Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Action Figure Meets The Great Silence

Elijah was the original action hero – dispensing justice
with lots of violence, explosions, and drama.
His God was a lot like himself.
Nothing surprising in that in those days.

In Elijah’s day, the human race was still quite primitive.
Their idea of God was primitive.
So Elijah’s God was an action hero too.

In today’s lesson, things had been really tough for Elijah.
So, like most of us, that’s when he ratcheted up his religion
and went looking for God.
Elijah looked for God at the place where God lived
– Mt. Horeb, sometimes called Mt. Sinai.
We may not think of God as living in a particular place.
But in Elijah’s time, God had an address.
It was Mt. Horeb.

Moses had met God there, received the law there.
It’s easy to see how they thought God lived on a mountain.
The Greek gods lived on Olympus.
El Capitan overwhelms me with awe,
and I hear from friends who have visited Horeb
it’s an impressive place – holy and mysterious.

Biblical scholars think the earliest Jewish experiences of God
were shaped by the even more primitive religion of their ancestors.
The ancestors probably worshiped a mountain,
before they worshiped El Shaddai, the God of the Mountain.
They also worshiped powerful forces of nature like the desert storm,
the earthquake, and the forest fire.

The Psalms are full of that imagery. Psalm 97:
“Clouds and thick darkness surround him . . . .
Fire goes before him . . . .
His lightning lights up the world.
The earth sees and trembles.”
That’s what a religious experience was – God doing dramatic stuff.
When nothing spectacular was happening, they felt cut off.
So they prayed in Psalm 83:
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God, be not still.”
A silent God was an absent God – a God who did not care.

That was Elijah’s religion when he went looking for God
on Mt. Horeb.
And the dramatic stuff happened.
There was a windstorm, then an earthquake, and a fire.
Bryon described a storm like that in the Alps.
“O storm and wind and night, thou art wondrous strong!”
Elijah had always met God in those spectacles.
But this time he did not discern God’s presence.
The wind was just wind; the earthquake, just an earthquake;
the fire, just a fire.
And he thought, “Is that all there is?”

Then after the powerful forces of nature passed,
there was a silence, a profound palpable silence
-- like the silence of Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley.
It was precisely the kind of moment that meant God was absent.

But instead of praying,
“O God, do not keep silent,
be not quiet O God,”
Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle as a sign of reverence,
because God was there.
Precisely in the absence of religious experience,
Elijah believed in God’s presence.

Different cultures, different faith traditions,
and different people define religious experience differently.
So which one is right?
Is God really in the wind, in the earthquake, or in the fire?

Do we meet God in the born again experience of forgiveness,
the ecstatic experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit,
or the mystical experience of unity?
And where is God when we are not having whatever kind of feeling
we think of as spiritual?

God is infinitely greater than our capacity for religious experience.
He is in our religious experience. We do meet God there.
But God is vastly bigger than our feelings.
Theologians from Dionysius in the 6th Century
to Karl Barth in the 20th Century to John Hick today
caution us not to limit God to what we think of
as religion or spirituality.
At those times when God seems utterly silent, totally absent
– at those times we do not feel the least bit spiritual
and have no sense of God whatsoever --
God is there.

Carl Jung had these words inscribed over his door
and on his tombstone,
“Bidden or unbidden God is present.”
And so God is – seen or unseen, felt or unfelt, God is here.

Carlyle Marney, a great Baptist preacher, told the story
of a little boy was trapped by a fire
in his second story bedroom.
In the yard below, his father called to him,
“Jump son, jump. I’ll catch you.”
The child cried, “Daddy, I’m afraid to jump. I can’t see you.”
“That’s alright,” the father answered.
“Go ahead and jump. I can see you.”

Just so, the silent God is present – watching, caring.
The very silence of God is an invitation to faith,
the very absence of spiritual experience,
invites us to a deeper encounter with God
– just as Elijah met God more profoundly
in the silence than in the storm.

Most of us want religious experience. I do.
But if we cultivate trust in God
without the aid of religious experience
the God we trust will be vastly bigger.

