Monday, December 30, 2013

A Non-Theology of God

I normally do not take requests for blog topics. This is my personal space to write whatever is on my mind. But a friend posted a question on Facebook in response to my blog about unboxing God. (The Unboxed God) In that blog I explained what God is not. He wanted me to write a blog about who God is.

The request seems reasonable, but it is fraught with danger. Not the least is the danger to me. I might start thinking that I understand God! That is spiritually deadly for a minister. Furthermore people might believe what I write and therefore think that they also understand God.

Talking about God is called theology. Theology is articulated in doctrine, which becomes dogma, creed and catechism. People learn “truths” about God, and they think they know who God is. They think that holding to beliefs about God is faith in God. It is better to know that we don’t know than to fool ourselves into thinking we understand God.

That is not to say we should not try to speak about God. We have to try. To keep silent about God does not help people know God. That is why I am a preacher. It would not do for me to stand up in front of a congregation and remain silent.

So what do I say? Sometimes I use the traditional words of Christian theology - words like perfect, holy, good, infinite, eternal, and love. I even capitalize them to make them sound more divine: Perfect, Holy, Good…. These words aren’t untrue, but they are not exactly true either. It is like saying that “eternal” is a really long time or that the universe is “really big.” 

When someone asks me about God I want to reply, “Why are you asking? If you truly want to know, see for yourself! Open your eyes!” It feels like someone asking me to describe a tree while standing in front of a tree. Just look for yourself! God is so obviously present and clear for me that I forget that most people do not notice God.

How do you get the blind to see that which is invisible? I refer people to Jesus. He is known for giving sight to the blind. He made God visible. The apostle John wrote: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18 NIV) I let Jesus make God known to them.  

I try to lead people into the Presence of God through the teachings and living Presence of Jesus Christ. I try to nudge them, cajole them, bump them, push them, or shock them into noticing the obvious. I do whatever I can to show people God.

But describe God? It is impossible. Furthermore it is unnecessary. It is a sideshow for religious people, a substitute for spiritual experience. Why not experience God directly?  To know God all we have to do is give up everything. Give up our selves. Give up our lives. Give up our religion and our theology. When we stop trying to capture God in words and ideas, then we can know the Reality of God. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Unboxed God

God is so small. Not the real God, of course, but the “God of our understanding,” to use the popular Twelve Step phrase. If I can understand God, then my God is too small. True God is by definition beyond human understanding.

Over sixty years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a book entitled, “Your God is Too Small.”  He talked about "God-in-a-box." He explored common concepts of God such as "Resident Policeman," "Grand Old Man," "Meek-and-Mild," and "Managing Director."

Earlier this year Rob Bell wrote a book entitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.”  He is a mega-church pastor who hopped out of the mega-box. Both authors, though separated by two generations, make the same basic point: most people’s God is very small.

I will use the lower case g to refer to this god. For it is not God at all. This is the god that atheists rightly reject as nonexistent. It is the projection of our egos onto the fabric of the universe. This is the Santa Claus god, the Tooth Fairy god. It is the god that Freud described as illusory. It is rightly disbelieved.

When this small god is seen through, then God appears. Sometimes. Most people just adopt a more sophisticated “god-in-a-box.” It is just a slightly bigger or more sophisticated box. A liberal box. A politically correct box. A philosophical box. A spiritual box. But still a box.

Open the box and throw away the box. If you find any godlike objects in that box, throw them away as well. Theological idols are still idols. What remains is Spirit. “God is Spirit and those who worship God must worship in Spirit and Truth,” said Jesus.

But Spirit can also be idolized. It becomes the spirituality box. The anti-religion box. The “Eastern religion is better than Western religion” box. The “spiritual-but-not-religious” box. It is a more subtle box, and for that reason more deceptive.

When the box is removed, we see that we were the ones in the box. God could never have been boxed. We see that we were nothing more than the “box of our own understanding.” Our little self is seen through. We are not who we thought we were, any more than God was who we thought God was. Boundaries disappear. God is. Unboxed. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Eyes of a Stranger

Jesus said that two commandments summarize the spiritual life: Love God and love your neighbor. The second one is found in nearly every culture as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In other words, treat others as you want to be treated.

