Friday, September 30, 2022

The Gospel of Ruth

I am presently part of an online Bible Study at our church. I am not the leader, just a participant. So I get to throw in my “two cents” along with all the other two-centers. It is the first time since I retired six years ago that I am participating in a study at this church. God bless the present pastor for welcoming me!

We are studying the Old Testament book of Ruth. Ruth is a favorite of many Christians. It ordinarily presented as a love story about a righteous man who meets a virtuous woman and live happily ever after. While focusing on the romance, the radical nature of the book is often overlooked.

It is one of only two books in the Old Testament that has a woman as the main character. The other book is Esther, which was likely written at about the same time. The Book of Ruth is written from a woman’s perspective. The husbands of Naomi, Ruth and Orpah, are killed off in the opening verses before we get to know anything about them. The other men – except for Boaz – are minor characters in the story.

Because it is written from a woman’s perspective, it is thought by some biblical scholars that the Book of Ruth may have been written by a woman. That would make it unique in the Bible. Of course we don’t know the book’s authorship for sure. The book is anonymous, which is what we would expect if it had been authored by a woman. If it was known to be written by a woman, it never would have made it into the canon.

Not only is the central character a woman, she is a Moabite. Moabites were the historic enemies of the Hebrews. This Moabite marries Boaz, who is the son of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, a “sinner” in the eyes of religious society.  Yet the genealogy at the end of the book informs us that Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David, the greatest Jewish king.

That genealogy in the final sentence of the book is the reason Ruth was written. It reveals that foreigners were an integral part of the history of Israel. In doing so, it challenged the teaching of the Torah, which said that no descendant of a Moabite could enter the temple. Yet David had such ancestors, and his son Solomon built the temple.

The book of Ruth is “protest literature.” It was written at a time when anti-women and anti-foreigner moralists had taken over the government in Jerusalem. It is probable that the Book of Ruth was written in the fifth century BC, when Ezra was purging Israel of all foreigners – Moabites in particular.  Ezra required all Jewish men who had married foreign women to divorce them publicly and send them and their children away.

Nehemiah followed up on Ezra’s reforms with a building program to construct a wall to keep foreigners out of Jerusalem. It does not take much thinking to see parallels to policies popular in American society today. The Book of Ruth was written to challenge the narrative that religious fundamentalists were preaching. It was pointing out that if one looks into the history of Israel one can see that diversity did not threaten Israel but rather strengthened it.

I call the Book of Ruth radical. The etymology of the word “radical” means “root.” We get the English word “radish” from it. The root of true Biblical spirituality is not about building walls to keep people out but drawing the circle wider. It is not about priding ourselves on being God’s chosen people and excluding others. It is about seeing that God’s people have always included all types of people.

That is the root of the gospel of Jesus, who reached out to foreigners and sinners. Jesus declared that a Roman soldier had more faith than anyone in Israel. He said that “sinners” were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Sadducees and Pharisees, who were the heirs of Ezra. This is the Gospel of Ruth. It is as controversial today as it was when the Book of Ruth was written.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Living in the Moor

This summer my wife celebrated her seventieth birthday, thereby joining me in exploring the eighth decade of our lives together. I have another seventy-something birthday coming up in a few days. The other day we were chatting with a friend about this milestone of life. This friend said her mother used to call this stage of life “living in the more.”

She explained that Psalm 90 describes the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” (seventy years) and if “by reason of strength” we are granted more, it is an added blessing. She called that additional time “living in the more.”

When she said “living in the more” I thought I heard “living in the moor.” I immediately imagined the moorland of Britain. Sherlock Holmes’ case of The Hound of the Baskervilles came to mind. In that tale a demonic hound was said to inhabit the moors. 

Dr. Watson describes the moor as “gloomy,” “sinister,” “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious,” “like some fantastic landscape in a dream.” It is an “enormous wilderness of peat and granite,” where squalls drift across the russet face of “the melancholy downs” and “heavy, slate-coloured clouds” trail “in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills.”

Brrrr! I feel like pulling up my collar and turning down my deerstalker cap just reading about it! In a personal letter to his mother, Arthur Conan Doyle called the moor “a great place, very sad & wild.” In Wuthering Heights the moor is described as “unleashed, mad and dangerous.” Hmm! Perhaps I better go back to the Shire.

When I looked to the dictionary, it defined a moor as “a tract of open uncultivated upland; a heath.” That sounds a bit better. My experience of my seventies is very much like that. It is an uncultivated land filled with possibilities and pitfalls. There are not many roadmaps for this territory. Everyone seems to blaze their own trail. My type of place.

When they age, some people seek to relive their earlier decades, warding off old age by trying to recover their youth. It is the senior equivalent of a midlife crisis, except in our seventies we are not midway to anywhere. No one lives to be 140. 

Others retreat into the past, reliving old memories. Still others spend their later years entertaining themselves with television and small talk until the undertaker arrives. A few reinvent themselves with a “second act” or perhaps a “third act.” Good for them!

The seventies are not without their physical limitations as the body ages. Instead of going to the doctor for cures, more often we go to manage symptoms. Either that or opt for new bionic joints, which are not without their problems. 

So far I have found my seventies to be a time of spiritual adventure and discovery. In retirement the restraints of theological norms and ecclesiastical pressures are gone. I am free to be “unleashed, mad and dangerous.”

Classical India understood the latter part of life to be a time to put aside the concerns of earlier stages of life and dedicate oneself to spiritual concerns. Having spent my whole adult life in religious concerns, I find this stage to be doubly spiritual. Old dogmas fall away in the light of direct spiritual awareness. Prejudices and divisions are seen as petty exercises in egotism. There is no longer any time to waste in fear and anger. The psalmist sang:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away…. So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

It is important to number our days. Whether our years be threescore years and ten or “by reason of strength” fourscore years or more, one day they will be cut off, and we will fly away. As the gospel hymn reminds us: “One glad morning, when this life is over, I'll fly away.”  In the meantime I am “living in the moor,” and I have found it to be the Kingdom of God.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Preacher as Gadfly

Here in New Hampshire we have a healthy population of biting flies. In fact we have a season named after one variety: black fly season. It comes after mud season and before tourist season. In May and June one cannot walk down the street of our village without being swarmed.

