It’s cold for an early summer evening. Mist hangs in the air, and the occasional breeze brings the damp air inside, through the screen onto the porch. The hawk in the great red oak drops from his perch, wings spread, and glides off into the gray twilight, no doubt looking for a better hunting ground. There isn’t a songbird in sight, and as I think about it, except for a chattering mockingbird in the cemetery down the hill, I haven’t heard a bird call in half an hour. My neighbor, head down, briefcase tucked tightly under his arm, umbrellaless, hurries home as the mist gives way to a steady, light rain.
Thomas, my red tabby, has had enough. He jumps to the floor from his perch on the chair next to me. His entire body ripples from nose to tail. I reach down to pet him and he flattens himself in that classic feline “don’t touch me” posture, but not before I feel the drops of moisture on his fur. He looks up at me, questioning whether I will follow him inside. Not yet, Thomas.
Surrounded by millions of people, quiet times, when both inner and outer worlds recede, are rarer for me than they used to be. I suppose I am not alone in that. There is just too much to do, too much to think about. And when we tire of the demands, there are too many options for hiding. I ate lunch in a local restaurant yesterday. Seated next to me were two middle-aged women, both wearing earbuds, faces buried in smartphones. Even had I wished to eavesdrop, there was nothing to hear. They were lost, not in private worlds but in private diversions. How much we miss.
Perhaps it is time to take seriously the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.” It is nothing more nor less than paying attention to the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of our present moment. It is not blocking out, rather it is not holding on to the busyness that assaults us. It is “hearing” the sounds, seeing the colors, feeling the passage of the air, and breathing in the smells of the city around us. There is nothing mystical about intentionally being alive.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us against excessive worry, and at a deeper level, he is inviting us to live more fully. In the Relaxation Response, physician Herbert Benson wrote of the mental and physical benefits of meditation: reduced anxiety, lowered blood pressure, more restful sleep, generalized feelings of well-being. Yet, meditative states elude most people. How often have I heard someone say: “I just can’t sit there doing nothing but counting breaths!” or “How many times do I have to say that mantra thing before something happens?” It is the desire for something to happen that is at the heart of the problem. There is too much “happening” already!
There is another way. It is simply to pay attention, real attention, deep attention to what is going on around you and inside you. It is to be “mindful.” Try it. Alone on the porch. Walking in the park. Absorbing the sights and sounds of a city street. Be fully engaged; be fully alive. It takes effort at first, but the result is worth it. You just might discover a new world. The one you live in.
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His snoring gives him away. Like a feral cat going to ground, Zamboni is deep in the linen closet. Unlike his wild counterparts, he prefers Fabreze-scented towels and soft linens. Growing older, he sleeps twenty hours a day. Sometimes basking in streams of sunlight in the middle of the library floor, at other times, hidden in what are now predictable haunts. Zamboni is the largest of our three cats, but he is the least sociable, the least courageous. Hiding is his reaction to any change, whether changes to routine, changes to the environment, or changes to people. A house guest can spend a week with us and never catch a glimpse of him.
Few of us can afford the linen closet however tempting it might be to hide from the world. We can accept it or resist it, but unlike a cat in hiding, we are rarely able to ignore change. I have known a score of people in my life who slept twenty hours a day. They are the ones on the subway with fixed stares and the blank-faced ones, motionless and emotionless before their computer monitors. Most of us are like the Daschiell Hammett character in the Maltese Falcon of whom Sam Spade said: “That’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to their not falling.” Accommodation and compromise. Perhaps the compromisers and the blank-faced ones are not that far apart. One acknowledges the changes, the other doesn’t notice. Neither questions.
Understanding each new situation is key to the art of living. How often do we react before we really understand what we are reacting against? The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” Paul is acutely aware of our shared tendency to defend our position regardless of the cost. He counsels restraint. Can I win this argument? Can I change the situation? Or are we both so entrenched in our positions that no mutual understanding is possible? If so, the only real outcome is resentment. Often, we go to battle before deciding whether or not this is a hill worth dying on.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus refuses to be drawn into an argument. His reply to inflammatory and confrontational statements diffuses the situation and leads to a deeper understanding of the real issues. We are not so quick witted as Jesus. David gives us sound advice in the fourth Psalm. “Be angry and sin not. Commune with your own hearts on your own bed and be still.” There is a time for the linen closet. A time for solitude and quiet meditation. It is in quietness and reflection that we will discern the courageous alternative. There is a time to rend and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak. Knowing the season makes all the difference.
