Thursday, June 30, 2022

Blessing Enemies

One of the consequences of being a pastor is that I am a public figure while in active ministry – which is both good and bad. Those who like what they hear will let me know, and the same with those who do not like what I say. I am finding this to be as true in retirement as it was during my forty years of fulltime pastoral ministry.

Of course I could have chosen to keep my mouth shut in retirement. That would have been the easy way to go. I know retired clergy who do that. My father-in-law was a Baptist preacher, who never entered a pulpit again after age 65. But upon my “retirement” I simply moved from a physical pulpit to a virtual one. I took to the internet. In retirement I am connecting with more people than I did when I was a local church minister. Now I reach thousands with my podcast, YouTube channel, blog and books.

People regularly contact me to respond to what I say or write. I receive emails daily from around the world from people who have heard me online or read one of my books. The overwhelming majority of the responses I receive are positive. But there are always the ones who consider me dangerous and let me know it, often using emotionally charged language. Some see me as a threat to the evangelical gospel that I once espoused.

Some of these angry people I know personally. Most of them are strangers, who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to launch their attacks. In both cases these people feel threatened by what I am saying. They see me as the enemy. They try to discourage me from speaking through psychological intimidation. They accuse me of theological and spiritual sins, and they threaten me with divine judgment. To be honest, it hurts.

So I have sought the Comforter and the advice of Jesus as to how to respond. Jesus had a lot of enemies and had a lot to say on the topic – especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking from personal experience he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One saying of Jesus has been particularly helpful: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” His instruction to “bless those who curse you” stood out. My first instinct is to defend myself. It is our animal instinct. It is also the American way! We consider self-defense to be our constitutional right, including both free speech and the right to respond to violence with violence.

Jesus teaches an alternative way. He instructs his followers NOT to defend themselves verbally or physically. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

I am a slow learner, but I am slowly learning not to defend myself. When someone verbally attacks me, I now know enough not to respond in kind. Any immediate response is likely to come from the ego. It is best to give the ego time to calm down.  Let the Silence speak. Let the Spirit take control. 

Now when I am attacked I offer a prayer of blessing upon my attackers – silently or verbally. I rejoice in the opportunity to obey my Lord’s teaching in such circumstances. It is such a relief not to have to justify myself. The ego should not be defended, and Christ does not need me to defend him. Jesus did not defend himself when he was accused of blasphemy and treason. As his disciple indwelt by his Spirit, I am inspired to do the same.

It is a relief not accommodate the ego by fashioning a well-worded defense. Now I can remain silent – just as Jesus did when he was on trial. If I speak I can simply say “Bless you” or “God bless you” and leave it at that. There is no need to justify myself. All I have to do is love my enemies, bless those who curse me, and do good to those who wish me ill.

The miraculous thing about blessing enemies is that the blessings I give return a hundredfold. To bless those who see me as their enemy is to be blessed by God! “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” How wonderful to be able to sincerely bless others, rather than to return anger with anger! How liberating it is to forgive – for it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, as Jesus taught.

Anger is a poison that harms the soul of the one who is angry more than it hurts the one the anger is directed against. Unresolved anger can easily turn into hate. Anger is increasingly used in political discourse these days. Our nation’s public forum is a cauldron of anger and fear. Anger is infectious. It replicates itself within us like a virus. It has produced a pandemic of anger in our country worse than any coronavirus. The way of Christ stops this cycle of emotional, verbal and physical violence by overcoming hatred with love.

I have recently finished reading a biography of Peace Pilgrim, who was one of the most Christ-like figures of the twentieth century. I first heard about her in the 1980’s, and it was a joy to rediscover her. Her message is timeless, as all genuine spiritual teachings are. She summed up her teaching in these words: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” My experience with my online detractors is a testimony to the truth of her words. God bless you.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Unburnt Bush

I turned aside and eternity called my name.

“Here I am,” I said. “Who are you? Who am I?”

 “I am that I am,” said the Lord.

I am the Emptiness in which all things appear.

I am the Silence in which all sounds arise.

I am the Eternity from which time is born.

I am the Infinity in which all space resides.

