Kids: Tomorrow’s Energy Core

I.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

II.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

III.

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

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

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

 

Kids!

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

Kids!

Who can understand anything they say?

Kids!

They a disobedient, disrespectful oafs!

Noisy, crazy, dirty, lazy, loafers!

While we’re on the subject:

Kids!

You can talk and talk till your face is blue!

Kids!

But they still just do what they want to do!

Why can’t they be like we were,

Perfect in every way?

 

 

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Hilarious!

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

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

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

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

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

I.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Professor G. Wade Rowatt, Ph.D.

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

II.

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

III.

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

 

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

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation

I hear the sweet though far off hymn

That hails a new creation:

 

Through all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

E’vn though the tempest round me roars

I know the truth it liveth

E’vn though the darkness round me close

Songs in the night it giveth

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that rock I’m clinging.

Since Love is lord of heaven and earth

How can I keep from singing?

 

Some related readings from our Gathering today:

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

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

3) From Fred Pratt Green:

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

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

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

“I’m a Misfit!” (First sermon in a five-sermon series for the Season of Expectation aka Advent: Signs that You Are (or Should Be!) a Seeker)

I.

As much as many human groups prize conformity, we realize with only a tiny bit of reflection that the world would never have progressed to any great degree without misfits.  Had every one remained a status quo type, nothing could have changed.  Knowing that, however, typically doesn’t make a misfit popular or welcome.  A spiritual community in which most everyone is a misfit might be an exception to that pattern.  Regardless, let me be quick to point out that there is often a heavy price to pay for being a misfit in groups that fear nonconformity.

Jonathan Merritt is a young and very successful writer of books and blogs.  His blog is called “On Faith and Culture,” and on 9/11 of this year he published a piece on a misfit pastor.  Imagine how hard it would be to find one of those!  Where in the world would you look?!?

If any of you thinks I’m an alien, you need to get acquainted with the Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She’s the author of a wildly popular book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.  She founded a congregation in Denver, which was named House for All Sinners and Saints; it’s an Evangelical Lutheran church, and an increasing number of people out there are drawn to it.  This is something for our Growth Committee to keep in mind!

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The Reverend Bolz-Weber has tattoos all over and makes no effort to hide them.  She cusses when she pleases even when her congregants are in earshot.  In the blog post to which I have referred, Merritt shared an interview he did with this pretty amazing woman.  One exchange went as follows.

Merritt:  You’re something of a misfit pastor, and you seem to embrace this identity.  In your book, you talk about your unusual call to ministry.  Can you tell us about this?

Bolz-Weber:  I left the fundamentalist Christianity of my youth when I was a teenager and spent a decade outside of the church quite literally hating Christianity. When I returned to it, I came back to a very particular tradition that had an articulation of the gospel and a liturgical tradition that put language to things I had already experienced to be true in my life. So, despite the fact that in some ways I’d rather be something besides a Christian, I cannot deny the experiences in my life of a surprising and unexpected and destabilizing God.  To not confess that would be to deny what I’ve experienced in my life.  So I have no other choice.

Pondering my sermon subject during the week, I found myself humming over and over again a song that was majorly popular when I was barely into my teens.  It was a solo release by Cass Elliot who was part of the group Mamas and Papas; these were the words of the refrain:

You gotta make your own kind of music
Sing your own special song
Make your own kind of music
Even if nobody else sings along

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Thoreau certainly made his own kind of music.  He knew it.  He thought about it and wrote about it.  This snippet from Thoreau hung in poster form on the wall of one of my college professors:

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If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

There’s a spiritual short-short-short story by Shams-e Tabrizi.  I have no idea who the narrator is supposed to be, but we get the point.

I have been a misfit since childhood. I knew that no one understood me, not even my father.  He once said, “You are not a madman, fit to be put in a madhouse, nor are you monk to be put in a monastery. I just don’t know what you are!” I replied: “You know, father, I can tell you what it is like. Once a duck egg was put under a hen to be hatched. When the egg hatched, the duckling walked along with the mother hen until they came to a pond. The duckling took a nice dip in the water. But the hen stayed on the bank and clucked.”  Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea I find it my home. If you choose to stay on the shore, is it my fault? I am not to be blamed.

II.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were misfits—though John was a PK (preacher’s kid) and more predictably became a misfit!   John, Jesus’ second cousin, was a little older and had gotten into the ministry biz before Jesus realized his commitments would take him in the same direction.  Initially, John was Jesus’ mentor, and Jesus springboards into ministerial service on John’s teachings and his example—though Jesus’ ministry would take him in a significantly different milieu.

