Sunday, March 29, 2020

I Miss Church

It has been two weeks since our church closed its doors “until further notice” because of the coronavirus pandemic. The same with the church in our town where I used to be the pastor and still visit – and preach - occasionally. I miss them both. I miss church.

The pastors of both congregations are doing an excellent job keeping in touch with their parishioners. They send out daily email devotions. They have video and audio recordings of Sunday services, which they record in an empty sanctuary. My wife and I sit side by side in our living room on Sunday mornings and listen to them both on my laptop. We sing along with the hymns, read the scriptures aloud, and pray together. I even get on the computer and send an electronic offering. It’s nice, but it isn’t the same.

Our pastor says that soon he is going to put the Tuesday study group on Zoom. I am looking forward to it. But it won’t be the same. I miss church. I miss seeing the people and shaking their hands. I miss the small talk before and after the service. I miss hearing the choir sing. I miss the organ music. Many churches now have a worship band with guitars and electronic keyboard, but I prefer an organ. It communicates the holy to me.

I miss church. I am one of those people who rarely misses Sunday worship. This will be the first time in probably forty-five years that I have not been in church for two Sundays in a row. When away from home we always find a church to visit. When traveling to western Pennsylvania on a weekend I have been known to pull off a highway exit on Sunday morning, find a church in which to worship, and then continue on our journey after lunch. You might call me a churchaholic. (I wonder if there is a twelve step group for church addicts like me.)

All my life I have heard people give their reasons why they do not attend church. They say that they do not need a church to worship and serve God. They say that they can worship God better by walking in the woods and enjoying nature. They can recite a litany of complaints against the institutional church and organized religion. They say that they are spiritual but not religious. Not me. I miss church.

There is a reason why the church is called the Body of Christ. In Christianity the physical is as important as the spiritual. The physical presence of other people communicates the presence of God. The physical elements of Holy Communion communicates the presence of Christ. The physical rituals in worship communicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. That is why I need church.

Digital worship is just not the same. Video teachings do not connect as deeply as a physical presence. I know the value of online ministry. I have a blog, a podcast, and a YouTube channel. I know these are valuable tools in this digital age. They are helpful substitutes for pastors to use in this time of pandemic when people cannot get out to church.  But they are not enough.

We need the physical. That is why God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. The teachings of Christ are not enough; we need him. We need physical presence. That is what we celebrate at Christmas. That is why we celebrate the Resurrection on Easter. That is why Christianity has always stressed the importance of the physical world and the physical needs of people. The church – the people, not the building – is the physical presence of God in the world.

That presence is what I need. This is what we all need. I miss church. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Devotions for a Pandemic

Recently I have transitioned from writing blogs to recording devotions on YouTube. It seems like this “new reality” of “social distancing’ necessitates a more face-to-face venue.  This experiment is entitled “Devotions for a Pandemic.” I thought it would be good to link this blog to those video devotions. So here it is.

I hope that these links work for those who get these blog posts via email. In case they do not work I will list the links to the videos at the end of this post, after I embed them. I hope they are helpful.

#3 Meeting God in the Pandemic. In this third episode I expore the questions "Who or What is God?" and "How can we we aware of God?" What is that mysterious dimension of reality that people call the Divine? And - to put it in the context of this COVID-19 pandemic - how can we get in touch with that spiritual dimension of reality that people call God?

#2 Where is God in the Pandemic? In this episode I explore the issue of whether this coronairus pandemic is the judgment of God on this world and our nation.

#1 Devotion for a Pandemic. The current coronavirus pandemic is a time when we are separated from the spiritual communities that enrich our lives. This is the first of some devotions to help fill that gap. This particular devotion is on the story of Elijah hearing the still small voice of God in a cave on Mount Horeb, found in First Kings 19.

Here are the links if the embedded videos do not work:




Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Thank God for Journalists

This is Lent, and I must confess my sin. I confess that I have not been fair to the news media. I have not gone so far as to call them “the enemy of the people” like President Trump or “the drive-by media” like Rush Limbaugh, but my opinion of them has not been kind. In fact I have been shunning the television news for the last few months. Today I repent.

It is not that the evening news has changed. It is still as sensationalized and partisan as ever. It still attempts to scare the living daylights out of its viewers. The three old mainstream networks are so partisan that they make me cringe. News anchors can barely contain their contempt for any official of the Trump administration that they interview. Just turn off the volume and watch their facial expressions, and you will see that I mean. Body language speaks louder than words.

