Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Losing My Library

When I was nine years old I fractured three vertebrae in a fall, and I had to take it easy to allow them to heal properly. So that summer I read books. Lots of books. I remember reading Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on the lawn outside my house. I think that gave me respect for Twain’s unconventional views on religion later in life.

In seventh grade I struggled in Ancient History class. To keep from failing the class, the teacher said I could read books for extra credit. Each book earned me one extra point added to my grade average. I recall sitting for hours in our finished basement reading about the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East. That paved the way for my later interest in history. While in high school I worked in the school bookstore.

Books have always had an important place in my life. In college and seminary I surrounded myself with academic volumes. My dorm rooms and apartments were lined with bookshelves. Theological books played a major role during my spiritual search in college and while training to be pastor in seminary. I accumulated books - and bookshelves - while in ministry. In Pennsylvania our finished basement had wall-to-wall books.

My church office always held lots of books: biblical commentaries, theological tomes, and practical books on pastoral ministry. I was proud of my personal library. Books meant education, knowledge, expertise and wisdom to me. As a theologian I believed truth could be found in books, especially the “book of books,” the Bible (a word which simply means “book.”) I assumed truth was found in ideas, which were contained in books. My library felt like an extension of my brain. They were my memory.

When I moved back to New Hampshire in 2011 I left almost all my books in Pennsylvania. There was no room for them in our new home. My daughter and her family moved into our previous house, on the condition that I could store my extensive collection downstairs. I figured I could always have access to the books if I really needed them. Then one year water got into the basement. The moisture became mold. My prized theological library turned into mounds of mold. Thousands of dollars of books ended up in a dumpster.

Strangely I didn’t mind too much. By that time my attitude toward books had changed. I no longer depended on them. I still read books. These days I finish about two books a week, which means a hundred a year. I have been here in New Hampshire for twelve years. You can do the math. That doesn’t count all the books I purchased but never read. These books are not stored in bookshelves, but on my Kindle, where I can access them and search within them easily.

I learned something in the process of losing my library. I realized that truth is beyond books. At least spiritual truth is beyond books. Books contain knowledge, and knowledge is good. The trend in our nation to ban and censor books in school libraries is one of the surest signs that our culture is in decay. Without free access to uncensored books, facts are lost, ideologues win, and our culture will descend into a new Dark Ages.

As important as books are to a society, they do not contain the deepest spiritual truth. That type of truth can only we found by direct experience. At best spiritual truth can be pointed to by those who have found it. Books can only point obliquely to this Reality that is beyond words. 

Jesus called it the Kingdom of God. He pointed to it using parables, which are stories, metaphors and similes. Spiritual truth is not something you possess. It possesses you. It is not something you understand; you understand all things by it. It is like light, which was one of Jesus’ metaphors. You do not see light, but see things by light. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

Spiritual wisdom is alive and active. It is not passive, waiting for someone to take it off the shelf. For me the best books point beyond ideas to the Source of all ideas. These books point beyond books. I find such books to be timeless. They direct us to truths beyond religious traditions and norms. Usually these spiritual books are old books. I find that the best of these are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old.

Sometimes they are written more recently. For example I am presently reading a book that was written in 1939. That is ancient history to those generations who are identified by letters of the alphabet.  Yet these books feel timelier than books written this year. I am discovering – and rediscovering - ancient religious texts of East and West. These old books point to timeless truth that are as valuable today as they were centuries ago. These are the books I value most.

I still read new books for fun.  A lot of fiction: historical novels, adventure, sci-fi, thrillers and mysteries. Every day I read a portion of a spiritual book. Unlike fiction I go through these books slowly to savor them. I no longer feel the need to accumulate facts. I read to learn how to articulate truth that cannot be found in books, expressing old truths in new words. Knowledge changes daily in our fast-paced culture. Truth abides forever. Books grow moldy. Truth is as imperishable as gold. This spiritual gold is what I value most.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Church Notice

Last week my wife and I went to a nearby town to shop at a store known for its tourist merchandise. It carries T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, mugs and other memorabilia that visitors to our state bring home to remind them of their vacation in the Granite State. I was looking for a New Hampshire T-shirt to wear when I am in Florida. I am tired of people thinking I am from Maine or Pennsylvania. My wife was looking for a birthday gift for a ten year-old friend and some greeting cards.

I quickly realized that the shop did not carry what I was looking for (any T-shirt without a moose on it). So I exited the store to wait on a bench until her shopping was done. After a few minutes of sitting I went for a walk. The only other businesses in the plaza was a Post Office and a church. Of course I visited the church.

