Mysterious Presence

Mysterious Presence

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015, on Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17

Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 11.01.16 AM

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

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I do not know how to feel about the recent news from Spain.  They just found the 430,000 year old skull of an ancient human in a cave, presumably a burial site, where the remains of 27 other individuals were also present.  This particular skull shows clear evidence of having been struck hard, twice, with the same object.  It may be the first recorded murder in human history of which we have evidence.

It is sad to realize that violence, even murder, goes back so far in evolution.  But I suppose that is what the biblical story of Cain and Able is about, so it should not surprise us.

But along with evidence of violence, the curious fact that all of these individuals were found together could well indicate intentional burial.  Most animals have only a passing interest in their dead, so burial represents a significant change in behavior.  Specifically, burial indicates concern for existence of some kind after death, in other words, the roots of religion.

The quest to know God and how we relate to God is ancient.  We have no idea what those early humans in Spain thought about life after death; they were not yet writing down anything.  These were pre-Neanderthals.

As humans evolved and spread over the globe we developed innumerable ways of thinking of God or the gods, or some divine realm.   The variety is so vast it is hard to say much about what all the different religions share in common, but a sense that we are related to a world beyond this one, some kind of transcendence beyond this life, seems to be ubiquitous.

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This is, for us, Trinity Sunday.  We Christians have come to understand God as One, not many, so we are monotheists, not polytheists.  That much we share along with Jews and Muslims.   But unlike them, Christians describe this one God as existing also as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

How does that work out?  Honestly, for me, this is where theology can go off the rails.  Historically, church councils were called, and, using a combination of bible verses and neo-Platonic (Greek) philosophical categories, they defined the Trinity.  They then summarized it all in creeds that have become ossified orthodoxy: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and their descendants.   It is as if they really believed that if you used philosophical words like substance, essence, and nature, and said phrases like “begotten, not made” and “hypostatic union,” you could make the idea of three being one and one being three less than what it is: a complete mystery.  But it remains a mystery.

Far better, I think, is to do theology the way the bible itself does it, as a story.  The story of the experience of God.  We are going to look at these biblical stories, and then ask the question: how do you and I experience God?  And how can our experience of God be richer, life-giving, even healing and transformative for us?

Isaiah’s Throne Room Vision

by Luke Allsbrook
by Luke Allsbrook

First let us look at Isaiah’s famous story of his vision of God.  It is throne room vision.  He says,

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”

When the human king died, Isaiah saw another king sitting on a royal throne, exalted, and magnificent.  What does he see?  Being a mortal human he sees very little; the Divine king is so enormous that the very hem of his robe filled the entire temple.

So the only thing left to describe are the semi-divine angelic beings, the flaming ones, and the smoke-filled, shaking  temple they inhabit.

This mystical vision of God on a throne, and Ezekiel’s too, of God on a moving throne with wheels within wheels, gave rise to a form of Jewish mysticism called Throne mysticism.  Some (e.g. J. S. Spong) say that the writer of the gospel of John bears affinities with this mystical and spiritual approach to God.  It is in John’s mystical gospel that we hear Jesus tell the woman at the well,

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4:24)

As Spirit, God is overwhelming to us humans.  So, we feel a sense of awe, even fear; we are encounter the three-times-Holy presence.  Isaiah reacts to the vision, saying,

“Woe is me!

And yet he stays with the vision.  He is fascinated as well as afraid at the mystery he experiences.  And as the mystical vision continues, he hears the voice of God addressing  him.  This is where he experiences his calling to be a prophet.  God may be terrifying because God is so holy, so divine, but God is not out to hurt Isaiah.  Instead, God tells him to go out and prophesy so that the people might repent of their injustice and infidelity to God.  Isaiah hears the call and responds,

 “Here am I; send me!”

So the experience we read about in this biblical story is an experience of a powerful, overwhelming divine presence that is oriented positively, not negatively to people, even in our human fallible condition.

Isaiah sensed his unworthiness to be in God’s presence.  He described himself as a man of “unclean lips” not unlike his people.  This too is our experience of God: we sense a separation.  Even in moments of awe, we long for the gap between us and God to be closed.  We long for union, almost like a feeling of home-sickness, as if our separateness were fundamentally, somehow, unnatural.  We long for re-connection; for reunion.

The word “religion” actually comes from re + ligament: to re-attach, to reconnect, so that what was separate becomes one.  That is not unlike the root definition of Yoga which means to unite, to attach.

This is our quest.  To become re-connected with our sacred Source; to be one with God.  This story from Isaiah shows us that this is possible, and in fact, this is what God wants for us; to respond to his call; to lean back and trust that God is good, that God is for us, that God wills what is healing and restorative for us, and to simply say in response to God’s call,

“Here am I”  

I wonder if you are reminded of the way the virgin Mary echoes this response at her calling saying,

 “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

John’s Mystical Gospel

by Henry Ossawa Tanner
by Henry Ossawa Tanner

So we turn from Isaiah’s mystical throne vision to John’s mystical gospel.  We read a story in which a character named Nicodemus engages Jesus in a conversation about God and humans and how we relate to each other.  The story opens in the darkness of night.

The scene follows a pattern that John uses throughout his version of the Jesus-story.  Jesus says something, people take him to mean something literal, so Jesus corrects them with a spiritual meaning; an enlightenment.  The Samaritan woman at the well, for example, thinks Jesus is talking about literal water, and notices he has no bucket.  But he helps her to think spiritually – he is the source of living water, spiritually quenching a spiritual thirst.

Similarly, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the kingdom of God that no one can enter without being born again.  The word “again” is a pun. It also means “from above.”  Nicodemus, still in the dark, takes Jesus literally and asks about a grown man being born as babies are born – a ridiculous thing to consider for all kinds of reasons.  But Jesus corrects him using the pun: he means, not “born again,” like a baby, but born “from above;” born spiritually.  Jesus says,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”Screen Shot 2015-05-30 at 10.18.28 AM

God is Spirit, and re-connecting with God requires a spiritual life, not just a physical life.  This is the enlightenment Nicodemus needs.

And just like Isaiah discovered, so Jesus makes it clear that God’s motivation is goodness and love, not condemnation and wrath.

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now I know that is nearly impossible to hear the words “eternal life” without thinking of heaven, sitting up there on a cloud somewhere with the angels, but let us allow John to mean what he means.