I like the way Jesus puts it: Love your neighbor as yourself. Embedded in Christ’s teaching is a deeper intuitive truth. If we look at our neighbor closely, we see ourselves. We recognize ourselves in others. Perhaps we could go as far as to say that our neighbor is our self in disguise.

When I look into the eyes of my neighbor I see myself looking back. It is like looking in the mirror. The details of the face look different than the one I see in the mirror, but behind those eyes I see myself. If we truly look into anyone’s eyes, we see a consciousness which is indistinguishable from our own.

Only the details of our personal histories separate us. If I had been born to his parents in his country, I would be him. If I had been raised in her culture, I would think like she thinks. We have different life experiences, but there is no important difference between my neighbor and me.

Sometimes people say, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” That is not really accurate. It is closer to the truth to say, “There I am.” That is why the Hebrew Scriptures exhort us to treat the stranger and the foreigner as ourselves. Beneath the ethnic, racial, gender, cultural and religious differences, the other person is me.
This is also true of my enemy. That is why Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.” I am my enemy living incognito. We hold different views on important matters. We have been taught by our cultures, governments, and religions to hate one another. But on closer inspection, hatred of enemy is just a form of self-hate.

God made us all in his image. That image is what I see in the eyes of the neighbor, the stranger, and the enemy. To hate anyone is to hate God. To love the other is to love God and myself. To see this truth for yourself, just look deeply into the eyes of the next stranger you meet.
The Enemy vs. The Inner Me, a painting by Duy Huynh. Here is his website

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Morning

It is Christmas morning, and it is quiet. Sunny, clear and cold. A beautiful white Christmas. The only noise I hear is the fire crackling in the woodstove as the hot coals greet the newest piece of wood I placed upon them. There are no cars driving along the road outside our home. Everyone is where they want to be ... or have to be.

My wife and I opened presents this morning. They were a few simple, thoughtful gifts. Exactly the way we had planned. Then we picked up the house to prepare for family. Putting the extension in the dining room table, setting the table, putting the presents under the tree. Jude is doing some cooking now, and I am doing some writing. Working on another blog and a newsletter article.

I texted a couple of my kids this morning. “Wake up! Santa came!” It is what I used to say to them when they were children. Often I accompanied this Christmas greeting with a little bit of snow, just to help them open their eyes. They would come downstairs in their pajamas to the smell of Monkey Bread and see stockings stuffed with toys and goodies.

We no longer do the stockings. But perhaps someday we will again. I dream of a Christmas when grandchildren (perhaps little Elijah) will wake up in our home. I will wake them up early, while it is still dark, with the assistance of a little snow, if necessary.

Later today our boys, their wives and three of our grandkids will be coming to our house. (Our daughter, her husband and our grandson Elijah are in western Pennsylvania, and cannot make it.) I will build an open fire in the fireplace in the dining room for the occasion. We will return thanks to God for the food and for His Son. Then we will eat the best meal of the year.

I don’t know why I love Christmas as much as I do. I guess it is the child inside me that comes out. Perhaps it is also the Christ inside me who comes out. It is his birthday after all. He will attend where two or three or nine are gathered in his name. In any case it is a blessed Christmas day today. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What If Christmas Were Canceled

We had to cancel the outdoor Live Nativity at our church on Sunday. The weather forecast called for an ice storm all day and evening. So we preemptively canceled it on Saturday. Gene Kelly may have enjoyed singing in the rain, but no one wants to sing Christmas carols in the freezing rain.

What would have happened if the first Christmas had been canceled? What if God had said, “The weather is too bad, and it is such a long trip to Bethlehem? There is no room at the inn anyway. Christmas is canceled.”

What if the Almighty had looked down from heaven and declared humankind a lost cause? No need to send his Son. In his foreknowledge God knew that man would reject his Son and kill him. So what’s the point? Why not cancel the whole program? Why not cancel Christmas?

No angels, no wise men, no star of Bethlehem. An empty manger, an empty womb. Another boring night for the shepherds watching their flocks by night. No Sermon on the Mount. No miracles. No parables. No Good Friday. No Easter Sunday. No gospel.

Many people think it would make no difference if Jesus had never been born. Some believe the world would be better off without Christianity. Atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote a book entitled, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” People like Hitchens think the world would be better if the Christian religion never existed.

