Sunday, December 30, 2012

Children First (12/30/12)

Infancy Gospel of Thomas 11:1-13:4; 16:1-18:4        
Robert J. Miller, ed. The Complete Gospels, Fourth Edition (Salem, OR:  Polebridge Press, 2010).

When he was six years old, his mother sent him to draw water and bring it back to the house.  But he lost his grip on the pitcher in the jostling of the crowd, and it fell and broke.  So Jesus spread out the cloak he was wearing and filled it with water and carried it back to this mother.  His mother, once she saw the miracle that had occurred, kissed him; but she kept to herself the mysteries that she had seen him do.

Again, during the sowing season, the child went out with his father to sow their filed with grain.  When he had harvested and threshed it, it yielded one hundred measures.  Then he summoned all the poor in the village to the threshing floor and gave them grain.  Joseph carried back what was left of the grain.  Jesus was eight years old when he did this miracle.

Now Jesus’ father was a carpenter, making plows and yokes at that time.  He took an order from a rich man to make a bed for him.  When one board of what is called the crossbeam turned out shorter than the other, and Joseph didn’t know what to do, the child Jesus said to his father Joseph, “Put the two boards down and line them up at one end.”  Joseph did as the child told him.  Jesus stood at the other end, grabbed hold of the shorter board, and by stretching it, made it the same length as the other.  His father Joseph looked on and marveled, and he hugged and kissed the child, saying, “How lucky I am that God has given me this child.” 

Joseph sent his son James to bundle up some wood and carry it back to the house, and the child Jesus followed.  While James was gathering the firewood, a viper bit his hand.  And as he lay sprawled out on the ground, dying, Jesus came and blew on the bite.  Immediately the pain stopped, the animal burst open, and James got better on the spot.

After this incident a baby in Joseph’s neighborhood became sick and died, and his mother grieved terribly.  Jesus heard the loud wailing and the uproar that was going on and quickly ran there.  When he found the child dead, he touched her chest and said, “I say to you, infant, don’t die; live, and be with your mother.”   And immediately the infant looked up and laughed.  Jesus then said to the woman, “Take your child, offer her your breast and remember me.”  The crowd of onlookers marveled at this:  “Truly this child was God or a heavenly messenger of God—whatever he says instantly happens.”  But Jesus left and went on playing with the other children.

This first Sunday after Christmas is a good Sunday to reflect on children.  We have celebrated the birth of Jesus.  The lectionary text is the only story we have about Jesus as a child in the New Testament.  He is twelve years old and his parents accidentally leave him behind in the temple in Jerusalem.  Three days later they find him, according to Luke:
“sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”
The Jungians remind us that in this story we have an example of the child archetype, the symbol for developing personality or potential future.    In literature, this child is sometimes seen as one who exhibits adult-like qualities, such as the story of Jesus in the temple amazing the teachers.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas contains more stories about Jesus as a child.  Jesus is a miracle-worker in these stories.   He isn’t always a good boy, however.     In some of the earlier stories in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus behaves badly toward other children, his neighbors, and toward his teachers, when Jesus thinks they cross him in some way.      For example, this is from chapter 4:
Later on he was going through the village when a boy ran by and bumped him on the shoulder.  Jesus got angry and said to him, “Your trip is over!”  And all of a sudden he fell down and died.
Some people saw what had happened and said, “Where has this boy come from?  Everything he says happens instantly!”
The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him, saying, “Teach your boy to bless and not curse, or else you can’t live with us in the village.  He’s killing our children!”
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not used much in Christian teaching.  I didn’t even know it existed until I was in college and I took a course on the history of the New Testament.   I am sure the reason we are not familiar with it is because of distrust of anything outside the canon, but the legends of Jesus as a divine child who matures into his divinity is a story of individuation.   Jesus has to grow into the position of being divine.   He has to learn to use his divine powers for good, to bless and not curse.   He learns how to mature as do we all.    

We have at our disposal great powers of creativity.   Will we use this creativity for good or for evil?     Think of technological humanity.  We are in our infancy.  For example, we have harnessed nuclear energy.   What will we do with it?     Will we be mature enough to tame this power or will it result in our destruction?    

This is the via creativa, the path of creativity and generativity.     The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is the via creativa unleashed in the child Jesus.    The story is that Jesus, after some rough starts is able to channel it for good.     Can we do the same?

Jesus is not the only spiritual figure who has stories about his childhood.  Krishna and Buddha do as well.  
I love this one about Krishna.  He is a toddler with a mop of curly hair.  The older children are going out to pick fruit.  They decide that they will collect the fruit and divide it equally.   Krishna wants to go with them, but they don’t want him because he is just a baby and will get in the way.    He follows them anyway.    He is too small to climb the tree, so they give Krishna the job of picking up the fruit that falls to the ground.  

When the fruit falls to the ground, Krishna, instead of collecting it, eats it.   He shovels it into his mouth.  The older boys notice what he is doing and yell at him to stop, but he keeps eating the fruit.   He is eating so fast that he is getting dirt in his mouth.    They ask him what he is doing but his mouth is so full of fruit that he can’t speak.  So they run and tell his mother that Krishna is eating mud!

Krishna’s mother comes out and asks him, “Have you been eating mud?”   His mouth is too full to respond and he just shakes his head as if he is ready to cry.  The older boys tell her to ask him to open his mouth.    

Krishna knows this is a bad idea.   His mother forgot about the last time she looked into Krishna’s mouth but she has forgotten and she does ask him to open his mouth.     The same thing happened as before.  As soon as he opens his mouth she sees the entire universe, the earth, mountains, forests, and the planets and the stars.  She gets lost in this and begins despairing, until finally he closes his mouth and she regains her senses.   She realizes how foolish she has been:
This child carried the whole universe within Himself and she was worrying about a few grains of sand! "Krishna! 0 Krishna!" she whispered, snatching up her boy in her arms. "Who are You? Who are You? Who are You?" she whispered, nuzzling His baby curls with her lips.
She takes him home, whispering endearments to him.  The other boys, meanwhile, cannot understand what happened.  They thought he would be in trouble from an irate mother and here she was hugging and kissing him.  

That story is a good reminder about perspective.  We forget who we are.   Each of us contains the universe within ourselves.   Don’t worry too much over a little mud.    

The Buddha was also a magical child.    

The story goes that Queen Maya had a dream.  She dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks came down from heaven and touched her on the side.   She told her husband, King Suddhodana, what happened, and the next morning they told a wise man about the dream.  He said that she would give birth to a child who would become a great leader of humankind.   He would be either the greatest king or the greatest saint who ever lived.

The king and queen were excited about this at first.   They liked the king part, but not so much the saint part.  The child might end up being a wandering holy man and not have interest in ruling a kingdom.   

