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:

 

PrriLogo1

 

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.

 

The-Pilgrims-Progress-610713

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

 

polyphonic2

 

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:

 

cox

 

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.

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.

 

 

Image

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.   

 

 

Image

 

 

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.

Those to Whom We Could Have Been More Kind (Part 3, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!)

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I.
Israeli Rabbi Yisrael Rutman talks about the importance of kindness in Jewish religion and culture. The secular Jewish citizens are prone to kindness, but are also very concerned about not being taken or hoodwinked. If someone does a good turn for someone who really doesn’t need it, that is cause for derision from observers, and they get a great laugh out of it.
Jews of faith, in contrast, are concerned to do kindness no matter what, emulating Abraham, who set up refreshment tents in the dessert–the forerunners of fast food, says the Rabbi–and when people would thank him he would tell them that the ultimate source of provisions was God, a Sunday breakfast mission model. Anyway, the religion that Jesus embraced had/has kindness at its core. You wouldn’t know that by observing life in many or most churches that claim to live by Jesus’ example, but that topic is for another sermon–maybe (as in “maybe” I can make myself wait to preach on the legacy of Pastor Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame!).

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February 10-16 of this year was International Random Acts of Kindness week. Who knew? I only discovered this a day or two ago since no one was kind enough to let me know about such an important celebration.
It’s been a few years since I first saw the phrase “random acts of kindness.” It was on a billboard near my church in Baltimore, and the whole message read: “Perform Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” This concept has really stuck with me. I hope it has helped to make me a kinder person.
I used to hear Glenn Campbell sing,

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say you’re goin’ the wrong way
You’ve got to try a little kindness, show a little kindness
Yes shine your light for everyone to see
And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness
Of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets

Words still worth remembering, don’t you think? “And if you’ll try a little kindness, you’ll overlook the blindness of the narrow minded people on the narrow minded streets.”
I don’t think life in the modern world is making us kinder; sadly, I think it’s making us–unless we struggle against the flow– more suspicious and defensive and, thus, irritable and angry. A modern person’s survival motto might well be: “I’m gonna cut you off or tell you off before you have a chance to cause me any trouble.” Being mean protects our vulnerability; being kind leaves it open and positioned for attack.
Maybe some people out there somewhere, certainly not any of us, need more motivation to give kindness a try or a retry after having been hurt specifically for trying to be kind. This could be the practical motivation you need. According to British researchers, kindness breeds longevity. “People who practice kindness and compassion have better general health and live longer,” they say.

II.
David was one of King Saul’s most trusted servants, clearly in the inner circle for several reasons, and David believed he had never given Saul reason to think that he, David, would do anything to harm Saul or the relationship that he had with the King he respected as his national leader whom God Godself had appointed to be in this kingly role. The possibility, though, of having a subject who seemed loyal to turn suddenly and violently against someone in power was not something Saul just dreamed up; this was a constant concern for leaders in the ancient world. Hmmmm, the modern world too, huh?
Saul became jealous of David’s growing popularity, and with the jealousy came anxiety, fear, paranoia that David would try to get rid of him so that David could claim the throne for himself. From the information we have available we shouldn’t think of David as some sort of paragon of virtue across the board. Nonetheless, David was officially a loyal subject to Saul; still, Saul became convinced that David was not what he appeared to be. So, the fearful and angst-ridden King of Israel put together a little army of 300 of his finest men to apprehend David and put him to death. David, in response, had no choice but to run and hide. Fortunately for David there were lots of hills and caves in the general vicinity. Saul was so eager to get David out of the picture that he was himself frequently searching alongside his highly trained hit squad.
One day, while hot on David’s trail, Saul got tired and wanted a little nap, OR he had to relieve himself. Apparently, the Hebrew text can be taken to mean either. In children’s Sunday School, we will keep it as a nap, but here in big church we can consider the possibility that even renowned leaders must, from time to time, find a way to experience the pause that refreshes. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to be either/or so we’re going to be risk-takers, go out on an interpretive limb, and say that while in the cave Saul both relieved himself AND rested a bit.