But black flies are nothing compared to deer flies and horseflies, which can really take a chunk out of you all summer long. Biting flies hurt! They are a nuisance. For that reason I think they are a good metaphor for a preacher. Good preaching should have a bite! Preachers should function like horseflies in a congregation and community.

There is a well-known adage that the pastor’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I agree, but there is a lot of comforting going on in churches these days and very little afflicting. In this time of declining church attendance, pastors are afraid that if they engaged in prophetic preaching, pew warmers might take their checkbooks and leave. So pastors pamper the remaining church members instead of challenging them.  That is why so many adult church members have not advanced beyond Sunday School faith.

It is time for some prophetic preaching from Christian pulpits. Better yet, some Socratic preaching. Socrates famously said that his role as a philosopher was to be a gadfly, which is a generic term for all varieties of biting flies. He saw his mission as causing discomfort to his fellow Athenians. He was so successful that he was put on trial for “impiety.” He "failed to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges." The Greek word for impiety is asebeia, defined as "desecration and mockery of divine objects" and "irreverence towards the state gods." 

He was also charged with “corruption of the youth of the city-state.” The Greek word is polis, from which we get the word political. It does not take much thinking to see current applications. This reminds me of the charges brought against Jesus by Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders. Both Socrates and Jesus were found guilty of blasphemy and treason and were executed. Both could have escaped execution but chose not to.

Socrates carried out his teaching mission by the now-famous “Socratic Method.” Socrates did not provide answers. He asked questions. Lots of questions. No statement went unchallenged. He questioned every belief of his students and insisted that every assertion be backed up with evidence. This technique exposed a person’s unexamined presuppositions and assumptions. It revealed that most people live by borrowed ideas.  

Practicing this discipline of critical thinking makes us very aware of how many of our cherished beliefs have been unconsciously adopted from our families and communities, rather than tested and proven by reason.  The process of Socratic thinking is much needed in our time when conspiracy theories are rampant in America, especially in Christian churches. 

I find myself using the Socratic Method more and more in my preaching and teaching. By posing rhetorical questions while preaching and asking pointed questions when conversing, I encourage people to question everything in their spiritual and political worldview. In other words, I commit asebeia (impiety) and “corrupt the youth [and elderly] of the state” and church. I "fail to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges."

I question the false gods of all religions, especially my own Christian religion. As I said in a recent podcast episode entitled “Smashing idols,” I demolish false gods, of which there are many in American Christianity. To use the apostle Paul’s term, I “demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God….”

Not the least of Christian idolatries is bibliolatry, which is the deification of Scripture. There is also the divinization of doctrine and church tradition. Finally there is the idolizing of Jesus himself. The God worshipped in many churches is a false god fashioned in our cultural image and likeness. As the gadfly Voltaire famously said, “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.”

The Socratic Method goes against the current trend of American culture. We live in a post-modern and post-truth society. There is no search for truth, just opposing self-interests. There is little self-reflection or self-examination these days. Every discussion degenerates into a debate, rather than being a shared search for deeper truth. Preaching has become polemic, and dialogue is replaced with diatribe.

Amid this decaying American culture I seek to play the role of the gadfly. Be careful! I bite! I preached a sermon recently in our community church entitled “Hiding from God,” showing how churches develop elaborate systems for hiding from Divine Truth. It is the preacher’s task to expose such self-deceptions. 

It is gadfly season in the church. It is time for some preaching with a bite. We preachers are to afflict people so they have nowhere to turn but to the Balm of Gilead, the Living God. 

Monday, August 29, 2022

Footprints in the Soul

The summer drought has uncovered some interesting finds throughout the world. As waters recede, relics long hidden have been revealed. In Europe the lowered Danube River has exposed German WWII ships, complete with 10,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance. The foundation of a 2000 year-old bridge was exposed in the Tiber River near Rome. West of Madrid a 5000 year-old megalith comparable to Stonehenge came to the surface. Of more recent vintage, a receding Lake Mead has produced several human remains, perhaps reminders of Las Vegas’ mobster era.

The most interesting find comes from Texas. The drought uncovered evidence of a lost species: a Texas liberal Democrat! Only joking! Although what they found was almost as rare. The footprints of a 113 million year-old dinosaur were discovered at Dinosaur Valley State Park. The prints of the three-toed Acrocanthosaurus were found in the dry river bed of the Paluxy River, southwest of Fort Worth. They were preserved by sediments of the river.

In his novella (and movie) “A River Runs Through It,” Norman Maclean remembers the people of Big Blackfoot River in Montana. He concludes the book, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”

A mountain stream caused MacLean to ponder the “timeless raindrops” etched into stone and write his novel. As I ponder the ancient footprints of dinosaurs, I think of what can be found in ancient depths of the human soul. Some say each soul is unique, formed at birth, which means mine is a mere seven decades old. Others thinks that the human soul is at least as ancient as our species, and probably as ancient as life on earth.

In my experience the spiritual essence found in the depths of my being is older than that. It is eternal. Ecclesiastes wrote: “God has placed eternity in the heart of men, yet they cannot fathom the work that God has done from beginning to end.”

Before there was the idea of God, there was the Nameless. This is what was revealed to Moses in the burning bush. “I am that I am” explained Yahweh, when Moses’ asked God’s name. “Before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus, thereby exposing himself to charges of blasphemy, which resulted in this execution.

The human soul bears witness to this Divine Reality. For most of our lives this Timeless Truth is hidden beneath the rushing waters of daily life. When a spiritual drought descends upon our lives in the form of the Dark Night of the Soul, the waters dry up and the soul is revealed. At those times we can see the footprints of God etched across its surface.

Our human soul bears evidence of its ancient and divine origin. The soul (if you want to use that term) is older than we are, existing long before our birth. It is older than the human race, older than mammals, older than the dinosaurs that roamed Texas, older than the first one-celled organism that was born from earth’s primeval ocean. Older than the Earth, our solar system and our galaxy. Older than the Big Bang that formed the universe.

Its human form is just the most recent expression of this ancient Reality. Some want to give this Ultimate Reality a name and build a religion around it. Some people want to claim this ancient Truth as their sole possession, with them as the sole spokesmen and apostles. I harbor no such fantasy. This is bigger than my religion or my human race.

