Sunday, August 28, 2011

Create Thyself (8/28/11)

Create Thyself
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 28, 2011

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 5:19-20; 9:11-12; 11:6-8; 9:8-9.

For to everyone whom Luck has blessed with wealth and luxuries,
it has also given the power to enjoy them,
to accept his lot and find enjoyment in his work.
This is a gift from Nature.
But seldom will a person ponder the meaning of his life
when Luck fully occupies him with gladness of heart.

I have seen something else in this world:
the race is not guaranteed to the swift
nor the battle to the strong;
food does not necessarily come to the wise,
nor wealth to the intelligent,
nor favour to the learned;
for all alike are subject to time and chance.

Sow your seed in the morning
and at evening let not your hands be idle,
for you do not know which undertaking will prosper, this one or that,
or whether the two of them will do equally well.

Light is sweet.
It’s a joy for the eyes to see the sun.
So if a man lives for many years,
let him rejoice in every one of them.
But let him remember that the days of darkness will be many
and that everything hereafter is nothingness.

Be well dressed for every occasion,
and be presentable in every way.
Enjoy life with a wife you love
through all the days of the fleeting life
that Nature has given you in this world.
And know that this is your reward in life
for the toil and drudgery you have performed in this world.

One of the objections put forth by creationists against evolution is that evolution is meaningless, they say. It lacks purpose. If there is not order, design, or purpose, so goes the argument, then life has no meaning.

The objections to evolution really have little to do with science of evolutionary theory or the mechanism of natural selection. The objections are philosophical. If evolutionary theory is correct, then our existence is meaningless, and if meaningless, then miserable and not worth living. So it goes.

Those are large jumps.

I am going to leave the question of evolution aside. I don’t want to get lost in the mechanisms of that theory. I am curious about the philosophical question of meaning. Evolution is certainly meaningful in one sense of the word. If meaning has to do with making sense of something that was not understood, then evolution is quite meaningful. It helps us make a great deal of sense of life. More and more fields are using the gains from evolutionary theory to make sense and to make meaning out of what we observe in nature including human behavior. Far from being meaningless, evolution is meaning-full.

That isn’t what is meant, of course by those who claim evolution is meaningless. What is meant is that if there is not a Divine Intelligence, a Creator, Provider, Director, all outside of life then life has no meaning or purpose. If life is not being directed then life has no meaning. What gives us comfort, in this view, is that our lives were created and are guided. The following song is in our hymnal.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

And the verse that is omitted from most hymnals including ours:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

There is always a shadow side to our doctrines. We may find comfort in the thought that things are created, ordered, and blessed by God. But that thought also gives us the divine right of kings. If God made each bird’s tiny wings, then God made each hurricane. If God cares for us with rain and sunshine, does God punish us with too much of each as well?

Our ancient ancestors believed that things happened for a purpose or for many purposes. Rain didn’t just fall. It was showered upon us by Divine Will. Odd human behaviors were the result of demons or spirits. Powerful nations and leaders were given strength and motivation by divine beings. Pleasing the gods so that we would receive their favor rather than their curse was important business.

Today when we study the natural world and the particular human species, we realize that we can explain a lot of things without needing to postulate the existence of divine beings or divine purpose. Explaining natural phenomena doesn’t require supernatural purpose or providence.

As we realize more and more that human beings are part of nature rather than distinct from it, we can explain human behavior as well without the aid of supernatural will. This realization is both liberating and unsettling.

It is unsettling because we have grouped together supernatural design and purpose on one hand with meaning, happiness and morality on the other. It is all a package deal, so we might think. Institutions such as the church have thought their job was to provide people with a package of meaning. We call it “passing on the faith.” Everyone gets a box of meaning already made for them. All folks need to do is open it and discover it. We are invited to discover God’s purpose for our lives.

Now before that gets too unsettling, I should say that that is not a bad thing in itself. A package of wisdom is not a bad gift. Learning the wisdom of the institution is a good place to start. For many it is a fine place to end as well. I, personally, do not think it is so good if the package contains a note that says, “Don’t read any further,” or “You are not allowed to doubt or challenge these doctrines.”

What if we on our own decided to open the package of meaning that the institution gives us that contains supernaturalism and purpose fused with meaning, morality, and happiness and began to separate them. We separate and keep the stuff that makes sense and let go the stuff that doesn’t.

