Stewardship of Prayer

Stewardship of Prayer

March 14-15, 2018

 

Stewardship is often defined stewardship as raising money, getting pledges of tithing from membership which creates a stream of income for the coming year.  Recently a friend was facing an upcoming surgery and mentioned needing to make certain church attendance was on the agenda, needing to have God on their side for the operation.   Many view their attendance at their house of worship as a stewardship of prayer, a type of “praying it forward” to earn brownie points for those times they mess up or do not live their faith.

 

Let me explain the term “brownie points” in case you are reading this and are unfamiliar with this popular slang term.  Like most slang terminology, there are several opinions about its origin.  In the 1960’s a system of brownie points was created in the Girl Guides/Scouts program.  In order to earn a badge, Brownie Guides or Scouts had to complete a certain number of tasks concerning the particular badge in question, usually six tasks.  As each undertaking was completed, they were said to have earned a “brownie point”.  [I was a proud Brownie Scout and yes, I earned all the badges.]

 

After World War II the practice of issuing stamps based upon the amount of purchase became prevalent in many retail businesses.  The stamps would be accumulated and then exchanged for household items that were often a luxury for the average household.  The first such stamps were brown in color so the consumer was said to earn Brownie points while supporting the local economy.  In New Zealand a utility company still uses what it calls Brownie points in their marketing. 

 

Although the earliest reference of brownie points in print is found in a 1960’s article in California as a man spoke about his wife earning brownie points, a sexist attitude I have to dislike, it is much more likely that the real credit for the term belongs to an American railroad superintendent, George R. Brown.   In 1886, Brown developed an innovative system of merits and demerits for railroad employees who worked for the Fall Brook Railway in New York State.   His system of rewarding and punishing employees was written about in business publications and it garnered great fame as other railroads began using it.  Railroad employees referred to the merits and demerits as “brownie points” and the slang term worked its way into our common vocabulary.

 

An important thing to remember is that brownie points are imaginary and are not free.  One earns them either through effort or by paying a monetary price.  Their imaginary existence is the result of action.  I am not a deity to which anyone offers prayer so I cannot speak with authority but I am fairly certain that the concept of “praying it forward” is far less effective than the generosity of spirit involved with “paying it forward”, a concept suggested by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book “In the Garden of Delight” in which a person does a good deed for a stranger instead of the original benefactor from which they received something favorable.  Paying it forward might be considered giving it back while praying it forward is more of a savings loan program.  Paying it forward involves at least two or more people and usually can become a bit contagious with others following the example.  Praying it forward is an idea predicated on the belief that one will need extra favor due to a mistake or intentional wrongdoing.

 

Many donate or tithe based upon the knowledge that they are not perfect and will need forgiveness from their supreme spirit to which they believe they are accountable.  This use or practice of giving money as a type of “fine paying” treats forgiveness and being blessed as something that can be bought.  Indeed, there are some denominations and religions that still purport this concept.  It is, in fact, the reason many suicide bombers detonate their bombs; they believe it is the ultimate payment for the ultimate resting place for their soul.

 

I will not even get into the theology or lack thereof of such concepts.  The fact is that stewardship has really very little to do with money or even earning favor.  How often have you visited a busy shopping mall or large office complex and seen someone mopping up a spill or emptying the waste cans?  While the majority of such cleaning is done by a custodial staff after hours when the general population is not present, there are those little mishaps that require constant attention.  This is the real definition of stewardship, the caretaking of the establishment.  Do we stop to thank those stewards, those custodians or do we simply walk around them, maybe acknowledging their presence with a quick nod or the briefest of smiles?

 

Almost every culture has a flood myth and during Pentecost one year we discussed several of those, the most famous of which is the story from the Abrahamic faiths of Noah and the Ark.  What we fail to realize is the stewardship required of Noah and his family in this story.  Anyone who has had a household pet or lived on a farm or ranch knows the efforts required by owning animals.  Imagine doing that on a boat in the middle of nothing but water.  The mucking out of cages and stalls, the sweeping up of shedding hair…you get the picture.  All of a sudden the mythology of this story takes on a very different meaning than simply a man saving his family and two of each species so they can repopulate the planet.  Providing sustenance, a source of staying alive, a healthy environment…these are the realities of stewardship.

 

What sustenance do we give our prayers and how do we keep our prayer life alive?  While many times there are those on-the spur-of-the-moment prayers, how do we provide for those deeper meditative prayers and do we create a healthy environment for those?  Do we make very necessary quiet pockets within our day to engage in a prayerful dialogue, one in which we can listen?  Before we start to worry about earning brownie points, we first need to really engage in prayer, real active prayer.  Regardless of our spiritual leanings or direction, we can go nowhere until we have stewardship of our praying. A vehicle without petrol or gas will go nowhere and even an electric car needs recharging after its first drive.

