Category Archives: Miscellaneous Commentary

Who Is the God Who Wants Me to Do It?

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I mean no disrespect, and I have a ton of appreciation for all the hard working preachers out there lovingly laboring over their Holy Week offerings, but as a person less and less in the pulpit and more and more in the pews, I have to say it: If I hear one more moralizing sermon in Holy Week–or in any other week– I think I’m going to scream. Can’t you give moralizing a rest and for a change try inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, devotion and love, gratitude, and praise?

Not every sermon has to be an urgent call to become better Christians, or an examination of those places in my life where I have denied Jesus, or the ways in which I’m fickle and pivot from crying ‘hosanna’ to crying ‘crucify him’, or some such thing in which it’s clear I’m not doing what a good Christian should be doing and I need to do better. Not every bible passage is about us and our moral lives, no matter how earnestly a preacher stands up there trying to wring from it some principle or lesson for human betterment. They’re not all about what I should be doing for God, but every last one of them reveals something about what God in Christ has done–and is doing– for me. Every last one of them is primed to get me lost in the world of grace, disoriented by mercy, and remade for a new world no one sees yet, but in which somehow I’m living even now. And about that astounding possibility and promise, I hear so little. And I long for it.

I know your preaching teacher told you to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but I don’t need every sermon I hear Sunday after Sunday to relate to some obligation or cause or issue or item in the news. Sometimes I just want help gazing at Jesus. Sometimes I just need to be stunned by the odd attraction of the Story. Sometimes I am converted simply by a preacher making me feel in my flesh the ineffable beauty of the vast accomplished grace around me, the bewildering shame and glory of a love that loves me anyway. I don’t always need to be exhorted. But I always need an encounter. I always need a door. And your sermon could be that door if it’s not slammed shut with moralizing and demand. So give me some inspiration, illumination, pathos, identification, awe, contemplation, adoration, love, gratitude and praise every now and then. Please.

And don’t worry about turning me into a self-absorbed navel-gazer unconcerned with the condition of the world or the plight of my neighbor. Please don’t think you’re being unfaithful somehow, that you’ve fallen down in your duty by not being bold or prophetic in calling me to the barricades of justice every week. I know I’m stubborn and hard-hearted, but it really lacks imagination just to tell me over and over, even artfully and creatively,  that I’m lacking something and need to do much better. It also misses the point, because when all else is said and done, the thing that will best turn my heart to the just purposes of God is a grounding, confounding experience of God.

I know you can’t give me that experience, you can’t make an encounter happen, that’s the Spirit’s job; but you can create the conditions of possibility for it by drawing out beauty and awe, pathos and praise, identification and love from your own spirit, from the deep places where you yourself feel captivated and astounded by that Face, and simply tell me about it. Just contemplate the scriptures and speak to me of God. I hunger for that, and I don’t think I’m alone. As an old, funny, faithful guy sitting in the pew behind me once muttered, after yet another moralizing harangue from the pulpit, “I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I really want to know is, who is the God who wants me to do it?”

 

 

 

Once in a Garden: Meditation for Earth Day/Creation Sunday

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The tree of Life, allegory with birds perched on branches. Mosaic pavement; 4th century CE

The first gift God gave humans was to make us from clay, to give us kinship with dirt. God named the first earthling adam, meaning ‘human,’ from the root word, adama, meaning ‘soil.’ To be human is to be grounded, in the earth. And when we remember that we’re dust, when we know our place, we become wise. And that’s a great gift.

The second gift God gave humans was breath, kinship with God, a sharing in God’s own life. The adam is related to God by breath, and every breath the human draws is full of God’s own desires. The earthling resembles God in this way: he’s drawn to beauty and full of appetites.

Which is one reason God gives adam another gift, The Garden, “beautiful to look at and good for food.” In the Garden, he could satisfy his desires, especially his desire for God. For God lived in the Garden too, strolling in the cool of the evening among rocks and plants and streams, with kitties, kangaroos, earthlings, earthworms, bunnies and bears.

And that was the way it was, once in a Garden—shared life, companions and kin, creatures all, made-in-the-shade of the Tree of Life that grew in a Garden near Eden, in the East of God’s new and wonderful world.

