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."

2020/05/28

Pentecost in Quarantine

After the COVID pandemic started and living in NYC, one of the hardest hit places in the world, we were forced to quickly internalize quarantine rules. And while we were confined to our homes a number of friends mentioned difficulties they had while killing time and watching old films and sitcoms. People in those films behaved so irresponsibly! Characters certainly did not observe any social distancing rules. One friend half jokingly reported how she almost started to yell at the TV “don’t do that, that is dangerous” when the sitcom cast started to nestle on one couch.
            I do not watch much TV, but I have similar feelings about some biblical stories. For instance the Pentecost. All the disciples were packed in one place and touched by fire. Look at any depictions of that event - disciples are looking like some human shaped candles with little flames above their heads! But the room is packed! It does not feel right!
            Putting aside our pandemic neurosis I realized that there is more to the Holy Spirit than just the Pentecost event as reported by Luke in the Acts. The Holy Spirit does not need shoulder to shoulder crowds. The Spirit has many different ways of working and permeating, empowering and transforming our faith, ourselves and our world.
            Join us this Sunday to celebrate Pentecost in quarantine. 

2020/05/21

Healing with Holy Anger

The Bible is aflush with stories about and references to the wrath of God. Together with many people I have always had ambiguous feelings about it. Throughout history the wrath of God has been used and abused by many demagogues and charlatans to push their own weird and abusive agendas.
            Yet there is just one instance in the entire Bible when we hear about Jesus getting angry. And I believe this one instance can help us understand and appreciate the holy anger. 
           In the gospel of Mark we hear about Jesus looking with anger exactly at those who were using religion to deny help to a needy person. Using religion which could bring liberation, healing and hope to this very opposite end -- to deny help and hope, using something intended as good to cause or perpetuate pain. That is when Jesus gave his opponents that angry look, decried their callousness and healed the sick.
            This is the only instance when we hear about Jesus’ anger in the entire Bible. Yet it was still quite shocking and problematic from the earliest of times. Matthew and Luke took over this Markan story but they intentionally and meticulously sanitized it, they left out any reference to Jesus’ anger from their gospels.
            Yet I am thankful that Mark preserved it. For me, angry Jesus is a real and believable Jesus. He was passionate about bringing divine help, his was the anger which brought hope and healing.
            This Sunday we will continue our series of worships on divine healing and we will rejoice in the holy divine anger which heals. Join us!

2020/05/15

Our pandemic in context

We are in the middle of a deadly pandemic caused by a new viral infection. Many people have died, many more were made seriously ill, we all felt the impact in one way or the other. Not having any vaccine or direct cure, governments around the world tried to slow the spread of the contagion by implementing different levels of quarantine (social and physical distancing). As a result all around the world (but especially in most developed countries) the economy declined rapidly, unemployment is higher than anyone remembers and social and political discontent is spreading. In our US situation it certainly does not help that we have an impotent federal government led by an utterly ignorant and incompetent president (probably the worst in national history).
            After two months in quarantine we are all getting restless and emotions are flaring. I know from first hand experience and from colleagues that pastors are dealing with an increasing numbers of intricate and ever more complicated pastoral situations. But we need to put our predicament into the proper context. If we think we had it really bad, being locked in our homes for two months, being unemployed and living with great social and medical insecurity, then let us think twice! Let us think for instance what our colonising ancestors did to Native Americans just two and half centuries ago!
            Some Native American Peoples lost 90% of their population within a generation or two because of the imported  infectious diseases! In the second half of the  18th century the well documented smallpox epidemy killed about 30% of the West Coast Native Americans in just a year or so!  And at least some of this disaster was man-made by the colonists who were gifting Native Americans with blankets intentionally infected with the smallpox (it is documented for instance in the correspondence between Sir Jeffery Amherst the supreme commander of the British in North America and Col. Henry Bouquet, the Swiss mercenary under British pay).
            Even in our pandemic hotspot which is our beloved cosmopolitan NYC, the death-rate has never approached 1% of population, not even among the most exposed groups with the possible exemption of the residents of nursing homes (numbers are not yet fully clear). Now think about the Native Americans losing the entire one third of their people! I do not write this to downplay and trivialize the suffering, hardships and losses in our days, I write this, because I believe that our hard-earned firsthand experience with pandemic can help us understand our history and what we did to native peoples specifically in America but frankly around the world (I know about similar history in Hawai'i). Let it be to all of us our firsthand lesson.

