Saturday, December 28, 2019

God of the Circling Years

During the Blue Christmas service at our church in town, the pastor asked each person to select a Christmas ornament from several that she had placed on the altar. We were to choose the one that best represented the way we felt this Christmas.

I chose a blue bulb with an encircling silver design that reminded me of a river or waves or wind. It was a pattern that could have been found on ancient pottery or textile. To my eyes it also resembled the yin-yang symbol of ancient China.

When my wife and I returned home, we hung the ornaments on the frame of our bay window in our living room, over our small Christmas tree and olive wood nativity scene. I have been contemplating my selection ever since. Meditating upon the ornament has become part of my morning devotions during Christmastide, which is the traditional twelve days of Christmas beginning the 25th. As the new year approaches it has become meaningful to me as a symbol of the future as well as the past.

Time flows in a never ending stream. From our perspective on this planet, time appears cyclical with no beginning and no end. The seasons and years come and go. The dark and light pattern on the bulb elicits thoughts of the good and the bad that makes up our lives. Weakness and strength. Joy and sorrow. The third chapter of Ecclesiastes was read at the service, and it continues to echo in my heart.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

The words of a hymn written by Pittsburgh pastor, Hugh Thomson Kerr, during the First World War also comes to my mind:

God of our life, through all the circling years,
we trust in you;
in all the past, through all our hopes and fears,
your hand we view.
With each new day, when morning lifts the veil,
we own your mercies, Lord, which never fail.

God of the past, our times are in your hand;
with us abide.
Lead us by faith, to hope's true Promised Land;
be now our guide.
With you to bless, the darkness shines as light,
and faith's fair vision changes into sight.

God of the coming years, thro' paths unknown
we follow you;
when we are strong, Lord, leave us not alone;
our faith renew.
Be now for us in life our daily bread,
our heart's true home when all our years have sped.

Through all the circling patterns of light and dark that make up our lives, the divine design of our lives is beautiful. Ecclesiastes 3 explains, “He [God] hath made everything beautiful in his time.” The darkness as well as the light make it so. 2019 was good. 2020 will be good. As God said in Genesis as he sat back and contemplated his creation: “It is very good.”

May God bless you with a beautiful year of light and dark in 2020. May we always see the pattern of our lives as beautiful. For as the scripture says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas Incarnation

The theology of Christmas is called incarnation. Those of us who call ourselves Christians celebrate God incarnate (enfleshed) in Jesus of Nazareth, whom we profess to be the Christ, meaning the anointed One. I embrace that theology wholeheartedly.

Most Christians stop there. But if we read the letters of the apostle Paul, for example, he talks a lot about our participation in this incarnation. We are “in Christ” and have been since the beginning of the universe. “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.”

We are united with Christ who is one with God. We identify with this Divine One. We lose ourselves in Christ. We are one with Christ, as Christ promised we would. We start out believing this by faith and end up experiencing it in our lives. As my favorite Scripture verse says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

John the Baptist put it this way of Christ, “He must increase; I must decrease.” As a sponge is filled with water, so are we filled with Christ. Like a fossil gradually loses all of its organic elements until it is fully replaced by minerals from the matrix in which it resides, so we who abide in Christ gradually lose ourselves and are replaced with Him.

In other words we become incarnations of Christ and incarnations of the Spirit who dwells within us. To put it even more boldly, we are incarnations of God. To fundamentalists this sounds dangerously close to claiming divinity for ourselves. In fact we are claiming nothing for ourselves. We are nothing. God is everything.

This incarnational language is at the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy, which was the original form of Christianity before Roman Catholicism, Protestantism or Evangelicalism existed. Orthodoxy calls this truth by many names: theosis, theopoesis, apotheosis, deification or divinization. (If you want to explore this more, look up the terms on Wikipedia.) The Patristic writings (the next generation of Christians after the apostles) are filled with this teaching. It is not heresy, but the oldest Christian orthodoxy.

In short the Christian gospel teaches that the purpose of Christmas – of God becoming incarnate in Jesus – is so that we may be incarnations of Christ. So that people might not only hear about Christ from us but see Christ in us. Christmas is not about believing a bunch of stories and doctrines about an ancient man. It is becoming so infused with Christ that Christ is visible and present through us.

