Out with the Old, and In with the New

I.

Challenging the status quo can be lonely and painful. Most of us are not terribly comfortable with those who refuse to conform to societal norms to the degree we have decided to do. And, yet, but for nonconformists, nothing would ever have changed, would it have?

 

status quo

 

The only religious movements in the world would be polytheistic, and there would never have been an ounce of scientific progress; nor would there be, in all probability, this interesting approach to governance that we call “democracy.” Marketers around the world use as a foundation for their success, the desire—sometimes the need—any number of people have to change in order to be like someone else, especially if the someone else is rich and/or famous.

Students in junior high and high school who don’t fit in with the mainstream group—for whatever reason, any little reason—find support and acceprance hanging with other misfits like themselves, however small the group. Even so, sometimes the alienation the nonconforming students feel grows into anger and resentment, and we end up with a Columbine tragedy or at least a culture of bullying.

I sent out an e-blast this week to share an article I’d stumbled over in the Huffington Post online. The writer made the daring proposal that for the first time since who knows when, fundamentalism in the United States might be losing ground to more liberal expressions of faith expression and religious seeking. I now have one wall in my office plastered with copies of this article!  Wrote its author:

 

There has been a largely unnoticed but radical movement over the last decade during which the spiritual fire has shifted to more progressive Christians and that has the potential to change both the political and spiritual landscape of America.  I had a feeling this was happening but was shocked during the past few weeks to note the extent to which the more progressive Christian leaders are speaking out and being heard in their effort to impact the public square. Pastors and priests have spoken out on blocked Medicaid expansions, gun control, and climate change.

 

I nearly fell out right at that point in my reading, but there was more I had to take in!

 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops continued their push for immigration reform by celebrating a Mass on Capitol Hill, building on the powerful Mass they celebrated weeks earlier at the U.S.-Mexico border. The United Church of Christ continues to push, claiming that their religious right to perform gay marriages is being infringed upon in North Carolina and protesting the FCC’s proposed new rules on Net Neutrality, while over a thousand clergy wrote a letter urging Congress to change drug sentencing laws…..Who could have foreseen that Pope Francis would follow immediately after Pope Benedict?….None of this is to say that the hardline religious conservative voice and influence has vanished. There are many on the religious right who still find traction on issues such as the contraception mandate, rallying against science and climate change, and perceived threats on religious freedom….Perhaps the change is as simple as the pendulum swinging back after years to the left….

 

In any case, the Public Religion Research Institute explained:

 

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If you’re using a generational snapshot today as a proxy for the future, it is is safe to say that religious progressives hold a stronger appeal among Millennials.

 

Reaching the Millenntials is hitting pay dirt for seekers hoping to grow their spiritual communities. Doing things in the same old ways will not capitalize on this opportunity, however.

 

Millennials

 

 

 

II.

A political non-conformist might do well enough all alone somewhere, but if she or he wishes to challenge the status quo and effect political change, like-minded non-conformists must join together for the sake of impact and influence. Same thing with a religious nonconformist. In our democracy, there is separation of church and state—well, at least, there’s supposed to be; there used to be. It should be proper to discuss nonconformity in these two realms in completely different contexts; however, in those cultures where there is no legal or other provision for the separation of church and state, this is not the case. In those societies, to be politically nonconforming is, of necessity, to be religiously nonconforming.

We as a congregation were once in possession of a replica of the chair illustrated in John Bunyan’s pivotal work, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This chair was brought from England and presented to the congregation in 1897 or 1898 by Thomas F. Bayard Sr., first United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, which is the court of the British sovereign. Queen Victoria was the monarch when Bayard served and made this presentation to our church.

 

bunyanBunyan

John Bunyan is an ideal person to bring up today because he was a religious nonconformist who suffered considerably for refusing to conform to the legalized religious standards of England. Bunyan’s allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was initially published in 1678. He wrote the first draft of the book in 1675 while he was in prison for having violated what was called the Conventicle Act. The Conventicle Act prohibited more than five people (unless all were family members of one household) from holding any religious services except under the auspices of the Church of England, which among other things meant the necessary use of the Book of Common Prayer. Penalties for infractions ranged from fines to imprisonment, and upon a third offense a person could be forced to leave the country.

 

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Charles II was King of England at the time, and while his Roman Catholic leanings motivated his own efforts at religious toleration for non-Anglicans, the Anglicans were clearly in control of the country. Bunyan was a Baptist preacher who didn’t believe that he should be spiritually bound to any state church. The law of land, though King Charles himself might have been tolerant of Bunyan, required that Bunyan be imprisoned.

In the year 1675, Baptists had only been in the world sixty-three or sixty-four years. The first Baptist church known in history can be traced to Spitalfields in the east end of London; founded in 1611 or 1612 during the reign of King James I of England. Baptists appear on the world scene just as the King James Version of the Bible is initially published.

 

The holy Bible

 

Baptists spoke out against the lack of separation of church and state. They spoke out against any persecution or harassment–of any kind–by a government trying to homogenize religious doctrine and practice. They spoke out for freedom of conscience and the right of an individual to interpret scripture for himself or herself without the involvement of any intermediary, priest or prelate. The bottom line is this, though, if diversity is not welcomed and if any person or group believes that she or he or it can establish a doctrinal position to which all must be bound, the first Baptists wouldn’t abide it.

 

III.

Someone has said,

 

A worldly lifestyle, seeking pleasure, wealth, fame, and material comforts, will inevitably distract one from pursuing any spiritual purpose. Hence the aspirant must separate [herself] himself from the world or maintain some detachment from it. Separation from the world can be achieved either by physical isolation in a monastic community or by living an outwardly ordinary life yet without attachment to its prevailing values.

 

Don’t be conformed to this world, in other words, but, instead, be a nonconformist. Be a nonconformist in this world based on a transformation that grows out of a metamorphosis of your thinking so that you yourself may discern what is good and beautiful and mature.

There is a saying in Taoism:

 

The sage patterns himself on Heaven, prizes the Truth, and does not allow himself to be cramped by the vulgar. The stupid man does the opposite of this. He is unable to pattern himself on Heaven and instead frets over human concerns. He does not know enough to prize the Truth but instead, plodding along with the crowd, he allows himself to be changed by vulgar ways, and so is never content.

 

Change is probably going to come about–however hard some may fight against it. We, then, want to be on the side of what is changing for the good. And yet, even in a democracy, there is tremendous pressure to conform in certain key ways. The proper expressions of patriotism, for example, are prescribed by the patriotic expressions approval committees. If you’re a patriot, you must never question the perspective or the demands of a president who prays every day. And if your sense that you must speak out against something tearing the nation apart such as the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, there are those who will ostracize you and call you un-American and un-Christian.

