Monday, January 27, 2020

Who is Born Again?

“Born again” is a term usually identified with evangelicals, but things are changing. When asked, “Have you been born again?” most active Christians today - regardless of denominational affiliation - respond, “Yes.” This includes a growing percentage of mainline Protestants and Catholics. This is according to a recent article in Christianity Today, the evangelical Christian magazine founded by Billy Graham, which was in the news recently for breaking ranks and calling for President Trump’s removal from office.

It seems that the term “born again” has undergone a transformation during the last three decades. The article analyzes data from the General Social Survey, which since 1988 has asked respondents, “Would you say you have been ‘born again’ or have had a ‘born again’ experience - that is, a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ?”

Talking about being “born again” used to be the unique vocabulary of conservative Christians. The term was unknown outside of this subset of Christianity until a Southern Baptist named Jimmy Carter won the White House and started using the phrase. Then the Moral Majority was born, evangelical leaders became political powerbrokers, and the phrase entered popular American parlance. Along the way more and more Christians adopted the term to describe themselves.

Today 95 percent of white Evangelicals and black Protestants who attend church activities more than once a week say they are born again. That is no surprise. What is surprising is that 81 percent of similarly active mainline Protestants say the same thing. Over half of mainline Protestants who attend church once a week say that they are born again. Even Catholics have adopted the term. 48% of Catholics who attend Mass more than once a week say they have had a born again experience.

It would appear that the term “born again” has been born again. What used to be the exclusive domain of evangelicals has become a generic term to describe devout believers of any theological or denominational persuasion. 

Personally I have questioned whether the term – as it is used in the New Testament – properly applies to Evangelicals. In my book Experiencing God Directly I write, “Evangelical Christians are not born again. That is my assessment from ministering among evangelicals for most of my life.” At the time I meant that evangelicals mean something very different than what the New Testament – and particularly Jesus – mean by the term. 

Today, seven years after writing those words, I would go even further. I think that white Evangelicalism’s uncritical embrace of right wing politics is an indication that they are not “born again” by Evangelicalism’s own historic use of the term. No God-fearing evangelical of 1956 (when Billy Graham founded Christianity Today) would have supported a man of questionable moral character like Donald Trump for president. Now such unquestioned support is the definition of evangelical.

According to Jesus, who originated the term according to the Gospel of John, to be born again means to “see the Kingdom of God.” It means to “enter the Kingdom” here and now. He did not see it as heavenly life insurance that guarantees a believer a slice of a “pie in the sky when you die by and by.” It is a spiritual awareness of the Presence of God in the present moment, not a conversion experience that ensures your entry through the pearly gates.

The term “born again” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Just like the term evangelical does not have the same connotation that it used to have. Evangelical used to be a purely religious term that described a person who had entered into a personal relationship with a heavenly Savior. Now it means believing that Donald Trump is God’s “chosen one.” How things have changed.

How would I answer the question, “Are you born again?” If it means (as the General Social Survey defines it) “a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Christ,” then I would answer affirmatively. Nearly a half century ago (Has it really been that long?) I made a decision to follow Jesus and have never stopped being a “Jesus follower.” If it means goose stepping behind Franklin Graham and his ilk, then I will pass.

Biblically speaking the phrase “born again” is as much theological as experiential. In the New Testament epistle of First Peter it is theologically connected to the resurrection of Jesus. The author (traditionally the apostle Peter) says we are "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." For Jesus it described a spiritual awakening to the Kingdom of God. I say “Amen” to both of those descriptions and gladly own the term to describe my Christian faith. How about you? Would you say that you are born again?

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Scent of Dinosaur Trees

A story in the news recently captured my attention and will not let me go. It is the successful attempt by Australian firefighters to save the last remaining stand of Wollemi Pines, living fossils popularly known as dinosaur trees.  Deep in a gorge in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, there lies a grove of less than 200 prehistoric trees. It is the only place on earth that they are known to grow in the wild.

