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Donald Trump: The Devil or the Holy Spirit?

Friday, July 1st, 2016

The United Kingdom voted last week to un-unite from the European Union, and the world is suddenly in free fall. Facebook posts from those under 40 are filled with fury while those from the older folks express fear and frustration. What are the implications for us in the still-United States? What are the implications for our world? For our faith?

It’s six weeks into my sabbatical in Britain and, until last week, most people would just raise their eyebrows if the subject of Donald Trump came up. When I either nodded sadly or cast my eyes to heaven, they would respond with silent tenderness. There are clear parallels between Trump’s popularity and the appeal of those who voted to leave the European Union, but even the most passionate Brexit conservatives are at a loss to understand the logic of those Americans who believe that Trump would be a worthy CEO for the most important nation on earth.

What is going on? First – and some would argue most persuasively – there’s the issue of hot air, literally and figuratively. In Britain, to “trump” is to break wind, i.e., fart. While I struggle to honor the gifts of my name (“felicity” means happiness), I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has any trouble living up to his.

The troublesome issue is not Mr. Trump but the people who see him as a solution for the mess we’re in. At another time, I may explain the victim-abuser seesaw and the danger of victim mentality, but right now I want to explore the possibility that Trump is the embodiment of the devil tempting us with simple solutions, prosperity, and peace. In what ways could he be a modern embodiment of the devil that tempted Jesus during his forty days in the wilderness?

As you reflect on this, remember the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1: 9-12)

What is going on? A supposedly loving God honors Jesus as the beloved and then immediately sends him into the wilderness, where he has to deal with the horrors of hunger, terror, and vulnerability. In this physical and spiritual desert, the devil tells Jesus to:

  • Make bread out of stones to relieve hunger
  • Jump from the highest mountain and rely on heavenly spirits to prevent injury or death
  • Worship the devil in exchange for worldly power

Certainly there is a connection between this devil and Trump who asks us to buy into his idea of (figurative) comfort food, financial security, and power over lesser mortals.

But again I return to the Biblical narratives and wonder how a loving God could drive Jesus into such a place and situation… Could it be that the devil was just the Holy Spirit in disguise?

However you explain that, I believe the answer is the same as it was for Jesus. Each of the three temptations forced Jesus to examine his understanding of himself, the world, and God. What follows fear? Is it fight, flight, or faith? As Jesus dismissed the devil’s taunts, he also discovered his power and his role as a beloved child of God. And so I argue that the challenge – and the gift – of the wilderness is that it pushes us to identify three things: our power, our passion, and our purpose in life.

The Jesus whom we honor shows us that the path to heaven (certainly in this world and perhaps in another) begins with a faith that (excuse the pun) trumps fear. But he only was able to do so because he had gone through the wilderness where he learned who he was, who God was, and what the world should be.

Our country, if not the entire world, is smack dab in the middle of the wilderness.  We miserable, we don’t know where we are, and we’re desperately looking for a guide to lead us into a modern Promised Land.  Who will it be?  Will Donald Trump a.k.a. the devil win? Will we succumb to his false temptations? Or is God using Trump to make us examine what it means to be the United States of America? Is the God of Love pushing us to discern what American power, passion, and purpose looks like for the 21st century?

That is the challenge. And so it is not Mr. Trump, but the American people who will decide whether he is channeling the devil or the Holy Spirit.

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Channeling

Friday, May 27th, 2016

The young man plopped his backpack on my sofa, scowled, and announced that he would not be driving back with my cousin, staying instead in my small timeshare studio apartment until I worked out a plan to … do what ???

So much for my quiet vacation to finish the book. So much for solitude. So much for … whatever ….

The cousin left abruptly, seemingly pleased with his sudden freedom, and the young man offered a sheepish thanks, apparently assuming that I would do something other than throw him out on the streets, penniless and without even a driver’s license since he had handed that over to my cousin and forgot to ask for it back.

It’s a long and complicated story that I don’t wish to revisit, except to note that my response was uncharacteristic. Specifically, I was kind, I was generous. I found the young friend a room, bought him an airplane ticket, and paid for a taxi to the airport. When he left three days later, I was $900 poorer and feeling blessed. It seemed that the nasty Mr. Hyde part of me had evaporated, leaving only lovable Dr. Jekyll. I liked the peace and pleasantness of the new me but wondered what caused the transformation.

In my gut, I knew. The generosity was not from me but from others: I was simply channeling the tenderness of those who founded The Park Church 170 years ago – people whose love of God translated into acts of uncommon courage and sacrifice on behalf of runaway slaves passing through Elmira. I was channeling the love of those in the church who continue its legacy on behalf of people who are differently abled or of different sexual persuasions, or undervalued and challenged for whatever reason.