2020/05/14

"Unroofing"

Have you heard about Jesus healing so many ill people that they had to bring pneumatic hammers and cut through the concrete floors so that they could install substantially larger elevators?
            Well, of course not! I am making it up. Or more precisely I am translating a biblical story into our current idioms. But I do not feel badly about it because that is exactly what can be found already in the Bible!
            There is the highly memorable story when a group of friends brought to Jesus a person for healing and they could not get to him and so they lowered the ill to Jesus’ presence through the ceiling.
            The gospel of Mark is the oldest among the gospels and closest to the original Middle Eastern context. And so in the gospel of Mark we hear that they were digging (αποστεγαζω and εξορυσσω) through the roof - one must imagine flat roofs of that region covered with compacted dry mud.
            The gospel of Luke is written a little later and for a different Greek audience further north and in the urban setting and thus Luke writes about taking apart those picturesque tiled (κεραμος) red roofs of Italy and Greece.  
            You see, it’s all right to translate the Good News into our own context and situation!
Join us this Sunday as we continue listening to NT healing stories. Let’s see what unroofing might mean for us today in the middle of our own society need for healing.

2020/05/07

Sons of Resheph flying up high

Early in April I was listening in to the conference of doctors  from my wife’s hospital. And a verse from the book of Job came to my mind:  “Surely humans are born for hardship  just like sparks are for flying upon high.” (Job 5:7)  It was a dark time in the hospital, Martina herself was running a mild fever while she lost the sense of smell and all our city felt like we were under siege.
      But there was another reason for remembering this verse beside the overall mood. Doctors on the call were referring to COVID 19 as “a dangerous beast they must not underestimate”. The twenty first century doctors were clearly personifying the infection.
     The very same is true about this biblical verse. In the Bible the illness is often personified, in this specific verse it is even deified (made into divinity). In the Hebrew original it actually speaks about “sons of god Resheph who are to fly high.” God Resheph was the personification of infectious diseases and his sons, sons of Resheph, were germs flying about like sparks from a fire able to spread and set up further fires. It makes so much sense!
      Modern doctors and bronze age religious wisdom poetry meet. Our human minds and our languages are keen to personify our adversities. It helps us to process our fears, our helplessness, our anger, our grief but also to find resolve and keep our hope.
      Join us this Sunday when we continue listening to stories about Jesus’ healings. This Sunday Jesus will deal with the personified fever and bring us hope and even new vision and resolve.
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And a caveat: I hope it is clear that I did NOT imply in any way that our current pandemic is God’s judgement or any form of punishment. God Resheph cannot and must not be confused or identified with God of our faith who is God of resurrection and life. 
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And an observation - When I mentioned those sons of Resheph, who were flying about like sparks from a fire high and wide and able to spread and set up further fires. Have you noticed? The Bronze Age poets in their mytho-poetic way had a better grasp, better understanding of infectious diseases than our president and his government. More and more I am convinced it is not a matter whether you think scientifically or mythically, the main thing is whether you are thinking at all!

2020/04/30

Touching a leper

Statue at the St. Joseph Church on Moloka'i
In the time of rampant Anti-Catholicism among British as well as American Protestants a faithful son of the Scottish Reformation defended publicly a Roman Catholic priest against the slander by the Congregationalist clergyman.
            It happened in 1890. The defender was the author Robert Louise Stevenson. The Roman Catholic Priest was father Damien of Molokai who recently died and the slanderer was Rev. Charles McEwen Hyde, an elite clergy among Congregationalists who was educated at Union as well as Princeton Seminaries.
            In the center was Father Damien’s selfless work in the leper colony on the island of Moloka‘i. When father Damien came to Moloka‘i the afflicted people were more or less dumped in the secluded Kalaupapa peninsula and left there to die. Damien was deeply moved by the plight of those in the quarantine. He gave himself to them, lifted their spirit, organized the community and made sure that the outside word would not forget about people quarantined there.  While caring for those most vulnerable and shunned by the rest of society he himself was infected with the Hansen’s Disease and eventually died of it.
            Damien was accused by Protestants for being self-appointed, headstrong, reckless and dirty (not hygienic enough) friend of the lepers. R.L. Stevenson defended Damien’s intention, his good heart, his selflessness, his faithfulness to God while his squeamish accuser would not set even a foot in the colony. Writing to Damien’s accuser Stevenson also predicted “if (in future the) world at all remember you, on the day when Father Damien of Molokai shall be named Saint, it will be in virtue of one work: your (slanderous) letter.” That is exactly what happened in 2009 when Father Damien was canonized. 
            This Sunday we will see that Damien had a direct and heavenly model in his endeavor of returning dignity to the sick. This Sunday we will rejoice in Jesus who broke quarantine rules and yet also kept them. But he above all transformed and humanized quarantine rules. Join us in worship of Jesus in quarantine.

