Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Is Authentic Worship? Why Is It Important?

One of the most significant statements on worship in our sacred writings can be found in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria in John’s Gospel. The Father seeks, says Jesus, those who worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

What does that involve?

Worship “in spirit,” I take to mean, is worship that engages the spirit, that taps into the best part of us. We are to bring a certain vitality and energy into our worship. On the one hand, this calls for a focused discipline and practice; on the other hand, this involves flexibility and fluidity—because after all, we are dealing with “living water.”

“Living water” is the image John’s Jesus utilizes in the conversation to speak of the divine-human encounter/relationship. Living water is always moving, changing, surging; it eludes manipulation. We can’t control or confine the Divine Spirit who is the initiator of the spiritual life. Living water requires living worship.   

I heard about a pastor who took his Boy Scout Troop on a tour of his church where they met for their meetings, explaining the meaning of the stain glass windows and some of the symbols. One of the scouts asked about a plaque that hung in the foyer displaying a long list of names. The pastor told him that this was a rooster of names of church members that had died in the service of the church. The boy asked what seemed to him to be the next logical question: “Was it in the early service or the late service?” Living water calls for living worship.

Worship “in truth” is worship that nurtures a true connection with the Divine—a healthy, holistic relationship with God. Truth here is not factual or propositional or creedal or doctrinal, it is relational. To worship in truth is to worship sincerely, honestly, humbly, genuinely.

We worship not because God needs to be praised; but because we need to praise God. Worship is what we need to do in order to cultivate a relationship with the Divine. Worship, I believe, is a human need, not a Divine need.

Soren Kierkegaard, the famous 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, compared the church of his day to a barnyard full of large, overweight geese that had lost their ability to fly. But once a week they would waddle over to one corner of the barnyard where the biggest goose among them would stand on a stump and proclaim the glory of being geese. Occasionally, while this goose would be sermonizing they would hear the honking of wild geese overhead, flying above them so high they could hardly be seen. In a hushed silence, the barnyard geese would pause for a moment until the honking could no longer be heard, then the sermon would resume extolling the joys of being geese.

It seems to me that worship is intended for the wild geese among us who fly high, take risks, and live out there where it is dangerous.

When we gather for worship, the assumption should be that we gather after a time of engagement and ministry, of embodying and representing Christ at home, work, and play. As we live out our discipleship to Jesus in a rough and tumble world, it is not unlikely that we come to worship wounded and broken in need of God’s healing touch, thirsty for living water, hungry for a living word to sustain us on our journey.

I don’t believe for one minute that we worship because God needs to see us bow down or hear our praises. We worship because we need to make the connection with God; because we thirst for the living water and hunger for the bread of heaven. We worship because we need divine power to live a fully human life that incarnates grace and truth, love and compassion, justice and peace.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Cotton Patch Story (based on John 9-sort of)

There was once a man who was a current member and former deacon of the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, who began to question many of the doctrines he was taught, but was afraid to tell anyone in his faith community about his questions.

During this time of doubt and uncertainty, his job was terminated. The large corporation he worked for decided that the money invested in his job could be best utilized as a pay raise and incentive for the top managers already making 10 times more than what he was earning as a service worker.

Unable to find work, he soon found himself in a men’s home existing on food stamps. Unemployment had been terminated when the Tea Party became the dominant party in government. Fortunately, they had not yet been able to do away with food stamps.

A former member of FBC, Jerusalem and former professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Jerusalem ran into him at a local jobs fair, where the former professor learned about his plight.

The former professor invited his friend to stay with him until he could get on his feet. He helped him explore some of his faith questions and found him a job as a bartender with a friend who owned a local sports pub.  

The professor had been fired from the seminary when the new president took control of the school. The professor believed that Jesus was the revelation of God, but not God himself. He believed that the Bible was a medium for the living Word of God, but not the literal Word of God. He believed that all people reflected God’s image and were children of God, not just those who believed certain doctrines his church and seminary believed. He believed in marriage equality and equal protection under the law for the LGBT community, and he stood with them in their struggle for equal rights. For these beliefs he was fired and cast out of the seminary.

Eventually word reached the FBC of Jerusalem that a former deacon and current member had been working as a bartender and was associating with a heretical professor and questioning many of the fundamentals of the faith. When the deacons met in council they decided to first ask his parents who were long time members of the church. 

When asked about his recent activities, the man’s parents kept silent, for they feared the power of the church deacons and their ability to have them shunned and disenfranchised by the church body. They said, “We don’t know, you will have to ask him.”

So they called the man in before the deacon council. Presiding as chair was the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Jerusalem. They encouraged him to find a more respectable vocation and to cut off all association with the heretical professor and affirm the certitudes of the faith. They said, “We know that this man who is causing you to question your faith is not of God. He does not believe in or speak the truth.”

The man replied, “This is most strange indeed. This one you condemn took me in and gave me a place to stay. He listened to my questions and encouraged me to seek the truth for myself. He helped me find employment and has been a compassionate friend. Does he not do the works of Jesus? How is he not of God? How is it that you do not see?

