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.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Imagine No Impeachment

Imagine no impeachment
It’s easy if you try
No Schiff or Pelosi
No McConnell, too
Imagine all the Congress
Doing work for once (ha, ha, ha)

Imagine there’s no Donald
It isn’t hard to do
No tweets or lying
And no collusion, too
Imagine all the White House
Leading us in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And our land will be as one

Imagine no name-calling
I wonder if you can
No political parties,
One nation under God
Imagine all the people
Caring for the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And our land will live as one

Marshall Davis, with apologies to John Lennon