Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love Doesn't Throw Fits (6/28/15)

Love Doesn’t Throw Fits
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
June 28, 2015

  • Why does it seem that Western culture has so much difficulty discussing, with any degree of rationality, the big three of Sex, Religion and Death.
  • It seems to me the most strident of fundamentalists are frightened of the ambiguity of nothingness represented by death. What are John's views on that subject.
  • It's fun to talk about theology but it can be divisive too, and it can degenerate into cant, or worse, doctrinaire judgment, prejudice and hatred. What guidelines would you give for discussing theology with members of our congregation? With our families? With acquaintances?
  • How do I describe to my 90+ year-old Mother your belief system?   If God doesn’t tell you what is right and what is wrong, how do you know?

Divine I am inside and out, and I make holy whatever I 
touch or am touch’d from,
The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer,
This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds….

And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it
            Is idle to try to alarm me….

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but
            That does not offend me….

Without shame the man I like knows and avows the 
deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers. 
            --Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass 

I Corinthians 13
Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, & Schmidt, The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2010), pp. 98-99.

if I were fluent in human and heavenly tongues
but lacked love
I’d sound like a hollow gong
or a crashing cymbal

if I could interpret oracles
had the key to all the sacred rites and secrets
and every insight
if I had all the confidence in the world
to move mountains
but lacked love
I’d be nothing

if I parted with all that I owned
if I offered my body to the sacrificial flames
but lacked love
t would do me no good

love takes its time
makes itself good and useful
love doesn’t envy
it doesn’t boast
it doesn’t bluster

it doesn’t make a scene
it doesn’t look after its own interests                        
it doesn’t throw fits
it doesn’t dwell on the negative
it takes no pleasure in injustice
but is delighted by the truth

love uphold everything
trusts in everything
hopes for everything
endures everything

love never falls away
though oracles will cease
tongues will fall silent
insight will fall short

we know bits and pieces
in bits and pieces we deliver oracles

but when the whole picture emerges
the bits and pieces will disappear

when I was very young
I talked like a child
though like a child
reasoned like a child
when I grew up 
I put an end to childish ways

now we look at a reflection quite obscure
then we’ll gaze face to face
now I know only bits and pieces
then I shall know as I am known

so then confidence hope love
these three endure
but the greatest of these is 

I saw a common thread in these four questions and thus grouped them together.  From different directions they seemed to ask, “How do we talk about it?”    We know it is important to talk about things but we also know that it isn’t easy.   We don’t always do it so well.    How do we talk about talking?  

I guess I would like to start with a few things.  

When we talk we won’t always do it well.

We won’t always listen well.

We will say unhelpful things at times.

But sometimes we will do it well.

We will listen.

We will say helpful things.  

Just because we don’t always feel good about what we have said and done that doesn’t mean it is impossible to feel good about it.  We do succeed.   

I just want to say that up front.    Communicating is not an impossibility.  It is hard for a number of reasons and we can succeed at it.   We can elevate the discussion, touch hearts, respect others, honor our integrity, do and say things that make for a just peace.  

It is true that we can do it.  It is true that we do do it.  

In fact, I suggest that we do it more often than we might think we do.  

The other day I was waiting for my turn coming on to Highway 26.   You get into pole position and you wait for your green light.    I was thinking how amazing  it is that people follow the rules.   There are a lot of cars that get from one place to another.  On occasion, there are accidents.  On occasion people get impatient or distracted.   But overall, the traffic flows and people make it from one place to the next.  Thousands and thousands of cars everyday.    We succeed.

Our institutions whether they be schools, governments, businesses, or churches, accomplish an incredible number of things, producing things, balancing the different needs and power relationships and various interests, every day, peacefully.    Millions, billions, trillions, I don’t know what number to use of interactions happen, every minute, peacefully.    

In the United States just as one example, power is transferred peacefully.   We don’t go to war each time a new president, a new commander in chief, takes office.    There isn’t chaos in the streets when everything breaks down.   We take it for granted that the most powerful person in the world, whoever that will be, will take office peacefully.

