Becoming Human

Mic’ed up and with cameras recording, the interviewer asked me point blank, “Do you believe in God?” Immediately, numerous responses flooded my mind, but quickly a question formed. As if I were having an out-of-body experience, I heard myself ask, “Which God?” 

There was a short pause and then the conversation continued. It meandered about in numerous directions, while my internal dialogue continued in the background. Eventually the mics and cameras were turned off, small talk ensued and finally warm goodbyes were exchanged. Then, as if nothing significant had occurred, life quickly returned to normal. However, in the background, my internal dialogue continued to ebb and flow. Why had I asked, “Which God?”

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Loaded to the Hilt

When replying with a question, I wasn’t trying to be cheeky or snarky. I was sincerely searching for a context. Which one? Allah? Yahweh? Vishnu? Ganesh? Jesus? Apollo? Ra? The Universe? Ether? And we wouldn’t want to exclude women: Athena? Aphrodite? Sophia? The Holy Spirit?

In that moment, it would have been helpful if the question had been phrased, “Do you believe in my God?” After all, if this conversation had occurred centuries ago with the Jewish Patriarch Abraham, he undoubtedly would have asked, “Do you believe in…MY GOD…the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”

Obviously, the topic of “believing in God” is always personalized and often loaded to the hilt with emotion. As it concerns Allah, one has to establish which version is being inquired about. Sunni? Shia? Khumra? And we shouldn’t exclude the marginalized Sufis. Personally, I’m a big fan of their witty and humorous poet, Hafiz.

When it comes to Greek or Norse gods, our modern day society has largely decided to retire them to a mythological status. However, they are experiencing somewhat of a big-screen revival thanks to CGI and millions of contribution$ from Marvel, DC and Warner Brothers. The scads of obscure island gods have yet to claim the same mass fame, largely remaining on small, local stages entertaining gawking tourists. However, I’m hoping Aquaman can open a door for a few of them.

Continental gods, such as those throughout South America, have largely died from starvation, due to a scarcity of young virgins and bleeding hearts. On a small scale, eastern gods have extended their lives by appealing to hippies and hipsters. In India, it seems no amount of deities have proven sufficient enough to provide an upper hand or leg up. And recently, the Judeo-Christian Jehovah has been stumbling a bit, first with the Holocaust and now with ceaseless conflict in the Middle East. However, he did manage to get a win in the 2016 Presidential Election. #MAGA

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Cherry Picking

When it comes to Christianity, many assume the discussion would be obvious and understood. But with a disputed 30+ thousand sects active around the world, it’s proven to be quite the opposite. For those of us who’ve gone on short-term mission trips, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Located within blocks of one another, you’ll often find a dozen, maybe even twenty or more denominations competing for converts. They all read from the same book and practice faith in similar ways. Though rarely, they are on speaking terms. Why? Financial support aside, their ideologies keep them far apart as the east is from the west.

Orthodox? Catholic? Protestant? Baptist? Pentecostal? Charismatic? Methodist? Lutheran? Fundamentalist? Conservative? Liberal? Progressive? Prophetic? Apostolic? Non-denominational? Inter-denominational, Unitarian? Universal? Whew! I’m out of breath and I haven’t even gotten started! Obviously, the divide is massive. Maybe now’s a good time to admit: we’ve been cherry picking sacred texts for a long time, crafting preferred versions of the Divine we either could defend, or stomach for a season.

With such an admission, I know I’m asking a lot. After all, confession is rarely easy. For me, it took a few years of self-searching and decluttering. In the beginning, it seemed heroic to dismiss and ignore all the divine decrees regarding diet, menstruation, fashion dos & don’ts, polygamy, celibacy, justified violence and slavery. As a matter of fact, I was often praised for doing so, and encouraged to continue.

Later, when I was willing to relinquish the pro-misogamy references, I experienced my first serious pushback. But the heat really got turned up when I did the same with anti-LGBTQ references. All I can say about that is, “WOW!” Nonetheless, each experience caused me to dig deeper. Eventually, I could no longer ignore the countless contradictions, both within the Bible and within myself.

beinghuman_us Being Human – One of my all-time favorite series depicting the struggles of a vampire, ghost and werewolf reclaiming their humanity. It portrays the ugliness and beauty of finding love, forgiveness and redemption.

