There is a need in all of us to want to see agents in every life experience. In other words, we could say there is a reason for an experience, or there is something behind it. Actually the process of assigning agency is instinctive, and in the sub conscious, we don’t think about; it is there.
I’ll give a personal experience for illustration.
I grew up in a village on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, one of a couple hundred villages that dot the pristine habitat, that nourishes not only we humans in our huts and shacks, but also many other neighbors.
The alpine trees all around us reached to the skies, often shielding the twin peaks of the majestic mountain in clouds for days. The abundance of fresh water in springs and rivers provided abundant sustenance of life for us villagers, for a variety of vegetation, and many creatures of the forests, most of them hidden from view.
Some forest inhabitants we encountered occasionally: monkeys jumping across trees, antelopes feeding and hiding in the shrubbery, as well as different kinds of rodents, most of which we didn’t care about.
Then there were stories about mountain or forest leopards that preyed on all the other animals. I say “stories” because in keeping with their reputation, leopards are clandestine and masters of camouflage and mystery. They don’t get to be seen by humans, or anyone else for that matter.
We knew there were some leopards in the forest because once in a while an amateur’s trap of antelope would net a leopard instead – a very rare eventuality, but a real experience once in a while.
I never had the experience of an encounter with a leopard but I had seen my amateur trap-layer-cousin spread out a fresh leopard skin to dry in the cool, gentle mountain sun. There were also stories of leopard marks spotted in one or another of the villages.
It was one of those things. We knew they were there in the forests, we couldn’t tell how many, and they managed to conceal themselves.
So, we had this shack of a house, like everybody in the village where the central feature was a main entrance that extended as a corridor between sleeping rooms on either side.
I was around 8 years and shared a room with two younger siblings. In the middle of the night my sister woke me up and asked me to escort her to the lavatory.
We didn’t have indoor amenities in those days, so a lavatory was a dug out pit with a covering shack away from the main compound, about 100 yards away. We didn’t have electricity either, we relied on an open wicker lantern that could illuminate a few feet around.
So my sister was inside the shack and I was waiting outside with the wicker lamp. That was when I saw it. About 20 yards in the darkness I saw the animal crouch and softly growl.
“A leopard!” I screamed.
My little sister dashed out of the shack – instead of me joining her in there for refuge – and we proceeded to run towards the compound. We heard our father shouting top scare the animal off while he struggled to unlatch the door to his room to come to our rescue.
My sister and I were back in the house panting as we struggled to recover our breath. Father dashed to where I pointed out as the area the leopard was crouching.
But there was no leopard, or any animal.
Early in the morning neighbors and concerned villagers scouted the surrounding area, but there was no sign of a leopard. No paw marks of a big cat anywhere around.
So, what did I see?
Most probably nothing. Yet I never doubted that I saw a leopard. Why not a dog as the inspectors of the sight speculated?
A leopard was the most extreme of the probabilities; the most dangerous scenario. If the sighting turned out to be a dog there would have been no harm. However, should it have turned out to be a leopard, my sister and I would have been in mortal danger.
My primal instinct for survival resorted to the extreme possibility as a way of maximizing survival chances.
All of us operate with this subconscious mindset all the time. Think about it.
The Christmas season raises a number of questions, some comforting, others troubling. A lot of what we do is tradition. The fact that for many believers scripture provides the background is one of those areas of solace and also misinformation bordering on superstition.
First, most people know that December 24 (midnight) is most probably not Jesus’ birthday. Put simply, we don’t know, as a fact of history, on what date Jesus was born. So, December 24 is purely tradition. There is nothing wrong with tradition. What is wrong is to attempt to present tradition as a historical fact.
So, where or when did this tradition begin?
There are many explanations out there, the most common being Pope Julius’ choice of December 25 and emperor Constantine’s observance in 336 CE. In short, a combination of secular and religious traditions.
From the religious point of view, the nativity narratives appear in two gospels only, each with its own theological focus.
Matthew 1:18-25 and the genealogy in 1:1-17 presents the nativity from Joseph’s perspective to the vexation of modern feminists and social justice advocates. Why is it that it’s Joseph who is visited by an angel regarding Mary’s pregnancy? Why doesn’t Mary have anything to say?
So, Matthew’s gospel has a Jewish audience in mind and reflects Jewish mindset at that time. Today, we definitely need to continue to engage and question worldviews frozen in 1st century male chauvinism.
Luke’s narrative in 1-2 has more of Mary being visited by an angel and her reactions towards her pregnancy. She does have decisions to make.
