Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The One We Love to Hate

Judas Iscariot is the most hated man in Christian history. Dante placed him in the lowest circle of hell in his Inferno. Rogue historians have tried to exonerate him, but he is still seen by most Christians as the closest thing to the devil incarnate ... short of the Antichrist himself.

Hate is an interesting emotion. I must confess that my anger has drifted into the netherworld of hate at times. Not the intense hatred that Republicans and Democrats express for each other these days ... but close.

When I examine my own hatred honestly, I must admit that the qualities I hate in others are the qualities I refuse to acknowledge in my own soul. That is how I can see those characteristics so clearly in others. It takes one to know one. Hate is a form of self-delusion.

In order to identify myself as a good person, I must identify people "out there" who are the bad people. In order convince myself that I am a loving person, I have to be able to point to those who are hateful persons. The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the shadow.

The shadow is our hidden self, the dark side of our soul. It holds those characteristics that we won't admit about ourselves, those qualities that are so inconsistent with our self-image that we reject them with every emotion we can conjure up. Unable to acknowledge them in ourselves, we project these dark qualities onto others. We vilify and dehumanize people, calling them names and demonizing them. But the truth is they are us. Our enemies are the incarnations of our own hearts.

To get back to the two political parties, what the Republicans hate about the Democrats are the qualities they cannot admit about themselves, and vice-versa. "Independent" folks like me who stand self-righteously above the two party oligarchy are no better than anyone else. What we hate about the two major parties is what we won't admit about ourselves.

"We have seen the enemy and he is us," as Pogo said. That is why Jesus told us to love our enemies. It is the only way we can love ourselves and love our neighbor.... and love God. We cannot love the Lord with all of our hearts if part of our hearts hates others.

What do you hate? Whatever it is, it is the part of you that is reflected in your enemies' eyes. Perhaps you hate those who hate, those who engage in "hate speech" and hateful actions? They represent the hatred in your own soul.

Do you hate Judas? He is you. The apostles knew this instinctively. When Jesus announced at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him, they all responded, "Lord, is it I?" They knew who the real enemy was.

As the old gospel song says, "Not my sister, not my brother, but it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not the preacher, not the sinner, but it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Baptist Crucifix

There are a lot of people who do not know what a crucifix is. I heard about a girl shopping at the jewelry counter in a department store. She was thinking of buying a cross. The young sales clerk brought out a velvet tray with an assortment of gold, silver, and jeweled crosses, and asked, "Would you like a plain cross or one with a little man on it?"

When I was growing up, I was taught to dislike crucifixes. I wasn't told why. It is strange to think back on it, because I was raised in a church. But I was raised in a Protestant church. We didn't believe in crucifixes. Much later Baptists  explained it to me, "The Catholics have Jesus on the cross, whereas we believe that Jesus is risen!" Well, it turns out that Catholics believe in the resurrection also, but they focus a lot on the crucifixion. Not a bad place to rest your mind... especially during Lent.

As I contemplate the cross, I imagine what a person would see in it if they had no story about Jesus to go with the image - like the clerk who knew him only as "the little man." A crucifix is an image of torture, a man dying a painful death. If you didn't know the gospel story, that is all you would see: suffering and death caused by others.

Let's just stick with that idea for a moment without adding the church overlay. The cross is the extinguishing of a human life. Maybe that is why Marc Chagall painted Jesus on a cross so often. Not because he was a closet Christian, but because it reminded him of the Holocaust. He saw a Jew being killed. He saw a Jewish crucifix.  He saw himself.

When I see the cross, I see myself. A Baptist crucifix. The extinguishing of everything that I call me. The spiritual life is about dying - the death of self. Man stripped bare, having nothing left, not even one's pride, not even oneself. The apostle Paul said that Christ "emptied himself" in order to go to the cross. He emptied himself until there was nothing left. "He made himself nothing." When nothing is left, in the space that remains is God.

In the cross man is gone, and what's left is the intersection of two perpendicular lines. An X where an I used to be. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" He then said, again pointing to Jesus, "He must increase; I must decrease."

That is the cross. I decrease. He increases. I am no more. He is. There is just the cross, pointing to heaven, pointing to God, pointing to the One who made himself nothing yet is the great I AM.

Artwork is Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion, oil on canvas, 1938.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Not I, but Christ

Christians argue over what parts of the Bible to take literally. Passages like the seven days of creation, Noah's ark, and the miracles of Jesus come to mind. But before we argue over evolution, lets look at the crucifixion. It is much more central to the Christian faith.

"I have been crucified with Christ." The apostle Paul meant his words to be taken literally, but not historically. History tells us that Paul was not crucified with Jesus in Jerusalem. Caesar Nero beheaded Paul in Rome thirty years after Christ died on the cross. But Paul still meant those words literally. He reckoned himself dead when he penned those words.

Galatians 2:20 reads: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." Another translation puts it even more starkly: "It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me."

If I take this literally, it means I no longer live. It would be much more comfortable to read this as a metaphor - the way some people interpret the resurrection of Jesus. But let's not be too quick to spiritualize our death. This may be just the ego's attempt to avoid the hard truth of our own demise. Let's take the verse literally and see where it leads.  

"It is not I who live." That means there is no "I." The self that I reckon myself to be is not I. I am not. Christ is. "It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me." Christ lives. That is the message of Easter.

Again, let's take the life of Christ in me literally and not figuratively. The risen Christ did not ascend to live on the planet Kolob, where the Mormon deity is said to dwell.  Christ lives in me. "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart," as the Easter hymn says. I am not here, but Christ is. The life I live is Christ's life. This body of flesh and blood is Christ's body.

This type of radical rethinking of life can only be apprehended by faith - faith in the Christ who loved me and gave himself for me. He takes my place not only on the cross, but also presently in this body that I call me.

It is a lot to ponder. I feel a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. But honestly, it rings more true to my experience than the myth of my self as an autonomous eternal ego. I no longer live. What a relief! No fear of death. No fear of life. Just the risen Christ living in me. Now that's something to celebrate at Easter!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Overeating at the Last Supper

There is a new study of the Last Supper in the International Journal of Obesity (my Bible!) It studies 52 paintings of the Last Supper in the last thousand years and shows that plate size and portions increased dramatically over this time period.

