The Pyramid and the Manger

How can you and I make the world a better place in 2018? By questioning the pyramid and pondering the manger.

The world’s oldest structures are pyramids. Some, in places like Kazakhstan and Brazil may be even older than the ones in Egypt.

Pyramids are also a symbol of human civilization. It took a very large and well-organized population to build a pyramid; a population that was organized much like a pyramid. A massive number of workers at the bottom did the actual work.  A smaller number of slave drivers made them work. A smaller number of overseers supervised the slave drivers.  These people all served the interests of a tiny group of people, call them the “One Percent,” at the top.

This system worked because everyone believed in a great myth that said the people at the bottom depend on the people at the top for their existence. Yet, one look at the average pyramid reveals that the bottom holds up the top.

5,000 years later, we still believe the myth. All civilizations, from Ancient Egypt to the USA, are pyramids. In every society, the people at the top of the pyramid have better schools, lawyers, and roads. They breathe better air and drink purer water than the people at the bottom.

The Christmas season turns the pyramid upside-down. The King of Kings is born in the lowest place on earth. His first cradle is a manger. And three “kings” come to kneel before him and offer him gifts.

There have been times when Christians understood this. In some places during the Middle Ages, Christmas turned the social order upside down. The servants became lords and the lords became servants between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany (January 6). Indeed, this often put the celebration of Christmas in a bad light for those who need a lot of order in their lives. It may have been one reason why the Puritans made celebrating Christmas illegal.

As we put away our decorations for another year, we can ask how the pyramid has been working out for us.   We can ask, are we better off when rich people get tax cuts and poor children lose their health care? Are we better off when the One Percent see their stock portfolios rise and the federal minimum wage is the same as it was in 2009? Are we better off by blaming the people below us on the pyramid for all our problems? 

Those are scary questions. They often lead to revolution, but all revolutions do is build a new pyramid.

That is why the image of the kings bowing before the Christ Child contains the answer to the world’s problems. The world will be a better place when the people at the top of the pyramid serve the ones at the bottom. The world will be a better place when  the powerful revere the miracle of every birth and honor the sacredness of every life.

If you can read this, you are above the people on the bottom who cannot read. During this new year, you will make decisions at the store, at work, and in the voting booth. I leave you with a question from Robert Greenleaf’s book, The Servant Leader. “Will this decision benefit the weakest and most vulnerable? Or, at the very least, will it not make their condition worse?”

If we let that question guide every decision, we, too, shall become wise.

Pyramid Photo via: on <a href=”″></a>

Manger Scene Photo credit: <a href=”″>RdpC</a> on <a href=””>Visual Hunt</a> / <a href=””> CC BY-NC-ND</a>

The O Before Christmas

I am writing this as the sun is going down and the longest night of the year is closing in around us. It is a gloomy moment. My next door neighbors and those across the street who have done such a nice job of decorating their outside trees have not yet switched them on. It matches the mood of too many people on this night. The darkness and the push to “celebrate” combine to make the sad sadder,

I recently learned that it was an ancient Christian practice to begin worship services on the days of the week before Christmas, this week that has the longest nights of the year, with the O Antiphons. If you have ever heard the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” you know what the O Antiphons are.

It would take all this long night to explain the extraordinarily deep meanings of symbols like “Emmanuel” or the “Root of Jesse” that the Antiphons sing about, so I just want to focus on the word “O”. Recently, I crowdsourced the question, “How many ways can you say, “O”?

What is amazing about the word in our language — and I suspect in other languages — are the ways the same word can have opposite meanings. We can say “O” to express wonder or disgust, relief or frustration, sadness or joy, excitement or disappointment.

During this week the ancient Christians used the word “O” to express their longings; longings for wisdom and light, for justice and righteousness, and for God to be with us. It comes out of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) in which she expresses her hope that the child she will bear will bring about a world in which the voiceless will be heard, the hungry will be fed, and the nobodies will become somebody.

The O of longing.

We fall into despair, not because we feel longing, but because we have become numb to it. Opioids are only one way of inducing numbness. The incessant playing of “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” from department store speakers, is another. The commercial Christmas that has become the norm in America is preceded, not by people singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in darkened churches, but by an orgy of consumption. It is no wonder that the life expectancy of Americans has gone down for the second year in a row, what do we have to live for?

But I do not want to induce more despair. I want even the least religious person in the world to find fulfillment. And the only way to find fulfillment is to experience longing first. And the way into longing is through that simple vowel, “O”.

Yoga classes often end with the class chanting the sound “Om” together. The Hindus believe that this sound is the foundation of creation — an ancient belief that not only is in harmony with our modern insight that vibration is at the heart of creation, the vibration of atoms, hearts, planets and galaxies, but it also enriches our understanding of the Gospel of John’s Christmas story, “In the beginning was the Word. . . . ”

Everything begins with “O”. It is the beginning of a sentence. It is the beginning of feeling. It is the dawning of recognition. It is the cry of pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow. “O” is the opposite of numbness.

When you say it on these long dark nights before Christmas, what longings come up for you?

The numb will look into the manger on Christmas morning and see another plastic doll. Those who feel the longing expressed by “O” will see a Child, New Life, Promise, Wisdom, Light, Fulfillment of Hope, the answer to every longing.

How Many Ways Can You Say “Oh”?

This is not an idle exercise. It will have a serious purpose. Here is a list I composed this morning. Can you add more?

Ways of Saying “O”
Oh! — I understand
Oh! –Disappointment
Oh! — Pain
Oh! — Ecstasy
Oh! — Frustration
Oh! — Honor (as in O King)
Oh! — Longing
Oh! — Love
Oh! — Compassion
Oh! — Disgust
Oh! — Discovery/Surprise

The Path to Enlightenment: The Election as Spiritual Practice, Part 2

Quickly! List 3 things that you really hate about the Presidential candidate you are voting against:




That wasn’t too hard, was it?

I made two assumptions in asking you to do that:

  1. Although you may or may not be voting enthusiastically for a particular candidate this year, you are almost certainly voting against someone.
  2.  I am betting that all three things you listed are personal qualities and not policy positions.

Certainly the candidates in this year’s election have policy differences — and skill set differences  — but my personal polling indicates that we are making our choices largely on personal qualities like honesty or the lack thereof, to name the one that seems to come up most often for both the major party candidates.

OK, writing down those personal qualities you dislike the most in the candidate you dislike the most was step one — pretty easy.

Step 2: Write down one quality in your most-disliked candidate that is deplorable, but you could live with if that was his or her only fault.


That may have been a little harder, but I’ll bet you managed to come up with one.

Step 3:  Ask yourself how those first three qualities reside in you.

I know.

I know.

There is NO WAY any of those three qualities have ANY place in your life. YOU have NEVER said or done ANYTHING remotely like the PERFECTLY AWFUL things that despicable excuse for a human being has said and done!

Take a deep breath, and ask yourself why you get so worked up about those first three things, but you could live with the fourth thing.

Most people will just hit “delete” right now.

That’s because most people (including me) don’t really want to put into practice one of the deepest spiritual disciplines — one that would bring us all closer to what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.  For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Matthew 7:1-3.

This portion of the Sermon on the Mount is not telling us to abandon our moral principles. Immorality, lying, arrogance, and whatever else you wrote down will still be bad things. Jesus is  asking us to focus our moral laser vision on ourselves rather than someone else. 

I’m asking you to ask yourself:

What  is there about those three things that gets to me?

How are they different from the one thing I could live with?

I admit that I found this incredibly hard to do. I did not want to find those qualities in myself. But they really are there and I work really hard to cover them up — at least from myself.

You will note that I am not about to share publicly what they are, less because I am ashamed of them than because I don’t want to see in the comments section: “Oh yeah, we knew that about you all along.” 

However, I was astounded at the release of spiritual power that I felt when I faced them. We put a lot of energy into fear and loathing that could be used for improving ourselves and the world around us. 

I was heartened by the fact that the fourth quality — the one I could live with — really is kind of despicable, but it doesn’t bother me because I really don’t have that fault. Such a rare thing — a fault that I don’t have. 

Pro tip: Treat this as a game. Be playful about it. Buy a post-Halloween-discount Hillary mask or Donald mask and mentally wear it for a few minutes and imagine yourself acting out those despicable qualities.

Imagine the mask you wear every day that covers up those qualities in you. How much work do you have to do to keep people from seeing those things in you?

