Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Best Christmas Blog Ever

I wrote an interesting post for this blog. I think it might have been my best blog post ever. It was all about Advent and Christmas and how God works in your life. It was called “Planting Grass in Winter.” Too bad you will never read it.

I lost it. No, my dog did not eat my homework. I don’t have a dog. My cat did not eat it either. The hard drive on my laptop crashed, and I lost it. It was a good thing that I had just printed the week’s sermon an hour earlier, or my congregation would have gotten an excuse like this on Sunday morning.

I had backed up most of my important documents, but I lost everything I had been working on that day, including that article and some other things. I also lost all my software because I did not have the good sense to make a recovery disk.

Then I lost a lot of time calling the retail store where I bought the computer (they weren’t any help) and the computer manufacturer, (more helpful). I spent quality time listening to elevator music while on hold waiting to talk with a human. The laptop was only six months old! It should not have failed. I was not a happy preacher. The bad holiday music did not help.

But then I thought: why not make lemonade? You know, when life gives you lemons ….  Life always throws us curves. Things never turn out the way we expect. We are traveling along the road of life, minding our own business, when all of a sudden our hard drive crashes. Or something more serious.

A broken computer is a minor inconvenience compared to other things that come our way. Cancer, Alzheimer's, divorce, family conflict, death, financial problems, etc. But the principle is the same. We can catch the pass we are thrown or fumble the ball. (I’ve been watching the Patriots.)

Personally I believe that God is in control and that all things work out for good, even when I cannot see the good clearly. That goes for holidays. Christmas never turns out exactly like we expect. The Norman Rockwell paintings are not always replicated in our dining rooms.

Even the first Christmas did not turn out the way Mary and Joseph planned. A barn in a strange town was not Mary’s first choice of birthing venues. Fleeing the murderous intentions of King Herod and living as refugees in Egypt was not Joseph’s plan for his son’s early childhood years.

But then there was the good stuff too. Serenaded by angels, the star of Bethlehem, visited by kings – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Pretty cool! God knows how to do it right, even if it is not how we would have done it.

The holidays might not turn out exactly the way we want. That is alright. It is even alright to be sad when things are not the way we want. That is why we have a Blue Christmas service at our church. The holidays don’t have to live up to society’s expectations. God is still in control, just like he was the first Christmas.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Invisible Epidemic

The subject of suicide is taboo. It is spoken about in hushed voices. Indeed, some people may not be happy that I am addressing it in this spiritual blog. Why not write about something more uplifting and inspirational? But a recent UN report has shocked me into addressing the issue.

A study by the World Health Organization was released in September. It is the UN agency's first report on the subject. It analyzed data on suicides from 172 countries and took a decade to compile. It found that there are more than 800,000 suicides a year. That is one every forty seconds.

Someone will take their own life before you get halfway through this article. It is likely that the rate is actually much higher than this figure because suicide tends to be unreported for cultural reasons.

The statistic that really caught my attention was that suicide kills more people each year than military conflicts and natural catastrophes combined. Suicide accounts for more than half of the world's 1.5 million violent deaths annually. Many more die of suicide than homicide.

My first reaction was: why am I only hearing about this now? Every night on the evening news I am subjected to reports of wars, school shootings, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders, and terrorism. But suicide kills more people than all of these! Why is no one reporting this?

As a pastor I regularly deal with people having difficulty dealing with the stress and emotional traumas of life. I have become acutely aware of the lack of adequate mental healthcare in our nation. It takes too long and is too difficult to obtain adequate care. Health insurance coverage is inadequate, as well as the number of beds available in facilities that treat mental illness.

How about the religious dimension of suicide? Is it a sin? I hear people say that Christianity teaches that those who commit suicide are condemned to hell. No, it does not!

Nearly everyone I have known who has died in this manner has died of mental illness, in my opinion. Most died of depression. Depression is a physical illness just as much as cancer or heart disease. It just happens to affect the brain instead of some other body organ, but it is just as deadly when left untreated.

Mental Illness is a serious problem in our nation. Even though the suicide of the young gets most of the media attention, this report said that the highest rate of suicide is among those over 70 years of age. Furthermore the rate is higher in wealthy countries than low and middle-income nations. That fits the demographic of my town of Sandwich, New Hampshire, USA.

Suicide is an invisible epidemic. It is not listed in obituaries as a cause of death and seldom mentioned at funerals. Sometimes only the family knows – and the preacher. It is widely talked about only when a celebrity dies. Then it hits the headlines for a little while, inspires copycat suicides, but is soon replaced with more profitable news.

If you, or someone you love, is depressed or suffering from mental illness, please seek help. Talk to your family, your primary care physician and your pastor. The New Hampshire suicide hotline is (603) 225-9000 or 1-800-852-3388. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Go to the ER if that is your only immediate option. Depression does not have to be a terminal illness … or an invisible one. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Community Church

It is now official. As of September 3 we are the Community Church of Sandwich! It feels strange to say that name. I have known this congregation as the Federated Church of Sandwich for over thirty years. Many of you have known it by that name for much longer than I have.

It will be strange to write out my tithe check each week to the Community Church and see it on our website and Facebook page. It feels strange on my tongue to now tell people that I am the pastor of the Community Church of Sandwich.

Part of me will be sorry to see the old Federated Church name move into the history books. Part of me is glad not to have to explain one more time what a federated church is! Mostly I am excited about entering a new phase of our life as a Christian community in Sandwich.

As I ponder our new name, my first thought is koinonia. That is the Greek word used in the New Testament for community or fellowship. It is the unique quality of divine love that binds believers together. The Book of Acts describes the early Christian church with these words: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul.”

