Quirky thoughts from the travels, trials, and tribulations of a modern reverend
The more I try to set aside my pre-pubescent Jedi theology, the more it seems to follow me. This happened again recently when I picked up the book In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia to find the world’s first prophet by Paul Kriwaczek, an Austrian dentist turned BBC journalist. Surprisingly going back into history would propel me out into space not once, but twice.
Here's what happened: Kriwacek starts his journey in the 1950s, describing his introduction to Zarathustra through Nietzsche’s book from the late 1800s entitled Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra). If that name doesn’t sound familiar to you, one of its sentences might: “Gott ist tot” (God is Dead).
I had somehow escaped college without reading Nietzsche, so I best knew Thus Spoke Zarathustra for its cinematic notoriety. In 1896, composer Richard Strauss was inspired by Nietzsche’s book to write a musical piece of the same name. Then in 1968, director Stanley Kubrick snagged it to use in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know… bom… bom.. bom… DA DA… as the sun appears from behind the planet? Well, that’s part of Also Sprach Zarathustra.
So just who is this Zarathustra?
Let’s pull back from space and time a bit. Scholars can’t agree on exactly how far we should pull back, so we are left somewhere between 1500 and 500 BCE. Very pre-Nietzsche and pre-Strauss. Also, we need to spin Kubrick’s planet around to somewhere in the vicinity of present-day Iran.
There, Zarathustra (also known in English as “Zoroaster”) was raised spiritually from a young age as a priest. Just as many religious figures whose names are still known to us today—Jesus and Siddhartha come quickly to mind—Zarathustra experienced a revelation in his thirties. Another midlife “crisis” turned “creative”. Instead of heading off in the proverbial Corvette with a young blond, he took the more meaningful path, rejecting the oppressive class structure of his youth, animal sacrifice, and rituals he no longer could get behind. Not surprisingly, he spun off from his heritage to spread this new knowledge. Eventually some descendants of his followers would supposedly travel to provide presents to a baby over in Jerusalem. (Yeah, I just slipped that in on you. Keep reading, this will come in handy during some winter holiday cocktail party.)
Any philosophy or religion is impossible to explain in a paragraph, yet I’ll attempt to do so to begin to tie all this together. First off, Zoroastrianism is monotheistic—possibly the oldest monotheistic religion. The creator of all, Ahura Mazda (zoom zoom zoom), is the Supreme Being, the highest power. Even though there is only one God, the universe works on a basis of moral dualism. So, Zarathustra’s philosophy typically describes life as the relationship between two primal spirits, or Forces.
Sound familiar? A bit like Star Wars philosophy? Sort of. The first side, Spenta Mainyu, is like when Jedi’s embrace the “light side” of the Force. The opposite side, Angra Mainyu, is like the Sith embracing the “dark side”. Based on this premise, Zoroastrian teachings revolve around seeking out truth (asha) and staying away from the force of deception (druj). This is not exactly your God/Satan feud, this is an internal job. This is free will. This is personal responsibility.
Guided by The Gathas (or Holy Songs of Zarathustra) and Avesta (the holy book), Zarathustra’s followers worked towards the ultimate purpose of life: “be among those who renew the world... to make the world progress towards perfection". (Something Zoroastrians and modern Jewish “tikkun olam”-ers would agree on.) Six Amesha Spentas (divine sparks) that permeate all of creation guide followers as well. With these, Zoroastrians co-create with Ahura Mazda. (It’s more complicated than this, of course, but that’s the nutshell overview suitable for Jeopardy.)
Eventually, many of Zarathustra’s ideas would influence other religions as travelers met each other in trading towns in Persia and beyond. As communities morphed. As wars displaced peoples. Alexander the Great would wield his destruction and much would be lost. Somewhere along the way, some of Zarathustra’s ideas would be picked up by a group calling themselves the Magi (as noted in the Christian Gospel of Matthew) who went to visit a young Jesus. Others would continue more close in to the original faith.
Today, less than 200,000 Zoroastrians are left worldwide according to census numbers. However, the spirit of Zarathustra lives on in the marks it has left on our other world religions. Zarathustra continues to influence new generations in our secular world. Kubrick’s Space Odyssey has made way for Lucas’s narrative, as “unchurched” children try on dualistic heroic roles in their search for meaning and purpose.
I can almost see Yoda whispering the core Zoroastrian tenet “Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta” (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds) to a young Padawan while the sun appears over Dagobah.
Because thus spoke Zarathustra… in a galaxy far, far, away.
Today I want to tackle what I often call the “p” word—otherwise known in religious circles as prayer.
