A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius," in addition to articles on other related subjects and many new era Christian sermons.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Wine

New Wine

Today's message contemplates the dogmatic quandary suggested by Jesus's parables of the new cloth and the old wineskins. The parables appear in all three synoptic gospels:

Matthew 9:16-17
16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and the tear is made worse.
17 Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Mark 2:21-22 
21 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; or else the new piece pulls away from the old, and the tear is made worse. 22 And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But new wine must be put into new wineskins.”

Luke 5:36-39
And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.

It is well understood that the context for these parables was the question of how to reconcile the old Jewish doctrines with the new insights Jesus was bringing to the table. The larger issue is what is new and what is old, and which is better?

The following interpretation of the parables appears in Wikipedia:
"The parables follow the recruitment of Matthew as a disciple of Jesus, and appear to be part of a discussion at a banquet held by him (Luke 5:29).
The metaphors in the two parables were drawn from contemporary culture. New cloth had not yet shrunk, so that using new cloth to patch older clothing would result in a tear as it began to shrink. Similarly, old wineskins had been "stretched to the limit" or become brittle as wine had fermented inside them; using them again therefore risked bursting them.
The two parables relate to the relationship between Jesus' teaching and traditional Judaism.
According to some interpreters, Jesus here "pits his own, new way against the old way of the Pharisees and their scribes." In the early second century, Marcion, founder of Marcionism, used the passage to justify a "total separation between the religion that Jesus and Paul espoused and that of the Hebrew Scriptures."
Other interpreters see Luke as giving Christianity roots in Jewish antiquity, although "Jesus has brought something new, and the rituals and traditions of official Judaism cannot contain it."
The interpretation favored by John Calvin does not suffer from the inconsistencies and the disconnectedness of the interpretations listed above. In his Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke Calvin states that the old wineskins and the old garment represent Jesus' disciples, and the new wine and unshrunk cloth represent the practice of fasting twice a week. Fasting this way would be burdensome to the new disciples, and would be more than they could bear."

The following interpretation appears in "Bible Tools":
Jesus' illustration derives from a well-known fact: No one with a reasonable amount of experience in mending clothes would waste a piece of new cloth to repair an old garment. If new cloth is used to patch an old garment, and the patch becomes wet, it shrinks as it dries and puts strain on the old garment. The tear becomes worse than it was.
Jesus is showing that His "new" doctrines do not match the old rites of the Pharisees, which required a lot of fasting. If His "new" doctrines were attached to their old ones, it would distort the truth. Christ is preaching against syncretism, the mixing of beliefs. We must completely replace the old human way of life with the new godly way of life (II Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:9-10). Because God's "new" way is righteous and spiritually strong, it cannot be combined with the "old" wicked and weak human way of life. They are incompatible.

Ashan 1614, in her blog Wikinut makes these comments in her article, "Out With the Old; In With the New… Maybe":

"1.The patch and thread are stronger than the material around the patch, and the old material of the pants will tear (rent) around the circumference of the new patch. 
2.The new patch will not match the old material.
3. You have now ruined perfectly good new cloth by tearing a piece out of it.

So what does this mean with respect to our lives? It means that we can’t keep trying to patch small areas of our lives. In doing so, we cause more damage in the end. We have to find a permanent “fix” for whatever problems we may have. We need to recognize, also, that the patch is obvious to everyone. The world can see that your life is old and raggedy despite you fixing up a small part of it. We must work on improving every aspect of our lives. It is a slow and gradual process, but it allows us to renew our entire self, leaving no old and new parts to war against each other. And should we have something new and good, we shouldn't waste it on trying to save something not worth saving."
Verses 37-38 speak of not putting new wine into old bottles. The bottles in this case refer to goat skins sewn tightly together to form a watertight container. A wine maker would tell you that wine expands in volume as it ages. A new wineskin is pliant enough to expand as the wine inside expands. Whereas an old wineskin has become too rigid to expand, and will burst when the new wine inside begins to expand.

We, too, often become so rigid in our thinking that we cannot contain new ideas or accept new ways of doing things. So we try year after year to make changes in our behavior without changing our mindset or our methods. It will never work. All of our blessings and opportunities will wind up spilled on the floor – wasted. It takes a new container to hold a new thing. So we have to become a new bottle. We have to be willing to change the way we think, change the way we look at things and change the way we do things."

The United Methodist Memo makes this comment:
"Jesus told this simple parable about cloth and wineskins in response to a question about why his disciples didn’t act as religiously as the John’s disciples and the followers of some other spiritual leaders. The parable suggests that changes in people’s attitudes and actions that may be needed are difficult to achieve. Jesus seems to concede that it is practically impossible to make a new idea or action fit an old model.
Jesus was the new wine of God’s love and action that was incompatible with the old attitudes. He was the new wine whose time had come to move the people in a better direction and closer to God.

