More Than Just “Aloha”

A few years ago, my good friend Lewis married a chiropractor. Cathy is the true love of his life, they are a contented couple, and we are happy for them.

Lewis was nearing fifty at the time, just when a man should seriously consider marrying a chiropractor if the opportunity presents. It’s an eminently practical choice for one’s middle years—far better than a first tattoo or first sky-dive or sleek red convertible, not one of which can enable you to get out of your easy chair without pain or reach over to tie your own shoes. It’s a time when growing sense of our own mortality says to each of us, “Take care of yourself.”

For some, it’s also the time of life to work on one’s spiritual health. They resume church attendance and begin to explore the Bible and other inspirational texts. They ask the hard questions of life and dive into soul-matters in a far more mature way than they did as youths.

The story is told about W.C. Fields, a notorious hell-raiser, that as he grew older, someone once caught him reading a Bible, “Bill!” the friend exclaimed. “Whatever are you doing?”

“Looking for loopholes,” he drawled.

Sometimes this new quest for spiritual health is no more than that—an expression of the fear that perhaps those scary stories we heard as youths just may be true, and we’d best be building a bridge to the Great Beyond.

Sometimes the quest is more this-worldly: we see discord in our present situation, or we sense a lack of meaning and direction in this life. In that other meaning of “salvation,” we are looking for “salvation” on this side of the grave—literally, “a healing,” a peace, a harmony, a sense of balance and rightness.

These are also the qualities embodied in that ancient word “shalom.”  Occasionally we hear it used as a synonym for “peace,” but that’s an inadequate translation. As W.T. Towner reminds us, “shalom” was the original state of the world: whole and wholesome, unbroken, in right relationship with God and one’s fellow man.  

When Jacob asks about Laban, “Is it well with him?” the literal word is “shalom.” “How is his shalom?” That’s a serious, probing question. Reread that scene in Genesis 29 with this understanding, and you’ll find a new and deeper meaning in it.

Likewise, to greet someone with “shalom” means far more than a simple “Howdy,” and to wish him “shalom” upon departure is to ask a deep blessing upon him.

It’s a good word, a noble word, a righteous word—a word we English speakers should return to our language and our thoughts. We should seek it as a spiritual goal for ourselves and ask that it be a spiritual gift to others. And so I wish all of you, “Shalom.”


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God and Football

The Super Bowl is over, and somebody’s team won. I have no doubts that some players in each locker room prayed for victory, and half of them are disappointed. Now, I’ve been a sports fan for decades. I know many players and coaches tell you they do not ask for victory, but just to do their best and to avoid injury. Yet each game some players make bone-headed plays; several players get hurt; a coach makes a loopy call. If they are in the “Yes-No-Wait” school of prayer, some clearly got told “No.”

Before this year’s game, a major research firm polled Americans and found that 26% believed God would decide the winner. Last year’s fan poll, with some different questions, showed 31% believe their team was cursed, 33% pray for their team to win, and 25% perform rituals of some kind (undescribed) to push God into their corner.

I suspect the numbers are similar in other sports. When it comes to Cubs fans, probably 100% think their team is cursed. (And polls find 21% of Americans believe in Bigfoot….whatever that means.)

That category of “rituals performed” makes me recall fans who cross fingers before a player shoots a free throw….and cheerleaders who cross arms, legs, and for all I know, their eyes, before that free throw shot. And if we believe the stories about players’ and coaches’ superstitious rituals, they get mighty strange: from lucky bats, to not shaving, to wearing the same pair of socks for weeks, to…..whatever.

We may easily dismiss “superstitious rituals” as a real influence on sports. But what about prayer? It seems to me that’s demeaning to most people’s notion of God and his love. Why would he care to influence a football game, yet allow Ebola to ravage parts of Africa? Does he love Tom Brady more than Russell Wilson, and both more than suffering Africans?

Think back to Tim Tebow (remember him?) Someone recently asked the inelegant question, “If faith is the deciding factor, why is super-devout Christian Tim Tebow’s career in the crapper?”

