Wilderness

In the Bible, the power of God is often demonstrated in pretty rugged places, and those places tend to be as important as the events which take place in them. Mountaintops are frequent locations for dramatic events – Abraham is lead to a mountaintop where the ancient practice of infanticide is abandoned as a condition of faith. Moses is graced with law that elevates a rabble into community on a mountaintop. Elijah triumphs over the forces of animism on a mountaintop, Jesus preaches his most famous sermon atop a mountain and is transfigured before his disciples on one. It’s not surprising, therefore, that people of faith are always looking for mountaintop experiences – those moments in life where we experience peak sensation and insight; where the clarity of rarified air sharpens our vision and grants revelation and cosmic awareness. Fabulous places, mountaintops – we all aspire to reach them and, once attained, to remain as close to the apex as possible. On the other hand, no one willingly seeks out the wilderness. Anyone who has seen photographs of the Judean or Sinai wildernesses know that they are harsh, unyielding places: inhospitable, difficult to traverse, grudging of sustenance, devoid of respite from the punishing sun. The wilderness never provides refuge or renewal; it is a place where every personal skill is tested, every internal resource drained. In many ways, wilderness is an agenda in itself – it demands one’s full attention to the business of survival and tries each assumption of self confidence and sufficiency. No place for sissies, one either leaves the wilderness re-formed or dies trying to get out. And yet the record of Scripture leads us to acknowledge that women and men are made in the wilderness – made capable of implementing revelations received in mountaintop moments. Abraham leaves the comfort of Ur of the Chaldees to be shaped and formed in the wilderness home to which God called him. Free of the delights and distractions of a sophisticated urban area, he was able to focus entirely on the God whose friend he became. Moses was cast out of home and away from family to sojourn in the arid land surrounding Sinai and discovered that even in the midst of desert spaces, God was present. Tattered refugees were sculpted into mighty Israel through the harsh forces of hunger and thirst in their forty year sojourn through wilderness lands. Jesus mind and heart is tested and ordered in wilderness spaces in the same way that we find that in the absence of sensory stimulation, evil is close at hand. It turns out that the best things come out of the wilderness if they come out at all; tested, formed and ready for God’s use. I believe that we have arrived in a new kind of wilderness – one that is inhospitable to the principles of mutual care and charitable embrace that are the bedrock of Gospel imperative. In the same way that nations have stood against the mandates of God throughout time, we find ourselves in a world increasingly antipathetic to compassionate care of neighbor. The houses of Congress, once the champion and protector of the American people, have been peopled with those who embrace the task of governance as ideological battle, abandoning the work of compromise to pursue partisan conquest. With every roll call vote, the American people lose more. The disparity between the majority agenda and our purpose as people of faith has rarely been so clear. And into this widening miasma of government for the few, the Christ child comes again, calling the world to take upon ourselves his poverty and weakness, thereby finding our true strength. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

