Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Evergreen Cross

As soon as we arrived in Sandwich, New Hampshire, for the holidays we started decorating the house … even before we unpacked our bags. The borrowed 3-foot Christmas tree, which we brought with us from Pennsylvania, went up in minutes.

I located the window candles in a box in the garage and placed them on the windowsills. My wife, Jude, set up the olive wood nativity set, which we had purchased years ago from a carpenter’s shop on Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem.

While we were in the midst of festive festooning, some friends came by with a gift – a beautiful evergreen wreath to place on the front door. I have been meditating on this wreath ever since.

It is not your typical circle of green; it is even better. Don’t get me wrong; I love traditional wreaths. The symbolism of the endless evergreen circle is a powerful statement of everlasting life. It was a symbol connected with the winter solstice in northern Europe long before the gospel came to that cold climate. It adapted well into Christianity.

But the wreath that now hangs on our door is in the shape of a cross. I must have seen such cruciform wreaths before, but I can’t recall when. I know I have never owned one.

A Christmas cross wreath is a powerful symbol. It combines the life symbolism of the evergreen with the death symbolism of the cross. Christ was born to die. We all are. As soon as we are born, we begin dying. That is the nature of life. All that is born must die.

There is a painting by an anonymous artist that depicts Jesus as a toddler crawling on the floor of his father’s carpenter’s shop. The child is playing with one of three large spikes as his body casts an image of a cross on the workshop floor. It is entitled “Destiny.”

Death was the destiny of the Bethlehem babe. So is life – eternal life. Death is our destiny … and so is life. The evergreen cross brings these disparate realities together in one image. 

In Jesus the unborn is born. The immortal becomes mortal; the ageless ages. The all-knowing one “grows in wisdom and stature.” The impassive suffers, and the deathless dies. And death is swallowed up by life. 

That is the message that hangs on my front door for all to see this holiday.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Apocalyptic Advent

I have attended two churches during this Advent season. One was in Florida while visiting my in-laws in the Orlando area; the other was back home in Pennsylvania. In both locations the pastors were preaching a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation. Did I miss the memo? Is this the year when pastors are supposed to preach apocalyptic advent messages?

My hometown Presbyterian pastor was doing a series entitled “An Apocalyptic Advent.” on the symbolic account of Christ’s birth in the twelfth chapter of Revelation. It was an intriguing trilogy of sermons and thematically appropriate for the season.

The Southern Baptist pastor’s series in Florida was not so appropriate.  The Sunday I heard him, he was preaching on the end-times tribulation. Thankfully I missed the previous sermon on the pre-tribulation rapture. But I had the misfortune of singing Christmas carols and then hearing a sermon on the hatefulness of God.

I hesitate even to get into it … okay I will. He talked about God (or was it Satan? It was hard to tell the difference in his sermon) putting AIDS in the water supply (Yep, he actually said that HIV can be transmitted through drinking water!) and the MRSA bacteria in the air. (Yep!) He said that both were designed by God as horrible deaths to punish evildoers for their sin. A nice Christmas sentiment. Ho, ho, ho.

I was almost ready to walk out when he started to identify the mark of the Beast. I had to stay for that. Most pastors aren’t so audacious as to claim such inside knowledge.

Accompanied by digital images projected on the overhead screen, he demonstrated how the Hebrew letter waw was the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Waw is equivalent to the English W, therefore 666=WWW, the World Wide Web. Yep! The internet is evil. I was waiting for him to identify Mark Zuckerberg as the Antichrist!

I almost crunched up my bulletin and threw it at the preacher. I thought of rolling it into a tube to use it as a megaphone to boo this ridiculous exegesis. My wife, who had been eying my increasing restlessness throughout the sermon, gave me the eyeball and I relented.

Anyway, this has got me thinking about the relationship of Advent to apocalypse. Advent is a wonderful time to contemplate apocalyptic images. During Advent, the malls, homes and churches are filled with symbols and colors. Like in Revelation, the colors and symbols have spiritual meaning.

Furthermore, Advent comes at both the beginning and the end of the year. December is the end of the secular calendar year and the beginning of the Christian calendar. The annual celebration of Christ’s first coming reminds us that time is growing short for his second coming.

As the apostle wrote: “Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” He is coming soon. Come, Lord Jesus! Merry Maranatha!
Art is "The Crowned Virgin: A Vision of John" (Revelation 12:1-3), from the Bamberg Apocalypse, an 11th century richly illuminated manuscript.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Five Minutes With God

Last week I finished reading Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith. In the epilogue he records a conversation he had with his hometown rabbi.

He was talking about heaven and suddenly, for some reason, I had a notion. What if you only get five minutes with God? “Five minutes?” he said. Five minutes, I said. God is a busy God. Here’s your slice of heaven. Five minutes alone with the Lord and then, poof, on you go to whatever happens next. “And in those five minutes?” he asked, intrigued. In those five minutes, you can ask anything you want.

You will have to read the book for yourself to see how the rabbi answered the question. It is quite a good answer, by the way. The whole book is definitely worth reading; I recommend it. But for the last few days I have been pondering how I would answer the question.

Would I ask God the big theodical questions about suffering and evil? Would I intervene for loved ones? Would I pose the prayer of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and say a prayer for world peace? What would I do with my five minutes with God?

After some thought I have decided that I would simply enjoy the company. If all I got were five minutes, I would not waste them on my own questions and concerns. I don’t need to understand how suffering and evil works into God’s plan for the universe. I trust that God knows how it all fits together; that is good enough for me.

I don’t have to worry about my loved ones. They are in God’s good hands. Neither do I have to intercede for world peace or plead for an end to world hunger. No one cares about these issues more than the Lord. To bring such concerns to God is a waste of precious minutes.

So how would I spend my five minutes? I would praise Him. I would express my love for Him. I would enjoy His undivided attention for five minutes. As the old gospel hymn says, “That would be glory …… be glory for me.” I would lose myself in God’s glory, love and grace. Five minutes spent like that would feel like an eternity.

I would spend my five minutes with God much like I spend most of my “quiet time” with God each day. I kneel in his presence and bow in awe. I also do my share of confession, petition and intercession. But as I pray those types of prayers, I always feel like they are somewhat unnecessary. God knows what I need - and what others need - before I ask.

