INSIGHTS Blog

Read along as Rev. Dr. Rick Belous shares personal stories, anecdotes, insights and more that will entertain you, challenge you, and ultimately inspire you!

Before his call to ministry, Rick was Vice President of Research and Chief Economist for the United Way system. He was also an adjunct lecturer of economics at George Washington University. He is an ordained minister with Unity Worldwide Ministries as well as serving as an advisor to them. Rick also serves as president of Spiral-Pathways.org (a research network dedicated to studying and advancing the evolution of spiritual consciousness).

Rick lives in the Roanoke area with two of his daughters and a cat.


The Community-Based Model For Church: We Can Do It!

April 20, 2021

Well, the good news is that Unity of Roanoke Valley is surviving through the pandemic!

Actually, we are more than surviving the full implications of COVID-19. Our buildings were closed, but this church never closed. In fact, we created many new ways to serve the spiritual needs of our community. For example, before the pandemic URV only had audio capabilities. Now we have both video and audio capabilities. Our YouTube services are seen by many people who had never heard of Unity before. I seem to get emails and letters every week from people who can’t wait to visit URV.

Before the pandemic, we did not offer online classes, and now we are holding classes and groups on Zoom. I believe that for many people who are spiritual but not religious, we will first meet them online. The pandemic has made us really step up our online game!

Our newsletter is being revamped and modernized. The same will happen with our website, and our Facebook page looks fantastic! Many churches closed down their Youth and Family Ministries programs during the pandemic. URV kept its YFM program up and running throughout the entire pandemic. We also created new groups such as the URV Book Club and Sunday Adult Virtual Fellowship. And what about the parking lot services? I have been asked by many ministers from around the country how to hold parking lot services – including broadcasting services into peoples’ FM car radios. Also, during the pandemic, we created The Giving Room to serve the growing need for food, clothing, and other assistance in the Roanoke Valley.

In terms of finances, contributions have declined somewhat. But our committed donors have really continued to support URV. We can not get money from weddings or facility use fees which is to be expected when the buildings are closed. URV has been able to get two government PPP loans. We have lived up to all of the terms, and the government will forgive us on these loans. We have also reduced some expenses during the pandemic.

Our Spiritual Care team is as active as ever. URV’s 26 sacred acres remain incredibly beautiful and are a real spiritual oasis. If you haven’t seen it, come experience the beautiful new fountain in the rose garden. I know this might not have “sex appeal,” but we replaced the heating/AC system in the Gathering Room in the YFM building. Beyond keeping the lights on and making basic payments, URV has been able to make some great capital improvements during the pandemic – without going into debt!

Lastly, we have been able to meet the pastoral counseling needs of our spiritual community. All of the above is, I think, very good news in the face of the pandemic.

However, despite all of the above, I believe that going through the pandemic has generated some real costs and negative influences for URV and many other churches. One cost, of course, is the loss of contact and fellowship between us. Another cost is the loss of worshiping together. Fortunately, we have started a partial reopening at URV with the 11:00 am service. Yes, we are practicing social distancing, and we wear masks. Also, we are asking people to make reservations. Hopefully, we will soon be able to get back to the pre-pandemic service schedule of 9:00 am and 11:00 am services.

The pandemic has imposed another cost, or negative influence, on URV and many other churches. Talking with many of you, and reading about URV’s history, I realize that our spiritual community was moving in the direction of the Community-Based Church Model and away from the Minister-Based Church Model. In the second model, decisions and directions in the church are very “top-down.” In the first and newer model, activities and direction in the church really “bubble up.”

Before the pandemic, Unity Center of Tulsa (where I was the minister) also was moving in the direction of the Community-Based Model. For example, many people in the church came forward to teach classes and workshops on Native American spirituality (It is Oklahoma after all), the Divine Feminine, Reiki, etc. Another group in the congregation formed Cafe Unity complete with all kinds of music. Another group was formed to do social action projects. Meanwhile, several people organized great local trips. I could go on, but I think you get the point. It was real “bubbling up.” It was exciting, and it was pulling in new members (many of whom had children – we had to expand the space for YFM activities).

I have called friends from the Tulsa congregation, and I have called people from many other Unity churches around the country. Unfortunately, they all report a similar trend: To survive in the pandemic their churches have somewhat retreated from the Community-Based Model and moved a little more in the direction of the Minister-Based Model.

I hope that as we come out of the pandemic, and as we experience a partial reopening of the buildings, we can move once again in the direction of the Community-Based Model. What classes, workshops, and events would you like to see at URV? What would you like to teach or facilitate at URV? What dreams do you have for URV? How can we be more of love and service both within our congregation and to the Roanoke Valley and the world?

I plan to devote more blogs/columns, Sunday messages, etc. to this important topic. As a community, we can make this happen. Let me end this blog/column by telling a true story from URV’s recent past. Several URV members, a number of years back, got the idea for a coloring book about the 12 Powers. Not only would this book have beautiful pictures for coloring, but it would have great insights about each of the 12 Powers. The result was a book that was published by Amazon.com (Twelve Spiritual Powers: A Coloring Book For Your Mind, Body, and Soul). Not only was this coloring book a hit with URV, but it was used by other Unity churches. When I saw this coloring book, my first reaction was, “What a great example of bubbling up!”

A new Spring can come to URV.

Many Blessings,
Rev. Rick

MANK: Wanting It Both Ways

April 13, 2021

Several of my children have recently asked me, “Dad, what do you think are some of the best movies you’ve ever seen?”