A Tale of Two Puppies

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…. Actually, the times are pretty good, but they have their challenging moments. My dog Sam has made it onto this page before, but he returns this week with a friend. Sophie, a Great Dane Pit mix, belongs to my youngest daughter who is currently in China. Sophie is a sweet dog, enthusiasm enfleshed, whose primary purpose in life seems to be to rid the world of squirrels (although she gladly joins Sam in the daily warning of impending doom as the mail carrier arrives in the neighborhood). Normally Sophie lives what I would consider a privileged life, one that Sam is denied. That is, she’s allowed on the furniture in her home, she has a seemingly endless supply of stimulating toys and she is a frequent visitor at an upscale doggie daycare that is, in essence, Disneyland for dogs. So, Sophie came into our home accompanied by expectations, and she seems genuinely confused when she is shooed off the couch or visits Sam’s tragic little toy basket only to find bones with the life chewed out of them and squeaky things whose squeak was laid to rest long ago. Nonetheless, Sophie is a delight to have in the house and, not having had the fearful beginning to life that Sam had, is attentive and affectionate. But. Early morning and late afternoon walks are a minimum in our home, often supplemented with occasional unscheduled jaunts. Sam loves these outings and, ears up, eyes scanning the world, trots along beside his human companion dutifully attending to the possible threats posed by bicyclists and unfamiliar humans. Sophie surges. Tied up with two leashes and a harness guaranteed to prevent pulling (ha!), Sophie shoots out the front door with a mission on her mind – get as far out as fast as possible while dragging your human behind you. The amount of power she possesses is remarkable. I’m no lightweight, but Sophie has the power to pull me off my feet (and often does) if there is an unfamiliar smell beyond her reach. Every walk is a contest to see who will prevail – Sophie or the human who is suffering from rope burn from double leashes pulled tight into flesh. She sniffs something interesting and, filled with curious joy calls out the Great Dane power within her while I, leaning backward, both hands on the leashes, keep my feet dug into the sidewalk as her front feet rise in the air in an effort to lunge ahead. In doggie-thought, Sophie is thinking “Can’t he see how important this is? Doesn’t he realize that what I want is more important that what he wants?” In reality, sweet as she is, Sophie is a poor companion on the way. I suspect that I have many of my own Sophie-moments, times when I am convinced that my way is the best way (or even the only way) because I thought of it or I want it. In those moments, I tend to loose sight of the needs or wants of others, certain that my urge, if it is good for me, must be good for everyone else. In those moments, I have placed my ego at the center of things – the ultimate and most seductive form of idolatry as my certainty blinds me to seeing other possibilities. Sophie will only be with us for another week. If she were staying longer, I would expend the energy and effort necessary to reshape her behavior into something more acceptable for long term companionship. I, however, intend to continue with my Master for the balance of my life and need to work constantly to make myself a better companion on the Way. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Praying as a Sermon

The following is a sermon that was preached at St. Luke the Physician in Gresham on September 3, 2017. It grew out of the essay entitled “Praying” published earlier on this site. http://silentsage.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/090317.mp3 Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new...

Praying

I was witness to what I believe was a true miracle more than two decades ago; it was undeniably the most formative event in my understanding of the nature of God. While providing all the details of the event requires more time and space than this forum provides (and wouldn’t necessarily convince the reader of the authenticity of my experience), I will suffice it to say that it involved the disappearance of a cardiac tumor in the hour between an echocardiogram (where the tumor was identified and confirmed) and the open heart procedure to remove it where it was determined that it was no longer present. My role in this event was little more than adjectival. I had urged the congregation I was serving at the time to hold the individual in question in prayer at the hour designated for surgery and was present with the family when the surgeon emerged from the operating theater shaken, incredulous and incapable of explaining what had happened. The following Sunday, when my congregation gathered for worship, I reported the results as I understood them, providing the only commentary I could, given my mental state of stupefaction. I said something like, “This was as much for you as for [the individual]. I believe that this is confirmation that God attends to your praying. If that is the case, then we have not just the opportunity to pray, but the obligation to pray.” The corporate result of these events was the establishment of a weekly early morning prayer group where intercession was offered for the sick and suffering. I moved on from that congregation more than a decade ago, and do not know if the prayer group continues. What I do know is that my own praying does and has grown in character and constancy since. I must confess, though, that it has not been enough to simply pray. I find that I need a way to think about that praying – my mind has to share some coherence with my heart and my behavior. I suppose that this is the most Anglican part of me; requiring all the components of our famous three legged stool which asserts that our believing must satisfy the tenets of Scripture, tradition and reason. What language can frame my thinking of an unanticipated but longed for interruption of the natural order? What does it mean to pray and to expect that God responds to human spiritual aspiration? There is no part of me that can accept the notion that God has the capacity to alter reality but, capriciously, accedes to some requests and denies others. This “vending machine” approach to praying (put in the correct or most earnest or worthiest request and get the desired result) offends every authentic assertion about the nature of God I know (What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? Luke 11:11-12). No, praying must be more than asking and getting. The greatest obstacle to finding ways to speak of the true character of prayer is our understanding of the nature of God. The limitations of the human mind demand that we vest God with particularity – that is, that we reduce God to a boundaried entity in order that we might have congress with that God. Here, Gospel accounts can confuse: Matthew’s version of Jesus’ instruction in prayer binds us in a way that Luke’s does not. Matthew has: Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9), confining God to a particular place, either physical or spiritual, while Luke has simply, When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be thy name (Luke 11:2), defining God by relationship rather than locality. Of course, both authors were temporally distant from Jesus’ actual teaching but nonetheless transmit the likely praying tradition of the fledgling Christian community in their reportage. I find Luke’s version more helpful, resonating as it does with Jesus’ assertion that God is to us like Abba, the Aramaic word a child would cry out in the night after a bad dream; literally, “Daddy.” Despite emotional baggage the word may carry due to the frequent failing of human fathers, the word suggests a directional relationship characterized by benevolent care. But what can we say about this God that cares? Is the word “caring” too human, too confined to our experience, to ascribe to the Divine? If God is, like the title of theologian Nels F.S. Ferre’s book, The Living God of Nowhere and Nothing, if Tillich is correct in saying that the...