Is there new wine in the immediate future for the ministries of Bolivar United Methodist Church?  Maybe not if we turn the wineskin parable upside down! Jesus is now the old wine that we have enjoyed and trusted since his death and resurrection set us free from sin and death.  What we need to create is a new method to our ministry. 
Imagine that this church could reform itself and become a “new wineskin.”  There is no problem with pouring the “old wine,” into a “new wineskin” for ministry.   The “old wine” that we still have in store is the timeless truth that Jesus Christ remains the Lord of all and Christ is the best we have to offer to the world.

We do not need any new wine.  We have Jesus to give to others.  What we need is a new mode of operation; a “new wineskin” of glad and willing service that reaches out to form creative relational ministries."

Clearly (or unclearly) there is a lot of gray area surrounding this word "new". In interpreting these two parables, there is a lot of room for assigning different symbolic meanings their narrative elements. Even the texts themselves suggest a contradiction: in the Mathew and Mark versions it appears that the parable is pointing toward the virtue of new wine, yet in the Luke version, a very sticky sentence is tacked on:
"No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better."

Now notice that the parable doesn't claim that old wine is better, it merely states, "HE SAITH, the old is better;" And what about this word "straightway"? New wine doesn't AUTOMATICALLY take a superior position relative to old wine--it might eventually, but not "straightway". There is a slightly ironic twist to this addition, and it makes the water not clearer but murkier--surely we are not to conclude that just because old wine is better, old clothes are also better? So what is good about "new" and what is good about "old", and how do we choose between them?

What follows are a number of biblical passages containing the word "new":

Revelation 21:1-4  
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
  And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God [is] with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, [and be] their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.

2 Corinthians 5:17
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."

Romans 7:6 
"But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."

Galatians 6:12-15
"As many as desire to make a fair shew in the flesh, they constrain you to be circumcised; only lest they should suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.
For neither they themselves who are circumcised keep the law; but desire to have you circumcised, that they may glory in your flesh.
  But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature."

Numbers 1:8-11
8  All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9  The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10  Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11  There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

John 6:27 
 "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed."

These last two passages get closer to the point I will eventually be driving at: that the newest things have already been of old, and that the choices we make must be based on the imperishability of the thing chosen--not its newness or oldness relative to sequential time, but the experience of newness in the old eternal verities of the heart.

Speaking of the old verities of the heart, here is a passage from the 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech of William Faulkner:
"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
      Until he learns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

Now, William Faulkner was one of the most original and innovative writers of the 20th century, and yet he makes a case for writing about the old verities of the heart as the only thing worth writing about. How are innovation and tradition compatible?

C.S. Lewis has this to say in one of my favorite passages from "The Screwtape Letters" which I have read here before:
"The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart--an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He doesn't WISH THEM TO MAKE CHANGE, ANY MORE THAN EATING, AN END IN ITSeLF, HE HAS BALANCED THE LOVE OF CHANGE IN THEM BY A LOVE OF PERMANENCE, He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in his church, a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast but it is the same feast as before."

One of the primary battlegrounds of the new and the old is in the area of dogmatic belief: which truths do we hold to be self-evident and which don't we? I remember one such dogmatic conflict in the old Nazarene Church of my youth between the farmers of Indiana and the farmers of West Virginia: the West Virginia farmers condemned the Indiana farmers because they grew crops of popcorn--this was a sin because the only place you ate popcorn was in the Sodom and Gomorrah of the moving picture house; of course the Indiana farmers condemned the West Virginia farmers because they made their living growing tobacco, the devil's weed.

When I started teaching at Anchorage Christian School, I had to fill out a lengthy form expressing my beliefs on the subjects of evolution and other fundamentalist dogmatics. Well, clearly, anybody who insists that the world was created in seven 24-hour days is just D-U-M dumb, but I didn't put it that way: I said,
"I have be honest--I don't really CARE about the whole evolution controversy: my whole life is a stream of little miracles, one after the other, such that it is no problem for me to accept the possibility of creation in a moment of time. In a supernatural world, created by a supernatural God, what DIFFERENCE does it make whether six days is an allegorical expression or a literal expression? The miracle is there regardless of how you think about it, and it defies us to achieve any rational apprehension of it. Faith is the evidence of things not seen, and yet it takes no faith to see the world right there in front of us--right now. Thank you God!"

I have no problem accepting things like the virgin birth, a star hovering over a manger, or Jesus rising from the dead; but these events seen as HISTORICAL EVENTS are robbed of their spiritual significance which is beyond the power of sequential time to add or detract. Obviously, formulating some kinds of dogmatic boundaries for ourselves is necessary to retain our sanity--we need to say things in words so we can think about them, ponder them, contemplate them, and lose ourselves in them. But I don't think we need to believe at the expense of some one else's beliefs, or even that we need to adopt a rigid, written-in-stone attitude relative to out own dogmatic conclusions; we have to be able to redefine and re-articulate what we think, as new information comes our way; we have to be willing to accept new truth as truth on its own merits, not in the shadow of what we passionately believed YESTERDAY. We have to be willing to change what we think, because, no matter how you cut it, what we think is a dark, imperfect reflection of what we KNOW in our hearts; we just have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath.

