"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Friday, May 18, 2012

Letter to a Student

Dear Eve (not her real name)

I hope and pray that you are feeling better today. I find it ironic that of all people, you should chose to confide in me, because in many ways I too have been going through discouragement with the church and with "Christianity". I know it may sound cliché to say this, but you (we) are far from alone in these feelings. Statistics show that for many, disappointment has become the new normal. That is why one of the fastest growing segments of the population is called the "nones", named after the box people check which asks: Which religion or denomination do you affiliate with? None. A colleague shared with me that they too were suffering from depression and finally went to a doctor, admitted it was depression and had to go through different meds until they found one which "worked wonders". The person told me that the med has "literally saved my life." I'll leave you to ponder the implications of such a statement.

As I told you yesterday, I too have been under significant disappointments and stresses. It broke down my health. I had a cough for months (I'm finally a bit better), I had headaches for days on end (when I have rarely had headaches in my life), and found it hard to focus, to remember, to be "present" for things. I would be exhausted but couldn't sleep. I would joke but could not laugh. I wouldn't speak for days. I had to assure my wife that it had nothing to do with her, and indeed she was one of the few bright spots in my life. For me, part of the issue is the way I'm made up. All my life I have tended to internalize, to be pained by the insanity that goes on in the world. In the Christian world I lamented especially what for years I have called a gospel of vertical reconciliation (reconciling people to God) without the horizontal (people to each other), when horizontal reconciliation is the only religion the world can see. 

I have been helped by trying to focus on what positives I can, and by recalling the gratitude of students over the years in personal and written comments that I am doing something good, however small, to push against the tsunami of human selfishness and idiocy that at times seems to overwhelm all. In those moments, and in order to avoid being captivated to those moments, I take comfort in the simple teachings of Jesus, and in the little rays of light in the form normal kindnesses by ordinary people (non-Christian as much as Christian). I realize that I am learning some of the lessons that I have taught students through the years, and it allows me to exercise some patience, even as God has been immeasurably patient with me.

Faith is never more real than when we finally realize that we have nothing left. Nor can we get it from others. Indeed, borrowing it from (depending on the faith of, or lamenting the lack of it in) others only delays the journey we all must take. When you don't know whether to turn right or left in the serious matters. The tsunami comes and no miracle turns it away. People drown. The good die with the evil. When it rains it pours. The situation seems unbearable. It doesn't change. It doesn't change. Nothing comes to the rescue. In such situations, I don't believe that God holds it against us when we cry, "Where are you? If 85% of Americans say they're Christian, then how do you explain THIS? How come the greatest hurts I endure seem to come from Christians? Etc."

However, after all the questions and frustrations with God, a remarkable thing is when non-belief is no longer an option. You may be furious at God, but you do not, not believe in him. We may not want to believe. We angrily tell God so. We want to punish God for his apparent silence and deficiencies. Descartes once proved his existence by sheer reason alone: "I think, therefore, I am." Something similar could be said of us. We yell at God, therefore, he is. Non-belief is no longer an option.

Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally you may be utterly depleted and dejected. There is no earthly reason to believe. You're on the last mile of a marathon and your body is screaming, I'm done; stop or I'll kill you. The only thing that will take you over the finish line is sheer will supported by something I can only describe as a foundation, something in your past that is real throughout the surreal. A teaching, an act of kindness that summarizes all that is godly and good. The memory of paradigmatic expression of the law of love. God? Is it God? Was he there after all? Maybe we can't even name or describe it. But somehow it tells you not to be imprisoned by any one one moment of life in this world (bad or good for that matter). It tells you to take the longer view, to chose to hold to what good there is wherever you can find it. Because while at the current moment the good may seem like platinum specks on a mountain of dung, the good is now and always will be better and more treasured than the dung. Because if it is anything like good, then God was and is there. That too we chose to believe, with that something under us supporting us.

Call it the revenge of faith. Call it fake it till you make it. Believe till you become. I don't have answers any more about why religions so often fail to make people good. Well I do, but worrying about it has never brought me peace. But, like the disciples told Jesus, "Where else can we go. You have the words of life." (John 6:67-69)

Maybe you (and me) are in some ways at the beginning of our faith, or reviving it. We finally admit that we have nowhere else to go. We stop striving over things we cannot control, over answers that even if we had them, would not make us better (and would in all probability overwhelm us with the weight that only Christ can bear), we stop being imprisoned by the moment, by our anger, by the failure of others, by ourselves. We just believe -- in the face of everything that makes the option of faith seem ridiculous, and it is -- we just believe that Christ has the words of life. Like a child who trusts without question a loving parent who would do anything, even give her life, for their child, we find that childlike place of trust in Christ. And the tears come. But this time, not because we've been wounded by those who claim to know the divine quintessence of mercy and love, not because they've broken our heart. But because we've been healed by the divine quintessence of mercy and love. Because our heart is broken, but only because it is so full it cannot contain the beauty, and it overflows, the beauty. And the tears come, and it is sweet. It is so sweet.