My six year old, Therese, has not asked me this question. But she did recently ask me, “Dad, when you were a kid were there still dinosaurs roaming around?”

In terms of the best movies, I have always placed Citizen Kane on that list. Released in 1941 – and written, directed, produced, and starring that larger than life personality, Orson Wells – the movie is a thinly disguised biography of the media baron William Randolph Hearst. The central character in the film is Charles Foster Kane, played by Wells.

The film traces Kane’s life starting out as a muckraking and reformist newspaper publisher. Kane then goes in to politics, but loses. As the years pass he becomes very cynical, and he slowly transforms into the very things he despised in his youth. Unfortunately, Kane does not age gracefully, and he dies with his young girlfriend on an humongous estate that resembles Hearst’s San Simeon castle. Kane’s dying word is “rosebud.” In the movie a reporter is trying to discover what “rosebud” meant to the media mogul.

I mentioned that Wells claimed to have written Citizen Kane. This claim is a very hotly disputed topic among movie historians and critics. Officially, the credit for writing the script for Citizen Kane is given to both Wells and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Both Wells and Mankiewicz were awarded Oscars for writing Citizen Kane. But several leading scholars of tinsel town believe that Mankiewicz did well over 90 percent of the work. Now along comes a great new movie – that is currently up for ten Academy Awards, including “Best Picture” – about the making of Citizen Kane. The film is called Mank, and it is streaming on Netflix.

In many ways this picture is about so much more than just Citizen Kane. It is really about Hollywood and 1930s America, as well as some unseemly tendencies that have been magnified by our modern technology and social morays.

Mankiewicz started out in New York as a writer and newspaper theater and social critic. Alexander Woollcott said that Mankiewicz was “the funniest man in New York.” Mank, as he was affectionately called, drifted to Hollywood where he became a highly paid screen writer for several leading movie studios. He won writing credits for The Wizard of Oz, Dinner at Eight, Pride of the Yankees, and The Pride of St. Louis.

But what Mank was really known for was this: You have a sick script, and you need a doctor double-quick? Well, ask Mank to make a house call, and you’ll have a script that will walk on water! Many times Mank was the “ghost writer” who saved the day. He got paid “big bucks,” but he was not listed as the writer of the script.

So in comes Orson Wells, fresh from scaring America with his War Of The Worlds radio broadcast. He has this idea about Citizen Kane, but he doesn’t have a script. Wells asks Mank to ghost write for him. Mank needs the money. He suffers from serious alcohol and compulsive gambling problems. Also, Mank knows Hearst, Louis B. Mayer (of MGM), and Marion Davies (who is Hearst’s young girlfriend).

Mank pours his heart into the script, and he knows that he is writing some of his best work. For many years the movie studios were willing to overlook Mank’s alcoholic binges, and the they were even willing to pay off some of his gambling debts. But on several occasions Mank has told his bosses – like Louis B. Mayer and Hearst – exactly what he thought of them.

The Netflix movie leans on several real events from the 1930s. Back then the writer Upton Sinclair ran for governor of California. Sinclair was like the Bernie Sanders of that day. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle was a key factor that led to the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I will always remember one line from Sinclair’s riveting novel:

Mary had a little lamb,
And when she saw it sicken,
She shipped it off to Packingtown,
And now it’s labeled chicken.

Several of the film studios started creating phony commercials – with actors – saying that they would vote against Sinclair because they feared their life savings would be taken away. In a new book, How Fascism Works, Yale professor Jason Stanley goes back to the media lies and disinformation used against Sinclair in the 1930s. Stanley shows how it cost Sinclair the election, and he sees this incident as the forerunner of modern smears on social media/cable news/etc.

So here’s the rub: Mank sees things like this going on in Hollywood, and in his drunken stupors, he is telling the Mayers and Hearsts of the world what he thinks. But he can’t walk away from it. If he does, who will pay off his gambling debts, and see that he gets home in one piece?

This is the dilemma that Mank – and so many others – face. We want to eat our cake and have it too. We want to have it both ways. It reminds me very much of the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asks what else he can do. Jesus said that he should sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. The rich young ruler slunk away. It reminds me of Nicodemus who came to Jesus in the nighttime. (God forbid that he should be seen with Jesus in the daytime.) Nicodemus knew what was right, and he deeply admired Jesus. But if he publicly acknowledged Jesus, he would lose his position in the Sanhedrin. He would lose all his privileges and perks.

Probably the best scene that has captured this dilemma was written by Shakespeare. Hamlet’s uncle murdered Hamlet’s father, and now he is king. Hamlet sees his uncle praying, and thinks that would be a good time to kill him. But then Hamlet thinks that would be a mistake because his uncle is seeking forgiveness from God. If he kills him now, his uncle will go to heaven. Shakespeare let’s us see the irony of the situation. What the uncle was actually saying was, in effect, that he could not pray for forgiveness while he was holding on to the crown. He realized that he couldn’t have it both ways.

I have experienced wanting it both ways, or wanting to have my cake and eat it too. Back in college I wanted to be a lawyer at a Wall Street firm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On the other days of the week I wanted to be a student revolutionary-antiestablishment-Turn on/Tune in/Drop out. I guess you would have had to put me down in the conflicted column.

Mank may have won the Academy Award for writing Citizen Kane, but no movie studio ever hired him again. Sometimes it can be very hard to just walk away. Sometimes we can do that only after the door has been slammed in our face. But it takes what it takes.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

A Pillar of Cloud by Day, and A Pillar of Fire by Night

April 6, 2021

Last Sunday, at the Easter parking lot and YouTube services, I spoke about Estonian Easter eggs.

