Saturday, August 12, 2017

Still Small Voice

Image result for charlottesville protest clergy

A Still Small Voice

1 Kings 19:9-18 (NRSV)
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
            Have you ever felt alone? I mean really alone, abandoned, broken, forsaken, and lost? Have you ever felt like you were the only one bearing the world’s burdens? The only one who was true, dependable, and reliable, when everyone else around you has checked out, neglected their duties, or not lived up to their obligations? Have you felt like you have been looked down upon, excluded, or marginalized for trying to do the right thing? For trying to be virtuous and honest, when so many others have advanced through dishonesty and corruption? If so, you may have a taste of what Elijah is feeling in today’s Old Testament reading.
          In this passage, Elijah is running for his life. In the previous passage, Elijah demonstrated how righteous and powerful he was in a little competition with the 450 false prophets of Baal. Maybe you recall the story. Elijah enjoins the false prophets build an altar to Baal and slaughter a bull there and cry upon their god to bring fire down to light the altar. After a day of marching in circles, and shouting, and even cutting themselves, their god does not answer them. Then Elijah builds an altar, slaughters a bull and places it atop a pile of wood. Then he has the Israelites dig a trench around the alter and pour massive amounts of water on and around the altar. He cries to the Lord and fire comes down and sets his water-soaked altar aflame. It is a huge triumph, resulting in the destruction of the false prophets, and in the following day, a huge gush of rain, ending a three year drought. You think after all this, Elijah would be welcomed by the people and their king and queen as a hero. But that’s not how the story plays out. The wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel are enraged, because the Baal priests served them. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. Elijah has upset their machinations of power and dominance. He has destroyed the royal priesthood of Baal. He is a threat and a danger to their power, and must be eliminated.
          When they call for his death, Elijah does what any of us would do. He flees. He runs away. He runs a day into the desert and lies down by a solitary broom tree. And when he finally stops to take a break he collapses, physically, mentally, spiritually emotionally. This may be the most compelling part of the Elijah story. He has proved himself a hero, done amazing things with the help of the LORD. Yet, here under this solitary broom tree, he is exhausted, diminished, broken. He even calls upon the Lord to take his life, wishes he were never born. With our clinical definitions, we might say that Elijah was depressed.
Those of us who have struggled with various forms of depression may be able to relate to how Elijah feels here. That he doesn’t want to get up. That he just wants to stay in a fetal position under that broom tree, totally unable to motivate himself to do anything. If you are feeling that way or know someone in your life who does, you know how powerful a stranglehold depression can be. We now know that there are many reasons for depression, including chemical imbalances, as well as social, and psychological factors. In Elijah’s case, I think he is depleted. We need to be careful here. Factors for depression can vary widely, from person to person. We need to be very careful not to generalize from Eliajah’s case to others. Spiritual and emotional depletion may or may not be a factor in any given person’s depression. But it certainly seems to be the case here.
Have any of you heard of the starving baker? It is a wonderful image for depletion. The starving baker provides for everyone else. She or he is always ready to lend a hand, provide support, go that extra mile, but does too little for themselves in the process. This is a recipe for spiritual and emotional depletion. Many of you may have been there. You may be the primary caregiver for a loved one. You may be the breadwinner and responsible one, cooking, cleaning, keeping things in order for the ones you love. Sometimes, the mothers among us find themselves in that role, caring for aging parents, helping the kids financially, providing childcare for the grandkids, all the while maintaining a household, holding a fulltime job. Starving bakers tend not to provide themselves selfcare. They find themselves in positions of leadership and responsibility, but don’t take the time they need; or get the resources they need for their own support. Oftentimes when we get to the point of depletion, we get toxic ourselves. We begin judging others, and gossiping about others, we play the martyr complex. We begin saying things like, “I always give 110%, I’ve given my all to _________fill in the blank (my church, my workplace, my family, etc.). And when we get to the pinnacle of exhaustion we lie down under a solitary broom tree in the desert and just want to die.
          But the story doesn’t end there. Two days in a row, an angel of the Lord visits Elijah. He brings him a jug of water and some stone-baked flatbread to nourish him. And on that sustenance Elijah has the strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. It is here where the reading we heard this morning picks up.
          When he gets to the mountain, he decides to sleep in a cave. It is at this point that the Word of the Lord comes to him and asks him why he is hiding. Elijah tells him out of the depths of his exhaustion, “I have been zealous, all the other Isrealites have forsaken your covenants, but I alone have remained zealous, killed the false prophets, and now that I’m alone, the king and queen are seeking my life.” As an answer, Yahweh tells Elijah to go stand on the mountain.
          It is at this point that YHWH reveals true power. First there is a massive wind, a wind so strong that it can split the mountains and break the rocks, “but the Lord was not in the wind.” Then came an earthquake, moving the ground, strong enough to bring down buildings and throw people off their feet, “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” Then came a fire, a terrific, horrifying fire, “but the Lord was not in the fire.” After the fire came a sound of sheer silence, as some translations say, a still, small voice. That’s the LORD!
          In this shimmering silence is where the LORD speaks to us through this text in ultraprofound ways! Be not mistaken. The Lord is not in the fire and fury of our atomic weapons. The Lord is not in our locked and loaded military might, not in our B2 bombers, or gigantic aircraft carriers. The Lord is not in our international threats, or our angry rhetoric. The Lord is not in our alt-right protests, waving Nazi and Confederate flags! The Lord is not in our spewing hate, or in the bricks we throw at each other, or the gas we spew at each other. The Lord is not in our ideologies and our need to win arguments and put each other down. Indeed, the Lord is not in our efforts to be lone rangers and heroes whether for our nations, for our communities, our families, our churches, or our workplaces.
Where is the LORD?
The LORD is in the shimmering silence. The LORD is in the still small voice. The LORD is in sheer and utter quiet. The LORD is in those moments when we are truly alone, worried and confused by all the anxiety, talk of war, conflicts, everything swirling around us, and it seems there is no one with us.
          Yes, we are in turbulent times these days. Conflicts are brewing. Extreme racists and nationalists are coming out of the woodwork with the disgusting and horrifying language of hate. We have a leader who is eschewing the traditional language of diplomacy in favor of ratcheting up tensions with a nation led by an unpredictable madman who is armed to the teeth with traditional and nuclear weapons. But we must remember. The Lord is not in this. The LORD is in the sheer silence, with those who choose to follow Christ and walk in peace.
          What does that mean for us? As I was writing this sermon, I was watching Facebook and Twitter feeds of those who were at the rallies in Charlottesville, I was astonished to see a small group of clergy in a sea of right-wing protestors. They were beautiful, dressed in clergy garbs, with their robes, and their stoles, and brightly colored clergy shirts and collars. And what were they doing in the midst of the chaos? The were silently walking, arms locked, separating the two sides. They were a testament to God’s still small voice in the midst of the chaos. As protestors were spewing hate, throwing water bottles, trying to pepper spray each other, the clergy, arms locked, were singing a children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine.”
          This Little light of Mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Brothers and sisters, that is our testimony, that is our call: to look for and be God’s still small voice in midst of chaos, anger, and fear. Our Christian brothers and sisters make up about 30% of the population of South Korea. It is one of the places in the world where over the past decades, Christianity has grown by leaps and bounds. I guarantee you that on this Sunday, those beloved brothers and sisters of ours are lifting their voices to God in a prayer for peace. Can we join them?
          You see, in the end, after God reveals God’s self on the mountain in the still small voice, The LORD tells Elijah that he indeed is not alone. He will anoint a successor, Elisha. He will will anoint Hazael as king of Aram, and Jehu, and King of Israel. In addition, the Lord will rise up 7000 in Isreal, all those who have not kneeled down before the idolatry of Baal-and they will be on his side.
          Brothers and sisters, we are not alone. God is in our midst, working often unnoticed, in those quiet moments, in midst of our hectic lives. We have brothers and sisters throughout this world, 15 million in Korea alone, joining us in prayers for peace, for love, for God’s will to triumph. We need not be afraid. We don’t have to be the heroes. We don’t have to be the starving bakers anymore. Our God is with us. Peace will prevail. God’s still small voice lives in all our hearts. God’s love already won on the cross and in the resurrection. There is nothing more that can harm, neither bombs, nor sticks, neither missiles, nor teargas. God’s still small voice is greater. To us is promised the resurrection. To us is promised new life in God’s beloved and chosen community.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

