Since my dad discovered his music in 2007, Paul Thorn has been one of my favorite theologians. Songs like “800 Pound Jesus” remind me of the unfailing friendship of Jesus Christ, “a bigger man than you or me.” I like to study the story of Pentecost in Acts alongside “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” and its Holy Spirit fire. I wrote a blog post last year about his song, “I Hope I’m Doing This Right”–a favorite prayer of mine. Paul Thorn’s songs are honest, real, and creative. They always make me think. Usually, they make me laugh, too.
One of the greatest laughs from Thorn came to me while driving eastbound on barren Highway 84, a south Mississippi road peppered with Apostolic and Baptist churches. My destination was a pot of coffee, round tables, and a mandatory gathering of preachers. The sixty-mile drive with nothing but music as my passenger was exactly what I needed on that fall day. Little did I know that a theology lesson would come between the towns of Roxie and Bude.
“Here’s some new music from Paul Thorn.”
The deejay’s announcement found me fumbling to turn up the volume.
My family reunion is going on today
My relatives have all flown in from places far away
As we sit there eatin’ chicken, it hits me like a truck:
I don’t like half the folks I love. *
I don’t know what I was expecting Paul Thorn to say, but it wasn’t that. I laughed and slapped the steering wheel. He went on to sing about how difficult people can be, especially family members. No matter how much we dislike each other’s actions, we can’t help but love each other.
The book of Genesis reminds us of how complicated families can be: jealousy between siblings, arguments over land, a conniving father-in-law, deception around inheritance, sisters vying for a man’s attention, etc. And this is Jesus’ family! His ancestors were one, big, dysfunctional family who didn’t really like half the folks they loved. Why would God choose to join the mess of a family?
There are many ways to answer that question. Perhaps one is that God wants for all of us to become his family.
In God’s family, the body of Christ, we aren’t always going to like each other either. Fires of conflict will start, and some will burn out. We’ll disagree and let each other down. No matter what we dislike, we are still called to love. A question I often hear is one with which many of us struggle: how do we love someone who has wronged or betrayed us?
That’s a love that only Jesus Christ can put into us and demonstrate through us. It’s a love we can only give to each other after we’ve received it from God. Even with his love working through us, the struggle to like each other will still be present.
In this world we live in
This I guarantee:
We all need more tolerance
To get along peacefully.
But I’m not as nice as Jesus.
And I really am fed up.
I don’t like half the folks I love.*
Perhaps loving begins with accepting the fact that we’ll always struggle with “liking.” Perhaps we’ll love best when we admit to God that we need help with the loving. Perhaps we’ll realize that no matter how much we hurt each other, at the core of our being is a desire to love and to be loved. Let’s start by receiving God’s love through Jesus Christ. Let’s take time to laugh at how far short we all fall of “being as nice as Jesus.” Let’s try to love, even when we don’t like it!
all good things to each of you,
* “I Don’t Like Half the Folks I Love” is on Paul Thorn’s album, Pimps and Preachers. Yep, that’s the album title. You can find the complete lyrics at this link. To read more about Thorn, order his music, or view his artwork, visit www.paulthorn.com
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
“Be quiet. You can hide here but only if we can keep it secret. You need to remember that we’ll all be killed if they find out what we’re doing.”Obadiah closed secret entrance to the cave after raising his finger to his lips to indicate the silence he hoped for. Then, he walked a few hundred feet to the entrance of the other cave and repeated himself to another group of prophets. Obadiah was a servant of Ahab and Jezebel but could not follow through with their orders to have the prophets killed. He had remained loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even when it seemed the rest of his people and peers had turned their backs on their heritage in favor of the illusion of power and sophistication.
Worship of Baal was widespread through Israel yet Obadiah continued to worship the one God of Israel. The only major difference now was that he had to do it in secret most of the time. Obadiah had hidden prophets in caves so that Jezebel might not find them and slaughter them.He had split the groups into two smaller groups so that they could be hidden in separate caves. This way, if one cave was discovered and raided, the prophets in the other cave could escape quickly and some of them might be saved from Jezebel’s bloody hands.
Eventually, Ahab and Jezebel grew tired of the prophet Elijah who resisted them and seemed untouchable. They gathered up three detachments of soldiers and sent them out to arrest Elijah and bring him back to answer their questions. Obadiah was one of the soldier leaders who led the third detachment of soldiers. The three groups went off to do the dirty work of the idolatrous rulers and seize God’s prophet. As the first detachment approached Elijah, they noticed that he did not seem prepared to resist them. Instead, they found him kneeling and wordlessly moving his lips in prayer. As they approached–calling out to him loudly with mockery in their voices–fire consumed them as if it had fallen from the sky.With more hesitation, the second detachment continued their advance on Elijah and soon fell to the same fate of incineration. As Obadiah’s detachment approached, Obadiah offered his own prayers and was surprised to see that the same fate did not befall the frightened group of soldiers. “All of you have been spared,” shouted Elijah as he pointed at Obadiah, “because of this man’s devotion to the one true God of Israel.”
