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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The Inability to Decide

“Your function here is only to decide against deciding what you want, in recognition you do not know.”  A Course in Miracles, ch. 14, IV.5

 

Making decisions can be quite difficult and guilt producing.  Have you ever decided something, or anything, that you did not quickly began to second guess, or feel doubts about its wisdom?  I’m sure you have.  We all do.

 

In one of my favorite devotional books, created in the 1970’s by a woman named Helen Schucman, the above line is quoted.  Its truth continues to become more part of my life.  I have made many decisions in which I soon realized their uncertainty.  From golf club selection to speaking topics, from marriage to eating, I tend to keep wondering if the decision I made was the best.  (In golf, I often know immediately!)  We second guess and question books we read, colleges and schools attended, spouse or spouses chosen, career or careers lived.  How can we know which is right?

 

We cannot know!  It’s impossible.  Nothing is certain in the early, time bound sphere.  We are bombarded with millions of stimuli each second–from commercial ads, newspaper articles, and political debates.  It is the nature of the brain and living itself.  We often cannot sleep because questions and decisions do not stop for rest.

 

To “decide against deciding what you want” seems like a slam to our egos and sense of security.  But it can also be seen as freedom.  It can be the freedom to let go into a higher power, or God, or something transcendent from our normal time/bound bodies.  This is what I have learned, and continue to learn, over a lifetime of study and trying to practice “religion.”  Many if not most religions try to help in telling us what to think, believe, say, do or not do.  Some become very exclusive and brutal toward those who do not accept such beliefs.

 

A deeper awareness has led many to see ourselves as not our body/minds as normally acknowledged.  We are something else.  I believe A Course in Miracles teaches this very clearly.  Other forms of spirituality, I have also discovered, remind us we of this same truth.  Many are from the Eastern religions and from recently discovered early church writings before the 4th century.  We can grow to see ourselves as spiritual entities which have chosen to have bodily experiences.  I first began to ponder this when, as a teacher pointed, out how I always refer to my body from the viewpoint of a third person observer.  I speak of my body, my arm, my brain, my eyes, etc. as the observer.  The True I or Self, I learned to be another dimension, what many ancient and contemporary teachers call the beginning, or an “awakening.”

 

The book, A Course in Miracles, is a modern helpful for many in Western cultures with closer proximity and familiarity with traditional Christianity.  However, it challenges the traditional Christianity of the 4th Century, one based on dogmas and creeds, with its strong emphasis upon our Christ Selves as being one with God.  Such an awakening became not only astounding to myself, as to many others, but gave me a path and way to experience deeper freedom and peace in my life.  I slowly learned to let go and live in a world of constant relativity.

 

We can thus learn to live with the awareness, with a profound relief, that we do not know and cannot decide specifics with lasting certainty.  We can welcome the “laws of chaos” as renewed in conversation over 100 years ago.  We can “let go and let God” as the phrase is often heard.  The Course says, “When you have learned how to decide with God, all decisions become as easy and right as breathing.  There is no effort, and you will be led as gently as if you were being carried down a quiet path in summer.”  (T-14.IV.6) What a relief such realization can bring!  It is a teaching and truth we can return to daily, even hourly, and throughout our years in this temporary existence.

 

We renew such release each time we stop and become still, giving up all thoughts and focusing on our breath in meditation.  It is the meaning of the Psalm verse, “Be still and know I am God.”  (Psalm 46:10) It is meaning of the unknown writer of the 14th century book, “The Cloud of Unknowing,” whereby we know and experience a peace not of this world.  We can put aside deciding and calculating, and just “be.”

 

I hope you experience some of this today and each day.  Live in this world but remember, we are not of it.  Your Self or identity is with the Great All, the Oneness of Everything, whom we can call among other things, God.

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How Should I Vote??


In another marathon voting season, lasting at least two years, we may wonder who we ought to vote for, who will “save” our country from more of its evils and flaws.  We also might wonder if we could have a shorter season, like the Canadians, or the Brits, with just a few weeks.  And a lot less money.

When I find myself tense over possible outcomes with various candidates, I try to remember to take a deep breath and relax.  No one is going to “fix it.”  Fixes for myriads of social ills have been applied since time began and humanity began walking on earth.  Most reforms come from philosophical and religious viewpoints.  Some changes seem outrageous and evil, its leaders portrayed as evil, wicked, and deserving of death.  How then can we decide?

