KNOWING GOD

 

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Can we ever really know God?  Like a friend, or even a lover?  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have and enjoy such a relationship?  I think it is possible and also one of the best things we can enjoy on earth!  Here are some suggestions.

First, learn to appreciate and love silence.  That’s hard in our culture.  Life can be noisy.  We’re surrounded with radios, TV’s, engines, airplanes, telephones, and, even “smart phones.”  Some of us find silence disconcerting, wanting endless noise, entertainment, distractions and stimulation.  However, noise can prohibit us from really knowing ourselves, and more importantly, who we are as God’s Children.

Even churches can be quite noisy.  Meetings with discussions, planning, and sharing tend to dominate.  Presbyterians are noted for their meetings, struggling to keep things “decent and in order!”  Worship services become filled with sounds; music, announcements, and talking leaders.  I once asked confirmands to time the amount of silence in our services.  There wasn’t much.

To experience and feel God’s presence, solitude and quiet are indispensable.  The Psalm today, chapter 46, contains a verse which says, “Be still and know God.”  The Hebrew word for “be still” is rapha which means “to become weak,” or to “let go and release.”  Another Hebrew word used in some manuscripts is dumas, the root of our English word, “dumb.”  We not only become still and quiet in silence but give up our thinking.  In popular Eastern meditation, it is often called “mindful breathing.”  We watch our breath as a way to close our minds to feel stillness, or Spirit’s presence.

Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry.  There he was tested but also assured God would be with him.  In the book of 1 Kings 19, Elijah the prophet, after experiencing defeat and humiliation, went into the wilderness to find God and peace.  He came to a cave and waited.  When a terrible storm came by, he thought this might be it, but nothing happened.  Then things became very silent, as if time suddenly stopped, and he heard God’s still small voice. Elijah returned with hope and peace.

Before we can appreciate silence, however, we must remember one important truth; in our essence, we are not our bodies but spirit.  Such is the key to understanding the use of silence.  Silence without understanding ourselves as Spirit can be torture; it might even drive some crazy!

Jesus said to his disciples, “God is spirit; and they that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4:24, English Revised) We become stuck in our body identifications like bees in their honey.  We can’t imagine ourselves as Spirit.  We want to think our bodies will be raised.  We are attached to our ego/body identifications.  A priest once told me people ought never to be cremated because there would be no body raised “on the last day.”  We are not our bodies, however; we are Spirit.  So, whether our stillness times are long or short, remembering we are Spirit is critical.  The God’s Son, Daughter, or Child (temporal names) return to its Father, Mother or Maker in Oneness.

“Be still and know God.”  The Hebrew word for “know” is yada which is the same word used for sexual intercourse.  In the climax of intercourse, one experiences “yada,” or what we call it “orgasm.”  It is the same word used in Genesis when it says, “…. Adam knew his wife.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to experience more “yada” in worship and prayer?  As pastor, I hoped when people came to our services, they would leave feeling more “yada!”

Holy Communion can give “yada” to our souls.  Jesus once said, “Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you can have no part of me!” And, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.”  Wow!  Of course, this is not literal, but spiritual, figurative language.  That’s what Holy Communion, the “Lord’s Supper” or Catholic Mass, is all about.  They are symbolic ways to go beyond our body/material world senses.  Mass, Holy Communion and the “Lord’s Supper” are culminations of the service, time for high “yada.”

After a good spiritual “yada,” people take things less seriously.  They realize anew this world is not their home; they realize they are only strangers here for a little while until they “gme.” ohn writes in 1 John 2:15, “Do not love this world or the things of this world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  Everything here is just passing, ephemeral; it’s not Spirit.  Don’t take it so seriously.

So, schedule time for silence.  Use it to meditate and be healed.  Meditation has the root of medi, or healing.  Through proper mind control and clearing, you’ll experience more healing and joy.  You will be entering the great “cloud of unknowing” which the anonymous monk wrote about in the 14th century.  He was writing about the lost art of mysticism, reclaiming that which Dante’s famous play was about, our “Paradise Lost.”

Spend time each day in practicing stillness and knowing.  Get out of your mind!  Prepare a place in your house to do it.  Go to nearby quiet places.  And amid all the losses you perceive with church buildings, in the national hopes for peace, and a world without war and hunger, you’ll likely experience more “yada” than ever expected.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in his hand,

Christ our God to earth descended, our full homage to demand!”

(from liturgy of St. James, 4th Century)

 

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Seeing God

2012-03-10_18-13-49_552.jpg“The world will see me no more, but you will see me….”  John 14:19

Do you often feel lonely?  Perhaps that’s an understatement!  Most do, but we need not, at least for too long.  Studies show Americans are lonely, 300 out of 335 million feel lonely.  Not even marriage eliminates it.  Or sports, drinking, and politics.  About 50 million are classified as seriously lonely.

Why?  Maybe because we don’t see God enough!  Wouldn’t having vision or sight of God settle our loneliness?  If most of us could really see and meet God, the “Man Upstairs,” it would probably help!  Oh, just see Him or Her as accepting, forgiving, and loving us just as we are!

John’s gospel in the Bible promises this.  In chapter 14 verse19, Jesus tells his disciples, “In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me!”  Really?  Is it just craziness, or “fake hopes?”

How can we see Jesus?  Well, it’s not his body we see but his Spirit.  Have you ever seen Jesus’ spirit?  Probably.  I think I have, and I’m not on drugs either!

Jesus says it’s not possible, however, for the world to see Him, but we should.  How?  Because it’s all in our heads, in our thinking.  The Greek word for thinking is theori, from which we get our word “theory.”  Theory is how we think about something.   And how you think determines whether or not you see Jesus!

What then is the right thinking or theory?  God is Spirit, Spirit was also in Jesus, as God is in us.  Earlier in the gospel, Jesus says to the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.”  (John 4:24) Spirit is One, non-local, everywhere, like Light.  Without light the world and universe could not exist.  Without the Light of understanding, we would never see God, or Jesus, as Spirit.

