Sunday, June 28, 2009

Let There Be Light (6/28/09 Qur'an Sunday))

We have been reading the Qur'an cover to cover and this month we are reading Surahs 19-24. We chose some prayers and readings from the Sufi tradition. The sermon was based on loosely on the theme of Light as a symbol for the via positiva, the way of celebration, awe, and wonder. Sometimes you just have to accept joy and say it's good.

After the benediction, Katrina and the Waves danced us out of the church.

Let There Be Light
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

We are in the season of summer. The days are longer. It is a season of Light. Light could be the most popular symbol for Divinity. In the Gospel of John, the Cosmic Christ is the Light that shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not overcome it.

In the Qur’an, Allah (which is simply the Arabic word for God) is the Light.

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree (which in English means light or enlightenment). The Enlightenment is a name we have given to a period in Western intellectual history for the light of reason overcoming the darkness of superstition.

I am not sure if there is any wisdom tradition that doesn’t make use of Light as a symbol for awakening, insight, and joy.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the first sentence placed on the lips of God was, “Let there be Light.”

As I was re-reading Matthew Fox’s 95 theses for the reformation of the church, he referenced physicist David Bohm, who said that matter is frozen light.

All matter, including human matter, is light. You could think of it theologically in that all matter, all flesh, all nature, all stuff, is frozen Divine Light. Not only do we have it in us, it is us.

We use the term Light as a symbol for creativity. It is a symbol for joy. It is a symbol for healing. It is a symbol for awe, wonder, and celebration.

This first week of summer invites us to celebrate Light. This is the via positiva, the way of looking at life, and saying, “It is good.”

We do need to bask in the Light. To let the Light soak in us.

When we moved from upstate New York to Montana about nine years ago, I had forgotten about how Light it is out in the high and dry desert. Upstate New York is beautiful. East Tennessee is beautiful. Lots of trees, lots of green, lots of rain that makes it so. So here in the East, in the land of the trees, there are many overcast days.

But I remember those first several weeks when we had moved back to Montana how light it was. I have this same experience when I return for a summer visit. The sun shines most of the time. There are few clouds. According to Montana’s state song, “the skies are always blue.”

I remember for several days spreading my arms and saying, “Give me that sun.” I wanted the Light, not so much the heat, but the light to sink into my bones.

We have had some beautiful bright light days here recently. Good days to soak it up (with the proper application of sunscreen of course).

My theme for this morning’s sermon is soak it up. Soak up the Light.

It’s time to feel good.

Now I know that we need permission.
We ask ourselves how can we feel good when we have so many disappointments?
How can we feel good when there is so much to do?
How can we feel good when there is so much suffering in the world, in our community, in our families, in our own lives?
How can I feel good when my friend is in pain?

There is so much darkness, isn’t it a sin to celebrate the Light?

If we waited until there was no more darkness, suffering and sin, we would never feel good. There is a time for everything writes the poet in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

Today is as good a time as any to laugh and to dance.

That Light of laughter—that dancing Light is necessary to make all the other stuff worth it.

It is a sacred act to take delight in the beauty around us and in the beauty within us. There is beauty within you, don’t ever forget that. You are God’s beauty, God’s Light.

We do weep with those who weep. There is a time for that. There is a time in the midst of the weeping to notice beauty—beauty that is surrounded and illuminated by Light.

Taking notice of the beauty is the highest act of worship.

Over the weekend my Lovely and I watched a wonderful film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The film is based on a wild idea. Benjamin Button was born in 1918. But he was born old. He had age in his baby body, but his mind was that of a baby. As he grows, his body grows younger. He ages backwards.

I won’t give away the plot or the story if you haven’t seen it. It is a good film. It is a via positiva film. Throughout the film we get the sadness about change, but within the reality of impermanence, the joy of the characters is found in accepting what comes, the strangeness, the unpredictability of life itself.

Benjamin at one point says:
Along the way you bump into people who make a dent on your life. Some people get struck by lightning. Some are born to sit by a river. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim the English Channel. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people can dance.
And at another point, as an old man, or actually a young man as the case is, he has become younger even as he has lived a long time, he offers this advice:

For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great film that may inspire us to take notice of the Divine Light in all of life.

