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What’s your Salamander: Confronting Fear and Discrimination

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?

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I am the Resurrection

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.
Be still.
I have come to give you life.
You are not alone.
You are my beloved.

I am the Resurrection.

resurrection 1

resurrection 2

Home: A Sermon on the sordid families of Abraham

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.

A Prayer – of sorts – of Lament in Search of Hope for the World

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)

That’s nice.
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

Living in the Tension: A Sermon on the Sacrifice of Isaac

“Don’t Mind Me While I Rip Out This Page”
Sermon by Andrew Kukla
First Presbyterian Church
Boise, ID
June 29th, 2014

Psalm 13
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.

Genesis 22:1-14
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.

Brief Statement of Faith: Broken and Fearful

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.

Christian Faith: 8 good Questions and a Foray into Responding

I received an anonymous-ish email from a group of friends wanting to engage questions that had been previous shut down by the churches they had tried to ask them in.  I share their questions here, and my attempt at first responses because I think we all carry questions, doubts, and fumbling attempts at answers.  And we need to be willing to offer them up in order to let others know their questions, and their fumbling attempts at faithfulness, are not alone.  We are all a lot like Peter, trying to walk on water to prove we are much more confident than we really are… let us be as willing as Peter to be wrong in an endeavor to walk more deeply in the way of Jesus.

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I feel a need to add two thoughts before I address the individual questions:

1)     Poor Christianity / Theology / Church practice can easily lead to one questioning Christianity as a whole.  In such questioning however I think we need to take care to separate two things out from each other as best we can (and it isn’t always easy): the stated “Truth” of Christianity as spoken by a particular church or person, and the validity of any faith in the way of Jesus Christ.  This is to say I think there is some really garbage Christian theology (yes, very judgmental of me – an impulse I try to check but lets face it some things really are garbage and I can be as judgmental as the next person regardless of my attempts not to be) out there but that doesn’t mean that garbage is the fault of Jesus and the way he attempts to lead us in faithful relationship to God and one another… its reflective of the abusive or non-substantive way that those person/s articulates that faith. Does this difference make sense?  I do not mean that you cannot criticize Jesus, God, or the way of life we are invited to as disciples of Christ.  Criticize away – even the Bible does.  But those criticisms are different from criticizing a particular church’s articulation of faith.

2)     That last gets at a difference in some ways between faith and religion. Christianity as a religion is problematic (and I say that as one very invested in it).  It creates institutions that seek to promote themselves and defines themselves apart from the movement of an itinerant preacher like Jesus and his first followers.  The second part of that is that the life of faith is a matter of constant interpretation.  It is a dynamic rather than static thing.  My answers then are conditional.  They are how I interpret the teachings of God and God’s people.  Others can take those same teachings and interpret them differently. Some do so in a way that they believe their interpretation is flawless and normative (that all people should believe the same way).  I am not one of those people (maybe occasionally but not usually).  Its possible I would answer these questions differently next week than I will today… its certain I would next year.

Now to the particular questions themselves:

1)  Why did God seem so mean in the Old Testament? Why would a loving God demand the death of so many people: Exodus 35:2, Deuteronomy 21: 18-21 and 22: 13-21, Leviticus 20:13? Why did all the firstborn children in Egypt have to die just because their king was stubborn? Numbers 16: 41-49-death just for complaining? Deuteronomy 13: 6-10, kill family and friends just for having another religion and speaking about it with you?

