Wednesday, November 2, 2011

November Faith

There is something about the change of seasons that makes me contemplative. Perhaps it is the dewy web of moisture collecting in crescents on the windowpanes. Perhaps it is the nostalgic smell of wood smoke or the bittersweet ritual of putting away the outdoor furniture. Maybe it is seeing the early snow on the mountainsides.

When autumn moves toward winter, it makes me thoughtful. It might be all the funerals I have been conducting recently – funerals of old friends whom I will not see on Sunday mornings any longer. In any case November causes me to ponder things a bit more deeply.

There is a mystery in life that becomes more apparent at this time of year. The barrenness of nature is exposed. The trees lose their leaves, and suddenly we can see beyond the trees.

The world reveals a transparency. It feels like I can see deeper, further and more clearly. These are not the nice warm snapshots of summer or the colorful vistas of autumn. In November we see through things.

Through the barren trees we glimpse mystery. It is a mystery that is not acknowledged by the summery religion so popular these days.  Too often religion tries in vain to solve mysteries with doctrine and rituals. It attempts to give answers to questions that were never intended to be answered.

Some questions are simply meant to hang in the air and give voice to the depths of life. When life begins to reveal its barrenness, people ask, “Why? Why me? Why him? Why now?” There are no answers to these questions, except perhaps “Why not?” Such questions can only be met with faith.

Faith is living with questions without answers. Faith is laughing at stories told at funerals. Faith is smiling tears when you say goodbye. Faith is smelling spring while watching the first snow cover the pumpkins. Faith is living with the mystery of life.

Faith is experiencing the reality of God that is beyond the ability of words or thoughts to convey. Faith is the language of Spirit. It is wide and deep, infinite and immortal. It answers the unanswerable questions with groans and sighs.

That is why I like November. After the leaves fall, I can see the invisible.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Death of Death

A seminary student, who is a friend of mine, came to visit me today. He asked me how my new ministry in Sandwich, New Hampshire, was going after being on the job for six months. Specifically he asked what type of pastoral care issues I was dealing with in my church.

Only a colleague – especially one who had just finished a seminary course in pastoral psychology - would ask such a question. I pondered the question for a moment and then replied, “Grief.” There have been a lot of deaths in this small church in this small New Hampshire town.

We have also had personal grief. My mother-in-law passed away a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I spent an emotional weekend in Orlando for her service last weekend. In order to attend, I had to delegate a graveside service scheduled for that same day to another minister so I could officiate at my mother-in-law’s funeral.

Furthermore when we returned to New Hampshire Sunday night, we had not been home for more than a half-hour when I got a phone call from an old family friend. He had been trying to reach me all weekend to ask me to do his mother’s funeral the next day.  Of course I said I would.

Today a hospice chaplain asked me to cover for him, if needed, while he was on vacation. Again I said yes. For these reasons death has been on my mind a lot more than in my previous church, which was a younger congregation.

I have noticed that people use the word “pass” a lot nowadays to describe death. I guess it is a shortened form of the traditional phrase “pass away,” but it sounds strange to my ears. Passing is something I do on the highway while driving or playing cards or when someone at the dining table asks for the salt. I don’t think of death as passing. It sounds euphemistic.

I call death “death.” I intentionally use that dirty word “death” when talking to people who are dying and those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Naming the enemy helps to defang him. In the Harry Potter books and films, the evil archenemy Voldemort is always referred to as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” People will not say his name because they are afraid. The same is true of death.

Another person remarked to me recently that death is “so final.” Once again, I don’t think of it that way. I just finished reading the best-selling nonfiction book, “Heaven Is For Real,” the account of a little boy’s visit to heaven during a Near Death Experience. Anyone who thinks that death is final needs to pick up that book.

Death does not seem strange, unusual, or scary for me. I know the Bible calls it “the last enemy,” but it also says that it will be destroyed. I feel that the victory is already won. Death is defanged. It has no bite.

Seventeenth century Puritan John Owen wrote a theological classic entitled, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” (J. I. Packer's introduction to the book is almost as good.) Owen’s title sums up my attitude toward death. Christ’s death was a death-destroying act. Our faith in his death is a death-defying act. Death is dead. Long live life!

This past Lent I led a Bible Study about the death of Jesus. During the discussion, I made the uncensored comment that I knew what death felt like. My actual words were something like, “I know what it feels like to be dead.” The table full of people stared at me as if I had just said, “I see dead people.” (For the record, I don’t.)

What I mean is that I know what it will feel like to be dead because I know what it feels like to be eternally alive. I experience eternal life now, and I will continue to experience eternal life after the troublesome hiatus called death. I don’t hope for life after death; I live it.
Art is “Eternal Life Energy 1” by Kim Stapleton

Monday, June 20, 2011

Traveling to Tilton

Recently I attended the Alumni Weekend at my alma mater, Tilton School in Tilton, New Hampshire. When I attended Tilton in the 1960’s, it was a traditional boys prep school. Think of Hogwarts without the magic. Imagine “Goodbye Mr. Chips” New England style. We even had our own “Mr. Chips” a beloved master, and later headmaster, named John MacMorran, affectionately known as Mr. Mac.

