Sunday, November 30, 2008

hungry hearts

My man, Springsteen, once sang, "Everybody's got a hungry heart..." and that sounds like the cry of Advent to me. Over a rockin' retro sound with saxophone and full back-up chorus, his first truly BIG hit goes on to remind us that: "Everybody needs a place to rest, everybody wants to have a home, don't make no difference what nobody says, ain't nobody like to be alone!"

As I pause to consider both the texts for this first Sunday in Advent and the experience of my people in worship today, this sounds like the wail - or moan - or lament of Advent to me in spades! And it isn't restricted to those who walk in the way of Jesus either, is it? How many folks do you know who are crying out in one way or another: where are you, God? Peterson's reworking of Psalm 80 gets it right:

Listen, Shepherd, Israel's Shepherd— get all your Joseph sheep together.
Throw beams of light from your dazzling throne
So Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh
can see where they're going.

Get out of bed—you've slept long enough!
Come on the run before it's too late. God, come back!
Smile your blessing smile:
That will be our salvation.

God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies,
how long will you smolder like a sleeping volcano
while your people call for fire and brimstone?
You put us on a diet of tears,
bucket after bucket of salty tears to drink.
You make us look ridiculous to our friends;
our enemies poke fun day after day.

God-of-the-Angel-Armies, come back!
Smile your blessing smile:
That will be our salvation.

I love Springsteen's Advent lament, but it is really much more blues than wildass song of joy and the fact that I've been singing it and dancing to it for 28 years and only really grasped that now...


Well, let's just say that I am one of those who are REALLY grateful that God is gracious and patient. Maybe that's why I cherish and hate the craziness of this season so much. A poem by Dan Brown called me to stop and take stock:

I'm striding down the avenue,
And rapidly at that,
When my progress runs me up against
An intersection at

The crux of which, depending from

A stanchion overhead,
An all-commanding traffic light
Presents two disks of red:

One to the way that crosses, one
To the way that favors me;
A situation sure to change
Momentarily.

Very little time.
But time
Enough for one of those
Windows of an instant with
The power to disclose

Something at my core of cores
(Hence normally unseen)
In my assuming mine's the way
That's not to get the green.

Here's to listening - really listening - to what is being shared this season - especially from those hungry hearts all around us - because it feels like we're knockin' on heaven's door.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Light in the darkness...

Today a young person from my church returns to Iraq. Yesterday Americans killed and wounded one another buying trinkets at Wall-Mart and Toys-R-Us to honor the Prince of Peace. And throughout the Thanksgiving weekend many of us were moved to tears as the grim details of the Mumbai assault were revealed.

In the midst of this - and much more - darkness, my friends at MyPeace.TV forwarded this clip of a sign of light in the darkness. It comes from the organization Friends Without Borders -
http://www.friendswithoutborders.org/index.html - who have a heart for being agents of shalom in these crazy times.


Check out MyPeace.TV, too at: http://mypeace.tv/.

You might also enjoy the contemplative art of Jan Richardson at The Advent Door: http://theadventdoor.com/. I have found her art insightful and her words encouraging in these dark times.

And don't forget The Advent Conspiracy: http://www.adventconspiracy.org/ who have posted this clip to help us on the journey.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Advent waiting and the darkness...

NOTE: These are my notes for the First Sunday in Advent. It will be fascinating to see where the Spirit leads us this season...

Advent, more than any other time in the church year with the possible exception of Good Friday, makes me crazy: the scriptures speak of watching and waiting while the culture is already saturated with worry and busyness. The spirituality of the season invites us to seek out that which is quiet and empty so that God – in the pregnant fullness of time – might bring new life to creation through our ordinary flesh while we obsess, fuss and fret about how to make this Christmas better and different from all the rest.

Indeed, the very message of the Advent season asks us to make room in the inn of our hearts so that the Prince of Peace might come in; and yet most of us are so bogged down in sentimentality – or enslaved to expectation – that if the Christ Child were to take up residence in our Sanctuary, garage or living room as Messiah, we’d be more distressed by the messiness he brings than the shocking promise of this revolutionary birth. What’s more, as Maggi Dawn writes from her ministry to the elite of Cambridge University in England, following the devotional seasons of our tradition “can leave us with the feeling that things never really happen at the right time. The realities of life rarely match up with the mood of the Church year, right? They always come too early or too late.”

If, as we travel through Lent or Advent, life is delivering up abundant joys and happiness, then the somber tone of the season never quiet hits home. But it’s even harder to deal with if you are feeling down and low when Christmas or Easter arrives… (No wonder) all too often we have this dislocated feeling of being out of time and out of step… (And) it’s not only the Church but the whole culture that feeds us an exaggerated image of happiness and celebration at this time of year.

This is why she suggests that the true blessing of Advent – the authentic spiritual wisdom and gift of the season – is that it helps us face the fact that “most of our life is lived in this in-between place where things come early or late, but almost never on time.” What do you think: does that ring true?

I think that’s one of the reasons why our tradition asks us to start with these tough, dark and apocalyptic lessons from the Bible at the beginning of Advent: not only is this the start of the church calendar – the beginning of the Christian year – it is also where we can learn how to discern the way of God in our world. Because, you know, the way of the Lord is really quite different from the way you and I operate when we’re left on our own. Frederick Buechner said it best:

The wisdom of men (and women) is the kind of worldly wisdom that more or less all men have been living by since the cave man. It is best exemplified by such homely utterances as: you've got your own life to lead, business is business, charity begins at home... safety first and so forth... It is in contrast to all this that what St. Paul calls "the foolishness of God" looks so foolish. Inspection stickers used to have printed on the back: "Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own." That is the wisdom of men in a nutshell.

What God says, on the other hand, is "The life you save is the life you lose." In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love's sake is a life worth living. To bring that point home, God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men's wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of himself is laboring not under a cross but a delusion. There are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools and what St. Paul calls “fool for Christ's sake."


So we’re asked first to consider what the prophet Isaiah – a servant of God who learned to listen carefully – might have to teach us about the ways of the Lord. And right out of the gate we get this:

O that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence—as when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil—to shock your enemies into facing you and make the nations shake in their boots! Since before the beginning of time no ear heard, no eye seen, a God like you who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who happily do what is right, who keep a good memory of the way you work. But how angry you've been with us! We've sinned and kept at it so long! Is there any hope for us? Can we be saved? We're all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease-stained rags. We dry up like autumn leaves- sin-dried, we're blown off by the wind. No one prays to you or makes the effort to reach out to you because you've turned away from us and left us to stew in our sins.