You sure you don’t want to start with something a little lighter?  🙂  I can’t really answer for God.  God had a bad day?  I’m not being flippant here.  I wish I could answer this better and I will try a bit.  Ultimately?  I don’t know.  There are dark and violent aspects to most spiritual traditions.  Why?  On some level I believe that is three-fold.  One – God is Holy (that means basically… OTHER) and we cannot fully comprehend God and there is some aspect of fear before that which exists on such a different level of being that we are insignificant before God.  I think articulations of such Holiness become full of fear, capriciousness, and yes death as a way of making real the different order of being between creation and Creator.  Second – I believe Scripture is as much a human document as a divine document.  That is I would not consider the Bible to be the dictated and inerrant word of God.  Humans wrote it and when we write a story – divinely inspired or otherwise – the story takes on our character.  So I believe God, even in Scripture, looks something like we imagine God to be as much as it is the revelation of God.  I believe some of the violence of God is the tellers of the story projecting their own violent ways onto God.  Third – the Bible is, as you mention earlier, a pre-scientific story.  In such a world where so many causes of effects in the world were not seeable and knowable were thus credited to God.  If someone couldn’t have children it was God punishing their sin.  If someone died for unknown reasons it was an act of God… so was weather and the growth and fall of nations.  So I wonder at times how much bloodshed is credited to God that wasn’t much more than the brokenness of creation.  I can’t answer that… and yes there is danger (some would say an unacceptable one) of relativizing scripture in this way.  And yet it works for me and somehow in the mix of all these things I believe I cannot understand the violence of God in these stories but I can stay in relationship with God.  You might say – I extend grace to God just as God has done toward me.

2) If “Ann” was raised in a different culture and a different religion, upon her death, do Christians really believe she will go to Hell forever? If so, she was raised to believe her religion was right just like a lot of Christians. Why should she be punished forever for that?

Or another scenario:

If somebody was raised in an abusive home, grew up living a hard life, died early  a sad broken person, never became a Christian. Would that person really go to Hell?  If so, how come? They were abused and had a horrible emotionally crippling life, too broken down to accept anyone’s love, let alone believe in God and all because of their family members choices.

Hell.  Again, some would answer yes to your questions.  I do not agree with this.  I believe Jesus died and descended into Hell by way of freeing creation from it.  That is to say – I believe Hell, beyond the hell we create here on earth, to be an empty place.  I’m a border line Universalist so I believe God desires to save all people, and who am I to say that God will fail.  If such a place as Hell exists I would imagine its more likely to find people who knew full well what God desired of us and instead chose to turn that message to their own gain to the detriment of God’s people.  Jesus keeps his greatest rebuke for the Pharisees when they become rooted in their own power and control.  If there is such a place as Hell I believe it would be reserved for those of us who act in this way rather than in forgiveness and love.  Read the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  You notice something?  The sheep don’t know they are sheep.  They don’t remember doing good things.  They just did them.  I bet you a fair number of those sheep had no clue about Jesus at all… but they lived in the same way as Jesus and thus got the point Jesus was after – live in love for one another.  And the people who were goats?  They wanted to do right by Jesus.  The problem is they were saving their right for just Jesus.  They were looking to do good only when they thought they would get something from it.  And that didn’t work for Jesus who tells us the point is to see me in those who are least.  Love your neighbor when that neighbor most looks like someone you DO NOT want to call neighbor.

I do not believe there is a place with Pearly Gates called Heaven and a place full of eternal fires called Hell.  Not that tangibly at least – maybe its true, who knows – only God really.  But I do imagine that the people you describe were welcome into God’s loving embrace, that were at peace, blessed, and made whole- and I take a comfort in the belief that the same will await me one day whether I’m aware of it or not.  This is the Gospel.  It’s a very religious thing to try to put gates around such love…. I firmly believe God would rip such gates down and look at us with that look that spoke a thousand words: still you do not understand grace.

3)  The bible was written so long ago. The world and people have changed so much since. Technology, science, medicine, people’s concepts of life have come so far. Is the bible still relevant? Why is there no new teachings/ideas to keep up with all the other changes?

I believe Scripture operates as myth (yes this would be a scary word to Scriptural literalists but that’s their problem not mine).  That is they are deep and abiding stories that seek to understand the life of God in the midst of God’s people.  I am not a slave in Egypt.  But I can understand what it means to be a pawn in systems that are so big I am voiceless and powerless.  I am not an exile in Babylon but I can understand what it means to be forsaken even by God.  I am not an unnamed woman who has hemorrhaged blood for 12 years becoming more and more hopeless and isolated.  But I can feel the good news of having one who sheds titles given to him like Prince of Peace, Savior, and Lord and also stops what he is doing to acknowledge me because he thinks I am important enough to stop on his way to “important people’s aid” to speak directly to me and welcome me back into the community.  These stories don’t need technology and science to speak their truths.  They do require the work of interpretation to find how they speak to us and our context.  That was always true, and always will be.  And I believe God prefers it that way because it requires us to participate in the story telling even as listeners (though too many people wish “experts” would just tell them what to do… to this I believe God says: no).

