The full title of Marcus J. Borg’s book is Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Surprising Relevance of a Spiritual Revolutionary. The book delivers what the title promises. While Borg’s ideas are not original with him, he has put together—from his perspective—an insightful synthesis of scholarly studies of Jesus. Yet he writes in an accessible, readable style. An especial strength of the book is the placing of Jesus in his cultural and political context, thereby illuminating Jesus’ life and teachings.
He begins with an account of how the Gospels—really our only source for Jesus’ life—were written. He doesn’t assume prior knowledge. Thus, while many Friends are aware that the Gospel of Mark formed the framework for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, supplemented by material from a lost “Q” source, Borg does not assume that the reader is aware of this “synoptic problem.” He also effectively tackles the problem of which Gospel sayings came from Jesus and which were “put into his mouth” by early Christian communities. And, of course, Borg shows us that the Gospel of John is less “historical” than the three synoptic gospels and is an interpretation of Jesus that comes from John’s Christian community.
Following his Gospel chapters, Borg describes the Jewish and Roman cultures in which Jesus lived. He convincingly argues that Jesus was a mystic who had a “direct” experience of God and then gives us a picture of God’s character as envisioned by Jesus. He uses Jesus’ parables and aphorisms to support the concept of Jesus as a wisdom teacher but a teacher of an alternative, subversive wisdom. He spends considerable time on Jesus’ central message—the Kingdom of God—and how that Kingdom was the exact opposite of the Roman imperial system.
Here is the central theme of Borg’s book: Jesus was a revolutionary who opposed the Roman empire in a non-violent way. For example, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was projecting the image of how a representative of God’s Peaceable Kingdom might arrive at the holy city of Jerusalem, quite in contrast to the chariots, horses, and panoply of Roman legions entering the city.
When Jesus overturned the money lenders’ tables in the court of the Temple, he was non-violently (no one was harmed) protesting the collaboration of the Temple priests with Roman authorities. And when Jesus told the Pharisees to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, his unspoken premise was that Caesar deserved nothing—that everything was owed to God.
Of course, the result of Jesus’ subversive words and demonstrations was his crucifixion. Pilate might as well have said, “This is what we do to people who resist Roman rule.” And the crucifixion marks a divide between the historical, pre-Easter Jesus and the metaphorical post-Easter Jesus. Borg doesn’t doubt the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection, but it is the truth of parable and myth. Jesus didn’t ascend into Heaven in the sight of a worshipful crowd, but his disciples did sense his living presence, much as Friends may feel the presence in meeting of an Eternal Christ. And Borg doesn’t shy away from the idea that this Presence wants his disciples, i.e., us, to help bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth in opposition to the principalities and powers that oppress humankind. For Borg, a Christian must engage in social action, be it words or denting the nose cone of a ballistic missile.
Let me admit that I haven’t done Borg justice. His is a magnificent book that I recommend to anyone in Old Chatham Meeting who’s interested in Jesus and Christianity. On a scale of one to five, Borg’s Jesus is a six.
~ Richard Russell
By Tom Wayman
Issue no. 67 (Fall 1976)
I put the bacon into the pan.
It lies there, lank and perfectly relaxed.
After a few minutes, though, a marvelous transformation
starts: the bacon begins to whisper, then hiss,
sinks down, becomes transparent, bubbles and snaps
and babbles to itself, turning crinkled and brown and stiff.
Meantime, I cut up some mushrooms.
The knife blade enters the soft puffy white flesh.
What is a mushroom: a fruit? a vegetable?
Inside the cap, as half the mushroom fails away
gills and a tiny breathing space are revealed--
a secret maritime connection: earth-fish, land-anemone
alive on the ocean of the mossy forest floor.
As the mushroom slices are added to the intense heat of the pan
each one dries out and appears as a miniature kippered herring.
Now I drop in the eggs. Two circular wonders.
The clear fluid becomes white and solid
as the yolk builds its own bright dome in the snow.
Personally, I like to put a lid on it all
so the white covers the yolk entirely.
Food is where everything starts. A thin slice of cheese
melting on my tongue. And I have to
taik about salads. Water
fleshed into green crisp ragged wafers:
lettuce leaves torn up and put in a wooden bowl.
With sliced celery stalks: one piece crunching
between my teeth as I work. Tangy radish:
a red warning sign of a coat, and below that
an apparently-calm, deceptive interior. Not like a tomato
which is honestly red and juicy all the way through.
Green peppers are even more deceiving:
really you just eat the rind because that’s all there is.
To me, peppers seem a little embarrassed when they are cut open.
They have spent so much time attempting to look like an apple
that once they are exposed they try to vanish underneath
everything else in the salad.