The early church father Tertullian said that love was the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian church in his day. People outside the church regularly remarked of Christians, “Look how they love one another!" I hope that will be the reputation of the Community Church of Sandwich.

The other aspect of our new name emphasizes our connection to the town. We are the “Community Church of Sandwich.” We are connected to the wider Sandwich community beyond the church walls … and beyond Sandwich. We are not an introverted group of religious people cut off from the town. We are an integral part of the community.

One man - who does not attend church - remarked to me that he considers our church as the heart of Sandwich. I view the church as the soul of Sandwich. As the steeples of our historic meetinghouses point to heaven, so (I hope) our church directs people’s attention to God.

I also hope that our new name we will inspire us to reach into the community with renewed vigor. We are the Community Church of Sandwich. Let us live up to our new name!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Godspell Revisited

Recently I went to see a summer stock production of Godspell. It had been many years since I had seen it. To tell the truth I remember the 1973 movie version better than the 1971 stage version. Godspell was an important milestone on my spiritual journey. Godspell’s appearance on the American cultural scene coincided with my personal acceptance of the gospel.

I remember singing “Day by Day” like a mantra in those early heady days after my conversion. The words summed up the intentions of my heart. “Day by day, oh, dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

My college girlfriend at the time (now my wife of 40 years) could belt out “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in a voice that sounded like a born again Janis Joplin. The song “God Save the People” still moves me.

So my wife and I (along with some friends from church) went to see Godspell on a Sunday afternoon, expecting to take a stroll down Nostalgia Lane, reliving the Jesus Movement days when it was hip to be a hippie and a Christian. I did not realize that the musical had been reworked in 2011 for its 40th anniversary. It is not the Godspell I remember.

I noticed something was amiss as soon as the curtains parted and a huge G could be seen hanging from the stage rafters. I wondered if I had accidently walked into a Masonic gathering. Isn’t that supposed to be an S like on the Superman shirt that Jesus wears in the show?

When Jesus came on the stage he was not wearing long hair, a superman shirt and clown makeup like I remembered him from my youth. Instead he was a clean cut young man wearing some type of navy blazer with a faux military emblem on the sleeve.

I wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be a naval officer or a member of the local yacht club. He reminded me of a younger version of Thurston Howell III, the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. That is not my idea of Jesus. I do not picture Christ as either an admiral or a millionaire.

These actors were not pretending to be 1970’s hippies. These young’uns looked like they had stepped off the set of the television show Glee. Oh, I get it! That is what the big hanging G stands for! This is GleeSpell. That is why the cast is so neatly dressed and coiffed!

Then the cast started singing rap music, and making references to Obamacare and Donald Trump. Okay. This is certainly a new type of Godspell. I tried to get into it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t just that it was visually and musically different. It was the spirit.

The original Godspell communicated the Spirit of the gospel in the culture of the early 1970’s. It was genuinely Christian. I was hoping that this reworked Godspell would translate the Christian gospel into 21st century culture. But it didn’t. The culture came through clearly, but not the gospel.

The actors and musicians were talented. I am not being critical of their abilities. But it felt like they didn’t really get it. It was like listening to someone sing the blues who had never suffered. Or like listening to a love song sung by someone who had never been in love.

This cast was talented but clueless about the gospel. This was demonstrated in the constant dissonance between the body language and the words of the script. Jesus’s parables were presented by the cast, but the way they reacted to the words make it clear that the actors had no idea what they meant. The gospel is missing from Godspell. Now it is just another lively Broadway musical touring America’s small stages.

How did this happen? Perhaps Godspell is simply reflecting Christian culture. In the past forty years American Christianity has gradually become more entertainment than gospel. Worship services in contemporary churches feel more like performance art than spiritual worship. Godspell is the canary in the mine. But at least the canary can sing … for the time being.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Original Revelation

Last Sunday I preached a sermon entitled “Cosmos.” My scripture text was the first chapter of Genesis, but the topic was prompted by the recent television show “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” hosted by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The 2014 show is a remake of Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”

I have some reservations about the new series, which I shared in a previous blog (Disappointing Cosmos). But my love for science overcame my distaste for the anti-religious bias that ran throughout the series. I watched every episode. The story of the origin of the universe and life on earth has always filled me with awe. It is a spiritual experience for me.

Therefore it was natural for me to preach about it from the pulpit. Although I did not directly address the creationism-evolution debate, it was clear to members of my congregation that I was not a young earth, seven-day creationist. I believe in the biblical doctrine of Creation, not the modern "science” of Creationism.

The point of my sermon (and every sermon ought to have at least one) is that there is no contradiction between science and religion. At least there should not be any disagreement. In actuality there has been much conflict between the two from the very beginning of modern science.

Nowhere is that disagreement more pronounced than in the area of origins – both cosmic and human. My sermon prompted more than the usual number of comments, both immediately afterwards and in the week following the service. One man pronounced me “brave” to preach such a sermon.

The ongoing discussion of this topic in my congregation has caused me to ponder more thoroughly the relationship between faith and science. I have come to the conclusion that the key element of a Christian understanding of science is to view Nature as Holy Scripture, which is read in the language of science.

God spoke the Old Testament in Hebrew. He spoke the New Testament in Greek. He spoke – and continues to speak - the Oldest Testament in Creation itself. God recorded the history of the earth in the rocks. He recorded the origins of life in the fossil record and DNA. He recorded the origins of the universe in light captured by the Hubble telescope. God speaks to us through science.

The only way we can understand the Biblical account of creation correctly is by interpreting it in light of the older revelation of God in Nature. The Biblical revelation cannot contradict the Original revelation. If our interpretation of Genesis contradicts known scientific facts, then we are interpreting Scripture wrongly.

