Tuesday, September 25, 2007

no homos in iran

I watch CNN every morning for ten or fifteen minutes while I'm flossing my teeth and putting my contacts in. I don't really need the news (I read the New York Times over coffee for that) but I want to make sure there isn't any terrible breaking news I should know about. Memories of waking up September 11, 2001 still haunt me.

So yesterday I tuned in just as Lee Bolinger was wrapping up his introduction to Mahmoud Ahmadinajad and then I stayed on, transfixed to listen to the whole speech.

I had to hand it to the guy. While finding the man repugnant I also saw how he would be perceived as a hero by many less powerful nations as he skillfully used United States hypocrisy to turn every criticism against his government against ours. The United States, particularly in the last few years, has much to answer for, and our ability to evoke the moral highground has been greatly diminished on many issues because of our own muddy record.

And then on the gay persecution issue (and I was hoping somebody would ask), Ahmadinejad fell flat on his face and was rightly mocked. After a full hour of ducking and parrying on questions like Israel and nuclear weapons, he finally responded to a question with a direct answer and blatantly displayed his prejudice and ignorance. His completely ludicrous answer that Iran has no homosexuals (then who have you been hanging on sodomy charges?) belied the rest of his speech and exposed him for what he is, a crank and a moron, not a diplomat but the political equivalent of the third grader who can only respond to criticism with, "I know you are but what am I?"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I am/am not a minister

I just got back from a cruise where I met hundreds of new people. Everyone asks where you're from and what do you do. It's polite conversation. I would answer "Los Angeles" and "a minister," which was always good for a conversation starter. "Really?" people would invariably wonder. I don't look or act like most people's image of a minister (particularly while on vacation), nor would most people think to find clergy taking their holiday with their same sex partner on a cruise with 1800 gay men.

Being a minister is both my job and also, because of ordination who I am. I would still be a minister even if I left the church and took a job at starbucks or the post office. But I've noticed in the course of my ministry and particularly as I have moved from one church to a second that I'm emphasizing now more the aspect of ministry that is something I do rather than who I am. I think this is a healthy shift. It's partly possible because I serve a very well-functioning church that doesn't require a lot of pushing and dragging from me to move toward our goals. And it's also a personal sense that I want to honor the other roles in my life equally with my ministry: my roles as husband, artist, writer, activist, athlete, and so on.

Ministry provides a temptation and a danger to ministers to over-identify with the role. It feeds the ego and returns a great sense of belonging and value. But it also leads to a lack of separation between the church and minister. The minister suffers from over work and neglect of personal life. And the church suffers from a minister who doesn't give them space to do the ministry they could do for themselves, and who doesn't model healthy self care or return to them the benefits of a balanced life.

the 10,000 steps

For the last 24 years I've been part of a medical study doing AIDS research. I go in to a doctor's office twice a year where I submit to a full physical; neurological, muscle strength and mental acuity tests; and extensive interviews about my health, drug use (perscription and recreational) and sex practices. I had my latest appointment yesterday.

To continue in a study that many years takes a lot of commitment so the researchers are always very grateful and usually they try to give us participants a little thank you gift for coming in. Usually it's a pen or a note pad. This last visit they gave me a pedometer that clips to my belt and supposedly counts how my steps.

i understand that you're supposed to shoot for 10,000 steps a day. Yesterday I logged only about 1200 steps on a day when I spent all afternoon sitting on a couch at a coffee shop writing a sermon. So far today I'm already up to 1800 steps and that includes taking my dogs for a walk. I can see where someone could get obsessive about this. On the other hand I don't know how accurate a free pedometer really is, or even whether 10,000 steps is really the appropriate measure.

art vs. artists

On the same page of this morning's New York Times article about the future of the Barnes collection there was a second article about the resolution of a court case involving the Massahusetts Museum of Modern Art and an swiss artist named Christopher Buchel. The museum had arranged with the artist to create a extensive walk-through artistic environment in a warehouse owned by the museum. The project quickly turned sour with the artist complaining of insufficient support, and the museum complaining of the artist's prima donna demands. The budget doubled and finally the project fell through with the artist walking off and the project incomplete.