On the other end of the spectrum, Fox News has become nothing more than the Republican Ministry of Propaganda. They specialize in ridicule and disinformation. Conservative talk radio is even worse. I was listening to a Christian radio channel the other day while driving, and I could not believe the misinformation they were spouting. What ever happened to “Thou shalt not bear false witness”?

I never assume that anything I hear or read in the news is true. That is why I am in the habit of testing anything that seems questionable by verifying it. No alternative facts or fake news for me. If you are not in the habit of checking the accuracy of your news sources, here is a link to the top ten sites to get you started.

You can probably already tell from my remarks that I still harbor some ill will for the national news media – both on the right and left. But the coronavirus pandemic has improved my opinion of journalists. That is especially true of local and state journalists – print, radio, television and internet - who are more in touch with regular people, rather than celebrities and politicians.

Journalism is at its best when there is a real emergency. The problem is that the national media cries “Wolf!” so often that it takes some time to realize when there really is a wolf. This coronavirus pandemic is a wolf, and the news media is helping to make things better. They are giving us timely information and advice about how to respond to a genuine public health crisis.

Reporters have put themselves in harm’s way and have faithfully reported on this burgeoning and ever-changing global crisis. They have undoubtedly saved many lives in the United States by sounding the alarm from the very beginning of the crisis in China.  

As a result I have much greater respect for the news media now. Without a responsible press – sometimes called the fourth pillar of democracy - our federal and state governments would not be taking the action they are now. Thank God for journalists.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Love in a Time of Coronavirus

I confess that when the COVID-19 pandemic began I agreed with President Trump. That should have been a warning sign right there. I thought it was no big deal. It was just another virus to deal with – like the seasonal flu and the common cold. No need to panic. People were overreacting. The media was overblowing things – as usual.

But as I became more informed, I realized the seriousness of the situation. Even though I had stopped watching the evening news months ago, I decided to tune in to see what was happening in Medialand. I was shocked at the video footage. I asked my daughter in Pittsburgh how things were out there. She says that people are freaking out in western Pennsylvania. Store shelves are empty of essentials. People are sheltering in place. I felt like I was in a dystopian film!

Then yesterday we went to the grocery store to pick up a few items for the weekend. Our daughter-in-law asked us to pick up some toilet paper for them. The store was crowded, and the whole aisle of toilet paper was completely empty! We had to go to three stores to find some.

What the heck is going on? Do these bathroom tissue hoarders know something I do not? Are our personal hygiene habits in danger from the Chinese or the Europeans? Are we all going to be forced to convert to bidets?  Is this a democratic socialist plot against American values? I did a little more research. Nope, bathroom protocol has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Seriously now, I know it is a serious situation. I take the recommended precautions. From what I can discern I am pretty safe living in the woods of New Hampshire. My grandkids are too young to be seriously affected. My adult children are in good health. Even though I am nearly seventy years old and therefore in a greater risk category, I am in excellent health – as is my wife. I am not worrying.

The more I research it, the more I realize that this is really about those in the highest risk category, the elderly and those with serious health conditions. The rest of us take reasonable precautions not for ourselves but for them – the most vulnerable of our population – who need to be protected by us. It is a matter of love and compassion, more than self-interest. That is why we do what the health professionals recommend.

Think of the people affected indirectly by this crisis. The working poor, who cannot afford childcare when schools are canceled. Those who cannot afford to miss work because it means going without a paycheck. Minimum wage earners in the service industry are particularly affected by this pandemic. Healthcare workers on the front lines are at risk. The list goes on. That is why the bipartisan agreement announced by the president is necessary.

I am particularly watching the response of churches. Some churches are canceling worship services, following the lead of states that have canceled public schools. The governor of Kentucky – where I went to seminary and served as a pastor - has asked all churches in that state to cancel worship. Italy and South Korea have done the same. The Mormon Church has canceled services worldwide.

Holy sites in the Holy Land have closed. My Baptist denomination in New Hampshire and Vermont has canceled its regional convention for next weekend. Restrictions concerning the Lord’s Supper are handed down. Fist bumps and elbow bumps have replaced handshakes. Even my ever-hugging wife has stopped embracing people at church. That is how I know it is serious!

This time of Coronavirus is an opportunity for churches to show society what it means to be followers of Jesus, who was notorious in his time for ministering to the “unclean.” Although we need to protect ourselves from infection and thereby protect others, of equal concern should be the other physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people. Especially the most isolated and fearful.

