Saturday, July 31, 2010

Non-violence runs deep...

This week I have had a series of very clarifying conversations on FaceBook with a few friends who hold vastly different perspectives about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One man who vigorously opposes both wars expresses himself in harsh, angry and often cruel words. Another, a retiring career military man, is much more circumspect about the tragedies and horror of war. And still another is a dear friend I once played with in a few bands. (My dear wife even weighed in on some of this, too!) All of their comments - whether I have resonated or rejected them - have helped me continue to clarify my own understanding of what it means to be a peace-maker in 21st century America.

+ First, without reservation, I think hateful or fearful rhetoric is destructive, ugly and polarizing. Period. No qualifications. I know that in years past I, too, have shouted in rage and frustration - saying cruel and slanderous things in pursuit of peace - and I have come to see that this is not peace-making. It may be therapy. It may be adolescent rage. But as St. Paul wrote: when I was a child, I spoke like a child; but now that I have grown older I must put childish things away. So, one thing I have clarified is how important words and intentions are to me: being Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly is just as destructive and dishonest from a leftist perspective as from the right. What's more, words wound and alienate. My namesake in scripture put it like this in James 3:

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it! It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can't tame a tongue—it's never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth! My friends, this can't go on. A spring doesn't gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don't bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don't bear apples, do they? You're not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?

To live in the Spirit of truth and authentic non-violence requires taming and disciplining our hearts as well as our tongues and actions. So, while I was frustrated and hurt at some of my friend's cruel words, they were helpful in a paradoxical way.

+ Second, anger is no excuse for cruelty in the name of political or spiritual truth. Anger is natural, of course, but only the anger of moral outrage has a place in the public realm of peace-making and then only if disciplined. Some anger is born of frustration - human life is limited - deal with it. Other anger is born of impotence: what does the wisdom tradition teach in Psalm 37? Open up before God, keep nothing back;
he'll do whatever needs to be done:
He'll validate your life in the clear light of day
and stamp you with approval at high noon.

Quiet down before God,
be prayerful before him.
Don't bother with those who climb the ladder,
who elbow their way to the top. Bridle your anger, trash your wrath,
cool your pipes—it only makes things worse.
Before long the crooks will be bankrupt;
God-investors will soon own the store.

Wait passionately for God,
don't leave the path.
He'll give you your place in the sun
while you watch the wicked lose it.

The old words are equally good: Do not fret because of the wicked... wait on the Lord... be still and know that I am God... do not fret but learn to wait. In a culture addicted to both the bottom line and immediate gratification, frustration is axiomatic. But it doesn't make for peace. Same, too, with emotional, political and spiritual impotence; it is exasperating but breeds more anxiety and stupidity than right relations between people. I've gained some clarity and insight about how to talk about how I see peace-making from the harsh words and anger, too.

+ Third, I have also come to see how deeply I long to trust God - even when the evidence is not there -because I believe that Jesus was right when he said: With human beings, right relations are impossible, but with God (and God's grace) all things are possible.

Niebuhr was prophetic when he wrote the Serenity Prayer - and he wrote it in the face of the growing Nazi horror - and his words are instructive: Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. (In real life, that is often a great deal. As Meister Eckhardt has said: reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but we must start with what is real.) The courage to change what I can (and here is the call to action because there ARE things we can do to advance peace. In the case of these two wars, in addition to relentless prayer and advocacy with our legislators, there is also supporting the work of people like Greg Moretenson or CARE or Church World Service who are making a huge difference in the lives of people throughout the Middle East.) And finally the wisdom to know the difference. (I trust this needs no commentary.)

+ And fourth there is the whole work of healing the wounds - making amends - reparations. Tikun Olam. Doing justice, living compassion and walking in humility with God and God's creation. Some call this restorative justice for the sins of our nation - and they are bold and ugly and vicious -to date approximately 21,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan while the civilian death toll in Iraq is close to 105,000.

Because these wars have largely been "invisible" - both in terms of the costs to our soldiers and economy but also to those who live and die in the war zones - most of us don't have a sense of this tragedy. There isn't much moral outrage because there is precious little awareness. What's more, much of the home turf propaganda machines - like Fox News - paints those who raise these facts to be either lunatics or traitors or both. There is a great deal to atone for as Americans... and being a part of an honest counting the cost is part of the healing. But so is supporting and strengthening genuine acts of healing rather than ranting.

Once, long ago, an African American minister said to me, "You know, son, even Jesus needed and wanted to have a Judas close by in his company." And he wasn't speaking about the betrayal of Judas but rather the importance of someone who can see what we can't. Someone who can name our shadow. Call our attention to our blind spots and help us become more humble. I give thanks that despite some serious disagreements, I've found a little more clarity when it comes to how deep non-violence runs in my veins.

Friday, July 30, 2010

You are what you eat... mostly!

I remember reading Feuerbach back in the day - and lots of Marx, Nietzsche and Hegel, too - as I prepared for seminary. For even though I sensed a "calling" into ministry at 16 (1968), it took me a long time to accept that I was being called into local church work. As my children are fond of saying, I was on the "10 year under-graduate degree plan" and along the way I stopped to become a conscientious objector, work in a residential home for wounded children and organize with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. Then, to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, when it was clear that I couldn't do anything else, I finished up my BA in political science and headed off for theological school.

I had two babies by then - one only 6 months old - and the summer before seminary I read most of the writings of Marx as well as my favorite American socialist -Michael Harrington - while taking care of the children and managing a summer softball concession stand. For those paying attention, my choice of Harrington - and to a lesser degree both Gramsci and Lukas - over Marcuse, Lenin, Mao, Trotsky and Althusser suggests that I was already more interested in the whole notion of "alienation" rather than "scientific socialism" or dialectical materialism. I wanted to have a solid Marxist background before getting to seminary because I was most interested in Latin America liberation theology.

Once I arrived at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, I had the great privilege of being assigned to a young Philosophy of Religion professor: Cornell West. What a trip! We hit it off, he turned me on to other great thinkers in the realm of religion and politics and helped me sort my way through the often bizarre contours of seminary. His book, Prophesy Deliverance, still is crucial to my understanding of how the church in the United States is called to challenge the status quo while offering creative and compassionate alternatives.

