“Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.” So begins the Lord’s Prayer as translated in the World English Bible. Referring to God as male is, of course, patriarchal and jarring to many people today. After all, God is neither male nor female. But, in the Judaea of Jesus’ time, in the context of that ancient culture, it was natural to do so.
“Householder” might be the best word to substitute for “father.” In certain circumstances, women might be the head of a Jewish family, and the gender neutrality of “householder” is less offensive to modern sensibilities. So, what, exactly did the ancient householder do? What was his or her responsibility vis-à-vis the family?
The answer? To see that everyone had enough—that spouse, children, and servants had enough food and clothing as well as adequate shelter. The animals owned by the family would be well-fed, the house itself would be in good repair, and the children would have love and affection. The whole familial enterprise had to be planned, and the plan had to be carried out under the benevolent direction of the householder.
So, instead of thinking of God as father, think of God as householder. Of course, God’s household is the entire world! Then ask, “Does everyone in the world have adequate food, clothing, and shelter? Are the world’s animal and plant species flourishing?
The answer? No. Many people do not have the necessities of life, animal and plant life is threatened, and even the world’s climate is deteriorating as we pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. God would appear to be a poor provider for his earthly family.
However, God must complete his work with the help of human hands. Human beings must feed and clothe themselves. Human beings must be the stewards of God’s creation, protecting animal and plant life alike. When we pray to “Our Father,” we are committing ourselves to see that everyone in this world has “enough.” We are committing ourselves to social action, be it sharing the produce of our backyard garden or blocking access to a coal-fired electrical plant. In this way we keep God’s name holy.
And what is God’s name, anyway? It’s the symbol of his identity, one might say the identity itself—neither male, female, nor neuter. God is a supernatural “person” with no gender and near-infinite power. He has created us as instruments, as tools of his creative purpose. May his will be done.
(I’m aware that I’ve used the masculine possessive pronoun in referring to God. I also want to acknowledge that this post is based on John Dominic Crossan’s book, The Greatest Prayer.)
~ Richard Russell
My Favorite Penington
Some forty-five years ago I accidentally pulled Jessamyn West’s Quaker Reader off a library shelf. The following quote from Isaac Penington started me on my journey toward Old Chatham Meeting:
What is God?
The fountain of beings and natures, the inward substance of all
that appears; who createth, upholdeth, consumeth, and bringeth
to nothing as he pleaseth.
How may I know that there is a God?
By sinking down into the principle of his own life, wherein he
revealeth himself to the creature. There the soul receiveth such
tastes and knowledge of him, as cannot be questioned by him
that abideth there….
How may a man come to believe in this principle?
In feeling its nature, in waiting to feel somewhat begotten by it,
in this its light springs, its life springs, its love springs, its hidden
power appears, and its preserving wisdom and goodness is made
manifest to the soul that clings to it in the living sense, which its
presence and appearance begets in the soul.
West is right when she calls Penington “the Quaker’s Quaker.”
Tiny Habits and Spiritual Practice
“Pray without ceasing,” says St. Paul; and Quakers are often advised to engage in some personal, daily spiritual practice. But keeping to a daily devotion or meditation is a problem for many of us. As is the case with New Year’s resolutions, we start out strong but soon find ourselves frequently forgetting our spiritual routine, perhaps even falling away from it altogether. It’s hard to establish a new habit, be it physical or spiritual exercise.
B. J. Fogg, in his Tiny Habits book, suggests a way to overcome our inertia. Fogg suggests “hooking” our new spiritual practice to an established habit or routine. For example, I feed my dogs every morning. I’m trying to use the dogs’ breakfast as a cue to perform a spiritual habit. However, following Fogg, I’m also trying to keep my new habit short and “easy.”
I’ve chosen the Lord’s Prayer as my devotional habit. While full of spiritual riches, the Lord’s Prayer is also concise. It can be said, either out loud or mentally, in little more than thirty seconds. The ease of repeating it means that I’m not likely to postpone the recitation. Then—and only then—I may choose to extend the practice by going through the phrases of the prayer in a more leisurely, reflective way. If I feel like it (and I often do), I can listen to a twenty- or thirty-minute meditative audio of the prayer on my phone’s Jesus Words app, but it’s important to keep the basic habit “tiny” in order not to postpone saying the prayer. I don’t want to feel guilty because I don’t pray in the press of daily life.
