Friday, January 28, 2022

Julian & the Pandemic

The fourteenth century English mystic, Julian of Norwich can teach us a lot about the pandemic. She was born in 1342. When she was six years old the bubonic plague hit England. By the time she was eight the plague had killed half of the English population. When she reached twenty years of age a second wave of the epidemic swept across the land, killing a quarter of the remaining population.

We do not know much about her early life, but it is thought that she lost her husband and possibly children to the plague. When she was thirty, she became seriously ill and nearly died. While in the heat of fever she had a series of visions of Jesus that transformed her life.

She recovered from her illness and recorded the visions in two works, a shorter and a longer version, entitled Revelations of Divine Love. At the same time that Chaucer was writing Canterbury Tales, Dame Julian was writing her Revelations. They are the earliest known writings by any woman in English.

There is much that is extraordinary about her Revelations. In one of the visions Jesus hands her a tiny round object, “a little thing, the size of a hazel nut.” She asks Jesus what it is, and he replies that it is the universe. His exact words were “It is all that is made.” She is afraid that she might drop it, but Jesus reassures her saying, “It lasts, and ever shall, because God loves it. And so, all things have their being in the love of God.”

In the visions she struggles with the age-old problem of suffering. She asks Jesus about all the pain and suffering in the world and receives an answer. “See, I am God. See, I am in all things. See, I do all things. See, I never removed my hands from my works, nor never shall, without end. I lead all things to the end I ordained for them from the beginning, by the same might, wisdom, and love with which I made them. How should anything be amiss?”

This answer is followed by another one that ties the suffering of Jesus to the suffering of all people in the world. She sees “God in a point, that is to say, in my understanding, by which sight I saw that he is in all things.” The face of Jesus then changed from pain to “blissful cheer.” It ends with the most famous quote of the book: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich lived to be seventy, spending the last twenty years of her life as an anchoress. She lived through the Black Death and the Hundred Years War. Our COVID pandemic and the domestic troubles we face in America today seem trivial in comparison.

So when I am anxious about what is happening in our nation and our world, I bring to mind the words of Julian: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

(Artwork is a detail from the cover of Matthew Fox’s 2020 book Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic - And Beyond)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Peace of Thay

Yesterday Thich Nhat Hanh died. The news of his death was like a meditation gong that called me back to the center of who I am … who we are. That center is peace.

Strangely I have been thinking about him quite a bit recently. Now it feels like a premonition.  A couple of weeks ago I pulled his book Living Buddha, Living Christ off the shelf to reread. It has been occupying my coffee table ever since. Occasionally I pick it up and read a section. It reinforces my understanding that the message of Buddha and the message of Christ are very similar.

The spiritual peace taught by Thay (as Nhat Hanh was called) and Christ (as Jesus was called) is much needed in today’s world, especially in the United States. There is a great deal of anger and fear in American society. There is fear of COVID and fear of vaccines for COVID. Political fear is felt by both the right and the left.

Unresolved fear can be expressed in violence. Murder rates have increased during the pandemic. People buy weapons out of fear. People feel like their bodies and their rights are under attack, and they respond in kind to protect themselves. 

A Christmas photo posted by friends shows a group of seven children with aggressive expressions dressed in camo and brandishing toy guns. A family militia. The parents said that it was cute. One viewer commented “God’s little army.”  I look at that photo and I see fear, anger and endorsement of violence.

People wield conspiracy theories like weapons on social media. They fire off verbal attacks toward those who disagree with them. This is emotional and psychological violence. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that it is the spiritual equivalent of murder. He explains, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks."

When I listen to neighbors’ angry rants, I feel the fear in their hearts. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending.”

My seminary psychology professor taught that fear results in anger, which can result in violence. Political fear, if unaddressed, results in political violence. If the fear felt by Americans is not addressed on a spiritual level, it could bring in an end to our experiment in democracy.

