Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain (9/30/12)

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 30, 2012

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
--George Matheson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
--Psalm 139-7-12

George Matheson was a Scottish theologian and preacher whose career spanned the latter half of the 19th century. He died in 1906. He was a liberal thinker who attempted to integrate faith with modern science. In 1885 he wrote a book entitled,Can the Old Faith Live with the New? or, The Problem of Evolution and Revelation. In it he argued that accepting evolution would not undermine the faith.

That was 1885.

He wrote a hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. A line from that hymn is the title of today’s sermon. 

This is what Matheson said about the hymn:
"The hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a day spring from on high.

There has been much speculation regarding the “severe mental suffering” that he was feeling. One story suggests that his suffering was due to a lost love. He wrote this hymn on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. At one point in his life he was going to be married. During that period of engagement he learned that he was losing his eyesight. There was nothing the doctors could do. His fiancĂ© broke off the engagement saying she couldn’t live her life with a blind man. 

He went blind while studying for the ministry. His sister took care of him during the years. Now on the eve of his sister’s wedding, who knows, perhaps feeling the sadness of his own loss during a celebratory time, he wrote this hymn. 

Others speculate that it was the anguish of perhaps losing his faith in the light of modernism and science, particularly the theories of Darwin, that inspired the hymn. We don’t know. All we have is speculation and projection of our own mental suffering onto him. Matheson himself said something happened that “was known only to myself.” 

It is a beautiful hymn. I never really paid much attention to it. Rarely have I selected it for worship until about a year or so ago. After Zach’s death, these past three months, it has been close to me. This is the third verse:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

This is the heart of the via negativa
that spiritual path of letting go and letting be. 
It is a path. 
It is a path of trust that loss and the accompanying pain 
is not the absence of the Sacred but a path to the Sacred. 

Thus rather than bury the pain, 
or hide it, 
or deny it, 
or be ashamed of it, 

this path is an invitation to embrace it, 
to name it, 
to write a song about it, 
or a poem, 
to talk about it, 
to walk with it. 

The hope is that in so doing, 
we can move through it and beyond it 
and in the experience be touched by the Holy.

This is the path of Krishna:
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.”

This is the path of Jesus:
“After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it.”
 And from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Both Krishna and Jesus are offering invitations to trust. Neither is glorifying pain or suffering. They are not calling us to throw pity parties. They are inviting us to acknowledge what is real and offering the hope that staying with it and going through it will be the path of wholeness or wholeheartedness. 

That trust requires heart. The word for courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. This pain, this darkness, this rain, feels endless. It feels as though there is no possible good to come of it. It feels wrong, inappropriate, unjust, sacrilegious, even to hope or trust that there is a rainbow to trace.
I don’t want a freaking rainbow, I want my son back. I want my husband back. I want my mother back. I want my life back the way it was.

The open heart also known as courage is the willingness to live with that inner conflict, name it and not judge it. It is what Matthew Fox calls it, “cosmic anguish.” It isn’t tidy. It isn’t pretty. It is real.

But what if we weren’t able to feel the cosmic anguish? What if we quickly hid it away? Remember the song by the Beatles, “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
We don’t want to see that. Put it away.

We are a culture that demands that everyone be upbeat.

My first radio job was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was a little AM station that played country music. We played records on the turntable. I read the news, the agricultural reports, and the town gossip. After I was there a few months, the station was bought by a Mormon family. They were nice folks. In fact, they were very upbeat. They changed the call letters and we had to identify ourselves as “Country Sunshine.” We disc jockeys had to play two upbeat songs for every slow song. That isn’t easy to do with country music. You have to really search for those upbeat ones. Not only that, but we were required to turn up the speed on the turntables to make the songs sound even more upbeat. 

No rain allowed at 1240 AM Country Sunshine. 

I get it. No one wants downer people. No one wants to listen to bummer man.
Hey, you’ve got to hide your grief away.

We know that. 
We know that we need to put on the game face, 
clean up and do our duty. 
Fake it until you make it. 

We need to know that there is a price for that. If we don’t recognize the cosmic anguish and if we are not attentive to what is behind the game face, we may not resolve our grief. For the sake of surviving this culture, we may stay on this side of our pain and never pass through it. It can forever haunt us. The via negativa is the spiritual path that invites to make time and to take time for those feelings that we may have buried or hidden. We give them their due so that we can let them go.

