The Methodists vs. Gays or What Should a Christian Believe?

The Methodist powers-that-be have just voted against gay rights in their Church.  No gay ministers, no gay marriage performed by any minister.  People are in tears. Teeth are being gnashed and garments rent.  A big step backward, they say. There are protests. Should the progressives go their own way? Will the Methodist Church split up?

Of course they should split up! Why isn’t that obvious? Listen, it all comes down to this:What should a Christian believe?

The most important divisions now in the Christian Churches are not between Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox,   they’re between the “I believe Jesus was a supernatural Being and every word in the Bible is true” Christians and the “I believe Jesus was a supernatural Being but some of what is in the Bible can be ignored” Christians.  The third important non-Christian group is “I don’t believe the Bible comes to us from a supernatural Being, but it may contain some valuable precepts.”

So if you’re in the first group, you take the Bible and you open it to the passages where homosexuality is condemned and voila! There it is.  Argument over.  If you’re a picker and chooser, stop complaining about losing your Church and go join the Unitarians who went through all this long ago and decided to welcome gays in their congregations, or maybe you should start your own church after editing out what you see as the nonsense in the Bible.

But what will be your gauge when you start to throw stuff out of the Bible? This is the same dilemma faced by reformist Muslims, or people of good will of any creed.   Well, the gauge could be what you feel in your heart, but hearts are different and can be confused with your gut and gut feelings often are tied to the culture you grew up in or what book you read that day, so relying on that will result in thousands of little charismatics who, guru-like, gather followers around their particular brand of faith.  This is where we get into cults.

But if you’re going to rely on something more rigorous than your heart, then what will it be?  Using the current imbroglio for insights into this question, the losers’ argument would seem to be that Jesus accepted everyone, no matter who they were, and so should we.   His message was love, which means compassion.  At this point we could have an argument about what Jesus wanted,–yes he was about love, but he also was about sin–and we could cite various chapters and verses, and debate the translation of a particular Greek word from the New Testament, but this would be pointless because the Bible is full of contradictions. The bottom line is, will you throw out verses that you don’t like or not?  If you’re going with the compassion argument as your prime command, OK, but then you’re choosing to ignore a lot of what is in the Bible.  In fact, you’re now a Unitarian-Universalist.

If you want to go even further in tidying up the Bible, consider joining that third group, throwing out all the supernatural stuff, the miracles, the “parlor tricks” as G.B. Shaw calls them, and look at the Bible as valuable “wisdom literature” and nothing more. Your gauge can now be what I call the Seven Universal Sacraments for starters.  We know what is sacred by looking at what we all share as human beings living together on a small planet, and, yes, compassion, is the key, but not because Jesus said it was, but because we know when we’re surrounded by it we feel “Divine”.

Congratulations, you’re now a Humanist!

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What Pope Francis Should Say to the Arabs

Friends,

Thank you so much for the invitation to take part in this inter-faith conference on the Arabian Peninsula, on land sacred to the prophet Mohammed and all those who follow his teachings.  At this time in history, dialogue between those of different faiths is needed as never before.  All over the world religious unrest, violence, and wars are destroying families and villages, driving people to leave their communities and seek safety elsewhere, but these waves of migration are creating new problems wherever they occur.   No place in the world is untouched by these tragedies.

How can we stop this faith-based violence?  A devout Catholic might say it is simply a matter of everyone turning to God, our God, part of the Trinity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and when all people in the world have recognized the blessed fact that Jesus died for our sins,  that all you need is to believe in Him with all your heart, then at last we will have peace on Earth, good will to all men and women.

But that is not going to happen–

ever–

anymore than all the world is going to turn to Islam or Judaism or Hinduism for their spiritual guidance.

So in the absence of a single religion conquering the world, how are we to stop people from killing each other in the name of religion?