I told the story about my friends Jim and Angie. During graduate school back in the late 1970s, Jim and I became good friends. He grew up in a conservative Texas home, while I was raised in a liberal home in New York. He was thin as a rail, and back then I had serious weight issues to deal with. We would joke about our differences, but we were fast friends.

Jim’s wife, Angie, was born in Estonia, that small country in the Baltic region that was ruthlessly gobbled up by Joseph Stalin. Fortunately for Angie and her mother (her father had died), they were able to get out of the Soviet Union and come to America. Angie spoke English with a thick Estonian accent.

One year as we were approaching Easter, Angie asked me if I would save my onion skins from cooking and give them to her. I said, of course, I would do this. I asked her why she needed onion skins. She responded by saying, “You’ll see, you’ll see.” The day before Easter she gave me the most beautiful Easter egg I had ever seen. “This is an Estonian Easter egg,” she told me. Angie also explained how onion skins, and other things, are used to make an Estonian Easter egg.

I asked where she made this egg, and she said, “Oh, I belong to an Estonian church, and we meet and pray for Estonia to be free – a land where we can speak our language, and worship God as we want. And we make these Estonian Easter eggs.”

I didn’t say this to Angie, but what I was thinking was, “Angie, get a life! I’m sorry about your country. But one thing you can say about the Communists – when they capture an inch of land they hold on to it forever. I am sorry, but the chances of there ever again being a free and independent Estonia are nil and none!”

But then in the late 1980s, the Berlin wall was knocked down, and a little after that the USSR became the USS-Were. Estonia once again became a free nation. I remembered what Angie and her Estonian church had done to hold a beautiful vision in their consciousness. I took the Estonian Easter egg that Angie had given me, and I placed it on our family altar. It reminds me that as Jesus said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

So during my morning prayer and meditation recently, I was reading something written by Naatan Holman who lives in Tallin, Estonia. Naatan writes that after graduating from school, he did not know what he should do next. He had several different opportunities, but he was not certain what he should do.

Naatan remembered Moses and the Israelites wandering in the desert for many years. In Exodus (13:21) it says: “By day the Lord led them with a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” Naatan longed for something similar to the assurance of a cloud by day and fire by night to lead him on.

But there was no pillar of cloud by day nor pillar of fire by night in modern Tallin, Estonia. As I was reading about Naatan’s situation, I thought back to Angie and her small church. There was no obvious pillar of cloud and pillar of fire leading them on in the late 1970s. The Soviet Union appeared to be invincible, and no one seemed willing to stick out their neck for little Estonia.

But Angie and her friends were able to look beyond appearances. They were able to be guided by the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that was inside of them – and which is inside all of us. In Unity we call these pillars the 12 Powers. They are like the primary colors that can be mixed and matched on our pallet of life to make the most beautiful of rainbows that arch toward – not a pot of gold – but to our Promised Land.

In Naatan’s case, he leaned on the powers of Wisdom, Faith, Zeal, Love, and Strength, and he felt guided to study for the ministry (one of the least financially rewarding options the were open to him). He writes, “Even in the most difficult situations when our human perspectives offer no good solutions, we can rely on God to show us the way.”

I must admit there are times when I would like to say to Mother-Father God, “For once would you just make it easy and produce external pillars of cloud and fire.” But this has not happened for me. Instead, Spirt seems to be saying to me, “Go within, center, take a deep breath, and remember that old song (It is in every one of us to be wise). Look within. There you will find those pillars of cloud and fire.”

Somehow I feel Angie and Naatan are so linked together even though they probably have never met. If it wasn’t for Angie’s consciousness – and prayers and meditations – back in the late 1970s, who knows if Naatan would have had the freedom to become a minister in the 21st Century? We may never know how much our thoughts and prayers matter. But there is a tipping point, and as the writer, Rosamunde Pilcher put it, “nothing good is ever lost.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

HIGH CHURCH: Just Relax this Easter

March 30, 2021

I have a guilty secret to confess. Roughly three times a year I get a real urge to go to HIGH CHURCH!

I mean bring out the incense, the gold and silver candlesticks, the Russian Orthodox Bibles in silver inlaid covers, full choirs – and not just one, but two – a second choir in the balcony next to the trumpets and a full complement of brass instruments. Let’s not leave out the organ with its multifarious metal pipes reaching for the sky. Oh, and don’t forget the full detail of altar boys and girls dressed in white robes, followed by enough priests to make a complete football team.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you.”

I remember my last HIGH CHURCH service in Tulsa before I came to Roanoke. Our Unity Christmas Eve Service was held at 5:00 pm. “You have to do it at 5:00 pm,” a principal board member told me. “Not at 7:00 pm because that is too late!”

Afterward, I then went out to dinner with my daughters and a friend. At Midnight, my friend and I drove back downtown to go to the midnight Christmas Eve Service at Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa. Trinity is a very wealthy congregation that has done so much good in Tulsa. For example, there are beautiful iron gates at this church. Trinity started handing out food, clothing, etc. to many people in need at these iron gates. Now Iron Gate Ministries has spearheaded many programs at other congregations to help their neighbors.

Trinity’s Sunrise Easter service is also very beautiful. Not only is it a feast for the eyes, but when the orchestra and chorus start playing Vivaldi‘s Gloria it is a fantastic feast for the ears.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want HIGH CHURCH every week. I also understand that a steady diet of HIGH CHURCH can create hardening of the spiritual arteries and metaphysical gout. But two or three times a year seems to be just fine by me.

