Sober Thoughts and Sober Thinking

Once again I have used my hand dandy Webster’s to look up a word which in this case is the word “sober.”  Now everyone knows meaning number 1, not drunk.  What about the other meanings?  Here’s one: 3. “Straightforward: serious 4. Plain or subdued, ie sober attire for church. 5. Devoid of frivolity, exaggeration, or speculative imagination <gave a sober assessment of the problem> 6. self-controlled and sane:  reasonable.  I would like to add the idea of a “sobering experience.”  Or, Level heads and sober minds came to a well-reasoned conclusion.

If you are thinking this sounds strangely like something you might here in an A.A. meeting, you are quite correct!  You might indeed but don’t let the fact that I have attended such meetings for the past 16 plus years color your thinking.  Or maybe it should.

I look around me today, particularly which I am forced to consider things of a political nature, or worse, drive on one of our interstate highways.  All around me I see thousands of people who are in desperate need of a 12 step meeting and most are not even alcoholics!  Yes, I am suggesting that the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous need to be exclusive to alcoholics.  Indeed, to just such an end, Overeaters Anonymous uses the “Big Book” of A.A. and its 12 steps as the basis of their program, and it works!

Step 1 — My life is a mess /nuts and I seem to have lost control of my own little universe.

Step 2 — I have decided that since this all this stuff seems too much for any one person, I am going to pray to God for help.

Step 3 – Having identified those things over which I seem to have no control, I’m calling in help, additionally, I am letting go of any idea that I either can figure it all out by myself or that I can do it alone, I CAN’T!  So I’m passing some stuff off to God.

4.  All these resentments I have a wearing me out.  I am going to figure out why I have them and how to get rid of them, permanently.

5.  I can’t do step 4 alone so I am going to enlist a trusted friend to hear my problems and assist me in removing them.

6.  I need to make a list of my short comings, and a plan to rid myself of them.

7.  Well, once again I cannot do the previous step alone so I enlist assistance.

8.  Time to consider all those people I have wrong over the years, institutions too.  And yet again I enlist the trusted advisor to objectively look at my list and edit it.

9.  I make amends!

10.  I have decided that what I have gained thus far is considerable so at this point I will take a daily personal inventory to insure my commitment to continually doing the next right thing.

11.  I have found a little prayer and a lot of thought and mediation keep me in touch both with myself and that which I see as a higher power.

12.  Now I get to show the rest of the world, through my actions, that I have improved myself but I must insure the message is honest and available to them if the desire it.

See there, no mention of alcohol and yet makes all the same points at AA’s 12 steps.  That definition I put all the way back at the top comes back into play here, as does the title.  People who have discovered the advantages of a spiritual life manage sober thoughts and sober thinking without much effort.  They have practiced it for so long that it has become second nature to them.

I think 90% of all American adults, if not more, could benefit from using the 12 Steps of AA.  A strange things to people who practice them religiously, they change.  And that change is both dramatic and wonderful.  They grow up, become responsible, are reliable, good husbands, wives, and children as well as employees.  They understand implicitly that denial is the first step towards failure.

Right now I would love to give the entire American Congress a 12 step program but I fear that cannot be as totally honest such a program requires.

You do not have to be an alcoholic to go to an AA meeting.  I guarantee if you do go, you will absolutely get something out of it.  Consider this:  there is absolutely no down side to never taking another drink; and there is no up side to taking a drink.


On Easter Sunday, I Give You the Real Jesus

Today is Easter Sunday which for Christians is the most holy day of the year.  But have you ever asked yourself what the word Easter means?  There is no apparent connection to Christian belief.  I had no clue either until a few moments ago when I looked it up in my handy dandy Webster’s.  It says: “word history:  The word Easter . . . had its origins in pagan times.  Eastre or Eostre the Old Germanic English spelling of Easter, was originally the name of a Germanic goddess who was worshiped at a festival at the spring equinox.  Her name is closely related to Latin aurora and Greek eos, both of which mean “dawn.”  Easter is also derived from the same root word as east, the direction of the sunrise.  The Easter Bunny is another story entirely and for another time.

Theologian scholars have provided us with a plethora of information of where modern Christianity formed its holy days.  Christmas is a fabulous example of this as those same scholars seem to universally agree that Jesus was born in the spring and not when we celebrate his birth.  Early Christians, the early Roman Church in particular, were wont to end what they saw as pagan practices, in this case the pagan holiday of Saturnalia.  I make mention of these two well-accepted facts as evidence the early Christian church was extremely interested in co-opting paganism, and thereby killing it off, than historical accuracy.

Conservative Christians of today have the unnerving tendency to use the Bible as their sole source for information about the ancients.  But the truth is, there exists far more than those texts.  For example, there are the Dead Sea Scrolls which refer to daily life and customs at the time of Jesus.  Even though they were discovered in 1946, a complete and accurate description and final translation of them in far from finished.  Still, they provide us with a very different view from that of the New Testament.

And this brings me to the time of Jesus.  Was Jesus the son of God, something He never actually says himself but infers heavily, an angel of God, which would be very much in keeping with ancient Hebrew beliefs, or simply a great prophet?  Maybe He was all three.  But what we know of Jesus seems to fall far short of what we would like to know.  For example, he is born, secreted to Egypt for fear of his life, disappears entirely for 12 years at which time he shows up at a Temple and declared a rabbi.  Then he disappears again entirely for another 18 years for which we know nothing.  And even those final three years of his life the “facts” given are quite thin and many beg for clarification.

As a degreed historian, I can say with authority that such books as the Gospels are to be placed in the category of folk lore.  And this is not to say that folk lore in either unreliable or untrue, but as folk lore exists, it must be, in this case, assigned to stories of faith.  The veracity of such stories must be questioned.  But as with anything of the sort, there is likely truth to them as well.

Many books have been written about the “Historical Jesus.”  I have seen a few and as books go they vary in veracity.  That is, the ability of the author to keep his personal views and his prejudices apart from his writings is not always complete.  Even so, they are attempts to find the real face of Jesus.  In this respect I will add my own perspective which I can guarantee you are entirely prejudiced by my own views and are only my own view of this great and historic man.

One final thing; we also know for certain that the Gospels of the New Testament date back, at best, to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  They are also written in Greek, not the native tongue of Jesus which was Aramaic.  This means, just on the face of it, that a translation was made from one language to the other. And regardless of whether it was translated from one written language to the other or, worse, one verbal retelling to the other,  translations from disparate languages speak to the astuteness of the translator to understand what he is translating.  Historically, societies kept people who were customs keeper, story tellers, to insure a record of their being and beliefs was passed forward.  Such existed even to the early parts of the American experience in the 17th and 18th century.  The most valuable, and recognized as likely to be correct, is the first hand eye witness account of events.  But these stories were usually, and at best, second hand.  With regard to the life of Jesus, those original stories are second hand at best.  But people of faith with tell you, rightfully so, that his was a mission of faith and thus the stories of his life must be viewed in the same light.

I find it curious in the presentation of the Gospels the claim that Jesus said he had not come to change the law, the ancient Mosaic Law is what he was referring to.  But soon after when He is questioned as to the “eye for an eye” taken of the Old Testament, he responds with “turn the other cheek.”  It seems to me that is a direct contradiction and changing of the law.  I think the New Testament is replete with inconsistencies in logic, sometime from one verse to the next.  There exist too many mixed messages and incomplete thoughts.  Did Jesus actually expand upon such thoughts at much greater length?  I think it reasonable to say that He most certainly did, and probably many times over.  But such lengthy, and probably more enlightening thoughts, are lost to the ages because they were not transcribed as they were being pronounced.

