Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lenten Loophole

Although a staunch atheist, early 20th century comedian W. C. Fields was known to collect and study books on theology. On one occasion fellow actor Thomas Mitchell came to visit him and caught him reading a Bible. When asked why he was reading it, Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” This Lenten season I am thanking God for a loophole in the Lenten custom of “giving up something for Lent.”

Lent is a time when Christians traditionally fast from some food or activity for forty days in remembrance of Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness. This Lent I decided to give up desserts. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My wife gave up potato chips. Salty things are her weakness. Mine is sweets. I tell people I am sweet, and she is salty. (Actually it is the other way around!)

I renounced all types of desserts – pies, cake, cookies, puddings, and even ice cream. That decision was made when I was snowbound in New Hampshire, where it is easy to avoid ice cream stands in the winter. They are all closed. Now deep into Lent I find myself in sunny Florida surrounded by open ice cream stands, and they are calling my name. Lucky for me I am a preacher, and I know a loophole. I knew about it when I made the vow.

Lent is the 40 day period that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. But when you count the days on a calendar you will find there are actually 46 days between these holidays. Many Christians do not realize that Lent does not include Sundays. Sundays are considered “feast days” in the midst of the forty “fast days” of Lent. Sundays are oases in the wilderness of Lent. For that reason Sundays are said to be “in Lent” and not “of Lent.” In contrast, in December Sundays are marked “of Advent.”

In other words Sundays do not count when it comes to Lenten fasting. In the same spirit Muslims fast for a month during the holy season of Ramadan, but only during the daylight hours. Every evening they break the fast with the Iftar meal, eaten at sunset. Likewise I can break my fast with ice cream every Sunday while basking in the Florida sun! But only on Sundays. And today is Sunday! Alleluia! (Oh, sorry. That is another rule. You can’t say alleluia between Ash Wednesday and Easter – not even on Sunday.)

The reason I am writing about loopholes is to reveal how deceptive the heart is. There is a story in the Gospel of Mark where the Pharisees were self-righteously condemning Jesus’ disciples for not ritually washing their hands before they ate. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites for putting religious traditions above God’s commandments. He pointed to the example of a man who found a loophole in the commandment to honor your father and mother. The man learned that if he declared his resources “corban” (devoted to God) he did not have to use them to care for his parents. Jesus said, “Many such things you do.”

Religion is filled with rules and traditions! They are often used to avoid God. In this way Christianity has often fallen into legalism and hypocrisy. The self (or ego) naturally acts in a selfish manner. The self wants what the self wants, and it will find any excuse to get what it wants. There is no way to tame the egoic self, regardless of how many vows we take. Vows only serve to reveal how unruly the self is. The only permanent solution is the death of the self.

That is the meaning of the cross. The mystics say we are to “die before we die.” In this spirit Jesus taught us to deny the self, take up the cross and follow him. But until our physical death we have to put up with this “body of death,” as the apostle Paul calls it. We carry this selfish self around with us like an unruly pet. 

Buddhists call it the monkey mind. I affectionately call it my pet ape. (We are zoologically apes, after all.) Paul called it the flesh or the “old man.” We keep it on a leash, but sometimes it breaks free and runs like a puppy free of its lead. In my case it heads directly for the nearest homemade ice cream stand. “Chocolate chip cone, please!”

I know my pet ape well. I know its limits. It does not like fasts and fights against them. I have learned that I do best during Lent when I observe the feast days in the midst of the fast days. These Sundays “in Lent” are known in Christianity as “little Easters.” These mini-Easters make Lent doable, just like the big Easter makes life livable.  By celebrating “little Easters” I can celebrate Easter Sunday with the joy of knowing I kept my Lenten vow, rather than feel guilty for failing to keep it. In short, be gentle – yet firm – with your pet ape. After all, it is only human. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Salvation of Words

Words save our lives, sometimes.” Neil Gaiman wrote those words in the Acknowledgements section of his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a wonderful book by the way. Let me give you his full quote: “In Sarasota, Florida, Stephen King reminded me of the joy of just writing every day. Words save our lives, sometimes.” That has been true in my life.

I have loved words ever since I got a poem published in my high school’s literary magazine. To see my words in print was magical, and the magic never ceased. I was the photography editor, proofreader, and occasional reporter for the school newspaper. I had the English grammar textbook memorized. Since then I have learned that it is as important to know when to break the rules, as when to follow them.