Before I was married I seemed to be on a diet of HIGH CHURCH for Christmas, Easter, and the week of Thanksgiving. That is because I dated so many Catholic, or lapsed Catholic, women. We would be with her parents on Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving, and we would be at Mass. I actually enjoyed going to Mass with them even though back then I was an atheist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On the other days of the week, I was an agnostic.

Woody Allen many years ago said that he had to break up with his girlfriend over religious differences. “She was an agnostic, and I am an atheist,” he noted.

I will always remember one Easter mass that I went to at a church near Georgetown University. When it came time for the homily, the priest started out by saying, “So this was going to be the Lent in which you really spent time with God. This was going to be the time where you read and studied that spiritual book that your friends have been talking about. You were really going to build a better relationship with God. You were going to listen to that ‘still small voice.’ You were going to grab what Jesus called ‘the pearl of great price.’”

The priest looked around at the congregation and then continued. “And here it is Easter, and most of your good intentions remain just that – good intentions. You don’t feel you have done it. You still feel so far off from God. You don’t think you have the ability to hear the Holy Spirit, much less follow the will of the Holy Spirit despite your best intentions.”

The priest paused again, and he once more looked around the church. Then he said, “Well, if that is you – or somebody you know – I have some advice for you … and it is this: On this Easter just relax. Just take a deep breath. Stop whipping yourself.”

Then he started talking about one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a British priest who lived in the 1800s. Hopkins was famous for something known as “sprung rhythm.” His poetry is often compared to syncopated jazz, where words almost “bebop” on the page.

This priest quoted one of Hopkin’s most famous lines (from his poem The Wreck of the Deutschland): “Let him easter in us.” The full line is:

“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”

Or as the prophet Zachariah put it: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord.”

It reminds me of the famous story of the two sisters – Martha and Mary – who were entertaining Jesus in their home. Martha tried to make it into a big production number and was attempting to cook a five-course meal based on Julia Child’s recipes. Meanwhile, Mary was sitting by the rabbi, living in Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Now,’ and letting Him Easter in her.

This Easter, no matter if we are in a HIGH CHURCH, low church, somewhere in between church, or no church, let Him Easter in us. Let’s follow the “better path” taken by Mary.

“The mass has ended. Go in peace.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Open Sesame, or Partially Open Sesame

March 23, 2021

Reading time was a magical experience in my childhood home. As a young boy I loved being read to by my father and mother. It was better than even television because the pictures inside of my head were so much richer than what I saw on the old black and white boob-tube.

I soon graduated beyond The Cat In The Hat and Scuffy the Tugboat. I remember the excitement of my father reading Robin Hood and Mark Twain’s Life on The Mississippi to me. In Twain’s classic he recreated life on the big river before the Civil War and what it was like learning to be a pilot of a paddle wheel steamer. After my father tucked me in, I would get up and pretend that my bed was the pilot house of a ship headed for New Orleans.

Then came a period where I lost interest in reading and became more interested in movies. This was the era when the silver screens seemed as big as Texas, and Lawrence of Arabia pressed on to Aqaba. We were able to go around the world in 80 days with a big bag of buttered and salted popcorn.

However, in eighth grade something happened: I started reading books again. Low and behold I had an epiphany! I concluded that the book is almost always better than either the movie or the tv show. I believe this observation is still true to this day – at least for me.

Back in the eighth grade one of the first books I read was a translation of Antoine Galland’s rendition of One Thousand and One Nights. Galland was a French archaeologist who is believed to be the first European translator of this Arabic classic.

I loved the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and I thought it was one of the best stories that Scheherazade told to the Sultan. Remember that the forty thieves had hidden their treasure inside a cave. “Open sesame” were the magic words that would open the mouth of the cave. The phrase comes from the supposedly potent properties of the sesame plant and not from the children’s tv show.

I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to say “Open Sesame!” to Unity of Roanoke Valley’s buildings, which have been closed because of the pandemic. When I first came to Unity of Roanoke Valley in June of 2020 I thought, “Well, things will be closed for a month or two.” As the end of the year approached I started to feel like Abraham Lincoln when he realized that the Civil War was going to be a long and hard slog.

But then I started to say to myself, “Rick, count your blessings. We have these new YouTube services, Zoom classes, an online Youth and Family Ministries program, and parking lot services.” There has been much to be grateful for. I was able to meet many of you through the Hi Teas, Christmas Open House, The Giving Room, pastoral counseling, and more. There were your many kind emails, text messages, and phone calls. But it was still not the same, and I think you know what I mean.

Many of you have expressed a real desire to get back together in our beautiful church. And many of you have also expressed the key desire that we be safe and not become COVID-19 spreaders. The URV Board created a wonderful Task Force on Reopening the Buildings. Pat Eby has done a great job chairing this Task Force. Both Pat and Jeremy Johnson have kept us up to date on the latest regulations and guidelines. The Task Force includes people with medical expertise and knowledge in many other areas needed for the safe reopening of the buildings.

The Task Force has now recommended – and the Board has approved – a first step which I think is both safe and wise. What better day than Easter, Sunday April 4th, to say a “Partial Open Sesame” and see the cave partly open! This Easter we will have a Sunrise Service at 7:00am on the patio, right next to the beautiful new fountain in the rose garden. There will be overflow seating for the Sunrise Service in the Fellowship Hall.

Next, Grace Wood will lead prayers and a guided Labyrinth walk at 10:00am to honor The Season for Nonviolence. Lastly, we will hold an Easter parking lot service at 11:00am. The Sessions Band will be there. To quote the great British poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Let Him Easter in us.”

