Thursday, July 31, 2014

Abide with me...

I read a really potent chapter in Slow Church last night that warrants deeper reflection. In their chapter on patience, pastors Smith and Pattison note that the early Church embraced the practice of patientia:
Patience is how compassion is embodied in our lives...(It is not) passive waiting... Rather, patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us. Defining patience this way reveals the error not only in avoiding the suffering of others, but also in trying to fix their suffering without entering into it. The road toward healing and reconciliation is the patient, compassionate way of Jesus.

The first thing that rings true for me in this deeper understanding of Christian patience is the insistence that it begins within our flesh. It is embodied love rather than abstract or elitist ideas. Later the authors put it like this: "We learn patience by forgiving and being reconciled to one another. Our brothers and sisters may incessantly annoy us. But we are called in Christ to love and be reconciled to them... we learn patience by immersion, journeying faithfully alongside those who are suffering. It's easy, for example, to lob advice or judgment when a friend's marriage is falling apart. It's more complex and more demanding to sit down with the couple, to listen, to work slowly and coversationaly toward healing, to celebrate reconciliation or to grieve a divorce (or celebrate I might add if that is best, too.)"

I can't tell you how many times I have heard well-intentioned church people offer their usually unsolicited advice/solution as the remedy to another's wound. Talk about disembodied but destructive arrogance! Or how about those who are certain the "church" should be involved in X or Y action for social justice? "It is just so CLEAR..." they insist without doing any of the hard work of listening and relationship building that authentic organizing requires. St. Paul was clear:  we are the BODY of Christ and we must KNOW one another before we have any clue about how to be helpful.

The second thing that grabs me about this understanding of patience is the way it challenges our aversion to suffering. If compassion is truly suffering with - if Christ's incarnation teaches us anything about the Word becoming Flesh and dwelling within and among us - then the time has come to forsake our phobia about embracing another's pain. "Clearly," Smith and Pattison write, "there are some sorts of suffering that should be overcome if we are able, but our call is to compassion - a word derived from the Latin meaning "to suffer with." The great tragedy of our technological success is not just that we've created a culture that avoids suffering, but that we have lost the capacity or willingness to enter into the pain of others."
We have, it would seem, become too adept at avoidance on a variety of levels. Henri Nouwen once defined impatience as "an inner restlessness... that experiences each moment as empty, useless and meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the hear and now as soon as possible." I've felt that - and I have bolted from that anxious boredom that feels like emptiness but is more often than not the call to go deeper more times than I care to confess - and my hunch is that many people in my church have done likewise. It is one of the social diseases of this moment in history - and the spirituality of Jesus offers an alternative.

The gospel of John puts these words in the mouth of Jesus: Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing... As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love... The biblical text uses the Greek word, meno, which means to rest deeply. To tarry or sojourn with. 

Another oblique Sabbath reference? Could be from where I am sitting at the end of my week in anticipation of tomorrow's Sabbath rest. What's more, I love the call to rest in the full grace of Christ's presence rather than my own fretting fabout what I think must still accomplished. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sometimes you're the windshield...

Another day in tribute to my old friend Ray Swartzback - my seminary mentor
in urban ministry - who almost never failed to say to me: This job is an emotional roller coaster. Damn was he ever telling the truth! At least once a week somebody presents themselves to me as smarter than Jesus. Same thing is true for those who come into my life as the living embodiment of humility and grace. Throw in a wonderful staff in all their humanity - the challenge of renewing a church in the 21st century - and the worries we all have about making ends meet and Swartzy's aphorism needs to be enshrined on the wall of my church study: THIS JOB IS AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER.

Let's see, in addition to the various pastoral visits of this week, I received news that one of my dearest friend's daughters is dying a hard and tragic death too young - was invited to be a part of an inter-faith youth summit grounded in the Abrahamic faiths - planned a film night with a colleague for LGBTQ youth - reworked the appointments in the Sanctuary - ran a music practice for our August 17th fundraiser for a local environmental group - met with city officials about dual use possibilities for our building - followed up on an emerging Christian/Jewish study group into the origins of Israel and Palestine - worked on getting a small house meeting campaign moving in the congregation re: regional justice issues - studied scripture and prepared for Sunday worship - kept current with reading two contemporary theological books - reviewed the new work on our website redesign - recruited a few new people for my sabbatical implementation team - and met with a person who donated her car to a staff person because she is changing directions in ministry. There were ups and downs, insights and confusion, hurts and hugs, a few tears and a whole lot of trust that in the economy of the Lord this all has value. And that's just the professional side of the ledger, right?

Tonight, after a nap and a nice French Bordeaux, I'm quietly humming Mary Chapin Carpenter to myself...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Sabbath as resistance #4: worship notes...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 3, 2014. They are part four of an on-going summer series grounded in Walter Brueggemman's book Sabbath as Resistance:  Saying NO to the Culture of NOW. I am deeply indebted to Dr. Brueggemann's insights and quote him frequently in this message.

In the United Church of Christ, our theological home and spiritual center, there is a saying that is widely shared: No matter who you are – no matter where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here. This slogan – or even what some have called the distillation of our mission – is easily misunderstood.