When I say peacefully, I don’t mean to say that there isn’t disagreement and anger and frustration and all of that, but we don’t break down into chaos and conflict to the extent that life is threatened on a mass scale.   

Think about what just happened over this past week.   Nine judges debated, deliberated, and democratically as a group made a decision.  Four of those judges dissented from the decision.   5-4, a close a vote as you can have.    This was a decision that was about sex, religion, values, social structure, and power.    All the taboos, all the potential for chaos.   The decision affected the entire country.     All states are required to provide marriage licenses regardless of the applicants’ gender. 

Yet here we are today.   Sunday morning. The lights are on.  People are still obeying traffic signals.  Food distribution continues to happen.   The buses and trains are still running on time.    

We have developed a level of complexity in our relationships that has allowed us to do incredibly complicated, difficult, and divisive things without destroying ourselves.     

I am not trying to sugarcoat things, nor am I trying to say that this level cooperation is guaranteed.   Chaos at various stages and levels can happen, does happen, and will happen.  I am saying that non-chaos is our expected norm.    Trillions and trillions of conflicts are handled peacefully every minute.     We aren’t aware of it because this happens at a level that is higher than the individual’s awareness.    

This cooperation of negotiating power interests has emerged and it has become a living thing.    I don’t know what you call it, but it is the result of the interactions of our aspirations, ideas, inventions, rule-making, and so on and so on.   

As Nancy Ellen Abrams points out in her book, A God that Could Be Real, we as individual humans relate to our complex and emerging society as an ant relates to the complexity of an anthill.    Both the anthill and our societies have emerged.   They are real things.  No individual whether ant or human is in charge or orchestrates it or understands it completely.   

I say all this as a reason for hope.         

We human beings are products of evolution, emergence, and complexity.   That seems to be the way universe moves, toward more and more complexity.    

While we might look at things as filled with conflict, anger, small-mindedness, and so forth, at the larger more complex level incredible things are happening.    The things that we have learned over the ages are not lost but are put into the mix, revised, and made into something new.  They evolve.     

What have we learned, for instance, in regards to interpersonal relationships?   More than I know.  I don’t think any individual has or could master all of the information available regarding interpersonal relationships.   We know as Paul says, only in “bits and pieces.”    This reality of the interpersonal skill-building continues to grow as each of us adds to it and then what we add is absorbed and changed.   It is available to us.

Whatever we need in order to negotiate our relationships peacefully actually exists.    In the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, the kingdom of God exists within you and outside of you.    It is bigger than us and available to us.

I think it is a legitimate position to trust that we can go into a relationship confident of a good outcome.      No guarantee and we may not always find the right formula, but it is legitimate to trust that it is possible for a relationship to become better with conversation.    

I admit, I don’t always think that way.   There are times when I let cynicism have a louder voice in my head than hope.   I have to pump myself up for it.    I have to remind myself and get tuned in to the bigger reality of wisdom and goodness that has gathered from millions of years of evolution and emergence and is available to me.    I guess I could call that tuning in “prayer.”    Sitting in traffic amazed that everyone is following the rules is a form of prayer.  

Why is it so difficult to talk about religion, sex, death, theology, and politics and what have you?   

The easy answer is that these issues are hard.    They matter to us at deep levels.  We may not even be aware of the levels of emotion these topics have in our own lives.    Shame, vulnerability, fear, and survival are often triggered by the mere mention of sex and God.    None of these topics is without power dynamics.   

Even if we wish to have a fun chat about God or morality, not everyone thinks it is fun.  Some people find these conversations, just opening up the topic, to be insulting to their structures of authority and meaning.    For some, these questions have already been decided.  God already said it in the book and in the correct interpretation of the book.  

These topics, especially related to sex and morality, have often been handed over to authorities to decide for us.   When we start to claim that power back for ourselves, there is great resistance.    
New opinions about Jesus, or historical scholarship of the Bible, or differing ideas about God, or changing rules on who can get married, can be considered to be an affront on everything of value.    These topics shouldn’t even be discussed outside of strict parameters.     You must stick with the belief system that has been established by God or you are out of the club.  

