Friday, April 30, 2010

Jesus' Original Message

The first recorded message of Jesus was simple, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." He preached it for three years of public ministry. Sometimes he called it the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes he added the words "Repent" or "The time is fulfilled." But the basic message was clear.

Jesus told his disciples, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God." And he sent them out to reveal the mystery to any who would listen. "And as you go, preach, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand.'"

You don't hear Jesus' followers proclaiming this message much these days. Maybe it is because they don't know the mystery of the kingdom. People can't preach what they don't know.

The Kingdom of God is "at hand." That does not mean it was coming soon. That would make Jesus into a liar, since it has been 2000 years since he said it. It means that the kingdom is within arm's reach. Reach out your hand, and you touch the Kingdom. I picture Jesus spreading his arms saying, "It is right here! See for yourself!"

He often prefaced it with the command "Repent." Repent literally means to rethink, to think again, to think in a new way. Billy Graham was fond of saying that it means to turn around. It is a good translation. Turn your thinking around. Turn your seeing around. Instead of looking outward, turn inward. There it is.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus for a date for the arrival of the kingdom he replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you." It is not seen with physical sight, but with spiritual sight.

When Pilate asked him about his kingdom Jesus responded, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now my kingdom is not from here."

On one occasion Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power." The fact is that everyone who stood there listening to Jesus died. So either Jesus was mistaken, a liar, or "a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg" (as C.S. Lewis was fond of saying.) Or some of those standing there truly saw a kingdom "present with power" which abolished in them the taste of death.

Jesus' message was of a spiritual kingdom experienced spiritually. This doesn't eliminate future eschatological manifestations of the kingdom in time and space. I am still expecting the return of Christ in glory. But his main message is that the Kingdom of God - the spiritual realm of God's presence - is here now. As Jesus said, "Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?" Repent, The kingdom of God is at hand.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Don't Call Me Names

For 33 years I have been an ordained minister. People called me Pastor or Preacher. Some called me Reverend, and a few called me Doctor, which was confusing to medical workers when I was doing hospital visits. On formal occasions I have been introduced as The Reverend Doctor. Once I even got a letter from a school principal addressed to The Most Reverend, even though I am a Baptist minister, not a Catholic bishop.

One older gentleman in New Hampshire used to call me Parson whenever he saw me. I liked this title. Parson is simply an old form of the word "person." It made me feel more like a person. I even wrote a church newsletter article to my flock suggesting that they call me Parson. It never stuck. 

When I left full-time ministry, people did not know what to call me any more. They stammered when addressing me on the phone or meeting me in a store, and especially when introducing me to others. I reminded them that I had a name before I had a title. Now that I am "out of office" everyone calls me Marshall.

Jesus felt a similar discomfort with titles and labels. He told his disciples not to call him Christ in public. On one occasion a man addressed Jesus as "Good Teacher."  Jesus responded sharply, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God." That raises all kinds of Christological issues that I will not address here.

On another occasion Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for loving their titles and the privileges that came with them. He told his disciples not to be like them.  "Do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ."

I know there is a place for ecclesiological roles, but Jesus points beyond them to a more important truth. There is only One who is truly our Rabbi, Teacher and Father. All others get in the way of the One. All teachers are merely pointers to the Teacher. All fathers are signposts to the Father. All true leaders lead to the Leader.

There is only One. That is why he is called One. "Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God, the Lord is One." When we have lost sight of the One, we use titles. When we have forgotten the One, we start religions. When we can't experience the One, we need rituals. We insist on names when we no longer know the Nameless One.

When Moses asked the name of the One who spoke in the Burning Bush, God responded "I am who I am." The truth is Being Itself, as Paul Tillich used to say. Names just get in the way.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Memories of Eden

In his book, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis relates an experience of beauty that he had as a child. His brother had constructed a miniature garden out of moss and twigs placed in the lid of a biscuit tin. For some inexplicable reason this piece of childhood art triggered an intense vision of paradise in the young Lewis.

Years later he relived the experience and described it in these words: "It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton's 'enormous bliss' of Eden (giving the full ancient meaning to 'enormous') comes somewhere near it."

In a moment the experience was gone. He says, "The world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison." Lewis called his experience "the memory of memory.... as if from a depth not of years but of centuries."

We all have moments like this. These moments of beauty and peace and joy are glimpses of eternity. They are memories of Eden. Lewis says of his experience, "As long as I live, my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother's toy garden."

I have had moments like. My life is marked by memories of Eden, my true home. They prompted my spiritual search as a teen, triggered my conversion to Christ in my twenties, and led me into fulltime ministry. When church and religion threatened to extinguish them altogether, I left ministry to recover them.

There are certain places in the natural world that I can go today where memories of such encounters trigger new encounters. These are my holy places. They are not shrines or historical sites, but wilderness places of quiet and peace.

You have had moments like these. Think of those times in your life of deep joy and peace. It may have been an experience of nature, music, art, family, worship or prayer - a time when time seemed to stop, space seemed to drop away, and you dwelled in profound peace.

Return to that time in your imagination, and you can relive the experience. This is when we touch the essence of who we truly are, what the world truly is, and who God really is. This is the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. We know intuitively that this spiritual realm is always at hand but not always perceived.