I was channeling the generosity of so many friends who have helped me navigate the challenges of ministry throughout the years. I was channeling the kindness of Robin, my best friend from elementary school with whom I had recently reconnected, and her sister Randa. Hearing their stories of courage and sacrifice, my heart went out to this young man, so alone and scared by what was happening to him.

I was channeling the generosity of my grandparents, who made such contributions to a small Sardinian village 100 years ago that a young researcher reached out to my family in kindness. A month after I contacted him in hopes of meeting over coffee or lunch, he informed me that he had arranged for me to stay for a week at a friend’s flat just a block from Westminster Cathedral and two blocks from Big Ben.

It wasn’t me that was kind. I was merely channeling the kindness of ordinary heroes and heroines from my church, my family, and my past. I was channeling the kindness of new friends who extended hospitality in welcoming me to Britain for my sabbatical, finding me free lodging and use of a car during parts of my time there. The blessings from others overflowed such that that they had nowhere to go but onto this young man.

And isn’t this the Kin(g)dom of God?

I am not an especially kind or generous person but on this day I was caught in God’s web of eternal connection. The largesse of the peace more than compensated for the shrinking of the purse.

We give thanks.

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Pilgrimage as Embodied Faith

Friday, April 29th, 2016

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.”

— Rabbi Abraham Heschel

 Who are we and why are we the way we are?  I surmise that our identities are fashioned by those people and places that have combined to give us our values and thus our identity. Some of these were given us (family, country of origin) and some we acquired on our own (friends, college, job, travels, spouse).  It’s true of organizations as well.  The church I pastor is a progressive church because of our location (in Elmira, a central conduit of the Underground Railroad) and the people who filled its pews and pulpits in the past.  With different people in a different setting, The Park Church might not have emerged as a national landmark and leader in justice issues.

But too often we take these values as defaults without exploring, questioning, discarding, or celebrating them.  The result is that we live on autopilot without exercising much control over our destinies.  It was for this reason that God (or, if you prefer, the earliest wisdom teachers who collected their culture’s wisdom in the form of the great religious texts) developed the idea of Sabbath, the seventh day of the week during which God rested and instructed us to do the same.  This kind of holy rest is not vegging out at the beach or hanging out with friends; it is a deliberate time set aside to reconnect with the best of ourselves and reclaim our identity as beings made in the image of God.

In exploring our identity and values, we also need to consider the role of faith, which is too often confused with belief or contaminated by heaven-or-hell pronouncements of the institutional church.  This ignores the fact that doubt is to faith as dissent is to democracy – you can’t have the latter without the former or it’s sham.  We meet fundamentalist Christians – or Muslims or belligerent atheists or anyone else with simplistic truth-and-falsehood, good-and-bad, heaven-and-hell explanations of God – and they just don’t seem … real.  Rigidly held beliefs are so antithetical to the human experience that it’s hard to take them seriously; faith is not authentic if there isn’t some doubt at its core.

A wise elder shared an important insight about twenty years ago when I was tormented by whether or not to go into ministry.  My head said this religious stuff was just phooey, but my heart was telling me that the call and the joy, however inexplicable, were real.  On a spiritual retreat, I met with the resident priest, explaining that I was spiritually bipolar; my head and heart were in constant tension.  After listening to my plight, he leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said, “It’s not your head and your heart at war; it’s that you – like everyone else in the world – is on the seesaw between mystic and cynic.  Mysticism, however tenuous and inexplicable, brings joy, whereas cynicism is deadening.  You’re a mystic trying to follow the rationalist explanations of the modern world, and you’ll never find peace until you honor the validity of the experienced God as the source of peace since the beginning of time.  Remember, that’s why we call it ‘the peace that passes all understanding.’”

In short, faith can never be understood or explained scientifically.  But there is the very real experience of connection with something outside of us that brings joy, peace, and energy.  It is not rational or irrational; it is extra-rational.  It is of the heart, not the head.

Events that take us to a new understanding of God and ourselves are not reserved for holy nutcases.  On the contrary, several recent studies have reported that fully half of all Americans have had a life-changing religious experience at least once in their lives.  In other countries, the percentage is even higher.  As a rule, mystical experiences seem to be like grace, an unbidden gift from above.  But there are definitely things we can do to connect with the divine.