More thoughts on Resistance, the Church, the Election of Donald Trump, and Conversations that Matter about Matters that Matter

Stacy Guinto-Salinas took this picture of a clothespin that was put on one
of her Latino/a youth at a 4000 person UM youth gathering. On the other
side was written "I love Trump." 
So, it has been two weeks since the election of Donald Trump. It is the eve of Thanksgiving and many of us continue to be deeply disturbed and distrustful that our fellow citizens could knowingly elect a man who used vehemently racist, misogynist, and hate-filled language. Moreover, his rhetoric has inspired and encouraged hateful actions and speech among some of his supporters against churches, mosques, and individuals in schools and other institutions across the nation.

One of my former students took a group of young Latinos/as to a youth conference where they were confronted by cowardly acts by high school aged supporters of Donald Trump.  When my former student, who is currently and MDiv student at Duke Divinity School, addressed the conference and shared her testimony about how she found the church and her call while growing up as a child of Mexican immigrants,  hundreds of youth and their leaders walked out. Such actions are deeply disgraceful and a stain on the gospel. Another of my students, also Latina, has shared her deep concerns about the church's response (or lack of it). In spite of calls to the contrary, the church remains deeply divided. I am ashamed to say I am not terribly surprised.

I am not surprised, in part because I have struggled mightily to know how to respond myself. To me, this election feels like a betrayal, a betrayal of what I thought were commonly held values of decency, truth, and mutual respect, a betrayal by many within the church of the gospel of love, hope, and grace. The past several weeks have been a time of sorrow for me. It has also been a time of introspection. It feels deeply personal. I have been in mourning.

Days before the election, I deactivated my Facebook account for a week. Since the election, I have posted only once on Facebook with a link to this blog. I needed a break. I intend to keep my account open for now, but be far less engaged in the day to day posting and sharing of links. I have taken all Facebook related apps off my smartphone and tablet. For the first week after quitting Facebook I truly felt like I was struggling with an addiction. I realized how dependent I had become on touching my phone or tablet to check on the witty responses from my friends to my clever posts. I think that my brain was craving the "hits" of social media approval. I came to realize that I had probably been checking my phone hundreds of times per day. It had changed my patterns of communication. It also likely has done damage to some of my relationships, while allowing me to sustain a social network of hundreds of people spread around the world.

I am coming to realize that the old adage "the medium is the message" is indeed true. Facebook and Instagram are great for cat photos. Instant messaging and texts are great for asking the wife what kind of ice cream she wants, sharing an inside joke with a colleague, or arranging to meet up with friends at the movies. These are not the media we should be using for political and social discourse, much less for maintaining friendships in any meaningful sense.