The museum, which owns the unfinished work, wanted to recoup some of their investment by showing it. The artist sued to stop them saying that it was unethical to show his work in a manner different than he had intended. The court ruled that as long as the museum clearly labels that the work is incomplete no damage is done to the artist.

This case has parallels to the story of the Barnes foundation appearing on the same newspaper page. Mr. Barnes used the works of Renoir and Cezanne and others in his collection to make artistic statements of his own that had nothing to do with the original intentions of the artists. In essence Barnes created his own environmental art piece and then demanded that his vision never be altered. But he did so by appropriating the creations, and perverting the intent of dozens of other artists. This was unfair and I'm glad that Barnes' iron hand is now being pried open.

Once art is created it belongs to the world. The owners become stewards for protecting the art and sharing it with the public. This is what Mass MOCA is doing with its unfinished Christopher Buchel work. Buchel's wish that the art not be seen is not an inherent part of his creation and need not be honored. Meanwhile the art that Barnes' eccentricity has kept hidden from the public, will now fulfill the original creator's intentions and be seen.

tyranny of the past

I've been thinking lately (and writing a sermon for tomorrow) about what place, if any, the past ought to play in our living out of the present moment.

In this morning's New York Times, there was an article about the design of the building being built to house the Barnes collection in Philadelphia once it finally moves from the suburb where it's been housed to its new location downtown. The Barnes is an extraordinary collection of art that few people have been able to see. Barnes had unique, or rather eccentric ideas about art and displayed his collection in a very specific fashion, and then left instructions in his will that the art should never be shown in any other way. Thus the art has for decades been locked into the particular house where it was originally displayed, and with constraints of the location and accomodations to the neighbors the art has been so difficult to see that the foundation has gone nearly bankrupt. A court order a few years ago, in defiance of Barnes' will, allowed the foundation to move to a better location, although there will still be attempts to honor Barnes wishes in how the works are displayed.

This is an example of how legacies from the past can work against present, full experience of life, instead of supporting it. The wishes of a dead man have been a burden on the foundation and limited access to the enjoyment of art by generations. The New York Times article, by the way, bemoans the loss of the unique experience of visiting the Barnes Foundation in its original setting. This seems a small price in order to gain greater access to a collection that now should be regarded as belonging to the present, not hostage to the past.

Friday, September 21, 2007

that's disgusting

A website called yourmorals.org offers an online quiz that examines the justifications that a person uses when making a moral decision. The quiz is part of the work that a group of researchers are doing at the University of Virginia. The researchers propose that our moral decisions are grounded in five different areas that were developed over the centuries as human beings evolved and adapted to various circumstances. Two of the five areas are bound to the present, that is in order to make a decision about right and wrong in these two areas the only thing we have to look at is the present moment. The first area is whether someone is being hurt, or cared for. And the second area is whether someone is being treated fairly and equally. The last three areas all require examination of the past in order to decide whether an action is right or wrong. The third considers loyalty to the group – like following tradition. The fourth considers authority, like having respect for elders and ancestors, and the fifth considers categories of purity and sanctity, which are defined by cultural norms grounded in the long ago past.

Not surprisingly people who identify as politically liberal tend to give more weight to the first two categories and less to the final three, while conservatives tend in the opposite direction. That is, liberals tend to make their moral decisions based on whether someone is being hurt or cared for, and whether people are being treated fairly and equally. While conservatives generate their sense of right and wrong by consulting tradition, authority figures, and by assigning categories on an almost instinctual basis of whether something is sacred or profane, pure or disgusting.

See how that distinction plays out with your favorite issue of the culture wars. I'm for same sex marriage because people are being hurt and it's only fair. Or I'm against same sex marriage because marriage has traditionally been only for opposite sex couples, and I'm listening to the teachings of the leaders of my church, and because, frankly, gay sex is disgusting.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

hagia sophia

After Ephesus we sailed up the coast of Asia Minor, (through the Dardanelles and into the Bosphorus) to Istanbul, formerly Constantinople. Our tour guide for the day told us that Istanbul is simply a mispronunciation of Constantinople and not actually a name change. Before Constantine made the city the head of the Eastern Roman Empire it had been called Byzantium as every fan of Tom Lehrer knows.