We could see Jesus like our loved ones who have died or passed.  We often think of them as spirits or angels.  Some even claim they can hear from them. Spirit is our very essence even now.  We are all Spirits or Angels in our being, in our right thinking or theories.  So, look at people around you and say, “You are angels and I want to see it!

I know the old joke about the man who said, “My wife is wonderful, a perfect angel!”  His friend responded, “You’re lucky; mine is still living!”  But seeing Spirit, God or your deceased loved ones is a matter of how we think and see ourselves, or the one who taught about him named “Jesus.”

How can we experience this?  Most of the time we worry, fret and do not feel very happy about things around us.  The world seems like a big mess, which it is!  It’s a lonely place.  How can we get beyond or out of it?  In our thinking, or our prayers!  We can practice daily, hourly, even as part of our breathing.  Prayer can be like something on our shopping list.  But Prayer is not something we bring home and put it on the shelf; prayer can become like our breath.  We keep remembering, remembering and remembering!  We spend time in prayer and meditate upon words like these.  We meditate on them while sitting, walking, working, riding, and before meals in morning, noon and evening!  We can carry reminders on our “smart phones!”  Every hour I receive a little reminder.  Today it is, “Heaven is but a choice I must make!”

It’s so hard to remember because we get caught in our busyness, our mortality.  We get stuck in our bodies, country, city, politics, and churches.  We are like bees who get stuck in their own honey.  But remember, if you and I want to see and know God as with us, we must understand we are in spiritual territory; it’s beyond the body.  It is akin to music, poetry, ocean waves, blowing wind, quiet wooded areas, or closing our eyes and seeing.

And what happens if we keep remembering?  You’ll have one of those experiences when you feel right out of your mind!  It’s like being in bed with a lover!  (Let’s hope it’s your proper mate!)  The word for knowing is ginosko, which is the word also for sexual intimacy.  Jesus said, “You will know Him!”   “In the days to come you will know the father because you love each other.”    Wow!  We can have that every day!  One can “know his wife or husband” in an intimate way.  Prayer and meditation become the Viagra for encountering intimacy with Jesus, with God, the great Unknown, Inexpressible One!

What more would you want?  Why wait?  Why waste time feeling sorry for yourselves, your so-called littleness.  It is the same search and longing in each human being on earth.  Riches and fame won’t bring it.  At least if it’s in them you trust.

So be happy in your Self, your true identity.  For “The world will see me no more, but you will…!”

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When God Sleeps

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died!”   John 11:32, RSV

Anxiety and depression are common diseases in America.  About 7 percent of us, of all ages, suffer depression in our country.  Maybe more since the election since anxiety often leads to depression.  About one third of our country’s mental health costs go for anxiety and depression.  Women suffer twice as much as men while many children also struggle.

Depression increases with age!  However, it tends to decrease after age 70, but us older folks with depression or anxiety are also less likely to get help.  It’s safe to assume a good share of us experience some anxiety and depression and probably are not getting needed help or treatment.  (http://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics)

The biblical account of the raising of Lazarus tells a story about anxiety and depression.  (John 11:1-45) It is not a story about literally raising someone from the dead whose name was “Lazarus.”  The story links to a 5000-year-old one from ancient Egypt.  Such discoveries, found through the 1799 discovered Rosetta Stone, revolutionized the understanding of many “miracles” from what we call the New Testament.

The word “Lazarus” begins with the divine “El.”  “El” combined with “asar” is the divine name “Lord Asar.”  Lord Asar has gone to sleep!  The town’s name, “Bethany”, means “house of light.” But since the Lord went to sleep, the lights have gone out!  The two sisters, Martha and Mary, are ancient Egyptian names for those considered divine teachers, “Meri and Merti.”  The  teachers and pastors have also lost hope.  Jesus comes as the one who awakens the “Light.”  He represents the outside messenger of hope, the Christ Bearer who had been lost.  In ancient Egypt, his name was also known as “Usus.”  (Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ; Recovering the Lost Light, 2004, Thomas Allen Publishers.)

So how can we “awaken” from our moments, or days, weeks and years of anxiety and depression, our discouragement and inner loneliness?  How can we awaken when it seems our God hope has left or forgotten us, when loved ones die, and 4000 churches close each year and 300 pastors and participants leave each month.  (Latest Pew Foundation report.)

We could begin with the idea or theory that God, Christ, or Spirit is incarnated within each of our lives and bodies.  It could be called “Spirit” or our “soul.”  It is the “infinite within the finite.”  How might we reclaim and experience this lost awareness, hope, and feeling?

We might begin by being aware of our negative feelings.  We will not deny we might be aboard a sinking ship.  But we will identify with these negative feelings as our True Self.  We may feel like the scolded child taking a “time out” in the corner.  We will sit and observe our anxiety or loneliness without judgment.  We will still claim our “family name;” “I am not my body, I am not this anxiety or depression but I am happiness, hope, and positive.”

It’s sort of like driving a car.  We can remain conscious of steering, accelerating, braking and stopping while at the same time having a conversation with a passenger.  However, don’t text on your phone while doing this!

I once heard the late Tony De Mello describe this.  He was both a certified counselor and ordained Jesuit priest.  People often came to him with a serious problem.  They would greet him with, “Hi Fr. De Mello!  How are you doing?”  He might answer saying, “Oh, I am having a bad day of anxiety but never mind, how can I help you?”  Sounds nuts, doesn’t it??

It’s like an unmarried minister who lived with his mother.  One Sunday he was very discouraged and tired.  He said to his mother, “I am not going to church today.  I am sorry we moved here, I’m discouraged, the people don’t like me and I don’t like them!” His mother looked him in the eyes and said, “Son, you are 40 years old, they have called you to be their pastor, and it is your duty to go.  And remember, they pay you to do it!”

