Sunday, June 22, 2008

TIMELESS TO ME














Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein as Wilbur and Edna in the Original Broadway Cast of “Hairspray”




I.
One would hardly think, upon observing modern first world societies, that an appeal to love oneself would need to be made, but, alas, I fear that it does; and the urgency for getting out that message may be much more pressing than many observers know. One of Shakespeare’s characters, Polonius in “Hamlet” it was, said, “To thine own self be true,” and long, long before that was spoken on an English stage, the ancient Hebrews established an ethical principle that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The writer of book of Leviticus presented these as words from God Godself: “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but will love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh” (Lev 19:18 New Jerusalem Bible, NJB). A few verses later in the same chapter of Leviticus, we find an extension of what we’ve just read:

If you have resident aliens in your country, you will not molest them. You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born and love them as yourself--for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God (Lev 19:33-34 NJB).


Loving in this context is action. The degree to which emotions are involved is essentially inconsequential. To summarize, then, we must take active steps to ensure the well-being of others in the same way that we would take steps to provide for our own well-being. The move between these two passages from the book of Leviticus is far-reaching. Love of neighbor as self begins with neighbor as a person of my own race or clan, but love of neighbor as self ends with neighbor as anyone outside my race as well--in other words, all people.
The measurement of how much to love others is the degree to which we love ourselves, and as has been pointed out repeatedly by preachers and teachers--much more than by persons actually demonstrating this principle--love of self is taken to be an essential part of the equation. Long before modern psychology was born, there were the highly intelligent, highly pragmatic ancient Hebrews realizing that if one didn’t love herself or himself, the possibility for loving others was--what’s the biblical term?--ZILCH.
Remember, now. The love the teachers had in mind here as they tried to understand God might or might not be attached to warm and affirming feelings. If you have the matching feelings, outstanding; and if you don’t, too bad! The end expectation is the same: taking concrete steps to make certain that one’s well-being is provided for. So, I may not feel great about myself today--for lots of reasons or for no particular reason at all--but I’m going to act in ways that preserve my well-being anyway.
Jesus went directly to Leviticus in his own summation of the core of the whole long list of ancient laws:

You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39 NJB).


What we don’t often recognize when we read Jesus’ famous application of the Hebrew Bible into his own context is that he was speaking to his fellow Jews, many of whom hated Samaritans and many of whom hated Romans. Even Legalistic Leviticus had said, “Act in loving ways toward people of your own race AND to everyone else too.” Nobody wanted to be reminded of that, and few intended to try to live it out.
Let’s get back to the heart of the principle, though. We can’t act appropriately to others unless we are acting appropriately toward ourselves. Self-love is not arrogance or narcissism; self-love is the foundation of health and happiness, and it’s doubtful that we can act lovingly toward others if we lack emotional health and some degree of happiness or, at least, contentment.
I was in the grocery store the other day--standing in line, waiting to pay. Suddenly the shopping music was interrupted not by a loud voice urging me to try the fresh-baked apple and strawberry pies but rather the voice of none other than Dr. Phil. It was so nice--getting free psychobabble with the purchase of my groceries. Dr. Phil’s message for the day was: “Be your own best friend.” The message was reasonable, and Dr. Phil didn’t say anything in those two minutes to irritate me, which was rather amazing given my track record with him and the fact that if I have control of dials at home where you couldn’t pay me to listen to him. I’m not recommending, by a long stretch, that you read or listen to Dr. Phil, but this one little snippet was on target.
I have a written reference in one of my notebooks. Remember those? You know. They had several pieces of paper glued or otherwise bound together so that you could use a pen or a pencil to write things on the pages. I realize that some of you may have begun using Palm Pilots in kindergarten and never were introduced to notebooks. Anyway, they did exist before Palms and personal computers. In one of those, I have a reference from the journal, “Psychology Today,” that must have come from the Hippie era; the headline read: “Dig and Honor Yourself.” When’s the last time someone encouraged you to DIG someone or some thing?
What I noted from the article were several affirmations about self-love:


Self-love is necessary in order for me to make the kinds of changes I must make in myself to be healthy for the long haul.


Self-love doesn’t just happen; it has nothing to do with luck, and nothing to do with the grace of God. A person must create or establish her or his own self-love.


Honoring ourselves in love is the birthright of each human being.


I have not been able to identify the source of this quote, but I think it is worth our consideration: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere.”
When I began, I mentioned that it might surprise some people to learn that in our me-me-me culture, we need to help people love themselves. I restate that. Too many in our human family loathe themselves.


Various causes of over-eating obesity and other addictions can be connected directly to self-hatred.


Therapists who deal with clients who have repeatedly been domestically abused frequently find self-loathing in the person who keeps going back for more.


Similarly, helping professionals often find that those who struggle with the damnable darkness of depression at their core hate themselves.


Those who put themselves into dangerous and life-threatening situations--such as reckless driving--surely hate themselves and others.


I have to assume that someone who takes her or his own life has wrestled with self-hatred--typically for a very long time--and feels that she or he has lost the wrestling match.


If we do not love ourselves, sadly, we can never to any great degree experience the love of others or the love of God, both subjects that we will take up later today. That’s scary, though, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s totally a matter of self-love having to happen first; I’ve certainly seen people transformed by the love of another person and certainly made more able to love themselves because of the power of love from that other people or those other persons.
Many of us in the Jesus Movement have had a tremendous contribution made to our ability to move toward self-love by the realization that God loved us before we had any emotional or spiritual capability to love God in return. Further, exploring the reality that God is love, we have found that God’s love is unconditional. If the Life-source and the Life-force, which is how I conceive of the reality I call “God,” loves me unconditionally and, through whatever means, sent the divine love energies my way before I could respond in love and with no requirement that when able I would respond in love, that is more powerful than I have words to describe.
One of the really sad chapters in the development of theology was that in some branches of God-thought-processes some influential thinkers tragically tied proof of divine affirmation to the good life--good health, good money, good life-flow overall. Conversely, anything unfortunate or bad or evil was taken to be confirmation of divine punishment. It’s very, very hard to love oneself if one is convinced that God is angry and causing or allowing--essentially the same things--horrible turns of events. Therefore, if sickness came to someone or her or his loved one or a flood or a tsunami or a string of losing lotto numbers, the person had been prepped into believing that God, through those often horrible circumstances, wanted to cause pain in order to punish. Loving oneself in the midst or the aftermath of that kind of pain that God Godself was responsible for, pain intentionally inflicted by the “Almighty” onto the helpless, might well become impossible for the rest of life for the person taught to believe in the god of pain masquerading as a God of love.
The words of W. H. Auden: “God is Love, we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how God loves us, we are repelled; it seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word.” So sad, so widely believed, such a misunderstanding of God. We will not love ourselves if, as children, we are led to believe that everything happening to us is God’s doing.
First John, chapter 3, verse 1: “You must see what great love [God] has lavished on us by letting us be called God's children--which is what we are!” With that in our consciousness, we have a shot at what is emotionally essential: self-love.




II.
A psychologist named Michael Conner, writes this about romantic love:

Romantic love is a deep emotional, sexual and spiritual recognition and regard for the value of another person and relationship....Romantic love is a sanctuary, and a source of nourishment and energy. Sometimes romantic love is the only point of certainty, and the only thing that is solid and real in the midst of chaos and ambiguity.


