Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Essence of Christmas

What is the essence of Christmas? Most Christians would not hesitate to say it is the birth of Jesus, but surely Christmas is more than a religious birthday party. Those of non-Christian religious traditions look to the winter solstice for inspiration. They find spiritual significance in the change of seasons and the symbolism of light and darkness. Those of a secular mindset use the time to celebrate family, friends, food, community, and generosity.

I embrace all these facets of the season. I love that this solstice celebration has roots more ancient than Christianity. I do not begrudge the secularization of the holiday. I love the fact that Christmas has expanded beyond the Church. 

I even like Santa! I am not a culture warrior who promotes the use of the slogan “Merry Christmas” as a means to thumb my nose at those who do not share my religious beliefs. Such mean-spiritedness is a violation of the Christmas spirit.

As a Christian theologian I look to the gospel birth narratives for the reason for the season. As a practitioner of the historical-critical method, I am aware of the problems associated with taking these accounts as history. Yet the symbolism of the ancient stories is powerful. It never fails to fill me with awe every year. 

So what is the meaning of the season? It is transcendence. This is what the heavenly host and nativity star point to. There is a Reality beyond the mundane interpretations of human existence. Heaven and earth meet at Christmas.

It is beauty. Most people do not think of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a Christmas carol, but it is. “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea / With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” Christmas is about transfiguration. I experience this every Christmas Eve as I sing Silent Night.

It is about immanence and incarnation. The Christmas story is very earthy. It is about pregnancy and childbirth in difficult circumstances. It is shepherds reeking of sheep and goats, kneeling before a newborn child, who has been laid in a feeding trough in a stable. I have often thought that only those who practice animal husbandry can really appreciate what Christmas is all about.

Most of all it is about mystery. Its meaning is beyond our knowing. It is about unknowing what we think we know. If we think Christmas is a rallying point for our team in opposition to other religious teams, then we have missed the point of the Wise Men coming to honor the Christ Child.

The Magi were likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia or possibly Nabateans from Arabia. Christmas is about a Spiritual Reality that cannot be contained within the confines of one religion. It is about the One who transcends religious differences, yet inspires them all.

The essence of Christmas? It is found deep within the human heart. Jesus taught, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” It is found in the hearts of other animals as well, hence the prominent place that nonhuman creatures play in biblical narratives and later Christmas traditions. That accounts for the popular image of the Peaceable Kingdom at Christmastime.

It is found in the heavens, which is the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem. It is found in children. The focus of Christmas is a newborn child. The Child of Bethlehem grew to be the Rabbi of Nazareth who said, “One must become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Jesus also taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” According to Jesus “neighbor” included Samaritans (who were considered heretics) and enemies. If you want to find the essence of Christmas, look to unconditional love - a love that conquers our fear of people who look and worship differently than us.

Look within the heart of your Jewish neighbor, Muslim neighbor, Hindu neighbor, Buddhist neighbor and Sikh neighbor. That is where Christmas is found. Look to Love that transcends religious boundaries. As the hymn says, “Love came down at Christmas.” That is the essence of Christmas.

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward all!” 

Monday, December 13, 2021

Born in Us

Thirty years ago on this date I was in Bethlehem. Our whole family lived just outside of Bethlehem for the fall semester while I studied at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. We could view the town of Bethlehem from the balcony of our apartment. Those were the days before a wall and a military checkpoint separated the West Bank from Israel. We used to walk freely into Bethlehem as a family regularly. I spent many hours at the Basilica of the Nativity, which is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth.

For that reason I get a bit nostalgic whenever I sing the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The hymn was written in 1867 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal pastor from Philadelphia. He had been in Israel two years earlier and had celebrated Christmas in Bethlehem. One phrase in the final stanza is particularly meaningful to me. It is a prayer to the Holy Child of Bethlehem to “be born in us today.” This is the meaning of Christmas.

Christmas is not just a birthday celebration. If that were the primary purpose of Christmas then the Bible would give a date for Jesus’ birth. It doesn’t. The mention of the Roman census does not help historians narrow it down. Christmas is not really about angels, shepherds, wise men, or a miraculous star in the East. These are symbolic elements meant to point the reader to a deeper spiritual reality.

They point to the truth that Christ is born in us. That is why the figure of Mary is so important in Luke’s nativity account. Christ was born in her. This is more than physical pregnancy. It is about spiritual pregnancy. It points to spiritual truth. Christ was born in her.  Christ is born in us. As the hymn says, “O Holy Child of Bethlehem … be born in us today.”

To use the theological term, Christmas is about incarnation. God enfleshed. God was in the human named Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus learned this himself at his baptism when he heard the heavenly voice calling him a beloved son. The apostle Paul extended it to us: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

Christmas is about the spiritual reality at the heart of human existence. It is about a spiritual transformation that can happen to all of us.

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.

It is about knowing our true nature as children of God. It is about claiming this birthright. Christmas is not just about a humble birth in the little town of Bethlehem two thousand years ago. It is about the birth of the eternal Christ in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Immanuel!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Courage as a Spiritual Practice

In response to my previous post “Civil Courage,” a long-time minister friend replied, “How is the ordinary citizen or Christian to act with courage? Tell us how and when and where. We want to be courageous…but how?” Here’s my answer. Once again I will look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for my inspiration. Courage is a spiritual discipline to be exercised like any other spiritual practice. So how do we practice courage?

First, Pay the Price. There is a cost for courage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This does not necessarily mean martyrdom like Bonhoeffer suffered. It can be enduring the verbal assaults so common these days. “Blessed are you when they insult you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake,” proclaimed Jesus. He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This practice of laying down one’s self is a core spiritual discipline. Ultimately the spiritual life is all about selflessness. It is dying to self and living to God. Being willing to surrender the ego to the crucible of criticism is a great boon to this process. It purifies our motives. Our enemies are our greatest allies in this spiritual process. 

Being willing to suffer for God’s sake is the price of courage. Being willing to stand with those who suffer is the price of spiritual liberation.  "Our God is a suffering God," wrote Bonhoeffer. "Man is summoned to share in God's suffering at the hands of a godless world."

