Category Archives: spirituality

posts related to God, Christianity, and religion and spirituality in general

Time and Place

The initial rattlings in my brain that are ultimately culminating in this post began doing their thing a little over a year ago. That’s not to say that it’s something I’ve been perpetually thinking about, but it does seem to have been coming to mind a bit more frequently of late. In 2017, just after Thanksgiving, I took a trip out to Burbank, CA, where I had lived for a few years. I wanted to see some of my friends, and I was also really excited to go and visit the church that I had gone to during my time there.

When I had first moved to Burbank (actually, I guess at first I was in Glendale, but, same general vicinity), I knew basically no one. I didn’t have high hopes to find a church that I thought I would like, because I’d tried for years here in MD and was constantly disappointed by what I found – so why should it be different in CA, I thought. Well, as luck, or perhaps divine providence, would have it, my web search yielded a result that sounded pretty promising. I decided to go and check it out.

I immediately fell in love with the place, and the people that I met there. The very first service I was invited to go watch a marathon of the new season of Arrested Development. In a move that was actually pretty uncharacteristic of me, surely driven by my desperation for human contact at the time, I took up that invitation to hang out with a bunch of people that I didn’t know at all – all of whom would become friends of varying degrees for the next few years.

The entirety of my time in Burbank, I considered that church to be a godsend. It was exactly what I needed at that time in my life – and I’m quite glad it was there, and for the friendships that I had, and, in some cases, still have. I needed a place where I was free to doubt. I still need that. It was a place that seemed pretty accepting of everyone, no matter where they stood. There were times during my time there where I felt maybe they leaned a little too heavily into politics, but for the most part, I felt they did a good job of not preaching politics and just helping people to wrestle with their faith.

My memories of the church were very fond, and then, last year, I went to visit. I actually intentionally planned to be there for 2 Sunday mornings because I wanted to go to 2 services there – I was super stoked to go. I tried to make sure that people knew I’d be there as well, so they could plan to come to the service if it were at all possible. So, I spent the first day with the friend that I was staying with, and then went with him to church the next day… which is where my disappointment began.

The first thing that I noticed was that the message seemed to be considerably more political in nature than they had been back when I was going there. It still had some of the challenging theological content that I always enjoyed, but seeing the political intermingled with it was distasteful to me. One thing I am quite sure of is that Jesus did not come to endorse any political message – in fact he seemed to avoid it whenever possible – he dealt with humans at an individual level, and left the government to its own devices. It was disheartening to see this. And from the handful of video streams I’ve watched parts of since then, it’s only gotten worse… every time I’ve tried to visit in with the church online, I’m struck by how every week they seem to go after evangelical Christians, and also conservatives. These are the people from whom I actually learned concepts like “othering” – treating people who are different than you as less than, or as the enemy. These are the people I constantly heard talking about how this shouldn’t be done, who criticized evangelicals for doing it to homosexuals, etc. It seems so painfully obvious to me that they are otherizing Christians with more traditional beliefs, as well as conservatives, and they are completely blind to it. I see Facebook posts where some of these people assume to know the hearts of conservatives, and seem to assume the worst possible intent.

The other disappointing thing while I was there was that some of the people who I thought would be excited to see me, or want to talk to me a bit at least, didn’t seem to. There were really two that kind of hit me hard… I mean, it wasn’t like it made me depressed, but I was really bummed by it. One was the pastor, who I had hoped to grab lunch or coffee with – but I’d have settled for just a longer than a couple minute small talk chat during one of the two services I was at – but, that didn’t happen either. The other was one of my friends who I had considered to be one of my closest friends while I was out there – I had let him know well in advance I was coming, and so I was hoping he’d make a bit of time for me – but, again, didn’t happen so much. I’m not saying he’s a bad friend, it’s entirely possible I just always considered him closer than he considered me – I mean, he was way more established out there than I was. It just made me realize that the world has changed, and whatever I had out there really is no more.

I don’t know what the point of writing all this out is, but… I guess maybe just to reflect on what was.


Humbleness

I liked starting with quotes so much I’m going to do it again.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” – C.S. Lewis

“Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be
the cause of suffering to each other.
With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,
and of the suffering that are going on around us,
let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” – Ernest Hemingway

These thoughts come to me as a natural extension of what I was writing yesterday.  One of the more severe problems with progress that I see in the world is that people aren’t truly willing to listen to one another.  It happens on every side of every issue, and of course the reasons for it can vary.  Usually it has to do with assigning that person to a particular group, and categorizing them as an illusory “other”.  That group you have assigned them to is one to which you have already previously assigned some agenda or set of reasons for why they think that thing.  It doesn’t matter what they say, really.  YOU know better.  YOU know the reason why they really feel the way that they do.