Dr. Conner obviously assumes in his definition of romantic love a level of maturity on the part of the person who feels it and offers it. His sentiments are beautiful and moving. Any of us who has ever experienced the kind of love he describes identify and celebrate.
A couple of years ago, some Italian scientists--Italians, of all people!--came out with research reports leading them to believe that much of the excitement we feel early on in a relationship is either spurred or sustained physiologically; the physical dimension of love stays at a peak for about a year and then levels off--even in couples under 30 years of age. This is very disturbing for those of us who value long-term monogamy! And, yet, there it was in electronic black and white; scientists from a part of the world known for great romance were claiming that proteins in the human blood stream known as neurotrophins, which keep the sex drive high and the other feelings of excitement that go with being in love also high, begin disappearing after just a year. It’s not that people fall out of love after the neurotophins pack up and go; it’s just that--and how clinical can you get?--the scientists say “acute love” diminishes, and in its place “companionate” love takes center stage. If you have or do experience this sensation, don’t panic and don’t think love is leaving your relationship; only protein levels have!
There are plenty of people out there who simply aren’t cut out for long-term relationships. As I’ve said before, we do a great disservice to people trying to pair everyone up and imply in the process that being single is a less desirable state than the state of wedded bliss. Even if everything about being wedded were bliss, and it might not be in every single marriage (I’ve heard), not everyone is cut out for long-term monogamy or, by the way, for parenthood.
Before you change your diet and try to force more proteins on your mate, if you are one of those cut-out-to-be-coupled ones, there’s another study you should know about. This study was conducted by both neurophysiologists and anthropologists. They found that while sexual love and romantic love are very powerful, though separate, impulses, the more powerful of the two is love. Furthermore, there are parallels between maturing love and brain adaptations. When sexual activity declines, if that should occur, the relationship may well remain intact and strong because romantic love, in this study, was found to be much stronger.
There may be no conflict between the two studies, because the first may well be equating infatuation with romantic love. According to one of the researchers, Dr. Helen Fisher who is an anthropologist at Rutgers, “Love is one of the most powerful of all human experiences. It is definitely more powerful than the sex drive."
Both sides of the brain get involved in the love process, but the right brain controls most of the emotions of love. The left side of the brain, however, tells us if we like how someone looks, her or his manner, style, and so on.
Even though not everyone is cut out for coupling, it’s tough not to admire long-term couples--those who stick together through thin and thick down through the years. You heard the painful passage from 1 Samuel earlier detailing Hannah’s agony about not being able to bear a son for her husband, Elkanah. In his polygamous society, Elkanah had two wives; one had given him several children, but--the biblical storyteller tells us--he still loved Hannah more, even though she was not able to have children. That’s a very powerful testament to the love Elkanah felt for Hannah over the long haul; if not already, then eventually, the Mishnah reveals that a man could divorce a woman who was unable to conceive. It was serious stuff.
Here is a husband who loved his wives in a culture of arranged marriages that didn’t expect love in marriage, and he loved the wife who couldn’t conceive more than the one who could. One day, Elkanah saw Hannah crying her heart out over her plight, and he said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying? Why are you not eating anything? Why are you so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” This marriage would last, don’t you think?
The Broadway musical, “Hairspray,” is an offbeat story about an overweight teen-age girl, Tracy, and her overweight mother, Edna. Despite her weight, Edna has found the love of her life, and, before the show is over, Tracy will too! The song, “You’re Timeless to Me,” which Edna and her husband, Wilbur, sing to each other is a kooky, though moving, tribute to long-term romantic love. In the original Broadway cast, Harvey Fierstein plays Edna, and Dick Latessa plays Wilbur. In the John Waters film that preceded the musical, Waters cast a male in the role of Edna, and the tradition has continued on Broadway. If you happened to catch the more recent movie version of “Hairspray,” you saw John Travolta as Edna, and Christopher Walken as Wilbur.

Wilbur sings to Edna:

Some folks cant stand it
Say time’s like a bandit
But I take the opposite view
Cause when I need a lift
Time brings a gift
Another day with you
A twist or a waltz
It’s all the same schmaltz
With just a change in the scenery
You’ll never be old hat
Thats that!
You're timeless to me.


Some people have the added pressure, challenge, in a love relationship because they fall in love with someone whom others, if not society at large, consider inappropriate for them. There are those who fall in love with someone already spoken for, already committed, and their love connection becomes what we call an affair. Whether on ethical grounds or on pragmatic grounds, wisdom favors staying out of those. If someone wants to be with you, then she or he should say, “Goodbye,” to the person already in her or his life.
Open relationships are more prevalent these days than they were just a few years ago when a handful of couples of all ages claimed to spice up their sex lives by “swinging.” Much to the frustration of those who want to use the Bible to give specifics to the marriage relationship, the Bible--both the Hebrew scriptures and Christian scriptures--were written in contexts where polygamy was both legal and the norm, as with Elkanah and Hannah and Penniah. There was a double standard, of course. Men could have multiple wives--as many as they could afford. And women could have one husband only.
The Bible would not condemn a man’s involvement with multiple women as long as none of them was married to another man. Even so, I believe that an open marriage or an open relationship or partnership is no marriage at all. If you’re the multiple partners kind of guy or gal, why bother with marriage anyway?
For many homosexuals, loving someone of their same gender is forbidden love. It’s so ironic to me that conservatives criticize gays and lesbians, especially gays, for being promiscuous, but they do everything they can to prevent long-term gay and lesbian relationships. This love shouldn’t be forbidden love.
I spent a fair amount of time this past Friday morning completing a multipage research survey sent to a host of clergypersons across the country. The researchers gathering the data are associated with the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, and they wanted to find out all about the ways churches and their clergy are responding to a host of social and political issues with a special interest in perspectives on involvement in the country’s political process and on gay/lesbian issues.
The survey kept asking me to speak for you. That’s a joke, isn’t it? I’m sure the computers won’t be able to read the notes I kept writing into the margins of my answer sheet. “I can’t speak for my church.” “Different members have different views.”
One question that was asked well in the “gay/lesbian section” was, “If legal, would the majority of the members of your church support you in performing a union ceremony for a lesbian or gay couple.” I checked, “Yes.”




III.
No one word or set of words can be fully descriptive of God. My companion terms, “Life-source” and “Life-force,” work well for me, but they are inadequate unless I add, “God is love.”
Having gotten that far, there is still a major conceptualization to deal with. Is God a personal entity or an impersonal force? And “impersonal” in this context isn’t pejorative; it simply means that God is more “abstract” than a God who can be considered personal.
As you can well imagine, in this congregation the perspectives toward God run the gamut. I doubt that there is anyone here who thinks of God as the ancient, white-bearded grandfather sitting up in heaven making it his business to monitor the good deeds and the bad deeds of every human being so that an eternal abode can someday be assigned, and you know what the two options would be! This widely held view of God makes God and Santa Claus a lot alike except that God doesn’t slide down your chimney, and Santa doesn’t send you at the end of your earthly life to heaven or hell.
Even though that extreme may not be embraced by members and friends of Silverside, there are those among us who certainly do view God as personal in ways like most of the biblical writers must have. The dangers of anthropomorphizing acknowledged, some in our number believe that God is a communicative spirit, that an entity doesn’t have to have a body and a brain to think and will and relate. They take biblical references to God with human traits--God’s hands, God’s hair, God’s hind quarters revealed to Moses, God’s emotions--to be meaningful metaphors, but not literally or at least not the same way that humans have hands and hair and emotions.
The biblical writers for the most part certainly conceived of God in personal and anthropomorphic terms. In Genesis, God is even walking in the Garden of Eden and chatting face to face with Eve and Adam. In the prophecy of Isaiah, Isaiah sees God wearing a garment with a long, flowing train. In the prophecy of Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation, God is seen sitting on a throne.
Jesus wasn’t a biblical writer, but certainly his teachings and his deeds are the basis for the core of Christian scripture, and Jesus, while avoiding the radical anthropomorphisms, conversed with God as to a person. Jesus referred to God as “Father,” and in the case of the Lord’s Prayer he addresses God with the Aramaic word, Aramaic being Jesus’ native tongue, for “Daddy.”
Others of our members see God as a non-personal force, and the degree to which human beings can relate to and/or be guided by this God varies from one wild Silverside liberal to the next. A few months ago, Margaret Walker--I think it was Margaret--pointed several of us to an online assessment that was intended to help us understand with what religious tradition our views of God would place us. I came out, according to my survey results, just where I’m comfortable, just where I thought I’d be, in liberal Protestantism or Christian Unitarianism. Some of you who took the same survey were told to go out and start your own religious movement, that none presently exist to accommodate your liberal views of God!
You see, an abstract God is much more difficult to work with than a personal God. An abstract God is as invisible and as unpredictable as the wind. Jesus, no less than Jesus, described God as spirit-wind that one couldn’t see, but the results of whose movement one could definitely follow.
In his now-famous nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, part of what Jesus said was this: “The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NJB). What is brilliant about this teaching is that in the written version, in Greek, and I assume it was also true in Aramaic because it was in Hebrew, the word for “wind” is exactly the same word for “spirit,” capital “S” and lower case “s.” An interpreter must determine based on context and literary background how πνευμα (pneuma) should be translated. The words are entirely interchangeable. Jesus could just as easily have meant “the Spirit blows where it wills” as “the wind blows where it wills.” Maybe he meant to imply a little of both. The Spirit of God is an invisible wind, but you can certainly see where it has blown and where it is blowing now.
One of the many reasons Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, stirs me the way it does is the way God is conceived of by various characters. Shug Avery evidently speaks for Alice Walker herself. Alice Walker’s God is not the God Shug grew up with in the church where her daddy was the preacher, and it certainly wasn’t the God who allowed Celie’s stepfather to rape her or the God who allowed Celie’s husband to beat her and separate her from the only person in the world whom she knew for sure loved her; her sister, Nettie. Alice Walker’s God is or at least was when she wrote this Pulitzer Prize winning novel the God who makes Godself known in nature.
Shug insists on referring to God with the neuter pronoun, “it.” This is the way the dialogue goes in the movie version of the story:


Shug: More than anything God love admiration.