I am nothing in comparison, no more than a rain drop in the mud. No more than an eddy in an earthly river. Yet my roots go deep into this ancient bedrock. From it I draw upon the waters of life. This is my life. This alone is real. All else is as transient as footprints in the mud, even if those footprints are hardened into rock that lasts 113 million years.

Dinosaur fossils will melt away in time. Our human species will disappear, as longer-lived species have died out before us. Our names, nations, cultures and religions will be forgotten, but the Nameless One is eternal. To find ourselves in this Nameless One is to find our true selves. That is what the Bible means by being found “in Christ.”

Droughts are difficult times, but they can reveal priceless treasure, if we keep our eyes open. This is what Jesus called the “pearl of great price,” and “treasure hidden in the field.” It is worth all we possess, even our lives, if we are willing to pay that price. Why not? As Jim Eliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Beyond Relationship with God

Many Christians talk about having a relationship with God. Evangelicals in particular speak of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They usually say this begins when one “receives Jesus into your heart” or “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior.”

Evangelicals frequently distinguish themselves from mainline Protestants and Catholics by saying that these other groups have religion, but “born again” believers have a relationship with God, and that makes all the difference. The slogan goes something like this: “It is not a religion. It is a relationship” or “It is not about religion; it is about a relationship with God.”

I go one step further. I say, “It is not about religion or relationship. It is about realization.” By “realization” I am referring to waking up to the Spiritual Reality that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. Jesus referred to this as being “born of the Spirit” and “born again,” by which he meant something very different from the evangelical conversion experience. Jesus also called it eternal life, which is likewise very different from popular Christianity’s fantasy of a heavenly theme park.

Mainline and Evangelical Christianity may be fine as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. There is nothing wrong with religion when it is psychologically and socially healthy religion. Likewise there is nothing wrong with having a relationship with God when it is a healthy relationship. But there is more to the spiritual life than a relationship. 

You have heard the saying, “The good is the enemy of the best.” A relationship with God can be the enemy of the best. Jesus invited this followers to go beyond religion and relationship to realization.

According to the Gospel of John, on the night before his death Jesus offered a lengthy prayer, which is often referred to as his High Priestly Prayer. First he prayed for himself, and then he prayed for his apostles. Finally Jesus prays “not only for these, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.” He is talking about his followers in future generations. This is what he prays for us:

“that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

Jesus says we are meant to know the same oneness with God as he knew. Jesus is talking about more than having a closer walk with God. He is speaking of transcending relationship. He is speaking about union with God, which is something Christian mystics – East and West - have always said is possible. Eastern Orthodoxy has long taught this truth, calling it theosis.

Jesus wanted us to have more than a relationship with God or himself. He wanted us to know union with God like he knew it. He promised that we would “participate in the divine nature,” as the Epistle of Second Peter describes it. 

Union with God does not negate a relationship with God; it transcends and fulfills it. It is analogous to Jesus saying he came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Realization of oneness with God fulfills both religion and relationship.

There is more to the spiritual life than most  churches teach. Christian spirituality is more than religion or relationship. It is realization of oneness with God. Jesus prayed that we might know this oneness. The First Letter of John says that if we pray anything according to the will of God, it will be done. Jesus prayed according to the will of God, and his prayer has been answered. Now it is just a matter of realizing this union with God in our lives. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Death of God Revisited

I recently received the new (July 27) issue of The Christian Century. The cover story is about the end of the Roe era. The other topic highlighted on the cover is “Revisiting the Death of God Movement.” The essay inside is entitled “Is God Still Dead? The Legacy of 1960s Radical Theology,” written by Lloyd Steffen, chaplain at Lehigh University. The issue also contains an autobiographical piece entitled “When My Dad Killed God” by Don Hamilton, son of the Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton. Reading these articles was an exercise in nostalgia.

I remember when God died. The death of God changed my life. It made me into the Christian pastor I am today. When Time magazine published its iconic red and black 1966 cover with the words “Is God Dead?” I was a teenager struggling with my family’s Christian faith. At the time I was in a Methodist-related school taking a Philosophy of Religion class with our school chaplain. He brought the Time article to class, and we discussed what it meant to say that God was dead.

I entered Denison University (at the time a Baptist affiliated college) in 1968 planning to have a career in science. I took an introductory religion course to satisfy the liberal arts requirement. David O. Woodyard, Dean of the Chapel, was teaching the course. He had just published a book entitled Living Without God, Before God.  In the class he surveyed the works of radical theologians Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, Gabriel Vahanian, and Paul van Buren. The course turned my life around. A year later I had switched my major to Religion.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Death of God Movement brought me to God. The chief concern in the 1960’s was how to do theology in a post-WWII, post-Holocaust era. In the Religion department we thought long and deep about the problems of evil and suffering. We debated Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity.” We discussed Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl. We read Niebuhr and Barth, Brunner and Buber, Tillich and Heschel. I was hooked. After graduation I went to seminary.

How does the death of God lead a man to a life of professional Christian ministry? For me Death of God theology was the first taste of religion that took existential problems seriously. It offered no easy answers; it was willing to go wherever truth led. It was utterly honest at a time when institutional religion seemed shallow, judgmental and hypocritical. For example, Death of God theologian Bill Hamilton lost his job as a professor at Colgate Rochester Divinity School (a seminary related to my American Baptist denomination) because of his theological and intellectual honesty.

If you are not familiar with the radical theologians of the 1960’s, there is not room enough in this brief essay to fill you in. I will simply say that the Death of God is likely not what you think it is, or what most church people in the 1960’s thought it was. It is about the death of theism, both fundamentalist and liberal varieties. Neither camp has yet come to grips with the obituary a half century later. It was the death of the “god of the gaps,” the demise of a shrinking deity whose only job was to fill in the remaining gaps in the answers science offered about the nature and origin of the universe.

The death of God movement was about going beyond words and ideas, beyond institutional religion and spiritual fads. The death of God led me to the Christian mystics while still an undergraduate. After seminary graduation I was lured into the wilderness of evangelical Christianity for a few decades, but eventually I returned to my spiritual roots to deconstruct my religion and rediscover God beyond God, to use Meister Eckhart’s phrase. I have chronicled this theological journey in my books Thank God for Atheists and Experiencing God Directly.