Obadiah and Elijah shared the Faith with the soldiers and as they were preparing to return to Ahab and Jezebel empty handed they were surprised to see that Obadiah was removing his weapons and armor.”Take these back with you and give them to Ahab and Jezebel,” he said, “I shall serve them no longer.” They did as he requested and Obadiah stayed with Elijah to learn more about the life of a prophet. He felt a strong calling to speak truth in a powerful way regardless of cost or threat. He became a prophet to Edom and prophesied of a coming day of judgment for all nations. Before he died, or perhaps shortly thereafter, some of his words were recorded. It was Obadiah who said, “For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.” The man who had remained faithful even in the face of great threat and danger called all people to remember God’s justice and judgment even before it became so powerfully apparent.
Throughout my life I’ve had a fairly active imagination.
Up until the age of 7 or so, I was a rugged-individualist when it came to making my own rules about life, love, micro-machine floor placement, and which Disney soundtrack* would play in the background of my costumed parades through my parents’ suburban rancher.
And yes, the long hallways do provide excellent cat-walk space.
(*NOTE: a particular favorite was the Robin Williams-voiced “Prince Ali Fanfare” from the Aladdin soundtrack. My matching Arabian Nights-themed-pajamas cast a striking figure, even for a pudgy 2nd grader.)
But then my brother entered the picture, and ultimately forced a significant change in my formerly-unashamed air-guitar-solos laid brilliantly over Bruce Hornsby’s Scenes from the Southside played at room-clearing-volumes.
For the Record: 2PAC SAMPLED THIS MAN’S WORK
(casually brushes haters off)
No longer would I be able to shamelessly-with-2-fists-raised-in-the-air-celebrate my last second lay-up finally pushing the perennially basement dwelling Tennessee men’s basketball team of the 90s to the sweet 16 (rather than the finals, I was a whimsical middle schooler, not a crazy person), without first looking over my shoulder to make sure my brother hadn’t invited any of his friends over.
It only took a few red-faced encounters with those outside the family to tone down my outbursts, in favor of a more, let’s say, publicly reserved tenor towards the world.
Even now, my imagination still manages to express itself in fits and starts, but outside of stubbornly leading me to believe that Tennessee football will one day reclaim the glory of the late 90s or that grad school is at some point going to solve any of my financial or occupational aspirations, it has laid, for the most part, quite dormant.
Because, if there’s one thing we pick up over the course of our shared existences on this Earth, it’s that folks who spend the majority of their time staring dreamily out of windows are unbearable, bypass calculus, ultimately end up living long term in their parents’ basements, and never amount to anything.
Leaving many of us who were altogether not enticed by that description, to keep our heads buried in TPS reports and marketing meetings, until one day we become the very ones giving the speeches bemoaning the indolence of youth from the soapboxes of our brimming 401k’s and kid-picture-plastered-cubicles.
That’s the thing about our imaginations, much like old treadmills hiding in the corners of our grandparents’ wood-paneled Rec-rooms, the less we use them the more they turn into drying racks and long term cobweb storage facilities.
Which, however unexpectedly, reminds me of one of my least favorite movies:
An important caveat before we continue:
No, even for someone who once listened to Phil Collins’ Tarzan album for the entirety of a 12 hour road trip to Orlando, I do not have enough je ne se qua for a seemingly endless movie where people vanquish a witch with a pail of dirty mop water and burst into song about their wavering abilities to follow a clearly marked trail.
my favorite moment of my least favorite film is when the Dorothy-led band of witch-murderers returns to Oz to face the great and powerful wizard, and demand the promised bounty for their efforts.
During an argument over whether or not the Wizard is able to grant their requests, Toto, the dog, saunters over to a mysterious green shower curtain in the corner of the room, and pulls it back revealing a mustachioed, heavy-set banker turning knobs, pulling levers, and shouting into a voice amplifier.
Needless to say, the characters are a bit taken aback at the discovery that the giant green head in whom they had placed unending trust and risked their lives for was in fact not a wizard at all, but rather just an old white man with a sagging waistline.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”
For much of my life this has been my experience with the Christian faith greeting me each Sunday (with greater and lesser degrees of effectiveness). Lots of lights and smoke and mirrors and guitars and dry-ice and lasers and requests from aging white men in straining dockers to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.
Leaving us asking time and again: “just so we’re clear, showing up for this, weekly, is the height of human existence?”
At a certain point there’s only so many curtains one can pull back on life before questioning the authenticity of every experience, every moment, every prayer, every song, and even every well-placed HD quality Invisible Children video set to Mumford & Sons
In short, for many of us at least: we’ve seen too many white dudes back there.
What we can’t see or touch or feel or see or taste or hear quickly becomes that of which we must, thanks to years of disappointment and irrelevance, remain skeptical.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the author mentions an oft-overlooked detail accompanying Jesus’ tragic execution about another curtain and another unexpected discovery:
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Leaving behind, what I can only assume, was the quite startling image of nothing staring them squarely in the face. And, just a few days later, Jesus manages to deliver a similar greeting to his closest followers expecting to find his body slowly decaying in a dark tomb:
No levers or pulleys or even heavy-set bankers
Nothing, once again, was the only thing on the other side of the stone covering the entrance to his grave.
