Shuck and Jive

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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking for a Guide--A Sermon

Looking for a Guide
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 30th, 2010
Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31
John 16:12-15


One of the hymns in our hymnbook begins with this line:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou are mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Religion capitalizes on that feeling of being alone and lost. Life is uncertain. We don’t know the “right thing” to do or the "best" decision to make or the "correct" path to take. Life is cold, dark, and barren. Or has Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short." How nice it would be if there was someone to guide us through.

We long for someone to take our hand and lead us. Wouldn’t it be helpful if a cloud moved just ahead of us during the day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us along and show us where to go? A voice to tell us what to do and to say? Or maybe there is a bright star we can follow that will lead us to the Messiah?

I remember singing a camp song as a kid, I’m Using My Bible as a Roadmap:
I'm using my Bible for a road map
The Commandments they tell me what to do
The twelve disciples are my road signs
And Jesus will take me safely through

There'll be no detours in heaven
No rough roads along the way
I'm using my Bible for a road map
My last stop is heaven some sweet day

I'm using my Bible for a road map
The children of Israel used it too
They crossed the Red Sea of Destruction
For God was there to see them through
There is something comforting about knowing that we are on a path and that there is a guide leading us to a final destination.

Most of religious belief and practice is based on that notion that there is outside of us, external to the universe, often supernatural, something or someone that has a purpose and destination for our lives. It is no wonder that Rev. Rick Warren’s book, A Purpose Driven Life, is one of the best selling books ever.

We long to be told what to do.
Show me the answer.
Tell me what I should do with my life.
Give me direction.
What is my purpose?
Help me discover it.

The assumption is that there is an external purpose or Google Map made just for us, if only we could find it.

There are many folks who claim to have just that Google Map and who will gladly tell you what to do.

We call them preachers.

Jesus had a name for the preachers or religious leaders of his day. He called them “blind guides.”
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Jesus is saying that these people don’t know anything more about life than anyone else. More often than not they focus on the wrong thing and miss what is important. Strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

The question becomes, who are you going to trust?

One of the things that has been dawning on us as we have been contemplating the vastness of the universe, and the indifference of life on Earth as it evolves without any need of interference from an outside guiding force,...

...is that maybe there is no outside meaning.

Instead, meaning is what we make it.

That has always been true. We haven’t always known it.

Every story in the Bible and in any religion is human made.
  • Human beings created the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
  • Human beings created the story of Krishna speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield.
  • Human beings created the story of God creating the heavens and the earth.
  • Human beings created the story of the Risen Christ appearing before the disciples.
Once we realize that all religious stories are made by human beings, the balloon pops.

This doesn’t lessen the value or the importance of the stories. It shifts them. Rather than be external realities, they become internal creations. Now we are contemplating, marveling, and celebrating human creativity and imagination. The stories of God or of the gods are our stories projected outward.

A philosopher who I have come to appreciate is Don Cupitt. I discovered him through the Jesus Seminar. He writes in very clear language for non-professionals. He calls himself a radical theologian. In his book, The Meaning of the West, he writes:
In religion and philosophy there is a perennial dispute between two parties. There are those who think that our greatest need in life is to gain security and blessedness by attaching ourselves permanently and securely to something very much greater, stabler and more perfect than ourselves, something that transcends the passing show of existence. I'll call these people the party of metaphysics. They are philosophical realists, for whom our salvation depends upon our relation to something Big out there.

The other party includes all those who think that our chief need is to be cured of the errors and discontents that rob us of our ability to enjoy life and live it to the full. I'll call these people pragmatists, or even nihilists. They say that we don't need to attach ourselves to some great big saving Fact out there; we just need deliverance from our own anxieties, our illusions and our self-concern. We just need pure freedom and life-skills. p. 31.
Cupitt is of the second party. For him there is no “outside.” The self-evolving universe is “outsideless.” Rather than find our purpose, search out a guide, find our path on God’s great Google Map, we instead create it.

The stories of the Bible are not stories of external realities, but stories of human beings finding themselves, and when we put ourselves in these stories they are stories of our own self-discovery. So in Genesis chapter one when God creates order out of chaos, that is our task. We are the ones to create order out of chaos.

