Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Can Lutherans be Reincarnated?

Okay. I'm not one for living a life of danger. I don't sky dive or bungee jump or race motorcycles. The most dangerous thing I can do is flirt with a little heresy every now and then. So here goes:

Some weeks ago, Carol, a faithful member of my congregation, asked me if I'd be willing to read Dr. Brian L. Weiss' book Many Lives, Many Masters. The book is subtitled, "The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives." I told Carol I'd be willing to give it a look, and she graciously dropped off a copy at my office. I actually found it rather enjoyable. Dr. Weiss has a smooth writing style, and the book reads like a novel. It does beg the question, "Can a Christian believe in reincarnation?"

To Dr. Weiss' credit, he makes a very compelling argument for the transmigration of souls. I won't detail his evidence here, but if you click on his name (Brian L. Weiss, MD) you can learn all about him and his books. What I personally found most interesting was his assertion that some of the early Christian fathers seemed to believe in the doctrine of reincarnation. Weiss sites Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome as proponents of past-life experiences.

By the sixth century, however, reincarnation was pretty much denounced as heresy by the Church. This was chiefly because the notion that we gain wisdom and salvation through the accumulated experiences of past lives seems to undercut the fundamental Christian doctrine of total salvation through the atonement of Christ on the cross. As a Lutheran, however, I can't resist mentioning that the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine of purgatory seems to do precisely the same thing. I guess none of those sixth century churchmen noticed that!

If you're interested in the intersection of Christian doctrine and reincarnation, I suggest you take a look at the Reluctant Messenger website. The author does a very thorough job of detailing the evidence linking Christianity to reincarnation as well as  the Church's objections to this belief.

Now here's what your Old Religious Guy thinks:

I felt a tremendous amount of joy and comfort reading Dr. Weiss' book. Whether reincarnation is true or not, we cannot write or discuss the transmigration of the soul unless we first believe in the concept of the soul. What do I mean when I use the word "soul?" I mean that I believe in a personal consciousness which is informed by our physical selves but not bound by our physical reality. Please note, I do not subscribe to the ancient Manichaean heresy that body and soul are separate and opposite elements. I believe in a divine interconnectedness between our consciousness and our bodies; however, I also believe that consciousness--like all energy forces in the universe--can neither be created nor destroyed. It is eternal, and will survive once our material bodies have changed their form.

Did any of that make sense?

In short, I believe in eternity, or, as we say in our Creed, in "the life everlasting." Dr. Weiss' book highlights the very positive reaction people in this life have once they become aware of their eternal selves. So good job, Doc!

Of course, in reading Many Lives, Many Masters, one may become skeptical about exactly what Dr. Weiss' hypnotized patients were really experiencing when they recounted past-life experiences. Do I think the book presents 100% irrefutable evidence for reincarnation? I'm afraid I can't say yes to this. Perhaps the patients were tapping powerful but previously untapped creative potential within their own brains? Or, perhaps they were connecting to the accumulated wisdom of all souls? Maybe they were demonstrating, as John Steinbeck said, that there is "one big soul that ever'body's part of?"

But who the heck am I to judge?

Maybe in some past life I was a Navajo princess or a Lithuanian pig farmer. Who knows? What I know for certain is that in this life I am a Lutheran pastor. Trinitarian Christianity works for me (and that's a subject for a future post). Right now, I owe it to my soul and to the God of All Souls to be the best Lutheran pastor I can be. I'll just have to put the rest of eternity into God's almighty hands and live in the moment in faith, hope, and love.

Thank you so much for reading! I will be on vacation for the next two weeks and will not be posting. Please amuse yourself with some of the past posts you may have missed. As always, I look forward to your comments. God bless!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Healing Cancer

My wife and I were out to dinner last Saturday when my cell phone rang. I plugged my bad ear with a finger so I could hear the news from my brother-in-law over the clanging din of the family restaurant. The words coming through the phone hit me like a right cross to the head: My sister Maryanne had been hospitalized. She was scheduled for surgery the next morning.

She had a brain tumor.

Oh shit.

Brain tumor. Two words that are like the sudden appearance of a stranger with a gun or the unexpected snarl of a rabid animal when there is no place to run or hide. Terrifying words.

I know these words. I've been to this rodeo before. Sixteen years ago I lost a dear friend to a brain tumor. I flashed back to all the memories of that ugly, ungodly disease. The surgery. The recovery. The radiation. The sickness. The confusion. The hopeful good news. The devastating disappointment. The loss of a brilliant personality, disappearing inch by inch. The final, obscene family vigil by the bedside when Death, although inevitable, stubbornly refuses to come. The waiting, refusing to leave even for sleep or meals--suffering because the loved one is suffering. Anguish.

But I calm down. The terror subsides. I realize the fear is so great because of the dearness of the person who is at risk. It's so great to have sisters. Granted, it's been many years since I've seen Maryanne. We live on opposite coasts, and neither of us has a lot of money to spend on air travel to visit each other. Still, I just love to know that she's around--somewhere.