What if we say I am interested in meaning, morality, and happiness, but not so much in supernaturalism and outside divine purpose? You would find yourself in the company of many people including, which may be a surprise, many Christian theologians.

This past July, Gordon Kaufman, a theologian who taught at Harvard Divinity School died at the age of 86. For him, God is not so much Creator as Creativity. In his book, Jesus and Creativity, he wrote:
Instead of continuing to imagine God as The Creator, a kind of personlike reality who has brought everything into being, I have for some years been developing and elaborating a conception of God as simply the creativity that has brought forth the world and all its contents, from the Big Bang all the way down to the present. Imagining God as creativity enables Christian thinkers to be much more attuned to what the modern sciences have been teaching us about our lives and the world in which we live. It makes it possible to bridge the divide often felt between religious faith and our scientific knowledges. Xi
Rather than creator, Kaufman invites us to think of creativity. Natural Selection could be imagined as one incarnation, so to speak, of Creativity.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
Natural Selection made them all.

What I want to say next is that that is not a bad thing.

That is not a non-sacred thing.

That can be deserving of the name “God” as much as any previous notion that we have had of God.

Rather than, and I am speaking to the religious or spiritual part of us now, think that chance, creativity, or nature is meaningless and profane, we can decide that it is just as sacred and blessed as former notions of supernatural gods or God. It is a movement of God from without to within.

If life, all of life including your life and mine, is the result of chance and natural selection, purposeless, serendipitous creativity, then it is what it is. It is no less sacred than if there was a divine being directing your every move. It is up to us.

Yes there is purpose, meaning, happiness, and morality in the universe. We make it.

The epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story on Earth, at least that we know about. I recommend the new translation by Stephen Mitchell. What is fascinating about Gilgamesh is not so much the characters and the adventures. That’s fun and interesting. What is interesting is the author. Someone created it. A human being created it. A human being created a story, created the characters including Gilgamesh and the gods, created meaning, created a world.

Every piece of literature since, whether we call it sacred or profane, every story, including the stories of Yahweh, Krishna, and Jesus, are part of this same creativity, this drive to make meaning. It is beautiful, really.

Whether it is in the realm of science, music, or literature, it is all serendipitous creativity, to use the phrase by Gordon Kaufman. How cool is that?

Yes there is happiness, morality, purpose and meaning, and we are the ones who create it.

Create thyself.

The author of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, had an insight to this 23 centuries ago. His advice is beautiful. He realized that there was no outside sense to things—no ready-made meaning and purpose to life. He doubted that his compatriots were right that God willed natural disasters and beat up enemies and punished the wrong doers. Much of Ecclesiastes is a useful trashing of that theory.

After concluding God is not those things, what is left is unsettling. It is unsettling in the way it is unsettling for babies who begin to differentiate themselves from their mothers. It was unsettling for Qoheleth to let go of a theory of the providential hand of a supernatural god. But he found a way to navigate life anyway.

This is his beautiful piece of advice:

Be well dressed for every occasion,
and be presentable in every way.
He is not talking about what to wear to a party.

He is talking about how to go about facing life.

You wake up. You suit up. And you show up.

Life is an adventure. Bring an extra pair of underwear.

Take initiative. Create thyself.

Those qualities we have given to the gods are ours to claim. If God is just and merciful then that is what we are, too. If God is love and joy, then so are we. Instead of giving those qualities away, we can take them into our own lives. We can give ourselves permission to be happy. We can create homes and societies of love, justice, and mercy.

What greater purpose is there than that?

Now for the disclaimers.

I am offering what I think Qoheleth is saying with the helpful guidance of minister and scholar, Lloyd Geering. I am offering what I think too. Does that mean it is right? No. You have the freedom to create your meaning as I do mine.

While I am being as honest as I can, I should add that I hear a loneliness in Qoheleth’s voice. As much as I like to be game for getting dressed for any occasion, I find it a little wearying. There are some days when I don’t want to wake up, suit up, and show up.

There are days when I would like to be embraced and held by a Love larger than me.

So I sing the old songs, too.

Maybe it is what Marcus Borg calls the “second naivete.” You put aside the critical thinking and fall in love with the magic, even as you know it is magic.

