Thursday, January 30, 2014

Baptismal Synchronicity

In December my wife and I attended a Christmas party for Baptist clergy and spouses at Camp Sentinel in Tuftonboro. We were sitting around the roughhewn wooden tables munching on Christmas fare and getting to know each other better.

A pastor from Wolfeboro asked where I was from. I said I was originally from Danvers, Massachusetts. Because this was a Baptist gathering, I added that I was baptized as an adult at the First Baptist Church in Danversport.

Another minister at the table replied, “Me, too!” It was John Babson, a minister serving as a chaplain in the Lakes Region. I had gotten to know him recently, and I had even invited to preach in Sandwich on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

We began to compare the details of our baptisms. We were not only baptized at the same church, we were also baptized by the same pastor, in the same location, in the same year! It turns out that we were baptized at the same time! Two people were immersed in the Danvers River on that July day in 1973 – he and I.

He recalled more details of the occasion than I could. He remembered me as a large, bearded young man with long hair. (It was the seventies, after all.) He said when I came up from the water I “looked just like Jesus.” My memories of him were vaguer, but I recall another man about my age being baptized that day.

Here we were forty years later, both Baptist ministers serving in the same area. Someone at the table commented on the chances that two young men baptized in a small church at the same time would become ministers.

Even more unlikely is the fact that we are still in active ministry after all these years. Most ministers don’t last that long. Statistics show that 60% to 80% of those who enter the ministry will not still be in it 10 years later, and only a fraction will stay in it as a lifetime career.

This providential encounter at a Christmas party has made me think back on my baptism. I was meditating on it during a worship service recently while we were on vacation in the Florida Keys. The gospel lesson for the day was on the baptism of Jesus.

As the preacher preached, my mind drifted. (I am sure that does not happen to anyone listening to my sermons!) In my imagination I returned to my own baptism. It was the turning point of my life. John Babson said I reminded him of Jesus emerging from the baptismal waters. I don’t know about that, but I know Christ was present at that beach.  

With summer sunbathers watching, two young men professed their faith in Jesus Christ and were immersed at a public beach. Spectators likely thought it was a curious sight, but they have long forgotten it. We have not forgotten. We are still disciples of Jesus and ministers of Christ after all those years.

Art is Jesus Baptism 3 by Chris Cook. Here is his site

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rethinking Repentance

The gospels tell us that Jesus’ message is summed up in the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When I hear those words, cartoons of doomsday preachers come to mind - pictures of bearded, hair-coated prophets holding signs predicting the end of the world and urging people to get their act together before it is too late.  
It is not a pretty sight. When seen in this way, Jesus’ words feel like a divinely inspired guilt trip causing me to feel bad about myself, my behavior and my thoughts. When I hear “Repent,” my immediate reaction is to feel bad, which is supposed to produce an inner resolve to be good.
That is not what repentance really means. Repentance is not an apocalyptic attitude prompting a moral conversion because of the imminent threat of death or hellfire. We have known that for at least a hundred years, but it seems not to have found its way into the pulpit or the pews.
At the end of the nineteenth century a scholar named Treadwell Walden wrote a two hundred page book on the meaning of the biblical Greek word for repentance entitled “The Great Meaning of the Word Metanoia.” It became a classic and was followed by other Greek scholars.  Walden says that the translation of metanoia as repentance is “an extraordinary mistranslation.”
In his book “Topical Analysis of the Bible” biblical scholar J. Glentworth Butler agreed that the Greek word carries none of the sorrow or regret contained in the words repentance and repent. The great Greek scholar A. T. Robertson agreed. He says that translating metanoia as repentance is “a linguistic and theological tragedy.” A surprisingly good survey of the misunderstanding of this important spiritual concept can be found in Wikipedia.
Then what does it mean to repent? Robertson says that a better translation is “change of mind, a change in the trend and action of the whole inner nature, intellectual, affectional and moral,” “a transmutation of consciousness.”
Jesus is not talking about feeling sorry, regretful and guilty. He is talking about a spiritual transformation that happens through the grace of God working in our lives. The English word “repent” means “to rethink, to think again.” The Greek word means the same thing – a change of mind.
The Greek word metanoia is formed from two smaller words – the prefix “meta” and the word “nous.” The prefix meta can mean “with, after, or behind.” It can also carry the sense of “beyond” as in the word metaphysics. Nous is the mind or understanding. Metanoia means a change of mind that involves going “behind the mind” or “beyond the mind.”  
What does this lesson in etymology mean for us? It probably means that I have bored my readers to death. But if your eyes are still open, I hope you will see that Jesus is pointing us to a shift in thinking, a transformation of mind that catapults us into the Kingdom of God, which is always at our fingertips – for those with minds open to see.
Cartoon by Rex F. May, 2010, 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Cousin to a Porcupine

