Sunday, October 26, 2014

Climbing Mountains in the Dark (10/26/14)

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 26, 2014

Exodus 19:9-25
Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.’

When Moses had told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses: ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.” When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.’ So Moses went down from the mountain to the people. He consecrated the people, and they washed their clothes. And he said to the people, ‘Prepare for the third day; do not go near a woman.’

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them.’ Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, “Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.” ’ The Lord said to him, ‘Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord; otherwise he will break out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them.


“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible!”

Growing up we had a black and white television.   But we had two channels from which to choose.   Once per year, The Wizard of Oz would be broadcast.   I watched it, religiously, every year.   

When I first learned to read, I read the disclaimer that ran across the screen at the beginning of the movie.  It said something like:

“Do not adjust your television.  The first part of the film is in black and white, then it will be in color.” 

I was excited about that because I thought eventually it would be in color.  I ran to tell my mother that The Wizard of Oz will be in color.  She said,

“No, Andy, for us it will always be black and white.”

I never got the magnificent special effect of black and white in Kansas then color in Oz until I was in high school and we got a color TV.    

The horse of a different color was always the same color.  The Emerald City was just another shade of gray.  The ruby slippers, the yellow brick road and the green witch were only so in my imagination. 

Yet even in black and white, the great and terrible Oz was impressive. The smoke and the big head and the deep loud thundering voice was good and scary.  The flying monkeys were nightmare fodder.   Who knows, it might have been for the best that we only had black and white television.  Color might have been too much for me.  

L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, and the screenwriters for the film were trying to create mysterium tremendum.  They drew inspiration from the classic of western literature, the account of Moses climbing the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from the Great and Terrible, Yahweh.   A name so great and terrible that you have to call him, “the Lord” instead. 

Another film we watched every year was The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston.  It wasn’t anywhere as cool as The Wizard of Oz, but it was second best.   We can’t even read this text without Charlton Heston in our heads.   And Yul Brynner.

“So it is written.  So shall it be done.”

The narrative goes to great lengths to say that God is so great and terrible, so bright and colorful, that he has to be hidden in a cloud, his color has to be shrouded in black and white, his light hidden in the dark, otherwise people will die. 

This is the ancient way of speaking of the holy and the sacred.  You have to wash your clothes.  You can’t go near a woman.   From a patriarchal point of view, women are the mysterium tremendum.   Sex is messy and icky and certainly not holy.   That is why the western religions are so weird and ignorant about sex but that is a whole other sermon.

You can’t touch the edge of the mountain.  You can’t even touch the people or animals who touch the edge of the mountain.   You have to shoot them with arrows or throw rocks at them until they are dead.   It is as though God is a fatal disease like Ebola.   

Isn’t it strange to watch the politicians grandstanding about Ebola?  How many people died yesterday in this country from gun violence?   If you care about Ebola, let’s do something for the people actually dying from this disease in the countries of West Africa.   Fear is what this is all about.   You can force people to do stuff when you can manipulate fear.  

Religion when it has misbehaved, has controlled people by fear and by creating and repeating stories in which the Great and Terrible God will punish aberrant behavior or thought.   Think of all the religious practices this story has inspired.  Only certain holy people can approach God and only in certain times and in certain conditions.   

Half the population is automatically unclean or unholy, namely, women.     Only in that religious setting can anything like the barbarism of Tennessee’s Amendment One get a hearing.   You have to really despise women to think this is a good idea.   Or you have to be religious and take these kinds of biblical texts at face value.   These attitudes come from centuries or millennia of patriarchy.   

We have to deconstruct these attitudes.  Where do we get them?  The special class of holy people.  The exclusion of others.  The irrational fear of the unknown.   We get these ideas from the Bible when read it at face value. 

Then, of course, the whole point of this story is the “revelation” of The Ten Commandments.   What directly follows this tale is God with his thunderous voice from the smoke-covered mountain giving the people the rules.    These rules are rules not because they are good ideas, not because they have been debated and voted upon and thus approved by the people, but because they come from the Great and Terrible Yahweh.

To be sure, this story is a fiction.  It is likely that not only these ten commandments but all the 600 or so others did arise out of the experience of people over the centuries trying to figure out how to get along.   Nevertheless, they are put in the form of a narrative in which they come from God, who is outside, holy, and beyond,  and thus cannot be questioned.     

There is a genius at work here.  Much like the humbug behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz, there were those who benefitted from creating the story of the Ten Commandments in this way and who continue to benefit from telling it.    Those who support conservative, authoritarian religion are the wealthy.   Fox News is both politically and religiously conservative.   Conservative politics and conservative religion are two peas in a pod.  