Create thyself, yes. But I also sing:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

That’s OK, too.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Life Is Precious (8/21/11)

Life Is Precious
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 21, 2011

Everything has its predestined moment,
every affair on earth its appropriate time.
There’s a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to knock down and a time to build up,
a time to cry and a time to laugh,
a time to wail and a time to dance about,
a time to fling stones away and a time to gather them together,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to leave lost,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear apart and a tie to stitch together,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and time for peace.

Our days are few and fleeting,
and we are like shadows passing through them.
Who can tell us what will happen
in this world after we are gone?

Everything your hand finds to do, execute with all your might,
for in the underworld of the dead to which you are going
there is no working, no thinking,
no knowledge, and no wisdom.

For what happens to humans is what happens to animals;
they share the same fate.
As the one dies, so does the other;
the one breath of life is the same for them all.
Humans have no advantage over the animals.
For nothing they do has any lasting significance.
All go to the same place;
all come from dust, and to dust all return.
Who knows whether mankind’s breath of life rises upward to the heavens
and the animals’ breath of life descends downward to the earth?

So I saw that there is nothing better for people
than to be happy in their work, because that is their appointed lot.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 6:12; 9:10; 3:19-21; 3:22.

In the novel, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, is this scene about mortality. The character, Asher, is an artist and his art brings him in conflict with his father and his faith. It also becomes a vehicle for his faith. One of the themes of the novel is the tension between one’s tradition and one’s individuality.

The novel is written in the first person. Asher recounts a time when he was about six years old and he is sitting with his father. He is telling this story to show the reader what inspires him to draw.

I read this scene this morning to share the wisdom of his father and explain why my sermon is titled, “Life is Precious.”
And I drew, too, the way my father once looked at a bird lying on its side against the curbs near our house. It was Shabbos (Sabbath) and we were on our way back from the synagogue.

“Is it dead, Papa?” I was six and could not bring myself to look at it.

“Yes,” I heard him say in a sad and distant way.

“Why did it die?”

“Everything that lives must die.”



“You too, Papa? And Mama?”


“And me?”

“Yes,” he said. Then added. . . .”But may it be only after you live a long and good life, my Asher.”

I couldn’t grasp it. I forced myself to look at the bird. Everything alive would one day be as still as that bird?

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s the way the Ribbono Shel Olom made His world, Asher.”


“So life would be precious, Asher. Something that is yours forever is never precious.”
Life is precious.

I need to be reminded of that every day. Even more often than that.
  • How often I fail to notice the fragility and the impermanence of life.
  • How often I fail to see in life its sacred beauty.
  • How often I fail to see in myself and in others the divine gift that we all are.
  • How often I fail to realize how amazing it is to be alive at all.
  • How often I fail to notice that I will die one day.
I know it, of course, intellectually. Everyone knows it. But I don’t always know it enough to live and love life as much as I might.

I am not suggesting that becoming aware of my mortality should put me in a panic of creating a “bucket list” of things I must do before I kick the bucket. It doesn’t mean I need to sign up tomorrow for skydiving lessons. The preciousness of life requires neither panic nor fear nor conquest. Just presence. The preciousness of life invites us to notice.

Maybe the preciousness of life is found in the advice of Kurt Vonnegut. In the last book he published before he died, A Man Without a Country, Vonnegut wrote:
"And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is."
Religious language, ritual, and art invite us to experience the holy in the world. It exists to wake us and shake us. But it isn’t easy to embrace life with the awareness of our mortality. That is why we need to be wakened and shakened. Sometimes the very language that is supposed to make us more aware of life serves to put us further in denial.

I notice this particularly at funerals. At many of them, we are supposed to be comforted by supernaturalism. In the hardline form of religious literalism we are supposed to jump through systems of belief so our souls or our resurrected bodies or what have you will land in the right place after death.

In the softer forms of the same literalism, in those that don’t emphasize hell, for instance, we are to take comfort that the deceased really isn’t dead. We find little poems nestled in the four-fold card—the card that has on the cover a drawing of Jesus with praying hands:

“Don’t weep for me,” says the poem. “I haven’t really died.”

Apparently, our loved one has just traveled somewhere. Chicago perhaps.

I want to say,
“No, your loved one truly is dead. That is why her life was precious. It is OK to weep. It is OK to have regrets. It is OK to let those regrets go. Like hers, your life is precious too. As you go from this funeral home or church or wherever it is to live your precious life, it is also OK to notice when you are happy, and to say…

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
That is what I want to say. But I let it go. We all need to do what we need to do.

