Friday, November 2, 2018

PART 1





I'm posting the first in a two-part set. I've been working on something - and while it is long, I didn't want to make it any longer. So Part Deux next week.

When I was in the military, “Command Climate” was a big thing. This describes not only the typical organizational stuff; how a commander’s agenda and vision, priorities and emphasis affected the whole unit. But it also included the words they used, how the commander carried themselves, how they spoke to subordinates, personality traits, tone of voice – all this had just as much an effect on the units they led. Leaders impact everyone in an organization, from the top to the very bottom, of course through their professional leadership qualities and skills, but just as much through their own personal traits as human beings.
Imagine two organizations – each with stated Mission and Vision. But with different leaders. One with a leader that is fair and consistent in their judgements, positive in their outlook, that uses constructive reinforcement to encourage the best out of people, that provides clear guidance and expectations, and within these, encourages original and creative thinking and actions. Contrast this with another organization whose leader is unclear in their guidance, who “moves the goal-posts” regarding outcomes and expectations, and who leads by intimidation and bullying.
It’s not hard to imagine the differences between these two organizations for employees. The leadership styles of the person in charge, the words they use and how they use them, what they do and how they do it – all this makes a huge difference to the organization as a whole! These things most definitely impact “command climate”.
I’ve been a pastor for about 20 years. Through these years, I’ve become more and more aware how impactful my presence is on Sunday mornings; my actions, my posture, my voice, even my emotions, all these combine to affect everyone there at worship. It’s the Sunday morning version of “command climate”. And one of the ways I am most impactful is through words… spoken words, on Sunday mornings particularly through preaching, but also the written word (as in this case).
I used to be an Army Intelligence Officer, and I remember an instructor at “Brand New Intelligence Officer School” say we’d earn our bread and butter as briefers; Intelligence briefings, Operations Orders, Decision briefings, etc. We were issued firearms – and taught how to use them (prior service Infantry training sure came in handy). But as part of a commander’s staff, our main “weapons” would be our pointers – pointing at maps, at time-lines, at photographs, etc.
He was right in a sense. Yes, we used the pointers to draw the eye, to emphasize something, for sure. But it was our words – what we said and how we said it – that ended up really being our “weapons”.
It’s clear words are how we clergy publicly earn our bread and butter too. We indeed have venues to put out words. It’s expected we put out words (particularly on Sunday mornings!). Whatever the size of the congregation, it is not unreasonable to assume a pastor’s words have impact on someone somewhere! What we say, how we say it, when we say it, and where and to whom we say it... all this combines to add to our version of “command climate”.
It’s an inescapable reality of the position we play in the grander public sphere…. just like other public positions and roles. Public voices have public impact! It’s just a reality!
And the more prominent our position, the more impactful our voice is. The higher the position a person holds in an organization, the more the voice of that person carries… the more impact it can have. The “voice” of the Bishop, for example, carries more import than the “voice” of the pastor. The “voice” of the governor carries across more weight than the voice of the local city or county bureaucrat.
Through his words, Winston Churchill inspired his nation to stand against the Nazi menace in Europe during World War II. He rallied his country – he united his country – together towards a common goal. His words inspired the best from the citizens of England. A portion of his words from one speech in 1940 still inspire:
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France – we shall fight on the seas and oceans – we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air – we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
And the famous portion of the speech by Martin Luther King Jr. inspired people all across the nation to lift their heads and see his dream of a better tomorrow. Here are small portions:
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, son of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi – a state sweltering with the heat of injustice – sweltering with the heat of oppression – will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream...
I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today ... "
And it continues…
“When we allow freedom to ring – when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God almighty, we are free at last.’”
The truth is, those of us entrusted with positions that have “voice” are indeed bearers of a public trust. Words from leaders absolutely influence; they can inspire, they can bring together, they can lift up hopes. And words from leaders can do the exact opposite; they can inflame the fires of hatred and intolerance and violence of all kinds.
Leaders who have access to a public podium are indeed stewards of this responsibility. Having that public “voice” absolutely contributes to the “command climate” of our public discourse, of our public lives, of what we find acceptable and tolerable.
Like many people, I’ve been thinking about what happened in Pittsburgh last weekend. I’ve been thinking, not just about the person that did this, that murdered worshippers at Tree of Life congregation, but also about political language our national leaders use that influence these kinds of actions.
Saying a person with a “voice” – a person with access to a public venue, sharing their view, their beliefs and perspectives – bears no responsibility towards the larger “command climate” is an ignorant statement. It just ignores the reality that words from those in positions of public trust impact the greater “climate” of the system as a whole.
Are words and tweets solely responsible for the violence (both verbal and physical) and acts of hatred we have seen increase these last number of years? No, of course not. Are the national political leaders responsible for the actions of each person in our nation? Of course not. But through words – verbal and written – they are indeed responsible for the climate that allows the kind of violent and antisemitic and racist spewing – again, both verbal and physical – we see on the rise recently. Words… both verbal and written… from our national leaders, starting at the top, do indeed facilitate these kinds of behaviors antithetical to the Gospel we say we believe in.

