Thursday, July 25, 2019

Apocalyptic Spirituality

I recently began reading through the New Testament - again – for the umpteenth time – one chapter a day during my morning devotions. Today I came to the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, known to scholars as the Little Apocalypse, also known as the Olivet Discourse, which has parallels in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

It is one of several places in scripture – the most famous being the Book of Revelation - that speak of the end of the world as we know it. The Kingdom of God breaks into history with cataclysmic events, ushered in by a heavenly figure known as the Son of Man, which Christians later came to identify as the Second Coming of Christ.

It says in part: “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (13:24-31)

There is a lot more to it, and I encourage you to read the whole chapter, but this is the most dramatic part. When this teaching is read in the context of Jesus’ primary message about the coming of the Kingdom of God (“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!), it has led many scholars to think that Jesus was, first and foremost, an apocalyptic prophet.

Some say Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet because the eschatological events he predicted (in particular, a visible coming of the Son of Man in the clouds) did not happen within that generation. According to the parallel passage in Matthew, he made it clear that all these events would happen within the lifetime of his hearers. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

If Jesus got this wrong, that would make him a false prophet according to biblical standards: “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, … that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’ — when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)

That would put a whole new perspective on Jesus’ execution. The idea that Jesus’ prophecy was erroneous is unthinkable for Christians. So for two thousand years, Christians have employed clever hermeneutics to explain the apparent failure of Jesus’ prediction.  But today as I read this passage again, it made sense to me. What Jesus said was true.

I have witnessed what Jesus describes. Not literally, of course. I am not prone to revelatory visions, angelic sightings or hallucinations. History seems to go on as it always has. Yet Jesus’ words - when they are reads as symbolic - ring true of my experience. There has been a dramatic shift in seeing. The world (as people normally understand it) is no more. The apocalypse (which means “unveiling”) is a reality now. The unveiling began in Jesus’ day and has been happening for many of his disciples ever since.

When eyes are opened to the One behind this shadow play of time and space, the universe as we know it dissolves. It is more accurate to say that the universe is shown to be all there is. (The word “universe’ breaks down into the Latin words uni=one + versus=turned; universe means “turned into one.”) The universe is seen as a seamless whole because that is what it has always been. Distinctions vanish.

The heavens and the earth pass away. The facade of the universe is rolled back to reveal Reality. The Son of Man appears, and we are one with Him. What Jesus was describing in this dramatic apocalyptic passage is not a cataclysmic end of history or the physical dissolution of the cosmos. Jesus is describing a spiritual awakening to the true nature of the universe.

Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet so much as a visionary and mystic who could see what others do not see. And he invites us to share his vision. That is why he ends his Little Apocalypse by repeatedly saying, “Awake!” and “Stay awake!” (The Greek verb used in Mark 13:35-37 can mean both.) So let’s do what he says. “Wake up! The Kingdom of God is at hand!”

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Irrelevant Again

I have to stop reading polls that report trends in religious life in America. They are depressing. The newest one is a NORC/AP poll released this month. It shows that the American public’s opinion of clergy continues to decline.

Barely a majority (55%) believe that clergy and religious leaders have a positive influence on society. That compares to teachers (84%), medical doctors (83%), scientists (80%) and members of the military (75%). Only 34% thought that clergy were extremely or very trustworthy. Ministers are down in the gutter with attorneys. I guess I won’t be telling any more lawyer jokes.

It confirms the findings of an earlier 2018 Gallup survey of the public’s views of the honesty and ethical integrity of a variety of occupations. In that poll only 37% of Americans viewed clergy “very highly” when it came to honesty and morality (with 43% having an “average” view of clergy). It was the lowest rating of clergy seen since Gallup began examining occupations in 1977. I wrote about that poll in January (“You Don’t Trust Me”), so I won’t repeat my lament here.

What is different about this newest study is that Americans across the board – even very religious people - said they don’t trust clergy’s advice when it comes to personal decision-making on issues such as family planning, child rearing, sex, careers, financial decision-making, medical decision-making or voting. Religious News Service’s analysis of the data concludes that clergy have become irrelevant. It looks like I retired just in time.

It is anyone’s guess why this is happening. And many people are guessing. My guess is that it is due to the increased visibility of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and the Religious Right in American society, as well as the Roman Catholic Church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal. When people think of religion, that is what comes to mind.

The decline of religious attendance is also an important factor. Less involvement with a local church means that fewer people know a minister personally. Therefore their view of clergy is more likely to be influenced by the news media and entertainment industry, which tend toward negative religious stereotypes.

