Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Ribbon of Light

Every day I turn on my laptop and am greeted with the desktop wallpaper. It depicts an evening scene on a beach. It is an example of what is called long exposure photography. The shutter was left open for several seconds while someone moved a light source to form a pattern. This photo looks like a red and white ribbon of light hanging in the air. 

I used to take pictures like this back when I was a photographer for my high school newspaper and yearbook. Usually the subject was just a friend writing a word with a flashlight. Often in such photos there is a blur of the person visible in the background, almost like a ghost. But if you do it correctly, the person is completely invisible. The pattern of light appears to be suspended in thin air.  

I have been pondering this image recently. One might even say I have been meditating upon it. Several biblical verses have come to mind. One is Jesus’ teaching that that we are the light of the world. The other is his brother James’ words, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” The Teacher of Ecclesiastes made a similar observation, “Life is fleeting, like a passing mist.”  

The photo communicates to me the fleeting nature of human existence. The spiritual teaching is known as impermanence. Our lives are brief appearances in the fabric of spacetime. A shooting star. One could even say we are nothing at all. All we leave behind is a brief streak of light that is gone before a person blinks. 

I recall a scene in the old movie The Time Machine, based on H. G. Wells’ famous novel. The main character is operating his time machine in his workshop, watching the history of the world whiz by. At first he sees people come and go quickly. As he speeds it up, people become a blur and then invisible. He can see only buildings arise and fall. Then he watches as civilizations rise and fallGeological eras pass.  

Speeding through time gives us an eternal viewpoint on our lives and the human race as a whole. It puts things in perspective. It is easy to get bent out of shape by what happens during our lives. Elections seem so important at the moment. We paint political choices in apocalyptic terms. If the other side wins it will be the end of our nation as we know it! Possibly the end of our world! 

Such eschatological language fails to remember that this has always been the case. Jesus spoke in apocalyptic terms about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse of John, saw the end of the world coming with the fall of the Roman Empire. Yet Rome fell, and the world continues. 

The universe will survive with either Biden or Trump in the White House for four more years. The world will survive with or without the United States. The earth will survive fine without the human race. It prospered without our species for millions of years, and it will undoubtedly do better without us. Humans are nothing more than a blip in the history of the planet. 

Our individual lives are even more ephemeral. Just a brief ribbon of light shining in the darkness. Our faces and names are forgotten quickly. It will be as if we never were. We are a momentary eddy in the river of time, a dust devil that takes form for a moment and dissipates. We are dust and to dust we shall return. That is what the preacher said on Ash Wednesday.  

We are nothing. Yet we are. We know intuitively that we are more than these passing forms. Jesus knew this. He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” We are that which does not arise and fall in time. When we see we are nothing, we also see we are everything. The balance of these two is the fullness of truth.  

Nisargadatta, the sage of Mumbai, said, “Wisdom says I am nothing. Love says I am everything. Between the two my life flows.” Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.... Let your light so shine that others might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are a ribbon of light shining for a moment in the twilight. Yet by that light people may glimpse the Kingdom of Heaven.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Lenten Love

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which also happens to be Valentine’s Day this year. The coincidence of these two holidays naturally leads me to ponder the relationship between Lent and Love.

This year is special to me because my wife, Jude, and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary last month. We did not go overboard in the celebration. No big party or gifts. We simply shared a meal with our sons and their families at a local restaurant. Our daughter really wanted to celebrate with us, but it was too far to travel from western Pennsylvania for a meal.  

It may not have been a big party, but it was a big deal for Jude and me. We have been married for twice as long as we were unmarried. I call her “my love.” That is how I address all my cards to her. I always have. She is the love of my life. It was not love at first sight, but it was love at first dance.  

Our first date in college was at an all-night dance marathon. It has been love ever since, in spite of the fact that I am not a great dancer. I even took dancing lessons as an adolescent. My father was a wonderful dancer, and my mother wanted me to follow in his footsteps... literally. It didn’t work.  

Unlike the Gerswhins, who wrote their famous song nearly a century ago, I ain't got rhythm. (Neither has Jude, but don’t tell her I said that!) We took ballroom dancing lessons back in the last century to address our dance impairment. I remember practicing in the basement of the church, but it did not help either of us much. As a couple we still have four left feet.  