On the other side, D. James Kennedy wrote a book entitled “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?“ subtitled: “The Positive Impact of Christianity in History.”  It relates the contributions that Christianity has made to human civilization. Sure the Church has committed its share of sins, but its good works far outweigh its faults.

Personally I cannot imagine my life without Christ. My life is bound up with Christ. It is no exaggeration to say that Christ is my life. I can honestly say with the apostle Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

For me there is no life without Christ. With Christ is life eternal and abundant. Thank God that he decided that Christmas was worth the price. Christmas was worth the Cross. Love was worth it all. It always is.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Prepare Him Room

Joy to the World is my favorite Christmas song. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare Him room, And heaven and nature sing….”

I would sing it every Sunday during December if I could. But I limit myself to singing it as a congregational hymn on the Sunday before Christmas and as the benediction of the Christmas Eve service. I also make sure it is sung when our church has a Christmas Carol Sing.

Joy is one of the keynotes of the spiritual life. When the apostle Paul listed nine spiritual qualities of a Christian’s life he started his list with “love, joy, peace.” Those are the three dominant qualities that I experience in God.

Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness happens. Joy is. Happiness occurs when we believe things are going right in our lives. Joy is unconditional. Joy is always present. It is the substratum of life even in the most difficult of times.

The other day I was driving with my wife. I blurted out that I am happier than I have ever been in my life. That is not what I meant to say. I meant to say that I experience joy more now. Joy, peace and love flow like an ever-present river through my life.

Jesus describes the Life of God as a fountain of living water springing up to eternal life. It is a good description. Joy comes from within. It is not produced by anything that happens in the outside world. It rushes up from the eternal depths of the soul and flows up in a fountain of Spirit. My cup runneth over.

It has not always been this way for me. In the past I have been mired in what Bunyan calls the Slough of Despond. But one day I noticed that God’s peace, joy and love are always with me. Why not pay more attention to them, instead of living in the vicissitudes of life? In fact, why not live there permanently?

So I did. I moved in. I left my cramped living quarters of human thoughts and emotions and moved into God’s space. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God and his Father’s house. I prepared room for Him and found that he had prepared a room for me.

That is the meaning of Immanuel: God with us. We have the choice to live in God’s eternal Presence or in our own shabby finite dwellings. I choose God.

“No more let sin and sorrow grow, Nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found.” Too many people experience life as curse. They suffer unnecessarily. Life is joy. Heaven and earth sing it. Rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy. All we have to do is sing along.  
Art is “Joy to the World” by Emelisa Mudle,  Watercolor on Canvas. Here is her site.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Opening Presence

I am no Grinch. I like presents as much as anyone. But I like giving presents more than receiving presents. That does not mean I like buying them. I do not enjoy shopping. I would rather go to the dentist office than the shopping mall.

My wife does the Christmas shopping. The only shopping I do is online. Furthermore, we have agreed to give each other only one gift for Christmas. Okay, maybe two. But the second one has to be small and inexpensive.

I am one of those people who is hard to buy for. My wife has been asking me for gift suggestions for weeks. My kids have been asking her what to buy me. Finally I gave her an idea: some SmartWool socks. (It gets cold up here in New Hampshire.)

I thought that was a great idea. She was not impressed. I guess socks are not a fun gift. I am sorry, but there is nothing else I really want or need. As time goes on, the less important it is to get presents. All I really want is a house full of kids and grandkids at our home for Christmas dinner. Their presence is my present.

The spiritual dimension of Christmas is even more important. Christmas is not about opening presents. It is about opening to Presence. Jesus told his disciples that he was going to give them a present at Pentecost (one of the Jewish holy days). It was the gift of the Holy Spirit. He delivered on his promise.

Every day I open the gift of God’s Presence. Every day I am aware of the Presence of God. To receive this daily gift all I have to do is open my heart, and God is there. God is powerfully, undeniably, wonderfully present. A gentle grin comes over my face. Joy fills my heart. God is Present. God is Presence. Open Presence.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Christmas Solstice

In 2005 I took a three-month sabbatical leave from ministry. Part of that time we spent in England. I was officially a “visiting scholar” at Regent’s Park College, part of Oxford University. It sounds impressive, but all it means is that I had a university ID card, which gave me access to lectures and the Bodleian Library.

We stayed at a flat at the college and took meals with faculty and students. We got addicted to English teatime with real scones and clotted cream. We also did our share of sightseeing. One of the places we visited was Stonehenge.