Why do we start here? What sounds and images – feelings or insights about the way of the Lord – do you grasp from these words of Isaiah?
Darkness – sin – God’s absence along with human arrogance and despair: this is where Advent asks us to begin. Not with “comfort, comfort o my people” nor “come to me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Just “our best efforts are grease-stained rags… and we are all like sin-dried leaves blown off by the wind.”

These words come from the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon: a time when the best and the brightest had been led off in chains to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, a time when the King of God’s chosen people had been blinded and humiliated by a pagan war lord, a time when the Temple was destroyed so that it felt like the past, present and future had collapsed. Bible scholar and preacher, Lawrence Moore, tells us that:

The people are in exile and mourning and exile is the crisis of the Old Testament. It is as hard to re-imagine ourselves into the mindset of the exiles this side of the return to Judah as it would be to imagine how the disciples felt on Easter Saturday. It is the death of all their dreams, all their hopes, of any future. And therefore it is the death of all the past, too. That’s the problem with a crisis like the exile or the crucifixion of Jesus: it makes a nonsense not only of the future but of the past, too. All the hopes and expectations of the past appear destroyed and the meaning with which life was invested is left hollow and empty.

He goes on to remind those of us in the 21st century who are still paying attention that for the exiles, “this meant that their belief in being a covenant people – their fundamental identity, in other words – was in tatters.” Their faith that God’s promises endure forever was now a cruel joke, their traditions had gone up in smoke and hope itself had been executed. Because, “if they had been wrong about the Lord their God after all these years, then the way in which they interpreted their lives… was now simply a ghastly mistake. Nothing meant what it had appeared to.”

Moore suggests that the disciples, too, faced this experience at the crucifixion: “It didn’t just take away their anticipated future with Jesus: it robbed them of the past. What price all Jesus’ stuff about the coming kingdom? What had all the sacrifices been for? Why had we wasted these last three years?” And this experience – this horrible encounter with something that turns our lives upside down and destroys our past, present and future – this is what exile is all about and… it is part of the human experience.

It is not an exception – it is the rule. There is a cruelty to real life that no sentimental Christmas can erase. There is war and rape, there is sexual abuse, economic and political exploitation, race hatred, homophobia, the pollution of God’s sacred land, water and air and I am just getting wound up. There is psychological anxiety and depression, there is unemployment, there is cancer and there is violence against the most vulnerable.
+ In a word, there is sin in this world: darkness, separation from God and one another, fear, shame, abuse and wounds that I cannot even name – and the wisdom of Advent asks us to take this sin seriously.

+ So, we have to be clear what sin really means in a full and honest way because too often religious and even political authorities have used our impoverished and deformed notions of sin to control or degrade us – and that is not what God desires.

Rather, our tradition begins by telling us that in the beginning we were created in the image and form of the Lord – beautiful, sacred, filled with truth and grace – so what is the point of all the sin talk? What truth has been obscured?

Two very different thinkers, Kathleen Norris and Irwin Kula, have helped me get ready for Isaiah and sin this Advent – and maybe they can be helpful for you, too. Norris is a Presbyterian who has found solace and insight in the Benedictine monastic tradition while Kula is an eighth-generation rabbi living and working in New York City. They both take the reality of sin seriously but in a way that is liberating.

Norris, in her most recent book about marriage, monks and the life of a writer, offers a host of small blessings about what it means to become an adult of faith – not a child – but an adult with a mature and nuanced understanding of God. “Many people,” she begins, “who would not dream of relying on the under-standing of literature or the sciences they acquired as children are content to leave their juvenile theological convictions about sin largely unexamined.” Then she goes for the jugular:

Many of us are right to distrust the idea of sin as it is often presented, but are foolish indeed if we throw out the living baby with the old church bathwater. The concept of sin, you see, does not exist so that people who may need therapy more than theology can be convinced that they are evil and beyond hope. It is meant to encourage people to believe that they are made in the image of God and to act accordingly. Hope is the heart of it – as well as the ever-present possibility of transformation…. Were I to deny this, and discount the wisdom of my ancestors, I would grow not wise but over-confident in my estimation of myself and in what passes for progress.

Did you get that? The whole point in naming sin is NOT to grow weary over stupid or dirty, little thoughts that are simply part of the human experience. Rather, the point of naming sin is to help us see where we’ve missed the mark – wandered off the path – and ask God’s grace to help us get back into the light. Rabbi Kula says that the first time the word sin appears in the Bible occurs in the story of Cain and Abel, do you recall it?

What a wildass story this is: Adam and Eve’s children, far from the garden, set out to build a new life with the younger, Abel, tending the sheep and the older, Cain, going into farming. Cain brings an offering of the earth to the Lord and before he can put it down, his baby brother is bringing up an offering, too. “Damned copycat,” Cain thinks, “he’s too uppity and doesn’t know his place.” And just to make matters worse, God paid attention to Abel’s offering but not to Cain’s. The good rabbi tells us: hence the beginning of sibling rivalry.

In his anger, Cain communicates with God who tells him that if he does the right thing – “if he keeps his envy and anger in check and acts as his brother’s keeper, there will be blessing and integrity to life” – and all will be well. “But if you do not do the right thing, then understand that sin crouches at the door.” This is the first time in the Bible that the word sin appears… so what did Cain get wrong? Kula is clear: “Cain had imagined, as so many of us do, that reality was designed to meet his needs. So now he has a choice: how to react to the inevitable unfairness and perceived inequalities of life?”

If you know the story, Cain goes to talk to his brother… but ends up killing him – and we really don’t know why. All we know is that instead of examining his rage, Cain acts on it. Rabbi Kula continues:

Cain avoids the messiness, the intensity and pain of investigating his own feelings; he chooses to see his anger as an end rather than as a beginning and in the process kills his only brother… (which brings us to a key insight about sin) There are really only two questions we need to answer in our lives: “Where are you?” – the question God asked both Adam and Eve as they were trying to hide in the garden after turning their backs on the Lord – and “Am I my brother or sister’s keeper?”

As the wise ones like to say, “everything else is commentary” – and that brings me back to the craziness of entering Advent: there are signs of sin all around us. Sometimes we encounter it as exile – being torn away from hope and safety – brutalized by the cruelty of real life that we neither deserve nor know how to cope with. Sometimes we create it by running away from God’s love rather than dealing with the truth of our lives. And sometimes sin is born when we refuse to acknowledge that we are, indeed, our brother and sister’s keeper.