I think there are lots of new teachings.  We simply have ceased to call these teachings a part of the Bible.  Another day we can talk about how the Bible came to be but for today your current questions are enough and I think its enough to say: the canonical content of the Bible is closed but the process of mining these stories by the power of the Holy Spirit for a message to us today is a constantly open and occurring and necessary.  God is Living.  Nothing is done or over.

4)  Why do so many Christians and churches use fear as a tactic to sell Christianity? Hell is often used as a threat to freak people into going to church/being a Christian. Many times I’ve been told “what if you’re wrong, you’ll burn in hell forever. It seems wrong to believe in a religion just in case because you don’t want to burn in hell.

If someone has a faith that they believe is necessary for salvation, and if someone believes that this faith is perfect and untarnished and must be defended to stay that way… I guess they will do anything to protect it and anything to make other people to adopt it.  I came across a thought from Carl Jung (psychologist) the other day, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.”

If you think that Heaven is the destination we are all aiming for and that a certain belief in Jesus is the only bridge to get to it – you will do all sorts of things to make sure people do, and you will live in a constant worry that you are still on the bridge.  Such things place a great deal of dependence for salvation on our will, choices, and life rather than on God.  And I must say it mystifies me.  Shaming people into good works is not itself a good work.  And you cannot create love by guilt or by force.  If God is love, you have to move people to love by living love.  An author I like named Eugene Peterson says we must not simply ask What would Jesus do, but How would Jesus do it.   So all I can really say is – I agree with you.  I don’t understand fear as a motivator to Christianity, and Hell as a threat (like the naughty and nice list of Santa Claus).  And no – belief as “hedging your bets” is not really a life forming faith.  Its empty words.

5)  Why do we pray? If it changes Gods mind then he is not sovereign. If it does not change Gods mind then it doesn’t seem to have a point.

A question for you: If God chooses to change God’s mind… does that mean God isn’t sovereign?  It is still God choosing to do something by God’s own will… even if the suggestion didn’t originate with God.

A second thought.  I believe there is a cathartic (and thus healing) effect of voicing our challenges, hurts, and laments.  So even if God is not some doctor in the sky at our beck and call (and I don’t believe God is) merely “talking it out with God” can itself have healing effects.  I think prayer is best understood as a conversation with God.  We may make it about our wants and needs… but it is meant to be a conversation of clarification.  We discern what God’s will for us, we speak our will to God… we hopefully find some solace and togetherness in the conversation.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  It doesn’t mean its clear and easy – when is conversation ever clear and easy?  Maybe it is amongst good friends… a reason to practice prayer regularly so we get better at that particular conversation.  So I guess what I want to say to you is… what do you understand prayer to be about?

6)   We have free will, but it seems like a joke. We either accept Jesus and go to paradise for eternity or refuse and upon death be damned to hell forever. How is that freedom of choice when it is the same as having a gun to your head?

Do we have free will?  Is this a given?  To some degree I would agree with you and to some extant I would not.  I certainly would not agree with the next sentence.  That is a particular articulation of one interpretation of Christianity.  It does not speak for me or mine.  I think there is a bigger question of free will – which I’m not sure you are asking – about is our will ever really free (we are after all products of our environment, of systems around us, of our parents… etc.  We aren’t nearly so free as we imagine).  I think here you are still wrestling with this second sentence.  If this is the sum of Christianity what is the point… and in that case I would say: I don’t know. I reject it and so I’m not even interested in discovering what would be the point of such a thing.  I know the world of which you speak and are wrestling with (recovering from?) and how it speaks its Truth of Christianity.  All I can say is that it is not the only way of understanding Christianity and it isn’t mine and it bugs me to hear it because I know how much abuse has been done in the name of Christ by such articulations.  “God is love, those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.” I John 4:17 (might be 16 I’m getting lazy and not looking it up at the moment… you’ll find it – and trust me I’m not making it up.)  If these words are true.  (And I believe they are.)  Gun to the head theology is anathema.  A loving God would not extort devotion.  Such a God invites us to understand that the only way we love God is by being loving people towards ourselves and each other… all others.