It’s not something that I think we are particularly cognizant of.  It is a trap that is easy to fall into.  It is perhaps a byproduct of how busy we are in life… we want to lighten our load by categorizing people so we don’t have to deal with the effort of treating everyone as an individual, genuinely listening with presence and interest to what they have to say.  Even if we are certain that they are wrong.  Perhaps they are, but you will do no harm by genuinely listening and then offering your heartfelt response to what they actually said.  Besides, on any issue you should be willing to accept a small possibility, however unlikely, that you are mistaken, or at least that there might be some new aspect that you may learn from a person who sees it differently.

Another aspect of this superiority complex is when we come across someone who perhaps believes something that we used to believe but no longer do.  Or maybe they simply believe something based on what we see as faulty reasoning.  If only they understood it correctly, they would see how I am right.

This is something that I see constantly.  Among people I know, and among people I don’t.  And even though (unfortunately) I’ve most likely done it myself at some point… it drives me crazy when I see it.  It results in talking down to someone… or talking down about someone when they are not present.  Again, this sometimes is done to certain groups.  Among progressive Christians, it is something that commonly happens concerning those more traditional in their beliefs.  Perhaps those people are missing the point, but when we treat them with contempt by talking down to or about them, we are only furthering the divide and creating a barrier to enlightenment.

We should always start with the presupposition that we know nothing.  That which we think we know, we could easily be wrong about.  Things I once believed quite firmly, I now think are completely wrong.  In another 20 years, I may think those same things about what I believe now.  I cannot know for sure what is true, and so I should not treat with contempt someone who, it seems to me, is behind the curve.  For one, knowledge is not an all or nothing proposition.  It is quite possible that someone I disagree with on fundamentally everything could bring me some form of enlightenment on a particular idea or issue.  As the, perhaps archaic in the digital age saying goes, “even a broken clock is right twice a day”.  Even someone we cannot help but perceive as a “broken clock” has the capacity to teach us, and we should be humble enough to accept them as a potential teacher.

Credibility

Let’s kick things off with some quotes.

“Give up credibility today… it’s the only way forward.  Credibility is you trying to have power over other people.  And if you believe in what Jesus said …which I almost do… You can’t be trying to collect power over other people.  It’s not what He would have you do.” – David Bazan

“”If you meet the Buddha, slay him!”  One is tempted to say to the Christians, “If you meet the Christ, crucify him!”  Such injunctions are indeed jarring, even shocking, but they are advisedly and purposefully so.  For “doctrines” and “holy images” can become just an additional set of encumbrances that prevent one from the direct realization of what they were originally meant to convey.” – Ruben Habito

“I can tell you this, I’ve come to put less stock in what I say I believe. I feel like my affinity for whatever religious group or set of ideas is more provisional or relatively superficial than I might have previously thought.” – Aaron Weiss

 

It probably doesn’t come as a shock to anyone reading this that I am absolutely obsessed with theology, philosophy, and spirituality.  I’m quite certain that I am far from an expert in those matters, but it is something that I can’t get away from.  I talk about it with anyone that I can get to talk about it with me – I read about it at every chance I get – and I think about it all the time.

I first came across that David Bazan quote about a year ago.  I highly recommend checking out the video that it’s from, in which he talks with David Dark – check it out here.  It struck me as immediately interesting and challenging.  In the time since then, I have thought of it off and on, and it immediately came to light more recently when I started reading Ruben Habito’s book Living Zen, Loving God.  Here are a couple relevant passages that brought it to mind:

Such universal availability, the capacity of being all things to all, is only possible to fully emptied person, offering themselves totally without a taint of self-seeking or utilitarian motivation.  Such a person will be to others what they need him or her to be for them.

One who is fully emptied in Zen finds himself or herself in everything, literally, and is able to identify fully with everything, to be all things, and thus to act in total freedom, according to what the particular situation demands.  Such a one is no longer separated by the illusory barrier between himself and the “other.”

I am reminded of a prayer of Jesus, recorded in the Bible in John 17:21-24:

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.  I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.  I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one.  Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.

While his prayer is immediately for those who believe in him, he also says he is praying for those who believe in him because of the words of those who believe – which seems to imply it is also for those who do not yet believe.  Perhaps it is a prayer for oneness for all of humanity, and further, oneness between God, Christ, and humanity.  This idea of oneness, and that there is no such thing as the other, is something that has fascinated me for a long time.  In the words of one of my favorite songs, written by Aaron Weiss

You think you’re you, you don’t know who you are – You’re not you, you’re everyone else.

