Sunday, December 21, 2014

Dreaming in the Dark (12/21/14)

Dreaming in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 21, 2014
Matthew 1:18-2:23

Last week we reflected on Mary, the mother of God.   We played with the symbolism and toyed with the idea that the via negativa is to let be, to be open to the new and the unfamiliar as Mary did when told she would give birth to Jesus.  Her response was “Let it be with me according to your word.”   She is an example of trust amidst fear.   We, too, can give birth to the Holy, to trust and let be.

This week the focus is on Joseph.  Matthew’s gospel gives him a central role.  His character echoes another Joseph in the Genesis story.   Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus is a midrash or a retelling of the birth of Moses.    In both stories Joseph represents divine providence.   According to the legends both Josephs are guided by the supernatural through dreams.   The gospel writer wants the reader to know that God has orchestrated all of these events.

Dreams are pretty weird.  Crazy disconnected stories and images.  Sometimes scary.  Sometimes funny.   I often have vivid dreams.   In college one of my literature professors had us keep a dream journal.  It was a great excuse to take naps.  I was doing homework.    He wanted to teach us about symbols and archetypes. 

Dreams are strange.  They come to us when we sleep in the dark.   It is easy to imagine that pre-modern people would view dreams as communications from supernatural agents.    It is only in the modern era that we really have been able to break away and free ourselves from the conviction that supernatural agents control things including our dreams.  

Biblical authors would of course regard dreams as divine encounters.   Joseph is a hero because Joseph pays attention to his dreams and the divine guidance therein.   Not only Joseph, but the Magi also are visited in their dreams.   They pay attention and obey.  Important note:  Herod does not dream.  In the Genesis story, Pharaoh does dream but he doesn’t know what his dreams mean until the chosen one, Joseph interprets them for him.   So the bottom line is that dreaming is the literary device Matthew uses to communicate to the reader that God is in charge of this miraculous birth.   Joseph’s role is to be a vessel for the dream and obey it.  In a similar way Mary was a vessel.

The modern world does not regard dreams as divine communications.  They are the product of our brains firing away as we sleep.  We, that is our brains, are making up these stories.   They are our stories even as we are not conscious that we are creating them.   If we pay attention to our dreams we can learn some things.  For example, the naked dream in public may tell us that we have been feeling anxious or embarrassed and we might explore what that is about.   A wish fulfillment dream might invite reflection on grief or what we feel is missing.  In other words reflecting on dreams can be therapeutic.     Dreams can be little windows into that vast darkness of our non-rational mind. 

The motivations that drive us and the feelings we experience come at us.   We think we make rational and logical decisions, but really our reasoned consciousness is like a lawyer, rationalizing what our unconscious mind has already decided.   The dirty little secret is that we rarely make rational decisions.   Our motivations come from a big black bubbling cauldron of emotion.  That is what decides for us. 

When someone asks you why you did something, you can provide some logical rationale depending on how skilled your internal lawyer is.  But if you really want to be honest, you can say, “I don’t know.  I am in the dark as much as you.”   

And that honesty can be the beginning of some awareness.   We call that therapy.  Therapy is not for the faint-hearted.  It can be like digging up the muck and sludge that you spend all your waking hours trying to stuff in the closet.   Blobs of it spill out on the carpet during dreams.   That said, therapy can also be like hunting for treasure, especially when you realize that you are not as bad as you have been telling yourself.   In truth, you just might find that you are a courageous, compassionate, and creative person.    You are a beautiful, kind human being who needs and deserves love. 

The biblical story is that Joseph pays attention to his dreams and thus leads his family to safety.   Joseph reminds me to pay attention.   Not to judge or explain away or rationalize, but to accept.  Logic and rationality are secondary.  Primary is the stuff underneath, out of sight, in the dark, glimpsed in dreams.     Joseph reminds me to pay attention, not just to dreams, but to those aspects of life that are hidden.   

If you haven’t guessed, my sermon is attempting to make a case for therapy.   If I can be directive for a minute, I invite you to find someone you can talk to about the important stuff, the hidden in the dark stuff.  The dreamy stuff.   You don’t share this stuff with everyone or with anyone except someone you can trust to protect your interests.   We all need someone to help us pay attention to the things that happen in the dreamy dark.  