 

Literature is full of examples of the Devil, the ultimate evil spirit, the nemesis for most faithful people.  Before you tell me you are too busy to be a good steward of prayer, let me remind you that Milton’s Lucifer and Goethe’s Mephistopheles were considered the most interesting of all the characters in the plays they inhabited.  Delightful and witty, their evilness does not appear as repulsive but rather charming and charismatic.  Yet, they represent the most evil of all, that which separates us from God – “I am the eternal spirit of negation” Mephistopheles explains to Faust in Goethe’s play.

 

It is that “I haven’t the time”, the subconscious “NO!” playing in our heads that keeps us from actively taking control of our praying and our prayer life.  Anywhere can become a sacred space as we discovered last Advent 2014 with the series that explored all the different sacred spaces on earth.  It is up to us to create that sacred space in our own lives, that time no matter how brief and that place no matter where it is that allows us to be faithful stewards of our praying.  We have no need to pray it forward.  We simply need to pray.

Women, Life and Beliefs

Life and Beliefs

Lent 28

 

Religious freedom is not just something discussed and guaranteed in the United States Constitution, although said document was one of the first to include it in a government’s laws and stated human rights.  It has been the goal of mankind since beliefs became diverse and openly discussed.  Clearly the first deliverance of the Jewish people from the bondage in Egypt was not a cure-all.  In the mid twentieth century Adolf Hitler sought to not only enslave them but to eradicate them, even though he himself was of Jewish descent.   “We were redeemed from Egypt because of the righteousness of the women of that generation.”  This sentence is found in the Talmud, the Jewish holy book.   

 

Today many people are seeking freedoms, both for religious purposes but also for just basic living.  Sarah Aaronsohn was born at the end of the nineteenth century and spent her life trying to obtain freedom for Palestine from Turkish rule.  She was tortured for her efforts but remained strong and determined, faithful to her religion.  Lina Abarbanell was an opera singer of high acclaim.  She retired from singing but not from the stage and became a worldwide director of such wonderful operas as “Porgy and Bess”.  Born in Germany immediately after the end of World War I, Rosalie Silberman Abella took her experience as a refugee and used it as motivation to help others.  She became the first Jewish woman elected to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Ruth Abrams became the first woman to serve on the Massachusetts Supreme Court, championing both women and minorities through her legal career.  Ruth Ginsberg is a vigilant and powerful presence in the United States Supreme Court today.

 

Lithuanian Dina Abramowicz was a Holocaust survivor from World War Ii.  While many hold that librarians are quiet, dull people, usually female, Dina proved them wrong.  As the head librarian of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, she helped recreate the rich heritage of the Jewish culture and people after WWII.  Bella Abzug was a New Yorker who also proved the strength of the Jewish woman.  Throughout her three terms as a U.S. Congresswoman, she advocated for and helped pass ground-breaking legislation for equal rights and particularly the right of women to play intramural sports in schools.

 

More recently Jill Abramson was the first female executive editor of the New York Times and promoted women within the organization as well as featuring stories regarding gender equality and racial injustice.  Rachel Adler sought to achieve gender equality within her own faith and was a pioneer of the Jewish feminist movement.  Born fifty years earlier, Paula Ackerman had taken over leadership of her rabbi husband’s congregation upon his death, a move that was met with support from the members of their synagogue.   Amy Alcott is a fantastic golfer who was recognized in the World Golf Hall of Fame.  Sue Alexander is a founding member of the International Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. 

 

The Beatitudes offer us a reason to continue to believe, in spite of what life throws at us.  They also have, for many, provided a foundation for which to live.  With no mission board to support or guide her and less than ten dollars in her pocket, Gladys Aylward left her home in England to answer God’s call to take the message of the gospel to China.  Amy Carmichael is an Irish missionary who spent fifty-three years in South India without a break.  Both women believed that their Creator would provide for their needs.

 

Dr. Helen Roseveare graduated in medicine from University of Cambridge in the late 1940′s. A well-known missionary doctor and author, with several of her works still in print, she worked in the north-eastern province of the Belgian Congo with the Heart of Africa Mission in the 1950′s & 60′s.  Art critic John Ruskin enthusiastically proclaimed her potential as one of the best artists of the nineteenth century, but Lilias Trotter’s devotion to Christ compelled her to surrender her life of art, privilege, and leisure. Leaving the home of her wealthy parents for a humble dwelling in Algeria, Lilias defied stereotypes and taboos that should have deterred any European woman from ministering in a Muslim country. Yet she stayed for nearly forty years, befriending Algerian Muslims with her appreciation for literature and art and winning them to Christ through her life of love.

 

Khadīja Khuwaylid Even was an important figure in her own right even before her famous marriage to the Prophet Muhammad, since she was a successful merchant and one of the elite figures of Mecca. She played a central role in supporting and propagating the new faith of Islam and has the distinction of being the first Muslim. 

 

One of the most important mystics (or Sufis) in the Muslim tradition, Rābi‘a al-‘Adawīyya spent much of her early life as a slave in southern Iraq before attaining her freedom. She is considered to be one the founders of the Sufi school of “Divine Love,” which emphasizes the loving of God for His own sake, rather than out of fear of punishment or desire for reward. She lays this out in one of her poems:

“O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell,

and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise.