God knows the concerns and thankfulness of my heart. It is still important to express my needs and thanks, but I do not have to use many words doing so. As Jesus taught, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Most of my prayer time with God is wordlessly opening my heart to joy, awe, and wonder. When I am with God, time stops. Five minutes in God’s presence is an eternity. It is more than enough.

By the way, in the book the rabbi gives away three of his five minutes to those who need them more. You will have to read the book – or at least the epilogue – to see how he uses the other two minutes. (You can read the epilogue for free with the “Search Inside” feature at Amazon: Have a Little Faith: A True Story)

But in the meantime take five minutes now to ask yourself, “How would I spend my five minutes with God?”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Need To Preach

Last Sunday after worship several people came up to me and expressed gladness … and sorrow … that I was planning to take a church in New Hampshire. They were sorry to see us move away, but happy that I was getting back into the pulpit. “You need to preach,” one woman said to me in the middle of a hug. Those words have been echoing in my heart.

It is true. I need to preach. It is not a unique experience. The apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” The prophet Jeremiah said, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Do not misunderstand me. I have enjoyed not preaching during these fifteen months of mini-retirement. When it comes time for me to really retire, I will embrace it without regret. During this extended sabbatical we have enjoyed traveling, relaxing, and spending time with family and friends.

I have even enjoyed sitting in a pew and hearing someone else preach. I have been blessed to be part of a great church with a great preacher for the past year. I have heard a lot of bad preachers in my time. In fact on a recent visit to Florida, it took all of my willpower not to walk out of a horrible sermon. But the pastor at “our church” is good. He is the age of my eldest son, yet he has wisdom beyond his years.

I have enjoyed writing this blog and a book (unfinished but not forgotten.) I have read widely in controversial areas. I have had freedom in the Spirit to express emotions and explore new ideas - ideas that would have been self-censured if I had to second-guess how a congregation might receive my words. It has opened up new spiritual vistas for me.

But I need to get back into the pulpit. It is what I do. Strangely enough I also need to shepherd people. I missed church people. I did not miss the innumerable endless meetings. Neither did I miss the bickering and pettiness of church life. But I missed the intimacy of sharing deep times – crises, illnesses, deaths, joys, births, and weddings – with sinner-saints.

I missed talking openly and frequently about spiritual matters. Unless you are a pastor you can’t invite yourself to someone’s home and then ask pointedly, “So how is your spiritual life?” It would be considered presumptuous. But it is okay if your pastor asks that question.

I missed interaction with children and elders. I missed riding the heartbeat of a spiritual community. I missed the camaraderie of other pastors struggling to balance the expectations and responsibilities of the pastorate.

I missed the richness of pastoral ministry. Back when I was a seminarian I had a decision to make after I got my Master of Divinity degree: preach or teach. I decided I would teach. I entered the Ph.D. program with a plan was to teach in a college or seminary.

Then I had second thoughts. I felt like I needed to explore pastoral ministry first. So I took a church … just for a few years. But like Frost said, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I did not fully realize it at the time, but I had permanently left academia for the pastorate. Thirty-four years later, I am not sorry. I need to preach.

Art is “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens,” Raphael 1515-1516

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Pepsi Defense

Recently a local man was arrested for assaulting his mother. That is nothing new. Petty crime is a commonplace around here. The highlight of our local newspaper, the Beaver County Times, is Mugshot Monday, where the photos of all those admitted to the Beaver County jail in the past week are displayed.

Recently David Huffman, 33, of New Sewickley Township was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault and harassment of his 68-year-old mother. The mother suffered a fractured wrist in the incident.

The interesting aspect of this story is his excuse. Huffman told police that it wasn’t his fault: the Pepsi machine at Costco made him do it. I have a feeling he had been imbibing something a little stronger than Pepsi that evening. And he didn’t get it from a vending machine.

It illustrates the victim mentality that is prevalent these days. It is never our fault. Pepsi made Huffman do it. It is reminiscent of the famous “Twinkie Defense” used in the trial of Dan White in 1979. White’s attorney argued that junk food deranged his client to the point that he was compelled to murder San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. 

A couple of Sundays ago God made Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson missed four passes. At least that is what he angrily tweeted that night. There is no shortage of other scapegoats. Our parental upbringing made us what we are. Racism, sexism, homophobia or some other cultural bias have caused our problems.

I just read the story of a man who inherited $14 million and was broke in ten years. He was angry. He said it wasn’t his fault. He blamed it on bad financial advice. Right! They made him buy all those houses and vehicles!

The classic theological formulation of this attitude is “The devil made me do it.” If it is not the external devil, it is the internal one - our “sinful nature” or “the flesh.” 

The apostle Paul writes: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

Human freedom and responsibility are tricky concepts. There are powerful forces that influence and limit our freedom, but ultimately our actions are always our responsibility. Though we may be “slaves to sin,” we are still accountable to God. Ultimately there is no defense for our sin – carbonated or otherwise.

“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tweeting God

Buffalo Bills Wide Receiver Stevie Johnson missed four passes during Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, including what would have been the game-wining touchdown in overtime. Late Sunday night he launched a tirade at God via Twitter for letting him down. He tweeted, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!!!”

Hmmm… This is disturbing in so many ways. First is the idea that you can communicate with God by Twitter.  Does God tweet? Is this God’s new mode of revelation in this electronic age? 

The second troubling idea is that God is responsible for our mistakes. Where does human responsibility kick in? Does God really compensate for our lack of athletic coordination? I guess if athletes can credit God for touchdowns by pointing to the heavens, then it follows that they can discredit God when the ball falls short of the goal line.

A third disturbing thing is that this man thinks he has the right to yell at the Almighty when things don’t work out as he thinks they should.  If God is really the type of God Johnson thinks he is, then if I were Johnson I would be watching the sky for lightning bolts.

A more fundamental assumption behind Johnson’s tweet is the idea that the spiritual life is a deal made with the Almighty. We agree to praise Him 24/7 and in return he will make us successful in whatever we attempt. If we aren’t successful, then God has dropped the ball – literally and figuratively. Our failures become God’s fault, and we have the right to berate him loudly, angrily and publicly.

This is the arrogance of the “prosperity gospel,” which sees a direct relationship between righteousness and worldly success. If God really does micromanage the universe, including intervening in football games on behalf of his servants, then we ought to observe a direct correlation between righteousness and Super Bowl victories. I don’t see it.

Stevie Johnson’s tweet may seem crude, but it is the unspoken sentiment of many people’s souls. They just don’t make the complaint so publicly. They voice it quietly to their pastor in a hospital waiting room or even more privately in agonizing prayer.

As a pastor I have heard many people say that God has let them down – usually in the form of unanswered prayer, tragic death, or serious illness. Too many people say that is the reason they will have nothing more to do with church or religion.

It is a serious issue – serious enough for the Bible to have a whole book – the Book of Job – dedicated to the exploration of the topic. In the end there is no good answer – no tweet from heaven. No neat explanation for why bad things – things much worse than incomplete passes –happen to people.

In the end we can go no further than Job. For forty chapters Job yells at God, but in the end he shuts his mouth and repents. Not because he has received a satisfactory answer to his complaint, but because he has met God, who has some questions of his own for Job. In the presence of the One who knows all, no answer is necessary.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

View from the Fence

I love reading scripture. Not just Christian scriptures – although I love those most – but also other religions’ scriptures. After all, the word “scripture” just means “writings,” much like the word “bible” literally means “book.” But these words are commonly used to refer to the most ancient and sacred writings of a culture.

Anyway, I am starting to read the Upanishads again, some of the most revered texts of ancient India. The Isha Upanishad says, “In dark night live those for whom the world without alone is real; in night darker still, for whom the world within alone is real…. In dark night live those for whom the Lord is transcendent only; in night darker still, for whom he is immanent only.”

It seems like religious folks are always making one of those two mistakes. We tend to gravitate to the extremes – inner or outer world, transcendent or immanent.  The West tends toward the outer and transcendent; the East tends toward the inner and immanent. And as Kipling reminded us, “never the twain shall meet.”

I have likewise lived at the edges. As I look at my spiritual pilgrimage, I have not held one changeless theology. I have moved within a range of theologies. One decade I embrace transcendence, another decade immanence. One season of life I am more conservative, another more liberal.

Consequently I have friends on both sides of the theological divide. I never sat on the fence. I always passionately believed in the values of whatever side I was on. But now I see truth more like a balance of extremes. I have crossed the fence so often that the fence feels more familiar than either side.

Maybe I have just grown weary of the trips from one end of the playing field to the other. Perhaps my heart has stretched some in the process – like the Grinch whose “small heart grew three sizes that day.” I find that can hold hands with those on either side of the fence without much strain.

The differences between the extremes feel more like harmony than contradiction. It is creative tension rather than conflict. I also can see more clearly from here on the fence. There is more light here. The light shines from both directions as well as overhead. The extremes look so very dark from here. I did not realize how dark they were until I stopped moving.

Here on the fence paradox is enlivening. Conundrums are comforting. Words are signposts directing the hearer toward truth rather than bearers of truth. The divine is real presence instead of a distant figure from the scriptural past or a theological weapon used to pummel your opponent.

From the fence it all seems so simple. The fence is not meant to keep the sides apart. It is a meeting place where opposites reconcile, where enemies become friends, where two becomes one. Call me a fence sitter, if you want. I will be here to greet you when you become tired of the extremes. 

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Truth or Metaphor?

At an interview for a pastoral position recently I was asked about my interpretation of the Bible. The question was: “Is the Bible true or metaphorical?”  It is a great question, and I have been thinking about it ever since. 

The short answer I gave at the time was “Yes.” The long answer I gave was that it mattered what was meant by the word “true” and what part of the Bible is being interpreted. 

When Jesus said he was the bread of life, he was not saying he was composed of wheat and yeast. When he said he was the door, he was not saying he was made of wood and hinges. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he may or may not have had a real event in mind. In any case it didn’t matter; he was trying to make a spiritual point not quoting a police report.

Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?” For me truth is seldom either/or; it is usually both/and. Facts are true. So are metaphors, symbols and myths. They just communicate truth in different ways.

Does it really matter how truth is communicated? Does it matter if your dinner is served on a paper plate or fine china? I guess for some it does. But for me the food is what is important, not the delivery system.

Is history true? Yes and no. Any historian will tell you that there is no such thing as pure historical fact. It is all a matter of perspective and interpretation. The same event can be viewed from various perspectives. No one sees the same historical event exactly the same.

That is why there are four gospels in the New Testament and four different accounts of what happened at the Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.  Which one is true? The church has confidently proclaimed that all four are true, even though there is no way that the details can be honestly reconciled with one another.

Myths are true. Myth is truth that cannot be stated in historical or theological terms. Allegories and metaphors are true. The Bible has both. Everyone acknowledges that. It is just a matter of which passages you interpret historically and which you interpret symbolically and metaphorically.

In an ultimate sense all theological truth is metaphorical because all talk about God is approximation. Nothing we say about God is true in an ultimate sense. All theological language points to the God that is beyond the ability of our language to describe or our minds to comprehend.

"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” Ultimate Truth is beyond us. As Jack Nicholson said in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth!" The best we can do is utter earthly truths that point in the direction of Ultimate Truth. Anything more is mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

Truth is metaphor. Myth, allegory and symbol are truth. But most importantly, truth is incarnation. Truth is best communicated in human form. That is why God became enfleshed in Jesus Christ. That is why the church is said to be the Body of Christ. That is the truth – no matter how you interpret it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Selfless Self

On a recent car trip from New Hampshire to western Pennsylvania I had time to think. I don’t like to listen to the radio, and we did not bring any CDs. We did some reading. My wife Jude read aloud our morning devotions and some of the newspaper (the section on the new Harry Potter film). Later I silently read the rest of the paper.

But mostly we talked or enjoyed silence. For a couple of hours, while my wife listened to Christian music on her iPod, I enjoyed some philosophical reflection. Because I am basically a selfish person I thought about myself – or more exactly my self.

There are many qualities associated with self. There is self-centeredness, self-esteem, self-employment and self-actualization. There is self-justification, self-involvement and self-knowledge. There is self-love and self-loathing, self-conceit, self-importance and self-satisfaction.

There is even a magazine entitled Self, which can be found on It seems I am not the only person interested in my self.

I find the words “selfish” and “selfless” interesting. Think about the literal meaning of these words. Selfish is about the self. A stylish person has style; a selfish person has self. A selfless person literally has less self. Does that imply that Jesus, the perfectly selfless person, had no self? If he was full of God, perhaps there was no room for self.

In Buddhism the self is seen as illusory - the doctrine of “no-self.” They say there is no one home in this body and mind. The self is just a fleeting constellation of thoughts and feelings that we mistake for an enduring entity.

In Hinduism there are two selves - the little individual self and the “capital S” Self. The big Self swallows the little self like the sea swallows a drop of water. This cosmic Self is understood as our true identity. The spiritual life is waking up to that Self-knowledge.

Christianity never developed the idea of a divine Self masquerading as little individual selves. Instead we are real little selves created in the image of the Other Self who is clearly not ourselves.

The selves can have communion and (in Christian mysticism) union with God. But it is a costly union – both to God and man. The Cross is the self crucified, so that the risen Christ who knows Himself as God’s very Self, may live.

By faith we share Christ’s selfless death and Self-ful (is that a word?) resurrection.  We live in Christ, and Christ lives in us. We are the body of Christ. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

Me? Well, my self is still selfish. My selflessness appears only for brief visits. But as I peer into the depths of myself, I see the Holy Spirit indwelling my spirit. God is the selfless Self at the heart of my self. And as Augustine said, “My heart is restless, O God, until it rests in Thee.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Let Them Eat Bark

I was reading a story today about Ho rim Ahn, a 14-year-old boy, who is one of the 2900 North Koreans who defected to South Korea in the past year. Somehow these refugees find a way out of their repressive land and into the somewhat less repressive country of China. From there they make their way into a third country and eventually into South Korea where they are granted citizenship.

This boy remarked that his new life in democratic South Korea was much better than his communist homeland. “I feel stronger now. I eat eggs and meat. I no longer have to eat bark,” he said. He was referring to the starvation that the population in his former land is enduring.

The story prompted many emotions in me. One is compassion for him and his countrymen. I will never forget hearing Soon Ok Lee speak a few years ago about her experience in a North Korean prison. Her book “Eyes of the Tailless Animals” is one of the few books that have made me cry. I do not understand why there is not continual outrage at this brutal regime.

It also made me think of the many Americans who do not have enough to eat. They may not be eating bark, but a lot of Americans will not be eating turkey either this holiday season. Charities are suffering a shortage of funds this year that is making the traditional turkey dinner harder to offer to those in need.

The story led me to think of spiritual bark. There is great spiritual hunger in our land, but the hungry often have only bark to eat. It is a depressing experience to go into a Christian bookstore these days. I remember when religious bookstores actually sold books – biblical commentaries, devotional classics, and theological tomes.

Now I go into one of the Christian chain stores and I am bombarded with shelves full of religious trinkets. I go a little deeper into the store and find music. If I go far enough into the back of the store I will find some books, but they are generally thin volumes by religious celebrities.

Further in are shelves of fluffy “practical” books with catchy titles, and rows of Christian fiction. I have read some of them. They taste like bark and have the same nutritional value. If I am lucky I will locate a small section of old classics. 

I know there are good books being written today. I buy them online, but they are not in bookstores. It is not the retailers’ fault. There is no demand for them. People prefer junk food – physically and spiritually.

But the most nutritional spiritual food does not come in books at all. It comes directly from the Source. All we have to do is turn our attention inward or outward to the immanent and transcendent God. This God surrounds us in the cosmos and dwells within us as part of the cosmos. “In Him we live and move and have our being.”

This God was incarnated in Jesus, who said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus calls this “true food” and “true drink.”

This is the same nourishment that we experience when gazing at the billion galaxies in the heavens. The awe we feel is the sigh of a well-nourished soul. I invite you to eat your fill. It is so much better than bark.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently ruled that New Hampshire schoolchildren will still be allowed to say the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Whew! Now I can sleep at night!

The court decision resolves a challenge to the Pledge of Allegiance filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of two atheist and agnostic parents, whose three children were attending New Hampshire's public schools.

The judges ruled that the pledge was constitutional because it is clearly a patriotic act and not a religious act, in spite of the words “under God” in the text.

I am a supporter of both the Pledge and the inclusion of the words that refer to the God of the nations. I am both patriotic and religious. But I don’t think the Pledge of Allegiance really does much to instill faith in God.

If anything, it seems to serve as an inoculation against real faith. The words proclaim that the nation is under God, but the message communicated is that God is a footnote to the flag. The God of civil religion is an “underGod” type of Deity. I wish that God stirred as much passion and sacrifice in the pledgers as does the nation under Him.

Last week I attended the Veteran’s Day parade in our county seat. I was impressed by the hoards of soldiers – old and new – as well as the hundreds of people who lined the streets to pay them respect. The bulging ranks of the Junior ROTC really surprised me.

The ranks of soldier wannabes swarmed with young recruits. I wondered if they really knew what they are getting into, with two wars going on and terrorism waxing around the world.

I guess I have seen too much of the cost of war – things like the traumatic effects of PTSD and crippling combat injuries. But still - the fact that these kids are willing to risk life and limb for their nation stirs me. I wish that the church inspired such sacrifice and courage. 

Is the Christian cause any less important? Of course not! In fact it is far more important! I would say it is infinitely more important. If forced to choose between God and country I would choose God without a blink of the eye. Nations rise and fall; God is eternal.

Then why are teens lining up at the recruiting office yet walking away from the church? What does that say about the way the gospel is being presented – or (God forbid) the message of the gospel itself?  What does it say about the priorities of our nation?

I am glad that children can still publicly profess that America is “one nation under God” in the classroom. But I wish that the hearts of these school children were pledged to the one God more than to the one nation under God. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Disappointed in Humanists

A new advertising campaign by the American Humanist Association has just begun - just in time for the holidays. It is called “Consider Humanism.” You can find out about it on their website: Consider Humanism.