I am grateful today to and for George Matheson, that on June 6, 1882, he took off the game face that he needed to put on for his sister’s wedding, and for five minutes allowed his hollowed heart to hear the music of Spirit and put these words to pen and paper.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust
       life’s glory dead,
And from the ground
       there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Grief is Love that has Lost Its Object (9/23/12)

Grief is Love that has Lost Its Object
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, TN

September 23, 2012

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5:1-4

The four vias or paths of Creation Spirituality are just that—vias or paths. They are ways. They are not ends in themselves. Movement is the guiding metaphor. The movement is not just upward. They are not ladders to climb as much as spirals to dance.

Yesterday the calendar commanded that summer give way to fall. Even if the calendar refused and decided to deny the end of summer, it wouldn’t matter. The leaves on the trees surrounding Watauga Lake would begin to let go of their green anyway. Temperatures would begin to cool. Earth moves around the sun such that in our part of the planet it appears to go to sleep a little earlier each evening.  This happens whether or not we with our calendars, language, and reasoning manage to make sense of it or not. Life happens if we are ready for it or not. So does death.

It doesn’t matter if we like summer or don’t like summer. It passes. I suppose one could move around the globe so you never have to leave summer. It is always summer somewhere. You could follow it so that you never have to see the trees let go of their green or feel the temperatures cool or bid the sun goodnight until late at night every night.

That would be a path or via too. The via positiva all the time. Endless summer. As we disc jockeys used to breathlessly announce: “Nonstop music. One hit after another.”

Most of us are not quite so nomadic, following endless summer with our surfboards. We know the other seasons as well. We know Fall, Winter, and Spring. If we have been around long enough and been fortunate to have lived through a number of these seasons, we may have found in them some sense of significance. While summer might be free and easy, bright and cheerful, there is something to these other seasons too. While we may have a favorite, if we are intentional about it, we can find something to stir our soul in the others.

But we really don’t have a choice. The seasons change whether we are intentional about finding meaning and significance in them or not.

The spiritual path of the via positiva the way of awe and wonder may be the path of choice. It is the happy path. It is the celebration of life. It is noticing the blue heron as she flies just a few inches above the water. It is allowing her flight to inspire wonder and reverence for these magnificent creatures and for all of life.

She is going to do her blue heron thing whether or not I take notice of her and admire her or not. The via positiva only becomes a spiritual path for me when I allow it to be. The via positiva is not about what is. It is about the awe and wonder for what is.

We know that we can go through our day and not notice the miracle of our existence. That is why all spiritual figures, deep thinkers, interesting people, and wise sages have told us since stories began to stop and take notice. Our man, Jesus, said: “Consider the lilies.”

“Consider…” I think that wonderfully understated translation of that verb is the essence of the via positiva-- “Consider…” Don’t just ignore or take for granted or use, “Consider…”

Consider creation, say the sages. If you have a spiritual bone in your body, marvel at it. Question it. Puzzle over it. Try to calculate it with numbers and equations. Write poems about it. Sing to it. Paint it. Allow yourself to be taken by it, to fall for it, to love it, to fall in love with it.

That is what education used to be, you know. It wasn’t something you purchased so that you could learn the technical skills and receive the required paperwork to be a drone in some cubicle doing something of no interest to you so you could get a paycheck to buy stuff made by other drones.

Education used to be about the via positiva. Consider and marvel at creation so that you might get a glimpse of what it means to be a human being before your life is over. Human beings have a job. That job is to tell our story. We are here to tell the truth of what we see, hear, feel, consider….

The via positiva is the path of noticing this world. Mary Oliver is one of our teachers. This is her poem, Invitation:

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude--
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.

It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

That is the via positiva. We notice. We fall in love.
Maybe in so doing we change our life.

Then we get the call in the middle of the night.
The one we love, the one we give our heart to,
The one we live our life for,
Is gone.

She is the mother who held us,
who sang to us,
who was our strength,
and now she sits in her wheelchair and cannot remember our name.

He is the husband who loved us with passion,
who laughed freely without reservation,
whose illness took him long before we were ready.

He is the son, tender, sensitive, smiling,
But whose pain was too great for him to bear.

She is the forest destroyed, the stream polluted, the wildlife vanished.

