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.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

White Jesus

My wife and I just finished watching the second season of the FX television series Reservation Dogs. It follows four Native American teenagers trying to find their way on a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. It has a (nearly) all indigenous cast and is a fascinating – and at times hilarious - glimpse into today’s Native American culture.

As a pastor I found the references to spiritual beliefs and practices particularly interesting. I especially liked that the show did not take indigenous or Christian spirituality too seriously, poking fun at both along the way.

Most interesting to me were the references to Jesus.  A traditional church portrait of a fair-skinned Jesus hangs on the wall of one of the family homes. The teens repeatedly refer to Jesus and even pray to Jesus, always referring to him as “White Jesus.”

That phrase “White Jesus” called my attention to the distorted way that Jesus has been presented in America. The historical Jesus was not white, yet he has usually been pictured as Caucasian in American Christian art. Most white folks do not think this is a problem. We see nothing wrong with having a portrait of a White Jesus hanging in our churches. We like the image. It feels comfortable to us.

But imagine for a moment if every church you entered had a picture of a black African Jesus on the wall. How comfortable would you feel then?  That is how people of color feel when they are expected to worship a White Jesus.

Can you imagine Southern Baptist churches depicting a black Jesus in their stained glass windows and Sunday School material? They can’t even remove the names of slaveholders from the buildings at my alma mater - The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary! That is how tone deaf white Christians are.

White Jesus is not the real Jesus. In my sermons I have often pointed out that the historical Jesus was not a fair-skinned man with an aquiline nose, thin lips, and light brown hair, even though that is consistently how he is depicted in traditional portraits. Even recent film depictions do not go far enough in correcting this misperception. Jesus was a Sephardic Jew with dark skin. He looked more like today’s Palestinian Bedouins than Ashkenazi Jews.

In the television show Reservation Dogs the spirits of indigenous ancestors regularly show up to give advice and guide the characters. One is a warrior who died at Little Big Horn. Another is a medicine woman who walked the Trail of Tears.  There is one scene where a group of ancestors gather around one of the girls. She felt their presence and it brought her to tears. It reminded me of the “church triumphant” and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses.”

In the concluding episode of the season White Jesus finally makes an appearance, played by Incubus front man Brandon Boyd. The teens have traveled to Los Angeles to honor the wish of a deceased friend by visiting the ocean. Their car is stolen while they are in a restaurant, and they do not know where to turn for help. At that point White Jesus appears and guides them the final five miles to the beach. He gives them verbal directions and walks with them.

Jesus is a homeless man who offers to share his humble shelter in a homeless encampment for the night. The police raid the area at dawn and everyone scatters. The teens lose track of White Jesus, but they follow his directions until they reach the ocean. 

On the beach one of the teens offers a prayer, and they proceed to wade into the ocean, where they have an emotional visionary reunion with their deceased friend. The camera cuts to White Jesus on the Beach. Reminds me of the Easter story.

I loved that Jesus appeared as a homeless man, although his use of Elizabethan language is cringeworthy. I loved that these teenage sinners, whose language is consistently “salty” and whose behavior is often illegal, feel so comfortable following Jesus. At the same time they realize that White Jesus is part of the White man’s religion and culture, which is suspect because of its history with Native Americans. Yet they are open to Jesus.

The name of the show brought to my mind the gospel story of Jesus meeting an indigenous woman. She is identified as a Canaanite, who were the indigenous people of the land of Canaan. She calls out to Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus replies with what appears to be a racial epithet. His remark sounds disturbing to our modern ears, which are so sensitive to verbal insults.

Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Her reply: “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus then praises this woman’s “great faith” and heals the girl. I think Jesus recognized and overcame his own ethnic bigotry at that moment. Jesus learned from this encounter.

The idea that Jesus may have learned something from this indigenous woman may be controversial to Christians who think of Jesus in terms of unchanging perfection, but the Bible tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom” and “learned obedience.” In his willingness to learn and change Jesus is our example in the spiritual life.

I don’t know if the writers of the show had this biblical scene in mind when they named the show. But I see parallels between the “reservation dogs” (which is the name the teens gave their gang) and the Canaanite woman. I see “great faith” in both. I see indigenous faith in both. I see a type of faith that White Christians with our White Jesus need to learn from – in order to overcome our racism and ethnocentrism as Jesus did. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Friday, September 30, 2022

The Gospel of Ruth

I am presently part of an online Bible Study at our church. I am not the leader, just a participant. So I get to throw in my “two cents” along with all the other two-centers. It is the first time since I retired six years ago that I am participating in a study at this church. God bless the present pastor for welcoming me!

We are studying the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a favorite of many Christians. It ordinarily presented as a love story about a righteous man who meets a virtuous woman and live happily ever after. While focusing on the romance, the radical nature of the book is often overlooked.

It is one of only two books in the Old Testament that has a woman as the main character. The other book is Esther, which was likely written at about the same time. The Book of Ruth is written from a woman’s perspective. The husbands of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, are killed off in the opening verses before we get to know anything about them. The other men – except for Boaz – are minor characters in the story.

