Friday, September 29, 2023

The Middle of Nowhere

Last Sunday a friend of mine quoted me in his sermon to his church in North Carolina. He introduced the quote by saying that I lived in the middle of nowhere. I kidded him about it later, but then I pondered the phrase and decided I liked it. I like living in the middle of nowhere. More people should try it. Just not in our stretch of nowhere. Then it might become somewhere.

I dwell in a very small town as far as human population is concerned. One hundred square miles of forest, lakes, mountains, ponds and rivers. One blinking light. No gas station. No grocery store. Not even a convenience store. Our house is within sight of the blinking light in the center of the village, so we are literally in the center of nowhere. Yet our town is not entirely off the beaten path. Every four years at least one presidential candidate finds his/her way to our corner of the first primary state. This year it was Robert Kennedy.

The other day my wife and I decided to get out of nowhere. It was getting busy. Usually our busyness has to do with our grandchildren, which is a wonderful type of busyness. We love seeing them. I love that they will have memories of walking to their grandparents’ house after school. We are blessed. But sometimes it is nice to get off to a quiet spot by ourselves for a while. So we went to a state park in a neighboring town to sit by a quiet lake ringed by mountains.

It was a calm, sunny, warm autumn day. Not a ripple on the lake. The mountains were in a haze. For over an hour we watched a pair of loons diving for fish, occasionally flapping their wings. Exciting stuff. Exactly what we needed. There were other people at the lake, including some kids, but it was not noisy. I commented to my wife that the quiet was so deep that it absorbed sounds like a sponge.

The silence was so powerful that I could feel it sinking into me. City folk think that quiet is the absence of noise. It is not. Silence is a tangible presence. Noises may be present, but the silence beneath the noises is stronger. Noises do not stand a chance in the presence of silence. Silence pervades all.

That is the way it is with the Presence of God. God’s presence pervades everything. God is palpably present inside and outside me, like space inside and outside a jar. The apostle Paul calls us earthen vessels. He calls us temples of the Holy Spirit. These are accurate analogies. We are Spirit-filled and Spirit-immersed.

The Bible likens the Spirit of God to the breath that we breathe. The biblical words for spirit are the same words translated breath or wind. God is the air we breathe, as the song says. God is breathing us. We are the lungs of God. Without God there is no life in these bodies. The divine name YHWH has its origin in the sound of breathing. In and out. God is as close as our breath.

I hear fellow Christians talk about coming into the presence of God. That language is popular in worship settings. People think that by coming into a church building, or into a worship service, or entering into an attitude of prayer that they are coming into the presence of God. Yet how can we not always be in the presence of God? If God is omnipresent, where else could we possibly be but in the presence of God?

The churchly way of talking about the presence of God is really about feelings. People need to feel the presence of God. I understand that. Feelings are nice. Spiritual experiences are edifying. But they have nothing to do with the presence of God. God is present whether we feel God’s presence or not. If we ever feel like God is not present, we do not need to perform religious rituals to recapture the feeling. All we have to do is pause to notice what is always present, and God is instantly here.  God is never not here.

God is not a thing and therefore not in some special place. God is nothing (no-thing) and nowhere, which is another way of saying everything and everywhere. Language collapses into paradox when speaking of the Divine. Sometimes we may feel like God is absent, like we are in the middle of nowhere. At such times we are exactly where we ought to be. God is in the middle of nowhere. So are you. Welcome to nowhere.

Monday, September 18, 2023

If the Church Dies

There has been a flurry of books and articles recently that try to explain why churches are losing people at an alarming rate. A recent example is a book entitled The Great Dechurching by Jim Davis and Michael Graham. The authors begin the book with these dire words: “In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshippers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all.”

They have subtitled their book: Who's Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back? The authors assume that this precipitous decline in church involvement is a problem to be fixed. But I wonder: What if the Great Dechurching is not a bad thing?  What if it is a good thing? What if it is a God thing? What if God is pruning the church back to the root? What if God is behind this exodus? Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What if the church needs to die?