The city has been integral to many empires because geographically it spans the narrow water divide between the continents of Europe and Asia. We stayed our whole day on the Europe side of the city and toured the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi palace, and ended the day in the Grand Bazaar.

The Hagia Sophia was built in the sixth century at the order of Emperor Justinian, replacing earlier churches on the spot built by Theodosius and Constantine (on the same spot as an earlier pagan temple). It served as the seat of the Constantinople Patriarch and after the schism was the center of the Orthodox half of Christianity. In the 15th century Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman empire and the church was converted to Muslim worship as a mosque.

Today it is neither Mosque nor church but a museum and it's filled with tourists not worshippers. The beautiful decorations (both Christian and Muslim) are visible, as well as the awe-inspiring (though precarious) architecture. The dome is too heavy for the supports and several pillars can be seen obviously leaning outward.

Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom, by the way. Although that's a traditional title for Jesus, I think the idea of a temple dedicated to wisdom itself is an excellent idea.

whores and books

In Ephesus one of the favorite stories of the tour guides (comparing notes with friends who were on different tours we all heard this one) concerns the best preserved architeture in the ruins, the town library. The two story facade is still intact and you can walk into the library room behind and read inscriptions on the wall. Here's a great website with a 360 degree photo. As we stood in the square in front of the library the tour guide pointed out that the town brothel had stood on the opposite side of the square partly up the hill - Ephesus was a port town after all. And the tour guide also told us that the archaeologists had discovered a tunnel in the floor of the library that led under the square and emerged in the brothel.

Her assumption was that townsmen would tell their wives they were going to the library, disappear inside and then spend the afternoon at the brothel, and then come back through the tunnel to come out from the library.

That's probably the accurate story but it occured to me that tunnels run both ways. Perhaps it was the whores in the brothel who made use of the tunnel to spend an afternoon reading. Or perhaps a young gay man (this was ancient Greece after all) could walk into the brothel to prove his heterosexuality to his friends and then sneak over to the library to spend a more agreeable hour.

It's all a hoax

Three stories about hoaxes: two from today's New York Times, a third from the September 17 issue of the New Yorker.

The front page of the New York Times carries a story that a photographer named Joe O'Donnell, known as "The Presidential Photographer" took credit for many famous photographs actually snapped by other people. The truth has emerged following his death on August 9 at the age of 85.

Inside the paper there's a story about the release of a CD (not yet released in the US) that claims to be rap recordings made in 1988 and recently discovered in a storage locker in New Jersey. Although the hoax seems obvious the producer, Fab Five Freddy is sticking to the cover story.

And in The New Yorker there's an excellent article by Mark Singer called "Fantasia for Piano" about the British pianist Joyce Hatto who died a few years ago after releasing with her husband late in her life a remarkable series of piano recordings and making a sensation in the classical music world with her musicality, and particularly the breadth of her repetoire. The recordings, it was eventually discovered, were not by her but were stolen from dozens of other pianists.

In the case of the photographer his family is blaming simply the faulty memory of an old man. In the case of Joyce Hatto it seems to be a sense on Miss Hatto's part of vicariously claiming a fame and musical reputation that had been unfarily denied her in her actual career, combined with a doting husband with a knack for recording technology and story-telling. In the case of the rap CD, the hoax has a more interesting basis: respect for a lost golden age of a musical style which has now lost its purity and the attempt not merely to cash in on that nostalgia, but actually to recreate it.

St. Paul in Ephesus

From Athens the cruise sailed to Mykonos, where I visited the island of Delos and saw the supposed birthplace of the God Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Then we sailed to Rhodes, and then up the coast of Turkey stopping at a city called Kusadasi.

