Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Art of Compassion (4/28/13)

The Art of Compassion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 28, 2013

     Isaiah 58:6    
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

Luke 4:16-19
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘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 proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Our confirmation class is working on statements of faith.  They are being asked to write what they believe.   The model for this is found on the website, This I Believe.    On this website you will find essays written by people stating what they believe.  The essays aren’t necessarily religious in terms of using traditional religious language but they are religious in the sense that Paul Tillich used that word, to address our “ultimate concern.” 

One of the things that religious communities, or houses of worship, such as ours, can do is to encourage each other to take the time and to make the time to address issues of ultimate concern.  This is not a weighty intellectual exercise.   This is a taking stock of who we are and what we are doing.     

What is important to me? 
What are my values?   
About what am I passionate?  
Where do I see brokenness? 
How am I broken? 
Where do I see healing? 
How am I a healer? 
What healing do I seek?  
Am I changing? 
Are my values the same as they were 20 years ago or ten? 
What is emerging now? 

One of the things I tell couples who come for pre-marital counseling, not that I have great wisdom on this, but I have picked up a few lines along the way.  I say, 

“It is OK to change.  Just make sure you tell your partner.”    

 Changing is OK.  We can handle change.  It is trying to deny it or hide it that wreaks havoc.  

Being open about change is good for marriages and relationships.  It is good for churches, communities, even societies.  Who are we?   Where have we been and where are we going?  What is important?  What do we believe?     During this season of Spring we honor the via transformativa, the way of transformation.  The sacred path of compassion and justice.   How are we being transformed?    

Ten months ago today we lost our son, Zachary, to an illness that I don’t know how to name, and one that those of us on the outside looking in cannot see or feel, a sadness of heart too deep, too dark for understanding.    If I were to do what I am asking the confirmation class to do, I am not sure if I could do it.  I don’t know if I can write down what I believe.  

Nothing at this point in my life feels real.   The path that I and my family are on is a sacred path, for sure.   I have no clarity or direction about it.    As I hear the beliefs of others or even of my own from before last summer, they are somewhat interesting, but they seem disconnected, disjointed, and forced. 

My current path is a boat, a small sailboat on a lake.  I cannot see the shore.  The fog is so thick that I cannot count my fingers when I put my hand in front of my face.  It is absolutely still.  No sound.  No wind.  Not even a breeze.    The good news in regards to that image is that I am still afloat.    I am just chilling there.    I have made a choice in my little boat.  I have chosen to sit there and wait.  I have chosen to trust that there will be a breeze sometime, that the sail will fill again and that the fog will lift.    In the meantime, I choose to be present to the fog and to the stillness.   I could choose to panic and pull out a paddle and start whacking at the water just to make noise or movement.    But that seems rather pointless.    I am going to sit and take note of what is there.  

If an image for the via transformativa is a sailboat with a full sail on a clear day, then I am taking that on trust for now.  If God is the wind in the sail, God is also the stillness.  If God is the clear blue sky, God is also the fog.   Transformation happens at times when you are not looking and in unexpected, even non-traditional ways.

Yesterday, I was at the workshop Rebecca Nunley hosted with Russill Paul.  He said something in particular that caught my ear.  He was talking about depression. He said, and I am paraphrasing, that we tend to think of depression as a bad thing. We judge it.  We think it is the absence of God.  He invited us to think of it differently.   He suggested that we try not to judge it but notice it and see it as a sacred path.   It is teaching us something about ourselves and about the Sacred or God.  

That is how I choose to think of grief.  It is not something to get over or to get through.  It is not behavior that needs changing.  It isn’t a condition that needs treatment or even a hurt that needs healing.   It is chilling in the boat in the fog.  The stillness and the fog is not the absence of God but the presence of God.   I am completely surrounded by God and God is absorbed into every cell of my body.  This is the depth of sacred grief.   The not knowing, the not moving, the not seeing, and the non-passion, are not negatives.  This experience is sacred immanence.    

