Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Divine Indirection

A friend of mine, Dwight A. Moody, recently wrote a review of an old book that was influential in his life. The book is a collection of sermons by J. Wallace Hamilton published in 1965 and entitled Serendipity. The author was the pastor of the Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the mid-20th century. I had never heard of the book or the man, yet I am always interested in books that have influenced my friends’ lives.

According to Moody the best thing about this book is its central concept of serendipity. The review says: “Hamilton traces this word and idea to an ancient Persian fable, about the travels of “The Three Princes of Serendip” (the latter being the island now known as Ceylon). The travelers were constantly finding things of value while searching for other things entirely. Hamilton calls it the “principle of indirection” and, throughout the book, illustrates it with story after story from the history of science, exploration, and literature.”

This definition of serendipity as “finding things of value while searching for other things” resonates with me. It describes what happened to me a little more than a decade ago. I had a crisis of faith. Conflict in my Pennsylvania church caused me to question everything I had ever believed about Christianity. The misconduct of Christians made me question the religion that spawned such people. I resigned my position as pastor.

Rather than immediately seek a new position, I took a year off from ministry in 2010 and began a systematic reexamination of my faith. That search was to continue for more than two years, even after I returned to ministry as a pastor in New Hampshire. 

During those years I did a lot of study, prayer and research. I questioned all my assumptions and presuppositions. It led to a radical deconstruction of my Christianity. At the time I thought I might be finished with religion and Christianity altogether.

Yet God has a sense of humor. Serendipity happened. The principle of indirection was at work.  In looking outside of theism I found God beyond theism. The God beyond Church. The God beyond doctrine and dogma. The God beyond God. I saw the Kingdom of God that Jesus had proclaimed, but which the Church had forgotten. That was in the summer of 2012. It was a turning point in my life.

Jesus told the story of a sharecropper who found a treasure while plowing a field. The farmer was simply hoping to eke a living out of the ground but found a life-changing treasure. Jesus called this serendipitous treasure the Kingdom of God. The same thing happened with me.

At first I had no words to describe this discovery because it was beyond words or thoughts. What I recognized as Reality did not fit the categories of traditional Christian theology. Yet this Reality was clearly the message preached by Christ.

As I read the gospels anew, every word of Jesus shone with the Kingdom of God. I reread Christian mystics whose experience seemed to be similar to mine. I started to proclaim this message of Christ from the pulpit. I published these sermons under the title Living Presence: A Guide to Everyday Awareness of God. I wrote a book entitled Experiencing God Directly: The Way of Christian Nonduality in 2013. I continued in fulltime ministry until I retired in 2016.

Then in 2020 the COVID pandemic happened. Like everyone else I was masked and homebound, so I tried recording online talks on YouTube. I initially called them Devotions for a Pandemic. As the pandemic continued I followed it up with a video series called Christian Nonduality and a podcast called The Tao of Christ. I have not stopped.

The response I have received from listeners around the world shows me that I am not the only one who has seen the Kingdom of God. Nearly every day I hear from people who have had the same shift in perspective. I am now invited to be interviewed on other podcasts and YouTube channels. Many of my listeners are Christians who no longer feel comfortable in Christian churches. This situation has been made worse by the radicalization of evangelical Christianity in recent years.

People are disillusioned with the church, but they are still interested in spiritual matters. They are just looking for inspiration elsewhere. Churches across the theological spectrum – liberal, moderate and conservative - are emptying at an alarming rate. Yet at the same time a spiritual revival is going on outside churches.

People share their stories of spiritual awakening with me regularly. A recent email said, “Something amazing and miraculous has happened to myself and a close circle of friends in Asheville NC!” A few days ago I did an interview on this man’s podcast, which will be broadcast soon. I have an online meeting with a group scheduled for this Sunday. 

This is a time of hope. Out of the compost of a decaying church a new Christian spirituality is sprouting. That is resurrection.  That is the Living Christ. This is the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Mending Wall Revisited

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Robert Frost begins his poem Mending Wall with those words. I think about this poem every spring when I repair the wall that borders our property. In my case it is not “frozen-ground-swell” that is the culprit. Neither is the problem “elves,” as Frost suggests later in the poem. For me it is the snow plow.

This particular wall borders our driveway and drops off into our neighbor’s property. Although the wall is about four feet high on our neighbor’s side, it is only a few inches above the ground on our side. The location of the wall means that when the plow pushes the snow from our driveway, it inadvertently topples the top layer of rocks off the wall and over the embankment. (The photo accompanying this post shows our house and the wall over a hundred years ago.)

So each spring I hop over the wall and mend the wall. Actually these days I don’t do much hopping anymore. Instead I take the long way around the wall and trespass on our neighbor’s property. Then I hoist the boulders back into place. The heaviest ones I leave for my sons to help me lift. As I look down to the base of the wall, I see that in previous years I never got around to some of the heaviest stones. They are slowly sinking into the detritus in the yard below.

The wall is a metaphor. Frost undoubtedly had profound things in mind concerning the walls that separate people and peoples. That aspect is easy enough to apply to the walls – both physical and otherwise - between nations, races, ethnic groups, religions, and political parties today. Yet such lofty thoughts are not where my mind goes during this wall-mending season.