Posted in Baptist, Christianity, Church, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Faith, God, Life, Religion, Spirituality, Virginia Baptists | Tagged 1 Corinthians, Baptists, behavior, charity, Christ, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, faith, grace, love, love your neighbor as yourself, loving yourself, manners, religion, sel-love, spirituality, Virginia Baptists | Leave a Comment »
A foundational belief among Baptists was the idea that each person, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was capable of interpreting and actualizing belief in Scripture. This individual freedom was to be moderated by a community of faith to which each individual was expected to belong. That is, early Baptists could not imagine anyone claiming the name of Christian who would not willingly seek out like-minded individuals to join with them in worship and mutual support. A corollary of this belief was and is that individuals are free to reject the claims of the Bible and to pursue their own interests, free of any coercion. Separation of church and state, another prized distinctive of founding Baptists flowed naturally from these beliefs. Baptists, who had suffered in England and the Colonies under harsh laws restricting their right to assembly and to proclaim their faith, were determined that the new nation would protect these basic rights.
Baptists were never naïve about religion in the public square. Reports from early Baptist missions through the newly-created states found “right thorny ground,” as one young man wrote in a letter to his sponsoring Association. Conversions and baptisms were few. The same individualism informing Baptist faith led many Americans to very different beliefs, or as was often the case to no beliefs, creating an American religious landscape that is pluralistic and often divisive.
The current culture wars reflect this diversity, but there is a disturbing tendency among evangelicals to forget both our own history and the promise of Jesus with respect to secular society. Far from declaring the triumph of the cross, Jesus proclaims rejection, betrayal, and persecution for those who follow him. “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” Jesus’ statement reflects the “already but not yet” dilemma facing the church in the modern world. Faith is required to witness to a different reality. Courage is required to proclaim the truth as we understand it. Humility is required to acknowledge that our interpretations may be wrong. In all things, we Baptists must give place to “soul competency,” i.e., that no one may be forced to the foot of the cross.
Jesus prayed for his disciples: “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” We are called to proclaim this love, making Jesus known to our world, not by force or legislation, but by example. The world sees neither God the Father nor the Son, but it sees us daily. The mistake we make is to believe that this witness will be painless, will be without cost. The last of the Beatitudes proclaims: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” We do not live in a country where masked men behead us on a beach, where frenzied mobs set fire to us and our families in our cars, where government agents dismantle the crosses on our buildings and remove church names from our doors. We do live in a country that is increasingly intolerant of our message, but living on “right thorny ground” is a far cry from the persecution experienced by our brothers and sisters around the world.
For us, the cost of discipleship is modest and the demand light. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.”
Posted in Baptist, Christian Discipleship, Christianity, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Evangelism, Faith, Religion, Sermons Online | Tagged Baptists, Christianity, church in the modern worlkd, intolerance, persecution, soul competence | Leave a Comment »
Down in Who-ville
Liked Christmas a lot …
But the Grinch,
Who lived just north of Who-ville,
With a heart two sizes too small, the Grinch is not only unable to join in the Who’s Christmas joy, he is incapable of understanding either the nature of Christmas or the reason for the holiday. He thinks that without the presents and the decorations and the Who-roast-beast there will be no Christmas. But in the end he finds he hasn’t stopped Christmas at all as hand-in-hand the Who’s joyfully sing “Without any presents at all!” Like Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, Dr. Seuss’ Grinch finds that there is something more going on here, and like Charles Dickens, Ted Seuss Geisel has written a classic tale that reminds us that buried beneath the weight of the Christmas industry there is something worth recovering.
Ted Geisel was fifty-three when he wrote How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the book there is a self-reference that expresses his frustration with what Christmas had become and his own struggle against the commercialization that by 1957 had all but obscured the true meaning of the season.
And the more the Grinch thought of this Who-Christmas-Sing, the more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!
“Why, for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now!
“I MUST stop this Christmas from coming!
… But HOW?”
We cannot stop this whole thing nor can we reverse the tide that has brought us here. The trouble is within us. Writing about the commercialization of Christmas has become hackneyed, and worse yet, misses the point. Our material culture exists because we want it. The mad rush to buy and sell, transforming what was once the second most sacred holiday in Christendom into an orgy of over-consumption, is the symptom of a greater malady. We have lost the ability to value the quiet, the sacred, the eternal that is our true self – the self-that walked with God in the cool of the day. (Gen. 3:8) And like our first parents we are found to be hiding, hiding from God and ourselves, for we dare not be found naked.