It was a time of required chapel and formal dinners. Blazers and ties were the dinner attire, and tables were set with white tablecloths and cloth napkins. We learned table etiquette from the masters and wives, who sat with us and prompted us to engage in proper conversation.

2011 is not my reunion year, and so there was only one other member of my class in attendance for the weekend. I did not know him during my school years, and I did not meet him this time around. Apart from a meeting in the chapel and a meal under a tent, I spent most of my short time on campus wandering the campus buildings in the rain.

There were new buildings, of course, and the old buildings had been updated over the years. But I was surprised at how much was familiar. I was startled at how quickly the old feelings came back and how powerfully memories of my teen years returned.

The smells of the classroom building, the familiar sound of climbing the old stairwells, the arrangement of the furniture in the lobby, all brought back long-forgotten feelings. I felt like a character in a science-fiction movie who suddenly finds himself transported through time. If I looked in a mirror I thought I might see a fifteen year old with a bad haircut and acne staring back at me.

I missed the multi-media presentation on the schedule entitled “A Walk Down Memory Lane,” but I had my own personal walk. Even though it is summer, I could envision the front walk covered with snow. I could feel the weight of my tweed sport coat and long scarf with school colors.

I could hear the steam escaping from the old radiators and see the frost coating the single-paned windows. As I opened the door to my old dorm room, I half expected to see my old roommate sitting at his desk and listening to classical music on his record player.

I passed the door where I had sat on the floor of a master’s apartment while the Poetry Club analyzed T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I could taste the tea and remember the sound of Mr. Mac’s voice as we played cribbage in his bachelor apartment, a one-on-one habit that undoubtedly would be forbidden in our scandal-phobic society today.

I could picture the World War I vets sitting on the front porch of the New Hampshire Veterans Home as I walked past. I remember a trip to hear Satchmo play his horn at Plymouth State College and a trip to Franklin to see the new film, “Dr. Zhivago.” I remember the loneliness of being separated from my family, the kindness of the faculty, the thrill of being intellectually challenged by the academic material.

I remember a chapel sermon by the school’s chaplain about the spiritual impact of his military service in Korea. I even remember the title after all these years: “The Razor’s Edge” (undoubtedly borrowed from Maugham.) I remember visits to the chapel by Franciscan friars recruiting brothers for the monastic life.

I remember classes on Philosophy of Religion and Ethics taught by the chaplain. (Would a school offer such classes today?) I wonder now how much those religious discussions influenced my later decision to enter Christian ministry.

I was on campus for only a few hours on a Saturday. This busy pastor had to continue on to Concord that afternoon to visit a parishioner in the hospital, and then back to Sandwich to prepare for worship the next morning. But in those four hours I traveled over forty years.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A River Runs through Me

I spent the day in the mountains today and visited our favorite spots. One is the Swift River, which runs through the lower tier of the White Mountains. We stopped at Lower Falls. It is too early in the season for tourists – except on weekends - so we had the place to ourselves. The black flies drove back the few flatlanders who ventured out of their cars.

I sat on a rock in the middle of the river and listened to the water. Actually I listened to the voice that spoke beneath and through the waters. The quiet roar enveloped and suppressed all inner and outer noise.

Later we stopped to view a panorama of mountains. The expansive vista and the deep silence had the same effect on me as the river. The Spirit that inhabits the mountains also inhabits my soul. The Spirit draws out the silence of my spirit, and they echo together through these mountain valleys.

The quiet draws me in, and I disappear. I drown in silence. Thought ceases, and I momentarily cease as well.

I have felt this way throughout my life. They are sacred times. As a child, the ocean mesmerized me. As a boy the lake haunted me – especially on early morning fishing trips. As a teen, hiking these Appalachians inspired me to write a poem, which was published in our school’s literary magazine - to the chagrin of my teammates on the football team.

When I come in contact with the depths of nature, all thinking ceases. The voice of Creation “drowns out all music but its own” as the hymn says. At such times I can see most clearly. I know myself in a way deeper than words. And when I know myself, I notice the presence of God.

I catch glimpses of this also at other times - notably in prayer, meditation and worship. Music can do it; so can art. But the silence is loudest, and my own inner chatter the lowest, when I am in the wilderness.

Norman Maclean wrote a famous short story about fly-fishing in Montana. He writes of his experience:  “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I know what he means. The river runs through all things, and it runs through me.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pretty in Blue

In April I had surgery for skin cancer. It was originally scheduled for the middle of May, but there was a last minute cancellation. The doctor’s office called me up and asked if I could come to the office in Hanover in two days. I hesitated.

As everyone knows, Lent and holy week are important times in the church. I was not looking forward having this procedure done a couple of weeks before Easter. I did not like the thought of having a huge gash and large bandage decorating my forehead while leading the largest services of the year.

But I decided it was better to have this cancer removed sooner rather than later. After several hours in the doctor’s office and two sessions under the surgeon’s scalpel, I came home with a hole in my head, a two-inch scar and twelve stitches on my forehead (six on the inside and six on the outside.)

While the doctor was stitching me up, he asked if I was superstitious about the number six. I replied that I was glad there was not another row of six or I could be accused of having the “mark of the beast” (666) on my forehead.

