Saturday, September 19, 2020

Sign of the Times

I live in a small New Hampshire town where people have always treated each other with respect when it comes to government. We may differ on religious, social and political matters, but we do so in a civil manner. We discuss things fervently at the annual town meeting and monthly local government meetings, but then we shake hands and cooperate. There have been a few ornery exceptions to that rule over the years, but to my knowledge such people have never resorted to criminal activity.

This election cycle has changed things for the worse. Recently some friends of mine in town had their campaign sign stolen from their front yard. Apparently its message was too much for some people to allow to stand. The sign read: “Dump Trump. Vote.” Some men in a pickup truck used the cover of darkness to steal the sign and drive off noisily. Fortunately the crime (a felony in New Hampshire) was caught on a security camera and the footage has been turned over to the police. Hopefully it is only a matter of time until they are caught.

This is just one example of the incivility in politics that has inundated our nation in recent years. I have stopped watching television news as a result. Worse than the name-calling and lies is the underlying mentality.  There is a growing movement in our country to undermine the foundations of our democracy by suppressing the vote and intimidating people from exercising their right of free speech. Forces are seeking to undermine the democratic process and the legal system in our nation.

It makes me afraid for the future of our nation. What scares me the most as a Christian minister is reading about clergy in our country encouraging their congregations to break the law and condone unethical acts. I never thought I would see such behavior in our churches and country. People unashamedly seek to destabilize the electoral process by all means possible. Fortunately the American people are stronger than that.

My friends will soon be erecting a new sign on their front lawn with the exact same message. They are concerned that this time it will be met with greater violence. They shared with me that they are fearful that a rock will be thrown through their window by those who oppose their choice of candidate. For that reason I am not sharing their names, although they were glad I was writing this article.

The good news is that they have received requests from fellow townspeople for ten more identical signs. Let’s see the vandals take down all those signs in town! When anti-democratic forces in our country seek to stifle free speech and fair elections, it causes an upsurge of resistance from true patriots.

They have inspired me to put a sign in my front yard proclaiming my presidential choice as Biden-Harris with the subtitle: Save Democracy. I also ordered a second sign that proclaims “Christians for Biden.”

When vandals tear down signs, people of all political parties need to respond by erecting ten times more signs like the one taken down. Let us stand together against such behavior. As John Stuart Mill said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” So let’s do something. Exercise your freedom of speech and your right to vote. Do not allow our democratic freedoms to be thwarted by the forces of hate and intimation.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

This Too Shall Pass

This story is found in Muslim, Roman and Jewish folklore. It is about a king who was continuously torn between happiness and despondency. Like Solomon of Ecclesiastes and Julius Caesar of Rome, nothing satisfied him. A time came when the king despaired of life. He sent for a wise man who lived in his kingdom. The king asked him, "Can you give me wisdom that will bring serenity into my life? I will pay any price."

The wise man said, "Your entire kingdom would not be sufficient payment, but I will give it as a gift." The wise man returned a few weeks later and handed the king an ornate box. The king opened the box and found a simple gold ring. Inscribed on the ring were the words: This too shall pass. The wise man explained, "Wear this ring. Whatever happens, good or bad, read the inscription. That is the way to inner peace.”

This is the wisdom that I need during these turbulent times. There are times I despair for the future of our nation. I see the foundations of our beloved democracy being undermined by a president without moral principles, who cares for nobody and nothing. It has resulted in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. It has encouraged the vilest racism and hate. As a Christian I have watched Evangelicalism, which I once loved as my spiritual home, turn into a false prophet and prostitute itself to the beast in the White House. I despair for the future of American Christianity and the United States.

Then in prayer I return to the Divine Center of my soul and hear the words: This too shall pass. This arrogant strongman, this “man of lawlessness,” will be brought low. White Evangelicalism will be exposed for the counterfeit faith it is. The arc of the moral universe still bends toward justice. I see this hope already at work in the Black Lives Matter and the MeToo Movements. “Justice will flow like water, and righteousness like an unfailing stream.”

For that reason “I will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.” God’s kingdom will come, his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s kingdom always prevails against autocrats and demagogues. History shows that bullies fall hard, and this Twitter-bully will also. If not in November, then soon enough. Truth is stronger than lies. Love is stronger than hate.

We need only have faith and hope, be patient and persevere. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” These are promises of God. In the meantime, we can live in God’s peace now, allowing it to reign in our hearts, if not yet in the world. As the Desiderata says, “whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”

This too shall pass. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  That is the nature of Reality. May peace be our everyday conscious reality and not this impermanent, changing shadow play of the world. We need only play our part wholeheartedly and trust the rest to God. And always remember: this too shall pass.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Juvenile Nation

I have been trying to figure out what is happening in our nation these days. I feel like I am in a science fiction film in which people’s minds or bodies have been taken over by aliens. Facts are no longer considered facts. They are simply opinions which one can accept or reject, based on whether they serve one’s political or religious worldview.

Americans’ ignorance of their history is astounding. I am writing this on the Fourth of July. I bet that if you asked this year’s high school graduate, with the ink still wet on their freshly minted diploma, what Independence Day commemorates, most of them would not be able to tell you. Every survey confirms Americans’ ignorance of their history. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this brief video.

What should we expect when we remove history, civics, and geography from the school curriculum and substitute a watered-down hodgepodge called Social Studies? George Santayana’s observation is true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is chilling in the light of Holocaust denial, which is so common today. And of course climate change is a hoax. So is evolution. Americans fall for the most outrageous propaganda and conspiracy theories.

Americans’ attitude toward science is just as bad, as evidenced throughout this coronavirus pandemic. If the assessments of the nation’s top infectious disease specialist does not fit the agenda of our political party, we choose party over science. We will find our own expert to support our views. Just like the tobacco companies did. Smoking is good for you, you know.

Our attitude is that no one can tell us what to do. Our personal wants and desires trump the well-being and rights of others. We will do what we want, when we want, and no one is going to tell us we can’t. Waa, waa. Tweet. Tweet. Let’s go to a crowded rally! No masks allowed! Masks are unpatriotic. So is kneeling … unless you are kneeling before God. The American Christian God of course.

It is no wonder that the infection rate, hospitalization rate, and death rate from COVID-19 is so much higher in the US than other industrialized nations. We have the infection rate of a third world country. We have the scientific knowledge in our country to stop the virus, but not the political or personal will to use it. We do not have the emotional or ethical maturity to fight this pandemic. For those reasons we deserve what happens to us.

Governors are saying that the recent surge in cases is fueled largely by young people who refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing. I gawk in horror at the reports of young people holding COVID-19 parties designed to deliberately infect partygoers. What fun! Attenders contribute an entrance fee, and the one who is diagnosed with COVID first gets the door prize! If they are lucky maybe they may also get the last bed in the local ICU.

Middle-aged Americans and elders are not exempt from this plague of ignorance. The refusal to wear a mask because we have a “right” not to wear it is ignorance as well as selfish. There is no right not to wear masks. There is a right to life, but we have no right to endanger another’s life by our conduct. If you don’t believe that, try to convince a police officer who pulls you over that you have a right not to have a driver’s license or a right to drive drunk.

America has become a country of spoiled brats. “I have the right to do whatever I want, whenever I want, and no one can tell me I can’t!” Waa. Waa. Waa.  Call the wambulance. We are a nation of emotional juveniles and narcissists - self-absorbed and incapable of caring about anyone else or taking responsibility for our actions. If things don’t turn out right, we can always find someone to blame.

What embarrasses me the most is that some churches are voicing this attitude, saying that it is a matter of religious freedom to worship however we want, whenever we want, with as many people as we can fit in our buildings. Wearing masks is seen as lack of trust in the Lord, who will protect us from harm if we have faith. In other words, “We will do what we want because we are a church and we are special. And you can’t stop us. It says so right here. Na, na, na, na, naaaa!”

Churches that cite the first amendment as a license to open their churches without taking precautions are betraying their ignorance of religious liberty as well as abdicating their responsibility towards their people. Ever hear of “Love your neighbor as yourself?” If that is too radical for churches to practice, at least follow the maxim “First, do no harm.” I won’t even talk about racism in religion. I attended a Southern Baptist seminary and know too much about that.

As you can tell, I am frustrated. I have been scratching my head in wonder so much recently that all the hair is gone from the top of my head. (I am pretty sure I had a full head of hair when President Trump was inaugurated.) Don’t get me going on the presidential elections – 2016 or 2020. The way I see it, we got the president we deserve, one who reflects the emotional maturity, moral integrity and intellectual knowledge of the average American. I fear for the future of our country.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Pandemic Ministry

It has been nearly four years since I retired from fulltime pastoral ministry. At the time I wondered how the transition was going to change my ministry, which I have always considered to be a lifelong calling and never dependent on a church paycheck – although the salary certainly helped pay the bills.

For the most part I have declined opportunities to do traditional ministry. I have declined all requests to be an interim pastor at churches in surrounding towns. I declined most invitations to be the guest preacher in other pulpits. I needed time away from the pulpit to recover my land legs. Like sailors needing time to adjust to land life after an extended time at sea, I needed time to see what it was like to walk the Christian life without leaning on a pulpit.

Strangely enough, in recent months the coronavirus pandemic has aided my ministry.  Enjoying the slower pace that the pandemic brought, I used the time to start a podcast and a video YouTube Channel. I don’t preach online. I talk about spiritual matters in an informal manner.

What I say has changed as much as how I say it. When I was a church pastor I had the responsibility referred to as “care of souls.” I ministered to people at all different stages of the spiritual journey. Whenever I crafted a sermon, I was very aware that it would be heard by a wide variety of people at different stages in their physical and spiritual lives. That determined what I said.

Now without the responsibility for other’s souls, I find myself looking more carefully at my own soul. I write and speak to clarify my thoughts about what I am experiencing spiritually. I speak from where I am, out of where I am – not to where other people are. I “speak forth” rather than “speak to.” If people happen to be where I am spiritually, then they will tune in. If not, they will tune out. Either way is fine. It turns out that I reach more people now than I ever did when I was a pulpit jockey.

This new ministry has deepened my spiritual life. One of the reasons I chose Christian ministry as a profession was so I could spend time developing my own spiritual life. I admit, it was selfish. But it worked … to a degree. Pastoral ministry was more time-consuming than I ever imagined, but I also focused on what I love the most – spiritual matters. Now that I am retired I have even more time to devote to the spiritual adventure.

In classical Indian philosophy of life, there are four stages of life known as ashramas. The first is the Student. The second is the Householder. The third is Retirement. In ancient times, people withdrew from society and retired into the forest to devote themselves fulltime to spiritual practice. In reality most people did not do this, but it remained the Hindu ideal. (The fourth stage is renunciation, a life of monastic-style vows, taking on voluntary poverty. Something I am not yet ready for - although I am striving for simplicity.)

Most Americans today, who can afford to retire, use retirement to catch up on all the things they wanted to do earlier in life, but did not have the time or the money. “Eat, drink, and be merry” as the retired preacher of Ecclesiastes advises.  Those who cannot afford to retire must continue in the householder phase. Many people, who can afford to retire, choose not to. Instead they continue in the second stage of life until the end. Very few use retirement as a time to devote themselves to spiritual pursuits. I have embraced this stage in my life gladly and wholeheartedly!

When I look inward at who I am and who God is, it puts outward matters in perspective. My inner vision is sharper, even while my physical vision and hearing is dimmer. What I see astounds me, and I share it with others. I have no choice. This is who I am. Through the responses I receive regularly from listeners around the world, I have discovered there are a lot of people who see what I see. They are where I am. We are one.

In my ministry I share what I see, which is what Jesus saw. He called it the Kingdom of God. My teaching is more like the message of Jesus and less like the church’s message about Jesus. It is more focused and unequivocal. I am less concerned about offending those who are afraid of the light and more concerned about bearing witness to the Light.

A pastor friend of mine who is still in the pulpit is worried that his bold and prophetic preaching will get him fired by his congregation, with the attendant financial hardship that would involve. I empathize with him, but I have no such fears myself.

I still get the occasional sniper taking shots at me from the dark corners of the Church. Those attacks still wound me, but I am learning how to let them move through me with less resistance. As Jesus wisely practiced and taught us, “Resist not evil.” My ministry is still the joy it has always been, but now the joy is fuller and deeper, and it shows no signs of diminishing. I am eternally grateful for this blessing of the ministry of retirement.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Wrestling with Racism

As a pastor I have always been expected to have wisdom to share on any occasion. I must honestly say that when it comes to racism in America I have no wisdom. I feel like I am part of the problem. No, I am not a white supremacist or Christian nationalist. In fact I have always considered myself progressive when it comes to matters of race. But I confess that I have not been part of the solution to the persistent and systemic racism that has survived for four hundred years in our land.

I have had friends of other races and religions throughout my life. When I was a pastor in the Pittsburgh area I used to exchange pulpits with an African-American pastor friend regularly. I preached in his church and he in mine. That was quite an experience for this white guy raised in an all-white New England Congregational Church. On that first Sunday in the pulpit of the Second Baptist Church, I was taken off guard by the congregation talking back to me during the sermon! But I got used to it quickly and came to enjoy it. Now I miss the real-time interjections of encouragement and affirmation.

I have never considered myself racist, and that is exactly the problem. Very few white people do. Most of us adamantly insist that we are not racist. People like us are blind to the fact that we are part of the problem. I am the beneficiary of white privilege. I grew up in a middle class white family in a middle class white neighborhood. I attended a private, all-male, preparatory, boarding school during my high school years. That makes me REALLY privileged. There were a handful of non-white kids there at the time, but they tended to be from wealthy families.

Because of my excellent secondary education I got into a good liberal arts college, and my parents footed the tuition bill. That was before a college education required parents to take out a second mortgage or students to mortgage their future. For graduate school – another predominately white experience – I attended the oldest Southern Baptist seminary in the country, founded by slaveholders. There I learned firsthand about the racism that is an integral part of Southern culture and religion.

In short, as a white middle class male, I am privileged. I don’t know what it means to be female or poor or gay or a racial minority in our country at this time. For that reason I am uncomfortable with the self-righteous rhetoric that I am hearing from my fellow white Americans – on both the right and left – when it comes to the protesters. Throughout my life I have always advocated nonviolence, a la Martin Luther King. But nonviolence is easy for a white male to espouse when I have not been a victim of violence.

Part of me understands why some people resort to violence. People feel frustrated with the lack of progress in racial justice and equality. If I were in their shoes I might do the same thing. If I was an urban black male today I could easily see myself as one of those whom our president calls “thugs” and threatens with shooting and domination. That is the type of white attitude that led to the murder of George Floyd in the first place.

The socially acceptable paths available to black people have not worked, and whites seem content to leave it that way. So what are people to do? What am I to do? As I write this, my wife and I plan to stand with the protesters in Hesky Park in Meredith on Sunday, although I am concerned about the weather. Thunderstorms are forecast. 

Even that caveat betrays my entrenched self-interest. I will stand up for my fellow Americans’ basic human rights … as long as it is convenient and not uncomfortable for me. How hypocritical is that?! I am clearly part of the problem. Until white folk like me see ourselves as the problem, our nation will never find a solution. God help us all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Are Churches Essential?

There is a debate going on among American Christians about whether or not churches are “essential.” It was prompted by the president’s announcement over Memorial Day weekend that churches were indeed essential and should be allowed to open their doors for physical in-person worship services in all fifty states “this weekend.”

Then the president promptly went to Virginia to play golf on Sunday morning instead of going to church. I guess church worship is not essential for him, at least not as essential as a round of golf. I do not begrudge the president a bit of recreation. He works hard and deserves a break. But his announcement would have carried much more weight if he practiced what he preached.

Back to the question at hand. Are churches essential? Well, that depends. I am an every-Sunday church-goer, but I have gotten along just fine these last couple of months without stepping through the doors of a church building. I have worshiped with my church via the internet every Sunday morning and have been very inspired by the services.

Of course I miss being in church and look forward to the day I can return. But it is not essential to my spiritual life to do so while an “invisible enemy” (as the president described COVID-19 this weekend) stalks our land killing thousands of people. Protecting the lives of the most vulnerable Americans is more essential. Keeping the church doors closed for a little longer is the best way for the church to fulfill the divine command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

The way I see it, keeping people safe is the godliest thing that the church can do at this time. By remaining closed temporarily the church is demonstrating its willingness to sacrifice its own welfare for the good of others. That is what the gospel is about. Perhaps this pandemic is a test to see if the churches also practice what they preach.

What about the issue of religious liberty? That seems to be the rallying cry of protesters who are insisting that churches be allowed to “open.” As a Baptist I am a life-long champion of religious liberty, but I don’t see this as the issue during this pandemic. I see no orchestrated campaign by godless Democrats or the Deep State to take away our right to worship, using the pandemic as a convenient excuse to do so. That sounds like a conspiracy theory.

Instead I see governors and mayors trying to keep their people safe by restraining people from assembling in large numbers, especially indoors where the coronavirus is most easily transmitted. Furthermore church attenders tend to be significantly older than the general population, which makes congregating even more dangerous for them.

If there is a conspiracy going on, I would guess that the call to reopen churches is an attempt by godless conservatives to kill off as many Christians – and Jews and Muslims - as possible as quickly as possible. At the same time these devious conspirators have somehow convinced Christians that they are doing them a favor by urging them to enter closed buildings and spew out virus-filled saliva droplets while singing and preaching loudly. Very crafty! Of course I don’t really believe there is such a conservative conspiracy, just as I don’t believe that power-hungry, anti-religious liberals want to outlaw Christian worship.

Once again, are churches essential? Not in the way the president has proclaimed. All the Christians I know can get by for a few more weeks or months without singing hymns and taking communion together. Neither is it financially essential for churches to meet in person. If money is the reason, all the congregants have to do is mail their offerings or give online.

But in a deeper sense church is essential to me spiritually. It is essential that I be part of a community of faith and not go it alone, like so many of my “spiritual but not religious” contemporaries. I need to be physically part of a church. But until that day arrives I would rather be part of a church that is willing to sacrifice itself in order to save the lives of fellow Americans. That is the least that Christians can do to serve our God and our country.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Giving Thanks in a Pandemic

My family has been spared the worst of this pandemic, and for that I am grateful. I know it could have been very different. I would be writing in a different key if I was grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. A lot of people are suffering terribly because of the coronavirus. Tens of thousands of Americans have died of the disease, usually alone and isolated from their loved ones. There are many families in grief.

People are suffering financially because of the closure of American businesses and governors’ stay-at-home orders. People have lost their jobs and incomes. Some are threatened with losing their housing as a result. People are lining up at food banks because they do not have enough to eat. People are angry. Mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression are on the rise, not to mention the run-of-the-mill types of neuroses that are exasperated when families are shut up together. Things are not good for many people.

I have not experienced any of that personally, except insofar as I empathize with those who are suffering. My safety is due to the fact that I live in a remote neck of the woods. I reside in a small town of a thousand people scattered over one hundred square miles of forest. According to the state statistics there has been only one case of the coronavirus in our town and no deaths. Similar statistics are repeated in surrounding towns. The angel of death has not come near our door.

There are lesser effects of the shut-down, such as social isolation, which we have experienced. We miss our kids, grandkids, church and friends. But we have adapted by seeing people and talking to them outside from a masked distance. I feel guilty for saying this, but for me the advantages of the pandemic restrictions have outweighed the disadvantages.

Weeks ago I shared in a podcast about the opportunity that these pandemic restrictions give us to pay attention to our spiritual lives. We are prevented from many of our regular activities, so why not use the time to develop our spiritual lives? Well, I took my own advice. I have focused on spiritual practices including meditation, mindfulness, spiritual reading, writing and recording episodes of my vlog and podcast.

My writings and recordings have been a form of spiritual journaling for me – a way for me to express myself in a deeper and more thoughtful manner. They have also put me in contact with people all over the world who have read my books and blogs or listened to my podcast or videos. Their encouraging words to me – and mine to them - has turned this online ministry into an extended spiritual community for me. While I am cut off from my local community I have gained a global community.

The time spent at home away from people has deepened my appreciation for silence and solitude. It is like being on an extended spiritual retreat. I am never bored. I avoid the television. I have used these weeks to pay attention to the Kingdom of God within me and around me – to “practice the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence called it. I have become increasingly conscious of the Oneness that is always here. The pandemic has given me time to integrate this awareness into my daily life.

This has also caused me to empathize with those who are suffering. As Paul says, “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it.” There are family members and church friends who are suffering from illnesses unrelated to the coronavirus, and whose suffering is made worse by the social restrictions. People we love are seriously ill, and some have died. This prompts prayer, sorrow, empathy, and compassion.

We try to help others. My wife helps by baking bread and fixing meals for homebound people, sending countless cards, making phone calls, and distributing her little works of art around the community. In addition to being her bread-delivery driver and donating financially, I help by using my gifts - sharing my words of hope and peace and grace through my audio and video devotions. This has deepened my sense of the unity of humankind, the natural world, and God.

It is too much to say I am thankful for the pandemic. I wish it never happened, and I pray for it to end. But I am thankful in the pandemic. As the apostle instructs, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” I am thankful for those workers on the front lives risking their lives. I am grateful for the opportunities that this pandemic has opened up for all of us. I am grateful for the love I have seen demonstrated by ordinary people.

If you have not been practicing a compassionate and intentional “pandemic spiritualty” these last few weeks, I encourage you to begin soon before you miss out. See what God has in store for you. You will be grateful. Gratitude is probably the best medicine for these difficult and uncertain times. As Paul says elsewhere, “nothing [not even a pandemic] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”