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!?

 

 

When Sharing Means Starving (Third in Series, “Memorable Biblical Meals”)

 

 

 

I.
When there’s just enough food to prepare a modest meal for one and two or more people who need that food to survive, who gets the food?  The dominant person in the handful of would be survivors?  The dominant two in the group who will share what is really only sufficient for one?  Equal division of whatever is left, however meagre, among all who remain?  We’ve already heard an account this morning of a very current and real story about some refugees from Niger sharing from the limited portion of food onto which they are clinging with some nearby refugees from Mali, West Africa.  Caritas International has this brief report about sharing that means starving.  The news brief has a title:  “Niger’s Poor Share Last Food with Malian Refugees.”

 

According to the authorities in Niger, more than 30,000 Malians from the Ménaka area and an estimated 8,000 Niger nationals [who had been] living in Mali have found refuge in Niger since the beginning of the year, fleeing the fighting between government forces and armed groups. In a refugee camp in Mangaize, Caritas Niger provides food and other aid to the refugees. There are more than 3,000 in the camp.

 

Last week we read during our “Response of the People,” a line from acclaimed novelist, Jack London, who said something along the lines of giving a hungry dog a bone isn’t charity unless you’re as hungry as the dog.  London wrote one of the handful of books that captivated my imagination and conscience during my early teen years, Call of the Wild.  Somewhere in our world today, there are those who, if hungry, would hardly worry about a hungry dog at all; they’d eat the dog and call their meal a feast.
If someone is so hungry as to be down to her or his last meal, sharing is gallant, but probably won’t do too much toward the prolonging of life for self or the others with whom food might be shared.  Still, there is something grandly human about someone sharing her or his last meal with someone else who is also starving.
Jesus told the parable of the sheep and the goats–with the sheep representing those who lived according to God’s standards, if you will, and the goats symbolizing those who live for themselves alone as if God and their fellow humans didn’t exist.  The sheep and the goats are grazers and generally have little awareness of what is going on around them.  They, in their respective groups, simply move from one patch of weeds or grass to the next.  Not only are they unaware of what’s going on around them, but also moments of self-revelation and self-understanding escape them.  What I mean is that they have little or no awareness of whether they are sheep or goats.  They just do what they instinctively do.  They, in other words, don’t wake up every morning and bleat, “I am so glad to be a sheep,” or, “I’m so glad to be a goat.”  Not a lot of humans do that either, so don’t look down your noses on the sheep and the goats.  Perhaps the sheep are more passive if a goat wanders over into sheep territory, but not dependably or dramatically.
So, Jesus pictures the end of time symbolically, never literally, and the assignments are being confirmed in regard to who spends eternity in God’s more intimate embrace and those, in stark contrast, who have made decisions in life demonstrating that they wish to have no connection to God in this world or in any world.  The sheep are delighted they are being herded to the world of perpetual grazing while the goats are confused and frustrated–according to the parable–about why they are being herded away from God and into a wasteland where there’s a hardly a thing to chew on for nourishment.
Both have the same questions of Jesus who is overseeing the transition into a new world for each group based on the choices they made in this world.  Doctrine, catechisms, and creeds have nothing at all to do with who goes where; all that counts is how they lived, in their sheepness or their goatness.   The question from both sides is the same, though.  Why are the sheep getting the thumbs up sign, while the goats are getting the thumbs down sign?
Well, Jesus said, “It has noting to do with wool versus coarse body hair.  It has to do with how sheep and goats, who naturally represent human beings in the parable, treated those in need around them.  If you went to see people locked away in darkened jail cells and if you regularly made clothing contributions to Good Will and if you did something to see that the hungry people around you were fed, you were a sheep, and you prepared for your future, without much thinking and planning, by doing these bothersome acts on behalf of those in need.  To the goats, Jesus’ explanation was the opposite:  you grazed and grazed and grazed with no thought of others around you who had inadequate clothing to protect them from the elements, who were justly or unjustly slammed into the stocks of a maximum security prison, and people who were hungry practically every day of their lives you ignored, you were a goat.  Your future will not be in a place where it’s summertime and the grazin’ is easy.
Some from each group wanted to know why what they had done or not done mattered.  This is a summary of what Jesus said to some of the goats:

 

“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then [the goats] will ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?”  Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not care for any one of the least of these, you did not care for me.”