Anyway, the two writers present two different narratives and approaches. Jesus was from Nazareth, in Galilee. They want to connect him with David who was from Bethlehem and not a Galilean. How do you connect Jesus to Bethlehem?
Luke uses a census and mass movement to have Jesus’ parents migrate from Nazareth to Bethlehem and have Jesus born there then back to Nazareth. Matthew on the other hand, has Jesus born in Bethlehem, flees to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s tyranny, returns after Herod’s death, but settles in Nazareth out of fear of Herod’s successor, Archelaus.
So, the connection between Bethlehem and Nazareth is completed through two different narratives. From a historical perspective, which narrative is correct?
First, Matthew’s narrative and the holy family’s flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre. Fortunately, Herod the Great is well documented by historians, especially Flavius Josephus. He was brutal, no doubt about that He killed his favorite wife, Mariamne, and his own son, on suspicion of a plot against him.
Would he have massacred children for fear of a competing king? Without a doubt. The problem is, it never happened. A massacre of such magnitude would not have escaped the eye of historians
How about Luke’s narrative? Was there a census? According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus the Roman emperor deposed Herod Archelaus who ruled over much of Judea after his father Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE. Judea was made part of the province of Syria and Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed legate governor in 6 CE. A local census was taken for purposes of taxation.
Jesus’ birth would fall between before 4 BCE and after 6 CE. No empire-wide census is recorded and the mass movement of virtually every resident going back to their ancestors’ origins would have rendered the whole exercise impossible; was it even possible for anyone to trace ancestors back 1,000 years?
It is therefore necessary to read the nativity stories as community’s folklores which communicated the community’s self understanding and the values they represented. In our Christmas pageantries we do not attempt to re-enact history. We merely display artistically, through music, costume, ceremony, rituals and celebration, the expression of who we are and our aspirations as a community connected to our past through tradition.
I am one who always hopes for that year, or just a time, for women on the front ranks of society. I may be biased into thinking that such a time might be more tolerant, more empathic and perhaps less tribal and parochial. But I have reasons to think so.
Women can more easily think outside the box than men. For example, women can more easily incorporate into different worldviews and cultures than men. And, it is precisely because of this mindset that they have been victimized and despised by male chauvinists.
When the European Union Constitution was being drafted, the late pope John Paul II complained that the explicit mention of European Christian background was not included in the preamble to the constitution.
After all, how can you talk about any aspect of Western civilization and culture and ignore its Christian roots?
I have often watched Roman Catholic Masses of ordination. I like churches – the liturgy, music, especially the pipe organs, the smell of incense, the processions and the rituals. Christian art in general, stirs emotions deep within me, as I am sure I am not alone in this.
But every time I am engrossed in the ceremonies, I wake up, wondering, “where are the women?” They are in the pulpits, but not one is in the procession, or – to be heretical – being ordained or presiding over the ritual.
This is part of the roots of Western civilization’s exclusion of women in the affairs of society and even having men make decisions on matters that affect women.
I need to record a disclaimer: I am not a member of the Roman church. I am aware of the church’s claims for excluding half of their believers from the rite of ordination. I don’t agree with the claims, but I do not presume to tell Catholics what to do or not do. They most certainly don’t encourage outsiders telling them what to do. Nevertheless, if we would want to invoke Christian roots of Western civilization, we must also critique the negative influences of Western Christianity, one of which is the marginalization of women.
Marginalization of women is inherent in every branch of Christianity, though some see and recognize the anomaly and honestly struggle for corrective measures. Roman Catholicism and conservative Protestant Christianity (and Islam for that matter if we critique religions as a whole) lag far behind.
Because of the conflicting points of view, I am proposing rather, a secular humanistic perspective. Religions, and their institutions, are seriously naughty for opposing social change, inevitable as it is. Scriptures don’t change, ancient as they are. For some, the bible is fixed in time past having nothing to do with the 21st century.
This mindset holds society captive because it attempts to fix culture and social functioning in the bronze, or, at best, the medieval ages. Consequently, changes for progress have at all times been spearheaded by secular, humanistic worldviews which in turn are condemned by religion and its institutions.
So, where are the women in Western society when we would like Christianity to be reflected in our social institutions?
Certainly, we can point at Sally Ride and her fellow astronauts, or Mary Barra or Meg Whitman in the world of business or Juliane Koepcke and Dian Fossey in science. These are truly remarkable in their accomplishments and even more remarkable is the fact that they are pioneers. Yet, taking a wider view, they are still very much lonely individuals.