Because it is written from a woman’s perspective, it is thought by some biblical scholars that the Book of Ruth may have been written by a woman. That would make it unique in the Bible. Of course we don’t know the book’s authorship for sure. The book is anonymous, which is what we would expect if it had been authored by a woman. If it was known to be written by a woman, it never would have made it into the canon.

Not only is the central character a woman, she is a Moabite. Moabites were the historic enemies of the Hebrews. This Moabite marries Boaz, who is the son of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, a “sinner” in the eyes of religious society.  Yet the genealogy at the end of the book informs us that Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David, the greatest Jewish king.

That genealogy in the final sentence of the book is the reason Ruth was written. It reveals that foreigners were an integral part of the history of Israel. In doing so, it challenged the teaching of the Torah, which said that no descendant of a Moabite could enter the temple. Yet David had such ancestors, and his son Solomon built the temple.

The book of Ruth is “protest literature.” It was written at a time when anti-women and anti-foreigner moralists had taken over the government in Jerusalem. It is probable that the Book of Ruth was written in the fifth century BC, when Ezra was purging Israel of all foreigners – Moabites in particular.  Ezra required all Jewish men who had married foreign women to divorce them publicly and send them and their children away.

Nehemiah followed up on Ezra’s reforms with a building program to construct a wall to keep foreigners out of Jerusalem. It does not take much thinking to see parallels to policies popular in American society today. The Book of Ruth was written to challenge the narrative that religious fundamentalists were preaching. It was pointing out that if one looks into the history of Israel one can see that diversity did not threaten Israel but rather strengthened it.

I call the Book of Ruth radical. The etymology of the word “radical” means “root.” We get the English word “radish” from it. The root of true Biblical spirituality is not about building walls to keep people out but drawing the circle wider. It is not about priding ourselves on being God’s chosen people and excluding others. It is about seeing that God’s people have always included all types of people.

That is the root of the gospel of Jesus, who reached out to foreigners and sinners. Jesus declared that a Roman soldier had more faith than anyone in Israel. He said that “sinners” were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were the heirs of Ezra. This is the Gospel of Ruth. It is as controversial today as it was when the Book of Ruth was written.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Living in the Moor

This summer my wife celebrated her seventieth birthday, thereby joining me in exploring the eighth decade of our lives together. I have another seventy-something birthday coming up in a few days. The other day we were chatting with a friend about this milestone of life. This friend said her mother used to call this stage of life “living in the more.”

She explained that Psalm 90 describes the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” (seventy years) and if “by reason of strength” we are granted more, it is an added blessing. She called that additional time “living in the more.”

When she said “living in the more” I thought I heard “living in the moor.” I immediately imagined the moorland of Britain. Sherlock Holmes’ case of The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind. In that tale a demonic hound was said to inhabit the moors. 

Dr. Watson describes the moor as “gloomy,” “sinister,” “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious,” “like some fantastic landscape in a dream.” It is an “enormous wilderness of peat and granite,” where squalls drift across the russet face of “the melancholy downs” and “heavy, slate-coloured clouds” trail “in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills.”

Brrrr! I feel like pulling up my collar and turning down my deerstalker cap just reading about it! In a personal letter to his mother, Arthur Conan Doyle called the moor “a great place, very sad & wild.” In Wuthering Heights the moor is described as “unleashed, mad and dangerous.” Hmm! Perhaps I better go back to the Shire.

When I looked to the dictionary, it defined a moor as “a tract of open uncultivated upland; a heath.” That sounds a bit better. My experience of my seventies is very much like that. It is an uncultivated land filled with possibilities and pitfalls. There are not many roadmaps for this territory. Everyone seems to blaze their own trail. My type of place.

When they age, some people seek to relive their earlier decades, warding off old age by trying to recover their youth. It is the senior equivalent of a midlife crisis, except in our seventies we are not midway to anywhere. No one lives to be 140. 

Others retreat into the past, reliving old memories. Still others spend their later years entertaining themselves with television and small talk until the undertaker arrives. A few reinvent themselves with a “second act” or perhaps a “third act.” Good for them!

The seventies are not without their physical limitations as the body ages. Instead of going to the doctor for cures, more often we go to manage symptoms. Either that or opt for new bionic joints, which are not without their problems. 

So far I have found my seventies to be a time of spiritual adventure and discovery. In retirement the restraints of theological norms and ecclesiastical pressures are gone. I am free to be “unleashed, mad and dangerous.”

Classical India understood the latter part of life to be a time to put aside the concerns of earlier stages of life and dedicate oneself to spiritual concerns. Having spent my whole adult life in religious concerns, I find this stage to be doubly spiritual. Old dogmas fall away in the light of direct spiritual awareness. Prejudices and divisions are seen as petty exercises in egotism. There is no longer any time to waste in fear and anger. The psalmist sang:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away…. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

It is important to number our days. Whether our years be threescore years and ten or “by reason of strength” fourscore years or more, one day they will be cut off, and we will fly away. As the gospel hymn reminds us: “One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away.”  In the meantime I am “living in the moor,” and I have found it to be the Kingdom of God.