When the time came for her to give birth, the queen was journeying to visit her parents in a neighboring kingdom and she entered a garden along the side of the road.   She held on to a limb of a tree and gave birth to a magnificent boy.    He wasn’t born in the usual way.  He stepped out of her side and took seven steps in all four directions to claim dominion over the universe.  The trees and shrubs of the garden all burst into bloom and a rainbow appeared across the sky.  

The King and Queen decided to name their child Siddhartha, which means "the one who brings much good."   

One day, when Siddartha was a young boy, he was walking outside and a swan fell at his feet.  The swan had been struck by an arrow.  Siddartha removed the arrow and treated the swan with medicine.     His cousin ran up to him and said he had shot the swan and that the swan belonged to him.    

Siddhartha said,  
"No the swan is only wounded, and it can be nursed back to health."
The two boys argued and finally went before the King and Queen with their problem. The King and Queen were uncertain about what to do and asked the advice of the oldest person in the court. That person was respected by all and said,
"Everyone values one's life more than anything else. Let the swan be given to the person who tried to save its life, not to the person who tried to take its life."
The story of the Buddha reminds us to be life-giving as opposed to life-taking.

These stories of Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus as children are told to show what kind of spiritual leaders these figures will be and what kinds of things they will teach and do as adults.  Even more than that, because these stories are about children, they show potential and provide possibility.   Even us old folks can capture some of that wonder and awe and that sense of potential, that maybe there is possibility for growth yet within us.   Perhaps we might be humble enough to learn lessons even yet.

I also included in today’s bulletin the reading from Walt Whitman, “There Was A Child Went Forth,” from Leaves of Grass.   I don’t have a literary analysis of this or anything, but I chose it because it reminded me again of potential and possibility.    Whitman’s descriptive poetry that goes on and on provides the effect that the universe is within oneself.    Everything the child sees becomes him or her.    As he writes:
“These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.”
These things include,
“the apple trees cover’d with blossoms, and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road.”
These things also include,
“the blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure.”
All of these things become part of the child.  

In addition to reflecting on the divine child archetype that might inspire us to embrace that child within us and our potential for growth, I thought it would also be important to reflect as adults on our responsibility to our children, not only our biological or adopted children, certainly them, but all children.   It is not that we can shelter them from everything or turn the world into a paradise.  It isn’t that we can possibly be responsible for everything they do, especially as they mature and make their own choices.  Yet, I have to think there must be some intention on our part toward our children to do what we can to make our families, our churches, our neighborhoods, and our society, as much as we can influence these things, consider the well-being of children first.    

If we read that poem from Walt Whitman as an invitation to see that everything becomes the child, might we be more intentional about helping our children develop both openness and resilience to what their eyes fix upon in this world?    Perhaps that poem could make us aware of the effects that our words, deeds, priorities, laws, and budgets, have on the lives of children.   If they are like sponges, becoming the objects they look upon, I want at least to be conscious and know that I am one of those objects.   

The world that I inhabit, influence, and shape with my adult decisions will be the world that children born today and tomorrow with look upon.    I don’t have necessarily specific proposals or ideas in mind, it is more of an intention to ask when I am making whatever decision I am making for my own life or for the life of whatever community I am a part, to ask how will it affect the child who goes forth and looks upon what I have left?  

Maybe we wouldn’t make different choices regarding guns and violence, healthcare, energy, this so-called fiscal cliff, or even church budgets, if our first priority was the well-being of children, but then again, maybe we would.     I know that it has become a cliché when we hear the cry of “think of the children!”   Yet I sure would hate not to think of them.    

Perhaps we haven’t evolved to the extent that we can think of children beyond our own biological children and beyond a couple of generations at most.     Maybe we haven’t reached the spiritual maturity yet of the Great Law of the Iroquois, which says, with beautiful force:
In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.
Maybe we are still at the level of the child Jesus, who instantly kills a boy for bumping into his shoulder.   We haven’t yet grasped that our creativity and power come with a great responsibility.    But then maybe we do have what it takes to channel our creativity toward good.   

Perhaps we just need a reminder.   Maybe we need to remind ourselves and one another of our weighty and joyous responsibility.   Now as we approach the eve of a new year, a time to take stock of the past and to look forward, that as we make our resolutions, as we make our intentions, may we make them with the well-being, health, peace, and joy of children, all children, including those of seven generations to the future, first.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cultivating Love (12/23/12)

Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

I have been doing this for twenty years and it doesn’t get any easier.   I am talking about preaching during Advent and Christmas.   How do you go about it?  I am not saying it is hard for every minister.  I am sure that many have it down.  They know the story they want to deliver and how to deliver it.    I don’t know the story and I don’t know how to deliver it.   

The problem is as I see it, that there are conflicting stories.   One of those stories paints Christmas in hues of warmheartedness.  It is about as our Advent banners proclaim, hope, peace, joy, and love.   This fourth Sunday of Advent is about love.   I could talk about love.   The love of a mother for her child.  The love of family.  The love of God for humankind.   The love of Jesus for all of you and for me.    I could talk about how important it is to accept and to love oneself.   In the midst of the darkness, the light of love shines.  We are loved as we are, right now.   There is nothing we need to do to earn that love or to deserve that love.   We are embraced as Mary embraced her child Jesus in the stable.   When we realize that, we receive a true a gift.   I have preached variations on that theme throughout my career.  I believe that message.  I think it is a good message and a true message and one we need to hear.  

When we hear that we are not good enough nor worthy of love, or when we are down on ourselves for not loving others as we think we should, it is good to receive a dose of love from the pulpit.    In my opinion, one of the things our tradition has going for it is the concept of unconditional love.  Love came down at Christmas.   It would be good to preach that story, especially with so many visitors and family present.    Talk about love.  God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that kind of love.   Another way of saying it is that Christmas is the story of love being born within us.   Sacred creativity is being born in us.   As the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said:
“God is born in us when the mind is stilled and senses trouble no longer.”
This is a message that connects us with other religious traditions as well.   The birth of Jesus compares with the birth of Buddha and Krishna.   Jesus is the divine child.  He represents new life and new birth.  

Celebrating his birth close to the time of winter solstice with the promise of longer days all plays into this magical time.    In Jesus, God has become one with us.  Jesus is the light of the world.   That light is within you.  Take it on and live it.  Those are good messages and I preach them.  

So what is the problem?

It is these texts for starters.    These stories surrounding the birth of Jesus are really odd.  Now I don’t mean the supernatural elements.  We know how to deal with those things, virgin birth, and stars moving through the sky and angelic beings.  We know about legendary material and how to read it.   I am not talking about that.  The odd part of these stories is the down and dirty political reality.  

Here is Mary, the mother of Jesus.   According to the story in the Gospel of Luke, she is visiting her relative, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant.  Mary breaks into song.   That is not unusual.  A mother sings with joy about the birth of her child.  She imagines what that child might be like.   The song is so famous that we call it “The Magnificat.”   That is from the first word of the Latin translation.   