One of my theology professors, Francis Fiorenza,
asked us a question that changed my religion forever.
He asked, “Do you want to have a religious experience,
or do you want to experience everything religiously?”//
I have been pondering that question for 8 years,
and it has finally begun to form into an insight.

We start by trusting in God’s presence all the time.
It’s like that saying, “I believe the sun is shining even on a cloudy day.”
Faith removes the fear that blocks our contact with God.

Then we can look inside ourselves and find God there.
We don’t see God or feel God.
Instead we look at everything through God’s eyes.

We just watch without judging.
We observe the world around us with a serene compassion.
We do the same with the world inside us.
We watch the thoughts rushing through our minds,
the emotions passing through our hearts,
the very physical sensations of our bodies.
We meet God not be seeing God
but by seeing as God sees.

God is light, pure and perfect light.
We don’t really see perfect full spectrum light.
We see things illumined by the light.
Just so, we don’t see God.
We see the world differently because God illumines it.
We see ourselves differently in the light of God’s grace.

We still have religious experiences.
They are the divine light refracted into various colors.
That’s why we have different experiences – all valid.

But the rest of the time, God is still with us
– not as storm, quake, or fire, but silently watching –
and we can know God then by joining him in the watch
– by doing nothing – dropping our efforts to be action heroes
-- just watching with the infinite patience of God.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Inferiority Of Goodness

Our Old Testament lesson about Elijah cursing Ahab
is gratifying in the same way a Die Hard movie is gratifying.
We like to see the bad guy get his comeuppance.

But theologically, it is a real problem.
It says that if we commit sin we will suffer misfortune
for it here in this earthly life as punishment.
The implied corrolary is that if we suffer misfortune,
it’s a punishment for our sins.
God gives us cancer or wipes out our savings
and may even afflict our children just to punish us.

It did not take the Jewish people long
to recognize that things don’t really work that way.
The world is not that rational or that fair.
Good people suffer hardships while bad people often flourish.
The idea of God punishing sin with suffering
fell apart and was rejected in the Hebrew Scriptures
long before the birth of Jesus.
Jesus said his Father caused the sun to shine
and the rain to fall on good and evil alike.

God is not in the business of retribution.
But sin nonetheless has its weight and its consequences.
There is a moral order to the universe.
Great philosophers like Kant proved it through logic.
Even atheists like Greg Epstein insist that there is
a moral order we need to obey.

We may argue about whether some things are right or wrong.
But we all know there is such a thing as right and wrong.
Otherwise we couldn’t be having the argument.

When we violate that moral order,
we put ourselves out of step, out of synch.
Something gets twisted inside us
and in our relationships with others.
God may not be lurking around to zap us with a disease
or an accident if we do something wrong.
But the very nature of things gives sin a consequence.

Buddhists call it karma.
Secularists say “what goes around comes around.”
If nothing else, we suffer a wound in ourselves.
We want to think we are good people.
When we do wrong, one of two things happens:
Our self-respect is broken; or
We preserve our self-respect by lying to ourselves,
or devising false justifications.
So we cut ourselves off from the truth.

You know what I miss about being young?
It isn’t so much being stronger, better looking,
and having more hair.
It isn’t even having so much life to look forward to.
It’s that I was so sure of my own righteousness.
I miss being morally sure of myself.

Just one example from many possible examples:
Before I was a parent, I saw what a lousy job
most parents were doing and knew how much better
I would be.
When my children were born, I set out to be so much better
a father than my father had been.
But I was not.

Knowing there were worse fathers doesn’t help much.
Sometimes I was too angry. Sometimes I was too neglectful.
Other times I was too attentive in an anxious unhelpful way.
Often I was too ready to push my children
to succeed at what I wanted so they’d make me proud.
I was in short, pretty bad at parenting.
It is only by the grace of God my children came out
to be the good people they are today.

With the passing years, moral and spiritual failures add up.
Regrets add up.
They add up in every relationship and in every part of our lives.