Somedays are like that.  I have them.  Our negativity or tiredness wants to take over.  Still, we won’t identify with it.  Just do it anyway along with your sadness, or whatever.

A minister once told he me coped with depression and anxiety by taking little naps!  He would excuse himself at set times and just go someplace and take a 20-minute nap.  He awoke feeling better.  I have been known for the ability to do that.  It’s good for body and mind!

We also can spend time each day in solitude and quiet.  It can be called our quiet or devotional time.  When I first joined the Baptist Church, they told me to spend time each day in “devotions.”  In the 80’s I wrote a dissertation for San Francisco Seminary on the importance of practicing solitude.  Jesus did it all the time.  I still have favorite trails near our home on which I use to take prayer walks.  My, dog now deceased, would go with me.  I also have a special area in our home to sit mornings and evenings.  I have it set up with a little altar, complete with a picture of wilderness with Buddhist prayer flags.  I use a little electric candle since I once almost burned the house down!  Psalm 46:10; “Be still and know I am God!”  It works.  It worked for Jesus, for Elijah of old, and it still works for us.  “Be still,” in the Hebrew word means, “stop thinking, become dumb” (dumas) and you will know!  Clear your mind, become “mindful” of the noise, and let it go.

To fight anxiety, loneliness and depression, we can also join together with another or others.  Remember, you don’t need a church building to be a church.  “The church is not the building, the church is not the steeple, the church is its people!” as the old Avery and Marsh song went.  Gather in homes, read some scriptures, listen, meditate and pray for each other.  Today, It’s a growing phenomenon.  Continue as friends, even if they are few.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, but he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere!”

Yes, sometimes relief doesn’t come instantly.  We may need to make changes in our lives. We may need a few weeks or months of counseling or to learn more patience.  We may need to suffer long enough so we truly decide, “I want to change!”  In the gospel story, they complained Jesus took so long to come.  “If you would have been here, he would not have died. Now he already stinks in the grave!”   Sometimes must endure a waiting season.  Quick fixes not always help.  We need to take “time outs” and go sit and make new decisions and resolutions.

I heard a story about a man guiding his donkey who pulled a cart load of produce to the market.  The donkey would suddenly stop and move no further.  This behavior occurred several times and the man worried about arriving late to sell his goods.  Finally, when the donkey balked again, the man got off his seat and taking a small stick, went up to the donkey and whacked him three times over the head!  He climbed back on the seat, picked up the reins and continued.  He wife asked, “Why did you do that, whacking the poor donkey three times?”  The driver answered, “I needed to get his attention!”

Sometimes life makes us suffer long enough to finally get very sick of our behaviors and attitudes.  We all want “quick fixes,” not a new orientation about life and where we are going.  Some may need to spend a few weeks in a hospital, or find themselves without our family, or a spouse, or job, or a friend before they “wake up” and listen.

So, don’t spin your mind or wheels too long when in despair and depression, feeling discouraged and alone.  Wake up to the Divine, the Christ of whom we are in our essence.  Don’t wait for the complete bottom to fall out.  Learn and practice to check your negative thought habits.  Keep a journal and write your progress down.  Make positive affirmations and go over them every day, morning and night.  Begin taking actions toward what your heart tells you to do.  And climb out of the graves of your life which are only barring you from the sweetness and hope Divine Peace which is yours, and within you.

Breathe on me breath of God, fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou does love, and do what Thou wouldst do.

– Edwin Hatch, 1886

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Conscious Prayer

“As people think in the heart, so are they….”  Proverbs 23:7

            Everyone prays, whether they realize it or not.  Healthy people pray, sick people pray, parents pray, children pray, race car drivers pray, atheists pray, and certainly, politicians pray!  But what is prayer?  How could we improve and use our praying?  Does prayer change anything?  Why would one consciously practice it?

The word “think” comes from an old English word which means, “to make or cause to appear.”  If we don’t like things as they are, we can begin to change them by thinking!  In a study, many years ago at New York City Seminary, the leader said, “If you don’t know where you are going, then any road will get you there!”  For as we think, so we become.

The Greek word for prayer in the Bible is pros euchomai, meaning to think and express wishes.  You can wish to change things around you.  You can think of how to change people in how they act or treat you.  All thinking is a form of prayer.  “As we think, so we become.”  (Proverbs 23:7) So, if we don’t like what we see or experience, we can change our thinking!

We start is with ourselves.  The ancient Hebrew word for prayer is hitpalel, which means to “observe or judge oneself.”  The idea is different from what most practice.   We want to change how others think and act so we can be happy.  We judge how others treat us: what they do, or where they go.  The Hebrew word is more inward; “Who am I?  How am I feeling?  What do I want?  How can I find peace and success?”   The process thus becomes a more conscious one.  We sit and mediate, observing ourselves; “What do I want?  How am I feeling?  How can I change?”

Such thoughts are powerful.  They have built buildings, including churches.  With thinking, we change appearances; get a new haircut or buy new clothes.  Everything in this room around began as a thought or idea.  Scientists even have said without thinking, there would be no world!  To say nothing about this sermon.

Much of my understanding prayer expanded as I read and learned about Einstein’s discovery of quantum energy, the smallest particle of “substance.”  A quantum is light energy and it radiates itself.  This quantum moves at double the speed of light.  It creates energy, a lot of it!  Einstein called it “the spooky part of the universe.”  It can be used to heal or make bombs which powerfully radiate heat and kill hundreds, thousands, and millions.

I have a brother in law with a Ph.D. in biological science.  Years ago, I asked if he could explain quantum mechanics to me.  He said, “Dave, when you look and gaze upon the moon, you will be changed.  And so will the moon!”