The text for today is Luke’s account of the first sermon by Jesus.   He is handed the scroll and reads this: 

 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 proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

After reading he sits down and says:

“This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Then he goes on to say that this passage is being fulfilled not among the good church folks but through the outsiders, the enemies even.  The people get enraged by this and try to throw him off of a cliff.  He manages to walk through the crowd unscathed. 

All in one day.   

He preaches his first sermon and the congregation tries to throw him off a cliff. That is a tough crowd.  That isn’t what we were taught in preaching school.   You don’t want to do that the first day.   You want to spend some time winning the congregation over and get them on your side.   He didn’t take that class.

What can you say?  He was Jesus.  He had a full sail.  A sail full of Spirit. 

That is how Luke shows us the person and work of Jesus.   He is filled with the spirit of transformation, bringing good news, proclaiming liberation to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.   All of this is beyond artificial boundaries of in and out, chosen and not chosen, us and them.   Spirit knows no boundary.  Jesus is the model of the via transformativa, the way of justice and compassion, the spirit of action, restoration, and wholeness.

That was supposed to be my sermon.   Get out there and find your inner Jesus and live that compassionate spirit for all of creation.    Find your passion.  Clarify your belief statement and live it.  Heal the sick.  Bind up the brokenhearted.  Proclaim justice and compassion in whatever way you do that.    

As I was putting this together, I realized that I am not personally there right now.   A colleague of mine who also lost a son in the same way said that for a long time she had to preach ahead of herself.    In truth, she says she still does.        

I was getting to ready to gear myself up for that, but realized that today I can’t even fake it.   I thought it might be instructive to tell you where I really am.  After all, you might be there, too.  

The story of Jesus preaching his sermon and taking on the cause is a story I know.   I have done that one, and I will probably do it again.    But today, my story is the story that directly precedes this story.    Here is a quiz.  What story in Luke’s gospel comes right before Jesus' first sermon in the synagogue? 

You guessed it.

It is the story of Jesus in the wilderness.   We think this story is about Jesus temptations in the wilderness where he hangs out with the devil.   But that isn’t really the point.   Jesus doesn’t go out there because he thinks it is a good idea. The devil isn’t the main character.   Spirit led Jesus.  Here is the phrase:

“Jesus was led in the spirit through the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil.”

The emphasis is that Jesus is in the spirit, led by spirit, accompanied by spirit, infused by spirit.   To use my metaphor, he is in the boat in the fog with no wind. He needs to wait it out.   But it isn’t that he just has to wait it out or get through it or get over it.  What is happening is that this experience is a Sacred experience.   It is sacred and holy time.   He is discovering who he is and who he will be.   The devil acts as a clarifying agent, prodding him to discover his own character.

The metaphor for Spirit in this story is not a full sail.  It is not action.  It is not obvious presence as it is with Jesus preaching and healing and doing.   It is presence but in stillness and in emptiness.    

Perhaps your life experience at this time is one in which you cannot see where you are let alone where you are supposed to go.  Not only can you not see, but you don’t seem to be going anywhere.   Perhaps that is due to loss or change or you aren’t sure what.    

I think what I have been trying to say today is, don’t panic.  

I titled the sermon, “The Art of Compassion.”  I was thinking at the time of it being a sermon encouraging you and all of us to be compassionate to others and to Earth and it is. 

It is also about learning the art of being compassionate toward yourself. 

This is a sacred time.    
You are not alone. 
You are embraced. 
You don’t have to do anything
or plan anything
or be anything.    
Give yourself permission to rest in this moment--   
Surrounded, infused by Loving Holy Spirit.

I’ll do the same.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Creation (Earth Day 4/21/13)

New Creation
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 21, 2013
Earth Day

Is. 65:17                           
For I am about to create new heavens
   and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
   or come to mind.

 2 Cor. 5:17
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

In the Spring we honor the via transformativa, the way of transformation, compassion, and justice.   Of the four spiritual paths in Creation Spirituality, this path demands movement.  The way to God, to the Sacred, to depth of meaning, to an authentic and abundant life is through doing.   We walk the talk.  This is the path of putting our beliefs and commitments to action.  

We feed the hungry. 
Clothe the naked. 
Visit those imprisoned. 
Make the music. 
Heal the hurting.
Speak our truths to power. 
Save the planet. 


This is the path in which you find your inner superhero and engage in derring-do for the sake of Earth and of Earthlings.   The time for meditation and prayer is over. Now it is time to do something.   

The Christian religion took some funny turns along the way.  One of the popular notions is that we are not saved by works but by faith.   Protestants got ahold of this one.   What is important is believing the right things as opposed to doing good things.  You can do good works but not be saved, it is said. 

The back story to all of this is fear.  Saved from what?  Saved from Hell.  The story is that after you die at the great resurrection before the throne of God everyone will be judged.   Following the judgment some will go to heaven and others to hell.  The deciding factor will be based on what?    

If you were raised in my Baptist tradition, the deciding factor is whether or not you received Jesus Christ as your personal savior.  Other traditions, such as our collective parent, Roman Catholicism, required a state of grace conferred by the sacraments.     Hardcore Presbyterians said it is all fixed beforehand and you are predestined to one fate or another.    Other non-Christian traditions such as Hinduism and its offspring deal with the judgment thing through karma and reincarnation.  

All of these arguments about faith and works have to do with your fate after you are dead.  It is all about whether or not you are either going to heaven or hell or whether or not you are going to get a better incarnation the next time around.   All of this is about doing whatever you need to do or believing whatever you need to believe to get a good score. 

It is living for the test.   

What if there is no test? 

What if all these religious beliefs are products of human imagination?  What if it was all made up?  What then?

What if instead of judgment seats and heaven and hell and all the rest of it, instead at your death, your consciousness ceases to exist along with your brain function?   You enter a state I call The Great Peace, a state of unconscious bliss, like before you were born.    There is no test.  Everyone goes there.    

I choose to believe in The Great Peace.  If it sounds better (and I think it does) by symbolizing The Great Peace as a banquet table or the new Jerusalem or the communion of saints or the resurrection to eternal life or the union of Atman and Brahman or universal consciousness, that is all the same to me.   Those are symbols for cessation of self-consciousness.  Michael Dowd calls these symbols, night language.  That is the language of poetry and dream.

The Great Peace is immediate.  No waiting.  No lights to follow or spirit guides to chase.  No judgment thrones to face.  No karma to set right.  No sin that requires payment. The evil and righteous alike enter it upon their deaths.   That is ultimate justification by grace through faith. 

Here is the faith part.  I trust The Great Peace is true.  I can't know for sure because I haven't died.   I also have faith that the Universe, or God, if you prefer, isn’t out to punish us.   It is an amazing adventure.  We get life then we get peace.

I know this view isn’t appealing to everyone.  I don’t insist.  I just believe it. 

Why bother you with my beliefs?   I think it is good for a preacher’s soul to come clean every now and again and admit what I think.   I certainly don’t mind what anyone else believes about these speculative matters.   Nor can I imagine that anyone cares what I believe.  No one can know.   Those who claim to know are, well, not persuasive to me.    I don’t think it is important to worry about what happens when we die.    In fact, I think it is distracting.   I think living for the test is a waste of time.   I choose to live for life. 

Some may argue that they want something more.   I agree.  Here is my attempt at something more.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett said that the way to happiness is to findsomething more important than you and then devote your life to it.    

If you want to be happy, find God, live authentically, and live a meaningful life, then find something more important than you, and live for it.   

A great theologian, Paul Tillich, said that faith in God is really language for putting your trust and your life toward your ultimate concern.   

When I began interviewing for positions over eight years ago that eventually found me in Elizabethton, I needed to fill out a Personal Information Form. On the form was a question.  It asked,

“What is your most important theological question?” 

In other words, what is your ultimate concern?   I answered by saying,

“I am 42, my nephew, Hunter is one.  The most important theological question is what will Earth be like when Hunter is 42.”  

Both Hunter and I are a bit older now.    But that is still my ultimate concern.    Not only Hunter, but all my other nieces and nephews born before Hunter, Olivia and Brett, and since Hunter:   Sophie, Olivia (another one), William, David, Emaline, Luke, Taryn, Angelica, Gavin, and Cooper.   What will Earth be like, what will their home be like, when they are my age?