I am the Awareness within which all consciousness occurs.

I am the Being that holds all creation.

I am the Love that connects all creatures.

I am the Compassion that ends all suffering.

I am the Truth to which all religions point.

I am the Life that conquers death.

I am the Way which is the beginning and the end.

I AM.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

People Kill People

You have heard the meme: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Like all marketing slogans, this one is designed to obscure the facts. It takes both people and guns to kill people. The facts concerning mass shooters reveal that young men with guns kill people. Take away the guns and you just have angry young men. Take away semi-automatic weapons, and the death toll drops dramatically.

Recently a variation has become popular: “Guns aren’t the problem. Mental illness is the problem.” Even if the Uvalde shooter was mentally ill, how many children would he have killed if he did not have an assault rifle? Without a gun all you have is a disturbed young man. Furthermore, blaming the mentally ill for gun violence just adds another layer of stigma to mental illness. It makes it even less likely that those with mental illness will seek the help they need.

These slogans come straight from the gun lobby’s playbook. Those who repeat such things are being led to the slaughter by those whose only motive is to sell more guns. To identify the problem of gun violence all you have to do is follow the money. Who makes money off the corpses of school children? Gun manufacturers, of course!

They turn every act of gun violence into a reason to buy more guns. They tell people they need more guns to protect themselves from bad guys with guns and from a government that wants to restrict guns. “Buy them while you still can!” The gun lobby uses fear to manipulate people. They turn patriotism into a gimmick to sell guns. No one notices the irony of using the second amendment, which speaks of the necessity of a “well regulated militia,” for a crusade to oppose regulation.

But as much as I can see through the duplicity of the slogans, I have to admit that ultimately it is true that people are responsible. With or without sophisticated weaponry people will kill people. Not as efficiently perhaps, but they will still kill. The source of violence is humans.

Presently I am researching an upcoming podcast episode on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. The Book of Genesis tells the story of the first murder. No firearms in sight, but Cain managed to use a primitive weapon – likely a farming tool - to spill his brother’s blood. People kill people. They always have.

The only permanent solution to violence is if people choose nonviolence. Government restrictions on weapons may decrease the death toll, but the problem of violence is deeper than anything that can be solved by legislation alone. Violence is ultimately a spiritual problem.

That is what Jesus taught. He said that the cause of murder is anger in the human heart. Jesus’ brother James said that external violence come from inner violence and greed. For that reason Jesus advocated a spiritual discipline of nonviolence, telling his followers to turn the other cheek and refuse to return evil for evil.

Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and nonresistance is for individuals. It cannot be translated into national or international policy. Any nation that follows the Way of Jesus will undoubtedly be crucified, just as Jesus was crucified. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation.” The term is an oxymoron. At his trial for treason Jesus made it clear that he had no interest in earthly government. He said, “If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight…. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

The earliest Christian movement was an intentional community that practiced unconditional love for all, even enemies. Jesus understood the Kingdom of God as an alternative to political and military kingdoms. Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. The Church is to be a light to the nations, not a nation among nations.

Jesus’ solution to human sin – including gun violence – was a radical one. Jesus told his followers to put away their weapons, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He instructed his followers NOT to defend themselves … or him. Once again it is ironic that so many Christians find a reason to ignore Christ’s clear teachings on this subject.

Jesus was not a conservative. He was not a liberal. He was not a zealot, who were the patriots of his day. Jesus was a radical spiritual reformer. He was more like Buddha than Muhammad. Jesus’ vision for the Church is more like the Sangha than the Caliphate. It was a spiritual movement, not a political party. Jesus set up an alternative community that lived by a different standard than the state or political ideologies.

Jesus knew that the only real solution to the problems of suffering, evil, and violence in society was to live by the standards of the Kingdom of God now. That is what his Sermon on the Mount was all about. It is a Declaration of Independence from the cycle of human violence. It is the Constitution of the Kingdom of God.

The way to stop gun violence is to address the root of violence in the human heart, the anger and hate that is so clearly displayed in the nastiness of political rhetoric today. Peace begins by addressing the violence in our own hearts – not others’ hearts. Our heart is the only one we can change, and even that changes only by the grace of God.