One of the consequences of being a grandfather is that I get to watch children’s television again. It has changed since my kids were little. Furthermore my grandkids are only allowed to watch TV in small doses, so we choose our shows very carefully.

Recently I sat down with our three year old to watch Little Bear. It is a very cute show. This particular episode was about a lonely little porcupine who wanted friends. Actually he wanted cousins. He asked the little bear and duck to be his cousins. Then he asked them for a hug, but bear and duck thought he was a bit too prickly to embrace.

At that point I drifted off into my own mental world. I thought, “Well, bear and duck are porcupine’s cousins aren’t they? Come to think of it, I am a cousin to porcupine as well.” I decided to do a little research as to how close of cousins we are.

Human beings share 99% of our DNA with other humans. We truly are all brothers and sisters. On a National Geographic website, I learned that we share 90% of our genes with chimpanzees (I thought it was closer to 97 or 98%),  88% with a mouse, 65% with a chicken, 47% with a fruit fly, 24% with a wine grape, and 18% with baker’s yeast. We are cousins to all living things on this planet.

It led me to contemplate the interconnectedness of life on this planet. I have always been environmentally-minded. It is one of the few issues that influence my voting. I tend not to be political,  but I am environmental. This brings it to a whole different level.

Not only are we connected biologically, we are connected chemically. Our bodies are made of the rocks of this planet, processed by erosion and biological digestion. We have literally emerged from the earth. The earth has emerged from the stars. Every element on earth was forged in distant stars. As has often been said, we are literally made of stardust. When we look into the heavens on a starry night, we are viewing our heavenly cousins.

Then there is the connectedness of consciousness. This recently became real to me during our recent trip to the Florida Keys. One of the attractions we visited was the Theater of the Sea, which is a smaller and more intimate version of Sea World. When I looked into the eyes of the dolphins, I recognized a cousin to the consciousness of my own mind. The same was true with the sea lions and even the parrots. I have not stopped thinking about this experience.

We are connected at every level. I am cousin to all life and even so-called “inanimate” objects in the universe. Our ultimate connection is to the Lord of Creation, who brought all into being out of nothing and formed all living things from the dust of the earth. This adds a new meaning to the Great Commandments. To love God’s creation is to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vortex Vexation

Oh, great! Something new I am expected to be afraid of. The fear-mongers of the media have introduced a new character to the evening weather report: the Polar Vortex. Why have I not heard of this before? I watch the weather report. I am not a religious devotee of it like my wife, but I watch the local forecast with her.

Now on top of the jet stream, El NiƱo, and garden variety high and low pressure systems, there is the dreaded Polar Vortex. It comes from the north like an army invading from Canada. It reminds me of the Cold War scenarios depicting Soviet missiles coming over the North Pole toward the U.S. But this threat brings sub-zero temperatures, not nuclear fire.

I guess the Northeast needed something to excite the viewing audience. The West has its wildfires, the Midwest has its tornadoes, and the Gulf has it hurricanes. All we had were Nor’easters. But now we have the newest meteorological supervillain – the ice monster known as The Polar Vortex.

Yes, this winter has been colder than normal, and it is icier. The roads in town are ice rinks. I came back from a recent vacation in sunny Florida to find that my driveway had turned into a sledding hill. This week has my thermometer hovering around zero. But it is winter in New Hampshire, after all!