Part 2 coming next week: The Gospel Message we say we beleive in... and how it relates to our lives in these times.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Gospel Call





Over the years, I’ve come to understand the follow-on Genesis creation story of Adam and Eve in a very different way than how I used to understand it, particularly the 3rd chapter. This is the part where “Adam” and “Eve” seem to be engaging with God on a pretty normal basis.

[An Aside: “Adam” isn’t a guy’s name, like “John” or William”… it’s actually more an adjective. In Hebrew it literally means “Person from/of the earth”, “Earth-Person”, or more appropriately, “Human Being”]

They’re being “raised” in this place called The Garden of Eden – a place where everything is taken care of for them, a place where they are not held responsible for anything (and can’t be held responsible for anything), since they are pretty much immature children; undeveloped in the moral sense, completely immature in their ability to distinguish right from wrong. In a very real and practical sense, both “Adam” and “Eve” are not… in psychologically technical language… independent moral agents.

They are free to cavort in this Garden as much as they would like, frolicking joyfully, blissfully unaware not only of their own nakedness (I’ll get back to this later), but also completely unaware (and certainly uninterested) of how much energy and time and money it takes to keep the place up and running!

However… and here’s the element in the story that turns this into the story that it is… God has made a rule – a prohibition… the first “Thou Shalt Not!” God has told them they are not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. “You may not eat from this tree, or even touch it… or you will die!” (Gen 3:3) A terribly dangerous thing this tree is to Adam and Eve! It could kill the two people God created!

Best to have this dangerous tree put away some place where it can’t hurt these two innocent creatures – who of course aren’t responsible for taking care of any of this themselves! Oh, I know a good place for this -says God-… I’ll put this most dangerous of things right smack in the middle of the garden!

God wasn't around 24/7… otherwise the wily serpent wouldn’t have had time to influence them. The serpent indeed influences them enough to eat from the fruit of the tree… and not long after this, they recognize they are naked.

I certainly don’t believe this is a literally true story, but it does have some deeper truths and fundamentals related to healthy human development. For example, initially Adam and Eve were not independent moral agents. But after eating from the fruit of this tree they were, presumably, able to indeed distinguish between “Right and Wrong”… they started metaphorically “growing up”… their eyes were opened, and they became… (or were on the way to becoming) fully functional adults!

This is what we are called to do… to become mature grown-ups. Not only is it within us, but it is our calling to venture into the maturing process of becoming independent moral agents… to do our best to become self-responsible, self-aware, self-conscious.

My two kids used to not really care whether they were dressed on not... when they were really little… when they really didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. Now, I’m not saying nakedness is wrong (or right), so much as I’m commenting on the developmental stages of humans and how, at generally a certain age, we begin to become more self-conscious, more aware of the fact that we’re not extensions of someone else… we’re growing into the idea that we’re indeed our own persons.

This journey of self-responsibility is, and has always been, a challenge to us as human beings! Just look at the rest of this story: Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent… they passed the buck.

Oh, how human it is to “pass the buck” of responsibility! Even so, in spite of our normal tendency to “pass the buck”, the deeper message of this story is that it still remains our deeper work to stand up and say, “the buck stops with me”.

While we may see this story as humanity’s terrible loss of Eden – which many do – (Oh, if it hadn’t been for that evil serpent [and that wicked Eve], we’d all still be living the blissful worry-free life of Eden!), I contend this desire to go back to Eden, to go back to our infantile pre-moral agency, is really a desire to abdicate personal responsibility… like a theological version of the Peter Pan syndrome.

So, after they eat, Adam and Eve recognize they’re naked! Well, isn’t that interesting… that’s what happens to kids as they grow up; they start to become self-conscious! Self Aware!

This growing-up business also include us becoming more aware of what’s right and what’s wrong. And… our own responsibility with regard to right and wrong.

And here we have it all in the Eden story. If we want to grow up in a healthy way, we must indeed eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and we must indeed learn the difference between Good and Evil, right and wrong.

We must, in essence, leave Eden! The story continues with God telling “Adam” that he must learn to live “from the sweat of his brow”, his own toil. Basically he must become responsible for his own life. And “Eve” will experience pain in childhood. Certainly there will be joys in life (like in Eden), but the point is that in the “grown-up” world of self-responsibility… of living a life of self-consciousness, self-awareness… we humans will also feel the pains of life; of our choices, of our existence. 

After the “banishment talk”, God then kicks them out of Eden – and they’ve never been invited back! And to make sure of this, God then places an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of Eden to prevent them from returning. Basically, if they really want to grow up (and they really didn’t – they were sort of forced to), they can’t do this in Eden.

So, how does this apply to our call to life our faith in life? Well, how clear are we of God’s call in our lives? To gain clarity of God’s call in our lives, we discern, we read the bible… and if we are listening closely enough… we know!

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s a story where Jesus is in a house teaching and healing. He’s surrounded by people who want to hear him, to learn, to be healed, and of course there are those there to challenge him. People everywhere, so many things happening, the crushing crowd, the noise, the chaos… the story makes it clear there’s just an overwhelming amount of things happening here.

