Moving Beyond a Sunday School God — Thoughts on Proper 24

While I’m not exactly ancient, I have been kicking around for more than six decades. As I speak with folks younger than myself (and most people are!), I find I keep referring to events or music or television shows that preceded their birth reinforcing my sense that while I may have arrived honestly in this time, I certainly also belong in times long past. In my seniority, I have seen many institutions and conventions questioned, challenged, or abandoned. Like someone who crosses a border into an alien land and experiences culture shock, I am reminded of how different these days are from the days that shaped my beliefs, assumptions and habits. Some of the changes are amusing, others sobering, still others instill profound sadness.  While I don’t mourn the movement from formal dress to clothing more casual, I do regret the movement from formal address of strangers and seniors to the “Hi, guys” reduction of common familiarity. Widespread lack of respect for public servants (and the appalling lack of respect of public servants for the public they are supposed to serve), teachers and law enforcement officers indicates clearly that things have changed, and changed dramatically. At times I feel as foreign as a little girl saying to her dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” I am obliged to say that the current assault on religious belief and spiritual practice adds to my sense of displacement. Certainly, there have always been those who have disputed the reality of a divine presence, but rarely have such disputes been as aggressive and pointed as they have in recent years. Proselytizing atheists seem to be everywhere these days in print and in the media. Their argumentative insistence, rather than being characterized by the laissez-faire or dismissive attitude of atheists in years past, has seemed remarkably aggressive and demeaning. Those who hold to a sacred tradition are not just misguided, they seem to say, they are ignorant and responsible for much of the world’s unhappiness. It occurs to me that many of them are arguing against something that none but the most childlike believe to be true. They insist, for instance, that there is no grandfatherly being in the sky who directs cosmic events in the way a child pushes around toy soldiers. Well, duh… If such an assertion is patently obvious, what would the highest, the best thinking about God sound like? There are a number of intelligent phrases that shape my struggle to understand a Divine Other. I like J.B. Phillipps assertion that “anything you think about God is less like God than it is like God.” Perhaps the cleanest, least cluttered statement was made by Paul Tillich — there are only two non-symbolic things you can state about God: that God is being-itself and that God is the ground of all being. Such concepts cannot even be fully held in the human mind let alone exhaustively understood. So while I agree that Santa-God is a fantasy (comforting and appealing, to be sure, but a fantasy nonetheless), I am not prepared to state that there is nothing that undergirds reality. Fifty years ago, I may not have been able to say that spacetime is curved. Today I know better. Perhaps in another fifty years/centuries/millennia we will suddenly discover (much to our surprise) that there is a thread of astonishing vitality that makes all things be. In this week’s Old Testament lesson, Jacob wrestles with a God/angel and seems most interested in knowing his opponent’s name. It’s not the first time in Hebrew Scriptures that people insisted on knowing the name of God: Moses also wanted to know the name of God before accepting a particularly daunting enterprise. In the ancient world, to know an individual’s name was to have power over them – to own a piece of their reality. Interestingly, when Moses stood in front of the burning bush in the story, the name he asked for and was given was presumed for millennia to be un-translatable. That four letter word (which so many people bandy about these days as if they were referring to their brother-in-law, but which I prefer not to speak, honoring a Rabbinic tradition as old as the name itself) known in theological and exegetical circles as the tetragrammaton comes closest to meaning (as far as we know) that which causes to come into being. Perhaps the ancients weren’t so dumb after all.  Do the proselytizing atheists yet have an explanation for the emergence of reality? If not, I prefer to consider the possibility that whatever defines and sustains reality is 1. Bigger than me, 2. Unknowable by me, and...