As so often happens, my mind finds a spiritual application for almost anything. Is there a spiritual polar vortex? I read an article yesterday by atheist Michael Shermer. He is gleefully tracking the demise of religious belief in America. According to his figures, every new generation is becoming less religious. The younger you are, the less religious you likely will be. Based on this trend, he predicts the extinction of religion by the year 2220. He is already writing the Lord’s obituary.

Does this mean there a spiritual deep freeze sweeping the nation? Are we on the verge of a religious ice age? It is certainly not true of my life or my church. Furthermore I am always wary of statistics. Surveys are yesterday’s news. I never take predictions seriously. I have seen too many dates for the return of Jesus come and go unfulfilled. Predictions tend to say more about the predictor than the future.

My experience is that what goes around, comes around. Religion, like everything else, moves in cycles. Spiritual renewals come with the regularity of spring appearing after winter. I predict that spring will come again this year, regardless of how cold it is today. In fact I will venture to predict it will arrive on March 20. (I got that one from Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.)

The same is true spiritually, although I would not venture to predict a date. Do not fear. Be patient, wait upon God. Watch and pray. By the grace of God, the spring will come. I see signs of it already. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Unthinking God

While on vacation recently, I read a book entitled Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola. It is a study of unbelieving clergy and their intellectual and emotional journey of deconversion.

In other words it is about ministers who “lost their faith.” The book is based on interviews with these ordained men and women. Many of them are still in ministry living double lives, preaching from the pulpit what they no longer believe.

As a fellow clergyman, it was heart-wrenching to read about the pain my colleagues endure as they found their belief in God slipping away. But I was particularly struck by how everyone in the book was caught up in the realm of ideas.

This is true of the authors as much as the clergy. Religion is understood exclusively as a belief system to be intellectually accepted “on faith.” When evidence contrary to belief is encountered, faith crumples.

My faith is not a set of beliefs. I have ideas about God, but they are not the substance of my faith. Faith is not believing things without evidence. When ideas are the foundation of religion, the religion is threatened when contradictory evidence is uncovered. That is what happened to the ministers in this book.

My spirituality is not primarily a set of ideas or beliefs. For me faith transcends ideas. Ideas are imaginary things. They exist only in our heads. They are not real. We in the West are under the illusion that ideas are real.

We can thank Plato for this; for him the realm of Ideas was more real than the physical world. Platonic thought shaped Christianity via Aristotle and Aquinas, which is why Christians can be so dogmatic. It is why a Western philosopher like Daniel Dennett does not even think to question this presupposition in the book.

As a preacher I utilize ideas. Ideas are useful in preaching and teaching, but I do not mistake them for Truth. Augustine said, “If you can think it, it is not God.”  Ideas are mental descriptions of what we perceive to be reality. They are not reality in themselves. When ideas are translated into words, it adds another degree of separation from reality. When words petrify into dogma, they become a substitute for Truth

Faith is not believing in unverifiable ideas. Faith is not acceptance of inherited doctrines. It is not even “belief in the existence of a supernatural being.” Such a god is an idea, a figment of our imagination. Faith is trust in the One who is not an idea. Faith is trust in the One who transcends beliefs. Faith is direct self-authenticating apprehension of God.

The book, Caught in The Pulpit, opened my eyes to the fact that many clergy (as well as non-clergy) do not share my understanding of faith. In my opinion - to use the oft-quoted saying - they mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself. They believe in religious ideas rather than what the ideas point to. They are shocked to discover that their ideas about God are not true, and then they conclude there is no God!

God is beyond the realm of ideas. To see beyond, all we have to do is look a little higher.

Art by Hugo Espinoza, color illustration of man with a long, "Pinocchio" nose and crossed fingers behind his back. Chicago Tribune 2008.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Forgotten Memories

I received a packet in the mail yesterday. It was from the executor of my uncle’s estate. My uncle Tom died in Fort Myers, Florida, a few weeks ago at the age of 90. He was the last of my parents’ generation. His wife, my aunt Eleanor (my father’s sister), died the previous year. I now own the distinction of being the oldest living member of my family.

In the large envelope were dozens of old photographs. Some are professional sepia images dating back more than a hundred years. I spent the next hour slowly reviewing each one. Fortunately many of them were identified on the back with names and dates. The oldest were portraits of my uncle’s grandmother, born January 6, 1862 and his great-grandmother, born in Ireland a generation earlier.

