MEDIA CHRISTIANS AND CHRISTMAS EVE

Today is Christmas Eve.  Christians celebrate Christmas.  I don’t wish to impose my holy day on the rest of the world, but it seems like that’s the way things are going, these days.  Nevertheless, I am grateful to live in a free society that allows me to celebrate according to my religious tradition, as I think all religions should.  I called tech support for my computer a while back and got a tech in India.  He turned down the volume on his end to dampen the background noise from the Durga-Puja festival which was going on in his neighborhood.  He and I had a wonderful conversation about Hinduism, which I had studied in grad school.  I even have a statuette of Sarasvati on my desk—the Goddess of learning, music, and poetry.

I self-identify as a Christian.  A Christian of the Swedenborgian Denomination.  Let’s establish that from the get-go.  Also, I am a Christian pastor.  But what does that mean?  What does that mean to you?  What does that mean to me?  It may very well be that what it means to me is not what it means to you.  The operative question is who gets to define what Christians are?

Unfortunately, I believe that the media get to define what Christians are.  News media tell stories about Christians—often in relation to politics.  And I think that a lot of people get their ideas about what Christians are from new stories.  However, we need to understand that the media are profit-driven enterprises.  Their reporting has to sell.  I’ve spoken with journalists who say that anger and outrage are good “hooks” to draw in viewers or readers.  If that is true, then the Christians we will encounter in media may well be Christians who generate outrage, are outrageous.  I hope that, as a Christian, I do not generate outrage.  At least I try not to.

Then there are Evangelicals.  I have issues with evangelism, itself.  I’m sure that Evangelicals are as sincere in their faith as am I, but I tend to resent people trying to make me think as they do.  I am a student of religions.  So I have a keen interest in others’ understandings of ultimate reality.  But I prefer to learn about others by inquiry, not by their imposition upon my free thought.  You can see Evangelicals on street corners yelling at people and shoving tracts at you.  Since this kind of Christian is loud and prominent, many define Christians by them.  My frustration with this is probably evident.  Also, there are televangelists.  Anybody can turn on their television and watch a program featuring a Christian preacher.  Often, perhaps usually, televangelists tend to be Evangelicals, which I am not.  I have a friend who owns a multi-million-dollar cigar company.  He always tells me that I should become a televangelist.  He says that that is where all the money is.  He also dated an Evangelical Christian for a while, and keeps telling me what he thinks Christians believe, though he is not a believer in any faith that I know of.  But I don’t hold to a lot of the tenets his former girlfriend held to, and I didn’t go into Christian ministry to make a lot of money.  My Christianity has little in common with televangelists.

For me, Christianity means living by Jesus’ teachings about love.  And I understand that to mean love for people inside and outside one’s own belief system.  The Good Samaritan was a Samaritan—a race despised by the Jewish Orthodoxy of which Jesus was a member, but not a strict follower.  This tells me that Jesus promoted religions other than His own, even religions despised by members of His own Jewish Orthodoxy.  So for me, Christian love extends to all peoples of good-will: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Jews, atheists, and peoples of good-will whom I haven’t mentioned.  And love seeks to establish friendships, and to promote good-will.  When I say that I am a Christian, sometimes I worry that people will understand that to mean I am a media Christian, who seem to get all the press, or an Evangelical.  Practicing Christianity for me means seeking to find good in every situation and to be an agent for that good.  But I practice quietly, privately, and some might even say in stealth mode.  My Muslim friends, my Jewish friends, my Zoroastrian friends, and my Hindu friends enjoy my company, I think, and I their company.  That kind of harmony is how I understand Christian love, is the kind of Christian I try to be.  I am a definition of Christianity as much as are televangelists, Evangelicals, Catholics, or media Christians.  Maybe that kind of Christian, and there are lots like me, doesn’t make for good news stories.  Any more than the moderate peace-loving Muslims I know make for good news stories.  But that’s no reason for me to stop calling myself Christian.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are times especially for me to relax and let love be, to let myself be an agent of love, and to remember and renew old friendships, to enjoy family.  As a Christian in this world, it is a time for me to reflect on Jesus’ friendship with Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rabbis, Samaritans, and Lebanese.  In a broken and fragmented world, Jesus yet has a message of healing and unity for Christians and/or others of good-will.   