Celie: You saying God is vain?


Shug: No, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.


Celie: You saying it just wanna be loved like it say in the bible?


Shug: Yeah, Celie. Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance, and holla just wanting to be loved. Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention... except walk?Oh, yeah, this field feels like singing!


If you listen to my prayers, you can tell that I’m addressing a God whom I believe can be addressed. If you catch a quick nap when I pray, never mind.
In any case, the way you hear me pray in public is exactly the way I pray in private except my private prayers are obviously more, well, private. I can speak whatever is on my mind or in my heart because the God who is hearing my prayer hears--not in the way a human hears, but in the way that the spiritual entity who at least initiated the creative evolutionary processes that resulted in homo sapiens hears. And this God is utterly loving. I fully recognize that love is a metaphor and an approximation when ascribed to God, but it gives me a concept with which to work.
I do not have a human-like entity in mind when I pray. I’ve long since given up the images of the God from my childhood, but I still believe the loving force to whom I voice my concerns or to whom I open the raw emotions I can’t put into words draws me into the divine force, which is pure love--also unseen like the wind.
The God to whom I relate does not condemn or command or coerce, but rather loves and lures. A hymn we sang recently begins with words that thrill and console my soul: “Oh Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.”
I don’t have to know or understand exactly what is there to relate to it. I do think, though, that it’s vitally important to realize that much of who God and where God is, is within us. Part of the divine resides in each human being, but there is more to God than what is within me. Still, when I ponder God in prayer, I know that God is taking in what I communicate from within me and not from way out there somewhere.
My God is personable, but not a person; not a grandiose human being. My prayers to God do not persuade God to fix something I think is broken, but rather as my mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, taught me, they add love energies to God’s love energies; and there are times when love alters the course of circumstances.
No conception of God that takes away the mystery of God is either workable or legitimate. Just because you can’t see God, though, is no proof at all that God isn’t there...or here.
Amen.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

ONLY FOR NOW










I.
A poem, “The King’s Ring,” by Theodore Tilton:

Once in Persia reigned a King,
Who upon his signet ring
Graved a maxim true and wise,
Which, if held before his eyes,
Gave him counsel, at a glance,
Fit for every change or chance:
Solemn words, and these are they:
“Even this shall pass away!”

Trains of camels through the sand
Brought him gems from Samarcand;
Fleets of galleys through the seas
Brought him pearls to rival these.
But he counted little gain
Treasures of the mine or main.
What is wealth? the King would say;
“Even this shall pass away.”

In the revels of his court,
At the zenith of the sport,
When the palms of all his guests
Burned with clapping at his jests,
He, amid his figs and wine,
Cried, O loving friends of mine!
Pleasure comes, but not to stay:
“Even this shall pass away.”

Lady fairest ever seen
Was the bride he crowned his queen.
Pillowed on the marriage-bed,
Whispering to his soul, he said,
Though a bridegroom never pressed
Dearer bosom to his breast,
Mortal flesh must come to clay:
“Even this shall pass away.”

Fighting on a furious field,
Once a javelin pierced his shield.
Soldiers with a loud lament
Bore him bleeding to his tent.
Groaning from his tortured side,
Pain is hard to bear, he cried,
But with patience day by day,
“Even this shall pass away.”

Towering in the public square
Twenty cubits in the air,
Rose his statue carved in stone.
Then the King, disguised, unknown,
Gazing at his sculptured name,
Asked himself, And what is fame?
Fame is but a slow decay:
“Even this shall pass away.”

Struck with palsy, sere and old,
Waiting at the Gates of Gold,
Spake he with his dying breath,
Life is done, but what is Death?
Then, in answer to the King,
Fell a sunbeam on his ring,
Showing by a heavenly ray --
Even this shall pass away.


There’s an episode in Hebrew folklore that has not been incorporated into any of the biblical materials we have about King Solomon, but that is, nonetheless, pertinent and powerful. As the story goes, Solomon had a problem with depression as had King Saul, the first king of Israel and the ruler two kingdoms earlier than Solomon. The proverbial saying, “This too shall pass,” can be traced back to the efforts of Solomon’s advisors and attendants seeking relief for their king. They encouraged him to have a ring made inscribed with these words: “This too shall pass.” Any time, then, that he felt depressed he was to look at the words on his ring, and this would instantly remind him that his low mood would not always be with him.
Someone noticed across the years that, sadly, even the wonderful times in life, our best experiences, don’t last forever, and they, too, shall pass. Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, addressed this with a story included in one of her essays:

An old Chinese mandarin, during the minority of the young Emperor, had been governing the country for him. When the Emperor came of age the old man gave him back the ring which had served as emblem of his vicariate, and said to his young sovereign: “In this ring I have set an inscription which your dear Majesty may find useful. It is to be read in times of danger, doubt and defeat. It is to be read, as well, in times of conquest, triumph and glory.” The inscription in the ring read: “This, too, will pass.” The sentence is not to be taken to mean that, in their passing, tears and laughter, hopes and disappointments disappear into a void. But it tells you that all will be absorbed into a unity. Soon we shall see them as integral parts of the full picture of the man or woman.


While no one can deny the truth of the proverbial saying, I would never say it to anyone, and I would ask that others not say it to me. The reason for this is that, in our culture, it can be one of our ways of being dismissive to others whose pain or struggle or angst make us uncomfortable. This is the kind of inner message I give to myself while I’m getting a root canal; it’s not what I’d say to someone who says, “Pastor, I’m really hurting.”
I’ve never heard anyone, even the most dark of pessimists, say this to someone in the midst of a good time, but I have, many times, heard can’t-help-themselves pessimists say the “polished” opposite of, “This, too, shall pass.” I know you’ve heard this: “Enjoy it while you can.” What in the world is that supposed to mean? Do we really think that there are people less experienced than we are who can be benefitted by ominous warnings that life will not always be as good as it now? And, if by chance someone doesn’t know, why send a gray cloud over her or his enjoyment?
“I’m so sad. I feel so depressed and down in the dumps all the time. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, don’t fret. This, too, shall pass. Could you hand me the sports section?”
“Oh, mom, I’m so in love. Every moment I’m with him I feel all the happiness and excitement I had only dreamed might be possible. It’s just wonderful, and I wanted to share this with you.”
“OK, honey, enjoy it while you can.”
“Sure thing, Mom. I’m SO glad I called to tell you the news. I’ll be sure not to enjoy this too much knowing that this thrill won’t always be at this level and that I’ll eventually have to deal with deflators like belching and snoring and mundanity and unpaid bills. Thanks so much for not letting me get too absorbed in my feelings of love. I won’t be nearly so disappointed when he stops opening doors for me and sending me flowers. I’m prepared!”
“Avenue Q” is a Broadway musical starring some humans and some adult muppets. It was to me absolutely hilarious, although it might well be too offensive in terms of language and adult situations among the puppets for some; for that reason, I can’t officially recommend it. You know, of course, that clergypersons have to test these things out so that they will know what to preach against.
“Avenue Q” pokes fun at life’s awkward and complicated experiences and especially makes many of us laugh at the transience of life. The song you will hear later in our Gathering is called “Only for Now,” and you’ll hear exactly what I mean.
In the musical, angst and ennui go hand in hand, and, as hard as it may be to believe with that combination, create reasons for uproarious laughter. For example, one of the actors plays the role of Gary Coleman, the former child star who never could get any parts after the one show he starred in as a kid. His parents stole part of the money they were supposed to manage for him, leaving him broke. In the play, he is a building superintendent on Avenue Q where there is a series of multifamily dwellings for those who can’t afford to live in the higher rent districts. Gary Coleman weighs everyone else’s struggles and problems against his own frustrations.
One of my favorite songs in the show is “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” Practically everyone in the cast is singing, “It sucks to be me,” bemoaning her or his respective complaints about the struggles of life. Suddenly, Gary Coleman appears and begins to sing:

I’m Gary Coleman,
From TV’s different strokes.
I made a lot of money,
That got stolen by my folks!
Now I’m broke, and I’m the butt of everyone’s jokes!
But I’m here, the superintendent
On Avenue Q!


There’s a moment of silence. The other characters look at each other and collectively think for a minute. Then they sing, “It sucks to be you!”
OK. OK. So the sucky stuff, thankfully, doesn’t last forever; that’s part of the point of the show and the key message of the song you will hear in a few minutes. By the way, if the sermon doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea today, well, this too shall pass.