The photos of my uncle as a little boy made me smile. There he is on a tricycle in the 1920’s. There he is in a school photo circa 1930 with a mischievous smile on his face. It is in a cardboard folder, and on the back are the words: “To Mary From Tommy With Love.” That was probably his sister Mary Lou. There is even a place to paste a two cent stamp to send the photo through the mail.

There is a high school graduation photo of one of my uncle’s friends. There are photos of my uncle Tom and his sister, Mary Lou, who died in 1968, and his mother Helen, who died in 1986. There is Tom as a young sailor and at his college graduation. There is my aunt and uncle’s 8x10 wedding photo.

I only knew my uncle as a gruff old man who seldom spoke. Even when I was a child he seemed like a solemn man. But here he is smiling with his mother and sister, whom I never knew. Here was a man who lived his life. Here is a whole family of people who lived their lives.

Among the pictures was the death certificate of my aunt Eleanor. I had forgotten that her middle name was Vera, which is now my one year-old granddaughter’s name. There was even a photo of me sitting with them at Ames Farm in Gilford, where they spent summers for decades. There is another photo of my great-grandfather Davis’ camp on Bow Lake, purchased in the 1890’s.

There was even a photo of our Baptist Meetinghouse here in Sandwich, taken in 1993 with my name on the sign. They were proud that I was a minister, although they hadn’t stepped inside a church since their wedding.

As I peruse this collection of old photographs, I realize that they are memories. Not my memories. They are his memories. Happy times. Full lives. No one now living remembers most of these people and events. But they are recorded in these photos. 

We all have memories. We are someone else’s memories. I know I am in countless wedding and baptism photos in family albums. If the photos survive our disposable culture, they will become old photographs. Someone’s nearest living relative will look at those photos and smile at the forgotten memories.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Being a Spiritual Friend

A pastor – at best - is a spiritual friend. He (or she) has many more roles, of course. A pastor is a general practitioner of all things ecclesiastical, the religious equivalent of a primary care physician. (Although sometimes it feels more like an emergency room physician.) The pastor’s most important role is to accompany people along their spiritual journey and give guidance when needed. 

Some call it spiritual direction or being a spiritual advisor. To that end in the 1990’s I received training as a spiritual director by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC. But every pastor does this job, for better or worse. A pastor is supposed to help people connect with God.

As I see it, the first step in helping people walk with God is to get people to stop running away from God. This idea is opposed to the conventional wisdom of American spirituality, which says that people are spiritual seekers. The “seeker-friendly” megachurch movement is based on the premise that people are on a spiritual quest.

The assumption is that people are spiritually searching. They are inwardly driven to look for purpose, truth, and meaning. They search inwardly and outwardly, in religion and spirituality, in Eastern Religion, Western Religion and no religion. They search in material things and in relationships for the wholeness that comes only from God.

That is not my experience. I think that people are running from God. As Francis Thompson’s described his own life in The Hound of Heaven:

 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; and in the mist of tears        
I hid from Him….

People run from God, and they run from themselves. They are afraid to see who they really are and who God really is. That is why we construct religions and philosophies – to protect us from God and ourselves.

People intuitively know that if they discovered their own true nature, they would come face to face with the image of God. It is a short step from there to God. So like Adam and Eve in Eden, we hide from God, from one another, and from ourselves. So I encourage people to stop playing hide-and-seek.

Have the courage to be present with the omnipresent God. Forsake all pretenses, take off all masks, and let down all psychological defenses. Take off the disguise. We aren’t really fooling anyone anyway, least of all ourselves. Certainly not God.

Stop and be silent. Let us ignore the inner chatter which tries to distract us from our goal, and simply wait upon God. That is all it takes. All it takes is a sincere heart and an open mind. If one is honest enough, open enough, and persistent enough, the self-delusions fall away, and God appears … as Friend.  

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Year With a Temporary Atheist

I am presently following a blog entitled Year Without God: A Former Pastor's Journey into Atheism. Ryan Bell, a forty-two year old ordained minister, recent church pastor, Christian university adjunct professor and church consultant, is practicing atheism for a year.