My most important theological question is becoming even more pressing as more and more humans are looking for a home in which to play, eat, and live.   Beyond my kin, seven billion of us are here on Earth.   When my father was born in 1918, Earth’s human population was 1.8 billion.    3.5 billion when I was ten.   Seven billion today. 

We are hitting our limits regarding energy and the effect of this energy use on our home’s ecosystems.   We are in for some changes.   There are many things we cannot change.   We can’t even know what we can and cannot change.  Faced with this, it is good to start each day with the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference

Our future is a future of energy and economic contraction.   That does not mean that our humanity, our meaning, our relationships, our dignity, and our happiness needs to contract.   In fact, the opposite is possible.  We can become more human with less stuff.   We can become happier without all of this consuming.   Yet we cannot be in denial about what we are facing.   We live in a time of denial.   We need to be the voice, the parable, the irritant, that wakes people up. 

Another theologian, Sallie McFague, has just published an important book in which she talks about three saints, John Woolman, Dorothy Day, and Simone Weil, whose lives were parables.    Sallie McFague’s book is entitled, Blessed Are the Consumers:  Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint.    She invites us to look to these saints as a possible way of moving beyond our cynicism and inertia.   Maybe we can catch some of their spirit.

We need to look to the saints like John Woolman, the 18th century Quaker who travelled on foot, refusing to ride horses because of the way those who kept the horses were treated.  He wore white because colored dye was the product of slave labor.   His life itself was a parable.  He sought to do everything he could to live his values.   His love for God meant for him to care concretely for all of Earth’s creatures.   

Simone Weil limited her diet to that of which those who were occupied by the Nazis ate.   She was strange, eccentric, and perhaps holy.   She saw her life and her body to be used for the needy.  

Dorothy Day gave up a middle-class life to live in the streets of New York among the homeless and the most destitute.  Her motto is that there is always room for one more at the table.  The rest of us will just eat less.

Kenosis is the theological word.  Self-emptying.  Pulling back so others can live.   That is the practice for the industrialized world.   That is so hard to do. Because it is hard we tend to ignore it or to chase after supernatural or otherworldly speculations, or simply zone out.   It is too important to give up.

Issues of war and peace, equality, ecology and economic justice are issues that we dare not hand over to the corporate lobbyists and to the politicians who are controlled by them.   We need to use our voices and act.   We need a spirituality for the task at hand.  We need a religion that is Earth-based and human-focused as opposed to other-worldly based and corporation-focused.

It is time for radical communities to emerge.  These are communities that are beyond creed, beyond belief, and beyond outdated notions of God.  We need artists and prophets, community organizers and philosophers, musicians and poets, healers and counselors, gardeners and engineers.  We are going to be facing the most difficult challenges humanity has ever faced and we need to be up for it. 

We need to treat this challenge as an adventure.  We need to find our inner superhero.   We need to find and celebrate the Sacred in the moment and the Sacred in the movement for sustainability, equality, and joy.  Old-fashioned values such as compassion and sharing, courage and self-sacrifice will be paramount.

The language of the scripture texts for today, speak of this by saying that we are a new creation.   The new heavens and a new Earth are not new planets to which we can escape.   It is heaven on Earth.  The new is us and how we live on it.

The via transformativa is being transformed personally as we become aware and then act, even if carefully, in regards to the task at hand.    We are in the process of relating in a totally new way to Earth.  We will no longer treat it as resource to use up and abandon.    We will no longer seek economic growth for the few at the expense of the many as a good.  We will no longer take what we cannot renew.   We will no longer pollute what we cannot refresh.   We will not throw anything “away” because there is no “away.” 

“Those former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” says the prophet, Isaiah.      

This new creation is a new way of responding to life.    We will be transformed and our children and grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews will live in this transformed Earth.   It is the same planet, but we will live on it with renewed respect. 

The via transformativa is a spiritual path.  It is something certainly more important than us.  It is something worth giving our lives to.   

On this Earth Day, may we renew our commitment to Earth and all Earthlings by living into this New Creation now.