One of these is a pilgrimage. The ancient Jews were expected to go to Jerusalem three times a year – for Passover, Shavuot (or Pentecost), and Sukkot.   To this day, Muslims are required to travel to Mecca at least once in their lives. In our Christian history, those of us of European ancestry will think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Pilgrimage has been a major component of all the major faiths since the beginning of time – either mandated by the religious texts or encouraged by the culture.

Dear readers, have any of you ever gone on a pilgrimage?  If so, what prompted you and what did you get out of it?  Friends of mine who have undertaken a formal pilgrimage to Jerusalem or Mecca or along the Camino de Santiago or to the places of their ancestors typically return with a clearer understanding of their own identity and purpose in life.  They return with a sense of the peace that passes all understanding.

As I begin my sabbatical with pilgrimages to Iona, Lindisfarne, and a collection of ancestral sites, I welcome your insights and prayers, for truly a pilgrimage is embodied faith: the work of the heart and the journey to discern our identity as children of a loving God.

Blessings on the journey!

Rev. Felicity

 

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Noah Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, and Their Message for Spirituality and Religion

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Garrison Keillor, in today’s Writer’s Almanac, reminds us that it was on April 14, 1828 that Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language was published. We at The Park Church celebrate Webster for his literary and genetic gifts: we love (or should love) his dictionary, and we love (or should love) his granddaughter, the magnificent Julia Jones Beecher, celebrated wife of Thomas K. Beecher, dear friend of Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”) and treasure of Elmira. (You can do a Google search or just wait for me to get around to writing about this extraordinary gift to the human condition.)

Keillor’s reflection reminded me of the connection between religion, spirituality, and the history of dictionaries. We yearn for a belief system or set of life principles that will guarantee either eternal salvation or earthly glory or both. We disagree, however, on how to read the road map or which of several different roads to take. Some of us prefer the fast route; others want the scenic one. Some of us prefer well-worn boulevards; others want to forge new walkways.

The various religions only add to our confusion. They all promise that if we follow their tenets, then we are likely to live with joy and die in peace. Some suggest it will happen in the here-and-now; others promise rewards in the afterlife. Some have rigorous life-style specifications, including what we can eat (and when), whom we can marry, how we must worship. Others emphasize self-control, charity and justice in more general terms. What are we supposed to do? What decisions must we make, what religious path should we follow, in order to live with joy and die in peace?

I believe that divining a personal theology is like creating a dictionary. Seventy-three years before Webster and a century before Oxford University began work on its great dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language was the most successful attempt to codify the English language. The six-year effort by the second most-quoted author after William Shakespeare is impressive not only for its breadth (43,500 words defined using 118,000 illustrative quotes) but also for its underlying philosophy. Unlike the “Forty Immortals” that have met since 1635 to create and maintain a national standard for French language and usage, Johnson believed that language, if it were to be an effective way of communicating, could be no more fixed than the changes of the season. Ideas change, needs change, knowledge changes – and so must language.

Arguing for an immutable dictionary akin to the Forty Immortals was Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, who wanted to define correct pronunciations, correct spellings, correct usage, and decide which words were or were not proper. Swift wanted a yardstick against which to codify correctness; Johnson wanted a process by which to measure common usage.

Is it not that different from comparing the Ten Commandments (that spell out the do’s and don’ts of acceptable living) with Jesus’ broader commandments to “love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Detailed rules or general guidelines: why is it that some people need well-defined creeds to codify their philosophy, while others are comfortable with more general belief statements? Is there value in creating two theological lexicons – one for the Johnsons and Websters and another for the Forty Immortals and the Swifts?

— Or can we just focus on the basics (love, peace, and justice) and ignore the details and the judgment?

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Circling Excerpt 1: The Introduction

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

With encouragement from friends and fellow writers, I am revising the book that was previously titled In God We Tryst: A Pilgrimage.  It will now be called Circling.  I’m not sure whether or not to add a subtitle, A Spiritual Odyssey.  (I welcome your thoughts.)  Also, I will be posting parts of it on this blog and hope that I’ll get lots of suggestions from you, my dear readers.

So here is the Introduction.  Enjoy — and respond with what works and doesn’t work for you.  Thanks so much!

 

Goober

Introduction

 

I live my life in ever-widening circles

That stretch out over the things of the world.

I may never reach the outermost orbit,

But that is what I strive for.

 

I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,

And I’ve been circling for a thousand years

But I do not know yet: if I am a falcon,

A storm . . . or a great song.

 

Rainer Maria Rilke, A Book for the Hours of Prayer

 

To this day, I live all three: the falcon, the storm, and the song. There have been times when the storm raged so harshly that the falcon cowered and the song was stilled, but these, albeit violent, were infrequent. Mostly, the falcon flies high and the song is a love song.