And here is the open letter by Robert Louise Stevenson.
St.Joseph church built by Father Damien in Moloka'i his statue is standing next to it.
   

2020/04/23

What Would Jesus Do with his blood?

I have been a minister in America for almost twenty years and I have studied theology and religion for twice as long. But there are still moments of utter bewilderment over some aspects of American religiosity.
           A lady was captured on camera leaving an evangelical megachurch in the middle of a pandemic. She was clearly flouting quarantine rules. When she was challenged by a reporter about the dangers of infection she asserted emphatically and repetitively that nothing could possibly happen to her, because she was “covered in the blood of Jesus”.
         It gave me a pause. What a unique religious statement! It likely came from some feverish evangelical hymn. Still, what a strange and violent religious image! Some Voodoo (or Santeria) blood rituals come to mind but there is hardly enough blood for sprinkling. The closest religious parallel to being covered in blood could be taurobolium. That was an ancient practice in which initiates were showered with the warm blood of a bull which was sacrificed right above them. This ritual was also supposed to give participants astonishing supranatural powers or protection.
        I know that that lady was not covered by any visible physical blood. She meant it metaphorically and she almost certainly never heard about the ancient rituals. But parallels are uncanny.

Join us this Sunday in worship. We will ask: What would Jesus do? What would Jesus do with his blood in the midst of Pandemic? Join us in worship to reject selfish magical potions, join us to rejoice in true self-giving love.

2020/04/15

Hortulanus redivivus (Gardener revived)

Imagine the resurrected Jesus coming to you with a spade or a hoe! That is exactly the image you can find in many medieval paintings, book illuminations and on stain glass windows.
            It goes back to one ephemeral side sentence from the Gospel of John when Mary Magdalene did not recognize the resurrected Jesus and it explains “Supposing him to be the gardener.”
            But it is more than just explaining her mistake, her temporal blindness. It is a beautiful example of early Christian typological exegesis tying together the resurrected Jesus with the story of the Garden of Eden.
            But to me it has an even deeper function. This one sentence connects the Easter message with the beautiful, deep and meaningful ancient mythological tradition of humankind as a caring and gentle gardeners of our beautiful planet.
          This story of hortulanus redivivus will help us celebrate, the second Sunday of Easter, and at the same time Earth Day.

          Let us join our resurrected Lord and recommit ourselves to  cultivating and growing hope in the garden of this beautiful world.
Here is a link for our virtual worship on livestream:
https://livestream.com/rutgerschurchnyc/events/8967087

2020/04/02

Hosanna in 2020

Each Palm Sunday we gather on Broadway in front of our commercial building and then we process to our Sanctuary waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna.
            This year I could not find any palms, but I’ve got these lovely tulips at our local bodega (They still carry flowers even now, bless them!). In the midst of this COVID pandemic we need to stay at home. And thus we cannot gather and shout our Hosanna on Broadway and along the 73rd Street. But we have an even stronger reason to shout our Hosannas in our virtual, electronic worship. Because Hosanna in the original Hebrew is not a sound of rejoicing (as often wrongly perceived). It was, and still is, a desperate pleading for help.
            HOŠIAH (הוֹשִׁ֘יעָ֥ה) - is an intensive causative DO SAVE! DO HELP (US) and NA (נָּ֑א) is an enclitic particle indicating intensity or desperation FINALLY, AFTER ALL, (WE) BESIEGE YOU!
              Hosanna is thus a deeply felt request Do help (us), (we) beg (you)!
            And Jesus did exactly that. He came to Jerusalem to help and save and he started with cleansing the Temple: cleaning religion. And that is what we will do this coming Sunday. We will pray HOSANNA - DO SAVE US, WE BE BEG YOU! And we will let Jesus clean our religion, starting at the center of our faith - our understanding of what Resurrection meant and can mean today. 
Join us in worship this Sunday at our livestream: https://livestream.com/rutgerschurchnyc