Jesus prayed this for us the night before he died. Jesus prayed “for those who will believe in me through their [the apostles’] word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me … that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me.”

In other words Jesus intended for his followers to be so united with God that we continue his ministry as incarnations of God. That is the meaning of Christmas and the intent of Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. Christmas is not just about remembering something that happened two thousand years ago. It is happening today. It is about who we are as sons and daughters of God.

It is not just about Jesus as the Son of God, but as Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ….” Elsewhere he reminds that that we have the mind of Christ and the Spirit of Christ.

Christmas is about having a God-aware mind, a God-intoxicated heart, and a God-infused life. It is about embodying the Spirit of Christmas every day. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and living from that awareness. It is not just about mouthing “Merry Christmas” but being living incarnations of Christmas. This is Christmas. Happy Incarnation Day!

Saturday, December 21, 2019

It is NOT Feeling a Lot like Christmas

You know the old song, “It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” I am still waiting for that holiday feeling to descend upon me. This Christmas season feels different somehow. Is it just me, or do others share that feeling? It could just be me.

I have had my share of personal issues these last couple of months, topped off with five days of severe dental pain this week (ouch!). Nothing like a toothache to put you in the holiday spirit! Thank God for dentists! None of my problems have been anything too serious, but they certainly colored the last several weeks for me.

I think it started when we decided not drive to Pittsburgh to visit my daughter for Thanksgiving – an event that always marked the unofficial beginning of our holiday preparations. I did not make a Christmas wreath for my front door this year - for the first time this decade. We did not attend the Baptist minister’s Christmas party.

Apparently while cleaning up after last year’s Christmas, I accidently threw out our beautiful evergreen garland that we use to decorate the living room. So our house does not look the same. And my Christmas shopping was done almost entirely online. Clicking a mouse just does not feel like Christmas shopping.

Furthermore we are not planning a big Christmas dinner this year. Our sons and their families are coming to our house for Christmas day (yeah!), but it will not be the feast that it normally is. That means no creamed onions. Sigh. Hopefully there will still be Indian pudding! I am putting in a special request to Mrs. Claus.

Then of course the impeachment of Donald Trump has dominated the headlines and airwaves this holiday season. That has put a damper on festive merrymaking for many people. Although House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the final impeachment vote put a “spring in her step.” Not for me. I am no Trumper, but the whole impeachment process only makes me sad.

In taking sides on this divisive political issue, Christian leaders are saying the most unchristian things and defending very unchristian behavior. The whole spectacle is unfortunate in its timing. It is not a good advertisement for the “reason for the season,” the celebration of the birth of Christ. It is no wonder that younger generations are distrustful of Christianity and church attendance has dropped to its lowest level since data has been collected.

For all these reasons and more, I have not been feeling very Christmasy. So I am trying to do alternative spiritual activities during these final days before Christmas. I am planning to attend the Global Silent Minute for global cooperation, peace and freedom at the North Sandwich Friends Meeting today. I am also hoping to attend the Blue Christmas Service at the Community Church of Sandwich on Sunday afternoon.

Then on Christmas Eve we will make our annual pilgrimage to Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord to watch our oldest grandson in the Children’s Christmas Pageant. This year he is Joseph!  I am a proud preacher/grandpa. When Christmas Day dawns I plan to be eating monkey bread, opening presents, and reading the biblical Christmas story with my beloved. By then I am hoping it feels a lot more like Christmas.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

The Missing Stanzas of Silent Night

The song Silent Night is one of the most beloved carols of Christmas. For decades I closed my Christmas Eve services with the congregation lighting individual candles and singing this lovely hymn.

The lyrics of "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht" were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816 in Austria. It was set to music by his friend and organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The song was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf near Salzburg, where Mohr was the pastor. It was played on a guitar because the church’s organ had been damaged by flooding. Most hymnals include only three or four stanzas:

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night! Holy night!
wondrous star, lend thy light;
with the angels let us sing
alleluias to our King;
Christ, the Savior, is born!
Christ, the Savior, is born!

