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. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Scent of God

There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about a professional Italian epicure who lost his sense of smell and taste due to COVID. His name is Michele Crippa. He is a celebrated gastronome known for his ability to discern the most delicate of smells and flavors.

The article says that he was able “to distinguish between Parmesan cheeses of different ages — and between milk extracted at different altitudes. He reveled in the perfume of cod smoked over pine cones. In his reviews for Italy’s pre-eminent food magazine, he discerned the scent of champagne in raw Nicaraguan coffee beans and tasted traces of green peas in a blend from Kenya.”

One March day in 2020 he lost his sense of smell and taste overnight. He poured himself a cup of coffee and could taste only water. His sense of taste was warped. “Spoiled milk tasted fine. Sweet wafts of vanilla triggered heaves of disgust. Peaches tasted like basil.” Now he is on a mission to recapture his sense of taste and smell and help others who are similarly afflicted.  It is working … at least in part.

When I read this, I could not help but compare it to spirituality. It seems to me that much of American Christianity has lost its sense of smell and taste. It can no longer smell or taste God. Some forms of Christianity are so artificial that they are poisonous to the soul. More than once I have left a worship service because of poisonous preaching. Such religion is dangerous to one’s spiritual health.

Many churches have substituted beliefs about God for experience of God. Political ideology and culture warfare are increasingly being substituted for spirituality. Even when the spiritual dimension is proclaimed, congregants are taught to rely on someone else’s word about God - by way of authoritative scriptures, creeds, or religious leaders - rather than tasting God for themselves. When left unexercised the intuitive sense of God atrophies.

The good news is that the sense of God can be recovered, just like COVID victims can recover a degree of smell and taste. We can know God directly. Some forms of Christianity know this and teach this. Some churches proclaim the original gospel of Jesus instead of the manmade gospel about Jesus. If that were not so, I would no longer call myself a Christian or attend Christian worship regularly.

I can smell God. I can taste God. God has an unmistakable aroma that cannot be put into words. Can you describe the scent of geraniums or the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies? It is like describing colors to the blind. But you know these when you smell them or taste them! It is the same with God. You know God when you smell God or taste God. You recognize the scent of God. For me the fragrance of God is unmistakable.

I think that is why holy places are so often associated with incense, fragrant oils, or rituals involving food. These are physical reminders of spiritual presence. That is why the Eucharist is such an important part of the Christian tradition. Catholics even refer to it as Real Presence.

Not being able to sense the presence of God would feel to me like losing one of our five physical senses. That is why the “dark night of the soul” – the seeming absence of God - seems so terrible to people like Mother Teresa or Saint John of the Cross.

God’s subtle – and sometimes overpowering presence – is everywhere and in everything. Seemingly in some places more than others – holy places. Seemingly in some people more than others – holy people. Yet in reality all places and people are holy. There is no place or person that does not carry the scent of the divine.

Jesus called this divine omnipresence the Kingdom of God. I use Jesus’ term, but also call it the Presence of God or Unitive Awareness. Call it whatever you want, using whatever religious language you prefer. It is not important what label you assign it. What is important is that we smell and taste this for ourselves. As the psalmist says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in God.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Thank God It Couldn’t Happen Here

They entered the capital, waving flags and banners. The government defenders were overwhelmed. Members of the legislative and executive branch of government had to flee for their lives. The insurrectionists entered the governing chambers, offering prayers of thanks to God for the victory.

They are adamantly opposed to separating religion from government (what Americans call “the separation of church and state.”) They want a country founded on theistic principles and godly values. They want prayer and scripture reading back in schools. They want creationism taught in school. Upon taking control they raided the offices of journalists, saying that the media are biased and have been publishing lies about them for years.

They say they will outlaw abortion, homosexuality and any accommodation to transgender people. They insist that they will respect the rights of women, but only insofar as permitted by scripture. That means, of course, that only men can be religious leaders. Yes, what is happening in Afghanistan is terrible. I am so glad it could never happen here in the USA. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Sky is Falling, But Don’t Worry

On the morning of Friday the thirteenth (August 13) I scanned the news headlines, as is my custom during breakfast. I learned that NASA has upgraded the chance of earth being struck by an asteroid to 1 in 1750. This particular asteroid is named Beenu. It could collide with earth sometime between now and the year 2300, with September 24, 2182, being the most likely date.  So mark your calendars! Yet David Farnocchia of NASA's Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) insists, “We shouldn't be worried about it very much."

Also among the day’s headlines were the daily COVID updates. These stories reported that cases are rising due to the more contagious Delta variant, as well as the anti-mask and anti-vax movements, and that we should be concerned about the risk to children. That got me wondering about the odds of dying from COVID-19 compared to being hit by a Near Earth Object.

I discovered this is very difficult information to obtain. I did learn that roughly 1 in 1000 New Hampshirites and 1 in 530 Americans have died of COVID so far, and the figures are rising. Those figures do not translate directly into odds of dying of COVID apparently. More data are needed, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. Plus there are individual risk factors that need to be taken into consideration, not the least of which is vaccination status. Yet these preliminary figures show that COVID is to be taken seriously.

Then I researched the risk of dying from other causes. For the average American the odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 107.  We have a 1 in 88 chance of dying by suicide. The average American has a 1 in 106 chance of dying in a fall. The odds are 1 in 289 that we will die by gunfire. There is a 1 in 8,359 chance we will be killed by police. Odds of dying in an airplane crash are 1 in 205,552.  

The odds of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist are 1 in 45,808. The odds of dying at the hands of illegal immigrant terrorists are 1 in 138,324,873. Yet Americans seem to be plenty worried about terrorists and illegal immigrants. Then there is this interesting fact. The CDC did a study of nonfatal bathroom injuries (That is where our tax money goes!), and they report that we have a 1 in 10,000 chance of being injured by a toilet. Ouch!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we should drop our guard when it comes to terrorism, COVID … or dangerous commodes. COVID is a real threat. Over 620,000 Americans have died so far. Unvaccinated people are needlessly dying every day because they do not believe there is any danger. Each of these deaths is tragic to family and friends. I am just trying to put things in perspective.

After looking at the figures, I have concluded that life is dangerous. The mortality rate is still 100%. I met a friend at the post office yesterday, and she informed me that her husband died a few days ago. It happens all the time. People die. None of us is getting out of here alive. There is a 1 in 1 chance that you will die. But there is no need to be reckless with our remaining years.

Furthermore there is no need to worry about dying. Why worry about the inevitable? Dying is as natural as living; death as natural as birth. We were not afraid to be born, so why be anxious about dying? Jesus said, “Do not be anxious! Who of you by worrying can add an hour to his life?” 

Everything that is born dies. Species die. The human race will die, either of self-inflicted climate change, nuclear weapons, biological warfare, or natural causes. Even the earth will die eventually – asteroid or not.

Death is simply a transition. In a deeper sense we cannot die. My body and brain will perish, along with its sense of separate identity. But our larger and older identity is eternal. That deeper identity was not born and cannot die. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He was not talking about himself as an individual, but our eternal nature. That is what it means to be made in the image of God.

Solomon said that God has placed eternity in the human heart. The eternity at the heart of existence is what we truly are, whether we believe it or not. Whether we are aware of it or not. The spiritual life is about becoming aware of this reality and living from that timeless truth. So whether asteroids fall, COVID strikes, or toilets attack me, I am. 

Friday, August 6, 2021

Living in a Philip K Dick World

Reading about politics makes me fearful for the future of our nation and angry at those who put ideology and personal gain above country. Politics will drive you crazy. It is almost as bad as religion. Combine the two and people can really go off the deep end. As a politically-minded Christian, I am at double risk. I endeavor to be above the fray – to be spiritual but not political - but I do not always succeed.

Faith has been defined (erroneously) by skeptics as “belief without evidence.” These days this definition describes politics as well as religion. People believe any conspiracy theory if it is voiced by a like-minded ideologue. If a lie is repeated often enough and strongly enough, people will believe it, as long as it conforms to their ideological agenda. Damn the evidence.

