Friday, April 1, 2011

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday Thanks

As one who loves structure, I feel like adding more structure to my blog.  I kept looking at Monday Muse going, “Hmmm…  what else can be done here?”  Matching days to what they represent automatically brought “Thirsty Thursday” to mind.  And that’s an inappropriate subject for this blog.  But Thursday Thanksgiving … now that’s a little more kosher.

So, if you are one who does NOT love structure, please just disregard the titles I will be playing with in the near future.  They may or may not stick.  But experimentation comes before results.  Thank you, sixth grade bio teacher, wherever you are.

What could be more spiritual than a positive outlook?  And what could be more positive than focusing on the good parts of life?  Isn’t that what positivity is?  I remember when I was a tiny freak of a child who couldn’t sleep because of strange anxiety problems such as how to draw the perfect flower in art class and how to avoid sitting next to the smelly kid on the bus, my father used to tell me to lay in bed and think of nothing but all the good things I had.

First on my nightly anti-anxiety positive list: God.  Then family, my friends and my house.  Then I allowed myself to get a little more selfish and creative.  Of course, I ended up staying awake until I couldn’t think of any more good things and then the anxiety came back: am I not grateful enough?  Why can’t I think of any more good things?  Should I put God on the list three times?

I won't bore you with my own personal "good list."  But I'll start posting things that people in the religious community will probably be putting on their "good list" this week.
Here's something a parish in Maryland has to be grateful for:
30,000 Lotto Ticket in Church Collection Plate

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Monday Muse

Welcome to to the first Monday Muse!

Every Monday I'll be blog-hosting the thoughts of a religious leader.  I'll ask my guest to answer a question about his or her faith or what it means to be a leader of that faith.  And I'll post the answer here.

So, let me introduce you to Nate Nakao, Pastor/Director of children's ministries at a church called Emergence.

This week I asked Nate:

"Why did God test his loved ones?  If he knows people's hearts, why would he need to test Abraham and put him through that worry if he must have already known that he would obey?"

(If you do not know the Biblical story of Abraham, check it out here.)

And Nate answered:

"One reason I would give for God’s testing of people doesn’t have anything to do with his wanting to know how we’ll act, but rather with his desire to strengthen our own resolve. Think about it this way: sometimes a parent will allow a certain circumstance into a child’s life not to see if the child will respond in an obedient way, but to allow the child to see for himself his own faithfulness to his parent.

Even though God may know how we’re going to respond to something, we often don’t learn the lesson until we’ve seen ourselves in action.

Regarding Abraham—

I’m assuming you’re referring to the story of God calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. If so, let me put it out there that I think there’s a whole lot more to this story than we see upon a cursory reading.

Abram was born and raised in Ur Kaśdim, a city in ancient Mesopotamia. He was taught to revere the Mesopotamian gods, goddesses, and demons, all of which were fickle beings that often needed to be placated through sacrifices and rituals. Abram’s understanding of the God who was calling him was shaped by this upbringing.

But Yahweh is unlike any other god that Abram had come across before, and much of the early part of the story of Abraham is God showing Abram that he is different from the other gods. He doesn’t need to be placated for he finds joy in himself. At this point in the meta-narrative of the Bible, God hasn’t revealed anything about himself to anyone other than Abraham.

Twice Abraham lied about his wife Sarah and told the pharaoh of Egypt on one occasion and the king of Gerar on another occasion that she was his sister. On both occasions God had to step in and protect Sarah.

On another occasion, Abraham and Sarah doubted God’s power and laughed when he told them that they would have a son.

So when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he had a different kind of lesson in store for him. See, in making these various covenants with Abraham, God was slowly revealing to him that he’s a different kind of God. That he’s a God who sticks to his promises and doesn’t need to be placated in order to be pleased with Abraham.

The story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac doesn’t make much sense without the context of the promises God was making to Abraham. He told Abraham over and over that he would make a great nation out of his descendents, that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore.

But if you’d done something to offend God not once, not twice, but three times, wouldn’t there be some doubt in your mind that God would pull through on his promise? As if he’d punish you for your mistakes?

I’m betting Abraham probably thought that.

“Dammit! I screwed up three times! I’ve made him angry with me, and now he’s asking me to sacrifice my son as a way to placate him.”

If I were Abraham, that’s exactly what would be going through my mind.

But God steps in to teach Abraham this truth about himself: that he is a God that is not fickle, that does not need to be placated, and who uses sacrifices and offerings not as a way to appease his wrath, but as a way to teach his children truths about himself.

In this moment he teaches Abraham that he will stand by his promise to make his descendents a great nation.