There is a well-known Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” This is not really a call to assassinate a spiritual leader. Similarly the death of God is not really about deicide. It is about dethroning idols and intellectually dismantling the religions built around them. One cannot see clearly until one’s idols are dead and buried. This iconoclastic quest led me to the Eternal Christ. That is what the Death of God did for me. 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Galactic Spirituality

The heavens leave me in awe. I am not talking about the celestial abode of a Hebraic male deity sitting on a celestial throne surrounded by angels. I am talking about the scientific images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope released this week by NASA.

The fact that this new telescope is one million miles away is itself amazing. The recent photos taken by this instrument bring me to my knees. Viewing these pictures of nebulae and galaxies has the same effect on me as any religious vision described by Isaiah or Ezekiel. Modern astronomy is a spiritual experience.

The first image unveiled by President Biden on July 11 was revelatory. The deep field image enlarges a portion of sky about the size of a grain of sand when held at arm’s length. Take a moment to demonstrate that for yourself and notice how small this field of view is.

Thousands of galaxies are visible within this tiny segment of the heavens. William Blake could “see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower.” We can see galaxies. Every tiny speck in the photo is a galaxy containing a hundred billion stars and countless worlds. If that many galaxies are visible in a field the size of a grain of sand, just imagine how many galaxies there are in the entire universe!

The feeling I get when pondering such wonders can only be described as religious awe. Witnessing stars being born in the in the Carina Nebula is akin to the magi witnessing the Star of Bethlehem. Seeing stars dying in the Southern Ring Nebula is like being present at the Cross. Watching Stephan’s Quintet of galaxies dancing in the heavens is Pentecostal. I feel honored to be part of a generation that can witness this miracle.

Astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that humans are the universe conscious of itself. That quote came to mind when I saw these newest photos. While viewing these images I was the universe conscious of itself. I was not observing distant objects out in space. I was looking in the mirror. These are me. These are us. The Webb pictures are selfies.

Sagan explained that the elements that make up our bodies were literally formed in stars. He called us “star stuff.” He said, “The cosmos is within us.” He sounds more like a mystic than an astronomer.  

Human consciousness emerged from these elements through the same evolutionary process that formed the heavenly bodies. It is the same process that undoubtedly formed intelligent life on other planets. Once again Sagan said, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”

When I was younger I used to gaze into the heavens on clear night and feel small. The universe seemed so big, and I felt so small. My lifespan seemed no more than that of a mayfly compared to the 13.8 billion years of the universe. Now when I look into the starry heavens I feel big. I am billions of years old! I feel ageless.  

This human psyche that calls itself Marshall Davis is not ageless. It is a temporary phenomenon, an ephemeral fiction created by the brain, a brief whirlpool in the river of time, a blip in the cosmic drama. My essence – our essence – is as old as the universe. Older than the universe.

I look into the heavens, and I see God. No need to go in search of God in creeds and rituals. God is here now! Look and see. This is cosmic spirituality. Adherents of earthly religions can fight over political turf within nations and among nations, but the God of the cosmos has more galactic things in mind. If you have any doubt about that, just look through the Webb Telescope and watch galaxies collide.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Blessing Enemies

One of the consequences of being a pastor is that I am a public figure while in active ministry – which is both good and bad. Those who like what they hear will let me know, and the same with those who do not like what I say. I am finding this to be as true in retirement as it was during my forty years of fulltime pastoral ministry.

Of course I could have chosen to keep my mouth shut in retirement. That would have been the easy way to go. I know retired clergy who do that. My father-in-law was a Baptist preacher, who never entered a pulpit again after age 65. But upon my “retirement” I simply moved from a physical pulpit to a virtual one. I took to the internet. In retirement I am connecting with more people than I did when I was a local church minister. Now I reach thousands with my podcast, YouTube channel, blog and books.

People regularly contact me to respond to what I say or write. I receive emails daily from around the world from people who have heard me online or read one of my books. The overwhelming majority of the responses I receive are positive. But there are always the ones who consider me dangerous and let me know it, often using emotionally charged language. Some see me as a threat to the evangelical gospel that I once espoused.

Some of these angry people I know personally. Most of them are strangers, who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to launch their attacks. In both cases these people feel threatened by what I am saying. They see me as the enemy. They try to discourage me from speaking through psychological intimidation. They accuse me of theological and spiritual sins, and they threaten me with divine judgment. To be honest, it hurts.

So I have sought the Comforter and the advice of Jesus as to how to respond. Jesus had a lot of enemies and had a lot to say on the topic – especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Speaking from personal experience he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

One saying of Jesus has been particularly helpful: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” His instruction to “bless those who curse you” stood out. My first instinct is to defend myself. It is our animal instinct. It is also the American way! We consider self-defense to be our constitutional right, including both free speech and the right to respond to violence with violence.

Jesus teaches an alternative way. He instructs his followers NOT to defend themselves verbally or physically. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

I am a slow learner, but I am slowly learning not to defend myself. When someone verbally attacks me, I now know enough not to respond in kind. Any immediate response is likely to come from the ego. It is best to give the ego time to calm down.  Let the Silence speak. Let the Spirit take control. 

Now when I am attacked I offer a prayer of blessing upon my attackers – silently or verbally. I rejoice in the opportunity to obey my Lord’s teaching in such circumstances. It is such a relief not to have to justify myself. The ego should not be defended, and Christ does not need me to defend him. Jesus did not defend himself when he was accused of blasphemy and treason. As his disciple indwelt by his Spirit, I am inspired to do the same.

It is a relief not accommodate the ego by fashioning a well-worded defense. Now I can remain silent – just as Jesus did when he was on trial. If I speak I can simply say “Bless you” or “God bless you” and leave it at that. There is no need to justify myself. All I have to do is love my enemies, bless those who curse me, and do good to those who wish me ill.

The miraculous thing about blessing enemies is that the blessings I give return a hundredfold. To bless those who see me as their enemy is to be blessed by God! “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” How wonderful to be able to sincerely bless others, rather than to return anger with anger! How liberating it is to forgive – for it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, as Jesus taught.

Anger is a poison that harms the soul of the one who is angry more than it hurts the one the anger is directed against. Unresolved anger can easily turn into hate. Anger is increasingly used in political discourse these days. Our nation’s public forum is a cauldron of anger and fear. Anger is infectious. It replicates itself within us like a virus. It has produced a pandemic of anger in our country worse than any coronavirus. The way of Christ stops this cycle of emotional, verbal and physical violence by overcoming hatred with love.

