A PRAYER FOR SERENITY, COURAGE, AND WISDOM

Next to the Lord’s Prayer, the most frequently uttered prayer in the English language may be this one:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

I first heard the prayer, in this form, decades ago when one of the last century’s greatest theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr, concluded a sermon with it.

Niebuhr was long believed to have composed the Serenity Prayer himself, but convincing evidence to the contrary now exists. Even so, his theological outlook provides the right context for its appreciation, then and now.

For Niebuhr, what was wrong with American society was what he called its “self-congratulatory cheeriness.” It fostered a number of beliefs that are both wrong and harmful.

One is that our society provides equal opportunities for all, and that with hard work and a positive mental attitude, success is just around the corner for everyone. With this cheery conviction goes a more disturbing one, to the effect that the more self-enhancing one’s successes are, the more praiseworthy they are.

Niebuhr knew better than to take this attitude as anything other than a delusion. Serenity, courage, and wisdom are anything but the just deserts of a narcissistic culture. They are spiritual gifts which can come only to those willing to acknowledge a Spirit and a Power greater than their own.

With that kind of acknowledgement, life becomes blessed with inner peace, a passion for the Good, and a sense of ultimate meaning in things. Without it, serenity becomes equated only with satiation, courage with aggressiveness, and wisdom with self-aggrandizing shrewdness.

If Reinhold Niebuhr did not in fact pen the Serenity Prayer, it is still true to say that no one understood better than he did why it has to begin the way it does. It begins with a petition to a Power higher than we are because our compulsions and addictions make it impossible to achieve serenity, courage, and wisdom all on our own.

On our own merits, we are not worthy to claim these virtues. Left to our own devices, we are more likely to seek serenity from a bottle, courage from a gun, and wisdom from anyone who never disagrees with us on anything.

Thank God, we are not on our own.

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COMING TO FAITH: A THIRD WAY?

For many inquiring people, traditional ways of coming to faith are no longer offering the promise they once did. In specific, neither growing up in a religious community, nor seeking a dramatic conversion, is for them.

Is there another way? I believe there is. But first, a few words about these much cherished older routes to life in the Spirit.

One word is that the idea of growing up in a respectable community of always-been, always-will-be believers has a certain coziness about it. But the womb-to-tomb nurture it idealizes too often puts seeking contentment over facing challenges and building consensus over encouraging exploration.

And dramatic as they may be in the moment, decisions for faith made in the dark nights of desperation, or in the heat of hell-fire-and-damnation preaching, or in the ecstatic state of encounter with what may seem Divine at the time, are notorious for their lack of staying power. Most importantly, they do not leave much room for further growth in knowledge and love of God and the world.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, conversion and nurture have tended to be opposed to one another. Distressed over this state of affairs, many religious teachers have insisted that coming to faith requires openness to both rather than to just one. But I find little evidence that combining these approaches is any more effective than is following one of them to the exclusion of the other.

What today’s spiritually hungry most deserve is an altogether different way to faith from these more traditional ones. As I envision it, it is a way of coming to our own conclusions about life, the world, God, meeting the needs of others, and what is to come, on earth and in heaven.

To follow this way, one must be open to learning about and facing courageously as many visions of, and alternatives to, faith as human beings are capable of generating. A faith worthy of the name considers at every step of its development the possibility that one or more of these alternatives — mythological, philosophical, religious, ethical — may make more sense than one’s own considered beliefs do.

A faith truly worth living by is a faith built upon respectful deliberation about the alternatives to it, and not upon petulant insistence that there are none worthy of a true believer’s respect and deliberation at all.

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PREVAILING AGAINST SADNESS

No one these days escapes powerful uprushes of fear. Economic stagnation, terror threats, high unemployment, government ineffectiveness, collapsing social values, and corruption on a global scale will do that to you. But ratcheting down our fears will not help us very much to cope with an even larger problem.

That problem is despair. Theologians call it accedia, a listless sorrow that can end in a state of soul-killing sloth. It is a deep and abiding sadness over losses too numerous to enumerate, too important to discount, and too searing fully to heal.

John Bunyan referred to sadness like this as a “slough of despond.” For Kierkegaard it was a “sickness unto death.” Today, we settle for calling it a sense of hopelessness.

Actually, though, despair is anything but hopeless. It springs from something quite commonplace, what Freud named the ordinary human unhappiness that plagues us before neurotic misery sets in.