Second, Speak Out! Prophesy! Bonhoeffer wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Two days into Hitler's reign Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address critical of the new chancellor. He warned Germans that this personality cult would lead to the eradication of their freedoms. He labeled the strutting Fuhrer a Verfuhrer – “misleader.” His microphone was cut off before he finished.

Third, Act. Courageous action is always inconvenient, but it is absolutely necessary that courage be expressed in deeds and not just in words. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God,” Bonhoeffer wrote. He served as a member of the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Office, where he acted as a double agent for those opposing the Nazi regime. He taught at the underground seminary of Finkenwalde. He acted. He said, “One act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.”

He agonized over his decision to be part of the plot to assassinate Hitler. He reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” He said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Fourth, Give. In our society, funding causes is an effective form of action. Use “unrighteous mammon” for good, as Jesus advised. There are many causes to choose from: courageous journalism, supporting refugees, and contributing to brave politicians who are paying the price for courage. Among others I am donating to Faithful America, an online Christian community that is “organizing the faithful to challenge Christian nationalism and white supremacy and to renew the church's prophetic role in building a more free and just society.” Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.”

Fifth, Love. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” “Christian love draws no distinction between one enemy and another, except that the more bitter our enemy’s hatred, the greater his need of love. Be his enmity political or religious, he has nothing to expect from a follower of Jesus but unqualified love. In such love there is no inner discord between private person and official capacity. In both we are disciples of Christ, or we are not Christians at all.”

In our angry, hate-filled political environment, it is most important that the heart of spiritual courage be love. Love for those who suffer. Love for neighbor. Love for enemy. Without love we might win a political battle, but we lose the spiritual war. It is of no use to win an election and lose one’s soul. When our critics spew venom, we are to respond with the grace of Christ. This is the most difficult, but the most important part of the spiritual discipline of courage. 

Monday, December 6, 2021

Civil Courage

In December 1942 German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote what has become known as his “Christmas Letter” to his closest friends in the resistance. It was entitled “After Ten Years,” which referred to ten years under the rule of Adolf Hitler. In the epistle he laments the lack of courage among Germany’s Christian leaders and others to speak against the Nazi regime.

He cries out “Where are the responsible people?” He goes on: “What lies behind the complaint about the dearth of civil courage? In recent years we have seen a great deal of bravery and self-sacrifice, but civil courage hardly anywhere, even among ourselves.”

He humbly includes himself in his lament even though he had been serving as a double agent in German Intelligence and was a part of a clandestine plot to assassinate Hitler. He was eventually court-martialed and executed for these crimes in 1945. In my estimation Bonhoeffer was one of the bravest of Christians in a time and place when extraordinary courage was needed.

We need Bonhoeffer’s type of courage today in the United States. It is sorely lacking in American politics and the American church. In America today we are facing the rise of an American form of fascism within the Republican Party.  It is aligned with a dangerous form of Christian nationalism in the evangelical church. I say this as a Republican and as an ordained Baptist pastor who served most of my ministry within Evangelicalism.

American fascism has been growing underground for decades. It sprouted aboveground in 2016 with the election of an autocratic president who brought out the worst qualities of my party and our country. This anti-democracy movement culminated nearly a year ago in the former president’s attempt to steal the presidential election by any means necessary, including encouraging an assault on the Capitol.

He lost the election and the battle, but the war is not over. American authoritarianism continues to grow like a cancer in our country, especially within the former Confederate states. Even Pope Francis recently acknowledged this “retreat from democracy.” This existential threat to our democracy and our freedoms could be foiled if Republican congressmen and senators would stand together against the Leader and his base. But they are afraid.

Congressmen and senators are afraid that he will speak against them and end their careers. Some are afraid for their lives and the lives of their families. Death threats are common. In a recent Salon interview Miles Taylor, the infamous “Anonymous” who wrote the 2018 New York Times op-ed "I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” said Republican congresspersons are worried they will be attacked physically and politically if they cross the former president. He remarked:

“I'm talking about former Cabinet secretaries, sitting members of Congress and others who personally confessed to me, ‘I don't think I can join you in rising up against this guy because I've got to worry about my family's safety.’” Taylor said. “I didn't anticipate how much I was going to hear that as a response. They would say to me, “Look, I’ve got kids and this is too crazy right now.”

There are a few brave Republican congresspersons and senators willing to speak out, and I applaud their personal integrity and courage. Patriotic Americans need to do everything we can to support them. But they are immediately ostracized by their own party, and their political future is in doubt.

The dearth of courage extends beyond the halls of congress to the pulpits of our land. Christian pastors are afraid of their congregations, and it is affecting their mental health. According to Barna surveys, in 2016, 85 percent of pastors rated their mental wellbeing as good or excellent. In the October 2021 poll, it was down to 60 percent.

Pastors are afraid to speak the truth from the pulpit or in private conversations. They fear losing their jobs if they dare to stand against the tide of Christian Nationalism which is sweeping through White Evangelicalism. Those who follow their conscience and dare to speak truth are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate.

Fascism feeds on fear. That was true in Bonhoeffer’s day, and it is true in ours. Fascists march in the streets, brandish their weapons and make threats. They lie, intimate and bully. They use propaganda and disinformation as weapons.

This is the climate that now exists in America and in the Republican Party in particular. This is a time for civil courage for people of all political persuasions and religions. Let us support those with the courage to exercise their right of free speech. Let us exercise courage ourselves, so that in the 2030’s we will not have to write our own version of Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years.”

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Great Masquerade of Evil

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Letters and Papers from Prison, begins with a prologue entitled “A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943.” It was written a few months before Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazi regime.  He writes:

"The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil." 

A few paragraphs earlier he wrote, “One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet….”

Perhaps every generation feels that way. I certainly feel that way. The Christianity I have known all my life has shifted beneath my feet in the last few years. The Bride of Christ – at least the white evangelical branch of it - is looking more and more like the Harlot of Babylon. Recently the editor-in-chief of World magazine and three other top editorial staffers announced their resignation. They are the latest victims of Christian fascism’s takeover of evangelical Christianity.

As we begin Advent I am pondering evil masquerading as good in American Christianity. American physicist and Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg famously said, "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion." There is something about religion that takes evil to the next level. The transformation of American Evangelicalism in my lifetime from a pietistic faith to a political movement causes me to reflect on the origin and nature of evil.