On April 18th we start regular in-person Sunday services at 11:00am in the Sanctuary! Because of social distancing, seating is limited with overflow seating available in the Fellowship Hall and on the patio (weather permitting). Mask wearing and social distancing are required at all services. To attend an in-person service you must preregister by sending an email to: urvseats@yahoo.com with the following information:

Your name
Names of all people attending the service with you
Phone number(s)
Which service you plan to attend (Easter Sunrise Service/April 18th service, etc)

In the tale about Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, the words “Open Sesame“ entirely opened the mouth of the cave. In our case “Open Sesame” will only partially open the mouth of the cave. But I have faith that this partial opening will be fantastic, and that in God’s good season we will be back to two services on Sunday with fellowship!

We will continue doing YouTube services! So if you are not there in person, you can continue to enjoy Unity Of Roanoke Valley services. I look forward to meeting so many more of you. If you have any questions about this partial “Open Sesame,” please do not rub any magic lanterns. Instead, call or text me at 571-215-9481.

We will get to the magic carpets soon!

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Fame: I’m Gonna Live Forever

March 16, 2021

You’ve probably never heard of him. But if things had been just a little different, then I am willing to bet that his recent death would have brought a tear to your eye, or at least a memory of where you were, and what you were doing, when you first heard one of his songs or saw him in a movie.

His name was George Gerdes. We were friends and grew up in the same town. You could tell even back in junior high school (and yes it wasn’t called middle school back then), that George was a man of many talents. He was a great singer/songwriter. One of the first songs of his that I ever heard was “Hey Packy,” a love letter to his dog. Many years later Loudon Wainwright III recorded a great cover of it. Back in high school, I remember thinking, “Someday, when George is famous, I’ll be able to say that way back when I actually knew Packy.”

Not only could George sing, but he was also funny and a very talented actor. At talent shows he would do comedy sketches that brought down the house. I still laugh when I remember his song entitled “I Took My Baby To The Switchblade Hop.”

After college George played in some of Greenwich Village’s leading coffee houses. I remember seeing him then, and the house was always filled with some very big names. Besides Loudon Wainwright III, Joni Mitchell said some very kind things about George and his music. When I saw George play he always made time to speak with me no matter who was in the house. He would tell me that famous line from Jimmy Durante: “Never snub people on your way up because you meet the same people on your way down.”

George landed a multi-record contract with a major label. His first record was called “Obituary,“ and his second album was entitled “Son of Obituary.” The records were quite good, and they got a lot of critical acclaims. But they did not sell and the record company dropped him.

George then went to Hollywood, and landed a major role in the Disney movie “Iron Will.” It takes place in Alaska and is about the Iditarod dog race. George played the mean and evil bad guy. When my daughter Rachel was a little girl, she saw the movie and asked me, “How could you be friends with that very bad man?” I explained to her that George was a very good actor, and in reality, he was a very kind and deeply spiritual person. He established himself as a prolific character actor. He was in episodes of Miami Vice, Seinfeld, and The X-Files. He was in movies such as Hidalgo and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Recently it seemed like he might have had a really big break. He played President Dwight Eisenhower in a film called “The 11th Green.” But then came the pandemic and the world of movie releases had the rug pulled out from under it. George died of an aneurysm this last New Year’s Day in Glendale, California. He was very talented and a good man.

When I heard about George’s transition, what came to my mind was something John Sterling, the radio broadcaster for the New York Yankees, often says when the seeming home run falls just outside of the foul pole: “It’s a game of inches.” It could’ve easily gone very differently.

I thought about Bruce Springsteen. He was in a three-record deal with Columbia Records. The first two records were critical successes, but they weren’t big sellers. Springsteen knew that he only had one more shot, and he did not have a backup plan. If the third record was not a blockbuster, then he knew it would be “So long. It’s been good to know yuh.” Fortunately, the third album was Born To Run, and the rest is history. But the Boss could have been very easily tossed. It is a game of inches.

President Barack Obama, in his new autobiography, A Promised Land, also shows that life can be a game of inches. He had just lost his campaign to become a Congressman from Chicago. He got the notion – which he admits sounded crazy – to run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois.

His wife, Michelle, was at first against him running for the Senate. She asked her husband if he had magic beans that would make this far-fetched fantasy come true. Barack then promised Michelle that if he lost in this campaign to become a Senator, he would resign from politics for good. Michelle finally said to her husband that he could run for the Senate, but she added jokingly that he shouldn’t count on her vote. A game of inches: we might never have heard of Barack Obama if the Senate race had gone differently.

And even if you win fame, the old song is right: “Fame if you win it, comes and goes in a minute.” Recently, Rachel – the bright 17-year-old – and I were listening to a podcast that mentioned Jack Benny. “Who is Jack Benny?” my daughter asked.

A number of years ago, when my son Josh was 12, Bob Dylan came on the car radio. “Who is that?” my son asked. “Why son that is Bob Dylan the singer/songwriter and poet of my generation,” I responded. “Oh,” said Josh. We drove on for a few miles, and then Josh asked me, “Dad, what is wrong with Dylan’s voice?”

Barack Obama, again in his new autobiography, also shows the downside of fame. He tried to go to the zoo with his two little daughters, Malia and Sasha. Despite the baseball cap and sunglasses, he was recognized and mobbed. So much for trying to have a private and relaxing day with your daughters. Back home, the Obama girls suggested to their mom that their daddy needed a disguise. Michelle Obama responded by saying that the only disguise that would work for her husband would be if he had an operation that pinned back his ears.