Looking back, I can see that this love of words was influential in becoming a preacher. Pastors’ stock-in-trade is words, whether they are words proclaimed from the pulpit or words spoken privately to a parishioner in time of need. Preachers know better than most what words can do ... and what they can’t.

Occasionally people ask me why I am still giving weekly talks on my YouTube channel and podcast during retirement. I respond that it was not a decision. It is just what I do naturally. The sun shines, the wind blows, and a preacher preaches. You can take the preacher out of the pulpit but you can’t take the pulpit out of the preacher.

One thing has changed. I now prefer the webcam to the pulpit. I seldom preach in a church anymore. Only at the church where I am a member. Not only do I reach more people via the internet, it is much more comfortable to wear a flannel shirt while sitting in front of my computer than to wear a suit while standing behind a pulpit.  Plus the hours are better.

Retirement gives me time to write. I write every day – just like Stephen King. Well, not just like Stephen King, but I write. If I am not writing podcasts, blogs, books and the occasional sermon, then I am replying to emails from people around the world, asking me about my podcast, blog or books. Words save me. I would not know what I am thinking if it were not for writing. Some people write down their thoughts. I write before I think … in a good way.

For example, I had no idea what this blog post would be about. I just finished Neil Gaiman’s book a couple of days ago and was inspired by the quote: “Words save our lives, sometimes.” I did not know where the quote would take me, but I started writing. 

As I write, words come gushing forth. It is like the kitchen pump in my grandparents’ old cottage on Bow Lake in New Hampshire when I was a boy. A cup of water was always sitting by the kitchen sink, used for priming the pump. A few words prime the imagination, and words gush forth like water.

In recent years I have learned that words are inadequate for what I most wish to communicate. Words barely touch the surface of life. They are only ripples on the surface of consciousness. The same is true of thoughts and beliefs. They do not touch the depths. Words and ideas are fabrications of the mind. Doctrines and theology can do no more than point to truth that is deeper than words.

Truth is inexpressible. For that reason theology cannot capture God. It is a substitute for God. Far below the surface is the wordless reservoir of Divine Reality which no preacher can speak of. We can only direct people to this Reality using “groans too deep for words” as the apostle says.

Lao Tzu says, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.” He also says in the Tao Te Ching, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” Those who speak and actually believe what they say are doubly deceived. As Christian mystic Bernadette Roberts said, “Truth is unbelievable.”

It is fine to have beliefs. I have many beliefs, but I don’t take them too seriously. At best they are approximations of reality, mental constructions created by the mind to make sense of what is incomprehensible. They are words. They are beautiful words, but words nonetheless. But they point to what is beyond words. As such, words can save our lives … sometimes.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Revival and Presence

I have been following with fascination the spontaneous religious revival that has broken out at Asbury University near Lexington, Kentucky. It began at a regular chapel service on February 8, but when the service was over the students didn’t leave. They stayed to worship, day and night, for twelve days, until the college administration made a decision to gradually wind down the revival this week. It will be interesting to see if God – and the students - go along with the university president’s plan!

I know a little bit about Kentucky and revivals. I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970’s at a time when revivals were commonplace in Baptist life. While in seminary, my first position was as a part-time pastor in a small Baptist congregation in Kentucky. At my first fulltime church in Southern Illinois we used to conduct revivals. These multi-day events featured a visiting evangelist and “special music.”

One revival I hosted at my church was preached by a good friend who was the pastor of a Baptist church in a neighboring town. I later reciprocated by preaching a revival at his church. This friend is now the head of a large international ministry called Global Awakening that does revivals around the world, focusing on healing miracles.

The Asbury revival is different from many religious revivals that have swept across our country in past centuries. There are no special effects. No miracles, at least of the physical kind. There is very little preaching. This revival is neither sermon-centered nor music-centered. There is music, of course, but it is mostly an acoustic background for prayer, worship, and personal transformation.

This revival – from what I can discern from the testimonies of people interviewed - is centered on the presence of God. One participant made the insightful observation that it is not about emotion or religious experience; it is about the presence of God. Participants speak about sensing the glory of God and the “palpable” presence of God. If this is true, then I respond with a hearty “AMEN!”

Christianity needs to recover a sense of the presence of God. This country needs to know the presence of God. The Presence of God is the gospel that I preach. I may use different words and ideas to describe this Presence than the students at this Wesleyan-Holiness school. My stand on ethical and social issues may be different from those held by the majority of participants.