The surgery was performed on a Thursday, and the pressure bandage removed on Saturday. When I took off the dressing on Saturday afternoon, the wound looked pretty bad. I debated whether to wear a large Band-Aid on my forehead during worship the next day or let the stitches show. I chose to go au naturel.

I explained during the sharing time in the service what had happened to my face. (My wife Jude had been telling people that she hit me over the head with a skillet, so I had to correct that rumor!) Before and after worship, people asked how I was doing and expressed their prayerful sympathy. 

But the best remark came after the service. As I walked out of the church, the family across the street (in the former parsonage) greeted me. I crossed the street to chat. (My daughter-in-law Sarah nannies for them, so I have gotten to know them.) Rachel was sitting on the steps while her two children, Gus and Leo, played nearby.

Five-year-old Gus took a look at my head and asked what happened. I explained the situation, and he was silent for a moment. Then he said, “It looks pretty. They’re blue!” (referring to the color of the stitches). I chuckled, thanked him, and pointed out that they matched my blue shirt. He agreed.

Only a child could look at a cancer incision and think it looked pretty. Only a child could see stitches as fashion accessories. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” He who has eyes to see, let him see beyond scars to the beauty which is at the heart of all existence.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture Ready

Today - May 21, 2011 – is the day the world ends, according to Harold Camping of Family Radio. To be more precise, today is supposed to be the Day of Judgment and the Rapture. The official End of the World is not supposed to happen for another five months.

Actually the Rapture is supposed to happen at exactly 6:00 PM – less than three hours from the time I am writing this blog. So if you are reading this on Saturday night or Sunday, then it didn’t happen… unless you are one of the unlucky ones left behind.

I am of mixed feelings when it comes to this much publicized event. Theologically I don’t believe it. Historically I know that the idea of the Rapture is a nineteenth century doctrine invented by a religious fringe group in England in the 1830’s. If it hadn’t found its way into the textual notes of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909, no Christian today would have heard of the idea.

In my opinion it is a misinterpretation of the Scripture passages describing Christ’s return. But that is just my opinion. Unlike Harold Camping, who is absolutely certain that his interpretation of Scripture is correct, I am not so sure of my hermeneutical skills. I am so fallible in so many areas, that the only thing I am certain about is that I am probably wrong in my interpretation of Biblical prophecy also.

I hope I am wrong. I would love to be whisked away into heaven in a couple of hours, holding hands with my wife as we are “caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” But that is unlikely to happen ... at least not this day. But a part of me is watching the clock and thinking, “What if this crazy old man is right?”

In one sense it must be today. Today is all there is. It is always only today. I have never experienced a tomorrow. Nor have I lived a yesterday. These temporal concepts are just thoughts occurring today. There is only ever today. As the apostle writes, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”

As he said elsewhere, “Now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed.” Jesus said to the thief dying on a cross next to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Christ was right … as he always is.

One of these todays will be the day that I will be with him in Paradise. What if it were today? Why not? One day it will be today! But probably not this today. I suspect that at 6:30 PM I will be watching the ABC Evening News and there will be no reports of Christians mysteriously disappearing from airplane cockpits and living room sofas.

So I have my sermon prepared for tomorrow, and I am pretty sure I will be around to deliver it, and that I will have a congregation to deliver it to. There are no references in it to the Rapture, Judgment Day or the End of the World - just practical advice for living the spiritual life today. I am wondering that type of sermon Harold Camping will preach to his flock tomorrow. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nothing comes from Nothing... and Vice Versa

That which is born will die. It is a universal law. Have you ever known it to be otherwise? That which comes into existence will one day cease to exist. Humans come into existence. Therefore one day we will cease to exist.

That which exists must have its source in what is eternal. How can it be otherwise? How else could it exist? As the von Trapps taught us in The Sound of Music, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.”

The Scriptures speak of eternal life. If we have eternal life, then we must be – or be one with - that which does not die.  The ground of our being is eternal – the One who says, “I am who I am.”

The Scriptures teach that God spoke us into existence. We are the words of God – nothing more and nothing less. God formed us as his words and breathed into us the breath of life. We are divine speech - vibrations from the mouth of God, animations of his breath.

But we forget this reality until the Word of God awakens us and redeems us from our wordlessness. He tells us who we are. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world! Let your light shine!”

The secret of meaningful life is to hold this truth in faith. The key is to experience this truth in our lives - to be who we are. When we know who we are, our eyes are open to the world as it is. We see the Kingdom of Heaven around us and within us.

Nothing comes from nothing. Being comes from being. That is eternal life. That is abundant life now.
Art is “de nihilo nihil,” crayon and pastel, Frank Baranowski

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Mind of Christ

“For ‘who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16)

The apostle does not say we will have the mind of Christ. He does not say we should have the mind of Christ or can have the mind of Christ. He says unequivocally, “We have the mind of Christ.”

It is a reality now. He contrasts it to the old understanding of God voiced by Isaiah in the first half of the verse, in which the prophet assumes that we cannot know the mind of the Lord.

But now something is different. The coming of Christ changed things. Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost changed us. We have the mind of Christ.