Becoming Human

In the end, I was left holding onto a very thin sliver of what some still considered sufficient for faith. It was largely a collection of metaphors, a bit of sacred poetry and a few words of wisdom. I lovingly held it close for a season, until one day I had an epiphany: My relationship with supernaturalism was over, and I would survive. Heck, I might even thrive! So, with the same veracity of commitment and moral devotion of my religious past, I decided to pursue simply being human and all it entails.

It wasn’t long until I discovered, my humanistic endeavor was considered by many as heretical and foolhardy. In some faith circles, simply being human is actually tantamount to committing a crime. Nonetheless, I’m undeterred. After all, everybody is a heretic to somebody. In my defense, I like to point to the fact that most religions share a similar narrative: at one time or another, many of the gods (including “God”) pursued the same thing—becoming human.


Postscript

I’m not so naive to think that this article will answer all my critics, or for that matter please every one of my supporters. What about NDE’s? The afterlife? Eternal punishment & reward? OI VEH! For now, I suggest we stay on point with what it means to be human. Personally, I feel this topic is far from being exhausted. Here’s a few links to get things started:

Ze Frank: Are You Human?

Daniel Wendler: What Being Autistic Taught Me About Being Human

Erwin Raphael McManus: What Makes Us Uniquely Human?

Sonia Sanchez: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

Bob McDonald: What If Everything You Know Is Wrong?

 

Strange Brew

Mark Taylor, a former firefighter from Florida, has been making quite a splash before and after the recent midterm elections. At the end of a 20-year career, symptoms of PTSD forced him to retire. Shortly thereafter though, he learned his trauma-induced hallucinations were actually visions from God!?

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Quickly, his prophetic predictions have spread like wildfire, via Christian cable network shows, podcasts, various prayer networks and magazine articles. All of this eventually netted him a book deal and a movie, The Trump Prophecy, funded and produced by Liberty University.

Strange Brew

If you are inclined to entertain the following conspiracy theories, you’re sure to love his weekly updates direct from heavenly realms: 

  • Earth is hollow and inhabited by supernatural beings
  • Nazis live under the Antarctic ice
  • Satanic vampires are feeding on aborted babies
  • Amber Alerts are part of a government conspiracy to cover up human trafficking 
  • Special US Forces are secretly fighting demonic, human hybrids
  • The POTUS is God’s ordained weapon to “trump” satan’s apocalyptic agenda

In years past, such topics were considered embarrassingly distasteful among the religious general public. However, times have changed, and the appetite for strange brew has increased dramatically. 

During my career as a local church pastor, I was frequently accosted by parishioners intoxicated with consternation—fear of world events, freemasons, demons, science, academia, politicians, psychology, illuminati, gays, persecution, fake news, etc. It numbed their rational senses and blurred their vision of reality, leaving them paranoid and inclined to hysteria.

In their desperate state, they often desired for me to confirm their suspicions. Furthermore, they hoped I would use my position and platform to call “doubters” to repentance. Uhm…nope. Sorry… not sorry.

Trashy CGI

Like numerous low-budget movies before with trashy CGI, “The Trump Prophecy” sought to cash in on religious superstition by portraying fiery demons and apocalyptic scenarios. And with the release of the movie right before midterms, it endeavored to inspire believers to cast their votes for God’s agenda, i.e. Trump’s agenda. Some would argue, this puts the film squarely in the horror genre.

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The movie genres of Sci-fi and Horror have their roots in classic stories which sought to confront social injustice and ethical abuses of science, technology, government and religion. Sure, there are plenty of examples where the only focus is on blood and gore, but in general these genres endeavor to unmask fear and manipulation.

Liberty’s “The Trump Prophecy” clearly had no interest in debunking absurdity, nor quelling fear-mongering. Rather, it unashamedly cashed in on age old superstitions while encouraging the self-fulfillment of insane prophecies, i.e. Mark’s hallucinations.

Don’t Call Me

Mark’s prophecies predicted not just a “Red Wave” during the midterms, but actually a “Red Tsunami!” Obviously, neither occurred, but he has a creative explanation which involves an imminent “earthquake” and demonstrations that are actually “demon-strations.” Oh, and there are massive arrests of democrats soon to take place with martial law to follow!

Don’t bother phoning him for a clarification. He’s only taking calls from friends. “After all,” he explains, “those who are ‘attacking’ me are only operating in the realm of intellect.” Obviously, the phrase “don’t call me” has a double meaning — Don’t call me and don’t call me out!

PTSD Info & Resources

PTSD is a serious condition. Help and treatment is readily available. For more on the symptoms, causes and risk factors, see the following link: Mayo Clinic. Also, click the pic below for information on available hotlines.

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Splash! Splash! Splash!

For those who have been reading my Patheos postings, you’ve no doubt noticed I keep referencing Icarus, the mythological risk-taker who flew too close to the sun and perished from his tragic fall back to earth. The inspiration which sparked my recent article came from an Oscar Wilde poem:

Never regret thy fall, O Icarus of the fearless flight. For the greatest tragedy of them all, is never to feel the burning light.

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Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” (ca. 1558) is famous for relegating the fall to a scarcely noticed event in the background — red arrow [added by me] marks the spot.

Lately, I’ve been questioning why I’m obsessed with making inferences to Icarus. After all, it’s a tragic story traditionally accompanied with warnings for the over-ambitious and reckless. There’s even an attributed psychological term called The Icarus Complex: a person who is fond of heights, narcissistic and obsessed with fantastical, far-fetched, imaginary cognition.

Psychosynthesis ties this complex to those whose religious/spiritual ambitions exceed the reasonable limits of their own personalities. They are characterized by self-gratifying, attention-seeking behavior and obsessions with apocalyptic “crash & burn” predictions. Interestingly, they also have an emotional fascination with fire (e.g. burning sexual desires, moral works tried by fire, scorching eternal punishment, etc.).

To say the least, there’s enough with all of this to keep me busy for months, writing and making inferences!

The Red Arrow

As it concerns my recent articles, my chief motivation can be found in the painting above. Icarus’ fall (red arrow marks the spot) is depicted as an unnoticed non-event. Farmers, travelers, fishermen, sailing merchants, they all continue their day-to-day tasks, unconcerned with the tragic splash below.

So, what is it that best represents the uninteresting splash? Without knowing the painter’s intentions, I’ll attempt to offer my own insights.

Splash! Splash! Splash!

Maybe the uneventful splash is symbolized by all the rising/falling religious-spiritual fads, trends, obsessions, predictions and ever changing, contradictory dogmas? You know, the elusive transcendental stuff. If this painting were a contemporary work, we could theorize the splash to be the numerous rapture theories or Zionist Temple Mount predictions featured by Charisma Magazine each month.

Or, we could point to the televangelists’s hyper theatrics serving up hot, steamy love songs to God followed by oratory hell-laced admonitions to the Divine’s captive bride.

Or, our thoughts could turn to Oprah’s recommended reading list and all the eager Super Soul Sunday guru guests.

The splash of week-old TV ratings certainly constitutes as a non-event.

Cable specials about angels and demons, books left out of the sacred canon, dinosaur-sized giants, ancient aliens, Nessie and Bigfoot exposes and alchemy secrets revealed… splash! splash! splash!

The latest, greatest study bibles promising word-for-word translations, religious programming’s annual pledge drives, right and left wing talking points, political call to arms and Church/State promises to use your tithes and taxes to honor God and country… SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!

Who Gives A Crap?!?

For many, if it doesn’t impact grocery and gas prices, vacation resort deals, or 401K gains… who gives a crap?!?

Week after week, month after month, and year after year, many have learned to ignore the splashes. It’s just entertainment after all, right? Umm…

I’m a romantic, so I like to think the splash is not Icarus sinking into Davey Jone’s Locker. I like to envision him getting close enough to the burning light of reason, he realizes his world is upside-down. He no longer fears falling and sheds his father’s wings. He’s actually flying; for real, he… is… flying!

Think Neo being unplugged from the Matrix.

My romantic self likes to think of the splashes as being all the social, religious, political, inhumane mechanical bodies–the dim promises of transcendent flight–plunging into the waters of stupidity far below. Like Icarus, I envision myself shedding my inherited biases to soar high, far above the superstitious storytellers, religious dogma and prejudiced contemporary philosophers.

Together, we live without regret in the brilliant light of free thought and discovery.

Have I peaked your interest?

More romantic, sentimental musings to come soon… #Icarusflew #noregrets

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Daedulus and Icarus drawing by Lyle Saunders – click pic for link

I Work With Death Daily

Fred Grewe has been my dear friend for 20+ years. Our friendship, through many seasons in life, has enriched my life in countless ways. Fred has a new book out right now, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in London and Philadelphia: Time To Talk About Dying. He’s a brilliant storyteller and his insights about life and death are always thought provoking.

Check out his Amazon Author’s Page here.


Why is the Grim Reaper so Grim?

By Fred Grewe

I work with Death on a daily basis and over the years have come to know him quite well. On an average week I visit about twenty dying folks, more than three hun51eiXTG4j-L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgdred terminal individuals annually, and over the past twelve years I have provided spiritual care for nearly two thousand people who have died.

I’m a hospice chaplain.

A little context might be helpful. Nearly all of the folks I meet and serve are north of 70 years of age. Most often, people in their 80’s, 90’s and even 100’s. Also, I work in a relatively safe middle-class environment. By and large, the people I serve have at least had a shot at a good life. These facts color my experience with Death. I’m sure ministers who work with dying children or in places of great poverty and privation might have different feelings about my friend Death.

Now generally I don’t tell people what I do for a living. I mean, when you tell someone you’re a hospice chaplain, they tend to just tilt their head knowingly and look at you with big doe eyes like you’re Brother Teresa.

And I’m not.

It’s not that I don’t love what I do or am not proud of it. Actually, I find my work both inspiring and refreshing, inspiring because of the courage and strength I witness everyday by patients and family members.

Refreshing in that I encounter very little in the way of nonsense. By the time I get to meet our patients most of the nonsense has been kicked out of them – either by a doctor’s terminal diagnosis or by some painfully failed therapy – or both.

Most clergy by and large have to put up with a lot of nonsense. I sure did when I was a pastor. It usually sounds something like this: “Why do we have to sing the same songs every Sunday?” or “You know, if we could just get out 15 minutes earlier we could beat the Baptists to all the good restaurants.” or “That was a wonderful sermon pastor, one of your best!” Pure nonsense.

Hospice patients know they don’t have time for such silliness. Every alert minute takes on profound importance when you know there are precious few left. I find the brutal honesty of conversations with such people incredibly rich and refreshing. There’s so little pretense, so little posturing. The sacredness of such moments often demands my full attention and it feels as though time simply stands still in silent homage.

That’s not to say such conversations are always serious. They’re not. But what they are is real.

For example, I remember when Carolyn was telling me about how depressed she became after her doctor told her cancer was inoperable and she only had a few months of life left.

“I stayed in bed for three or four days just crying,” she said. “I didn’t get dressed or shower – I just cried. Then one morning my daughter Jennifer came in and brought me breakfast. I started yelling at her that I didn’t want any God damned food, and if I’da had a bag I’d just put it over my head and end it all right now!

‘Paper or plastic?’ Jennifer asked.

Well, how can you stay depressed when someone treats you like that? So I got up and ate and decided to continue living until I can’t anymore.”

Such folks are daily reminders for me to live intentionally now – while I can. Because the reality is none of us is promised tomorrow. I would say this is the supreme lesson the dying have taught me about living. I call it the dying well paradox: contemplating my death compels me to live a fully engaged life now and living a fully engaged life now is the best preparation for my death. I imagine you’ve heard something like this somewhere before. So the real question is how do we engage this wisdom to actually impact our day to day existence? How can this insight shape our spiritual maturation?

Vital Signs

What can be considered as evidence of spiritual maturity anyway? Church attendance? Tithing records? Number of memorized Bible verses? Faithful rotations in the nursery? I suggest signs of an authentic spiritual life must go deeper than these.

Now one of the drawbacks in being a minister is most everyone lies to you at a first meeting about their life of faith. For example, when I meet a new hospice patient or their family as a chaplain and ask, “How is everyone doing?”

They usually all say, “Fine.” Or, “Praise God, I’m good … I’m just waiting to go to heaven.”

Often those are simply deflections.

Those are the responses we’re all trained to tell the minister to keep him or her far away from doing any harm. If we actually tell the truth, the minister would likely try to probe deeper and unearth all the little tawdry dark family secrets that have caused enormous pain for years – and no one wants that!

