• Halloween: A Search For The Sacred

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    Halloween: A Search For The Sacred
    Brian Zahnd

    It’s Halloween. The season of ghosts and goblins, haunted houses and horror movies. The modern observance of Halloween seems, for the most part, to be an innocent celebration of the strange joy of being scared. There’s no doubt that a significant number of us do enjoy being scared as a form of entertainment. After all, Stephen King has sold 350 million books! But why? Why do we like to be scared? I think it has to do with a search for what is most missing in the modern world: the sacred. We like being scared because we are so very secular.

    When modernity came of age it banished the sense of the sacred. Empiricism, materialism, positivism had won the day. Science was now the high priest that would answer all questions and religion was merely the superstition of the hopelessly naïve. We found ourselves in a world without God or gods, a world beyond good and evil (as Nietzsche said), a world without angels and demons. Religion was but hucksterism and nothing was truly sacred anymore. Bob Dylan captured it well when he said,
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  • Every Grain of Sand

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    Every Grain of Sand
    Brian Zahnd

    In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand
    In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand

    –Bob Dylan, Every Grain of Sand

    I had a dream. I dreamed I was riding a yellow bicycle. While riding my yellow bicycle I was intently observing the beauty of creation, especially the vibrant colors — the green of the grass and trees (the human eye is more attune to the green spectrum than any other), the blue sky, the red roses, the yellow dandelions. During my colorful dreamland bike ride I was thinking about the nature of salvation. When I awoke I wrote down my nocturnal thoughts:

    When we make salvation mostly postmortem, all about the afterlife, we create a barrier — a wall of separation between redemption and the land of the living. No wonder so many shrug their shoulders in disinterest. But when we locate salvation here and now we achieve a stunning relevance.

    Salvation is about being human. This is why the Logic (Logos) of God became human flesh. Jesus came to give us back the life we lost ever since we stumbled out of the garden to wander in the violent land east of Eden.

    When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden Creation lost its gardener. Is it any surprise that the faster our technology has advanced the more rapacious we have become in the pillage and plunder of our planet? When we lost our vocation as gardeners, the planet lost its God-ordained caretakers. From the stone age to the dawn of the industrial age the planet has been able to muddle by without its caretakers, but now human civilization, divorced from its original vocation, threatens to imperil the earth.

    Mary Magdalene’s Easter “mistake” of thinking Jesus was the gardener is a poetic hint of how the Last Adam leads us back to our first vocation. Any understanding of salvation that doesn’t lead us to love God’s creation is far more Gnostic than Christian. Or perhaps it’s just voracious capitalism dressed up in Christian garb — a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If we cannot love the primeval forest I’m not sure we can love either God or neighbor. The wise Elder Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov gives this counsel to the novice monk Alyosha:
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  • Beyond Elementary School Christianity

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    Beyond Elementary School Christianity
    Brian Zahnd

    In his groundbreaking book, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, James W. Fowler describes spiritual development in a series of stages from zero to six. Fowler describes stage two as the faith of school children. This is a stage where metaphors are often literalized and a strong belief in the just reciprocity of the universe is held dear. At this stage of faith the idea that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people is a controlling axiom. I won’t summarize all the stages here, but Fowler describes stage five as the capacity to acknowledge paradox and experience transcendence.

    Fowler’s final stage is characterized by compassion and the view that all people belong to a universal community. This is the mature stage where the spiritual journey breaks out of the paradigm of “us versus them” that dominates so much religious thought and controls so many religious institutions.

    In his forthcoming book, A More Christlike God, Canadian theologian Brad Jersak comments on Fowler’s stages of faith and the current plight of evangelicalism making this stinging observation: “Entire streams of Christendom are not only stuck at stage-two faith, but actually train and require their ministers to interpret the Bible through the mythic-literal eyes of school children. Growing up and moving forward is rebranded as backsliding; maturing is perceived as falling away.”
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  • War Prayer

    War Prayer

    On September 11, 2014 The Work of the People asked me about 9/11. This is part of our conversation.

    BZ
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  • Out of the Corner of My Eye

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    Out of the Corner of My Eye
    Blindman at the Gate