The one thing keeping me tethered to this faith, even after the exhausting inauthenticity, the failures, the pain, the cheese, the abuse, the music, the embarrassment, the movies (OH, THE MOVIES!) and all the ways organizations and individuals have sullied the name of the divine throughout the history of this thing we call “Church,”
is the quiet absence greeting me behind the torn curtain and the empty tomb.
It’s the void that refuses to be filled in with explanations, and answers, and music, and sermons, and politicians, and government shutdowns, and bumper stickers, and jihads, reminding me that it’s only in the absence of an answer to my prayers that I eventually discover I’m it.
And just like our imaginations, the more we come alive to this truth, this way of seeing, this way of living in the world, the more we come to know the quiet reassurance of its unobtrusive consistency in our lives.
Because, just like that witch-murdering band of misfits, the courage you long for, the beauty you seek, and the compassion you desire, resides not in lightning bolts or wizards or the rise of indie arena folk, but deep in your own weary bones.
So may your sentences remain unfinished and your questions unanswered.
May your road be windy and your certainty dashed.
And lastly, may your void, your “god-shaped-hole,” or whatever it was termed in youth rooms of both ancient and recent past, may it remain empty. Leaving enough empty space for your imagination to join the unexpected heights of a God who always manages to escape the assurances of our truth and the shackles of our expectations.
To read more from Eric Minton at his blog.
A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church
My sermon a few weeks ago concerning faith mainly looked at our faith in terms of hope in God. Even then, I knew the sermon had a second part, but I wasn’t really sure what it was.
During the night one night, as I lay in bed watching the clock move through the 4 AM hour, I found myself in circular conversation with God. Frustrated by my inability to go back to sleep and my need to wrap up the conversation, I heard myself say, “Faith is a burden.” Struck by my own statement, I entered into a new circle—Is that true? Is faith burdensome? I felt a little blasphemous in even thinking about faith that way.
A lot of my 4 AM conversations seem meaningless the next day or the questions I ask are easily answered after the sun comes up, but the thought of faith being a burden has stuck with me for weeks. I keep hearing the verse, “take up your cross and follow me,” echoing in my ears.
I also have been repeatedly drawn to the part of Moses’ narrative in Exodus that begins with the scene at the burning bush. Old Moses, out shepherding his father-in-law’s flock, sees something that piques his interest. Clinging to his staff, his only means of protection, he walks over and is commanded to take off his shoes. “You are on holy ground in this wilderness, take the sandals off your feet.” Hearing God’s voice, Moses hides his face, afraid to look at God.
God tells Moses of his plan to set the Israelites free and Moses starts to tell God why he isn’t the man for the job. “God, I am no one, I have killed a man, I am a stutterer, I am in charge of my father-in-law’s flock, I have a family…”
And God answers, “Moses, you may have your share of burdens, but I am now going to ask you to throw down that staff that is currently holding you up.”
We hold on to burdens that have us ashamed, afraid to look to God; we hold burdens that leave us heavy laden and run down; we hold onto burdens that we could have thrown down long ago, but we hold onto them because they have become crutches for us and we are afraid to put them down because we are afraid that we might fall down.
Think of the illustration from today’s Gospel story (Luke 18:9-14):
Two men went to the temple to pray. The tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
God beckons us to come before Him just as the tax collector, humbly, with our shoes off, acknowledging holy ground, and to lay down our burdens right there in His presence, to lay down the staffs that we think are holding us up. Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The Lord said to Moses, ‘What is that in your hand?’ Moses said, ‘A staff.’ And God said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’
That’s not the end of the story is it? Moses doesn’t get to throw down those burdens and walk away, does he?
The next part of the story begins with a snake on the ground and with God telling Moses to pick that snake up.
The Moses narrative says nothing about how quickly Moses picked up his staff. If he took a little time, I can’t say that I would blame him. Though I gave no real thought to that staff turning into a snake, if it did, I would be hoping that Tom had a net and was willing to use it.
The fact is that the next part of the story is an acceptance of a mission. The next part of the story signifies the beginning of a new journey—out of the shelter the wilderness provides and into the open action—this is where faith and works collide. This is where I hear the words we read earlier from James and this is where I hear Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
When we pick up our staffs, our crosses, and in doing so accept the mission of the cross of Christ, we are accepting the collision of our faith in Jesus and the works of Jesus. We may already have the distressing voice with us that won’t let us sleep because of theological questions. The voice may keep us coming back to church, it may keep us tithing, it may urge us to walk over to a burning bush, and it may even oblige us to pass along a package of peanut butter and crackers to the fellow on the street corner.
But we mustn’t confuse being good humans with being followers of Christ. When we truly accept the burden of the cross of Christ, we are accepting the vision that compels us to see injustice, poverty, and inequality, the action that compels us to fight for freedom, to feed the hungry, and to forge a redistribution of power, and we acknowledge that it is the love of Jesus that compels us to see, to act, and to share.
Jesus beckons us to come before him, to pick up our cross, and to accept the burden of faith.
But that’s not the end of the story, is it? Moses’ journey is just beginning and it is not an easy journey. The trip to Egypt, in Egypt, and out of Egypt is horrific. And then Moses gets stuck in the wilderness with a people whose satisfaction is always short-lived. We hear these people in the wilderness ask time an time again if God has forgotten them—they lose faith during the journey.