Jesus was by all accounts a radical of His day.  He struck fear into the established religious leaders of the day.  Why?  He was, contrary to what the Gospels claim, turning old Jewish law on its head and providing His followers with a completely new way of looking at things.  He advocated peace.   He was the first historical figure to suggest the separation of church and state when he said to give to Rome which is Rome’s and to God which is God’s.  He advocated for the poor suggesting in his story of the good Samaritan, that those of means give half of what they own to the poor.  He very pointedly stated that man was by his very nature a sinner and that time best spent was that in bettering himself rather than pointing out the shortcomings of another.  And to that point, Jesus never once condemn anyone to hell, as modern evangelists like to do.  For that matter, he never mentioned the place which would have been in keeping with Jewish tradition which had, and still has, no heaver nor hell.

His actions suggest that He actively sought to modify ancient traditions.  Baptism, as He underwent with John, was nothing new.  It was the symbolic cleansing of the spirit.  It also was not done with children but with adults who were ready to admit their sins and ask to be cleansed.  But if Jesus were God it is impossible that He had sinned so why do it?  Quite simply because he understood extremely well the role of the leader.  He knew that charisma, which He had in spades, was the manna which fed the souls of those who chose to follow His teachings.  I think it entirely possible that Jesus was proposing the ideal of spiritual health over religious dogma.  He did, after all, seek out the dregs of his society and only asked of them that he believe in His teachings.  Not once is he heard to say that a man must attend the temple and must contribute monies to keep His church healthy.  Why do you suppose that was?  Is it possible He believed a church was truly inside a man and not within four walls?

In the time of Jesus, and for most of the centuries which have followed, women were second class citizens relegated to the rear of the temple and denied any say what-so-ever in its conduct.  Unfortunately too much of that exists today.  And so enters the most misunderstood character of the New Testament, Mary Magdalen.  The early Christian Church had absolutely no idea of how to handle her existence in the presence of their messiah but she was mentioned in the Bible so they also could not ignore her.  Certainly, they thought, Jesus looked upon this woman as they did, a woman of low moral character who only came to beg for forgiveness and her penance was to wash His feet with her hair.  The problem with such a telling is that it bears no relationship to the truth.  That truth is theologians have never found a woman of that name or conduct.  But they have found a similar woman, or possibly several women, who can account for that personage.  Likely Mary was a woman of means who had been moved by Jesus’ ministry.  Maybe she was a woman from Samaria, people seen as only slightly better than the brutal Romans and equally hated.  But for her to seek audience with a rabbi, a man of such stature and position was unthinkable at that time and for many centuries to follow.  But Jesus, being who He was, denied no one for any reason.  And I suggest, and I think it likely, she, along with several other women, became one of His Apostles.  Remember, at the end of His crucifixion it was only the women who saw to His removal from the cross, transportation, preparation, and final burial in the tomb.  No man, certainly no apostle, was anywhere to be found.  You ask, if they were truly Apostles why not mention it?  Simple, it was an “inconvenient truth.”

A rather famous atheist, Dr. Isaac Azimov, most well-known for his science fiction writings, but also a professor of bio-chemistry at Boston University, made an interesting observation about the writing of the New Testament.  He noted that the Aramaic language in the day of Jesus had around 5000 words.  Today’s English language, in contrast, has over one million.  He observes that the Aramaic word for virgin is identical for the word for young girl.  Does this suggest the early Christian Church’s aversion to the discussion of sex?  I think it extremely likely.  How would the historical figure of Mary as something other than a virgin square with the telling of the birth of Jesus?  It would have necessarily meant that Mary had engaged in sex with Joseph.  I think it likely the church desired nothing less than something which could be passed off as miraculous.  And a virgin birth suited their interest.  They also do not mention Mary’s age, which could have been as young as 12 and Joseph as a man who could have been well into his 50s.  Not unusual in those days.

But back to Jesus.  To the established high ranking Jews of the day, Jesus appeared a threat to their power.  We know for fact that Rome had absolutely no interest in the crucifixion of Jesus, to the contrary.  The ministry of Jesus had suggested radical changes to long standing beliefs of the Jews but never once challenged the power of Rome.  And the ultra-conservative Jews of the day simply could not stand for that.  I am suggesting that this ancient Jesus was in fact seen as some sort of liberal reformist who was bringing needed change to old conservatism, a conservatism which was contrary to the best interest of the Jewish masses.  But that would have meant the illuminati of the Jewish religion would have had to accept changes.  That is something to this day conservatives find difficult if not impossible.

When Jesus died his Apostles and other disciples were at a loss for what to call themselves and they saw themselves, justifiably or not, as out-casts of accepted Jewish society.  For a long time afterwards they simply referred to their religion as “the way.”  The idea of calling themselves Christians had not yet formulated.  Those early follower quickly moved away from Israel, a place they knew they would be persona non grata, first to Turkey and then to Greece and finally Rome.  But it is also likely that these early leaders of the church were illiterate.  The only formal education of the day existed strictly for the rich and those who devoted themselves to become Rabbis.  Scribes were probably the only exception that, they being drafted into such a career by the ruling class.  The Apostles could neither read nor write but such was not a part of their mission.  None had come from background of what we might see as middle class.  All are shown as being from the most humble of means.  And a few, like Peter, were shown to be fairly rough and tumble.  It is my belief that scribes were at some point enlisted to write down what had been witnessed by the Apostles, and others, as custom dictated.  But the scribed did not write the New Testament!

When eventually these people arrived in Greece, a truly enlightened and literate society, those Greeks who embraced this earliest form of Christianity, ensured the survival of the faith buy putting it into print.  But whoever they were had to immediately been confronted with the problem of the translation from Aramaic to Greek, which is where we derive our present day texts.  If in history there ever was a more meaningful time for the expression “lost in translation,” this was it!  It stands to reason that certain words either translated poorly or not at all from the original Aramaic to Greek.  I can almost hear the conversation of the person from Israel trying to explain the concept, the word, he is expressing to his Greek counterpart, and finally the two agreeing upon a word the more or less expresses the thought.  There is no way to know how much of that happened but it is a certainty that it did.  And furthermore, what if one Gospel, say that of Matthew, had very differing views of events from that of Luke or John?  How would they deal with that.  Could it be that they simple chose the one which showed Jesus in the most favorable light?  Or could it be that they allowed their own prejudices in and chose the one which most suited them.  We will never know but it can help explain how four men who supposedly witness the life of Jesus gave differing versions.  If I were a man on that day and was sitting down to lunch with Jesus, at some point I would certainly ask what he did before he started his ministry.  Such a story would be immensely fascinating.  Was such a story told but the early authors could not see the value of including such references?

But does this also explain the large gaps which exist from one Gospel to the next.  This birth of Jesus is related at length in only one, so why not the others?  Were they simply edited out?  Did one story contradict the other leaving the Greek and Aramaic writers left to choose one telling of the other?  The same thing happens at the death of Jesus.  Also, were there records of Jesus’ ministry that were viewed as uncomplimentary which were left out for that reason?  Remember, Jesus did have a fit of violence when he threw the money men from the temple. Which bring about the question as to why that is the only story from his birth to age 30? Also, did Jesus’ retreat to the desert for reflection really last for 40 days or was that a number of convenience because it squared with other 40 days incidents of the Old Testament, Noah in particular.  And remember, the time from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is also 40 days.  Forty was a magical number in those days as was the number 13, the 13 generations of the house of David being one.

Modern day Christian fundamentalists have co-opted Jesus to their own selfish beliefs.  They love literal translations and have little problems chastising anyone who suggests anything different.  Today’s compelling argument for them is their anti-gay theme comes from Jesus saying that a man should not sleep with another man.  They have not considered the fact that it was common practice in those days for men who led caravans to take along with them young boys with whom they would have sex and feel they have not violated their marriage vows.  Could this have been what Jesus was speaking of and that He, being God and being fully aware of the gay people of his day, had been referring to pedophilia and not homosexuality?  I think that to be much more likely.

I absolutely believe that Jesus would have a lot of problems with those who use their religious beliefs in the conduct of their political desires, ergo his give unto Rome that which is Rome’s admonition.  I suspect the writers of our Constitution felt the same.  I also believe that Jesus would have serious problems with the top 1% of wealthy today.  He might refer such people to his saying what profit a man who gains a kingdom and loses his soul.  He might ask them if they believe that what they practice is what He taught.  And while I am certain he understood that wealth had its place, he repeatedly spoke of being generous with such wealth.  He spoke of casting the first stone, turning the other cheek, treating others as you would want to be treated, judging as you would want to be judged, and absolute kindness and understanding.

If I were a part of the conservative right in this country, I would fear His saying to me, “you have already received your reward and now you will be judge harshly just as you did the least of my brethren.”

Making Amends to the Universe

It is a funny thing about words you do not use in most conversations: you think you know the definition and then upon looking the word up in the dictionary you find something quite different.  I used to think that the act of making amends with someone meant apologizing.  Of course I was wrong.  Just this morning I looked the word up in my handy dandy Webster’s and this is what I found: “Amends – Reparation for insult, injury or loss.”  Did not see the phrase “to apologize” anywhere there although one can imply it from the word “reparation.”  I of course immediately looked up the word “reparation” and found this:  “Reparation – 1. The act or process of repairing or the state of being repaired.  2. The act or process of making amends: EXPIATION. 3. Something done or paid as amends: COMPENSATION.”  Since “expiation” is not in my vocabulary I had to look that one up too.  At this point I was hopeful I would not see yet another word which needed clarification.  “Expiation – 2. Means of atonement.”  I did not include definition “1” because it said “the act of expiating.”  Is that not obvious?  Regardless, the dictionary made no direct mention of the act of apologizing.  Quite to the contrary, it seems like that definition was actively avoided.

I was made aware of this process by a group of friends almost 20 years ago.  Of course my first impression was that I needed to apologize for my bad acts and be done with it.  Upon reflection, however, it seems people deserving of an apology may have difficulty in believing the maker of such, me, because recent history makes them believe that I will repeat my bad act yet again.  And I now know, they were probably correct.

But what does all this have to do with the universe?  It is actually rather simple but speaks to my religious upbringing, Roman Catholicism.  The Catholic Church that I grew up in had me constantly looking over my shoulder.  It seemed to me, via their teaching, that each day I would commit a multitude of sins that I needed to apologize for and hope that God would be forgiving.  Catholic priests in those days, much like their conservative Protestant brethren preach a whole lot of fire and brimstone.  They contended if I were not on the right side of God, which was more likely than not, I would one day be condemned to hell.  And so Catholics, at least, love to apologize for everything even though they have somewhere been little and no comprehension of their transgression and what makes it such.  For example, the nuns assured us it was a sin not to go to church on Sunday and holy days and that we needed to confess that sin to the priest.  I always wanted to say, “you mean God is pissed off at me just because I missed mass one Sunday?”  I feel certain had I gotten up the courage to ask such a question, the answer would have been a very hearty “yes.”  It just did not make any sense to me, still doesn’t.

I bring that up because as I entered adulthood and for many years afterward, I was crippled with Catholic guilt and no understanding of how to assuage it.  The nuns would have said, “just don’t do it anymore.”  No explanation, just don’t do it.  Such insufficiencies dogged me for half of my adult life.

One of the first things I learned in dealing with my transgressions and the art of making amends, yes, it is an art, was coming to an understanding of the exact process leading up to that transgression.  This was something I had never before considered, mostly because it never occurred to me but also because it had never before been suggested.  And so here is where the universe, and I mean that literally, comes into play.