You might think it odd to make my last sermon about that.   It isn’t though.   I think the church’s future will be in helping people navigate life’s paths to be therapeutic.   We do that together. This congregation is a place where that happens.   This congregation has been that for me and for Bev.

The moving truck took all of our things Friday.    The last things to be loaded were the boxes of books in my office.  After everything was on the truck, the driver gave me pages to sign.   It was a complete list of everything.    Anything that wasn’t boxed including all the furniture was listed in detail with little codes that indicated blemishes.   After each piece there were series of letters and numbers that indicated the condition of our things.  Scratched on the left front.  Dented in the rear, stained on the top, torn on the side and so forth. 

I realized that all our furniture was wounded.  We are transporting our cracks and chips.   We are taking our wounds with us.   Those wounds on our possessions were not something of which to be ashamed.   The wounds were signs that our furniture and our home had served us and had been used.    I decided to read the damage codes as medals of honor.

Of course, I am not really talking about furniture.   The wounds and scars and cracks that appear on us and in us are signs that life happened.  That love happened.   They are marks of our survival and of our resilience.   I am not speaking just about my family, but all of us.   Our wounds are our medals.    They are signs of healing.

First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton is a healing place.    I don’t say that lightly and I don’t say that about every church by any means.   This is a place of healing, I think, because you allow space to explore the dark paths and the dreams beneath the surface.  

Singer-songwriter, Carrie Newcomer writes about this in her book of poems, A Permeable Life:

“A Permeable Life is about what presses out from the heart, what comes in at a slant and what shimmers below the surface of things,” Newcomer says. “To live permeably is to be open-hearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”
I thank you, my friends at FPC Elizabethton, for making the space for open-hearted and audacious living, for being a place of healing for the wounded, and for reminding our wounds are signs of power and strength. 


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Vessel in the Dark (12/14/14)

A Vessel in the Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 14, 2014

Qur’an 19:15-21
“And mention in the Book Mary, when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place.   She set up a screen to veil her from them.  And We sent her Our Spirit, which appeared before her as an immaculate human. 
She said:
“I take refuge in the All-Merciful from you, if you fear God.”
He said:
“I am but a messenger from your Lord, to bestow upon you a son most pure.”
She said:
“How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me, nor am I an adulteress?”
He said:
“Thus did your Lord speak:  ‘It is a matter easy for Me.  We shall make him a wonder to mankind and a mercy from Us—a decree ordained.’”

                                                            Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

On this third Sunday of Advent our attention turns to Jesus’s mother, Mary.  She is called Theotokos, bearer of God or Mother of God.   The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Mary to be Theotokos, birth-giver of God, because her son, Jesus, was both God and human. 

My seminary professor , Karlfried Froelich, didn’t like that term, Theotokos, Mother of God. He thought the title was a bit over the top.   Mother of God?    Mary was the mother of Jesus or the mother of the Christ.  But who could mother God?  If he had a vote in that early council he told us he would have voted for Christotokos, Mother of Christ. 

But he didn’t get a vote and the mother of God team won.   Like it or not, Mary is mother of God.  So it is written.  So it shall be done.  Live with it. 

I kind of like, theotokos, birth-giver of God, bearer of God, mother of God.   Granted, I will concede the theological arguments.  Once you start debating the nature of God, my eyes glaze over.   I think talk about God is really human beings talking about themselves.     

If it is true that God-talk is really Human-talk, then when these members of the council were calling Mary mother of God in 431, what were they saying?  Sure they were talking about the debates over Jesus and how he could be both God and human and whatever.   And patriarchy limited them to think that women played no role in the formation of the child biologically.  Women were not believed to contribute to the child’s identity.    In Mary’s case, she was a vessel or a vase to hold Divine Spirit.  She was an oven to warm the bun but she did not contribute to the makeup of the bun.   To use another metaphor, she was mother earth for the divine seed.    Because Mary was a virgin, Jesus was thus untainted by human “sin”.   All that said, still…

…I like to think that those who saw Mary as mother of God were trying to elevate the human.   They were trying to find a way to relate to God.  Perhaps inadvertently, but perhaps poetically, they were suggesting that human beings can give birth to the holy, to God.   Mary and you and I can be vessels for all that is holy, beautiful and life-giving.   If Mary could, then perhaps you and I could be theotokos as well.