7)  What’s the point of Satan, why did God create him if he knew what he would do? Why does God bother letting him exist now?

What the point?  Maybe we should start with who (or what) is Satan?  Hasatan (in Hebrew) mean the accuser.  Early in Scripture Satan is not necessarily an adversary to God.  Satan is like the prosecuting attorney.  Satan is the “devil’s advocate” of God’s heavenly court.  Only later do we begin to think of Satan as an actual force or advocate of evil.  This is probably for many reasons… Judaism does not start out monotheistic but becomes so – so we have to eliminate non-God god-like beings.  Also we have to understand why God’s will doesn’t just happen and sometimes rather than blame ourselves we scapegoat Satan.  Other times there is such palpable evil that can’t help but give it a name and agency… Satan.  Lastly I think there times we don’t want to believe things of God and so we actually split God into two beings: God the good, and Satan the bad (aka bad-god).  I think this is more about us and our child-like need to make the world black and white (even God) than it is really a truth of the nature of God.  But what do I know – I have no special insight to such things.  Satan is.  Satan is not.  I believe both of these things to be true.  I could say more here but it would get confusing (as in I would begin to confuse myself) and I’ll hold off for now.  All of these question require a bit of give and take in conversation so we’ll see what you do with that first foray.

8)  What/who is God? He’s not really a man with grey hair and beard, wearing a robe, sitting in the clouds, right? If not what is he, what does he look like or resemble?

Well, you began and end with HUGE questions.  Do I get to say I don’t know?  There are many answers to this question and none of them is right and none are probably wrong and absolutely none is the full answer.  We talk about Jesus Christ as God’s self-revelation – he gives us insight into who and what God is.  But the whole of God?  It would be like asking if we could find a place from which to view the whole universe… which, if scientists are right, is growing – at least until it starts shrinking – so how could we ever do such a thing?  Even if for a moment we glimpsed the grandeur of it all – in the next moment it would be more than it was, and in truth we lack the faculties to even “see” it.  Such is God I think.  There is a mystery to God we cannot fully comprehend. And yet in all that majesty God chose to descend into human form out of desire to be in relationship to us.  Little ol’ us.  God wants to know us, and be known by us.  What does God look like?  I believe God looks like you and your husband and your friends sitting around asking questions, God looks like a gay family member who has been hurt and psychologically abused by the very people who profess to be devoted to love, God looks like a child whose eyes are full of wonder, God looks like the sky on a clear night where you stair up into an abyss and you are pretty sure there must be someone like you on some other world who is staring back at you right now.  (okay maybe that’s just me.)  To quote it again, “God is love.”  We have a need to turn God into a person, but God is more than that, and pursuing God as some external object we can catch and hold onto is, in some way, to try to control God – who is infinite – by making God less.  This is why to say God is love works so well for me (though it wasn’t my idea) – you cannot hold love. You cannot even fully define it.  But you can feel it, and you can see it when it’s happening.  So that I can see something and say – God is in that.  But it is very hard to come up with some objective definition of God apart of the life of God’s creation.

This may feel wholly (and holy) inadequate.  But I’ll let that stand as a first response.  Please question my responses; let me know where they don’t work – what the problems with them are, or what further questions they inspire.  And we will go from there.  Like I said – next week I would probably say something different!

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I tend to think that most nostalgia about the past is born of poor and selective memory (we mostly only remember the good parts or remember how we imagine it was).

On the flip side there can be memories so painful we become stuck in the horror of it all, unable to imagine goodness. Such memories become too powerful and infest our minds stealing the real joy that is there.

Somewhere between these… Life is.