Jesus still held onto his carpentry skills for money to live on, but John had rejected what he thought was corrupt society and had moved out into the wilderness to join a group of spiritual seekers who were convinced that they could never be the people God wanted them to be as long as they lived in the middle of societies bound by self-centered standards and not by God’s radical call to be light in the world’s darkness.  Therefore, John joined an escapist—I think that’s a fair description—religio-political party within Judaism called the Essenes, and he lived with this community out in the wilderness depending on nature alone to provide for his needs.  His monastic community’s shelter was carved out of a cave.  His clothing was made from shorn camel’s hair, and his food, distinctive wilderness delicacies:  sun-dried locusts and fresh-out-of-the-hive honey.  There has been some disappointing research lately trying to prove that John didn’t eat insects—one of the reasons I’ve always thought John was so cool—but rather that the word often translated as “locusts” actually refers to carob-like plants.  Oh well.  Believe what you will, but John wasn’t going to be dependent on a city-based market to get access to what he needed to be nourished.

Jesus was a standout disciple in John’s band of followers, and the day came when John knew that Jesus had to leave the wilderness-nest and take up his own ministry that would reverse what John personally had done.  John left big city pressures and corruption, as I’ve said; people who wanted to hear him preach had to go out into the wilderness to do so, and if they were sufficiently committed to John’s radical ethics as made known in his fiery sermons, they would be baptized right there in a part of the Jordan River that ran into the wilderness area near where John and his brother-Essenes lived.

The time came when Jesus needed an introduction, and the person who decided to introduce him was his rabbi, his mentor, his second-cousin, John the Baptizer.  John preached to various collections of Jewish city folk who had come to hear him and, having been deeply convicted by the truth of what he said, more than a few renounced their attachment to Pharisaism and Sadducaism, for example.  As a sign of their new turn in life, they chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan River and to give their lives to the model of spirituality that John’s sermons demanded.

His converts, we could call them, realized as they heard John preach that, indeed, religious rules would not make them or keep them rightly connected to God or to human beings.  They had to admit in great discomfort that the ways they had seen themselves and portrayed themselves as superior to others, other Jews included, showed how small and small-minded they really were.  In their baptismal moments they agreed to serve from that point forward all those they’d heretofore given their lives to treating with angry disgust because they believed themselves to be so much better than anyone who didn’t do religion the way they did.

These converts to John’s take on living in such a way as to honor God must eventually have said to their Baptizer, “We leave you now, Preacher, for we must get on with the business of serving, but we will always honor you and know it was you who saved us from being swallowed up by lifeless religious rules.”  John said in response to their pledges of devotion to what he was about, “Hold on here, gents!  I baptized you with water for repentance, but one who is more spiritually grounded and gifted than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

John believed that Jesus “got it” even more profoundly than he did; thus, the real guy to go to henceforth was not John but John’s disciple, Jesus, who was so spiritually mature that John regarded himself unworthy, spiritually speaking, to be Jesus’ slave.  It would have been a slave’s job to carry her or his master’s dirty, dusty shoes.  Thus, because of a misfit, the adult Jesus—Rabbi Jesus, Minister Jesus, Misfit Jesus—was introduced to the world.

III.

Are you, or should you be, a seeker?  Many of us at Silverside Church consider ourselves seekers.  “Seeker” isn’t a code word for anything; there’s nothing formal about it.  The word “seeker” simply means that many of us refuse to believe that the end of all truth is anywhere in the past.  Having agreed on that, we couldn’t agree on hardly any point of theology even if you tied us in chairs and made us watch endless broadcasts of televangelists until we agreed to subscribe to a creed.  We’d be watching Franklin Graham until the cows came home.

Many of the folks in this same core group of misfits, frankly, don’t find theological reflection all that meaningful; nor do they believe that their spirituality must grow out of biblical teachings or theological formulations.  There have been plenty of prospective members here through the years who are very unhappy with all the organized religion of which they have tasted but who are afraid to let go completely of the beliefs and behaviors they once thought made them right with God and, perhaps, “saved” them.  Someone who keeps one foot in any established organized religion evidently believes that she or he will always have a safety net in case assurances of heaven are needed.

Silverside misfits are free-fallers.  They have no theological or ecclesiastical safety nets. They have no need to conform to what other religious folk think of the pathway they have chosen to travel.  Since I’m just an old-fashioned Bible preacher, I don’t know how I’ve survived here for 13-plus years!  (ha! ha!)

Seriously though folks…

There’s are prices to pay for demanding spiritual fresh air.  One of those prices is being a misfit and being willing to be regarded as a misfit by those who know you best.  I won’t say it is impossible to make this happen, but pretending to be a conservative or a traditionalist while being in the closet as a progressive is infrequent.  Some clergypersons do so to get a pay check.  How suffocating that must be.  I feel so bad for my clergy sisters and brothers who believe this is what they must do for survival.  And who knew that Mother Teresa, at least early in her life before she became a gold mine because so many people admired her work, sincerely served the poor, but only went through the motions of being a faith-based nun—not that she could help it.  I do not say that to be critical of her.
Some of you, I’m sure, have read excerpts from her diaries showing that from the time she began her work with the poor in 1946 through the moment she died in 1977 she felt absolutely no connection to God.  Listen to her words penned in writhing:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

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If someone at Silverside felt that way, she or he would say so—not that Mother Teresa kept her doubts a complete secret.  Her admirers and benefactors around the world didn’t know, but as Adam Lee points out, “The church assigned a long series of priests and bishops to act as her confessors, trying to help her recover her faith, but all of them ultimately met with failure.”  How sad for her.  How lonely.

Speaking of loneliness, misfits can easily find themselves without community, and few of us do well without community.  At Silverside, we have tried to connect without other groups, but nothing been lasting for us in that regard for the last several years.  I may have found us a solution though.  There’s a group, and I don’t know how I missed knowing about them, called “The Wild Goose Chase.”  They have an online presence, and they meet every summer down in Hot Springs, North Carolina, for their communal boost.  This coming summer, the conclave will be held June 26-29, and I’m thinking I’ll be scheduling a week off then so that I can attend.

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One of the participants describes the Wild Goose Festival as a progressive “Christian gathering centering on spirituality, justice, and art….The people the Wild Goose Festival attracts are from a very diverse range of spiritual heritages—many of us are recovering fundamentalists, along with a mix of mainliners, evangelicals, agnostics, neo-pagan-christians, `nones,’ spiritual-but-not-religious, confused, and everything in between.”  Misfits who need misfits are the luckiest misfits in the world.

At this time of year, as we anticipate our rather non-traditional way of celebrating or commemorating the birth of Jesus from Nazareth, we should incorporate into our reflections the vital role of a serious misfit who got Jesus started in a ministry that would change the world—John the Baptist.  John modeled for Jesus the life of a spiritual misfit.

If you know that you’re a misfit spiritually speaking and you can embrace it, giving up the need to conform to any religious group’s theological expectations of you, then you’re probably a seeker.  Come on in!  The water’s fine…and I don’t mean in the baptistry!

Amen.

Be Happy. Cultivate Optimism!

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I.

Someone has said, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  One of things we realists watch out for are cliches, maxims, and moralisms that reduce the challenges to near nothingness.  I don’t know of anyone who has lived more than a few years without knowing something about pain in living; maybe a few of us get to skip over those impossible decisions that MUST be made, but not a lot of us.  The worst thing in trying to deal with a real challenge is to trivialize it—or worse, in my mind, to have someone offer us free advice that suggests, bottom line, that we trivialize whatever threatens our loved ones or us.

Some of the worst of those efforts to trivialize that I’ve heard include these.  “Well, you have to take the good with the bad.”   “We all have our crosses to bear.”  “Too blessed to be depressed.”  “God doesn’t give us anything we are unable to handle.”  “Every cloud has a silver lining.”  Then there is my maternal grandmother’s favorite line since she thought that no one had ever endured pain the way she had, “That’s nothing.  You don’t know what real pain is.  Let me tell about it.”

Back to where I began, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.”  This one I like.  Optimism has something to do with making the most of what we have to work with, believing that the worst case scenario doesn’t have to be the one that will win out.

There are those who set out to do something good, even noble, and because their cause is clearly a good cause they somehow believe that God or the Universe will bless their efforts and, more or less, guarantee their success.  Yet, sometimes—even with divine blessing or the smile of the Universe—our good cause falls flat.  Optimism has something to do with enjoying the journey, blessing ourselves for our efforts regardless of outcome, refusing to let negativity block the little rays of light and hope.  I like what Vera Nazarian said on the subject:

People who are too optimistic seem annoying. This is an unfortunate misinterpretation of what an optimist really is.  An optimist is neither naive, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited. As such, an optimist always sees the big picture. How else to keep track of all that’s out there? An optimist is simply a proactive realist.

