Obfuscating Observances

John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

There is just no substitute for experience.  When you have been blind and now you see, you are able like John Newton to write about the Amazing Grace of God, in ways that you could never have learned from a Theological textbook.

The man born blind knew that.  He didn’t know much about Sabbath observance, original sin or the validity of Rabbi Jesus’ credentials to heal.  What he did know however, was that he “once was blind” but now could see.

Perhaps the most destructive dynamic in organised religion (any organised religion) lies in its propensity to compulsively control and condition people’s experience of the Divine.

I suppose I am a little pre-disposed to be critical of this obfuscating observance, as I experienced it first hand as a young boy.

All of sixteen years old I was attending a church youth camp.  On the first night, not the pumped up “Gospel-Campfire-give-your-life-to-Jesus” second night; I was all alone on the banks of the Vaal river when I had an experience of connectedness to the whole universe that changed my life forever.  It was what mystics have all experienced and what Rudolf Otto called a numinous experience. I knew I had connected with SOMETHING or SOMEONE, it didn’t seem to matter.  I knew I belonged, and that I was going to be all right.

The next morning I had to tell someone, so I told our bungalow leader who called the pastor, and he then proceeded to pour my expansive, unmediated, numinous encounter into the mould of his conservative, narrow evangelical worldview.  He explained that I had been saved, called and commissioned by God.  All that in one.  All I had to do was pray the sinners prayer and confess (with my mouth) Jesus as Lord and I would be “in the Kingdom”.  I did, and I suppose I was… or maybe I never was not?

As I look back on that transforming time I realise that if the first person I met on that morning after my direct experience had been a Rabbi, a Mullah, a Bhikkhu, a Shaman, or even Richard Dawkins, each would have wanted to obfuscate my experience through the lens of their particular religious (Yes Dawkins is a rabidly religious Atheist) observance.  It is the way of herd religion.

In hindsight I realise it was all perfect for then.  We all have to begin at the literal level, move through the herd conformity and perhaps be birthed into Universality and Transcendence.  I hold no disappointment to the Pastor for pouring my Universal experience into his parochial mould. He was doing his best, and I needed that at the time.

Similarly, I enjoy the complete lack of guile I see from the man born blind.  The Pharisees are in a panic to discredit Jesus, to obfuscate the miraculous event by declaring it invalid on religious and doctrinal grounds.  The once blind man, couldn’t care less.  My favourite lines from this narrative are the words of the healed man, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

There is just no substitute for experience.  In fact, truth be told, experience is all we really have.  All doctrine, tradition and dogma, are merely mechanism whereby humans try to replicate, mediate, validate and control the experiences of others.

Not only is this bad religion.  It is the worst kind of blindness that is seemingly incurable even by  Jesus.

Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Oh I see…  Look!
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Re-learning to pray for today

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

It has become fashionable in recent years to offer translations of the Lord’s Prayer that intend to make the depths of this core Christian practice more meaningful and accessible.

One of my favourites is the one by Neil Douglas-Klotz, translated from the Aramaic, which is probably the language that Jesus spoke. If you visit this website you can hear the prayer being said in Aramaic (Note that God is referred to as “Allah” in Aramaic, a fact that draws me much closer to my Muslim brothers and sisters when I pray)

Douglas-Klotz’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer published in Prayers of the Cosmos reads as follows:

O Birther! Father- Mother of the Cosmos

Focus your light within us – make it useful.

Create your reign of unity now-

through our fiery hearts and willing hands

Help us love beyond our ideals

and sprout acts of compassion for all creatures.

Animate the earth within us: we then

feel the Wisdom underneath supporting all.

Untangle the knots within

so that we can mend our hearts’ simple ties to each other.

Don’t let surface things delude us,

But free us from what holds us back from our true purpose.

Out of you, the astonishing fire,

Returning light and sound to the cosmos.

Amen.

This translation is obviously very different from the one we grow up saying or singing in church but it does illustrate the need for us, in every generation, to review our understandings, not only of the Lord’s Prayer, but also of all our faith and practice.

A few years ago I was in conversation with a friend who was considering becoming a Buddhist monk and we were reflecting on the two hundred and twenty seven precepts or commandments that govern Bhikkhu’s lives. In that conversation I coined the phrase, “context-relevance” which describes the need for our doctrine, ethics and practice to be relevant with the context we find ourselves in. If we do not pursue context-relevance, (and I don’t mean context-relativism) we run the risk of becoming anachronistic and irrelevant.

With that in mind, permit me to take another look at the Lord’s Prayer (which would be better named “The Disciple’s prayer”; as the Lord’s Prayer is what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane.)

Say it with me:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.

Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

Give us this day our daily bread nd forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) but deliver is from evil.

Such familiar words which we learn as children, and then as adults we love telling of the bloopers kids make whilst learning. Ones like, “Our Father who shouts in heaven, ‘Hello what’s your name?'” My favourite, was one of my sons who, as a little mite, earnestly prayed, “… and lead us not onto the station.”

The question that lurks behind the cuteness is, “What is the context-relevance of this prayer in 2010?

Permit me then, to apply what I have learnt of modern human needs, from my pastoral ministry; to the Lord’s Prayer in an attempt to offer some insights that may remind us of its context relevance in 2010.

Our Father. Thank you that despite the dysfunction of some families of origin, I need never think of myself as spiritually orphaned nor abandoned in my life as it is now.

Who art in heaven and not in some faraway destination, but right within the heart of your creation. You live in the place of perfect bliss and love, which I can access every time I open to your reality within me.

Hallowed be Thy name which is above every human distinction and status. You are without equal and thus in competition with no one. As wholly other, you do not require of me to justify you, explain you, or even defend you. I need only acknowledge you as the ultimate and everything else then finds its proper place.

Thy Kingdom come. May the discovery that you are in charge of all reality as the Prime One, be the experience of every conscious being.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. May your dreamed destiny for everything you have created be realised within us, and made real around us, so that the intended perfection of all beings and relationships may manifest.

Give us this day our daily bread. Restore our perceptions so we may see you at the heart of all provision and work for a living and not to make a killing.

And forgive us our trespasses(sins) as we forgive those who trespass(sin) against us. Help us to understand that your unconditional acceptance of every person and culture is the ground of harmony and community for us all. May compassion grow for victims and perpetrators alike, so that real transformation will be our experience.

And lead us not into temptation (Save us from the time of trial) Guard us from our own destructiveness and the oppositional forces within us that keep us from being healed.

but deliver is from evil. May our shadows never overwhelm us, and may fear not be the ruling principle in our living and decision making.

So may it be for us all

AMEN