But that is alright. We agree that there is a need for the immediacy and power of God’s Presence. If the sense of Divine Presence at this revival is genuine, then doctrine and ethics will sort out themselves later. Speaking of ethics, past revivals have been influential in changing American society. I am waiting to see if such change results from this revival.

The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century fueled the abolitionist movement and helped end slavery in America. It also empowered the temperance movement. This Asbury revival could possibly do something similar in our day by combatting racism and addictions. Only time will tell if this revival bears such fruit.

Undoubtedly people will try to coopt this revival for their own religious, political or social agendas. Personally my only agenda is that people recognize and embrace the Presence of God. I don’t care what spiritual tradition this Presence is expressed through. Different religions express Divine Presence in different ways. The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition expresses it through revivals, as evidenced in the history of revivals at this college. Other Christian traditions and non-Christian traditions express Presence differently.

God knows no religious barriers. Truth is not the possession of any one religion. I pray this revival might transcend religious tribalism. That would be truly miraculous! I hope this revival transforms American Christianity in a way that those in Kentucky cannot imagine. I hope it transforms America in a way I cannot imagine! However this Asbury revival plays out, I am just grateful that people are focusing on the Presence of God.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Jesus’ Vision for the Church

It seems like every other month I am reading about the demise of the Christian Church in the United States. The most recent article was in The Guardian, entitled Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches Are on the Decline.  They all say pretty much the same thing: the Christian Church is losing members rapidly, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.

Some Christian leaders are asking tough questions about what Christians can do to stanch the flow of members and church closures. My longtime friend, Dwight Moody, has been asking such questions regularly for the past couple of years. He has a podcast and YouTube channel called The Meetinghouse, subtitled Conversations on Religion and American Life.

He is very concerned about the influence of extremist forms of Christianity. He is searching for an authentic form of Christianity that will counteract this trend and revive the Church. In a recent email to me he phrased it this way: “What version of Christian faith and practice will present to the modern world (or even to the Christian community) a coherent and compelling vision for human life?”

Jesus has such a vision for the Church. My recognition of this vision came after my departure from evangelicalism and subsequently going beyond progressive Christianity into a mystical spirituality rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the ancient and eternal gospel. It is a gospel of union with God.

Christianity is declining because it is old and sick. It is deathly ill. It has a terminal illness. The stench of death is evident in the Church’s never-ending scandals, noxious rhetoric, and the cancerous growth of Christian Nationalism. The death knell of the church rings in the anti-intellectual dogma and culture-war mentality of Pentecostals and Evangelicals.

That is why younger generations are abandoning the Church at an increasing rate. Americans – young and old - are spiritually hungry, but they are not finding spiritual nourishment in the church. When they step inside a church they find either tired traditionalism or mind-numbing fundamentalism, so they turn elsewhere. 

They look to other spiritual traditions or to nonreligious philosophies. They look to meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and yoga. They look to humanism or atheism. Meanwhile the Church conducts business as usual as if it were the twentieth century, doubling down on outmoded forms of evangelism or gimmicky outreach programs.

There is a way back from this bleak picture of Christian stagnation. There can be a resurrection of the Church, but only if it is willing to die to be reborn. What is needed is a fresh look at the spiritual core of Jesus’ message without the later centuries of tradition. A “red-letter” Christianity, a gospel based on the words – and spiritual experience - of Jesus rather than endless words and doctrines about Jesus.

This fresh approach to Christianity is centered on direct spiritual awareness of the Divine that is willing to offend traditional religious sensibilities, just like Jesus did. It is willing to pay the price, just like Jesus did.

Spiritual experience was the original attraction of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. That is why they were successful. But that was before they sold their souls to emotionalism and anti-intellectualism. Likewise Evangelicalism was originally founded on a personal encounter with the living Christ. Now it has devolved into a dogmatic religion with a secondhand belief in an imaginary friend.

Christianity only has a future if it lives in the present - in the presence of God that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ message was a call to the transformation of the human being through union with the Father. We see his vision for his Church voiced in his prayer offered on the night before he died. He prayed:

“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “

That “oneness” with God and each another is Jesus’ hope for the church. It is firsthand communion with God and Christ that manifests in tangible Christian unity. This can only happen when the Church proclaims an authentic message that originates from genuine spiritual awareness.

Then God will pour out the Spirit on “all people.” “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That is Jesus’ vision for his Church.

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.”