Friday, November 19, 2021

Prophetic Spirituality

Most of us have heard of “spiritual but not religious” people. This group has been expanding in recent decades, along with the “nones,” those without religious identity. Another group has been shrinking during this same period. It is the “spiritual but not political.”

This used to be the self-designation of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. They were intent on saving souls, not saving the culture. But in the late 1970’s and 1980’s a shift occurred. The Religious Right was born, and the “culture wars” began. Conservative Christianity became increasingly identified with conservative politics. Now it is difficult to separate the two.

I have gone through various phases in my spiritual journey, as I explored the religious and political spectrum. Throughout it all there has been a mystical streak that has come to fruition in the last decade. My life has opened to a spiritual realm that was outside of my awareness previously.

I have called it transtheism, borrowing that term from the Christian philosopher Paul Tillich. It transcends theism to the same degree that theism surpasses atheism. I have also called it Christian nonduality, focusing on our union with God. Some would label this monism, pantheism or panentheism, but it is not an “ism” at all. It transcends religious and philosophical systems. It is direct awareness of the Divine.  

As this new way of seeing has integrated into my human existence, I am once again aware of the tension between the spiritual and the political. Most mystics are nonpolitical. They are concerned with spiritual things, not worldly matters. They are more likely to retreat from the world into a solitary or monastic lifestyle rather than be involved with the affairs of government and society.

Yet there has always been mystics who were active in social causes.  There are numerous modern examples. The most influential in my life have been the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Hindu mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi in turn influenced the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I have come to see that spiritual union with the Divine does not mean divorcing oneself from cause of justice in the world. This world and its sufferings are part of the Oneness of Reality. This is evident in Jesus’ description of his ministry in the first sermon that he preached at his hometown synagogue. He said his ministry fulfilled this prophetic scripture:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach good news to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The spiritual involves the political. It cannot avoid it. Not political in a partisan sense. To identify any nation, political party, ideology or religion with the Kingdom of God is idolatry. That is the sin of Christian nationalism today. 

To be spiritual is to be prophetic. Not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future, but in the sense of “speaking truth to power,” standing “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,” as Ephesians says.

To be spiritually prophetic is to be deeply biblical and Christian. It is to identify with the suffering of people in this world. It is to stand with the powerless against the power-hungry. 

As we treat the “least of these” his brothers and sister, so we treat Christ in our midst today. It means to embrace the presence of God not just in silence and solitude, but in the messy world of imperfect men and women. It is to take up the cross of Christ and follow him.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Praying with Bonhoeffer

I have been reading two books about Nazi Germany recently. One is a work of historical fiction entitled “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton. It follows the lives of twin brothers who were born in Berlin on February 24, 1920, the same day the National Socialist German Workers Party was born in Munich. It views the rise of Nazism during the 1920’s and 30’s from the perspective of a German Jewish family.

The other book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. I had read this volume years ago and have read excerpts over the years. The other Sunday the pastor of our church read a segment from this book during a sermon. I immediately knew I needed to read this classic again.

A year ago my former Church History professor in seminary, Bill Leonard, wrote a series of six articles called “A Bonhoeffer Moment” for Baptist News Global. His premise was that we are living in a time of crisis in our country that needs the wisdom and courage of Bonhoeffer. I agree. For this reason I have been reading Bonhoeffer’s letters as part of my morning devotions each day. His thoughts inform my thoughts. He is my prayer partner. I could ask for none better.

As I read about the rise of the Nazi party in the 1920’s, the parallels to the 2020’s in America are troubling. To suggest any parallels at all is sure to draw an irate response from some people. But when I see the pilgrimage of American “conservatives” to Hungary to praise the fascist regime of Viktor Orbán, and when I hear Fox News’ Tucker Carlson support the authoritarian regime of Russia over the endangered democracy of Ukraine, then I know our country is in trouble.

Of course, America in 2021 is not Germany in 1921. It is a different time and a different place. Our national histories are very different. Yet the Freikorps’ failed insurrection and occupation of the Presidential Palace in 1920 is eerily similar to the January 6, 2021, failed insurrection and occupation of the Capitol Building. To quote Winston Churchill’s paraphrase of Santayana, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

I struggle with whether to address such issues in this blog. Part of me wants to stick to spiritual matters, as I tend to do in my podcast. My experience of the Eternal, which lies beneath and within the temporal world, is powerful. This is the Kingdom of God, and it permeates my life. It is Life. It is tempting to take refuge in Life, and let the world wallow in Death.

Yet while we are incarnated in flesh, we are part of this world. We play our roles in this drama of human life. The Kingdom of God impinges on human history. That is what Jesus and the prophets said. This is how biblical spirituality is different than purely mystical forms of religion. Jesus saw no contradiction between prophetic speech and spiritual instruction. As his disciple I will follow his example. I will follow Bonhoeffer’s example.