Even though they are called Wollemi Pines, they are not a true pine (genus Pinus) nor a member of the pine family (Pinaceae). Instead they are in the family Araucariaceae, coniferous trees that thrived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Now this tree is found in only one place on earth. It was only in 1994 that they were discovered. Before then they were thought to be extinct, known only from fossils that dated as far back as 200 million years ago.

Just to know there are trees living now that existed when the dinosaurs ruled the earth excites the imagination.  I feel as if a chapter of Hilton’s Lost Horizon has come to life. As if suddenly Shangri-La has been located. It feels like a little patch of the Garden of Eden has been discovered on earth. I almost expect to hear tales of cherubim with flaming swords guarding the entrance to the valley where they dwell. The fact that their exact location has been kept secret from the public makes them even more fascinating.

Nearly every culture and religion has a myth of a primordial paradise, a Garden of the gods, a Golden Age that was somehow spoiled or lost. These tales are not to be taken literally, even though fundamentalist members of each faith do exactly that. These stories communicate something about our human condition, not human history.

They speak of a stage of innocence we had in childhood, before we became conscious of good and evil, death and suffering. They reveal childlike insight into the nature of the human heart, which in its natural state can perceive the unitive nature of the universe. Eden is not located in the Middle East. It is in the center of the human heart, the inner recesses of the soul. Call this the Spirit if you wish. Or call this God. Call it Self or Non-Self or any other religious or nonreligious term that works for you.

It is where we originated from and what we yearn for. It is ageless, like the dinosaur trees. A million years is a blink of an eye in this Garden. It is the Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our end … and our present. We come from there and will return to there. In reality we never really left, in spite of religious strategies outlining rigorous paths of return, liberation and redemption.

At those times when our souls are open to what lies beyond our little lives, we can smell the Wollemi Pines amidst the obfuscating smoke of this world. Caught up in the fragrance, we glimpse the reality that we are in the Garden here and now. That is why I love the dinosaur trees. Their scent reminds me of home.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

How Long is a Sermon?

In every church I have served, there have been a couple of people who appointed themselves as unofficial timekeepers of the pastor’s sermon. You know who you are. They would inform me after the service how long my sermon went. I never got the feeling that they wished the sermon had lasted longer. In fact they seem to believe that a sermon can never be too short.

For you “sermon timers” there is good news. There is a new study by the Pew Research Center that explores the length of sermons. They examined 49,719 sermons delivered in April and May of 2019 that were shared online by 6,431 churches. Pew described its research as “the most exhaustive attempt to date to catalogue and analyze American religious sermons.” It exhausts me just to imagine that many sermons!

Their findings were interesting. The median length of a sermon is 37 minutes. Catholic homilies were the shortest – only 14 minutes. Mainline Protestant pastors preach for 25 minutes. Evangelicals go for 39 minutes. Black Protestant preachers clocked in the longest at 54 minutes. Personally I aim for 20 minutes. I figure that if I can’t say it in twenty minutes, an extra ten or fifteen won’t help.

Pope Francis recommends that priests preach for no longer than eight minutes. TED Talks, which have become an unofficial standard for public speaking, have a limit of 18 minutes, a length based on neuroscience. TED organizers say that 18 minutes is long enough for a speaker to flesh out an idea, but short enough for a listener to understand all the important information.

I have a good friend, Dwight Moody, founder of the Academy of Preachers, who puts a limit of fifteen minutes on preachers at their annual National Festival of Young Preachers. But when I asked him about this subject on the phone the other day, he said the length of a sermon is not so important. What is important is whether the preacher has something to say.

What is the best length for a sermon? Just long enough and no longer. Long enough to get across your point, but not so long that people forget what your point is. I have suffered through many sermons that appeared pointless. The most famous sermon in the Bible, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, can be read aloud in under fifteen minutes. If that was long enough for Jesus….