I believe it is in the field of politics and government that we would expect the most change for progress to emerge. So we find inspiration from women greats like Angela Merkel, Tsai Ing-wen, Theresa May, Michelle Bachelet, Dalia Grybauskaite, Doris Leuthard, Simonetta Sommaruga, and Marie-Louise Coleiro, and any other in this field.
Except Angela Merkel who has been German Chancellor since 2005, the list is of heads of states or governments, in this decade,
There is none to represent the US!
And we could even go back further and find Sirimavo Bandaranaike, twice Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister in 1960 and 1970, Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister twice in 1966 and 1980. Then there was Israel’s Golda Meir, Prime Minister from 1969 to 1974, and Isabel Martinez de Peron, Argentina’s president from 1974 to 76.
Again, no US presence, then or now!
Land of the bible
It is not coincidental that the US is not in the picture. Those in the list are not countries as influenced by the bible and its literal bronze age and medieval interpretation as the US is. Not even Golda Meir’s Israel.
There was a time, certainly in my earlier years in the Holy Land, when “the land of the bible” referred almost exclusively to Israel. It may still be so geographically. But, thanks to Conservative Christianity and Fundamentalism, the US is declared a bible land. So, there are many churches that bear the name Zion and Jerusalem, sometimes prefixed with “New”. You have Bethlehem, Calvary, Galilee, and Jericho, and even Samaritan, Tabernacle and Mount Carmel.
The Bible Belt is indeed in the U.S, not in the Holy Land, and among the more extreme of the Conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalist, (if it is possible to be more extreme), the US is also the promised land.
The bible is the background and foundation for most social strictures.
To understand the restrictive, even regressive constraints imposed on women we need to go to the bible. The fundamentalist and to a large degree, the conservative Christian is a literalist.
We read in Genesis 3, that when God confronted Adam about his disobedience, Adam blamed God, and more specifically, Eve. “The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it”. The so-called “fall of man” is thereby, a woman’s fault. Never mind that only a literal mindset can read Adam as an individual man and Eve an individual woman.
Thus, in Western patriarchal society women are viewed with suspicion as the cause of men’s ethical failures.
That is actually the argument in the New Testament where the writer of 1 Timothy states, “For Adam was formed first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman who was deceived and fell into transgression”. He then adds, “Women, however, will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness, with self control…” (1 Timothy 2: 13-15).
This claim proposes a second place for women, behind their male counterparts. Indeed in verse 11 the writer states that “women should learn in quietness and full submission”. This clearly precludes leadership. Instead, verse 9 instructs “women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes…”
For a Conservative or Fundamentalist Christian, texts like these put women in their right place. Ironically, even women in the conservative and fundamentalist Christianity have fully bought into this mindset, accepting and advocating for a second place, because it is in obedience to the bible.
The apocryphal book, Ecclesiasticus, written by a certain Jesus ben Sirach, “the birth of a daughter is a loss” and “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good”. There are readings from Ecclesiasticus at various seasons in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Then, of course, in the Tenth Commandment “your neighbor’s wife” is listed with possessions: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).
These examples are just quick pointers to the bible’s male bias, and how the bias does influence western culture and society in general.
For centuries and millennia, men are portrayed as needing to be rescued from beguiling and reductive women. Proverbs 5, 6 and 7 offer some examples.
Rather than being equal partners with men in society, women are thus marginalized as competitors, rivals and usurpers of men’s rightful authority. It falls upon men to contain women, keep them in obedience, in accordance with scriptures, and to make decisions on their behalf, even when those decisions affect their lives very directly. (In the next blog, we’ll see how the nativity story in Matthew portrays Joseph making decisions about Mary and her pregnancy as the latter is in complete silence).
The worst scenario for fundamentalist and conservative Christians is a woman seeking a leadership role, especially in politics, with the potential of exercising authority over men.
Nevertheless, in spite of all attempts to restrain women from public service, some have met the challenge with determination. Thus, we already have women judges – at the highest courts – women police chiefs, mayors, state governors and in Congress.
One of the biggest fears pointed at the Democratic 2020 presidential candidates in the United States is the electability of a woman! The depressing lament is repeated: “The US is not ready for a woman president”.
But why not?
Today there are nine women governors in the US in addition to the Mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel Bowser, and two territorial governors, Lou Leon Guerrero in Guam, and Wanda Vazquez Garced in Puerto Rico.
Six of the nine are Democrats: Laura Kelly in Kansas, Janet Mills in Maine, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Kate Brown in Oregon and Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island. The other three are Republican, Kristi Noem in South Dakota, Kim Reynolds in Iowa, and Kay Ivey of Alabama.
