Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 29, 2008

In the ancient Sanskrit epic poem the Ramayana (which literally means “Ram’s Journey”), one of the principal stories is about when Prince Rama (Lord Ram) went into exile for 14 years. The eldest of four princes, Rama was about to crowned by his father as king in his place. However, King Dasaratha, Rama’s father, had promised one of his three wives (not Rama’s mother) the granting of any two wishes since she had once saved his life. Kaikeyi, Ram’s stepmother, asked that her son be installed as king instead of Rama and that Rama be sent into exile for 14 years. Reluctantly and heart-broken, Dasaratha agreed to her requests.

For the sake of his father’s honor, Rama did not contest the throne but accepted his fate. As he began to leave his city, all of his devoted subjects followed him out to the edge of the forest. Rather than have most of the city accompany him on his long, epic journey, Rama released the men and women to return to their homes and resume their lives. His exile was his responsibility alone.

As Lord Ram stepped into his exile and most of the people walked back to their houses, a certain smaller group did neither. These were the eunuchs. In that society, eunuchs were considered to be neither male nor female. Since in their minds their lord had not released them to go back to the city, they remained faithful and stayed at that very spot waiting for their lord to return.

When Lord Ram returned after 14 years, he found those eunuchs waiting for him. When he saw them, he blessed them and said that eunuchs would one day rise to power in the earth.


Kaikeyi was faithful to the letter but not to the spirit of her husband and king. Her request was based purely on a contract: “I will give you two wishes”. When she came to collect on these IOUs, this fulfilled her wishes but certainly not her husband’s, and so the hearts of the people were pointed towards her stepson and not to  her son. Her desires were not based on relationships of love but on an engine of selfish motivations steering a vehicle of obligation.

The eunuchs, on the other hand, waited patiently for their prince and lord without being asked. They had not been promised any reward for doing so. Such is the heart of faithfulness. It goes beyond mere laws and rules. It flows from a life of devotion and love.

Yet, Rama was also faithful to his father. Even though he had not done anything worthy of such a severe punishment, he was faithful to respect his father’s commands and not to dishonor him even when that meant banishment and exile.


“But the fruit of the spirit is … faithfulness, …; against such things, there is no law.”

The New Monasticism: The 12 Marks: Introduction

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 28, 2008

Today, I’m beginning a multi-part series about the 12 marks of the New Monasticism movement. Each of these marks is presented at the following link and below in this post:

The compilation of these 12 marks of the way of life for New Monasticism took place in the summer 2004. These 12 marks point out the commonalities in a way of life for many diverse faith communities of followers of Christ. Most of these communities are located somewhere in North America.

Over time, I’ll be presenting each of these 12 marks to you here at for your consideration. My aim in doing so is not so much to present an intellectual or theological analysis of each of the marks; nor is my goal to provide examples of how followers of Christ are attempting to demonstrate each one. Besides seeking to introduce more people to this increasingly important movement, my main objective here in presenting these marks to you is to provide points of meditation and reflection on the lifestyle and characteristics of followers of Christ that each one presents.

You might agree or disagree with each of the 12 marks or how each one is currently interpreted by the various communities of New Monastics. You may even disagree with the entire concept of having a list of 12 marks. Or you might be thinking that these marks are good for New Monastics but not for others. Conversely, you may be coming at this from the opposite side: You might be asking yourself, “Why aren’t Christ’s followers already doing these things?” Regardless of your initial thoughts on this subject, I think that, at the least, each one of these points is worthwhile of prayer and careful, reflective thought, and I would please invite you here to examine each of these 12 principles of faith and community.

As you reflect upon each of these marks, I’d recommend neither accepting nor rejecting each one too quickly. Rather, slowly and carefully read each one and think about what each of the 12 marks might mean to you.


The 12 Marks of the New Monasticism

1.  Relocation to the abandoned places of Empire

2.  Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us

3.  Hospitality to the stranger

4.  Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities
combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation

5.  Humble submission to Christ’s body, the church

6.  Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the
community along the lines of the old novitiate

7.  Nurturing common life among members of intentional community

8.  Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children.

9.  Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life

10.  Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies

11.  Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18

12.  Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life


How Do Plants Survive at Night?