By finding the common ground between all religions.   That common ground is there for all to see.  It begins with the birth of a child—a holy moment if ever there was one—and continues in the nurturing of that child as we shower it with parental love. As the child grows the common ground shifts to the other holy moments of life: sexual awakening, seeking a loving partner, finding friends, the joys of nature and the arts, the loss of those we love through death.  How do we know these are holy moments?   It’s in our hearts as we experience them—we can feel them bursting! It’s the Divine coming to rest inside of us as we forge deep connections with others and with the natural world. Call it God, Allah, or the Holy Spirit—it’s what elevates us to our higher selves.

To find this higher plane we need to talk to each other, and that’s what this conference will begin, I hope. And since we will never agree on all things having to do with our various religions, let us seek those sacred things we can agree on first, and see where it leads.  The first step should not be to build any more churches or mosques or temples.   Instead, let us walk out of this conference, take a moment to acknowledge the beauty of the world around us, and then go hug a baby.  The child’s smile will show us the way.

The Answer to World Peace: New England Contradancing

So many of us are wondering,  is there any hope for the world at a time of deep divisions at home and abroad, between the states and between the sexes?   Well, a resounding “yes!” would ring from anyone’s lips who happened to be at the Milford New Hampshire Town Hall for the monthly contradance on Friday.  Not only was it an unqualified success (as usual) for the local population, it was also a big victory for international relations. Let me explain.

First, for those of you who have never heard of a contradance, it’s an American folk dance, particularly beloved in New England. It’s like the better-known square dance, with a live band of fiddles, banjos, guitars and a caller who shouts out the various moves as the music plays. The dancers are typically in long lines, but sometimes they are in squares of four couples, and there is always a waltz for couples who aren’t afraid to hold each other closer.

The Milford contradance is sponsored by the Recreation Department and is probably the most family-friendly example of this genre of any held in the region.  Amateur musicians are encouraged to bring their instruments and join in with the band. On Friday there were about 20 players, some as young as ten, sawing away on their fiddles or strumming their guitars.  People of all ages were dancing: couples, families with little kids, even white-haired ancestors who can still trip the light fantastic with the best of them.  The caller takes time to walk everyone through the figures before the music starts, so even beginners can feel comfortable.   You don’t have to come with a partner—some people just pair up once each dance starts, and it’s common for girls to dance with girls, or boys with boys. And let’s not forget the snacks, mostly homemade, free for the asking.  It’s a place any New Hampshirite could go to hang out, talk, and have fun on a Friday night without a screen or device to distract them.

But the best part of the evening came when 12 Chinese 7thand 8thgraders with their chaperones came to see what this thing called a contradance was all about.  They are visiting students from a private school in a neighboring town, here for three months studying English and learning about the United States.   Now most kids this age in a strange place with strange customs would be pretty shy about joining in—not these guys.   Right off the bat they rushed to be a part of it, following the instructions as best they could, copying the moves of the Americans carefully.   The people of Milford rose to the occasion and came to them individually throughout the evening to partner with them, or demonstrate a step.  The whole night these Chinese kids were dancing like there was no tomorrow, laughing, grinning from ear to ear and they didn’t stop smiling until the chaperones announced they had to leave at which point they begged to be able to stay till the end.

Dancing and music have a tremendous ability to bring people together. The Sacrament of the Arts intersects with the Sacrament of the Group to create these special moments.  None of these Chinese students will ever forget this night.   Seeing these young people having so much fun was a moment when you could feel proud to be an American—our country at its friendliest, at its most welcoming, at its best.

I couldn’t help contrasting this joyous expression of community, this pure fun and welcoming atmosphere with the hate-filled, paranoid anger leveled at some European students who attended a Trump rally in this same town 3 years ago. For those who are sorry to see America go down that Paranoia Highway, let’s hold onto this image of some visitors from abroad who saw the best of America Friday night in Milford.  It’s a way to save the world, one step at a time.

What Would Jesus Say to the Man in the White House?

As Jesus reminded us way back when, it’s as difficult for a camel to go through the eye of a needle as it is for a rich man to get to heaven.  What’s the answer for a rich man who wants to enter those pearly gates? Help the poor.   Jesus taught us that those who are well off should be giving to those who are not.   It’s called charity, alms, or–to give it a nice glossy feel by putting it in French–noblesse oblige: the privileged have a duty to help those below them.  Jesus didn’t speak French ( He could have, of course, even though it wasn’t invented yet), but noblesse oblige is what he meant.  How far this duty goes and how much to give away is up for discussion, but whatever the answer, it’s not just about money.   Noblesse oblige  also contains the idea that the privileged have a moral duty to set an example of good behavior for the rest of us.