2020/03/19

Fragrance of divine love

On the south slopes of Mauna Loa, in the place appropriately called Wood Valley is this beautiful old Buddhist Temple surrounded with verdant tropical forest.
            We love to visit this little colorful temple. Once we even stayed there for few days in a room where the Dalai Lama slept several months earlier. We love to visit Marya and Michal, the soft and kind spoken temple keepers. We love to visit it for its unique atmosphere. For me that atmosphere is shaped by a mild yet deep whiff of incense. You can hardly recognize it directly in the air, but every piece of wood breathes out that ages old scent of prayers.
            Indeed, there is something to be said about fragrant worship! For starters it is a subliminal reminder that faith and worship is about more than just intellect. The Bible also takes incense burning for granted in both the Old Testament as well as the New one.
            AIR will be our theme this Sunday, and incense makes air visible and deeply sensual. Join us this Sunday, in this time of fear and anxiety, in a time of pandemic, join us again through our livestreamed video (https://livestream.com/rutgerschurchnyc) to worship with us, seeking together calm and hope.
            And if you want to actively participate, prepare a stick of incense of your choice, or a scented candle or just any candle as we seek reassurance of loving fragrant divine breath.

2020/03/12

Eternal Flame

The Ancient Greeks had very special and peculiar customs around fire. (For instance the Olympic flame could be an example with which modern people can be familiar.)  
       Those customs were controlled by a powerful goddess Hestia. She was a divine patroness of family and city hearths. She might be mentioned in hardly any mythology, and thus quite obscure, but she was venerated by every Greek family and city.
        An important part of her veneration was keeping her fire pure and ever-burning. Keeping family and city fires was not a chore it was an important religious duty and important cult. No foreign fire was allowed. And when family was moving or when the city was starting a daughter colony they would take the original fire with them.
       The Biblical ancestors did not venerate Hestia, they did not need to. YHWH/Adonai/the Lord - our God was also closely associated with fire. And the Bible contains a number of hints of similar practices like we know from Greece (or other cultures).
       When Abraham went for his infamous sacrifice in the land of Moria he took not only his son, and a knife, not only wood but also fire from his home (Genesis 21). And later when rough priests tried to introduce some foreign fire to the YHWH cult they were severely and exemplarily punished. (Lev 10)
       This Sunday we will concentrate on the positive aspect of fire in our faith tradition. Join us this Sunday when we discern and rejoice in the miracle and mystery of a divine eternal flame.  

Because of the viral pandemic our worship will be broadcast from our sanctuary over the internet.
And here is the link to our video-streaming webpage: https://livestream.com/rutgerschurchnyc.
March 15 worship bulletin is here while hymns are here.

2020/02/27

Divine potter

In Ancient Egypt, one of the oldest deities (as old as five thousand years ago) was a god Khnum (In Egyptian iconography he was portrayed with the head of a ram). Khnum was a patron of the sources of Nile and he also brought the annual floods and with them new clay and thus fertility of the land. But Khnum was also responsible for creating people from the very same clay. He was often depicted shaping humans on the potter’s wheel.
            Why do I mention this ancient Egyptian mytheme? Because it is also present in the Bible and can enrich our faith and inform our life. A number of times we hear about God creating or shaping humans out of clay and breathing into them life (Gen 2:7). Then prophets Isaiah (Isa 45:9) and Jeremiah (Jer 18) assert divine authority over human destiny comparing it to the authority of potter over the clay.
            And even in the New Testament Apostle Paul (2Cor 4:7) will use this same image while writing about us humans as clay pots to which God entrusted safekeeping of the gifts of faith, light and grace.
            I like this pottery image, it connects us with one of the oldest metaphors and with the beginning of our civilization. I love this ancient image because it also reminds us of our connection with earth and all its creatures. 
            This image also goes back to the very roots of the Hebrew language and its vocabulary: the word for earth (as a substance, as clay) - is אֲדָמָה - ADAMAH and it shares the same root with אָדָם - ADAM which is a name of the first human being but also a generic name for all humans.
            In the Hebrew language Adam is phonetically an earthling and thus all of us, humans, are all also earthlings. We are inseparably bound with earth, its soil and all its creatures. This is one of the oldest religious insights, something you might not know about the Bible and something we will embrace and celebrate this upcoming Sunday.

2020/02/14

Living, evolving God

In the Bible God is often called “Living God” in Hebrew 'elōhîm chaiyîm, 'elōhîm chai, or 'ēl chai once or twice even as chai yhvh. That is an interesting epithet. Behind it is the belief that God is not only a source of life, but also sustainer of life.
            But there might be more to it, the “Living God” remains a surprising, puzzling expression.  You might say that it is just a metaphor, a comparison, but even so - the main characteristic of the “living” is the ability to change with circumstances, the ability to change, respond, adapt and evolve.
            Thus the Living God is by definition a God who is changing in response to circumstances.
The Living God is by definition the Evolving God. That is the difference between God of stiff fundamentalists who characterize God as omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, eternal and unchanging. In fact it is even worse than a piece of stone because even granite changes over time.
            But the Biblical God, is NOT such a dogmatic monster. God of our faith is the living God. Living God in the relationship with the living world. God is reacting, adapting, changing, evolving.
            Join us this Sunday as we celebrate Charles Darwin and his discovery of evolution -
this fundamental principle of life. Join us this Evolution Sunday as we celebrate the miracle of our living, breathing evolving world and our living, co-evolving God.

