baby Jesus suffers under the heavy hand of the Roman political administration through forced census (Luke), while the other baby Jesus is in mortal danger from the Jewish king Herod (Matthew). One baby Jesus had a “fraternal” grandpa named Jacob (Matthew), while the other baby Jesus had a “fraternal” grandpa named Heli (Luke) and those are not just two different names in otherwise uninfied genealogy, there are two different genealogies which have only few most obvious names in common.

So, does it mean that there were two Jesuses?
What a silly question, of course not!
          It only highlights the reality that the incarnation always has been a miracle. This great divine miracle of love does not have any witnesses only astonished stammering poets who will for ever search for metaphors and struggle to make sense of the “God with us!”
      Come this Sunday to enjoy and join our Sunday School’s playful Christmas Pageant and its search for this elusive miraculous reality.

Two opposite yet complementary takes on the Incarnation.

2013/12/12

Jesus - the pesky child prodigy!

(Renewal - Newsletter article) 
When this boy Jesus, was five years old, and there came a storm, so he was playing at the wade of a brook collecting the streams of water into small ponds. And then he made that the water was instantly pristine. And understand that he did this with a single word!
He also made himself soft clay out of mud and shaped it into twelve sparrows. And it was on the Sabbath day, when he did this. And many other boys were there who were playing with him. But then a Jew saw what Jesus was doing on the Sabbath day, as he was playing. So he immediately ran off and tells Joseph, his father, “See here, that your boy is at the wade and has taken mud and fashioned twelve birds with it, and so has violated the Sabbath.”
    So Joseph went there, and as soon as he spotted him he shouted, “Why are you doing this what’s not permitted on the Sabbath?”
    But Jesus simply clapped his hands and shouted to the sparrows, “Be off!” And those sparrows really took off and flew away chirping.
    And those Jews seeing it they were amazed, they ran and reported to their elders, what they had seen what Jesus did.  
(Text collated from several ancient and modern translations and attempts to capture rather peculiar and folksy Greek original.)

          This legendary story about little Jesus is obviously not from the Bible! It is a famous quotation from The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This non-biblical gospel is rife with primitive anti-judaism and wild interest in sensational miracles. Throughout it Jesus is portrayed as a “wonder-child” a miraculous prodigy with a petulant and subversive streak. These are all signs of late composition and the influences of the popular piety of the late Hellenistic centuries. Infancy stories hardly tell us anything substantial about the historical Jesus and his childhood. On the other hand, they are loaded with important theological themes and they tackle them in their own particular, legendary, fashion.     

          Their most formative feature is an awe of incarnation, utter amazement at the fact that God became human. How could it be? How would it work? What would it look like? In the gospel of Luke we have an account of a 12-year old divine child in the Temple. Infancy gospels take it even further back. How would this divine child look and behave at his school age, and even before? Their answer is highly entertaining and full of self-serving miracles. But their true answer is hidden in plain sight of their legendary narratives; the fact of incarnation, the theme of Advent and Christmas, that God became human, is beyond means of our intellect, beyond the limited powers of our imagination. The story which we celebrate on Christmas has always been and remains an utter approximation and true miracle of divine love. 

          And while those early Christians wondered at a divine child, they unknowingly started something very new. For the first time in human history a little child became a main character in a work of literature (Perhaps with the only exemption of the opening section of Xenophon's Cyropaedia). In these infancy gospels the childhood was lifted up from oblivion. Childhood, its playfulness, its mischievousness, its struggles, its creativity, its bursts of energy were given a central stage. Our culture is what it is, our education and our respect and concern and care for children are taken for granted, because people realized that divine incarnation (God becoming human) included 5-year-old Jesus!

          Particularly in our highly commercialized times the legendary little Jesus of our story can teach us even something more. Children as well as grownups do not need expensive gadgets and toys to trigger their playfulness. Making ponds on a brook, forming birds from clay. Those are almost proverbial simple joys of childhood which verge on true miracles of sheer imagination and unbounded playfulness. These legends invite us to the simple yet blessed joys of Advent and Christmas time.