I was unprepared for the effect that this late Neolithic site had on me.  At first it was a sense of déjà vu, a deep feeling of familiarity. Then it was a feeling of human connectedness to the ancients who constructed it. It culminated in a sense of the connectedness of the earth to the heavens.

What does Stonehenge have to do with Christmas? Both are centered on the winter solstice. The primary axis of Stonehenge is aligned on the position of the sun at the winter solstice. The date of Christmas was originally set to coincide with the winter solstice.

I hate to spoil Christmas for anyone, but Jesus was not born on December 25. There is no historical or biblical mention of the date of Jesus’ birth. Three hundred years after the birth of Jesus, the church selected the winter solstice as the date to celebrate his birthday.

The solstice fell on December 25 on the Roman calendar in those days. When the calendar was later changed, the date of the solstice changed accordingly. Now it falls on December 21st or 22nd. (This year it is on the 21st.) But Christmas unfortunately remained on the 25th. That is how we got our date for Christmas.

The winter solstice was important for people for millennia before Christ was born. It was helpful for agriculture and animal husbandry. It was also significant for the religion of ancient peoples. Because the winter solstice was the reversal of the sun's decline in the sky, concepts of the birth or rebirth of the sun were common.   

When Christianity came on the scene, it was natural for Christians to connect the resurrected sun to the Resurrected One, whom the Scriptures call “the Sun of Righteousness.” The birth of the sun was seen as symbolic of the birth of the Son. 

Few Christians make the connection between the solstice and Christmas any longer. Some Christians purposely reject any relationship, fearing pagan influences upon a Christian holy day. Personally I love the connection. 

The winter solstice is a natural phenomenon which has had powerful psychological and spiritual significance for people throughout history. It was a stroke of genius for the early Church to link it to the birth of Jesus. It is a symbol of the triumph of light over darkness. It is a sign of cosmic and spiritual rebirth. What a perfect time for Christmas! 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christ Before Christmas

I have been asking some fundamental spiritual questions during Advent. The “elephant in the room” question is about Christ. After all, the holiday is named after him! Christ is what Christmas is all about.

Usually people answer questions about Christ by making theological statements about the babe of Bethlehem who grew up to be the carpenter of Nazareth, the rabbi of Galilee, and the Crucified and Risen One of Jerusalem.

I want to try another approach. I want to go back in time before the historical Jesus. I want to ask about Christ before Christmas. That is how the apostle John began his Christmas story.

The Gospel of John opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” He goes on to say, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He was talking about the immortal Christ who became the mortal Jesus.

Who was Christ before Jesus? John says he was God. Did people know Christ before Christmas? Even the most conservative Christians talk about Christ appearing in the Old Testament long before Jesus was born. These appearances are called theophanies.

The apostle Paul even says that Christ appeared as a rock! He writes about the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness: “All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”

People knew Christ before Jesus. Non-Hebrew people knew Christ before Jesus. The Gentile Job said, “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”

Christ is so much bigger than the miniature versions of Jesus preached by popular Christianity these days. Christ is neither a dogma nor a spiritual fad. Christ is not a theological weapon to be used against nonChristians. Christ is God. As infinite and eternal God, Christ is not subject to human interpretation.

Christ was God before he was Jesus. Christ was God in Jesus, and Christ is God now. Christ cannot be pigeonholed into manageable doctrinal categories. Christ can only be worshiped, adored, celebrated and glorified.

This is the Christ I know. This is the Christ who was born in Bethlehem. This Christ is born in the lives of those who worship him, serve him and surrender their lives to him. This is the Christ who died at the hand of religion and state. This is the Christ who lives. This is Christ, the Savior of the world. This is the Christ of Christmas.


Image is “God resting after Creation,” a Byzantine mosaic in Monreale, Sicily. Christ is depicted as the Creator of the world. Depictions of God the Father became prevalent only in the 15th century. Before then Jesus was often shown as God.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

O Come, All Ye Faithless

Advent raises the question of God. As much as the culture tries to drown out the spiritual in a holiday cacophony of commercialism and sentimentality, the Deity peeks around every corner during December.

As a pastor I talk about God a lot during every season of the year. I pray to God, teach about God, preach about God, and write about God. I am more aware of God than I am of myself. I am more certain of God's existence than I am of my own human existence.

