Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Iraqi Peacemaker in Elizabethton!



We have added a venue for International Peacemaker, Dr. Mazen Alsaqa. He will be at FPC Elizabethton Monday, October 3rd at 7 p.m.



He will speak about the history of Iraq, the situation after Iraq, the violence by extremists against minorities (he is an Iraqi Christian), why there are extremists in the first place, and how we can be peacemakers.


Important stuff. Invite friends.


Here is
more information.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Great Lecture By Bishop Spong on Death

We watched this lecture by John Shelby Spong on his new book, Eternal Life, A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.

He fought with his publisher over the title which he doesn't like. The subtitle is his. The publisher wanted "Eternal Life."

It is a great lecture and I especially enjoyed the Question and Answer. We are going to watch more of his videos as we make our way through his book in our book study group that has a place waiting for you.

Here are Bishop Spong's Twelve Theses for A New Reformation

1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.

2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.

3. The biblical story of the perfect and finished creation from which human beings fell into sin is pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.

4. The virgin birth, understood as literal biology, makes Christ's divinity, as traditionally understood, impossible.

5. The miracle stories of the New Testament can no longer be interpreted in a post-Newtonian world as supernatural events performed by an incarnate deity.

6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

7. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.

9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behavior for all time.

10. Prayer cannot be a request made to a theistic deity to act in human history in a particular way.

11. The hope for life after death must be separated forever from the behavior control mentality of reward and punishment. The Church must abandon, therefore, its reliance on guilt as a motivator of behavior.

12. All human beings bear God's image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one's being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.

International Peacemaker from Iraq in East Tennessee


This is the final schedule for our international peacemaker. Please distribute this widely.

The Ethical Issues and Human Needs Committee is excited to welcome Mazen Alsaqa to Holston Presbytery, September 30th through October 6th. This will be the third time in three years that we have been honored to host an International Peacemaker
.

alsaqa

Dr. Al-Saqa is a medical doctor currently studying to practice medicine in the United States at Wayne State University Medical School in Royal Oak, Michigan. According to the brochure:

Mazen was born in Mosul, Iraq (old Nineveh), where he served in the Presbyterian Church in Mosul as youth leader, assistant lay pastor, and doctor in the church clinic. Following the kidnapping and murder of his father, Mazen fled to Jordan and in 2009 he was granted refugee status and currently resides in Michigan where he is studying to practice medicine in the USA. He is interested in the meaning of being Christian and the effects of persecution on faith and church.

Here is an article about him,

Al Qaeda Turns to the Church:

This latest massacre of Christians, which left 58 dead, is one of the bloodiest on record since the war began in 2003. It also marks a shift in patterns of violence. It's nothing new for militants to destroy empty churches. But this bloodbath in a sanctuary full of worshippers is horribly new.

Upon hearing the news, Mazin was devastated, but not surprised. "This is what's happening to Christians in Iraq," he said by phone from his safe haven in the U.S. "What hurts most is that no one does anything to protect them."

And some others:

Iraqi refugees move to Michigan despite economy

Iraq native on mission for Presbyterian Peacemaking Program

Michigan remains a magnet for Iraqi refugees

He wrote about topics he would like to address (in his words):

  • Church in my home country
  • The Christian faith in our part of the world and the meaning of being Christian
  • Persecution and its effect on your personal and church faith and activity
  • Making peace and fight for your justice.

He will bring his own laptop and has a powerpoint presentation.

This will be a rare opportunity to hear from a Christian in Iraq and the effect that the Iraq War has had on the people there including Christians. It will also be important to hear of his work in Iraq as a medical professional.


Here is his schedule:

  • October 3rd (Monday) He will speak and have lunch with students at King College. For students, staff, and faculty.

  • October 5th (Wednesday) He will speak at chapel at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at 9:30 and have Q&A following. For students, staff, and faculty.

  • October 5th (Wednesday) He will have lunch and speak with students at Tusculum College. For students, staff, and faculty.

If you have questions about any of these venues e-mail John Shuck.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Eternal Life and Bishop Spong




We are beginning a new book for Thursdays With Jesus. It is the latest from John Shelby Spong, Eternal Life: A New Vision (Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell).




In the most recent book by Bishop Spong, he continues sharing with his readers his quest for an honest faith. He writes:




The choice to write this particular book was deliberately made to force faith and knowledge to come together. I decided to see whether or not I really still believed in life after death. p. 199




You may be surprised at his conclusion. You may come to the same conclusion or to a different one for yourself. Either way, you may find that his journey awakens your own.

Our study group is open to all. We meet Thursdays from 10:30 to noon. If you wish to participate in this study, please order the book and read the preface and chapter 1 for Thursday, October 6th.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Preaching Is So Gay

Congratulations and thanks to Scott Anderson. He will be Rev. Scott Anderson on October 8th when he is ordained into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) He is the first openly gay man to be ordained since the PC(USA) lifted the barrier this past summer. The barrier forbade folks who were not boy/girl married or "chaste in singleness" from getting the stole.

Here is the story:

“It’s hard to believe it’s finally happening,” Anderson said in a released statement on Friday.




Next week, Scott gets the stole. And the church will celebrate that the flame of justice and human decency still is lit.




