So crazy things happen in politics. Crazier things seem to happen in Idaho politics, did you see the GOP Gubernatorial debate last May? It went viral around the country thanks mostly to the participation of Harley Barnes and Walt Bayes who are summed up by Washington Post:
With his bushy white beard and khaki shirt, Walt Bayes looked like a slender Santa Claus on spring break as he thundered Bible verses from the podium. And then there was Harley Brown. Clad in a black leather vest, hat and gloves, the engineer biker with a more manicured white beard and missing teeth looked like a bad Santa. And he sounded like one, too. “I’ve got a master’s degree in raising hell” was one of the many gasp-worthy things uttered during the hour-long debate.
So after two years of living here I no longer get surprised with the antics of our legislature and politicians. Not surprised, but still frustrated and saddened. It struck again this week. House Bill 1 was being heard by the House State Affairs Committee. This bill was attempting to have the Idaho giant salamander named as the state amphibian. 8th grader Ilah Hickman was even on hand to present why she thought this was important, and she had the backing of several voices on the committee who tried to move the legislation to be sent to the House floor… but, no. This is Idaho. The legislation lost – again. And then in words I will not soon forget I read the words Representative Ken Andrus said to her:
When I grew up, when I was a young boy, in our swimming hole, there were salamanders, and we called them water dogs… and I learned to despise them. To me, and to my fellow youth, they were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. And, so, to elevate them to a state symbol and status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.
Really? You grew up thinking they were ugly, and 60-70 years later you aren’t over how ugly those salamanders were so you can’t allow this species of salamander, mostly unique to Idaho, to become our state amphibian???
This makes me almost unbearably sad. I read this the next day and sat dumbfounded and dismayed. This is where I live? We are so governed by our fears and dislikes that can’t put aside a childhood impression of a salamander? How are we supposed to address more engrained problems like systemic racism, gender discrimination, the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors, and religious intolerance? When I was a child I had irrational fears – it’s part of being a child. I grew up in an old Midwestern farmhouse with a large unfinished basement. Like so many kids I was convinced that unspeakable things lived under the stairs to our basement. We also had playroom in the basement that required me to traverse those stairs daily. And you know what? I ran. Every day I went down those stairs as if the devil was on my heels… because I was CONVINCED that was exactly the kind of plight I was in.
But guess what? The place under the stairs in our basement? It was not a den of inequity. It was not a place of horrible monsters or great evil – I know it, and you know it. But little Andy didn’t. I grew up. I saw the world different. I learned to confront my fears to gain new understanding and appreciation for that which was outside my comfort zone. In fact that process took me to mission work in the Philippines and chaplaincy in large public (and very urban) hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Experiences that became formative, if not fun for this introverted shy boy who grew up in a sheltered suburban community, because they challenged me and helped me grow. They made me see the world differently and with much more perspective than an eight year old version of myself was ever capable of. In fact, they made me see the world with more perspective than 38 year old me is capable of, and with more perspective than 78 year old Andrew will be able to manage. That is why we need community and diversity to help us understand things we aren’t naturally going to know anything about. This is how we grow, change, and become wiser versions of ourselves. We confront the other, and become known and we come to know it or them, and our sense of neighbor grows bigger. Our world becomes bigger.
And we all have such stories. At least I hope so. But maybe not. Maybe we all have some things we can’t, or won’t, change our mind about. Maybe we all have our “salamander.” Maybe we all have something or someone that we refuse to get to know. We refuse to let go of our presupposed opinions and allow ourselves to be changed by them. Maybe Ken Andrus’ statement is the most apocalyptic and helpful words that have come to me in a long time. Because, you see, he was willing to be unveiled about a “thing” in a way he would never be about a person. He was able to be honest, because he didn’t have to care about a salamander. But most of our salamanders are people. People whose faith we have judged as ugly or destructive. People who we have decided don’t work hard or well and therefore deserve their lot. People whose priorities are different than ours and we decide they are dysfunctional or irrational or wrong or… an abomination. I have heard those words used recently, by a law-maker… of a person. Talk about your “salamander!”
If there is to be hope in this world, we have got to let go of our unchecked and unconfronted biases and fears. We have got to sit down with our “salamanders” and learn about them and let them learn about us and find a way forward together. Most of those biases are not our fault. They were handed on to us by instinct, by friends or family, by society as whole. They were kneaded into the dough we are made with and they are a part of us. They are so ingrained into our being that we react out of those fears and biases without knowledge: as one wired to feel and believe certain things without thought. We should not feel guilty because we have bias toward or against something or someone.