Furious at his reply, the council of deacons cast him off the church membership roll, for they had been given such power at the last church business meeting. Congratulating themselves for being true to the faith and satisfied that God’s will had been done, they saw the former member to the door and dismissed the proceedings.

The man ventured over to a local café where he ordered a cup of the house blend and retired to a near-by park where he sat on a bench, sipped his coffee, and reflected on the events of the day.

Deep in thought, he was caught up in a vision. Jesus appeared, “Fear not, my dearly beloved. I am with you always. Do not be anxious about being cast out of the church. They threw me out several years ago.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Saying Goodbye to Christian America Is a Good Thing

Pew Research on Religion and Public Life has been monitoring for some time now the gradual decline in religious (particularly Christian) commitment in the U.S. The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years. 

About one-fifth of the public overall–and a third of the adults under age 30–are religiously unaffiliated as of 2012 when this research was conducted. A full one-third of U.S. adults do not consider themselves a “religious person.”

Recently David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote an article for ABPnews/Herald titled, “Saying Goodbye to Christian America.” He observed that there was a time when Christian symbols and values dominated American life. 

Gushee wrote: “The town square said it all. With the First Baptist Church catty-corner to the courthouse, and the same people essentially running both, not to mention the schools and the Chamber of Commerce around the corner, this was a pretty cozy little world. . . . The city council opened its work with prayers by the Baptist preacher, juries were instructed with Bible quotes and politicians ran for office exuding Christian rhetoric. And the kids were led in the Lord’s prayer over at the elementary school. There was one more or less coherent moral world, and it was drenched in semi-official Christianity. All of that has been changing visibly since the 1960’s . . .”

There are some, perhaps many Christians mourning this loss of power and influence, feeling worried, fearful, and insecure. I’m not one of them. 

It seems to me that whenever Christianity becomes enmeshed in the dominant culture and social power structures of the day, it loses its distinct message and transformative impact. Jesus too easily is made to conform to the prevailing dominant social and cultural landscape.

As we observe Lent and make our way to the cross, it’s important to remember that Jesus was rejected and crucified because he confronted the religious and social culture with an alternative vision of a just world and challenged conventional wisdom and practice.

Maybe the current state of Christianity in America is good for Christianity. It seems to me that the church always exhibits more spiritual power when it functions as the yeast, rather than the dough.

Living Water and Spiritual Thirst

Living water is one of the many images the Gospel of John employs to describe what in other places the writer simply calls “eternal life.” Eternal life is, of course, eternal.

Mel Blanc is a name that was associated with characters in Warner Brothers Looney Tunes for years. When at the end of a production Porky Pig came across the screen and said, “That’s all folks!” that was the voice of Mel Blanc. When he died his family engraved an inscription on his tombstone that read, “That’s all folks!” Christians refuse to believe that this life is all there is. There is more to come. We believe that we possess a life that transcends death.  

The emphasis, however, in the phrase “eternal life” is not on the quantity of life, which is assumed, but on the quality of life—the kind of life it is. Almost always John’s Gospel speaks of eternal life in the present tense. It is a reality that is possessed now, that one enters into and experiences in this life/world.  

So what is it? Later in John’s narrative, in a setting where Jesus is in prayer, John’s Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). The writer here provides a key to understanding this concept. To have eternal life is to “know” God; not know about God, but know God intimately, intuitively, experientially, practically. Eternal life is first and foremost life in relationship with God, life in conscious connection to and cooperation with God.

This is why the gift and the giver are inseparable. This is why John’s Jesus says in his conversation with the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked for living water” (John 4:10). The gift being offered is not something, but someone. The gift is the giver. What God offers is God’s self.

This divine-human relationship is a dynamic, not static relationship. It is like living water—moving, flowing, changing, surging.   

According to John, those who drink the living water “will never again be thirsty” for it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13–14) What might this mean?

First, what I think it doesn’t mean. I don’t think it means that we will have no more spiritual thirsts or desires. There are many times in our relationship with God when our spiritual thirsts do not feel quenched or satisfied. That is, I believe, quite natural and inevitable. Our spiritual thirsts keep us on our spiritual quest—searching, seeking, questioning, pursuing.

So what does this mean? On one level, John’s Jesus could be referencing religion based on holiness codes, purity laws, doctrinal statements, merit badges, and rewards and punishments. Such religion never satisfies, and once one has experienced the living water of a dynamic relationship with God, one will never desire ritual purity, holiness codes, or propositional, doctrinal religion again. Anyone who has ever had mystical encounters with the Divine will tell you that such experiences trump ritual and tradition every time. Not that ritual and tradition are unimportant; they are certainly necessary and have their place in one’s personal and communal spiritual-religious life. It’s just that direct encounter with the Divine quenches a thirst that ritual, tradition, and doctrine cannot. 

I personally apply this text this way: I still have spiritual thirsts that have not been quenched. I still have doubts and questions. Over the course of my spiritual journey my changeless truths have changed. But my basic thirst for meaning has been met completely. I’m connected to a larger story, a larger vision—one that Jesus called the kingdom of God. And my connection to this larger story in God and in Christ is one that keeps drawing me out of my little self, my ego-driven self, my false self into my true self, my self in God. It draws me into the larger story of God’s kingdom, into participation in peace-making and justice-making, into God’s healing and liberating work in the world. I have no desire whatsoever to revisit that basic commitment. That thirst has been forever settled. 