One of my gigs is to speak to college classes when invited. My message is the same each time and simple...
  1. Be kind.
  2. Treat people as you want to be treated.
  3. Equality and fairness are good for everyone.
  4. Examine your prejudices and move beyond them.
You know where I learned those crazy ideas? From the Bible, Jesus, and Church. The Bible, Jesus and Church may say more than that, but they don't say less than that.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beyond Good and Evil: A Sermon



Beyond Good and Evil
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 25th, 2011

Genesis 2:15-3:24


During the season of Autumn we are going to spend time with the myths of Genesis. This is the season in which we honor the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa. This is the path characterized by silence, darkness, depth. It is the path of loss, of stripping away, and of letting go. It is a reflective path. It is not a path we often choose, but is chosen for us through a loss, a challenge, or a change. We are forced, gripped, led, pulled and pushed toward questions we have not asked about ourselves and our place in this life.

The myths of Genesis are part of our heritage. They live in the marrow of our bones even if we aren’t conscious of them. They are the myths of patriarchy, male stories of a male god, who is called alternatively, Elohim and Adonai. No one dared call him YHWH. The via negativa is the path that invites us to face the God who demands allegiance, obedience, wrestling, sacrifice, and who is silent at our tears. This is the God of our religious heritage. This is the God who doesn’t need a devil, because evil and suffering is wrapped up in his own being. He is creativity and destruction. He punishes and chastises, chooses favorites, rejects others, makes plans, but reveals little.

People ask me on occasion if I believe in God. Talk about a question that misses the point. I am haunted by God. And so are you. Those who claim to have advanced beyond the “God of the Old Testament” and have embraced some watered down version of Protestantism or some feel good New Age fantasy are in denial. This God will not be trivialized.
“Abraham!...Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
You don’t think that story is real? You don’t think that God is real? He is as real as today’s newspaper. All over the world, fathers sacrifice their sons for some ideal such as flag or freedom or some religious superstition or even their own narcissism. What was your relationship with your father? For what did he attempt to sacrifice you? Did he succeed? And your son and your daughter? For what abstractions (honor, belief, success) will you sacrifice them? Mothers sacrifice their children too. We are all recipients of patriarchy’s bowl of pottage.
Cain said to his brother, Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then Adonai said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Is that story real? Is Cain real? Is Adonai, the fickle lord who picks favorites, who prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s and thus raises murderous resentment in Cain’s heart real? Listen to the news. You can hear variations on this theme from your television talking head every day. Read your heart. What is your relationship with your siblings? Any resentment you care to admit? Or maybe you were the favorite. Maybe your offering pleased daddy. How does that feel? How does that shape who you are today?

Do you believe in God? Silly question. We live God. We breathe God. We till the ground that is cursed by God and through pain give birth to children and in sorrow and joy live our lives by the sweat of our brow. And this God who haunts, demands, and curses, also clothes us:
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
Yes these are myths. They are the creations of our imaginations. But do we create them or do they create us? These stories are what it means to be human at least in part. In church, we still read them under the aura of holy writ. We expound upon them from pulpits. Our fundamentalist friends frame them with halos of inerrancy. We hip progressive types try to dismiss these silly tales with a nervous chuckle. Neither approach honors their terror and their claim upon us. If we wish to find out who we are and why we do the things we do, we might do well to enter these myths.

Before we enter them, we will need to notice the dogma of interpretation and commentary that like cherubim with flaming swords bar our entrance to these texts. We will have to push past those cherubim and demand access to that tree of life. These are ancient stories formed before theology and doctrine.

They are ambiguous stories. These stories have their own agendas. Those agendas are not those of synagogue or church. Neither Elohim nor Adonai fits into a neat system of philosophical thought, "the attributes of God" for instance. He and the creatures he made in his image are neither moral or immoral, good or evil; they simply are, as are we.

Once we pass the cherubim who try to scare us with their flaming swords of orthodoxy and who try to threaten us with charges of heresy and blasphemy if we don’t read the stories in the “right way” we will find ourselves in this garden of dreamlike myth. Once there we will have to wrestle with these images until dawn and not let go until they bless us.
Adonai took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it.
Indulge me.
Close your eyes.
You are the adam, the man.
It doesn’t matter if you are a man or not, be Adam for a moment.
Be in the garden.
It is your Eden. What is there?
Take a moment and describe it for yourself. Picture it.
What does it mean to till it?
There are no thorns or thistles. Those come later.
How large is the garden?
Can you reach its boundaries?
Explore it.
It is your garden, all yours.
Adonai made it for you, alone.
Alone.
Keep exploring.
How long have you been in this garden?
A month? A year?
A hundred years?
A thousand?
Alone in the garden.
Your own perfect Eden.
Have you explored it all yet? Have you tilled it all yet?
Are you lonely yet?
And Adonai commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
How do you feel about that?
Isn’t this your garden?
Isn’t Adonai your friend?
What is with the power trip?
Keep your eyes closed.
Picture the tree.
Knowledge. What is that?
Good and evil? ...Die. What is all that about?
What does the tree look like?
Is it large or small?
What does the fruit look like?
Are you curious?
Do you wonder about knowledge, good, evil, death?
No? How long then?
Will you wander around the garden and till it for another thousand years—
--all alone?
Do you ignore the tree?
Or do you visit it every day?
Are you bored yet?

Adonai decides you might like a companion. He creates animals. All of them. You name them. You roll around in the dirt with the dogs. It takes an edge off the monotony of living alone in your own private paradise. Keeps your attention distracted from that darn tree. You have fun with the zebras, cockatoos, and the possums. You race the turtles.