What of our mission, of our ministry? What of those days when our good works feel worthless or painfully perpetual? What of those days when we do good works but we find our faith weakened? Come on James! We’ve got works and we’ve got faith, but there are some days when we’re not sure that we believe.
Several nights ago, as I lay in the bed with my daughter Annie, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” together because she’d be singing it since I picked her up from preschool. At the end of the song I said, rather offhandedly to her, “Jesus does love you, Annie.” Her reply, “I know. Mr. Stephen tells me that.”
All at once, I sighed with relief and felt a pang in my gut. I was relieved that she was hearing about Jesus’ love for her at school and I was hurt at the possibility that she didn’t know this from me, her mother. Her mother, a minister.
The roll of questions started to flood: “Was my ministry becoming a job and was I no longer willing to bring work home? Was my faith wavering enough that I was failing to share the faith with my own daughter?”
Here’s the answers: Maybe and maybe and I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. I’m willing to accept that I get tired and I’m willing to accept that I do share the message of Jesus with my children, and that Annie, in that occasion, was just relaying a simple fact from her day at school.
But I share the more painful possibilities of that story with you because I believe that I am more human than unique—I don’t think that I’m alone. I think that I sing in unison with many the words, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”
Hear this heart-wrenching quote from Mother Teresa: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
I find consolation in the fact that others struggle, even those saints like Mother Teresa. I find consolation in the fact that it felt good that night to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with my child. I find consolation in the fact that I often feel burdened by faith; burden can sometimes mean recognition of and reaction to the lack of one’s own understanding. And realizing that we don’t know it all is, in itself, a push to do more and a release from having to know it all.
On those nights when I have circular conversations and I just want to go back to sleep, I am consoled in the morning because something has been going on—I am wrestling, I am struggling, but at least there is action.
I don’t believe that my journey of faith or our journey in faith is supposed to be easy. If we have a solely rosy interpretation of scripture, then I don’t think we’ve been presented with the whole text. In life, I believe that we will hurt and be hurt. I believe that we will feel overburdened and that sometimes those burdens will be too much. I believe that on occasion we will do good works and they won’t be received well or we will do good works for the wrong reasons. I believe that there will be days and nights and weeks or longer that we will strain to hear the voice of God and we will not be successful. And we will grieve.
These words are no benediction, are they?
Go ahead and argue with God. Pray. Cry during the struggles. Pray again. Keep doing good works! Be open to the possibility of joy every morning. And when you find it, share it abundantly. Love abundantly. Pray to the one who receives your burdens and cast those burdens before the Lord. You will be sustained. This is not the end of the story.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.
Dearly Beloved Readers: I’m amazed that out of the different blog entries I post, the ones that receive the most readers & feedback are those entitled “The Candid Clergywoman.” These are the most vulnerable of my posts. In them, I try to share as honestly from the heart as the computer keys will allow. If I’m going to be completely “honest,” I don’t like to write them. It’s a lot easier to tell you what my dog did last week or which yoga pose taught me about God!
Some days, however, I feel the Spirit “nudging” me to do what I don’t want to do: write candidly about life as a pastor, both the joys and the hurts. Today is one of those days. Thank you for reading & listening with me.
“We’re praying for you.”
I was robed and walking towards the narthex when one of my church members stopped to hug me and whisper these words. I offered a broken “thank you.” He walked on. I felt the tears grow & burn in my eyes. Halfway down the hallway, I turned around and ran back to my office. By the time I got there, I was sobbing. The clock read 10:24AM. Six minutes until worship began, and I was grateful that I gave up make-up, especially mascara, years ago.
I need to get it together, I thought. What if we have first-time visitors? I should go meet them. Are there any announcements I need to make? Why do we buy such cheap, generic kleenex in churches? I could really use some of those with lotion right now.
I took a deep breath and looked in the office mirror. If I could just get the water out of my eyes, surely no one would see the dark circles underneath. I fluffed my hair–not because it dried my eyes but because it made me feel a little better.
I put my hand on the door knob, only to feel the tears rise again. Darn. I took another deep breath, eyes closed, and I could hear those words again…
“We’re praying for you.”
Standing in the dark doorway of a church office, I let those words wash over me. Church members were praying for me. If there were visitors, the church members would greet them. If there were announcements, a church member could voice them. All I needed to do was show up. I was weak, but God was strong. The church’s spiritual leader was weak, but the Church was strong.
I finally emerged and headed back down the hallway at 10:28. The choir was lining up, and I was able to slip into my spot quietly. A couple of people shared prayer requests with me, and I was able to listen dry-eyed. The organist and pianist began the prelude, and we processed in. Everything went as usual, and I was even able to lead the Prayers of the People with a genuine smile. Just before I was to stand for the Scripture reading and sermon, the part about which I was most nervous, the soloist stepped forward. When I heard the first notes of her guitar, the tears started again.
The song was called, “Grace For the Moment.”