I am thinking more personally about change. Everything changes. Time pulls down all the stone walls I see along the country roads where I live. I take a hike in the woods, and I see the remnants of stone walls that used to separate properties many years ago. I sometimes spot stone cellar holes where houses like mine once stood. Houses fall like walls.

Things change. Everything falls apart. Entropy reigns in the natural world. For that reason I guess I should not be surprised that the American experiment seems to be falling apart. Our society is tearing at the seams like an old shirt. If I was a better student of history I would have expected this.

Our bodies fall apart as we age. We lug them to physicians to patch them, but then another part fails. Conversations with friends turn into “organ recitals.” We list the bodily organs that are failing at the moment. We complain about the quality of our joints. And I am not referring to the cannabis variety that New Hampshire is considering legalizing! At a certain age ailments are seldom fixed permanently. They are just added to the list of physical nuisances we learn to live with.

Something there is that doesn’t love order. It tends to disorder. That is the way of this material world. That is the way of our lives. The good news is that contemplating change leads us to ponder the Changeless. Although time passes, we still feel like the same person we were as children, teens or young adults. Sure, we recognize changes to our minds as well as our bodies, but we intuitively sense that our essence is changeless. I am reminded of that whenever I see an old friend. I view them as young people in disguise.

The 19th century hymn “Abide with Me” is a meditation on such change. The second stanza ends:

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

These days I focus on that which changes not. It puts the landscape of life in perspective.

Friday, May 19, 2023

A Whispering God

I just finished reading an adventure novel entitled Relic by T. S. Falk. It reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie, complete with an archeology student, evil Nazis, and a buried ancient artifact, just like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The dashing adventurer was adventuring in the Amazon basin escorted by a local guide. Around the campfire the guide tells the story of his father, also a guide, who years earlier was rescued in the jungle by an indigenous tribe that had never seen an outsider. He stayed with the tribe for months.

This tribe had a deity named Antaku, known as the Whisperer. When the elders of the tribe needed to know the Divine will, they would go into the jungle and spend days just listening. “Listen to the wind in the trees out here long enough and you hear them whisper. They believed this to be a God speaking to them in a language they had long forgotten.” 

His father went with the tribe to listen to God, but was bored after a couple of hours. But he had nothing else to do, so he listened with them. In time he could hear the whisper of God. The guide said that years later his father used to go off by himself and listen to the Whisperer. One day this father disappeared and was never seen again. He liked to think that his father is in the jungle listening to the Whispering God.

Last Sunday our pastor told the story of Elijah in the cave at Mt. Horeb, the mountain of God. The prophet was seeking God. She retold the famous account of wind, earthquake and fire battering the mountainside. The story says that God was not in these noisy manifestations. Then there was “a still, small voice.” God was in this still small voice. Another translation says it was “a sound of sheer silence.” The version I was using in church called it “a gentle whisper.” This is the Whispering God.

While listening to the sermon, my mind wandered. (Sorry, Deb!) But in a good way. My mind went to the story of the Garden of Eden, where it says that Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I imagined the soft tread of divine footsteps in the undergrowth of paradise. I imagined the voice of God speaking to our primordial parents in the wind.

This is the way God speaks to me. In soft silence. I sit on my back porch (as I am now), and I hear lots of noises: automobiles driving by, carpenters building a barn down the street, my wife talking on the phone inside the house. Beneath all the noises is the sound of the wind blowing from the north, rustling the foliage of the trees as it passes through. In that breeze is the voice of God.

Speaking about spiritual transformation, Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Okay, that was before modern meteorology, but you get his point.  It helps to know that the word translated “wind” can also be translated spirit or breath. (Where did Dylan say the answer is?) There is both a mystery and an answer in the silence, in the wind, and in the breath.

I watched a segment on the local news the other day about a young man who had grown up in the foster care system of New York City. He had a hard life and was headed in the wrong direction. But a couple adopted him when he was a teenager. His adoptive father taught him to meditate – to follow the breath – and it changed his life. His life came together. He graduated from college and is now a meditation instructor, teaching foster kids to meditate.

Silence is the whisper of God. God speaks most clearly to me in silence. In the silence of the woods when I am out of earshot of any road. In the sound of a mountain stream. On a mountaintop. At the lake at dawn. In the beat of my heart during contemplative prayer. In the rhythm my breath.

I love silence. I do not like noise. My wife can attest to this. She likes listening to music in our home; I shut it off whenever I can. I seldom listen to music outside of worship. I like silence even while traveling long distances in our car. I can drive for three days to Florida and never put on the radio. My wife … not so much.

The old song says that silence is golden. For me silence is divine. It holds the voice of God. God’s whisper is clearer than the voice of my mind. God is in the silence. For me there is no need for words during prayer. God is the Word before words – beyond words. God is the still small voice, the gentle whisper when all voices die away.  Jesus knew this. He often went off by himself to listen in silence. His followers learned from him. God’s people are God-whisperers.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

The Forgotten Treasure of the Church

It reads like a segment of Antiques Roadshow. A recent article in the New York Times told the story of a forgotten treasure discovered in a church. (May 11, Sold for a Song, a Church’s Windows Turned Out to Be Tiffany). Last autumn two stained glass windows were sold by a West Philadelphia congregation to an antique collector from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the time of the sale, neither party knew what they were or their value.