I find such moments now in prayer regularly. I get to my knees, and the world often becomes translucent to the Word behind the world. But then the heaviness of physicality returns, leaving only the "memory of the memory," as Lewis says, "a longing for the longing that had just ceased."

To live in this real world that lies behind the concrete veil of the physical world is my heart's desire. It is the home from which I came, toward which I am headed, and in which I live. As the apostle Paul quoted the ancient poet as saying, "In Him we live and move and have our being."  In Him I know myself, and all is well. Outside Him, I am a stranger in a strange land.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Spiritual Life of Children

Every Sunday our church has a "blessing of the children." All the kids come to the front of the sanctuary, and one of the elders prays over them. Then they head off to Children's Worship. It is one of my favorite parts of worship. There is something about the spirit of a child that communicates God to me. It is as good as a sermon... maybe better.

Jesus says some wonderful things about children and spiritual life. On one occasion parents were bringing their children to Jesus for him to bless them. The disciples didn't like the idea. They began to rebuke them. Jesus rebukes the rebukers saying, "Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

On another occasion Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

I know the Christian doctrines of original sin and the fall of man. I know they are important for understanding salvation, even though I don't remember Jesus saying much about these ideas. In any case these concepts need to be balanced by Jesus' teaching about children's natural connection to the Kingdom of God.

The natural state of children gives us a glimpse into the Kingdom of God. These little ones have no need for conversion ... at least not yet. They are somehow still "of the kingdom of God" according to Christ. Don't ask me how. My seminary courses in Baptist theology never really explored the spiritual condition of children, except to talk about an undefined "age of accountability" at which point they were eligible for baptism.

Jesus seems to think these little ones are all right the way they are. In fact adults need to become like them to enter the kingdom of heaven. Maybe small children have not yet eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I know the smallest ones haven't yet followed the example of Adam by naming everything in sight.

They don't yet have both feet in this divided world of multiplicity. There is still a natural wholeness in the way they view the world, a directness and clarity in the way they see reality. They are close enough to their birth to remember the face of the Creator who knit them together in their mother's womb. They still see the Kingdom of Heaven through the veil of time and space.

It is not that children are sinless. Any parent of a two-year old knows the willful selfish streak that runs in every human child. But it seems like our sinfulness takes time to fully erase the memory of our original state.

In any case, I see heaven in the face of a child. I see myself the way I used to be - the way I still am under this heavy knowledge of good and evil. Through their eyes I see again the Kingdom of Heaven. Thank God for children; they are my spiritual teachers.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight

The prophet Isaiah said, "Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel." It is an interesting thought. It is certainly my experience.

The Bible says that God has revealed himself to his chosen people Israel and to all mankind. Indeed the Bible purports to be a record of that revelation... or the revelation itself, depending on your understanding of the nature of scripture. Yet my experience is that of Isaiah: God is a God who hides himself.

My experience of prayer is that God is powerfully present with me, yet also hiding. Not intentionally. It is just his nature. When I pray I have the sensation that God is not anywhere "out there." It feels like God is behind me. If I turned around quickly enough maybe I could catch him playing hide and seek. He is palpably present, yet out of my field of vision.

One of my favorite theologians is the fourteenth century preacher German Meister Eckhart. He said in one of his sermons, "The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me." That sounds right. I could likewise say that the ear with which I hear God is the ear with which God hears me. God is so present that there is no place to hide.

Muhammad (dare a Christian quote the Quran?) said that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. That also seems right. I can hear him in the rhythm of my heart and in the movement of my breath. God is not an object to be seen or heard or known. He is the Subject. He is the Knower. He is the Pray-er.

The apostle Paul said, "The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."

The Spirit prays in us ... for us ... through us. John Main says, "Prayer is the life of the Spirit of Jesus within our human heart. The Spirit prays in us and we consent." This is not only the pattern in prayer, but also in everyday life. Another fourteenth century Christian, Teresa of Avila, wrote this poem: 
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, 
No hands but yours, No feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks at the world; 
Yours are the feet with which he walks; 
Yours are the hands with which he blesses men now.

Christ said that he is the hungry, thirsty, poor and imprisoned person right in front of us. As we have acted toward them, we have acted toward him. God is hiding in plain sight. Too close to see. Too near to ignore.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tea Time

I went to a Tea Party rally yesterday. Don't judge me too quickly. I went to an Obama rally two years ago right across the street from this site. So I am not expressing my political loyalties by attending such a rally. It is just that there is not much to do in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Besides watching the rivers flow and the smokestacks smoke, there is not much excitement around here. Furthermore I had heard and read a lot about this movement - both good and bad - so I went to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

They were meeting in front of the county courthouse, so I texted my daughter and her husband who live nearby. I told them to meet my wife and me at the courthouse for tea. I almost tricked her into coming until she found out that it was politically flavored tea. They walked to the courthouse with us, but then they kept on walking to Starbucks. That was more their cup of tea.

I got right in there and rubbed shoulders with real gun-carrying conservatives. There were the typical handshaking politicians working the crowd, looking for votes. I told them the truth, "I don't vote for ruling party candidates.  You got us into this mess. I vote only for third parties or independents now. I want my vote to count."

Conservative radio personalities were the featured speakers, and patriotic songs were sung ... badly. There were no radicals that I could see. Some placards connected Obama with socialism, but I've seen more offensive signs at anti-Bush rallies.