That old master preacher, Fred Craddock, likes to tell us that the reason God gave us the word sin is so that it might slap us in the face when we get too full of ourselves to notice our own laziness or greed. “When we can look at a starving child,” he says, “with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, that’s not my kid’… or see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, “Well… that’s not my dad’… Then we’ve fallen into the ways of sin. For sin, you see, is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God has made and say: I don’t care!”

Some of us are in exile this year and we’re tired of waiting – some of us are in sin and we don’t want to stop – and all of us are aching for a deeper connection to the one who brings hope and healing. But it doesn’t come quickly, does it? And it doesn’t happen all at once either. No wonder we are told to start with the darkness… and so we will. There is a promise of light, beloved, and I trust it is true. But first we must acknowledge the darkness – for this is how the journey begins…

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A different kind of resting...

After a full and gentle night of music - with only one minor musical train wreck - today is a sweet day for resting. Often we have had family and friends in for a feast - and there's a beauty and blessing in that - but now that our daughters are older and have families of their own (to say nothing of their own work schedules and needs) we will be resting by ourselves.

There is a quiet and reflective spirit to this type of Thanksgiving resting. Of course we will enjoy turkey - and pie and potatoes, too. And we will decorate the table carefully and celebrate the abundant blessings that our new life affords. We will probably even reminisce a bit about other Thanksgiving feasts because that helps us mark the time and understand how we have changed as the years go by. But it will be done calmly, without the rushed excitement of more communal merriment. It is a reflective way of resting and the older I get the more I look forward to it.

George Winston captures the feeling of this kind of rest:


Buechner writes:
The wisdom of men (and women) is the kind of worldly wisdom that more or less all men have been living by since the cave man. It is best exemplified by such homely utterances as: you've got your own life to lead, business is business, charity begins at home... safety first and so forth... It is in contrast to all this that what St. Paul calls "the foolishness of God" looks so foolish. Inspection stickers used to have printed on the back: "Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own." That is the wisdom of men in a nutshell.

What God says, on the other hand, is "The life you save is the life you lose." In other words, the life you clutch, hoard, guard and play safe with is in the end a life worth little to anybody, including yourself, and only a life given away for love's sake is a life worth living. To bring that point home, God shows us a man who gave his life away to the extent of dying a national disgrace without a penny in the bank or a friend to his name. In terms of men's wisdom, he was a Perfect Fool, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of himself is laboring not under a cross but a delusion. There are two kinds of fools in the world: damned fools and what St. Paul calls "fools for Christ's sake."

I think it takes a life time to grasp and treasure becoming a fool for Christ's sake: it takes quiet and it takes practice, resting and sharing, feasting and fasting. I will miss the fun and even foolishness of having the wider family here and laughing so hard that my sides hurt. But in the stillness of today's rest I will find time to offer thanks both for this other foolish calling and those who help me explore it - especially Dianne - who needs my help now with the pies.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taking stock and giving thanks...

I visited with one of my staff today - in the hospital - and we took stock and gave thanks for the life that remains. It is not yet clear how much time she still has; right before Easter she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After the initial shock and sadness, she responded really well to the treatments and throughout the summer, life was good. She returned to teaching in the fall but has been having more and more complications as the winter dawns.

She was on the search committee that brought me to Pittsfield from Arizona and has been a friend, colleague and helper as we share hope and commitment with our young people and children. And now she is getting weaker...

As we sat and talked - and wept and prayed - it is clear that none of this is fair or really makes any sense. Will there be another Thanksgiving? Christmas? Not at all clear... just that we have this moment to be real and loving and open to the fullness of our lives. One of my favorite profs once said to me that we really have to know how to be with our people when they ask "why" - knowing full well that there isn't any good answer - and while I have a deep understanding of where God is in agonizing moments like this, all I can do is hold my friend's hand and weep with them. Words just don't cut it. Later, talking with my secretary, I found myself remembering my sister, Linda, who died of cancer 17 years ago... and my mother who died three years ago. Then she spoke of her father's death from cancer and as more tears came we stopped and just sat in the sad silence together.

So, as I get ready to share an evening of American music, art and poetry with our new faith community and the wider town, I want to dedicate our work tonight to my friend: she is a person of faith and grace and a blessing to so many of us. Made me think of this old song by the Cranberries...



This ancient prayer always come back to me in moments like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering, you hallowed earthly pain and gave us an example of obedience to God's will: be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to your will, for you are my Lord and my God. Amen.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A tradition deepens...

For almost 27 years I have been gathering singers, artists and musicians together in various churches on Thanksgiving Eve. It started when the children were small and we would go to see Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in NYC and morphed into our version of group singing gatherings in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona and now Massachusetts. Sometimes it has been very, very simple - a guitar, banjo and a few song leaders - and sometimes it became quite complex - our 15 person LARGE band in Tucson complete with steel guitar and gospel choir!

This year we've invited a few musical friends and poets to join us as we sing and play and pray and grow closer in the spirit of Thanksgiving. Group singing is an almost lost art form and one of my daughters once told me that one of her greatest joys was being with me as I encouraged and cajoled people into singing together in harmony. We will get another shot at it tomorrow night.

Here is a link to a local TV show we did last week that is mostly pretty good - a few rough spots - but mostly lovely and honest. Blessings to you all and Happy Thanksgiving... and join us at 7:30 on Wednesday, November 26th if you are in town.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Still speaking God and rock and roll...

So this morning's NY Times carried a front page story about how rock and roll is encouraging young Saudi women to move beyond the taboos of their very restricted world: Saudi Girl Group Dares to Rock - http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/24/world/middleeast/24saudi.html?hp=&pagewanted=all

It would appear that there is a rock and metal craze moving through the usually staid and repressive Saudi world - and now an all girl band is making waves, too: The Accolade from the town of Jidda. "They cannot perform in public. They cannot pose for album cover photographs. Even their jam sessions are secret, for fear of offending the religious authorities in this ultraconservative kingdom. But the members of Saudi Arabia’s first all-girl rock band, the Accolade, are clearly not afraid of taboos." (Robert Worth, NYT, November 24th) Listen to these women rock on their MyPage site: http://www.myspace.com/accoladeofficial

In another article from The Arab News it is stated that:

By best estimates — from young Saudi music fans — there are about 60 bands in Saudi Arabia playing Western style rock music, mostly in the form of Heavy Metal bands with their pentatonic scales and rapid-fire guitar finger work and high-tempo rhythms. Hip-hop is another favorite, followed to a lesser extent by jazz, blues and more traditional rock. Kamal Khalil, the guitarist and vocalist for the appropriately named heavy metal band Deathless Anguish, says that these youth-oriented groups aren’t recognized by the established arts societies. “They think we produce shallow material,” he said, referring to the Saudi Society of Culture and Arts. “We are like all other Saudi artists, work hard on composing special music and lyrics.”

