19 May 2011

Is This the End....or Just a New Beginning?

Holy Apocalypse! It has made the CBS, NBC and CNN news networks. It is all over the internet and radio. I have now heard or seen eight separate stories on the impending Judgement Day. Sure enough! This morning at 7:00am I was driving my wife to the airport for a trip to see one of our daughters for a few days. On I-435, just before the Missouri River bridge, there was a billboard emblazend with the words, "Judgment Day....May 21, 2011....Are You Ready?"

The billboard work is part of a "ministry" of Harold Camping, who owns and directs Family Radio (headquartered in Oakland, CA). It is an international broadcasting system. Camping -- a retired engineer -- claims to have done the math, after fifty years of study, and determined that the Rapture (a term used by evangelical Christians to denote the moment when the chosen will be taken into heaven) will take place on the above date. Further, his calculations indicate that there will be five months of torment following this event until the end of the world as we know it on October 21, 2011.

Speaking of the end times, there is also a claim that an important transition for humankind will happen on 11-11-11 (November 11, 2011). Then, there is the Mayan calendar research and event that is locked in for 12-21-12 (December 21, 2012). This creates an abundance of confusion.

Already, thousands of people (not exaggerating according to a CNN report) in the United States alone have sold their property, liquidated retirement and life savings, and taken themselves to places either to assist in getting the word out or to prepare themselves for this Saturday's apocalyptic event --scheduled for 5:58pm. This is a potentially dangerous and disasterous situation. Where is the Church and its leadership in all this?

Let's clear up some terms first:

  1. Apocalypse - Literally means to "unveil" or "reveal." In both Old and New Testaments, apocalyptic literature was written to unveil the mysteries surrounding the actions of God in creation. The Book of Daniel (OT) and the Book of Revelation (NT) are two such writings.

  2. Rapture - Literally means "moment of pure joy" or "jubilation." This is neither a biblical nor a theological term. It does not even appear until the late 19th century among strongly evangelical groups presenting a uniquely literalistic approach to biblical writings. Adherents to the Rapture say that a select group of chosen people will be taken into heaven before the end of the world.

  3. Eschatology - Literally means "last discourse." It is a biblical term and connotes the part of systematic theology dealing with the final destiny of both the individual soul and of mankind in general. Albert Schweitzer and Karl Barth were primary architects in the modern theological investigation into eschatological events. In orthodox (eastern and western Christian systematic theology) terms, the Church has taught about the "four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell." Modern biblical theology has continued to fine tune what this means in light of further language and cultural discoveries from the time of original biblical texts.

  4. Judgment Day - Literally the day where humans will be "sifted" into the "saved" and the "damned." There is no biblical material to support this and, again, the term only appears in the latter 19th century.

Jesus makes a strong reference to a place, which in Aramaic (the Hebrew of the New Testament) is call "Gehenna." Dante later translated that into "Hell" in his book Inferno. Truth is, Gehenna was a valley about three miles outside Jerusalem...kind of cut in the rocky earth that went on about two miles. It was where refuse was taken after being removed from the city. One end of Gehenna was marked off as a leper colony. It was a place forbidden by those who were "clean." The garbage end of Gehenna was (it seems) always smoldering. Thus is had an acrid and putrid stench. It was a place of disease.

In describing sin as separation from God's abiding love, Jesus used Gehenna as a picture symbol for what that might seem like. His manner of teaching almost always used pictographic elements and metaphors to aid the hearer in remembering the parable or teaching.

Does hell exist? Separation from God's Love can happen...but only at our instigation and choice. We consign ourselves to that state of loneliness and isolation. The torment of the Evil One (Satan) is two-pronged: our tireless, egocentric willfullness at work with the fractured element of creation that rebels against God's love. It can be and is easily enough defeated with a proper sense of who we are in relationship to God -- and the humility to be reconciled.

Now, is the end of life as we know it upon us? My absolute true answer is: I have no idea whether it is or not. Truthfully, I do not bother myself or my folks with such speculation. Why? Jesus is pretty clear: It's not our business to know the time or season of the eschatological events. I think it will happen, and I have sound theological and deep internal senses to support my thinking and believing.

What God expects (and I am utterly convinced of this), is that we should live faithful, loving, honest and productive lives -- using our gifts and talents in such ways that foster both community and goodwill. To the extent that we do that, we are honoring who we are as people created in the image of God.

Pray: Daily time of true prayer (not a mouthful of words spewed forth as we hasten into our self-important busy-ness) that invites a strong time of listening for the soft words of God's love and purpose in our lives and the world around us is vital. It reduces anxiety and gives us appropriate perspective. I do find myself spending more time in quiet, contemplative prayer daily of late...as if I am being drawn into a deeper relationship.

This leads me to say that I believe a shift and changes are underway. We, as humanity, are moving into a new place of community, oneness and enlightenment. I see strong signs of this in a number of venues. It is comforting. BUT, it is not anything like Judgment Day or Rapture.

