Sunday, January 27, 2013

Stand Up Stand Up for [the Humanist] Jesus (1/27/13)

Stand Up Stand Up for [the Humanist] Jesus
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 27, 2013

Jesus said:
Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.
Give to the one who begs from you.
Love your enemies.
Don’t fret about your life.
Matthew 5:39-44, 6:25

One of my favorite stories is the story of the Sufi mystic, Rabi’a.    She lived in Basra, Iraq in the 8th century.    This following piece of wisdom is attributed to her:
I carry a torch in one hand
And a bucket of water in the other:
With these things I am going to set fire to Heaven
And put out the flames of Hell
So that voyagers to God can rip the veils
And see the real goal.  
Rabi’a understood a depth of truth that has often eluded religion:   spiritual maturity is beyond reward and punishment.  Spiritual depth and peace move outside of karma and outside of heaven and hell.   

Rabi’a was saying you don’t get to God through that means of desire for reward or fear of punishment.  There is no God at the end of that path.  It is a useless striving.  The God who dishes out punishments and rewards doesn’t exist.     

Here is the scariest Christmas song ever.
You better watch out,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He’s making a list
He’s checking it twice
He’s going to find out
Who’s naughty and nice,
Santa Claus is coming to town.
I do know that Santa has been a tool in the disciplinary toolbox for exasperated parents.    Threatening children with no presents from Santa unless they do your bidding is likely a less than admirable way to parent.    We know that even if we have done it.     It is shallow and demeaning and it teaches a twisted sense of ethics.    

Yet apparently, we have no problem continuing that charade when it comes to religion.   We see this in obvious examples of church signboards that threaten hell with every heat wave.  
Think it is hot now?  Hell’s hotter. 
Ha. Ha.  Yet there is a seriousness about that.   As Pentecostal preacher, Carlton Pearson, discovered when he stopped preaching on hell and told people so, he lost his big church.   If there is no hell, there is no motivation to show up on Sunday.   Why sit through the hell of listening to sermons unless you are going to avoid some real hell later on?   

Preachers may try to downplay hell and judgment, even heaven and reward, but when the chips are down, most of religious motivation is about reward and punishment.     Carlton Pearson is doing fine by the way.  He found another  niche.  

The point is that we think there must be some justice somewhere.  Someone must be keeping a list.   There must be a Divine Arbiter who can weigh every soul on the scale.   If that is the case then we better do what we can whether it is faith or works so the scales will tip in our favor come judgment day.  

Much of Christian theology, perhaps its main thrust has been about this.   It is primarily about sin, judgment, and forgiveness.    Islam and Judaism worry over the same things as do Hinduism and Buddhism.   Different language and concepts between these philosophies  but really they are all about doing whatever it takes either  to secure favor with God in order to make heaven or to build good karma in order to get a better deal next time around.       

Some might argue that I am not being fair.   I am making a caricature.  I am describing a simplistic notion of religion.   Yes, religion is deeper than that.     Even Presbyterians know that the story is bigger than reward and punishment.    According to the first question of the Shorter Catechism:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
The chief end, the key point, is relationship with God, not reward or punishment.     That is true enough.   Except the devil is in the details.  How do you get to that state of enjoyment?    There is a lot of paperwork in those theological confessions.   There are commandments, theories of judgment, and beliefs and sacraments or means of grace.   Why would you need grace unless there is judgment in the first place?  

There is a lot of heaven and hell in the confessions.       

The key here is that we cannot trust ourselves and we certainly cannot trust others to do good and to avoid the bad if there isn’t a firm structure of reward and punishment in place.    Whether it is stated on a signboard or more discreetly implied, the system of reward and punishment is firmly entrenched in all forms of religion. 
What do you do then with Sufi mystics like Rabi’a who want to destroy heaven and hell?    What do you do with Kurt Vonnegut who writes:
“Being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead.”
Well, you regard these folks as eccentric and hope that God won’t judge them too severely.    In the meantime, don’t give them pulpits or elect them to public office.   Because as we hear often, “What we need in this country are more God fearers.  We need people who fear God.”   