And yet. Setting that guilty and shame aside, we cannot stop there.
It is when we stop there that we incur responsibility. When we refuse to confront and learn and do the disciplined hard work of rewiring our biases? That is on us. I have never met a person, nor do I ever expect to, who didn’t have some fears, who didn’t have some jaded understanding of someone else, who didn’t have bias. But I also hope never to meet people who aren’t working to address them. Walk down the stairs, maybe get a friend and go under the stairs – have a picnic there! Meet people outside your normal network and learn how to care for them as a neighbor. Make your world bigger, more informed, and more understood by being willing to sit down with “others” and make them companions. Learn to appreciate salamanders!
Because fear of “salamanders” is leading us down dark roads toward a scary future. And I don’t want to live in that future! We all owe it to each other to work toward something better: more caring, more understanding, more whole.
What and who and where are your salamanders, and what are you prepared to do about it?
I have been involved in many conversations of deep hurt the last week. I have felt overwhelmed.
I have been in many conversations about ministries (church and non-church) experiencing formlessness and void, crisis about the future. I have felt overwhelmed.
The world is experiencing much violence and fear from every side. I have felt overwhelmed.
Today, in the dark sanctuary of my congregation, light was shining through the stained glass windows and they are wonderfully designed such that the window for “I am the Resurrection” is 10x brighter than any other window. Dazzlingly bright. (I cannot do it justice here but I have tried with a couple of phone pictures.)
The window spoke to me. Is speaking to me.
Do not fear.
I have come to give you life.
You are not alone.
You are my beloved.
I am the Resurrection.
This is part of an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit section of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith, Intro found here
- In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing: here
- To witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior: here
- To unmask idolatries in Church and culture: here and here
- To hear the voices of peoples long silenced: here
- To work with others for justice, freedom, and peace: here
- In gratitude to God: here
- Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives: see below
- Even as we watch for God’s new heaven and new earth, praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives
As we break this section down I will skip the “empowered by the Spirit… live holy and joyful lives” parts. Not because they aren’t important, but because I hope that I covered them last time in the “in gratitude to God” reflection (we could always say more but I’m trying for a series of reflections and not a whole book!). So without further ado:
I’m a big Yoda fan. I even have an authenticated life-size Yoda statue (which is a lot easier than the same for Chewbacca). I am as quick as any to quip, “Do or do not, there is no try.” But… do I really think that is true? Certainly there places in scripture (and our faith communities) where we draw lines in the sand and make it clear you either do this and you are one of us, or you do not – and you are not. But to say do or do not is to presume that the task is do-able, and that we are absolutely clear what the task is. And so I ask: is the way of Jesus something we can do? Is it helpful to say we will either or not do what Jesus asks of us? Or do we, rather, try. We try to serve Christ in all we do… or maybe to say that in a slightly stronger way. We strive. We yearn. Our bodies lean in to the way of Christ. We crave to live as Christ would have us. And yet we know we will not perfectly do it. We will not achieve it. We will not be “the way of Jesus” we will be the best approximation of that way that we can muster. In this word, strive, we combine accountability and affirmation, confession and pardon, aspiration and settledness, prophetic calling and gracious inclusion, the way we do not and the way we do.
We strive. Not “I try” but “we strive.” It’s stronger than me alone or simply a tacit veneer of hope that something like Jesus will happen in me. We strive acknowledges the claim Christ’s way has on all that we are, while granting us grace to fall short. When we “do not” it does not mean that Christ is not still at work in us and through us. It means that while we set out to live a life that is beyond our ability Christ delights in our efforts no matter how short we come of whatever goal we aspired to live. As Thomas Mertonsaid, “the desire to please God is in fact pleasing to God.” (loose quote, full quote footnoted below).