In other words, I am of two minds. I am doubled-minded. I have a mind of my own, and I have the mind of Christ.

Of the two, I prefer Christ’s mind. My mind is pretty muddled sometimes. My mind gets things wrong most of the time. I do not understand things. I misunderstand things. But Christ is God. He knows the mind of God. And we have the mind of Christ.

Psychiatrists talk about left-brain and right-brain thinking, referring to the two hemispheres of the brain, which process things very differently. The same is true of our Christ mind and our own mind. Christ views things from the perspective of eternity. He sees how everything works together in perfect harmony.

“Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 6:26-27)

The mind of Christ thinks God’s thoughts. It sees the world through God’s eyes. It feels with God’s heart.

Paul tells us elsewhere to “have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus….” We are invited to set aside our way of thinking and embrace Christ’s perspective – to be single-minded instead of our usual double-mindedness.

This is not far away or out of reach. It is not an ideal. It is our natural spiritual state here and now. For we have the mind of Christ.

(Art is stained glass window at Central Christian Church, Orlando, Florida)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Wreath Police

I have been cited for a serious social infraction. This time it is not a moving violation ticketed by a local police officer or a state trooper. (Thank goodness! I have enough of those!)

This time I was sitting at a community meal in the basement of the church when I was informed of my offense. Two local members of the “wreath police” informed me that I still had a Christmas wreath hanging on our front door.

Apparently it is a serious faux pas in this community to have Christmas decorations visible beyond the first day of spring. It should have been removed by Valentines Day, I was told. Ash Wednesday would have been acceptable. But the vernal equinox is absolutely the latest permissible date for yuletide hangings.

People keep track of such things around here. They noted there are still eighteen offenders in our small community. I am one of them. My offence is particularly offensive because my home is in the center of the village for all to see. Furthermore as the local church pastor I am expected to set an example.

I pleaded for mercy. I told them that I had not been able to reach my front door since I purchased the house in January. There are still feet of snow and ice blocking my front door, prohibiting access.

I explained that it is not even my wreath. The previous owners left it on the door. I didn’t even want it! They should have taken it with them. If anybody should be blamed, it should be them. I told them that I had the former owners’ new address in Vermont if they needed it.

Nope. It is my responsibility now. Local social mores clearly state that the present owner is the responsible party for all decorative infractions.

Well it is April now, and we just got a few more inches of snow. I don’t think I will be digging out the front steps anytime soon. There is a good chance that the wreath may still be hanging there on Easter Sunday. I am wondering if the severity of the offense increases when the violation extends beyond the next Christian holy day.

But I have an idea. I am thinking of calling it an Easter Wreath. I’ll stick a few Easter lilies in it and start a new tradition. I am sure that Easter decorations are acceptable at least until Memorial Day. By then the snow ought to be melted enough to take it down. If not, I will just call it my Fourth of July Wreath. Anyone have any little American flags?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fire Tending

I had never owned a woodstove before this year. But this winter – and this early spring - I find myself tending a fire regularly. We do not heat our home exclusively with wood, but most nights I build a fire in the box. I do it to save money on our propane bill and simply for the joy of it.

We have one of those woodstoves with a glass front through which you can view the fire burning. So we have the ambience of a fireplace while heating the house more efficiently than with an open fire.

I find it difficult to take my eyes off the fire. When I am reading or watching television, I find my eyes drawn irresistibly to the stove – to see if it needs more wood or just to watch the movement of the flames. It is so much more interesting then the flickering images on TV.

There is something mesmerizing about fire … and something very spiritual. Fire is a universal symbol for the divine. In the Hebrew Scriptures, sacrifices were offered through fire. In the Vedas, fire was the primary focus of Hindu worship.

The Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in tongues of fire at Pentecost. God appeared to Moses in a burning bush. There is something about fire that connects us to the spiritual realm.

Tending a fire feels like a spiritual practice. It is like tending to the spiritual life. A fire needs watching; so does the soul. Without attention, the flames die down and quickly go out. So does the fire of the soul.

There is nothing so dead as a cold woodstove. There is nothing colder than a dead soul. On the other hand there is nothing that warms the heart more than a blazing fire on a cold night.

I will leave it to the reader’s imagination to explore the details of this symbolism. How does one tend the fire of the soul? What is the fuel? What is the flame? Who is the one who tends the fire?

An ordinary wood fire easily becomes a complex allegory in the mind of a preacher sitting by his woodstove on a cold night. Undoubtedly my imagination is going too far. But how can I not speculate? The fire inspires.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thaw of the Soul

It is March and the intermittent thaws send water flowing in the streets. Melting snow finds its path across roads, making its way into the lakes.

As I drive down Squam Lake Road, the water seems impatient with the customary routes of creeks and brooks. Water dashes in wide swaths across the road, seeking its rest in the mountain lake.

The sight stirs my soul. My inner being feels this way about God. My soul races toward God. I could not stop it any more than I could stop water from flowing downhill.

My soul seeks its home in God. My soul came from God and will return to God. In the meantime I sojourn here.

The soul is God’s. It is deeper and stronger than my mortal personality. It hungers for God. It flows from God. It empties into God.