Many more of the scriptures I have quoted above proclaim newness of life as a spiritual imperative than they extol the virtues of the "old time religion;" of all these, my favorite is, of course:

Psalm 96:1
"O sing unto the LORD a new song: sing unto the LORD, all the earth."

But let us not forget that, seen from the spiritual perspective, the new is always contained in the old, and we MUST keep the eternal in our sights, as we struggle to find new ways of articulating transient, temporal, earthly experience.

At the end of the "Paradiso", Dante describes a scene where he is rising in heaven toward the face of God, and suddenly notices the static, eternally fixed face of God changing and modifying itself into ever new expressive forms. How can this be? he wonders.

"Not that there was more than a simple appearance
In the living light which I gazed upon
And which is as it has always has been;

But my sight grew stronger
As I looked; and so the static face of God
Transformed itself with every change in me."

Let us pray: Jesus, lend us your divine intelligence so that we may see ourselves growing and changing in your transforming light. Prepare us to accept the new wine of your eternal changeless truth as it leads us ever upward to a heaven where all contradictions are moot, and all peace and love calm our clamoring voices into silence. Amen.

May 29, 2011
Glennallen, AK

Sunday, May 15, 2011



It can't have escaped the notice of anyone following this blog (which, I'm pretty sure, is nobody) that the last several weeks have featured copies of sermons I've given a the Basin Bible Church in Glennallen Alaska. I do not apologize for this because spiritual issues are endemic to the highest aesthetic considerations. I intend to keep posting such comments, but this week I gave a sermon on evangelism, the main point of which was that we are not required by the directives of Jesus to talk anybody into anything they don't want to be talked into. It was a long sermon that borrowed heavily from internet writers on the subject, and I did not feel that it had anything significant to add to the topic of art, inspiration, or genius.

However, the problem of gifted people's responsibility to humanity is indeed a weighty one, and I have thought deeply about it. One of my major disappointments about never having made it as a composer, was that I felt I had a message to give to the world that was important and could influence the young. I now realize that this vanity of vanities was placing the sins of the world on my own shoulders, and now I am free to be nobody and let the world solve its own problems--they'll have to anyway.

May 15, 2011
Glennallen, AK

Sunday, May 8, 2011


The simple-minded design for my first battery of Basin Bible Church sermons was just to go through the sayings of Jesus in chronological order. Since my whole life is one long string of synchronistic surprises, it was no surprise to read that one of Jesus's first sentences was, "Get thee behind me, Satan."

It was no surprise because I have been thinking a lot about sin lately. As an Aspie, my mode of thinking is extremely linear, black and white, and I swear to you, until recently, I was convinced that I was fairly sinless. I manner, doesn't everybody want to think of themselves as sinless? Don't we need this to feel good about ourselves? When Paul says we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God, isn't he talking about someone else? I mean I live an upright life, I do what I say I'm going to do, I'm fair, nay generous, in my business dealings, I don't cause anyone any particular pain, I make a positive difference in the world--all the outward signs of virtue are to be seen in me--I'm a pretty cool dude. But, quite recently, I was taking stock of my inner life, and I came to the shocking realization that I have a mental sewer running down in there--that I need every calorie of spiritual power with which grace can empower me to keep my mind even remotely clean. Let's come back to that.

In the following discussion, we will touch on the nature of temptation in its various guises, and hopefully suggest a protective strategy for dealing with its magnetic attraction.

The Temptations of Jesus in the desert represent the ideal model for dealing with our own spiritual trials. It is significant that the story of Jesus's ministry begins here; it is as though He must first learn to deal with the demonic attacks of Satan before He is fit to bring humanity His words of enlightenment. His mind and will must be tested and tempered before the words of His mouth can become acceptable to the Father. If this is so for Him, how much moreso must it be for us? Even when we acknowledge that Satan and his minions are at the root of every wrong thought and deed, how can we escape the penetration of his powerful intellect and protect ourselves from his almost invisible, invasive aggression? How many of our thoughts are corrupted by Satan's skillful infiltrations before we realize we have been duped again? How much crap do we allow to come out of our mouths every day, before our tongues have been cleansed by Graceful intervention? How can we know, and how can we stop it?

Here are the three accounts of Jesus's temptation in the desert taken from the first three, so-called, synoptic gospels:

Matthew 4:1-11
1Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.
 2And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
 3And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.
 4But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
 5Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
 6And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
 7Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
 8Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
 9And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
 10Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
 11Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.

Mark 1:13 is the shortest statement:
13And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.

Luke 4:1-14 is practically word for word the account in Matthew:
 1And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness,
 2Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered.
the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread.
 4And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.
 5And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
 6And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
 7If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
 8And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
 9And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
 10For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
 11And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
 12And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
 13And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season.
 14And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about.