Jesus would need a good month, maybe even a year, to educate the guy in the White House.  He’d have to talk about the needs of migrants at the border, how the poor need health care,  about giving away more of his wealth and how to work on keeping his temper…but what would He say about the treatment of women?

Unfortunately, in our blighted century we have an equally ancient trend that has eclipsed noblesse oblige—the droit de seigneur or ius primae noctus– that charming custom of the Middle Ages that allowed the lord of the manor to bed a village maid on her wedding night while her groom paced in agony outside.  Charlton Heston gave a memorable demonstration of this (the bedding, not the pacing) in a film of the 1960s, The Warlord.  He had come a long way from his Moses and Ben-Hur.

These days le droit has morphed into open season on women for the rich and famous.  Our modern lords of the manor are guys like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and of course the current occupant of the Oval Office, men who seem to think that their wealth, celebrity status and the power that goes with that allows them a free hand to  force their attentions and worse on any woman who strikes their fancy.  Far from setting a good example their attacks have set a new low standard, and a certain type of man is, no doubt, acting out his own predatory fantasies about women by saying  to himself, “if the President has done it, why not me?”

Women are fighting back in all kinds of ways, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could get back to a place where men in the news, especially those we elect to high office, treat women well?  Where they approach them with a courtly dignity?   I understand why Melania might still be hanging on–maybe she believes her son’s welfare is on the line. But  I’m completely baffled by the Vice-President, an Evangelical who agreed to serve with someone so obviously reprehensible in this regard.   Why, would you do that, Mike? What are you telling your kids?

Parents, especially Christian parents, get busy and make sure your children know that the man in the White House is an example of what NOT to do.  Then maybe if enough of you go to the polls and make your disgust known, we can live in a country where the news is not dominated by porn stars, adultery, hush money, groping, rape and lies, lies, lies.

How are Sex and the Arts Alike? James Joyce’s Answer

In Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there is an incredible passage that comes from nowhere.   His “young man” of the title,  Stephen Dedelus, wakes up in the morning with “an enchantment of the heart” after a night in which “he had known the ecstasy of seraphic life.”

He felt words forming in his waking mind, a poem demanding to be born.

“A spirit filled him, pure as the purest water, sweet as dew, moving as music.”

He has transcended to another world, a sublime world, so sweet, so alive with possibilities, so rife with thoughts and images he can hardly bear it.  Drawing on the language of the New Testament Joyce writes:

“In the virgin womb of the imagination the word was made flesh.  Gabriel the seraph had come to the virgin’s chamber.”

Stephen’s experience as he slept brought him “the word” –the rhythms and rhymes of a poem that must be written.  This creative force that brings forth new works of art, music, poetry is the same sacred force that creates new life in the womb of humankind.  The physical union of male and female, and the embrace of the artist and his muse are One.  The Word, the Logos… It’s the story of the creation of the universe, the creation of the Christ child, and the creation of a song.  We are in the presence of the Spirit. It’s glorious.

 

A Wrathful Man Stirreth up Strife: Running Amok in the USA

When those intrepid 15th century Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and headed across the Indian Ocean to the Spice Islands they stumbled across a bizarre phenomenon among the Malay people.   Every so often a man who up to then had been perfectly normal would undergo a change of mood.  He would become withdrawn, then begin to brood. Finally he would pick up a knife or an axe, run into a crowd and proceed to hack and stab total strangers or animals, maiming and killing them indiscriminately until finally committing suicide or being killed by the crowd.   The Malays and Indonesians called this meng-amuk ‘making a desperate charge’ and the person doing the killing was an amuko.    Westerners called it ‘running amok.’