In John we hear Jesus pray for his disciples.  In his prayer, we hear him define what “eternal life” means for him.  He says to God the Father,

“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

So “eternal life” begins now.  Life reconnected with God; knowing God.  It is life as it was meant to be lived.

And how do we know God?  As Christians, we know God through Jesus.  Jesus shows us a life in which God’s life is fully integrated.  Every moment he lives in the presence of the Spirit of God.  He lives a life of trust, which is life-giving and healing for those he meets.  He so trusts God that he is even willing to endure pain and suffering, knowing that he is in God’s good and loving hands.  His trust gives him an open-hearted, welcoming compassion for everyone he encounters.

The Trinity Through Stories

So there we have it all, without the need of Greek philosophical categories. We have, right in this story, the entire Trinity.  God the Father sends Jesus the Son to give us life from above, spiritual life through the Spirit.
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How do you experience God?  These stories work for me.  I sometimes experience God, the one who is awesome, just as Isaiah experienced the King on the throne.  And sometimes I experience God as spiritually present in moments in which I am open to the Spirit, and mindfully present in the moment.  I experience God spiritually in daily silent meditation in which I try to turn off my own flow of mental words and simply attend to the present moment in which God is present by the Spirit.

I experience God when this community gathers in worship and in the sacrament.  I experience the presence of Christ in the broken bread and in the cup that we share together as one, in communion.

And I experience God in the living Jesus whose life is still present to me in compelling and life-giving ways.  I try to say, with Isaiah and with Mary,

“here am I; let it be with me according to your words” or the short form; “I am here in this moment, let it be.”

Compassionate Consequences

So what does it mean that we experience God as Spirit, whom we know through the living presence of Christ?  It means that we see the world with Christ-like compassion.

So we grieve for our violent history – for the fact that you can dig up evidence of a murder that was committed 430,000 years ago.  It means we grieve for every case of human evil and the suffering it causes.

We grieve when people discriminate against each other and when they shoot each other.

We feel compassion for people who have taken to the sea to escape suffering and persecution, only to be abandoned by their traffickers, left without food or water.

Our compassion compels us to act with whatever means we can.  When people are shooting each other out of racism, compassion compels us to work for a more just society, to demand reforms, and to hold people accountable.  We support laws that bring equal treatment to every person without discrimination.

The spiritual becomes political, because compassion without justice is simply sentimentality (as Ammon Hennacy has said).

We are not called to sentimentality.  We are called to live as people who have been born from above, born again, by the Spirit of God.  And like Isaiah and like Mary, even perhaps like Nicodemus, we are called to bring our Trinitarian spirituality into the world as it is, the world of pain and suffering, with the hope of eternal life – life knowing the God who loves us and who redeems us through Jesus.

Trinitarian spirituality is a mystery we will not solve with a non-contemplative mind.  But it is a spirituality that we can live, compassionately, every day.


The Spirituality of Truth

The Spirituality of Truth

Sermon for the Day of Pentecost, Year B, May 24, 2015 on Acts 2:1-21 and John 15:26; 16:12-14

  “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.

 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.18.57 PM

My son was just home for a brief visit recently after completing his freshman year at university as a chemistry major. It did not take him three minutes into an explanation of some of the things he was learning to make me feel completely ignorant; and that is after freshman year! I took a lot of history in college, but precious little science. My last chemistry class was so long ago it began with instruction in how to use a slide rule. But that was the transitional moment. After Christmas break that year, the wealthier kids returned to school with expensive calculators. How the world had changed!

We are living in a time of knowledge explosion. I have heard more than one of us complain that our smart phones are smarter than we are. How true. If you feel that the pace and enormity of change happening all around is dizzying, you are in good company.

This is a transitional time in the world. Ideas and beliefs that had seemed settled and fixed now often seem up for grabs. What is reliably true? Where do we turn for solid footing in our quest for truth?

This is Pentecost Sunday, in which we celebrate the outpouring of the Spirit of God. This is a perfect moment to talk about truth, because Jesus, in John’s gospel, calls the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth.” Let us reflect on that for a moment.

All Truth is God’s TruthScreen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.22.37 PM

The foundation of everything else I will say today is this: All truth is God’s truth. If it is true, then it is true for God. If it is true, it is not a surprise to God, it is not an embarrassment to God, and it is not a problem to God.

So, the structure of a benzine molecule that my son was describing to me is not a mystery to God, as it still is to me. If the structure of that molecule is what it is because of a long process of evolution, that is not a surprise to God either, even though it took us a long time to figure it out.

But it did take us a long time to figure it out, did it not? And there are still huge areas of knowledge that are yet to be understood. If you have ever tried to read what scientists are saying about the universe, you know that our lack of knowledge is astounding.

Scientists at NASA  tell us that 68% of the universe is comprised of dark energy, 27% of dark matter, and only 5% of normal matter like planets and stars, and we do not know what dark energy or matter are.

The point is that God knows what dark energy and dark matter are. He will not be shocked by it as humans may be one day when we figure it out. All truth is God’s truth.

God is not surprised by discoveries we make in biology, in psychology, or in sociology. So, God does not have the problem we have, as humans. That problem is that we have to live with the limitations of our current knowledge. We do not yet know how to predict the landfall of the next hurricane, or what its intensity will be, so we build our little houses all up and down the coast, and hope for the best.

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There are disturbing truths that are hard to bear. I love the frank honest of the text from John in which Jesus acknowledges this human foible,

 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

I take it that those 12 men were not able to bear the truth that women were their equals. I believe they could not bear to imagine a world without hierarchical family structures or one that had eliminated slavery.

Sometimes, discoveries disturb us. We actually do not want to know. We did not want to hear that the earth was not the center of the solar system, because that upset our sense of being at the center of God’s world. We did not want to hear that there were invisible germs making us sick.

Many people today will flatly deny what the entire scientific consensus has proof for because for them, it is simply unbearable, like the effects of climate change.

But the beauty of this text is the hope for change in the future; hope that there will be a time when unbearable truth becomes bearable; the impossible will become possible. Jesus says,

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”

On this Pentecost Sunday, it is good to celebrate the truths that the Spirit has guided us to learn and to embrace.

