Sunday, August 23, 2015

Prayer In A New Key (8/23/15)

Prayer In A New Key
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
August 23, 2015

•          How to understand prayer; does God intervene in human affairs?  Are we to praise God?  Thank him?    
•          I saw an electronic church notice board today with "help is just a prayer away". What would Jesus say about that? Would he agree or disagree? Would he tell a parable? One he used before or a new one? What would Kushner say? How does the gift of free will constrain prayer? Why pray? How do modern people sort that out? Be sure to mention "apocalyptic" and "sapiential".

Intercessory prayer is spiritual defiance of what is in the way of what God has promised. Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current forces.  Prayer infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present. History belongs to the intercessors who believe the future into being. This is not simply a religious statement. It is also true of Communists or capitalists or anarchists. The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable. This is the politics of hope. Hope envisages its future and then acts as if that future is now irresistible, thus helping to create the reality for which it longs. The future is not closed. There are fields of forces whose actions are somewhat predictable. But how they will interact is not. Even a small number of people, firmly committed to the new inevitablity on which they have fixed their imaginations, can decisively affect the shape the future takes.

These shapers of the future are the intercessors, who call out of the future the longed-for new present. In the New Testament, the name and texture and aura of that future is God’s domination-free order, the reign of God.

No doubt our intercessions sometimes change us as we open ourselves to new possibilities we had not guessed. No doubt our prayers to God reflect back upon us as a divine command to become the answer to our prayer.  But if we are to take the biblical understanding seriously, intercession is more than that. It changes the world and it changes what is possible to God. It creates an island of relative freedom in a world gripped by unholy necessity. A new force field appears that hitherto was only potential. The entire configuration changes as the result of the change of a single part. A space opens in the praying person, permitting God to act without violating human freedom. The change in one person thus changes what God can thereby do in that world.

All of Jesus’ teachings on prayer feature imperatives. (See for example, Luke 11:9 “Ask……..knock.”) In prayer we are ordering God to bring the Kingdom near. It will not do to implore. We have been commanded to command. We are required by God to haggle with God for the sake of the sick, the obsessed, the weak, and to conform our lives to our intercessions. This is a God who invents history in interaction with those “who hunger and thirst to see right prevail” (Matt. 5:6, REB). How different this is from the static god of Greek philosophy that all these years has lulled so many into adoration without intercession !

Praying is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. 

When we pray we are not sending a letter to a celestial White House, where it is sorted among piles of others. We are engaged, rather, in an act of co-creation, in which one little sector of the universe rises up and becomes translucent, incandescent, a vibratory center of power that radiates the power of the universe.

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.”    
--Walter Wink, The Powers That Be 

                                                                                                                        Romans 8:26
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.            

My mother is a person of prayer.  She would pray before every meal.  Even though she was the one who prepared it, she would thank God for it and include intercessions on her mind.  We could tell what she was thinking or feeling by her mealtime prayers.

My mother prayed in her garden.   She prayed before I went to school.  She prayed with me before I went to bed until I got too old for that.  As I got older she started to really pray for me, I think.  She prayed when there was trouble, for my brother in his motor cycle accident, for her friends, for church members, for relatives near and far, for her family, for children in Africa.    And she prays still I think now for the Lord to take her in his time.  

I got my religion from my mother.  I learned to pray from her.  From my infancy I was, as evangelicals say, bathed in prayer.   My mother’s prayers live within my being.  

My father, on the other hand, is a bit of a skeptic.  He tolerated her mealtime prayers.  You could tell when they were in a bit of a snit because he would clank his spoon and start serving himself while she prayed.   Now and then he would offer an experiment.  “We should test prayer.   It shouldn’t be hard to do.  Set up a two groups of sick people.  Pray for one group and not the other, and see how effective prayer really is. “  My mother shook her head at his blasphemy.  “You can’t test God,” she would say.  

Actually there have been experiments on prayer.  The results seem to show that prayer is about as effective as chance in terms of changing outcomes.  I got my skepticism from my father.    I learned to question beliefs and be suspicious of various claims.   Skepticism is also in my being.  

I start with that because prayer is a central practice in Christianity.   We do pray.  We pray in worship.  We pray alone or think we should.     Regardless of what the skeptics say, people who pray will pray. For them it works.  Regardless of what the faithful say, people who are skeptical are not convinced by claims of answered prayers.

I read a joke a couple of weeks ago.  I am recalling it from memory.    It was God’s prayer scorecard.   

Murders stopped.  Wars prevented.  Zero.

Keys found and touchdowns scored.  7,326,832.

It is the triviality and shallowness of prayer that irks many of us.   The sillier the claims made for prayer and for God’s supposed intervention to solve our first world problems, such as touchdowns and lost keys, the more fuel that is added to the fire for those who criticize all religion and all religious people as deluded at best and harmful at worst.  

Yet there is something to this practice that takes many forms and has been around since humans were able to conceive of giving agency to the outside world. As we gave agency to things that moved, whether it be the sun or a strange sound in the forest, we began to believe that we could influence those agents.    We still do it, without being aware.   We talk to our car.   “Come on, you can make it.”   

Prayer possibly had its origins in the attempt to manipulate what were believed to be agents influencing things that mattered to us.   Scoring touchdowns and looking for lost keys are for those involved important things at that moment.    The funny thing about humans and the power of belief is that if it works once, that is worth a hundred times when it doesn’t work. 

