Thursday, July 4, 2024

Trusting Private Ryan

On Independence Day I cannot help but think about our nation’s past and future. We are in the final months of a very contentious and controversial presidential election. Partisan politics rule the day. Misinformation abounds. The choices we have been given by the two major parties are not good. Many people are concerned about the future of our nation.  What is a spiritually-minded person to do in such a situation?  

A month ago, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, actor Tom Hanks was interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour with the Normandy American cemetery as a backdrop. He was chosen because of his famous role in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Hanks was asked about the upcoming presidential election and if he was worried about the United States’ commitment to democracy and freedom. This was his reply: 

“I think there’s always reason to be worried about the short term. But I look at the longer term of what happened.”  He quoted the preamble of the Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,” and then he added, “That journey to a more perfect union has missteps in it.... Over the long term, however, we inevitably make progress towards, I think, that more perfect union.” 

He went on to talk about how this “perfect union” comes about. “It comes about because — not because of somebody’s narrative about who is right and who is a victim or not. It comes out of the slow melding of the truth to the actual practical life that we end up living. It comes down to the good deed that is practiced with your neighbor, with your local merchants. And I will always have faith that the United States of America and the Western societies that have adopted more or less the same sort of democracy, cannot help but turn towards what is right.” 

I agree with Tom Hanks. I do not think the American experiment is over despite what the doomsday prophets predict. I have faith in the American people and the arc of the moral universe. It bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr said. More importantly I look beyond the illusion of time and space to the Eternal One. This is the One I trust, not politicians or parties.  

I will keep informed, and I will vote on election day. I will have honest discussions with people of good faith, but I will not argue with those whose minds are closed. I will not fret too much about who will be sitting behind the Resolute desk during the next four years. Presidents are merely bit players on the stage of history. I trust in the One who rules over the nations and guides history.  

Friday, June 14, 2024

Parable of the Chipmunk

The local chipmuck population has discovered my screened porch. I am sure they knew it was here all along, but now they have discovered a way inside. To be accurate they found a way in and a way out. They have used these entrances and exits to run laps around the porch and occasionally take an excursion into the main part of our house when our living room door is open.  

I was sitting here on my screened porch this morning and saw a chipmunk run OUT of my living room and onto the porch. Not INTO the house, but OUT OF itWho knows how long he has been in the house? Minutes, hours, days? Perhaps he was visiting with the mice in our dining room. 

He ran out of the living room onto the porch and immediately exited through a hole in the screen and outside. So I closed the hole behind him with wood. A few minutes later he – or his identical twin – came through a hole in the opposite side of the porch, squeaked at me, and proceeded to run back outside again. I get the impression he is taunting me, or at least playing games with the big, clumsy human. 

So I closed that second hole using wood and a staple gun. Now I am waiting  with the staple gun in my hand to see if he finds another way in. I am ready this time. So far so good. As soon as I wrote these words another chipmuck (or the same one) got back in somehow and ran around my feet! How are they getting in?  

Now I am watching him to see how he gets out. Found it! But where did he come in? I thought all I had to worry about was insects getting onto the porch, but I obviously have bigger problems. After three amateurish patches, it looks like this is going to need a bigger fixIt is a good thing that my son is a carpenter. Sounds like a good Father’s Day project! 

My chipmunk problems remind me of spiritual problems. We tend to view our lives as closed systems which we try to fix. Financial problems? Money will fix it. Worries trouble our hearts. The solution? Plug the holes with the help of therapists or self-help gurus to keep them out. Distracting thoughts enter our minds during meditation or prayer or when we are trying to sleep? Keep them out with spiritual or mental techniques.  

Big problems like suffering and death? Use all the medical and pharmaceutical resources at our disposal to dispose of them. Supplement these with alternative therapies, all the while employing prayer for supernatural healing. If all else fails, we explain away suffering, disease and death as parts of the divine plan.  

All these strategies are like repairing the holes on my screened porch. The truth is that pesky critters are going to get in somehow eventually. New screens eventually result in new holes. We can repair the holes in our lives all we want, but the truth is that life cannot be permanently fixed. Pain and death happen.  

Human existence is not a problem to be solved. It is a reality to be lived here and now. It is a game to be played, a drama to be acted, a song to be sung, a dance to be danced. Do my chipmunks worry about medical or theological problems? Are they anxious about suffering and death? No, they just play the holy game of “in and out” with the dumb human, who takes it all too seriously. 