This Advent and Christmas we will be following different non-canonical infancy gospel, the one ascribed to James. It is perhaps a little less entertaining than Infancy gospel of Thomas, but no less Mysterious, Miraculous, Mythical and and certainly no less Meaningful.



2013/12/06

Mysterious Abstinence

Why did early Christianity get so preoccupied with virginity? Where did this preoccupation come from? Why did early Christians get so heavily invested in celibacy? Why did it take off so quickly and become one of the characteristic features of the early church. And, please understand, I am not speaking about medieval superstitious and manipulative piety, I am not speaking about celibate priests or eremites and monasteries; all of that would come in full force centuries later. But where did this strong interest in celibacy in early church come from? As strange as it might sound, scholars are finding out that it was part of a revolutionary, contra-cultural and subversive movement.
    Just imagine that you live in a society where you are married or given to marriage by your paternal grandfather or even worse, by some distant great grand uncle. And even if you are free of your family clan or you are the head of it, just imagine that you are forced by the imperial laws to marry, and you are severely and legally penalized if you don’t. Just imagine that you are forced by the law to have multiple children and you are persecuted by the state if you decline to procreate. I do not know how about you, but I would be quite unhappy and even inclined to resist, simply on the basis of being under legal pressure.
    That was exactly the situation in the Roman Empire from year 17 B.C.E. and especially from 9 B.C.E.. The Emperor Augustus declared the family and moral laws (Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus) and particularly Lex Papia Poppaea. These laws forced specifically Roman citizens, but indirectly all Roman subjects, to marry and have children.
    This was the societal context. While Ovidius rebelled by highlighting promiscuity, early Christians lifted up virginity and defended celibacy; as I have said, it was their contra-cultural stand. In the name of their religion, they claimed control over their bodies, and they asserted their sexual freedom. It was their rebellion against patriarchal societal mores and inappropriate paternalistic political pressures. As strange as it might sound, it was their religious sexual revolution. (By the way, the radical separatist feminism of XX century, for instance  “Cell 16”, also followed similar, although secular, path!).
    This Sunday the Gospel of James will help us to look at where this ancient virginity and celibacy originated and what it might mean today, concerning our current social and legal pressures and how we can rebel, subvert and change them.
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And I know about underlying influence of Hellenistic Platonism with its stark distinction between body and spirit - the dualism which found its full expression in Gnosticism. 
The miraculous virginal birth at the center of Christmas Story certainly also contributed (regardless being misrepresentation of Isaiah’s prophecy). The Apostle Paul’s eschatological pragmatism, “why to marry if the end is near?” played also significant role. But all of this does not explain this cultural phenomenon of the second and third Christian centuries.




2013/11/29

Medieval Faith Comics


For Advent and Christmas this year we will use this famous early renaissance painting from Holland.
It is a gorgeous piece of art, but it also provides a theological/legendary education in a form of a Medieval Faith Comics (a story and a dialogue in a picture). In place of modern text-bubbles we have here inscribed scrolls (also called banderoles or phylacteries). 

The angels on the roof are setting the scene. They sing Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people, good will!
The kneeling midwife is identified as Azel (more commonly known as Zebel) and she says in utter  amazement, A virgin bore a son!
The standing midwife is named Salome and she says, I will not believe unless I probe. And as a consequence of her disbelief, Salome’s hand withers and she suffers a terrible fiery pain in it. She publicly repents and is being advised by the white angel, Touch the boy and be healed!
 
Of course you cannot find this story of two midwives in the New Testament. The oldest version of this story is preserved in the Gospel of James. This ancient Gospel, as old as some parts of the Bible, is miraculous, mysterious, and mythical in the most exaggerated manner. And exactly as such it can help us fully understand and appreciate the true nature, origins and meaning of the Biblical Christmas stories. These old Biblical as well as extrabiblical stories bring up important spiritual, theological and philosophical themes in the form of thrilling and entertaining narratives.
 