Some people have said that it is too simplistic and without theological depth.  Others have worried that it is too broad and general; without clear Christian bench marks or reference points.  And others still have written it off as a marketing gimmick that has a bit of a buzz to our postmodern sensibilities, but doesn't really mean anything beyond advertising sophistry.

Each critique, in my opinion, is short-sighted – and here is why I have come to this conclusion:  our catch phrase is actually a 21st century restatement of an ancient biblical truth that has shaped and challenged God’s people for at least three thousand years. Even many people who are biblically and liturgically literate often miss the penetrating prophetic wisdom of this statement because they want to hear God’s truth proclaimed in the old words, the old music, and the old creeds. To which the prophet Isaiah – discerning the will of the Lord 300 years before Jesus – writes:  “Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called.” (Isaiah 56: 8)

Now on the surface these words don’t mean much to us; in fact, if you were doing a quick review of the Bible you might even skim over this portion of Isaiah without giving it much thought. But, if you were to let Professor Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary, the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament studies, guide you, you would come to a profoundly different conclusion. In fact, I suggest to you that you too would come to see how the wisdom of Isaiah not only gives shape and form to the ministry of Jesus but also the word of the United Church of Christ.

Further, I would be willing to wager that you would also come to see yet another reason why Sabbath keeping is essential for us to reclaim. So what I propose to do this morning is offer you a quick survey of the two fundamental Biblical understandings of community membership – how Israel used to define who was in and who was out of the covenant – and then lift up Isaiah’s startling inclusive corrective.

Because the way I get it, Isaiah tells us that there came a time in ancient Israel when the requirements of God’s covenant changed – they were broadened and altered to be wildly inclusive – and Sabbath keeping became the new normal: Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called… and blessed are those who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it.
So let’s start with the background and see how the Spirit of the Lord makes a corrective through the prophet Isaiah.  To do this we have to know that the Old Testament tells us the story of how God’s love transforms a scattered group of nobodies into a unique and blessed people. Brueggemann writes: “The formation of Israel is narrated as a process whereby YHWH’s power transformed “no people” into “this people.”

The Hebrews, as forerunners of Israel, were treated according to tradition as marginal, objectionable people… according to the Joseph narrative they were regarded as a threat to social propriety and kept separated from those who managed social power… during the exodus they are known as a mixed multitude… and it was only at Sinai (where the Ten Commandments are handed down) that this disparate population was formed and transformed by God’s love into an identifiable, intentional community.

Are you still with me?  At its core, the Biblical story begins by telling us that the people who came to be known as Israel started off as a bunch of wild, mixed up and very different souls who didn't know anything of God’s love and had to be trained and transformed by God’s grace.  At the core of this training was Torah – a spirituality shaped by keeping the commandments – and only those who kept the commandments were considered “the legitimate members of God’s community.”

In time there developed two distinct understandings of what it meant to keep and honor Torah:  the path of Leviticus and the path of Deuteronomy.  In Leviticus, the great tradition of Israel’s priests is celebrated. And as you might imagine, their emphasis is on “cultic purity.” Brueggemann writes that keeping Torah for this group meant: "Staying clear of all that is profane and worldly – that which is common – because such exposures would contaminate Israel and drive out the presence of the Lord… (Consequently) Leviticus provides guidelines for every phase of life to be sure that membership in Israel consists only in those who sustain purity.”

+  Is that clear?  This definition of who was in and who was out of membership was born of a deep love and concern that the impure would jeopardize the whole community.

+  Modern Christians sometimes minimize the grace of this tradition and ridicule it as harsh but the Priests loved the Lord and God’s people and offered them clear and grace-filled guidelines for right living.  That is one tradition.

The second “great interpretive tradition, Deuteronomy, takes the Sinai commandments in a somewhat different direction: it places accent on justice questions and is preoccupied with the vulnerable who need protection by the community… the poor alongside widows, orphans and immigrants.” Here purity and membership within Israel is predicated upon loving God and doing justice.  And Deuteronomy makes very clear, in a series of lists ascribed to Moses, who is considered both pure and just and who is considered outside the embrace of God’s love in Israel.

+  All those with distorted genitalia – including eunuchs and bastard – are to be considered outside the community of God’s love in Israel because only those who practice right sexual relations are honoring the covenant.

+  Certain races and tribes were also excluded from the community, notably the Ammonites and Moabites, and Moses offers a long list of others who should be purged from the protection of the community because they offend the Lord:  false prophets, murderers, those who defy the priests, rebellious children, prostitutes, adulterers and kidnappers.

This is the second great tradition concerning Torah keeping in ancient Israel: one is shaped by right worship and law-keeping, Leviticus, the other by acts of justice and purity in social relations, Deuteronomy.  This background is essential for how we understand and wrestle with the radical shift of emphasis that takes place in Isaiah 56. Scholars note that chapters 56-66 in Isaiah come from a much later time in Israel’s history than Deuteronomy.

+  In fact, they believe that these passages come from that time when Israel returned to their land after being taken into captivity and bondage in Babylon in about 587 BCE.  Remember that the essence of Deuteronomy was written about 800 years before Jesus and our text from Isaiah came into being at least 250 years later.

+  It seems as if our “text reflects a recovery program for Jews who had returned from Babylonian deportation and were now determined to get it right (with God and one another… and no more urgent issue was before them than membership.”