I have been blessed to share this earthly life with the most wonderful, loving, kind-hearted, beautiful, spiritually-minded, woman imaginable. I do not know why I am so blessed. She has been my rock. Together we have built our home upon the Rock of Ages.  

If I had to credit our lasting love for each other, I would credit it to our partnership in faith. The spiritual life has been a priority for both of us. At our wedding the song “We are One in the Spirit” was sung, as well as Dylan’s “If Not for You.” Those two songs sum up our lives. We got married on the evening of the twelfth day of Christmas, and the Spirit of Christ has stayed with us.  

We have both changed during the last fifty years, yet we have grown together and not apart because we have shared our love for God. That doesn’t mean we agree on everything, but we support each other in everything.

We have different styles of spirituality. I tend to be more academic, contemplative and mystical. She is more prayerful, interpersonal and devotional. Yet both of us fill our days – especially our mornings – with spiritual activities. My wife is naturally more affectionate, but a bit of that has rubbed off on me over the decades.  

Human love finds its Source in Divine Love. The apostle famously wrote, “God is love.” The rest of the verse says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Love is the heart of the Christian gospel. Any person or church that does not love all people, does not know God, regardless of how much they use the words Christian or Christ.  

Spiritual love is true religion. Love for spouse, family and others flows from that love. That is what keeps us sane in a world and a society that seems to be erupting in hate. Lent is a time to remember this love.

The ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us that love is stronger than death. We are mortal, but Love is immortal. We are dust and ashes, but love rises from the ashes. To lose ourselves in Divine Love is to gain eternal life. That the link between Love and Lent. (Happy Valentine’s Day, my love!) 

(Artwork depicts the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day, Feb, 14, 2018, CNS illustration/Elizabeth Butterfield, Diocese of Erie) 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Gluten Free Worship

Three weeks
ago I started a gluten-free diet. I had been having digestive issues for six months and nothing seemed to resolve the problems. So I decided to try an alternative diet for a while and see if it helps. So far so good. I read that six weeks is a good trial period for this diet. So I am halfway there. Then I will decide whether to make it permanent.

Yesterday was the first time I came to the Lord’s Table gluten free. Our church has had a gluten free option for communion for a long time, including during the time I served as the pastor here years ago. But I had never partaken of the gluten free wafers. Last Sunday I did.  

It made communion feel different. First of all, I saw two different type of “bread” on the plate. One was made of wheat and one of rice. It immediately said “duality” to me rather than unity. I had always approached communion as a symbolic meal proclaiming union with God. That is the literal meaning of the word communion – union with. That is the symbolism of the one cup and one loaf.  How do two breads communicate oneness? 

Then I thought again. The intent of offering the gluten free “bread” is inclusion.  People who previously were unable to partake of both elements were now included in the symbolic meal. I was being included. The two breads were communicating openness and oneness. Two is one. Gluten free communion is another form of “open communion.” 

This message was reinforced by something that happened at the very beginning of the Lord’s Supper. The small children in the congregation were invited by the pastor to come forward and partake of the elements first.  As the adults waited in the pews, five small children – all under the age of six - came forward to partake of communion. This was different for me, and it got me thinking. 

I come from a tradition where communion is taken only by “believers.” And it happens only after believers baptism, which occurs only after “the age of accountability,” which is considered to be the age when a person is mature enough to make a spiritual decision. Even then we Christians find all sorts of other reasons to prevent people from taking communion: theology, denominational affiliation, church membership, morality, sexuality, politics.... We are very good at finding ways to exclude people! 

Yet God is always available to all. So why make our rituals more exclusive than God? When Jesus’ disciples prevented children from seeing him, Jesus insisted that they come to the front of the line. “Let the little children come to me and forbid them not, for of such are the Kingdom of God.” In worship last Sunday these little children represented a more open attitude to the Lord’s Supper.  As the prophet said, “And a little child shall lead them....”  