Shining records can be found, for example in Arizona where there have been four women governors, three of them in succession! Remarkably though, 20 states have never had a woman governor; no need to list them; the wave of change is unstoppable.
There are 25 women in the US Senate, one-quarter of the Senate body, and their composition replicates the state governors: 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans, a ratio of 2:1. Historically most presidents have been former senators or state governors. 16 were senators before assuming the presidency while 17 had served as state governors.
The current president did not have experience in elected office; he comes from the business community which currently has 25 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies.
It is undeniable, that there is a more than adequate pool of potential women candidates with more than requisite experience for the presidency.
Today, there are 27 countries with elected women heads of state or government. Since 1950, 74 countries have had women elected heads of state or government. The road has been long and treacherous but not impossible. It is doable even in the United States and you would have expected the US to be a leader in this direction.
Why is it not so?
The leading reason is obviously the fundamentalist and Conservative mindset rooted in the literal application of the bible. Along with this mindset, there is the clout that Fundamentalist and Conservative Christians exert over secular society. The liberal, open minded segment of society has not stood up enough to oppose their close-minded neighbors.
In conclusion, decades of study by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman reveal 16 good leadership traits found mostly in women. They include better capacity to listen, build relationships, and work collaboratively. That is, no doubt, what our world today needs.
I grew up a normal, believing Christian. Ours was an ordinary Christian family, not fundamentalist nor apostate. We were just part of a Christian community along with other communities of different Christian denominations.
As Lutherans, we were a minority among an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic community. For all purposes we were simply Christian. In our everyday life we did not notice any differences. But when we observed Reformation Sunday, our pastor ranted in his sermon about the Roman church and how one day all the nuns would have to leave the nunneries and get married.
We sang a lot, as Lutherans Our hymns were a distinguishing facet. Also, our prayers were impromptu, unlike our Catholic neighbors who prayed only from the Missal and were at a loss on improvising. Except for those rare church rantings, we were simply Christian neighbors of two denominations, our differences noticed only on Sundays.
There were other denominations beyond our villages on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. In our immediate neighborhood you were either Lutheran or Roman Catholic.
We recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday and the Lord’s Prayer, Lutherans and Catholics, with minor differences. The two, along with doctrines and dogmas, we learned in Sunday School and Confirmation classes, became part of our culture, rituals and traditions. Nobody thought about them seriously or questioned them. They were part of who we were as Christians.
I went on to seminary and got equipped to uphold and ensure the continuity of the tradition. While I was in seminary, my home diocese opened a nuns center (a nunnery, if you like) and went on to recruit single women for the vocation of nuns. I remembered my local pastor’s sermons on Reformation Sundays.
After I graduated from seminary and was ordained, I continued to cultivate the transmission of our heritage and beliefs in parish ministry and later, as a seminary professor. For centuries have followed on the footsteps of our predecessors in the inculcation of the faith.
I am using the term tradition as I remember my village pastor’s aversion to “the traditions” of the Roman church. The way we saw it, Catholics followed traditions, we, Lutherans, followed the Bible, and that was a world of a difference.
We made quite a fuss about the distinction between tradition and the bible. The bible was the Word of the Lord. The accounts of Adam and Eve and a talking Serpent, Noah and his Ark, and Jonah and the large fish were actual and historical narratives. Traditions, in our view, included church councils’ decrees, papal encyclicals and teachings of Church Fathers.
I have now, some four decades later, moved on from that humble mindset to what I believe, open-mindedness, questioning, and even with a dose of skepticism. The 21st century opens up far more information and knowledge that it is impossible not to wrestle with some difficult questions.
Wrestling with complexity and examining plausible new information is to be preferred over simplicity and certainty. The latter retards growth and may even lead to complete loss of faith.
So, I have wondered about the Nicene Creed. It is not in the bible actually; it is a perfect example of tradition. It was formulated at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. In 381 AD it was amended during the First Council of Constantinople and now it is a Christian dogma. The councils convened to address disputes between the Christian communities, especially against followers of Arius. The central question in the disputes was the nature of Jesus.
Two distinct streams emerged from the councils: Orthodoxy, meaning straight thinking, and heresy, meaning free thinking. In the end, free thinking was condemned. Straight thinking means following strictly, even literally, the dogmas of the council – and the church, of course, while free thinking means entertaining thoughts and ideas and questioning church dogmas.