Mostly, we make ourselves unhappy by refusing to accept as inevitable the gap between our aspirations and accomplishments, between what we ought to make so, can make so, and actually do make so. Then we cling to the conviction that we are alone in our misery. Finally, we fall into the delusion that, if we can’t cure our unhappiness, we can at least medicate it by alcohol, sex, drugs, social media, money, pills, bucking for promotions, running for office, or all of the above.

Despair is avoidable, even if the sadness that gives rise to it is not. We make ourselves vulnerable to sadness because we let things and people matter to us. The pain that comes from losing them is inevitable, but it is also endurable, if we resist defining the whole of life in terms of it and anesthetizing it.

To borrow a couple of words from William Faulkner, we can do more than merely endure sadness. We can prevail over it. How? By accepting the nurture of others, who know from experience what the pain of loss and sadness is like. By allowing them to teach us how hope soothes sorrow, love transforms self-preoccupation, and empathy gives way to ecstasy, to the standing outside of ourselves in an enveloping of others with care.

Johann Franck’s words make both for good advice and good hymnody:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,

Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,

Come into the daylight’s splendor…

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IS JESUS COMING AGAIN?

An early Christian hymn told of a man who emptied himself for others, for which God exalted him as the Jew’s Messiah and the world’s Savior. We  are to empty ourselves for others, as he did.

And that, in brief, is the Christian message. Its meaning is hard to miss, but harder to live out. Self-emptying is not for very many what life is all about. Self-gratification is.

Perhaps, then, more needs elaborating on this subject by God. What has already been proclaimed may not be enough. At least, church teaching seems to say so.

Its saying so has been accompanied almost from the beginning by a very different picture of the Jesus than the Jesus the world actually got. The new picture is of a Jesus who will come again in power “to judge the living and the dead.”

With his final separation of the righteous and unrighteous comes also the end of history and the annihilation of the cosmos. It’s hard to celebrate Jesus’ first coming while contemplating such a frightening picture of his second.

Undoubtedly, Christian faith communities have a long way to go in embodying the true meaning of Jesus’ first coming. Perhaps this is why God keeps holding off on the second. God wants us to get the first one right.

But if we ever do get the first one right, will there be a need for a second coming at all? I hardly think so. At least, surely not a second coming of the sort described above.

There does seem to be something so compelling about the idea of a second coming that Christian theology has not been able to do without it. But there are better ways to bring it to symbolic expression than the way of official church doctrine.

One is to see the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the true second coming. The problem is that the risen Lord ascended to heaven too soon to be the constant, caring presence we need in this life, and not just in the next.

Another way is to see the second coming as faith evoked within us by God’s Spirit. John’s Gospel puts this in terms of the coming of an Advocate (Paraclete) who will lead us into all truth.

I like this idea of Jesus’ second coming. Especially because it does not take away the joy of celebrating his first.

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ECONOMICS AND THE BIBLE

It is one thing to believe that a collection of religious writings contains all that is necessary for salvation. It is quite another to believe that it answers every question about life in any sphere whatever.

For example, consider our economic life, as illumined by the Bible. One Old Testament text from The Book of Amos defines very clearly a starting point for the reflecting:

Listen to this, you that grind the poor and suppress the humble in the land while you say…“When will the sabbath be past so that we may expose our wheat for sale, giving short measure in the bushel and taking overweight in the silver, tilting the scales fraudulently, and selling the refuse of the wheat; that we may buy the weak for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals?”  (8:4-6)

As texts like these are interpreted today, the emphasis falls on meeting the needs of the poor as the basis of all economic decisions. Policies enacted at the expense of the poor put a society’s relationship with God in jeopardy.

This way of thinking does not line up well with the supply-side economic doctrines that are so prevalent in our time. At their heart is the decidedly unbiblical view that the best way to benefit those who have little is to encourage those who have more to get more still. A pouring down rain supposedly will raise all boats. In reality, it can sink many of them first.

Relentlessly, then, the Bible goes after people who are wealthier than most of the rest of us. But it also goes after people with modest holdings which are acquired by the same method used by the really rich, the method of investing. With annoying consistency, the Bible comes down hard on using money to earn interest. Paying interest is almost as bad as charging it.

There just went homeownership and start-up money, not to mention “getting ahead,” financial independence, and a secure retirement. Of course, it also knocks out fighting wars on credit, which might not be a bad thing.

Many pitfalls await those who point to their Bibles as containing the final word not just on Sonship but on everything else under the sun as well. Bringing life into line with those words is a much more daunting prospect than people who take all of them literally seem ready to acknowledge.

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WAITING FOR THE RAPTURE

For many Christians, a major purpose of faith is to make the world ready for Jesus Christ’s return in glory to usher in the end of the world. Here is how they expect the scenario to unfold:

First, those who have died in faith will be raised from their graves to meet believers still alive on the earth. Both groups will be lifted into the air together (“raptured”) to meet Christ. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)

From Paul’s time to the present, most readers of this passage see in it the image of an ascent to heaven. Then, to that image they add others of left behind souls writhing in torment, as the world comes to its divinely appointed, catastrophic end. Whether Paul himself, however, had these other images in mind, when he wrote of meeting the Lord in the air, is debatable.

Paul’s description of the rapture suggests that his primary concern in offering it was to reassure, not to warn, and most certainly not to frighten. In specific, he wanted it to comfort people who were worried about dying too soon to share in the blessings of Jesus’ second coming. To them, the promised rapture is the guarantee that …those of us who are still alive when the Lord comes will have no advantage over those who have died. (4:15)

The image of meeting both departed loved ones and Jesus himself in the air one day is surely captivating, however hesitant one may be to take it literally. Earth-bound creatures as we are, we can easily get swept away by the idea of being swooped up into heaven. But the really important part of the image is not human ascent, but divine descent.

What if that descent is intended to continue all the way down? And what if it brings all of Jesus’ followers back to earth with him, and earthly existence to completion rather than destruction? These are just a couple of thoughts, but they are not new. Some of the earliest Christians entertained them, too.

As it now stands, belief in the rapture restricts divine grace to believers only. Non-believers who have already died have no future at all, and non-believers who are alive at the time of the second coming will be left behind to suffer horribly the world’s destruction. This is no way to tell anybody about a God of love.

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RAGE, RIOTS, AND RELIGION

Social scientists are pretty much agreed that what turns anger into rage is a sense of being disrespected, victimized, and powerless. And what turns rage into rioting is vulnerability to manipulation by people who use others’ hopelessness and sense of aloneness for their own ends.

Whether there is a basis in fact for it or not, rage yields fewer positive outcomes than anger does. Anger provides us energy to get things changed for the better, all the way from our dirty diapers in infancy to dirty politicians in our golden years. Rage provides us only an impetus to get even.

And now comes into this thinking, once again, religion. A wholly mean-spirited, incompetently self-serving, shockingly immoral terrorist group, ISIS, has made it into the history books instead of a garbage bin by denigrating a truly admirable religious prophet and unleashing a rage-driven rampage of rioting by people who should know better.

Men and women of genuine faith know that neither the memory of Muhammad nor the worship of the God he served needs refurbishing against the calumnies of people who know neither personage very well. “Defending” both — if any merely human being is adequate to the task at all — is best done in the form of a reminder that the one true God is as high above the destructive behavior of misguided humans as the heavens are above the earth.

That the reminder is being drowned out, however, by the noise of violent mobs tells us something important about what religion is capable of becoming, at Facebook speed. At its worst, religion holds up an image of God whose substance is the projection of the worst that is in the human spirit: jealous fear, festering anger, self-righteous judgmentalism, and an inner emptiness filled by feeding on the essence of things not one’s own.

At its best, religion holds up an image of God whose basis is the grateful acknowledgement of the best that is in the human spirit as a gift from the very One Whom it best resembles. A God truly worthy of human devotion is a God whose love casts out our fears, fulfills our needs, overcomes our loneliness, forgives our wrongdoings, and above all, uplifts us all — together — in hope.

There is a gentleness about a love like this. Its splendor is also riotous.

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IS GOD VENGEFUL?

There has to be a better way of dealing with being wronged than the way of swift and merciless payback. The impulse to retaliate blocks honest assessment of whether a particular feeling of being wronged has any basis in fact. And retaliating mercilessly only escalates the enmity.

One thing that keeps the revenge-motive alive and well in the human heart is, of all things, religion. What I have in mind here is the belief that God is a jealous God who demands from everyone, without having to earn it, unconditional loyalty.

The God of this belief is a God who is as intolerant of being “disrespected” as modern-day gang members are. He exacts the same kinds of tribute for disrespect that they do. Worse still, he often fails to discern rightly who is and is not worthy of his own respect and good will.

There is an Old Testament passage, in 2 Samuel 22, which expresses perfectly this perfectly terrible belief. In delivering David from his enemies, it says, the whole earth shook from God’s anger. Smoke poured from his nostrils and fire from his mouth. Everything on earth was darkened. Lightning, hail, and burning coals pummeled David‘s enemies, all because God “delighted” in David and repayed him for his “righteousnness.”

The larger story of David in the Bible is the story of a man who was about as “righteous” as members of today’s drug cartels. Clearly, something has gone very, very wrong in the theistic religions’ depiction of God as a licensor of vengeance. (22:40)

What I think went wrong was the casting of God’s image in the likeness of the worst rather than the best that is in our own. For people looking for an excuse to act vengefully toward others, there is hardly a better one available than the claim that God does it too, and in spades.

For people earnestly seeking a God worthy of devotion, however, images of a furious God taking vengeance on anyone who displeases him are not only off-putting, but blasphemous as well. A God less praiseworthy than the best among us is no God at all.

The truly worthy  God of these same theistic religions is the God who eventually changed his own mind and heart about vengeance. Only mortals, he came to see, come to each other all the time with threats. (Hosea 11: 9)

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THE SPIRITUALITY OF ANGER

Many spiritually-minded people struggle with the idea that anger is unspiritual. Believing that it is can lead to guilt feelings about having any angry feelings at all.

My own thinking about anger has been influenced most by the rendering of Matthew 5:22 in the old King James Bible: whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Only rarely does the KJV offer the better translation available of ancient biblical texts. Here, however, it most definitely does.

Most modern translations of the New Testament leave out of Matthew 5:22 the without a cause exception which the KJV includes. In doing so, they make the verse appear to condemn any expression of anger. One translation, The New English Bible, acknowledges the exception, but only backhandedly by way of a footnote: “Some witnesses insert without good cause.”

Unlike the New English Bible’s translators, those witnesses had it right, especially with the word  “good” inserted as a modifier of the word “cause.” There are indeed good causes for anger, and working hard on never getting angry is not a good thing at all.

Jesus himself could not have condemned unconditionally any and all forms of anger. The very scriptures that say he did also report his becoming angry enough himself to call people fools, whited sepulchers, serpents and vipers (Matthew 23:19,27,33). Toward the end of his ministry he drove commercial activities off the Temple grounds in a veritable fit of righteous rage. Unlike much of ours, however, Jesus’ anger was for cause.

There is in fact a lot of anger expressed throughout the Bible. The God who inspired it comes across in it as very angry very often, as do the prophets who speak for Him. To many, myself included, not all of their anger seems justified.

But a lot of it does. It does because it is about peoples’ failures to live as they say they are going to live. More importantly, it is about peoples’ failures to treat others respectfully and fairly. Most importantly of all, it is about peoples’ failures to offer mercy and love in God’s name to everyone they meet.

Getting angry about moral failings, our own and others’, is spiritual in its very essence. It provides the energy needed for working on the condition not only of our own souls but that of the communities which nurture them.

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“AXIAL AGE” SPIRITUALITY: ITS LEGACY AND ITS PROMISE

Across the grand sweep of history, transformational events can occur as if in an instant. One sequence of such events worth contemplating has been referred to as an axial shift in humanity’s thinking about ultimate reality.

What I have in mind is an astonishing infusion of mental and spiritual energy into human consciousness that may have taken place across no more than a sixty year period. As if part of a concerted effort, sages as different as Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, and the Hebrew Prophets all helped bring the spiritual awakening to expression. Early Greek philosophers were involved also. And none may have known anything about any of the others’ contributions.

Although I keep looking for a credible explanation for this epochal breakthrough in the experience of transcendent realities, I also believe that by its very nature it will defy our best efforts to discover one. Why? Because there is too much about it to fit neatly into any single belief system or conceptual scheme.

This does not mean, however, that it is beyond understanding altogether.

One thing that seems especially clear about it is how strongly it calls into question those religious authorities who themselves demand unquestioning loyalty. All of the sages and philosophers of this remarkable period subjected all kinds of religious beliefs and practices to severe scrutiny and assessment on both logical and moral grounds.

By way of examples, Confucius relegated to the status of superstition revered practices designed to appease the spirits of departed and yet still-meddling ancestors. The Buddha challenged Hindu Brahmins’ claims that only they had the capacity fully to understand the divine-human relationship. Zenophanes deemed belief in Homer’s gods a mainstay of error. And the list goes on.

To me, the legacy of  the Axial Age has been ambiguous almost from its beginning. It offers to each of us the possibility of a spiritual awakening beyond all present imagining. But with it comes the knowledge that experiencing its fullness may require leaving behind much of what we have been told previously about spiritual realities.

Before us are truths that, through the experiences of great spiritual leaders, are available to us, too. But so also are their over-zealous followers, who demand loyalty to their leaders more than to the truth. Jesus once summed this up by asking why people called him, rather than God, good.

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