Jesus is the precursor to helping us get this.

The irony is that Jesus’ teaching was so radical that the tradition turned him into a god. This is the last thing he wanted. This is why I think the historical Jesus study is so important. There was a person there who had some radical things to say. We have covered him with mythology and distorted his voice. Part of his radical teaching was to forget searching after an external purpose and meaning. The kingdom of God is not “out there” he said.
The kingdom of God is within you.
Even the Gospel of John, which contains hardly anything that can go back to the historical Jesus, still has Jesus affirm that the external God (Father) is known in us through Spirit. This means, I think, that we need to take ownership for that which we have projected onto God or onto Jesus.

When we project onto God or Jesus love, compassion, justice, strength, Jesus says to us,
“Take it back. You are love, compassion, justice, strength. Don’t say, ‘I am weak but Thou art strong.’ No. You are strong."
Jesus tells us:
"You are your own guide. Claim it.”
I am going to quote Cupitt one more time. This is from his book, Jesus and Philosophy:
In the old mythology, God, confronted by the Primal Chaos, by a free and purely generous act of will chose to conquer chaos and create the world. The Israelite prophets saw the religious problem—namely, the infinite qualitative difference between the Holy God and the wayward human individual—as being solved when God relocates himself within the human heart. Jesus takes that thought and radicalizes it, in order to force upon the individual a repetition of the original creative choice. When I feel that everything is crumbling and I am confronted with pure chaos, I have to make a free, generous and founding choice of life itself. This original choice, a choice to launch oneself bravely out upon the sea of contingent existence, comes from what we speak of as ’the heart.’ By it we live. P. 94
Jesus is the transition between an external God (Father) and Spirit within the heart, the human choice. It has taken us two millennia to get this.
  • We have projected onto God all goodness, when instead we need to claim it and live it.
  • We have said that only an external God can give us meaning, when instead we create it for ourselves as individuals and as a human community.
  • We have said that we need to obey an external moral law that is absolute and revealed to us, when instead it is written on our hearts—in other words we create morality by listening to one another and stumbling through together.
Once the balloon pops and we dare to utter to ourselves the blasphemous truth that we created the concept of God, and that we created the stories about God, then we need to take a deep breath.

It is both liberating and frightening.

It is frightening because we realize that we are our own guides. No one else to blame. No one else to credit.

It is up to us to live life.


It is liberating because someone else’s concept of God no longer has power over us. No one else has power to make us feel guilty or sinful or shamed or whatever. With this liberation comes responsibility to make our world a place we really want to live in.

This liberation is not from goodness or compassion, it is liberation to create as a human family a world that works for the blessedness of all.

Rather than a Bible as an infallible code of law, we create a declaration of human rights. We create a loose-leaf Bible of the wisdom we have gleaned that is on-going and outsideless.

This is from Joanna Macy:
People are not going to find their truth-force or inner authority in listening to experts, but in listening to themselves, for everyone in her or his way is an expert on what it is like to live on an endangered planet.
Is there still a place for projection? Is there still a place for a hymn to “mothering God” or the Divine Sophia or the Great Jehovah or our ishta deva (our chosen deity)? Of course. As long as we are aware of what we are doing. We are getting out, we are bringing forth, what is within us.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:
"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." (70)
We are getting it out. It is psychologically healthy and necessary to do so. But we also must remember to bring it back. We are the mothering God, we are the Divine Sophia, we are the Great Jehovah, we are our own guides.

If you are looking for a guide, for someone or something to direct you, lead you, give you a purpose, a reason, and meaning, you are welcome to look all over. You are welcome to join all kinds of spiritual groups, self-help clubs, churches, and so forth.

And when you are finished searching and have learned all kinds of wonderful things, come home and find You.

