Just say "No!" to oversimplification!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Proclaiming the Gospel

[A friend tells me this chapter is an example of what it's saying:
that ideas really only ripen when a reader is ready to think them himself.

Still, the only excuse for saying things badly is that I couldn't do better; and there's something else to write today. Bear with me, or just skip this one, okay?]

This title brings up several questions:

"Should we be proclaiming the Gospel?"

"How should we try to do that, if we should?"

"What is that, anyway?"

While it seems most logical to begin with basic concepts and then stack them up -- That doesn't work.

People think they already know what the basic theological concepts are (or should be) -- and what the available basic words mean -- what they ought to mean -- or meant to their grandmother or their teacher or whoever else seems to Have Worked It All Out (for now).

If you come out with some new concept that you really really wish a familiar word would mean -- then you simply make yourself unintelligible. The Transcendentalists often wrote that way; there are experts who tell me they were saying some highly worthwhile things -- but for me, for the amount of time it would take me to decode them, I'd rather think of something myself.

And while I do appreciate people believing I know something worth figuring out -- instead of assuming I must have meant the first thing people automatically think of when anyone drives the conversation over some familiar subject -- I don't find many people reading me that way, so I don't expect it.

What I long ago noticed about myself: Whenever I'd hear or read something before my mind had the space prepared,  I just didn't understand it.

Sometimes I'd have some Great Thinker assigned for a class; and I'd see it was all bullshit; and since he wasn't around to argue with -- and didn't fight fair, given that the teachers thought he was right so I must be wrong -- it was useless. I couldn't benefit from anyone I didn't already see some genuine merit in.

Sometimes my sense of bullshit was entirely correct. Other times, after life had ripened me various ways -- I'd look at that bullshit and find it saying wonderful, perceptive things. But even when I was right in dismissing someone's Great Thoughts... the fact is,   for some people he'd provided a new way of seeing things.

Maybe he'd led a long line of blind followers into a ditch... but he'd taken them out of whatever hole they'd started from.

I once met a prophet, whom I asked: "What should I do now?" He told me: "Make mistakes and learn from them."
[For awhile after that I thought I could 'learn how not to make that mistake again' -- And wouldn't it be nice if that were so...? That's another story.]

Even our mistakes are part of our development. They're appetizers for the main course. You work on a puzzle a long time; that lets it work on you. Then you may become able to see, and enjoy seeing, how it works.

Certain modern biographers of Jesus used to wax sentimental over all those simple agricultural metaphors he could work into those lovely parables. All from that idyllic peasant background. What they didn't get is that his background was extremely sophisticated; while theirs was sterile. Jesus used agricultural metaphors because the life of the mind and the soul works in a significantly agricultural way. Seed is spread, it lands in good soil or bad, is watered or withers...

and people hear a message when their ears come up high enough to hear it.

It's not a matter of  how hard you sow or reap, but when, and how.

If you know the Gospel is true, you know God can give you the words you need -- to help the particular real live human being in front of you at any given time. And know that every person will ripen when God grows him, which will happen in accord with God's timing. This doesn't mean you should, or shouldn't, expect to say something he'll finally appreciate years later. It means you can ask God to give you the words, for this time, that will best serve God's purposes. God might not, on some occasions, need you to bother a person at all.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Sense in Praising God

In my first years of grade school I would spend afternoons at the babysitter's, reading. Much of what she had available was by Mark Twain -- a little bewildering to me then, but not dull. Then on Sunday mornings I would go to the Methodist church then meeting in a bowling alley a few blocks from home. Occasionally I would find my parents' Bible, gathering dust on a small shelf in the hall, and read from that. 'Revelation' was one frightening book, but the scariest thought for me was an eternity of 'worshiping God' -- whether that meant continually bowing down and throwing crowns at God's feet, a form of calisthenics that sounded very boring -- or the continual harps and choirs expected by Mark Twain's small town church members.

I came to agree with Mark Twain that this concept of God sounded very touchy and egotistical -- and certainly I knew no other. I would find myself arguing inside with God -- whom I certainly couldn't believe in, not after reading much Bertrand Russell... but whose existence couldn't be disproved either. "That had better not be what You are like because I'll have to eternally oppose You and get punished forever. That would be very heroic, but doesn't sound like a pleasant sort of future." By late high school I was going to a Unitarian church because I'd heard  it was okay not to believe in God there, and that did sound like one way I might meet girls... but I also wanted to know, "Is there or isn't there?" And I enjoyed one inconclusive Sunday morning at the San Francisco Friends (Quakers) Meeting -- invited by my best friend, and feeling this might give God a better chance to speak for Himself.