As one who has tried to live and teach “spirituality,” I often have asked how one’s choice or viewpoint can make a difference?  Throughout my career, I grew to accept certain candidates as more “Christian” according to my brand at the time.  Thus choices changed as I moved from fundamentalist, evangelical, and liberal Christianity into what I consider to be a more “spiritual viewpoint.”

In July, 1986, I met Fr. Anthony de Mello during a conference in Syracuse.  A Jesuit teacher from India, he was teaching “spirituality.”  In his mid-50’s with a sharp wit and gifted speaking ability, he said, “If you are detached and free, you will become ‘social action!’”  His words stunned me, as I tried to understand what he meant.  It was like seeing a new flower beginning to bloom and wanting to learn more about it.

When I was around 12 years old, I considered myself “born again” because I accepted Jesus as my savior.  In a few years, I was taught to associate this born again experience with voting for certain candidates.  I eventually campaigned for some with bumper stickers and phone calls.  What occurred over the years, however, was that my understanding of “born again” expanded and my views evolved to an expanded realization.

Today, I try to see others from more than a “human point of view.”  I tend to see them at a deeper level, beyond the outside identities and views they might have been taught.  I am more likely to see human bodies as temporary as I do the whole world: indeed, the whole universe.  For what we see outside ourselves as bodies and earth and universe, are all temporal.  They change and pass with time.

The Bible has a verse which goes, “…we regard no one from a human point of view.”  Further, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!”  These are words from an early church writer named “Paul” in a letter he wrote called 2nd Corinthians, chapter 5, verses 16 and 17.  Over the years, this idea has evolved and blossomed in me to see everything differently.  I have grown to see my body as only a temporary housing, with all its identities and actions.  The body, however, is not who I really am.  Paul wrote in the same chapter, “…we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven.”  It is one of my favorite Bible passages which I have read at many funeral services conducted over the years.

In “awakening,” we see our bodies not as who we are.  Contrary, we see our essence as spirit or Christ, or whatever name people have called it over the many centuries in different cultures.  There have always been teachers or “enlightened” people who discovered this, either through other teachers or in simple “awakenings.”  In this new awareness, or birth, we grow to see everything differently.  Earlier beliefs and teachings often are transformed or even discarded.  We can grow old seeing more deeply our bodies as temporary houses, used hopefully for some kindnesses to others before we move back into our “Eternal Oneness.”

How then, does this understanding affect my voting perspectives?  First, as spiritual teachers have often said, the outside world of form and matter is only temporary.  It comes and goes.  Beyond using this world to discover our deepest Selves, it can be seen as quite a crazy place!  Fr. de Mello taught, “Unless you see the outside world as mostly purposelessness and crazy, you will never be free!”  Or, as the Bible says, “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 of 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, NRSV)

Sri Ramana Maharishi, whose ashram I visited in southern India, once said,

“Discontent is due to the wrong identity of the Eternal Self with the perishable body.  The body is a necessary adjunt of the ego.  If the ego is killed, the  eternal Self is revealed in all its glory.  The body is the cross, Jesus, the Son of Man, is the ego or ‘I-am-the-body’ idea.  When he is crucified, he is resurrected, a Glorious Self, Jesus, the Son of God.  Give up this life if you wouldst live.”  (Talk 396 in “Conscious Immortality” by Paul Brunton)

How can I best vote and make an impact of positive help in a very angry and insane world?  By not taking it so seriously.  By staying detached with a healthy and detached distance.  Be not like the bee who came to the honey and got stuck!  Vote for the one who seems in your mind the most detached and loving, those who appear to love and reach out to those most discouraged, hungry, and in need of basic humanitarian help.  Yes, these are loaded words.  There will always be plenty of such need as long as this world exists.  Thus we remember the purpose of the world, a “classroom” to awaken to our Higher Christ Selves and then share the vision with others.

What if my favored candidate loses and all seems more scarier than before?  Remember, such is the cycle of the physical, time-bound world.  It is a scary place, but it will pass.  In reality, there is no death, only a moving on or back to our Source.  The Bible and “Holy books” are filled with such references.  People have learned to die with complete surrender and peace.