I could not stop its flow if I wanted. But I do not want to stop it. Indeed, I wish to follow it to its Source. I ride the current of my soul like a twig carried by a river.

Revelation says there is a river that flows from the throne of God and flows through the streets of the New Jerusalem. I know what path it takes. It flows through my soul.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Fifty Thousand Thoughts

I was watching a new episode of the television show “House” recently and saw a segment called “House Call.” It is a fifteen second spot that presents interesting medical facts. This one was entitled “Thoughts.” (You can watch it here.) It stated that humans have about 50,000 thoughts a day. That is 2083 thoughts per hour or one thought every 1.2 seconds. That is almost as many junk emails as I get!

I have been thinking about those thoughts. It seems like an awful lot of thoughts. It does not leave much time for other things. But I know that it is true. My mind is a never-ending thought-producing machine.

Many of my thoughts are repetitive cycles of thoughts. I continuously rehearse the past or speculate about the future. Too many of the thoughts are negative. I read Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking” years ago. It didn’t help. The more I try not to think negative thoughts, the more they appear.

It is like someone saying, “Don’t think of pink elephants.” Well, of course pink elephants pop into your mind. Then I start thinking of whether they are African or Asian elephants, and how a pink elephant could be born of a regular elephant, and where that recessive gene could have come from, and so on.

After thinking so many worthless thoughts, I have decided that thinking does not get me anywhere.  Even when I think godly thoughts, they don’t seem to bring me closer to God. Thinking thoughts about God keeps me bound to my restless mind instead of enjoying rest in the Spirit. Thinking about God becomes a substitute for experiencing God.

Thinking seems to erect a barrier to God. That is a rather disturbing thought for a pastor. I have been trained as a theologian. My job is to think about God and communicate those thoughts to my congregation in thoughtful sermons. It’s what I do; I’m a preacher.

But this preacher is thinking that thinking is an inadequate approach to God. It is all right as far as it goes; it just doesn’t go far enough. At some point in your thinking you come to the limit of thought. Then all you can do is point beyond thoughts in the direction of God.

You often have to use words to point, but they are words that point to the Reality beyond thoughts. They are triggers of faith. Faith is not believing thoughts for which there is insufficient evidence. Faith is stepping beyond thoughts into the realm of Spirit.

Faith is resting in the Ground beneath thoughts. It is living in the space between thoughts. If we have 50,000 different thoughts a day, then there are also 50,000 spaces between the thoughts, however brief they may be. That is where we meet God - fifty thousand times a day. What a glorious thought! Our minds are filled with God. We just have to know where to look!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Unused Door

I recently bought a house with a front door that is not used. I am not the only one with such a door. It is quite common in this area to have unused front doors. People use their side doors, back doors and porch doors instead. There is an unspoken rule that front door entry is inappropriate.

I visited some friends’ home a few days ago, and they have a table barricading the front door to make sure no one will mistake it for a usable door. My front door has insulation stapled between the inner and outer doors to make sure that everyone (including the new owner) gets the point.

I think the door may also be nailed shut; I will find out in the spring when I can access the door from the outside. The snow bank that buttresses the front steps makes it impossible for anyone to approach that door now. At least I think there are front steps. I don’t really know. They were snowbound when we arrived in January, and I have never actually seen them.

The outside of our front door is unpainted as if to announce to the world that it is not to be used. It is neglected-looking gray wood, in contrast to the fresh paint that coats the rest of the house. It is a color code that shouts to UPS and FedEx drivers: “Use some other door!”

I am not sure why front doors are unused. Often the used door is harder to access than the front door. When we moved into our house in January, it would have been easier to carry our furniture through the unused front door. It is bigger and opens directly into a large room. In contrast, our side door opens into a narrow hallway with an immediate tight turn that makes it difficult to maneuver larger pieces of furniture.

Having a spiritual bent, I have been pondering the spiritual significance (if any) of unused front doors. For example, does God’s home have an unused front door? If Jerusalem is God’s hometown and the temple is “the house of God,” perhaps it does!

Jerusalem’s front door – the Golden Gate that faces east and was the main entrance to the Temple Mount in Jesus’ day – stands unused. It has been blocked for nearly five centuries. If you want to enter Jerusalem, you have to go in one of the side doors.

According to Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) used to appear through this front gate. Tradition says that this is the gate through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. For that reason the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Great sealed the Golden Gate in 1541 to prevent the Messiah's entry. Muslims built a cemetery in front of the gate to emphasize the point.

It makes me wonder if there is a spiritual significance to unused front doors. Is it symbolic? Is it psychological? Does it represent the door of our souls? Jesus’ words suddenly have greater significance.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” If you hear knocking at your unused front door, now you know what to do.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Divinity of Space

I am sitting in my study looking out at the sun shining on the snow. It is a February thaw, and I can see the water dripping steadily from the eaves. Out by our shed, I can see the picket fence that separates our property from our neighbors. The sun shines through the wooden slats, casting dark shadows on the bright snow. Beyond the fence are second-growth trees stretching up a slight knoll.

I am suddenly aware of the spaces between everything. The spaces between the dripping water drops, the spaces between the pickets, the spaces between the shadows, and the spaces between the trees. I am even aware of the open space of the glass door that allows me to view the space beyond.