But if I worship You for Your Own sake,

grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

 

March is Women’s History Month so today I have dedicated this post to women of great faith.  Throughout history women have lived and fought for their religious beliefs and freedoms, finding strength in the cause and effects echoed in the Beatitudes.  These named represent a small minority of the thousands of thousands of brave and spiritual women who have lived according to their beliefs.  The list just goes on and on as these women have found purpose and strength from their faith.  After all, why do we believe if it is not to help us live better and leave the world a better place?

 

 

 

 

 

Embrace and Tolerate

Embrace and Tolerate

Epiphany 23

 

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?” He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”  He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”  Looking for a loophole, the scholar asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

 

The above paragraph was in a post I received on Facebook from a young man of strength and character.  This paragraph has become the topic of the world news because of recent events occurring in the United States.  The man elected in part with the support of conservative religious groups seems to have forgotten this part of faith – all faiths.

 

In times where terrorism seems to occur several times a day in some part of the world and several times a year in others, fear is an understandable reaction.  Fear responses are our body’s defense system.  It serves as a reminder to act – not to hate.  We take cover during a storm because our body fears the consequences.  We use medicines productively to combat illness because our body is telling us something needs attention.  When used appropriately, fear can serve great purpose.

 

To hate one’s neighbor, though, is not productive and none of the world’s top religions encourage it although they all speak of it.  “Looking for a loophole, the scholar asked, “And just how would you define your ‘neighbor’?”  In other words, who do we embrace, loving them as ourselves?

 

We all have had neighbors with whom we were not friendly.  It is inevitable that at some point in time our neighbors will not share our interests or respect for boundaries, play loud music, push their leaves onto our yard, etc.  In some settlements, the neighbors have guns aimed at the houses.  How on earth are we supposed to embrace these people?  Surely they are not our true neighbors.  Or are they?

 

“Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side…”.   This quote is from the Quran, 4:36.  Islam speaks highly of the one who not only sees their neighbor and embraces them but also tolerates them and treats them with respect.

 

“The Scale of Wisdom” is a collection of sayings of the Prophet Mohammed and the Twelve Imams compiled by M. Muhammadi Rayshahri.  “It is to help him if he asks your help, to lend him if he asks to borrow from you, to satisfy his needs if he becomes poor, to console him if he is visited by an affliction, to congratulate him if is met with good fortune, to visit him if he becomes ill, to attend his funeral if he dies, not to make your house higher than his without his consent lest you deny him the breeze, to offer him fruit when you buy some or to take it to your home secretly if you do not do that, nor to send out your children with it so as not to upset his children, nor to bother him by the tempting smell of your food unless you send him some.”

 

What does the Torah say about loving one’s neighbor?  “Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.”   This passage from Leviticus 19:18 is important as is the Jewish definition of love.  Judaism defines love as “the emotional pleasure of identifying virtues in another person.”   It is not seen as an act of fate nor a physical pleasure but a deliberate embracing of another and a purposeful identification of their existence.

 

The third of the world’s largest religion is Christianity, the third of the Abrahamic faiths.  Scripture for this topic is found in many places in the Christian Bible but it appears first in the New Testament in the Gospel of Matthew, in the twenty-second chapter.  To the question at the end of our first paragraph, the man known as Jesus of Nazareth gave this answer earlier in this book.  Matthew 5:43 states: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. 

 

 Later in that same book, Matthew 22:36 we find this:  “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.   And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  We are to embrace all and tolerate them.  In Islam this is illustrated by not having your house higher than your neighbors so as to prevent him from the breeze.  In Judaism, it is to recognize that we are all different but those differences have value.  In Christianity it is to allow that your enemy is still your brother and sister as children of the Creator and should be treated as you would wish to be treated.

 

Who is the neighbor you are to embrace and tolerate?  The person who is standing beside you, the person standing halfway around the world, the person who looks nothing like you or whose speech is unfamiliar because they exist and are, therefore, your neighbor.  We should embrace and tolerate.  To do anything else is to live a lie and hasten the end.  This is not political or even religious.  It is simply good common sense.

 

 

 

 

Intention and Disconnect

Intention and Disconnect

Advent 15

 

One cannot approach the concept of grace either objectively or subjectively without including the religious community.  Indeed, many do not even attempt to define the concept of grace outside of a religious and theological construct.  I have asked you to consider it a form of living but today we will discuss it not as an inevitable part of one’s spirit of living but as it relates to organized religion and its followers.  Why?  Because often the religions of the world have become stumbling blocks to grace, especially when seen through a subjective lens which is our perspective in discussing grace this week. 

 

Beyond Intractability was developed and is still maintained by the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. The missions of the Consortium and, more specifically, the Beyond Intractability project reflect the convergence of two long-standing streams of work. The first is an exploitation of the unique abilities of Web-based information systems to speed the flow of conflict-related information among those working in the field and the general public. The second is an investigation of strategies for more constructively addressing intractable conflict problems — those difficult situations which lie at the frontier of the field.

