Looking for God in all the wrong places...

NOTE: My sermon notes for the first Sunday of Advent - November 29, 2009 - suggest that one of the tensions in the lectionary readings for this week involve the human longing for justice and God's full presence in our lives and the more ordinary and less dramatic presence of the one who is holy. So I wrestle with the prophetic anticipation of a "final" day of the Lord vs. the more humble fig tree image of Jesus. This is the first in a series of reflections on the spirituality of Mary for those of us in the Reformed tradition. We'll see how it shakes out.

Back when I was a young student in seminary – about a hundred years ago – there was a very popular country song playing on almost every radio station in America: “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Do you remember it?

• It was included in the 1980 movie with John Travolta and Debra Winger, “Urban Cowboy.” It was a monster hit record for Johnny Lee. And it became a part of the sound track of that era when Americans were held hostage in Iran, a new television network – CNN – was launched and Ronald Reagan became the president of the United States.

• The chorus goes: “I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places, lookin' for love in too many faces, searchin' their eyes, lookin' for traces of what I'm dreamin' of. I was hopin' to find a friend and a lover - I'll bless the day I discover - another heart lookin' for love.”

In many ways, I think that silly pop song is prophetic: not only does it capture the essence of a generation, but it also speaks to a universal spiritual truth. Namely, that many and most of us know what it feels like to look for love – and God – in all the wrong places. That’s what most addiction is at its core – trying to fill the aching emptiness with something that will take away the pain – suicide, promiscuity and greed, too.

• Anybody here ever have a tooth ache – or chronic pain – or a broken heart or wrestled with addiction?

• Then you know what I’m talking about: when our bodies hurt – when our soul is empty – when our life is filled with agony or despair we want it to end. Period. End of the story, yes?

That’s how we were created – in God’s image – we were built to want to extinguish the fire and eliminate the pain. But here’s the thing: while St. Augustine was essentially right when he noted that within every heart there is God shaped hole that can only be satisfied from above, sometimes our religious traditions don’t help.

Sometimes our spiritual heritage is shame based, right? Sometimes it is more rooted in fear than hope. And sometimes it is just so other worldly and heaven centered as to be no earthly good whatsoever. And this is not unique to Christianity – it is as true to every religion as it is true to every family or business or nation – there is always a tension present between what is helpful and holy and what is broken and confused.

• That’s true in every individual, right? We each know something of the light as well as the shadow; we each know a part of the truth amidst a whole bunch of lies, too. And most of the time we can’t quite discern which is which.

• Like the poet, Robert Bly, used to say at the beginning of some of his workshops: today I am going to tell you something that is profoundly true AND I am going to give you a bunch of BS. So listen carefully because most of the time I don’t know the difference.

So when I tell you that sometimes our religious traditions don’t help us when we’re searching for love and God in all the wrong places please understand that I am NOT trying to throw religion away. That’s what adolescents do: they discard everything that has gone before them because they are certain that they know best. But if, by the grace of God, they live beyond their early 20s, most come to see that they, too, are a combination of light and dark and a whole lot of shadows and that there is wisdom and healing outside of their experience.

• I love the way Mark Twain put it: when I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But by the time I had reached 21 I was astonished at how much he had learned in 7 years.

• He also said that education consists mainly of what we have unlearned. And in the realm of religion there are some important lessons for us to unlearn – especially if we want to quit searching for God in all the wrong places – and Advent is a good place to start.

Today’s texts, for example, ask us to hold two opposing truths in tension: our longing for justice and peace – our aching for love and healing and hope and grace – AND the necessity of knowing how to wait on the Lord in the spirit of sacred patience. Here’s what I mean:

• The vision and commitment of the prophet says that there will come a time when all evil and injustice – all pain and suffering – will end.The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

• Now contrast the wisdom of Jeremiah with the words Jesus offers us on this first Sunday of Advent: “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking… So look instead at the fig tree or any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God's kingdom is about here… so be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise…”

Scholars suggest that on the one hand the prophetic text from Jeremiah speaks of a deep human need to believe that one day God is going to make everything right. There may be trouble and pain today but in God’s own time all things will be made right. How does the old spiritual put it? “We shall overcome… someday. We shall live in peace… we’ll walk hand in hand.” The poet, Stephen Mitchell, has written in his commentary on Job as well as his reflection on the life of Jesus that this longing for the lion to lie down with the lamb is as old as the beginning of time: Jeremiah and Isaiah proclaimed it as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It is deep in our hearts. And yet mostly this longing remains, yes? The dream endures but it is rarely realized…

• So could it be that this is part of the tradition we have been called to unlearn? Could it be that our romantic and idealized sense of God’s justice in our day – or even at the end of time – is part of the way we have been looking for God in all the wrong places?