Don't get me wrong, social media are fine for keeping up with pictures of friends' children, pets, gardens, and other diversions. True friendships, however, need the kind of rich communication that is provided through intimate and honest person to person conversation, or the exchange of full and thoughtful letters. The danger of social media and its dominant form of communication is that it looses us from historical, social, gender, religious, family, and ethnic contexts, etc. It substitutes the superficial vacuity of the moment for the complex inter-subjective narratives we absolutely need to be entirely human. It is a kind of forgetting. I think Adorno was warning us of something like this when he wrote of the reification of the mind. Indeed, I fear social media may be bringing about the reification of our souls.

In a very real way I have come to recognize that I myself have done damage to others, objectifying them, reifying them, using them as objects for my own fulfillment by taking far too immense pleasure from the addictive stimuli provided by their "likes" and comments on social media. Indeed, since I am posting this link on Facebook, I have probably objectified some of you who are reading this blog. I do hereby own my violence and apologize.  I deeply regret what I have done; and am sadder, lonelier, and more broken indeed for the person I have become on social media.

What I am calling for, and what I hope for in my own life, is for all of us to embrace real conversation again. Those of you who are in the church, this is the task we have before us. I am part of a team that is forming at my small university. We are planning to sponsor some conversations that "matter about matters that matter." Some of these may be difficult conversations on race, gender identity, bullying, and the like. For churches and other church related institutions, there are many helpful resources for guiding such conversations.

I hope also that we might have some conversations about our lost capacity for dialogue, discourse, and critical engagement that fully recognizes that we are bound and interwoven to one another in deeply complex narratives. My hope is that we as individuals, groups, and communities recognize our storis as embedded in stunningly interwoven histories, and embedded in gender, ethnic, religious, family, and social realities that go far below the surface that we can see. I know that sounds crazy. However, I think that is the first step we must begin to take if we are going to have any hope of resisting a discourse that cheapens our complex identities, and pushes us towards words and deeds of objectifying violence. The violence, I fear, is afoot. My hope is that we can work with our youth, our friends, and our colleagues, even those with whom we disagree, to move towards honest, deep, and complex conversations that matter about all kinds of matters that matter.

In the course of such conversations, I hope and pray that our churches and communities become active advocates for the cause of those whose lives and families are deeply threatened by Trumpism and the likely policies of his administration. The time may come for all of us to take a stand. My contention is that we cannot do so effectively without first examining our patterns of communication and relationships.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

More thoughts on Barmen, the Confessing Church, the Election of Donald Trump, and Resistance Moving Forward

Image result for martin niemoller and karl barth
Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth
So I have had a few days to reflect further on the election of Trump, what it represents, and how the church and believers in Christ should react. I still believe that the confessing church movement in Germany in the 1930s may shed some light on our current situation and perhaps provide us with a way forward. As I understand it, the main theological point of the Barmen declaration was to call out the idolatry of the so called "German Christians" who had come to align Nazi ideology with their faith, but in so doing had lost focus on the central convictions of Christianity, that Jesus Christ is Lord. Where Barmen shows us a way forward is that so many American Christians supported Trump and Trumpism, in spite of his hateful, misogynistic, and bigoted language. Of course the parallels with Barmen and the particular situation of the Protestant church in Germany in the 1930s break down somewhat. I'm not certain that the Trumpists organized to formally co-opt the American Evangelical movement in the same way that the Nazis attempted to do so with the formal appointment of Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller. Evangelicals in the United States context are formally separate from the state and do not have the kind of episcopal structure that the German Protestant church had. Nor do they have the four hundred year history of church-state connections that the German Lutheran church had. Still, at least in this blog post, there are two things that I think we can glean.

First, conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham who supported Donald Trump did so knowingly and with full awareness of his hateful rhetoric. They persuaded many of their followers to follow through and vote for this man, in spite of his obvious moral flaws, and language, rhetoric, and campaign promises that were the very antithesis of the gospel. In so doing, these hypocrites have finally demonstrated that they no longer represent Christ in the public sphere, but have become team-players for an anti-Christ. So, in the spirit of Barmen, it is time for us as Christians to proclaim that Christ taught love and not hate, included outcasts in his ministry, and broke boundaries to love those who differed in ethnicity, religious worldview, and gender. This is central not only to what we as progressive Christians believe, but all Christians. 

We must stop calling those who do not hold these central convictions "evangelicals." They are not. Euaggelion means good news. For millions, there is nothing good about the news that a Donald Trump victory heralds. We must stop calling the right wing cultural and political movement that supported Trumpism "evangelical;" for it no longer has anything to do with the good news of the gospel. At best we can call such folks "cultural Christians," at worst, anti-Christs. In any case, we must call them to repent from their idolatrous adherence to Trumpism, and confess no other Lord than Jesus.