So Orthodoxy adopted the Nicene Creed which affirms that Jesus is the son of God, is indeed God, was born of a virgin, he became a vicarious sacrifice for humanity’s sins, he rose from the dead, ascended to heaven where he sits on God’s right hand and he will return to judge humanity.
How many Christians, in the 21st century, believe, literally, in virgin birth. Never mind that Matthew in his nativity narrative, misquoted Isaiah 7:14 (as the Septuagint did) translating a young woman as “virgin”.
Then there are questions about vicarious sacrifice. Was it inevitable that Jesus would be sacrificed – meaning God himself, would take on human form, allow himself to be crucified in excruciating agony, in order to vicariously save humanity, his own creation, from its sins? That humans, at least the few who would confess and believe in this plan, would have complete and total exoneration? I question that, and I’m not alone.
Now I go to a progressive church where, during service, instead of the Nicene Creed we have a shortened contemporary version of what we confess. Strangely, though – and this shows how entrenched tradition is – during baptism we still confess the Nicene Creed as we affirm the faith in which our children will be raised.
Anyway, the Creed also includes, belief in after-life and the resurrection of the dead. Of particular interest in the belief of afterlife is eternal damnation in hell or eternal life in heaven. Today, some preachers routinely conclude worship services with “altar call” to make a choice between the two. “If you were to die today, where will you be?” serves for preamble to the call.
To be sure, there is precedence in the belief in the afterlife, both in the bible, and in tradition. Cardinal Newman for example, pointed out that belief in hell was central to Christian theology, ”the critical doctrine you can’t get rid of – it is the very characteristic of Christianity”. And, as the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 put it, ”Whoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and of the wicked will not be eternal, that it will have an end…let him be anathema”.
This belief has been a source of terror for many. There are too many stories of children being devastated by how authority figures have related to them horrible stories about roasting in hell for eternity. They are the same horrors employed by preachers to scare their audiences into submission.
In his book The Story of Hell, one in a series of Books for Children, Fr. J. Funnis, ironically described as a “children’s apostle”, described a boy in hell, in these words: “His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. Sometimes he opens his mouth, and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it”, and on with a really horrifying tale.
The truth is, nobody has ever come back from hell to recount what happens there. Furthermore, the main claim of Christianity is God of infinite and unconditional love, followed immediately with a condition to “confess with your mouth and believe in your heart, that Jesus died for your sins, was resurrected…”
A few years ago when I was involved in an addictions recovery program and using Paul’s letter to the Romans as a guide, one participant asked me what happens to the people who have not heard of Jesus or those, like my own great grandparents and generations before them, who died outside the embrace of Christianity.
Rather than confess that I don’t know, I tried, like many preachers, to come up with a clever answer. Professing certainty with everything God does or will do is a major flaw for many believers. “If you die today”, we are asked, “are you certain you’ll go to heaven?”
There is, therefore, this contradiction between a god of infinite, unconditional love and a vengeful god of eternal damnation in hell. How can a loving, compassionate God watch with indifference at the pain and suffering of his people? As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the idea of a loving God who tortures those he created, makes God look like a sadistic maniac.
To be sure, the bible does mention hell and eternal damnation. Nevertheless, it lacks details of the kind that some preachers have figured out. Furthermore, some have argued that hell is simply separation from God, while others image it to signify vanishing into oblivion. There is no agreement on what hell is except competing imagination.
Way back in 1863 bishops in the Church of England could not reach agreement on the dogma of hell and eternal punishment. The Privy Council intervened and declared that eternal damnation is not part of the doctrine of the Anglican church.
I like the move and hope all Christians would accept free thinking and rid ourselves of the terror borne from pure imagination.
The Bible, where does it stand
This sounds like an unnecessary question. But different Christians will give different answers depending on their own traditions. In my early years growing up in the Lutheran church, the bible was the Word of God. Even then the phrase means different things to different traditions.
Nobody has set eyes on the actual script of either the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) or the New Testament. Until the printing press was invented in the middle ages the bible was copied by hand. We are talking of 1500 years or so of scribal transmission.
The oldest of these handwritten texts that we have today are the Dead Sea Scrolls – in the case of the Hebrew Bible – which were written between 150 BCE and 70 CE. Before they were discovered in caves in Qumran, the Masoretic text, from the 10th century CE was the oldest known biblical text.
Nevertheless these are handwritten copies of copies of copies of the original texts. Again, we don’t know what the originals looked like.