• That it is an illusion – even a distraction – that keeps us from paying attention to the fig tree of reality?

Not that the quest for compassion or dignity is wrong – I’m not saying that – but what if there is a better way: a way that grounds us in the truth of the moment, helps us move into acceptance instead of fantasy or delusion and deepens our ability to wait and live with patience and compassion?

• The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said: Reality is the will of God – it can always be better – but we must start with what is real in order to know the way of the Lord.

• Reinhold Niebuhr said much the same thing in what we know as the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The preacher and author, Barbra Brown Taylor, is on to something when she urges us to pay attention to the humble and ordinary fig tree in the words of Jesus. Too often, she notes, we get caught up in abstractions when it comes to things like “judgment and salvation, or else dramatic things like earthquakes and plagues. But by directing our attention to a sprouting tree, Jesus invites us into a simpler and more gentle way – a way of not working so hard – so that we might see in the most ordinary events of our lives” what is at the heart of God. (Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds for Advent, www.ucc.org/ worship/ samuel/november-29.html)

Which leads me into the way – or the spirituality – of Mary rather than Jeremiah or John the Baptist or any of the other prophets of our tradition: they have a place… but Mary offers a better way. She is much like the fig tree in Christ’s example: she waits for God’s time – she ponders much of what seems perplexing in her heart rather than get depressed or anxious – and she rests in the trust that God really is God so she need not try to be. One of my all time favorite writers, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, puts it like this in her book, To Dance with God:

In Advent, we are to be a people pregnant: pregnant and waiting. We long for the God/Man to be born and this waiting is hard. Our whole life is spent, one way or another, in waiting. Information puts us on hold… our order hasn’t come in yet. The elevator must be stuck. Our loved one is late. Will the snow never melt, the rain never stop, the pain ever dry? Will anyone ever understand? Will I ever change?

Very earthy and ordinary realities, yes? And who but a pregnant Mary speaks to us in about such things? Certainly not the prophets – St. Paul only rarely – and even Jesus only cryptically. No, Mary has much to teach us in Advent about waiting in pregnant anticipation. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson continues:

Advent invites us to understand life with a new and even feminine state of being. (It is a way towards balance, you see?) Our mostly masculine world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right and delays an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting… And the more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry… But listen… as in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not reconciliation or justice or a new relationship, a work of art or even social change. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive.

No wonder so many of our Advent/Christmas traditions involve brewing and baking, ripening and simmering, right? I am certain that quiet, ordinary and profoundly pregnant Mary has something to teach us all about waiting and hoping and discerning where God is already breaking into our lives.

This season I invite you to explore with me the way of Mary – certainly a different way for many of us – and maybe even a better way. She can be our guide into the wisdom of today’s psalm that prays:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me into your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long… Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! For you lead the humble in what is right and show us how the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.

Lord, in your mercy, may it be so within and among us all.

(This is my favorite Marian composition: from S. Rachmaninov's Vespers, "Rejoice, O Theotokos" it is PURE heaven.)
credits: 1) Robert Lentz http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/gallery/exhibits/lentz.html


Black Pete said…
In my experience (or perception thereof), Robert Bly would switch instantaneously from poetic/spiritual language to concrete language without warning or qualifier, and back again any number of times. It gave his writings, in my view, a hard-edged inflexibility, a sense of the world being very black and white, without nuance. In other words, metaphor and the concrete literal became interchangeable, at great damage to understanding (IMO).

Given what you've written here, I wonder if he was switching unconsciously, and hadn't realized what was happening for his own part.

Marcus Borg, in his book "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time", described that process very well, only in terms of "trance" speech and everyday speech. In other words, he says that at times, Jesus was speaking in a trance state, and other times, not.

The Bible transcribes Jesus's words without qualifier, so that we can only infer what was trance speech and what was straight-up, everyday, perhaps even joking around speech. In other words, weighing the import of what is said is at best a guessing game.

I think that Biblical literalists assume that every single word attributed to Jesus is of equal import to every other, that every single utterance has equal weight. i think that great damage to the truth (and to countless lives) has happened as a result.
RJ said…
I sometimes wondered about that with Bly, too. I mostly still value/respect him - wounds and all. I very much resonate with Borg's insights and like the idea of "trance" and "ordinary." I know sometimes I get in a "zone" when playing music... and it is very different from other gigs. Your post reminds me of a very valuable book written for literalists: the Hard Sayings of Jesus in which a solid biblical scholar reminds or introduces the idea of metaphor and nuance to literal thinking.

Be well, my man.

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