I want to say one and only one thing. I am convinced that scripture is clear (or as clear as it ever is), if you wish to serve God (through the way of Christ) than to do that we must serve each other. We love God by loving our neighbors. We serve Christ by living in service to the whole community of God’s creation
What a powerful two words: daily tasks. We don’t serve God by going to church, by worshiping, by being in Sunday school or a mid-week Bible Study, by going on a mission trip, or…. whatever. We serve Christ in our daily tasks. All that stuff we just named that sounds like the programmatic life of the Church – that’s all just practice. It’s like a homework assignment of writing out spelling words. But we do not write out spelling words for the sake of busy work. We do it to make them a part of who we are so that when we go to use those words we can do so naturally, instinctively, and without thought. They become a part of us for their use in our daily tasks. We mistake Church as an end (a goal) in itself far too often. It is simply meant to be a community of formation for the REAL TASK. Living in service to Christ in our daily tasks. How are you serving Christ at school? At work? At play? At home? On the road to these places? At the waiting room for a Dr.’s appointment?
Let us rephrase that question in light of our whole reflection: how are you striving to love the people you encounter each day?
This is what we commit our lives to look like: God’s love being poured out in chance and intentional encounters every day of our life. All the other things we do in God’s name? They live in service to that goal and not the other way around. The goal is to live the love of God and the way of Christ towards our neighbors in our daily tasks, and whatever it takes to keep us directed toward that goal… is church (intentional community of faith). And anything else? Is probably either a distraction or directly counter to who we believe ourselves to be called to be.
Empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.
Thanks be to God.
This prayer is a great gift, these words sit – among others – above my desk as a constant reminder:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude
Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:
Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.
The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.
The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?
You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.
Creator? Redeemer? Sustainer?
I do not know what name to lift up to you God. Not in this moment of prayer. Not to get your attention at this time. Will a pleasant name give my plea a greater hearing?
God who is – I AM. God who claims naught but existence… and hearing – for you heard the cries of your people. God who claims naught but existence and hearing and yet also responds through broken vessels like Moses and Paul, in prophets like Elijah and Jesus, in poets and priests and prostitutes and peons and… and whatever you can lay eye on. God who is, hear our prayers – our cries – our lamentations – our bafflement and our despair, and respond. Because we need you.
“In the beginning… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Genesis 1:1)
Our world knows much of formlessness, void, and darkness. Our world – your world I might remind you – is swirling out of control. (Are there controls on this thing?) Madness seems to have taken over. We are killing each other at obsessive rates. Killing over land, over long held hatred, out of neglect, self-interest… or for no reason at all. God… we are killing. We are killing ourselves.
“Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
So much hate. I do not know what to do in the face of hate. I feel overwhelmed by it all. I do not know how to look into the eyes of one who sees another human being as unworthy of life. I do not know how to stare deeply into those eyes… with love. I do not know how to love the hate-filled other. To love them in such a way that the only death is the hate and not the other.
“Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 22:34)
We lack the strength Lord to be a gracious people. We are consumed by a need for personal safety. We are consumed by a need to protect our own. We are consumed by our self. We are literally consuming ourselves in the name of our own glory. And the victims of our hunger are legion.
“But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine.” (Daniel 1:8)
Our hearts are empty. We care not. Certainly not enough to deprive ourselves. Besides, we cannot get beyond our own hurts, for they are real and true and hardship abounds. We cannot be moved to care for another when we cannot care for ourselves. Where do we go when everyone is a patient and no doctor will come to work? Is there balm for the wounded soul?
“I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” (Matthew 23:37)
But our children are scattered and dying. Hungry and homeless and… what future does this world hold when schools are warzones and warzones are shielded in their bodies?
“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)
Our leaders are as scared as we are – perhaps even more because they can see farther than we can, for all their short-sightedness, from their elevated lofts of luxury. What does a disciple do when then master is aimless, absent, apathetic or amorally removed from the plight?
“I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.” (Ezekiel 34:10)
Them too – but maybe you are not hearing me, where are you, O God…. How long O Lord… if we die in this wilderness of hate and indifference who shall be left to you of your creations? My God… my GOD… why have you forgotten us… forsaken us…. Whither shall we go – shall we look to the hills? Shall we find you in the shadow of death? The demons have overturned the furniture and made a mess of the homes in our heads… the bleeding will not be stopped… the death-throws of the Beast – if death throws they are – are far too much for our little lives to stand. If you are Alpha and Omega.. we need you in the middle too – where are you, O Lord… my God?
“Be still… know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
I find myself almost out of breath… that is – out of God, out of you. Molded and breathed into and given life, it is death now that I see, that I breathe, that I live. Justice isn’t rolling down, Habakkuk is no more pleased today, does he still stand his watch tower? Do I stand in his place? Do I have it in me? I am out of breath, and our world feels out of time. Oh Ancient of Days – it’s time to appear on scene. At least a little late I might say. Where do we go from here – when just to stand seem more than I am able?
