Saturday, June 29, 2019

Divine Summer

Summer brings out God in me. It sounds strange to put it that way. What I mean is that the God in me (who is also in you) somehow becomes more noticeable to me in the summer. Hmm. That does not sound right either. The statement is not nearly strong enough. Let me try again.

God is in me, and I am in God. The apostle Paul approvingly quoted the Greek poet Aratus, saying, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Jesus taught, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” Christianity speaks about the Holy Spirit of God indwelling us. Judaism speaks of the image of God in us. Hindu tradition says that the divine atman in us is identical with the divine Brahman in the cosmos. Buddhists speak of the Buddha nature.

Call it whatever you want, I experience it afresh in summer. It probably has to do with the fact that I have finally escaped enslavement to my hungry woodstove and can get outside and breathe fresh air. In the natural world the Divine Presence consumes me. My sense of separateness and individuality disappears into God.

At such moments I cease to be. My self - my psyche, ego, personality, or whatever you want to call this persona known as Marshall Davis – dissipates. It is a mist that evaporates in the presence of the Sun. A shadow that fades in the Light. A ripple on the lake that dissipates in the morning Calm.

This is not a spiritual exercise that I practice or an experience I try to elicit. It simply happens. I go outside to do some chores around the house or take a walk, and it occurs. I could not stop it if I tried. You could call it grace. It feels like losing consciousness, except that I am more conscious, not less. It feels somewhat like dying, but without any fear of nonexistence. I die, and I am reborn. I cease to exist, yet I am.

At such times my self becomes indistinguishable from God and God’s Creation. Oh my, this sounds like I have been frequenting a recreational marijuana dispensary (legal now, of course) in one of our neighboring states. I assure you I have not. The most I imbibe these days is caffeinated tea or an occasional glass of wine or beer.

It is not a mystical experience. Neither is it a religious experience. I hesitate to even call it spiritual. It is very ordinary and normal. It is not an altered state of consciousness.  It is simply seeing what is - that God is One. It is really not even seeing; there is no seer or seen.

I believe everyone knows this Divine Unity at some level. I certainly have memories of such awareness as a child. But in recent years it has become clearer. These days this unitive awareness never completely leaves. It simply ebbs and flows. It is the background music of my life. It is the ever-present sound of a stream flowing in the distance. But in the summer the stream becomes a flood.

I plant a garden, and I fall headlong into Eden. I take a dip in the lake, and I am immersed in God’s vastness. I take a walk, and I am strolling with the Second Adam in the New Jerusalem. It is summer, and the Kingdom of Heaven is close enough to touch. Summer brings out God in me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Dancing on My Grave

In 1932 Mary Elizabeth Frye wrote a poem entitled “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep.” It was written in haste to comfort a family friend and seems to be the only poem she ever wrote. Since then it has been read aloud at countless funerals. I am sure you have heard it. It begins:  Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow….”

Do you recognize it? Chances are you do. There are different versions of it. You can read the history of the poem here. Many times during my ministry I have been asked to read this poem at a funeral or graveside service. I have always obliged the family. But the truth is I do not like the poem.

It is not the poem’s pantheistic spiritualism that bothers me. (“I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain.”) I also experience the presence of Spirit in Nature, though not the presence of departed spirits. The reason I do not like the poem is because it sends the wrong message at a vulnerable time in people’s lives.

It feeds the unhealthy tendency of Americans to suppress emotions at times of grief. It instructs a grieving person not to cry (“Do not stand at my grave and weep”) when they may need to cry. Even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus! The poem also encourages the denial of death ("Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there; I did not die”) at exactly the time when a person needs to acknowledge the reality of death.

For that reason I have written an alternative poem. It is not as pretty and does not rhyme, which is apparently a prerequisite for a successful funeral poem. I am sure it will not go “viral” nor be read at thousands of funerals. But it does share the same mystical spirit as the other poem, with bit of humor added to lighten the mood.

I hope it will be read it my funeral (hint to my family to put a copy of this in a safe place!) in the far distant future, of course – after I live to be one hundred. I think I will give it the title “Go Ahead! Stand at my Grave and Weep!” Either that or “Dance on my Grave and Laugh.” I haven’t decided yet. Here it is:

Go ahead! Stand at my grave and weep!
If that’s what you want and need to do.
I will not frown or disapprove.
Tears are healing, expressions of a life well-loved.
So cry all you want, but then please … laugh!
Though death is real, it’s not the final word.
Our true nature is not born and cannot die.
The One who breathed life into flesh
Is with me now, and I in Him.
Dust turns to dust and ashes to ashes.
I return to the One from whom I came,
in whom I live and move and have my being.
So stand at my grave and cry all you want.
Then let out a hearty laugh and do a dance!
We are not born; we cannot die!

