Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Saturday, August 13, 2011


 A Sunday School teacher told her class about the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The prophets of Baal tried to get their god to send fire to ignite the offering they had put on their altar. Of course, their god couldn’t do it. Then Elijah put his offering of a bull on an altar. But before he called on God to ignite it from heaven, he had the people pour water on the bull four times. The teacher asked the class if they knew why Elijah would do that.

A little girl waved her hand excitedly. “I know, I know,” she said, “To make the gravy!”

Not exactly.  The point was that God could do things.   And the Ba’als… well, not so much.

The conflict between Yahweh and Ba’al in the Old Testament is a common theme.  You see the people of Israel had a Baal problem.  At the beginning of Judges, we are told that during he conquest God didn’t drive out all “the inhabitants of the land?”  Well those inhabitants who remained worshipped the Ba’als….There they were, in the middle of the people of Israel, worshiping these alternate Gods.  Setting up altars and totems
And those alternative gods proved to be a constant snare to the people of Israel.  It is not so much that they chose the Ba’als over Yahweh, it was more like Yahweh, plus… whatever local deities were there
This is called syncretism…

Kind of an odd insurance policy.  We will worship Yahweh, the one true God, but just in case, we will also worship these local God’s.  This in spite of what God had done for them, time and time and time again, and in spite of clear instructions not to do so! And in spite of negative consequences when they did!

Why did they do it?  What was tempting about the Ba’als?
They were “Right there”  Concrete.  Visible.  Easy to grab hold of… so to speak
And they were spicy

Baʿal simply means 'master' Often in the Bible it is plural -  The Ba’als’  One theory is that the people of each territory or in each wandering clan worshipped their own Baʿal.  But what is clear is that Ba’al was seen as the source of all the gifts of nature.  Essentially Ba’al was a god of fertility.  As a fertility god all the produce of the soil would be his, and so Ba’al worship involved the giving of first-fruits. Thus the altars and the poles.  The goal of these sacrifices would be to ensure ongoing growth and fertility. 

The worship of Ba’al often involved more than just the offering of first fruits.  Remember this was a fertility God.  And there was a belief that one could or aid the powers of nature by the practice of magic, particularly sympathetic magic. We are talking fertility so we are talking sexuality.  Post-Exilic allusions to the cult of Baʿal suggest that orgies prevailed – again designed to secure an abundance of crops, and many children.  But wait, there is more.   Human sacrifice, violent and ecstatic exercises, and ceremonial acts of bowing and kissing all appear among the offences denounced by the post-Exilic prophets;

Along with Ba’al there was also Astarte or Ishtar.  Astarte, like Ba’al, was connected with fertility, sexuality, and war. Her symbols were the lion, the horse, the sphinx, the dove, and a star within a circle indicating the planet Venus. Pictorial representations often show her naked.  Astarte was accepted by the Greeks under the name of Aphrodite.  Basically she was the female partner or consort of Ba’al

Now I don’t think anyone here has probably worshipped Ba’al or Astarte lately.  Anyone have a Ba’al pole in their yard?  But this is the point.  The word Ba’al essentially means “master.”
It is this concept of master that is the key thing…  to worship a Ba’al is to essentially to worship anything that one thinks, if one commits to it, will bring fertility, prosperity, and happiness.

SO - WHAT ARE THE MODERN “MASTERS”?  What things out there do we have faith in?  Faith that they will bring us peace, satisfaction, joy…… even love?

I have been reading a book lately called “Essential Spirituality”  -  Amazing book!  In it the author reviews seven spiritual practices he believes help cultivate kindness, love, joy, peace, vision, wisdom, and generosity….The section I just read focuses on “Transforming our Motivation”  It would be entirely valid to retitle the section… Transforming our Masters… or Changing our Masters. 

The chapter starts with this quote:  “All you want is to be happy…All your desires, whatever they may be are a longing for happiness.  Basically, you wish yourself well…..Desire by itself is not wrong. It is life itself, the urge to grow in knowledge and experience.  But, to imagine that some little thing, food, sex, power, fame, will make you happy is to deceive oneself.  Only something as vast and deep as your real self can make you truly and lastingly happy.”    Sri Nisargadatta Mharaj

The author then goes on to say that in order to know happiness, we need to change our motivation.
I would, in the light of our passage for today, say we need to change our “master”

This is not really news.  Jesus talked about this suggesting we have to have the right “master”, the right point of focus.  We can only rely on one thing.  “God in us”.  No outside sensation.  No outside possession…. No ‘other master” can ever give us full or lasting satisfaction. 

