The Prayer Jesus Taught (An Inclusive Version)

Holy One, our Mother and Father
Let your name be revered.
Let your kin-dom come,
Let your will be done on earth as it is in the heavens.

Give us today the bread we need for today.
And forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
And deliver us from evil.

For yours is the kin-dom, the power, and the glory
Now and forever.
Amen.


This version is written to be gender inclusive. I sometimes use the first line, “Baba, our Holy One.” Baba means “Father” in some African and Middle-Eastern languages and “Grandmother” in some Eastern European languages. Jesus sometimes used the semitic word Abba, to which it is etymologically related.

“Kin-dom” language is borrowed from Ada María Isasi-Díaz, who borrowed it from Georgene Wilson.

“Heavens” is a better translation of the Greek word, in my opinion, and it does not have the afterlife connotations that it has in modern English. The vision is for a just and peaceful God-ordered planet, the way God has ordered the movement of the stars in the heavens.

“Bread we need for today” is a reference to the story of manna in the Hebrew Bible, which is a lesson about greed, security, trust, and sharing.

I believe the implicit lesson on forgiveness is not that God’s mercy is contingent on our mercy, but that forgiveness is a form of reciprocal grace. It is not “forgive us inasmuch as we forgive others,” but “as/while we are forgiving, forgive us.” See Matthew 18:21-35, Matthew 5:21-26, Matthew 6:14-15.

As the Pope has said, God does not ever “lead us into temptation.” God is not a tempter.

The doxology added to the end of the prayer is a Protestant tradition, but its first appearance is the in Didache, an early church document from the second century.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 35: Two Natures

 
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An artist’s depiction of the binary star series, J0806; by NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

We looked at the feminine imagery of this passage yesterday. Now let’s take a brief dip into metaphysics.

Krishna has been talking about “two natures,” a lower nature and a higher nature. In Hindu philosophy these are usually called prakriti and purusha, or “the elements” and “pure consciousness.” Here, Krishna calls the higher nature jiva-bhuta, or life-force.

These two natures don’t map directly onto Western categories like human and divine, or matter and spirit. We’ll notice a difference when we start listing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intellect, and ego. The “elements” in this system include both tangible and intangible aspects of our world, including our own thoughts, feelings, and narratives. The experience of our subjective selves, in Hindu philosophy, is very much a part of the material world.

There are three gunas, states or forces, that act upon the elements: tamas (tending toward disorder, delusion, and inaction), rajas (tending toward desire, the ego, and passion), and sattva (tending toward enlightenment and unity). These are the forces of evolution and change.

Krishna is saying that both changeable realm of prakriti and the unchangeable purusha are part of the divine dance of creation and destruction. There is a place where we experience time and change and separateness, and there is a place where we experience Oneness, where all times are now. These two places are connected; they are part of the same reality. This divine dance is “The Womb of Creation,” Krishna says.

This mystical awareness of the unity of all things is difficult to put into words, and metaphysics is our attempt to do so: to try to describe how our essential unity—we are all part of the same reality—can be experienced as separateness, as me and you and dog and tree and rock and ocean, as thought and emotion and this Self that is neither, both, and more. Trying to understand the elements of reality is like putting creation under a microscope so that we can understand the big picture.   

When Krishna says There is nothing that exists separate from me, I also hear Paul quoting a pagan poet, saying that God is the one in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). The Womb of God is such a powerful metaphor, especially because even though we are “born,” we are still present in God. There’s nowhere we can go and be “outside of God,” because all of creation is still inside, and still part of God, and God is in every strand of creation’s DNA.

Prayer:
God in Whom we live and move and have our being, overcome our illusions of independence.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 34: The Womb of Creation

 
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The Babe in the Womb, by Leonard da Vinci. From Wikimedia Commons

 

In these two aspects of my nature is the womb of all creation. The birth and dissolution of the cosmos itself takes place in me. There is nothing that exists separate from me, Arjuna. The entire universe is suspended from me as my necklace of jewels.  (BG, 7:6-7) 

I want to talk about these feminine images: the womb and the necklace.