 
Some of those sheep to whom Jesus spoke in what was probably a parable based on a vision had undoubtedly shared with other sheep and maybe a goat or two the last few inches of their grazing space, after which there was no known food for any of them.
It was stunning to hear Jesus say that every hungry person you either fed or ignored represented all others who were hungry, and he himself in some kind of way represented each of those needy people so when someone fed the hungry they were feeding Jesus, and when someone left a prisoner to rot away in prison, not only the prisoner herself or himself but also Jesus in a way was the left and forgotten behind bars.
With no more explanation than that, Jesus, as usual, abruptly ended his parable leaving his hearers to ponder whether they goats or sheep.  Did they take any time to show any interest in the well-being of the hungry, those without clothing, and those in jail?  If they had routinely ignored these kinds of people, they were goats; it was way too late to start acting like a sheep.

II.
Robert Bulwer Lytton:

 

We may live without poetry, music and art.
We may live without conscience and live without heart.

We may live without friends; we may live without books.
But civilized folk cannot live without cooks.

They may live without books, what is knowledge but grieving?
They may live without hope, what is hope but deceiving?

They may live without love, what is passion but pining?
But where is the one who can live without dining?

Here’s a stunning thought to keep in your consciousness, and those faithful few in our church family who feed the hungry monthly at Emmanuel Dining Room a meal that has been prepared mostly if not exclusively by Marie Neal reveal that they are living out a significant theological claim according to Mahatma Gandhi.  Remember this simple sentence:  “God comes to the hungry in the form of food.”  M. F. K. Fisher (Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher, the most pivotal food writer in the twentieth century, so I’ve been told) hits the same nerve with her insight:  “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.”
Fran Lebowitz reminds us that food is an important part of a balanced diet.  And the late Erma Bombeck, one of those people who couldn’t help being funny, once remarked or wrote:  “Never order food in excess of your body weight.”
Years ago when our sons were tykes, Lindon and I had them in the French Quarter on a Saturday morning, as usual, before the tourists raised themselves from their raucous activities of the night before and flooded diners and cafes to ingest as much coffee as possible in as quiet an atmosphere as possible.  For some reason, we’d chosen an outdoor cafe rather than our usual haunt, and one of the Jackson Square clowns who was gearing up for a day of forming balloons into all types of requested shapes while spitting out a one-liner here and there happened to walk by our table while he was trying out a new hopefully hilarious line.
Other clowns along with the artists who were permanent fixtures at their respective places in the French Quarter were supposed to give thumbs up or thumbs down to the new joke; this was also a way of letting other would be funny types know that the joke was already owned.  I remember this vividly and chillingly a quarter of a century after the fact.  Said the clown, his face all made up to hide his true identity, “I have a solution to our social problem here in New Orleans:  let the hungry eat the homeless.”
Everyone in his hearing froze.  No one laughed.  No one spoke.  We all just stared at him, and innocents like our sons, then five-ish and three-ish, were horrified.  The clown paid no attention to the resounding rejection tossed his way in response to his cruel, pathetic attempt at humor.  Did he take the hint?  Not at all.  We stayed a while longer that morning than we usually did, and the Saturday morning crowds began to ease in.  Several times while making a dog shaped balloon or the shape of something else from a balloon–remember, this was the French Quarter–he used his quip to unsuspecting tourists who thought the only reason to be in the Quarter was have fun and spend lots of money doing so.  “The answer to our social problem in New Orleans is simple.  Let the hungry eat the homeless.”
A few laughed a bit until what they’d heard sank in; then they went stone faced, and some walked away from the creation they’d ordered from the clown who, by the way, appeared to be quite a young man.  After having driven away most of early customers, I went over to him–much to the humiliation of my now ex-wife–and I said to the clown, “Hey, Pal, why don’t you find someone to poke fun of other than people who are suffering?”
He told me with a clever collection of expletives to butt out, and then he said, “I’d make a balloon in your likeness to take home so you can remember me, but they don’t make balloons that large except for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”  Zing!  That was the day I gave up talking to clowns.
I had a hard time finding Lindon and the boys.  She’d taken them into hiding behind some column in the square.  Walking around in circles a couple of times in search of my clan, the clown couldn’t help but see me again, and he yelled out, “Hey, Mr. Bleeding Heart.  I can say whatever I want about the hungry and the homeless.  I’m hungry, and I’m homeless.  Do you have any better solutions than for me to laugh through the absurdity and the pain?  The makeup covers my humiliation, but that’s all it does.”
I can’t tell you how bad I felt even though I didn’t think he should be yelling out his would-be joke.  I walked back over to him and said, “I’m sorry about the plight you’re in, and I’m sorry I made any comment at all about how you choose to deal with your struggles. I can’t make a dent in your situation, but my church will provide a clean, safe place to sleep for a couple of weeks and decent food during that same time.  Maybe an alternative will pop up with a a little time not to have to worry about where you’ll sleep or where you’ll find food to get through the day.”
“Oh my God,” he said, “this is funnier than any of my jokes–a priest, a man of God, with a wife–I guess she’s a wife–and kids–I guess they’re his–offering me a place off the streets for two weeks and a supply of worry-free food for the same two whole weeks.  Wow!  What then, Father?  Are you going to be the one to come and tell me it’s time to get out of my safe sleeping space and that food once again will be for me catch as catch can.  Will you have the guts to do that?  Or will you send the nuns to spring the bad news in your sorry behalf?”
“I wish I could do better.  I wish I could offer more, but this is all I can do for now.”
“No, Father, it’s not,” he said, “let me stay at your house and eat your food with you and your family.  Then I’ll believe you give a damn.  Otherwise, leave me the hell alone, and get busy feeding the homeless to the hungry!”
Paul Roberts first wrote a book he titled The End of Oil.  He followed it by book published under the title The End of Food in which he wrote about we first world types “make, market, and consume food, which leaves too many people fat and too many others starving.”

III.
Elijah was the greatest of the prophets in all of ancient Israel.  Once he was on his own in the ministry, Elisha went to a little city or town called Zarephath.  Upon his arrival, he happened to see a widow gathering firewood, and though he didn’t know her he asked her for a drink of water.  When she stopped what she was doing to get the prophet his water, he added, “While you’re getting the water please bring me a piece of bread.  I’m hungry as well as thirsty.”
If that sounds a little presumptuous on the part of a stranger, we have to remember the prevailing standards of hospitality among ancient Hebrews, which made asking such favors and granting them perfectly alright.  Her response, however, stunned prophet.  She blurted out despairingly,  “By the living LORD your God I swear that I don’t have any bread.  All I have is a handful of flour in a bowl and a bit of olive oil in a jar.  I came here to gather some firewood to take back home and prepare what little I have for my son and me.  That will be our last meal, and then we will starve to death.”
Without ministering to her pain, had he not heard that she was about to prepare the last pitiful meal she’d ever prepare before death through starvation took both of them, Elisha (who’d skipped pastoral care courses in seminary) said, “Don’t worry about it, lady.” Don’t worry about it.  This guy had to be nuts.  How could she not be worried?  Who could have avoided worry in such circumstances?
Stoking her suspicions that he was a nut case in clergy frock, not that nutty clergy are or ever have been in short supply, he doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous what he is saying sounds to her.  This is what he said, though, “Go on and prepare your meal.  But first make a small loaf from what you have and bring it to me, and then prepare the rest for you and your son.  For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says; ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil before the day that I, the LORD, send rain.’”
At this early point in the story, we have learned at least three important lessons:  1) to be very careful about which clergypersons you trust; 2) that the widow and her son were at the point of starvation because there was an unrelenting drought in their land, not because God was punishing them; and 3) that God was already in the process of restoring the land to pre-drought conditions.  Until then, food items could not grow, and livestock could not be kept alive.  Even so, the widow took a chance that the preacher and his directive were legit, and what really did she have to lose anyway?
Well, the woman was willing to share even though sharing for her would speed up immanent starvation for her and her son.  That’s some serious kind of sharing, don’t you think?  What the prophet had promised her could easily have failed to come to pass.  Then he would have slickly swindled the widow and her son out of a third of all they had to eat in the world by claiming that God said he should have the first of the three wheat-cakes she cooked.   In this case, though, God rewarded the widow’s generosity, so the story goes, and the first time she realized it was when the flour bowl and jar of oil that had been empty the night before were full and ready to become breakfast the next morning.  That phenomenon continued until the rains began, and the crops grew.  Then she and her son could grow and purchase the food supplies they needed to remain well fed.
Lessons from this food story in Hebrew scripture at the end of the poignant, edgy tale.
Natural disasters are a part of human experience, and even those who consider themselves closely related to God are not exempt from the effects of such disasters.

1) God does not cause or allow natural disasters; neither does God take away nature’s own self-healing capacities.
2) Prophets should be required to take pastoral care courses in seminary.
3) People with little or no financial resources before a natural disaster hits will be in even more vulnerable places once the effects of the disaster begin to be felt throughout the affected community.
4) Sharing by those with next to nothing may be rare, but not unheard of.
5) Finally, when a meal is served and a clergyperson is present, the clergyperson eats first.  Amen.