There’s a website called  “OptimistWorld.com” that I like a lot.  In fact, after years of complaining that most of the reported news in our culture is either terror or tabloid, I found OptimistWorld.  It is now the site that opens up when I click on my default browser.  If I do my internet searches through OptimistWorld there are benefactors who make contributions to charities just because I initiate my searches there.  But, that’s only one benefit for me.  I love the fact that news showing up on my screen is good news.  Yesterday, one of the lead stories had to do with the fact that scientists using human cells may have found a cure for many kinds of baldness.  Now, you may think that news is rather thin, but there’s more!  Cardiac surgeons have developed a new, less-invasive technology used to treat heart failure.  Volunteering can improve one’s mental health, and helping others may help some helpers live longer.  Admittedly, there were no stories about war or politics, but there are optimistic stories from the world of sports.

The site tells me which TV shows to watch if I want a dose of optimism.  And the website’s slogan is “100% Recycled Negativity.”

A retried ophthalmologist, Dr. David Abbott, now spends his time trying to correct the inner blindness that he calls “negativity.”    He is author of the book, Maximum Strength Positive Thinking.  This is what he says about the inner blindness of negativity:

Negative thinking is the most powerful poison in the world.  It’s the only poison I can give to my family, friends, and enemies without legal consequences.  Thought poison destroys them just as effectively as dioxin, DDT, or strychnine.  Unrestrained negative thinking will also destroy my life.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.  I don’t tolerate it in any form or to any degree.  I don’t say it, think it, write it, infer it, or agree with it.  It’s always wrong and never right.  It always makes my life worse and never makes it better….Drinking poison, handling cobras, and negative thinking are bad for my health, and I don’t partake of them.  I have zero tolerance to negative thinking.

There’s a story about an avid duck hunter whose old, faithful bird dog had to be retired, so the hunter found himself in the market for a new dog.  He was amazed to find the dog that had to be his!  This dog did not swim out into lakes and streams to retrieve ducks that had been shot in flight; instead, this dog walked on water.  The hunter bought the dog and couldn’t wait to put him to work.  He knew his friends wouldn’t believe any stories he might tell about a dog that walked on water so he invited one of them, the most pessimistic one in his group of friends, with him on his initial hunt as soon as season opened.  Sure enough, when the dog’s owner would shoot a duck and it would fall to the water beneath it, his dog—at most getting his paws wet—would walk across the water and retrieve the duck that would soon be someone’s dinner.  The friend whom he had brought along obviously saw what the dog was doing, but said not one word about it the whole day. Finally, on the way home, the man who owned the amazing bird dog asked his friend, “Did you notice anything unusual about my new dog?”

“Sure did,” said the friend.

“What was it?” the owner asked boastingly.

“Your dog can’t swim.”

II.

Today is Reformation Sunday. After the split with Roman Catholicism was complete and Protestantism its own entity Protestant churches began to remember every year the courage of Martin Luther in standing up to the immoral church hierarchy of his day, and the day chosen for the commemoration was the anniversary of Luther’s nailing to the castle church door in Wittenberg his laundry list of topics about which he wanted to debate the Pope himself!  This would be roughly equivalent to a priest in our time making out a long list grievances he had with the Vatican and posting them on Facebook.  It was a gutsy step to take.

Let me be quick to say, by the way, that when Protestant churches grew sufficiently to have their own hierarchies, they ended up doing exactly the kind of things that Luther protested against when unwittingly he started the Protestant movement.  Abuse of power is not the private possession of any one religious group.

Luther had to have been an unbridled optimist, despite some personality characteristics that would call that into question. Patrick Ferry, the Lutheran historian, believes that Luther’s optimism was related to his confidence in the power of preaching to convey his ideals to the common person; Luther wasn’t so much worried about the literate person or the well-to-do person.

In a sermon preached on November 25, 1531, Luther acknowledged that from all outward appearances preaching seemed rather insignificant. However, he argued that, in fact, all else was insignificant in comparison to the preaching of God’s word. He proclaimed: “In the eyes of reason the preaching of the divine Word is unimpressive next to kings and princes. But what are princes or emperor, yes, the entire world, heaven, earth, and all creatures compared with the Word? They are dirt.”