The work we do to remove the beam of wood from our own eyes will go a lot further toward making the world a better place than another Facebook posting about how terrible candidate _____ is.

Try it.  It will change your life and, no matter who wins on Tuesday, your transformed self will be making the world around you a better place — in fact, you will be making it the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Guest Blogger: Responding to that Chair

By Duane R. Miller*

This began as a good friend’s response to the series I just completed about finding our true selves using the metaphor of removing the paint (social roles, learned behavior, etc.) that covers up the “true grain” of our personal characters. What if you reverse the metaphor?  Does this come closer to your experience?

Thanks, Duane, for letting me use this. 

I’ve been reading your [Second Half] blog using the metaphor of a chair that has been painted many times and what it means to strip the layers of paint and find out what is really underneath it all.

The idea seems to be that if you scrape away all the layers of stuff that have been put on you throughout your professional life, you will discover again who you really are.

While your writing is always enjoyable and insightful, there is something about using this image that didn’t sit quite right with me.

I think I have discovered why.

In your image, all your experiences, the layers of paint, are covering up who you really are. Why can’t your experiences and the way you deal with them add new dimensions to whom you are meant to become?
I am going to risk suggesting the metaphor of seeing your life as doing/making a painting.
I’d call the painting: “The Expression of The Spirit through My Life.”

I suggest that each set of experiences might be like

adding a color to the painting.

When you are faced with different experiences and you have to find a way to respond, see that as adding a new color. Any time in our lives can be a good time to look at the overall painting. Maybe you added too much of one color or not enough of another and so you might go back to add some more of one color or cover up some of another.

But you never totally eliminate a color because all of them are needed to express how The Spirit is leading you through your life.

The primary question should always be,

“What should be the next color

that would complement

and bring out the meaning

of all the colors that are already there?”

When I’m quietly listening to that small but insistent voice from within that is also somehow coming from beyond – listening for where it is now leading or directing me. What color can I now add that would make the painting more coherent, meaningful and beautiful?

How do I take what I have learned from painful as well as fulfilling experiences and add thoughts and experiences that help reveal where God/Spirit now wants to lead me?
If I understand the creation of paintings, the painter may have a notion of what the painting is going to look like but, at each stage, each addition of a color, artists discover something  that they couldn’t have anticipated ahead of time. So the addition of each new color is a creative discovery of something you didn’t know was possible before you got to that point in your painting or your life.
Retirement provides a great time to review your life but also to meditate on how God/Spirit wants/encourages you to put it all together so you can rejoice in the abundance of what your life has provided and will continue to give.

*Dr. Duane Miller served as a college chaplain and seminary administrator. He also pastored churches in upstate New York and founded a non-profit community service organization. He is the author of The Memes of My Life: How Integral Thought Illuminated Personal Experiences. 

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Bible Prophecy

Did you know that Jesus predicted this week’s events in the 12th chapter of Luke?

He actually prophesied Wikileaks’ dump of thousands of emails from the Democratic campaign AND the exposure of Donald Trump’s “Hot mic” description of how he treats women.

Before you toss me in the same wastebasket where you throw Pat Robertson, read these words for yourself:

What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops.

(Luke 12:3 New International Revised Version)

So, what do you think? Spot on or what?

 Jesus was warning his disciples against hypocrisy. Here is a more extended version in a popular paraphrase of the New Testament:

By this time the crowd, unwieldy and stepping on each other’s toes, numbered into the thousands. But Jesus’ primary concern was his disciples. He said to them, “Watch yourselves carefully so you don’t get contaminated with Hypocrite yeast, Hypocrite phoniness. You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town. (Luke 12:3 The Message)

I’ve made one change in this passage, substituting the word “hypocrite” for the word “Pharisee”. That’s partly because some of my best friends – and readers of this blog – are Pharisees. Most of today’s Jews trace their lineage back to the Pharisee branch of Judaism that coexisted in Jesus’ time with Sadducees, Zealots, the people who brought us the Dead Sea Scrolls and other groups. I suspect Jesus would have counted himself among the Pharisees, too. That’s probably why he was so often in conflict with them.

That’s not the only problem with using the word “Pharisee” in our translations of the New Testament. When we use the word “Pharisee”,  we Christians think Jesus is talking about someone else. The word “Hypocrite” hits  closer to home.

