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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"Origin Stories"

A baby is lovingly placed by his father in a cozy niche, within a capsule that is about to be propelled into space by a powerful rocket. The father is a scientist who had predicted his home planet was unstable, and would soon explode. The planet’s rulers had ignored the scientist’s dire warnings. The planet was doomed. There was no longer time to save its people from destruction. All the scientist could do was to send his son to a safe place. For years he had been observing a distant planet. The scientist believed that on this planet, bathed in light from its bright yellow star, his son would have amazing powers. The infant would be safe, and could grow to maturity. He could use his powers to protect the people of his adopted planet.

Even as mountains crumbled and seas frothed violently, and a quake caused the ceiling above the baby’s rocket to crack open, the scientist father remained focussed on his task. He kissed his baby, and whispered a blessing. The capsule closed, and the rocket was launched. The last survivor of the planet Krypton was headed to Earth.

That’s the “origin” of Superman. Comic book creators often craft an origin story to explain how the hero gained their powers. They also use the origin story to provide insight into their hero’s motivation.

The origin is an important part of the myth. It provides a pretext for the reader to suspend their disbelief, and enter into the fantasy. If the reader can’t do that, they won’t enjoy the story.

Origin stories have also had a function in religion. Preachers and teachers have used stories of wonder and magic to bolster their claims. It seems to me that in the case of Christianity, we have tended to look back to the time of the first followers of Jesus, and the first few generations of the church, as a time when God was more “hands on” with people.

There is a tendency to suggest, or even come right out and say, that God guided the minds and hands of the human writers of scripture, so that the end product would be perfect. All the claims that the Bible as we know it is “God’s Word, exactly” depend on the “origin” story that God dictated the script to these holy secretaries.

I think I understand why this has happened. People like to be right about things. We want to know that we are on track with God. A confident preacher that can tell us (usually in a booming voice) precisely what God requires can win a huge following. But how does the preacher know? What makes their religious claims any more valid than the preacher down the road, or on a different tv channel? The preacher needs a source for their “rightness”, their moral authority. That’s where the “origin” story of the Bible comes in.

But that “origin” story is just that, a story. It has no basis in fact. More than that, it demeans us, puts us down, in an insidious way. The underlying message of the story is that in the past, God spoke directly to people, but in our time, the only way to know God is through the Bible. This elevates the Bible from being a book, to being something we worship. It suggests that people in our time are not holy, or faithful enough to have the kind of relationship with God that early Christians had, even before the Bible existed.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

An Epiphany Thought

            In the early Christian church, there were two major festivals. Easter was celebrated every time Christians gathered on the Sabbath. The other major festival was Epiphany. I find that this year, I am relishing this season of light, and finding great hope and meaning in the story of the magi. Part of the reason for this is that I have written, with two able collaborators (my kids!) a short puppet play that tells the story of three Hogwarts students who follow a certain star. It will be performed at Trinity on January 29.

            The Epiphany story is also a natural choice for anyone interested in contemplative prayer and the ministry of spiritual direction. I love the following quote from an article by Wilkie Au, from the Review for Religious, in 1989:

God is to be enjoyed not only at the end of the search, but all along the way. The Christmas story of the magi illustrates this truth. God was present to them not only when they joyfully arrived at the cave in Bethlehem, but also in the original stirrings that sent them off in search of the promised Messiah. God’s presence was also experienced in a guiding star that directed them through dark nights and in a dream that warned them of Herod’s threat. They experienced God’s support, too, in the encouragement they gave each other throughout an uncharted search that took them miles from home. God is more present to us than we think.

Our search for union with God is life-long, often a strenuous trek punctuated by dark passages. If we are to persevere, we must take courage in God’s abiding presence all along the way.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

For-GIVE-ness is a gift from God

What I have seen, in my own life, and in the lives of people I love, is that when we feel guilt and regret over things we have done, or things we believe about ourselves are dragging us down, we look for the worst in others, and for reasons to judge others- not necessarily to condemn them, but as a way to not feel so bad about ourselves.

Forgiveness for sin is the way the church has traditionally talked about the problem, but I think the more looming question is how do we accept ourselves, faults and history and all? If we can find the way to self-acceptance, maybe we can be more loving, and accepting, and forgiving of others.
Any resource, any program that can help people move forward in the vital task of self-acceptance, and towards regarding ourselves with even a fraction of the love that God has for us, is worth a look.
One of the most profound books on the shelves in my study is called "The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom from Classic Stories", by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. I originally bought it because it contains over 100 stories drawn from ancient spiritual traditions. I thought it would be a treasure trove for sermon illustrations, and for years, I did not really read the book, I dug through it, seeking gems that would add lustre to my preaching efforts.

I actually owned this book for almost 20 years before I realized why "The Spirituality of Imperfection" contains all those great stories. It is because the purpose of the book is to show that Alcoholics Anonymous is a contemporary embodiment of many aspects of those ancient spiritual traditions.
When I began to read the book rather than just browse it, I discovered that the stories are not the only treasures within its pages. There is a lot in this book on the topic of forgiveness:
"The main spiritual shift that takes place in the event of being forgiven/forgiving is thus a new experience of self; blaming others falls away, and we begin to accept primary responsibility for who we are. Forgiveness comes when we let go of the feeling of resentment by surrendering the vision of self-as-victim. If we have been injured, we no longer experience the injury as a barrier to relationship. Instead, we see the injury in the perspective of our own imperfection: how can we expect anyone else to be perfect if we ourselves are imperfect? Within that understanding comes the profound realization that that we have been forgiven for our own imperfections. And then there follows, in time, a second and equally profound internal transformation: we understand that we have already forgiven others.
Thus it is that we do not forgive; instead, we discover forgiveness in both its forms- both that we have been forgiven and that we have forgiven. Spirituality's mutuality holds true here as everywhere: We are forgiven only if we are open to forgiving, but we are able to forgive only in being forgiven- we get only by giving, and we give only by getting."(page 222)
There is a reminder here that forgiveness is a grace, a gift that comes to us from God, and is meant to flow through us:
"we are capable of forgiveness only if we are acted on by some reality outside of, beyond, and in some way greater than ourselves." (page 223)