Or as Ruben Habito puts it elsewhere in his book:

“What the world is, is what you are.”  This is to see things in a way that dissolves the opposition between Ourselves and the “world.”  The “world” is “what we are.”  The world is not something outside of us, something that we view as mere bystanders, lamenting its sorrows and evils.  No, what happens to the whole world as such is what happens to our very own True Selves.  The sickness of the world is our very own sickness.  This is the sickness of the bodhisattva; it is a sickness that is also the hope and salvation of all living beings.  In Christian terms it is the reality of the cross of Christ, the bearer of the sufferings of the world.

If you aren’t familiar with Buddhist terminology, don’t worry too much about what bodhisattva means… you can google it if you’re curious.

It is my feeling, my belief, that these things are literally true.  I am not me, and you are not you.  We are everyone else.  It seems a contradiction, because we know that the self exists, and yet at the same time, from my own experience, the connection between myself and everyone else cannot be denied.  Part of what I have found so fascinating in reading about Zen Buddhism is that it is absolutely full of contradiction.  And so is Christianity.  And I don’t think that is a problem with either of these belief systems.  Perhaps it proves that they are not credible – but credibility is not what either of them is really about.

The more that I study, and think, and learn, the more that I know that I can’t really know anything.  I can’t tell you what is true, because there’s really not any way for me to know what is true.  Is there an afterlife?  I don’t know (I hope so.)  Is there a God?  I don’t know (I think so, but if I’m honest I don’t think I really know exactly what “God” is.)

One of the things I  greatly appreciate about Aaron Weiss is his reluctance to speak with authority on matters such as this.  However, at the same time, it is frustrating to me, because his thoughts on these matters are perhaps those I want to hear most of all – knowing that he has no idea whether or not he is correct.  That is who I want to hear from.  That is why I want to continue to speak and write about these things.  Perhaps I should do so with an admonition: Always keep in mind when I say anything that I don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about.

Giving up credibility is hard.  It means always speaking the truth as you see it, not worrying about the consequences.  That is what I aspire to do.  Perhaps people will think me foolish, or simply wrong.  Both of those are things that I need to be OK with.  My desire to be seen as smart or correct is after all nothing more than a desire to hold sway over someone’s opinion: a desire for power over them.

Tomorrow I’m going to continue along this thought process, and bring in the concept of humbleness.

The Problem of Evil

Usually I only post about things that I feel like I have figured out.  Not necessarily that I know I am for sure right, but that I know exactly what I believe about it and therefore feel comfortable sharing it.  That is not, however, the case with this one.

Really I have only been thinking much of this since yesterday.  I realized that in light of new ways of understanding things, my old model for this doesn’t really make any sense.  I’m not sure it ever really made sense in my old way of understanding either, and I guess not that much changes… because even still mankind’s evil choices only explain a certain amount of evil in the world.  Things like cancer, and birth defects, and natural disasters all seem to be manifestations of evil.

When one understands God to be the one who ultimately makes both the good and the bad to happen.  If you need Biblical support for that, try Isaiah 45:7 – “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”  This idea is present throughout much of the Old Testament.  As these are Jewish scriptures, it is easy to see why a Jewish person would not believe in an entity such as is the Christian understanding of Satan.  God brings both well-being and calamity, there is no need for a figure such as Satan to explain it.

This is quite naturally troubling to us as humans.  This is, after all, supposed to be a God of love, and yet He at best allows terrible things to happen to us (a la Job), and at worst is Himself directly causing those things to happen.  These are things that hurt us and cause us pain, and in the more extreme examples, we cannot see any satisfying purpose in the suffering.  When a young child dies in terrible pain from sickness or from abuse, is there anything that can come of that which would make us see it as not a terrible evil?

This question of evil is a very old one.  It is entirely what the story of Job is about, and Job is believed to be the oldest book of the Bible, dating back to about 1500 BC.  We as humans have been struggling with this idea ever since then, and we are perhaps no closer to understanding it now than we were then.  What is the great reasoning for Job’s suffering in the book of Job?   Apparently so that God could prove to Satan that Job really was a totally loyal guy that would still keep doing the right thing even if his blessings were taken away.  There you have it, as least God isn’t insecure or anything…

Oh, but if that isn’t satisfying enough we go on to get this answer (In Job 38-39):

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed limits for it
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?