Carter Did But I Can’t And You Can’t, Either

Charles Carter was a famous magician during the early part of the 20th Century whose third act during a spectacular stage show features a duel with an assistant dressed as Satan. Titled “Carter Beats the Devil,” the act featured a series of near miraculous escapes from seemingly impossible constraints – a popular theme in stage magic embraced by other well known magicians of the era: Harry Houdini, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Harry Blackstone Sr., and Alexander Herrmann among others. At the end of the act, Carter in fact beats the Devil in the great conjuring contest to the delight of the thoroughly mesmerized audience. Carter’s fictionalized biography, Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold was a fun, if highly romanticized, read that led me to learn more about Carter and his contemporaries. Would that beating the Devil was as simple as a little conjuring. It seems to me that the Devil sure has been busy of late. Between terror attacks throughout the world, the emboldening of hate groups throughout the US, the aggression of ISIS and Taliban forces, the threats of angry nations resenting their material and political impoverishment and the growing divisions between people both within and among many nations, we feel shadowed by an almost continual sense of destructivity. Nation against nation, parent against child, brother against brother all of whom have newly developed nuclear weapons or bomb making skills or simply a driver’s license. It’s hardly a wonder that so many people fear that we are in end times. I suspect we are. We are certainly at the end of a time where the darkest forces of the human heart remain submerged beneath the level of widespread consciousness. We are at the end of a time when we can assume that safety and security on our streets and in our homes is a given. We seem to be at the end of a time when political leaders are capable of evoking our highest and best ideals and behaviors, pandering instead to our fears and prejudices. Foolishly, those same leaders, neophytes at “together” but experts at “against,” elect to wield authority through the dispatch of weapon and warrior, convinced that they are capable of eliminating agents of hatred. Blood is shed, homes and cities destroyed, enemies emboldened and the Devil wins again. Of course, I am no more interested in anthropomorphizing evil than I am in making God in our own image. I remember fondly an extraordinary insight in Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s book Good Omens. An angel and a demon, longtime adversaries and acquaintances are comparing notes. The angel compliments the demon on the very effective job he and his cohort have done in wreaking havoc among humankind. The demon, in response, says something like, “Actually, we haven’t really done that much. What humans do to themselves is far worse than anything we could have come up with.” In an earlier essay (www.silentsage.com/essential-christianity) I stated that I was convinced of the presence of “some reality shaped by non-being [that] continually calls us away from embracing our full humanity,” the only way I can think of the pervasive and tenacious capacity for self-destruction that characterizes human behavior. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a reality peculiar to hominids – one that leaves those lower on the evolutionary ladder untouched. Certainly, animals do not sin (as good a word as any even though it carries some religious baggage with it). While the dogs and cats I have shared my home with may have acted in a way that displeases me, they never acted against their own instinct. I suspect the same thing is true about frogs and newts and blue jays. Archaeological discoveries of bashed skulls and marks of violence on bones seem to indicate that the emergence of violence for violence’s sake arrived with homo sapiens and our evolutionary predecessors. And the President and his generals think that employing violence against the violent will eliminate violence? I doubt it. I think that one lesson we have yet to learn is that the Devil (whatever force or characteristic that might be) lives among us, in us, and acts through us. It can be recognized, it can be resisted, it can be denounced, but nothing we can do will beat it out of us. Pogo and St. Paul both saw it clearly. We have met the enemy and they is us, Pogo said. Describing real personal anguish at his wrestling with the enemy within, Paul said: I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what...

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

Ours is an age of images. While earlier times have been shaped by the power of the word, both spoken and printed, our time has been dominated by the picture. They appear on large screens and small, center front in papers or full page in magazines, memorialized in frames, carried in pockets on phones and tablets. They have emerged as a primary vehicle for communication, speaking volumes without words on Instagram and Facebook and their doppelgängers. Most of the images we consume are relatively banal – people with people, people in front of places, people all alone, animals acting like people, animals acting like animals, people acting like animals, places without people. Now that the preservation of images is freed from the complex process and expense of loading, processing and printing film, we have all become documentarians of lives both notable and unremarkable. Like those compelled to tag monuments, buildings and tunnels with graffiti (from the ancient Greeks who scrawled on the Pyramids of Cheops to modern day Kilroys), our imagery have become manipulated collections of ones and zeros that assert our presence on planet earth; a modern day shout to oblivion that, like the residents of Whoville, demands to be heard – “We are here, we are here, we are HERE!” A few of these images receive such widespread dissemination that they become memes – a relatively new word indicating an image or piece of text that has become so commonplace through sharing that it is widely recognizable. Fewer still become icons: frozen moments that so powerfully demonstrate something ominous or chillingly reflective that they take on a life of their own, seared into the minds of millions. These are the images that are our most profoundly disturbing mirrors: ones that reveal to us, like portrait of Mr. Gray through the passage of time, what we are in danger of becoming or have already become. True enough, images of the lovely and pastoral abound, but these are not the ones that haunt, that linger in troubled memory, that emerge in the dark of the night to warn or spur sober reflection on our actions and beliefs. These images are so powerful that they have changed us, spurred us to re-plot our course, move ahead in a different way. I suspect that many of the images that have established permanent residence in my mind are familiar to many and that they evoke a similar if not identical emotional response to my own. Oh, the humanity. Yes, the Goodyear blimp is still up there, but dirigibles as a method of travel? Maybe we ought to rethink that. Are we really capable of such evil? And even if we wouldn’t do it ourselves, can we possibly tolerate it in others? How could we have continued this exercise of cruelty toward others after we sacrificed so much to stop it in others? Does she really pose that much of a threat? Must the insanely evil among us always shape the lives of those in society? Still not healthy for children and other living things. Thankfully, she is alive and well today and running a charity for those displaced by war. “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke There must be forces, unseen and unrecognizable, that work ceaselessly for the elimination of progress. All dreams, all aspirations have a cost. At times the cost is incalculable. Damn you, child. Damn you. “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” Pogo Of course, there are dozens more images that I carry with me – dour mothers and hungry children caught in the Depression’s merciless wake, scrounging for simple existence while coal barons and oil magnates dine off fine china. Americans being beaten with truncheons and clubs because they dared to ask that their full humanity be affirmed. Young black men dangling from misshapen trees, victims of cruel and unbounded ignorance and recidivism. Homeless men and women huddled in doorways while Black Friday shoppers shove through Walmart doors. These images and so many like them have power for us because they demand that we look closely at ourselves and ask if we are becoming who we actually want to be or whether we have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Like the Magic Mirror in Snow White, we come arrogantly to our reflection and ask only for confirmation of that which we have come to believe – that we’re just fine the way we are, no modification necessary. Herein, I believe, lies the gift of Donald Trump. His accession to the highest office in the land, whether by the honest...