Hook the new habit/practice to an established habit or routine. Keep the new habit “tiny” and easy, prolonging it only if so inclined at the time. Fogg, for example, hooked his exercise routine to peeing at home. After peeing, he would perform the tiny habit of doing two push-ups. Often, he’d decide to go ahead and do five, ten, even twenty push-ups. But he’d always do at least two to keep his exercise habit going. So, my established habit/routine is feeding the dogs. My tiny habit is the Lord’s Prayer. I may, or may not, extend the Prayer with reflection, meditation, or devotional reading. But the Lord’s Prayer once through is a minimum, designed to keep the habit going.
Of course, the content of the tiny spiritual habit is infinitely variable. Instead of the Lord’s Prayer, you could say something as simple as “Jesus is Lord.” Or, if you’re a Buddhist, you could say, “May all beings be safe, happy, healthy, and live joyously.” The optional extension of the tiny spiritual habit is also variable. For a Christian, it might be a breathing meditation or a reading from the New Testament. For a Buddhist, an extension might be meditation or perhaps reading the Buddha’s own words. The possibilities are endless. And now you’re ready for your New Year’s resolution of doing a spiritual practice every day!
~ Richard Russell
How Wise Are You?
To find out, you could use the Jeste-Thomas Wisdom Index. Consisting of twenty-eight multiple choice questions predicated on seven subscales, you’d receive a global rating between one and five, five being the high in wisdom.
I took the test twice and received four plus a fraction each time. Let’s just say a “solid four.” Assuming that Jesus and the Buddha would have scored a five, I can say that I have 80% of the wisdom possessed by these great spiritual teachers. (Actually, Jesus and the Buddha are probably “off the scale” in wisdom.) Regarding the subscales, my low scores were “emotional regulation” and “social advising.” My high scores were “self-reflection” and “spirituality.”
Well, Quakers should certainly be wise. Want to find out how wise and Quakerly you are? Click HERE for the online Jeste-Thomas Index.
~ Richard Russell
Dopamine and the Good Life
I’m addicted to food, coffee, and nicotine. Food is the most serious problem of the three. My obesity puts a strain on the circulatory system and affects my freedom of movement as well as being a risk factor for diabetes. Coffee can be protective against Alzheimer’s and cancer; but I suffer headaches (a withdrawal symptom) on the second consecutive day of not drinking it. Nicotine gum seems to relieve the stress and boredom of working at Walmart. Moreover, research indicates that nicotine may improve cognitive performance. With both food and nicotine, however, I experience the cravings that are symptoms of addiction.
Dopamine is the chemical culprit of substance abuse. This neurotransmitter has long been known as the “pleasure molecule.” More accurately, dopamine is the “motivation molecule” that causes us to seek out sources of pleasure. Thus, a dopamine-deficient rat experiences pleasure when eating food placed in its mouth but is not motivated enough to move toward and eat food placed a short distance away.
Drugs of abuse—heroin, methamphetamine, alcohol (to name a few)—increase the activity of dopaminergic brain cells. Under the influence of such drugs, the brain makes more dopamine and pleasurable sensations—even intense euphoria—are the result. However, as the brain makes more dopamine because of artificial drug stimulation, natural brain processes try to decrease the excess dopamine to a normal base level. If then, a dopaminergic drug is suddenly stopped, there’s no dopamine from the drug and—with a lower-than-normal base level of dopamine—the total amount of dopamine in the brain plummets. Craving and painful withdrawal symptoms are the result. The process is a physiological see-saw. Sometimes dopamine is “up” because of the drug, sometimes it's “down” as the body tries to maintain homeostasis or balance.
Dopamine is not just implicated in substance abuse. It plays a role in addictive behaviors as well. The compulsive gambler, the gamer who plays video games hour after hour, the Netflix devotee who binge-watches all night, the person who constantly engages in casual sex, the social media fan who can’t stop clicking on links—all are examples of behaviors that raise the level of dopamine in the brain. When the behavior temporarily stops, dopamine reduction processes win out; and the result is withdrawal pain—symptoms such as insomnia, restlessness, anxiety, and depression.
Unfortunately, our competitive American culture encourages dopamine generating activities like ruthless money-making, compulsive sex, and frenetic shopping. If we rely too much on such activities, we can bounce back and forth between artificial highs and lows, between hypomania and mild depression.