He had to have believed that something better could come about as a result of the tremendous risks he took in challenging the powerful church hierarchy of his day. Some people in those days who challenged the Pope, we’re talking certain geographical areas, could end up dead for such an affront. A priest who was drawing his income from the church, in as much as those who take vows of poverty receive funds, could be left out on the street literally with nothing. And in some areas a priest on the run from a monastery, or for that matter a nun on the run from a convent, could be legally killed and the killer congratulated.  Not many people are going to die willingly for a cause the expenditure of their lives could not improve.

You might well imagine that the mighty and powerful Pope, Pope Leo X, might have wondered if there were a speck of truth in in what Luther spoke. But like most people in power he justified all the means toward the end of keeping the church wealthy and the hierarchy unbothered by the rank-and-file church member.

It is interesting that Luther as a priest himself and a professor in a major university was so cloistered away that he did not realize the corruption of his own church until he made his pilgrimage to Rome and saw with his own eyes the abuses of the church–using all sorts of guilt tactics and superstition to milk money out of the people; eventually, out and out fear tactics would be used by those assigned by the church hierarchy to preach about the necessity of purchasing indulgences to avoid going to hell for eternity and, of more concern to some, keeping the souls of their loved ones already in purgatory from slipping on into the fires of hell.  Luther was, in a word, mortified.

The abuses of the very people whom the church existed to serve distressed Luther to the point that he could not rest. And so he took the risks as I’ve described them and openly challenged the Pope to answer for presiding over a church existing at the basest level to which he, Luther, believed the church could possibly have fallen.

Again I say, to have believed that anything anything good at all could have come from his challenge to such a powerful and paranoid hierarchy demonstrated that Luther was an optimist. He refused to believe that a church that had so much good and so much more potential good could die, the victim of self-inflicted wounds numbing the pain with the anesthesia of absolute power.

Eventually, Martin Luther realized that the church as it was, was too corrupt to be redeemed.  The church and the Pope were hindrances to the future he saw for God’s people.  Said Luther, “The Church needs a reformation. And this cannot be the work either of a single man, as the pope—but it must be that of the whole world!”

There IS a better way, Luther reasoned.  And there has to be a better day.

Anybody who doesn’t see that the church in the twenty-first century is in desperate need of reform is either an ostrich or a comfortable clergy type who wants things to stay as they are, with all the dollars flowing her or his way just as they are now.  If my read on the current Pope is anywhere close to accurate, I sense that he believes his own end of the Christendom—which is the largest and most influential in the world—is in need of reform and that he is unafraid of the fallout.

We already see that the pattern of dividing Christians up into little pockets of denominational groups strewn here and there across the world no longer works; maybe it worked to a degree for a while, but even so it is clearly not working now.  Denominations are dying.  This is one cry for modern reformation, but only one.

Here’s another.  When any branch of the church that presumes or pretends to exist as an extension of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth can act violently, professing the name of Jesus as they maim and mutilate, something is beyond wrong.  Most recently, and right in our faces, the Islamic Society of Delaware had its sacred space defaced by some group who saw themselves as some kind of representatives of Christianity and therefore took some of the debris the resulted from their destructive acts and pieced it together in the form of the cross—for good or ill, the primary, unmistakable symbol for Christianity.

I don’t see how anyone entrenched in such negativity can be optimistic about anything, much less about how their brand of so-called Christianity can endure.  Sadly, anyone who doesn’t understand that there are many different kinds of Christians in the world—and that would be a huge number of people scattered across the globe—thinks we are all the same.  The optimism I have for the future of the church rests entirely in reformation; the church of the future shouldn’t and shouldn’t want to look like the church of the past, even when parts of the church of the past were doing well.

Carey Nieuwhof is a professional dreamer, and he dreams about what the church of the future will look like.  Wanna peak at some of his dreams?  The church of the future has learned to say no to people and groups glued to way things once were.  The church of the future is passionate about people outside their walls and will establish a pattern of reaching out to people on the basis of what we can do FOR them, not what we may be able to get FROM them; it will be streamlined and flexible.  The church of the future will be more comfortable embracing smaller congregations than the church of today is; mega-churches, some of them, will still be around in the years to come, but most of us will not participate in huge congregations.  The church of the future will learn, hopefully not the hard way, to value cyber relationships and to treat online contacts as real people, significant people.  The church of the future will be less afraid of questions, and it will embrace experimentation as the needs of people change more rapidly today than ever before.