Thus, be detached from the things of this world, and you WILL be social action and change!  And being kind and forgiving to your neighbors who might vote differently, is a good place to start.

 

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The Mythological Meaning of Easter

 

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I attended three seminaries, earned three degrees in religious studies, including an undergraduate degree from a Bible College. Yet not once was I told about earlier books and scriptures similar to those in the Christian Bible. Today such seems beyond incredible.

In all my earlier Bible studies, preparing for ordination, I never learned about earlier writings discovered in 1945 in a northern Egyptian cave near Nag Hammadi. At Pittsburgh Seminary I heard a few mentions of a writing called “St. Thomas” which was one of the books discovered in Nag Hammadi. Yet it wasn’t until the late 1980’s I became award of 70 other gospel writings and fragments.  None of these early church writings made it into the 4th Century “canonized” Bible. I wondered “why?”

I discovered these “lost writings” of the early church never mentioned a bodily resurrection of a man named Jesus. In one Nag Hammadi letter called “The Treatise of Resurrection,” resurrection is mentioned but the idea is described as an “awakening.” The letter declares people can see or understand themselves as already resurrected!  What did that mean?

On Easter, 1992, I finally offered my first sermon describing the Resurrection of Jesus as not a literal event but as a mythological teaching of spiritual awakening. I wasn’t fired and most people appreciated it. No charges were filed. By this time, I long considered the Biblical “miracles” in the Bible as symbols of spiritual truths.

In 2010, one year after I retired, a science friend of mine sent me a book describing the 1799 discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Rosetta Egypt. By 1812 linguistic specialists were able to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics from the stone that opened up languages dating back thousands of years. In languages of six surrounding countries, a similar story of Jesus’ resurrection in the Christian Bible was found. Each contained a virgin birth at Christmas during the winter solstice and a crucifixion three years later on the spring equinox or what we know as Easter. All were mythological stories teaching the need for human beings to awaken to their eternal Selves!

In our century, these findings became published in important books. One of the first was written by Alvin Boyd Kuhn in 1949, “Shadow of the Third Century: A Revaluation of Christianity.” British researchers Tim Freke and Peter Gandy wrote a more recent one, sent to me by my science friend, called “The Jesus Mysteries.” The third one I read came from the hand of a Toronto Anglican theologian named Tom Harpur, “The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity.”

What are my conclusions? Most traditional churches today are dying yet most of them still teach the literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Those who seem to be thriving surround the story with state of the art sound and visual systems with modern looking preachers, mostly men, who often shed pulpit robes for jeans and cowboy shirts. They seem ignorant or at least stubbornly resist these recent writings, if known, but give the people a good time amid words of “Jesus still loves and surrounds them.”

Mainline churches mostly ignore the spiritual teachings of symbolism or mythology. Many work to deepen a modern “spiritual experience” by returning to a stricter following of 4th Century lectionaries and books of “Christian Prayer.” Such “renewals” can work for a while, as for myself in the 1980’s, but soon other questions arise.

Many seek to fill the gap with “ethical issues” or social justice. “I’ve been there and done that” too.  I support many of what I consider “social justice” issues: equality of sexes, races, anti-war efforts, and a cleaner environment. Yet politics and social issues change and evolve with each generation.  One change must soon be redone, upgraded, or reversed.  In countries with higher records of equality and standards of living, many which I have visited, despair of life’s purpose with high suicide rates still prevail. The ultimate questions of life and death, in my opinion, are easily ignored, or missed.  Such questions as “What is the deeper meaning of life?” or “Who am I?  Why am I here?  What is death?” are seldom addressed.

An oft-used Greek work for “Resurrection” is ἐγείρω. It means “to awaken.” Awaken to what? To our spirit self, called the Atman” in Hinduism, “deh” in Buddhism, and “Christ” in early Christianity. People in early Christianity called themselves “Christian” meaning “Christ One.”

Awakening is seeing our True Selves as God!  Perfect, sinless, immortal, beyond limitations of space and time!  How does that make you feel? Well, I have found it works quite well! Wonderful! Freedom! Joyous!

When we fail to remember this identity, we easily, in my experience and observations, become worried, lonely, angry, judgmental, unkind and uncaring.   Do I?  Absolutely, or I wouldn’t be here. But when I get it down perfect, I won’t!  Meanwhile, my “God” concept is One who always forgives.  I speak of this ideas often in most of my talks. To me it is the heart of religion, if that is what you want to name it.

