Sacrifice and Atonement

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Our lives are finite, and life is fragile. Homo sapiens have survived because – at least in part – we sacrifice for others: our loved ones, our family, our group, our tribe.  We save lives, sometimes at the cost of our own.  We give up things so others might have what they need.  Most sentient beings on earth do the same.  We quite properly revere and respect anyone who has made sacrifices.  It is so much a part of the fabric of life on earth that we have elevated sacrifice to the level of holy.  It is no wonder that peoples throughout history have made sacrifices to appease the gods.  That’s how humans work, so that must be how God(s) work, too.  And thus, we make God in our own image.

Atonement theology has a long history.  Spilling blood to “make reparation for an offence or injury”  has been around since humans first started feeling guilty.  We make a sacrifice to atone for our sins, a sacrifice of either money, time, or property (e.g., sacrificing the best lamb).  Votive offerings have a long history in human behavior.  Religious rules list different sacrifices required for different sins. Human sacrifice is atonement taken to the extreme, and yet this is not foreign to human history. (See:

In Christian theology, atonement is made for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of Jesus’ death.  Atonement theology is so ingrained in Christian thought that to reject it or attempt to understand it differently brings charges of heresy.  In a nutshell: Jesus, as the perfect person – and also God, and the Son of God – had to be sacrificed to appease God the Father and atone for our sins so that we can be saved.

The novel, Flatland, by E.A. Abbot, first published in 1884, describes a world of two dimensions.  All the inhabitants are two-dimensional figures: circles, squares, triangles, lines, etc.  One of the squares has a vision of being taken into a three dimensional world, where there are cubes, and spheres, and pyramids, etc. The square then tries to explain this to his two-dimensional world, with no success.  “It goes UP!”  “You mean North.”  “No, UP!” “There is no UP, you’re crazy.”

What if our notion of atonement for sin is can only be informed by our human experience of sacrifice?  After all, when we sacrifice something, we lose something.  What if God cannot lose anything?  What if God is complete and full and can give away forever without losing any substance?  What if Jesus died because he challenged the empire of the day, and not because his blood had to be spilled to “save” us?

Our atonement theology is limited by our two dimensional understanding of sacrifice.  We forget that God’s ways are not our ways.

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A Difference of Opinion


Lately it seems I’m hearing a lot more complaints from people who feel that their opinions are not respected.  “You can disagree with me, but you should respect my opinion!”

Let’s unpack that.

There are opinions, and then there are opinions.  Some people prefer to live in the country, others in the city. Some buy only Toyotas, some only Fords.  Chocolate or vanilla. Steampunk or blue jeans.  These are opinions that one can respect, even if one does not agree.

But then there are opinions or beliefs which, if carried to their logical conclusion, cause a great deal of harm to a great number of people.  Respectfully, I don’t have to respect those opinions.

When your opinion is that health insurance should only belong to those who can afford it, that causes harm to lots of people.  When your opinion is that “black people just want all white people to die,” (besides being a bald-faced lie,) that causes harm to lots of people. When your opinion is that a border wall is necessary for the security of the U.S., or that Dreamers should be deported, or that we should nuke North Korea, or that gay and transgender persons are evil, that causes harm to lots of people.  And when you slap the imprimatur of your religion on those opinions, that multiplies the harm caused to lots of people.  And the justification seems to be that you’re only following the rules.

Jesus said to such people, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27)  Elevating one’s understanding of the rules above the actual people who are affected by them is allowing people to be harmed just to prove a moral point.

I will be bold enough to say that allowing people to be harmed just to prove a moral point is pretty much the definition of evil.

There is one more point:  People who hold such opinions generally believe they belong to the most exclusive club on earth – those who are going to heaven when they die.  Belief in X allows them to go to heaven, and not believing in X sends you to hell.  For such people to complain that their opinions aren’t being respected is the height of irony.

Yes, I’m on a rant today!

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To Promote the General Welfare

The current health care debate covers two entirely different large-scale systemic plans that are diametrically opposed to each other:

Health Care vs. Health Insurance.  They are not the same thing.