The dilapidated Gothic Revival building, built in 1901 by St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, was in bad shape. The new owner, the Emmanuel Christian Center, was renovating the rundown property. They wanted to convert the space into a modern worship center and youth center. The old church windows did not fit their vision. They were located high in the old stone building, covered in dirt and soot. They had to go.

The pastor looked at the windows to assess their value. They were cracked and covered in mold and grime. In his opinion they were not salvageable. So the church decided to demolish the two old windows. Reluctant to take a sledgehammer to them, the salvager asked an antique collector if he was interested. So the church sold the two eight-foot diameter rose windows to the antique collector for $6000. The collector spent an additional $15,000 to have them removed.

The collector then took them to an appraiser, who identified them as Tiffany glass. He spent another $50,000 to have them restored. On May 18 they go up for auction at an estimated value of $150,000 to $250,000 each. Needless to say the pastor of the church is kicking himself. The money from those windows could have paid for the renovation in full. “I feel embarrassed that I did not know,” He said.

This is a parable of the Christian church today. The church has a treasure, and it doesn’t know it. This treasure is the spiritual teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. It has been neglected and ignored by the church. It has been covered in the mold and grime of centuries. Some of the worst filth has accumulated during the last century.

Fundamentalism has obscured the message with legalism and literalism in the last hundred years. Evangelicalism has buried the teaching of Jesus under politics and built sterile, windowless worship centers. In recent years Christian Nationalism has been slinging so much mud that the treasure can barely be seen. Not to mention the church sex abuse and financial scandals, which have tarnished the reputation of the gospel.

When people look at the Church today, they no longer see Jesus. They no longer hear about this spiritual treasure. They no longer see the Life, Light, and Love of God. They see a political and social agenda, coupled with immorality, prejudice, anger, and intolerance. For those reasons people want nothing to do with it. Consequently the church is declining rapidly.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest non-Catholic denomination, recently reported that it lost nearly half a million members last year – the most in over a century of record-keeping. It has lost over a million members in the last three years. Membership is at its lowest number since the 1970’s. Other denominations are in worse condition.

This is happening because Christianity has forgotten its treasure. The teachings of Jesus are out of sight and out of mind. Yet the treasure is still present, if we have eyes to see. It can still be discerned in the words of Jesus in the gospels, if we have ears to hear. 

This treasure was proclaimed by Jesus, but it was already ancient in his time. He told the story of a farmer who uncovered buried treasure in his field while plowing. He told the story of a pearl merchant who discovered a priceless pearl at a booth in an open market. Jesus called this treasure the Kingdom of God.

Some still see this eternal gospel. It still shines with divine glory. If we restore this treasure to its proper place in Christianity, the church can shine like a light in a dark world, like a city set on a hill. Those were Jesus’ words. 

This message of Jesus is written in red letters to make it easy to find. For decades Bible publishers have printed “Red Letter” editions of the New Testament. The words of Jesus are printed in red ink as opposed to the black type of the surrounding text. In these red letters lay the church’s treasure.

The gospel of Jesus is different from the gospel of the church. It is not a gospel about Jesus. That is later church tradition. The gospel of Jesus is found in the words of Jesus. It is not a gospel of doctrines and dogma, laws and rules. It is not a worldview. It is not a philosophy or religion. It is Reality. 

When the church ceased to listen to Jesus and began to talk about Jesus, it began covering the gospel with layers of tradition that eventually obscured it completely. It buried Christ all over again. Yet Christ will not stay buried. Life finds a way. That is what resurrection is about.

You will not hear this gospel of Jesus preached on Christian radio stations. Televangelists do not broadcast it. Evangelical churches do not proclaim it. Most mainline churches do not teach it. Christian bestsellers do not expound it. Few seminaries mention it. Most churches would not recognize it if it were preached from their pulpits.  

Yet some people can still hear it. The heavens and earth proclaim it. It is difficult to describe in human words. That is why Jesus told stories rather than give lectures. You can discover it for yourself by reading the red letters. When you hear it, it will upend your life. This message of the Kingdom of God will only be believed when it is seen. Seeing is believing. So I invite you – as Jesus did – to “come and see” for yourself. This is the greatest treasure the world has ever known.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Dystopia Now

My eldest son recently sent me a photo of a notice posted in the window of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Florida. It reads: “Please note: The Post-apocalyptical Fiction section has been moved to Current Affairs.” I laughed out loud.  I am sure that the store manager considered it as a joke, but it contains more truth than we like to admit. That is why it is funny … and sad.

I enjoy dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels. I am reading one now: The House at the End of the World by Dean Koontz. In recent months I read two such books by Stephen King: The Stand (all 1348 pages!) and The Long Walk. These days I often feel like I am living in a dystopian novel. This sense of unreality is reinforced as the 2024 presidential election is lining up to be a repeat of 2020. It is déjà vu all over again.

Political dysfunction is at an all-time high. Mass shootings and hate crimes are out of control. Racism and anti-Semitism are becoming socially acceptable. People spout anti-LGBTQ and misogynic rhetoric as signs of righteousness. Anti-democracy sentiment masquerades as patriotism. Confederate flags are paraded as pro-American. Lies are knowingly repeated in order to advance the cause.