Avocados. Warm green California memories
shipped all this way for me: a fruit
with a pudding inside, sweet, bland and mushy,
the absolute opposite of carrots
which are delicious edible wood,
staunch and starchy, each carrot disk
slipping off the knife. I pick one out to munch on: aaaaahh.
Then I put my wooden fork and spoon in
and stir the whole pile up. I pour
an oily and vinegary dressing on, slippery and
pungent with spices. Out of the water
and the ground it all comes, to my plate and my fork
and into my mouth.
I eat. Taking the planet as a whole
not very many can do that. Luck
has brought me this food, though something harsher than luck
keeps the others away from the table.
I eat and go on talking.
Others who can’t eat, or who can’t eat so much
meanwhile are thinking of something else to say.
But still I love to eat, as a person should.
This is how I know there is something wrong
with those who keep food from the poor.
I think if the vegetables controlled the world
there would be enough for all, since even a vegetable
knows its duty is to feed the earth. Something lower than that
must have its hands on things: some sickness
that decrees some people will eat and not others.
Yet food has its own revenge.
Hugo Blanco says that in Chile, under the generals,
when every form of resistance was mercilessly stopped,
the men with the guns had to allow
people to buy food and cook together
since conditions under military rule made this necessary
if many people were going to eat at all.
Now for this activity you need some sort of organization
Blanco says, and you can’t stop people talking to each other
while they’re stirring up the soup. And they don’t
Blanco says, always talk about food.
See how sneaky eating is? I think if you want to control
human beings, you really have to keep every bit of nourishment
away from them. For if someone once opens his mouth to eat,
who knows? instead of rice going in
a word might come out.
Myself, I go on eating, as I go on breathing.
But I hope these two acts are all that ties me in this life
to those men and women who for now decide who starves.
Submitted by Bob Elmendorf
Pillars of Grief
You cannot hide from grief. You could be grieving over the loss of a job, a marriage, or the death of a friend or family member. Whatever the cause, if you try to deny or repress the grief, if you try to pretend it’s gone and dealt with, if you try to put a brave face on what you haven’t faced, that grief continues to haunt you in unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll have headaches, trouble sleeping, or chronic indigestion. Perhaps you’ll isolate yourself and draw away from friends and family. Perhaps you’ll make work an unhealthy obsession or begin over-indulging in unhealthy habits like drinking or eating too much.
According to Julia Samuel in a recent episode of The Happiness Lab podcast, the better alternative is to let the raw emotions of grief—the anger, sadness, and anxiety—flow through you. Only so can you truly heal from your loss. Experiencing these emotions increases your personal agency. When grief is openly felt, there are things you can do to enable yourself to deal with it and eventually return to a normal life even though that life may be changed in the process.
Samuel uses the metaphor of scaffolding or pillars. We need emotional supports during the grieving process, and Samuel identifies eight “pillars” that will help you cope with grief—especially the grief that comes from the death of a close friend or family member.
The first pillar is the external emotional support of friends and family. Paradoxically, that includes support from the deceased loved one. That person may be dead, but your love for him or her goes on. It’s a mistake to throw away photos and mementos of the deceased. Better to cherish keepsakes even though they’re bittersweet. Remembering brings joy as well as sadness, strength as well as powerlessness. Rely on all your friendships, past and present.
The second pillar (not necessarily sequential) is internal support: i.e., self-compassion. Probably you know your habitual coping mechanisms. If they work for you, well and good. If they are psychologically unsound, look deeper into yourself. If, for example, you tend to deny unpleasant facts, try to overcome that habit; and forgive yourself for the “weakness” of acknowledging a trauma.
The third pillar is naming and expressing your emotions. It’s normal to feel sadness and anger over a great loss. You are no less you, no less a good person because you feel such emotions; and feeling the emotion instead of burying it in the subconscious prevents the neurotic return of what’s buried.
The fourth pillar is time. It takes time to heal after a great personal loss. Don’t let society dictate to you how long you should grieve. Perhaps after three months or so, people will start telling you that it’s time to move on, but grief knows no socially acceptable limit. Maybe you need six months. Maybe you need a year. Let you decide when enough time has passed to move on.
And the fifth pillar? Remember that mind and body are one whole. “Psychological” trauma activates the body’s “fight and flight” response and pours adrenaline and cortisol into your system. Maybe physical exercise is a good way to handle the phenomenon. And ask yourself what you’re doing in this period of mourning. What actions make you feel better and “safer?” If going to the strip mall or clubbing make you feel calmer, shop or dance and use up the hormones flooding your body.
Number six: During grief, “fight or flight” is often followed by depression and a lack of energy. It’s not humanly possible to do all the things you normally do. Set limits. Say “no” to activities that you’re not up to.
Number seven involves establishing a routine in your life. Routine keeps you from having to constantly make decisions. Maybe on Tuesday and Thursday you exercise. Maybe on Monday you answer e-mails, and Wednesday is clean-the-house day.
