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."


Climate Prayers

Recently I came across this reproduction of an old newspaper clipping. It stated it was from the August 1912. (A few days before my grandpa started school!). Naturally, I was suspicious - we have been inundated with so much fake news lately! I was suspicious but also curious, so I did a little research. My search lead me to Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa (The New Zealand National Library) and in it, I found The Rodney & Otamatea Times (electronically available from the first issue in 1901 through the end of the year 1945). Here is the link to the full page 7 from the 14th of August, 1912.  And here is an actual clipping from that page with the article within its immediate context (a delightful example of early 20th century journalism).

(By the way, the newspaper is still published in Auckland under a simplified name The Rodney Times.)

While doing my research, I also realized that there was no real reason for my original suspicion about ahistoricity of this article. French physicist Joseph Fourier made the first scientific observations about greenhouse affects of atmospheric gases as early as in 1820's. By 1896 (that is correct, 1896!) a Swedish chemist and future Nobelist, Svante Arrhenius, proposed the first scientific formula for calculating the planetary greenhouse effect. Within this historical context the article in the New Zealand newspaper makes perfect sense. In 1912 they were popularizing what was, by that time, a well established science. On the other hand it is almost unbelievable that one hundred years after the Kiwis could read a popularizing note about global warming in their local weekly, we are about to have a government composed of nitwits who are denying, rejecting and actively undermining this old, well proven and solid science.

Why am I writing about this in the Friday Message? Because it is a serious matter! It is a matter of survival for this Planet which God entrusted into our hands. This Sunday, the first Sunday and the first day of the New Year, we will gather in worship to raise prayers for, and to protest on behalf of the climate and the environment of our Planet. Inspired by an ancient old tradition, our prayers and display of protest will have the form of the prayer flags.


Christmas Parables

How come the Bible gives us two stories about Jesus’ birth?
Do you remember our Sunday School’s Christmas Pageant?  On the Fourth Sunday of Advent our children clearly presented this duality. But why is it so? Why do we have in the Bible two different and even incompatible stories?
Because both stories are not factual descriptions of the events but they are, in essence, parables. Both nativity stories are a part of a long Jewish tradition of Mashalim, way of explaining important moral or theological points through stories. Thus both biblical stories about Jesus’ birth are in fact such parables illuminating the mystery and miracle of incarnation; explaining why and how God became human. The individual facts of those two stories are different and hardly compatible but the underlying themes are similar. Divine presence coming to our world is faced with: 
1) political hardships - a bureaucratic persecution by Romans (Luke) or thugs sent by Herod (Matthew)
2) surprising welcome  - by migrant workers (Luke) or pagan dignitaries (Matthew)
3) early hardships - homelessness in a stable (Luke) or refugee status in Egypt (Matthew).
It is clearer above the brightest star that God’s incarnation is not some sugar coated melodrama but from the very beginning a genuine solidarity with the poor, the downtrodden and the alienated - that is the greatest mystery and joy of Christmas and its parables.

Now guess from these two pictures which other two parables are going to illuminate and help us celebrate the Christmas miracle of incarnation on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.


Inextinguishable Light

This is my most beloved symbol of light. It is a symbol of light which does not look anything like it! It is a symbol of light which does not shine, a symbol of light which itself is usually brown or black. It is a lei made of kukui nuts; in English they are known as candlenuts. Kernels from these nuts, as their name suggests, were strung and used for candles, or pressed and their oil used in lamps. Thus, the kukui nut became the dark symbol of light.
    Originally, the leis made from kukui nuts were reserved for the teachers, priests and chiefs who were known for their insight, knowledge and wisdom. Candlenuts were a symbol of knowledge, understanding and enlightenment. Advent this year brings us not only ever shorter days, but also the spreading darkness of ignorance, ineptitude and incompetence. Candlenuts represent a fitting metaphor for inclusive, hopeful, invincible enlightenment. Come this third Sunday in Advent to be encouraged and empowered by divine light.


Seaside Surprise

Would you know what this is? This isn’t a frozen over little puddle. When I took this picture, it was well above 80°F. I was on a lonely stretch of Pacific Coast, by the ruins of Lapakahi - a long abandoned Hawaiian fishing village. Basalt rocks, actually, there it is solidified lava, are covered with holes, cavities, dents and pits. And by the shore, just above the high tide line, those pits in rocks were filled with these glittering mirror-like panes of sea salt.
    Hopping over sharp edged cliffs and loose boulders and using just my small pocket knife I started to collect these white gem-like crystals. In less than fifteen minutes I had enough salt to serve our family for a full year. And let me tell you, it tastes unlike any other salt. It might be just Sodium Chloride but for me it has that deep umami savoury taste.
    It might be because it is not over-purified and still contains some other parts of the ocean. Or perhaps it might be just all in my head, because I collected it myself, I know where it comes from and I love and respect that historic place. This salt mining experience from Lapakahi village taught me to appreciate the humble salt and opened my mind for some of its spiritual significance.
    This Sunday we enter the Advent season and in Advent and Christmas this year we will seek inspiration and strength in some of Jesus’ early parables. As you can guess we will start with salt logion (saying).


Election in Forestan

A full week after elections we still had these voting booths stored in the corner of our community hall (Rutgers Church is a polling place). They looked lonely and abandoned, waiting to be picked up by board of elections truck. Today I looked closer and in-between two boards I discovered a folded half sheet of paper yellowed by age. I instantly recognized the handwriting I knew from other fragments of “Manhattan Bible of Henry Rutgers”. The old missive read:

Long ago, there was a far away land called Forestan inhabited only by trees. And it came to pass that trees decided to select their king.
First they considered a Sugar Maple of New England, yet dismissed this idea because it was too sweetly optimistic for their bitter souls.
Then they thought about an Apple Tree from NY, but they abandoned this idea because the apples’ symbolism did not fit their ideology; although they were in great need of education and health they were completely oblivious of this fact. 
The fruits of Georgia’s Peach Tree were dark skinned so the peach tree was left out. And here you must remember that bluntness is not racism, oh no! 
For a moment they looked even at the prairie grass; its ability to bend to every wind looked promising, but then they realized it protected the soil and waters of prairies and so even the grass was dismissed as an unfit candidate.
Florida’s Orange Tree was nice, but definitely not native, arriving from somewhere south and without documents. The mighty Sequoia from California, on the other hand, was patently native but was clearly overqualified to stand above all the trees and thus also left from consideration. And the Banana Tree from Hawaii was one of a hundred different species therefore such perplexing broad diversity was quickly distrusted.
In Forestan they were running out of options. Then a scrubby, twisted, thorny bush arose and proposed himself as their future king. “I will make our Forest into a Garden Again - a great wall all around is what is needed.” Mr. Brumble volunteered and started to make plans, “We will weed out all who do not fit in with our vision of a bristly monoculture forest.” He promised “I will cover you and protect you with my thorns and brambles and no one will touch you anymore.” Many were bewitched by this vision and thus it happened that Forestan selected its future king.

And if you think that Henry Rutgers wrote this fable all by himself, just read Jotham’s Fable in the Bible, Judges 9:7-21.  It is a gloomy reading but thankfully the Bible tells us also about other kings and other leaders with better credentials and real aptitudes to serve. On this Sunday, the last one in this Church Year, join us as we rejoice and receive strength from Christ the King!


No laughing matter

I am convinced that God has a marvelous and healthy sense of humor. You have heard this and read this from me a number of times. Prophets can be sharp satirists, poking fun of pompous emperors, potentates and their empires. Also, any good storytelling, biblical literature not excluded, is composed of elements of suspense, surprise and comedy. And in the New Testament, Jesus’ parables are prime examples of subtle use of humor; they are short, surprising, to the point, yet often open ended...
    God has a marvelous sense of humor and wants to infect us with humor to keep us sane. Why? Because religious people have a tendency to take their religion and especially their religious-selves way too seriously. Religion without humor quickly degenerates into boredom or intolerance or even fanaticism. Humor is essential for our psychological as well as spiritual well-being.
    Of course, as always, there is a fine line between healthy and off-color jokes. The sharpest humor is found right on the edge. The Bible contains jokes which could go too far for many of us; take for instance profane (1Sam. 5), grotesque (1Sam. 18:25ff), and even toilet humor (1Sam. 24) to mention only a few borderline examples from just one biblical book. As always it is a matter of our personal upbringing, sensitivities and tastes whether any of these are up to or across the line of acceptable.
    Thus the Bible contains a number of what could easily be considered off-color jokes, but one kind of joke is clearly rejected, repudiated and reprobated. It is when the able and the powerful are poking fun of and ridiculing the disabled, the poor and the powerless. This kind of “humor” God does not find funny at all. And Jesus clearly shared this sentiment. This Sunday in the lectionary reading we will witness and will be able to rejoice as Jesus denounces the powerful for their political and religious ridicule of the powerless. Clearly God’s sense of humor is quite wide, but it is governed by the principles of divine justice.


Reformation with Refugees

This Sunday we will celebrate Reformation Day marking the day when Dr. Martin Luther stood up for the sovereignty of divine salvation. This year we will pay special attention to refugees.
      The Reformation challenged the very roots of the medieval authoritarian system of religious values. It was met with stiff resistance from the established and entrenched structures of power. Reformation was followed by a bitter religious cultural and political conflict. The Scottish Covenanters, Valdensian exodus across the Alps, Europeans killed and uprooted by the Thirty Years War, The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, Puritans escaping English civil war and persecutions... you have probably heard at least some of these stories.
      Reformation was not only a bright bolt of religious liberation, it also brought us this deep and intimate experience with religious persecution and exile. We must remember the persecution of our reformation ancestors not because we would like to instigate religious tensions, but so that we cultivate among ourselves a gentleness and sensitivity towards the religious exiles and refugees of our own days.
      Our own and our ancestors' experience with intolerance shall lead us to tolerance, the encounter with prejudice shall lead us to good will. We owe it to our reformation ancestors. Come to celebrate reformation Sunday with refugees.

Katharina Luther around the year 1530, appropriately and fashionably veiled.
(If some people these days have any problems with veils!)


Global Communion

Cathedral in Skálholt.
When a religion goes global it is faced with some surprising challenges, especially if it insists on the rigid adherence and fossilized interpretation of its rituals (as is often the case).  Just look at medieval Icelanders.  In the year 1000 their parliament adopted Christianity as their national religion. Soon they were faced with a serious problem. Communion wine was very expensive and often not available at all. Icelanders could not possibly grow their own grapes so close to the Arctic Circle. And as much as they were audacious sailors, bringing barrels of wine in their open boats across the stormy North Atlantic wasn’t reliable enough. Resourceful Icelanders came up with a simple solution - they started to brew their local berries or substituted mead for wine. An ingenious solution perhaps, but it was soon banned directly from Rome. Communion was to be served only with wine, and the wine made from grapes. Sometimes it feels like wine growers had a really powerful lobby in Rome. 
    Protestant missionaries had similar problems all over the tropics. Grapes do not grow in the arctic and subarctic regions but they do not grow particularly well in the tropics either. Grape vines need a cold dormant season. In the tropics a vine grows plenty of leaves, alright, but hardly any harvestable grapes. And in addition to wine problems, the tropics presented also a problem with the bread. Before the arrival of missionaries it was virtually an unknown food. In the tropics, yeast is unpredictable and hard to work with and after bread is baked, it spoils really fast. Roman Catholics had their communion wafers, while Protestants kept on baking and serving strange approximations of wheat breads. Could it be that bakers had a similarly powerful lobby among Protestants?
    These are unfortunate examples of rigid ritualism, textual fundamentalism and lost opportunities to translate Christian faith to the climates, and into the lives and cultures of the peoples around the world. Thankfully these attitudes have been changing in the last few decades. I came across long, and learned tracts discussing with all sincerity the use of wafers in protestant worship and sometime even the use of other juices of other berries, as long as they are red. (As if the color was so important!) Some theologians are slowly recognizing that wine and bread are staple foods of the Mediterranean region while other cultures have their own staple foods. And as is often the case, these other staple foods and drinks also have their deeper symbolical meanings; cocoa in Mesoamerica, ‘awa or poi in Polynesia, tea or mochi in Japan to mention only some. Many of these foods and drinks (and their symbolisms) are well suited to be adopted and to help translate the deeper meaning of Holy Communion.
    This World Communion Sunday we will take Holy Communion global. So come this Sunday, taste and see that the Lord is good, God’s love endures forever and permeates the entire world (not only the Mediterranean corner of the world).

Global Communion with bread but also with potato, mochi and poi,
with grape juice, but also with coconut milk, green tea and cacao.


Enlightenment and Religious Tolerance

Can Jews, Christians and Muslims live in peace with one another without prejudice and hatred? Can people of different religions and confessions coexist? We are not the first ones who ask this question. While we ponder this question with fear and anxiety, there was a time when people asked it with anticipation and hope. 
    The first church which I served right after my ordination was founded in 1785 and in its old sanctuary (it had two sanctuaries!) was an altar with this Latin dedication (shown here on the picture) to the Holy Trinity and with respectful thanks to the Emperor Joseph II and his successor Francis I.
    My predecessors were not a bunch of sly toadies. They were genuinely thankful to Joseph II, the exemplary Enlightened Monarch. After dark centuries of religious persecution, the Enlightenment finally brought reason to the matters of religion, and with it eventually came the long overdue freedom of religion and the freedom of individual conscience.
    Today, the seductive sirens of religious, cultural, racial and national intolerance and chauvinism grow ever louder and stronger. It is good to remember the ethos of the Enlightenment, this formative intellectual, cultural and spiritual movement. On this side of the Atlantic, the Enlightenment stood at the cradle of the United States, her Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. In Europe the Enlightenment grew up from the dark centuries of religious intolerance and wars and presented alternatives of reason, tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
    I rejoiced when Chris Jones offered to perform in our church a pivotal excerpt from the play “Nathan the Wise”. When Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote it, it was so radical, that the official church made sure it was never performed during his lifetime and the book was put on the index of prohibited books. Why? Because it advocated for religious perspectivism and tolerance - the conviction that Judaism, Christianity and Islam complement each other.
    This Sunday is our Homecoming, we enter our new program year with the hopeful message of Enlightenment and Tolerance.


Hieroglyphs with Susan Brind Morrow

This weekend we will welcome to Rutgers the published author and poet Susan Brind Morrow. She will bring to us her love and deep interest in Egyptian Hieroglyphs and more specifically the Pyramid Texts.    
    In the Bible and our Judeo-Christian tradition Egypt does not have good reputation. The Torah (the Law) specifically branded Egypt inseparably in the phrase “the land of Egypt, the house of slavery”.  It is a clear moral, political and religious judgement. The law and prophets admonish contemporaries as well as all the descendants (including us) never to return to Egypt. Why then to do it, against the explicit biblical warning?
    Firstly, for two months in the series on Forgotten Religion we did something like that. We checked and revisited the truth and validity of the assumed postulates of our faith tradition.
    Secondly, and more importantly, according to the most recent scholarship there is a two thousand year difference between the Egypt of the Bible and to the Egypt of the Pyramid Texts.
This is roughly as large a difference as between some current fundamentalist megachurch and the band of Jesus’ disciples.
    We do not dismiss Jesus, his ministry and his teaching because of some distant corruption of his teaching. To the contrary we go and search diligently for his true ethos and his deep insights. And that is what we want to do this weekend with ancient Egyptian texts. Susan Brind Morrow recasts the Pyramid Texts as an important religious poem, arguing that these immaculate engravings describe not only a foundational religion and philosophy but a radical way of viewing the world.


Time Machine

This is clearly not a regular clock. But it has the power to open our minds to new perceptions of time and even can become a real time machine allowing us to travel in time. Or more accurately, it can help us to experience time in different way than we are used to. 
    This special clock is in Prague on the medieval Jewish City Hall. (It is a different clock from that more famous astrological clock with figures of apostles, which is on the Old Town City Hall.) Hours on this clock are marked in Hebrew letters: Alef for one o’clock, Beth for two etc. And thus this clock shows time in counterclockwise manner, if you wish, backwards thus mimicking the Hebrew way of writing and reading from right to left. 
    In further departure from established customs, clock hands have opposite functions; a shorter raffia points to minutes while the longer one shows hours. Keeping in mind the counterclockwise direction and flipped function of pointers, can you guess what time is shown on our picture? (If curious – the answer is at the bottom of this column)
    If you feel a little dizzy, know that it is intentional. Far from showing backwardness, this clock is in fact a very clever mental tool shaking us up from our settled ways and opening our minds to new perceptions of time. For instance in Hebrew the word for the past QEDEM means not only “the East” but also “that what lies ahead” and the word for the future ACHARIT means “behind ones’ back”.
    Clearly, in the not so distant past people were differently oriented in time. Past was before them and future behind and it was so not only in Hebrew language. There are vestiges of this orientation even in today’s English. We still speak about day before yesterday or day after tomorrow and our “ancestors” are literally (from Latin) those who “went before us”. Time machine on the Jewish City Hall in Prague cannot move us to different epochs but it can visualize for us the magic of time and open our minds to new possibilities in our orientation in and perception of time.  As we conclude this Sunday our quest for forgotten religion, we will immerse ourselves in this magic of time and the role of ancestors in our religion. 
(Time on the picture is about 6:20)


Ora et Labora

Every day (almost) in the morning I iron my shirt for that day.
    For me it is not a chore, it is a spiritual exercise. Like any other spiritual exercise it engages deep and complex sensual experiences of heat, touch, smell; it also has its own proper time and rhythm. The rhythm is in the sequence in which I press my shirt. But there is also a rhythm of seasons with long and short sleeves, dress shirts and my Hawaiian shirts. Above it all, day after day I can even observe subtle changes of daylight as the Earth, and all of us with it, circle around our star. I understand why Homer sang about the rosy-fingered dawn.
    In my regular occupation as a church minister I usually do not see immediate results of my work. With ironing it is satisfyingly direct. There are results right away; before the iron there is a crumpled fabric and after is a nicely pressed shirt. And even if I make a mistake in a false or wrong crease, it is also immediately obvious and there are ways to correct it - a little bit more steam or perhaps some sprinkling. It is an interesting metaphor for our living.
    Of course I have my preferred shirts, based on materials and the makes. While ironing my shirts, I also come close to them. Thus I learned to value shirts by the quality of their fabric and how well they are made. For some time, when I buy new shirts, I have preferred those which I like to iron. The hands-on and down-close experience is changing the way I perceive the world and this is also an interesting spiritual insight.
    Every time I iron my shirt I remember those who taught me this skill. I remember my maternal grandmother who was still using a stove-top heavy iron to press shirts for my grandfather on his way to the glass factory. Of course we had electricity, but she clearly enjoyed the old fashioned way. And then, I remember my mom who taught me how to iron my shirts before I left home for seminary, clearly anticipating it might come handy. This chore is for me a spiritual connection with and expression of respect to my maternal ancestors.    
    Of course there are many and quite inexpensive places to have my shirts pressed and they can probably do it much better than I, but in no way I am giving up my spiritual exercise! At the same time, please, understand that this is my personal experience; you don’t need to start ironing your own shirts in order to get spiritual. I write about it to show that anything can become spiritual in the right context and with an open attitude. The truly spiritual is never detached from mundane life; it is often hidden right in the middle of it, in plain sight. 
   The lectionary reading this Sunday from the prophet Jeremiah will take us to the potter’s shop and help us to observe the miracle of creation and meaning of life. Come this Sunday to observe a master working with clay and should you so desire, put your own hands on some clay.


Magical writing

    As I learned to write in the first grade, almost instantly I put my newly learned skill in practice in one of its oldest, magical and also rather embarrassing ways. By that time, the novelty and charm of school had worn away and fresh, shy and well-behaved first-graders inevitably reverted to their natural selves and tested the nerves of our patient and longsuffering teacher. On one such hectic day during a short brake between the afternoon classes we amused ourselves by throwing at each other a blackboard sponge dripping with water. All the boys in our class gleefully took part in this skirmish, even some girls joined in, but only I and two of my best friends ended up with extra homework and notes for parents. As was often the case, it must had happened not because we were the fiercest but rather the loudest and most excited participants. (I used to have a very high pitched voice.)  
    Feeling seriously wronged and bitter we regrouped after school in a dark corner behind the gym. Almost no one knew about that place, even the school custodian hardly ever visited that spot. And there, on the wall, we fused our bitterness with our newly acquired skill of writing. In white chalk on a soot-stained bricks we wrote and drew our rather lowbrow opinion about our teacher. It wasn’t intended for anyone’s eyes, but writing it up on the wall made us feel immediately better. Certainly much better than just mumbling it to each other or to our friends.
    Little did we know that we had just reenacted the ancient magical use of writing. As people developed the script and learned to write, the inscribed words were perceived as having greater and higher powers. Thus archeologists find inscriptions and carvings in places where hardly anyone could see them. And an abundance of ancient monumental inscriptions were made while less than one percent of people had the knowledge to read them. These are all examples of the writing magic in action. Deep down in our minds we can still recognize that script retains some of these magical powers even today. Writing, and especially inscriptions, still feel somehow special, longer lasting and more potent.
    This Sunday, in our quest for forgotten religion, we will venture to the times before writing was ever imagined. We will go before religion was ever written down and recorded in scriptures. Of course, religion before writing and before scriptures has a much longer and deeper history than with scriptures! Join us as we discover serious dangers of scripted religion. And rejoice with us in venturing and discovering the charming and surprising realm of unscripted, oral faith.    

(I have never told anyone about that writing incident behind the gym, even this many years later I still feel a little embarrassed. All in all I loved my elementary teacher and I remember her with deep respect and love. When we accidently met fifteen years ago on a sidewalk of my old hometown, it was one of the brightest surprises of that whole year.)


Lotus Birth

Lotuses and water lilies are surprising and spectacular flowers. They seemingly grow on water and although, after closer inspection, they grow from mud, they nevertheless bring forward pristine blossoms. Lotuses have some of the simplest yet most beautiful flowers. Any time I visit a botanical garden, I am irresistibly pulled towards the lily ponds. Deep down, intuitively, I know why ancient religions chose the lotus – this evocative flower – and why they endowed it with layers of deep meaning.
    In Egypt, the waterlily was a symbol of birth and rebirth. In India, padma (the sacred lotus) is a symbol of purity and spiritual awakening (spiritual birth). In our own biblical tradition we perhaps have the most archaic form of this metaphor. In the Song of Songs, the lover is frequently mentioned as grazing in the garden - however, not among lilies, as traditionally misinterpreted, but on the lotus. As mentioned in theological dictionaries, the lotus is an ancient well known euphemism of love – more precisely, a place of conception and birth.
    This Sunday we continue our quest for forgotten religion and we will look directly at gestation and birth as a powerful religious image. Readings from the Hebrew as well as the Greek Bible will show us that the metaphor of pregnancy and birth has deep, powerful and meaningful religious roots in the birth of the world - its creation and ongoing recreation.


Surreal Sofa

Last Friday, Martina and I were in Edinburgh enjoying our short summer holidays. That day we visited the Royal Botanical Garden in the morning and then followed the Water of Leith up stream to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where we enjoyed an exhibition of the XX century Surrealism.
    Outside, on the grounds of the gallery, was perhaps something even better: “Surreal Adventures” an interactive playground for children and adults alike - a playful introduction to surrealism composed of a surreal slide, a leaning refreshment booth with surreal sweets and ice cream, a fallen standing-clock for jumping, a surreal picnic table, and in the corner was a lovely gray Chesterfield sofa.
      You must understand that Edinburghian roasting summer means about 60°F highest day temperature and rain or drizzle twelve times a day. In such a climate a homely, well-worn, leather sofa on a moist green lawn looked indeed puzzling if not outright surreal.
    But it got even better as I took a seat on it, invited by a sign. The sofa wasn’t soggy-wet, it was made of cast concrete. Martina and I both accepted the invitation, sat, and enjoyed our shortbread afternoon snack, resting on the outdoor leather sofa made of gray hard concrete and still incredibly comfy. On the seat between us was a printed message: “Things are not always what they seem.” Indeed! It is so enjoyable, refreshing and stimulating to have our expectations challenged, transformed and transcended.  
    This Sunday, as we continue our series on forgotten religion, we will apply this approach to Isaiah’ scathing polemics against idol-making. Things are not always what they seem! It can be a major adventure to have our eyes, minds and faiths open.


Forgotten Religion

There is an alternative take on religion, a completely different religious world from what is generally perceived as religion today!
    I realized it as I entered Ke‘ekū Heiau at Kawa Bay of Hawai‘i Island. I tried to visit this open-air worship space for a number of years and had been always prevented by high tides and strong surfs. Now I finally stood by the entrance and it was clearly an active place of worship and also undisputably closed! As I stepped over two crossed wooden poles, I knew I was trespassing! Intellectually, the visit and assessment of the shrine was uneventfully routine, but my guilty conscience triggered in me something deeper. I became painfully aware of an alternative religious paradigm. While my own religion and all modern religions try to pull people into their churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras... there clearly was a type of religiosity, which wanted to keep people out!
    From that April Monday last year I have been brooding over it. I refreshed some of my old academic readings, I searched some new religious and anthropological literature. And I formulated for myself a tentative typology of this old/alternative form of religion: 
  • As mentioned earlier, this is not a missionary but stewardship religion. (In other words its primary goal is not to multiply believers but to safeguard and preserve its essence.)
  • In consequence this is a religion with strong internal, not external validation. (While missionary religions measure themselves by numerical success, this religion aspires for inner faithfulness and integrity.)
  • This religion is in its essence oral over and against textual. (Stories and laws of this religion are passed orally rather than fixated in writing and worshiped as this or that holy scriptures.) 
  • It is a religion of immanent deity instead of transcendent deity. (Put simply: God/s in this religion is present in the world rather than above and beyond it.)
  • It is a religion which concentrates on orthopraxy rather than on orthodoxy. (This religion is not about doctrines and teachings and what to be believed, but it is primarily about how its followers are to live out and practice their religion.)
  • This religion is not anthropocentric but rather ecocentric. (Humans in this religion are not the center of the universe and measure of everything, they are an integral part of the ordered network of existence.)
  • This religion is also primarily about terrestrial rather than celestial salvation. (This religion is about helping people find harmony in this world and this life and not pointing them to heaven and to afterlife.)
  • As result of the previous points the theology of this religion is primarily inclusive over and against exclusive theology of many current religious systems. (Modern religions and confessions antagonize each other based upon minuscule differences in their doctrines.)   
I confess, this is a highly schematic typology. There have hardly ever been these extreme types in their pure form. But I am convinced that all current religions grew up from the old type, and in one form or the other preserved some traces of it. The old style might be largely forgotten, rejected, suppressed, even persecuted against by modern forms of religion - but what I call here the old religious paradigm represents our shared roots. I think that in our times of growing religious antagonism and intolerance, it might be important and spiritually enriching to become aware of it and search for the remnants of our forgotten religion buried deep in the traditions of our own faith.


A Handwritten Prayer

The study of the Bible and its ancient manuscripts saves me from fundamentalism and religious intolerance. The more we know, the better we are protected against bigotry. Allow me to take you along and show you how I spent Monday afternoon (my day off) this week.
This snippet is from the Sinai Bible, the oldest surviving, almost complete Bible. It was produced, hand written, in early IV century C.E. most likely in Alexandria. In this picture is the text of the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Luke (11:2b-4). And here is my working translation of the original text as written by the hand of the first scribe:

    Your name be holy!
    Your kingdom come!
    Your will be done as in heaven, thus on earth!
    Our daily bread give us by day!
    And forgive us our sins,
    as even we forgive our debtors!
    And do not turn us in for trial.

    The Gospel of Luke contains a shorter version of Lord’s Prayer while Matthew (6:9-13) has a longer version, and the original Luke version was probably even shorter than what we have in our text. The green field with the text Your will be done as in heaven, thus on earth! is absent from the oldest preserved fragment in the Bodner Papyrus No.75, which predated the Sinai Bible by another century. Most likely this petition was inserted from the Gospel of Matthew or from church liturgy.
    What makes this picture interesting is the great number of manuscript corrections. Blue circles in our picture represent grammatical corrections and textual additions. Red circles and pink fields represent deletions. On the margins of our textual column are also two larger textual inserts. One on the lower right side was later erased (yet, thankfully, still remains readable), and the one on the upper left margin was questioned by a later scribe (by a dot beneath the tilde mark in the text). Both these larger insertions attempted to include a petition deliver us from evil into different places of the prayer and again came as a borrowing from the gospel of Matthew.
    In total, there were at least two, possibly three or more correcting hands (scribes) who made at least twelve changes or corrections of changes in the space of three verses. Think about it: twelve textual variants in this short prayer, twelve! And this is one of the oldest biblical manuscripts and an important source for our biblical translations. Now you know why an honest study of the Bible is the best vaccination against Christian fundamentalism, biblical literalism, claims of the biblical inerrancy and all sorts of religious bigotry.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do not dismiss biblical text or Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. I actually find them greatly fascinating and inspiring. For this reason I invite you to come to worship this Sunday and pray together this deeply meaningful and transformative prayer of our Lord as we seek its true meaning for us today.
Here is a YouTube video clone of this blog.

And here is the Lord's Prayer as was preserved for us in the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers:
     Loving God:
     May what you stand for
         be considered Holy.
     May the world be shaped
         as your love will have it:

     Preserve for us and future generations
         enough food for everyone
         with fresh air to breath,
         clean water to drink
         blue planet to inhabit.
     May governments around the world
         institute the Unconditional Basic Income.
     Let police and courts treat people fairly
         regardless of their class, nationality or race.


Art of Quiet

New York City, for its size, has surprisingly clean air.
    Unfortunately we still have serious pollution problems and different than you might expect. Try to spy out any stars at night, for instance. Even on a clear crisp night you might barely catch sight of a few of the brightest stars and count yourself lucky if you can make out a constellation. It is because of NYC light pollution which can be visible from as far as the Catskills. And it is a true pollution problem with real environmental and health impacts. New York is proverbially a city which never sleeps but often I think it is because it has difficulty sleeping in so much artificial polluting light. And it is not a problem only for people; plants and animals are also known to struggle with so much artificial light being disoriented in space and time in consequence.
    Another serious problem is our noise pollution. We are surrounded with the constant clang of concentrated active life, buzzing and honking road traffic, rattle of helicopters, humming of AC units, blare of sirens, and all that noise is easily trumped by horrendous roar of subway trains. Even our parks are so noisy that it is difficult to hear any birds. And if you hear them, they sing at the top of their voices and their songs sound patently hoarse. Some people might not hear them at all because of their hearing problems caused by all that noise.
    Ancient spiritual exercises are silence, the art of quiet listening and contemplation. That is where the lectionary reading will lead us this Sunday. Meanwhile you can try it on your own as evening approaches any day; let dusk come on its own and with its quite pace; use that time to be silent with yourself and with God; and switch lights only after it gets truly dark. Such quiet time can be a true spiritual detox balm. 

Evening rainbow over Manhattan


#hashtags @rutgers

Every summer we undertake an electronic cleanup of our office computers. Once in a while we discover some interesting or important files. This year we found a dust gathering disconnected hard drive in the church library and on it was what appears to be a fragment of an ancient e-mail from the collection of Manhattan Bible of Henry Rutgers. Here is all we were able to decipher and partly reconstruct:

to beloved Henry@ManhattanBreweries.com
Grace to you and Peace from God our Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Before all things, I pray that you are well and that you prosper on your farm in New Amsterdam.
I thank God at all times for your faithfulness and your hospitality to me and all our sisters and brothers. Your dedication to our faith and education of all is exemplary.
Dear brother, know that I plan to sail to your shores and hope to visit you soon, please prepare for me a small room. Before we meet face to face we can always use book of faces or as some call it face-book. I found it to be a useful tool in our ministry. Don’t allow it to be used only by evangelical fools for their self-serving deceptions. They steal all churches and engage in church identity theft, hiding behind reputable names but their self-righteousness is unRedeemable. In tears I admit that the message of the cross has many adversaries in our world and especially among those who call themselves “brothers” but know that hashtags of divine #socialjustice, #progressivefaith or #allarewelcome cannot be easily hushed!
I Cc Luke and Erastos who are also sending their greetings.
The Grace of the Lord be with your spirit.

Everyone can easily see that this is a pious forgery, since at the time of Henry Rutgers the name “New Amsterdam” had not been used for more than a century. But this false email letter, nevertheless, brings forward an interesting question of apostolic social networks and latest communication tools. Join us this Sunday when we worship with “#hashtags @rutgers”


Dangers of Rhetoric

“Rhetoric is a dangerous craft.” I warned my son soon after we moved to the US and he returned from school with an assignment to argue both opposing sides of the same issue with the same efficiency. And for myself I thought: What a crude and simplistic proposition, as if there were only two sides to most problems! And wondered: Why is it that empires tend to indulge in rhetoric?”    
    “Rhetoric is a dangerous yet useful craft.” I told him. Familiarity with rhetoric can be quite practical since it is similar to advertising or, say, stage magic. All these crafts are composed of techniques, tricks and cunningness. Those who learn even a few basic tricks of stage magic will never be as gullible yet could still enjoy and appreciate a good performance. Knowledge of rhetoric is similar, students learn different techniques of oral motivation, persuasion and manipulation and in that process will hopefully be immunized against manipulations and trickery.
    “Rhetoric is a dangerous yet useful craft, learn its ropes, so you are not easily deceived.” I urged my son. Eloquence is not identical with truthfulness, in fact, those most eloquent are usually liars. And the best rhetoric flourishes must not replace ethical judgement and reality checks. Mastery of techniques of persuasion should not be used for low, deceptive or self-serving reasons.”
    “Rhetoric is a dangerous yet useful craft, learn its tricks, but never lose your integrity.” I asked of my son. Ultimately all rhetoric can be boil down to this simple premise: Telling people what they want to hear so that they are moved to do what the speaker wants them to do. I hope my son listened, after all he ended up studying physics and not humanities.
    This Sunday in church we will talk about modes, misunderstandings and dangers of biblical rhetoric. After the Orlando tragedy I instantly knew that this Pride Sunday I must deal head-on with our very own Christian “Satanic Verses” and their homophobic rhetoric. On Pride Sunday we will try to undo biblical homophobia and liberate ourselves from its dark legacy and curse. Even in the Bible, rhetoric can be a dangerous and dark craft.
On the background of this poster is a facsimile from the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest Greek codices.
The homophobic “Satanic Verses” from Romans 1 are in the upper right corner.


Sent to prison

In 1987 I was standing in a crowded hallway of the Courthouse in Prague. I was there with a large group of protesters to attend a process with a group of jazz musicians. They were in court for a “criminal act” of organizing jazz concerts without prior authorization, and for publishing books and magazines about music without permission from censors.
    Our crowd could not possibly fit into the courtroom and even the long hallway was almost blocked. At the end of the process the “criminal musicians” were given unsuspended jail terms of up to 16 months. No protest chants were allowed in the courthouse so we thanked them for their defiance and bravery with an improvised yet most elaborated, truly jazzy, applause which I have never heard before or after. 
    This and similar experiences of perverted justice shaped my understanding of the justice system. The aging totalitarian regime with its flimsy legitimacy exposed the deep and universal truth about any justice system - it is nothing else but our human construct. Even in democracy it is so, as much as we would like to pretend otherwise.
    In 2016 America we might not live under totalitarian regime, but the degree to which our society is racist, sexist, politically or socially corrupt, the justice system is bound to reflect these realities and, unfortunately, all can witness it in our policing, courthouses, jails and prisons.
    Biblical prophets and apostles (not to mention God Godself) are calling us to raise our voices in protest of disproportionate incarceration and unjust treatment of racial, ethnic, religious, gender and social minorities. Human justice always has been and always will be our imperfect human construct in need of prophetic and apostolic challenge and reform. 
      Throughout the history many outstanding people of faith spent time behind bars and thus demonstrated the limits of human justice and challenged its merits. Apostle Paul will lead us this Sunday to question, to challenge, to protest as we mark June, the Torture Awareness Month abroad and in US prisons. 



Connecticut and Hawaii

Cornwall Congregational Church
This Monday I traveled to Cornwall in Connecticut, a short two hour drive from Manhattan. I visited this picturesque and forgotten corner of Connecticut because of my interest in Hawaiian religion and history. In this small town there used to be, in the early XIX century, a famous seminary operated by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The New England Evangelicals trained there a small group of young men from all over the world (Native Americans, Bengali, Chinese and also Hawaiians and other Polynesians) to be missionaries to their respective nations and tribes. 

Plaque commemorating
the Foreign Mission School
The core idea behind the school was surprisingly thoughtful for its time - the native people were recognized as the best messengers of faith and excellent interpreters (translators) of Christianity to their own people. Unfortunately there were a number of problems attached to this good idea: New England Congregationalists and Evangelicals infected these young men with one of the most intolerant and narrowminded strains of Christianity. They also intentionally indoctrinated them with western cultural exceptionalism. And all this endeavor (as laudable as it was in some of its intentions) was built on the swamps of latent New England racism.

Portrait of Henry Opukahaia,
probably the most famous student.
    Evangelical parishioners were moved to tears when listening how the young native men escaped wild heathen rituals and idolatry. New Englanders loved to hear about distant lands and strange peoples with their bizarre pagan rituals. Parishioners applauded their guests’ brave escapes, especially if some of the storytellers had run away from grave dangers, allegedly even human sacrifice. Evangelicals rejoiced in eloquent recounts of their sincere conversions to the only salvation found in the “blood of Jesus”. In Cornwall they offered to these young men generous hospitality. But then two students fell in love with local girls and went to marry them. And all hell broke loose! Cornwall erupted; effigies of those couples were burned. Supportive and more open minded clergy married them anyhow. But soon afterwards, without the local support, the school was closed and dissolved. 

Original grave of Henry Opukahaia
    The official explanation for the closing of the school was, and remains till now, that the harsh Connecticut weather was not suited for the natives coming from warmer climates. And indeed a number of students died there, I personally visited Cornwall in order to find the original resting place of Henry Opukahaia from Hawaii. But of course young men did not die of climate, but of typhoid, tuberculosis and the like. It was a dark foreboding for Polynesians who would be soon won over for Christ and sent to heaven in large numbers. Same western missionaries were eagerly spreading their version of Christianity together with western infectious diseases. But that will be another story. 


Reading Giambattista Vico in 2016 USA

Giambattista Vico
In utter disbelief and bewilderment my European friends keep asking me about Donald Trump.
    I point them to Giambattista Vico, a virtually unknown but greatly influential Italian thinker of early enlightenment. In 1725 Vico published his “Principi di Scienza Nuova” Principles of the New Science and thus initiated a whole new discipline of philosophy of history.

     According to Vico, civilization and its political structures follow a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine age, the heroic age, and the human age. The divine age can be equated to what we would call tribal societies, the heroic age to monarchies and the human age to democracies. An integral part of Vico’s insight, his “New Science”, was an observation that each age was characterized by its own tropology (figurative form of language) and consequently epistemology (modes of understanding). Metaphors were characteristic for the divine (tribal) age, metonymy was instrumental in the heroic age (feudalism), and the age of man (democracy) was characterized by irony.
    Having studied bronze age myths recorded on cuneiform tablets, I easily recognized gnoseological power of metaphors for that particular age. And hailing from Europe - steeped in medieval history and peppered with impressive castles and cathedrals - I innately understood the life-organizing principle of metonymy and synecdoche in age of feudalism. But I always struggled with the irony as a prevalent principle for the age of democracy.
    For me, democracy was a rational system verging on scientific, exactly like Vico described it. I could appreciate the quintessential function of irony (this all-questioning principle) for science as well as for a healthy democracy. But I could not fathom how irony, as vital as it was for science and democracy, might become corrosive and lead to social collapse and a return to barbarism.
    This year and this electoral cycle in the USA have opened my eyes! Irony, or perhaps its twin sister Parody, or even better their cousin Farce, has already put on stage an ignorant clown and with him a great and real danger of “ricorso” with its dissolution of norms and return to barbarism. Thus Scienza Nuova, this three millennia old New Science, gives us something to think about. Perhaps we should dust off old myths and familiarize ourselves with ancient metaphors; the divine age might be fast approaching.


Great Restroom Controversy

The controversy in the title does not indicate the cultural and political agitation which is currently gripping the bigoted segment of our society. I plan to address this contemporary controversy from the perspective of faith this Sunday, but in this column I want to write about another and older restroom controversy irking the biblical literalists.
            When the LORD called Moses to liberate the Israelites from Egypt they ended up wandering for forty years through the wastelands of the Sinai. There they underwent trials and tribulations, received the divine Law and were gradually shaped into a real and special nation ready to reenter the Promised Land. This story is clearly a formative legend about the birth of the new people of God as well as a singularly inspiring parable about the promise and the cost of faith, about the dangers of freedom and the call to liberty.   
            There are still many in American faith communities who insist on taking the Exodus story as factual history. They dismiss all arguments about the utter implausibility of two million people (six hundred thousand men aged 20 and up) surviving in the Sinai wilderness. They point to divine manna, the bread from heaven, a miraculous sustenance which the LORD provided to keep all those people alive.
            But the problem is not the miraculous sustenance; for modern scholars the main puzzle is the miraculous disappearance of all their refuse. Two million people leave behind enormous piles of waste including broken tools, pots, bones, nutshells, permanent as well as temporary structures not to mention hundreds of thousands of graves... After all, that is what archeology is all about - the study of old heaps of waste. The problem is, in the entire Sinai all that waste is simply not there! There is no waste from two million people, or hundreds of thousands, not even from several hundred people at the same place and same time.
            This is the biblical “restroom” controversy in a nutshell - the missing Exodus waste. When we allow it to sink in, it deepens our understanding of the Bible and of our faith. It overcomes simplistic literalism and bigotry and directs our faith towards a tolerant, spiritual and loving world view. We will use this approach this Sunday to address our current cultural restroom controversy in a truly biblical, loving and spiritual manner. Exodus is not an event of the past, the LORD is still calling people from the enslaving prejudice and bigotry to freedom.


A Bathtub Monster

A mother Humpback with a calf just off the coast of Massachusetts.
As a baby, I am told, it was awfully difficult to give me an evening bath. Clearly, I have always had more fire than water personality. But then my parents, like many other parents in such situations, came up with a little trick in a form of a bathtub tugboat. I still see it in front of my inner sight. And once I was in with my tugboat I did not want to get out until water was getting cold and my fingertips all wrinkled. Many of you, personally or through your children, can relate to this experience and interestingly, this is one of the ways in which the Bible in Psalm 104 describes the creation of oceans.
           Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
           teeming with life of every kind,
           both large and small.
           Ships sail along it,
           you (meant God) even made Leviathan,
           with whom you can play!

    This is at least one of the possible translations; either Leviathan was created to play in the ocean which is a standard translation, or, as ancient rabbis sometime suggested, Leviathan was created so that God could play with it in the ocean (Hebrew grammar allows both interpretations). Whichever way, Leviathan, originally a vicious primordial monster, is completely re-branded and demythologized. At the same time the sea or the ocean, that dangerous realm of watery chaos, is turned into a timid pool or even a divine bathtub.
    This psalm helped to release people from the earlier petrifying superstitious fear, and opened them to curiosity, wonder and beauty of marine biology. Unfortunately, it did not stop there; released from their irrational fear, people were quick to start abusing ocean creatures and especially whales, the largest world creatures, to the point that they were almost extinct. This Sunday, reading another biblical Psalm with a similar oceanic theme, we will attempt to find a new balance between playfulness and awe, understanding and reverence.


Flame Angel

Flames and fire in our culture are predominantly associated with danger and even with dark and evil powers. I was not aware how much it was so, until I started to search for a theme picture for this Sunday. Just try to Google images for flame and among some neutral or natural flames you will soon be confronted with a menagerie of flaming demons, burning skulls and different red-glowing monsters. And you even do not need to search directly for “flame messenger” or “fire angel” as I did. 
    Flames and fire in our culture these days clearly have a predominantly bad and destructive reputation. But it hasn’t been always that way. In the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, flames and fire are mainly positive symbols. Moses meets the LORD in the burning bush, The LORD leads the Israelites in a pillar of fire, Elijah departs to heaven in a fiery chariot, Isaiah’s lips are cleansed with a glowing cinder and apostles receive the Holy Spirit in the form of flames.
    Even deep within our culture we still carry positive inklings of fire and flames which have survived to our current times. A world-renowned statue in New York Harbor carries a flaming torch. Graves and memorials of significant heroes are marked with eternal flames. And in this year with the upcoming Olympic Games we will hear more about the Olympic flame relay and all its symbolism and pageantry.
    Our human relationship with flames have always been complex containing both positive and negative aspects. Yet I believe that the change towards more negative perception of fire started to happen relatively recently (culturally speaking) with the advent of electrical light. As flames stopped being the main source of illumination their perception morphed, flames lost positive and acquired negative connotations.
    This Pentecost Sunday we will attempt to go back and reconnect with our deep perceptual and spiritual roots, discerning those almost forgotten and often neglected meanings of flames in our own faith tradition. Join us for this unique annual service.


Fruit Salad Philology

The apple has a sinister reputation among Christians. It is closely associated with the theological doctrine known as "original sin". If you see an old painting with a naked or almost naked couple standing by a tree, almost without exception it is an apple tree! It is an artistic rendition of the story from Genesis, chapter three, in which Adam and Eve ate a forbidden fruit.
    From Augustine onward this ancient story got whipped up into dogmas of total depravity and inheritable collective guilt which was only expiated by Jesus Christ. Thus, Madonna with a baby Jesus is often depicted with a humble apple tree in the background and sometimes even with a baby Jesus holding an apple in his little hands and not biting! (Of course not; babies don’t have teeth!) Thus from both ends of this Christian dogma, apple is the fruit of depravity and sin.
    Here I don’t want to discuss whether this dogma misunderstood and twisted beyond recognition an ancient Hebrew story, or to what extent it is an appropriate description of our fallen human nature. Today I want to defend the poor apple, its tree and its biblical reputation.
    Nowhere in the Bible is the forbidden fruit associated with any apple. The biblical tree in the garden and its fruit is never named. That false association appeared in medieval times when some sloppy linguists made a connection between Latin MĀLUM (a long A) which means "an apple" and MALUM (a short A) which means "an evil, a wrong". It is only a quirk of Latin language, linguistic ignorance and the fact that Latin almost never records the length of vowels. Apple has nothing to do with evil, forbidden fruit or original sin.
    On the contrary, apple in the Bible carries a much brighter meaning. The Hebrew word for an apple - TAPUAH, is derived from the word for "a fragrance" and from as essential an aspect of life as "the breath". This Sunday we will celebrate Mothers’ Day with the Song of Songs and we will also note this forgotten connection of apple tree and gift of life.
And for those who are curious, the word "melon" is also derived from the same Indo-Arian root for apple/fruit just like, for instance, the word for "marmalade".