Conspiracy theories are increasingly crazy. Yet people believe them. What makes this especially disturbing is that my fellow Christians are particularly vulnerable to conspiracy thinking. I guess that is not surprising. Religions require members to believe all sorts of incredible things without historical or scientific evidence. They call that faith. It is not the faith I know. To me it is plain old gullibility. Once we place our uncritical trust in religious, political or media authorities, then we accept all kinds of strange ideas unquestioningly.

Gullibility and deception are not the sole possessions of the religious or political Right. The Left has more than its share. Anyone can be deceived. If we think we are immune to deception, then we are really deceived! We all depend for our information on others. We do not have the time, resources or expertise to test every claim. That makes us vulnerable to the errors and deceptions of others. That is true of politics these days. It is true of religion. When those two are combined it is doubly dangerous!

We live in a dystopian world, and it is getting worse. Dystopian fiction feels eerily normal. The Post-apocalyptical Fiction section has moved to Current Affairs. The dysfunction has gotten more obvious in recent years because current affairs have become so cartoonish. Who could have predicted our present situation as a nation? Who could have predicted the caricature that pop Christianity has become?

What is the solution? I hesitate to say it because it sounds like a cliché, but we need God. Hear me out. What is needed is spiritual transformation. I do not think it will do any good to double down on religious-political activism. The social gospel of both the right and left are failures. The dualism of “us versus them” has gotten us into this mess. There is no trust between the two sides any more. There is no common ethic, except that “anything goes.” There is a need for a spiritual gospel that transcends divisions.

What is needed is a genuine spiritual vision of the unity that underlies all humanity. I am not talking about tired ecumenism or inter-faith dialogues. We need no more refrains of Kumbaya or We Shall Overcome. I am talking about people experiencing firsthand the divine unity that underlies all creation. That Ground of Being is the bedrock of Reality. Such an “indivisible” union is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance but left unrealized in American history. Only if society is built on this unity can it survive the coming storms. The thunderclouds are already on the horizon.

Does that solution sound too utopian? Probably. I am under no illusion that this will actually happen. History is not on my side. The darkness is great. I do not expect more than a few souls to transcend the dualism that grips the human psyche. But all it takes is a few. It takes only a small flame to dispel darkness. It takes only a little leaven to raise the whole lump of dough. Jesus used these metaphors to describe the coming of the Kingdom of God. We have tried “an eye for an eye,” and it has only made the whole world blind. Perhaps we should give Jesus’ teachings a chance.  

Friday, April 21, 2023

Living in a Primary World

Vacationing gives one a different perspective on life. That is why we do it. We “vacate” our normal world and enter another. Visiting Florida is different from living in New Hampshire. For example there are the governors - DeSantis and Sununu. Both are Republican governors, but they could not be more different. But I won’t get into that. This post is not about politics. Nor is it about the upcoming Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire, which I am already getting robocalls about. It is about the primary world that lays behind this secondary one.

I have recently read three novels that picture another world behind the ordinary one. The most recent is Fairy Tale by Stephen King. The teenage protagonist discovers another world hidden behind the door of a shed in his neighbor’s backyard. Presently I am reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. It pictures another world beneath London, accessed through doors by a girl named Door. The Night Shift by Natalka Burian has a similar theme. It takes place in New York City, where there are doors that are shortcuts to other parts of the city. These shortcuts change your world.

In all these books the alternate universe is entered the same way that the Pevensie children entered Narnia in C. S. Lewis’ books. Through a door. To enter the realm of Aslan one walked through the door of the wardrobe in the spare room. These books awaken the ancient memory that there is more to life than what most people realize.

Jesus spoke of such an alternative realm. He called it the Kingdom of God. He called himself the Door. He spoke of seeing this Kingdom and entering it. I see it all the time no matter where I am. It is always here now. I remember glimpses of it from childhood when the world was magical and summer was endless. I see it here in the natural beauty of the Florida coast in springtime. God’s presence is seen in the sparkling of the ocean, the swaying of the palm trees, and the gentle presence of wildlife.

There is the physical world, and there is the spiritual world. Most people consider the physical world as real and the spiritual world as less substantial. I see it as just the opposite. The physical world is transient. It is without form and substance. Everything changes constantly. 

The deeper one looks scientifically at the subatomic level the more we discover there are no “things” at all. There is only change. Mountains rise and fall. Climates change. Bodies are born, age and die. Species come and go, including our short-lived human species. Planets are born and die. But the Kingdom of God is eternal.

The Eternal is the primary world. The physical world is secondary. Much like Plato’s allegory of the cave, this physical world is a world of shadows. The eternal world is one of sight and light. Yet the Eternal is glimpsed through the temporary. Every part of this world is translucent to the Spiritual. All creation shines with the glory of Heaven. Every living thing reflects Divine Life. “Earth's crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”

The Kingdom of God is my home. This physical world – and this temporary physical body - are just fleeting manifestations of my Eternal home. Some people yearn for heaven. I don’t. Why would I yearn for what I already have – or more accurately – what already has me? Heaven is all around me, shining through every inch of this world! The Kingdom of God is within me, just as Jesus said.  All one has to do is notice.