People who are willing to live by the lure of selfless morality will typically look like oddballs and misfits and not like the status quo keepers. If we always find ourselves on the side of the majority, and if we’ve trained ourselves never to pay attention when something within us presses us to buck the system, never to see or speak out against the wrong we know exists, never to call injustice what it is, never to demand institutional renewal, then we are card-carrying members of the Society of the Status Quo. How quaint.

Quaint is finally displayed on mantels or in museums or in oversized coffeetable books. Quaint is not going to reach or ever have the chance to embrace the up and comings, who are focused on today and tomorrow—almost never yesterday. This isn’t exceptionally tasteful to many of us, perhaps, but the people most likely to participate in a community like ours are those who stand in line overnight at Target to get the newest edition of a video game player. They are loving T Mobile’s new program in which one no longer has to keep a cell phone two years in order to break even financially; with the rapid technology changes bombarding us, T Moblers can get the latest and greatest every six months.

If we can even get the Millennials in the door here twice, and the look and feel of the Gathering the second time is too much like the first time, many of them will never be back. Out with the old, and in the with the new. And I don’t mean people.

Amen.

 

 

READINGS USED IN TODAY’S GATHERING

Gathering Readings for June 8

 

 

Gathering Focus

 

“Finish every day and be done with it.

You have done what you could.

Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt, crept in.

Forget them as soon as you can; tomorrow is a new day.

Begin it well and serenely, with too too high a spirit

to be cumbered with your old nonsense.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

“Some people believe holding on and hanging in there are signs of great strength. However, there are times when it takes much more strength to know when to let go and then do it.”

—Ann Landers

 

 

 

 

Thought Challenge

 

“Letting go helps us to to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us. This frees us from unnecessary stress.”

—Melody Beattie

 

The trees that get through a storm don’t try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go. Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand up strong and straight are the ones that break.
— Julia Butterfly Hill

 

 

Response of the People  (The Buddha, Tao Te Ching, Deepak Chopra, Frederick Douglas, Daphne Rose Kingma, Raymond Lindquist, Anais Nin, Gail Sheehy, Henry David Thoreau)

 

One:  Courage is the power to let go of the familiar.

 

Many:  We can only lose what we cling to. 

 

One:  We have to deal with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.

 

Many:  Holding on is believing that there’s only a past; letting go is knowing that there’s a future.

 

One:  Anything we cannot transform into something marvelous, we should let go.

 

Many:  When we let go of what we are, we become what we might be.

 

One:  Creativity can be described as letting go of certainties.

 

Many:  We should never look back unless we are planning to go that way.

 

All:  We can use memories, but we must not allow memories to use us.

 

Hope (First Sermon in Summer Series, “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable”)

HOPE

I.

Someone has differentiated between wishful thinking and hope on the basis of effort.  Wishful thinking isn’t a bad thing, but it is marked by laziness when some kind of action might make a practical difference.  Hope, in contrast, is wanting something to change and putting energy into trying to make that happen.  I don’t have to work very hard to look around Silverside and see countless examples of hope functioning.  Anticipation in action.

June Eisley has given a chunk of her life taking public stands against public stands against wars and on occasion getting arrested for her audacity.  This is hope at work within June, not wishful thinking.

Marie Neal and a changing clan hope that hunger in the City of Wilmington can at least be minimized and ultimately defeated; therefore, on the thirteenth of every month they are down at Emmaneul Dining Room serving a hot, well-prepared meal to an average of 200 people.  This is hope at work within Marie and all of those who join her in this monthly effort.

I have no idea how I stumbled across it, but somehow a few weeks ago a website fell into my hands.  Maybe somebody wanted me to have a big laugh.  If so, it worked.  The article was about how teen girls in southern churches were supposed to get teen boys in those same churches to notice them.  Naturally, we would have expected to see some advice about smiling on such a list.  I also wasn’t surprised to see slinging hair back out of her eyes.  But I wasn’t prepared for the pointer I’ll never forget–to lick her lips every few minutes.  Isn’t that the function of lip gloss?  In any case, by the description of hope I gave initially, this set of suggestions if put into practice would qualify as hope on a young lady’s part–and not mere wishful thinking–that she would meet a young man.  If you’re older and you keep licking your lips, someone will pass you some chapstick or spread the rumor that cigarettes have taken their toll.

I thought I’d gotten to the age that I’d made the choice to be officially uncool and love intentionally paying attention only to those fads and new words I wanted to bother with instead of feeling that I had to stay up with things in order to identify with the groups I wanted feel connected to.  A nerd is kind of uncool and out of touch.  When I was in high school, we called what today would be called a nerd, a “greaser.”  I was one of those, but thought I’d shed the identity when I left home, studied, married, had kids, etc.  I was surprised, therefore, the other day when I sent my seminary dean what was supposed to have been a text-joke.  She texted back and said, “We nerds have strange senses of humor.”  Oh my gosh!  I didn’t think anyone had noticed yet that I was re-embracing my greaser past and all the uncoolness that went along with it.  Or maybe cool is actually contextual.

Anyway, knowing I’m out of step in some areas–a step or two at least!–I called my older son and told him about my summer sermon series, “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable,” and asked him to tell me his favorite non-religious words of inspiration at the moment–especially relating to the subject of hope.  Jarrett is very cool, by the way.  He named the song you heard a little clip of earlier, “Sun” sung by Polyphonic Spree.  I’ve listened to it several times and totally don’t take it all in, but this much I do get:

Sun

Soon you’ll find your own way

Sun

Hope has come, you are safe

 

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Hope here has something to do with effort; in this case, with finding one’s own way and with safety.  I don’t think hope always leads to safety, but expending effort–as in finding one’s own way–is a requirement if the anticipation we feel is to be anything more than wishful thinking.

 

 

II.

The word, “secularism” was coined by George Jacob Holyoake, and he meant by the word “a form of opinion [that] concerns itself only with questions, the issues of which can be tested by the experience of this life.” He added to the bare-bones definition:

Secularism is that which seeks the development of the physical, moral, and intellectual nature of humanity to the highest possible point, as the immediate duty of life—which inculcates the practical sufficiency of natural morality apart from Atheism, Theism, or the Bible and which selects as its methods of procedure the promotion of human improvement by material means; it proposes these positive agreements as the common bond of union, to all who would regulate life by reason and ennoble it by service.

Secularism does not, inherently or of necessity, deny any religious claims, but it does separate the religious realm from the non-religious realm in order to try to arrive at core truths unembellished or uncolored by abstractions such as faith. Holyoake was not one of those secularists who affirmed much that was passed along by organized religion. One other quote from him: “Secularism is a code of duty pertaining to this life founded on considerations purely human, and intended mainly for those who find theology indefinite or inadequate, unreliable or unbelievable.”

