Monday, December 30, 2013

When Christmas is Over (A Sermon based on Matthew 2:13-23)

Someone said that nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over. The themes that run through Advent are the themes of hope, peace, love, and joy and we always emphasize these in one way or another through prayers, songs, Scriptures, litanies, and in the sermons. But ask anyone who is going through a difficult time, anyone who is in grief from the passing of a loved one, or one who is unemployed without any prospects soon of finding a job, or someone who is struggling with a physical or mental illness – ask them and they will tell you that it is easier to sing or talk about hope, peace, love, and joy than nurture these in our lives.

Our Scripture text today is an after Christmas text, but it is still part of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel. When we are trying to get into the Christmas spirit this is a part of the Christmas story we would just as soon forget. The joyful news brought by the angel is now replaced by the loud weeping of the parents whose babies were killed in the wake of King Herod's rage. Matthew's Christmas pageant ends not with tinsel covered angels proclaiming peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered babies. 

We sing on Christmas "Oh little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie" but we don't have any songs for this part of the story. It's not still anymore. The days after Christmas return us to the real world - a world where there is danger and risk and hurt and evil, a world where children die senselessly, a world where parents like those in Bethlehem live in fear and oppression, a world that can erupt in holocaust and genocide, as well as in massive storms and earthquakes and tsunamis that devastate lands and lives.  

* * * * * * * *

Matthew tells us that what took place in Bethlehem “fulfilled” what Jeremiah had prophesied: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Two other times in the same passage Matthew tells us that the events he narrates "fulfilled" what was spoken by the prophets.

What Matthew means by the word “fulfillment” is not what we usually mean when we use the word today. The Gospel writer is not saying that God planned all of this to happen, he is simply telling us that the story of Jesus parallels and in some sense completes the story of Israel, that there is continuity between the old and the new, and that the God who was engaged in the life of Israel is engaged in the life of Jesus to bring redemption and hope to our world. Matthew is reminding us that even when evil people do evil things and terrible tragedy results, this does not take God by surprise and God is still at work.

This part of the story gets real messy, but Matthew wants us to know that none of this is outside of God’s involvement. Exactly how God is involved in all of this has been the subject of much discussion over the years. And some explanations are simply ridiculous.

After the tragic earthquake in Haiti where tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were left without food, shelter, and running water Pat Robertson of the 700 club explained that the people of Haiti had made a pact with the Devil and brought this on themselves. Robertson’s God is a monster, unless of course you belong to his group or support his work.

There are some things we never get over. We get though, but we never get over. The pain becomes less painful in time, but the pain never goes away.

A pastor, writing in The Christian Century, tells about the first time her mother visited the church she is pastor of. During the passing of the peace, what we would call the welcome, a woman who greeted here and realized that she was speaking to the pastor’s mother, asked, “Just how many children do you have?”

“Six,” her mother responded. Then she corrected herself. “Well, five who are living.” As she turned to greet the next person her eyes filled with tears. Her firstborn had drowned more than 50 years ago when he was a small child. And yet the pain of that loss is still so raw and real, that the most benign of questions can cause her to relive it at random moments – like during the passing of the peace at her daughter’s church. There are some tragedies we never get over.

When it comes to the tragedies of life and the amount of evil in the world that inflicts great suffering, I do not find any consolation or hope in theological explanations which attempt to answer “why” questions.” No explanation is adequate. No explanation is without problems. No answer is satisfactory.

I first began to wrestle with the theological implications of my “why” questions in a doctrinal seminar. I have, sense then, struggled with this on a number of occasions. Then, at some point in my spiritual journey, I decided it was a waste of time.

There is no good answer to the question of why there is such unjust suffering in the world. Every so-called answer creates its own set of problems, which ignites more questions.

There are some folks who would like to think that some of us are exceptional, that God gives some of us special provision and protection, that the chosen are exempt somehow. But that is not true. The gospel does not make us immune to random acts of violence or to common human suffering. There is no special promise of immunity or protection given to a particular group. 

Our granddaughters like the story: Going on a Bear Hunt. There are any number of versions of the story in print and on You Tube. Whatever the challenge, whether it is a forest or muddy swamp or snowstorm, there is no going over it, or under it, or around it, you have to go through it. Maybe that is a lesson in preparation for life.

Author and spiritual teacher Joan Chittister says, “There is no way to comprehend how to go through grief other than by going through it. There is no way to practice foregoing a hot rage that comes with feeling ignored or dismissed or found to be ‘essentially disordered’ – for any reason. There is no way to plan for the sense of abandonment you feel in a society that thinks differently from you; because your child is gay, maybe, or because you’re a woman and so automatically considered deficient for the work, perhaps, or because you’re not white in a white world, or because the person you thought was an eternal friend abandoned you.” She writes, “Those things we need to figure out for ourselves, one situation at a time.”  In other words, there is no avoiding them, so we have to deal with them as they come. 

There are things that can only be learned by going through them. And there are things that we would rather not learn. Sometimes the events and experiences of life shatter us, and there is no putting the pieces back again, at least, not in the same way. We may just have to do the best we can with what pieces still work. 

So, I am at a place where I don’t ask “why” anymore. However, I am not suggesting that you should not ask “why.” Much will depend on where you are on your spiritual journey. The person who has never asked “why” is a spiritual infant no matter what that person’s physical age.

One might think that there could be nothing worse than having to deal with too many problems and too many challenging situations in life. And it can be a struggle when the problems come in droves. But there is something worse than having to cope with too many problems and crises. What’s worse is having too few; having so few that one never asks “Why.”

I am not suggesting we should never ask “why”; I am suggesting that we should not expect an answer when we ask “why” because no answer is satisfactory. Demanding an answer is an exercise in futility.

So I am at a place where I have given up on asking, “why.” But you see, I had to ask “why” in order to give up on asking “why.”

At this stage in my spiritual pilgrimage it is enough for me to know that God is with us in our suffering and that God suffers with us in our suffering – that our suffering somehow impacts God. I believe that our suffering influences and affects God.