The eighth pillar (and remember that none of these strategies is sequential) is simply focusing, maybe just sitting down, and breathing deeply. Here is where being in the moment, “mindfulness” comes into play. Of course, this focusing can be spiritual contemplation. You may be able to accept the mystery of life and see yourself in perspective as a small part of a grand whole. And here is where your Quaker faith and the Inner Light may bring you relief from grief and loss.
~ Richard Russell
Stoic Spiritual Practice
Last week I wrote a short, over-simplified article about Stoicism and the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. Stoicism is a worthy philosophy, but does it advise any spiritual practices to help its disciples attain their goal of Virtue?
The answer is, “Yes”; and the modern Stoic, Massimo Pigliucci, lists several of his spiritual practices in a Great Courses video. These practices would also serve Christians, Buddhists, and other spiritual seekers. I have classified them into “morning,” “evening,” and “anytime” categories.
Pigliucci lists only one evening practice. Before bedtime he writes in a diary and reflects on his actions during the day. Which ones were virtuous, and which were not so virtuous? In the latter case, what could he do in future to improve himself? I have long resisted (don’t know why) journaling, which is almost a go-to exercise for Quakers and other Seekers; but I recently resolved the negative feelings around a personal setback by putting the incident down on paper (well, on Microsoft Word). So, I am thinking of taking up reflective journaling and making it a habit by tying it to some other evening habit or routine. Perhaps I can journal immediately after my nightly habit of watching an episode from Netflix.
Pigliucci engages in several morning or beginning-of-the day exercises, not all simultaneously, of course. Occasionally he and his wife get up early enough to see the sunrise, an experience which connects them to nature. Psychologists have confirmed that communing with nature—perhaps walking in the woods or looking at birds soar in the sky—have a calming and spiritually uplifting effect. I can’t conveniently see the sun rise from my house, but I do find it soothing to gaze at the patterns of sunlight that form on the walls of my living room after the sun rises above the houses around us.
Pigliucci also finds it helpful—at the start of his day—to ask himself which parts of the day will be under his control and which will depend upon other people or outside forces. Following Epictetus, he then resolves not to get excited or anxious about what he can’t control. Before leaving his apartment, he resolves to do what he plans to do but—more importantly—to live in harmony with his fellow human beings. Sometimes he meditates on the probability that he will encounter someone who in the past has been unpleasant or difficult to deal with.
I don’t know exactly how Pigliucci performs this meditation, but I can imagine a breathing exercise in which one visualizes a peaceful scene and then transitions to visualizing the problematic person, all the while maintaining the calm that comes from rhythmic breathing and meditation. A related practice is simply to recall that when someone insults you, everyone—in fact—has many faults, and we shouldn’t be overly-concerned if one of them is mentioned.
In the “anytime” category, Pigliucci occasionally plans a week in which he buys nothing except the bare necessities of life, thereby reminding himself not to fall prey to the unhealthy consumerism that afflicts people in this country. Or he decides to talk less. After all, if we speak too much, we’re often not listening deeply to what the other person says. Sometimes he chooses an activity in which to practice moderation. It’s common, for example, to eat too much, eat too fast, or eat too many high-calorie foods. Moderate, mindful eating would, of course, benefit all of us—not just Stoics.
One of his more interesting practices is that of self-imposed hardship. Pigliucci might fast, do without alcohol, or go walking in winter cold while wearing light clothing. The idea is to remember that we can endure hardship, that discomfort is something we will experience and that we must learn to live with. He surmises that tolerating physical pain will translate to coping with psychological and spiritual distress. (For me personally, occasional internet outages produce a restlessness and anxiety that is both physical and psychological.)
I’ll conclude by asking Friends which of these Stoic exercises might be useful for them to adopt? Probably many Quakers are already engaged in “Stoic” spiritual practices. Theologies and philosophies may vary from person to person, but virtuous behavior is much the same for anyone seeking to live a good life.
~ Richard Russell
Bodies in Silence
That’s the title of a print article in the January 12th hard copy of The Christian Century (different title online). The author is Chris Palmer, a Presbyterian minister in Waco, Texas. Palmer admits that digital tools like Zoom are useful for churches in this Age of the Pandemic. However, he emphasizes the limits of such technology. In particular, he argues that the silence built into religious services loses its effect on virtual media.
He writes (and many Quakers would agree) that
Silence is about presence, not just absence…. It is a
pregnant stillness that raises heart rates and releases
endorphins within the pathways of our bodies. It
is about the quiet friction between individuals gathered
in space. It is that eerie awkwardness, when there is an
excess of silence in a church service, that makes us notice
the feeling of a neighbor’s presence. All this leads to my
somewhat counterintuitive conclusion that without other
people—without other bodies in space—silence is
I agree with Palmer that being physically present in a church or meetinghouse is the ideal, but I also believe that Palmer over-generalizes. For myself and other Friends, a virtual meeting is very conducive to silent worship and vocal ministry.
