Friday, April 19, 2024

Penguin Spirituality

I saw a video the other day that has stayed with me. It was a National Geographic clip of a group of emperor penguin chicks taking their first swim. This was no tentative dip in the ocean. This was a dramatic plunge off a fifty foot cliff. If you want to view the video, here it is on YouTube 

It makes me wonder what evolutionary urge leads them to perform such an act of courage. It also immediately made me think of spirituality. Speak of a leap of faith! This is not the safe religion of traditional Christianity. This is a leap into the unknown. Spirituality at its best is a dive into the Unknown.  

One cannot really know God. Our minds are too small. The god we think we know is a creation of the human mind, crafted in our own image and reflecting our own values. God can only be experienced by unknowing, as the anonymous author of the medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, said.  

These penguin chicks had never been in water. They did not know what water was. They had never flown in the air. They knew nothing about height and depth. Yet they instinctively knew this was their destiny. Therefore as a group they traveled to the edge of their known world. 

When they got to the end of their world, they paused. The ones in the back urging forward the ones in the front. Then one brave soul made the first leap into the abyss, flapping useless wings, plunging into the unknown. This pioneer of penguin faith surfaced and frolicked in the water. Then the next one dove in, and then the next. Then two at a time. Then three or four at a time. Some falling and others diving 

Some chicks entered the water more gracefully than others. Some did a belly-flop. Ouch! I can feel their pain! But all survived and swam through the water as if it was second nature.  The lure of the ocean is instinct, written in their genes. One could say that it is their first nature.  

Likewise God is our first nature. We have an instinct for the Divine. God is our calling and our destiny. God is written in our genes. We come from God and return to God. Throughout our lives we “live and move and have our being” in God, as the apostle said. It is our nature to dive into Divinity. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalmist says 

This is the source of all genuine spirituality. It can feel terrifying to be on the edge of a precipice, peering into the unknownWhether that unknown is life-threatening illness, imminent death, or a new expression of religious faith. But when we take the dive, we find our true nature. We are free to be who we have always been. This is what it means to be born of the spirit ... and the water!  

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Vacation Time Religion

My wife and I worship nearly every week, even while traveling or on vacation. When driving on the interstate on a Sunday morning we have been known to pull off an exit, find an open church door, join in worship, and then get back on the highway after the benediction.   

We attend worship in Florida during our annual spring vacation. Because we are in one location for an extended period, we try to find one church we can return to every Sunday. This year I did an internet search of local churches and found one that looked like it might fit the bill. We tried it on Palm Sunday. Then we returned on Easter and the following Sunday. We will go back next Sunday. 

We are enjoying this congregation, yet it feels like we have traveled back in time. There are none of things we usually see in church services these days. No overhead screen projecting the lyrics to contemporary songs. No praise team or worship band. Just traditional hymns sung from a hymnal and accompanied by a pianist... and a flutist!  

I love traditional hymns. The abandonment of the great hymnody of the faith for contemporary worship songs is one of the worst trends in Christian worship in my opinion. So I am enjoying the hymns. But to be honest I could do without this church’s fondness for the music of the Gaithers. Too schmaltzy for me.  

Not many people come to worship in this church. Usually about 45 according to the pastor, and they are almost all grayheads ... like us. On Easter there were more attenders and a few grandchildren scattered in the pews. But the next Sunday it was back to normal. This is fine with me. I prefer micro-churches to megachurches. 

The people were friendly and welcoming. Our first Sunday they gave us a welcoming bag of gifts to take home. The pastor made a point of greeting us before the serviceHe is an octogenarian who wears a traditional black pulpit robe with doctoral bars on the arms.  

His sermons are well-crafted and well-delivered, although a little longer than most sermons these daysThat also is fine with me. Micro-sermons are another unfortunate trend these days. Yet I have the impression that this old preacher has pulled these sermon “out of the barrel,” as we preachers say. I think he is re-using sermons originally written during the last half of the twentieth century. 

For example he started his Palm Sunday sermon lamenting John Lennon’s famous quip that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. Then he gave a sermon illustration about the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. In every sermon there are numerous quotes from preachers, authors, athletes and statesmen from decades ago. But none from contemporary public figures.  

All the sermons we have heard in this church address the personal needs of private spirituality. That certainly has its place. But it is also important for sermons to be current. Theologian Karl Barth said that a Christian preacher ought to preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To be relevant the church needs to address present-day moral, social and spiritual conditions.  