How do we talk to family, friends, acquaintances, people in our communities, people on the internet, or wherever about important things?   

I think it is good to be self-aware.  It is good to also be aware of power dynamics.   
Not everyone is a friend.   There are people who will use what you say against you.   Before going into a conversation, it is good to have a sense of what you want out of it.  

It is a legitimate position to go into a relationship confident of a good outcome.  But it is wise to be realistic about what a good outcome might look like.    If we think we are going to have a conversation with Donald Trump and convince him to vote with the Green Party, we will likely be disappointed.     

Sometimes we want to go for a home run when it is really enough just to stand there and swing the bat.    Opening the conversation can be a good outcome.   Drumming up the courage to make an “I statement” can be a good outcome.   Listening and connecting with another’s feelings without agreeing or disagreeing is a huge outcome.    

One of the tools that I have found helpful over the years is the Self-Awareness Wheel.  I introduce it to couples who are planning to get married.   You will find it on the front cover.    

It is a way to develop self-awareness around a particular issue and to communicate that awareness.    When we make I statements as opposed to you statements, when we separate out our observations from our conclusions about those observations, when we are aware and name feelings, and when we are clear about what we want and have done or are willing to do,  we actually can converse in ways that help bring down defenses.  

Mrs. Smith leaves the room and the door shuts loudly behind her.    Mr. Smith is filled with emotions and thoughts and stories.    How does he handle it?

When he sees her again, he could raise his voice and say, “There you go again!  You get all mad and leave the room and never settle anything!”   Then he might just for a twist bring up something she did wrong ten years ago.    That is one way to have a conversation. 

Another option might be this.    Rather than make conclusions about what he saw and heard, allow his emotions to shape his responses, and make “you statements,” he could say something like this:

I saw the door shut behind you.  
I thought you were angry and didn’t want to speak with me.
I am feeling frustrated.
I would like you to talk to me about what is bothering you.
I am willing to sit down with you now or later today.

Making I statements are vulnerable and they are non-threatening.  They allow for vulnerability in return.  We don’t have to defend a position.    The key in any discussion that is going anywhere is doing whatever we can to avoid putting people on the defensive.     Whenever we can open up a space for others to speak from their heart, we will have a good outcome.  

This is pretty basic.    I have found that practicing the wheel as I call it, can be really effective.  It is when I don’t do it, when I revert back to fight or flight, that is when discussion is less productive.     

When it comes to matters of religion, or taboo topics, again there is nothing better than “I statements” and telling stories of how we have come to where we are now.    

As we tell we need to listen.   

I have found that the wheel is helpful when I use it even with those who don’t.   Many times using I statements can bring down the anxiety and level of intensity and can move us to a place where we can engage more productively.  

There are times when I don’t need to talk to some people.  When their language is abusive or when I have good reason not to trust their intentions, I don’t need to engage them.      

Much of the time I find that “the wheel” results in good outcomes, if for no other reason than simply allowing me to become more self-aware.  

I am going to close with a quote from Quaker author, Douglas Steere.  

“To “listen” another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.”


Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Lived, Lamenting Faith (6/21/15)

A Lived, Lamenting Faith
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

  1. How did the death of your son impact your faith? Did the impact include changes or affirmations? Honestly, does such an event impact everything in your life? 
  2. Not believing in a supernatural God, or heaven, how do you comfort people who are dying? 
  3. You don’t believe in “afterlife” but would you tell a grieving person that their loved one is just “dead and done” – what would you say to them? In reading what you believe, this no-afterlife is the one I struggle with most. I agree with no heaven/hell places or no God person but I want to still believe that my loved ones are somewhere peaceful and happy and loved, or that their spirit is with me. I sense or believe in something, a creator that unites us all; science has an important role but did not give me love. Reading you has gotten me to focus on what I believe – good news – so I will ponder ‘afterlife’ some more. On a lighter note, does belief in no afterlife mean no ghosts or spirits so would you walk through a graveyard at night?