Under Cornell's tutelage, I was able to read all of the great liberation theologians - including 6 months in Latin America - and working with another exciting European thinker: Dorothee Soelle. Her fusion of faith, mysticism and a radical commitment to justice deepened my own emerging spirituality. In fact, I often go back to her book, Suffering, as a way of staying grounded in the paradoxical mission of being a pastor. Once, while painting her apartment and then sharing ice cream during a hot ass summer in NYC, she said something like, "As contemporary Christians of privilege, we are called by God to commit class suicide." She was one of the finest post-Bonhoeffer theologians to come out of Germany and I give thanks to having had the chance to study with her, too.

But - and this is a major qualification - while I learned a great deal from both Cornell and Dorothee - and was enriched and challenged by my engagement with liberation theology - I chose another path. Like many in the once mainstream, but now side-line Protestant denominations, I was aching for a way to nourish the soul, too. Like Kathleen Norris writes in both Dakota and The Cloister Walk, it wasn't enough to be engaged in social transformation if there was not depth or nourishment within. What's more, it was becoming clear to me that without watering and feeding my soul, not only would I burn out, but my social action was likely to become as harsh and fear-driven as the status quo I opposed.

I've written about this before: the quest for balance became the real challenge for me - how do I change within and quit making excuses for being just as cruel or stupid or angry as those already in power while also refusing to ignore the wounds of the world. I think Pete Townsend hit it right when he shouted: meet the new boss... same as the old boss! So, with Elizabeth O'Connor and Henri Nouwen and Kathleen Norris and Joan Chittister as guides, I becan to explore what they call the "inner/outward journey." A balance of prayer and solitude as well as social engagement in community with others. The realm of traditional progressive Protestant had taught me nothing about the inner journey and clearly something was mission...

And now, almost 30 years later, I find that while I value my Marxist education and celebrate the work I did in liberation theology - and I would never trade-in any of my political or union social justice work - what matters most to me now is... kindness. Compassion. Mercy.

Today my ministry is much more like Jewel when she sings: in the end, only kindness matters. And as I was going to sleep the other night it hit me: Feuerbach was right (to a degree) because we ARE what we eat. But not in his simplistic materialist understanding, but rather in a manner that recognizes that whatever we give our hearts and time to shapes and informs who we become. If we are always confronting evil - without nourishing the good within and disciplining our own broken self - we will become what we hated. As they say in some of the 12 Step groups: if your only tool is a hammer, then everyone will look like a nail.

The rabbi who taught me the essence of Hebrew once pointed me towards a story that I now see has become emblematic for me: Once there was a young man studying to be a rabbi who thought that he could change the world. He was full of passion and zeal and after his ordination decided to work with his congregation to make a difference for justice in the world. He worked vigorously and gave himself to the task of social justice day and night. But after five years of work he realized that not much had changed and he had hurt many of his loved ones in his pursuit.

So, he said maybe I shouldn't concentrate on the world - maybe I should give myself to changing my synagogue - so that became his quest. And he gave it everything he had for another five years. And when he sat back to assess what had happened, he had to confess that for all his hard work not much had changed in the congregation. So, with a measure of humility, he said perhaps I should concentrate more on changing my family - and that became his life's work: shaping his family into advocates for justice and integrity.

And, as you can gather, at the end of another five years when he stopped to look at what had been accomplished, he had to admit that it wasn't very much. In fact, more often than not he had upset his wife and children without helping them become stronger social activists. So, he devoted himself to prayer and study, loving his family and congregation and helping out in the wider world when he could. And when he was asked by another recently ordained rabbi five years later why he had made such a change in his life's emphasis, he said quietly, "All those years I was trying to change the world, my congregation and my family... what hubris! I mostly can't even change myself... no wonder not much in the world has changed."

That doesn't mean that the world is any less broken. It doesn't mean that suffering has ended or cruelty doesn't need to be confronted. But the humility born of our failures can be become wisdom if it results in more tender compassion and less ugly noise. At least that's what I'm seeing in retrospect. Like the Hebrew prophet Micah reminds: What does the Lord require? To do justice, to share compassion and to walk in humility with the Lord.

Last night I read these words that seem to capure the essence of the inward/outward journey: "Manna is described in the Bible as tasting like wafers made with honey, but the romance of it all was tempered by a certain amount of labor, too. The flakes had to be gathered and measured and used according to instructions. There was baking and boiling and storing for the sabbath. With the miracle - or blessing - came responsibilities. Human involvement was required." (Post and Turner, The Feast, p. 20)

We do become what we eat: today I am grateful that it has been the bread born of both blessing and responsibility - the bounty of the feast - that leads towards balance and compassion. And in this search for balance, I've come to see why confession is so important. The work of Howard Rice, master of the Reformed spiritual tradition, wrote this confession:

Merciful God, we are always wanting our due. It is easy to see what we should receive, but somehow we are blind to our responsibility. We work to save what we do not even want and value objects over people. Help us to know your mind, O Christ, and learn your way. Commit us to building the place where all are welcome and all are cared for you, in your compassion. Amen.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Signs of hope in the middle of anger and fear...

Every Thursday afternoon I write a short note to my congregation sharing with them thoughts about the week as well as prayer concerns and programs to support. Today, it looked like this...

Throughout the summer, a number of projects have been developing: some are scraping and preparing the outside windows for painting, new signs and banners are being created for the front of the church, a summer choir is practicing for the South African Freedom Mass on August, 29 and a group of Sunday School parents and leaders have been working with me on ways to strengthen that ministry. In fact, you may have seen our ad in the Berkshire Eagle. We have also hosted a conversation/study group re: Christianity and Islam, participated in two river clean up events and conducted a silent auction to raise funds for schools for girls in Afghanistan.