Maryanne is sort of the family eccentric. Back in the 1970's she was a genuine card-carrying Jesus Freak. Her enthusiasms have always been eclectic--modern dance, ice skating, fashion design, classical singing, and even pro wrestling. She's a wife and a mother. A brilliant water color artist, she has also been a professional scenic designer and set-painter with Off Broadway credits to her name. For me, her most defining and endearing characteristic is her humor--a goofball sense of the absurd, expressed in a diction somewhere between P. G. Wodehouse and Eddie Murphy. She is sensitive by nature, and, although she is technically my big sister, I find myself thinking of her as my little sister.

Siblings are precious because they are the only people, I think, who truly know us. Our spouses, our parents, our children, or our adult friends didn't grow up under the same roof, and don't share the same childhood memories. At best, siblings have their own special language and points of reference. And when we lose them, we feel so much more alone.

Fortunately, the news from Maryanne has been pretty positive. Her surgery went well, and most of the tumor has been removed without any impairment to her motor or sensory functions. So far, we are optimistic. Maryanne tells me that she is feeling closer to God now that she has had this traumatic diagnosis. She's thankful her headaches are gone. She tells me she has felt the support of all of those who have been praying for her. She is overwhelmingly grateful to her care-givers--especially her husband and mother-in-law.

And me? I'm feeling closer to my sister these last few days than I have felt in a very long time--and closer to her twin, my sister Lorraine, who is united with me in worry and prayer and love for our sis.

I've been a pastor for a long time now, but I still don't know if there is any kind of adequate pastoral care for a person or family attacked by a life-threatening diagnosis. All I can do is take solace in the little moments of joy and the tiny victories which come in the midst of our troubles. As Saint Paul says,

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18)

This may not be of much comfort to those who are experiencing similar losses or fears, but it's the best I can do at the moment and under the circumstances. Because, you see, the truth is that none of us can be cured--we all must die from something. We all must face loss. But I want to believe in the soul and in eternity and in righteousness. I want to believe--as I know my sister does--in joy and gratitude and love. I want to be made whole.

That's what the word "heal" means. It comes from the same root as "whole"--free from grief, troubles, and evil. And such is the ground of faith, this is the belief which keeps me going: we are  all incurable, but no one is un-healable.

Thanks for reading, my friend. Keep us in your prayers.

Monday, May 7, 2012

"What is to Prevent Me From Being Baptized?"

"As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?'"
                                                                            Acts 8:36

The above question comes from a story in the eighth chapter of Acts (Acts 8:26-40) which was the assigned first reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. It's a great story: Phillip, a follower of Jesus Christ, has left Jerusalem and is sort of wandering around the middle east at the direction of the Holy Spirit. In his journey, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch is a real big shot--he's Secretary of the Treasury and a pretty important guy. He's got his own chariot and driver, and he's sitting by the road reading from the prophet Isaiah.

No two people in the ancient world could be more different than Phillip and this stranger (alas, unnamed in the bible). One is a wandering Jewish peasant, the other a high official from sub-Saharan Africa. They are of different races, social classes, cultures, and (need I mention it?) sexuality. And yet, this unlikely pair become comrades on the road, united by a love of God and holy literature. Phillip's desire to share his relationship with Jesus transcends the barriers that would, within the culture of the day, keep these two men at arms' length. And this is what the church--at her best--should really be about: loving acceptance and reconciliation. This is a picture of the radical hospitality which  characterizes the Kingdom of God.

When the eunuch asks "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" he's not just asking a rhetorical question. This fellow has come to Jerusalem to worship. Although it is not said so explicitly in the text, the original readers of Acts would have known that the eunuch would have been prevented from full participation in the Jewish assembly precisely because he was a eunuch (see Deuteronomy 23:1). Despite this man's achievements and social position, he is looked down upon as a sexual freak and an abomination by people outside of his culture. But in Jesus, there are no barriers. There is nothing to prevent this man from being a loved part of the community of fellow believers.

Recently, a member of my parish whom I'll call "Laura" (because that's her name), had a conversation with a twenty-seven year old man in her ceramics class. They were talking about godparents (or "baptismal sponsors" if you will). The young man lamented that he had no godparents because he had never been baptized. He told Laura that he really wanted to go deeper into his faith, and that he wanted to be baptized. Seizing the moment, Laura volunteered her pastor (that would be me) and her congregation as vehicles to welcome this young seeker sacramentally into the Christian faith.

I should mention that the young ceramic artist is a partnered gay man. Regretably, there are still some Christian communities which would take issue with individuals over the the matter of sexual orientation. I think the 2009 (and still ongoing in some places) upheaval in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over questions of human sexuality and inclusivity is evidence of this very point. To me, however, the story of Phillip and the eunuch illustrates that the grace of Jesus supersedes the purity codes of Hebrew Scripture. We are called to be welcoming to all, for in Christ there are no distinctions.

" I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
                                                                               John 10:16

Thanks for reading, my friends. Please drop me a note if you're able.