Think about it this way: you believe that gods are angry, vengeful beings who bend humans to their whim. Now, along comes this other God who tells you to leave your homeland. To you, this God isn’t really all that different from other gods; you’d better do as he asks or else he’ll do something to you. Then he starts making promises. He tells you over and over again that he’s different, that he’s got your best interests at heart. But these are just words; does this God really care? Is he really going to stand by his word?

How is God going to get through to you? Maybe he’ll test you? Maybe he’ll tell you to sacrifice the very thing he’s been promising you? It’s a bit extreme from the outside, but if you’ve been taught to believe something your whole life, what would it take for you to be shaken of that belief?

Is it possible that’s what God was doing with Abraham?"

Nate's Blog: Restored to Grace
Nate's Twitter: Nate_Nakao

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

First Parish in Framingham Unitarian Universalist – Framingham, MA

With the idea of continuing my exploration of religions that have no definite definition of “god,” I visited a Unitarian Universalist church this past Sunday morning.  Luckily, I had a general idea of what this religion is like before I entered the church.  If I had been a completely uninformed newcomer, I may have come away extremely confused.  Let me explain:

The Universalists:
- had a church in a traditional church-like building
- had a reverend who dressed in traditional robes
- sang traditional-sounding hymns (albeit with word changes)

But there were no Bibles, no crosses, and no mention of God (not in the prayers, not in the hymns.)  Essentially, they had all the trappings of a Christian denomination but stripped away anything having to do with Christ.

I’m not sure how this sect of faith is categorized.  According to Wikipedia (and yes, now that I am free of professors who don’t consider this a valuable source, I rabidly use Wikipedia), UU has Christian roots.  And you can see it in, like I said, the building, dress, and overall organization of the service.  But nowhere else was Christianity evident.

Michael F. Hall, Intern Minister, started the service by reading a poem from a popular children’s book.  Forgive me, but I cannot remember the name of it now.  It involved a frog.  He informed the congregation that there were more poems to follow, but as the children only stay in the pews for so long before heading off to Sunday School, he started with something that appealed to them.

When the children did go off to their class, the congregation sang them away with a peace song.

The rest of the service consisted of songs, a moment of silent meditation (which lasted a very decent amount of time, I would say at least five whole minutes), a time for anyone to stand up to share joys and/or sorrows of the week and more poetry readings.

First things first, this is the first church I’ve been to that had a time of sharing and I absolutely loved this part of the service.  A congregation is a community.  And while I understand that the community part comes in multiple ways (service projects, prayer meetings, Sunday school classes) that I am not present to witness, I wish I could witness it more just through visiting for one service.  People shared upcoming birthdays, thoughts on the tragic situation of Japan, recent deaths, and gratitude that a foreign exchange student was being welcomed into the community with open arms.

I could see the benefit of a sharing session.

However, I could not see the benefit of what came shortly after: the sermon entitled “The Poet’s Corner.”

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the benefit of poetry in general.  Just not in a church setting.  Like I’ve said before, I’d like to learn something from a church service.  If I don’t learn anything concrete I’d at least like to come away saying, “huh, well, hmm.” The brain buzz feeling.  And while some poetry can bring on the brain buzz by itself, the connection of it to church killed the buzz.

I can read poetry on my own.  Why would I go to church to have it read to me?

Granted, I think poetry was just the sermon of this particular week.  But I honestly can’t imagine what other sermons must be like.  Taoists follow the Tao.  That could be considered poetry.  But it doesn’t pretend to conform to anything else but that.  This Unitarian church was appearing to be a church in every way except it seemed to have no direction.  I could go to a Baptist church and expect to hear messages about the Bible.  I could go to a Buddhist temple and expect to meditate.

But what could I expect from a second visit to a Unitarian church?  I have absolutely no idea.

And while sometimes mystery can be exciting … this isn’t the exciting kind of mystery.  It’s the plain confusing kind.  And I don’t think the Unitarian church would even deny this.  One of the hymns they sang was basically a repetition of this lyric: “Where do we come from? Who are we?  Life is a mystery, a mystery.”

This isn’t what I, personally, would go to church for.  I know life is a mystery.  Right now, I agree.  I have questions about it and I’m seeking the answers. 

I like philosophies on my questions (like what the Tao offers) and churches that offer real solutions (whether or not I agree with them.)  But I have no need for a church that answers my questions with the same exact questions.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Confession and an Announcement


I didn't attend church this past Sunday.  I planned to go to a Wednesday evening prayer service instead, but as someone dear to me so kindly put it, I chickened out.  In my defense, I was feeling slightly unwell.  But, yes, I basically chickened out.  I didn't feel like driving and then ... praying (something I'm not very accustomed to doing) ... with strangers.  This whole project involves my stepping outside of the comfort box, so chickening out because something is unfamiliar and uncomfortable is not excusable.  But there it is, I did.  Please accept this as my blunt, honest apology.