These wonderful words set to beautiful music have graced Christmas Eve services for two hundred years. But there is more! These lyrics are only part of the original song. There were originally three more stanzas written by Mohr. The extra three stanzas add important elements to the message. Here are the missing stanzas. They are translated from the original German by Bettina Klein of the Silent Night Museum of Salzburg. © 1998

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Brought the world gracious light
Down from heaven's golden height
Comes to us the glorious sight:
Jesus, as one of mankind
Jesus, as one of mankind.      

Silent Night! Holy Night!
By his love, by his might
God our Father us has graced
As a brother gently embraced
Jesus, all nations on earth
Jesus, all nations on earth.

Silent Night! Holy Night!
Long ago, minding our plight
God the world from misery freed
In the dark age of our fathers decreed:
All the world is redeemed
All the world is redeemed.

The first of these stanzas focusses on the humanity of Jesus “as one of mankind” as a balance to the “Son of God, Love’s Pure Light.” The next stanza states that Christ came for “all nations on earth.” Mohr wrote the song at a time of intense nationalism, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He was looking forward to earthly peace and international cooperation. When he wrote that “God the world from misery freed,” he was undoubtedly thinking in historical and well as spiritual terms.

In addition to his hopes for worldly peace, this verse presents Mohr’s theological universalism. In contrast to the parochialism of his church at the time, which insisted that there was no salvation outside the Catholic Church, Mohr declared that in Christ “All the world is redeemed.”

When we sing this great hymn this Christmas, let us remember that it is more than a lullaby celebrating the “round yon virgin mother and child.” It is an expression of an inclusive faith that works for “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” (and women.) The missing stanzas and their message are much needed in our nation and our world today.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Christmas Wars

The Christmas season always brings controversy in its wake. Often it has to do with nativity scenes in public spaces. Schools have to decide how much – or how little – to include music that mentions the birth of Jesus in their holiday programs. Most decide to omit any reference to Christ (or even the word Christmas), while including references to Santa Claus, who ironically was originally a Christian saint named Nicholas.

This year the annual Christmas War erupted in the heartland when the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, unilaterally decided to change the name of the city’s Christmas parade to “Winter Parade.” Christians in the city and beyond saw it as an attack on Christianity. The outrage was so severe that she was forced to retract her decision and change the name back to the Christian version.

On the other side of the political spectrum, some churches this year are using their outdoor nativity scenes as a form of social protest against U.S. immigration policies. For example the Claremont United Methodist Church in California has redesigned their nativity scene to picture Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as border detainees, each figure separated from the others, inhabiting their own chain-link cage with a barbed-wire top.

The most regular holiday battleground is whether to say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” What do we put on our Christmas cards (if we still send them) and what do we say to our neighbors as we greet them on the street? Our president has said that under his presidency we are allowed to say “Merry Christmas” again. I didn’t know I had been forbidden to say it.

The truth is that that the December holiday season is older and more universal than Christianity. The date of Christmas was originally an ancient Roman holiday called Saturnalia, which the fourth century church rebranded to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Celebrations were originally centered around the winter solstice, which on the calendar of the time fell near the 25th, whereas nowadays it is between December 20 and December 23. (This year the solstice is at 11:19 PM on December 21.)

Acknowledging this astronomical pattern nearly all religions – including Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Wicca and Neo-paganism - have holy days in December. In the 20th century the holiday of Kwanzaa was added to the list. December – particularly around the winter solstice – is a holy time for many faiths and is not the sole property of Christians.

Personally I am thrilled that so many religious traditions observe this season when the darkness wanes and the light begins to increase. I do not see it as a threat to Christianity to acknowledge the religious diversity that exists in our country and the world. In fact I see it as confirmation that there is a cosmic spirituality that transcends cultural and religious differences.

Because I am a Christian I say “Merry Christmas” when my holy day nears, and “Happy Advent” until then. To my Jewish friends I say, “Happy Hanukkah.” I will gladly accept other religious greetings that come my way from friends of different spiritual traditions. My atheist and humanist friends can greet me any way they want. I am not threatened but enriched by this variety.

As I see it, the holiday season is not a time to wage cultural battles with people of other faiths or of no faith. It is not a time to draw distinctions between people and fight over words. For me Christmas is a time to put on the Spirit of Christ and try to represent my Lord as graciously as I can to everyone I meet. The best way that Christians can honor the one whose birth we celebrate is to incarnate Christ for others at this time of year. When people glimpse Christ – however imperfectly – in our lives, words, deeds, and attitudes, then we are truly embracing the spirit of the season. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Antidote to Anxiety

The apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything.” (4:6) Really? Not anything? Is that possible? Sounds like heaven to me. Paul did not pen those words lightly. He had lots in his life to be anxious about.

In his second letter to Corinth he compares his sufferings to that of other apostles. He writes that he has had “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

Whew! It makes my concerns seem trivial in comparison. So if he can “not be anxious” in the midst of such circumstances, so can I. But how? The scriptural context of the injunction holds the key. What comes immediately before and after these words? Here is the rest of the sentence: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

“The Lord is at hand.” The presence of the Lord is the foundation of his peace of mind. There is no need to be anxious if the Lord is near. I take the words “the Lord is at hand” to mean the spiritual presence of Christ. It is what Jesus meant when he said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” The omnipresence of Christ is the basis for freedom from anxiety. Relax! The Lord is here now!

Then Paul suggests that we replace the pattern of anxious thinking with an alternative practice: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, when you are anxious, just pray. Place yourself - and everyone and everything around you -into the hands of God. Do it with thanksgiving. Count your blessings, and life look better. As Paul says in another letter, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

There is a lot more in this biblical chapter. I could easily preach several sermons on the fourth chapter of Philippians. Right beforehand he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Practicing the spiritual discipline of “rejoicing in the Lord” serves as preventative medicine to the “dis-ease” of anxiety.

Then he says, “Let your gentleness be known to all.” There is a gentleness deep inside. It is the inner sanctuary of the soul where the Spirit resides. Let this gentleness come forth in thoughts and actions. Be gentle with yourself and with others. Living life gently and simply is an antidote to the anxiety-producing modern lifestyle.

If one practices what the apostle suggests, he offers this promise: “Then the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace that he is speaking about is not of human making. It is not a “self-improvement” scheme or a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium. I am grateful for the blessing of prescription medication. It saves lives and has helped me. But there is a spiritual dimension to peace that transcends the medical arts. There is more to peace of soul than brain chemistry. This is the peace of God.

This type of peace “surpasses all understanding.” I have tasted it often. I glimpse it always in the background, even at those time when I am anxious. The secret is to abide in this peace. Paul says it stands guard over our hearts and minds, just like the Roman soldier who was standing guard over Paul as he wrote those words.

Then come these wonderful concluding words: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” One translation says: “meditate on these things.”

I practice meditation daily, during which I intentionally calm my mind and heart. For years my wife has used “thought conditioners,” biblical verses that condition our hearts and minds to be in harmony with God’s Spirit. Wholesome ideas counteract the negativity that invades our lives.

During my last appointment, my primary care physician told me to stop watching the television news. That advice has helped. I don’t miss the drama. Furthermore I find that reading the news gives me a far better understanding of what is happening in the world.

Paul closes this section of his epistle with these words: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” In other words, we learn peace from those who live peaceable lives. Be around peaceful people, and their peace will be transmitted to you. Then our peace can be passed on to others. As the song goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

So those are my thoughts today as I meditate on one of the greatest chapters in the Bible. I hope they help. It helps me to share them.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Advent Anxiety

I can’t believe that it is already Advent. Often we have a Sunday between Thanksgiving and Advent to catch our breath. Not this year. We are still eating turkey leftovers from the refrigerator and talking about baby Jesus in church.

On top of that, as I mentioned in a previous blog, I am dealing with anxiety. I won’t bore you with the details of my mental health, except to say it does not make for a relaxing holiday season. It does not help that the heating system in our home chose this time to go on the blink again. I may need a new boiler. One more thing to overthink.

Writing this blog helps, and that is why I am doing it, regardless of whether anyone reads it. Reading the Bible helps too. When I read the Advent narratives in the Scriptures I find that there was a lot of anxiety going around in the time leading up to the first Christmas. First we have the story of the birth of John the Baptist. That is a tale of an unexpected geriatric pregnancy for senior citizens Elizabeth and Zachariah.

The announcement of his wife’s pregnancy was so shocking to Zechariah that he could not speak for nine months! I sympathize. If my wife announced she was having another child, I would be speechless too. Besides the fact that it would be a bona fide miracle, I can’t imagine being a parent of a small child at this stage of my life! Occasional childcare for our grandchildren is more than enough for me right now.

Then there is the drama surrounding the pregnancy of Mary. Can you image the feelings Mary felt while trying to explain the impossible story of a miraculous virginal conception to her parents and to her fiancĂ© Joseph? Who in their right mind would believe such a story if offered today? Sounds like “fake news” or something out of supermarket tabloids.

Joseph sure didn’t believe Mary’s tale at first. He was planning to break off the engagement to the woman he loved, until he had the virgin birth divinely confirmed to him in a dream. Even then I imagine he had some doubts. After all, it was only a dream. Was it really God speaking to him in that dream or just his unconscious?

Then there was the anxiety surrounding the trip to Bethlehem and giving birth in a stable. Labor and delivery is stressful enough in our modern age of automobiles, ambulances and hospitals. Can you imagine what the infant mortality rate – and childbirth mortality rate for the mother – were at that time under good conditions?

So it seems that there was lots of anxiety floating around during the original Advent season. You can feel it exuding from the text of the Bible stories. For that reason these stories are able to speak to the normal stress of holiday preparations that we feel during these next weeks.

Advent is not all about Joy to the World, Silent Night, and “all is calm, all is bright.” It seems that anxiety is also a part of the Advent season. That means I fit right in! It seems that I am in the holiday spirit after all! Who knew? Now I just have to come up with a creative idea of what to get my wife for Christmas. No pressure there. Any suggestions?

Saturday, November 23, 2019

2019 Choice Resource Award

I am pleased to announce that my book “The Practice of the Presence of God in Modern English” has been chosen by Next Level Worship International for its 2019 Choice Resource Award.

Founded in 2006 by Dwayne Moore, NLW International serves worship leaders and churches around the world. It provides resources to church leaders in over 80 countries. They are a non-profit, charitable organization providing resources, training and missions opportunities. Their goal is to help people experience transformative biblical worship. Their vision is to help Christians around the world grow deep in their love for God and others.

Choice Resources are selected resources which enhance corporate and/or personal worship. NLW selects resources each year to award and feature on their site. The three criteria for the awards are (1) Worship theology: Choice Resources instruct and/or encourage worship from the inside out (because we believe worship is inward, upward and outward). (2) Excellence: Choice Resources are exceptional in their quality and content. (3) Value: Choice Resources bring much educational, inspirational and/or leadership help to an individual or team, and have benefits which clearly outweigh the cost.

At the link below you can find a review of my book on the NLW website as well as a link to a half-hour video interview that I did with Dwayne Moore.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Wisdom of Anxiety

I have an anxiety disorder, which is a form of depression. Looking back, I have probably had it for decades. At least since the early 1980’s and probably since the 1970’s, but it went undiagnosed for much of my life. It gets worse at this time of year, being exasperated by the seasonal phenomenon known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.

As mental illness goes, my condition is not as serious as others, but it can be debilitating at times. It has sent me to the ER on several occasions, masquerading as a heart condition. I can be overwhelmed in certain settings. Recently we drove to Concord to meet our niece who had flown in from Michigan. The plan was to have lunch with her, and meet her daughter and new boyfriend. But I was unable to sit in the restaurant for even a minute.

A while back I had to leave a worship service after a few minutes because I could not tolerate being in the setting any longer. Groups of people and especially public speaking trigger it. My anxiety was at its worst about ten years ago after a serious bout of church conflict in Pennsylvania, which caused me to leave ministry for a year. I refer to that as Post Traumatic Church Disorder, but it is not a joking matter.