Big things and Little ‘uns — Thoughts on Proper 22

So much of our attention is drawn to items both large and small. World events dominate news broadcasts directing our attention to the conflict between nations or ideologies, the aggressive misbehavior of the morally diminished, and the internecine savagery that has become the hallmark of our age. I’m not sure about anyone else, but most of the reports I read or see that direct my attention to the macro level leave me feeling pretty powerless. After all, there’s not much I can directly do about politicos behaving badly. I seem to have no ability to influence those whose intent is the spread evil or destruction, and I can’t redirect the energies of global corporations from avarice to self-spending benevolence. I can’t prevent people in pain from self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and I can’t halt the sociopathic energy of those who would produce and sell the vehicles of their descent into addiction. Interestingly, as the media documents the deterioration of global harmony, the scientific world is fairly exploding with microcosmic discoveries that simply reinforce my sense of personal impotence. My behaviors, emotions, relational interactions, appetites, desires and dreams are not really the product of a unique and unrepeatable self – they are simply the result of capricious internal chemical exchanges that could as easily appear in a Petrie dish as they do in my skin-bounded biological mechanism. The fabric of creation, the building blocks of reality, are particles so infinitesimally small that billions of dollars worth of high tech equipment at the CERN particle accelerator can only suggest their existence. While the astonishing advances of Western medicine make the cure of all but the most deadly of physical maladies possible, I cannot access those wonders without the mediation of a credentialed (and expensive) medical mediator, the modern day equivalent of a high priestly shaman leaving me SOL if I don’t have adequate insurance coverage or substantial personal resource. So the message of the modern is that big things count and little things count, but medium sized things (like you and me) don’t matter a whole lot.   I’ve often wondered how frequently Jesus smiled, or if he ever winked mischievously when he shared a thought or insight that might have sounded shocking in his friends’ hearing. This week’s Gospel lesson would have been, in my humble opinion, very wink-worthy: The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:5) I can well imagine that Jesus’ friends appreciated the playful sense of paradox in this assertion as well as other teachings like the old “camels and needle’s eyes” gag (what’s even more humorous is the frantic attempts by some literalists to explain dimensions of first century Palestinian thread sizes so that Jesus doesn’t wind up looking foolish to moderns). When I was young, it was not unusual to see ladies wearing a pendant of crystal clear glass with a tiny yellow dot at the center – a mustard seed. It never occurred to me that something so small could have much power, but then, I knew nothing about the Higgs Boson back then (to be honest, I still don’t know anything about it other than the assertion that it is at the base of all things), nor did I realize that something as small as a seed could have so much power packed inside it that with the addition of a little water and a warm medium it could produce life in abundance (just ask the folks who keep avoiding me when I seek to unload my annual explosion of zucchini on others). Of course, that’s where things get interesting in my thinking. It turns out that tiny little seeds are static, inert until a medium sized thing does something with them (like plant them or sprinkle them on their salads to be eaten or share them with someone else). And big things like tyrants and politicians and avaricious corporations (often indistinguishable from each other) only have the power that medium sized things give them. So, what’s really important in the world of big things and little ‘uns is the agency and activity of the medium sized things of creation. I suspect that what may have been behind the smile and wink in this verse was an invitation to embrace something momentous. It just may be that while I might have lived a long and happy life while remaining blissfully ignorant of the existence of the Higgs Boson, I miss something vital,...

Dives and Me: Thoughts on Proper 21

I never bothered to take music history in college because I’ve always known what the oldest song in the world is. It has been intoned for millennia by people of all races, languages, ages, and cultures. The lyrics may change in different places, but the spirit behind the song and the emotions that prompt it are universal. The oldest song in the world is Nyahh nyaah-na nyaah nyahh. As I don’t know how to insert a staff with musical notation in this blog, I will offer the following for the musically literate among you: Key of G, no sharps or flats F (half note), D (half note) , G (eighth note), F (quarter note), D (half note).   Since the song has been around since the beginning of time, it’s not surprising to see it surface in the world’s great literature. I’ve seen it in the Iliad (Achilles diss-ing Agamemnon), Njál’s Saga (Njáll Porgeirsson’s  triumph as Gunnarr Hamundarsen is exiled from Iceland), and the Hebrew Scriptures (Elijah taunting the priests of Ba’al at the contest on Mount Carmel). So, I don’t find it surprising that a variant of the song would surface in the teachings of Jesus. This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from Luke sees the song being sung again:   Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16: 19-31)   I can’t read the parable without thinking of the word come-uppance. It feels like heavenly retribution. Justice delivered. Redress of wrongs. A celestial “Just you wait, buster!” I can just see poor Lazarus, tucked snugly in Abraham’s bosom, peering over the edge of the precipice that descends into Torment singing to Dives (the once-upon-a-time designation given to the rich man) the ancient song of dismissive taunt.   There’s only one problem. As far as we know, Dives didn’t do anything wrong, other than being rich, dressing in fine clothes and feasting sumptuously every day. True, he didn’t see the suffering of Lazarus at his gate, but the parable doesn’t assert that he was wicked or selfish or cruel. He was just affluent, comfortable, and self absorbed.   That presents me with something of a bind. It turns out that I, too, am affluent (in comparison to the vast majority of the world’s people), comfortable (I sleep in a bed, have clothes to wear and work to sustain me), I eat pretty well (which is why I spend most of my time dieting), and often turn away from sights of suffering that disturb me. So, it seems to me that this is a pretty good Gospel if you’re poor, but it stings like the Dickens if you’re like 99% of all people in the world who will show up in Church wearing their Sunday best this weekend.   And maybe that’s the point.   But there may be something else here, something that doesn’t leave the majority of us feeling guilty about our station in life.  It...

