Friday, September 27, 2019

Bad News

I used to enjoy watching the evening news, long before there were such things as cable television, social media, and “fake news.” I got hooked when I was a teenager, watching grainy images of Walter Cronkite with my father in the 1960’s. Later I remember watching PBS’s The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, and coming away with the confidence that I knew what was going on in the world.

Now I come away from the evening news feeling like I have been emotionally assaulted. Senseless shootings, vindictive partisan politics and mindless triviality dominate the news. Whatever is most offensive, sensational or controversial is put to the head of the show, while important stories are ignored. In recent years destructive weather is showcased first because of the dramatic images of floods, tornados, hurricanes and fires.

The antics of entertainment and sports celebrities are paraded as if they were news. They aren’t! And do networks have to repeat the same stories night after night? Can’t they come up with anything new to report? After all, it is called “news.” I am not saying that all journalism is bad. But too much of television journalism is the equivalent of junk food. Too much will make you sick.

Recently we bought a sofa, which we eventually had to return to the store. The off-gasses from materials in the furniture were damaging my health. It took a while for my physician and I to discern what was causing my physical symptoms, but as soon as I removed the furniture from the living room my health improved dramatically. My sofa was poisoning me.

I feel like the same sort of thing is happening with the evening news. It is poisoning the psyches of Americans and causing all sorts of harmful symptoms in our society. Not the least of which is fear, anxiety, xenophobia, and political polarization. Our psyches are not designed for constant bombardments of threats. These in turn prompt the desire to find security in personal arsenals of weapons and political extremism.

The worst thing about TV news is its corrosive effect on the human spirit. It is bringing out the worst in the human soul and American religion, as exemplified in the recent degradation of American Evangelicalism, which used to be my spiritual home. Spiritually speaking our nation is dying, as any study of the state of American religion will show.

There is a need for a spiritual solution. Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8) Breathing such divine fresh air can counteract the toxic effect of much of American popular culture.

I am not advocating Pollyannaish optimism or hiding our heads in the sand like those who have been dubbed “snowflakes,” people too sensitive to hear anything that disagrees with their worldview.  Nor am I calling for an Amish-style withdrawal from the world so as not to be contaminated by it. Sin happens. There is no doubt about it, and we cannot hide from it or ignore it. There is great wrongdoing, suffering and injustice in the world.

I am trying to find a counterbalance to the new yellow journalism that is so pervasive these days. I am looking for an antidote to the poison, something more than the inspirational anecdote attached to the end of each evening news broadcast. I am looking for hope.

I was talking to a friend recently. In five minutes we counted five serious crises, any one of which could cripple our country – climate change, the national debt, healthcare costs, the student loan crisis, and gun violence. We could have doubled that number of crises if we had another five minutes. The world we are leaving our grandkids looks bleak.

That’s the way it is, as Cronkite used to say. We do not seem to have the national will, unity or courage to address these impending crises. Or maybe that is just the poison talking. Maybe it is not as bad as I think. Maybe I have been watching too much television news. Maybe this next election will change things. There is always a next election.

In any case I am lessening my intake of television news and relying more on a diet of print media from reputable sources that look beyond the headlines. I will supplement it with a generous dose of spiritual optimism to put it all in perspective. For as the Scripture says, “All things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”

Monday, September 23, 2019

Autumnal Spirituality

As the temperature drops and summer green turns to autumn reds, my spirituality shifts. Living in New Hampshire gives us four distinct seasons. More than that, if you count mud season and black fly season. But I am thinking of the four traditional seasons marked by solstice and equinox.

As autumn arrives I become aware of loss. I am losing the opportunity to take a dip in Squam Lake. I am losing the warm days of tee shirts and shorts. I am losing afternoons sitting on the shore of Lake Chocorua. I am losing open windows and a breeze blowing through my living room. I am losing the sound of crickets and frogs at night. I am missing the sight of loons on the lake and hummers in my backyard.

But with the coming of autumn I also gain things. The enjoyment of fall foliage, the smell of wood smoke, vibrant blue skies, invigorating walks in crisp fresh air. There is also the anticipation and preparation for fall and winter holidays.  I can’t say I am looking forward to winter, but I am excited about fall! Autumn invites us to a spirituality sensitive to both loss and gain.

As we age we become more aware of what we have lost. I am particularly conscious of this because I just celebrated another birthday. It happens every September! I am now 69 and starting my seventh decade of my life. (Remember that we number birthdays by the year just finished.) Next year is the big 7-0. Young, according to my octogenarian friends, but still a milestone for me.

My nine-year old grandson, who is almost exactly 60 years younger than I (our birthdays are three days apart, which makes it easy to remember his age) stares at me wide-eyed when I tell him we did not have cell phones and video games when I was his age. Not even computers! “What did you do?” he wonders aloud.

The longer one lives, the more one loses. One loses family members and friends to death. One day I realized I was the oldest living member of my family. My family’s property on Lake Winnipesaukee – so much a part of my childhood and our children’s childhood - is gone. Sold to pay the taxes. I drive through town and identify houses by who used to live there. I realize that I am the only one who has certain memories. Then you begin to lose your memory!

While celebrating my grandson’s ninth birthday at the Common Man restaurant in Ashland recently, a graying man came up to our table and asked if I was Marshall Davis. I reticently responded “Yes,” careful to put my feet on the floor in case I needed to make a quick getaway.

He introduced himself … and his wife at the next table … and explained that I performed their wedding on Church Island 31 years ago. They were there celebrating her birthday and their anniversary! Furthermore their 27 year-old daughter is getting married soon. Would I mind if they took a photo of me with them to post on social media?

Time marches on, as they say. My body is also clearly marching on. When I mention symptoms to my doctor, she graciously uses the word “maturing” rather than aging. After a while I realize I am going to deal with some ailments for the rest of my life. Middle age is past. Middle means halfway. When I do the math, I realize I do not know anyone who is 140.

Aging is not a bad thing. We gain things with age, just as autumn brings its gifts. It brings a certain degree of wisdom (although I know some old fools!) It brings happiness. Studies show that the happiest times of life are childhood and retirement. Age brings free time and independence (if one is blessed with an adequate pension and health insurance). For me it brings the thrill of exploring the spiritual depths of life untethered from pastoral responsibilities and undeterred by the glare of doctrinal watchdogs.

I am grateful for the autumn of life. Even losses can be blessings. For example my doctor says I should lose weight! So I am trying to lose pounds in order to gain years. Autumn is beautiful because of the losses. The loss of chlorophyll in the maple leaves is what brings out the color! Spiritual insights come forward when one is forced to let go of what one cannot keep. That includes material things as well as career and professional prestige.

It also includes letting go of one’s soul. Jesus said, “Whoever seeks to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul will keep it.” The New Living Translation puts it: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.” Another translation says, “Whosoever shall seek to save his soul shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose it shall cause it to live.”

Our lives are not ours to keep. It is better to learn that before we are forced to surrender them. Our bodies will return to the earth from which they came. The spirit of life that animates our bodies will return to God. Our “self” will dissipate like the mist it is. In the end we lose everything – except who we truly are. I am speaking of our undying nature. Some call it the immortal soul. It is often called eternal life.  

Our true nature, our divine life in God, cannot be lost because it is not ours. We belong to it, and not it to us. The sooner we identify with what cannot die, the better we will live. As missionary Jim Elliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Autumn reminds me of this reality. It reminds me of what I gain by losing. That is why I love fall. It renews life in me.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

A Blog about Nothing

Those of us of a certain age will remember the long-running television sitcom Seinfeld, which was known as “a show about nothing.” That is exactly what a blog about spirituality is: a blog about nothing. Spirit is by definition beyond the world of things. Spirit is not of this world - not matter or energy - and therefore not verifiable by the scientific method.

Writing about spirituality is literally talking about “no thing,” not even an ultimate Spiritual Thing called God. God is not the Greatest of all things. God is not the Supreme Object, not a Divine Superman sitting on a celestial throne somewhere “up there.” The spiritual realm is not “up there,” as any astronomer can tell you.

Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human launched into space, purportedly remarked that he had been into space and did not see any God. Of course not. God is not a divine Helicopter Parent orbiting our planet. God is not an entity in space, like Bertrand Russell’s rhetorical teapot. God is literally no-thing.

Likewise the Kingdom of Heaven is not a place, as Jesus repeatedly said. Jesus said to Pilate: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” When the Pharisees asked Jesus about it, he replied, “The kingdom of God will not come with observable signs. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is.’ For you see, the kingdom of God is within you.”

The Gospel of Thomas, which you won’t find in your Bibles but was written at the same time as the gospels in our Bible, has a very similar saying. When asked by his disciples about the coming of the Kingdom, Jesus said, “It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the Kingdom of the Father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.”

God is No-thing that dwells No-where. (For some reason I find myself whistling the Beatles song, Nowhere Man.) Those born of the Spirit participate in this nowhereness. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

An unknown 14th century Christian mystic called this the Cloud of Unknowing. Buddhists call it Void. Taoists call it Tao. Ancient Hebrews called it YHWH. Early Christians called it Logos. There are a dozen names for the Divine, all of which are merely placeholders for That Which Cannot Be Named. 

While doing my daily walk round the village recently, I was very aware of this ever-present Reality, which underlies and permeates all existence. This Presence is my constant Companion. (Jesus called this the Comforter or Counselor.) A life of Presence is living in the world but not being of the world. This Reality is so obvious and so simple - so omnipresent that it is routinely overlooked.

If we stop naming things, the Nameless is revealed. If we pause the internal dialogue in our minds for a moment, then the Unthinkable is present. If we step back from our “self” for a moment, then God steps to the forefront. If we just stop – stop all this selfness – then God is. This is the everyday truth that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. 

Theologian Paul Tillich called this the Ground of Being. It is the background and foundation of existence. We don’t have to be taught it. This is our present awareness. Everyone knows this intuitively, but not everyone recognizes this consciously. Everyone notices this Awareness at some level, but not everyone pays attention. This is the answer to every spiritual question and the end of every spiritual quest.

This is the Kingdom of God. It is spread over the earth, but people do not see it. It is behind every thought and beneath every emotion. Everything lives within it and cannot exist without it. The universe is born from this. It is within us and enfolds us. It is inseparable from who we are. It is us, and we are it.

In the Christian tradition this via negativa is symbolized by a Cross, which is the center of heaven and earth, where the human and divine meet. In some incomprehensible way the Cross is the death of a human and the death of God … or at least the death of our concepts of God and human. Most importantly, it is the prelude to resurrection and an embodied spiritual life.

The “wise ones” of this age – both secular and religious - call it foolishness, according to the apostle Paul. He calls it the wisdom of God and the power of God. He also calls it “good news” – the gospel. It is what every spiritual seeker is looking for. It is nothing, and it is everything. It is present … here … now … for those with eyes to see.