He is not just studying it, but living it – no praying, no devotional Bible reading, no worship, no God. He is seriously considering becoming an atheist.

His unusual New Year’s resolution is interesting to me because I also seriously reexamined atheism not long ago. As a young man in my teens and early twenties I was an atheist. Then I became a Christian and later a pastor. I have been a fulltime pastor for over 35 years.

A few years ago I reexamined my Christian faith and revisited my former atheism in the process. I reread books by the old atheists and every book I could find by the New Atheists. I watched atheists debate with theists on YouTube. I studied their arguments against theism and the Christian apologetic responses. I took the arguments to heart, looking for the weaknesses and errors in my religious faith.

I came through my year-long reevaluation of religion spiritually stronger. In fact I found that atheism was very helpful to my faith. It helped rid my life of idols. Now I often say, “I don’t believe in the God that atheists don’t believe in.”

In other words a serious study of atheism made me a better Christian. It acted as a refiner’s fire, burning away the chaff from the unexamined areas of my faith. Looking back on it, I realize it didn’t have to turn out that way. If my religious faith had been nothing but chaff, I would have ended up as an atheist. As it is, my faith was purified in the furnace of unbelief.

So I thank God for atheism and atheists. They have been my dialogue partners and companions in my spiritual journey. Atheists ruthlessly expose the sins of Christianity and the weaknesses of religion. Atheism reveals the faulty logic at the heart of much of the evidence for, and “proofs” for, God’s existence.

Because of atheism, the God I know is not the God I used to believe in. The God I know is not the rigid God of old-time religion or popular Evangelicalism.  Not the adaptable Deity of mainline Protestantism and theological liberalism. Neither the mega-church Culture Clone, nor the Culture Warrior of the Religious Right and Progressive Left.

Beneath the layers of religious tradition, biblical misinterpretation and theological misinformation, I came face to face with the One whom 14th century theologian Meister Eckhart calls “God beyond God.” I discovered that God was not who I thought God was, and I was not who I thought I was.

I have atheists, in part, to thank for my religious renaissance. I hope that Ryan Bell, the trial atheist, has a similar journey. I will be following his experiment in Godlessness with interest. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Fragile Life

It is cold this morning. My thermometer reads 1 degree, and it has warmed up with the rise of the sun! The forecast is minus 12 degrees tonight.  On the news last night there was the story of a sightseeing expedition to the Antarctic being rescued from an icebound ship. Brrr.

How tenuous human life is on this planet! We exist within a very small range of habitable conditions. The pictures from the International Space Station remind us that the biosphere of this planet, which sustains all life, is a very thin layer. A good sized meteor could change all that. Just ask the dinosaurs.

My life is fragile, as are the lives of all those I love. A mutation in the genetic code of some cells can send cancer spreading throughout our bodies. This scourge will likely be cured in a generation or two. My grandchildren will hopefully look on cancer the way I look on polio. But for now, it is hovering threat.

I just read a report that says that there are over 100,000 preventable physician-caused deaths in hospitals every year. More than are killed in traffic accidents. It makes me choose my physicians very carefully.

As a pastor I have a front row seat to the fragility of human life. In response to this reality we can contract into a protective cocoon in order to extend our lives. Or we can flaunt the odds and live on the edge through extreme sports. (Not much chance of me doing that!) 

My option is to simply live in the joy of knowing that our lives are fragile. Mortality is the beauty of human existence.

The other night we watched the movie The Bucket List, starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Come to think of it, perhaps that is what is prompting this blog. In the film Freeman mentions a survey which asked people whether they would want to know the date of their death. 96% said No.

Every day is a gift from God. This inhabitable planet is a miracle. I am a conscious being blessed to live briefly in this thin envelope of life. It is a wondrous gift. Every moment is an eternity. Every second is another sacred moment.

God has given humans the ability to be part of the miracle. We are the earth being aware of itself through these instruments of animal flesh. (The Hebrew word for “human” means “dirt.”) We are conscious earth.