 

We will begin our discussion with a quote from the Beyond Intractability website:  “At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a casual glance at world affairs would suggest that religion is at the core of much of the strife around the globe.  Often, religion is a contentious issue. Where eternal salvation is at stake, compromise can be difficult at or even sinful. Religion is also important because, as a central part of many individuals’ identity, any threat to one’s beliefs is a threat to one’s very being. This is a primary motivation for ethno-religious nationalists.  … However, the relationship between religion and conflict is, in fact, a complex one. Religiously-motivated peace builders have played important roles in addressing many conflicts around the world.

 

“Although not necessarily so, there are some aspects of religion that make it susceptible to being a latent source of conflict. All religions have their accepted dogma, or articles of belief, that followers must accept without question. This can lead to inflexibility and intolerance in the face of other beliefs. After all, if it is the word of God, how can one compromise it? At the same time, scripture and dogma are often vague and open to interpretation. Therefore, conflict can arise over whose interpretation is the correct one, a conflict that ultimately cannot be solved because there is no arbiter. The winner generally is the interpretation that attracts the most followers. However, those followers must also be motivated to action. Although, almost invariably, the majority of any faith hold moderate views, they are often more complacent, whereas extremists are motivated to bring their interpretation of God’s will to fruition.  Religious extremists can contribute to conflict escalation. They see radical measures as necessary to fulfilling God’s wishes. Fundamentalists of any religion tend to take a Manichean view of the world. If the world is a struggle between good and evil, it is hard to justify compromising with the devil. Any sign of moderation can be decried as selling out, more importantly, of abandoning God’s will.”

 

Manichean may be a word unfamiliar to you but its meaning is how many people view the world and try to live their lives.  Manichean comes from the word Mani, which is the name of an apostle who lived in Mesopotamia in the time frame of 240 ACE, who taught a universal religion based on what we now call dualism. If you believe in the Manichean idea of dualism, you tend to look at things as having two sides that are opposed. To Manicheans, life can be divided neatly between good or evil, light or dark, or love and hate.

 

In other words, in an attempt to live their doctrines of peace and love, people tend to think with a narrow field and view the world as either black or white.  Human beings are complex creatures and no one is one-dimensional.  In other words, no one person is all anything.  In our intention to live a doctrine of love and peace, we allow our subjective narrowness to trip us up.

 

To be certain, some things are either right or wrong.  You cannot murder someone halfway.  A person is either killed or alive.  However, the quality of life then comes into question and such is often what leads people to commit suicide.  Rather than offer grace, their expectations, based upon their belief system, suffocates any grace they might find.

 

So should we assume religion is the problem and not the answer?  Absolutely not!  Religions tend to connect us and remind us of that which we are deep inside.  They are, I believe, most necessary to life.  Religions offer us ways to show, recognize, and live grace.  Life is hard but grace makes it not only possible but worthwhile. 

 

Quoting David Smock, the Beyond Intractability website offers one solution to consider in finding grace amid all this conflict and discord.  “Religion is inherently conflictual, but this is not necessarily so. Therefore, in part, the solution is to promote a heightened awareness of the positive peace building and reconciliatory role religion has played in many conflict situations. More generally, fighting ignorance can go a long way. Interfaith dialogue would be beneficial at all levels of religious hierarchies and across all segments of religious communities. Where silence and misunderstanding are all too common, learning about other religions would be a powerful step forward. Being educated about other religions does not mean conversion but may facilitate understanding and respect for other faiths.”

 

We all have intentions and the faith-based communities of the world are no different.  However, when need to give closer attention to our efforts and revitalize them every day.  Grace might very well be the key to world peace and it certainly makes each of our lives better.  Rather than being the problem, grace is the answer.

 

 

 

 

A New Idea

A New Idea

Pentecost 137

 

I received a complaint over my last post.  The thought in dispute was not the actual post but the fact that I discussed both the Jewish and Islamic New year celebrations in the same post.  Apparently one reader, whom I shall not name because I firmly believe in their right to remain anonymous, did not believe the two holidays should be discussed together.

 

New Year celebrations are as old as mankind.  The Jewish calendar begins with the Feast of Trumpets or Rosh Hashanah which started last night at sundown.  Today the Islamic New Year celebration period of Muharram began and will continue for ten days, ending with a celebration for Moses escaping the Egyptians.  The Christian liturgical calendar celebrates the beginning of their calendar year with the First Sunday in Advent which this year falls on November 27, 2016.  The secular calendars of course celebrate New Year’s Day on the first day of the year, January 1st.  Each celebration, though, is really about giving thanks and living hope.  We all share that in common and so, I included the first two celebrations together.

 

What if we never celebrated different things together?  What if we never thought about new ideas?  What if we never grew in knowledge or understanding?  What if there were no new ideas?

 

Letting yourself have a new idea or be open to diversity is not just a sign of modern times.  Mankind has been doing it forever.  Otherwise, we would all still be living in caves without plumbing or technology.  You would be reading once I had carved it in stone on the wall of some cave.