III.

There are two instances of amazing optimism in Judeo-Christian scriptures that come to mind today.  I’m sure there are many more, but these two stand out for me today.

The first is the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child together when she was 90ish, and he was tapping on 100.  No adoptions.  No surrogate.  No viagra.  Both of them laugh, separated from each other, when they hear that God has said Sarah will be impregnated by Abraham.  Frederick Buechner, years ago, in retelling this story as an example of comedy in the Bible, made the crack that Sarah delivers in the geriatric ward, and Medicare picks up the tab.  Laugher or not, along came little Isaac.

The second instance is from the final book of Christian scripture as it was ultimately collected and ordered, the book of Revelation.  The abuse of this book has made more crazy preachers rich than any other piece of holy writ in any of the religions of the world.  Alas, there is nothing fanatical about this astounding book of symbols; finally, it is a book of hope.

The book of Revelation doesn’t pretend that people and nations go unscathed by evil; it doesn’t pretend that innocent people avoid suffering through absolutely no fault of their own. The seer who had the visions that make up the episodes in the book—or the scenes in a great play, as my beloved and late Christian scripture professor James Blevins believed—saw, after much strife, that evil ultimately loses out.  Good wins, but it takes a complete restoration and reordering of things to make that work.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the dwelling place of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be a thing of the past;  mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away permanently.”  And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” The one on the throne also said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.  It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

Don’t worry.  Cultivate optimism!  How?  Maria Shriver evidently is quite the optimist, and she has a number of suggestions about how to cultivate optimism.  Among them are looking for solutions rather problems; acknowledging any movement, however small, toward your goals; and minimizing distractions that keep you from focusing on your happiness or on some specific goal.  I have to tell you.  Nothing saps my optimism more quickly than negativity, about which we thought earlier, and naysayers.  I’m going to have to contact Maria to find out how to get over those hurdles.

Maybe geography has something to do with optimism.  Did you see the list that just came out of the five happiest places to live in the world?  Did you ever wonder why Else is so happy, other than because of Bob?  Well, three of the five happiest places are in Scandinavia—one from each of the three Kingdoms there.  (I’m intentionally excluding Finland and Iceland, as several cultural geographers do.)   Aarhus, Denmark.  Oslo, Norway.  Malmo, Sweden. Geneva, Switzerland.  And Utrecht, the Netherlands.  The Americas—not so much.

I don’t think I’ve ever made a good decision or felt good about life when I allowed myself to remain at a place of pessimism.  How about you?

Deborah: The Wisdom of Woman (sermon three in series, “Lessons from Political Leaders in the Bible”)

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I.
     There are two companion reasons that women have not served as frequently as men in positions of political leadership throughout history.  Of course, in some places women have served just as consistently as men, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Those two companion reasons that women have not served are:  1) that men dominating societies liked running things and made conscious choices about how to keep women from serving in the positions men wanted to keep; and 2) the persistent assumption that women were/are morally inferior to men.
    The idea that women are by nature morally inferior to men goes back to the horrible branding of all women by the behavior of Eve in the Garden of Eden where she apparently was the first to eat of the forbidden fruit. Anti-women’s groups have certainly gotten their mileage out of dear ole Eve. We all know with a little bit of careful reading in Genesis 3 that what Eve did was no worse than what Adam and the Serpent did. Therefore, Eve is no more dastardly than Adam or the serpent.
     Much has been written and spoken about the superior gender: male or female.  In several areas of life some women have demonstrated prowess over male counterparts. Politics may be one of those areas. The following are ten of the most successful women political figures, past and present. No man could do or could have done a better job in the context.  