Posted in: Science and Nature,Spirituality by bill-o on August 22, 2008

I believe that simple questions about science and nature can be points of reflection for us. These points of reflection can then lead to deeper questions about life and its meaning. In this way, the familiar leads to the unfamiliar; the natural to the spiritual.

A simple question about the natural world had puzzled me until recently: How do plants survive at night? Most of us know about photosynthesis: the amazing process by which green plants and trees use sunlight energy to survive and grow. Yet, for those of us who forgot the section about plants in biology class, plants also undertake the act of respiration, just as we do. With respiration (“breathing”), plants take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Because plants “breathe”, they can survive at night and in the winter (for those trees that shed their leaves each autumn).

Yet, there is still a little more to this story. Through photosynthesis, plants manufacture sugar. Many of these sugars become the main building blocks of the plant. They give the plant its overall structure and form. What is most interesting for us here is that plants make enough sugar from sunlight to tide themselves over during the nighttime and during dark, cloudy days. The sugar can be stored away as a starch and then converted back to sugar, as is necessary. Ultimately, the energy that is stored in the sugar is needed for respiration.

I would propose to you here that this natural process can serve as an example for our spiritual lives. We are like the plants and the light is like God’s touch upon our lives. Specifically, light may represent wisdom, insight, guidance, and revelation. This light represents the “Springtime seasons” of our lives, our “good days”. The nighttime and winter represent our difficult “desert” or “wilderness” spiritual experiences. At its most difficult, this can even be the “dark night of the soul” that Saint John of the Cross speaks about.

I think that many followers of Christ and spiritual seekers in general see the difficult times of life (trials) as completely distinct phases that are separate from the rest of one’s life. Yet this is not so. Just as the plants manufacture the sugar that they need during the day so that they can then breathe at night, so God gives us what we need during the good times so that we will have what we need during the trials of life. In this way, there is a delayed effect. His touch on our lives should not be completely and immediately consumed. Rather, some of what he does in our hearts and lives should be stored up for later use, … when the sun sets or the snow falls in our lives.

After Jesus fed five thousand people with bread, he told his followers (disciples) to gather up all of the leftover fragments lying around on the ground. In this way, no bread would be lost. The disciples first experienced the miracle and immediately distributed its result, but then Jesus told them to do the very messy job of picking up whatever remained. For the disciples, what came first was blessed loaves of bread, touched by the hands of God’s son. What came next were partially eaten fragments touched by the dirty ground. In Christ, nothing is ever wasted. Some of God’s bread is for right now. Some of his bread is for later. All is his, … given to us. For the day and for the night.

Arbiter of the Kingdoms of This World?

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on August 16, 2008

The Saddleback (Church) Civil Forum of the two major presidential candidates just occurred in the United States. The forum occurred inside of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The forum was not a presidential debate. (For those of you outside of the U.S., face-to-face presidential debates are held in October and not in August.) Rather, this televised event consisted of two consecutive and separate interviews of Senator Barrack Obama and Senator John McCain by the popular pastor and author Rick Warren. Mr. Warren asked each senator the same series of questions, and each senator was interviewed for about one hour. Mr. Obama went first, while Mr. McCain waited offstage in some kind of closed area where he could not receive any advance knowledge of the upcoming questions. Because Senator McCain’s answers were shorter, Mr. Warren was able to ask him a few extra questions.

I watched the entire forum from beginning to end. On the positive side, I do appreciate the way that Mr. Warren allowed both of the candidates to give fairly detailed answers to questions without interruption (something that is increasingly rare in the American political process). I also appreciated the contrast in responses to the same set of questions by each candidate. Mr. Warren also appreared to be non-partisan, not favoring one candidate over the other.

On the more critical side, I didn’t like Mr. Warren’s last question to each candidate. Others may disagree, but this question was basically asking each candidate to publicly justify what Mr. Warren and his church were doing with this forum. Perhaps this is little harsh to say but I think that this is like inviting someone to a party and then asking him or her, at the end of it, to publicly state to the other guests why the host of the party is such a good host.

And since Rick Warren brought it up via this final question, I would like to discuss here why I do not support this civil forum. Why?