 

It is natural to fear the unknown but we cannot let the unknown stop us from growing.  We must be open to new ideas, even it is means discussing two schools of faith that are seemingly at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Belief in something and a passionat4e love of that belief is shared by all who believe in something.  We cannot restrict that which we share because then we deny who we are – human beings.

 

Celebrate these two New year celebrations in your own way, positively and with hope.  Then in eight weeks, celebrate again.  Life is to celebrated, not destroyed or feared.  New ideas take us down paths of success and perhaps together we will create a better tomorrow, a brighter new year for all.

Pieta

Pieta

Easter 1

 

We are now in one of the most contested seasons of the calendar I use in my organization of this blog – Easter.  Perhaps it is fitting that we will, as a theme this year, discuss another contested subject – gender equality and the contributions of women as innovators.

 

A terrorist attack was thwarted today in Nigeria when watchful villagers noticed three young girls acting suspiciously.  One of the young girls escaped, to what no one knows.  The other two, however, were captured and found to be wearing suicide bomb vests.  One of the two captured was under the influence of very strong drugs and taken to a medical facility.  The other girl claimed to be part of two hundred and fifty girls kidnapped from a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok two years ago.  Only fifty of the original two hundred and fifty were able to escape and many have feared that the remaining two hundred had fallen victims to horrendous sexual abuse or forced to convert to Islam.

 

The very name of the group claiming to be behind the school girls’ kidnapping is “Boko Haram” means “Western education is a sin.”  The group protests women doing anything other than raising children and taking care of their husbands.  In other words, to this group and others like it, women have only the function in life to be slaves.

 

More than one billion people live in poverty today and most of them are female.  The issue of poverty is a highly complex one and its origins are not rooted solely in Western education but can be found in local, national, and international realms.  Part of the problem is the lack of gender equality worldwide.

 

One of the best resources remarking on this topic can be found at the website of the Peace Corps.  “Gender equality is a human right, but our world faces a persistent gap in access to opportunities and decision-making power for women and men. Globally, women have fewer opportunities for economic participation than men, less access to basic and higher education, greater health and safety risks, and less political representation. Guaranteeing the rights of women and giving them opportunities to reach their full potential is critical not only for attaining gender equality, but also for meeting a wide range of international development goals. Empowered women and girls contribute to the health and productivity of their families, communities, and countries, creating a ripple effect that benefits everyone.”

 

Women make up more than 50% of the world’s population and yet they only own 1% of the world’s wealth. Again I quote from the Peace Corps website:  “Throughout the world, women and girls perform long hours of unpaid domestic work. In some places, women still lack rights to own land or to inherit property, obtain access to credit, earn income, or to move up in their workplace, free from job discrimination. At all levels, including at home and in the public arena, women are widely underrepresented as decision-makers. In legislatures around the world, women are outnumbered 4 to 1, yet women’s political participation is crucial for achieving gender equality and genuine democracy.”

 

For centuries it was believed that women could not keep up with men in the science and mathematics fields.  Today the number of women in STEM – science, technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – fields is not proportional to their numbers in the population.

 

During this season of Easter, we will discuss invention of women.  Easter is both a religious and pagan holiday with some overlapping between the two.  It is not one specific date, even among Christians.  One of the lasting images of the religious holiday, though, is of the mother of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth at the foot of the cross where her son is being crucified and then her holding his lifeless body.

 

Michelangelo and many other artists have portrayed this image of the grieving mother in works of art called pietas.  The word comes from the Latin “pietatem” which meant mercy or compassion.  One of my favorite pietas is that of Kathrin Burleson but there are many and all are lovely.  While most of these depictions of the pieta are also called lamentations and feature Mary and her son Jesus, they could be representative of all women who have been subjected to gender bias and the resulting victimization of such.

 

Women comprise more than fifty percent of the population and no one is ever born without a woman being involved.  With the future of mankind literally their dominion, women should be respected, not reviled and enslaved.  #WithStrongGirls is just one of many organizations trying to bridge the gender gap.  Hopefully, with our discussions about these inventions over the next fifty-plus days, we all will realize that women have much to offer in addition to the ability to birth children.  They can also give birth to some great ideas and inventions that benefit all of mankind.  Please join me as we learn and celebrate women.  What helps women benefits us all.

Before the Before

Before the Before

Pentecost 141

It is the continent upon which the cradle of civilization supposedly first rocked and then gave birth to mankind.  It is often spoken of as a country and yet is a continent.  If someone identified themselves as a European, then most would inquire further: “Yes, but from what country are you?”  Most people look at the color of the skin and simply think…”African”.  This does a disservice to both the native and the continent.  It is a gloriously diverse land mass with its north and south being oddly similar while the mid-section is colorful in its sameness.  The best description is that it is different and yet, one.