For example, in a N.Y.Times article Friend Joan Malin speaks of a new intimacy as she looks at faces and expressions on Zoom. “I really see that they (other Quakers) are deep in worship. There’s a vulnerability when someone is doing that, and here they are putting it onscreen for us to witness. It helps me get there, too.”
Well, I’ve laid out the controversy around online worship. I think I’ll relax now by listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s song about a 2,000-inch TV. Of course, for our meeting—in my opinion—a 32-inch TV would do just fine.
~ Richard Russell
Jesus and Epictetus
Everyone knows who Jesus was, but many people have never heard of Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher who lived about 50-135 CE. Christianity took over a lot of Stoic ideas; but, in their totality, the two systems of thought are quite different. The Stoics believed that God was immanent in the universe as a corporeal Logos, Divine Reason materially co-existing with ordinary matter. Alexander Pope (approximately) expresses the idea in this couplet:
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
Christianity, of course, sees God as transcendent, existing apart from the creation. Also, Christians want to achieve union with God, mediated by the action of Love. For Stoics, on the other hand, Virtue is the supreme goal and is to be achieved by the exercise of that Reason implanted in us by God. Nevertheless, it is here, in the domain of ethics, that Jesus and Epictetus hold similar concepts.
For example, Epictetus told his students, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” Jesus expressed a similar sentiment when he said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life…. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” For Epictetus, Virtue and happiness are attained by concentrating on what we can—in fact—do something about. For Jesus, human beings should “seek first” God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, putting aside useless worries about the future.
Epictetus also joked to someone who had insulted him, “You do not know my other faults, or you would not have mentioned only these.” In other words, Epictetus responded to criticism with gentle irony. Jesus did the same thing when the Pharisees criticized him for eating with tax collectors and sinners. He remarked, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The pharisees no doubt assumed that Jesus was sincere about calling them righteous. We know he wasn’t. By his table companionship with sinners, Jesus was modeling the wise man’s version of righteousness. Or, as Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
So, Jesus and Epictetus were kindred spirits. He who follows Epictetus’ advice will not have much trouble following Jesus. Yes, these two men are on different paths—but perhaps those paths lead to the same goal. Perhaps Virtue is The Kingdom of God.
~ Richard Russell
Decluttering could be the process that leads to the simpler life that Friends are often advised to lead. There is, of course, the decluttering of your physical living space. Here, the secret to success is probably starting small. Clean out just one drawer today. Tomorrow do one more drawer or maybe—if you’re feeling ambitious—half of a closet. In a fairly short time, you’ll start to notice a difference in the whole house.
Be especially attentive to the bedroom. According to The University of Tennessee Medical Center, a tidy, well-organized bedroom relaxes the mind and prepares you for sleep. So, pick up any clothes on the bedroom floor, clean off the top of the dresser, and choose just one or two favorite pictures for the wall.
Decluttering your calendar is also important. Friends tend to take on too many time-consuming activities. If you’re on three monthly meeting committees, maybe you should just serve on two. Among all your social action projects, which ones do you truly enjoy and want to keep doing? Discard the rest.
Don’t try to save time by multitasking. It’s impossible to do more than one higher-level cognitive task at a time. What the brain really does is switch rapidly from one task to the other, losing time in the process. Focusing on the job at hand is the true path to productivity and efficiency.
Do you have too many friends? If a friendship truly refreshes, invigorates, and supports you, it’s a keeper. If your friend repeatedly spends an hour on the phone complaining and drains you of energy, you’d be well-advised not to answer so many of his or her calls. (Of course, sometimes God calls us to maintain a problematic relationship.)
Then there is the decluttering of the mind. Mindfulness or a breathing meditation may help clear your head and reduce stress. Online games may be mentally relaxing, but they can also be addictive. Set a timer so that you shut off your phone or computer before overdoing the games. Make sure that your social media choices genuinely lift your spirits and don’t lead to depression or anxiety. You’re not obligated to have a hundred friends on Facebook. Unfriend casual acquaintances who consistently make you feel bad.
If there is a clutter of negative thoughts in your mind, try filling your mental space with thoughts and feelings of gratitude. There’s so much in life to be grateful for, including life itself. If gratitude almost never enters your head, if the Inner Light doesn’t sometimes lead you toward joy, perhaps professional help is needed to cultivate a more positive attitude.
(This post was based on an article in United Healthcare’s magazine: Heidi Pearson, “The Joy of Living Simply.” Renew, Fall 2021, pp. 20—23.)
~ Richard Russell
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