The song is sung properly in Latin, that holy mumbling language that no one understands.    Beautiful music accompanies these Latin words.     Powerful and breathtaking.   The Magnificat should be sung by trained musicians in a Cathedral before the King.  Of course.   For centuries it was and I am sure still is today in those places where they still have kings.     When it is all about the music and when the words are in Latin, you don’t know what she is saying.  But here is what she says.  She is speaking about God:
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
Whoa!  Merry Christmas!  

She sounds like one of those radicals who hasn’t had a bath in a week occupying Wall Street!

You don’t sing this song to the king, unless you sing it in Latin and drown out the words with the music.   Or if the king really does catch on to the words, you are careful to say, “Mary is not talking about you, O most beneficent one.”   She was talking about other kings, bad kings.  

But of course, Mary, is not talking about bad kings.  She is talking about the powerful.   From her vantage point, the powerful have never been good.   Of course, this song probably did not originate with Mary.  It is likely the author of Luke, whoever that was, who took a song from the Hebrew Scriptures sung by Hannah on the occasion of the birth of the prophet Samuel and rewrote it placing it on the lips of Mary.   Luke is not really a radical writer.   The author of Luke also wrote the mostly fictional book of Acts.   He is careful to cozy up to Rome as he feels the need, but still I think Luke preserves enough of the historical memory of Jesus to show that the historical Jesus was on the side of the people over against the powerful and on the side of the hungry over against the rich.    

Jesus appeared when the Roman Empire was the dominant force in the known world, including in Palestine.  Everywhere you looked, you would see signs of Rome’s presence.  You would see imperial religion and politics linked in seamless stream of propaganda on buildings, statues, inscriptions, and coins.   At the entrance to cities you would see crosses, where those who dared to get in the way of Rome would end up.  Those poor wretches  experienced first hand the benevolence of empire.  
I never could experience Christmas in the same way after reading Dominic Crossan’s 1994 book, Jesus:  A Revolutionary Biography.   Crossan introduced me to a birthday celebration that I hadn’t heard about previously.    It was the birthday of Caesar Augustus, the one who is famous in the Gospel of Luke for starting the census that moved Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem from Nazareth.  Actually, there wasn’t a census like that.    That story in Luke is a literary invention.  However, the historical reality that that story represents is the power of Caesar to move people at will.    The irony of the story, that Luke offers with a wink, is that while the world is celebrating Caesar’s birth, here is the birth of the son of another kind of god altogether.

This inscription was found on a temple celebrating Caesar Augustus, and making a decree to change the calendar to celebrate his birth:
Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good:  Augustus…and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order…with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…therefore…the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23…and the first month shall…be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.  P. 1
Imperial theology celebrating the power of Rome and the divine status of its emperor was everywhere.  That is the background and foreground for the story of the birth of Jesus.

Here are the announcements from the angel first to Mary, then to the shepherds:
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end….the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”….
And the angel said to them [the shepherds], “Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
It is easy to see that Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is told with a wink.  It is a very serious wink.  The language of emperor and empire is inverted and applied to Jesus, and it is delivered to the people, not the people in power, but the people who are hungry.   These are the people who die on the crosses that the emperor “who has made war to cease and has put everything in peaceful order” has erected.    The peaceful order for Rome results in people in Palestine dying of hunger or dying on crosses.    Jesus, that is the historical Jesus, and his mother experienced Rome’s “peaceful order.”   

Merry Christmas.

I would love more than ever to talk about hope, peace, love, and joy in generic terms or in psychological terms, or in spiritual or theological terms, but I cannot talk about that with any integrity and leave out the very reasons these stories were told in the first place.   

I have been watching on television, commercials for the United States Navy.    In the midst of images of Earth from space, with satellites, aircraft carriers, and American flags is the punchline:   
The United States Navy:  A Global Force for Good. 
There is no way I can watch that television commercial and not make the connection to first century Rome.    Rome saw itself, also, as a global force for good.    And I cannot help but hear the voice of Mary in Luke’s gospel say:
He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
I wonder how and when Mary’s song is going to come true.

Caesar wasn’t a bad guy.   He would have made a fine Presbyterian.   His actions and intentions were benevolent and beneficent.    The problem, from the perspective of the gospels was that while his intentions may have been good, his actions were not good for everyone.   The gospels are told from the perspective of those who did not experience Caesar as a good guy.  

What is the Christmas message today?  What is hope, peace, joy, and love for those parents in Pakistan who hold the bodies of their children killed by drones that have been sent under the orders of our own president?   From the standpoint of the president, it is part of the “peaceful order.”  

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." 
That is the philosophy of our culture, isn’t it?  From interpersonal relationships to global ones, the myth of redemptive violence is our story of choice.   We won’t let go of that myth for any price.

The problem when I read the gospels, including the story of the birth of Jesus, is that the good guys sometimes act like the bad guys.   If there is anything about the Christmas message and the narratives surrounding the birth of Jesus to which we ought to pay attention is that the good and bad aren’t always so clearly defined.    

The gospels don’t seem to be so much about good guys and bad guys but about how we handle power and violence.    Jesus also made reference to what happens when we give ourselves over to the creative technologies of destruction.    Jesus didn’t have assault weapons and drones in mind, but he did know about swords and crosses.  Jesus is reported to have said,
“Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”  
That isn’t quite what the president of the NRA said.   

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
He also said that anyone can return love with love.  The real challenge is to love our enemies.

That is the problem with Christmas.  Jesus spoils it for everyone.  He won’t let us get away with fuzzy definitions of hope, peace, joy and love.    When I read the gospels, including Mary’s song, I cannot get images of those who suffer from violence, hunger, and poverty out of my head.    While I am not responsible for all of it, I know that some of it is connected to the “peaceful order” that is enacted daily on my behalf.  

If Christmas means anything, it should at least mean that I be honest about that, and perhaps once honest, to do something that might help Mary’s song of love and hope come true.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cultivating Joy (12/16/12)

Luke 1:39-44
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.

This is the Third Sunday of Advent.

The theme is joy.  

The texts are the legends regarding Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant with children, John the Baptist and Jesus, who are both fated to be tragic heroes.    The symbolism is sacred birth, “the blessed fruit of the womb.”  With this blessing is the promise of life and the response of joy.

In light of the events of December 14, 2012 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, could there be a theme more inappropriate in worship today than joy?  

Yes and no. 

There is a strange sense for me of living this past summer again.  I had decided the summer worship theme would be happiness.  On June 24th, I preached one sermon on the topic only to lose my son Zachary four days later.    When I finally stumbled back into the pulpit, the theme of happiness was sitting there, staring at me like a taunt.   I could have changed the theme, of course.   I didn’t.   I decided that if joy had any reality to it, it would have to be in the words of the hymn by George Matheson, 
“Joy that seekest me through pain.”     
If joy is going to seek out the people of Sandy Hook, it will have to find them in their pain.  I know also, by my own experience, that without at least the promise of joy, however vague and however incredible, the pain itself is too crushing.   Even in the midst of this excruciating fragility, when the tears come in convulsing sobs, joy is being cultivated.  