Near the end of his ministry Jesus explained to his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and die. The apostle Peter’s response was “No, Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus rebuked him saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me. You are not on the side of God but of men.” Maybe the dying of the church is not a problem, any more than Jesus' death was a problem. Maybe the Great Dechurching is God’s solution to a more serious problem.

A few years ago my younger son bought an 18th century house on sixteen acres of land in our small town in New Hampshire. At first he planned to renovate the house. On closer examination, he discovered that the house was in such bad condition that it could not be salvaged. The mold and rot were too extensive. It had to be razed to the ground to make way for a new structure. Now he lives in a beautiful timber frame home that he built with his own hands, made from lumber harvested from his land.

Perhaps the church today is in the same condition as that old house. Perhaps it is in such bad shape that it cannot be saved. It needs to be razed so that a new church can be built in its place. God is pressing the reset button, just as God did with humankind in the Flood, just as God threatened to do with Israel after the Exodus, if Moses had not talked God out of it.

God has worked this way in the past, according to the Bible. The eighth century (BC) prophets proclaimed that God was fighting against Israel and was going to destroy it if it did not repent. Israel did not listen, and God destroyed the northern kingdom; ten tribes of Israel disappeared from history. In the sixth century Jeremiah fearlessly preached the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as the will of God. The leaders of Judah put Jeremiah in prison for prophesying this. Jesus likewise prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. The political and religious leaders killed him for it.

I do not know for sure, but I think God may be doing the same sort of thing in our time. The Great Dechurching reports that religious abuse and general moral corruption in churches have driven people away. For decades young parents told me they were bringing their children to church and Sunday School in order to inculcate moral values. Now parents do not see the church as moral. Many see the church’s message and conduct as immoral! Parents used to bring their children to church to learn about God. Now they are pretty sure the church does not know God.

The church is so corrupt and diseased that God cannot allow it to continue. So God is surgically removing the church from the world in order to save the world from the church. This is not the rapture of the church that evangelicals are expecting; this is the judgement of the church that they don’t see coming.

The church does not have a problem; the church is the problem. The church thinks the problem is in the culture outside the church, but the real problem is in the church culture. The church does not see that, and therefore it has no motivation to change. Instead it doubles down on the culture wars. Because of the church’s spiritual blindness, the only solution left to God is so drastic that no one wants to think about it.

The church needs to die, so it can be resurrected as an entirely new creation. For that reason I am not dismayed when I read ever-worsening statistics about the decline of the church. I see God’s hand in it. Like a gardener or farmer, God is turning over the soil, in order to prepare for a new season. Perhaps if the church repents, it can avoid the looming catastrophe, like Nineveh temporarily escaped destruction under the preaching of Jonah. But I see no sign of such a contrite spirit in the church.

The good news is that if the Old Testament pattern is repeated, it means that a faithful remnant will survive the Great Dechurching, like Noah and his family survived the Flood, like a remnant of Judah survived the Babylonian exile. From the stump of Jesse a shoot will sprout. From the ruins of the dying church, a living church will grow. From the microchurches that survive the coming exile, a new Body of Christ will arise. 

Accepting the Great Dechurching as the will of God does not mean I am giving up on the church. I love the church. I especially love the church I attend, and I love the Church as a worldwide body. I am not going to stop worshiping with a local body of believers. Instead I trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love God, who have been called according to God’s purpose.”

Not all churches are rotten, but the great number of corrupt churches and leaders give the good ones a bad name. Not all Christians act and speak in an unchristian manner, but all Christians are tainted by the public words and actions of high profile Christians who cause harm to the cause of Christ.

The Church is the Body of Christ, and ungodly Christians are growing in the body like cancer. The situation seems to be getting worse with each passing year. That is the cause of the Great Dechurching. Soon the number of saintly believers will not be enough to save the church, any more than they were enough to save Sodom and Gomorrah.