Second, one major critique that can be made against the confessing church movement in the 1930s was that it was so focused on internal issues related to German Protestantism, in that it did not go far enough to stand with full conviction in opposition to the violent Nazi oppression of Jews and other minorities. Progressive Christians cannot afford to make the same mistake! We must organize in solidarity with the 11 million immigrants who are fearing the violence of being forcefully deported, while seeing their homes and property taken away from them, while seeing their families ripped apart. This fear is real and realistic. In recent days Trump has said he his only going to focus at first on the three million or so "criminals" who do not have legal papers...THREE MILLION!!! Another American holocaust is about to commence. The church cannot, must not, should not remain silent in the face of such evil! Hate breeds hate.  Given the violent misogyny of his campaign, we'll surely see policies enacted that will do violence upon women's bodies. Further his policies will endanger the safety and sanity of LGBTQ folks, and threaten the well being of minority and other faith communities. If the church is to be true to the gospel, it must stand in solidarity with all of these people and engage in active and nonviolent resistance to any policies that threaten to do our neighbors harm.  
The time is now. Those of us who are Christians must now reexamine our core values and our core beliefs and realize that we cannot proceed in the haze of happy and lazy churchgoing, as we have in the past. More thoughts on what this may look like to come...

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thoughts on the Barmen Declaration at the Election of Donald Trump and the Rise of Trumpism in North America

I like many others am feeling deflated, frightened and concerned at the election of a man who made bigotry, hatred, and misogyny the centerpiece of his election rhetoric.  I am deeply disheartened by the many in our country who failed to recognize the dangerous moral and ethical qualities of this man, and chose to vote for him in any case.  I am particularly disturbed that anyone who confesses Christ as savior and Lord could with any conscience cast a vote for Trump or support Trumpism.
Image result for trump hitler

There will be judgment upon our land.

I can only turn to the words of the Barmen Declaration for comfort.  These words, written in 1934, are the response of an ecumenical group of Christians in Germany who responded to the "German Christians" who had lined up behind the Nazi takeover of Germany. This was surely a dark time for the church in Germany. As we who are committed to Christ and the Word of God, let us remember that this can be part of our confession too.

I am including selected portions of the latter part of the confession. I invite you to read it.  Consider it. If you feel so moved, pray on it and confess it with your own tongues.

This is the sole form of resistance I can offer now. I don't have strength for anything else.

Barmen Declaration 3, 4, 5, 6
3. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15–16.)
The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.
4. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:25, 26.)
The various offices in the church do not establish a dominion of some over the others; on the contrary, they are for the exercise of the ministry entrusted to and enjoined upon the whole congregation.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, apart from this ministry, could and were permitted to give to itself, or allow to be given to it, special leaders vested with ruling powers.
5. “Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.
6. “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matt. 28:20.) “The word of God is not fettered.” (II Tim. 2:9.)
The church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament.

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Scream

1 Kings 17:8-24
 8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying,
 9 "Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you."
 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink."
 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand."
 12 But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."
 13 Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.
 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth."
 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days.
 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
 17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him.
 18 She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!"
 19 But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed.
 20 He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?"
 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again."
 22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.
 23 Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."
 24 So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."
 (1Ki 17:8-24 NRS)