  1. Sixty-seventh US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  Some see Secretary Clinton as the epitome of triumph in the face of adversity. Although her presidential run against President Obama was unsuccessful, she achieved a high-ranking appointment in his cabinet. While she might have been the butt of a few bad jokes during her husband’s presidency, who’s laughing now?
  2. Governor Sarah Palin, proof that I didn’t create this list.  She was the youngest person and the first woman elected Governor of Alaska, Palin served there from 2006 until her odd and oddly timed resignation in 2009.  Four years ago, we knew her as the wildly popular vice-presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
  3. Margaret Thatcher holds the record for being the longest serving Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the twentieth century. Thatcher is also known for building a strong relationship between her country and the United States through President Reagan, for increasing home ownership, and reducing the government’s role in business.  She was forced to resign in 1990 after instituting some very unpopular taxes.  (I did several internet searches and couldn’t find any hits, not even one, for “popular” taxes.)
  4. Indira Gandhi fought her way up the political ladder and became Prime Minister of India in 1966, making her the first woman leader of a democracy in the world. Gandhi served as Prime Minister until 1977 and was reelected to the same position in 1980. Although her own bodyguards assassinated her in 1984, her importance to India and to clarifying the importance of women in politics will live on.
  5. Personal friend of Judge Stapleton, Sandra Day O’Connor worked as an attorney for many years before becoming the first female Supreme Court justice. She was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1981 by President Reagan.  She retired from the Supreme Court in 2005 for several reasons, perhaps the most pressing one being to care for her ailing husband.
  6. Angela Merkel is the first woman to serve as and the current Chancellor of Germany; she’s the first woman leader of Germany since it became a modern nation-state in 1871. Forbes Magazine sees her as the most powerful woman in the world. 
  7. Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt from 55 to 48 BCE, Cleopatra was the last ruler of the Macedonian Dynasty. She tried to enlist the help of Julius Caesar while trying to keep Egypt free and eventually bore him a son.  She won the protection of Rome through an affair with Mark Anthony, having three children with him. Cleopatra was a highly educated woman who studied philosophy and international relations and was well ahead of her time.
  8. Queen Elizabeth I. Queen of England from 1558 to 1603.  Her rule was characterized by acts of tolerance and government reforms.  Like Cleopatra, Elizabeth I was highly educated, and she turned her court into a great center of learning. Elizabeth remained single for life, although she was constantly under pressure to marry to form political alliances. Elizabeth is famous for defeating the invading Spanish Armada in 1588 but also for the long wars during her 45 year reign, now referred to as the “Elizabethan Age.”
  9. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1978. Becoming Prime Minister of Israel in the late 1960s was a real political feat for a female at that time. Known for being powerful and tough.  Meir retired from politics when her Labor Party fell from power as a result of the Yom Kippur War.
  10. Susan B. Anthony was an activist her whole life, fighting for equal rights for everyone. She worked to abolish slavery, reform education, and to gain for women the right to vote. She was the first woman ever to vote in a presidential election in 1872, even though she did so illegally and was arrested for her vote. Anthony continued to work tirelessly for women’s rights until her death in 1906.  If not for her work, women most assuredly would not have achieved the right to vote in 1920.