These are dangerous times for our nation and Christianity. Christian nationalism is on the rise. Democracy is in danger. The earth’s climate and animal population are threatened.  The human species is endangered. American society is being poisoned by bigotry and intolerance.  

The integrity of the Christian church and the gospel has been compromised. The church has lost its way. It has abandoned the message of Jesus. It has forgotten the message of the Hebrew prophets. Prophetic preaching and deep spirituality are needed today. Yet most churches are content to drift with the cultural current or retreat into the past.  

This is not the time for nostalgic Christianity. It is not a time to retreat into the safety of an imagined past. It was not safe to be a follower of Jesus in the first century, and it is not safe to be a follower of Jesus in the twenty-first century. Religious intolerance is a danger in all centuries and certainly in our century.  

I like this Florida church. I like the pastor. I like the music (mostly), and I like the congregation. They are all nice. This type of religion is comfortable. But safe spirituality is not what is needed today. Such old-time religion was not good enough for Jesus, and it is not good enough for me. I could not be part of such a church for longer than a vacation.  

I don’t mind taking a brief respite from the “dangers, toils, and snares” of prophetic and contemplative Christianity. Just like I do not mind taking a break from New Hampshire snowstorms to enjoy the Florida sunshine for a whileBut all vacations must come to an end. The challenges of our current age are too important to ignore for longer than a spring vacation.  

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Adventures in Entropy

It seems like every time we visit Florida something breaks down. Last year we spent most of our vacation trying to get the air conditioning in our vehicle repaired. It was a comedy of errors that took several weeks and two different repair shops to temporarily resolve. It never was satisfactorily fixed.  

So this fall we decided to purchase a new-to-us (used) vehicle. That ought to solve the problem! Then, of course, someone dented our front fender within three months. Our “new” car now looks old. We never found out who hit it. The previous year the internet at the condo failed. After lots of fiddling around, the modem was replaced.  

This year it is the air conditioning in the condo that we rent. We arrived at the condo last Saturday. The place seemed stuffy. A few minutes later there was a knock on the door. A repairman informed us he had come to fix the central air. After a couple of hours he “fixed” it. Forty-eight hours later it was blowing hot air again. It took four more days to get someone to replace the whole unit.  

Yet the saga isn’t over. As I was writing this post there was another knock on the door. The repairmen need to put a new door on the closet where the central air/heat is located to provide ventilation. They left a moment ago. It will be a day or two before the repair is authorized, purchased and installed. They will be back, they promised. 

Everything falls apart. We can’t stop it. It is the law of entropy. As if entropy isn't fast enough, merchandise is intentionally designed to fall apart so manufacturers can sell us replacements faster. It is called planned obsolescence.  

Likewise human bodies fall apart. Apparently the Creator also made the universe with “planned obsolescence” built in. (The literal interpretation of “the Fall” is a misinterpretation.) Scientists call it the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I call it getting older. The body breaks down.  

The universe had a beginning according to both science and scripture. At that moment of creation it was at "zero entropy." Like the antique wind-up clock on my mantlepiece, the universe was wound up “in the beginning,” and it has been winding down ever since. The same with the human body.  

I am winding down. Ten years ago we attended a financial seminar to help us plan for retirement, sponsored by the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board. The speaker explained that there are three stages of retirement: go-go, slow-go, and no-go. Our sixties was go-go. Seventies is slow-go. I am not looking forward to no-go.  

With the breakdown of the body comes pain. There is not much we can do about it, but the church can help. The apostle Paul said, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  Elsewhere he wrote, “Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  

Science fiction author Spider Robinson succinctly said: “Pain shared is pain lessened; joy shared is joy increased. Thus do we refute entropy.” The purpose of the church is to refute entropy.  It is called love. 

Come to think of it, that is the message of Easter. Resurrection is a refutation of entropyOn Easter death is overcome. Pain vanquished. The Kingdom comes. Easter is not just a date in history or a holiday on the calendar. It is now. The eternal risen Christ “was and is and is to come.” 

Then and now “He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away." Easter is the end of entropy.  

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Escape from Freedom

While a freshman in college, I read Erich Fromm’s famous 1941 book Escape from Freedom. Fromm was a German Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He explored the reasons why people would willingly submit to authoritarian rule. He theorized that humans either embrace freedom or seek to escape from it. 