Ruben Rivera

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Half a Beautiful Message

Half a Beautiful Message
By Ruben Rivera
Easter Day, 8 April 2012
The following story was inspired by actual historical events on earth. See, American Christianity: A Case Approach, R. C. White, Jr., L. B. Weeks, & Garth M. Rosell, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 71-3.
     Long ago, scientists from earth made some of the most important discoveries in all of human history. The first was a new technology that allowed us to see greater distances into the universe than any technology before it, by several orders of magnitude. The second, emerging from the first, was a new technology that allowed us to travel those distances as quickly as anything imagined in the annals of science fiction. The first led to the discovery of another world, many light years away, with intelligent life, though not nearly as advanced as ours. The second allowed us to travel there in only one month (earth time) and to encounter those intelligent beings.

     The results of the encounter were mixed at best. Many from earth saw this new world only as an opportunity for self-enrichment from the vast and (to them) criminally undeveloped land and resources. These were the earth colonizers, and they caused great wars with the indigenous, whom earthers called the Indi, both they and the planet, being fully aware (but none the wiser for it) of the connection to the ancient European discovery and conquest of the indigenous peoples of the Americas of earth. Like their earther counterparts, the Indi fought back fiercely to protect their lands and ways of life, but in the end were brutally defeated.

     Others saw this new world as something they had to harmonize with their long held religious creeds, which saw earthers as the greatest divine consequence in the universe. Who then were these extra-earthers? Why did God not so much as mention the Indi in the holy earth writings? Indi religions, if religions they were, made no mention of God's message of salvation as delivered to earth in the religion known as Christianity, and it was concluded that the Indi were therefore in the most dire need of it. These were the earth missionaries. And most (but not all of them) brought to the Indi only half of God's beautiful message.

     Many years after the conquest, several Indi clans had been removed from their traditional lands and sequestered together on what was then thought to be an out-of-the-way and insignificant stretch of land that the earthers called the Indi Domains. Outside of the Domains the Indi could not travel, settle, hunt, or so much as gather wood for a fire, under penalty of fine, imprisonment or death, according to earther laws that the Indi were allowed no input in making. However, inside the Domains earthers traveled, settled, hunted and gathered wood in violation of their own treaties, violations that became more frequent when metals and minerals rare on earth were discovered in abundance in the Domains. So new wars broke out as the Indi sought to protect what little remained of their land and ways.

     Into this crucible of conquest, duplicity, confusion and outrage came a young and zealous earther from the Earth-First Missionary Society. A great council was held in which the EFMS missionary shared with the Indi what to him was the most beautiful message in the universe:

--That the Indi had all their history been ignorant of the one and only true God of the universe.
--That they lived in a state of "sin" that had offended God and had broken their relationship to God, and that in this state of sin they would be damned forever after they died.
--Despite this, however, God (who the missionary described as the quintessence of love and mercy) had revealed "himself" to earthers long ago and delivered to them the most beautiful message of salvation.
--That if the Indi believed in the earther message and accepted this God and his act of mercy, their sins would be removed, their personal relationship to God would be restored, and after they died they would live forever in heaven, an incomparably beautiful place where all the saved peoples of the universe would live in peace, with no more hatred, lies, greed, theft, illness, hunger or wars.
--That the sole purpose of the earther was to bring this beautiful message to the Indi and to see them saved and restored in right relation to the one God of the universe.

     Now, all the clans of the Indi Domains had gathered at the council to hear the words of the earther. Afterward, they deliberated for a long time to consider what they had heard and to give an answer to the earther, for he had indicated that he would not leave the Domains until he had received an answer from them, yes or no. The clans chose as their common voice, Sun Lance, so named because an earther general had given her a weapon that fired laser blasts. The weapon was of course empty when the general gave it to her, but it was still useful as a spear, and even more as a symbol of her wisdom and leadership. Sun Lance stood up in the middle of the great assembly and spoke.