History of Health Insurance in the US

Wikipedia has a great article here:, and here is my summary:

In the mid-1800s, Accident Insurance was offered to certain employees, mostly in the railroad and steamboat industries. In 1911 we see the first “health insurance” offered to certain employees, but to cover lost wages, NOT medical expenses. Hospitals began offering pre-paid medical insurance plans, but what we would recognize as regular health insurance was a result of WWII and employers’ need to attract and retain good employees.  Since then, we have seen various government-funded programs, including Medicare, Social Security, and, most recently, the Affordable Care Act.  The cost of private health insurance is out of reach for a significant number of people without some sort of assistance.

Before insurance of any kind, you paid your doctor as best you could. If you had to go to the hospital and had no funds, you had to hope that a pauper bed was available.  If not, too bad for you.

Health insurance today is a financial instrument, a contract, an investment, whose sole purpose is to provide a financial return to its investors.  Health insurance does not, indeed cannot, care about the patient.  It covers what it must under law and the contractual agreement between the company and the individual.

Health insurance is not enshrined in history, it is not set in stone, and the laws governing it have and can change over time.  It is not a sacred thing to be untouched.

Health Care

Image result for health insurancePeople need health insurance because health care is so expensive. Most doctors will not even treat you if you do not have health insurance.  I know several people who could not continue with their current doctor if their insurance plan no longer included that doctor, even if they were willing to pay out-of-pocket.  I also know of people who have a very hard time being seen by any doctor if they are private pay.  If a doctor starts to treat you and something goes south, the cost of your visit can go up with the addition of two or more digits to your bill.

Case in point: several years ago someone I know went to get a cortizone injection in his knee.  He had an allergic reaction to it, and ended up staying in the office with 3 nurses, 2 doctors, a crash cart (it turned out not to be necessary), and an IV.  Fortunately, they were able to bring it under control without having to admit him to the hospital.

Suppose in this real-life scenario, this patient didn’t have health insurance, and the doctor agreed to give him the shot for $300 cash.  With what happened, the bill likely went up to $3000.  If he needed to be admitted to the hospital, $30,000.  This is why doctors don’t want to treat you if you don’t have insurance.

The critically ill and injured can go to an emergency room to get immediate treatment, but emergency rooms do not treat for chronic conditions.  And the hospital bill is passed on to the taxpayers.

National Health Insurance

These words strike terror into the hearts of people who think it is a slippery slope to communism. I honestly don’t know how to alleviate those fears, since I don’t get the correlation.

EXCEPT FOR UNITED STATES, it seems that every (EVERY) modern country in the world (and a few that aren’t modern) has a national health insurance program of some sort.  You pay a tax, show your card when you go to the doctor or hospital, done and done. Nobody has to declare bankruptcy, lose their home and/or all their savings, to be treated for a serious disease or injury.  Everybody pays into it, everybody gets coverage.

Countries with some sort of national health insurance (courtesy of Wikipedia)

We can argue over funding of national health insurance, limits on coverage, best ways to distribute it, but that it should exist is not a question for most of the world.

Except for the U.S.  Because lots of people in the health insurance industry are making lots and lots of money, and they don’t want that to change.

They also argue that there is “no constitutional right to health insurance,” i.e., if you can’t afford it, not our problem.  That lack of health insurance is giving you “liberty.”  I would argue two things:

  1. The Preamble to our Constitution:
    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Surely getting medical care is a public good and promotes the general welfare.

2. The Ninth Amendment to the Constitution:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or     disparage others retained by the people.

It would seem that just because a right isn’t specifically named in the Constitution doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I believe that people in the U.S. have a right to health care regardless of their ability to pay.  I believe this can be funded with a national tax that would replace what is already spent on premiums, prescriptions, and other health care costs that are already passed on to the tax payers.  No, I’m not an economist, and I get bug-eyed at complex calculations.  But I’ve read the arguments, and I believe the arguments in favor of a national health care system are valid.

Some say that they don’t want government in charge of their health care.  Government is already in charge of your health care by the laws it passes allowing insurance companies to set their rates and deny coverage.  The so-called “death panels” already exist: insurance companies.

Not only would a national health insurance plan promote the general welfare, it is also the right thing to do.

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A week from tomorrow, we will be moving Angel to a retirement pasture.  He will live out the rest of his life, as long as he is comfortable, in open fields with a herd of horses to keep him company.  I know he will love it.  He will be able to do pretty much whatever he wants, whenever he wants: graze, nap, run, play.