In Christianity, we are so used to Father language that we often miss places in the Bible where God is a mother. Consider:

From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? (Job 38:28-29, NRSV)

and:

Before the mountains were born, before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—from forever in the past to forever in the future, you are God. (Psalm 90:2, CEB)

The Hebrew word translated as “compassionate” or “merciful” also shares the root for womb, as when God is described as being “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6, NRSV).

Our English language and sexist traditions prevent us from seeing these feminine images of God. Even though the Bible starts off in Genesis 1:27 by telling us that both man and woman are made “in the image of God”—implying that God is both—religious authoritarians reject or obscure this feminine image at every turn.

Eastern religions (in general) are more comfortable with female, gender-bending, or queer images of the divine. The bodhisattva [divine sage] Guanyin, or Avalokitasvara, appears as male, female, and androgynous.

And while a necklace in the above passage is not explicitly feminine (men wear necklaces in both the Hebrew Bible and Indian literature), the idea of the universe as jewelry for our divine Mother is certainly provocative. The sense of all these images is one of continuity and dependence. God births the universe, and so the universe (and we humans) contain some divine DNA. Our moment-to-moment existence is sustained by her. Our universe de-pends (the English verb mean to hang, like a pendant) from her like jewels on a string.

There is some metaphysical stuff here, as well, which I will dig into tomorrow. But for now, listen and reflect on these feminine images of God: The womb of creation. A necklace of jewels hanging from her shoulders.

Prayer:
Merciful Mother, hold us close.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 33: Abide in Me

 
V0033382 Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches

Christ as the vine; the Apostles and Evangelists as branches: Wellcome Library, London.  images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only license CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

 

I am ever present to those who have realized me in every creature. Seeing all life as my manifestation, they are never separated from me. They worship me in the hearts of all, and all their actions proceed from me. Wherever they may live, they abide in me.  (BG, 6:30-31) 

Compare it to these words of Jesus:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, NRSV).

There are three big ideas here: 1) that the Incarnate One is always with you, inside of you, 2) that you can abide, or dwell in the Lord of Life, and 3) that what you do, the fruit you bear, is the life and activity of God being expressed in you.  

Sure, we say, “God is everywhere,” but omnipresence is something we sort of take for granted. That God is in my neighbor, I can imagine with a little effort. That God is in my dog, or a fruit fly, or a piece of rotting fruit is another. In everyday life, we come to regard the world as disposable. It is far from sacred because it is so ordinary.

I think that’s why Jesus uses the vine metaphor. There is nothing “ordinary” about life or existence itself, about the fact that this strange divine energy is being pumped into us all the time, without our even being aware of it. There is only awareness and unawareness of this ceaseless miracle.

Becoming aware, mindful, is what is meant by “abiding.” Once you become aware, stay in this space. Cultivate awe. Linger over beauty. Allow yourself to be amazed by human beings. Stay curious about God’s infinite diversity in the world. The fruit fly and the rotting fruit both have something to say. So does your dog. So does your neighbor, even if he is kind of a jerk.

If you stay in this space of constant wonder, viewing each moment as a miracle from God, then your action cannot help but become divine. You’re not just going through the motions of living—you are an expression of God’s limitless love. Washing dishes? Miraculous. Writing a paper? Miraculous. Disciplining a child? Miraculous. Holding the hand of a loved one? Awe-inspiring.

Abiding is not a passive thing. We have the capacity for so much more wonder and awe. With attention, the sages say, we could walk around through life totally gob-smacked with the goodness of God. Wouldn’t that be a great way to live?  

Prayer:
Abide in me abiding in You.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 32: Meditation Posture

 

Amitabha, Tibet, 145 CE. Photo by David Barnhart, taken at the Encountering the Buddha exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass. Then, once seated, strive to still your thoughts. Make your mind one-pointed in meditation, and your heart will be purified. Hold your body, head, and neck firmly in a straight line, and keep your eyes from wandering. With all fears dissolved in the peace of the Self… sit in meditiaon with me as your only goal. (BG, 6:11-14

Krishna shifts to telling Arjuna some specific steps in meditation.