As I wrote in my last post, I have resolved this year to live in faith not fear. The death of Thich Nhat Hanh reminds me of that commitment. There are too many patriots and culture warriors, and not enough peace pilgrims and advocates for nonviolence. I have concluded that the best way to bring about peace is to live peace.

When my mind is tempted to enter into the fray of divisiveness, I remember that is the highway of the crowd that leads to death. Jesus calls us to the narrow way that leads to life. 

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.” I choose the beautiful path. I choose peace. And although it is winter in America, I am expecting flowers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Faith, Not Fear

I do not usually make New Year’s resolutions – at least not on New Year’s Day. January 1 seems like a terrible time to make decisions about the coming year. We aren’t thinking straight. If people are not hung over from New Year’s Eve (not me, by the way), then they are worn out from the holidays (this is me, by the way).

Life decisions should be made in a careful and thoughtful manner, not hastily mandated by cultural traditions. Now that Martin Luther King Day is behind us, and winter has settled in, it seems like a good time to sit by the woodstove and contemplate priorities.

I have done exactly that, and I have made a resolution: I will live by faith, not fear. It is said that the phrase “Do not fear” or its equivalent is found 365 times in the Bible, one for every day of the year. I suspect that some preacher has fudged the numbers, but I get the point. 

The meme “faith over fear” was popular among political and religious conservatives early in the pandemic as a slogan opposing COVID vaccines and masks. You don’t hear that phrase bantered about so much these days. Probably because so many of these people contracted COVID. Nothing silences fake faith like hard facts. But genuine faith remains in short supply in our country. It has something to do with the spiritual supply chain.

I confess that I am not fearless. I fear for the future of my country, especially since the events of January 6, 2021. I fear that democracy is dying in America. The United States may not survive, at least not in its present democratic form. I fear political extremism. I fear falsified election results in upcoming elections. I fear Donald Trump and his cronies. I fear that more dangerous men will follow in his footsteps.

I fear for the future of Christianity. All churches – progressive and conservative - are losing members at an alarming rate. Younger people are abandoning the Christian faith. Evangelicalism is being taken over by Christian nationalists and fundamentalists. The spiritual dimension of Christianity is being replaced by moral legalism, culture wars and partisan politics.  I fear that when my children are my age that healthy Christian spirituality will be a thing of the past.

There are some things I do not fear. I do not fear the COVID pandemic! I take precautions, but any worries I had about hospitalization or death due to the coronavirus have been alleviated by the effectiveness of the vaccines, which I consider to be gifts of God. I also do not fear the vaccines. It is ironic that so many of those who previously voiced “faith over fear” seem so fearful of vaccines.

I fear for American education. The anti-science attitude that has blossomed during the pandemic is overtaking schools by means of hijacked school boards. The censoring of books and the rewriting of American history by white supremacists do not bode well for the future of American education or American society. 

I also fear religious hatred, intolerance and extremism. Militant fundamentalism is a problem in all faiths, but as a Christian I am most concerned about American Christianity. The increase of anti-Semitic, anti-Islamic, and anti-immigrant sentiment in our country is disturbing. In short I have fears, but this year I will exercise faith over fear.

I will starve fear and feed faith. As part of my spiritual practice, this year I am reading through the biblical prophets, who were poets of fearless faith and fierce justice. The Hebrew prophets were unafraid to foretell doom to the nations of Israel and Judah because of their abandonment of social justice, but they also foresaw the ultimate victory of justice and peace in the world.  I have faith in their vision of history.

When I hear propaganda and conspiracy theories, and when I see evil triumph, I will exercise faith. I believe that the God of the universe is in control of human history. Fellow Baptist preacher Martin Luther King never tired of paraphrasing Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I prefer Parker’s original full quote: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” I have faith that this is true. Fear not.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Living in a Post-Truth World

It is a strange world we live in. In recent years it has gotten a lot stranger a lot quicker. People used to talk about “the new normal.” Now nothing seems normal. The hardest thing for me is the loss of any commonly accepted standard of truth or fact.

People use to disagree over interpretations of facts. Now people have different facts. People create their own “alternative facts” that confirm their beliefs. Evidence be damned. It doesn’t matter what really happened. All that matters is what we believe happened. Truth is in the mind of the beholder.

I can’t help but think of Pontius Pilate interrogating Jesus. Jesus said to him, “For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” I imagine Pilate throwing up his hands in exasperation as he said those words. It sounds strangely modern or - to be more precise - post-modern.

As a young evangelical in the 1970’s and 80’s I used to warn my parishioners of the dangers of a society drifting into relativism. People talked about what is “true for me” and “true for you.” I predicted that without any common standard of truth, society would fall apart. My prophecy has come true … so to speak.

The scientific method used to be accepted as a discipline to arrive at facts. Now we live in an age of science denial. Doctors used to be respected. Now they are suspected … of trying to kill us and our children with vaccines and masks. Journalists used to be viewed as independent investigators who uncovered truth. Now journalists are vilified as propagandists spreading lies.

We live in a post-truth era. People no longer even search for truth. They think it is a lost cause. If we found it, no one would believe it anyway. So why even try? How would people even know if they found it? Disinformation and misinformation are so rampant that people can no longer distinguish fact from fantasy. They have not been trained how to reason, so they will believe anything. Even the concept of “fact” seems quaint. There is only “us versus them.” Information is ammunition.

For me as a pastor this attitude is particularly troubling within Christianity. I went to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky back when Baptists were in the mainstream of biblical and theological scholarship. Science was considered a gift of God. History was seen as the arena of God. To deny science or history was to deny God. The gold standard for biblical studies in my seminary was the historical critical method. My professors sought to recover actual historical events from beneath the layers of literary traditions in the Bible.

Then the fundamentalists took over the denomination and the seminary. Historical science was abandoned in favor of doctrinal purity. The Bible was announced to be inerrant in all matters, including history and science. The universe was created in six days six thousand years ago. Adam and Eve were declared to be real persons. The Garden of Eden was a real place, complete with a real talking snake. Noah’s Flood really happened.  Methuselah lived to be 969 years old. The sun stood still for nearly a day in order to give Joshua time to take revenge on the Amorites. Sarah gave birth at age 90.

To think otherwise is the devil’s lie, they say. That is why Southern Baptists and other evangelicals have embraced post-truth politics so readily. They have lived in fantasyland for a hundred years, since fundamentalism was formed in response to modernism in the 1920’s.

In the name of God they have fought against historical and scientific truth. They have insisted on interpreting biblical stories literally and rejected any historical and scientific evidence to the contrary. They have fought against evolution. They have championed creationism, intelligent design, prayer and Bible reading in schools. They are very used to distrusting scientists and historians.

They have built temples to their literalism, such as the Creation Museum and Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. They have led the way in creating their own set of “facts.” Anything that does not conform to their worldview is nonfactual. They have constructed an alternate reality, complete with Christian schools and home schooling curriculum to perpetuate it.

These anti-science, anti-history Christians were ripe for the picking by the conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and political operatives who recruited them. It is one thing to have an evangelical subculture as an alternative to mainstream culture. It is another thing to try to remake American culture in that image.  Yet that is what is happening today. Democracy is of no value to those who see theocracy as God’s perfect will for planet earth. Like God in the Book of Revelation, they are willing to burn down the house to bring it about.

No longer is the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” just a metaphor. Now Christian culture warriors buy semi-automatic weapons, wear camo, and form militias in the name of Jesus. Among the conspiracists who stormed the Capitol on January 6 were evangelicals, who waved flags that proclaimed "Jesus is my Savior, Trump is my President," "Jesus saves," and "Jesus 2020."

After seizing the Capitol building they offered a prayer to Jesus from the podium of the Senate chamber, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” All the people responded “Amen!” These are the new Christian Crusaders. As a Christian shaped by Enlightenment and democratic values, this feels like a return to the Dark Ages. God help us all.