On the first Sunday in Advent we will look at how Mary herself was born and we will try to discern more about our human relationship to nature and one another.

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And by the way, the hem of Mary’s cloak is also inscribed with a Latin text: SALVE REGIN[A MATER MISERICOR]DIE V[I]TA DVLCEDO ET SPES NOSTRA SALVE AD TE CL[AMAMV]S EXVLES FILII EVE AD TE SVSPIRAMUS GEMENTES ET FLENTES IN HAC LACR[IMARVM VALLE]. It is a famous Marian hymn and prayer: Hail, (holy) Queen, Mother of Mercy, Hail Sweetness, Life, and our Hope! To thee we cry, banished children of Eve, to thee we sigh, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
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And for those who are interested in the legendary story of two midwives, here it is from the Protoevangelium of James. This link leads to the Greek text and below are chapters 19+20 in a dynamic equivalent translation:

    And at that time a woman was coming down from the mountains and she says, "Man, where are you going?" And I said, "I am seeking a Hebrew midwife." And she said, "Are you from Israel?" And I said, "Yes." Then, she said, "In that cave, who is giving birth?" And I said, "My fiancé." "So she is not your wife?" She asked. And I said, "She is Mary, she was raised in the temple and given to me by lot to be my wife. But she is not my wife, and the child she expects she got from the Holy Spirit." And she is like, “Sure!” And Joseph said, "Come and check it up yourself."
    So the midwife went with him. And they stood near the cave and a dark cloud of bright light hovered over the cave. And the midwife said, "My soul glorifies this day. With my own eyes I have seen today something unbelievable: Salvation was born to Israel." And immediately, the cloud lifted up from the cave and it was filled with so bright a light that their eyes could not bear it. But after a moment, as that light subsided they could make out an infant and walking all on his own, and he took the breast of his mother, Mary. And the midwife exclaimed, "This is my great day, for I have seen what no one has seen before!"
    And the midwife came out from the cave and met Salome and said to her, "Salome, let me tell you about this new miracle. A virgin gave birth, as incredible as it sounds!" And Salome said, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I use my finger and probe it, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth."
    And the midwife went in and said, "Mary, now lie down, for you are the source of not a small controversy." Then Salome inserted her finger in her lap. And exclaimed in panic, "Woe to me, Why did I commit such a wrong? Why didn’t I believe? I tested the living God. And now my hand is consumed by a flame and is being torn away from my body." And she dropped to her knees before the Lord, crying, "God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, do not made me into an warning example to the children of Israel, but let me serve again the poor. For you know, Lord, that I have served in your name and received my wage only from you."
    And suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared in front of her, saying, "Salome, the Lord of all has heard your prayer. Raise your hand, touch the child, lift him up and he will be your salvation and joy." And Salome went to the child and lifted him up, saying, "I worship him because he has been born a great king of Israel." And at that very moment Salome was healed and left the cave guiltless. But a voice came saying, "Salome, Salome, do not speak about miracles you have witnessed until the child comes to Jerusalem."