Jeremiah 31:15
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.
--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son

The person of faith is not known by which philosophical outlook she affirms, but rather by her commitment to life.  She can take any stand or no stand concerning the meaning or absurdity of the universe, for faith does not operate at that level.  The lived certainty of faith has nothing to do with belief or nonbelief in gods, natural law, or karmic returns.  It has no regard for metaphysical systems or carefully constructed worldviews.  It instead describes a lived protest against forms of life that treat existence as worthless.
--Peter Rollins, The Divine Magician

It was three years ago Father’s Day that we last saw Zach.   The four of us spent the day.  We went to the movies at the three dollar theater, the Real to Reel in Johnson City, and watched the classic film “the Dictator” by the Cohen Brothers.   You don’t need to look it up.  It is the kind of film that my son and I would watch, but don’t report that to the presbytery.  

We were happy. Both our children lived nearby.   We had a nice home.  Our careers were going well.   I had just started my radio show, a hobby of sorts, but fun and important to me.   I was looking forward to being a commissioner at the General Assembly in Pittsburgh.    That morning I started a summer sermon series on happiness and said in the sermon that I was about as happy in my life now as I had ever been.    

Things were going so well that I almost forgot about the dark cloud on the edge of the sky that had been churning for the previous five years.    We had been on watch with Zach.    He had made a suicide attempt in his second year of college and had lived with us for most of the time since then.   

We couldn’t figure out that magic formula that would remove whatever pain he felt within him.  He courageously fought it every day.   Zach was an incredible human being.  He was good-looking, funny, smart, and kind.  Everyone liked him.    We loved him.

On June 28th Beverly and I drove the six-hour drive through West Virginia to General Assembly in Pittsburgh.    While here, that first night, late, we received the call that he was gone.  We drove back all night in tears and disbelief. 

That is the short version and all I need to say publicly.  It is important for me that the universe knows that Zach’s life was a beautiful gift to us.  We are grateful for him.  That makes his absence more painful.   

It has been three years.  I still don’t know if I am grieving correctly.  Not sure if I am supposed to be grieving at all, or what stage of grief I am in, and I certainly don’t want any advice about it.    I never know how public I am supposed to be about these things and again I am not interested in any opinions about it.   

I am a husband and a father.  A father to Zach and to a beautiful, funny, smart, kind, daughter.  I am a father in a more than biological way to others as well.    In addition, I am also a minister.  Being a minister is not just a job or a career to me.  It is that.  It is my job.  It is my career.  But it is a profession through which I live out my passion.   

The fancy religious word is calling.    While that word has its origins in supernaturalism as a “call from God” nonetheless, I do consider what I do a vocation.    That is a privilege.   I recognize that and am grateful for that.    My calling or vocation is that I seek to articulate experience and ask questions of meaning.     I protect that part of my work because as a pastor in a church institution there is great pressure to spend all my time on trivialities.     I consider my calling to be to assist people as they work out their own meaning.     I do this through sermons, teaching, writing, radio, sharing a cup of coffee, and so forth.    

I provide that background as an introduction to this series of sermons on questions brought to me by you, members of the congregation.     I am starting with hard personal questions that I had solicited in order to prime the pump for this series.     

One of those questions that was asked is this:  “How has my faith and perhaps my calling as a minister been affected by the death of my son?”  I invited people to ask that question and someone did ask it.      

That is a hard question because I really don’t know.  I suppose people who knew me before and after could observe changes in me.   But I don’t know what they see.    I know that I have lost a lot of quickness.  My memory isn’t as good as it was, especially with names.    It has been a challenge to get to know you and your names and your stories.  I appreciate your patience with me.   My energy level is certainly not where it was three years ago.  I am kind of like a baseball player who has lost a few miles per hour on the fastball but compensates by being more cagey.    That’s that part.  

My opinion hasn’t changed on many things.  But it has been validated by experience in some ways.  For instance, I have never liked celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in church.   I was sensitive to people for whom those days are painful, for instance parents who had lost children.   It is true, now that I am in that club, I would just as soon stay home than to have to endure some big hullaballo about that in church.    But losing a child has also given me a healthy cynicism about the whole thing, a dark humor.   I don’t have to guess what a father or mother might feel like, I know at least what I experienced.     There is a sense in which I get it and thus can cut through the crap faster when people are grieving.   Let’s skip the platitudes and get to the feelings. 

That leads to the question about how I might comfort grieving people if I personally don’t believe in a supernatural god.    I used to worry about that.   I haven’t believed in a supernatural god for a long time.  I felt guilty about that.  I thought that might be because I hadn’t suffered enough.    If I was really suffering and grieving I would need a supernatural god.    Now, it has been a relief of sorts.  After my son’s death, I have legitimately entered the “sufferer’s club” and thus I have a right to own my theology.    I have discovered the simple maxim, if a supernatural god is helpful to you, then great.  If a supernatural god is not helpful to you, then great.    It really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it.  

Grieving people are on their own journey.   They will gather around them people they want as companions.    As far as my role as a minister is concerned, I am there for those who want me there.    I am a companion.  I can help articulate the experience.  I can be present.  Those who did that were companions for me.  I don’t see my role as offering comfort, especially.   The verse that appeared in bold print for me was from Jeremiah:

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.      

There is no more true text in the Bible than that one.    She refuses comfort of course.   All comfort is a joke, a triviality, a platitude, an insult.     There is no comfort.   I wanted no comfort.  No promises of heaven, no caring deity, no assurances of the light, or that it will get better, or I’ll get through this.    I wanted what was real.  What was real was lamentation and bitter weeping.    That is real.  Don’t cheapen my loss or my son’s life with some phony booby prize of heaven or a pretend divine being.    

That sounds harsh and that is what grieving is.  It is harsh.    

I have found that the desire for comfort comes not so much from the person who is grieving but from the friends of those who are grieving.    That is why the book of Job is so great.  It is about the poor, bumbling, well-meaning friends of Job who want to comfort him.     What the amazing book exposes, of course, is that they are the ones who need the comfort.    They can’t bear to see him suffer so and be so ornery about it so they offer him one platitude after another, one piece of advice after another, one piece of theological nonsense after another, so that they can feel some sense of protection from the void that Job knows all too well.    

But there is no protection from that void.    You face it.  You are changed forever by it.  You go on.   

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about a sunny spirituality.   That is a spirituality that denies the void.  It wants everyone to be happy or to get happy again as soon as possible.     It does not recognize the holiness of lament.    It sees lament as a temporary loss of faith.   Chin up, be happy, there is no crying in heaven.   As Jimmy Dugan, the character played by Tom Hanks in “A League of Their Own” says to one of his players, “There is no crying in baseball!”

A sunny spirituality does not recognize that lament is a holy place.    Rachel’s lamentation and bitter weeping, her refusal to be comforted, is not a disorder, is not the absence of God, it is a holy act.    It is a sacred place.   Those who are there are witnesses.   Those fortunate to be in their inner circle as companions, not comforters, are witnesses. 

The void is also the place of holiness.    That is why neither Job nor Rachel need protection or comfort from it.  They are asking of us simply to be heard.   They are asking of us to be with them without comforting them, without turning away, without trying to change them or pity them.      But to hear from them an offer of a gift.  My lamentation and my bitter weeping is holy.   

The void and the grief of it provides insight.

Christianity’s central symbol is the son of God on a cross.  In Mark’s gospel the first person to utter that Jesus is the son of God is the centurion when he sees Jesus die on the cross.  Jesus cries out:   “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” is the voice from the void.    It is a holy utterance.   

There is a wonderful sermon by Robert M Price in the latest issue of the Fourth R, a publication by the Jesus Seminar.     His sermon is titled, The Holiness of Desolation.  He concludes:

When the illusion of human self-sufficiency is gone, and nothing is seen but the ruins of weakness, then is the time when the power of Christ becomes conspicuous by its absence.  It is like anti-matter, if you know your physics.  A positron appears for a split instant and then decays, leaving behind it a charged hole where it was!  When human strength decays after a brief moment of visibility, it leaves behind it a void that radiates the power of God.

If you are in a frozen tundra of darkness and desolation, I charge you:  do not imagine that God has abandoned you!  The sunny days of religious feelings and spiritual ecstasies were a shiny temple, a fancy idol.  Now you find yourself in the ruins, where true holiness maybe felt in the depth of the soul’s night or the body’s pain.  It is on the cross that you are God’s son or daughter!  

Enter into the mystery of the terrible spirituality of the Lamentations.  Cry out to him in your forsakenness.  It may be some comfort to know that in so doing you are closer to him that you have ever been.  His invisible power and holiness shine the more brightly from your darkness.  

The grief over the loss of my son has added an experience of depth.    The holiness of lamentation and desolation.    I don’t think of God as a supernatural being.  God is more interesting than that.   God is more cagey.   More invisible.    Seen, if at all in desolation.  

Ok, last question, afterlife.    First off, I know this topic is important for some.  People have had experiences and beliefs.  I mean in no way to discount any of it.  I will share my thoughts.  Take them for what they are worth.  

Here are a few provocative statements.

Christianity is not particularly good at afterlife.    It was mostly used as a promise that justice would eventually be meted out and to keep people behaving.   Heaven and hell.   Most go to hell.   Most of us have let go of that.   That is why people who really are after signs, proof and hope that our consciousness will survive the death of our bodies find New Age philosophies more sympathetic.     There are many movements for those interested in that.  

Hinduism and its variants of course have reincarnation as a central doctrine.   What people in the West don’t get is that reincarnation is not desirable.   The goal is to end it.  To get off the wheel.   The guru is ecstatic when he declares that it has been revealed to him to that he only has as many lives left as there are leaves on this tree.  The tree is one of those big huge trees with, well how many leaves does a tree have?    The tragedy of birth and rebirth is that the damn thing won’t end.    It is going down the Max station every day and you try to get on the train and you keep missing it.   

I don’t think a belief in afterlife is a solution to our problem.   I don’t insist.  I don’t care.   That said, I don’t particularly like being told that my views are inadequate, or that I need to be saved, or that I am going to hell.  I find all of that weird and superstitious.    I also think karmic consequences or heavenly rewards or hellish punishments are forms of spiritual abuse.     

If there is some way in which my consciousness survives my death and I have an awareness of self in some other realm, well great.  I’m game.   But it does nothing for me in terms of how I live life in the present.   If folks want to live forever, that is fine.  I just think it is a lot more work.  

Again, this is one of those things I felt guilty about, because I didn’t think I suffered enough.   Losing my son should make me interested in life after death.    Yet my views haven’t changed.  I just no longer feel guilty about sharing them.     I don’t insist.    I can’t possibly know.    I am happy if others feel differently.

Some might ask don’t I want to see Zach again or isn’t it comforting to know he is watching or waiting.  Actually, no, it is not comforting.  I don’t want a ghost of him.  I miss the real guy in the flesh.   I had that.  Now I have his memory.    

I have developed a metaphor of my own that I call The Great Peace.    Zach has entered as I will one day, the Great Peace.   No worries.  No joys.  No sorrows.   No Divine punishments.  No Divine rewards.   No anything.  It will be the same as whatever I experienced before I was born.    It will actually be same as what Hinduism and Christianity in certain forms promise eventually.   Finally we reach the point in which we drop into the divine like a drop is absorbed into the ocean.   I affirm the Great Peace which shortcuts through all the extra lives and the heaven and hell and goes right to it.    The Great Peace is at the moment of death the drop that re-enters the ocean.  Everyone goes there, the saints and the wicked alike. 

In the meantime, what I want is not life after death.  I want life before death.   I want this life to be real.   Actually, Zach’s death has highlighted that for me.  I realize more than ever that life is precarious and precious.    It is always far shorter than we ever expected.  If there is any sense of afterlife it is that I want to live a life in such a way that what I have done will somehow impact the future in a positive way.   I want to add my feeble works to what Joanna Macy calls the Great Ball of Merit.   That Great Ball is a reality of its own.  It is the interactions over the ages of humanity’s aspirations and good deeds that will hopefully allow our species to survive and thrive for millions of more years.    Adding to that Great Ball of Merit is all the afterlife I need. 