He has some lameness issues, and it’s best, for a number of reasons, to just let him go BE.  He’s carried my butt around for long enough.

Angel is 20 years old.  He’s been with me for almost 15 years.  He taught me how to ride.  He has been my best friend.  He always nickered when he saw me coming.  Even when he was being a little turd, he never tried to really hurt me.  Whenever I came off, he would stand there waiting for me to get up.  He never ran away, even if he bucked me off in the first place.

Trail rides, cattle sorting, learning to lope properly (me, not him).  Some of the best times of my life were with Angel.  With his gentle muzzle he got me through the day my mom died.  When my brother died, after we cleaned out his room and my head was full of the smell of mold, which permeated everything in the room,  (that’s where he died, and the body was there for a while)  I went to the stable.  The only thing that got that smell out of my head was the smell of fresh horse manure and burying my face in Angel’s warm, dusty neck and breathing deep.  He stood quietly and let me stand like that for as long as I needed to.

He has a sense of humor, and we laughed together.  Once I was riding bareback and upon dismounting I slid off wrong and landed in a heap on the ground by his front legs.  I couldn’t stop laughing. Angel reached down and gave me a noogy on the top of my head with his lips.

He has taught me to be gentle, slow down, ask softly, be patient. To trust.  Even though I know this is the best decision for him and for me, it hurts like crazy. I can’t even begin to know how much I will miss him.



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I Shall Not Fear – Lessons from the Zombie Apocalypse

This is my poor attempt to gather my very fragmented thoughts after the 2016 election.

Paul and Silas bound in jail, Had no money for to go their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.
(See end note.)

I was wrong. Democrats should have put forth Bernie Sanders as our candidate.  I don’t think he was as well-rounded in his experience (especially in foreign policy) as Clinton.  But we completely underestimated the visceral hatred so many people have for anything “Clinton.”  Beyond all reason or substance, this hatred could not be overcome.  Bernie Sanders had a better chance of winning over Trump.  So, there’s that.

Paul and Silas thought they was lost, Dungeon shook and the chains come off
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

People of color have been telling us white liberals for years that racism is alive and well in this country.  And many (most?) of us give a quiet nod and go on about our business.  Because, it’s just the bad apples, right?  Isolated incidents, right?

Trump’s win has allowed white supremacists and misogynists to come out of the woodwork like a swarm of cockroaches following their Pied Piper.  I was ignorant of their numbers and again, the visceral hatred these people have for anyone not obeying a white male leadership.  Again, I was wrong.  Wake-up call. (Don’t believe me? Check out this report on hate crimes since the election.)  I am ashamed for not realizing this sooner.  I am ashamed for not believing people of color.

People say that even though they voted for Trump, this isn’t what they wanted and therefore not their fault.  Did they not listen to anything the man had to say? One of the big complaints I have heard is that these people feel they haven’t been “free to express their true feelings and beliefs” under the “tyranny of liberalism.”  But when asked what it is they want to say and what they believe, what we hear is all about putting [insert group here – blacks, women, Muslims, gays, whatever] IN THEIR PLACE.  What the hell does that even mean?  Who gets to decide what somebody else’s place is?

Got my hand on the gospel plow, Won’t take nothing for my journey now
Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on.

Even more alarming is the number of evangelical Christians, who for so long have claimed the sole access to biblical understanding and the moral high ground, supporting Trump. (Here, and here.)  Again, what the hell?

I have been frightened since Nov. 9, 2016.  Civil rights, health care, US world standing, the environment, are all in jeopardy.  A new nuclear arms race looms on the horizon.

The only thing I did was wrong was stayin’ in the wilderness too long
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

I believe my fear comes from confusing the power of God and Empire.  God never was represented by Empire. Never will be.  As the late Marcus Borg wrote:

Jesus was killed. This is one of those facts that everybody knows, but whose significance is often overlooked. He didn’t simply die; he was executed. We as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And if we ask the historical question, “Why was he killed?” the historical answer is because he was a social prophet and movement initiator, a passionate advocate of God’s justice, and radical critic of the domination system who had attracted a following. If Jesus had been only a mystic, healer, and wisdom teacher, he almost certainly would not have been executed. Rather, he was killed because of his politics – because of his passion for God’s justice.
 Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith


So much fear on all sides.  Fear of different people, fear of women, fear of other religions.  And fear of Trump, what he will do, and the people he surrounds himself with.  Fear of backlash and “white-lash”, fear of refugees and immigrants. Fear that the fascist path we are going down might be irreversible.