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Lost Wallet

I have a friend who lost his wallet about a month ago. He announced the loss in church and asked for people’s help in finding it. The last time he remembered having his wallet was in church, when he took it out of his pocket to retrieve his offering.

So he searched under the pews and around the church building. It was nowhere to be found. He canceled his credit card to make sure that no unscrupulous person would use it. He worried about replacing everything in his wallet.

After a couple of weeks he found the wallet on his desk at home – exactly where he had placed it. When I saw him a few days later he exclaimed, “I found it!” He was happy, and I rejoiced with him. But the reality is that it was never really lost. But the loss felt real to him nonetheless and so did the finding.

The same is true of the Kingdom of God. It is right here - all around us and within us, just as Jesus said. “The Kingdom of God is within you (or in your midst).” That was Jesus’ gospel – his “good news.” He said “Repent (which means “to rethink, change your thinking, turn around and look in the opposite direction”), the Kingdom of God is at hand!” (Within arm’s reach, close enough to touch.)

As Deuteronomy 30 says (and quoted by the apostle Paul in Romans 10 as referring to the gospel) “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.”

Yet Christian theologians have turned the gospel into its opposite – not good news. They said the Kingdom of God has been lost. Adam and Eve lost it for us long before we were born. Woe is us. To regain access to the Kingdom, God and humans need to navigate a series of theological and spiritual obstacles, involving lots of blood, sweat and tears.

It seems that we are contestants in a divine video game or cosmic obstacle course, such as the television shows American Ninja Warrior or Ultimate Beastmaster. Fortunately for us God is on our team and is really good at such games. (After all He is the Gamemaster and sets the rules!) All the while, preachers shout warnings to the contestants about the dangers of sin and the threat of hell.

If you want to play these theological and religious games, that is fine. I spent decades doing it. It is a long and winding road, and it is easy to get lost. Just make sure you persevere to the end, and not get sidetracked. As Jesus never tired of saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

But there is a more direct path. The truth is that the Kingdom is not lost, unless we believe it is lost. Then the loss feels real, just like my friend felt the loss of his wallet. Then also the rediscovery feels real as well. But in truth it was never really lost. The Kingdom of God is at hand. The wallet is on the desk. Those who have eyes to see, let them see.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Whitman’s Wisdom

Monday evening I attended a performance by Shakespearean actor Stephen Collins at the Moultonborough Public Library. It was a one-hour, one man play entitled “Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening with Walt Whitman,” written by Michael Z. Keamy, and sponsored by the New Hampshire Humanities. It was a magnificent performance.

I have loved Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, ever since first reading it in Poetry Club at Tilton School over fifty years ago. To enter into the living presence of the poet on the 200th anniversary of his birth was a joy. He was truly a man ahead of his time.

Near the end of the play there is a monologue that captures the poet’s philosophy of life. I am not sure how many of these words are Whitman’s own and how many are the playwright’s thoughts placed in the poet’s mouth. (I suspect mostly the latter.) In either case they catch the spirit of the man, and they intrigued me enough to share them here:

Love the earth and sun and the animals.
Despise riches.
Give alms to everyone that asks.
Stand up for the stupid and crazy.
Devote your labor and income to others.
Hate tyrants.
Argue not concerning God.
Have patience and indulgence toward the people.
Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men.
Go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families.
Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life.
Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book.
Dismiss whatever insults your own soul.
And your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Preaching Controversy

In 2017 Leah Schade, assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, did a survey of pastors as research for her recently published 2019 book, “Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide.” 

She surveyed mainline Protestant clergy in the United States on the topic of “Preaching about Controversial Issues.” Respondents were asked what topics they actively avoided in their sermons.  The results read like the headlines on the evening news.

The number one issue was Women’s Reproductive Health - in other words, abortion. Second on the list – was the Environment. But if you group the three environmental categories that made the top ten (Fossil Fuel Extraction, Species Extinction, Climate change), this was the most commonly mentioned issue.