Long before life came to exist on the face of the earth, at the moment of the “Big Bang” actually, the laws of the universe were set into motion.  Each and every one of those laws are absolutes, not to be broken, not to be denied, and certainly not to be contested, least of all by we humans.  The universe was set into that motion at that moment and had be moving, inexorably, in a particular direction ever since.  Scientists today are at odds with, and discuss at considerably length, what direction that motion is moving, but they agree that there is a single set of laws controlling that direction.  We humans do not understand that law yet, if ever.

Since humans have roamed the earth they have tried, many times in vain, to understand what was happening to them and why.  The ancients, in their desperate attempt, created gods who reigned over just about everything, the rising of the sun, the motion of the moon, the oceans, the rain, everything.  But in that process, they also started making excuses for negative things which happened to them by laying it off to one of their gods or to other people.  The idea of taking responsibility for your own actions seemed at odds with the teaching of the day.  Unfortunately, such teaching, though modified, have mostly passed down through the ages and exist today.  People today try to figure out why something has gone horribly wrong in their life and look outward for the answer, other people, bad luck, anything that does not require them to look inside themselves.  There are also those situations which creep into everyone’s life where the literal forces of the universe negatively impact their life.  It gets really bad when a person starts thinking it is only raining on them when common sense should win out telling them that the universe is not plotting against them, it is actually raining on everyone around them as well.

The reason for mentioning all these things in the context of amends is that humans seem ill prepared to put things in proper perspective.  We humans have this tendency to be in a reactive mode rather than a much more productive proactive mode.  I like to use the example of a 25 year old who dies from cancer.  People love to say “how unfair” it is.  The problem with the word “unfair” is that it implies some sort of reasoning behind it.  It is as if the cancer looked at that 25 year old and decided to pick on him or her.  Of course that is foolishness.  They do not think the same way when a life-long smoker gets lung cancer or emphysema, so why do so just because the cause is not evident?  They would be far better served by lay off blame, if blame really must be assigned, to the universe and its inexplicable and difficult to avoid actions.

One of the most common places to see otherwise good people behaving badly is our nation’s roads and highways.  There is so much aggressive driving, so much inconsiderate driving, so much feeling of being “an exception to the rule” that driving for me personally is painful.  Just because I get up on the wrong side of the bed, or I am running late, or I do not like the type of car you are driving, it is not alright for me to take out my aggressions, my impatience, my distaste for your taste on you.  But when I do, I immediately need to take notice and make amends.  Now I am not going to then stop you just so I can apologize for my bad actions if for no other reason that it is unreasonable.  But more to the point, is it not what making amends to you means.  I this case what it means is I must find patience, I must not be aggressive.  In changing my ways I am making amends.  And in truth, that is the only way amends can be made.

Here is another example of how I used to be.  If at a checkout of a store the store employee gives me the wrong change and it is in my favor I would not notify them of the fact, even if or particularly if, it were a very small amount.  In doing so I was teaching myself to be dishonest which of course translated to much larger things.  They say the devil is in the details and this particular detail speaks to my honesty or lack of it.  That meant for acts of this sort the amend to be made was to make honesty an absolute.  I changed my way of going through life.

I really and truly dislike cold weather of any sort and this particular winter has been quite rough and doubled by an overabundance of snow.  Many was the morning that I felt myself becoming cranky because of one or both such things coming into play.  In the more distant past, my tact was to take out my crankiness on anyone who had the temerity to cross my path.  They did not deserve it but I did it anyway.  The amend here was simply to acknowledge that I am feeling cranky by I simply needed to work to keep that to myself and visit that crankiness on no one.

Today I look upon amends the same way I look at chocolate.  Well, pretty much anyway.  I invite amends because I have come to realize that it allows me to grow and be at peace with the universe.  Life is constantly throwing me curves but I have become rather good at hitting them out of the park.  But on those occasion that I cannot hit that curve out of the park for a home run, I can do nothing and be absolutely all right.  Amending me has brought so much peace to my life it is something I implore everyone to do.