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.