Kusadasi is a small resort town. The reason to go there is that the ancient city of Ephesus is only about a 30 minute bus ride away. Ephesus used to be a port town, but it was built at the mouths of two rivers and over the centuries the port filled up with silt. The town was moved several times to put it closer to the water, but never too far because Ephesus was also the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Eventually, though, the area converted to Christianity and the temple became less important so the twon moved to the present location of Kusadasi. The temple to Artemis, by the way, was destroyed although two of the pillars were transfered to Constantinople where they were incorporated into the building of the Hagia Sophia.

I took the Ephesus tour organized by the cruise. The ruins are pretty cool. In the Book of Acts (Chapters 19 and 20) were told of Paul's three years based in Ephesus. We saw the site of the synagogue where he preached, and the large amptheater which is still used for concerts, where a large public meeting was held concerning Paul's efforts to convert the people. A silversmith named Demetrius complained that Paul's preaching was ruining his business in making silver images of the goddess Artemis.

St. Paul in Athens

After our week in Tel Aviv Peleg and I flew to Athens and then began a cruise that took us to several Greek Isles, two cities in Turkey, then the city of Split in Croatia and ending in Venice.

In Athens we had arranged to be met by a taxi driver who would take us into town, spend the day with us touring the city, and then drop us at the Port in the mid-afternoon to meet our ship. The driver was there, a very handsome guy named Dionysius. Dionysius is the Greek god of wine and religious ecstasy, but our driver was not named after the god but after Dionysius the Aeropagite, the Christian Patron Saint of Athens.

In the Book of Acts (17:16-34) Paul goes to Athens and preaches to the Greeks at a place called Aeropagus (Mars Hill). Dionysius was one of the people Paul convinced to convert to Christianity and he was installed as the Bishop of the city and later recognized as a saint. Aeropagus is on the same central hill as the Acropolis, just a little further down along the ridge, so I came to it actually by accident after our driver had taken us to see the Acropolis. There is nothing remaining now of Aeropagus, just a cleft of rock sticking out of the side of the hill. A sign points out that Paul was there, and where the theater that he spoke might have been. The view of Athens from their was terrific.

picture from yad vashem

here's a picture of me in front of the names of Waitstill and Martha Sharp on the memorial wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Waitstill was a Unitarian minister. He and Martha, on behalf on the Unitarian Service Committee (this was before the merger) went to Prague in the 1930's to help refugees trying to escape from the gathering Nazi threat. The flaming chalice symbol that Unitarian Universalists use in our worship service was originally a logo that the Sharps had designed to assist them in their work by making the paperwork they created look more official.

Here's a good link to read the fascinating story of the Unitarian couple and their good work. Boston Globe 2005 article. It was a proud moment for me to kneel by their names.

Friday, September 14, 2007

righteous unitarians

while in Israel last month Peleg and I took a day trip into Jerusalem and visited the Yad Vashem museum. I knew that two Unitarian names, Waitstill and Martha Sharp, had recently been added to the "Righteous Among the Nations" tribute and I wanted to see how they had been honored.

The museum is a memorial to the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It's a powerful, almost overwhelming experience. The impact of the horrible story is multiplied by the architecture of the museum itself: a long spike, triangle-shaped in cross-section, drilled through the crest of a hill. Walking along the spike the museum path crosses back and forth into seperate rooms, underground, called "chapters" which tell the story of the tragedy.

After walking through the museum I was more determined than ever to see the tribute to the Sharps. I needed to know among all that horror that at least some people had rejected the hate and violence and had tried to help their fellow human beings. I was directed to an information desk where they keep the list of the Righteous names. The woman at the desk asked me which country the people I was looking for were from and when I said the United States, she rolled her eyes. Almost all the names on the list are from European countries where more immediate practical help was possible. There are only three people from the US honored and the Sharps were only added recently, so the volunteer at the desk hadn't known about them. Neither was she able to tell me where their names would be on the memorial wall (earlier each name had been honored with a tree planted but they have since run out of room and names are now printed on a memorial wall). But she said the names were organized by country and if I could find the United States they would be there.

Peleg and I walked down the hill quite a distance from the main museum and found the memorial wall. It looked like a lot of names to scan but I was determined to find them. And then for some reason I walked directly to the spot and found the two names. Peleg took my picture.