Pentecost: The Word Comes to the PeopleScreen Shot 2015-05-22 at 9.21.39 PM

The book of Acts tells the story of the outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. This is so beautiful. Pentecost was a regular Jewish holiday celebrated at the time of the harvest. But the original moment being celebrated was the giving of the law, the Torah on mount Sinai.

The Jewish people had been slaves under Pharaoh’s empire, but had escaped on the night of the Passover. According to the story, fifty days later, on the other side of the Red Sea, Moses came down the mountain with Torah. So, Pentecost celebrated the giving of the Word of God to the Jewish people; Hebrew letters written on stone tablets.

So far, this is a story of one people, one family, one nation. If you remember the original story of the promise God made to Abraham, centuries before Moses, you know that the promise was that Abraham’s descendants would eventually bring blessing to the entire world. God says to Abraham,

“in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12)

The prophet Joel picked up on this worldwide promise, which is the text Peter quoted from in his Pentecost sermon.

“this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh’”

And what happened? Now, instead of God’s word coming in Hebrew to one nation, everyone is hearing the Spirit-inspired words in their own languages. And who is included? Jewish people living in the diaspora as far away to the west as Egypt and to the east as Mesopotamia, but also and importantly, to non-Jewish people, including Arabs and Greeks!

The truth that the Spirit of truth was leading them into was the truth that God’s love and grace has no ethnic or racial limitations. God’s message of reconciliation has no boundaries, no borders.

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For most of those Jewish disciples, this was a truth they were unable to bear. It took Paul to fully embrace the truth and to go to the non-Jewish world with the message of the gospel.

I love how he sums up his mission, as a ministry of announcement that in Jesus, God was at work reconciling the world to God’s self,

“God, …reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5)

The Spirit in a Global Village

One of the dramatic changes taking place in this time of transition in the world is that the world is shrinking. Air travel, economic globalization, the internet, and instant access to news and information from across the globe, has put the world literally in our hands.

We carry our smart phones around, and without even leaving Facebook we watch video of the buildings falling in during the earthquake in Nepal. We see ISIS smashing crosses from churches in Iraq. We see Rohingya people stuffed like sardines into the bottom of boats escaping persecution in Myanmar.

Now, instead of being distant and exotic mysteries, these people have become our global neighbors. Muslims are our neighbors; both Sunni and Shia. Buddhists and Hindus are part of our world.

Pentecost Questions

The question of Pentecost today, with its message of the globalization of the work of the Spirit, is about how much truth we will be able to bear. Will we, in our generation, be able to bear the idea that the circle of the work of God’s Spirit is wider than the circumference of the church?

Can we actually take on board the vision of Joel, for whom the Spirit was for all flesh, and the ministry of Paul for whom God was reconciling the world through Christ?Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 8.25.41 PM
Can we accept that when people of other faiths report experiences of God, they are authentic? Can we, who experience the Spirit through Jesus, bear to allow that others’ experience the Spirit outside the context of religious structures?

Can we even embrace a holistic concept of the universe that understands that matter and energy are forms of the same cosmic stuff, making the distinction between the physical and spiritual world difficult to maintain? So that experiencing God in the bread and the cup at communion is as likely as experiencing God through the lens of the Hubble telescope?

Celebrate the Spirit of Truth

Today, we celebrate Pentecost; the birthday of the church. We celebrate our Christian tradition that has given us a vision of a loving God of grace, a worldwide message of reconciliation, and a Spirit-led hope for the future. We celebrate the church that gathers to bear witness to the ongoing power of the Spirit to make us, who were strangers to each other, into a family of caring and a community of mutuality; the impossible made possible.

On Pentecost we celebrate the Spirit that is present to us personally, as we pray and meditate in silence, as we worship, as we do yoga, and as we live our days in mindfulness. And we celebrate the Spirit that is so powerfully present to us as a gathered community in the church.

This church gathering is where we take courage to embrace truths that are difficult to bear. And with renewed courage, we then ask the necessary followup questions: what is our role in this new global village?

What should our relationship be to people of other faiths or to no religious attachments? Can we love our Muslim neighbors? Can we accept that the Spirit is at work in the lives of non-religious people? Can we be open to the Spirit of truth continuing to guide us into all truth, believing that all truth is God’s truth? This is our hope and our prayer.


On Not Abandoning the God Quest: to the Gradutates of the class of 2015

Gulf Shores High School Baccalaureate Service

Graduation is the modern equivalent of a rite of passage.  Whether you are staying at home and working or going to a Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.48.14 PMcommunity college, and all the more so if you are leaving home for college or military service, graduation from high school is like stepping over a line into new territory.  You may or may not feel fully adult, but the world will treat you differently from now on.

When my son came home from college for the first time, we had an awkward moment.  After a nice supper back together, he said he was going out to hang out with some friends, so I asked who he would be with, and when he would be back.  Then after an brief pause it occurred to me that this old habit of mine was a bit pathetic now.  For the past few months he was away at school and I never knew who he was with or when he got back to the dorm.  He left behind  that old world of daddy and mommy needing to know and approve everything, and it was gone.  So, I said, “Never mind, just be safe, and try not to wake up your mother when you get in.”

Leaving Behind

You are going to be leaving behind a lot, very soon.  Many of you are going out of town.  You will leave behind your parents, your community, your friends, the teachers and coaches and pastors who know you by name.  Even those not leaving town will have left the cocoon of high school.  The fact that lots of others have left town will make the town you stay in different.  The old one is left behind.

But you have done this a lot, already.  You have already left the tooth fairy behind, probably by third grade.  You left behind Santa Clause long ago.  And you have left behind the silly notion that you can get through life without having your heart broken.  You have grown up.  That is good.

Speaking of God

At graduation Tuesday you are going to hear speeches that will typically encourage you to “go out with courage” to “follow your dreams” and “be all you can be.”  That is fine, but they will not talk about God, so this is our one chance.  I need to take it.

A year from now, according to all the trends, some of you who believe in God now, will be calling yourselves atheists.  You will have concluded that God needs to be left behind just like the Tooth Fairy and Santa Clause.  This is my one shot to talk about that.

Please don’t do that.  At least don’t do that yet.  Why not?  Because it is just not humanly possible in one short school year to have processed everything you need to process to get to that conclusion.

The gods to Leave Behind

Here is what I mean.  I do think it is true that there are many versions of god that need to be left behind.  As children we thought of God like a big parent in the sky, making rules, watching us all the time, and ready, like dad and mom were, to punish us for breaking them.  That is a childish view of God that really needs to stay in the box with the dolls and little league glove.

I think it is important to leave behind the God who carries the pom poms and wears the jersey of my team, as if God were a white, middle class American from Gulf  Shores, whose job was to help his favorites, who are, of course, us.  The concept of tribal deities was supposed to go away when Moses brought monotheism down Mt. Sinai, along with the ten commandments and the concept that God made everyone in God’s image.  As fun as it is to think of God as cheering for our team, it just fails the adequacy test.  If there is a god, he cannot be that small-minded and parochial

I also think it is crucial to leave behind the wrathful, vengeful god who is dangling the human race out over the lake of hellfire, where most of them will end up suffering torture forever.   That kind of sadistic God may work for the homophobic angry people who disrupt the funerals of fallen soldiers, but if he exists, he is a moral monster, unworthy of anybody’s worship or praise.  That God needs to be left back at the not-yet-succesfull potty-training stage.

Also important to leave behind is the idea that religion and God are the same thing, so that disliking one is the same as disbelieving in the other.  You may need to evolve away from organized religious institutions that no longer help your growing quest – and that is fine.  But God is not housed in any church, or temple, or institution, not in Gulf Shores, or Rome, or Mecca, or anywhere on earth.

In fact the truth is that any serious book on theology, from Moses to Maimonides and from  Augustine to Calvin and Luther, and including Confucius, Buddha and the Upanishads speak of the essential unknowability of God, in the first chapter.

The Quest is Yours

So, this is the point where I relieve the tension by laying out, in simple terms, how to adequately conceive of God, so you will not cling to childish or destructive beliefs, on the one hand, and be saved from atheism, on the other, right?

Sorry, but I cannot do that for you, and neither can anyone else.  My plea today, is just to stay with the quest.  Keep asking questions.  The more you learn, the better your questions will become.  Keep them coming.  But give yourself time.

It take time even to consider the options; in fact time just to learn what the options are.  For example, it would be silly to be an atheist who gave up on traditional theism without at least hearing about panentheism, anatheism, or about process theologies that embrace an entirely different view of ontology – and I know you have not had the chance to learn what those terms mean yet, but that is my point.  Let the quest be long enough to at least give it a good shot. Don’t abandon the game after the first quarter.

The God of Jesus

But I will leave you with what I hope is at least some positive help.  I am a Christian.  That means that for me, even if I have trouble conceiving of God’s essence, at least I can look at Jesus.  All Christians, from Baptists to Catholics and including Methodists and Presbyterians and everyone else, all agree on one theological point: that Jesus shows us God.

So, God must be at least as nice as Jesus.  God must be at least as interested in humans as Jesus was.  God must be at least as open to foreigners as Jesus was to Roman soldiers and Samaritan women.  God must be at least as compassionate as Jesus when he saw hungry people and fed them, when he encountered sick people and healed them, when he took the time to teach his confused disciples his way of forgiving enemies and turning the other cheek, and his non-violent commitment to justice.

If Jesus shows us God, then God must be for us, not against us.   God must be there for us, even in our doubt, even in our failure, and even in times when life breaks our hearts.

But the quest to know this God is difficult.  Maybe the most profound words in the whole bible are Jesus’ words from the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  If God is a difficult issue for you, or if in this next year God becomes a difficult issue for you, and sometimes even seems impossible, my friends, you are in good company.

The second best line in the bible might well be  the one the man with the sick child said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!

I believe; help my unbelief!”  – wow.  What a statement!  What a prayer!

So, class of 2015, congratulations for getting to this moment, this rite of passage.  May the God we see in Jesus bless you as you leave behind childish things, and step over the line into adulthood.  And may God “in whom we live and move and have our being,” give you the grace to keep growing in spirit and in truth.

The Breath of Every Human Being

The Breath of Every Human Being

Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B, May 17, 2015 on John 17:6-19

Job 12:7-10
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you;
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
that the hand of the LORD has done this?
In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.

John 17:6-19
[Jesus said:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.”Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.42.46 PM

If I were God, I would have slowed down that Amtrak train before it got to the bend in Philadelphia where it derailed and killed and injured all those passengers.  I am sure all of us feel that way.

If I were God, I would have prevented that man on the motorcycle from killing the pedestrian in Foley recently.  I would have put the idea in his head: “Hey, I better slow down; this is dangerous.”

I guess if I were God I would act to prevent all evil and suffering in the world.  Earthquakes would not happen in places where people lived, like in Nepal.

Helicopters carrying people trying to rescue earthquake victims there would not crash.  Boats carrying desperate, men, women and children, away from horrific violence and hopelessness would not sink and drown them in the Mediterranean.

I have been thinking about these ideas quite a bit because I am going to be addressing the GSHS graduating class at the Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.48.14 PMBaccalaureate service here this afternoon.  I have been reflecting on the trends we keep hearing about, the increase in the number of people, especially young people, who have given up on institutional religion, and the growing number who identify as non-religious and even atheists.  Certainly the age-old problem of suffering and evil plays a huge role in the demise of faith.

And there are other causes at work as well.  One recently published paper has linked decline in religious faith with the divorce rate.  The connection between divorce and loss of faith may not seem obvious at first, but psychologically, it seems well established.  Apparently if children loose their confidence in the credibility and reliability of their parents at an early age, they tend to stop seeking any meaning outside their own ability to sort things out.  (source: Losing My Religion: Why People Are REALLY Leaving the Church (It’s not what you think.)

In addition, people in mixed marriages involving different faiths, which second marriages often are, find common ground in practicing neither, increasing the likelihood that children will grow up without religious roots. I am not arguing against mixed-faith marriages, only pointing out one of the frequent consequences.

So if I were God, maybe I would do some intervening to keep marriages together and healthy.  Maybe I would put the idea in the heads of people “You know, maybe I am partly at fault here too; maybe I should practice forgiveness instead of ruminating on my own righteousness.”  It does not seem like such a huge task for God, right?

Or how about God tweaking the brain functions of people with mental illness – just a bit?  Not a lot to ask, right?  And yet the change could be profoundly good.

But God does not do these kinds of interventions against suffering and evil.

The holocaust is still in living memory for some here today.  So is the suffering of millions at the hands of Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Cultural Revolution in China, the genocides of Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia, and the uncounted tens of thousands of Iraqi’s who died because of the mistaken intelligence we believed, that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction.

This is not a new problem.  It was death and destruction the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 that motivated Voltaire to write is bitterly satirical Candide, in which  he lambastes then notion of philosophers such as Leibniz who said that logically, if God exists, then this is the best of all possible worlds.  Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.52.11 PM

The no God option

How do we respond?  Or rather, how do we adequately respond?  The most basic response is to say that all of this evil and suffering simply demonstrates that there is no God at all, at least not a good one who possesses the  power enough to do things in the world.

According to this way of thinking, the world is just a material universe, formed by randomness and chance over long periods of time, without any intention, purpose, will or memory.  Things just happen.  That is all.  We should grow up and stop wishing Daddy was up there watching over us.

But though that does answer the question, “why do bad things happen?”, it completely fails to account for the problem of why we find them bad.  What difference should it make to us that random things happen to material creatures?   Fish die; mosquitoes die.  People die too.

But it does matter.  And much more matters as well.  It matters that we believe that we have a reason to be here.  It matters that our lives have purpose.  It matters that values are real, that love is real, that goodness and justice are real, and that we are not here as pure accidents of time and matter in a meaningless material universe.

It matters that we feel wonder and awe at the stars, at the clouds, at the ocean, at the birth of a baby, at music, art and literature.  Dance matters.  Rituals matter.  Beauty matters.

Theism, or?Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.54.21 PM

So, what do we do.  The idea that there is a God just makes the evil and suffering of the world completely incomprehensible.  The idea that there is no God makes the meaning of our lives incomprehensible.  Where do we go with this?

One possible path is in finding sufficient reasons to remain open to a second naiveté.  The first naiveté of childhood was simply innocent faith that the world was good.  In a normal home in normal circumstances, we can believe that we are loved and valued, that our lives are important to other people, and that trust, love and security are offered.

But that view really is naive, and most people eventually leave it behind as adults.  Along the way, some become cynics, some even become utterly disillusioned, even depressed.  Most of us find a way to cope in a space between having our eyes wide open to the badness on the evening news, on the one hand, and the need to get up in the morning and fix breakfast and go to work for the sake of the family on the other.

But can we go from the undoing of the first innocent naiveté to faith in spite of evident, and even overwhelming evil?

The End of Analogies as Adequate

Probably the only path open, if there is to be a second naiveté, has to involve a humble confession that our God-analogies are utterly inadequate.  We know that God’s essence is unknowable, but we have always attempted to understand God by analogies.

God is like the sun, but only in some ways.  God is like a powerful king, but only in some respects.  God is like a husband, for Hosea, or like a fire in which precious metal is refined for Micah.  God is like an almost indescribable creature with faces and eyes and wings on a mobile throne of wheels within wheels for Ezekiel, if that analogy is helpful to anyone.

Or, God is like a Monarch in the heavens who, in his role as judge of the world, has to find a punishment for every crime, which he always takes as personal affronts to his authority, and in the end, needs blood sacrifice to assuage his righteous wrath.  This was the view current in Jesus’ day, that Jesus reacted to.

Jesus and the analogy of God as FatherScreen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.58.01 PM

For Jesus, the analogy of Father was a necessary counter to that judge analogy.  As  Father, God wants the best for his children.  As Father, God provides for his children a good earth to live on and to enjoy.  As Father, God plays fair with all of his children, causing the sun to rise and the rain to fall on the evil and the good.

As Father, God expects his children to get along with each other, care for each other, look out for each other, and to look beyond each others differences and to know each other as one family.

The Father analogy is a happy one, and a great improvement over the vengeful blood-hungry-judge analogies of the past.  The Father analogy allows us to think of God as for us, instead of against us.

Thinking of God as Father includes paying attention to his instructions and directions which include the requirement that we forgive each other, turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and even touch lepers with healing mercy.

The Father analogy gives us a God we can love instead of merely fearing, and gives us a family to love and in which to receive love.

Limits of the Father Analogy

But the Father analogy only makes all the suffering and evil all that much more difficult to understand.  If God is a Father who cares, then certainly he would do something, right?  But he doe not.

So we must humbly admit that every analogy breaks down.  God is very much like a Father in many respects, but very unlike any Father we know.

Trying to capture in human terms what the God of the quantum universe is like perhaps is a fool’s errand with no possibility of an adequate conclusion.

A Mystical Approach: the question of Being Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 2.32.42 PM

And this, finally, brings us to the texts we read today.  John’s gospel is unique in the New Testament, because it uses the language and lenses of mysticism.  Mysticism means embracing mystery.

The mystery that we are wrestling with is the mystery of being itself.  How do we conceive of God’s being?  Is it even adequate to think of God as a being separate from the universe, like a creator-spectator, deciding when and where to intervene or to ignore?

Perhaps it is that concept of God as separate and detached from the universe that is at the root of the problem.  Would it be possible to conceive of God as in-process with the unfolding universe, both its source and a participant?

Relating to God: the 2nd Naiveté

Well this is a huge topic, but we are still left with the question of our relationship with God, however we might conceive of God’s being.

And this is where the mysticism of the gospel of John can help.  If God is the source of the cosmos, the divine Logos, as John presents him, whatever else may be said, God, the source, became flesh.  God is fully engaged with humanity.  As Tony Jones recently explained, “God jumped into the deep end with us” and is fully involved in our human life — up to and including suffering and death.

And yet, John’s gospel is the one that says it in the most plain language: “God is Spirit.”  So we are left with a mystery; a conundrum: God became flesh and God is Spirit.

It would take a quantum physicist to explain how matter and energy are actually part of the same basic stuff of the universe; or perhaps a mystic.  Dualistic thinking in either-or categories of flesh vs. spirit, soul vs. body, are simply inadequate.

So, John tries to grasp, with words, a way to describe the relationship of humans to  the divine with phrases of relationship, of will, direction, purpose, and of ultimate unity.

[Jesus said:] “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word…. All mine are yours, and yours are mine…”

Job, centuries before had said,

In his hand is the life of every living thing
and the breath of every human being.”

However we conceive of the being of God, we are offered the second naiveté of trust that God is fully for us.  That we are made for a purpose and that God is somehow involved in the unfolding of that purpose.