This simple 6-letter word has caused me more trouble in my life than all the 4-letter words I was fond of using in my rebellious formative years. Before puberty, the word prayer caused me no issue. I recited the prayers we kids learned in Sunday school with my fellow frilly-dressed and tiny tie-wearing fellow students. Then when I became a “big girl”, I recited The Lord’s Prayer with the congregation, and tried to sit silently during the Silent Prayer. I knew to bow my head and not fidget. This was not the time to tickle your sister, as tempting as it may be. This was the time for reverence, to “talk to God”. But I couldn’t quite grasp it. I had tried to pray to get things I wanted, and when they didn’t appear, I fluctuated between sentiments of “praying is stupid” and “I’m stupid, I can’t pray right”. Plus, God never seemed to talk back. How rude! I totally would have been in trouble for not talking to someone who talked to me. But it seemed God had special rules.
Even though my father tried patiently to help me, I was in my theology-resistant phase, and he just couldn’t get through. Plus there was the Jesus barrier. In my teens, I was perplexed about Jesus. So, sometime around age thirteen, I stopped saying the word Jesus. This was an added quandary, because the word “Jesus” appeared in a lot of the prayers! So, I’d go ahead and read the prayers aloud at church with everyone else, but when the word “Jesus” appeared, I’d be silent.
Eventually, I approached my preacher father and said, “Dad, I can’t say ‘Jesus’ in prayers anymore.” He replied, “Well, that’s certainly an interesting development.” So I continued, “I don’t believe in Jesus, so I think it would be hypocritical to say his name in a prayer.” Never one to let me off the hook easily, my father asked, “What don’t you believe about Jesus?”
I don’t recall the rest of the conversation exactly. I probably mumbled something and tried to leave the room. I simply didn’t have the language to be able to describe my thoughts about Jesus nor my increasing difficulty with prayer. I do remember him telling me it was okay to question, and to talk with him anytime about it. But I was too embarrassed. I felt as if I were a doctor’s daughter saying, “Dad, I don’t believe in medicine.”
So I grinned and beared it through the prayers in church, and at weddings or funerals. And outside of church, prayer didn’t play a role in my life… except when others used it “on me”. Oh how I hated this. After describing to someone some difficulty in my life, they’d say “I’ll pray for you.” In my mind this was always said while their head was held high, and the words slid down towards me with contempt. What I heard was “you can’t solve it on your own, and I will step in with my mighty Jesus and we will fix your ineptitude”. And in most cases, they were likely just trying to bring me comfort.
I recently rewatched the 2004 teen flick Saved, a religious satire film that focuses on some teens in a fictitious Christian high school. In one scene, a main character calls a prayer circle with her friends to try and “pray away the gay” in her ex-boyfriend. It’s a well-written scene, and may be a comical one to teens in 2004, but is all too painful for gay men and women who were victims of conversion therapy to pray away their gay, even decades after the American Psychological Association concluded that homosexuality is not a disorder, and homosexuality was finally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In my head, this type of prayer is prayer used for the Dark Side, or at least used in ways that aren’t exactly helpful to people who live in community. Consider this story: In 2012, Mike O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives, sent an email to his colleagues stating “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8.” Sounds supportive, doesn’t it? Yeah, until you look up the psalm, and see “May his days be few; may another take his office.” If you continue reading, you’ll be faced with “May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.” Ouch.
This kind of sentiment actually has a name, imprecatory prayer, which comes from the Latin, imprecate, “invoking evil or divine vengeance”. There are a whole bunch of imprecatory prayers nestled in among the prayers that appear in the Book of Psalms, which is in the canon of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And we don’t have to look too far in most other religions to find similar words.
Scholars debate whether imprecatory prayers are truly meant as curses, or whether they are allegorical. To me, most seem to scream “My way is right, your way is wrong. And I am going to use my prayer to change you, dominate you, or get what I want.” Which sucks if we are talking about rigid anti-LGBTQ rights, but seems almost heroic if we are praying for world peace (after buying the world a Coke?).
And there comes my judgement. Pray-away-the-gay is bad. Pray-away-the-war is good.
So then… how should we pray?
Anthropologists have found written sources of prayer as early as 5000 years ago, and we find an incredibly large range of prayer practices in each religion in the world. I love this nutshell synopsis courtesy of Wikipedia: “Some Christians bow their heads and fold their hands. Some Native Americans regard dancing as a form of prayer. Some Sufis whirl. Hindus chant mantras. Jewish prayer may involve swaying back and forth and bowing. Muslims practice salat (kneeling and prostration) in their prayers. Quakers keep silent.”
Let’s narrow to Christianity for a bit, since it influences much of how we see prayer here in the US, where 71% percent of people identify as Christian. (According to a 2014 Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research)
When Jesus was asked the question “How should we pray” (as portrayed in Luke 11 of the Christian Bible), he set out what is referred to in churches as The Lord’s Prayer or The Our Father. This prayer was a little rebellious for the day—it removed the majestic adjectives about God that appeared in traditional prayer of the day, and replaced them with the casual word “Father”. (It’s often said in bible commentary that this was to bring people closer to a more approachable God, and implies that there was something wrong or lacking with the traditional Jewish way of praying at that time. I’m a fan of removing this bias, and looking it as an alternative option rather than a replacement.)
Further on in Matthew 21:22, it states. “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” But, is that really true? Take this quick example: An Arkansas layman once boasted to evangelist Charles Templeton that God had given him a Cadillac. Templeton answered him, “It’s interesting that God gave you a Cadillac. He gave his only begotten son a cross. And he gave Paul—one of his first and strongest disciples—stoning, shipwreck, imprisonment, and all the other thousand troubles he faced.” And, personally, I’ve yet to receive the pony, Barbie Malibu dreamhouse, or full-ride college scholarship I prayed for.
For centuries, though, petitionary prayer, where we ask for something, was the right way to pray. The influential theologian St Thomas Aquinas codified this in the 13th century when he insisted that petition was one of the three conditions required for prayer. (Thanking prayers were ok, if you first petitioned God for his attention in order to then thank God—nice loophole Thomas.)
Another leading theologian of his day, Hugh of Saint Victor (awesome name, huh?!) said in the 12th century: “some people were evidently quite disturbed by the fact that when we pray… we say a lot of things to God in which we do not ask for anything: it is a mockery rather than prayer to come before God as if to ask for something and then suddenly turn aside to other things which are quite irrelevant.”
But in the last few decades, petitionary prayer has fallen out of favor—and is in many circles even a “wrong” type of prayer.
Further, prayer itself is becoming a dicey word. Perhaps fueled by misuse of imprecatory prayer, fear of religion, or just general intolerance to religious practices, many of us find ourselves weary of using the “P word” in secular audiences. Author and speaker Alex McLellan, in his blog post “Don’t euphemize the P… word” addresses the result:
“Prayer hasn’t disappeared—yet, but the idea of sending ‘positive thoughts’ is preferable. In a secular culture, prayer is too closely aligned with religious types so a number of creative euphemisms are slowly being adopted… Positive thoughts avoid any religious baggage. You communicate your care and concern without offending anyone. We still tap into something powerful - beyond us, while leaving the door open to a natural explanation.”
In Matthew 6:6, we are told “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.” Yup, Jesus recommended we pray in our closets – focusing on prayer needing to be personal, rather than for show. But are we going to now find ourselves only able to pray in closets?
So again I ask… how should we pray?
My answer? However the heck you want to. Prayer is a personal connection with the divine (for those who consider themselves spiritual or religious) or to something higher within yourself (for many who you don’t). I even read an excellent article on the validity of atheistic prayer last week in the Faith & Philosophy journal. I don’t think any of us should be demanding to write the rule book on what it right for someone else’s prayer life.
So whether you currently pray, or fervently refuse to pray, I’m going to challenge us all today to try something new. I call it praying outside the box. And we’re going to look at it from two perspectives—for both those of you in the audience who don’t pray, and then for those who do.
If you don’t currently don’t pray, I challenge you to try it.
Best-selling author Anne Lamott’s 2012 book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers was the book that finally got me able to say the word prayer without it getting stuck in the back of my throat. The book is just as advertised in the title: a collection of simple prayers you can digest in no more than an hour. The humor and rawness that Lamott is well known for shine through in these prayers that even the staunchest atheist would have a hard time not finding use for, especially since these prayers can easily be “God-optional”.
Even without the book, the practice is an easy one to pick up from the title alone. Simply try uttering aloud or silently these words when they come up. A tough day? “Help” fits. Something surprisingly great just happened? Try “Thanks”. Happened to catch the most beautiful gold sunset? “Wow”.
It doesn’t matter if you know who or what exactly you are uttering these words to. It can be prayer. Forget all the historical theological descriptions. Just put it out there. Utter the words. See what happens.
And if words fail you… How about creating a painting as prayer? Hiking your prayer? It’s your prayer. You get to make the rules.
Now, what if you are already a seasoned prayer. You’ve got your memorized favorites. You can say them practically in your sleep. Or maybe you are the one who excels at giving the family prayer at holiday meals, you’re the resident prayer expert.
For you, here is the challenge: Try praying in a way that you haven’t before or think won’t work for you.
My father prayed for forty-five minutes every morning. How did he manage that in a busy schedule? He prayed while jogging.
I can’t jog, but last month I found myself breaking a sweat at a Jewish Retreat Center praying while singing nigunim in my elementary transliterated Hebrew. Yet, I felt a deep connection to God in a way I can barely still explain. It was visceral. It was in every fiber of my body. Yes, it was certainly prayer. And it seemed like the furthest I had been out from my childhood prayers. Until a few days ago when I was writing this sermon.