I remind you of these various commitments for one reason: our faith calls us into action. There is no unitary form of action in our tradition - as you can see, turning the Word into Flesh in our time has many styles - but central to them all is hope. We live in an increasingly cynical and mean-spirited era. It may be no more cruel than at other times in history, but because we are bombarded by 24/7 cable television and other forms of social media, we are all too aware of the carping, complaining, and cruelty that shapes public discourse. Add to this the instant broadcast of the world's tragedies - from tsunamis to shoot-outs in Afghanistan - and it is no wonder many are weary to the core of their souls.

I recently engaged in a prolonged "internet argument" with a person who wrote the most vile and ugly things about the United States military, government and churches. In many ways he was right - there have been horrible things done in the name of God and country and they must never be forgotten - but at the same time there has been a great deal of good done, too. But all he could do was rant and demean. It broke my heart. I share this with you only because of his profound and vicious cynicism. It is all too virulent - and I believe people of faith have been called to an antidote to the hatred and fear. Saint Paul said that
offering hope, light, and creative alternatives to the darkness looks foolish to those trapped in the despair of the world. In First Corinthians 1 he puts it like this beginning in the verse 10.

I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I'll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common... The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written, I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots."

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?

Which is to say that we have been called by God to become "fools for Christ." Women, men, and children who live into the alternative of Christ's cross that embraces suffering with patience, seeks to find common ground amidst the carping and shares justice and compassion with the cynics so that real lives are healed. In a word, to be a fool for Christ is to give shape and form to hope in our generation. This takes community and support, it demands honesty and humility, too. As the rock and roll singer, Lou Reed, says: It takes a busload of faith to get by!

I give thanks for the way you are making hope visible in the world. I rejoice in the ways you are willing to wrestle with hard truths and move towards healing. I am humbled by your commitment to God and one another. The jazz artist, Herbie Hancock, recently released a version of the song "Don't Give Up" that reminds me of First Church at our best...

Later in the afternoon, I came across another sign of hope in this age of anger and fear: Nicholas Kristoff column in the NY Times entitled, "1 Soldier or 20 Schools?" It, too, is worth reading:

The war in Afghanistan will consume more money this year alone than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War — combined. A recent report from the Congressional Research Service finds that the war on terror, including Afghanistan and Iraq, has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II. It adjusted costs of all previous wars for inflation.

Those historical comparisons should be a wake-up call to President Obama, underscoring how our military strategy is not only a mess — as the recent leaked documents from Afghanistan suggested — but also more broadly reflects a gross misallocation of resources. One legacy of the 9/11 attacks was a distortion of American policy: By the standards of history and cost-effectiveness, we are hugely overinvested in military tools and underinvested in education and diplomacy.

It was reflexive for liberals to rail at President George W. Bush for jingoism. But it is President Obama who is now requesting 6.1 percent more in military spending than the peak of military spending under Mr. Bush. And it is Mr. Obama who has tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan since he took office. (A bill providing $37 billion to continue financing America’s two wars was approved by the House on Tuesday and is awaiting his signature.)

Under Mr. Obama, we are now spending more money on the military, after adjusting for inflation, than in the peak of the cold war, Vietnam War or Korean War. Our battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to The Washington Post, the number of people with “top secret” clearance is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, a sobering report from the College Board says that the United States, which used to lead the world in the proportion of young people with college degrees, has dropped to 12th. What’s more, an unbalanced focus on weapons alone is often counterproductive, creating a nationalist backlash against foreign “invaders.” Over all, education has a rather better record than military power in neutralizing foreign extremism. And the trade-offs are staggering: For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools there. Hawks retort that it’s impossible to run schools in Afghanistan unless there are American troops to protect them. But that’s incorrect.

CARE, a humanitarian organization, operates 300 schools in Afghanistan, and not one has been burned by the Taliban. Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame, has overseen the building of 145 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan and operates dozens more in tents or rented buildings — and he says that not one has been destroyed by the Taliban either. Aid groups show that it is quite possible to run schools so long as there is respectful consultation with tribal elders and buy-in from them. And my hunch is that CARE and Mr. Mortenson are doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops.

The American military has been eagerly reading “Three Cups of Tea” but hasn’t absorbed the central lesson: building schools is a better bet for peace than firing missiles (especially when one cruise missile costs about as much as building 11 schools). Mr. Mortenson lamented to me that for the cost of just 246 soldiers posted for one year, America could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan. That would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.

The latest uproar over Pakistani hand-holding with the Afghan Taliban underscores that billions of dollars in U.S. military aid just doesn’t buy the loyalty it used to. In contrast, education can actually transform a nation. That’s one reason Bangladesh is calmer than Pakistan, Oman is less threatening than Yemen. Paradoxically, the most eloquent advocate in government for balance in financing priorities has been Mr. Gates, the defense secretary. He has noted that the military has more people in its marching bands than the State Department has diplomats.

Faced with constant demands for more, Mr. Gates in May asked: “Is it a dire threat that by 2020 the United States will have only 20 times more advanced stealth fighters than China?”

In the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to invest in a global education fund. Since then, he seems to have forgotten the idea — even though he is spending enough every five weeks in Afghanistan to ensure that practically every child on our planet gets a primary education. We won our nation’s independence for $2.4 billion in today’s money, the Congressional Research Service report said. That was good value, considering that we now fritter the same amount every nine days in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama, isn’t it time to rebalance our priorities?

And as the day comes to a close, my mind turns to the Prayer of St. Francis - words of challenge and compassion and commitment rather than anger and fear - and offer them as yet one more sign of encouragement:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rejoice in my suffering? Are you CRAZY...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 1, 2010. This is the fifth in a series of reflections on Paul's letter to the Romans. I will be using the lectionary gospel - Luke 12 - as well as Romans 5: 1-5 for this week's message. I hope that if you're in town, you'll join us at 10:30 am.

There is an old, old saying that I always link to the loving grace of God that goes something like: you can run, baby, you can run as far and wide as you want, but from the grace of God you can NEVER hide. You know that one? You can run, but you can’t hide?!?

• Many of you know that I am peculiarly wired to listen for the voice of our still speaking God in all kinds of odd places like rock and roll songs, hip hop music, jazz poetry and weird stories from the under belly of respectable society. And time and again, not only do I hear the voice of God’s grace in those places, but I’m strengthened for the journey.