One more thing about funerals since we are on that happy topic. I don’t think I have ever heard-- especially from those who claim that every word in the Bible is the Word of God--these verses from Ecclesiastes read at funerals. Here are verses 3:19-20 from The King James:
For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Or as Lloyd Geering translates it:
For what happens to humans is what happens to animals;
they share the same fate.
As the one dies, so does the other;
the one breath of life is the same for them all.
Humans have no advantage over the animals.
For nothing they do has any lasting significance.
All go to the same place;
all come from dust, and to dust all return.
"Who knows," Qoheleth goes on to say, "Whether mankind’s breath of life rises upward to the heavens and the animals’ breath of life descends downward to the earth?"

Is death the end of us? For Qoheleth the answer is yes. His view made it into the Bible.

But who knows, indeed.

In 1984 Olive Ann Burns wrote the novel, Cold Sassy Tree about life in Georgia in 1906. The main character is a young boy named Will Tweedy. He is speaking with his grandfather about important matters, resurrection, life after death and so forth. Grandpa says:
As you know, son, jest believin’ we go’n live forever in the next world don’t make it so—or not so.”

I felt awful. “Grandpa, you don’t think Granny’s gone to Heaven? She ain’t Up There waitin’ on us to come?”

“I like to think so, son. If’n they is a Heaven, she’s Up There, I know thet,” he said softly. Then he laughed… “Ain’t but one way to find out if she is or ain’t though. And I’m not thet curious.” He sighed, spat, and said, “Havin’ faith means it’s all right either way, son. ‘The Lord is my shepherd means I trust Him. Whatever happens in this life or the next, and even if they ain’t alife after this’n, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?” p. 188-9.
That to me is some of the most profound theological writing that I have read.
“Havin’ faith means it’s all right either way…”
Life is what is. Trusting God or trusting the Universe or whatever words you use to touch on what is real, is acceptance that it and you are all right. There is no need to be anxious about it. There is nothing you can do or believe that will allow you to score points in the afterlife or to avoid the penalty box. There is nothing you can do or believe to make God love you more or less. You are already embraced. As Grandpa wisely said:
“The Lord is my shepherd means I trust Him. Whatever happens in this life or the next, and even if they ain’t a life after this’n, God planned it. So why wouldn’t it be all right?”
In the meantime we could do worse than to follow the advice of Kurt Vonnegut...who is in heaven now:
If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.
One of the great theologians of the 20th century, next to Grandpa and Kurt Vonnegut, is Paul Tillich. One of his most famous sermons is entitled, “You Are Accepted.” His sermon is a good one for me to read especially when I feel anxious about life or feel anxious about whether I am good enough, or when I worry about the future or feel guilt or shame about my past.

The sermon is about an old-fashioned religious word, grace.

Even though my sermon this morning is about the reflections of Qoheleth on mortality, it comes back to grace, to the preciousness of life, of my life and your life, to the feeling of being embraced, accepted, and comfortable in our own skin. Whether we are religious or not, it is what we long for.

This is Paul Tillich, from his collection of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations“You Are Accepted.”
“We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness.

• It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life.
• It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged.
• It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us.
• It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying:

"You are accepted.

You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.

Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.

Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.

Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"

If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance….

….If only more such moments were given to us! For it is such moments that make us love our life, that make us accept ourselves, not in our goodness and self- complacency, but in our certainty of the eternal meaning of our life. We cannot force ourselves to accept ourselves. We cannot compel anyone to accept himself. But sometimes it happens that we receive the power to say "yes" to ourselves, that peace enters into us and makes us whole, that self-hate and self-contempt disappear, and that our self is reunited with itself. Then we can say that grace has come upon us.”
That was Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted.”

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced those moments.

Every now and then I am reminded that I am accepted and that life is precious.

My life is precious.
Your life is precious.
It really is pretty amazing that we are alive and here.
This moment.
This place.

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Is Life Fair? (8/14/11)

Is Life Fair?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 14, 2011

But something more I have seen on the earth:
at the very seat of justice there is wickedness;
in the very place where righteousness should be,
there is transgression.

Then I looked again and saw all the oppression
that was taking place on the earth.
See the endless tears of the oppressed
for whom no one provides comfort!
Since their oppressors wield all the power,
no one can ease their suffering.

If you witness social oppression of the poor—
the denial of justice and human rights—
do not be astonished at what goes on.
it’s because one bureaucrat is subject to a higher one,
and still higher ones lord it over them both.
and remember that land is of value to everybody,
so every cultivated field has someone ruling over it.

Indeed I have seen wrong-doers buried with pomp;
and because they frequented the holy place
they were praised in the very city where they did their evil deeds.
This also makes no sense.

Wherever judgment for evil deeds is not carried out promptly,
people’s minds are filled with ideas of crime,
and a malefactor may commit a hundred crimes and live a long life.
Oh yes, I know what they say:
“It will be well for those who fear God,
and show reverence before him;
and it will not be well for the wicked,
for their days will not lengthen like a shadow
simply because they show no reverence before God.”
But what occurs here on the earth is absurd.
Some righteous people get what the wicked deserve,
and some wicked people get what the righteous deserve!
This too, I say, makes no sense at all.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 3:16; 4:1; 5:8-9; 8:10-15

Is life fair?

Probably not.

It doesn’t take much observation to come to the conclusion that things are not equal on Earth. As Qoheleth said long ago:
Some righteous people get what the wicked deserve,
and some wicked people get what the righteous deserve!
It wasn’t until seminary that I learned why Christians developed the doctrine of Resurrection. It had little to do with life after death. It was about justice. The point being that there is precious little justice on Earth. Human lifespans are not long enough for humans to get what’s coming to them. Resurrection was invented so that we could take comfort that if God can’t reward the righteous for their faithfulness in this life, at least they will be rewarded in the life to come.

As this tradition developed, it also accounted for the judgment on the wicked. Contemplating the fate of the wicked became even more thrilling than the fate of the righteous. If you look at medieval paintings of hell they are far more imaginative and exciting than paintings of heaven.

Our enduring religions wrestle with and most attempt to provide an answer for the vexing problem of injustice. The problem is solved for the most part by having that which survives our bodies suffer reward or punishment via resurrection or karma. That is not to say that notions of karma, resurrection, or the flight of the soul do not have reality to them. I am agnostic regarding such speculations, but they do serve to solve the justice/injustice problem.

Religion has largely answered the question, “Is life fair?” by saying,
“No. But hang with us and you’ll get justice in the life to come.”
This is no small hope. Many thinkers and fighters for justice have made that hope more nuanced. For them it isn’t simply one or the other, either justice in heaven or none at all. These thinkers have taken the language of heavenly hope and placed it in the struggle for justice on Earth.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said,
“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Many of the struggles for justice in this world, whether for civil rights, for fair economic policies, for justice in courtrooms, for justice against tyrants, or for justice on behalf of the powerless and vulnerable whoever and wherever they may be, puts its hope in a trust that the cause of justice is larger than those who fight for it.

The forces of injustice are strong. In fact, overwhelming. It is easy to get discouraged. As Qoheleth wrote:
Then I looked again and saw all the oppression
that was taking place on the earth.
See the endless tears of the oppressed
for whom no one provides comfort!
Since their oppressors wield all the power,
no one can ease their suffering.
Qoheleth came to that conclusion without the benefit of 24 hour news from around the world that highlighted pain, ignorance, atrocity, and meanness at the speed of light.

Life is not fair. In Qoheleth’s words,
“It makes no sense at all.”
But I think there is another reason why we have religion and why we have developed notions of justice, resurrection, karma and so forth in the first place.

The hope of justice…the hope that inspires people to risk and to sacrifice and to persevere in the face of great odds is real.

It is lodged somewhere within us. It is part of our DNA of survival.

The very language of justice is our language. We created it. Compassion and fairness not only for ourselves or for our kin but for others not related to us and for our non-human relations are all a part of what makes us alive.
  • We aren’t fully human until and unless we weep over injustice and feel its sting.
  • We aren’t fully human until and unless we allow ourselves to trust in the hope that we can relieve that sting.
The world is cold. The world is dark. People suffer.

So what do we do?

We become human beings. We discover within us that combination of compassion and sheer orneriness that enables us both to feel the hurt and to discover the grit to do something about it.