Two years ago, I attended a summer seminar of the Theosophical Society near Chicago.  One of the presenters was named “Amit Gotswami.”  A brilliant scientist from India, for years he has taught physics at the University of Oregon for 30 years.  He has become known for his work and writings in Quantum Mechanics.  Several years ago, he married another native of India who moved to America.  She amazed him with her “meditations” as she described them.  Amit wanted to investigate what was happening from a scientific viewpoint.  He became convinced she was connecting with her deepest self, a self even separated from her body, a Self which could communicate with the universe!  Now the two of them conduct seminars combining science and meditation.

Thinking and mediation affect people around us.  Experiments show how thoughts change people miles and continents away!  A writer, named Lynn McTaggart, has studied and written books on this phenomenon.  In 2011, she helped put together a group called “The Intention Experiment.”   She and her helpers brought together thousands of people from 75 countries, including people of several faiths including Muslims with thousands from Arabs of the Gulf states.  For 8 days, beginning with September 11, they prayed for violence to be lowered in two of the deadliest provinces in Afghanistan, Helmand and Kandahar.  Then they waited three and a half months to see if there were any effects.  They found that attacks in these two providences had dropped 29 percent during that period.  And during the 8 days of concentrated prayers in September, attacks dropped by 790 percent!  Prayer can change things.  (For more details, see The Global Peace Intention Experiment by Lynn McTaggart.)

The late well-known psychologist, Wayne Dyer, believed, lived and taught this idea after discovering it.  Raised his first 10 years in an orphanage, he discovered the power of positive thinking.  It thoroughly changed his life and over the years, his teachings and lectures help change millions of lives.  Dyer believed living with unconditional, positive love will be manifested in those around us.  He believed our thinking affects not only one’s own family and community, but the whole world.  Over the years, I’ve read many of his books, being introduced to them by a church Elder in Pennsylvania.  A few years ago, through a survey of the top spiritual teachers in the world, Wayne Dyer rated in the top 5!  Number one I believe was the Dalai Lama.  Number 2 or 3 was a scientist named Eckhart Tolle.  It was amazing that none of these recognized leaders spoke in churches!

However, negative thinking and prayer also has effects.  Ancient Plato, philosopher and founder of the Academy in Athens, recommended death for anyone using negative spells, charms, incantations and sorceries for purpose of mischief!  We see examples of such negative use in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, Elisha placed a hex on children who made fun of him and his looks!  Two bears came out of the woods and ate them!  (2 Kings 2:23-24) Now you know why I don’t take everything in the Bible seriously!   Clergy, as Naomi and I have experienced, can scare the daylights out of people by threatening eternal hell fire and damnation if they “don’t believe!”

Negative thoughts and prayers destroy relationships, churches, civic organizations and countries.  Hitler used negative thoughts about people, mesmerizing people to destroy millions of Jews and “undesirables.”  It happened in history many times; Russia, China, and of course, in our own country with the slaughter of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans sold in slavery!

Today some of us worry about the negative campaigning which elected our new President.  I’ve never heard such mean descriptions of other races, promises to build high walls to protect our border, deport people seeking escape from poverty and brutal governments, and talk of stopping Muslims from entering from several countries with “extreme vetting.”  It often frightens me, as it does others.  As written, hatred toward Native Americans and Africans forced into slavery were historically practiced, and the attitudes still linger in the vow to “make America great again.”

Change, however, brings consequences.  Some will be good and some not.  Medical doctors such as Larry Dossey, have used and written of the power of meditation and prayer.   Dossey wrote several books including, “Be Careful What You Pray For, You Might Get It!”   He described a woman psychiatrist who prayed with her mental patients in a Vermont hospital.  The administration stopped her since it gave her patients “unfair advantages!”

Have you ever decided to better yourself only to find things worse?  Most find this in marriage, or a chosen career, or moving to a new area.  We discover everything and place has “its own poison.”   Spiritual teachers suggest we adopt a more “acceptance of the present” attitude and find contentment with what we have.  Count your blessings.  A Bible verse goes, “…. I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)

Positive prayer, however, is loving and kind, wishing the best for oneself and all those around him or her.  To obtain this state, most of us need hours, days, and years of routine self-reflection.  The word in ancient Hebrew from prayer, hitpalel, basically means “self reflection.” One becomes conscious of his or her own thoughts and actions.  I practice daily meditations and prayers, as I described in my memoir.  Finding this practice in 1979, it remains a staple of mine today.

In 33 years at Wayside, people helped me incorporate, I believe, a deeper understanding and practice of prayer.  We prayed for people who requested it during services.  We offered the laying on hands, not only by myself, but by others with the anointing of oil.   We trained people to visit homebound and hospitalized people, offering them communion of wine and bread as a sign of Divine Energy within them.

As a 9 year old boy, I remember going to Daytona Beach races in the early 1950’s.  Then then was a two-mile track on which drivers raced cars south on pavement and then around a curve to roar another mile  north on the beach sand!   Occasionally, we attended smaller races around our home in Sherman where in the 1950’s cars were raced in an abandoned gravel pit by the feed mill and milk plant.  Once, early in our marriage, I went with my father to a race near Jamestown where one of my high school friends was a mechanic on one of the cars.  During the race, I noticed a bright red car that looked new.  It was one of the most powerful cars in the race, one of the early “Dodge Challengers.”  But the driver always held back, staying away from the front or other cars.  I was told he never won a race.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because he doesn’t want to damage his new car!”  Seemed kind of silly.

Without daily inventory of our minds and directions, we could be moving around our bodies without reaching our potentials of deeper peace and fulfilment.  Minds are powerful.  They are the engines which drive our lives toward goals of joy and deep peace.  I urge you to often drive them “wide open and awake!”  Spend daily time in silence and meditation, go over your goals and intentions, and watch them become manifested in your lives!

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Eternal Hope in a Hopeless World

Keeping a positive attitude these days may be as difficult as a harsh winter.  Listening to news makes us worry and often feel as fearful as a small child without her parents.  Our country certainly experienced a different kind of election with a billionaire reality TV showman pulling off a controversial win.