I know that statement sounds strange to many ears. God is a problem for increasing numbers of people. Atheism is on the rise in America. It is the fastest growing category in religious surveys.  So I see Advent as a time to raise the God question.

In an age when people doubt God, how can I be so certain of God? The answer is personal experience. I know that experience can be deceptive. There are hallucinations, deceptions and delusions. Atheist Richard Dawkins entitled his best-selling book The God Delusion. He thinks religion is a sign of mental impairment.

When I have the opportunity to discuss God with atheists (which I love to do!) some will compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. They see the idea as a childish notion that any sensible person outgrows in adolescence. I used to believe that also.

I grew up in church and went through Confirmation at the age of 13. But by the time I entered college I was a confirmed atheist. I know the atheist mindset by personal experience. In fact I reexamined my religious beliefs just a few years ago. I revisited my undergraduate atheism, just to make sure that I was not in fact deluded in my faith.

Atheism is a very attractive and consistent philosophy. But I don’t buy it. It does not ring true to experience. I am a theist and a Christian because of my awareness of God and Christ. The atheist arguments are impressive, but you can’t argue with experience.

I understand that experience is fallible. People believe a lot of strange things based on their experiences. I know the dangers of basing one’s life on subjective experiences. But there is also a danger in dismissing experience.

God is a confirmable hypothesis. Anyone can know that God is real. In fact I would say that everyone already knows God is real at some level of awareness. I wrote in a previous blog about uncovering the soul (Soul Searching) – discovering one’s true nature as immortal soul. When one perceives soul, God appears.

The soul is the doorway to the Divine. When one enters the sanctuary of the human soul one steps into eternity. God is waiting for us there. We don’t have to “believe” anything. (That comes later.) All it takes is the courage to suspend one’s disbelief and see for ourselves. If we persevere in the discovery of our own true nature, we will incidentally bump into God. Even an atheist can do it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Requiem for the Holiday Newsletter

I used to send out a holiday newsletter at this time of year. I called it the “Davis Advent Newsletter.” I wrote it carefully and concisely so that it fit onto one side of a single page. I printed them on decorative holiday stationary, and stuffed them into envelopes, along with our Christmas cards. We tirelessly licked dozens of stamps and went to the post office to send them on their way. No longer.

We also no longer receive newsletters tucked into Christmas cards with other people’s family photos. The newsletters always caught us up on the major happenings of our friends’ lives. They also bragged about travels, kids and professional achievements. The closest things we now receive to the holiday newsletter are handwritten notes inside of some Christmas cards.

Even Christmas cards are fewer. I remember when we could wallpaper a room with the cards we received. Nowadays they comprise a modest pile on an end table in the living room. We get e-cards and e-newsletters instead, if that. This year we even got an e-invitation to a family wedding for the first time. We sent back an e-RSVP. I expected to attend the wedding via Skype.

That is the price of the internet. Snail mail (as it is now called) is too slow and too expensive for people. Now everyone knows everything we do as soon as we do it. Email, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media have replaced the paper newsletter. There is no longer a need to provide a chronological recap of the past year.

As Joni Mitchell sang, “something’s lost but something’s gained.” The gain (I guess it is a gain) is that we now know more than we ever wanted to know about more people than we ever knew we knew. The loss is that the overall story of our lives gets lost in the daily details. The proverbial forest is lost in the trees.

Our lives are a story. Each year comprises a chapter. A holiday newsletter was a way to conclude the present chapter. Now every year is open-ended. No overarching story, just a string of events on a Facebook timeline.

We are always writing the story of our lives and our family’s life in our heads and hearts. At least I am. I am repeatedly editing my story in my head, trying to fit current events into my life’s plotline. It is the way we give our lives meaning. It is how we know how far we have come and where we might be going.

The holiday newsletter was one way to share the progress of our lives with those closest to us. That storyline has become lost in the internet age. I, for one, feel the poorer for it.  On the other hand, I may have lost a holiday newsletter, but I have gained a blog! And people like you actually read it!

So let me tell you how great my ministry is going and how beautiful and brilliant my grandkids are….. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Funeral at Christmas

When we were visiting our daughter in western Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving, a friend and neighbor was rushed to the hospital. We visited him in the hospital on Thanksgiving Day.