The only thing we did was right, was the day we started to fight
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

But I choose to stop being afraid.  However bad things might get, it has nothing to do with the Reign of God.  We do need to fight, to work for justice, freedom, and peace.  We have to refuse to cooperate with evil, like the woman who resigned from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rather than perform for Trump’s inauguration.  In big ways and small ways, we can make a difference.  And even if we don’t make a difference at least we can sleep at night.

(“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” is a folk song that became influential during the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is based on the traditional song, “Gospel Plow,” also known as “Hold On,” “Keep Your Hand on the Plow,” and various permutations thereof.” See: These lyrics are from Bruce Springsteen’s cover of this song.)

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I recently taught a three-week adult faith formation class at my church on The Moral Status of Animals.  We were a small but very engaged group, and had some great discussions.

We started out with what I called the “Three Things.”

  • Thing #1: There is no Pure Land.  This side of paradise, there will always be some degree of suffering in this world, no matter how hard we try to avoid it.
  • Thing #2: Everybody’s gotta eat.  Herbivore, carnivore, omnivore, every living thing has to eat something.
  • Thing #3: Nature is brutal.  Even if there were no humans at all, there would still be suffering in the world because nature is brutal all by itself.

Later we decided we needed to add Thing #4:  It’s complicated.

We talked about the sentience of animals, how to reduce their suffering in the world, and why that is important.  We read a series of bible verses about God’s care and concern for animals, and found it pretty powerful when read all together. Sure, we read, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father” and move right on to, So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29-31), forgetting completely the first part, because everything is all about us, right? But reading so many verses specifically about animals and the natural world can’t help but give a pretty good idea of God’s opinion about it. (Hint: God thinks its very important.)

We talked about factory farming and the practices of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the legal status of pets and livestock.  We took a look at statements about animals made by theologians throughout the ages, and then we discussed Darwin and the recent book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a prominent Catholic theologian.  We wrapped up with a few videos of animal rescues noting that people will put their own lives in danger to rescue an animal, and a short discussion of Laudato Si, by Pope Francis.

It was only after the class was over that I realized the paradox we live under.  Remember Thing #3?  Nature is brutal.  Nature doesn’t care about the lives of individuals.  Nature only cares about LIFE.  “Life finds a way,” as the character Ian Malcom says in the film, Jurassic Park.  This was clear when we discussed the scenario of the pelicans who lay a spare egg.  In most cases, the spare chick dies, unloved, unfed, unprotected.  That’s pretty brutal. But should something happen to the first chick, they have a spare. That’s nature, survival of the fittest in any given environment or condition.

On the other hand, we believe that God does care about the individual, whether human or animal: pull your neighbor’s ox out of the well, rest your animals on the Sabbath, a righteous person has regard for the life of his/her beast. God knows every little bird that dies.  Even the hundreds of thousands of those pelican chicks every year.

So this is the paradox that people of faith live with.  Both nature and God care about life in general, but nature doesn’t care about the individual and God does.

We ended the class by saying together this prayer by Pope Francis at the end of Laudato Si:

God of love, show us our place in this world
as channels of your love
for all the creatures of this earth,
for not one of them is forgotten in your sight.
Enlighten those who possess power and money
that they may avoid the sin of indifference,
that they may love the common good, advance the weak,
and care for this world in which we live.
The poor and the earth are crying out.
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom
of justice, peace, love and beauty.
Praise be to you!

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Last week I attended a week-long silent meditation retreat at Mercy Center, which is part of their East-West Meditation Center. I’ve been on shorter meditation retreats, but this one had us scheduled for 7.5 hours a day of silent meditation.  It was broken up into smaller chunks, but still.  It was very challenging, and also very rewarding, and I’m so grateful I was able to attend.