Many secularists have no argument with religion per se, but they don’t think religious persons or institutions should be in any way privileged in whatever society they exist. Speaking as a professional “religionist” (is that a word?), I’m in full agreement with that much of secularism. Especially in a society that purports to espouse “separation of synagogue/church/mosque and state,” this is exactly as it should be.

In Professor Harvey Cox’s classic book, The Secular City, he argued that secularism can’t always be a bad thing. He gave two reasons that secularism can be a good thing: “It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews.” Cox went on to say:

 

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God can be just as present in the secular as in the religious realms of life, and we unduly cramp the divine presence by confining it to some specially delineated spiritual or ecclesial sector. This idea has two implications. First, it suggests that people of faith need not flee from the allegedly godless contemporary world. God came into this world, and that is where we belong as well. But second, it also means that not all that is “spiritual” is good for the spirit (Cox’s paraphrase of parts of his book).

The impetus for this summer’s sermon series comes from a famous liberal Baptist preacher from last century.  One of his most remembered sermons is “The Sacred and the Secular Are Inseparable.”  How brilliant an insight is that!  Trying to tie all things or anything “sacred” to organized religion is compartmentalizing at its worst.  “Sacred” experiences, if you will, happen all the time in secular settings.  This is an important realization both for those who don’t find organized religion either sacred or inspiring as well as for those who gather and worship frequently, but who are in those specifically religious settings from one to four hours a week—depending on how long your rabbi, pastor/priest, or imam preaches.

 

 

III.

One of Sigmund Freud’s several books was titled, Moses and Monotheism.  If you were to pick up that book and start reading, you’d probably not expect Freud to display much enthusiasm for organized religion, and you’d be right on target.  Getting back to the idea that hope, as opposed to wishful thinking, involves as much effort as we can expend in a situation, I think it is worth a moment of our time to ponder a key quote from this book that ties in perfectly with our subject for today:

Religion is an attempt to get control over the sensory world, in which we are placed, by means of the wish-world, which we have developed inside us as a result of biological and psychological necessities. But it cannot achieve its end.

Latch onto his perspective for a bit:  religion operates by means of a wish-world and, therefore, cannot achieve its own end.

If you are or ever have been or if you know some Christian fundamentalists, then you might well be informed about the concepts of millennialism.  Based on a single obscure reference in the book of Revelation to a thousand-year reign of Jesus at or near the end of time, doctrines of millennialism have developed.  Most conservative Christians believe in PRE-millennialism; this is the idea that Jesus will return to the earth—not as a helpless baby as was the case with his so-called “first coming,” but rather as its undisputed almighty ruler.  At this “second coming” Jesus, pre-millennialists say, all the faithful who have ever lived on the earth, both the already deceased as well as those living at the moment of this return will be caught up into heaven with him and taken to their eternal reward.  A one thousand year reign will follow during which time evil will be seriously trounced upon, and the reluctant as well as the wicked not destroyed as evil is dismantled will get a second opportunity to get right with God.  Failure to comply with this second opportunity means no way to avoid eternal alienation from God and palpable punishments.

Post-millennialism holds that the world becomes, in a one-thousand year time frame, such an idyllic place that Jesus sort of strolls back to earth to congratulate a rather perfected humanity.  It’s been a while since anyone of note held to this idea; I’m not sure who if anyone holds to it today.

A-millennialism refers to a belief that there will no be literalism thousand year reign of a returning Jesus.  The singular literary reference to it is obvious symbolism.

One of my seminary Greek professors, James Blevins, added another millennial option.  He called it “pan-millennialism,” by which he meant things will all pan out in the end!  This is a kind of hope.  The world is and becomes what people who hope for a better world do to make it such…or not.  I love that “pan-millennial” view and my beloved, late mentor, Dr. James Blevins.

You likely have heard it said in one way or another that only persons of faith can have hope or stated negatively, “Atheists have no hope.”  Oops!  Atheists are fighting back these days saying, “Balderdash!” to that uninformed slam.

One most articulate atheist who online identifies himself only by his first name, Derrick, explains why atheists and other secularists have mounds of hope.  He writes,

Atheists realize we have only one shot at this life. We get one chance. As a result, most atheists tend to think very actively about human existence, the relationship this singular existence has to other people, and the impact it will have in the long run….The promise of hope requires action. Thus, a proactive life begins with hope. It is mired in hope. It oozes hope.

Regardless of what causes you to hope, and don’t discount anything that does, here’s to oozing!

__________

Readings used in today’s Gathering

Gathering Focus (from Frances Moore Lappe and Elie Wiesel)

“Honest hope has an edge. It’s messy. It requires that we let go of all pat answers, all preconceived formulas, all confidence that our sailing will be smooth. It’s not a resting point. Honest hope is movement.” 

“Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” 

 

Thought Challenge (from Emily Dickinson and Howard Zinn)

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul–and sings the tunes without the words–and never stops at all.”  

“Human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

Response of the People (from James Baldwin, Pearl S. Buck, George Washington Carver, Allan Chalmers, Cicero, Norman Cousins, Pope John XXIII, Aung San Suu Kyi, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

One:  Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Many:  Life without idealism is empty indeed.

One:  Where there is no vision, there is no hope.

Many:  While there’s life there’s hope.

One: The rand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.

Many:  One has no right to hope without endeavor.

One:  The capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.

Many:  The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.

All:  Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.

Pessimism Permanently Punted

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I.

I’m not sure how easy it is to convert a pessimist into an optimist.  I’m sure it’s possible, but probably rare.  (By the way, as I typed these words yesterday, I was sitting at Starbucks on Marsh Road, waiting to meet with Amanda Catania and our new Social Media Coordinator, Michelle Moran. 

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Looking out the window, I noticed the front bumper of a scratched up Acura.  There was a Handicap tag hanging from the rearview mirror.  One of four or five bumper stickers across the front of the car reads:  “Just Say NO to Negativity.”  What are the chances?)

So, I’m saying it’s probably rare to turn a pessimist into an optimist—though I’m sure it happens on occasion.  With that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s a responsible use of time to try to encourage thinking pessimists to relinquish their pessimism and to embrace, in its place, optimism.  I mean, if one begins with almost any day’s news from any of the major news networks, there’s not many places to grab hold of optimism.  Some of the news shows may end with a happy tale or a cutsie story, but after having been told how the world is falling apart for an hour or half an hour, the little upbeat word at the end is nearly incomprehensible.  “60 Minutes” for most of its history may have gotten in right by ending a show with an offbeat word from a pleasant pessimist—at least curmudgeon—Andy Rooney.