Reality is one. Nondual. “Hear O Israel, the Lord they God, the Lord is One.” The universe emerged from the One who is God and returns to One. It remains One now for those with eyes to see. In the beginning there was no good or evil. These concepts are products of the human psyche. There is no good and evil for animals or rocks or trees. Before humans emerged from the evolutionary tree there was no good and evil.

The mythology of a primordial Satan and his minions is simply an effort to shift the blame from humans to elsewhere, just like Adam and Eve did in the Eden story. “She made me do it! The devil made me do it!” Evil is a product of the human heart. It is the division of one into two, which are then understood to be at war with each other. It is eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It is dualism in the human heart.

Some say that evil is the absence of good. I disagree. Without good there is no evil. They create each other. We make one into two and then forget what we have done. We create an “other” so that we can have a scapegoat to bear our sins and so we can pretend we are righteous. Evil is the psyche seeking to escape from Reality.

It does not work. The dark side of the human psyche returns as the monster under the bed, demons in the spiritual realm, lawless hoards massing at the border, and QAnon myths of pedophile Democrats drinking the blood of children. Evil is the shadow of our psyche projected onto others. The problem is that when we project evil onto others, it is harder to acknowledge it in ourselves. Evil people seldom see themselves as evil.  

Political movements like Nazism do not consider themselves to be evil. Just the opposite. The architects of the Holocaust thought themselves to be the good guys, the epitome of patriotism, family, faith and goodness.  They were restoring the nation to its former greatness after its humiliation in the First World War. They were making Germany great again.

They saw their enemies – Socialists, Jews, Blacks, Unions – as evil. In their eyes these groups were the problem. They saw them as so harmful to society that the nation had to be cleansed of these people by any means necessary. The same is happening today in America. The names of the actors and movements have changed, yet many of fascism’s enemies remain the same.

I see evil masquerading as good in Christian nationalism. Yet I have to wonder if I am doing the same thing that I accuse them of doing. It is tempting to label them as evil and myself as righteous, just as they see themselves as good and their enemies as evil. It is important to consider the possibility that we may be as self-deceived as our opponents.

Yet we cannot let moral introspection lapse into moral relativism or apathy. Though evil may be the creation of the human mind, it is still very dangerous to human life and society. It must be addressed in human history. While aware of the possibility that we may be wrong, we must not surrender to inaction. The appropriate response to evil is to oppose it with faith and courage, while keeping an eye on our propensity for self-deception.  

After watching the German Evangelical Church collaborate with Nazism, Bonhoeffer took a stand that cost him his life. He became part of the Confessing Church that opposed the marriage of nationalism and Christianity. When he was banned from teaching the “critical race theory” of his day, he taught at the illegal underground seminary of Finkenwalde. In his writings he gave us the tools to see the dangers of Christian fascism in all ages. I see them in our age and in our country.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Prophetic Spirituality

Most of us have heard of “spiritual but not religious” people. This group has been expanding in recent decades, along with the “nones,” those without religious identity. Another group has been shrinking during this same period. It is the “spiritual but not political.”

This used to be the self-designation of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians. They were intent on saving souls, not saving the culture. But in the late 1970’s and 1980’s a shift occurred. The Religious Right was born, and the “culture wars” began. Conservative Christianity became increasingly identified with conservative politics. Now it is difficult to separate the two.

I have gone through various phases in my spiritual journey, as I explored the religious and political spectrum. Throughout it all there has been a mystical streak that has come to fruition in the last decade. My life has opened to a spiritual realm that was outside of my awareness previously.

I have called it transtheism, borrowing that term from the Christian philosopher Paul Tillich. It transcends theism to the same degree that theism surpasses atheism. I have also called it Christian nonduality, focusing on our union with God. Some would label this monism, pantheism or panentheism, but it is not an “ism” at all. It transcends religious and philosophical systems. It is direct awareness of the Divine.  

As this new way of seeing has integrated into my human existence, I am once again aware of the tension between the spiritual and the political. Most mystics are nonpolitical. They are concerned with spiritual things, not worldly matters. They are more likely to retreat from the world into a solitary or monastic lifestyle rather than be involved with the affairs of government and society.

Yet there has always been mystics who were active in social causes.  There are numerous modern examples. The most influential in my life have been the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Hindu mahatma Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi in turn influenced the Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. 

I have come to see that spiritual union with the Divine does not mean divorcing oneself from cause of justice in the world. This world and its sufferings are part of the Oneness of Reality. This is evident in Jesus’ description of his ministry in the first sermon that he preached at his hometown synagogue. He said his ministry fulfilled this prophetic scripture:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach good news to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

The spiritual involves the political. It cannot avoid it. Not political in a partisan sense. To identify any nation, political party, ideology or religion with the Kingdom of God is idolatry. That is the sin of Christian nationalism today. 

To be spiritual is to be prophetic. Not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future, but in the sense of “speaking truth to power,” standing “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,” as Ephesians says.

To be spiritually prophetic is to be deeply biblical and Christian. It is to identify with the suffering of people in this world. It is to stand with the powerless against the power-hungry. 

As we treat the “least of these” his brothers and sister, so we treat Christ in our midst today. It means to embrace the presence of God not just in silence and solitude, but in the messy world of imperfect men and women. It is to take up the cross of Christ and follow him.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Praying with Bonhoeffer

I have been reading two books about Nazi Germany recently. One is a work of historical fiction entitled “Two Brothers” by Ben Elton. It follows the lives of twin brothers who were born in Berlin on February 24, 1920, the same day the National Socialist German Workers Party was born in Munich. It views the rise of Nazism during the 1920’s and 30’s from the perspective of a German Jewish family.

The other book is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison.” Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. I had read this volume years ago and have read excerpts over the years. The other Sunday the pastor of our church read a segment from this book during a sermon. I immediately knew I needed to read this classic again.

A year ago my former Church History professor in seminary, Bill Leonard, wrote a series of six articles called “A Bonhoeffer Moment” for Baptist News Global. His premise was that we are living in a time of crisis in our country that needs the wisdom and courage of Bonhoeffer. I agree. For this reason I have been reading Bonhoeffer’s letters as part of my morning devotions each day. His thoughts inform my thoughts. He is my prayer partner. I could ask for none better.