I will close with this blessing from Henry Frederick Amiel:

Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.


Sunday, June 14, 2015

Riding the Bus with Jesus (6/14/15)

Riding the Bus With Jesus
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

June 14, 2015

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.  Luke 24:28-31

Since it is music Sunday and the focus is there, we decided to go light on the sermon as such and add a few more poems and what not.  In that spirit I decided to share something I put together a few years ago.  

This last week I was on vacation.  I visited family in Montana.  I try to get out there about three times per year.   I found that when it is just me, the easiest is to take the bus.    

The bus has some interesting advantages.  It is green.  Thus it is more efficient than airplanes or cars in terms of the energy and pollution cost of transporting X number of live bodies per fossil fuel unit.  

It is also comparatively inexpensive for the traveller.   I started taking the bus when we moved from Billings, Montana to Johnson City, Tennessee.   I was grieving leaving Montana and family and I worried over the cost and hassle of getting back and forth.   I thought well, family is only a bus ride away.   I discovered that the bus could get me the 1800 miles from Johnson City to Glendive for less than $200 round trip.    Door to door.  No airport hassles or need to rent cars and drive up from Billings to Glendive.     

It was also kind of an adventure thing.   You know, see the country.   It took about 44 hours.  One way. You slept on the bus and all of that.  

When it is over you are sore and you smell but it is a good kind of sore and smell.

It keeps me grounded.  You will discover that I have a bit of an apocalyptic streak in me.   While airplanes are fun, I am not sure about that transportation future.  You may have heard the Arab proverb:

My grandfather rode a camel.
My father rode in a Rolls Royce.
I ride in a jet airplane.
My son will ride a camel. 

I made my kids ride the bus, too, when they went to college.  It was good for them.    They could pay for a plane if they wanted.    I think they discovered the bus isn’t so bad.  Well, it is awful, but you get there eventually, and you have some money left.  

I have probably done this now eight to ten times. It is kind of my traveling monastery.   You are on the bus.  44 hours.  Ride it out.  No whining.   It is easier now.  Only 30 hours to get to Glendive from Portland and less than 22 coming home.    Piece of cake.  

Many people ride the bus because they have no other choice.   I have options.  I could drive.  I could fly.   Many do not have that choice.  They would take another option if they could.  

I think it is important to be always aware of that.

You meet some interesting folks on the bus.  

A couple of years ago in the bus terminal in Minneapolis I was talking to a guy who was really interested in my phone.  He hadn’t seen a phone that could get internet.  He had spent the last 15 years in prison and had been released less than six hours before I spoke with him. The prison gave him a one-way bus ticket to wherever he wanted to go.   He was going to Salt Lake City which had been home for him at one time.  He was looking forward to his first steak dinner.    

I wrote this little thing in 2006 after my first bus trip.   It is about a bus trip but it is really my theology, my philosophy about how the universe works through the metaphor of a bus and its passengers.  

Riding the Bus With Jesus

Written in iambic pentameter
An heroic journey on a Greyhound
Deserves no less. Not a tale as much as
A philosophy, a theology,
If you will. Life’s journey is like a bus.
From place to place and back, from Tennessee
To Montana, and places in between
And beyond, the bus stays its course and rolls

Unknowing for its sake whom it carries.
Yes, the tickets have names and the baggage
Claims declare to whom each parcel belongs. 
Yet the bus does not know who rides it, though.
Regardless of who rides or not the bus goes on
Day and night, over hill, through city street,
Dropping off, picking up indifferent
To the cares and thoughts of its passengers.

The bus driver has more human concern.
But even she or he is narrowly
Focused on safety and order and that’s
A good thing. But the driver does not know.
Too many come and go to pay notice
To their lives, their real lives. Indifference
Is the rule, the law of the Universe—
The bus universe that is. But I see.