 

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I ran across a book review a while back of a book I’ve not read so what I’m sharing with you today is based on the review, but you can see why a book titled, The Rational Optimist, came to mind as I was gathering my thoughts for today.  The author is Matt Ridley, whom the reviewer says has made his marks in the world as a zoologist, a banker, a journalist, and for good measure an expert on evolution.  Ridley sets out to invite his readers, thinking people, to dare to embrace a positive view of the world—that is, optimism.  The gist of his argument, I gather, is that while humankind has in modern times developed “an unmatched capacity to resolve its most pressing challenges,” pessimism has probably dominated world views for about the same amount of time our country has been its own free land.  Yet, in “contrast to more pessimistic predictions, humanity has not collapsed.”  On the contrary.  In the last thousand years, life expectancy has increased significantly in many parts of the world, and violence indicators have been on the decline.  Humans have rather continuously increased quality of life for many in the species. 

 

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The Rational Optimist.  Worth pondering, huh?

 

 

II.

Some religions attempt to offer words of optimism, but usually in the context of that particular religion’s winning out over its enemies by and by.  Judaism is an exception in this regard.  When the ancient writers pictured the culmination of history, all nations and peoples had come together.  Yes, they were on Mount Zion, but they weren’t all Jewish by either ethnicity or belief.

Generally, religious groups that have offered optimistic options have done so on a distinctively conditional basis—mostly promising the real good out there to their own adherents, and in many cases these groups have claimed the ability to predict not only what comes to be in this world, but also in the next realm with which they seem more familiar than a traveler who has just returned from an extensive excursion at some fascinating part of the globe.

You will, perhaps, recognize at least some of these words as those of Karl Marx:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition that needs illusions.

 

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The phrase, “opium of the people,” or, “opiate of the masses,” is often used out of context.  Marx was thinking more deeply here than at a level that would have allowed to take a callous, rather random swipe at religion.  

While I was certainly taught to scoff at Marx and any of his ideas—especially his perspective on religion—even as a professional religious insider, I have to say that, in most cases, he’s correct.  Religion isn’t without value for those who need to have their senses numbed, but when it’s time to face the real world—as he says, minus illusions about life as it really is—religion has to go.  In other words, any optimism most religions offer is real as an imagined utopia.

Perhaps the most openly pessimistic writer in Judeo-Christian scripture is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.

The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:  “Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher, “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!”  What benefit do people get from all the effort they expend on earth?  A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages.  The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.  The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns.  All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again.  All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it:  The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing.  What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth.  Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”?  It was already done long ago, before our time.  No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations (New English Translation).

There are varieties of pessimism.  Some pessimism is built on a view of the world that says, either, the world is getting worse and worse—less moral, less safe, and so on.  It can’t get any better.  The downward spiral will keep spiraling downward until we crash at either divine destruction or self-destruction.  The end result in either case will be pretty much the same.  

The kind of pessimism with which the Teacher (or Preacher) writing the book of Ecclesiastes is frustrated is that both the natural world and human experience are just going around in circles.  Nothing is really changing or improving.  Everything is a repeat of what has gone before.  Ho hum.

 

 

III.

Jesus told a memorable story, a parable, about a guy who was in all probability congenitally pessimistic.  Sad to say, all of us probably knows more than a few of these.  Was that a pessimistic assessment? 

The story Jesus told has been so well-remembered that it has a name, “the parable of the talents.”  Dr. Barbara Reid is a nun and cutting-edge Christian scripture scholar with whom I had the good fortune of working last time I had an editing gig–four or five years ago.  Now Dean of the Catholic Theological Union, she says the traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents are wrong. 

 

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A quick overview of the story is that a demanding master, a wealthy guy, decides to take a vacation or head out on a business trip, and not wanting to lose out on any money-making opportunities from investment sources while he’s away and unable to stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not, he has some smart slaves with financial experience.  He taps three of them to invest while he’s away.  The slave with the most promise gets five talents to invest; a talent was a unit of currency equivalent to what an hourly worker would earn in twenty-five years of steady, hard work.  Let’s say five talents might be equal to a million bucks today.  The next slave got three talents to invest–six hundred grand-ish.  The third slave got a mere quarter mil to invest.  Their mission, their responsibility was simple and clear:  stay on top of this money and keep it invested in whatever makes money.  

The slaves with the most money to invest did exactly as they were told, and they were good.  When the master returned, he was thrilled with how much of a return these two slaves had gotten on the money he had entrusted to their care.  

The slave who was left with the least amount of money to invest buried what he had been given in the ground–presumably to ensure that no market decline would cost his master a single dinarious.  That worked, but no money was made.  In a good market, when there was money to be made with investments, this slave sat on the original amount and ended up not earning a thing for his master.  The master was irate and had him punished severely.  

A common interpretive approach portrays the master as God and the slaves as God’s people who have been entrusted with talents.  The moral of the story is:  to the one who has been given much, much is required.  And despite the fact that talent was a unit of currency, in English most preachers have crafted their sermons to make talent mean “inherent skill,” such as the ability to sing or arrange flowers or whatever one’s inherent or learned best skill is.

Barbara Reid says this approach is as wrong as can be.  Recognizing the subtly subversive streak in Jesus’ teachings and some of his acts as well, she says that, as Jesus told the parable, the slave who declined to invest is the hero of the story, the only one who did the right thing even though there was no happily ever after ending for him.  

How could this have been a point Jesus would have wanted to make?  Well, for starters, he was anything but a capitalist.  The two slaves who invested were status quo types. If they represented followers of Jesus, and they probably didn’t, they were the types who saw value in what he taught, but who still leaned toward traditional Jewish laws as the heart of religion.  

The master in the story didn’t represent God at all, but rather traditional Jewish leadership intent on punishing those Jews who were attracted to Jesus’ twist on what was core in Judaism and for that matter core in spirituality.  

The slave who was given the least to invest and who didn’t invest at all is the example of what Jesus’ followers needed to be doing–namely refusing to be controlled by the status quo, regardless of its power; regardless of consequences.  Investing in the past is a popular but a poor practice.

Professor Reid believes that the parable of the talents shows what happens when someone dares to expose a corrupt system—religious or political; she or he is punished.  Optimism is believing it’s still worth taking a stand against injustice and other immorality. 

Amen. 

 

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Kids: Tomorrow’s Energy Core

I.

Two-time Prime Minister of Great Britain, Benjamin Disraeli, was also a novelist, and some say his best novel was the one that carried the title, Sybil, published in 1845.  In this novel, Disraeli has his characters criticize forced child labor.  After a vivid description of what the men looked like as they came up out of the mines after a long, long day’s work–12 or 13 hours–Disraeli’s narrator gets around to a more heart-rending image:

 

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So, too, these emerge from the bowels of the earth!  Infants of four or five years of age, many of them girls, pretty and still soft and timid; entrusted with the fulfillment of responsible duties, the very nature of which entails on them the necessity of being the earliest to enter the mine and the latest to leave it.

