Monday, May 31, 2010

Descending into Hell

I was confronted with hell in church Sunday. It wasn't the preacher who brought the subject to mind. He is not afraid to mention the H-word when the scripture text requires it, but this was not such an occasion. It was the Apostle's Creed that got me thinking about the infernal regions yesterday.

This congregation has the habit of repeating that ancient creed as part of worship, including the controversial words "He descended into hell." Christians do not universally accept this phrase. Some denominations consider it an optional article of faith; others omit these words altogether.

My liberal friends consider the concept of hell as an archaic remnant from a primitive past, which is now accepted only by fundamentalists and hatemongers. I know better. Hell was clearly taught by Jesus, and that's good enough for me.

But I have straddled the fence on the matter of Christ's descent into hell.  I know the scriptures that purport to teach the doctrine, but I was not convinced that this was the correct interpretation of those texts. Now I am leaning more toward the hell-descending camp. I will tell you why.

As a pastor I have seen more hell than I ever imagined I would. As their shepherd I have had to descend into hell with my parishioners. Furthermore I have been through my own personal hell, and Christ accompanied me. So I know the Good Shepherd does this type of thing.

To deny Christ's descent into hell seems like just another attempt to deny the reality of suffering. It feels more like Christian Science than Christian orthodoxy. It is understandable that people want to avoid the hellish parts of life. So do I; I am no masochist. But many go further than personal avoidance of pain. Religion becomes an escape.

Religious conservatives escape hell by purchasing spiritual fire insurance. Just pray the "sinner's prayer," pick a "Get Out of Hell Free" card, and go directly to Home. The recent theological phenomena of the Pre-Tribulation Rapture and the Prosperity Gospel are just variations on this evangelical theme.

Liberals, on the other hand, discard the whole idea of hell as mythological hate speech. Either way it is an escape from hell. But Jesus was not one to take the easy road. He did not flee from even the most hellish suffering. For him the way to heaven wound through the gates of hell.

We tend to assume that the more spiritual we become the less pain we should have. Our heroes are stoic saints or calm buddhas rapt in holy bliss. We tend to assume that progress in the spiritual path provides increasing joy, peace and equanimity. What good is being holy if hell is part of the deal?

But the Kingdom of God includes the territory of Hades within its borders. In Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Abraham could see the rich man in hell from this seat in heaven. As much as we do not like it, hell is part of the eternal landscape.

In his short novel, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis' pictured hell as contained in a tiny crack in the hinterlands of heaven. It is not outside the boundaries of God's presence, but not large enough to influence the crime rate of the New Jerusalem.

Any theology that negates the reality of evil and the suffering it causes - in this world or the next - is nothing more than a fantasy.  All life includes hell, and that includes eternal life. The godly life accepts all experience - even the most painful - as part of the divine plan. The spiritual life involves descent into hell as well as ascent into heaven. That is the meaning of the cross, and why Christ still bears the stigmata even in paradise.
Image is "Faith Divine" by Martha S. Heimbaugh, 2004, painted, pieced fabric, 3-D puff. The artist writes of this piece: "The painting entitled Faith Divine is an abstract depiction of Christ's descent into Hell.  The circles represent God's unending love and that this love transcends all evil or diversity.  Through Christ's own Faith, he was able to make the descent and return to God the Father, victorious.  The title Faith Divine, speaks to Christ's own faith and understanding of human emotions, to leave the familiar and fulfill His destiny."

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Religion of Sudoku

Every day I turn to the comics page of my newspaper. But before I get my daily dose of Dilbert, Non Sequitur and Close to Home, I do the Sudoku. I have gotten pretty good at it. I can usually solve every puzzle - even the five star ones. Sometimes I venture to do the one- and two-star puzzles in ink (a sign of a true Sudoku snob.)

Our human brains  are good at solving puzzles. That is their function. That is why God put them in our skulls. In earlier times this problem-solving function kept us alive. They found us food, clothing, and shelter, and protected us from predators. Now they waste time doing number games. They need problems to solve, and if they can't find any immediately available in the world, they create problems. That is the origin of sudoku and crosswords... and politics.

This knack for problem-solving plays havoc with religion. We create religious problems that need solving! There is the problem of the existence of God, the problem of evil, and the problem of suffering. Free will versus predestination, grace versus works. Life after death, life before birth. And how are all the different religions related?

Then there are the mind-numbing paradoxes of the Trinity (How can God be both three and one?) and the two natures of Christ (How can Christ be both fully God and fully man?) And while we are at it ... how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

Whew! I am getting brain lock just listing the problems. But the real problem is that there are no problems that need to be solved in the spiritual life. Spirituality is the art of letting God be God. That's it! Problem solved. But our brains need problems, so it sees problems. That is the problem. We are the problem, and God is the solution.

That is where prayer comes in. Prayer is not a problem-solving technique. It is not about speaking the right formula of words and thinking the right thoughts to get all our problems solved by the Heavenly Problem-Solver. Prayer is about giving up the problems. It is about admitting that there is no problem we need to solve. There is just God, and God is not a problem.

Life is not a Sudoku puzzle that needs to be solved. It all is perfect just the way it is. There are no mistakes and no dead ends. God has it all figured out. After all, he designed it! God's kingdom will come, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

There is a bigger Mind at work than our puny little animal brains. To God there is no problem. There never was. He has things well in hand. And in the silence of prayer he says to us, "Be still and know that I am God."

Friday, May 28, 2010

Zen and the Art of House Painting

It is house-painting time again. It seems like it is always time to paint this old house. The last time I painted my house was July 2005. I know that from the date on the can of paint in my basement. Within three years it was starting to blister and peel. It is not because I painted it wrong. I had a professional painter do it last time, and it still started peeling in three years. These clapboards just don't hold paint.

It never has. That is what the old-timers on my street tell me. Some of them have watched it peel for decades. They have theories why this house is paint-resistant. "When it was built, the clapboards were green. It is because they are cedar shingles; they never hold paint. It is the insulation ... or lack of insulation. It is the direction the house faces. It was built on an old Indian burial ground." All I know is that it needs to be painted every three or four years, but I hold out for five.

So I am painting my house...  again - for the third time since I bought it twelve years ago. As I paint, I think. I think that I am glad I am not a full-time house painter. I have renewed respect for a friend of mine in New Hampshire who does this for a living. But mostly I think about spiritual things. That is the way my mind tilts, for better or worse.