In other words this pandemic is an opportunity for ministry. Let’s not waste it. During the worst crises of history - even the Bubonic Plague of Europe - churches reached out. And this coronavirus is no Black Death. This is a time for compassion. It is a time for faith and love – not fear. As the old song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”

Maybe if churches take the lead by offering a distinctive, loving response to this crisis, society will take notice of the followers of Jesus. Perhaps this is part of the solution to declining church attendance. Maybe this is the opportunity we have been praying for - to show the world what Christians are like. Or we could just hunker down and wait it out.  At least we have plenty of toilet paper.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Tao of Trump

These two words are not normally found together: Tao and Trump. You are much more likely to find the words Evangelical and Trump linked. But both the Donald and the Dao (the Pinyin spelling of Tao) have been on my mind for a while now.

The Tao has held an important place in my thinking since I first discovered the Chinese philosophical classic, the Tao Te Ching, back in college. At that time I took courses on both Chinese Philosophy and Chinese language, where we studied and had to translate portions of the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching has continued to be a part of my spiritual life even after my conversion to Christianity and my commitment to Jesus Christ. I do not find the two contradictory but complementary. In recent years I have led a discussion group on the Tao Te Ching at our local Dragonfly Yoga Barn, I published my own Christian version of the Tao Te Ching entitled The Tao of Christ, and I started a podcast with the same name.

More recently I have begun listening to a new podcast entitled “A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching” by Corey Farr, who uses my translation among others. He has even invited me to do soundbites for his podcast. I highly recommend it. Finally the Methodist church in Moultonborough where I worship is holding a weekly study of the Tao Te Ching, using Diane Dreher’s book The Tao of Inner Peace as the text.

So the Tao and the Tao Te Ching have been on my mind a lot recently. Donald Trump has also been on my mind because of the Democratic primary and the looming presidential election in November. The question I face is how to bring these two seemingly contrary concerns into some type of harmony in my mind and heart.

I confess that my thoughts and feelings about the 45th president of the United States are not very Tao-like or Christian. I confess that I get angry. At such times I try to heed the admonition of scripture: “Be angry, but do not sin. And do not let the sun go down on your anger.” I do not always succeed. The same with Jesus’ commands to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and forgive 70 times 7 times. I went past number 490 long ago.

Here is where the Taoist concept of yin and yang helps. The world is full of good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate. The famous chapter of Ecclesiastes teaches the same thing from a Hebrew perspective: “For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Then comes its familiar list of opposites: “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, ... a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

When I view Trump’s presidency in this context I can understand it as part of the natural balance of opposites in the universe and in human history. Then I can glimpse the higher unity and the deeper harmony that exists at all times. The oneness that is the essential nature of God and human beings shows its face to me.

Then the words of Christian mystic Julian of Norwich reassure me: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This is the teaching of the Tao Te Ching and my Christian faith. This is the Sovereign God who “works all things together for good.” This is Tao that somehow includes Donald Trump in a higher purpose…. But I am still voting for the Democrat in November.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Five Predictions for the November 2020 Election

I am in a prophetic mood. Maybe it is because I am listening to the prophet Isaiah during my daily devotions in Lent. Reading the biblical prophets always prompts an urge in me to foretell the future. Anyway, I have some predictions about the upcoming presidential election in November, even though it is eight months away. Here goes:

Prediction #1. Trump will lose the 2020 election. Just so Trumpers won’t accuse me of spreading liberal propaganda, I must point out that the most recent Fox News poll said that any candidate the Democrats nominate will defeat Trump. But my prediction is not based on an opinion poll. I think Trump will lose because I have faith in the American people. After four years of Trump I believe that the American people now know exactly what type of man he really is, and they will not want four more years of his leadership.

I believe that the American people are good, honest, decent, moral people who can no longer tolerate the immorality, uncouthness and crudeness of this president. I believe that America is better than Trump’s version of it. I believe that Americans will cast their vote based on love for people rather than fear of people.

I believe that Americans care about immigrants. They care about the poor. They care about the sick. They care about prisoners. They care about the reputation and influence of our nation in the international community. 

I believe that most American Christians will vote against this very unchristian president. I also believe that many Republicans and conservatives will refuse to vote for Trump, but they will not admit it publicly because of the backlash from fellow Republicans. I call them the "silent minority" of the GOP. 

Americans are smart enough not to be fooled twice. You know the old saying: “Fool me once; shame on you. Fool me twice; shame on me.” I don’t think the American people will be fooled twice by this “arrogant huckster,” as Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called Trump.

Farmers, blue collar workers and the middle class will see that they are not better off than they were four years ago. They were conned in 2016, and they will vote accordingly in 2020. I have faith in the wisdom and common sense of the American people.