The first point I am making is the same point I have been making for the past nine years.  Read sacred texts critically.  God did not write the Bible. God is a character in the Bible.   Ask and try to answer who wrote these stories and why?  Ask, why is God portrayed in this way?  Who benefits from that portrayal?

My second point is to suggest that this text does in its ancient way invite us to consider the mysterium tremendum, the holy mystery.   Once critical thinking has knocked down our idols, the mystery is even more amazing.   The mystery is more amazing than all the idols we erect to protect us from the mystery.   One of those idols is the concept of God.   Meister Eckhart:

God is a being beyond being
and a nothingness beyond being.
God is nothing.  No thing.
God is nothingness.
And yet God is something.

Here are some random thoughts I have gathered over the years.

Other people’s ideas about God are great. 
Explore those ideas. 
Learn from them.
Then trash them. 

I love these lines from Robinson Jeffers’ poem, Quia Absurdam:

Guard yourself from the terrible empty light of space, the bottomless pool of the stars.  (Expose yourself to it:  you might learn something.)

That is the via negativa, the way of learning to walk in the dark.   Follow where it leads.   This spiritual, sacred path is the path of exposing yourself not guarding yourself.   It is the path of vulnerability. 

Another metaphor.  Climb the mountain and confront the holy.  
Don’t just read about Moses.   Be Moses.  

Look over the edge. 
Gaze into the void. 
Allow your face to reflect the dazzling light that is shrouded in darkness. 
Doubt everything. 
Read the heretics. 
Swim with the apostates. 
Dance with the atheists. 

They will chide you, mock you and make you think.  They will teach you some new steps.  Then if you still want to set out on a journey toward God, and I hope you will, you will have an adventure for the adventure’s sake. 

Life is change.
Don’t try to make permanent what is impermanent. 
It’s no fun.  And a losing cause.

Take nothing for granted, otherwise life will take it from you.

When I was kid and not watching our black and white television, I memorized Bible verses.   I was a good little church boy.   Of course the joke was that everyone memorized John 11:35.   We memorized that one because it was the shortest verse in the Bible:

Jesus wept.

Had I known about the Gospel of Thomas, in that same spirit of memorizing short verses I would have remembered Thomas 42 where Jesus said:

Be passersby. 

That’s a good one.

The mysterium tremendum.  Did you know that we know hardly anything about the ocean?  We have mapped five percent of it, or something.   Oceanographers claim, and I’ll take their word for it for now, that there are mountain ranges on the ocean floor that are higher than the Himalayas.    There may be critters in the ocean we know nothing about.   I heard all that on NPR.  You should listen to NPR.  Then be critical of it.

How much do we know about our galaxy?  Or about the galaxies beyond our galaxy?  Mysterium tremendum.   Plenty to keep us busy.  Plenty to keep us questioning.  Plenty to keep us doubting, learning, changing.   Yesterday’s truth is today’s superstition.

A few years ago, my predecessors, John and Carolyn Martin, did a weekend with us on Carl Jung.   The image for the weekend was of an iceberg.  You could see a small portion above the surface of the water, and the vast majority, 90 percent of it, was below the surface, in the dark depths of the sea.   It is an image of our conscious and unconscious mind.  The unconscious is the source of our motivations.

The next time someone asks you why you did something, tell them the truth.  Say,

“I don’t know.  Ask my unconscious.  I am in the dark as much as you.”

In my office I have hundreds of books.  I am weighing and counting them preparing them for transport. I don’t know what’s in them.  They look impressive.  But even those I have read, I have forgotten.  A whole wall of mysterium tremendum.     I just carry it around with me hoping I'll learn something.

All right it is time to wrap this up. 

Dorothy kills two witches quite by accident.  She is not a violent person.  She exposes the wizard for a humbug with the aid of her dog, Toto, who pulls back the curtain.  She makes friends and finds a way to return home.

Moses finds a way to follow all those crazy instructions, organizes the unorganized, climbs the mountain in the holy dark, is confronted by thunder and prepares the people to receive the Ten Commandments.   

Dorothy exposes. Moses guards. 

That is the difference between the secular and the sacred, the modern and the pre-modern world.   Both are ways of responding to the mysterium tremendum.  

Guard yourself from the terrible empty light of space, the bottomless pool of the stars.  (Expose yourself to it:  you might learn something.)


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Walking On Water in the Dark (10/19/14)

Walking on Water in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 19, 2014

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
I was one of the lucky ones at least where natural darkness was concerned.  My parents did not protect me from my fear of it, but walked me into it on a regular basis, letting go of my hand for longer and longer periods of time until I grew a little bud of courage.  Then they practiced letting me go alone, one of them calling out, “Have fun!” while the other called, “Be careful!”  With those two good pieces of advice they helped frame a personal history of darkness that allowed me to go places I might otherwise not have gone.
--Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p. 38.
A couple of years ago, historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan wrote a book about parables.   It is called The Power of Parable:  How Fiction  By Jesus Became Fiction About Jesus  We know Jesus told parables and if asked on the spot any of us could name several and could provide a telling of a few of them.   
One of the more famous of Jesus’ parables is The Prodigal Son.  We all know that story.  The younger son leaves home with his share of the inheritance.  Goes broke.  Comes home.  Is welcomed by the Father, not so much by his older brother.  Father throws a party.  Brother refuses to enter.  Father pleads with older brother to see the larger picture.    
There is nothing particularly implausible about the story.  There are no miracles as such.   No one rose from the dead.  No one was cured of a disease.  No one walked on water.   The story of the man and his two sons could have happened.  
Yet no one is concerned whether or not that story happened.   Even though that story might have happened, no one cares.  It is a story.  There is no belief involved.  No one is asked to believe that story.  We instead spend our time, and rightly so, discussing possible meanings of that parable.   I have seen and heard many creative interpretations and presentations of that story.   All provide a way to enter into it so that we can gain inspiration from it.   We can talk about forgiveness.  We can talk about sibling rivalry.  We talk about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons.  We can talk about social issues regarding economics and inheritance and patriarchy.   The parable invites creative engagement.  We have succeeded in being creative with this parable and with others that Jesus told.
 All too often that wonderful creativity is left hiding in the dark when it comes to parables about Jesus.     The focus question becomes whether or not people believe the story happened.    
  • Do you believe Jesus turned water into wine?
  • Do you believe Jesus was born of a virgin?
  • Do you believe Jesus healed a man born blind?
  • Do you believe Jesus fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish?
  • Do you believe Jesus walked on water?
  • Do you believe Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day? 

If you were counting I asked “Do you believe” six times, recalling the Red Queen who has this great conversation with Alice in Lewis Caroll’s, Through the Looking Glass

"I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Lewis Carroll was poking fun at the church and the odd decision the church has made over the centuries to insist that parables about Jesus are articles of belief.    The parables about Jesus are far more fanciful and incredible and unlikely than the parables that he himself told.   Yet the church has insisted that people believe these impossible things and it further insists that if we believe these things without doubting that our credulity is a virtue.  

It is no wonder that many thoughtful people, such as Alice, have said:

“There’s no use trying.  One can’t believe impossible things.”

The answer to all those “Do you believe” questions is for a growing number of us, “No.”   It is no wonder that we prefer the parables by Jesus to the parables about Jesus.    The parables by Jesus don’t have the belief problem. 
  • Do you believe that a woman put leaven in three pounds of flour?
  • Do you believe that the shepherd left the 99 sheep to find the one that was lost?
  • Do you believe the owner paid the late hour workers the same as the workers who labored all day?
  • Do you believe the Samaritan helped the man in the ditch?
  • Do you believe that a farmer sowed seed and some fell on rocky soil, some on thorny soul, some on hard ground and some on good earth?  
  • Do you believe it?  Do you have faith?

The answer to all those questions is “Huh?  Who cares?  You’re missing the point. They are stories.”    

Yet when it comes to parables about Jesus, we have flattened them.   They become yes or no stories.   We believe them or we pretend we do.   Or we try to take a deep breath and practice believing the impossible because everyone else does or so we think.  Or we have given up on the whole thing.

And to push the envelope a bit further, we do the same with God.   The question asked all too often is flat:  Do you believe in God or not?  

Some of us object to that either/or.  Are there other options?  Could we at least discuss a definition of the term, God?  Could we talk about how the concept and symbol of God has evolved over the centuries?  Could we talk about the various stories in which God is a character and what those stories tell us about ourselves?   Could we talk about life and its pain, joy, and depth?   Is there any creativity in this God-talk or is it just yes or no?    Believe or leave the club?

I think that if Christianity is going to be a part of the lives of thoughtful people we will have to allow for interpretation of its literature beyond belief.   New Zealand Presbyterian minister and theologian, Lloyd Geering, in his latest book has written that we are now theological do-it-your-selfers.    The church’s beliefs can no longer be enforced.  They are not even persuasive.    It is up to us to creatively engage our tradition. 