Other issues in the top ten are Capitalism, Racism, LGBTQ Rights, Gun violence, and War. It surprised me that capital punishment, sexism and sexual abuse – especially the clergy abuse scandal - did not make the cut. If you want a more complete description of her survey, please see her article Top 10 Taboo Topics for Preachers on

The article got me thinking about my preaching ministry. I have preached and/or written on all of these issues. Some of them often. I have preached both sides of some issues over the years as my views have evolved. Recently (May 19) I delivered a sermon on the inclusion of LGBT persons in all aspects of the church’s ministry. Peter’s vision in Acts 11 was the lectionary reading for the day, and the Spirit of God shouted to me to address the subject! So I did.

I have never seen controversy as a reason to avoid preaching on an issue. Just the opposite! It seems to me that church folk can use a little guidance from the pulpit on such issues! But taking a stand has cost me personally, emotionally, and professionally. Bucking cultural and denominational attitudes is not the best way to climb the ecclesiastical ladder! But I have always considered it worth the price.

It is easier for me to address such topics now that I am retired, and my income does not depend on a church salary. But I also preached and taught on these issues for years when it was not easy. At times I trembled in my Oxfords while ascending the pulpit, knowing that I would offend people by my words, and that some people might leave the church - or want me to leave the church - because of my stance.

But I figure this is the reason that God put me – and all clergy - in the pulpit. It is not to utter soothing niceties that will ensure our job security. As the old adage says, it is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” There is a prophetic dimension to pastoral ministry that cannot be avoided without being unfaithful to our calling.

We are to proclaim the Word of God as we understand it. Sometimes we will get it wrong. Then we are to admit we are wrong, and change when the Spirit says, “Change!” If we aren’t changing, we aren’t growing. I have changed my position on nearly every issue at some point in my life and ministry. I am sure I have more changing to do.

The job of a pastor is to model for our congregations how to handle a biblical text in a faithful manner and show how it applies to our lives today. It is to wrestle with tough issues in full sight of our people. These moral topics are too important to leave to politicians and radio talk show hosts.

Christians want their faith to be relevant. They do not want their pastors or churches to be rubber stamps for political party platforms. They want to hear an authentic word from the Lord. They want their pastors to show how the Bible can speak to today’s issues. It isn’t easy to filter out the polemics of our polarized political environment and heed the still, small voice of God. But it is what pastors are called to do. May God help us to do it.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

What the Wizard of Oz Taught Me

A quote came unbidden to my mind as I sat on my back porch on an early summer day, enjoying God’s creation. It was a line from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, which my family used to watch religiously each year when I was growing up. The Wizard of Oz and The Ten Commandments were where I got most of my childhood theology. No wonder I was confused growing up!

I could only recall a fragment of it – something about searching my backyard - so I had to google it to get the wording right. Near the end of the film, the Tin Woodsman asks, “What have you learned, Dorothy?” She replies, “Well, I - I think that it - it wasn't enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em - and it's that - if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!” 

Then comes that famous mantra - “There’s no place like home” - which tends to overshadow the preceding statement so that the most important part of Dorothy’s discovery is forgotten. Forget about Kansan domestic bliss for a moment, and contemplate this statement about our heart’s desire: “If it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

I have often wondered if Judy Garland got the line wrong or if it was meant to be profound. I know it is not in L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, upon which the film was based. Either way, as it stands now, it has the qualities of a Zen koan. Untangling the double negative to figure out what the line really means isn’t the point. It points us to what isn’t lost.

From a spiritual point of view, what is not lost is the presence of God with us. It was never really lost to begin with. God is just as present in the wilderness east of Eden as in the Garden of Eden. How could it be otherwise? God is by definition omnipresent! But we have been conditioned to think that we are lost. We have lost God or God has lost us. In any case we are lost and far from home.

That has given opportunity to all sorts of wizards and Professor Marvels with their crystal balls, con games and offers of salvation – both religious and secular. We look everywhere on earth and over the rainbow for what we have lost. But the truth is that – like Dorothy – we just need to wake up. To find our Heart’s Desire we need look no further than our own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, we never really lost it to begin with! 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Snake in the Grass

Last Sunday afternoon I was playing hooky from an ordination council I was supposed to attend. It was such a beautiful day that I could not stand the thought of spending it inside a church, listening to a ministerial candidate defend his Calvinist interpretations of Scripture. So I did what any spiritually minded person should do. I took off for the mountains.

We got no further than the next town, where we stopped at a roadside park in Chocorua village, just a mile or two from where my great-grandparents used to live a hundred years ago. In recent years this area has been cleaned up nicely. It now includes a path through the woods, populated with poetry readings posted on small wooden plaques, while the dam’s waterfall thrums in the distance. It makes for a pleasant meditative walk.