That’s what incarnation is about. That’s what “Emmanuel, God with us” is about. If we search our hearts deeply enough, if we listen to the Divine Voice within, our hearts can intuitively grasp, deep in our core we know that wherever suffering is, that’s where Jesus is (that’s where God is, the Spirit is, the living Christ is).

* * * * * * * * 

In the suffering at Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take place a little later up the road at a place called Calvary. Where the one called the King of the Jews bears the wrath of the powers that be and there is, once again as at Bethlehem, violence and bloodshed and weeping.

The gospel of Jesus is not a gospel about worldly power and control and success. The symbol for our faith is not a scepter or a throne or a mansion, but a cross – the very means used for Roman execution. The cross is a symbol of humiliation and defeat. It expresses vulnerability and weakness.

In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul said that the very image of Christ crucified, the very idea of the Messiah executed, was to many Jews a stumbling block and to many Greeks foolishness. It made no sense. But to those “being saved,” said Paul, it is the very power and wisdom of God.

Please do not read Paul’s words about salvation as a kind of legal transaction that provides a ticket to heaven. “Being saved” is a process of change and conversion that occurs in our hearts and is expressed through our lives. We enter into it, not by believing doctrines about Jesus, which, to be honest, does very little for us, but by faithfully living and embodying the way of Jesus – which is the way of the cross.

The way of the cross is the way of surrender and love – surrender to God’s greater good and love for all people, no exceptions. The cross represents the extent to which God was willing to go to show us the way out of our mess. The way out is not through physical power and force and violence, but through endurance and forgiveness and grace. In 1 Cor. 13, Paul calls this the most excellent way. It is also the most difficult way.

As we prepare ourselves for a new year, it is good to be reminded of what being a Christian means, and what it means is to follow the way of Jesus, and the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.


Our good God, may we know in the core of our being that you suffer with us when we suffer through the really difficult times in our lives – that you are not way out there, but right here – among us, with us, in us, absorbing it all. Help us to see that while you do not offer us answers, you do give us your presence, and the way through has been traveled already by Jesus, whose cross is always a reminder of your great suffering love for each one of us.    

Monday, December 16, 2013

Sometimes Being Righteous Means Disobeying What the Bible Says

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matt. 1:18–19).

Engagement in that culture was a legal contract. You couldn’t just say, “I’ve had second thoughts, I don’t want to be engaged anymore.” It could be broken only by going to court. It was as binding as marriage. So Joseph and Mary were engaged and may have been engaged for years. Often marriages were arranged by parents years ahead of time.

Before they consummate their marriage, Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. Matthew says that Joseph is “a righteous man.” For many in that culture that meant that Joseph kept the law of God, he revered the law of God as holy and sought to obey it.

That sounds good, but is slavish obedience to the law—to what the Bible says— always the right thing? 

What does the law say? In Deuteronomy 22:21 it says, “she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house.”

The Jews under Roman rule did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment, but Joseph could have made life difficult for her. Matthew says that because Joseph was “a righteous man” he wanted to handle this quietly so as not to bring public shame and disgrace to Marry.

Fred Craddock, who was a seminary professor and a really good preacher, put it like this in a sermon once: “I get sick and tired of people thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says, ‘Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.’ Do you want me to find it for you? It’s in there. I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’”  

Being a good Christian involves a lot more than just trying to do what the Bible says. It means that we have to think critically about what the Bible says and then ask, “What is the right and good thing?” Much of the time it comes down to where we put the emphasis. 

Jesus didn’t just quote the Bible; he sorted through it and decided what he would emphasize. In fact, this is why Jesus was considered such a trouble maker. He ignored or dismissed or reinterpreted what the religious authorities emphasized. Jesus had the same Bible they did, but obviously he didn’t read it the same way. He broke Sabbath law in order to heal the sick and he transgressed holiness codes in order to meet the needs of hurting people. 

In his teaching on marriage, for example, Jesus references that infamous passage in Deuteronomy that Craddock mentioned above that says if a man finds something displeasing in his wife he can divorce her. There were some religious authorities that used this law to justify putting a wife away on any grounds whatsoever. It was used abusively. The same way Scripture is used abusively today to keep women out of church leadership or justify male headship in the home. The Bible says it, they argue, and if the Bible says it then that settles it. Well, not for Jesus.

Just because it was in the Scriptures didn’t mean that Jesus accepted it as authoritative. In fact, Jesus put a new spin on it. Jesus reinterpreted it and offered a new reading. Jesus said that the only reason Moses gave them that law was because of their hardness of heart. The Scripture itself said that God gave Israel the Law, but Jesus said, “No, this didn’t come from God, it came from Moses. This was Moses’ idea. And he got pressured into it. It was on account of hardness of hearts that Moses made this concession and it was a really bad idea.” Jesus gave them a critical reading of Scripture. 

You are probably familiar with the story in John’s gospel where Jesus is teaching in the temple courts and suddenly some of the religious leaders burst on to the scene, interrupting his teaching, hurling a woman before him. She had been caught red handed in the very act of adultery. Of course, the man is nowhere around is he? They demand that Jesus render a judgment. They know full well what the law says to do to adulterers; but they also know Jesus well enough to know that he wouldn’t do it, that Jesus would not enforce the law.

Of course, Jesus knew what they were up to and Jesus says, “Okay, you who are without sin cast the first stones.” Nobody cast any stones and before long every one had left and it was Jesus alone with the adulterer. Jesus says, “There is no one left to condemn you, and I am not going to condemn you. Go your way and leave your life of sin.”
The Law, which the Bible says came from God, is quite specific about stoning the adulterer. But Jesus, whom we Christians all believe came from God, says, “Not on my watch.”

So right here in our Bibles are two different pictures of God and two different ways God is pictured as relating to human beings. One says that this action is sin and sin has to be punished. The other says, “No, it doesn’t. Grace is more important than punishment and there are deeper issues of justice here.”

What this all means for disciples of Jesus is that the critical question, the most important question is not: What does the Bible say? The most important question is: How would Jesus read this Scripture? What would Jesus do with it? What new reading might Jesus offer? Or would Jesus simply dismiss it and ignore it as he does the purity laws?