Small wonder rock, metal and hip-hop are making an underground impact: 60% of the Saudi population is under 25 years old. As I have noted elsewhere, the music of the underground and periphery is one of the best places to hear the still speaking voice of the God of the oppressed - even when it takes the form of popular culture! You can find another popular metal/rock band, Sound of Ruby, on YouTube. In fact, social networking and the Internet have given these Saudi bands both venues and connections so that they might take their prophetic critique deeper. In the on-line fanzine, Freemuse, one writer notes that:

A growing number among the youth in Saudi Arabia is frustrated with the Kingdom's tight restrictions on social freedoms. In tv and on the internet, they observe how people live in other parts of the world, and they are beginning to question the traditional values of their parents.“The younger generation have a lot of anger and repressed feelings, because basically here in this country we have a huge cultural gap between the older and the younger generation,”
Hussein Mohammed, a heavy metal fan, told CNN’s reporter.

“Music is the only way to release that steam,” Hasan Hatrash, the band's manager, added.“Young boys here are not satisfied with how their lives are going,” guitarist Ayman Al Ghamdi told a journalist from Arab News: “The restrictions, the lack of entertainment, bachelors-for-life. All these things make us angry.”

In Jeddah, known as the principal gateway to Mecca, Islam's holiest city, is now also the base for an all-girrl metal band named Chicks Behind Walls. To put their existence into context, Saudi Arabia is a country where women are not allowed in outdoor cafes, and it is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive a car. They must wear black abayas and head coverings in public at all times, and special women-only shopping malls have been established to serve women who did not previously have access to such places unless chaperoned by male relatives. In restaurants women sit in booths with drawn curtains or partitions to shield them from the male relatives of other women. Men and women are segregated even in the lines at fast food outlets.
(Listen to Chicks Behind Walls at: http://www.myspace.com/chicksbehindwalls)

Like the Clash sang so long ago: Rockin' the Casbah...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Signs of joy...

Today I held a new member orientation gathering after worship... and 8 people attended. That was 10% of today's total - and another 3-4 told me they will be a part of our next gathering including a young woman who wants to be baptized (along with her baby!)

Now here's what I find fascinating: two people are leaving the Roman Catholic tradition, two come from fairly conservative backgrounds that have become too narrow, some are gay, one is recently baptized and another sees connecting with our congregation in community as the next step in embracing the spirituality of Jesus while affirming her Jewish roots. As the United Church of Christ says: WHOEVER YOU ARE AND WHERE EVER YOU ARE ON LIFE'S JOURNEY... YOU ARE WELCOME HERE!

What's more, we're talking about people in the 30-50 age group: people who understand that being a part of our community matters to them in their quest for meaning and authenticity, people who want to share their joys and wounds with others who want to know and love them even AFTER churches have let them down, people who have serious questions about the faith but equally important spiritual insights and who resonate with our vision statement: We gather together in community with God and each other to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and act with compassion.

For me this was Christmas morning after a whole year of Advent - the birthing evidence that God really is doing something new and life-giving within and among us - and what a great time for this birth to be revealed: on the last day of the Christian calendar. It would appear that Mary's song is likely to become my Advent prayer this year because I guess I will always find something to laugh about and celebrate as the words of God's grace become flesh:

My soul proclaims the greatness of our God, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
who has looked with favor on this lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:

You O God have done great things for me and holy is your Name.
You have mercy on those who fear you in every generation.
You have shown the strength of your arm

and have scattered the proud in their conceit.
You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and have lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things

and the rich you have sent away empty.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel,

for you have remembered your promise of mercy,
The promise you made to our ancestors, to Abraham and Sarah
and their children for ever.

Like the shepherds or the Magi, from time to time Mary and I also need to see or even experience some evidence that the work of God's grace is taking root in our lives. Last night, while reading the new book by Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me, I noted this sentence: "Left unchecked, acedia can unravel the great commandment: as I cease to practice my love of God, I am also less likely to observe a proper love of my neighbor or myself." Interesting... without being refreshed and helped back on track by some evidence of love in action, I can become detached - abstract - maybe even bored and then all hell breaks loose! And then Norris added this which is likely to be my other Advent prayer:

Were I to listen with an open ear, I might come away from a Lenten sermon of fasting better able to spurn the tempting feast of malicious gossip and the satisfying art of maligning others in order to feel better about myself. When the church speaks (deeply) we do well to pay attention. Like when a master preacher like Fred Craddock defines the sin of sloth so clearly that it stings like a slap in the face. What we casually dismiss as mere laziness, he says, is "the ability to look at a starving child... with a swollen stomach and say, 'Well, it's not my kid.'... or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park ans say, 'Well, that's not my dad.' It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I DON'T CARE."

I am finding that icons of Mary are saying something to me as I get ready for Advent, too. Hmmmm... this is going to be a very interesting time for us in this old Protestant place of Puritanism as the season they tried to ban matures. And so the reflections begin...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A totally rocking blessing...

THANKSGIVING EVE 2008

FIRST CHURCH ON PARK SQUARE
Congregational – United Church of Christ


27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201
413-447-7351 + www.firstchurchpittsfield.com

An evening of American Music, Poetry an Art in the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Friday, November 21, 2008

Festival of American Music and Arts...

On Thanksgiving Eve (an ode to Bob Franke's song) we will be holding our first Pittsfield Festival of American Music and Arts at 7:30 pm - November 26th - 27 East Street. For nearly 28 years, however, my family and I have been doing these gigs wherever our ministry took us - NYC, NY/Saginaw, MI/Cleveland, OH/Tucson, AZ - after encountering Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie's Thanksgiving concerts while in seminary.