The campaign includes a recent spot on NBC Dateline and print ads in major newspapers like USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the San Francisco Chronicle. AHA director Roy Speckhardt said the campaign hopes to recruit people to join his organization instead of a church.

I have been greatly enjoying reading Humanist and New Atheist writings in recent months. They have challenged me to discard old religious idols. As Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard, would say, “Thank God for atheists.”

So when I first heard about this campaign I was looking forward to some intelligent public discourse on important philosophical issues. What I got was trash talk reminiscent of the dirty political ads that ran during the recent midterm elections.

This Humanist campaign is not worthy of the authors I have been reading. It takes the worst passages from the Bible and the Quran concerning topics like women, slavery and genocide - quotes that promote violence and intolerance - and juxtapose them with the best of Humanist quotations. (See examples on their website.)

Sorry, that is not fair. I could do the same thing on the other side. I could find terrible, hateful quotes by atheists and contrast them with wonderful passages about love and tolerance in the Bible. I could quote Marquis de Sade on women and Nietzsche on race, and contrast them with progressive Christian theologians.

It is not hard to find passages that make atheists look like a bunch of bigots. But what would that accomplish? Such prooftexting – whether Christian or Humanist – proves nothing.

Come on, Humanists! You don’t want to play the same type of propaganda campaign that the so many fundamentalist apologists play. You can do better. I know you can. I have been reading some good stuff by you guys - books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Greg Epstein. Why retreat to philosophical mudslinging?

Take the best of religious quotes from the Bible and the best of Humanist thought. Compare apples to apples. Fight fair, and then see who wins.

I love hearing intelligent atheists do battle with intelligent Christians. This Humanist campaign is meant only to stir emotion and attract the ignorant. If you Humanists want the hatemongers in your organization, please take them. But you will be sorry. Anti-religious bigotry can easily degenerate into violence against holy places and persecution against religious people. Just look at Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and Communist North Korea.

Forget the potshots. Pull the ads. Let’s have some respectful dialogue. That would be more worthy of Humanism.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Older Than Dirt

 Recently I have been pondering my true age. Not my brief human span of sixty years; I mean my real age. In reality I am roughly 13.7 billion years old. I can’t remember exactly. That is pretty old. I am older than dirt.

The oldest rocks on the earth are about 3.9 billion years old by several dating methods. (That is my undergraduate geology major coming through.) The oldest sedimentary rocks include minerals that are 4.2 billion years, just a little younger than the earth itself, which is 4.5 billion years.

Every molecule in my body comes from the earth. The Bible is right when it says that humans were formed from the ground.  It is no accident that the Hebrew word for human being is the masculine form of the word for ground or earth.  As scripture says, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”

But I am older than the dust. The earth itself emerged from our forming galaxy, which came from still older beginnings. The elements that make up my body were made in a star astronomers call a Red Giant. I am literally stardust, a fact that I was beautifully and spiritually reminded of recently in a song called “My Soul” by Peter Mayer.

That gives me an entirely different perspective on life. I am not a being that “came into” the world at birth. I am not a creature who lives “on earth” and will one day “depart” this earth at death.

My body came from the earth. My personality was formed from the genetic code of my ancestors coupled with social conditioning. Both are unique creative expressions of God. One day both body and psyche will return to their origins. As Solomon wisely said, “For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”

I am physically of the earth, but I also share the life of God. That is the meaning of eternal life. That is the life of the eternal Christ, “who was God and was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. “

Christ is my past, my present and my future. Christ is my resurrection. Christ is my hope and confidence. So the next time someone asks me how old I am, I will respond, “Older than dirt.” And see where that conversation takes us. Hopefully it will take us on a journey to our origins.

As the skyward poet says, “And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod / The high untrespassed sanctity of space, / Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.” 
Image is the Eskimo Nebula taken by the Hubble telescope

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

After Hereafter

It was a cold, gray, drizzly day. So we decided to take in a movie. We (meaning I) chose to see Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Hereafter.” It was not the most exciting film I have ever seen. Reviewers describe it as “meditative” and “contemplative.” I just found it slow.

I usually enjoy films that deal with spiritual or religious issues in a serious manner; there are so few of them. But this film made an important topic boring. The subject of the film – for those of you who have not seen the film or the previews – is the afterlife.

One of the main characters, a journalist named Marie LeLay (played by Cécile De France) gives voice to the central theme the film. She asks her boyfriend, “What do you think happens when we die?" Her atheist boyfriend says that nothing happens, just a black void.

Religious answers are given cameo roles. A boy looking for answers about the fate of his dead twin views a YouTube video of a Muslim talking about the afterlife. He is the stereotypical jidadist, frightening and fanatical. So much for Islam.

He then watches a Christian preacher on YouTube who assures the listener that "if you believe in Christ, you have nothing to fear."  The boy shakes his head in disbelief. In this manner the gospel is summarily dismissed.

Mediums are pictured as charlatans. New Agers are shown as silly, and atheists are portrayed as intellectual snobs. So who has the answer to the hereafter? Not the main character, an authentic psychic played by Matt Damon. Though he can speak with the dead, when asked about the afterlife he repeatedly says, “I don't know."

There are frequent visions of the hereafter – which is pictured as a blurry place with fuzzy light populated by shadowy figures waiting around to talk to the living. It reminds me of the Old Testament Sheol and the Greek Hades.

A dead boy’s spirit speaks about feeling weightless and boundless, and tells his brother (through the medium of Matt Damon) that the afterlife is “pretty cool.” That is about as exciting as the hereafter gets in the film.

After the closing credits began to roll, a pair of young men hurried down our row, eager to exit the theatre. As the first one passed, he looked down at me and remarked, “That was the stupidest movie I ever saw!” I wouldn’t go that far. I have seen stupider movies, like “Dumb and Dumber” for example. But, of course, that movie was not trying to appear profound.

This film shows just how shallow the American concept of the afterlife is. Often when I have talked to people about their understanding of heaven, they make it all about them. They are reunited with loved ones, retired to mansions in the sky, and eternally enjoying themselves with their favorite pastimes.

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the hereafter any more than anyone else does. But I know what the Bible says. Furthermore I know better than to take it too literally. One thing I am pretty sure of – the hereafter will not be boring or fuzzy.