A week later he died in the hospital. His wife asked me to officiate at his funeral. So we found ourselves flying back to Pittsburgh two weeks before Christmas.

Christmas is always a difficult time for those who have lost loved ones. That is why we have a Blue Christmas Service at our church. It is especially difficult when the death and funeral occur near the holidays.

I always remember that my father died the week before Thanksgiving, even though it happened thirty years ago. The following spring my grandfather’s funeral was held on Good Friday. Those holidays always bring back these memories.

When a death happens near the holidays, it forever changes the way we celebrate the holiday. Not necessarily in a bad way. It enriches the experience of the holiday. This is especially true of Christian holidays.

There is a painting by William Holman Hunt entitled Shadow of Death. He painted it a hundred and fifty years ago during a trip to the Holy Land. It shows Jesus in his twenties, working as a carpenter in Nazareth. He is stretching his arms after a hard day’s work. He almost seems to be dancing and smiling. You can almost hear him say, “It is finished.”  

The setting sun casts a shadow of Christ’s outstretched arms onto the wall of the carpenter’s shop. His shadow falls on a wooden tool rack mounted on the wall and prefigures his crucifixion. His mother Mary is on her knees before a chest in which she has kept the gifts given to her Son by the Magi. She glances up to see the shadow of the cross on the wall.

The painting incorporates elements of the birth, life and death of Christ. It proclaims that death is always with us, even at moments of emotional fulfillment and joy. That is what the funeral of our friend reminded us. 

He was a Vietnam vet who knew war and death. He was a medic who was awarded the Purple Heart. He also knew birth and life. He was a surrogate grandfather to my own grandson Elijah, who lives across the street. He loved him as his own. He kept a photo of him by his bed in the hospital.

Death does not take a holiday. Even at Christmastime people we love die. The longer one lives, the more holidays bear the shadow of death. But we can still dance. That is because the birth and death of Christ has taken away the sting of death. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Yule Log

I don’t heat with wood exclusively, but I use it as a supplement to the expensive propane that heats our home.  When the temperature slides into the teens and single digits - as it has recently - I always put a fire in our woodstove.

Our Jotul stove has a glass front so I can watch the fire burn. Sometimes I also have an open fire in our Rumford fireplace to heat the old section of our home, which dates from the 1790’s.

Even though I enjoy the warmth of wood heat, the chief attraction of a fire is spiritual. It is a form of meditation. There is nothing quite like watching a fire. Therefore it is no surprise that the tradition of the Yule log fascinates me.

Basically a Yule log is a really big piece of firewood burned during the twelve days of Christmas. Originally it was so big that it took more than one person to lug it into the house.  I like this story about the origin of the Yule log, which I found on Wikipedia:

The first mention of the Yule log in Britain is a written account by the clergyman Robert Herrick, from the 1620s or 1630s. Herrick called the tradition a "Christmas log" and said that it was brought into the farmhouse by a group of males, who were then rewarded with free beer from the farmer's wife.

That ought to motivate my sons to come over some evening and watch the Yule log with me!

Watching a fire inspires spiritual reflection. It is said that every atom in our bodies was originally forged within distant stars billions of years ago. Humans are literally recycled stardust. Fire is the means that God has used to craft our physical bodies. Maybe that is why fire feels like home.

In the Scriptures fire is often associated with God, and especially the Holy Spirit. Moses saw and heard God in a burning bush.  I imagine that Moses often stared into a campfire on those nights when he was tending his flock in the wilderness. Then one time he encountered God in the fire.

When I look into a fire I also sense God. I can hear the voice that spoke to Moses, “I am who I am.” The Yule log reminds us of God’s eternal nature and our own human nature.  It reminds us of Christ, the Light of the world, whom we confess to be both human and divine. Fire-gazing can be a spiritual practice at Christmas … even without the beer.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Soul Searching

I mentioned in my first blog of Advent (“’Twas the Night Before Advent”) that the Advent season is a time to ask the right questions rather than recite the right answers. One of those questions is: “Who am I?”

It is the most fundamental spiritual question one can ask. It is more basic than the God Question (“Does God exist?”) or the Christ Question (“Is Jesus the Son of God?”) Before one can ask about God or Christ, one must know who is asking the questions.