We do kid's music, group singing, invite other local musicians and artists and poets to join in so that the whole gig is a little bit gospel fest, a little bit poetry reading, a little bit Prairie Home companion and a whole lotta fun. This year's celebration will be a hoot because Andy Kelly and his jazz buddies will be joining us along with Jessica Roemischer - piano improv artist extraordinaire - as well as some church folk and our little band: Between the Banks. (BTW - we just finished taping our first PCTV show for Norm Schaffer's "Acoustic Voices" and it worked out beautifully. It will start airing for a week beginning Saturday, November 30th.)

So, my friends, if you are in town why not stop by for some Thanksgiving music, poetry, art, story telling and group singing joy? We've found it is a perfect way to enter that American Eucharist - Thanksgiving - with humility and hope.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Faith, Doubt and the Via Negativa...

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes for the Sunday we know as Christ the King or the Reign of Christ Sunday. Join us at 10:30 am if you are in town.

The late Bill Coffin, preacher at the Riverside Church in New York City, used to tell his flock that at the end of time – and that could mean simply our time in this realm or all time in creation – we would find ourselves standing before the Creator, asked to give an accounting for our lives. It will be a test, Coffin said. And then with that incredibly sly and loving smile of his he added, “But it’s an open book test – and Jesus has already given us the answer – if we’re paying attention.”

+ As is too often the case in largely progressive congregations who are sometimes bible-study-phobic, a hush would fall on the church when he said this and then paused for effect: what was this guy talking about?

+ And then he would say: Jesus has already given us the answer to our final exam – you can find it very clearly in Matthew 25 – for the accounting of our life that matters to God has nothing to do with what denomination we belong to, it has nothing to do with what translation of the Bible we use. What’s more, the correct answer to the final exam of our lives is not whether we are Christians or Jews or Muslims, whether we’re gay or straight, rich or poor, faithful or doubters.

No the right answer is: “When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, Lord, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to visit you?' And God will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored – the least of your sisters and brothers – that was me—you did it to me.'”

I think Coffin is right. And what he is saying needs constant repeating: God is to be found most clearly not in our doctrine and theology – as helpful and insightful as they can be – not in our denominations or traditions – as lovely and comforting as they can be – and not in even in the words of Scripture or prayer books and hymns – as energizing and precious as they might be. God is most often to be encountered in our dealings with those who are wounded, in need of love or crying out for compassion. Think about this with me:

+ In Matthew 12 there is a curious story about the time when Christ’s mother grew worried about her son and asked his brothers to go and bring him home. Frankly, she was concerned that all this God talk had gone to his head and that maybe Jesus was a little mentally ill. Mother’s are like that…

+ Do you recall that story? Jesus is preaching and teaching to a crowd when someone tells him that his family is waiting outside the circle and wants to see him. And… what does Jesus say in reply? Do you remember?

+ “Who is my mother – and who are my brothers (and sisters)?” And pointing to his disciples – his students and followers – he said, “Here is my mother and family for whoever does the will of our Creator in heaven is brother and sister and kin to me.”

Do you have any thoughts or reactions? What’s going on inside you as you consider this truth? Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that insight and intellectual precision are not important – they are and have their place – and I’m not denigrating tradition or any discrete religious tradition either because they all posses great beauty and power. No, what I am trying to say is that in the end only kindness matters as we take the words of our faith and help them become flesh within and among us.

Do you know the words of NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof? I enjoy reading both liberal Tom Friedman and conservative David Brooks – I don’t really like Gail Collins or Maureen Dowd because of their penchant for sarcasm – but Kristof is a man of heart and compassion. Not long ago he wrote about Somaly Mam, a young woman from Cambodia who escaped the world of sex slavery and now fights the greed and brutalization that condemns so many young girls to a living hell. Back in September he wrote that he was shocked to learn that Somaly had survived after three years of doing battle with the sex slave captains: “The gangsters who run the brothels have held a gun to her head, and seeing that they could not intimidate Somaly with their threats, they found another way to hurt her: They kidnapped and brutalized her 14-year-old daughter.”

Three years ago, I wrote from Cambodia about a raid Somaly organized on the Chai Hour II brothel where more than 200 girls had been imprisoned. Girls rescued from the brothel were taken to Somaly’s shelter, but the next day gangsters raided the shelter, kidnapped the girls and took them right back to the brothel. Yet Somaly continued her fight, and, with the help of many others, she has registered real progress. Today, she says, the Chai Hour II brothel is shuttered. In large part, so is the Svay Pak brothel area where 12-year-old girls were openly for sale on my first visit. “If you want to buy a virgin, it’s not easy now,” notes Somaly, speaking in English — her fifth language. Somaly’s shelters — where the youngest girl rescued is 4 years old — provide an education and job skills. More important, Somaly applies public and international pressure to push the police to crack down on the worst brothels, and takes brothel owners to court. The idea is to undermine the sex-trafficking business model. (NY Times, 9/24/2008)

It didn’t matter to those children what religion Somaly was – whether she was a conservative evangelical, a lapsed Catholic, a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Jain – because when she was able to bring them out of hell into the land of the living, Somaly was living into the presence of God. In fact, she was all the God they knew – and it was her kindness and compassion that mattered more than anything else.

And here’s where the reality of doubt comes in for me:
often it takes a lot of time – and a tremendous about of reflection and hindsight – before we can discern the presence of God in our lives, don’t you think? I mean often in the midst of life – joys or sorrows, clarity or confusion, struggle or even boredom – I’m not at all sure where God is in the midst of things. It is usually only afterwards that I have one of those “aha moments…” and I get a clue.

Bible scholar and pastor, Brian Stoffregen, has written that the Greek word, metanoeo, which we usually translate as repentance or even a change of mind probably miss the deeper truth. Because, he says, the primary meaning of the prefix “meta” is “afterwards.”

So metanoeo as "after-thought" might be equivalent to "hindsight" – looking back and re-evaluating what has happened – discovering that God was present in the situation and then our re-thinking could lead to prayers of thanksgiving. Or, the re-thinking might lead us to discover that what I had thought was a good and righteous act was really a selfish deed which leads to prayers of confession – in which case God is using the deed for God's purpose of confession and forgiveness.

Are you with me on this? Do you see where I’m going? Our times without clarity – our times of doubt – are often seasons when God is at work within and among us but we don’t grasp it. I think that is why the depth psychologist, Carl Jung, used to ask people to recall that these words of Christ about feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, clothing the naked and sharing mercy are just as important to do on the inside – within ourselves – as they are in the outer world, right?