In researching this episode I found that several commentators mention a progression of magnitude in Satan's temptations: the devil begins with little temptations, "Hey, buddy, just have a little bread, you must be starving after 40 days! A little bread, a little wine, a little marinara sauce, let's kick back, party--you know, celebrate a successful fast! How bout some GARLIC bread, ooh, yum!"

Let's celebrate a successful fast by breaking the fast--isn't that clever. Indeed this is one of the main categories of temptation, and one of the hardest to notice, because it is not always crystal clear when enough is enough. C.S. Lewis mentions this in the Screwtape Letters:

"Whatever men expect, they soon come to think they have a right to: the sense of disappointment can, with very little skill on our part, be turned into a sense of injury. It is after men have given in to the irremediable, after they have despaired of relief and ceased to think even a half hour ahead, that the dangers of humbled and gentle weariness begin. To produce the best results from the patient's fatigue, therefore, you must feed him with false hopes. Put into his mind plausible reasons for believing that the air raid will not be repeated. Keep him comforting himself with the thought of how much he will enjoy his bed next night. Exaggerate the weariness by making him think it will soon be over; for men usually feel that a strain could have been endured no longer at the moment when it is ending, or when they think it is ending. In this, as in the problem of cowardice. the thing to avoid is the total commitment. Whatever he says, let his inner resolution be not to bear whatever comes to him, but to bear it "for a reasonable period"--and let the reasonable period be shorter than the trial is likely to last. It need not be much shorter: in attacks on patience, chastity, and fortitude, the fun is to make the man yield just when (had he but known it) relief was almost in sight."

I was going out on a date with a girl a long time ago, and I picked her up at her parents' house. Before we could go, she had some chores to do, like cleaning up the kitchen, etc. I pitched in to help, and was just plowing into the last little pile of dishes when she said, "Let's go." I pointed out that there were still a few minor tasks to be completed, that we were almost done. She said. "Almost done has always been good enough for me." Oh the clang of doom I heard resonating over THAT relationship!

Back to Jesus: declining to break His ritual fast, Jesus then has to endure insults to his power; the order in Matthew and Luke is switched, but the order in Matthew (apparently the model for Luke's account) makes the most sense: first the devil dares him to jump off the top of a minaret, ["C'mon, if you're so hot you can do THAT--it's not so far, c'mon, it'll be fun!"], then (as is often the case with demons), his temptations crescendo to a climax, "Look at ALL THIS REAL ESTATE! I can give you all this if you just sign on the dotted line. No, right here, see? Right here! Just put your X down on that baby! How about a thumb print?"

Jesus just says no. Is it that simple? Just say no? Maybe for Him, not for us. Martin Luther had to throw a Bible at Satan taunting him in the corner. The words, "Get behind me, Satan," are significant--they imply an actual physical TURNING AWAY FROM THE DARK TOWARD THE LIGHT. But sometimes we don't know which way the light is. We don't KNOW which way the light is--it's the KNOWING that is the problem. Let's come back to that.

At the end of the episode the devil leaves Jesus alone and the Christ is attended by angels. One wonders if the devil ever tried again--one wonders if the angels put up a permanent protective barrier around Jesus when he passed that first grueling test, or whether, like gnats in summer, they continued to buzz around him, looking for a loophole. Let's come back to that.

I know that Jesus protects me from serious demonic assaults as a matter of policy (I passed my test about 25 years ago); my ambitions have been humbled to an acceptance of my tiny niche in the vast scheme of things--I don't have to worry about being taken by major demonic possession, I am not tempted to commit bank robbery, rape, arson, murder (you know, the big stuff)-- but I still have to endure subtle temptations like that bread thing all the time--it's the tiny temptations, given in to like tiny slips down a hill that eat away at your character, and it's like an untaxing calisthenic spiritual exercise to condition yourself to "Just say NO." BUT YOU HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION AND REMEMBER TO SAY NO.

As I mentioned above, until recently I was very unconscious of all the temptation that was going on in my mind until I started thinking about it; that is to say, I was conscious of my thoughts, since they were all quite reasonable of course, but I could see no sin in them. It was a humbling shock to have to admit that I am constantly assailed by petty thoughts, condemning thoughts, judgmental thoughts, uncharitable thoughts. Not reasonable at all, a lot of them not even sane. And the joke is that, so often, we mistake these ego-centric thoughts for truth; we need to SAY what we know, but the devil so easily perverts what we know into lies by twisting the words into misdirections that end up meaning the opposite of their original intention; what started out as an icon of truth turns into a weapon of destruction. I realize now that Satan's minions are tireless in seeking out our personal weaknesses and dragging us down by our own falsely articulated ideas of virtue. And of course the IDEAS of virtue inevitably lead to ACTS of virtue like telling some miserable sinner, in the grocery store, the error of his ways, or exploding a bomb in an airport in the name of Allah.