That is the key issue because Jesus is the Christian’s spiritual guide. Jesus is our teacher when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives, relationships, communities, and our world. Jesus defines for his followers what it means to be “righteous” and sometimes that means disregarding what the Bible says and doing what Jesus says instead.  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Debunktion Junction: Asking the Right Questions

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt. 11:2)

What sparks this question?

Matthew introduces John the Baptist earlier in his Gospel as the Elijah-like precursor to the Messiah (see 3:1-12). He is pictured as an anti-establishment desert prophet prophesying outside institutional religion (the temple and the synagogue), calling Israel to spiritual conversion and renewal.

He believes the kingdom of heaven/God is about to be realized through the Messianic mediator who will immerse people in a fiery judgment. The wheat and the chaff will be separated.

John announces that the kingdom “has come near” in the person of the Messiah. The time is at hand. The ball is about to drop.

“Even now,” says John, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The righteous will be purified, but the wicked will be consumed by the “unquenchable fire.”

When a number of Pharisees and Sadducees find there way out to the desert to be baptized by John, he screams: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

For John, the advent of the Messiah and the realization of the kingdom involved a baptism in the wrath of God.

No wonder John is perplexed. His imprisonment may have dampened his spirit, but it is clear that there is a deeper issue. The Messiah is not acting the part.

Jesus seems to be reading off a different script. Where’s the baptism by fire? Why hasn’t the ax brought the trees down? Where is “the wrath to come”?

Jesus displays no interest in separating the wheat and the chaff. John must have observed that Jesus’ works were clearly more about inclusion than exclusion. Jesus invited and welcomed all manner of “chaff” to participate in an open table.  
The messianic works delineated in response to John’s question can be understood in a spiritual sense to point to all the core elements of the gracious gospel Jesus embodied and taught:

“the blind receive their sight” –  enlightenment, discernment
“the lame walk” –  healing, renewal, restoration
“the lepers are cleansed” –  forgiveness, inclusion, reconciliation
“the deaf hear” -  obedience, guidance, doing the word   
“the dead are raised”  –  new life, conversion, transformation
“the poor have good news brought to them"–  liberation, social justice, equality

After Jesus enumerates these messianic works he declares: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” John is being challenged to get rid of his old script and embrace a new one.

John and his disciples stand to be “blessed” if they are open to “hear and see,” if they can move beyond their former way of thinking. The same is true for us. Can we hear a fresh word? Can we see an alternative vision? Are we open to new possibilities?

Even though John’s expectations were off target, Jesus affirms John in no uncertain terms (Matt. 11:7–11a). Jesus says that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” Just goes to show that good people who do good work can completely miss what God is doing.

Then Jesus says: “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It’s a kind of riddle, I think. It’s meant to evoke thought. I read it to mean that the one who embraces Jesus’ vision of the kingdom (reflected in the works he accomplished and the life he lived) will find oneself in a “greater” place of opportunity to participate in the work of the kingdom than even the greatest of the prophets.

I would like to think that Jesus’ words to John, while shattering John’s old paradigm, ignited a new vision and hope. Thankfully, John didn’t give up all hope and give in to disillusionment and despair. Though bewildered, he asked the question, and I want to believe that he lived into it.

How we understand God is always relative to where we stand in space and time. The pressures and influences of our time and culture deeply impact the way we think and relate to Ultimate Reality. Questions are the source of spiritual vitality and liberation.

A nightly news show periodically features a clip called “debunktion junction,” where some popular political (usually far right) notions are debunked. Maybe we need to do the same with some of our religious certitudes by asking weightier and more honest questions.

Thomas Merton said it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”

Questions help to dismantle our pride, clear away our certitudes, and open a place for humility to take root and grow. Questions create the space needed “to hear and see” what new thing God may want to tell us and show us.
   




Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is Peace on Earth Possible?

In the familiar Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, the angels announce to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, AV)

In a world of constant rivalry and competition, where the win-at-any-cost attitude is the common mode of operation, can there be any lasting peace? Is peace possible in a world of harbored grudges and continuous striving, fighting, and killing?

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche’ communities, where those with mental disabilities live with their assistants in community, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the genocide. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated.

I can’t imagine or don’t want to imagine what that would be like. I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.”

Vanier said, “I understand. I understand.” What else can you say? Her problem, wrote Vanier, was the guilt she felt because she didn’t know how to forgive. So she got caught up in a world of hate and depression.

Vanier said to her: “Do you know that the first step towards forgiveness is ‘no vengeance’?” He asked her, “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded, “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness—the first step.”

I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons this young woman had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he exhorts the church to live in harmony with one another and welcome one another just as Christ welcomed them (Rom. 15:5-7). There were challenges to such unity. People of different ethic origins and cultural backgrounds were brought together in their common commitment to Christ. Their conversion to Christ did not automatically eliminate all their previous prejudices and biases.

Paul appealed to the example of their Lord: “Each of us must please our neighbor. For Christ did not please himself . . .” (Rom 15:3-4). Jesus lived for the good of others, even when it meant bearing the insults and wrath of the powers that be without returning that wrath. Jesus absorbed the enmity and animosity unleashed against him absolving it in himself, showing us how violence can be defused and peace can be achieved.

This, of course, will not just happen; we have to create space for this to happen, for God to change us and make us instruments of peace. And we must be willing to take the necessary risks and make the necessary sacrifices.

Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote about the occasion when Tetsugen Glassman Roshi was being ordained the abbot of Riverside Zendo in New York. It was a grand affair. Zen teachers from all over the country gathered to celebrate the event. In the middle of this solemn celebration, the beeper on somebody’s wristwatch suddenly went off. Everybody started looking around for the poor guy to whom this happened, because generally you are not even supposed to wear a wristwatch in the Zendo.

To everyone’s surprise, the new abbot himself interrupted the ceremony and said, “This was my wristwatch, and it was not a mistake. I have made a vow that regardless of what I am doing, I will interrupt it at noon and will think thoughts of peace.” And then he invited everyone present to think thoughts of peace for a world that desperately needs it.