The same goes for the New Testament. There are 5700 manuscripts today, the oldest being a fragment, the size of a credit card, from John’s gospel (P52) dated to the first half of the second century. The oldest complete biblical texts are the four great codices (actually they are copies of the whole bible in Greek) consisting of the Vaticanus, B, Sinaiticus, Hebrew Aleph, the Alexandrianus, A, and the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, C. The four date to between 325 CE to 450 CE.
We can conclude that the earliest written sources of the New Testament go back to the 4th century CE. Imagine the scribal process between the original composition of the texts through 400 years later! A lot happened in the form of editing, interpretation and scribal errors, some deliberate, others inevitable.
This ultimate process went into the printing press and the bibles that continued to be printed to the threshold of textual criticism in the 1500.
We don’t have the original texts of Jesus’ life and ministry. The gospels in the New Testament are not witness or first hand accounts. They are the product of faith communities some years after Jesus. Matthew, for example, who some claim to be the apostle of the same name, writes “according to Matthew”. Not once does he use first person narrative, only third person.
We can conclude that the accounts of Jesus we have in he New Testament are indeed the attribution of faith communities years and decades after his life. There is much that is put into Jesus’ mouth and deeds. We may not have the luxury of certainty.
We can say the 10 Days of Awe mark the beginning of an annual cycle, beginning with Rosh Hashanah at sundown, September 29. New years come and go, often marked by intentions and genuinely desired resolutions.
But then, as we all know, most of those well-intended resolutions end up being just another component of the cycle of new year rituals. You have also been reminded, I am sure, of the many reasons why intentions often end up being just that.
I think that is very important though. What matters is not so much the what and how but more importantly the why not. We have the intentions, we also are resolved as to why we have the desires and the intentions.
So, why don’t our cherished intentions come to pass?
So, the Jewish New Year is special in many ways. One of them is, it is the first day of the 10 Days of Awe (Yomim Noraim) from Rosh Hashanah to ten days later, the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar.
The 10 Days of Awe go beyond making resolutions and annual intentions. In fact, the period is more commonly known as the Days of Teshuvah.
Teshuvah is commonly translated as repentance, and, indeed, we can look at the period as 10 Days of Repentance. However, when we look at the root of the term, shuv, we get an even deeper meaning.
The deeper idea of shun and teshuvah.
Let’s look at five biblical verses from the prophet Hosea.
3:5. “Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days.
6:1. “Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds”.
12:6. “But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always”
14:1. “Return, Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall”
14:2. “Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips”.
In these five verses, the recurrent theme is “return”, the Hebrew shuv. So, when we talk of teshuvah, we are indeed talking of returning; returning from wandering; getting back to the anchor, to the foundation.
This is a period of introspection, self-examination.
There is also a second concept in each verse, best summarized in 14:2, “say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously”. Repentance and forgiveness.
Repentance is best understood, as not only asking for forgiveness, but more importantly, turning around away from the wandering, returning to the image of God, if you like. The idea of turning away is also prominent in the New Testament Greek word for repentance, metanoia.
There is still a third idea in the Hosea verses, some practical steps to take. “Maintain love and justice” as 12:6 suggests, “that we may offer the fruit of our lips” according to 14:2.
None of this is bible-talking just because we use the prophet Hosea for illustration, nor is the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days any more religious than any community’s self-examination of the path of life.
As humans we pose, from time to time, to check our bearing in life. Are we on the right course at this particular time?
How to make a difference
In order to make a difference we first need to recognize our failures, shortcomings or errors. That is the idea in our text illustrations. “Come trembling” (3:5), “He has torn us to pieces, he has injured us” (6:1) and “your sins have been your downfall” (14:1). Recognize.
To come trembling may sound like biblical piety but it is essential for self-examination. We discover we are not whole but injured, in pieces and downfallen. A similar metaphor here would be coming to senses, like in the story of the prodigal son or Peter’s Domine quo vadis?
This first step of recognition and acceptance may not be as easy as it sounds. What about pride and vulnerability? It is possible to recognize errors and mistakes. Being vulnerable and accepting responsibility is quite a different matter.
But without it, there is no progress forward.
Having recognized and accepted not only the situation but our involvement in it, for example being mean-spirited, arrogant, fearful, judgmental or prejudiced, we can then take the second step.
Who are we really, and how do we relate to fellow human beings and the universe in which we live? What about the universal golden rule? Are we practicing it?
“Maintain love and justice”, the Hosea illustration points out. It is interesting to note that in Hosea’s time, wealth and material prosperity were at the highest. Yet, even in such prosperity, there was blatant disparity between the rich and poor and trampling of justice.