A living faith awakens our spiritual thirsts, which drive us toward the transcendent life that was embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus knew God, experienced God; he knew the kind of intimacy and participation in the Divine Life that all human beings need to live a fully human life—necessary because we all reflect God’s image and the Spirit dwells within us all.

When we listen to the voice of the Spirit, when we align ourselves with the Divine within, then we, too, thirst for the living water that can quench our deepest thirsts for meaning, belonging, and participation in a larger story and vision of a healed, redeemed, reconciled world. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Cinematic Noah and the Biblical Literalists

Rarely do I find myself in agreement with op-ed writer Kathleen Parker, particularly her political analysis, but her piece on the response of biblical literalists to the movie “Noah” was quite good.

She noted that the National Religious Broadcasters threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount (the film’s distributor and co-financer with New Regency) issued a disclaimer that the movie is not a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. Parker sarcastically writes, “It is good to have fundamentalist literalists explain exactly what the Bible authors intended, especially since a literal interpretation would keep moviegoers away or put them to sleep.”

Parker is right to note that biblical writers had a “keen appreciation for parable and metaphor.” And that’s exactly what the biblical story of Noah, as well as all the stories in the early chapters of Genesis are—parable and metaphor.

These stories are religious stories, metaphorical narratives that convey spiritual truth through literary art and mastery. They are not reports of the early history of the earth and humankind.

They can be profoundly true spiritually, even if they are not factually or historically true. As Parker suggests in her piece, many of us in the modern world tend to be tone-deaf to metaphorical, parabolic language.

It should be noted that there is history in the Bible; it’s not all creative fiction. But the biblical writers did not mind spinning and embellishing history to serve spiritual and theological ends.

To interpret a story like Noah literally is like dousing a camp fire by emptying a city’s water tank. It drowns out all flames of spiritual awareness and spiritual passion. It extinguishes any spark of interest in spiritual truth. It just leaves one cold and wet and angry, ready to boycott and oppose anything that would threaten one’s biblical certitudes.

I wish more Christians would grow up.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Being Born Again and Again and Again . . . .

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3).  

While all the Gospels are theological/spiritual renderings of the story of Jesus, John’s Gospel stands apart from the Synoptic Gospels (called as such because they share a common view of Jesus). It is packed with theological symbolism and double meanings.

For example, when John tells us that Nicodemus, a Pharisee who was a member of the official Jewish council, comes to Jesus by night, on one level he comes secretively concealing his actions from the other Jewish leaders, but on another level it is John’s way of telling us that he is in the dark about spiritual reality. He is spiritually unenlightened.

The phrase “born from above” contains a double meaning, which is lost in translation. It could just as well be translated (as it is in many translations), “born again/anew.”

Also, in this Gospel, misconceptions and false assumptions abound, and we are invited to join the story and consider how those depicted in the story mirror our own misconceptions and false assumptions.

When Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” he assumes he knows. In the course of the conversation, Jesus exposes how little he knows. When Jesus speaks of being born again/from above, Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?” He thinks he knows, but he doesn’t know.

And that, of course, describes all of us to one degree or another. One bit of perennial wisdom goes like this: To know that we don’t know is to begin to know. The more certain we are that we know, the little we actually know.

When John’s Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again/from above/of the Spirit to see the kingdom of God, he is telling him (the reader) that in order to experience and participate in God’s will, in order to share in God’s vision of a just world made whole and right, one needs to have one’s mind opened and heart enlightened to the Divine Reality without and within.   

There is no one way to understand the kind of spiritual experience this imagery points to. John’s Jesus says it’s like the wind; it’s sort of mysterious and ambiguous. We can’t see the wind, but we can feel it and see the effects of its presence. We can’t really explain it or understand it, but we can experience it.

One way to apply this is as follows:  (It’s not the only way by any means—but it is a way that I have found helpful.)

A newborn experiences the world as an extension of himself or herself. Newborns have no sense of self-consciousness. But in the process of growing up, they become more and more aware that the world is separate from themselves.  

Every human being, unless one is severely mentally impaired, becomes self-aware. Unfortunately, the process of becoming self-aware also makes one self-centered. It’s inevitable; it’s the way we have evolved as a species. One can explain this psychologically, socially, or theologically, but it is inevitable. Everyone eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the process of becoming a separated self, one becomes a self-centered self. 

We hear and receive “messages” about life from our parents, siblings, peers, teachers, friends, from communities, organization, and groups we participate in, people who are popular and have a certain charisma and influence over us—there are many sources. As a result, we are socialized into a way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. We receive both good and bad messages. It is especially difficult for those who receive more bad messages than good, particularly those who grow up in abusive situations where they are bombarded with negative input.