That joy is cultivated as the community rises and responds to one another, honors the powerfully human and heroic acts of the teachers, responders, parents, and children and creatively expresses its love and care.     
My nephew, Craig with his wife and three children live in Sandy Hook.  Their oldest child is in first grade at Sandy Hook Elementary.  She wasn’t in school Friday because she was home sick.   Craig posted this on his Facebook page:
Please continue to pray for the families of SH. We are so very heartbroken. Sofia has lost so many of her best friends. Her friend she rode the school bus and danced with after school...gone. Her best friend at after school art class...gone. 8 out of 10 kids in her daisy troop....gone. So many other classmates and after school playmates. How do you tell your daughter that so many of her friends are no longer?
That is the work now for my family and this community.   That is the work of those closest to this tragedy.   If there is such a thing as joy it will have to come through that shared experience of anguish.   It will come in its time and not be rushed or forced.     Joy is the human spirit that will not be quenched.   The people of Sandy Hook have their work to do.   They will do it.  The rest of the country must preserve that community’s dignity and respect its privacy and follow their lead.  

For those of us who are not as personally connected to this tragedy but who with tears and anguish have watched it unfold on television and on our computers, we have work as well.   We hold these dear people in our minds and hearts, certainly.   We can donate to the work of those who counsel youth and children through the United Way of Western Connecticut.   It is the Sandy Hook School Support Fund.  

Other work we have is how to talk to children about violence.    Author Brene Brown posted some important links for adults on speaking with children on her website.     She includes there a quote from that wonderful comfort, Mr. Fred Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.
In the end, you can always count on Mr. Rogers.  That is how we cultivate joy.  Not by trying to make people be happy, but by caring, by actually doing things.   By being helpers.

How else can we help?  How else can we cultivate joy in the midst of disaster?  

I think we need to reflect and take action in regards to the society in which we live.   That begins, in my opinion, by being honest with our feelings.   I am feeling anger.   I wrote this on my blog yesterday.  I want to share it with you.
I am also angry.
I am angry at the shooter.  Angry at the world, fella?  If you won't get help then have the decency just to kill yourself, OK?  I am angry that he slipped through whatever societal safeguards are supposed to be in place to help people like him.    I am angry that he didn't get whatever it was he needed so he wouldn't hurt others.  I am angry regarding the stigma and the ignorance surrounding mental illness.  I am angry that we don't have a more descriptive phrase than "mental illness" for whatever it was that motivated him to do this.  We might as well say "demons."

I am angry that people "possessed by demons" can get access to assault weapons!   I am angry at the crazy gun culture in which we live.  I am angry that we let weapons of mass destruction be so available and do nothing but wring our hands when 20 children are murdered in an elementary school.   I am angry that these killing tools are being manufactured in the first place.   I am angry that it is easier and cheaper to get an offensive military style weapon than it is to get mental health care.   I am angry at the people who profit from these killing machines and who spread lies, misinformation, and a warped sense of freedom that it is a "right" to own these children killers.   

I am heartbroken.  I am angry.  Mostly I am afraid.  I am afraid that our culture has taken a path of no return toward a societal death wish.  We have decided that it is more important to protect our right to own weapons of mass murder than it is to protect children from them.   For that, I weep.
That is what I wrote yesterday.  I am still angry.  I am not ready to let it go.    I want to use this anger, actually.   Fourth and Fifth century theologian, Augustine, wrote:
Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.
I know that politicians and others will say that it is inappropriate to talk about guns at this time.  It is too close to the tragedy.  We just need to grieve.  I don’t know who makes up those rules about who can talk about what and when, but I have a hunch who benefits from that silence.  Those who manufacture and sell these murder machines hold their breath during these tragedies and wait until the news cycle moves on and the American people put it out of their minds.   Then it is business as usual.    We get numb and accept the latest murderous rampage by a deranged terrorist as normal and something we cannot possibly stop.    And now children in an elementary school.   Nothing we can do about that?  Just grieve as if it were an act of God?  
God is always interesting to invoke at these times.   God is a great scapegoat for our lack of personal and societal responsibility.   Baptist minister and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee even said, and I quote:
We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools.  Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?
Why not?  If your answer to real world problems lies in the realm of superstition, then Huckabee’s answer is as good as any.   God got angry because the school wasn’t praying to him, so he sent in a mass murderer to kill the children.   Praise be the name of the Lord.    

Are you angry yet?    Then let us use it.

It took two minutes for the shooter to kill 20 children and six adults.  From 9:36-9:38 a.m. and then it was over.  Two minutes.  The medical examiner reported that all of the victims including 20 children were killed by a Bushmaster .223 caliber assault rifle.   Each child was shot between three and eleven times.    Is this a sportsman’s rifle?

The dead included little girls in Sofia’s daisy troop.

Are you angry yet?

We abolished slavery in this country.  Women earned the right to vote.  Federal civil rights legislation was passed.  We ended smoking in public places.  We passed laws against driving drunk.  We made people wear seatbelts. 

It is way past time, and it has been way past time for a long time to address one of the most grave threats to public health we have in this country-- the proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction.    

It is time to take that anger and enjoin it with courage.

The symbol of Advent hope is about birth and children.   It is about the promise of hope, life, and the courage to do what it takes to live lives free from fear.   It is not time to cringe in fear of politicians, the gun lobby, our crazed relatives or anyone else who perpetuates a delusion that it is a “right” to own weapons of mass murder. 
This is a fight.  What more joyful thing can we do than to fight for our children?

You know what to do.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Cultivating Peace (12/9/12)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled,  and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Luke 3:1-6

The Second Sunday of Advent is generally John the Baptist Sunday.   He is the“wide eyed radical” alluded to in the reading for the Lighting of the Advent Candle.    He is the one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,  Make his paths straight.
The writers of the gospels were impressively creative.   They were able to reinterpret old stories and apply them to current situations.    The author of Luke quotes from the prophetic book Isaiah and applies this passage to John the Baptist.     The reason this is creative is that the prophet Isaiah is not talking about John the Baptist or Jesus.    

Those books we that call the prophetic books in the Hebrew Scriptures are not filled with prophecies of things supposedly to come.   Certainly, Isaiah writing 500 years before John and Jesus was not talking about them.    The writer of Isaiah was writing about events in his own time.    

The gospel writers in telling the stories of Jesus, went back into their scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament, and borrowed themes, events, images, and narratives, and applied all of that to Jesus and in this case, John.     Most of us learned in Sunday School and by listening to Christmas music that Jesus and John fulfilled prophecy.  That the Old Testament predicts the New Testament.     This has been the view promoted by Christian theology over the centuries. 

Modern scholarship has shown that that is not likely.  It is more likely that the stories of Jesus were borrowed from stories about Moses and Elijah and from various other figures and places and then retold to be about Jesus. 

