Monthly Archives: July 2014

Awesome

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Jacob’s Dream, Adam Elsheimer, 1600 

Genesis 28:10-17

In his dream Jacob is presented with a vision of a ladder. Its bottom rungs are set on the earth, and its top rungs reach right into heaven. Going up and down it freely are God’s messengers, the angels, who in the Bible often take human form, and who are as much at home here with us as they are in paradise with God.

Jacob is mesmerized by this commerce between heaven and earth, by the easy movement of messengers. He even speaks to God, and God speaks to him. In their conversation, they reaffirm the ancient covenants of love, obedience, territory and protection.

This is heady stuff. No wonder that when Jacob wakes up, the first thing he blurts out is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yikes!” He is astounded that “God was in this place,” and even more astounded that he didn’t know that God could be in such a place—astounded and perhaps a little afraid, since if God had indeed been there, in the place where he was sleeping, where else might God have been without his knowing it? Maybe Jacob is wondering now whether he’s been asleep all his life. Maybe now that it is dawning on him that God might be anyplace, and everyplace, he will never be able to sleep again.

“Yikes!” he says, and, overwhelmed with awe, he looks around for something tangible, something big and permanent to mark the place of this stupendous experience, the place where God was at home, which is roughly what the name “Bethel” means, and the name by which that spot eventually became known to later generations. Jacob sets up a stone, and that stone serves as a memorial and as a foundation for the pilgrimage shrine that subsequent generations will build there.

This ancient story about Jacob’s dream is often chosen as the text for dedications of new church buildings. You can see why. We refer, after all, to churches as “houses” of worship, a church is God’s house. As such, church buildings usually have a distinctive feel; the last thing church designers and builders want is to make them ugly and forbidding, such that congregations, upon beholding them, might say, “Surely, God is not in this place!” Rather, they hope people will come into these buildings, look around, and echo Jacob at Bethel, “Surely God was here, is here, could still be here!” Church buildings are like Jacob’s stone, set up for the awed remembrance of a vivid encounter, helping to return people to that experience time and again, and to create the conditions in which new encounters might take place.

As soon as the early Christians were permitted to build buildings for worship, they set out to make them awe-inspiring. They adorned them with marble, alabaster, and shimmering mosaics, all to show that the distance between heaven and earth is not so great; that up through high ceilings, more porous than they appear, angels easily come and go from the feet of God to our feet and back, transacting the business of divine mercy. In those early Roman basilicas, Christians attempted to capture their original experience of the majesty of Christ and the mercy of God, and to help others have it too.

Now, this sort of spiritual aesthetic can get out of hand. We humans tend to stop short of depth in almost everything we do, so that instead of falling in love with the God they point to and whose beauty they try to help us imagine and feel, we fall in love with the gorgeous things and the pleasing rituals with which we adorn our churches. We become preoccupied with the beauty of beauty, and forget its Source and End. And that’s partly why, centuries later, the Puritans decided that instead of aiming to find that necessary awe in church buildings, they would try a little harder to encourage it in church people. It was the people, after all, who were the Body, the congregation, the Spirit’s living temple – called, gathered, sanctified and sent.

For the Puritans, the angels of God came down and went up transacting the business of grace not so much on ladders, but via covenants of mutual affection and accountability, of unity and faithfulness to the gospel journey, covenants freely entered and assented to by free people. Their “ladder” ascended to heaven and descended to earth again not from a sacred piece of beautiful real estate, but from within the union of sincerely-converted hearts; from within consciences bound only to the Word of God and to each other in covenant; and from within a life in the world characterized by responsive, grateful and earnest duty.

So Puritans stripped their buildings and adorned their people – adorned their minds, souls and hearts with the Word of God, presenting to them an awesome vision of God’s otherness and sovereignty, the great and consoling beauty of God’s mysterious will, the “soul-ravishing” love of the Savior, and the transforming, sanctifying work of the Spirit.

