The Wise

It’s rare that I post anything I think about that’s more religious than philosophical, in part because I don’t feel comfortable sharing my faith much outside direct conversation with other people.  There are certain pieces of myself that are not for public consumption, despite the fact that I typically share just about anything with people if I can do so directly at a place and time of my own choosing. However, at certain moments sharing is necessary, even if only in an online and therefore somewhat distant manner.

One appropriate occasion for sharing comes from my first visit to the church where my youngest sister is now working.  The church itself is not my focus, nor is the sermon from her senior pastor – instead it was the “children’s moment” that grabbed first my mind and then my heart with a single comment.  In speaking about the Christmas story, one of the groups of people mentioned along with Mary, Joseph, the cow, angels, and shepherds was the wise men.  Specifically, the astrologers or magi who brought three gifts.

What was most pertinent to my mind however was not any of that, but the mere statement made that although the Bible states three gifts were given, we have no idea how many wise men were actually present.  I was suspicious of this at first, because I seemed to remember that somewhere somewhen someone had named the individuals present and that there were three.  Perhaps we just think that wise men had figured out that things work better when each person chips in on the gifts.

It did make me think about just who the wise men were and what role they would have played in their societies at that time.  A person who can afford to drop everything and wander off following celestial movements is not a person tied down with everyday reality.  Such people are seekers, like me, who quite possibly will never be satisfied.  I struggle to find fulfillment, especially at this time of year, in my life choices and lifestyle, in my faith, in my sense of purpose, and in my relationships.  I remain often not quite satisfied, which can be a source of consistent frustration.

Yet it is also a gift.  My inner restlessness has prompted me to not settle for a mundane existence.  I have done many things that others have not and never will.  I have traveled, lived abroad and in various cities across the U.S., experimented with multiple professions, learned, taught, changed, and thrived in a variety of environments.  And while all that movement can chafe at times, it has also made me something greater than I would otherwise be, something I can’t quite see clearly from the inside.  It will continue to transform me, and even though I will continue to struggle with the amount of change and questioning and self examination and development I take into my life regularly, I embrace the fact that I will in some manner be continually unsatisfied with my life.

Most of all I hope that that seeking means I will be able to give my own gifts to others due to those experiences and that continuing search.

The New Pilgrim and Pope BXVI

I have my own struggles with religion and faith and what exactly it all means.  I think that’s healthy.  I think not questioning your beliefs is what leads to hidebound thinking and intolerance.  One of the things I constantly question is the way faith is portrayed in a ‘modern’ light.  I feel uncomfortable with the rock-band services held in church basements where everyone knows the words to modern Christian ballads.

A part of this discomfort comes from my first experience with such a service.  One of my high school friends, Cortney, took me to her church one Wednesday night.  Everyone was really excited and happy to see each other, and the pastor seemed nice.  He gave a good lesson about not becoming to attached to possessions, which I firmly agree with.  Then they had the planned stuff-bashing.  Everyone was supposed to bring something to ‘give up’, and they brought it forward to destroy it with hammers, scissors, and knives.  The idea was that all that bashing would really help you let go of some of your stuff.  It got really emotional and people cried about being to attached to things.  Even guys cried.  Cortney confessed to me later that she’d brought a couple of CDs she didn’t really like.

I just remember being annoyed and offended by the whole thing.  The crying was ridiculous.  Most people were only pretending to ‘get the point’ and were just having a little destructive fun.  And even if everyone was really as emotionally involved as they seemed, why were we wasting all these goods by destroying them?  Shouldn’t we be donating this stuff to the poor, or getting some use out of it?  I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t preach for us to burn all our worldly goods in a fit of emotional angst.