There were just a lot of flags and copies of the Constitution floating around. There was more talk of taxes and gun rights than anything else. In short, it seemed that these were pretty ordinary folks with some gripes. There was anger expressed at "the other side," but no more than at any political rally.

Then I crossed to the other side - literally. On the opposite side of the street was the regular weekly demonstration of the local peace organization - the kind of people who promote the "social and economic justice" that Glenn Beck finds so dangerous. These people held signs against war and for healthcare.

I didn't really see the point of the pro-healthcare reform placards. Didn't they already win that battle? I guess old habits die hard. Or maybe they just hadn't found time to make new signs. Anyway they were advertising a folk concert with a banner that read "Make Music - Not War." That sounded good. I took down the info. I like music more than war too.

These left-leaning folks also seemed like nice ordinary people. It struck me that both sides were protesting against actions of the same government. If they could only get together with their neighbors across the street, they might accomplish something. But that would call for bipartisan cooperation, which is rare these days on any side of the street.

So ... that was my excitement for a nice spring Saturday. But I tell you one thing. Next weekend, the Tea Partiers will be gone, but the Peaceniks will be there, as they have been every Saturday from 1:00 to 2:00 for years ... rain or snow or sun. I have to respect them for that. Plus they have better music.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Prone to Wander

I have been away from home a lot lately - Massachusetts last weekend, Florida the week before. As I peruse the calendar, I see I will be away from home a lot in the coming months. Ohio for a college reunion, New Hampshire for a two week vacation, Hawaii for a wedding, and then New Hampshire again for a couple of months. It is not work that carries me away from home. It is my nature. I am prone to wander.

One of my favorite hymns is "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing." My favorite stanza is this one:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I'm constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

I was disturbed recently when I heard this song on the radio. I began to sing along only to discover that the words had been changed. (I assume Amy Grant changed them since she was singing it.) In place of "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love" she substituted, "Never let me wander from thee, Never leave thee God I love." Nice prayer, but it only makes sense when we acknowledge that we are prone to wander in the first place.

I pray a lot these days - more than I ever did when I was in fulltime ministry. And I pray differently than before. Most of my prayer time is spent wordlessly abiding in God. I rest my mind in the mind of Christ. I enjoy the spaciousness of the presence of God. My Father knows what I need before I ask him. I am home.

But even when on my knees, I am prone to wander. My mind drifts into godless thoughts, and my heart wanders into profane territory. My body follows my heart with tension and tightness. When I become aware of my wandering, I repent (which literally means "rethink") and return home to the joyous embrace of the Father.

Like a prodigal son I leave home, squander my inheritance, and return home several times in the space of a half hour. Every time I come home, I am welcomed with open arms as if I had never left.

Two thousand years ago Pliny the Elder wrote, "Home is where the heart is." Not for me. My heart is in a far country. My home is where God is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hearing Silence, Seeing Darkness

A hundred and fifty years ago Henry David Thoreau wrote, "Thank God men cannot fly, and lay waste the sky as well as the earth."  Fifty years later men were flying, and it was not long before the pollution of the skies followed. We hardly notice the obscuration of the heavens anymore until it is temporarily gone.

Recently the people of England saw blue skies for the first time in recent memory. The eruption of the volcano in Iceland grounded all British and European flights for days. The result was that the jet exhausts dissipated. The haze of contrails and manmade cirrus clouds faded. The skies turned brilliant blue again ... for a few days. At night some people could actually see the stars.

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's poet laureate, was so excited to see the sky that she wrote a poem: "Five miles up the hush and shush of ash/Yet the sky is as clean as a white slate/I could write my childhood there."

Not only were the skies bluer and brighter, they were quieter as well. Londoners remarked that they could actually carry on a conversation in their backyards across their neighbor's fence.

This silence is what I notice most when I get away from the incessant roar of civilization. When I get into the countryside I can hear the quiet again. It always comes as a surprise. I didn't realize how much I missed silence until I hear it again.

I live in a suburban area. Not real close to a big city or major highway ... but still too close. The sounds of motor vehicles on nearby roads have become the background noise of my life.

The same is true with the outdoor artificial light. Neighbors all around me keep exterior lights blazing all night. I guess it is to keep the bogeyman away - the adult equivalent of childhood nightlights. I had to purchase light-blocking window shades for my bedroom just so it was dark enough to sleep.

It is a treat to go to an area where I can see the dark and hear the silence.  That is what prayer is like for me. Everyday life has too much ambient light and noise. I retreat into my prayer closet and close the door. 

Then I go "further up and further in" (to quote C.S. Lewis) and leave the background chatter of my mind behind. In the spacious quiet of God's kingdom, I glimpse the clear blue skies of heaven and hear the silence of God's voice.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Theophany of Eyjafjallajökull

The most fascinating part of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull has not been its effect on aviation. It has been the photos.  It looks like the end of the world - something out of the Book of Revelation. The world turns dark in the middle of the day. Ash turns the landscape into a monochrome gray. An apocalyptic plague covers this tiny North Atlantic nation.

The most fascinating photos are the ones of lightning in the ash cloud. Plumes of steam and ash rise thirty thousand feet into the air, and from the middle of the cloud comes lightning and thunder! I wouldn't have imagined that such a thing were possible. But it seems that the same conditions that make for the standard thunderstorm lightning is present in a volcanic ash cloud. Who knew?