As Jesus said, some evil cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. Gun violence is a spiritual issue more than a political one. When our words and actions begin to flow from a reservoir of inner peace rather than political strife, only then will there be peace on earth. Only then will people not kill people. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Shall the Fundamentalists Win ... Again?

This month marks the centennial of a landmark sermon in American Protestantism. On May 21, 1922, Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered a famous sermon from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" You can read the text here.

It was a decisive moment in the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy of the time. This sermon cost him his position at the church, but it established his reputation as a champion of what he called “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.”

In the sermon he addresses both the doctrines and the attitudes of fundamentalists. He is more concerned with how the fundamentalists behave than what they believe. He says:

Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen. As one watches them and listens to them he remembers the remark of General Armstrong of Hampton Institute, “Cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy.” There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If that is true, then then the 2020’s are rhyming with the 1920’s. American religion seems to be fighting the same battles it fought one hundred years ago. Furthermore they are the same battles as when I was in seminary in the 1970’s.

In one sense nothing has changed in the last one hundred years. There are still fundamentalist and modernist Christians, although now they are known as evangelicals and progressives. There is still a struggle for control of denominational structures, institutions, seminaries and churches. In one way the fundamentalist spirit is more powerful than ever. Today it has joined forces with politics to take over the government as well as the churches.

In another sense much has changed. We live in a post-denominational landscape where nondenominational megachurches are the big players. There is a growing vocal opposition to religion of any type. Atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. Churches of all types – including evangelical churches – are losing members at an alarming rate. The fury of fundamentalism today sounds more like a death rattle than the rumble of an advancing army.

Yet human nature has not changed. Fosdick ended his message with these words:

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

“Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity! I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist. Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.”

The irony is that, unknown to him, there was intolerance in his church. Fundamentalists succeeded in driving Fosdick out of his positon as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. John D. Rockefeller Jr. came to his rescue and built him the Riverside Church, where he could preach freely without fear of retaliation.  His ministry eventually earned him the cover of Time magazine.

If there is any lesson to be learned from Fosdick’s historic sermon it is that intolerance is a persistent flaw of human nature. Furthermore religion is a permanent part of human culture. Our species is Homo religiosus – incurably religious.  Unfortunately religion often serves the purpose of tribalism, sexism, racism, nationalism and countless other –isms.

The good news is that we are also Homo mysticus. There is a part of us that sees beyond the sectarian madness. This inner intuition cannot be extinguished. It glimpses our essential union with the Divine and all humans. It is only imperfectly expressed by progressive preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick. It finds full expression in the mystics of Christianity and all faiths. It is the antithesis of fundamentalism.

This means the fundamentalists shall not ultimately win. They may dominate nations or cultures for a season, but ultimately fundamentalism is a lost cause. If we survive as a species, someday spiritual inclusiveness, tolerance and love will reign. I see it already beginning, like spring shoots poking through winter’s dead leaves. 

Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom will become a reality. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. May that Kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Keeping Cool in Florida

After arriving in Florida for an extended vacation this spring, the air conditioning in our 2014 Dodge minivan gave out. That would not have been a serious problem in New Hampshire, but in the Sunshine State AC is a necessity. We could not envision a month in Florida and a three day drive home without air. So we took it to a nearby auto repair shop. Their website said they had been in business for over 30 years and that they serviced AC. Plus they would pick me up and drop me back off at our rented condo while they serviced the vehicle. Great!

So began a saga that lasted for four weeks. At first all seemed fine. They replaced the condenser for $1200, which was more than we expected, but at least it was done (so we thought). Two and a half weeks later the AC failed again. This time they told us it was the rear condenser and line. The dealer did not have a necessary part so they were going to get one custom made. Another $800 in all. That was $2000 we were not expecting to put on our credit card this trip. We foolishly thought we were saving money by driving instead of flying this year!

The cost was not the worst part. We brought the repaired vehicle back to our rented condo, and the next morning it was blowing warm air again. Long story short, for eight more days I went to the shop daily. Bringing in the vehicle, getting it checked, getting a ride back to the condo, getting a ride back to the shop again and again. Day after day, something went wrong.