• Back in the Vietnam War, a girl group from Motown by the name of Martha and the Vandellas had a big hit in 1965 with something called, “Nowhere to Run.” You might not think of it as a religious song – it has a KILLER back beat and a sexy vibe – but I’m telling you when Martha Reeves sings that chorus… it’s like a prayer to me about the grace of God that won’t give up on any of us.

It is the soul music version of those “lost” parables in the gospel of Luke – all three of them – that tell us: God is like a woman searching for a lost coin or a shepherd searching for a lost sheep or a father searching for a lost child, right? You can run, but you can’t hide; you can try to get lost, but God won’t give up; you can even fail and throw your life away into the mire of the hog pit, but the Lord will never quit on you.

I think the old Seattle grunge band, Nirvana, knew something about God’s grace, too, although it often came out in a broken and upside down way. When they sang, “Come as You Are” I heard a modern lament that is totally edgy and doesn’t sound very holy, but imagine the heart of the Lord is speaking to alienated young people through the sad words of Kurt Cobain: come as you are – as you were – as I want you to be – as a friend – as a friend – or an old enemy – dowsed in mud – soaked in bleach – as a friend – as I want you to be…”

To me it sounds like what St. Paul was telling us when he said not to worry about our suffering or our fears or the mud and muck of real life. In Romans five he writes that God’s love is always there…

Even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

The traditional words work just as well: For since we have been put into right relations with God by grace… we can rejoice in even our suffering because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint because hope is the presence of the Holy Spirit within and among us given by God.

So much of popular culture is aching for hope: in every class, culture and race – in every political context or economic struggle – in almost all the art, music and entertainment that saturates the silence of our generation – there is a longing for hope and peace and rest. And sadly, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, most of the time we can’t get no satisfaction. We are looking for love and hope in all the wrong places and still haven’t realized that both the Beatles and Jesus were right when they sang, “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.”

"The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop so he said to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest. Hmmmm…? Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself: Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!” Well, just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barn full of goods will perish—who gets the bounty?” And pausing for effect, Jesus turned to his disciples and said: "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God." So what good does it profit a man or woman to inherit the world and lose their soul?

So listen carefully to what Paul advises because this is crucial – a matter of life and death for most of us – that goes far beyond the limited sphere of our own lives, too. When Paul tells us that we can rejoice in our sufferings because they eventually lead us to hope, he isn’t crazy. I know it sounds crazy, but only to those who don’t really trust God’s grace, ok? That’s the first insight: Paul is reminding us that only those who have experienced God’s forgiveness – and trust God’s promises by faith – can find meaning and even hope in the pain their lives. Without faith – trust – pain is just pain: mean, cruel and ugly.

Are you still with me here? Paul’s words to us in chapter five of Romans are the first conclusion he reaches based upon the insights he has already shared with us in the first four chapters of this letter. And let me remind you of his first four points:

• In chapter one he tells us that the heart and soul of God can be summarized by the words grace and peace. God’s grace is never ending – as we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and right relations with people and the Lord – peace – is what begins to take place when we are open to grace. First, there is the nature of God in grace and peace.

• In chapter two Paul tells us that when we choose to run away from grace and violate peace – for whatever reason – we experience God’s wrath. But not in a superstitious or over blown way like hellfire and brimstone, but rather through God’s absence. God’s wrath is God letting us experience the consequences of our choices in the hope that we’ll want something better. “You want to know what it is like living like you are in charge? Ok… have it your way” the Lord says.

• In chapter three he is at great pains to help us realize what sin really means: breaking covenant. For Paul sin is when we choose to break covenant with God – and experience God’s absence – which can be seen through broken relationships with people and unhealthy and broken living.

• And in chapter four he shows us an alternative using the example of Abraham and Sarah: they are what faith looks like – they are a proto-type of how to live into the Lord’s prayer – for they take one step and one day at a time on the journey of faith and trust that God’s promises will be revealed in God’s time. They don’t know the whole story and they are certainly perplexed about how God is going to bring life from out of their old, tired bones. But they trust – which is what faith means – that God is God and they are not.

God’s eternal grace and peace, our experience of God’s absence, an awareness that sin is breaking covenant and the way sin is overcome by faith – in our case faith in the love of God made flesh in Jesus – ok?

Therefore, Paul can say with confidence in chapter five, IF you are open to God’s grace and peace, IF you have known God’s absence and are ready for a change, IF you are able to confess your brokenness and trust by faith that God’s love in Christ can bring you healing, forgiveness and grace; THEN the Spirit of God will lead you through all suffering into hope. NOT that all suffering leads to God – NOT that all suffering is of the Lord – and NOT that any of this is automatic or free.

• Rather it is only by trusting in God’s grace – and looking for the light within the darkness in the Spirit of Christ – that our suffering becomes hope. And only then through practice, patience endurance, the cultivation of a Christian character and all the rest.

• Am I being clear in this? That trust in God’s grace is the only way to rejoice in our suffering – and everything else is a dead end?

Theologians speak of trusting as the Paschal Mystery – acknowledging that God can make something out of nothing and bring life out of death – for that is what we see in Jesus Christ.

• Think of the Lord’s birth: we don’t fully know how to wrap our minds around the words of Scripture but we sense that by Mary’s faith God brought the sacred into the flesh for the healing of the world. Think of Christ’s life: always sharing grace in radical ways so that people in pain might be set free.

• Think of Christ’s death: enduring the Cross trusting beyond the evidence that God’s love was bigger than his death. Think of Christ’s resurrection: new life beyond the pain – beyond the tomb – beyond the guilt, fear and sin.

All of this is what Paul points towards when he says that our suffering can produce endurance – we might call it patience – which can lead to a more Christ-like character that will always discover hope within the suffering. Because, you see, hope is what the Holy Spirit looks and feels like to those who trust God in faith. Hope is not magic nor is hope an illusion. Hope is how we experience the Holy Spirit being poured into our hearts by God: it is born of faith and nourished by practice so that even our sufferings strengthen us in God’s love.