 

One poignant detail after another in Nigeria of late.  A couple of days ago some news sources reported that several of the fathers of the Chibok schoolgirls–at least 200 of them, proudly abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram–are speaking out about the complexity of their tragedy.  Not only do they feel utterly helpless before an evil organization, but also the fathers of these beloved children, missing for a little over a month now, report that not a single representative from their local government or from the Nigerian federal government, no police investigators, and no military personnel have come to them to ask any questions about the identity of their daughters whom the fathers still hope will be rescued.  One of the fathers who was willing to give his name to the press, Abana Maina, said, “We want the International World to help us in prayer so that God may help us to rescue these girls one day.”

 

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How I wish, not only with the issue of the safety and rapid return of these young ladies, that people in none of the religions of the world would be taught that God allows tragedy but might, in some cases, reverse it.  That, however, is for another sermon or another book or another career to promote.

Some of us parents who have walked the floors at night, worrying about the wellbeing of one of our children who was out and unreachable for several hours, have had a taste–and only a taste–of what the parents and siblings of these girls are going through.  If there were a hell, this would be one of the emotions that stokes the fire.  

As with war, God neither causes nor corrects abuse and aggression.  While each of us understands the feeling of the father who has asked people around the world to pray that God would make a way for his daughter and all the others to be returned safely home, a God who could grant such a prayer-wish and who waits to be asked is not a God any of us would care to be connected to anyway.

Let’s not forget that the girls are more than pawns or puppets and that they are the ones suffering the most acutely.  Sometimes, in trying to understand the depth of someone’s pain, there are those of us who focus on how the situations affect the ones to whom we can most readily relate, and those tend to be the ones connected to those who most acutely suffer.  As we may not know what it’s like to suffer the way this person or that one has, we might concentrate on how the tragedy affects someone we CAN see and relate to–for example, a relative of someone who suffers.  Not to minimize the horrors the parents of these girls are enduring, we still have to understand that the children themselves are terrorized directly; they are not supporting characters in the drama.

 

 

II.

The Apostle Paul who didn’t know doodley squat about raising children, which didn’t keep him from expressing an opinion–or, as was the case with the snippet Gail read for us earlier, borrowing an existing commentary on the subject and weaving that into his own composition; adapting if he were so inclined.  

 

Children, the right thing for you to do is to obey your parents as those whom God has set over you. The first commandment to contain a promise was: “Honor your father and your mother, that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth.”  Fathers, don’t over-correct your children or make it difficult for them to obey the commandment. Bring them up with Christian teaching in Christian discipline (Ephesians 6:1-4, Phillips).

 

This directive to children is one section of a whole code of behavioral guidelines for a complete household.  There is advice for the wife and mother in the typical home as well as advice for the husband and father in the home.  Then, Paul gets to his words for children that is followed by directives for slaves in the household.  German scholars call these lists of appropriate behaviors haustafeln, household codes.  Paul uses them in more than one place. I say this just to confirm the fact that Paul wasn’t writing along to the church in Ephesus and suddenly decided to slip in a quick word to get a quick word in for kids.  

Now let’s concentrate for a moment on what Paul said to kids within the household unit.  You may know that Paul’s letters were  received by the pastor of a church, and the pastor read the letter to assembled congregation so the children in the congregation would have heard Paul’s word as it was read to a small church group as a whole.  In this case, what he said to them was that it was their responsibility to honor their parents, which was stated in the Ten Commandments–specifically, in the first commandment on the list of ten to have a promise attached to it.  The promise was that if children obey parents, they will inherit long life.  

The fifth commandment on that most famous list of communal behavioral expectations does not promise a long life to obedient children individually.  Rather, it is a promise of longevity, on the basis of common sense, to a society in which children practice parental respect in comparison to a society in which appreciation for parents is neither taught nor expected.  There is a time when obedience to parents’ guidelines is honor parents but in reality is much more a matter of safety and survival, but a maturing honor of parents can’t be tied to behavioral demands by parents of their adult children.

I find it interesting, therefore, that the original commandment among the ten was probably directed not to little kids in the process of growing up, but to adult children.  Adult children, honor your parents because you love them, yes, but also out of a healthy sense of duty as well as the practical realization that a society that throws away it’s elders like yesterday’s suddenly dated pieces of technology will not endure. 

Paul, however, is clearly using the commandment to admonish children still growing up in the homes of their parents.  There is a caveat.  Even a guy who loved rules realized that eventually neither obedience nor honor can be coerced.  And with that in mind, this household code that Paul used, with tweaking or not, has a built in warning for despotic parents.  Overhearing parents had better watch out, or else they’ll lose out.  A growing up kid who has no motivation to respect a parent’s wishes other than the fear of retaliation will escape such a parent’s sphere of influence as quickly as possible.  

 

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Evidently, the writers of the code that came into Paul’s hands believed that fathers more than mothers were the ones inclined to berate children who didn’t inherently love scads of enforced rules.  Thus, Paul and the code to dads:  “Fathers, don’t provoke your children to anger.”  Or, as the Phillips translation has it, “Fathers, don’t over-criticize your kids.”  Don’t weigh them down with so much criticism that keeping the commandment about honoring parents becomes an impossibility. There are many reasons children fail to honor their parents; the one Paul points to here is the emotionally abusive parent who has removed respect for kids out of the relational equation.

 

III.

What do Nita Balderston, Robin Bryson, Patty Fregdant-Yost, Bob George, Don Neal, John Neal, Ann Sharp, Lisa Frankel, Walt Stapleton, Marion Symonds, and Bonnie Zickefoose have in common other than the fact that they are members of Silverside Church?  Hint:  it’s something good! 

Answer:  They were once upon a time Silverside kids or teens or both! Where would we be without these core members today?!? Not in a very good place!  If we can gift the future Silverside with a core such as this one from our present crop of kids, there would be no better endowment.

In the now-old film, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Paul Lynde—playing the father of teens—sang these memorable words:

 

Kids!

I don’t know what’s wrong with these kids today!

Kids!

Who can understand anything they say?

Kids!

They a disobedient, disrespectful oafs!

Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:

Kids!

You can talk and talk till your face is blue!

Kids!

But they still just do what they want to do!

Why can’t they be like we were,

Perfect in every way?

 

 

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Hilarious!

So what IS the matter with kids these days?  Generally speaking, not a thing except what taints them from the outside.  Of course, there are are exceptions.

At Silverside, I know I can talk about this in a company of affirmation and agreement, which is to say, all the parents I know—and I think I know them all—are excellent parents, whatever the ages of their children.  We love kids—our kids and the kids of others.  Kids get priority treatment around here—not because we hope to get a payback from them, though it would be great to see many of tomorrow’s leaders coming out of the ever-growing group of kids we have here at Silverside today.  We make kids a priority, and we do what we can for the kids to give them an enduring foundation for spiritual health and well-being because they deserve it.  An enduring foundation is one that will always contribute to their overall wellbeing, which includes the comfort of self-affirmation rather than self-condemnation, the birthright many of us inherited in our hellfire and damnation church-homes.  An enduring foundation is one that can be built upon; it is a foundation and not a finished structure.  A fitting spirituality is not one set for the ages as it were; rather, it is one that is adaptable to times and circumstances.  Believing that all aspects of a spirituality for one generation become or should become or can become a template for the spirituality of some future unknown and unknowable context is mostly naive, and somewhat selfish—but mostly naive.  