Depletion.  Anxiety. Emotional exhaustion.  Spiritual hunger.  PTSD.  Loneliness.  Depression.  Brokenness.  Stressed and overworked.  Burnt out.  At one point or another in our lives, many of us have been there.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 28.8 percent of the US population will have suffered from one sort of anxiety disorder or another at some point during their lifetime.  Whether PTSD, OCD, depression, or other kinds of depletion or anxiety disorders, there’s a good chance that one in three folks here in worship today has experienced or will experience some form of extreme discomfort and disorder due to anxiety.  We and our families know what it is to live with such stresses and anxieties, the emotional discomfort, folks sometimes self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, the fights, the exhaustion, the trauma.  It is all very real stuff.  When you compound the emotional stress and discomfort with economic misfortune, the picture looks even worse.  Then, one finds oneself not only in extreme pain, but also trapped, lost, with seemingly no way out.  
This is the setting for the story of Elijah and the widow in 1 Kings 17.  Elijah is on a long journey here.  He starts out, prior to the verses we read, at a small Wadi, or creek, East of the Jordan river.  He is being sustained in a time of famine by drinking from the creek and having ravens bring him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat again in the evening.  He’s on the verge of hunger.  And ravens, well, we all know what kinds of meat they’re into.  So the LORD is sustaining Elijah, but with road kill and morsels of bread that the ravens bring.  And then the Wadi dries up and the Lord tells Elijah to move on and travel to a widow at Zeraphath, whom the Lord tells Elijah he has commanded to feed him.  It is quite some distance, probably several days journey by foot.  And what does Elijah find when he gets there?  A poor widow who is out gathering some sticks so she can go home and make up a small cake from her last handful of meal and last little bit of oil—and then basically die.  This is the perfect picture of depletion, isn’t it?  If you’ve been there, you know how this feels.  You want to give; you want to serve, but there’s nothing left inside.  All of your emotional energy has been taken from you and you have no reserves.  You have only enough maybe for the rest of the day—and you don’t know how you’ll go on without any more.
But with all the confidence of a man fed by ravens, Elijah tells the widow to knead her dough and make her bread and bring it to him.  And, alas, a miracle occurs.  She is able to make not only a small cake for Elijah, but enough for her, and her son, enough that they can all eat for several days.  The jar of meal never empties and the jug of oil never empties, until, someday, rain will fall again on the earth.  
But then, again, as is so often true in our lives, tragedy strikes.  The widow’s son dies.  In biblical times, even more so than in ours, this is a double tragedy.  Not only does this woman not have a man to care for her, to stake her claim in court, to provide financially, something she would have struggled to do as a woman in ancient society, she also now has no son to fend for her. The emotional and spiritual loss she experiences is now doubled by her increased economic and social marginalization.  Her situation is hopeless--in spite of the ever-filling jars of meal and oil.   And she has this strange man, the prophet Elijah, whom she isn’t entirely sure about, either.  So she does what any of us would do.  She screams.  She takes her anger out on the closest person.  
"What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" 
This is a scream of accusation.  As so many of us do, she is searching for answers to her pain, an explanation for her loss.  And the answer she comes up with is one that too many of us may share.  She feels like she must have done something wrong in her past and now God has sent this strange man of God to bring about the death of her son as punishment.  As a minister I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard words like these come out of the mouths of people who are undergoing extreme loss and pain. So many times I’ve heard the words, “what have I done that God has punished me?  What have I done that God has taken my child away from me?  What have we done that God has prevented us from having children?  What have I done that God has given me this disability, or placed me in this hardship or another?  We scream at God.  We scream at God’s prophets.  We scream at one another.  Hell, we may even howl at the moon!  But look at what happens in the story.  Elijah, he takes the child, and carries him up to his bedroom and places him on his own bed, and now Elijah himself screams at God.  “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?”  Elijah too joins in the scream and, worse even, he makes it all about himself.  Maybe it is his fault as a man of God.  Maybe there is something flawed about him as a prophet.  Elijah may believe that is the case, that he has failed as a prophet and the God has it out for him.  What he can’t understand is why God would choose to take it out on the poor widow.  Why cause her additional unnecessary pain, if it is something he has done? Or maybe he is just so self-absorbed…
Pain.  Pain.  Loneliness and despair.  That is what it means to be human, at least partially, is it not?  But screaming at God, that’s OK. Even if we get it wrong, even if we ascribe to God punishment and judgment that God did not intend or enact, God is there for us to listen to.  There is nothing wrong with finding expression for our pain in such screams.    In the past year during our chapel worship services at Pfeiffer on Wednesday morning, we have been joined by a large group of mentally disabled folks from Monarch and GHA in Albemarle.  It has been a profound experience to worship with these folks week after week.  One of the most powerful parts of the service is when we do prayers for the people and the microphone ends up in the hands of one of the mentally disabled persons, a woman who cannot speak, at least not in the way that one would normally understand as articulate speech.  She gets the microphone and her prayer is basically inarticulate, heartfelt brokenness, wailing, really, just wailing and sobbing.  Her prayer is so deep and real.  What’s profound and powerful is that she is so willing to make herself vulnerable.  This woman who knows so little, at least on a cognitive level, is teaching me a great deal about prayer.  True deep prayer is trusting, in your heart, as inarticulate and broken as it may be, that God will listen.  I know God hears such prayers.
And God hears the prayers of Elijah and the widow as well.  Her son is miraculously revived.  You see, there is hope for us when we are depleted.  We simply need to cooperate, to work with God, and God will be with us.  God will provide us never-depleted jars of meal and jugs of oil.  God will heal us when we face times of loss and brokenness.  
One of the amazing things this text teaches us is about the participatory nature of God’s grace.   Even before she knows that the jar of meal will be replenished, the widow does knead that dough with water and oil and makes a cake.  In spite of her worries and concerns that there is nothing left, she physically uses her hands to engage in the practice of hospitality towards this strange man of God.   You see, sometimes, when it seems there is nothing left, that is the best thing to do, just to engage in the practices with which you are familiar.  I’m reminded of a story a pastor told me about an elderly couple in his church.  One morning, very early in the morning, the man woke up with terrible chest pains, and flush, sweaty, all the symptoms of a heart attack.  But before going to the hospital, the wife insisted that she make him a full breakfast of ham, eggs, toast, and coffee, like she did every morning.  She couldn’t conceive of her husband going to the hospital for a full day of procedures without first getting a solid breakfast.  Now, don’t worry, he made it there on time to receive proper treatment and survive.  The point of this story, of course, is not that it is OK to delay seeking treatment when you are having a heart attack---no, go immediately.  The point is that she had to engage at least in the physical practice of meal preparation in response to this crisis.  Sometimes that’s all we can do, right?  In times of stress and chaos, we attend to basic practices and needs.
Jean Vanier points out that one important practice of love is communication.  Vanier is the founder of L’Arche, an international movement that has established dozens of communities in which more abled people share a spiritual and everyday life with people who have severe mental and physical disabilities.     In many cases, such homes are places for children who, because of their disabilities, have been discarded by society or their families.  Communication for Vanier is at the heart of love.  He says, “Children who are quite disturbed need to have someone help them name where their disturbance is coming from.  When nothing is named, confusion grows and with it comes anguish.  To name something is to bring it out of chaos, out of confusion, and to render it understandable.”  Thinking about the disabled person who prays in our chapel service at Pfeiffer, her prayers may be inarticulate, but she is naming her pain, she is bringing it out of chaos.  In a very deep way, she is rendering it understandable.  One deep thing that Vanier shares is that the process of teaching and communication “involves movement, back and forth: the one who is healed and the one who is healing constantly change places.”  So when working with the disabled in his communities, Vanier claims that the communication goes back and forth.  Just as I the university professor have much to say about the Bible, when I listen to the inarticulate mourning of the deeply disabled girl in chapel, I learn something, something quite deep about my own vulnerabilities.  Another profound truth that Vanier shares is that such learning comes not only from the intellect, but also from the body, that we need to listen to our bodies, our own intuition, our own hearts.  This is what I think Elijah was doing when he lay upon the widow’s son three times.  He was connecting deeply with something physical, something profoundly vulnerable, a broken child.  He was learning much about love—and that learning yielded resuscitation and renewal.  For some of you who have been caregivers, helping for example your parents when they were most physically helpless, when they needed someone to bathe them or change their diapers… I suspect that is something deeply profound, where you encountered not only their vulnerabilities, but your own, moments when you may have learned what it means to be truly human.  This I think is what Elijah is doing.  Yes, we do face emotional exhaustion.  Depletion--yes, there may be times when we see that all is lost.  But we can participate in God’s grace through our own physicality, maybe by providing love through a physical act of touch to one who is most helpless, maybe by providing a meal for someone who is in great distress.  These are all practices in which we can not only share God’s grace to one who is broken, but through participation in them, experience God’s grace, when we ourselves are feeling most depleted.  Are you ready to make a meal today?  Do you know someone who is broken and needs a hug?  Be not only agents of God’s grace, let us experience God’s renewal by engaging in practices of hospitality and love.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