For instance, in Matthew’s gospel, Herod has all the children under two slaughtered in order to get to Jesus who he understands to be a threat.   Miraculously, Jesus is saved by a combination of skill, courage, and providence even though other innocent children are not.    Where have we heard that story before?  In Exodus chapter two, Pharaoh has the young boys killed out of fear that the Hebrew people will revolt.  Moses is saved by a combination of skill, courage, and providence.    Hence Jesus is like Moses. 

You can go through the stories of Jesus and find many similar literary antecedents in the Hebrew scriptures as well as from imperial religion.   For instance Luke’s story of the announcement by the angels of Jesus’ birth can be seen as a mocking of the birthday of Augustus Caesar.   Caesar was celebrated as the prince of peace, the savior of the world, the lord, the son of a god.    Christians used that imperial language and applied it to someone who was not imperial at all, but in fact, was executed by the empire as a criminal.  

The gospel writers were offering a choice.  Who is your son of god?  The Emperor or Jesus?    

When I learned that a couple of things happened.  First a balloon popped.  There was kind of a deflation.   The Bible lost whatever magic it had.  Then I found it interesting.   It was far more interesting to me than the magic.  I wondered, why did they do that?     Why did the authors write this way?  What did they want to tell us?  What really happened?

It seems that what happened is that over the centuries from the time of the gospel writers to the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, Jesus the radical peasant and wisdom teacher who was executed by the emperor was turned into the emperor.   The language backfired and all those titles given to Jesus such as son of god, prince of peace, and lord and christ were turned from political titles to supernatural ones.    His symbols (such as the cross) were placed on military shields and the emperor conquered his enemies under the sign of Jesus the Christ.   That has been the church’s Jesus since.

In my 20 years of preaching I have discovered that many people don’t like the historical Jesus.   They especially don’t like him at Christmas.    Many would be happy if the historical Jesus never came to church.    He doesn’t do much.  He isn’t the second person of the trinity.   He doesn’t save the world from sin.  He doesn’t answer prayer.  He doesn’t return on a white horse and conquer evil.    He isn’t a vehicle by which our consciousness survives our death.    All of that and more is the result of theological reflection in the centuries following his life.    It isn't that those theological reflections are bad or wrong, they are distinct from the historical Jesus.

In life, Jesus was a wisdom teacher whose stories and activities were so fascinating, pointed, and threatening, that he got himself executed.      What I find interesting is that he was inspiring enough that those who wanted to follow his vision remembered him and remembered him in the creative ways that were available to them.   As I mentioned earlier they borrowed from their tradition to capture his essence.     

What they borrowed, such as the passage from Isaiah, that is our focus for today, is the political return to their homeland from their exile in Babylon.  They imagined God making a highway in the desert so they could travel home from Babylon to Jerusalem.     The dream is of a just peace.  No longer will they be under another’s rule.    Each will sit under his or her own fig tree.     

Why does this all apply to Jesus?  Because the people live under the authority of the Roman Emperor.   For them it is not a just peace.    The emperor and the imperial religion that celebrates him constantly tells its "good news".  It "evangelizes", that very word comes from the imperial religion.  Hear the "good news" that Caesar is the savior of the world.  He has shown his generosity by providing peace to Rome and quiet in the provinces.   What more could we ask?  We want peace at home and we want quiet over there in the Middle East so the oil keeps coming, or quiet in Central America so the coffee keeps coming or quiet in China so we keep getting the cool plastic Christmas presents at low prices at Wal-Mart.    I know, I know, I am meddling.  The historical Jesus is just no fun at Christmas.  

The people Jesus hung out with were the victims of the emperor’s “quiet.”   The difference between Caesar and the historical Jesus is that Jesus knew the difference between peace and quiet.   Caesar knew  the difference too.   From Caesar’s perspective it was like this: 
“When you are quiet, I can have peace.”
It is like dad and the kids.  The siblings are squabbling.  There is likely some injustice occurring.  But dad only cares when his peace gets disturbed.    They aren’t quiet.   They are disturbing his peace.   Here is his solution:
“Both of you go to bed!”
Caesar says,  
“When you are quiet, I can have peace.  I will enforce your quiet and my peace with my army and the spectacle of crucifixion.”
Jesus says,
“Do what you will, Caesar.   We will not be quiet until there is peace, a just peace, for everyone.”
When Jesus made his parade into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, Luke records Jesus as saying to those who complained about the loudness of his followers:   
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”   (Luke 19:40)
The question at Christmas and at any time of the year is which son of god will you follow?   Which prince of peace?   Caesar or Jesus?   What do you want?  Peace or quiet?    Mostly we just put Jesus in a Caesar suit and conveniently forget that Jesus, like John before him, was a wide eyed radical who opposed with all of his mind, heart, and soul and ultimately his body the policies of empire.  

I said, perhaps too despairingly, that many don’t want the historical Jesus to come to church.   But I am also finding that more and more people do want to hear about him.   Not only hear about him, but be inspired by him.  

What might it mean for us today to be inspired by that Jesus?

I cannot say how to do it.  That is up to each of us.  I can point to some illustrations of what peace instead of quiet looks like.    

In a few moments we will hear from the Peacemaking Committee about alternative giving.  Rather than giving ourselves over completely to the treadmill of consumerism, some have decided to give the gift of justice and peace for victims of domestic violence through the Shepherd’s Inn and for basic needs of food and fresh water through the Kenya water project.     

There is a website called The Advent Conspiracy.  It was founded in 2006 by five pastors  
“…who decided to make Christmas a revolutionary event by encouraging their faith communities to Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More and Love All.”
It includes ideas for households to be conscious about peace and justice in the world and to be encouraged to follow their hearts.    There are many creative ways that people are putting the historical Jesus into their Christmas celebrations.   I am sure that you have some ideas.  Don’t be quiet about it!

In regards to peace vs. quiet, I would like to share what happened at the presbytery meeting this past Tuesday.    I have been an advocate for justice for LGBT people for some time.    I have been told that I should be more quiet about it because it disturbs some people.    While I appreciate the advice, I don’t internalize it because I think this is a question of justice.   I don’t think quiet is a good response to injustice.    I am inspired when people break that silence even when facing great opposition.  

This past Tuesday at the meeting of our presbytery, my friend Don Steele, did not remain quiet.  He wasn’t loud.  He was himself, vulnerable and courageous.     Don simply asked for a transfer from membership in Pittsburgh Presbytery to Holston Presbytery.    With a minister of 42 years it would be automatic.  But because Don is gay he had to be examined, something only done to new ministers, and voted upon after two meetings of discussion.   

Because the policy of the national church had changed in the last year, he was able to make this request.  But removing the barriers that had previously prevented openly gay people from being ministers does not mean the presbytery was required to accept him.  The mood was intensely hostile.    The feeling was that he shouldn’t even have asked.    One speaker accused him of disturbing the peace of the church.     They voted not to receive him 27-64.  

None of us is naïve.   Neither Don nor I thought he would be accepted this first time around.    But Don’s unwillingness to be quiet spoke volumes on behalf of LGBT people in the church and in society.    It wasn’t just about him.    It is for everyone who has been marginalized, ridiculed, bullied, and denied freedoms because they are gay or lesbian.   

The good thing is that Don by giving of himself to this spectacle opened the conversation in our presbytery. 

Since then I have heard stories of people who were confronted by their own prejudice and had changes of heart.   It happens one story at a time.  Don followed the spirit of the historical Jesus advocating for peace, a just peace, not quiet.  

When the historical Jesus comes to church at Christmas, it can be disturbing.   In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying:
“Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find.  When they find, they will be disturbed.  When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.”
That is one of my favorite sayings.  It inspires me, like Don did, like the historical Jesus did, to be uncomfortable, to be vulnerable, to risk the hostile stare, to not confuse quiet with peace.  

And to trust as Martin Luther King said,
“That the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cultivating Hope (12/2/12)

Romans 5:1-5     (Scholars’ Version)         
So then, since we have been counted as right in the sight of God on the basis of putting our unconditional confidence in God, we are at peace with God through our lord, Jesus, God’s Anointed.  He is the one through whom we have gained access to the divine favor that has given us our new standing and we boast in our hope of seeing the splendor of God’s majesty.  And that’s not all.  We also boast about hardships, because we know that hardship produces fortitude and fortitude shows character, and character reinforces hope.  This hope will not embarrass us because our hearts have been filled with the love of God through the gift of God’s presence and power.

Here we are.  It is December 2nd, the First Sunday of Advent.  The wreaths are up.  The paraments are royal blue.  We have trimmed the tree.  It is off to the races.  Christmas time’s a comin’.  

Christmas can be fun, especially when we don’t take it too seriously.    You know what I mean about taking it too seriously, don’t you?   I am thinking of the admonitions of the faithful to remember the true "reason for the season" and to “keep Christ in Christmas.”    

On Facebook, someone posted a picture of the character Han Solo from the film Star Wars.  The caption under his photo said,
“Remember to keep Han in Hanukah.”    
The irony surely hasn’t been missed that the two biggest seasons of the traditional Christian calendar, Christmas and Easter, are about events that never happened.    From what we know of Jesus, he died.  Since he died he must have been born.   We have a few of his teachings  and parables that we think we can trace back to be close to his voice.    

It is possible that his death was violent by execution.   Thousands were crucified by imperial bullying.   If this happened to Jesus, he was one of many.   But the trial of Jesus, the theological meaning attached to it, and the resurrection are all elements of religious legend.   The same is true with all the stories surrounding his birth.  Angels announcing his arrival, virgin birth, a star moving through the sky and landing over a house, are all constructs of the human imagination.    All of these stories are developments in which a human being is given characteristics associated with a god.

None of this is new or surprising to you, of course.  It may raise an eyebrow among some who haven’t heard me say these things that a minister says them from the pulpit.   The reason that is surprising is because fundamentalism has been so dominant.   

In the early 20th century, concerns by the pious were raised over modern biblical criticism.  They felt the faith was being attacked by modernists who embraced the scientific theories of Charles Darwin and in religious studies, biblical historical criticism.   These true believers came up with five "fundamentals."   These were things that Christians needed to believe.  For a time, ministers were forced to accept them in the Presbyterian Church.  Thankfully cooler heads prevailed.    Those fundamentals are still loud and proud today.    

These fundamentals of the early 20th century include the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, the miracles of Jesus including his bodily resurrection, and the belief that Jesus will come again.  None of these are historical of course, or even true.  Only in a bizarre twisting of the word truth, do these assertions have any reality to them.   

The doctrines as they have been handed down over the centuries might be seen as metaphors for changes that happen within our own lives.   For example resurrection might be a symbol for new hope from a hopeless situation.    The miraculous birth can be seen as the birth of recognition that our lives are holy and sacred.    We certainly can get some mileage out of understanding these doctrines as symbols of the unconscious a la Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.    

Nevertheless, these stories and doctrines are certainly fiction, not history.   They are not things that one should need to "believe" as true.  Yet they have been used as litmus tests for piety and right belief.    We are told again and again even by mainstream guardians of the faith that we need to believe this stuff literally to be Christian.  This is one of the reasons I think that Christianity in this country is headed off to crazy land.    This is bad news and it is serious news.   

When polls tell us that more Americans believe that Jesus will return from heaven in their lifetimes than affirm evolutionary theory, it shows that we have work to do.   This is why I think it is crucial for Christians, both clergy and laity, to think critically about religion and to embrace religious scholarship and to keep honesty at the center of their worship life.    We begin by being honest about our texts and our traditions.
Since today is the First Sunday of Advent and the theme is hope, it would be good to see what that meant traditionally and what it might mean for us today.    The Christian calendar begins with Advent.   Last Sunday was the end of the church year.  It was called Christ the King.  That alluded to Christ being the King of the universe now and at the end of time.  It is the final happy ending. 

Then we start the year again with Advent that anticipates the coming of Christ the King.   It anticipates his birth, but more importantly, it anticipates the end of time when Eden is restored and humanity is reconciled fully and finally to God.    

Then following the Christmas season and Epiphany is Lent and Easter with the death and resurrection of Jesus to Pentecost and the mythical start of the church, to the season of ordinary time, to Christ the King again.    There is precious little about the human being Jesus in any of this overarching narrative.   You could substitute Krishna, Zeus or Augustus Caesar for that matter and it would be six of one and one half dozen of another.   

The church’s framework is an apocalyptic tale.  There is no Jesus the precocious socialist who told people to love enemies, who ate with outcasts, and who lived in the muck, the dirt, and the joy of real life with real people.    That Jesus has to be rescued from the mythological trappings.   That has been the work of religious scholarship, particularly my friends with the Jesus Seminar.   

Imagine with me for a moment the first 15 centuries of the common era up to the time of Columbus and Luther.  The world was the center of the universe.  Outside beyond the stars was where God lived.   Columbus calculated the beginning of creation a few thousand years before his birth and creation's end which he thought would happen within a hundred years or so of his death.    He was immersed in the same yearly cycle, Advent, Christmas, Easter, Christ the King, that we are.     The difference is that it was literally possibly true.    In fact, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 in order to get gold from China so that he could finance a crusade to take back Jerusalem from the Muslims so that Christ would come and establish his eternal kingdom.    Columbus wasn’t weird.  He wasn’t out of the main stream.  He was intelligent, educated, and pious.   That was his time.    

In his time, Earth was the universe.  God existed outside of it as creator and as a being who comes down and intervenes.  Jesus is God incarnate who saved estranged humanity from original sin that happened in a literal garden populated by Adam and Eve.   Jesus dies on the cross for the sins of the world because we are so bad and need saving.   He rises from the grave, goes up to heaven, and sends his spirit to run the church to keep us in line until he comes again.  