Within most of us – I would say all but I’ve been told that some crusty old New Englanders raised on a steady diet of self-reliance and stoicism would question me on this – there is a place that is naked and cold, alone and afraid, doubting and uncertain. Jung asked us to invite the love of God into those places, too, so that the kingdom of God might bring healing to all.

Because all of us – crusty old New Englanders and rock and roll preachers from the Southwest alike – have doubts and fears and wounds. Most of my life, you see, I have been blessed with the gift of faith – and it is a gift – a blessing shared with me from God. And I know it is a gift because one day about eight years ago, it dried up. It took me a few months to realize and own it but the joy and patience, the hope and happiness that I have known most of my life was gone. I was empty. Alone. Not hurting just dried up and… dead inside.

+ Have you been there? It’s a hard place – especially when most of your life you have been on fire and filled with the gift of faith – and I have to tell you that when I took stock of my inner emptiness, I didn’t know what to do.

+ For a while I tried to figure it out by myself – and as St. Bruce Springsteen has said when it’s you you’re trying to lose, you can do some sad and hurtful things to the ones you love – just ask Dianne – she’s seen living proof.

And I’m talking mean and hurtful things not just sad and empty. Eventually I found my way into some serious and tough spiritual counseling and direction with a tender but very demanding man who kicked me in the butt enough to face myself and my empty, ugly wounds long enough and honestly enough so that one day, sitting by myself watching the sun come up in New Mexico I sensed the dryness start to lift. Not all at once – and I didn’t find my way back into a renewed sense of faith for a while either – but it began to lift.

Now all the while I was in this place of doubt and dryness – my own wandering in the inner wilderness – I kept praying the words of Martin Luther. When Luther was besieged on all sides by princes and politicians out to get him – as well as his own inner demons – he cried, “I have been baptized!” And that was the only prayer I could muster: “I have been baptized.”

+ I have been given to God in the grace of Christ – I have been embraced by the Creator with a love that will set me free and bring me back from the dead even though I don’t believe it – for I have been baptized.

+ This was one of the greatest blessings in my life – a time of authentic healing and cleansing – but I only know that in hindsight. Man, in the midst of it, it was Hell and I hated it and hated everything about myself, my God and my world.

But then, as today’s scripture suggests, God’s grace visited me in my prison and my hunger and my emptiness… and when it was the fullness of time I inherited a taste of the kingdom. I didn’t earn it – I didn’t deserve it – and I certainly didn’t do anything to create it: I just inherited it. It came to me as a gift again and slowly I was filled from the inside out.

This emptiness – or absence – or even darkness is known in the spiritual world as “the via negativa.” Western Christianity and Americans in general are rarely aware or comfortable with this path of spiritual maturity because we tend to believe we have to make our own way and that everything should turn out happy. And even when we know that isn’t true – like when someone dies way too early of cancer or we come face to face with evil or injustice – we still act like creation is all about happy endings. In a word, we favor the “via positiva” – the positive path of spirituality – where there are clear answers and lots of justice to say nothing of an abundance of faith, hope and love.

But just as you cannot have light without the darkness – or hope without despair – you really can’t know the depth of God’s grace with only one way into the kingdom. Doubt and emptiness, spiritual dryness and searching, the inner desert and wilderness is all about the other path into God’s love: the via negativa. The prophet Ezekiel tells us that God comes looking for us as a shepherd – a Good Shepherd – in search of a lost flock:

From now on, I myself am the shepherd. I'm going looking for them. As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I'm going after my sheep. I'll rescue them from all the places they've been scattered to in the storms. I'll bring them back from foreign peoples, gather them from foreign countries, and bring them back to their home country. I'll feed them on the mountains of Israel, along the streams, among their own people. I'll lead them into lush pasture so they can roam the mountain pastures of Israel, graze at leisure, feed in the rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. And I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I myself will make sure they get plenty of rest. I'll go after the lost, I'll collect the strays, I'll doctor the injured, I'll build up the weak ones and oversee the strong ones so they're not exploited.

I believe this is true. In fact, like Mark Twain said when asked about whether he believed in infant baptism or not – believe it, man, I’ve seen it – well, I have too in my own heart and life. But I also know that for many of us it doesn’t happen as much in the light as religion likes to pretend. No, more often than not we discover God’s coming to us with healing and light in the darkness – through hindsight – from the reality of our doubt.

And because this is true, beloved, I have come to trust that even our doubts are part of the good news. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Subterrranean post-modern blues...

What a mix of experiences: this morning I spoke to a colleague's class on the impact of slave music on American culture. I played some spirituals, talked about West African rhythms and song structure and took them on a wild ride - with CDs - from emancipation to jazz and the birth of rock and roll. They were young kids from the Berkshires but I got them singing gospel and the blues and it was lots of fun... blessings abound.

Later in the day I spent three hours with some dear church leaders trying to evaluate our collective work over the past year. Let me tell you that one of the hardest things I have ever experienced in my 27 years of ministry involves that moment when you are working with a committed group of church leaders and they realize that the abstract ideas of change and renewal have to become FLESH.

We had a beautiful, complicated and boldly honest talk tonight (and we'll have another 3 hour talk after Thanksgiving) with a group of lay leaders from my church. They are wonderful and insightful people - deeply committed to God, a liberating and progressive Christian faith and rebuilding our struggling congregation - AND... when it comes to making changes in this dear New England town it is HARD. And I am talking painfully hard... not that it isn't wanted or needed - worship that is eclectic and truly diverse, sermons that are more dialogical than lecture, wrestling with the shadow side of ourselves and the Bible - but as the birth of Jesus makes clear: when the word becomes flesh it is always MESSY. Two examples are notable:

+ How do you make a Victorian sanctuary look welcoming to those not steeped in church culture? We won't even talk about how to bring jazz, rock, country and folk into a faith community that has only known German chorales for a long, long time. How do you make a big, demanding and even ominous space feel inviting - especially to people who are already suspicious of church? That's one of our challenges: someone told me, "God, you are serious about making this place accessible, aren't you?" More than serious - I am committed to accessibility on every level I can imagine - but that means change in the flesh rather than as an intellectual abstract... and that's always messy.

+ How do you create enough momentum towards inclusivity to truly welcome the forgotten and cast away folk AND maintain a place at the table for the old "in" crowd? Its tough for both groups but those of privilege have to be trained to practice radical hospitality or else all this work with worship - joy and fun and depth and new sounds and spiritual wisdom - becomes bullshit. If there really isn't a radical welcome in the spirit of Jesus, those who have been turned away will smell it a mile away... and we won't make it.