God certainly has a strange sense of humor in calling me to a preaching and pastoral ministry. I love ministry, but it doesn’t love me. Very early in my career a counselor told me, “You are good for the ministry, but the ministry is not good for you.” My wife has repeated that refrain to me over the decades. That is why I retired as soon as I hit age 66, and why I do little public speaking now. I am content to do my spiritual teaching through writing and podcasts.

Anxiety manifests even when there are no stressors in my life. In fact right now, my life has less stress than ever. I am retired and loving it! Yet my anxiety has gotten worse this fall as the days have gotten shorter. It has to do with brain chemistry that regulates mood. I have received medical treatment for the condition, including trying different medications and counseling. I use light therapy, practice daily meditation and daily exercise. Yet the anxiety continues.

I am writing about my condition now, not to elicit sympathy from readers but to address the subject of mental health in a spiritual context, which is seldom done. Depression and anxiety – as well as other forms of mental illness - afflict the religious as well as the unreligious, the spiritually minded as well as the unspiritual. It is a medical condition and not a moral lapse or spiritual failing.  Yet so often in Christian and other religious circles, depression and anxiety are viewed as signs of spiritual failure.

It is too often assumed that if one has enough faith or is spiritually mature, then one’s life will be so filled with divine peace that no mental or emotional trouble could arise in one’s mind or heart. That is a lie. The spiritual life encompasses all aspects of human life. Some of the greatest saints, prophets and spiritual teachers of history were, I suspect, a little bit crazy. That is what Jesus’ family thought about him! Which makes me feel much better.

Mental illness is physical illness. The brain is a physical organ which can malfunction like any other organ. Blaming mental illness on the person is like telling a woman with breast cancer that it is her fault. God does not punish us or test us or try us with mental or physical illness. The Bible puts that myth to rest in the Book of Job. All types of suffering happens to all types of people, as the suffering of Jesus shows. The gospel says that Jesus was “sorrowful and deeply distressed” and admitted to his friends, “My soul is consumed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Like every other difficulty in life, mental and emotional problems are opportunities for spiritual formation. The apostle Paul had his own “thorn in the flesh,” which is usually assumed by commentators to be some type of physical affliction. In 2 Corinthians 12 he relates wonderful spiritual experiences he had, which he describes as being caught up to “the third heaven.” He says he “was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak.” Then he proceeds to describe what came afterwards.

“Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Like Paul I also have been blessed with spiritual experiences, including an ongoing sense of the presence of God which is “too sacred to be put into words.” I have written about that in this blog, and in my books, and spoken about it in my podcast. And like the apostle, I have been given a thorn in the flesh. I have asked more than three times that it depart from me. The Lord’s answer appears to be the same as to Paul: “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

It certainly feels like weakness to me. I am never more aware of my helplessness and vulnerability as when I am experiencing overwhelming anxiety. But I have found that even this particular weakness can be used for a spiritual purpose. Like Paul it keeps me from pride and arrogance, or thinking of myself as more spiritual than anyone else. It humbles me.

Paul calls his affliction a “messenger from Satan,” and my affliction can certainly feel that way. But I also see it as a gift from God in disguise – a sheep in wolf’s clothing. My own condition has given me empathy for those who suffer from all forms of mental illness, and it has awakened me to the need for better healthcare and health insurance to treat mental illness.

Personally it forces me unconditionally into the arms of my Savior, and to trust in Christ and Christ alone. For there is no better place to go. Christ gives me hope. “For I consider that our present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us.” And “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And one more:

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The apostle Paul understands me so well. Sometimes I wonder if his “thorn” was actually a mental illness rather than a physical illness. That would explain a lot of his writings. It certainly explains a lot of mine!

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Climate Change Deniers, Dinosaurs, and Cosmic Spirituality

The climate change crisis continues to be on my mind. Especially since the recent announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. This decision made by our president has only increased my resolve to make a difference in my personal life.