Freedom and happiness, which most of us crave, come not just from homes and lives filled with conveniences and gadgets and nice vacations. Yes, I enjoy some of those myself. But the ultimate answers arise from the meaning of my existence: what went on before this person called myself arrived and what happens after the “I self” leaves.

Where and who are the major respected teachers of this spirituality found today? If answers to spiritual questions and meaning are sought, they will be found outside of most organized religions. You can even “Google it” and see for yourselves. Names like the late Wayne Dyer, Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, Deepak Chopra, Tich Nhat Hahn, Louise Hay, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhonda Byrne will be found. Where do you find them? They are outside of churches and traditional Christianity. They never attended our seminaries. They never received sacred ordinations!  They had personal awakenings, studied in ashrams, retreat centers, took yoga classes or watched NPR fundraising shows!

What do these top teachers have in common? They talk about our Inner Selves, how to awaken to our intuitive minds and inmost longings. They teach how to use our abilities to think and choose as our close, “onboard” faithful friends. They teach yoga and relaxation, meditation and quietness, how to feel connection and oneness with the entire universe, even including those who oppose or hate us.

The tradition Easter Story can also be a way to talk about these ancient spiritual truths. I adapted it for years. It is a story based on astronomy, from those who in ancient times sat in wonder gazing at heavens, receiving visions of deeper purpose and meaning for our short lives on earth. The story begins with the winter Solstice or Christmas. Into the darkest season of the Northern Hemisphere, representing our deepest longings for joy, the “Savior” is born, or we could name it hope or light. It’s a “virgin birth,” meaning we decide for ourselves!  Easter, the spring equinox, symbolizes our rising out of darkness, our long winters, to connect with our heavenly or vertical Selves. The cross becomes the triumph of the immortal Self over our mortality.

The Christian story is just one form of the many stories or ways of awakening. Native Americans have theirs, called a “vision quest.” Eastern countries have theirs, The Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching with teachers (Gurus) to help seekers shed the ego and awaken to the immortal self.

Within Easter season, as in all stories, we must remember the stories are only pointers, not absolutes. They are symbols of the indescribable. In India it is said, “When the wise man points the finger to the moon, all the fool sees is the finger!” That’s what literalism tends to do. It argues, debates and hangs on to fingers and then misses the moon.

Thus in this season, may a happy and blessed awakening come to all, symbolized by the opening yellow daffodils, shouting green blades of grass, and the fresh warm breezes of spring!

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What About Reincarnation?

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A recent Harris Poll revealed about 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation. (http://www.tricycle.com/p/2236) If just Native Americans were polled, most believe it is so. Maybe some of you may or may not when I’m finished!

I have reflected on the idea since I traveled to India in 1986. Near the end of my trip, high in the Himalayas Mountains at an ashram named “Sattal,” I met an English couple. They had been in India a few weeks visiting and studying in various ashrams. Taking a walk one day, they asked me, “What do you think about reincarnation?” It took me by surprise and I stumbled out a few words about our church didn’t believe in it. Their reaction was surprise that I, a religious minister, had never studied the idea.

I discovered reincarnation is referred to often in the Bible. I studied the Bible in four different Christian schools, half of them Presbyterian, and never heard anything about reincarnation, at least nothing positive. But let me refer you to a few Bible verses, which seem quite supportive of the idea of reincarnation. Whether you read or even believe much of the Bible, the idea that reincarnation is supported from it might be surprising.

In Matthew’s gospel we read the popular belief of Jesus being a reincarnated earlier prophets. As he and his disciples walked along a road to Caesarea, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist; and others Elijah; and still others say, one of the prophets.”  Obviously word had spread Jesus was an incarnation of one of these early teachers. So Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (17:10-13) So, was the Messiah a reincarnation of an earlier figure? The word means “anointing one.”

