The First Will Be Last

Below is the text of a recent letter my wife Jean and I sent to the editor of our local newspaper, the Sun Chronicle, occasioned by President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.   For those who like to read more we included a reference to Jesus’ teaching about servanthood.  The contrast is stark with Trump’s transactional view of the world.

The First Will Be Last (Matthew 20:16, 26).
President Trump’s recent assertion of his America First foreign policy has resulted in the undermining of NATO and the Paris Climate Agreement.  The leadership that the USA has historically provided on important world issues is absent, and is being ceded to others.  That leadership has been replaced with whining about not getting a fair deal.  There is no sense that America does something because it is right and good for humankind.  Being rude and disrespectful to other nations, especially our friends and allies, will invite a like response.   The Golden Rule applies in politics as well as all walks of life: treat others as you would like them to treat you.

America First has its roots in the opposition to involvement in World War II, promoting an isolationist approach.  It collapsed when the Pearl Harbor attack happened.  Donald Trump has adopted it as his foreign policy, but it is a reversal of the role the USA has played in the world since World War II.   As that America First policy failed when Nazism threatened the stability of the world, so it will fail as the world faces the crisis of climate change.  If we as a nation stay on the sidelines, we will be seen as increasingly irrelevant to the central challenge that faces the world in the 21st century.   Stephen Hawking, the renowned theoretical physicist, says the human race has about 100 years to find another planet on which to live.    Whether that is overly pessimistic we do not know, but the situation is dire and requires inspiring and heroic leadership, not the abdication of leadership.

John and Jean Fisk, Attleboro

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The Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm

The most common difficulty with meditating is being distracted in the silence.  You would think that silence would be calming but for many it raises the chaos monster.  The Buddhists call it “monkey mind”.  Wendy, one of the members of our Wednesday evening meditation group at LaSalette Retreat House in Attleboro, recently pointed out the following quote from the Benedictine monk, John Main:

You will find as you go on that you can be saying your mantra at one level while at another level there are thoughts going on below and at another level above, at another on one side, at another on the other side.  Ignore them all.  Say your mantra.  That is the art of meditating: to say your word in the silent eye of the storm (from “Silence and Stillness in Every Season”, May 9).

What a great image about the challenge of meditating: remaining still and focused in the eye of the storm!  Life is often a storm (even a hurricane) of competing forces and influences, all trying to get our attention and allegiance.  John Main’s perennial teaching is to keep repeating the mantra, Ma-ra-na-tha (four syllables), slowly and silently to yourself.  It sounds overly simplistic but it works.  Surely it is more complicated than that?  We say, “That is not very challenging intellectually – any idiot can say one word over and over again!”  It is indeed very simple but incredibly challenging to do.  The task is, in the midst of all our chaos, to pay attention to the divine presence, the Spirit who lives within us and all creation.  No wonder Genesis 1 says that God created from the chaos.  Our task is to be still, to be open to God, letting go of other concerns by repeating the mantra, resting in the eye of the storm.

It would be easy to judge my meditation as a failure, and in one sense (if I am looking for perfect peace without distraction) it always is a failure.  On the other hand, I have learned that the task is not to judge but to rest in a non-judgmental state, and if I experience the peace in the eye of the storm then all the better.  Being kind to oneself, loving oneself, believing in the goodness and love of God, are basic to the spiritual journey.  Being still and open in meditation will reaffirm that God is good and loving, if we do not judge our performance but let judgment go along with all other distractions.  I welcome your comments about your experience.

(For more detailed instruction on how to meditate go to: Meditation)

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Pastor Emeritus John Fisk and Deacon C. J. Kiff

On a personal note, I was honored recently by the First Baptist Church, Attleboro, with the title Pastor Emeritus and a celebration of the 40th anniversary of my ordination to the Christian ministry.  I have been blessed beyond measure through my teachers and mentors and through the people I have served in ministry.   It is a very challenging vocation requiring spiritual stamina beyond my strength.  People tell me that I was very helpful to them at critical points, but I am sure it was God who was doing the helping and I sometimes had the good sense to get out of the way!   First Baptist, Attleboro continues on the road with Jesus with an open mind and a welcoming heart.  Praise God for them and their Pastor Cheryl Harris!