I have recently finished reading a biography of Peace Pilgrim, who was one of the most Christ-like figures of the twentieth century. I first heard about her in the 1980’s, and it was a joy to rediscover her. Her message is timeless, as all genuine spiritual teachings are. She summed up her teaching in these words: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.” My experience with my online detractors is a testimony to the truth of her words. God bless you.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Unburnt Bush

I turned aside and eternity called my name.

“Here I am,” I said. “Who are you? Who am I?”

 “I am that I am,” said the Lord.

I am the Emptiness in which all things appear.

I am the Silence in which all sounds arise.

I am the Eternity from which time is born.

I am the Infinity in which all space resides.

I am the Awareness within which all consciousness occurs.

I am the Being that holds all creation.

I am the Love that connects all creatures.

I am the Compassion that ends all suffering.

I am the Truth to which all religions point.

I am the Life that conquers death.

I am the Way which is the beginning and the end.

I AM.

 

Saturday, June 4, 2022

People Kill People

You have heard the meme: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Like all marketing slogans, this one is designed to obscure the facts. It takes both people and guns to kill people. The facts concerning mass shooters reveal that young men with guns kill people. Take away the guns and you just have angry young men. Take away semi-automatic weapons, and the death toll drops dramatically.

Recently a variation has become popular: “Guns aren’t the problem. Mental illness is the problem.” Even if the Uvalde shooter was mentally ill, how many children would he have killed if he did not have an assault rifle? Without a gun all you have is a disturbed young man. Furthermore, blaming the mentally ill for gun violence just adds another layer of stigma to mental illness. It makes it even less likely that those with mental illness will seek the help they need.

These slogans come straight from the gun lobby’s playbook. Those who repeat such things are being led to the slaughter by those whose only motive is to sell more guns. To identify the problem of gun violence all you have to do is follow the money. Who makes money off the corpses of school children? Gun manufacturers, of course!

They turn every act of gun violence into a reason to buy more guns. They tell people they need more guns to protect themselves from bad guys with guns and from a government that wants to restrict guns. “Buy them while you still can!” The gun lobby uses fear to manipulate people. They turn patriotism into a gimmick to sell guns. No one notices the irony of using the second amendment, which speaks of the necessity of a “well regulated militia,” for a crusade to oppose regulation.

But as much as I can see through the duplicity of the slogans, I have to admit that ultimately it is true that people are responsible. With or without sophisticated weaponry people will kill people. Not as efficiently perhaps, but they will still kill. The source of violence is humans.

Presently I am researching an upcoming podcast episode on the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. The Book of Genesis tells the story of the first murder. No firearms in sight, but Cain managed to use a primitive weapon – likely a farming tool - to spill his brother’s blood. People kill people. They always have.

The only permanent solution to violence is if people choose nonviolence. Government restrictions on weapons may decrease the death toll, but the problem of violence is deeper than anything that can be solved by legislation alone. Violence is ultimately a spiritual problem.

That is what Jesus taught. He said that the cause of murder is anger in the human heart. Jesus’ brother James said that external violence come from inner violence and greed. For that reason Jesus advocated a spiritual discipline of nonviolence, telling his followers to turn the other cheek and refuse to return evil for evil.

Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and nonresistance is for individuals. It cannot be translated into national or international policy. Any nation that follows the Way of Jesus will undoubtedly be crucified, just as Jesus was crucified. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation.” The term is an oxymoron. At his trial for treason Jesus made it clear that he had no interest in earthly government. He said, “If my kingdom were of this world my disciples would fight…. But my kingdom is not of this world.”

The earliest Christian movement was an intentional community that practiced unconditional love for all, even enemies. Jesus understood the Kingdom of God as an alternative to political and military kingdoms. Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. The Church is to be a light to the nations, not a nation among nations.

Jesus’ solution to human sin – including gun violence – was a radical one. Jesus told his followers to put away their weapons, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” He instructed his followers NOT to defend themselves … or him. Once again it is ironic that so many Christians find a reason to ignore Christ’s clear teachings on this subject.

Jesus was not a conservative. He was not a liberal. He was not a zealot, who were the patriots of his day. Jesus was a radical spiritual reformer. He was more like Buddha than Muhammad. Jesus’ vision for the Church is more like the Sangha than the Caliphate. It was a spiritual movement, not a political party. Jesus set up an alternative community that lived by a different standard than the state or political ideologies.

Jesus knew that the only real solution to the problems of suffering, evil, and violence in society was to live by the standards of the Kingdom of God now. That is what his Sermon on the Mount was all about. It is a Declaration of Independence from the cycle of human violence. It is the Constitution of the Kingdom of God.

The way to stop gun violence is to address the root of violence in the human heart, the anger and hate that is so clearly displayed in the nastiness of political rhetoric today. Peace begins by addressing the violence in our own hearts – not others’ hearts. Our heart is the only one we can change, and even that changes only by the grace of God.

As Jesus said, some evil cannot be driven out by anything but prayer. Gun violence is a spiritual issue more than a political one. When our words and actions begin to flow from a reservoir of inner peace rather than political strife, only then will there be peace on earth. Only then will people not kill people. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Shall the Fundamentalists Win ... Again?

This month marks the centennial of a landmark sermon in American Protestantism. On May 21, 1922, Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered a famous sermon from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, entitled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" You can read the text here.

It was a decisive moment in the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy of the time. This sermon cost him his position at the church, but it established his reputation as a champion of what he called “an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church.”

In the sermon he addresses both the doctrines and the attitudes of fundamentalists. He is more concerned with how the fundamentalists behave than what they believe. He says:

Fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen. As one watches them and listens to them he remembers the remark of General Armstrong of Hampton Institute, “Cantankerousness is worse than heterodoxy.” There are many opinions in the field of modern controversy concerning which I am not sure whether they are right or wrong, but there is one thing I am sure of: courtesy and kindliness and tolerance and humility and fairness are right. Opinions may be mistaken; love never is.”

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If that is true, then then the 2020’s are rhyming with the 1920’s. American religion seems to be fighting the same battles it fought one hundred years ago. Furthermore they are the same battles as when I was in seminary in the 1970’s.