The name of the church included the words “Open Door,” but the church door was locked. I was to discover just how ironic that name was. Posted on the locked glass door was a notice that made it clear just how closed the church was. I have included a photo of the notice with this post, so I will not repeat it ad nauseam (with the emphasis on the nausea). If you click on the photo, you ought to be able to view a larger version.

In brief it warns any visitors to the church of two important facts. It reads “This church IS NOT a Gun Free Zone” and “This church IS a Drug Free Zone.” It went on to explain that visitors can expect parishioners to be carrying concealed weapons, but anyone carrying concealed drugs will be turned over to the police. How they would discover concealed drugs was not mentioned. There was another sign on the door, which I neglected to photograph. It read: “Everyone Welcome.” That was the humorous one.

Why make these two topics – guns and drugs – the first things that people see as they approach the church?  Are these the most important things about this church? I hope not. The church identifies itself as a “Bible Church,” yet they have chosen to focus on two subjects that are never mentioned in the Bible. Why post this notice at all? What is the purpose of it, except to exclude people – specifically those who believe in gun control and those who are addicted to drugs?

The notice is a barely veiled threat of violence and legal action. Why make threats at all? Is that really the first impression of the church that this congregation wants people to have? Once I got beyond the threats, I surmised that this church was more interested in taking a stand in the culture wars than making people feel welcome at the church.

On a deeper level the sign reeked of fear, not faith. It was written from a place of fear and is meant to elicit fear. This sign is proclaiming that this church space is so dangerous that the members arm themselves to protect themselves from visitors. They also have the local police department on speed dial. This church is obviously not a safe place to bring your family.  They might as well have posted a sign: Visitors Beware!

Perhaps the members of this church have good reasons to be fearful of outsiders. I do not know what has happened at this church in the past. A shooting or drug–dealing on the premises? I suspect that this notice is more rhetoric than reality. I think this notice has more to do with political posturing, because of the mention of the second amendment. It is likely that the spiritual gospel has become so intertwined with a political gospel in this church that the members cannot distinguish one from the other.

There are many churches like this one across our nation. Many of them are much bigger and more influential than this tiny storefront church. Such churches have surrendered to the “spirit of the age” rather than the Holy Spirit. Because of them, Christianity is getting a bad reputation. As the apostle Paul wrote, “The name of God is maligned and blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you!” It is no wonder that people are walking away from churches in droves.

After my wife finished her shopping, we started home. She was happy with her treasure trove of cards that she purchased. I was sad about the church notice that I had seen, and what it says about the state of the American Christianity. When any Christian church feels the need to post such a notice on its front door, it means something is seriously wrong in our country and our religion. God help us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Thank God for Heretics!

I used to call myself an evangelical. I was never a full-fledged fundamentalist. I had too much education – especially in the sciences – to deceive myself into believing that the earth was six thousand years old and created in six days. So I opted for educated evangelicalism. Back in the 1970’s evangelicals were jokingly called “fundamentalists with a college degree.”

After seminary, as I spent the early decades of my career as a Baptist pastor, I continued to believe in the doctrines articulated in the ancient creeds and later confessions of faith.  I saw myself as holding to the historic Christian faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” I was so fervent in my beliefs that I taught classes on the world religions and “cults,” showing how they were false and Christianity was true.

Then I did something dangerous. I read the Bible carefully. I had studied the Bible extensively in seminary, of course, including in the original languages. I exegeted it, preached it and taught it as a pastor for decades. But this time I studied the words of Jesus as if hearing them for the first time – without the filter of later church tradition. That is when I realized that Jesus was not a Christian. He did not teach the doctrines that Christianity considers essential for membership in the Church.

Jesus was a Jew, ethnically and religiously. He attended synagogue and temple. But he was not an “orthodox” Jew, theologically speaking. I am not talking about Orthodox Judaism, which is distinguished from Conservative and Reformed Judaism. I am talking about theology. Jesus was outside mainstream Jewish thought, as represented by Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, rabbis, and “teachers of the Law.”

His teachings were so heterodox that they got him killed. Jesus was “beyond the pale.” He was a heretic. Consequently he was treated the way heretics have historically been treated by the religious establishment. He was verbally condemned and violently killed. The gospels make it clear that the religious leaders of Jerusalem put aside their differences and joined together to have Jesus executed for blasphemy.

Jesus was a heretic by both Jewish and Christian standards. All the distinctive theological doctrines of Christianity that were debated in Church councils and enshrined in creeds and catechisms are not found in the words of Jesus. Plenty of people have tried to read these doctrines back into the words of Jesus, but the most they could find were proof texts taken out of context. Jesus was not a Christian.