I glanced at the congregation to see tears on many cheeks, not just mine. Whether saint or sinner, pastor or parishioner, we share this in common: we all need grace for each moment. Though I had been physically alone in that office only thirty minutes earlier, I was far from lonely. The majority of people in that sanctuary did not even know that I’d been crying, much less why. I did not know why many of them were crying that day, either. Our tears revealed that we needed and wanted the grace that God was pouring into us through worship and prayer. When the final strums of the guitar faded, the moment when I most needed grace arrived. I stepped into the pulpit, quietly thanked her, and invited everyone to turn to the Scripture lesson.
I had walked into church that day with a heart broken by a break-up. While I had the title of “pastor,” the people of St. Luke United Methodist Church were my pastor. I may be a worship “leader,” but what led me into God’s presence were the prayers and songs of God’s people. When I left that day, my heart was not fully healed, but it was closer to being whole again. My eyes were red and raw from cheap kleenex, but God’s presence, with God’s people, was the lotion that I needed to ease the pain.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
When Isaac first appeared in my life last year, I described him to people as a “white lab.” His coat was mostly pale with a few brown markings, and the shape of his face revealed a Labrador Retriever. As he has become my co-pastor and companion, I wondered what the history was below that shedding fur. His lean figure and brown-spotted ears revealed that he was not a pure-bred lab. I had also heard that there was no such thing as a “white lab”–just a very light-colored yellow lab. Isaac’s coat was not light yellow; it was white! He also had what my friend and his rescuer, Jamie, called a “circus act.” He could stand on his hind legs for long periods of time, sometimes dancing from one foot to the other. That was not typical of the labs I had known.
After fearsome research, also known as a google search, I found a canine DNA test with good reviews. I placed my order and waited for the experiment. A few swabs of his mouth and a sealed envelope later, Isaac’s DNA was on its way to a laboratory in the midwestern United States.
There was a lot of discussion among my family and friends of what Isaac might be. Pointer, Irish setter, dalmatian, pit bull, and spaniel were all in the guesses. When the magic envelope of results was opened (well, clicking on the link in an email from the company), Isaac’s true identity was revealed:
1. Labrador Retriever (of course)
2. American Eskimo (Huh?)
3. Collie (Lassie? My Isaac? Really?)
How did an eskimo end up in the Mississippi delta? Along with the results came a description of each breed. I skipped the labrador page and went straight to the eskimo. It turned out Jamie’s description of the “circus act” was not far from the truth. American eskimo dogs are well-known for being trained for circuses: jumping through hoops, scooting around obstacles, and yes, walking a tightrope on their hind legs.
I had a Lassie hunting birds in the delta –while balancing on his hind legs. All I could do was scratch my head.
Looking at a mixed-breed like Isaac from the outside, we have no idea how many breeds are in his DNA, affecting his behavior and learning style. One of the reasons that these DNA tests are now available is to help with training mixed-breed dogs, to learn their personality traits. Below the surface is a wealth of possibility, not just for canines, but for all of us.
When I was growing up, one of my favorite verses of Scripture came from the story of Samuel anointing David king of Israel. It’s one that many of us probably learned in Sunday school. All of David’s burly, handsome, older brothers walked with royal struts by the prophet, Samuel. I always imagined Samuel oohing and aahing until a voice gently whispers to him, “Don’t look at his appearance or physical stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7, New King James Version). It’s one of the first and classic stories of the unlikely underdog receiving divine favor. And we love it because many of us have felt like David at some time: unnoticed and overlooked, always living in someone else’s shadow.
What strikes me now about that verse is that this is a story of embracing mystery. There is so much we don’t know that only God can know. It’s a story that reminds us that God sees the traits and characteristics in us that we can’t even see in ourselves. It’s a story that encourages us to look at ourselves, and each other, with the reassurance that only God knows the deepest confines of the heart. It reminds us that we only know so much–and that’s okay.
Even after Isaac’s DNA test, there is still so much I don’t know about him. I don’t know what in his background causes him to drink water as I pour it from a bottle. I don’t know why he bites his leash and tries to “walk himself” around the neighborhood. But I do delight in what I can find out about him. I rejoice as I learn about his tightrope-walking tendencies and incredible running speed. In the same way, we can give thanks as we learn more about each other’s “true identities” and gifts. Let us regard each other with the same, sacred awe with which God looks at our hearts.
all good things to each of you,
Read more from Darian Duckworth at her blog.
A poem for Steve Silvern and inspired by a reading of Hasidic texts on Yom Kippur
I am a shuttered lantern
By the coldness of my heart
Rusted by tears
Sprung from hopelessness
That I failed to wipe away
The dark is quiet
I cannot see
I cannot be seen
As I am stuck
The course of my life
Open my shutter
Shatter my darkness
That of me
Even though I fear
The flakes of
Oxidized by my guilt
To the light
I may see
I may see
What I do not want
I may be seen
Help me move
The comfort of stasis
The stasis of comfort
A being of light
Light is my center
Let my part
The Greater Light
Perhaps I will
So filled with light
So be it
What is shattered can be repaired
Shell by shell
Husk by husk
Be what I truly am
Let me be
Lighting the world.
Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us. – Thomas Berry
Friday, October 3rd was the Feast of St. Francis for the Christian church. St. Francis is most widely known as the patron saint of animals and the environment, and founder of the Franciscan order. And while this is appropriate for him, it is also true that St. Francis was known for his solidarity with the poor, something being clearly illustrated in the actions of Pope Francis in our day. St. Francis and his feast call our attention to something uniquely important to our day and our time — our troubled relationship with the wider community of God’s creation and its impact on the poor. Perhaps this combination has never been so acute. But for all the poignancy of that combination, the Feast of St. Francis is most commonly celebrated in the church as an event primarily for children and pets and our general aesthetic appreciation for the beauty of natural things. How can we move this feast and for what it stands onto the larger church calendar of salvation, redemption, holiness and justice? How can we advance the church’s appreciation for St. Francis past simply children’s programming and a nice annual feast about nature, forward to where it plays a vital role in informing true worship, engaged mission and right justice?
The New Poor
In our day the church is being challenged to expand its circle of awareness and concern to what some call “the new poor.” These include those made poor through our society’s pervasive and insatiable appetite for cheap goods, no matter the methods of producing them. These include those made poor by our tolerance for corporations shifting the true costs of production onto the backs of natural communities, poor human communities, larger society and the next generation; all who are then left to bear the suffering and clean up the mess, as long as the prices on the shelves and at the pump remain low, profits remain high and the resultant suffering remains mostly out of site for the privileged and the powerful. And the new poor also include those non-human communities that bear the suffering of displacement, disease, starvation and extinction as we destroy their habitat and the systems that sustain them, while writing them off as “the cost of doing business.”
Now, I don’t want to waste this article wagging a green finger at the church and calling us to shame, for that is neither Gospel nor helpful. The place of healing and recognition to which we need arrive is neither shame or fear, but rather joy, hope and love. For I believe what the Senegalese poet and naturalist, Baba Dioum said is true:
In the end, we will protect only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.
Others have adapted this to say, We will not save what we do not love, and we cannot love what we do not know. In other words, the heart of our task is to “familiarize” (make family) not just our human kin, but the whole family of God’s created order. This lovemaking, then, cannot be the fruit of protest politics or self-denial of certain conveniences (as important as those are in our day). It is, rather, the work of inclusion and drawing near. And to do that, as the church, we need to let God’s good creation more fully into our assembly and fellowship, which are the places where we learn to love each other. How do we begin? Here are some ways.
First: End the false competition between valuing people and valuing nature
It is time to end the false divisions that often frame these issues: tree huggers verses people lovers, wilderness lovers verses urban lovers, the economy verses the community or human needs verses animal needs. It is especially time to end associating false and misapplied theological divisions such as flesh verses spirit, eternal things verses earthly things or paganism verses Christian salvation. We must not allow a separation of people from nature or environment from people. Those false dichotomies are the weapons of political maneuvering and dishonest debate. It is certainly not in the biblical witness to make a division of life on God’s created earth into a sacred human enterprise on the one hand and a profane and secular earthly existence on the other. The biblical witness, when taken as a whole, affirms the value of all God’s good creation from beginning to end – the land, the trees, the animals, the stars and the human community, all as one worshipping and suffering community, groaning together and looking together for the salvation of God, the redemption of all bodies and the renewal of the earth.
In particular, the Christian church must work to end the false separations we have created and sustain in our language and prayer, music and practice; by speaking and acting as if God is solely concerned with the human enterprise while the rest of creation is but a stage and backdrop for our human drama. We must begin to include in our speech, prayers and praise, the presence and voice of our fellow congregants: the four-footed, the finned, the rooted, the winged and all life that surrounds us and fills our lives. We must begin to more fully pray for them, and with them, and allow them to pray, in their own voices, with us. And this cannot be done as only cute lessons for children or occasional accommodations to nature lovers or environmental activists; but as the right engagement in God’s full gospel of salvation, which, as Paul writes in Colossians Chapter 1, “was proclaimed to every creature under heaven” and who, as he writes in Romans 8, like us, “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” In other words, we are all in this together.
Second: Expand our thinking beyond good stewardship of material things to include right relationship with holy things.
Wendell Berry describes the issue this way:
Our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy.
Wendell is not using the word “blasphemy” lightly here. It is a religious term with transcendent meaning. It indicates a violation of the sacred. It points to an affront to God. It means that the wrongness of this situation is beyond the human level and beyond our human scope and timeline. And what he is putting his finger upon points a way forward for placing these issues into heart and center of the Christian church, which is the worship of God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
The “destruction of nature” to which Wendell refers can indeed serve as a call to stewardship and justice, but it must also serve as a mirror reflecting the spiritual disconnects between the world’s behavior and God’s intention for life on earth. Naming these destructions as blasphemy extends to the church an invitation to not just advocacy for a cause, but also to repentance and a restoration of some vital missing elements of Christian holiness, discipleship and gospel salvation. In this is a role for the voice of our religious faith, by reclaiming the earth as sacred and all God’s creatures as holy.
Third: Place self-control, kindness and contentment as centerpieces of our faith practice.