It is somewhat fun to trace back the logic behind these so-called acts of virtue. Here's a good example: when I lived in the ghetto in L.A. there was a guy named Ed who would never get the front door shut when he went out. We begged him to be careful because we were a house of white guys living in the middle of a hostile black neighborhood, and the house had been broken into more than once. My brother had a talent for psychology, and got inside Ed's head to get at why he kept performing this dangerous antisocial act. His reasoning was as follows:

They want me to close the door so the house will be safe.
But to close the door you have to slam it a little bit.
If we keep slamming the door, it will fall off the hinges.
If the door falls off the hinges, we won't have any door at all.
No door will not be safe.
So what they really want me to do is leave the door open a little bit. OK

Etc. There is the old 19th century European drinking song popular with German university students that works the same perverted way:

The more you study the more you know,
The more you know the more you forget,
The more you forget the less you know,
So why study?

I have to admit it, I like myself. Shame at who I am has NEVER been an ingredient in my ego make-up. I admit that, for most of my life, CONFUSION was a big part, as I suffered that particular brand of rejection and misunderstanding that is the Aspie's stock in trade, but I never felt shame--I was always too innocent, too clueless, to feel shame. I thought there was something really wrong with me, but I never felt it was my fault, I felt that I was made different, and it was other peoples' loss that they couldn't get me. But as I grew in the spirit, and began to realize that none of my accomplishments were my own, that everything about me I was proud of came from God, I began to question my most intimately ingrained attitudes about myself.

Wikipedia defines the word "temptation" like this:

"A temptation is an act that looks appealing to an individual. It is usually used to describe acts with negative connotations and as such, tends to lead a person to regret such actions, for various reasons: legal, social, psychological (including feeling guilt), health, economic, etc. Temptation also describes the coaxing or inducing a person into committing such an act, by manipulation or otherwise of curiosity, desire or fear of loss."

Thus, a temptation is something that seems to offer us the possibility of ENHANCING positive feelings about ourselves, but which ends up generating NEGATIVE feelings about ourselves. Also, there is an element missing from the Wikipedia definition: temptation always includes the undertone that what we are doing is really wrong, JUST NOT WRONG ENOUGH; if our ego virtue can be retained by verbal gymnastics, then we can have our cake and eat it too. How wish I could have my cake and eat it too! (Can you hear Satan laughing when I say that?) How wish I could have my cake and eat it too!

Many of the negative thoughts I battle with all the time have to do with people in my musical organization: I have to manage a number of people (the number is getting bigger--including my Anchorage contingent, I have upwards of 60 musicians in my organization, now)--anyway, I have to get all these people to pull together to make beautiful things happen, and the effort involved in getting them to co-operate sometimes seems so overwhelming that I could just scream. Whenever some plan goes wrong, my first response is to fret and accuse, and feel bad about myself because I have failed to make them want it as much as I want it; thus, what is supposed to be a self-affirming experience turns into a self-nullifying experience. Music is a self-affirming act, and all involved are blessed! Why do I have to struggle and fret to make them see that?

The key is embedded in the true nature of self-affirmation: one successful temptation technique, that Satan uses on us time and time again, is getting us confused about what is truly self-affirming; he leads us to think that certain feelings are born of true righteousness, but these convictions so often turn out to be merely vain self-righteousness, which, in its obsession with ego, turns out not to be righteous at all. All of our "righteousnesses" are filthy rags. Thus, we sin and condemn ourselves with the best of all possible intentions. And the whole syndrome of self-aggrandizement involves a level of ego resolution which most easily allows our thoughts to be assaulted by petty ego stuff, and the petty ego whispers lies and more lies in our hungry ears. Through all these mental machinations the ego retains enough power to say that "I" am proving my holiness; in actuality, we have nothing to prove, comparisons are irrelevant. I realize, now, that the temptation involved in thinking bad thoughts is that those thoughts which are supposed to make me feel superior really just drag me down. In searching for the truth in literal definitions, I lose sight of the heart of my thought; and when the heart's final authority is lost, so is all truth, all virtue lost as well.

Surrender is the only empowering strategy--give ego over to the personal aspect of God and let Him decide what is true and what is false. Until one goes beyond experience to find God, one's identity is wrapped up in a cycle of desires that lead to action. Every action leaves an articulate impression and new impressions give rise to new desires. Desire leads to action, leads to articulation, leads to false truth; consequently we become victims of mistaken identity. We spend our time projecting versions of reality onto the proscenium of our mind's eye, including versions of God that are inadequate.

I say, "Let the language of the HEART be the index of truth." For me, the highest form of self-affirmation is giving God the glory; affirming God in me is the only lasting ego boost I can get. In my studio, I have a little home-made bumper sticker on the wall; it says: "Anybody who looks down on somebody else is hanging upside down." It would be good if I could consistently take my own advice.