According to this study, the portions were micro-sized at the beginning, barely observable in the paintings. Gradually the plates grew larger and the portions grew more generous until the apostles were depicted as eating a super-sized Seder. The article concludes that the tendency toward overeating is not just a recent phenomenon, but has been a growing cultural problem in the West over the centuries.

What the study does not describe is the menu at the original Last Supper. It was the Passover meal, the holiest celebration in the Hebrew calendar. Each family had roast lamb with all the fixins. Sure they overate. It was the biggest meal of the year! It was the Last Supper after all, not the Last Snack. 

I picture the Last Supper as a Jewish rendition of Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving dinner painting. The only difference is that the father carving the roast beast wears a black hat and sidecurls.

So let's set the record straight. The Last Supper was a feast - the biggest feast of the Jewish year. The apostles ate so much that they could not stay awake in Gethsemane after dinner. They were too full to pray with Jesus. Talk about falling asleep in church while the minister is preaching! These guys dozed off while Jesus was crying out in agony in the garden!

And sure we are fat. I don't need the International Journal of Obesity to tell me that. All I have to do is look in a full-length mirror in the morning. Sure we eat too much. But what does that have to do with the Last Supper?

Let's leave the Lord out of it. And let's not feel guilty for feasting at this holiday season. I for one plan to overeat at an elegant buffet at a nearby country club on Easter Sunday. It's a celebration after all - like the Passover was a celebration. Let's put the guilt in the freezer for one day. I will diet on Monday.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Other Easter

People die every day. Death never takes a holiday. I am reminded of that fact every morning when I read the newspaper. One of the first parts of the paper I read is the obituary page. This is not because I am particularly morbid, but because it happens to be located in the first half of the first section of our small daily paper. Death may not be big news in the cities, but not much happens in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. So the deaths of our neighbors get top billing.

The other hot spot of our newspaper is what they call "Mugshot Monday." It is right before the obituaries. Every Monday the paper prints unflattering photos of our other neighbors who entered the county jail that week. Yes, it is exciting living in Beaver County. Sometimes the ones in the obituaries were put there by the ones on the mugshot page! And vice-versa, with the emphasis on the vice.

Back to the obits.... Imagine if a person you saw listed in the obituaries on Wednesday showed up at your door the following Sunday? It sounds like one of those zombie or vampire films that are so popular among teens these days. But this is no Hollywood horror flick. This is what happened on the first Easter Sunday in Jerusalem.

Jesus was not the only one who rose from the grave on Easter Sunday. Matthew's account of the crucifixion says that the death of Jesus triggered some interesting events.  

"Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many."

We don't hear any more about these other resurrections, but they must have caused quite a stir! Who were these people? It calls them "saints," which in biblical language does not mean super-religious people but simply believers in Jesus.

I wonder what the rest of the story is. What tales did these folks tell of their death experience? Did they meet Jesus? If so, what did they talk about? What did the Romans or Sanhedrin think? I wish the gospel writers had interviewed these resurrectees. Where are the good investigative reporters when you need them?

The point of these other Easter stories is that the death and resurrection of Jesus had power! It was so powerful that it spilled over to others. That is what I am counting on. I am promised that it will spill over to me, and to all those who die in Christ. "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive."  Alleluia! 

Artwork is Resurrection, oil on canvas, 21" x 19" 1993 by Christina Saj

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Seamless Robe of Christ

The small details of the gospels fascinate me. The minutiae that others ignore capture my attention. One of these small details is the seamless robe of Christ. When Jesus was crucified, the Romans stripped him and divided his personal possessions among themselves. There were four soldiers and they made four piles. One wonders what else was in those four piles.

Jesus' most valuable possession was his tunic. It was made with such extraordinary craftsmanship that the soldiers did not want to ruin it by tearing it into four pieces. So they cast lots for it. John notes that this was in fulfillment of a prophecy about the Messiah in the Psalms.

There has been much speculation about this robe over the centuries. One account says that the robe was cut into pieces and divided in order to protect it from theft or loss. What the Romans crucifers would not do, the church felt it necessary to do. No less than six churches in Germany, France and Russia, claim to possess the robe or fragments of it. There was even a film made about the robe back in the 1950's, appropriately entitled "The Robe."

I am not interested in Hollywood epics or holy relics. But I am intrigued that the apostle John would include this detail of the tunic in his passion narrative. It seems to have some significance beyond itself.

A seamless robe is out of place in a crucifixion scene. Normally at a death, robes were torn as a sign of grief. This robe is purposely not torn. If you believed Mel Gibson's bloody rendition of the passion of Christ, there would be little left of any garment that Jesus wore at this trial. But here it is - the perfect, seamless robe of Christ lying at the foot of the cross.

The Church fathers saw it as a symbol for the unity of the church. But the church hardly appears unified to me. I see the robe of Christ more simply as a sign of love. 

Someone - likely one of his women followers - wove that robe for him. Perhaps it was his mother - like Hannah making a robe annually for her son Samuel. Perhaps it was one of the other Marys or Martha. Was it a gift from a grateful sinner forgiven for her sins, an offering of cloth for his body like another sinner poured spikenard on his feet? We can never know and probably should not speculate too long. We might end up believing our own theories.

But it was likely a gift because Jesus was no weaver, and he had no money to purchase such a garment. It was made with love and worn with love. It is a sign of love for the one who was love and died for love. It prompts us to give our gifts of love to this One who is the Lover of our souls.

Image is a stamp commemorating the Exhibition of the Seamless robe of Jesus at the Cathedral of St. Peter, Trier, Germany.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Heart of Darkness

The only time I ever experienced complete darkness was in Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. It was so dark that I could not see my hand before my face. My eyes never adjusted to the dark because there was no light to adjust to. Earlier in my life I was a photographer and spent a lot of time in a darkroom. But then there were "safelights" that allowed me to see in the dark, while not fogging up the prints.

But there were no safelights in Judea when Jesus died. There was complete darkness for three hours - from noon to three by our clocks. These three hours of darkness harken back to the three days of darkness in Egypt in Moses' day, where it is described as "darkness that could be felt." It looks ahead to the plague of darkness in the book of Revelation, which is so deep it causes pain.

The cross is wrapped in darkness. It is at the heart of the darkness. The darkness prohibited anyone from seeing Jesus on the cross while he was dying. This darkness is symbolic and spiritual. We cannot see what Jesus did on the cross. Not really. We have our theories of sin and salvation, sacrifice and propitiation. They are helpful, like safelights in a darkroom.