It is nearly impossible to go through this life without being cheated.
That which we love leaves.
That will happen whether we want it or not.
That love doesn’t end.
The love remains.
The object of our love--
the forest, the husband, the mother, the son--
But it isn’t as though we can just turn off the love.
We can try, I suppose.
We can try to numb it, bury it, deny it.
It is still there.
Love when it loses its object does not cease.
It changes to grief.
It demands attention.
It invites the heart to be present.
It invites us on another spiritual path.
Not the one that considers the lilies or the blue heron,
No this path requires courage as well as consideration.
When love turns to grief it hurts.
It hurts badly.
It hurts for a long time.
The spiritual path, the via negativa, is to be attentive to the grief.
And not to turn away.

I turn to Mary Oliver again. From her poem, Love Sorrow:

Love sorrow. She is yours now, and you must
take care of what has been
given. Brush her hair, help her
into her little coat, hold her hand,
especially when crossing a street. For, think,

what if you should lose her? Then you would be
sorrow yourself; her drawn face, her sleeplessness
would be yours. Take care, touch
her forehead that she feel herself not so

utterly alone. And smile, that she does not
altogether forget the world before the lesson.
Have patience in abundance. And do not
ever lie or ever leave her even for a moment

by herself, which is to say, possibly, again,
abandoned. She is strange, mute, difficult,
sometimes unmanageable but, remember, she is a child.
And amazing things can happen. And you may see,

as the two of you go
walking together in the morning light, how
little by little she relaxes; she looks about her;
she begins to grow.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Glory to God: A Sermon (Sort of) (9/16/12)

In addition to musical offerings by our choir and by small groups of musicians, Music Sunday 2012 features selections from the soon to be published hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal.  Last weekend Beverly Shuck, Don Steele, Gil and Carolyn Bailey and myself attended an event at First Presbyterian Church in Bristol. During this event we were introduced to the new hymnal. As we put Music Sunday together, we decided to recreate a little of that experience for you.

The congregation is singing today a dozen or so songs from the upcoming hymnal that are not in the current hymnal. We have grouped some of the hymns in three mini-hymn sings. I will offer a brief reflection before each section. This reflection will be the longest.

The session will be deciding over the next few months whether or not to invite the congregation to purchase this new hymnal. We will set up a workshop soon for the congregation to learn more about the hymnal and to sing more songs from it. Should the session decide to purchase the hymnal, the congregation will be invited to purchase them individually in memory or in honor of a loved one.

The hymnal has a central part in our worship experience. Each week I choose hymns that enhance the theme of the worship service. While at times I choose hymns from other sources, usually they come from the hymnal.

I am going to share a little bit about the history of hymn singing in the Presbyterian Church and the layout of this new hymnal. In so doing I will also share my understanding of what it means to be Presbyterian.

This past week, on September 13th, I acknowledged the 20th anniversary of my ordination to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) I am proud of that. I don’t consider my work a job or even a career. I consider it a calling. I am honored that Presbyterians saw gifts in me for ministry and claimed me as one of their own.

I wasn’t born a Presbyterian. I married into it. I remember when I realized it was home. The minister of the church my wife and I attended, Rev. Francis Horner, at White River Presbyterian Church in Auburn, Washington, took me under his wing. One of the first sermons I remember him preaching was about evolution. He didn’t call it Evil-lution. He preached about other things as well. He was from South Africa. This was in the 1980s and the church was in the midst of the struggle against Apartheid. He talked about AIDS (again this was in the 1980s) and the importance of the church responding with compassion and justice to those living with AIDS.

When I approached him about the possibility of going into the ministry he tried to talk me out of it by showing me his Greek and Hebrew Bible and telling me it would take a lot of school. I was hooked. My introduction to Presbyterianism opened my mind and heart. It was Christianity that I hadn’t seen before. It was engaged in social justice, in conversation with science, and it invited me to participate in God’s kingdom on this side of the grave.

This congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, is probably the most progressive congregation in this region. We might share that designation with the Unitarian church. If the markers of progressive are socially engaged in terms of awareness and advocacy for our environment, civil rights such as full inclusion in church and society of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, a celebration of different religious traditions, an embrace of science and psychology, and critical engagement with the Bible and the Christian tradition, then we are on the leading edge.

