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.


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