Oh if we could only love ourselves in the innocent open-hearted way that children cherish their simple accomplishments, and not need the so-easily twisted language of words! Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" opens with these guileless lines:

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

If we could enjoy ourselves in the uncomplicated way of children, unspoiled by ego, our thoughts would not betray us with their dark judgmental resonance, and we would indeed be delivered from temptation.

The Last Temptation of Christ, by Nikos Kazantzakis is a reverent thought provoking novel, that attempts to get inside Jesus's head, and explore His humanity, just as we have been doing here for the past few weeks.
Wikipedia summarizes the book like this:

"The Last Temptation of Christ (or The Last Temptation) is a novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis, first published in 1960. It follows the life of Jesus Christ from his perspective. The novel has been the subject of a great deal of controversy due to its subject matter, and appears regularly on lists of banned books. The central thesis of the book is that Jesus, while free from sin, was still subject to every form of temptation that humans face, including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. Kazantzakis argues in the novel's preface that by facing and conquering all of man's weaknesses, Jesus struggled to do God's will, without ever giving in to the temptations of the flesh."

[In light of our previous discussions of Jesus's humanity, this is a concept that is not hard to buy into.]

The novel was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese in 1988. Throughout the movie, Jesus is plagued by doubts that he is the Messiah; how could one so corrupted by human faults possibly be the son of God? The scene in the desert includes the following dialogue; in this scene Satan assaults Jesus's weakness by suggesting that His humanity is virtuous, and he should be satisfied with common human pleasures, a wife, a family. Satan appears as a serpent:

"Jesus: You're here to trick me.
The Cobra/Satan: Trick you? To love and care for a woman, to have a family? This is a trick? Why are you trying to save the world? Aren't your own sins enough for you? What arrogance to think you can save the world. The world doesn't have to be saved: save yourself. Find love
Jesus: I have love. "

"I have love." In this sentence Jesus affirms the only ego worth affirming--the identity of God in Human form. God is love. I have love. I have myself.

At the end of the movie, as Jesus hangs on the cross, Satan appears as a little girl. The girl tells Jesus he has passed the test, and He can come down from the cross now and have a normal human life. Satan spins an illusion over the eyes of Jesus and He enters into a fantasy. "Almost done has always been good enough for me." Finally Jesus comes to His senses and realizes He has been duped by Satan's wily guiles. At first, Satan thinks he has succeeded in corrupting Jesus, and the devil speaks this speech:

"I told you we would meet again.
If you die this way, you die like a man.
You turned against God, your Father.
There's no sacrifice. There's no salvation.
There's nothing you can do.
You lived this life.
You accepted it.
It's over now.
You just finish it and die.
Die like a man."

When Jesus realizes the truth, he returns to the cross, and, suffering, says this:

Will you listen to me?
Are you still there?
Will you listen to a selfish, unfaithful son?
I fought you when you called. I resisted.
I thought I knew more. I didn't want
to be your son. Can you forgive me?
I didn't fight hard enough.
...give me your hand.
I want to bring salvation!
Father, take me back!
Make a feast! Welcome me home!
I want to be your son!
I want to pay the price!
I want to be crucified and rise again!
I want to be the Messiah!
It is accomplished!"

I know that many people think that putting fictitious words in Jesus's mouth is blasphemy, but I don't see this scene as pretending to express any sort of divine knowledge, any more than any other work of art depicting the Christ must be said to be blasphemous. I hear these final words of Jesus as my own words, declaring my own reluctance to commit to the selfless spiritual life without reservation, and I shout a huge hooray when I finally say NO to the tempter's lies, and find my own personal sacred truth, and guided by Grace, and take up MY cross.

May 8, 2011
Glennallen, AK

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Life Isn't Fair

Life Isn't Fair
May 1, 2011

Somebody once asked Humphrey Bogart how he had the nerve to ask such phenomenally high fees for his movie acting; how did he figure he deserved that money? He replied, "I deserve it because I can get it." This is the same answer that rich people give when their lawyers drill gaping loopholes in their income tax returns, while lawyerless poor people continue to fork over ridiculous percentages of their paltry incomes to a government that has no concept of "fair".

Indeed, what is fair in the broadest spiritual sense? How does the balance sheet of God compare to the balance sheet of the IRS? According to the Hindu catechism, the laws of Karma are absolute: for every action there is a reaction; good works beget good rewards, evil acts earn commensurate punishments. The Bible is filled with like expressions of cosmic fairness: an eye for an eye, as you sow, so shall ye reap, etc., etc.

And yet, the sayings of Jesus often contradict and discredit (ha ha) the fairness math that is so natural, almost instinctive, to us. In fact, the paradoxical parables of Jesus abound with situations in which the Karmic ledgers are skewed every which way, surreptitiously endorsing acts of blatant unfairnesses.

Two of my favorite stories are "The Laborers in the Vineyard", and "The Prodigal Son".