I also have faith in God. As Martin Luther King famously said (and President Obama had woven into the rug in his Oval Office – which Trump immediately removed), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In other words, I have hope.

I can’t believe that God will abandon our nation to Trump’s narrow vision of America. If God is guiding our nation, as I must believe God is, then the arc of our history cannot bend in the current direction much longer without great harm being done to our future. Faith, hope, and love. That is why I think Trump will lose.

Prediction # 2. Trump will not concede defeat on election night, November 3, 2020. He will not phone his Democratic opponent and congratulate him. (Yes, I predict the Democratic candidate will be a “him.”) Trump may never make that customary call, but at least he will not do it until he is forced to.

He will blame his loss on everyone but himself. He will blame it on the media, whom he has called the enemy of the people. He will call the election results a hoax, sham, scam, fake news, and all his other favorite four letter words.

He will indulge in conspiracy theories, saying that the election had been stolen, rigged, fixed or whatever. He will say there were voting irregularities, that the Democrats stuffed ballot boxes or counted illegal votes and voters. Fox News will indulge these conspiracy theories thereby giving them credibility.

Trump will want a recount. He will threaten not to leave the White House in January. Such troublesome tweets will get people talking about a constitutional crisis. Both sides will use the word “coup.” It will be a dangerous time for our democracy.

Trump will eventually step down by Inauguration Day. I say that because I have faith in the democratic process. But the president will leave kicking, screaming and tweeting all the way. He will never admit that he was beaten fairly and squarely because the American people no longer want him as their president. He will be a thorn in the flesh of our country – and the Republican Party - for years to come.

Prediction # 3. There will be demonstrations and rallies across the country by Trump’s supporters who believe everything he says about the election. The president may even show up and speak to them in person. At the very least he will voice his support for them via Twitter and before news cameras. There may even be violence perpetrated by a few of his most ardent supporters. The Alt-Right will not let their champion leave office without a fight.

Prediction # 4. It will be the beginning of the end for the Religious Right. Evangelicals who now support Trump so vigorously will preach dire warnings about the forces of evil taking over America. There will be prayer meetings and religious rallies calling for our nation to repent before it is too late. But this is just the death rattle of a movement that has been exposed as spiritually bankrupt.

Evangelicalism will not go away. In fact it is likely it will grow. It seems to do best when it is out of power. But to the vast majority of Americans this fundamentalist caricature of historic Christianity will be exposed for what it is. A movement cannot be identified so closely with such an immoral and unspiritual leader without some of his qualities rubbing off on it.

That does not mean that progressive mainline Christianity will fill the political power vacuum. The days of Christianity wielding substantial political power in the US are gone. The words and conduct of prominent evangelical leaders have tainted all of Christianity with their stench, just like the pedophile priest scandal of Catholicism has likewise done irreparable damage to the reputation of the Church. The days of Christian hegemony in America are over.

But I hope that institutional Christianity’s momentary loss will be an opening for true spirituality to flourish. I pray that in its place will arise in America a type of religious expression – both in Christianity and other religions - untainted by extremism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, violence and intolerance. I pray that a true spiritual revival - apart from organized religion - will happen in our land.

That’s it. That is what I see happening in November and beyond. In conclusion let me just say that I am not a prophet. So please, I do not want any evangelical readers accusing me of being a “false prophet” when one or more (or all) of my predictions do not come to pass. I do not claim to speak for the Lord – unlike Isaiah. You will not find “Thus saith the Lord” here. These are my personal thoughts, and nothing more. And it is likely my prognostication skills are not much better than Punxsutawney Phil’s.

But if these predictions begin to be fulfilled on Election Day, then I will share this blog again on November 4. I will post it on Facebook right after I post the Munchkins’ celebratory “Ding Dong” song. You know, the one in The Wizard of Oz that they sang after the wicked witch was crushed by Dorothy’s house. I might even follow up with an encore as I treat myself to a sweet from the Lollipop Guild.

On the other hand if I am wrong, then I will admit it publicly, and I will lament with the other half of the country that we are in for a bumpy four more years. If you think Trump’s first term was perilous for our country and the world, just wait until you see a Trump unrestrained by having to run for reelection. As the old Lenten hymn says, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble … tremble … tremble.”

One more prediction. I can’t help it. Prediction # 5. If Trump does win, then within his first year he will float the idea of changing the election law that limits presidents to two terms. And if his party wins the House of Representatives as well as the White House, it won’t be just idle jesting. As Jesus prophesied, “Lo, I have warned you beforehand.”