Thinking about the above brings to mind the hit song Fame:

Fame
I’m gonna live forever…
I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
Fame
I’m gonna live forever
Baby remember my name
Remember, remember, remember, remember
remember, remember, remember, remember

And yet I think that the “peace that passes all understanding” comes when we realize that we already have what we truly want at a very deep and fundamental level. It may not be fame at the ego level. But it is very much ours when we realize that we are one with the One, and it is right here and right now.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO: An Example for Us All

March 9, 2021

I have a strange request to make of you. Pretend for a moment that you are Abraham Lincoln.

It is in the middle of the Civil War, and things are not going that well for the Union side. You thought it was going to be a relatively quick war and easy victory, but then came the humiliating defeat at First Bull Run. Then you had incompetent general after general leading the Northern side.

Finally you have a seemingly brave and victorious commander in Ulysses S. Grant. But one night in the White House, one of your key aides comes up to you and says, “You know Mr. President, General Grant gets stinking drunk every night.”

You respond by saying, “Well, find out what Grant is drinking, and send a case of it to all my other generals.”

But the war drags on, and there does not seem to be any end in sight. You are also concerned that you might not win the next presidential campaign and be re-elected. Your grief is not just for the possible personal humiliation, but you also believe that your opponents won’t fight on to victory. The Union cause will be lost if this happens.

On top of this your wife – on an emotional level – is far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer. People are even starting to make some comments questioning your wife’s sanity. Mary (you often call her ‘mother’) was never easy to live with. She came from a social rung of society that was way above you. But you knew you had ambitions. However, there were days when you doubted that you would make good on your dreams. Back in 1859 when some GOP big wigs first visited you to size you up for a possible presidential run, they asked you if you were a progressive? You responded by saying, “Look at me gentlemen. My life hasn’t progressed anywhere.”

So there is the agony of the war, and a family situation that often does not include marital bliss, and then there are your self-doubts and bouts of depression. But there is always your little son Willie – the light and joy of your life. There is Willie dressing up like a little soldier and trying to bring rocks, mud, and turtles into the White House. There is Willie getting into so much mischief, and he is so full of spunk and life. How could a father not love and be proud of such a boy?

But then Willie is laid low by some disease. The doctors can’t bring him around, and little Willie dies in the White House. Willie’s body is taken to a temporary crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, about five miles away from the White House. You may be the President of the United States with so many duties and responsibilities in a time of war. But you are overcome with grief. What do you do? What can you do?

It was reported (in several newspapers of the day) that Abraham Lincoln was so stricken with grief that on several occasions he left the White House and visited the cemetery. Lincoln opened the temporary crypt, and held the body of his dead son.

Writer and professor, George Saunders, uses these historical reports to construct a captivating novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. The book won the prestigious Golden Man Booker Prize, and I think it has lessons for us as we go through some difficult times.

Saunders is not only an excellent writer, but he is also very interested in Buddhism. The bardo is a concept in several branches of Buddhism, and it arose soon after the death of Buddha. In essence, the bardo is a state of existence between two lifetimes. It is consciousness not connected with any physical body. In this framework after one dies, you are not immediately reincarnated into another body. Instead you may spend some time in the bardo.

The bardo is like a great metaphysical train station, airport, or cosmic bus depot. Also, the bardo has many platforms and gates, and in Saunder’s novel one of these ramps extends to the cemetery in “Civil War” Georgetown. Lincoln, Willie, and other souls/spirits learn much from their interactions in the bardo.

I admire Saunders for much more than his writing abilities. In real life he is known for his kindness – not only in helping up-and-coming writers, but in making this world a better place. Saunders reminds me of a quote from that great Rabbi, Abraham Joshua Herschel, who said, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I have learned to admire kind people.”

It is interesting in thinking about Lincoln who went through so much heartache as President, as well as a husband and a father. He didn’t become bitter, and he didn’t become pessimistic.

Following those grief-filled nights in the cemetery in Georgetown, Lincoln went on to talk about and advance “the better angels of our nature.” He envisioned a world where there was “malice toward none” and “charity for all.”

As a minister in both Tulsa and Roanoke I have had the honor and privilege to meet several courageous people who have had – like Lincoln (a la Saunders) – nights in the bardo. And like Lincoln they have emerged from these experiences as kinder souls, positive influences, and incredible examples of what is possible.

If we ourselves have never spent a night in the bardo (or don’t remember being in the bardo), perhaps we can learn much from those who have spent some time there – and remember these experiences.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Bridgerton or Shooting An Elephant

March 2, 2021

I love Jane Austin novels. That is why I was so looking forward to Bridgerton, a new Netflix streaming series.

Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, the story is set in the world of Regency London during the early 1800s. At center stage is the upper crust Bridgerton family who is trying to find a suitable husband for their oldest daughter, Daphne. It is “the season“ when debutantes are presented at court. Daphne is viewed as probably “the best catch” of the year. Who will be the lucky man to win Daphne’s heart?

There are balls, grand garden parties, promenades in the park, fireworks, gentlemen callers at fine country estates and grand town houses, fathers and brothers trying to arrange marriages, and an army of servants and trades people all making this social merry-go-round spin. All of this is depicted in this series with scrumptious acting, costumes, scenery, and cinematography.

Without giving away too much -and there are many twist and turns, subplots, and background stories -Daphne does very well for herself on this highly competitive marriage market. She is even courted by a Prince and a Duke.