The Laborers in the Vineyard
 or The Generous Employer
Scripture: Matthew 20:1-16
1 "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; 4 and to them he said, `You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went. 5 Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, `Why do you stand here idle all day?' 7 They said to him, `Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, `You go into the vineyard too.' 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, `Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.' 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, 12 saying, `These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13 But he replied to one of them, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?' 16 So the last will be first, and the first last."

Luke 15:11-32 (New King James Version)
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Then He said: “A certain man had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, 19 and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
20 “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 23 And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; 24 for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
28 “But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. 29 So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. 32 It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”

"What a rip-off!! How dare that doddering old fool take in that scumbag brother of mine, when he has wasted a fortune, divided our house, and insulted everything we (I) stand for, by having the EXTREMELY bad taste to return in disgrace, to sully our good name with more bad report. Holy Moly, what a--"

And that generous employer who pays everybody the same wage for very different amounts of effort. Wussup wit dat?

Various comments on the Generous Employer Parable suggest various conclusions:

from The Expository Files:
"So the last to enter the kingdom have full remission of sins and hope, just as those who are veterans. It is all about grace, not about when you enter or some human standard of rank.
The parable in Matthew 20 illustrates that. . . .what we gain from following Christ doesn't depend upon the calendar or time clock. It is about diligence of heart, acting as a chosen one from the time you start (early or late). "Christ has turned the accepted order of things upside down: His kingdom includes those like little children (18:2), but excludes those like the ruler (v.25). Some who think they are great by men's standards, do not rate highly at all by heaven's standards. And those ranked last by men shall be ranked first in heaven."

I want to call attention to one phrase in the preceding paragraph: "heaven's standards". There are, in this parable two standards of reward, two standards of Karma: one is the physical world's eye for an eye reward system, and the other is a heavenly system of reward and punishment that transcends time, and material arithmetic. The heart of God deals in an exchange rate that does not compute in the ledgers on the mundane merchant.

Don Schwager on the Parables of Jesus 1988:
"God is generous in opening the doors of his kingdom to all who will enter, both those who have labored a life-time for him and those who come at the last hour. While the reward is the same, the motive for one's labor can make all the difference. Some work only for reward. They will only put as much effort in as they think they will get out. Others labor out of love and joy for the opportunity to work. The Lord calls his disciples to serve God and neighbor with generosity and joy."

This is a mind-bending idea--that the reward for the work IS the work--that the laborers who worked all day really did get more than those who worked only one hour, because they had the pleasure of working all day, and the joy of cherishing what they did with their own hands to the glory of God. The workers who perceived the disproportionate pay as unfair were missing the point. On several previous occasions, I have suggested that the material world and the world of spirit operate in different time zones, and calculate mass and velocity with different scales. The fairness of spirit comes from the Will of God, whose grace is so often irrational; and yet, the workings of the heart always, ultimately, make sense to us, because, as spiritual beings, all sprung from the same source, we understand spiritual logic as well as God--we just have to remember to forget our materialistic, mechanistic interpretation of the mundane in favor of the non-restrictive heart logic of the divine. We have to reach out with our will to embrace the higher reality; all we have to do is remember. We have to KNOW there is a sense behind the madness, and then we have to remember it.

This weekend I have been re-reading Arthur Koestler's The Roots of Coincidence; this is a book that examines various aspects of parapsychology and synchronicity in light of 20th century advances in quantum physics. The subject of the book, broadly stated, is the relationship of causal events and their acausal reciprocals. The idea is that: things happen in the physical which which have a cause, and things happen in the mental which have no cause, or at least no cause that we can see or explain. This quote from Schopenhauer gives an interesting model of the relationship of causality to coincidence:
"Coincidence is the simultaneous occurrence of causally unconnected events . . . If we visualize each causal chain progressing in time as a meridian on the globe, then we may represent simultaneous events by the parallel circles of latitude. . . "

[Thus progressions of causal events proceed in one direction, while coincidences link these events from a completely different direction, in a completely different progression. One might say the "motives" of coincidence are of a different "character" or even from a different "dimension" from causal events.]

"All the events in a man's life accordingly stand in two fundamentally different kinds of connection: firstly, in the objective, causal connection of the natural process; secondly, in a subjective connection which exists only in relation to the individual who experiences it, and which is thus as subjective as his own dreams, whose unfolding content is necessarily determined, but in the manner in which the scenes in a play are determined by the poet's plot. That both kinds of connection exist simultaneously, and the self-same event, although a link in two totally different chains, nevertheless falls into place in both, so that the fate of one individual invariably fits the fate of the other, and each is the hero of his own drama while simultaneously figuring in a drama foreign to him--this is something that surpasses our powers of comprehension, and can only be conceived as possible by virtue of the most wonderful pre-established harmony. . . It is a great dream dreamt by the single entity, the Will to Life: but in such a way that all his personae must participate in it. Thus, everything is interrelated and mutually attuned."