“At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved.” (Daniel 9:23)
I was looking for a little more Revelation.
I am stirred to anger and I am ready for an angry God. We are past the point of words… we need action. Oh God – DON’T YOU SEE IT?!?!
“Hear, O Israel-” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
YOU DON’T GET IT – I’M DONE LISTENING. I NEED YOU TO FIX THIS!
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” (Mark 10:21)
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. Is that an answer? Why won’t you answer me – don’t you know I have your life in my hands…..
“Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)
I didn’t mean it, God I didn’t mean it. I’m just frustrated. More than a little lost. More than a little heart-sick for all those whose lives have been thrown to the wind. More than little despairing that we just can’t get this love thing. I’m tired… God knows, you must be too.
“My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” (Hosea 11:8)
God may our hearts be broken… broken open to one another. Broken up by you and for you and with you. May our hearts be kindled and may our anger be healthy. Angry at killing, not killing angry. Angry at systems of homelessness, violence, power and dominance, ignoring the widow and orphan, at imagining there is no room in the inn… But not angry at the homeless, the violated, the least and the lost. May our hearts be kindled. May our compassion grow warm, yes, and tender. May seedlings of hope be scattered in the wilderness and the rocks and roads and the urban slums and the rooftops of palace and stable and may the sprout up. May we protect them for them are a hard won and precious gift. May we honor them for their roots go deep into the marrow of the earth connecting pole to pole – person to person, and their leaves are absorbing the starlight of different worlds and in their veins lies the life blood of heaven and hell.
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Just help me see the hope… for all the rest is all too easy to be consumed by.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (I Corinthians 13:13)
Make it so. So be it. Amen
Okay so now and then I let slip that I do not like The Giving Tree. People love it. I get it. So here you go, why I don’t. You will have your reasons why I’m over analyzing, but it’s what I do and… I really don’t think this is a reach but it’s right there in the story:
The message that we read in the story of the boy is that happiness is procured from money, working all the time so you have no time for play, a family (he seems to not to end up with), having a house, and going to far away places to find what you don’t have. All this at the expense of the life and vitality of your friend who appears to be codependent and lives only for the happiness of the boy who apparently has no thought of the happiness of the tree.
By the end the dead used up remains of the tree are, we are told, happy to have served the whims of the boy who appears to have never found happiness because here in the end he is sitting alone without friend or family on the stump of an old dead tree.
Yes that is harsh. But I really do think this story is a damaging narrative cloaked as a sentimental and benign children’s tale. So some further thought before you go to it’s defense:
Yes the tree gives. But the boy takes. This is the groundwork for almost every imperialist culture ever. Imperialists take advantage of generous people until it’s too late to change the dynamics of the relationship.
There is a reason Jesus’ death is said to be “once and for all.” It’s that we do not require sacrificial death from our neighbors in order that we might live… and yet, sadly that still isn’t true.
The hidden sadness of this book is that you cannot buy happiness. Happiness is not external and no amount of chasing after it will “find” it.
This book more than any other reminds me why I love the triune love commandment from Jesus: “love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” These three work in concert and balance. You can’t do one or two to the exclusion of the third if you are following in Jesus way. To love God but not neighbor? Misses the point. Self-love to the exclusion of others – no way. But also: to love neighbor without any care for self stands outside of Christ’s calling. In our care and service to one another we have to be able to care for ourselves as well. We live interconnected lives building each other up – not one at the expense of the other no matter that we claim the other “desired to make those sacrifices.” This is the way we defend imperialism, slavery, patriarchy, racism, and the subjugation of the environment, etc, etc, etc.
So there you have it, why whenever someone reads or mentions The Giving Tree, all I hear is The Taking Boy.
“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
June 29th, 2014
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
After this reading, do we say: thanks be to God?
Don’t mind me while I tear this text right out of my Bible (sound of tearing paper). Haven’t you wanted to do that before? Not just this text but lots of texts, haven’t you wanted to rip them right out and never read them again? The Bible is not a comfortable book to read. And don’t worry that was just last week’s bulletin I ripped so we’re okay.