I suggest that we are that not in spite of but because of our Presbyterian heritage. That does not mean that other denominations do not have progressive congregations or that all Presbyterian congregations are progressive, by any means. I am just not surprised that the most progressive Christian congregation in our area is Presbyterian. Our stand for education, critical thinking, social justice, political engagement, and compassionate service is an outgrowth of the historic principles of the Presbyterian Church and Reformed Theology.

I think it is in the interests of our congregation to be intentional about our roots and our identity. It isn’t all who we are. Our mission statement says that we
Honor our Christian heritage while we explore the knowledge and wisdom of multiple religions, science, philosophy, humanities and psychology to deepen and enrich our spiritual journeys.

Yet we can be nurtured by our Presbyterian identity and we can contribute to our ongoing story. This congregation’s advocacy for social justice, freedom of conscience, critical thinking, theological exploration, and its work for peace is an important witness to the larger church.  We are not alone in that.

What does this have to do with the hymnal? The hymnal is Reformed theology set to music. It is part but not all of who we are. Here we find our rooted-ness and our connectedness to the larger church, its history, and its various trajectories.

There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The first was in 1831. This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.

The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited.

The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist controversy in 1911.

The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.

In 1955 the red hymnal was published.

In 1972, this congregation started singing from the blueish gray Worshipbook. That was at the time John and Carolyn Martin arrived.

The Martins were here when the current hymnal was published in 1990. That is the hymnbook in the pews.

Since 1933, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our "photo album." At the hymnal event last Saturday the speaker used the image of a photo album to describe the hymnal. There is only so much room. You need to add new pictures. What to do with the old ones? Some are keepers that you never want to lose. Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced. When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together.

The formation of the committee for this new hymnal began in 2004. The new hymnal will be published in September 2013. None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it. What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind. Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns! This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like. But, it isn’t about that. It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts. It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song. It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me  who sings a different heart song. If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more.

This new hymnal will have about 800 hymns. Half of them will be new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals. About 60% of the 600 hymns in the current hymnal will be in the new one.

The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church.

Some of these hymns will be old hymns that this committee found and included. Three of those are in this first mini hymn sing. Growing up Baptist, we sang these first three. You may have known them as well.

Some songs will be new. People write hymns every day. We need to hear and sing new songs. Some will be from the global church. These are hymns from different cultures. These will have different rhythms. They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.

Let us sing!

Here are the songs we sang from the upcoming hymnal.  Some are from the sampler and some were from sources presented at the hymnal event.  Here are the contents of the hymnal.   Here are the hymns we sang on Sunday:

God Welcomes All
Come and Fill Our Hearts
I Love to Tell the Story
What a Fellowship, What a Joy Divine
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
Glory to God
Give Us Light
He Came Down
As the Wind SOng
Heleluyan We Are Singing
We Will Walk With God

Sunday, September 9, 2012

On The Way (9/9/12)

On the Way
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 9, 2012

“If I do not go to the hell to help the suffering beings there, who else will go? ... if the hells are not empty I will not become a Buddha. Only when all living beings have been saved, will I attain Bodhi.”

Today we wrap up the summer preaching series on happiness. It has been hard even to say that last sentence. Life has been lived in a fog since the death of Zach. I feel like I am living but not living. I am not exactly sure what the word “surreal” means, but it seems to apply. I am thankful for the mind and body’s natural defenses that only allow this shock of realization at intervals.

It has been jarring to continue this sermon series on happiness at a time when my family and I are going through the most devastating period in our lives. And yet amidst this injustice, the birds are oblivious and inappropriately, keep singing.

In that same inappropriate way, I preach on happiness. Yet oddly enough, it is appropriate.

The word happiness sounds so trite. It is like finally getting to meet the President and all you get are a few sentences and you waste them commenting on the weather. It is like sitting down for dinner and all that is served is candy.

Is it the word, “happiness” that is the problem? Would the word “joy” be better? Could be. Is there something too self-focused about the word happiness? Too much navel gazing? It is like skimming the covers of the tabloids in the supermarket aisle. The celebrities only have first names. Kate and Tom breaking up. Justin and Aniston getting engaged. Miley and Pink jealous of each other’s mohawk. If these celebrities with their looks, wealth, and connections cannot quite seem to corner happiness is there any hope for the rest of us? What is this happiness that we are chasing?