In one sense nothing has changed in the last one hundred years. There are still fundamentalist and modernist Christians, although now they are known as evangelicals and progressives. There is still a struggle for control of denominational structures, institutions, seminaries and churches. In one way the fundamentalist spirit is more powerful than ever. Today it has joined forces with politics to take over the government as well as the churches.

In another sense much has changed. We live in a post-denominational landscape where nondenominational megachurches are the big players. There is a growing vocal opposition to religion of any type. Atheism and agnosticism are on the rise. Churches of all types – including evangelical churches – are losing members at an alarming rate. The fury of fundamentalism today sounds more like a death rattle than the rumble of an advancing army.

Yet human nature has not changed. Fosdick ended his message with these words:

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

“Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity! I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist. Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.”

The irony is that, unknown to him, there was intolerance in his church. Fundamentalists succeeded in driving Fosdick out of his positon as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. John D. Rockefeller Jr. came to his rescue and built him the Riverside Church, where he could preach freely without fear of retaliation.  His ministry eventually earned him the cover of Time magazine.

If there is any lesson to be learned from Fosdick’s historic sermon it is that intolerance is a persistent flaw of human nature. Furthermore religion is a permanent part of human culture. Our species is Homo religiosus – incurably religious.  Unfortunately religion often serves the purpose of tribalism, sexism, racism, nationalism and countless other –isms.

The good news is that we are also Homo mysticus. There is a part of us that sees beyond the sectarian madness. This inner intuition cannot be extinguished. It glimpses our essential union with the Divine and all humans. It is only imperfectly expressed by progressive preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick. It finds full expression in the mystics of Christianity and all faiths. It is the antithesis of fundamentalism.

This means the fundamentalists shall not ultimately win. They may dominate nations or cultures for a season, but ultimately fundamentalism is a lost cause. If we survive as a species, someday spiritual inclusiveness, tolerance and love will reign. I see it already beginning, like spring shoots poking through winter’s dead leaves. 

Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom will become a reality. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. May that Kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Keeping Cool in Florida

After arriving in Florida for an extended vacation this spring, the air conditioning in our 2014 Dodge minivan gave out. That would not have been a serious problem in New Hampshire, but in the Sunshine State AC is a necessity. We could not envision a month in Florida and a three day drive home without air. So we took it to a nearby auto repair shop. Their website said they had been in business for over 30 years and that they serviced AC. Plus they would pick me up and drop me back off at our rented condo while they serviced the vehicle. Great!

So began a saga that lasted for four weeks. At first all seemed fine. They replaced the condenser for $1200, which was more than we expected, but at least it was done (so we thought). Two and a half weeks later the AC failed again. This time they told us it was the rear condenser and line. The dealer did not have a necessary part so they were going to get one custom made. Another $800 in all. That was $2000 we were not expecting to put on our credit card this trip. We foolishly thought we were saving money by driving instead of flying this year!

The cost was not the worst part. We brought the repaired vehicle back to our rented condo, and the next morning it was blowing warm air again. Long story short, for eight more days I went to the shop daily. Bringing in the vehicle, getting it checked, getting a ride back to the condo, getting a ride back to the shop again and again. Day after day, something went wrong.

They said the newly installed rear condenser was defective, but not to worry; it was under warranty. It would not cost us anything. More delays. Then the custom-made part was not working. More delays. Four weeks after we had originally brought the vehicle to get fixed, we finally have our car back. The air conditioning is working for the moment, but I would not place any bets on its longevity.

I tell this story because of the emotional rollercoaster it caused within me and how I handled it. On the outside I was polite – assertive, but not aggressive. Honest with the repair shop about my frustration, but not accusatory. On the inside I went through a full range of emotions, from initial satisfaction to anger to disgust. I imagined heated arguments with the manager which never materialized. I thought about getting the credit card company involved or calling an attorney. In my mind I planned a scathingly accurate review that I would post on Yelp.

Then during prayer I saw what I was doing and cooled down. I began to think of this situation as a spiritual exercise – a gift from God. The whole process was a wonderful opportunity to exercise mindfulness and practice patience. I watched my emotions as they did somersaults. I observed my ego defend itself and justify itself. I watched my self play both the victim and the avenger. What a masterful performance!

All this time I also saw that this was just a show in my mind, like a drama I would watch on television. I was creating roles, playing roles, and casting others in roles. I was the producer, director, and playwright of my own story. I was writing the roles of villains, hucksters, incompetent mechanics, and wronged customer who is victorious in the end.

Shakespeare famously said that all the world’s a stage and we are players. But we are more than that. We are the whole process. We are also the audience, the theater, all the actors and stage hands, the stage, and the theater. We are the play. 

These things are happening within us. We invent them. We include and transcend them all. It is okay to play our part in this human drama wholeheartedly. It is fine to exercise emotions. We could not stop them if we tried! But we need to remember that this is only a role we play and not our identity.

We are the One behind the process. We are the One who is seeing the whole process unfold. This seeing fills me with joy in the midst of the frustration. It cools me off like AC never could. I can enjoy the divine drama without getting attached to it! I see again – as I have seen countless times before – that divine joy and love and peace trump all the emotions displayed within the play.

Furthermore it all works together for Good, as the apostle Paul observed. This divine “Good” has nothing to do with the relative “good” and “bad” aspects of life. Those sparring roles are just part of the script. The greater Good includes all good and bad. This Good Life is God’s drama. Sit back, keep cool, and enjoy the show!   

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

The Importance of Music

I love worship. It is the highlight of my week. While we have been in Florida I have not been able to attend in-person worship as I normally do. For one thing they do not take COVID seriously here in the Sunshine State, and churches are packed like discount airlines. Secondly, Floridians wear too much cologne and perfume. I can hardly breathe amidst the haze in these churches. So we have been doing online worship.

Last Sunday there was an outdoor Easter Sunrise service at seven o’clock on the beach, so we went. Two evangelical churches got together and held a large Easter worship service. At least it was large by my standards. I estimate there were at least five hundred people sitting on beach chairs or beach towels.

There was a worship band with guitars, drums, amps, and a half-dozen vocalists. They even brought huge television screens so people could sing along. If you preferred you could get the words displayed on your cellphone. The musicians were talented and enthusiastic, but the music was bland. Each song was indistinguishable from the previous one. Too much noise. Too much whining. I find that true of most contemporary worship music.