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The Courage to Live

Courage

In the wise, charming and funny movie, You Can’t Take It with You (1938 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, Frank Capra), there’s a conversation on a park bench between Alice Sycamore (played by Jean Arthur) and Tony Kirby (James Stewart) about learning to be unafraid.  Tony says he is very struck by the Sycamore family because “they have found what everyone is looking for – the courage to live”.  Alice responds: “Grandpa taught us that most people are run by fear.  He says that people are afraid of what they eat, what they drink, their jobs, their health, their future, scared to save money and scared to spend it.  People are commercialized on fear.  They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.  Grandpa taught us not to be afraid of anything and to do what we want to do.”

“They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.”   We live in a culture of fear.  Such exploitation continues unabated in 2017.  Politicians throughout Europe and the USA are taking advantage of people’s fear of terrorism, promoting anti-Muslim immigration bans.  Everywhere (according to the Ipsos polling institute in Paris) people estimate Muslim populations much higher than they actually are.  For example, in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, voters estimate that 31% of the population are Muslim.  The actual percentage is 7.5%.  In every European country voters think the Muslim population is much higher than it actually is.  Same is true in the U.S.A. where the Muslim population is 1% and respondents estimate 17%.  Clearly fear distorts peoples’ perception of reality, and they are open to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians (The Christian Century, March 15, 2017, p.14).

Without a spiritual anchor that grounds us in reality many people in the world today give way to fear and are tossed about on the waves of political manipulation.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world”.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt echoed this: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

We were in London in 1993 as a family and got on a bus at the Aldwych and journeyed 15 minutes to Russell Square where our hotel was.  It was about 7 p.m.  When we reached the hotel, we heard a loud noise in the distance, and turned on the TV.  An IRA terrorist bomb had exploded on a bus at the very bus stop in the Aldwych where we had boarded 20 minutes previously.  We were shaken to think we had missed death so narrowly.  I don’t think it really sunk in what had happened, but we continued on with our vacation, determined not to let terrorism change our plans.  That’s the way you have to live in the face of these threats.  The world is safe for Westerners most of the time – we must exercise common sense precautions and then get on with our lives.

The Bible says as much about fear as anything else.  The disciples of Jesus were not overjoyed by his resurrection – their first response was fear.  The angelic messenger said to the women “do not be afraid” and then Jesus repeated those words before going on to reassure them “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:5, 10, 20).  If we truly believe this promise of Jesus then we will let “love cast out fear” (1 John 4:18) and not let our fears oppress us.  Love is the only antidote to fear.

Fear of terrorism is a red herring, used by right wing politicians to justify huge expenditures to the military industrial complex and cuts to social programs and cuts in taxes to the wealthy.  No Americans have been killed in the last 40 years by persons from the seven nations named in President Trump’s immigration ban.  Yet in the same period 1.4 million Americans have been killed by guns (murders, accidents and suicides, reported in The Christian Century, March 15, 2017).  Nothing is done by the federal government to “ban” easy access to guns, including assault weapons.  The exploitation of fear has led to the increasing militarization of America.  Trump is surrounded by retired generals in his cabinet, the budget for diplomacy through the State Department has been cut, the Defense budget is more than half of all discretionary expenditures and Trump wants a 10% increase.  Already the USA spends more on defense than the world’s next seven nations combined.  “They scare you to death to sell you something you don’t need.”

Jesus rejected the ways of the world: violence, bullying and fear-mongering.  He turned instead to the ways of God: forgiveness, trust, compassion (even to those who crucified him), and the love which overcomes fear.  Love powers the courage to live.  It does not mean you will not be afraid.  Knowing you are loved means being able face reality and not let fear defeat you.