This they tried to do through biblical preaching and teaching, the singing of psalms (mind you, no organ and a plain unvarnished melody line), devotional reading, persevering self-examination and frequent mutual counsel and admonition. They did not call the places of worship they constructed “churches,” they called them “meeting houses,” and they kept them plain.

Today, those of us in the Reformed tradition still call the spaces in which we gather ‘meeting houses,’ although many of our sanctuaries are far more ornate and colorful than our ancestors would have approved. We have traveled a long way from their aesthetic sensibilities, as well as from many of the tenets of their theology. Some of our 19th century buildings especially are so adorned that first-time visitors often ask whether they were originally Catholic churches. Those who built them were moved by aesthetic fashion more than theology—people at the time were fascinated with old things, especially medieval European remnants.

Given the ethos of rational moralism in which they lived, the builders of these fancy Protestant buildings may have been hoping, through their rich adornment and massive scale, to be moved, to recover some kind of awe, to elicit some kind of life-changing encounter with mystery, some kind of responsiveness and gratitude on which to draw for their religious lives.

And in the end, that’s the point, isn’t it? No matter whether our churchbuildings are aggressively plain or fine examples of the most ornate Gothic Revival, what matters is that there be people in them in whom God can induce Jacob’s visionary sleep, people who want to dream about strange ladders, transactions of mercy, easy commerce between God and creation, God and us; people who will awake with excitement to testify to the world, “Yikes!” God is in this place; and if in this one, then surely in that one too; and that one; and now I know it, and so can you!”

What matters most is that a church building, ornate or plain, doesn’t become just another stone monument we set up to remember someone else’s experience, while never experiencing anything fresh of our own. What matters is waking up awed ourselves, not enshrining someone else’s awakening. What matters is keeping the ladder up and operating, the access of heaven to us and the access of us to heaven in good working order now.

No matter their style, what matters is that our churches—and by this I mean our congregations—embrace a calling to be awestruck and awesome, that we shape churches in which each action, witness, decision, ministry, bold word and gesture of mutual caring begins in awe and ends in awe; begins in grateful adoration and surrender to God’s mystery and returns to that place where God is at home in beauty and delight.

Ninety-Nine Bottles on Beer on the Wall: A Reflection for the 4th of July

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Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Matthew 4:43-48

Every country has a story about its beginnings that gives you a sense of that nation’s ideals. You know some of these stories. There was a reference to one in our first reading. The Exodus story—the one in which God acted powerfully to free the Israelites from Egypt and fashioned them into a people in the wilderness. By telling and re-telling this story, Jews learn that to be a Jew is to be a people saved from oppression, and therefore a people that must be engaged in repairing a world broken by tyranny.

The Roman Empire had a founding myth too—a story about twins fathered by Mars, the war god, who left them to die in the woods. A she-wolf found them and took them in. But when they grew up, they became bitter rivals. Remus was murdered by Romulus, who’d become powerful through warfare. Eventually the great city he established ruled the known world. Romans who heard this story learned to pride themselves on military might. They learned that to be a Roman meant never to shrink from the destruction of your rivals.

America has a founding story too. Nancy Taylor is the pastor of Old South Church in Boston. That’s the church of the patriots that gave us the original Boston Tea Party. When she was installed in 2005, Nancy’s sermon began with a re-telling of America’s origins. Here’s what she said:

As you know, the Pilgrims … were aiming for Virginia when they were blown off course into these northerly waters. Although they were not where they had hoped to be, and the climate was much colder than they liked, their need to drop anchor was urgent. As their journal entries attest, they were running dangerously low on an indispensable provision—beer. So if you look at it in a certain light, you can see that this whole endeavor—the ‘New World,’ the Colonies, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy—it all began as a beer run.

I didn’t learn that beer-run story in school. l learned another story, that the Pilgrims came to America for religious freedom. Here they built a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope to the world that became a nation of unique and superior virtue with a sacred responsibility to extend our aspirations to other nations. The story I learned set our country apart from other countries. It conveyed the conviction that America was exceptional.

Now, there’s a lot of truth in this idea of an exceptional America. America’s ideals are a unique gift to the world. Even our enemies acknowledge that here, against the odds, we have shaped a civilization that is freer, more enterprising, and more socially and politically dynamic than any the world has ever known.

But our story also has sorrowful downsides—manifest destiny, jingoistic nationalism, economic selfishness, disastrous military adventures, periodic spasms of fear and hatred of the outsider, especially the immigrant, and the enslavement and degradation of millions.

Our foundational self-understanding is dicey in another way too. From the start most Americans have believed that our preeminent position in the world is divinely ordained. America is on an errand for God. Many Christians in America sincerely believe that an ardent patriotism is basic not just to citizenship, but also to Christian faith.

I did a survey of church websites around the 4th of July a couple of years ago. Turns out that many churches began their services with a parade of American flags. There were sermons in support of the wars and great reverence expressed for ‘the ultimate sacrifice.’ One congregation heard a sermon entitled, ‘God, the Greatest American.’ I imagine that many people left worship more persuaded than ever that to pledge allegiance to America is to pledge allegiance to Jesus, and to stand up for Jesus is to stand up for our country. The founding story of America has given rise to a vision of America not only as an exceptional nation, but also as a Christian nation. We gather around a cross draped in the Stars and Stripes.

Jesus, meanwhile, pledged allegiance only to God. At least that’s the way I read the gospels. He taught that loyalty to God did not mean standing apart from others. It meant standing in solidarity with them. It didn’t put you above other people, it put you alongside them, especially in their pain. And that’s why for Jesus allegiance to God demanded that he align himself daringly with the poor, the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, the stranger, and the weak.

The gospels show me a savior who was singularly unconcerned with singularity. He was concerned with commonality—with shaping a beloved community. He didn’t care much for privilege; he didn’t cling to his own. And he knew all too well the brutality of a great empire that regarded itself as the best and most virtuous the world had ever known. The banner of Rome demanded Jesus’ allegiance, but he refused to bend his knee to its pride and violence. It cost him his life.

Now, I love my country, and I love the Fourth of July. I intend to celebrate today with a reading of the Declaration of Independence and fifty hot dogs, one for each State! Well, maybe thirteen for the original colonies. I will contemplate and give thanks for the America that was and is; but I also plan to contemplate and pray for the country we might have been, and the country we still could be.

One thing I’m going to ponder is what our country might be like today if our foundational story had been the beer run story, not the exceptionalism story. What we’d be like as citizens if we’d all been taught from our childhoods that we became a people when we were running low on life’s necessities. That we are simply a nation of people with ordinary and urgent needs, like all other peoples of the world. A people with a mighty thirst, hoping to find the means to quench it.

If the beer run had been our founding story, instead of the one that says we are different from everyone else and better than all others, maybe we would have grown up more alert to our kinship with the majority of the peoples on this planet who, among other things, have no reliable water to drink.

Maybe if we’d seen ourselves all along as having arisen from an effort to satisfy the same basic needs everyone else has; if we’d understood our unity with all who thirst—for dignity, for justice, for well-being and happiness—maybe we would always have acted wisely and decisively to ensure that basic commodities and the freedom that comes from mutual respect are always abundantly available to all.

Maybe instead of our tendency to place ourselves apart and above, we would habitually have stood shoulder to shoulder with the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the enemy, as our scripture readings today emphatically command us to do.

I don’t know which patriotic songs you’ll be singing in honor of our freedoms today, but between the hot dog course and the watermelon, I plan to belt out every last annoying verse of ‘Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.’ And I plan to down a few.

Now, beer-drinking is not something I can or should encourage you to do, especially if you’re not of age, or can’t drink safely. But I do hope you will have a Fourth of July filled with love of country, and with ardent prayers for our leaders. And I hope you will also take a moment to pray for the profound conversion of all Americans—of you and me—to a resolute path of justice, solidarity, and peace in a world where everyone else loves their country too.

And in this spirit I will say, and mean it with all my heart—Long live the beer-run, and God bless America!