There is an old gospel song that says, “This world is not my home I'm just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” That may be true for those who picture heaven as beyond the sky and who cannot see the shores of heaven from where they stand on earth. But for me heaven kisses earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is within arm’s reach. The Kingdom of God is “at hand,” just as Jesus said. I stand on the shores of the crystal sea now, and heaven’s treasures are all around me, as they always are.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

No Room at the Beach

I tried to go the Easter Sunrise service today. I really did. I got up at 5:50 AM, took a shower and drove to the beach, arriving a half hour before the outdoor worship service was scheduled to begin. I thought that would be early enough. It wasn’t. Hundreds of other people had the same idea earlier than I did. By the time we arrived, there was no room at the beach. There was not a parking space to be found.

It felt like the “no room at the inn” Christmas story all over again. The main beach parking lot was full. So were the lots further away. So were every space along the streets. We drove up and down the narrow streets for another twenty minutes looking for any available parking spaces. Many other vehicles were doing the same thing. By then it was drizzling, and the wind was picking up (gusts up to 20 mph), so we headed back to our rented condo.

We walked out to our own completely deserted beach, and arrived at exactly the time of sunrise: 7:05. There was no sun to be seen because of the clouds (as you can tell from the photo.) The waves were crashing and the wind was blowing. Yet my wife and I sang Easter hymns, read the Easter story from the Gospel of John, and shouted to the winds, “Christ is risen!”

It was one of the nicest sunrise services ever. We realized that if we had been sitting in our lawn chairs a few miles down the beach, huddled in our sweatshirts against the wind, with sand blowing in our faces, surrounded by hundreds of people, amps blaring, singing religious pop songs we did not know, unable to hear what was being said, we would have been miserable.

Yet at our own beach we were worshipping the risen Christ with joy.  It was an Alleluia moment. If I had thought of it, I would have read the gospel story of the risen Christ having breakfast at the beach with a few of his disciples. That is what it felt like. Spiritual food for Easter-loving souls. Following our service we went to the only restaurant nearby that was open and had a pancake breakfast. Plus we were there early enough to beat the Easter crowd!

It just goes to show that things always turn out the way they should, even though it doesn’t seem so at the time. It is all a matter of whether we can see it. That is what the story of Easter is about. Friday was a disaster for the early followers of Jesus. Saturday was depressing. Sunday dawned with tears and fears. But as Sunday progressed a greater truth was revealed. It was simply a matter of whether his followers had eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the same this Easter. Christ is risen indeed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Holy Weekness

It is Holy Week, and I find myself in Florida once again. For that reason I have not been able to attend worship with my church back home in New Hampshire during most of this Lenten season. We have tried attending churches here in Florida, but so far we have not found one that is both theologically and physically welcoming. By that I mean both open-minded and scent-free.

I am senstive to many manmade chemicals and artificial fragrances. Unfortunately I passed that trait on to my daughter, who gets severe migraines when exposed to chemical odors. She can’t step foot inside a church in western Pennsylvania. I can tolerate low levels. But my, how these Floridians love their colognes and perfumes! I can barely see the preacher through the haze.

One time we tried a scented church in Florida; it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded and smelly. We sat in the balcony because there were less people. It was like sitting in a “non-smoking section” (remember those?) back when people pretended secondhand smoke would stay in its assigned part of the room. At another church we walked out during the worship service, explaining the reason for our departure to the ushers on the way out.

The last time we tried an in-person service here we ended up sitting behind a glass wall in the entryway with the ushers. They set up special chairs for us. I appreciated the effort, but it felt like we were sitting at the back of the bus. 

Last Sunday I really wanted to attend a Palm Sunday service in person. I searched online for the possibilities and decided on a nearby Methodist church that looked sparsely attended. I even noticed that some people were wearing masks, which was a good sign. But we changed our mind at the last minute. For this reason we have been worshiping online or privately for most of Lent.

Nevertheless we have been observing Lent. I find symbols of Lent in nature. Palm trees fill the grounds of the condo complex where we are staying. The trees waved their palm branches on Palm Sunday, as I joined in singing Hosanna. As I walk the beach each day I imagine the Via Dolorosa that Jesus traveled on his way to the cross. He suffers today with all those who suffer in the world. “As you have not done it to the least of these, you have not done it to me.”

I will not be attending Maundy Thursday Service or Good Friday Service in a church building this week, but I will be observing Holy Week nonetheless. Holy Week is a state of mind. It is an identification with the life, death and resurrection of the Crucified and Risen One. When we realize our identity in Christ, we join with him in the suffering of the cross and the joy of resurrection.

On Easter Sunday we plan to attend an outdoor sunrise service on the beach. People can wear all the scent they want. (And they do!) But it is manageable. The salt breeze blows most of it away. We attended this service last year, so we know it is conducted by an evangelical ministry in a style I call Pop Christianity. That type of theology and music are not my first choice, but I am attending nonetheless. For the Risen Lord will be there on the beach, just as he was two thousand years ago.   

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Lenten Loophole

Although a staunch atheist, early 20th century comedian W. C. Fields was known to collect and study books on theology. On one occasion fellow actor Thomas Mitchell came to visit him and caught him reading a Bible. When asked why he was reading it, Fields replied, “Looking for loopholes.” This Lenten season I am thanking God for a loophole in the Lenten custom of “giving up something for Lent.”

Lent is a time when Christians traditionally fast from some food or activity for forty days in remembrance of Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness. This Lent I decided to give up desserts. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My wife gave up potato chips. Salty things are her weakness. Mine is sweets. I tell people I am sweet, and she is salty. (Actually it is the other way around!)