But the novelty wanes. Infinity is a long time.

Adonai puts you to sleep and when you awake there is another animal. This one is different than the others. She is so fine, she inspires a rhyme:
This at last is bone of my bones
And flesh of my flesh;
This shall be called Woman,
For out of Man this one was
Taken.
You tell her about the garden, and the tilling, and the animals, and Adonai.

And you show her the tree.

Now imagine you are the woman.
Do you get to speak to Adonai?
Or is he just Adam’s friend?
How do you feel about Adonai?
What kind of friend creates a tree and says the fruit is forbidden?
Imagine the animals.
What is your relationship with them, those who Adam named?
Picture the serpent.
What is the serpent like?
How do you feel when the serpent speaks to you?
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Do you trust him?
Look at the fruit.
Why didn’t Adam take the fruit before now?

Should you just forget it and go and till the garden for another 1000 years and watch Adam talk with Adonai and play with the animals he named?

Hmmm. Serpent. Fruit. Know what God knows.
You are going to take the fruit, aren’t you?
How do you take it? Greedily, warily?
Do you eat it slowly or hungrily?
How does it taste?
Where is Adam?
Do you have to get him?
Do you bring him the fruit or bring him to the tree?
Or...was he standing by you all along?
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Now open your eyes.
You ate the fruit, you and Adam.
Bad thing to do? Good thing? Or beyond good and bad?
Do you feel guilty, liberated, or both?

It is your story. It is our story. The church has turned it into a story of original sin and it is still used today to instill guilt, fear, and distrust of women. The story itself is simply a story that invites us to reflect on our own lives and the choices we make and the risks we take or don’t take. We hear in this story the voices of authority who demand obedience but offer no reason, and the voices of resistance who promise great things but neglect the fine print of all the consequences. It is a story of coming of age, of growing up, of testing limits.

Limits will be tested again in the myths of Genesis and in our own lives. It is what humans do. We make choices. We take the consequences. No guilt. Just life.

Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Evolutionary Christianity at PSF Tonight!


Tonight we are going to watch and discuss the DVD Evolutionary Christianity with Rev. Michael Dowd. Michael is the author of Thank God For Evolution.



Rather than think that evolution is a threat to faith, Dowd shows how evolution can inspire deeper faith.





It is a fascinating tour of the great story of our universe.

Michael Dowd and his wife and partner, Connie Barlow, visited us a few years ago. You can read a number of blog posts about the visit including this one.

Join us at seven for supper and the program to follow.

Invite friends. All are welcome!

Presbyterian Progressive Student Fellowship
1412 College Heights Road


Monday, September 19, 2011

Calling All Rebels

I watched Chris Hedges last night on LINK TV. It was a powerful speech and an insightful Q & A afterwards. The speech is a longer version of the written column, "Calling All Rebels" he wrote last year. From that piece, he wrote:
Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.
Here is the blurb about the speech:
Join Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges for an profound new speech - Calling All Rebels. In it, he poignantly argues that American liberalism has been an abject failure in the face of the corporate takeover of the American government. He insists that unless we begin to stand fast around moral imperatives we will be complicit in our self-annihilation.

"As the centers of American power were seized and hijacked by corporations, the media continued to pay deference to systems of power that could no longer be considered honest or democratic. The media treat criminals on Wall Street as responsible members of the ruling class. They treat the criminals in the White House and the Pentagon as statesmen."
During the Q & A he quoted H. Richard Niebuhr. The question was in regards to why religion seems to be a force for evil (think of the Christian right) and yet also a force for good. Hedges said, quoting Niebuhr,
"Religion is good for good people and bad for bad people."
Yup.

I appreciate that Hedges is stirring up some passion. It is time to bang the pots and pans. If you are near our mountain, join us Saturday, from 2 to 5 p.m. on Roan Street in Johnson City for "Rally for the Humans."

The fact is that we need a great turnout for the rally just to get the attention of our elected representatives. Please join us in our struggle to take the power of government out of the hands of corporations and return it to the people. YOU can make a difference. YOU have the power.
Check out the Facebook event.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Peace Pole Celebration


Our little band of peaceniks invites everyone to worship tomorrow. It is Music Sunday and we will have a nice mix of music and scriptures from various traditions. Following the service we will dedicate our peace pole. It is on the left near the entrance of our labyrinth.






In eight different languages, the peace pole announces the same message.













May Peace Prevail on Earth.

Local Economies Our Future

Our congregation is connected with The Green Interfaith Network. We will begin our Fall series Sunday. Here is an article about it in the Johnson City Press.
The Green Interfaith Network will host Anthony Flaccavento as its monthly speaker Sept. 18 from 4-6 p.m. at Milligan College.

Flaccavento is a consultant, activist , organic farmer and author who has written, consulted and farmed his Flaccavento ideas and determination for a just and sustainable world.

Whether in the fields farming or as a much sought after speaker, Flaccavento is committed to steering the country and communities to be progressive and open minded. Flaccavento has stated that the nation needs to counteract current political and “lessons learned” practices and connect with reason and the morality that have come from faith-based traditions.

According to a release, Flaccavento said the emergence of local economies and the rapidly growing food movement will help bring communities together and will also help people engage across a broad political spectrum.

“We need to spend less time trying to change people’s hearts and minds with our words, instead create the opportunities for folks to act into a new way of thinking,” he said.

Flaccavento has 25 years of experience in sustainable community development. He has been a certified organic produce farmer for the past 15 years, during which time he also founded and directed Appalachian Sustainable Development. He is the author of “Healthy Food Systems: A Tool Kit for building Value Chains” and more than 100 published articles.

Flaccavento was the director of the Appalachian Office of Justice and Peace for the Catholic Diocese based in St Paul, Va., from 1985-95.

His presentation is open to the public. Light refreshments will be served and a question-and answer session will be held.
Listen to Mr. Flaccavento from 4-6 p.m. Sunday, September 18th, at Derthick Hall on Milligan College Campus.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Flags In Heaven


I don't know about you, but I have noticed a lot flags flapping this past week. That's nice that folks are patriotic and proud of their country.

Do remember, my good patriotic Christian friends....

...Your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore.




But your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more.
They're already overcrowded
From your dirty little war.
Now Jesus don't like killin'
No matter what the reason's for,
And your flag decal won't get you
Into Heaven any more.

H/T Snad

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Breaking Up With God, Part 2




I spent the afternoon finishing Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story. It is well-crafted, funny, sad, and beautiful. She tells her story of her breakup with God:




I broke up with God that night. I broke up with the priesthood. I broke up with the river and the sky opening and the dove calling me beloved. I broke up with chosenness and salvation and belonging. And I imagined God held me when I cried.
I can't do this anymore, I said. I'm not happy.
I know, I heard him say. I know. p. 170
She broke up with the Creator of Universe just when she was about to be ordained as a priest in The Episcopal Church. She had her M. Div. from Harvard and was working toward her doctorate in theology when she decided that she could no longer be in love with God. It is a love story. After she lets go of God she is able to love herself. She is able to leave the cage.

I enjoyed the snippets of theological wisdom she includes in the book from a wide variety of theologians including James Cone, Mary Daly, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Sallie McFague, Ludwig Feurbach, Karen King, and especially the late Gordon Kaufman. She addresses him in the acknowledgements:

Thanks to Gordon Kaufman--please know this book is a love letter to you, a thank you note.
Through her story I heard echoes of my own. My guess is that many clergy will find their stories reflected in hers. I heard in her story the disconnect between a great Harvard education and the reality of a church that has no interest. It wasn't just the people as much as the language of the liturgy and the tradition itself that proved too small and too inadequate to converse with the faith she was deconstructing and developing.
God is gone--but not completely. When I close my eyes I still see a bearded white man. A decade of study can't wipe him out. I feel him there, hovering. But that version of God has become ethically untenable for me. Too many terrible things done in his name. Too much suffering in the world. Too much violence. Too many disasters. I let go of a personal God. I let go of all of it. p. 214

I found her story compelling and important for our culture, for churches, and for all of us. Whether we are part of the church, are rebelling against it, have left it, or are indifferent, we are all God-haunted. This book can help open up discussion and allow folks to take on what may have been taboo, to open the door that has been locked and labelled "blasphemy" and see what is really behind it.


What is behind that door is a mirror. Near the end of the book, she mixes her words with those of Ludwig Feurbach:

Ludwig Feurbach called his book The Essence of Christianity, but he wanted to call it Know Thyself. In that book he writes, you imagine the best version of yourself, but then you pretend it doesn't belong to you, and you name it God. Christianity alienated human beings from what is theirs. All that's good it gave away.

But what you think of as united, you unite. What you think of as distinct, you separate. What you think of as destroyed, you destroy. What you think of as loved, you love.

Can you see? You can save your life. You can save others' lives.

Imagine a screen. Project goodness. Project strength. Project holiness. Kindness. Mercy. Love. Watch the screen. Long for what it shows. Bow down. Worship.

Now imagine a mirror. See goodness. See strength. See holiness. Kindness. Mercy. Love. See they belong to us. pp. 221-2.
Whether that is enough to retain the label "God" is an individual choice I suppose.

I posted a couple of longer quotes
here and here. I am interested in your thoughts.

Meaning of Life, Part 72

Some people live on top of mountains in glass houses watching over forests, looking for smoke. One man has spent more than twenty summers in a fourteen-square-foot cabin on top of Saddleback Mountain in California minding a piece of the Tahoe National Forest. His version of paradise. He has four pairs of binoculars, cameras. He knows the landscape so well, he says, that it's easy to see when something's amiss.





That is how I used to imagine God: high in the sky looking after me, making sure I didn't burn up or disappear or feel too alone. What comfort came with this belief. And what loss when I decided God was not in that house with the 360-degree view.




I thought that meant no one was in the house.

In most of the gospel stories, Jesus keeps saying beautiful, poetic, profound things to his disciples, and they keep not getting it. They don't even spend time reflecting. They just ask the same questions over and over again. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus tells his disciples that they have come from light, that they are children of light, that God is in them. He says, If they ask you 'What is the evidence of your God in you?'; say to them 'It is motion and rest,' and you can almost hear the disciples' disappointment. They are not satisfied being divine children of light. They want to know what will happen when they die. When the world will be better than it is. What to stake their lives on. Enough with grapevines and wineskins and treasure buried in fields. Enough with mustard seeds and yeast and nets thrown into the sea. Tell us the truth.