In the midst of it all, in the midst of a constantly changing existence, we could do well to give ourselves permission to enjoy it.

I suppose we also need permission to allow ourselves to be joyful. This has to do with that nagging feeling of guilt or unworthiness that puts very nasty and very wrong thoughts into our heads that we don’t deserve joy.

It could be that we need the Divine Light of forgiveness. The Light accepts us as we are. There is no reason to beat up on ourselves. No reason to deny joy. The Light has accepted you.

The world needs people who recognize the Divine Light within themselves. If no one gave themselves permission to be joyful, at least for one day—there would be no joy at all. Sometimes we just need to say, “Forget the rules (and who made them anyway?) I’m going to happy.”

I love this quote from Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn't serve the world.
There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Soak up the Light today.

When you go out for lunch…
If you hike with us on Roan Mountain…
If you visit with relatives and friends…
If you mow the lawn…
If you go to the store…
If you fix supper…

Soak it up!

Notice how difficult all those things would be without Light!

Our lives are bathed in Light.

You are the Light.

Let it shine!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ishta Devata (6/21/09)

Ishta Devata
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
June 21st, 2009
John 14:1-7

When you go to a bookstore and check out the religion section you will find all kinds of books about Jesus. Year after year scholars and non-professionals alike publish books about Jesus. The Real Jesus. What Jesus Really Said. The Secret Life of Jesus. The Historical Jesus. Many of the books are an attempt to refute some other book about Jesus. One would think that all that could be written about Jesus already would have been written. But that isn’t so. Apparently, the author of the Gospel of John had it right in the final sentence of his account:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

After two thousand years, Jesus is still a hot topic. We still wait for the definitive account that will unlock the mysteries of this figure. I have been interested in the search for the historical Jesus, that is the search for what we can know about the person as distinct from the legends and the theological affirmations about him.

This quest is at least as old as Thomas Jefferson who took scissors to his New Testament. He discarded the miracles as supernatural fluff and retained the teachings. Jesus, for Jefferson, was a teacher of wisdom, particularly a teacher of morality.

This quest reflects in part, dissatisfaction with the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. For many, the Jesus of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds is not credible. These creeds tell us more about those who formulated them several hundred years after Jesus than they do about the person of Jesus.

That is not to say these creeds are not poetic or express truths in mythical form. I think they do and I think they have value for that reason. To say, as the Apostle’s Creed does, that “Jesus descended into Hell” is to say something about our own need. In our own Hell, in our own estrangement, the Divine One comes to us, seeks us out, and calls us blessed.

Nevertheless, the conceptual universe in which the creeds were formed no longer exists. A trip to the planetarium shows the universe far more interesting than a heaven above and a hell below.

We are faced with a choice. We can suspend disbelief and enter into this world of demons and gods, heaven and hell, and supernatural miracles like we do when we read Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter novel. You enter into its world, accept its parameters, and seek the truth within the story itself. I tend to do that.

Yet there is a difference between enjoying a novel and making a religion out of it. Can you pray to or trust in a god you know you have created? I don’t have the answer to that question, I just raise it.

The other choice, aside from rejecting Christianity and Jesus altogether, is to seek a Jesus who speaks to our context. This is a context shaped by the sciences and the humanities. The quest for the historical Jesus or a credible Jesus is, I think, a quest for a modern myth. We are looking for a myth of the human. We are not looking so much for “God” as we are for what it means to be human.

Perhaps I shouldn’t say “We.” It is what I am looking for. I enjoy reading about the various portraits offered by students of history about the person of Jesus and the context of his time and the time of writers of the Gospels.

I do have a couple of disclaimers.

First, I have no certainty that any of these portraits are accurate. Because Jesus didn’t write anything and because there are no independent sources for him outside of texts that proclaimed him as a divine figure, the historical person is elusive.

Second, I admit up front that my interests are religious. Mine is not a disinterested scholarly quest. I think that Jesus, in part because he is elusive historically, can be a focal point of a modern myth of the human.

Throughout the centuries, Jesus has served as a myth for God. Of course, Christianity has not called it a myth until recently. It has been absolute truth. In this version, Jesus is not only a way to God, but the only way. The text we read from the 14th chapter of John’s gospel has been one of the key texts in hammering this truth home. It is the text before the altar call. Jesus is the only way and if you don’t believe it right this second, it is down the chute to the fire for you. I am preaching to the choir, but I think we all know that this theology has had unfortunate consequences.

Is there another way? Is there a way for those who identify with Christianity to both have their Jesus and be inclusive too? I think so. I think concepts from other religions might be helpful.

I also included a reading from the Bhagavad-Gita. In this text, Krishna is saying to Arjuna essentially the same thing Jesus is saying to his disciples.

'You want to get to Brahmin, to the Father, to God, to all that is, to the Ultimate Reality, the Truth beyond all truth, to the I Am Who I Am, and I Will Be Who I Will Be? Well, you can’t. It is too big. You are too small. In my person, you get a manifestation." 

In Jesus, in Krishna, you get a particular vehicle.

Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg tells a story of a Hindu teacher preaching in a Christian church about the 14th chapter of John. He is not a Christian Hindu. He is a Hindu. He read this text:

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

The Hindu teacher said, “This is absolutely true. And it is true for every enduring religion.”

Whether Jesus says it, or Krishna says it or whether the Qur’an says it, the way to the Ultimate is through the particular. One could say, “I love humanity.” Great. However, the only way to love humanity is to love concretely the flesh and blood human being sitting next to you. Otherwise it is just talk. It isn’t about right belief, but commitment. It is as if Jesus is telling his disciples, “Hey guys, do you want to get to be super spiritual. You want to find God, man?”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they say.

“Here is how. Do what I have done. Love your neighbors. Feed the poor. Stand up for the dispossessed. Give your life for others.”

“Oh. We were hoping we could just recite a prayer and believe a creed.”

One of the advantages of studying other religions is that this study can give us insights into our own. A concept that I find intriguing is from Hinduism. It is the concept of ishta devata, or chosen deity.

Because Hinduism is polytheistic, our Hindu friends have a number of deities from which to choose. The ishta devata is the deity you choose. The idea here is to find a deity who speaks to you. You need to do some research. You find one you like. The deity must have some depth with characteristics you have or that you would like to develop. You use this deity as a focal point for meditation, devotion, and personal growth. The deity you choose is a vehicle for your own growth.

There a couple of guidelines.

The first is that you stick with it. It is less helpful to bounce from one deity to another. If you want to find water you need to dig a hole. To get water you are told you will need to dig forty feet. You could dig ten holes four feet deep or you could dig one hole forty feet deep. The second option is going to be more productive even as it will be more difficult. When you search for your ishta devata find one you can live with and stick with.

The second guideline is that your ishta devata must be credible. Even as you may choose a figure from religious literature, she or he as to be real for you. You define what real is. But your ishta devata needs to satisfy your sense of what is real.

You can choose Jesus. You can choose the Jesus you grew up with, or if that Jesus no longer works, you can find another ishta devata. If you want to stick with Jesus, you can choose a particular aspect of Jesus. Perhaps the infant Jesus or the healing Jesus or the Jesus who offers unconditional love, or a combination of these images will work for you. There are plenty of Jesuses to go around.

I think the quest for the historical Jesus is really a quest for an ishta devata. It is a search for a Jesus who is credible. At least as I look back on it that is what it has been for me. You don’t need to tell anyone who your ishta devata is. In fact, it is probably wise not to do so.

But at that risk, for point of illustration, mine is my version of the “historical Jesus.” I put quotes around “historical Jesus” to show that I don’t know if my Jesus is the historical one or not. For me, he is a credible Jesus. This is the Jesus who told parables, who welcomed outcasts, who was a healing presence, who stood up for the disenfranchised, who loved enemies, who considered the lilies, who practiced non-violence, and who was so committed to what he stood for, that he risked and even paid for it with his own life. For me, this Jesus is real and alive.

This Jesus is for me what it means to be a human being.

The creeds and theological speculations about Jesus I respect as the ishta devata of my ancestors. I value them and learn from them as such. But for me, the way to authentic life, the way to the Father (since it is Father’s Day, I’ll say Father) is the way that this first century Palestinian Jew lived his life even to his death.

I offer this concept of the ishta devata only because it has been helpful to me. It may or may not be helpful for you. I have found in it a way to remain Christian without having to embrace either an incredible Christianity or an exclusive one.

Peace and strength be with you on your search.