Maybe that is what put me in the mood for revelation. As I walked down the path, a snake was disturbed by my footfall and slithered into the undergrowth. For many people, encountering a snake in a garden might startle them. For me it brought back memories of childhood.

In my early years I was a snake hunter. Near my childhood home there was a large field, which served as our neighborhood pickup baseball/football field. It was populated by a wide variety of snakes. They were mostly garter snakes, with a few greensnakes and brownsnakes, and an occasional water snake, which had meandered uphill from the nearby swamp.

When we weren’t handling snakes in the field, we were catching amphibians in the swamp. I never got into trapping muskrat like my best friend. But by the time I was eight or nine years old I had become proficient in sneaking up on snakes and grabbing them behind the head. After a few minutes I would release them to be caught another day.

Snakes were my playmates. So when a garter snake slid out of the grass last Sunday, my immediate response was joy and nostalgia. It swept over me in a shiver. “What a strange response!” I would later think. I bet there are not too many people who respond to the sight of a snake with joy!

For this reason I have always struggled with the role of snakes in the Bible. They are usually villains, stand-ins for Satan both in Genesis and Revelation. Some Middle Eastern snakes are dangerous, and for that reason they came to be the symbol of danger and evil. But in my life they played a very different role. They awakened me to wonder of the natural world.

It is all a matter of how you view them. In other cultures snakes were the symbol of eternal life and healing. There are even incidences of that perspective in the Bible, as evidenced in the Old Testament story of the snake on a staff that brought healing to the Hebrews. (Numbers 21:4-9)

The positive side of snakes has found its way into modern culture in the form of the Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius. Jesus is even referred to as a life-giving serpent. (John 3:14-15) In fact that reference is the immediate context of the famous John 3:16 verse, “For God so loved the world….” Yet I don’t see those serpentine verses emblazoned on cardboard placards at baseball games.

Biblical symbolism is more complex than we think. Even the story of Eden casts the serpent in a dual role – as both the crafty tempter and the one who opens the eyes of the primordial couple to differentiate between good and evil, an ability that most spiritually-minded people value highly. 

Furthermore we know that snakes play an important environmental role in ridding our gardens and backyards of pests. So next time a snake crosses your path, offer a little prayer of thanks to its Creator. Then try to catch them. If you need some lessons, let me know.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Praying for Trump

When evangelist Franklin Graham was in New Hampshire recently, he said that God had put a burden on his heart to pray for President Trump. A few days later he publicly called others to join him for “a special day of prayer for the president” on Sunday, June 2. 

It was not long before hundreds of evangelical pastors and Christian leaders had signed on to make Sunday morning in their churches a time to pray for their president, whom they considered to be under spiritual attack.

It so happened that I was preaching that Sunday. Therefore I had an opportunity to publicly pray for our president. But I did not pray for Donald Trump in my pastoral prayer that Sunday, and no one in the congregation asked me to. I did not want to be seen as endorsing Graham’s agenda or be identified with the Religious Right.

The next day I learned that the president had stopped by the McLean Bible Church in the greater DC area to be prayed for on Sunday. The pastor, David Platt, (with only a half hour notice) did the right thing. He brought Donald Trump up front and prayed for him. It was a good prayer. Not political at all.

Yet this pastor was criticized right and left for his prayer. Anti-Trumpers in his congregation criticized him for publicly praying for him in worship. Trumpers criticized him for not being supportive enough of the president in his prayer. A couple of days later Platt apologized – or at least explained his action – for causing “hurt” to some of his congregants by praying. I feel for the guy. Who knew that praying could be so controversial?

He was only doing what the Scriptures instruct. “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (I Timothy 2:1-4)

This pastor’s prayer followed that exhortation well. Yet he felt the need to justify his prayer to his congregation. American Christianity is in a sad state when a pastor is judged for praying for the president. Let me make it clear. I am not a Trump supporter. I do not agree with his policies. I did not vote for him, and will not vote for him next time around.

I do not think he is a moral person, and frankly I see no evidence that he is a Christian believer. But that has been true of many presidents. It certainly was true of the “kings and all who are in authority” when those words of First Timothy were written. The Roman emperor at the time was possibly Nero (the original antichrist) or Domitian (not a lot better)! Yet Christians were exhorted to pray for him.

Personally I think President Trump can use all the prayers he can get – from both the religious right, the religious left, and those of us in the religious middle. I wish now that I had prayed for our president last Sunday. I will pray for him next time I preach “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior…” In Jesus name I pray. Amen.