While I practice a Benedictine style Rule of prayer, study and work; I am Franciscan in my attitude about the eschatological events. St. Francis was weeding a vegetable garden, when one of the monks asked what he would do, if he knew that Christ Jesus' coming was imminent. Without missing a stroke, Francis responded, "I would hope to be able to finish this row of weeds."

God loves creation with all capacity. God brought us forth and will take us back into that place of enlarged being. It will be on God's terms and in God's time. Maybe this Saturday and maybe a thousand years from now. If I am alive, I want to be found faithfully doing what most pleases God...which is what I have been equipped to do.

Blessings in the Risen Christ,

Fr. Fred+

10 May 2011


Since my last blog posting, I have had a few questions about praying for situations and people...especially for people who have lived "notoriously evil lives" (to quote one questioner). These are excellent questions, because we throw that word "pray" around a lot -- so much in fact that it may have lost its real meaning and impact.

My guess is that, when an image of prayer is conjured, any number of folks will visualize Albrecht Drurer's "Praying Hands" as a universal symbol. Others might produce the image of a person kneeling with hands clasped before them. Still others might see the image of Jesus kneeling at a rock in Gethsemane with hands clasped and resting on the rock in front of him. There is nothing wrong with any of these images. They are part of our western cultural history...but all of them are post-Reformation works of art conceived with a certain cultural and theological perspective.

My liturgics and sacramental theology professor and graduate studies mentor, Fr. Louis Weil, strongly suggested that our disposition and conditioning often limit the capacity to engage in the full power of what it means to pray. The result of that is that, in turn, we fail to be fully empowered for both enlightenment and action. Enlightenment, here, means the encounter with the Holy in such ways that show us more of our true nature and capacities. All prayer leads to some kind of action. We are moved/motivated to engage the environment around us or, many times, within us in ways that create positive shift and change.

This last week was difficult for many people. The death of a terrorist and criminal released all kinds of emotions around the globe. After the initial impact, people began asking questions about whether bin Laden was even dead; the efficacy of the decision to send the SEAL team in; political fallout with Pakistan; new reactions from al-Qaeda; factional rhetoric in our own Congress. And this is just that event. We are still dealing with financial recovery issues; soaring fuel prices; unemployment; and a host of domestic concerns that can create stress and deep concern.

Then, we begin to get close to home. For me -- with only 51 days until retirement -- I face the uncertainty of what that will mean to me vocationally and within the context of having been 33 years in a particular aspect of ordained life. The financial shift in our household and the preparations in completing the pre-retirement process. Yesterday (Monday), I began "collapsing" my office. I did so by throwing away materials in my desk, filing cabinets and closet that no longer serve a purpose and/or won't be useful at home. I sat and looked at several things that have journeyed with me since seminary. I then began the daunting task of thinning out my professional library -- reducing the nearly 800 volumes of books that have defined my vocation for more than three decades. Books are dear friends to me, and saying goodbye is a rough experience.

Yet, in all this shift and change, I kept hearing my own voice advising me as I advise others: Pray! In the foxholes of life, prayer can take on the images I cited early on in this posting. Those images indicate supplication: me beseeching God to make something better; change a situation; or provide something I believe I need (strength, guidance, etc.). So, if that isn't it, what do I do, when I hear the counsel to pray?

First, I closed my office door -- a sign for those around my office that I "need a minute." I am not disturbed when the door gets shut all the way. Next, I sat upright in a chair...straight but comfortable and placed my hands out on my lap and turned my palms up. This is called the modified "orans" position. It is the most ancient form of prayer. It is also the kind that Jesus would have used in his culture. It is the classic pre-medieval/reform style in Christianity. It signifies a conversation and an openness to receive as well as to offer. I'm here for a conversation....which is the definition of prayer....conversation with the Holy One.

Since I was up to my nose in concerns of my own and in response to events that shape our world (and, subsequently, my life as a priest and citizen), I simply sat in silence for quite some time. Silence is also an essential characteristic of prayer. What?! Say nothing?!! One might think that a waste.

NO, to pray well is to empty one's head of all the noise, bright ideas, critiques and busy-ness that occupy it. Shut down the machinery and find placidness. Once that has been achieved as much as possible (and it takes a lot of practice), simply lay out what the problems seem to be. I took whatever time it was to simply say, "this is where I find myself right now...scared, worried, overwhelmed, unsure...(name what those things are that go with those feelings)." I then simply stated, "I need order and direction." Then, I SHUT UP.

In the ensuing quiet, I let myself drift using a mantra to distract the thinking elements of mind. A mantra is simply a word or phrase that keeps me focused on why I am here in this time. I use several, depending upon what is going on. Yesterday, it was simply, "Jeshua" (the Hebrew name for Jesus). This I said quietly and rhythmically with my breathing...slowing things down as much as possible. I didn't focus on the mantra, and it gradually became a background repitition. Images, and moments of insight began flashing. I simply let that happen. Take no notes. Just be still and stay with the silence. At some point, your heart knows when it is time to be done. I utter a prayer of thanks for whatever gift of God's Love I have received and the ability to do what has been purposed in this time.