I don’t know what to conclude here. Maybe God is not a sports fan, after all? If we got as many Americans praying for Ebola vaccine as for a Super Bowl win, we might get somewhere? Perhaps God really, really hates the Chicago Cubs?

Or we might decide not to mingle our faith and our enthusiasm for sports. One is serious, the other frivolous—and let’s not confuse the two.

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The Christian & the Moola, or Mammon Unleashed

I went into the ministry for the money. You know—grand salary plus benefits and annuities—those Nike endorsements, the big book deals, appearances on the Today show with half-naked starlets and John Grisham.

I thought all these grandiose thoughts because I was hearing that if you ally with Jesus, you become Rich. Materially Rich. You get Blessings Abundant and a batch of CDs in the bank.

I really thought as part of my Blessings Abundant, I’d get a Bentley, or maybe a BMW M-5 or a Mercedes SL-500 or a Volvo S80. A BMW. Always wanted to say “I drive a Beamer.”

I’d fly first-class, stay at four-star hotels, and have a second home in Vail so Josh could go skiing, and another in West Palm Beach so we could enjoy the sunshine and beaches with the other snowbirds.

I’d get a trainer and slim down this little potbelly, have the chin lifted and eyelids done. I’d try to get this undistinguished gray hair to that special glowing silver tone you see on the TV evangelists. When the lighting is right, they look like they have a halo. I’d like that, too. Nothing says Blessings Abundant like a halo. That slightly crooked front tooth has to be fixed, though. God wants only Beautiful People in His Kingdom.

After all, preachers are God’s Special Chosen Ones and should expect no less than Blessings Abundant. God wants his Special Chosen Ones to shine, to show the world the Blessings Abundant He’s unloading on them. God would feel embarrassed if preachers have just one home and drive a ’94 Jeep which leaks oil and smells like something’s burning.

I’ve had Expectations almost this lofty ever since I became a Christian, even before the ministry. When I was baptized, I was told that I was to expect More. God was going to make me Prosperous.

Salvation—a better life—doing good in the community—these were not the real changes I was to expect in my new life as a Christian. I was going to be Prosperous. Even Rich.

After all, God would be embarrassed for the world to see His people poor. The last thing any self-respecting God wants in His Kingdom is a passel of poor folks. His standing and His self-esteem depend upon the display of Blessings Abundant by His followers. How could they claim they are Blessed when they wear bib overalls and have trouble making house payments?

No, I wanted to be Prosperous. Even Rich. CDs in the bank.

“Rich” means you are a more Blessed person than the “merely Prosperous.” I had high hopes for Riches, because the man who baptized me already had three homes and a private jet.

I began double-tithing to his church, and if I mortgage the home place and triple-tithe, maybe I can speed up the delivery of God’s Blessings Abundant—which, I admit—are arriving a tad slower than I had expected. We have just the one home which needs some repairs and maybe a new roof, and there’s that ’94 Jeep which leaks oil and smells like something’s burning.

That Beamer is a-coming, though—I can just feel it. That Beamer is important to me… and to my parishioners. How can I get in that pulpit and preach about God’s Blessings Abundant when I’ve got that ’94 Jeep parked out front where everybody can see it? It hurts my credibility.



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Memorized Verses

I bet many of you had to memorize Bible verses in your youth, maybe in Bible school, maybe in a teen group.

Tom Sawyer memorized Bible verses to impress Becky Thatcher by winning a Bible as a prize for mastering 2,000 verses. Tom actually failed miserably at memorization—he cheated his way to a Bible by swapping various trinkets to other boys for the necessary number of tickets to win. His lack of Biblical knowledge is discovered when Judge Thatcher asks him to name the first two apostles, and Tom blurts out, “David and Goliath!”

I’m laughing, but I’m not boasting that I am better than Tom. I’d probably have trouble reciting two dozen verses. Memorization is not a strength of mine, and besides, I never saw much reason to memorize what I could so readily find with a reference book or—nowadays—a computerized search.