What about parables about Jesus?  How might they be more interesting than articles of belief?   Let’s try one.    Jesus walks on water.    It is a parable.  If you want to believe it happened, fine.  That is not the point anymore than whether or not to believe that a man actually threw a party for his wayward son.    Both are parables told to invite creativity.  

It is night.  It is dark.  The disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee in a storm.    Apparently, they have not been able to get ashore.   They are likely frightened.   They are doing what they can to keep the boat on top of the water.  They want to keep the boat from capsizing, from filling with water, from sinking.    The boat is far from land.  It is being battered by the waves.   

Are you there?  Can you picture it?   

Perhaps you have been in a similar situation.   Maybe you have been in a boat caught in a storm.    Can you recall the feelings:  fear, anxiety, panic?  What goes through your mind during times like that?   Do you think about your loved ones, those you might not see again?   

Maybe it wasn’t a boat.  Maybe this story invites you to recall another life or death situation.    You might not want to recall it.   You don’t have to do so.   You know you could go there.   You could go to a time when you were lost in a boat in a storm in the dark, either literally or figuratively.  The external situation can vary, but the internal feelings are real.    

The scariest time I know was when we received the call about our son in the summer of 2012.   We were in Pittsburgh at the Presbyterian Church General Assembly.  It was after 11 when we received the phone call that he had died.  We drove all night back home hoping that it was some kind of mistake.    Those storms never really end.   If you are lucky you find a way to stay afloat in their midst.   

You know that.  Everyone knows the feeling of being battered by the winds in the dark.   The circumstances differ but we all experience our unique storms.  While the external events are unique, the internal feelings we share in common as human beings.   Actually, it is the dark that binds us.   Perhaps that is why there is a holiness about it.   The holiness of shared experience.  The dark contains a sacredness that invites us to learn to walk in it. 

The disciples see a figure coming toward them.  Is it a hallucination?  But why do they all see it?  In the middle of the sea, on top of the water, a figure is walking toward them.   What do you do?  You resort to supernaturalism.  It is a ghost.   

The ghost speaks:  “Take heart.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”   The ghost is not a ghost, but Jesus.  The root word for heart in Latin is cor, that is also the root for the word courage.    Heart and courage are related.   To have a big heart means to be vulnerable enough to take a risk, to act in the midst of fear.    

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, writes that courage is something we can practice.    Actual darkness is a good training camp.    Learning to walk in the actual dark can teach children courage.    My father liked to keep the farm dark.  He didn’t like a lot of lights.  They kept him awake.   “It is nighttime, it is supposed to be dark,” he would say.    I learned to walk in the dark, outside and inside the house.  

I kind of like it, still.   Walking in the actual dark can give us confidence, it seems.   It can teach us to take steps, take some risks, move as we say, out of our comfort zones.  

In our story, Peter takes a big step.  He not only takes a walk in the dark, but in the midst of a storm on top of the water.   That is a lot of courage.   Before we get down on Peter and agree with Jesus that Peter has little faith, we might ask what the other disciples were doing.    They are sitting in the boat.   Peter takes the steps. 

Brene Brown, author and professor of social work, titled a recent book, “Daring Greatly.”  It is based on a speech she found by Teddy Roosevelt.   He delivered it in 1910.  It is called “Citizenship in a Republic.” 
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, Because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; Who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….

Peter takes his steps toward Jesus.  He is going well until he notices the wind.  It is like a cartoon.   Wile E. Coyote walks off a cliff into mid-air and stands there.  Only when he looks down does he fall.   When Peter notices the wind, he becomes afraid and then he sinks.    He cries out to Jesus and Jesus grabs his hand. 

“Why did you doubt?” he chides Peter.   No criticism of Peter is warranted.  He did it.  He took the steps.   That is a reason why Peter is called elsewhere in the collections of parables about Jesus, the Rock upon whom the church will be built.    This is that rock.   The willingness to be vulnerable.  The willingness to dare greatly.   On that rock is the church.

After Jesus gets in the boat the storm stops.  The disciples worship Jesus and say to him, ”You are the Son of God.”  OK.   Ho hum.  I think Peter is the model.  He is willing to try, to take the steps, to walk out and be like the Son of God rather than to sit in the boat and worship him.     That is the question.  Is the walk of faith having beliefs about Jesus, or is it about following Jesus?    Is it about believing the stories happened or is it about living them? 