BODHI DHARMA AND BORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM

Bodhi Dharma meditated in front of a wall for nine years

I worry because I haven’t seen Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Nor am I current in some things that count; I have not what I should have

And what counted for Bodhi Dharma? What should he have had

In his meditation during nine years in front of a wall

OK, so his culture was different

And meditation counted, counted maybe as much as

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, a Lexus, what I should have

Bodhi Dharma aspired to a Shaolin Monastery, anyway

What Bodhi Dharma should have did not count to the Shaolin Monastery

I won’t say I want a life in which having does not count at all

But I will say I want a touchstone for our culture to scrape against

A touchstone to scrape against to evaluate our culture’s metal

I sure hope that Borat Subsequent Moviefilm will not scrape as gold

But I do fear that owning a Lexus would

Various and diverse ideologies coexist in the freedom our culture prizes

Meditation, a Lexus, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm coexist, compete as treasures of our hearts

Even in Christianity, having has infiltrated, called the prosperity gospel

With Jesus a mendicant and the gospel no one can serve God and mammon

And I am no mendicant, and I have not watched Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Episodic prayer and meditation, episodic piano, and episodic happiness on a good day, I have

DURGA PUJA

My laptop broke and tech support where I bought it wasn’t being helpful

So I called Hewlett-Packard on their direct tech support line

Of course, they routed my call to India, to a pleasant tech named Deepak

He apologized for the background noise on his end; the festival Durga Puja

Was being celebrated today this, the final of 10 days

I vaguely recalled Durga from a religion class 34 years ago

And I asked Deepak of he knew of the Goddess Sarasvati

She, the Goddess of music, learning, and language

I, a musician, scholar, and writer

Sarasvati gave India the Vedas, when religion was verse and verse, song

Deepak said he knew Sarasvati and She is the exact Goddess for a musician

I told Deepak I have a statuette of Sarasvati in my apartment

Across the miles and ocean, his soul touched mine, and tears welled up

In his eyes, Sarasvati is alive, and as he spoke, my statuette

Seemed to shine with an unearthly color and a strange light came over just my statuette

Only my eyes could see

Mother India, home of our western languages

Cradle of civilization unearthed at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa

Durga, the Mother who birthed all of creation

Mother to Sarasvati, not just a footnote in a religion class

Alive and real to him as is Jesus to me, his Durga Puja like my Christmas

He completed my service order and I wished him well

During the remainder of the Durga Puja Festival

Deepak said that he is sadly homebound due to COVID-19

And couldn’t celebrate with his family, and I

Don’t know if I can go without a computer for a week or so

I looked at my statuette of Sarasvati and the unearthly colors were gone

Science and Religion

The great thing about the virtual world is that it connects people of like and differing minds all over the planet.  I visited the site of a blogger who liked one of my posts.  He wrote about science and religion.  He said that he values science exclusive of religion.  Science will teach truth, he writes, religion is made up.  I would like to respectfully dissent from this view.  A few definitions need to be made.  Science doesn’t teach truth.  It teaches fact.  Religion teaches truth.  Facts are verifiable, but they are meaningless.  Truth may be disputed, but only truth has meaning.

There may be proof for the existence of quarks.  I don’t know; I’m not a scientist.  But as I watch television news programming about racial injustice in the US, a quark doesn’t matter all that much to me.  But the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos do, “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).  The Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.  Fact.  But it doesn’t tell me how to treat my fellows like Jesus does, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).  Chemical salts are made by ionic bonds.  Fact and provable.  But that won’t tell me the nature of my own consciousness as do the Upanishads.  ” Whoever knows the self as “I am Brahman,” becomes all this universe” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10).  

I respect scientific inquiry and science explains the physical world–as far as it goes.  But in the realm of human relations, and in the matters that matter to me, I prefer religion.

 

TO RECAST A NARRATIVE

Outrage, grief, and pain pour forth from passion

From broken experiences of deep love

The other side of joy, ecstasy, and connection

Experiences of love fulfilled

Plato’s fear of passion nearly ended in renunciation of it all

He, Buddhists, the Hindu Sanyasis

Plato kept friendship, Buddhists kindness, Sanyasis peace

Into this Jesus was born with love

And recast the narrative

Giving place for grief, pain, and ecstasy

For sin, forgiveness, and new life

The great soul perfected in virtue recast

For a God who is near His children

Indifferent, diffident, vindictive Olympians recast

“That your joy may be complete.”

