The Gospel of Thomas..a reflection

From the Essence of Wisdom, Stephen Mitchell, page 6

The Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”

I turn the page of The Essence this morning and here is this, a gift perfectly timed, from Mitchell who chose it, Thomas who recorded it, and Jesus who spoke it.

There are things we know, even without questions preceding them. They are things that have been built from the words of 10,000 authors, a thousand conversations, all the music we have ever listened to, every dawn we have ever witnessed, every sadness we have endured, and every single one of the joys that have made us smile, laugh, wonder, anticipate, and be thankful.

They are the things connect me to you, to every person on the planet, and to each part of the universe. They are shaped by the God-image in me; thus, they are unique and how dare I demand that anything about myself be patterned precisely in the Image from which you shine. The Image of God in you is differently shaped, and uniquely yours.

We share so much, given to us in such abundance by the 14 billion year history of the universe. And yet we allow those tiny, tribal traditions- the smallest fraction of who and what we are- to separate us, categorize us, frustrate us, and keep us dying within boundaries that should not, must not, be. We are being destroyed by denying the allure, the attraction, the love between us and all things.

The moon calls to the oceans and the oceans respond. The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are on, in these moments, a co-mingling, gravitational collision course, born of their intrinsic nature to be drawn together, in which this part of all-that-is will be recreated and begun new all over again. The cicadas call to each other in the treetops- a billion year old beckoning to reproduce, to continue, to live. Food and water will attract us throughout the day, as will the eight times a minute desire to feel the oxygen aspirated by trees, grass, kelp, and flowers, filling our lungs. We yearn for, desire, need, and want; we are formed for community. It is basic to who we are and how we live and it not something apart from us that we choose. It is vital. The connections between ourselves and everything else, from the Flaming Forth of the universe to the photosynthetic activity of each plant on the planet, from the people close to us whom we most cherish to the smallest dying child in some place so far away we do not even have a name for it, from blue whales to the 10,000 organisms in a teaspoon of soil under our feet; ours was not, cannot be, was never meant to be, a solitary life.

I can sit on that which I know, and say nothing. Or I can dress it up in the binding and too-tight clothing of old traditions, and try to disguise it in more palatable and presentable concoctions. I can continue, as I once was, to be frightened and to let fear constrict the Image of God in me. I can do those things- I am practiced at them- but they will destroy me. I have felt that destruction too many times, and cannot go back to it.

But if I add my small voice to those of the visionaries- the lovers- who saw, knew, and prophesized, and who dared to say that we are all- everyone and everything- parts of a living whole, then I am alive, and I am saved from the hell humans- me among them- have created. I can emulate and even acquire the ravenous ego of a Caesar, or a Hitler- those instructions and those monstrous abilities are imbedded in me, in all of us. Or I can emulate the fearlessness of St. Francis and empty my pride daily on the public square.

I can imitate the robber barons and acquire, seize, and hold, all of that which my intellect and finances will allow me to. It is easy to do so; I will feel safe in doing so, even applauded for doing so. Or I can imitate John Wesley and live a life with the daily intention of dying with no more than that with which I was born.

I can curse the darkness, scream at it, damn it; or, I can learn gratitude in all things like Nelson Mandela, who sat unfairly in the twenty year prime of his life, in a prison cell.

I can do those things and much more; I am capable. Or I can, simply, follow Jesus into a life of connections. And I’m getting better at it,

I think. I hope.

Rilke..a reflection

The Essence of Wisdom, page 4-

Rainer Maria Rilke: “Most people have turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself, at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us.”

I don’t know how so many people can get by during the day and not seem to question anything. Frankly, I admire- a little– those who are able to be satisfied with someone else’s rules; it would probably make life less confusing and a little easier to navigate, to be sure. But, for me, anyway, it wouldn’t be much fun either, and the fun in questioning outweighs (again, for me) the passive acceptance of the ways things are.

I’ve paid a lot of seat belt fines for having that attitude. Why must I wear a seat belt on residential streets where I am driving between 15 and 20 mph? I suspect the reason is municipal revenue raising and fine quotas, rather than concern on the part of any police officer for my personal safety. But that’s one of the practical downsides of always being stubbornly stuck in the questioning mode.

On the upside, I learn a lot of stuff. One example that applies to my profession and which you read about frequently here, is my thinking about the Bible. Agreed, it would be easier for anyone to believe that the various books of the Bible were written with lightening from heaven on a rock, or spoken in God induced trances by the prophets, or dropped, perfectly translated and edited in Zip-lock baggies, onto the desks of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But- for me- all of that would negate human interactions with God and reactions to God over time. And that is what the Bible is an imperfect record of.

Yikes! Imperfect?

Of course. The original languages the Bible were written in are ancient ones. Scholars of biblical translation will always have arguments and make necessary concessions about specific words and phrases. Does a comma go there, or there? And is this a new paragraph, or not? Since there were no grammatical marks in ancient Greek, sometimes it’s just a guess. And what about these verses at the end of Mark, or this 8th chapter of John? (They don’t ‘fit’ their contexts at all and don’t even appear in the oldest manuscripts.)