Most disappointing was the fact that the lyrics said nothing about the resurrection of Jesus. The closest they came was a reference to the “living Lord.” I can only conclude that the band did not know any Easter music. They played what they knew, which was mostly about salvation and feelings about salvation. Few on the beach sang these songs because they did not know the songs. You would think that if a church was designing a worship service for the public that they would pick well-known Easter songs.

For the first half of the service I pined for traditional Easter hymns. Once the half-hearted sing-along ended the service got better. A resurrection scripture from John’s gospel was read and a good sermon on “doubting Thomas” was delivered, relating Thomas’ experience to doubt in our lives.  Then there was communion. The Lord's Supper is bit unusual for evangelical churches on Easter, but I assumed they had skipped Maundy Thursday.

The service ended with a rendition of a hymn everyone knew: Amazing Grace. It is not an Easter song, but at least the congregation knew it. Then there was the obligatory evangelistic altar call by the pastor, followed by an invitation for ocean baptism for anyone who had been converted on the spot. We skipped the baptisms, as did 99% of the congregation.

After the hour-long service I went back to our apartment feeling like I needed something more. I felt like I had gone to dinner but been served only appetizers. I immediately got online and joined a live worship service where I could sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and other Easter classics. By the time Easter Sunday ended I had enjoyed two online services in our churches in New Hampshire (one live and one recorded at sunrise) and read an online sermon given that morning in a friend’s church in North Carolina. I was filled with the Easter Spirit! He is risen indeed!

My Easter experience got me thinking about the important role of music in worship. Everyone has their own musical tastes. You can't please everyone. I understand that. I do not enjoy most contemporary Christian worship music, but I know that others find it inspiring. Yet someone should write some contemporary worship songs about the resurrection of Jesus. If someone has already written such songs, then church bands need to sing them often enough to have a couple to play on Easter Sunday.

Worship music is important. It is the soul of worship. It communicates the Spirit more directly than words alone. It does not have to be professional, although the more talented the musician, the better. But it needs to be sincere. How it is sung is as important as how well it is sung. I go to worship for three things: music that lifts my heart to worship God, an inspired word from Scripture, and spiritual community. This is the holy trinity of worship for me. I received all three this Easter, but not all at the same time. It took four churches to satisfy my soul this Easter.  

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Missing Easter Stories

On this Holy Saturday I am pondering a strange and little-known Easter story, nestled within Matthew’s account of the death of Jesus. It says that when Jesus died, “The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:52–53) In other words lots of people were raised from the dead on Easter, not just Jesus!

That is a story you likely won’t hear this Easter Sunday! Instead Christians will hear the familiar favorites. They will hear the tale of Mary Magdalene at the garden tomb, the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, and the eleven disciples in the upper room. They will hear about women coming to an empty tomb, the stone being rolled away, and angels descending and declaring that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Other stories, like the one quoted above, church-goers will not hear. They also will not hear the story of when the risen Lord appeared to his brother James. They will not hear the account of when the resurrected Christ appeared to 500 disciples at the same time. These are listed by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, but they are missing from the gospels.

Those events are mentioned only in passing by Paul, and their full stories are never told. Why? A resurrection appearance to 500 people at once seems important enough be included in a gospel, but no gospel writer mentions it. An appearance to a member of Jesus’ family who would become the head of the Jerusalem church also seems worthy of a few verses, but the gospel writers are silent about it.

Isn’t it important to know that other people besides Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday? What were their names? What happened to them? What stories did they tell of their death and resurrections? Their first-hand accounts would put modern Near Death Experiences to shame! 

Furthermore why don’t other ancient historical documents record such a dramatic event? The resurrection of “many” people (dozens? hundreds?) in Jerusalem would seem to merit at least a footnote by Josephus.

Why aren’t these other resurrection stories told? One possible answer is that the gospel writers did not know about these other resurrection stories. If they knew about them, then they made an editorial decision to exclude them. They either omitted them because they did not believe the stories to be true, or they omitted them for theological and ecclesiastical reasons. I go with this latter reason.

These stories are not told by the gospel writers for the same reason they are not told from pulpits today. Something about those stories did not fit conventional Christian theology. The mere existence of untold Easter stories means that the compilation of the New Testament is more complex than most Christians know. It makes you wonder what else was intentionally omitted.

What other gospels were refused entrance into the New Testament and why? These censored gospels and letters reveal that early Christianity was much more diverse than the proto-orthodox version that made it past the canonical watchdogs. These missing Easter stories seem to indicate that Resurrection Sunday was much richer than the canonical gospels suggest!

The best part of this fuller vision of Easter is that it includes us. Like the apostle Paul, we have our own Easter stories to tell. Easter is not just for the original apostles of long ago. 

That is why I have always liked the original ending of Mark’s gospel, which is the earliest of the four canonical gospels. It contains no resurrection appearances. It is open-ended. It concludes with the message of an angel saying that if we go forth, “you will see him, as he told you.” 

Like the apostle Paul, we may have been “untimely born,” but we are not too late. The Easter story is our story. It is now. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Holy Friendship

This Holy Week I am pondering friendship. It started off very personal. In my previous blog about Palm Sunday entitled “Everything is Holy Now,” I mentioned two friends of mine: a transgender woman and a gay man, both very spiritually-minded persons. I also spoke against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. I wrote, “Everyone is holy.” A longtime friend of mine wrote a scathing response to that post.

He accused me of rejecting the Biblical values, embracing cultural standards, and setting myself up as my own authority above God’s Word. In a second email he said that I “reject the biblical norms and accept sodomy and all the other violations of Gods commands.” I was stunned at the self-righteousness and judgmental tone of these emails. I was hurt. The sad part is that he knew he was hurting me, justifying his behavior by quoting the often misused proverb: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

Last Sunday – Palm Sunday - another longtime friend of mine, Dwight Moody, mentioned me several times in his sermon to his congregation in North Carolina. I watched the service online. He was preaching about friendship. It was entitled “No One Like You.” His text was from the Letter to the Philippians, where the apostle Paul speaks about his friend Timothy.