II.
The transience of life...good news when times are hard, not such good news when times are grand.  The fact that good times pass away doesn’t mean that bad times follow good times; it’s certainly possible to move from one happy experience to the next, and I think for those who are healthy and adjusted, this is the way we try to live.  What makes sense is to try to live in positive places as much as we can.  Therefore, we try to surround ourselves with people who help us have those kinds of moments.  We shy away, maybe run away, IF WE CAN (and we can’t always) from those who are negative, those whose only satisfaction in life seems to be raining on someone else’s parade. 
There can certainly be some artificial if not awkward or outlandish ways of trying to hold on to what is passing away.  You know what I mean:  so many botox injections that one always looks shocked or surprised, comb-overs that lift up like a top of an opened tin can when the high winds blow, parents who wear their children’s hand-me-down clothing, people who think that one great night of barhopping and excessive drinking is a signal that every night should be bar night.
William Faulkner’s Miss Emily Grierson, in his macabre short story, “A Rose for Emily,” preserves her best efforts at happiness and tries to keep them from evaporating by killing her lover, Mr. Baron, keeping his body in her bed for--what was it?--thirty or forty years and sleeping beside it nightly until she herself died.  A strand of her long “iron-gray” hair was found on the pillow next to Mr. Baron, and Faulkner throws in the telling note that, on Baron, those who came to clear out Miss Emily’s things saw a “profound faceless grin.” 
We parents can be guilty of not letting our children grow up.  We spouses or partners can be guilty of expecting our significant other to look just like and sound just like she or he did when we first fell in love.  Imagine crippling our children by trying to make them infantile and dependent for life.  Imagine being matched up to someone romantically and intimately who hasn’t had a new or different thought in forty years!
These are people whose best times, whose best years, whose best moments are all in the past.  The best moments of marriage are all in the past.  The best moments of parenting are way back there somewhere.  Church was great a decade ago or a quarter of a century ago.  Everything good was long ago, and the kind of people I have in mind are chronically crotchety today because their efforts to keep things exactly the way they were when they were happiest--or now believe they were--fail.
There was a time when less religious diversity prevailed among Americans than it does today. In a speech, Senator Obama--and you can affirm some of what he says even if he isn’t your candidate--said that given the increasing religious diversity of the American people, sectarianism is a greater danger than ever. And I now quote, “Whatever we once were, America is no longer a Christian nation-- at least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation and a Hindu nation and a nation of non-believers.” People trying to live in a long-ago time when Protestantism prevailed as the predominant perspective pertaining to politics, wake up! This age of pluralism has long since arrived. Trying to hang onto what is no more and can’t be any more is of no value to anyone.
It occurs to me that some of the happiest people I know have this terrific ability to weave multiple episodes in life together into a beautiful whole, and they weave the tough times into the finished fabric too.  The sadnesses and the struggles are not forgotten, not ignored, but they are woven together into the whole history of a relationship or a family or a church with the joyous times.  So someone who has gotten ill and/or older and ailing and has to rely on a spouse or partner or other family member or friend for caregiving will often say to me, “I hate being a burden to her.”  “I hate being a burden on him.”  And ninety-nine percent of the time, I can say in all honesty, “I haven’t heard any complaining.  Seems to me that she or he may get tired at times, but still takes pleasure in making sure that the best care is going to come your way no matter what.”
One of the strangest of all the stories passed down to us from the first followers of Jesus is story of Jesus’ “transfiguration.”  That may not strike an immediate chord with you, but don’t worry.  I’m going to tell you more about that episode.
All three of the Synoptic Gospel writers--Mark, Matthew, and Luke--record this story.  John alone among the Gospels makes no mention of it.  
The gist of the story is this.  Jesus took three of his closest male followers with him to the top of a high mountain.  Presumably, they were there for prayer and meditation.  While the three male disciples, Pater and James and John, were waiting for the prayer time to get underway, Jesus suddenly was “transfigured” before their very eyes.  By “transfigured,” the Gospel writers meant this:  “...his clothes became brilliantly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them” (Mark 9:3 New Jerusalem Bible).
As if that wasn’t enough to boost one’s prayer life, the long-earthly-dead Moses and Elijah appeared and walked off with Jesus a bit leaving the three disciples standing there, mouths wide open in shock and rubbing their eyes.  The presence of Moses and Elijah in the remembered story could have signaled one of two images.  Either, they represent the past, namely Israel’s heritage--the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah)--connected to the ministry of Jesus, OR they call attention to the future, as brightened heavenly bodies of the blessed were anticipated by some as was a reappearance of Elijah before the culmination of history.
In any case, the three disciples realized that they had been brought into something very, very important and superbly inspiring.  Peter, being especially cognizant of the importance of the moment wants to hang onto it, and you have to give the well-intentioned fisherman credit for caring and trying.  The words of Peter as the Gospel of Matthew remembered them:  “Then Peter spoke to Jesus. `Lord,’ he said, `it is wonderful for us to be here; if you want me to, I will make three shelters here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (Matt 17:4 New Jerusalem Bible).
Like I said, Peter’s sentiments are understandable and touching even, but a sense of true spiritual focus is as fleeting as all other stirring life moments. Being in love doesn’t mean heightened emotional drawnness to the special other twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I sometimes have said to couples on their way to a wedding ceremony, “You always act in love, and sometimes you feel in love.” I’m not suggesting to them that they should ever feel hate or out of love. But that “I love you so much I can’t even stand for you to leave me while you go to the grocery store” can’t be sustained perpetually.
Same thing with intense spiritual experiences; we simply can’t be at our spiritual peak at all times. If we try, our spirituality measurement mechanisms will short-circuit! The absence, for a moment or a while, of a feeling of being utterly overcome by the presence of God means neither that God has abandoned us for the moment or that we have abandoned God.
Peter wanted to hold onto what had stirred him and James and John--and Jesus too. He wanted to erect tents so that Moses and Elijah would stay longer. It just doesn’t work that way, Peter.
What we hope to gain from our deeply spiritual moments is the courage to risk seeking out other such moments without sitting around and talking for the rest of our lives about that one great moment we shared with Jesus on the mountain top. Those kinds of experiences can’t be forced or predicted or planned, but we can poise ourselves to benefit from them if and when other such moments do, in fact, come to us.
Many of the Christian mystics through the ages, those who have given their full-time attention to prayer and meditation and the seeking of the nearness of God’s presence, have warned us that the truly overwhelming moments like that are few and far between. We can hope for them, but we can’t count on them. “On Demand” is a Comcast option; there’s no such thing as “God on Demand”! And even if we are blessed by a powerful sense of God’s presence, it’s--well, you know--only for now.


III.
I love that song! If you’re a George Bush fan and are mourning the end of his eight year reign, I apologize to you for playing the little reminder that the Bush presidency, too, shall pass. Some of you may have been more upset by the reminder that sex may not last forever--although the Viagra scientists claim to have alleviated that problem.
Seriously though, folks, this is not the kind of world in which it makes sense ever to become static, set in our ways, inflexible, or unmovable. Change is constant, and, indeed, nothing measurable lasts. The immediately obvious response to this reality is to do everything we possibly can to minimize the bad times and, with as much energy and fervor, to wring every ounce of joy, meaning, excitement out of the good times. Take nothing meaningful to us and no one whom we love, including our beloved pets, for granted!
Paul once wrote that all that lasts from this world as we now know it are faith and hope and love, the greatest of the three being love. Some intangibles will last beyond the world as we know it and into eternity.
The reality of the transience of all of life is consistently interwoven into the biblical materials. The earliest writings we have in Christian scripture, namely Paul’s letters, and the earliest among them beginning with 1 and 2 Thessalonians, have an urgency in them as to time. Paul believed that the world as it had been known up to that point in time was about to end, literally at any moment. Everything about which he wrote early on had this sense. It was not a casual, “This, too, shall pass,” perspective, but a, “This, too, shall pass really quickly,” notion! Actually, it’s impossible to understand the “early Paul” if that critical fact is overlooked.
As Paul and so many others with him realized that the world wasn’t going to end at any second, Paul had to change his attitudes, and his theology had to be adjusted accordingly. People had to learn to live in and make a contribution to a world that would certainly someday end or be radically altered, but probably not at any second. There is still a transience to human life and the cosmos, but the end or alteration is not likely immanent. We have some time to make things better. We have some time to make things right.
Even so, the world as we know it is in the process of passing away. One day, in its present form it will be no more. Paul had this in mind when he wrote one of his most complex treatises, which now carries the name, the book of Romans. If you want “lite Paul,” try, say, Philippians, but Romans is for the strong of heart as Ann Sharp found out in working this week actually to try to understand what she would read for you this morning. Here’s a slice of Romans for you, and this is the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:18-23 NRSV).