Scrape, scrape, scrape, scrape. Scrape off the layers of previous paintings. It is like an archeological dig, going down through fifty-three years of layers of brown, pink, green and white paint. Down as far as I can go, often to the wood itself. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Talk to people watching me sweat. Drink, drink, so I can sweat, sweat.

Then paint, paint, paint. (I refuse to do the other prep work any more, like washing, sanding and priming. It doesn't seem to make any difference; it will still need repainting in three years.) Paint, paint, paint. Up the ladder, down the ladder, move the ladder. Sweat, sweat, sweat. Ache, ache ache.

Think, think, think. I think life is like a house. It deteriorates over time no matter what you do. Women can put on make-up (It is like putting vinyl siding on a house.) But for men it is just hair loss, wrinkles, and aching joints. My life as a house. (Wasn't that a movie with Kevin Kline?)

Think, think, think. Think spiritual thoughts. There must be a spiritual lesson in this. Something about spiritual entropy and how it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Everything is impermanent. Life is suffering. Putty covers a multitude of sins. There must be a spiritual point in all of this!

Think, think... I think these paint fumes are getting to me. I think that I could think much better if I were sitting on my porch drinking a glass of iced green tea. I think the next house I buy will have vinyl siding. I think I am VERY glad I am not a professional house-painter. I think I can find no profound spiritual lessons about house-painting. "Too bad," I think. It would have made a good blog.
Image is "Wall gazing" (Menpeki Daruma)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tangled Up in Self

"Know thyself." This aphorism was inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Marcus Aurelius said, "Look well into thyself." It is good advice. Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The daily examen is an ancient Christian spiritual discipline. The apostle Paul advises us to examine ourselves regularly to see whether we are in the faith, especially before partaking of the Lord's Supper.

Self-examination is an important part of my spiritual practice. But I find that when I examine myself that my self is elusive. As soon as I look at myself, my self shuts up and hides, as if afraid of being seen. He hides in the background and goes silent, fearful of the spotlight of self-examination.

When I try to identify the characteristics of my self, all the candidates for selfhood are found to be not my self. "No, that is not me, and that is not me... neither is that." They are fictions, stories I tell myself about myself to keep myself from knowing myself. After peeling away the layers of the proverbial onion, there is nothing that I can identify as my self.

The only self I can find is the unexaminable self that is looking for self. Even that self is not a being but a process. I am "selfing." I create my self and then identify myself with my self in an endless loop. Tangled up in self.

I have created a lot of selves over the decades. I am continually in the process of recreating myself.  I am the process of creating temporary selves. As they wear out I create a new selves, like a lizard growing a new tail. I am good selfer. I never run out of selves. I am so good that I even convince myself that I am the new self ... until I need a newer self.

It is the uncreated selfing that is my true self. That is who I am; not the self. To examine this not-self self is to be examined by God. As Meister Eckhart says, "The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love."

As the psalmist said, "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; Try my mind and my heart. For Your lovingkindness is before my eyes."
Art is "Self Portrait" by Pablo Picasso, 1972.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spiritual Geography

Some people are afraid of open spaces. It is called agoraphobia. I have the opposite condition. I love wide open spaces - the wider the better. One of the most emotionally powerful places I have ever visited is the Grand Canyon. It has been more than twenty years since I stood at the South Rim, but I can recall it as if it were yesterday.

I have a similar thrill from being on top of a high mountain. As a young man I climbed the White Mountains of New Hampshire at every opportunity. Now my knees keep me at lower altitudes, but I still hike the smaller peaks. When my soul needs loftier elevations, I can always drive to see the view.

It is not just the heights, but also the silence of such places that attracts me. There is no artificial human noise. I sense the silence with my whole body. The ocean has the same effect on me; there is something about its primordial depths, vastness and spaciousness.

In prayer I am discovering why I am drawn to such spots. They remind me of the depths of my soul. I now visit open spaces during prayer daily. The Spirit communicates the awe of vast ocean depths and clear mountain heights. Any setting can reveal an expanse as grand as a canyon. Everyday spots open up the depths of their true nature.

The awesomeness of the mountains was not in the mountains; it was in me. I brought it with me to those scenic places like a picnic lunch carried to the park. I carry the ocean expanse with me to the ocean. I occupy the great gulf of a desert canyon at all times. But I mistakenly thought I could only bring it out at special times and places.

The Spirit in me is the Openness that I behold outside me. In beholding it I am consumed by it. The Beholder and the Beheld join. Like in Solomon's Song, the distinctions between Lover and Beloved become indistinct in the hearing of the Song.

I still visit those special places. They have not lost their splendor, but I am not dependent on them. I know where the beauty and awe are really located. Not in the geography of the land but the spiritual geography of the soul.
Art is "Grand Canyon - brown" by Asbjorn Lonvig

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Only God We Ever Know

Last Sunday the pastor at the church I attend spoke about the Holy Spirit. It was an appropriate topic for Pentecost. He made a statement that has been echoing in my mind ever since. He said, "The Holy Spirit is the only God we ever know." He did not mean that we don't know the other persons of the Trinity. He meant that we know the Father and the Son only through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

It is a very experiential thing to say, which is why it resonated with me. It is increasingly important for me to experience doctrines and not just believe them. What good are doctrines if they are only known in theory? My theology is becoming more practical than theoretical, more physical than metaphysical, more incarnated than interpreted.

Therefore my experience of God has been much more focused on the Holy Spirit. In scholarly terminology, my theology is becoming more pneumatological. My Christology is intact, but the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is coming out of the closet to claim its proper place in my life and thought.

In the Hebrew Old Testament, Spirit is feminine; in the Greek New Testament it is neuter. Yet the Holy Spirit is referred to with the masculine pronoun "he." In other words the Spirit is both inclusive of and surpasses the limitations of human gender. That makes the experience of the Spirit very different than the Father and the Son - who are both very male personae.

The Spirit can be both very subtle and very dramatic in his work. I experience the Spirit in prayer. The phrase "in the Spirit" is very descriptive of my prayer life. I am immersed in the Spirit and dwell in the Spirit. I pray in the Spirit and walk in the Spirit. The world is imbued with Spirit for me. The Kingdom of God is the Presence of the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is God within us as humans, yet never appears in humanoid form. When the Spirit appears, it is as a dove or wind or fire. He is both personal and impersonal, yet transcends both. As God no humanly concepts can contain him. He is beyond comprehension, yet by the Spirit we comprehend.

He is the Wind hovering over the face of the deep before creation. He is the Breath of Life breathed into man at creation. He is the Spirit who inspired the prophets and filled the apostles. He is the Spirit of revelation. By the Spirit we understand. Without the Spirit, we understand nothing. The Spirit mediates God and interprets God to our understanding. Yet the Spirit transcends understanding.

