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

Exonerated!

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 Follow.it, 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 Follow.it 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 Follow.it 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.

Friday, September 10, 2021

An Indigenous Gospel

I love the vast variety of Bible translations. I grew up on the Revised Standard Version back when it was controversial to read anything but the King James Version. Then I discovered the simplicity of the Good News Bible. In college I appreciated the accuracy of New American Standard Bible. In seminary my favorite was the New International Version. During my ministry I have most often used the New King James Version and more recently the English Standard Version. So many wonderful translations!

Having studied Hebrew and Greek in seminary I have not been a fan of paraphrases, such as the Living Bible and The Message, even though they have been popular with members of my churches. In recent years I have moderated my opinion of such “thought for thought” translations of the Bible, appreciating their value.

Today the internet gives us access to dozens of translations free of charge through sites like Bible Gateway and Bible Hub. Every year or two another new translation will hit the shelves, each with their own intended audience, whether it be conservatives, liberals, women, men or youth. Recently a new translation of the New Testament has piqued my interest. It is the First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament, published by InterVarsity Press on August 31.

The Lead Translator and Project Manager is Terry Wildman, who is of Ojibwe and Yaqui ancestry. He was aided by a translation council selected from a cross-section of Native North Americans. The First Nations Version is translated by Native Americans for Native Americans. These native peoples also intend it as a gift from Native Americans to the dominant culture, as a way to communicate the unique way that First Peoples understand the gospel.

There are unique elements in the FNV not found in other translations. It has the cadence and feel of an oral storyteller. This not only reflects indigenous spirituality, but is likely how the stories of the New Testament were originally preserved. It also follows Native American naming traditions by using the meaning of biblical names for persons and places. For example, Abraham is Father of Many Nations. Israel is Wrestles with Creator. Peter is Stands on the Rock. Paul is Small Man. Jerusalem is Village of Peace. Galilee is Circle of Nations.

My favorite aspect of this new translation is the names for the Divine. Usually God is referred to as Great Spirit or Great Mystery. Other names are Creator, Maker of Life, Giver of Breath, One Above Us All, and Most Holy One. Jesus is called Creator Sets Free. The title of Christ is translated Chosen One. The Gospel is the Great Story.

These descriptive names add a freshness that I have not found in any other version. They tie the Christian gospel to Native American culture. The God that native peoples have always known through indigenous spiritual traditions is the God revealed in Creator Sets Free. Most important to me is that it gives me permission to use creative terms for the Divine.

I am presently writing a book that I am calling The Gospel According to Jesus: A Nondual Version of the Story of Jesus. It tells the familiar gospel narrative from the perspective of Jesus. I use the Gospel of Mark as my basic text, much like Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as the basis of their works. I also use the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas as a source for sayings of Jesus, much like Matthew and Luke used an anonymous non-canonical source, which is called Q by biblical scholars.

In writing this gospel my dilemma has been how to translate important terms: Son of God, Son of Man, Christ, Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of Heaven. They need to be accurate while also communicating the meaning in a fresh way. Reading the First Nations Version freed me to use nontraditional language: the Divine One, the Human One, the Presence of God, Union with God, the Divine Realm, the Spiritual Realm. Jesus is the Liberated One, the Liberator, or the Free One.

The FNV ties Christian spirituality to indigenous spirituality. I tie Jesus’ spirituality to nonduality. In a similar fashion the apostle John tied the message of Jesus to Greek philosophy. There is one gospel. Whether it is the gospel of Christianity, the wisdom of indigenous peoples, the truth at the heart of the major religious traditions, or the message of a Jewish carpenter from Galilee.

There is one Truth. It is a matter of recognizing and communicating that Reality the best we can. The First Nations Version is helping me to do that. That translation is a true gift from Native Americans. It is aiding me to communicate the timeless wisdom of the ages in terms that reveal the nondual essence at the heart of the teaching of the Liberated One. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

The Meanness Virus

There is an epidemic spreading across our nation that is worse than the COVID-19 pandemic. This societal disease does not have an official name, but I call it the “meanness virus.” It is as contagious as any coronavirus. I do not remember Americans ever being this mean. There have always been bullies and verbally abusive people, but I don’t ever remember such behavior being socially acceptable, especially among elected leaders and people running for office.

This bad behavior has spread to all levels of society. Listen to any talk show on the radio. They are easy to find on the dial. You will get an earful of overt contempt, scorn and ridicule from the host and callers. The attitude is also exhibited in countless Letters to the Editor in local newspapers.

On our town’s local Google group, which serves as a public forum for our small New Hampshire town, it is now common for people to speak condescendingly toward others, treating them as if they were stupid or evil or both – simply for holding a different political position. It is not limited to online comments. In our town there is a yard sign that uses a vulgarity in reference to the president. So much for public civility. Bedford Falls has become Pottersville.

The meanness virus has spread to Christian venues. I was shocked when I tuned into a Christian radio channel and heard the same vitriolic memes I hear on secular talk radio. Christianity used to be known for niceness. In fact “being a Christian gentleman” or a “Christian woman” was synonymous with being nice. Now Christianity has a reputation for being mean.

It is hard to overestimate the damage this plague of meanness, which is spewing from Christian pulpits and pens, has done to the cause of the gospel. People – especially young people - are voting with their feet. The meanness virus is emptying the churches faster than the COVID pandemic.

Some Christians derogatorily call those who hold a different political position “sheep” or “sheeple.” One devout family member taunted me with cries of “Baa, baa” when I voiced a position that differed from his standard of “evangelical correctness.” He seems to have forgotten that “sheep” was Jesus’ term for his followers. Another church-going family member praised a politician she described as a “strongman,” apparently without realizing that “strongman” was Jesus’ term for the devil.

What is the solution? Is there an antidote? Is there a vaccine? If there were, undoubtedly some would exercise their right not to receive it. People would see it as their God-given right to exercise meanness in the name of free speech. Religion does not seem to have a cure. At least not the type of Christian religion that dominates American media. If that were the case Christianity would not have become so nasty.

As a Christian I can only speak to my own religion. I will let those of other faiths speak to their traditions. I believe that Christians need to repent of meanness. As the turn of the century Methodist revivalist Sam P. Jones used to preach: “You better quit your meanness.” I include myself in this admonition. I am not immune to the temptation to return evil for evil. “None are righteous, no not one.”

There is a need for spiritual renewal. The old wineskins of the Christian religion need to be exchanged for new wineskins.  I regularly hear Christians calling for a national revival today, but these calls tend to be for a return to the “old-time religion” that got us into this mess. They want to repair the worn-out wineskins. We need something entirely new.

We need an antidote for the toxic Christianity that has poisoned American culture. Megachurches ruled by mega-personalities with mega-egos and media megaphones need to be replaced by local, homegrown, face-to-face, inclusive spirituality that focuses on loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Fortunately that is already present in many small churches.

If love means anything at all, it means treating people with honor and respect. It means focusing on what the apostle Paul calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” As he concludes, “against such things there is no law.” Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Lying Awake

I love reading fiction, and I love reading books on spirituality. Yet it is rare to find a quality work of spiritual fiction. Too much religious fiction is pabulum – filled with New Age memes or Christian platitudes. So when a listener to my podcast recommended Lying Awake by Mark Salzman, I bought it. It is a brief book, less than 200 pages, but rich in spiritual insight.

It is about Sister John of the Cross, a member of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, founded by Saint Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth century. Sister John is cloistered in the monastery of the Sisters of the Carmel of Saint Joseph in present day Los Angeles. 

She is a woman of unique spiritual insight and intimacy with God, who has developed a reputation outside the monastery as the author of a book of essays and poems about contemplative life entitled, Sparrow on a Roof, based on her vibrant spiritual experiences. 

Sister John suffers from terrible headaches and seizures. The seizures become so severe that they disrupt the community, and Mother Mary Joseph insists that she seek medical care. It turns out that she has temporal-lobe epilepsy caused by a small meningioma under her skull. This noncancerous brain tumor appears to be the source of her headaches and seizures, and likely the cause of her mystical experiences as well.

She is faced with the decision of whether or not to have surgery to remove the tumor. Her dilemma is that if the tumor is removed, it may also remove her sense of closeness to God. I won’t reveal what she decides and what follows, so as not to spoil the book - just in case you decide to read it. The reasons for her decision are the best part of the book.

This slender volume made me ponder the relationship between health and spirituality. Recently I recorded a podcast episode and YouTube video entitled, “Was Jesus Mentally Ill?” I explored the relationship between mental illness and spiritual genius. The gospels record that Jesus’ family thought he had “lost his senses,” and “has a demon and is insane.” I wonder aloud if Jesus’ family members, who knew him the longest and best, were correct.