Now, look, none of this is easy, I know that. Paul knows that, too, ok? Remember he was shipwrecked and beaten for his faith – he had to give up the traditions of his youth and culture and family – and eventually was martyred in Rome. This isn’t Hanna Montana talking to us about hope – this is a gnarly little man who had the crap beaten out of him in almost every way imaginable – this dude was time-tested. And what is his counsel to those of us who follow him in faith? How are we to practice and nourish the patience that leads us to hope? Rejoice – rejoice in the Lord always – that’s what he told those who trained with him around first century Palestine. And it is good advice:

• We already know how to feel sorry for ourselves – and we have all matriculated at the University of Complaints – in these things we are professionals.

• And we know something about gaining the world of things while losing our souls, too. But rejoicing – in the Lord for ALL things – not so much?

But that’s the challenge for people who live by faith. Do you know the little book Tuesdays with Morrie? It isn’t a particularly theological book but it is still filled with wisdom. And one of the things that Morrie – a tired old Jewish intellectual who is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease – tells his former student is that whenever he starts to despair or feel sorry for himself – and it happens a lot as the disease matures – he writes it down and saves his complaint for the next day. Then, for the first 30 minutes of the day he hollers and screams and rails against the Lord and everyone else for the cruelty of his failing body. But after 30 minutes he makes himself stop because otherwise he says slyly I would become lost in despair and miss all of the blessings that are still happening.

In other words, Morrie practices rejoicing. So let me wrap this up by asking you to practice a little song born of St. Paul’s words that goes: Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice (that’s part one) – rejoice, rejoice and again I say rejoice (that’s part two.) And when we put the two parts together – in a round – it is a simple and effective antidote to self-pity and despair. In fact, it can help us open our hearts to find the hope God is already pouring into our hearts by the Spirit.
Sing it with me?

1) Bible poster from Catholic Educators @
2) Question mark @
3) Suffering @

Monday, July 26, 2010

Forgive us for we became what we hated...

On more than one occasion I have found myself moved by the excerpt from the poem by Bertolt Brecht entitled: "To Posterity"

In my time streets led to quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure.
That was my hope.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh.
Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us too harshly.

Implied in this ending, however, is one more truth: do not judge us too harshly because... we became what we hated. Over and over again I have seen this lived out in all its brutal ugliness: religious zealots who use violence and hatred in the name of God's peace, secular atheists fighting for justice who become political bullies and arrogant tyrrants, peace-activists who blow up people and buildings for the greater good, spiritual pro-life activists who murder abortion doctors and on and on it goes. And the refrain remains the same: please forgive us for we became what we hated.

Now forgiveness is important - it is always a sign of God's presence - and because I need it as much as anyone else, I celebrate forgiveness as a healing gift. But forgiveness does not mean we forget or overlook the consequences of our hatred, violence or arrogance. St. Paul is uniquely clear on this matter: "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being rendered useless (perishing/apollumi), but to those of who who are being made whole (saved/sozo) the cross is the power of God." (I Corinthians 1: 18-25)

I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.
So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.

While people of tradition clamor for miraculous demonstrations and the elite goes in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Some treat this like an anti-miracle—and others pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God—from any walk of life—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness... In time it should become obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?

To be a holy fool - defined by the weakness of compassion and the way of the cross - is a journey. By nature it evokes ridicule and disdain from some; from others it is just a stupid waste of time. And yet, it seems to be one of the best ways for bringing real peace and hope into reality - and it sure beats the cynical and mean-spirited ethos of those who are certain that they already know better than everyone else, yes?

People of faith should never hide from debating or engaging the foolishness of Christ and his Cross with those who disagree or misunderstand. Not only can we learn and be corrected, but people of good will can always find common ground. But let's not waste our time with those who are addicted to carping or complaining either; there are some people we must simply let go of and shake the dust off from our sandals. Always with compassion, to be sure, but with deliberate action, too, because they are soul vampires - and life is precious. (BTW: this last graphic is a little key chain that helps me keep this all in perspective. I got it in London and always seems to be just right... about myself and others in equal portion.)

1) Trix Kuijper @
2)Abstract Cross @

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sad thoughts on the war in Afganistan...

Tonight the CBS news program, 60 Minutes, ran a telling and sobering clip about Muslim extremism and the support British Muslims give to "the narrative" - a way of understanding the world in which the USA is seen as the key force of hatred against Islam. (go to for the story on YouTube.)

Add this to the NY Times story about the on-going collaboration between the Pakistani intelligence and Al Queda in Afghanistan and a very sad and frightening reality begins to take shape and form. (see: In a word, there is so much hatred and fear against the United States - for good and malicious reasons - that the work of building bridges seems futile, stupid and hopeless.

And yet, as one who trusts the Paschal Mystery more than the ways of this world, such bridge building is needed more than ever before. The scripture reminds me that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.' (Hebrews 11: 1-2) This, however, seems much too passive. I am more persuaded by Clarence Jordan's reworking of this same passage that says: "Faith is the turning of our dreams into deeds." I believe in a new heaven and new earth. I don't believe that the hatred and fear that exists so deeply is the end of the story - and it certainly is not the reality that resonates from within the heart of God whether Christian, Muslim or Jew.

Perhaps much of the work during my final years of ministry are to be given over to the slow and very tentative work of building bridges, hope and compassion between people of God who sense we are natural born enemies. We are not - we were all born into the image of God - Muslim, Christian and Jew - and Buddhist and atheist and Jain, too. To be sure, this is to be a fool for Christ but considering the alternatives... I like the way The Compassion Project puts it:

The Compassion project is inspired by a story about the Buddha told by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. In a past life, prior to enlightenment, the Buddha was in Hell. He was with another man, and they were being tortured by a guard whose duty was to cause the two men suffering. The Buddha, tired of seeing his companion in pain, told the guard that he should not beat the man or cause suffering in others. The guard became very angry and stuck his fork in the heart of the Buddha. The Buddha died but was simultaneously reborn into a new life on earth. Even in Hell there is compassion.