We have to be intentional. The change we seek in our own lives and in our communities and our world will not just happen. We must pursue these changes. We must pray for them and work for them and give ourselves, like Jesus, to serving others, even if it means bearing insults without retaliation. We have to be intentional about living in harmony with God, with each other, and with are planet, and give the Spirit space to mold and shape us into instruments of peace.


Monday, December 9, 2013

My kingdom Go

The radio stations I normally listen to are playing all Christmas music; one can handle “White Christmas” and “Frosty the snowman” only so many times. I turned 55 last week and decided, less I get stuck in old ways, to broaden my music appreciation (after all, Bob Dylan and James Taylor are older than I am). So, I have been listening to different types of music lately.  

I came across the song called “Demons” by the group “Imagine Dragons” which is currently listed at #6 in the Hot 100 Billboard charts. It’s kind of dark, but speaks to the human condition. 

Some of the lyrics are:
I want to hide the truth
I want to shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come.

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide.

Another verse reads:
No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come.

Of course, the phrase “my kingdom come” is a redoing of the phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “your kingdom come.” 

We all have our inner demons and the demons that possess us keep us consumed with our little, ego-dominated kingdoms.   

What demons do you struggle with?
* The need to win or be right?
* The need for prominence and prestige, to be applauded and honored?
* Some consuming interest or activity that drains most of your energy and time away from relationships and service that would, as in Paul’s words, “build up the neighbor” (Rom. 15:2)?
* Is your self-image so tied to how other people think of you and treat you that you are driven by the need to gain their approval?
* Are you attached to material stuff and the comforts money can buy?
* Are you harboring a grudge?
* Are you envious or jealous of anyone?
* Is some false attachment or addiction diminishing your life and relationships?

What demons rule in your kingdom?  

In order for God’s kingdom to come, our kingdoms have to go, and this can be a very difficult and painful process, especially if we are deeply attached and addicted to our demons.

The cure for demon possession is possession—possession by a greater Spirit, Power, and Passion.  

I heard about a young man with a disability who wanted so much to win the hundred meter Special Olympics event he was competing in. He was possessed by a desire to capture the gold medal. As he was running, the runner beside him slipped and fell. Without hesitation he stopped, reached down, and helped his friend up. They ran across the finish line together—in last place.

He wanted to win, but he wanted solidarity with his friend more. His care and love for his friend meant more to him than winning the race. He was possessed by a greater desire. He was possessed by the divine Spirit.  

Perhaps we would find greater liberation from all our “evil spirits,” if we were more often possessed by the Divine Spirit—possessed by the sense of justice, the love of neighbor, the deep compassion, etc. the Divine Spirit generates in our lives.

We can begin by praying that the desire to be in solidarity with others, the desire to know the divine compassion and love embodied in Jesus of Nazareth will set us free from our inner demons that would draw us into our own little kingdoms and turn us into self-serving and self-centered creatures.

* * * * * *

For those interested in exploring a progressive approach to Christian faith are invited to check out: Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith.  It’s a good resource for church study and discipleship groups.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's Time to Wake Up (Sermon for First Sunday of Advent)

I love the story about the little boy who learned to tell time by listening for the chimes of their grandfather clock. One afternoon he was playing in the house while his mother was out working in the yard. The clock began to chime; he expected three chimes. It chimed once, twice, three times, then four times, five, six, seven, eight – the clock had malfunctioned. Totally disconcerted the little boy raced outside to find his mother, “Mommy, mommy, listen to the clock,” he screamed. His mother said calmly, “Billy, what time is it?” He exclaimed, “I don’t know, but it’s later than it has ever been before.”

It’s true, you know. It is later than it has ever been before. Paul says to his readers, “You know what time it is, it’s time for you to wake from your sleep" (Romans 13:11-14).

May that not be the Spirit’s word to us today gathered in this place this first Sunday of Advent? It’s time to wake up. If it’s time to wake up, then what is it that we are to wake up to? 

It’s time to wake up to a vision of a just world, like that envisioned by Isaiah in the text recited earlier (Isaiah 2:1-5). It’s time to wake up to our responsibility to pray, act, work and participate in efforts to see that vision realized.

Paul says that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” The salvation Paul is anticipating is the salvation of all creation that he already wrote about in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans. There Paul says that the whole creation is groaning in labor pains, longing for the day of its deliverance, anticipating a time when it will be liberated from decay and death.

We are called to participate in this liberation, to pray and work for its fulfillment. This can be as simple as making an informed vote, supporting a candidate who will champion just social policies such as common sense gun laws, or comprehensive immigration reform, or policies that recognizes the reality of climate change and will protect and preserve our environment. It can be as simple as casting a vote. 

It can be as difficult as engaging in protests against drone strikes or the death penalty or the unjust implementation of law in our criminal justice system.

It can be as simple as cutting back our own energy consumption and as difficult as protesting our dependence on fossil fuels and lobbying for the development of alternative clean energy sources.

It can be as simple as showing mercy and giving care to someone suffering with AIDs or it can be as difficult as taking on a dominant culture that denies equal rights and protection under the law to same-sex couples. 

It can be simple or difficult, but it’s time to wake up to the interconnectedness of all creation and realize that the future of humanity is tied to the future of our planet. It’s time to wake up to the ways we are harming our planet and each other and put on the Lord Jesus Christ by pursuing the common good and working for a just world.

It’s also time to wake up to the reality that God is not up there somewhere, but rather, God is right here, as close as the air we breathe; that God is all around us, with us, in us. It’s time to wake up to this Divine Presence and learn to discern the Spirit’s leading, nudging, wooing, drawing, inviting, and calling to share in God’s redeeming, healing work.  

Nikos Kasantzakis wrote a historical novel about Saint Francis. Working with the materials about Saint Francis is kind of like working with the materials in the Gospels with regard to Jesus, it’s practically impossible to separate history and legend. Kazantankis acknolowedged in his prologue that if he omitted any of Saint Francis’s sayings and deeds and added others that did not actually take place, he did not do so out of ignorance or irreverence, but out of an attempt to match Saint Francis’ life with his myth, thus “bringing that life as fully in accord with its essence as possible.” He was trying to get to the essence of the life of Saint Francis.