The authority of Scripture is important for Christians. We call it the Word of God. The Word of God recorded in Nature should be just as authoritative for Christians. To reject the voice of God in creation is to reject the authority of the Creator.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Are School Shootings God’s Will?

There was another school shooting recently. They happen too often.  It makes me glad that the school year is coming to a close. This time it was at Seattle Pacific University, a Christian college of 4,000 students.

After the shooting, Frank Spina, a professor of Biblical Studies at the college, spoke to students at a prayer service. He said, "There's no explaining it. This is not God's plan. This is not God's will. This is not God's way of teaching us a lesson."

I applaud this professor for being honest with the students. He resisted the temptation to mouth comforting clichés, which are so often proffered at such times. No appealing to God’s mysterious ways. No insisting that atrocities are really blessings in disguise, divine good appearing as human evil. He refused to feed his students the spiritual pabulum so often repeated at funerals of shooting victims.

Recently at a Bible Study that I lead, one of the participants shared his struggle with the repeated commands of God in the Old Testament to kill all the inhabitants of some cities, including children and infants and even animals.

Personally I find the issue of violence against innocents to be the most serious challenge to the Christian worldview. That is true whether I find it in the pages of the Bible or the headlines of the newspaper. Paradoxically this issue has also been for me an opening into God’s presence.

Evil and suffering cannot be explained away by theological gymnastics. We can’t blame it on the devil or write it off as man’s free will. God commands things in the Bible that we would call evil when ordered by human commanders today. We call it genocide and label the perpetrator a war criminal.

Whenever mass killings of innocent people happen in our world today, we must admit – at the very least - that God has permitted them to happen. God could stop them if he wanted. After all God is omnipotent.

In Seattle a heroic student named Jon Meis stopped the shooter with pepper spray, and held the murderer in a headlock until help arrived. Thereby he saved many lives. Why didn’t God do as much?  And don’t tell me God sent Jon Meis to do it for him! That is a copout.

It is important to ask this question. Ask it deeply and repeatedly. Go further than the professor at SPU. He said that this shooting was not God’s will or God’s plan. What are the implications of that statement?

Does that mean that it was beyond God’s control? That God was helpless to stop it? If so, then how can we call him omnipotent? If he is not all-powerful, then why call him God? (This is how the ancient philosopher Epicurus phrased the issue 300 years before Christ.)

If we believe God is all-powerful then we have to admit that nothing can happen apart from God’s will. God either permits or causes such tragedies. What does that say about God? Is God all-powerful but not good? (Again this is Epicurus’ phrase.) If he is not good, then he is not God – at least not the Christian God.

So what is the answer? The solution is to keep asking this question and not let go. Do not let God off the hook or defend him. Do not justify his actions in the Scriptures or current events. Do not look for ethical loopholes. Wrestle with God like Jacob. Argue with him like Job. If we ruthlessly stay with the question, it will take us into the heart of God.

If we refuse to drop the issue, we are eventually propelled beyond religious sophistry into the very Being of God. Like Job we meet God in the Cloud of Unknowing. We experience the Truth that includes all things and encompasses all events. God is experienced inexplicably as Unconditional Love.

The question holds the answer. It is the eye of the needle. It is the strait way and the narrow gate into the Kingdom of God. It is the door of heaven. It is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Seek and we shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Jesus is my Guru

Oh, that title is going to get some people “harrumphing!” But the word guru is just the Indian term for teacher and master. Jesus’ disciples called him Rabbi, because that was the culture in which they lived. Jewish spiritual teachers were called rabbi. Rabbi means literally “my teacher” in Hebrew. People call me pastor or reverend because that is the Christian custom. Even the term Christ is a title, not Jesus’ last name.

These days much of the language of American spirituality is cross-cultural. Many of those interested in spiritual matters use the language of the East. To say “Jesus is my Lord and Savior” does not speak to them. When they read those words all they hear is Western cultural religious conservatism. They cannot see beyond the words.  If they saw those words in the title of a blog, they would not click on the link. But the words “Jesus is my guru” might make the blog worth a second look.

On the other hand, many Christians will reject out of hand any Christian preacher who uses the term guru – for much the same reasons that non-Christians will reject the word Savior. It is outside their religious comfort zone. So it all depends on whom I am speaking to. I have done enough preaching to the choir in my lifetime, so I will risk the scorn of the Christian thought police and say things a little differently.

Jesus is my Guru. Devotees of Indian gurus will display a photo of their teacher. Buddhists have little buddhas decorating their home and garden.  Catholics will have photos of popes or pictures of Mary or their favorite saint. I have an icon of Christ as Teacher. It is not hanging on my wall, but appears on my tablet. I view it every morning during my devotions. It reminds me who my Lord is.

I am a Christian, but I cannot relate to traditional Sunday School paintings of Jesus or contemporary depictions of a smiley Christ. But I find the icons of Orthodoxy fascinating. So I use an icon of Christ to remind me of my Lord, while I read and pray.

Much of my spiritual practice involves a transcendent approach to God. In contemplation my persona drops away in the silent presence of the superpersonal Godhead. I do more meditation than intercession these days. Yet there is a part of me that is not touched by God in that manner.

My heart loves the Personhood of God. Jesus is God in a Person. Jesus is my Guru.  I love Him. I am unconditionally devoted to Christ. I trust no other teacher or leader. My soul rejoices in the presence of Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He is the gate to God, the door to heaven. For any Christians who are still reading this: Christ is my Lord, my God, and my Savior.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Life’s Transient Dream

I forget who I am regularly. It happens every day.