The Compassion Project, which references previous well known religious ad campaigns, honors multiple ideas of god by drawing from a Buddhist legend. The project embraces compassion as a broad spiritual principal, true to the values of Jesus as a historical, political, and spiritual figure. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts by leaving a written comment or by calling 1-800-515-5690.

I have family and friends deploying to Afghanistan - you probably do, too. I grieve for the thousands of innocent civilians my nations has slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan. And my faith community has sent thousands of dollars to Greg Mortenson to build schools for girls in Afghanistan because we do not believe in the hatred and fear - of the US or Al Queda. This is a sad and ugly moment and yet I believe that one person can make a difference... especially when grounded in God's grace.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

More thoughts on feasting and consequences...

Perhaps because I've been reading the new biography of Bonhoeffer - or maybe I am having a reaction to an older paradigm of discipleship that I find oppressive and shame-based - but my thoughts keep returning to the metaphor of doing church as Christ's feast. As I've noted before, I am still connecting some of the dots - and I'm sure there are lots of gaps and question marks to be explored by souls wiser than myself - so today's reflection is part of a work in progress, ok? It has to do with one of the many stories of Jesus and a feast...

Luke 19 tells the story of a tax collector, Zacchaeus, who experiences a transformation during his feasting with Jesus. (Luke 19: 1-10) A few background thoughts are helpful:

+ First there is the whole notion of clean/unclean. Zacchaeus was a publican - a chief tax collector for Rome - and hence a collaborator with the occupation troops of Rome. Balsam was produced in Jericho from the resin of the Commiphora tree which was then used to make both perfumes and medicinal balms (think "balm in Gilead.") A great deal of commerce took place on the Jericho Road and it fell to Zacchaeus and his employees to collect the required tolls, duties and related fees. Malina and Rohrbaugh note in A Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels that some publicans became very wealthy - often through abuse and embezzlement - but this is not true for all tax collectors. In fact, employees of chief publicans were often among the working poor. So, while the context is clear in Luke's story that Zacchaeus was likely considered ritually unclean because of his chosen work as a collaborator, it is also clear that he is unclean for having climbed into the sycamore tree.

The sycamore tree was a type of fig tree whose fruit was "considered inferior to a true fig." More often than not it was food only for the poor or pigs. So, any way you cut it, this little rich man was not fit company for those who were called into a holy and devout life.

+ Second is the feast itself: we have NO description of what took place. Is Jesus a guest of the publican before his impassioned confession or afterwards? Does the crowd grumble when Jesus enters the house of the unclean collaborator - or does this happen immediately? All we know for certain is that when Jesus saw Zacchaeus he asked to rest in his home and the sinner was filled with joy to share hospitality.

Some commentators say that because the verb tense is in the present it must mean that Zacchaeus is already acting in a compassionate and just way: upon hearing the complaints of the crowd, the tax collector reminds the mob - and Jesus - that he is already giving away half of possessions to the poor and paying back those he has defrauded four times the damage. Why, then, does the crowd grumble and mistrust the hospitality of the little sinner? My hunch is that it was only after the feast that bold restitution is made by Zacchaeus.

This is, after all, a story about contrasts: in Luke 18 another rich man approaches Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life (Luke 18: 18-27) while here Jesus seeks out the searching one. In Luke 18 the rich man leaves unhappy whereas Zacchaeus experiences joy both at the start of the invitation as well as after the feast. And, Zacchaeus concludes that generosity and justice are necessary after his encounter with Jesus while the rich man walks empty away in grief. To my way of thinking, Zacchaeus "gets it" after feasting and sharing hospitality with the Word made Flesh.

+ And third let's not forget the nature of the mob's grumbling: earlier in Luke we read that the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and complaining that Jesus ate with tax collectors, whores and sinners. In fact, the story starts with Jesus going into the house of a tax collector whose main guest list included the bottom of the social barrel (Luke 5: 1-30.) And after the meal he tells the religious scholars: go learn what it means for the Lord to desire compassion rather than religious rules.

This, it would seem, is salvation - sozo - to be made whole. In this story, the feast is the setting in which the wounded and wounding Zacchaeus encounters something of God's grace. The result being that he realizes that he must give back as good as he has received. He has been made whole and must now do his part to restore others. To which Jesus says: "Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is, Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost." That is, here is a child of the covenant living into his deepest commitments and bringing right relations to other sisters and brothers of the covenant.

The feast of Zacchaeus is, then, a healing story: for one man but also the whole community. And the healing is, perhaps, what so grabs me about the feast as a different way of doing church and nourishing disciples. It allows for time - something of great importance in our over scheduled era - time to savor, think and respond. It begins with hospitality, respect and nourishment - and the style has to do with sharing - so any response is left to each person's experience of God's grace, yes?

I'm writing this as I listen to Herbie Hancock's "Imagine Project" - especially his collaboration with John Legend and Pink on Peter Gabriel's tune: "Don't Give Up." It is a feast for the ears, soul and heart and... points to the healing of God's grace. Dig it.

1) Sotchi Watanabe @
2) Geoffrey Todd @ ibid
3) Emmanuel Garibay @ ibid
4) Lindena Robb @ ibid

Friday, July 23, 2010


Here's a wonderful poem for a Sabbath by Ellen Bass. It may be perfect...

Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter's age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she's a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat—
the one you never really liked—will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours, for a month.
Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you'll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn't plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you'll come home to find your son has emptied
your refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up—drug money.
There's a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs halfway down. But there's also a tiger below.
And two mice—one white, one black—scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here's the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you'll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You'll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.

Time to enjoy the sweet, tart red juice, yes?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The end of a full week...

This week has been a full and creative one - and I give thanks to God. My sweetheart has been busting her butt at work - they are remodeling her store - and two weeks into a three week overhaul. So tomorrow, our Sabbath, will be quiet and gentle and we'll stop by to celebrate a dear woman's 90th birthday, too.