1.  Quite frankly, I don’t see such a forum as having any biblical basis. In the Bible, I do see prophets confronting evil leaders, apostles (“sent ones”) sharing their faith with rulers, and I also see capable advisers raised up to give advice to kings and even serve as high-ranking appointed leaders directly underneath those kings (like Daniel and Joseph, for example). I even see prophets ratifying (anointing) the selection of a king, as per God’s choice (like Samuel and Saul). But I do not see any biblical pattern for serving as arbiters, gatekeepers, or kingmakers regarding the selection of the kings of this earth.

2.  Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world. Yes, as ambassadors of Christ, followers of Jesus should be prepared, as appropriate opportunities present themselves, to serve in love the rulers of this world, if they ask for the aid, assistance, and counsel of Christ’s followers. True disciples of Jesus are also very much interested in the causes of social justice and real care and concern for their surrounding communities. That said, the Bible clearly says that our citzenship is in heaven. The view of the gospels is to live in the kingdom of God here and now in the world and thus change the world around us with God’s love. In contrast, Jesus did not say to change the kingdoms of this world via manipulating the mechanisms of those kingdoms. (Rather, Jesus said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.)

3.  Mr. Warren started his forum by saying that “faith is just a worldview”. Faith in Jesus Christ is anchored in eternity, and the word of God stands forever no matter what happens here in this world. Faith is an “eternal-view” and not simply a worldview.

4.  If followers of Christ actively arbitrate the process of selecting the kings of this world, then the world will be resentful and angry with his followers when things go wrong, as they inevitably will to one extent or another. Even worse, if the selected kings make immoral or evil decisions, Christ’s disciples in the world will appear as being complicit or hypocritical. Followers of Christ should not seek to interfere with the processes of king-selection, just as followers of Christ do not want the world to interfere with their life and work in this world.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

Story of the Good Samaritan: A Fresh Perspective

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 09, 2008

You’ve probably already heard of the Story of the Good Samaritan. It was Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?”.

What you may *not* have heard is the symbolic interpretation of this story. Amazingly enough, looking at this story as being symbolic (allegorical) produces a sweeping picture of the entire story of humankind from beginning to end.

The story begins with a traveller going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is a steep downhill journey. This is symbolic of Adam being placed into the earth with the purpose of ruling over it after having been designed and thought of in the eternal, heavenly mind of God. [Note: The very beginning of the story in the original language (ancient Greek) even says “a certain man …” (the traveller), which is translated as “Adam”.] Yet before Adam can realize his true potential of ruling over all of the earth, he and his wife, Eve, make a tragic decision. Without fully realizing what they are doing, they surrender their privileges as a son and a daughter of God.

The thieves who attacked the traveller are symbols of the devil and demons. The robbery of the clothes of the traveller represents a loss of authority and identity, which is what happened to Adam and Eve (and to all of humanity, their descendants) when, after being tricked into doing so by the serpent, they disobeyed God and ate from the forbidden tree. This was then marked by their expulsion from Eden and their loss of a regular, face-to-face relationship with God in that garden. As happened to the victim in the story, they became “half-dead”. All of humanity is created in the likeness of God, and yet this stain of separation from God remains.

The unhelpful passers-by, the priest and the levite, represent religious law and religion systems. Neither is able or willing to help. [As it is written: By the works of the law, no one will be justified (helped).] Symbolically in the story, the law comes by first and then the religious ceremonies, formalities and systems that surround that law. [The Levites assisted the priests in ancient Judea.]

The Good Samaritan represents Jesus. The Samaritan pours oil and wine upon the victim’s wounds. Oil often represents the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of God) in the Bible, whereas wine often represents the blood of Christ, shed for all of humanity on the cross. Samaritans were part Jewish and part gentile (non-Jewish). This is symbolic of Jesus being God and man. The victim is then carried by the Samaritan to Jericho. This symbolizes Jesus Christ doing what humankind carelessly gave up the ability to do on its own: going “down” to its divine (heavenly) destiny of ruling (the story of Genesis says subduing/possessing/having dominion over) the earth. The inn where the traveller is housed in safety is a symbol of the church, the body of Christ. Finally, the promise of the Samaritan to return represents the second coming of Jesus back to the earth.

