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.   


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