It felt healing to see those two Unitarian names on the wall. I felt proud. 2 out of the 3 names form the United States are Unitarians. They saw a grave danger and did something to help. Something in our Unitarian faith calls us to action. I so respect what they did. I hope my unitarian faith can do honor to theirs.

goddess no longer

back in June I blogged about a Nepalese girl who was honored as a living incarnation of Kali.

kali girl

Unfortunately i have to update the story that she has now been stripped of her title. Or I guess that would mean the spirit of Kali has left her body. The girl, Sajani Shakya, had toured the US to promote a documentary film about the kumari tradition where pre-adolescent girls are revered as a living goddess. When they reach the age of puberty the spirit of the goddess is supposed to leave their body and a new girl is chosen. Unfortunately a folk tale attached to the tradition says that men who marry a former Kumari will die early so many former Kumari's never marry and face hard lives after their goddess childhood.

The news report I read, in The Christian Century, July 24, 2007, doesn't specify why the girl lost her status, although it seems to be related to the film tour. The article also says that Kumari's are incarnations of a Hindu goddess named Taleju, not Kali, although many of the Hindu pantheon are inter-related in complex ways.

More about the Kumari can be found at this Nepalese tourism website: visitnepal.com

a big 'ol piece of pi

Speaking of things that human beings know, an Australian teemager named Peter Thamm memorized over 10,000 decimal places of pi and then recited it in 44 minutes. He says he spent about 5 months in preparation.

I once heard that the first 37 decimal places of pi is enough for any possible practical purpose. With 37 places you can calculate the volume of the universe to the accuracy of a micron if you call that a practical purpose. I just made that up by the way because I couldn't find the actual fact on the web. Anyone can help.

Previously I included a link to a page on the web with a million decimals of pi. The web page now says that the guys server couldn't handle the traffic (doubtlessly from all the people who linked there from my blog). SO now the guy has just a little pi and then a link to a new fun thing to do on the web in your spare time. check it out.

pi on the web

something to pray for

this week's favorite website:

a website where people can leave prayer requests and people can pray for each other. I signed in and created a page and then I invited the members of my church's prayer and meditation group to sign up as well.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

church, beach

The day I visited the temple to Apollo on the island of Delos, Peleg went to the beach on Mykonos. This is actually a common arrangement for us as in Los Angeles I go to church on Sundays and Peleg goes to the beach whenever the weather permits.

I understand the appeal of the beach, although the one in Los Angeles is not particularly attractive to me, the water is too cold and the surf too rough. But I do reject the idea some folks tell me that their time in nature is "church" for them. Hiking in the woods, or sitting on the beach, are good ways to spend a day, and may even activate the spirit, but they aren't a substitute for the kind of experience that one can have in a worshipping religious community.

Church is not just about relaxation and inspiration. It's also about challenge, and instruction, and it's also in large part about other human beings. Solitary pursuits in nature provide a retreat from human community, which we all need from time to time, but religious comunitities provide the necessary opportunity to practice living in human community, which is also a necessary skill.

Actually, I didn't really go to church that day either. I spent the day walking around the ruins.

Apollo, my guy

After our stay in Tel Aviv, Peleg and I flew to Athens and then took a cruise stopping at several Greek isles, Turkey, and ending in Venice. At our stop on Mykonos I took a tour to the nieghboring island of Delos which was the center of ancient Greek worship of Apollo, and his supposed birthplace.

Apollo is the god of medicine, music and beauty, and also the god of the sun. But interestingly Apollo was not the chief god of the Greek pantheon, that was Zeus. Apollo is the son of Zeus. He and his twin sister, Artemis, are the children of Zeus' affair with the minor goddess Leto. In most cultures the sun is associated with the chief deity. In Greece the sun god is the son of the chief deity. Zeus is the god of the sky, and Apollo drives his chariot through the sky, thus the sky is more important that the sun which simply moves across it.

I'm not humanity

Reading Alan Weisman's The World Without Us, it's easy to get depressed about all the myriad ways that human beings have found to spoil our world. Not only contemporary human beings, although our negative impact is more varied and profound, but earlier human beings, too. Just about every where we've lived, the world has suffered from our presence.