The spaces are what create the objects. There are no drops of water without space between them, no pickets without the spaces between them, no shadows without the contrast with the light.

Then I am aware of the space between my thoughts. The spaces distinguish thought from thought. I hear some music drifting in from the living room where my wife is babysitting our grandson. The spaces between the notes create the music. The spaces in the paintings on my wall produce beauty. Thespacesbetweentheletterscreatethewords.

Because the spaces are so important, I decide to dwell in the spaces for a while – the spaces between sounds, the spaces between thoughts, the spaces between emotions, the spaces between breaths, the spaces between heartbeats.

In the Old Testament it is said that God dwelled in the space between the wings of cherubim on the ark of the covenant. There was nothing there to identify the presence of God. No image like other religions had. No symbol. No writing. Just empty space.

Yet in the emptiness is God. No physical, verbal or mental image can communicate God. No doctrine captures God; God dwells in the space between ideas. Even today the Jews do not speak the Biblical name of God. They know that no name is adequate.

The same is true of prayer. I pray with words, but God dwells between the words. God lives in the silence between my sentences and thoughts. So I spend most of my prayer time in the empty space where God dwells. In that space is peace. In that space is truth. In that space is God.

Photo is “After the Snow” by Solo

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Day in Court

A few days before we moved from Pennsylvania I went to court. It was nothing serious. When we had our auto accident in December, the police officer gave me a traffic citation. The charge was “driving at a safe speed for the road conditions.” He meant “unsafe speed” but I took the words written on the ticket literally. I thought I was driving at a safe speed!

It was the day after a snowstorm and the road was all snow and ice. I was driving slowly down a country road when my tire caught the berm. The car began to skid and sheared off a utility pole, deploying our airbags and totaling our car. Thankfully we were unhurt.

The officer apologized for giving me a ticket, saying he “had to do it.” Being the ornery guy I am, I “had to” challenge it. I figured it was not my driving, but the unsafe road condition that was to blame.

So I had my day in District Court. The police officer didn’t show up. The judge said that since there wasn’t any evidence against me, he declared me “Not Guilty” and dismissed the $100 fine. Vindicated!

I knew I was not guilty. At least I think I was. To tell the truth I was not sure how fast I was going, even though I know I was traveling under the speed limit. Perhaps it was a little too fast for the road conditions … But I shouldn’t have been issued a ticket. My conscience is clear…. I think. In any case the judge has spoken, and that settles it.

One thing I didn’t tell you is that I have a friend who is a judge. Not the judge of my case; my judge friend is a friend of this judge. When I explained my situation to my friend, he shared his expertise. He did not “fix it.” I would not have asked him to do that, but it doesn’t hurt to have a judge on your side.

“Our Daily Bread” recently printed a story about Ffyona Campbell, who was famous as the first woman to walk around the world. But the truth was she cheated. She had broken the guidelines of the Guinness Book of World Records by riding in a truck a short distance during the trip. To clear her conscience, she confessed her deception and forfeited the right to be listed in the record book.

The apostle Paul says that all people have “the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, their thoughts sometimes accusing or else excusing them.” Whether or not people believe in God or a divine moral code, each person has an inner moral compass that tells them right from wrong.

All of us are accused by our conscience sometimes for doing wrong. That is judgment.The Christian gospel provides a way to clear our conscience and have us declared “not guilty.” That is the power of the gospel. It is the power of inner peace that comes from a clear record.

Only one man in history has ever claimed to have the authority to judge the world and also the ability to free the guilty. Jesus said that he came to save the world and was returning one day to judge the world.

Either he was mistaken, or the early church got it wrong when they quoted him, or it is true. Personally I believe him. In any case, it is always good to have the judge as a friend. What a friend we have in Jesus!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cold Weather Spirituality

It is cold up here in the mountains! On Sunday afternoon we arrived at our new home in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and were welcomed by an overnight low of about 18 degrees below zero. Some reports put it at 24 below; others said it was only 14 below. I don’t know exactly how cold it was, but it was cold enough.

We opened the cabinet doors under the kitchen sink and kept the water dripping on all the faucets just to make sure that the pipes didn’t freeze. The last time we lived here, we practiced this ritual in the parsonage whenever the mercury dipped below zero. If we didn’t, we would be waterless in the morning. The joys of country living!

Cold does something to me emotionally. It makes me cautious. I am more careful about where and how I drive, just in case I get stranded in the cold. I am careful how long I stay outside, how far I walk, and what I wear. I have been on the phone with the propane company making sure that I have enough propane in the tank. It is not the type of weather to run out of heating fuel. I have some wood for the woodstove, just in case.

The cold makes me very aware of my vulnerability and mortality. It makes me more prayerful. I prayed while driving here from Pennsylvania as the auto thermometer read below zero for hour after hour. I prayed for others on the road. When we arrived in New Hampshire, I prayed a prayer of thanks. When I woke up the next morning and found my pipes intact and the furnace running, I prayed another prayer of gratitude.

The cold makes me feel my dependence on God. I realize that if I lived here a couple of hundred years ago – back when my church here was founded – then the cold could have killed me. So could a myriad of diseases that are treatable now. When transportation was horse and wagon and not heated automobile, one risked one’s life to travel.

You could say that the cold is good for my soul. It makes me very thankful to God. It makes me grateful for what I have. It makes me more appreciative of friends. The cold fosters community. People here find occasions to get together for meals and fellowship.  Cabin fever is a real malady up here. The cure is fellowship.

The cold also encourages fellowship with God. Not for everyone of course. It keeps many away from church rather than bringing them out. Many Yankees just hunker down at home and tough out the winter months. But the cold has the opposite effect on me. It melts my heart and softens my soul. It strengthens my spiritual bond with God and others.

Don’t get me wrong! I will be glad to see the spring come! I will be thanking God for the muddy roads. (Look for a blog on “mud season spirituality!”) But in the meantime I will practice the spiritual discipline of cold weather spirituality. They are predicting a low of 16 below zero this Sunday. Perfect worship weather!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Return of the Pastor

 After being a fulltime pastor for over thirty years, I took some time off to catch my breath and get my bearings. To tell the truth, I had gotten lost in the job.

Just yesterday I was telling my wife that I had given my heart to my last church, and somehow I lost my heart. The emotions swirling around the position of pastor, especially when denominational politics got involved, was more than I could take. I needed to step back for a while.

After 1½ years of true sabbatical, I am returning to fulltime ministry next month. I have already had a foretaste of it before I step foot on my parish turf. I am already a part of the joys and sorrows of my new congregation via telephone, Facebook, and email.

In his book, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile,” John Shelby Spong reflects on what it meant for him to go through the stages of professional Christian ministry – to be a university student, a seminary student, a pastor, and then a bishop. Regarding being a pastor he writes:

“One who has not walked in the shoes of the ordained pastor will never understand what it means to be wrapped in the images of antiquity, to be related to by others out of experience that you did not shape, to be loved and trusted far beyond any deserving on your part, and to be hated and feared beyond any cause to which you have contributed. People invest their lives in their designated spiritual leader, and the responsibility is awesome.”

Bishop Spong describes the experience of being a pastor well. It is a whirlwind of images and expectations over which the pastor has no control. It is certainly true that no one but a pastor can understand the pastor’s life … except the pastor’s spouse!

When you are a pastor you are not yourself. You are the projection of all the ideas and emotions that people have about clergy and church – both good and bad. Seldom do people really see you. They see who they think you are or who they want you to be. The danger is that you begin to see yourself the way that others see you.

In speaking about his role as a bishop, Spong goes on to say: “I discovered that I lived inside God-sized expectations that I could never fulfill, and simultaneously I recognized that no one else could deal with those realities but me….”

This reminds me of the plaque that a pastor got from his congregation for “Pastor Appreciation Month.” It read “Pastor: The reason that you mean so much to me is that when I look at you, it is Jesus whom I see.” After worship a little girl once shyly stared at me at the church steps and asked her mom, “Is that God?” Just for the record, I’m not God; I’m not even Jesus.

For more than a year, I have simply been me – sitting in a pew, preaching occasionally, writing a lot – enjoying being a husband, father, grandfather and friend. Soon I will be a pastor again. 

This time I will try to remember who I am. Not the reflection I see in the faces of my parishioners, but the reflection I see in the depths of prayer. Just a sinful man, a wounded healer, trying to fulfill his God-given ministry the best I can.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In the Crosshairs

The current national conversation about the Arizona shootings is getting bizarre. In a time when the country needs to be grieving and supporting those who grieve, the news media are on a witch-hunt. There is the assumption that someone must be to blame for this tragedy, and they are out to find him or her.

So they blame Sarah Palin! What? How does “targeting” a congressional district for an election victory have anything to do with a mass murder committed by a crazed gunman? I am not a Palin fan, but that is far-fetched by any standard.

Palin’s “blood libel” remark does not help anything; it amounts to accusing the media of anti-Semitism. Where did that come from? The fact that Congresswoman Giffords is Jewish makes this comment even more confusing.

Then the media blames the shooter’s family. They blame the lack of gun control laws in Arizona. They blame the mental health system. They blame the community college he was expelled from. The assumption is that someone must be at fault. Blame, blame, blame. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

As a Christian pastor I know something about guilt and blame. The history of Christianity is filled with it. I have seen preachers and churches manipulate people by guilt and blame. It doesn’t work; it just makes things worse.

The reality is that tragedies happen. People snap. Violence occurs. All the gun control laws and mental health evaluations in the world will not stop it. Some people are just crazy. Others are downright evil. Sin runs deep in the human heart.

We need to stop blaming others for everything that happens in this country. This goes for both right and left, Democrat and Republican. Shootings like this will happen.  Violence is instinctive to the human animal.

We are violent by nature and sinners by choice. Our animal nature and our spiritual nature collude to ensure that that there will always be acts of violence. Ever since Cain killed Abel, man has been killing man. It can’t be bred, educated or legislated out of human nature.

What can we do about it? First, let’s not overreact. Let’s tone down the rhetoric – from the left and the right. Such vitriol is verbal violence that can only lead to more violence. 

Second, preserve personal freedom at all cost. The gut reaction is to try to fix this situation somehow, and that fix is often assumed to be some form of new legislation or regulation. But the cure may be worse than the disease. Never give government the power to solve a problem when there is some other option; government intervention should be a last resort.

Third, let us examine ourselves. Why are we reacting the way we are to the shooting? What emotions does the crazed image of Jared Loughner evoke from the depths of our heart?

Let us examine our own anger, our own hatred, our own fears, and our own prejudices. Let the crosshairs settle onto our own soul.  Then we may learn what is causing us to blame others.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Huckleberry Jesus

You have likely heard about the new edition of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” After being banned from many school libraries, the classic is finally now becoming "sivilized." 127 years after first being published, Huck Finn is being edited for offensive language.

The revision is meant to eliminate certain unacceptable words, most notably the dreaded “N-word.” (I dare not even print it here, lest I be accused of insensitivity.) In spite of the fact that the racial slur is routinely used by African American youth and can be heard in music over the airwaves, it cannot be tolerated in American classrooms. The 219 uses of the “N-word” will now be changed to “slave.”

Huck’s Jim is not the only one getting an extreme makeover. Tom Sawyer’s “Injun Joe" is now "Indian Joe." (Why didn’t they go all the way and make him Native American Joe?) No longer is he a "half-breed;" he is now a "half-blood" (apparently so Harry Potter fans can understand it better.)

I am wondering if the Bible is next on the censors’ list. There is certainly much "hurtful" and "injurious” language and behavior in Scripture. On one occasion Jesus referred to Gentiles as dogs. On another occasion he accused Jews of being children of the devil.

In the Old Testament, God instructs the Hebrew armies to do what would be considered “war crimes” today. The Levitical laws of the Bible make the present–day enforcement of Islamic Sharia law look compassionate in comparison. The death penalty was routinely prescribed for what today would be considered personal preferences.

Any nation or regime that literally enforced the Torah would be instantly condemned for human rights violations. Mark Twain’s offenses against modern sensitivities pale in comparison to those of Holy Writ. Any of the so-called New Atheists can give you an exhaustive list of the moral offenses of Scripture and Scripture’s God.

I am not one to defend the morality of ancient Israelites of 3000 years ago or Christians of 2000 years ago. Nor do I feel the need to defend Biblical injunctions against their modern day critics. For the same reason I do not feel the need to defend the language of Mark Twain or censor American classics.

I do not have to like the vocabulary choices of Sam Clemens to appreciate his writings or the social message he was trying to convey. I do not have to advocate the death penalty for Sabbath-breakers or children who curse their parents to appreciate the principle behind the biblical laws.

Every work of literature is a product of its time. That is true of Christian scripture and American literature. Every author – whether 19th century or first century – is a reflection of the culture in which he lived. The key to understanding scripture or literature is to be able to hear the message without getting sidetracked by the cultural language in which the message is communicated.

After interpreting the Bible publicly for 35 years, I can tell the difference between the medium and the message. That is an art that is not practiced in schools today. Instead educators feel the need to rewrite literature to accommodate the feelings of the delicate American psyche.

How long will it be before the Bible is rewritten? Look in your local Christian bookstore soon for the New PC Testament (Illustrated). It has a Jesus sanitized of all references to hell and judgment, and the gospel without the gory violence of the cross. It omits the whole Book of Revelation altogether! What remains is a picture of Christ as a glassy-eyed Sage, mouthing inoffensive platitudes and pleasantries.

As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Mystery of Grace

Here is another excerpt from Thomas Merton’s “Thoughts in Solitude” and some of my thoughts on his thoughts. He is writing on the subject of “contemplative souls” finding God in prayer.

“And how do they find Him? By technique? There is no technique for finding Him. They find Him by His will. And His will, bringing them grace within and arranging their lives exteriorly, carries them infallibly to the precise place in which they can find Him. Even they do not know how they got there, or what they are really doing.”

When I was a young believer, the first teaching I gave to my college campus fellowship was on the topic of prayer. Specifically it was how to have one’s prayers answered. I did a quick tour of the relevant New Testament scriptures on answered prayer (assisted mightily by R. A. Torrey’s book “How to Pray”) and presented a foolproof method for having one’s prayers heard and answered by the Almighty.

Nearly forty years later I realized that I was the one proven to be the fool. There is no foolproof technique for answered prayer… or anything else in the spiritual life. In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott writes: "Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ I concur.

As I sat in the oral surgeon’s chair this week, I had time to pray … both before and during the surgery. In fact I had been praying for days leading up that endodontical encounter. My only technique was “Help me, help me, help me.” It was sufficient. Now I pray “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

It is all a matter of grace. I do not know why God found me and called me, especially when so many others do not seem to experience that sense of grace. I do not know why God keeps ahold of me in spite of all my wanderings. I do not know why he continues to preserve me and use me.

My only answer is that there is no answer. There is no answer to all the great “Why” questions we ask of God. The questions that arise in our souls during difficult times - such as pain, evil, injustice, and healing or lack of it - have no theological or philosophical resolution this side of eternity. The only answer I know – and it is more than sufficient for me - is the mystery of God’s grace.

To quote Anne Lamott again: “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”