Now, it wasn’t all play and no work for the human. The world outside the Garden was perfect, but unfinished. Help was wanted: an on-site tiller of soil, someone who would care for the earth. God made the world with room in it for involvement and participation, for evolution and improvement. That’s why God made the earthling, the first gardener.

You’ve probably heard that God commanded Adam and Eve to ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’ To multiply and have dominion. And God does say that, in one story. The Bible has two creation stories, and in the second, God doesn’t say ‘fill and subdue,’ but till and care. The first story leads to possession and mastery. But the second story leads to belonging and participation. In this story, the humans have work to do, but it’s joyful work, because when they care for the earth, earth cares for them, too.

Then the story takes a sad turn. A smooth talking serpent appears and plants seeds of mistrust in the human heart. And that mistrust becomes a wedge. It splits things:

Humans had never felt shame in being naked; now they do. Their relationship with their own bodies is broken.

Once they’d walked with God; now they’re afraid of God and try to hide. Their relationship to God is broken.

Once they called each other ‘my own flesh and blood’; now they turn on each other in accusation and blame. Their relationship to other humans is broken.

God closes the Garden and sends the humans into the world outside. There they discover that their relationship to nature is damaged too. Participation in the world now brings suffering as well as joy. The story says that’s a punishment, but it’s not really. It’s just that we’re so deeply connected to the world that when things aren’t right with us, they’re wrong in nature too. And nature won’t be right again until we are.

But even with all its hardships, the world was still wondrous. Yet it never fully satisfied us like the Garden did. We planted garden after garden ourselves, hoping to sense God’s footfalls in the grass, to see flowers that don’t fade, to hear God speak to the heart. But nothing we made was like what we lost.

The story goes in many directions from here. For Christians, it goes to Jesus, God’s Child. The story says he came to find and stay with us who’d become so lost and lonely. He left his own Eden with God and took an earthy body, just like ours.

But by then, we were so practiced in ignoring our kinship with creatures and God that when he came to us in human flesh, breathing the divine breath, we did to him what we were doing to each other.

We treated him like a foreigner, even though he stirred a deep memory when he told stories of gardens and seeds, trees and birds, lilies, and harvests gathered into barns.

We said we didn’t know him, even though he ate, drank, sang, and danced with the happy abandon of one who knew what life was like in the Garden.

We regarded him as a stranger, even though we heard the accent of Eden in the way he talked and felt its cool breezes in the way he lived.

In a cruel twist, when we seized him, it was in a garden. And when killed him, we buried him in one too.

The ancient creeds say that as soon as he died, he descended to a gloomy place where for eons long-dead ancestors were waiting for the Messiah. Jesus “harrowed” them. That’s an old word for raking. Like a harvester, he raked them up and gathered them into his new life. Later, back at the garden tomb on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene saw him, but she thought he was a gardener. She wasn’t really wrong.

Genesis is the Bible’s first book. It recounts the first creation. Revelation is the Bible’s last book. It promises a new creation when time ends. The new earth, it says, will be like a jeweled city with walls and towers, but in its center God will plant a Tree of Life, just as God did once in a Garden.

The Tree will yield a different fruit each month, and its leaves will be medicinal for the nations—for all people, no matter who. A Tree of diversity and healing, a Garden undefiled. It’s hard to imagine. We hide guns in our gardens. We bulldoze thousand-year olives. We delude ourselves, thinking we can demean, ignore, unhouse, and kill each other, and exploit water, earth, air, and animals, and suffer no lasting harm.

But now, as we witness the effects of our self-delusion, the truth scripture teaches is stark. In disappearing ice caps and disappearing bees, in bad water and very sick children we see plainly that there’s no separation between human beings and nature, between this nation and that nation, between this continent and that island, between our own generation and those to follow. We’re in this together. For better, and for worse.

Some people say it’s too late for the earth, too late for us. But although earth has been entrusted to our care, it’s still God’s earth, not ours. We can either believe that or we can despair. It’s still God’s creation. We can either trust God or despair.

I think we won’t despair. I think we will read and study and pray the Garden story, over and over. I think we’ll speak to each other about Eden and the earth, about creatures and God and divine breath, about Adam the gardener, and Jesus, the new Adam, the harvester of life. I think we won’t despair because we have this great green story and in it, a mission and a calling.