Regardless of whether you believe in evolution or one of the thousands of creation myths that exist, mankind began to travel out of Africa more than one and a half million years ago.  Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts, stone tools used by “Homo habilis” that date back more than two million years ago.  Saharan rock art illustrates animals that have been extinct since 8500 BCE.  While other rock art dates back more than twenty-six thousand years ago.  Even the popular body art of tattooing dates back more than forty-two thousand years ago in Africa as the earth element ocher was being ground into a fine powder for such use.  The art of burying the dead dates back more than seventy thousand years in Africa.

When speaking of Africa today, distinction is usually made between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa.  In ancient times, this distinction was even more noted.  The native populations of North Africa consisted of lighter-skinned Berbers and Maghreb and Egyptians.  Many Arabs settled in North Africa following the Caliphate.  Sub-Saharan populations share the physical trait of very dark skin, although Sub-Saharan Africa contains the most diverse population genetically of anywhere on earth.

The earliest of mankind existed in Africa more than two million years ago in lands known by the more modern names of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania.  I will pause here to note that African countries have changed names throughout history and if I speak historically and my countries do not match the most current maps, it is because we are speaking historically and mythologically.  The Nile River served as a boundary and stopped mankind from exploring Sub-Saharan Africa but eventually migrations did occur which led to different pockets of civilization, some nomadic, and others settling in villages all over the continent.  The oldest known evidence of modern man was found in sites in eastern Africa and dates back more than one hundred and thirty thousand years.

African mythology contains some of the most imaginative and beautiful stories, art, and music of any worldwide.  While many think of only jungles when considering the second largest continent, others imagine vast desert regions.  Others may only think of plagues and still more remember it as the beginning of a tortuous journey of slavery for thousands. This does a grave disservice to Africa and its people.  Africa is home to early Christian kingdoms of Kush and Axum and Egypt which is the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, a biblical treasure which is said to contain the Ten Commandments while there was a great Islamic center at Timbuktu in Mali.  Mankind itself existed in opposite ends of the spectrum with the Pygmies of the rain forests located near the equator and the towering Masai herdsmen of Kenya and Tanzania.  Africans include the  the San [Bushmen] of the Kalahari Desert, the cowboys of Khoi in southern Africa with their cattle-herding skills, and the proud Zulu who took it upon themselves to challenge the mighty British Empire two centuries ago in South Africa.

Africa has both grown and suffered by the migrations of others to its lands.  The Islamic Arabs in the seventh century and then European Christians in the fifteenth century all but erased the rich legacy of African traditions, mythology, and history.  Unlike the mythologies of Greece, Roma, and the Far East, African legends have never been written.  The mythologies of Africa exist in the truest form of mythology, the oral tradition.  Once considered the Dark Continent, new emphasis on these ancient stories have revealed that Africa is a rich, brilliant land of textures and varieties, myth and magic, music, and muse.

The history of Africa, more so than on any other spot on earth, is woven amongst its people and terrain.  Even its mythologies are said to have been won from the sky god Onyankopon by the mischievous spider Anansi.  As the spider wove a web to ensnare the god’s family and then released them in trade for stories about creation, the cosmology, and even social order, so have African myths been woven into the fabric of mankind.

The traveling myths of Africa went with its people.  Whether by choice or servitude and slavery, Africans took their stories and culture with them, singing their myths to give themselves faith.  We all take the stories of our culture and history with us each and every day.  As we awake, we hear the faint echoes of the voices of our past.  With each step we leave impressions of our present and lay the foundation of the future.  In African mythology we will see the weaving of a world, the beautiful texture and nuances of each of us.  Today you will create a small square that is to be the quilt of your being.  Perhaps you will be asked to trade something of yourself for the story of another.  Just remember to value that which is you and grow a new day, writing a new story, for you, too, are a wonderful myth in the making.

Catalyst of change

Catalyst of Change

Pentecost 117

Yesterday we discussed the Indian mythological god Shiva and his wife Parvati.  Today we continue with the rest of their story, a story that is as old as time and as pertinent as today.  Theirs is not just the typical fantasy tale of imaginary creatures with unbelievable powers and whimsical and sometimes scary acts.  It is also quite possibly the first recorded history of racism.

There are several stories about how the Hindu god Shiva would tease his wife about her complexion.  Parvati had a darker hue of skin tone than her husband.  One story has her shedding her skin, taking the name Gauri, and then turning gold.  The sloughed-off skin took on a life of its own, becoming the goddess Kali.

There are other origins for Kali.  One tells that she is really the breathing being of the thoughts of another goddess known as Durga who furtively sought for an answer when embroiled in a battle with the demon Raktabija.  Still another legend maintains that Kali was killed immediately after birth and ascended to the heavens, only to mock her killer.  Kali became the revered goddess of a group of professional assassins known as the Thugs and they ritualistically went about killing people as a sacrifice to her.

Kali is depicted as a most gruesome character, usually all black and wearing a necklace of skulls.  Around her waist she wears a belt of severed arms or snakes with long tongues or fangs dripping blood.  Her hair is disheveled which, along with her other distinguishing characteristics, makes her one of the most recognizable mythological characters around the world.