I’ve always thought it more important to think about the text, than to merely memorize it. Make that word THINK. Rote memorization is an impressive skill, but at bottom, reciting 2,000 verses is a carnival sideshow stunt, like memorizing the value of pi to a thousand places. It is not a spiritual exercise. (You are, of course, free to disagree…and some will.)

No, give me the student who asks, “What’s really going on here?” Or who observes, “Those passages just don’t seem to fit together.” Or who notices that the four gospels cannot agree on the empty tomb scene, and wonders “Why not?” Or who concludes that most of the book of Joshua seems to advocate genocide, and therefore doesn’t jibe with the key teachings of Jesus.

If he can read and think that way, I don’t much care if he cannot name all thirteen or fourteen apostles (and count ’em—there are more than twelve named!). He’s wrestling with this ancient text in an acceptable way, and wrestling with his faith in a deep and evolving manner.

I like that phrase “wrestling with his faith.” I think I’ll name him, not “Tom,” but “Jacob.”





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Old Customs

Old customs are difficult to change. I have in mind today marriage customs. I am still an officiant at many weddings, and it’s my practice to encourage couples to write their own vows, or to help me cut-and-paste desirable portions from ceremonies they find or which I supply. However varied the results, most couples end up using that traditional exchange, the “I, so-and-so, take you…for better, for worse…” etc. That exchange scene is the familiar one, and those lines are embedded in their ears from many a wedding they’ve attended, and from TV and the movies. They aren’t going anywhere soon.

So far no couple has chosen to include that “love, honor, and obey” line. I’ve not had a groom suggest it, and frankly, I cannot imagine a bride submitting to it.

However, with very few exceptions, brides still want someone to give her away: her father if available, or a brother or some other male relative, even a son (one or twice, even son and daughter!).  Now, this giving-away does surprise me. The giving of the bride is an ancient, ancient custom harking to the days when women were property: Dad’s property, or the property of Dad’s heir.

Property. An economic asset. A valuable bargaining chip. Part of a deal to be negotiated, an item to be sold for goats or cattle or gold and silver. When you put it that way, it’s a custom just as offensive as reciting that “obey” line.

Now, I have never pointed out this historical fact to any bride, nor will I. Most love their dads and want them included in the ceremony. Some might say, “Once Daddy’s girl, always Daddy’s girl.” Some brides may retain that sense of familial transition, from their parents’ household to a new one of their own, and choose this time-honored rite to symbolize that change. Some just want to include loved ones somewhere in the ceremony. Mostly, it’s a sentimental tradition.

And maybe the archaic ownership idea is a thought that just has not occurred to them.

Nevertheless, given the last century of progress in women’s rights, its longevity shocks me. Given the fact that brides nowadays are not 13- or 14-year-old innocents, but women in their 20s or 30s, I am surprised that most still favor this ancient rite. And given that so many are already independent of family and living away from home, active workers or professionals with their own incomes, I am ever more curious about the survival of this old tribal practice.

Ah, well, no harm done if the custom lives on in this attenuated form, the original hard content chipped and pared away by time. I suspect it will endure for many a marriage yet before it, like the actual exchange of goats and gold, entirely fades away.


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Hail to the Ancient Norse Gods–and Others

I don’t know whether to scratch my head or give two thumbs up or—to use the language of texts and email—SMH or “face-palm.” Recent news from Iceland says some Icelanders are building a shrine to Odin, Thor, and Frigg. As we know from grade-school history, worship of these deities went out about the time of Leif Ericson.

However, it seems that starting in the 1970s, the old Norse faith underwent a revival under the new name of Ásatrúarfélagið, however that is pronounced. ..if indeed it can be pronounced. We are reassured that no animals will be sacrificed in the new shrine—but there will be “music, eating, drinking, and reading.”  And worship services of some sort—I have not found a description of them—and the usual weddings, funerals, and the like. Apparently they believe the proclamation, “Thor promised the end of all ice giants…” (Truthfully, I don’t see many ice giants around anymore.)