     "Earther, the clans of the Domains are happy to speak with one as straight-talking and as earnest as yourself. We have listened carefully to everything you have said, and have given serious consideration to what you have called the 'Beautiful Message of the One Way.' But we are all agreed that we must decline your message. We do not want to seem ungrateful, nor unreasonable, so I have been authorized to give you three reasons for our refusal.

     "First, if your God is the only God of the universe and is the God of supreme love and mercy, then we are troubled. Why did the loving God of the universe reveal the truth only to his earther children -- and even there, only to one small remote clan in a world of earthers -- while for eons leaving his Indi children in ignorance, an ignorance with great cost, for all who have died on Indi are, if what you say is true, in 'hell,' a place of eternal torment from which no redemption is possible. In truth, God, as you earthers present God, is very confusing in this respect. As things stand, this is not a God that we could find it in our hearts to love.

     "Second, the earther 'Beautiful Message' is more confusing still. For you say that there is only one God and only one way to know God. But can you please explain to us which one way you are referring to? For we have come into contact with many religious earthers all claiming that theirs is the 'Beautiful Message of the One Way,' even as they disagree about it. We have seen them speak evil of each other and their respective messages, and have even seen them come to blows. Indeed, we have heard that you earthers have had great wars over this Beautiful Message of the One Way. Therefore, since it is clear that you earthers do not agree, how can you expect us to choose? In choosing your 'one way,' will we not then become the enemy of your enemies? And if some of the clans in the Domains accept one version of the 'one way,' and other clans except another, and other clans still another, will we not then become divided and fight among ourselves over things we cannot even see, even as you fight among yourselves? 

     "Third and finally, we refuse your message because it is only half beautiful. We have no doubt that you earthers think it uniquely and flawlessly beautiful, since you travel great distances and spend your lives and enormous resources, and use coercion and even violence devoted to persuading others to join you in accepting it, or in defending it from the questions and ways of non-believers. We also do not doubt that you believe yourselves to have been contacted by the one God and that the God of love and mercy has restored you to God. But if this is true, why are you not restored to one another, you who claim to believe the beautiful message, let alone to us? You earthers quarrel and fight among each other as much as you do with we who are from Indi.

     "This then is what we have decided. Many earthers have entered into the Domains in violation of your own laws. They take lands without our approval, extract what they believe is valuable without any recompense to us, find habitation without concern to making us homeless, hunt nearly to extinction the animals of the forests without concern for our hunger, claim the best water without so much as offering us a sip.

     "Therefore, we want you earthers to preach to your own fellow earthers who surround us. If we see that your message causes them to stop lying to us and stop stealing our lands that you yourselves promised would be ours forever, 'as long as the seas brine and the stars shine,' in the words of your many earther treaties. If they give their sons and daughters to be married to our sons and daughters, so that they then treat us like their own family, concerned for our welfare, peace and justice as much as their own. Then will your half a beautiful message turn into a whole beautiful message. If your half a beautiful message of restored relation to God becomes proven in restored relations to others, then come again and we will listen to what you have to say.

     "You earthers have come to us with only half a beautiful message. This cannot be the mistake of the God of the universe but your own. Go back to earth and find the other half. Then come back to us and you will be most welcome."

Sunday, April 1, 2012


By Ruben Rivera
Originally composed, January 2012

we are what we desire yet
few there are who show or
can that such was never ours
countless grasping hands
have ploughed the virgin soil
in furrows deep as worry and
hollow as the grave declaring
you're nothing without me
and so the self before
it knew itself and since
to that one true thing
to happy here and then
to missing god-shaped
puzzle piece are
someone's handsome profit
until we hurl the plough
upon the cold and smoky
ground and the dead are left
to rot in all those graves

Saturday, March 24, 2012


By Ruben Rivera
24 March 2012

Today we long for tomorrow.
Tomorrow we long for the past.
One disregards time is borrowed.
The other that time will not last

When did we ruin time travel?
When did the future become 
supreme, synonymous with progress,
and that synonymous with better, 
and that synonymous with 
ever upward, ever more, evermore,
at warp speed, make it so?
We are time travelers, yes. In a
mirror, through spanning telescope,
through books and bones and
rings and bits of memories, the
remains of our actions still ripping
through time and space, flesh and
bone and all the chains of being. 
A nano second, a billion years, 
the past alone is our portal, the past
alone is teacher and guide. 
when did we become futuristic time 
travelers who don't know how to pack?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thirty Years

By Ruben Rivera.

Thirty years
and still the best part of my day is coming home to you.
30 years
and still I love you
and you me.
1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1 years
and still the best part of my day is coming home
to you.
XXX years.
That's like 200 in dog years
and God knows how many in rat
and still the best part of my day is coming home
to you.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Psalm of Life

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
One of the great 19th century American "fireside poets"
whose fairly accessible metered and rhymed poetry 
became widely popular, memorized and recited in schools, 
and as entertainment around the family hearth 
and social gatherings.

What the heart of the young man said to the Psalmist

    TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
        Life is but an empty dream! —
    For the soul is dead that slumbers,
        And things are not what they seem.
    Life is real!   Life is earnest!
        And the grave is not its goal;
    Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
        Was not spoken of the soul.
    Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
        Is our destined end or way;
    But to act, that each to-morrow
        Find us farther than to-day.
    Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
        And our hearts, though stout and brave,
    Still, like muffled drums, are beating
        Funeral marches to the grave.
    In the world's broad field of battle,
        In the bivouac of Life,
    Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
        Be a hero in the strife!
    Trust no Future, howe'er pleasant!
        Let the dead Past bury its dead!
    Act,— act in the living Present!
        Heart within, and God o'erhead!
    Lives of great men all remind us
        We can make our lives sublime,
    And, departing, leave behind us
        Footprints on the sands of time;
    Footprints, that perhaps another,
        Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
    A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
        Seeing, shall take heart again.
    Let us, then, be up and doing,
        With a heart for any fate;
    Still achieving, still pursuing,
        Learn to labor and to wait.

"Life in this world will be full
when we realize the grave is empty."
Ruben Rivera

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Are You Smarter Than A 4th Grader?

 A few weeks ago I was listening to NPR in my car. Conservative Christians in the state of Iowa were discussing if they would vote for Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich largely on the basis of party loyalty and ignore the fact that he is far from the family values candidate (something they would clearly never do if the candidate was a Democrat). In other words, would conservative Christians suspend their much vaunted beliefs, hold their noses and vote party, anything to defeat President Obama later this year?

One prominent evangelical leader put it this way: "I hate Obama," but I'm not sure what to do about Gingrich, particularly as Gingrich has often touted the sanctity of marriage while engaging in marital infidelities. Another problem for this evangelical leader was the fact that Gingrich had switched from the Protestant faith to the Catholic religion of his latest wife.

What struck me most about all this was how easy this evangelical leader said on national radio, "I hate Obama", and I've heard this invective against Obama by conservative Christians many, many times from the time then Senator Barack Obama began his bid for the U.S. presidency up to this very day.

This is actually not a political post. What I'm really getting at is this. How do people who claim to follow the one who said to love even our enemies, demonize and hate so much? How do we so easily create "otherness"? Otherness that has no feelings or pain that touch us, otherness that has no humanity we are bound to consider or respect, otherness that can become downright demonic, since the invective would indicate that the "other" have no redeeming virtues at all?

I think my wife is a brilliant public school teacher. She has to teach children who have been bred as super-consumers, children with the largest personal disposable income in history (spending some $45 to $50 billion a year), children who influence parental buying to the tune of $750+ billion a year, children for whom almost everyone, including teachers, are little more than customer service reps, and they the consumers are always right. As you can imagine this kind of culture breeds constant school disruption and disrespect in endless forms.

One day my wife asked her 4th graders, who is the most important person in the world to you? They responded, as you would expect, their parents; next their friends. Parents, then friends, were the people in the world they loved and respected the most. My wife then asked why they didn't love and respect the kids that were not in their clique, or even their teachers, treating them cruelly at times, bringing them tears and pain? It stopped them cold. Why don't you treat us like you treat your parents and your friends? I am botching this story because I cannot capture a moment so powerful that several children began to cry, including boys, repentantly. It was the first time that some of them realized that their teacher and other kids they excluded from their lives and hurt are human in the same way that their parents are human, in the same way that their close friends are human, in the same way that they themselves are human.

This lesson left an impact on the children and as a result, my wife tells me, some of them are more sensitive about the way they treat others. In a political and economic culture unfriendly to this principle, one wonders if it will survive into their adulthood. Leaving that aside, I thought about this a good while, and it came to me that maybe this is at least a part of what Jesus meant when he said that, "Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matthew 18:2). In any case, some 4th graders learned something real about treating others the way they want to be treated (Matthew 7:12), making them far smarter than many adults today. Are you smarter than a 4th grader?