When I read Bonhoeffer words and I contemplate his life, I know that to remain silent in a time of moral crisis is untenable for any Christian pastor with a conscience. Christians must speak out when evil threatens society. If German Christians had spoken out more clearly in the 1920’s then perhaps the 1930’s and 1940’s would have turned out differently. If American Christians speak out now, perhaps the 2030’s and 2040’s will turn out differently.

Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. A physician in attendance relates this scene.  “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

I kneel with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and pray with him. I invite you to do the same.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Woodstove Spirituality

It is November, which means my woodstove is fired up for the season. While the last leaves are still lingering on the trees, I start the woodstove – at least in the mornings to take off the chill. I postpone this autumn ritual as long as possible. As tight as our woodstove is, it still leaks particles into the room when I open the door to add wood. It is also a very dry heat, so we will have to drag out the humidifier soon.

We have a Jøtul stove with a glass door, so I can watch the fire while I enjoy its heat. This style of stove has the ambiance of an open hearth without the indoor pollution and constant fire-tending. As I watch the fire, my imagination travels to the infancy of our race, when Prometheus first brought fire to humans. What a wonder fire must have been for those early members of our species!

There is something spiritual about fire. It is the focus of the earliest Vedas. Fire was named Agni in ancient India and considered to be a god. It was also one of the four (or five) basic elements in Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Greek philosophy.

Fire is a symbol for the Divine throughout the Bible. God appears to Moses in a burning bush. God appeared to the Israelites in pillars of fire and smoke. Fire covered the summit of the sacred mountain Sinai. John the Baptist and Jesus used the image of fire in their teaching. The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

As I watch the transformation of matter into energy in the firebox, I cannot help but think that this represents the human condition. Our bodies are fuel-consuming furnaces. Warmth is life. Cold is death. At death our bodies cool, and the elements return to earth from which they came. In my case the body will be consumed by fire and the ashes scattered to the wind on a mountaintop - two more symbols for the Divine.

We are not the body. Nor are we the fire. We are neither matter nor energy. In Indian philosophy the fifth element (after earth, water, fire, and air) is space or void. The same is true in Japanese Shinto and Tibetan Buddhism. Space is where everything occurs. It is the emptiness in my woodstove where transformation takes place.

The Tao Te Ching speaks often about space. Space is the emptiness which makes form possible. Space is what make a house useful. Without space my mug cannot hold tea. In the Bible God is said to dwell in the space between the cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.

The Ark itself was a box not much bigger than my woodstove. And it was empty until Moses started filling it with commandments and religious objects. That is what religions always do. In the creation stories God formed the cosmos by creating space between the chaos above and below.

Space is the heart of Reality. It is the essence of what we are. Science tells us that our bodies are mostly space. The millions of atoms which comprise the human body are themselves 99% empty space. If you removed all of the empty space contained in every atom in every person on earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would be smaller than a sugar cube. We are space.

We are the space in which this world exists. That can be experienced directly. Look around. Do you experience yourself as an object in space or as the space in which objects appear? Are you an object in the universe or the space in which the universe appears?

We are the space within which the Burning Bush burns. We are the space in which Moses hears the sacred Name I AM. God instructs Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place [or space] where you stand is holy ground!” Temples, churches and mosques are considered sacred space. The New Testament calls us temples of God. We are holy. So is your neighbor. Remember this and remove your shoes.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Remembering the Five Million

Halloween is over, and the true holiday begins. Today is All Saints Day, the day on the calendar when Christians remember those who have died. In Mexico it is known as Dia de los Muertos. There are many to remember this year. 

Each of us are sensitive to certain populations who have unnecessarily died for various reasons. It just so happens that my COVID vaccine booster shot is scheduled for this morning. For that reason the five million who have died of COVID-19 are on my mind this day.

Earlier this autumn communities around the country placed white flags on public and private lawns to remember the 700,000 Americans who have died of this coronavirus. The National Mall was the largest example. Each flag is a son or daughter, mother or father, grandfather or grandmother. Each of these lives are mourned by their families. Each represents an empty chair at the table this upcoming holiday season.

One of the saddest parts of this tragedy is how this epidemic has been politicized. Grief has been manipulated for partisan purposes. This has caused unnecessary additional suffering. The harsh reality is that the grave has no political preferences. It welcomes all indiscriminately. People of all political persuasions die and grieve.

Let us not use this day to scold those who are not vaccinated nor scorn those who vaccinate. Let us not opine about misinformation or disinformation. Let us not argue over numbers. Today let us simply remember the lives lost. Let us show compassion.