I have come back to this question again and again in my spiritual life. Each time I ask the question, I peel off another layer of my self. I ask the question, and I find that I am not my name, profession or family identity. Those are incidental to who we are. I am not my gender, racial, national, or ethnic identity.

By asking the question I am not sorting out personal psychological issues. I am not having a midlife crisis. I have been asking this question all my life. This question is spiritual, not psychological.

When we ask the question often enough, we realize that we are not the psychological persona that we have created for ourselves during our lifetimes. We are not our personal identity with its preferences, quirks and tendencies. When one looks directly at the persona, it is seen to be a mirage.

We are more permanent than our human manifestation. Christianity has historically referred to our core identity as the immortal soul. The more accurate biblical term is spirit.

As I read what I have just written here, it is sounds too theological and philosophical. Words are so cumbersome.  What I am talking about is not intellectual or theoretical; it is experiential. We can know this directly.

Instead of me trying to describe this, it would be best if you, the reader, just took a direct look at what I am talking about. Just ask the question of yourself, “Who am I?”

Ask it repeatedly, thoroughly, completely and relentlessly. Accept no answer at face value. Do not accept my answer or the answers in any theological or philosophical system. Discover your self for yourself.

As each answer is proved to be false, go deeper. Eventually you will find. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” In questioning is the answer. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Merry Maranatha

Years ago I had a church secretary who scrutinized my writings for errors. She would find them often enough, even when there weren’t any. In one article I made a reference to Mohandas Gandhi. She corrected it to Mahatma Gandhi. I explained that it was the same guy. Mohandas was his birth name, and Mahatma was the honorific title given to him by his followers. (It means “great soul.”)

For a while I had the habit of ending each newsletter article with the valediction “Maranatha.” She was unfamiliar with the term. So she looked it up in an old dictionary in her personal library. The dictionary reported that Maranatha was an ancient curse found in the Bible, synonymous with Anathema.

She was shocked! She thought that I was cursing the congregation on a monthly basis! And it was probably without the congregation (or me) knowing what I was doing. I explained to her that the old dictionary was wrong. That definition was not based on the most-up-to-date Biblical research.

I assured her that the word was an ancient Christian prayer, not a curse. It was thought to be a curse for a long time because of its close proximity to the word “curse” in the context in which it occurs in the Bible. (1 Corinthians 16:22) But linguists now know that is not the case.

In the New Testament there are a few places were the ancient tongue of Jesus has been preserved intact. Jesus and the original disciples spoke Aramaic. They knew Greek and could read Hebrew (and many even picked up Latin), but the vernacular of the Holy Land was Aramaic. Jesus taught in Aramaic. His teachings had to be translated into Greek when the Gospels were written.

But a few Aramaic words survived in the New Testament documents, embedded in the ancient texts like jewels in a matrix. One of those words is maranatha. It is found only once in scripture, at the end of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians. It means either “Come, Lord.” or “Our Lord has come.”

In either case it is the perfect word for the Advent season. The word “Advent” means coming. During Advent we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s first coming as the Christ child born in Bethlehem (“Our Lord has come!”) We also look ahead to when he will come again, the Second Coming (“Come, Lord!) 

Try it out this month. Next time someone wishes you “Merry Christmas!” respond with a hearty “Maranatha!” Then notice the quizzical expression on their faces. I just hope no one thinks you are cursing them.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Window Candles

One of the things I do around our home at Advent is put candles in our windows. They are the battery-powered variety of course, but they flicker in a realistic manner. Most people do not know the origin of this custom.

Even though the symbolism of lights during the winter solstice has ancient pre-Christian origins, this particular custom of window candles was brought to this country by Irish immigrants.

Irish Catholics put candles in their windows, and also kept their doors unlocked, at Christmastime as a sign to passing priests. It was a way of informing clergy that they were welcome to spend the night in that home and say Mass for the inhabitants. Today the Irish, as well as the Americans, have forgotten this centuries-old significance of the candles.

The custom also has biblical significance. It is said that on the first Christmas Eve Mary and Joseph went from house to house in Bethlehem looking for a place to stay, but they found no hospitality. There was not even room for them in the inn.

Candles placed in windows are a sign of hospitality to Christ. Candles are placed in windows and doors are kept unlocked as a way of saying that Christ is welcome in that house. They represent spiritually open minds and open hearts.