12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
    and caused the dawn to know its place,
13 that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
    and the wicked be shaken out of it?
14 It is changed like clay under the seal,
    and its features stand out like a garment.
15 From the wicked their light is withheld,
    and their uplifted arm is broken.

16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
    Declare, if you know all this.

19 “Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
    and where is the place of darkness,
20 that you may take it to its territory
    and that you may discern the paths to its home?
21 You know, for you were born then,
    and the number of your days is great!

22 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
    or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
23 which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
    for the day of battle and war?
24 What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
    or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?

25 “Who has cleft a channel for the torrents of rain
    and a way for the thunderbolt,
26 to bring rain on a land where no man is,
    on the desert in which there is no man,
27 to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
    and to make the ground sprout with grass?

28 “Has the rain a father,
    or who has begotten the drops of dew?
29 From whose womb did the ice come forth,
    and who has given birth to the frost of heaven?
30 The waters become hard like stone,
    and the face of the deep is frozen.

31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades
    or loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
    or can you guide the Bear with its children?
33 Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
    Can you establish their rule on the earth?

34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts
    or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who can number the clouds by wisdom?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods stick fast together?

39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens
    or lie in wait in their thicket?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God for help,
    and wander about for lack of food?

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
    Do you observe the calving of the does?
Can you number the months that they fulfill,
    and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch, bring forth their offspring,
    and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong; they grow up in the open;
    they go out and do not return to them.

“Who has let the wild donkey go free?
    Who has loosed the bonds of the swift donkey,
to whom I have given the arid plain for his home
    and the salt land for his dwelling place?
He scorns the tumult of the city;
    he hears not the shouts of the driver.
He ranges the mountains as his pasture,
    and he searches after every green thing.

“Is the wild ox willing to serve you?
    Will he spend the night at your manger?
10 Can you bind him in the furrow with ropes,
    or will he harrow the valleys after you?
11 Will you depend on him because his strength is great,
    and will you leave to him your labor?
12 Do you have faith in him that he will return your grain
    and gather it to your threshing floor?

13 “The wings of the ostrich wave proudly,
    but are they the pinions and plumage of love?
14 For she leaves her eggs to the earth
    and lets them be warmed on the ground,
15 forgetting that a foot may crush them
    and that the wild beast may trample them.
16 She deals cruelly with her young, as if they were not hers;
    though her labor be in vain, yet she has no fear,
17 because God has made her forget wisdom
    and given her no share in understanding.
18 When she rouses herself to flee,
    she laughs at the horse and his rider.

19 “Do you give the horse his might?
    Do you clothe his neck with a mane?
20 Do you make him leap like the locust?
    His majestic snorting is terrifying.
21 He paws in the valley and exults in his strength;
    he goes out to meet the weapons.
22 He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;
    he does not turn back from the sword.
23 Upon him rattle the quiver,
    the flashing spear, and the javelin.
24 With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
    he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
25 When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’
    He smells the battle from afar,
    the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

26 “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars
    and spreads his wings toward the south?
27 Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
    and makes his nest on high?
28 On the rock he dwells and makes his home,
    on the rocky crag and stronghold.
29 From there he spies out the prey;
    his eyes behold it from far away.
30 His young ones suck up blood,
    and where the slain are, there is he.”

And there you have it.  The explanation essentially boils down to this:  We have so little knowledge and understanding of the world around us that we couldn’t possibly hope to comprehend something like this.  That is the answer of the author of Job (and/or the answer of God) to this question.  It’s ultimately my answer to the question as well, as unsatisfying as it is.  I don’t believe a satisfying answer is possible here… at least not without answering a whole host of other questions which we likely don’t even know enough to identify.

I have spoken before of how I tend to understand God as a storyteller, and this does help me to understand some of the pain and suffering out there.  We discover who we really are in our suffering, just as we discover who the characters in the stories we love really are as they suffer.  No author delights in the suffering of those he created…  it can be hard to hurt or kill a character in your story, but sometimes it’s what the story needs.  Of course, life isn’t literally a story (or maybe it is, how would I know if it was?), but this is the most satisfying answer I can think of.

The title of my post is quite similar to the title of a book by C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain.  I just sort of typed the first thing that came to mind, but I’m sure it was subconsciously inspired by it, as I almost immediately thought of that book when I started typing about this.  It’s been a long time since I read it, and after looking over some excerpts from it I don’t think he quite achieved a satisfying resolution on the subject, but I do want to share a quote that I think captures a good deal of truth.  It doesn’t outright answer the question of why such a world exists with the laws that it does, and I’m not quite sure what exactly it does answer… but to me it feels like it does answer something.