When the Morning Stars Sang Together

 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Job 38:1-8
“Que bonitos ojos tienes.  Que bonitos ojos tienes” said the Nicaraguan woman while holding my hands and staring deep into my eyes.  There we stood, me staring into her dark brown eyes, she staring into mine, holding hands, and wondering at each other’s humanity.  “How beautiful are your eyes.”  What a strange and wonderful thing to hear from a stranger, a person I just met.  You see, I had travelled 3000 miles that summer between my second and third years in seminary to go work with people in Nicaragua who had lost their homes in mudslides due to hurricane Mitch.  Mitch had come in the fall of 1998 and totally devastated the countries of Nicaragua and Honduras.  In places of Nicaragua, Mitch had dumped as much as 50 inches of rain.  The resulting mudslides and flooding had a negative impact on 2 million people.  Whole villages and sections of towns were washed away in the mud.  On the flank of one of the volcanoes a lahar resulted that created a mudslide 5 miles wide and 10 miles long in places.  Everything was buried in feet of thick brown mud.  And so, on our first days there, as we were touring the devastation, destruction that was  evident still 10 months after the flooding, we met with one of the women who was making a difference.  This woman had lost her husband and two of her children in the mudslide.  She herself and another of her sons had only survived by climbing into a tree and hanging on for dear life.  Of course, she had lost everything.  But she was making a difference.  Through her Pentecostal church she received survival counseling. Later, she herself went through training to receive a certificate to counsel others with PTSD.  And so, here we stood, in the middle of a vast mudswept valley, 50 feet atop where her home and village had been, where the remains of her husband and children still lie, and holding my hand, staring into my eyes, her greeting to me was “que bonitos ojos tienes.” 
“How beautiful are your eyes.”  The story makes me sound vain, of course.  And of course I didn’t come here to preach about my eyes.  What amazed and shocked me was that I, a seminary student---really still a kid--who could barely understand or speak a lick of Spanish, would experience such a moment of profound wonder with this stranger, a stranger who knew the utter and absolute depths of loss, simply by staring into one another’s eyes.
Loss, brokenness, hurt, betrayal, injustice, feeling godforsaken, forlorn, alone, anxious, unable to cope…I could go on and on.  This is all part of the human condition.   It is also the background of our sermon text today. You see Job had lost everything, his wealth, status, property, children, everything.  Everything he held dear was taken from him.  What is more, the text tells us that God allowed Satan to take these things from Job.  God allowed evil to come into Job’s life, even though Job had not sought it.  Job was a good, God-fearing man.  The evil that befell him was not of his making.   Just as hurricanes and floods can be viewed as “acts of god” by insurance agents, so Job too has experience profound loss—and God has done nothing to stop it.   This is what scholars call the theodicy question:  “Why does a good and powerful God allow evil to happen in the world, especially to those who trust and obey that good and powerful God?”  There is no good answer to that question.    Life happens.  Life is hard.
 When I deal with people who have undergone extreme pain and loss, I don’t know how to answer this question.   I don’t want to be like Job’s friends who engage in discourse with Job over his lack of faith.  It is indeed a hard thing to tell a theologian to be quiet; but sometimes the best thing we can do is simply shut up, simply shut up and listen.  That’s wisdom I should take seriously more often.  Doctor, heal thyself, right? Right…
In spite of our experiences of tremendous grief and pain, human beings still have the unique and amazing capacity to wonder.  This is what our Old Testament text is about today.  Job, after being lectured by his so-called friends about why he should believe in a God who he feels has let him down, hears the word of the LORD speaking to him out of the whirlwind.  Yes, you heard me right, a talking tornado.  Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.  The first thing this talking tornado asks Job is “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  In other words, JHWH is saying to Job and his friends, “why are you talking about things you know nothing about?” 
This is a wonderful question for anyone who dares to speak about God.  When it comes to the divine, when it comes to the transcendent, it is wise counsel to be cautious in the claims we make.  So much of religious talk, God talk, and theological thought, is just human approximation of what we want or need the divine to be.  We theologians spend a lot of time saying who God is and what God would do, but spend far too little time simply being in awe and wonder at the power of the divine.  This is what the LORD is reminding Job of here.   There are clearly limits to human knowledge.  We can learn and know a great many things.  We can point our telescopes at the skies and study the farthest reaches of the universe.  We can measure light coming into our telescopes that was produced by stars millions of years ago.  We can break the atom.   We can send particles whizzing in circles around accelerators at near the speed of light and smash them together.  We can recreate conditions that were present mere microseconds after the formation of the universe.  But the big questions, the important questions, these we cannot answer. 
As the LORD asks Job, “where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”  Do you know how I laid the foundation, the cornerstone of the universe.  Do you know how and why all this came together?  Do you know why your alive?  Do you understand the secrets of existence and the finality of death?  What follows in the next chapters are wisdom descriptions of the kinds of natural phenomena that the ancients awed.  There is a description of a behemoth, which seems to suggest something like a monster hippopotamus, and a sea-dragon-like Leviathan, not unlike a massive whale.  The text seems to suggest to us that there are a great many things in our universe that we don’t understand, that we can’t understand.            
Yes, so much of life is beyond our ability to predict, beyond our ability to understand.  Yet, we do have awareness.  One of the deepest and most significant wonders of our lives, I think, is our ability to be aware and self-aware.   This is what the text tells us as the whirlwind asks Job, “were you there when the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
This is what is truly amazing about the text: the wonder of human imagination.  No, it is true, neither Job, nor ourselves, nor anyone else was there when the morning stars of the universe sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy at God’s amazing craftwork at the creation of the universe.  What is wondrous is that the author of this text—and you and I—can imagine the stars singing in harmony to celebrate the wonder of creation.  Somehow, I think the human capacity to suffer is also linked to the human capacity to wonder and imagine things that are beyond our experience.  Sometimes our ability to wonder couples with our capacity to tell stories, and we can create fiction and film that is truly remarkable.  Poets have the capacity to capture moments and experiences in words.  Musicians often give voice to that which is truly beyond our ability to utter.  Artists use all sorts of visual media to give expression to those imagined experiences that are beyond our human capacity to express in everyday life.  Oftentimes, they offer sheer expressions of joy.  Other times, horror, fear, and anger take their place.