But reading, perhaps just as a self-defense mechanism, I eventually came to the decision that I was not going to accept collective guilt for the actions of other human beings. The human race as a whole may be judged as a scourge, and as part of that race I'll accept the univeral judgement. But I'm also an individual and for my own sense of moral self-esteem, I need only judge my own actions: what I try to do to help to heal rather than hurt. And when I fail I can be held responsible for my own failings, but need not judge myself for the failings of others.

I think the question to ask is, "Would the world be better or worse off if everyone lived as I do?" I hesitate to give a resounding yes, simply because I'm a rich american I'm using a huge amount of the world's resources. But I wonder if anyone asking theselves that question would answer "No" We all think pretty highly of ourselves, and that may be part of the problem.

a different kind of shabbat elevator

I was thinking about that shbbat elevator again: the elevator that runs continuously during shabbat stopping on every floor so that observant Jews can ride it to whichever floor they need without having to press a button and break the commandment of working on the sabbath.

I'd actually enjoy a different kind of shabbat elevator. An elevator where whenever you step into it, it is always shabbat. Whatever day it happens to be outside, inside the elevator it's shabbat. If you need a break and a rest, a chance to lay aside work and contemplate a world created by God that doesn't depend on our human effort to support it, just call for the elevator, and for the length of your ride, enjoy a little sabbath holiday.

girl in an elevator

In Tel Aviv Peeg and I got into an elevator followed quickly by a girl dressed something like a cross between a cirque du soleil clown and a go go girl, dancing to music on her iPod. Peleg said, "It looks like you're having a good time." She said, "I am my own show."

I love that. We should all be our own show.

american megafauna

in Alan Weisman's new book The World Without Us, he tells the tale of the early inhabitants of North and South America (the so-called Clovis people) and their disasterous effect on the local animal population. The same story is told in Jared Diamond's, Guns Germs and Steel. When these first American humans arrived they found a hemisphere filled with an amazing variety of large animals, that Mr. Weisman calls "megafauna." And because these megafauna had evolved separately from human beings (unlike the megafauna in Africa), they had never developed defenses against us and the humans quickly killed them all.

At first reading that story makes one gasp. At it's sad to think of the diverse, fascinating creatures we'll never get to meet. But is it far to judge the Clovis people morally for the mass extinction? And is it fair to judge the human species as a whole, morally, for the extinction we're currently inflicting on the planet?

We can only hold people morally accountable for their actions if they are free to act other than they did. Although it seems as though human beings ought to be able to freely choose not to destroy the planet in the many ways we are, perhaps we're not really free to make those world-savings choices. Perhaps there's something in human nature that makes us incapable of making the choices we would need to make. If we're really not capable of making better choices the result is equally as tragic, but not morally culpable. Perhaps we have no more power to change our ways than a volcano can choose not to erupt, or a meteor choose not to strike the earth.

human beings as a force of nature

while on vacation I got a lot of reading done. The first book I finished was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. This is an amazing piece of non-fiction in which Mr. Weisman imagines what would happen in the world if all the human beings suddenly vanished. He tackles both global issues, as well as specific case studies of specific cities and sites around the world.

The book certainly has no good news to add about the impact of human beings on the rest of the world. Our impact and legacy on the rest of the planet is almost uniformly negative. About the only co-inhabitants of the world that would suffer without us are the lice and parasites that live on us, and the cockroaches and dogs that live with us. Cats on the other hand would be fine without us.

As I read the numerous instances of how we are changing the world, destroying species, and very likely ourselves in the process, I began to think of human beings as best regarded as simply one of many other forces of nature, like a meteorite that slams into the earth, or ice-ages or volcanos that have from time to time vastly remade the planet and shifted the direction of evolution in one direction or another. The moral dimension enters in our case because we have a choice (perhaps) not to destroy the world, but from the nuetral perspective of the planet it doesn't really matter what we do.