I believe the biblical models of atonement, and I preach them. They aid the understanding, but I know that the truth of the cross is deeper than that. It is wrapped in darkness. These ideas point to truth, but they only go as far as the mind can understand.

There is a heart of darkness in the cross that I can never understand. I cannot comprehend how the darkness tore the temple veil in two from top to bottom or caused the earth to shake and the dead to rise. I cannot comprehend the agony of darkness that caused Jesus to cry, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?" - "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"

I am in darkness when it comes to the mystery of the cross. As I contemplate the cross in the dark, I learn to unknow my theories and embrace the one who died in darkness and laid in darkness for three days and rose in darkness. Where the mind cannot see, the soul can apprehend. At the heart of darkness is the cross, and at the heart of the cross there is life.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What is Truth?

The earliest portion of the New Testament ever discovered is dated to 100-135 AD. It is a small fragment of papyrus known as the John Ryland manuscript. In my Greek testament it is footnoted simply as p52. It measures just 3 1/2 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide.

It contains only a few verses of the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John, a part of the scene of Jesus' trial before Pilate. It includes portions of these words of Jesus: "For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?"

It is the question of the ages. But it is a question whose validity is questioned today. We live in a postmodern setting where the idea of truth is no longer assumed. Truth has been deconstructed into its cultural components. Truth is no longer measured in absolute terms, but in terms of social values and personal convictions. Truth is relative. Even the relativity of truth is relative.

Christians point to the authority of scripture as the source of truth, but such a claim sounds meaningless to postmodern ears. Truth is not even a matter of personal experience any more. Even the word "truth" sounds quaint to young ears. People no longer talk of truth, but of meaning and purpose.

What is truth? For us pre-postmodernists, there is philosophical and theological truth, truth depicted in ideas and concepts. There is also relational truth and experiential truth. We can talk about our relationship with Jesus and our spiritual experience. But these are poor cousins to ultimate Truth.

Ultimately God is truth, and Jesus bears witness to the truth (as he says in this fragment of papyrus). Truth is something we can only witness to. We can point to truth but not possess truth. Truth possesses us.

In another controversial passage in this same gospel, Jesus said that he is the truth. "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." This has often been used as a rhetorical weapon by Christians to mean, "My religion is better than your religion." But truth is not meant for use in religious holy wars. When truth is used in this manner it ceases to be the truth.

The truth that we comprehend with our tiny human brains is no more than a fragment of papyrus from the vast manuscript of God's truth. Christ is truth and the witness to truth and the way to truth. He is life and the way to life. Only when I am one with the Son as He is one with the Father, do I know truth. That is what Christ prayed for, and it is my prayer. When I am asked, "What is truth?" I point.

Photo is the front side of P52 , the oldest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Contemplating Crosses

I go to the YMCA quite regularly now, not that you could tell from my physique. At the Y I am noticing a lot of tattoos these days, especially cross tattoos. Huge crosses sprayed across backs or smaller crosses on arms or chests. There are other religious symbols also: the Sanskrit character for AUM, the Chinese character for Tao, and even a Buddhist wheel of Dharma. But mostly crosses.

My great-grandfather was an artist who lived for a time with Native Americans in the American Southwest during the 1800's. He returned to his home in New England with sketchbooks filled with dozens of different types of "Indian crosses" that they used as designs on baskets, blankets and pottery.

The cross is a symbol with an ancient history in the world's cultures. The earliest cross known to archeologists is the Neolithic solar cross, also called the wheel cross. There is also the swastika, an ancient symbol that existed for 4000 years before the Nazis gave it an evil connotation. There is the tau cross of ancient Greece and the ankh of pharaonic Egypt.

The cross had symbolic power long before Jesus was ever nailed to a Roman cross. It is the intersection of two dimensions. Visual attention is drawn to the center while at the same time extending the visual lines to infinity in four directions. Contemplate the cross and you see the paradox of a center with no circumference. It is a symbol for eternity.

The cross of Christ is a picture of a man at the intersection of infinity. The crucifix is a picture of human suffering caused by human sin at the center of eternity. Man kills man in a futile attempt to rid himself of the divine in his midst.

This human suffering is divine suffering - a suffering that extends its arms to embrace the world, and whose cry is heard from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. Divine suffering embraces human suffering to bring about freedom from suffering.

The crucifix gives way to the empty cross in the Christian narrative. Man is gone and the cross remains - without the suffering but with the memory of suffering etched into the cross.

There is more in the symbol of the cross than can be communicated in words. That is the power of symbols. There is more in the cross than can be contained in carefully argued theories of atonement. 
That is why I prefer symbols to theologies. The cross is eternal; the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. I can see the original cross of Christ in the stars on a clear evening.

Maybe that is why men and women bear the image of the cross on their bodies. To carry in one's body what cannot be carried in one's mind.

Photo by the Hubble Space Telescope of the ancient globular star cluster NGC 6397.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Endangered Language of Prayer

Last month the Bo language died. Boa Sr, the last member of a 65,000-year-old tribe died and took the world's oldest language with her. She was about 85 years old and the last native of the Andaman Islands. Her native language is thought to date back to pre-Neolithic times. Professor Anvita Abbi, a linguist who knew Boa, said the tribeswoman was very lonely in recent years since the death of her husband. She had no one to converse with.

Sometimes I feel like the Lord's Prayer is becoming an extinct language. I have noticed over the years that less and less people can recite the Lord's Prayer. I always include it in funerals that I perform. I invite the congregation to pray along with me, whether it is in a church, at a funeral home or at the graveside.

There has always been some hesitancy among people in certain parts of the prayer. "Should I say trespasses or debts?"  For years I have told people beforehand to use the Baptist version - debtors, rather than trespasses. Not that I have anything against trespassing. It is just so we would all be on the same page. And you have to admit that debts seem to be more relevant these days. Still there were the diehard trespassers.

I also notice that some people omit the ending of the prayer: "For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever." The Catholics and the Protestants disagree here - not theologically, just liturgically. Some people also add an extra "and ever" at the end. I guess that is for those who believe that forever is not long enough.

But now I notice an awkward silence during the whole prayer. The old folks still pray confidently, but the young folks don't seem to know what is going on. It is like their elders are speaking a foreign language. Most of them never learned the Lord's Prayer.