While at a conference at a Midwest airport hotel, I bumped into the folks from the room neighboring mine. They were dressed to the nines, and when I commented on their excellent attire, they announced they were in the hotel for a church conference. And we started chatting. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in the most excellent gospel testimony worship service I have ever seen. Full band. Huge shiny hats. Soaring voices. And they called it prayer.
Soon I’m moving just the tiniest bit in my chair. Then my foot starts to tap. I’m self-conscious of my skin color, and my worn blue jeans. But I try to relax. Next I’m swaying. I’m singing a bit. I can’t quite make it up on my feet, but I’m sortof almost clapping to the beat. And then it happens, I’m in tune with the room. I feel in the right place and I feel the music as if I am part of its actual beats. It happens only for a few minutes, then my foot catches the wrong beat, and I’m back into self-conscious land. But I felt it. For a minute I was connected to everyone in the room and everything outside of it. It was prayer.
So I challenge you. Go looking for prayer in what you think are all the wrong places. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the script. If you are a casual prayer, try on some pious scholarly prayers with lots of majestic adjectives.
Pray out of the box. And then, notice the results. Mull them over.
What does it do to you? How do you feel? Is your connections growing? If you didn’t have a connection can you find one now? Do you feel any benefits in your life?
A few years ago, Psychology Today reported on some of the research scientists have done on the effects of prayer. They noted:
“Our species has probably been praying for as long as we have been able to contemplate our existence. And though we may never be able to establish evidence that a deity or spiritual force actually hears our prayers, in recent years, scientists have begun to consider the potential tangible (i.e., measurable) effects of prayer. And this research suggests that prayer may be very beneficial.”
So just what were these benefits? They cited five.
First, improved self-control: “Research participants who said a prayer prior to a mentally exhausting task were better able to exercise self-control following that task.”
Second, prayer can help reduce anger: “Researchers found that having people pray for those in need reduced the amount of aggression they expressed following an anger-inducing experience.”
Third, prayer can help create forgiveness: “Researchers found that having people pray for a romantic partner or friend made them more willing to forgive those individuals.”
Fourth, prayer can help create trust: “Recent studies found that having people pray together with a close friend increased feelings of unity and trust… Social prayer may thus help build close relationships.”
And lastly, prayer can help reduce negative health situations caused by stress: “Researchers found that people who prayed for others were less vulnerable to the negative physical health effects associated with financial stress.”
Psychology Today is not the only publication reporting on the positive effects of both prayer and meditation. But I’m not asking you to believe them outright. The challenge here again is to really dig into prayer and see what happens for you personally.
In closing, it seems perfectly apropos for me to end today with a prayer. And in the spirit of praying outside the box, I’m going to use one that I saw on my trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was written by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in tiny black uppercase letters in a dime-store composition notebook. And as odd as it is, to Basquiat, it is prayer:
NICOTINE WALK ON EGGSHELLS
THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS VOID
DARKNESS FACE OF THE DEEP
SPIRIT MOVED ACROSS THE
WATER AND THERE WAS LIGHT
“IT WAS GOOD”©
BREATHING INTO HIS LUNGS
2000 YEARS OF ASBESTOS
In the words of Anne Lamott: “Wow”.
Have you seen the bumper sticker “My Karma ran over your Dogma”?
Well, as a modern reverend who has studied the diverse religious traditions of the world, I’ve been pondering this bumper sticker all week. It’s clever, I agree. But what is it saying?
I started by asking the collective wisdom that is… Yahoo Answers:
There were two dozen or so answers, including a few confused people that were offering dog training advice. Maybe Yahoo Answers wasn’t the best place to start. I decided to break it down.
My meditation teacher’s definition of karma is simply “action”. And this action is related to the moral law of cause and effect. It’s like Newton’s third law in physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” So choose your actions carefully.
But how about Dogma? Webster’s dictionary defines dogma as “something held as an established opinion” or “a code of tenets”.
Then it offers a second definition: “a doctrine… concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church”.
And I think that is the definition that has landed the word in what I’d like to refer to as The Dogma Pound. Dogma is the dicey word. For many of us it brings uncomfortable emotions. The word “authoritative” makes me want to recoil like from a hot flame. I see the Inquisition, Holocaust, or the looming Death Star. Then the word “morals” makes me even more nervous. Which morals? According to who?
In today’s modern American world, many of us experience more religious freedom than our ancestors back through the centuries—even if it doesn’t always seem like it from our tv sets. We can be relig-“ish” or jew-“ish”. Many of us are “unchurched” or “nones”. Some are S-B-N-R (spiritual but not religious). And dogma is a loaded word many of us use as a catchall for all the things we don’t like… those experiences and viewpoints that haven’t sat well with us in our religious journey.
Recently I found myself saying, “I’m an interfaith/interspritual minister because I don’t want to be filled with dogma or preachiness.” I put dogma in the Dogma Pound. Totally ratted it out. So, today I’m going to start reclaiming the word dogma by suggesting three steps. I’m hoping you’ll think about joining me.
Step one: Seek and define your dogma
Let’s go back further than Webster, to the Greeks. The Greek word, which dogma comes from means “that which one thinks is true,” “to seem good” or “think.”
So, what do you think? What seems “good” to you? If you are in a religious tradition that has a creed or scripture that you haven’t really explored since puberty, check it out. Seek out people that can help you understand the doctrine of your faith. Try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you don’t have a tradition, start collecting the ideas and thoughts that are meaningful to you on a deeper level. Try them on. See what fits. “Notice... and inquire.”
Step two: Own your dogma
Personalizing our beliefs makes them rich. Living them out in our daily lives brings us to community. And being invested in a community of likeminded people can help give us courage to make change. To take our dogma from beliefs and thoughts into action toward a higher purpose outside of ourselves.
Step three: Curb your dogma bias
Dismissing another person’s thoughts with disdain as “dogma” doesn’t help anyone. It makes the divide between us greater. If my dogma is different than your dogma, maybe we have some things to learn from each other. Let’s take those ideas out of the Dogma Pound to the Dogma Park and let them play around with each other. See where they might be complementary. And let’s rub up against each other’s boundaries. This is where compassion and healing can happen.
So, there’s the challenge:
By doing these three things, you might even let your dogma determine your karma, rather than create roadkill from it.
"That's the most sacrilegious thing I've ever heard you say, Sarah. Seriously rethink that." said my husband. For context, I had just called him from the parking lot of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. However, I had referred to it as The Church of Mary Who Got Knocked Up by God. Growing up Protestant, I never understood "the Mary thing." As someone who likes to chat with God directly—do not pass Go, do not collect 200 bucks on the way—I've consistently had a hard time understanding why there would need to be someone in the middle of that connection. Why a middleman? Or middlewoman in this case? Little did I know I was about to get smacked in the noggin again for my contempt prior to investigation.
The Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North and South America combined. And it's also one of the ten largest churches in the world. Yet, I had never heard of it. Luckily, a fellow seminarian said, "Yo, you should go see the Basilica." (She might not have said "Yo." But in my hindsight brain, she did.) But what absolutely ignited my interest was her next sentence, "Especially the crypt." A crypt? Hell yeah. In a previous life (or alternate reality), I am convinced I dated a vampire.
Both the lower and upper levels of the Basilica are brimming with chapels—70 in total. And each chapel has a Mary. As I traipsed through chapel after chapel, I found my emotions were on an unanticipated roller coaster. Some Marys were creepy. Others awe-inspiring. Some dark and dreary. Others luminescent and uplifting. I found myself sitting in some chapels, in intense reflection. Other chapels I could not leave quickly enough.
The most astounding surprise was the depth and breadth of Mary ethnicities. I recalled when I was working on my first book, Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father's Old Sermons, I went through a phase where I rejected any images of Jesus that did not look Middle Eastern. I reveled in the websites that compared the Jesus of Renaissance paintings to Cesare Borgia, and the tv special that determined "What Jesus would really have looked like." And so as I began to view the many Marys, I started with a "Mary wouldn't have looked like that" frame of reference. But soon the Marys won me over as I read the descriptions in each chapel. Our Mother of Africa. Our Lady of Ephesus. Our Lady of Brezje. Our Lady of Siluva. And then Mary, Queen of Missions. Our Mother of Good Counsel. Mother of Perpetual Help.
Under one shining mosaic chapel dome, I said my first rosary, using the Buddhist prayer beads on my wrist. (Luckily the words were in the ceiling. Kudos to that chapel designer!) Then I stood for what seemed like an eternity before Our Lady of China, and the mosaic letters underneath her, "Pray for us." Post-election and pre-inauguration, these words bounced around in my heart.
From the ceiling of the North Apse, a giant glittering Jesus looked down on me like an immense Zeus from Mount Olympus. I found it magnificent and freaky, all at the same time. After a few hours looking at Marys, I was a little irritated that Jesus seemed to be stealing the show. I was beginning to like Mary for her own merits. For herself. For not just being Theotokos, God-bearer (as decreed in 431 CE at the Council of Ephesus). And I realized that was because the majority of the Marys I had been hanging with all morning were sans Jesus. No baby feeding on the breast. The Marys I had been hanging with were either pre-baby or empty-nester. They were like me.
Yet I was not prepared for what happened next. In front of a white-as-can-be, flowing brown hair Mary, I found myself on my knees. Now, to fully explain the gravity of this act, you need to understand I do not "hit my knees". I sit on a zafu. I talk to God while hiking. My father prayed when he jogged. We are not knee-hitters. But here I was, on my knees, saying to the Mary that looked just like me (and doubtless nothing remotely like the "real" Mary), "I'm sorry I called you 'Mary who got knocked up by God.' I get it now."
What did I get? I couldn't find the exact words for it until I read these by Nadia Bolz-Weber from her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People: "There is a reason Mary is everywhere. I've seen her image all over the world, in cafés in Istanbul, on students' backpacks in Scotland, in a market stall in Jakarta, but I don't think her image is everywhere because she is a reminder to be obedient, and I don't think it has to do with social revolution. Images of Mary remind us of God's favor. Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.”
So yeah, now I can legitimately declare: There's something about Marys.
The command “Resist!” screams at me daily now from my Facebook feed. Since the election of President Trump, the word has steadily returned to our collective vocabulary. And there seems to be no end to the popular icons used to ask me to resist: Smokey Bear, Princess Leia, and Uncle Sam appear on posters under the same heading… Resist!
Which leads me in a roundabout way to Martin Luther. Until recently my view of Luther was an inspired reformer and resistance leader who took the indulgences and atrocities of the Roman Catholic Church to task with his 95 theses, fueling the Reformation. In other words, a very simplistic, generalized Protestant view. Last year, I expanded this view when reading the actual theses and some pieces of his other works at the Morgan Library’s exhibit Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation. Viewing the sparring of Luther and the Pope through words and images (against my backdrop of the US election season) was poignantly timely. I began to see the human, culpable side of Luther… the other side of the coin. This expanded even further when viewing the Thomas More exhibit last month in DC. Viewing endless examples of anti-Catholic rhetoric and violence quickly turned the Reformation into a multi-faceted issue for me.
A few weeks later, when watching the documentary The Cross and the Star: Jews, Christians, and the Holocaust I heard Luther quoted “Next to the devil himself, a Christian has no enemy more cruel, more venomous and violent than a true Jew.” WTF? Next, I heard how Hitler used Luther as a German hero to support his rhetoric, and undermine the Confessing Church. So I checked out selections from Luther’s 65,000 words On the Jews and their Lies. Suggesting burning synagogues? Forbidding rabbis to preach? I’m led back down the rabbit hole of anti-semitism and Christian triumphalism from the mighty church fathers. Selected readings of St Augustine, John Crysostom, and Tertullian accompanied me back into the “Jews killed Christ” bullshit. Meanwhile, the news on my modern tv set seemed to scream “Make Christianity great (and superior) again!”
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
Then, in the February 1, 2017 issue of The Christian Century, I saw the above picture and the following headline: “A toy figure of Luther sparked accusations of anti-Semitism”. Playmobil’s fastest (ever) selling toy sold 34,000 copies, selling out within 72 hours.
The Luther toy had been created to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses. Yet, the script on the miniature Bible in Luther’s hand brought up the age old debate about the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” which are not friendly to those of Jewish faith. (The term Hebrew Bible is much more appropriate… hint hint… for all my Christian readers.)
Interestingly, Playmobil has listened to the criticism and is creating a new model that will remove the word “END” after Old Testament to try to address the issue. (I’m personally not sure it will, as “Old Testament” still appears.)
You betcha I ordered one on Amazon asap.
The day it was delivered there was a massive snowstorm and I couldn’t make it out to our mailbox. I waited with anticipation to see if I had successfully received the original design (with the offensive END). When we finally were plowed out the next day, I ventured carefully out on the road to find out the mailbox… was gone. Nowhere in sight among the six-foot-tall snowbanks on both sides of the road. The post was there, but the box had vanished. After quickly dismissing that God had vanquished an offensive Luther from my box, I felt a great wash of disappointment. And I wondered, why was I so excited about getting the mini Luther?
My righteousness. My bias. My shadow side wanting to point out that other people are (or were) more intolerant than I am. That my errors are not that bad… look what this guy did!
Then I recalled a piece I came across when writing my book. Catholics and Lutherans planned a shared liturgy to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. Their joint report, “From Conflict to Communion,” and their “Common Prayer” booklet emphasize the shared beliefs between the denominations, rather than the differences that split them apart five hundred years ago. The report passionately states, “We deeply regret the evil things that Catholics and Lutherans have mutually done to each other.”
And I was led back to Pope John Paul II’s 1998 work We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah which he hoped would “indeed help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices.” Yet, many felt his statements didn’t go far enough, and still did not hold Pope Pius XII’s accountable enough.
Accountability... blame… apologies. Hurt and suffering abound. Is that what history is? Where one person sees injustice, another does not? What is the appropriate level of resistance through a non-dual lens… when I perceive injustice? During the horrors of the Third Reich, Protestant preachers Barth, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Busch (as well as the other preachers whose names did not begin with B in the Confessing Church) answered one way. During his day, Luther answered in his own way. Standing Rock protestors, the Women’s March, and myriad other protestors today are answering in their own way.
But I’m perplexed. How do we heal the divide when each side continues to point out that the other side is wrong? Many coo that love is the answer. And while I would love to agree (pun intended), humans can’t even agree on a definition of love… especially when in action.
What is the appropriate level of resistance… when using love as the tool? Youth pastor Wilhelm Busch had so many interactions with the Gestapo during the Nazi regime that on his twenty-fifth interview “he wore a black suit with a flower boutonniere. When one of the Gestapo asked in amazement what he thought he was doing, he said he was celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary.”*
Now that’s some classy resistance.
Postscript: I picked up a new mailbox. After my husband gets it in place I’m thinking about ordering some more controversial figures to see if it gets affected again. But I suspect the real person to blame here is the plow. Or actually the snow that made the blow come. Snow comes from weather, which is part of Creation. Creation is God. Holy S*#! God did vanquish Martin Luther… to under a snow mound. My husband did eventually find the mailbox. And mini Luther is ok, packaging and everything. Once again proving that God may smite someone, but always forgives them? And that I, as non-dual coexistence smited my own box, which is God’s mailbox, if the mailbox even exists at all. An excellent contemplation.
*From Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich edited by Dean G Stroud, page 171
That question launched the idea for my first book, Void if detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality though My Father's Old Sermons. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter:
For me, being a Preacher’s Kid (PK) is often a surreal experience. When someone finds out I am a PK, they usually envision me growing up in a stark, fire-and-brimstone household, and thus solemnly offer me their condolences, combined with looks of subtle pity. Or—having seen Footloose one too many times—they ask me if I have red cowboy boots. Or they smile mysteriously and say, “Now that explains it.”
I try to ward off most of these responses by quickly explaining that my father was not your typical preacher. That our house was not filled with spooky religious paintings. That, yes, my dad loved to dance, and drank vodka tonics.
Oh, and that, most importantly, I am not a bastard. You see, during our elementary school years, my sister Amy and I lived in a neighbor-hood that felt half Jewish/half Catholic, with us being members of a strange group called Protestant. My Catholic classmates pulled me aside quietly and whispered that I really shouldn’t have been born because priests aren’t supposed to have wives or kids. Dad further confused this issue by reading Hebrew in my first grade show-and-tell. Now my Jewish classmates were stumped. However, because my father would patiently answer their questions, he became known affectionately as The Rev by our friends of all faiths.
When I was very young, I never questioned whether the Bible stories were true. I felt a sense of awe thinking of Noah’s ark or Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Bible stories were just other versions of bedtime stories, in which cats wearing hats spoke, and girls could become princesses of other lands. God was a given and I knew that he loved me.
I loved being at the church with my Dad—and of course I loved the specialness (or entitlement!) that I thought came from being the “boss’s” daughter. Christmas brought the yearly Advent musical, and summer brought Vacation Bible School. I sang in the choir, and performed in church musicals.
Sometimes my sister Amy and I would skip church school and run our own club in Dad’s office. We’d round up a couple of other kids and play church—all putting our donation offerings in my Dad’s velvet-lined pipe box. Once at home we even performed a marriage ceremony for the kids in the neighborhood—dressed in a neighbor’s lingerie. Amy gave a rousing speech in a black-and-white peignoir. A neighborhood girl and I dressed in pastel camisoles and fluttered around as butterflies. (All the best weddings have butterflies, of course.)
We’d raid the church supply closets and make artistic concoctions from colored construction paper, bendy pipe cleaners, and ridiculous amounts of paste. One such project marked the first time I questioned what I learned in church. On the side of our church’s property was a large, wooded area we played in with the other curious kids. Affectionately named the Bunny Woods, it held a special place in the hearts and minds of our group, and served as the backdrop for most of our play.
So imagine our confusion when immense yellow construction vehicles showed up in this area and the trees began show up on the ground! Extremely upset, Amy and I asked Dad what was going on. To us, this was “God’s land” and how dare anyone hurt it, taking the homes away from our prized bunnies.
We then got an introduction to real estate development. But fear not, we had the answer. Raiding the church supply closet again with our assembled child warriors, my sister and I created oak tag and construction paper signs (pulling out all the stops by using the extremely precious glitter) demanding, “Save the Bunny Woods” and proclaiming, “Jesus Loves Bunnies!” (My heart goes out now to the construction workers who showed up to work the following day. Sorry.) Of course, the real estate development machine continued, and we lost the Bunny Woods. This had a profound effect on me. “How could God let this happen?” I cried.