I share this section because there are two truths about meditation posture: the first is that your exact physical posture isn’t important. The second is that your physical posture is very important.

If you go to a meditation class or speak to people who have practiced for years, you’ll learn that most practitioners have options: cushion, bench, or chair; walking meditation or lying on the floor; hands clasped, open, or in mudras; eyes open or closed. It was in watching a video of an old woman meditating near a stupa that I finally realized: just do whatever works. She was sitting on the ground, leaning on one arm. The other rested across one raised knee. Her eyes were fixed at a middle distance on the ground. She was smiling softly. She looked comfortable but alert, something I rarely achieved in my own meditation posture. But she wasn’t hung up on having her legs in the lotus position or her arms just so.

There’s a balance here. Once you understand the purpose of meditation, posture may not be so important. But for the novice unlearning a lifetime of bad posture habits, physical position can be a hang-up. We are physical beings and how we orient out bodies in space can help or hinder our mental and spiritual experience. If our attention becomes fixated on our comfort, seeking the least distracting position can become a distraction itself. This is part of what hatha yoga is intended to do: prepare you for meditation. You move and stretch your body because sitting still in meditation is hard work!

Yesterday I said Easwaran’s translation in this chapter feels a bit too focused on willpower. Listen to the active verbs he uses in the above passage: strive, hold, keep. I think these verbs reinforce “achievement” spirituality. Compare it to the Feuerstein translation, which has only one active verb, sit:

Holding trunk, head, and neck even, motionless, and steady, gazing [relaxedly] at the tip of his nose and without looking round about, [with] tranquil self, devoid of fear… he should sit, intent on Me. (6:13-14).

The trick in meditation, as with life, is to find the balance between effort and relaxation, active attention and passive noticing. For me, it’s not so much stilling my thoughts as letting them play, like active toddlers, until they come to rest naturally. It’s not helpful when my achievement-oriented brain is yelling at them, “RELAX!”

And the same is true with the body. I begin with an awareness of my body, because until I become intentionally aware of my body and appreciate its posture, it will become a persistent distraction.

Prayer:
Embodied, Incarnate One, you made, for me, a body; You made me as a body;
You made me more than a body.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 31: The Will and the Self

 
530-520 BC

Hydria with Depiction of Quadriga, Charioteer and Hoplite, Workshop of Lysippides Painter, 530-520 BC. From Wikimedia Commons. The Bhagavad-Gita describes the human person as a chariot, with the will as the driver and the Self as the lord who rides along.

 

Reshape yourself through the power of your will; never let yourself be degraded by self-will. The will is the only friend of the Self; and the will is the only enemy of the Self. (BG, 6:5

This is a place where it’s worth doing some language study. The above translation is from Easwaran, which I have used for most of these devotionals. But I think it’s important here to compare it to the Feuerstein translation:

He should raise the self by the Self; he should not let the self sink; for, [as] the self is indeed the friend of the Self, [so also] is the self indeed Self’s enemy. 

As I’ve said, I don’t know Sanskrit at all. My Hebrew is pretty thin, and my Greek is only slightly better. I rely on language experts and multiple translations to help me wrestle with ancient scriptures. The issue in this passage is the various creative ways atman is used.

Easwaran chooses to make this a distinction between the will and the Self. Feuerstein instead goes with “lower self” and “higher Self.” Either way, the notion is that the part of us that is truly divine and eternal, that aspect of our consciousness that retains a connection to the Lord of Life, is the real higher Self. But in our confusion, we often think of the part of us that decides and has agency as who we really are. This is the lower self, or as Easwaran interprets it, our will.

The reason I prefer the Feuerstein translation in this instance is that in the next few verses, Krishna is going to talk about meditation, and I think our Western way of thinking about the will, and willpower, and self-control, and achievement often poison our understanding of meditation. People will say, “I’m no good at meditation,” because they’ve been taught that it’s about controlling your thoughts. It’s a paradox present in so much spiritual growth, that we have to learn how to relax. People sit down to meditation with the idea that they are going to grit their teeth and really focus. Through effort and intense concentration they are going to still their thoughts.