We live in a post-truth era. As a spiritually minded lover of truth, who values rational thought and science (yes, there are Christians like this!), that puts me at odds with most people in my religion and my political party. I feel like I am living in a dystopian novel where society engages in Orwellian doublespeak. Falsehood is Truth. Wrong is Right. Bondage is Liberty. Heroes are villains. Death is Life.

I am a fan of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. A lot of good movies have been adapted from his stories - films like Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, Paycheck and others. I am presently reading his posthumous Exegesis, which is a collection of personal correspondence and private musings never meant for publication. It reveals just how delusional PKD really was. Many consider him mentally ill, but he was a great writer.

He lived in an alternative reality of his own making. He believed his own paranoid delusions, which provide the premise for most of his stories. At the same time, there is something about his writings that rings true to my experience. There can be truth at the core of madness. "Twixt truth and madness lies but a sliver of a stream." His fantastical insights are more real than most peoples’ boring realities. He had glimpses beyond the veil of the shared delusion that we call “the real world.”

His stories are typically about a man (nearly always a man!) who is the only one aware of the true reality at the heart of existence. Everyone else is living a lie. Often the authorities are out to get the main character and silence him. That alone does not make him crazy. As the saying goes, “It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.” 

Sometimes I feel like our political system has gone mad. I am registered Republican. (There, I am finally out of the closet!) I am a Republican because I believe in the GOP’s core values, especially individual liberties and responsibilities, limited federal government, low taxes, and fiscal responsibility. I prefer to vote Republican, but will choose the best candidate (high moral character, intelligence, education and experience) over party affiliation. In other words I am Republican but not partisan.

But ever since 2016 I feel like my fellow Republicans are living in a world divorced from reality. The GOP has forsaken the Republican values I hold dear. That became readily apparent in 2020 when the RNC decided not to adopt a national party platform stating their policies and principles. They chose to be a personality cult rather than a party of principles. Without principles to guide them, they have lost their way. Hence our present madness. The Democrats are not quite as crazy as the Republicans, but they are not exactly sane either. You can see the blood lust in their eyes. Power corrupts any party.

The anti-mask and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, QAnon, and “the big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen are just crazy talk. They are beliefs without evidence. They have nothing to do with conservative values. There must be some explanation for why people are willing to embrace such outright lies. My theory is that religion has corrupted politics and vice versa. Religious credulity has infiltrated conservative politics and produced a gullible populace that cannot distinguish truth from falsehood.

Religion has a lot of admirable qualities, but it can also be a downright crazy business. Take it from one who was in the business professionally for forty years. Religious people too often accept things on faith without evidence. Just tell Christians the Bible teaches something, and they will believe it. Even when the Bible says no such thing.

Take abortion for example, which has become the preeminent issue for religious conservatives. It trumps all other voting issues. They believe God is against abortion. They believe this without reservation and without evidence. They believe the Bible is pro-life. They believe this because a preacher or pope told them so. It is all about believing religious authorities, not personal investigation of facts.

If Christians took the time to read the Scriptures they would discover that the Bible never mentions abortion. Even when one investigates biblical statements about when life begins, the evidence leans toward birth, not conception. Yet religious conservatives insist that the only viable stance for Christians is to be pro-life. They believe this is so strongly that are willing to legislate this moral stance into law, thereby violating the conservative principle of keeping government out of personal lives. This is only one example.

My party has gone crazy. They are no longer thinking rationally or sanely, in my opinion. Personally I no longer fit in the Republican Party. I also do not fit in the Democratic Party, which trusts much too much in the power and goodness of government, the tyranny of the majority, and the magic of deficit spending. As much as I like the Libertarian Party, “third parties” are practically irrelevant. My religion of Christianity has likewise gone crazy. In recent decades it has morphed into an anti-science, anti-reason, legalistic party of sheep who will believe anything their handlers tell them.

So here I am, a Baptist preacher espousing spirituality over religious authority, reason over tradition, and science over pseudo-science. That is why I feel like I am living in a Philip K Dick story. Maybe I am as crazy as he was.  Then again, as Orwell wrote in 1984: “Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” So maybe I am not so crazy after all.