No, I did not get hit on the head, nor am I in a fugue state. I did not mistake my daily multivitamin for an Ambien tablet. Neither am I suffering from some form of dementia – at least not yet.

My forgetfulness is quite normal. Spiritual amnesia is the normal waking state of most humans. The only way I know I was sleepwalking through life was because I woke up one day, and I have been waking up ever since.

I am most fully conscious twice each day – in the early morning and early evening. This is when I do my spiritual practice of prayer and meditation. But wakefulness continues as an undercurrent throughout the day - like the sound of a nearby brook always present in the background, if I pay attention.

I wake up most clearly in the evening when I devote myself to an extended time of quiet prayer. I get on my knees, close my eyes and surrender myself to God. The thoughts of my busy mind gradually drift away, and I awaken from the dream of life. It is like going to sleep, only in reverse. It is waking from normal wakefulness.

I remember who I am again. My temporary amnesia clears, and I wonder at how I could have forgotten what is real. As the hymn says, then “ends life’s transient dream.” God is present. Christ is present. But I am not. As the apostle wrote, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

The roles I play during the day slip off like clothing. My name has nothing to attach itself to. My carefully constructed personality is nothing more than a song in the air. There is only the unconditional love of God.

This is eternal life. This is the Kingdom of God. This is the Father’s House. It is our heavenly home. How could we ever forget?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Vision of Jesus

A vision occurred during worship in church the other Sunday. Just like the ones you read about in the Bible. I was preaching a post-Easter sermon on the famous story of the risen Christ appearing to two of his disciples on the Emmaus Road. While I was preaching, Jesus visibly stood behind me.

I did not see him, but a woman in the congregation did. She shared it with me privately afterwards. She explained that while she was listening to me proclaim the invisible presence of Christ in our midst, suddenly Christ appeared in the pulpit next to me in “a spiritual form.”

This is not a lady given to religious excesses. Indeed I would describe her as just the opposite. She does not come from a denominational background prone to this sort of thing. Neither do I. Yet she found it difficult not to interrupt the worship service and point out to everyone that Jesus was up at the pulpit.

My sermon for that Sunday was appropriately entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

It has been many days now since this happened, and I have shared this with no one besides my wife. I have hesitated to share this with the congregation. But I got permission from the visionary to retell her story here. Perhaps it will edify others like it edified me.

When she told me what she had seen in church that morning, my heart was immediately warmed – just like the disciples described their experience on the Emmaus Road. I thanked her and told her that she had blessed me greatly by sharing this vision with me. It has been blessing me ever since.

Personally I do not consider myself to be the type of person who needs external confirmations of my inward spiritual awareness of God. I know that Christ is with me. I sense the Presence of God. But it is nice to get confirmation once in a while. Thanks, Jesus.

Friday, April 18, 2014

To Be or Not To Be

At our Maundy Thursday service, the passion narrative was read from the Gospel of John. As the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion was read aloud, candles were gradually extinguished, plunging the congregation into total darkness.

This year the worship service coincided perfectly with sunset, and so the light coming through the high windows dimmed as the light in the church dimmed. The darkness was broken at the end of the service by relighting a single candle, representing Christ’s resurrection.

It is one of my favorite services of the year. It is also one of the few worship services where I do not have to preach. The whole service is scripture and music. Therefore I was open to hear the biblical story without having my mind preoccupied with what I was going to preach.

I did not follow along in my Bible as I often do when scripture is read.  I simply listened to the story. Two passages collided with each other in my heart: Christ’s confession in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the counterpoint of Peter’s denial in the courtyard.

The authorities came to the garden to arrest Jesus. They asked for him by name, and he responded, “I am he.” This is where it is good to have studied Greek. I have read this passage in the original language, and I know that literally Jesus says simply, “I am.”

Jesus is making reference to the name of God given to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus. It is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus is “I AM.” Jesus was asserting his identity with the Divine, which is why those who came to arrest him recoiled at his words.

Later in the courtyard of the High Priest, the disciple Peter is asked if he is a follower of Jesus. He responds, “I am not.” It was the contrast of these two different responses that struck me so powerfully during that candlelight communion service.

Being versus Non-being. They are both here. Christ is “I am.” In Christ I share his Being. My existence is the extension of God’s Being. I exist only by the grace of God. I have no independent existence apart from God. “I AM” is the core of my essential nature in Christ.

But the void of Non-being lurks in the shadows. With Peter we think “I am not.” This is the daily experience of most people. Most humans are lost in non-being. They do not live in the Beingness of God but in the denial of their essential nature as human “beings.” To use the language of the story, we deny Christ and thereby deny our relationship to God.

“To be or not to be,” questioned Hamlet. Christ made one choice, and Peter made the other. Ultimately it is not really a choice. It is acknowledging what is true, or a denial of it. Jesus said, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”


Art is “To Be Or Not To Be” by Chris Kontogeorgos

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cross Purposes

Holy Week is a time to contemplate the suffering and death of Jesus. I confess that it is a difficult time for me for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I take it very seriously. Many Christians and churches do not take it seriously these days.

Recently I read an announcement about a church in nearby community that is having a potluck supper on Good Friday that promises to be “a fun time” with “amazing food.” Call me a traditionalist if you want, but that does not capture the spirit of Good Friday for me. Good Friday used to be a day of fasting and prayer. A day that commemorates the torture and death of Jesus deserves more respect.

The second reason that Holy Week is difficult for me is the way the Cross is theologically interpreted in churches. I have studied the theology of the Cross. I have read the theories of the atonement. Most of them deal with some type of heavenly transaction involving sin and divine retribution. Some theories talk about the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus on the cross.