It’s like trying to pick up a towel while you are standing on it.  

We will look more, eventually, at the different components of the self, this thing I think of as I. But for now, let’s rest with this truth: There is part of me that is pure consciousness (Self), and there is part of me that has agency and makes decisions (lower self, or will). The part of me that has agency can facilitate my knowing my Self, or it can obscure it. Deciding to decide in favor of my Self is one of the most important decisions I can make, and yet I often choose distraction. I procrastinate on enlightenment. Paul expresses something similar: “I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15, CEB).

My self can be an ally of my Self, or it can be an enemy. Do I have the courage to explore why?

Prayer:
Master of my Self, help me master my self.

Old White Guy Whitesplains Social Justice

Screenshot of David Brooks’ most recent NY Times column. Link here.

David Brooks has swallowed a big lie. Now he is propagating it:

“…a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed.”

Until now, I’ve largely seen the “social justice is a religion” trope from right-wing white evangelicals terrified of losing their political power. Their targets have usually been people like me: pastors who believe Jesus did indeed have much to say on matters of power and oppression. They have simply wanted to discredit folks like me as “not real Christians.” I’m used to this, and have largely let it go.

But David Brooks, who has a much larger platform and sophisticated audience, has now brought this trope into the mainstream. I know a lot of clergy-types and moderates who love Brooks, so I am addressing this primarily to you:

Brooks is giving voice to some of the discomfort you may feel. He’s also completely wrong about activism, and late to the party about symbolism.

Let me start with the obvious bullshit before I come back to the “social justice as religion” trope.

Academics, activists, and organizers ALWAYS point out that symbolic changes are not substantive. This is a truism. A tautology. It’s like saying frosting isn’t cake, or “beauty is only skin deep.” There has been no end of activist writing over how painting “Black Lives Matter” on a street doesn’t change policy, or that “greenwashing” and “rainbow flags” don’t solve anything. “Performative” allyship is primarily about “virtue signaling” (like “politically correct”, this phrase was a liberal self-critique before conservatives co-opted it). And historically-oppressed groups need “accomplices, not allies.” So in pointing out that symbolic changes are… well, symbolic… you are very, very late to the party, David Brooks.

Yet symbols are important, and often most important to the people who say that they *are not*. It is an old, old trick to pretend you don’t care that someone attacks a beloved symbol. Symbols and the rituals around them have power. If they didn’t, most religion would evaporate.

Which brings us back to “religion.”

As a scholar of religion, I need to point out that there are a lot of things that can be called “religion.” Sports, for example, have chants, hymns, rituals, codes of ethics, myths, and sacred texts.

But the rhetorical goal of calling this movement for social justice a “religion” is not to give it importance, but to discredit it. It’s to create a binary choice for people who do consider themselves religious (to support a “false” religion or their own) and for those who do not (to be “religious” or agnostic). It’s to rebuke white evangelicals, some of whom are just waking up to the fact that systemic oppression might be something God cares about, and a call for them to return to the individualistic, status-quo, white supremacist religion of their predecessors.

There is little institutional organization to this anarchic, diverse, grassroots movement we are seeing, so slapping the label “religion” on it is a way to both create a false expectation it can never live up to and to elevate Brooks’ own worldview, which is thoroughly white, male, respectable, and homogenous.

Brooks’ rhetoric also obscures and marginalizes the religious and theological critique of white power. This is especially harmful to womanist, black, and queer theologians and pastors who have been calling us religious folks to take this stuff more seriously for AGES.

There’s a lot more wrong with this article, like the fact that he accuses SJWs of being narrowly focused both on “symbolism” and “structures.” It comes off as argle-bargle from an old white dude. I think he’s anxious that his voice might have less power in the new world that is emerging. “A hit dog will holler,” as they say.

