Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Julian is an amazing little boy. He is a good case study in human growth and development. Emotional and social maturation is happening right on schedule. If you ask him, he is quick to say that he is three... and going to be four. Today at the Nature Center in Chula Vista he fell right in with a couple of other little boys whom he didn't know. They became great friends immediately... calling each other to "come see this." Later he and I were out looking at two golden eagles and one bald eagle in side-by-side enclosures (all three having been rescued after suffering injuries in the wild that made it impossible for them to live outside the protection of a cage); and when one of the golden eagles expanded his wings, we could see that one wing was little more than a stub. Julian said, "Jerral, that is so sad (big adult emphasis on "so"). It's the beginning of empathy. Julian is only three years old, and he's no longer just pulling the cat's tail and poking little dogs with a stick. He's growing up.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Flat Stephanie has gone on several bike rides with Uncle Jerral.She enjoyed climbing a tree in Chula Vista with Julian.FLAT STEPHANIE

A creative elementary school teacher in North-Central California came up with a strategy to help her children extend their vision of their state. She had each child make a page-size image of herself/himself, a paper doll that could be folded and slipped into an envelope for mailing. My niece Connie’s granddaughter Stephanie reinvented herself as Flat Stephanie. Flat Stephanie went first to the Damacion home in Rocklin. She had a good time there with Jim and Erica and their two daughters.

Flat Stephanie writes each day in her diary, so when she arrived at my house in San Diego on Friday, I was allowed to read what she had written about her visit to Rocklin. She’s definitely learning a lot about California, especially about what adults do with their time and with their lives.

In San Diego on Saturday morning, Flat Stephanie went with me to a piano recital at Wagner’s School of Music (no relation to Richard Wagner, the composer). My God Daughter, Nina, played “Lefty Medley,” which was written by her teacher, Larry Wagner. She played beautifully without a single mistake. Flat Stephanie met some of Nina’s friends. She had her picture taken with them.On Sunday Flat Stephanie went to church. Twice. She attended morning worship and then went back again in the evening for the Spring Concert. San Diego Symphony players and a hundred-sixty-voice choir presented a Mozart and Schubert program. So her classmates can see what she’s doing in San Diego, I’ll be adding photographs to this posting every few days as long as Flat Stephanie is visiting with us.Flat Stephanie went with me today to my volunteer job at Mama's Kitchen. She is shown here with my fellow volunteers. Mama's Kitchen is an organization that helps provide meals for people who are too ill to go to the market to buy food for themselves or to prepare it. In almost every city there are programs that give help to people who are unable to help themselves. It is my hope that Flat Stephanie and her classmates will grow up to be people who are interested in helping others. Mama's Kitchen was founded several years ago to help AIDS patients who had become too sick to care for themselves.

The following photographs of Flat Stephanie were taken in Balboa Park.
Japanese Tea GardenOrgan PavillionSpanish VillageBotanic HouseStatue of El CidAt the San Diego Zoo we met a young man from Taiwan who asked to have his picture taken with Flat Stephanie and his two special key-chain dolls. One doll represents him and the other represents his girlfriend. He was taking picures of the dolls at places like the world famous San Diego Zoo.
Sculpture by Niki de St. Phalle at the Mingei Museum

Monday, April 07, 2008

Cathedrale Notre Dame de ParisNorth Rose Window which dates from 1250-60


I’ve been wondering lately what would happen to church attendance if all allusions and direct references to heaven as a physical place after death were to be removed from Christian texts and thought?

Christianity emerged in human history when most people in the Greek and Roman worlds except epicureans and stoics believed in a place where gods live apart from mortals. It is no surprise that a concept of Heaven, of Paradise, figured so definitely in the early development of the Christian religion, especially in the institutions, the churches, that formed around it.