I think we will. I love my new church - this new community is committed to becoming a place of hope and light in the 21st century darkness - but it is still really hard for them. This work feels like Cat Power's version of "Satisfaction," all full of promise and longing but still... not there yet. Pray for us...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Love dogs...

This is the finest insight into what longing and doubt means... it is from the poet Rumi who helps me understand the via negativa better than anyone else. And Coleman Barks gets it so right that I just HAD to post this tonight.

Another is from my heart-mentor, Robert Bly, who speaks of why our culture has been so sick and silent for so long... I LOVE the way he calls us back into crying out!

And then there is the master's reworking NIN... the man in black himself.

After worship today, so many spoke quiet words of thanks that I had given voice and permission to their doubts and fears and longings all within the bounds of a faith community. More to come.

Lord make me an instrument...

So there was a retraction... printed in small print in the NY Times that Fr. Jay Scott Newman of South Carolina had to take back his ban on Holy Communion for those who voted for Obama. And while his Bishop said every person had to explore his/her own conscience on this matter, it was still a retraction: and in these days that is a blessing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Busload of faith...

Ok, this makes me sick: I'm finishing up my prayers for the night - looking at the events of the world as a way of staying in touch - when I come across this article about a priest in South Carolina who has written to his church saying that they can't take communion if they voted for Obama! No shit... just the facts, ma'am. The Rev. Jay Scott Newman said in a letter distributed Sunday to parishioners at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Greenville:

"that they are putting their souls at risk if they take Holy Communion before doing penance for their vote. 'Our nation has chosen for its chief executive the most radical pro-abortion politician ever to serve in the United States Senate or to run for president," Newman wrote, referring to Obama by his full name, including his middle name of Hussein." (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27705755/?gt1=43001)

Add this to the religious bigots who stole the right to get married from our sisters and brothers in California on November 4th and its enough to despair.. and when I get that sick of my sisters and brothers in the wider family of faith there's only one place to go: St. Lou Reed. Man, does he cut to the chase in "Bus Load of Faith to Get By!"


Now I mostly go to St. Lou because we're both so "old school" that I can trust his groove. But another new group gets it right, too, The Used who come at this whole thing from a totally different angle but end up in the same place: And it's all in how you mix the two, and it starts just where the light exists. It's a feeling that you cannot miss, and it burns a hole, through everyone that feels it. Well your never gonna find it, if your looking for it, won't come your way, well you'll never find it, if your looking for it.


With all the ugly religious attitude I'm glad there are those who remind us that "in the end only KINDNESS matters."

Doubt, faith and real life...

NOTE: As is my custom, these are this Sunday's sermon notes which I share because... that's what I do. If you are in Pittsfield, MA at 10:30 am this week, stop by. It would be fun to see you.

“Doubt is the beginning – not the end – of wisdom” an old sage once told me. The French philosopher, Voltaire, believed that, “while doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.” Paul Tillich trusted that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith, but rather one important element of it.” And Vaclav Havel, poet, playwright and the first president of a free Czech Republic, has found that often, “It is the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties: Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps no one ever finds sense in life without first experiencing absurdity?”

Why, then, do so many Christians – progressive and fundamentalist alike – think that doubt is destructive – the antithesis of faith – and something to be battled rather than embraced? Let’s face it: some of the greatest heroes of the Bible have been filled with doubt – and it served them well.

+ We start with Abraham and Sarah who had no idea where God was leading them when they left the security of their tradition for the blessings of the Promised Land – who had no reason to trust that God would bring the fruit of a new child to Sarah’s ancient womb – who, in fact, laughed at God’s promise and doubted God’s word, but who came to represent the very essence of our faith tradition – the mother and father of a new people – born of doubt and trust and God’s amazing presence.

+ We move to Moses – slow of speech and uncertain of his abilities – who kept pleading with God for clarity over and over again and came to experience the Lord’s presence as a pillar of cloud by day and a fire by night.

+ Think of the Psalmist weeping, “How long, O Lord, how long must we sing our song in exile and emptiness?” Or Job – or the prophet Jeremiah in his despair?

Even Jesus on the Cross crying out, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” Peter was often filled with doubt, Paul certainly had times when he was totally in the dark, Mary and Martha challenged the Lord with their doubts after the death of their brother Lazarus and on and on it goes. Doubt, raising questions and refusing to swallow the simple minded solutions of priests, ministers and other peddlers of orthodoxy is at the heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

And yet so very often and in so many tragic ways our doubts and questions are either trivialized – so that we feel stupid and unworthy – or turned back against us to keep us in our place so that more and more people are coming to the conclusion that while they may be spiritual, they certainly aren’t religious. Because religion has given doubt a bad name.

Philip Yancey, the very thoughtful and tender evangelical author of books such as Where Is God When It Hurts?, What’s So Amazing About Grace and Does Prayer Make Any Difference?, tells the story of one of his friends who was hospitalized with cancer that seemed to come out of nowhere. Her husband was traumatized as she went under the knife for emergency surgery and then perplexed and angry as she failed to respond to the chemo and radiation treatments. (Please note: this is my less than poetic paraphrase because I can't find his book; please forgive any excess because Yancey's words are much better than mine.)

But what made this dreadful experience even worse were the people from their church – good and loving people – who said some of the most stupid and hurtful things all in the name of being helpful. One woman came to visit and after a short time told the couple to keep praying – and being faithful – because God hears all the prayers of those whose faith is strong. Talk about adding insult to injury, yes? And when the woman with the cancer asked, “What does it mean if my tumor isn’t healed?” she was told – no joke – “well, then clearly your faith was not strong enough.”

Another woman visited – one prone to New Age thinking – chatted and carried on like there was nothing wrong with her friend. After about 30 minutes of this fluff, however, her husband said, “Why are you babbling on and on about stuff that doesn’t matter when Ellen is facing death?” only to be told: “Stop being so negative – that’s where the cancer comes from – negativity. Just be positive and she will all be alright!”

But the final blow came when their pastor visited. Like many of us, his heart was in the right place, he truly loved his flock and he believed in God’s love and power. So as they were talking after a treatment and Ellen’s husband asked how he could make sense out of his grief and fear – if not his anger with God – the pastor said: “Jeff, look, we don’t always understand the ways of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah tells us that ‘my ways aren’t your ways saith the Lord’ and I trust that.”