You see, not everyone had been deported to Babylon. Some had been left behind so Jewish leaders had to discern what to do “… with those who had cooperated with imperial authorities and those who had not cooperated… “Those who had remained pure and those who had become corrupted.  And what Isaiah 56 tells us is that God led the leadership of Israel to embrace “a principle or inclusiveness against the ancient exclusivity… first by welcoming foreigners… and then eunuchs!” Listen to this:

+  Isaiah 56: 3/6: Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer!

+  Isaiah 56: 4-5: And do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. 

Do you hear the change in this proclamation? “The admission of foreigners clearly contradicts the older exclusion of Moabites and Ammonites in Deuteronomy” as does the embrace of eunuchs.  Professor Breuggemann concludes: “A picture is presented of a community of faith that is generously expansive and welcoming, quite unlike the initial prescription of Moses…and most remarkably, the conditions of admission clearly do not concern ethnic qualifications or any other criterion of purity. (Rather) there is (only) the quite generic requirement of the new recruit simply to keep Torah… but not as spelled out in Deuteronomy… now there is only one condition spelled out:  keep Sabbath!”

In this new reworking of who is in and who is out, Israel might as well have shouted from the rooftops:  no matter who you are – no matter where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here! Sabbath, you see, more than just a well-deserved rest, embraces the conditions necessary for justice keeping. “Sabbath represents a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rate race of empire.” To quote the good professor one last time:

(Now) the community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy and compassion and not competition, achievement, production or acquisition. And there is no mention or purity, only work stoppage with a neighborly pause for human (kindness.)

Thus sayeth the Lord our God, who gathers in the former outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them, too besides the ones I have already called…and I will bring (them all) to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer.
Sabbath keeping – and the commitment to equality, compassion, rest and joy that forms the foundation of Sabbath – “deconstruct all qualifications” for deciding who is in and who is out.  Sabbath challenges all the ways we try to fence some people out of God’s love and honor those who are just mostly just like us. And if we read the Biblical story of Jesus through the eyes of a radical Sabbath, we will see why this is crucial for us, too.

+  What did John the Baptist say to those who objected to his ministry of radical hospitality?  Do not presume to say to yourselves we have Father Abraham as our ancestor for God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these very stones! In other words, no more bragging about your race or how long you’ve been a member or your pedigree; the only thing now that matters is whether or not you bear the fruit of the Sabbath.

+  And what does Sabbath fruit look like? What does the Holy Spirit offer to those who live into the blessings of the Sabbath? St. Paul is explicit: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The way of Jesus – the path of compassion and justice – cannot be made flesh if we are trapped or addicted to rat-race living and values. Keeping the Sabbath empowers us to bear the fruit of the Spirit and gives us the rest and perspective we need. Indeed, “Sabbath keeping is a requirement if we are to bear the fruits of the kingdom.”

So once again I implore you to take this invitation seriously:  honor the Sabbath and find new ways to keep it holy so that you – and those all around you – might experience the welcome and blessing of God’s love.  We teach and practice that everyone is welcome at Christ’s table of grace.  As you come to Eucharist, you are promising to rest and share this rest at the core of your soul.  Lord, may it be so within and among us now…

1) Old Man Carrying Sticks -
2) Rainbow Shabbat -
3) Shabbat Made Easy -
4) Shabbat Table

Monday, July 28, 2014

These are days to remember...

Some days are just sweet - and today was one such sweet day. Paul Simon wrote: These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call, the way the camera follows us in slo-mo, the way we look to us all; the way we look to a distant constellation that's dying in a corner of the sky; these are the days of miracle and wonder and don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry!

Being in a small town means you can know many people - and if you are ok with being public - that is a wonderful thing. Today as I met with a colleague to discuss a movie night for young people, the drummer in our band showed up for a coffee to go and embraced me like a long lost brother. Earlier, while out for lunch with another colleague, I saw 4 community partners that I have worked with over the course of the past year. And now I am off to a church potluck with our eco-interns for conversation and songs before they meet with city council later tonight.

I guess what I want to say is simple: I am full to overflowing today with gratitude. Natalie Merchant gets it as right as anyone else...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The thread of Sabbath is woven throughout the Gospel...

The more I pause to ponder the meaning and practice of Sabbath, the deeper the discoveries I discern within the Christian scriptures. Last night, while reading the opening chapter of Slow Church (C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, IVP Books 2014) I came across this insight at the close of a sweet Sabbath day. "In the midst of the frantic, churning, disturbed and roiling shallow waters of postmodernity, Slow Church seeks to anchor itself in the deep, still waters of a remarkably patient yet radically immanent God." 

What follows is a reminder of a long forgotten truth: ours is a God who not only rests (Brueggemann) but who is also patient. A Slow Church discernment of the character of the Creator, you see, recognizes the way Sabbath is woven throughout the fabric of Gospel.

+  Take two of the parables of Jesus that will be read this Sunday from Matthew 13 - the leavened dough and the mustard seed "both remind us that God's transformation (in our lives and world) comes slowly, working outward from the place where the change begins. In an age when instant gratification reigns supreme, the lesson of these parables is provocative and surprisingly insistent, but this seems to be the way God works in the world." 