First Century residents of the Mediterranean region would not have known about Siddhartha, Gautama Buddha, who had lived six centuries earlier, nor would they have known about the philosophy-religion that was seeded by his teachings, a way of right living that didn’t rely on a promise of Paradise as a reward. It’s interesting that the teachings of the Buddha, like those of the Hebrew sect called the Sadducees, didn’t depend on the existence of an afterlife. The Pharisees were the Hebrew religious group who believed in a doctrine of resurrection of the dead. Jesus was a Jew. He nor his followers had especially good things to say about either group; but he surely knew all about both of them. Could it be that those who reported Jesus’ life, the short life of a Jewish rabbi, tried to find some middle ground between the Sadducees and the Pharisees but ended up leaning more in the direction of Pharisaic Judaism and their Talmud, the core literature of Rabbinic Judaism, hence we get their concept of afterlife. The Sadducees were more aloof than the Pharisees, especially distant from the poor and suffering people. It would not have been consistent with his teachings for Jesus to actually have preferred the Sadducees world view, but it would be a gross oversimplification and misunderstanding to suggest that he didn’t take their point of view into his consideration. Could it be that the Gospel writers interjected more talk of heaven and the afterlife into the Jesus story than Jesus himself actually intended.

Jesus emphasis is remarkably like that of the Buddha. The reward for right living is temporal, earthly. Heaven...Paradise seems at times to be a kind of afterthought. It seems as if it might have been added to stories for effect..to make a point. Take, for example the stories of the crucifixion. John mentions one thief, Barrabas. Matthew and Mark don’t report an actual conversation between Jesus and the thieves who were crucified with him. They say the bandits taunted him the way spectators and soldiers around the crosses were taunting him. Luke (Luke 23: 39-43)reports a conversation between Jesus and the two thieves. “One of the criminals who hung there with him taunted him: ‘Are not you the Messiah? Save yourself, and us.’ But the other answered sharply, ‘Have you no fear of God? You are under the same sentence as he. For us it is plain justice; we are paying the price for our misdeeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come to your throne.’” He answered, ‘I tell you this: today you shall be with me in paradise.’ The differing accounts of the crucifixion are not blatant contradictions. They do, however, point to confusion even among those closest to Jesus about what he actually said on the occasions that are reported in the Bible.

The Jesus that I find most appealing is the one who tells us that we find in ourselves the reward for doing right. We find the Kingdom of God in ourselves. It seems to me that much of the heaven talk in the Gospels might have been sprinkled on later. Perhaps it might have been added to get the attention of First Century people for the same reasons that it may appeal to people now two thousand years later. Perhaps I am being cynical to suggest that it’s an easy answer to the glib, unspoken question that people then and now often ask: “What’s in it for me?”

Holding out Paradise as the reward for right living seems inconsistent with the central theme of the Gospel. It bothers me not as much as the alleged promise in Islam of seventy-two virgins waiting in Paradise to please the man who has sacrificed himself to kill infidels. I don’t know much about Islamic theology, but I doubt that it is actually so unsophisticated and juvenile. On the other hand, the Koran came along six hundred years after the time of Jesus. Christianity was the religion that invented the idea of paradise as reward in the first place. Perhaps Muhammed was just making sure his picture of Paradise trumped the Christian picture of streets of gold and angels hanging around playing harps. Does throwing seventy-two virgins into the arrangement make it so much more outrageous. "Pie in the sky by and by" obviously wasn't what Jesus had in mind when he laid out a design for living in relationship on this earth.Mission San Diego de Alcala

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Revolutionaries come in many flavors. Some of them, like Lenin and Che Guevara urged people to fight, to take up arms and overthrow a corrupt system of government. They are pictured on propaganda posters as leading a charge with rifles raised. Others, like Mathama Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa, declared that violence would not bring the desired result but could only exacerbate pain and suffering. They are pictured in attitudes of contemplation or prayer or service.

Whatever it was that Jesus actually did or said during his short life, it is clear that he was a revolutionary. Although accounts of his life are often muddled, few people in the Western World doubt that a man called Yeshua, or Jesus, lived two thousand years ago in a remote, insignificant province of the Roman Empire. He changed the world.

In sermons preached every Sunday in churches around the world, congregations are urged to follow Jesus. Which Jesus are we to follow, the one with raised fist or the one being led meekly to crucifixion? Or is there another Jesus?

It isn’t clear from the sometimes conflicting stories in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that Jesus’ teachings are the thoughts and words of a revolutionary determined to turn his world upside down or the expressed philosophy of someone who urged people to take it easy, let it go, chill, relax, and to take no offense even when insulted or injured. Some people prefer to think Frank Sinatra got it right when he sang about being slapped down by life: “I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again” Others prefer Onward Christian Soldiers as anthem.

For many years, the red letter edition of the Bible had the effect of putting a straight jacket on my mind. We are urged to believe that all those passages in red are words and phrases and sentences spoken literally from the mouth of Jesus. The scholars who marked the passages to be printed in red didn’t take into account, because it probably didn’t occur to them, that some of what was reported as having been said by Jesus was actually ad libed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, words the Gospel writers thought it was fair to believe he might have said. What is consistent in all of the stories, however, is that Jesus was a revolutionary thinker for his time in history. Madison Avenue would say he could think outside the box. But how does one choose among the several pictures of Jesus painted by the Gospel writers? Which is the one to follow, the one to emulate in day-to-day living? Is it the Jesus of Matthew 10: 34-38 (“Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that does not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.”)? Or is it the Jesus who gave his disciple Peter a direct, absolutely clear answer when he asked, “Lord, how often am I to forgive my brother if he goes on wronging me? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I do not say seven times; I say seventy times seven.”

Some of the confusion for me comes later, especially after the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus’ outbursts suggest violence as remedy. For his written account of the life of Jesus Matthew obviously gathered saying of Jesus, especially from Mark, and set them in the context of one long teaching session that he pictured as having taken place on a hillside. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is full of reassurances and admonitions, the rewards and responsibilities of “The Blessed.” Matthew carefully presents the teacher’s central message as a series of contrasts between the old ways of doing things and the new ways suggested by Jesus. “ You have learned that our forefathers were told, ‘Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgement.’ But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to judgement.” (Matthew 5: 21,22) ...and “How blest you are, when you suffer insults and persecutions and every kind of calumny for my sake. Accept it with gladness and exultation, for you have a rich reward in heaven; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you” (Matthew 5: 11,12). Later on the tone changes. What in the world was Jesus talking about in Matthew 10:21 when he said , “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death”? That entire passage is a jumble of images and ideas that don’t make sense to me. In the narrative Jesus has been talking about teaching and healing: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out devils. You received without cost; give without charge.” Then he goes off into a rant: “When you come to any town...(and they don’t receive you well and won’t listen to what you say)..., then as you leave that house or that town shake the dust of it off your feet I tell you this: on the day of judgement it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”

And then he says something even stranger, like something from the playbook of a cunning politician. “Look, I send you out like sheep among wolves; be wary as serpents, innocent as doves.” Maybe that is the part that guides George W. Bush. But for me, the only reasonable conclusion is that Jesus was a pacifist. One of the images that is clearest to me is the one of him rebuking Peter for grabbing a sword during Jesus’ arrest. Throughout his lifetime he suffered unjustly, yet he managed not to hate his tormenters. His actions, not just his words, point to pacifism as the way he would ask me to live if we could have a conversation today. When confronted with the confusion and contradictions of the Gospel record, I must say that I believe much of what Jesus is reported to have said is presented metaphorically, that sometimes the writers got carried away with their own agendas.

It is clear that Jesus’ teachings were reasonable and wise concerning the uselessness of hatred and revenge. I believe George W. Bush and his followers (or his handlers) got it wrong. The best response to the horrific terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was not to invade Iraq with a spirit of vengeance. Imagine what the situation would be like in Iraq today if we had gone in peace instead of war with the hundreds of billions of dollars we are spending to inflict terrible suffering on that nation. Imagine what it would be like today in the rest of the world. Imagine what it would be like for the thousands of American families that have lost or have had irreparably damaged their sons and daughters and brothers and sisters. Imagine what it would be like in our hearts without the images of Abu Graib.

Jesus was obviously right. I want to be like him. I prefer to live in an atmosphere of forgiveness, not in a climate of vengeance.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


The moon can be personal even intimate
for lovers lying softly beneath silver light
while telling each other the vast universe
worked to make the magic moment come
just to them unique and special and right
to prove a god of order sense and system
preordained this and every small moment
in the universe of quintessential goodness.

Unfathomable universal clockwork whirrs
spinning rotating circling looping planets
suns being born and dying exploding into
space dust flung wide and maybe like all
of us and everything heading finally for a
sucking black hole located in the middle
of whatever wherever galaxy it belongs to
taking everything and giving nothing back.

We hit each other
with words mostly
being too civilized
to draw blood
or leave bruises

unless of course
the people damaged, destroyed,
decimated and left destitute
are of some other place
or color or faith.