I personally think we need more people like Rabi’a and Kurt Vonnegut.  I think we need more courage and honesty in the face of fear and superstition.    Rather than fear God or feel the need to please God, what if we focused on living life?   What if we passed up the middleman and went for in the words of Rabi’a the eighth century Sufi mystic from Iraq, “the real goal.”     

Her goal might be love.  Love God for God’s own sake, not out of fear.    The Shorter Catechism gets this too, “glorify God, and enjoy God.”   

What might that mean?  

For some of us, the word “God” is a barrier.   I am not speaking for everyone and I am not suggesting that the word “God” should be a barrier.  I am saying that for me, and I would guess that some others might resonate with this, that “God” is a barrier.   For some of us, the word “God” and all of its associations is a barrier to “the real goal.”   I am most certainly not insisting.  Since this is the season of via creativa, I thought I would share ideas.    I find that a term that works better for me than God is Life.   Think of the way we use the word Life.  

Life happens. 
Life is what you make it. 
Live your life. 
Love your life. 
It’s your life.  
That’s life.

A marvelous book by Don Cupitt is called Life, Life.   In this book he catalogues and comments on the phrases we use that contain the word “life.”   Life, he suggests, is in common language replacing the word God.    I play a game.  Whenever I see the word God, I replace it with Life and see what happens.    It isn’t always a fit, but many times it makes what is being said more grounded and real.

Hold onto that for a second.  Life and God.

I want to talk about another phrase.    Many people were not happy with the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible that came out in the early 1990s.   Many of their favorite biblical passages were changed.   The changes did not come, I don’t think, because the translators wanted to poke people in the eye with a poker.  They were committed to accuracy as best as they could get to it.   They were a committee.    

The Twenty-third Psalm was changed.   This was a tough one.  It is especially a challenge for ministers at funerals.  Should ministers stick with the good old version we know, or should they read from the New Revised Standard Version?  

Here is the last line from the version with which most of us are familiar:
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
When the translators looked at that psalm, they realized that “forever” was a mistranslation.   It was Christian theologizing of a Jewish psalm.    “Forever” sounds like heaven.  But the actual words in Hebrew translate into the English as follows:
I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
Literally it is my “length of days.”

That is a different meaning isn’t it?    Rather than as a funeral psalm to live in the house of the Lord, or heaven for forever, it is about living this life in the house of the Lord.   Living in the present with God.    It is about living this life with God.    Living life with a sense of the sacred.  Living life aware that it is life!
I learned quickly that those who wanted the 23rd Psalm at a funeral for a loved one wanted the “forever” version.  I complied of course.    I am a minister, a priest.  I am on your team.

But that phrase change, or actually, that phrase correction, gave me hope.  Religion wasn’t essentially pie in the sky, (“your reward is in heaven”), it was really about, for those who were open to it, about living this life as if this life mattered.    

Let’s go back to the first question in the Shorter Catechism, what is the chief end of man?   

First, let us welcome the other half of the population.  

Question:  What is the chief end of man
Answer:  Why to be more inclusive, of course.   

So, second question:  What is the chief end of humankind?

Let’s answer it by substituting “Life” for “God” and “my whole life long” for “forever” and see what we get.
What is the chief end of humankind?
The chief end of humankind is to glorify life and to enjoy life my whole life long.
That is a religion I can get into.    Now help me, fellow travelers, to glorify and enjoy life as long as I have life.    Help me glorify your life, and their life and the planet’s life.    Let us put our love into this life and into the life and lives of all things.

How can we go about glorifying and enjoying life?   One way is to explore the wisdom of our traditions. Jesus as a wisdom teacher, for example, can be an interesting guide.   Rather than see Jesus as commanding us to do stuff in order to avoid punishment and receive reward, he offers his witticisms about life.   He is reported to have said things like this:

Love your enemies.  

That sounds pretty curious.    Did he mean that?  How would you go about it?   Is loving enemies really wise?    Could you love them all?   Can you make policy on that?   How would loving enemies help me glorify and enjoy life?    

Give to everyone who begs from you.

Really?  What would that look like?   Does that not encourage idleness?  Is he just talking about personal interactions?   Could we take that and consider it in light of how we treat the poorest in society or in the world?   