Our nation is in grief. We see symptoms of grief all around us – including denial, anger and depression. Let us use this day to find comfort and to comfort. This is a day to reflect on death. For Christians – and those of other religions – remembering the dead leads naturally to pondering eternal life.

Many people do not believe in eternal life. Skepticism leads them to see afterlife as wishful thinking. I respect that opinion, though I do not share it. For me eternal life is as real as temporal life.  I am as aware of eternity as I am of time. Actually I am more aware of eternity. Time is an illusion in the presence of the Eternal. In the light of eternity I disappear, and only eternity remains. In the Eternal all lives are sacred and none are lost.

Life and death are passing phases. They cannot touch what we truly are. Our true nature is neither born nor dies. As I ponder the five million who have died of COVID, I do not see statistics or strangers. I see family. I see myself. They are me. I am them. We are one. We are united in the One I call God. That is what we Christians call the Communion of the Saints. This is what I remember on this holiday of All Saints Day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

My wife recently shopped at Hobby Lobby, and she asked the salesperson where the Halloween items were located. The shocked response was: “Oh No! We do not carry those!” We should have known. Hobby Lobby is owned by conservative Christians. They do not believe in promoting "pagan" holidays.

We recently had relatives visit us for the weekend. Again my wife asked if they were going to give out candy for Halloween. The answer was, “Oh no! We do not celebrate Halloween. That is Wicca!” Once again, we should have known. They belong to a conservative church that believes that demons are real and the earth is only 6000 years old.

As a Christian I have no problem celebrating Halloween. After all it is a Christian holiday. It is the night before All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) on November 1. It is a time to remember those we have lost to death. In worship we read the names of members of the congregation who have died during the past year. It is a healing time.

It is a time to celebrate eternal life. We usually sing one of my favorite hymns in church: “For All the Saints.” Sure, the date of Halloween has been adopted from the Celtic Samhain. That is not a deal-breaker. After all, the date for Christmas was adopted from the Roman Saturnalia. That doesn’t stop us from celebrating Christmas Eve, and I don’t see Hobby Lobby refusing to sell Christmas items.

So what if Wiccans celebrate Halloween? So what if the holiday has pre-Christian origins? That just shows that religions draw upon a common spiritual heritage and borrow from one another. That is also evident in the ubiquity of Flood myths in the world’s religions, not to mention virgin births, as well as dying and rising deities. Should we stop celebrating Easter because the name comes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon deity, Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, who was celebrated at beginning of spring?

I like Halloween. It is a holiday that brings our subconscious fears into the open so we can play with them, poke fun at them, and laugh at them. It is a way of acknowledging the fear of death. We all die. Living in our death-denying American culture, it is healthy to be reminded of that fact. That is the reason for all those skeletons and tombstones. That is our fate, whether we admit it or not. “Alas, poor Yorick!”

I suspect the real reason many Christians reject Halloween is because they have not come to terms with their fear of death, in spite of worshipping a resurrected Savior. That fear is the unspoken source of the belief in the Rapture. It is a way conservative Christians hope to bypass death and get a pain-free trip to heaven.

Fear of death is why so many Christians cling to every possible minute of earthly life as tightly as any unbeliever. If Christians really yearned for heaven as much as they claim, they would be eager to get there – not trying to postpone paradise by every medical intervention available – usually accompanied with extended pain and exorbitant cost. 

So I celebrate Halloween as a Christian. We will be decorating our house and giving out goodies to youngsters at our house on Halloween. Our adult children will be bringing our grandchildren around their neighborhoods to trick-or-treat. I don’t do costumes, but I enjoy seeing the creativity of our neighbors’ costumes – both children and adults. So let me be the first to wish you a Happy Halloween and a holy and meaningful All Saints Day. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Does the Church Have a Future?

The headlines this week told the same old story: the American church is declining. This latest study, entitled 2020 Faith Communities Today, was done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It boasts of being the largest U.S. congregational survey ever conducted.

It confirms what Christians already knew - the American Church is hemorrhaging people. There are half as many people in church today as there were twenty years ago. The median worship attendance was 65 in 2020 compared to 137 in 2000. 

What will these churches look like in another twenty years? If the average age that I see in our churches is any indication, in twenty years most congregations will cease to exist. Those still in operation will be on life support provided by trust funds.

This survey indicates that churches declined across all denominations and theological persuasions. Mainline Protestants lost the most people, Catholics and Orthodox next, and Evangelicals least, but all are declining rapidly. As I have watched this decline I have been surprised at the lack of creative thinking in churches and denominations when addressing the decline.

For the most part they have responded by saying and doing the same old things and expecting different results. You know what Einstein said about that strategy! The Faith Communities Today survey concludes: “Traditional ways of worshipping, ministering to spiritual needs and organizing the business of congregations are no longer working adequately for many faith communities.”