So, all of us develop a false self. The false self is the self that is shaped and conferred upon us by our culture as we internalize all these messages. For example, we may be socialized to think that we have to win at any cost—it’s all about winning. When we internalize that message it becomes part of our false self. We may be socialized to think that love is something we have to earn and so we go through life thinking we have to prove ourselves, be successful, or achieve high marks in order to be loved, which may be why some people have a hard time believing God would love them unconditionally. 

Marcus Borg, in his book, “The Heart of Christianity,” tells the story about a little girl that made a strange request of her parents, just after they brought home from the hospital her new baby brother.  She wanted to be alone with the baby with the door closed. This made her parents a bit uneasy, but they had just installed a new intercom system and so they agreed.

With her parents listening ever so closely, the little girl crept into the baby’s room. They heard her footsteps moving across the floor and they imagined her standing over her brother’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God—I’ve almost forgotten.” 

This story, says Borg, evocatively suggests that in the process of growing up, of being socialized into our world, we forget the One from whom we came and in whom we live. In the process of becoming self-aware we become less and less God aware. In becoming self-conscious we become less and less God conscious and we experience this as a kind of separation from God. 

This is why we feel alienated and separated from God. Not that we actually are. The divine DNA, the Divine Spirit is in all of us. But we, nevertheless, feel separated.

This image of regeneration, of being born again/from above is a metaphor that speaks to our need to be awakened to divine reality. It speaks to our need to become God-conscious, aware of and consciously connected to the Divine Reality that is all around us and with us and in us every moment.

As Christians we call this Divine Reality the Holy Spirit, the divine nature, or the “the living Christ,” because it is through the sacred tradition of Jesus of Nazareth that we come to know and experience God.

A great illustration of our need for divine awareness can be found in the final book of “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C.S. Lewis (I refer to this in the chapter on faith in my book, “Being a Progressive Christian”).

A group of dwarfs are huddled together in a tight little knot thinking they are in a pitch black, smelly hole of a stable when in reality they are out in the midst of an endless, grassy green countryside with sun shining and blue sky overhead. Lucy, the most tenderhearted of the Narnian children, felt compassion for them. She tried to reason with them. Then frustrated she cried, “It isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs. Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers!” But all they saw was pitch blackness.

Aslan, the Christ figure, was present with them, but they weren’t able to see him. When Aslan offered them the finest food, they thought they were eating spoiled meat scraps and sour turnips. Then, when Aslan offered them the choicest wine, they mistook it for ditch water.

Why were the Dwarfs so blind? Why couldn’t they see? The one constant refrain on the lips of the dwarfs was: The dwarfs are for the dwarfs. They lived by that mantra. They were too self absorbed, too caught up in their own individual and group concerns and agenda (group think) to be aware of the beauty and Divine Reality in their midst.

Spiritual teachers tell us that it often takes great suffering or great love to open our minds and hearts to the Divine Reality all around us and in us. Why is that? Because great suffering and great love are experiences that have a way of pushing us outside our false self (our little self or ego-driven self) and jarring us awake to a wider vision and larger story. 

This is a journey where each new experience of awakening, of enlightenment, builds on previous experiences and in the process we grow, we are changed, we become more. The spiritual life is a pilgrimage that includes many moments and experiences of awakening. We must be born again and again and again . . .

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Did the Devil Make Me Do It? (Matthew 4:1-11 - a sermon)

The biblical temptation stories are religious stories that teach spiritual truth, not historical reports or factual accounts. The serpent in Genesis and the Devil in the temptation of Jesus personify temptation. This subtle, evil force resides in each of us and in systemic form it exists in large organizations and social systems. I emphasize this because even if you happen to believe in a personal Devil, these stories employ the figure of the Devil as a way of talking about the universal phenomena of temptation.

I make that point because of our tendency to project evil and create scapegoats. It can be quite convenient and opportunistic to find evil everywhere else but in our own lives. Many of you will remember Flip Wilson on the show “Laugh In” constantly echoing, “The Devil made me do it.”

And of course there are endless stories aren’t there? I like the one where the woman brings home an expensive dress and her husband says, “Why did you buy that dress, dear? You know we can’t afford it?” She says, “Well, honey, I was trying it on and the Devil said to me, ‘You look gorgeous in that dress.’” He replied, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’” She said, “I did. And he said it looks great from that angle too.” 

The capacity to do harm—to act selfishly in our own interests to the detriment of others, to diminish others and our own soul in the process, to deceive others as well as ourselves—lies within each of us. And it exists in very subtle forms as reflected in the temptation story.

In T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” Eliot portrayed Archbishop Thomas Becket as one who dreamed of martyrdom as a way of becoming immortal and not forgotten. The tempter asks: What can compare with the glory of saints and dwelling forever in God’s presence? The tempter entices him to seek the way of martyrdom, to make himself the lowest on earth, so that he could be among the highest in heaven.

Becket then comes to realize the subtlety of the temptation—that if he became a martyr to satisfy his own desire to be honored and remembered, he would not be a true martyr. Eliot writes:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

That is the dynamic at play in the temptation story in Matthew (also in Luke).  