When I realized that Jesus was a heretic, I had a choice to make. I decided to follow Jesus rather than Church tradition. As the gospel hymn says, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” I have shared what I learned from Jesus of Nazareth in books, podcasts, and YouTube videos. That has made me a heretic in the eyes of those who define Christianity as a set of “orthodox” doctrines. They say I am not theologically correct. I am alright with that.

I am in good company. Socrates was a heretic who was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens by asking dangerous questions. Gautama Buddha was a heretic, which is why his Hindu homeland rejected his teachings. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own hometown and among his own people,” Jesus said. Every innovative spiritual teacher was considered a heretic in their day.

The heretics of each age take the “road less traveled.” They bushwhack through the undergrowth of their religious tradition to rediscover the priceless jewel at the center of every spiritual tradition. When they proclaim what they found, they are called heretics. Jesus was a heretic, and I am glad he was. Thank God for heretics! They keep truth alive. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Out of Kilter

I have been feeling off-kilter recently. I think the reason is the political rhetoric that is creeping into New Hampshire as the summer winds down and presidential primary season winds up. It feels like a virus is infecting our state’s peace. 

Also the indictment of former President Trump last week has thrown me off balance. This indictment feels different, like a line has been crossed that cannot be uncrossed. This federal indictment is different from the impeachments, and it will have far greater ramifications for our nation.

When I read the news (I no longer watch it on television), it reads like the plot of a political thriller novel or an adventure movie. It doesn’t feel real. I felt the same way on January 6, 2021. This is not something that happens in America. For my entire lifetime the United States of America have seemed so … united. Not perfectly united, of course. After all, I lived through the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. But we were always seeking a “more perfect union” as the preamble to the US Constitution says.

I am not sure Americans are seeking that “more perfect union” any longer. Many people seem to be encouraging the opposite. This feels like a turning point in our nation’s history, and we don’t know what is around the corner. Jesus spoke of a time when “a person's enemies will be the members of their own household.” This feels like that. It feels like the enemy is at the gates. My grandfather fought in the First World War, which was fought “to make the world safe for democracy.” Today I hear politicians denounce democracy as a threat to our nation.

The world feels off-kilter, out-of-balance. Jesus called this condition sin. The word that Christ used in the New Testament does not have the individualistic, moralistic connotations it has today. The word in the gospels means “off the mark” or “falling short.” The word the Buddha used for this condition is similar. It describes an axle that is off-center, so that the wheel is out of balance as it rolls.

That is the way things feel. The wheels of our nation are unaligned, off balance, out of kilter. The world is wobbling on its axis. There is a part of me that wants to set it right again. To realign it. To make the world safe for democracy again. To fight the fascists again. To wage a war for freedom and human rights again, whether that war is rhetorical, at the ballot box, or on the battlefield.

But when I sit with this feeling awhile, I remember that our present situation is just another cycle in history. It is the way of the world. Empires rise and fall. Countries come and go. Many people alive today have experienced their country falling apart. We might be experiencing this now. This could be the beginning of the end of the American experiment and liberal democracy.

The cause of this is human nature. We are a violent species. It is in our genes. Jesus said there will always be wars and rumors of wars. His brother James said that wars arise from the war in the human soul. As long as there are humans there will be violence. It is our nature. It is the original sin, represented better by Cain and Abel than Adam and Eve.

Yet there is another nature, a deeper nature. There is something in us that is more than an ape fighting over territory and resources. There is something in us that is divine. The Bible refers to this true nature as the image of God. This spiritual nature is our true Self. That is where peace dwells. That is where the Kingdom of Heaven dwells, according to Jesus. “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.”

That is why Jesus did not start a violent revolution – or even a non-violent campaign - to overthrow the rule of Rome. When on trial for treason, he said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight…, but My kingdom is not from here.” The Kingdom of God has the balance we seek in a world that is out of balance. Being a citizen of God’s kingdom means to be in the world but not of the world.

Living from this inner shalom is the way true peace comes. Wars sow the seeds of future wars. An eye for an eye just makes the whole world blind. Wars bring only a temporary respite. Something more is needed to bring humankind into balance with the Divine and bring peace to earth. This “something more” is “the peace of God that transcends all human understanding.” As the hymn says:

There is a place of quiet rest,

  Near to the heart of God,

A place where sin cannot molest,

  Near to the heart of God.

 O Jesus, blest Redeemer,

  Sent from the heart of God,

Hold us, who wait before Thee,

    Near to the heart of God.