Monday, January 23, 2023

The Girl in the Photo

In 1927 my maternal grandfather built a house in Danvers, Massachusetts, on the same street where I later grew up. In 2022 the present owners were doing repairs to the foundation of the house and found personal items hidden in one of the cinder blocks – a sort of time capsule. Thinking they might belong to my family, they turned the items over to my sister who now lives next door. Knowing I was the family genealogist, she mailed the items to me.

They consisted of a pair of eyeglasses wrapped in two pieces of cloth in a hard case, a small hand mirror, and a tiny (1¼ inch square) photo of a young girl with a dark ribbon in her hair. On the cloth was imprinted the name of an optician in Salem, Massachusetts. This is the city where my grandparents lived before they built this house in the neighboring town of Danvers.

The glasses were the type called pince-nez, a style of glasses popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  These glasses have a hole in one of the lenses, which at one time held a chain, cord, or ribbon connected to the wearer's clothing. From what I have read children sometimes wore this style of spectacles, although the girl in the photo did not have them on.

Anyway I have been pondering the items ever since I received them, although I have not been able to identify the girl in the photo or the owner of the other items. I don’t know much about fashions, but the girl’s dress looks like 1920’s attire to me. I don’t think it is a picture of my mother. I have seen photos of her as a child and this does not look like her.

It is possible that the photo is her sister Mary, who was born in 1917 and died of influenza as a teenager in 1934. That would make her age 10 when the house was built. The girl in the photograph looks younger than that, but perhaps the photo was taken earlier. It has been a long time since I have seen a picture of my aunt, but if I had to guess, I do not think it is her either.

So I am left to wonder who this girl in the photo is. Why were this photograph and these spectacles hidden away in the foundation of my grandfather’s house? Who put these items in cinder block? The little girl? My aunt? My mother? My grandparents? My great-grandparents who lived nearby? Is the photo of another girl entirely, perhaps the daughter of the man who laid this block in the foundation?

After having these items in my possession for weeks, I am no closer to knowing the answers to these questions. Yet this photo has been a gift to me nonetheless. It has helped me travel back in time. The personality of this little girl shines through the photo. One can easily imagine what she may have been thinking and feeling as her picture was taken.

Even more striking is the consciousness that comes through the photo. I look into those eyes and recognize the one looking out at me. I do not know her name, but I recognize what is behind the eyes. She is life. Although she is long dead, she is alive. The consciousness I see in her eyes is the same consciousness I see in every child and adult. I recognize this consciousness in myself.

We are the same. We share the same divine life. Genesis says that God breathed God's divine breath (the Hebrew word can also be translated “spirit”) into the primordial human. It is called the “breath of life.” It is the same breath in my lungs. It is the same spirit in me. It is the Life of God. Jesus knew this life. He is this Life. 

When debating with some Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death, Jesus quotes the words of God to Moses at the burning bush: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." He then said to the Sadducees, “You are badly mistaken! God is not the God of the dead but of the living!” 

Some people believe there is nothing beyond human earthly existence, that our participation in God's eternal life is just a myth. Look into the eyes of this little girl, and she will convince you otherwise.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Epiphany Gifts

Epiphany is coming up on January 6. It celebrates the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, where the Wise Men worshiped the Christ child and gave him gifts. This is where Christians got the idea of giving gifts at Christmas.

This week I read a very insightful post about Epiphany by Jim Burklo on his blog “Musings,” which is one of the few blogs that I read regularly. It is entitled Epiphany in a Box. In it he describes an intriguing variation on holiday gift-giving. He writes:

Years ago, my dear wife, Roberta Maran, came up with an idea at Christmas that enchanted me.  “In addition to other presents, let’s give people Christmas boxes that have nothing inside of them – except messages that are deep and pithy!”

Last Sunday they introduced that practice to their church in Simi Valley, California, where he serves as pastor. He explains:

So I put slips of paper into little Christmas-ey boxes and put them on the altar.  We sat in a circle, and I passed them out to the congregants to present to the person next to them and then open and discuss with each what they found on their slips of paper.  Lively conversations ensued.