There is still, in the forefront of Paul’s thinking, the idea that time will end, and it will all be glorious for God’s people; but God who created this beautiful, beautiful world isn’t going to let it just die off or be abandoned. As Paul saw it, the created order itself gets its transformation also--just as God’s people get theirs. If you participated in our rapid run through of the book of Revelation a couple of months ago, you know that the writer of the book of Revelation shared that view even though the details may differ.
In Romans, God’s people get new bodies for a new realm of existence, and the created order also gets transformed so that it is no longer subject to decay and can last forever--in a place where time is no more, where no one will ever be able to say again, “This, too, shall pass,” or, “It’s only for now.” Eternity absorbs temporality, and time will be no more. Similarly, immateriality absorbs the material world and also becomes eternal.
Paul deals with this in the book of 1 Corinthians.

There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:40-44 NRSV).


I wouldn’t conceive of this in exactly the way Paul does here, though I think it is beautifully stated, but this essentially is what I believe. Now, those of you who think I’m a liberal need to rethink! I’m just an old fashioned Bible preacher!
One of the old hymns about the end of time that we sang frequently at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads began like this, and I know some of you could finish it without looking at a hymnal, “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more....When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!” Christianity is not the only religion to ponder the possibility of an eternity where time will be no more.
I said a minute ago that all things are transformed for the purposes of timelessness, human bodies and the cosmos itself. Here’s the beautiful passage from the book of Revelation that visualizes with symbols that earthly and cosmic transformation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God Godself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:1-5 NRSV).


There are so many heartening affirmations in these few verses, but for our purposes today, I concentrate on permanence. In this world, about everything we must ultimately say, “This, too, shall pass,” and/or, “Only for now.” But the writer or writers who compiled what came to be the last book as Christian scripture was ordered, used strong symbols to give us hope.
God says, “I am making all things new.” A new heaven and a new earth are merged together. There is no longer a separation between heaven and earth! God’s dwelling and the dwelling of humans is one and the same.
When the new earth is created, new planetary policies prevail, and one of them will be the discontinuance of time. With time gone and new bodies transformed and habitat transformed, death will be no more--a state in which the deceased have long been living. No more mourning, no more crying, no more pain. Eden has been restored!
In the present world, which isn’t going anywhere any time soon unless we blow it and ourselves up one of these days, “This, too, shall pass,” applies to every event and experience and condition and emotion. Every single one, no exceptions, no exclusions. We can’t escape it, but there’s a realm that already exists not at all far removed from where we are, where all of those who have chosen to be with God in that land that is fairer than day, where the proverb no longer applies. One day, that will be the only realm of existence there is, and it will not pass.
Amen.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Forbidden Fruit









artist: James Dupree




I.
Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” He also said, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
On the other end of the thought continuum, there’s the old hymn:

Yield not to temptation for yielding is sin.
Each vic’try will help you some other to win.
Fight manfully onward [yes, ladies!] dark passions subdue.
Look ever to Jesus he will carry you through.


Actually, Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount that the problem began long before the yielding got underway. For example, he illustrated, “You have heard that it was said in ancient times: `You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks lustfully at someone who isn’t her or his spouse has already committed adultery in the heart” (Matt 5:27, preacher’s paraphrase). Yikes!
Temptation describes the lure we feel when some potential act powerfully attracts us. Obviously, there are degrees of temptation, and we may be coached to give in to the temptation by a tempter who can be a person or can be an inner voice pushing us to give in to the temptation. Some people say that the voice is no mere inner voice at all; it’s none other than the voice of the devil trying to entice us to do anything and everything wrong.
We usually think of temptation in terms of being tempted to do something that isn’t good for us or for others. Technically, though, one can be tempted to do what is right too especially if taking the high road or the healthy road or the productive road isn’t normative for her or for him.
Perhaps the most famous story of temptation in world literature is the one that evolved through the ancient Hebrew mythology collection and became the story we now have in the third chapter of Genesis. Some theologians and biblical scholars refer to the story that is told there as “the fall” of humanity. “The fall” in this case means that humanity FELL from the state of utter blessedness and divine protection and to realm in which all the potential pains and all possible Edenic-opposites were allowed to prevail and take their tolls. The storyteller in Genesis tells the story as an “aetiological myth,” more than as an ultimate statement about the nature of God or the nature of humanity as the story would later be used and as it is yet used by a significant number of scriptural interpreters today.
Practically all the ancient cultures that have left literature behind and available for study by generations who came after them have created these great stories that were told for two purposes. One type of such myths was “creation myths.” These had a rather cosmic context and explained how the world came into being and, at the other end of the spectrum, how the world will end--that is, become “un-created.” Genesis chapters one and two present two of the ancient Hebrew creation myths. The Hebrews weren’t doing anything other than what other ancient peoples did. We have creation myths from numerous Indigenous American tribes, from the Mesopotamians, the Babylonians, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans, the people from India, and on and on.
The other broad kind of myth, as I try to mention often when we pass through the early chapters of Genesis, is the aetiological myth. Unlike the creation myth, the aetiological myth is more focused and sometimes localized; the aetiological myth seeks to explain why something about human experience is the way it is. Genesis 3 is a kind of “catch all” aetiological myth. It seeks to explain several mysteries:

1) If God really created a perfect world for human beings to enjoy without complication or disruption, which seems to be at least one of the implications of the creation stories, what went wrong?
2) Why do humans who were originally intended by God to live eternally in the great, lush Garden of Eden not now live forever? In other words, why do human beings die?
3) Why do women have pain in child birth?
4) Why do men have to work so hard to eek out a living from often uncooperative lands?
5) Why is there enmity and fear between humans and certain wild animals when, originally, the humans and the animals were one big happy family?

Well, that depends on whom you ask, as the story goes.
If you ask God, who created and planned it all, God says the reason things went so badly wrong was the refusal of the man, Adam; the woman, Eve; and the serpent to live within the simple limits God had established for them. All the bad things that happened to each of them can be traced back directly to the refusal of each to be what God had created her or him or it to be.
If you ask Adam why the joys of Eden are no more, he says, in a word, “Eve.” He says to God, “You know, God, Eve really is ravishing to look at and decent company most of the time, but if you’ll think back just a little bit, God, you’ll remember that before you created her and brought her to me, NOTHING like this ever happened. Nobody even thought of such a thing. No disrespect intended, God, but don’t you have to accept some responsibility here too?”
If you ask Eve, she says, “It was that silly serpent. There I was minding my own business when the serpent walked up to me and planted all these crazy thoughts in my head. Before the serpent showed up, nothing like that had ever entered my mind. This would never have happened, God, if you had created one less creature.”
The serpent isn’t even given the chance to explain; he just gets slammed. There may be some very interesting reasons for this, which I’ll get to by and by today.
This is what I want you to notice for now. Temptation in each case led to disobedience and, in at least two of the three instances, an unwillingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. One wonders how the God of Genesis 3 would have reacted if, when God asked Eve and Adam why they did what they did, they had been willing to say, “It was totally my fault, God. I knew better, and I made a bad choice. Out of sight, out of mind, God. You weren’t around, and I didn’t take what you said seriously.”
Do you think God may have said, “OK, kids. I know you’re really new at this human business. I’m going to give you another chance. So come on this time, get it right, and let’s keep on loving Eden!”
This probably never entered the writer’s mind. The God of Genesis 3 is a one strike and you’re out kind of God. “Sorry, folks. This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you, but you let temptation convince you that your preferences and your curiosities are more important than what I’ve asked you to do and not to do. That’s a fatal flaw. Let this be a lesson to you about what yielding to temptation can bring.”
“I’ll bet you won’t forget what I’m telling you this time. All three of you, you’re going to die--not right this minute, but by and by. Before you die, things aren’t going to be wonderful for you either. Eden and its lush provision and protectiveness are over for you. Get out!”
“Serpent, forget walking upright. You’re now going to crawl on your belly in the dust, and Eve as well as all the Eves after her are going to fear you and hate a lot of you wild animals. They may even try to kill you before your time.”
“Eve, I condemn you and all the Eves after you to a perpetual Catch 22. You’re going to desire your husband sexually, and, yet, when he impregnates you so that you may keep the human race going, you’re going to be on your way to the worst physical pain a human being will be able to endure. You can’t keep life going without extraordinary pain.”
“Adam, in Eden, all the plants cooperated with you and made it easy for you to eat and feed your family. No more. Outside of Eden, you’ll have to work the ground to try to eat, and it won’t always cooperate. There will be times when you’re hungry. There will be times when your family will be hungry, and you will have nothing to offer them for nourishment or sustenance.”
“As the three of you pack up to leave Eden, keep asking yourselves this question, `Was giving in to the temptation to have a bite of the single forbidden fruit worth these consequences?’”