THERE, I have actually had a conversation. The truth is, I felt compelled to shut my office down for the afternoon, go home, take a short nap and make dinner for my wife...who was arriving home late from her work. As this day (Tuesday) unfolded, I began having some insights into what I need to do with my books. My hands seem more purposeful in choosing what stays and what goes. I have been rather creative in working with the staff and doing some long-range planningn with them for the time after I retire. I feel calm, happy and peaceful within. Stuff around me hasn't changed much, but I seem to have changed in relationship to them.

Prayer is conversation. When I suggest that we pray for something or someone, I am not suggesting that we squeeze out some kind of dissertation to God about what to do or what we need. After all God already knows what is needed. Take Osama bin Laden. None of us know what torment and torture he was dealing with in his psyche that produced what we witnessed over the years. Yet, in simply giving him over to God for what God knows needs to happen to bring balance to the world and to deal with a broken human being, we have shown compassion -- solidarity with God. I note that, as soon as I did that last week, I suddenly realized that bin Laden isn't our problem any longer. Let go of him -- the anger -- the fear -- all of it. God has all that and knows exactly what comes next in the context of creator-creature relationship. That's not my paygrade. Move on to what lies ahead.

Blessings in the Risen Christ,

Fr. Fred+

04 May 2011

Altered Space and Osama bin Laden's Death

I was just completing a unique weekend experience when, at a hotel near Chicago, I learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The details were sketchy and I was in what might best be termed an "altered space." It was a very unusual moment.

I had just completed a special conference over the weekend. It brought together women and men from all over the United States. We were Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews -- and maybe others. The nearly 230 of us had gathered at invitation to experience a second level of teaching, prayer and meditation using various points of departure into experiencing contemplative states within our own expression of faith. I had done the first of these weekends in late February and found it to be transformational. This particular weekend (29 April - 1 May) found me in a new depth of experiencing God's Presence, the power of Christ's healing and the transformational indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is what we are all about. And it does produce an altered space, when one emerges into the regular human stream of life. It was in this space that I watched and listened and read the emerging news of the raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by two dozen SEAL special operations personnel, and their final confrontation with Osama bin Laden.

It was interesting that the only word that would come forth from me at the moment of this revelation was, "Damn!" This says a lot, probably, about me and where I was in that moment. First, the expletive itself revealed the state I believed bin Laden found himself at the point of his death: damned. The expletive expressed my profound respect for the US Navy SEALS...being a veteran of the Navy and very familiar with special operations during my time in service (1972-75 active on station). The expletive also expressed the delicacy of my moral and ethical concerns for death and the disposition of that which is conceived as evil. This latter is where, perhaps, any number of us might find ourselves.

For me, the response of a Christian Priest and practitioner of contemplative/mystical spirituality is to go deep inside, find that place of true silence and peace and explore what emerges from my external experience. Since I was still very near that altered space after a weekend of right brain, contemplative practice, this was was not a difficult journey inward.

What I heard and learned: Yes, this death needed to happen. The explosion of a person into acts that can only be described as evil in their intent and destructive in their result can often only be healed in the death of that person. When a psyche confuses his/her own twisted and chaotic self with the voice of God, it is the definition of sin -- at the least -- and destructive evil -- at the worst. It is why I have always been very concerned when anyone speaks of "me and my God..."

Yes, God does love Osama bin Laden -- for who he is as one created in the image of God -- NOT for what he had become in the twisted expression of self and the actions that led to thousands of deaths and the creation of an organization that only understands religious practice through the thoughts and feelings of anger, hate and the striving for personal supremacy. I also am very aware that each of us must say, "there, but by the Grace of God, go I..."

Justice has been served in truth. It will give pause to those who follow in this life of terrorizing world societies and otherwise peaceful people. It will not stop them. As scripture reminds us, we must "be sober and vigilant; for our Adversary skulks about seeking those to devour..." I do not spend any time looking over my shoulder or around the corner. I am inwardly resolved to walk placidly amid the noise and haste with my heart in Christ and my mind on what I must do in this moment of a life that is precious...for it is a gift.

We, who are People of the Risen Christ, do pray for the soul of Osama bin Laden....praying that he will, in death, be healed of the severe brokenness that plagued his life. We pray for the thousands of lives lost around the world at the hands and instigation of such a man. We pray for the healing of those left with the loss of dear loved ones and dear friends. We pray for the men and women serving in harm's way and for their families. We pray that those who continue to follow a false god of terror and selfish procurement will have their hearts turned to the God of Grace and Peace, who is our Creator.

Mostly, after my own recent experiences, I pray that we, the global community, can be tolerant of each other's faith journey and its particular expression: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and others. All seek to know the true God and to have hearts that know sincere peace and acceptance. May this moment be a place where Oneness can really begin anew. Let not the death of so many innocents be for naught.

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred+