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.