Perhaps the “conscious” part is what it means to be created in the image of God. No wonder God chose to be incarnated in Jesus. God wanted to get in on the fun!

God incarnates again and again in us. Christ in us, the hope of glory. The Holy Spirit living in us and through us. Christ living now in the Body of Christ. God incarnated in a multi-body organism called the Church. God peers through our eyes into the depths of the universe, wondering at the fragility of life.

Art is "Fragility of Life," the third in a series of 3 paintings of tar, undercoat and pen, by Deborah Baas. Here is her site

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Snow on Snow

It is snowing again. It is uncertain how much snow will accumulate this time. It will likely be a plowable and shovelable amount. The words of the hymn come to mind: Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.

I watch a squirrel push the snow off his favorite branch. His brother is on the ground trying to find the seed and corn that my wife put out for the wild turkeys. But the deepening snow makes that a difficult task.

The layers of snow dampen sound. Quiet prevails. Nature conspires to bring me into Quiet. There is a universal conspiracy to bring me fully into the presence of the Creator.

It is as if the squirrel had just come from the Heavenly Council where plans were made to place obstacles to self-delusion in my path today.

Every snowflake speaks. Every creature is a parable of the Kingdom of God. Every breath is a reminder of the Spirit of God. Creation opens up to the depths of the One who created it, and I fall in.

Layer after layer of delusion melts in the warmth of Presence, until there is only God on God. The silence of snow falling on snow brings me to myself.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How to Have a Joyful New Year

Happy New Year! I will say it to every person I speak to today. What kind of a greeting is it? Is it a declaration? Do people think it will be a happy year? Is it an imperative? “Have a happy New Year!” Are people encouraging me to have a happy new year? Or are people just wishing that this might be the case? Do we have any control over whether or not 2014 will be a happy year?

My standard response to questions concerning happiness is that there is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is conditional upon what happens in our lives. (Hence the derivation of the word!) It is an emotional response to people and events.

We have little control over what happens in 2014. I have no control over the economy or national or international events. I have limited control over my health. I have no control over what other people will say to me or do to me. I have no control over what accidents may occur.

I have little or no control over what happens. So if happiness depends on what happens, then people might as well wish me a warmer than average year.

Joy, on the other hand is unconditional. It is not a response to what happens. It can be experienced in all circumstances. I could use other words to describe it. Contentment, peace, and bliss are words that are often used. The apostle wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” He said, "Rejoice in the Lord always!" 

Joy (peace, contentment, bliss) is unconditional because it is always present. Happiness comes and goes. Joy is. We can know joy even when we are not happy. Joy is not an emotion. Joy is not a positive response to what happens. It is not seeing things in a positive light rather than a negative light. It is not the power of positive thinking.

Joy is sharing the eternal presence of God, which is beneath everything that happens. God remains the same in all circumstances of life. Joy is living in God, being in the world but not of the world.

How do we experience this joy? It is as simple as redirecting one’s attention. When something happens, we immediately have a choice. Emotions will immediately (and involuntarily) arise within us in response to an event. We can unconsciously hop onto this roller coaster of emotion or not. We can be carried away by the happiness or sadness train, and it will take us to all sorts of unexpected emotional states.

Or we can take a moment to be aware of what is happening. To be consciously present is all it takes to access joy. We can put a little space between us and the emotional-physical event occurring. Watch it for a moment. No suppressing of emotions. No attempt to control emotions or the circumstances. Let the emotions come. Just observe them.

When we step back, we are immediately aware of the presence of One who is not subject to the fluctuations of this life. We are aware of being in a place of perfect peace and rest, which is untouched by the physical or emotional worlds. We have stepped into the realm of Spirit.

God resides as Holy Spirit in the seat of the soul. We can live here “seated with Christ in the heavenly places.” Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. The apostle Paul called it “living in the Spirit” and “walking in the Spirit.” It is joy which flows from the unconditional love of God.

We will still feel happy and sad when things happen. The spiritual life is not an emotionally detached life. In fact we experience emotions more fully because we are not fighting them or being controlled by them. It adds a new dimension of life – a spiritual dimension, the dimension of joy, peace, and love. So I suggest that you not have a happy new year. Have a joyful new year!