Don’t react violently to the one who is evil.   

What if they start it?  Isn’t the only way to stop evil people with guns is to give guns to good people?    Is there a sharp division between good and evil?  At what point do the good cross it?   Is it possible to stop the spiral of violence or is that just wishful thinking?  Isn’t life in the end, kill or be eaten?  

Don’t fret about your life.   

But I have many frets.   There is a lot to fret about.  How do I fret less? 

The point of wisdom about life is not to obey this wisdom.  There is no divine arbiter keeping track of how well we keep the commandments.     They aren’t commandments.  They are prods and pokes about the meaning of life.  

The wisdom of life tradition is not about reward or punishment.  It isn’t about justifying ourselves and judging others as to how well we think we obeyed.   The point is to consider wisdom and to argue with it and to struggle with it.    

When I call Jesus a humanist, I realize you can’t quite squeeze him into that modern tradition without leftover.   That said, I think I can get a lot of mileage out of Jesus the humanist sage, when I approach him that way.    

When the Jesus tradition or Christianity becomes less about rewards and punishments and in beliefs about God and more about living this life, it takes on a vibrancy for me.  It becomes more challenging, more real, and more relevant.  

For today, I cast my lot with Rabi’a the Iraqi Sufi mystic, who with her bucket of water quenches hell and with her torch burns heaven and invites us to live life for life’s sake.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Making A Way Out of No Way (MLK 1/20/13)

Making A Way Out of No Way
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Martin Luther King
January 20, 2013

Exodus 14:5-8, 10-14, 21-22
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed towards the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly…. 

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still….’

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

I have been thinking about hope recently.   I have been thinking about hope in general as well as things I hope for in particular.  I think of personal hopes for my family and for myself.   I think of larger hopes too for our church, our country, our planet, and for humankind.   At times I think of the futility of hope.   I think of hopes dashed.   Not every hope bears fruit.  I know that.  Every tragedy we witness represents a hope that turned bitterly into despair. 

Things will never change, I think, resigning myself.   The powers that be that keep things in their order are too intransigent, too powerful, and too well-funded.   Those with the desire for change are too weak, too beaten down, too habituated to disappointment and failure to get up the nerve to try again.   Why bother?  I think that sometimes.

I know that many of you, perhaps our congregation as a whole, have taken on actions in which the opposition is fierce and foreboding, not unlike Pharaoh’s army complete with six hundred chariots and hardness of heart.   

Whether the cause has been 

·         for peaceful resolution to foreign conflicts,
·         for equality for LGBT people,
·         for dignity for the disabled,
·         for healthcare for all people,   
·         for reproductive education, advocacy, and freedom,
·         for legislation to protect our environment from destructive mining practices,
·         to getting our city or county to fund our domestic violence shelter,
·         to curbing gun violence in a paranoid and trigger happy culture,

for all of this and more for which you beautiful people struggle it sometimes feels as though there is an impassable sea on one side and an attacking army on the other.   

There is just no way.

It is in those times, I find it helpful to look to the past and see the changes that have taken place.   Not all these changes are for the better, but many are.  

I remember in seminary doing research for a paper and finding in the basement of Speer library at Princeton, several volumes of sermons preached during the 1840s and 1850s.   These sermons were from prominent preachers, prominent enough to have their sermons recorded in books.    These sermons were about slavery.  They were based on the Bible.  They utilized the science of their time.   They were not the minority opinion.  They were, in fact, the majority opinion.    These sermons stated clearly and unequivocally that God had ordained slavery through the curse of Noah.    

According to these powerful and influential preachers, Noah’s three sons represented all the people of Earth spread out on the globe.  One of those sons, Ham, represented the darker skinned people, and because of Ham’s disrespect to his father, all of his descendants would be slaves to their brothers, the white skinned people.    

Passages in the Bible were quoted to show God’s pure unchanging Word on the subject.   The Apostle Paul was quoted frequently:  “Slaves be obedient to your masters.”   Those who sought to abolish slavery in the United States were trying to abolish the authority of the Bible and as such the authority of God.  That was the message in sermon after sermon.    

We look back at that and shake our heads in disbelief.    I couldn’t believe it when I read these sermons in the basement of Speer Library.  I sat there on the floor in the stacks thinking, “Whoa.”    The powers and forces marshaled to keep slavery intact were far larger than Pharaoh’s army.   The values of slavery were embedded and encoded in sacred texts, in culture, and interpreted through the mouths of its spokespersons who were holy men.   These holy men had access to political power.  You can’t get more intransigent than that.     

Even after the end of the war and for another 100 years of lynchings, indignity, and oppression, finally marches and sit-ins, and refusal to cooperate with injustice, and then voting rights, the end of segregated lunch counters, drinking fountains, restrooms, and schools, and now tomorrow, January 21st, 2013, the inauguration for a second term of America’s first black president.   History has way of making a way out of no way.   

You can call it history, you can call it creativity, you can call it the human spirit, you can call it God, but how did we get from there to here?   That would require the telling of millions of stories of people’s lives and the acts of courage and of creativity that was born of desperation.  It would require the telling of tragedy, violence, and failure as well.   In this telling, we would have to realize that not one person alone was responsible, that not one person saw it all from beginning to end, that the story of justice and compassion is larger than any of us yet it includes all of us.  

When I find myself discouraged and cynical about the powerful forces such as the gun lobby or the military-industrial complex, or the energy companies, or the Christian church, I have to take a breath, acknowledge the feelings, and regain my perspective.   The big story is not my business.    I will not live long enough and I certainly cannot see far enough to know what can happen.  All I can do is my little part in front of me and pray for the courage to do that.    Rosa Parks didn’t make sweeping civil rights legislation.  She didn’t single-handedly change the Montgomery bus system.  She didn’t defeat all the powers of racism.  She, in her time, in her place, didn’t give up her bus seat.   The rest wasn’t up to her.

We cannot know how history will twist and turn.  No one, even the big players, even the Abraham Lincolns and Dr. Kings, who are only players, control the game.   They are the foam on the crest of the wave in an ocean of change beyond our capacity to fathom.   What we do have is our part to play if we dare.   Each of us.

When I selected the scripture text of the escape from Egypt, and re-read it, I was reminded about the complaints of the Hebrew children as they camped along the sea.   They started off boldly says the text.  When they saw Pharaoh’s army coming they complained.   Have you noticed how witty complainers can be?   Sarcasm is funny.  
“Moses!  Are there no graves in Egypt?  Huh?  Is that why you led us into this wilderness?”
“Moses!  Didn’t we tell you this already?  Didn’t we tell you this would happen?   We had our nice little lives in Egypt.  We minded our own business.  Sure we were oppressed and beaten and we cried to God for help but we thought we’d get something a bit more impressive than you, Moses.   Here you come with your plagues and your schemes and you get us up in the middle of the night, and you lead us out here to the middle of nowhere, and now look where we are.  Here’s the sea in front of us and now guess what, here are Pharaoh and his chariots coming from behind.  Great idea this was, Moses.   Do you ever think you might plan ahead when you have dreams of great escape, eh Moses?”
And Moses said, “All you have to do is stand firm and be still.” 

And we know the rest of the story:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
The Lord made a way out of no way.

It is also in those times when I feel discouraged about the powers that be, and I feel sarcastic and I write my witty cynicisms on my Facebook page, that I find comfort in religion of all things.   I like these stories about Moses and the Hebrew children.   They have a reality beyond literalism that speaks to me.  

Part of the truth of these stories is that they were used by many of my African-American sisters and brothers as texts of hope and courage.   The white slave owners forced these human beings to come to church in chains and sit in the hot balcony or on the floor and they were forced to hear the scriptures as preached to them by the slave owners’ holy men.  Those so-called holy men preached to them about how slaves should obey their masters and so on and so forth.    

When the white church was over, the slaves organized real church in secret and out of earshot of these oppressors.   There they heard the stories of God who through Moses led the people out of slavery.  They heard the stories of Jesus, beaten and tortured like they were and yet who endured and lived again.  That sustained them throughout all their trials and through that lonesome valley.    