I thought I had completed my series about Finding the Grain Beneath the Paint, but when this week’s events lined up with these words of Jesus: What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight. What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops, I realized that there are darker consequences to being painted than I wrote about earlier.

Taking on the coloring of “parent”, “professional”, or “responsible adult” may have gotten in the way of the full expression of our real selves, but that is latex paint — relatively easy to wash out.

Hypocrisy, on the other hand, is the lead paint that poisons the soul.

What Jesus says to his disciples not only applies to Donald and Hillary, but to you and me as well. My guess is that neither presidential candidate will read this blog, but YOU are reading it. So here are a some takeaways:

The Universe does not love secrets

OK, some readers of this blog don’t believe in God. So, let’s just go with a phenomenon that we see over and over again – stuff we thought was hidden keeps coming out. That goes for the bodies of political enemies buried by South American dictators and the cigarettes that you told your kids you had quit smoking.

Tell me it hasn’t happened to you.

Secrets often come out ironically.

Often the virtues we brag about the most or the sins we most condemn in others are ironically the things that are undermined when the things we say in secret are shouted from the rooftops.

Again, tell me this hasn’t happened to you.

There are psychological reasons why this happens. We often condemn in others those things we most dislike in ourselves – especially when we dislike those things so much that we pretend we aren’t guilty of them.

A famous Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr made a persuasive case that the Bible’s view of human history is essentially ironic.   Our pride in American history often blinds us to the racism, greed, injustice and even genocide that is also a part of that history.

If that offends you, let me point to Hillary Clinton’s most obvious personal fault. She is so convinced that she does good things for people that she cannot see how close to the ethical edge she and her husband have always played in their fund-raising relationships. Donald Trump is so convinced of he is a “winner” that he can’t believe his words and behavior make him the biggest loser most of us have ever seen. 

Whether we are talking about nations or individuals, it’s the same thing. The self-righteous are often blind to the ways they violate their own values in ironic ways — until the contradictions are shouted from the rooftops. 

The way to protect ourselves from exposure is to get honest with ourselves and others

Let’s use another politician as an example.

Harold Hughes was governor and later a Senator from Iowa. He was also a recovering alcoholic. His struggle with alcohol led him, at the age of 30, to climb into a bathtub with a shotgun. Just before he pulled the trigger, he called out to God for help. The result was a major change in his life. Hughes later ran for governor. In a debate, his opponent revealed that 2 years after Hughes’ life-changing experience and joining AA, Hughes relapsed into drinking for a time. That proved, said the opponent, that Hughes was a man without integrity.

Hughes responded by saying, “I am an alcoholic and will be until the day I die… But with God’s help I’ll never touch a drop of alcohol again. Now, can we talk about the issues of this campaign?”

According to the Des Moines Register, “The reaction of the crowd was immediate and nearly unanimous.” Later, the Register editorialized: “In our opinion, any man or woman who wins that battle and successfully puts the pieces of his or her life back together again deserves commendation, not censure.” Hughes won by a landslide. 

Getting Honest With Ourselves is a Task for the Second Half of Life

“Imagine,” Bishop Wayne Clymer once said, “that you open the Sunday paper and  you see in print and photographs every word you have ever said and everything you have ever done. That’s what the Last Judgment is like.”

You may or may not believe in a literal Last Judgment before the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11-15), but sooner or later all of us have to review the lives we have lived or develop a spiritual dementia that will be worse than anything we keep buried.

In fact, bringing these things up to the light may be liberating. When describing the 4th of the 12 Steps, the authors of AA’s Big Book used a business metaphor — taking inventory. We need to look at our lives in order to figure out what is still valuable and what is worthless. Who have I helped? What contribution have I made? Who have I hurt? And how?

We don’t have to publish everything we ever said and did in the newspaper or on the Internet. The most important thing is to come to terms with our secrets. We may need to tell someone — a confessor, ordained or not. We may need to make amends. Above all, we will need to be honest. Not being honest with ourselves is where the lead paint really destroys our souls.

My Dad used to write sayings that struck him as important on the white wash of our dairy barn, one of them was:

“When you lie to yourself, you are down to the last person.”

But when you are honest with yourself, you can handle even the exposure of your worst secrets.