But it’s hard work: circling God is not easy. There is no assurance that “things will be all right in the end,” either in this life or the next. Living a God-centered life is counter-cultural, and it becomes harder as the children grow and our bodies deteriorate. Often our hearts want to say “Yes” to God, while our heads protest “No way!” Many people question the legitimacy of God, craving certainty when none is possible. Others profess intimacy with the inner workings of the divine mind, alienating those with a humbler faith.

As a teenager, I careened between self-righteous certitude and hardened skepticism until an unlikely Trinity of cheap wine, dirty feet, and a fire-breathing Baptist preacher set me on a spiritual odyssey to find a loving God. Ashamed by a circuitous odyssey with too few signposts, I despaired of going public with the love story that supposedly happens when one finds God.

Earlier drafts were titled Searching for God: An Idiopathic Odyssey because I began it after the death of my infant daughter Caitlin, thirty-five years ago. One thing after another went wrong in her three-month lifetime and it was as perplexing to the doctors as it was to us. When the chief cardiovascular surgeon came to tell us of another bizarre twist in Caitlin’s medical plight, I probed to understand its cause. He shrugged his shoulders, raised his eyebrows, curled his lip, and said it was idiopathic.

When I asked what “idiopathic” meant, he sheepishly explained that it meant there was no clear medical cause. I laughed outright, “Oh, ‘idiopathic’ is the same as ‘I haven’t a clue!’”

When he acknowledged the truth of my equation,  the word evolved into a description of my spiritual journey quite as much as it did Caitlin’s medical trials. It’s an elegant term that experts – doctors, lawyers, or even theologians – can use when bereft of better explanations for why things happen the way they do. There is a respectful holiness about idiopathic confusion.

In time, I recognized that my yearning to understand God’s truth in the face of innocent suffering might some day result in a book. But being an optimist by nature, I thought the book could not be completed until there was a happy ending. There has to be a purpose in life, I thought, just as there has to be goodness in God – or why else are we born and why do we persist in believing in a loving deity?

So I waited for the happy ending. And waited. And waited. Some delightful blessings came my way, including a pair of magnificent children, delightful friends, and satisfying professional work…but the fairy-tale ending remained elusive. Every time I thought life was leveling out to a gentle and comfortable playing field, another gut-wrenching loss would find its way to my soul.

The clarity of my youth became the curse of my adulthood. Raised on the importance of rational thinking and hard work, I managed the first half of my life with a healthy combination of messiness and good fortune, emerging at thirty with a fine husband, excellent job, and upbeat attitude. Then things soured: our first child died at three hours, and Caitlin at three months. Of the two living children, one was born without an ear and another with a neurological birth injury. Twelve years later, the marriage was over and my foray into new life as an ordained minister boomeranged, hitting me broadside and leaving brutal scars.

Finally – finally! – I wised up. I heard God clearly for the first time, and what I heard made me realize that I’d been going about things all wrong. I had wanted my head to justify the yearnings of my heart. Sure, I was on the right path and walking in the right direction, but it was as though I had been walking backwards all the way.

When I turned myself around so that I was walking head- (or was it heart-?) first, I still tripped over the rocks and slipped in the mud, but discovered newfound pleasures in the trek. I realized that I had been looking for the wrong type of happy ending. I needed to focus on the journey not the destination – to enjoy the walk with all the pathos and bathos, the sublime and the ridiculous, that comes our way. I learned that there are times when we need to scout aggressively for blessings as a way of tempering the trials. Prayer and gratitude help in making the valleys less deep than they might be otherwise.

My quest took me from the East to the West and back to the East coast, from motherhood to ministry, and from skepticism to faith. After years of spiraling through a spiritual wilderness where the only choice was to dismiss or disdain God, I emerged shaken but open to new possibilities. The children are well, my health is good, my attitude is positive, and my awareness of the blessings of life is enhanced by the challenges of getting to this point.

But while I preach and believe the good news as written in the Bible, I am nonetheless beleaguered with questions; it is heady work to explain the value of being faithful without also being certain. And so I write this book for those of us who are “seekers”: those of us who want to believe in God but find it tough going. We can’t understand why religious faith comes more readily to other people: have they had an easier life, or are they smarter than we are, or are they dumber than we are? Somehow, our weary minds can’t quite muster the necessary energy to take the exhilarating bounce of faith that graces other lives. Instead, we torment ourselves with the big “why” questions that differentiate us from other species – the “why this?” and “why not that?” and – worst of all – the “why me?” questions that suggest we may be created in the image of God but are a long way from home.