If this sounds familiar, it should.   Suicide bombers in the Middle East are a variant of this sort of madman, delusional fanatics who believe the Creator of the Universe smiles to see them reduce a crowded marketplace to a bloody tangle of body parts.   In the United States the news is full of people running amok, mentally ill people who snap and explode with rage, taking the lives of the innocent in a few murderous seconds.  There are some differences from the old Spice Islanders, however.   The big one is that our amukos have their fingers on a trigger instead of a hilt so the numbers of the victims can be very large. Also, the attacks are often planned and their targets known to the attackers. It might be bosses who they feel slighted them, or members of groups they dislike, but the result is the same with innocent strangers dead or wounded.  There is one other important similarity: they are always men. Psychologists have speculated that running  amok may be a way for unsuccessful males to prove that they are, after all, real men, because what do real men do?  They wield weapons and are able to kill.

It is said that the Malay people accepted running amok as part of their culture, and did not hold it against the amuko.  It is our tragedy that running amok has become a regular part of our culture too, and while we do not forgive the assailant, over the years shock has yielded to a helpless sigh and a shake of our heads as we wonder how we ever got to this place.

What would it take to change that?  As a prelude to an answer, let me suggest as others have that the tone at the top has an enormous influence, and currently we have some very angry men in leadership positions.  You can’t help thinking of the old verse of Solomon: A wrathful man stirreth up strife, but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife (Proverbs 15:18) .  Has there ever been a time in recent memory where so much strife has been so vigorously stirred up and so little attempt at appeasing it?

So what do we  do to make running amok a thing of the past? There’s plenty.

1) Congress: make it much more difficult for people with mental problems to get a gun

2) Health professionals / insurance companies: improve the care of people with mental problems

3) Media : reduce the frenzy around mass murders and he who stirreth up strife

4) All of us:  foster a healthier Spirit—yes, with a  capital S.  If the zeitgeist is currently one of taunts and trolls, anger and angst, invective and paranoia lets work to undo that.    Get off of social media, that slough of conspiracy theories, that echo chamber or hostility!   Be slow to anger and stop stirring it up.  And as far as Solomon’s “appeasement”  goes, it has been an unpopular word since 1939, but in the sense of “reconciliation” it’s one of the most important aspects of communal life, an essential part of the Sacrament of Forgiveness.  Let’s call it “getting along with others” and then it becomes something everyone can accept and work toward.  So let’s get started.

 

The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.

What Would Be the Best Outcome from the Kavanaugh Hearings?

 

The dramatic, depressing stories from 36 years ago that were beamed around the world last week are now stuck in our minds.   Our country has been brought together to witness some gripping political theatre and some horrific personal tragedies.  Anyone with an ounce of compassion must feel the pain of Christine Blasey Ford, and, yes, the pain of Brett Kavanaugh too.  The images conjured up by the hearings will stay with us for a long time: of drunken teenagers, partying in parent-less homes; of a frightened girl attacked and scarred for life; of smug, sophomoric comments in high-school yearbooks; of jocks smirking over supposed sexual conquests and lionizing inebriation. Yes, the hearings brought us together to watch, glued to our seats, only to shatter into warring camps to the drumbeat of fatuous political rhetoric. Pathetic. Disturbing.

I can just imagine the ayatollahs and imams in the Middle East shaking their heads knowingly : “This is why we insist women must wear the veil.  It is the only way to protect them from the lusts of men, and particularly young foolish men, barely out of boyhood.  This is why we forbid alcohol.  Come here, my daughter, and cover yourself from head to toe so that you will not be a temptation for young men to sin.”

But is there no other answer than this? If only we could use this important moment to get at something even greater than a Supreme Court seat: the treatment of women.  The Catholics call marriage a Sacrament, but the act of sexual union itself is what is sacred, or should be, an intimate, beautiful manifestation of love and commitment, not a pastime, not a game.   To think of sex as an appetite to be indulged puts us at the level of the beasts.  Can’t we tune in to our higher selves without entombing women in shapeless cocoons?

Joseph Campbell warned us long ago, that we are society without a rite of passage for young men, and if none exists, they will create their own.  Drunken binges and scoring with girls have become the ritual for too many, especially when boys and young men come together in groups.  We should do all in our power to create a new respect for the Sacrament of Sexual Union.