Three times Jesus assured his disciples John the Baptist was actually the reincarnation of the former prophet Elijah. In speaking of John he said, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” Then it says, “The disciples understood he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:12)

In John’s gospel there is the story of a man named Nicodemus who sneaked by one evening to see Jesus alone. Nicodemus was a leader in the Pharisees, it says, and he acknowledged Jesus as a great leader, a rabbinical teacher, perhaps wondering if he was a reincarnation from earlier times. “Who are you?” Nicodemus asked. “By what authority do you do these things?” Jesus answered, “Unless one be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replied; “How can one be born again unless he enters again into his mother’s womb and be reborn?” Nicodemus assumed Jesus was talking about reincarnation but Jesus wasn’t. He was talking about a “spiritual awakening” giving one a new view of life comparable to being born again into another life!

Another time the Bible says the disciples asked Jesus about sins committed in past lives, which would need to be dealt with in future ones. In John 9, verse 2, it says they saw a man near them apparently born blind. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but so that the works of God can to be made manifested in him.” In other words, Jesus seems to say one can break out of the cycle of rebirths by new decisions by special healings, which Jesus then demonstrated.

Besides many references to reincarnation in the Bible, there were many well known teachers in the early Christian Church who supported it. Justin Martyr, surnamed because of his death by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 167 A. D. believed and taught reincarnation stating Plato’s belief in the transmigration of souls into more than one human body.

Origen, another one of the great early teachers of the early church who died in 254 A.D., was considered by St. Jerome in the 4th Century as the “greatest teacher of the Church after the apostles.” Origen defended the idea the soul exists before the body, writing, “The soul has neither beginning nor end. They come into this world strengthened by their victories and weakened by their defeats of their previous lives.”   (De Principiis)

Origen also wrote, “Is it not more in accordance with common sense that every soul for reasons unknown enters the body influenced by its past deeds? The soul has a body at its disposal for a certain period of time which, due to its changeable condition, eventually is no longer suitable for the soul, whereupon it changes that body for another.” (Contra Celsum)

Another famous Church Father, St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376, also a student of Origen, wrote: “It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives. The soul is immaterial and invisible in nature, it at one time puts off one body and exchanges it for a second.”

The great St. Augustine who died in 430 A.D, a century after the official formation of the Roman Catholic Church, seemed to believe the philosopher Plotinus was the reincarnation of Plato. He wrote, “The message of Plato now shines forth mainly in Plotinus, a Platonist so like his master that one would think Plato was born again in Plotinus.”

So how and when did the Catholic Church ban the teachings of reincarnation? It was a fairly confusing process but here’s a summary. In 330 A.D. the Emperor Constantine, who had ordered the creation of the Roman Catholic Church and the making of the Apostles’ Creed, moved the center of the Catholicism to Constantinople, or known today as Istanbul. The Western part of the church remained in Rome, where reincarnation remained an acceptable doctrine. However, in 553 A.D. the Emperor Justinian, who then ruled from Constantinople, called a sudden convocation of all Catholic Bishops. Only 6 bishops came from Rome in the West while 159 attended from the Eastern Church. Justinian, at the urging of his wife some say, asked the Bishops to condemn the teaching of reincarnation. It easily passed. The Emperor, even as Pope Vigillus was absent, then declared reincarnation a heresy to be punished by excommunication.

But is reincarnation a justifiable teaching?   Is there any scientific evidence it exists? The first book I read on the topic was “Many Lives, Many Masters” written by Brian Weiss, medical doctor and chief of psychiatry for Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida. In 1982, he hypnotized a young woman he had been treating twice a week for 18 months. She suffered from acute phobias once or twice a week. Nothing seemed to help her. In the first session he gently asked her for any significant memories from her past. Under hypnosis, she remembered a disturbing sexual encounter with her drunken father at age 3. There was some improvement in her condition but nothing significant to alleviate her phobias. So Weiss hypnotized her again and in a deep commanding voice said, “Go back to the time from which are symptoms arise.” She began to speak in a quiet and horse whisper. There were long pauses but she began to speak, describing white steps leading up a big white building with pillars. She said, “I am wearing a long dress, sackcloth made of rough material. My name is Aronda. I am 18. I see a marketplace. There are baskets. You carry the baskets on your shoulder. We live in a valley. There is no water. The year was 1863 BC.”   Before the end of the session, Aronda died, terrified gasping and choking in a flood. This session became a turning point for the woman, Weiss said. He went on and treated her for several months. She would become Johan who slit his throat in the Netherlands on 1473; Abby, a servant in 19 century Virginia; Christian, a Welsh sailor; Eric a German aviator; a boy in the Ukraine in1758 whose father was executed in prison.   And, according to Weiss, she became well. (Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, 1988.)