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

While there are additional layers to the wisdom of these two parables, it is clear that they clearly speak to the slow, inner transformation of grace for those with eyes to see.

+ The same holds true for St. Paul's hymn to Christian love in I Corinthians 13 as the opening virtue is patience.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;  but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
The authors write: "Since the earliest years of the church, many important theologians - including Tertullian and Origen - have re-framed the biblical story through the lens of the patience of God... When church fathers like Tertullian spoke of God's patience using the Latin word patientia, they had in mind something for than just waiting, the way we typically understand patience today. Their use of this word is more akin to the term "long-suffering" used by translators of the King James Version." Think of the unity of mercy/compassion and an eternal commitment to sharing grace for a way into such sacred patience. Clearly, the God who rests and abides in compassion, shares some of the divine nature with us through the Holy Spirit:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
The authors conclude: "The character of God thus stands in sharp contrast to the modern era's idolatrous affair with efficiency, which is driven by the conviction that the end justifies the means."
All too often Christians make false and uncritical distinctions between the God of grace and the God of judgement: the Old Testament God, they say in error, is harsh and cruel, while the New Testament God brings only forgiveness and joy. I am glad that the authors of Slow Church challenge the heresy of supercessionism and help contemporary Christians see that God's nature is the same today, tomorrow and always. Ours is a God of steadfast love, long-suffering compassion and radical grace. Reclaiming the thread of Sabbath woven through the tapestry of Christian scriptures has been a true blessing. I can't wait to read more!
credit: Viktor Vasnetsov- in Cathedral in Kiev 1885-1896]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Praying sabbath prayers with sweetcorn...

Today is Sabbath time in our home: a full day given over to deep rest and quiet reflection on God's grace. As the elders have made clear, when we embrace the sacred rhythm of life we find ourselves at peace with the Lord, with our neighbors and also ourselves. Yesterday was given over to finding some solace for Di from her excruciating back pain. It had become debilitating and demanded aggressive relief. 

One of our prayers of gratitude today will surely be for palliative care. Another embodied prayer will also involve eating some fresh, sweetcorn from Hadley. It is one of the true blessings of living in the Berkshires. As a child, we would regularly head up to this area as my family had a cottage on Lake Webster. It was better known Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg an Algonquin/Nipmuc Indian word for "the fishing place at the boundaries." And one of the things I counted on was fresh sweetcorn in abundance.
It was often my job to shuck 24 ears of corn, but it was small price to pay given the feast that would follow. I feel almost childlike again whenever the roadside stand with Hadley corn opens after the Fourth of July. So, today is a time to be still - a time to practice what Rabbi Heschel called trusting God to run the universe so that I don't have to - in the hopes that if I can trust God peacefully for one day, then maybe I can come to trust the Lord more consistently throughout the week. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A bitter harvest...

I am going to write something hard about the current anguish taking place in Israel/Palestine. I have come to mostly despise ALL the political players in this tragedy. This is not my general inclination towards politicians. Having served as an elected official myself - and having had the privilege to know a number of dedicated public servants who cared deeply about the common good - I tend to extend a great deal of grace to those caught in the devil's bargain of trying to get elected while doing the right thing. More often than not, these are good people attempting an impossible job. And more than half the time, they do a damned fine job. Not always, of course: regularly we find some knuckle-headed simpleton pandering to the lowest common denominator who carries the hour. But even these losers eventually fall victim to their own hubris and do themselves in.

Such an equation doesn't seem to be at work when it comes to the politics of Israel and Palestine. Can we really trust that the arch of the moral universe bends ever so slightly towards justice as we watch human kindness and hope disintegrate? This is a viscous season. Every one's worst qualities and most mean-spirited strategies seem to be in full blossom. Further, the deepest fears and hatreds of these two opponents appear all too alive and well as the innocent dead are carried away and violent retribution carries the day. And while there is some merit to arguments of proportionality, I will leave it to the various partisans to debate the statistics. Tonight I cannot stomach any more human death. The way I see it, hell has erupted into this earthly battle
infecting both Israel and Palestine. And while they do the Devil's work in different ways, both parties are guilty.

The Reverend Jim Wallis of the Sojourner's Community wrote these words that I quote at length: It is time for some truth-telling.

The horrible human costs and increasing danger the world is now facing in Gaza, Ukraine, and Iraq show the consequences of not telling the truth. And unfortunately, we seem to mostly have political leaders who are unwilling to admit the truth of what’s happening, deal with root causes instead of exploiting symptoms, and then do everything possible to prevent the escalation of violence and further wars. Instead we have politicians who are mostly looking for opportunities to blame their political opponents, boost their own reputations, and protect business interests. As people of faith, we are called to speak the truth in love. It’s time for some truth telling.