So as one white dude to another: grow up, David Brooks. Take several seats. Read a book. Listen before you opine on stuff you know little about. People have been talking about this stuff LONG before you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 30: Pleasures and Treasures

 
Screen Shot 2020-06-26 at 5.29.59 AM

Detail of a botched “restoration” of a painting of Mary by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. News story here.

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (BG, 5:22-24)  

Yesterday I pointed out that like the Sermon on the Mount, the above quote singles out the passions of anger and lust as particular traps. It also connects to Jesus’s words in another way:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them.  Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, CEB)

Earthly treasures have this in common: they end. We value them for a time because they bring pleasure to the senses, but when they end we feel sad, or angry, and we long for more.

My mind goes to news of the recent botched painting restoration in Spain. Of course we want things of beauty to be preserved, and we want great works of art to last so that they can be seen by future generations. But nothing lasts forever, and sometimes our efforts to preserve our pleasure actually lead to ruin. This particular amateur “restoration” left the Virgin Mary looking hideous and goofy.

Yes, the ruin of a beautiful work of art is sad and outrageous, but I can’t help laughing when I see these photographs. Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. Sometimes we try to “hold on” to an aesthetic experience of great art by possessing a painting, as if owning it will let us own the feeling of it. We put art in museums (to visit occasionally) or on our walls (where they become simply more furniture). Sometimes artists, like Banksy, try to draw our attention to the strange relationship between art, temporality, money, and ownership by destroying their own art.

rehearsal-800x354

Banksy released a video of the “rehearsal” of his prank. Excellent in-depth news here.

Our desire to possess, to keep, to hold on, all of this is attachment. We get angry because our attachment is threatened. We covet and lust because we want to own. We want to preserve this moment of pleasure or comfort and carry it into the next one, and the next, which is an impossible task.

Jesus says our real treasure is “in the heavens,” or the skies. Krishna says it is within ourselves. I think there is little difference between the two.

Prayer:
God of Time and Timelessness, of the Eternal and the Finite, help me to find my treasure in you,
in the sky, in myself.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 29: Anger and Lust

 
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Detail of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Heironymus Bosch, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (5:22-24)  

We’ll pause on this text for a couple of days, because there are some important parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Anger and lust also feature in some of the most memorable parts of Jesus’s dialogue. They are the first two sins in what I call his Commandments for the Heart:

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22, CEB)

“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28, CEB)

(You can read my commentary on these passages here and here.)

I think warnings against anger and lust feature in so many religious traditions because they are passionate feelings in which we lose ourselves and our perspective. They are some of our most primal emotions, and they can distort not only individuals and personal relationships, but also communities and policies.

I am quick to point out that there is both righteous anger and holy sexual desire. Anger can be a gift that alerts us to a healthy boundary being violated or to the presence of injustice. Sexual desire can bring more life into the world, both in terms of babies and in terms of pleasure and fruitful relationships.

But anger is more often a fragile ego’s response to being disrespected: someone cuts in line, or says something mean about me, or twists my words. Lust is likewise often a desire to possess, or an evaluative gaze that measures human bodies as objects of relative value: this one is an “8,” and that one is a “10.” This is why Jesus advises gouging out your eye or chopping off your hand to avoid it.

For primitive creatures, these emotions are about survival—this is why Krishna says “they arise in the body.” For humans in community, though, they are more about social status. We react so strongly because we feel our very survival is at stake, which is usually not true. They distract us from who we really are. We become attached to things that have no lasting value: getting revenge or satisfying our craving. 

We have even come to institutionalize these passions. We can look at the news and see white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism as anger (violence) and lust (greed) embodied in police brutality, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and environmental destruction. Many fragile egos, struggling like crabs in a bucket, create harmful systems in which people and the planet cannot thrive.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abundance, you fill our every need. Grant us the wisdom to know the things that make for lasting happiness.

An Inauspicious Anniversary

Nixon and Ehrlichman, from Wikimedia Commons

49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).

This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (citation).

This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.

Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.

Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.

We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.

Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.