Last autumn I read a book called Old Souls written by an investigative reporter from the Miami Herald named Tom Shroder.   Shroder always doubted the veracity of Weiss’ book, feeling he had not used enough scientific checks and collaboration to verify his client’s stories. After reading his critiques, Dr. Ian Stevenson, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, invited Shroder to accompany him on trip to meet children who spoke of previous lives. Stevenson had traveled and worked over 30 years documenting more than 2000 cases of children who gave evidence of knowing previous lives. Reporter Schroder accepted and accompanied him on trips to Lebanon and India to interview and investigate children who gave viable evidence of having lived previous lives. It’s a fascinating story. They met children who often spoke languages from other tribes or countries in which they once lived, or identified and spoke to neighbors whom they pointed out were previous parents from other lives.

When the trips were completed Schroder was puzzled and intrigued but still not certain. So Dr. Stevenson suggested he investigate a local case outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Schroder accepted and met a child in a rural area who often said his parents were not his “real” parents. One day the boy was riding with his parents and suddenly recognized what he claimed to be his former life on another farm. The young boy described the farm with specific details and when they drove up the road there sat the farm exactly on the curve as the boy described along with another building the boy described being there. Schroder, always a skeptical reporter, still wasn’t totally convinced but wrote how we must expand our idea of research and what possible. He learned to appreciate Dr. Ian Stevenson’s words: “I don’t think there is any proof in science outside of mathematics. However, of all cases we know now, at least for some, reincarnation is the best explanation we have been able to come up with. There is an impressive body of evidence, and I think it is getting stronger all the time. I think a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence.” (Old Souls, The Scientific Evidence of Past Lives by Tom Schroder, Simon and Schuster, 1999)

So what might we conclude? How might the possibility of our being a migration of souls from previous incarnations into future ones affect us? There have been many papers and writings on this topic. In Hinduism the word “karma” is used. It simply means “cause and effect,” that what we sow is what we reap. In some reincarnation beliefs, to be a mean, violent, or dishonest person gives you a higher chance of returning in another life as a rat! Or a pig, or whatever. It teaches we pay consequences for our attitudes and actions.   We saw it earlier in the Bible with the beliefs about blindness.   In Luke 12 it says “You shall stay in prison until you have paid the last mite!” Would the “prison” perhaps be another incarnation as a “lesson teacher?” In classic Catholicism one also faces consequences in purgatory. In Hinduism, you return again in a lower form of life. The worse case scenario occurs in Protestant orthodoxy, “You will burn in hell forever!” The atheist are more full of mercy; you just go back to dust, finished! So the idea of consequences of one life leading into another, can, in the minds of some motivate better life decision-making.

Eastern religions teach the process of reincarnation continues until we become “realized souls,” or awakened to our Higher Divine Self which is Oneness with the Great Spirit. In one ashram I visited in southern India, the late Guru had warned about dwelling too much on reincarnations or “karma.” He once said, “There is a class of people who want to know all about their future and past births. They ignore the present. The load from the past is the present misery. Why recall the past? It is a waste of time. They relate to the body and not to the Self.” (Sri Ramana Maharshi in Conscious Immortality recorded by Paul Brunton, 1935-1939)

The contemporary book, A Course in Miracles, has a small section called “Is Reincarnation So?” It says “there is no past or future, and the idea of birth into a body has no meaning either once or many times. Reincarnation cannot then be true in any real sense and the only question should be ‘is the concept helpful?’ And that depends on what it is used for. If it is used to strengthen the recognition of the eternal nature of life, it is helpful indeed. … Like many other beliefs it can be bitterly misused. At least, such misuse offers preoccupation and perhaps pride in the past. At worst, it induces inertia in the present. In between, many kinds of folly are possible.” (A Course in Miracles, chapter 24, Manual for Teachers. 3rd Edition, published 2007 by Foundation for Inner Peace.)

So, what is my advice? Use the idea if it helps you become freer from negativity, judgment, sadness and fear. Most importantly, live in the now, realizing time is merely a passing entity, created by mortal body minds amid rotating planets called the universe. May the words of the Bible become our goal: “Whatever is kind, loving and good, think on these things. And whatsoever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 RSV).

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Reason for the Season

Reason In The Season

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Amid the busyness of the holiday season some, feeling a little “Alfie-like” may ask, “What’s it all about?” Was there really a baby born in Bethlehem? Were there really angels singing to shepherds on a hillside?   And was there a pregnant mother riding a donkey led by a man called Joseph into a stable because there was no room at the inn? A couple days ago I saw a church sign saying, “Christmas is not a day but a state of mind.” I liked it but how is it just a state of mind?

Christmas is an experience of the soul or heart, a feeling of release to deep peace. Further, Christmas season features various symbolic events that can teach minds this attitude. The traditional events of the Christian story can enhance this experience.

A year ago I sat with my wife in Kleinhans Hall listing to the Celtic Thunder sing Christmas songs. As the tenor sang “O Holy Night,” I suddenly felt a peace bringing me almost to tears. It wasn’t because Christmas itself is a more holy night than any another. It was because two weeks before the day, I felt it in my mind and deeper being.

There is no hard evidence that the Bible stories about Christmas are literally true. This time of year, the darkest days leading to the winter solstice, reflect possibilities of our seeing or experiencing the inward light of peace. The darkness symbolizes our fears and guilt, sleepless night or daily stress and sorrow we endure too many days of our years.

On Christmas Day, you may feel sick or lonely, tired and exhausted. Perhaps you must work, or deal with the sad death of a relative or friend. Yet amid the darkness the remembrance of a Divine within can bring hope like a ray of starlight.

The Christmas story is an ancient one told in the northern hemisphere over many centuries. Yet the solstice experience becomes as real in Australia as in Finland. Lonely shepherds can be yourself just as the frighten Mary or her puzzled husband Joseph. The virgin birth points to our self-discovery, finding it within ourselves, and awakening by the gift of Love within our deepest desires. For we all are part of the Divine Presence, the Eternal Self, or the “I of Love” within.

May it be felt in you and me this season, even today. Whatever our state in life–refugee, criminal, policeman, president, or the minister/priest arrayed in holy garments, our needs and longings are identical. We want peace, forgiveness, love, purpose, and hope for our days. In silence may we find and feel it, making a holy night, a blooming desert, and burst of new joy to all the weary inhabitants of the world.

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Forgiveness Means Correction!

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“Correction must be left to the One Who knows correction and forgiveness are the same.” ACIM, ch. 27.II.16

 

“Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22 NRSV

 

Are you a forgiving person? Do you feel you must always be right?

 

Forgiveness is critical to living here without bitterness and sadness. Grudges rob us of both joy and the ability to live with freedom. Forgiveness gives power and energy which can inspire other lives. Forgiveness radiates everywhere.

 

In the Course in Miracles, forgiveness and correction are the same. Yes, like others, I can forgive but not forget. We lie in wait for the other to fall and then we cash in, get even. It’s hard to forgive and let go. Is it possible in today’s world? How?

 

According to the Course and the Bible (two I know fairly well J), the ability to forgive lies in understanding who we are. If we never question our identity, as many do, we settle for identifying ourselves as mortal bodies. We will define ourselves as male or female, rich or poor, tall or short, by race, nation, education, gay or straight. Metaphysically, or beyond physical reality, these definitions are meaningless. As the Bible says, ‘There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)

 

In the Course, we are continually taught we are not our bodies. They are illusions, dreams of who we assume we might be. In truth, we are Spirit, one with God. How then do these ideas teach forgiveness equals correction?

 

Because when we forgive we forget or see beyond ourselves as temporal bodies! It’s all temporal here. In Spirit, as when in deep sleep, we are out of bodies! We are Spirit, part of the Great Immortal Nothing. So when forsaken or betrayed by another, it means nothing. Right or wrong. We let it go. It is corrected. We need nothing but free immortality. Finitude translates to infinitude.

 

Correction lets go and returns to peace, happiness, and joy. It’s “whatever?” In the end, wealth, health, travel, and race mean nothing! They are only temporary learning tools to let go and return to another realization called reality.

 

Try it! The next time someone seems to hurt or attack you, even if deserved, go with the flow. Let it go. The person missed “true you.” Become happy! Don’t worry. There is no way you lose. This is the essence of Jesus being nailed to a cross. “Father, forgive them,” he said, “they know not what they do!” It’s okay. I’m going Home.

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