As I ponder the photos, I see more than a pyrotechnic display. I see a theophany. In Revelation the apostle John witnessed lightning, thunder, and fire burning before the throne of God. The people of Israel stood at the foot of the sacred mountain Sinai and witnessed a similar display of cloud and lightning, and the people trembled.

Nowadays people don't tremble, they complain. The volcano is disrupting their travel plans. It is unexpectedly extending their European vacation. It is delaying their work or school. It is costing them money. Waa, waa, waa. Call the wambulance. Where is the wonder? Where is the awe!

When God wanted to reveal his divine attributes to Job, he appeared in a whirlwind and challenged Job with images of his power displayed in nature. For four chapters God describes the wonders of creation. I picture this scene at the end of the Book of Job as more than words. I imagine God displaying images to Job's mind. Job's response is to stop complaining and repent in dust and ashes.

Our response to the theophany of Eyjafjallajökull is to complain and want things to get back to normal as quickly as possible. Displays of God's power in nature have become a bother. People look at this Icelandic volcano and see a problem to be overcome, an obstacle to be avoided. I see God.

This is why we are mindlessly destroying our environment. It is because we no longer discern the divine in creation. We no longer stand in awe of volcanoes or earthquakes, rain forests or glaciers. All we see is the loss of money and time. I hear God speaking... just in time for Earth Day.

Rush Limbaugh said he also heard God speaking in the volcano. He said it was God's way of protesting Obama's healthcare reform. The apostle Paul is more on track. "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse." It is not about us. It is all about God, if we only had ears to listen.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Someone Entirely Different

I guess heaven is on her mind ... that is, my 87-year-old mother-in-law's mind. During a recent visit, she asked me if we would be able to recognize people in heaven. Actually she prefaced the question with the words "I may have asked you this before..." The truth is she has asked me this question several times before.

I replied in my pastoral tone of voice, "Yes, you asked me that before - but that's okay - and I said, 'Yes, we will recognize people in heaven.'" I phrased my reply carefully. I did not say "yes." I said that I said "yes." The truth is I am starting to rethink the question. But I have no new answer to give, so I stuck with the old answer. No need to raise doubts at this stage of her life. But the truth is that I am not so sure I would even recognize myself in heaven.

When I see old photos of myself, I think, "Who is that?" I am not the same person I was. I have read that every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. Some cells rejuvenate quicker than others. Skin cells are replaced every thirty days. Nerve cells take much longer. But in any case our bodies are continually replacing aged and damaged cells. Every seven years we find ourselves with entirely different bodies. We are literally reincarnated (re-embodied) several times during our lifetime.

Sometimes bodies change so dramatically over time that we do not even recognize a person. A few years ago I was talking to a minister for several minutes before a worship service. I did not know him. It was not until I heard him sing during the service that I recognized him as an old friend.

We are not the same person physically that we used to be. Neither are we the same person psychologically. I am not the same person I was twenty or forty years ago. I think and feel differently. In fact I am so different that it seems fair to conclude that I am not the same person, any more than I am the same body.

If I am not the same person physically or psychologically, then who am I? Who is the permanent "I" that is not my temporary body and my changing personality? Is there a permanent I? Or am I as temporary as my body and mind? If there is an "I," which "I" will "I" be in heaven? Will I be an "I" that I would not recognize if I bumped into me on the streets of gold?

I am not my temporary changing I. Of that, I am sure. I am someone entirely different.  I know that I will survive the final dissolution of this body. I am not so sure I will recognize the immortal I. Maybe I will recognize me when I sing. But one thing I know: I am, whoever I am.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Jesus said, "You must be born again." So many pastors have preached on these famous words so often that we assume we know what they mean. But what if the familiarity of these words has blinded us to their meaning?

It is commonly acknowledged in Christian circles that many preachers have cheapened the meaning of being "born again" in order to win converts. The phrases "easy believism" and "cheap grace" come to mind.

To be "born again" can mean little more than accepting a few doctrines about Jesus and repeating a "sinners prayer." Then presto! - you have won a free ticket to heaven - and you get to sit in a pew for the rest of your life.

Even responsible theologians associate the concept of being "born again" chiefly with the traditional Christian understandings of faith and conversion. Let's hear Jesus' words without the evangelical filter.

He says to Nicodemus: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Jesus is speaking about seeing what he calls "the kingdom of God." He is describing a shift in perception and awareness.

Nicodemus doesn't see. He ridicules the idea. So Jesus repeats it more forcefully, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." It is not just about seeing, it is about entering. Being born again is not a religious waiting room with a view of heaven; it is an entrance into a divine realm.

We are still in this physical world, but we are also in another world. We are in the flesh but we are also in the Spirit. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'"

There is an element of mystery connected to being born again. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." According to Jesus, those born of the Spirit don't know if they are coming or going. Furthermore it "cannot be told."  It can be experienced, but not explained.

Jesus is describing a spiritual transition as significant as the movement from the womb to the world - an awakening from the cramped fetal existence of ordinary human life into the spaciousness of God's life.