For those who are comfortable in their righteousness,
the gospel of Jesus Christ may not have much appeal.
They have constructed a self that they are proud of.
They may not feel the need of Jesus.
When I was a recycling vegetarian politically correct young man
I didn’t feel the need of Jesus either.

But I don’t honestly believe we can live without guilt.
I don’t believe even the strongest and best of us can do that
for two reasons.
First, we have to live in human society
and the structures of society are unjust.
The greatest American theologian of the 20th Century,
Reinhold Niebuhr, taught us that we cannot be moral people
in an immoral society.
For example, if the whole world were given the chance
to consume what North America and Western Europe consume,
it would take 5 planets with the earth’s resources
to meet the demand.
How can we justify that?

The second reason we can’t dodge guilt
is that life is morally complicated.
Often the choices we face are not between right and wrong,
but between wrong and worse.
Even if we do our best in those situations,
we come out with a moral remainder.
I don’t know how we can get through life with clean hands.
So a lot of us live with regret.

For us, the gospel is not just good news
– it’s the best news we can imagine.
That brings us to our lesson about the sinner woman
and Simon the Pharisee.
The woman is a forgiven sinner who loves Jesus more than her own life.
Simon is a righteous man, sure enough of himself
to judge the woman as sinner and Jesus as a false prophet.
– sneering at them both from his morally superior seat.

So Jesus tells Simon the parable of the two debtors,
which concludes that he, who has been forgiven much, loves much.
He, who has been forgiven little, loves little.

Jesus does not say Simon has sinned.
He does not accuse Simon of being morally numb to his own failings.
He lets Simon’s self-assessment stand. So we must do the same.
Simon is innocent.
But because he is innocent, he has only his pride to keep him warm.
He has been forgiven little; and so he loves little.

The sinner woman has lost her pride but gained her Savior.
Contrition has broken her heart open to Jesus.
Being forgiven has healed her wounds and more:
It has given her with the capacity to love.
So what is life about anyway – a zero defects score
on some spiritual foreman’s clipboard?
William Blake said “we are put on earth a little space
that we might learn to bear the beams of love.”
That’s what life is about.

We “bear the beams of love” when we can endure them,
when we accept the love of Christ who does not set standards
we have to meet to win his approval
but rather loves us as we are.
We “bear the beams of love” when we carry them
to each other as merciful compassion.

That’s what happens when we give up measuring our worth
by our righteousness.
We stop living in pride and start living in love.

The love of Jesus is better than being blameless,
better than moral confidence.
The point of the gospel is just this:
It is better to be forgiven than innocent.

Every time we come to the communion rail,
we surrender our claims to righteousness
and accept his mercy.
God open our hearts to receive his grace
that it may flower in us as the love of Christ.
God grant us the gift to forgive as we have been forgiven
and love each other as we have been loved.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Survival Mentality

Some stories become New York Times best sellers,
but we forget them two years later.
Some stories become blockbuster movies,
but 2 years later we cannot remember the plot.
Then there are stories like Elijah and the widow of Zarephath
that were being told hundreds of years before Jesus
– and here we are, thousands of year later
on the other side of the world, listening to it again today.

Some stories keep our attention through the ages because
they are deep and universal.
They say something about important about us.

The widow had no earthly means of support.
Even in a good economy, she would have been poor.
But a terrible drought had stricken the land; so things were even worse.

She had just enough food left
to make one last paltry meal for herself and her child.
She planned to make that meal, then die.

If you asked the widow what she was trying to do,
it was just to survive.
All she could think of keeping body and soul together another day.

That may not sound like it applies to most of us.
But for reasons having to do with how our brains work,
it actually does.
Whenever we feel devalued by others,
it indirectly triggers the same survival anxiety
in our brain stem as a threat to our life.
It goes back to the way our brains got wired
when we were still in the crib.
We need to know we are loved, valued, and respected.

Stretching our paycheck to make ends meet is not enough.
We need to know we are well thought of,
that people want us here.
If they want us here on condition that we measure up to their standards,
well, we aren’t all that secure, are we?
What if we slip? What if we fail to measure up someday?
Or what if they change the standards?