"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him, but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words."

The Spirit is God to me, in me, through me - the only God I know.
Image is "Holy Spirit Come," prophetic art by Janice Okubo

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Hound of Heaven

Recently lines from the Hound of Heaven have come to mind. I never intentionally memorized this famous poem by Francis Thompson. Nevertheless fragments of the opening words have been returning from memory unbidden.

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind.

For years I have seen myself as a servant of God - one who knows God and loves God. I have devoted my adult life to serving God. I became a pastor in order to know God more deeply. But the truth is I have been fleeing God.

I have been fleeing him under the guise of seeking him. I have been hiding from him under the pretence of finding him. Telling myself I loved God, I have done everything within my power to avoid God.

Whenever God rounded a corner, I ducked out of sight. Whenever God poked his head into my consciousness, I suppressed him. He sneaked around my defenses, meeting me in Nature and prayer. But I always succeeded in covering up any trace of him with ideas and doctrines that insured that I remained the "master of my fate" and the "captain of my soul," to quote another poet.

It has taken a lot of effort to ignore the God who is everywhere, but I have persevered. In fact the sole preoccupation of my life seems to have been to avoid God, suppress God, and ignore God at all costs. Because I have always known that if I let God be God, then I would die.

I do not mean that I would physically die. This body would remain intact for the time being. But the "I" that has been created to play the role of God in my life would cease to be. That felt like imminent death. So I ran.

I fled from him "down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind." In order to forget him, I replaced him with a nice safe churchly god. This terephim idol was a deity crafted by my own mind, a god safely locked in a book. It was a lifeless image guarded by pulpits, programs and proper prayers.

This god protected me from God. It was a god that "I" could have a personal relationship with - and thereby keep this "strange, piteous, futile thing" called "I" intact. It was an elaborate ruse to help me escape from the relentless pursuit of God.

But I am finished running. I am tired of the endless lie of my own existence. And I find there is nothing to fear. There is only the Hound of Heaven.
Art is Hound of Heaven by Jody Bare, lino-cut print on silk-paper.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Forgotten Holiday

Baptists are not very liturgical as far as the Christian calendar is concerned.  Holy days seem too "Catholic" to many. Christmas and Easter are about the only religious celebrations that appear on the Baptist schedule. Even the preparatory seasons of Advent and Lent are slighted, if not ignored outright. The day of Pentecost is often neglected, especially if it falls on Memorial Day weekend. Patriotic spirit trumps Holy Spirit.

I have tried to get my congregations to wear red on Pentecost. I always wore a red tie and encouraged people to follow my example. I loved to look out on a congregation of red ties, red dresses and red accessories. But few remembered. It is easy to forget a holiday that is not commercialized. There are not too many Pentecost sales at the mall or Pentecost cards exchanged.

I thought about - but could never bring myself to wear - a red blazer in the pulpit! But now that I am "semi-retired" and attending a Presbyterian church (where most members do not know my secret identity as a Baptist preacher) I plan to wear my bright red Hawaiian shirt to worship tomorrow.

I have always picked hymns about the Holy Spirit to sing on Pentecost. Do you know how few good Holy Spirit songs there are? Even the ones with good lyrics are boringly slow. "Breathe on Me Breath of God" helps me breathe deeply - snoring, that is. "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" is more likely to cause slumber to descend upon me than heavenly power.

At first people seemed apprehensive about my Pentecost sermons. Maybe they thought I was a closet charismatic and might speak in tongues or be "slain in the Spirit." No chance of that. That is Pentecostal, not Pentecost. Big difference. I have always thought that Pentecostals have missed the point of Pentecost ... and of the Holy Spirit, for that matter.

Pentecost for me is not primarily "the birthday of the church" as it is often characterized. It is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. It may have been what Jesus was talking about when he 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." Maybe, but I think there is more to that verse. In any case, Pentecost is an experience of the power of the kingdom.

The Spirit of God mingled with the spirits of human beings on that day. The apostles visibly saw what is always invisibly present. People momentarily returned to the Source of their souls. As the apostle Paul said, "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." I would go further than that. The dualism of experiencer and experience falls away at Pentecost. Boundaries melt. Languages become obsolete. Ethnic origin is irrelevant. And the good news of the Kingdom is shared.

At Pentecost God gave the early Christians a glimpse of their lives beyond their human conditioning. Heavenly fire burns up all distinctions. They saw their home in God. 

But in most churches today spiritual amnesia reigns, and the holiday is forgotten. People feel no need to celebrate what they do not remember.
Art is The Pentecost by Alexander Sadoyan - Oil/Canvas (20" x 26")

Friday, May 21, 2010

Living in a Mustard Tree

"What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed." This is one of my favorite teachings of Jesus. It explores the relation between the very small and the very big. "It is like a mustard seed which is smaller than all the seeds on earth.  But when it is sown, it grows up and becomes a large tree, and the birds of the air nest in its branches."

William Blake described it as being able ...

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

The very large and the very small stretch the boundaries of our living space. They give us a glimpse of what is beyond this material matrix. Viewing photos from the Hubble telescope elicits memories of eternity. I recognize these galaxies. They feel like dearest friends that I have not seen for ages.

I read the paradoxes discovered by theoretical physicists about how the universe operates at the quantum level, and they prompt the same kind of response. These scientific explorations produce something in my soul akin to religious awe. I recognize spiritual truth in the mathematical equations. "Yes, this is how it is!"

It must have been how Moses felt when staring into the burning bush or the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies. It is awe that takes away the heaviness of time and space.

"What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches."

Speaking of birds, the psalmist sang, "Even the sparrow has found a home, And the swallow a nest for herself, Where she may lay her young - Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God." These birds made nests in the crannies of the uncut rocks that comprised the altar of the Jerusalem temple. I am envious.

To make one's home in a mustard tree, to live in the crannies of an altar, and to recognize galaxies light years away - this is the Kingdom of God.
Art is "The Kingdom Of God Is Like A Mustard Seed" Digital Art by Ruth Palmer

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Stolen Cross

The cross was erected in 1934 to honor veterans of the Great War. It remained in its spot on Sunrise Rock in California's Mojave National Preserve for generations. Then a former preserve official felt offended by this religious symbol standing on public land.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit, and the cross was covered in a plywood box to hide its offensive shape until the issue was legally resolved. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in April that sometimes a religious symbol could honor all veterans and not promote a certain religion. Sometimes a cross is just a cross. For once common sense won.