Underneath all of this is Lady Whistledown. We never see her on the screen, but we hear her voice and see her widely-read printed gossip paper. (Julie Andrews is the voice of Lady Whistledown.) Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet details who is up and who is down in the social pecking order. It also includes who has lost a ton of money gambling, who is near bankruptcy, and what woman is not as pure as new fallen snow.

Lady Whistledown is the first to tell the small world of upper class Britain who is not following the strict social mores, norms, and codes of conduct that befit a lady or a gentleman. It is a very rigid social system, and it is also a very unequal – and unfair – one. I believe this is a key takeaway from Bridgerton (and I think the series has hit the nail on the head): this social system is not just rigid and unfair for the those lower down in the social order, but it is horribly rigid, unfair, dehumanizing, and unforgiving for those on the top rungs of society.

A similar situation was also the case in the aristocratic and slaveholding South before the Civil War. Professor David Blight of Yale University recently won the National Book Award for his biography of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and escaped to become a leading Abolitionist voice in the 1800s. Douglass showed how the system of slavery created harsh conditions for both slaves and slave owners. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. depicted how the world of Jim Crow laws ate away at the humanity of both African Americans and whites.

George Orwell also was able to capture this irony of rigid and unfair systems. Although Orwell was famous for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, he also wrote many wonderful essays. One of these essays was “Shooting An Elephant.” During the era of British imperialism, Orwell served in His Majesty’s Army in a wild outpost in Burma. The natives wanted him to shoot an elephant that they viewed as aggressive. Orwell didn’t want to do it, and he felt there was a better solution. He also believed that he was supposed to be in command of this area, and the natives should be obeying him. Because of various twists, turns, and social norms, there Orwell was out in the tall grass shooting an elephant.

In Bridgerton, there are duels that neither party wants to be in, broken engagements that neither side really wants to break, agreements that are only being done because nobody wants to offend a stupid code, and fights that are as silly as something out of Dr. Seuss.

It is easy to look at the worlds of Bridgerton or Orwell in Imperial Burma and laugh. But how many times are we out there shooting elephants we don’t really want to shoot? How many times are we mixed up in duels (verbal or otherwise) we really don’t want to have? How many times are we doing things we really don’t want to do and we know will not be good for us in the long run?

How many times are we just as much prisoners of our time period and society as the Bridgertons and Orwell were of their eras? How many times are we doing something just as silly as an incident out of a Dr. Seuss book?

In many ways religion plays a large part in the Bridgeton’s society. Yet it is hard to imagine Jesus supporting and condoning much of what is going on in this Regency era world. Before we judge others, we should remember that the great singer-songwriter, Woodie Guthrie, wrote the following lyrics not that long ago:

This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.

Netflix has already promised viewers a second season of Bridgerton. Fortunately the Bridgerton family has many children. If they concentrate on one child per year, Bridgerton will be here for many more “social seasons.” Who knows? They may even outlive the Regency.

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Sometimes Silence Can Be Golden

February 23, 2021

That great comedian and philosopher of life, Groucho Marx, once said, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Being silent is often worth its weight in gold. One of my favorite verses in all of the Bible is Proverbs 17:28: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues”.

There is a famous story about Sir Oswald Mosley and Lord Bertrand Russell. Mosley was born in 1896 and was raised in the upper rungs of British society. Mosley had been a member of Parliament. During the 1930s he drifted to the extreme right wing on the political spectrum. Eventually he became the leader of the British Union of Fascists. His black-shirted, would-be stormtroopers modeled themselves after the followers of Hitler and Mussolini.

Russell was born in 1872 and also came from the upper crust of British society. He was an Earl. I remember reading that Russell once said that “table manners were invented to keep the middle class in line.” He was a polymath, philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist, and Nobel laureate. During my undergraduate days, his wonderful books on philosophy saved my posterior on more than one occasion.

Russell believed very strongly in liberal democratic (small l and small d) values. He loved debates and often engaged in them. As the Nazis and the Fascist movements grew in power in Continental Europe, some British subjects started to view Mosley’s party as a godsend to the problems facing the United Kingdom during the Great Depression. Of course, what Mosley advocated was a radical departure from many key British values, norms, and culture.

Mosley decided to throw down the gauntlet by challenging Russell to a series of debates. What should Russell do? Should he debate Mosley? If he did, would he, in essence, be dignifying something that he thought was a cancer in Great Britain? If he did not debate Mosley, would he be acting like a coward?

Russell thought very deeply about the matter. His reply to Mosley has become famous, and it is viewed by many as a brilliant statement of reason, sanity, and discernment. Russell wrote the following to the British Fascist leader:

Dear Sir Oswald,

Thank you for your letter and for your enclosures. I have given some thought to our recent correspondence. It is always difficult to decide on how to respond to people whose ethos is so alien and, in fact, repellent to one’s own. It is not that I take exception to the general points made by you but that every ounce of my energy has been devoted to an active opposition to cruel bigotry, compulsive violence, and the sadistic persecution which has characterized the philosophy and practice of fascism.

I feel obliged to say that the emotional universes we inhabit are so distinct, and in deepest ways opposed, that nothing fruitful or sincere could ever emerge from association between us.

I should like you to understand the intensity of this conviction on my part. It is not out of any attempt to be rude that I say this but because of all that I value in human experience and human achievement.

Yours sincerely,

Bertrand Russell

Russell showed great wisdom in deciding not to waste his time by debating with Mosley. It would have been pointless.

One of the things that I deeply admire about Jesus is that he did not think it was necessary to defend himself every time he was attacked. Every time the bell rang, he did not feel obligated to get into the ring and start boxing. A very wise boss once said to me, “If you get into a contest with a skunk you can’t help but come out of it stinking.“ (What my boss actually said was expressed with much more earthy language – but you get the drift.)