There will almost always be reasons for great joy and heart-wrenching anguish. There will be stories of hope and transformation amidst ongoing struggles with injustice and systems of power and abuse so deeply rooted they seem too entrenched as to be immovable. Our daily lives are a mix of wondrous mystery, dis-eased anxiety, unnoticed miracles, and unaddressed abuse to self and others.

I understand we cannot remember it all. But on a day of remembering may we seek authenticity: lament and praise. Claim hurt and hope. Notice milestones lived and paths yet untaken. May our memories of the past be whole so that our hopes for the future may be realistic, and may we avoid hyperbole – either with perfection or perdition.

Tomorrow is not a clean slate, but it is a new day where new choices and new directions may be taken (as all days are). Let us make the most of it – in deed and not words alone. Happy end of 2013 to you all, and a Happy New Year!

Illuminating Peace (day two)

You can find the first Peace reflection by Joanna Dunn here: http://pastormomjdunn.tumblr.com/post/69525010066/illuminating-advent-peace-yesterday-we-started

Joanna challenged us to let there be peace on Earth by beginning with ourselves.  How are we agents of peace?  I have voices swirling in my head that remind me that we cannot be agents of peace if we are not at peace within ourselves.  When we are filled with anger and strife we spread those things.  In fact the monk Benedict made it a part of his monastic rule (law) that you could not leave a monastery and go to another because you were unhappy.  Why?  He said that while you may think you are leaving to get away from the problem, in fact you are simply taking the problem to a new place.  The problem resides within us.

But… I say… But it’s tempting to move on to greener pastures.  It’s easy to want to identify how others are a part of the problem.  It’s easier to see the toothpick in my neighbor’s eye (to quote Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew) than to think about my role in all of it.

For true peace to reign on earth we have to start by finding God’s peace within us.  We have to be willing to look deeply to our own soul’s discontent, unhappiness, and anger.  This is why peace is not simply the absence of war.  Peace requires to the ability to be comfortable in our own skin; comfortable with the people around us.  Peace is not subjugating our own inner turmoil and keeping it reigned in, just as peace cannot be achieved by subjecting other people to our ways and views.  This is not peace.  Peace is relieving that turmoil and letting it go.  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

What burdens are you carrying?  What makes you weary?  How are we prepared to come to terms with this, to give it up, and to rest in the one who is peace that we might become agents of peace?

Love: Strong enough to hold us

I’m thinking about divisions, polarizing conflict… discord.  This week we shared that a church in our presbytery is seeking to leave the denomination.  Every week I engage in at least one conversation (every day?) where there are passionately held convictions that are in conflict.  We fight (and I do mean fight) over laws and interpretations of laws both ecclesiastical and political (and social as well).

I do not wish to speak to any of those particular conversations.  I do wish to think about how we exist as communities in conflict.  There is something very ‘Holy Week’ about such a conversation.  The community around Jesus in Holy Week is very much in conflict.  Jesus becomes the lodestone to radical shifts in meaning.  “You have heard it said… but I tell you…”  There are various reactions to these shifts… from those in favor but clearly not understanding the shifts fully (like Peter) to those very much against the shifts who require the death of Jesus to end the conflict.  In such weeks stability often becomes more important (of ultimate importance?) than wrestling with conversations that create ambiguity.

I like to call this the yellow brick road phenomenon.  We wish to have a clear road before us to our destination.  Anything that makes that “way” murky is tossed aside.  Anything that clarifies it is embraced (sometimes without question).  And I can see the allure of this… I feel the allure of this.  And yes, I hear words like “the way is narrow” (Matthew 7) and know that there is some truth to clarifying the way we should go.  I also hear words like “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9)  I hear Daniel told to go his way because the words are to remain secret and sealed.  (Daniel 12)  Some knowledge is just beyond us. In fact it is knowledge of good and evil that the garden says we were not to receive.  Much woe comes to the world when we require drawing lines around what is good and what is not.

It is enough for me to travel with people… knowing we shall differ in outlook and truth but also knowing that the love and care that unites us is stronger than all that.

Let us – from whatever conflict we are in, whatever truths we hold – join in that prayer at least.  That love is indeed strong enough to hold us.