The recent Roman Catholic ‘World Youth Day’ in Sydney strikes me as in the same vein.  Yes, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your faith, and yes, it’s great that as Christians people are embracing new technology as well as sharing their faith.  Still, somehow, a text from the pope reading “The Holy Spirit gave the Apostles and gives u the power boldly 2 proclaim that Christ is risen! – BXVI” doesn’t seem all that inspiring.  And the excitement and actions of such a large gathering trouble me.  I worry about mob mentality, in particular in a spiritual context.  I worry that expanding technology detracts from the search for inner truth and self-awareness, rather than adding to it.

Ultimately, I have no wish to disparage anyone else’s attempt to come to an understanding of the world.  Still, I wonder how many of us really examine our own attempts, really evaluate them on a daily basis.  I cannot judge – I will leave that to someone else.  Still, I worry about it.

The Poetry of the Soul

Why is it that certain circumstances bring out the artist in us?  I’m not talking about the inspiration of comparison, the excitement we get at seeing another’s creative work and wanting to do something just as good ourselves, which has half-prompted my recent attempts at song writing and video making (none of them finished yet).  I’m speaking instead of something more nebulous, perhaps the touch of a good Muse, overflowing us with creative juices.

I slept later today than I have in some time, until 1:30 pm, probably catching up on some much-needed rest.  I dreamt for the first time in as long as I can remember, something about a very angry shortish man, possibly Asian, maybe an irritable Genghis Khan, who I had to placate and attend to.  Now I can’t sleep, unable to relax and distracted by a host of wayward thoughts, some of them with no relevance to my waking life.  These nighttime distractions scurry around in my head, chasing each other with new permutations and wordings.  Eventually, I have an entire complete poem (though I’m not sure it’s any good, my perception being hazily on the edge of sleep) running around in my head.  What can I do but get up from my comfortable bed, turn the light on again, and search out the supplies to write the whole thing down?  If my mind is flowing with milk and honeyed words like the promised Canaan, what can I do but spit them all out in a tasteful kind of word-vomit?  Would anything else be a denial of my ‘gift’?  Or will such midnight writing prove to be a black mark against my reputation as a writer in the morning light?

I cannot at the moment judge.  If I should die before waking, as some midnight paranoias have whispered in my head, some other hand will have to seek out my night’s frantic scribbles and decide for themselves.  All I can do for now is spit forth what I have bundled and packaged, and hope that these dribbles my soul has chosen to leak out now have some eventual worth.  Perhaps the writing will at least allow me to sleep, quieted in the comfort at having done something at the end of the day.

How much freedom?

While I am a Christian, I am one of those who also believes in religious tolerance.  I believe in setting a good and faithful example, yes, but I am not a proselytizer.  If you are curious, I will share my faith with you.  If you have a faith of your own, I am eager to discuss where we might agree or have differences.  While I plan on raising my children in my own faith, I don’t expect that they will maintain that belief as adults.  Even my own children should eventually have the right to choose.  I am probably among the minority in this expectation, but I think it’s a good minority to belong to.

Elsewhere the same kind of tolerances have been coming under fire.  A book burning that may have happened accidentally highlights the tensions and restrictions on religious action in modern day Israel.  Though the original initiative was simply to collect Messianic and Christian literature distributed in the area, it ultimately included a large number of New Testaments that were burned.  But the question comes as to why these documents were collected in the first place.  Should Christianity have no place in a mostly Jewish community?  Were the local people simply trying to protect their own faith, with results that spiralled out of hand?

It is one thing to protect your children and your home from influences you don’t want.  It is another to bar these same influences from a community.  Raising a child means educating them to the extent that they can make wise decisions for themselves.  It does not mean sheltering them with the idea of protecting them their entire lives.  In some cases, the protection might be necessary for awhile, but should ultimately be eliminated.  Take China for example, and the government’s laws against proselytizing.  When I’m accosted on the train by someone handing out leaflets who sees my cross and wants to talks, I wish we had a similar law.  I wonder if that’s childish of me, and whether I by now should simply be able to deal with people on my own, or at what point my right to privacy and my right not to listen should outweigh another’s right to speak or advocate for what they believe.

