Friday, April 19, 2024

Penguin Spirituality

I saw a video the other day that has stayed with me. It was a National Geographic clip of a group of emperor penguin chicks taking their first swim. This was no tentative dip in the ocean. This was a dramatic plunge off a fifty foot cliff. If you want to view the video, here it is on YouTube 

It makes me wonder what evolutionary urge leads them to perform such an act of courage. It also immediately made me think of spirituality. Speak of a leap of faith! This is not the safe religion of traditional Christianity. This is a leap into the unknown. Spirituality at its best is a dive into the Unknown.  

One cannot really know God. Our minds are too small. The god we think we know is a creation of the human mind, crafted in our own image and reflecting our own values. God can only be experienced by unknowing, as the anonymous author of the medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, said.  

These penguin chicks had never been in water. They did not know what water was. They had never flown in the air. They knew nothing about height and depth. Yet they instinctively knew this was their destiny. Therefore as a group they traveled to the edge of their known world. 

When they got to the end of their world, they paused. The ones in the back urging forward the ones in the front. Then one brave soul made the first leap into the abyss, flapping useless wings, plunging into the unknown. This pioneer of penguin faith surfaced and frolicked in the water. Then the next one dove in, and then the next. Then two at a time. Then three or four at a time. Some falling and others diving 

Some chicks entered the water more gracefully than others. Some did a belly-flop. Ouch! I can feel their pain! But all survived and swam through the water as if it was second nature.  The lure of the ocean is instinct, written in their genes. One could say that it is their first nature.  

Likewise God is our first nature. We have an instinct for the Divine. God is our calling and our destiny. God is written in our genes. We come from God and return to God. Throughout our lives we “live and move and have our being” in God, as the apostle said. It is our nature to dive into Divinity. “Deep calls to deep,” the psalmist says 

This is the source of all genuine spirituality. It can feel terrifying to be on the edge of a precipice, peering into the unknownWhether that unknown is life-threatening illness, imminent death, or a new expression of religious faith. But when we take the dive, we find our true nature. We are free to be who we have always been. This is what it means to be born of the spirit ... and the water!  

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Vacation Time Religion

My wife and I worship nearly every week, even while traveling or on vacation. When driving on the interstate on a Sunday morning we have been known to pull off an exit, find an open church door, join in worship, and then get back on the highway after the benediction.   

We attend worship in Florida during our annual spring vacation. Because we are in one location for an extended period, we try to find one church we can return to every Sunday. This year I did an internet search of local churches and found one that looked like it might fit the bill. We tried it on Palm Sunday. Then we returned on Easter and the following Sunday. We will go back next Sunday. 

We are enjoying this congregation, yet it feels like we have traveled back in time. There are none of things we usually see in church services these days. No overhead screen projecting the lyrics to contemporary songs. No praise team or worship band. Just traditional hymns sung from a hymnal and accompanied by a pianist... and a flutist!  

I love traditional hymns. The abandonment of the great hymnody of the faith for contemporary worship songs is one of the worst trends in Christian worship in my opinion. So I am enjoying the hymns. But to be honest I could do without this church’s fondness for the music of the Gaithers. Too schmaltzy for me.  

Not many people come to worship in this church. Usually about 45 according to the pastor, and they are almost all grayheads ... like us. On Easter there were more attenders and a few grandchildren scattered in the pews. But the next Sunday it was back to normal. This is fine with me. I prefer micro-churches to megachurches. 

The people were friendly and welcoming. Our first Sunday they gave us a welcoming bag of gifts to take home. The pastor made a point of greeting us before the serviceHe is an octogenarian who wears a traditional black pulpit robe with doctoral bars on the arms.  

His sermons are well-crafted and well-delivered, although a little longer than most sermons these daysThat also is fine with me. Micro-sermons are another unfortunate trend these days. Yet I have the impression that this old preacher has pulled these sermon “out of the barrel,” as we preachers say. I think he is re-using sermons originally written during the last half of the twentieth century. 

For example he started his Palm Sunday sermon lamenting John Lennon’s famous quip that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus. Then he gave a sermon illustration about the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. In every sermon there are numerous quotes from preachers, authors, athletes and statesmen from decades ago. But none from contemporary public figures.  

All the sermons we have heard in this church address the personal needs of private spirituality. That certainly has its place. But it is also important for sermons to be current. Theologian Karl Barth said that a Christian preacher ought to preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. To be relevant the church needs to address present-day moral, social and spiritual conditions.  

These are dangerous times for our nation and Christianity. Christian nationalism is on the rise. Democracy is in danger. The earth’s climate and animal population are threatened.  The human species is endangered. American society is being poisoned by bigotry and intolerance.  

The integrity of the Christian church and the gospel has been compromised. The church has lost its way. It has abandoned the message of Jesus. It has forgotten the message of the Hebrew prophets. Prophetic preaching and deep spirituality are needed today. Yet most churches are content to drift with the cultural current or retreat into the past.  

This is not the time for nostalgic Christianity. It is not a time to retreat into the safety of an imagined past. It was not safe to be a follower of Jesus in the first century, and it is not safe to be a follower of Jesus in the twenty-first century. Religious intolerance is a danger in all centuries and certainly in our century.  

I like this Florida church. I like the pastor. I like the music (mostly), and I like the congregation. They are all nice. This type of religion is comfortable. But safe spirituality is not what is needed today. Such old-time religion was not good enough for Jesus, and it is not good enough for me. I could not be part of such a church for longer than a vacation.  

I don’t mind taking a brief respite from the “dangers, toils, and snares” of prophetic and contemplative Christianity. Just like I do not mind taking a break from New Hampshire snowstorms to enjoy the Florida sunshine for a whileBut all vacations must come to an end. The challenges of our current age are too important to ignore for longer than a spring vacation.