I renounced all types of desserts – pies, cake, cookies, puddings, and even ice cream. That decision was made when I was snowbound in New Hampshire, where it is easy to avoid ice cream stands in the winter. They are all closed. Now deep into Lent I find myself in sunny Florida surrounded by open ice cream stands, and they are calling my name. Lucky for me I am a preacher, and I know a loophole. I knew about it when I made the vow.

Lent is the 40 day period that begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday. But when you count the days on a calendar you will find there are actually 46 days between these holidays. Many Christians do not realize that Lent does not include Sundays. Sundays are considered “feast days” in the midst of the forty “fast days” of Lent. Sundays are oases in the wilderness of Lent. For that reason Sundays are said to be “in Lent” and not “of Lent.” In contrast, in December Sundays are marked “of Advent.”

In other words Sundays do not count when it comes to Lenten fasting. In the same spirit Muslims fast for a month during the holy season of Ramadan, but only during the daylight hours. Every evening they break the fast with the Iftar meal, eaten at sunset. Likewise I can break my fast with ice cream every Sunday while basking in the Florida sun! But only on Sundays. And today is Sunday! Alleluia! (Oh, sorry. That is another rule. You can’t say alleluia between Ash Wednesday and Easter – not even on Sunday.)

The reason I am writing about loopholes is to reveal how deceptive the heart is. There is a story in the Gospel of Mark where the Pharisees were self-righteously condemning Jesus’ disciples for not ritually washing their hands before they ate. Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites for putting religious traditions above God’s commandments. He pointed to the example of a man who found a loophole in the commandment to honor your father and mother. The man learned that if he declared his resources “corban” (devoted to God) he did not have to use them to care for his parents. Jesus said, “Many such things you do.”

Religion is filled with rules and traditions! They are often used to avoid God. In this way Christianity has often fallen into legalism and hypocrisy. The self (or ego) naturally acts in a selfish manner. The self wants what the self wants, and it will find any excuse to get what it wants. There is no way to tame the egoic self, regardless of how many vows we take. Vows only serve to reveal how unruly the self is. The only permanent solution is the death of the self.

That is the meaning of the cross. The mystics say we are to “die before we die.” In this spirit Jesus taught us to deny the self, take up the cross and follow him. But until our physical death we have to put up with this “body of death,” as the apostle Paul calls it. We carry this selfish self around with us like an unruly pet. 

Buddhists call it the monkey mind. I affectionately call it my pet ape. (We are zoologically apes, after all.) Paul called it the flesh or the “old man.” We keep it on a leash, but sometimes it breaks free and runs like a puppy free of its lead. In my case it heads directly for the nearest homemade ice cream stand. “Chocolate chip cone, please!”

I know my pet ape well. I know its limits. It does not like fasts and fights against them. I have learned that I do best during Lent when I observe the feast days in the midst of the fast days. These Sundays “in Lent” are known in Christianity as “little Easters.” These mini-Easters make Lent doable, just like the big Easter makes life livable.  By celebrating “little Easters” I can celebrate Easter Sunday with the joy of knowing I kept my Lenten vow, rather than feel guilty for failing to keep it. In short, be gentle – yet firm – with your pet ape. After all, it is only human. 

Sunday, March 5, 2023

The Salvation of Words

Words save our lives, sometimes.” Neil Gaiman wrote those words in the Acknowledgements section of his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is a wonderful book by the way. Let me give you his full quote: “In Sarasota, Florida, Stephen King reminded me of the joy of just writing every day. Words save our lives, sometimes.” That has been true in my life.

I have loved words ever since I got a poem published in my high school’s literary magazine. To see my words in print was magical, and the magic never ceased. I was the photography editor, proofreader, and occasional reporter for the school newspaper. I had the English grammar textbook memorized. Since then I have learned that it is as important to know when to break the rules, as when to follow them.

Looking back, I can see that this love of words was influential in becoming a preacher. Pastors’ stock-in-trade is words, whether they are words proclaimed from the pulpit or words spoken privately to a parishioner in time of need. Preachers know better than most what words can do ... and what they can’t.

Occasionally people ask me why I am still giving weekly talks on my YouTube channel and podcast during retirement. I respond that it was not a decision. It is just what I do naturally. The sun shines, the wind blows, and a preacher preaches. You can take the preacher out of the pulpit but you can’t take the pulpit out of the preacher.

One thing has changed. I now prefer the webcam to the pulpit. I seldom preach in a church anymore. Only at the church where I am a member. Not only do I reach more people via the internet, it is much more comfortable to wear a flannel shirt while sitting in front of my computer than to wear a suit while standing behind a pulpit.  Plus the hours are better.

Retirement gives me time to write. I write every day – just like Stephen King. Well, not just like Stephen King, but I write. If I am not writing podcasts, blogs, books and the occasional sermon, then I am replying to emails from people around the world, asking me about my podcast, blog or books. Words save me. I would not know what I am thinking if it were not for writing. Some people write down their thoughts. I write before I think … in a good way.

For example, I had no idea what this blog post would be about. I just finished Neil Gaiman’s book a couple of days ago and was inspired by the quote: “Words save our lives, sometimes.” I did not know where the quote would take me, but I started writing. 

As I write, words come gushing forth. It is like the kitchen pump in my grandparents’ old cottage on Bow Lake in New Hampshire when I was a boy. A cup of water was always sitting by the kitchen sink, used for priming the pump. A few words prime the imagination, and words gush forth like water.

In recent years I have learned that words are inadequate for what I most wish to communicate. Words barely touch the surface of life. They are only ripples on the surface of consciousness. The same is true of thoughts and beliefs. They do not touch the depths. Words and ideas are fabrications of the mind. Doctrines and theology can do no more than point to truth that is deeper than words.

Truth is inexpressible. For that reason theology cannot capture God. It is a substitute for God. Far below the surface is the wordless reservoir of Divine Reality which no preacher can speak of. We can only direct people to this Reality using “groans too deep for words” as the apostle says.

Lao Tzu says, “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao.” He also says in the Tao Te Ching, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.” Those who speak and actually believe what they say are doubly deceived. As Christian mystic Bernadette Roberts said, “Truth is unbelievable.”

It is fine to have beliefs. I have many beliefs, but I don’t take them too seriously. At best they are approximations of reality, mental constructions created by the mind to make sense of what is incomprehensible. They are words. They are beautiful words, but words nonetheless. But they point to what is beyond words. As such, words can save our lives … sometimes.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Revival and Presence

I have been following with fascination the spontaneous religious revival that has broken out at Asbury University near Lexington, Kentucky. It began at a regular chapel service on February 8, but when the service was over the students didn’t leave. They stayed to worship, day and night, for twelve days, until the college administration made a decision to gradually wind down the revival this week. It will be interesting to see if God – and the students - go along with the university president’s plan!

I know a little bit about Kentucky and revivals. I attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970’s at a time when revivals were commonplace in Baptist life. While in seminary, my first position was as a part-time pastor in a small Baptist congregation in Kentucky. At my first fulltime church in Southern Illinois we used to conduct revivals. These multi-day events featured a visiting evangelist and “special music.”

One revival I hosted at my church was preached by a good friend who was the pastor of a Baptist church in a neighboring town. I later reciprocated by preaching a revival at his church. This friend is now the head of a large international ministry called Global Awakening that does revivals around the world, focusing on healing miracles.

The Asbury revival is different from many religious revivals that have swept across our country in past centuries. There are no special effects. No miracles, at least of the physical kind. There is very little preaching. This revival is neither sermon-centered nor music-centered. There is music, of course, but it is mostly an acoustic background for prayer, worship, and personal transformation.

This revival – from what I can discern from the testimonies of people interviewed - is centered on the presence of God. One participant made the insightful observation that it is not about emotion or religious experience; it is about the presence of God. Participants speak about sensing the glory of God and the “palpable” presence of God. If this is true, then I respond with a hearty “AMEN!”

Christianity needs to recover a sense of the presence of God. This country needs to know the presence of God. The Presence of God is the gospel that I preach. I may use different words and ideas to describe this Presence than the students at this Wesleyan-Holiness school. My stand on ethical and social issues may be different from those held by the majority of participants.

But that is alright. We agree that there is a need for the immediacy and power of God’s Presence. If the sense of Divine Presence at this revival is genuine, then doctrine and ethics will sort out themselves later. Speaking of ethics, past revivals have been influential in changing American society. I am waiting to see if such change results from this revival.

The Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century fueled the abolitionist movement and helped end slavery in America. It also empowered the temperance movement. This Asbury revival could possibly do something similar in our day by combatting racism and addictions. Only time will tell if this revival bears such fruit.

Undoubtedly people will try to coopt this revival for their own religious, political or social agendas. Personally my only agenda is that people recognize and embrace the Presence of God. I don’t care what spiritual tradition this Presence is expressed through. Different religions express Divine Presence in different ways. The Wesleyan-Holiness tradition expresses it through revivals, as evidenced in the history of revivals at this college. Other Christian traditions and non-Christian traditions express Presence differently.

God knows no religious barriers. Truth is not the possession of any one religion. I pray this revival might transcend religious tribalism. That would be truly miraculous! I hope this revival transforms American Christianity in a way that those in Kentucky cannot imagine. I hope it transforms America in a way I cannot imagine! However this Asbury revival plays out, I am just grateful that people are focusing on the Presence of God.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Jesus’ Vision for the Church

It seems like every other month I am reading about the demise of the Christian Church in the United States. The most recent article was in The Guardian, entitled Losing Their Religion: Why US Churches Are on the Decline.  They all say pretty much the same thing: the Christian Church is losing members rapidly, and the pandemic accelerated this trend.

Some Christian leaders are asking tough questions about what Christians can do to stanch the flow of members and church closures. My longtime friend, Dwight Moody, has been asking such questions regularly for the past couple of years. He has a podcast and YouTube channel called The Meetinghouse, subtitled Conversations on Religion and American Life.

He is very concerned about the influence of extremist forms of Christianity. He is searching for an authentic form of Christianity that will counteract this trend and revive the Church. In a recent email to me he phrased it this way: “What version of Christian faith and practice will present to the modern world (or even to the Christian community) a coherent and compelling vision for human life?”

Jesus has such a vision for the Church. My recognition of this vision came after my departure from evangelicalism and subsequently going beyond progressive Christianity into a mystical spirituality rooted in the teachings of Jesus. It is the ancient and eternal gospel. It is a gospel of union with God.