Of course, there are other issues: aging with limited or impaired health, financial worry trying to make ends meet, global warming, and then of course, the struggle of keeping open churches.  At times, we wonder if there is hope, hope that is lasting, enduring, and unending.

In the ancient Psalm 119, the psalmist prayed and asked God for hope and “positive thinking” amid what seemed to be his trying times.  In verse 33, “Teach me, Lord, the meaning of your law, and I will obey them always,” to which he adds, “Explain them and I will obey.”  In verse 36 he admirably asks, “Give me the desire to obey your laws rather than to get rich!”  And in verse 37, “Keep me from paying attention to what is worthless…” (TEV)

Yes, we could give many reasons for our lack of “positive attitudes.”  When I walked into your church this morning, I was told Presbytery plans to close it at this year’s end.  No doubt, you could add other reasons which bear upon your mind.  How then can we be positive?  I have sensed, from previous visits, your church future might be in jeopardy, and thus I considered the possibility even as I prepared this sermon.

It may help to remember a church is not necessarily a building.  The Greek word for “church,” ecclesia, simply means “assembly of people.”  It doesn’t necessary mean to assemble in a building called “church” featuring beautiful wooden pews, maple paneling and a beautiful pipe organ.  “Church” primarily means a gathering of people who want to learn more, or be reminded, of how God loves them, if indeed there is one, and how they can connect with Him to be blessed with happiness and peace.

However, if your building, called “church” is closed, you always have other options.  There will be other church buildings left in the village and area.  You also live in homes.  Did you know the early church gathered in homes for several years?  We read about it in the book of Acts, in chapters 2:46 and 20:20.  Jewish Christians at the time met in synagogues, which liked began in homes, and later church buildings were built.  However, there are good reasons for meeting in homes.  It allows for greater intimacy, stronger relationships, perhaps even more comfortable seating.  And the cost is seldom a barrier.  Many traditional churches also have small groups which meet in homes.

We remember that Jesus spent hours teaching and preaching along the roads and street corners.  Yes, he visited synagogues as well, but in some, he wasn’t warmly welcomed.  He also spent time with his 12 disciples, walking around and helping people.  Sometimes he did apparently gather large crowds.  But he also got himself into a lot of trouble with religious authorities; you know the story.

Over this past winter, my wife and I have experimented with the idea of a small “house church.”  We’ve met twice in one home and next month we invited folks to our home.  We simply gather around in a room and share, with one taking the leadership but pausing for comments, questions and offered contributions.

Ideally, small churches can be very helpful in growing not only friendships, but one’s spiritual development.  Of course, it’s nice to occasionally attend a large cathedral or church but small home groups certainly have their place.  I recently read they’ve grown rapidly in recent years throughout our country, a new phenomenon.

Our son’s wife is from the Czech Republic.  We visited her family in 2003 and toured the country, a landscape dotted with many old cathedrals, most of them now museums or abandoned.  I mentioned to her father one evening if he thought the church was dying since so few now attend.  His answer startled me.  To the contrary, he said in their small town, south of the large city of Prague, many small religious groups meet in homes during the week.  He described it as an amazing new development in his country.  I asked if they were “Christian” and he said, “They seem to be a mixture of East and West.”

So, don’t despair too long if you lose your beloved church building, founded over 200 years ago.  Celebrate your past but don’t stop gathering together.  If there isn’t a suitable place to attend, meet in your homes.  You’ll even be able to donate more money to the poor and favorite causes without having to sustain a large but mostly unused building.

Now, what about politics?  Do they get you down?  I imagine some here were and are discouraged with the election results of last November.  Mr. Trump was not my candidate choice.  I confess I still wonder if the election was “rigged” by numerous “WikiLeaks” instigated by Russia and Mr. Putin to discredit Hillary with “fake news.”  Maybe Mr. Putin felt Hillary would be much tougher toward him than Donald.  Indeed, Vladimir and Donald often seem like good buddies.

Yet remember, government directions often change and will change again.  When one party wins, the other tends to feel the country will suffer tremendous loss, and vice versa.  It’s the nature of the process.  Throughout 240 years, we have had many awful things occur within the process.  Our country never was a “heaven-on-earth” for many.  Consider actions taken toward the Natives who “owned” this land?  Many were slaughtered, shot with their villages burned.  The Puritans massacred most of the natives in New England.  In Buffalo, Indian horse blankets were smeared with small pox germs that wiped out whole villages.  More Native Americans died after the constitution and country were created than before.  In the 1820’s, a large percentage died during the “trail of tears,” forced out of eastern homes and to walk to Oklahoma.  When they could return 25 years later, also by walking, they discovered their religious rights were lost and were forced into churches with their children taken away to attend “Christian schools.”  In the 1950’s, I grew up entertained by movies of “cowboys shooting Indians.”  How shameful!  And what about thousands of Africans, who were stolen and forced to America jammed into dark hulls of smelly, unsanitary ships, only to be sold has human slaves, tied atop auction blocks like animals rather than human beings.  These groups, including numerous Asians, still work yet today to find acceptance in our “Christian Country.”  Did I mention people of Latin America?

Never place deep devotion to any country other than as a temporary place to live and exist until we “go home.”  Fortunately, for all our faults, we do have more “checks and balances” than many other countries, lessons learned by our forbearers, but still, we remain a long way from being perfected.  Yet, remember it’s all temporary, not permanent; life here is not Real.  As the old gospel song goes, that Jim Reeves made famous,

“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore”.

Such belief helps remove the great fear we called “death.”  It surrounds and engulfs our lives.  Death fills news headlines, claiming the rich and poor, the honest and dishonest like a voracious grim reaper.  Yet remember, “there is no death but only a change of worlds” as Chief Seattle said.  Or from Revelation chapter 21, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain….”