This nagging thought popped up again a few months later on a warm summer day at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). To us kids, the JCC was the ultimate place on Earth—two pools, a youth lounge (with video games!), a hot dog stand, an ice cream shop, and on and on. We spent as much time there as possible.
Dad would take us there, and then spend his time in the adult steam room. When we ran out of quarters for the video games or had some sort of other important crisis, we’d open up the door to the steam room (ignoring the “No Kids Allowed” sign) and yell, “Dad? Dick Murdoch?” to summon him. Sometimes we’d get a glimpse of some random old man in a towel and run off giggling.
One day, I noticed that one of the men in the steam room had a bunch of numbers drawn on his wrist. In my house, drawing on yourself (or on your sister) with markers was forbidden, so I asked my father what that was all about. The answer greatly overshadowed my previous lesson in real estate development. Dad took me to the museum area of the JCC and explained the Holocaust. Again, I asked, “Why would God let this happen?” No answer he gave me would I accept.
As I grew up, I began to develop my own answers to my religious questions, with the infallible wisdom of kids in their elementary school years: “Catholic families have the most kids.” “Jewish kids are lucky because they get more presents.” My sister followed suit by demanding at dinner one night, “Give me my daily bread!”
We practiced dressing up with neighbors for a First Communion we wouldn’t have, then spent the next day eating mini-bagels at a Bar Mitzvah. During the winter holidays, we lit the Menorah and played dreidel with friends down the street, then came home to trim our own Christmas tree.
And all of this seemed normal. My father explained to me that there were many ways to experience God, and never gave me the feeling that our religious denomination was better than those of any of my friends, or that their beliefs were less than mine. And this was all good by me.
But then came puberty. This was the time in our church that kids were asked to dive a little deeper into religion. I attended Sunday even-ng Confirmation classes where we were supposed to learn about our church’s faith, traditions, and practices. I must confess I was more interested in staring at the cute blond boy in my class and wondering if he liked me. Or if he thought I was too tall. Or too short. I worried incessantly about my looks and what other people thought about me. The strong confident child I had been turned into a nervous gangly girl who felt ugly, poor, and not good enough.
So, needless to say, I certainly didn’t learn what our teacher hoped I would. I do remember learning that during ancient times if someone was caught stealing, then his hand was cut off. Our teacher explained how truly awful this was by explaining to us that toilet paper did not exist then, and so one hand was used for eating, and one for “wiping.” So having one of your hands cut off was the ultimate humiliation.
I also remember somehow passing the class test—complete with an ordered list of all of the books of the Bible—so that I could stand in front of the entire church congregation and be confirmed—right next to the cute blond boy.
The following year, my father accepted a position as minister of a church in another state. I was now entering ninth grade, and was not thrilled. At all. But after a few rough months at a new school—and a new church—I began to find my way. The hip teen activity in my new church was the bell choir. (No, I am not kidding.) I joined it and must say we had some crazy times in that bell choir. Through it, I found my first serious high school boyfriend and my first fake ID.
I also began to realize that in some crowds being a preacher’s kid was a serious liability. Living in a Midwestern college town in the 1980s, the last thing I wanted to be known for was being a square who would rat out a party. So I made sure my appearance didn’t give people that idea.
Want to spot a PK at a youth retreat? Look for the one with the spiked hair. Or the blue hair. Or the black leather punk rock jacket. Luckily, since I continued to excel in school and on the swim team I was given a lot of liberty by my parents for self-expression.
Spiritually, I was beginning to question everything. I remained skeptical about whether Jesus truly was born of a virgin as the Son of God. I’d agree that he did seem like a cool dude, but I couldn’t buy into him being any more a son of God than I was a daughter of God. And I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, so I went through a period where I wouldn’t say the word “Jesus” in prayers or take communion.
While my father was always willing to help me with my questions, my self-absorption was growing to a colossal size. Eventually, my questioning spirituality took a back seat to my self-seeking. A large void began to grow inside. Probably the oddest thing I did was to buy a copy of The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. Now, before you go thinking I was crazy, let me assure you that there was a reason for this madness. The book had been banned at a local bookstore with a lot of media fanfare. Being a curious kid, I wanted to see what all the noise was about, so I tracked down a copy.
Dad saw the book in my room one day and casually asked, “So what do you think of it?” I had certainly been expecting (or seeking?) a different reaction. “Haven’t read it yet,” I replied. “Well, once you finish it, let me know and we can discuss it,” he said. Well, I never finished that book, so we never did get around to discussing it, but I did come to understand something from the experience. Most people need to believe in something. Or at least they want to believe in something. That book had changed the common perception of Satan and created a religion around it. And that religion wasn’t for me.
But I wasn’t sure the religion I had was for me either...
To continue reading, pick up the award-winning book: Void if detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality though My Father's Old Sermons