Part of the problem is clergy themselves. We have ourselves to blame. My experience is that clergy are not as committed to the “care of souls” as they used to be. I am not talking about “pastoral care” provided by ministers in times of crisis and emotional need. I am talking about the “things of the Spirit.” I have in mind contemplative prayer, spiritual disciplines and spiritual direction.

Clergy have little time for these matters because churches and other religious employers expect their time to be devoted to other areas. I have in mind things like church administration, counseling, meetings, congregational activities, visitation, community ministry, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with these. They are all important. But in most cases they can be better done by laity and other professionals.

No one can address spiritual issues as well as spiritual leaders. Furthermore there is a real hunger in the pews for this type of spiritual instruction. Yet clergy tend not to make it the focus of our ministries. Spiritual direction is, in my opinion, the chief calling of spiritual leaders. Yet few clergy are spending time on soul care – not even the care of their own souls. How can you lead others where you have not gone?

It is not all the ministers’ fault. A declining American church is increasingly focusing on the survival of the institution. They need growing numbers (of attendees and dollars) that will keep churches open and religious organizations solvent.  Ministers have to address these issues in order to be “successful” and make a decent living. Seminaries know that and design curricula accordingly.

Ministers are in a bind. There is too little time to do too much. But the consequences of following the numbers is that clergy are less likely to follow the Spirit. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That in turn makes for a spiritually disheartened church, and so the downward spiral continues.  

Personally in my retirement I have found much more time for the development of my inner spiritual life. That is the luxury of retirement. Consequently my writing, teaching, preaching (and more recently blogging and podcasting) have become more focused on the eternal. This may also have to do with the stage of the life cycle that I am in now. Eternity looms closer and demands more of my attention. 

I still opine on important social issues of the day. But when I do, my thinking is less controlled by church politics and pockets than it used to be. I like to think my ethical stances are more thoughtful and more spiritually grounded as a result. But that may be just my limited personal perspective. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that I can be as self-deceiving and self-righteous as anyone.

My model for the balance of the spiritual and societal remains the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. He was a prophet whose soul was rooted in silence. His writings have stood the test of time almost fifty years after I first read them. They ring with a spiritual depth that is seldom found in religious activists today. Social and political involvement is important, but it must be the fruit of a life deeply rooted in the spiritual life, and not simply clerics hopping aboard a political bandwagon – conservative or liberal.

In the end I think that the influence of Christian clergy and churches would increase if ministers were given more time to focus on matters of the soul. Clergy themselves need to make this happen. Perhaps then the public would hold us in higher regard and seek our advice on other matters as well. Then maybe we will become relevant again. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


As a preacher the most frustrating thing about Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God is that it is unpreachable. It cannot be directly communicated. It can only be hinted at obliquely. That is why Jesus didn’t preach sermons. He told stories – a unique type of stories called parables.

The word parable means literally “that which is thrown alongside.” It is something set alongside something else to shed light on it. Like a lamp placed beside a book. Parables both elucidate and hide the truth of the Kingdom of God. Jesus explained it this way when he was asked about his teaching method:

The disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:10-13)

In other words, if you see it, you see it. If you don’t, you don’t. There is not much that a preacher can do to help people see the Kingdom, which is already before their eyes, except to say: “Open your eyes!” That is the source of my frustration as a preacher. That is why the Christian Church very early abandoned the message of Jesus and substituted its own message. The gospel of Jesus became a gospel about Jesus.

Jesus’ original message about the Kingdom of God is just too hard to communicate. Sermons obfuscate rather than elucidate. As many sermons as I have preached in my lifetime, they all miss the point. That is why preachers have settled for talking about things like doctrines, ethics … and politics. Religion is so much easier to proclaim.

Sermons can’t communicate the Kingdom of God. Preachers can’t make people see the Kingdom of Heaven, which is all around us and within us. That takes grace. It is like trying to see your own eyes. You know they are there because you see everything else by them. But without a mirror, you can’t see them.

The only thing a preacher can do is hold up a mirror. But many people cringe at what they see in a mirror. It is too honest. So they turn away and search for some other teaching that is more palatable. And so all the various branches of Christianity are born. What is a preacher to do?

As I sit here on my back porch with God, the Presence of God is clear and unmistakable. As undeniable as the presence of my wife sitting in the wicker chair beside me. In fact God’s Presence is more certain, because my wife gets up and goes into the house to get a glass of iced tea, but the Lord is never absent. God is inescapable.

By the light of God I see everything else. Everything is an expression of God. Everything reflects God. Everything proclaims God. Genesis says that God spoke the cosmos into existence. That means that the cosmos is the Word of God – a Word much clearer and more direct than the Bible, where human words and ideas get in the way.

