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.