2020/01/30

True Cyrus

Cyrus' Babylonian Cylinder
How could a major biblical prophet call a pagan emperor the Messiah?!
      Well, that is exactly what the prophet Isaiah did (Isa 45:1) when he called Persian Emperor Cyrus the Messiah (הַמָּשִׁ֧יחַ -- the anointed one) of the LORD.
      As strange as it might sound, Isaiah had a good reason for it and it was not only the liberation of the Judeans captives from the Babylonian exile and Cyrus’ decree allowing them to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Many other nations and peoples also recognized and welcomed this benevolent nature of the Persian rule.
      The Persian ethos was summed up by the Greek historian Herodotus (The Histories 1.136.2a) when he wrote that Persians taught their youth these three things: "To ride well, to shoot straight and to speak the truth." It might sound militaristic but it was certainly more than that, it was in essence more tolerant and cosmopolitan. 
        Join us on this Scout Sunday when we will discern how this triad corresponded with border Persian religious and cultural tolerance and made Isaiah call Cyrus the anointed one of the LORD.
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- And for those who read this far, here is a podcast about an almost identical theme - "I am the chosen one".
-- Another podcast about religious and spiritual influence of Persian religion over Judaism and Christianity - Persia in Jewish/Christian religion. 
--- And for instance here is an older column about Jewish Temple in Elephantine in Egypt which stood and was rebuilt/restored during the Persian period - Jewish Temples.

2020/01/16

Gathered to ancestors

When I was a little child, my maternal grandmother Emilie would often take us children for a walk in the cemetery. I hated it ... until I learned that she had lost her mother early on in her life. Then I understood.
            Later I studied theology and eventually received a doctorate in anthropology. And now I visit cemeteries on my own. In any place I live or go, I also try to visit local cemetery. Archeologists famously like to dig burials, but you can learn so much even without breaking the ground! Cemeteries are such a rich resource to learn about the living, about their culture, languages, and their society, about their struggles, their religion, their piety, their values, their lives. Sometimes it is inspiring and sometimes it is profoundly sad.
            When I moved to NYC, I discovered an impressive cemetery in New Jersey, very nicely laid up in an impressive grand scale design. It is called George Washington Memorial Park in Paramus. It was founded in the 1930s and for decades it was operated and strictly enforced as a white only place. This designation was changed only in 1958 after a human rights lawsuit. What a horrendously sad testament about suburban racism!
            But thankfully there are also happier cemeteries founded in and shaped by true and deep Christian faith. I caught a glimpse of it this Christmas in Bethlehem PA. In their God’s Acre - the oldest cemetery in the town - the ancestors of any race rest together side by side. That is for me a dream, a vision and an example showing us through the testament of a cemetery what a true community of faith can be and do!
            Join us this Martin Luther King Sunday when we remember and celebrate an inclusive community of God’s children.

2020/01/10

The Word of God?

This is the Bible I inherited from my paternal grandfather Rev. Emil Stehlik.



It was translated from the original languages and published in MDLXXXVII (1587) clandestinely by Unitas Fratrum (Moravian Church).


It survived the period of harsh contrareformation (1621 - 1781) and while in hiding the title page and several pages of the foreword were damaged and painstakingly redrawn and rewritten.



It is a study bible. It has substantial critical textual apparatus, translation notes and well chosen cross-references. And my ancestors used it for their bible study - there is substantial underlying and even written notes by several hands.


      It is only the volume four of a six volume set - this one contains the prophetic books and when I preach on Isaiah or Habakuk I still sometimes look into it for exegetical insights of my ancestors (they can be illuminating).
      This family Bible is our great treasure, in its form and shape is preserved an uneasy history of my ancestors but also their theological heritage - heritage of theological thinking and seeking. They clearly treasured their bibles, hiding them from confiscations, hiding them for diligent study. But as valuable as the bible can be, it is NOT the Word of God. Any bible only points towards the true Word of God, which became flesh. And that would be the theme of our worship this Sunday - the preexistent divine LOGOS which became flesh and is shaping nd reshaping the universe through light and life.