ThisÁsatrúarfélagið group is not the strangest faith to emerge in recent years. Northern Ireland recently granted official recognition to a Pagan church and its priests. The Order of the Golden River claims to lie somewhere in the “traditional Celtic shamanic” tradition, and its “Sovereign and Founder,” one Patrick Carberry, is now entitled to perform marriages and other rites within that body.

You don’t have to go that far. America is about as diverse as it gets. It has its Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, for instance, which—among other benefits—allows you to get your driver’s ID photo taken with a colander on your head. And there’s the Universal Life Monastery, famous for its online ordination and allowing the newly ordained to select whatever exalted title he/she chooses. Newer than that is the Church of Bacon, rapidly becoming a favorite of mine. The church is popular with same-sex couples, holding unofficial weddings for a number of years and now, official ones since 2013.

And there’s the Church of the Latter-day Dude, possibly the only church in the world based on a fictitious church in a movie. In fact, we’ve been a very inventive people, we Americans, coming up with more faiths in 300 years than just about anywhere else on earth. Pennsylvania, long a haven for dissenting souls, is now home to the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary: “a safe and scared ceremonial space for the modern practice of ancient religion” in the beautiful Alleghenies. It has everything from Indian sweat lodges to the poor man’s Stonehenge—“47 multi-ton stones semi-circling an open-air altar.” It is basically a home to nature-centered faiths; its small permanent population grows exponentially by believers who gather to celebrate the major quarter and cross-quarter seasonal occasions: Yule, Beltane, Samhain, and the like.

New into the fray is the “Church of the Sword,” 280 strong in independence-loving New Hampshire: “Its’ hymnals are called ‘jams,’ it lets its followers keep several other faiths, and its customs—like the Ritual of Combat, in which service-goes duel each other with fake sword to symbolize the defense of personal opinions—may seem more like eccentric social club activities than sacred rituals.” It wants to be recognized as a religion, and claims it meets most of the fourteen points the IRS requires. Its home town, Westmoreland, doesn’t recognize it as such, because the “church” does not recognize a supreme being, and the case is now going to the N.H. Supreme Court. A curious stance by the city, as Daoism and Buddhism do not recognize a supreme being, either, and apparently both faiths are recognized as religions across the world. The case will go to federal court if the church (and several others which do not recognize supreme beings) loses—where I suspect it will win. And we recall that in the U.K. the highest court has specifically ruled that such as belief is unnecessary.

Closer home—Richmond, Virginia, is now home to the “Temple of the Cosmic Mothership.” Originally the spot in the Manchester area was “a sometimes-raucous performance space” named Love Bomb, but the owner-manager kept running into conflicts with zoning requirements and building codes. Observing that churches usually had a great deal more freedom, the founder, Heide Trepaniere, got ordained and founded this non-denominational “church.” She did some minimal upgrades—exits signs, a handicapped-accessible bathroom, and the like—and now holds services on Sundays, which consist of beer-drinking, gardening, quiet art shows and exhibitions—no noisy bands or raucous shows. I’ve found nothing about a “creed.” So far, the city has not bothered the group, which, if hassled, would claim infringement on their religious freedom. Likely, they’d win. America has always had a spacious definition of what constitutes a church.

We do like variety, and we’ve been known to have churches as small as a single family, or even as small as a single individual. We are the world’s great individualists, we Americans. And today’s church will not be tomorrow’s, bet on it. We may not have seen the strangest yet.

And maybe “strange” is way too negative a term. It implies that my norm is some kind of absolute, that my tribe is the one all should belong to. Maybe that is the way God or god or gods intend it to be, but for sure it does not fit human nature.  History says we are way too contrary for that. History says you yourself may occupy a different pew tomorrow or no pew at all.





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Clerihew: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

found his musical flow in

everything from zen to sex to hula,

for which we all say “Hallelujah.”

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