One of the things that really scares me is that someone might preach this text nonchalantly. You know that somewhere out there at this very moment this text is being preached straight up and literally while being unassaulted by the horror of it all – as if God tests us this way, and that isn’t something we should question. That scares me. I don’t know what we do with texts like these that paint a less than stellar picture of God. A horrible picture of God. And us.
I do think that I am amazed this story, and those like it, are still in the Bible. I mean think about it, they have to be able to fix this one. The editing room floor is a good place to start. This story was passed on for centuries in oral tradition and written in scrapes and fragments and pieced together and translated and re-translated. Surely in all that re-scribing of the text we have had ample opportunity to smooth out the edges. As much as I dislike this text I have to say I am amazed by the forerunners in faith who continued to keep stories like these in the Bible, after which we do say: this is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. There has been plenty of time to alter scripture to be more palatable, more marketable, a better story to get people on board.
Several years back – probably about 6 years now – I was watching a Chicago Bears game. I am a Chicago sports fan and no matter where I live I always will be. I’m a diehard fan of the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears. So I was watching a game and Nate Vasher – who was a cornerback for the Bears and one of my favorite players at the time – intercepted a pass. I’m sure we were losing at the time; we have done that a lot. And he intercepted the pass and we all got excited and then he fumbled and lost the ball back to the other team and in my frustration I pounded my fist against the ground. What I would come to learn soon was in that moment I fractured my wrist. Now two things about such injuries when you are a preacher… first, shaking the hands of everyone after worship with a fractured wrist is really painful. It is particularly so when you have a lot of ex-Navy folk who want to make sure to give you a good firm handshake. Secondly, when you get that wristed casted you get asked A LOT what happened. And I would tell people – because I have this honest streak – that I was in this alleyway and saw a little old grandmother being mugged and I stepped in…. ok, I would tell them what really happened and – now I’m sure you’ve done this and so have I –they’d respond, “really???” And I’d want to say, “No, I just made that up because it makes me look so good.”
It occurred to me back then that I should make up a better story because people would like it better, and so would I. And I remember that every time I read a scripture story that is hard to understand, or particularly one that is violent and oppressive like this story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son at God’s command. I think of that because I realize that they could have written a better story, if this was just about what they had wanted to write. There is something deeply faithful about the sacredness with which we have held to stories of God and God’s people and in which we have been unwilling to make God or ourselves look better in the telling. As we go through Genesis this summer you will notice that the first families of faith aren’t really reputable people. Abraham’s winning and faithful characteristic is that he says yes to everything and questions nothing. In other times and places this would have made him complicit with evil (and one can and should argue that here in this particular story). Abraham, the yes-sir / yes-ma’am, is considered a hero of faith because he is on the side of God and we presume the side of God is good. Jacob lies, steals and cheats his way into the story – and does those to his own family. But we will tell his stories as our stories of faith and it is from his lineage that we get Israel and our own forerunners in faith. These aren’t lifetime movies or hallmark specials. The Bible is not a family friendly book. Do you remember last year when the History channel did the Bible miniseries? One of the early critiques I saw was that it wasn’t fit for children to watch. I remember thinking, “well duh!!” The bible has rape, murder, genocide, anger and petty jealous – this from God’s side of the story. One should not engage scripture unless you are ready to get real. Surely we are clever enough that we could have come up with a better story. But somewhere in these texts we have sensed a holy wrestling with God. Somewhere in these texts there is an unfolding story of who we are in relationship to God and who God is to us. And if we have learned nothing from these texts we ought to learn to cut ourselves a break when we get it wrong. Because the people have always gotten it wrong.
I ask one more thing of you Abraham, who I have drug all over the ancient near east. Who I have kept waiting for my promises to come true, who I have watched have his family split in two at odds with each other, who has done everything I have asked. Now I ask you to take this child, whom you love and you longed for, this child who you went through so much for, take this child and kill him as an offering to me.
I want nothing to do with that God.
I will not stand up here and tell you to believe in that kind of God. I will not stand up here and play mental gymnastics to explain how this story is okay, because it’s not. What I will do is ask a hard question of us: Is there good news in this kind of story? Is there any redeeming quality to this story?