This summer we looked at the work of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. He seemed to me to make as much sense as any. Happiness is pretty much something we are wired for or not. We can cheat and boost up our biological set point by meditation, possibly medication, and reframing our behaviors and outlook. Increasing the quality and quantity of our relationships can increase happiness. Plus discovering and using our strengths to do meaningful things can add to happiness.

There are other things he writes about that can add to happiness, like surviving adversity and working on those old fashioned ideas called virtues that our great-grandparents knew. Ben Franklin made his own list of 13 virtues. He made a chart and he would evaluate himself at the end of the day as to how well he did exercising his virtues. These virtues included humility, tranquility, silence, chastity, cleanliness, moderation, justice, sincerity, industry, frugality, resolution, order, and temperance. He said he wasn’t perfect by any means. But the discipline, he said, made him a better person. Ben Franklin was a pretty happy guy.

My first congregation was in upstate New York. I remember some of the Mennonite families would use the names of virtues to name their children. I found myself taken aback when I would run into someone named Temperance or Patience. I wonder if it helped. With a name like Patience you don’t want to be caught cutting in front of others in the line at the Wal-Mart.

Earlier this year Columbia University’s Earth Institute published the World Happiness Report. They made their conclusions based on a number of factors including health, job security, political freedom and so forth. They discovered that the happiest nations were Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Netherlands topped the list. Following in order of happiness were Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and then coming in at eleven was the United States. The authors of the report wrote:
"While basic living standards are essential for happiness, after the baseline has been met happiness varies more with the quality of human relationship than with income...Policy goals should include high employment and high-quality work; a strong community with high levels of trust and respect, which government can influence through inclusive participatory policies; improved physical and mental health; support of family life; and a decent education for all."

I appreciate that Columbia University is making an attempt at uncovering what social, political, and economic factors contribute to well-being or happiness and what we can do as communities of people to increase levels of happiness. They show that happiness or contentment or well-being is important to evaluate and to pursue. Happiness it appears is not so much a state or a goal, but a way or a path.

According to this report great inequality within a nation or community is one thing that serves to decrease the level of happiness of everyone, even those who appear to benefit.

It is an old lesson. If we wish to be happy, we would do well to increase the potential for the happiness of others. If meaningful work, education, good relationships, a comfortable income, good health, personal freedom, and so forth are available to me and make me happy that is good. But if my neighbors are not able to attain those things, my happiness actually decreases. That is only reasonable because that means I am a human being. Human beings cannot truly be happy in the midst of the suffering of others unless they are actively engaged in relieving that suffering. Happiness cannot ever be an individualistic pursuit. We can only be happy to the extent that we bring happiness to others.

That wisdom is at least as ancient as the bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is motivated by compassion to bring Buddhahood or enlightenment to all beings. The image is that the bodhisattva refuses to enter Nirvana, or heaven to use a Christian word, until all beings enter Nirvana. The idea that there would be heaven where the righteous experience bliss while others suffer in hell would be an anathema. Only a sociopath could be happy--if that is what you could call it--in such an existence.

It is impossible truly to be happy and at bliss knowing that others suffer. The bodhisattva devotes his or her existence to bringing others to enlightenment. The point is that this is a never-ending task. The deeper point is that it is in the doing of it, it is in the compassionate work of bringing others to enlightenment that the bodhisattva actually lives happiness. Happiness, or enlightenment, or contentment is not a state or a goal but a way.

Jesus Christ can be understood as a bodhisattva. This is the great hymn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians about the Christ:

I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who
Although he was born in the image of God,
Did not regard “being like God”
As something to use for his own advantage,
But rid himself of such vain pretension
And accepted a servant’s lot.

Since he was born like all human beings
And proved to belong to humankind,
He recognized his true status
And became trustfully obedient all the way to death,
Even to death by crucifixion.

That is why God raised him higher than anyone
And awarded him the title that is above all others,

So that on hearing the name “Jesus,”
Ever knee should bend,
Above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth,
And every tongue declare: “Jesus the Anointed is lord!”
To the majestic honor of God , our great Benefactor.  (Scholars' Version)

Paul, in reciting this hymn, is admonishing his friends to do the same thing, to share the same attitude. Even as Judaism and Christianity on one hand and Hinduism and Buddhism on the other come from geographically different places and from different cultures and developed differing languages and different symbolic expressions, at the deepest levels, their fundamental affirmations are similar.

Who is the happy person? Who is the contented, enlightened, and whole person? Who is the saved person? It is the one who realizes that happiness is not something to attain. Happiness is not a noun. It is a verb. It is a way of being for all beings.