I trust that readers will enjoy the roller-coaster stories of my adventure while also exploring the workings of God in their lives. I hope that these nourishing, if perhaps bittersweet, appetizers might open readers to a divine banquet where, I believe, all are welcome.

We each experience the divine in personalized ways based on our culture and upbringing. In this light, some readers may object that my occasional use of colorful language is sacrilegious, or that it trivializes what is a genuinely profound and perplexing struggle to explain Holy Mystery. To such complaints, I have two responses.

First, as Popeye would say, “I yam what I yam,” and perhaps class just ain’t my strong suit. I sometimes use graphic language, and so the book just wrote itself that way. Second, I believe that God yearns to connect with all of us – old and young, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor – and will happily use any and all methods of discourse to open our ears, our hearts, and our minds. In my case, it sometimes takes gutter speak to get through the earwax.

Finally, I end this introduction by explaining that the God I now love has different faces and voices and appears through a robust tapestry of images, terms, and languages. God is beyond being male, female, Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and everything else we can imagine. I believe that, just as God created so many varieties of flowers to bring beauty into our lives and just as there are varieties of birds to give us music, so also are there many different religions so that all people can find a way to Her. Too often we argue over the pros and cons of the different lamps, forgetting to honor the universal light that is God.

Because of my cultural and personal heritage, God speaks to me through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, but I hope that non-Christians will be able to relate to the substance of this faith journey, if not the specific images and terms. Most importantly, I hope this “travelogue” will encourage readers to honor their own search for God. It may be that the roller-coaster of disordered chaos is actually a God-centered Ferris wheel: we still go up, down, and around, and some of us may get horribly nauseous.

But the view at the top is celestial.

 

If only for a second. Then the circle begins anew: our lives are an interwoven trinity of falcon, storm, and song swirling up, down, and around that ancient tower that we call God.

 

 

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Happy Mothers’ Day…and celebrating what’s in the Bible!

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

ZeusStatueWe too often think of God as if HE, like Zeus reigning havoc from Mount Olympus, were an outrageously virile, sometimes malicious misogynist.  Woe on us ladies, who are hapless helpmates if not also victims…

Well, there’s lots of history and literature behind such an misconception, but it’s not in the Bible!   Okay, okay, let’s be honest — some of it is…. BUT there’s much to commend a more gentle and feminine image of God.  I’m preparing for tomorrow’s message for Mother’s Day, and I’ve gleaned the following from several sources:

In the Hebrew Bible, El Shaddai is one of the words for God, along with Yahweh, Adonai, Elohim, and others. Although usually translated “Almighty God,” it might better be translated as the “Many-breasted One” from the plural of the Hebrew word shad, meaning breast, rather than the ancient Semitic word shadu meaning mountain.

A. Examples of God referred to as a mother:

  • a woman in labor (Isa. 42:14) whose forceful breath is an image of divine power
  • a mother suckling her children (Num. 11:12)
  • a mother who does not forget the child she nurses (Isa. 49:14-15)
  • a mother who comforts her children (Isa. 66:12-13)
  • a mother who births and protects Israel (Isa. 46:3-4). In contrast to idol worshippers who carry their gods on cattle, God carries Israel in the womb. The message to the people is two-fold: it demonstrates God’s superiority over other gods, and reiterates the divine promise to support and redeem. In short, God’s maternal bond of compassion and maternal power to protect guarantee Israel’s salvation.
  • a mother who gave birth to the Israelites (Dt. 32:18)
  • a mother who calls, teaches, holds, heals and feeds her young (Hosea 11:1-4) 2. Other maternal references: Ps. 131:2; Job. 38:8, 29; Prov. 8:22-25; 1 Pet. 2:2-3, Acts 17:28.

B: Examples of God doing womanly activities:

  • God as a seamstress making clothes for Israel to wear (Neh. 9:21)
  • God as a midwife attending a birth (Ps. 22:9-10a, 71:6; Isa. 66:9)
  • God as a woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • God as a woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)

C: The Holy Spirit is often understood to be feminine:

  • “Ruach” in Hebrew is a feminine noun; “pneuma” in Greek is neuter
  • The Holy Spirit is often associated with women’s functions: the birthing process (John 3:5; cf. John 1:13, 1 John 4:7b, 5:1, 4, 18), consoling, comforting, emotional warmth, and inspiration.
  • Some ancient church traditions refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine terms (the Syriac church used the feminine pronoun for the Holy Spirit until ca. 400 C.E.; a 14th c. fresco depicting the Trinity at a church near Munich, Germany images the Holy Spirit as feminine).
  • Sophia is honored as a goddess of wisdom. In Orthodox Christianity, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), is an expression of understanding for the second person of the Holy Trinity, (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) as well as in the Old Testament, e.g., Proverbs 9:1.