The truth of the matter is, “matter and flesh are not real; they are ephemeral and short-lived, mortal.”  In our essence, we are not physical bodies, or races with gender differences, or in countries living with anonymity or even with wealth and fame.  Without Spirit or Christ, we count for nothing.  All is vanity.  Thus, we are now here in a classroom to learn our True Identities as Spirit, as “Christ,” or as the “Son or Daughter of God.”  Our essence is immortal Spirit.   Yes, it is often difficult to believe this, to feel the truth and Universal Presence surrounding and enfolding us.  We become stuck to our surroundings like bees who become stuck in honey.

Around 1830, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s young wife suddenly died.  Longfellow went into deep despair and for several months mourned and refused to write.  He spent weeks seeking answers in other writers and friends.  He sought whether there could such a thing as “soul,” or afterlife.  Years of search and reflection passed but then, he wrote the immortal words of his most bellowed poems called “The Psalm of Life.”  I was given this poem by one of the oldest members of Wayside church when I first moved to Hamburg in 1976.  In her 90’s and frail, now being called a “shut-in,” she said it gave her strength to cope with her slowly weakening body as it moved toward its demise.  I copied it down and never forgot it.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers, life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers, and things are not what they seem.

Life is real!  Life is earnest!  And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest, was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow, Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each tomorrow finds us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting, and our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle, In the bivouac of life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!  Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no future, howev’er pleasant; Let the dead past bury its dead!

Act, act in the living Present! Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great ones all remind us We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked neighbor, Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and learn to wait!

May you all find this peace and hope within by remembering the eternal hope amid the hopeless but temporal world surrounding us.

 

Sermon offered at the Franklinville Presbyterian Church on February 19, 2017 by Rev. David G. Persons

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How Jesus Saves

One of the first expressions I remember in my early church years was, “Jesus Saves.”  There was even a song sung called, “Jesus Saves!”

“We have heard the joyful sound: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!

Spread the tidings all around: Jesus saves! Jesus saves!
Bear the news to every land, climb the mountains, cross the waves;
Onward! ’tis our Lord’s command; Jesus saves! Jesus saves!”

What does it mean, however?  Saves us from what?  Primarily I remember I would be saved from punishment for my sinful nature.  And be permitted to enter a place called “heaven” after I died.  It could mean more during our early lives.  I could be saved from worries, my trials and tribulations, things like finding a job, recovering from losing a job, dealing with my eventual death or with deaths of loved ones.  But how does Jesus save us?  How does he turn fears and tears to joy, losses into gains?

The name “Jesus” is mostly a symbol.  Jesus symbolizes to us in the Christian faith or tradition God’s presence.  Jesus could be another name for Holy Spirit.  Jesus is a name representing our link to God, the one who supposedly created us and all there is.

What does calling upon God in the name of Jesus?  How does it save and heal?  How does it save from worry, grief, and the constant fear of losing, of deep loneliness?

I refer to the first lesson in today’s service.  Isaiah 49:1 reads, “The LORD called me before I was born, when I was in my mother’s womb he named me.”  Thus, we have always been known as part of God, beyond limitations of time.  Our actual identities are not mortal bodies, liable to wear, tear and loss.  We can grow to see our identities as Spirit, connected in One Spirit with the God of the universe.  Spirit is everywhere, unbound by time or place.  Spirit is in every moment we breathe, think and move about.  It is a basic tenant to spiritual beliefs.  We are not bound by a mortal body but as Spirit, we are united in one with all.

In spirit timelessness, there is no world or planets or physical universe.  Spirit is beyond that.  The world and universe we see and peer at through microscopes and telescopes is temporary, ephemeral.  Some thus say, “It isn’t real.  It is an illusion of reality.” That seems quite scary.  For if I am not my body, I may feel afraid!  Who am I?  But consider, who are you?  Are you really your body?  Which one?  If we had our choice, we’d probably chose the one which was the most healthy, strong, and confident.  The younger version!  In our short time-bound lives, we were once suckling babies, small children, adolescents, young adults, and parents, grandparents, retired, old, frail and near the end!  We’d like to keep our young version, like the once new car we had but now is rusty with faded paint!  Yet throughout all these changes in time, in body form, we remained the same “I Self.”  Note: we always talk about our bodies from the observer viewpoint.  We say, “My arm, my eye, my head, my body, my feet, my stomach.”  It’s always body parts identified body in the “third person,” as the observer.

In the gospel of John, we read Jesus telling his disciples, “Unless you drink my blood and eat my body, you have no part of me!”  His disciples, of course, were shocked.  How could they eat and drink his body like a bunch of hungry cannibals?  But Jesus explained, “The Words that I speak to you are spirit and life!  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”  (John 6:63)

So, the first step in being “saved” is to understand your Higher Self is not of this world.  As we read from 1 John, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.  And the world and its desires are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever!”  (1 John 2:15-17)

One of the earliest songs I heard in the church was called, “This World is Not My Home,” made famous by Jim Reeves back in the 1950’s.

“This world is not my home I’m just a-passin’ through

My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue

The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”

So, the first step in finding healing through Jesus is to consider thinking what millions have found: “We are not our bodies, we are immortal Spirit, One with God!”

The second way “Jesus Saves” is the acceptance that all our sins and mistakes have been forgiven!  In John’s Gospel, chapter 1, verse 9, John the Baptist declared when seeing Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  Or, there is no reality called sin.  Sin is simply part of the errors we make while living in mortal bodies.  Sin is “missing the mark,” or the inability to make perfect judgment.  In the eyes of Eternity or Spirit, “sin doesn’t count!”  There is no sin.  How is this possible?

Again, it in understanding how we see ourselves in a new way.  In this earthy, linear way of thinking and living, we have bodies.  We are “stuck with them” in time and space.  Yet in another view, another choice of seeing, we understand the body and mind judgments as filled with errors or sins, but they don’t mean anything in Eternity!