I am more conscientious about products I buy and especially packaging. I am more aware of how my actions and inactions, from my travel plans to my dinner plans, affect our natural environment. I stay informed, and I act upon what I am learning. As I write this blog post, I just finished emailing our state representatives about a bill coming before the New Hampshire house. I am not yet ready to join Jane Fonda in civil disobedience, but I am doing something to help.

I even listen to the climate change deniers. I do not dismiss their arguments out of hand. The people I know who question climate change are not political flunkies, corporate dupes or anti-science ignoramuses, as they are often pictured. I have found them to be skeptical people who believe that the issue has been overblown for political and economic reasons. They suspect that any changes happening now (and many are not even willing to concede that) are natural fluctuations in the weather patterns and climate of our planet.

I disagree with their analysis of the data and their conclusions. It seems to me more likely that climate change denial is the creation of political and economic forces that benefit from the status quo. But it is true that dramatic climate shifts have occurred regularly during the life of our planet. Many extinction events have happened over the millennia, which humans had nothing to do with causing. That fact alone is worth pondering for a moment.

A few years ago I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sixth Extinction, which explores the five mass extinctions that have occurred over the last half-billion years, and the likelihood of a future sixth extinction, this one caused by us. I think she is right. But regardless of the cause and extent of our present climate crisis, a future extinction of most species on earth – including humans – at some point is inevitable.

Many climatologists believe we are entering a period of dangerous climate change now. If this is true, then things are going to be very different for residents of earth in the future. It means a rapidly diminishing quality of life for people in the second half of this century and the next century, unless we can find the political will and the technological means to postpone our fate.

When I contemplate eventual human extinction (hopefully eons in the future), I am not filled with dread. Instead I am filled with awe at the ever-changing pattern of life on earth. Of course it will be bad for Homo sapiens. Extremely bad. But it is already bad for many other species because of us, and therefore I wonder if it would be such a bad thing if humans went extinct. We are not doing such a good job of caring for the earth anyway.

We have not obeyed the Creator’s command to “tend and care for the earth.” Maybe the biosphere would be better off without us. Then it could recover and flourish. It could “be fruitful and multiply,” as the Lord intended. According to the Bible story, God initiated an extinction event in Noah’s day. The Scripture makes it clear that one WAS our fault. Next time God may not rescue a human family.

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for 165 million years before being wiped out by climate change that was definitely NOT their fault – the collision of an asteroid with earth 66 million years ago. Humans, by comparison, have been around for less than 300,000 years. Given our present trajectory toward self-destruction, it seems unlikely that our species will last as long as the dinos. I can’t imagine humans occupying this planet for a million years, much less 165 million. I suspect we will be extinct long before another asteroid strikes.

My reaction to the probability of the death of our species is that it is the natural rhythm of our planet and the cosmos. Planets die. Extinctions happen. Species disappear. 95% of all species on earth died with the dinosaurs. At least five hundred species (that we know of) have gone extinct in the last one hundred years, mostly because of human behavior. But even without human malfeasance, species die. Extinctions are the way of nature. They are part of evolution.

Why not us? There is no reason to think that we have what it takes to survive forever as a species. After all we are not gods, which is another point that the Bible makes clear. (I am thinking here of the Tower of Babel story.) The reason for the climate crisis today is because we have forgotten our place in the natural scheme of things.

The story of life on earth is bigger than the story of humans. The universe is far larger, and its history is far longer, than the earth’s history. When you consider that there are 180 billion galaxies in the universe (and perhaps countless universes in a possible multiverse) our place in the cosmic scheme is infinitesimal. Planets are born and die every day. One day it will be ours. The cosmos does not revolve around us. It is time we got that fact through our simian brains.

Furthermore we need to incorporate this truth into our spirituality, which tends to be very anthropocentric. Religion cannot be all about us. We need a cosmic perspective. Our spiritual nature is more than our hominid incarnation on this planet. A minority voice in every religious tradition speaks of a spiritual essence which transcends all life forms, including our brief human life spans – whether as individuals or a species.

We are more than we think we are. We are the universe. We sense this intuitively when we gaze into the starry heavens on a clear night. In the loftier moments of our lives we experience it with our hearts and minds. The Life that animates us is older than our species and bigger than our planet. It existed before the Big Bang, and it continues after the universe dies. This is who we are. This is our true nature. Call it by whatever religious terminology you want, but it is real and it cannot die.