Designer God

It’s been some time since I said anything on this blog about God, or religion, or any of the more spiritual things that interest me.  And then I read this post, and I was caught again in that whirlwind, at least for a moment.  I am steady in my own faith at the moment, and as a result, am consistently fascinated by the beliefs of others.  Shape + colour mentions the way the site design has attracted her despite her initial lack of interest in the subject matter.  And there’s something very interesting in that draw, as typical attempts by religion to ‘reach out’ to a certain demographic end up feeling slightly sleazy.  What makes this site different?  Is it only the design?  Is it the attempted broadness of appeal to all faiths and belief systems?  Is it the idea of a truly universal and sympathetic community?

But the story continues.  While the graphics and site design may be one thing, the prayer postings and comments themselves are another.  They driven things, forced out by our own worries, self-doubts, or frustrations.  They are full of questions as well as calls for aid and support, or affirmations of life and knowledge and faith.  And that’s a beautiful thing, no matter what you feel or believe personally.  It has a bit of the flavor of what I most like about the world: truth.  Truth expressed in a multiplicity of ways and embellished and shown more fully and completely by all kinds of art.  I want to write it all down and capture the truest moments of my life and the lives of others.  I want truth so powerful it slaps you around a little before sucking you in completely.  Maybe this website will promote a little of that.  Even though I was not able to find out much about who was responsible for backing it, I hope it does.

The Faith of Tiny Sticks.

Today in church our ministers discussed their recent trip to Jerusalem.  As we are a fairly progressive church, they aimed to include all aspects of the city:  The muezzins with their early-morning cries, the segregated structure of the city itself, the way belief and power shaped and continues to shape its people.  All in all, it was an interesting sermon and discussion.  However the key image that stood out in my mind was that of the Western Wall, and the way many of different faiths treated it in such differing manners.  There were accounts of dancing, singing, crying, silent or loud praying, the outstretched hand gently and reflectively stuffing a prayer paper into a crevice.  It made be thing of faith generally and the way it impacts our daily lives.

Modern science might lead to you understand that faith is not a powerful force in the universe – instead, it is merely an imagining of our own minds.  Even if it does not truly reflect the existence of some higher power however, it remains powerful, at least in regards to each of us individually.  Faith can lift and exalt the highest wishes and best dreams we have, for both ourselves and our world.  In addition, a lack of it can lead us to the deepest despair, squashing what light we have in the time given to us.

In China, wherever there is a ledge or overhang, it is supported by hundreds or thousands of thin red sticks.  These are placed into the crack or cracks as small silent prayers, or tokens of faith, a kind of moral propping-up of the rock.  It is unclear as to whether or not those who place these sticks actually believe they preserve the structure of the ledge, but I have yet to see one that has fallen.  Perhaps they know something we don’t.

This same sort of perhaps fanciful occult knowledge is seen in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco canyon.  This particular ‘Great House’ was sited directly beneath an overhanging ledge that threatened the building.  Perhaps of reasons of the natural dominance of the overhang, or perhaps because the faith of the builders in their own engineering prowess, the site was still used, though the overhang was structurally reinforced at the time of the Pueblo’s building (and possibly subsequently).  Of course, when later stonemasons attempted to correct the weathering and erosion damage to the overhang in 1937, the work was fruitless – collapse ensued just a few years later due to heavy rains in the area.  Which leads me to wonder if earlier engineers knew something basic about the stone and perhaps natural area flooding that later generations had lost.  Perhaps they had a greater faith in the viability of their efforts.

The questions remains to me to what extent belief can impact the natural world.  We fight for it, we die and kill for it, and yet many say the beliefs we hold so dear to our hearts are not real in the truest sense of the word.  What then is its meaning, its existence, or its true worth?

Rediscovering Amity.

Amity is defined as ‘friendship’ or ‘peaceful harmony’ or “mutual understanding and a peaceful relationship, esp. between nations; peace; accord.”  But what does this type of friendship mean?  Is peaceful harmony the simple respect of leaving one another alone, or is there something more to it?  Does amity require the type of friendship that implies helping out with the hard times, as well as celebrating the good?  Does it require a deeper kind of agreement, or at least understanding, on issues of faith, morals, politics, or education?