The literature about the bodhisattvas is wonderful. There are billions of these beings and they appear to us all the time even as we don’t know it. Sometimes it is the cashier at the store. Sometimes it is an animal. They appear to us and do things to awaken us. You can’t just make people enlightened. People have to realize it on their own. The Bodhisattvas have to sort of, well, trick you into it. In those experiences in which you have had an increase in awareness or an aha! moment, a bodhisattva opened that path for you. You can have fun with this. You don’t have to take it literally, but the imagery of the universe filled with bodhisattvas in disguise seeking to make all beings happy and enlightened is a wonderful image. When feeling discouraged knowing that all these beings are on our side is comforting.

Now the thing is…that you are a Bodhisattva as well. You are that for others. Don’t be afraid to take that role. That is the deep wisdom. Now this same thing is in the Christian tradition. The Cosmic Christ is within and among us. As the risen Christ was with the walkers on the Emmaus road and they didn’t realize it until they all broke bread together, so the Christ is with us and is seen in the aha! moments, the  breaking of the bread, the unexpected laughter, the act of compassion, the suffering shared. The point again, as Paul writes in Philippians, is that we are to be of the same mind. We are to be Christ for another.

You want to be happy? You are not alone. Billions and billions of bodhisattvas and little christs are conspiring at this very moment to help you.

The clincher is that you are one of them.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cronies of Jesus (9/2/12)

Luke 7:31-35
What do the people of this generation remind me of? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you wouldn’t dance; we sang a dirge, but you wouldn’t weep.’ Just remember, John the Baptizer appeared on the scene, eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He’s possessed.’ The Human One appeared on the scene both eating and drinking, and you say, ‘There’s a glutton and a drunk, a crony of toll collectors and sinners!’ Indeed, Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.’”

The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar wrestled with this saying attributed to Jesus. It is also found in Matthew’s gospel, but not in Mark. If Mark is written first and Matthew and Luke each copy Mark and add to it, where did the sayings and deeds of Jesus originate that Matthew and Luke share in common but not in Mark? The hypothesis is that these sayings and deeds are from a separate source. Scholars call this hypothetical source “Q” which is the first letter of the German word “quelle” that means source.

Did this saying originate with Jesus? The Fellows voted and it received a gray vote. This can mean that it sounds like Jesus but there are some problems. The problem is this label “Son of Man” or “Son of Adam” or as the Jesus Seminar translated it “the Human One.” The Gospel authors use the phrase “son of man” to refer to an apocalyptic figure who will come to establish the kingdom of God. They applied that designation to Jesus. Did Jesus think of himself as such or did he think there was another “son of man” yet to come or is Jesus here using that phrase as a parallel to “yours truly” and speaking about himself in the third person? The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar couldn’t agree.

This is from The Five Gospels published by the Jesus Seminar:
Most Fellows were convinced that Matthew, Luke, and Q understood this phrase in a messianic sense, in which case the saying cannot be attributed to Jesus. Other Fellows argued that son of Adam was Jesus’ way of referring to himself in the third person. The difference between a pink and a gray designation hangs on the thread of that single expression. P. 303
But they did agree that this sounds like Jesus. This sounds like the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is like the children who play the dirge and Jesus is like the children who play the flute. John the Baptist tells people that the kingdom of God is coming and that the wrath of God is as near as the axe at the root of the tree so repent! The basic message of John is to stop behaving unjustly toward your neighbor.

Jesus sees things differently. He tells people that they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, that the kingdom of God is not coming, but is already within them. Dance.

As the comparison continues, John is an ascetic. He takes no pleasure from wine or food. Jesus, on the other hand, is a party animal. He is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. John the Baptist tells the sinners to repent. Jesus parties with the sinners.

If this saying does go back to Jesus, Jesus is scolding the religious leaders. They call John possessed because he is an ascetic. They call Jesus a drunk because he celebrates with his cronies. The religious leaders aren’t happy with either one or with either message. They won’t mourn when John plays a dirge. They won’t dance when Jesus plays his flute. All they do is complain.

Jesus is saying there is no way to communicate to you. John couldn’t and neither can I. Both John and Jesus were trying to communicate the kingdom of God or the presence of God, in their own distinct way. The religious leaders would have none of it.