Here is a partial list of the messages in the boxes:

  • A day’s supply of laughter
  • A sigh of relief
  • An opinion you need to release
  • A bright idea
  • An argument extinguisher: in a relationship emergency, put this box over your face and breathe deeply
  • A beginner’s mind
  • A creative spirit
  • A new beginning
  • Nothing you can’t live without
  • Nothing that matters
  • The silence between notes that makes music beautiful
  • The sound of Jesus meditating for 40 days in the wilderness
  • The sound of Buddha meditating at the Bodhi Tree
  • What is left when you strip away all your illusions about who you are
  • A scoop of wind from the top of a mountain

There were many more, but you get the point. We are so used to giving material gifts at Christmas that it is good to remember that the best gifts are immaterial. Indeed the greatest gifts are ones that are already ours, given to us by God. We simply need to open them.

Here are some gifts I invite you to open this Epiphany. The story of the Magi mentions only three gifts, so I will limit myself to that number as well. Choose any one of them as your Epiphany gift:

  • A glimpse into who you were before the creation of the universe
  • The feel of the silence that underlies all thoughts and emotions
  • A taste of the peace that is your true nature 

At first glance these epiphanies may sound cryptic, but I assure you they are very real. They are more real than any store-bought present you received on Christmas day. In fact in your heart of hearts you already know the Reality that these words describe. 

Just take time to meditate upon one of them and see for yourself. I promise that if you open just one of these treasures, you will desire no other gifts … ever. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Watching Christmas Movies

It is December, and that means it is time to watch Christmas movies. This year my wife and I sampled a couple of new releases. First we watched Spirited, starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. It is a musical remake of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We were hoping Ferrell had created a worthy successor to the holiday classic Elf, which my son’s family watches every year religiously. Spirited is no Elf, but it is well-done. There’s lots of singing, great choreography, and a clever twist on the familiar tale.

The second holiday film we saw was The Noel Diary. We chose it because the lead actor, Justin Hartley, starred in This is Us, which is one of our favorite television dramas. The Noel Diary is a typical heartwarming rom-com (romantic comedy) where boy meets girl, with a little parent-child reconciliation thrown in for good measure. We enjoyed it.

Shortly after watching those movies I read an article by the Religion News Service entitled Everyone Gets Their Love Story, subtitled How Christmas Rom-Coms Have Taken over the Season. It chronicles how Christmas movies have changed over the years. There are now more faces of color and even some LGBTQ romances. Times have changed. It is all an attempt to cash in on the $700 billion Christmas industry, which the article calls “the Christmas Industrial Complex.”

Anyway it got me thinking about how holiday movies nowadays are so different from the ones I grew up watching - films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas, and A Christmas Carol. It also got me thinking about how all these Christmas films – new and old – have so little to do with the themes of the Christmas accounts found in the gospels.

Holiday movies are “feel good” flicks. They are often about romantic love, designed to pull on our heartstrings, and invariably have happy endings. How different from the Bible narratives. The biblical Christmas stories have no romance. Mary and Joseph are in an arranged marriage, which got off to a rocky start due to suspicion of adultery.  There is no mention of any love between the two lead actors in the nativity drama. There is no post-Christmas sequel to tell us how the holy couple eventually fell in love and lived happily ever after in Nazareth.

Most importantly there is no happy ending. The Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew ends with mass murder, traditionally called “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”  King Herod decides to eliminate a possible rival for his throne by murdering all the children in Bethlehem age two and younger. As the camera fades on the exiting Wise Men, we hear the sound of young mothers weeping in grief.

True, God warns Joseph about the murder plot, and the holy family escapes safely to Egypt. But God does not intervene to save the other little children of Bethlehem or warn their parents. That is troubling to anyone raised on the Sunday School song “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”

The holy family lived as refugees in a foreign land for several years. One can only imagine how difficult those years were. Then Joseph died at some point after Jesus’ twelfth birthday, leaving Mary as a single mom raising a houseful of kids on her own. She did not remarry a rich, handsome stranger and grow old together, like Ruth in the Old Testament story. No Hallmark ending for Mary of Nazareth.

The biblical Christmas stories are so different from the plots of Christmas films that it makes me wonder how rom-coms came to dominate holiday flicks and why Christians are okay with that. Indeed nostalgic Christians seem to be the target audience for many of these “family-friendly” films. The most likely explanation is that Christians - like everyone else – tend to only see God at work in happy endings.