Jesus said that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. He said that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us and all around us. Our religious rituals should reflect that reality rather than obfuscate it. So should our theology. This old preacher learned a couple of things about openness last Sunday. Old symbols yielded new meaning. Whenever that happens, I count it to be a good Sunday.  

Monday, January 29, 2024

Why Conservative Churches are Declining

Two news stories came to my attention this past week. One is the precipitous decline of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention. As an alumnus of the SBC’s flagship seminary, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I keep an eye on what is happening in this denomination. 

Baptisms (which are Southern Baptists’ statistic of choice to assess how they are doing) are less than half what they were at the turn of the century. This happened during the same time that theological conservatives grew in power and influence in the SBC. Likewise membership has been decreasing. In the most recent statistical year (2022) the SBC had the largest numerical drop in membership in a century, with nearly half a million members leaving. They have lost three million members since 2006. That is twice as many as the total membership in my denomination!  

The second religion story in the news is that the so-called “nones” are now the largest "religious” group in the US. “Nones” are those who check “none” when asked their religion. They are the religiously unaffiliated, comprised of atheists, agnostics and those who say their religion is "nothing in particular." In 2007, nones made up 16% of Americans. Now they are 28%. In comparison, Catholics are 23% and evangelical Protestants 24% of the US population. 

The trend is obvious. Conservative Christians are decreasing rapidly, and nonreligious people are increasing. Conservative churches are heading in the same direction as mainline churches, which have been declining for far longer. Progressive Christian groups are still declining, but not in such huge numbers. For example, the American Baptist Churches, which is a moderate Baptist group, has been pretty steady over the decades, declining slightly. Other mainline Protestants are likewise declining – some more than others.  

Yet the most liberal denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association is bucking the trend somewhat, being about the same as they were fifty years ago. I read a story in the local newspaper the other day about an American Baptist church in a nearby town that was growing. It is one of the most progressive churches in the area. It may be too much to say that liberal churches are growing, but at the moment they are not doing as badly as conservatives.  

Back in 1972 there was a famous book entitled, “Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion” by Dean M. Kelley. He made the case that people were looking for a clearly defined set of beliefs and values. Those churches that were most demanding of their members were growing. For years conservative churches sang that tune.  

Now the hymnal page has turned, and they are singing a different tune. Now conservative churches are declining as rapidly or more than progressive churches. Conservatives used to look down their noses at liberal churches for their decline, laying the blame on their theology and ethics. Now they are reluctant to apply the same standard to themselves.  

The decline in the influence of Christians in American society is why – in part – evangelicals are crowding onto the Christian Nationalism bandwagon. They are hoping that political power can turn things around where their evangelistic efforts have not been able to do so. Of course the politicizing of the gospel is having the opposite effect, alienating more and more people – especially the young. It does not look good for Christian religion in America – liberal or conservative. 

Yet as I look at the present situation, do not lament the trend. I see God at work in the hearts and minds of people who are leaving the church. People are looking more closely at what they believe ... and don’t believe. They are deconstructing the faith they were raised in (if they were raised in a religious tradition). Upon careful examination, many are deciding that their religious tradition is not true. 

So church decline has little to do with liberal or conservative. It has everything to do with people looking for meaning and purpose, beauty and truth, community and meaningful relationships in life. People are not finding those in churches, so they are looking elsewhere. They are looking to other religious traditions and humanistic philosophies. They are exploring other spiritual practices and beliefs.  

That is a good thing for the church in my opinion. The church is being purified. It is being winnowed of the chaff. John the Baptist proclaimed this message, and I see this divine action happening again today. The church is being forced to examine itself. Hopefully this will result in repentance.  The Christian church has become so attached to its organizational identity, cultural institutions, religious tradition, rituals and riches that it has lost the Pearl of Great Price. That is why people are leaving the church.  

Will the church survive? Almost certainly. God is not finished with it. Yet I foresee the church surviving in a form that we would not recognize today. It will be transformed in ways that we cannot imagine. If it is to survive, it will repent of its theological narrow-mindedness and realize what it has a lot in common with adherents of other religions. It will downplay dogma and recover the spiritual reality at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Some call this the perennial wisdom. If the church has a future, this is it.