Many churches believe some form of “penal substitutionary atonement.” God punishes Jesus for our sins. I am traditional enough to believe that “Christ died for me.” But I don’t get into the idea of a vengeful deity taking out his anger on an innocent man. The idea of a wrathful Heavenly Father torturing and killing his own Son sounds like something out of a horror flick. It is not worthy of a God of love.

I see Jesus more like a hero laying down his life for others. When I preach the Cross I use analogies of soldiers dying in battle (in this case a spiritual battle), firefighters dying to save people in danger, or police officers dying in the line of duty. The heroic spirit seems more worthy of my Lord than some type of judicial game played by God, Satan, and Christ.

The third reason the Cross is not easy for me to contemplate is because I see myself there. It brings me face to face with my own mortality. The Cross is a powerful spiritual symbol of the end of my physical existence and the death of my separate self.

The apostle Paul says, “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.” That verse represents my experience and my best understanding of the Cross.

In the end, even this understanding falls short. The Cross is a mystery. The more I contemplate it, the more I am humbled by the depth and power of it. It is worth devoting a few days of Holy Week to. It is worth devoting Good Friday to. It is worth devoting my whole life to.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

New Hampshire Spring

It is officially the first day of spring, and I woke up to sixteen inches of fresh snow … adding to the couple of feet of snow already covering my yard. I have not been able to climb over the snowbanks to take down the Christmas wreath on our front door and replace it with something more Lenten. The other day we bought a faux forsythia wreath at the Christmas Tree Shop (where else?) to replace it, but it seems out of place at the present time.

I have not been hearing the sweet sound of maple sap dripping into the buckets nailed to our trees. It has not been getting above freezing long enough for the sap to flow.  On Monday I stopped by the town Highway Department to pick up some more sand to coat the ever-present ice on our driveway. I thought that a half a bucket (a five gallon bucket) would suffice until it melted on its own. But I already have to make another trip soon.

Oh, the joys of spring in New Hampshire! I see photos on Facebook of my grandson in western Pennsylvania, and he is playing in the backyard on the grass. I can’t remember what grass looks like.

These are still the final weeks of winter, regardless of what the calendar says. I have decided to enjoy them. There is nothing more beautiful than snow-capped mountains. The air is fresh. The sky is clear. There is a spirit of anticipation in the air. We know the cold can’t last forever. It is supposed to get into the 40’s today! Whoopee!

We have mud season to look forward to. (Where did I put those muck boots?) Then there is black fly season. (Time to buy a new gallon of DEET.) Then we will look back with nostalgia on these fine days of winter when we could walk down the street without getting our feet caked in mud and fending off swarms of bugs by waving our arms like a drunken signalman.

So I will look on the bright side of the first day of spring in New Hampshire. The fresh snow is beautiful. Easter is coming, and that means I will be able to take a vacation to Florida soon. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Disappointing Cosmos

I loved Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I was inspired by his books. Sagan’s television series made cosmology into a spiritual experience for me. Therefore I was excited when I heard that a remake was in the works.

I watched the first episode of the new show with great expectations. My initial thought was that the “spaceship of the imagination” idea was cheesy, but otherwise the special effects were great.

Condensing the age of the universe into a one year calendar is old hat. I was hoping for something a little more creative, but it accomplished its purpose in communicating the immensity of the time and space.

Then my mouth dropped open at a segment that I can only describe as a hate-filled rant. For some reason the writers of the show decided to include a segment on the martyrdom of the 16th-century Italian thinker Giordano Bruno. It seems to have no other purpose than church-bashing.

The Christian church – both Catholic and Protestant – is pictured as the villain. Church leaders are cartoonish devils squelching scientific inquiry. Bruno is portrayed as the heroic scientist persecuted by narrow-minded, ignorant, evil Christians.

The problem is that Bruno was not a scientist. He was a philosopher and theologian. Discover Magazine got it right in a review entitled “Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?” What happened to Bruno was wrong – as any champion of religious liberty knows. But it has nothing to do with the birth of modern science. Bruno was a philosopher who ran afoul of the religious authorities.

The segment could have been edited from the script without anyone missing it. That historical side trip had nothing to do with science. Its only purpose was to take a swipe at Christianity. The message was clear: Science is the hero; religion - in particular Christianity - is the villain.

Why do this? What is the point? All it does is deepen the divide between science and religion, which I was hoping this series might seek to breach. If the purpose of Cosmos is to educate and inspire people, you don’t begin by polarizing the majority of your audience.

Sure, the church opposed the heliocentric worldview, as did everyone – Christian and non-Christian - at the time. No one knew any better! We all know the story of Galileo and his struggles with the church authorities. (By the way, he would have been a far better choice for a scientific hero!)

It is also true that the pseudo-science of creationism is presently an embarrassing anti-intellectual sideshow on the Christian scene.  But that branch of Christianity is not representative of the Christian religion. It is certainly not representative of me or any churches I have served.

The historical relationship between science and faith is much more nuanced than this cartoon morality play. It can be argued that that modern science is the brainchild of the Judeo-Christian worldview. It is no accident that science was born in Christendom. The biblical worldview provided the intellectual stance to view the physical world as an area of study, rather than an arena of spirits.

The Genesis story of creation is unique in the literature of ancient religions. It pictures the world as composed of physical objects, including the stars, sun, and moon. The heavenly bodies were not gods and goddesses, like in other religions of the time. The earth was not the body of a deity. Nature was not animated by spirits who possessed springs, caves and trees. The universe was seen as an objective reality that could be known by human beings.

The truth is that Christianity set the stage for the birth of science. How wonderful if Cosmos had explored this aspect of history instead of promoting Christophobic stereotypes.  