I think particular seasons and times in life do call for particular strengths from us. The church has done this before. In times of war or great conflict, the church has needed to be a people who simply embodied that British mandate of WWII – “Be calm, and carry on.” But then, in times of great struggle for justice, the church has needed to reach deep and find her strength in compassion and demonstrate her willingness to walk in the shoes of the stranger or the oppressed. And now, in this time of overwhelming technological power, runaway consumption and a disregard for our impact upon God’s whole beloved community of life, the challenge for the church is to embody the values of contentment, gentleness and self-control. Perhaps as much as anything, the church could model the love of Christ for the world through restoring to the center of its life together the historical practices of simplicity, contentment, gentleness and kindness. For in this, the church has not been counter-cultural at all, but rather has stepped fully into the rat race of consuming, competing and complaining. Perhaps what the planet most needs from the church in our day is to embody the life of a people of God who, in the name of Christ, choose simplicity, gentleness and contentment as the hallmarks of their lives. What a powerful witness that would be. How counter cultural that would be. How healing that would be.
Last: Find joy and love in the beauty of the earth and the inclusion of all living things.
In the end, as we have said, we will save only what we love. And the converse of that is also true: We will be saved only by what we love. In the end, as Thomas Berry has said, “Only our sense of the sacred will save us.” So, in the end, this challenge is really is not about a heroic church sent out to rescue an environment “out there” or about mobilizing a passionate religious response to “save the planet.” In the end, it is not just the planet that needs saving – it is we ourselves that need saving. And it is not just our place on the planet that needs rescuing, it is also our souls and communities, lost on an endless treadmill of running, grasping and getting, that need saving. The environmental crisis without is but a mirror image to the spiritual crisis within. By letting the rest of creation into our worship, prayer and family life, and by letting them into our hearts, our own hearts will be saved. Because as we let them in, we will in turn learn to love them. And as we learn to love them, we will recognize their holiness and worth. And as we recognize their holiness, we will then come to recognize our own holiness and worth. And in that knowing, we too will be saved. For that is, after all, the Gospel of salvation.
Our journeys have brought us to worship…but we travel from vastly different beginnings. On this World Communion Sunday, we are but a small part of the larger church that raises our hands and hearts to you. From places as thirsty as the Sahara and as green as the rain forests in South America…from the loneliness of an empty home or from the chaos of a violent one…we come to you Lord as we are.
Whether our hearts are prepared to meet you or our thoughts are racing, full of this morning’s worries, quiet us enough that we can hear you singing over us.
Remind us that we have the joy and privilege to call you Father with one voice along with our brothers and sisters who call you ah-TYEHTS, El Padre, Abba, Mon Pere, Baba…
Like an exquisite bouquet of different flowers brought together as a fragrant offering, your children call out to you.
In moments this week where we find ourselves quarreling, give us unity…
When we find ourselves hungry, give us a longing to feed our brothers and sisters…
When we find ourselves at a loss for words, give us arms that reach out to heal each other…
Most of all, help us to truly SEE each other as the brothers and sisters that we are…one family…one church.
In Jesus’ Name and with Hope to be more like Him, we offer our prayer.
A sermon preached on Rosh HaShanah Evening, September 4, 2013
This is the birthday of the world. Among other things, this day, Rosh HaShanah, is the commemoration of the creation of the world by G-D. One does not have to be a Biblical literalist to believe the miracle of existence should be celebrated. Forget flashy subversions of natural law, unconsumed burning bushes, and splitting seas. The fact that we are, that anything is, is sufficiently amazing to cause us all, from time-to-time, to stop in wonder and to marvel.
That there is something, we know. What some of that stuff is, from pine cones to pandas, we learn more of every day. But why? Why are we?
It can be considered a futile task to try to say anything about G-D, for what can we say that we know is true? Yet, each individual is a puzzle to him or herself and the question of why; why am I? Will arise in the mind suddenly and unexpectedly for some and constantly for others. But even before the question of individual purpose, we can ask the corporate question. Why are we? Why are there human beings or, on some planet circling a distant start, why are there any thinking feeling beings like us?
I have a proposal, a gut feeling that has been with me for decades. G-D was lonely. The Soul of Creation wanted someone to love, to communicate with. I know that this implies some lack in the Creator of Heaven and Earth. But while we have from time-to-time, from Saadia Gaon to Maimonides onto the modern day, embraced philosophy and found our way to the perfect, unchanging philosopher’s god, this was not the G-D with whom we sought relationship in our joys and in our sorrows.
It was the G-D of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah we cried out to in our despair and who we somehow knew shared our tears of joy in moments of triumph or exultation. This G-D, who we can speak of as the friend of Abraham, this G-D we can imagine being lonely. And so, here we are.
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying The Soul of Creation is like a lonely and despairing fifteen year old girl who becomes pregnant to have someone to love and someone to love her. This child is having a child to have a living doll, a pet. It does not occur to the young girl that this baby will differentiate itself from her. Rather, think of an adult woman, who seeks to have a child, well aware of the challenges and responsibilities, but is also aware of joys of watching that child come into his or her own. Indeed, the adult woman knows she is opening herself up to the possibility of greater pain and fear than she has known before. She also embarks on child bearing and child rearing knowing that the goal is a differentiated person, a mature, whole separate person. Those of us with adult children who have become distinct, caring people, know the amazing joy of moving into a position of friendship with our children.