2013/11/22

ThanksgivingS

Last year my family spent Thanksgiving in Hawaii. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving we went to a local mainline protestant church. It was an eye-opening experience, but in a totally new way. Let me explain:
    The Thanksgiving sermon opened with a long introduction about the foliage season in New England. This introduction was necessary, we were told, because Hawaii did not have seasons. The body of the sermon was a re-shaking of all those made-up patriotic tales about Puritans and Indians and the culinary symbolism of their shared foods. This sermonizing was necessary, we were told, because thanksgiving was not a local Hawaiian custom and thus the local people needed yearly reminders. And finally a connection was made between New England Puritans, Indians, Missionaries and Hawaiians, ending on a happy note of a benign coexistence of peoples around the carved turkey, spooned stuffing and poured gravy.
    The church service was happy, cozy, conflict-free, predictable... but completely wrong, because untrue! I knew that much because we visit Hawaii not only for its beaches but primarily to learn more about this unique land and its people. Of course Hawaii does have well pronounced seasons - But those seasons do not look like those in New England! Of course native Hawaiians knew thanksgiving long before the first missionaries came introducing turkeys and pumpkins, they knew thanksgiving even before the first Puritans ever landed in New England - But they celebrated it with different produce, different dishes, different rituals, and on different, season-appropriate, dates! Of course churches should vigorously strive for peaceful coexistence between cultures and peoples - But this cannot be accomplished by repetition of made-up tales in a phony attempt to mask painful historic wounds.
    The utter absurdity of that Sunday service opened my eyes to the true nature of thanksgiving. I realized what thanksgiving was not. Thanksgiving is not about any particular date or climatic season, it is not about made up tales, it is not about what is on the table, it is not about any particular produce or dish, it is not about any specific cultural customs. The essence of thanksgiving transcends cultures, peoples, religions. Come this Sunday to search together for this universal essence of thanksgiving: the result is surprising, challenging and deeply true.


2013/11/15

Guardian Angels, Unite!


I bought this angel in the early 1990s at an Advent sale to benefit a special school for children with combined disabilities in Prague. Being a conscientious objector I spent two years of my civil service at that daycare center serving lunches, cleaning playrooms, wiping noses (as well as some other body parts), pushing wheelchairs, reading fairytales, washing bathrooms, playing with children in the parks, laughing with them, and calming them down when they cried or got anxious or even angry.
    My rainbow angel was decorated by one of our children (I can only guess who it might have been) and when it was left unsold at the end of the day, I adopted her, paying the full price of $2 and more as my donation. She has been guarding me in my office ever since, reminding me of of the child who made her, reminding me of the guardian angels of all those with special needs and special joys, special life challenges and special gifts.
    More than a century ago Ludwig Feuerbach suggested that human religions are actually projections, and the heavenly realms are created (imagined) by humans in their own societal image and in their own likeness. I think there is a lot to be said about it. Our own Judeo-Christian tradition, for instance, created at first monarchical, later somehow bureaucratic hierarchies of angels with their special roles, tasks, and privileges: Archangels, Seraphim, Malakim, Cherubim ... and at the very bottom there are always throngs of guardian angels, the true working class angels.
    My rainbow angel reminds me that the structured bureaucratic angelic hierarchy might populate the heavens of any and many religions and religious people,  but just in one sentence (Matthew 18:10), Jesus turned the people-costructed heavens upside down. Jesus gave guardian angels special access, special privileges, special rights. And Jesus gave these special powers particularly to the guardian angels of those with special needs!
    So forget about the meticulously constructed angelic hierarchies of Judaism (especially of the Kabbalah) or Medieval Scholastic Catholicism, not to mention those beautifully painted and gilded angels of the Orthodox. Jesus’ heaven has been "organized" in a very special way; Jesus’ heaven has been run by angelic proletariat. What does it mean for our faith, for our life, for our relationships, especially relationships with those with special needs? Come this Sunday to discern and search together.

2013/11/01

The Green Flash


I love sunsets, their warm hues, their long shadows, their depth of space, their dramatic skies in constant fast-paced change. Often I wish I could have joined the Little Prince on his small planet with just two active volcanoes and a very special flower, as told by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I wish we could watch a sunset over and over again that very same day just by moving our chair by few feet. But of course we do not live on asteroid "B-612"; our planet is so much larger! Still, this makes sunsets more precious - there is just one each day. Every sunset is a unique, spectacular, yet calming show.
    And occasionally, but very seldom, we can experience something truly special, like a Green Flash. I have seen only few green flashes in my life. It is best if the sky above the horizon is cloudless and the sun is setting beyond the sea. The Sun disk moves towards horizon and slowly sinks beyond. And then, just when the Sun disk completely disappears there is a sudden and short flash of green light multiplied by all those reds and orange hues all around. It lasts only for a second or so but is intense and always a great surprise.
    So much so, that until recently it was considered to be just a sensual illusion. It is not - it is an atmospheric and physical phenomenon. It is a mirage-like phenomenon when light of different wavelengths (colors) bends, reflects and disperses differently. It can be captured on camera.