Amity is also the name of the foundation I worked with during my time as an English teacher in China (which I was surprised to discover blogging on WordPress, just like me).  The organization is Christian in a country that is largely not, a country that actively prosecutes outside proselytizing.  It is also one of the longer running voluntary nonprofits in the country, which is a part of what originally led me to join the organization for a time.  Ultimately though I would say my experiences there were more to my advantage than theirs.

China gave me many opportunities.  The free time to write.  The forced need to interact with a culture different than mine, in a different language setting.  The experience of teaching.   The time to reflect a little on what I wanted to do with my life.  The feel-good of doing good for others.  And for that, I am and will continue to be grateful.
It’s something I can always pull out and look at and say ‘hey, I was a part of something great,” no matter what the rest of my life may or may not amount to.

Easter

It seems that the Lenten season for me has been an altogether odd time. I’ve withdrawn somewhat from church activities and found it increasingly hard to get input and help from the 20s/30s group I’m supposed to be moderating. Also, the continuation of cold, bad weather have made me less eager to go outside, despite the lengthening of the days. Perhaps I’m on my own little time apart in the wilderness, but it seems that Lent should be a season of getting closer to God, and I feel I’ve failed that in isolation as well.

But there are still touches of grace and contemplation. At a recent classical concert I attended, I realized how much beauty there has been in the name of religion. Looking at the Western world, I see music, painting, and architecture all developed for the glory of religion. I think about Eastern thought, developed alongside religious practice. I think about the way politics and religion have mixed, both for the betterment (Mother Theresa) and the detriment (the Crusades) of mankind. True, these things probably could have happened even without religion, but it’s uplifting to think something I like spurred those good parts. At that same concert, I found out that Mike didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘hosanna’, which I translated as meaning ‘praise’, or something similar. I was not all that sure about a concrete definition myself, so I decided to look it up, and it does mean praise or acclamation.

Also the concert reminded me about what I know and love about my home church.  I miss the Christmas Eve services with the sactuary lit only by the light of a thousand tiny small candles.  I love the symbolism of taking those tiny lights back with us into our lives – I never want to blow mine out.  Next week I will once again miss our congregation ending the service by singing the Hallelujah Chorus.  The thought of all those voices lifted in song, a powerful wave of sound and togetherness, moves me.  While it’s true that some of us sing better than others, the general cacophony does serve to blur out the flaws any individual voices might have.  Mostly we’re on-pitch anyway – I’ve heard the musical rending that is Chinese church, and I’m not afraid to renew my amazement at our combined voices in the face of that.  Despite our individual shortcomings, for moments like that chorus on Easter Sunday we are all of us beautiful.

But in the end I’m left with nagging worry. Are these little moments enough? Is my life singing to God or with God, or am I just going through the motions? A part of that is guilt I feel from shirking responsibilities that are becoming onerous, but a part of it runs deeper as well. I never want to be the type of Christian who goes to church, gives some money, and thinks that’s enough. I want to learn. I grow. I want to never stop questioning my life and really dig into what it means. I want to feel filled up in faith, and a part of that means continually losing and then reaffirming my relationship with God. Without some of that slipping, there’s no contrast to tell me where I stand. Still, the times in my life like this one when I’m not exactly where I want to be still leave me feeling shaky and unstable in myself.

A story of our own.

I am currently reading Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer for dyslexics.  Meaning, the Watertown Free Library did not have a hard copy available, so I had to check out the book on tape.  Even though this means something like 14 hours of book on tape, I’ve gotten pretty far along.  Of course, most of my co workers have been mocking the giant noise cancellation headphones I’ve been sporting, but that’s ok.  The book’s the thing.