Kasantzakis confessed that as he wrote his novel, he felt overwhelmed by love, reverence, and admiration for Francis. He declared: “Everywhere about me, as I wrote, I sensed the Saint’s invisible presence.” He felt as if Saint Francis was with him, guiding him. (I found the quote on The Tony Jones Blog)

Is this not what we should feel and sense with regard to Jesus as he is portrayed in our Gospels. The Gospels and the early Christian sacred writings try to capture the essence of the Spirit of Jesus. I think this is what the writer of 1 John was trying to get at when he opened his epistle by saying: “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”

It should be humbling to think that right now, we who are Jesus’ followers, who form communities called churches, are called to be the living body and presence of Jesus in the world; that we are called to make visible the essence of Jesus’ faith, hope, love, and joy. I’m afraid we haven’t done very well in living up to our calling, have we?

If we are awake, alert, watchful, mindful, open, and receptive we can discern Christ’s presence, even in the most unexpected places.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, when he was young was forced into the German army. Somehow he was grouped with about two dozen men who had also been forced into the German army when their tiny Russian village had been “liberated” by advancing German troops. The families in this small community still spoke a form of German that had been spoken centuries before. The wives and children were put in a refugee camp while the men were forced into the German army.

Brother David Steindl-Rast wrote that being with that group of men, he witnessed the glory of God - that is, human beings fully alive -even in the midst of the daily grind of boot camp. These men laughed with light hearts, in spite of everything. They dared to weep, and they had plenty of reason for that. They joked a lot, but never in any sort of offensive way. He remembered how they talked at night when the lights went out, about their families; he remembered how passionate they were. Steindle-Rast claimed that they showed one another and himself the spontaneous kindness and caring one might expect from a platoon of monks. “Good monks,” he said. There in the most unlikely of places Brother David Steindl-Rast encountered the presence of Christ. (Essential Writings)

Willie Sordillo is an administrator and minister with the United Church of Christ. He wrote about being on the Jersey Shore one morning, standing on a dune, scouring the wide-open sea before him, where he happened to spot a dolphin not too far off shore. As he watched she was joined by a couple of mates. Soon, they were a pod.

He called to his friend and they hurriedly carried their kayaks down to the water. He didn’t want to scare them off, so he and his friend paddled out to within about 50 yards of what had by then become “an uncountable swarm, a silvery blue swath of constant motion, diving and rising, moving together as one body across the horizon.”

As they sat there in silence, drifting, something unusual happened. Suddenly, they found themselves “surrounded by a mass of moving, playful flesh.” As they paddled, the dolphins swam beside them, seemingly looking them in the eye when rising from their dives. When they turned the dolphins turned. Sordillo wrote, “We were playing together, and it was their idea, having invited us into the game.”

According to Sordillo this was a place where wildlife was usually not found. It had been a place in the past where warnings had been posted with regard to medical waste contamination. It was a good day when one came across an egret. (Still Speaking Daily Devotional, Nov. 25, 2013)

So what if he had not been looking, watching, gazing over the sea that morning? And what if he had decided not to do anything? What if he decided not to listen to the passion of his heart and the wooing of his spirit? He would have missed the invitation to be part of something amazing and beautiful.

How often do we miss the divine Presence, the Spirit swimming in places where we would not normally look or expect? We miss it because we are not looking, or because we decide to not respond and be part of the adventure.

Lastly, it’s time to wake up to the reality that the gift has already been given, that divine acceptance and forgiveness has already been granted. 

It cannot be earned. It’s not about believing or doing the right things. As Jesus taught, the only way to experience acceptance and forgiveness is by entering into the spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, by spreading forgiveness around. The more we give, the more we receive. That’s the basic law of the spiritual life. As we forgive others, we swim in the ocean of divine forgiveness.

The spiritual life has nothing to do with perfection. The spiritual life is nurtured as we own our flaws and imperfections and nurture the capacity to forgive ourselves and others for being so flawed. As we forgive and accept others for their flaws, we learn to receive and accept God’s forgiveness for our flaws, which, on one level, means that we learn to forgive ourselves.

God wants communion with human beings; God wants relationship and our participation in the divine creativity and work, not perfection. I don’t envision myself ever being flawless, certainly not in this life, nor do I imagine I will be flawless in the life to come.

I agree with Franciscan priest Richard Rohr who wrote:

“It’s amazing how much of Christian history sent us on a self-defeating course toward perfection. On the day of my first vows in 1962, the preacher glared at us little novices and quoted the line “Thou shalt be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!” Most of the guys left within the first few years when they could not achieve it.  

“Many people gave up on the spiritual life when they saw they could not be ‘perfect.’ They ended up practical agnostics or practical atheists, and they refused to be hypocrites. Many of us kept up the forms and the words, we kept going to church, but there was no longer the inner desire, joy . . .” (Taken from Rohr’s Daily Mediation, Nov. 25, 2013)

Unfortunately, most English translations translate the phrase in the verse quoted by Rohr as “perfect.” We tend to think the word means flawless. Rather, the Greek word means to be mature or complete, to reach a goal, to attain an end, to fulfill a design or purpose. The end or goal or design or purpose God has in mind, is not perfection, but communion. God wants us to be in communion, to share God’s compassion and cooperate with God’s loving designs for all the creation.

Ironically, the way we enter into this communion is through our flaws and imperfections. Did you know that there is always one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of an authentic Navajo rug? They believe that is where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug. I think they have it right. It is our imperfections and flaws that open us to divine grace. This is where the Spirit enters and moves and flows. 

A poem by Malanie Jean Junean communicates this well:

Crushed by failure,
An ego shattering,
hope defying
defeat?
Judged on the surface, each endeavor appears to be executed
by an incompetent ne’re-do-well,
trying yet again and floundering.
The result is fiasco, debacle, catastrophe, disaster, blunder,
a plain old botch up.
Call it a washout, dead duck or a lead balloon.
By any other name, it is still
a flop.
Yet, upon further reflection,
this apparent lack of success,
is not a result of a lack of talent,
but like
a fish wanting to fly
in the air.
He will look like a genius
when . .
he discovers a unique way of swimming
in water.    (Readwave.com)

How much better for a fish, rather than waste away in despair because he cannot fly, learn a unique way of swimming in the water.

We are never going to be perfect; that’s not our calling sisters and brothers. Rather, our flaws and imperfections become the medium and means through which we proclaim the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.

It’s time to wake up, church. It’s time to wake up to a vision of a just world and our calling to participate in its realization.

It time to wake up to the presence of the living Christ all around us, with us, and in us, and to our calling to be that presence, to be the body of Christ in this place.

It’s time to wake up, sisters and brothers, to the divine gift of forgiveness already given, and our calling to unwrap this gift and share it all around.

As Paul says, it’s time to wake up and put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Gracious God, too often we drift through life asleep, unaware, unconcerned, worried about stuff that doesn’t matter, that’s not important. We get caught up in our own agendas and then these agendas enslave us to a way of life that is self-serving. Help us to wake up so that we don’t miss the adventure of life you want for us.

May we dream of a just world and have the courage to do our small part to advance your kingdom on earth. Give us the discernment to see your presence in others, in creation, in our own flawed humanity, and help us to be the body of Christ right here, right now. And may we realize that your forgiveness cannot be earned; that it is a gift that can only be received, and it can only be received as we give it away. Help us this first Sunday of Advent to be intentional about staying awake. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen. 


Monday, November 25, 2013

A Life of Gratitude Is More than a Prayer of Thanksgiving

I do not believe it is possible to live a thriving spiritual life without gratitude. By gratitude I mean a particular orientation toward life, a pervasive spirit that saturates our thinking and compels our doing.

Gratitude is a way of life that flows naturally from the awareness that all of life is gift, that all we have and are is due to divine grace.

A life of gratitude, therefore, should not be equated with expressions of thanksgiving that all too often arise from feelings of superiority, deservedness, and the delusional belief that we are self-made.

One might recall the barrage of opposition launched at President Obama when he pointed out that no one has succeeded in this life without some help.   

Some of you may recall the table-grace offered by Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, Shenandoah. He prayed:

Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the   harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same for food we’re about to eat.

A prayer of thanksgiving? Sort of. A prayer naturally flowing out of a life of gratitude? Definitely not. No one would question that a healthy sense of independence is necessary for a healthy life, but too many people want to believe that all their good fortune is their own doing.

Some people are blind to a fundamental truth of our common humanity, namely, we need each other. We are all interdependent and interconnected, and this is true not just between human beings, but with all creation.

A grace-filled life would issue forth a much different prayer than the one prayed by Jimmy Stewart’s character. It would reflect an understanding that the health and physical ability to work the land, the growth of the seeds, the rain and sunshine, the fertility of the soil, and everything else—it’s all gift.

How much do we have as a result of opportunities that many are not given? How much is ours simply by the random turn of the wheel of life? Did we determine our mental and physical capacities wired into our genetic code? Did we pick our family of origin and have any control over our early childhood nurturing (or lack thereof)? Did we pick the time and place of our birth or the economic, political, religious, and social conditions of our environment?

Prayers of thanksgiving can easily be misinformed, misdirected, and miss the meaning of life as God intended. Like the religious leader who prayed in the parable told by Jesus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people . . . I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” He felt he was one of God’s chosen. As Jesus made clear in the story, the spirit of thanksgiving that filled his heart was not of God.

A life of gratitude, on the other hand, sees our solidarity and union with all things. It accepts the responsibility of being our sister’s and brother’s keeper, as well as keeping and preserving our planet. We all belong to earth’s household and God wants all of his/her daughters and sons to enjoy a flourishing life.

Here is a better prayer to pray not just for Thanksgiving, but for every day of the year:

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift.
Make me live gratefully.
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms.
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive.
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing.

(Brother David Steindl-Rast)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Am I? A Confession

The late William Sloan Coffin, when he was chaplain at Yale University, would sometimes ask students, “Who tells you who you are?” Coffin knew all too well the power of higher education to tell students who they are.

I ask myself, “Who tells me who I am?” My greatest regret is that for a large part of my life my need to be somebody—to be successful, popular, and important—influenced so many of my decisions and controlled so much of my thought. My ego, attached to American ideals of success, determined who I was.

In high school, I strove to be a stand-out basketball player so I would be popular. I danced to the music of whatever tune would win me applause.

One Sunday in church, a girl from another high school attended my Sunday School class. Attracted to her, I asked her out and we started dating. She was not popular and I began to catch drift of rumors questioning my judgment. She was a good person—real and authentic; I was shallow and superficial, driven by ego.

Without any explanation or reason offered I simply stopped seeing her. In keeping with my propensity for conflict avoidance, I stopped calling, without any consideration of how this might hurt her. It wasn’t until I began a more enlightened spiritual journey in the second half of life that I felt any regret or guilt about my actions.

Now I like to say that if one doesn’t have any regrets, that person is either a rare breed of goodness and authenticity, or completely lacking in self-awareness and/or honesty.

I lacked self-awareness. I was blind to the way my false self with all its attachments to ego and addiction to prestige and prominence pervaded my attitudes, aspirations, and actions.

I regret the many times and ways I failed to appreciate my wife for the sacrifices she made so I could pursue my institutional church work and goals. I assumed that she would comply with my decisions and I did not adequately value the contributions and investments she made. And yet it was her partnership in the work that enabled me to succeed.

I convinced myself that I was doing all this for God, but so much of what I did was for the accolades of others and the advancement of my career. Religious leaders can easily be more delusional than their parishioners.

I now mourn my egocentricity and lack of awareness. I am grateful, however, that I experienced something of a conversion. I cannot tell you when it happened, but at some point I decided that the pursuit of popular applause was meaningless. I began to see how destructive to my true self and harmful to others my self-centered pursuit of recognition had been.

I am glad that I am now on a journey to be more real, true, honest, and aware—aware that I am nothing but “a little shit,” but a little shit loved unconditionally by God and by family and friends. My awareness that I do not deserve this is humbling.