In Gaza, do we really believe that Palestinian lives are less valuable than Israeli lives at dozens to one? Why can’t we say that both Hamas and the Israeli government are responsible for this escalation and conflict that has already killed hundreds of people? If Hamas is morally responsible for targeting its rockets at civilians in Israel, why isn’t Israel morally responsible for killing hundreds of civilians and children, including four Palestinian boys on the beach who are the same age as my youngest son? Their weeping mothers cursed the actions of both Israel and Hamas — I’m with them. As Secretary of State John Kerry revealed in a microphone mistake before a Fox News interview, the Israeli attacks are hardly a “pinpoint operation.” And if Hamas is responsible for opposing a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, why isn’t the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also held responsible for continually blocking a fair and just two-state solution while continuing to expand Israel’s brutal and unjust occupation in Palestine and continued oppression in Gaza? Why don’t we hold all those morally accountable who refuse political solutions and only work in favor of military solutions that have and will always fail? Can we just continue to ignore the enormous human suffering caused by such failed political leaders — on all sides?
It seems almost certain now that it was Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine who shot down a passenger airliner carrying 298 people, with missile launchers supplied by Russia. Vladimir Putin’s lack of truth telling about Russia’s involvement in this morally indefensible act is consistent with his disingenuous statements about his intentions in annexing Crimea and deliberately destabilizing the Ukraine. But clearly confronting Putin’s lies and moral complicity in the killing of almost 300 civilians is something that European leaders — who are worried about Russian influence in their economies — have yet to agree to do. Mounting serious collective sanctions with tough international diplomacy against Putin and his growing Russian ultra-nationalism is morally warranted; but the rhetoric by some American politicians suggesting that we risk war with Russia — still a nuclear power — is also indefensible.
ISIS, which has now established a new Islamic caliphate across parts of Syria and Iraq, has reportedly told Christians in in the cities they now control that they must convert to Islam, pay a fine, or be executed. So after almost 2,000 years, Iraqi Christians are being forced to leave their country. The creation of more terrorist threats, which the new and terribly dangerous ISIS starkly represents,was one of the clear warnings by the Pontifical Council in Rome and church leaders all over the world when the United States was deciding to invade Iraq. The churches were ignored, and the American government has been proved terribly wrong.
And yet the rhetoric of repetitive hardliners continues to say that the president isn’t being tough enough in all these conflicts, apparently only offering their unrepentant solution of bombing more people every time an international crisis arises. These political leaders and pundits refuse to acknowledge our own hypocrisy, exemplified by the morally indefensible military interventions in our own backyard of Central America. They refuse to acknowledge our tragically missed opportunity of reducing Russian and American nuclear arsenals after the Cold War ended. By papering over our past with rosy sentiments and rewritten histories, we ignore both the roots of current crisis — and the plank in our own eye.
Instead of dealing with the complicated and conflicted causes of a crisis — instead of honestly assessing U.S. influences, liabilities, and responsibilities in trying to help resolve these conflicts — politicians quickly descend into the blame game. And any self-reflection about how their bombings and occupations have led to more crises, how their unbalanced support for the participants in the conflicts have prevented solutions, or how their self-righteous rhetoric fuels conflicts instead of resolving them — is completely absent.
As Christians, we know that there is a Prince of Peace who came to set right what humanity continues to destroy through oppression, injustice, and violence. We know that we are still in wait to see the “kingdom come” which is “already” and “not yet.” And until then, we work to bring about that kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” which we pray for each Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer. It begins with asking the tough, moral questions — with speaking truth to power.
It’s time for some truth telling.
I have been praying over three recent quotes from the NY Times' coverage of the war that speak volumes to me about the complexity of this moment - and the truth-telling we must explore. 

+ First is a story by Anne Barnard and Jodi Rudoren, "Israel Says Hamas Is Using Civilians as Shields in Gaza." The reporters quote Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying: "Hamas uses innocent civilians as a human shield for terrorist activity." Mr. Netanyahu has used this distinction between Israel and Palestine before and on one level it has served him well. It us not untrue. At the same time, these reporters refuse to let this observation stand alone without qualification - and their nuance discloses yet another whole layer of tragedy for everyone involved:

Nothing is ever so clear in the complex and often brutal calculations of urban warfare. There is no evidence that Hamas and other militants force civilians to stay in areas that are under attack - the legal definition of a human shield under international law. But it is indisputable that militants operate in civilian areas, draw return fire to civilian structures and on some level benefit in the diplomatic arena from the rising casualties. They have also at times encouraged  residents not to flee when alerted by Israel to a pending strike and, having prepared well for war, did not build civilian bomb shelters.  ( 2014/07/24/world/ middleeast/israel-says-hamas-is-using-civilians-as-shields-in-gaza.html?ref=todayspaper)

Such is one of the cynical, deadly and ugly calculations of this war. 

+ Second is the a story printed yesterday, "In the Long Run, Hamas Could Gain Economically." Ms. Barnard notes that: "When war between Israel and Hamas broke out two weeks ago, the Palestinian militant group was so hamstrung, politically, economically and diplomatically, that its leaders appeared to feel they had nothing to lose. (So) Hamas took what some here call “option zero,” gambling that it could shift the balance with its trump cards: its arms and militants." Earlier this year, Hamas was "so handicapped that it agreed to enter into a pact with its rival party, Fatah, to form a new government. But that seemed only to make matters worse, sowing division within its own ranks, with some in the military wing angry at the concession, while providing none of the economic relief Hamas had hoped for."