Here are some suggestions:

Every father and mother should now go to their young boys and say, “Whatever you do in life, always treat women with respect.” Repeat this frequently throughout their adolescence.

Every coach of every team in high school and college should gather their players and insist (as many already do): “You guys are here to be examples to the wider community, so if I hear about any drunken binges, or parties with strippers or hookers, you’re off the team.”

Every president of every college and university should let fraternities and sororities know that the days of worshipping the keg are over. No more Animal House—it’s not funny anymore.

Every captain in the armed forces should meet with their troops and crews: “I know you guys need to relax and have fun, but do it within reason, and men, always treat women as your equals, not as objects, not as prey.”

In the meantime, women, watch out, and fight back.

The Thirty-Years War and the War in Afghanistan

For those of you who slept through World History in high school, listen up now: there was no war more brutal and dehumanizing than the 30-Years War that ravaged Central Europe in the early 17thcentury. The number of deaths, the displaced persons, the burned villages, the mayhem, chaos, cruelty–foreign armies pillaging and raping their way across the countryside—the stories surpass the horrors of any modern war.

Why did they fight?  Religion. The Emperor of Austria, raised by Jesuits, couldn’t bear the idea that so many of his subjects had rejected the Catholic Church and become Protestant. He gathered his armies and sent them out to bring the True Religion back, even though it meant destroying much of his empire. The Protestants, knowing that theirs was the True Religion, fought back furiously and both sides were equally un-Christian—it would be more accurate to say inhuman.

Is there anyone today, from the smallest child to the Pope himself, who looks back on that time and thinks that particular war was justified?   Of course not.  We shake our heads in disbelief and ask ourselves how could anyone professing to be a follower of Jesus Christ turn “love thy enemies” into “Onward Christian soldiers”?   The blindness of the participants is shocking to our modern sensibilities.

And yet that’s exactly what is happening once again in Afghanistan and in the Middle East.  Soldiers have been killing each other for decades, civilians have been slaughtered and raped, entire towns destroyed, and all for what?  So that Islam, the “true religion”, may reign supreme, with the Taliban or ISIS or Al Qaeda calling the shots on what the practices of that religion are.   To be honest, the Western World could most likely live with whatever practices these guys came up with if they would just stay in their homelands.  Let them treat their women however they want, we’d say, and let them pray in their mosques, if it were not for the threat those groups pose to our security.   They are determined to launch terror attacks on us, largely because of the United States’ support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, and even if they promised in a peace conference that they would leave us alone, who would believe them?  The road out of this morass is not yet clear.

But if anything is written in the stars, it is that one day our descendants will look back on this era and once again shake their heads in disbelief at how blind people were: “Our forefathers were sure they had found the true religion and must convince everyone of that at gunpoint.  Madness!  We now know there is no true religion other than that based on the sanctity of our humanity and all of its sacraments.”

 

George Elliot on the Sacraments: What A Way with Words!

I just came across this passage in George Elliot’s first novel Adam Bede written in the year 1859.   In case you’ve forgotten, George Elliot was a pen name for Mary Anne Evans (the pseudonym was to insure that people would take her novels seriously).

Elliott has just described carpenter Seth Bede’s proposal of marriage to Dinah, the pretty young Methodist preacher of the story, but he’s out of luck.  Dinah gently tells Seth her religious duties have to come first—he’s a good man, but she will never marry. Seth is heartbroken, and Elliot, in a beautiful ode to love, lets her sympathy for the poor young man’s unrequited adoration tumble out onto the page, writing that this sort of profound, pure love of a man for a woman is “hardly distinguishable from religious feeling.”   In fact, she writes, all of our deepest feelings of love share this religious quality,

“…whether of woman or child, or art of music.  Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies, all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object, and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.”

That’s it exactly: the divine mystery of the universal sacraments, found in “our emotion in its keenest moment”—the birth of a child, the sexual attraction of our best beloved, the power of the arts, music, and nature transform us from mere primates into something else, something that brings us into the realm of the divine.