Great psychologists like Otto Rank, Ernst Becker, and Roberto Asagioli
all agreed that fear of rejection is a kind of death fear.
Our lives get trapped in trying to fit in so we will survive
– not just physically, but emotionally.
We all get caught in that trap either because
other people don’t value us
or they value us on condition that we measure up
to their standards.
So we are all a bit like the widow of Zarephath, trying to survive.

The problem is that isn’t much of a life.
It isn’t our real self that people value
because they never see it.
We live a false life, a constricted life, watching our steps.

I don’t read the men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire anymore
but from what I see on the covers,
they are still about how to get women to love you
and men to admire you.
The covers of the women’s magazines look the same.
It’s all a list of desperate strategies for emotional survival.

There is only one cure for that, only one way out.
It is the unconditional love of God.
It’s God who created us as we are because he loves us this way.
When the Bible says God is loves
or that God loves the world,
the word it uses for love doesn’t mean our kind of affection.

It doesn’t mean the warm feeling we have for someone
who meets our needs or conforms to our standards of lovability.
It means delight in someone for being their own unique self.

God’s love is absolute and unlimited.
If we didn’t measure up to God’s standard of lovability,
we wouldn’t be here, because it’s God’s love
that keeps us here.
Without the love of God, we’d blink out of existence
like dying fireflies.

God’s love keeps us here.
Faith in God’s love sets us free.
But it’s hard to have faith in that kind of love
unless we have caught a little glimpse of it.

That’s where the Church comes in.
We are agents of divine love, ambassadors of divine love,
conduits of God’s grace.
We are here to be the place that doesn’t judge,
the family that takes people in
whether they are the pillar of the community
or the derelict off the street.

We are here to look at people with God’s eyes
delighting in them, caring for them,
valuing their presence on this earth.
That’s what Elijah did for the widow of Zarephath.
He told her she didn’t need her survival strategies.
She didn’t even need the makings of her last meal.
Just trust God because God loves you.
It was a radical message – a crazy message.
But she believed it and she lived.

That’s what the Church is here to do for people.
But there’s a problem, isn’t there?

You take a lot of people with survival mentality,
put ‘em together and what have you got?
A church with survival mentality.

Sometimes when I talk with congregation’s about their mission,
they say straight out, it’s “survival.”
We are just trying to keep the doors open.
It’s easy to understand that feeling.
It’s a natural response to the world we are in.

But there are some downsides to a survivalist mission.
The first is that the survivalist mission is the proven fastest way
to extinction.
Jesus said it plain and simple,
“Whoever tries to save his live will lose it.”
That applies to churches too.

But the real problem with a survivalist mentality
for either a church or an individual
is that it makes us look at people in a bad way.
We are here to see people through God’s eyes.
But if we are fretting over getting our own needs met,
then we look at people in terms of how they can help us
with our agenda.

Instead of seeing a beloved child of God broken and in pain,
we see a potential Sunday School teacher,
a potential junior warden,
or worst of all a potential pledge unit.
Once we look at someone that way,
we fail in our mission to be a channel of blessing,
agents of God’s unconditional love.
That pushes the people we look at even deeper
Into their own survival mentalities.

So what are we to do?
We all have a streak of survivalist personality in us.
It comes with the way our brain stem is shaped.
It comes with the world having failed to love us
with God’s kind of love.
We are all broken this way.

The only way out, brothers and sisters, is faith.
The only way out is to practice trust in God’s boundless mercy
and the unbelievably good news that God loves us,
right now, as we are -- even with our survival personalities.

God loves us whether we believe it or not,
but to the extent we truly believe it, truly trust it,
we are free to be our authentic selves.
And we are free to enjoy other people for who they are.

In our burial rite, we recite St. Paul’s words that set us free from the trap.
“If we live, we live unto the Lord.
If we die, we die unto the Lord.
Whether we live, therefore, or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.”
That’s what matters. It means we are alright already.