Early Christians understood this as “an awareness,” or understanding of the duality of our existence in a physical, earth revolving, time based, light and dark world.  “The Kingdom is within you!” Jesus taught.  Yes, we all make mistakes in our identities.  We forget, or may even deny them, but that’s okay.  If you enjoy yourself and are having lots of fun and success in life, I have nothing to say to you.  But times suddenly seem lonely, sad, or empty to you, when parents, children and friends die, or you know you are close to it, you might want to consider another option, the one the scriptures offer!

I think of us as Prodigal Sons.  We grew up and one day said “Good bye to our parents” and struck out on our own.  For a while it was a wonderful time; we had a ball!  But then, life fell apart.  It happened to the prodigal son.  Losing his money, self-respect and confidence, he finally came to himself and thought, “Why don’t I just go back home and try again with my father.  I’ll be very contrite and tell him how sorry I am for messing up!”  So, he did and when he got back home, his father welcomed him!  He ever set up a great party to celebrate and let all by-gones be gone!

Fr. John Merganhagen, a friend of mine with whom I did a few retreats, once told participants, “let all your sins go!  Don’t dwell on them.”  Then he said, “I can see a picture of God sitting some evening listening to all ours sins of commission and omission.  Finally, God takes a big yawn and says, “Ok, that’s enough!  I’m tired now.  Go to bed in peace.  I will always love you as my own!”

Last, be patient with your learning process.  We are only here a few years but it takes time to let such “born again” thinking sink in.  Some never get it; perhaps they make many returns to figure it out.  It’s like, “Happy Birthday!  Have many happy returns!”

In today’s Psalm, we read in 40:1-3: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog and set my feel upon a rock, making my steps secure.  He put a new song in my mouth!”

Often when sudden losses or calamities occur, we can blow pass them quickly.  Especially if they are miles or countries away from us.  But close to us, at home, we need patience.  Then we may need to take a walk, do something else, or just sit patiently with it.  It’s like learning a new sport.  I took up golf when I was about 50 years old.  I thought I could learn it quickly!  Boy, talk about practicing patience.  My friend used to say, after losing his swing and rhythm, “It’s like undressing in public!”

I have grandchildren who compete in sports.  Naomi and I love to join their families and watch their events.  Not to brag, but they do quite well!  They win races, events and get ribbons and trophies.  But somedays, they aren’t so good.  My daughter wrote me a while ago saying her champion son had an awful event!  “Couldn’t do a thing!”  So, it goes.

So, it goes with our lives.  Losing health, loved ones, jobs, or being sick unto death can be hard.  We must sit with it, be patient, wait for it to pass.  I remember a friend diagnosed with a terrible disease.  She was still young and vibrant.  Her family were hurt and saddened.  She got worse.  One day I went to visit her in the hospital and she said, “I’m okay.  I know it’s about time.  It will be okay.  I am okay.  I just waiting now.”  And she did, and died peacefully.

Yes, we all have bad days, bad games, and tough times.  But practice patience.  Own your losses.  Stay with them.  Let them feel part of you.  Embrace them, and they will lift more quickly.  Remember that in our essence, we are spirit.  This world is not our home.  A place of Spirit is where we are, at home, One with love, and with all there ever was or ever will be.  Amen.

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Finding Jesus Again

 

Churches are in attendance and support trouble.  In a recent Pew Foundation study, they reported a drop of 8% in the past 10 years.  People who call themselves “Christian” have dropped to about 70% of the population while the rise of atheism has risen at a faster rate, nearly 25%.

Around 250,000 churches remain, but 200,000 report they are stagnant or in decline.  4000 are closing each year, up from a few years ago, with 3500 people leaving, most calling themselves, “nones.”  One half of today’s churches are more than 100 years old, with the population then only 130 million compared to today’s 320.  As the astronauts radioed to earth in 1970, after Apollo 13’s moon trip reported an onboard explosion, “Houston, we have had a problem!”

Although the UU Church is one of the smaller denominations, they too remain fairly stagnant.  Certainly, everything is not about size, yet I feel the UU Church, and most others, might attract more people if they knew more about the history of a person, often associated with churches, named “Jesus.”

A few years ago I read an article by a UU Minister from Austin, Texas titled, “Why Unitarian Universalism is Dying?”  http://www.meadville.edu/uploads/files/101.pdf   In the article, he was very critical with little hope for the future of the UU’s.  He argued it had become mostly a political lobbying organization rather than a place for spirituality.  He called the 7 Principles of the UU’s, “Seven Principles of Banality!”  He viewed the UU Church as mostly a “service organization” rather than a church.

In many ways I feel at home in the UU Church.  I align more with its social values than most others.  In 1965, 20 percent of the UU ministers marched with Dr. Martin Luther King to Selma, Alabama.  One was even killed.  Their leadership in equal rights and social equality for all, resonates with my views.  I also believe they might attract more, perhaps making a larger impact, if they did deep their third principle of existing “…encouraging spiritual growth in our community.”  The history of the UU Church enhances this ability.  So who was Jesus, and what did he teach, according to history in which the UU’s ideas evolved.

In preparing this sermon, I found other UU ministers who spoke about the life and teachings of Jesus.  One was named Rev. Elizabeth Rolenz from Cleveland, Ohio.  Listening to her 20-minute sermon on YouTube, “Stealing Jesus,” she described Jesus being stolen from the early 4th century church.  She also believed Jesus was “stolen” during the Reformation by most “Reformers.” Why?

Studies have shown that before the 4th century creeds, the Apostles and the Nicene, Jesus likely belonged to a small group of Jewish people called the “Ebionites.”  They considered Jesus a teacher of God, but not unlike earlier ones in Jewish history.  They called Jesus the “Son of God” as he taught that all people are God’s Sons and Daughters.  Further, Jesus, along with the Ebionite tribe, was a vegetarian.  Most UU’s probably wouldn’t care for this idea but the Ebionites would not kill animals for sacrifice or meals.  They lived mostly on a plant based diet of whole grains and fruits.  I would argue, however, UU’s might be healthier, but that’s another talk!  The Ebionites were also radically non-violent, refusing to participant in wars, reminding us of people we know today as “Quaker, Amish and Mennonite.”  They taught that Divine Presence, the “Christ,” indwells all people, and is everywhere.  This Christ is the True Self of each one, the inner Observer who looks at the outside world but quickly becomes identified with its mortality.  Ebionites were also among the first to call themselves “Christian,” Christ Ones.   (See, “The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living and Nonviolence in Early Christianity,” by Keith Akers, Lantern Books, 2000.)

This teaching resonates with ancient Hinduism and Buddhism, which regarded the world and material universe as “Maya,” as illusion and not reality.  This idea of Jesus was condemned, however, in the 4th century by Constantine and the “approved” church.  Those who followed the earlier teachings, called “Gnosticism,” understood Christ as a universal presence.  Yet, Gnosticism survived after the formation of the 4th century church, as Richard Smoley describes in his book titled, “The Gnostic Legacy from the Gospels to The Da Vinci Code.” (HarperCollins, 2005)

This idea of Jesus teaching a Universal Spiritual presence began to reappear in the 16th century’s “Protestant Reformation,” amid the birth of the Unitarians and Universalists.  It arose in Eastern European Transylvania when the King of Romanian, John Sigismund, declared people could choose their own religion.  His court Preacher, Frances David, had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism, and finally to Unitarianism.  (He had more “conversions” than myself!)  He taught Jesus, God and Spirit, as one with the Godhead but as different expressions.   He also taught a loving God would never condemn people to an eternal hell.

Meanwhile, a Spanish teacher named Michael Servetus, began teaching a similar universal presence of divinity.  Reacting against the rigid preordained “election” taught by John Calvin, Servetus was later burned atop his books as a heretic!  So where did the movement then move?

Of course, it came to America with the Puritans from whom UU’s soon left.  They began ordaining women in 18th century New England.  Led by Unitarian Dorothy Dix, they also circulated texts of well know eastern writings such as The Bhagavad-Gita and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.   They became among the first to lead in the abolition of American slavery.

So what would I suggest for UU’s today, and for Christians interested in a renewal of spirituality?  Reconsider the teachings of the probable historic person named Jesus.  Read these short Eastern books which teach basic Hindu and Buddhist theology.  Learn to understand the difference from what we see with our physical eyes from that which we see through the eyes of faith.  Understand the world in which we live is mortal, always in process of advance and retreat, of love and hate.  As Jesus said about this transient world, “There will always be wars and rumors of wars!”  (Matthew 24:6, NRSV) The physical world is non-fixable.  It advances and retreats.  It is a world of dualism, of good and the evil, of mortality.

Today, we also have the advantage of science to help understand spirituality on a deeper level.  Albert Einstein help launch the idea of the relativity of this world and universe.  Quantum science “proves” the physical is not even here!  It’s not real.  It’s only an illusion of reality!  Mind boggling.  But it can encourage us to find “reality” in solitude on another level, or in the words of the Psalm, “Be still and you will know I am God!” (Psalm 46:6, NRSV)   Where then is the Kingdom, the Presence, the Heaven as Jesus taught?  It is all within us!  The kingdom of God, Spirit is within you, it is you, the True You!  God is a no-thing, the “is-ness of the world”, the Great Other.  (Luke 17:21, NRSV)

These teachings continue to grow and nourish millions of people, some who have left organized churches and institutions.  Where are people finding it?  Many in yoga classes and its practice.  Many churches now offer “yoga.”  We had classes at Wayside.  A friend continues there along with time for meditation.  Such experiences help people begin to feel the Quietness, the Peace within a world of turmoil and anger.  There are sitting groups in all parts of Erie County, of the country, one even close to you in East Aurora at a place called “Healing Waters.”

There also are many well-known teachers of a universal presence among us today; the late Wayne Dyer, people like Deepak Chopra, Jack Kornfield, Carolyn Myss, Louise Hay, and even Oprah Winfrey!  Then there is the late Helen Schucman, the atheist teacher at Columbia University, who shockingly found herself in the late 1960’s channeling the now best seller and worldwide read book in many languages, A Course in Miracles, and taught today by people like Marianne Williamson, Beverly Hutchinson McNeff and the late Ken Wapnick.

Churches might also consider including more silent periods in it services.  They help add more mystery or “spirituality” to the hour.  They could use a bell or Tibetan Singing Bowl.  They might add some incense which helps associate breathing in the Spirit.  UU’s might even consider adding some form of “Holy Communion” which I believe they do not include.  Ashrams I visited in India regularly offered it, most on a daily basis.  I never thought we were literally eating a former guru, but simply breathing and ingesting the Spirit and Love of a recognized teacher.

Stephen Hoeller, a recognized scholar and expert in early church Gnosticism, believes the Roman Catholic Church “stole” the Eucharist with its liturgical forms from the early Gnostics.  However, the Roman Church, he says, made all the stories literal, even to the point of devouring Jesus’ body.  Yet whenever I visit the Mass in a Catholic Church, I always sense and feel the mystery, the “spiritual presence” with their chants, sounds and smells.

Yes, as Albert Schweitzer wrote in his 1906, The Quest of the Historical Jesus,

“What has been passing for Christianity these 19 centuries is merely a beginning, full of weakness and mistakes, not a full-grown Christianity springing up from the spirit of Jesus.”

Or as the Roman Catholic/turned India Guru, Bede Griffiths wrote, “Unless the church finds again its spiritual center it might just as well close up!”   God bless you all with peace!

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