My background for evaluating a healthy spirituality was based on maximum church attendance, maximum Bible study, and maximum scriptural memorization.  That got me started, but had I left it there I’d quickly have outgrown it; and I’d have been left with nothing to replace were it not for the amazing opportunity at just the right time to begin the study of religion and spirituality with a larger-world focus.

All of us here hope that abductions and abuse of children would come to a screeching, permanent stop; if not, the kind of spirituality we want to equip our Silverside kids with—as they are the potential golden energy core for our future—is a spirituality that would have taught them that spirituality is not about private meditation time exclusively or primarily, but heavily focused on making the world a better place.  Today, that we would mean we cannot sit idly by while kids are abducted by terrorists anywhere in the world, as one of countless concerns for justice in all of creation.

Music, Spontaneity, and Spirituality (a sermon delivered on the occasion of dedicating a Steinway Baby Grand Piano, a gift to the church)

Music, Spontaneity, and Spirituality (a sermon delivered on the occasion of dedicating a Steinway Baby Grand Piano, a gift to the church).

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Music, Spontaneity, and Spirituality (a sermon delivered on the occasion of dedicating a Steinway Baby Grand Piano, a gift to the church)

I.

When I was a seminarian taking a certain pastoral care course, there was a group counseling experience required as a part of the overall course requirements.  The professor who turned out to be one of the A-List professors in my seminary experience expected us to treat the group counseling component of the course as if he were the therapist and as if we his students were his clients in a group counseling context.  

I found that awkward for several reasons, one of which was that he was not my therapist; he was my professor, and we were going to get a grade out of the “learning opportunity” as he had devised it.  I have found it a good idea across the years not to engage one of my professors as my mental health provider in the same way that I have found it a good practice not to ask my therapist to give me a grade on how well I was maintaining mental health at any given moment.  

There I was at Southern Seminary and enrolled in a course that made me uncomfortable, but got me closer to graduation; I felt stuck.  I finally figured staying was my best option, and I’d have to come up with a way to survive.  I decided that as long as I showed myself to be engaged in the process, though my heart wasn’t in it, I could manage to keep my grade point average unblemished.  I did OK grade-wise, but things didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, the way I’d planned.

It seemed that Professor Rowatt, though I think he may have denied this when someone made the accusation, managed to get one member of the group on the hot seat each week.  The object appeared to be to poke and prode that week’s guinea pig until a sensitive spot was found.  Having made the discovery the professor wanted to be sure the student owned feelings related to having had that soft spot uncovered.  I hated that process. I hated watching one of my poor colleagues have her or his vulnerability exposed, and I hated knowing each week that, while I’d been off the hook that day, my turn was coming.

 

 

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Professor G. Wade Rowatt, Ph.D.

 

 

 

Sometimes we dread an impending event to the extent that the dread is much worse than the experience, but in this case my dread wasn’t half as painful as having my day on the hotseat.  I had determined not to sell my soul for a grade by pretending to feel something just because it was Thursday morning, our regular weekly meeting time, and because I knew Dr. Rowatt wouldn’t leave me alone until I emoted on cue, as it were.  Again, if he were here, I he would deny what I’ve just accused him of–not that these events took place but how and why.  Nonetheless, I wasn’t the only one in the group who had this weekly guinea pig perception of what was going on.  

Well, the day came when my esteemed professor decided it was my turn to be on the hot seat.  I experienced anticipatory blushing the night before in the event he uncovered some deep struggle within me that I didn’t want my sister and brother seminarians to know about.   

 

 

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Once the soft spot had been revealed in answers to a series of questions that only psychologists and God knew how to ask and interpret, tears were expected or terror so deeply felt it made peers on the other side of the circle quake with the poor soul who had been terrorized by whatever life event had created the secret scar.  The only other suitable alternative for course survival, as some of us saw it, was an angry outburst to prove we’d been treated inappropriately somewhere along the way, and instead of leaving us pained it had left us irate. Anger was a good thing. But, we were seminarians, and anger didn’t come easily for most of us.

I tired of the emotional interrogation that day but held my cool in the southern gentlemen’s way according to which I had been bred.  When he realized I consistently refused to emote on cue, though, the professor said something like this, “Well, it seems that Farmer has made it to this point in life emotionally unscathed, and for that we would have to be thankful.  He’s nice, isn’t he?  He really is.  He’s so nice he makes me sick since I know under all that southern gentleman facade is someone living in denial about the pain that rips the rest of us apart.”  See what I went through to get to be your pastor?

What he said did make me angry, and I couldn’t keep it in. I was angry for real; I’d had enough. I said so, and I added that my emotions were appropriately in tact so that I was authentic enough not to push myself to feel something just because it happened to be Thursday morning.  About that time, he began to applaud and said, “Well, will you look at that!  Farmer isn’t always Mr. Nice Guy after all.  He can even get angry.  Maybe he’s a real person after all.”  I had nothing else to say that day. 

I made it through the course, and Dr. Rowatt ended up on my doctoral committee of instruction.  By the time I graduated, he was the Associate Dean who gave me my first job as a professor.  That course may be the primary reason I’ve lasted in the pastorate all these years.

 

 

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Emoting on cue is a bad thing unless you’re an actor, and you have to cry when the director screams out, “Tears!”  I am proposing to you today that praising God and praying are in the same category.  They can’t be done because someone else tells you it’s time.

 

 

II.

I have been thinking for some time about a typical church’s, if there is such a thing, a typical church’s perspective on praise of God. As conceived in several places in Judeo-Christian scripture, praising God is a joyous thing to do; and yet, bottom line, it’s expected of those who want to honor God.  I fear that it is an extension of appeasement attempts.  That is to say, if I don’t praise God, I’d have been taught to believe, there will be a higher probability of having some tragedy befall me and my people so I’m going to join in with a community of worship and praise God to the best of my ability.

 

 

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It’s hard to say precisely what praise of God is.  There’s a whole lot more to it than saying, “God is great, God is good,” or, “God has done marveous deeds.”  If Silversiders were concerned with praising God as so many of our hymns prompt us to do, the fact is that just because we are here in this place, singing those hymns Sunday mornings at 10, by no means guarantees that God is praised.  

If we praise God authentically, we praise God because we can’t help it, because something wells up within us that is a combination of amazement and gratitude and spills out of us in spite of ourselves.  If you think as I do that God is the life-source and the life-force then perhaps when the nurse of doctor first put your newborn into your arms then you may inadvertently have thought to yourself, “Life is miraculous,” or with Louis Armstrong you may instead have thought to yourself, “What a wonderful world.”