Christian hope was based on Christ coming again and establishing a new heaven and a new earth.   That narrative held literally through the Reformation and has been slowly dismantled since.   Fundamentalists hold this view of course as do a majority of Christians, it appears.   Yet none of it has any truth except perhaps in a metaphorical sense.  It is a belief and a narrative that is fit for a museum.    

We know now when we look outside and see the stars that they are suns like ours, millions of light years away from us.  We know the universe is nearly 14 billion years old.  Earth is 4.5 billion years old.  Human beings are recent pilgrims.  We did not come via a garden.  We have evolved from our ancestors.  We are not estranged by sin from God.  We are who we are.  There is no end, certainly not in human time.   When the last human being breathes her last, Earth will continue to spin on is axis and the universe will continue expanding and expanding.    

The knowledge to which we have access is astounding, overwhelming.    Every day by just poking buttons on your phone you learn more and more about anything you want.   You can fact check anything I say immediately.   There is no use of me trying to fib with you, you can look it up.  
He just said the universe is 14 billion years old. Actually it is 13.7.
Yet in church we tell the same story year after year, again and again, as if none of these amazing changes in our thinking have occurred.    Here comes Jesus.  In a few weeks he’ll pop out of a virgin’s womb and then in a few months, he’ll pop out of his tomb.  Womb to tomb and up to heaven and someday he’ll come again.  Really?   Then we fight over whether to say, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

It is no virtue to deny reality by hiding in tradition for tradition’s sake.   It does no service to our youth to pretend to believe in things that aren’t true and then wonder when they grow up why they are not interested in the church.    

My guest on my radio program this week and next is historian of religion, Phyllis Tickle.  She says we are in the midst of a great emergence.    This is a time of transition in which everything is up for grabs.   We are letting go of baggage and finding treasures of wisdom.    Right now it is all mixed together.  So we have traditional Advent and Christmas songs and symbols and we have modern poetry, and a focus that is more centered around humanistic principles rather than supernatural ones.

One of those treasures of wisdom in our tradition is the human being, Jesus.    As he is being discovered as a wisdom teacher, not someone to worship, not divine, but as a sage who embraced a vision of life, he is offering to modern people a way of living.   He isn’t the source of what to believe or think or of what to do, that is all up to us.   It isn’t about escaping the world or our lives, or in pretending that there is supernatural help for us, but he provides the wisdom to engage life as it is.  It isn’t all about him, either.  He is a figure in our tradition from whom we can draw wisdom.   He is one of many.   

Christmas is fun and good for us.   The Jesus myths and Santa and the Grinch are great.  If you think about it, most of our celebrations are secular and we may give a nod out of duty or out of longing to Jesus in the manger.   Despite the calls to keep Christ in Christmas, we know they are a bit out of tune.  Yet we can find meaning in these legends that surround the birth of Jesus.   They are the early creations of those who discovered strength and hope in Jesus for them in their time.   But they really are not very fun if we are chided into taking them literally.  

As a source for spirituality and meaning, I think we might do well to examine the real person of Jesus as opposed to the mythical figure.    As more light shines on the human Jesus, and the mythological trappings of the church fade to metaphor and symbol and they make their final resting place in the Christian museum of legends, we may begin to embrace a sense of hope that is not supernaturally focused or end of the world focused but human focused and Earth focused.     

This hope is not about a utopian future, it is more of a practice of ways of living in this life with all its contingencies, struggles, and disappointments.   Hope is living through our grief and hardship with a whole heart.   In our reading for today from Paul, after a lot mythological and theological stuff, he writes:
We also boast about hardships, because we know that hardship produces fortitude and fortitude shows character, and character reinforces hope
I don’t know if that is always true.   In fact, I am pretty sure it isn’t.  Hardship does not always produce fortitude and character, but I do know that it is a hopeful way to look at hardship.   Hope is resilience and compassion.   Author Brene Brown writes about resilient people:
“They are resourceful and have good problem-solving skills. They are more likely to seek help.  They hold the belief that they can do something that will help them manage their feelings and to cope.  They have social support available to them.  They are connected with others, such as family and friends.”    The Gifts of Imperfection, p. 64.
That is the kind of real life stuff that was ultimately modeled by Jesus the human being who lived in Nazareth, and who spent time with people, eating with them, encouraging them and being encouraged.   The hope of the world is not some future utopia or some heavenly existence that is the work of a divine being.  At least for me it isn’t.  

The hope of the world is finding meaning today in what I do, in whom I meet, in what I see, and hear, and feel.   It is trying to be a blessing to others and myself.  It is forgiving and seeking forgiveness not from God or some abstraction but from actual people with whom I relate.  It is trying not to take hardships personally.   It is living in this moment, not closing the door on my past, nor being haunted by it.  It is living with an awareness that this life is holy and sacred, so I shouldn’t miss a moment.     

That’s my hope.


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Practically Perfect In Every Way (11/18/12)

But he said to me,
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

This past week I interviewed  Dr. Brene Brown.   She is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work.  She has done her research on topics that no one really wants to talk about, shame and vulnerability.    You can watch a couple of her talks on TED and she has written three books, I Thought It Was Just MeThe Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly.

The interview was engaging.  She is interesting, honest, and happy.   She connects her work with her life.  In her research on shame and vulnerability she discovered people whom she called wholehearted.   They exhibit courage, compassion, and connection.    They are able to be vulnerable and are able to respond to shame in a healthy way.    Her work is not research for research’s sake, but also encouragement for others to become wholehearted.   She takes this challenge on in her own life.   Our conversation will be aired in a few weeks.

Her books were interesting enough to me that I have used her insights to help design these worship services for this fall during the via negativa or the season of “letting go and letting be.”   The subtitle of her book The Gifts of Imperfection is “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.”

One of her chapters in this book which is the focus for today is, “Cultivating Self-Compassion:  Letting Go of Perfectionism.”   That chapter title is the key to the mystery.   Notice the contrast:  self-compassion vs. perfectionism.    Compassionate or perfect.  You can be one or the other but not both.

Let’s talk about perfectionism for a minute.   We tend to equate perfectionism with competence or with attention to detail or with success or with “having it together.”   The perfectionist is the person whose life is in order, who always says the right thing, does the right thing, whose desk is clean, whose house is in order, a person for whom there is a place for everything  and everything is in its place.   This is the straight A student, the star athlete, the accomplished musician, and so forth.

Show me a perfectionist and I’ll show you a happy, competent and successful person.   Right?

Well, no.   Show me a perfectionist and I’ll show you a nervous breakdown in the making.