Then someone with common senselessness took the law into his own hands. On May 9 under the cover of darkness, the cross was stolen. What the courts refused to do, an anti-religious vigilante did. The anonymous thief sent a letter to a local newspaper explaining his reason for the theft.

The letter writer asserted that he was not opposing Christianity but government-sponsored favoritism of one religion. The writer said the cross would be returned if it was replaced by a nonsectarian memorial or erected on private land.

Now a $125,000 reward has been offered by an anonymous veteran for information leading to the conviction of the criminal. To their credit the Atheist Alliance International, an alliance of atheist groups, denounced the stealing of the cross. To their shame they also offered $5000 to erect the alternative memorial the thief advocated, thereby sending mixed messages.

As a Baptist, I take issues of religious liberty and the separation of church and state very seriously. But I think the highest court made the right decision here. Sometimes a cross is just a cross. Furthermore, the veterans group ought to forget the whole hullabaloo about the old cross and use the reward money to erect a new cross!

Personally I am more concerned with discipleship than lawsuits. I am more concerned about the cross missing from the lives of Christians than the cross missing from a desert hilltop. Jesus said, "If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." Crossless Christianity robs the Christian of the life-changing power of Christ. This is the real stolen cross.

I am saddened that an anti-religious bigot took the Sunrise Rock cross. I am saddened more that religious Christians do not take up Christ's cross. As Jesus said, "Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple."

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God is eternally present. It cannot be otherwise because God is eternal.

The Kingdom is everywhere. It cannot be otherwise because God is omnipresent.

It is a Kingdom. It cannot be otherwise because God is omnipotent.

The Kingdom is Love. It cannot be otherwise because God is omnibenevolent.

The Kingdom of God is uncreated. It cannot be otherwise because God is immortal. Yet all creation dwells within it.

Although everything is within the Kingdom, one enters the Kingdom. One enters it when one sees it. One sees it when one awakens to its presence. To enter it is to see that one has always been in it.  It cannot be otherwise since God is omnipresent.

The Kingdom is the consciousness of God. It cannot be otherwise because God is omniscient. Before we know the Kingdom, we know in part. In the Kingdom we know fully even as we are fully known.

It is the Kingdom of Heaven. It cannot be otherwise because God is Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is perfect. It cannot be otherwise because God is Holy.

The only way to enter the Kingdom of God is as a little child, who has not yet forgotten who he was before he was born.

The only way to enter the Kingdom is to be born of the Spirit. It cannot be otherwise because God is Spirit.

The only way to enter the Kingdom is to be born again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit. Do not marvel that you must be born again.

The Kingdom is. Peace to all who enter here.
Gustave Dore, Jesus Preaching on the Mount, c. 1865, oil on canvas, 130 x 196 cm.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A River Runs Through It

I have a hard time describing my experience of the Kingdom of God. Even the phrase "Kingdom of God" is not a very good translation of Jesus' teaching. It sounds static - not at all like the experience. "Kingdom of Heaven" works no better. The problem is the word kingdom.

Kingdom means something very different to a 21st century American than a first century Jew. The word feels like a medieval fiefdom or an ancient empire with a distant monarch. It conjures castles and knights. 

Reign of God or Realm of God works a bit better, but they still miss the sense of the light and joyful omnipresence of God. The Presence of God is best, but it still doesn't fully capture it. Probably no word can describe this indescribable reality.

Seeking to communicate beyond the limits of human vocabulary, the Book of Revelation uses pictures in place of words to speak of the Kingdom of God. Of all of the pictures in that book, the River of Life describes it best for me. A river runs through my experience of the Kingdom of God.

"A pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeds from the throne of God and of the Lamb." The river flows through the streets of a New Jerusalem situated in a New Eden. Picture a heavenly Venice and the saints in gondolas! On both banks of the River of Life grows the Tree of Life. The River is Life Incarnate - so full of Life that trees of Eternal Life sprout from its banks.

Take a dip in that crystal clear water of life. It is like swimming in the fountain of youth. It is liquid light that energizes body and soul. "God is light and in him is no darkness at all." Now this is heavenly!

The river flows. It is always present and never static. It is vital and alive. Heraclitus of Ephesus said, "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you." That is the Kingdom of God! The kingdom is "always flowing on to you," always changing and always new.

That is my experience of the Kingdom. Leonardo da Vinci said, "In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time." Exactly! The Kingdom is always in the present tense. I know it is coming, but for me it is now.

The Kingdom of God is a river, flowing through time, around me and over me. I walk in the Kingdom of God like a swimmer swims in a river. I live in the Kingdom as a fish breathes in the water. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

 As the old hymn says,   "Like a river glorious, is God's perfect peace, Over all victorious, in its bright increase; Perfect, yet it floweth, fuller every day, Perfect, yet it groweth, deeper all the way." Come take a dip, and enjoy the swim.
Art is River of Life by Migrant Winds, 20x 25, Print on 80 lb paper.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Guns N' Jesus

It must be the season of the year. Last year at this time an Assembly of God pastor in Louisville, Kentucky sponsored a "Bring Your Gun to Church" Sunday in his congregation. He preached a sermon on "God, Guns, Gospel and Geometry" followed by a $1 raffle of a handgun, firearms safety lessons and a picnic. This would never happen in a Baptist church! Baptists would never allow the raffle.

This year Louisiana is legalizing the marriage of guns and religion. Louisiana's House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on May 12 to pass a bill that would allow concealed handguns to be carried inside houses of worship. It is in response to the rash of shootings that have occurred in churches in recent years. Pastors and laypeople have been gunned down as they worshipped. Christians want to protect themselves - hence the godly guns.

I am not a gun control type of guy. The right to bear arms is at the heart of the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. Personally I trust guns in the hands of average citizens more than guns in the hands of the government. Power corrupts, and government power corrupts absolutely, to rephrase the famous quote.

The only thing I am more afraid of than guns in the hands of the government is guns in the hands of religions. I know too much religious history to think that this trend could turn out well. Tony Campolo writes, "Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream." I would say the same thing about church and guns.

No matter how much I read the gospels, I can't make Jesus into a gun-toting member of the NRA. He clearly did not side with the Jewish insurgency of his day that was inciting violent revolution against the occupying armies of Rome. Neither did he side with Jews who accommodated to Roman oppression. He did not even resist evil by organizing nonviolent resistance to unfair government taxation, like Gandhi did in India.