First, about Mercy Center
I’ve been there many times for various retreats and conferences.  It is like a second spiritual home to me.  It’s been a while since I’ve been there, and not much has changed at all.  I was struck by how worn down the path of the labyrinth has become.  Many thousands of feet have walked it over the years.

The trees, birds, squirrels, and flowers all create a haven of peace and serenity.  Inside it is quiet and homey, the food is delicious and plentiful, and the rooms are simple, cozy, and restful.  If you’ve never been and are in the area, please check it out.  You won’t be sorry. 

About the retreat
There were between 20-25 people in attendance. Most had been to at least one of these before.  Father Greg was the leader, a kindly, older priest with much experience in meditation. We were silent all the time, even at meals and in the hallways. The days were broken up like this: 6:30-8am – meditation, break for breakfast, 9:30-10 – meditation, 10-10:30 – talk by Fr. Greg, 10:30-12 – meditation, break for lunch, 2:30-4 – mediation, 4-4:30, walking meditation outdoors, 4:30-6 – meditation, break for dinner, 7:30-9 – meditation.  We sat in Mercy Center’s Rose Room, a room specifically designed and set up for meditation.


I must confess that except for the first morning, I did not attend the pre-breakfast sessions.  I just couldn’t make it.  But I did the best I could.  I walked the labyrinth every day.  Sometimes it was easy to sit, and other times I couldn’t wait for the bell to sound!  Such is the nature of meditation. I told Fr. Greg, “This is hard.  I was expecting it to be hard, and I was expecting that it would be harder than I was expecting, but this is really hard.”  He just smiled and nodded.  Still, I said, that didn’t mean I wanted to give it up. He understood that, too.

My experience was that I vascillated between boredom and moments of intense serenity and awareness. So what did I learn, or find, or discover?   What follows is “religious-y” stuff, so stop here if you’re not interested in that!

What I learned

Two things.  Things that I had already been aware of, but became much more real to me during the week.

Forgiveness.  Think of God’s forgiveness as a stream or river.  We live in that river. We breathe in God’s forgiveness like fish take in oxygen in the water through their gills.  But then they have to exhale, or they’ll drown.  If we don’t pass on that forgiveness to others, we too will drown, in a sense.  It’s a flow, a way to be alive.  God forgives me, I forgive you, you forgive someone else, that person forgives me, and on and on.  It’s not a shameful or punitive thing, it is how to be alive.  And as we know, you “can’t step into the same river twice.”  (How Zen is that?) In other words, the river now is not the same river as a minute ago.  That water has flowed on, and this is different water.  Everything that is alive changes constantly.   So forgive as often and as much as needed (70 times 7?); that’s ok because the river is new each time. There’s always more in God’s river and it’s always new.

A mantra for life.  We Episcopalians love our “three-legged stool.”  It’s how we do theology: on the three legs of scripture, tradition, and reason.  Take away one and it falls apart.  There’s another three-legged stool:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Do justice. Love kindness (or mercy, in other translations). Walk humbly.  They need to be in balance or it all falls apart.  The arrogance of dogma has no place here.

Also learned much from Fr. Greg’s talks. He recommended a book, “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist.  (I ordered it and will read it as soon as I’m done with the class I’m teaching at church in December.) Set aside the male language for the moment.  It relates all the new science about how the brain works, how the right and left sides talk to each other (or not),  I’m very eager to read it. The book isn’t religious in any way, but the implications for the value of contemplative practices are profound.  As he explained it, the right brain (the “Master”) sees the whole of everything available to it in each moment. In a few milliseconds, it transfers that info to the left brain (the “Emissary).  The left brain chops up that info, categorizes it, dumps what it doesn’t think is important, and so on.  That is what allows us to function, to remember the past and plan for the future.  But much awareness is also lost.  That’s all I can say about it without reading the book.  But it made me think of all the things that humans have done over the generations to access the right side of the brain: music, art, meditation, walking the labyrinth, walking “widdershins,” (counter clock-wise), all to access the right side of the brain (which controls the left side of the body).  Fascinating stuff.

That’s about it, at least what I want to share.  Oh, and Mercy Center has this wonderful new piece hanging in one of the corridors.  I was totally captivated by this painting – icon, really – of the resurrected Christ.




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