I see many homes with candles in the windows. But I suspect that few doors are unlocked. Fewer still would invite an itinerant minister to spend the night if he came knocking on the door. The presence of window candles no longer indicates that the inhabitants of that house worship Christ.

Christ says in scripture, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” The Christmas hymn says:

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Seasonal Advent Disposition

Advent is the opposite of Lent. The word Lent means “lengthening of days.” Days get longer in the spring until they blossom into summer. During Advent the days get shorter until we come to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.

Christmas was originally celebrated on the winter solstice until an adjustment to the calendar dislocated the two events. During these weeks leading up to Christmas, the days get shorter and shorter. It does something to the psyche. This is true not only for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

As I write this blog, it is three o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun is hugging the skyline in its rush to the other side of the earth. Furthermore, it is cold outside. It puts me in a pensive mood. I could call it Seasonal Advent Disposition.

It makes me yearn to see God in all his glory the way I yearn for summer in winter. It makes me want to sing the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” even though technically winter does not even start until the twenty-first of December.

On the first Sunday in Advent I always select hymns in minor keys to be sung in worship. It starts the season of Advent on the right note. I choose hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” It fits this twilight season.

When Christ was born, people were yearning for the Messiah. Their lives were lived in a minor key. The Bible speaks about a man named Simeon (probably about my age) who “was waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” The Gospel says of him “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

Simeon had the unique privilege of holding the Christ child in his arms when Jesus was only a few weeks old. Scripture says “he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: ‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation.’”

That is the way feel during Advent. I feel blessed to know Christ in my lifetime. Though I know him only in Spirit and not in flesh, I often feel like I am face to face with him, like Simeon gazing into the eyes of the infant Messiah. But it is still an earthly view.

One day this twilight world will fade, and the dawn will come. Then I, and all who love his appearing, will see him as he is. “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.” (I John 3:2) Come, Lord Jesus. 

Winter Twilight, oil painting by Melody Phaneuf. Here is the link to her site

Monday, December 2, 2013

Tree of Memories

Today is the day we put up the Christmas tree. We will gradually decorate it during the week. We always do it the first week of Advent. It means that Christmas is really coming. The Christmas tree is one of those rituals filled with memories.

I remember going to the local tree lot with my father as a boy and picking out a tree. When I became a dad I made a point of always cutting down our own tree with the kids. Of course it was at Peter Pohl’s tree farm on Maple Ridge, but it still had the feel of trudging into the deep forest.

Somehow the tree we selected always seemed perfect. Every year we would step back and admire the conifer and say, “This is the best tree ever!” The smell of the tree filled the home. The decorating of the tree was a family affair.

Now we have too many allergies to have a real tree. We settle for an artificial tree, but it looks very real. Plus I only have to trudge to the shed in the backyard to retrieve it. Now, of course, the kids are grown with kids of their own.  I put the three pieces of the tree together, and the lights are already permanently attached.

But still, when it takes its place in the corner it suddenly becomes once again the perfect tree. When the boxes of ornaments come out of the attic, memories come flooding out. We have ornaments that stretch back to the beginning of our marriage forty years ago. There are even some from further back, from our own childhoods.

The ornaments tell the story of our family. Many were made by our kids when they were small. There are olive wood ornaments from the semester we spent as a family in Israel in 1991. One has the name of a Palestinian girl who had a crush on our oldest son. We keep that one just to see him blush every year.

There is a brass star engraved with the name of our granddaughter Lily, who died at birth – a life unlived. There are ornaments purposely placed on the lower boughs for our cat to play with. There are lots of handcrafted ornaments. In fact nearly all of them are handmade.

Many depict birds and small animals. Others are religious, to remind us that the tree is a symbol of the Tree of Life. There is a manger scene nestled right between Tigger and Saint Nick.

There are wooden ornaments that picture the two church meetinghouses in Sandwich. We have put those on our tree wherever we have lived, and now we find ourselves back in Sandwich. This year we will add a commemorative ornament celebrating the 250th anniversary of Sandwich.

Our tree is a tree of memories. It is the proverbial trip down memory lane. It brings tears, smiles, and laughter. It lights up our living room with more than electric lights. It lights up our hearts. And when the grandchildren stand and gawk at it, I see memories being born.

(Painting is Christmas Tree Farm by Laura Tasheiko)