This quote gives an unusual slant on the word, "coincidence"; we usually think of coincidence as having a random, unplanned character, while the paragraph above inevitably interprets the "co" in coincidence as the literal implication of "at the same time", but not necessarily random at all. That the reason behind coincidence is invisible to us, objectively speaking, does not mean that the ultimate sense of coincidence is irrational--it just means that we have to look outside the physical dimension, outside material causality and into subjective reality for its reason for being. But how truly invisible is this subjective reality? How truly inaccessible are the eyes with which we can see things unseen?

In Hebrews 11:1, we read:
1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Faith is the evidence of things not seen. "Evidence" and "not seen" in the same sentence. "Not seen" in the physical, but "evidenced" by higher sensitivities, reaching into higher dimensions of existence. The nonsense whose sensed two cents sense makes sense. The workers who had FAITH in the positive propensity of life toward some affirmative goal, never doubted the fairness of the master; their subjective reality merged effortlessly with the master's and they understood the fairness of their wages; those lacking that underlying faith will never be satisfied by any amount of material reward--always the jealous, ravenous balance sheet of the mundane would continue to demand more and more reward--never satisfied, never at peace. We accuse God of unfairness because he doesn't deliver what we thought He ought to--and in the same breath we turn our backs on the true gift, the legitimate reward, not what we thought we wanted, but what we truly needed.

John Claypool
"There is an old rabbinic parable about a farmer that had two sons. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields and he taught them everything that he knew about growing crops and raising animals. When he got too old to work, the two boys took over the chores of the farm and when the father died, they had found their working together so meaningful that they decided to keep their partnership. So each brother contributed what he could and during every harvest season, they would divide equally what they had corporately produced. Across the years the elder brother never married, stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother did marry and had eight wonderful children. Some years later when they were having a rich harvest, the old bachelor brother thought to himself one night, "My brother has ten mouths to feed. I only have one. He really needs more of his harvest than I do, but I know he is much too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he is already asleep, I'll take some of what I have put in my barn and I'll slip it over into his barn to help him feed his children.
At the very time he was thinking down that line, the younger brother was thinking to himself, "God has given me these wonderful children. My brother hasn't been so fortunate. He really needs more of this harvest for his old age than I do, but I know him. He's much too fair. He'll never renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night when he's asleep, I'll take some of what I've put in my barn and slip it over into his barn." And so one night when the moon was full, as you may have already anticipated, those two brothers came face to face, each on a mission of generosity. The old rabbi said that there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall. You know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. Two of his children had come to realize that generosity is the deepest characteristic of the holy and because we are made in God's image, our being generous is the secret to our joy as well. Life is not fair, thank God! It's not fair because it's rooted in grace."

Now as to the prodigal son,
Wikipedia has this to say:
"This is the last of three parables about loss and redemption, following the parable of the Lost Sheep and the parable of the Lost Coin, that Jesus tells after the Pharisees and religious leaders accuse him of welcoming and eating with "sinners." The father's joy described in the parable reflects divine love, the "boundless mercy of God," and "God's refusal to limit the measure of his grace."
"The request of the younger son for his share of the inheritance is "brash, even insolent" and "tantamount to wishing that the father were dead." His actions do not lead to success, and he eventually becomes an indentured servant, with the degrading job (for a Jew) of looking after pigs, and even envying them for the carob pods they eat. On his return, the father treats him with a generosity far more than he has a right to expect.
"The older son, in contrast, seems to think in terms of "law, merit, and reward," rather than "love and graciousness." He may represent the Pharisees who were criticizing Jesus.
"Many have argued the story is actually about the prodigals' Father who represents God, prodigals' (plural) rather than prodigal's (singular). One son had no love for his father, alienated and fell into deep sin, the other had no love for his father but stayed at home with the proper appearances of obedience without love. As many of the stories in Luke, the less likely person receives mercy and in this parable the most extreme sinner in a parable of Jesus is restored to his father while his more proper brother is not. The story passes through unexpected and jarring turns of events for the listeners. The parable ends with a deliberate unfinished nature. We do not know the final response of the run away's brother after the father's appeal to join the feast and the joy over the son who was dead and is now alive."

What causes the jealous workers and the older brother to misunderstand the generous employer and the loving father? I am reminded of two more stories: at the end of the Mahabarata, the victorious king turns his back on Heaven where his Earthly enemies now play in Elysian (sic) Fields; he descends into Hell to be with his family--thus affirming the conventional knowledge of the world in exchange for heavenly grace. At the end of "The Last Battle", the final Narnia book of C.S. Lewis, the dwarves sit at the opening of the cave in self-created darkness, preferring the eternal black of family loyalty to the heavenly light that shines just a few paces further in. How often do we sit in self-created darkness, when a simple act of faith, a slight incline of the head toward the light will assuage all out miseries? Why do we prefer the dark to the light? It must be because we forget to remember that the higher life is just a glance away, and that God's Grace is unfair, thank God!

May 1, 2011
Glennallen, AK