As a retired pastor, I now listen to more sermons than I preach, and consequently my perspective on preaching has changed. For me it doesn’t matter (usually) how long a sermon lasts. I never look at my watch. (It helps that I recently stopped wearing a watch.) What matters is how well crafted and delivered it is. Fifteen minutes can be agony when listening to a poorly researched, written and executed sermon. On the other hand, a half hour goes by in a flash when I am engaged in what is being said.

For me the sermon is one of the most important parts of a worship service. I need a good pastoral message on a weekly basis, and I am blessed to attend a church with an excellent preacher. I also know that sermonizing depends as much upon the listener as the preacher. I can’t just sit back and be passive. I need to be an active participant in the process of communication.

For me that starts with carefully listening to (and usually following along in the pew Bible) the scripture when it is read aloud. Then I relate everything that the preacher says back to the text that is being expounded. It means looking for how the exposition is relevant to my life. It means being willing to travel with the preacher down the road that the preacher is taking me – at least for these few minutes. I do not need to agree with every twist and turn of the hermeneutical journey, but the preacher needs to make a good case for bringing me along.

A good sermon can be an opening to the divine, a stairway to heaven, a temporary parting of the veil so we glimpse the Holy. At its best it is a door into our own soul and into the heart of God. If the preacher does not know the Eternal firsthand, it becomes painfully evident very quickly. In that case no amount of time is enough. For a preacher with a foot in Eternity, that grace can be communicated in any amount of time. How long is a good sermon? Long enough to usher us into the Presence of God.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Yaktrax Nation

You know you live in New Hampshire when you don’t venture to the post office without donning crampons. For those of you who live in warmer climes, crampons are attachments to your footwear that make it possible to keep your footing on ice. The brand of choice is Yaktrax, which according to an online description, makes for “secure travel on snow and ice, such as crossing glaciers, snowfields and icefields, ascending snow slopes, and scaling ice-covered rock.”

No glaciers in our neck of the woods anymore. At least not for the last ten thousand years, when there used to be a mile high glacier where my 18th century house now stands. But there is a lot of ice in New Hampshire. There are ice houses, ice boats, and even colorful ice castles a little north of us in Woodstock. The other day I saw a family picnicking with a blanket on the ice on Squam Lake. I heard that some people skated all the way to Holderness (the next town over) on the lake recently.

There is ice on the roads, ice on the driveways, and ice on the sidewalks – where there are sidewalks. In our town the only sidewalk is a short stretch in the middle of the village, which gives the illusion of civilization to those who come to the Nordic ski competitions or the sled dogs races. The Chinook breed of sled dogs, which are known from Admiral Richard Byrd's Antarctic expeditions, were bred in Wonalancet, just north of us. (A friend of ours, John Dyer, was the radioman on Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition, but that’s another story.)

But these days, climate change cancels the sled dogs races more often than not. Nordic Ski races were held in the rain last weekend. These days you seldom see the mercury dip below zero, and then only for a few days. It was downright balmy last weekend. The snow in our yard has melted down to only half a foot or so. But there is another snowstorm in the forecast for this week. (There is always another storm in the forecast.)

The good thing about living in a small town in New Hampshire is the people. We cannot walk to the post office without bumping into a half dozen people we know along the way. That means a conversation with each one. The daily mail run becomes an hour long visitation with friends and neighbors. We stop in at some friends’ home for a few minutes to admire their new pellet stove. I stop to talk to the local pastor or police chief.

We went to eat at the nearby diner in Moultonborough the other day and ended up visiting with six different couples and singles. Now that we have been attending church in that town for a couple of years, we have gotten to know some people there as well. So we always see people we know when on outings to restaurants, grocery store or doctor’s office.

My wife and I were talking the other day about how blessed we are to live in a town where people know your name. (It feels like we are living in an episode of Cheers.) It helps that I was the pastor of the community church here for many years. I would not want to live anywhere else. Sure, Florida is nice for a little break in the middle of the winter – so we can thaw out and feel our toes again – but you can’t beat rural New England for a sense of community.

“What do you find to do up there?” people ask. More than you think. There is music and theatre and countless outdoor recreational activities in summer and winter. There are community meals, social action committees, book reviews, and storytelling. Then there is politics. In presidential primary years, you can’t walk down the main street of some New Hampshire towns without bumping into a grinning candidate. We live a little off the campaign trail, so we normally have to travel a half hour to meet the next president.

The scenery is fantastic. The mountain vistas and clear lakes take away our breath every day. But the best thing about a small New Hampshire town remains the people. They are friends. They are family – literally. Our son and his family presently live within walking distance, which means we see two of our grandchildren regularly. They just bought a house on a dirt road nearby, so it seems they like rural life also.  

The folks in this town are Yankees, which is a breed that flatlanders do not understand. We can be eccentric. We may disagree on things, a fact which is on display every March at town meeting. But we respect each other and would do anything for each other. That itself is worth the trouble of donning crampons every time we go out the front door.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Gender of God

New words are added to the English language every year. To reflect our constantly changing vocabulary, 530 new words were added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary last year. Among the new words is the use of the pronoun “they” as singular. The reason for this change is the increased cultural acceptance of people whose gender identity is nonbinary.

According to Merriam-Webster, it is now proper to use they “as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female…. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, ‘This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.’”

This addition to the English lexicon unexpectedly gives insight into the gender of the Holy Spirit. Many people refer to the Holy Spirit as “it.” I am uncomfortable with this designation for the third Person of the Trinity. It reduces the Holy Spirit to a power or energy, like the impersonal Force of Star Wars. For me, it also conjures uncomfortable images of the strange relative of the Adamm’s family, Cousin Itt.

The Scriptures are not of much assistance in narrowing down the gender identity of the Holy Spirit. The Greek word for Spirit used in the New Testament is neuter and is referred to with the neuter pronoun. But when Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the Counselor or Comforter (which are masculine words in Greek) he uses a masculine pronoun.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for spirit is feminine. There is a lengthy passage in Proverbs that personifies the Spirit as a woman named Wisdom (Sophia in the Greek translation.) Wisdom, in both Hebrew and Greek, is a feminine word. So according to the Scriptures, the Spirit is neuter, masculine, and feminine. Therefore the new use of the singular pronoun “they” is a perfect fit for understanding the Holy Spirit! The Spirit is nonbinary. Divine Reality is they.

This is further corroborated by the fact that the Hebrew word for God (elohim) is plural, probably reflecting an ancient Semitic polytheism. The many gods were eventually understood as one God. In the creation story in Genesis, God says, “let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” This is sometimes called the “royal we” as when the British monarch refers to herself with the royal plural, as in the sentence “we are not amused.” In Christian theology, this divine plurality became the Trinity: one God, three persons.

A nonbinary understanding of the Holy Spirit opens us to a nondualistic experience of God. God is more than we can think or imagine. Thinking of God as male – or for that matter female – is to anthropomorphize God. It is to remake God in our own image. The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes observed:

“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black, while the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair. Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”

An American example is Sallman’s ubiquitous portrait “Head of Christ,” which pictures a fair-haired, Caucasian Jesus. It is still found hanging on the walls of many American churches today.

God is nonbinary. In spite of most Christians’ natural tendency (me included) to refer to God with a masculine pronoun, God is not male or female. As Paul says clearly, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When we see God in this nondual way, then it has the added benefit of seeing all persons, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, as being created in the image of God. Who is the Holy Spirit? They is the Holy Spirit!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

A Different Kind of Ministry

Over three years ago I retired from fulltime professional Christian ministry. I remember when my father-in-law, Reverend John Hasel, retired from pastoral ministry in 1987 at the age of sixty-five. He never preached another sermon and never missed it. He served as a deacon in his local church in Florida (where people were expected to retire in the 20th century). His wife Arlena (a seminary graduate herself), my mother-in-law, taught adult Sunday School for the rest of her life, but their ministry was always through their local church.

When I retired I wondered if I would follow in their footsteps. But shortly after retirement I was doing some supply preaching and teaching. But I was concerned that I would not know when it was time to stop. As the saying goes, “Old preachers never die; they just sound that way.”

In any case I figured my pastoral influence would be significantly less during retirement than when I pulled a church salary. I was wrong. Book writing, blogging, and podcasting has provided me with a virtual congregation larger than any I had served as a pastor.

I am no celebrity author, but I receive royalties from Amazon from the sale of approximately 800 books per month, which helps my retirement income. The book publishing industry has completely changed in the last decade or so, making it possible for anyone to be a published author at no cost. My new podcast still gets about 300 downloads each week, even though I haven’t uploaded a new episode in weeks. My blog gets over 2000 views a month.

These are not big numbers. In fact they are miniscule compared to those of bestselling authors and popular bloggers or podcasters. I will never be a social media “influencer” or have people pay me to advertise on my sites. But I reach more people now than I ever did when I was preaching to a congregation of a hundred (or less) souls each week. Furthermore I do it tapping on my laptop, while sitting comfortably in front of my woodstove in my flannel shirt and jeans.

I could extend my influence more if I desired, but I don’t. For example I am not on Twitter or Instagram. I barely check my Facebook account. I do no advertising or self-promotion. I am not a social media expert. But even a technologically naive guy like me reaches a worldwide audience.

Hardly a week goes by when I do not receive email from someone in the world who has read one of my books or heard my podcast, asking for spiritual advice. I try to reply to them all. I have become acquainted with people from countless countries on every continent except Antarctica. (If you are reading this from a polar research center, please write.)

Most of my readers and listeners have been wounded by the church and are struggling with traditional Christianity. They thank me for opening new doors of understanding and spirituality for them. I appreciate the feedback. This new ministry has opened doors of understanding and empathy for me.

One last thing. I encourage other pastors or retired pastors – or anyone else - to do something similar, if they feel so inclined. It is relatively easy to get started. No longer are pastors limited to their geographical parish. Even a retired pastor living in a tiny village in rural New Hampshire can reach across the world. As I now say, “Old preachers never retire; they just start a blog.”

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A New Year’s Prayer

Lord, this has been a tough year. Mass shootings and anti-Semitic attacks are at an all-time high in our nation. Churches have been shot up, forcing armed security guards in churches to kill their attackers.  I do not judge these Christians. I would also defend myself and others if attacked. But Jesus, I wonder how it fits into your teaching about nonviolence and nonresistance.

Political discourse has degenerated into sound bites and talking points. Name-calling, intimidation and bullying has taken the place of thoughtful discussion. Probably never since the Civil War have we been so divided as a nation. It is no accident that immediately after that war the president was impeached and now another president has been impeached.

Then there is climate change, which nearly everyone agrees is real but disagrees as to its cause. Consequently we cannot agree on a solution. The youth are angry at our inaction, but those in power ridicule them, ignore them, or pay lip service to their idealism. In a few decades the youth will grow into adults and rule the nations. That alone is reason for hope.

Spiritually our nation seems to be in freefall. Young people are abandoning religious institutions and organizations. The politicization and hypocrisy of established Christianity is repugnant to them. Finding the church increasingly irrelevant to their lives, they have voted with their feet. Churches as know them will cease to exist as aging members die off, unless Christians repent and change.

But I have to believe that genuine spirituality and the eternal gospel will prevail. I pray for religious revival in our land. In the place of today’s fossilized faith, which is desperately clinging to its glory days of worldly power and influence, I pray there will arise a truly “catholic” (universal) spirituality that will transcend religious parochialism. Common experience of the Divine will unite religious people rather than divide them. That is my hope and prayer.

O Lord, this New Year’s day, I reaffirm the prayer you offered two thousand years ago, and pray it will be fulfilled in our generation – or at least our grandchildren’s lifetimes:

Jesus said, “I pray 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, 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 and loved them even as you loved me.”

May unity prevail. May love triumph. May peace reign. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.