When the authorities came to arrest him, Jesus famously told his top lieutenant Peter to holster his weapon, saying, "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." As Pilate pronounced the sentence of capital punishment Jesus said, "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."

For three hundred years Christians developed the reputation of being willing to die rather kill their enemies. It was a powerful testimony that won over the hearts of the populace and conquered the empire for the new faith. Then the emperor Constantine converted and led his armies into battle under the banner of the cross. That was the end of Christ's gospel, and the beginning of the religion we call Christianity.

So I guess I should not be surprised that Christianity is now introducing "Bring Your Gun to Church" Sundays. Constantine would be proud. The question now becomes, "What would Jesus pack?"

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Spiritual Amnesia

When the devil tempted Jesus, he chose his most vulnerable spot - his Achilles heel. He always does. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness for forty days of solitude, prayer and fasting. The devil paid him a visit and said to him, "If you are the Son of God...." That was Jesus' soft spot - his identity as God's Son. What came after that phrase was of secondary importance. The specific temptations were nothing more than consolation prizes for giving up his divine birthright.

The devil wanted to put doubt in his mind as to his true identity. He knew that was the heart of the issue. If he could put a crack in the armor of his self-knowledge, then he had Jesus' soul. It is our soft spot as well. The greatest temptation in life is not the temptation to sin; it is not money, sex, or power. It is the temptation to forget our true nature.

Who are we ... really? Different spiritual traditions have different ideas as to the nature of man. We who call ourselves followers of Christ believe that we are made in the image of God. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." Man is not just made in God's image. According to the apostle Paul, man is God's image: "He is the image and glory of God."

Furthermore we are children of God. "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God." "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!" "Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

This is our identity. When we remember this identity, everything else falls into place. When we forget, we are lost in the wilderness. When we see ourselves as we are, then we see everything else clearly. When we forget what we look like, then everything else is distorted.

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? If you see the image of God, you see clearly. If you see a child of God, you see wisely. When you walk away from the mirror, what self-image do you carry with you? If it is anything other than the image in the mirror, then as the apostle James says, he "is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like."

"The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!"
Art is Amnesia by Jennifer K Mulcahy, 8x10 archival matte print, digital collage

Friday, May 14, 2010


I was taking my daily constitutional a couple of days ago  - two miles of circuitous walking through the nearby cemetery. When I walk alone, my exercise routine becomes a prayer walk and a walking meditation.

I wound my way through the heavy rows of stones, standing in lines as if waiting at a gate to enter a Steelers game. The names of the deceased were engraved in large and deep letters as if to insure that time would not erase their identities.

Suddenly a thought came to me: "These people really thought they were separate beings with different names, but now look at them!" That one really thought, "I am Sampson," and that one, "I am Jenkins." The idea of trying to name the unnamable essence of a human being seemed so silly that I laughed out loud!

Then I thought, "Until this moment I also thought that I was a separate person with my own permanent name, but I am the same as them!" This thought was more than a thought. It was the awareness that in some essential way I am the same as these people whose bodies are buried in this graveyard.

The Bible says that the human race is one. We are one in Adam and one in Christ. "As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive."  When the author of Hebrews wrote that all Levites were in the loins of Abraham when he paid a tithe to Melchizedek, he wasn't kidding!

We are in our ancestors and they in us. DNA proves this is true. We are one human race - one body, one spirit. The breath that God breathed into Adam moves my lungs. The spirit that gave him life lives in me. This same spirit-breath that once animated all these bodies in this graveyard animates me now. I am in Adam, and Adam is in me. The same spirit animates all.

I looked at the birds flying over the tombstones. It is the same spirit that animates them.  The squirrel that scurries out of my way - the same spirit. The trees - the same spirit. It is even more basic than that. The headstones exist by the same spirit, as does the gravel under my feet. No wonder Jesus said that if the disciples kept silent the stones in the road would cry out!

A moment later I thought, "How do I know this?" Is this just a passing thought? No, it is more like remembering. It is like recovering an obvious fact that somehow I had forgotten. But how could I forget this?

I do not know how I know. I cannot name the nature of the knowing. It comes from that from which all names come. How could it have a name? All thought arises from it, so how could it be a thought?

Lao Tzu said, "The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way. The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name." God said basically the same thing to Moses in the burning bush. When asked his name, God said, "I am who I am." A nameless Name. And for me he shall remain nameless.
Photo is the gravestone of an "Unnamed Infant" March 25, 1906 - March 28, 1906.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Future of God

I watched a fascinating debate recently. It was entitled "Does God Have a Future?" It took place on March 14 on the campus of Caltech and was broadcast on the ABC News program Nightline. On one side were a couple of atheists: Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine, and UCLA neuroscientist Sam Harris. They were arguing for the supremacy of science and the irrelevance of God. On God's side were physician Deepak Chopra and scholar Jean Houston.

Actually it was the presence of Shermer that attracted me to watch the debate. I saw him debunking religious hoaxes on television, and I have read his magazine. He is a former fundamentalist Christian preacher who converted to atheism. Even though we could not be more different in our religious perspectives, I find him honest and fascinating.

The whole thing was moderated by ABC News correspondent Dan Harris. Harris is not particularly well versed in either science or religion, but he is honest and fair. He did a good job in keeping the argument from degenerating into a bout of fisticuffs.

Normally at such a debate I would be cheering for the theists. But there were no theists on the stage. Defending God was the Hindu monist Deepak Chopra. I still remember his appearance on the Phil Donahue Show decades ago, back when he was a spokesman for Transcendental Meditation. I could not stop laughing as I watched him bounce around the studio on spring mattresses, trying to convince Phil that he was really levitating.  I know he is a media darling now, but I have never been able to take him seriously since then.

Jean Houston was very articulate and intelligent, but is a bit too New Agey for my liking. So I was left without a horse in this race. But I watched the whole thing nonetheless. I found myself agreeing with Chopra sometimes and the scientist Harris at other times.

Mostly I saw that they were not really debating each other. They were debating caricatures of each other. This was especially true of the atheists, who continually presented gross distortions of God and traditional religion, and then proceeded to tear them down. The God that these atheists rejected (and which apparently Shermer once believed in) bore no resemblance to the God I know.

The same dynamics were at work with the God squad. They presented parodies of traditional Christianity and scientific materialism, and then demonstrated that they were distorted. Not a difficult thing to do.

The only thing I really learned from the debate is that we tend to debate our own fantasies, not other people's beliefs. Even the most intelligent and knowledgeable people tend not to really listen to those who disagree with them. They have their minds made up. It all seems to be a game of buttressing their own egos.