I love the dinner scene in the move, As Good as it Gets, where Carol (Helen Hunt) becomes so upset with Melvin (Jack Nicholson) for his total insensitivity and unawareness that she gets up to leave. Melvin begs her to stay. She says, “Then pay me a compliment. I need one now.” This deeply flawed and neurotic man says, “Carol, you make me want to be a better man.” 

My hope and prayer is that the opinions of others will increasingly mean less and less, and I will be able to nurture this passion to become a better person—to love wastefully, to act graciously, to forgive magnanimously, and to live more honestly, humbly, and simply. Amen.

* * * * * * * *


For those interested in exploring a progressive Christian faith and spirituality I invite you to read my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls).  http://www.nurturingfaith.info/?p=1297/

Monday, November 18, 2013

There Must Be More!

Sometimes deaths in communities come like waves. I am ready for the tide to turn. I have conducted too many funerals in too few days. The following is a story I love to share with families. I’m not sure where it originated. I got it from a minister who got it from a minister who got it from a minister.

Once there lived a colony of grubs at the bottom of a swamp. Ever so often a member of the community would feel the urge to swim to the surface of the water and then disappear, never to be seen again.

This confused and bewildered the others, and so one day they agreed that the next time one of them felt compelled to leave the colony, that one would return and share with the others what it was like above the surface of the water.

It wasn’t long before one felt the urge to depart. She swam to the surface and crawled out onto a lily pad and in the warmth of the sun went to sleep. As she slept the carapace of the little creature broke open, and out emerged this beautiful rainbow colored dragonfly.

She spread her wings and began to soar in the glory and brightness of this new world.

But thin a tinge of sadness came over her, for she remembered the promise she made to the others. She knew she could not go back to that place and they would not recognize her if she did. 

But the sadness quickly dissipated when she realized that they too would make the journey, they too would experience the glory.

The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul—that in death the immortal soul departs from the body. The Hebrews believed in resurrection—that in death both soul and body die and by an act of God the total person is raised to new life.

The early Jewish Messianic Christians certainly followed the Jewish tradition. I get the impression that many Christians today are uncertain whether they believe in immortality or resurrection.

Almost all religious traditions seem to intuit some form of life after death.

By instinct we seem to know that this life is too sorrowful and hurtful to be the whole story. Too many lives are tragically cut short, or deeply devastated by circumstances over which they had no control. We spiritually intuit that there must be more to long for and expect. Even those of us who have many advantages in this life die with unfinished business and the realization that our lives are not complete.

So what will life after death, life in “heaven,” life in that bright new world look like, feel like, be like?

It’s hard to imagine. 

I believe that life in that world will be a dynamic process of continued development and growth. No sitting around in mansions playing harps or basking in luxury.

Whatever the particulars, I feel confident there will be no end to our learning, exploring, risking, growing, working, playing, evolving—this is basic to our humanity.

Human reality at its best is one glorious adventure pervaded by grace and fueled by the need to share and spread the healing, transforming power of unconditional love.

A version of this blog appears on readwave.com

For those interested in learning about a progressive approach to Christian faith and spirituality check out my book: Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know it alls)  http://nurturingfaith.info/?p=1297/   The questions at the end of each reflection make this a great resource for reading and study groups.



Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Jesus Believed about Life after Death and Why it Matters

The only time in the Gospels where Jesus talks about life after death is in a response to a question by the Sadducees. They did not believe in life after death, so the question posed to Jesus is a loaded question. A woman had married seven brothers successively in obedience to the law of levirate marriage. Whose wife will she be in the resurrection?

The Jews who believed in life after death, like the Pharisees, believed in resurrection, not immortality. Many of the Greeks believed in immortality. They believed in a sharp distinction between soul and body. Some Greeks called the body the prison house of the soul. They believed that in death the soul doesn’t die, it simply departs the body.

In the Hebrew tradition, there is no separation of soul and body; soul and body are one. The immaterial is inseparably connected to the material in Hebrew thought. Therefore, they believed that when the body dies so does the soul, and then it takes an act of God to raise the total person. 

Jesus would have believed in resurrection. The teaching of resurrection is an affirmation of life in all its variety and diversity, both physical and spiritual.

It is also an affirmation of life now, not just in the future. One reason belief in resurrection arose in Jewish life was because of the need for vindication. They began to intuit that in order for God’s justice to prevail there must be more than life in this world.

So the doctrine of resurrection emerged in Jewish spiritual consciousness as an affirmation and vindication of those who lived in life affirming ways. They intuited that there must be something more.

Resurrection affirms that what we do now and how we live now is important, and that nothing we do for the good of others, no act of forgiveness, no act of mercy, no kind word or good deed, no courageous stand for justice, will ever be lost to God.

If I believe in resurrection, then, I should aspire to be faithful in loving God and loving neighbor. I should embody a life of forgiveness and work for peace. I should give myself for the good of others and live as a good steward and caretaker of this planet. I should embrace everything that heals, redeems, and enhances life now, because how I live matters.

In response to the loaded question of the Sadducees Jesus says: She will not be anyone’s wife because those who live in a resurrected state “neither marry nor are given in marriage.” That kind of relationship, says Jesus, is not applicable to that state of existence.

I suspect that what Jesus is saying is that in the resurrected state we will be so much more at one with everything and everyone, we will live in such a unified field of reality, that the exclusive kind of oneness reserved for married couples in this world will no longer be necessary or appropriate. Our understanding and experience of family will be very different in that realm of existence.

I think that those who treat the teaching of resurrection as some sort of evacuation plan from this earth and use it to justify a lack of effort or sense of responsibility to care for this planet and work for a just world will have a lot to answer for. Every good teaching can be abused.

Death, of course, is inevitable. All things die: insects and humans, stars and galaxies. The process of creative transformation in this universe always involves death and rebirth. We must, then, learn how to embrace death as a part of the transformative process, and this is as true right now—spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally—as it will be later when we undergo physical death.