But our species can die, and other species are dying now. The present climate crisis is real. Our God-given responsibility to stop it is real. We need to do everything we can to protect the viability and diversity of life on this planet. This needs to be at the top of political and corporate agendas. At least at the head of presidential debate agendas!

But the fact remains that sooner or later our race will come to an end, caused either by our own carelessness or another asteroid. In the end humans will have lived on this planet a far shorter time than dinosaurs. They didn’t have a choice about the timing of their extinction. We do. Let’s hope we are smarter than dinosaurs.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Non-Christian Values of Evangelicals

Evangelical leaders met privately with President Trump in the White House on October 29 and prayed with him. They marched away from the meeting in lockstep, espousing a unified message that the impeachment hearings are an attack on Christian values.

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, explained this consensus on Fox Business on November 1. “Evangelicals understand that the effort to impeach President Trump is really an effort to impeach our own deeply-held faith values, and we’re not going to allow that to happen.” He went on to explain, “Never in the history of America have we had a president who was a stronger warrior for the Judeo-Christian principles upon which this nation was founded than in President Donald J. Trump.”

Jeffress went on to define those “Christian values” and “Judeo-Christian principles.” He said that Democrats “want to take away our right to religious liberty. They want to take away the right to bear arms. They want to take away the right to the most basic right of all, the right to life, by continuing this barbaric practice of abortion…. That’s why all of us who are Christians certainly see this is not a political skirmish. This is a battle between good and evil.”

The problem with Jeffress’ statement is that the three social issues that he mentioned are neither Christian nor biblical. Religious liberty cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. In fact the champions of the Old Testament are people like Elijah, who massacred the prophets of Baal and Asherah. It was not until the 17th century that the idea of religious freedom gained traction. Before then Christians were quite content to enforce their religion through the power of the state, often outlawing what they saw as religious heresies.

Furthermore what evangelicals really mean by religious liberty is the right of Christianity to maintain a position of religious dominance in our country by legislating its values, even if that infringes on the religious freedom of others. That would include having special access to the Oval Office and discriminating against those who do not share their sexual ethic.

Can you imagine if one day our nation elected a Muslim president who regularly invited Muslim clergy into the Oval Office to pray with him and who advocated legislation that enshrined Islamic values? You would hear a mighty outcry from the Christian pulpits of this land, decrying “Sharia Law!”

When it comes to bearing arms, Jesus was not a fan. He clearly advocated nonviolence. He told Peter to put away the sword, “For those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” When he was on trial for treason, he told the Roman governor Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight, but my kingdom is not of this world.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus even spoke against self-defense. He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” You won’t hear that slogan quoted at any NRA rally.

How about abortion? The topic is never mentioned in the Bible. The only passage that comes close is a law in Exodus 21, which appears soon after the Ten Commandments. It enacts the punishment of a fine for causing a woman to miscarry. But if the woman dies, it is a capital offense: “life for life.” An unborn child does not have the same standing under biblical law as a fully born child.

Regardless of where we stand on these three issues, it is dishonest to label them Christian. The first and second amendments are statements of American rights, not Christian values. They owe more to the Enlightenment than Christianity. Being anti-abortion is not even an American value, according to the Supreme Court. We can honestly hold such beliefs, but we need to be honest about their origin.

I believe in the first amendment, which necessarily includes the separation of church and state. I think the right to bear arms is important, but it was never intended to facilitate mass murders. I am pro-life, although I do not think we should criminalize abortion. I do not pretend these are Christian values. None of these are found in the Christian scriptures or in any historic Christian creed.

The values for which evangelicals are willing to unconditionally support Donald Trump are not Christian values. They are conservative values and nothing more.  Evangelical leaders are disingenuous in picturing them as part of a spiritual battle. They have nothing to do with God, the teachings of Jesus or the scriptures.  This is not a battle between good and evil. It is a political power play and nothing more, regardless of how Trumpvangelicals spin it.