Even in ancient, pre-historic societies there was more to it than trying to cur favor.  Religion and the various practices of prayer were attempts to find our place.   There is more to human spiritual yearning and meaning-making and community building than trying to get a divine agent to work in our favor.   Prayer has also served as a way to open our lives to larger Life.  

This is the direction that prayer is taking as our conceptions of God necessarily change.    Even though we don’t literally think of God as the man in the sky receiving prayers and responding by dispatching angels, the language of prayer is still from that era.   From our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, here is one of the prayers of the day for the eighth Sunday in ordinary time:

Almighty God,
Renew us through the gift of your Spirit,
That we may always do and think
What is just in your sight,
That we, who can do nothing good without you,
May live according to your holy will;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord,
Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
One God, now and forever.  Amen. 

Examine the words.  God has sight.  God reigns. God is almighty.  God gives gifts.  We can do nothing good without God, and so forth.   God is conceived of as a being doing things.   Prayer is directed to this being.   

Our Father who art in heaven.

Who is he?  A father.  Where?  Heaven.   

You can say, well, she is a mother.   Yes.  But she is still in heaven.

And yet, the prayer can have a familiarity that comforts us and centers us.   I am the Presbyterian minister who doesn’t believe in God, right?  Yet I pray the Lord’s Prayer and was quite moved when I heard it sung yesterday in the memorial service for Bryce Adkins.  

The challenge has been for us to understand and practice prayer as the ancient world view with heaven above has given way to a modern understanding of the universe.  How does our spirituality catch up?    

What might prayer mean for those who no longer can affirm the existence of a supernatural interventionist god?   I am not saying everyone is there or needs to be, but for those who are, what is prayer?  

The question was quite direct.  

How to understand prayer; does God intervene in human affairs?  Are we to praise God? Thank him?

Since the question was asked of me, I will speak for myself.  I can longer conceive of a divine being, of a god called God.   Anymore than I can conceive of a god called Thor.   I don’t think any being exists or intervenes.   I don’t need to go into all of that now, I have done that elsewhere.  The skeptic in me can’t go there.   

Yet my mother’s prayers are still in my bones.   I do want to praise.  I do want to thank.  I do want to imagine a brighter future for humanity.  I do want to cry out in lamentation and I do want to share-feeling-with, that is, have compassion-for my friend in her distress.    Prayer is a vehicle for that.    

When we pray in the ancient language of prayer it serves beyond the meaning of the words.  It acts beyond the literalness of the symbols to a larger awareness.  It can pull me out of my ego to a larger sense of presence.   I want to be bigger than my smallness.  I want to be connected not isolated.   I want to be challenged by our higher aspirations.  Prayer and corporate worship can do that.

It doesn’t always.  At times the language is just too dated.   It is like singing a children’s song that we have long outgrown.   That spiritual yearning needs new language, a new song in a new key.    

So I stumble about searching for meaningful poetry, writing my own prayers.  They are uneven shall we say.   I am no William Blake, but you have to start somewhere.   

The future of prayer, as the future of God, is going to be an eclectic mix of ancient and modern and it is going to require a lot of experimentation and even more patience with ourselves and others.     

I included that long reading by Walter Wink, from his book, The Powers That Be, because I really like him even though I am never quite sure what he is getting at.   I mentioned last week that when at a conference with him we yelled the Lord’s Prayer at the top of our lungs.    He blends the ancient and the modern in an interesting way.   For Wink, God is a part of ourselves and yet beyond ourselves and God needs waking.   God is in a sense emerging, and our intercessions for justice, for peace, can be realized as we dream it, imagine it, name it, and thus live it.   As Wink writes:

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being. If this is so, then intercession, far from being an escape from action, is a means of focusing for action and of creating action. By means of our intercessions we veritably cast fire upon the earth and trumpet the future into being.

He sounds a bit like Nancy Ellen Abrams.  We contribute to God, for good or ill, as we act, she says.  She writes:

Collectively we are influencing God. The worse we behave, measured against our deepest aspirations, the weaker God becomes, not only for us but also for future generations. The better we act, the richer God becomes and the more useful to future generations. We have the power to strengthen the very God we turn to. …

[Prayer is] putting myself imaginatively into the reality I know to exist, feeling what it is really like to be part of the earth, part of the astonishing universe.

Is God thus real in some way?   I hold that open as possibility.   Prayer, worship, and religion are real practice.  That is for certain.  They are all a part of human expression that go way back to the cave dwellers.   Prayer is in our bones.    

If that is the case, let us be attentive to it.   Let us use prayer well.  Let us treat prayer with care and not trivialize it.  If God is real, then let God care about something more than lost keys and touchdowns.    If God is a reality that we can influence with prayer then let’s wake this collective God up and do something about the minimum wage and income inequality and racism and climate change.  

If prayer can put us to work, then by all means, let’s pray.    

Let us not turn prayer into a magical superstition or an excuse not to act.    I put on my Facebook page a quote from comedian, Hannibal Buress.       He said:

"I don't like when people say, 'I'll pray for you. I'm going to pray for you. Praying for you.' You're going to pray for me? So you're going to sit at home and do nothing? 'Cause that's what your prayers are; you doing nothing while I struggle with a situation. Don't pray for me -- make me a sandwich or something."