That isn’t so bad – not really helpful – but at least it is something that makes some sense: there is a mysterious aspect to God that we can’t always grasp because… we aren’t God. Lots of people say that and while it doesn’t do anything to help a person with their doubts and fears, usually it doesn’t do any harm (which is always a good rule, yes?) But that damned minister went on to say – and I am certain that he should be damned for this – that “the scripture also tells us in Deuteronomy 28 that “if you will only obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments… blessings shall come upon you and overtake you… but if you will not obey the Lord your God… then curses shall come and overtake you.’ So tell me, Jeff, could it be that there is some sin you haven’t confessed or repented of – or maybe Ellen – that is at the core of this cancer?”

I’m with Jeremiah Wright on this one: God damn him – God damn him to hell! What an ugly and misguided – dare I say destructive – misinterpretation of Scripture – all in the context of a pastoral visit! But, you see, that’s what you get from a religious tradition that is afraid and unfamiliar with doubt and ambiguity.

And I am sad to say, that’s what has happened to a lot of American Christianity over the years as we have uncritically embraced the theology of a 16th century genius, John Calvin, without discerning what rings true for 21st century living. Let me give you the genesis of what has become the simplistic understanding of a Reformed Theology of suffering because I have come to believe that this is where our problems with doubt originate.

Now you have to recall that for Brother Calvin, who began his work as a French Roman Catholic studying to be a lawyer but who later experienced a spiritual conversion that led him into the emerging Protestant Church, the world was not a safe place. Protestants were considered heretics in France and Calvin had to go into hiding in fear for his life. Eventually he had to flee his homeland for Germany and finally Geneva, Switzerland.

These were tumultuous times – the Spanish Inquisition was moving into high gear – and to make matters worse, Calvin came to experience great physical pain – migraines, lung hemorrhages, gout and kidney stones. So, in the midst of pain and chaos – political and theological controversy – Calvin came to write a theology of suffering and God’s place in it that eliminated doubt as well as ambiguity. In a word, he needed to both understand and believe that God was in control of all things – good and bad, heaven and earth – for this would help him face the challenges of every day. And the heart of what Calvin conceptualized can be summarized like this:

+ When there is pain and trouble in our lives, sometimes it is the result of sin that needs to be confessed and faced honestly.

+ Sometimes God brings pain and suffering into our lives so that others might see how to bear it with grace and dignity – that is, sometimes we are a living Bible for another with less faith.

+ Sometimes our anguish is to test and deepen our faith – like the story of Job. And when it is none of these, Calvin noted, then we must claim the mystery of the Lord whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

Is that clear? Four clearly stated reasons for pain and suffering in Calvin’s theology – all articulated to remove ambiguity and doubt from our daily life – and all conceived of as a way to grace and trust for they all point to God’s loving control of creation even if we do not fully grasp the reason why.

Now it could be that these reasons still work for some of you – it could be that the old ways still seem the best – but I have to tell you I am with the Massachusetts hymn writer, James Lowell, who in 1845 wrote, “new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth.” Because Calvin’s image and theology of God just doesn’t work for me – it is too narrow, too judgmental and too void of Christ’s grace – and it causes too much needless suffering and guilt in our 21st century world.

Cut to the gospel for this day from Matthew 25 and perhaps we can discern a nuance that will help us come to embrace and maybe even celebrate our doubts and fears as part of the pathway to faith in real life. This parable – about the three servants given talents by their master – has been worked to death in what I think of as boring and pedantic ways over the years. But it can be a truly fascinating glimpse into the way of Christ’s grace and the role doubt plays in experiencing it.

Let’s quickly summarize the action for one another (invite the people to retell the parable) because we all need to start at the same place. Ok, now let’s consider what these symbols are suggesting – and right out of the gate we have to understand that a talent was not a skill or ability but rather a large sum of money. The historians tell us that one talent equaled 76 pounds of silver – roughly the equivalent of 20 years of wages – so two talents is 40 years of wages and five talents meant a free ride for 100 years. So this is all about the master’s generosity, ok? God’s generosity is point one.

Second we have to be certain to grasp that these talents were gifts – not a loan or an investment – they were flat out gifts of generosity that became the property of each of the servants. So what becomes really interesting to me is how these gifts were used: we’re not talking about salvation or grace which God gives to us all equally and freely; rather we’re talking about how the first two servants used their gifts according to their ability – creatively, with curiosity, even a willingness to take some risks – while the other was passive – even lazy – which suggests that being good and faithful has something to do with taking initiative even when we don’t know the consequences.

The first two took their gift and did something with it – they didn’t have to and it was risky – but rather than bury it, they stepped beyond what was safe… and found blessing. And the master called them good and faithful while the other who played it safe was called lazy and stupid. What’s more, one commentator goes so far as to say this: the two creative risk-takers began with a sense that the master was generous and so they multiplied the miracle and entered into joy while the third saw his master as harsh, acted out of fear and wound up in the eternal darkness. Author, Robert Capon, puts it like this:

If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has had a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble (page 148). Cited in Brian Stoffregen’s CrossMarks.

Now let me bring this home: For far too long our doubts have not been celebrated or given permission to mature because both our theology and tradition has been too narrow. Calvin did his best in the old days – and still has new insights to teach – but we have to dump that old God of judgment and fear or we’ll never find out what joy our doubts point towards. In fact, if we remain in the gloom of a religion of obligation and fear, we will get exactly what the third servant received: eternal darkness – not joy, not new blessings, not hope or the wedding banquet – just the emptiness of fear and ignorance.

There is much to learn from our doubts – they are in fact a way of actually listening to the voice of our Living God – and I will talk about that next week. But for now the words of Rabbi Brad Hirschfield shall be enough:

Before we start engaging people in grand declarations about how they ought to feel, I would settle for a year of teaching the faithful in every community about the sacredness of modesty, humility questioning, and even doubt as expressions of real faith. When people experience that posture as rooted in the depths of the tradition they love, be it a faith, philosophy or politics, fewer people around the world will die in the names of those traditions… and that would be more than enough for most of us, I think, at least for now.

I’m with you, Rabbi, so let those who have ears to hear: hear.

finding jesus in a wheelchair...

When I travel north to L'Arche Ottawa, I have an extended time of solitude in the car. The visuals are lovely - rock cliffs, rushing riv...