Furthermore it will not be about me. My self - if I will even have one - will be swallowed up by the glory and presence of God. As the apostle says, “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hole in My Soul

Krista Tippett (of NPR’s Speaking of Faith, now called Being) is moderating a discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences in December entitled "Perspectives on the Self." The first session is called; "To Be or Not to Be: The Self as Illusion." That might seem like esoterica to most folks, but it is right up my alley.

What is the soul? What is the self? And how is the immaterial aspect of humans related to the physical. It is the old body-soul debate in new clothing.

After building the Jerusalem temple Solomon stood back and wondered what he had been thinking when he started the project.  "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built?” Solomon knew that it is impossible. His temple project was a failed concept.

It is said that God dwelled in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple, especially the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant. How can this be? How can the infinite inhabit the finite? How can the immaterial indwell the material?  How can the spaceless be in a contained space?

If this is true of religious temples, is it not also true of the human body and soul? How can a soul or spirit inhabit a body? The apostle Paul complicates matters by talking about “spiritual bodies” at the resurrection. What the heck are those? It is like speaking of square circles.

The first time I heard Norah Jones’ song “Creepin In,” I thought she was singing, “There's a big ol' hole that goes right through my soul.” (Actually she says “sole” – as in shoe leather - but I heard “soul.”) I perceive a hole in my soul – a big ol’ hole – and it seems like it is getting bigger all the time, and eternity is creepin in.

The hole is now big enough for me to see through. It is like a built-in Hubble telescope peering into the depths of space. Through this hole in my soul I glimpse the universe and its Creator. It is like one of those wizardly tents in the Harry Potter novels. It appears small on the outside, but when you step inside it is enormous. My soul feels boundless when I step inside.

I am getting much too esoteric here. But my point is important – at least to me. What is the essence of a human being? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience." Furthermore, what does this say about the Incarnation – God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ?

Anyway, here I am pondering my holey soul and the holy God. As I look into the depths I do not see anything that appears to be me. All I see is what is not-me. Where did I go? Perhaps I slipped through that widening hole in my soul.
Image is “The Flame Pierced a Hole through My Soul” by Esther Alinejad. Stoneware, wire, bone ash, and cayenne Pepper.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What to say at the Pearly Gates

If a street evangelist should ask you if you are saved, just answer, “No, and neither are you.” (That is sure to spark an interesting conversation.) The truth is that you are not saved, and neither is the imaginary street preacher. Nor am I. By this I mean that the “I” and the “you” cannot be saved. The “I” and the “you” are what must be lost in order to be saved.

One of the most pervasive misunderstandings concerning the Kingdom of God is that it is populated by little “I”s and “you”s - little “me”s that possess private mansions in the sky in which to store “my” heavenly treasures. The mansion is our Father’s house, and he is our treasure.

There are no “I”s and “you”s in heaven. That would be hell. I can imagine nothing worse than living with this ego of mine for all eternity. I am sick and tired of it already; I cannot wait to shed it!

When one is “born again” (to use another misunderstood concept) the “I” dies in order for eternal life to be gained. “I” and “you” cannot inherit eternal life, any more than flesh and blood can. Only God has eternal life. We only share in it when we are God’s. Salvation is not something that we possess; it is something – or more accurately Someone – who possesses us.

Jesus said that you have to lose your life to gain it, and that you have to lose your soul to save it. The apostle Paul described this condition as being “in Christ.” There is no room for “I” and “you” in Christ. “Christ is all in all.” To be in Christ you have to leave yourself outside. Paul explained, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Picture the clichéd Pearly Gates and Saint Pete standing guard – just like in all those newspaper cartoons. You come knocking on the iridescent portal. The apostolic voice asks, “Who’s there?” If this should happen to you, the correct answer is “No one.” Then he will say, “Right answer! Enter into the joy of your Master!”

If Saint Peter were to ask you why you should be allowed into heaven, the proper answer is “I shouldn’t.” Not just because of your unworthiness (which is certainly true) but more importantly because “I”s and “you”s are not allowed in heaven. They must be left outside, like shoes left at the threshold of a mosque.

There are times on earth when we experience this selflessness. There are moments when the boundaries of the self blur and the soul dissolves. At those times we see that the Kingdom of God is not “up there” or “in the future.” We are in the midst of it here and now… when our eyes are open.

It is the unself that is saved. That which is not-you is what survives the dissolution of our mortal frames. Don’t worry; you won’t miss yourself. The self was never yours to begin with. It is just personal baggage that we have picked up along way to help navigate our earthly lives. You will be glad to set down both your body and your self at death.

Then who will we be, if we are not ourselves? We will be the image of God as we were originally created to be. We are mirrors held up to the Eternal One. When he looks at us standing at the gate, he sees the reflection of his Son. Then he will exclaim, “Welcome home, son!” When you hear those words, just say, “Thanks, Dad. It is good to be home.”

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I Learned From the New Atheists

I have been reading books by atheists for months. I have been reading the so-called New Atheists – men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I have been rereading some of the “old atheists” like Bertrand Russell and Sigmund Freud. I read the Harvard humanist Greg Epstein and the atheist turned theist Antony Flew.

The most interesting book I read was “Why I Became an Atheist” by former evangelical pastor, John Loftus. The most disturbing was “Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You” by Mike Earl. If you want your understanding of Scripture challenged, listen to this free audiobook

Why have I delved into atheism so thoroughly? I did not do it to gather apologetic ammunition for use against atheists. I did not do it to assure myself that I was right and they were wrong. I did it for the sake of truth – to see if perhaps I had been wrong after all.

My doctor insists I get a complete physical examination every year. But I had not undergone a complete spiritual examination in decades. This was a complete examination, including the spiritual equivalents of a prostate exam and colonoscopy, and it was just as pleasant.

At sixty I am not the same man – physically or spiritually – as I was when I became a Christian at age 22. It was time to make sure that the faith I embraced as a young man still rang true to the older man I had become. If God were really nothing more than an imaginary friend, I did not want to waste any more time with the fantasy.

I wanted to find out if the atheists were right, if I had indeed believed an illusion (as Freud calls religion) or a delusion (as Richard Dawkins calls theism.) I wanted to examine my beliefs as critically as possible and see if they passed the test. I wanted to challenge my faith in the light of science, history, and reason as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

In the process I had to come face to face with the terrible things that Christians have done and taught in the name of Christ. I also had to confront the pervasive violence in the Bible done by God’s people at the command of God. I had to look carefully at the doctrine of hell and the question of theodicy. (Why is there suffering and evil in the world?)

I reasoned through the philosophical arguments for God’s existence. I reevaluated the Christian doctrine of creation in light of modern science. I revisited the issues of miracles and prayer. In short, I examined every aspect of Christianity from the perspective of skepticism.

This spiritual exam was painful. It was humbling. In a sermon entitled “Thank God for the New Atheists” Michael Dowd argues that the New Atheists are playing the role of prophets to the Church, much like the Hebrew prophets did for Israel. I think he might be onto something. God may be using those outside the church to speak hard truth to the church. At least they spoke hard truth to me.

I have come through my spiritual self-examination as a changed man, but a stronger Christian. I know that was not the intent of the atheists. They are trying to convince their readers that there is no evidence for belief in God, much less faith in Jesus Christ.

What I learned from the atheists was that unexamined faith is not worth living (to reword Socrates’ famous quote.) Christians can to do better than wear cultural and intellectual blinders and mindlessly parrot the pronouncements of religious authorities. If the gospel is to be taken seriously by thinking people, then we Christians need to do some serious thinking ourselves.

The reason the American church is so theologically, spiritually and morally weak is because we have an uncritical faith. We believe before we think, and often do not think at all. What is needed is an intelligent faith that has thought through the serious questions being asked today. 

What did I learn from atheists? I learned how important it is to question my assumptions, and to doubt everything I hear or read. I learned to sift fact from fantasy. In the end I know that God is real, Jesus is Lord, and that the Christianity is a reasonable faith … for those who use reason faithfully.
Image includes New Atheists, from left to right: Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Polly Toynbee, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Martin Amis

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Relax & Enjoy Life

There is a religious war raging in the British Isles. Not between Catholics and Protestants, or between Muslims and Christians. This is between atheists and Christians. The British Humanist Association has been running an Atheist Bus Campaign for almost two years.

It is designed as a response to the “Jesus Said” ads, which feature a series of verses spoken by Jesus. They include banners that read, “JESUS said, “I am the resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in me shall live.”

Atheists reacted with their own ads. All across the United Kingdom, buses have advertisements that bear the slogan, "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” In a further response the Christian Party ran counter-ads that read, “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”

Both the atheist ads and the Christian Party ads have been the target of lawsuits. Now it is not just a war of words, but a legal war as well.

I have been reading a lot of atheist writings recently, but these ads reveal what atheists really think about religion. They obviously think that if you are a theist then you worry and do not enjoy life. For them, faith means being troubled and joyless.

These atheist assumptions are disturbing. This means that the Christian gospel is not being communicated well. Salvation actually means peace and joy, as well as a number of other “fruit of the spirit.” The fact that Christianity apparently represents just the opposite to British society means that something is clearly wrong – either with the church or with the church’s image.

I suspect that it may mean that Christians are not exhibiting these Godly qualities that attract people to Christ. Humanists look at the church and only see a bunch of unhappy people who cannot enjoy life because they are afraid of divine judgment.

That is exactly the opposite of what true Christianity is about! The gospel means freedom from all fear, doubt, guilt and worry. It is joy in the Holy Spirit. It is deep peace that the world cannot give, to quote Jesus. But this message is obviously not being communicated to Brits.

The other possibilities are that humanists really do not understand Christianity or they are deliberately misrepresenting Christianity.  Both of these are unlikely. My perception is that humanists and atheists know Christianity at least as well as Christians do, and are no more deceitful than the average bloke. 

In any case, believers need to change people’s perceptions of Christianity by truly living our faith. Christians - Inform your face what your heart knows. Practice what you preach. No one cares what Jesus said unless they see that it makes a difference in your life. 

Slogans on the side of buses do not convince anyone, one way or the other. Bus advertisements apparently just result in lawsuits and more ill will. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.”

The best thing that can be done … to use the atheists own words … is relax and enjoy life. “Either God exists or He doesn’t. Relax and enjoy life!” Now that is a slogan both sides can agree on!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Living Silence

To quote the famous sage, Sister Maria of Salzburg, when I am in the mountains I hear the sound of music. I don’t twirl around and sing aloud. (Please get that image out of your mind!) I stand still and listen to the sound of the mountains. At the risk of sounding like Paul Simon, it is the sound of silence.

There is a quality of silence heard only in wild places. It is different than regular silence, like the difference between tap water and spring water – not the kind out of a plastic bottle, but direct from a spring.

When I was a child I used to visit my grandparents who had a cabin in New Hampshire. They had a hand pump in the kitchen that drew water from the lake for washing. But if you wanted a drink, you had to walk down a winding path to a spring and dip a ladle in the water. Jesus called such water “living water.” Living water is running water, as opposed to still water.

The silence in the mountains is living silence, as opposed to the dead silence of human places. You can’t usually hear it near human habitations. There is too much noise pollution, even in rural areas. The only place I hear it is in far into the mountains.

I heard it again last week in the White Mountains of New Hampshire - in Bear Notch, where we stopped to view the patchwork of colors on the valleys below. I heard it earlier at the end of the dirt road where our son and his family live on Mountain Road in South Tamworth. At the top of a hill with a beautiful view of the mountains, one can hear silence.

This is the silence I hear in prayer. It sounds like the voice of God. It speaks. It stirs the emotions. It enlivens the heart. It invigorates the soul. It is nourishment for the human spirit.

Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” I don’t think he was talking about Bible reading. I think he was talking about silence.

The psalmist describes the natural voices of heaven and earth: “They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.”

That is why Jesus often went into the wilderness to be by himself. He was feeding on silence. I need silence. When I don’t have my Minimum Daily Requirement of it, I get “out-of-sorts.” Silence keeps me sane.

It is best when gathered in wild places – mountains, oceans and forests. But a prayer closet provides the next best thing. Right beneath the skin of the soul, divine silence lives.