Jesus said something along those lines about the birds of the air and the lilies of field. He calls us, “you of little faith” and concludes, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life.... but seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. All the rest will take care of itself.”  Good advice from the Author of life. 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Pondering Propaganda

The most recent issue of The Atlantic is about “The New Propaganda War.” The cover story is entitled ”Democracy is losing the Propaganda War.” All the time I was reading it, I had the unsettling feeling that the article itself was as much propaganda as the examples the author cites. I wonder if any other readers were aware of the irony. In any case, it succeeded in getting me to ponder the ubiquity of propaganda. 

Several years ago I stopped watching television news because it was so sensationalized. Newscasts majored on the minors, while leaving many important stories untold. Now I read the news instead of viewing it. Aware that there is no such thing as perfectly objective and impartial journalism, I diversify my reading material. Just like a good investment portfolio is diversified, so is a good news portfolio.  

All the while I realize that I am not objective in my choices of news sources. I am biased. So are journalists. In recent years many journalists have become media influencers rather than news reporters. “All the News That’s Fit to Print” has became “Any News that Advances the Cause.” Everyone has an agenda. This is true of both right and left, conservative and progressive.  

I still think there is such a thing as objective truth, in the sense that there are historical facts. But "what really happened” is always placed within a narrative framework which spins the facts to advance an agendaWe all have unexamined and unseen agendas, which are hidden even from ourselves. For that reason I seek out views that challenge my beliefs and presuppositions.  

I did the same thing with my Christian religion a decade ago. Religious people are experts at propaganda. All religions do it, but Christians are especially good at it. We call it evangelism or apologetics. Combine the two – politics and religion – and the self-deception is complete. Religious nationalism is the most belligerent bully on the block. 

I spent over two years deconstructing my Christian theism and the worldview that stemmed from it. Religious deconstruction set me free from the theological assumptions and presuppositions I had blindly followed for decades. It set me free to see beyond the intellectual models that we mistake for truth.  

“What is truth?’ That is the question that Pilate rhetorically asked at Jesus’ trial. The Roman prefect did not wait for Jesus to answer. Instead he turned to the crowd and declared Jesus innocent of all charges. That was truth. Yet in the name of expediency he quickly bent to the will of the mob to crucify Christ.  

In the same way truth is crucified on the cross of political and religious agendas in our time. I believe in spiritual truth even more than I believe in historical truth. I know no way to discover truth, except to ask Pilate’s question persistently and ruthlessly until we glimpse unvarnished reality for ourselves. Then we must live the truth by faith. 


Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Empty Chair


It is almost Memorial Day, which means summer is around the corner. Seasonal shops and restaurants (most importantly ice cream stands) are reopening in our part of New Hampshire. Summer residents are trickling back to town. Tourists will be here any day now.  

I finally hauled our wicker furniture out of the shed and arranged it on our screened porch. As I write this I am sitting outside for the first time this season, enjoying the rumblings of a warm thunderstorm and listening to the birds.  

God speaks so clearly in the summer. I am always aware of Divine Presence, but summer is especially revelatory. In summer the Kingdom of God is amplified through the medium of the natural world. These days it takes very little to overwhelm me with the palpable presence of the Divine.  

At such times I marvel how so many people can miss the Presence of God - even religious and spiritual people. People search for an experience of God. They pray faithfully and meditate for hours. They study scripture and do all sorts of spiritual exercises, hoping to catch a glimpse of Glory. They read spiritual books and go on retreats. Meanwhile I could not escape God’s Presence if I wanted to. And why would I want to? 

Years ago a man told me that during his daily devotions he placed an empty chair before him and imagined Jesus sitting in that chair. He said it helped his prayer life to picture Jesus sitting across from him. I do not need to imagine ChristI see Christ. Nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 

The apostle wrote, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” I know what he is talking about. There is no longer a “me.” There is only Christ, the All in All. The Eternal Logos dwells in this earthly tabernacle we call the body. God shines through every inch of the natural world. Christ is in every saint and sinner, in every Christian and atheist, in every Jew and Muslim, every Republican and Democrat that I meet. No one is outside God.  

Nothing that happens in life is outside the work of God. Every event bears divine fingerprints. Scripture says, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That is why the political rhetoric of this election year does not frighten me.  

Both political parties are warning of a dystopian apocalypse if the opposing presidential candidate wins the election. It is certainly true that bad things may be on the horizon for our country. Yet it is still true that all things work together for good for those with eyes to see.  God works even through the plans of the enemy.  

Every face bears the image of God. Jesus peers through every set of eyes. In every chair Christ sits. We can use techniques like an empty chair to imagine Christ, but that the chair is not so empty after all. In the empty places is the fullness of Divine Presence. As Scripture says, “Christ is all, and is in all.”