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is not the same as competence.   It is not self-improvement.  It is not striving to be your best.  She writes:
Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.  Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame….Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.    P. 56
She discovered that we all tend to have some of this tendency.   Perfectionism is a spectrum.  Some tend to be more perfect than others.   When perfectionism rears itself in me, and I am honest about it, it is likely that I am trying to look perfect so that I can avoid blame or judgment or I am trying to defend against a deep-seated feeling of shame or unworthiness.

Ministry is like other professions in that there is an entire industry devoted to selling ministers stuff.  Popular items are books and magazines devoted to helping ministers to be “good ministers” – that is “practically perfect in every way” ministers.    I remember reading several early in my career and thankful that it was early in my career.   The books were truly awful and had I tried to follow them I would surely have burned out within a year or two.

They were about scheduling your day, planning an hour of study and preparation for every minute of sermon delivery.  They talked about the people to visit, the events to attend, the importance of keeping up with Greek and Hebrew, to read widely,  to on and on.  I calculated that If you add up all the stuff you were supposed to do to be “good” it would require 200 hours per week.    You still wouldn’t be good enough.
I am just speaking from my experience and I am sure this is true with your work as well.   There is a whole industry designed to make you “perfect” at it, because perfectionism sells.

Perfectionism is motivated not by a sense of self-improvement but by what we think others will think.   Perfectionism is our armor.   It is our protection against blame, judgment, and shame.      The problem is it doesn’t work.

Perfection is unattainable.    As Brene Brown writes:
Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience.  Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame.  “It’s my fault.  I’m feeling this way because ‘I’m not good enough.’”  P. 57

What is this shame that we are protecting?

We need to go back to Adam and Eve.  In the second creation story which is actually the older creation story, Adam is in the garden and The Lord wants to make a helpmate for him.  None of these creatures does the trick until he puts Adam to sleep, removes a rib, and voila!  A lovely.   Adam waxes poetic and they frolic around the garden, naked, says the text, and unashamed.

Then there is the story of the tree and the fruit and the snake and Adam and Eve eat the fruit and have their eyes opened and they see that they are naked.  They are ashamed.   They cover themselves with leaves.  Then they hide.  Then the Lord finds them, scolds them, casts them from the garden but before sending them away into the wild world of human experience he clothes them.    He doesn’t take away their feeling of shame about being human, symbolized by their nakedness, he instead covers them with skins.   It is a touching verse, compassionate actually.
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.  Gen. 3:21

The Adam and Eve story is not about guilt.  It is not about original sin.  It is about shame.  Guilt is about doing something bad, shame is about being bad.    Every healthy person has shame.  The only people who do not have shame are sociopaths.    When someone says, “Have you no shame?”  That is a shaming rhetorical question.  The only person who can answer that by saying “no” is a person who murders others and feels absolutely no remorse.

Shame keeps us from destroying each other.   Shame is a universal human emotion that has evolved for species survival.   Its symbol is nakedness.  Its feeling is unworthiness, embarrassment, a red flushed face, tension in the body, rapid heart beat, you likely know the feeling.    You feel exposed.  You want to hide under a rock.  The response we have when we feel that way can be
  • self-blame, “What an idiot, I am!” or
  • turning that feeling toward rage or cruelty by striking back and attacking, or
  • making a vow: “I’ll never allow myself to be in this position again.  I will be perfect so no one can judge me.”    Thus is born CYA.  Cover Your Assets.   
You remember in the story of Adam and Eve that when they were confronted with the fruiting incident that they blamed each other.    They also clothed themselves with the leaves and hid which is all to say that their response to shame was less than healthy.      Self-blame, rage, hiding, perfectionism, are all less than healthy ways to respond to shame.

The cure or more accurately, the care for shame is seen in this verse where the Lord God before sending them out into the cold world, does something and teaches them something.  He makes garments for them and clothes them.   Shame is part of the existential experience of being human.  He doesn’t cure it, he cares for it and shows them how to care for it, themselves, and each other.   In this touching act of compassion of clothing their nakedness he offers the healthy response to shame.   Compassion is shame resilience.

The task of being human is how to respond to shame.  That is pretty much our assignment.

How do we respond to feeling unworthy, not good enough, not lovable, not OK?    How do we respond when our shame triggers are pulled?   As we learn to develop shame resilience, we clothe ourselves with compassion.  That is a beautiful image from the scriptures.   As the author of Colossians writes:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Col 3:12

That compassion and kindness is for ourselves as well as for others.

When our shame is triggered and it can be triggered by any number of things, what do we do? 

Here is an example.

I wrote my first post on my new blog yesterday.  I sent a link to it to the person who is in the organization that I wrote about.  She wrote back how much she liked it but then told me that I got the name of the organization wrong.   Boom.  Shame hits.  What an idiot.  How could I be so dumb?  Then, in a moment of grace, I decided to let it go.   It isn’t the apocalypse.  It is a mistake.  Fix it.  Be kind to yourself, John Shuck.    Then share the experience and laugh about it.

Shame thrives and grows in the darkness of secret and silence.   Brene Brown writes that people who develop shame resilience and who are wholehearted respond to shame with courage, compassion, and connection.   The cure or more precisely the care for shaming experiences is to talk about them with people who have earned your trust.     That requires the courage to be vulnerable, compassion to yourself, and connection with others.

I want to say that first of all to you as a congregation that you have earned my trust.   You are a congregation that has allowed me to express my own vulnerabilities.  I have been able to be cared for as I express my theological ideas that on occasion may be slightly unorthodox.  That has allowed for great growth for me and has given others permission to grow as well.  I have been able to be creative in worship, to be courageous in my advocacy for equality, and most recently to express my grief with you over the loss of Zach knowing that you won’t judge, blame, or run away.      I thank you for that.

I am no perfect minister.  When I try to be it is a sign that I am trying to compensate for some feeling of unworthiness.   The care for that is not perfection.  The care is compassion.   You have shown that to me.  You have shown me how to be compassionate to myself as well as to others.

The sermon text for today is from the Apostle Paul.   He is the classic perfectionist.   He brags about how great a Pharisee he was.   I followed the law to the letter and so forth.   I think that he was confronted with his own shame, a shame that he couldn’t cover with perfectionism, and found grace.  He writes of his sacred experience, when he felt a holy presence:
But he said to me,
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
1 Corinthians 12:9
The word that is translated as weakness, I wonder if it should be vulnerability.  Vulnerability is not weakness.  When we take off the armor and allow ourselves to be present that takes incredible courage and strength.   When we acknowledge at least to one other person, our brokenness, that acknowledgment is our strength.    What I think Paul is writing is that he discovered grace not in his perfectionism, but in his vulnerability, his openness, his humanity, and his brokenness.    It is out of vulnerability that we find our creativity, or as Paul put it, the power of Christ.     In the meantime, clothe yourselves with compassion.  Be kind to yourself.    You are holy and beloved as you are.

Brene Brown found this quote from Leonard  Cohen with which I want to close.  It is a verse from his poem, “Anthem.”  It sums up what I have been trying to say today.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.