In his conclusion Mr. Weisman quotes Doug Erwin of the Smithsonian, "The only real prediction you can make is that life will go on. And that it will be interesting" (p. 232).

to cover or not to cover

At the Baha'i gardens in Haifa one of the friends we had driven up with was denied admission because he was wearing a sleeveless tee shirt. Later I noticed a woman with bare shoulders who was prevented from entering and then was given a shawl to wrap around her shoulders so she could come in. In Jewish temples and synagogues men have to cover their heads. Later in the trip we went to the Basillica of St. Anthony in Padova Italy and as I walked in the guard motioned for me to remove the baseball cap I was wearing. I can never remember from site to site whether I'm supposed to put my hat on or take it off.

I understand a request to show repect in holy sites. But is God really offended by the sight of human shoulders or the tops of our heads? Does God really care?

Baha'i gardens

the real reason to go to Haifa is to see the Baha'i gardens. These are an absolutely magnificent series of terraced gardens spilling down the side of a hill from the peak down toward the ocean. ABout a third of the way up the hill is a shrine to a Baha'i figure called the Bab, which means "the gateway." The Bab was a man who lived before the Baha'i founder and prophecized his coming. The Bab is buried in the shrine while Bahaullah is buried in a less spectacular site further north in Israel.

We parked our car at the bottom of the hill and went up to the gate. We were allowed in by a Brazillian Baha'i young man, but we could only walk a short way up the first terrace. In the heat everyone was relieved that we weren't allowed to walk any further up into the gardens.

Then we drove up to the top and started to walk down the hill, but again access was limited to only a small section of the gardens. We never got anywhere close to the shrine at the center. The guards explained that only organized tour groups could walk throughout the gardens. The gardens were too large for them to allow people to walk unsupervised. Sadly, I got the meaning: left alone people would likely vandalize the gardens, rip up the plants and pee in the bushes and so on. A shame. But the gardens were lovely to look at, if not walk among.

Elijah's cave

From Tel Aviv one day we took a day trip up to Haifa and stopped at a holy site purported to be Elijah's cave.

Elijah is one of the earliest Biblical prophets. His stories are contained in the book of Kings. SUpposedly he lived in this cave during his life. Elijah is the one who heard "the still small voice" of God, which I've always liked. Elijah is also the guy that Jews leave an empty chair for at the Passover seder dinner. Because Elijah didn't "die" in the Biblical account - he was taken up in a whirlwind, some Jews believe that he will return some day. A Christian story related to the same cave is that Jesus and his family hid out in the cave when they were fleeing Herod's massacre of the first born children.

In any case the cave was closed. We walked a short way up the hill and found an Arab family having lunch on the picnic tables in the shade. The mother of the family told us to come back on Monday when the healing powers of the cave were supposed to be strongest.

appropriate dress for a hot day in Israel

One afternoon in Tel Aviv a friend who lives in the city drove us into a section of the town home to many of the observant Jews. Our friend had grown up in the area. His family was not religious but the character of the nieghborhood had changed as they lived there.

The men all wore the exact same black suits and ties. The women wore long dresses and head coverings. The different sects were only distingushed by the style of black hats they wore. Despite the fact that Tel Aviv was experiencing a heat wave with high temperatures and humidity, the men dressed exatly the same as they did every other day of the year.

I admire the principle of faithfulness to God. But I know that God wants our happiness and wants our living to be a joy. At the point where faithfulness to God starts to result in a diminished, or impoverished life experience, then I think the best way to live a life pleasing to God is to lay aside the spiritual practice that causes suffering. God is not honored by miserable lives, even if the misery is earned in the name of holiness.

religious dress at the beach

One of our first nights in Tel Aviv, Peleg and I had dinner with two friends at a restaurant on the beach. One of the nice things about Tel Aviv is the number of restaurants and bars actually on the beach, some with plastic tables and chairs that go right down to the water's edge.

We had our dinner on a deck outside, over looking the water. after the sun went down we noticed several muslim families showing up to enjoy the beach. The weather was hot and extrememly humid, only slightly less so after the sun went down then during the day.

The Muslim women walked on the sand completely covered in black clothing. Their children played in the water. The men went swimming. The women stood in the sand watching their families enjoy themselves but unable to disrobe.

sabbath year

Every seven years the Torah instructs farmers that they should leave their fields fallow, in essence a sabbath for the land (Leiticus 25:3-4). When I was in Israel I read in the paper that the sabbath year was about to start with Rosh Hashanah, which begins tonight.

But instead of following the instruction many observant Jewish farmers were working to get around it. The rule says that the necessity of a sabbath year for the fields only applies to land owned by Jews. So Jewish farmers go through a process of ritually "selling" their land for the duration of the year to a non-Jew, through a special contract. As tennant farmers they then work the field just as they always do, and then at the end of the year, they buy it back (for a token price) from the non-Jew owner. The same kind of situation happens each year at Passover when observant Jews ritually sell all the Hametz in their homes to a non-Jew in case they missed anything during the ritual cleaning.

To their credit the news story that I saw pointed out that many Jewish leaders complained about the hypocrisy of this practice, even as other Jews followed it. The issue seems simple to me: which takes precedence, our human needs, or God's law as recorded in the Torah? Pretending to honor the Torah by following the strict letter, but violating the obvious principle seems to say that human needs take precedence. So if that's the case then why go through the fiction of pretending to follow the law?

shabbat elevator

Peleg and I stayed ten days in Tel Aviv at the end of August for the first part of our honeymoon. We had a lovely hotel on the 16th floor of the Sheraton Moriah overlooking the beach.

We were there on two shabbats (Saturdays) which meant we had the occassion to experience the shabbat elevator. Because observant Jews are not aloud to work on Shabbat, and work is defined to include any time an electric current would be opened (if closed) or closed (if opened) Jews are not allowed to push an elevator button. However if the elevator is already running there's nothing sinful with riding in it. So the hotel simply reserves two of the elevators as shabbat elevators that constantly run automatically stopping on every floor.

It's not part of my spiritual understanding that God would count as holy riding in an elevator that stops at every floor, but would count as a sin pushing an elevator button. If the point is to give priority to God's law, than attempts to invent creative ways to get around clear meanings seem to be just as sinful as breaking them out right. If it is in fact our human needs that take precendence, than why attempt to why bother to find a way to hoor God's law?

Peleg told me that his dad once pointed out that in a modern hotel like this one with key cards, that once a person has taken the shabbat elevator to their floor that they then open their door with a magnetic strip that opens an electric current. I don't think God really cares.

synchronocity in The New Yorker

In the August 20 edition of The New Yorker magazine there was this interesting example of synchronocity between one of the articles and a cartoon.

A cartoon of a man and a woman holding yoga mats leaving the "Life Spirit Meditation Center." The man says, "As far as I can tell, meditation is just worrying minus the content."

In an article on living with Asperger's syndrome by Tim Page he writes, "Here I concur with Virgil Thompson, who once said that worry was one form of prayer that he found acceptable."

how much we know

I'm amazed by the amount of stuff that human beings know. We often bemoan the fact that the universe is so vast and mysterious. But the truth is, we know an awful lot about the world we live in. Most impressive to me is our knowledge of stuff extrememly distant from our own lives, either in distant space, or in distant history.

judging God

would it be appropriate if someone had a really horrible life to judge God for it? I could imagine a scene of God being forced to hear the angry testimony of people after death who felt that God had not been fair with the life given them. Does God owe us a good life? And yet so many of us live miserable lives, or die tragic deaths.

Of course, the real question is not whether God owes us a good life, but whether God is actually capable of giving everyone a good life. Although I believe that God hopes for our happiness, God is not capable of manipulating the events of our lives to assure our happiness. Miserable lives and tragic deaths are not God's fault, they are the natural outcome of natural events, our own poor choices, or the poor choices of others who negatively impact on us.

the honeymoon is over

The three week gap in blogging is due to my honeymoon to Israel and then a cruise to Greece, Turkey and Venice Italy. I'm back now and rested, although suffering a little cold picked up on the plane ride yesterday. We had a twenty-two hour day from 8 in th emorning London time through 10 in the evening Los Angeles time.

While I was away I made some notes on ideas to blog about so the next several entries will be me catching up.