We are reaching a point of limits all over Earth in all areas of life or almost all areas. We are reaching our peak of energy and other natural resources. Some are suggesting that we have reached the peak of economic growth. None of this is apocalyptic in and of itself. There are many things we can do. We can learn to live within our means. We can face our situation squarely and with cooperation and collaboration work to make our communities resilient and sustainable. We can develop an ecological economics that focuses on quality of life, preservation of Earth, social justice, and simplicity.

Instead, at the national political level, we see a movement to balance budgets on the backs of the poor, the elderly, and the most vulnerable. Meanwhile, the inequity between the obscenely wealthy and the poor and middle classes grows. Meanwhile, the world continues to militarize. If what Qoheleth said 23 centuries ago in Palestine was true then, it is most certainly true today:
If you witness social oppression of the poor—
the denial of justice and human rights—
do not be astonished at what goes on.
it’s because one bureaucrat is subject to a higher one,
and still higher ones lord it over them both.
and remember that land is of value to everybody,
so every cultivated field has someone ruling over it.
Is life fair?

No. But…

I said we have reached the point of limits all over Earth in almost all areas. We have not reached the limit in the most important areas.

We have not reached the limits of compassion. There is still plenty of compassion left on Earth. There are untapped reserves of compassion all over the globe.

We have not reached the limits of creativity. There are wells of creativity that we have not yet even discovered. There are many creative ways we can and will discover to manage our house, our home, Earth, for the good of all the inhabitants.

We have not reached the limits of grit and determination. Our species has survived these hundreds of thousands of years in large part because of grit and determination. We never give up.

Our literature, the stories we tell about each other, about our ancestors, and the mythologies we created about the gods, attest to the very qualities that will turn an unfair existence into an existence that while not wholly fair, has at least a bit of kindness to it and as such brings a smile amidst suffering and offers hope of a new day.

One individual who embraced compassion and orneriness was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She cared for the homeless and was an outspoken advocate for compassionate economics and for non-violence. She used her gifts as a writer to speak her truth.

On November 6th, 1965, at the age of 68, she gave the following speech at Union Square in New York on behalf of those who were burning their draft cards. She found in her religious practice, inspiration to take a controversial and dangerous position. It is her answer to, “Is life fair?”
[1] When Jesus walked this earth; True God and True man, and was talking to the multitudes, a woman in the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that bore you and the breast that nourished you.” And he answered her, “Yes, but rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”

[2] And the word of God is the new commandment he gave us–to love our enemies, to overcome evil with good, to love others as he loved us–that is, to lay down our lives for our brothers throughout the world, not to take the lives of men, women, and children, young and old, by bombs and napalm and all the other instruments of war.

[3] Instead he spoke of the instruments of peace, to be practiced by all nations–to feed the hungry of the world,–not to destroy their crops, not to spend billions on defense, which means instruments of destruction. He commanded us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, to save lives, not to destroy them, these precious lives for whom he willingly sacrificed his own.

[4] I speak today as one who is old, and who must uphold and endorse the courage of the young who themselves are willing to give up their freedom. I speak as one who is old, and whose whole lifetime has seen the cruelty and hysteria of war in this last half century. But who has also seen, praise God, the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, and Latin America, achieving in many instances their own freedom through non-violent struggles, side by side with violence. Our own country has through tens of thousand of the Negroe [sic] people, shown an example to the world of what a non-violent struggle can achieve. This very struggle, begun by students, by the young, by the seemingly helpless, have led the way in vision, in courage, even in a martyrdom, which has been shared by the little children, in the struggle for full freedom and for human dignity which means the right to health, education, and work which is a full development of man’s god-given talents.

[5] We have seen the works of man’s genius and vision in the world today, in the conquering of space, in his struggle with plague and famine, and in each and every demonstration such as this one–there is evidence of his struggle against war.

[6] I wish to place myself beside A. J. Muste speaking, if I am permitted, to show my solidarity of purpose with these young men, and to point out that we too are breaking the law, committing civil disobedience, in advocating and trying to encourage all those who are conscripted, to inform their conscience, to heed the still small voice, and to refuse to participate in the immorality of war. It is the most potent way to end war.

[7] We too, by law, myself and all who signed the statement of conscience, should be arrested and we would esteem it an honour to share prison penalties with these others. I would like to conclude these few words with a prayer in the words of St. Francis, saint of poverty and peace, “O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
That was Dorothy Day, filled with compassion and orneriness.