I see and hear more of what goes on behind
The faces. Nothing supernatural
Have I. In fact, you would see, too, if you
Were there. Who are these pilgrims who travel
From Greeneville to Knoxville, Louisville to
Sheboygan? Where are you going and why?
We talk at times. I overhear half a
Story, and wonder about their journey.

One woman who speaks loudly and laughs much
Tells all who want to hear that she mimics
The stars. She dresses up like Wynonna
Judd and sings Wynonna’s songs. I notice
That she does resemble Wynonna a
Little. One man is an artist and can
Draw a picture of a race car in two
Minutes. Another likes to dance. She looks

Streetwise, I guess is the word. She has been
On the bus before. At the bus stop in
Indianapolis I find myself
Hungry. I head towards a White Castle
Across the street. A man with a big grin
Asks me where I am going. He can see
That I don’t belong at a White Castle
In Indianapolis at three in

The morning. “Out West,” I say and return
The smile. We both know the routine. And sure
Enough, after a little more polite
Banter he asks me for a couple of
Bucks. “I’m outta gas, man,” he says. I keep
Some ones in my left pocket for moments
Such as these. I give him two and wish him
Well. A tax for crossing the street at night.

Riding the big Greyhound bus with Jesus.
I transfer there and wait in line with my
Bags. A woman and her four children
Wait behind me. “Where are they from?” I ask
Myself. I am ashamed that I am such
A big dumb American that I can-
Not tell if they are from India or
Egypt. Maybe I should just call her an

Arab and make it simple. Why bother?
Why do I need to know? It matters not.
She, like me, is on the bus. It’s rude but
I look at her baggage tag. “Portland” is
Their destination. They have a long way
To go. I smile at her and the kids but
She looks away and says something to one
Of her children in a language I can

Neither understand nor identify. 
I imagine that she tells them that I
Might be “Mister Stranger Danger. Stay close!”
Waiting is a good bus word. You wait to
Get on. You wait to get off. Some people
Are better at it than others. One man
Is upset that the bus is late and tells
Ev’ryone in earshot that things are bad.

I watch the television monitor.
Fox news is warning us that the gods have
Raised the terror alert to “Orange.” I
Do not know quite what to do about that.
I try, but I just don’t feel terrified.
I wonder if terror is like waiting.
What is the point to fret about waiting? 
Why be tense? Life is one moment to next.

I have nothing better to do than be.
Waiting is missing out. What’s to wait for?
The bus will come when it comes. No sooner.
The bus doesn’t care how we feel. It can’t.
It is a bus. We get on. We get off.
In the meantime, what we call waiting is
Living. I’m not waiting. I am living.
We are all living, on the bus or off.

In Minnesota, I sit next to a
Woman about sixty or so. “No more
Hurricanes for me,” she says. “I’m going
To Billings, Montana.” “Really?” I say.
“I know that place well.” She has had enough
Of Florida. She asks me if people
Are nice in Billings. “Sure,” I tell her. “Nice.”
She’s moving to a place she has not seen.

Some people ride the bus to start over.
In the course of our conversation I
Tell her I am a minister. That makes
Her happy. She needed someone to trust.
From St. Paul to Fargo we talk about
Billings among other things. I tell her
About things to do and see, places to
Go. “You will like it there.” She is relieved.

On the bus we travel for a short time. 
We know where we are going. We know when
We will arrive. We have no illusions
That the ride will last forever. Of course.
How silly to think otherwise! Because
Of that, we see each other as riders.
Pilgrims, journeyers, travelers, are all.
Riding the bus with Jesus. Where is he?

In Luke’s tale, two friends walk to Emmaus.
A stranger joins them and lightens their hearts.
They invite him to stay for dinner, and
As he blesses and breaks the bread, they see.
He is Jesus. As soon as they see him,
He vanishes. I think Luke wants to tell
Us that Jesus is not a body, but
Everybody. In the sacrament

Of human interaction, of kindness
Shared, in the lightening of hearts, we see.
The bus can’t see. We are the bus’s eyes.
We have the eyes to see the body of
Jesus in everyone around us, whether
We speak to them or not. We see. We hear.
We are aware that their lives are sacred.
Riding the bus with Jesus—is seeing.