Matthew says that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting forty days and nights. The number is significant because there is an intentional connection with Israel’s 40 years of testing in the wilderness narrated in Deuteronomy 8. All three of the Scriptures that Jesus references in his encounter with the Devil come from Deuteronomy. Two of the passages quoted by Jesus follow immediately after the opening section of the Shema, Israel’s confession of faith where the people of God are commanded: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

And that really gets to the heart of the challenge Jesus faced and the challenge we all face who would follow Jesus. Do we love God enough to do God’s work God’s way?

The first temptation relates, on the surface, to a very practical matter. Jesus had been fasting. He was hungry. The tempter seems to speak with the voice of reason, even compassion. I am told, however, by those who engage in extended fasts, that you never break such a fast by eating a chunk of bread. You break it gradually with liquids and soft foods. Actions that may seem very relevant on one level, may not be relevant at all on a deeper level.

More important than solving the presenting problem—the problem on the surface—is the need to heed God’s Spirit. As Jesus says, we do not live at this deeper level on bread alone; we live a meaningful and transformative spiritual life by listening to and obeying the Voice of God. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, those who are led by the Spirit—that deep force that flows out of our true self—live out their identity as children of God.

Henry Nouwen said that the first thing that struck him when he left his teaching post at Harvard to be a chaplain to a house of mentally and physically challenged people was how their liking or disliking him had nothing to do with any of the useful things he had done until then. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his ecumenical experience. None of that mattered.

Not long after he arrived he was offering some meat to one of the assistants during dinner and one of the mentally challenged men said to him, “Don’t give him meat, he doesn’t eat meat, he’s a Presbyterian.”

Nouwen said that he was unable to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in his past and he was suddenly faced with his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, all dependent on how he was perceived at the moment. 

Nouwen wrote, “It forced me to rediscover my true identity . . . forced me to let go of my relevant self — the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things — and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”

In the second temptation Jesus is tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and force a miraculous deliverance. Such a feat would win the masses, dazzle the crowds, and make Jesus immensely popular.

But to act in such a way would be to bypass the ways and means of God. I doubt if God is much interested in a faith based on showmanship and razzle-dazzle.

In the third temptation Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The tempter offers them to Jesus if he will bow down and worship him, which amounts to worshiping power and control.

The tempter suggests that the powerful kingdoms of the world are his to give and sadly that seems to be the truth of it. It is true that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ Lordship, the coming of God’s rule, the realization of God’s will in our personal lives and communities is directly dependent on our “Yes,” our willingness to participate and cooperate in God’s purposes. God so respects the freedom of human beings that God does not force or coerce or overwhelm; God only woos, invites, asks. God’s will can be done only at our invitation. 

The tempter does not respect this freedom. And let’s be honest, the temptation to seize power and exercise control is very enticing, especially when we see how much good could be done if one had the power to make it so.

The wielding of power could make radical changes for the better in the kingdoms of the world. Power could more equally and equitably distribute the world’s resources. Power could insure a fair system of laws and enforcement of laws. Power could regulate business and economics and politics for the common good. So much good could be done by someone like Jesus, if he had the power to make it happen.

Jesus, however, refuses to worship power. Jesus knows that the very exercise of such power has a corrupting influence. I think of the power of the ring in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The power of the ring turned Gollum into a twisted, monstrous, pathetic creature. Even Bilbo Baggins or Frodo cannot live with the ring of power without it turning them toward evil. The ring of power corrupts all who wear it.

One of the things that makes the temptation to power so irresistible is that it offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to play God than love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus resisted and confronted the love of power with the power of love.

It is significant that the Devil takes Jesus “to a high place” to expose him to the world’s kingdoms— this is the position of power. But Jesus assumed a low place—the role of servant—and pursued a life of service to others rather than power over others.

* * * * * * * *
Maggie Dawn writing in “The Christian Century” tells about the time when she served as a college chaplain. It was her practice to serve tea and cakes after chapel whenever one of the students had a birthday. One year some of the students had given up chocolate and cakes for Lent, and her birthday happened to fall during Lent. In order to celebrate her birthday, a student suggested they do what some Christians do: break their fast on a saint’s feast day. So some of the students suggested they find a saint whose feast day corresponded to the chaplain’s birthday, so they could celebrate with tea and cake, even if it was during Lent.

So they did—they found a saint and ate birthday cake on a Thursday afternoon during Lent. As they ate, they talked about their elaborate ruse of choosing a saint’s day so they could eat cake. This led to a discussion about the relationship between actions and motives, and what really makes something a sin.

Can sin be reduced to some behavior that is deemed unacceptable? Or does it go much deeper? At the table one student said that she gave up cake for Lent, but the real reason she did it was to lose weight, not to get closer to God. Another student confessed that he had given up chocolate and alcohol, so others would admire him for being so spiritual.

Dawn observes that overcoming temptation is not just about obeying rules—doing this or not doing that. It’s about identifying our underlying motives; it’s about why we do what we do, not just what we do. It’s about understanding our deeper reasons and tensions, the real forces and powers that move us to act in certain ways.

If Jesus is our guide then it seems that doing the right thing for the wrong reason becomes the wrong thing. But the reverse is also true isn’t? Someone might do something deemed wrong or unacceptable for the right reason. When someone comes to this country illegally in order to save their children, in order to escape poverty and oppression and war, is that wrong? If a mother or father steals to feed a starving child is that wrong? Or is a society at fault because it creates conditions that trap people in poverty and oppression?

If we are going to adequately deal with temptation we always have to go deeper than what we do. We have to deal with why we do what we do, we have to look at motives and the inner workings of our heart.

The need to be relevant and the desire to seek popularity and power for some good and noble endeavor can be very enticing. One thing that can help us in this struggle is this: We can remember who we are—which is all gift, all grace. None of us earned our place at the table. We are the daughters and sons of God by grace, by virtue of the simple fact that we are alive. It’s not necessary that we become relevant, or exercise authority, or become popular and gain a following. None of that matters in the larger story of God’s unrelenting love.

Let me suggest this as a goal for all of us during Lent: Let’s see if we can learn how to simply be who we are—God’s beloved daughters and sons. May our goal be to simply be at rest in being who we are. 

* * * * * * * *

Our good God, as we now share around the table, eating the bread and drinking the cup, may we feel secure in your grace. May we know how loved we are, how forgiven and accepted, how much you delight when we turn our attention toward you and your kingdom. And when we leave this place, and this week feel the pull to grasp and grab, to be powerful or popular or relevant, may we remember that what you want most is for us to simply to receive and share your love. Amen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

To "Imago Dei" Leaders: Practice What You Preach.

Sarah Pulliam Baily of the Religion News Service recently reported that six Christian leaders, including Focus on the Family President Jim Daly, have created a new coalition called "Imago Dei," Latin for “image of God,” to encourage people to treat one another with respect. Samuel Rodrigues, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who is leading the cause declared, “I want Christians to not be known for what we oppose but for what we propose.”

The campaign declares: “For the image of God exists in all human beings: black and white, rich and poor, straight and gay, conservative and liberal; victim and perpetrator; citizen and undocumented; believer and unbeliever.”

Let’s hope the leaders of this campaign and those who join them will actually live out the commitments such a theology demands.  

The clear implication of this declaration is that we are all God’s children, the divine DNA resides in all of us, we all have the Spirit, we all belong to one another.

Of course, this “word” means very little unless it is embodied in flesh and translated into lived action and behavior. I wonder if the conservative Christian leaders who initiated this are prepared to walk the talk.

Are they prepared to not only display compassion for those marginalized and disenfranchised, but are they prepared to be their advocates, to stand with them and beside them even if they disagree with their beliefs and lifestyle? Are they willing to contend for the rights of all people and speak out against the injustices in our laws and courts, in our immigration policy, and in our denial of civil union rights to same-sex couples?

As you might expect, I am hesitant about being too optimistic. In 2009, a group of conservatives that included Rodriguez and Daly produced the Manhattan Declaration, a manifesto that emphasized religious liberty and also opposed gay marriage. That document included a section that humans bear the image of God. Apparently, just because same-sex couples bear the image of God doesn’t necessarily mean they should have the same rights as straight couples.

If we say we believe something then we should carefully consider the implications of our belief. Treating same sex couples with respect means recognizing their civil union rights (marriage) under the law, regardless of what one believes about marriage. 

It would be a great thing if such statements as “Imago Dei” get actually translated into compassionate service and social justice. I will cautiously wait and hope.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Moving Beyond Christian Exceptionalism

The time has come for Christianity to become less dualistic and move beyond exclusivism and exceptionalism in order to embrace and embody a more inclusive gospel. Without a more inclusive and universal orientation, I can’t see Christianity doing much to contribute to a more just, equitable, and peaceable world. 

This is, however, a daunting challenge to overcome. Our Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.

A case in point: The Coca-Cola ad that ran during the Super Bowl sparked a wave of controversy for featuring diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful, in languages other than English. The implication being that true Americans speak English.

Many Christians believe that God’s true people speak only the language of Christian faith. But surely God is larger than that and can speak to others outside Christianity through other means and ways.

In the original story of the wizard of Oz, the Emerald city is actually not greener than any other city. When the wizard is exposed as an ordinary man, he explains that he put green spectacles on everyone so that everything appeared green.

Most of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them. 

But now we live in a different world, and the wizard has been exposed. We must take off our singular-colored glasses so we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world with diverse traditions. Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional. Truth is truth wherever it is found.

For those of us who are Christians, Jesus Christ is the foundation on whom we construct our churches and personal lives. He is our Lord in whom we trust and to whom we pledge our allegiance. We are unashamedly disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.

But God is not limited to the Christian way and path. When Christians claim that there is salvation in no other name, they are speaking of what is true for Christians. No exclusivity need be implied. God can be encountered in innumerable ways. God can be accessed by many names and the Spirit can work in numerous ways. There is a perennial, transformative wisdom that transcends particular religious beliefs and traditions.

In our own Christian tradition, one writer says that God is love, and where love is God is (see 1 John 4:16). Luke attributes to Paul the view that we are all God’s offspring and in God we all live, move, and have our being (see Acts 17:27-29). The writer of Ephesians and Colossians anticipates a time when all reality is reconciled to God (Eph. 1:9-10; Col. 1:20).                

Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies is based on the interconnection and mutual belonging of all people (Matt. 5:43-48). We are to love all people, even our enemies, because God loves all people, and followers of Jesus should be witnesses to and examples of a love that recognizes the worth, dignity, and value of all persons, even those who wish our harm.

The God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s temple. We all belong. So we must find ways to work together for the common good and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.

We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not, but we should be exceptional in the way we accept others and pursue the truth wherever the truth leads us. We should be exceptional in the ways we love others and identify with the disadvantaged. We should be exceptional in kindness, humility, honesty, and forgiveness, in our care for the suffering and commitment to social justice.

If more of us could let go of our exclusive interpretations of the gospel and become more exceptional in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and engage in the common good, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Difference Do Epiphanies Make? (Reflections on the Transfiguration, part 3)

There are some people who actively pursue transcendent experiences; it’s almost like they’re addicted to spiritually induced highs the way others are addicted to physically induced highs. They pursue one peak experience after another. But peak experiences cannot be programmed or predicted. You can’t say, “Well, I am going to climb the mountain or withdraw to a monastery and have my own epiphany experience.” You can’t order it up off a menu. 

There is no pressing necessity for epiphanies. If we stumble upon a burning bush, fine, but it is, in my judgment, a waste of time to go looking for burning bushes. I can't find a whole lot of evidence that would suggest that such experiences actually change us.

There is no evidence in the Gospel story that the three disciples who experienced the Transfiguration were changed by that single experience. In fact, shortly afterward these three along with the other disciples get caught up in an argument over who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God. James and John, two of the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, coax their mother into asking Jesus if they can sit on Jesus’ left and right. Apparently their experience on the mountain did little to alter their ego grasping after power and position. So we have to ask, “How much impact do such transcendent experiences actually have?” Honestly, I don’t know.

But I do know that discipleship is about the journey, not the destination, and the journey leads us to the cross. Peter, on the mount, thought they had arrived. He wanted to build three dwellings so they could all hang out on the mountain. But in mid-sentence, the Divine Voice cut him off. The Divine Voice directed Peter and the others to listen to Jesus.

So what does Jesus say? Just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples he was going to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, that he would undergo great suffering and be killed, then be raised. After he tells them he is going to die, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:24-25).

Another difference between Luke’s version and the accounts of Mark and Matthew is that in Luke’s telling Jesus actually discusses his imminent death with the disciples on the mount, whereas in Mark and Matthew it is mentioned as they descend the mountain. Either way, however, it is an important piece. If the brief account of the Transfiguration functions as a foreshadowing and sign of the resurrection, it takes second fiddle to the passion narrative. 

The journey of discipleship leads first to the cross (metaphorically it is all that the cross represents), which is the real crucible for transformation. The pattern is first death, then resurrection.  

The path of discipleship that leads to real conversion, real change and growth is a path that leads through death into rebirth. That’s the authentic pattern for transformation.

The call to discipleship is not a call to ascend the mount of transfiguration, it’s a call to die to our little self, our false self, the ego-driven self; it’s a call to die to our false attachments to money and greed, to honor and prestige, to power and control; it’s a call to let go of our anger and frustrations, our bitterness and resentments and petty jealousies.

This dying to the false self and its false attachments can be a painful process. The recent film Blue Jasmine is about a woman whose false attachment to affluence and prominence becomes an addiction, and when all that crumbles, she crumbles. When our false self is exposed, when we are forced to face our demons, when our world falls apart, we have a choice. We can give up, we can sink deeper into attachment and addiction, deeper into hopelessness and despair, or we can face our demons, admit our attachments, and grow and become more. Jesus says that it is in losing life that we find life. We have to die to be reborn. 

I have had so few epiphanies in my life, I can’t really assess their value. But I can tell you that my greatest insights and growth have come through my conflicts, hurts, and disappointments. I believe the valley experiences have the greater potential to transform us than the mountaintop experiences.

Monday, March 3, 2014

What It Takes to See the Glory (Reflections on the Transfiguration, part 2)

There is a fascinating detail in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration not in Mark and Matthew’s account that I think is very instructive. Luke says, “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake (or “when they were fully awake,” NRSV footnote), they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him” (9:32). When they were fully awake, they saw his glory. Luke wants his readers to be fully awake, to be alert and attentive, to be open, receptive, and tuned in, because one never knows when and where one might encounter God’s glory. If God’s glory is everywhere, then we may encounter that glory anywhere.

Remember the story of Jacob at Bethel. After his dream and encounter with the Divine, Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place – I did not know it.” Then he says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.” Well, that could be said of any ordinary place where we go about carrying out our daily routines and fulfilling our everyday responsibilities.

Because God’s glory is everywhere, it is important for us to learn how to be attentive and fully awake to God in the present moment. A spiritual master once said to his apprentice, “When you walk, walk; when you eat, eat.” The disciple replied, “Doesn’t everyone do that.” The teacher said, “No, many people when they walk are only interested in getting to the place where they are going. They do not experience the walking. And many people when they eat, are more involved in making plans about what they will do after they eat, and they do not experience the eating.”