The man has a point.    

Let’s go make some sandwiches.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Listening, Doing, Trusting (8/16/15)

Listening, Doing, Trusting
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

August 16, 2015

Have we succeeded as Christians but failed as followers of Jesus?

From your very new perspective is Southminster alive with respect to the building of the kingdom of God?  What makes you answer that way?

Soren Kierkegaard
Seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness."
But what does this mean? What am I to do? What kind of striving is it of which it can be said that it seeks or desires the kingdom of God? Ought I to get a position corresponding to my abilities and powers in order to bring this about? 
No, you are first to seek the kingdom of God. 
Ought I, then, to give all my fortune to the poor? 
No, you are first to seek the kingdom of God. 
But does this, then, mean that, in a sense, there is nothing for me to do? 
Quite right—there is, in a sense, nothing. In the very deepest sense, you are to make yourself nothing, to become nothing before God, and learn to keep silent—and it is in this silence that you begin to seek what must come first: the kingdom of God

Robin Meyers 
What began as communities of radical inclusiveness, voluntary redistribution of wealth, a rejection of violence as the tool of injustice, and a joyful egalitarianism that welcomed a “nobody” to worship elbow-to-elbow with a “somebody” devolved into what [Harvey] Cox calls a “top heavy edifice defined by obligatory beliefs enforced by a hierarchy.”  We have argued for seventeen centuries now about why this happened—Luther blames the papacy, Anabaptists blame Christians for becoming soldiers, Quakers blame written scripture, Greek and Russian Orthodox leaders blame a fatal squabble over the status of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, and Catholics blame the “heresies” that led to the Reformation.  But the evidence that it did happen is both overwhelming and obvious in our own time.  Christians are primarily thought to be people who believe certain things, not people who do certain things.

Gospel of Jesus, 19:1-3            
A city on top of a mountain can’t be concealed. 

Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a bushel basket, but instead on a lampstand, where it sheds light for everyone in the house. 

You’ll know who they are by what they produce.  Since when do people pick grapes from thorns or figs from thistles? 

Psalm 46:10
Be still and know that I am God.

Have we succeeded as Christians but failed as followers of Jesus?

From your very new perspective is Southminster alive with respect to the building of the kingdom of God?  What makes you answer that way?

About twenty years ago I spent a week with biblical scholar, Walter Wink, who passed away in May of 2012.  He and his wife June Keener-Wink led a workshop that mixed dance, pottery, and study of Jesus as the human being who told parables about the kingdom of God.   

It was a great week.   One day we yelled the Lord’s Prayer at the top of our lungs. Demanding of God:  “Your kingdom come!  Your will be done!”    Wink saw prayer as waking God up.   This is what he wrote about prayer in his book Engaging the Powers:

Prayer is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes. . ., p. 303

Walter was quite a person.  He was a scholar, activist, and charismatic.   He was a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar yet at odds at some points with the Jesus they discovered.   His book, Engaging the Powers, is one I turn to often.    

One of the first exercises we did that week was to write out a description of the kind of person we thought Jesus was.  Not so much theological jargon about the myth of Jesus, but what kind of person, his motivations, his personality, his values, and so forth.     

I saved my description.  I still have it.  I’ll share it with you.  This is from 20 years ago.  I wrote:

Jesus was a person of incredible paradox, intense about life as a fanatic, as one obsessed with God, with the truth, with what was God’s will, yet at the same time one completely at peace with God, nature, himself and others.  This paradox, at the same time, a man of peace and a man obsessed.  How can one person be so concerned with justice, a “man on a mission” and yet so open and free to others?

A mad man who is at the same time as calm as the sea he stilled.  This is the most puzzling paradox about Jesus, so difficult to follow, to at once transform the world and to be at peace—to accept it.  Any can do one or the other, but both at once is the core and center of what Jesus is to me.  This is the love of God that loves me completely and yet is obsessed with my transformation.  Finding that center is the life of the Spirit.

That is what I wrote about Jesus, as a person.   Obsessed and at peace.   

Of course, the punch line to the exercise was to read over what we had written about Jesus and underline those aspects of Jesus that are like us.   Or perhaps what we think we are or would like to be.   We shared that in a group.    Then Wink said that the search for the historical Jesus at the scholarly level and at the personal level is really a search for the myth of the human.   

Jesus is a figure so enigmatic that he absorbs our projections.   The Jesus Seminar was unfairly criticized for finding a Jesus that reflected themselves.  I say unfairly because everyone does the same thing.  We all make God in our image.    Rather than pretend or try to be objective, Wink proposed that we own our subjectivity.   Use this quest for Jesus as scholars or as people of faith as a quest for ourselves.  

This spiritual activity is a way of naming, drawing out, and creating ourselves.    It is the way, God, if you will, is inviting us to be in this world.  Wink did not see projection, that is projecting ourselves onto Jesus as something to avoid, a bad thing, but a tool for spiritual growth and maturity.    

Of course we see in Jesus what we want to see, so what is that?  What is that you see?  Who are you and how are you living into what you are?  What is holding you back?  What is encouraging you?   

Jesus then is a lure.   Jesus serves to draw us out.   