I will still watch Cosmos. I am still in love with science, and this series promises to be a good show. But I am disappointed in Cosmos’ anti-religious prejudice. This is not the 17th century, and neither the church nor science should act like it is.  

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Frost Heave Theology

I cannot keep silent any longer. I have been patient all winter. I have to comment on the horrendous crop of frost heaves that we have this year.

Those readers who are flatlanders may not know what frost heaves are. They are not potholes. They are the naturally forming speed bumps produced by the freezing and expanding of the ground under the roads.

Frost heaves are giant dips and peaks in the surface of the road, which cause vehicles to hit bottom and passengers to hit roofs. They form in the winter and subside in spring, just in time for mud season. 

They force drivers to go ten or twenty mph on roads that we would normally cruise at forty or fifty. Consequently they make any trip twice as long and ten times more uncomfortable.

Most would say that frost heaves are a natural phenomenon. Others put a metaphysical slant on the bumpy roads, calling them the Yankee equivalent of the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” The apostle writes, “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”

Many commentators think that his “thorn” was an illness. I think the apostle was describing Roman roads in winter. His words certainly describe my experience of frost heaves very accurately.  (Except for the “conceited" part.)

Another possibility is that frost heaves are the work of God, sent by the Creator to slow me down. God knows I do not need any more speeding tickets. That officer was very nice to let me off with a warning the other week when I was on a smooth stretch of road, but I should not tempt God or local law enforcement too often.

Yes, that is what it is. God is forcing me to “slow down and smell the roses” as they say in rose country. Here it is “slow down and smell the wood smoke.” Therefore I have heeded the call of God. I now slowly jostle over the country roads, appreciating God’s plan in every bump in the road of life.

If I were a country singer I would write a song about the frost heaves. But as it is, I will sing praises to God for the free chiropractic adjustment of my spinal column I have received while traveling the roads of Sandwich, New Hampshire. But I am still praying for spring to come quickly.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Surprised by Lent

Easter is late this year. I am ready. I am tired of winter, and looking forward to spring. Yet Lent surprised me. I knew it was coming. It was on my calendar, and I made the requisite plans to observe it in my church. But emotionally it did not become real to me until Ash Wednesday evening.

I participated in a small Ash Wednesday service in the neighboring town. It was a union service shared by three congregations, but the small sanctuary was only a quarter full. There was no pianist, and so we sang a cappella. The unaccompanied voices added another level of sparseness.

Then came time for the ashes. Since none of the three clergy present were of “high church” pedigree, we opted for a revision of the forehead smudge that our Catholic and Episcopalian friends had received that day. We accepted ashes in the palms of our hands.

I am not sure it was well-planned out. It made for a messy handling of the hymnals during the final song, and it made the parting handshake a bit awkward. I held my steering wheel by my fingertips on the way home.

But it was a powerful moment. I held my future in my hands. I am dust and to dust I will return. In a decade or two - possibly less (who really knows?) - these ashes will be all that is left of me. We received news this week of our neighbor in Pennsylvania who died suddenly and unexpectedly. She went to school that morning and died. She was 54.

I recall a funeral I conducted for a young woman years ago. As we buried her ashes in a small hillside graveyard, the distraught mother became vocally angry. She cried out, “This is all that is left of her! Just these *$#% ashes!”

It surprised everyone present. We are not used to honesty at funerals - especially from such a dignified and proper lady. But sometimes it is what we need. Ash Wednesday is honest. Perhaps that is why so few attend.

We mortals are nothing more than ashes in the end. Yet in Christ we are promised an impossible sequel. We are promised resurrection. At the end of forty days, Lent blossoms into resurrection. Death is swallowed up by life. Sorrow is eclipsed by joy. I was surprised by Lent. I am surprised even more by Easter. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hitler’s Birthday

I am reading the bestselling novel The Book Thief written by Australian author Markus Zusak. The book had me from the opening words. It is narrated by Death (a very interesting approach), set in Nazi Germany, and is about the redemptive power of words.

The chapter I read yesterday was entitled “Hitler’s Birthday, 1940.” It tells the story of how the young heroine of the story attended a book burning held in honor of the Führer’s birthday and ended up rescuing a book from the ashes. Hidden in her Hitler youth jacket, the book, still hot from the fire, burns her flesh.

The date was April 20. I thought to myself, “That is Easter!” When the author wrote this novel a decade ago, he never could have known that I would be reading this chapter in 2014 as Lent begins. I have Easter on my mind, but this book has forced me to put it in the context of the arch-villain of the twentieth century.

Führer means leader. Everything depends on whom you follow. The first hymn I will sing on Easter morning will include the words “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!”

Another character in the story, a young boy, covers himself with ashes and runs around a track celebrating Jesse Owen’s Olympic victory in 1936 in Berlin. Ashes, ashes everywhere. 

Thinking of book-burnings and the Holocaust on Ash Wednesday is a powerful experience. It brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer to mind. He was the Lutheran pastor executed in Germany for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Next month is also the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death.

In his Letters & Papers From Prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “Good Friday and Easter free us to think about other things far beyond our own personal fate, about the ultimate meaning of all life, suffering, and events; and we lay hold of a great hope.”

We have a great hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But evil is still with us. It did not die in Hitler’s bunker. The headlines inform us that innocents are still being slaughtered. Ethnic, tribal, and racial hatred still thrives. The forces that crucified Jesus still kill the righteous.