Both Jesus and John were in their own ways holy fools. John wore his camel skin and leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey in the desert. John challenged the powerful, including the king to repent of their injustice to their neighbors. This is the content of John’s sermon according to Luke:
The crowds would ask [John], “So what should we do?”

And he would answer them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with someone who has none; whoever has food should do the same.”

Toll collectors also came to be baptized, and they would ask him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

He told them, “Charge nothing above the official rates.”

Soldiers also asked him, “And what about us?”

And he said to them, “No more shakedowns! No more frame-ups either! And be satisfied with your pay.”
That is John the Baptist. He is playing the dirge. He is the prophet crying out in the wilderness calling on people to do justice.

Jesus’ approach was a bit different. This is how Luke reports Jesus’ first sermon. Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth and reads from the scroll:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to announce pardon for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind;

to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s amnesty.
He puts the scroll down and he says that he is going to be doing these things not in his hometown but elsewhere. Jesus plays the flute.

Jesus wanders the countryside healing, telling stories, casting out demons, befriending the friendless.

Different approaches. Different messages. Different ways of understanding God and the way God acts in the world. They are not mutually exclusive. It isn’t that one was right and the other wrong. They are both calls

to awaken,
to open mind and heart,
to crack the hard shell of cynicism and prejudice,
to feel the pain of the neighbor as one’s own pain.

That is the role of the holy fool. Both John and Jesus played this part. The holy fool calls attention to himself or to herself for the purpose of challenging conventions or to communicate wisdom.

Saint Juniper is an example of a holy fool. Listen to this description:
Saint Juniper, an early follower of the Franciscan order, was known for taking the doctrine of the Franciscans to the extreme. Whenever anyone asked for any of his possessions, he freely gave them away, including his clothes. He once even cut off the bells from his altar-cloth and gave them to a poor woman. His fellow Franciscans had to watch him closely, and strictly forbade him from giving away his clothes. While such behaviors were embarrassing to his brothers, he was also recognized as a pure example of the Franciscan order and thus esteemed.

John and Jesus as well as other holy fools each in their unique way invite us to uncover the vulnerable, sacred quality of life. They encourage us to remove that protective layer of propriety or status and discover the human within us and embrace that human being, that beloved you. When we are able to discover that holiness within we can connect with others at the deeper level of feeling. We can connect with people quite different from us, or who we thought were different from us.

The political contests are so shallow whether they are the contests of secular or church politics. They are little more than people covered in heavy armor hitting other people who are covered in heavy armor. Even as we might participate in it or observe it, we feel cheap, sickened and used at the end of the day. There is no content, no humanity, no vulnerability, no holiness.

When that becomes normal, when beating each other while wearing our armor is all that life has become, the holy fool has to play a dirge or play a flute, something, anything, to create feeling once again. The holy fool breaks convention, regards the outcast as royalty, pokes fun at pretentions, calls the righteous “sinners,” and the sinners “saints.”

“Mourn, dance, do something!” pleads the fool.

To be a holy fool can be a dangerous calling. John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was crucified. People don’t like it when you try to remove their protection. If you take a risk to remove your armor someone might attack you when your defenses are down. That does happen. I would be lying if I said it didn’t. Nevertheless, what is life if we never take off our armor? What is life if we never see another person without her or his armor? What is that life? It is lonely. And it is never-ending war.

What gift can we offer another or ourselves? What if we could be a person, or if we could create a space, or could form a community that was safe for people even if just for a little while, to remove armor and to be human with one another?

I think we can and I think we have. I have seen this community be that. It is something that cannot be taken for granted and that needs nurture and attention. It takes a courageous person to be the first to remove the helmet, put down the sword and shield and step out of the armor.

It takes a courageous, holy fool to say:
“This is who I am.
This is where I hurt and this brings me joy.
This is what I fear and this is what I hope.
Tell me about you.”
It is risky. There are no guarantees.

The religious leaders, “this generation” as Jesus called them could neither mourn nor dance. I understand it, but I find it sad nonetheless. There must be more to life than polishing our armor. I think we all deserve better than that.

May you heed the call of the holy fool,
     to take a risk and find your heart.
May you find other cronies of Jesus
     who will give you the gift to be yourself.
May you find the courage to remove the armor,
     even if just one piece at a time.
May you find yourself mourning and dancing
     in the company of sacred and holy fools.