We are witnessing a great work of God in our time. It is a work of biblical proportions. It is greater than we can imagine with our sociological models and predictions. It is greater than religious revival. This is resurrection. Therefore I do not lament the Great Dechurching. I do not fear for the future of the church. For I know that if the church dies, it will bear much fruit.

Monday, September 11, 2023

More Than Fiction

I just finished reading a humorous and insightful novel, the first in a fantasy series entitled “Lost on a Page” by David Sharp. It is told from the perspective of fictional characters within novels of various genres (mystery, science fiction, romance, fantasy) who discover that they are not real. They find out they are just imaginary figures in books being written by human authors.

In discovering they are not real, something changes. It says, “Discovering they are fictional characters somehow gave them wills of their own.” They begin to make decisions for themselves apart from the book plots. Characters from various books band together to find “The World Where the Books Are Written.”

This is not an entirely new concept, even though this book takes the idea in new directions. There was a book a few years ago by John Scalzi entitled “Red Shirts,” about ensigns on a starship in a science fiction television show. One day they realize that while on “away missions” it is always those with the red shirts who die. Never those in the leading roles. This was modeled after the real TV series Star Trek. The audiobook is appropriately narrated by Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

The 2006 movie “Stranger than Fiction” has a similar premise. Will Ferrell plays an IRS auditor named Harold Crick, whose life is narrated by a voice that only he can hear. He discovers that he is the protagonist in an author's (Emma Thompson) latest work. With the help of a professor (Dustin Hoffman) they set out to find the author and get her to change her/his story.  

These works of fiction are not as fictional as they seem. Spiritual inquiry reveals we are not who we think we are. We are not the characters we play. If someone asks, “Who are you?” we tend to respond with answers from our script:  name, age, gender, family relationships, occupation, nationality, religion, political affiliation, and a host of other labels that we have adopted other the years.

Spiritual self-enquiry reveals that we are none of these things. We could change any or all of these, and we would still be us. These are simply roles we play in the drama of life. Shakespeare famously penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts….” We mistake ourselves for the masks we wear. We get so “into character” that we forget what we really are.

When we wake up from our fictional lives, we get a glimpse of True Life, the Nonfictional Self behind the dramatis personae, who breathes life into us and sets the parameters of our temporary existence.  The true reality is the Realm of the Author. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.

When we wake up, the illusion of our former selves dissipates, and we see what we always were. As the apostle Paul exclaimed, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me!” These bodies are simply costumes for the Spirit. The apostle speaks of the Spirit indwelling the tabernacles of human bodies. “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”

Our lives are open books, written by the Author of life, the One who speaks this cosmic drama into existence. When we take off the masks we wear, we are free. We discover who and what we really are. Under the masks we see our real face, and we recognize it as the face of God. This is what it means to be made in the image of God. As the apostle wrote: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Banned from Communion

Last month I was not able to take communion during the Sunday worship service. It was not the church or pastor’s fault. In fact they could not have been more inclusive. They intentionally serve only gluten free vegan bread and non-alcoholic grape juice so that everyone can partake of the same elements. It is also “open communion.” Everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table, no questions asked. The problem was me.

The following morning I was scheduled for a colonoscopy. We all know how pleasant the prep for that is! The instructions made it clear that I was to eat no food and drink nothing red or purple on the day before the medical procedure. Strangely enough I did not consider how that was going to affect my participation in the Lord’s Supper until I was in the worship service. I had to bypass the elements on that particular Sunday.

Even though no one was excluding me, I felt alone as I sat empty-handed while everyone else was partaking of the communal meal. It caused me to remember our stay in the Holy Land decades ago. I was taking a semester sabbatical at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute on the outskirts of Bethlehem in the autumn of 1991. My wife and three children went with me.

Even though the institute is called ecumenical, it is owned and run by the Roman Catholic Church. The rector was then – and is now - a Jesuit. My family was told that we could not partake of the daily Eucharist with the other families because we were Baptists. Other Protestants – Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians were invited to the table – but my family, another Baptist family from Japan, and a Mennonite family from Canada were not welcome.