A few years later I was introduced to the Hindu concept of Ishta Deva or Ishta Devata.  This means chosen deity.   Supposedly Hindus have 300 million gods and goddesses or some such fantastic number.  The point is that there are plenty to go around.    Your task is to find one, find a god or goddess, Ganesha or Krishna or Lakshmi or one of the more obscure ones and choose that god for your devotion.    Take care in choosing that god or goddess that it has the characteristics you wish to have.    You can’t just jump from god to god but you stick with one.    This god must be real for you and is thus your chosen deity.  

I chose the historical Jesus as my ishta deva.    A friend of mine said he wanted to put that on a t-shirt.  

The Historical Jesus is my Ishta Devata.  

Who was the historical Jesus?  Well, that is an enigma, which is why it is good.   Discovering the historical Jesus is an ongoing quest.   However, he isn’t simply an inkblot.  There are things he said and things he did at least there are stories about that.  There is content.  The quest then is to sift through it and to find the Jesus that is real and worthy of following, then of course, in so doing, you are finding yourself, your values, your life.     

The quest for the historical Jesus is the quest for the myth of the human.   

It is a quest for Jesus and a creative act to make your own life.    

So when asked, 

Have we succeeded as Christians but failed as followers of Jesus?

From your very new perspective is Southminster alive with respect to the building of the kingdom of God?  What makes you answer that way?

My immediate answer is that it isn’t up to me to judge that.    I can only answer for myself and invite others to do the same for themselves.   

I won’t leave it like that.  I should say something.  It is important to say up front that any response is, of course, a subjective response of mine.    

Have we succeeded as Christians but failed as followers of Jesus? 

Have we settled for an easier path, belief, for example, as opposed to a harder path, living authentically?   Do we console ourselves with having the right beliefs as a rationale for not living into his harder teachings?  I think we could probably say, well of course.    Then I want to say, but don’t be so hard on yourself.    Be gentle.

The Jesus I thought I was describing twenty years ago, which was in all probability, my own baggage, was a Jesus, or me, struggling with how to be a human being and in particular, a pastor of a church.  I had only been a pastor for a few years at that time.   

Is my role to accept people and love them as they are, or is it to push toward transformation?  Is my role to love the world or change it?  Do I love the church or change it?  Do I love church members or change them?    Jesus didn’t seem to be much help because he did both as I saw it.   A mad man who is as calm as the sea he stilled.  

I saved that piece of paper I wrote 20 years ago.  It is in my leather Bible as a reminder to me of the impossible task of ministry.   It is the paradox of complete acceptance and love and peace with life and the drive to change, to become more, to be better.   

It is the paradox between a life of contemplation and a life of action.   It is stillness vs. movement.  It is listening and talking.   Sitting and doing.   

Do we roll up our sleeves and build the kingdom or do we open our eyes and discover the kingdom?   

Is our existential problem that we do not accept and love ourselves, others, and the absurdity of life as it is?  Or is our existential problem that we are too content with ourselves, others, and the absurdity of life?   

Should be more driven or should we be more still?

Should we push or should we chill?

Yes.  We should.

My angst has not changed in twenty years.  I am still a minister wondering if I am doing the right thing.  Love and accept or nudge and transform.    Somehow, both/and.   I keep that tension.   I live within that paradox.

A couple of years after my week with Walter and June Keener Wink, an off- Broadway play opened in New York.  I was on a different continuing education experience.    It was a discovery of the social gospel in New York City.  We visited historic places such as where Dorothy Day led the Catholic Worker Movement and Walter Rauschenbusch’s church.    

Rauschenbusch was the author of “Theology of the Social Gospel.”  He saw the churches supporting the robber barons, child labor, and other injustices because it didn’t see the connection of the gospel and the transformation of society.  He wrote that the Kingdom of God "is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven."  

His church on the West Side is now a theatre.  When we visited his church, the off Broadway play was just opening.  The title of the play that fits the whole theme today was, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.”

How we love this world and at the same time change it?  

Too much contemplation can lead to inaction and an acceptance of the status quo.

Too much action can lead to a misguided bungling that seeks to impose my will over yours.

How do we love this world, in the words of Dostoevsky:

Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.”

Like Mary Oliver:

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.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

How do we do that, love and be still, and heed the words of George Bernard Shaw:

“I tell you that as long as I can conceive something better than myself I cannot be easy unless I am striving to bring it into existence or clearing the way for it.” 
--quoted in Peter Watson, The Age of Atheists, p. 102. 

And like Robert Frost, the poet of action:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Jesus is quoted as saying both, “Chill out and onsider the birds you worrywarts” and “By their fruits you shall know them, so do good!”  Contemplation, action.   

Be still and silent.  Move and speak.  Accept and strive.

My observation of Southminster is yes, we are very much alive in building the kingdom of God and yes, we need to do more.   On the other hand, yes we accept, listen, and love the world, ourselves, and one another just as we find it all.   And yes, we need to practice that listening, love, and acceptance more.

Yes, you are marvelous.  Yes, you can be more marvelous.

I love you.  You’re perfect.  Now change.      

The last word is prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Deconstructing (and Reimagining) God (8/9/15)

Deconstructing (and Reimagining God)
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church
Beaverton, Oregon

  •         If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and all powerful and needs nothing then why does "He" need 8+ billion of these little critters here on earth to worship "Him" to feel complete
  •      What phraseology do you use to speak of God?   How do you internalize it or find meaning in it (the phraseology)?
  •      What do you mean when you say you don’t believe in God?  (or a supernatural God)

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God.  That depth is what the word God means.  And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.  Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.  For if you know that God means depth, you much about Him.
--Paul Tillich 

1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; 
yet if we love one another, 
God dwells in us 
and the love of him comes to completion in us.