As I read about the rise of the Nazi party in the 1920’s, the parallels to the 2020’s in America are troubling. To suggest any parallels at all is sure to draw an irate response from some people. But when I see the pilgrimage of American “conservatives” to Hungary to praise the fascist regime of Viktor Orbán, and when I hear Fox News’ Tucker Carlson support the authoritarian regime of Russia over the endangered democracy of Ukraine, then I know our country is in trouble.

Of course, America in 2021 is not Germany in 1921. It is a different time and a different place. Our national histories are very different. Yet the Freikorps’ failed insurrection and occupation of the Presidential Palace in 1920 is eerily similar to the January 6, 2021, failed insurrection and occupation of the Capitol Building. To quote Winston Churchill’s paraphrase of Santayana, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

I struggle with whether to address such issues in this blog. Part of me wants to stick to spiritual matters, as I tend to do in my podcast. My experience of the Eternal, which lies beneath and within the temporal world, is powerful. This is the Kingdom of God, and it permeates my life. It is Life. It is tempting to take refuge in Life, and let the world wallow in Death.

Yet while we are incarnated in flesh, we are part of this world. We play our roles in this drama of human life. The Kingdom of God impinges on human history. That is what Jesus and the prophets said. This is how biblical spirituality is different than purely mystical forms of religion. Jesus saw no contradiction between prophetic speech and spiritual instruction. As his disciple I will follow his example. I will follow Bonhoeffer’s example.

When I read Bonhoeffer words and I contemplate his life, I know that to remain silent in a time of moral crisis is untenable for any Christian pastor with a conscience. Christians must speak out when evil threatens society. If German Christians had spoken out more clearly in the 1920’s then perhaps the 1930’s and 1940’s would have turned out differently. If American Christians speak out now, perhaps the 2030’s and 2040’s will turn out differently.

Bonhoeffer was executed on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. A physician in attendance relates this scene.  “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

I kneel with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and pray with him. I invite you to do the same.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Woodstove Spirituality

It is November, which means my woodstove is fired up for the season. While the last leaves are still lingering on the trees, I start the woodstove – at least in the mornings to take off the chill. I postpone this autumn ritual as long as possible. As tight as our woodstove is, it still leaks particles into the room when I open the door to add wood. It is also a very dry heat, so we will have to drag out the humidifier soon.

We have a Jøtul stove with a glass door, so I can watch the fire while I enjoy its heat. This style of stove has the ambiance of an open hearth without the indoor pollution and constant fire-tending. As I watch the fire, my imagination travels to the infancy of our race, when Prometheus first brought fire to humans. What a wonder fire must have been for those early members of our species!

There is something spiritual about fire. It is the focus of the earliest Vedas. Fire was named Agni in ancient India and considered to be a god. It was also one of the four (or five) basic elements in Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Greek philosophy.

Fire is a symbol for the Divine throughout the Bible. God appears to Moses in a burning bush. God appeared to the Israelites in pillars of fire and smoke. Fire covered the summit of the sacred mountain Sinai. John the Baptist and Jesus used the image of fire in their teaching. The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

As I watch the transformation of matter into energy in the firebox, I cannot help but think that this represents the human condition. Our bodies are fuel-consuming furnaces. Warmth is life. Cold is death. At death our bodies cool, and the elements return to earth from which they came. In my case the body will be consumed by fire and the ashes scattered to the wind on a mountaintop - two more symbols for the Divine.

We are not the body. Nor are we the fire. We are neither matter nor energy. In Indian philosophy the fifth element (after earth, water, fire, and air) is space or void. The same is true in Japanese Shinto and Tibetan Buddhism. Space is where everything occurs. It is the emptiness in my woodstove where transformation takes place.

The Tao Te Ching speaks often about space. Space is the emptiness which makes form possible. Space is what make a house useful. Without space my mug cannot hold tea. In the Bible God is said to dwell in the space between the cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.

The Ark itself was a box not much bigger than my woodstove. And it was empty until Moses started filling it with commandments and religious objects. That is what religions always do. In the creation stories God formed the cosmos by creating space between the chaos above and below.

Space is the heart of Reality. It is the essence of what we are. Science tells us that our bodies are mostly space. The millions of atoms which comprise the human body are themselves 99% empty space. If you removed all of the empty space contained in every atom in every person on earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would be smaller than a sugar cube. We are space.

We are the space in which this world exists. That can be experienced directly. Look around. Do you experience yourself as an object in space or as the space in which objects appear? Are you an object in the universe or the space in which the universe appears?

We are the space within which the Burning Bush burns. We are the space in which Moses hears the sacred Name I AM. God instructs Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place [or space] where you stand is holy ground!” Temples, churches and mosques are considered sacred space. The New Testament calls us temples of God. We are holy. So is your neighbor. Remember this and remove your shoes.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Remembering the Five Million

Halloween is over, and the true holiday begins. Today is All Saints Day, the day on the calendar when Christians remember those who have died. In Mexico it is known as Dia de los Muertos. There are many to remember this year. 

Each of us are sensitive to certain populations who have unnecessarily died for various reasons. It just so happens that my COVID vaccine booster shot is scheduled for this morning. For that reason the five million who have died of COVID-19 are on my mind this day.

Earlier this autumn communities around the country placed white flags on public and private lawns to remember the 700,000 Americans who have died of this coronavirus. The National Mall was the largest example. Each flag is a son or daughter, mother or father, grandfather or grandmother. Each of these lives are mourned by their families. Each represents an empty chair at the table this upcoming holiday season.

One of the saddest parts of this tragedy is how this epidemic has been politicized. Grief has been manipulated for partisan purposes. This has caused unnecessary additional suffering. The harsh reality is that the grave has no political preferences. It welcomes all indiscriminately. People of all political persuasions die and grieve.

Let us not use this day to scold those who are not vaccinated nor scorn those who vaccinate. Let us not opine about misinformation or disinformation. Let us not argue over numbers. Today let us simply remember the lives lost. Let us show compassion.