The text from John acknowledges evil and in the prayer of Jesus, asks God’s protection from evil.

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

But in John’s gospel, even Jesus, the word-made-flesh dies a cruel death at the hands of grossly unjust and evil people.

The mystery of evil is still a mystery.  And the mystery of God’s being is still a mystery.  But how are we going to get on with life in this world of train wrecks, earth quakes and mental illness?

We will live into the possibility that God, who is Spirit, can be encountered mystically.  We who are Christians, will take the Jesus-path into that mystery.  We will suspend our cynicism and doubt enough to let in the possibility that the things that matter are real: that love is real, that goodness is real, that we are hard-wired for wonder, and that we are created to respond to beauty.

We will hear Jesus call us, and send us just has he understood himself as sent by God, into a world of evil, on behalf of the good.  And we will accept the essential truth of our unity, despite our surface differences, in spite of the unanswered questions we are left with.  And we will live as if, when all is said and done, love wins.


Mother-tough Love

Mother-tough Love

Sermon on John 15:9-17 for the 6th Sunday in Easter, Year B, May 10, 2015 (Mother’s Day)

John 15:9-17
[Jesus said:] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 8.57.51 AM

You might think I chose texts about love because this is Mother’s Day in our country, but I did not; the text from John’s gospel is the lectionary text for today.  Mother’s Day is not a religious holiday, but a wonderful one for most people.  All of us have mothers who gave us life at great personal cost.  Most of us had mothers who loved and cared for us over many years.

Mothering is tough work.  Characteristically, mothers are resilient and resourceful people.  They have had to put up with quite a bit to get us from where we started into responsible adulthood.  I know I gave my mother plenty of challenges.  But mother-love is typically tough enough for the task.

So, the text we read was not chosen as a mother’s day text, but it is a tough-love text, so it is fitting for today.

John’s Mystical Gospel and Jesus Farewell Speech

We read from the Gospel of John.  John’s gospel is quite different from the others in many ways.  One is that Jesus, as John presents him, makes several long speeches.  So long, in fact, that I know I would hear from you if I read the whole speech we read a part of.  It would take us past lunch time for sure.  So we just read a part of it today, but somehow we will have to try to hear the whole context to understand the meaning for us.Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.23.25 AM

The setting of this long speech is the night of Jesus’ arrest.  It begins in the famous “upper room.”  There is a sense of finality in this moment, like a last will and testament speech of an aged patriarch on his deathbed.  In fact Jesus, though a young man, predicts his death and departure in this speech, and his disciples are somber, if not shaken, by that prospect.

In this context, Jesus prepares them, and those after them who would form the new community of Christians, for life without his physical presence.  Consider what a challenging task this is.  Not only will the community Jesus has formed need to survive in the future without his personal presence – which will be challenging enough – they will also have to learn to live with each other, and with an expanding circle of “others” who have no natural bonds of family or clan.

In fact, they are all, soon, going to be a community of people who have tragically abandoned Jesus – not exactly the common bond that would create a healthy community.  And they are going to expand into the Roman empire across many boundaries.  What will Jesus leave them with to prepare them for this uncertain future?  Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.44.37 AM

In this long speech Jesus spends a good deal of time speaking of the Spirit of God who will be present to them, like a counselor, or comforter, or advocate – it is hard, by one word, to say all that he means.  The idea is clearly that the presence and ministry of the Spirit, in Jesus’ impending absence, is helpful, supportive, and even indispensable.

Indispensable also, in Jesus’ physical absence, is personal spirituality – each person having a living attachment to God, pictured as a branch attached to a fruitful vine.

The fruit born of this spiritual connection is love; tough love that is willing to do as Jesus will soon do: embrace suffering on behalf of the beloved.  Love willing to embrace the complicated “others” with all of their faults and differences.

New Testament scholar John Shelby Spong has taught us to view John’s gospel as a mystical text (The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic).  Mysticism simply opens the door to mystery; the inexpressible; the delicate, gossamer truths that ham-fisted language can only point towards clumsily, from a distance.  Not surprisingly, mystical texts follow non-linear paths which lead to paradox and conundrums.  Nevertheless they speak, and point, and lead us into the deep waters of the Spirit.

Conundrums & Paradox

In our text today we hear Jesus say he has made known to his disciples everything that he has heard from his father.  Yet, in the same speech, just a bit further down, he says

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” 

Paradox remains.

Prayer too is similarly paradoxical.  All of us experience the conundrums of prayer.  Jesus seems to make prayer automatically successful: ask anything in his name and “the check is in the mail.”  But what mother has not prayed for her children, apparently in vain?  Who among us has not wondered if anyone is listening at all to our prayers, so sketchy are the results?

And yet, on the other hand, what Christian lives without prayer?  Which of us is a stranger to the uncanny and the serendipitous, to the point that we wonder, “are there any coincidences?”

The point is, in the absence of Jesus’ physical presence, keep asking.  Keep the connection alive.

Spirituality in Community

Jesus’ method for fully disclosing “the Father” as Person is himself as a person: the Jesus-life of constant communion with God, as he says, “abiding” in God, is the model.  Jesus lived life in awareness that each moment is a moment of sacred contact.   Sacred, but not solitary contact; not monastic isolation, but sacred contScreen Shot 2015-05-09 at 10.56.01 AMact in the context of others; a community.

The Jesus of conscious mindful communion with God is the Jesus who rises from the table that night in the upper room, takes the towel, and like a servant, washes dusty feet.

This is why this meandering soliloquy weaves in and out of personal spirituality and communal concerns.  Jesus teaches us that the life of the Spirit is life abiding in God, the life of personal spirituality. Like a branch on a vine bears fruit, the person of deeply connected spirituality bears fruit.  The fruit, the payoff, is not reaching personal enlightenment, but rather, a life of love.  The internal work of the Spirit has a purpose that moves the spiritual person out of the room of private prayer and into the world of others, the only place love can be given and received.

Tough Love

The love that the spiritually connected person lives is tough love.  Love that is tough enough to suffer on behalf of the loved ones.
Spong says,

Love is seen in the ability to be free of survival-driven existence, free to give one’s life away.”  (p. 172).

This is the kind of love Jesus showed for his disciples – even to the point of death.  This love was tough enough to withstand the ugly facts of the human condition.  Jesus’ love was for real people, with all of their baggage, their selfish hopes to be in power on his left and right, their misunderstandings and doubts, their resistance to being loved, and even tough enough to endure the expectation of their immanent spineless betrayal later that evening.

Union; Oneness

Love that tough, produces a union.  Jesus expresses it as his own sense of union with the Father and with his disciples.  How can human words express this?  John says Jesus dwells in the Father and the Father dwells in Jesus.  The disciples dwell in God and God dwells in them.  They are then mystically connected to each other and therefore, obligated to love each other in the most tough, self-sacrificial of ways.

In other words, as Spong says it,

God is experienced as present in us, in our freedom to escape our needs and to give ourselves away to one another.”  ( p. 174)

This is the cathedral that Jesus built: God becomes present, not in architecture, but incarnate, en-fleshed in resilient othering.

God in the Other

This is exactly what Jesus had demonstrated in his life.  “God is Spirit” Jesus says, in John’s gospel.  The occasion was in an encounter  with “otherness.”  Jesus was in the non-Jewish territory of Samaria where there was no love lost between Jews and Samaritans.  And, Jesus was speaking to a woman, another category of otherness.  To top it off, the woman was notoriously morally deficient.  It was the famous “woman at the well” story.

In that context of an encounter with the “other” with a stranger, Jesus’ openness to her created a context in which God was present.  The impossible became possible.  Reconciliation followed.

I just heard the story of a teenage woman in Nigeria whose village was attacked by the terrorists of Boko Haram.  She saw two abandoned babies whose Christian mother and father were taken hostage.  Though she is a Muslim, she took it upon herself to be the surrogate mother to those children.

Later, she and the babies were also captured by the militants.  So tough and resilient was her love for them that she even refused an opportunity to escape that would have required abandoning them.

She was among those hundreds of women and children recently freed by the Nigerian army.  She said she loves those children with all her heart, and yet she prays for the day when they might be reunited with their biological parents, if and when they are found alive and free.

The Double ChallengeScreen Shot 2015-05-09 at 11.21.16 AM

This is not only a great example of a God-moment of embrace of otherness, of love tough enough to transcend symbolic barriers of Muslim and Christian, and even to suffer for that love, it illustrates a critical challenge for us.

How willing are we to accept the call of the love command?  My sincere hope and prayer is that we will be people whose Christian practices of silence, of prayer, of reflection and worship, in other words, those practices that keep us connected with God, like branches on a vine, will produce the fruit of a love so tough it can embrace the other, the stranger, and so encounter God making the impossible, possible in our deeply divided world.

In this time, we are confronted by a plethora of divisions that are being erected constantly in the media and in our political culture.

We are told, at least implicitly, that all Muslims are terrorists whom we should fear and feel free to despise.

We have been made newly aware that systemic racism still exists in our country as a profound and cancerous division.

We are told by some who wish to speak for us  that it is a Christian thing to do to deny equality to gay people.

And on mother’s day, we recall that obstacles still exist for women.  Our country still has glass ceilings and lower pay scales for women, and a dearth of child care and maternity leave options.

We are called to a higher standard.  Tough love is love that looks squarely in the face of the narrow, often bigoted but publicly accepted version of “the truth,” and proclaims a sacred alternative, even in the face of suspicion and  opposition.  This is our calling; this is our mandate.  To be willing to see oneness where others only find difference.

In that moment of hospitality instead of hostility to the other, when God’s presence is manifest, the result is joy.  Jesus said,

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

It is up to us in the Christian community to hold out a vision of a reconciled world, where love is real, practical, and makes a difference. This is our prayer that we make in Jesus’ name, anticipating that God will grant us an answer.   We become the answer to that prayer when we encounter the Spirit in the guise of the stranger.

Joy is the result.  Communities of welcome and embrace are joyful communities in which love is given and received, and sacred moments are frequent, and where God is fully manifest in the eyes of others, in whom we see Christ.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us:

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of [other’s] faces.

(From “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”)


Oddly enough, The answer is “Yes”

Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, B, May 3, 2015

Genesis 4:8-9
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 the LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 9.33.03 AM

John 15:1-8
Jesus said:] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

I do not know which scenes of the riots in Baltimore that we watched on TV stick with you, but two will not leave my mind.  The one is a helicopter view of a swarm of people, mostly males, it appeared to me, desperate to get into the local liquor store.

The other was the scene of that short, stocky, mother chasing and catching her man-sized adolescent son, whom she recognized, despite his ski-mask.  She repeatedly delivered bare-handed blows to his head, so angry was she that he was a participant in the rioting.  Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 8.02.57 PM

Then I thought of a random article I read years ago in Time magazine, about a problem in Kenya that they were having in the villages on the edges of the great game preserves.  Apparently gangs of adolescent male elephants were marauding and trampling the villagers’ farms and primitive mud-and-thatch homes.  This was unusual behavior for young male elephants; something new was happening.

Upon investigation they discovered that these young males had one thing in common: their mothers had been killed for their ivory, so they were not raised in families.  I never forgot that story.

As I watched the events in Baltimore unfold, and those two scenes of the swarm and the mom  were being re-shown on the media, another story came to mind.  It was from when we were in a seminar for missionaries preparing to be sent overseas.  We were taken to a variety of places around the Chicago-land area to be exposed to different cultures, religions, and ministries.

After visiting a Buddhist temple, an Islamic Center and a Catholic charity, we ended up at a small Lutheran church, literally in Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 8.48.16 PMthe shadows of the surrounding Cabrini Green public housing project.  Pastor Enfield had served that congregation for several decades.  He had performed funerals for more young men who died of gang violence than he ever dreamed possible.

He said that when he was new to the community, as a young white man from the suburbs of Wisconsin, he saw all the young men getting sucked up into gang activity and assumed that he knew already the root cause.  Clearly they were not receiving the kind of proper strict discipline at home that he had received.

But as he was invited up into the high rise projects he began to see for himself how the children were raised.  Often a single mom, who was probably raised without appropriate kinds of discipline herself, scared to death that her son would be unruly and end up another gang-banger, would discipline him by striking and even beating the child for any and every infraction.

By the time these boys were 6 years old, they had no spinal fortitude.  They caved under commanding authority from mom or from whomever.  So, outside, on their asphalt playgrounds, by age 10 the gangs were ordering them to stand watch, and they dutifully obeyed.

Remembering that insight, the scene of the righteous mother in Baltimore, striking her rioting teenager on the head gave me a lot to consider.

How to RespondScreen Shot 2015-05-02 at 10.49.48 AM

What do we do?  How do we respond?  How do people of Christian faith react when we see such scenes?  Should we join the people full of moral outrage?  I have observed plenty of moral outrage on both sides; outrage at the violence and destruction of the rioters;  outrage at the death of another black man at the hands of police.

Or, we could ask, is moral outrage a proper foundation for response?  Brain scientists tell us that outrage comes from our lizard brains; it is an emotional, even visceral response.  A person feeling outrage is not reasoning; certainly is not seeking understanding.

The outraged people on both sides, I have noticed, immediately look for targets to blame.  It is the undisciplined youth who are to blame, or it is the police with authority-issues at fault.  It is race, it is poverty, it is the thugs, it is the system.

Is moral outrage followed by blaming the path of response for people of Christian faith?   Does not our faith inform us and, in fact, call us to a higher standard?  Despite the people with all the outrage who pretend to speak for us as Christians, oddly enough the answer is yes, we are indeed called to a higher standard than simplistic outrage and blame.

Cain’s Question as Starting Point

We start with one of the most basic commitments our faith calls us to live by: the answer to the question of Cain is also “yes.”

“Am I my brothers keeper?

Yes!  Yes I am.   I am my brother’s keeper.  We who shared a common womb have a common bond that cannot be broken.   We who were given birth by Eve, whose name means the “mother of all the living,” are brothers and sisters.  Everyone who shares the breath of life with me has a common mother; we are human, made in the image of God.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Yes, we are.

But are those people swarming the liquor store my brothers?

This is a huge problem for us.  If we pause, take a deep breath, and let go of the moral outrage, we can begin to start asking questions that may lead to insight, maybe even to positive hope.

One of the places we turn is to the people who have studied how we got into this condition as a nation; in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in  New York and LA and in every urban center in our country, including Mobile Alabama.

It turns out that the elephants are growing up without mothers; or without mothers who know how to mother.  Fathers are missing from families.  Jobs, especially well paying manufacturing jobs started disappearing in the 1970’s.  Kids who were not guided by parents to do their homework, who were not encouraged to take the prep classes and aim for college or trade school, wound up without viable opportunities.   And the ones with proper parental guidance, discipline and opportunities, moved a way, never to return.  A huge social fissure was developing.ourKids-singleParent

Long ago we stopped thinking of us as “us”.  Our sense of solidarity and community has been on a steep decline now for years.  We “bowl alone” as social scientist Robert Putnam has shown us.  He has graph after graph – he calls them scissor graphs – illustrating the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in our country.  Like the two sides of the scissors which get further apart the longer they are, our shared space is diminishing.

Am I my brother’s keeper?  I do not ever see him, except on television, when he riots in the street.  I never meet him.  I never drive in his neighborhood.  I do not interact with his parents.  I have no idea what his school looks like, let alone how he interacts with the local police.

But as a person of Christian faith, that is not, that cannot be the last word.  I have been called; we have been called to answer the question “yes!  We are “our brother’s keepers.”  This is foundational for us, not optional.  Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.08.27 AM

We may not have instant answers, but we will not settle for simplistic moral outrage and blame targets.  We will not make the instant assumptions that we already know what is going on and why.

If we begin from a moral emotion, let it be mourning and grief for our brothers and sisters who live in the conditions that we see when the riots turn the spotlight on their communities.  “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus taught us, for they shall be comforted.  The comfort of a solution only comes after grief over the damage done by the problems.  Instead of outrage, we begin with broken hearts.

The Source

But mourning is not an answer, only a feeling.  Where do we go for answers as people of Christian faith?  Where is our source?  What hope do we have that good fruit can grow out of the soil of such toxicity?

In the mystical version of the life of Jesus we read in the gospel of John, we hear  Jesus soliloquize about fruitfulness.

I am the vine, you are the branches,

he tells us.

Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.

This is not soft-headed pious, escapist advice.  This is a call to an alternative set of commitments that changes everything.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower”.

This is where we start.  We are committed to the view that this is the Father’s project; this is God’s world.  We are committed to the perspective that God has certain goals and designs for this world.  God’s will for this world is for fruitfulness, for human flourishing, just as it was in the story of the beginning for Adam and Eve.  The original creation blessing “be fruitful” is God’s will for all breathing life.

So, people of Christian faith are called to continually “abide” in the source of our faith, Jesus, the vine, continually absorbing life-giving nutrients.   The ancient practices of the Christian, daily silent meditation, prayer, reflection, study, worship stewardship and service keep us connected to the source.

The Fruit of CompassionScreen Shot 2015-05-02 at 11.18.21 AM

It is from that place of constant connection we develop the fruit of compassion.  Not partisan compassion, but comprehensive compassion.  Yes, compassion for the immediate victims like Freddie Gray, but also compassion for all of the decent police who put themselves on the line for our safety.

The fruit of compassion extends to all of the people of inner-city Baltimore, and Ferguson, and all the other blighted, hopeless, inner cities in our country where poverty, crime, drugs, violence, unemployment and addiction are now the expected and nearly inevitable outcome.

The fruit of compassion that comes from an abiding attachment to the Jesus-vine produces people who look around and ask, where can I make a difference?

I cannot solve Baltimore’s problems by myself, but, I can ask, “Are there kids who need a mature adult to mentor them right here in Gulf Shores?  Yes, there are.   In fact, Robert Putnam’s recommendation about how to begin to address these tragic social problems includes a call for churches to marshal an army of mentors for at-risk kids.

As people who bear the fruit of compassion, we ask, “Are there  single moms who are nearly desperate to give their kids a fighting chance, right here in our neighborhood?”  Yes there are!

Are there schools that need to be funded at least at current levels instead of less?  Yes there are.

The only outstanding question is, are there people who will live, so attached to the source, to the vine, that they are able to rise above the outrage and blame, and instead, be their brothers’ keepers, bearing the fruit of compassion?

By God’s grace, let the answer for us, be Yes!

We have already made a huge difference in the lives of many kids whom we have tutored over the years.  In these days we are planning a way to help kids work on basic skills like English and math over the summer.  All we need is people willing to step up to the task.

We will never fix the world.  But we can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.  This is our high and holy calling.