Don Cupitt 
Our true ‘selfhood’ or ‘personhood’ is ‘theatrical’: it is realized, not by recollection and introversion, but by extraversion, by going out into symbolic expression and communication with other people.  The self is simply to be expended.  When it’s gone so are we.  Meanwhile the true religious happiness is simply our present joy in going out into expression, communication, tending, work and creativity.  Do your thing, strut your stuff, put on a good show, live as intensely as you can in the present moment.  There is nothing else:  there couldn’t be.  To realize this is to have finally outgrown any need for consolation.
Gordon Kaufman 
To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life and action.  It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.  

Mark 4:26-29
The empire of God is like this:  suppose someone sows seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and matures, although the sower is unaware of it.  The earth produces fruit on its own, first a shoot, then a head, then a mature grain on the head.  But when the grain ripens, right away he sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.

The occasion for these questions this morning and for the summer series Bring Your Own Sermon (BYOS) began with a post that I wrote for a blog called The Friendly Atheist this past March. I never really thought that much of it at the time.   Every now and then I write something and it mostly goes unnoticed. 

This time was different.  I had only been here a couple of months.   The article received a great deal of response.  Conservative Christian media picked it up.  Between that article and the news coverage that week that our congregation had participated in the marriage equality measure for the Presbyterian Church, we even received protesters on the sidewalk.    These Portland Street Preachers come and share niceties with us every now and then.   The presbytery office received calls about my article and I had to explain myself to those good folks. 

The title of the blog post was “I’m A Presbyterian Minister Who Doesn’t Believe in God.”  I suppose on the surface of things that is provocative enough.  In it I wrote about things I have written over the years, basically, that my philosophy is a naturalistic one.   Religion is a human product and its texts and symbols are a product of human cultural evolution.    

I wrote that while much of our Christian past has focused on believing in doctrines, this is changing.  We are finding ourselves more interested in belonging to a community and doing good things and exploring questions.   While what I wrote might have appeared to be scandalous at a popular level, it really is kind of old news for theologians and religious scholars.   This is the stuff they encourage us to think about in the university and seminary.    I would say that we also think about those kinds of things in this congregation.  That is why I like it here.  

This sermon series is an opportunity to discuss with you some of these questions.   

The questions today have to do with God.  What did I mean when I wrote that I don’t believe in a supernatural God?   It means in response to the first question I was asked that I do not think an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being exists.   Or if it does, it really doesn’t matter because it doesn’t do anything.  

I am going to suggest that probably most of you believe the same way I do at least 99.999% of the time.    It is not likely that you are going to leave worship today and pray to God for rain and honestly expect God to grant your request.    I am going out on a limb here, but I think that most of us operate from the assumption that weather patterns have naturalistic causes.    That is a very different point of view from that which is found in the Hebrew scriptures, right?    We find many texts there where God makes it rain or not.    For instance, Psalm 135:7

He makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth; he sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

That is poetry for us today.  In the time it was written, it was likely regarded as the way it worked.  The fixed firmament above had storehouses of wind and water and God let it loose at his pleasure along with lightning bolts.  

When we look up at the sun we don’t see the god Shamash flying his chariot across the sky.   Nor do we expect that God could stop the sun’s motion as God did in Joshua chapter 10.   

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:

“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

In the Ancient Near East that cosmology would allow for such a story to be plausible.  Not today.   That story is a fictional tale.  A legend of bravado.  

When we are sick we go to the doctor, not the witch doctor.  For the most part, that is.  In times of desperation we may resort to other methods.   Most of the time we are practical naturalists.   That is the only way that science can work.  Laws are consistent. The universe doesn’t work because of the capriciousness of the gods.  

That said there is something in our evolution that is a glitch.   We want to believe in the supernatural.  And this explains the popularity of faith healers and gambling and fudging on the math of coincidence so that when things seem to happen in our favor we credit God or prayer or what not.   We ignore or forget the times that those things do not work.  That glitch is more prevalent with some people than with others.  But most of the time, we all are practical naturalists.   It is the only way we can really navigate our shared world.  

There is a hymn in our hymnbook that is just funny.  It is called God Who Spins the Whirling Planets.  The image that comes in my mind is of God as Curly Neal of the Harlem Globetrotters spinning Mars on his finger.     The language at best is poetic, right?  The planets do not spin because of God.   Only in a poetic way by saying God is a poetic word for gravity or in a deistic way, a god who set up the laws, wound the clock and went to sleep, can that hymn make sense.   Some old wag put it blasphemously that Galileo put God out of a home and Darwin put God out of a job.  Newton, too for that matter.    The very fact that the planet Mars was named for a god shows our change in thought.   Those white dots in the night sky were considered to be heavenly bodies, actual beings.   Your fate is written in the stars, right?  They are doing stuff to you, manipulating your love life.  

Whether we like it or not, whether we find it romantic or not, science cleared the heavens and earth of the gods.    For 99.999% of the time, you likely believe as I do that there is no supernatural being, that is a being outside of nature, God, intervening in the natural world and fiddling with things.   When I say I don’t believe in a supernatural God or shorthand, God, because that is what is almost always meant by God, a supernatural God, I am simply saying what we mostly all know and believe anyway, at least most of the time.

What might it mean to speak of God, to believe in God today?

Before I get there I do want to go back to a theory of how gods and eventually God came to be.  Philosopher Daniel Dennett says that we have inherited an evolutionary survival skill in which we give agency to things that move.    Your dog barks.  The question is not at what, the question is at who.   Your dog hears a who.   That is important for survival because the who could be lunch or the dog could be the who’s lunch.    That is embedded in our evolutionary history, long before humans.    It is a very important survival skill.  Better safe than sorry. 

Now your dog after the noise has stopped eventually forgets about it and goes back to sleep.  Humans are different.  We ruminate.   We make up stories about it, especially if there is nothing there.  Ghosts, goblins, trolls, forest nymphs, begin to populate our imagination.   Eventually everything has a supernatural being or god associated with it.   

The Hebrew Scriptures record an evolution of sorts from gods to God.   So for instance as Shamash the sun god becomes in Genesis chapter one the shemesh, the sun, that God puts in the sky and screws it in like a light bulb you see this movement from polytheism to monotheism.    

For centuries monotheism served us until science continued to push back and explain things without the need of a God hypothesis.   This is nothing new.  We know this and 99% of the time we operate this way.     Religions aren’t really sure what to do since they arose of course out of a pre-modern period.  Far too often, they think they need to bolster up a pre-modern belief in God and try to find gaps for God or in their more extreme forms try to resist science.    For the most part we sense the jig is up.

And yet, I miss my gods. 

I don’t want God to do anything for me. I want to project my angst and my awe and my wonder and my joy and my sorrow.   I want a language for that.  I find myself entranced at times by the stories and songs that speak to my depths.    Sometimes I use God as a name for the universe itself when it ‘shimmers below the surface of things” as singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it.  Sometimes God is the name for all the things to which I aspire:  beauty, truth, goodness, and perhaps it is that great ball of merit as Joanna Macy calls all of the emerging aspirations of humankind.    

I like the word depth.  I love this from Paul Tillich:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God.  That depth is what the word God means.  And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.  Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself.  For if you know that God means depth, you much about Him.

Tillich knew the problems associated with the word God.   But he didn’t want to let it go.  He found a way to be creative.  
There is great creativity as we play with and reimagine the symbol God.    Some theologians say that God is in everything but not contained by anything.  Others equate God with the universe itself with no remainder.  Still others call God creativity or think of God as a process and a lure to draw us toward spiritual maturity.   Yet others call God the emergence of human aspirations that has taken on a life of its own.   Still others find that God gets in the way and have let go of the term and instead speak of Life or Depth or something else.    

If I had a suggestion it would be to go ahead and play.  Don’t try to put yourself or others in a box.   There is no need to have a final answer just yet.  No need to draw lines or take up sides.   No need really to be terribly consistent or right.   Sing the songs you can sing and let others sing those you cannot.   Don’t be afraid to speak what you think is true and don’t be afraid to hear a different truth from another.    

Eventually it will wash out and we will navigate our way and in the meantime we have each other.  We have our depths, our own stories, hopes, and fears, and in the sharing of them we might find the divine presence.  

If the old formulations no longer work, it is fine to let them go.   But be kind.  What doesn’t work for you may be holy for another.   

I have a memory from my seminary experience that has stuck with me.  It was in my church history class and my professor Karlfried Froehlich said in a moment of honesty, and I am paraphrasing:

Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I believe.  Other times I wake up and I don’t.  

I so appreciated that he said that.  He was a pious person and yet he knew that life and faith isn’t all so black and white.   I appreciated that.   I appreciated it so much I remembered it. 

There are days that I don’t want to hear the word God.  Too much baggage.  Too much harm done.  To much violence done in the name of God.  And there are other days in other ways in which my heart sings, songs of joy, songs of lament, and I don’t know what to call that feeling.   Sometimes God fits.    

There are many aspects of God as we have inherited the term, that I don’t believe.     But there are aspects of God to which I am committed.   The symbols of faith are invitations to live in a particular way.   To that extent I trust, believe, be-love, and am committed.      Toward love, compassion, toward what is true and beautiful.   To that I believe. Help my unbelief. 

For me, God is the depth of life, in the heart of life.  

Seek your heart, seek your depth, there is your God.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Heart for the Existential Jesus (8/2/15)

A Heart for the Existential Jesus
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church

·      You use the term Jesus ________????   ( Ask John what phrase he uses and fill it in.)   What do you mean by that.
·      Please talk about Sartre, Camus and other existentialists (maybe Tillich, maybe not) and whether or not they have a strong kinship with Jesus and how some of that might be important to Southminster.

                                                                                                Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference—that is our point of view.  It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself not even valid proof of the existence of God.  In this sense, existentialism is optimistic.  It is a doctrine of action, and it is only in bad faith—in confusing their own despair with ours—that Christians are able to assert that we are “without hope.” 

                                                                                                Ecclesiastes 2:24-25   
The best that any of us can do 
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.  
This too, I realized, is from the hand of Nature; 
For if it were not for her, who could eat or who could have
            Any enjoyment?
                                                                                                Albert Camus
“I do not know whether this world has a meaning that eludes me.  But I do know that I do not know this meaning and that, for the time being, it is impossible for me to know it.  What can a meaning beyond my condition mean to me?  I can comprehend only in human terms.  I understand what I touch, what offers resistance.”  

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”             
                                                                                                Thomas 42 and Luke 17:13
Jesus said, “Be passersby.”

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will lose it, but whoever loses it will preserve it.”

The questions for this Sunday are… 

You use the term Jesus ________________ (Ask John what phrase he uses and fill it in.  What do you mean by that?  

I am assuming  the phrase is the historical Jesus as I use that a lot. So I will talk about what I mean by that.  The second question is…

Please talk about Sartre, Camus and other existentialists (maybe Tillich, maybe not) and whether or not they have a strong kinship with Jesus and how some of that might be important to Southminster.

I feel I need to get out my blue book for this final exam question.

I did say at the beginning that if you ask a question above my pay grade you will get what pay for.   I don’t have any expertise on existential philosophy.   I have not read Sartre’s books.   What I did for this sermon was to read Sartre’s lecture in 1945 called “Existentialism is a Humanism.” This is an explanation of his philosophy in answer to critics.  I also read Albert Camus’ little novel, “The Stranger” and Sartre’s commentary on it.    

I have to say it was kind of fun.   I felt a bit of kinship with Sartre’s views.   I am just speculating now, but I wonder if the person who asked the question heard something in my sermons that reminded her or him of existentialism.    The question was designed to get me to check it out.    How it relates to Jesus and Southminster? We’ll just have to see.

Let’s start with existentialism.    This is just from my reading of Sartre’s “Existentialism is A Humanism.”    His lecture explained a few phrases and terms that he felt were misunderstood.  

“Existence precedes essence.”  

They sound like depressing words.  But Sartre would say that Existentialism is an optimistic philosophy.  

The human being is thrust into existence and must make herself or himself.  Only in the action of doing do we discover who we are.   We don’t begin with some ideal or model or essence of what a human is or should be.  There is no guidebook or blueprint.    Someone could say we are created in the image of God.    No one really agrees on what that image is.   Even if some people did agree it wouldn’t matter because we decide it.   Each of us must decide what that image is and we decide by our actions.  

We could say that God tells us what to be or do.   Even if it were so, one still has to make the decision whether that voice is of God or something else and must interpret it.    Sartre says we are condemned to be free.     The human has freedom and responsibility.   We are without excuse.  We cannot blame our actions on some prior philosophy of essence.  We can’t blame it on an authority, the Bible says, for instance.  It is always our choice how to interpret any authority or whether or not to regard anything as an authority.   Ultimately, authority is within the human being.    It is “bad faith” says Sartre to blame or excuse our actions on anything else.   We are free.  That is a burden.   It creates anguish.


Someone might counter, if we have freedom then what is to prevent us from acting badly?   How is any action then, wrong?   

We are free to make ourselves.  We don’t just decide for ourselves who we are when we act.  We decide for all humankind.   If I live out an action or make a moral choice I am making this choice for all humanity.   In other words I must act as if every human is watching me.   My freedom has great responsibility.    As I act I must say to myself, “What if every human did this?”   

Thus we are filled with anguish.   We agonize over the choices.  They are hard.  We have freedom.   Our freedom is to act as if every human being is acting as we do.   We have anguish because there is no ultimate, universal right choice.  We choose this or that and what we choose is what is.   


If there is no figure out there, God for instance, who decides for us how we are to behave and if we are thrust into existence having to create ourselves, what does this feel like?  Sartre says we are abandoned.   It is not as if we can go the way of secular morality and say well, even though there is no need for God there still is the absolute values of love, beauty, etc.   Sartre would say no.   Those abstractions have no existence.   We exist and must decide by our actions who we are.   The loss of God is terrifying because we are abandoned to our own choices.     We want some authority, God or a representative to decide for us or to excuse us or whatever.  None is available.   It is bad faith to excuse or project onto something else our responsibility.  


We are free to make ourselves as is everyone else free to make him or herself.   Because of that we cannot expect them to do as we want, to carry on our projects.   There is no hope, for instance, that human beings will get it together, solve our fossil fuel dependence, live sustainably.   It doesn’t mean they won’t do it.  There is no guarantee.   We can only do what we can do, acting from freedom, living with anguish, and abandonment and acting in accordance with our commitments. 

Existentialism is a Humanism

Existentialism is not inaction or quietism.  It is active.   We are constantly making ourselves.  We are in the making.   It is a humanism because we are present in a human universe.  Sartre writes:  “Man is always outside himself, and it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is realized.” P. 52.

Meaning is not decided for us.  Again, Sartre:  “Life has no meaning a priori.  Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.”

It is very positive philosophy.  It is a philosophy of freedom, dignity, and responsibility.   It is a life of total commitment.  

I recommend this little book, Existentialism Is A Humanism.  

Sartre is not for everyone.   It is an austere optimism.    If we want to justify our bad choices or blame circumstances for our misery or have someone else make choices for us, Sartre will not give you a break.   Or if we say that we are essentially a good, loving person but we do not behave in loving ways, then we act in bad faith.   Love is the acts of love.      It is optimistic because we can create ourselves throughout our lives.   We are not fated or determined by some essence, such as coward or hero.   We are who we are by our actions and commitments.  We can make new actions and commitments. 

What does this have to do with Southminster?   

We are a community of people each creating himself or herself.   We are people in the making.   We are not some essence or ideal that we need to live out.   There is no huge vision or blueprint that we need to live out like robots.   We are making it on the fly.    We can draw from the resources of one another and our long history.  But, we become our commitments as we act them.    We choose.   I think it is of great value to have a space for that freedom to create.    To choose and to dignify the choices of others.  

This creativity is projected outward.  We are as we act in the world.   Thus we are a public church.  We are seen by the world.  Because of that we live with anguish over our decisions.   We are making choices as individuals and as a community that say this is what an individual or church is.    What if everyone acted as we did?    We live with abandonment in that all of the authorities are up to our own interpretation.   We make those choices even if we might want another to make them for us.  
Our hope looks like despair in that there is no guarantee.  We might want others in the community to do what we do, we may want future descendants to act in certain ways, but they may or may not.   We act and that is our life.   The future will be what it will be.  

I was reading and reflecting on this while the Greenpeace activists were hanging from St. John’s Bridge in an attempt to stop Shell’s icebreaker ship from going to the Arctic and begin drilling there for oil.    I was thinking what a magnificent act of futility amidst the absurd.  

Existence is absurd in that we are thrust into it and must make our own way.   We are here.  We create.  Act out.  Then burn out like the sun.   And we die.    There is no sense to it.   All of the metaphysical speculation is, well, just that, metaphysical speculation.    Existentialists say we are thrust into existence.  It is absurd.  Now live.    Create your life.   You are creating yourself.  You are creating humanity. 

Think of the absurdity first of our fossil fuel civilization.    This is not sustainable.    Who can not possibly know that?  There is also an absurdity that we can stop it.    The visual of that huge ship and the activists dangling like little spiders from a thread shows the absurdity.    The futility.    

Yet they did it.   They acted in their moment.   There is no guarantee of what could come of it.   There is no guarantee of what awareness their action might generate.   Yet they did what they could.    They created themselves.  They created humanity.  They said in effect, “In this meaningless absurdity, I will make meaning.”    

Southminster does that too.   When we act with commitment to what we think is moral regardless of whether it might look successful or popular, we act in good faith.  

All right.  Jesus.

The search for the historical Jesus that has gone on since the Enlightenment is an act of creativity at least as much as discovery.    There are many historical Jesuses:  an apocalyptic prophet, a wandering cynic, an entrepreneur, a Jewish wisdom teacher, a rebel, violent or non-violent, a rabbi, a magician, a storyteller, a faith healer, a psychologist, a socialist, an exorcist, an existentialist.   They can’t all be true yet you can find evidence for all of those views.    We only have internal sources, nothing by Jesus himself and no verification outside of various texts that could have been written many decades, perhaps a century and a half or more, after his life.   These texts all have agendas.   They all frame this figure in a way that furthers the causes of the authors.  Another view gaining popularity is that Jesus was not an historical person.  Instead he was a composite figure created over time.  

When I say the historical Jesus I really don’t know what I am talking about.   I am presenting this search this quest for Jesus as a welcome response to the theological machinery of the church’s Jesus, the historical Jesus vs. the Apostle’s Creed Jesus.  In the end, along with Albert Schweitzer, I have to say, “He comes to us as one unknown.” 

But Jesus has a good public image after all these centuries.  Many people, even if they are not Christians like Jesus, or at least like their version of him.   So there is great effort to get Jesus on our team.    I confess I do it, too.   I like Dominic Crossan’s Jesus, the peasant with an attitude.  This Jesus told parables about the kingdom of God, practiced an open table, offered non-violent resistance to Empire.    There is evidence for that.  I think that Jesus preaches.   I have preached that Jesus from this pulpit.   But it would be bad faith for me to say that “that is the guy” as opposed to other views.   It would also be bad faith to say that I like him because the evidence points that way.  I just happen to like him.   Then I have to ask why am I doing that?   Am I again in bad faith trying to bolster up my views by presenting an authority figure who speaks on behalf of my commitments?    

It is with anguish that I wrestle with Jesus.  

I am coming to a position where I wish to leave behind a cult of Jesus.  In the end it is our choice, not what we might speculate “What Jesus Would Do.”     

What existentialism means to Jesus is not that there is an existential Jesus even as I can find little nuggets of Jesus tradition that might suggest that he was a proto-existentialist.     For example, 

“Whoever tries to hang on to life will lose it, but whoever loses it will preserve it.” 
I can give that saying an existential gloss.    But I think that would be bad faith.  I would be trying to frame him into something to fit my ends.   

I do have a heart for Jesus.  He has meant a lot to me.   I find inspiration in my anguish.  I realize that a heart for the existential Jesus is really a commitment not to make a cult of Jesus, not to get him on my team or pretend that I am on his team.   I can draw from the Jesus tradition and the critics of the tradition, but in the end I must make my choice, and it is my choice, not Jesus’s choice.    I cannot blame or excuse my choices on the Bible or on Jesus or on God or on any other interpreters of the same.     It is up to me.  It is up to you.   

Sartre says we are condemned to freedom.  Yes, we are condemned to an anguished freedom and a joyful responsibility of making our lives.   We choose for ourselves.  We choose for humanity.    We do it more than once.  We are always in the process.   

Again, to quote Sartre:

Life itself is nothing until it is lived.