II.
The Broadway musical that provides the song for my sermon focus today is “The Apple Tree.” Last week, we heard Alan Alda singing the role of Adam from it, and today, later in this Gathering, we will hear a crafty Larry Blyden singing the role of the Snake. We will hear his rendition of “Forbidden Fruit.” The words capture perfectly the dynamic he creates for Eve.

With every sweet and juicy luscious bite of this not forbidden fruit
You’ll see your mind expand and your perceptions grow more and more acute.
And you can teach him plumbing and philosophy,
New techniques for glazing pottery,
Wood-craft, first-aid, home economy.
Madam, Adam will be overjoyed
(“Forbidden Fruit,” from “The Apple Tree”).


I want us to leave Eden for a few minutes and revisit Jesus. I’ve already mentioned one part of his Sermon on the Mount; now I ask you to concentrate on the so-called Lord’s Prayer, also a part of the Sermon the Mount.
The Lord’s Prayer, called by some the “Model Prayer,” is presented in the Gospel literature because Jesus was preaching about several “wrong ways” to pray, and he offered his model prayer as an example of a right way to pray. As I read the context, the concern wasn’t with an all-occasion, all-purpose prayer template, but rather a concern about teaching followers of Jesus how to pray in a particularly dangerous, threatening time for both Jews and Christians--a few years after the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem Temple as an effort to quell conclusively Jewish rebellions and uprisings against Rome.
Incidentally, the prayer form most heard in small and large Christian gatherings bears no resemblance whatsoever to the “Model Prayer.” One, and only one, of the glaring inconsistencies between how many Christians pray today and how Jesus prayed when he gave this demo is that Jesus did not pray “in Jesus’ name.” Somewhere along the way, there were those who began to see the beyond-earth Jesus as an intermediary between human beings and God. That flaw in perspective alone is worth a sermon if not several substantive theology textbooks. Again, a single metaphor has been taken by the chronically-literalistic out of context and universalized. It’s a horrible interpretive practice, and it can only lead to mass misunderstanding.
The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews portrays Jesus as a Jewish high priest who, among other things, carries our prayers to God. The way that image has been used is terribly unfortunate. I say this for several reasons, the most compelling being that Jesus never, ever operated under the assumption that there were any intermediaries between human beings and God. God does not separate Godself from humanity, waiting in seclusion somewhere for the requests of humans to be carried to God by some approved intermediary or emissary. My God! That’s the very opposite of what Jesus believed and taught and practiced.
One of the most telling aspects of the Model Prayer is that, when demonstrating how prayer is supposed to work, Jesus did NOT take any listeners to the Temple to offer up a prayer with sacrifices under the guidance of a priest who would see to it that God got the word. When demonstrating prayer, Jesus just started praying right then and there.
Two entities are needed for meaningful, effective prayer--not three. All that is needed for prayer are God and a person seeking to commune with God. No priest, no shaman, no spirit of any saint or other dearly departed person is needed, and, in fact, would only be in the way.
Both Jesus and Paul conceived of prayer as a direct encounter between a human being and God. We assume that the writer of the book of Hebrews concurred and was simply using a metaphor for envisioning what Jesus’ post-earthly function might be. Reading the Bible literally has caused many more problems than it has solved.
Most of us who know the prayer by memory have memorized, in essence, the King James Version of the prayer from the Gospel of Matthew. Luke’s Gospel offers a more concise version of the prayer.
Here’s the version from the Gospel of Matthew as King James’s translation team rendered it:

Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen (Matt 6:9-13 KJV).


Lead us not into temptation? Does God lead people into temptation so that we have to pray to be relieved of that particular potentially damning circumstance? Surely not! Yet, here is Jesus in the Model Prayer asking God not to lead him, Jesus, and Jesus’ contemporaries into temptation.
Think back to the havoc wreaked by temptation in Genesis 3! It ultimately brought death. Now here is Jesus asking God, pleading with God, not to lead him and others into temptation.
An understanding of what Jesus meant by this begins with noticing that the prayer is entirely communal and not individualistic at all. “OUR God in heaven.” “Give US OUR daily bread.” “Deliver US from evil.”
Jesus certainly prayed personalized prayers. Just think of his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before the Romans imprisoned him and got the process of execution underway. He asked God, “If it can be your will, let this cup pass from me.” That is very touching and about as personal as it can get.
In the Lord’s Prayer or Model Prayer Jesus prays to God that God not lead him and his followers or his contemporaries, his fellow Jews perhaps, into temptation. That God would even entertain the notion of doing such a thing casts God in a very bad light--at least to my eye. In the Genesis 3 account, again, God has absolutely nothing to do with temptation. God had created everyone and every thing and given the one rule for being able to live in and stay in Eden. By the way, there’s absolutely no reason to assume that this tree produced apples; the type of fruit it produced is never made known to us.
This was the one rule of Eden:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17 NRSV).


We find out in the next chapter of Genesis that the tree happens to have been in the center of the Garden. We also find out that it wasn’t even to have been touched. Eating from it, even touching it, will bring death. Harsh, it seems to us, but certainly simple and to the point. Someone may have thought of it as a silly rule, but no one could have misunderstood the rule. We will get back to the temptations of Eden themselves in a moment; now I want us to concentrate for a minute on this assumption in Jesus’ prayer that God might lead God’s people into temptation.
A modern translation helps somewhat. The New Revised Version of the Bible takes temptation out of the equation with a more precise translation of the original Greek: “And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matt 6:13 NRSV). Jesus had a strong sense that bad times were coming for him and his people in conflict with Rome, and he couldn’t have been more correct. Jesus also believed that God could intervene in some kind of way that is never made explicit as far as I know to stop bad things from happening. This part of the Lord’s Prayer is a request that God hold off on allowing that confrontation of Jews including his followers within Judaism with mighty Rome, but then asking in the prayer to be delivered from the evil one is surely a reference to at least an impersonal evil force that could try to lead people to do what would bring negative results.
Jesus himself had met with this “evil one” at the beginning of his ministry when he was tempted by it to glorify himself rather than honor God. He was teaching his people to pray that they as a group not have to deal with the evil one if and when the great crisis or trial came.
It’s not exactly the same thing as crediting God with bringing people to temptation that could ruin their lives and, in the process, cause a rift between them and God, but it’s close. It’s uncomfortably close.


III.
We have to think of this “lead us not into temptation” reference in the Lord’s Prayer as more a creation by some branches of the early Christian community than words directly from Jesus himself. There was certainly a strand of early Christian thought that was unequivocally committed to the notion that God had absolutely nothing to do with tempting humans to do anything but good.
Listen to this from the book of James:

No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and God Godself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it... (James 1:13-14 NRSV).