The only glimmer of hope occurred during the Q&A session with the Caltech faculty and students. Chopra agreed to be instructed by a theoretical physicist in the audience about quantum physics. That was the only humility and openness I saw on the show. My opinion of him improved at that moment. As long as he doesn't try to levitate again.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oily Anger

Normally I am not surprised, nor do I get angry, at anything big business or government does these days. But the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has tipped the balance for me.  After three weeks, I confess I am now officially angry.

I am angry with Obama. I am angry that he is sitting on his hands waiting for disaster to reach shore. Why leave the fixing of the leak in the hands of those who caused the leak? I am no engineer, but it seems to me that the resources of the US government must be able to come up with a better idea than pantyhose filled with human hair!

Second, I am angry with Obama for announcing shortly before the disaster that oil rigs don't cause oil spills because of their "advanced technology." Yeah, we have seen their advanced technology in action the last few weeks.

I am angry that Obama announced plans to expand offshore drilling so that other parts of our coast can be devastated. (Just for the record, I was upset at this before this spill. I signed a Green Party petition to that effect before the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred.)

But it is not just Obama. He is just the latest stooge of the government-oil company coalition. I am angry with Bush before him, Clinton before him, Bush the First, Reagan, Carter and back and back, ad nauseum ... literally. 

I am nauseous at hearing BP, Transocean, and Halliburton avoid responsibility while oil spews forth. I am sick at the sight of self-righteous congressmen pointing fingers at the oil companies while taking their campaign contributions.

There, I have said it. The Obamites will voice all kinds of reasons why it is not his fault, and they will blame the Republicans. The conservatives will blame the liberals, and vice versa. They will both find others to blame. Blah, blah, blah. It is exactly this type of tit-for-tat politics that makes me angry.

Now that I have voiced my outrage, I can examine the real source of my wrath. My anger is like oil spilling forth from the depths - a mile beneath the surface of my consciousness. My soul has sprung a leak. It cannot be capped or plugged. 

I can corral the pollution at the surface and burn it off. I can place booms to protect the shoreline of my relationships. But these are only partial and temporary fixes. I can blame others, but that does not change anything. The source of the anger is me... not others.

Quite some time ago I learned an important truth. I get angry at the qualities in others that I refuse to acknowledge in myself. When I get most angry, I am really angry with myself - my shadow self, that is. I blame others to get myself off the hook - the same thing the Dems and the GOP do so well. It is a diversionary tactic.

The truth is that I am the problem. Nearly everything I purchase is manufactured and transported with the use of oil. I have two automobiles, and I want inexpensive gasoline. In fact I usually get my gas from BP. It has such a nice "green" logo and environmentally friendly reputation. I falsely believed that British Petroleum's crude came from the North Sea. Not that it really matters in the global scheme.

In the end I have no one to blame but myself. I can sign a Green Party petition to assuage my conscience. I can get angry with others to avoid personal responsibility.  But I caused that spill - you and me. As Pete Seeger sang, "When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Reading Old Books

Is it just me or do the best-seller lists seem vapid these days? Just look at the New York Times Best-Seller List. Are "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang" and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," the best we can do?

This is why I have taken to reading old books. I once heard a scholar say that people should read three old books (books written over one hundred years ago) for every new book. It keeps our thinking in perspective. So I have been reading old books. My Amazon Kindle eReader makes that easy (No, this is not an advertisement - just an appreciation).

Most old books are free with the new ebook technology. I get them off the internet from such wonderful sites as Internet Archive and Scribd. I can get sacred texts at the Internet Sacred Text Archive and Christian classics at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Recently I have come across an online philosophical library and have been reading old philosophers.

Presently I am carefully reading through George Berkeley's "Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous." For those of you who did not take Philosophy 101 in college, Bishop Berkeley was an Anglican thinker of the philosophical school known as Subjective Idealism (please keep your eyes open). He lived in the late 17th and early 18th century.

I know this book might be a real yawner for most people. If this is the case, you can always go back to reading the new biography of Oprah or the bestseller "This Is Why You're Fat (And How To Get Thin Forever)." I would rather read Berkeley.  His book gets me exploring the universe from a new perspective. It opens my eyes to an entirely different way of seeing things. It is as exciting for me as traveling to exotic countries.

It is so much different than the pyramid of pabulum that greets me when I enter Barnes & Noble's front door. I drift to the right to peruse the "top ten" shelves at B&N, and I wonder, "Does anyone really think outside the box these days?" I go into the back stacks - usually the Religion and Philosophy sections - and I still think, "Where is the good stuff?" "I can order that for you, sir" is their reply.

In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, it was against the law to read books. If books were discovered, the firemen were called in to destroy them. Faber, a former English professor, says to the fireman Montag, "Remember the firemen are rarely necessary. The public stopped reading of its own accord."  These days, it is just the old books that people have stopped reading of their own accord.
Woodcut made by by Michael Wolgemut and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, Germany, 1493.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Oyster Theology

Recently I was watching a television report about the oil spill in the Gulf Coast. An oysterman was being interviewed while standing next to a mountain of oyster shells. Whereas I should have been paying attention to the effects of this ecological disaster on the seafood industry, I could not get my eyes off Mount Oyster Shell. How many shells were in that huge mound? Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions?

My mind waxed philosophical. Plato said that we dwell in our bodies like oysters in their shells. He was referring to the dualistic concept of body and soul, which was incorporated into Christianity. I have my own oyster philosophy.

God is the oyster; we are the shells. The apostle Paul said as much; he just used a slightly different metaphor. He taught that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are the physical structure in which the divine Spirit dwells. We are nothing but shells - physical shells, psychological shells, emotional shells. When we realize this, we become the shells of our former selves.

One of the most exciting experiences of the Christian spiritual life is the awareness of the Holy Spirit in us. We can frame this also as Christ in us, or God in us. Ultimately it is all the same because the three Personae of the Trinity are the same Deity. God is God, whatever name you give Him. God dwells in us. "Christ in you, the hope of glory."

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we are in God. How can the Limitless be within a limited form? How can the infinite be confined by the finite? It is impossible.

The ancient Hebrews understood the Ark of the Covenant as God in a box. But God was not in the box kept in the temple. He was not even in their temple. Solomon said, "But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!" The box was in God. The temple was in God. We are in God, and God is in us.

The ark and the temple are symbols of man. We are boxes of God, shells of divinity. The spiritual life is the process of taking the lid off the ark, shedding the shell. At death our physical shell dissolves, but we do not have to wait until our bodies reach room temperature to realize our destiny. The shell just needs to be cracked a bit.