This particular picture of a green flash was taken in summer 2012 at the city pier in Roseau, on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Probably the nicest I have yet seen was in Hawaii near one of the places called “Leina.” Those were the spots where the ancient Hawaiians believed that spirits “uhane” leaped from this world to join the ancestors and the world unseen. Although this religious metaphor is anchored in a completely different, Polynesian, world-view, it opened my eyes and my mind for neglected and almost forgotten Judeo-Christian metaphors. This Sunday in the season of All Saints and Souls (anyhow originally non-Christian, because Celtic, holiday called Samhain)  we will seek to refresh some of these almost forgotten realities illuminated under a green beam. It will be our somber theme with a hopeful gleam.

2013/10/25

Dangerous theologians

Let us celebrate the Reformation, learning from the Reformers by admitting their blunders.
    Martin Luther was a seriously delusional and superstitious person. He saw “der Teufel” (the Devil) behind many personal mishaps. He even saw (hallucinated?) “The Devil” and threw his own feces at him (Some even think that the famous ink-well from the Wartburg castle was originally something else!). Luther staunchly believed in the existence of witches, and encouraged witch hunts. And when Jews did not embrace his reformation, he became sickeningly antisemitic.

Let us celebrate the Reformation, learning from the Reformers by admitting their blunders.
    John Calvin was not much better. Perhaps he was not this superstitious, but he was a rigid, legalistic and quite cruel man. He turned Geneva into a theocratic police state. When Sebastian Castillio, a brilliant scholar and originally Calvin’s friend dared to disagree, Calvin showed his vindictiveness which reached beyond the grave, Castillio’s grave was vandalized. But still worse, when Miguel Serveto, physician, dietitian and discoverer of pulmonary circulation, was caught in Geneva, Calvin let him be burned alive for heresy. But nowadays Calvin’s “heresy” is taught in all respectable seminaries - the Trinitarian doctrine (not the same as few biblical trinitarian formulas!!!) is not to be found in the Bible, it is a later development.

Let us celebrate the Reformation, learning from the Reformers by admitting their blunders.
The very fact that we can do it, the fact that we can acknowledge the Reformers’ blunders and learn from them, is the confirmation of one of the Reformation’s most radical achievements. The Reformation reserved holiness only for God and removed any divine aura from humans and their institutions.
The reformers were people of integrity but they were not saints!
They were gifted theologians but they were not free of superstitions!
The reformers championed the freedom of conscience but themselves were not without prejudices!
They were courageous fighters against spiritual oppression but themselves they were not immune from abusing their power!
Reformation blunders must not be neglected, forgotten, excused or cheaply explained away! The best way to celebrate the Reformation, and to be honest and true to the Reformation legacy is by acknowledging these blunders and learning from them, so they are not repeated over and over again. Let us celebrate!




2013/10/11

Ornithology of freedom

I love Autumn. Soon trees will get dressed in flamboyant colours, parks and woods will be perfumed with the nutty fragrance of fallen leaves dispersed by crisp fresh breezes, night will bring distant honking of migrating geese and during the day they will write their magnificent “V-s” on the sky.
    Migrating birds bring powerful memories to me. I grew up in Europe so I did not know Canada Geese, but I remember Storks, Cranes, and Swallows who were about to leave for winter. And then there were individual birds as well as flocks and flocks of Chaffinches, Bramblings, Redwings, Waxwings, Crossbills and Fieldfares swarming as they passed by on their way from Scandinavia to their winter homes in warmer climates.
    Almost up until my childhood, people used to catch and trap these migrating birds for food and to keep as song birds. And then no one was catching migrating birds any longer! What happened? There are many theories as to why bird-trapping disappeared in central Europe during Nazi and Communist occupations. I have my own spiritual explanation. How could people, who were trapped themselves, possibly enslave even the birds, the symbols of freedom, the last free creatures as it seemed! Migrating birds were our heroes. Oblivious of man-made barriers they flew above the border minefields, through the electric fencing and barb wires, thumped their beaks at armed guards in watchtowers. They were a powerful reminder of hope, a true symbol of a unified, undivided, border-less world, the world as God has made it.
    And we saw our hopes and dreams come true! 24 years ago the traps and the fences of the Iron Curtain shook, and crumbled, and came down. But my admiration for migratory birds did not stop. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the biblical Psalmist (Psalm 124) also shares this sentiment. Those, who even once in their lives have identified with little birds, would remember it for the rest of their lives and will always challenge any fence building and trap setting anywhere (in Lampedusa, in south Arizona, in north Australia, in Palestine).
    This Sunday we will seek why it is that God takes sides with birds, and against all fowlers (fence builders and trap setters). We will seek what it means for us and for the wider world and all creation.

A Saffron finch in the cattle fence on Pu'u Wa'awa'a Cinder Cone in Hawaii.

2013/10/04

Bizarre Communion

This Sunday we celebrate World Communion Sunday.
     Frankly, in Europe I never heard about World Communion Sunday! World Communion Sunday is virtually unknown outside of the United States. But I still love it and embrace it and support it without any reservations. It might not be a truly “WORLD” celebration, yet it has an important spiritual function. It reminds us (American Protestants) of the existence of the outside world. In the best possible setting, around Jesus’ table, we are annually reminded of the marvelous and rich diversity of the church and of the world.
     For this celebration we bring different breads representing diversity of grains, recipes and cultures, Pita, Naan, Injera, Tortilla, Corn bread...  But frankly, as diverse as we might think our selection of breads is, Jesus was far more radical! Around the heavenly table he expected and prepared a place for people from East and West (please understand, that this expression means the complete diversity of people from around the world).
      One does not need to be an anthropologist or watch Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern to realize that our Christian concentration on the Mediterranean (and consequently North Atlantic)  staple food and drink is de facto an excellent example of our (Christian) religious fundamentalism and cultural chauvinism. In medieval times this liturgical fundamentalism led to such strange ideas as attempts to produce domestic wine in the British Isles or Sweden, even north of 59th parallel!
       There are many other and diverse staple foods around the world beside bread (yams, rice, taro, plantains, chuño...) and other staple drinks besides grape juice (orange, coconut, passion fruit, dates, apples...)! Can we imagine and admit that Jesus might anticipate using different local staple foods in place of the Mediterranean bread and wine? Can we even imagine a heavenly table looking this bizarre, this diverse, this global? How would it change our understanding of Jesus’ table? What would it mean for our faith, for our liturgy, for the meaning of Holy Communion in our world? This Sunday we will ask and search and imagine together these bizarre foods on Jesus' table.


2013/09/27

The Book of an Open-ended Dialogue

"It Ain’t Necessarily So!" This song by George and Ira Gershwin has inspired the last four Sundays in our church. We could see:
  1. That David and Solomon’s empire really never existed, yet their saga is a thrilling intra-biblical argument about the use and the abuse of political power.
  2. That the Bible contains true mythical remnants like sea monsters, but even so it can still inspire our ecological awareness so relevant in our modern age.  
  3. That Moses is, by and large, a legendary figure and the Eexodus from Egypt never really happened as recorded in the Bible; nevertheless it was and remains a powerful force and inspiration for freedom seekers around the world. 
  4. And finally, that although astronomical life-spans of biblical patriarchs are clearly legendary and unrealistic, they can trigger honest and relevant discussions about highly relevant matters like the end-of-life health and palliative medicine.

The Bible has never been a book with a single narrative story-line. It was composed over millennia, written and edited by many different authors. It contains diverse literary and religious genres. It is a book of an open-ended dialogue in which all are invited to participate. 
    This weekend we will have marvelous opportunity to step inside, participate and deepen this discussion during our Autumn Visiting Scholar Weekend. Our guest will be the preeminent biblical scholar, Ancient Near East historian, archeologist and published author Neil Asher Silberman. The Saturday program will start at 10:30 with a lecture: "The Bible and Archeology"; in the early afternoon we will continue with a luncheon and conversation: "Biblical relics and biblical fakes." At 2:30 we will have a seminar: "How can archeology affect faith?"
     The Sunday homily will crown this discussion, searching for an answer to the question  “Who owns the Hebrew Bible?” Please consider participating in any of these events.



2013/09/20

The curse of eternity


    This Sunday is the last in our Gershwin series “It ain’t necessarily so!” And the last verse of the Gershwin song is also the most randy and provocative.
    Methus'lah lived nine hundred years, But who calls dat livin', When no gal will give in, To no man what's nine hundred years?
    Actually, according to the Bible, Methuselah lived full 969 years! And he was not the only one in the Bible to live more than 900 years: Adam is said to have lived 930 years, Seth presumably lived 918 years, Enosh lived a wimpy 905 years, Kenan only 910 years, Jerad almost matched Methuselah with 962 years, and Noah lived 950 years. And there is no easy rational escape from the logic of these numbers. You cannot simply divide them, say, by 10 - because in such a case the patriarchs would had to have children as young as 6!
    Gershwin was fully justified in poking fun at these astronomical life spans. In his time Paleo-anthropology was just cutting its teeth, but people already knew enough to recognize the inverse correlation between the distance in history and the length of human life. The further back we go in time, the shorter and more miserable human (hominid) life gets. Median adult life expectancy (not counting infant mortality) in medieval times was about 40, in Jesus’ time it was about 37, median life span of early stone age farmers was below 30 years, and we know it was not much better before that.
    Gershwin was fully justified in making fun of those utterly unrealistic numbers. And his humor, just as all good humor, had also quite a serious side. We strive, largely successfully, to prolong human life. But is the length of life the only measure of its meaning and value? Does not Enoch, the father of Methuselah, have something to tell us. His life is told to be the shortest among the oldest patriarchs (only 365 :), yet he is also the only one blessed and welcomed (approved) by God.
    With our modern civilization and its medical achievements don’t we resemble Tithonos, a hero of Classical mythology? His lover, the goddess of dawn, Eos requested and obtained for him the gift of immortality, but she forgot to ask for eternal youth. So after a short and blissful spell, Tithonos now eternally ages, well kept and fed by Eos, yet unable to die, he for ever sinks and shrinks from sight, leaving behind just a sniveling cry.
    Gershwin highlights exactly the same theme in the Bible and he leaves us with questions: can’t our striving for eternity actually be a curse? Can’t our striving for longevity be just our collective avoidance maneuver? What actually is the true value and real meaning of life?
    Yet again, what seemed to be the most randy and provocative, turned out to be the most seriously relevant. Yet again we can see that “It ain’t necessarily so!”


A detail from an Attic wine jug dated between 470-460 B.C.E.
depicting Eos pursuing Tithonus now in Louvre Museum



 
 
The story of Eos and Tithonos from the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.

Aphrodite tells the story to Anchises:
In much the same way was Tithonos abducted by Eos,
    the goddess of the golden embroidery.
He too belonged to your family line,
    looking like the immortal ones.
Then she went with a request to the Son of Kronos [Zeus],
    him of the dark clouds,
asking that her lover become immortal
    and live for all days to come.
Zeus nodded yes to her
    and brought to fulfillment the words of her wish.
Too bad that her thinking was disjoined!
The Lady Eos did not notice in her thinking
    that she should have asked for eternal youth
    and a stripping away of baneful old age.
Well, for a while Tithonos held on to his youth,
    enjoying Eos, the one with the gold embroidery,
    the one early-born.
He lived at the far reaches of the Ocean,
    at the very limits of the earth.
But when the first strands of gray hair appeared,
    from his beautiful head and his noble chin,
    then the Lady Eos stopped visiting him at his bed.
She still nourished him, with grain and ambrosia.
    keeping him in her palace,
    and she kept him well dressed.
But when hateful old age was pressing hard on him,
    with all its might,
and he couldn’t bend his limbs,
    much less lift them up,
then in her resolve she thought up this plan,
    a best counsel she could think:
She build him a special chamber,
    and closed him behind shining doors.
From there his voice pours out
    - it seems in never ending stream -
but he has no strength at all,
    that kind he used to have
    when his limbs could still move.



2013/09/13

A Baby-Shipping Lore

 
 
This Sunday we continue our Gershwin series based on the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So!”
Of course Gershwin was fully justified in having his doubts about “Li'l Moses being fished by Ol' Pharaoh's daughter from the stream.” 
More than a century ago (as soon as the Ashurbanipal Library was published and translated) it was known that there was another story about another new born baby, in another reed basket, also sealed with asphalt, floating in another river, rescued by another royal figure, and it was also about a baby who made it big in his life. 
In that story the royal figure wasn’t Ol’ Pharaoh’s daughter, it was a Sumerian official, the river wasn’t Nile, it was the Euphrates, the baby wasn’t Moses, it was King Sargon of Akkad. 
        You see, in a playful operatic setting, Gershwin was fully justified to have his doubts about the historicity of this story. Of course there were no two baby-laden baskets floating on two major waterways of the ancient world. Without any doubt, both the stories of Sargon as well as that of Moses are ancient legends. But as legends, they are so much more powerful than a mere recounting of history. As history, the event would be done and locked in the past, as a legend it is still powerful, it still conveys to us a glorious as well as challenging message! 
This Sunday, at the beginning of another Church and school cycle, quite appropriately, we will take seriously the Exodus story, the story of liberation, which never was and yet always will be! (To paraphrase philosopher Saloustios.) Come to rejoice, celebrate, be liberated from all sorts of slaveries and be challenged, encouraged and empowered to become liberators of others. It is the noblest and most joyous calling of the people of God.
 
Bronze head of a king, most likely Sargon, from cca 2300 B.C.E.
unearthed in Nineveh, now in the Iraqi Museum.
 

   Legend of Sargon of Akkad

Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkad am I!
My mother was a high priestess, my father I knew not.
His ancestry was among the people of hills.
I come from The City of Saffron, on the banks of the Euphrates,
there my mother, the high priestess,
conceived me, and in secret she bore me.
She set me in a basket of reeds;
with bitumen she sealed my lid.
She cast me on the river which rose not over me.
The river bore me up and carried me to Akki, the Drawer of Water.
Akki, the Drawer of Water, lifted me out as he dipped his ewer.
Akki, the Drawer of Water, took me as his son and brought me up.
Akki, the Drawer of Water, appointed me as his gardener.
While I was a gardener, goddess Ishtar showed me her favor,
and for four and thirty years I have been king.
The black-headed people I ruled and governed
Mighty mountains with chip-axes of bronze I conquered.
The upper ranges I scaled,
The lower ranges I traversed,
The sea and lands three times I circled.
Dilmun my hand captured,
To the great Der I went up, 
Kazallu I destroyed

Whatever king may come up after me,
let him rule, let him govern, the black-headed people;
let him conquer mighty mountains with chip-axes of bronze,
let him scale the upper ranges,
let him traverse the lower ranges,
let him circle the sea lands three time!
Dilmun let his hand capture,
let him go up to the great Der and…!
From my city Akkad.


 
Name Sargon translates - "The Legitimate King"
The “The Drawer of Water” - was a high title similar to the Master of Irrigations.
Adapted from translation by E.A.Speiser