If you visit contemporary worship services today, there is no recitation of this famous prayer. The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples is no longer taught. I guess Jesus' prayer is too uncontemporary. Plus there are many young people who have hardly ever set foot inside any church. So Jesus' 2000 year-old prayer language is dying out, like the Bo language.

Too bad. I can't use my Lord's Prayer jokes any more. The jokes always were about children who misunderstood the words. "Our Father, who are in Heaven, Howard be thy name." "Our Father, who art in Heaven, how didja know my name?" "Give us this day our jelly bread." "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from E-mail." If people don't know the right words, the wrong words aren't so funny.

But the extinction of the Lord's Prayer is no laughing matter. When Jesus says, "This, then, is how you should pray," we should take his following instructions seriously. It may not be intended to be a ritualistic recitation, but it certainly is a good model for young folks and old folks alike. So let's pray together, "Our Father who art in heaven...."

Photo is of Boa Sr, who died last month, aged about 85, the last native of the Andaman Islands who was fluent in Bo.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Space between the Cherubim

You have heard of a "babbling brook." I have a babbling brook flowing through my head, especially when I sit down to pray. For years I tried to redirect that babble toward God. Prayer was babbling in God's direction. Babbling names and problems and issues and concerns. Thankful babble, praising babble, requesting babble, religious babble. I made lists of babble to make sure all the important areas of babble were covered during my time with God.

But then one day I took Jesus' words seriously, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." I no longer babble. In fact my prayer time is a No Babble Zone. But my mind does not usually cooperate. It has been allowed to babble so long that it doesn't know how to stop.

So I just let my mind babble in the corner like a crazy uncle, while I am communing with the Lord. I hear my mind jabbering in the background, like an unwatched television. But I am not paying attention. It tends to quiet down after a while. Like a spoiled child, it will stop throwing tantrums if you don't pay attention ... for the most part.

I enjoy the quiet of nonbabbling prayer. There is no need for to-do lists to give God. He already knows everything. No need to direct God's attention to certain hot spots. I see it as putting the doctrines of God's omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence into daily practice.

Now my prayer time is timelessness spent in the space between the cherubim. The ark of the covenant was kept in the holy of holies of the temple - God's prayer closet. On the cover of the ark were two carved cherubim. God was said to dwell in the space between the cherubim. That is the space where I meet God. I find God in the space between words and thoughts.

As I reread these words, they sound much too mystical. In reality this is really very ordinary. It is the space of everyday life. There is nothing mystical or mysterious about it. The space between the cherubim is the space all around us all the time. "In Him we live and move and have our being." It is where we live and where God dwells.

Uh-oh, this is sounding mystical again. I guess I better stop babbling and let God speak. As He says, "Be still and know that I am God."

Photo is the Butterfly Nebula, also known as NGC 6302, taken by the Hubble telescope.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Wei Of Christ

When it comes to religious activities, Jesus preferred privacy over publicity. There is an attitude of anonymity in Jesus' teaching and living. He was constantly telling his disciples and others NOT to tell people about him. He told his followers to be quiet and let his actions speak. Their words would just mess things up. Scholars label this pattern of his ministry "the messianic secret." Christians struggle with the idea. It seems so anti-evangelistic.

Jesus tells people to pray privately and not publicly.  He tells people to give to charity privately and not publicly. When it comes to fasting, he tells his followers to go to great lengths to hide it from others. There is no way around it; Jesus' religion was a very private affair. His attitude is summed up in this teaching: "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." Keep it so private that even you don't know what you are doing!

There is to be an unselfconsciousness in our spirituality. Religion is meant to be as natural as the lilies blooming, seeds growing in a field, and the breeze blowing through the trees. That is why there is no word for religion in Biblical Hebrew.

The Chinese call it wu wei - nonaction. Or more fully, wei wu wei - acting without acting. Effortless effort. It is acting from our spirit rather than our minds and wills. Christ described it as his Father working through him. He said he could do nothing but what his Father was doing.

There is a natural flow to the spiritual life. An actionless action that is in harmony with the Creator's will. No laws or rules. No work to do. Just get out of the way, and let God act through you.

How different from modern religion. Today's Christianity is a very busy and public affair with lots of things to do. And we feel guilty when we don't do enough. We have very public prayer, deductible charitable giving, and hardly any fasting at all. The messianic secret has been transformed into a publicity campaign to market the Christian message.

I am not against sharing the good news of Jesus. I have spent nearly my whole life proclaiming the gospel publicly and privately. But I am wondering whether I have been speaking the right language. How much of the inner life of the Spirit is lost when religion becomes identified with what we say. As Francesco d'Assisi said, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words."

When Job is finally granted an audience with God to air his gripes about how the Lord is ruining his life, God answered his questions by pointing to the world of animals and nature. God's eternal power and divine nature are clearly revealed in the things that have been made, as the Roman apostle said. The heavens declare the glory of God, says the Psalmist.  If Job had learned their language, he would not have needed God to translate. 

Artwork is "Wu Wei, Sort of" by Max Dane, acrylic on homemade paper

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

O Perfect Me

"Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus serves up a tall order in the Sermon on the Mount. I have preached this verse in clever and insightful ways. I have told my congregation that I knew what it really meant. I had read this in the original Greek. I went to seminary. I am the resident expert. That is why you hired me. Don't trust the words. And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

The Greek word is teleios. It means complete, mature, the end result. I compared it to ripe fruit. We are not told to be perfect; we are obviously not supposed to be perfectionists. How perfectly ridiculous! That is a formula for failure, not to mention low self-esteem. We are to be mature. It sounded good. More importantly, it got us off the hook.

But in the back of my mind I always knew that perfect meant perfect, no matter how perfectly I tweaked the Greek. Our heavenly Father is not a ripe banana. He is perfect. We are not told to be sweet and tasty. We are told to be perfect as he is perfect.

After all, he just finished telling us to resist not evil, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and love our enemies. These are tall orders that sound impossible and impractical. But Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King said they tried it, and it worked. But look how they died.

Besides, I know the Greek. I am an expert in explaining difficult passages. Christ may have turned water into wine, but I can turn the extraordinary into the ordinary! Don't worry, brothers and sisters. I will figure it out so we can safely go back to our ordinary lives.

That is the problem with most preaching I have done and I have heard. We preachers think we can figure out what it means, as long as we have the right commentaries and sufficient time to study. That is why we miss its meaning. We play with words and do not see beyond the words.