I think they saw in Mary’s story a spiritual posture that inspired them and touched their hearts.   Mary is God-bearer because she is able to trust God or Life or the Universe or her Deeper Intuition or whatever word is meaningful for you.    She is able to allow something new to work within her even though it is frightening and unknown.    

She doesn’t allow her fear or her doubts about herself or her circumstance keep her from saying these famous words:

Let it be with me according to your word.

This is the treasure that we find on the via negativa.  We discover a resilience and a courage we didn’t know we had.   This doesn’t come because of some sort of special virtue or superhuman power.  We may not feel super at all, in fact, anything but.    It comes because we have been hollowed. 

Another image comes from Hinduism.  Krishna is depicted as blue and playing a flute.  Why does he play a flute?   One explanation is this by Dhananjaya Bhat: 

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

These spiritual traditions, from Hinduism to Christianity, recognize the human need to be a vessel.   There are times when we are creative actors.  The light is bright and we name things and we do things and we accomplish things.  As we say on the farm, we make hay while the sun shines.  That is the via positiva, and I am glad for it.  

But there is also the path of the night that winds its way through the dark places of our inner space.  I find this path to be at least as valuable.   It is perhaps more valuable than the via positiva just because we have tended to push it away.   Theologian Matthew Fox complains that the West does not have a healthy via negativa.   Letting go and letting be lacks commercial appeal.  We tend to ignore those dark spaces in our lives or rush through them because we equate the light with good and with God and we want to get there fast.   

But God is also found in the dark.   God is found in the letting go and in the letting be of our egos, our accomplishments, and our vitality.   Our bodies age, our minds become less quick, our losses accumulate.  But this is what is.   This is real.   The spiritual path of recognizing and accepting this has its rewards. 

Carrie Newcomer, the singer-songwriter and poet, spoke with me on Religion For Life about her dog.  Her dog taught her to accept limits without pining for what was.  The dog gets older and cannot run as much, so she walks and sniffs and experiences life as she can without the angst of what she is not experiencing.   

In life, the dark is present as much as the light and it is good to learn to walk in it.  

While the text doesn’t say it, I have often had in my mind’s eye that it is night when Gabriel appears to Mary.    In art, The Annunciation is sometimes portrayed as happening in the light of day and at other times at night.   I tend to like the night versions.  

Mary, according to the legends of the Bible, is acquainted with the night.   She gives birth at night in a stable or a cave.  She flees to Egypt by night with husband and child.  She is at the foot of the cross when her son dies and according to legend, Earth is shrouded in darkness. 

The physical darkness in these stories is a way of communicating her path.   She embodies the via negativa.  She is a survivor.   Her survival begins by being able to be a vessel, to be open to what is possible, to say, “Let it be with me” even though that letting be will lead to both incredible joy and incredible sorrow. 

She has been an inspiration, confidante, advocate and strength for those whose sorrow is deep and for those who suffer.    Growing up Protestant, I never appreciated Mary as much as my Catholic friends.  I went to Catholic high school and was introduced to Mary, a divine figure who is feminine, the mother of God.   I learned this prayer:

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Mary is also an inspiration for those who struggle against injustice.   Her song, called by the Latin, the Magnificat is a radical song.  Theologian, Robert McAffee Brown, calls Mary’s song “a call to revolutionary action.”   She mixes music, politics, and prayer:

“God has shown strength with God’s arm,
has scatted the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich has sent empty away.”

As we think of Mary as a vessel, we should not think of Mary as demure or weak or uninterested in political things.   Mary is a rabble-rouser.  Her strength comes through the via negativa.  She is the inspiration today for liberationist movements in Latin America and throughout the world.

Her song, called the Magnificat, that begins in Luke 1:46 when she is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, is a song designed to start a revolution.    It is about the powers of this world, political, military, economic, being overthrown and replaced by the people.   What is being born in Mary is a new creation.  It is a vision or re-ordering of life according to justice and peace for the poor and the hungry.    No matter the obstacle, no matter the circumstance, no matter the fear and the angst, no matter the uncertainty, no matter the opposition,  Mary says, “Let it be with me.” 