And then, there are times, when we simply can be with another human being and share in the intimacy of awareness and silence.  Were you there when the morning stars sang together?  Have you shared those special, intimate moments of silence when you were caught up in your own awareness and the awareness of the other?  Have you captured moments of divinity in your own life?  Perhaps those of you who have been present with others in times of great grief and loss know what it means to experience the sheer humanity of simply being present with another suffering being.  Perhaps you’ve experienced it as a friend consoling another, or in the abject joy of cuddling on a cool morning with another to watch the rising of the sun.  I think in those moments, when we share our utter and absolute brokenness with one another, when we share in utter and absolute vulnerability and stare in one another’s eyes, at those moments we may be in the present of something truly beyond our ability to comprehend.  When we see the divinity in each other’s eyes, perhaps we too can utter the words, “Que bonitos ojos tienes.”

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Religious Freedom and the Bible

Image result for christian flag over american flag
Over the 4th of July Holiday Some Churches
in North Carolina Flew the Christian Flag Above the American Flag

The recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality has renewed discussions of religious liberty, and the relationship between belief, conscience, and government in the lives of many Christian believers. David Gushee, a significant Christian Ethicist (and my former youth minister), claims that the ruling is tantamount to a "mutual conscience-shocking" event.  As we look across the divide caused by decades of culture wars, we are finding we cannot agree on the most basic issues of morality. Gushee coins the term "fruitless loop" to describe the never ceasing rounds of argumentation and recrimination that result. He predicts divisions in families, friendships, and communities. I suspect he is right. He also calls for more dialogue as the only reasonable way forward. I also agree.

To that end, I'd like to share a little of my own reflection on the discussion of moral conscience and religious liberty that has been in the news lately. I understand that some conservatives have been calling out for acts of civil disobedience against the marriage equality ruling. I'm not entirely sure what such acts would look like. The N.C. legislature recently passed a law allowing magistrates to refuse to perform marriages for same sex couples. In Indiana recently, a more expansive "religious liberty" law allows shopkeepers, service providers, and others to discriminate against same-sex couples who are seeking their services. Religious liberty apparently is being interpreted by evangelical conservatives as the right to discriminate against those with whom you disagree, or whose family choices you find problematic. This is a dangerous trend.

As the "Bible Guy," I have to admit that the Bible says very little about religious liberty. Religious liberty is a product of rationalism and the enlightenment. It was shaped and embraced by religious separatists who fled to the American continent to escape the intolerance and oppression they had experienced in Europe. Moderate Baptists have done a wonderful job of maintaining this unique and special history exemplified in the lives of George Truett, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, and John Leland. To be sure, for these men, religious liberty meant the freedom to read and interpret the Bible on an individual basis (something contemporary Christian fundamentalists are zealous to supplant). It also meant the freedom to baptize and be baptized (this was a big one for state churches in which infant baptism was practiced), the freedom to organize and govern churches, and  to speak freely about one's faith. I daresay, though, that the freedom to deny services or discriminate was quite far from these early champions' thoughts about religious liberty.

This brings us to the famous passage often trotted out in discussions of religious liberty, Romans 13:1-7. [Now, let me make a disclaimer that I am not a Paul scholar, so my reflections here are largely untutored. Nor am I engaging the rigor of an academic scholar in my reflections here. So please take these words as surface considerations from a biblical scholar who is interested more in opening a discussion. There are scholars who have spent a lifetime studying Paul and I am not one of them; nor do I imagine my views represent them here.]

So, let me share a few thoughts about the passage and how it may or may not relate to the current debate. Romans 13:1-7 tells "all people to be subject to governing authorities" (13:1). Frankly, as much as I'd like to beat my conservative colleagues over the head with this and tell them to obey the Supreme Court ruling, I shall refrain. Such raw, direct, literal application of Scripture to societal issues is the very thing I am teaching my students to avoid. So I shall avoid it myself, except to say to my fundamentalist friends that if they are going to embrace a literal reading of Scripture, they surely ought to reflect hard on what this text is telling them. There's little room for their brand (or any brand) of religious liberty within this biblical text, a text that was written in a world in which one god or another was represented by governing authorities, and in which theocracy was the practiced norm.