They said the newly installed rear condenser was defective, but not to worry; it was under warranty. It would not cost us anything. More delays. Then the custom-made part was not working. More delays. Four weeks after we had originally brought the vehicle to get fixed, we finally have our car back. The air conditioning is working for the moment, but I would not place any bets on its longevity.

I tell this story because of the emotional rollercoaster it caused within me and how I handled it. On the outside I was polite – assertive, but not aggressive. Honest with the repair shop about my frustration, but not accusatory. On the inside I went through a full range of emotions, from initial satisfaction to anger to disgust. I imagined heated arguments with the manager which never materialized. I thought about getting the credit card company involved or calling an attorney. In my mind I planned a scathingly accurate review that I would post on Yelp.

Then during prayer I saw what I was doing and cooled down. I began to think of this situation as a spiritual exercise – a gift from God. The whole process was a wonderful opportunity to exercise mindfulness and practice patience. I watched my emotions as they did somersaults. I observed my ego defend itself and justify itself. I watched my self play both the victim and the avenger. What a masterful performance!

All this time I also saw that this was just a show in my mind, like a drama I would watch on television. I was creating roles, playing roles, and casting others in roles. I was the producer, director, and playwright of my own story. I was writing the roles of villains, hucksters, incompetent mechanics, and wronged customer who is victorious in the end.

Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage and we are players. But we are more than that. We are the whole process. We are also the audience, the theater, all the actors and stage hands, the stage, and the theater. We are the play. 

These things are happening within us. We invent them. We include and transcend them all. It is okay to play our part in this human drama wholeheartedly. It is fine to exercise emotions. We could not stop them if we tried! But we need to remember that this is only a role we play and not our identity.

We are the One behind the process. We are the One who is seeing the whole process unfold. This seeing fills me with joy in the midst of the frustration. It cools me off like AC never could. I can enjoy the divine drama without getting attached to it! I see again – as I have seen countless times before – that divine joy and love and peace trump all the emotions displayed within the play.

Furthermore it all works together for Good, as the apostle Paul observed. This divine “Good” has nothing to do with the relative “good” and “bad” aspects of life. Those sparring roles are just part of the script. The greater Good includes all good and bad. This Good Life is God’s drama. Sit back, keep cool, and enjoy the show!   

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Importance of Music

I love worship. It is the highlight of my week. While we have been in Florida I have not been able to attend in-person worship as I normally do. For one thing they do not take COVID seriously here in the Sunshine State, and churches are packed like discount airlines. Secondly, Floridians wear too much cologne and perfume. I can hardly breathe amidst the haze in these churches. So we have been doing online worship.

Last Sunday there was an outdoor Easter Sunrise service at seven o’clock on the beach, so we went. Two evangelical churches got together and held a large Easter worship service. At least it was large by my standards. I estimate there were at least five hundred people sitting on beach chairs or beach towels.

There was a worship band with guitars, drums, amps, and a half-dozen vocalists. They even brought huge television screens so people could sing along. If you preferred you could get the words displayed on your cellphone. The musicians were talented and enthusiastic, but the music was bland. Each song was indistinguishable from the previous one. Too much noise. Too much whining. I find that true of most contemporary worship music.

Most disappointing was the fact that the lyrics said nothing about the resurrection of Jesus. The closest they came was a reference to the “living Lord.” I can only conclude that the band did not know any Easter music. They played what they knew, which was mostly about salvation and feelings about salvation. Few on the beach sang these songs because they did not know the songs. You would think that if a church was designing a worship service for the public that they would pick well-known Easter songs.

For the first half of the service I pined for traditional Easter hymns. Once the half-hearted sing-along ended the service got better. A resurrection scripture from John’s gospel was read and a good sermon on “doubting Thomas” was delivered, relating Thomas’ experience to doubt in our lives.  Then there was communion. The Lord's Supper is bit unusual for evangelical churches on Easter, but I assumed they had skipped Maundy Thursday.

The service ended with a rendition of a hymn everyone knew: Amazing Grace. It is not an Easter song, but at least the congregation knew it. Then there was the obligatory evangelistic altar call by the pastor, followed by an invitation for ocean baptism for anyone who had been converted on the spot. We skipped the baptisms, as did 99% of the congregation.