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Awe, the Missing Ingredient

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St. Mark’s, Venice, mosaic ceiling

John Barrow. a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge, wrote an article for Science and Theology News, in which he described the feelings of awe he had being in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice with some other scientists.  They were there in the evening for an escorted tour after the church was closed.  It was almost dark inside and they were asked to sit in the center of the church.  This is how he described the experience: “Then very slowly the light level rose above us and around us, and the interior began to be illuminated by a system of hidden sodium lights.  The darkness gave way to a fantastic golden light.  The arching ceiling above us was covered in a spectacular gleaming mosaic of glass and gold – 11,000 square feet of gold mosaic, which took hundreds of craftsmen 400 years to complete.  Not one of those craftsmen had seen the full glory of the golden ceiling… 

            He writes that the discovery of the universe is like a religious experience also.  Over the past 75 years astronomers have unveiled the nature of the heavens in an unexpected way.  The universe is far bigger than scientists 100 years ago ever imagined and it is getting bigger – it is expanding at a fast rate.    John Barrow was clearly overawed by the size of the universe and the principles which govern it.  For him scientific discovery is a religious experience.  The universe is a reflection of God’s glory.

            One of the great moments in the book of Job is where God speaks out of the whirlwind (38:1) and questions Job and his friends about their understanding of the universe.  Did you create the mathematical equations, which govern the laws of physics?  Do you understand how black holes power the universe?  Can you explain the way animals and insects form their own communities for survival?  Did you set weather patterns and devise the cycle of the seasons?  Where were you when all this was being planned and figured out?

            The answer, of course, is that we were nowhere at that time.  God’s intent is not to belittle Job and his friends but to remind them that the proper response of humans to their creator is one of awe, humility and trust, particularly awe.  What is awe?  It’s the sense that overcomes you when you see a newborn baby; it’s the feeling of being swept away when you fall in love for the first time; it’s the stirring in your soul when you climb a mountain and at the top you can see for miles and miles and miles in every direction.  It’s the discovery of a huge balancing rock in the middle of the forest, or a 500 year old oak tree, or watching the sun set into the sea.  It is a moment in history like Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall…   Awe is one of those “you know it when you experience it” things.

            Matthew Fox in his book Creation Spirituality writes that healing came to Job when he had a change of perspective, when he saw things for a moment from God’s cosmic perspective.  That’s why God spoke out of the whirlwind.  Job realized that his world was too small, his soul was too small.  That is the experience of awe.

            Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus shone on the mountaintop (Matthew 17:1-9).  Fra Angelico’s fresco describes it well (see below).  The disciples are overcome with awe at the vision and the voice telling them who Jesus is.   Imagine waking up as a monk in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, Italy, in the mid 1400s and seeing this fresco on the wall of your room!  Awe lies at the heart of Christian worship.  Charles Wesley was very familiar with awe: “lost in wonder, love and praise” he called it.  His brother, John, had his heart warming experience at a Methodist chapel in East London in 1738.  He wrote in his journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed… An assurance was given me that Christ had taken away my sins.”  I remember the Palm Sunday I was at chapel in a psychiatric hospital near Southampton, England in 1970, when I saw a vision of Jesus riding towards me on a donkey.  During a time I felt completely alone, Jesus came to me.  I was overcome with awe.  I believe these experiences of awe are happening all the time.  It is a question of whether we are aware of them.

            They are not something we can make happen, but they are something we can open ourselves to.  The more we open ourselves to God, through prayer, meditation, humility and service, the more awesome life becomes.  Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle or as though everything is a miracle.”  The Transfiguration holds many meanings but a central one is that when God fills a human being with light, everything becomes a miracle, a moment of awe.  Too often awe is the missing ingredient in our personal and corporate worship.   Yet it is the part which people deeply desire.

