Monday, April 30, 2012

Grandfatherly Thoughts

I am starting to get used to this. Grandfatherhood, that is. We have three grandchildren; the youngest is just two weeks old. They are all boys, and all bear the names of Hebrew prophets - Noah, Jonah, Elijah. We call them the OTG - the Old Testament Gang.

The three year-old calls me Gandpa and my wife Gamma. (He can’t yet say his Rs.) The one and a half year-old calls me something similar, but it is hard to make out exactly what. 

While I was driving the other day I waited while an elderly man slowly crossed the parking lot that I was trying to exit. “Come on, Grandpa!” I mumbled impatiently under my breath. Then I realized that I was a grandpa too! I quickly changed my tune . “Take all the time you want, great-grandpa. One day I will be you, God willing.”

As I look at my newborn grandson - so small - just seven pounds, I contemplate the incarnations that we go through in life. Our bodies grow, change and age. I read somewhere that every cell in our bodies is replaced every seven years. That means that physically we are entirely new persons many times during our lives.

I have been through eight bodily reincarnations since my birth, and I am halfway through my ninth. When contemplating this phenomenon, it is clear that I am not my bodies. They come and go, yet I remain. Neither am I my beliefs - whether political, social, ethical, or religious. I have changed those so many times I have lost count.

Neither are we are our personalities. Those are not permanent either. The thoughts, emotions, preferences, and memories that make up our personalities are dependent on the health of our brains, as any family of an Alzheimer's patient knows.

Yet I have always had the sense that I am me, even though my self-understanding has changed. But if I am not my body, my beliefs, or my personality, then who am I? Am I just the fleeting illusion of a self created by the firing of brain synapses. If that is true, then I will perish when my brain dies.

If I am more than the illusion of a self, then I must be what remains when all that is temporary passes away. I must be what is permanent. I am who I was before my body was born and who I will be when my body is dead. 

I held my newest grandson minutes after he was born. Who is he? His name means “The Lord is God.” Who was he a year earlier? Who will he be a hundred years from now? I look into his eyes and see the answer. This is who I was, and am, and will be - the image of God - created to reflect God on earth and for all eternity.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Dangers of Neo-Atheism

I love atheists. That might seem to be a strange thing for a Christian pastor to say, but that is the way I feel. I have read many of the best selling books by the New Atheists. They force me to examine my deepest convictions and assumptions in a way that religious books do not. They make me a better Christian. I read the eSkeptic newsletter published weekly by Skeptic magazine. I love atheism’s attitude of “prove it to me” and their unwillingness to accept things simply on tradition.
Religious people can learn a lot from atheists. Too often we religious folks are too gullible and accepting of ideas that ought to be rejected outright as foolishness. Perhaps it is my scientific education in college that bends me in this direction. I was a geology major before I was a religion major. I dated rocks in terms of millions of years while I was still a teenager. Young earth creationism never made much sense to me. For me religion always needs to be held in the context of scientific fact. 

Therefore it was with distress that I followed the news coverage of the Reason Rally that took place recently in Washington, DC. On April 2, twenty thousand representatives of twenty atheist, secular and humanist organizations gathered in our nation’s capital, purportedly to celebrate reason. 

But it didn’t seem like reason. It seemed more like an unreasonable attack on religion. The rally host Paul Provenza said in his opening announcement: “We're not here today to bash anyone's religion… but, hey, if it happens it happens.” There were placards proclaiming animosity toward religious people. One placard read, “Obama isn’t trying to destroy religion... I am!” Another read, “So many Christians, so few lions.”

In his address to the crowd, atheist writer Richard Dawkins said that religious beliefs “should be challenged and ridiculed with contempt.” He singled out Roman Catholicism and its doctrines for special scorn, saying, "Mock them, ridicule them in public." 

This type of attitude doesn’t sound like reason to me. It sounds more like the French Revolution, which used a guillotine to fill the streets with the blood of tens of thousands of people in the name of “liberty, equality, fraternity.” The French Revolution established a Cult of Reason which advocated anti-clerical violence in the name of Enlightenment rationalism. Although I do not expect a similar Reign of Terror to sweep America, the rhetoric is too similar to ignore. 

The New Atheism movement seems to have become an Anti-theism movement. Their books bear such titles as “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” and “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.“ Other titles include “God Hates You. Hate Him Back” and “The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture.” 

These writers and groups are not content with presenting atheism as a viable alternative to religious worldviews. They publicly disparage religion and openly proclaim their desire to eliminate it. It is not too strong to say that this is anti-religious bigotry. Do you think I am exaggerating or over-reacting? Just substitute the names of other maligned groups in the titles of their books and judge for yourself.

Imagine if there were bestsellers with titles like “Israel is Not Great: How Jews Poison Everything” or “Blacks Hate You. Hate Them Back” or “The Gay Virus: How Homosexuality Infects Our Lives and Our Culture.” What if there was a rally where placards read, “So many blacks, so few lynchings?” What if the organizer of a rally proclaimed, “We're not here today to bash anyone's race but, hey, if it happens it happens.”

If such racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic books were to hit the bestseller lists, or such remarks were made at a rally in Washington, there would be public outrage. But these Neo-Atheist books are reviewed respectfully in America's newspapers. There is a growing anti-religious sentiment in this country which utilizes uncivil rhetoric.

Religion is so widespread and so strong in this country that there is no real threat from nonbelievers - at least not at the present time. But it is disheartening to hear the democratic values of religious freedom and tolerance attacked. Sure, atheists should have the right to gather in public and present their views. But they must remember that in the First Amendment the right to religious freedom is listed before freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. 

Religious liberty is among the most precious values that we have in this nation. But for it to persist, it needs to be defended in the streets and in the pulpits and not just in our country’s founding documents. This value used to be the special concern of the early Baptists and Quakers. Where are their voices now? 

Confronting anti-religious prejudice in the American atheist movement is not without its price. Those who question the motives of the Reason Rally are labeled as “anti-atheist bigots” and Nazis, as evidenced in one  blog entitled “Media Distortions of the Reason Rally.” This atheist blogger goes on to say that one should not judge the whole rally by the “bottom 10%” who voice hateful comments. But that argument is hard to swallow when the “bottom 10%” are the leaders!

America has fought hard for its civil liberties, and they must not be compromised by coddling groups that espouse intolerance. Philosophical atheism is an honorable school of thought and needs to be respected as such. But when it degenerates into anti-religious bigotry, then it needs to be challenged as forcefully as one would challenge any other form of prejudice. 

It is clear that politicians, journalists and academics have no stomach for advocating this particular human right, so let the churches once again be the champions of religious liberty, tolerance, and civility in public discourse..

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games

I read the book before I knew I was too old. It was only when I was through with the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy that I found out that it was “young adult fiction.” I guess I must be young at heart because I loved it. In my opinion it is much more profound than most of the “old adult fiction” I have read recently.

I am always looking for interesting books to read. As a pastor I try to keep in touch with what mainstream society is reading and thinking. So I regularly peruse the best-seller lists and buy books that linger in the top ten. (The exception to that rule is the romance novels. Sorry, I can’t bring myself to read this so-called “mommy porn.”)

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books have been on the USA Today Best Seller list for over two years. Today they hold the top three slots. They are science fiction, a genre that I enjoy. More specifically they are set in a dystopian future, like the Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. So I downloaded it onto my Kindle and started reading. I could not stop reading until I was finished with all three novels.

For those who are unfamiliar with the books, they take place in the not-too-distant future in North America. The United States has been destroyed by an apocalyptic event and replaced with Panem, with its Capitol in the Rocky Mountains.  The continent is divided into twelve districts, one of which was later destroyed for its rebellion against the state.

To keep the districts under its thumb, the Capitol annually requires each district to choose two teenagers to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games, an event which is a believable hybrid of the TV show Survivor and the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome.

I will tell you why I like the books. First of all they are a scathing critique of American popular culture and politics. The painted coiffed residents of the Capitol are too reminiscent of the cultural elite of our nation. I felt like I was watching the Oscars!

The economy of Panem is easily recognizable as the class warfare decried by Occupy movement - the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. The government of Panem is the oligarchy of American politics. It is the Demopublican party of the USA, which sends its young men and women to die in war as a way to keep itself in power.

The heroine of the novels is a sixteen year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen. She is the perfect heroine for our time because she is not perfect. She is a deeply flawed and wounded person; in other words she is real. She is deeply spiritually connected with nature; she regularly escapes the prison of her urban ghetto to hunt in the forests of the former West Virginia.

Most important she is willing to lay down her life. At the Reaping (where the tributes from each district are chosen by lot) Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister Prim. She is Christ at Gabbatha, the one who saves another by taking her place. Later at the end of the Game, she offers her life again, showing this was no fleeting emotional outburst, but the core of her character.

And she is a warrior.  This is a theme that is missing from much of Christianity today. I was reacquainted with it when I read John Bunyan’s book “The Holy War,” a book just as profound as his more well-known Pilgrim’s Progress. She fights! But she sees that the true fight is not against the flesh and blood of the other tributes in the arena, but against the principalities and powers operating behind the scenes.

This is a deeply spiritual book, even though I do not know if the author is traditionally religious. There are other important themes as well. I will only mention one. There is the secondary theme of the power of art to transform and save. True art is practiced by the hero Peeta versus the faux art of the culture. It is redeeming art, which is deeply connected to Nature, the human soul and the power of love.

That is all I have room to say here. You will have to read the books for yourself. But I warn you. They are revolutionary. If the youth of our nation are inspired by books like these, the future will not be like our present.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Reflections in Solitude

I have been spending more time alone recently. I wish I could say it was intentional – that I am setting aside time to go on solitary retreats to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer and meditation. But that is not the case. My wife has simply been away more than usual.

First it was her mother’s illness and subsequent death in Florida last summer. Then she spent some time with her dad after her mom’s passing. More recently she has been on “baby watch” with our daughter in western Pennsylvania in anticipation of the arrival of our new grandson.

So I have been “batching it” in New Hampshire. I keep busy during the day and many evenings doing church work. But when the work is over, I am home alone. These times of solitude have helped me to understand the lifestyles of many of my church members.

Time Magazine recently published an issue on “Ten Ideas That are Changing Your Life.”  First on the list was: “Living Alone Is the New Norm.” In 1950, only 9 percent of Americans lived alone. Now people who live alone make up 28 percent of American households. That is a 300% increase during my lifetime!

Many of those living alone are older folks. Another article said that one of the top three concerns of the elderly is loneliness. (The other two are depression and a feeling of uselessness.) These are ministry needs that need to be addressed by congregations.

Spirituality is different for people who live alone. Community becomes more important. That is one of the reasons we moved back to this small town of Sandwich, New Hampshire. We experience community here more than in any other place we have ever lived. I have a theory: the smaller the town, the more people you know.

One’s relationship to God is different when alone. When you are sitting by yourself in the evening, you can’t escape God. God is not a distant Father you visit on Sunday morning or in a half hour of daily devotions. Whenever I am alone, God is here.

I could distract myself with television, internet, books or even writing. But even then, God hovers at the edges of my awareness. I simply have to turn my attention, and God fills my vision. God’s presence can be overwhelming. The silence shouts God.

Sometimes it feels like God is too present. I know that might sound ungodly for a minister to admit, but I am being honest here. I understand why Adam and Eve hid from God in forest of Eden. They just wanted some time alone.

God’s presence can be overpowering. When I am alone with God, my sense of being a separate self feels contrived. When God is present, I am so tiny in comparison that I barely exist. My little self disappears in the omnipresence of God’s Self. The prophet Isaiah experienced this and cried out, “Woe is me! I am undone!”

Sometimes I imagine that is what death must be like – the permanent undoing of “I” and the eternal awareness of God’s “I AM.” When I contemplate this, it seems like I exist only to mirror God; I am like a reflection in still waters.

Perhaps that is what the Genesis creation story means when it says that humans are made in the image of God. Maybe we are no more than the image of the Creator reflected in the waters of His Creation. Then the Spirit moves over the face of the waters, and the image disappears.