And speaking of manuscripts. None of these books went from the author to the printer. The New Testament gospels and letters would have been carried around for years before being copied by whoever was nearby that knew how to read and write and was willing to laboriously copy the text onto another vellum or papyrus with a sharpened stick or feather quill. And mistakes were made. All of the oldest copies we have of these books are copies made between 100 and 400 years after the originals were written, and multiple copies of the same passages reveal numerous floating commas, varying breaks in stories, and even additions, or subtractions. The original copyists, after all, were amateurs, recruited to do this work, probably voluntarily. Only several hundred years later did the professional factories of transcribing monks begin to appear, who would continue to do their hand copying at least until the 16th Century when printing presses began to appear. (Each of them manned, I need also to note, by different human typesetters of varying educations and skill levels.)

Most of those grammatical and contextual problems can be dealt with, however. We will never all be in agreement with the exact meaning and ramifications of what is written there, but we can all be in the general ballpark. What causes some to call “Foul!” however, is the question of whether the Bible represents the “complete” knowledge we are intended to have about God. Many say it is. I and many others say it is not.

It would be easier to regard the Bible in the former manner. It would be easier for studying, making conclusions, agreeing with the doctrines of others, and deciding once and for all what the “rules” are if I regarded the Bible as everything I needed to know about God. But I can’t, don’t, and won’t. I cannot pretend I can relate personally or exclusively to the 4000 year old worldview of a nomadic people learning how to cope in a new agricultural economy. I cannot pretend, simply because it’s easier, that God brought the world about in a literal seven day week. That explanation made sense to a people who had no telescopes or microscopes, and who believed that the earth was the center of everything- everything being a big dome over a flat earth, and containing everything, including the stars, within it. But it makes no historical sense to me. (There are theological truths in those stories- and in abundance. But that’s another subject for another day.)

Over the years, various individuals have discovered more about the nature of the earth and universe. Many of them, too, arrived at conclusions which it would have been easier to not have made. Copernicus, then Galileo, initially kept their findings about a sun-centered solar system quiet. Even Einstein later juggled and fudged on some of his initial conclusions about the expansion and movement of the universe- they were hard findings to admit to; it was easier to ignore them in the hopes that they would simply go away or be found to be wrong. They jarred his personal worldview that the universe was finite and contained; they were hard conclusions so, for awhile, he took the easy, and wrong, approach to them- he hid them. (He later, of course, recanted, and said that those actions had been the worst mistake of his life.)

I choose to keep my mind open, all the time, to new information. That’s hard work sometimes and the temptation to retreat into someone else’s orthodoxies is real. But I cannot put a period at the end of any sentence about God. I cannot construct barriers around any set of beliefs because tomorrow there will be new information, new insight, and new light shining on what had formerly been darkness.

None of us want our doctors to restrict themselves to the medical books of the 17th Century. It would be easier for them, certainly, to reach into a bucket of leeches to cure our stomach ache, or to make some cuts on our arms to help fix our headache. At the time, there was a real medical basis for both of those procedures, but now we (and they, thank God) know more.

So I’m stuck. I’m stuck with a God that won’t stay still. I’m stuck with a God that is no longer adequately able to be described only with the metaphors of ancient peoples. I’m stuck with a God who has revealed some attributes and characteristics to me, but has many more for me to discover.

Blame God, if you must find blame for all that. God’s the one who put all those question marks in my mind. I barely made it through college science courses with a C! But as soon as I got serious about God, that old information suddenly took on a life of its own, and it doesn’t give any indication of letting up.

So, I guess I’m stuck.

Hallelujah. (I guess.)

Novalis..a reflection

Page 2, The Essence of Wisdom-

Novalis: “We are close to waking up when we dream that we are dreaming.”

Let’s begin with baby pictures. Here’s one of me, and of you, too:

baby pictures

From the Keck Observatory, photo images were released today of the most distant galaxies ever seen. This is a picture of light from these galaxies which has been traveling at the speed of light for over 13 billion years, which puts these galaxies within 500 million years from the birthplace of the universe.

They really are pictures of the very stuff- the starstuff- of which everything in the universe is composed. Before the stars and the suns, before planets and moons and asteroids, there was rushing, always cooling gases. Collapsing on itself, gathering in on itself in trillions of stars, the gas burned, sending photons (light) into the cosmos. The photons in this picture have been traveling a long, long time.

What follows from this point will offend every person who continues to construct a God crippled by their own human capacity to imagine and believe the data collected by telescopes like Hubble, Keck, and Cassini. Stop reading now, if you don’t want to know about a God who is larger than your doctrines about God.

Really, I’m serious.

As the photons of our star, the Sun,were absorbed by the dust of exploding galaxies and the cooled hydrogen which had become Earth, a new something began to emerge. A life form which consumed the dust, then reproduced, then changed over billions of years into a nucleus centered, cilia propelled bacteria, began to emerge. The by-product of its eating was one of the harshest gases found anywhere in the universe: oxygen. Yet new bacteria adapted even to that poisonous environment. Those bacteria cooperated, became communities of bacteria, became mobile, adapted sensing appendages, and over much much much time became the wiggly, scaly, winged, swimming, flying, crawling, seeing, hearing, many-legged, few-legged things which today fill the earth along with their many and distant cousins, the things that grow from the earth.

To make a very long story a little shorter, and to get more quickly to the quote which began this essay, one day, once upon a time..

One of the animals, (almost certainly a furry one, with a backbone, and probably moving most of the time in a two-legged manner), looked at the hill he was near, or the ground she was standing on, and perceived the hill or the ground to be something that was not a part of themselves. It was “other” and that “other” could be thought about. At that moment, whenever it was, human consciousness began. That animal could think about an object, and know that the thoughts were coming from within itself- not from the wind, or the water, or the food they ate, but from within themselves, somewhere.

It will always be impossible to definitively verbalize the specifics of those first moments of conscious thought, but I find it to be delicious contemplative food! For these were the moments when the frontal lobes of our brains began to develop. Those two halves of our brain in front of the ear and above the eyes, where our abilities to remember, plan, imagine, and think abstractly, now had a reason to expand, and indeed they did! That ancient animal- a bonomo? a chimp? A lemur?- set in motion our human ability to take pictures of 13 billion year old galaxial explosions, and everything else, good and bad, that we do so well. On that ancient of days began the universe’s ability to think about itself.

Us! You, me, and the other 8 billion of our fellow thinkers on earth today- we are the entire universe’s ability to think about and begin to understand itself!

Each person has the occasional opportunity to experience at least a little of what it was like for that first conscious thinker. We relegate our dreams to dry psychological definitions sometimes and miss the substantive and, I think, important insights they can give us about the nature of our consciousness. We swim through our dreams; the persons and objects of our illogical and unable-to-be-controlled consciousness are one with us, very much like water surrounds us when are swimming. They are projections of ourselves into the day’s events, or reflections of our DNA-fueled “memories,” or even our bodily reaction to food we have eaten. Whatever their source, we are “in” them, much as our ancient ancestor was “in” her or his world.

We literally are close to waking up, when our conscious mind begins to interact with our unconscious, dreaming mind. We try to make things we want have happen in our dream, happen; or we try to escape the hole that is opening up in our dream or the dark and hairy something that is gaining on us, but we can’t. And then, the cursed or blessed alarm clock drags us back up into our developed frontal lobes again. Time to get up!

Dreaming about dreaming; feeling and experiencing the awareness of the universe within ourselves; waking up to our abilities to see, hear, and feel more deeply; becoming more fully awake to the encompassing God, who connects us with the stars, the bonomos, and each other in our dreams about dreaming.

Our consciousness.

Perspective, Perspective, Perspective: The Pale, Blue Dot

On February 14, 1990, NASA commanded Voyager I, its primary mission completed, to turn its camera around and begin taking pictures of where it had been. From four billion miles away, a unique picture of Earth was captured.

Earth shows up in this photo only as “a pale blue dot,” and that is how the astronomer Carl Sagan spoke of it during a commencement address in 1996, and how the photo remains known. It appears grainy because it is being seen through the rings of Saturn.

One reaction to the photo by many people is the feeling of insignificance that it gives them. The perspective of four billion miles is so very different from the perspective we see the Earth from daily, as we walk, sit, and lie upon it, that it can be jarring, even alarming to confront a more distant and objective perspective. But I think that is a wrong reaction; just as I think it is wrong for us to hold too high an opinion of our significance.

It was not at all difficult before the invention of telescopes to consider ourselves as Masters of the Universe. The first telescopes were put together in the early 1600s. And at that time, the popular belief was that the sky and everything in it rotated around the Earth, and that all of those stars and the moon were pretty much of equal distances from the earth. A literal reading of Genesis was still easy.

In 1610, Galileo began messing with old preconceptions, by publishing a paper on the moons of Jupiter, in which he described a sun-centered solar system. This was regarded as blasphemous by the Church, and Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of life. (John Paul II, almost 400 years later, apologized for this action.)

The Gemini and Apollo flights, and the Voyager, Hubble, and Cassini telescopes are forcing all of us, including the most stubborn of church members, to adapt to new perspectives about Earth’s place in the universe. It need not be a time of (as my Grandma would call such events) conniption fits. It is simply- for me- a matter of realizing that no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we cannot keep God small. We cannot contain God in a book, a chapel, or even the visible sky. It is up to us to keep up with God, not vice versa.

It is not a reason to feel threatened at all to believe that God is in the dust at the edges of the universe, and also in our hearts. It is not the end of Christendom to believe that there is more to know about God than the Old and New Testaments reveal. No picture of the heavens, no matter how awe-inspiring and curiosity-provoking it may be, is worth a conniption fit.

Here is Carl Sagan himself, reading his essay on “The Pale Blue Dot.” I believe it is among the loveliest of modern prose:


I’m thinking also: “..look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draws near.”(Luke 21:28b)