In the story, his mother and brothers show up to save him from this madness. They wait outside of this chaos, sending someone in to pass Jesus a message that they’re here to take him away. “Hey Jesus, your mother and brothers are here!” Jesus turns to the crowd and says, “Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? Those who do the will of my father in heaven are my mother and brothers and sisters!”

So clearly those who wish to follow Jesus are called to do “God’s will”. When we do God’s will, we are following the path of Christ! When we do God’s will we are indeed disciples of a Living God!

This assumes we have an idea of what Jesus is calling us to do. This assumes we have an idea of how Jesus is calling us to live.

When I asked in church what words might describe the characteristics of this call to life… people used words like “Forgiveness”, “Faith”, “Grace”, “Love”, “Mercy”, “Justice”, etc. Lot’s of words like that.

Then I asked… “How do you know?” How do you know these words actually describe the kind of life we’re called to live as we follow Christ? We might be exactly right to equate words like these with God’s call for us… but how do we know we’re right? Well, this call comes from God, right?? Makes total sense. Just… how can we know for certain?

Jesus sure seemed pretty clear about what God called him to do. But you know what… so did the Levites… and the Pharisees… and the Essenes… and even the Samaritans! They all had a clear sense of God’s call – and none of them agreed on what that was!

But… but… God is clear about what how we’re supposed to live!? God is clearly an external, objective source of this divinely inspired call… this call to a particular morality!

Well, some people do indeed seem to be very clear about God’s morality. How did they gain this clear sense of God’s will for their lives? How did they get so clear about this morality? Well, it’s sort of obvious… God is THE external, objective source! There is no other source!

Here’s some extreme examples just to make a point a little more clearly: The people of Westboro Baptist appeal to this very same external and completely objective source of morality. Neo-Nazis also appeal to this same external and completely objective morality.

Granted, these are extreme examples, but I wanted to make a point.

Most people certainly don’t interpret their views as legitimate… as divinely inspired, by any means! And yet the people of Westboro Baptist and the Neo-Nazis make this claim… that they are just being loyal to God! Just like we claim!

Yes it is true that most people, most congregations, most denominations, most religions do not interpret these moralities the way the extreme groups I mentioned earlier. But even among the “normal”, general Christian world, there still are such huge disparities of moral views on a whole list of social issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, race issues, immigration, and many others.

The deeper point here is that if we all point to this supposedly external and “objective” source and seem to come up with a whole array of differing moralities… it’s really not a very objective source after all! Because if it were, we’d all be interpreting this in the same way.

Here’s the thing, we really have a hard time stomaching the notion that we have to make our own choices… that we’re responsible for what we say and do, and how we live, and what we do. And we’re responsible for our sense of morality!

We want to attribute our morality to a “divine” source. We want it to come from a sacred, external and objective source. We want divine rules to live by – not a bad thing in theory. And even if these rules are in every way healthy, we really like them to come from something other than us… we have this need to “legitimize” them through a divine being outside of us. Indeed, how much easier it is to appeal to an external, objective source for all this.

Who’s to say we’re right? How do we know if we’re right? If we’re having such trouble agreeing on what the supposed external and objective source of our morality is saying… how can we even say we’re right?

Well, for starters… just because we might have some trouble agreeing, in no way means all choices are morally equivalent!

In terms of our perceived calls of discipleship regarding Christ… Westboro Baptist Church and the Neo-Nazis are NOT morally equivalent to our perceived call of discipleship regarding Christ!

But how do we know?

In the story of Eden, God calls us – through the metaphor of Adam and Eve – to become more self-conscious, more self-aware, more self-responsible… to become more aware of our choices and just as important… why we make them!

This administration has a policy regarding separating the children and parents of illegal immigrants. I get that they are coming illegally… but this is still not moral! It is not moral, no matter what!

“But they are here illegally!!” Separating children from their parents is NOT the only option here! We could certainly start with changing this policy while we re-think (fix!) our immigration system! We could create special courts and cases at the very least!

“But we want to teach them a lesson! We want to make it SO traumatic that they WON’T come back!” THAT may be the deeper thing! We might win the battle... but lose the war!

Folks, there IS a higher moral ground!

In my past career as an Army officer, I went to professional development schools (Military Intelligence and Chaplain schools), and in these, they told us clearly… “We (meaning the US military) do not torture. We don’t do this for two reasons… 1- it doesn’t work (people will tell you whatever they think you want to hear to make the pain stop), and 2- … we’re Americans… we just don’t this!”

It’s the same with this current policy of separating children from their parents! We’re better than this! Maybe we can’t all agree on details of our morality… but doing this is just the wrong thing!

While there may not be as clearly an objective source for morality as we’d like to think, the truth is the responsibility for our choices rests squarely on our shoulders! We may not be able to all agree on moral pronouncements from this clearly “objective” and external source… but it’s a very safe bet that the more self-aware and self-conscious and self-responsible we are, the healthier our views of morality will be. And as a result, we’ll probably have healthier solutions to moral issues.

