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."

2017/08/09

Scripture Fetish

The fetishisation of the scriptures is an interesting and dominant feature of monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism). And please, understand that I am using here the word FETISH not in its later sexual meaning but in its original religious significance. FETISH is defined as “an object worshiped by an individual or a group because it is believed to possess special spiritual powers and is often used to exercise spiritual power or control.”
    Phenomenologically, the holy scriptures of these religions fit quite neatly this definition of fetish. The Guru Granth Sahib in Sikhism has its own throne under baldachin and is treated as royalty up to being kept comfortable with a special feathery fan (Chaur Sahib). Before Al Qur'an is touched and read, a ritual hand washing is in place. Every written or printed copy of Al Qur'an and any of its parts are protected against desecration by severe cultural and legal penalties up to executions. The Bible in churches is brought in special processions, often adorned and sometimes kissed and in many protestant homes the Bible was never to be put under any other book or object. The Jewish scrolls of Torah are kept in special places, dressed and adorned like priests, are not to be touched by the naked hand only with pointer (Yad in Hebrew or Hanat in Yiddish). The disposing of the holy scriptures, especially in Islam and Judaism, is to be done by proper burial.
    Even small parts, quotations, from the holy texts are treated as fetishes. Many Muslims (especially in Africa) wear protecting amulets with scrolls inscribed with Quranic verses. Jewish Mezuzot, small boxes on the frames with a quotation of the Shema resemble house protecting talismans. Prayer tefillin/phylacteries, containing Torah quotation, are by their very name and definition amulets. And as for Christianity, I would never forget when I first saw a John 3:16 tattoo in the NYC subway.
    The holy scriptures are treated and they function as religious fetishes. It just might be an interesting and colorful folklore and cultural peculiarity. Unfortunately, it has profound religious and spiritual consequences. It certainly helped the spread and depth of literacy in the given societies. But it also led to a strong tendency towards literalism, fundamentalism and religious legalism. Theologically we can speak about a strong tendency to worship a book rather than God.
    Please, understand me well, I have nothing against Holy Scriptures of any religion. I also deeply respect our own Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition. In fact, I earned my doctorate in the area of the study of ancient religious texts and Biblical theology. But for that very reason I also know how scriptures could be misquoted - torn from their historical, geographic and cultural context and their original intentions.
    As much as we respect the Scriptures, it is also good to remember, that human religiosity predates our ability to write by thousands of years. There were devout religions long before we learned to write and also many current religions never embraced a notion of normative religious texts.  Furthermore, all the religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, predate their own scriptures, being first expressed and passed on orally, only later they were recorded and codified in written form. Come this Sunday as we continue our quest for new or rediscovered spirituality. This time seeking the surprising riches and spiritual wealth of oral, narrative, unscripted religion.  

2017/08/03

Neighborhood Geology

This is a picture from Riverside Park. It is a rocky outcrop called Mount Tom next to W83rd Str. Somewhere I read that Edgar Allan Poe liked to come here and observe the Hudson River.
    Yet this rocky knob itself has an even older and more interesting history to tell. It is made of rock called Manhattan Schist. It formed 270 million years ago under the mountains which were at that time taller than today’s Himalayas. Those mountains are long gone; only their roots remain in the form of this rounded rock and bedrock under half of Manhattan.
    This Manhattan Schist is composed of nicely folded layers with occasional intruding veins of quartz. Yet here, and in a few other places, you can clearly see some straight grooves going perpendicular to the natural layers and folds in the rock. These groves are called glacial striation and are in fact about twenty five thousand years old wounds and scars left behind by the Wisconsin glacier. These scars were made by stones embedded at the bottom of glacier as it slid towards the ocean.
    This is just one rock from our neighborhood relating ancient stories. This Sunday we will open the Bible and let it speak to us about Geology. We will initiate a trialogue between Bible, geology and spirituality hoping it will open and deepen our faith and also our understanding of ourselves and of us in the world.

2017/07/26

Spiritual Landcapes

Do you have places of deep spiritual meaning in your life? Do you have places where you go to find calm, strength or to remember the loved ones or some important events in your life? I do have a number of such places and I hope you have them too. Interestingly the Bible is full of such locational references.
    Then Gideon built an altar to the LORD, and called it, “The LORD (is) Peace” and it stands at Ophra to this day.
    This is just one of many dozens of geographic pointers in the Bible. Altars, towns or hamlets together with many other human structures as well as springs, hills, gulches and rocky outcrops are named and connected with biblical matriarchs, patriarchs, Jesus and his disciples often with similar reminders that those places are there to this very day.
    Unfortunately, when we read the biblical stories these days, we often thoughtlessly skip over these verses. But if you study other religions and folklore of other peoples, you soon realize, that these geographical anchors are very important. These locational references are often the very reason for the existence and survival of such stories. They connect the faith and spiritual life with the world around.
    This hill was visited by King Arthur, in this pond the princess Libuse /goddess Lada took her bath, this rocky outcrop in the river is a remnant of the hero Maui’s stone canoe and this puffing volcanic Aeolian Island is a chimney directly from Hephaistos’ workshop.
    But what can we do when our religion became global, when the original geographic spiritual roots in Palestine are thousands upon thousands of miles away? What to do with this alienating disconnect between our faith and our surroundings?
    Mormons fabricated completely new addenda to the old religion in order to build connection between their faith and their new homes. Other fundamentalists hop these days on jetliners and go for religious pilgrimages, overwhelming those fragile original places in distant lands and turning them into tourist traps and religious Disneylands. While others resign on any connection and create their new, secular, fictitious frames of references lifting them up from modern fictions of films and TV - for instance this is Seinfeld’s diner or there is that deli where Harry met Sally...
    I believe there is a better way than such fabrications. It consists not in translating and locating those old biblical places, it consists in recognition of special places for our own spiritual journeys. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for new spirituality (or revived spirituality) this time connecting our faith with special meaningful places in our own lives.

This is Kīlauea erupting under the Milky Way (and even some shooting stars) - my personal place of spiritual awe and recharging.


2017/07/19

Organic Spirituality

    Last Friday was a rainy day and I received a special gift.  On my balcony in three small boxes I grow taro plants. I love taro’s heart-shaped leaves gently waving and quivering in every slightest breeze. And when it rains or drizzles, raindrops adorn my taro’s leaves with strings of shiny pearls and sparkling diamonds.
    If you pay attention you can spot taro quite often in NYC planted here and there for its decorative properties. (There is a large planter in front of a grocery store just across from the Holy Name of Jesus RC Church on Amsterdam Ave.) I personally got enchanted by this plant several years ago when visiting a picturesque Hanalei valley in the island of Kauai.     
    Later I learned that taro (or Kalo, as it is called in Hawaii) has a deep spiritual significance for the people who grow it. Deep in the Hawaiian creation story kalo is an older sibling of the humankind. Kalo, as an older brother, is feeding people while people, as younger siblings, are responsible for caring and cultivating kalo. Kalo and people are together children of the Land and they are bound together by the deep mutual love and obligations.
    The natural and religious duties transcend individual lives. Just as kalo tuber is harvested, the plant lives on through its replanted stalks, so the people live on through their offspring, and thus carry on the god-given duty of love and care for one another and for the land.
    This is just the roughest abbreviation of this beautiful and meaningful myth. Yet the study of this distant myth made me aware of some surprising biblical parallels, stories and metaphors, which also intertwine divine, human and plant realms. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for new spirituality by re-connecting our faith with plants. 

 

2017/07/14

Solar Eclipse 2017

This is a cuneiform text and transliteration of the first recorded total solar eclipse. It was observed in Ugarit, an ancient city on the northeast Mediterranean shore and it took place in early afternoon on the first day of month Ḫiyaru with planet Mars in conjunction. Thus we know it took place on what we would call the 5th of March, 1223 BCE at about 13:20 local time. I wrote a little more about it earlier on this blog. 


Now we are in luck! There will be another solar eclipse visible over North America on the 21st of August.

Unfortunately NYC will not be in the path of totality, yet the Sun will be almost 72% eclipsed which itself will be a spectacular celestial event. The sky will substantially darken and the Sun, covered by the Moon, will look like a crescent. BUT DON’T LOOK EVEN INTO THE ECLIPSING SUN UNLESS YOU HAVE PROPER EYE PROTECTION! Normal sunglasses do not provide sufficient protection; also do not use exposed films, CD and DVD discs or similar DIY contraptions.
    For safe observation of the Sun you need either proper sun-gazing glasses, professional filters or high grade electric welding shields. As spectacular as the solar eclipse might be, you do not want to fry your eyes and thus seriously and permanently harm your eyesight!
    An excellent and easy option is to make your own pinhole camera - make a small hole in the center of a larger size cardboard and cast a shadow on a flat white surface. Then you can observe the projection in the middle of the shadow. (Never look through that pinhole directly at the sun!). ALWAYS SUPERVISE CHILDREN TO ENSURE THEY ARE NOT LOOKING AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION.  Here are some further safety tips from NASA: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety
    I made measurements for our church’s roof garden (coordinates 40.77950N and 73.98231W). The disk of the moon will make the first contact with the Sun on Monday, August 21st at 17:23:14.7 Coordinated Universal Time (which is 1:23pm Eastern Summer Time), the maximum eclipse will arrive at 18:44:54.4 UTC (2:44pm EST) and the eclipse will end at 20:00:36.9 UTC (4:00 EST). 
    Plan, prepare and enjoy! If you have any questions, contact pastor Andrew. astehlik(a)rutgerschurch.org

2017/07/13

Biblical Emojis

This Sunday we will encounter biblical emojis. If you not know this word - emojis are those small pictograms used in emails, text messages, Facebook and other social media. Predominantly they are used to express, communicate and share emotions. Interestingly, many emojis use different depiction of faces.
    This Sunday, in our Summer search for new spirituality, we will attempt to reconnect our faith with our bodies and our emotions. In that endeavor, the "biblical emojis" can offer us helpful insights.
    Of course, don’t look in the Bible for cellphones, tablets or other electronic gadgets. They did not have those little colorful pictures either. But what they had were special colorful and meaningful words which were as good as emojis.
    Take for instance biblical Greek word for anger - ORGĒ. Its original literal meaning was up-welling or swelling just like the emoji of an angry red face.
    A different Greek word for anger was THYMOS and it originally meant heavy breathing, steaming or puffing (with anger), just like the emoji with a steamy nose.
    On the other hand the Greek word for patience, MAKROTHYMIA, can be literally translated as long breath.
     Indeed, our emotions are one of the oldest and deepest structures of our psyche connected intimately with our bodies. Purely rational control of our emotions is only marginally successful. Often the most efficient way of understanding, cherishing as well as cultivating our emotions is by reconnecting them with our bodies and controlling them through moderating our bodies’ reactions - for instance one can remember countering rising anger with proverbial few deep breaths.
    Come this Sunday, when we will search for even deeper and more profound biblical "emoji words" from the treasure throw of biblical Hebrew helping us in reconnecting our faith with our bodies and our emotions.

 

2017/07/06

Fragrant Memories

A few weeks ago, as part of my study of American religiosity, I visited the Shaker Village in Hancock, just across the boarder between Upstate and Massachusetts. The true Shakers had been gone for generations, but local enthusiasts and sympathizers keep the memory of this interesting American protestant commune alive. Now it is a living museum with a small working farm and ongoing practice of traditional shaker crafts.
 
    The first building which I entered was a wood workshop. I stepped in and the smell of that place arouse in me a strikingly vivid memory of my grandfather’s woodshed. It must have been some specific combination of drying and aging woods. It was as if I was suddenly transported across thousands of miles and a number of decades in time to the time when my grandfather taught me how to split wood.
    That is the magic of our human olfactory memory. I think I can speak for almost everyone when I say that we all have had such flashbacks triggered by a smell of freshly cut grass, pealed apple or some other fruit, or just a gust of a salty air. Almost any specific smell can suddenly and surprisingly bring forward vivid memories to us. And unless we are professional taste tasters, we would have a hard time putting into words those  special smells. Similarly we might have difficulties actively recalling memorable smells. We need to wait until our memory is triggered and then we are surprised with vivid, almost palpable memories which go far beyond just smell.
    Olfactory memories are clearly more direct, vivid and elemental than words, sounds or sights. Come this Sunday as we continue our search for post-cartesian spirituality –  integrating, uniting and rejoining body and spirit, our physical and spiritual selves. We will rejoice in the often overlooked, forgotten or neglected fragrant and tangible spirituality at the center of our faith. 


2017/06/29

Scary Theater

The original illustration from Descartes' Treatise on Man
This Sunday I would like to take you to a special and and also somehow scary place. It is called Cartesian Theater after René Descartes (Renatus Carteius in Latin). Yes, it is that french philosopher famous for postulating Cogito ergo sum - "I think, therefore I am."
    Cartesian Theater is a modern name for an important part of Descartes’ philosophy just as Plato’s Cave is important part of his. The Cartesian Theater was supposed to be a place of interaction between the immaterial, intelligent soul and the physical body. Senses were picking up perceptions and transmitting them along the nerves to a place in the brain where they were presented to the soul. The immaterial intelligent soul then analyzed these inputs, made freewill decisions and sent neural commands back to the body. The Cartesian Theater was supposed to be an essential function of a brain mediating between these two realms, spiritual and physical.
    This radical body-mind dualism had major and far reaching consequences. It demisticized, secularized, even desecrated the world. The only mystical and sacred element in existence (beside God) was the intelligent human soul. Anything and everything else in the world was just secular “stuff” fully available for rational, scientific study. This worldview greatly accelerated the development of the modern science and modern technology.
    But this radical body-mind dualism also led to an alienation of the mind from the body and alienation of reason from emotions. Most importantly it led to the alienation of humans from the rest of nature. Inevitably, the human intelligent mind (often quite narrowminded) became the measure of everything. This secular worldview greatly contributed to our modern ecological crisis. The Cartesian Theater morphed into a scary haunted castle of human hubris.
     This Sunday and all the following summer Sundays in a special worship series we will seek to heal our alienation and modern self-centeredness. Come this Sunday to be assured from the fountains of our faith that we are more than thinking machines. Come this Sunday to rejoice in the spiritual wholeness growing up from the deep roots of our faith tradition.

And for those who read this far:
René Descartes situated the interface between a soul and a body to the pineal gland. Of course, it is not its true physiological function. But even if we take the soul-body interface not anatomically, but instead metaphorically, there is a remaining logical problem. In this picture a person fries an egg and every new inner observer creates a new need for a next and deeper interface - ad infinitum et ad nauseam. This was most clearly pointed out by the American philosopher Daniel Dennett.

2017/06/22

Rat Party

We are pleased to report a new and exciting discovery of another fragment of the Manhattan Gospel of Henry Rutgers. The discovery was made yesterday by a small yet brave group of archeologists from Rutgers Church who undertook an expedition to Columbus Circle. Right behind the southwestern gate of Central Park they unearthed another lost story from this forgotten Gospel. Here is our attempt at a translation to modern English:

After crossing the sea they arrived to the country of NewYorkeenes. And as Jesus stepped from the boat, right beneath those tall buildings, they were met by a man who suffered greatly, tormented by unclean spirits.
    That man often slept half-collapsed on subway benches, was seen pushing a shopping cart full of smelly stuff, and was heard screaming and screeching in the parks. Many times they tried to help him in hospital emergency rooms around the city. Nurses bathed him, civilized him and he started to receive a proper medical care. But just as he was on the mend, the demons would return with vengeance, depriving him of proper medical care and driving him out of hospitals against any medical advice. It seemed no one had control over this situation.
    And this man, when he saw Jesus from a distance, ran to him, bowed to him, and said, “Why do you even bother with me, Most Holy One?”  Jesus immediately knew that the man was tormented by a serious demon and asked for identity, “What is your name, you demon, who torments this man?” And the demon answered: “Our name is Grand Old Party, for we are many.” And they begged Jesus not to send them out and away from their high-rise towers, seaside manors, golf courses and other possessions.  
    Enlightened by divine wisdom, Jesus immediately saw one fitting solution how they could stay close to their petty earthly possessions - he sent them to the ubiquitous rats. And although normal rats are quite clever to avoid plain traps and baits, now, as soon as this party of greedy demons entered into the rats, in their greed they started to stuff themselves with piles of poison. That was the end of them and the man was finally happy and free.
    But you probably know how it goes... Many people in that country also loved their possessions more than they loved their neighbors. They were uneasy about this outcome; some were offended, some were even frightened. They asked Jesus to leave them alone and shortly afterwards they had an even grander, even older demon party going. But the healed man stood behind and kept reminding everyone that greed kills while divine compassion heals.
  

     Of course the authenticity of the discovered fragment is seriously disputed, there are many indications of this text being a late forgery. Nevertheless, some progressive scholars are convinced that this newly discovered fragment can help illuminate certain, often misunderstood, aspects of an authentic Gospel story (Mark 5:1-19 and Synoptic parallels).
     Some of the insights can include, for instance: that the afflicted person could be a personification of a broader population; that the demonism and the name of demon(s) could have a biting political implication; and that different manifestations of demonism could correspond to reality and hardships of daily lives of common people. Be it as it may, we found this story worth sharing. 


Re. Laura Jervis talking at the Health Care Vigil

2017/06/08

Visit Paradise

South and North Rivers
Do you know that there is a true Paradise just north of the New York City limits, only a few minutes away from where you live?
     “Paradise” is a loanword through classical languages from the old Iranian expression Paridayda which literally means “a walled enclosure/garden”. From the ancient of times Iranians were planting famous and beautiful gardens, their palaces were unthinkable without them. Persian gardens were so famous, that they inspired description of the biblical garden of Eden. Persian gardens also featured four axial rivers with a confluence and springs at the center of each side. Persian emperors were known to personally garden and their gardens were a training ground and model for the care for their lands. What a meaningful metaphor for those in political power. If only those in power today learned their sense of diligence, wisdom and responsibility from gardening!
 
East Spring with East and West Rivers
the Temple of Sky behind them.
  As New Yorkers you can visit a delightful recreation of Paradise (an old formal Persian garden) any weekend. It was planted in Yonkers in the early XX century by the famous NYC lawyer, philanthropist and horticulturist Samuel Untermyer. Thanks to his vision and generosity, you can visit Paradise, stroll by axial rivers, rest in the shade of trees, arcades, porticoes and pergolas, visit with plants, flowers and trees and wonder which one might be the one of life and which one proffers knowledge. Perhaps all of them offer insight in some way and form.
     On this Trinity Sunday we will rejoice in the story of the Garden of Eden and seek inspiration for our individual and communal living, what it means to live in the divine garden and to receive a charge to till it and guard it.

2017/06/01

Born of Divine Breath

In the Gospel of Philip Jesus is said to tell his audience:
    Glass carafes and earthenware jugs 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.

This is clearly not an authentic Jesus’ saying, he could not be familiar with blown glass. At his time blown glass was the most recent technological advancement and luxury items reserved for very few aristocrats. But within a few generations, in the second, third century such glass items became more common and the author of the Gospel of Philip could use this image to modernize old biblical metaphor.
    In Jeremiah (chapter 18) we hear about God as a master potter shaping humans; apostle Paul (2Cor 4:7) describes himself as a clay pot shaped by God to carry and deliver a treasure of good news to nations. Here we have a similar image updated with the new technology of blowing glass.
    This saying, in its final version, was quite likely aimed against Paul and was a part of heated arguments among early Christians going along the line “we are those glass jugs while you are just those clay pots!”
      Yet I am convinced that we can still take this captivating image seriously and in a positive manner. We can seek in this enigmatic saying new insights into the beauty, diversity and perpetuity of life. Pentecost Sunday is indeed a celebration of the creative and creating power in the breath of God. Come this Pentecost Sunday to rejoice in being born of divine breath.

 

2017/05/18

Rutgers' Resistance Bureau and Jesus' Healings

Every Tuesday evening a small, yet vibrant group of members, friends and concerned neighbors meets in our church. It started shortly after the presidential inauguration, actually, after the first presidential order against immigrants and refugees. We call this group “Resistence Bureau” and we meet to support each other, and synchronize our actions; plan telephone calls and letters to our elected representatives and share news about marches and street protests. (Those interested can join our Facebook Group - just let me know).
     Most recently one of our main concerns, besides the obscure presidential relationship with Russia, has been health care. Barbara Smaller, a member of our group and Newyorker cartoonist, prepared for us this poignant postcard. We plan to send it to the government and elected representatives as one of our ways of voicing our concern about the destruction of the Affordable Healthcare.
     It is appropriate for people of faith to be advocates for health care. Because health care is not only a political and economic issue, health care is also a quintessentially moral and religious matter. Just look into the Gospels! Again and again we hear about Jesus performing miraculous healings.
     People get often preoccupied with the miraculous nature of Jesus’ healings but that is only epiphenomenon, it is just a part of their historical context. The primary purpose of healings was to show that God does, and how does God care for people in pain. If we read those stories carefully we are led to realize that, although Jesus miraculously heals suffering individuals, the entire communities and their attitudes, ideologies and prejudices are those who are being challenged and treated at the same time.
     From anthropology we know that true healers really never treat just individuals, but their broader context, their families, communities, even the environment. All of this speaks directly to our current situation when healthcare for the most vulnerable is under attack for selfish and shortsighted ideological reasons.
     Last week we looked at spiritual maps and how they help us to navigate our lives. This Sunday we will look at the Map that Jesus drew for us and how it translates to our times. Healing is unthinkable outside of a loving community and a caring society.

2017/05/11

Spiritual Map Making


How do you find your way around the City or around country lines when you travel to unknown places? Most likely you use Google maps on your cellphone or some navigation system in your car.
      I still like old fashion maps and I use them occasionally especially when I want to get a larger picture and understand the broader landscape. On the other hand I got used to Google maps, it is so convenient, fast and increasingly reliable. It offers turn-by-turn directions and even provides construction and accident alerts while immediately suggesting alternative routes.
      Now imagine that a similar navigation system has been available for thousands of years to native people in Australia. They also have had oral turn-by-turn navigation which even has suggested alternative routes for different situations and have been able to keep up to date for centuries.
      Of course, they did not use any satellites, computers or cell-networks. Their technology was their religion, mythology and especially their songs. Their traditional songs led them turn-by-turn from hill to ravine and from tree to ridge sometimes for 300 miles and several weeks long journeys through deserted wilderness, bringing them reliably from one essential artesian spring to another. And it clearly worked, they are still here, before Europeans came they survived even thrived in their harsh environment.
      This Sunday we will learn about spiritual mapmaking and how it can help us to navigate not necessarily streets and highways but our lives. We will consider the great importance of the permanently evolving nature of any map. And what kind of direction the Gospel can offer us on our life journeys. It is the Gospel of John which reminds us of Jesus being the way, the truth and the life. Come to rejoice and find hope in spiritual map making. 


2017/04/20

In defense of Thomas

On the first Sunday after Easter we remember doubting or unbelieving Thomas.
According to the gospel of John; When the resurrected Jesus met with his disciples on the third day after crucifixion, Thomas was not with them. When they told him the great news, he did not believe, and wanted to make sure for himself. A week later, the first Sunday after Easter, he was given that opportunity and finally he believed. This is how Thomas got labeled as doubting or unbelieving. It was an unfortunate story with tragic consequences throughout the Christian history.

Firstly) It is almost certain, that the story of unbelieving Thomas got its final form as a part of a score setting between two streams (or schools) of early Christianity. One of those early streams was associated with John, and Thomas was the figurehead of another. In the Bible we have the Gospel of John, the Apocalypse of  John and three letters of John while writings associated with Thomas were censored, and many of them suppressed for millennia. Labeling and libeling Thomas clearly and unfortunately worked. Early Christian streams associated with Thomas disappeared and a substantial part of early Christianity richness and diversity was lost.

Secondly) Another unfortunate consequence of this story was disparaging of doubts and healthy skepticism among Christians. The story of doubting Thomas was often used to control and manipulate minds and doubts of lay people. After the emergence of modern science, which is based on skepticism, critical thinking and search for evidence, this biblical story contributed and justified growing antagonism between faith and science.

This year, this very weekend, on Earth Day we participate in the Science March to protect our fragile planet from the hands of narrow-minded, uneducated nitwits.  It is high time to rehabilitate Thomas, to reintegrate doubt and faith, religion and science. Critical thinking is an integral part of healthy faith.
At Rutgers Church we do not check our brains at the door.

2017/04/12

Radical Easter Hope

Have you ever wondered why resurrection and insurrection sound so similar? And why rising from the dead and uprising share the same original word root? Interestingly, this is not peculiar only to English usage (vocabulary).
     In Biblical Greek these words also share the same roots. In the Greek language resurrection (αναστασις) is closely bound with revolution (επαναστασις) distinguished only by a preposition
επι meaning above. And one word EXEGEIRŌ (εξεγειρω) can be used in the Bible to speak about rising from the dead and in today’s Greek newspaper about uprising.
     The very essence of language is showing us the disruptive nature of the Easter message. Now you also know why the early Christians were viewed with suspicion and why they were persecuted by authorities. They insisted that the convicted and executed "criminal" was alive among them and showed way towards the just and harmonious future. 
     In the very center of our faith is this inseparable hope, which binds together personal hope in death with personal hope in life and even more radically fuses together personal individual hope with the communal hope for equity and justice.
     The early Christians knew it, but then the church spent the better part of 2,000 years forgetting it, hiding it, and suppressing this radical hope.
     If we want to be faithful to Jesus and his resurrection and if we truly want to understand the marvelous message of Easter, we must return to the original roots of words and roots of our hope. We must not separate rising and uprising, the resurrection hope from the insurrection hope.
     This Easter Sunday we will take a butterfly, this beautiful post-biblical metaphor of resurrection, and apply it to our search for personal resurrection hope which is inseparable from radical communal hope of equity and justice.

2017/04/05

Brave not Stupid

A poster from the demonstration on the Central Park West.
Would you know how to organize an illegal demonstration?
      Well, you can learn from Jesus! His Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem has all the characteristics of a well-organized public protest. Jesus and his disciples lived under what we would call these days a police state and so the preparations for their protest were made quietly and under the radar of authorities. We are told, for instance, that they used prearranged secret dialogue while picking up the donkey making sure that even the messengers did not know the full plan so that no one could spill the beans. All was done to minimize the danger of authorities disrupting the event before it even started. Jesus and his disciples were brave but not stupid, it is as if they followed modern guidelines for grassroots organizing under adverse circumstances.
     I know this strategy first hand from the time of growing up under a totalitarian regime. With good planning a main city square could look at one moment like it looks at any other day and just a minute or so later it can be filled with protestors who emerged from stores, cafes and morphed from what looked like regular pedestrians. Improvised banners, signs and protest props emerge from nowhere, slogans are adopted and quickly perfected before authorities can get their acts together. You see - flash mobs existed long before social media and I can attest that they are an exhilarating experience.
     Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is one such special flash protest with a powerful message allowing people to participate and dedicate themselves to the vision of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.
     Come this Palm Sunday to join Jesus’ flash mob shouting Hosanna! (Which can be translated - Freedom now!).

2017/03/22

Lithic Pillow

“Are all stones alive?” Asked American ethnologist, Irving Hallowell, to his Native American interlocutor, Alec Keeper, when he noticed that in Ojibwe language stones are grammatically animated (treated as alive). The elder thought about it carefully for some time and then responded, Some are.”
    Some stones are indeed special. They might look like any other stones, but they mark special places and represent special events. In upstate New York, for instance, I was aware of several native American cairns. In my Central European homeland I visited Celtic and some older Megalithic monuments and of course everyone knows Stonehenge and perhaps menhirs of Brittany, Cornwall or Ireland.
    Biblical tradition also mentions special stones infused with deep meaning and significance. Some stones are truly crucial to what is called “salvation history” - core stories of our faith tradition. This Sunday one such stone will open our mind for the deeper understanding of sanctuary as a place of rest, place of protection and divine assurance. Come this Sunday to rejoice in the divine message conveyed by one special biblical lithic pillow. 

(Correction: in the first paragraph I originally named the Ojibwe elder as William Berens, who was one of the main Hallowell's sources, but Alec Keeper was the one who made the famous comment about rocks.)
   


Navigation Heiau (Maka o Hule) on Kohala coast of Hawai'i. 

2017/03/08

A church in the wall

In this church I preached my first sermon. The history of this picturesque church in Prague goes all the way back to 1178. As you can see even from this small picture, it is a unique and bizarre structure, over centuries it was rebuilt many times and in many different styles - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Throughout its long history it was a parish church, a seat of radical Reformation, it was deconsecrated and turned into a warehouse and apartment building with some stores, before it was reconstructed and made into a Protestant church for university students. But for most of its history this church was part of the Prague city wall - hence its name St. Martin in the Wall. The south wall of the church was integrated into the fortification of the Old Town of Prague. Although the church wall was hardly thicker than the rest of the city wall, it was, nevertheless, its safest part. Noone would ever dare to attack the city through the church or even enter the church armed and in hostility!  This historic little church is in fact an embodiment of the very old and revered concept of sanctuary. In Lent this year we will talk, learn and celebrate sanctuaries - these important sacred spaces. Why we need them, how we can use them and why we must protect them.

2017/03/01

Rooster puzzles

1) In the book of Job there is a delightful little verse 38:36 with this many widely and wildly diverse translations (and probably some more which I did not find):
- Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?
- Who has put wisdom in the clouds, or given understanding to the mists?
- And who has given to women skill in weaving, or knowledge of embroidery?
- Who put wisdom in remote places, or who gave understanding to a rooster?
- Who has given the ibis wisdom or the rooster understanding?

Can you imagine more diverse translations? One Hebrew word (טחות) is rendered as: the inward parts, the clouds, skill of weaving, remote places or the ibis! While another Hebrew word (שּׂכוי) is translated as either the heart, the mist, embroidery, or a rooster. So what is the right translation? No one knows! And enough said about the biblical inerrancy of the fundamentalists!

2) Why should the bible declare that chickens are endowed with special understanding or knowledge? Ask any farmer around the world - chickens are proverbially stupid. There are stories about chickens running around the yard and even surviving for weeks after their heads had been chopped out. Clearly, chickens’ need for a brain is not particularly great! Chickens are perceived as uniquely unintelligent birds, unless you consider their ability to welcome dawn and announce rain. But that is another puzzle.

3) Roosters are known to predict dawn with annoying accuracy. But how do they do it? Some biologists think that it is because of their inner circadian clock. I have a different theory. I developed it when I started to take long exposure night pictures. I realized that dawn arrives hours before actual sunrise. Long before my eyes can notice absolutely anything my cameras start picking up the first photons scattered in the atmosphere above the eastern horizon. Then, when it is still almost invisible, roosters begin crowing. Similarly, rain must also be preceded with some subtle changes in luminosity. Roosters, after all, might have this special skill of very sensitive eyes.

This Sunday we will engage further ornithological mysteries, metaphors and legends while we fold origami cranes and send them to deliver our prayers for nuclear disarmament, peace and understanding among nations and peoples.

2017/02/27

We are stardust

The entire world, buildings, streets, trees, meadows, hills and sheep, our entire planet, ourselves included, almost all of it with the exception of hydrogen, is the product of nuclear fusion. That is when two atoms of hydrogen fuse together in a star into an atom of helium and a lot of energy which we can see as light. Later two atoms of helium produce an atom of beryllium still further an atom of beryllium and an atom of helium produce an atom of carbon. And so on and so forth, there are many different fusion processes and reactions each time producing different elements and large quantities of energy - that is why stars shine. Some elements, especially those heavier (from oxygen up - and thus almost everything around us), were formed in collapsing and exploding stars called supernova. Thus almost all elements are in fact the ash from shining and often dying and exploding stars. We are indeed stardust! Come this Ash Wednesday to take this reality in and celebrate this awesome, transformative miracle of creation; ash and new life, the end encoded with fresh hope.

The remnants of supernova called Crab Nebula (By NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll).
The cloud is now 64,660,000,000,000 miles across and expands 930 miles per second.
 

2017/02/15

Black Spiritual Roots

Faith is a special divine gift which is passed on by human mediators and tradents. In that respect I owe my faith to my stubborn Central-Eeuropean Calvinist ancestors who preserved and handed it over through the dark times of contra-reformation (1620-1781). But that was centuries before I was born! More personally and more intimately I owe my faith to the African-American spirituals. I grew up in the Czech Republic under the Communist totalitarian regime. In the midst of stifling censorship, crippling political control and impotent atheistic ideology I grew up with blues and spirituals on my lips and deep in my heart: Swing low, sweet chariot...  Go down, Moses... The Gospel train is coming... Go with Me to That Land... My generation of Protestants found in this Black music an authentic expression of life and faith. We might be white as white Europeans can go, but our souls resonated deeply with the black spirituals. We might sing those spirituals in Czech translations but we internalized the Exodus story (and other formative biblical stories) through the prism of struggle for elemental human dignity and civil rights. I hadn’t met a black person before I was 20, yet through music, I was brought up, to a large extent, in the spirit of black faith, its defiance, resistance and hope. Please join me this Sunday as we learn from and celebrate our black spiritual roots.

2017/02/09

Demons

The New Testament, and more specifically the Synoptical Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke), often describe physical or mental illnesses as a demon possession and the acts of healing are portrayed as exorcisms, expelling those demons from the afflicted persons. I always considered this to be a peculiar example of the antiquated biblical worldview.
    Of course, I knew that theologians and anthropologists ascribed it to the folksy origins of early Christianity, while some speculated about distant Babylonian and even Iranian religious influences. No matter how it was explained, it remained to me a clearly dated and somehow embarrassing aspect of the foundational texts of my faith.
    But then, many years after I finished seminary, my beloved professor of the New Testament offered me a new perspective and rehabilitated in my eyes those biblical demons in one sentence, one question; “Aren’t those demons the ancient attempt to disassociate the ill from their illnesses?” The afflicted person behind the illness is still the same, it is the demon, which makes him or her behave differently, strangely or even dangerously.
    When you think about it, this epistemological separation of the persons and their afflictions actually offers helpful and more importantly a hopeful way of understanding illness. In reality it is what modern medicine does all the time while distinguishing between a patient and a virus, bacteria, trauma, foreign substances, stress or extreme circumstances. And modern medical treatment also proceeds by eliminating or at least mitigating these negative external factors (virus, bacteria, stress....) in order to help the patient.
    Biblical demonology and modern medicine in fact share the same underlying insight and approach. As we celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin, come this Sunday to celebrate the healing powers of modern exorcists - doctors and geneticists.


Refugees Welcome!

On Tuesday, February 7th, in the evening we finally welcomed the Khoja family, Syrian Kurdish refugees originally from Aleppo. It was a great joy after a seriously turbulent period and many thanks belong to all members of our Refugees Task Force (specifically Nancy Muirhead and David Mammen), our partner congregations (Church of Advent Hope, All Souls and B’nay Jeshurun). In the final stages special thanks belong to lawyers and many partner organizations (CWS, ACLU, UNHCR). The anxiety and joy of the Khoja’s arrival are nicely captured in these articles by major media listed here in the diachronic order.

The Guardian 
The New York Times

Our Church can be truly proud for living up our faith with determination and integrity. Now the real work of helping the Khojas to adjust to their new home starts in earnest. At the same time we will continue with even stronger determination to advocate for the welcome of refugees and against any anti-immigrant prejudices as we are obliged by the divine Law, Jesus’ Spirit of welcome and our Reformed history.

2017/02/02

Non-Zero-Sum

Is selfishness or altruism the strongest underlying principle of the world? 
    Years ago, while I was serving a church in Prague I dedicated one of my study leaves to reading about the evolutionary game theory. At that time it was becoming very popular among economists, political scientists, psychologists and biologists. To this time the game theory led to as many as eleven Nobel Prizes.
    The Evolutionary Game Theory began with biologists and ethologists being puzzled by the ritualized combat behavior - why are animals fighting over limited resources according to clear and restraining rules? As a pastor and theologian, I was even more interested in the subsequent conundrum of the origins of altruism - why are animals willing to offer sacrifices for the benefit of others?
    Ritualized combat and especially the altruism did not make sense according to the classical Darwinian and early neo-Darwinian theories. These early models were based on the rules of the zero-sum games. The zero-sum game is a classical cut-throat capitalist situation; the gain of the one is always the loss for the other. (If I get it, you lose it, if you get it, I lose it.)
    But then, evolutionary game theorists observed and described, studied and modeled what they started to call non-zero-sum games. Those are situations when individuals can choose to cooperate and in the end both can gain. Rigorous mathematical and computer modeling on large and long samples of events confirmed observations of the ethologists, psychologists and economists.
    In the broader scale, the world operates according to the rules of non-zero-sum games. People can still choose selfishly or altruistically, but the rules are those of non-zero-sum games. Some isolated situations might perhaps look like zero-sum games (strongly favoring selfishness), but even those, when played over and over and among same players of larger groups eventually and inevitably turn into non-zero-sum games (enabling and often encouraging cooperation and altruism).
    Guess, why am I writing this just now in our political and social situation? Those who live their lives according to selfish rules live sad, lonely, unloved even despised lives and eventually they are destined to lose. Come this Sunday to celebrate the world which deep down is essentially built on the altruistic rules. Come to rejoice in the world where everyone can benefit, if we choose to cooperate, come to celebrate the Creator, who has never been stingy.

2017/01/26

Bridge of Hope

This iconic ancient bridge is called Stari Most (in translation - Old Bridge) and it gave a name to the city which grew around it. The city is called Mostar - Bridgetown in English. The bridge was built by an Ottoman (Turkish) architect in the XVI century. Its 70 feet tall single arch spans the gorge of the river Neretva in Herzegovina. Years ago, as a teenager, I walked across this bridge when my family visited what was then Yugoslavia for lovely Adriatic holidays. I still vividly remember Mostar and its bridge; I was in Europe, but the smells, the sounds, the sights offered me the magic of the Orient.
    Unfortunately here I must correct myself. I crossed that bridge, but it was not the bridge which you see on this picture. Just few years after our visit, xenophobic, islamophobic madness broke up in Yugoslavia. Weak, opportunistic, vile politicians woke narrowminded nationalism, utilized some old pseudo-Christian prejudices against Islam and instigated a civil war accompanied with horrific genocide. One of the side casualties of this war was also this historic architectural marvel. It was shelled and fell down to the river.
    Thankfully, that was not the end of the story. People around the world learned about some of the worst atrocities, diplomats got involved, NATO finally intervened and stopped the ugly fratricide. Instigators were ousted, captured, jailed, prosecuted and sentenced at the international criminal court. Eventually international organizations such as World Bank, European Union, Aga Khan Trust (Muslim Cultural Organization), UNESCO (United Nations’ Education and Culture Arm) together rebuilt the bridge as a powerful symbol of inclusivity and hope. We all must stand against rude and brute politicians who want to divide people, nations, religions, races .... Come this Sunday to celebrate the promise and hope of bridge building.

2017/01/19

Magic and Moral Code

Forget voodoo dolls if you wish - the proper Biblical and Ancient Near East curses were written on bowls and then ceremoniously smashed. That might be the reason we have in the Bible so many allusions to the wicked being broken, smashed or crashed into pieces. Blessings on the other hand were bestowed with the laying of hands and more important blessings were sealed with ceremonial feasts.
    In the formal religious setting, blessings and curses were collected into lists and became one of the sources of the religious moral code. The Hebrew Bible contains substantial lists of curses and blessings for instance in Deuteronomy 27-28. Jesus (or an early church) also composed such lists of blessings and curses. They are called Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew 5 and Blessings and Woes in the Gospel of Luke 6. They tell us what is under Jesus’ blessing and what is being cursed.
    If we extrapolate Jesus’ blessings and curses into our current idioms it could be quite a surprising reading! Blessed are the poor and those who advocate for them, the downtrodden and those who help them, those who are passionate about social justice, those who strive for civil rights and those who do not act with violence. Cursed, on the other hand, are the selfish plutocrats, the gluttons of power, the vainglorious “celebrities” and the arrogant bullies.
    Don’t Jesus’ blessings and curses outline a quite clear and coherent divine moral code? What would you prefer: to be cursed or blessed by Jesus? Smashed to pieces by God or entertained at God’s table? 

2017/01/11

Prudent Simplicity

Be cautious like a snake and innocent as a dove, my father quoted to me Matthew 10:16b as I went into the ministry, shortly before I departed for seminary. Soon, I gained my share of the first-hand experiences with the totalitarian secret police and their techniques of interrogation, threats and blackmail.
    This biblical verse came to me quite naturally when I was preparing our November 9th post-election vigil. And I thought of it again while planning the service of ordination and installation of the church officers this Sunday. Those trustees, elders and deacons will lead us in uncertain, turbulent and probably quite dark times.
    I researched the biblical passage in the original Greek; I also looked it up in different translations. I referenced several commentaries and checked the linguistic and theological dictionaries. I also came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. exactly on the same passage. It was titled "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart". Thus I discovered a different MLK than I had known before from media and from school. This was not a courageous justice fighter and rousing public orator but rather a caring pastor thoughtfully equipping the faithful of his church in the ongoing struggles for justice.
    I cannot slavishly repeat that sermon this Sunday; it would not be true to the spirit of MLK. In the almost 60 years since it was delivered, the world has changed (the struggle for justice is not over, but it has shifted) and our biblical and theological understanding has also changed (deepened). But that sermon remains a powerful inspiration and encouragement pointing us in the right direction, to the roots of our faith. There, in the Bible and in our faith in God, is the reliable source of courage and strength to resist prejudice and hatred and for the fearless struggle for justice.