Certainly in the Garden of Eden, God causing the temptation and then severely punishing all involved makes no sense at all. So who exactly was the serpent-tempter in Eden, and why was the temptation so powerful that it had all three of the key characters stepping out of their God-assigned roles?
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Gen 3:1 NRSV). The serpent at first evidently walked upright in and around Eden; part of his punishment for being involved in the tempting of humanity was being ordered, from that point on, to crawl on his belly through the dust.
There are some Hebrew scripture scholars, notably in this case, John Skinner and Brevard Childs, who with mythologist Joseph Campbell believe that in one of the versions of this myth predating the one we have in the Hebrew Bible the serpent may have been a lesser god than God the Creator.
Something else to think about here is that those creatures that were created to live in and travel across the dust did not find that way of life bothersome to them, but traveling on belly in the dust, if that’s not what you were created to do, would be distasteful and a major punishment indeed. Whoever or whatever the serpent had been originally, he was not accustomed to a life of slithering on his belly through the dust.
I keep using the masculine pronoun to refer to the serpent, but numerous artists through the ages, not the least of whom was Michelangelo, thought of the serpent as a female. In fact, in his composition, “The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve,” he paints the serpent unmistakably as a female creature.
Again, I stress that those creatures originally created to crawl or wallow in the dust or the dirt or the mud did not take their place in the order of things to be a sign of their low status in the created order. It is only a punishment if that is not what you were initially created for.
This leads us to another issue that needs to be considered if we would fully understand the ramifications of the cultural assumptions of Genesis 3. In the eastern world, snakes were often very highly regarded, revered even. Snakes were symbols for creative powers, for wisdom, for rejuvenation, and even for healing.
I say all of this to stress that the Creator God in Genesis didn’t have anything against the snake and didn’t consider the snake sinister. The snake is as amazing as any of the other creatures that God created and called good.
The condemnation of the serpent in Genesis 3 for his complicity in the tempting processes was connected to the fact that he was not originally a serpent. He was one of the wild animals God had created, and he was crafty or cunning; but that didn’t make him evil.
The truly unsettling part of the temptation story in Genesis 3 is that all parties involved were originally fully good and fully celebrated parts of the created order. Even when God condemned them for their disobedience, God still loved them all--including the serpent.
That’s a vitally important point for us to remember if we want this passage of ancient scripture to have meaning and relevance for us today. There are no evil beings in the story. None. Zero. Before the so-called “fall” or after the “fall,” there are no evil creatures, and the fault of each one that landed her or him or it in an originally unassigned place in God’s order of things was exactly the same. Eve and Adam and the serpent all knew better than to do what they did, but they did it anyway. Each one tried to be something other than what God had intended in the created order, and there was price to pay for that. All three were tempted, and all three gave into the temptation, with negative results. Adam said Eve talked him into sampling the fruit. Eve said one of the wild animals chatted with her about the prospects of nibbling on a piece of the beautiful to see and smell fruit; it was not the function of the cunning wild animal to question God’s plan. The serpent, evidently, had no one to blame, but hearing in his head what Eve and Adam claimed to have heard out loud wasn’t really any different. The most heinous of temptations for us are probably like the one with which the wild animal had to deal; they come into our consciousness from no apparent source.
All too many interpreters have wanted to make the Genesis 3 serpent out to be the devil or the Satan. That’s impossible.
Let’s get God off the hook here. This segment of ancient Hebrew scripture is a myth trying to explain the kinds of things I mentioned earlier. We can rest assured that God did not create us to live forever and then turn right around and condemn us to have to face mortality because we sampled some fruit.
St. Augustine is, without a doubt, one of the most pessimistic figures in the history of Christianity. One of his nemeses, someone also in the Church, was Pelagius, and Pelagius condemned Augustine’s morbid pessimism, among other things. Augustine said the sins of Eve and Adam brought death to them and to all their descendants. Pelagius said, “Nonsense. Eve and Adam were mortals, and they would have died whether or not they ate the forbidden fruit.”
Temptation is inherently not evil at all. It’s simply a part of creation, simply a part of being human. Normally, when temptation presses us to consider doing something we know we shouldn’t do, temptation itself isn’t presenting us with any new ideas or options. Temptation has us consider the option that what we’ve heard is bad for us may not be as bad as we’ve been thinking and may even have some benefits that we hadn’t considered before.
Who forces us to have these conversations with temptation? That’s right. No one. We entertain temptation only as long as we choose, and we are not required to have to entertain temptation at all.
If we do something we shouldn’t do, should temptation get the blame? Absolutely not. We are responsible for our own actions, and that message in Genesis 3 comes through with unmistakable clarity.
We probably do much better to treat Genesis 3 as a reflection of humanity as a whole grappling with its God-assigned role than to see Adam as every man and Eve as every woman. Perhaps, we all have some of Adam and some of Eve in us.
What is ultimately good and what is ultimately evil is somehow woven into the very fabric of the created order. These do not change because of time or culture. When humanity gives in to negative temptation and determines not to live according to its God-assigned role in conjunction with what is acceptable according to these standards or roles, then dire consequences follow. We end up having to live in ways God did not intend for us, and that is always to our detriment; but it is also always entirely up to us. No scape-snakes!
Amen.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

BEAUTIFUL, BEAUTIFUL WORLD







Photographer: Bill Westerhoff








Photographer: Margaret Walker








Photographer: Dick Holmes








Photographer: Marge Grant








Photographer: Dave Clarke




I.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth (Psa 8 NRSV).



Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”


This is Creator’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is Creator’s world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
God’s hand the wonders wrought.

This is Creator’s world,
the birds their carols raise,
the morning light, the lily white,
declare their maker's praise.
This is Creator’s world:
God shines in all that's fair;
in the rustling grass I hear God pass;
God speaks to me everywhere.



The foundational claim made by all three monotheistic faith traditions is that God created the world in which we live and that God created us to enjoy and care for the created order. Without this affirmation, none of the other theological affirmations matter or, at least, matter as much. That we are creations of God living in a world created by God is at the heart of the “God is love” tenet, at least as I see it. Here’s a quote from the Global Oneness Community:


The Creator God is the divine being that created the omniverse, according to various traditions and faiths. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam teach that Creation is the origin of the totality of the omniverse by the action of God. Even more particularly, every type of existence is also owing to the act of creation by God. Among monotheists it has historically been most commonly believed that living things are the God’s creations, and are not the result of a process inherent in originally non-living things, unless this process is designed, initiated, or directed by God.



When we think about the created order in Judaism, we are immediately drawn to the two accounts of the creation process that appear in first chapters of the book of Genesis. The conservatively indoctrinated person has been taught to overlook the obvious differences in how the ancient Hebrew poets conceived of the creation process, and they’ve also been taught that those same ancient poets cared about the specific order when, in reality, they were making affirmations about God and couldn’t have cared less about what came first in creation.

Most people who haven’t read carefully for themselves the two accounts of creation from Hebrew creation lore know only the first of these stories and, thus, assume the Hebrews had a rather hard and fast notion of the order in which God created the world. This would be the account that has humanity created at the end of the process--very near God’s famous or infamous day off, the sabbath. I believe all of humanity’s troubles started before God found out taking a day off was a bad move on God’s part!

Anyway, Rabbi Daniel Fink had this to say about the first account of creation:

The Babylonian Talmud recounts a debate over why God created humanity last of all the living beings. One Rabbi suggested that people were the pinnacle of creation. He compared God to a [sovereign] who prepared a fantastic feast and, after all was readied, invited the guest of honor. Thus, God made the entire natural world for the sustenance and enjoyment of humanity. Then, a second sage offered a very different response: “Adam was created at the end of the sixth day so that if human beings should grow too arrogant, they may be reminded that even the gnats preceded them in the order of creation.” According to this perspective, humanity is more or less a divine afterthought.



The Jesus Movement naturally used Jesus’ Bible as its foundation but added to it so what we call the Hebrew Bible was essentially what Jesus thought of as scripture and what his earliest followers also thought of as scripture. Thus, the views of the ancient Hebrews toward the creation of the heavens, the earth, and earth’s inhabitants largely shaped the ways the earliest followers of Jesus also viewed God as Creator and how the creation came about.

These views, as I’ve suggested, were expanded by Paul and others after him. I’ll say more about Paul’s contribution later. For now I ask you to remember the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the Fourth Gospel, with me.

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. The word was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through God, and without God not one thing came into being (John 1:1-3).


In this maze of masculine pronouns not clearly related to “God” or “Jesus” or “word” as an antecedent, there is no way to know for sure to whom or to what the writer was referring. One thing we can say with relative certainty, though, is that placing Jesus with God before Jesus was born on earth is not a requirement as far as translating or interpreting this little hymn from John’s Gospel goes.

Here’s a better translation of that passage from the opening of John’s Gospel. This translation has been done by Sir Anthony Buzzard and Charles Hunting: “In the beginning was the creative purpose of God. It was with God and was fully expressive of God. All things came into being through it.” The “it” being referred to is God’s creative purpose.

“In the beginning” here is the Gospel writer’s intentional way of connecting what she or he is saying in the Gospel with what was said by the Genesis writer whose words open Genesis as it has been edited for us. The Creator God is clearly in mind here. All things came into being through God’s creative purpose and/or through God’s LOGOS or word that makes God’s will come about. Not a single thing, animal, or person came into being on its own. God purposed, God spoke, each one into existence.

God and God’s purpose are one and the same. God and God’s active word are one and the same. If God purposes something, if God speaks something, then that person or animal or thing comes into being, and the Creator God willed this beautiful, beautiful world into being.


II.
There is a foundational prayer in Islam called by some scholars of Islam, “The Key.” Those who understand Islamic practices say that this prayer is often uttered during the daily prayers of a faithful Muslim:

In the name of GOD, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to GOD, Lord of the universe.
Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the right path; the path of those whom You blessed; not of those who have deserved wrath, nor of the strayers.


Here are some affirmations from the Koran about God, Allah, the Lord of the universe and the Creator of all things:

He is the Cleaver of the daybreak, and He has appointed the night for stillness, and the sun and the moon to run their appointed courses: [all] this is laid down by the Will of the Almighty, the All-Knowing (6:96).