As a Baptist I have been attentive to how Baptists have addressed the situation. The Southern Baptists in particular keep repeating the old mantra that the solution is more evangelism. Preach the gospel, plant more churches, give more money, and baptize more people. Just focus on the Great Commission and everything will be alright, they say. Not surprisingly the theme of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was “We Are Great Commission Baptists.”

No one stops to consider that maybe the gospel being preached is the problem. That is what I discovered when I deconstructed my evangelical Christianity a decade ago. I found that traditional Christianity bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus. Read only the words of Jesus in the New Testament – the so-called “red letters” – and you will discover that for yourself.

Christianity in America is a mishmash of American democracy, American culture, American politics, American prejudices, and American egotism. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism have become problems. Most churchgoers see very little difference between American values and Christian values. That is how the phenomenon of “Patriot Churches” emerged. Many Christians see no conflict between the cross and the flag.

When I read the gospels I see a man who was killed by the adherents of that type of religion. When I read the words of Jesus I see a man with direct, unmediated awareness of God. He spoke of a Kingdom of God that was not of this world, yet was also within us and around us. His experiential spirituality bears a strong resemblance to teachings found in other religious traditions of the world.

This ancient and perennial spirituality can save the declining church today. It would speak to people who have an interest in spirituality, but have been unable to find spirituality in Christian churches. If this gospel were recovered it could counter the festering anger, hate, bigotry, and intolerance that are so evident in social and political discourse today.

Yet it is unlikely the church will embrace this original gospel because that would mean the death of the present form of the church, with all its cultural and financial perks and privileges. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Only when the church is willing to die, will it live.

Jesus also said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” The only way for the church to save itself is to lose itself. Only when the church stops trying to save itself and dies to self, can it be resurrected. Either way the old church is dead. Yet the true Church can never die. Long live the Church!



Thursday, October 14, 2021

Healing Light

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I have mentioned it before in this blog. I have had this condition all my life. Long before they had a name for it and before I was diagnosed by a physician, I can recall having the symptoms of SAD as a pre-teen. It is caused by a drop in serotonin levels in the brain due to a decrease in exposure to sunlight. It is the price I pay for living in the northern hemisphere.

Every autumn it creeps up on me as the days grow shorter. It is worst during the holidays as the winter solstice arrives.  This year it came on earlier than normal.  I could feel the effects of decreasing sunlight before Labor Day, while the weather was still very warm. Long before most people were thinking about winter, my emotions alerted me that I needed to address the situation.

My primary care physicians have prescribed Vitamin D and medication every fall and winter for years. A few years ago I started light therapy. It a full spectrum lamp which simulates sunlight and helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Every night when it gets dark I turn on a special lamp next to my chair as I read, write or watch television. It works wonders. The symptoms disappear in a few days, and stay gone as long as I remember to use the lamp every night.

Recently I have been thinking about the theological implications of light therapy. Light is a well-known symbol in spiritual traditions. Many religions find significance in the winter and summer solstices. Stonehenge gives archeological testimony of the antiquity of this practice. There is a reason spiritual awakening is called “enlightenment.” It is no accident that the original date for Christmas was the winter solstice and the definitive event of Christianity – the resurrection of Jesus – occurs at dawn.

Light is a fascinating phenomenon. It travels at the outer limit of speed. Nothing can move faster than light. As one approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Theoretically if one could travel at the speed of light, time would stop. That means that light is timeless – a fitting symbol for eternity.

“God is Light,” wrote the apostle John, “and in him/it there is no darkness at all.” “I am the Light of the World,” said Jesus. He made that statement immediately before healing a man blind since birth. Christ is healing light. Revelation describes the New Heavens and Earth as having no night. There is no need for the sun in the New Jerusalem for God is the Light.

Light includes all colors within it, which become visible when separated by a prism, producing a rainbow, another religious symbol. In that sense light is the One manifested as the Many. Light is the first of God’s creations according to the Genesis creation story. 

Light is healing for me. It physically bestows peace to me. It brings wholeness to mind and body. It restores me to who I am.  Because of its healing effect on me, light feels like home. Maybe that is the attraction of sunrises and sunsets. Nothing soothes my soul more than dawn at the lakeside, when the water is at perfect peace.

Light not only feels like home, it feels like who I am. Jesus said it: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine!” This is more than a metaphor. He is talking about our original nature. Astronomer Carl Sagan famously remarked that humans are made of “star stuff.” He meant that the elements of our physical bodies were formed in the interior of stars.

We are more than star stuff. We are star light. That is what we essentially are. Jesus knew that about himself. That is what he meant when he said, “I am the Light of the world.” He was not speaking exclusively of himself. He said it was true of us as well. We are light. We were light before our sun was born. So let your light shine!