    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    A ghost, a whisper, a suspicion, a subtle and subversive rumor.
    So dangerous that every army would be commanded to march against it;
    so beautiful that it would drive those who see it to madness
    or sanity.
    Does the whole of my kind suffer from mental and moral vertigo?
    As Melville said of cabin boy Pip,
    he saw the foot of God upon the treadle of the loom
    and dared to speak it.
    Henceforth his shipmates called him mad.
    As Vladimir said when they came to bury Fyodor,
    the spiritual leader must feel the falsehood prevailing in society;
    the prophet must struggle against it, never tolerate it, never submit to it.
    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    Have we been so blinded by the bright lights of advertisers’ lies
    that the only true vision is peripheral vision?
    In the age of constant commercialization and overblown hype
    does truth shout with a whisper and stand out with subtlety?
    I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
    It terrified me as I fell in love with it.
    I said,
    This explains everything.
    This changes everything.
    This challenges everything.
    This threatens everything.
    This transforms everything.
    Dare I speak it?
    The truth I caught out of the corner of my eye?
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    they come to kill, steal, and destroy.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    all virtue is subject to sacrifice upon the altar of imperial expediency.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    God or gods exist only to serve its cause.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie;
    religion takes off its mask when it says—
    We have no king but Caesar.
    The ultimate betrayal,
    the final apostasy,
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    Marx was more than half right when he said—
    Religion is the opiate of the masses.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie:
    Self-promotion and Self-preservation,
    Greed and Lust,
    Industry and War,
    the industry of war.
    Long live the Empire!
    Keep the Empire alive,
    and to keep the Empire alive
    many will be made to die,
    because the Empire lives by the sword
    and dies by the same.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    From Aztec to Zulu,
    Egyptian and Ottoman,
    Persia and Babylon,
    Greece and Rome,
    England and—
    Now I’m too close to home.
    A kinder, gentler Babylon to be sure,
    but a Babylon for sure.
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    So when Christ came
    he did not bring
    another empire of men
    built upon a lie
    as the liar in the desert tempted.
    Instead he brought
    the Empire of God,
    Good News!
    The government of justice and mercy, grace and truth,
    and the truth is
    every empire of man is built upon a lie,
    though every empire says,
    We have God on our side.
    So you will have to decide
    how patriotic a Byzantine believer can be.
    May we be salt and light,
    a prophetic voice,
    a Christian conscience.
    May we preserve and illuminate,
    cry aloud and convict,
    but never forget
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    And to stand for truth
    and to stand for God
    is to stand against the lie the empire is built upon.
    And in the midst of imperial self-justification pray—
    Thy Empire come.
    There, I’ve said it.
    The truth I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.
    And when push comes to shove,
    as it always does,
    the Empire of Men will oppose the Empire of God.
    To know this is dangerous.
    To say it can be deadly.
    Do you think I’m kidding?
    What crucified Jesus?
    Self-righteous religion?
    No, not religion alone.
    Religion as the whore of Empire.
    This is what killed Jesus.
    And Paul.
    And Peter.
    And Polycarp.
    And Huss.
    And Bonhoeffer.
    Because this is what empires do.
    Silence the prophets who will not prostitute the truth.
    Religion is tolerated.
    Imperial religion is promoted.
    But the prophetic hope of another way
    must be censored
    even by the sword.
    This is the way of empire.
    Because
    every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    Constantine can become a Christian,
    but Constantine cannot baptize the Empire.
    The Empire of God converts the hearts of men one at a time.
    Christ the King must himself sponsor each one into his Kingdom.
    But when the Empire sanctions religion for its own purposes,
    the whore of Babylon rides the back of the beast.
    Giddyup and God bless the Empire!
    Every empire of man is built upon a lie.
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
    To believe this truth will set you free.
    And you thought it was just Sunday school banality
    or empty religious sentimentality
    to pray
    Thy Empire come
    Thy Policy be done.
    You had no idea it was dissident and subversive,
    because every empire of men is built upon a lie.
    The lie that the empire has God on its side.
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
    And if you ask me my politics, I will say,
    Jesus is Lord!
    I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
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  • O To Be Open

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    O To Be Open
    Blindman at the Gate

    O to be open
    It’s what the wise ones seek
    It’s what the great souls attain

    What’s a saint?
    An Open One
    Saint Francis and Mother Teresa were
    Open
    Open to God, open to Creation, open to the Other

    We’re all born open — wide-eyed and wide open
    What’s an infant?
    An Open One
    Wonder, learning, and love come easy to a
    Child

    But then we suffer the blows
    And begin to
    Close

    By the time we’re a teen
    We’re mostly tight shut
    Happy or sad
    A clam inside a shell

    Now the task begins
    The task of a lifetime
    The task of becoming
    Open

    O to be open
    An old one open again
    Open to wonder, learning, and love
    To grow open is to grow young

    Much is against openness
    Vested interests stake much on keeping us
    Tight shut
    The talking heads of the tight shut tell us of
    Right and Wrong, Black and White, Us and Them
    Who is In and who is Out
    Their words are a slamming door
    BAM!
    Tight shut!