A teacher was known to have lived an unusually rich life; he always seemed to be full of life and vitality and was very compassionate and took an interest in anyone who approached him. After his death someone asked his friend, “What was most important to him.” His friend replied, “Whatever he was doing at the time.”

One way we can learn to be awake to the present moment is by practicing grateful living. Brother David Steindl-Rast has observed we can be grateful for the past, but we can only be grateful in the present. We can be grateful that we have a future, but we experience that gratitude in the present. By practicing gratitude, by learning to be thankful, we learn to live in the present.

If one divides the letters differently, the phrase “No where” becomes “Now here.” If we could learn to look at life differently, the ordinary and mundane may become the very “gate of heaven.” We might think we are “no where,” not realizing that God is right now here—with us—where we are. 

So the important question is: Can we be fully awake to the Divine Presence present in the present moment—when we are eating or walking, washing dishes, planting a tree, reading a book, cutting the grass, or taking the kids to a soccer game? Luke says, “when they were fully awake, they saw his glory.” To stay awake is the challenge isn’t it?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Glory Everywhere (Reflections on the Transfiguration, part 1)

Two boys, Tommy and Jimmy, lived with their parents in a small community. The two boys had become something like the terrors of the town. They left their marks everywhere: toilet paper wrapped around trees and bushes and strewn across lawns, dead mice on porch swings and hanging on close lines, cars clinking and clanging pulling out of driveways with strings of pop cans trailing behind. One day a few of the town folk cornered the pastor where the two boys and their parents were members. “Pastor, would you have a talk with the boys?” The pastor was hesitant, but when pressured conceded.

The very next day he spotted, out of his church study window, Tommy, the oldest, walking down the street. He intercepted him and invited him in for a chat. Reluctantly, Tommy agreed. The Pastor decided to open the conversation with an intriguing question: “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy was silent. He had no idea where God was. Again the pastor asked, “Tommy, where is God.” Again, no response. A third time with emphasis, “Tommy, where is God?” Tommy jumped out of his chair, raced out of the church, down the street, into his house, into his room, and into his closet. Jimmy had never seen his older brother in such a state of mind. He entered his room, crept over to the closet door, and as he slowly opened it, a hand reached out and grabbed him by the shirt, “Quick little brother, get in here. God is missing and they’re blaming us for it!”

Perhaps the question posed by the pastor is a good one for all of us to consider: Where is God? Where do we encounter God and what difference does it make? 

The story of the Transfiguration in the Synoptic Gospels raises some questions about epiphany experiences. W.D Davies and Dale C. Allison in their excellent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew observe parallels and contrasts with another prominent story in the Gospels, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. They call the story of the crucifixion “the dark twin” to the story of the Transfiguration.

In both stories Jesus is elevated on a mountain. In one case Jesus is transfigured in light, in the other a supernatural darkness descends upon the land. In the one Jesus’ garments are illuminated, in the other they are stripped off. In the one Elijah appears, in the other he is mentioned, but does not appear. In the one two saints appear with Jesus (Moses and Elijah), in the other Jesus is crucified between two criminals. In the one Jesus is glorified, in the other he is humiliated. In the one a divine voice confesses Jesus to be God’s Son, in the other the confession is expressed by a Roman soldier. In the one Jesus is honored, in the other Jesus is mocked.

Davies and Allison remark: “Together the two scenes interestingly illustrate the extremities of the human experience. One is spit and mockery, nails and nakedness, blood and loneliness, torture and death. The other makes visible the presence of God and depicts the divination of human nature. So Jesus embodies the gamut of human possibilities; he is the coincidence of opposites. . . . Jesus is the paradigm of both despair and hope; he is humanity debased and humanity glorified.”

Perhaps the starkest contrast between the scenes is the voice of God at the Transfiguration and the voice of Jesus on the cross. On the mount of glory, the Divine Voice affirms Jesus, “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” At the cross, God is silent, but Jesus in anguish cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

Now, we know that Jesus was not actually forsaken at the cross. He felt forsaken. He felt abandoned, but God was with him. How do we know this? Because the rest of the story affirms it.

Jesus was executed by the Romans and died a tragic death. But then afterward, we hear the voice of God’s messenger telling the women who had come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices: “He is not here, He has been raised.” God validated and vindicated Jesus’ life, message, and ministry by raising him from the dead. God had not abandoned Jesus. God was with Jesus through the whole ordeal.

The same is true for us. The risen Christ, the cosmic Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Really Real (use whatever name you prefer to speak of the Divine Presence) is with us through all of life, in times of joy and hope, and in times of pain and disappointment.

The whole world is God’s temple. God’s glory can show up anywhere because it is present everywhere, even though in most cases the Presence remains hidden. In the letter to the Colossians, the Pauline writer says that in the cosmic Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3) and later he tells his readers, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).

God works behind the scenes, seemingly out of the way, hidden, but present with us in the midst of all of it. In all the messiness and hurt and heartbreak God is present and if we choose, we can freely tap into these hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge.