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.