Do I believe Jesus walked on water?   The answer in the most important sense to me is yes.   I have seen this congregation walk out toward Jesus on the water.    I came here nine years ago because I thought this congregation was a pretty gutsy group.    That first impression has proven right again and again.  

This congregation despite what some of the neighbors might think, despite the critics, has taken a stand on behalf of those who have been marginalized and put down by others.   At the risk of losing members, it became an oasis for the seekers, for gays and lesbians, and for those who trust that a walk in faith means taking a stand for our mountains, for healthcare, for reproductive justice, for sensible gun control, and for other important matters of social justice.    

It has been an honor to walk with you these past nine years.  I have grown very attached.  I have grown quite comfortable, actually.  Almost native.  There comes a time when a new task is at hand.   There is no particular reason that we are going.   It is just time.    You have heard what I have had to say these past nine years.   You will have the opportunity to hear a new voice.  Bev and I will have the opportunity for a new experience as well. 

In our Reformed Tradition, there is no decision that is right or wrong.   The Risen Christ is there through all walks.    In these weeks to come, with tears and with courage, we walk with Christ through all the storms.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Praying in the Dark (10/12/14)

Praying in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 12, 2014

If Jesus was truly human as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s.  He stayed awake awhile.  He slept awhile.  He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.  When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky.  When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there.  The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars—and it was all prayer.
--Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Mark 1:35
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.

I remember growing up watching I Love Lucy reruns on our black and white television.   


Lucille Ball had one of the longest Hollywood careers.   In addition to film, she created a television dynasty.  She was the first woman to be head of a production company, Desilu.   In addition to her shows, this company produced Mission Impossible and Star Trek.   Desilu pioneered filming before a live studio audience and pioneered the use of multiple cameras.   

Lucille Ball got stuff done.  She is remembered to have said:

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.  The more things you do, the more you can do.”

She may have been quoting Ben Franklin.   Ben Franklin said something like that, too.   Lucille Ball and Ben Franklin were the ultimate busy bodies.  

Another famous busy body, although I don’t think I ever called him a busy body before, is Jesus.    According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus was a busy boy.   He was a busy son of God.  

Mark’s gospel is the busiest of the four gospels.   Mark doesn’t spend time on description or dialogue.   Mark is all about action.   In Mark, one of the most common words is “immediately.”   Immediately, Jesus does this.  Immediately, Jesus does that.  Jesus is on the move, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  He passes from one town to the next, from one emergency to the next.    

In the first few verses of the opening chapter of Mark, Jesus has been baptized and  tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  Then he calls disciples, teaches in the synagogue, casts out an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law, and for an evening nightcap the text says:

“They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door.  And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons…” (1:32-33)

Our man got things done.

Finally, we read:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  (1:35)

We aren’t sure how long he is able to be alone.  The next verses read:

“And Simon and his companions hunted for him.  When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.”  (1:36-37)

Little rest for the righteous.    Everyone is looking for the busy person, because they know that Lucille Ball was right.  If you want something done, ask a busy son of God to do it.  

As I reflect on this passage, I think it is nice to be needed.  It is good to be able to do meaningful things that help others.  It must have felt good to do good.   I also notice that I am exhausted just reading it.    Jesus healed people all day and all night.   The text doesn’t tell us, but we might well assume that there are sick left unattended.   A healer’s work is never done.

Mark is careful to tell us that Jesus took time “while it was still very dark” to find a deserted place and pray.    You can define what it means to pray in your own way.  Personally, I walk my dogs.   

Some people meditate.  Others run.  Others practice yoga.  Some sit quietly with a sacred text or icon.  My mother would pray while she tended her garden.   Maybe there is a right way or a wrong way to pray.   I’ll leave that for others to judge.   We do need our “down time”--our deserted place in the dark time, however we practice it. 

I find myself exhausted by the news that comes at us 24/7 through our smart phones.   I get a case of compassion fatigue just from reading the latest reports and analysis from and about Isis, Ebola and Robin Williams.   Not only the news of the suffering of strangers fatigues me.   The suffering of those I know including my own worries is enough to send me to a deserted place in the dark for a long time.  

The wise tell us that we need to practice the dark ways in the deserted places, in part, so we don’t end up in them.   Also, we need the dark to keep our balance and to find what the dark has to offer us.   

We are spending time this Fall with a beautiful book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark.    We have formed a couple of small study groups based on this sermon series and book.    This entire experience is an invitation to embrace the dark, both physically and metaphorically.  