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As it turned out, David had a contingent of soldiers traveling with him as well. How the court musician managed to put together a small army is something I can’t understand, but that’s what occurred. Maybe Saul wasn’t being so outlandish in seeing some things about David that caused him to raise an eyebrow. I mean, after a while–and long before the Simply Music harp method–this growing group that David must have met with regularity and pretty quickly had to stop pretending to be David’s music class.
OK. OK. You get the picture. So Saul is in a cave, and David’s soldiers tell him that this is the best shot he’s ever going to have to get rid of the King. If he waits, the King may well get rid of him; this is his golden opportunity–no reference back to what Saul might have been doing in the cave.
David is incensed. Crazy and crotchety though he may be, Saul is still their God-appointed leader, and they will not harm him even if it means running for who knows how long; however, David did feel the need to make a point with Saul so he enters the cave and finds the King __________–you fill in the blank. If Saul were relieving himself, then he was very engrossed in what he was doing to the extent that he didn’t know David was right beside him in the dark cave; and at this point I’m really hoping Saul is sleeping rather than some of the other options for what he might have been doing when David came upon him. Regardless, David slices off a swatch of one of the King’s garments and hightails it out of there without Saul’s having a clue.
When Saul exits the cave, there’s a bit of a shouting match between the two men in which David at a safe distance waves the swatch and says, “Your majesty, look! If I wanted you dead, you wouldn’t be standing here now. I clipped a corner off your garment, and I just as easily could have slit your throat.” As the King realized David was telling the truth, there was a tearful recognition of his royal paranoia and a verbal commitment of some sort to try to see to it that their relationship returned to what it had been in the good ol’ days, when kindness had gone both ways.
There are lots of lessons we might learn from this cave story, but I’d like for us to use it today as a reminder that there are probably some folks whose paths we have crossed in time gone by–maybe last week, last year, last decade–to whom we could’ve been much kinder than we were in a given moment for whatever reason. Those people may have been family members, friends, strangers with whom we were short or rude or dismissive or out and out mean. Maybe apologies after the fact will help, maybe not, but the best way to do this, to the extent that we are able at all, is to live day by day with kindness as our guide, to live with kindness as our way of life.

III.
I had a student a couple of semesters back who didn’t have any classroom manners at all, and at first I sort of tried to deal with the fact that he spoke out loud in the middle of my lectures as if talking to himself and with his talking over his classmates whom he regularly interrupted with information that was largely unrelated to what was being talked about. I’d received no notice of learning differences from the academic affairs office so assumed he was just rude. I kept thinking to myself during his monologues that this behavior could best be fixed with kindness and gentle humor if possible. Didn’t work.
By the end of the second class session, I’d pretty much had it, and my inner kindness resources were all used up. Same with his classmates who were giving up on trying to ask questions or make observations.
I still determined that losing my cool or being abrupt with him–and he was a young adult, not a kid–could lead to nothing good. I didn’t call up that patience from within myself really. I suddenly was aware of two of my grad school professors, teaching in the same department; one was unfailingly kind, and the other was dependably unkind. There was no doubt that students learned much more from the prof who was always kind to them, even though his classroom manner was less engaging than the rude guy’s when he wasn’t be a jerk to one of his students. I thought about that contrast a lot, and it was always clear to me which of those two I wanted to emulate if I ever became a professor. How, though? Perhaps Dr. Cox was so kind because he was confident of his knowledge, AND he was at peace with himself. Not by accident, he became my major professor, and without being a pushover in any sense his kindness continued through seminars, research, dissertation writing, and oral exams. I cannot praise him enough.
A key part of spirituality, don’t you think, is being at peace, which allows us to be gentle with ourselves? Oh, sure, there have been and there are so called “spiritualities,” which were/are nothing more than channels for self-hatred and self-condemnation, ways to beg for divine forgiveness and seek protection from the elements or any other curveballs that life can throw. It’s so sad that so many are thusly engaged.
If we are looking for a healthy spirituality we have to start with kindness to ourselves, wanting the best for ourselves, wanting to be whole within ourselves. Mindfulness is as far as I know the latest and best way of trying to understand what’s at the core of any spirituality; mindfulness is fundamentally a kindness to self–honoring who I am in the present moment.
I don’t think it’s possible for most people–certainly there would be exceptions–to be kind to others unless they are kind to themselves. Those who tend to be unkind to themselves often pass that lack of kindness on to others. Again I say there are exceptions; some folks who are very tough on themselves somehow find it possible to be kind to others.
For most of us, though, self-kindness leads to kindness in relationship to others. The more at peace we are with ourselves, the more we can pass on kindness, and I don’t mean to imply that the only good reason to be kind to ourselves is so that we can be kind to others.
I’m going to be a healthier person if I manage to be kind even when someone is giving me a reason not to be. That’s worth remembering even at church. Some churches are not known for kindness, sad to say. I was trying to learn something about YouTube recently when I stumbled across a video clip of a fist fight in a Samoan church. There are probably more instances of that than are ever reported. You’d think in church of all places kindness would prevail, but I heard about someone not so long ago who left a church because of how unkind the members were in their conversations with each other.
I would say to you that there are people to whom we simply cannot and shouldn’t be expected to be kind–though we should try for kindness whenever we can. The Dalai Lama says, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (I am stirred also by another comment he had on the subject of kindness: “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”)

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I highly recommend to you that you lean toward the Dalai Lama’s way of thinking here and not mine! But if you falter, as did Saul, only risking an apology and a fresh start will do. I may not be able to offer those, however, until I learn first to be kind to me.
Amen.

Honoring Those Who Have Died (Part 2, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!) Posted in Honor of Maggie Mahood Who Died Suddenly though Quietly at Her Home Ironically Near the Time This Sermon Was Being Preached at Her Church

My pal Arbender Robinson who sings and acts and dances on Broadway and who has given a wonderful concert here texted me the other day to tell me that he was on a train, on his way to rehearsals for his new show, “Les Mis,” when at a stop he heard a horrible explosion. In the next seconds, within his range of vision, there was smoke. Now, most of us know that what he was close to on that train was the tragic East Harlem explosion, which as of last night had left eight people dead and seventy injured. Those who died as a result of unattended to natural gas leaks are: George Amadeo, Griselde Camacho, Rosaura Hernandez and her mother Rosaura Vazquez, Andreas Panagopoulos, Alexis Salas, Carmen Tanco, and one more victim who has yet to be identified as best I can research.

I hope the shrinking of the world in terms of how quickly we can know of an experience had by someone thousands of miles from us, good experiences and bad ones, is making us more sensitive rather than more callous to the challenges of our sisters and brothers in the human family. I fear that for many people, however, callousness is in the lead. I say this not because it’s so easy to take a broad swipe at human frailty and fault, which is how some preachers and religious groups keep themselves on the map, but because after so much negative anything emotional survival–most often subconsciously–presses us to become callous to protect ourselves.

When the bodies of the first casualties began to be sent home from the military engagements in Iraq, some reporters with photographers accompanying them showed up at Dover Air Force Base, for example, to take pictures of flag-draped caskets, end to end in the entrails of cargo planes. When these pictures hit the print and online news sources there was immediate objection–not at first from the rank and file news consumer, but from the Department of Defense, if not the White House.

The cabinet secretary for that department scolded the reporters and photographers who dared to show us and our fellow citizens what was really happening as a result of noble-sounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. Rumsfeld and the military industrial complex, to use President Eisenhower’s designation, tried to crush, without shame, freedom of the press. Indeed, photographing and publishing pictures of the bodies themselves would have been both invasive and grotesque. But the only objection the political power people could offer in their defense, no pun intended, was–when deciphered–fear that making the loss of life too real would cause the American public to oppose the nicely-named war.

The pictures continued to be published, and the only way not to know what was really happening was to play ostrich. Simultaneous to the pictures, news sources in localities from which the deceased military personnel had hailed began to print and speak the names of the dead–yet another way to keep those in denial about the true cost of the drive to eradicate weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist focused on reality.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, recalled in his riveting retrospective on how he survived emotionally as a prisoner of the Nazis, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, his arrival at the first of four concentration camps in which he was tortured prior to liberation. What happened immediately upon entry into the camp was that males were sent in one direction and females in another. Then, everything he brought with him that could be taken away was–his clothing, a manuscript containing the results of his life’s work to that point, his hair (since they shaved all of it all off), and finally his name, which was replaced by a number tattooed onto his body. And all people to whom he was accountable for the next three years made a point never to use his name. Like Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables, Frankl was truly only a number. There was nothing accidental about that part of protocol for the treatment of Jewish and other concentration camp prisoners.

If we visit a Holocaust Memorial today we will see disturbing photographs and read or hear stories that make us wonder how far the definition for “human” can be stretched. Those parts of the exhibits may change from time to time, but insofar as space permits what will not change is the display of the names of those who died at the hands of Hitler’s minions. The Nazis would have had all of those executed remain anonymous in death and mass grave burial as in concentration camp life (“life” being too optimistic a word for existence in concentration camps). The survivors wouldn’t have it. Same with Vietnam vets and Vietnam Memorials, for example.

In the magnificently symbolic book of Revelation, set against the backdrop of Domitian’s unspeakable persecution of Christians right at the very end of the first Christian century, some anonymous martyrs show up in one of the writer’s, John’s, visions:

I saw under the altar [in heaven] the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” They were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number [of martyrs] would be complete….

These martyrs were nameless, anonymous. The fear of the anonymity of their loved ones who’d died at the hand of megalomaniac Domitian disturbed the loved ones they left behind almost as much as the deaths themselves. They couldn’t bear the thought that the wicked Emperor would succeed not only in stealing the lives of their loved ones, but also doing his best to keep their names from being known by anyone who didn’t already know them. The writer of the book of Revelation is trying to show those worried about this matter that in heaven their dear ones commune with God, are attended to by God, and are known by God. God knows the name of each one. Domitian may have treated them as if they were nameless nobodies, but their loved ones would not forget them on earth–that is basic to honoring those who have died; and in heaven God Godself knew each one by name and knew as well the horrors each one had suffered in an attempt to be faithful to God under the rule of a madman.

II.
The Jews and their half-siblings, the Arabs, in their heritage identify with the land and value passionately, to say the least, the land that is theirs. If this were not the case, I believe there would be little reason for the Israelis and the Palestinians to keep their wars with each other going today. I am not snubbing the Palestinians in any way, but for today am only focussing on the Jews.

The Jews from the earliest recorded encounters of ancient Hebrews with God took note of the exact place at which someone believed she or he had had a direct encounter with the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; the God of Sarah, Aisha and Fatima, Leah and Rachel. In fact, yet today, the two most holy places by Jews who practice the Jewish religion are are land-based. The first is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where their first and second great Temples stood prior to destruction–the first, by the Babylonians; and the second, by the Romans. A third Temple has never been erected. Christian fundamentalists believe the reason is that the third Temple cannot be built until God is ready to signal to humankind that human history is about to come to a close. Ugh!

According to journalist Rachael Avraham, “The Jewish people have a historical, religious, spiritual, and national connection to the Temple Mount area dating back to antiquity.” It is taken to have been the location of the creation of Adam and maybe Eve and the site of the planned but thankfully failed sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, by Abraham himself. In the time of Jesus when the second Temple was still standing, Jews were expected to come to the great Temple in Jerusalem at least three times per year to offer sacrifices. Generally, following the patterns established by their foreparents, all who could did so.

The second most holy site on the face of the earth for Jews who practice the Jewish religion is a cave, the Cave of Machpelah, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The cave and the adjoining field were purchased by Abraham about 3700 years ago as a place to bury his wife, Sarah, on the occasion of her death; a place for him to be buried when the time came; and a place to bury their family members who would die after them. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are all buried in the Cave of Machpelah. These are considered the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people. Jacob’s other wife, Rachel, was not buried in the Cave but rather near Bethlehem where she died giving birth to their son, Benjamin.

We have heard read a snippet from a more detailed account of the process by which Abraham acquired the Cave and the land nearby. However compact the snippet may have been I hope you heard something of the deep love Abraham had for his wife, Sarah.

The land was owned by the Hittites, not the Hebrews; yet, when Abraham explained to the Hittites why he wanted to purchase the cave and surrounding land, the compassionate Hittite spokespersons offered to give him what he was trying to buy. Abraham, determined to honor his beloved Sarah in every way possible, thanked the Hittites, but explained to them that he was an ingrate in any sense he could not bury his beloved in a place given to him, in a place in which he did not invest. He believed he could only bury Sarah in a place that he owned. Otherwise, in his mind he would not be honoring her.

Either way, it would have been the same cave where Sarah’s body would be taken as its final resting place whether it had been given to Abraham or whether he had the bill of sale. Some people might not have seen any difference and therefore might have thought that Abraham should have graciously accepted the generous, thoughtful offer gotten on with his grieving.

For Abraham, however, much more was at stake. The gift of a tract of land for gardening or grazing was one thing, something presumably to which he would have been open. His wife, to whom he had been married 113 or 114 years, deserved the best in death as in life, as he saw it. Don’t get stuck on the number of years they were married; after 80 years together, smooth sailing is guaranteed. So, Abraham, insisted on the best he could provide for his wife, even in death. The dynamic was hardly the same as having the funeral director imply in the midst of your heavy grief that if you really loved your departed dear one you would purchase the most expensive casket and all the highest priced funeral service options. A borrowed tomb or a freebie just didn’t suit. He couldn’t see the honor in that. Thus, we have a detailed account of how much was charged and how much was paid without attempts to bargain for a lower price. He paid full market price, and that was quite a story of love and devotion.

III.
There are many eccentricities about life and death in New Orleans. I loved that place during my family’s nearly five years there and except for the ways my now ex-wife’s health was challenged by climate I might never have left.

One of the city’s traits that immediately stood out to me was the way someone’s, almost anyone’s, departure from this world was dealt with. Some might call the customs ostentatious, but only someone who didn’t understand a typical New Orleanian’s zest for life could think that.

A new-comer probably first became aware of the local ways of honoring the dead by an encounter with one of the treasured sites of entombment that long ago got the designation “cities of the dead.” Since underground burial of caskets or urns is not possible in a city built below “sea” level, only above ground options for interment are possible. Enter any of the cities of the dead, and you will see rusty decorative wrought iron. If it’s a sunny day, you are likely to be nearly blinded by the white-white sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues, in that heavily Roman Catholic city, cast contorted shadows. Those entering the cities of the dead on holidays will see votive candles in all kinds of wind-proof holders calling attention to certain tombs and reminding observers that those buried in those particular tombs have living relatives who are physically able to continue to show their concern through the lighting of those candles.

In those cities of the dead, both the largely unknown and the celebrities are buried–pirates, politicians, and voodoo queens not infrequently next to each other. For those with limited funds, economical vaults are used and stacked on top of of each other. Wealthier families can afford larger, elaborate tombs with crypts. Many whole-family tombs look like miniature houses, enclosed with iron fences. The walkways in front of the rows of tombs resemble streets. Little houses, fences, and streets–no wonder these final resting places became known as cities of the dead.

At one time, as I understand it, almost everyone’s casket or cremains was carried or drawn to a cemetery in a parade. In time, the more well-to-do citizens’ caskets or cremains would be driven to a tomb or mausoleum amid an impressive motorcade in which the preacher or priest or rabbi rode in the limousine provided solely for her or him. This country boy thought I’d wandered into the high cotton for sure the first time a limo driver arrived at my church office to collect me and then drive me in a stretch limo about a mile down St. Charles Avenue to the funeral home where only the most prominent citizens were mourned and celebrated.

The less prominent citizen would not be overlooked at the time of death, though. It was a way of life to be stopped in your vehicle now and then, for up to half an hour, while a funeral parade made its way from a church or home to a cemetery. Even if the band were only a squeaky clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone, and a banjo–players decked out in tuxes and top hats–there it was; someone for whom the bell had tolled was on her or his way to a modest site for earthly rest, and busy people like me just had to wait through several rounds of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” interwoven with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The family was honoring its dead loved one, and for the moment nothing else in all of New Orleans was more important.

The finest way to honor those whom we love is to cherish them moment by moment as they live and then when they have “graduated” to the realm of higher consciousness–as thanatologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross put it–celebrate them. A tangible expression of that celebration of life may be a lasting visual of some sort–interment in a named family plot, placement of a grave stone or a memorial plaque, and so on–but none of that name remembrance will have much meaning unless done out of love and not mere duty.

Images: the flagged-draped caskets, New Orleans’ Cities of the Dead (2 images), Dr. Viktor Frankl, the Temple Mount, the Cave of Machpelah (2 images)

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Posted in Loving Memory of Maggie Mahood who, unbeknost to her faith community, died suddeny but quietly at home near the time this sermon was being preached

Reflective Rumblings (New Series, Spiritual Spelunking: Don’t Let Your Core Cave!)

I.

My ex-wife used to say in the midst of our unsuccessful attempts to resolve conflict that I was a blamer. By that she meant when something went wrong I wanted to know who was responsible. She thought once something had been done, even if it were a mistake or a mess, that who did it didn’t matter; all that mattered was resolution or cleanup will take place. I did not overlook the importance of cleaning up and such, but I wanted to know who was responsible so that we could negotiate-and I say that in the nicest possible way–a way for this not to happen again in the future.
I don’t know if what she said was on target or exaggerated. I know I have no interest in graveling apologies, but I do appreciate when there’s a problem if someone had a hand in creating it she or he acknowledge complicity; and we move on from there. If I am at fault, and I certainly make tons of mistakes–thanks for acting surprised–then I need to be able to accept responsibility for them. When I done something that disturbed or hurt someone, then it’s especially important for me to offer an apology of some sort indicating I know I was involved and that I regret it.
If I am a blamer, as my ex-wife lovingly suggested, and this reflects my psychological makeup, then my theological makeup is at the opposite end of the continuum. This is to say there is never any reason to ask why the big bad things happen in life or the big good things for that matter. Plenty of thoughtfully religious folk think there is reason to embrace the belief that God caused tragedies and triumphs, willed then, or allowed them and should therefore be praised for divinely impeccable insights or actions.

 

 

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One small rabbit to chase. The idea that God doesn’t directly cause the big bad experiences for humans, but “only” allows them is supposed to soften perspectives on an otherwise sadistic deity–creating humans only to turn around and torture them. I see no difference at all between a god willing something directly and a god allowing something dreadful to happen. I understand that a number of theologians who follow this line of reasoning are trying to draw a distinction between God saying the roof needs to fall in on your head because you’re a bad person over against somebody having a roof fall on her or his head because that person did not keep up the repairs in the house; God doesn’t come in and do the repairs for that individual. As the years have gone along and I’ve had more and more opportunity for reflection as well as interaction with people who have dealt with catastrophes my belief is as I said there’s no difference between a God who wills it and a God who could stop tragedy but doesn’t. That God is no better or better off than the God who simply says, “Lets just go ahead and crash the roof in on your head and be done with it.”

 

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One of my seminary students who is also studying in a hospital setting this term was told recently by his chaplain supervisor not to pray aloud for healing with patients who are seriously ill. The chaplain explained by saying the reason is that when you do this you are implying that God has the capacity, the wherewithal, to heal somebody who is critically ill and will do so if God wants. If things don’t turn out toward healing, the patient may feel frustration, defeat, confused. God gets the blame…for what God could have done but refused to do.

It was a wise thing for the chaplain to have pointed out to my student, by the way. I told him I agreed with what the chaplain instructed him to do or avoid doing.

This business of blaming God for disaster is its own kind of disaster. When we determine that God is in any way calling all the shots as history unfolds then we have ourselves a problem; one that is long established and never solved.

 

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II.
The book of Job in Hebrew Scripture is a grand piece of literature. It is complex. It is multi-layered. It is disturbing, but it has captured the attention of people throughout the centuries from the time it began being edited over a period of years with three or four writers contributing before the final draft was in place. If you’ve ever heard anybody slapped with life crisis upon life crisis say, “I feel feel like Job,” the central character in this drama is the person with whom they are comparing themselves.

The book has captivated attention from its initial circulation. Archibald MacLeish used it as the basis of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, “JB.” The original Hebrew play takes, on the surface, the widely held Hebrew theological perspective that God is in control of all good and bad that happens to individuals and nations; however, there is some questioning of that view.

Such a horrible, emotionally destructive way to look at life’s tragedies, it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone hangs onto it. Were the perspective accurate, I’d think this would be enough to drive any thinking person away from God except out of fear and the need to please God in the hopes of staying off God’s hit list.
In short, the most horrible tragedies befall Job and his loved ones, one after another, and to make matters worse God is clearly shown as having been involved in allowing those attacks to befall the Job family, which is exactly what most of the people hearing the story read or the play performed would have felt during the times that the book of Job was being composed and compiled.

 

Job by Marc Chagall

Job by Marc Chagall

 

 

To challenge the unexamined acceptance of such a theological notion, the drama portrays a God who would allow such horrors in the world to be careless about it all, at least in the case of the Job family. God has a chum whose name is never given; he is simply referred to “ha satan,” the satan–that is, the adversary. “Satan” is not a name. “Satan” is a description of this crony of God who interacts with God as if a poker buddy. There are several reasons we know that the adversary in Job is not a devil, and the main reason is that no doctrine of devils or a hell had evolved at this point in time. If you believe that God makes your life miserable when it is miserable–then you don’t need a devil in this world.

The satan drops in on God and says something like, “That Job guy is a real piece of work.”

God was confused by the comment, “What do you mean? Job is the best of the best among humans. Job is a reflection of my best creative work. He is entirely upright morally speaking, and he loves me more than anyone on the face of the earth, perhaps.”

“Oh, God,” taught his pal, the adversary, “You are so gullible and easily flattered. If you didn’t make life so nice for Job and his family, he wouldn’t give you the time of day. Give me a few weeks or a few months to call the shots in his life without your interference, and I’ll show you both what kind of person he really is and how little he cares for you when you abdicate your Sugar Daddy routine.”

“You’re on,” God was quick and confident to say. “You’re going to come up looking really dumb, though, because Job will not turn away from respecting me and loving me no matter what you do to upset his pomegranate cart.”

So, the tragedies caused by the adversary pellet Job–loss of property, loss of loved ones, loss of health. Job is left a truly miserable person–emotionally, physically, spiritually. In this low point in life, there are ongoing conversations with his so called friends and with his wife who were trying it seemed on the surface, to get him to a better place. The friends voice the traditional theological perspectives from differing angles. God caused these losses. You must have displeased God. You’d better get right with God by seeing forgiveness, or God will keep hammering you with more calamities.

Job’s wife, the only one of his loved ones not to have been wiped out in one of the attacks arranged by the adversary is a voice reason in the drama, and the only source of reason anywhere near Job in his suffering. She insists on honesty and reason in responding to all he has lost at God’s hand, they think. At one point, Mrs. Job says to her husband, “If God is the God that you have believed in and honored and loved, and this God causes you, causes us, such unspeakable tragedy, then you should just curse God and die. With your integrity, there is no other pathway open to you.” I think his wife was right on target because she was asking him to consider getting rid of his pain once and for all in the only way anyone could be sure not to be God’s moving target for another round of divine fun and games.

In MacLeish’s play, “J.B.,” Job is a devout, wealthy, and charitable businessman who loses everything. Angry that her husband won’t impugn the God who causes such suffering she deserts Job.

 

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I have to tell you, in this entire set of fictional reflections and fictional characters I really like Mrs. Job the most. She’s my favorite character in the story. Job, my heart goes out to him, and I think he’s a genuine seeker trapped in traditionalism, but I like the Mrs. the most. I also love that the writers that far back and in the cultures that produced the book of Job caused the only voice of reason in the whole mix to be a woman’s voice. There was much more to her than old wives’ tales. “If your God has it in for you and won’t let up, then the only way you can escape pain upon paid with no end anticipated is to end your life–curse God and die,” she said to her husband.

 

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III.
You may know the story of when David who would become the king of Israel was still a shepherd boy and a gifted harp player he was brought to Saul, the king of Israel, because Saul had some chronic emotional challenges that the harp music helped to calm. After a trial run, David was brought in full time as THE court musician, and Saul grows to love David, as does Saul’s son, Jonathan; many of Saul’s advisors; and more than a few of the rank and file subject of the kingdom. In time, some are saying aloud that when Saul retires, which maybe should be sooner rather than later, David would make a better king than Jonathan would make. In a very personal conversation, Jonathan himself said as much directly to his beloved David.
In time, Saul became insanely jealous of David’s popularity, and he did what was well within his rights as monarch–set out to kill the one whom he perceived to be the competition. David hears about what is going on and is able to make a great getaway, but Saul with his special ops people make David’s life on the run miserable. David found himself frustrated and fearful, far removed from palace comforts and frequently foundering around in caves. Believing as did most of his Hebrew contemporaries that God called all the shots, as we’ve seen painfully played out in Job, David is upset with God for failing to rescue him. In a cave, he complains to God about his plight.

 

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Even in a mess, David evidently had a way with words, and his prayer of complaint and lament to God became poetry recited by others after him and eventually lyrics for a song sung in worship at the great Jerusalem Temple. An introductory note included with Psalm 142 identifies that psalm as a maskil (“a maskil of David when he was in a cave”): “Dang it, God, in the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me. There is no one watching out for me. No one cares about me. I cry to you, O Lord. Save me from these assassins. Have you not heard me play the harp, God?”

If I cannot enhance my wholeness, which is the goal of healthy spirituality, because I am in some sort of negative association with God–whether God is perceived as energy, being, force–then nothing beneficial is going to come as a result of my efforts. Whatever God is and however I am trying to unite myself with the core positive part of the universe God cannot be an antagonistic and threatening force in my mind. Forget an angry god. Forget a punitive God. Forget a capricious God. Forget a God who goes to sleep on the job. Forget a God who causes plane crashes and tsunamis and dreadful diseases and war. I’m serious. For your health, you must forget about a God who is so destructive.

 

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Probably more people wrestle with this issue than any other upheaval. At the moment, worldwide, anybody who cares about human suffering is preoccupied with the missing Malaysian jet. Blamers are blaming God or praising God depending on point of view for the massive suffering and loss. I think it was in a BBC update where I read that in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, a police officer by the name of Hamid Ramlan, told reporters that his daughter and son-in-law had boarded that plane, intending to take some holiday time Beijing. “My wife is crying,” he said. “Everyone is sad. My house has become a place of mourning. This is Allah’s will. We have to accept it.” Allah’s will huh? God willed this disappearance of this plane? Of course not.

 

 

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How crass and uncaring, though, were we to be critical of this sincere man who is beginning to wrestle with what may well become staggering grief. I do point out, though, that he is one, alongside countless likeminded others, who believes and takes comfort in the notion that God caused the tragedy. He, for one, has at this point nothing at all to criticize in a God who’d engineer such an episode. All he can do is brace for the final blow.

Nobody Believes Me! (A Christmas Eve Meditation)

 

Interview with a Shepherd

Or:  “We Were Counting Our Blessings Instead of Sheep…Oops!”

 

We have re-learned in recent years that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas not because Jesus was actually born on that day but because it was already widely used in pagan religious celebrations as the birthday of the sun.  A developing Christianity was, frankly, in competition for adherents with a number of those religious movements so why not have the birthday for the central figure in the Christian movement be born on that day too?