Magnanimity and Pop-Culture

Aristotle writes about magnanimity, or “high-minded” in Book IV.3 of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The Greek word is megalopsuchia–literally, “Great, or large soul.”  It is an elusive and difficult virtue to understand.  It is largely a quality of mind, or an attitude.  I take it to mean a mind that values high things and acts in a high manner.  Aristotle himself says that magnanimous persons can appear arrogant.  And a person who prizes great things can seem to be elitist, or a snob.  Yet I think that magnanimity is indeed a virtue to cultivate.  I have.

I have followed a course in my life that has been and continues to be dedicated to great things.  I spent large sums of money (student loans) educating myself–money I am still paying back even 25 years after graduation.  I have been exposed to great works of literature, philosophy, art, religion, and music.  I continue to pursue my quest to acquaint myself with great things.

I have been called a snob.  And it is beginning to appear as if the causes to which I have dedicated my life are fading in our culture.  Musically, I appreciate classical music, jazz, classic rock, and now I am trying to learn about East Indian music of the Sikhs and traditional sitar music.  I continue my reading in poetry and novels.  I am adding to my formal graduate education in religions by inquiring into the spirituality of First Nations.  I am progressing in my competence on piano, continuing to write poetry, and continue my reading in philosophy and great works of fiction.  As I acquire new competencies I continue to meditate and make my new learning my own.  It is a thankless task.  But the magnanimous soul is not concerned with monetary rewards or praise from the masses.  Virtue is its own reward.

I’m not sure that Aristotle’s great soul is compatible with Christian ethics.  Jesus’ way is one of humility, and indifference to the things of this world.  Still, the virtues of love, forgiveness, and solidarity with others are also included in Aristotle’s magnanimity.  And I believe that Aristotle’s great soul would revere the gods.

I think that the tension between Jesus and Aristotle is in the definition of great things.  Kierkegaard was suspicious of the aesthetic life.  I believe that it would truly take a great soul to aspire to great things, and also keep her or his feet grounded in humility.  Yet what I get from Bach or Beethoven is among the best things I treasure.  This does not conflict with what I get from the texts of Christianity.

Our most prestigious institutions of learning are now teaching pop-culture.  Pop-culture is fine for those who like it.  But I do not think that it deserves a place in university curricula.  We are in an age that seeks to destroy elitism and the works that have in the past been considered elite, like Bach or Beethoven.  I refuse to equate Bon Jovi in any way with Beethoven.  Beethoven wrote pop music for country bands to play.  But it was all in good fun; he never considered them on a par with his symphonies.

I can imagine how distressed my parents had been when the melodious sounds of Frank Sinatra clashed with the wailing guitar of Jimi Hendrix.  It must have looked as if the world was decaying.  Yet I appreciate Hendrix and Sinatra.  If the world is sinking in the bland currents of pop-culture, it looks like the world is decaying to me, too.  I wonder if contemporary culture will consider those well-versed in pop-culture great souls.  Or is the whole notion of great souls too elitist to persist in our world anymore?

25 YEARS

25 years largely lost

Doctors call it avolition

No will even to get up

Sleeping

Days, weekends

Those 25 years could have been:

Practice time

Gigging

Progressing

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

Mind turned to fog

Memory shot

Which is an end to learning

Thought processes so slow

Which is an end to performance

Where I could have been

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

I see my friends

Where they’re at

Where I could have been

But . . .

25 years largely lost

 

But then . . .

There’s the soul

“My kingdom is not of this world”

Spirituality

Humility, compassion, neighbor-love

“I do not give to you as the world gives”

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be.”

I could have come to worse

25 years of spiritual progress

Religious Post

Separating Good from Evil

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

August 18, 2019

Jeremiah 23:23-29                              Luke 12:49-56                                                 Psalm 82

Our reading from Luke can’t be taken at face value.  It can’t be true as written.  Jesus didn’t come to break up families.  Jesus says,

they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law (Luke 12:53).