After the hour-long service I went back to our apartment feeling like I needed something more. I felt like I had gone to dinner but been served only appetizers. I immediately got online and joined a live worship service where I could sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and other Easter classics. By the time Easter Sunday ended I had enjoyed two online services in our churches in New Hampshire (one live and one recorded at sunrise) and read an online sermon given that morning in a friend’s church in North Carolina. I was filled with the Easter Spirit! He is risen indeed!

My Easter experience got me thinking about the important role of music in worship. Everyone has their own musical tastes. You can't please everyone. I understand that. I do not enjoy most contemporary Christian worship music, but I know that others find it inspiring. Yet someone should write some contemporary worship songs about the resurrection of Jesus. If someone has already written such songs, then church bands need to sing them often enough to have a couple to play on Easter Sunday.

Worship music is important. It is the soul of worship. It communicates the Spirit more directly than words alone. It does not have to be professional, although the more talented the musician, the better. But it needs to be sincere. How it is sung is as important as how well it is sung. I go to worship for three things: music that lifts my heart to worship God, an inspired word from Scripture, and spiritual community. This is the holy trinity of worship for me. I received all three this Easter, but not all at the same time. It took four churches to satisfy my soul this Easter.  

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Missing Easter Stories

On this Holy Saturday I am pondering a strange and little-known Easter story, nestled within Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. It says that when Jesus died, “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:52–53) In other words lots of people were raised from the dead on Easter, not just Jesus!

That is a story you likely won’t hear this Easter Sunday! Instead Christians will hear the familiar favorites. They will hear the tale of Mary Magdalene at the garden tomb, the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, and the eleven disciples in the upper room. They will hear about women coming to an empty tomb, the stone being rolled away, and angels descending and declaring that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Other stories, like the one quoted above, church-goers will not hear. They also will not hear the story of when the risen Lord appeared to his brother James. They will not hear the account of when the resurrected Christ appeared to 500 disciples at the same time. These are listed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, but they are missing from the gospels.

Those events are mentioned only in passing by Paul, and their full stories are never told. Why? A resurrection appearance to 500 people at once seems important enough be included in a gospel, but no gospel writer mentions it. An appearance to a member of Jesus’ family who would become the head of the Jerusalem church also seems worthy of a few verses, but the gospel writers are silent about it.

Isn’t it important to know that other people besides Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday? What were their names? What happened to them? What stories did they tell of their death and resurrections? Their first-hand accounts would put modern Near Death Experiences to shame! 

Furthermore why don’t other ancient historical documents record such a dramatic event? The resurrection of “many” people (dozens? hundreds?) in Jerusalem would seem to merit at least a footnote by Josephus.

Why aren’t these other resurrection stories told? One possible answer is that the gospel writers did not know about these other resurrection stories. If they knew about them, then they made an editorial decision to exclude them. They either omitted them because they did not believe the stories to be true, or they omitted them for theological and ecclesiastical reasons. I go with this latter reason.

These stories are not told by the gospel writers for the same reason they are not told from pulpits today. Something about those stories did not fit conventional Christian theology. The mere existence of untold Easter stories means that the compilation of the New Testament is more complex than most Christians know. It makes you wonder what else was intentionally omitted.

What other gospels were refused entrance into the New Testament and why? These censored gospels and letters reveal that early Christianity was much more diverse than the proto-orthodox version that made it past the canonical watchdogs. These missing Easter stories seem to indicate that Resurrection Sunday was much richer than the canonical gospels suggest!

The best part of this fuller vision of Easter is that it includes us. Like the apostle Paul, we have our own Easter stories to tell. Easter is not just for the original apostles of long ago. 

That is why I have always liked the original ending of Mark’s gospel, which is the earliest of the four canonical gospels. It contains no resurrection appearances. It is open-ended. It concludes with the message of an angel saying that if we go forth, “you will see him, as he told you.” 

Like the apostle Paul, we may have been “untimely born,” but we are not too late. The Easter story is our story. It is now. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!