Interesting as I find parts of this  non-fiction book, one of the things that really caught my eye was the proposition of the Church of Latter-Day Saints as the most widespread religion originating in the United States.  While I am unsure how to categorize various other religions, the idea itself is interesting.  Mormonism as a very distinct, North American-centric religion.  Obviously there are certain faith traditions that LDS builds upon, but the same could be said of the relationship of other faiths – Christianity building on Judaism, Islam building on parts of both.

Another point that is mentioned and I find interesting is the idea of appeal in the Book of Mormon.  For those of you who are not familiar with this book (I wasn’t), it’s the story of a lost tribe of Israel and its travels and travails in North America.  While there is no evidence that the story is true, it remains a powerful story.  Despite my own Christian beliefs, I have a powerful sympathy for the stories of faith that fill out and shape our individual lives, and I mean no disrespect when I associate, in my mind, the stories of my own faith with that of the LDS or other stories, myths, legends, and fables.  I find most of them fascinating.

One of the reasons Tolkien wrote his fantastical stories was to give space to English myth and legend that could be understood within a Christian ethic.  He drew from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Finnish, and Classical sources to create something new, different, and wondrous that could be a myth for his own time.  Do we not, as Americans, also need our own myth?

Some would say that the wonder of past ages has been transmuted.  Instead of looking backward to times of legends, miracles, and magic, we are looking forward to new technologies and advances of the human spirit.  Some would say that science fiction fills the space once created by myth, or that comic book heroes and the graphic novel have rightfully supplanted older stories and forms, or that television and film have taken our old dramas to new levels.  But perhaps I want something more encompassing than that.  Perhaps I want something wider, something that everyone, more or less, can relate to.  Is that impossible, within the diversity of our current lives?  Are we so different, now, from who we used to be?  I think those who continue to search for meaning would say no.

Paradox

I was looking around the blogosphere today, looking to see if anyone had caught some nice lunar eclipse photos. My own experience yesterday evening was rather disheartening. Either we caught the tail-end of it, or just the beginning. Either way, it was cold and only covered in some small section, rather than the complete darking I was expecting. Mike still took several long-exposure moon shots, and I’m sure they will turn out to be lovely. Plus, with the delay in setting up each shot, there should be a nice array of the progress of the eclipse itself, catching transitions that are not necessarily apparent to the maked eye (or human patience).

I can remember two previous lunar eclipses. Somehow both of them were cold. The first, most recent experience, was in my final year of undergrad, 2003. I was at a graduation party for a group of my friends, and my parents were also there to celebrate. At some point during the crowded apartment gathering, Sirus reminded us that it was the night of the eclipse. So we dutifully trekked outside to stare up at the sky. We had to walk almost a full block to be able to see a full range of sky, and I had inappropriate shoes on for the walk. But it was oddly nice to stand in the middle of the street and gaze up with my parents and the two other friends who’d braved the cold. The second experience, from my childhood, i can’t quite place in time. I know it was cold, and I know we were on some kind of trip. I can remember myself and my only little sister at the time being carried outside of our hotel rooms. Out in the parking lot, our parents put us down and told us where to watch. For that one I Only remember wanting to be held and warm again, but I’m still glad my parents dragged me outside, half-asleep. The waking insured the memory would stay.

There is something to be said about the delight of those waking moments, when the outside world is always chilly, my that chilliness serves mostly to make you more alert. In watching an eclipse, it seems like the air is always crisp, the world is always quieter, but somehow more vital. It seems to invoke that inner reflection that is a little sacred.

I did also uncover in my recent search a delightful little blog called “The Wiccan Scientist”. My own personal first reaction was ‘a paradox! How lovely!’ The definition of the word ‘paradox’ is “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” (Dictionary.com Unabridged). There are some nice explanations of different lunar eclipse views on it here, but I will take most to heart the closing lines of the posting:

“So, I will find the time tomorrow to spend a few minutes reflecting and giving thanks. Even if you’re not a Wiccan, you might take a minute or two while you’re watching the eclipse to do the same. “

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