Jesus must mean something other than father and son, mother and daughter, and mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Swedenborg teaches that the Bible is written in symbols.  He calls these symbols correspondences.  These symbols speak to human spiritual growth, the history of spirituality, and God’s spiritual development on earth, as the Human Jesus united fully with the Divine God, which was His soul.  The separation of family members refers to God separating different aspects of our personality.  It means a separation between our spiritual self from our worldly self.  Our worldly self is concerned only with what’s in it for me.  It is concerned only with what we can get out of a situation.  It means self-oriented self.  In its worst form, worldly self will rage against anyone who doesn’t favor him or her, serve him or her, or, in fact, worship him or her.  This self-oriented self is called proprium in Swedenborg.

But God teaches us to love God first, and our neighbor as our self.  These loves are opposed to self-oriented loves.  When we learn spiritual truths, we learn that self-oriented self needs to be sacrificed, denied, replaced with God-and-other-oriented self.

We begin our lives as self-oriented selves.  Spirituality is grafted onto the motives and drives of self-oriented self.  And our motives that are self-oriented need to change.  Our very selves change.  The emotions of self-interest are different than the motives of God and other interest.  The feelings are different.

Self-interest is like an animal instinct.  Self-interest will butt its way ahead in a passion to be first in line, first and foremost, be more important than anyone else.  This is hard to achieve.  So self-oriented people are often frustrated, mad, and vengeful over anyone ahead of them.  Think of a dog running to a food dish.

Spiritually-minded loves are peaceful, content, pacific, delightful, and joyful.  The spiritually-minded are in harmony with others.  They are interested in other people, and join in joyful cooperation with others.  Spiritually-minded people are also driven.  But they are not driven by self-interest.  They are driven by love for the projects they undertake.  They are driven by love for being of service, for being useful, for helping out, for finding ways to make others happy.

Since we start out self-oriented and we end up God and other oriented, we are in process.  There are many different ways in which we are changed from self to God and other orientation.  Sometimes hardships happen to us.  These hardships can break up our self-interest.  When we are prohibited from getting our own way, our ego drives are crushed.  Sometimes, we work on ourselves.  We learn the ways of spirituality.  We implement these teachings in our own life.  But however it happens, our ego-driven, self-oriented self needs to be separated from our spiritual self.  Another image that we find for this in the Bible is in the creation story.  On the second day of creation, the waters are separated.  God separates the waters above the heavens from the waters under the heavens.  Separating self-serving drives from heaven-serving loves.  That’s how we understand Jesus’ words, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)

These are the words of true prophets.  Words that say that the members of one’s own household are the enemy.  Words that tell us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  As we grow spiritually, we will know a new peace and tranquility.  But we will also know turmoil and struggle.  True prophets will tell us that we will know both states of mind.

But this society has false prophets, as we heard about in Jeremiah.  Many are the voices we hear that tell us to favor self, instead of overcoming self.  This is what Jeremiah is talking about, “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?” (Jeremiah 23:26).  The false prophets of our day massage our ego.  They tell us to get ahead.  Psychologists speak of self-affirmation, self-gratification, self-expression.  “They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal” (Jeremiah 23:27).  I grew up in the “Me-Movement.”  What is meant by this term is that we were taught just that—self-realization, self-expression, self-gratification, self, self, self.  “I me, mine; I me mine; I me mine.”  And the prophets then, and still today, preach that false message.  That would truly be forgetting God’s name for Baal.  God’s name is to deny self, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.  Love God; love others.

Let’s consider Jesus’ life compared with the false prophets of our day.  Jesus’ birth story begins with the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.  Then, with the subject of Jesus’ birth, we are in a barn, then on a hillside with shepherds.  The contrast could hardly be sharper.  Jesus’ life was one of continual service and giving.  He taught, healed, he fed the multitudes.  He never wrote anything down, there is only one historian who mentions Him just once in passing, He lived in the countryside, not the bog cities, He died a common criminal.  Jesus was a loser, not a winner.  While Caesar Augustus was actually worshipped as a god, he isn’t now.  In fact, after his death, the next emperor was the god of the day and no one was worshipping Augustus any more.  His palace is now gone, he himself only one historical figure amid a myriad.  Yet the peasant born in a barn, who never wrote anything down, who died a common criminal is still worshipped and is still God.  Jesus said that the first would be last and the last would be first.  The ultimate winner, the Roman Emperor has been forgotten.  And the loser is remembered and worshipped still.