Yet by insisting on storybook endings we are missing the most powerful truth of Christmas: God is present in the unhappy times as well. God’s presence includes the good and the bad. God is the light shining in the darkness of real life, which includes grief, sorrow and hardship.

That is why the gospel writer Matthew reminds us: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” which means, “God with us.” God is with us no matter what. To that Christmas ending, I say, “Amen.”

Saturday, December 3, 2022

The Calm of Advent

I know the “holiday season” is supposed to be a busy time. All the decorating and shopping and cooking and concerts and parties normally make people hurried and harried. Yet it doesn’t feel hectic to me. It feels calm. It feels like I am in the eye of a storm. Society twists in circles while I enjoy peace at the center.

Perhaps it is because we started off the holidays with a quieter than normal Thanksgiving. Due to COVID my wife and I were alone on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in our lives. The virus symptoms had passed, but we still could have been contagious. For that reason we played it safe and stayed home to protect our family. Even though we wish we could have been with family, it turned out to be one of the most restful Thanksgivings we have ever had.

Thanksgiving Day set the tone for first Sunday of Advent a few days later. On that Sunday morning we attended a beautiful “Hanging of the Greens” at our church. Nothing centers the soul like singing contemplative hymns such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Then there is the cold weather. There has not been much snow, but the rain and strong winds have kept us inside more than normal. So we fired up our woodstove for the first time this season and have enjoyed the mesmerizing flames viewed through the glass front of our J√łtul. It felt like we were in our very own Christmas card.

Lastly there is the spiritual dimension of the season. Advent is one of my favorite times of the year. My attention naturally returns to the Holy of Holies within my soul. In the Bible the Spirit of God was said to occupy the innermost chamber of Jerusalem’s temple. I see the temple as symbolic of the human heart. As Stephen told the Sanhedrin, God does not dwell in temples built by hands. God dwells within us.

Peace is within. Regardless of what is happening around the world, the country, or in our lives, peace always abides at the center of the soul. On Christmas night the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest! And on earth peace, goodwill to men.” The peaceable kingdom the herald angel proclaimed is not an external kingdom. There have been “wars and rumors of wars” continually during the 2000 years since Jesus’ birth.

Advent peace is inner peace. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” He promised, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” He said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Peace dwells in the heart. To enjoy that peace, all we have to do is look within.

People search for peace of mind all their lives. They work for peace in the world. They yearn for peace in relationships. The peace that people seek is already here. People are simply looking in the wrong places. Peace will never be found outside of ourselves. It dwells at the center of the human heart. That is where the Prince of Peace makes his home.

Perhaps that is why I like the symbolism of the evergreen wreath so much. We have three wreaths on the outside of our home. I have often made my own wreaths during Advent. A retired forester friend conducts a wreath-making workshop every year, and I often attend. 

The wreath reminds me of the eye of a storm. In the center of the wreath is empty space. Like the space above the Ark of the Covenant, that empty space is where God abides. For that reason the Christ candle is lit in the center of the Advent wreath. Christ is the center. If we want peace, that is where we find it.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Always Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving Day my wife and I may not be dining at a heavily laden table surrounded by extended family as we had hoped. For first time in our lives it might be just the two of us for Thanksgiving dinner. We will have to wait and see.

The reason for the uncertainty is that we came down with COVID recently. Even though we are feeling better now, we want to make sure we are not contagious. We certainly do not want to give our loved ones an unwanted viral holiday gift! That is a gift you do not want to regift!

So we are waiting the recommended ten-day period, and we will take a COVID test the day before Thanksgiving to make sure we are safe. The whole ordeal has made us appreciate how much we are grateful for the presence of family during the holidays. Consequently I have been thinking a lot about Thanksgiving and what it means to give thanks.

One of the Bible’s most well-known passages on this topic was written by Apostle Paul. He says to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Sermons on this text often follow the natural breakdown of the passage: rejoice, pray, give thanks.