God is still speaking through this primordial Word. Yet people sit in the presence of this divine teaching and don’t hear it. They are surrounded by divine light and don’t see it. How does a preacher preach to help people see the obvious?

The only way is to teach like Jesus. By throwing down similes and metaphors that point to Truth, to shed light on that which is by nature Light. In the end all a preacher can really say is what Jesus said: “He who has eyes to see, let him see. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

Not I but Christ

It is common in some Christian circles for believers to have a “life verse,” a biblical verse that sums up one’s personal faith. For many years mine has been Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The central thought in this verse is this: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” That is the core of my Christian identity. The “I” mentioned in the verse is the ego, persona, personal identity, psyche, egocentric self, or simply the self. It really doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you can identify it.

It is what we normally understand ourselves to be - our individualistic identity, our personality, our unique combination of physical characteristics, intellect, thoughts, emotions, intuition, memories, skills, reputation, social connections, professional accomplishments, etc.  In other words everything that could go into a well-crafted eulogy delivered at our funeral.

That is who dies when our body quits. That is who our loved ones mourn when we are buried. That is who is missed by friends and acquaintances after we are gone. This self is born, develops, matures, ages, and eventually dies. We give this self a name. The name of my self is Marshall Davis.

That “I” no longer lives. “It is no longer I who live.” The old self is dead. “I have been crucified with Christ.” That “I” died with Christ on the Cross. That means it was dead long before I was born. Which means it never really was. Spiritually speaking that dead self is an illusory self which is no longer real, and never really was real.

The spiritual meaning of the Cross – at least part of it - is the death of the self. The archetypal death of Jesus’ self and the death of our self. The Cross is self-sacrifice. The Resurrection is the eternity of the True Self, which is not born and cannot die.

So “I” am dead. Oh, that pesky “I” (what Paul elsewhere call the “old man” or “the flesh”) still hangs around this life as a poltergeist causing me endless problems. But when it seeks to reclaim its position in my life, I reckon it as dead and gone. (“Likewise you also reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Romans 6:11)

In the place of my self is Christ, who lives in me. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  “Me” meaning this body/mind that people call Marshall Davis. But the false self, that old imposter who identified itself as the lord of this body-life is dead and gone. Good riddance!  I do not mourn its passing.

Christ lives in me. Christ is my True Self. The resurrection is more than a theological doctrine; it is the spiritual reality of my life. As the song says, “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” By “heart” I mean my inner being. Christ lives, and I don’t. That’s my reality.

“The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” This third part of my life verse communicates two important dimensions of the Christian life. Faith and love. “Faith in the Son of God” is not about mouthing the right doctrines about Jesus. It is trusting the living Christ to live through this old body.

This life is lived in the context of unconditional divine love, a “God who loved me and gave himself for me.” It is self-sacrificial love, as demonstrated by Jesus. Once again this is not about the theological doctrine of atonement. This the experiential spiritual reality in which one knows the self-sacrificial love of the indwelling Christ, and responds in faith by self-sacrificial love toward God and others.

The core of this new reality is the True Self, who is Christ. In reality Christ was always our True Self. All it takes is the death of our illusory self to reveal the Presence of the Living Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Sitting on My Back Porch

Sitting on my back porch, God speaks. God speaks the cosmos into being, just as God did in the beginning. The maple trees spring from God. They are Divine Fullness expressed as trees. The flowers are God expressing Godself through flowers. The stones of my old stone wall pop with Being. The insects are Being buzzing – bug Being. They are Being being bugs.

Even the furniture on my porch is Being emerging in the form of chairs and tables. The hummingbird feeders spring forth from Being, providing sustenance for hummingbirds, which are God manifesting Godself as hummers. They appear as different and separate things, but in essence they are one.

There is only One, expressed as two and three and ten billion things. But all are One. Jesus said, “I and the Father are One.” (John 10:30) He said of his followers, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity.” (John 17:22-23) He said, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” (John 14:20)

This is the day. I am one. There is no “me” separate from God or anything else. Just one. Just human being sitting on a porch. I want to capitalize the word and say human Being, but I am afraid I will be misunderstood by my Christian brothers. But it is so obviously true I will say it anyway: human Being. I am Being being human - enveloped in the unconditional love of Divine Being.

Human beings tend to be unaware of Being, but are Being nonetheless. Saint and sinner are both Being. Monster and Messiah are both Being. Good and evil are both Being. As the Scripture says, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) Human evil is human being unaware of Being and fighting Being, but still in the end – and the beginning - Being.