When we try to find joy, fullness, satisfaction any other way.   Well, we are in trouble.  As Jesus noted, “What is a person profited if he or she shall gain the whole world, and lose the self…. The soul?”  Things might essentially work.  We might become well off.  Get a great job.  Find a person who loves us.  We might have all the toys we could ever want…. But if we end up wrapped up in those things.  If we end up relying on those things?  We lose the self.  We ultimately lose it all.

Think about the people of Israel and the Ba’als.  They got to the place of thinking that the Ba’als, and the female counterparts, the Astartes or Ishtars, were necessary for happiness.  That they must “buy into” these gods so that their fields would be fertile, and they would find prosperity and joy.  They became “attached” to them.  We might even say they became addicted to them….

Attached to the point that they would neglect Yahweh, for the sake of the clay figures, the poles of woods that represented these Gods.  They would do all kinds of things for the images of these gods…In essence they became the slave of these gods… to the point that they could not let go of them, even though the result of holding on to them was disaster.  Even though it brought oppression.

We are often in a similar situation.  We are slaves to those things that we think will bring us joy, completeness…It doesn’t matter what they are… money, power, possession, success, sex, relationships, roles…It is not that these things are inherently bad… it is just that when we believe that these things are the best or the only sources of joy, then we become addicted to them as surely as users become slaves of their drug…

We get to this place where we say, “I must have what I desire if I am to be happy.”  Walsh in Essential Spirituality uses this example.  If I simply desire an ice cream and get it, that’s wonderful; if I don’t get it, it is not big deal.  But, if I am attached to ice cream, I must have it or I suffer.  Desire” is simple wanting, attachment is a compulsive necessity.  Unfulfilled desires produce little impact.  Unfulfilled attachments yield frustration and pain.  

Again, the problem is that once we are attached to something, then everything gets twisted.  Our priorities get distorted, and we become blind to the sources of true happiness.  We become like the Israelites….. bowing down, offering sacrifices to inanimate poles of wood… or the equivalent thereof.  In other words we pour more and more time and energy and effort into these “other things”.  They start to dominate us.

But cavorting at the foot of idols, whatever ours happen to be, chasing false masters is destructive.  When we spend our lives trying to find joy through attachments we discover only one thing.  They don’t work.   With our attachments to the wrong masters comes certain inevitable companions:  destructive emotions such as fear, anger, jealousy, and depression.  It is inevitable.  Attachment to wealth, for example, ends up creating fear, and anger, and depression, when times are hard.  Even when times aren’t hard.. studies show that the very rich can never ever get enough.. And the more they have, the more they are driven to accumulate more. 

So what are our Ba’als?  What are we attached to do to the degree that we care controlled -  drawn – and pulled into anxiety, and fear and pain?  What is it for you?  Remember.  We can make practically anything a “master”  Money power fame, sex status, beliefs, food, clothes, self-image, a political ideology… you name it.

We need a solution.  For the people of Israel it was letting going of their false gods, and grabbing hold of the one true God, and of their identity as the people of God.

For us it is the same.  It is becoming attached to God..
It is finding through that attachment, our deepest our truest self
And knowing… that this is .. enough!

What is exciting is what happens when we actually begin to do this.
When we turn to God, rely on God, find ourselves in God
And find the joy, the peace, and yes, the love comes from that connection …..
Then we find the ability
Not perfectly, but to a much greater degree
To love others authentically

Because for the first time, we are loving from fullness and not from need

Think about that odd set of commandments set forth by Jesus.  In a real sense this is a summary of what I have been trying to say.  “Thou Shalt love the lord thy God with all your heart soul and might, and love thy neighbor as thy self."

There it is …. Love God
In that love we learn to love ourselves
In that love we are always full, we do not have to worry about deficit…
In that love we find the ability to reach out in love to others.

Wayne Muller tells of some people who have an amazing collection of teapots, many of which they collected in China.  Some of these teapots are several hundred years old.  According the collections the Chinese say that after a hundred years of daily use, the pot becomes thoroughly seasoned.  You need only pour hot water into the pot, and the pot itself will make tea

This is what happens when we turn inside, and find God’s love, again and again
And find our true selves, in that love, again and again…
Our lives come to hold the fragrance of that love… and we become loving ,forgiving and giving

So often we look “out there” for the solutions
So often we seen to pull toward ourselves, to pull resources “in” that we might be full and have what we need.  But we already have what we need.  We already have what we need  to be full.  We already have what we need to be generous, giving people.  Its in here…it’s the Spirit (big S)…the presence of God.  Its God’s amazing love.  It’s the true self that we find when we are connected to that love.

When we are full
We can live life a different way
We get out of ourselves, our worries, our issues, our opinions… and we can love

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