The true prophets preach the Jesus story.  This is the story of humility, of love, or service, of giving, of self-sacrifice.  The opposition between the Jesus story and the story of our false prophets is stark.  But the only way to be a real winner, is to follow the way of Jesus.

 

Religious Post

It Was I Who Taught Ephraim to Walk

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

August 4, 2019

Hosea 11:1-11                                                 Luke 12:13-21                                     Psalm 107

Hosea prophesies in a time when Israel is under threat of attack.  Assyria is about to sweep down over Israel and destroy the Kingdom.  Hosea prophesies about this, and blames the imminent destruction of Israel on their worship of Baal and other gods of Canaan.  Yahweh was the God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt.  And Yahweh was the God who held their whole society together.

Our passage from Hosea 11 is interesting.  It shows a very loving, caring God.  Some passages, maybe many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures depict God as vengeful and punishing.  This reading from Hosea is different.  It depicts God as a nurturing parent.

God tells the Israelites, “To them I was like one who lifts/a little child to the cheek” (Hosea 11:4).  This is a tender, nurturing image of God.  Every parent knows what Hosea is talking about.  Every parent has lifted up a baby and kissed him or her on the cheek.  Or maybe held the baby up over their head.  This is a God who cuddled the Israelites as a parent cuddles their children.

God tells the Israelites that it was God who taught them to walk.  I remember when my brother was learning to walk.  How we held his little arms to steady him while he staggered in his infant steps.  This is what God did for the Israelites, “It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,/taking them by the arms” (Hosea 11:3).

In a very real way, God taught the Israelites to walk.  Worshipping Yahweh meant following all Yahweh’s laws.  The Israelites didn’t just believe in Yahweh as they would any other God.  Believing in Yahweh meant accepting Yahweh’s ways, following Yahweh’s laws, obeying Yahweh’s commands.

When the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, they were essentially a mob.  There were Israelites and other races all fleeing slavery.  But they were not in a city.  They had no king.  They had no social structure.  They were simply a mob fleeing slavery.  So the challenge of Moses, of God, was to organize this mob, wandering in the desert, into a society.  So we think of Moses as the Lawgiver.  Moses ascended Mount Sinai and heard God speak.  God told Moses the laws that would become the basis of Israelite society.

Turning away from God meant turning away from God’s laws.  As Israelite society became wealthy and as corruption set in, they found it more convenient to worship the gods of the neighboring tribes.  So Hosea accuses the Israelites of worshipping Baal, the storm god of the Canaanites, and other Canaanite gods and goddesses.  The Israelites thought that if they sacrificed to these gods, they would be protected by the god or goddess’ powers.  Then they wouldn’t have to follow Yahweh’s laws of justice, love, and compassion.  The Israelites could enjoy their wealth, exploit the poor and weak, and sin if Yahweh wasn’t their God any more.

And that’s what Hosea accuses them of doing.

Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites,
because the Lord has a charge to bring
against you who live in the land:
“There is no faithfulness, no love,
no acknowledgment of God in the land.
There is only cursing, lying and murder,
stealing and adultery;
they break all bounds,
and bloodshed follows bloodshed (Hosea 4:1-2).

Notice how Hosea’s accusation follows the 10 Commandments.  False witness, murder, stealing, adultery, and although Hosea doesn’t say it here, making graven images and having other gods before Yahweh.  Hosea points out that worshipping Baal is tied up with breaking God’s laws.

The same is true for us.  Believing in God isn’t the end of religion.  It’s just the start.  If there is a God, then all God’s laws matter in our lives.  We can’t just believe in God and then do whatever we want.  Jesus says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”  What does Jesus say for us to do?  Hosea, the Hebrew prophet tells us in words that Jesus echoes in the New Testament.  In our Hosea reading, we are told to be faithful, to love, to acknowledge God.  Then he points us to the 10 Commandments: No other Gods, truth telling, no murder, no stealing, faithfulness to our partners.  That is what Jesus tells us to do,

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” . . . If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”   “Which ones?” he inquired.  Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 19:16-19).