But from early on in college, where I'd started trying illegal herbs and cacti -- and at last, real LSD -- I not only couldn't rule out God's existence -- but over a few years became unable to deny that the world wasn't fitting into any mechanistic pattern, that whatever senseless thing was going on in my life was unmistakably meaningful. A Sufi teaching, that humanity has one divine Teacher, continually working to enlighten us -- was the hypothesis that made the most sense, the belief that increasingly confirmed itself the more I acted on it.

When I returned to college, waiting for practical classes that never became available to me -- I spent a semester taking some intriguing courses in the Religious Studies department. One day the 'Old Testament' professor mentioned a persistent tradition, hinted at in all the major world religions -- that God had created the world by fragmenting himself, by becoming each and every living being.

How could God be 'part here, part there, and all of God in each place' -- yet limited, in each person, to some separate human identity? Obviously true, obviously bewildering!

I did eventually return to the Society of Friends (a long story); and ten years ago my wife Anne and I spent a school year at Pendle Hill, a strange wonderful Quaker institution near Philadelphia. The teacher for our synoptic gospels class was friends with Rabbi Marsha Praeger, of the Jewish Renewal synagogue in town -- and so we were all invited to come see a hint of the worship practices Jesus would have grown up following.

Anne and I entered the room, sat down among a group of people chanting in Hebrew, followed along in the phonetic booklet we were given -- and immediately started weeping. An extremely 'Rationalist' young member of the group was similarly overcome, had to leave to recombobulate emotionally, asked to speak to the Rabbi alone afterwards. I heard later she'd had an intense feeling of Jesus being present. Some visitors must have been moderately affected -- while a few spoke later of looking at their watches, wondering "Are we done yet?" Anne and I, of course, returned every week after that as often as we were able.

Why do they do this every week, come together to share a meal and bless God in ancient yet catchy Jewish tunes? Why does God 'command' this? And why do they think that having 600+ such Commandments is a blessing? Not because God needs it, but because "praising God is good for people."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parable of the Shoplifter at the King's Banquet

Once upon a time a shoplifter was visiting his favorite shop, examining a washing machine while speculating whether there might be any inconspicuous way to walk out with it, when in came a King's messenger!

He spoke to the shopkeeper first, "There's going to be this incredible feast tomorrow night; the whole country is invited and that means you're welcome too! Were you planning to come?"

"Look, we can't all be dashing about waving messages; some of us have to work for a living! I can't leave this business; if I took my eye off the place for half a second they'd clean me out! See that guy in the corner by the washing machine? -- Last week he walked out of here with a refrigerator under his coat; could you believe it? That's the kind of people I get in this neigborhood."

Unable to interest the shopkeeper, the messenger wandered back to the man by the washing machine. "What about you? Were you planning anything tomorrow evening?"

"Well, I don't know... I'm kind of busy trying to sell this refrigerator... Do you think the King might want one?"

"You'd have to ask about that, yourself. But I know you'll have a great time! Good food, beautiful women, gold plates and silver knives; you'll love it!"

The next evening, tablecloth tucked under his chin, our shoplifter was standing at the door of the banquet room. The King noticed him at once. "Look after that man; he's shy! I don't think he's been eating well."

"Should I hover, Sire?"

"No, no, don't press. Just do what you can to make him comfortable."

 The food was wonderful; the wine better than anything he'd ever tasted. "I mustn't let any of this go to waste!" he told himself, draining his glass.

The waiter quietly refilled it, noting that certain nearby place settings needed their silverware replenished. When our guest passed out an hour or so later, the waiter spoke to the King about him. "He's a very needy man, Sire!"

"Yes. I don't think you can get anything more into his pockets, but there's still a little room in his left sleeve. And probably you could fit a few more plates under his belt while you're at it."

The shoplifter awoke suddenly, realizing that he'd made the haul of his life! He didn't even remember taking the candlesticks... but if he got caught, at this point, it might be the last haul. Metal clinked as he got to his feet. "Were you going anywhere, sir? We're about to start the dancing."

Dancing? For certain he would clang and bang! With a partner? -- Every square inch of him was packed with cutlery -- "My dog! I've got to get home and feed my dog!"

"Would he like a doggie bag, sir?"

On his way out, at last passing the guard by the exit, he took refuge in a look of honest bewilderment. "Should I send for a wheelbarrow, sir?" asked the guard.

"I wonder what he meant by that," our hero wondered all the way home.

But at last he did reach home, and fell into bed with a crash that roused him into hours of restless turmoil.

And he never did realize he'd received a gift.