Like the time that Jesus said, "You are gods!" (John 10:34) Wow, that's a tough one. It could open the door for all kinds of heresies. We better shut up that verse tight.  It took me a long time and much study of the Greek, but I explained that away too. In this case I had to go back to the Hebrew also, because Jesus is quoting Psalm 82 in the Old Testament. So I had to work doubly hard, but I finally found a loophole. It doesn't mean what it says! In fact it means the opposite! Whew! That was close.

I have an eight hundred page hardcover in my personal library entitled "Hard Sayings of the Bible" to help me find loopholes in any other "hard sayings" that I might run across in the future. I am safe. I do not need to be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect. I no longer have to be godly. Now I can relax ... imperfectly.

Artwork is Imperfection by Rob Douglas, 2008 Painting acrylic and pigment

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Think, Therefore ....

Jesus said, "If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself." He also said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Who is this self that is to be denied and/or loved? Recently in my prayer and reflection, I have been coming back to the concept of self. What is self? The existence of the self is a more fundamental question than the existence of God.

One of the first philosophical axioms I ever learned was Descartes' famous, "Cogito ergo sum." I think, therefore I am. I thought that he had it figured out. His reasoning is that if you are wondering whether you exist, then the thinking itself is proof that there is a thinker. I think, therefore I am.

But now I am rethinking that thought. I see the thinking, but I am not so sure about the identity of the thinker. Whenever I try to look him in the eyes, he dissipates. I know my self is here somewhere. I have been thinking about myself all my self's life. In fact I have been obsessed with my self. I am a pretty selfish and self-absorbed guy.

But now my self seems pretty insubstantial. When I look closely at my self, I seem to be more fiction than fact. No more than a story told and retold. As old Will said, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I appear to be little more than a constriction in consciousness, a cramp in the brain, an eddy in the stream of thought, a fabrication of the flesh. My self is a useful fiction for getting around in this world. It is like Newtonian physics - helpful in everyday life, but physicists know that quantum physics have made the old model obsolete.

God seems so much more real than I am. He is Truth. I seem to be more lie than truth. I tell stories to myself justifying my behavior and my insistence on living life on my terms rather than God's. I twist my memories to suit the circumstances. As Descartes said on another occasion, "I am indeed amazed when I consider how weak my mind is and how prone to error." My self seems to be a persistent self-delusion used to keep God's truth away. 

My self is more sin than saint, more chaff than wheat. Sin cannot survive in the holy presence of God. Chaff will be winnowed when Christ comes. God wants to be "all in all," and my self wants to be "all in all." One of us will lose. The good news is that Scripture says that Christ wins. Until that day, I will say in faith with the apostle Paul, "It is not longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Government, Please!

Jesus says that there is problem with my heart. He says in the Sermon on the Mount that there is murder in my heart.... and adultery and deceit and hate and revenge. He says the problem is not with the laws against murder, sexual immorality, and perjury. The problem is anger and lust and selfishness and dishonesty. Jesus has no interest in changing laws. He wants to change hearts.

It is a lesson our country could learn. As I read the news, it seems like many people - especially politicians and political activists - really believe that the fundamental problem of our nation is that we do not have enough laws. Everyone's solution to every problem is passing more laws. And make sure those laws are well enforced.

Washington is a one hit wonder: More laws! Second verse: More law enforcement! Maybe we ought to make it our national anthem and sing it at baseball games. Or make it our national motto and put it on our currency: One nation under control.

The government - whether led by Democrats or Republicans - continually expands its control over more and more areas of life. It doesn't matter if it is Pelosi or Gingrich, Obama or Bush, the issue is still control - just over different areas.

Control healthcare, control marriage, control education, control spending, control the food supply, control the auto companies, control guns, control banks, control obesity, control smoking, control Iraq, control Afghanistan, control the climate, control the world, control, control. When everything is under control, then we will be safe.

But the real solution is not collective control over others. The solution is control over ourselves. But self-control is the one thing we cannot seem to do. Because the self that wants to be in control is out of control. And we know it. So we look to government to control our uncontrollable selves. But the government is just a collection of out-of-control selves.  The result is out-of-control law-making and out-of-control spending.

The only real solution is a new self. We need self-transplants. We need new hearts, not better leashes to control the old hearts. Our democracy needs a Monarch. We need the Sovereign God. He is the only One who can do the spring housecleaning that our nation so desperately needs.

I pray the Lord sweeps us out of office next election year, and installs His government. "Then the government will be upon his shoulders.... And of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Taking Jesus Literally

Those who take the Bible "literally" are not well thought of among the American intelligentsia. The looks of disgust I have seen on intellectuals' faces when speaking of "fundamentalists" rival Dick Chaney's sneer when speaking of Democrats. Creationists are pictured as little more than unevolved apes. Those who believe in the virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus are viewed as pre-Copernican ignoramuses who must also believe the earth is flat. Those who adhere to a literal reading of the moral statutes of Scripture are labeled as homophobes and bigots.

Yet Jesus appears to be a literalist. Listen to him in the Sermon on the Mount:

 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."

This is a dimension of Jesus we don't like to hear and do not understand. Mainstream Christian preachers go through gymnastic gyrations worthy of Olympic athletes to explain away passages like this. I know, because I have done it! We take the biblical Jesus, cleverly transform him into our own image, dress him in 21st century values and call ourselves followers of Christ. In truth we have just created another idol to worship.

A.J. Jacobs is a Jewish agnostic who tried to take the Bible literally. He attempted to follow all the laws and rules of the Bible - including the Old Testament dietary, clothing, and hair laws - for one year. He recounts his humorous journey through religious literalism in his book, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

During his yearlong experiment he is instructed in the Torah by observant Jews. But he also meets such biblical literalists as snake handlers in Appalachia, Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, biblical creationists in Kentucky, and Samaritans in Israel. He even visits the liberals' dreaded nemesis, the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

At the end of his year of living literally, he is not converted to the biblical lifestyle nor the biblical God, but he does develop an appreciation for the faith and lifestyles of the literalists. In other words, he learned not judge people until you have walked a year in their sandals. He did. That is one Biblical rule the anti-literalists might consider taking literally: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The photo progression shows Author A.J. Jacobs as he spent a year trying to live the Bible literally - and not shaving - for his book, The Year of Living Biblically.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I can't get Jesus' words "you are the light of the world" out of my mind. I woke up thinking about them this morning when it was still dark, and I could not go back to sleep. So I am going to do some mental rambling in this blog and see if some light is shed on the subject of light.

Jesus says that we are the light of the world. He says he is the light of the world. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. Our light is the light of the Father, for he says, "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." The Father is praised - not us - because the light is God.

People place the light under a bowl or a basket. This is the image that replays itself in my mind - a picture of covered light. I imagine light streaming through the cracks in a basket, casting patterns of shadows on the walls and ceiling. Or light hidden under an earthen bowl, only visible through the crack where the bowl unevenly meets the stand - like the light that seeps around the edges of my bedroom window shade as dawn breaks.

Human beings are the light of God in earthen vessels - light kept in the dark. A lot of our time and effort is spent trying to keep the light covered. I read yesterday about the death of the actor Corey Haim, another young light snuffed out by the ravages of drug addiction. All of our addictions are ways to keep the lid on the light of God.

The light shines through the cracks in our defenses. We know that if it breaks through completely, we shall be no more. If God appears, we will disappear. For no one can see God and live, as God told Moses. So we are content with his backside.

We are shadows living in the shadowlands, afraid of light. We know that the light of God will snuff out the darkness of our egos. So we keep a lid on it in order to live a while longer in this land of shades.

There really is no need to keep light from shining. "Let your light shine." The play of shadows that we mistake for ourselves is nothing more than patterns of the basket cover projected on the wall.  We are the light - not the bowl, not the basket, not the lampstand, nor the shadows projected by the light. 
We are the light. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Life as a Sannyasi

"What do you do?" It used to be an easy question to answer. "I am a pastor." But now I no longer know what to say when I am asked that question. I usually respond with some variation of the following answers: "I was a pastor. I am taking some time off. I am not working at the present time. I am semi-retired. I am researching a new book. We are doing a lot of traveling, enjoying life, yada, yada, yada."

But none of those answers are really accurate. I only say them because most people do not really want to hear the long answer. (It is like the question: How are you doing? They want the standard answer; not the truth.) The truth is that I am spending my time in spiritual exploration. I read and write and pray and meditate and think and engage in spiritual conversation. (I also do physical exercise like walking and swimming to keep the psychosomatic balance.) I've been doing this for seven months now. I get tired sometimes, but never bored.

All I am really interested in is the spiritual life. In truth that is all I have ever been interested in. I entered the ministry as a young man in order to get paid for living the spiritual life. I could immerse myself in spiritual things fulltime and also provide financially for my family. But I quickly found out that most of church work has nothing to do with spiritual things or spiritual people. And the finances weren't so good either.

After more than thirty years of ministry, my children have grown up and left home. My wife and I were enjoying the empty nest. Then, more and more, the church began to get in the way of my spiritual life. Church life was taking me away from God instead of bringing me into a closer walk with God. It was time to move on to the next phase of life.

In classical India, a person's life had four stages: student, householder, retirement and sannyasa. The sannyasi, the person in this fourth stage, is a spiritual pilgrim who devotes himself completely to the spiritual life. It is normally reserved for people over fifty years of age who have at least one grandchild. They are finished with worldly pursuits and are moving on to other things. 

That stage best describes where I am now. I am immersed in spiritual things - more than when I was in fulltime ministry. I am constantly reading, thinking, praying and exploring dimensions of the Spirit that I could not investigate as a pastor. As a pastor I was - in the best moments - the spiritual director, leader, teacher and caretaker of others. I was responsible for many people, and I took that job very seriously. I was focused on the needs of my flock.

I was a shepherd - the literal meaning of the word pastor. But I felt like the captain of a wagon train, always concerned with the next water hole and getting those families over the next desert or mountain pass. Now I feel more like a mountain man exploring the highlands above the tree line. The Jeremiah Johnson of the spiritual Rockies. And I love it. I am exploring landscapes I only viewed from a distance before.

So now when someone asks me what I do, I will still give the standard answers. But if someone seems genuinely interested in how I spend my time, I will show them snapshots of the highlands. 

Artwork is The Spiritual Pilgrim, (colorized) woodcut, c. 1530, Anonymous German

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Be Who You Is

God appeared to Moses in a burning bush on Mount Sinai, and he said, "I am who I am." God appeared in a man as Jesus on the Mount of the Beatitudes, and he said, "You are who you are."

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. "You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."

He didn't say, "Thou shalt be .... salt and light." No commandments here. He simply said, "You are the salt .... You are the light." He reminds us who we are....  as if we had forgotten. He reminds us to live from our essential nature.

Brennan Manning, author of Abba's Child, quotes an old African-American preacher of an earlier time. "Be who you is and not who you ain't, 'cause if ain't who you is, you is who you ain't."

These days this advice could easily degenerate into the narcissistic pampering of an already self-indulged ego. But Jesus - and the black preacher - were speaking of a deeper you. We are to be who we truly are.

According to Genesis we are created in the image of God. We are the divine image sculpted into human flesh. It is a concept that has always fascinated me.

An image is a representation, a picture, a reflection. We reflect God like a mirror reflects an object, like the moon reflects the light of the sun. We are to be a mirror reflecting God to others and reflecting God back to himself.

That is who we are. If we aren't, then we ain't who we is.

Artwork is "Hand with reflecting Sphere" by M.C. Escher.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Other Prodigal

I love to read the literature of the various religious traditions of the world. I am a Christian who hears echoes of God's grace throughout the world's cultures. Recently I came across a Buddhist version of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  It is in the Lotus Sutra, written in the first century before Christ in India. But there is no literary connection to the Gospel account, as far as I know.

In the Indian version a young man is the son of a wealthy father. He wants to be on his own, and so he takes his inheritance, leaves his home and travels into a far country. There he spends all his money and is soon destitute. Not only is he financially ruined, his mental health deteriorates as well. He forgets who he is. He is reduced to wandering the countryside begging for food.

In his wanderings, he eventually meanders back to his own country after many years. But he does not recognize his own land. He comes to his own city, but he does not recognize it. He comes to his father's estate. His own servants do not recognize him, and he does not recognize them.

But his father recognizes the beggar at his gate as his lost son. He immediately realizes that his son is not in his right mind and does not know who he is. The son asks for something to eat. The father offers to give him food in exchange for some work in the garden.

After the work is done and the food is eaten, the father praises the work of the young man and offers him a job as a servant on his estate in exchange for food and lodging. The young man cannot believe his good fortune and accepts the offer. Eventually the son works his way up to assistant gardener and then head gardener and finally becomes head steward over the whole estate.