I think we won’t despair. I think we’ll ponder how to invest our money and how to reduce our footprint and how to organize and how to protest and how to vote. I think we’ll do all those things and more.

And it won’t seem like much against the odds. But each small thing we do will be a kind of remembering. Each small step a re-connection of broken kinship, an act of love. Small thing by small thing, we will become ourselves a Garden, an oasis, a taste of Eden, at play and at rest as God intended for us and every creature under heaven. Small thing by small thing, by endless grace and persevering response to grace, God’s glorious will for the earth and for all creation will shine and shine again.

You Shall Love the Lord Your God…

 

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You can’t claim to love God if you hate your neighbor, says the first letter of John; love of God is proved in love of neighbor. Nothing in all scripture is truer. But nowhere does the Bible say that neighbor-love is all there is to keeping the Great Commandment. We’re also commanded (first and above all else, mind you) to love God, and love God explicitly. Love for God is inseparable from neighbor-love, but it’s also distinct from it.

The progressive Christian habit, however, has been to collapse God-love into neighbor-love. If you love your neighbor, you’re already loving God—that’s what it means to love God. There’s no urgency (or need?) to love God any other way. Inseparability becomes substitution, and the result is what Jesuit ethicist Ed Vacek calls the “eclipse of love for God.”

Thinking about this scary phrase some years ago, I tried counting the sermons about loving God I’d heard in progressive churches. I couldn’t recall any. I realized that I myself had preached only one. I think you still have to strain to hear the sound of sustained progressive reflection on loving God explicitly and with everything you’ve got. In our wing of the church, Vacek’s eclipse is a near-silent one.

A pew-mate of mine once noticed this hush. After sitting attentively through yet another hortatory sermon about Christian obligation to the neighbor and social justice action in the world, this faithful old layman leaned in my direction and sighed, “You know, Mary, I think I know by now what God wants me to do. What I’d really like is to know is who is the God who wants me to do it?”

“Who is the God who wants me to do it?” This wasn’t a question about book-learning or theological concepts. It was a question about intimacy, a question about mystery, a question about prayer, a question ultimately about surrender; it arose straight out of a heart that longed somehow to love as well as to obey.

The habitual evasion of this question makes for an earnest, vague, and potentially joyless Christianity that aims only to make the world a better place, or else. Surely Jesus hoped more for the church than to be the delivery system of an incessant moralism that has us believing our world is so bad and our causes so urgent that the exhaustion, outrage, and bitterness we feel are justified—even a badge of honor. Surely Jesus showed us a God we could love, not the one we often project, who is as wired, anxious, workaholic, self-righteous, and unhappy as we are.

 

Passing Guests

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“Teach me, O God, how fleeting my life is.

Hear my prayer, listen to my cry;

for I am your passing guest…,

like all who have gone before me.”— Psalm 39:12

Whenever I’m herded onto a jetliner with a couple hundred other uncomfortable, prickly travelers, or crammed into a subway full of bleary commuters, or crushed in any crowd where a crash or a derailment or a shooting or a stampede could suddenly kill us all, I find myself thinking, “These are the people I may die with today.”

I look intently at them, eavesdrop on their conversations, imagine their backstories. “You and I may die together today,” I say to them in my inmost heart.

Does that sound morbid? Maybe it is, but it helps me be human. The more I see others as people I might die with, the harder it is to be rude and judgmental and impatient, my usual behavior in hordes. There’s something pathos-inducing about this thought. It elicits a softening.

We’re not rivals for life’s overhead bins. We’re not jockeying for earth’s limited seating. We’re not first class people and steerage people. We’re dying companions. How can I not be reverent? How can I not be kind?

The psalmist knows he’s here today, gone tomorrow, a passing guest of God. We all are. On earth for a fleeting breath, we live by sheer hospitality, God’s to us, ours to each other, our common death our closest bond.

For everyone in the great crowd of mortals, age to age, it’s the same. Soon I will die with you, and you with me.

In the meanwhile, let’s be kind.

Prayer

Life is short, most holy God. Make me tender towards my dying companions, all of us your passing guests.

Ghastly Prayer

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“By your sword, deliver me from the wicked, O God. Fill their bellies with the wrath you have stored up for them. May their children have a surfeit of it too, with leftovers for their little ones.”  –Psalm 17:13-14.