In addition to all the regular pastoral stuff - study and prayer, sermon writing and administrative details as well as pre-marital conversations and home visits - three unique things happened. First, I had a serious conversation with a young man about exploring ordained ministry. One of the things I have come to value over my years of doing this gig is that I have been able to journey with 5 different young people in their discernment for ministry. I can't recall who said it to me, but it stuck: if a church isn't inspiring, encouraging and equipping young adults with a hunger for ministry, something is wrong. I don't want to be doctrinaire or judgmental about this, ok? And yet I have come to see how important it is to open some hearts and minds to what the Spirit may be saying. So, we're going to be working on this more this summer and as the year unfolds.

Second, band practice was tons of fun. A new vocalist has joined the fold - our old buddy Eva having headed to Vegas - and she is wonderful with a GREAT ear for harmonies and rhythm. It is exciting to see where her new energy leads us as we start shaping things up for the fall. There is a unique and curious dynamic in a band, you know, that is all about poetry and spiritual support in addition to talent and intuition. Sometimes highly skilled players can come together and the result is mush - or shit - or just a drag. And sometimes modest players who work well together can bring out the best in one another, too. And sometimes when creative folk who fit together discover their groove... it is one of the finest blessings ever to be shared by our Creator.

And third an ever growing circle of friends are making connections: two blogging-buddies from Canada are coming for a visit in early August, a colleague from Arizona is coming here to preach a trial sermon for another local church, two lay-folk from Tucson just made a special stop today on their way to Niagara Falls and two more dear souls will be joining us in September. A colleague from another town took me to lunch yesterday to share some deep thoughts about how we might journey deeper into the Spirit together. We'll be doing a "music and spirituality" workshop in early October for yet another local church. So it feels like things are really coming together. (To be sure, there are always carpers and those who always try to make you feel broken and exhausted - that goes with the territory - but mostly they are a distinct minority.)

Made me think of this little sequence from the music geek documentary, "It Might Get Loud," wherein Jimmy Page talks about - and then plays - the opening riff to "Whole Lotta Love." Dig how both the Edge and Jack White look on in reverence, support and joy - their faces just shine in very unique ways and for very unique reasons.

It is such a sweet, sweet privilege to be able to share love and music and prayer and compassion with those who are open and receptive. It is an honor to study the scriptures and try to discern with this faith community where God's love may be calling us. And on a beautiful Berkshire day like this, it is all worthwhile.

Wendell Berry gets it exactly right in "The Hidden Singer..."

The gods are less
for their love of praise.
Above and below them all
is a spirit that needs
nothing but its own
its health and ours.
It has made all things
by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come
together—the seer
and the seen, the eater
and the eaten, the lover
and the loved.
In our joining it knows
itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods
whose names crest
in unearthly fire,
but as a little bird
hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly
and waits
and sings

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The foolishness of Christ...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 25, 2010. They are grounded in both our on-going considerations of Paul's insights in Romans for 21st century people of faith as well as my own conviction that being a "fool for the sake of God's love" is essential. It isn't any MORE important than at other times - think of St. Francis or the prophet's of Israel or Rumi - but it has certainly taken on an urgency for me. To be sure, my guiding theological text has long been Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools - and the Godspell music it inspired (along with my doctoral work) - but living into this alternative to the wisdom of this world rings more and more true to me these days. If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 am for worship.

There is something radical, offensive and even crazy about following Jesus – something morally scandalous and intellectually challenging, too.
When the disciples ask for signs of security, Jesus tells them to pray only for daily bread because this is a one day at a time operation.

• When they ask him the best way to know the will of the Lord, he says first imagine what the earth would be like if God were king and Cesar was not – thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven – and take it from there.

• And when they question him about the content of God’s heart he says there is only one word you need to remember: generosity. Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are broken know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

See what I mean? This is an upside down kingdom that upsets most of our traditional ways of thinking about the sacred, morality and what is important in life. Jesus is clear that his way is about being awake right now so that we can savor our daily bread – it’s about right relations among all people and creation so that God’s will is realized here on earth as it is already being done in heaven – and it’s about social, spiritual, political, ethical and moral generosity – or grace. I love this quote – and have shared it with you before – that Douglas John Hall uses to open his systematic theology:

Jesus says that in his society there is a new way for us to live: you show wisdom by trusting, you handle leadership by serving, you handle offenders by forgiving and money by sharing and enemies by loving; and you handle violence by suffering… In all things you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in a Jesus society you repent not by feeling bad, but by thinking and acting different!

And it is precisely these radical, offensive and crazy notions about faith that St. Paul asks us to embrace in today’s text from Romans. Much to his surprise, Paul has discovered that faith has more to do with living into the powerful discontinuities of Christ than intellectual clarity or assent to doctrinal truth. In a word, faith is about trusting and following God even when the ambiguities are stronger than the certainties. In Peterson’s translation of Romans 4 he puts it like this:

Look, people, we are those who call Abraham the "father” of our faith not because he got God's attention by living like a saint, but because God made something out of Abraham when he was a nobody. Abraham was first named "father" and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he couldn't do but on what God said he would do. And so he was made father of a multitude of peoples. God said to him, "You're going to have a big family, Abraham!"

And Abraham didn't focus on his own impotence and say, "It's hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child." Nor did he survey Sarah's decades of infertility and give up. He didn't tiptoe around God's promise asking cautiously skeptical questions. He plunged into the promise and came up strong, ready for God, sure that God would make good on what the Lord has promised.

Which makes it essential for us to know the highlights of the story of both Abraham and Sarah, because as Paul suggests, they are the key to unlocking the mystery of faith: in fact, Abraham and Sarah show us what it looks like to live the Lord’s Prayer. So let’s do a quick survey of some of their highlights – something like those TV shows that say, “Previously on… Lost or The Good Wife or Rescue Me” – so that we, too, can hallow God’s name with our lives, ok?

Now the story of Abraham and Sarah is rich – and our survey will only scratch the surface of a complicated journey by faith – and yet I think if we are careful, we can lift up four key elements that will be helpful in naming what true faith looks like for those who seek to follow Jesus as Christ.

First is the call of Abram found in Genesis 12: The Lord said to Abram “You are to go and leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house and move into a land that I will show you. If you leave behind what you know, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing to others… So Abram went.” What do you notice about faith in this story?