Another facet of this symbolic interpretation is offered by Sam Soleyn in his new MP3 series entitled “The Culture of the Kingdom”. See:

In program 139 of this series, Mr. Soleyn sees the two coins as symbolizing 2,000 years. This is because the type of coin in the story refers to one day’s wage for the average worker at that time, and also because, in the Bible, references to one day were often symbolic of 1,000 years. If this is correct, Jesus is saying that he would return for his church after about 2,000 years.

By the way, seeing this story as a series of symbols is not a new invention. Rather, it has ancient roots. The respected 3rd-century theologian Origen wrote down this interpretation and said that other followers of Christ had passed it down to him. See:

Do you also find this symbolic interpretation interesting or do you consider it to be just a distraction from the more direct meaning of the story?


Book Review: “The End of Religion”

Posted in: Reviews,Spirituality by bill-o on August 05, 2008

“The End of Religion” is a book with a serious and provocative title. Yet even though this is indeed a serious work, its touch and tone are light for those readers who are truly seeking Jesus but not a religious institution. As the author, Bruce Cavey, teaching pastor of the Meeting House in the Toronto area, freely explains, this book is for those who love Jesus but who are burnt out on religion.

Even though this is ultimately a theological book, it is conversational in tone. For example, Mr. Cavey’s story of his own marriage having matured into a love-based relationship does more to explain why love is better than law than a long, technical theological dissertation ever could. The author’s retelling of a chance meeting with an atheist who loved the Golden Rule but didn’t know Jesus had said it also provides an important touch of humanity and personality. The reader gets a sense of actually sitting across a comfortable living room and talking to the author over a casual cup of coffee, even though weighty spiritual issues are being discussed.

For those readers more inclined to a Bible-teaching style, a substantive discussion of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, as well as an examination of the Greek word skandalon in the gospels, will you provide you with what you are looking for.

The essence of the book can probably best be summarized in the author’s story (parable) of the couple Bob and Sue. To rekindle the romance in their marriage, Bob planned a special dinner at a restaurant, capped off by the presentation of a blue rose. However, Bob then invited Sue to several more dinners just like it at the same restaurant. What started out the first time as something romantic and special became routine, monotonous, and even more than a little strange each time after the first dinner. And so it is with religion.

For Mr. Cavey, excessive religion is an “organzational dependence”. This is where a person depends in whole or in part in a organization (institution) for access to God. Religion, as he sees it, is marked by the presence of fear and not its absence. It seems that avoiding this fear-and-dependence trap will bring someone much closer to the religion-less life that the author extols.

What does the author means when he says “the end of religion”? Mr. Cavey’s ideas about this title phrase come to a climax in the chapter, “The Day Religion Died”. Here, he writes:

“Yes, the Bible says that Jesus died for our sins. But it also says that he died for our religion. In Christ, God crucified the whole mess once and for all. In fact, by repeatedly emphasizing that Jesus died for our sins, the biblical writers were emphasizing the end of religion as a way to God.”

There is not necessarily a lot of practical application in this book (other than a paragraph at the end encouraging readers to “seek out intentional community”). In other words, if you agree with the author that Jesus declared the end of religion, then what do you now? Such a question is valid. However, that’s not the point of a book like this. “The End of Religion” challenges and confronts long-held assumptions about Jesus and religion. The author properly leaves it to others (expressly including his readers) to illuminate the next steps in turning this theory into practice.

It’s not a main theme of the book, but I do appreciate when the author mentions his own church congregation, the Meeting House. The Meeting House is evidently “a church for people who aren’t into church”. Rather than seeking to build the largest possible institutional church, Mr. Cavey freely admits that he expects his church to exist in a radically different form in another gerenation. Mr. Cavey clearly seems not to be a pastor who is writing his book as a stepping stone to megachurch superstardom or as a vehicle to prop up his own ministry.

If you’re looking for a long, technical treatise on theology, this is not the book for you. However, if you’re looking for a breath of fresh air about Jesus and his love, then I would recommend this book to you.

For more information, see:


You may not realize this but there is a web site dedicated to interpreting song lyrics. This site is called, interestingly enough, On this site, people are invited to post what they each think are the meanings (interpretations) of various songs.