The point is, you didn’t have to wait for someone to tell you what to feel.  You absolutely couldn’t help feeling what you felt.  No one could have kept you from feeling what you felt.  

Same thing with prayer.  Let’s rule out as “real prayer” what Tru Dee Burrell calls a “begging prayer”–pleading with God to give us something or to cause something to happen that we really think needs to happen.  Tru Dee’s spirituality is so evolved that prayer for her is seeing or visualizing the unquestionable good for which she longs as already accomplished.  

Many of us have grown up as part of traditions in which praying at certain times of the day or week was presented as an exemplary spiritual practice.  If that is meaningful for anyone, I would in no way be critical, but I have to tell you that since prayer at its core is communion with the Divine I don’t think it can typically be timed or performed on cue.  

 

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If you tell your significant other every single day that you love her or him, that can be a sweet and wonderful thing.  But if you have it on a calendar as a task to be performed at a set time every day as the reminder on your cell phone tells you to do, chances are some of the punch could be lost.  Ritual “I love you’s” are better than no “I love you’s,” but expressing love–often without words–because you can’t help yourself is likely to be more joyously received by the one whom you love.

I was pondering how much I love my kids a couple of days ago.  At a distance I couldn’t show them, so I texted each one.  The text read–and, no, I didn’t copy my words of love to one and send them to the other also–“I love you so very much.”  As if he hadn’t heard that from me with some frequency, my older son texts back asking, “What brought that about?”  

 

 

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I text-answered, “Uhm, your birth.”  He hasn’t communicated with me since.  Geez!  

If I pray on a schedule–on cue, fine I guess.  But if I celebrate out of the blue the Love that is God because I can’t help opening my heart to the Love, that I think is profound prayer.

III.

This gift piano has brought many of us unavoidably to aesthetic ecstasy today, and my prediction is that it will do so time and again in the future.  

 

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Perhaps it will be a part of having us sing in the midst of real world stuff when we can’t help ourselves a song the choir sings from time to time (along with Enya among others).  Whoever penned these words has never been publicly identified:

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

 

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

E’vn though the tempest round me roars

I know the truth it liveth

E’vn though the darkness round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

 

Some related readings from our Gathering today:

1) Plato once said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” Building on that thought, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg says, “Meditation happens. It happens spontaneously on long walks; it happens during focused episodes seated on a cushion; it happens in packed synagogues. For me, meditation is about awareness. I don’t push away thoughts. I simply keep on breathing. If I don’t grab on to my thoughts they’ll eventually fall away of their own accord.”

2) From Amy Sullivan: “Sometimes I think God shows up in places that smell of bleach and Hamburger Helper. Places that house women in red, fuzzy slippers and children in sleeveless pajamas. Beyond banging doors and crackly announcements God sits in an uncomfortable kitchen chair that rocks but isn’t supposed to.”

3) From Fred Pratt Green:

When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia!

How often, making music, we have found
a new dimension in the world of sound,
as worship moved us to a more profound
Alleluia!

Let every instrument be tuned for praise!
Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise!
And may God give us faith to sing always
Alleluia! Amen.

Pouting Places: Spiritual Spelunking, Don’t Let Your Core Cave!

I.

My neighbor said to me the other day, ”I must be the only one in the neighborhood who cares about keeping things looking good here.”  

I said, “Yeah, you probably are.”

He explained, “I notice you and those Mexicans across the street aren’t too particular about how fast your bring your trash cans in after the trash guys come.”

I responded, “Thank goodness for you.  The `Mexicans’ from the Dominican Republic and and I–we’re so thankful for you, and we’re all the time wondering what in the world Elsmere would do without you.  Keep up the good work.  We’re all depending on you to set the standard for rapid trash can retrieval!”

 

 

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“Pastor,” said my parishioner in Baltimore who was doing everything in her power to keep the church from pulling out of the Southern Baptist Convention, “I think I’m the only one in the church who truly loves this church.”

Responding, having to draw deeply into my well of formal pastoral counselor training in order to say the professional thing, I managed to form these words, “Your love for our church is well attested.”  

“God has told us,” she went on, “that if University Church dissociates with the Southern Baptist Convention, we will have to find another church home.”

“I didn’t realize that God has such vested interest in the Southern Baptist Convention.  How did I miss that in a lifelong association with the Southern Baptists?” I asked her.  [Before anybody gets up and walks out on me, let me clue you in to the fact that I walked out on Southern Baptists shortly after the conversation I’m reporting.  Geez!]

“God has used the Southern Baptist Convention in a mighty way,” she said.

And I said, “Not as much as the Southern Baptists have used God.”  

“Whatever you may think about them, I will never stop supporting them; and if you and the deacons loved the church like I do you’d stop this pullout process right now.  If you don’t, we’re outta here.”

“You’re a core member of this congregation,” I explained, stating the obvious, “and we would all be pained if your family were suddenly not a part of us.  In any case, you will vote at the business meeting like the rest of us, and the count will be taken; and we will live with the results.  Please do keep in mind as you ponder all of this that some of the people who will vote for the withdrawal will be doing so because of their own powerful love for our church.”

As she was departing in a huff, she blurted out, “Like I said, no one loves this church more than I do, even the pastor!”  

I’d been found out. Now everyone would know I was and had been pastoring a bunch of people for whom I felt low levels of love or no love at all.  Maybe one day, I thought to myself, I can learn how to love my church a lot.

 

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Have I ever been guilty of playing the victim?  Let’s keep this professional, and I must confess, yes I have.  I don’t like that I let myself go there, but since I’m pinging others who have I must say in fairness I also have given in to whining–usually not in earshot of too many people.  

In an academic setting or two in which I’ve taught, I’ve sometimes thought, “Am I the only one upholding basic academic standards here?  Yes, I think I must be.”  I didn’t really believe I was the only one; I figured there was one other, probably.  When academia became a branch of big business while students became consumers and deans became division managers, professors–especially part-timers–began to wonder what the price would be of assigning low grades. If you don’t keep the customers happy, what use are you to the business?  

Same thing happened when the age of the mega church dawned.  Mega churches are unashamedly entertainment-based.  There were (and are!) churches who wanted to have mega church memberships and money, but they detested the entertainment model for church.  There is only one place to affix blame in this case–church leadership, the paid folks and the elected lay leadership.  And, yes, I have gone to bed many a night through the years when my church numbers weren’t keeping up with the churches down the street–and that wasn’t always the case–asking myself, “Am I the only one in the crowd who realizes that church growth doesn’t happen because of wishful thinking or because of a dogged determination to avoid thinking about anything other than what made the church grow in the good ole days.”  I think I can safely say that while I’ve been a pastor during the last 28 years of the three best ches any liberal pastor could have served, I’m quite sure that even though the future has always been a concern the vast majority of conversations I’ve had have focussed on the congregation’s long gone hayday.  Poor-pastor me.