Following those laws will lead to eternal life.  And they will also lead to a good life here on earth.

This brings in the New Testament story we heard this morning.  A man exerts a lot of energy building big barns to store his abundant crops.  He plans to store his produce so he can live a life of ease in retirement, eat drink and be merry.  However, when the barns are done, he dies and never gets a chance to live his retirement dream.

We look forward to eternal happiness in heaven.  We can think sometimes that because we belong to this church, we are among the chosen.  Yet these ideas can work against us.  Looking forward to eternal life and priding ourselves on our religion takes our minds off the present.  The man in the New Testament story was expending all his energy building barns with his mind on the future.  But his future never came.

That story tells us to attend to our present.  Our eternity isn’t in the future.  It’s the way we are living now.  Are we living a live of peace?  Are we living a caring life?  Are we loving toward others?

If we are, we will be living a present life that is holy and blessed.  We will be in our eternal peace and joy.  We can be distracted by worries, by anxieties, by trivial pastimes.  That line in T. S. Eliot, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  Rather than anticipating our eternal joy, I suggest we attend to our present.  How are we filling time?  Is it blessed?  Is it peaceful?  Is it joyful?  If not, we need to ask ourselves if we are getting in the way of our own peace of mind.  It is true that in the next life, our feelings of spiritual joy will be more manifest than they are now.  But our life here and now can still approach the peace and tranquility of eternity.  How are we living in the present is the question that Luke asks us to consider.

At Paulhaven, a teen asked me, “What if religion is a scam?”  She was asking, not asserting that it was.  And she hadn’t thought it through very thoroughly.  But she didn’t want to be duped and wondered if this was all just a scam.  I replied that even if religion is a scam, what better way is there to live.  Isn’t a life of love, being true, honest, caring, humble, and peaceful—isn’t that a good way to go through life?

We will feel the results of our spirituality.  If we remove our blocks, our sins, and seek peace we will find it.  That will be a good way to live, even if religion is a scam.  But religion isn’t a scam.  There is a God.  And if we love God and follow God’s laws we will be blessed now, and forever.

 

 

 

Religious Blog

Healing Toxic Systems

Rev. David J. Fekete, Ph.D.

June 23, 2019

1 Kings 19:1-15                                              Luke 8:26-39                                       Psalm 42

Our readings this morning are about healing toxic systems.  Systems can develop in many places.  Families are a system.  Workplaces can be a system.  Churches can be a system.  Any place people gather and see each other over a period of time can become a system.  Systems can be healthy or toxic.  Today’s readings are about toxic systems.

Toxic systems are systems that are dysfunctional.  There are tensions, manipulation, hurt, anger, abuse, and fear, among other things, in toxic systems.  But in toxic systems, these stressors are often beneath the surface.  People have a lot of ways of trying to make bad things look good.  Then these harmful behaviors are veiled and submerged.  In order to keep functioning, the bad things in toxic systems are suppressed and unacknowledged.  So, for instance, sometimes people who are abused exhibit a forced smile all the time.  Another kind of coping mechanism in toxic systems is creating a problem child.  The problem child becomes the family’s scapegoat.  They are always misbehaving; they are always blamed; they may develop mental illnesses.  The family that has a problem child may send the child to counseling.  But a wise therapist will look at the whole family’s dynamics.  Virginia Satir was an early pioneer in family systems.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, instead of the problem child, the family panics.  They point all the stronger to the problem child, exclaiming, “No, we don’t have a problem!  The problem child is the problem!  You need to heal the problem child!”  The dysfunctional family doesn’t want the real problems to be exposed.  When the therapist looks at the whole family, the status quo gets upset.  The dysfunction begins to be exposed and people have to look at the real problems instead of putting them all on the problem child.  The psychologist becomes a threat.