What I pray for when I’m distraught, terrified, enraged, or overwhelmed is not what I pray for when I’m peaceful, content, hopeful, and safe. What comes out of my mouth when I’m beyond the end can be ghastly.

My most desperate prayers lay bare the damaged self I normally conceal under good Christian wraps—an aggrieved righteousness, contempt for those who oppose me, a primal impulse to pay back with lasting hurt those who have hurt me (and while we’re at it, their children too), and a cowardly urge to have God do the dirty work for me.

I’m grateful to this bloodthirsty psalmist for being as nasty as I am when my heart is backed into a corner. Grateful not so much for validating my emotions, or for modeling honest prayer, or for reminding me that God is big enough to absorb my fury, but for shocking me into recognition. I hate what he prays for. I recoil at his viciousness. But I’ve prayed that way myself.

We could shun psalms like these, excise them from our devotions, denounce them for their violence. Or we could pray them. We could let their hateful words come out of our mouths. We could discover in repeating them that they are not as foreign and distasteful to us as we think they are, or as we want them to be.

Self-knowledge. It’s the beginning of wisdom.

Prayer: Have mercy on me, O God, just as I (really) am.

 

The Assumption of Mary, August 15

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–Russian Icon, The Dormition of the Theotokos

On August 15, Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.* This is the belief that the mother of Jesus was ‘assumed’, or taken into heaven, ‘body and soul,’ immediately upon her death, without having to undergo the grave’s decay. By this feast, the Catholic Church teaches that the final restoration of all creation to which scripture attests, including the resurrection of the body, is anticipated in Mary.

Catholics are taught that because of her unique role in the drama of salvation, God chose to bestow on her, in an anticipated way, the glory we will all enjoy one day. The glory Mary enjoys it isn’t for her alone: she is given first what all the redeemed receive later. In the Assumption, we get to see in her what will become of us all because of the saving grace of Christ. The Assumption is the Church’s way of affirming the ancient conviction that ‘humanity’s future has a body’ (Luke Powery).

This festival has deep roots in Christian liturgy and devotion. The first extant mention of it is in the 4th century in the East. It was universally celebrated by the 6th . Clearly there was ‘something about Mary’ that the ancient church appreciated more than we do today—especially we who are Protestants and tend to view Marian doctrines as unnecessary at best and idolatrous at worst.

Here’s what I’m appreciating about the Assumption today—

The Assumption of Mary asks us to imagine that a human being in her body, not just her soul or spirit, now lives in the eternity of God we have traditionally called ‘heaven.’ Forget for a moment the triumphalist trappings, physical, and metaphysical problems of this doctrine. Go to the nub of it and allow yourself to see Mary in her body welcomed into heaven, enjoying God forever in a fully bodily way, breathing, sensing, moving… in all her body’s uniqueness. If you grant this vision, even for a moment, and if you grant that her present is our future, what does this feast day say?

It says the human body belongs in the presence of God. It says that the body is holy. It says that God and bodies are not opposites. It says that bodies are not ‘mere’ bodies, not inferior housing for a superior soul; not to be escaped from, dispensed with, or despised. It says there’s no such thing as ‘spirituality’ without ‘bodiality.’ It says you have to love the body because God does. Even when it’s hard to love the body, your particular body, and especially when it’s hard to love somebody else’s, it says you have to honor them all. It says you can’t kill Michael Brown or (insert another name here while you weep) because their bodies are male and black. It says you have to love those black bodies. It says you can’t make any body no body. It says God cares, infinitely cares, what we do with our bodies. It says when any body’s hands go up, the guns go down.

If you observe this feast day, that’s what you commit to. If you don’t, maybe you should.

——-

*The Orthodox also observe this mid-August commemoration, but they call it the Dormition (falling asleep)of the Theotokos. They prefer to think she was taken to God without experiencing even the slightest twinge of death’s customary pangs. Anglicans call this observance the Feast of Mary the Virgin, or more familiarly, the Feast of Mary in Summer. It’s a more generic celebration of Mary, but the collect of the day mentions God taking Mary to Godself, a clear nod to the ancient doctrine of the Assumption.

 

 

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.