Jesus shares this spiritual teaching with the religious teacher. Nicodemus is unwilling or unable to grasp it. He has so much religious knowledge that he is not open to the unknown. His religion is too precious to give up for a new life. He is like the rich man who would not give up his riches to follow Jesus. The only difference is that Nicodemus' riches are religious rather than monetary.

I know how he felt. I have been a religious leader all my adult life. But things are different now. So why not? Besides, I have always like the sound of wind. For some reason, it reminds me of home.

Image is Mayan Mask of Death & Rebirth, Tikal, Mexico. 900 AD,

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Blind Man's Bluff

The other day I was taking a walk and enjoying the blossoming of spring. I was seeing the colors, hearing the sounds, and smelling the scents of the awakening earth. Then a realization awakened in me. I was looking at the wonders of God's creation, and it dawned on me how differently God sees this universe.

We perceive the world through the filters of our senses. But science tells us that our senses give us only a partial picture of the world. We see only a small range of available light. We are blind to infrared and x-rays for example. We hear only a fraction of the sound waves. Even dogs hear more. Our sense of smell is almost nonexistent compared to other animals. Our senses of taste and touch are similarly stunted.

These are the only ways that we have to perceive the world. There are millions of other ways to perceive the universe - ways that we cannot imagine. Even our five senses are distorted by our interpretation of the data. We are normally too preoccupied to really notice what we are seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling. Our brains are too small and slow to fully receive or process the information we receive.

But God has no physical body. God does not have physical senses. God is spirit. He perceives every aspect of the universe directly without the intermediaries of physical senses or the editing function of a brain. He knows things as they are. We perceive a rough approximation. It is probably more accurate to describe our perception as a gross distortion.

In other words, the world we perceive is a delusion compared to what God perceives. Our world is a composite picture put together from distorted data using flawed analytical equipment. We have no idea what reality is really like. We are lost and blind, navigating the world in complete ignorance.

The closest thing we have to sight is admitting that we are blind. The nearest thing we have to knowledge is knowing that we cannot know. This is the extent of our human wisdom.

The blind man healed by Jesus said, "One thing I know. Once I was blind, but now I can see." The one thing I know is that I don't know. The one thing I see is that I can't see.

And yet there is a seeing beneath the senses and a knowing behind the knower - not with the mind or body but with the spirit. Seeing the world with the eyes of God, knowing the world with the mind of Christ ... at least in part.

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I am fully known."

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Jesus prayed that we may be one. He prayed "that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us."  He asked God, "that they may be one just as we are one: I in them, and you in me; that they may be made perfect in one...."

These words are often interpreted to refer to ecclesiastical unity, ecumenical cooperation, or local church harmony. Church lovefests are nice, but Jesus is speaking about something more profound than getting along with other humans. He is speaking about unity with God.

During the early centuries of Christianity, church bigwigs spent a lot of time in ecumenical councils trying to figure out exactly how God the Son is one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. They pondered the humanity of Jesus and how it relates to his divinity. When they thought they had it figured out, and they wrote their conclusions in carefully worded doctrinal statements.

It makes for good seminary material for aspiring ministers.  But Jesus was not praying for professional theologians. He is praying for ordinary folks. Pondering the intricacies of the Trinity may be important, but I am more concerned with my life in God.

Jesus prayed that our oneness with him and God would be the same as his oneness to God. Ponder his request for a moment: Oneness with God....

Doctrinal investigation is good mental exercise, and it is important on the intellectual level. But these days I am more interested in experiential theology. My heart needs to experience Jesus' prayer more than my head needs to understand it. Somewhere beneath my head and heart, I am soul or spirit - or whatever theologians want to call it. There is where I experience the truth of Jesus' prayer.

There is where Jesus' prayer is answered. When the prayer was answered I do not know - whether at my conversion, at the cross, on Easter morning, or when the Lamb was slain at the foundation of the world. Whenever it happened, it is eternally true now.

It is true whether or not the church can label it, understand it, explain it or doctrinize it. We are one as God is one, as God is in Jesus and Jesus in God and Jesus in us. We are one ... perfect in one.

Don't ask me to draw lines around this oneness, or make distinctions within this oneness. Then it would not be one. Don't ask me to describe it in philosophical terms. Don't just believe it, be it. Be the answer to Jesus' answer.

Art is "Oneness" by Cornelis Monsma, Oil on panel, inspired by John 17:22.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Divine Moments

I have spent all my adult life as a Christian religious leader. But the most divine moments of my life have not been in church. Don't get me wrong. I love church. I am in church every Sunday. I am not one who self-righteously rejects "organized religion" and says that he can worship God just as well outdoors. But the truth is ... that I can worship God just as well outdoors. Usually even better.

I love to fellowship with Christians and worship God through Scripture and song, but my most direct moments of worship have been in Nature. The most sublime moments of my life have been moments of direct awareness of God unmediated by religion. I hear God more clearly when I hear him directly, when his message is not channeled through imperfect human interpreters in pulpits. I should know, because I am one of those imperfect human interpreters.

These days all have I have to do is think about God, and I am already experiencing God. It is as if I never left - which of course I haven't. How could I? I am always here, and so is God! But I cannot seem to describe the experience.

In fact it is inaccurate to even call it experience. It is certainly not "my" experience. It is not something I possess, but that which is the subject of all possessions. The cattle on a thousand hills are his; so are a thousand experiences of the hills. It is the awareness of experience.

Some places prompt this awareness more easily than others. The mountains do it, especially the view from a mountaintop. The sound of a mountain stream does it. Lakes do it. The ocean does it. The starry heavens do it. The Grand Canyon does it.

But it does not have to be something grand. These days any sentient being can prompt this awareness of the divine. For Jesus it was the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. For me almost any wildlife in the wild will do it. It does not even have to be alive. Every inanimate object is the creation of the Divine. A wicker chair can point to the Kingdom of God.

I am not talking about thoughts or feelings. That is why I do not call it experience. But thoughts and feelings are there. I am sure you know what I am speaking about, because everyone has experienced this. It is the connection between Creation and Creator. It is wonder, joy, peace, love, joy, and awe.

It is direct apprehension of the God who stands behind the word "God." The word "God" does not describe God any more than the word "chair" describes a chair. Yet this is the best word I have in my Christian vocabulary.

Timelessness. Eternity. Beauty. Power. Grace. Glory. All words are pointers. They are no more likely to reach the Reality of which they speak than the tower of Babel is able to reach heaven. Unity beyond multiplicity ... in multiplicity. Always present. Nothing but Presence.

This is Christ who is the Eternal Word "through whom all things were made that were made." All Christian doctrines point to this Truth but cannot contain it. The Cross speaks of it. The Resurrection witnesses to it. Salvation, grace and faith reach for it. Bible stories revel in it. Yet none of these come close to containing it. He is "I am." Words seem to be getting in the way now, so I will stop writing and let you be.
Art is "CUMULUS WONDER" by Edwin Tuts, acrylic on hardboard

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Life as a Wave

 They say that human beings are seventy percent water. The Bible says that our bodies were formed from the earth, but I think our blood must come from the sea. Salt water runs in my veins.

I just got back from visiting the ocean. We made our semi-annual trip to see my aging in-laws in Orlando. As my reward for behaving myself and not getting into any family feuds, I get to take a side trip to the ocean for a couple of days. This year we chose three days and two nights at Daytona Beach.

I would not identify the Spring Break capital of Florida as a spiritual mecca, but it served that purpose for me. I got to lie by the ocean for hours and listen to the sea. I have explained in an earlier blog about the ocean's role in my spiritual awakening. These trips are refresher courses. The Master of the wind and the waves speaks to my soul.

It is well known that the rhythms of the tides and the moon have an effect on the biological and emotional rhythms of human life. The ocean has a similar effect on my spiritual life. "Deep calls out to deep" to quote the Psalm.

I hear the surf crash on the shore, and it speaks to me of life and death. Each wave is a life that ends at the continent's edge. How long did that wave live? How far did it roll? All the way from Africa perhaps, or the middle of the Atlantic?

At the seashore I glimpse the beginning of creation. Genesis says that before there was light and the first day, there was the wind blowing over the face of the deep. The universe began with waves on primordial waters. That is where we all began. That is when I was born.

The apostle Paul said that God chose us before the foundation of the world. We had a beginning in God before the beginning of creation. That is our end as well. A wave begins its life far out at sea. It ends at the feet of toddlers enjoying a day at the beach. We start as a wave and return to the sea. Blessed be the Lord of the earth and the sea.
Photographer Clark Little caught this wave just as it splashed back into the sea.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Beautiful Mind

The apostle says, "We have the mind of Christ." It is an extraordinary statement. It has such wide-ranging consequences that it could change everything.

The phrase clearly refers to our experience of the indwelling Christ, "Christ in me, the hope of glory." We are earthly creatures filled with the divine, having "treasure in earthen vessels," as the apostle describes it.

At our spiritual rebirth, we die and the Spirit is born within us. Our bodies become vessels of God, temples of the Spirit, parts of the body of Christ. Our spirits are indwelled by God's Spirit. Our minds are indwelled by Christ's mind. We have the mind of Christ.

I still have my own mind, but I am now of two minds. I have a mind to do what I want, and I have a mind to do what God wants. Two natures - redeemed and fallen - live in this body of flesh. When I am in the mind of Christ, I am in my right mind. Otherwise I am mindless of the things of God.

The solution to this double-mindedness is to practice dwelling in the indwelling mind of Christ. This is my daily practice now. I kneel before my Lord and follow the apostle's instruction, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus."

It is a beautiful mind. It is not far away. I do not need to ascend into heaven to bring Christ down, or descend into an abyss to bring Christ up. He is near me, in my heart and in my mouth. He is here. Where else could he be?

It is just a matter of resting in the One who rests in me. Setting aside my restless thoughts and resting in Christ's thoughts. Thinking his thoughts - or rather being aware of his thoughts thinking in me. Seeing the Creation through the mind of the Creator. Seeing all things through the eyes of him who made all things. "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made."

I am not out of my mind to say such things - or maybe I am. Out of my mind and in the mind of Christ. I can't think of a better place to be.

Artwork is "The Mind of Christ" by Merdis Bethel, acrylic on canvas.

Monday, April 5, 2010

AWOL from the Culture War

I have never been in the military, but I am AWOL nonetheless. I have left the political and religious culture wars. I can't tell the good guys from the bad guys any more. The rhetoric has lost all sense of reality and civility.

I have been on both sides of the battle line during my nearly sixty years of life. I have been liberal, moderate, progressive, evangelical and conservative. The truth is I don't know what these terms mean any more! Do they even have any meaning beyond the latest redefinition by Fox News or the DNC?

I have voted Democratic, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, Constitution, and Green. I have marched in the streets and protested outside courthouses. I have attended political rallies. I have written letters and made phone calls.

But I have never seen the type of religious and political sectarianism that I see today.  It seems like madness has taken over our country. Christian militia in Michigan planning to kill a cop to start a revolution!? I feel like I have fallen into a hot tub time machine back to the 60's. The Weather Underground and Symbionese Liberation Army made more sense.

They say technology has changed the rules, with internet and tweeting, talk radio and 24-hour news broadcasts. I think the biggest change is that the content has been dumbed down and the emotional intensity ratcheted up.

Then there is the religious culture war - denominations feuding and splitting. That one got the best of me. I was smack in the middle of it. I fought on the front lines, but I forgot my flak jacket and have the wounds to prove it. Christians fight like sinners over issues that are more cultural than spiritual.

In any case it doesn't matter anymore. I quit. I am going home. I have been spending a lot of time with my Father these days. Prayer has become my favorite space to be. Spirituality has become my religion and my politics. In my prayer closet I have learned that God is not involved in this culture war. He never was. He is not on either side. We would have known this if we had consulted the Scriptures on the topic.

Jesus never uttered a political word. He never got involved in theological debates. In fact he was very adept at avoiding the entrapping questions of the major religious and political factions of this day. Jesus did not start a revolution, join a political party, nor found a denomination. He was neither a liberal nor a conservative. In fact the liberals and conservatives joined forces to kill him in the name of national security and in the spirit of ecumenical cooperation.

He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight." That is why I am not fighting. I choose his kingdom. I will leave the world to the culture warriors.

Image is a Nazi propaganda poster, Belgium, 1944

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Broken Grave

My prayer closet is a room with a view of a graveyard. Every day I kneel and face a cemetery. It is not intentional; the spare bedroom I use for private prayer just happens to have a window that faces in that direction.

Now that the warm weather has arrived, we walk through this cemetery almost daily. We have a two-mile exercise circuit that winds through the gravel lanes of the Beaver Falls cemetery. In this manner I am confronted regularly with my mortality - especially when I pass the grave of another guy with my surname who was born in the same year I was.

Earlier this spring I was taking a solitary contemplative walk through these hallowed grounds. I sat on the top of the hill for a while and enjoyed the view of the rolling hills. When I resumed my walk, I strayed from my normal route. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, I turned aside to see an unusual sight.

In front of an old grave was a stone urn that had cracked open. This was not an act of vandalism; it was an act of nature. A tree had grown in the urn and burst it apart, leaving the sides of the pot turned outward like a tulip's pedals opening to the sun or like the shattered husk of a giant seed. 

I imagined how this could have happened. It was likely a breeze or a bird that carried the seed to that urn. The seedling took hold in the soil, sent its roots through cracks in the urn, and eventually into the earth beneath.

No one uprooted the young sapling before it began to outgrow the pot. No cemetery attendant noticed the slow growth. The tree grew until it burst its container and took root in the ground. For years it grew, and now it is a twenty-foot tree. The city workers would need a saw to remove it now and a backhoe to pull out the roots.

The burial of Jesus was a seed planted. He burst the grave asunder. The seed of the kingdom that sprouted in a Jerusalem graveyard the first Easter has grown to envelop the whole earth. There is hardly a cemetery in the world where the gospel has not been planted. Seeds are sown in human souls and graves are burst asunder.

My tomb is broken like that earthen pot. Because he lives, I will live. No tomb can hold me any more than it could hold Christ. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. The cross of Christ is rooted in my soul. My grave is his tomb. His resurrection is mine. I will rise again, immortal and eternal. It has already happened. All because He lives.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Jesus Christ's Day Off

So much happens during Holy week - parades on Palm Sunday, communion on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday marathon services, early Sunrise services and multiple Easter worship services. These are busy days for preachers! But the Saturday before Easter is empty on most church calendars.

The day before Easter is called Holy Saturday in most American churches, if it is called anything at all. It has more interesting names in other places. It is known as White Saturday in the Czech Republic, Black Saturday or Saturday of Glory in the Philippines, and the Great Sabbath in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Dutch it is known as Silent Saturday. It is Low Saturday and Easter Even in the Anglican Church. But not much happens in any church until perhaps an Easter Vigil at sunset.

In the Bible the day before Easter is quiet. It was a Jewish Sabbath, and Christ's followers observed it as a holy day. The women's task of giving Jesus a proper burial was put off until the following day. The apostles laid low.

What was Jesus doing on Saturday? I know his body lay in the grave, but what about his spirit? The Apostle's Creed says, "He descended into hell." That sounds exciting. But some denominations don't believe this and omit this controversial phrase from the ancient creed. Others change the word hell to hades, meaning a vague realm of the dead.

Peter says in his first letter, "He went and preached to the spirits in prison." Paul says in Ephesians, "he also descended to the lower, earthly regions." But it is not clear that the apostles were talking about Saturday. Some say that Jesus went to Paradise, based on his words to the thief on the cross: "Today you will be with me in paradise" But to be precise he said that on Friday, not Saturday.