What does it look like or mean to you based upon what’s going on? There is nothing doctrinal – or overly intellectual – right? God invites Abram to set off on a journey – whose destination, we should note, has not yet been revealed – which suggests an element of trust and mystery. And the only assurance Abram has about the journey is that God will be with him – Abram will not be alone – for God will be his guide into the mystery. He doesn’t know how and he doesn’t really know why; all that is clear is that God is calling him to set out and trust.

And then we read these fascinating and simultaneously frightening words: so Abram went. The Quaker spiritual teacher, Richard Foster, writes that the essence of faith, “… is a journey where God calls and we go forth without a map, never quite sure where we are going but trusting in God’s promised presence.” Invitation, trust, mystery and journey are our first clues about authentic faith in our tradition, yes?

The second essential story of Abram happens in Genesis 15 where the old, wandering not yet Jew starts to really worry and question the Lord: “How am I going to become the father of a great nation when my wife is as ancient and worn out as I am – and I seem impotent to boot! To which God replies: Look toward heaven and count the stars… so shall be your descendants… so Abram trust and God considered him righteous by this faith.”

So what do you find taking place here that tells you something about faith? Sometimes we have more questions than certainty, yes? More fear and doubt rather than courage and clarity – so it must be ok not to have it all figured out – so that our confusion and hesitation can teach us something about God’s love.

In the world of spiritual direction this is called the via negativa – the dark or obscure way into God’s grace – that honors the questions and hard times as much as the bounty and blessings. Perhaps this poem by Rumi, the great Sufi mystical poet of Islam, will help:

One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of our souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.

What does that tell us about faith…? So, faith has something to do with mystery and questions, invitation and trust, an unclear journey where the darkness is just as honored as the light.

There are two more stories in an abbreviated form: God promises Abraham and Sarah a son in Genesis 18 and God considers Abraham and Sarah to be a sign of creation’s fresh start in Psalm 32. Genesis 18 is a funny and fantastic story about three angels of the Lord visiting the tent of a wizened old Abraham. As is the Bedouin custom, the travelers are welcomed into his protection and offered the gift of hospitality, food and shelter.

And during the course of their meal, they tell Abraham that despite all the odds, God will honor the sacred promise and bring fertility to both he and Sarah in the form of a son. At which point Sarah, who is hidden away from the male guests, bursts out laughing at the absurdity of this promise. “Why did Sarah laugh and question my promise,” said the Lord. “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

In time, it comes to pass that they indeed do have a son – the fulfillment of the sacred promise – and what is his name?

• Isaac, because…? Genesis 21: Sarah said, “The Lord has brought laughter to me and everyone who hears of this child will laugh with me… so we will call him Isaac which means laughter.

• Do you see how this story is shaping up and what it tells us about faith? Abraham and Sarah listen and respond to God’s invitation – they embrace a life of pilgrimage rather than clarity – they ask questions and doubt knowing that even their anxiety will reveal something of God’s grace to them and the world…

And they laugh – and sometimes cry – and live life fully trusting that God is in control so that they don’t have to be. Psalm 32 puts it poetically saying:

Count yourself lucky, how happy and blessed you must be— you get a fresh start and your slate's wiped clean. Count yourself lucky—the LORD holds nothing against you and you're holding nothing back from God. When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder and my words became daylong groans. The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up. (Sound like anybody we’ve been considering?) But then I let it all out and said, "I'll make a clean breast of my failures to GOD." And suddenly the pressure was gone—my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.

Now let me pause to see if you have any questions so far: Have I been clear in distinguishing how our tradition defines faith? How it is more about the journey than the destination? Our questions as well as our clarity? Invitation and listening and mystery – and joy? Anything you want to say so far?

I love the way Paul pulls it together in Romans 4: That is why it is said, "Abraham was declared fit before God – he trusted God to set him right." But it's not just Abraham; it's also us! The same thing gets said about us when we embrace and believe the One who brought Jesus to life when the conditions were equally hopeless. The sacrificed Jesus made us fit for God, set us right with God.

He’s saying: Just as Abraham and Sarah trusted God’s promise in their time, so, we trust God’s promises now through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are not asked to fully comprehend this faith: how could we ever get our minds around a love that can raise the dead into new life or offer forgiveness and grace when we ourselves are so often spiteful, petty and violent?

No, comprehension is not faith – now we see as through a glass darkly – only later shall we see face to face. Faith is about trust and starting the journey without knowing anything more about the conclusion than that God will not abandon us regardless of what we think, feel or know. Like Jesus instructed his disciples:

• We walk by faith asking for daily bread – not a full freezer of goodies. We walk by faith seeking right relations with other wounded people even when we are in the shadow of the valley of death.

• We walk by faith trusting that our often small and unnoticed acts of generosity set in motion a whole network of tiny ripples that bring healing and mercy to creation far beyond our abilities or our comprehension.

Which, as I said at the outset, is a radical, offensive and even crazy way to live for those who don’t walk by faith, don’t you think? Paul said as much in I Corinthians reacting to the philosophers and sophisticated cultural critics of his day: The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the walking the way of faith it makes perfect sense. For this is the way God works… I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head and I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.” (I Corinthians 1:23-27)

When Jesus gathered together people who were hungry for faith and hope and love on the mountain, he said much the same thing: You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope because with less of you there is more of God and God’s presence. You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you because only then can you be embraced by the One who holds you most dear. You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less – for that's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought. This is craziness – absurd, offensive foolishness – to those who don’t walk by faith.

A true story about Mother Teresa and a famous ethicist perhaps brings it all home: It seems a learned soul came to work at Mother Teresa’s house for the dying in Calcutta “at a time when he was seeking a clear answer about how best to spend the rest of his life.”

She asked him what she could do for him and he asked her to pray for him. “And what do you want me to pray for?" she asked. And he said, "Pray that I have clarity." To which she replied, "No, I will not do that – clarity is the last thing you are clinging to – and must let go of." The ethicist said that Mother Teresa always seemed to have the clarity he longed for which just made her laugh out loud: "I have never had clarity,” she said, “what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you come to trust God." (Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds)

And all those with ears to hear said: Amen.

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gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...