Yet it is the naked soul and only the naked soul that experiences true peace. The soul that seeks to shroud itself in robes spun from its own fancy can never be satisfied. This is the song of the world. Hurry! Hustle! Run! Quickly now, you mustn’t fall behind! The true song of the soul is heard in quietness and rest, and as Isaiah says, there is your true salvation. There is the music of the universe to soothe the soul. In Sand and Foam, Kahlil Gibran wrote, “How narrow is the vision that exalts the busyness of the ant above the singing of the grasshopper.” Have we lost the ability to appreciate the music of sheer play for play’s sake? How priceless are our days? Gibran went on to write,
They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold;
And I deem them mad because they think my days have a price.
It is wonderful to give and to receive at Christmas, but it is tragic to lose ourselves in that giving and getting. It is only the one whose days have no price that can joyfully join hands in Who-ville and sing, without any presents at all. And that is the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” That’s you in your soul’s most nakedness. This season: give with abandonment, receive without restraint, share without measure, and love unconditionally. Such is the love of Jesus, and the meaning of Christmas.
We can continue to live as if our hearts were two sizes too small, but wouldn’t it be better to live our days without a price, dancing to the music of God?
Posted in Baptist, belief, Bible, Bible Study, Christianity, Christmas, Church, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Culture, Faith, God, morality, morals, Religion, Spirituality, Theology, Uncategorized, Virginia Baptists, Worship | Tagged Baptists, behavior, charity, Christ, Christmas, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Dr. Seuss, faith, grace, Grich, How the Grinch stole Christmas, Kahlil Gibran, love, love your neighbor as yourself, religion, spirituality, Virginia Baptists | Leave a Comment »
I have early morning coffee twice weekly with an informal group in a local restaurant. The coffee is always accompanied by lively conversation. One man is fond of finding obscure Bible passages and seeming contradictions and seeing if he can stump the pastor. It’s a game we have been playing for several years. I don’t mind. It at least introduces the Bible into an otherwise secular conversation and often leads beyond the often trivial verse to deeper, more important subjects.
Recently I remained behind after the last of the group had left with the idea of spending some uninterrupted time with my laptop. It wasn’t long before a young man sitting nearby edged his chair closer to my table and asked if I were a pastor and if those were members of my congregation. I said yes and no. I am a pastor but only two of the group are active in a congregation and it isn’t one I serve. He was silent for a moment, then asked, “How can you be sure this stuff is real?” By stuff I took it that he meant Jesus and the Bible. I responded that there is a great deal of evidence to support the New Testament narrative from sources outside of the Bible, but ultimately, it is a matter of faith based on experience. No one will get very far in the Christian life if his faith is based only on the knowledge of a millennia-old book no matter how much of it he memorizes.
He seemed to struggle with that for a moment, then asked, “Why should I have to be told by a book what I can and can’t do?” I’ve learned after many years of pastoral care-giving not to push people to share beyond what they are ready to disclose, but it was obvious that something was troubling him. I said, simply, “Most often, the Bible just reinforces what we already know. There is very little in the Bible regarding behavior that is either new or novel. We know the difference between right and wrong without being told.” To borrow a phrased from the Gospels, “He went away sorrowful.”
I’ll never know what his specific dilemma was, but I have been at this long enough to know that he didn’t need me to tell him what to do. His struggle arose out of an internal conflict between desire and conscience. The Apostle Paul reminds us that if we listen our conscience will sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse us, but it will rarely be silenced. And that is because we share a built-in moral compass. As Moses spoke to the people of Israel as they approached the Jordan River:
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you, it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-14)
To freely paraphrase Harry Emerson Fosdick: No one stays awake at night worrying about what happened to the Jebusites. Who hasn’t spent a sleepless night worrying about what we’ve said and done? No, we don’t need a book to tell us what to do and how to behave, but those old stories tell us a lot about how we as people behave and what the consequences of our actions are likely to be. Those stories also tell us about a God who can be experienced in the here and now. What happened to the Jebusites is interesting to some of us, but of more interest is the God those stories reveal, the God waiting to be discovered in our daily lives. Do I believe what I teach others? Yeah, I do. And I find, like Moses, that it’s not too hard or too far away. I think Immanuel Kant said it best: “Two things fill my mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within me.”
Posted in A Christmas Carol, Baptist, Bible, Bible Study, Christianity, Church, Conscience, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Faith | Tagged Baptists, behavior, Christ, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship | 1 Comment »