Christianity is declining because it is old and sick. It is deathly ill. It has a terminal illness. The stench of death is evident in the Church’s never-ending scandals, noxious rhetoric, and the cancerous growth of Christian Nationalism. The death knell of the church rings in the anti-intellectual dogma and culture-war mentality of Pentecostals and Evangelicals.

That is why younger generations are abandoning the Church at an increasing rate. Americans – young and old - are spiritually hungry, but they are not finding spiritual nourishment in the church. When they step inside a church they find either tired traditionalism or mind-numbing fundamentalism, so they turn elsewhere. 

They look to other spiritual traditions or to nonreligious philosophies. They look to meditation, mindfulness, Buddhism, and yoga. They look to humanism or atheism. Meanwhile the Church conducts business as usual as if it were the twentieth century, doubling down on outmoded forms of evangelism or gimmicky outreach programs.

There is a way back from this bleak picture of Christian stagnation. There can be a resurrection of the Church, but only if it is willing to die to be reborn. What is needed is a fresh look at the spiritual core of Jesus’ message without the later centuries of tradition. A “red-letter” Christianity, a gospel based on the words – and spiritual experience - of Jesus rather than endless words and doctrines about Jesus.

This fresh approach to Christianity is centered on direct spiritual awareness of the Divine that is willing to offend traditional religious sensibilities, just like Jesus did. It is willing to pay the price, just like Jesus did.

Spiritual experience was the original attraction of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. That is why they were successful. But that was before they sold their souls to emotionalism and anti-intellectualism. Likewise Evangelicalism was originally founded on a personal encounter with the living Christ. Now it has devolved into a dogmatic religion with a secondhand belief in an imaginary friend.

Christianity only has a future if it lives in the present - in the presence of God that Jesus called the Kingdom of God.  Jesus’ message was a call to the transformation of the human being through union with the Father. We see his vision for his Church voiced in his prayer offered on the night before he died. He prayed:

“that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. “

That “oneness” with God and each another is Jesus’ hope for the church. It is firsthand communion with God and Christ that manifests in tangible Christian unity. This can only happen when the Church proclaims an authentic message that originates from genuine spiritual awareness.

Then God will pour out the Spirit on “all people.” “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That is Jesus’ vision for his Church.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Girl in the Photo

In 1927 my maternal grandfather built a house in Danvers, Massachusetts, on the same street where I later grew up. In 2022 the present owners were doing repairs to the foundation of the house and found personal items hidden in one of the cinder blocks – a sort of time capsule. Thinking they might belong to my family, they turned the items over to my sister who now lives next door. Knowing I was the family genealogist, she mailed the items to me.

They consisted of a pair of eyeglasses wrapped in two pieces of cloth in a hard case, a small hand mirror, and a tiny (1¼ inch square) photo of a young girl with a dark ribbon in her hair. On the cloth was imprinted the name of an optician in Salem, Massachusetts. This is the city where my grandparents lived before they built this house in the neighboring town of Danvers.

The glasses were the type called pince-nez, a style of glasses popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  These glasses have a hole in one of the lenses, which at one time held a chain, cord, or ribbon connected to the wearer's clothing. From what I have read children sometimes wore this style of spectacles, although the girl in the photo did not have them on.

Anyway I have been pondering the items ever since I received them, although I have not been able to identify the girl in the photo or the owner of the other items. I don’t know much about fashions, but the girl’s dress looks like 1920’s attire to me. I don’t think it is a picture of my mother. I have seen photos of her as a child and this does not look like her.

It is possible that the photo is her sister Mary, who was born in 1917 and died of influenza as a teenager in 1934. That would make her age 10 when the house was built. The girl in the photograph looks younger than that, but perhaps the photo was taken earlier. It has been a long time since I have seen a picture of my aunt, but if I had to guess, I do not think it is her either.

So I am left to wonder who this girl in the photo is. Why were this photograph and these spectacles hidden away in the foundation of my grandfather’s house? Who put these items in cinder block? The little girl? My aunt? My mother? My grandparents? My great-grandparents who lived nearby? Is the photo of another girl entirely, perhaps the daughter of the man who laid this block in the foundation?

After having these items in my possession for weeks, I am no closer to knowing the answers to these questions. Yet this photo has been a gift to me nonetheless. It has helped me travel back in time. The personality of this little girl shines through the photo. One can easily imagine what she may have been thinking and feeling as her picture was taken.

Even more striking is the consciousness that comes through the photo. I look into those eyes and recognize the one looking out at me. I do not know her name, but I recognize what is behind the eyes. She is life. Although she is long dead, she is alive. The consciousness I see in her eyes is the same consciousness I see in every child and adult. I recognize this consciousness in myself.

We are the same. We share the same divine life. Genesis says that God breathed God's divine breath (the Hebrew word can also be translated “spirit”) into the primordial human. It is called the “breath of life.” It is the same breath in my lungs. It is the same spirit in me. It is the Life of God. Jesus knew this life. He is this Life. 

When debating with some Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death, Jesus quotes the words of God to Moses at the burning bush: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." He then said to the Sadducees, “You are badly mistaken! God is not the God of the dead but of the living!” 

Some people believe there is nothing beyond human earthly existence, that our participation in God's eternal life is just a myth. Look into the eyes of this little girl, and she will convince you otherwise.