The underlying theme is the word “always.” Paul says, “Rejoice always.” The word “always” is unexpected. We tend to rejoice only when good fortune comes our way. Then he tells us to “pray without ceasing.” In other words, pray always. We tend to pray only when we feel the need to do so. He says, “give thanks in all circumstances.” We all give thanks when blessings are flowing. The difference in Paul’s approach is that we are to do these three spiritual practices always.

He is not asking us to do the impossible, namely to wear a happy face all the time regardless of circumstances. He is not instructing us to shout “Praise God!” when tragedies befall us or those we love. He does not intend for us to be muttering prayers under our breath 24/7. He is not suggesting that we thank God when we witness injustice or see people in pain. In calling us to engage in these spiritual practices always, the apostle calls our attention to what is always present in the midst of the vicissitudes of life.

He is pointing us to the Divine Presence that is always here now. He is calling us to look beyond the fabric of time and space to what is eternal. He is pointing us to the Peace that dwells at the hub of the wheel of life. The wheel of life turns round and round. Sometimes it brings joy and sometimes sorrow. Sometimes pleasure and sometimes pain. Sometimes laughter and sometimes tears. “For everything there is a season,” Ecclesiastes reminds us. All emotions have their appropriate time and place.

Yet at the center of all seasons of life there is a place of deep peace, joy, and gratitude that is always present. It is a deep spring from which flows living water even in the middle of an emotional desert. It is the eternal eye at the center of the storms of life. This is where God dwells, even when there is suffering and death on the surface.

Knowing this ever-present peace is “the will of God in Christ Jesus,” according to the apostle. The indwelling Christ is present in sickness and health, wealth and poverty, sadness and happiness. “I will be with you always,” said Jesus. Christ is always. The only way to “give thanks in all circumstances” is to pay attention to what is present in all circumstances. It is a matter of where you are looking.

This Gift of Eternal Presence is eternal life. It is beyond time and space. It is knowing now – and always - the Reality of the Omnipresence of God. Jesus referred to this as the Kingdom of God. This is as present in the suffering of Good Friday as in the joy of Christmas Day. It is present on Thanksgiving Day and every day. In other words it is always Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Living in an AFib World

I was feeling out of sorts recently. I didn’t have the energy to stack cordwood with my grandson one Thursday afternoon. I was dizzy, light-headed and had to rest. I felt the same way the next morning while doing chores around the house. Something wasn’t right. So we took a trip to Urgent Care. They examined me and sent me to the ER.  That was on a Friday. I did not emerge from the hospital until Monday afternoon. My hospital stay lasted exactly 72 hours.

Long story short, after many tests they discharged me with a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation, often called AFib. It is a common type of heart arrhythmia, which means my heart is beating irregularly. Because I have no other risk factors besides age, my type of AFib is no big deal. My blood just needs to be thinned a bit to prevent blood clots. I was told I just had to live with the symptoms when they occur.

It seems like there are an increasingly number of ailments I have to “live with” these days. It is the geriatric theme song, “One More Thing to Live With.” Oh, the joys of aging! Anyway I had a follow-up appointment with my primary care physician a few days later, and I have an appointment with a cardiologist scheduled for next month.

During the process I learned about atrial fibrillation. AFib happens when the top chambers of the heart (the atria) beat rapidly, irregularly, and out of synch with the lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles). In my case my lower heart is plugging along at a steady 70 beats or so, while the top part of my heart is dancing like it is at a rave.

My physician explained that the atria are the heart’s natural pacemaker. She compared the atria to a conductor. Normally the ventricles take their cue from the atria. That works fine when the heart is functioning as it should. But in AFib the atria start racing, and the ventricles often rush to keep pace, sending the whole heart pounding as if it is running from a predator. Fortunately my heart does not follow instructions very well. My third grade teacher said the same thing.

Being who I am, I immediately saw a spiritual analogy. The world is running at a frantic pace. Our country is in AFib. Sometimes it feels like our country is going crazy. Our minds, emotions, and bodies follow suit. That is the problem. Our brains and bodies evolved during a simpler time. They were not designed for the complex stressors of modern culture. That is the reason for the high levels of anxiety and depression in our society.