We have to ask ourselves… what do we stand for? (Remember the “We’re Americans, we just don’t do that!” story?) I’d like to believe we’re better than this! I’d like to believe the US can be a safe place for immigrants who are seeking a safe place to life, in peace, just like the rest of us! I’d like to think that we have enough smart people in our government to be able to figure out a more moral solution to protect our borders, to improve to the immigration process.. and STILL help us be a “Shining Light on a Hill”.

But it takes a depth of self-awareness and maturity to be able to find these healthier solutions. It takes us being responsible for our own choices, and resisting the easier choice of abdicating our responsibility for growing up!

For sure we may not always get it right, but it’s always a healthier choice to admit error… to have enough self-awareness to take responsibility…and move towards healthier directions!

This bible/faith-stuff… it’s not just theoretical! It calls us to apply the principles and values we say we believe in. There is a higher moral way! It starts with our diligence in doing the work of growing up, in doing the work of maturity, in resisting the urges to blame others for our own problems and issues. It starts with leaving Eden and seeking the path of self-responsibility.

Just because we may not all agree on what this “external and objective” source reveals to us about our morality… this in no way means all moral choices are equivalent! Ironically, the further we get from Eden… the healthier we are, and the more moral our choices become!

Who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Those that see through the lenses of growth and maturity and self-responsibility… those that uses this lens to see Christ in others, that listen for the word of Grace, and Justice, and Mercy, and Love… these are Jesus’ brothers and sisters!

This is the Gospel call! And it IS a higher way!







Friday, May 25, 2018

God In Our Midst




Who is God?  What’s God?  And how do we know that what we know about God is “right”?
    
I’ve heard people say before that it’s so interesting how, over the centuries “God” seems to like what we (as humanity in any given civilization) like and hate what we hate.   The idea here is that God is primarily and extension of us – of who we are, and what we believe – what we accept and reject.   

Slavery was accepted as a reality in the ancient world.  The Romans built an empire on conquest and slavery.   And before them, I can’t think of a civilization in the ancient world – prior to Rome – that didn’t rely in some way on slavery.  I’m certainly not a historian, and for sure not a specialist in the pre-Roman Ancient Near East, so I could be wrong.   But, none-the-less, slavery was indeed a reality in this time and place. 

So is it a surprise that the Israelites had a practice of slavery?  

They did.  

How do we know this? Well it’s in the bible.  For example, Exodus chapter 21 spells out how the Israelites were supposed to treat their slaves.  It starts in verses 1 through 6, with God telling Moses what Moses is to say to the people of Israel with respect to male slaves:   “These are the regulations you must present to Israel:  If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years.  If he is single when he becomes your slave, he shall leave single.  But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him (the assumption is she also becomes a slave when he does).   If his master gave him a wife while he was a slave, and had children by her, then only the man will be freed on the seventh year, but his wife and children will remain as slaves. (Because children and women really had no rights anyway – not much more than property) ”   But if the man wishes to keep his wife and remain married (and presumably keep his children also) he can do this by choosing to remain a slave… but if he does choose this, he also agrees to slavery…  for the rest of his life

The follow-on section of this chapter describes how a father may sell his daughter into slavery, how a man might marry a slave wife, and how and what might void a sale of slavery – women and children were more property than people.  The texts continue regarding personal injury, injuries to various types of property, including slaves.  The follow-on verses spell out the divine laws regarding what property-owning males may or may not do with various types of living property – including slaves – and what might be legal punishments should he go too far in his violence.          

There’s more, but the general gist is that slavery was totally acceptable – not just to the Israelites, but to God too!  If slavery was so morally repugnant and reprehensible to God – as we believe – why wouldn’t God just have come out and said, “Slavery is WRONG!  And this horrible practice is hereby ended!”  God had a chance to do that.  More than one actually!   But instead, the story goes on that God seems to go out of the way to provide some order addressing the details for proper slave ownership.   And nowhere in there is there even the slightest inkling that God didn’t like this practice. 

These verses, and others, seem to plainly condone slavery, and for centuries, this wasn’t questioned.  And until this practice was challenged more and more by a larger and larger portion of society, the good Christian people didn’t hugely question it directly, and for sure didn’t question God’s support of it. 

But finally, by the 20th century most countries of the world had abolished slavery, and today for sure we consider it a horrifically immoral practice.  And interestingly – in direct contrast to the supporting scriptural references (once used to uphold the tradition) – God seems to agree with us.   Huh?!  

So, what is God’s position on slavery?  Well, that depends on which society we’re in, and in what time of history we find ourselves.  

“God’s” view seems to depend on the dominant view of the that society.  Almost like “God” is the externalized repository of our values and morals of the moment.  It’s like we upload our dominant societal values and morals into the “cosmic cloud” and claim it’s from God.   

Through most of Christian history, women -as a gender- had little to no voice.  Until we as a society started changing and adapting to the challenges of our new era, we church leaders seemed to point to God as the author of the “No Girls” rule.   But since the past hundred years or so, more and more churches have been allowing more and more female leadership.  
And since the early 70’s, our Lutheran church has even been ordaining women!   And interestingly, God’s good with it now.   Just ask God.    

Seems it’s hard to get away from the trap of having God reflect more what we want God to say about any given issue.  There’s the old joke that God made humanity, and we’ve been returning the favor ever since.  But “God” has to be more than just a giant cosmic mirror.   

While we do easily fall into the trap of putting words we want to hear in God’s mouth, I still have to say, there’s really is something Sacred out there.  From the beginning, we humans have always been searching for deeper meaning.  Our ancestors must have spent many hours staring up in awe at the wondrous universe above.  (BTW – If you’ve ever seen the Milky Way on a clear night, it really is inspiring!)  Our ancestors must have felt a deep connection with the life-giving earth… naming it Mother Earth or something similar, as a way of recognizing these intricate life-giving and nurturing relationships, all part of a grander web of life.  There’s records of some indigenous peoples perceiving ethereal energies in and around certain places, times, or events.  They -varyingly- believed our “world”, the space we occupy, is composed of more than just what’s measured and perceived through our physical senses. 

I knew an anthropologist once that shared with me there’s never existed any culture or society in the world (I assume that she knew of), that hasn’t had some sense of what we would call “religion”.   There’s never been a culture in our grand human experience on earth that has not believed in some kind of deity or deities.   
Through our perceptions of the “natural” world, we’ve always seemed to be open to something bigger than what we could perceive with our physical senses.  We as the species and genus Homo Sapien Sapien have always seemed to perceive some Sacred Presence or Presences within and without our realm of existence.  

God, the gods, the Holy Ones (or One), the Sacred Mystery(ies)… name “it” what you want…  we as a species have always seemed to find something (or things) beyond the realm of our normal lives… and found ways to reach out to “it” / “them”.

And given enough time, we’ve found ways to order these perceptions.  We’ve structured them in various ways to help us organize our societal and personal lives.  But the deeper take-away here for me is that the Divine World in which this Sacred Mystery dwells comes deep from within us – and from deep without us.   It is a wonderful part of us as a species.
Certainly it’s true in our day that “religion” is losing more and more relevance.  Particularly Christianity… particularly as we’ve understood it over the past thousand years… and particularly in the Western World of Europe and North America.  More are saying they are if not outright atheists, then at least agnostic.  (Theological “agnosticism” refers to the notion that barring any proof of existence, the reality of a god or gods is as yet an open question... and not necessarily a relevant one.) 
But I don’t think either the growing number of agnostics or atheists have given up on the sense that we should aim our communal lives towards some deeper, higher sense of ideals or values that provide our existences with deeper meaning.   I don’t think people in either group has lost a sense of “belief”… in life, in humanity, in good works, in making the world a better place, in whatever.  Meaning, unless a person is sociopathic or completely narcissistic, while they may drop a belief in God, I have hard time believing they have dropped a belief in anything bigger than themselves. 

Why? 

Why do we believe in something bigger than us?  Why have we always believed in something bigger than us?   

Because it’s in us to do so.   It’s in our DNA (physical and spiritual).  Now, I personally believe in God because I’ve felt and experienced the greater beauty and wonder of 

The Sacred Mystery (my term for this) through the physical world, through the powerful sense of love for my family.  There have been places and times where I’ve stood in mysterious awe of the natural world (like actually seeing the Milky Way or the sun rise sometimes), I’ve “felt” a sense of connection with the earth in general and some of its natural elements.  I’ve also heard other people’s moving stories of their experiences with this Sacred Mystery in their lives.  

I – like many others – have also had experiences from “behind the veil” so to speak… experiences not limited to the physical world of our senses.  I’ve had visions of animal spirits coming in the name of the Creator, I had a vision where I was gifted with a chant (in some cultures, God knows us not by our “names”- because names are temporal- but by songs, which are much more personal, deeper, and more permanent – in some traditions, God sings the universe into existence), I’ve been transported to other places not in body but in spirit.   

Yes, I do believe.  I believe there’s something Sacred out (and in) there, weaving its Sacred threads in and through and around all of creation.  Yes, there is a God, a Sacred Mystery indeed.           

But I also believe we have not altogether learned to distinguish what this Divine-ness is from what we want this Divine-ness to be (for us).  Again, there’s that trap… God made us in his image, and we’ve been returning the favor ever since.  If we want slavery… then would ya look at that… so does “god”.   If we think ordaining women is against the rules… then… who are we to question if “god” thinks the very same thing?!   “God” may have said homosexuality is a sin… but we thought it first. 
And how funny that “god” opposed these things in exactly the same places and times where society opposed them too.   And in places and times where these issues really weren’t issues… well then “god” didn’t seem to have an issue with them either. 

But some projections are good right?   For example – while we think murder is wrong, don’t we believe God opposes it too?  And wouldn’t we say God also opposes the abuse of children?   So how can we discern between the “holy” projections and the “not so holy” ones?  
Is there something we can go to for validation?  

Perhaps the bible? 

The biblical writings were written through and for a specific people, in a specific place and time in geography and history.  Most bible-believing Christians have no issue with eating shell-fish… even though it is strictly prohibited in the bible they purport to venerate.  Eating pork was equally sinful, but you can bet many are not about to stop eating ham sandwiches just because the Holy Bible tells them to!  

Some can make the case that the issues related to shell-fish and pork in the biblical era was really one of healthy food preparation.  Better to make a rule prohibiting these things than to risk illness.  Has God changed positions on these?

But some things we say still do apply – like the prohibition against murder.  God seems to have remained remarkably stable on this one.  But not on slavery – God now opposes this as immoral!          

So, what’s the right kind of projection and what’s not?  How can we discern the differences in God’s messages for us? 

Maybe it’s an issue of our growth and progress and evolution as individuals and societies.  Maybe it’s an issue of honesty – are we wanting to maintain some status quo (like slavery), or are we needing to work harder to be a better society (like the Civil Rights era)? 

Are we using God to justify some destructive practices (like our tendencies to alienate some group of people), or are we looking to God to help us identify and work towards a higher bar?  Are we needing an external source to justify our selfishness, our narcissism, our whims and desires?   Or are we projecting onto God our deeper hopes and aspirations for a better way of life, for a more just and deliberate society? 

Even if it is for higher ideals, maybe there is some projection there.  Still doesn’t make it any less holy!   Maybe all this projection stuff is a crutch.   But don’t crutches actually help someone in their healing process?  

What are we being healed for?   What is the call of the Holy in our lives?   Holiness, in its healthiest sense, calls us to be better than we are.  Holiness calls us to be better together, better than we can be by ourselves. 

I don’t question whether there’s something out there – something I now as the Sacred Mystery.  I think we as humans have always known this.   But I do question what we do with this notion of the Sacred Mystery… because it is also our propensity to bend it to our will, to manipulate it to serve our own twisted ends. 
It remains for us to work to be as honest and as forthright with not only this Sacredness in us, but ourselves as well.  It remains in us to identify and root out, to the best of our ability, the darknesses of our appetites for self-indulgence and power.  While we have it within us to work towards societies built on respect of differences, creating cultures of law based on justice and egalitarianism… these take constant work and vigilance.    

It is much easier to give way to practices that denigrate and impoverish all within the community – wielding the easy weapons of blaming others for issues we ourselves have constructed, creating systems and institutions built on the backs and blood of others, profiting off others equity, retaining our voices but denying others theirs, choosing who is good and who is bad based on nothing more than preferences.       

It is indeed harder to “do the right thing”.   It goes against our easier inclinations.  In fact, I would say, the “Right Thing” is never completely accomplished… it is something to strive for.  It is something to hold as an ideal ahead of us.  And if we have to project it ahead of us… then let it be so.  If we have to hold on to this as a crutch… then let it be so.  If this is what it takes to help us do the hard work of bringing out the best in us as a species… then let it be so.  And I pray that God is with us!      


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Resurrection!






I love the season of Easter! It’s my favorite Church season. Probably because it also falls on my favorite calendar season – Spring. I totally get the connection between Resurrection and Spring! New Life! New birth! Of course this only works in the Northern hemisphere. And it only works in places where there’s a distinct and cold Winter that then leads to a warming up of Spring – you know, where nature seems to come back to life again after the seeming death of Winter. (Some places, while technically in the Norther Hemisphere, don’t have this kind of distinction… for example some places in the norther part of equatorial Africa.)

Anyway, I do love Spring, and New Life, and Resurrection! I love the idea of resurrection, because it’s true! First off, it’s a profoundly human thing! We – Homo Sapien Sapien – the human race, as a species, have always leaned towards looking for the proverbial dawn after a long dark proverbial night. Almost every culture has had some form of religion. I say “almost” because, while our historians and anthropologists may not know of a culture that has not had “religion” in some form, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. We humans, from the beginning it seems, have always had a tendency to look “up”, to look “within”, to look to a deeper mystery of life we ended up calling “the gods”, or “god”, or “God”.

Our ancestors have intuited in some fashion the existence of a deeper sacred Mystery surrounding them. Our older ancestors attributed some “divine-ness” to the might of Thunder, or the majestic height of the Mountain, or the mysterious depth of the Ocean. Whether out of just mere respect, or out of recognizing some prior-existent sense of “other-ness”, we’ve imbued a sacredness to some moving elements of nature. Over time, others did this with the depths of the Mind, the Psyche. Still as mysterious, still as moving… but with religious ritual removed.

Did we – as a species – recognize the inherent meaning of something… a meaning already there? Or did we just imbue meaning to something that had none to begin with? It’s sort of a moot point, because we did it! All across the world. Over and over again! Perhaps from the very beginning of our species.
And over time, we ended up wrapping these elements of life with ritual and custom and practices. Some ended up becoming (from a “healthy persons” perspective – of our dominant world view) pretty harmful and destructive, while others are still meaningful to many today. We ended up building “religions” from these believes and customs. We ended up constructing theologies – understandings of the divine – around these religions.

Back to my point – I don’t know of a religion that doesn’t in some way -some how, some way- point towards a better “tomorrow” for its adherents to live towards.

And many religions have in their backgrounds a sacred story of the death and rebirth of a god, or many gods, or some divine being. There’s an element of resurrection in dozens of stories, of cultures; from the Central American Mayas to the Norse to the many Ancient Near Eastern religions (Egyptian, Babylonian, Jewish, Canaanite, Persian, and many more). Now, to be fair, there certainly exist distinctions between the various traditions regarding the nature of the resurrection… but there’s no denying this idea is there.

So, this is a pretty basic human tendency… to not only “see” some divine-ness out there – some how, some way. But also, as a species, we’ve also recognized – in some form or fashion – New Life… Resurrection! ...Becuase it’s in us to do this!

This is also profoundly a God-thing as well! Of course this is opinion (mine), but it’s not that far from what’s observed through history. It’s like we’re – as a species – hard-wired for this God-stuff! When did we -as human beings- start imbuing life mile-stones with meaning? When did we start recognizing sacredness in different elements of nature? When did we “invent” religion? Maybe it was always there in us to do these things. And it seems we did this all across the world. Now, we don’t have to agree with all the religions out there, but holy cow (see how I did that?!) we’ve always done this!

Sure, today we are able to scientifically explain how thunder and lightning work, and we can see that “up there” is just empty interstellar space. But plain ole thunder and lightning has inspired many an “enlightened” soul… and “just space”… I mean, even if you don’t believe in God, ya gotta be pretty dead inside to not have some sense of awe when looking up into interstellar beauty!

So, while some enlightened and rational “moderns” who’ve evolved beyond religion and gods, they also look at creation (or some elements of it) with their own version of a deep respect for the sacred. And even us “enlightened” ones… those modern cultures that seemed to have generally jettisoned religion and theism from their cultures, still have some sense of respect for the idea of New Life in their own way. They may have some national folk stories that lift up the idea of working through hardship towards a better life, some national themes of a better dawn coming from a dark night.

The oldest account of King Arthur comes from William of Monmouth -Historia Regum Britaniae- written in 1136. It tells the story of Arthur and Camelot. Who he was, where he came from, what he did for the people of the time (the ancestors of what would become the British people). Of course "King Arthur" as the story tells, didn't really exist. But that's not the point.

The point is that this is a story that tries to explain a "source" for the people of Britain AS the people of Britain. Arthur succeeds not only in uniting the kingdom, but uniting the people under one strong, wise and benevolent leader.

The story culminates in the battle of Camlan where both Arthur and Mordred are mortally wounded. Arthur is placed on a boat and floated down river to the mystical Isle of Avalon where his wounds are tended to. As with much of the story, Avalon lays in the mist between the world of humans and the world of the spirits. In this place, in this story perhaps, the mist is thin indeed. Arthur is said to be buried under a hill, where he and his knights rest… waiting to come to the aid of their beloved Britain when they are needed again!

Sure- we may recognize these stories as made up. But we may also recognize the deeper truth they represent! All this to say – we just can’t help it!

But that’s a Big Picture look. Let’s look a little more down to our own levels, where we tend to live and work. We’ve all experienced, and will continue to experience, our own deaths; the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, the dark struggle of depression, an ending of some part of life… these or others, realities of deaths we’ve faced in our lives.

But we’ve also experienced resurrections in some form! If we look deep enough, I can’t imagine anyone NOT having had some kind of life-giving experience of a New Day! I have to believe we have all -in some way or other- felt the call to come back to life again come back to life again after some loss or other. This is also a Resurrection!

So, our story as Christians is The Tomb Is Empty! Alleluia, He is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! We say this, not only because we are human beings, but because we believe!

I believe in Resurrection! I’ve seen too much, heard too much, felt too much, experienced too much to NOT believe in resurrection! I’ve seen people who’ve struggled with addictions, who’ve felt the darkness of addiction… come back to life again! It doesn’t always happen, for sure… but it can! Resurrection – New Life is indeed a possibility!

Why did our immigrant ancestors decide to cross an ocean, embark on a dangerous journey, to come here to what would become the Unite States? Well, for whatever reason, you can beter bet they didn't do it on a lark! It's probably a safe bet to say they didn;t do this becaus they were bored. It's probably a safe bet to say they were looking to some form of "resurrection". Still today, across teh world, people leave everything they know; their social networks, their homes, their jobs (if they have any), a lot of their stuff... because they are looking for new life!

I’ve known some who’ve been in that terrible place after the ending of a relationship -either through death or divorce… but have been able to find life again! If resurrection is finding new life again, coming back to life again from the dead… then this is Resurrection!

Like green shoots of Spring slowly working their way through the softening ground after the apparent death of a cold dark winter… we have always had in us a propensity to slowly look for life… to slowly make our way back to life… after a season of death and destruction. We have the seeds of resurrection in us!

That’s why we -as a species- have told these stories of Resurrection! Over and over again, in all their varieties, in all the cultures, in all the places across the globe… we tell this story! We Christians have this story in the story of Jesus, that repeats this truth! Resurrection is real!

I wasn’t threatened when I recognized this… I was left in awe! I recognized the deep sacredness we humans have always had in us.

And in all this, I have been struck by the Redemptive quality of Resurrection… how in our lives, in our resurrections, we can come to recognize a sense of debt; debt to our families – our spouses/significant others, to our parents and grandparents, to all our ancestors who walked before us, who set the stage for us; debt to our friends – who supported us; debt to strangers maybe – who perhaps in particular moments, when the planets and stars aligned, helped us find light at the end of the tunnel.

Maybe as we grow in age and mature in wisdom, we come to recognize the significance of the redemptive mature of our resurrections… and recognizing the debts that go with them… debts that may indeed never be repaid, and as a consequence move us to a deeper sense of gratitude.

“I can’t ever repay this… but thank you! Thank you! Thank you for my life!”

A striking fictional visual expression of this is the movie “Saving Private Ryan”, from 20+ years ago. It’s a World War II movie that follows an Infantry squad that's tasked with finding and rescuing the only surviving son of a particular family, right after the Normandy invasion in June of 1944.
They go through adventures and challenges to get to this private – and they are able to save him… but at a cost, of almost everyone in that squad.

As the last battle is almost over, Private Ryan, who’s now safe finally, is at the side of the mortally wounded leader of the squad, Captain Miller. Miller looks at Ryan, and with his dying breaths, says; “Earn this! Earn this!”

The movie then shifts to Ryan, many decades later, an elderly man by now, walking along the grave markers of the Normandy cemetery. He finds the grave maker he’s looking for – Captain John H. Miller. And all his memories seem to come back.

He recognizes not only was his life saved, but so were the lives of his children and grandchildren – present with him at that cemetery. (Interestingly, the number of his family present with him there equal the same number of lives it took to save him.)

He falls to his knees in front of the marker – his wife and family a respectful distance to give him and the spirits privacy. His family may or may not have known any of the story of his rescue, but we – the audience – do know… we do know the cost for his life and the lives of all his descendants after him.

“Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

By this point his wife has come to his side. He turns to her, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.” – Did I live well enough to honor their sacrifice? – “Tell me I’m a good man.”

She’s surprised at first, looking from her husband to the grave marker and back to her husband. Initially she's not sure what's happening. But then she becomes aware there’s something profoundly meaningful there to him.

“You are!”, she says.

In any resurrection story, I think there’s a redemption story – a story of the cost for New Life, and a story of how the unfolding New Life relates to that cost. And in this, we can’t help but feel a deep recognition of gratitude!

I dare ask you to think of a time you went through a death of some kind – a deep challenge, a dark night… and found the dawn breaking into a New Day for you later… a Resurrection. Your “coming back to life again” was probably the result, the help, of many others around you; their prayers, their holding you up, their working behind the scenes!

For sure, you may have done some hard work too! But more often than not, there’s so many others involved in our resurrections.

When I was first in the Army, I was part of a 12-man team. Among all our training and exercises, we also trained to compete in a yearly Ranger Challenge competition – testing our Infantry skills against teams from other units. The last event was a grueling 10 mile run with combat load (uniform and boots of course, load bearing equipment, our rucks filled with about 50lbs worth of basic soldier gear, and rifle).

It was grueling because we were competing against other teams, all of us trying to win. And to win, of course, we had to run as fast as possible. The rules were that during the run we had to stay together as a team – we had to start and end together.

I participated in about three of these competitions. One of those years, during the run, at about mile 7.5, one of the guys on our team just completely “lost it”. He must not have been drinking enough fluids, and for sure not replacing any of his electrolytes. He just stopped functioning properly – screaming, flailing, getting all crazy… then he just quit.

Well, mostly. From the waist up, he was non-functional. From the waist down however, he kept running (drive on!).

But... we did have a bit of a problem on our hands. So we quickly arranged ourselves to take up the slack. One of us held him up on his left side, another held him up on his right side, and I held up his ruck behind him… and as Forrest Gump said… we “just kept on running!”

This is a long story to talk about redemption and New Life – but it works! Sometimes people hold us up on our hard walk to Resurrection! Sometimes they hold us up on our sides when we can’t do it ourselves. Sometimes they pray for us when we can’t pray for ourselves. They do this because they love us. Because they love us… what they wouldn’t do for us!

And this is the story of our faith. What God wouldn’t do to lead the people to the Promised Land! What God wouldn’t do to bless the people. What God wouldn’t do for the people in the life of Jesus.

The cost paid for empty tomb leads to New Life!

This Easter story is a deeply redemptive one! It’s a way to tell us God’s love for us is deep enough, is profound enough, is wide enough… to lead to New Life. And at the cosmic level, that cost is already paid.

This story of the empty tomb is a way of saying to us, from God’s perspective – you… your resurrection… is worth ANY price!