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Transfiguration by Fra Angelico

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Different Visions

Boston Women's March

Boston Women’s March

Jean and I attended the Women’s March in Boston last Saturday, one of 600+ marches worldwide, to promote a very different vision than that of President Trump.  It was exciting to be part of a crowd of 175,000 people, women, men and children, who peacefully gathered together with a progressive vision to support women’s rights, immigration reform, health care for all, protection of the environment and the rights of workers, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ community.  Senator Ed Markey reminded us that Boston Common was where the American Revolution, the Abolitionist movement, the  Suffragette movement all started, and where the Freedom Riders departed for the Civil Rights movement, and where the anti-Vietnam war protests were held.  It was a moment in history, perhaps the largest march ever in Boston, and nationwide certainly the largest protest event in our history.  I was proud to be part of it, despite my unease at being in such a large and tightly packed crowd.

President Trump, of course, could not stand the way the women had stolen the limelight from him, so he tried to compare the size of his inauguration crowd with the protest crowd on the Washington Mall the following day.  He said his crowd was over a million people, when it was actually about 30% of that.  When challenged, his spokesperson said that he had “alternative facts”.  This is a preview of the next four years, where our President will present a set of “alternative facts” covering every aspect of our lives.  Trump’s inauguration speech with its gloom akeep-calmnd doom demonstrated the alternative lens through which he looks at the world. We are in for a very bumpy ride and will need to support one another.    

We are going to need God’s saving help to get through the next four years.   Perhaps we might pray as the Brits do for their Queen, “God save the President”.  Also we might borrow from them another saying, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, which was on the famous poster designed by the British government to help people in the dark days of World War II.  It is a suitable motto for our times also.

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Hamlet and Christmas?

hamlet

David Tennant as Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare is one of my favorite plays.  It is full of questions about tragedy and suffering and injustice.  And it is written in the most beautiful poetry a human being is capable of.  Hamlet seems a strange thing to talk about as Christmas approaches, but hopefully you will bear with me.

On the night the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks abroad, Shakespeare makes a comment about the upcoming season of Christmas, and puts his words in the mouth of the character, Marcellus, who says:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated.
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time (1.1.178).

“The bird of dawning” is the rooster, who crows all night on Christmas Eve and keeps the ghosts away.  Apparently Shakespeare may have invented the belief that during the Christmas season ghosts, fairies and witches become inactive and the stars and planets are not ill disposed towards human beings.  He may also be expressing his own faith when Horatio replies: So have I heard and do in part believe it (1.1.185).  These verses are some of the few rays of hope in the tragedy.  There is no misrule, no triumph of evil during the Christmas season, “so hallowed (holy) and so gracious is the time.”

I read a fascinating article by a Shakespeare scholar, Steve Roth, who says that the time frame of the play is based on the church calendar.  The play starts on Halloween with the ghost appearing and ends on Shrove Tuesday or what we call Mardi Gras, with the general mayhem of the swordfight.  In the middle is Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, with the play within a play.  Each of these days was seen as a day of rebellion, when the lords of misrule and chaos prevailed.  We still have a bit of that today with Halloween, Twelfth Night and Mardi Gras.  They are times to let chaos reign.

But in the midst of the chaos Shakespeare tells us there is a “hallowed (holy) and gracious time”, the season of Christmas, wherein the power of evil and injustice is stayed and we are protected.  Isn’t that the message of Christmas?  “To you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

In the midst of all our misrule, misplaced priorities, anger and depression, feelings of stress and wanting to get even, in the midst of all that chaos, God comes to us as Savior.  God is born as a child.  God is born as a child to honest, hard working parents, in a small town, on the edge of a big oppressive empire.  He comes not only as a Savior but he comes as Christ, the chosen one, who shows the way of honesty and truth, faith and courage, justice and goodness, the way of peace and love.  He can be that model and teacher for us, because he is no less than God and human being living in perfect harmony.

The prophet Isaiah tells us to expect such a Savior and Lord:

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given;
Authority rests upon his shoulders,
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  (Is. 9:6)

If you feel that the chaos and stress of the world are overwhelming, let the Prince of Peace be your guide to a holy and gracious time.  If like Horatio you in part believe it, then let the believing part guide you to that holy and gracious time.