I plan to add a weekly feature to the blog.

The tentative title is "Ask and You Shall Receive."  Basically, if I can get some pastors/heads of churches/religious experts to be willing to participate, I would like to publish their answers to hot-button religious questions.

I've had tons of questions bouncing around in my head concerning religion in general.  And given my background, questions about the Bible in particular.  I'm sure as I become more familiar with other religions, I'll have even more questions.  Questions upon questions.  Exponential questions.  Endless possibilities!  Why don't I ask these questions?  I never really have asked them because I consider a lot of them unanswerable.  Or, I assume that any answer I am given could not possibly be satisfactory to me.

For example, one of my most pressing questions has always been: why does the god of the Old Testament kill off cities?  How can I believe this god is good when he orchestrates the slaughter of entire cities, children even?

I never really asked this question of anyone because I basically don't believe that there IS an answer that is good enough to make me say "oh, ok."  But whether or not I am going to be able to accept an answer, I would certainly like to finally hear a few.

Now, before I scare off any potential participating pastors (that's a mouthful of alliteration right there), let me promise that not every question will be so difficult.  Yet difficult questions are going to be the ones I will want answered the most.

And I know I'm not the only one with questions.  Any reader who wants to have their question addressed on this blog feature, please forward me your question via email (listed on my profile) and I will include it.

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Is Taoism a Religion?

A couple years ago I found myself in the Religion section of Borders staring at all the various Bibles, Korans, Torahs and Books of the Dead.  I felt that I should really get to know other religions.  (Clearly that is a feeling that hasn't subsided.)  So I figured I would start reading their texts.  But as I stood there, puzzling as to where I should start, I began dreading the thought of actually reading one of them.

I went to a private school for elementary and middle school.  I took Bible classes and went to weekly chapel.  Then there was Sunday school and Sunday sermons.  You would think I would know the Bible inside and out.  But it only continued to confuse me.

And I still haven't read every word.  (I tried to read the entire Bible, front to back, several times.  All it amounted to was reading the first few chapters of Genesis A LOT.)

You might think part of this failure to fully dive into the Bible was due to my age at the time.  But that's not it.  I was a good student almost to a fault (like full-blown geek status, like thought the opposite sex had cooties and didn't know that platform sneakers weren't cool.)  If something was to be understood and applied, I understood it and applied it.  End of story.  I think where the Bible kept catching me was this: it didn't make sense to me that this one book could be constantly, tirelessly studied while my school teachers and pastor admitted to never fully understanding it.  And where did the application come in?

I wanted to read the Bible because I felt I should.  But I never really wanted to.  It seemed to be a discouraging, fruitless task.

And all those feelings came rushing back as I stood in front of all those other daunting texts.

So I pulled out a small one from the bottom shelf.  I'd heard of the "Tao" before but never really knew exactly what was in it.  And its size shocked me.  Its size also invited me.  It screamed simplicity and maybe that's what I really needed after all.

I read a few chapters of it and bought it immediately.  I whisked it home and poured over it, drank it in, read it again.  Read it again.  Gave it to a professor of mine.  Bought another.  Read it again.  Gave it to a friend of mine.  Bought another.  Read it again.  And again.  I loved it.  It WAS simple but there was so much in it.  It was understandable and technically applicable.

And while it was the very definition of ideal and vague, what do we really have to live for if not for the vaguely ideal?

I thought I'd share some snippets here:

Chapter 9:

"Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity."

Chapter 43:

"The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master's way."

Chapter 75:

"When taxes are too high,
people go hungry.
When the government is too intrusive,
people lose their spirit.

Act for the people's benefit.
Trust them; leave them alone."

Read more here.

As I understand it, the "Tao" refers to the way things are meant to be in the world.  It is an all-encompassing representation of the center of things.  And the "Master" is someone who is centered and grounded in the "Tao."  So the Tao is an ideal state of the world.  And a Master is an ideal being in that world.

There is no god.

Which brings me to my question: what exactly IS the definition of religion, if there is one?  Taoism is considered a religion but nowhere in its text is there any mention of a god.  There are only philosophies on the proper way of living, created and written down by one man.  So in this case, the religion of Taoism is simply a recognition of and yearning toward the ideal.

What do you think of this?

Is the Tao a true religion?  In what ways is it comparable to other popular religions?  Are there Christian/Jewish/Muslim ideals present within the Tao?  Did other religions' gods have a Tao-like world in mind?