So tomorrow, with the children, we will pray:  “Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…”

And I do believe that the Father-Mother God will rejoice!

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Gratitude

Friday, April 5th, 2013

I’ve been asked to write about gratitude, but I’m not feeling mellow or happy or grateful. And it is because I CANNOT ABIDE TIME-WARNER CABLE. I just got home and went to turn on the BBC and PBS News Hour, but my TV is responding with a screen telling me that my cable box is not authorized (a new message that doesn’t make sense since it was working yesterday) Sadly, Times-Warner has the monopoly here for TV/Internet access, so I’m helpless.

I call the number on the screen and get a message said that the wait for customer support will be “slightly more than 10 minutes.”

I can manage that, I think, putting the phone on speaker. Feeding the new puppy and making dinner for myself, I listen to ads promoting various Time-Warner services punctuated with the constant (if insincere) refrain: “Thank you for your patience: an operator will be with you shortly.”

But now it’s been 47 minutes and 17 seconds and still no operator. And I’m supposed to be thinking about gratitude? The fact is that I’m thoroughly p*ssed! I’d hang up except then I would have to wait even longer.

In my frustration and impatience, I remember to breathe deeply and consider: what am I grateful for? I realize that my anger is heightened because of my sense of entitlement. Assumptions of instant TV, a free press, and local and international news come with privilege. For me, they come with a free (and good) public education, from being born into a white, middle/upper-class family, and from living in the greatest democracy in the history of the world.

Reflecting on my nephew who had served in Afghanistan (and the Afghan people that we are trying to help), I am reminded of the poverty and injustice common to the American natives in Utah and Alaska with whom I had worked many years ago. I am reminded of friends and colleagues living in squalid townships in South Africa and barrios in Mexico. I am reminded of friends living in the hollers of Kentucky. I am reminded of friends and family struggling with life-threatening diseases.

Gabriel, my now-well-fed puppy, charges around the house. Celebrating life and freedom with wild abandon, he interrupts my self-indulgent reflections, calling me back to thoughts of life and joy and connection.

In the process, he puts my life in perspective and I realize that I am grateful that:

  • I have a telephone to call (and wait) from.
  • I live in a country that honors a free press; I can get PBS, BBC, local news, and numerous other TV stations most of the time.
  • I have friends and family who are working to make this a better world and trying to improve the lot of those who have less.
  • My puppy reminds me that life is joy.
  • My friend thinks well enough of me to ask me to write about gratitude.

Hallelujah.

 

IMG_1252

 

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Melody, Harmony, and Instrumentation: The Lessons of Bach (and of Jesus)

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

I’ve been pushing the envelope at my church — just a wee bit, i.e., enough to delight some and trouble others. After all, there’s the right way of doing things (that is, the way we’ve always done it) and the Wright way of doing things. There is confluence but not symmetry — or not as some might wish.  We have a worship planning group, and they’re excited by new ideas and approaches, but sometimes they are more adventurous than traditional (which may be why we enjoy working together).

For several weeks, I’ve pondered how to explain my philosophy of worship in a way that “traditionalists” might understand, if not agree with. And then — as if by grace — Time Warner Cable (not a standard agent of divine inspiration) created a new ad often aired on CNN. I was unmoved by the message of Ricky Gervais, but something unspoken kept me from hitting the mute button.

I soon recognized the background tune as Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major. It wasn’t long before the voice of Bach or God or something offered divine inspiration to me and (hopefully) my congregation! A few hours after consulting with Google (the modern “god” of facts if not the eternal God of love and wisdom), I was reminded of two key qualities of Bach:

  1. He wrote “S.D.G.” (soli deo gloria — “to God alone be the glory”) on each of the 10,000+ pages of music he created;
  2. He was heralded as a great improvisor but not composer during his lifetime!

On iTunes today, I was able to find 8416 melodies either written by Bach or based on his melodies. Take the Prelude No. 1 as an example.  Though an exquisite piece for the harpsichord (as written), it also works beautifully on the piano, harp, and harmonica. Gounod used it as the underlying harmony for his exquisite Ave Maria — which has been recorded by many classical musicians, including my favorites Kathleen Battle and Nana Mouskouri. Of the non-classical versions, my choice is the one where Bobby McFerrin sings the Bach prelude-harmony while cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays the Gounod super-melody.

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a beloved chorale, and it is surprisingly enchanting when played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass or Leo Kottle on 12-string guitar.