"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house."
Icon of St. Nicholas "O Streidas" (of the Oyster) from the Monastery of Stavronikita on Mount Athos.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Whirligig Gospel

It is whirligig season. I am not talking about the annoying "lawn ornaments" that sprout from front lawns each spring. I am referring to the winged maple seeds that people also call "helicopters" or "whirlybirds." They fill the air and cover the ground this time of year. My wife looked out the window the other day and remarked, "It is raining helicopters!"

As I was shoveling them from my driveway yesterday, I paused to examine one. I split it open to look for the core - the seed within the seed, like apple seeds in an apple. There was not one, of course. It was a uniform green pulp all the way through. There was no visible clue to the secret of the tree that lay within. I knew that. I just had to be reminded.

I do the same in my prayer time - looking within my soul for the core. There is none of course. I knew that. I just had to be reminded. It is just soul all the way through.

I have an ongoing discussion with a friend of mine about the biblical teaching of the soul. I go with the tripartite model of man - that a human being has three dimensions: body, soul and spirit - made in the image of God, modeled after the trinity. He goes with the more familiar body and soul dualism.

I am right, of course, biblically speaking. (This is my blog after all.) But ultimately it doesn't really matter how one dissects our spiritual essence. What matters is the experience of that essence.

A while ago I was rereading the Upanishads. It had been years since I had read through these ancient texts. They are the ancient Indian exploration of the nature of man, especially the identity of the soul.

In the Chandogya Upanishad there is a discussion between a boy and his father. The father asked his son to pick a piece of fruit, open it, and examine the seed. He did so. Then he told him to break open one of the tiny seeds. "What do you see?" asked the father. The son replied, "I do not see anything." "That is the soul," said the father. "That is you."

Jesus' favorite image for the Kingdom of God is a growing seed. He posited this as the "mystery of the Kingdom" many times in his teaching. He used different forms of the story - from the mustard seed to the parable of the sower - but the message was the same. The spiritual realm is like a seed that grows.

 As I explore the dimensions of my soul, it is like the whirligig in my backyard. It is the seed within. Yet when I examine it more closely, I do not see anything. The soul is no "thing." But there is life there. There is the spiritual DNA of the kingdom of God in the soul. If it is dissected, it dies. If it is planted, it grows.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches." He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Way of the Drunken Master

There is a story about a drunk looking for his lost keys under a lamppost. A policeman stops to help him search. After futilely looking for several minutes, the officer asks the drunk if he is sure this is where he lost them. "No," replied the intoxicated seeker, "I lost them over there, but the light is better here."

I have used that story often as an illustration. What a foolish man, looking for his keys in a place where he knew he didn't lose them! Now I am not so sure. I am starting to look at him with new eyes. Maybe there is wisdom in his madness. Maybe this buffoon is really a sage in disguise.

I have been a spiritual seeker all my life. Even when I thought I had it all figured out, on a more subtle level I was still seeking for more. Seeking for a fuller understanding of Truth, a deeper experience of God.

What if the goal of my search has been here all the time? What if I am not looking for the keys (to understanding, wisdom, truth) but the light to see the keys? What if the light is the key? The light by which I have been searching is the Light that I have been searching for.

The apostle John said that Jesus is the "the true light that gives light to every man who comes into the world." Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

It is not that we are looking in the wrong place. We are looking for the wrong thing. The problem is that we are looking for something - some "thing." Whereas what we are really looking for is the light by which we see all things.

God, Truth, Reality, (whatever you want to call the End of our search) is not some thing or even some one to be found. He is the One who finds, the One who sees all things, the One by which we see.

It is hard to see the Light when we are looking for something. It is like the proverbial fish looking for water. "In Him we live and move and have our being." (I am quoting that Biblical poet a lot these days.)

The light that illumines us is the light by which we are illumined. By this Light we already see. It is just a matter of seeing that we see.
Image is "Drunken Master" by CiTy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Never Enough

Howard Hughes was once asked how much money was enough. He replied, "A little bit more." That is the story of our lives. Jesus told our story when he talked about the rich man who felt like he never had enough grain and goods. So he built bigger and bigger barns to store it all, until one day he died with full barns and an empty soul.

The story does not have to be about material goods. It can be about emotional security. It can be about friendship or family. It can be about respect. It can be about happiness. It can be about self-esteem. It can be about meaning and purpose. It can be about spirituality. It can be about truth. It can be about love.

We can never have enough. Therefore we are always searching for more. When we don't find it, we fill ourselves up with substitutes: food, alcohol, drugs, work, politics, or anything else that will help us forget what we can't find.

The Kingdom of God appears when you stop searching for more. God is enough. The end of the spiritual search is when we stop searching. It is when we know that if we keep searching, we will never find. The only way to find is to stop.

This is grace. Grace means you already have it before you ask, before you seek, before you knock. Grace is here now. There is nothing you have to do, nothing you have to find. Otherwise it would not be grace.

Searching is born of the emptiness that needs to be filled. But it can never be filled. It is infinite. There is not enough of what you are looking for to fill that space. 

But when we stop trying to fill it and have the courage to live in that infinite space, we see that it is already infinitely full. It always was. We just didn't notice. We were too busy searching.
Image is "Never Enough" by Theresa Horstman. Mixed media, acrylic. This piece is built from typewriter ribbon (center) taken from notes created while reading The Diary of Anais Nin series (both the first edition and the posthumous editions). The ribbon is stacked and glued together to create a thick mat, leaving only the edges and top layers readable.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jesus' Conversion Experience

Jesus' life changed in an instant. One day he was a carpenter living an ordinary life in an ordinary village in Galilee. The next day he decided to go down to the Jordan River to hear his cousin preach. While listening to John's message of the Kingdom of God, he felt the leading of God to be baptized.

As he came up from the water, the heavens were opened to him, the Spirit of God descended upon him, and a voice from heaven said, "You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased."

It was Jesus' conversion experience, if you want to call it that. You could call it his awakening to his true nature. What we call it will depend on our religious framework. But one thing is certain; it was more than a dip in the river. Everything changed that day.

I think Jesus would call it being born again or born of the Spirit. Later he said to Nicodemus, "Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God."  I think Jesus was referring to his own experience at the Jordan.

We can experience the same thing. It may not happen at a riverside preaching service, but it might. The physical setting is not important, but the elements of the experience are.