We honor Mary today.  We honor Mary, the figure in the tradition, but more importantly, we honor Mary within and among.   Mary, theotokos, the one who gives birth to God.   

I am pleased to have been able to serve for these past nine years a Mary church.   I don’t know if I could give a higher compliment than that.    It is not that you need a compliment.  You know who you are, who you have been, and with whatever new adventures await, you will say,

Let it be with me according to your word.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

God In Light and Dark (12/7/14)

God in Light and Dark
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

December 7, 2014

Psalm 139:1-12
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

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

The Jesus Seminar is now talking about God.   It hadn’t in a formal way previously.  The Seminar focused on questions surrounding the historical Jesus, Paul and the early Jesus movements.    God is a topic that historians leave to the theologians.   I remember my frustration in seminary when I sensed that the departments of theology, biblical studies, and history seemed to keep to themselves.   “That is a question for the theologians,” the history people would say.  Theologians didn’t want their lofty thoughts limited by questions of history.  They were wary about treading on each other’s questions and wary of the others treading on their territory.   I felt the need to integrate all of it. 

The questions the Jesus Seminar raised about the historical Jesus inevitably led to questions of faith and to questions about God.   Many are now realizing that it is time to talk about God and what that word has come to mean.    Now the Jesus Seminar has begun the God Seminar.    One of the leaders of this seminar is David Galston who spoke to me a couple of years ago on the radio program about post-atheism.   Here is a promotion for a Jesus Seminar on the Road coming up next February in Florida.  David is one of the presenters:

Over the course of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, the term God effectively stopped working as an explanation for the origins of things, the history of languages and the nature of the cosmos. By the twentieth century, it became clear that the concept of God no longer made sense, that God is (so to speak) dead. Presenters David Galston and Jack Kelly will ask if there is any value to religion after the death of God. Or whether it is possible that religion without God might compose the best option for the future.

I think this is a very interesting discussion, so interesting that I bring it up in controversial places such as sermons, blogs, facebook posts and radio programs.   The pushback I have received for doing this comes in this form:

How can you be a minister and say that?  You cannot be a minister and say these things or have these views.

This pushback usually comes from fellow ministers.   We should parse what is being said here. 

You as a minister, even though your field is God and you are in the God business, because you are a minister, the most interesting questions about God are off-limits to you.   By virtue of the ministry and your ordination vows and whatever other authority we can throw at you, you have limited yourself to a certain acceptable way of speaking about God.  Laypeople can ask these questions but ministers need to stay on message.

Obviously, by the way I have paraphrased the pushback, I think that ministers not only could but should get “off message” and talk about all questions regarding God.   The taboo questions are those that may be the most fruitful.   

Please do hear this:  This congregation has been an awesome place to have this conversation.   With minor exceptions that are to be expected, this congregation has welcomed and encouraged taboo questions.   You have supported me from all the heat from the outside.   One of my colleague friends marveled that after nine years of the Layman and hostile bloggers and whatever else that Holston Presbytery still failed to bring me up on charges.    The reason for that is because I was confident.  My confidence came from a supportive congregation.    You have encouraged me to speak what I think is true. You protect the freedom of the pulpit.   As long as you continue to do that, you will have people lining up to be the next minister.     My prayer to the Lord is that for the sake of the children, you always will give heresy a chance.

People ask why I am leaving.  It has nothing to do with any of that.  I have been here longer than I have been anywhere.  You have heard all my heresies.  It is time to hear some new ones as you create your own.    I have reached a time in my life and in my career that I needed to make a decision about next steps.   I am a long way from retirement.   I feel the call to spread my heresies to the West Coast.   Nothing is right or wrong or bad or good. No coulda no shoulda.  It is just time.

All that said, still I grieve.  I know you do, too.   Leaving is a grief on top of grief.  Both Bev and I have fallen in love here.   We grieve leaving our daughters, you, all the wonderful people we have met in our various circles, the beauty of the soft round mountains, the weather, Americana music,  Appalachian culture, Zach’s tree at Holston Camp.    Our hearts will be here. 