Eventually the father offers to adopt the man and make him his heir. The son agrees. Only then does the father reveal his true identity and their true relationship. There follows a tearful reunion.

There are some differences between the Biblical and Indian stories. The Indian story has no repentance and no older brother. (Although one could argue that the two brothers are combined into a single son in the Buddhist tale.) These are significant differences worthy of exploration, but I will leave that task to the apologists. I choose to explore the similarities that reflect the commonalities of our human condition.

In both accounts the son is lost and is found. Both sons return home. Both forget who they are - in different ways. Both are beggars, and both are willing to assume the role of a servant. Both experience the father's love and grace. Both are embraced by their true identity and restored to their former status.

I forget who I am. I act like a beggar at the gate of the King, whereas I am the beloved child of the Father. I pray I may spend no more years in forgetfulness and spiritual poverty.

Art is The Return of the Prodigal Son by Charlie Mackesy, bronze sculpture.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Please Use Other Door

I have a pet peeve: signs on double doors that read "Please Use Other Door." My thought is this: Why have two doors if you are only allowed to use one? These are two perfectly good doors. Nice big double doors for XXL folks like me. Two doors that allow two people to walk abreast - one entering and one exiting. But one of the doors is locked shut.

If you want only one door to be used, why install two doors? What is the harm in allowing two people to enter and exit simultaneously? It makes no sense to me. Does it have something to do with safety and liability? If it is, I can't figure out the reasoning. They are glass doors. You can easily see the person on the other side of the other door. So why can't I use this door?

Does it have to do with the flow of traffic into the store? Does locking one door make for better access? How does that work? Will someone please tell me the reasoning behind "Please Use Other Door?"

Yesterday I went to my accountant's office to pick up my tax return forms. I guess I was in one of my "tea party" moods. Tax preparation tends to do that to me. There on the door was a "Please Use Other Door" sign. I rebelled. I tried to use the "Please Use Other Door" door. Of course it wouldn't be used.

I weighed my options. I stood there for a moment with my hand on the forbidden door, feeling like Eve with her hand on the apple. The receptionist at the desk inside the glass doors watched me, wondering what kind of idiot would use "this door" when it was clearly marked to use "the other door." There is even an arrow pointing me to the identity of the "other door" if I couldn't figure it out on my own. So I acquiesced. I used the other door, but I didn't like it.

I have decided that it must be the innate narrow-mindedness of door owners that forces people to use one door when there are two useful doors available. I think it is human nature to make people use "the other door" when they would rather use "this door."

The door lockers are exercising control over the door openers. Classic class struggle. Bourgeois door owners versus proletariat door users. Maybe there is a "door control" law that I am not aware of. It is probably those liberals again trying to protect us from the dangerous "other door." (By the way, it always seems to be the right door that is locked, forcing us to use the left door! Didn't Rush talk about that last week? Or was it Glenn Beck?)

Maybe I should start a "door party" movement. I wonder if Sarah Palin is available to speak. We want our door rights! I feel better now having gotten this off my chest. I only wish there was some spiritual point to make about all this. Something about a narrow way and a strait gate, or maybe the words, "I am the door." Hmmm. Maybe there is a spiritual lesson here!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

From Time to Eternity

The earthquake in Chile affected everyone on earth. We might not have been close enough to the epicenter to feel the earth shake, but it spun faster - ever so slightly - and we all lost some time... so they say. According to NASA, the earthquake that struck on February 27 was so powerful that it actually rocked the earth, causing it to shift on its axis, shortening the day by 1.26 millionths of a second.

It can be compared to a figure skater spinning. If the skater pulls in her arms, she spins faster. The earthquake caused the earth to pull in her mass slightly, prompting the planet to spin a little quicker, shortening our 24-hour daily rotation by a fraction of a second.

But that is nothing compared to other historical time shortages. Back in 1752 Americans lost eleven days! On September 3, 1752, England and its colonies replaced the Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar. People went to bed on September 2 and woke up the next morning to September 14.

Rumors spread that employees had lost eleven days pay. Tenants would have to pay eleven days rent that they didn't use. There were protests and riots in the streets. People believed that their lives had been shortened by eleven days. People marched on Parliament demanding their eleven days back.

When Augustine was asked "What is time?' he replied, "I know what it is, but when you ask me I don't." Our measurement of time is arbitrary. In reality there are no seconds or minutes or hours. These are human conventions used to measure the immeasurable. Humans are little time machines, creating the illusion of "time marching on." Even days and years are local phenomena - applicable only to our planetary neighborhood.

Furthermore physicists tell us that time beyond this solar system is flexible. Einstein theorized - and it has been proven by experimentation - that time slows down with speed and gravity. Theoretically it stops at the speed of light. Hence the Biblical truth that "God is light" and dwells in eternity.

The Bible says that to God "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." In other words, time is relative to God. I know I am waxing a bit philosophical here, but my point is that all we have is now. God is now, and we are now. The Kingdom of God is now.

Time is a human invention used to avoid the reality of the God who is the great "I Am." We have eternity in our hands, and we exchange it for the cheap plastic substitute that we call time. "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

What Would Jesus Sing?

Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Goshen, Indiana, has recently reversed a 116 year-old policy and will now play the national anthem before sporting events. Goshen College president Jim Brenneman said, "Playing the national anthem has not been among Goshen College's practices primarily because of our Christ-centered core value of compassionate peacemaking seeming to be in conflict with the anthem's militaristic language."

But now things are different. "We believe this is the right decision for the college at this time. Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another.... We believe being faithful followers of Jesus calls us to regularly consider how to be a hospitable and diverse community." (See article on college website.)

It is significant that a pacifist institution would now celebrate "the rockets' red glare, the bomb bursting in air" in the name of cultural diversity. It leads me to wonder.... what would Jesus sing? Would he proudly hail the broad stripes and bright stars gallantly streaming o'er the ramparts through the perilous fight?

After hearing so many national anthems played at the recent Winter Olympics, it makes me wonder if Mennonites in China would now sing the Chinese Communist national anthem or Mennonites in Iran sing the Iranian national anthem. Or is it just the American anthem that is now compatible with Anabaptist convictions?

Personally I have no problem with the American national anthem. I sing it proudly and pledge my allegiance to the flag and all that patriotic stuff. But then again, I am not a pacifist. I believe there is a need to fight just wars in a fallen world.