Is life fair?


Qoheleth knew life made no sense at all.

But, he also knew something else. He knew that it is wise to live life, to enjoy what is possible, to enjoy life while we have the time to live it.

I think it is pretty amazing that we have consciousness and that we are here at this time in Earth’s history and in human history. I cannot imagine a more exciting adventure to undertake than the one in which we are engaged at the present.

We have available to us due to our clever technologies, information and ideas with the stroke of a key. I don’t know how long that will last but we have it now.

What will we do with it?

We can do a lot of things.

But if we ever are disillusioned about life, that it isn’t fair, then that disillusionment itself could be an opportunity.

We could do worse than to develop and nurture those twin gifts of compassion and orneriness, kindness and grit, and give ourselves over to making life a little bit more just, fair, and joyful for ourselves, for others, and for generations to come.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Nature and God (8/7/11)

Nature and God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 7th, 2011

Wisdom from Ecclesiastes

Watch your step when you go to the house of God.
Being ready to understand is better than offering sacrifice
with fools
who haven’t even the brains to do any real evil.
Be in no hurry to speak,
and do not think of uttering anything hastily before God.
God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
therefore let your words be few.

This is a gift from Nature.
And I believe that whatever Nature produces
will surely endure forever;
for to it nothing can be added,
and from it nothing can be taken away.
Nature has so arranged matters that people may stand in awe
of it.

Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 5:1-3; 3:14-15; 5:18.

Historical Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, has become a highly respected teacher in progressive Christian circles. We have a number of his books in our library. He has written books on the historical Jesus, God, and the Bible that takes both an historical and a metaphorical approach.

He has been very helpful for many including me to find new meaning in Christianity. One of his earlier books is entitled, 
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. I often offer that book or his book Heart of Christianity to folks for whom the literal model or the default model of the faith no longer works for them.

Marcus Borg taught religion for many years at Oregon State. In Heart of Christianity, he wrote the following about his students and their struggle with “God”:
Every term one or more of them says to me after class, "This is all very interesting, but I have a problem every time you use the word 'God', because, you see" - here there's usually a pause and a deep breath - "I really don't believe in God." I always respond in the same way: "Tell me about the God you don't believe in." Invariably, it is the God of supernatural theism. I then tell them that I don't believe in that God either. They are surprised, for they know that I believe in God. They're simply not aware that there is an option other than supernatural theism.” pp. 68-9
A question that we might have is, well, what is the other option? If “God” is something other than a supernatural being, then what could that possibly be? 

Many people who attend this congregation also have struggles with “God”. One person quipped that our congregation is BYOG or Bring Your Own God. An increasing number of young people are quite open about their dissatisfaction with traditional teachings about “God” and religion. One of the largest growing categories in religious polling is agnostic or atheist. Many others understand themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Unpacking what all this means is a challenge. I think it means at least for some people that traditional concepts of God, Jesus, and the Bible are not credible or interesting. This is true for people even within the church. They are becoming less shy about saying so.

Others, particularly people in the church who seem to be fine with traditional theology, may have a negative value judgment on that development. They may equate loss of belief in traditional forms of Christianity with increased immorality, lack of ethics, or loss of faith and so forth. 

That isn’t necessarily so. It could be that people recognize that they are no longer interested in simply repeating their parents’ or grandparents’ religious beliefs. They think for themselves and have more questions than answers. “Just believe it because it is good for you” is not persuasive to them.

Katherine Keller is a theologian and teaches at the Theological School at Drew University. In her book, On the Mystery: Discerning God in Process, she wrote about this modern movement toward disbelief that she calls “God allergies.” It is a snarky little quote that I like. She writes:

"Of course, some can catch subtler meanings behind the popular cliches of a God-man who "comes down," presumably from Heaven Up There, dons a birthday suit, and after gamely sacrificing himself "for our sins" soon gets beamed up again....But far too many thoughtful people, through too much early exposure to the Big Guy in the Sky, develop life-long God allergies.

Allergic reactions, I hear, can only be treated with a bit of the original allergen. In other words, the literalisms of God-talk can be cured not by atheism but by an alternative theology." p. 16
Keller and Borg and others have not given up on the word “God” but interpret the symbol in creative ways. “God” can be everything or no-thing. God can be creativity, or the process of evolution, another word for Life, or Love, Reconciliation, Nature, the Universe, the unknowable, the non-definable, and so on.

As New Zealand Presbyterian minister and scholar, Lloyd Geering says

"To ask whether God exists or does not exist is a nonsensical question until you define the word "God". But if the word "God" is indefinable, then you cannot ask the question."
Or as our friend, Qoheleth wrote from 23 centuries ago in the Book of Ecclesiastes: 
Be in no hurry to speak,
and do not think of uttering anything hastily before God.
God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
therefore let your words be few.
Good advice.

Those are the words of the person who is skeptical of those who speak so self-assuredly for God. There are certainly people who will tell you all about what God wants. They have his book after all, and know exactly what it means. Usually it means that you are wrong and bad unless you believe it just as they do. 

It is hard to know what Qoheleth meant when he used the word elohim that we translate as God. It literally means gods in the plural and most ancient religion was polytheistic. There were gods and hierarchies of gods. The point of worship was to make sacrifices to these gods in hopes that these gods would make crops grow, wombs fertile, and illnesses pass. 

Qoheleth didn’t seem to think that the gods as such existed. For him, you could go to the temple and sacrifice like a fool and it won’t make any difference. For him, God seemed to be another word for Nature.

That is how Lloyd Geering in his book on 
Ecclesiastes, Such Is Life, translates elohim in many cases. God or Nature is a personification of the universe itself. Nature is not interested and not able to be manipulated by sacrifices or prayers. 

God is in the sky and you’re on the earth;
Therefore let your words be few.
Your words aren’t going to do any good anyway.

Qoheleth’s advice is the following: 

Let me tell you what I’ve come to realise:
It’s good and proper simply to eat and drink,
and take satisfaction in all the work
we do on the face of the earth.
After all, this is our human lot
during the limited days of life that Nature gives us.
The more I read Ecclesiastes the more I am amazed that it made it into the Bible. This fellow is a full-blown skeptic. He uses the word “God” but it means nothing like it means to most of the other biblical authors. 
  • This God makes no covenants. 
  • He sends down no fire and brimstone. 
  • He makes no speeches. 
  • He fights no enemies. 
  • He punishes no sinners. 
  • He rewards no righteous. 
  • He is opaque. 
  • It is as if he set things up and took a long nap...and is still napping.
He is kind of like the bus. It goes from place to place and back again. People get on. People get off. The bus doesn’t care. It is indifferent. 

We might raise an eyebrow at Qoheleth. What are we supposed to do with his view? You mean life is a spin on this big blue boat 70, 80, 90 times (if we are lucky) around the sun and it's over? That God is another word for the Universe? Is that what we are supposed to believe?

No, you are not supposed to believe anything. BYOG. Bring Your Own God. That is the whole point. I think the view I described is the view that Qoheleth had or something close to it. But his was a minority voice. I am not saying Qoheleth is right or wrong. But my point is that he is in the book. There is room in the Bible, perhaps grudgingly so, but there is room for the skeptic. 

“I don’t believe in God,” says the young college student to the professor.

The professor responds, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” After hearing, the professor says, “I don’t believe in that God either.”

Now, at that point, things can get interesting. Now we can have a conversation and a life-long search. What are the options? They are out there. Ready for your exploration should you desire. At that point the shackles of 

  • “what we are supposed to believe” and 
  • don’t question the authorities” and 
  • oh my, you’ll go to hell if you think that way” 
begin to loosen their hold. 

Ecclesiastes was written in response to those who claimed to know what God was all about. We live in a similar time to the extent that many claim to be certain as to what God thinks about regarding everything from marriage to taxes. 

When Christopher Hitchens writes a book with the title, God is Not Good: How Religion Poisons Everything, I disagree but I understand his sentiment. Just this past week I have spoken with people who have had to deal with the poison of a certain kind of punitive religion. It is poison. It hurts people.

I think there is a positive role for religion. I think there is a place for God-talk. I also think there is a place in church for those who don’t particularly need God-talk. I think there is a place within church to challenge and to explore even what we might think is basic and foundational, even the concept of God itself.

There is much in our religious history and in current religious practice that is beautiful and edifying. I think the line between beautiful and ugly, between living water and poison, has to do with respect and freedom in regards to one’s conscience and to the consciences of others.

In the words of Theodore Parker with which I will close:Link

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.