Kali serves a real purpose, though as she represents ignorance and hatred.  She reminds us that death is a part of life, one phase of the evolution that the life cycle is and that while we are living, we need to address those things which need to be eliminated from our living.  The Sanskrit alphabet comes from the lettering on the skulls around her neck.  Kali often is illustrated as having four hands but two are always empty – seen as a sign of hope that one can always find more life to live.  In many of the myths about her, Kali is seen dancing on Shiva’s grave which reanimates him.

In his book “Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes”, Steve Spangler has many interesting science experiments.  One involves the use of milk, food coloring, and liquid dish detergent.  About one-half a cup of milk is poured into a saucer or bowl.  Then several drops of various colors of food coloring are dropped carefully into the milk.  Lastly, one drop of liquid dish detergent like the brand Dawn is dropped into the middle of the milk.  What happens is a kaleidoscope of movement and color changes.

The detergent is a catalyst; all soap is.  Soap works to clean things not by any magical powers but by being a catalyst.  It changes the surface tension of the dirt molecules and releases their hold onto the object which is dirty.  Simply rinsing one’s hands in water does not clean them.  By applying soap, the surface tension is lessened and then the dirt is washed off by the water.

Parvati shed her skin and it became Kali.  There are, I am certain, a great many things you and I could “shed” in our lives to make our living better, smoother, cleaner.  Many religions encourage one to pray for one’s enemies – a really tall order, if you ask me.  Even Islam, while not specifically saying this, has a similar edict.  In fact, I think it is most easily understood how to do this by what the Quran says:  “…let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice.” (5:8)

It is not easy to pray for one who has wronged you.  However, if we don’t release that pain, let our beliefs release the surface tension of that negativity, then we become the gruesome depiction of Kali.  Faith, whether religious or spiritual, is a catalyst for change.  Perhaps you have faith in a deity or perhaps you simply have faith in living.  Go forward today and let that faith become your catalyst for change.  Allow it to release the surface tension of past hurts so that you can move forward and shine like the golden skin of Parvati.  Just like the drop of detergent in the milk creates a seemingly never-ending wonderment of activity, releasing hurt through prayer and faith can create a new living, glorious and amazing.  You and only you can be the true catalyst of change for your life.

And then came ….

And then came …

Pentecost 107

In many countries this is the time that children go back to school, beginning another year of academic study.  This time of year is characterized by new textbooks, new notebooks, new laptops and usually new clothes or school uniforms, necessary because children grow.  It is easy with an infant to see growth.  After all, from one six month period to another, many changes occur, physically and emotionally.  With toddlers the intellectual growth becomes evident as they learn to test the boundaries they previously took for granted.  No longer can one put the child in a crib and rest assured the baby will remain there.  AS the child grows intellectually, their problem solving skills develop.  Hungry?  Push the chair over to the counter, climb up, open the cupboard, find the cookies hidden at the back and…instant resolution for the hunger!

Somewhere along the later teen years we seem to stop emphasizing our own personal intellectual growth.  Once our heads stop growing, we seem to think so should our brains and minds.  The mythologies of our Pentecost series are not presented in a timeline but rather geographically.  I have done this for three reasons.  First, I like organizing things by region.  I think it lends itself better to our imagined connections to these stories and using one’s imagination is critical when discussing ancient legends proclaiming warriors of the soul and spirits of the universe.  Secondly, we have no real proof of any timeline and, I believe, some of these stories appeared at opposite ends of the earth but at the same time.  I also have no proof of that but we do have evidence of other things.  For example, castanets and finger cymbals served the same purpose and are played very much the same and yet, appeared on earth at about the same time.  Their difference is the material with which they are made, material that is native to their respective cultures.

Thirdly, mankind grew and spread and some believe the ancient mythologies did as well.  Certainly, Greece influence those of the Romans.  I believe that as mankind traveled to other regions, so did the myths and beliefs of the people doing the traveling.  Regardless of their age, these stories still packed a powerful punch when told and retold.  To believe that older myths no longer have impact today discredits the very nature of storytelling.  While by the end of this series we will have discussed many myths and mythical characters, the world has many, many more with which to delight your mind and grow some new thoughts.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the telling and to forget that myths are like neighbors, the neighbors that the cultures of mankind truly are.  While one culture was developing one skill set, another was not necessarily sleeping.  Rather, they were busy doing their own thing.  Before Alexander the Great had reached the Indus River, what would become the farthest point of his empire, Buddha had been born and buried as had Mahavita, founder of the Jain religion.

Karl Jaspers, a noted German philosopher, described the period between 900 to 200 BCE as the “Axial Age”, a pivotal time in the development of mankind’s spiritual growth and religious development.  Axial refers to relationships, the axis being the central point around which things revolve.   Jasper pointed to this period during which four main world traditions developed:  Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism leading to the Abrahamic faiths in Israel; philosophical rationalism in Greece.  Many believe we are still in this period while others feel we have diluted the messages they presented to the world.