First "the heavens were opened to him." A transcendent dimension opens up our life. The Spirit of God descends like a dove. To say that the Spirit descends "like a dove" means that it was not a violent experience. No holy-rolling, "slain in the Spirit" Pentecostal type thing going on here. This was a gentle alighting of the Spirit, a natural opening up to God.

Then there is the Father's voice, "You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased." At that moment Christ realized powerfully what he had always known - at least since he was twelve years old - that he was the beloved Son of God.

The Bible says that we are sons and daughters of God. "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God." "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus." This does not deny the uniqueness of Jesus. It simply means that we can hear the voice of the Father as well.

God calls us his children. "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!" "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God."

Jesus' experience is our experience. When we are "in Christ" then we share everything that is Christ's. Too much of Christianity is second-hand experience and second-rate spirituality. The truth is that the experience of Jesus is available to us. Our ordinary lives become extraordinary when we follow Jesus' footsteps to the river.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Lost Years of Jesus

I am occasionally asked about the so-called "lost years" or "missing years" of Jesus."  These phrases refer to the life of Christ between the ages of 12 and 30. The Bible talks about his birth, first two years in Egypt, and return to Nazareth. Then it skips to his bar mitzvah at age 12. After this the Scriptures are silent about Jesus' life until he begins his public ministry at about the age of 30.

Usually people ask about these silent years because they have watched a television "documentary" (I use that term lightly), or read a book, or heard a teaching that claims to fill in the gaps in the biblical record. Usually it is a story about Jesus as a yogi in India or a lama in Tibet. Any serious historian will tell you that these extra-biblical accounts of Jesus' life are pure speculation.

Why does the Bible tell us almost nothing about the first thirty years of Jesus' life? I wish they did. It would be interesting reading. But there is a reason they are not mentioned: those years are not important.

We Westerners are obsessed with the importance of our lives. We take the events of our lives very seriously. Celebrities write their autobiographies as if they were writing holy scripture. At Barnes & Noble I saw the autobiography of Miley Cyrus, which she wrote last year at age 16. What life wisdom does a 16-year-old actress have to share?

The gospel writers did not give us the details of Jesus' first thirty years of life because they did not consider them important. Jesus did not speak about his early life because he did not think it was important. To Jesus all that was important was what God was doing. "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner."

It does not matter if Jesus traveled. It does not matter what his favorite song was, his favorite color, or his feelings about his dad's death. All that mattered to Christ was the Kingdom of God and his role in it.

The stories of our lives are not important. I know that may be hard to accept, but no one but your therapist really cares about your childhood and your unresolved emotional issues. And she only cares because you pay her to care. All that matters is the Kingdom of God and our role in it.

The details of our lives will be forgotten. Our personalities and accomplishments are utterly trivial. That goes for both celebrities and average folks. All that matters is our connection to the Eternal. The rest is just a story that we tell ourselves to convince others that we are important.

Every year spent living outside God's will are lost years. Every day spent living God's story is time well spent. As the apostle Paul writes, "Walk in wisdom ... redeeming the time."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Parables & Koans

Jesus was neither a philosopher nor a theologian. He was not an academic professor or even a trained rabbi. Unlike the apostle Paul, Jesus could not point to a famous mentor like Rabbi Gamaliel. Jesus was nobody from nowhere.

Furthermore his teaching style was like no one else's. He did not quote legal precedents from other rabbis. He talked directly to people's hearts. People were astonished at Jesus' teaching because he taught with authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees.

Jesus spoke in parables. "Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them." Parables were not unknown before Jesus, but Jesus used them differently. His stories were not allegories or metaphors. They were pointers.
Jesus said to his disciples, "To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that 'Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.'"

Jesus' parables appear to function more like Zen koans than rabbinic allegories. They were meant to point to "the mysteries of the kingdom of God," to use Jesus' words. They were not meant to help people to see, but to reveal what they could not see or understand.

Jesus never taught that he was the Christ, yet God revealed this truth to Peter. "You are the Christ," said Peter. Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven."

Such a revelation was not communicated by human words. As the apostle Paul explained, this truth was communicated "not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words."

I have heard - and preached - many sermons on the parables of Jesus. Mostly they missed the point. Parables are not intended to be exegeted and exposited. They are meant to point beyond themselves to the Kingdom of God.

As Jesus said, "Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive."  But then he added, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear."

"The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how." He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hidden Treasure

The other day there was an interesting story in our local newspaper. A retired jeweler named Barry Landis was sorting through items donated to Goodwill Industries in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Among the pile of costume jewelry, he spotted something unusual. It turned out to be 2.6-carat diamond and platinum ring. It has a two-carat European-cut diamond, surrounded by 14 smaller diamonds. The ring has been appraised at $17,600.

This was not a generous donation by an anonymous giver. Instead it is likely that someone was cleaning out a relative's old jewelry box and literally threw out a fortune. They still have no idea what they gave away.

There is a story from India about a poor man who goes to visit a wealthy friend. After being treated to a full meal, he falls asleep. The wealthy friend sews a priceless jewel into the lining of his sleeping friend's robe. When the poor man awakens, he continues on his journey, having no idea that he has been given a fortune.

The man lives his life in poverty, enduring great hardship and always in want. Years later he happens to meet his old friend again, who is shocked at his poverty and shows him the jewel in the robe. The man realizes for the first time that he has always possessed boundless riches but did not know it.

Jesus told stories of treasure. A tenant farmer was tilling a field when his plow unearthed a treasure that had been buried in the ground. He sells everything he has to buy that field and secure the treasure. Another man was a merchant, a lifelong seeker of beautiful pearls. One day he comes across a priceless pearl, and immediately recognizes its true value. He also sells everything that he has to buy that pearl.

A rich man came to Jesus one day. Jesus offered him the priceless gift of eternal life. He was required to do just one thing in exchange: sell everything that he had and give the proceeds to the poor. The man couldn't part with his riches, and "went away sorrowful."

The world is composed of different types of people. Some people never notice the treasure sewn into the fabric of their lives. Some are so blind they discard treasure, thinking it is a worthless trinket. Others find treasure buried under their feet when they weren't even looking for it, but they know it when they see it. Others are lifelong seekers; when they find their heart's true desire, they willingly give up everything to possess it. Then there are seekers who cannot bring themselves to accept the treasure when they find it; the price seems too high.

The Kingdom of God is right before our eyes. It is not enough just to have eyes to see it; we need the heart to enter the Kingdom. "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"

Photo is of the 2.6-carat diamond ring that turned up at the Goodwill distribution center in Harrisburg, PA.