    To live in the world of the tight shut is called
    Certainty and security, clarity and conformity
    It’s also death
    To live there is to shrivel your soul
    To die there is—
    Well, I don’t know

    I do know that to save my soul
    I must become open
    Open to God’s all-encompassing love
    I cannot afford to slam the door
    To shut the door on “them”
    Is to lock myself in hell’s closet

    O to be open

    Where does the first crack of openness come from?
    It could come from anywhere
    A poem, a heartbreak, a sunset really seen
    A song, a sermon, a mercy freely received
    A birth, a death, a person fully loved
    Let openness get its foot in the door
    And it’ll begin to shovel in the grace

    Open to the openness
    The openness of God
    The openness of light
    The openness of love

    Life is open
    (Ever unfolding)
    Death is closed
    (A sealed tomb)

    Heaven is open
    (Its gates will never be shut)
    Hell is closed
    (Abandon all hope ye who enter)

    Jesus is the Usher of Openness
    He holds the keys of Hell and Death
    To set its prisoners free
    May he loose us and lead us into
    The Great Openness of God

    O to be open
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  • Christianity In the Age of Nuclear Weapons

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    Christianity In the Age of Nuclear Weapons
    Brian Zahnd

    Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Saturday we will mourn Nagasaki. As we remember Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the quarter of a million casualties suffered, I would like to share a few words from A Farewell To Mars.

    It’s easy to imagine that the world doesn’t really change — that it simply marches around the maypole of violence, trampling the victims into the mud same as it ever has. But as true as that may be, something has changed. We are post-something. If nothing else, we are post-1945 when the enlightenment dream of attainable utopia went up in smoke — literal smoke! — from the chimneys of Auschwitz and a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.

    After 1945 we lost our blind faith in the inevitability of human progress. A threshold was crossed, and something important changed when humanity gained possession of what previously only God possessed: the capacity for complete annihilation. In yielding to the temptation to harness the fundamental physics of the universe for the purpose of building city-destroying bombs, have we again heard the serpent whisper, “You will be like God”?

    When Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first atomic detonation at Los Alamos on July 16, 1945, he recalled the words of Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita…

    “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

    When the monstrous mushroom cloud rose over the New Mexico desert, did the human race indeed become Death, the destroyer of worlds? It’s more than a legitimate question. We’ve now lived for over a generation with the most haunting post-Holocaust/Hiroshima uncertainty: Can humanity possess the capacity for self-destruction and not resort to it? The jury is still out. But this much is certain: If we think the ideas of Jesus about peace are irrelevant in the age of genocide and nuclear weapons, we have invented an utterly irrelevant Christianity!
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  • For The Common Good

    Ahmed, Brian, and Samuel w.border

    A few years ago I drafted a statement to explain the friendship and cooperation I have with Ahmed El-Sherif, an Arab Muslim scientist, and Samuel Nachum, an Israeli Jewish artist, as we work together for peace in Israel and Palestine. This seems like a good time to share it again.

    For the Common Good

    We are Jews, Christians and Muslims.
    And we are friends.
    We seek to follow our respective religions faithfully.
    We do not believe all religions are the same.
    We recognize the reality of our religious differences.
    But we are friends.
    We are devout in our faith and respectful of our friendship.
    Our faith and friendship need not be mutually exclusive.
    We recognize that we share common space — the common space of a shared planet.
    For the sake of the common good we seek common ground.
    We do not share a common faith, but we share a common humanity.
    In our different religions we do not practice the same rituals or pray the same prayers.
    But in our shared humanity we hold to a common dream: Shalom, Salaam, Peace.
    We hold to the dream that our children may play in peace without fear of violence.
    And so…
    We pledge not to hate.
    We pledge not to dehumanize others.
    We pledge to do no harm in the name of God.
    As individuals we do not compromise the truth claims of our respective religions—
    But we will not use truth claims to fuel hate or justify violence.
    We will practice our respective faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
    But we believe our faith can be practiced in the way of peace—
    We believe our faith truly practiced need never be at odds with humanitarian ideals.
    Our religions share a complex and intertwined history—
    A history of interaction that has too often been tumultuous and bloody.
    We believe there must be a better way and we seek that better way.
    The way of peace.
    We are Jews, Christians and Muslims.
    And we are friends.
    We seek common ground for the common good.
    Shalom, Salaam, Peace.

    Ahmed El-Sherif
    Samuel Nachum
    Brian Zahnd

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  • A Dusting of Snow During a Bloody Summer

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    A Dusting of Snow During a Bloody Summer
    Brian Zahnd

    It’s been a bloody summer. In Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Nigeria, and the Ukraine.
    Kill the bad guys and there will be peace is the tired refrain.
    All sides say it. Ad infinitum.

    (I didn’t even mention the bloody streets of America, to which we have grown so numb.)

    But I am where I always hope to be this time of year: In the mountains that I love.

    When I hike above treeline onto the great expanse of the high tundra my soul finds room for expansion. I’m no longer hemmed in by the din from the reactive ideologues. I find time and space to pray and think.

    And as I pray and think, I know this…

    Creation is good. Very good. It bears witness to its Creator, who is good too.

    In our primitive dread we imagine a god who is petulant and hard to please, vindictive and retributive, capricious and cruel. But these are only petty projections born of our own fear.

    The mystics (and maybe the mountaineers) know better.

    When I can clear my head, I know better. High on the tundra between Longs Peak and the Never Summer Mountains I know the greatest of all truth: God is Love.
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