Today we consider the mythologies of our ancestors as being either religious or spiritual.  We might be surprised to discover they probably would have not considered them either.  Whether the stories were of Thor striking the heavens with his hammer to create lightning or an offering of either material sacrifice or whispered prayer to a deity omnipotent, the intent was the same.  The purpose of their believing was to create change, positive change in one’s living.

AS we begin tomorrow to study India’s mythologies in depth, I hope we remember these are not just stories told to an primitive audience that have no meaning today.  These are primordial stories, a genealogy of mankind.  If our lives are to have any meaning today and for tomorrow, we must recognize our origins and those things that gave life meaning.  We could learn quite a bit from those early beings that lived what we might consider very elementary lives.

In her book “The Great Transformation” Karen Armstrong emphasizes this:  “What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved.”  The intent of all the mythologies we will explore during this series is that5 fact that they were told to explain and improve life.  The worships, the sacrifices, the rituals were not merely drama or entertainment.  Their purpose was to profoundly change the believer.

All too often today we go through our daily lives like robots or lemmings following the current trends as we attempt to swim upstream to some imaginary prize or status.  The mythologies of the past were all about creating a better tomorrow, inhabited and lived by a better mankind.  Tomorrow will be determined by what we do today, how we live today.  Who we harm, who we ignore, what will attract our attention, where we will spend our money…These are the things that define us.  These are our mythologies of today that we ourselves will write.  To complete our title question:  And then came… The answer is you.

On a Friday Evening …

On a Friday Evening

Pentecost 106

Friday evening is often that time in which many people begin their weekend, a time of relaxation.  It is a time in which we celebrate the seven-day week, especially the weekend part of it.  For many the weekend will begin with a visit to a pub, tavern, bar, or nightclub.  Beer will be ordered and new friends made with the inevitable opening line “What’s your [zodiac] sign?”

As you might have guessed, I am reading comments and while that might not sound like as much fun as going out, it does please me.  I find it interesting that the two most repeated comments tie into our next topic of conversation.  “Why Mesopotamia?  How could anything from such an ancient place relate to me?”

We tend to call the area known as the Middle East in its own land mass.  In reality, it is on the Asian continent since Turkey marks the divide between Europe and Asia.  I promised in September we would discuss the mythologies of Asia, the Far East and the Near East but to do so, we must first get there and that involves Mesopotamia.  AS mentioned before, the hundreds of creation myths told cannot belie the archaeological proof of mankind’s origins in the regions surrounding Mesopotamia.  Perhaps that is why the history of this area goes back so far into antiquity.

Those living in Mesopotamia in 9000 BCE domesticated dogs and sheep in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains.  They cultivated wheat and barley and by 5500 BCE has developed the first irrigation system.  One thousand years later this technology to aid in farming would reach the Indus Valley in India.  In 7000 BCE mankind began living in rudimentary mud huts and not only had livestock consisting of goats, sheep, and pigs but also grew wheat from seed.

Also in 5500 BCE trading commenced from the Persian Gulf to Mediterranean port cities.  Mankind was no longer living in isolation, meeting others on the battlefield.  Culture was being sold and bought and spread along the trade routes.  In 3100 BCE cuneiform script developed and was used to record sales and contracts.  Cuneiform is not just one alphabet but a group of scripts all employing the use of wedge-shaped symbols.  In 2700 BCE Gilgamesh reigned over the city of Uruk, the fifth king to do so and many believe it was his reign that inspired the mythological poem about him we discussed yesterday.

“Why Mesopotamia?”  someone asked.  The answer is quite simple and hearkens back to the early beginnings of mankind.  Mesopotamia and its mythologies are important because they cannot be ignored.  In 1797-1750 BCE, during what is known as the Old Babylonian Period, Babylon became the capital of Mesopotamia.  Hammurabi composed one of the first legal codes in the history of mankind, a code which said to have been the basis for the Ten Commandments of the Jewish and Christian faiths, and a code upon which many legal systems have been based.

In 1295-1200 BCE, exact dates are unknown, the Jewish people participated in a great exodus from Egypt and the epic poem about Gilgamesh was composed.  It is not only the oldest surviving epic poem, it is considered the first known written legend.  In 1005-967 King David reigned in Israel and Jerusalem was established at the capital.  And yes, this is the same King David we discussed last year during Pentecost when we studied the psalms and hopefully, you wrote your own along with me.

So, in a few short paragraphs, we have connected Mesopotamia to the Greeks and Romans, the Abrahamic faiths, and, if you were paying close attention, even the typical Friday night club scene.  You see, the Mesopotamians not only developed that receipt the waitress gives you as a bill of sale and the alphabet it employs but also the beer served, the astrological calendar with its zodiac signs and the seven-day week that gave you the weekend.

For many, the weekend is the time they celebrate their beliefs.  For others, it is the end of one week and the beginning of another.  “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.”  Mother Teresa was not referring to the love one seeks to find on the weekend but the love of mankind, one being for another being, we all seek to experience in our daily lives and which our belief systems encourage.  Today is the first sentence of the next chapter of your own story, the mythology you are writing with your living.  I hope it is your best one yet!