Another toxic system can develop in families where one or more of the members are addicts or alcoholics.  An alcoholic is so unpredictable and often violent and abusive, that the family surrounding the alcoholic develops neurotic behavior patterns.  They can minimize the extent of the alcoholic’s dependency.  They can make excuses for the alcoholic’s behaviors.  They can deny that the alcoholic is a problem.  When a person is drunk, they can be easily pushed around.  Often decisions have to be made by others in the system because the drunk can’t make decisions.  Sometimes the family finances are placed in the hands of another member besides the drunk.  Then, if the alcoholic sobers up, the family system is broken up.  They don’t know how to live with a sober person, since over a period of years they have developed a system structured around a drunk.  The sober alcoholic becomes a real, living person, starts asserting their own wishes, starts making decisions.  This can be an unwelcome disruption of the toxic system that had developed around the alcoholic.  I’ve heard of couples who get a divorce after one of them sobers up.  The drunk they married wasn’t around anymore.  The adjustment to the sober person was too difficult.

Our story from Luke got me thinking about dysfunctional family systems.  Let’s imagine what was going on with the demon-possessed man.  Cities back in Jesus’ day were communities.  Everybody knew everybody else’s business.  They were mostly what we would call small towns.  They were a system.  Let’s think about the system in our Luke story.  There was a man possessed by demons.  He was bound with chains and he even broke the chains.  He tore off his clothes.  And the villagers exiled him to the graveyards, out of their town.  But he was still a part of the village.  Everyone in the village would have known the man.  I imagine that the whole village was almost controlled by this wild man.  Almost certainly a system developed around this man.  And since the man was so hysterical, the system that developed around him would most likely be toxic.  Jesus enters the village.  And as God does in every toxic system, God brings healing.  Jesus casts the demons out of the man.  The villagers find the man fully clothed, in his right mind, sitting at Jesus’ feet.  The reaction of the villagers is fear.  They see a miracle of healing and they are afraid.  In a surprising move, they ask Jesus to depart.  They are so afraid they want Jesus to leave them.

I thought long and hard about this story.  I wondered why people, who saw something good happen to the demon-possess man, wanted the source of healing to leave.  Have you ever had something good done to you and you asked the giver to go away?  I couldn’t think of any examples.  But then the idea of toxic systems occurred to me.  The village that had grown used to the wild man didn’t know how to go forward now that the man was a sane part of their village.  They didn’t have a place for him.  The man becomes a prophet.  He wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus tells him instead to return home and spread the word about what Jesus did for him.

Prophets are not welcome.  In our story from 1 Kings, Elijah flees for his life.  Ahab’s wife Jezebel threatens to murder Elijah.  There is a passage in Amos in which the king’s priest tells Amos to leave the country and go prophesy elsewhere,

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. 11 For thus Amos has said,

‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
and Israel must go into exile
away from his land.’”

12 And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; 13 but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom” (Amos 7:10-13).

In both stories, the land is corrupt.  The prophet’s voice brings healing.  But the people in the lands do not want healing.  They prefer the rituals from the gods in the surrounding territories.

The moral laws of Yahweh, or Jehovah as God’s name is translated in the King James Version, were rejected by the Israelites.  They preferred the relatively easy rituals of the Baal priests.  In Baal worship, sacrifices made by priests covered the people and the people thought they could do whatever they wanted.  So injustice in the courts, seizing the land and goods of the less powerful, living in luxury, scales with false balances measured out the grain and other crops for sale flourished in the toxic systems in Israel.  But God’s laws insisted on protection for the disenfranchised.  God said in plain speech that the courts were not to show favoritism to the rich.  God insisted in protecting the widow, the orphan, and also the foreigner who lived with the Israelites.  When the Israelites turned away from Yahweh to follow Baal, they thought that they wouldn’t have to follow all these rules.  Worshipping Baal meant living in luxury at the expense of the common people.  The voice of the prophet reminded Israelites of Yahweh’s laws and told them to turn back to worshipping Yahweh.  So they tried to get rid of the prophet.  In the case of Amos, the prophet was told to go home to Judah and to leave Israel.  In the case of Elijah, Jezebel wanted him dead.

Untangling toxic systems is delicate work.  When people intervene to bring liberation to toxic systems, it is important to provide support as the dysfunction is unwound.  Changing the behavior patterns that people are used to can be emotionally difficult.  Anxiety and even suicidal ideation can develop when toxic behaviors are revealed.  When systems are unwound, places like church can become a place of refuge and community.  Church can provide stability and support as systems change.  So can counselors provide support as people and systems grow healthy.  The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are a voice of healing or whether we are the villagers who expel the healer from fear of change.

 

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