At first, when Hamas rockets were being intercepted mainly by Israel’s Iron Dome system as Israel hit Gaza with devastating force, the group strove to persuade its supporters that it was having enough impact on Israel to wrest concessions: Its radio stations blared fictional reports about Israeli casualties. But as it wore on, the conflict revealed that Hamas’s secret tunnel network leading into Israel was far more extensive, and sophisticated, than previously known. It also was able to inflict some pain on Israel, allowing Hamas to declare success even as it drew a devastating and crushing response. Its fighters were able to infiltrate Israel multiple times during an intensive Israeli ground invasion. 

Its militants have killed at least 27 Israeli soldiers and claim to have captured an Israeli soldier who was reported missing in battle, a potentially key bargaining chip. And on Tuesday its rockets struck a blow to Israel - psychological and economic - by forcing a halt in some international flights. Hamas once again looks strong in the eyes of its supporters and has shown an increasingly hostile region that it remains a force to be reckoned with.

To date more than 700 Palestinians and 45 Israelis have been killed in this contest of completing calculations. Most of the Palestinians are civilians and at least 100 have been children. Ms. Barnard notes rightly (I believe) that "Gazans did not get a vote when Hamas chose to escalate (this) conflict, nor did they get to vote when Hamas selected areas hear their homes, schools and mosques to fire rockets from in a densely populated strip. At the family house of four boys killed last week by an Israeli strike while playing on the beach, some wailing women cursed Hamas along with Israel." I would add, as well they should. ( 2014/07/23/world/middleeast /hamas-gambled-on-war-as-its-woes-grew-in-gaza.html?_r=0) Another reason I hate these politicians!

+ And third is this quote from the Letters to the Editor section of today's Times by Barbara Allen Kenney of Santa Fe, NM. Her reaction to a poignant Op Ed piece entitled "Darkness Falls on Gaza" cuts to the chase:

After reading Mohammed Omer's cogent and wrenching analysis of the state of death and destruction in Gaza, I suggest that the Israelis and Palestinians, except for the obvious imbalance of military capability, are much more alike than different. Both lack visionary and courageous leadership; both subscribe to 'saving face' while trying to discredit and demonize the other; both assure themselves of the righteousness of their causes; both cling to the same discredited policies. If only the life-affirming commonalities secured by the right to self determination and the right to coexist and prosper could overcome the fears and hatres that breed this cycle of bitter harvests.

From my perspective, as this bitter harvest ripens, my head and my heart are in conflict.I know that cruel political calculations are part of reality and, as they are played out alongside long-standing fears and betrayals Israel and Palestine will get worse before they get better. St. Paul was right when he wrote: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So after these cynical calculations lead to the next cease fire - and they will - I pray that we start disconnecting from the traditional political strategies that have given birth to this disaster. Let's begin with some truth telling, but let's keep pushing for some justice and compassion, too.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

a quiet alternative...

Earlier tonight, before the rain knocked our power out for a few hours, I had written a grim reflection on the real politik of the current Israeli-Palestinian war.
Upon further reflection, while it continues to ring true to my sense of what is happening on the ground, it is better left discarded. This is more where my heart is and points to another small step towards understanding and hope within the bleak realm of fear and death.
check it out:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Worship notes: Sabbath as resistance part three...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday: July 27, 2014. They are part three in a series using Walter Brueggemann's book, Sabbath as Resistance, as a foundation.

From time to time I ask myself: Does my work really matter? Don’t get me wrong, ok? I LOVE being a pastor. I love preaching and teaching, I cherish pastoral calls and I have even grown to value and celebrate that rarely seen but absolutely essential aspect of ministry called administration. I treasure my work with my colleagues – you won’t find a better group of people doing ministry together than Carlton, Becky, Crystal, Mark and David – and the creativity and commitment of Church Council and our volunteers is profound.

And yet, in the quiet and dark moments of the night, when I am all alone and reflecting in prayer on the state of the world and my own soul, I have my doubts that the work I do really matters.  And I say this out loud because some of us think that doubt is the opposite of faith. We worry than when we are uncertain of God’s presence in our lives, when we weep and cry out, “Why is this happening to me, Lord?” or just throw up our hands in exasperation and say, “I give up – none of this makes sense – I don’t know what to believe!” we tend to think that this is somehow being unfaithful.

+  And I know you grasp what I’m trying to say because over the years I’ve heard you say to me and one another things like, “I know I shouldn’t feel like this… or have these questions… or be so confused but…” 

+  You have said those things before, right? Things like “where IS God in the midst of this mess? Or how can a loving God allow such horrors to like this happen?” Are you with me?

Well listen up because I want to remind you – and myself – that doubt is NOT the polar opposite of faith. Doubt is an integral element of a vibrant, adult faith – a way of taking us deeper into the mystery of God’s grace – a way of helping us come to trust the Lord beyond our feelings. I’m not saying that feelings are bad, just that they are just incomplete – partial clues in our quest for God’s assurance in the real world.

That wise old soul, Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico, recently put it like this: “The spiritual journey is a journey into Mystery, requiring us to enter the “cloud of unknowing” where the left brain always fears to tread. Precisely because we’re being led into Mystery, we have to let go of our need to know and our need to keep everything under control. Most of us are shocked to discover how great this need is.”

He goes on to clarify this point saying:

There are three primary things that we have to let go of: First is the compulsion to be successful. Second is the compulsion to be right—even, and especially, to be theologically right. (That’s merely an ego trip, and because of this need, churches have split in half, with both parties prisoners of their own egos.) And finally there is the compulsion to be powerful, to have everything under control. I’m convinced these are the three demons Jesus faced in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). And until we each look these three demons in their eyes, we should presume that they are still in charge in every life. The demons have to be called by name, clearly, concretely, and practically, spelling out just how imperious, controlling, and self-righteous we all are. This is the first lesson in the spirituality of subtraction.

And this spirituality of subtraction is what I want to talk about with you today as we continue the series “Sabbath as Resistance.” Jesus spoke of it when he told his disciples that the mystery of God’s way in the world could only be discussed in parables – weird, open-ended stories – that evoke more questions than answers. Our lesson from Matthew’s gospel says:  That’s all Jesus did that day – tell stories – it became one long, story-telling afternoon. This was to fulfill the prophecy of the Lord in Isaiah: God’s servant will open his mouth and tell stories; she will bring out into the open things once hidden since the world’s first day.

+  Just think of those stories:  God’s kingdom is like a nasty weed born of a mustard seed that is both ritually unclean AND a problem to the garden? Where is the blessing in that?

+  Or God’s invitation to grace is like a woman waiting for a loaf of bread to rise? That’s like telling us to stand by the stove and watch for the water to boil. Weird!

But such is the hidden wisdom of this spirituality of subtraction – the blessings born of resting on the Sabbath rather than adding more work and so-called productivity to our days – the embrace of God’s grace in our ordinary lives that comes to pass when we no longer need to be right or successful or in control.  That’s what inspires St. Paul when he tells us to look to the Cross as an icon of God’s presence rather than the symbols of wealth or power:  “The moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. And if we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter: God does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans.”

And just so that there is no spiritual ambiguity, Paul goes on to say: With God on our side like this, how can we lose?

If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture.

+  That’s why I carry this little cross with me most days – and wear one around my neck, too – the Cross reminds me that God’s presence is real even when I am confused.

+  When my feelings cause me to question whether what I am doing really matters – when the evidence of the world is shaped by violence and fear, brokenness and obsession – the Cross tells me a different truth.  It speaks to me of God’s way – God’s spirituality of subtraction – that I need to keep returning to over and over again.

Professor Walter Brueggemann, in his reflections on honoring and hallowing
the Sabbath, calls doing this “resistance to coercion.”  You see, he wants us to know that the ancient story of Israel can also be read as a contemporary critique on our own stories even in 21st century America. “At Sinai” he writes, where Moses and his wandering people received the 10 Commandments, they made a defining choice. “Israel decided to trust the God who made heaven and earth, to rely on the guaranteed reliabilities of creation and to eschew the anxiety that comes from loss of confidence in the sureness of the creator and the goodness of creation.”

+  He goes on to tell us, however, that just because they made that choice once doesn’t mean that everything was simple and beautiful ever after! Sure they chose to honor the Lord in Exodus 20, but by Exodus 32 – when Moses had been gone on the mountain for forty days and forty nights – “they fell back into their anxiety” and started to worship OTHER gods.

+  Do you recall the whole story? With Moses gone, the people gathered up all their gold – that’s an important clue that has legs in 2014 – melted it all down and formed what?  A golden calf – an idol of fertility for many in the Middle East – around which God’s people started to drink and dance and offer up burnt sacrifices in wild abandon.

Now let’s think about this for just a moment: one of the things the Bible tells us if we’re paying attention is that people are just people. We screw up – we repent – we become fickle and afraid – and no matter how hard we try we are likely to fall back on our old ways when we get confused. It doesn’t matter if those old ways and ideas no longer serve us; if this story tells us anything it is that human beings often give up on the way of the Lord when we are uncertain and under pressure.  The story also tells us that God doesn’t quit on us, but it is clear that we often try to find short cuts or distractions in our confusion rather than go deeper into our commitment to the spirituality of subtraction.

+  We fall off the wagon – we go on a shopping spree when we’re depressed – we have an affair – we pick a fight – we binge and purge – we look to the absurdity of war when we don’t know how to find God’s peace.

+  Ancient Israel and modern people are not all that different: rather than wait for the water to boil or the bread to rise, we want to fix things right now and so turn to idols and old, worn-out habits or addictions that give us the illusion of control.

+  Brueggemann puts it like this with penetrating clarity: Israel imagined that with a rightly honored commodity, they could purchase their security in a world that seemed devoid of the creator.”

So Moses comes down off of the mountain and sees this drunken debauchery taking place around the golden calf – and he is furious. He is heart-broken and frustrated, he is anguished and afraid, he is bewildered and sickened. So he smashes the stone tablets upon which tradition tells us God inscribed the 10 Commandments. And this too is a very human response: have you ever broken something when you became angry or hurt?

+  I have – I’m not proud of it – but I’ve smashed things in anger: punched a hole in a door, kicked-in a kitchen cabinet, torn apart books and banged my head against the wall.

+  Moses shows us what humans often look like when we have been wounded or betrayed – it isn’t pretty – but it is true.

Now here’s the deeper truth: in his anger over the people’s betrayal, Moses breaks the covenant with God. We may miss that truth given the emotions of the story, but when Moses smashes the tablets, the covenant with the Lord “was dissolved… and for a moment in time Israel was rendered hopeless and Moses was bereft.”

Did you realize that part of the story? We are told that God was so broken hearted and angry that for a moment the covenant was dissolved. And it takes a ton of prayer and posturing by Moses to get the Holy One to relent. Christians tend to gloss over this nuance, but the story tells us that for a moment in time God withdrew grace and hope from Israel – they were left to fend for themselves (which is what the wrath of God means: God’s absence) – until “the God who nullified the covenant committed an enormous act of forgiveness and shared blessings again despite Israel’s anxiety.”

+  And central again to the new covenant was Sabbath:  Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even in plowing time and in harvest time you shall rest.

+  Now why do you suppose God included mention of plowing time and harvest time in this new covenant? Brueggemann suggests that it has something to do with our charge to be stewards over all the earth.

“Humans are to participate in creating and caring for all of life, but they are to trust the land – trust creation – enough to rest, even in the busy agricultural seasons of sowing and reaping; human life is to conform to the rhythms of creation and when we are in sync with that, then we can rest and be free from anxiety.”

+  What are you thinking about all of this so far?  Any thoughts or reactions

+  Before I continue I am curious to know your reactions because I think this restoration of the covenant story is really powerful and valuable for our age that is so out of balance with work and anxiety.

As the story of Moses and Israel matures, eventually – after a full 40 years of wandering – they make it to the Promised Land.  And throughout the 40 years of wandering Moses has been teaching and training the people to remember: remember how easy it is to violate the covenant – remember where we came from – remember God’s forgiveness. Over and over again in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells his people:  do not forget.  Do not forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt.  Do not forget the Lord who released you from the house of slavery. Do not forget that God forgave us and renewed our covenant and blessings.

You see, Moses was particularly afraid that after the wandering in the desert, where life was hard, once Israel reached the bounty and beauty of the Promised Land, he was worried that they would forget the spirituality of subtraction. He is deeply concerned that when life became easy, Israel would do what many people do: forget the source of their blessings. Brueggemann calls this “social amnesia” wherein we forget the Lord and start to trust just ourselves. 

“This is the core argument of the book of Deuteronomy,” he tells us. The center of covenantal teaching is that: “life is NOT a rat race in which people remain exhausted from coercive goals; it is, rather, a covenantal enterprise exercised on behalf of the whole community.” We were created in blessing for the common good, not the pursuit of individual life, liberty and happiness. That is why when the 10 Commandments are restated in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is defined by God’s act of liberation:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you or your son or your daughter or your male or your female slave or your ox or your donkey or any of your live stock or even the resident alien in your towns, so that all may rest as well as you. (Deuteronomy 5: 12-14)

+  Did you grasp the change in this restatement of the commandment? God’s work in creation is no longer the core – there is no mention of how God was at work in the beginning of time in Deuteronomy – just God’s act of liberation from slavery in Egypt.

+  Because we are so likely to forget, God calls to remember that we were set free in order to live in balance with the way of the Lord – that includes women and men, children and animals and even the refugees and undocumented workers caring for us in our various towns and communities – we are ALL to rest as a way to remember God’s gracious forgiveness for it is so easy to forget

On Monday I was reading in the NY Times a story called “In the Battleground of Words, Hatred and Muddied Reality”- it is about how both Palestine and Israel have forgotten the common humanity of one another – especially in their wars of propaganda.  Palestine insists that whenever talking about the dead they must always be called “innocent citizens” while Israel on describing the dead as “human shields sacrificed by heartless terrorists.”

The report goes on to tell us that recently countless Israeli cell phone users “received a text message that bragged: we forced you to hide in shelters like mice.” It also notes that when slain Palestinian women and children are discussed on Israeli TV they are mostly called “the uninvolved.” Israeli novelist, Etgar Keret, asks us to think about such Orwellian language.
“There’s something about this ‘uninvolved, something passive about it. You admit that he or she is not somebody who is trying to destroy you, but you don’t give them any other identification (or humanity.) It was not a child who wanted to learn how to play the piano… it was just somebody who didn’t shoot at us.” (NY Times, July 21, 2014)

We become our worst selves when we don’t remember. We fall back into our
worst habits, traditions and addictions when we don’t remember. We become agents of hatred and self-loathing when we don’t remember. To which our sacred tradition says: REMEMBER THE SABBATH AND KEEP IT HOLY AS THE LORD YOUR GOD COMMANDED YOU.

+  Sabbath breaks the cycle of coercion and lets us know that:  we do not have to do more, we do not have to sell more, we do not have to control more, we do not have to know more, we do not have to take our children to another ballet, dance or sporting event, we do not have to try to become more beautiful or younger than the latest sexy starlet or hunk on 

+  And we do not have to score more than this or that opponent. If we practice Sabbath, if we remember, we break the pattern of coercion and anxiety so that all of creation becomes like us – equals – with equal worth, equal value, equal access to resources and equal rest.

 “Sabbath,” concludes Professor Brueggemann, “in this interpretive tradition, is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for re-imaging all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity and equality.” We are always tempted or lured to forget – we are often confused to wonder if our lives have value and meaning – to which the Lord says: Remember… remember the Sabbath and keep it holy… for when you do you will know that I have already given you everything you need for life. Such is the good news for those who have ears to hear.


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 ...