For me, what is often most interesting about this site is not the interpretations themselves but the fact that the posted meanings so wildly diverge. (For example, type in “Hotel California” and read the possible song meanings that are posted there.) How can everyone listen to a popular song and yet come to such clearly different views of what the song really means? Didn’t the songwriter have only one interpretation in mind when he or she wrote the song?

Now let’s take a recent popular song, “Bottle It Up”, by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles. Please go to the following part of to see both the lyrics of this song and its possible meanings:

(Please Note: You’ll need to be familiar with these lyrics in order to understand the rest of this post.)

For those of you who don’t already know, “Bottle It Up” is one of two popular songs by Ms. Bareilles, the other one being “Love Song”. On, “Bottle It Up” is described as being “cute”, about relationships going too far too fast, about a guy who’s too emotional in a relationship, or about Ms. Bareilles record label being too controlling. Evidently, what Ms. Bareilles had in mind was the last one in this list: her record label wanting to have too much of a say about her songs. See:

With this interpretation in mind, I listened to the song again and it made a lot more sense. The first half of the first verse and the third verse represent the record label talking down to Sara. The second half of the first verse, the second verse, the chorus, and the bridge are Sara responding (a very brief summary: “I do it for love.”).

Yet I’d like to suggest here an even more expansive and spiritual meaning of this song. If you take a look at the words of this song, the parts of the song where the record label is speaking can be viewed as being religious institutions. Just as a record label could be overly controlling of one its artists, so can a religious system place chains on the hearts of spiritual seekers. The parts where Sara is speaking can be seen, of course, as genuine love responding to religion and beginning to move beyond it.

First, notice how religious systems talk down to people: “Babe”, “Little Darlin'”, “kindly shut up”. And look at how the ultimate goal of institutional religion is everyone keeping up their end of the bargain, which is the essence of contractual law. Now there is nothing wrong with contracts, but they can’t in themselves lead themselves to the fullest expressions of true spirituality: faith, hope, and love. Without active traits like these in our lives, contracts (laws) can become mere tools for threats or manipulation.

In the third verse, the speaker talks in both the singular and in the plural, just as the singular “law” can be the plural “laws” and both mean essentially the same thing. The line “killing me sweetly” at the end of this verse plays on the words from Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly”. This is a subtle emphasis on how institutions love what is sweet (sugary). Sugar tastes good to eat, after all, but it provides little long-term nutritional value.

Religious institutions also love to “bottle up” an expression of reaching out to the divine and then try to repeat it over and over again, even when such old ways of doing things may no longer be necessary or appropriate.

The first verse turns like a door hinge on the word heart and how it can be seen in two different ways. Religious systems see the heart as something to be mechanically manipulated into “doing the right things”. Thus, we see the words “Get to the heart of it”. This is a command to strip things bare down to a cold and dry essence. Anything outside of certain predefined boundaries is not good. The turning of the first verse comes with the use of the s word, which represents a strong “push back” by the spiritual seeker. “No, it’s *my* heart, not yours!” The second verse describes a contrasting heart: one that blooms like a flower. It is delicate and beautiful. Here, knowledge in and of itself is not desirable (“I don’t claim to know much”), whereas love is gentle and encouraging.

The bridge of the song talks about maturing from law-based religion to love-based spirituality. Yes, when we are young and immature, rules (laws) can be useful. They tutor us, if you will, until we become spiritual adults. At the end of the bridge, religious (institutional) laws promise more laws (“resolutions”) as being the solution for all of life’s problems. The “new year” reference speaks of time, and the word “never” in front of it refers to what is locked in time. It can never be eternal. (In contrast, the word love is repeated eight times; eight is often seen as the number that symbolizes eternity.)

The ultimate expression of love comes overlaid upon the last time the chorus is sung. The essence of love is that you have to give it away before you can get it. This is something that goes beyond contracts and laws. At its highest expression, it is the laying down of one’s life for others.

God is love. In his eternal presence, love and not law will be the only guiding principle of interaction between one person to another. The “garden of love” was Eden where people and God met face to face and interacted purely on the basis of love. Where there was law, there was only the law that God made with himself. And so it will be again for those who love him.


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