Maybe the answer is "all of the above." Perhaps he did all these things, taking a whirlwind tour of heaven and hell, like a bargain tour of the Holy Land. The theme song for our first pilgrimage to Israel was "I ran today where Jesus walked..."

I like to think of Jesus taking a break on Saturday. Jesus had a tough few days. He deserved a rest. Holy Week is hectic for pastors today. Think of what it was like for Jesus! I like to imagine the Saturday before Easter as Jesus' day off.

I don't want to slight the biblical evidence. Let's just say he did the heaven-hell tour on Friday afternoon and evening. There was still time to take Saturday off and be refreshed for Easter Sunday.

I am not being flippant here or treating a serious topic lightly. Sabbath is a serious matter and an important spiritual discipline. Everyone needs a Sabbath, even Jesus. Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world. Why couldn't Jesus take a day off after saving the world?

If this is true, then the best way we can honor our Lord is by obeying the Sabbath commandment on the Great Sabbath - to cease from work and silently remember the work Christ accomplished on our behalf.

Artwork is Holy Saturday by by Roxolana Luczakowsky Armstrong

Friday, April 2, 2010

Resurrecting Good Friday

Perhaps you have heard about the big controversy this week in Davenport, Iowa. The city administrator changed the name of Good Friday on the municipal calendar to Spring Holiday. He said he was following the recommendation of the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission. Apparently printing the name of the Christian holiday on the city calendar was a grievous violation of the separation of church and state.

All hell broke loose, or maybe it was heaven that was loosed. In any case, it came from the church people, who heard about it on Palm Sunday. Word spread through the pews like hellfire. The city leaders were inundated with phone calls from religious people who were upset with this latest expression of political correctness. Within days the city council voted to reverse the decision. Good Friday was resurrected. Just in time to ignore it.

The city workers in Davenport now have their day off restored to its proper Christian name. But will it make any difference? That is the problem with these campaigns to save our American religious heritage. Put Christ back in Christmas, save the town Christmas crèche, restore prayer to public schools, and all that stuff. I support the efforts. But I think it is mostly bluster.

Will the good municipal workers of Davenport flock to their local churches for three-hour midday Good Friday services? I doubt it. The truth is that "Spring Holiday" probably is better description of the meaning of the day for most people. I suspect that more city workers will be enjoying the nice spring weather today than darkening church doorways. Do Davenportans even know why this Friday is called good?

A recent survey by the Barna Group revealed that most Americans do not know the religious meaning of Easter Sunday, much less Good Friday! Only 42% of Americans could identify Easter as having anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus. What is even more disturbing is that only 54% of those who identified themselves as active churchgoers knew what Easter celebrated and only 55% of those who identified themselves as born again Christians! How many, do you think, have a clue about what Good Friday commemorates?

I am not suggesting that we all endure three hours of droning preachers reading ill-prepared sermons. Even as a pastor I have a hard time sitting through these homiletic marathons. For me Good Friday is more about private devotion than public worship. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, to quote Seinfeld.)

In any case I suggest that on this spring holy day we take enough time to ponder the cross deeply. This Friday is called Good for a good reason. It is the saddest greatest day in human history.

Artwork is "Pietà," 1476, by Carlo Crivelli.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Unseen Resurrection

I love the way the gospels avoid the resurrection scene. Instead of a dramatic account of a rising savior, they give us apostolic visits to an empty tomb. Jesus arose unseen and unnoticed. There is no description of the moment he rose from the dead. No disciples watching. No shepherds abiding.  No angels singing. No wise men bearing gifts. Just a dark empty cave.

When the risen Lord finally shows up, no one notices him. Mary Magdalene looks at him and does not see him. Two disciples walk with him for hours, and they do not recognize him. An unseen resurrection and an unnoticed Christ.

It is all so very mysterious - like a M. Night Shyamalan film. That is whom I would choose to direct a movie about the life of Christ. Not Mel Gibson. I want someone to catch the atmosphere of suspense that I read in the gospels.

An empty tomb is mysterious. I remember the first time I stepped foot in the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. The guide said it was Jesus' tomb. I don't think so. I don't think the other tomb I visited at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was his tomb either. It may be close to the original site, but it is not the real thing. It is just a replica, like the Holy Land theme park in Orlando, but with incense.

But the site of the Garden Tomb provided enough authenticity to get my heart moving. It was a real tomb and the date of the tomb was approximately right. That was good enough to satisfy my skeptical mind. It was all it took for my imagination to soar.

I believe in the resurrection of Christ. My mind is convinced that Jesus physically rose from the grave. There is more evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than most events in history. If you have doubts, I suggest you read one of Lee Strobel's books on the subject. It is also crucially important for all kinds of theological reasons.

But in addition to reason and theology is my personal experience of the unseen Lord. The empty tomb of my soul experiences the living presence of the risen Christ. When my soul is empty, it is full of the Spirit of Jesus. When I am too much present, Christ is nowhere to be seen. Or more accurately, he is present but I don't recognize him.

The soul's emptiness is God's spaciousness. When man is absent, Christ arises. My experience of the risen Christ is a mystery, but it is powerful. There is an aura of suspense every time I enter the quiet space of prayer. How can I describe this? When I put it in words, it sounds like pietistic drivel or sentimental subjectivism.  Where is M. Night Shyamalan when you need him?