Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Coincidental Divine

            I recently read a definition of coincidence that went something like this: a coincidence is an occurrence where the divine chooses to remain anonymous. That isn’t the exact quote, but it’s the gist. It’s an interesting point of view, but not wide sweeping enough for me. It’s my belief that 99.9% of our interactions with the divine are, for all intent and purpose, entirely coincidental. Let me give an example.

            In 1988-89 I worked for eight months at a facility for juvenile offenders. The boys, sixteen to eighteen years old, who were serving time in the ‘reformatory’ were not hardened criminals or violent offenders. One kid, for example, had gotten into an argument with his step-dad and, in a huff, had driven away in the family car. He often took the family car without asking permission, but on that occasion his angry step-dad decided to make a point and had the boy arrested for grand theft, auto. The charge stood and the kid was sentenced to six months. Some of the kids had been caught smoking marijuana and were doing time for that. They weren’t angels and a few were on track to become career criminals and deserved to be incarcerated, but mostly they were a rambunctious but not a violent bunch.

            One day I got into the lunch line behind three boys whose horse play was getting a little out of hand, so I called them down. One kid whirled around and pointed his napkin-wrapped flatware at my throat. It was a stupid teenaged bluff and I was in no real danger. Before I could say a word, the boy’s eyes flicked over my right shoulder and instantly took on a look of anxiety just before his hand jerked away from my neck and he turned quickly around.

            What the heck, right?

            I turned to my right to see another of the boys, one of the bigger, meaner boys, behind me. He just nodded nonchalantly at me and turned his attention elsewhere. But it was clear that he had given some signal to the boy in front of me, and that boy had desisted, most quickly, in his bluff.

            What had happened? I knew the bigger boy, it was a small group of kids, but we had not developed any sort of friendly bond. So why had he come to my defense? Maybe he had a kindly feeling toward me. Maybe he had an unkindly feeling toward the other kid, or maybe they were friends and he didn’t want him to get into trouble. There was a reason, there always is, but the reason doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is, in that brief moment in time, he was my guardian angel.

            Pure coincidence, that certain small group of people coming together in a given space at a specific point in time, brought together purely by coincidence, and one chose to be, and was tasked with being, a guardian angel. He chose, and he was tasked. To me, it’s the same thing. I think that’s how the divine works. Another person, I, was chosen to be reminded that the divine is at all times near, sometimes even in the guise of a big, tough juvenile offender.

            The whole thing is just too cool to express, but you can see it working, if your eyes are open to the coincidental divine.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Myth, fable, legend

            My position, stated in the previous post, is that, even though we try, humans cannot lead the divine in the dance of life. Here’s some of my thinking on that.

            We all have a general idea of the distinctions between myth, fable and legend. A legend, to me, is a story that doesn’t need to teach anything – ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. A fable is a story, often with animal characters, which is intended to teach a lesson – ‘Aesop’s Fables’. A myth is a story which is supposed to tell us why things are the way they are.

            My personal favorite is myth. I like the word. I like the way it sounds, the way it comes out of the mouth like a feather. And I like the way I understand it. Once upon a time, myth, to me, was the same as ‘lie’, but no longer. I did a research paper on myth back in the day, and the way I view the word and its function changed completely. I came to see myth, not as an ancient fabrication, but as a living thing. Myth has a function in life.

            I believe a myth is 1) a story which attempts to tell us why things are the way they are, and 2) a living story in that it can come alive to us and help us interpret ourselves and our existence. What does this have to do with the human tendency to try to lead in the divine/human dance?

            Theologians call it ‘original sin’.

            We’re all familiar with the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. It’s a myth, as defined above. It answers the question, where does evil come from? In my opinion, the insight the ancients were trying to share is usually lost on us because we get distracted by apples and snakes and debates over whether it actually happened or not. We get distracted and we miss the insight.

            In Sunday School, we were told that we are separated from the divine because of ‘original sin’. As a child, it made no sense to me that I should suffer because of something someone else did. As I grew to adulthood, it continued to make no sense to me, and I found no help from people who I hoped would know the answer. So, I came to my own conclusion. I think the key is in the temptation. Forget the garden, the snake, the fruit and the two naked aboriginal humans. Forget the question of whether it actually happened or not, and look at the temptation: ‘you shall be as god’. I believe we are separated from the divine by our efforts to take on the prerogatives and semblances of the divine, generally as it relates to other people.

            I read recently that one percent of the US population controls forty percent of the nation’s wealth. My first thought was, how can anyone need so much wealth, but it was a silly question. Wealth is power, and power lifts us above the ‘unwashed masses’ and allows us to ‘lord it’ over them. Power makes us ‘godlike’ in the eyes of our fellow humans. The poor bow before the rich, begging for a crumb from his/her table. (Give me a job, please.) The powerless idolize (which means to worship) the powerful. Ordinary people stand in line for hours just to catch a fleeting glimpse of movie stars and sports stars. (He waved at me!)

            Power is a temptation few of us can resist. It may be the most potent of all aphrodisiacs. And you can never have enough.

            So, here is where the myth of Adam and Eve comes alive for me and instructs me. Here I believe I can see the insight of the ancients because I commit ‘original sin’ every day, multiple times a day, every time I seek to lift myself, every time I chose to enhance my power, however little it may be, over others.

            The man from Galilee warned against that. He told us not to lift ourselves, but to lift others, especially the weak, the poor, the fatherless. He said, and this is important, that the divine would lift us.

            In our efforts to lift ourselves, we struggle against the divine. In our efforts to empower ourselves, we are trying to lead the divine/human dance.

            The ramifications are many and daunting. One could argue that even my desire that others read my words is a desire to be lifted, to be empowered. As I consider the ramifications, I feel like I’m standing upon a precipice, gazing into the immense gulf which separates me from the divine, a gulf which I myself have dug, and I feel the anguish of the ancient writer who said, ‘woe is me, for I am undone’.

            But then I sense a hand reaching out to me, and a gentle voice inside my soul says, “Would you like to dance?”