After seminary and before I pastored my first church I felt a calling – an Abrahamic kind of journey calling – to spend an extra year as a hospital chaplain doing a chaplain residency in downtown Atlanta in a program that could have you working as many as 100 hours a week when you were the weekend chaplain. 1,000 bed hospital with 2 level one trauma centers and a children’s hospital across the street as the only chaplain on overnight shifts. It was a hard year – an emotionally difficult year. There were nights where all you did was death. I recall one weekend shift that from start to finish I walked with nine different families through the death of a loved one. Nine deaths without sleep… when you do that you begin to feel more than a little ashy.
In the midst of that journey you are doing residency work to look at yourself and your interpersonal baggage and how you work with your 6 colleagues and their baggage and that is draining as well. And in the midst of that my wife and I were in year three of trying to have our first child. Now it’s hard to feel the sting of that now because… well now we have four kids. But at that time we were doing the 28 day rollercoaster of did it happen, did it happen, no it did not. And we were in year three of this rollercoaster and like so many who have fertility challenges we had to watch other people be excited about new kids and then news stories about people who had so many kids they didn’t want and on and on and in the midst of that you wonder, “why on God’s green earth can we not have a child?” This journeying took us to doctors and eventually me to what became radically successful reproductive surgery. But I wasn’t there yet…
All three of these streams came together in Holy Week – itself an emotional time. And I remember being in the conference room with the other resident chaplains and our supervisor and we are talking about stuff and it all just broke inside me.
I started sobbing. I was experience the very real death of God for me. And I was experiencing the dilemma of what it means to be the spiritual care for people when God was dead to me. What, and how, can you mediate death with people when you yourself are feeling that God is dead? How can you provide spiritual care when you have no spirit and feel dried up inside?
And all this comes pouring out and these wonderful people who I work with who were friends and comrades in a hard journey began to utter – sorry I can’t sugar coat it – all kinds of crap. Theological platitudes. Nice sounding hallmark cards. How it was going to be okay, how it would all work out according to God’s plan… all the stuff we had been trained to never say, because there is nothing you can say in that kind of moment. And as my colleagues – who I love to this day because we went through a kind of formative hell together – because my colleagues were saying all this I was now feeling worse… its like heaping up ash on someone who is already burned up inside. And then they left…
And I said to my supervisor who was still there – and I’ll never forget this part – “Robin, they’re so unhelpful. And I’m learning how to be a better chaplain right now. And I don’t want to learn from this. I don’t want to learn like this…”
And she didn’t say a word.
I could imagine. (If I’m doing any theological gymnastics I’m warning you it’s about to happen.) I could imagine a well-meaning writer trying to get someone into the angst of that moment saying I was being tested by God.
I could imagine, because I heard and watched and participated in my colleagues who are good and faithful and caring people heap all kinds of theology onto the hell I was living on my Mt. Moriah moment, so I could imagine afterwards saying something like this is the word of the Lord… thanks be to God… and attributing all kinds of motives and causes and results from this story. I could imagine trying to tell it faithfully and mucking it all up. Because there isn’t a good way to tell those kind of stories. It is so easy to try to domesticate those kinds of stories. But we all have these kinds of stories. That’s my point here.. the point is not my story. But our stories. Because if we learn nothing from Abraham we have learned that on the 10th time and the 11th time, and I’m sure on the 12th time when it seems like we have it all together (finally) something else happens that we find ourselves tested and tried and strung out as we stumble into a Mt. Moriah hellish kind of moment. And I look back on it – on my version – and I ask, “Did God put me (do that to me) there to learn something?” And the answer, I believe, is no and the answer is yes.
Because God IS a god who unsettles us, God is a god who tries to break us out of unhealthy patterns and idolatrous myths and practices and God puts us in places to try to understand the deep resources of life in a world that has a lot of death, a lot of hurt, and a lot of harm. And sometimes that feels cruel… is cruel. And sometimes we aren’t really sure how much God is involved in all of that but we do know – on some visceral level – that God is in it all somewhere. And in this midst of that hard challenging news… I also think there is a thread of good news to this story.
The thread of good news is that when we end up in those moments – God is right there with us. You hear that in the end… and then Abraham saw a ram. The Hebrew words for saw and provide have the same root. God/Abraham saw a ram, and God has provided it. God provides a way of life. “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
We will end up in Mt. Moriah moments. We will end up in hellish places that it feels to us that God has led us to dead ends. We will end up in moments where we aren’t sure if God is worthy of our belief, and we will end up in moments where our life or the life of one that means more to us than our life is at risk, and in those moments you cannot get rid of the existential angst, the anguish, and the feeling of death. But you can hear a word that you are not alone. That God is with you working in that hell to provide a way out… a way to life.