Embracing freedom is healthy and courageous. Yet many people seek to escape from freedom by means of psychological escape mechanisms. Fromm identified three main mechanisms: automaton conformity, authoritarianism and destructiveness.  

Automaton conformity is conforming to a group’s preferred type of personality, losing one's self in the process. It transfers the burden of choice from self to society. 

Authoritarianism is giving control of oneself to a political movement or leader. By surrendering one's freedom to someone else, the freedom of choice is almost entirely removed.   

Destructiveness is the attempt to eliminate others in order to escape freedom. If that means genocide, overthrowing a government, overturning an election or burning down the country, so be it. Fromm said that "the destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it." 

Later in college I read Sinclair Lewis’ 1936 novel It Can’t Happen Here. It describes how a Hitleresque politician rose to power in the United States to become the first American dictator. These days I find myself recalling the insights I received from reading these two books. Now it seems like it could happen here after all. 

I watch American politics today, and I see life imitating art. History is repeating itself, or at least it is echoing. As Mark Twain is anecdotally reported to have said, “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”  If that is true, then the 2020’s are rhyming with the 1930’s.  

On February 20, 1939, a Nazi rally took place at Madison Square Garden, attended by more than 20,000 patriotic Americans. It took place two days before George Washington's birthday and was promoted as a “Pro-American rally.” A huge portrait of Washington hung behind the dais with equally large American flags draped on either side.  

The National Anthem was sung. The American flag was saluted with the Nazi salute. The rally was opened by James Wheeler-Hill, national secretary of the German American Bund, with the words: "If George Washington were alive today, he would be friends with Adolf Hitler." Fritz Julius Kuhn, a German Nazi activist, who served as the elected leader of the Bund, was the keynote speaker.   

After the rally the Bund came under investigation, and its financial records were seized. It was discovered that $14,000 (about $273,000 in today’s currency) from the contributions raised during the rally was spent by Kuhn on his mistress and various personal expenses. Kuhn was convicted of embezzlement and sent to prison in December 1939. 

Does any of this sound familiar? It does not take an historian to see parallels to today. I hear echoes of fascism every day in election year rhetoric. I hear rhymes of the 1930’s in the news every morning. Why is this happening? Fromm understood. People are seeking to escape freedom.  

American society is changing rapidly, and that is threatening to people. Change threatens traditional religion, the traditional family, and traditional values. So people take refuge in an imagined, unchanging, and idealistic past, seeking to bring back “the way things used to be.” People see this goal as an exercise of their freedom, but it is actually escape from freedom.  

True freedom is freedom for all. Not just for me and people like me, but for those who are very different from me. Religious freedom is not just for my religion but all religions. Not just for those of my sexual orientation, but all orientations.

It means allowing others to express themselves morally in ways that do not conform to my moral values. It is to refuse to use government power to control others’ behavior, as long as it does not impinge on others’ freedom. True freedom is freedom for all or it is not freedom at all.  

The same is true for spiritual freedom. It is tempting to surrender our freedom to religious authority. To believe only what our religious tradition tells us is safe to believe. To not color outside the lines. To consider our scriptures, our creeds, our leaders, our founders, our church, and our understanding of God to be infallible. There is security in believing we have the one true religion. But there is no freedom in such faith. It is only the illusion of freedom. 

Freedom is a paradox. We love it, and we hate it. We imagine ourselves to be free when we are not. The more we examine our choices, the more we see how limited our freedom really is. Our thoughts, opinions and actions are largely (if not completely) determined by unconscious forces beyond our control. When we realize how unfree we really are, then there is an opportunity to be truly free. 

True freedom requires a spiritual resurrection. We die to self and live to God. We view the world through the eyes of God. We see ourselves as God sees us. We see that only God is truly free, and therefore we are free only in God … or as Christians say, “in Christ.” As Jesus said, “When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”  

When we are spiritually free, then political freedom does not scare us, neither our own freedom nor others’ freedom. We can be free and allow others to be free. To be free is to live authentically as one’s True Self, rather than living in bondage to the psychologically and socially conditioned personality that we mistake for our self. Then we can stop this mindless rush toward political Armageddon and take our rightful place as citizens of the Kingdom of God.