I know they had their centuries-old, ecclesial and theological reasons for excluding fellow Christians from the Eucharist. Furthermore it would have been personally costly for these leaders to disobey church tradition and authority. I get that. As Free Church Protestants we had no right to insist that another tradition change their practice of the Eucharist for us. Therefore we “never said a mumblin word,” to quote the African American spiritual. Yet that did not diminish my feeling of being excluded because of my faith.

Ever since that time, I have been sensitive to Christians excluding people. In the last thirty years there has been a lot of exclusion going on. More and more people have been identified for exclusion. I am thinking primarily about my own Baptist tradition and similar evangelical denominations. Many Christians are becoming more exclusivistic in their thinking.

My experience of exclusion was minimal compared to the discrimination and persecution suffered by others, but my minor experience expanded my empathy for outsiders and my vision of the need for a spirituality that excludes no one. It seems to me that if a church and theology justifies the systematic exclusion of certain categories of people - from communion, membership, heaven or anything else - it is time to get a new church and a new theology.

These thoughts came to mind last Sunday while I was sitting in the same outdoor worship service at the same church and offered the same Lord’s Supper. This time I had no medical procedure scheduled, and so I joyfully partook of the bread and the cup. I felt communion. During the ritual I thought about those who have been barred from communion in some churches because of their sincerely held beliefs, including the President of the United States and the former Speaker of the House of Representatives. God bless them for not being bitter. Their attitude is a testimony to their faith.

As I ate the sacred elements last Sunday, I prayed for all those who are excluded from fellowship and society for a host of reasons: religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, immigration status, political views, moral standards, and many other reasons. I prayed for insight to see how I exclude people without even noticing. I meditated on Jesus, who fellowshipped with outsiders and sinners. Jesus taught and modeled God’s intentional unconditional love. Even Judas Iscariot was welcome at the Last Supper. He is welcome today. After all, it the Lord’s Supper, not ours. And it is the Lord’s Church – the Body of Christ – not ours. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Losing My Library

When I was nine years old I fractured three vertebrae in a fall, and I had to take it easy to allow them to heal properly. So that summer I read books. Lots of books. I remember reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the lawn outside my house. I think that gave me respect for Twain’s unconventional views on religion later in life.

In seventh grade I struggled in Ancient History class. To keep from failing the class, the teacher said I could read books for extra credit. Each book earned me one extra point added to my grade average. I recall sitting for hours in our finished basement reading about the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East. That paved the way for my later interest in history. While in high school I worked in the school bookstore.

Books have always had an important place in my life. In college and seminary I surrounded myself with academic volumes. My dorm rooms and apartments were lined with bookshelves. Theological books played a major role during my spiritual search in college and while training to be pastor in seminary. I accumulated books - and bookshelves - while in ministry. In Pennsylvania our finished basement had wall-to-wall books.

My church office always held lots of books: biblical commentaries, theological tomes, and practical books on pastoral ministry. I was proud of my personal library. Books meant education, knowledge, expertise and wisdom to me. As a theologian I believed truth could be found in books, especially the “book of books,” the Bible (a word which simply means “book.”) I assumed truth was found in ideas, which were contained in books. My library felt like an extension of my brain. They were my memory.

When I moved back to New Hampshire in 2011 I left almost all my books in Pennsylvania. There was no room for them in our new home. My daughter and her family moved into our previous house, on the condition that I could store my extensive collection downstairs. I figured I could always have access to the books if I really needed them. Then one year water got into the basement. The moisture became mold. My prized theological library turned into mounds of mold. Thousands of dollars of books ended up in a dumpster.

Strangely I didn’t mind too much. By that time my attitude toward books had changed. I no longer depended on them. I still read books. These days I finish about two books a week, which means a hundred a year. I have been here in New Hampshire for twelve years. You can do the math. That doesn’t count all the books I purchased but never read. These books are not stored in bookshelves, but on my Kindle, where I can access them and search within them easily.

I learned something in the process of losing my library. I realized that truth is beyond books. At least spiritual truth is beyond books. Books contain knowledge, and knowledge is good. The trend in our nation to ban and censor books in school libraries is one of the surest signs that our culture is in decay. Without free access to uncensored books, facts are lost, ideologues win, and our culture will descend into a new Dark Ages.

As important as books are to a society, they do not contain the deepest spiritual truth. That type of truth can only we found by direct experience. At best spiritual truth can be pointed to by those who have found it. Books can only point obliquely to this Reality that is beyond words. 

Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. He pointed to it using parables, which are stories, metaphors and similes. Spiritual truth is not something you possess. It possesses you. It is not something you understand; you understand all things by it. It is like light, which was one of Jesus’ metaphors. You do not see light, but see things by light. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

Spiritual wisdom is alive and active. It is not passive, waiting for someone to take it off the shelf. For me the best books point beyond ideas to the Source of all ideas. These books point beyond books. I find such books to be timeless. They direct us to truths beyond religious traditions and norms. Usually these spiritual books are old books. I find that the best of these are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

Sometimes they are written more recently. For example I am presently reading a book that was written in 1939. That is ancient history to those generations who are identified by letters of the alphabet.  Yet these books feel timelier than books written this year. I am discovering – and rediscovering - ancient religious texts of East and West. These old books point to timeless truth that are as valuable today as they were centuries ago. These are the books I value most.

I still read new books for fun.  A lot of fiction: historical novels, adventure, sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries. Every day I read a portion of a spiritual book. Unlike fiction I go through these books slowly to savor them. I no longer feel the need to accumulate facts. I read to learn how to articulate truth that cannot be found in books, expressing old truths in new words. Knowledge changes daily in our fast-paced culture. Truth abides forever. Books grow moldy. Truth is as imperishable as gold. This spiritual gold is what I value most.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Church Notice

Last week my wife and I went to a nearby town to shop at a store known for its tourist merchandise. It carries T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, mugs and other memorabilia that visitors to our state bring home to remind them of their vacation in the Granite State. I was looking for a New Hampshire T-shirt to wear when I am in Florida. I am tired of people thinking I am from Maine or Pennsylvania. My wife was looking for a birthday gift for a ten year-old friend and some greeting cards.

I quickly realized that the shop did not carry what I was looking for (any T-shirt without a moose on it). So I exited the store to wait on a bench until her shopping was done. After a few minutes of sitting I went for a walk. The only other businesses in the plaza was a Post Office and a church. Of course I visited the church.

The name of the church included the words “Open Door,” but the church door was locked. I was to discover just how ironic that name was. Posted on the locked glass door was a notice that made it clear just how closed the church was. I have included a photo of the notice with this post, so I will not repeat it ad nauseam (with the emphasis on the nausea). If you click on the photo, you ought to be able to view a larger version.

In brief it warns any visitors to the church of two important facts. It reads “This church IS NOT a Gun Free Zone” and “This church IS a Drug Free Zone.” It went on to explain that visitors can expect parishioners to be carrying concealed weapons, but anyone carrying concealed drugs will be turned over to the police. How they would discover concealed drugs was not mentioned. There was another sign on the door, which I neglected to photograph. It read: “Everyone Welcome.” That was the humorous one.

Why make these two topics – guns and drugs – the first things that people see as they approach the church?  Are these the most important things about this church? I hope not. The church identifies itself as a “Bible Church,” yet they have chosen to focus on two subjects that are never mentioned in the Bible. Why post this notice at all? What is the purpose of it, except to exclude people – specifically those who believe in gun control and those who are addicted to drugs?

The notice is a barely veiled threat of violence and legal action. Why make threats at all? Is that really the first impression of the church that this congregation wants people to have? Once I got beyond the threats, I surmised that this church was more interested in taking a stand in the culture wars than making people feel welcome at the church.

On a deeper level the sign reeked of fear, not faith. It was written from a place of fear and is meant to elicit fear. This sign is proclaiming that this church space is so dangerous that the members arm themselves to protect themselves from visitors. They also have the local police department on speed dial. This church is obviously not a safe place to bring your family.  They might as well have posted a sign: Visitors Beware!

Perhaps the members of this church have good reasons to be fearful of outsiders. I do not know what has happened at this church in the past. A shooting or drug–dealing on the premises? I suspect that this notice is more rhetoric than reality. I think this notice has more to do with political posturing, because of the mention of the second amendment. It is likely that the spiritual gospel has become so intertwined with a political gospel in this church that the members cannot distinguish one from the other.

There are many churches like this one across our nation. Many of them are much bigger and more influential than this tiny storefront church. Such churches have surrendered to the “spirit of the age” rather than the Holy Spirit. Because of them, Christianity is getting a bad reputation. As the apostle Paul wrote, “The name of God is maligned and blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you!” It is no wonder that people are walking away from churches in droves.

After my wife finished her shopping, we started home. She was happy with her treasure trove of cards that she purchased. I was sad about the church notice that I had seen, and what it says about the state of the American Christianity. When any Christian church feels the need to post such a notice on its front door, it means something is seriously wrong in our country and our religion. God help us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Thank God for Heretics!

I used to call myself an evangelical. I was never a full-fledged fundamentalist. I had too much education – especially in the sciences – to deceive myself into believing that the earth was six thousand years old and created in six days. So I opted for educated evangelicalism. Back in the 1970’s evangelicals were jokingly called “fundamentalists with a college degree.”

After seminary, as I spent the early decades of my career as a Baptist pastor, I continued to believe in the doctrines articulated in the ancient creeds and later confessions of faith.  I saw myself as holding to the historic Christian faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” I was so fervent in my beliefs that I taught classes on the world religions and “cults,” showing how they were false and Christianity was true.

Then I did something dangerous. I read the Bible carefully. I had studied the Bible extensively in seminary, of course, including in the original languages. I exegeted it, preached it and taught it as a pastor for decades. But this time I studied the words of Jesus as if hearing them for the first time – without the filter of later church tradition. That is when I realized that Jesus was not a Christian. He did not teach the doctrines that Christianity considers essential for membership in the Church.

Jesus was a Jew, ethnically and religiously. He attended synagogue and temple. But he was not an “orthodox” Jew, theologically speaking. I am not talking about Orthodox Judaism, which is distinguished from Conservative and Reformed Judaism. I am talking about theology. Jesus was outside mainstream Jewish thought, as represented by Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, rabbis, and “teachers of the Law.”

His teachings were so heterodox that they got him killed. Jesus was “beyond the pale.” He was a heretic. Consequently he was treated the way heretics have historically been treated by the religious establishment. He was verbally condemned and violently killed. The gospels make it clear that the religious leaders of Jerusalem put aside their differences and joined together to have Jesus executed for blasphemy.

Jesus was a heretic by both Jewish and Christian standards. All the distinctive theological doctrines of Christianity that were debated in Church councils and enshrined in creeds and catechisms are not found in the words of Jesus. Plenty of people have tried to read these doctrines back into the words of Jesus, but the most they could find were proof texts taken out of context. Jesus was not a Christian.

When I realized that Jesus was a heretic, I had a choice to make. I decided to follow Jesus rather than Church tradition. As the gospel hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” I have shared what I learned from Jesus of Nazareth in books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. That has made me a heretic in the eyes of those who define Christianity as a set of “orthodox” doctrines. They say I am not theologically correct. I am alright with that.

I am in good company. Socrates was a heretic who was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens by asking dangerous questions. Gautama Buddha was a heretic, which is why his Hindu homeland rejected his teachings. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown and among his own people,” Jesus said. Every innovative spiritual teacher was considered a heretic in their day.

The heretics of each age take the “road less traveled.” They bushwhack through the undergrowth of their religious tradition to rediscover the priceless jewel at the center of every spiritual tradition. When they proclaim what they found, they are called heretics. Jesus was a heretic, and I am glad he was. Thank God for heretics! They keep truth alive.