Such is Allah, your Lord. There is no god except Him, the Creator of all things, so serve Him. And He takes care of all things (6:102).

He it is Who has made the sun a [source of] radiant light and the moon shining [surface], and has determined for it phases so that you might know how to compute the years and to measure [time]. None of this has Allah created without [an inner] truth. Clearly does He spell out these messages unto people of [innate] knowledge (10:5).

And He it is Who created the night and the day, and sun and the moon. They float each in an orbit… And from among His signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Prostrate not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate to Allah Who created them, if you (really) worship Him (21:33, 41:37).

It is Allah Who created everything in the best of form…It is He Who created and perfected all things (32:7, 87:2).

Allah has indeed made all things in heaven and earth subservient to humankind; it is all from Him (45:13).

He has created man: He has imparted unto him articulate thought and speech. [At His behest] the sun and the moon run their appointed courses; the stars and the trees prostrate themselves [before Him]. And the skies has He raised high, and has devised [for all things] a measure, so that you [too, O men,] might never transgress the measure [of what is right]: weigh, therefore, [your deeds] with equity, and cut not the measure short (55:3-9).


I’m intrigued by many Indigenous American creation myths. A part of one of my favorites goes something like this. In the beginning, there was only Tepeu (a word that means “sovereign” in the Mayan language) and Gucumatz (a feathered serpent). These two sat together, and they thought together. Whatever both of them thought came into being. They thought earth, and earth came into being. They thought mountains, and there they were. They thought trees, and sky, and animals, and each came into being as both Tepeu and Gucumatz thought of them.

Suddenly, the two creation thinkers realized that there was a problem. None of the things they had thought into existence could praise them. Plan B. They formed more advanced beings of clay, but these beings fell apart when they got wet. Plan C. They made beings out of wood, but they proved unsatisfactory and caused trouble on the earth. A great flood came to wipe out these wooden beings. Tepeu and Gucumatz could start over yet another time. Plan D. With the help of Mountain Lion, Coyote, Parrot, and Crow they fashioned four new beings. These four beings performed well and are the ancestors of the humans.

Just for the sake of perspective, we need to remember that this Indigenous American creation myth could easily have predated the Hebrew creation stories. The Hebrew people weren’t the only folks or necessarily the first folks in the human family to ponder human origins.

Earlier in our Gathering, you heard Alan Alda, a very young Alan Alda, singing “Beautiful, Beautiful World” from the musical production, “The Apple Tree.” “The Apple Tree” is actually three one-act plays performed as a single production, the first of the three being set in the Garden of Eden and relying heavily on Mark Twain’s twin works, “Eve’s Diary” and “Adam’s Diary.”

The show premiered on Broadway in October of 1966 starring Barbara Harris as Eve and Alan Alda as Adam in the first of three one-acts. I saw “The Apple Tree” on Broadway early last year when Kristin Chenoweth played Eve and Brian d’Arcy James performed the role of Adam. Fun, entertaining, and thought provoking too--as we would expect from Twain.

Here’s a snippet from Twain’s “Eve’s Diary” on which the play is based. This is part of Eve’s entry on the first Saturday of creation; in Twain’s reckoning, Eve had been created on Friday so this was her second day of being. Listen especially for her comments on the created order:

Everything looks better today than it did yesterday. In the rush of finishing up yesterday, the mountains were left in a ragged condition, and some of the plains were so cluttered with rubbish and remnants that the aspects were quite distressing. Noble and beautiful works of art should not be subjected to haste; and this majestic new world is indeed a most noble and beautiful work. And certainly marvelously near to being perfect, notwithstanding the shortness of the time. There are too many stars in some places and not enough in others, but that can be remedied presently, no doubt. The moon got loose last night, and slid down and fell out of the scheme—a very great loss; it breaks my heart to think of it. There isn't another thing among the ornaments and decorations that is comparable to it for beauty and finish. It should have been fastened better. If we can only get it back again—

But of course there is no telling where it went to. And besides, whoever gets it will hide it; I know it because I would do it myself. I believe I can be honest in all other matters, but I already begin to realize that the core and center of my nature is love of the beautiful, a passion for the beautiful, and that it would not be safe to trust me with a moon that belonged to another person and that person didn't know I had it. I could give up a moon that I found in the daytime, because I should be afraid someone was looking; but if I found it in the dark, I am sure I should find some kind of an excuse for not saying anything about it. For I do love moons, they are so pretty and so romantic. I wish we had five or six; I would never go to bed; I should never get tired lying on the moss-bank and looking up at them.



III.
The words Alda’s Adam sings in the song “Beautiful, Beautiful World” comprise a very upbeat, somewhat secular hymn of excitement and profound appreciation of the created order. Do you think we become so accustomed to the beauty around us that we take it for granted?

I see animals and birds and flowers,
Ev 'ry color, ev'ry shape and size;
Moss and pebbles and a host of wonders,
Gleaming ev 'ry where I aim my eyes.
So if ever I'm attacked by boredom,
I'll just open up my eyes and see
This diversified, curious, fascinating, bountiful,
Beautiful, beautiful world.


Then, there’s the ending to the song--a formal word of thanks to the world. The “world” and “God” are very closely related in the perspective of the play.

World, thank you very much for all I see, hear, taste and touch;
Plus ev'ry whiff I sniff.
(words by Sheldon Harnick).


I’m very worried about how little most of us who inhabit this beautiful, beautiful world appreciate it and appreciate it enough to take care of it.

Professor James Lovelock was one of the first scientists to catch on to the crisis of global warming and, for many years, was a great optimist about how the problem could be corrected. Now, he’s a shocking pessimist. I am uneasy with pessimists and tend to shy away from them in person and in terms of my choices of reading material. Even so, from time to time pessimism slaps us in the face, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Right?

In 2006, Professor Lovelock spoke out and said that steps weren’t taken in time, and we have now come to the point of no return as to global warming. That alarms me and makes me sad. I have no way of knowing who is right and who is wrong about what the future holds concerning our climate changes, but I do know denying that global warming even exists can’t be a tenable or a sane position to take.

Since 1972, established by the United Nations, June 5 has been designated as World Environment Day. The honor of being the host country gets passed around from year to year, but for some reason there’s not as much competition for wanting to host the event as there is for, say, some aspects of the Olympics.

This year’s host country is New Zealand, and the theme is “Kick the Habit! Towards a Low-Carbon Economy.” Last year, Else, the host country was Norway, and the theme was “Melting Ice: A Hot Topic.”

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psa 24:1 NRSV). The earth is the Lord’s, and the Lord passes along to humans the responsibility for care of God’s beautiful world. Back to the first account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in the divine image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:26-28 NRSV).


Subduing and having dominion over mean care for, not abuse of.

The Jakarta Post in its online edition for today says the number one way the proper care of our world can get to where it needs to be is the demand by citizens on leaders to take all steps necessary to make the environment healthy. Indonesia boasts the second greatest biodiversity in the world after Brazil.

Those of us who have the greatest voice, in contexts of democracy, have the most responsibility. We have to stop poisoning ourselves and our biosphere with pollutants; we have to stop dealing in any way with non-recyclable products; and we have to stop using whatever isn’t sustainable.

Let me say this clearly. The churches, synagogues, and mosques must take the lead in this. The governments on the whole have no intention of doing so.

Several months ago, Brent Grant sent me an email proposal that I actually agreed with 100 percent. (I know. Regain your composure.) He said our church should become green. Bravo, Brent! He’s exactly right.

The first problem with the greening of Silverside Church, however, is that it costs more in the present economy to be environmentally responsible than to be environmentally abusive. We shouldn’t be using any paper around here unless it’s 100 percent recycled. Lights should never be on in rooms with no people in them. The pens and pencils we buy should be eco-friendly. The cleaning supplies we use should be un-damaging to the environment. The coffee we drink should be Fair Trade and organic. Oh wait! We’re there already on coffee! This is not a matter of being a bleeding heart; this is a matter of common sense, a matter of honoring of God and being actively grateful for the gift of this unspeakably beautiful world.

I’ve always been intrigued by the Apostle Paul’s image of the created order groaning toward its own liberation in the same way that human beings long for their full liberation. That touches me. Paul was onto something; and that was long before the planet was ever abused to the degree we abuse it in a modern milieu where we know how to fix most of damage we’ve done. The problem is that most of us just don’t want to be bothered. How unspeakably tragic.

God after having created humanity said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and care for the beautiful Garden called Earth or Eden.”

And humanity said, “NO!”