We are then ready to go into the new season or the new year. We go in forgiven and wounds bound and healed.
From as early as 500 BCE Pythagoras first suggested that the earth is round. In fact, Aristarchus of Samos, astronomer and mathematician who lived 310 – 230 BCE is the first person known to have produced the first heliocentric model of our then known universe.
This was almost 18 hundred years before the better known publication of Nicolaus Copernicus book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543, which demonstrated that the sun is the center of the universe, not the Earth.
Seventy-three years later, another astronomer and physicist, Galileo Galilei got into trouble with the church for his belief, built upon Copernicus’ model, that the Earth revolves around the sun and not otherwise. In 1616, Galileo was forbidden by the church from holding such truths – then referred to as heresies.
Church teaching, and the ultimate truth, was: The earth is fixed in its position, it is the center of the universe, the sun moved around it. This then was deemed absolute fact of scripture. In fact, denunciation of Copernicus’s book appended in 1545 as unpublished work, has the heading, On the Truth of Sacred Scripture.
The Truths of Sacred Scripture
First, Sacred Scripture is a book, written by humans, being the story of God and humans and the world they live in. That is in a nutshell. For some, the book, be it the Bible or the Quran, was written by God, directly or indirectly. For others, this is a debatable view.
I say, “was”. The scripture comes from the past. That is indisputable. For some, the bible confirms, in a literal reading, and throughout the scriptures, that “I am the Alpha and the Omega” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8) Or, “But you are the same, and your years have no end” (Psalm 102:27)
For others, Sacred Scripture finds meaning even – and especially – in contemporary society. Its meaning two thousand years ago needs to be contextualized to today’s society. It is for this reason that no civilized society today advocates for slavery of any sort and deals severely with culprits of the practice.
Supposedly, writing God’s words, St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14: 34- 35 instructs women to be silent in church – literally – and to raise any pertinent questions with their husbands at home. Indeed Paul considers it disgraceful that women should speak in church.
Similarly, the writer of 1 Timothy (some believe it was Paul) issues the same injunction in 2: 13- 15. Reason? It was the woman (Eve) who was deceived by the serpent and sinned; not the man (Adam).
I am not sure how many church communities in our society today are bound by these injunctions. I personally come from a church community where women are the majority of those who speak.
It appears that holy scriptures have given way to new horizons with regard to the cosmos and life.
Recently, the New York Times (8/18/2019) reported “many Democrats love Elizabeth Warren. They also worry about her”. This is just one illustration, but there are many.
Those harboring such sentiments are dazzled by her intellect. Familiar expressions include, “she’s smart, very smart”, “my God, she’s smart”, and so on.
So, what is the problem? The list includes uncompromising liberal ideas, professional style, including Harvard background, and, I think this is most telling, “a woman cannot win”.
I don’t recall the last time a male prospective was praised with such platitudes and yet thought to be unelectable. I think that is reserved for a woman.
It took 400 years for the church to publicly declared that Galileo’s and Copernicus’ observations were not after all, heresies. even where holy scriptures appeared to oppose them.
Patriarchy is the new heresy
If there is still heresy in our society today, that would have to be patriarchy. The belief (albeit widespread in various forms) that, as the writer of 1 Timothy suggests, “women will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love and holiness, with self control” (! Timothy 2: 15).
Patriarchy is fraught with fear. The same can be said of white supremacy, territoriality, nativity, totalitarianism and similar worldviews. Fear is a negative force.
A recent article in The Atlantic raised a spectacle of Democrats – of all – wondering whether they are ready for a woman president.
More than a quarter century ago, I participated in a diocesan conference in my home country of Tanzania, convened to evaluate the possibility of women clergy. At the time we had had women in seminary for almost ten years who would not be ordained after seminary training.
The expert theologian invited to present a study on the subject did an excellent job of scripture research and history from the earliest days of the Jesus movement through the Church Fathers to the present. He devoted time on cultural settings and paid particular attention to the situation in Tanzania at that particular moment.
Indeed, all of his conclusions in the presentation pointed to an inevitable conclusion that it was time to ordain women into the ministry of Word and Sacrament Yet, to everyone’s shock, he made a closing observation that, no, it was not yet time to consider women ordinations in the diocese. He eschewed every conclusion he had come to during the presentation.
It was shocking, to say the least, but despite his grim conclusions, the diocese ordained the first women clergy ten years later. (Actually ten years is considered a short time in matters of the church).
I was therefore shocked to read of lingering doubts in the minds of Democrats, at this juncture in history. So, I went to wikipedia.org and looked at the “list of women who have been elected head of state or government of their respective countries since the interwar period (1918 – 1939)” and the list is breathtaking.