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” – C.S. Lewis

Easter

We have arrived at Easter weekend.  I am a fan of all holidays, and Easter is always welcome as it comes after a long drought of major holidays.

Easter is an interesting holiday because pretty much all of the tradition that surrounds it has absolutely nothing to do with what it purports to celebrate.  Jim Gaffigan has a pretty great joke concerning it:

He doesn’t really talk at all about where those things come from.  I’m not going to go into extreme detail, but these are all things that are of pagan origin.  Easter is of course not unique in this regard, Christmas also carries with it a lot of pagan tradition, but Easter seems to be a more extreme example.

One of the things that I have found to be fascinating as I study Christianity is all of the pagan influence on the religion.  Christianity has taken some pretty severe turns from its Jewish roots, turns that often don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense.

One of those things is the Christian celebration of Easter rather than Passover.  After all, Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible occurs on Passover Sunday.  The Passover holiday itself is full of rich symbolism from the Old Testament concerning the purpose of Christ.  The Easter holiday, on the other hand, was originally the celebration of fertility goddesses, and the focus on new life is much more true to the original holiday than the modern focus on the resurrection of Christ.  Obviously, it is easy to see how these themes can be extended to the Christian tradition…  take out the goddess, and think about “new life” in a slightly metaphorical way, and voila, you have a Christian holiday.  By the way, if you want to see the specifics of the origins of Easter, you should probably just google it.

The reasons for departing Passover for Easter have a lot to do with pagan converts to Christianity, in a large part due to the Roman adoption of Christianity.  This is a very interesting point in the development of modern traditional Christian beliefs, and is a point at which the purpose of Christianity was skewed for a very long time.  As a starting point, I recommend the book Pagan Christianity, it served as such for me.  To make a long story short, pagan influences of various origins made their way into Christianity, and we have many non-Jewish ideas and understandings, whereas early Christianity was very much a sect of Judaism.  As some examples: Jews do not believe in Hell, nor do they believe in the specific named entity of Satan.  That is, to a jewish person ha-satan is more of a concept that could be ascribed to a being, but more often to refer to the “evil inclination” of people.  The term generally means an adversary, stumbling block, or obstacle, and so it could be ascribed to an angelic being similar to the traditional Christian understanding of Satan, but the Jewish understanding would not allow for an uber powerful being that is in fact an adversary to God Himself.  As a third example, traditional Jewish belief differs from that of Christianity in that it sees the Bible as being divinely inspired, but not the literal word of God.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Easter in the Christian tradition is its focus on divine wrath.  Nary an Easter morning service goes by without a recounting of the torturous death of Jesus of Nazareth.  It’s not that we shouldn’t remember it, but the obsession with the mode of death is something that likely would have been abhorrent to Jesus’ contemporaries, who definitively did not adopt the cross as the symbol of their faith that we have today.

The fact is, the Bible records Jesus as instructing us to celebrate Passover, and to remember him.  Not to remember his death, but to remember him.  We should connecting with Jesus’ life, not his death.  Remember what he taught and how he showed us to live.  Sure, remember that he died, and that he rose again, that is important as well, but don’t become obsessed with morbidity.  Stop seeing the Jesus’ death and resurrection as Jesus saving us from God, and start seeing it as a symbol that God is redeeming humanity from the inclination of evil.

 

The Defamation of Balaam

Special Note: I can’t imagine anyone of the Christian faith who is new to this information not being challenged by it in a very strong way.  If you are not up for such a thing, you might want to skip this one.

This post will be my first foray into really asking for and hoping for feedback from everyone out there who is reading it.  I would really like to hear your thoughts on the matter.  As such, I activated a plugin that will make it way easier for you to comment (you can login with Facebook, which is how probably all of you are getting here).  If for whatever reason you don’t want to do that, you can also make a WordPress login or just comment on the Facebook status you followed here, but I’d prefer it to be here.

As you know, I have been reading through the Bible.  I’m now working my way through Judges.  I wanted to take a moment to write about something I initially read the main thrust of a few weeks ago, and that comes up again from time to time as I continue to read. It’s a story that you know if you grew up in the church, and are likely to know even if you didn’t…  it’s a story about this guy named Balaam.  And he has a donkey.  And it talks.

Just to refresh your memory, I’ll give it a quick overview with a few more specifics than that.  Note that I am only going to present what is actually in the text, and a few reasonable extrapolations… if it’s an extrapolation it will be obvious because I’ll say something like “it seems to indicate”, etc.