The victim mentality is a certain way to prove to oneself and others that we are frozen in the past and generally unable to be free enough of the past to move into an ever-changing, curveball future.  The mega churches grew, thrived, and survived in many places because some folks at the respective helms would not allow the victim mentality related to congregational numeric deline to blind and paralyze them.

II.

Talk about a winner-take-all kind of deal!  A prophetic powers contest was staged in ancient Israel.  On the one side was a group of the most highly regarded prophets of the god, Baal, whom the ancient Hebrews regarded as a figment of his followers’ imaginations though to his devotees he was very much alive.  On the other side, was the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets, Elijah, working (or performing–you might say in this case) solo.  

Elijah won the match, and in his victor’s glory, he ordered that all the prophets of Baal should be slaughtered; and so it was done.  One might well wonder why or how a prophet of God would desire a mass execution of clergy-nemeses, even though such wishes and implementations came to be repeated frequently as history unfolded from Elijah’s point onward.  

A tiny bit of background to set the stage.  The king of Israel at this point in Elijah’s ministry was Ahab.  Many of Ahab’s subjects were displeased with their king for having chosen a wife who not only rejected the God of Israel whom they believed was the one and only deity there was, but also she was the primary benefactress to the Baalite religion.  She–Queen Jezebel–contributed to the upkeep of worship sites; she kept the seminaries afloat financially.  No one knew how they could survive without her.

Jezebel had a particular dislike for Hebrew prophets, and since Elijah was the most famous of them all, she hated him the most.  Elijah didn’t help his cause with the Queen because he loved to stir things up by reminding those in power that he, Elijah, was a servant to the real power in the world–namely his God.  

At one point for reasons unstated, Jezebel had it in for a group of a hundred Hebrew prophets in particular, and they would have died at her demand had not King Ahab’s chief of staff not secretly hidden them in caves and kept survival supplies flowing there for them.  This likely was one of the reasons Elijah called for the slaughter of a huge group of Baalite prophets when he won the “Israeli Idol” episode in which his God acted as per his request while Baal didn’t do a thing his prophets begged him to do.  Instant fame, which not many clergy have handled so well through the years.  

Elijah expected the God who apparently performed on cue in the big prophetic power event to continue to do so.  Thus, when Jezebel announced her plan to have him rubbed out, Elijah expected God to show her who was boss, but when her troops were selected for the singular mission of killing off the greatest Hebrew prophet of all, Elijah thought that was much too close a call, and he began to run.  The more he ran, the angrier with God he became.  

At some point he decided that he’d rather die than be unsupported by his people and, worse, unappreciated by God.  That is certainly the most absolute way of making sure that nobody can benefit from one’s talents.  

By and by, Elijah found a cave in which he decided to take emotional and spiritual refuge.  Eventually, God found the Hebrews’ star prophet, and God asked Elijah, “Don’t I remember a sermon you preached once upon a time, Elijah, in which you explained to your hearers that it’s not possible to run from me?”

 

 

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“Nope,” snapped Eliah.  “You have me confused with some other so-called prophet.”

“That must be the case,” God said.  

“Why don’t you go spend time with your hard-headed children who get by with murder, literally?  Or how about those much less successful prophets–the few you have allowed to live?  They seem to be your favorites.”

“Is that a fact?” asked God.

“Yes,” insisted Elijah.  “The God I know is a God who can send fire down from heaven and who could send a killer ailment down on an evil queen trying to undo God’s greatest prophet to date.”

 

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“And you’re sure, are you, Elijah, that you’re not confusing me with a Jinn or a genie?”

Elijah droned on with his pity party, and finally God interrupted and said, “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, Elijah, I want you to take note of something.”

“Fine!” Elijah shouted.

God said:

“Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

 

 

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Do you follow the writer?  God was in the silence.  God had been quietly present throughout Elijah’s escape effort, but not in anything earth-shattering, if you will.

III.

My middler seminarians were preaching the other evening, and there seems to have been the group tendency that particular night to blame any sermonic difficulty on time constraints. Now, there’s always a time limitation on sermons in any of my preaching classes, just as there was when I taught public speaking.  A professional needs to learn to speak within a given time frame each time she or he speaks.

In every course, there’s someone who has an interesting cell phone timer or a clever timing app on her or his laptop, and that person usually ends up being the timekeeper.  On Thursday, one too many students complained about the lack of time as the basis for having made a particular error.  It was humorous after a while.  I have to tell you these students are phenomenal, and so the polish is for sophisticated errors, not beginners’ let’s-get-to-first-base polish, but don’t tell them that yet in case some of them stumble into a Gathering before end of term.  I don’t want them to ease up on themselves until the very last day of the semester.  

 

 

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Anyway after hearing those nonstop complaints about lack of sermon time the timekeeper asked the most recent complainee if he wanted some cheese with his “whine.”  Hilarious.  Of course, I was probably the last person in the United States to have heard that expression, but it was a first for me; and I couldn’t help laughing for a while.  

When it comes to personal challenges, the dynamics are different.  Let me let you know that if you need to whine about a personal difficulty, your pastor is available to listen.  That said, let me also say that the people of Silverside collectively have suffered tremendous tragedy and loss without whining at all–even when whining would have A-OK.  In my almost 14 year tenure here there has been no whining about about overwhelming personal affronts.  None of us would have faulted anyone who cried or cried out while feeling like the weight of the world had been suddenly thrust on her or his shoulders.

There’s a difference, though, between the emotions that result in having lost a loved one to some dreadful disease, for example, and letting oneself come to believe that she or he actually is the only one who cares about an enterprise or an undertaking when results get to the place of being undesirable as in Elijah’s case.  The victim mentality is pointless and contributes nothing to resolution.  Of course, by the time the typical victim menality “victim” gets to that point, she or he is not much interested in resolution.  The whining, by then, is the only reward desired.

Nurturing the victim mentality usurps energy that would be better utilized in coming at the problem one more time OR admitting that if there is a solution someone else may be, probably is, in a better position to bring about the needed result than I.  The future of the Hebrew religion didn’t rest on Elijah’s shoulders though he was quite disappointed to make that discovery.  

 

 

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I’m not convinced that my neighbor would be happy if I and the neighbors across the street brought in our trash cans as quickly as he does.  If we took that away from him by leaving out our trash cans several hours longer than he, we’d be robbing him of one of probably several victim roles he enjoys playing.  And the pseudo-logic that I love my church more than anybody so I’ll leave it if it doesn’t do exactly what I want is its own ridiculous, pointless babble.  

How about if we tried determining to be victor instead of victim…period!?