It is like when you put a seashell to your ear and hear the sound of the sea. When I get to my knees and press my ear to my soul, I hear the silence of the mountains. For a few minutes I dwell in sacred space, and feed upon the silent word of God.
Photo is “Mountain Silence” by Peathor

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Evangelical by Any Other Name

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” wrote Gertrude Stein nearly one hundred years ago. Juliet said about her Montague boyfriend, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Can we say the same thing about evangelicals?

What is an evangelical? There is a continuing conversation about the meaning of the term. Baptists have struggled with the label for decades. (Read the ABP story of this struggle.) I have used it as convenient shorthand for communicating my acceptance of traditional Christian doctrine, but I have chafed under the unwelcome connotations of the term.

In many people’s minds it is synonymous with the religious right, and I am certainly not that. It smells like fundamentalism to many people. It carries with it an anti-scientific connotation and a Republican social agenda, neither of which I embrace.

I used the word in the subtitle of my book, “More Than a Purpose.” I described my approach an “An Evangelical Response to Rick Warren and the Megachuch Movement.” I wouldn’t use the same words today.

It does not have the meaning it once did. It is both too big and too small. If the term can embrace both Joel Osteen and Billy Graham, then it has become theologically meaningless. If it can include both James Dobson of the religious Right and Jim Wallis of the religious left, then it no longer has social content.

The only thing the term is good for is to engender misunderstanding and emotion. Instead of clarifying one’s position, it confuses it. It prompts emotional reactions that are not conducive to communication and understanding.

Religious and theological labels are misleading. I don’t like them. Apparently neither does God. Moses tried to pin the Lord down with a name, so he would something to legitimize his mission to the Hebrews in Egypt. The frustrated Lord finally shouted, “I am who I am. Tell them, ‘I am’ has sent you!”

So am I. I am who I am. If you want who know who I am, don’t pin labels to me. Talk to me. Don’t call me liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, evangelical or emergent.

Even the word “Christian” is misleading these days, being used to describe people who burn Qurans and picket military funerals while holding signs that read: "God Hates Gays." I have nothing in common with them.

People use labels for other people so they don’t have to listen to them. This past year I have been intentionally listening to a much larger variety of voices. I have listened carefully to people like Muslims and atheists. I thought I already knew who they were. I was wrong; all I had were labels and preconceptions.

The same is true of me. I don’t even know what I am; how can anyone else label me? An evangelical is not an evangelical any more. Neither do they smell so sweet these days.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Touching Eternity

I bought my daughter an old pendant this week. I am not talking antique; I am talking ancient – 450 million years old! It is an ammonite fossil embedded in rock, shaped as a pendant. I bought it at the fair at a “gems & minerals” booth for $8.

When I think of ammonites, I am used to thinking of the Biblical people, the descendants of Lot and his daughters. But these ancient denizens of the deep are much more inspiring. When I hold a fossil like this, it fills me with a sense of awe.

It is the same feeling I get when gazing into the heavens on a starry night or when standing on a mountaintop. The time spans of natural history prompt in me a feeling of vastness and spaciousness that I can only describe as spiritual.

I learned from biologist Richard Dawkins (in his book “The God Delusion”) that atheists feel the same thing, which means it is not a religious experience. But it is definitely an awe-inspiring experience.

For me it is like touching eternity. I cannot conceive of eternity with my crude mammalian mind, but I can approach it through natural objects like this fossil. It is my bridge to the infinite.

It is one way I approach God. When I hold a fossil in my hand, I reach back across the eons to the infancy of life on earth. Terrestrial life is young by cosmic standards. This fossil is barely a tenth of the age of the earth, which is only a third of the age of the universe.

Who knows how many universes there were before this universe? One theory of our universe holds that the Big Bang that started it all is just the latest in a string of bangs that may have been pulsating forever.

When I hold a 450 million year mollusk in my hand, my body feels how short my life is. My lifespan is no more than a blink of an angel’s eyelash. Yet God cares for me.

As the psalmist says, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain!”

I bought my daughter a chunk of eternity today. I hope it inspires the same awe in her does in me. It is not expensive, but it is priceless.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Eyes of a Child

Our time in New Hampshire is coming to an end. As I look back on our visit here, one of the dominant features is babies – lots of them. As a pastor I have always been around babies. I was often one of the first people to hold newborns, sometimes even before the grandparents. I have greeted almost every baby in my congregations with a hug and a prayer before they were 24 hours old. Now having been out of the ministry for over a year, I have become baby-deprived. I have made up for it this trip.

During the last two months, I have not only held my own grandchildren almost every day, I have also babysat and visited with a host of other infants and toddlers. It turns out that when your children are having children, all their friends are also having children. So we become honorary grandparents to a cadre of little ones.

There is something about babies that makes the heart glad. There is a deep spiritual dimension to small children. Jesus knew it. He said that adults had to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of God. He meant that children have a natural connection to God. Early childhood is a state before sin has clouded the spiritual vision.

That is why Baptists could not stomach the Roman Catholic teaching that unbaptized infants were excluded from heaven. Jesus says just the opposite. He held them and said to the fully ritualized adults who would exclude them from his presence, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

I don’t want to slight that venerable Christian doctrine of original sin. It is obvious that every adult human is sinful. I just don’t believe that infants are sinful. They have fallen out of the womb into the sinful world of adults, but they do not share that sinfulness … yet. They are “of the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” These tiny humans have a direct link to heaven. That means that we can learn from infants.

Zen calls it our original face. The koan asks, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” If you can glimpse your face before you were conceived, then you see the face of God.

The so-called “fall of man” not only happened long ago to our original human parents. It happens to us. It is universal and unavoidable. It happens when the innocence of childhood ceases. Baptists call it “the age of accountability,” although we have never been able to clarify that idea further.

But whenever that personal “fall” occurs, we spend the rest of our lives are trying to regain our lost state. We seek to get back to the Garden in order to put the fruit back on the tree of knowledge. That is what religion is all about.

But it is futile. Cherubim with flaming swords guard the way. We spend our lives east of Eden. We only see that heavenly realm again at death … or when we look into the eyes of a child.
Photo is our new grandson Jonah Michael Davis