Choice and Struggle: Proper 20

One of the most frightening things my wife can say to me as I leave the house for work is, “Honey, on your way home tonight could you stop at the supermarket and pick up a can of tomato paste?” It doesn’t really matter what item she wants – whatever it is (tomato paste, paper towels, bread, carrots), I’m assured of two things – first, that I will be overwhelmed by choice, second, that I’ll get it wrong. For someone who is intuitively driven, supermarkets (and libraries and websites and warehouse shopping centers and tablet or telephone app stores and, and, and) promise descent into sensory overload. Delbert McClinton and Lyle Lovett sing a song entitled Too Much Stuff. That’s the supermarket for me – rows and rows of products that are at the same time similar and different. So, let’s say I manage to find the aisle that has the tomato paste (usually only after asking two or three employees); I stand transfixed in front of an ocean of tomato paste containers on shelves that extend from below my feet to above my head. Horizontally, the tomato paste section extends from my left to my right further than I can easily see and I realize that half of all rushing plays in the NFL on any given week don’t cover as much territory as the vertical expanse of the tomato paste wall before me. I begin scanning labels on containers. “A can, she said,” I think – that eliminates the ones in jars. One would think that I could just grab a can and go, but no – did she want sun dried, organic, house brand, imported, with garlic, tiny can or feed-an-army size? People maneuver their carts around me, grumbling that I’m blocking the aisle, and in desperation, I pick a familiar brand name and put it in the cart. No, wait – better get two different kinds, just in case. Uh, in maybe three sizes. When I return home, I turn out the assortment of containers I’ve bought only to have her look at me patiently and say something like, “No, honey, paste, not sauce.” I’ve often said that one of the secrets to a successful, happy, and productive life is having choices. Choices provide options, and options provide the flexibility to be proactive. Once we are pushed into an either/or position, we have lost our capacity for choice and we become reactive. “Black and white” thinking is restrictive, signaling a loss of freedom in a person’s cognitive or behavioral palette. Our economy is based, to a large extent, on our hunger for choices to the extent that we have begun to identify ourselves by those choices – try to buy clothing that doesn’t sport the maker’s or designer’s name somewhere on the garment. Look at the number of vehicles that display through sticker or license plate frame the driver’s allegiance to car brand or sports team or political affiliation. Billions of dollars are spent each year to frame persuasive arguments that attempt to draw us from Apple to Android or Honda to Ford or Charmin to Cottonelle. Choice is freedom and freedom is our creed, the antithesis of “one size fits all,” extending the promise of enhanced individuality. Like Frank Sinatra eating at a Burger King, we all want it My Way. This presents something of a dilemma when it comes to the Gospel. I once saw a cartoon in a clergy journal that had a drawing of a church with a large sign out front – “Welcome to the Lite Church! One service a month, Only Four Commandments (your choice), Visa, Mastercard, or IOUs accepted.” To be sure, lots of us would prefer such an institution in the same way that most of us try to create God in our own image. For decades, I’ve listened to preachers grapple with difficult and alarming passages of Scripture by highlighting the cultural differences between contemporary and Biblical mores or geography or value systems. While some of those cautions are valid and require consideration, others, I believe, are just intended to get us off the hook by making Christianity seems as palatable, pleasant, and nice as possible. But the truth is that some assertions and insistences are tough to reconcile with personal or societal sensibilities and choosing to avoid or go elsewhere doesn’t help us much. This week’s Gospel lesson is a good example: Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, `What is this...