On the mountain of the Lord, in the midst of hell, in the challenge that will come in each and every one of our lives – the Lord will provide. Amen.
–Charge and Benediction (call it addendum 1)
The Supervisor of my chaplaincy, her name was Robin, is a beautiful soul. And she would always say we have to live in the tension. Life pulls us into difficult places; we get caught between different truths, between challenge and adversity, a rock and hard place. And as chaplains, as Christians, we are called to live in the tension of those moments. We are not called to resolves the tension but in the midst of that tension to be a presence of love and care. I cannot resolve Abraham’s story. I am not called to. But we are called to enter these stories free of our go-to theological platitudes and full of love to remind ourselves, our neighbors, and the world that even in the midst of hell God is with us and that you are – we all are – the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and ever will be. So go into the world with whatever peace you can muster. Amen.
I have read a LOT of articles about the actions of the recent Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. I have read a lot, I have seen even more posted. I hit my limit last night; I’m not clicking on them anymore. (So yes, if I were you I would not be reading this right now.) I made that call last night and thought to myself, “back to preaching the Good News!”
…And then I stopped short. Because that wasn’t at all fair.
What I love about my church is that we are willing to speak out loud what we believe. We are willing to imagine that the gospel does in fact meddle with our lives and views, be they social, political, or theological. And we are willing to be wrong.
I love that and I have to recognize that for a great many people preaching the Good News is EXACTLY what the General Assembly was, is, and will be doing. We are preaching liberation from injustice, and seeking to offer blessings and forgiveness and dialogue towards a worldview more God-open to the many ways God is at work. Many would view this work as evangelism: preaching the good news of the Gospel which embraces those who have been marginalized and oppressed.
Many others hear that news as bad. Many hear it as a departure from the established patterns. Many hear it as an affront to their faith, their politics, their attempts to love their neighbors – our neighbors.
And you know what? That has always been true of Good News. It sounds so easy. Oh – preach good news. Okay, I got that. But it’s hardly so easy. The Pharisees were an incredibly faithful group of people. They helped sustain Jewish faith for centuries of tough times. They had good news. But they differed with Jesus about what that is, or how we live that Good News. The conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities in his faith (for he was a Jew too) isn’t because one of them was unfaithful and the other was faithful, the conflict was about two radically faithful people with a different understanding of what is good, or how to live that good.
And the issues compound. Paul preaches to Philemon that he cannot own a Christian slave and so he must free Onesimus. Is that Good News? I bet it was to Onesimus… not so much to Philemon. And Paul isn’t very gentle with him; in fact he is rhetorically manipulative.
8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love… 14b in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced… 21Confident of your obedience… 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me.
I love that last part… oh yah, and I’m coming to check on you too. Paul gets what Paul wants. But this dilemma doesn’t just involve Paul or Jesus, the cases abound. Look at the Biblical mandate for Jubilee. Jubilee is radically good news to the dispossessed who will get their lands back, but not so much the people who have accumulated those lands and slaves and worth… by the work of my hands and intellect and good management I obtained these lands and now I just have to give them back??? Is Jubilee good news to most of us in Presbyterian Church which, while not exclusively so, tends to be privileged and wealthy?
There is a struggle with this word good. Part of why I am always hesitant to use it for God (read that here). Good news rocks the boat. Good news unsettles established tradition. Good News breaks the rod of the oppressor, the yoke we carry, but also the structure and institutions we are invested and empowered by. This is hardly Good News for all people.
Did the General Assembly do Good News work this week? Will time tell us that we were out in front on justice, or off the path? I do not know. I have my passionate thoughts on the subject but that wasn’t was this line of thought is about. What this is about is recognizing that our call to preach Good News is rarely comfortable, and if it feels comfortable to you (or me) – we are probably doing it wrong. It wasn’t comfortable to Jesus. It wasn’t comfortable to God. It wasn’t comfortable to Paul. It wasn’t ever meant to be comfortable… it was meant to liberate us from the structures that comfort some at the expense of others. Maybe we acted rightly. Maybe we acted errantly. What I am grateful for is a church that is willing to be wrong. I am grateful for a church that will to go on record for justice at the risk of its own life. I am grateful for willingness to stand in the tradition of prophets, apostles, and reformers. And I am grateful for the humility to understand that we will yet need reform.