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded shows up with different words in numerous hymnals  plus it’s the melody that Paul Simon uses for his “American Tune.” (Of course, Bach probably thought it was a German tune, but what the heck — it’s so beloved and effective that it’s probably a universal tune.)

Air on a G String is the underlying harmony to Sweetbox’ “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” — in fact they did to this melody what Gounod did to the Prelude No. 1 in C. There’s also a 2010 version by the Fucking Champs, a heavy metal band from California, that is surprisingly enjoyable (from the standpoint of one who is NOT a heavy metal fan!)

You can find the Fugue in G Minor performed by illustrious organists (as written by Bach) AND a wonderful version by the U.S. Navy Steel Band!  Plus the exquisite melodies from the Anna Magdalena Notebook is given words and percussion additions in The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto.”

What does this say for worship, if not also for life?

We need to remember the why — namely the melody — of what we’re about. Personally, I may not like the harmonies and instrumental arrangements of many of the pieces I found on iTunes, but I have to acknowledge that some people are put off by the words “Bach” or “classical music.” They would never pick up an album of Kathleen Battle or Andrea Bocelli, but might fall in love with Bach-Gounod’s “Ave Maria” sung by Stevie Wonder, Michael Crawford, the Carpenters, or Wynonna Judd. (To say nothing of “These Are Special Times” by Celine Dion.)

The harmonies and instrumentations may change, but it’s Bach’s melodies that have enchanted us for centuries. Would Bach, famed as one of the great improvisors of all time, be discouraged or delighted by the many (and sometimes outrageous) re-interpretations of his melodies? I think the latter!

Similarly,  the music of Jesus warrants different expressions. For some, it’s organ and standard hymns sung by a traditional choir.  For others, it’s praise music and overhead screens. Some won’t open their lips or raise any body parts; others offer a chorus of “amens” and wave arms. In all cases, it’s about Jesus’ gospel of inclusivity, justice, and all-embracing love. The interpretations may change, but the melodious message lives on — for Jesus, for Bach, and for us.

S.D.G.

 

 

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Jesus Believed in … WHAT???

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

This was my Easter sermon at The Park Church in Elmira, NY — the church of the early abolitionists, Thomas K. Beecher, and Sam and Annis Ford Eastman, and of people who understand the radical message of Christ’s all-welcoming love.

 

Taking a lesson from Howard Baker, eminent politician and ranking Republican on the panel investigating Richard Nixon – the question is: “What did he know and when did he know it?”

Nixon protested that he didn’t know about the Watergate break-in until a year after it happened. But when evidence surfaced that he was involved from the onset, it wasn’t long before he chose to resign rather than be impeached.  Now, it seems to me that if the question of what Nixon knew and when he knew is was a critical one for U.S. politics in the 20th century, the question of what Jesus knew and when he knew it has been a critical one for … let’s see … almost 2,000 years!

What Jesus knew and when he knew it might also clarify the bigger issue of what he believed in. Why would he allow himself to go to the cross with nary a protest? If we can determine what Jesus believed in it might help us determine what we should believe in.

Did he, for example, believe that he was the one and only true son of God?  Did he believe he would reign from heaven after death? Did he believe that 2 millennia after his death, one out of every three people would profess faith in – and often be willing to die for – the values he espoused?  In short, did he – nailed to that shameful and vicious cross – have any notion that his death would change the world for all time?

If he had an exalted sense of himself as the son of God and just a few breaths away from heavenly paradise, then, in a certain way, that trivializes the viciousness of Good Friday.  And if the horror of Good Friday is diminished, so also is the elation of Easter morning. If nothing much happened on Easter, what are we doing here?  Why are we baptizing Tristan James – why do we call ourselves Christians, and why do we make certain life decisions and not others?

Something did happen on Easter morning – something very big indeed.  But I don’t believe that it has a whole lot to do with Jesus’ bodily disappearance from the tomb. As important as that is, I question whether it is the true source of our faith.  Let’s consider the bigger picture.

Many people assume that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the singular act that defines our faith. For them, his disappearance from the tomb on Easter morning is incontrovertible proof that he was the Son of God.  Anyone who questions the physics behind the Easter miracle is, by definition, not a Christian.

Others say that Jesus’ body was removed by stealth or that his followers concocted the story.  Some scholars note that Jesus was not the first or the last person to be resuscitated after death – in fact, we have Biblical stories of Elijah and Elisha, to say nothing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. Later, his disciples reportedly raised some people from the dead.  There were also resurrection stories in Egyptian, Greek, and Assyrian cultures circulating at the time of Jesus. So the disappearance of Jesus’ body was not the single most important fact that gave birth to the most powerful religion in the world for all known time.