21 comments:

  1. Rarely have I felt so close to the Almighty as when I heard this sermon. In letting go, I am gathered.

    ReplyDelete
  2. John, when I hear you demystify God, I don't feel that we are elevated to that of a deity, but that God has been lowered to being human. Fallible, vulnerable to poor decisions or choices, and not reliable. The bible becomes a story book of fiction and if I wanted to just rip out certain parts that I don't like would be perfectly acceptable, because certain parts fly in the face or our society today. I guess it could be said that it is outdated and should be either completely rewritten to reflect what is acceptable in society, now. Or just write another book to completely replace it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks David! : )

    Hey Mary,

    The Bible is a marvelous and complex book telling the story of a complex character (God). It is a product of human genius, creativity, and imagination. I have no desire to rip out parts I don't like but I have no desire to obey them either. There is no need to rewrite it anymore than there is a need to rewrite Gilgamesh, the Iliad or Shakepeare's plays. All are part of our collective human wisdom.

    I appreciate your comments and your struggle with what I am saying. You are not the only one struggling. This is a major struggle for modern Christians and for our culture. What happens when we realize that what we thought was absolute reality is instead a human creation?

    I want to acknowledge that it creates turmoil and angst. It sure did with me. It is both frightening and liberating.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "When we project onto God or Jesus love, compassion, justice, strength, Jesus says to us,

    “Take it back. You are love, compassion, justice, strength. Don’t say, ‘I am weak but Thou art strong.’ No. You are strong."
    Jesus tells us:

    "You are your own guide. Claim it.”

    ---------------------
    Psalm 82:3-4, 6

    3 Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

    4 Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

    6 "I said, 'You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.'

    John 10:31-36 has Jesus citing these verses to the Pharisees.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Blind leading the blind, right enough, John....you are taking these people into the abyss of darkness and oblivion and the great sadness is that they are happy to follow you into the labyrinth of your own making.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Amazing that a seminary trained minister like Stushie would write something as outlandish as this: ".you are taking these people into the abyss of darkness and oblivion and the great sadness is that they are happy to follow you into the labyrinth of your own making"

    So much for salvation by grace alone! So much for unconditional election!

    How ironic that Stushie is the one doing the criticizing when his theology is apparently questionable at best. For all of the ways in which I might disagree with Shuck's theology, at least he doesn't believe Stushie's damnable heresy that ministers decide people's salvation.

    Good lord what an arrogant ass. Give the guy a stole and he thinks he decides the fate of all humanity.

    ReplyDelete
  7. you are taking these people into the abyss of darkness and oblivion

    Stushie! That is almost poetic enough for the sidebar! : )

    ReplyDelete
  8. For all of the ways in which I might disagree with Shuck's theology, at least he doesn't believe Stushie's damnable heresy that ministers decide people's salvation.

    I am, however, available to empty your pews.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Hmmm.... You're leading people to hell, but you're also emptying the pews. How do you lead people to hell if they've left the church?

    I think the BFTSs like Stushie and Parker need to get their stories straight. Maybe Stushie hasn't read the latest talking points on you from his LayMAN overlord. LOL

    ReplyDelete
  10. Great. Now you're going to want me to refer to you as "Captain Darkness" around the office. Thanks, Stushie.

    ReplyDelete
  11. @Snad

    This will do wonders for my ego. I have a cape.

    ReplyDelete
  12. It really is too bad that Stushie is a troll who just drops by on occasion to leave a snotty comment and then run, because I really am curious about the theological and Biblical underpinnings of his theory that ministers decide their parishioners' salvation, and when he gave up Calvinism for works-based theology. Oh well.

    (Have his activities been reported?) ;)

    In the meantime, I'm trying to think of a logo for John's Captain Darkness costume. :)

    ReplyDelete
  13. (Have his activities been reported?) ;)

    I wonder how the Committee on Ministry of East Tennessee Presbytery allows this heresy to continue right under their noses? It is time for an official investigation that Stushie has violated his ordination vows by promoting works-based salvation. Someone, quick, alert the LayMAN!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Meh. I would file charges, but if it is supposed to happen, it will anyway.

    Predestination, you know.

    I'd say his adherence to such heresies already tell us what we need to know about his election.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Too bad he can't be bothered to answer my question, but can troll leaving his sniping on other posts though.

    I suppose he finds such sniping useful? Gracious? Civil? Loving?

    Who do you suppose he thinks such trolling convinces?

    ReplyDelete
  16. "This doesn’t lessen the value or the importance of the stories. It shifts them. Rather than be external realities, they become internal creations."