Yesterday I learned a phrase for the first time, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” (attributed with some dispute to the last will of writer François Rabelais.) I think there is something very reformed about this. I think as we preach good news we are always (as those who see through a glass dimly) at best those who are seeking something of a great perhaps. Those willing to dare that we might just be approximating God’s will and God’s good news for the world. But are also doing so through human understanding, with limited language, social baggage, and our interpretational lenses seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear. We dare to act, because otherwise what good are we? We act with humility, because we know we have erred and will err again. We seek a great perhaps endeavoring to be Good News.
So… preach the Good News? I’m trying. You are trying. We are trying together – thanks be to God.
This is the second in a series on the “Holy Spirit Section” of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith. If you missed the first entry you can find it here.
“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing,”
I will try not to say too much… and probably fail. I broke down our section of the Brief Statement of Faith into more manageable thought-bites, but some of these selections stayed longer than others. This is a long one and I wish to break it down further:
“In a broken and fear world…”
Confessions in the Reformed Tradition are conditional statements. They speak as the community of the church, as we experience it now, articulated to a world, as we perceive it now, the truth of the gospel, as we hear it now. So while it must articulate what we believe, it is of equal importance to name the conditions of the world to which we speak. The Brief Statement of faith here names that our work is broken. It claims that our world is fearful.
There is a powerful testimony here. There is nothing to be gain by avoiding the elephants in the room. We do not avoid being open about hard realities. Like Max in Where the Wild Things Are we must confront the wildness within and around us. We name it and look it straight in the eye in hope that doing so we can learn much about ourselves, and much about God. We speak God’s word to it, in sure and certain hope that such a word will prove transforming.
I resonant with the words the church chose here: broken and fearful. The angels and messengers of God again and again repeat the refrain: Do not be afraid. We are afraid of failing, we are afraid of not being good enough, we are afraid to be known, to be alone, sometimes we are even afraid to succeed. We fear the unknown, and we fear being lost in a crowd. There is much that we fear and this fear leads us to a kind of despair that Soren Kierkegaard likens, “a sickness unto death.” Scripture then reminds us again and again to allow the power of God as love to cast out such fear.
So it is that God comes to those who are broken. …broken shards of pottery… broken identities… broken lives… it is to those who are broken in body, spirit, and emotion that God comes to speak peace and good news. It is through such brokenness that God displays the only kind of power to which God aspires. If you read through scripture again and again you will find God’s vitality being lived out through broken people. Conniving Jacob, stuttering and hiding Moses, bloody David, Peter of little faith, Paul in his affliction, and Thomas in his questioning. The only figure that God ever led God’s people through that wasn’t broken was Jesus… and you know what? In order to fulfill himself he had to become broken. God comes to, and speaks through, our brokenness.
“…the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing.”
Praying is a strangely daunting task. I am amazed how often in a group of passionate and faithful people there will be no-one willing to lead us in prayer. Why? Perhaps we think too much of prayer. Perhaps we think too little. Prayer isn’t a magic spell and there is no way to say the words wrong. Beautiful prayers don’t get better hearing and results. Flat and fumbling prayers are not without meaning. Prayer is simply the process of speaking our thoughts, hurts, hopes, and cares to God. We may speak them in emotive silence, with water color paints, with mindless chores, and with poetic words. We may just say them in short clipped bits of rote prayers recalled from childhood. The form doesn’t matter, and God is quite clear that it isn’t meant to be a public performance.
I think prayer is really about the same task as confessions – speaking ourselves into a new reality. Just as a writer has to write as a creative discipline, practicing getting thoughts out on a page, I think that prayer is rehearsing the Kingdom of God. Not for God’s benefit, and not as petition for some action on the part of God. I think prayer is a thought experiment in reminding ourselves for what we aspire: mutual care, thanksgiving, good news for those in distress, the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams with regards to God’s creative enterprise. Prayer is a litany whereby we remind ourselves of the work we are meant to be about in the world, but also a cathartic expression of dashed hopes. Prayer is a speaking of the promises God has made to us and us to God where we essential rehearse the covenant in which we live together. And this is important work, and so in a world of broken people with much fear – fear even to speak our hopes and name our fears – it is daring work that the Spirit encourages us to pray, and to make our life a prayer – without ceasing.