No sheep am I: Thoughts on Proper 19

No doubt there will be lots of preachers this Sunday that expound on the image of the Good Shepherd, one of the most beloved and durable metaphors in the New Testament. I served in five parishes over thirty five years and visited dozens more and every one of them had a Good Shepherd stained glass window or image somewhere in the Nave. Each featured a very white (albeit bearded) young man in impractical but appropriately Biblical garb (long flowing ballroom-style gowns guaranteed to snag every bramble in the pasture) cradling a lamb bearing a suitably grateful countenance. The image transports me back living room gatherings organized by earnest Christian parents anxious to redirect the raging hormones emerging in their teens to more spiritual passions. I’m not sure the meetings actually turned my thoughts away from the girls present to more ethereal satisfactions, but I do remember the songs we sang and their assertion of divine ownership and oversight of our lives (and thoughts): In God’s green pastures feeding by His cool waters lie; Soft in the evening walk my Lord and I, All the sheep of His pasture Fare so wondrously fine; His sheep am I. It’s probably a little late in the game to admit that the comparison never really fit comfortably for me. I have never seen myself as having much in common with a quadrupedal ruminant. Placid, compliant, pretty far on the left of the Bell Curve, sheep may bear a striking resemblance to some of Jesus’ favorites, but not, I fear, me. Admittedly, I do wander off from time to time, landing in places I ought not to be, but my experience is that I frequently emerge from those experiences bruised and battered, worse for the wear rather than being rescued by a benevolent deus ex machina. If, in fact, Jesus has observed my descent into lost-ness or incompetence, I’m pretty sure he’s been content to let me learn the hard way. So, if I was preaching this Sunday (which I won’t be), I’d want to look somewhere else to find my experience affirmed, normalized. Thankfully, there’s a remarkably familiar image elsewhere in this week’s lections, as far removed from even-toed ungulates as east is from west. But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, `It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, `I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. (Exodus 32:10-14) Now, there’s a shocker – Moses standing toe to toe with God arguing, lawyer-like and presumptuous, telling God what God should think, using shame and embarrassment as a bargaining chip. That’s my kind of ruminant. What’s even more surprising is that Moses changes God’s mind. Uh, excuse me? God is malleable? Really? Okay, so this story requires a little “suspension of disbelief,” as they say in the movies. I fully understand that plenty of folks out there are convinced that every word in the Bible is historically accurate and that it was delivered inerrantly to whoever happened to be Scribe of the Day, and while I have no desire to rob them of their sense of security, I suspect that the truth imparted in scripture is more deeply grounded in the insight of the ancients into the eternally divine than in the historical accuracy of their reportage. I suspect that there was, deep in their knowing and in their experience, the realization that if God was Godly, God is as affected by humans as humans are affected by God; that the relationship of the human and divine is characterized by mutual interactivity. I once told a congregation, “You know, if I was going to start a religion, I wouldn’t choose any of you – I’d pick golden retrievers. Genetically designed to please, unquestioningly agreeable and astonishingly dumb, goldens are supremely sheep-like. That’s who I’d pick.” Remarkably, God picked humans – difficult, rambunctious, argumentative, stiff necked humans. That’s as incredible as a...

On Knowing another

One hardly expects to find enduring truths in television sitcoms, but I always thought that the theme song of the show Cheers provided one: “You want to go where everyone knows your name.” We all want to be known. We don’t just want people to know about us, we want them to know us thoroughly. The reality, of course, is that no one knows us fully – each individual who we invite near sees something of what we are, but because of the lenses through which we look at the world, the assessment and estimation of others is always partial at best. My wife and I have been married for more than three decades, and we find that while our insight and understanding of each other’s thoughts and motivations are remarkably accurate, there are still significant areas where we remain a mystery to each other. In many ways, the longer we are together, the greater the mystery becomes. I find that to be tremendously exciting: I am privileged to be in a relationship where I am constantly discovering the other. In point of fact, I have found that relationships tend to fail as soon as one party becomes convinced that they have figured out the other. If we have the privilege of continually uncovering the truth of another, we also have some responsibility for providing an atmosphere of dependable self-disclosure. Rarely is it enough to simply describe self – we must also find a medium that effectively communicates the essence of self: while the medium may include words, it most often includes expressions more profound – touch, gaze, expression, body movement. We must discover what the other can receive and frame our offering of self accordingly. “To the hungry,” Gandhi once said, “God can only appear in the form of bread.” At times, I have been astonished by the depth of understanding that someone may have of me and my process. A word is spoken, a look shared, an embrace received and I think, “How can you know me so well?” It is almost as though the other was within my mind or heart, sensing my deepest need and providing it graciously. But, of course, their perception is entirely referential, grounded in what behavioral scientists call theory of mind. Most people have the capacity to sense what another may think or feel because it is so remarkably similar to their own experiences of loneliness, sorrow, joy, or wonder. True intimacy is the point at which my theory of the other’s mind approaches their reality. Such knowing is rare and comes at a cost. It requires work and attention and a willingness to set aside the lenses of personal history, unreasonable fear and cultural expectation that we normally bring to our seeing, bringing an often uncomfortable level of vulnerability to our experience of the other. Imagine the trust that comes with the Zulu exchange of greeting – “I see you!” and its response, “I am here.” To be here, to be seen is to require a lowering of emotional  veils that I use to shield myself from intrusive eyes that would, in their knowing of me, own me to some extent. But knowing another also means recognizing something true about self – my knowing of you is dependent upon my knowing about my own capacity to be outside of self and in the heart and mind of another. One of my favorite stories from antiquity is the appearance of God to Moses in the burning bush. Moses is confronted with something unknown, something mysterious, something other. In the exchange that follows, he asks, “What’s your name?” He was asking for more than a polite way to address this other – he wanted some power over it, for to know someone’s name was to exert some control over the other, to possess something of their essence. He was attempting at least to level the field, perhaps even to get “one up” on the other. The hunger to know another and to be known provided the substance of the music of my adolescence – What’s your name — is it Mary or Sue? To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him. You don’t know me… There were as many hopes and dreams for knowing and being known as there were songs (in all fairness, I have to say that contemporary popular music may dwell on the same themes, but as I seem physiologically incapable of understanding the lyrics, I wouldn’t know). “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God says to Jeremiah in this week’s Old Testament lesson. Can that be?...