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A Voice in the Wilderness: Humility

During this Advent season one must listen very carefully to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, the voice of humility.  Indeed one must go into the wilderness of silence in order to hear it, for there is too much noise pollution all around us.  The spiritual masters teach that humility leads to the birth of the true self.   There is a famous Christmas sermon (sermon 101) by Meister Eckhart about how the Son of God is born in the soul.  Detachment is required, and Eckhart cautions us that the natural man will not get very far, unless we detach from the many addictive behaviors which drag us down.  Purity of heart and humility prepare the soul’s ground for this birth.  The ground is where God touches the soul in silence and without any image.  The ground is the birthplace of the Son of God and it is where we share his very life.   “You should completely sink away from your you-ness and flow into his his-ness and your you and his his shall become one our so totally…”  (quoted in The Harvest of Medieval Mysticism in Germany, by Bernard McGinn, p.181).   Eckhart pushes the boundaries of a core saying of Christian mystics, “God became human so that the human might become God”.

John the Baptist was that voice crying in the wilderness.  He regularly shows up during the Advent season at church and is well known for his calls to repentance and warnings of judgment to come.  He lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and honey and wore camel’s hair clothing – a bit of a wild and crazy guy maybe?   Most of his condemnations were reserved for the corrupt ruling classes and he spoke “truth to power” confronting Herod the governor.  The most striking thing about him, however, was his humility.  He constantly spoke about the One who was coming who was much greater than him, “One whose sandals I am unworthy to untie” (John 1:27).   His role was to point people to the One who “would give light to those who sit in darkness … and guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79).  The greater was his humility the more was his Christ likeness.

Luke compares the birth of John and Jesus and tells us there were similarities.  Did you know that John had an announcement of his birth by the angel Gabriel to his father, Zechariah?  The same angel made the announcement of Jesus’ birth to his mother, Mary.  There was a song about John’s birth by his father, Zechariah, the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), which is as inspiring as the more well-known Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) by Mary.  Luke also tells us that John’s mother, Elizabeth, and the young Mary were related.  Scholars think that these efforts to tie together the births of John and Jesus were to encourage the followers of John the Baptist to integrate into the early Christian Church.  But in general the gospels make it clear that Jesus was the main event, an assessment shared by John the Baptist himself:  “he must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

These words are a remarkable commentary on the spiritual life.  The purpose of life surely is for the small self to yield to the greater Self, represented by Christ.  John Main speaks of the yielding of the ego to the Spirit of God who dwells within us. So we grow to be more like Christ, the new creation.  We cannot do this in our own strength; humility is our path.

One of the challenges we face when we try to meditate is for the ego to step aside and yield to the influence of the Spirit of God who makes a home within us.  There cannot be two masters in the same house, at least where God is concerned.  God is the Creator and I am the created one who depends for my existence on the creator.  My ego may dispute this fact but there is no getting away from the basic theology of it.  This truth holds true for all of life, not just meditation.  We are not the captains of the ship, whatever pop culture may tell us.

Such a decreasing is a voluntary act whereby the ego yields to a greater reality.  This is not the act of a weak ego but a mature ego which recognizes the importance of humility and service in human relationships.  Every time we sit to meditate we participate in that decreasing.

Whereas there must be hundreds of paintings of the Annunciation to Mary, I could only find one about the annunciation to Zechariah, in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence, a fresco painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1490.  John is one of the patron saints of the Santa Maria Novella and there is a series of frescos about his life in the chapel.  It is one of the treasures that I missed on my 5 day visit to Florence in 2009, a good reason to make the trip again.

Artists have been much more interested in the death of John the Baptist than in his birth.  Consequently there are many paintings of his head on a platter after Salome has danced a sexy dance for her uncle, Herod.  I think that says more about the artists’ fascination with sex than with the meaning of John’s death, which might be thought of as the humility of the ego contrasted with Herod’s egomania.  Sex, corruption, political jealousy and reprisals, narcissistic behavior, scapegoating the innocent while the powerful are not held to account – sounds very contemporary, does it not?  God’s verdict has not changed: “the ax is lying at the root of the trees …” (Luke 3:9).

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Annunciation to Zechariah by Ghirlandaio

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