In a world where Death narrates the news, we remember the words of the apostle Paul. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Now the sting of death is sin: and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

One Foot in Heaven

I was looking for a movie to watch the other day. I was in a nostalgic mood and wanted to spend an evening watching an old film, preferably in black & white. I turned to the Turner Classic Movies channel and recorded three films from the 1940’s that looked promising.  A few days later I previewed two of them, but they were too dark.

The third was the 1941 film One Foot in Heaven, starring Fredric March and Martha Scott. It was the story of an ordinary Methodist minister and his family in the early decades of the twentieth century. From the first few minutes of the film (which pictured his call to ministry), both my wife and I were captivated. It was authentic to life in the parsonage and on the church field.

Normally clergy and clergy families are portrayed as stereotypes, cardboard cutouts rather than real human beings. Even when the portrayal of clergy is positive, the characters are one dimensional caricatures, like the singing priest Bing Crosby. Ministers are saintly but shallow characters, or they are hypocritical self-righteous prudes. The general rule of Hollywood is to portray clergy as either fanatics or frauds.

Steve Martin in Leap of Faith, for example, is about a traveling faith healer who cons his congregants. In the 1966 film Hawaii, Max von Sydow plays a missionary to Hawaii who forces his religious beliefs and western customs upon the native people.  The Apostle starring Robert Duvall was a good film, but the main character clearly has fanatical and violent tendencies.

There have been sentimental films like the 1947 classic, The Bishop's Wife, and the 1996 remake The Preacher's Wife, but they are far from realistic. Never have I seen a movie showing Protestant ministers and their families as normal human beings facing real problems in ministry.

One Foot in Heaven is different. It is about real people. I was not surprised to discover afterwards that the movie was based on an autobiographical book of the same name written by a PK (preacher’s kid) named Hartzell Spence. 

He was telling the story of his own parents and family, moving from church to church, living in parsonages and struggling with low income and church problems.  Even though the story was set one hundred years ago (and is therefore dated in many ways), it is a more accurate depiction of ministry than any contemporary film I have seen.

It is even insightful at times. Here is a quote from the film where the Reverend William Spence changes his mind about the evils of movie-going. The pastor says to his son, Hartzell, “He who speaks to only one generation is already dead. And he who listens to only one generation is deaf.”

This minister and his wife are people I have known. I have heard stories like theirs from my friends and colleagues. I recognize their children. I recognize the parishioners. I walk the same tightrope of spiritual and worldly concerns (which is the reference of the title). If only someone would do a remake! But that is unlikely. Who would buy a ticket to hear the truth about pastors? Who would produce it? Not even the Christian film industry today!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Life According to Countess Violet

I confess that I am a Downton Abbey fan. We look forward to watching each episode on Sunday nights on PBS. (I am already sad that this Sunday is the season finale.) The most interesting character in the show is Countess Violet Crawley, played by Maggie Smith. She is known for her memorable quotes.

Near the end of the last episode, Violet was sitting with Edith, who is in the midst of another crisis – which is typical for all the characters in the show. Sometimes I think Downton is nothing more than a meticulously costumed soap opera for highbrows.

Bemoaning her present plight, Edith says to the countess, “Sometimes I feel that God doesn’t want me to be happy.” Violet replies, “My dear, all life is a series of problems that we must try to solve. First one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.” Then she adds, “Why don’t you get us an ice cream.”

I have known a lot of Ediths. Good people who believe they have gotten a bad shake. Things do not seem to go their way in life. Trying to make theological sense of it, they decide that God must have it out for them. God does not want them to be happy.

Let me suggest another solution to this theodical conundrum. Perhaps one’s happiness is not dependent on what happens to us. Perhaps it is about what we do with what happens - our attitude to what happens to us in life.

The countess of Grantham has a healthy view on life. Some people will hear Violet’s philosophy - seeing life as one problem after another until we die - as horribly depressing. But it is depressing only if you view problems as depressing … or death as depressing.  

Violet never seems depressed. In fact she seems to be one of the most resilient and stalwartly characters. She relishes each crisis as a new challenge to be tackled. Solving problems is her life’s joy, even though there is a part of her that wishes that modernization would cease.

Problems are not bad. They are just life. You can’t have life without them. To think God owes us a smooth ride is a recipe for unhappiness. Problems do not have to interfere with joy. Problems do not mean that God is conspiring against us. It is just the way life is. Happiness is found in the midst of problems, not in the absence of them.

 “My dear, all life is a series of problems that we must try to solve. First one, then the next, and the next, until at last we die.” And let us not forget the most important part of the dowager’s wisdom: “Why don’t you get us an ice cream.” It is important to break out the ice cream in the midst of life’s problems. Life without ice cream – now that would be depressing!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Blessed Persecution

In a February 11th congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, U.S. Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey testified that the global persecution of Christians has gone from bad to worse. “Christians remain the most persecuted group in the world,” he said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made news last year when she declared that Christianity has become the most persecuted religion in the world.

This human rights issue has been mostly ignored in the American press. But it has recently forced its way into the mainstream media because of the turmoil in the Middle East. The burning of ancient churches and the assault on historic Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq have finally made it to the evening news. The widespread persecution of Christians even made the cover of Newsweek in 2012 in a cover story entitled “The War on Christians.”

The imprisonment of American missionary Kenneth Bae in North Korea and American pastor Saeed Abedini in Iran have gotten the attention of President Obama and the American public. But there are millions more Christians in oppressive countries who are being persecuted for their faith.

A disturbing aspect of the persecution of Christians is the apathy it receives in America, both among Christians and non-Christians. It is a severe human rights violation, yet most people could care less. In fact many people have a hard time believing it is true.

