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."


More golden than gold

What is more precious than gold? And what gold sparkles more than gold?
    Last Monday a small group from our church went for a bible class field trip to the Metropolitan Museum. We visited the soon-ending exhibition “From Assyria to Iberia.” It offered us great insight into the Near Eastern and Mediterranean Iron Age, an important period for understanding the Hebrew Bible.
    We saw and discussed the famous Tel Dan Stele and we observed several centuries of development of writing. We were impressed by imposing Assyrian bas-relieves and we admired marvelous Phoenician ivories and bronzes. But many of us were particularly captivated by a special kind of ancient gold jewelry.
Pendant with granulation from the
permanent exposition of the MtMu
    Several jewels in the exhibition sparkled and glittered as if made from some brighter gold. On closer inspection we could see that these jewels were covered with minuscule golden grains, the tiniest little balls you can imagine, often smaller than a fracture of a millimeter.
    Classical optics informs us, that a surface covered by granules is visually shinier than regular polished metal. A plate of metal reflects light almost entirely in one direction (similar to that of a mirror); while a high number of small beads behaves very differently: a spherical surface reflects light in many directions and this effect is cumulatively maximized when many balls are set side by side. This phenomenon is called diffused reflection.
    Jewelry granulation provides an almost uniform dispersion of light; thus it gives the impression that a surface covered with granulation is shinier than a regular polished surface.
A drawing of diffused reflection of parallel light beams.
    This highly sophisticated jewelry technique appeared in the middle bronze age Mesopotamia and slowly spread around the ancient world. Golden granulation was one of the highly prestigious (and also tightly guarded) technologies which were kept among artisans working in royal workshops. Nevertheless this technique continued spreading by the way of social and political phenomenon of gift giving.
    Friendly or neutral kings competed and ranked each other by exchanging gifts of high technological finesse. The better and more valuable the gift secured to the giver the higher level of prestige. And alliances between higher and lower monarchs were sealed with transfers of these prestigious technologies and exchanges of artisans.
    This is something for us to think about this Sunday as we mark the Epiphany. The epiphany story of Magi is most likely legendary and non-historical. But even as a legend it grows from a rich soil of the Ancient Near East tradition of political gift giving and the artisan and scholar visits.
    Come this Sunday to search for an answer to the question: what is brighter and more precious than even granulated gold?


Healing Leaves

Do you have the Tree of Life at home? That one with magical fruit and healing leaves? Many people do on Christmas, only they don’t know it. These are in fact the deepest mythical origins of our tradition of decorated Christmas trees!
     Actually the Reformation and the early Protestants were responsible for this custom. Some scattered evidence of the Christmas trees predates the Reformation, yet the strongest impulse for the widespread and strong popularity of Christmas trees came from the protestant regions around the Rhine River in the 16th century. They decorated Christmas trees and sang about it in a beautiful Christmas Carol.

Lo, how a rose e'er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
By faithful prophets sung.
It came a floweret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
    Isaiah ‘twas foretold it,
    The rose I have in mind, 
    With Mary we behold it,
    The virgin mother kind.
    To show God’s love aright
    She bore for us a Savior,
    When half spent was the night.


Perhaps unrecognizably, this old hymn reflects the origins of the Christmas trees. Behind the hymn’s lyrics is a famous biblical prophecy from the book Isaiah (11:1):
    A branch shall grow from the stump of Jesse,
    and a shoot from this root shall bear fruit.

And Isaiah on his part is masterfully recasting an ancient mythic image of paradisal tree of life. A tree or trees which bear fruits twelve times a year and its leaves have healing powers as we hear about them from Ezechiel 47:12 or Revelation 22:1ff. Clearly ancient Middle Eastern prophecies did not envision any pine trees (our Christmas standard), but what could the reformation Germans do? In their home, pine trees were the only green trees at this season so they hang on it apples and later oranges or chocolate treats (now glass balls and other decorations) to stand for fruits and pretended that pine needles were those healing leaves. Before all this, ancient mythical imagery got almost completely forgotten and only unreflected customs remain.
      Come this Sunday to search for other trees of life and different faith traditions with trees of magical healing leaves.



Medieval (Russian) Christmas

This year as our Advent and Christmas art I picked an orthodox medieval icon painted sometimes around 1405 by a famous Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It is an excellent example of early Christian didactical iconography.
     In the center is a newborn Jesus in a cave with Mary reclining on a royal divan and looking away. Theological reference brings in an ox and a donkey from Isaiah 1 thus highlighting presence, wisdom and devotion of animals. Theological consideration also makes the trough to look like a casket and swaddling cloths to resemble a shroud thus already foreshadowing another cave story of the Easter message. Cosmic significance is highlighted by a star’s long ray which points to baby Jesus. Nearby grows a tree or bush - a royal stump of Jesse which is springing out (Isaiah 11).
     All four corners also have their traditional content and meaning. Lower corners are inspired by non-biblical early Christian legends - left lower corner is occupied by Joseph who is tempted by a devil, visualizing our constant human inner dialogue with doubt and unbelief. The right lower corner depicts two midwives (Zebel and Salome) preparing a bath for baby Jesus, thus underlying true bodily incarnation which included a baby bath. The upper corners are reserved for canonical gospels: Matthew’s corner has arriving magi while Luke’s corner shows angelic choirs bringing good tidings to shepherds. The countryside on the background is intentionally barren in order to highlight our human state, a life in an inhospitable world after we lost the verdant Paradise.
     Isn’t it interesting how little has changed over the centuries? These icons are like a window into our human perception of Christmas: oddly arranged theology and legends, naivete and sincere spiritual reflections. This one old masterpiece is just like that, it is loaded with meanings and theological lessons cobbled together, and yet it remains light, delicate, almost ethereal and certainly spiritually mesmerizing. Enjoy!