I am glad for that.  I am glad that leaving is grieving and not celebrating.    Grief measures the depth of love.   Still it is painful.   I know it is painful for you, too.  No matter what explanations, platitudes, and promises are offered, it hurts when a friend moves away.   Nothing to do or say in these times but to sit with it in hallowed silence.   As Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. 

After Zach died, I wondered if I would become more orthodox in my beliefs.  I wondered if my doubts about traditional concepts of God were because I hadn’t suffered enough and if grief now would drive me back to the faith of my childhood.    I have no idea what is to come.  I feel I have just started on this path that meanders through this strange but holy darkness.    I can say that this grief did not take me back but it has pushed me ahead.   Even saying that I have to admit there is a coming back as well.  As Matthew Fox says, it is a spiral not a circle.   

The Psalmist in Psalm 139 does not want God.   This psalm does not begin with a celebration of God’s presence.    The psalmist feels oppressed by God:

“You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand on me.”

That is not a comforting hand, but a hand of power.    He is trapped.  Hemmed in.   He wants to run away.   For him, God is too much.   He can’t even speak without God finishing his sentences.   His thoughts aren’t his own as God knows them before he thinks them.  He wants to run away.

“Where can I go from your spirit?”

There is no where to go.    To the stars, to the pit.   God’s there.  Beyond the sea.  God.  Even in darkness, surely one can find rest.  But no, God’s is there making darkness light.    

There are times in life when God is simply not welcome.   Particularly unwelcome are others’ platitudes about God.   You just don’t want it.   Yet you can’t get away from it.  You do what you can to create space for yourself.   There is nothing wrong with that.  It is not a state of sin or lack of faith or whatever.    It is the night.  It is futile.  You can’t get away anymore than you can get away from gravity. 

I only included half the psalm.  I want to read the rest of it.  It continues:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
   My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
   all the days that were formed for me,
   when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
   How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
   I come to the end—I am still with you.

In this psalm the psalmist moves from resignation to praise.   But we shouldn’t think this is a sinner coming home who strayed for a time from orthodoxy and the bosom of Mother Church but has now returned with downcast eyes covered with sackcloth and ashes.    

No, I think the psalmist has gone through a journey no one understands except those who have travelled it.   It is a recognition that Life Is no matter what.     The psalmist goes through a transformation in regards to Life.   I choose to use the word Life as opposed to God here as it reflects my transformation.    Life is not just oppressive and confining but possible.    

I come to the end—I am still with you.

How do you read that?   Is that oppression or embrace?  Is it a hint of both?  Life is confining.  Life has its tragic limits.  Still I am here.   Still I have within me the possibility of marvel and delight.    Life is beautifully terrible and terrible in its beauty.     I find that when I read this psalm, it is at first reading oppressive, then as I read it again what was oppressive is actually an experience of grace. 

The final section of the psalm contains the part we tend to skip because it is so politically incorrect:

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
   and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
those who speak of you maliciously,
   and lift themselves up against you for evil!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
   And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
   I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
   test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
   and lead me in the way everlasting.

You have to admire the honesty.  I know some wicked who need a divine smiting.   Let’s have a prayer and name the wicked.   Come on, it will be cathartic.   If you are too bashful, just name the wicked in your hearts and pray for a strategic bolt of lightning.      The passion is palpable:

I hate them with a perfect hatred.


Once you go there you then have a moment to pause…

Oh wait a second.  Before we smite the wicked, Lord, you and me, I better take a quick check in the mirror.   See if there might be some wicked in between my teeth.   The psalmist is willing to take the test.  

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting.

That is the transformative path.   The psalm begins with Life as oppressive and moves toward Life as transformative, even the wicked without and within are led “the way everlasting.”  

The reason Psalm 139 is enduring and endearing is because it is so human.    It asks the hard questions and expresses the uncomfortable emotions and allows the space for that.    

I thank you for allowing me that space.  I hope you have experienced that space as well.    I hope that at times I have articulated some of your own journey.    Sometimes we just need a validation that our experiences are shared.

We all need space to be honest, vulnerable, and as politically incorrect as we need to be in order to follow the path we need to follow.   

In some cases, we just need to be in the dark for awhile.