Long after civil war and well into the 20th century, up to 5,000 African-Americans were lynched in this country.   They were tortured publicly with the blessing of law enforcement and public officials and their holy men who cowardly covered themselves in white sheets.    Yet somehow they endured.  They sang those spirituals as if their lives depended on them, because they did.   
When Martin Luther King says on that night when he was weak and didn’t know where he could turn that he
“heard the voice of Jesus…He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone,”
I believe King more than I believe other preachers who might say the same thing. 

From history and from religion, that is what I call real religion, I know that I have no justification for despair.   Even when there appears to be no way to succeed, I know that the story of justice is larger than my story.  It will go on long after me as it has long before.   I only am invited to do my part here and now.  Sometimes that part is for bold action and at other times it is to stand firm and be still and watch for the way to be made out of no way.  


Sunday, January 13, 2013

I Create and Connect Therefore I Am (Maybe) (1/13/13)

I Create and Connect Therefore I Am (Maybe)
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 13, 2013

Mark 1:9-12 (Scholars’ Version)
During that same period Jesus came from Nazareth, Galilee, and was baptized in the Jordan by John.  And right away as he got up out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the spirit coming down toward him like a dove.  There was also a voice from the skies:  “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.”
And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert.

On this day designated on the church calendar as Baptism of the Lord, we ordain and install our new elders and deacons.   When we have new members ready to join, we often welcome them on this Sunday.   Even though we don’t have anyone joining this Sunday, still this is a good day to reflect on what it means to belong and to serve.    When I say belong and serve, I don’t mean belong to the church and serve it.  

·         I mean belong on this planet and serve life.   
·         I mean belong to our communities and serve them. 
·         I mean belong to our families and serve them.  
·         I mean belong to another and serve her or him. 
·         I mean belong to Earth and serve the creepy, crawly things.   
·         I mean belong here and serve what is.  
·         I mean belong to you and you to me and we serve one another.    

You may remember a few months ago, I preached a sermon on happiness.  The author I quoted was psychologist, Jonathan Haidt.  In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he offered a happiness formula.   It was nice that it was a formula as opposed to a poem.  For those of us who find our meaning in algebra as opposed to quatrains it was a little something for us.   

He wrote that H = S + C + V.

H is happiness.  

S is your biological set point.

C represents the conditions of life (and the most important of these conditions are relationships).

V represents  voluntary activities.

The bottom line is that happiness is set biologically.  However, you can boost it by developing meaningful relationships and by doing meaningful work.    This is no big secret.  This isn’t something new we have learned since the invention of psychology.   Although it is nice when psychologists also come to similar conclusions as did the sages of old.

Think of Jesus.   The parables he told were ultimately about improving our relationships, overcoming enmity, seeking and granting forgiveness, and treating others as we want to be treated.   The things he did centered around helping others:  healing the sick, comforting the brokenhearted, feeding the hungry, and encouraging dignity and worth.       Jesus was all about meaningful relationships and meaningful work.

The baptism of Jesus is the symbol that draws all of that together.  

The baptism of Jesus is an interesting puzzle, historically.  According to Mark, the earliest gospel, John is baptizing for forgiveness of sin, to repent, and to start a new way of life.   Jesus is baptized by John.   So did Jesus sin?   Did he need to repent?   How could he sin if he was the sinless son of God, the second person of the Trinity and so forth?   Why would he undergo a baptism for forgiveness of sin?

Mark has no problem having Jesus undergo this type of baptism.    He sees no conflict.  Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus objects to this state of affairs.   

Later gospels do notice the problem.    

·         Luke has John the Baptist imprisoned before Jesus is baptized.   Luke simply writes that Jesus was baptized.  It is not clear whether or not John even baptizes Jesus in Luke.  
·         In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t appear to be baptized at all.   John the Baptist in the Gospel of John simply announces that he saw the spirit hover over Jesus like a dove.  There is no narrative of the baptism itself.
·         In Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist tries to stop Jesus and says:  “I’m the one who needs to get baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  Jesus simply replies that “this is the right thing for us to do.”
·         In a later gospel that didn’t make it into the New Testament, the Gospel of the Nazoreans, sometimes called the Gospel of the Hebrews, we find this story:
The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, “John the Baptizer baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Let’s go and get baptized by him.”  But he said to them, “How have I sinned?  So why should I go and get baptized by him?”
Those who search for the historical Jesus are likely to say, yes, Jesus was baptized by John because the early church would have been embarrassed by such a story and therefore not likely to have invented it.    Those later gospels are reflecting a theology of the divine nature and thus sinless nature of Jesus.   They have to do something with this embarrassing story.  They all seem to need to explain his baptism by John the Baptist or to dismiss it in some way.   

The earliest gospel, Mark’s gospel, had not yet developed that “high Christology” as they call it and so Mark spilled the story without explanation.    The conclusion is that it is likely true that neither Jesus, nor John the Baptist, nor the author of Mark saw Jesus as sinless.   He was a guy, not unlike one of us.     
Jesus was obviously Jewish and so he would engage in the religious practices of his time as anyone else.   Baptism, as John seemed to be practicing it, was a purification ritual.   Presumably, you could have it more than once.   Like a bath, you would be symbolically cleansed to go and do good works.    Jesus was game for this as much as anyone.   

We all need that.  We all need to be forgiven so the past doesn’t haunt us.  We need to practice honesty and forgiveness with one another so that we can continue in those relationships.   We need a safe space and people we can trust to share our struggles so that those struggles do not overcome us.    We confess sin to let it go.    

I personally find a human Jesus who needs a baptism for sin to be far more compelling than a Jesus who is so divine that he is above it all.  I like that Jesus was a sinner like me.   Not that he just pretended to be a sinner, or took on my sins on the cross as later Christian theology tried to spin it, but that he really did sin.  He would smoke, drink, chew and hang around with girls who do.  

If there is a difference between Jesus and us, it is not one of kind but of degree.   Jesus submitted to a life of belonging and doing.   That is why he is worth emulating.   He was baptized as one of us because he was one of us.   

Later Christian theology took baptism and made it a one-time event that would supernaturally cure us from original sin.  Then the sacrament of confession and communion was a vehicle to keep us updated.   In a sense the Lord’s Supper for Christians served a similar role that baptism did for John the Baptist.   It is an ongoing update.  The different Christian sects interpreted all of these symbols  in different ways.   They all claim to be right.   I can’t even keep up.    

Here is my theology.  It plus three dollars can get you a coffee at Starbucks.   

I should say something about the sermon title.  It is a riff from Rene Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I am.”  Descartes was so sure of himself.   But I am not sure that we are only thinkers.  I like to think we create and connect and that gives us meaning.  But maybe there is more to it than that as well.  Hence the “maybe.”   I would say, however, that connecting and creating are pretty darn important.
Anyway, my theology begins with life.

Life is what is.  We are human beings.   We are neither sinners nor saints.  We are not born into original sin.  We are born into a complex web provided by genetics and environment that makes us who we are.   We are rarely conscious of the feelings and impulses that drive us.     We have inherited language, stories, and symbols that open us to the larger world, but it in the words of the Apostle Paul, what we think we know or see is like watching life through a clouded mirror.     

Into this fog of life to which we are thrust naked and crying, we need to find that which can hold us.   In addition to food, clothing, and shelter, we need at least two more things.  We need to feel that we belong and we need to feel that we are not a burden but instead have something to contribute.  
The purpose of religion is to help us find connection and belonging and to help us find something meaningful to do.   This is the reason for the church, in my view.  I am not talking about things as simple as church membership.  I am talking about life and death.  I am talking about surviving and thriving in this world.   
I feel great pain for those who do not feel they belong and who feel that they are a burden more than a blessing.   It doesn’t matter if it is objectively true, if we could ever know that.  It has to do with self-perception.   In order to be able to survive and thrive in this world each of us needs to be able to say,
“I belong and I have value.  
I love and am loved and I have something to contribute.  
I connect and I create.”    
I know that we cannot force people to believe that about themselves.   That is painfully true.   When I see people struggling and acting out, or when I watch them try to manage things unsuccessfully, I think of these two needs, to belong and to contribute, and perhaps I can pause, not to judge, but to understand.    Perhaps I can help, and if not, at least not hurt.

The baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is our story.   He comes out of the water and is blessed by the voice from the skies,
“You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.”   
How we all need to hear that!   How we all need to know that!    
You are my son, you are my daughter, the one I love—I fully approve of you.
You are a loved and loving human being.   
You are fully approved. 
Don’t be afraid of that desert.
Enter it and create.
We are loved.  We are approved.  

If I had a magic wand and could make people believe that about themselves, I would wave it every day.   

That’s my religion.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sacred Suns of God (1/6/13)

Sacred Suns of God
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

January 6, 2013

One of the most poetic facts I know about the universe is that essentially every atom in your body was once inside a star that exploded. Moreover, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than did those in your right.  We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust….

….essentially no nuclei—beyond lithium, the third lightest nucleus in nature—formed during the primeval fireball that was the Big Bang….

….While lithium is important for some people, far more important to the rest of us are all the heavier nuclei like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and so on.  These were not made in the Big Bang.  The only place they can be made is in the fiery cores of stars.  And the only way they could get into your body today is if these stars were kind enough to have exploded, spewing their products into the cosmos so they could one day coalesce in and around a small blue planet located near the star we call the Sun.  Over the course of the history of our galaxy, about 200 million stars have exploded.  These myriad stars sacrificed themselves, if you wish, so that one day you could be born.  I suppose that qualifies them as much as anything else for the role of saviors.
--Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing

When I make the trek home to Montana about once per year or so to visit family, I spend some time connecting again with the night sky.   It is big and black and the stars are the best and brightest that I have seen.  I haven’t  been everywhere and I am sure that in the remote parts of Canada the stars are even brighter.    For my money, the Montana night sky puts on a pretty good show.   It is a show I watched thousands of nights over growing up in Montana.    Much of the time, I confess, I didn’t notice what a show it was.    I didn’t applaud or say aloud every night how marvelous and amazing it was.  It was what it was.   I didn’t notice it, I swam in it.  It wasn’t until I moved away to places where the sky is smaller and dimmer that I realized the difference.    That is the bittersweet reality of living.   We don’t know what we have until it is gone.    I am not scolding.   I am not reminding us to “take notice and be grateful.”  I am not advocating for some other form of piety.    I am just talking about stars.

If you are a teenager and are lying on the top of a haystack in Southwestern Montana in July on a cloudless and moonless night you can actually be hypnotized by your own yearning.    The stars tease.  “You can’t come here,” they seem to say.   “You can only watch.”    As you look into the sky, you can’t help but engage in theology or philosophy or poetry.    As you, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 17, try to focus on one star, you wonder how far away it is.    You think of what your science teacher said about stars.  As we look into the sky we not only are looking out in to space but back into time.  The light of that star might have been emitted 20 years ago or 100.   With a naked eye, on a good clear night, on top of a Montana haystack, the farthest star you could see might be about 3,000 light years away.   Of course, you don’t know that unless you know for what you are looking.   Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away.  That can be seen with the naked eye, again, if you know where to look.   
As you think about those stars in the night sky in our Milky Way galaxy, you realize that they are suns or that our sun, which is eight light minutes away, is really a star.   You remember your science teacher telling you that there are 100 billion or more of these suns in our Milky Way galaxy.    There are galaxies beyond our galaxy.  Billions of them, each with billions of suns.     But just back to the Milky Way, for a moment, you wonder if these suns might have planets around them.  Perhaps on one of those planets 3000 light years away is another teenager on a haystack looking at the stars.  One of those stars she sees is our sun, the light of which from that teenager’s perspective, was emitted three thousand years earlier.   Perhaps we are watching the light from each other’s star that is three thousand years old.    It really expands your mind, actually.    That is only the beginning of the brain twisting.    

As you lie on the haystack thinking about the universe your science teacher opened up for you, you realize that the light from that star that might be 3,000 light years away that you are seeing now was emitted a 1000 years before Jesus.     So you venture into the dangerous country of blasphemy and wonder if Jesus came down to save my world, did he also bother to come down and save the world of my new teenager friend on the planet 3,000 light years away from me as well?   