So they ask again: When will the new world come?
What you look for has come, but you do not know it.
And again: When will the new world come?
It will not come by watching for it.
And again: When will anything be different?
It already is.
When will there be no pain?
Fill the jars with water.
When will we have new life?
Your lamp is under a basket. Your lamp is under your bed.
Do you not care that we are perishing?
Let anyone with ears to hear listen.
Who are you to say these things?
Show me the stone the builders rejected. It is the cornerstone.
How should we pray?
Split a piece of wood. I am there.
Who can be saved?
Find a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it.
By what authority do you do these things?
You are not far from it.
Are you the Messiah?
As the branches become tender, you know summer is near.
Have you no answer?
Keep awake.
Again they ask: When will the new world come?
An again he answers: It is spread out on the earth. You do not see it.


Someone is on top of that mountain in that glass house watching over the world. Sometimes it's you, and sometimes it's me. The only ones watching for smoke, the only ones ready to sound the alarm, the only ones who will bring water, are the people down here with us. Just us, looking after each other.

--Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story, pp. 226-8

Breaking Up With God (Part 1)


I am reading a new book by Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story. I will tell you more when I finish, but I had to share this passage right away. Sarah writes about when a senior at Yale she takes a course, "Phenomenology of Religion", by Louis Dupre.

Dupre told us about Isaac Luria, a fifteenth-century Jewish mystic who believed when God created the world, he made an emptiness in himself. He made a place for otherness. He made himself vulnerable and weak. The creative act is an expression of a fundamental uncertainty. It changes God. It makes a hole in God.



I need God for all I am, Dupre said. And God needs me for all God is. God needs me to be God. God is the life force of everything that is, he said. God is everywhere, the core of everything that is. Most Christians and Jews are too afraid of pantheism to admit this, he said. Mystics are not afraid of pantheism. They know if God is not in the movement of my fingers, then God does not exist.




I speak to you as an older person, Dupre said. Life is a series of failures, and at the end, you die, no matter how successful you are. This life is flawed and fragile, and we are vulnerable. Life is no more than that. But religion says that the meaning of life is not in your narrow way of looking. Religion tells us we have infinite capacity.

Religion is this: the one thing able to tell you that you have any significance at all. pp. 64-5
I am looking forward to the rest of her book and to reading more about Louis Dupre.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Such is Life! -- A Sermon

My final sermon in my series on Ecclesiastes. We sang this song:



Such Is Life!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 11, 2011

Wisdom from Ecclesiastes

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the impulses of your heart
and the desires of your eyes,
yet know that for everything you do
Nature will hold you accountable.
Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.
Therefore think of your grave in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come and those years arrive
when you say, “I no longer find any pleasure in life.”
Think of it before the sun grows dim,
and with it the daylight and the moon and the stars,
and the clouds return after the rain.
Think of it when the mind starts to wander
and even the strong back begins to stoop,
when the disappearing molars cease to chew
and cataracts dim the eyesight.
Think of it when the doors to the street are closed
and the noise of the grinding mill fades,
when the sound of birds grows faint
and all the daughters of song are humbled.
Think of it when the fear of heights increases
and terrors lurk in the streets,
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags itself along
and desire is no longer stirred.
For humankind goes to its eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
Think of it before the cord of life is severed,
the golden bowl is crushed,
the jar is shattered at the spring,
and the wheel is broken at the well.
For then the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to the God who gave it.
“Fast fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent!”
“Everything dissolves into nothingness.”

The Proclaimer was not only wise in himself,
but what is more important, he imparted his knowledge to the people.
He searched and weighed and set forth a host of parables.
The Proclaimer sought to find just the right words,
and honestly write down what he found to be true.
The words of the wise are like goads.
They are like nails driven firmly home,
by members of a fraternity
and now delivered by one caring guide.
Apart from these, my son, be warned
that there is no end to the making of books,
and much study simply tires us out.
That is the end of the matter, for now you have heard
everything.
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
For everything we do Nature will bring to judgment,
even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.

Translation by Lloyd Geering, Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), p. 171-192. Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:14.

We have spent the summer with Qoheleth, the Proclaimer, the goad, the devastatingly honest skeptic and critic. Today we allow him his last word and let him rest. Some may breathe a sigh of relief. A steady diet of existential angst is not warm and fuzzy.

I am going to miss him. This is the first time I have preached an entire series of sermons on Ecclesiastes. I am grateful to the guidance of Lloyd Geering, whose book, Such Is Life: A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes has helped me to see more about this interesting figure of the Bible than I had seen previously.

Qoheleth is not warm and fuzzy. He is real, though. He is not one to settle for “Sunday School” answers to important questions. He is not the one who will acquiesce because some authority tells him what is supposedly true. He will examine the evidence for himself. He will come to his own conclusion even if that conclusion is not popular or warm and fuzzy.

Earlier this week I watched an interview with retired Bishop John Shelby Spong. Spong is a Qoheleth-type figure. He is not warm and fuzzy either. In addition to his delightfully sharp and liberating critique of Christianity, he talked a little bit about his life. He grew up in fundamentalism. He said,
“The reason fundamentalist churches grow is that they offer security. “You can’t think but they offer security….The churches that claim to have all the answers don’t allow any questions.”
He said that he had an unstable life growing up. He was only twelve when his father died. His father was an alcoholic. His mother was uneducated and raised him in the faith she knew. He said:
“My fundamentalist religion probably gave me the strength to endure that kind of childhood. But by the time I was fourteen, my fundamentalistic religion kept me from growing, either in terms of my understanding of God or my understanding of the world. So it began to shatter and fall apart. I didn’t go from fundamentalism into what I am now in one step. There were a number of intermediate steps. But I finally came to the conclusion that God is beyond my human capacity ever to know fully. I tell people that a horse could never explain what it means to be human. No matter what you did, no matter how a horse might be able to talk, a horse could never enter into the human experience and describe what it is like to be human. I wonder why human beings can describe what it is like to be God. And yet we have done that throughout history. We have said God is this and if you don’t agree with this I’ll burn you at the stake, I’ll go to war, I’ll persecute you. That’s nothing but human arrogance. God is a mystery into which we walk and the more deeply you walk the more that mystery just surrounds you. I consider myself today a God-intoxicated person, almost a mystic, but I have no idea of what human words I would use to try to articulate who God is or what God is. I can articulate what I believe my experience of God is.”
That was John Shelby Spong in an interview about his latest book, Jesus for the Non-Religious. What I think is important here is that he recognized that the fundamentalist faith of his childhood had a purpose. It gave him security and strength to endure a difficult childhood. It isn’t that fundamentalism is bad. We have to be careful about judging because that security is often what people need to endure. But there comes a time that it no longer works. That happened for Bishop Spong, perhaps for many of you, and for me.

LinkSecurity is a good image. Security can keep you safe, but it also keeps you confined.
Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater,
Had a wife but couldn't keep her.
So he put her in a shell
And there he kept her very well.
I'd like to know his wife's opinion.

When you become strong enough that you no longer need the security, you will feel the urge to break away from the confines of a rigid faith. It is important to allow people to take their own spiritual path at their own speed. The other side of that is that in order to break out of the confines people may need the goad or the prod such as what Qoheleth offered.

It is near the end of Ecclesiastes that we realize what Qoheleth is doing.
The Proclaimer was not only wise in himself,
but what is more important, he imparted his knowledge to the people.
He searched and weighed and set forth a host of parables.
The Proclaimer sought to find just the right words,
and honestly write down what he found to be true.
The words of the wise are like goads.
They are like nails driven firmly home,
by members of a fraternity
and now delivered by one caring guide.
He is writing as an old man to a young man. He is offering his reflections. He is not sparing anything. He wants the young man to think. Qoheleth knows that there are plenty of places where the young man can go to get security and someone else’s answers. Those places are a dime a dozen. They exist today as they did in his time. In our language it sounds like this:
You are a miserable sinner. Here is how Jesus will fix you. Believe this and believe that and don’t doubt this and don’t doubt that.
Qoheleth knows that business. He heard all of it and found it wanting. Qoheleth, like Spong, does not tell his spiritual story to give the final answer. He tells his story so that the young man will take his own adventure and live his own life. What Qoheleth tells the young man in the last chapter is what he has been saying throughout. He is telling him the one truth that he knows:
everything comes to an end.
Nature bats last. She brings us all home, back to her womb. That is how she holds us accountable. Our life is impermanent.

Qoheleth is haunted by this. He keeps trying to beat it. Through wealth, power, wisdom, pleasure, religion, but none of it helps. All is impermanent. All is vapor. It is only when he comes to an acceptance of it, that he can say,
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
In other words, such is life.

This is what you have now. Take it. Give it. Live it.

The Buddhist teacher holds up a glass. He says isn’t this beautiful? Look how it reflects the light. It holds this pure water that quenches my thirst when I drink from it. I am happy with this glass. I know that one day this glass will shatter into a thousand pieces. I don’t know when. I don’t know how. I know that this glass will break. I cannot stop it. I imagine that this glass is broken. Because I know that one day it will not be I can enjoy it fully now.

You get the paradox? When we try to make something last forever, when we deny reality, we actually increase anxiety and suffering and cause harm to ourselves and others. When we know that life is impermanent, when we accept our limits, we can be more present to what is real. We don’t need to be anxious about what we will lose, because really it is already lost. In cosmic time, the glass is already broken. It is not ours to keep. It is ours to honor in its fragile, impermanent state.

Qoheleth rather than hold up a glass, holds up himself as an old man. He says to the young man:
Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the impulses of your heart
and the desires of your eyes,
yet know that for everything you do
Nature will hold you accountable.
Therefore banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
For youth and its early vigour are short-lived.
Be happy. Enjoy your youth. Don’t be anxious. Live life, knowing that Nature has the last word. Then he says:
Therefore think of your grave in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come and those years arrive
when you say, “I no longer find any pleasure in life.”
Why think of the grave? Isn’t that depressing? No. It is the opposite. What do we spend our time doing? Much of the time we spend it waiting to be happy. I am going to be happy when I finish school, I get a job, I get a better job, I get a lover , I get another lover, I have kids, I boot the kids out, I get a house, I get older, I retire, whatever.

The Buddhist and Qoheleth say,
“Why wait? Be happy now.”
None of it lasts. Neither do you. There is no need to put off joy. Whether it is joy or sorrow, it is now. Notice it. Such is life.

To drive the point home, Qoheleth gives a lengthy poetic description of aging.

Think of your grave, young man, before…
Your teeth rot out and
Your eyes grow dim and
Your mind wanders and
You can’t hear the birds and
Desire stops and
You get afraid of things
And you drag your old body around like a grasshopper
and on and on. In my first church, my elderly parishioners would tell me,
“Don’t get old.”
What do you say to that? I’ll try? I knew what they were saying. They were seeking some sympathy and offering advice,
“Don’t let life pass without noticing it.”
Good advice.

Qoheleth shows the young man what his future will be. Think of your end, now, recognize your impermanence so you don’t cause a lot of suffering trying to cling to what you need to let go.

This is not only a lesson for individuals but for society. This whole decade since 9/11 has seemed to be one of desperate clinging. Clinging to security, to fear, to fantasies of lost innocence. Eventually civilization will end. Economic growth will end. The age of the automobile will end. How much suffering will we cause before we recognize that? How much suffering will we inflict before we recognize our limits? Before we follow the advice of Qoheleth:
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.
The last words from Qoheleth are these:
For everything we do Nature will bring to judgment,
even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.
For me, that sentence means that what I do now matters. What do I now, not five years from now or ten years from now, but what I do now matters. What I do will either add to the collective good, the ball of merit, as Joanna Macy calls it, or it will add to suffering.

I don’t have forever, I have now. I have this amazing unasked for existence. Like Bishop Spong, I don’t need to cling to religious or theological baggage that no longer works. I don’t need to be anxious about my life as it will end anyway. There is only one rule I know of, that Brother Kurt Vonnegut reminded us,
"Be kind."
I will try.

I will also try to follow the advice of Phil Ochs. If any of you are around at my funeral, you can sing this song if you like. It is called, “When I’m Gone” and here are the lyrics:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't feel the flowing of the time when I'm gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I'm gone
My pen won't pour out a lyric line when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here


And I won't breathe the bracing air when I'm gone
And I can't even worry 'bout my cares when I'm gone
Won't be asked to do my share when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be running from the rain when I'm gone
And I can't even suffer from the pain when I'm gone
Can't say who's to praise and who's to blame when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone
Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

All my days won't be dances of delight when I'm gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I'm gone
Can't add my name into the fight while I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

And I won't be laughing at the lies when I'm gone
And I can't question how or when or why when I'm gone
Can't live proud enough to die when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here

Such is life.

Amen.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9/11's Aftermath


I am watching Bruce Gagnon on Free Speech TV. More truth here than we may want to hear. If we truly wish to "remember 9/11" we ought to remember the things that have happened since 9/11: torture, first strike doctrine, corporate globalization, and unbridled militarism, to name but a few.




We need more Americans Who Tell the Truth.


“The role of the U.S. in the new world corporate order is going to be to export security. That means endless wars and weapons in space. The Pentagon will send our kids off to foreign lands to suppress opposition to corporate globalization. How will we ever end America’s addiction to war and violence as long as our communities are dependent on military spending for jobs? We must work to convert the military industrial complex to sustainable technologies like windpower, solar, and mass transit.”

Friday, September 09, 2011

Gratitude for More Light Presbyterians


I sure do love More Light Presbyterians.

I feel badly that I over-scheduled myself and missed the conference in Rochester, NY this past weekend. More Light Presbyterians does important work. They affirm the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people when many in the church condemn them. They create a safe space for those whose lives are threatened. To me, it is Christ's work.

I am grateful to More Light congregations for boldly affirming the Gospel of hospitality and justice and for challenging the church to read its own texts in the light of faith and love and not through the dark lens of prejudice. I am humbled to serve a congregation that has taken this bold stand to be a safe space in what is often a hostile environment.


I am honored to know Michael Adee who works tirelessly and with grace on behalf of the whole church. Thank you, Michael. Your work saves lives.


I am grateful for teachers, administrators, counselors, ministers, and others who create safe spaces in their own settings for those at risk from bullies and prejudice.

I am grateful for my friends locally in the Tennessee Equality Project, PFLAG Tri-Cities, PFLAG AWCC, LGBTieS at ETSU, Northeast Tennessee Pride, and The Change, for being the change they want to see in the world and for providing safe spaces.

We all know what a safe space is.

It is that place or that person who gets it.

It is the place to go and the person you know where you can be yourself and share your life as it is without fear of being ridiculed, exposed, or hurt. We all need safe spaces.

I am most grateful for strong and wise leaders who protect these safe and sacred spaces from those who seek to belittle and to harm.

You know who you are. Thank you. May your tribe increase.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Not in the Mood for 9/11

I am not in the mood.

I am not in the mood to shout "God Bless America", drape myself with American flags, and observe the high holy day when the Muslim Horde attacked our freedoms.

On the day after the attack, I organized a worship service for the community. I gave this speech:

This is a day of mourning for the victims of the unspeakable violence yesterday in New York City and at our nation's capitol. We stand with those who have lost loved ones with deep sorrow. Our sorrow will never reach the depths as that which has been experienced by those who have lost fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, life partners, children, loved ones.

The act of terror and violence against innocent people is inexcusable. There is no reason under heaven for an act so cowardly and so despicable as violence against innocent men, women, and children. Violence at this magnitude is beyond horror. It is not justified now, nor ever. The scars will remain with us for as long as any of us here will live as well as with the lives of our children and our children's children.

In response to this we feel justifiable rage. The Psalmist echoes our feelings even as we may not dare to speak the words aloud: "O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

Our anger and sorrow is deep and will grow deeper still as we hear more about the victims and as we absorb the anger and the anguish of the nation. It will be tempting--so tempting--for us to seek vengeance quickly, something, anything, to soothe the rage.

It is at this point at which we need God. It is at this point at which we need to express our rage and anger toward God. We direct it toward God not because God caused it, but because God receives it. God became one with us on the cross in Jesus Christ for our anger and for our rage and for the injustice of the suffering. We must give our rage to Christ, for only Christ is large enough to receive it and to melt it.

The enemy is not the Muslim people or the Arab people. The enemy is violence itself. Violence bred by injustice and uncontrollable rage which has turned to hatred. The answer will not be more violence bred by more rage and more hatred and more injustice. This will only lead to the deaths and to the suffering of more innocent people and it will not bring peace to our world.

Yet, we must bring the perpetrators to justice. This is not an attack on the American people. It was an attack on the very fragile spirit of human life and morality. Violence is the evil. Justice will only come as the world itself puts the perpetrators of violence on trial. Virtually every nation has condemned this act of terror, including the Palestinian people. Muslims, Christians, Jews all have condemned this evil.

Now it is time for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, to seek peace. We must together seek peace with justice. We must work together for justice. We must work for a justice that will put these doers of violence on trial so the world may speak with one voice against violence and any who enacts violence. It is not the way to solve conflicts.

We must also work for a justice that is not blind to the cries of suffering and oppressed people. We may have the opportunity now to ask ourselves: "Why are so many of the Arab people so angry at America?" Asking that question in no way justifies or excuses the unspeakable acts of evil and terror that have been committed. But if we seek justice with peace for all people on this fragile globe we must truly seek the answers with openness and a desire for truth. It will take a miracle for this to happen. It will take a miracle of God for us to work for a true and lasting peace with all of our neighbors.

We must pray for that miracle. Else I fear for the survival of the human species. I do not think that I overstate that concern. Our technology and our weapons of destruction and our vulnerability to misuse them is so great that we human beings could make for our own destruction unless we learn the difficult, the courageous, the humble, the Christ-like way of peace.

To love our enemies does not mean that we do not do everything in our power to end violence and to bring the doers of violence to justice, and sometimes that requires force. Force blessed and enacted by the agreement of nations united for peace. To love our enemy means that we recognize that we become the enemy we despise when we let that hatred and rage consume us. We are to love our enemy for ourselves as much as the enemy.

I read passages from the Hebrew Psalter, the Muslim Qu'ran, and the Christian Gospel to demonstrate that these three great and peaceful religions are just that--great and peaceful. The people who faithfully pray and practice their beliefs around the world all want the same thing we do--to live in peace with neighbor, to seek happiness, to enjoy life, to live freely. We must not let those few who insist on violence to destroy that hope of peace and freedom that God has planted within our souls.

In these critical days and weeks to come, the leaders of our nation and of the world need our prayers to work a miracle. May we pray for that miracle each day. As followers of Jesus we can do no less.
The bad parts turned out to be true.

Ten years later, I am not in the mood for more speeches or gatherings or remembrances.

In 2003, on the eve of an illegal and immoral war promoted by lies and the liars who told them, a couple of my colleagues and I put together this little item for the media:

As clergy, we believe our faith dictates that we voice strong opposition to a pre-emptive strike by the United States against Iraq. We come from different religious traditions and have different criteria when a state is justified in using force. However, we are unanimous in our view that a military strike by the United States against Iraq at this time is not morally justified.

While we deplore the past actions of Saddam Hussein, he poses no clear and immediate threat to the United States or the nations of the world. A unilateral, pre-emptive strike by the United States would be viewed by the vast majority of the world's population as an act of aggression on behalf of U.S self-interests, even if self-interest is not our motivation. If the United States sets this example, other nations might claim justification for attacking their weaker neighbors.

Peaceful alternatives have not been exhausted, but must be pursued through the United Nations. Iraq has been and can continue to be contained by a cooperative effort led by the United Nations. If Saddam is a threat, he is a threat to the world, not to the United States alone.

An attack against Iraq would lead to the deaths of thousands of innocent people, including children. It would further destabilize the entire Middle East. We cannot afford to increase tensions between the West and the Arab world, or escalate the spiral of violence around the globe.

Peaceful alternatives to war are not flashy or terribly exciting, but war will not lead the United States nor the world to the security we seek. Peacemaking is hard work, but the way of peace is the narrow road that leads to life.
The bad parts turned out to be true.

I am not in the mood for more wars and lies about wars.

"Can I tell you the truth? I mean this isn't the TV news is it? Here's what I think the truth is: We are all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial. And like so many addicts about to face cold turkey, our leaders are now committing violent crimes to get what little is left of what we're hooked on."
--Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country, p. 42
I think our beloved Kurt told the truth.

He wasn't in the mood either.

Since 9/11/2001 the United States government has behaved badly. This attack turned out to be just what the neocons in the Bush White House needed to carry out their agenda.

I am so cynical now (and I am not alone) that I wouldn't be surprised to discover that individuals and groups within our government looked the other way or were even actively involved in the implementation of these attacks.

The best film on this topic is 9/11 Press for Truth. There is nothing "conspiratorial" about this film at all. It is about people who lost loved ones on 9/11 and who had questions. These questions were never even asked by those with the power and responsibility to ask them.

Here is the trailer.











You can also watch it on-line.

It is your midnight movie.

That is, if you are in the mood.