If my fundamentalist colleagues are suddenly going to embrace the enlightenment ideas of religious liberty, they will surely need to reexamine how they interpret Scripture.  I would point out that they are now no longer engaging in an inerrant literal reading of the Bible. My hope is that they might indeed embrace reason, experience, and tradition to think through their ethical and theological viewpoints. At least then we might have a chance of engaging in critical dialogue!

But to return to Romans 13:1-7, I also think there are myriad issues with this text. While I'd have to line up the evidence more clearly, I suspect there may be some evidence to view it as an interpolation by a later author. The vocabulary of "submission" mirrors strongly the language of the household codes in the deuteropaulines. The third person imperative in 13:1 breaks the flow of the second person imperative found in 12:21 and 13:8. There is also a digression in topic from that of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10) to  the obedience of governing authorities (13:1-7). If 13:1-7 were excised from the text,, Paul's discussion of love in 12:9-12:21 flows seamlessly to 13:8-10.  Paul also seems to strongly contradict himself.  In 13:7 he tells the Romans to pay everything to whom it is owed (including taxes, revenue, honor, and respect); yet in the very next verse, he tells the Romans that they should owe nothing to anyone except love. So, I think there's a good case to be made that verses 13:1-8 were inserted by a later hand.

Still, if we don't view the text as an interpolation, there's good reason to contextualize these statements of Paul with his other writings. It is clear from Paul's statements elsewhere that he expects the parousia, the coming of Christ, to occur during his lifetime. In fact much of his ethical teaching for congregational life in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 7 is deeply immersed in a perspective of immanent apocalyptic eschatology. Indeed, many twentieth century scholars came to view Paul's teachings on the Christian life as an "interim ethics." Since Paul expected Christ to return at any moment, he never expected anyone beyond his immediate influence to even receive his advice, much less follow it. In this sense, Paul was like many of us who blog, without any expectation that anyone beyond our immediate circles will read our stuff.

Apart from this caveat, one ought also to view 13:1-7 in light of, for example, 1 Thess 4:1-12, where Paul instructs the Thessalonians to live simply, work with their hands, and avoid becoming economically (and otherwise) dependent upon on others. Read in this light, the instructions in 13:1-8 would seem to lead to a kind of political quietism. If one does good and pays one's taxes, according to Paul, there is no need to fear governing authorities. They have bigger fish to fry. They don't need to go after handful of believers in the Jewish ghettos of Rome. If Prisca and Aquilla (16:3) are recent returnees to Rome, they likely would not want to see another police action similar to that as the recent one under the emperor Claudius. They apparently had been banned, along with many other Jews, because the Romans had grown weary of religious infighting about the identity of the Jewish Messiah. Perhaps Paul's advice is meant to guard against such experiences with advice that leads to a kind of quietism. Such quietism, I might point out, has a rich history in this country among Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, and Brethren, especially with regard to church-state issues and pacifism. Hauerwas' combination of the thought of the Mennonite biblical scholar, John Howard Yoder, with the revisionist virtue ethics of Alisdair MacIntyre, is one example where a mainline Christian ethicist has embraced a contemporary moral narrative of neo-quietism. Practicing such neo-quietism might bring a healthy dose of sanity for those on the Christian right. I suspect many of us would heartily greet their retreat from attempts to assault our common democratic values with their own brand of rabid theocratic ideology.

But if our colleagues on the right nonetheless intend to engage in acts of civil disobedience against what they see as an unjust government, let them take note of two ideas in which Paul's moral thought are grounded. First, Paul, along with the prophets, did indeed believe that God's justice would prevail in the end. This means that any actions one might undertake must line up with God's justice, and most particularly, do no harm.  Actions that harm same-sex families, whether by attempting to deny them their legal rights, or engaging in discrimination in the workplace, or in denying equal goods and services, do not square with God's justice. Such actions cannot be the fruits of conscientious objection, because such acts are unjust and de facto unconscionable.

Furthermore, such actions do not square with the rule of love that Paul describes in the passages
surrounding 13:1-7. Whether 13:1-7 is an interpolation by a later author or not, it is still deeply embedded in a passage about love, patient suffering, harmony, association with the broken and lowly, living peaceably, disavowing vengeance, etc. As Paul sums it up, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."

In the past I have engaged in civil disobedience against a nation that has embraced militarism and indeed taught others how to partake in intolerable acts of evil and violence towards innocent people. However, in doing so, I tried to keep in mind Gandhi's thoughts on Ahimsa, which Martin Luther King, Jr. loosely translated as love. Apparently in Sanskrit, Ahimsa meant something like "no injury" or "no striking." Both Gandhi and King embraced it as a leading principle and purifying practice in acts of nonviolent resistance.  If my conservative sisters and brothers are seeking principles for their use of civil disobedience, they must keep in mind that love must be their guide. If their civil disobedience causes harm to their neighbor, they ought to examine their spiritual practice and reflect on whether their motives are driven by purity and God's love, or by fear, anger, and lack of knowledge. If Gandhi and King are too difficult to embrace, maybe they can simply keep in mind John Wesley's three spiritual laws: do all the good you can; do no harm; and stay in love with God.