But I greatly value the testimony of the Anabaptist tradition that challenges me to question the limits of my patriotism. I admire their faithful adherence to a gospel of nonviolence. I would hate to see their prophetic voice compromised in the name of cultural inclusiveness.

So I will stand with the crowd, remove my cap, and sing of "the land of the free and the home of the brave." But I am saddened that there is no longer a Christian college that challenges my patriotism and makes me wonder if Jesus would sing along with me. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Clear Water Revival

When I am in prayer, I endeavor to quiet my mind so that I may apprehend the mind of God. For the Bible clearly tells us, "We have the mind of Christ." The mind of Christ refers, of course, to the indwelling Holy Spirit who takes up residence in our human spirit. My clouded thoughts get in the way of the clear thinking of the Holy Spirit, so I submit my mind to God.

Sometimes I imagine my mind as a body of water churned by the winds of my thoughts and the waves of my emotions. As I let the water calm, the silt settles to the bottom, and the water become clear. At such times it seems as if I can see through the veil of this human condition. With my heart still before God, I can get a little glimpse of heaven. "Be still and know that I am God."

That is how I interpret the meaning of Jesus' words, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." But I am under no illusion that this spiritual discipline can purify the waters of my soul. Though my mind may sometimes be relatively clear, the impurities are still there.

When we lived in New Hampshire, we enjoyed excellent drinking water drawn from our private well. Then the underground storage tank of the little general store across the street began to leak gasoline into the groundwater. It seeped into our well.

The benzene was eventually removed by an elaborate filtration system, but the additive known as MTBE could not eliminated. Our water looked perfectly clear, but it was unfit for human consumption. We had to have bottled spring water delivered to our door, paid for by the state of New Hampshire.

So is it with my heart. The spiritual filtration systems of my religious practices and spiritual disciplines cannot purify my heart enough for me to qualify as "pure in heart." I need pure spring water shipped in.

"And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.... And the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely."

Such is the grace of God. He makes the bitter waters of Marah sweet.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ocean of Mercy

It was the early 1970’s, and I had dropped out of college. I was “getting my life together,” as my mother told her friends. Actually I was in the final stages of a spiritual crisis that needed to be resolved before I could continue my education and pursue a career. To pay the bills during this spiritual search, I worked as a salesclerk in my grandfather’s hardware store in Salem, Massachusetts.

Every day during my lunch break I would go to one of two places. Sometimes I would walk to Salem’s old First Church, founded in 1629 by the Puritans, and sit quietly in the sanctuary. (This historic Unitarian congregation was the only church in town that kept its doors open during the day for people like me to come and pray.  Consequently this trinitarian Baptist still has a soft spot in his heart for Unitarians.)

If I wasn’t communing with universalists, I would drive my Ord down to the Salem Willows and sit by the ocean. (The F had fallen off my ’67 Fairlane, so I called it Ord.) Winter or summer I would sit by the sea and let the swells of the ocean soothe my soul. I learned to pray to the rhythm of the waves. I read through the New Testament for the first time while snacking on saltwater taffy.

The ocean became a spiritual companion to me. She was my mentor and teacher. She spoke to me the way the river spoke to Siddartha in Hermann Hesse’s novel. Later it was in a little Baptist church at the ocean’s edge that I placed my life in Christ’s hands. I was baptized in the ocean at a public beach while sunbathers gawked at a hippie going for a dip with his clothes on.

Though I now reside in western Pennsylvania, I still return to the ocean annually to enjoy the salt breeze, pay my respects, and listen. One thing the ocean has taught me is mercy. There is an old hymn written by an English preacher named Frederick Faber in the nineteenth century. He must have spent time at the ocean, because he also heard the song the ocean sings. “There's a wideness in God's mercy like the wideness of the sea.”

When I think of mercy it comes with the scent of seaweed and the sound of squawking gulls. I picture mercy like the wide expanse of the ocean. For me mercy is spaciousness. I know that is not the derivation of the Greek word used by the Gospel writers. Biblical scholars can set the etymological record straight. But for me mercy will always mean openness.

God opened up my clenched soul and dropped his mercy into it. The key to keeping God’s mercy alive is to keep our souls open, offering that gift of mercy to those who have closed their hearts against us. For when we try to keep mercy for ourselves, it flows through our fingers like water. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

Artwork is “The One Who Showed Mercy” by Christopher Koelle. Stone.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Earthquake Grace

On January 27, 16 year-old Darlene Etienne was pulled alive from the rubble after Haiti's January 12 earthquake. She had spent 15 days under a collapsed building without food or water. Then all was quiet.

A week went by ... and then more. Then on February 10, an emaciated 28-year-old man named Evans Monsigrace was pulled from the ruins of a marketplace where he had been cooking rice when the earthquake struck. He had survived 27 days buried in debris. I am wondering what similar stories will emerge from the Chilean earthquake.

Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." He is not talking about the growling of our stomachs when we miss a meal. He is speaking about the way that these Haitian earthquake victims hungered and thirsted, the way that some Chileans are hungering and thirsting at this moment.

I am amused by the nonchalance of the spiritual quest in America. I have seldom met anyone who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. I have met people who said they were on a spiritual search. I met people who were looking for a church, specifically one that "met their needs," by which they meant a congregation that had people, programs and facilities they liked.

Churches are now trained to attract such "seekers." Churches serve up seeker-sensitive worship services and seeker-friendly sermons. But my impression of seekers is that they are like people perusing at a department store. When asked if they need assistance, their reply is "Just looking, thanks." No urgency in the search. They are taking their time. They are shopping, not hungering. Jesus says that only those who hunger and thirst will be filled.

I don't want to get too theological here. People who truly hunger and thirst do not care what the food  is called or the list of ingredients in the drink. They just want to be filled. In ordinary language, righteousness is a sense of rightness on the inside that corresponds to a state of rightness on the outside. When we are right with God, then all is right with our souls. As the old hymn says, "It is well.... it is well with my soul."

Humans are trapped in the wreckage of a fallen world. We are trapped in the dark. We lay helpless in the ruins of our lives, hungering and thirsting and praying for rescue.  Sometimes by the grace of God, our cries are heard, and we are pulled emaciated from the rubble.

Evans Monsigrace's rescue is being called a miracle; he is being called the "miracle man of Haiti." I feel the same way about my rescue. It takes a miracle to save a person who thinks he is a seeker.