Lacking any specific scriptural pointers to Jesus’ birthday, early Christian teachers suggested days and dates “all over the calendar,” as one scholar put it.  Clement of Alexandria picked November 18.  Hippolytus had no date in mind, but became convinced that Jesus had to have been born on a Wednesday, which works out well for Hippolytus in 2013.  Take your pick; December 25 wasn’t the time.  So when might it have been instead?

I’m no armchair meteorologist, but those in the know tell us that from early May through late September Bethlehem had warm to hot weather with humidity dropping into the 60% range.  This meant that it “felt” hotter than it actually was.  Even without Daylight Savings Time, there were more hours of sunlight in those summer months than in the coming winter time.

In Bethlehem from May to September there was little or no chance of rain except on those rare instances when a brief downpour came on a particularly sweltering day—doing little more than creating a sauna effect. These extremely hot days today are called humsin in Israel, and the dry dusty heat—such as we learned about in the early days of the war in Iraq—can be unbearable.

Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman-established census.  Romans weren’t ridiculous with those over whom they ruled so they wouldn’t have ordered people to travel to their places of birth during winter months when temperatures in and around Bethlehem were typically below freezing with no one to clear the ice off the preferred pathways into the city.

This changes a great deal about the way we have envisioned and sung about the birth event of Jesus, Yeshua.  Unfortunately, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” is one of my favorite Christmas carols.  Oh well.  What a more correct concept of climate in view, let us move ahead.

Nearly everything about the Gospel of Luke’s retelling of the the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, one of only two birth narratives that made it down to us, stresses the starkly humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The angels in the heavens, skies, take note of the birth and break out in joyous musical rejoicing, but on earth no one takes note of the birth of Jesus except a handful of shepherds who get a tip from a lone angel/messenger that someone born to be great had just been birthed not far from where they were tending to the sheep of their employer.

The shepherds were shocked for a number of reasons–most significantly that anybody born who’d be destined for greatness wouldn’t be born anywhere near their pastures. Further, if news needed to be spread that a baby destined for greatness had just been born, the shepherds would have been near the bottom of the notification list.  All the social higher-ups and uppity-ups would be notified first, and then, eventually, the news would circulate, and people at the periphery of society like shepherds and tanners and fishermen would hear third and fourth hand–perhaps from an employer or a customer.

Imagine an interview with a shepherd:  “There we were—counting our blessings instead of sheep, for just a moment–when this dude who said he was God’s messenger walked up to us, out in the middle of no where, telling us that this baby who was going to grow up to live under the anointing of God Godself.  Sure thing, we laughed, and where are we going to find him?  At the Blow On Inn?  He didn’t think we were funny and told us to walk toward town toward a hostel at the edge of the city limits, and in the barn attached to that hotel we’d find a newborn whose parents were using a feed trough for a crib.  He disappeared, and the second he did, the whole sky was lit up by a chorus of angels singing.  All of us on duty that night saw them, but the wildest thing is, no one else did.  And since then, no one we’ve told has believed us.  How could we have made it up?  We took the dare and went and found that little baby just like the messenger had described him.  I’ll never forget it.”

We’ve been thinking during these weeks leading up to Christmas about what makes one a spiritual seeker.  This is one of the traits that should be on the list that defines a spiritual seeker:  nobody believes me when I try to describe what I consider spiritual experiences.  Add that one to being a misfit, having a greater commitment to behavior in contrast with beliefs, and having had the lonely experience of finding yourself in the middle of life crisis for which the theology you have claimed to believe offered you no sense, solace, or support.  The shepherds certainly were seekers.

I sent around an email last night to a few of my grad students past and present, and asked them, “In what language did the angels sing to the shepherds?”  Most ignored me, just like in class, but a few bit and dared an answer.  One of my first grad students, going back about thirty years, instantly texted his response:  “Ebonics.”  Not a bad guess huh?

One of the current students thought and thought and came back with the answer, “Aramaic, the conversational language spoken by Jesus and his contemporaries.”  I liked that one so I looked up a transliterated-into-English version of the Aramaic New Testament, and instead of, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” I found, “Tsbwhta lalha bmrwma.”  As far as the tune to which they sang these words, I feel certain that Handel had to have gotten it right.

We speculate a lot at Christmas; if we didn’t we wouldn’t have much to think about or sing about.  None of the details of Jesus’ birth matter except that actual fact of his birth.  At the end of the season, that’s all that matters anyway.  Jesus was born in a distant land.  Tell the good news.  Tell the good news.  Lived on earth for humanity’s good.  Tell the good news.  Tell the good news.”

Glory to God, and to humanity:  peace.  Amen.