It is in the dark that we find an aspect of the Holy not seen in the light.    God comes to us in the dark as well as the light.    If light is the via positiva filled with action and good works, the dark is her lover, the via negativa, whose work is emptying, receiving, and solitude.

Jesus was busy.  He was also contemplative.

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.  Mark 1:35

A few weeks ago I interviewed three ministers, who are friends and colleagues, who call themselves Two Friars and a Fool.  They wrote a book together called, Never Pray Again. Lift your chin, open youreyes, unfold your hands and get to work.   I recommend this book.    It is well done.

They make an important observation that prayer can be used to delude us into thinking we are doing something by praying, when, in fact, we are doing nothing.    Rather than pray for someone, do something for someone. 

Interestingly, in the course of the conversation about not praying, we talked quite a bit about praying.   That reminded me that this is a complicated topic.    Whenever I receive a communication from a religious person or group, almost always is a request for prayer.  “Please pray for us.   Pray for our ministry.  Pray for our country.  Pray for our church.  Pray for this person or that person.”   

This book, Never Pray Again, asks the impertinent question, “Why?”    Why pray?  What good does it do?  What is the point?   If we get beyond our initial shock that such questions are blasphemy, we can have a good discussion about prayer.   

What do we think we are doing when we pray?   

First of all, I have little patience with those who want to guilt people into praying.   If you are not a pray-er, that does not make you less of a Christian or a spiritual person or a human being or anything else.   You can have an enriching and meaningful life and never pray.   

I used a poem from Mary Oliver in the bulletin about prayer.  Then there is this is from her poem, “The Summer’s Day:”

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

She pays attention and calls it prayer.   It works for me.  As I said earlier, I walk my dogs.    I don’t know her personally, but my guess is that Mary Oliver is probably doing all right in the “paying attention, contemplation, and prayer” department.

Second, for many of us prayer needs to be disconnected from magical thinking.   We have inherited a theology of prayer from a pre-modern world that is in need of revision.   

In my first church in upstate New York, I learned of Daniel Nash.   His gravestone was just north of the church.   This area of New York State was called the ‘burned over district” because of the revivals of the early 1800s.   The great revivalist of that time was Charles Finney.  He traveled around there and preached.  His partner was Daniel Nash.   Nash is buried there just north of Lowville, New York.  On his gravestone is written,

Laborer with Finney 
Mighty In Prayer

Finney preached and Nash prayed.   Nash was a prayer warrior.  He stormed the gates of heaven by offering long, passionate prayers.  These were energetic prayers that pleaded with and cajoled the Deity to get stuff done.   If you want to get stuff done, you ask a busy god to do it.   

It doesn’t take long to expose the problem with this theology.   God will heal Aunt Millie if enough people pray?   If Aunt Millie is not healed, is it because the prayer warriors were not mighty or because God decided not to do it?   I personally don’t find that notion of God credible or worthy of five minutes of my attention.    I think many people feel the same way but they don’t say so because they think they are supposed to pray.

Third, we have a need to offer gratitude, to lament, to express amazement, to voice our anguish, to show our love and compassion, to ask for what we need.    The various religious systems have provided a solution by offering us practices and theologies in which those needs are met by communicating them to a divine agent.   Many of us are realizing that a divine agent doesn’t work that way, yet we still have these very human needs.   

So we find ourselves in an interesting time of experimentation.   We seek to find ways to express these needs in community sometimes using traditional language, sometimes changing it, and at other times discovering and creating other ways.    

What do I think I’m doing when I pray?   I am speaking for myself, not what I think is what should be.   I called this sermon, “Praying in the Dark” because the dark is not a place in which one can be particularly busy.   Words that go with this are silence, listening, emptiness, so one can receive.    It is consciously taking time to be something other than busy.  

A English literature professor in my undergraduate studies at the very secular University of Washington had a spiritual way about him.   Because we were reading Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy we could engage in matters religious.  He said for him that prayer was to pause when someone comes to mind to wish them well.   

Does it do anything?   Probably not for them, but for you, yes.   Perhaps it could lead to a compassionate response to the person at some point.     Keeping people in our minds in a positive way cannot be bad.     I have to believe that the practice of kindness in thought will lead to kindness in action.

Sometimes we need poetry and music and silence and a lovely sanctuary and a community of others to remind us that there is more to this strange existence than just being busy as wonderful as busyness can be.     Sometimes we need to take time in the midst of our good works to find solitude in our deserted place, in the dark, and to pray.