Our nation is in grief. We see symptoms of grief all around us – including denial, anger and depression. Let us use this day to find comfort and to comfort. This is a day to reflect on death. For Christians – and those of other religions – remembering the dead leads naturally to pondering eternal life.

Many people do not believe in eternal life. Skepticism leads them to see afterlife as wishful thinking. I respect that opinion, though I do not share it. For me eternal life is as real as temporal life.  I am as aware of eternity as I am of time. Actually I am more aware of eternity. Time is an illusion in the presence of the Eternal. In the light of eternity I disappear, and only eternity remains. In the Eternal all lives are sacred and none are lost.

Life and death are passing phases. They cannot touch what we truly are. Our true nature is neither born nor dies. As I ponder the five million who have died of COVID, I do not see statistics or strangers. I see family. I see myself. They are me. I am them. We are one. We are united in the One I call God. That is what we Christians call the Communion of the Saints. This is what I remember on this holiday of All Saints Day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

My wife recently shopped at Hobby Lobby, and she asked the salesperson where the Halloween items were located. The shocked response was: “Oh No! We do not carry those!” We should have known. Hobby Lobby is owned by conservative Christians. They do not believe in promoting "pagan" holidays.

We recently had relatives visit us for the weekend. Again my wife asked if they were going to give out candy for Halloween. The answer was, “Oh no! We do not celebrate Halloween. That is Wicca!” Once again, we should have known. They belong to a conservative church that believes that demons are real and the earth is only 6000 years old.

As a Christian I have no problem celebrating Halloween. After all it is a Christian holiday. It is the night before All Saints Day (All Hallows Day) on November 1. It is a time to remember those we have lost to death. In worship we read the names of members of the congregation who have died during the past year. It is a healing time.

It is a time to celebrate eternal life. We usually sing one of my favorite hymns in church: “For All the Saints.” Sure, the date of Halloween has been adopted from the Celtic Samhain. That is not a deal-breaker. After all, the date for Christmas was adopted from the Roman Saturnalia. That doesn’t stop us from celebrating Christmas Eve, and I don’t see Hobby Lobby refusing to sell Christmas items.

So what if Wiccans celebrate Halloween? So what if the holiday has pre-Christian origins? That just shows that religions draw upon a common spiritual heritage and borrow from one another. That is also evident in the ubiquity of Flood myths in the world’s religions, not to mention virgin births, as well as dying and rising deities. Should we stop celebrating Easter because the name comes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon deity, Eostre, the goddess of the dawn, who was celebrated at beginning of spring?

I like Halloween. It is a holiday that brings our subconscious fears into the open so we can play with them, poke fun at them, and laugh at them. It is a way of acknowledging the fear of death. We all die. Living in our death-denying American culture, it is healthy to be reminded of that fact. That is the reason for all those skeletons and tombstones. That is our fate, whether we admit it or not. “Alas, poor Yorick!”

I suspect the real reason many Christians reject Halloween is because they have not come to terms with their fear of death, in spite of worshipping a resurrected Savior. That fear is the unspoken source of the belief in the Rapture. It is a way conservative Christians hope to bypass death and get a pain-free trip to heaven.

Fear of death is why so many Christians cling to every possible minute of earthly life as tightly as any unbeliever. If Christians really yearned for heaven as much as they claim, they would be eager to get there – not trying to postpone paradise by every medical intervention available – usually accompanied with extended pain and exorbitant cost. 

So I celebrate Halloween as a Christian. We will be decorating our house and giving out goodies to youngsters at our house on Halloween. Our adult children will be bringing our grandchildren around their neighborhoods to trick-or-treat. I don’t do costumes, but I enjoy seeing the creativity of our neighbors’ costumes – both children and adults. So let me be the first to wish you a Happy Halloween and a holy and meaningful All Saints Day. 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Does the Church Have a Future?

The headlines this week told the same old story: the American church is declining. This latest study, entitled 2020 Faith Communities Today, was done by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It boasts of being the largest U.S. congregational survey ever conducted.

It confirms what Christians already knew - the American Church is hemorrhaging people. There are half as many people in church today as there were twenty years ago. The median worship attendance was 65 in 2020 compared to 137 in 2000. 

What will these churches look like in another twenty years? If the average age that I see in our churches is any indication, in twenty years most congregations will cease to exist. Those still in operation will be on life support provided by trust funds.

This survey indicates that churches declined across all denominations and theological persuasions. Mainline Protestants lost the most people, Catholics and Orthodox next, and Evangelicals least, but all are declining rapidly. As I have watched this decline I have been surprised at the lack of creative thinking in churches and denominations when addressing the decline.

For the most part they have responded by saying and doing the same old things and expecting different results. You know what Einstein said about that strategy! The Faith Communities Today survey concludes: “Traditional ways of worshipping, ministering to spiritual needs and organizing the business of congregations are no longer working adequately for many faith communities.”

As a Baptist I have been attentive to how Baptists have addressed the situation. The Southern Baptists in particular keep repeating the old mantra that the solution is more evangelism. Preach the gospel, plant more churches, give more money, and baptize more people. Just focus on the Great Commission and everything will be alright, they say. Not surprisingly the theme of the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was “We Are Great Commission Baptists.”

No one stops to consider that maybe the gospel being preached is the problem. That is what I discovered when I deconstructed my evangelical Christianity a decade ago. I found that traditional Christianity bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus. Read only the words of Jesus in the New Testament – the so-called “red letters” – and you will discover that for yourself.

Christianity in America is a mishmash of American democracy, American culture, American politics, American prejudices, and American egotism. It is no wonder that conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism have become problems. Most churchgoers see very little difference between American values and Christian values. That is how the phenomenon of “Patriot Churches” emerged. Many Christians see no conflict between the cross and the flag.

When I read the gospels I see a man who was killed by the adherents of that type of religion. When I read the words of Jesus I see a man with direct, unmediated awareness of God. He spoke of a Kingdom of God that was not of this world, yet was also within us and around us. His experiential spirituality bears a strong resemblance to teachings found in other religious traditions of the world.

This ancient and perennial spirituality can save the declining church today. It would speak to people who have an interest in spirituality, but have been unable to find spirituality in Christian churches. If this gospel were recovered it could counter the festering anger, hate, bigotry, and intolerance that are so evident in social and political discourse today.