No distinctions. No separation. No differences, except on the level of appearances. “Appearances can be deceiving,” as the saying goes. But appearances fall away in my backyard and only Being remains. A dance of appearances, expressions of the creative joy of God. A divine drama of One appearing as Many, awakening to the Reality that it is One.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Fake God

You have heard of fake news. Now there is fake God. Last weekend Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and evangelical advisor to the president, demonized Democrats who talk about their Christian faith. He said that they worship a fake god. Speaking at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C., Jeffress warned attendees not to believe Democratic presidential candidates when they talk about their faith.

He said, “When they talk about God, they are not talking about the real God — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who revealed Himself in the Bible. These liberal Democrats are talking about an imaginary God they have created in their own minds: a god who loves abortion and hates Israel. The true God of the Bible, the real God, is a God who hates abortion and loves Israel.” (For the full story please see these links: HuffPost and Christian Post.)

Welcome to Evangelical La La Land. It is a land where only one type of Christian is a true Christian, only one understanding of God is the correct one, and only one political party is acceptable for Christians.  Jeffress said that the Democratic Party is a “godless” organization “completely antithetical to the Christian faith.” La, La, La.

How different than the America I used to know, where people respected the faith of others – and where pastors did not have the gall to think they knew the political affiliation of the Almighty. An America where there was no religious litmus test or list of issues that defined Christianity. An America that believed God was the Lord of all nations and peoples and not a just white American evangelicals.

I have lived long enough, and traveled the way of Christian pilgrimage far enough, to know that there are sincere people of faith who disagree with me on theological, ethical and political issues. I am not just speaking about Christians of other denominations. I am talking about Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and many others, whose sincerity of spiritual faith and practice puts mine to shame.

God is bigger than Christianity. Christianity is bigger than the white evangelical Trumpism. Way back in 1952 (before Jeffress was born), Bible translator JB Phillips wrote a book entitled “Your God is Too Small.” The purpose of the book according to Phillips is “first to expose the inadequate conceptions of God which still linger unconsciously in many minds, and which prevent our catching a glimpse of the true God; and secondly to suggest ways in which we can find the real God for ourselves.”

I humbly suggest that Pastor Jeffress read the book and consider the possibility that his brand of evangelicalism might be myopic. Perhaps even consider the possibility that what he said of the liberal Democrats’ god may be true of his own conservative Republican god – that it is nothing more than “an imaginary God they have created in their own minds.”  In other words, a fake god.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Gordian Knot of Self

There is a story from ancient Phrygia (a kingdom in what is now Turkey) about a knot that could not be untied. It is called the Gordian Knot, named after a king named Gordias, who originally tied it. He fastened an ox-cart to a post with "several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened." It was believed that whoever could untie the knot would become ruler of all Asia. 

For many years no one could untie the knot. In the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great arrived in town. He tried to untie the knot without success. At this point there are two different versions of the story. In the most famous version, he drew his sword and cut the Gordian knot with a single stroke. In a more ancient form of the story, Alexander loosed the knot by pulling the linchpin from the yoke, exposing the two ends of the rope, which allowed him to untie the knot without having to cut through it.

The human ego (or self or psyche or soul – you choose the label) is a Gordian knot located between God and our True Nature. It interrupts communion between us and God. Only when the knot in this “silver cord” (as Ecclesiastes calls it) is loosed will we find our true home in the Divine.

Jesus likened the process to going through the eye of a needle. When Jesus originally told his parable, it was not a dromedary or camel (the Greek word kamala) going through the eye of a needle, but a kamel, the Aramaic word for rope. Jesus’ native tongue was Aramaic, not the Koine Greek in which the New Testament was written. This parable was Jesus’ version of the Gordian knot.

A rope is too large to fit through the eye of a needle. But if it is unraveled and separated into finer and finer threads, one will eventually come down to a thread small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. In this way the whole rope can pass through the eye.

So with the ego or the self. The apostle Paul uses the Greek word sarx, which unfortunately has been translated into English as “flesh,” to describe this false self, but it is much more than the physical body. The New International Version uses the better phrase “sinful nature.” It is best understood as the false self, as opposed the True Self, which is the Image of God.

This false self must be transcended if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God. Some people slice through the ego with a simple stroke. In a flash of insight the ego is “seen through” as a mirage, nothing more than an illusion. It is not real in itself. It is just a psychological tightening in our human nature, obstructing the communion of our True Self with God. For others the dissolution of the false self involves a long and laborious process of spiritual discipline to unravel the knot until there is nothing left to untie.

In either case the Gordian knot is loosed and the eye of the needle is navigated. Both ends of the silver cord that binds heaven and earth, the human and divine, are seen to be coterminous. As the fourteenth century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart says, “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” When we see ourselves for what we really are, we will see God for who God really is.