Let us see G-D as such a woman, such a mother. She knows, before we exist as a species, that we will disappoint and we will rebel. Furthermore, She knows that such rebellions are part of the path to full personhood. So, in our mythic past, when we enter the terrible twos by eating the fruit and being exiled from the safe playpen of Eden, that was as it should have been.
Our purpose is to grow and to mature fully into our role as cocreators with The Most High. Not to become little gods, but to become worthwhile company to that which is beyond our full understanding. The mystics will say we are never fully apart from G-D, but I feel deeply within myself, that as attached as we are to The Holy One, it is our purpose to become as fully ourselves as we are able.
It is good to remember that a parent loves his or her child through dirty diapers, drawn on walls, broken windows, teenage rebellions, and on and on. Indeed, in creating, G-D opens the door to pain as does any human parent. G-D suffers with us, as a parent does. The mystics teach that G-D’s presence, the Shachina, went into exile with us after our Temple was destroyed-a parent sharing her children’s pain. I like the image of writer Lois McMaster Bujold. Her character, speaking of her lover, says, “When he is cut, I bleed.” So to does the Holy One bleed with us, when His/Her children are cut.
We can interpret some of our most fundamental texts to support this. I was privileged this summer to study Torah with R. Dr. Leila Gal Berner. We looked at the Sh’ma and Veahavtah. In Shema Yisroeal Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad, the early 20th century philosopher, Herman Cohen interpreted Echad not as one, but as alone. But in Cohen’s case, he meant alone in the sense of singular and unique.
R. Leila interprets echad as alone in the plain sense of the word. That is, there is no one with whom G-D can be in relation. G-D is alone and, indeed, lonely. Now, R. Leila goes on, in light of this interpretation of echad as alone, to read the beginning of the Veahavtah:
You must love The Eternal, your G-D, with your whole heart, with every breath, and with all you have.
This is not a command. This is a plea, a cry to be loved. This is Divine pathos. Holy love for us is given unconditionally as, in a healthy parenting relationship, the parent’s love for the child is unconditional. But The Holy One, The Alone One, The Lonely One, is the parent, ever hoping for His/Her child to return that love and, in the fullness of time, to return that love with a growing level of maturity and understanding. As we each wish to be seen, in-so-far as we can, as finite beings,
G-D wishes to be seen by us.
The Theology of creation implicit in all of this is that G-D created both out of a desire to love and be loved, an awareness of aloneness, and a willingness to pay the price of pain and disappointment for the eventual payoff of independent, free-willed beings with whom to be in relation. Our purpose in this schema is to be loved and to love. We are to pierce the veil of separateness that we perceive between us and The Holy, to see and be seen. We are to mature as a species and as individuals to be worthy partners of The Holy One.
But, as does any theology, this has implications in terms of our ethics and our behavior. If we wish to answer the call to love The Eternal, your G-D, with your whole heart, with every breath, and with all you have, how are we to do so?
Whether we believe that we are each distinct individuals, enholied by the breath of G-D by our very natures, each containing a spark of The Divine; or we believe that we are no more separate from G-D than an individual wave is from the ocean, each human being partakes of The Holy. So it is, that our easiest, most common encounter with G-D is in facing our fellow human beings. In being face-to-face with our fellow, we are face-to-face with G-D.
Thus, if we are to heed the call to love G-D, we must, as a matter of course, love our fellow human beings. If we are to care for G-D, we must care for those around us. If we are to pierce the wall of aloneness around The Holy One, we must reach out of our own aloneness, not only to the singularity of The Creator, but into the prisons of loneliness that trap our neighbors. The simplest, though perhaps not the easiest, way to love G-D is love our neighbor. Note that implicit in this, as we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and we are to love our neighbor as a means of loving G-D, we must, even in our deepest place of despair and brokenness, find a way each to love him or herself.
Furthermore, if love, as it should, implies action, then we must strive to demonstrate our love both in compassionate action and an adherence to justice and righteousness in our actions.
But G-D is not merely reflected in our fellow human beings. As the Psalmist says, there is no place without G-D. All of creation speaks to us of the Holy One. We are but travelers in a world that is both surely G-D’s and the birthright of future generations. As such, if we are to love G-D, we must love G-D’s creation and tread lightly as we pass through the world; preserving what we can and ever mindful of our roles as lovers and cocreators, strive to repair what is broken.
So it is on this, the birthday of the world, we ask, why are we here? We respond, we are to love G-D and be loved. We ask, how can we love G-D, so mysterious and beyond our ability to fully grasp with either mind or heart? We can love G-D by loving both our fellows and ourselves, each of which partakes of The Holy One in their very natures. We can love and care for the creation that is the Handiwork of The Eternal.
Let us be the children beaming love back to our Holy Parent by demonstrating our love for one and other, causing Her/Him to rejoice in our becoming more fully the individuals we are meant to be; our best selves, ever growing and maturing.
May you, may we all, be inscribed for a year of blessing and meaning, a year of discovering ever deepening capacities to love, and a year of bringing forth the love of others through our own acts of loving kindness and so breach the veil of loneliness between human and human and human and G-D.