Paul writes: “If the Lord Jesus is willing, I hope to send Timothy to you soon for a visit. Then he can cheer me up by telling me how you are getting along. I have no one else like Timothy, who genuinely cares about your welfare. All the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Jesus Christ. But you know how Timothy has proved himself.”

Dwight said, “I think about Marshall when I read this letter Paul wrote. He said, “I have no one else like you.” He was talking about friendship, and partnership in the gospel, and the best of life.” 

I emailed him and told him his words were balm for my soul. When he spoke those words from the pulpit he did not know about the email exchange with my other friend. But he later told me that God had known and had led him to speak those words. The Spirit has a way of inspiring just the right words at the right time.

This series of events has led me to look at the Holy Week passion narrative with new eyes. I am looking at it from the perspective of friendship. As I read the stories of Jesus’ final days and hours I am looking carefully at Jesus’ friends, and how they related to him. I am especially looking at Jesus’ friends Peter, Judas Iscariot, and John.

Judas undoubtedly convinced himself that he was doing the right thing by betraying his friend. There are many theories about Judas’s motives - from simple greed, to patriotic zeal, to believing he was obeying the will of God. We will never know exactly what he was thinking when he betrayed his friend with a kiss. 

Likewise Peter had a lot going on in his mind when he denied his friend Jesus. These two disciples responded to the realization of their error in different ways. Of the twelve apostles only young John had the courage to stay with Jesus at the cross.

Jesus’ most faithful friends were women, who were at the cross on Good Friday and at the garden tomb on Easter morning. It seems his closest female friend was Mary Magdalene, who is called by Thomas Aquinas and Pope Francis “the apostle to the apostles.” Women’s stories are not adequately told in the gospels. One can only imagine what the biblical passion narrative would have been like if their stories had been highlighted.

Friendship is a priceless gift. Friendship with Jesus is the greatest of all gifts. Jesus said to his disciples “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” I count Jesus as my closest and greatest friend, with my wife is a close second! (Dwight, you are third!)

Jesus is my spiritual identity. He is my life and my soul. It is said that a true friend is one soul in two bodies. I am one soul with Jesus. Jesus is my soul. I concur with Paul when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” There is no “I” in “my” life. There is only Christ. Christ is my life.

In his so-called “High Priestly” prayer offered on Maundy Thursday, Jesus promised his disciples oneness with God and himself. Such holy union is foreign to traditional binary thinking. Yet this unitive awareness is our birthright. From Christ-consciousness one loves all people unconditionally. There are no distinctions. One especially loves those whom the dominant Christian culture scorns. Jesus ate with friends whom religious culture had declared unclean and unholy. He still does. That is why I love my friend Jesus.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Everything is Holy Now

Recently I attended an online memorial service for a spiritual friend who died in January. Her name was Fran Bennett. She was a transgender woman who was influential in my spiritual life. I spoke with her at length ten years ago during a spiritual crisis in my life that bloomed into spiritual awakening. At that time she was still presenting as male and had recently left a Trappist monastery where she had been a monk known as Brother Francis. 

At her memorial service the song “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer was played. If you haven’t heard it, you can listen to it here. The song is from his 1999 album Million Year Mind. Fran loved the song and often sang it at her retreats. It echoes the spiritual awakening she experienced in 2010 while taking the Eucharist. The first stanza says:

When I was a boy, each week

On Sunday, we would go to church

And pay attention to the priest.

He would read the holy word

And consecrate the holy bread

And everyone would kneel and bow.

Today the only difference is

Everything is holy now.

Everything, everything,

Everything is holy now.

That song came to mind this week while I was walking the beach here in Florida. The upcoming Palm Sunday celebration was on my mind. I love Holy Week. I love Maundy Thursday communion. I love Good Friday and Easter Sunday. This year we will not be in New Hampshire to celebrate the holy days with our church. So I was rehearsing the events of Palm Sunday in my mind as I did a walking meditation on the beach with my friends, the egrets and sandpipers.

I recalled the words of Jesus as he descended the Mount of Olives on a donkey. The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus’ followers were praising God for him. His critics told Jesus to command his disciples to stop. His response was that even if the people kept silent, the stones of the road would take up the chorus of praise. That is when I heard the grains of sand on the beach singing the praises of God. The psalm sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

I am reading a book entitled Bewilderment by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers. The main character is an astrobiologist. He tries to explain to his nine-year-old son how many planets there are in the universe capable of sustaining life. First he calculates the number of stars:

“Multiply every grain of sand on Earth by the number of trees. One hundred octillion.” I made him say twenty-nine zeros. Fifteen zeros in, his laughter turned to groans. “If you were an ancient astronomer, using Roman numerals, you couldn’t have written the number down. Not even in your whole lifetime.” How many have planets? That number was changing fast. “Most probably have at least one. Many have several. The Milky Way alone might have nine billion Earth-like planets in their stars’ habitable zones.”

There are more earths than the number of grains of sand in all the beaches of earth. How many billions of different types of creatures exist on all these planets? All are praising God! Every bird I see is praising God. Every child playing in the sand is part of the Kingdom of God. Every creature in the ocean, on the ocean, and on the beach is sacred. Every elderly couple walking the beach is an expression of the Divine. Everyone is holy.

Last week the Florida legislature passed – and the governor signed - the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. It implies that LGBTQ people are somehow less acceptable than other humans. It says that children need to be protected from knowing about their existence. Florida lawmakers are now making plans to strip Disney World of its tax advantages because Disney opposes this bill.

Everyone is holy. My transgender friend Fran was – and is – holy. My friend David was my roommate in college and a groomsman in my wedding. He was gay, a seminary-educated ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, a lifelong friend, and one of the best people I have known. He ended his earthly life twenty years ago because the anti-gay hate of our culture was more than his sensitive soul could bear.

Everyone is holy. Everything is holy. Sometimes it takes a moment for our human minds to remember what the soul always knows. Every day is Palm Sunday. Every day is Easter. Every day is holy now. All we need to do is abide in the now, and this is clearly seen. I finish this post with the final stanza of Peter Mayer’s song, which could be the soundtrack of my life.

This morning, outside I stood

And saw a little red-winged bird

Shining like a burning bush

Singing like a scripture verse.

It made me want to bow my head,

I remember when church let out,

How things have changed since then,

Everything is holy now.

It used to be a world half-there

Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down

But I walk it with a reverent air

Cause everything is holy now.