The list is unbelievable, that is all I can say. Which country would I exclude if I listed all of them here? Not even Central African Republic, or (our favorite) Norway.
The more I thought about this, the more my mind seems to point to patriarchy. Even then, most of those on the list are of patriarchal background and influence. But there must be something about this patriarchy thing we need to investigate further.
There is a biblical story, in the New Testament, where Jesus asked his disciples, one, “who do people say I am”, and, two, “who do you say I am?”
Whether we prompt it or not, we live with the question daily. Psychologists of course, have much to say about obsessions to prove or display the answer to the question. In context, Jesus’ purpose for the question was different from our motivations.
Anyway, wisdom informs us that actions speak louder than words and a picture is worth a thousand words.
As I contemplated on the significance of July 4, I came across a headline in USA Today (7/3) captioned, “Show the world who we are”. The story was that tourists to the nation’s capital are pumped up by Trump’s planned display of military might.
In fact, a California tourist is quoted saying, “Let’s show America who we are. Let’s show the world who we are”.
Two pictures came to my mind. One is from mediate.com
and the other was a BBC News photo captioned, US migrant centres.
I am convinced that, as humans, the pictures pose one of the greatest challenges we face. There are some of us who would rather not be known by any of the two images.
But, whatever we want to show, we cannot display both and claim greatness.
Have you ever wondered how, in real life, affliction, patience, hope and joy, can, actually propel life forward? I have, actually sometimes thought the apostle Paul’s encouragement in Romans 12:12 is just that; a very theoretical consolation when pressed between a rock and a hard place. Patience and affliction? Be real!
But that is exactly the tagline of my blog, joyful in hope, patience in affliction, faithful in prayer.
It’s been a little while since my last blog. Well, yes, there has been some procrastination (I must confess) but also some reflection and writing.
There was a time in my life when I walked in solidarity with groups of afflicted individuals. I still do. Paul’s letter to the Romans was, and still is, a powerful spiritual resource for the journey through and out of affliction.
I have borne the story in my heart for the past five years and I know – as everyone knows – stories need to be told. I don’t know how many times I have campaigned for sharing stories. Life is an ongoing series of stories.
So, my new book about this story (Set Free: Paul’s letter to the Romans; Hope for the afflicted) is coming out, intentionally, on Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019. The sub-titles reflect this daily struggle to really, really, be patient, and not lose hope.
Those who took the journey with me named the sessions The Roman Road. We are still, and hope to stay on the Roman Road. And, it is everyone’s road. That is how we can find patience in affliction and joy in hope.
“Everyone has a story” is a universally accepted adage. We can frame the dictum in different ways: We all have stories to tell, life is a story being written, you have a story that only you can tell, and so on. Whether you are aware of it or not, every day, there is a picture screen in front of you showing your life projected from the projector of your experiences.
Imagine you are sitting in a theater watching a movie, and the movie is a rendition of your life experiences. You see the joys and disappointments of yesterday. Today you are anxious about health issues or financial challenges, or maybe, relationships. It may even look like you are not the main actor, let alone the director of your movie. You see all kinds of characters developing and shaping a plot about your life.
Lord have mercy!
There may be a time or times when someone other than you makes a decision or fails to make a decision about an important situation in your life. Perhaps you feel you have no control. Yet you hear, or you have heard, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” (Invictus).
Who is really responsible for our stories? The responsible person decides where the story ends. When someone else decides the end of my story (while I am still alive) I can either accept the verdict and close the chapter or develop the plot in a different direction.
A closed chapter is simply that; not the end of the story. A closed chapter can mean failure, but not the end of the story. Failure is inevitable. Failure should provide the springboard for the next chapter in the story. My favorite expression is “my best worst moment in life”.
The point here is that I (or you) own this phase as well: Failure. Tragically, what often happens, is, we lose hope, we give up, we relinguish the experience to fate, circumstances, or bad luck. It is tempting to say, “I have no control over that”.
A victim of circumstances is perception. The whole victimhood notion is perception as we are still learning, thanks to changed mindsets like #MeToo.
So, one mindset says, “I control your path”, (I being situations or circumstances, or powers that may be) and another says, “no! I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”. I know, “captain of my soul” may sound arrogant or defiant to some of you as you are reading, but it is exactly what confidence and perspective are all about. We’ll continue with that next time.
So, again, Is this how the story ends? You make the call, you decide; everything is in your control. Don’t surrender that power.