One of the Twelve Powers within us all is Wisdom. As the old song puts it: “It is in every one of us to be wise.” We have that understanding and discernment to know how to pick our battles. We can know when it makes sense to enter the ring and when it makes sense to walk away.

To quote a wise friend’s reply to someone who had expressed nasty, unwarranted words: “Your comments are a critique on themselves and need no further comments or analysis from me.” How many times have I wasted hours in pointless debates and bickering that I knew were going nowhere fast?

The Book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. There is a time and place for debates and there is a time to walk away. There is a saying in the 12-step fellowships: “Would you rather be right, or would you rather have your serenity?”

Even if we do not have to deal with a person like Mosley, the above can very much apply to us. At family gatherings, we can skip going into the ring with Uncle X or Aunt Y. We can put boundaries around their monologues in terms of how much we will listen. We can give up the notion that if we just play Socrates and ask them a few questions, then we will straighten them out.

We can silently remind ourselves of some words from Bob Dylan:

“You’re right from your side
I’m right from mine
We’re both just one too many mornings
And a thousand miles behind.”

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick

Stranger in a Strange Land

February 16, 2021

Back when I was a teenager, or BD (Before Dystopian novels), the most popular work of science fiction was Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein.

Heinlein, an aeronautical engineer and naval officer, was called “the dean of American science fiction writers” by many people. He was one of the first sci-fi writers to stress scientific accuracy. He would take science and then stretch it to where he felt it might go in the future. Heinlein used science fiction to explore delicate social, spiritual, political, and sexual ideas. While stressing individual liberty and self-reliance, he often wrote about situations in which governments and organized religions repress nonconformists.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about Valentine Michael Smith, a young man born on Mars and raised by Martians. Smith has “gone native,” and exposes Earth to a bigger “game changer” than a biological virus. He exposes Earth to Martian culture, philosophy, and forms of spirituality. In the process, Smith kicks off the start of a major counter-culture movement on earth.

Perhaps at the core of Heinlein’s Martian culture/philosophy/spirituality is the concept of grokking. To grok means to be at one – on both the heart and head levels – with another person, place, or thing. “I grok you” means “I feel a real unity with you. I have experienced things from your point of view. I have walked a thousand miles in your shoes, and I feel real compassion because of this experience.”

Of course, the Earth’s “powers that be” can’t allow all this grokking to continue. If the Earth is overcome by this wave of grokking, then there is no telling what might happen!

The phrase “stranger in a strange land” comes from the Bible (Exodus 2:22). It is striking how many times God reminds the Israelites in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) that they were slaves in Egypt, treated harshly by the Egyptians, and on the very bottom rung of society. God also repeatedly tells the Israelites that when they come into the Promised Land and flourish, they are to treat the strangers – people different from them, the refugees, etc. – kindly and with full compassion. They are to do this and remember that they were “strangers in a strange land.”

Did the Israelites follow this advice from Spirit? All you have to do is read any one of the Old Testament prophets to see what happened after the Israelites entered the Promised Land. The compassion for the stranger often went out the window. There was no grokking. When Jesus spoke about the Golden Rule, a Pharisee asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. To say that the Jews looked down on the Samaritans would be putting a positive spin on the situation.

All of the above is not just about long ago and far away. It is not just about science fiction and a story concerning a young man from Mars. It is about right here and right now. Recently, many leading analysts and commentators have been talking about the large flows of refugees and immigrants around the world. Let me stick my two cents in. Well, maybe I will let Al Jolson, the great jazz singer, speak for me: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Given reasonable projections of climate change and rising sea levels, it is expected that much of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, will be underwater. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. It is reasonable to expect that in a post-pandemic world refugee levels will significantly rise. If problems with the distribution of resources escalate, it is reasonable to expect that economic, political, and military tensions will also contribute to a significant rise in human migration levels from current totals, which are already high.

You don’t have to go outside of the United States to see this. Recently my two daughters and I visited New York City. This was the first time that Rachel and Therese were in the Big Apple, and I thought a good way to show them the city would be to take the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan Island. When we got to the Harlem River, our boat had to turn around because the water was too high for us to get under the bridges. On many days water level has risen too high for some boats to circle Manhattan. Reasonable projections show that large portions of New York City could be underwater.

You don’t have to go outside of Virginia to see what is happening. Friends in Norfolk, Virginia, tell me that during the course of the year it often looks like they live in Holland and a dyke has broken.

It is very easy for us to not really grok all of this. We live in, or near, the mountains. It would be foolish to think that we who live in this beautiful and privileged part of Mother Earth will escape untouched.

Remembering Jesus’ expansive definition of ‘who is our neighbor,’ I look forward to working with many of you in forming a new group at Unity of Roanoke Valley. As I understand it, in the past such groups at URV have been called a “social justice” group. I do hope this new group will be concerned about social justice, but I hope it will be very much interested in “neighbor helping neighbor” and “community building.” I hope it will help expand a sense of grokking the stranger, for we all were – and could be – strangers in a strange land.

I view URV’s Giving Room as a very good start in this process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could apply Al Jolson’s words (“You ain’t seen nothing yet”) to URV’s grokking?

I am really interested in your comments and suggestions about all of the above. You can text or phone me at 571-215-9481; or you can email me at rbelous5@gmail.com.

If you think all of the above is extraneous and irrelevant to spirituality, remember what the apostle James said concerning “the heart of true religion” in James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” – New International Version

Many blessings,

Rev. Rick