Friday, March 29, 2013

Finding Our Way through the Holy Days

Detail from "The Passion"
by Hans Holbein the Younger

Rabbi Rami Shapiro posted a very thoughtful essay this week in which he recasts the Passover observance in light of his views of God and his understanding of the world we live in. His post reminded me that in our Judeo-Christian heritage sometimes it is a gruesome God that emerges from the Bible. This is a problem that can be a serious stumbling block for the ethically minded or the sensitive pilgrim (in the interest of full disclosure: I put myself in those ethically minded and sensitive categories). Sometimes our participation in inherited rituals, such as Passover for Jewish people or Holy Week for Christians, causes us to ask ourselves what we really believe about what we are doing.

If you have read Mark Twain, you know that he took issue with a faith whose preachers supported slavery with chapter and verse from the Bible when he could clearly see firsthand the travesty of a slave-owning culture. My view is that we in the faith community are in a developmental process. The biblical writers could only interpret within the context of their own knowledge and development.  In many ways the social reforms of the 19th century, led by evangelical Protestants, took us many steps beyond the biblical context of ethical behavior (even though their movements to reform prisons, abolish slavery, improve the workplace, end child labor and improve the conditions of the poor were motivated by their  biblically based Christian faith). Therein lies a lesson: we should not let ourselves be hamstrung by what past generations considered to be biblically normative. 

If God Still Speaks

If God is still speaking, if God’s Spirit is still moving, we will progress to new insights. I’ll give a personal example that was shocking to me when it happened. I was a member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church which is an Anglo-Catholic parish. The Lenten and Easter season is a wonderful and awesome time at that small parish. They do Palm Sunday better that any church in town. You are actually caught up in the drama of the day beginning in celebrations and hosannas and ending in condemning Jesus and handing him over for crucifixion. You can experience celebration, struggle, conflict and grief within that single liturgical experience.

Here is where my own development and experience became a crucial factor: I sojourned for a time at the Unitarian Church which takes great pains to be inclusive and affirming of all people. Then the day came that I wanted to go back to St. Andrew’s specifically for their Palm Sunday service, because nobody does it the way they do it. The service that year followed the account in the Gospel of John. I was ready for a sacred experience. The Gospel of John is one of my favorite books in the Bible, and there I was sitting in one of my favorite liturgical services.

Quite unexpectedly, however, when I heard the Gospel that day I was struck by the anti-Semitic tone of the passage. My own consciousness and awareness had been raised in regard to people of other faiths so that I found myself taking offense in hearing my own sacred scriptures as they were read. It did not cause me to quit the faith, but it caused me to re-examine my faith in light of my own experience and understanding.

All of us do that. I can’t imagine anyone today reading the Old Testament passage about dashing the heads of infants upon stones in fighting the enemy and saying, “Yea, God!” Those were words of a brutal ancient people who were attempting to obey God. Most of us today have no place for that kind of thinking within the context of faith. You can bind yourself to a tradition without being hamstrung by the past. We have to accept that God is leading us forward and that He still speaks and moves us upward when we are willing.




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