Yet it is unlikely the church will embrace this original gospel because that would mean the death of the present form of the church, with all its cultural and financial perks and privileges. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a seed; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Only when the church is willing to die, will it live.

Jesus also said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.” The only way for the church to save itself is to lose itself. Only when the church stops trying to save itself and dies to self, can it be resurrected. Either way the old church is dead. Yet the true Church can never die. Long live the Church!



Thursday, October 14, 2021

Healing Light

I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I have mentioned it before in this blog. I have had this condition all my life. Long before they had a name for it and before I was diagnosed by a physician, I can recall having the symptoms of SAD as a pre-teen. It is caused by a drop in serotonin levels in the brain due to a decrease in exposure to sunlight. It is the price I pay for living in the northern hemisphere.

Every autumn it creeps up on me as the days grow shorter. It is worst during the holidays as the winter solstice arrives.  This year it came on earlier than normal.  I could feel the effects of decreasing sunlight before Labor Day, while the weather was still very warm. Long before most people were thinking about winter, my emotions alerted me that I needed to address the situation.

My primary care physicians have prescribed Vitamin D and medication every fall and winter for years. A few years ago I started light therapy. It a full spectrum lamp which simulates sunlight and helps regulate the circadian rhythm. Every night when it gets dark I turn on a special lamp next to my chair as I read, write or watch television. It works wonders. The symptoms disappear in a few days, and stay gone as long as I remember to use the lamp every night.

Recently I have been thinking about the theological implications of light therapy. Light is a well-known symbol in spiritual traditions. Many religions find significance in the winter and summer solstices. Stonehenge gives archeological testimony of the antiquity of this practice. There is a reason spiritual awakening is called “enlightenment.” It is no accident that the original date for Christmas was the winter solstice and the definitive event of Christianity – the resurrection of Jesus – occurs at dawn.

Light is a fascinating phenomenon. It travels at the outer limit of speed. Nothing can move faster than light. As one approaches the speed of light, time slows down. Theoretically if one could travel at the speed of light, time would stop. That means that light is timeless – a fitting symbol for eternity.

“God is Light,” wrote the apostle John, “and in him/it there is no darkness at all.” “I am the Light of the World,” said Jesus. He made that statement immediately before healing a man blind since birth. Christ is healing light. Revelation describes the New Heavens and Earth as having no night. There is no need for the sun in the New Jerusalem for God is the Light.

Light includes all colors within it, which become visible when separated by a prism, producing a rainbow, another religious symbol. In that sense light is the One manifested as the Many. Light is the first of God’s creations according to the Genesis creation story. 

Light is healing for me. It physically bestows peace to me. It brings wholeness to mind and body. It restores me to who I am.  Because of its healing effect on me, light feels like home. Maybe that is the attraction of sunrises and sunsets. Nothing soothes my soul more than dawn at the lakeside, when the water is at perfect peace.

Light not only feels like home, it feels like who I am. Jesus said it: “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine!” This is more than a metaphor. He is talking about our original nature. Astronomer Carl Sagan famously remarked that humans are made of “star stuff.” He meant that the elements of our physical bodies were formed in the interior of stars.

We are more than star stuff. We are star light. That is what we essentially are. Jesus knew that about himself. That is what he meant when he said, “I am the Light of the world.” He was not speaking exclusively of himself. He said it was true of us as well. We are light. We were light before our sun was born. So let your light shine! 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Joy of Being Wrong

People are so certain they are right these days! This is the case in both politics and religion. People with strong opinions are certain that other people are wrong, and they are quick to point out exactly how wrong. They accuse others of being duped, deluded, brainwashed, deceived, misinformed and disinformed, without pausing to consider that this might be true of them as well.

They cannot imagine that they might be as wrong as their opponents. In fact it has become a sin to admit that we might be wrong. It is seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of conviction to admit we are wrong and change our mind. Changing one’s mind is seen as a character flaw. You are “flip-flopping.” Changing one’s political party or religion is the unforgiveable sin!

Strangely this standard is applied even to scientists, who are the most empirical of thinkers. If scientists change their mind on a matter – such as the COVID virus or vaccines - it is seen as a sign of conspiracy or incompetency. People no longer understand how science works. Scientific truth is not fixed. It is constantly changing. Scientific consensus is continually updated as new evidence is gathered. Something is wrong if scientists do NOT change their minds. Scientific truth evolves.

This is very different than religion or politics. Religion believes in unchangeable truths that were given “once for all” at some time in the past by a religious founder or reformer. (The reality is that religions also evolve, but they won’t admit it.) Political positions are based on “core values” and party loyalty that cannot be questioned or compromised. To question these principles is seen as betrayal. As the proverb says, true believers are “often wrong but never in doubt.”

I have come to realize that I am often wrong, and I seldom realize it until much later. Without a doubt I am wrong. (Yes, I recognize the contradiction and humor in that statement!) It is a joy to be freed from the burden of always being right! It is a blessing to realize that I am often wrong. Please do not believe anything I say without examining it for yourself!

The same goes for what you say to yourself, as you convince yourself of the rightness and righteousness of your positions. As I have often said to people in counseling sessions, “You do not have to believe the thoughts in your head.” Be as skeptical of your own opinions as you are of others’ opinions.

To be free from blindly believing our own thoughts is to be released from the tyranny of self. The autocratic self is far more dangerous to our freedoms than any president or political party. The self cannot tolerate being wrong, and for that reason is dangerous. Be especially wary of confirmation bias, which is the way we deceive ourselves while pretending to be open to new information. We are blind to our own blindness.

My awareness of my aptitude for wrongness came about during the deconstruction of my Christianity a decade ago. While ruthlessly examining my assumptions on matters of religion, I saw how wrong I was about so much … for so long. Once we see how easy it is to be wrong – and to be blissfully unaware of being wrong - we can never trust our thoughts so completely again.

Yet we must still make decisions about politics and religion and science, and we must act on our decisions. So let us do so carefully and humbly. Let us always (as a minister friend of mine used to pray) be “mindful of the faint but humbling possibility that we may be wrong.” 

May we have the courage to explore our doubts thoroughly. When we discover we are wrong, let us give thanks to God for the revelation and admit it joyfully! It means we are a little less wrong... hopefully. Unless I am wrong about that too! 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021


After nearly three months on Mailchimp’s blacklist, I have finally been exonerated. Early in July I received notification that my account was being terminated “for violating our Standard Terms of Use and Acceptable Use Policy.” I asked why, but got no response. I appealed the ruling, but again got no reply. Apparently by linking the site of a far right group (which I clearly opposed) in the blog I had tripped an algorithm that flagged my blog as dangerous.  

I had no other recourse than to find another service to send out my blog posts to subscribers. I chose, which provides a similar product but at a price. Unless I chose the most expensive option it also added advertisements to the bottom of each blog email, something neither I nor my subscribers liked.

After deciding to pay more to eliminate the annoying ads, I contacted Mailchimp one more time. Yesterday I received a response. They explained that a real human had checked my blog and determined that it was safe. In their words: “After a careful review of the account and the content, we can see that it's ok and we've made an adjustment to help prevent this specific flag from intervening.” I got a follow-up email saying that my account had been reinstated.

I am not sure whether to be happy or not. I was kind-of proud to be declared so notorious that I had been “canceled” by the electronic media culture. I wrote a blog post about it. To be labeled “safe” is not nearly as interesting. I am wondering if a blog by Jesus of Nazareth or the apostle Paul would have been considered safe.

Anyway now I have to choose which service to use and perhaps switch back, which is why I am writing this blog. I think that this post will be sent out by both and Mailchimp, hopefully with all my previous settings intact. So do not be alarmed if you get two emails with this same post. You don’t have to do anything. It will not happen again. Also some who unsubscribed from may get it from Mailchimp anyway. Sorry about that. You can unsubscribe again.  

Others don’t have to do anything. If I decide to go back to Mailchimp, I will make sure to export every email address from the other service. I am going to take a look at both of them, compare them and go from there. Those who read this on the blog website don’t have to worry about this at all. Hopefully soon everyone will be able to read one “safe” post, until I walk too close to the algorithmic line and get canceled again! (I hope!) What good is playing it safe!

Sunday, September 26, 2021

I Hope You Don’t Recover

My wife and I were “under the weather” for most of the summer. As a result we did not do many of our normal summer activities. We are trying to make up for it this month while the weather is still warm – like visiting the ocean and the mountains.

She contracted Lyme disease early in the summer and did not have the energy to do much. Fortunately she was diagnosed early, received prompt treatment for Lyme, and is doing well. A while back when someone asked how she was doing, I responded, “She is recovering.”

Later I was thinking about the word “recover.” It seems to imply that during illness something is uncovered that is later covered again - re-covered. In his poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost muses, “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” In like manner I’d like to ask what it is we are uncovering and recovering.

The Greek word for revelation in the New Testament means “to uncover” or “unveil.” It is sometimes transliterated as apocalypse, which is the title of the Book of Revelation. It is literally the Book of Uncovering.  It refers to spiritual truth that had been hidden but is now disclosed.

The Letter to the Colossians speaks of a “mystery that was hidden for ages and generations but is now revealed (uncovered or unveiled)...”  The author, traditionally considered to be the apostle Paul, goes on to say that this uncovered mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Illness can uncover this mystery. “Christ in us” is uncovered when our body fails, especially when illness signals possible death. The veil between the spiritual and the physical – heaven and earth – is lifted a little whenever our mortality is glimpsed.

I am reading an interesting sci-fi novel entitled The Humans by Matt Haig. It is a humorous account of an immortal alien who comes to earth and becomes a human being. He endeavors to learn about humans and discovers that people spend a lot of time trying not to think about their mortality, which is why they tend to handle death so poorly when it approaches.

Illness uncovers the truth of our impermanence. We are confronted with the reality that we are perishable organisms destined to return to the elements. Like those items in our refrigerator, we have an expiration date. This is something most people would rather not contemplate. So we cover it up as soon as we are feeling better and get back to our normal lives.

Perhaps what is uncovered should not be hastily recovered before it is examined. When we do some serious self-inquiry, we get a glimpse of what is beneath the flesh and bones. Illness reveals that we are not what we thought we were. We are more than these earthy bodies.

We discover the treasure hidden within these earthen vessels. We see what Solomon described as “eternity in the hearts of men.” We see what Colossians calls “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” We uncover the truth that we are more than physical. In that moment a rebirth or resurrection occurs. As Paul says, “the perishable puts on the imperishable, the mortal puts on immortality” and “death is swallowed up in victory.”

We are not what we thought we were. This is what many people glimpse in Near Death Experiences, and their lives are changed. These bodies are mortal, but we are not. We are what is uncovered when the mortal falls away. This is revealed a little more with every illness and every passing year. That is the gift of aging. It is forgotten every time we “recover,” when we cover up this reality with the old mortal consciousness.

Why recover? Why choose the old wineskins? Why not drink the new wine of our immortal center? The reason why people cover up their true nature is because to embrace it means the death of our self. We are very attached to the self. In fact we mistake the self for who we are. But we are not ourselves. The self is a product of this body/brain and will die with it. But the self will not go gently into the night; it rages against the dying of the light, to paraphrase the great Welshman. It wants to live forever, or at least pretend it will.

But if we slough off the self now like a worn-out garment, as we will one day slough off our bodies, then we can live our selfless lives now. We die before we die, and we see we are Life Itself. We are reborn. Resurrected. We discover who we really are. That is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” No need to wait for heaven. It is heaven now! Jesus called this Eternal Life and the Kingdom of God. I hope you discover this. I hope you don’t recover.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Finding God in Islam

To be honest, it has been difficult for me to discern God in Islam until recently. It is not that I am unfamiliar with the religion. I took a graduate seminar in Islam when I was in seminary. I studied Islam under a Muslim scholar while on sabbatical in Israel. I have read the entire Quran several times in my lifetime, which is more than most Christians can say of the Bible.

I have had long theological discussions with Muslims. Among those discussions were a series of live radio shows that I did with an imam of a Pittsburgh mosque in the wake of 9/11. He invited me to his mosque. My wife and I met his family, and he gifted me with a beautiful copy of the Quran. I gave him a New Testament in return.

Yet I have had a hard time finding the God of Jesus in the religion of Islam, even though Islam claims Jesus as one of its prophets. They believe Jesus performed miracles. They even believe in the Virgin Birth. Mary has a surah (a chapter) of the Quran named after her. They also believe Jesus will return to earth one day to defeat “the false messiah” known as the Antichrist.

In spite of Islam’s reverence for Jesus, the Quran has felt more like the Old Testament than the New Testament. Muhammad seems more like Joshua than Jesus. Muhammad, after all, was a warrior. He led an Islamic army that conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula during this lifetime. I viewed his sword in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. I find it hard to reconcile the life of Muhammad with the teachings of Jesus.

Recently I read a novel of historical fiction that changed my perception of Islam. It is entitled The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak. It is mostly about love for God, although the author connects it to human love was well. It is the story of the friendship between the thirteenth century Persian scholar Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams. Shams changed the Islamic leader’s life and turned him into a mystic and a poet.

I found the Spirit of Jesus Christ in these two Islamic mystics: Rumi and Shams. After finishing the novel I was inspired to purchase a book of the sayings and poems of Rumi. I had read Rumi earlier in my life, but at that time I did not see what I now see. Here were medieval Islamic spiritual teachers who knew the God I know in Jesus, which means they knew the eternal Christ.

Most Sunni and Shiite Muslims – certainly the fundamentalist varieties - believe that Sufis are heretics, but that is alright with me. Fundamentalist Christians would consider me a heretic for finding God in faiths other than Christianity. For conservative Christians the only God is the Christian God, and Muhammad is a false prophet who proclaimed a false deity. For conservative Muslims the only God is the Islamic God, and Christians are blasphemers for believing in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.

For me, the only God is God, as the Shahada of Islam says. God is One, as the Shema of Judaism says. “I and the Father are One” and we share that Oneness, as Jesus said. I see this One God as bigger than any religion – Christian, Muslim, or Jewish. I see God in Jesus, and I see God in the words of Rumi. This is the God of love, forgiveness and grace. This is the God revealed in the mystical branches of all spiritual traditions.

On both of my visits to Istanbul I visited the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the sixth century as a Christian church and converted to a mosque in the 15th century. At the time I visited this sacred site, it was a museum. Last year it was converted back into an active mosque. It is an example of one religion taking over the sacred space of another religion, which is a common practice in the history of religions.

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is another famous example of a space that has been used for worship by Jews, Romans (temple of Jupiter), Christians and Muslims. I see this coopting of sacred space as an unconscious recognition that it is the same God worshipped in all three Abrahamic faiths, as well as ancient Roman religions.

It is the same God known in the Baha’i faith and Sikhism. It is the same God accessed in Buddhism, even though early Buddhism was nontheistic. It is the same God found in Hinduism, even though that religion has many gods. I see this Divine One in the sacred texts of many traditions, and now I see the One God in the Sufi expression of Islam as well. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Politics & Spirituality

I read something last week, and I have been pondering it ever since. A woman I know wrote online, “Life is politics.” She went on to make it clear this was not an offhand remark, but something she had contemplated for a long time. Several years ago another woman said to me, “Everything is political.”

A lot of people would agree with them. Many people are passionate about politics. Especially these days when politics has become so intense that it threatens to tear apart our national unity.

For me life is not politics, and neither is everything political. I would say, “Life is Spirit” and “Everything is spiritual.” I am interested in politics but not overly so. I hold to certain political views. My views tend not to follow party platforms. I belong to a political party, but it is an uncomfortable fit. I often vote across party lines when I prefer another candidate.

I have an interest in politics, but politics is not very important in my life.  Apparently a lot of people agree with me because only half of eligible Americans vote. Sixty percent in a good year – like 2020. I do not view the world through a political lens. In fact I think that politics can be dangerous to one’s mental health. It can distort one’s view of life. Political ideologies can be so intense and all-consuming that they take on the characteristics of religious cults.

The way I see it, politics is a mental exercise. It is all in the mind. Political views are ideas that we use to organize society. They have no reality outside the human mind. You cannot see politics or smell it or touch it or taste it. If humans ceased to exist (as they certainly will someday) politics would cease to exist. They are an imaginary world.

I can hear the rebuttal by political activists as I write these words. Don’t political positions have consequences in real life? Yes, they do. Acting on them can mean life or death for real people. They can mean freedom or bondage for people. For that reason politics needs to be taken seriously. That is why I keep informed and vote.  But politics is not real life. A hug is real life. An act of kindness is real life. Politics is not life.

When I am standing on a sidewalk protesting some injustice or listening to a candidate give a stump speech, I am aware that I am playing a political role. It is no more real than an actor playing a role on a stage or in a movie. I am an actor playing a part. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” as Shakespeare so eloquently said.

I am not the parts I play. I am not the masks I wear. I am not the political role I play. Neither am I the religious role I play, or the family role, or the economic role. I am not even the human role that I play. I have been playing the role of human being for 71 years, but that is not who I am. When that role ends with the death of this human body, who I really am will remain. I am playing the roles, but I am not the roles.

I know what I am. I am that space within which all roles are played. That sacred space is my true identity. For that reason I am not too attached to political opinions. Hence I am free to listen and change. I have changed much over the years. Politics is interesting and elections are exciting, but so is a Patriots game. They are not part of my identity. Being a pastor for forty years was great, but it was a role. It is not who I am.

I am Spirit. Life is Spiritual. It is true that Spirit cannot be seen or smelled or touched or tasted or heard. For many people spirituality seems as imaginary as politics. Many people think that spirituality is all in the mind. From Freud to Dawkins, thinkers have believed that religion is a delusion or an illusion. They may be right. But in my experience Spirit is real. This physical world feels illusory compared to Spirit.

I will continue to express political views, just as I will continue to express opinions on a variety of matters, religious and secular. But I am not invested in them. I know from experience that they fluctuate. Opinions come and go. Reality is what does not come and go. I know what I am. As Moses learned as he knelt before the burning bush, immediately before he embarked on a campaign to free his people from bondage in Egypt: I am that I am. That is what I am. That is Spirit. That is Life.