In discussing the topic with a friend I joked that if there had been antidepressants in biblical times, we would not have half of the prophetic books or psalms of the Old Testament! Indeed we might not have the New Testament at all! There seems to be a relationship between mental illness and spirituality, as well as between epilepsy and religious experience. These connections are explored in this book.

Lying Awake made me look at both spiritual experience and suffering from a different perspective.  How much of our religious beliefs and spiritual experiences are due to physiological factors? What if spiritual experience is nothing more than a chemical imbalance in the brain? Does that make religion a symptom of mental illness? Does that make spirituality invalid or less authentic?

How is suffering linked to spirituality? There is an oft-observed connection between severe illness, personal tragedies and spirituality. Just read the Book of Job!  Often the onset of catastrophe or severe illness drives a person to examine his or her priorities. Countless times I have ministered to people who were seeking God because of a dramatic change in life’s circumstances.

People assume that health is good and suffering is bad. People go to great lengths to be free of emotional, spiritual and physical suffering – including taking solace in religion and spirituality. Buddhism says that suffering prompted Gautama Siddhartha to begin his spiritual search.

The book made me take a second look at suffering in my life. I have not suffered greatly in life, but I know what great suffering looks like. As a pastor I have ministered to people who endured great suffering – emotional, spiritual and physical. That is how I know I have been spared the worst that life can inflict. Yet I have had my share of suffering and pain.

We all suffer. Life is suffering, as the Buddha taught. We all have to decide how to approach suffering and how it fits into our spiritual life. My life is better for suffering. Suffering has forced me to look at life without flinching. 

Witnessing evil and suffering has caused me to wrestle with the theological “problem of suffering” and the “problem of evil.” That in turn has forced me beyond the easy theodicy that Christians so hurriedly embrace. It propelled me into the fathomless Mystery at the heart of existence.

I am grateful for the suffering I have known. It has revealed God and softened my heart. It has prompted compassion and made me a better pastor. Suffering is intimately connected to the Great Mystery that we call God. That is the meaning of the Cross. 

Throughout the book Sister John’s prayers returned to the suffering of Jesus. Her thoughts led me to ponder anew the Cross, the central symbol of our shared faith. There is no easy answer to suffering, but one can see the answer from the Cross.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Losing the War

There is no good way to lose a war. My generation’s war was Vietnam. This generation’s war is Afghanistan. Both were long, unpopular wars that were impossible to win. The photos of the airlifts from the airports of Kabul and Saigon are eerily similar. Both wars were mistakes from beginning to end. Both were fought by brave American soldiers who fulfilled their duty to their country. They are not to blame for the defeat.

Americans do not like to lose. When it occurs we need a scapegoat to blame, and the easy target is the occupant of the Oval Office. “The buck stops here,” as Truman’s sign on the Resolute Desk read. He oversaw victory in one war and stalemate in another. President Biden has received criticism from right and left for his handling of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. The truth is there is more than enough blame to go around for this and previous administrations, starting with the one who got us into Afghanistan.

It is easy to blame presidents, especially those of the opposing party. Partisan shots are cheap shots in my opinion. It takes no critical thinking to repeat what party propagandists say. For that reason I have always endeavored to be even-handed - critiquing leaders of both parties, my own as much as the other. To withhold criticism from one’s own party leaders is to invite demagogues to rise to power. That is what has led to our present predicament.

The Afghanistan War is over, but there is another war happening. It is the war within the human soul. This inner war is the cause of all our nation’s wars. The apostle James is reported to have written, “Where do wars come from? Why do people fight? It all comes from within, doesn't it?” In a recent blog post I quoted an interpreter of the Bhagavad Gita: “When a battle is raging within, enemies appear on the outside.”

There is a war in the human soul. The autocratic self seeks to rule in life by defeating all earthly and spiritual enemies. It hopes to defeat death and live forever. The truth is that the war is already lost, just as certainly as defeat in Afghanistan was a forgone conclusion. The human self will always lose; it will die. It is born of flesh and will die with the flesh.

The good news is that there is eternal life, but it is not for the self to possess. Life is won only when we surrender to the One who is our true Life. As Jesus taught, “Whoever seeks to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for my sake will find it.” When the Spirit wins, the self loses. When the self loses, eternal life is seen as the reality of our lives all along.