II.
     The “judges” in ancient Israel were powerful leaders in the days before the monarchy–that is, before the days of Israel’s first king, King Saul.  These leaders usually acquired their political positions after they led Israeli troops to be successful in battle.
     The first such judge, Othniel, set the pattern: the oppressed Hebrews cried out to God, and the spirit of God came Othniel who judged Israel’s concerns as worthy and then himself went out with the troops to battle.  The Hebrews believed their win was God’s doing so they praises God and got Othniel a contract.  
     We don’t know how Deborah rose to power–through a similar incident or strictly because of her wise judgments.  In the book of Judges, there’s a story of Deborah and a song of Deborah placed side by side.  In the song, Deborah describes total breakdown of order in Israel. Travelers had to go around Hebrew territory to avoid danger; in those days there was no rescue, someone sings, “Until I arose, Deborah, until I arose, a mother in Israel” (Judges 5:7).  Somehow Deborah brought order back to Israel.  How this happened, again, neither the song nor the story tell us.
     One day, Deborah called General Barak and said to him, “Did not the God of Israel command us, ‘Go and pull toward Mount Tabor and take with you ten thousand men from the men of Naphtali and Zebulun. I will draw Sisera, the head of Yavin’s army, and his chariotry and masses to Wadi Kishon, and I will give him into your hand.”‘
       Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; if you will not go with me, I will not go.”
     Judge Deborah responded. She said, “I will indeed go with you, especially since you will get no glory on the way you are going, for into the hand of a woman will God deliver Sisera.”  This is exactly what it happened.  Deborah went with Barak to Qedesh.  Barak gathered the troops, and ten thousand men went with them.  Deborah won the battle.
      What prompted Deborah to call Barak in the first place?  Maybe the people asked that she call him. The people not only regularly went to her for guideance, but also they came to her for a particular kind of “judgment.” The poem provides a hint as to what they wanted: “Then the people of God went down to the gates:  ‘Awake, awake, Deborah.  Awake, awake, sing a song.  Arise, Barak, take your captives.'” (Judges 5:12).  This heart-wrenching outcry may have motivated Deborah to begin the war of Liberation.
      Deborah calls Barak in her role as a prophet, a catalyst through whom God works. Moreover, Deborah hints that she is following up on a previous call to Barak: Did not the God of Israel command it?
    God had already spoken to Barak, and Deborah’s call is a second summons. Still, Barak is reluctant to go, like Moses before him, like Gideon and Samuel after him, others were called by God to be envoys. He seeks assurance that God is really with him and insists that Deborah go with him to the front lines where the warriors assemble.
    Readers have often been bothered by Barak’s reluctance to go without Deborah, declaring that his hesitation makes him “less manly” or tarnishes his potential glory. But Barak has good reason to be insecure: Yavin, after all, has nine hundred chariots!
    Prophets play several roles in battle: they stir and inspire the troops.  They declare God’s timing for fighting to begin. Prophets are such an important presence in battle that Elijah and Elisha are called “Israel’s chariot and cavalry.”
    Many readers of this story have been particularly troubled by the presence of women in war, believing that women are out of place there and assuming that ancient Israelites would have felt the same way.  Yet, most of the Assyrian prophets were women, and reports from both the ancient and more recent Near East show a consistent pattern of the presence of women to inspire the troops and taunt the enemy. There is no reason to think that biblical readers found anything strange about Barak’s request to Deborah, as either prophet or woman.
    “Sisera mustered all his chariotry, nine hundred iron chariots, and all his people from Harosheth‑Hagoyim to Wadi Kishon….Deborah said to Barak, ‘Arise, for this is the day that YHWH gives Sisera into your hand. Does not YHWH go out before you?’….Barak quickly descended from Mount Tabor and ten thousand men after him….YHWH distressed Sisera and all the chariotry and all the camp by the sword before Barak and Sisera descended from his chariot and fled on foot….Barak chased the chariots and the camp to Harosheth‑Hagoyim and fell on Sisera’s camp with the sword. Not even one remained.”
     On Mount Tabor, Deborah the prophet announces the victory. She herself does not go down to the battle. Like Moses, Deborah is not a battle commander. Her role is to inspire, foretell, and celebrate when a celebration is in order. Her “weapon” is the word, and her name is an anagram of “she spoke” (dibberah). The battle itself is not essential to the story.  It is important only to remember that God fought and won: God “distressed” Sisera. Deborah announced God’s victory, Barak facilitated it, and God carried it out. The Song of Deborah provides a glimpse into how God defeated Canaan: God brought a flash flood that made a bog of sliding mud in which chariots were useless.
     Both the story and the song emphasize the fact that Deborah is a woman. The story tells us that she was a prophetess‑woman, adding the word “woman,” ishah, when the female noun “prophetess,” nebi’ah, already conveys that information. She is called “Lapidot”‑woman or Lapidot’s woman, again repeating the word “woman,” eshet.
     The song stresses that Deborah was a “mother in Israel.” The femaleness is neither hidden nor incidental: it is an integral part of the story. The motherhood of this “mother in Israel” goes beyond biology. It describes her role as counselor during the days before the war, and it indicates her role in preserving the heritage of Israel, in her case by advising in battle.
     The fullest sense of Deborah as mother is revealed in her name, which is not only an anagram of “she spoke”; it is also a noun meaning “bee.” Like the queen bee, she raises up the swarm for battle, sending out the drones to protect the hive and conquer new territory.  (Much material in segment two of this sermon has been borrowed and sometimes quoted directly from Professor Tikva Frymer-Kensky; she was Professor of Hebrew at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  An amazing career cut short; death took her in her early 60’s.)

III.
    Mary Wolestonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley who authored Frankenstein, was a determined women’s liberation advocate in England well ahead of her time.  Her very important book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, remains a significant piece of literature.  May I share some quotes from that work that jump out at me?

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

“I love man as my fellow; but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.”

“…men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment; and women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society.”

“I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists. I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings are only the objects of pity, and that kind of love which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.”

*At this point in the Gathering, the Pastor left his prepared notes and spoke without notes of any kind.  There is no transcription.  You may listen to the last part of the sermon by finding the link to it on the church’s website’s home page.   http://www.silversidechurch.org

Weeks or months from now, the sermon may be transcribed and offered in print.