To circumvent the social niceties that deflect against really getting to know folks I’ve developed a list of spiritual vital signs to help determine what’s really going on inside someone’s soul. Here’s my list of spiritual vitals: gratitude, generosity, submission to reality, and an ability to shower the people you love with love. (I know I stole that last one from James Taylor.) These are the qualities I look for in meeting a new patient to help determine the relative health of his or her soul. These are signs I look for to see if someone is really alive.

Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has famously promoted the mantra, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” A brief scan of the TED Talks library gives you an indication of the growing awareness on the importance gratitude holds for spiritual and mental well being. I’ve learned that gratitude is something we cultivate. It’s also magnetic. The more I express gratitude the more I find to be grateful for. Sadly, I’ve also learned the same is true for ingratitude. The more I bitch – the more I find to bitch about.

In recent years there has been a growing body of research to demonstrate that simply doing three kind things a day for others can help lift depression, improve sleep, and increase spiritual resilience. Generous behavior is evidence of a soul that has been humbled by the reception of grace and understands the deep connection we all have with each other. I have never met a truly generous person who was not aware of how much they have been given as gift and the natural response is to share that gift with others (see the story of the four lepers in 2 Kings Chapter 7). Conversely, stinginess and a sense of entitlement are symptoms of a grace starved soul.

By submission to reality I mean one’s ability to simply and humbly accept the impermanent nature of life. All living things die. Over the years the folks I’ve met and served who can accept this fact generally die a much less painful death. Those who insist on fighting the inevitable, who refuse to give up when the end is in sight, often need far more analgesics (heavy duty pain killers).

In serving nearly 2,000 departed souls I have never once had someone say to me, “I wish I had gone to more football games.” or “I wish I had spent more time on line.” or “I wish I could have gone shopping more often.” What matters most to those at the end of their life are the people they love and those who love them. Jesus taught there is no more important investment we can make in this life than loving God and those whom God places in our lives (see Mark 12:28-31). For so many years as a practicing Christian I thought this is what I needed to do to make God happy. To my joyful surprise, I have discovered that this what truly makes me happy.

So these are my spiritual vital signs, signs to give me an indication of how really alive someone’s soul is. Are they truly awake to the wonder of life? Or are they asleep, simply eking out an existence without truly engaging this miraculous gift?

Why is The Grim Reaper So Grim?

In the years that I’ve worked with Death and felt his presence at the bedside of a dying patient, I’ve thought about his costume. I mean, what’s with the hooded cowl?

I wonder if Death uses the cowl to hide his own grief, grief at having to come and collect folks who have never really lived? Never given their hearts freedom to love and be loved? So afraid of what others think, seduced by culturally unachievable standards of wealth, beauty, and knowledge, or traumatized by painful life experiences that they spent their limited precious moments in a self absorbed sleep walk. Why is the Grim Reaper so grim? Maybe because he aches so deeply for the missed opportunities we all had to really live?

Of late I have been working to strengthen my own spiritual vital signs. I want to be alive while I still can. So I look for opportunities to be generous, especially with my time (which is very hard for me)–surrendering to the things I cannot change, battling the ones I can and praying to know the difference between the two. I start each day praying for the grace and courage to be Chaplain Fred for yet another day and ask God for the openness of heart to use the day as a treasure hunt. In the midst of my tasks – the daily phone calls, traffic, charting, emails, meetings – I pray to really see at least three people this day. I mean really see them, see what is beautiful and special about them, and then find some kind way of communicating that to them. Then as I sit for prayer in the evenings I try to reflect on those folks I saw and pray for them. What I find can be big or little – but I want to find and bless at least three people. I so want my life to be a blessing for others.

I have come to the realization that all I seek at this point in my life is to be a good man. I want to spend my remaining days telling the people I love why I love them. I want to reflect back to them the beauty I see within them. I want to be a conduit of God’s grace rather than a participant in the fear of “not enough.” I want to be kind and generous – trusting that if I give myself to these tasks I might become the son God dreams me to be. I want at the end of my days as I lie on my deathbed for the last words to cross my lips to be “Thank you.” I want my friend Death not to be crying when he comes for me – but to have a gentle smile and knowing glance indicating that I really lived.