The way to win is to lose. The way to live is to die. The first shall be last and the last first. The greatest is the servant of all. That is the way of the spiritual life. As Saint Francis is reported to have prayed, “For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Amen. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

A Pandemic Parable

COVID-19 was ravaging the land, killing hundreds of thousands of people. A preacher knelt in prayer asking God to save his congregation from the deadly pestilence. The town physician advised the pastor to halt in-person services and practice social distancing. The preacher replied, “We have the first amendment right to worship! I will not give in to fear. I have faith in God. The Lord will protect us.”

As more members of the community became ill, the mayor of the town came to the preacher and said, “The CDC is recommending that everyone wear masks in public and that we limit indoor gatherings. I recommend that you and your congregation comply for the sake of the community.” The preacher replied, “I do not trust the CDC. No one is going to take away our freedom and make us wear masks. I trust in the Lord. He will save us.”

As things got worse in town and the ICU filled up, the preacher saw on the television news that both the present and former presidents of the United States were advising everyone to get the COVID vaccine. The preacher proclaimed to his congregation, “We must not listen to politicians! They are in the pocket of Big Pharma. The vaccine is the Mark of the Beast. Do not receive it. Faith over fear! The Lord will protect us.”

Shortly later the preacher became ill, was hospitalized, and soon died of COVID. He stood before his Lord in heaven, and asked the Almighty, “I had unwavering faith in you, Lord. Why did you not protect me?” The Lord replied, “I sent my messengers telling you to wear masks, practice social distancing and get the vaccine! What more did you want from me?!” 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Holy War

At the beginning of the summer I saw an announcement in the newsletter of the New Hampshire Alliance, a “regional network” of “evangelical and renewal ministries.” The stated goal of the alliance is “to inform, inspire, and activate a Kingdom network, revitalizing our state.” The ad promoted an upcoming “Warrior Training Camp” at a Pentecostal church in Boston. The ad used crossed swords and an image of a battlefield with crusaders in full armor.

I immediately recognized what this was about. I have seen many similar images in Christian educational literature. This is a reference to the “full armor of God” mentioned in the New Testament Letter to the Ephesians, traditionally attributed to the apostle Paul. I also know that many people in our biblically illiterate society would not catch the biblical reference or know that the original intent of the biblical author was about making peace and not war.

What brought this image back to mind was a sermon given at our church last Sunday. The pastor creatively interpreted the Ephesian “armor of God” passage and reclaimed its original nonviolent intent. Good job, pastor! The timing could not have been better. It happened to be the Sunday after the fall of Kabul.  The image of Taliban soldiers taking their country back for Allah was on everyone’s mind. These Islamic warriors employ Koranic passages about jihad but take them literally and not metaphorically.

While listening to the sermon, images of American protestors storming the US Capitol on January 6 came to my mind. Many of these Americans were dressed in military camouflage and carried Confederate flags, American flags, and banners proclaiming their loyalty to Jesus and the 45th president of the United States. Do not get me wrong. I am not implying a “moral equivalency” between these groups. There is no comparison when it comes to the violence involved. I am relaying images that came unbidden to my mind.

The crusader mentality is very much alive these days, both in Christianity and Islam. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association calls their evangelistic meetings “crusades.” Muslim extremists use the specter of Christian crusaders invading the lands of the Middle East as a recruiting tool. The imagery of Christian warriors resonates with Christian Nationalists and the “culture warriors” of the Religious Right, who are trying to reclaim America for God by exercising both their first and second amendment rights.

The apostle Paul had a very creative idea to use the armor of a Roman solider to describe Christian virtues. But after two thousand years of misunderstanding, it may be time for the Church to retire the military metaphor for the Christian life. Too many people take the image literally rather than figuratively. When you have Christian pastors promoting fear rather than faith, the sword more than the cross, then something has gone seriously wrong.

Is there a spiritual struggle going on? Yes, indeed! But as the apostle says, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces in the spiritual realm. This is an inner spiritual war, not an outward political, military or cultural war. It is about war in the human soul. We are our own worst enemy. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

John Bunyan describes this spiritual fight brilliantly in his allegory “The Holy War,” which I find to be as insightful as his more famous “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” To find the enemy we are to look not across our borders but within our hearts.

The Hadith says that Muhammad spoke of an “inner jihad.” The apostle James says that the source of fighting in the world is war in the heart. The Gita teaches the same thing. As one commentator says, “When a battle is raging within, enemies appear on the outside.” If we are serious about winning this spiritual war, we need to step onto the right battlefield with the right weapons. Then we will be waging peace instead of war.