The passage isn’t clear about exactly what Balaam’s relationship with God is, but it presents Balaam as some sort of prophet or diviner of sorts.  He doesn’t seem to be a part of Israel in any way, but he does seem to be in direct contact with Israel’s God, in a way that thus far in the text we have really only seen with the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.  That seems pretty significant to me.. I mean, it’s not like EVERYONE is talking directly to God in the Bible.  Anyway, there’s a king named Balak (apparently having lots of b’s and a’s and l’s in names was in fashion at the time), who sees Israel sort of growing and conquering different nations, and he’s a bit concerned.  So, knowing a bit of Balaam’s abilities in divination, he sends some men down to get him so that he can have Balaam curse Israel.  Balak’s men get there, and Balaam tells them essentially, “Stay here for a night, let me go check with God and see what he wants me to do.”  God says not to go with them, and not to curse Israel.  The men go back to Balak and tell him, and Balak, not being one to give up easily, sends them back a second time, but this time in even greater numbers and with a promise that Balak will give Balaam anything he wants in exchange.  Balaam says “That’s a nice offer, but I can’t really do anything but what God says I can.  Wait, I’ll go ask again.”    This time, God seems to relent and says “Go with them if they want you to go, but only do what I say.”

So in the next verse, Balaam sets out on his donkey to go see Balak.  Exactly one verse later, for reasons not given by the text, God is angry because Balaam is going, and sends an angel to block Balaam’s path.  Balaam can’t see the angel, but the donkey can, and keeps turning away from it, and Balaam beats on the seemingly stubborn animal a few times, and then God “opens its mouth” and it tells Balaam what’s up.  It’s then a bit unclear if it’s the angel, or God, or both talking, but one of them tells us that they would have struck Balaam dead and let the donkey live if the donkey had not turned away.  That seems a harsh punishment for a guy who asked if he could go, was told to go, and then went.

Anyway, God, again for reasons not told in the text, is suddenly okay with Balaam continuing on the journey, and he gets to Balak unsmitten.  To shorten it up a bit, Balak takes him to four different places hoping maybe Balaam will curse Israel from each one, but all four times Balaam not only doesn’t curse Israel, but in fact blesses Israel, telling Balak that he can only do what God says.    Balak is noticeably upset in the text the first three times, and then after the fourth time the two of them part company without much said.  That’s the end of the story.

However, that’s not the last time we see the name Balaam pop up.  We next see him when Israel attacks Midian, when we are told that they kill him in the battle.  Then, the text makes an accusation against Balaam through Moses.  “Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold,these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord.”  Indeed, in a chapter following Balaam’s meeting with Balak, there is an incident in Peor involving Baal worship, and God’s judgment on Israel for it, but nowhere is there any account given that Balaam had anything to do with it.

Moving onward out of Numbers and into Deuteronomy, 23:5 says “But the Lord your God would not listen to Balaam; instead the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you.”  You can go check out everything that Balaam ever said or did in that account (it’s Numbers 22-24), he never once curses or attempts to curse Israel.  Joshua 24:9-10 makes a similar claim, although it’s a little bit less clear in doing so.  This goes on beyond the point I have read thus far, with Balaam heretofore being remembered as a villain.  Nehemiah 13:2 again implies that Balaam tried to curse Israel and God turned it into a blessing.  2 Peter 2:15-16 makes reference to him, saying “They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.”  This one comes closest to supporting an idea that I have heard that attempts to smooth this whole story out, but it comes with some complications of its own, I think.  Anyway, I’ll get to that in a minute.   Finally, Revelation 2:14 brings a whole new accusation out of left field: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.”  Eat food sacrificed to idols?  Sexual immorality?  Where is that in Balaam’s story?

At the very least, it is apparent that a lot of things were omitted regarding what happened with Balaam, and were only later filled in.  I guess we can’t be sure that Balaam didn’t have something to do with encouraging Baal worship in Peor.  And if he did, it does seem quite likely that it could have involved eating food sacrificed to idols and sexual immorality.

Outside of these omissions, we still have the apparent contradiction.  It seems almost as if there are 2 Balaams.  “Balaam the prophet of God”,  who seems to occupy the beginning and end of the Numbers 22-24 narrative, and “Balaam the Wicked”, who seems to occupy everything following that narrative, and is sort of mishmashed with the prophet Balaam in the middle of the main narrative.

Here is the explanation that I alluded to.  It turns out, that the issue was not whether or not Balaam should go with Balak’s men or not, it was a condition of Balaam’s heart.  He fully intended to collect on the reward offered him by Balak, all that he was saying was just talk. He then really did earnestly try to curse Israel, but all that came out were the blessings.  That’s basically how this story is supposed to be explained in a context that makes sense and eliminates contradiction.  I will grant, that if you are prepared to accept that this is how it is supposed to be read, it does that, but then it introduces a different problem.

The main need for there to be no contradiction comes from a desire to believe that the Bible is the perfect word of God.  If we just accept it as something that was written by man, whether inspired by God or otherwise, contradictions are perfectly okay.  After all, people aren’t perfect.  But God is perfect, and therein lies the problem.  If the Bible is the perfect word of God, and He chose to convey that information to us through this story, requiring us to read between the lines to find the truth of it, then it would appear that God is a terrible communicator.  Why wouldn’t He just straight up tell us what Balaam was up to?  Why would he leave all of it so horribly, horribly unclear?  Why would He not tell us specifically about Balaam’s involvement in the Baal worship at Peor?

Do you have answers to those questions?  What do you think about these passages?  Do you disagree with my presentation of any of this, or have a different means of explaining the story?  Please do share.

Sojourning

So I have recently, I think maybe the last 2 months now, been reading through the Bible as well as reading through James Kugel’s book “How To Read The Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now”. It has been, I would say, a very challenging and rewarding experience.

I have wanted to try to read through the Bible and try to overcome any pre-existing biases I have towards the text for a very long time… to simply read it as it is without any preconceived ideas towards it.  I had tried doing that a few times before, but, to be perfectly honest, it can be hard to pull yourself out of your own biases.  I’ve found that by reading through this book and having multiple interpretations and ways of interpreting thrown at me (generally at least 2 per account that he writes about), I am better able to read objectively than if I just try to will myself into being a blank slate.

One of the things I also wanted to do was to read in a way that introduced the smallest possibility of someone else’s bias affecting what I read as well, and so, while ideally I’d be able to read in Hebrew and Greek, I cannot do either, and therefore I chose the English Standard Version (ESV), as it is a literal word for word translation.  The other types of translations, for the curious out there, would be thought for thought translations (which are the most common), such as the KJV or NIV, or paraphrases such as The Message.  The downside to a thought for thought translation is that translator bias enters into the equation of how they translate… they translate it to say what they believe the text is trying to say.  There are advantages as well, and disadvantages to the word for word approach, but, that bias is specifically what I want to avoid.

This process is probably the most elaborate deconstruction of my beliefs that I have entered into thus far in my life.  It’s a true no holds barred scenario in which nothing is off the table.  I can imagine that some might find that prospect terrifying, as I am essentially telling myself that I know nothing as I evaluate a set of beliefs that I used to know.  I do not see it as terrifying though, because no matter what I tell myself about what I believe, something in the core of me tells me that so long as I am honestly seeking the truth, then I will find it.  I certainly hope that everyone reading this knows me well enough to know that I am seeking the truth.

One of the words that I’ve encountered a lot thus far in my read through of the Bible (I’m a few chapters into Numbers now) is the word sojourn, or references to sojourners.  I like that word.  For some reason I just like the way that it sounds.  For whatever reason it also fills my head with imagery and subtle hints of further meaning just beyond the word itself.  The simple definition of a sojourner is simply someone who stays temporarily in a place.    We’ve all been literal sojourners at some point in our lives, I can’t imagine that anyone reading this has never taken a vacation.  That said, there is an interesting, I guess dichotomy is the right word, within the pentateuch as it tells us about the Israelites, and about people who are sojourning among them (It very often makes reference to laws that those sojourning amongst the Israelites are also to obey).  At this point in time, the Israelites are themselves sojourners, a people without a home, and so everywhere they stay is temporary.  So we’re talking about sojourners amongst sojourners.  I think that is an interesting way to look at the Church as we interact both with others within the Church and those outside of it.

One of the things that the word sojourner says to me is that this is a person who is, to some degree, alone.  It doesn’t mean that they have no interaction with anyone or that they are an island, but that they are on their own specific journey, and while it overlaps at times with that of another, ultimately their journey is their own.  Is that meaning literally in the word?  No, not at all.  But for some reason, when I read the word, I think that.

At this point I’m guessing you can tell the direction I’m going with this.  I think that these accounts in the Pentateuch show a picture of our own sojourning, in a spiritual sense.  I think that we are all sojourners among sojourners, and that none of us has a place to call home, and so we will simply keep sojourning.  We are all at different points in our journey, and none of our journeys are the same.  One thing that I refuse to ever say to someone as an argument is to assert that I once believe as they did, and then imply that one day when they mature in their belief they will surely come to see that I am right.  Even if I think it’s true in some circumstances, I hate when people do that to me, and it would show a belief on my part that I have arrived, which, I most certainly have not.

There are a lot of Christians out there that I tend to think are mistaken on a lot of things.  I love all of them, especially the ones I know personally, and I would never call into question their Christianity.  We may sojourn a bit apart from each other for now, but certainly someday we will find ourselves together again, so long as we’re looking for the same thing.

No matter where you sojourn, remember a few things.  First, that wherever you are took time, effort, and likely some pain, so be patient with someone who from your perspective seems to be a bit behind.  Be kind to your fellow sojourners.  No matter where you differ, if you’re both seeking to know the truth, your journeys are in line, you are partners in that quest.  Remember that none of us have arrived, we are all likely to be wrong in some aspect of our belief about the truth, so don’t judge anyone for not adhering to some aspect that seems particularly important to you.  Leave that to God, as God is the only one fit to do it.

Edit: Oops, I said I was reading a different translation than I actually am.  Fixed.

The Greatest Story

The story of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has often been thought of as being “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.  In fact, it is the title of a movie about Jesus, that was based on a novel of the same title, that was based on a radio play of, you guessed it, the same title.   It is, of course, a compelling story.  But it is not the greatest story ever told.   Well, at least, it’s not the greatest story ever told in its entirety.  It’s a rather exciting and interesting portion of an even greater overall story, and that story… that is the greatest story ever told.

I think perhaps the most common struggle that Christians have, and perhaps theists in general, presuming they believe in a god that has great power and is also good, is trying to figure out why there is so much suffering in the world.  Some is easily explained as humankind’s inhumanity to their fellow people, but that doesn’t hold up so well under acts of God and nature.  Tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and the like cannot be blamed on the acts of a wicked person.  Nor can terminal diseases such as cancer.  Why do these things happen?

At some point in the last few years, I began to look at the unfolding of human history, especially as it relates to Judeo-Christian beliefs, and God himself, as a story.  I believe it is a story that God is compelled to tell, and must be told both for His benefit and for our benefit.  Each and every human that has ever lived or that ever will live plays a role in that story.  At first thought this seems like a great honor.  You and I are in unique places in this story, and we are helping to tell what is surely the greatest story that will ever be told.

However, when you think it through a bit more, it becomes considerably less pleasant.  Think about every story that you have ever read or seen on screen.  Or at least, every good one.  Think about what happens to the characters in those stories.  Especially the more important characters.  A great story puts the characters through hell.  A story that rings true to our lives tends to be one that puts its characters through the greatest hell.  Consider extremely popular stories, such as Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad.  In both cases, these characters literally go through hell, and that pain and suffering resonates within our very beings as truth.

While this understanding doesn’t make pain and suffering OK for me, or easier to deal with, or help someone else who is suffering deal with, I find it somewhat comforting and satisfying.  I feel like it gives suffering a purpose.  And it communicates to me that God isn’t a sadist.  Writers don’t generally enjoy hurting or killing off their characters, often not even the particularly evil ones.  They grow to love their characters for who they are.   But they still do it anyway, because it’s what needs to happen for the sake of the story.  And the story, if it’s a good one, will show something true and beautiful to the world.

I find comfort in this because even if I feel in a certain moment like my life isn’t going anywhere, which I think we all feel sometimes, I can have faith that I’m right where I should be, and that the next part of my story just needs to be set up.  While being in control can be comforting because we think we always know what is best, not being in control can be liberating, especially if the one in control is a writer who will place you exactly where you need to be in the story.

There are certain things in my life that, had I possessed perfect foreknowledge, and thus been given the choice beforehand, I probably would have avoided altogether.  That probably even includes if I knew what was to follow, even though much of what has followed has been good.  For myself, I hate that sort of emotional turmoil and pain.  And it lasts, and it scars, and there are things that effect me to this day… Now that I’ve been through the worst of it, despite those scars, I can be glad for it.  But if I were given the choice of suffering or not the next time the story calls for it, I’m sure I’d opt out.  But the truth it, that’s not what’s best for me.

To close this out I want to share a Rocky Votolato song called “The Rain Will Come”, and I will post a couple lines that have a great tension, that I feel like sort of embody the idea that I was hoping to capture in this post.

“Maybe I should be running /
If I controlled anything I’d be scared of the place that I’d be.”