Putting off the old and putting on the new is an image that Paul uses to highlight the importance of dying to and letting go of those ways of thinking and living that keep us bound and addicted to the powers of death. There are some things we just have to die to in order to be open to new life experiences.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the archetypal pattern for our transformation both now and later.



Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Am I my mother's Son? A religious conversation

Once a month I visit with my mother who lives a couple of hours away. Typically, we talk for a couple of hours, I take her out to eat and we run some errands. Though I am a minister, spiritual teacher, and a writer, we rarely talk about religion. There is a reason for this.

On a recent visit, I took her a copy of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. I did this, as I have done with all my books, because she is my mother. And because I am her son, she reads them. She doesn’t read them quickly or easily, but she reads them.

She told me, “They’re deep.” What she really meant was, “How the hell did my son come to believe such nonsense?” She would never admit this. She would severely object to the way I just used “hell,” in her view a perfectly sound biblical teaching. I am joking, of course . . . kind of.

Our conversation turned toward the state of the world. Such a state signals for many conservative Christians that Jesus will soon return. She was reflecting, “I’m glad I am not going to be here. I am glad I will be caught up to heaven.” She asked me initially, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back soon?” Then, she remembered who she was talking to and rephrased the question rather tentatively, “Do you believe Jesus is going to come back?” She did not appear too optimistic about my response.

Not really wanting to get into it I answered, “Well, I’m not sure what I believe about that.” She couldn’t understand how I could be unsure when it’s clearly in the Bible. It was time to jump in, no matter how cold the water.

I responded, “Well, the early Christians who wrote the New Testament also believed that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Paul told the unmarried people at Corinth to stay unmarried because he believed that the world as we know it was going to end soon (see 1 Cor. 7:27-31). It didn’t happen. They were wrong. Maybe they were wrong about the whole idea of Jesus returning.” At this point, I thought about doing an excursion into apocalyptic thought and imagery, but then came to my senses.

She said that the Bible cannot be wrong. I responded, “Sure it can. It has been wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. You can find support for genocide, for slavery, for female inferiority and subjugation to men—it’s all in the Bible.” I continued, “The Bible contains both transformative texts and oppressive texts. There are both wonderful and terrible texts in the Bible. The Bible argues with itself on any number of issues.” She wasn’t buying it.

I asked, “Do you know any infallible human beings?” She most certainly didn’t—everyone she knew was full of flaws. I continued, “Fallible human beings wrote the Bible.” Her response was that God made sure that what these fallible human beings wrote was infallible truth. She couldn’t explain how that could be so, but she knew it was. 

Then she asked, “You don’t believe in hell do you?” Apparently this was something she wanted to ask me for some time and so she seized the moment.

“No, I don’t believe in hell as a literal place, but I do believe in judgment. Judgment, I believe, can be painful, though I think it is also hopeful. I believe in judgment the way I believe in a purifying fire that takes away all the dross and impurities. I believe in judgment the way I believe in the knife in the surgeon’s hands who wounds in order to heal.”

“But the Bible says . . .” And so we were back to the infallibility of the Bible which I knew would take us nowhere. So I asked, “Do you really believe a loving God would torture people?” She tried to defend God, as most Christians who believe in a literal hell do, by saying that God doesn’t send anyone to hell. “We are given a free will. People send themselves to hell.”

“Really, you believe that?” She did. I replied, “If there is a hell, who created it? If people end up in hell, surely it is because God has arranged things that way. If God knows that a person is evil and will always be evil and will never choose the good, couldn’t God just terminate that person’s existence? God wouldn’t have to torture them if God didn’t want to; after all, God is God right? Why would God do that? You wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t torture anyone. Are we more loving than God?”

She made a decision at that point not to try to reason her way through it. She said tersely, “It’s in the Bible and I believe it.” She also believes that God is a loving God. I encounter this frequently; people who believe in a literal hell and in a loving God are rarely open to consider how utterly unreasonable and contrary to common sense that appears.     

She just couldn’t understand how I could believe these things. I said, “Mom, you believe what you believe because that’s what you were taught. All the preachers and teachers you have ever trusted reinforced these beliefs. I use to believe all these things too, because that is what I was taught. These teachings were reinforced by friends, by professors and ministers I associated with, by the churches I belonged to. But there came a point in my life when I decided that I was going to pursue truth wherever truth could be found. So I am on a journey.”

She declared, “You could be wrong.”

“Sure, I could be wrong. So could you. I’m sure we are all wrong about a whole lot of things. I am very comfortable admitting that. But you don’t seem to be. Why do you think that is?” She couldn’t tell me.

This went on for a while, then she instructed, “When you preach my funeral, I want you to make it simple. Don’t preach all this other stuff.” I assured her, “I will make it simple.” I am assuming that “simple” is subject to interpretation.

Please understand that I love my mother. I tend to avoid religious conversations because this is typical of how it goes. However, I have some ground to hold a glimmer of hope. She knows what it is like to swim against the current.

In a conservative Southern Baptist church, my mother is a democrat. Before the 2012 election, it had become something of a sacred tradition in her Sunday School class to spend a few minutes bashing President Obama before beginning the lesson. She endured this for many weeks. Finally, she could take it no more. One Sunday she came out of the closet, “I’m a democrat and I voted for president Obama and will be voting for him again. Church is no place for partisan politics.” There are still a lot of elephants in the room, but now they make less noise.

If I write another book, I will give my mother a copy. She will read it, as difficult a task as that will be for her. And I hope that she might lock on to something that will give her the courage to risk the movement from knowing the right answers to asking the right questions. I wish for her the courage to think and move beyond the certitudes that she was taught and explore other possibilities. 

Thomas Merton captured it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not be clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”

Without the capacity to live and love the questions, a spiritual life becomes stagnant. We become stuck in a rut. Most of us don’t just fall into ruts, we dig them for ourselves. Then we curl up in them and settle in. There is no doubt that such places offer emotional security and comfort, but growth is sacrificed.

I wish for my mother and others like her the fortitude to confront their religious insecurities and fears, and to discover the Christian path as a journey into the mystery and wonder of a God too great and glorious to be encapsulated in a particular belief system.