After all, Christianity is the dominant religion in America and the West. People have a difficult time viewing the Church as the underdog. People in the West are more likely to see Christianity as the oppressor, not the oppressed. They cite well-worn historic examples, like the Crusades, the Inquisition and Colonialism, to prove this historical role of Christianity.

Well, those examples are hundreds of years old. It is a new world. Even in America, Christianity and Christian religious leaders no longer hold the places of power and respect they once did. The popularity of religion in general is decreasing rapidly. Each new survey reveals that more people identify themselves as having no religious affiliation.

Furthermore anti-religious sentiment in America is on the rise. I have personally experienced this shift in attitude toward Christianity. People who consider themselves enlightened toward racial, ethnic, and even sexual preference groups, will hold stereotypical views toward Christians.

I have often heard people use derogatory generalizations to describe Christians – words like hypocrites, intolerant, anti-intellectual, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, and judgmental. They think they are being insightful, but they are just parroting the prejudice of popular culture. People who would never use racial or ethnic slurs, will voice anti-Christian stereotypes without a tinge of shame.

Let me make it clear. This anti-religious attitude of some people in America is not persecution. It is not even close. It cannot be compared to the persecution that Christians face in many lands today. It is nothing like the treatment that minority groups have experienced in our country. But it is still real, and it is wrong. It feels like hate speech to me when I hear it.

Nevertheless, I have come to view my encounters with anti-religious prejudice as blessings. They help me empathize with groups who have experienced real prejudice in our country. They remind me to pray for religious minorities in other countries who are denied basic religious liberties. It has made me more appreciative of religious diversity.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

If you are interested in learning more about the persecution of Christians visit Voice of the Martyrs , and Open Doors.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Deep Peacemaking

God knows we need peacemakers. We do not need more young American soldiers coming home with missing limbs, traumatic brain injuries, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We need peacemakers to stop the carnage of our nation’s bravest youth.

When I see on the evening news the bodies of children killed by chemical weapons, rows of civilians buried in mass graves, and refugees huddled in border camps, I know we need peacemakers.

We need as many peacemakers willing to die for peace as we have soldiers willing to die in war. It takes the same degree of commitment and patriotism to be a peacemaker as to be a soldier.

Now that American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is winding down, we need national leaders willing to embrace peacemaking. We need politicians in both major parties willing to develop an economic and a foreign policy based on peacemaking. We need peacemakers.

Jesus was a peacemaker. That is why he was the Son of God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” But Jesus did not make peace through political legislation or governmental action. He knew governments do not have the power to make peace. The most they can accomplish is a momentary cessation of hostilities.

Jesus made deep peace. Jesus made peace by digging the root of war out of the human heart. Jesus’ brother James wrote, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war.”

Wars on earth are simply manifestations of wars waged in human hearts. The only way to rid the world of war is to rid the heart of warring. This is how Jesus makes peace. He said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.” 

This is the peace that the apostle Paul describes as “the peace of God which transcends all human understanding.” The deepest peace is heart peace. Only when we experience heavenly peace, can we make earthly peace. As the song says, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Any other peace is nothing more than a temporary truce.

The apostle Paul wrote to a Roman military colony in Macedonia and described peace as a garrison guarding our hearts through prayer. “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Elsewhere he wrote, “Let the peace of God rule in your hearts.” “For He Himself is our peace.” Paul opened most of his letters with the words, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ is Peacemaker. His is our Peace. By his grace the Prince of Peace brings peace into the world … through us. Then we are daughters and sons of God.


Art is Imago Dei 2 - Peace Makers. Art Quilt: cotton, rayon, pearl cotton thread, by Shin-Hee Chin

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to See God

My wife and I were driving in the car the other day, and we were talking about heaven. She was remembering our parents and others who have died. She wondered out loud what heaven is like for them. I blurted out, “I feel like I am in heaven now.” “I know you do,” she replied, “but you aren’t normal.”

Actually she said it much nicer than that, but that is what it came down to. I realize that my spiritual experience isn’t typical. That is why I do not usually say things like this out loud. You get funny looks. But my wife is used to my peculiarities. She knows I am not normal.

I see heaven all around.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” as Jesus was fond of saying. The Kingdom of Heaven is where God is, and God is everywhere. God is here now. I would go so far as to say that I see God. (But I don’t go around saying that either. I do not want people to think I am out of my mind.)

But the apostle John said, “No one has seen God at any time.” God told Moses "No man can see me and live!" Yet Scripture also says that Jacob saw God. The patriarch exclaims, “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” It says of Moses: “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”

In his last letter, the apostle John implies that it is normal to see God. He suggests that the only prerequisite for seeing God is not doing evil. That is not too high of a standard.  “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.”

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Let me make it clear. I do not consider myself any more pure than anyone else. But I believe that God has given me a new heart. That is what the prophet Ezekiel said. (Of course, he was a pretty crazy guy too!) “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” This new heart is pure.

The apostle Paul says we have been given a new nature, which he calls “the new man.” He says we are a new creation, a new creature in Christ. He says that we have the mind of Christ. Surely the mind of Christ can see God! To see God all we have to do is abide in the mind of Christ. That requires being “out of our minds” a little bit.

Scripture makes it clear that our hearts have been sanctified by Christ. We are “pure of heart” when seen from God’s perspective.  Purity of heart is not something we achieve though moral or religious efforts; it is the gift of God.

Therefore Jesus is not saying that only the goody-goodies see God. God-sightedness is not just for the spiritual superheroes, those who never have an impure thought. To see God, all we have to do is look in that pure place where God dwells.

God dwells as Spirit in the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary of the human soul. In our heart of hearts, our true self constantly beholds the face of God. Pure heart sees pure God. Just take a look and see God for yourself. But be careful who you tell.