For example, maybe we are compulsive and obsessive about our job. If we manage to work or think about work continuously, we use it much as an addict uses methamphetamine. If our job or career suddenly loses its meaning for us, we may sink into a mild (or severe) depression.
There is an alternative. There is the Quaker vision of a life in which, not pleasure, but satisfaction is the goal. We may not be deliriously happy, but neither are we pathologically depressed. We are fulfilled by what we do; and our brain enjoys the steady, normal dopamine levels of homeostasis. Our Inner Light doesn’t suddenly blaze up nor dim toward extinction. We are stable, resting in the security of a relationship with God or at least bolstered by a belief in some humanistic philosophy. We live in quiet joy.
(This article is partly based on Anna Lembke’s book Dopamine Nation together with a podcast interview of her. Listen to How Dopamine Drives Our Addictions by clicking HERE.)
~ Richard Russell
Was Jesus the Christ?
For many, the phrase “Jesus Christ” conjures up the image of a God-man, of God Almighty temporarily in human flesh. However, “Christ” is just our English transliteration of the Ancient Greek “Christos,” which literally means “anointed”; and which was the New Testament’s equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah.”
So, really, asking whether Jesus was the Christ means to ask whether he was anointed by God to announce the good news (gospel) of God’s Kingdom on Earth. Jesus, if anointed or chosen by God, is a prophet—but not just any prophet. He is THE prophet who brings about a decisive change in human history. Paul speaks of the Christian epoch as a New Creation. “The old has gone, the new is here!”
“But,” you say, “the world was not changed by Jesus. He himself was crucified, and the world continues in its evil ways with violence and injustice everywhere.” Better to say, I think, that Jesus revealed the presence of God’s Kingdom amidst evil.
Whenever love and justice triumph over prejudice, hate, and violence, the power of God bursts through evil. Call it Grace, Salvation, or whatever. It is real. It is here and now, surprising us with its Eternal Presence or—as Friends say—its Inward Light. Quakers, of course, generally acknowledge that the Inward Light moves outward, into action in the world. Friends often call that outward movement “social justice,” but it may be manifested by simple, individual acts of love and kindness. And those Friends who are bolder believe in a supernatural Kingdom of God that exists “outside” and “above” the circumstances of time and place.
Will we somehow enter a mysterious Realm of Peace and Love beyond our existence, beyond this vale of suffering and death? Will we experience a Hereafter that is a state of complete and utter Blessedness? Will we—I wonder—attain Eternal Life? Here, the idea of Resurrection comes into play. Was Jesus somehow resurrected and His Presence returned to life?
I don’t believe in the literal Resurrection of a ghostly Jesus who passes through walls and visibly ascends into Heaven as his disciples watch. I do believe that the disciples had a mystical experience of Jesus’ Presence after his crucifixion, and I believe that their supernatural experience corresponds to an objective reality. Thus, if Jesus is somehow saved from sin and death (“sin” means separation from God), all humanity is potentially saved.
Paul says that anyone who calls Jesus “Lord” and believes in the Resurrection can look for a life after death in which their “body,” i.e., their personality, continues to exist. How this could be I do not know, and my anxiety about the possibility of dying into oblivion sometimes overwhelms my faith and trust in God. That anxiety, however, only shows my human weakness and the secular rationalism that co-exists with my faith.
The faith of the early Christians was stronger. They spoke of following Jesus as “The Way.” Does that mean that non-Christians are not on the path of salvation? I believe otherwise. The Christian Way is really “A Way.” Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems, Atheists, and Agnostics have their own way into Heaven. Sometimes people do not even know that they are on a spiritual journey, but God’s power mysteriously directs their earthly progress toward a Heavenly Home.
I know that by using symbols like “Kingdom” and “Heaven” I’m mixing mythology, reason, and logic; but the transcendent nature of God—ultimately unknowable—can only be expressed with similes and parables like Jesus used as he preached and lived among us. And I believe that Jesus is the Christ, anointed by God to preach the Gospel.
Luke even has Jesus s
ay as much in a synagogue where he quotes a passage from Isaiah. Luke has Jesus make this claim:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to
proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim
freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (NIV)
After Jesus rolled up the scroll from which he had read, he says, very directly, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
I am reminded of a more modern quote from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer ends his book by writing,
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old,
by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He
speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to
the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And
to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will
reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which
they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable
mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
~ Richard Russell
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