Beneath all the fury of the world – including social media and political turmoil - is the slow steady beat of the Spirit. It is the rhythm of the Song of God. It is all a matter of which rhythm you listen to. Thoreau observed, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Good advice! There are two levels of life. The upper level of emotions and thoughts are spinning out of control, while the lower level of the Spirit is doing just fine. There is no way to control outward stimuli or emotional reactions. The only other option is not to be governed by them. Let the world be as it is. Let emotions respond as they will. Let thoughts go where they will. All we need to do is keep our attention on the Spirit.

The good news is that this Spirit is the same Spirit that ultimately governs the universe. Its nature is Love. Its core is Peace. It is our Home. When our “heart” (not the physical organ but our spiritual center) is beating in rhythm with the heart of God, then all is right in our lives. That is “the peace that surpasses understanding.” That is the Kingdom of God. I say this from the bottom of my heart.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Tao of Scripture

It is a well-established practice in Christianity to discern different layers of meaning in Scripture. The number of these layers have varied over the centuries, but most often four layers are identified. Likewise the labels for these layers have varied. I identify them as: literal, theological, moral, and spiritual.

Many Christians focus on the literal meaning of scripture. They insist that everything that the Bible says must be taken literally, including matters of history and science. This is the approach of fundamentalist and evangelical forms of Christianity. Their stand for “biblical inerrancy” has them down the dead end of rejecting the findings of natural and historical sciences. These Christians fight lost causes, such as a literal six-day creation and a worldwide flood.

Others see the Bible as a textbook of theological truth, which can be condensed into creeds and confessions of faith.  For these folks religion is chiefly about doctrine – believing the right things. Using a list of essential doctrines (“the fundamentals”) as their standard, they draw sharp lines between true believers and unbelievers, orthodoxy and heresy, the saved and the lost. It is a dualistic approach.

A third layer of interpretation focuses on the ethical application of scripture. Scripture is understood to be a sourcebook for morality. Christianity is about doing the right things. The religious life is understood to be primarily an ethical life. These believers see the spiritual life in terms of divine commands, laws, and moral principles. This moralistic approach leads them to see a world divided between good and evil, right and wrong, saints and sinners.

These first three layers of meaning are not mutually exclusive paths. Often the literal, theological and ethical approaches are combined into unique religious systems that define themselves in terms of carefully prescribed orthodoxy and orthopraxy. This has given birth to a myriad of religions, sects and denominations, each believing they alone have a “biblical worldview” and do God’s will.

There is a fourth way. Throughout history there have been mystics in all faith traditions who have seen a Way that transcends worldviews, beliefs, and ethics. They see a deeper meaning in Scripture. For them Scripture points beyond itself to its Source. Words are windows to the Word. The Bible is more about the Author than the autographs. Scripture bears the scent of Heaven and opens a door beyond human understanding.

This Way sees worldviews as cultural constructs. It sees doctrines as creations of the human mind. Morality is seen as more than obeying laws and applying principles. It goes beyond a relationship with God to know the intimacy of union with the Divine. It embraces dualities as parts of a greater unity. It is not about drawing lines, but abiding in the center of an ever-expanding circle with no circumference.

This mystical Way is direct awareness of the One for which all religions and spiritualties strive. It is intuitive rather than emotional or intellectual. It is experiential, yet it is not itself an experience. It is apprehension of God beyond theism, philosophy or religion.

The Tao Te Ching calls it the Tao, normally translated “the Way.” That phrase is also what that early followers of Christ called the Christian movement, according to the Acts of the Apostles.  Confucius called it the Way of Heaven. The author of the Gospel of John called it the Logos. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven, or simply “the Father.”

This Spiritual Reality was Jesus’ sole message. According to the Gospels most of Christ’s followers did not understand what he was saying. Consequently after Jesus’ death the Church quickly exchanged the message of Jesus for a message about Jesus. Thus began Christianity’s rapid downward spiral into secondhand religion.

This Eternal Way is at the heart of all Scriptures. Not just the holy texts of my own faith tradition but all religious traditions. Huxley called it the Perennial Philosophy, but it is not a philosophy. It is not a religion, but all spiritual practices seek it. It is not a theological system, but all doctrines point to it – some better than others. This Way is at the heart of the Scriptures. It is why I love the Bible.