Equally problematic is the idea that Jesus was a willing sacrifice for our sins.  This idea – called substitutionary atonement – posits that Jesus was a ritual offering intended to appease God from wreaking greater havoc on the rest of us.  In dying a horrible death, some people argue, Jesus took on the sins of all so that we will have everlasting life in heaven with God, regardless of our sins on earth. But did Jesus believe that he was the scapegoat for our sins?  Did he believe God to be a sadist demanding such appeasement?  — I think not.

Then there’s the idea that Jesus thought himself the son of God, which would explain his willingness to go to the cross as proof of his divinity – sort of “I double dare you….”  But I don’t believe that, mostly because – with the exception of the gospel of John, which was written much later than the others and has a decidedly Platonist influence – Jesus never calls himself the “son of God,” but rather “son of Man.” He doesn’t call himself the Messiah either, except to urge his disciples not to refer to him by that name. This suggests that Jesus thought himself fully human, fully able to suffer, fully able to die as all mortals do. So did Jesus think himself the only son of God? – Well, that notion doesn’t work for me.

Another question is what Jesus thought about the “second coming” and the “kingdom of God.” Scholars argue mightily on the issue of whether Jesus expected to return to earth in his human body, so I don’t know what to say about that.  Fortunately, there’s more clarity about the “kingdom of God,” so often illustrated by Jesus in parables.  The kingdom of God might (or might not) mean a future paradise in some far-away heaven, but it certainly does mean a loving and just world in the here-and-now.  This understanding of a generous and God-loving society undergirds Jesus’ every act and statement.

So, if Jesus didn’t believe himself the son of God, and if he didn’t believe he was the scapegoat for the sins of all mankind, and if he didn’t believe that he would come back to earth and vanquish all of his foes, and if he didn’t believe in a kingdom of God as happening only in some fairytale time and place, then what did he believe?

Writing 600 years earlier during the Babylonian captivity – a time of cruelty and dislocation for the Hebrew people – the prophet Jeremiah gives us a clue.  He assures the Israelites that God has not forgotten them and will come again in the future to restore their hopes and dreams.

“At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people…. I have loved with an everlasting love; I have stayed faithful.”

Like Jeremiah, Jesus believed in the goodness and faithfulness of God.  That’s the big one.  Jesus believed that God’s love trumps human fear and cruelty.

But was that enough?  Was that enough to give him courage to patiently endure a vicious and unjust death?  What did he believe that somehow got transferred to his followers to help them follow in his footsteps, often going to their own vicious and unjust deaths? What did he believe that changed the world for all time?

As I was struggling with these issues, I discovered a sermon by Annis Ford Eastman, one of few women ministers in the 19th century, and a revered preacher and pastor here at The Park Church.  She begins her message by considering Satan’s understanding of mankind, as expressed in the conversation between him and God in the Book of Job.  The devil’s doctrine is this: “All that a man hath will he give for his life.”  According to Satan, life – and the more comfortable the better – is man’s prize possession.

But Jesus proved the devil wrong.  People are not driven only by love of life.  It’s not all about living for me and mine. Jesus felt that if he could illustrate the kingdom of God to decent, ordinary people, they would strive to change themselves and society so to create equity and opportunity for all. He believed miracles happen whenever individuals become agents of divine love, transforming the world through generosity of heart, mind, and spirit.

Jesus believed that we want to connect with God and each other.  We are happiest when we are doing good – not for ourselves only – but for each other and for God.  He knew that, despite the fear and cowardice that gripped his followers on the day of his crucifixion, their experience of transformation in his presence had forever changed them.  It was only a question of time before they emerged from their dark caves of mortal fear to follow his lead in bringing the kingdom of God to this earth.

In short, Jesus believed that selfless love can never be crucified or buried, but will rise again and again throughout our lives, throughout the centuries, throughout the millennia, whenever people give of their own pride and their own needs – and yes, their own lives – to become witnesses for and agents of divine love.

Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead precisely because he – and any and all of us who give our lives to God – never ever really die.  Connection with God cannot die.  Goodness cannot die.  Love cannot die.  Even when our physical bodies disappear into the ground, the love we have shared and the goodness we have birthed live on through the ages.  This is the power of Christianity.  This is the miracle of Easter.

So, in closing, what did Jesus believe?  What did he believe in so fervently that he could endure condemnation and crucifixion? What did he believe in so passionately that it would change the world for all time?

In a word, Jesus believed in God , most especially the transformative power of God’s all-embracing love.

and he believed in … us!

… and that has made all the difference. Hallelujah!

 

 

 

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