You wonder as you lie on the haystack contemplating the mysteries of stars and Jesus whether or not your preacher knows about the galaxy and the number of stars and their distances, and if so, whether that matters to him at all.  It seems to you as the night gets chillier on top of the haystack that the Christian truth you have heard so far seems to be based on Earth being the center of the universe and stars as little more than decoration.    You realize that won’t do for you.   You know that you have a choice to make and you feel that you are the only one who needs to make it or even knows that it is a choice.   That can’t be true but no one seems to want to talk about it.   Must it be a choice?   Must the choice be either the faith that comes with Jesus in your heart or the knowledge in your mind that seems to be expanding as fast as the universe?  You wonder what God and Jesus might be like if the stars mattered.        

When I go back to Montana now after 23 years of immersion into these questions through seminary and ministry, I am still trying to help that teenager with his angst on top of the haystack.    I look at the stars and I still have questions.    The questions are far more informed, of course.   I have discovered that there are many people who have asked similar questions and still ask them.    Some have found a way of reconciliation that seems to work.   Others have decided to land somewhere and let it go at that.   Others continue the quest.  For myself I continue to refuse the choice between mind and heart.     I continue to hold out hope that faith and science might yet dance.    I don’t want one to be absorbed into the other.  I don’t want them to exist in separate spheres unable to engage the other.     I seek spirituality as if the stars mattered.  

This season is the via creativa.  All that means is that I have chosen Winter to be the season to explore this particular spiritual path.   This is the path of creativity and imagination.   Creativity is not extra credit.  It is not an elective the way we sometimes treat the arts in school.   Creativity is necessity.  It is the path that arises out of the darkness of letting go and loss, or the via negativa.    We cannot lose what we have not embraced.  That embrace is the path of wonder and awe at what is, the via positiva.    Creativity is almost desperation.   It is in the darkness that the light flickers.   "Shines" is too overwhelming a word.   A shining bright light tries to obliterate the darkness.   It doesn’t take seriously the darkness.   Creativity is a candle in a cave.   It is from death that life comes.   It knows that.   It is because of grief that we need hope in the first place.    You don’t obliterate grief.  You light a candle so you can see to stumble your way through it.

When I speak of grief, I know my own, but I know that I am not alone.   Don’t think that this work is simply intellectual.   Or that I think this is just mine.  This is not just for the clergy or the theologians or scholars.  Everyone is engaged in this.  As theologian Matthew Fox reminds us, “Everyone is an artist.”  Each of us finds a way to make his or her own meaning, to say, "This is what I am living for now."   We are all star-gazers.  To take on this courageous work of the heart is a spiritual labor.  To travel the way of creativity is a spiritual path.      At the same time, we don’t travel alone.  We have wise teachers from the past and present, co-travelers, all seeking their place among the stars.    

Creativity is messy.   It comes and goes on its own schedule.   It takes many attempts.   Much of what is created isn’t worth keeping.  There are also long stretches of nothing.  As I think about this series of sermons on creativity, I do want to express my own nervousness about this.    There is a vulnerability here.  I am doing this in public before I am close to being finished if I ever could be finished.   If you have ever created something and not wanted people to see it until you were ready, you know what I mean.     Something as grand as "spirituality as if stars mattered" is likely a perpetually unfinished piece.   

The second sense of vulnerability is that I do this while my heart is broken.    Part of me says that it isn’t appropriate to do theology with a broken heart.   It won’t be as true.   It will be distorted.   Another part of me says if spirituality, theology, religion, or faith or whatever you call it, cannot speak to a broken heart, then what good is it?    I am not sure if I can do this with a broken heart, that is preach sermons.    I’ll give it a try.    I appreciate your patience and your compassion even as I feel I might have little to give in return.    Sometimes it is just pain that comes out more harshly than I intend.    

God is a touchy topic when you are grieving.    To be honest, God is not my best buddy right now.    I do have a heart for Jesus, though.   Perhaps revisiting that teenager on a haystack on a Montana summer’s night wondering how to integrate Jesus and the stars might be a good way to light my own spiritual candle.  While this path is mine and I don’t speak for anyone else, nor do I insist, and I don’t insist even when I don’t come across as so gracious; nevertheless, perhaps this series of sermons will resonate with you and spark your own creativity in whatever way you need that light to flicker.