    How did you come to the conclusion that all these stories can "Become an internal creation"

    For me it is an either "is" or "it isn't" a true story. Not the option of external or internal.

    And the like you said about preachers...who can you trust?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hey Mary,

    Your second question first. Don't trust preachers. Don't trust me. Figure it out for yourself.

    Mary, what are you really not getting? Do you really not understand what I am saying or do you think I am simply wrong?

    Let's take a specific example. Genesis chapters 2-3.

    Did this happen? Does this story reflect an external reality as in it happened (an event) or does this reflect some internal creation (in that someone made it up)? What do you think?

    ReplyDelete
  18. Did this happen? Does this story reflect an external reality as in it happened (an event) or does this reflect some internal creation (in that someone made it up)? What do you think?

    What I think is that if I choose to believe it is all made up then the whole existence of "the church" is pointless.

    You mentioned the Iliad and the works of Shakespeare, but I would not be a shrine to them like has been done for the bible and its contents.

    I guess I need something more to believe in. Putting the bible lowered to a human level makes it just another book. No better or worse than any other book with moral sayings in it.

    The reason I ask is because I want to understand how you got to your point in how you believe the way you do.

    ReplyDelete
  19. The reason I ask is because I want to understand how you got to your point in how you believe the way you do.

    I like you, Mary. I am going to assume you are asking honest questions.

    I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. I read the Bible cover to cover as a little kid. I participated in the "sword drills", knew the books in order, memorized verses. I was the annoying kid who always had the answers. Surprise, surprise.

    I believed--because I was told and couldn't imagine there was a different way--the Bible was a record of supernatural events that one believed to be true at face value. If not, what is the point?

    My first crises of faith occurred in junior high when I was exposed to evolution, the vastness of space, other faiths, and other things that didn't square with what I was learning.

    It wasn't until college when I took a course in the History of the New Testament at Montana State University that I learned that not all Christians believed as I did about the Bible. I was introduced to higher criticism which is understanding the Bible as a human product in an historical setting--as literature.

    Many years later I went to seminary and learned church history, higher criticism of the Bible, various theological views, and so forth. The seminary I attended was a PCUSA seminary. Every one of our seminaries teaches this. If you go to a PCUSA church your minister (if she or he went to a PCUSA seminary) was exposed to higher criticism of the Bible. It has been around for over 200 years. Our denomination embraces it (Confession of 1967).

    Unfortunately, preachers don't often know what to do with it. It doesn't "preach" in their experience. Not wanting to hurt the "faith" of their parishioners they don't talk about it much. Apparently they think it is better for people to believe that the Bible is a record of supernatural events than to allow people to really struggle with the Bible as a human product.

    In fact, I learned the message in seminary not to share what I was learning with parishioners or to dilute it so much that it wouldn't have an effect.

    I disobeyed.

    When I brought up what I learned through the course of sermons or classes I discovered an interesting reaction among some folks. They were angry. Not at me, but at their previous ministers who sheltered them from these questions, because they had doubts too, and thought they had to believe these fanciful tales to be true, when in fact, they didn't.

    If you interested in where I am coming from and in higher criticism of the Bible, you might take a look at the guide I created for my church, the Bible cover to cover, complete with guides for each book and quizzes!

    Bible and Jive.

    Enjoy your quest!

    ReplyDelete
  20. "Unfortunately, preachers don't often know what to do with it. It doesn't "preach" in their experience. "

    I heard this anecdote today: Back when Carter County Commission was arguing whether to allow beer to be sold in restaurants and grocery stores, a local Southern Baptist preacher spent incredible amounts of time at City Hall trying to convince the commissioners to vote it down.

    His son was good friends with the fellow who related this story. The two stopped in at the preacher's house during this time and were instantly offered beers - by the preacher. The friend was confused. The preacher told him that he didn't have a problem with drinking beer, but that his parishioners wanted him to fight the proposal, so he did, just to satisfy them.

    Apparently it was easier - maybe safer - for him to work against his own interests than to push back. One wonders how many of those parishioners really wanted to see beer sold in Carter County but just thought it looked better to fight it. Talk about the blind leading the blind!

    ReplyDelete