P.S. And of course, Orthodox Christmas are celebrated  according to Julian calendar ;-)


Psychiatrist's kid

I grew up on a psychiatric ward. My father is a psychiatrist and my mom was a psychiatric nurse. One of my earliest slivers of memory has me sitting under an elevated examination bed in my father’s office and banging all around with a neurological hammer. Later in my school years, I regularly passed through the waiting room. I still remember the diverse, sometime bizarre and always copious selection of characters seeking help in my father’s office. Alcohol and substance addicts, a depressed teacher, a manic storekeeper, a schizoid long-haired savior, parents with an autistic son, children with a disoriented grandma in early stages of dementia ...
    It hurts me greatly, especially with the beginning of winter, when I see a similar assortment of people around NYC streets staying homeless or almost homeless. Why is it that so many mentally ill people in our society end up on the streets (or even worse - in jails)? I know they can be treated more humanely and with respect.
Summer art festival at Psychiatric Sanatorium in Prague Bohnice.
with St.Wenceslas church.
When I was a minister in Prague, in the same district with my church there was one of the largest Psychiatric Sanatoriums in the country. It was founded in 1909 under the Habsburg Monarchy! It had a large chapel (in fact a sizable church, really) in the middle of the campus. A small clergy group took turns in leading worship. This hospital had not only an ecumenical church, it also had greenhouses and a horse farm for work therapy, a theater and several art studios, an symphonic orchestra and a jazz band and a calendar of concerts and events... Only two pavilions, to my best knowledge, out of about fifty (on its 160 acres campus) were so-called closed (to keep and protect the patients); all other pavilions were open and patients stayed voluntarily.
    When it starts to snow or it is freezing cold and I splash through NYC's slush passing by another disoriented or delusional homeless soul, it hurts me so much because I know there are better alternatives. If the Habsburg monarchy, a full century ago, was able to care for its mentally ill citizens, why isn’t our technologically and medically advanced society? It is important to talk about it, it is important to demand from our government a better, more humane, more enlightened approach to mental illness (at least on the level of 1909!). And very practically it is important for us at Rutgers to continue supporting and to celebrate WSFSSH (West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing). In our community it substitutes for and fills in the gaps of our negligent and inadequate government.
    This Sunday we will talk about and pray for social refugees and exiles- people pushed away from their homes because of their mental illness or difficult and complex family circumstances.

December 2022 - a new podcast about same theme https://soundcloud.com/user-268177934-789175382/episode-89-mental-health-crisis 


R-Rated Patriarchs

The Bible is a surprisingly earthy book. It is full of unheroic heroes with important lessons to teach. It presents life in its raw and un-adorned nature. In this very essence, the Bible resists being made into some simple-to-follow set of rules and doctrines. And this un-tamed nature is the Bible’s greatest value. Take for instance such shocking behaviour as biblical patriarchs pimping their wives. I know many would object to the use of this verb, but that is exactly what we are told they were doing - presenting their spouses as their sisters and offering them to potentates for personal benefit. Just check Genesis 12, Genesis 20 and Genesis 26!  
Semitic people present in Egypt:
Semitic goddess Qadesh on lion
flanked by Semitic god Resheph
and Egyptian god Min, patron of fertility.   
      Threefold recidivism especially unsettled many pious souls as well as theologians and interpreters. Many tried to rationalize these surprising stories. Fundamentalists, unable to defend patriarchal actions, attempted to exonerate them at least from lying - their wives were indeed their blood relatives! Religionists (students of religions) might point out that these stories are some kind of myths reworked into patriarchal legends. As represented on number of Egyptian stelae. Folklorists attempted to reduce the count of stories by seeing them all coming from one original oral tradition. Dogmatists highlighted moral lessons: learning to trust God, and the dangerous short-sightedness of human schemes. Anthropologists suspected some ancient practice of sharing wives with strangers, (well documented in other cultures.) Feminists saw it as a literary device highlighting the stellar beauty of the vulnerable matriarchs while denouncing the callous values of patriarchal system. To a different degree all these observations offer important and relevant insights.
       For me these stories reflect the deepest visceral fears of many refugees, migrants and other marginalized groups in our society. In a foreign culture, in a foreign land, confronted with strange customs, an exposed minority, unprotected and vulnerable, ... in such a situation even deep seated taboos can collapse. Our own Biblical patriarchs help us to understand these dangerous dynamics of alienation and fear. Our own Biblical patriarchs show us why it is important to protect all the vulnerable strangers above and beyond the protection which is enjoyed by the natives. The Bible is surprisingly earthy, practical and radical book. This Sunday we will pray for economic refugees.
       Our guest this Sunday - Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly and Human Rights Activist will share with us his first hand experiences around and on both sides of the US-Mexican border.


Obstetric Ornithology

On three Wednesdays in Advent (December 3rd, 10th and 17th) we will gather again in the chancel of our sanctuary to observe Advent Vespers. In the pre-Christmas rush time, seek with us a spiritual safe haven in these quiet, contemplative, candle-lit prayer and meditation times.
After about half an hour long vesper worship, you can join us in a small circle around cookies with warm chocolate. This year we will talk about babies, children, parenthood, our own and their shapes around the world and across ages. Isn’t Christmas about the newborn baby?
And for those who read this far here is a little bit of Obstetric Ornithology.
     In European folklore, babies are closely associated with storks. We all know how babies are delivered, by stork-mail, right? But before you dismiss it as an old wives' tale think about its nice symbolism and deep insight. Storks are migratory birds yearly traveling thousands of miles, yet they return faithfully to the same nest year after year. Storks are also predominantly monogamous. And the stork vernal migration comes when great number of the babies used to be born, about ten lunar months after Midsummer Night (All over Europe in rustic times, the summer solstice was an amorous season).
    Ancient Near Eastern people didn’t look for storks, they revered swallows, also migratory birds, also known for forming life-long bonds and also faithfully returning to one home or barn. In pre-biblical times Semitic people worshiped Seven Swallow-Daughters, goddesses of marital bliss whom they called in translation Skillful-Ones - each had a name (again in translation): Wedding-Gift, Dowry, Flame-of-Love, Womb-Opener, First-Baby-Cry, Perpetually-Fruitful, and Benefactress. I know about them because as my hobby and for my doctorate I translated a three thousand year old cuneiform clay tablet (KTU 1.24 - this link leads to a translation by my Edinburgh teacher Professor Nicolas Wyatt, he opted for a different translation, not Swallow Daughters, but mentions it in the footnote no.7) where they are thus named and petitioned to be of assistance at a divine wedding as well as later.
    And I suspect, that these goddesses might also be a deep and ancient part of our own Judeo-Christian faith tradition. In the Bible, they are present in the disguise of Hebrew midwives in Egypt. In Exodus 1, they are called Shiphrah and Puah, but with a little bit of Ancient Near Eastern linguistics, their names can be translated as Fruitful-One and One-of-Parturition. The Bible is trying to disguise their true nature, and while YHWH does not deliver babies (certainly not in arch-patriarchal times), God could commission old-known and well-tried and trusted agents. Does anyone wonder why Hebrew women could not be stopped? How could they?! With such divine assistance! We do not know if they still envision them as swallows (the Bible does not mention it, but outside of the Bible it might be possible) they were certainly swift like swallows.


Meeting Xenia

Do you know XENIA? Have you ever heard of her? XENIA is the name for an ancient concept of “hospitality towards strangers”. She was known and respected as far as one can see. Her name was present and well established in the oldest surviving literature.
    Now, even if you knew XENIA (you heard about her from me last summer), when was the last time you heard or read about her? Hardly ever! That is because the hearts of people have been jinxed and cursed by her younger sister XENOPHOBIA. Her name means “fear of strangers”, and not just any fear, but rather visceral fear, almost hatred. XENOPHOBIA’s name is also Greek and looks archaic, but it appeared as recently as 1905. And from that moment on, XENOPHOBIA has been going from strength to strength.
    Without any doubt, there was hatred of strangers even before the name for it was coined, and hospitality to strangers is present in our world even without being called by its ancient name. Yet I am convinced that the different familiarity and frequency of use of XENIA and XENOPHOBIA is illustrative. We have, but haven’t been using, an ancient old concept and name for the hospitality towards strangers, while we have created a new technical term for the hatred of strangers. What does it say about us?
    XENOPHOBIA thrives in our society especially along US southern border and in the minds of many narrow minded politicians. But, frankly, it is a worldwide problem. This same ugly XENOPHOBIA causes countless tragedies along the south shores of Europe as refugees from Africa and Middle East try to cross the Mediterranean Sea in flimsy boats. The same XENOPHOBIA hag thrives in Australian concentration camps, one of these infamous institutions being on Christmas Island (consider this irony!). Even New Zealand is rejecting climate refugees from Kiribati, whose home is destined to disappear under waves because of global warming. XENOPHOBIA is indeed a dangerous ugly global phenomenon. 
  I am convinced that as people of faith, it is our spiritual calling to wake up XENIA in our world again and reconstitute her as integral part of our faith and important virtue in our society - thus from this Sunday through Christmas we will pray, teach, sing and open our hearts to strangers, immigrants, exiles and refugees of all and many different kinds. This Sunday we start with those who leave their home to seek or to provide health care and healing. XENIA is an integral part of our faith identity and so much needed in our world today!


Volcanic Theology

Recently I went to Hawaiʻi (Big Island) to study ancient Polynesian religion. Little did I know how alive and widespread I would find it (at least some aspects of it)!
Popular artistic depiction of goddess Pele.
     On my first evening on the island, in front of a grocery store, I overheard two locals deep in discussion of the ongoing volcanic eruption. They actually talked about the goddess Pele and "what She was up to." All Hawaiʻians talk about their volcano goddess: Christians (no matter whether Catholics or Protestants), Buddhists, Shinto, Jewish, even the arch-atheists (and interestingly, also professional geologists and volcanologists regardless of their religion). All talk about Pele like an old acquaintance, yet almost always with deep respect. It is their way to talk about their daily lives, and about the very land on which they live.
    Don’t frown or scoff at them. We do similar things right here on the US South and East Coasts. We also talk about Sandy, Katrina, Andrew... we give them names, we talk about their personalities, and these are ephemeral, albeit powerful tropical cyclones. People in Hawaiʻi live with their volcanos day in and day out and have been doing so for centuries and millennia.
   I heard Hawaiʻians as well as immigrants talking about their volcano goddess more often and with greater passion this time because of the imminent danger of a lava flow burning its way through a local town. It opened for me some interesting insights into the origins of human religiosity, but it also highlighted deep and often neglected aspects of our own Judeo-Christian faith, spirituality, and social and environmental activism. This Sunday we will again listen to Volcanic Yahwism; flowing lava will illuminate for us the nature of the Ardent (Burning) Love of our God.

A lava flow burns its way through an orchard in Pāhoa
(source: USGA, Hawaii Volcano Observatory)


Healing for Our Wounded Earth

Returning from an overseas vacation, I peeked from the airplane window. We were somewhere above one of the mountain states. The sun was setting, and I saw amber and red mountain ridges with long blue shadows, the highest points already dusted with snow. It was a beautiful idyllic view, unfortunately with a sinister and surreal twist; this tranquil mountain scape was pock-marked like with smallpox. I saw something like it before, in spring 2012, in better light and having a better seat, I took a picture - the landscape around Navajo Lake.
Navajo Lake, New Mexico, in May 2012
   This is a wounded landscape. The lake itself destroyed most holy places of Navajo people (just consider the arrogance in calling the project Navajo Lake!). And the smallpox marks are fracking platforms hardly half-a-mile apart. And just like smallpox, fracking platforms are only surface blisters and scars, but the real disease lurks underneath. It is known that fracking wells occasionally leak poisons into aquifers. Among hundreds and hundreds of boreholes, a single one can pollute underground water (in the west - fossil water, nonrenewable, finite resource) for miles and miles in broad circles and often forever. Our societal carbon addiction certainly looks and feels like serious malady.
    I am so happy that our Rutgers church is taking these matters seriously. Our Trustees in their October meeting committed our church to conduct a full energy audit of our buildings. And the Session and Trustees continue discussion about the best and honest ways to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
    For us as religious people all our concerns, hopes and aspirations are rooted in our faith, our worship, theology and spirituality. This Sunday worship brings us seasonally appropriate message of Festival of Wine Harvest. Prophetic as well as Jesus’ vision of the vineyard will judge, inspire and encourage us to live justly among ourselves, in our society, with our environment, and in peace with our planet. Come this Sunday to celebrate Dionysia of social and ecojustice.


Parable of the Thistle Seed

A new fragment of the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers discovered!
Although in this case it is almost certainly an example of Ancient Upper West Side Forgery - someone took a piece of old papyrus and wrote on it a well-known parable in contemporary dialect. Its historic value is therefor doubtful, but the cultural approximation is nevertheless interesting.

     The anonymous author of this forgery clearly understood that the mustard plant in the original Galilean setting was equivalent to thistles and nettles of our more northerly latitudes and as such they were indication of fields allowed to go bad. Fields overgrown with weeds were most likely repossessed farmland kept by distant landlords for speculation. Thus we should be thankful to this Ancient Upper West Side forger, because he attempted to preserve the original meaning of the parable. You (Galilean audience of family farmers) might be forced and expelled from your land and it is left to weeds by distant landlords and speculators, but take heart! You are just like those weeds, tenacious, with enormous vitality, future belongs to you!


Idolatry Old and New

These are two pictures of bovine statues.
One statue measures 16 feet, the other just few inches.
Both statues are made of bronze, one weighs 71 thousand pounds, the other just several ounces.
One is just 27 years old, the other at least 32 centuries.
Both are now located in NYC, one at the “temple” of speculation, the other at the palace of education (Metropolitan Museum).
One statue is vicious, aggressive and in our face, while the other is quite docile and almost cuddly.
One is quasi-religious object depicting individualistic worship of speculative profit, the other was a part of collective and complex worship in an agrarian society.
One statue represents an impersonal system exploiting countless millions around the world, while the other was part of a religion in a small city state where any potential abuse was personal and thus limited by close proximity and small numbers.

As far as the bovine statuary and iconography goes, I have never seen among the ancient artefacts (Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian, Syrian, Greek and even among famous Cretan bulls) anything which would get close to vicious aggression of the Wall Street charging bull. I don’t think it is mere coincidence, I think it is an accurate symbolic representation of what any given society worships. This Sunday we will read the story of the Golden Calf. It is a marvelous opportunity to explore complex borderlines of idolatry, what we worship and what really matters in our lives.


Basso Profondissimo

Fresco in the Upper Church of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi
painted between 1297-1300 and tradionally attributed to Giotto di Bondone.
Do you know that the Earth has its own voice?
Recently I listened to a lecture by geophysicist Michael Wysession and he mentioned this very fact. When the Earth is stricken by a big earthquake, the entire planet reverberates and resonates even for months and months. The lowest sustained global frequency has a wavelength 54 minutes long. That corresponds to the surface going up for 27 minutes and then coming down for same period of time. We cannot register this with our senses; it was discovered only with the help of modern instruments. Although there is no way we can hear it, this harmonic movement represents the Earth’s fundamental tone - it is a note E twenty octaves below the middle E. The entire Earth behaves like a giant bell or an enormous singing bowl.
    You see, St. Francis was right after all when he spoke about our Sister Earth singing and praising the Lord. I always thought it was mere poetic hyperbole. Now I know that in the cosmic chorus celebrating our Creator, our sister Earth sings Basso Profondo, Profondissimo!  
    As we celebrate World Communion Sunday and St. Francis Day, we will join not only a marvelous and surprising chorus of peoples, nationalities and races but also our sisters and brothers - creatures and plants, stars and planets. It is a magnificent cosmic choir with a fairytale-like voice-span and we all are invited to lift our voices and sing.


Garden Beds of Eden

This one picture nicely illustrates how I envision “Inhabiting Eden”. Shown is an old hospital bed. As a child from a medical family I grew up around beds like this; I remember them well. And this brings forth my first spiritual metaphor. In the Bible, God planted the garden of Eden and entrusted it to human hands, charging us, humans, to keep it and guard it. In the Bible, there are no transcendental, otherworldly, extraterrestrial Edens, and there are no other alternative words. This world is the only one we have, and right now it is not feeling particularly well. Because of generations of human ignorance, negligence, indifference, disobedience, selfishness and abuse, our world, our Eden, is in sad shape, it needs our attention, gentle nursing, and time to heal. Our very own well being depends on it, it is our Eden!
    And that brings forward the second spiritual metaphor in this picture. We can hardly find any better place for our own well being and healing, than nature’s garden beds. Just ask any phyto-pharmacologist. In our church you are in luck; one such expert worships with us every Sunday. Right now he is away for the next few months visiting and studying plants of the Far East, but you can still write and ask! I am almost certain he will confirm that the garden beds of Nature are the best and surprising sources of healing medicines. (Am I right Ed?) It is indeed in our own interest to allow our world and nature to heal, so that it can continue healing us.
    Come this weekend (Saturday and Sunday): our autumn guest speaker and preacher professor Tricia Tull will lead us in seeking how to faithfully and responsibly live in Eden, sharing in healing and mutual care with Nature.

I took this picture last weekend when we visited Well-Sweep Herb Farm in NW New Jersey. They grow and sell an unbelievably wide selection of kitchen and medicinal herbs - for instance 95 different varieties of thyme!


Infancy Gospel of Henry Rutgers

As many of you know the buildings of Rutgers Church are undergoing long-deferred and desperately needed repair work. This summer, most of the work was done on and around the roof. Quite often we are faced with unpleasant discoveries of rusted beams, collapsing ceilings and crumbling walls, but occasionally we come across some spectacular surprises. For instance in this last week of astronomic summer we made an epochal discovery. Coiled up in an unused pipe behind the water tower was another fragment of the long-lost Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers. Here is my first tentative transcription:
- - -
Now this Jesus, when he was a little boy, like two or three he was, his grandfather Jack kept a vegetable garden just behind their home. And he toddled all the time behind his beloved grandpa. One day Jack went to his garden to pick up snails from his lettuce and strawberries and he just kept crushing them under his feet. And Jesus is behind him and snapping his fingers, and making them whole again right behind his sandals. And Jack is like, “Are you kidding me?
I could not believe this!” and “Don’t do it!” But snap, snap, snap, he restored every single one of them together with their shells and tentacles and even slimy paths. “We are not going to have anything from my garden this year, this little rascal loves pests better than my strawberries!” Announced Jack at home. But overnight Joseph had a dream, the angel of the Lord gave him some clear instructions and in the morning he made a nice wooden box with a mash over it. Snap, snap, snap Jesus brought out all the snails from grandpa’s garden into his box and kept them there in a snail-zoo, feeding them with some odd lettuce, cabbage and turnip leaves, and releasing them right before the autumn hibernation. That is how Jesus saved snails and at the same time everyone could enjoy strawberry ice cream and green salads that summer, and next year Mary learned to make delicious escargot to keep the infestation under control, while Jesus grew ever taller and more mature in spirit.

    This story clearly does not contain any genuine historical gospel text as anyone can see - strawberries were not cultivated in the biblical times and escargot was never kosher!* What we have in front of us is a fragment of an infancy gospel which only attempts to look like authentic Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers** while it is ignorant of contemporary Jewish customs. But this verdict does not mean it is completely devoid of any meaning. Just like other stories about infant Jesus our fragment is not genuine material, but it still highlights some authentic and very important biblical themes: God has a week spot for all the creatures who are being labeled pests; God strives and struggles for all creatures who are being crushed, God has a deep interest in preserving the broadest diversity of life. 
     Join us for Sunday Worship to celebrate this Mystery of Divine Compassion.

*And beside these facts the language is not in a nice and clear KingJamish (proper NewYorkish biblical dialect) like the rest of the Bible but it is just a mere Old Vernacular Highschoolish (Native Medieval SchoolEnglish).

** Some older reports on fragments of the authentic Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers can be found here, here and here.


Can rocks teach wisdom?

The rock in this picture is quite unique. I picked it up last weekend, when my wife Martina and I visited an old zinc mine in northern New Jersey.
    A jovial retired miner led us underground. “All this gray rock around you,” he informed us, “is Franklin Marble which formed at the bottom of the sea about one billion years ago.” He said it with casual nonchalance but it took my breath away. That piece of rock alone is thousands upon thousands times older than so many of our fundamentalist compatriots reckon for the entire universe! If we visualized the age of this rock (one billion years) as one mile (distance From Rutgers church to Madison Avenue), the entire history of human civilization (about eleven thousand years) will fit into a little more than the last half-inch! The age of the rock alone inspires respectful reverence and reminds us of our human dimensions.
    But as you can see, this rock has also some special properties. It fluoresces and shines! While this marble rock was formed at the bottom of a sea, volcanoes erupted nearby and deposited a treasure trove of minerals. Over long aeons of time these minerals formed rich seams and veins of ores. Under a UV lamp those mineral come alive. Ordinary gray rock is suddenly intersected and crisscrossed with neon colors. It is not only a bright visualization of rock formation and ore geology, but also a surprising, beautiful and awe inspiring show. Down underground, in the New Jersey mine, we experienced first hand why the book of Job perceives the rocks under our feet as capable and bright teachers of divine wisdom.
    As we continue celebrating powerful mysteries of nature, come this Sunday to search and celebrate divine Wisdom (reverence, curiosity and beauty) hidden in rocks and ores.

Layers of minerals and ores shine under UV light in Sterling Mine Museum, NJ.

And here is my (paraphrase) translation of first verses of Job 28:

Surely, silver has its deposits,
    and there are places where people pan for gold.
Iron is produced from iron-ore,
    and rocks are smelted into copper.

People overcome the darkness,
    they search the furthest corners,
        obscure rocks, in the shadows of death.
They dig shafts away from human paths,
    alone they descend underground,
        on ropes swinging back and forth.

The same earth, which gives us bread,
    below is turned upside-down as if by fire.
In its rocks are deposits of precious stones,
    and in its dust are flakes of gold.

It is a path unknown to birds of prey,
    eyes of falcons have never seen it.
Lion cubs have never trod that path,
    nor adult lions have ever hunted there.

People reach deep into the hardest rock,
    upturn the very roots of mountains.
They cut tunnels into the cliffs,
    in their search for precious things.
They even stop the water seeping in,
    hidden treasures they bring to light.



Voice of the Wounded Nature

This Sunday we will celebrate the Mystery of Voice. To encounter this mystery we need to learn to listen and to be sensitive to the voices and sounds of wounded nature.
      My strongest and strangest encounter with this voice came in
Kula Kai Cavern on the Big Island of Hawaii. My wife Martina and I were part of a small tour of cave enthusiasts. With knee pads, hard-hats we were crawling through passages at times no more than 25 inches high. And then, deep underground we stopped to catch our breaths. There, in the deepest part of the cave our guide offered us an experience often presented in such places. We switched off all our headlamps (they often emit sound), and sitting in complete darkness we listened to the silence.
     Down in the dark underground I heard the voice of wounded nature. It came to me in the form of a clear high pitched ring (it sounded like a tone D9 ~ 9.4 kHz). It was indeed a cry of nature, but it was not coming from outside. My ears did not hear it: this sound was made by my own neurons somewhere along the central auditory system. After having lived several years in NYC, and after spending ten hours in a jetliner the day before, my auditory neurons decided that that utter silence simply could not be true; deprived of any acoustic stimuli from outside they generated their own sound. Thus I heard the cry of wounded nature, a piece of nature right behind my temple bones.
     You can imagine how alarmed I was by this discovery. I asked my MD wife and later some of my friends: all assured me, that most likely it would adjust after spending some time in a quieter environment. I can confirm that that was the case: in a few days I could hear silence again without any high-pitched chords.
     So, please, don’t think that I am bizarre when you meet me in the subway covering my ears or sometimes with earplugs. I occasionally wear earplugs even for bed, especially when our neighborhood is particularly noisy. I am not going cuckoo, I just want to be able to hear cuckoos when I leave the city, I want to protect that part of nature between my ears, and not only for my own sake, but so that I can better hear nature when it sings of joy and especially when it cries for help.
    Truly the first step to appreciate the mystery of Nature's voice is to protect, appreciate and listen to the quiet: thus we can learn to hear again, and even the quiet-ones can be heard.

Martina crawling in Kula Kai Cave


Surprising personality

Just imagine that almost all of us have another person living next to us in our apartments, cleaning our crumbs and occasionally also stealing from our cookie jars or causing some other minor mischief. Imagine that that person is living right in front of you and with you: in the wall, between the bricks, under the floor boards or behind the drywall. No, I am not getting peculiar or paranoid or both. Earlier this summer the Proceedings of The Royal Society B published an article documenting that ant nests of the same species (in that case rock ants - Temnothorax Rugatulus) develop different yet lasting behavioral traits depending on their environment and their prior experiences. In one word, not individual ants, but ant-nests have personalities: a nest becomes a person!
    I remember hearing something like that three decades ago from a family friend and naturalist/entomologist based just on his elemental observations. When you think about it, it actually makes very good sense. Social insects achieve high levels of cooperation and cohesion - their hives and nests often act as one entity. Now, let us do a little mathematics - an average ant worker has about 250,000 neurons; depending on the size of the nest (anything between several hundred to millions and even hundreds of millions of ants) it can have a combined neuronal capacity anywhere between a dog (hundreds of millions of neurons) all the way to a small team of scientists or even a medium-sized scientific institute (billions and trillions of neurons)!
    Ant nests clearly have the neuronal capacity to develop personality, and now it has been scientifically documented that they do this very thing. The biblical Book of Proverbs (30:25) made a similar observation many centuries ago: Ants are a nation without much strength, yet they are able to plan and store food for a lean season. Come this Sunday as we continue to reconnect with the ancient spiritual wisdom of our faith and celebrate not only ants but the all-embracing mystery of life. We will celebrate the life-giving spirit, a divine spark which we humans share with all creatures, large and small.

And next time you see an ant, perhaps even several of them, invading your home or kitchen, please consider mechanical cleaning of your detritus and crumbs rather than a cocktail of chemical poisons in a spray. It might kill off ants efficiently and quickly, but also quietly, inconspicuously, little by little, poison you and all our environment. With ant colonies we might share personality, but with individual ants we certainly share the divine spark of life, the same molecular physiology of life.


Glassblowing God

Do you remember your first, or some other powerful childhood wonder? I was born and grew up in the glass-making part of the Czech Republic. My maternal grandfather worked in a glass factory making hardwood molds for glassmakers. I remember watching master craftsmen draw red-glowing blobs of molten glass from infernal ovens and blow them into the most sublime shapes. People call it hand-made glass, but from my youngest age I have known that the finest glass is in fact breath-made.
    It reminds me of a beautiful saying from the Gospel of Philip: “Glass carafe and earthenware jug are both made by means of fire. But if glass carafes break they are done over, for they came into being through a breath. If earthenware jugs break, however, they are destroyed, for they came into being without breath.” I know it is very unlikely to be Jesus’ own saying as blown glass was just appearing at this time and familiarity with glass belonged to a different social class. I also know that this saying from the Gospel of Philip is loaded with self-centered and self promoting sentiments. It was to illustrate the superiority of a glass blowing Christian(Gnostic) God over the Jewish God of the Hebrew Bible who was churning up just pottery... (Jeremiah 18)
    But this lovely metaphor does not need to be an antagonistic replacement, it can also be a genius update of the potter’s parable. The spiritual egotism of this gnostic saying can be eliminated as soon as we recognize The Master Glass-Maker at work not only in the elite group of the elect few, but in the forming and reshaping of the wide open world. After all, don’t volcanoes, with their infrared radiance and subsonic deep rumbling, look like some gigantic ovens? Doesn’t flowing lava look, move and behave much like molten glass? And just like a grain of gold melted in glass makes it ruby-red, or cobalt makes it unmistakably blue, or uranium teal green, so do different gasses, minerals and circumstances change colours and shapes of lava rocks. I guess my fascination with volcanos must have grown from my early childhood wonder.
    Different people have different early encounters with wonder. But the wonder itself is the same. And if we allow this wide-eyed child-like wonder enchantment to stay with us to adulthood, it has spectacular powers to keep our minds nimble, to inspire us, to ground us, and to keep us in harmony inside and outside. Come this Sunday to celebrate this mysterious power of our early wonders.

Glassblowing in Corning, NY and lava flowing near Kalapana, HI


The Place of Healing

Do you have your Healing Place?
I do not mean a hospital or any walk-in-clinic.
I mean that special place where you feel calm, solace, connection and perhaps that kind of spiritual awe which is combination of respect and charm. I have several such places - some distant and some just around the corner. One such special place is even called Moku Ola, literally “The Place of Healing.”
   This Moku Ola is an island in the Hilo Bay, a place which was holy already to old Hawaiians. It was their ancient place of refuge, where sins and guilt were redeemed, and well being and harmony found. It was a place connected with a temple, royal fish ponds, surrounded with holy grounds. Unfortunately, in modern times, the fish ponds were turned into a park, the temple was destroyed, paved over and made into a parking lot, and the place of refuge became a popular picnic destination and a playground.
    Yet, no matter what modern insensitive people did to this place, it still is Moku Ola - the Healing Place. It is difficult to describe; it might be in its geography, its island nature, the embrace of the shore, the special air and smell, the angle of light and its reflexions, its unique and unbalanced horizon of ocean and mountains. For me this place still retains its special charm, it still is a special place to be and feel the presence of divine.*)
    And don’t worry, I am not succumbing to some virulent form of New-Age religiosity. This kind of recognition of such special spiritual places is in fact very Biblical **) and always has been part of our Christian faith tradition***), although it became partially suppressed and partially forgotten in modern times.
    This Sunday, the first in the series “Rainbow of Mysteries“, we will attempt to uncover this forgotten and neglected aspect of our faith tradition. We will seek to open our minds, eyes and senses to the Mystery of Presence and God’s Moku Ola the Healing Places in environment around us.

*) Ancient Hawaiians had a special class of priests called kuhikuhi pu‘uone (Literally: Experts in making heaps of sand) to seek appropriate places and to design houses and temples. They were indeed experts because there is hardly a religious place which would not be set in unique location, a place of worship without special atmosphere.

**) We will be talking about Jacob's dream at Beth-El (Genesis 28), but there are many other especially biblical instances of special places where the divine presence was noted and remembered.    
***) Many churches, monasteries, or places of pilgrimage were built in significant locations - on hill tops, by river confluences, near powerful springs... 

And here are pictures from some of my other healing places: St. Margaret Church on the Oppidum (abandoned iron age city) near Prague, or sunsets from the roof of our building.
Originally Romanesque church of St. Margaret near Prague
Sunsets over Hudson River from the roof of our building.


Environmental prophet

“Our present combustion of fossil fuels threatens to change the chemistry of the Globe’s atmosphere as a whole, with consequences which we are only beginning to guess.”
    This was not written last Thursday but in December 1966. It was said by a person of bright mind and deep faith, a lifelong Presbyterian and medievalist by profession, Lynn White.
    White was a true modern prophet and as such he criticized our shared Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Monotheistic religions became the most anthropocentric religions the world has seen and as such enabled and justified exploitation of nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.
    Almost half a century ago White wrote “I personally doubt, that disastrous ecological backlash can be avoided simply by applying to our problems more science and more technology.” And like any true prophet he challenged his contemporaries to change something deeper: the way in which we relate to nature and our planet on the deepest emotional and religious levels. The only way out of our current ecological crisis leads through a change of mentality, through re-forming our religion, transforming our faith, reconnecting with God, while recognizing our human selves as part of nature.
    We will participate in this ongoing transformation through the remaining part of Summer.
1) Our worship in August and September will seek to reconnect our faith and nature inspired by Lutheran biblical scholar from Australia Norman Habel.
2) Our Vacation Bible School will pick up this environmental theme for one of its weeks
3) On September 21 we plan to join an environmental demonstration during the UN meeting on Climate Change.
4) On September 27 and 28 visiting scholar Tricia Tull will teach and preach about this theme.
5) And on one of these Sundays we plan to visit an environmental exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art.

(By the way, as a true prophet, Lynn White as early as in 1966 warned against the narrow-minded, disastrous, religiosity of then Governor of California - guess who it was - Ronald Reagan!)


Un-censoring a Psalm

Can the Bible be censored? 
Churches do it all the time!
Some biblical texts are never read in worship, preached upon or even taught. 
Why? Because so many biblical passages are truly boooooring, others are difficult to understand, many more are outside of our cultural comfort zones and quite a number of them are really brutish and nasty. And thus these questionable biblical stories, laws, prophecies and prayers are not necessarily censored, but simply left out with almost the same result - spreading a simplified, dulled-down religiosity prone to manipulation and abuse.
     A large number of English-speaking congregations use for their worship and liturgy the so-called Revised Standard Lectionary. In a three-year cycle it suggests for every Sunday and Holiday four biblical readings: one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, one passage from an Epistle and one text from a Gospel. I like this system, I use it often; it is a great tool, but a bad master. This Sunday we are, for instance, to read Psalm 17. But seven verses of this Psalm are (inconspicuously) left out, never to be read and heard in worship, neglected, forgotten...
      Come this Sunday to un-censor the Bible, come to un-neglect these intriguing seven verses, come to tackle the demons of our religiosity (aggression, violence, windictivness, prayer for vengeance, dark religiosity...) and so grow stronger and more mature in faith.


Biblical horror story

I have been always a dull and boring person - just ask my sons! When they were teenagers and wanted to go to some juicy horror movie I would not go. Understand, in the Czech Republic for certain movies, parents were required to accompany minors, so when I did not go, it meant they did not go also. Adding insult to injury, I told them, “Read the Bible instead!” And I meant it and I still do! If you desire vivid nightmares you don't need any horror movies, read the Bible! The Fourth Book of Moses, the book of Numbers, for instance, has an ample supply of such material. One such story, etched into my mind, is the story of the Korahite rebellion (Numbers 16).
    The final version of this story, as preserved in the Bible, is clearly a result of several editorial stages. The core of the nightmare is the oldest part, in which Dathan and Abiram challenged Moses’ leadership. Moses “piously” prayed for a divine sign and it immediately followed: Earth (in the story she is personified) opened her mouth and swallowed the rebels with their families and with all their possessions; they descended alive to Hell (Scheol) and Earth closed its mouth over them. (Thankfully, we are spared details how she burped afterwards!) I do not know about you, but being swallowed alive by (Mother) Earth can wake me up in the middle of night screaming, kicking and covered in cold sweat. After all, aren’t nightmares and dark myths made of the same subconscious stuff Mr. Jung?
    Every good myth and any real nightmare must contain at least some kernel of reality. Almost on the opposite side of Earth from the biblical Middle East I came across a surprisingly similar story. Early in the historic times (the end of the XVIII century), shortly after the first contact with Europeans, King Kamehameha I unified the entire Hawaiian archipelago. It did not happen peacefully. On Big Island one local chief named Keōua presented substantial resistance.
Non-violent eruption at the summit of Kilauea Volcano.

In 1790 after yet another indecisive battle near Hilo, Keōua was returning to his home base on the other side of the island. He took his warriors and their families (Hawaiians, just like Israelites, were moving with their families) by way of the Kilauea Volcano. They camped at the summit caldera and since the volcano seemed restless, they wanted to appease the goddess Pele, Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes, by presenting some gifts. It did not seem to help; the volcano was getting more and more active and thus they decided to continue their journey home.
    Keōua divided his people into three groups. The first group left the summit under a dark volcanic cloud. The second group left the summit while the situation was getting progressively worse. The third group was still at the summit when Kilauea exploded in the largest explosive eruption for many centuries. The third group left in haste. Soon they came across the second group, which appeared to be resting by the road, but when they came closer, they realized that every single member of the second group was dead.

Ka 'u Desert covered with sharp-edged A'a lava
and volcanic ash from 1790 eruption.

The first and third groups survived, but the middle group, at least 400 people, was hit by a pyroclastic surge: hurricane force winds of superheated steam, ash and suffocating gasses. Although the third group was closer to the explosion, the second group was in the path of the surge, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Soon rain fell on the layers of volcanic ash changing them into thick mud. It preserved the footprints of surviving ancient Hawaiians. Those footprints are still visible in Ka‘u desert. Keōua took the catastrophe for a divine sign. His district was covered in volcanic ash and hit by crop failure. He lost spirit and the willingness to fight. Next year he gave himself up and was executed, sacrificed in Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, a temple which Kamehameha just finished.

I find these two stories of Dathan and Abiram on one hand and Keōua on the other hand surprisingly similar. Both stories clearly originate in some underlying natural disasters, most likely of a similar, volcanic nature. But there are also substantial and worrisome differences. And the Biblical tradition is not coming out of this comparison well. Keōua did not blame his second column for being despicable sinners deserving death. Keōua did not blame the victims, but took blame on himself. The Biblical tradition, on the other hand put the blame unequivocally on the victims - they deserved the harshest punishment. And as if it was not enough, postexilic textual editors used this ugly story for their own second temple ideological ends - political and religious propaganda. They added and mixed in another storyline about the Korihites and their priestly challenge to the Levites’ leadership. Thus centuries later they re-used the story for the setting of scores between two priestly groups of Korahites and Aaronites/Levites - just guess who were the Second Temple winners.

    This is for me the greatest nightmare, this is for me the greatest horror of this biblical story - transforming the LORD into a killing monster while blaming the victims; and the Bible does not only that, it takes it one step further, it uses a natural disaster and the tragedy of its original victims for self-serving political and ideological ends. As I have told you, if you want nightmares, read the Bible!
    But not everything is completely dark. By writing what I have just written, by reading what you have just read, by recognizing and acknowledging this problematic, nightmarish nature of some biblical passages we have taken the first steps towards healing. We are being liberated from the idolizing of the Bible; we set ourselves free from dangerous fundamentalism. Simultaneously we learn to recognize similar inhuman arguments in and among ourselves and in our society. Furthermore, we train ourselves to respond to disasters differently, not by finger-pointing and assigning the blame, but by reaching out with compassion and helping hands. Sometimes even nasty horror stories can have a real positive outcome.