Sunday, July 26, 2009







I.
There’s a rhythm to all aspects of life well-lived, naturally lived, just as there’s a rhythm to many important processes. The English word “rhythm” is very nearly a transliteration of an ancient Greek word, rythmos (ρυθμος). It referred to any flow or movement that could be measured such as how waters ebb and flow, how the heavenly bodies appear to move through the sky and how they continually appear and disappear, how a human being or an animal breathes in and breathes out, over and over again.
There may have been a cosmic rhythm discernible to the Creator’s ear as the world was coming into being over all those aeons. The storyteller who told one of the most famous ancient stories of creation passed down to us, caught the rhythm of creation in what we now call Genesis chapter 1. Listen!

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day....And there was evening, and there was morning, the second day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the third day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the fourth day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the fifth day.... And there was evening, and there was morning, the six day....


Did you hear it? The rhythm, I mean. At the end of each day’s work, the storyteller added a rhythmic refrain. “And there was evening, and there was morning.”
Besides that, God’s work-plan later generations said should be the basis for a living rhythm for humans--work followed by rest, by sabbath. The Hebrew word that we translate “sabbath” is from shabath meaning literally to rest from one’s labors.
From the Ten Commandments:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exod 20:1-11 NRSV).


Remember the sabbath; remember your rest day, and keep it holy. “Holy” doesn’t mean religious, not overtly anyway; it means different. There should be a clear difference between work days and rest days; otherwise, our lives get out of rhythm or lose their rhythm altogether. (I’m preaching principles today, not my achievements!)
Indian poet and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore, wrote:

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.


Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that:

Rhythm is the basis of life, not steady forward progress. The forces of creation, destruction, and preservation have a whirling, dynamic interaction.


The thoughtful philosophy from Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is, fundamentally, about rhythm. Having preached a whole sermon series recently on that passage, I’m sure you remember it in vivid detail:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to  laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance... (Ecc 3:1-4 NRSV adapted).


“Everything has rhythm. Everything dances,” says Mayou Angelou. And Plato: “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.”
George Gershwin wrote the music, and his brother, Ira Gershwin, wrote the words to a song that quickly became and remains a jazz standard.

Days can be sunny,
With never a sigh ;
Don't need what money can buy.
Birds in the tree sing
Their dayful of song,
Why shouldn't we sing along?
I'm chipper all the day,
Happy with my lot.
How do I get that way?
Look at what I've got:
I got rhythm
I got music
I got my man/girl
Who could ask for anything more?


Thomas Merton, the highly influential Trappist monk who died tragically in 1968, was onto the essence of essential spirituality. He wrote: “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”
Author and musician Howard Goodall leans to the notion that many people have a rather natural internal rhythm. We didn’t put it there, and evidently we can’t take it away. It’s a part of us. It likely comes from our mother’s heartbeat while we were in the womb and influences a host of beyond-the-womb patterns such as the pace at which we walk.
Researchers at the University of Florida have done a great deal of research on what one of them has called “The Lullaby of the Womb.” The researchers are suggesting that fetuses can hear low-frequency sounds. They are more likely to hear, from sound sources outside their mother’s body, the voices of persons who have deeper tones than those who have high-pitched voices. They are more likely to hear vowels rather than consonants, and if you play music for an unborn child she or he will likely hear the bass instruments and not flutes, piccalos, or high-pitched violins.
Professor Kenneth Gerhardt is the lead researcher on this project. He is Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and he comments, “What we think the human fetus is probably detecting would be the rhythm or melody of speech.”
Over time, we may forget words, or we may be in situations in which we don’t understand the language being spoken. With advanced disease we may even forget how to speak, but some neurologists suggest that we never forget rhythm.
Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. As long as we live in this earthly realm, and almost assuredly in the next realm, there is rhythm. Elvis Presley: “Rhythm is something you either have or don't have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”



II.
So, I was thinking about the rhythms of several areas of life, and it seems to me that pondering physical rhythms and emotional rhythms could create a good jumping off point for understanding spiritual rhythms, which is where we will get to today. I’m sure there are many ways to configure this, but here is where I ended up in my observations. The natural rhythm of a healthy physical life: rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat. Rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat. We have to watch that word “repeat” when it falls into the hands of a literalist. I once knew someone, a literalist with a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder, who as an adult, for the first time in her life, actually read the directions on a bottle of shampoo. After several hours of wetting, lathering, rinsing, and repeating, she called her mother to ask why that particular shampoo required so many applications and how she’d know when to stop. Rest, accomplish, nourish, exert, repeat.
It turns out that just getting the optimal amount of sleep in terms of hours is a rather pointless projection unless the sleep occurs at the proper time for one’s body, and that “right time” has to do with when the body is producing its maximum amount of melatonin and when the lowest body temperature is reached. Both of these need to happen somewhere between the halfway point of the sleep cycle and the time for awakening. This is proof that just clocking in hours of sleep will not necessarily lead to rest.
There was a study dating back about six years done by psychiatrists on the west coast who are interested in sleep disorders. Their studies showed that too much sleep will kill you. They concluded that most humans need between six to seven hours of sleep nightly and no more. Folks who sleep more than that have a much greater chance of becoming diseased and, thus, dying sooner than their counterparts who sleep about 6.5 hours each day.
After rest, most healthy folks want to accomplish something whether it’s getting a chore done or fulfilling one’s professional responsibilities. If you’re retired or a stay-at-home parent, maybe what you hope to accomplish is something like hitting your hobby with some real focus--organizing those beautiful photos you’ve taken, finishing up the mugs on the pottery wheel, or writing a few pages of the great American novel. Maybe it’s a chore day, and after rest what you need to accomplish is on a list: groceries, mail contribution to Palin unethical ethics defense fund, bank deposit, dentist. You get the point of what I have in mind.
I’m not in any way suggesting that you work a full day or a long time without nourishment. Surely you ate something before you began accomplishing for the day. At several points in the day we must nourish ourselves and hydrate our bodies.
After serious nourishment, not immediately after but after, perhaps we take on our most demanding physical task of the day--whether it’s a workout at the gym, a brisk walk, getting the yard mowed, or doing the heavy cleaning around the house. Physical exertion not only exercises our body, making us potentially healthier, but also stress can be reduced and endorphins dispersed. Obviously, there’s no way to separate completely physical health from emotional health.
OK. After physical exertion, it’s time for more rest, and the rhythmic cycle starts all over again. You might juggle the various physical activities around differently, but I believe I’ve included the basics that need to be worked in.
This is what I propose as a rather natural rhythm for a healthy emotional life: rest, engage, reflect, strengthen, confront, repeat. After rest, we begin a day or a project, and most of us except those of us who live alone--without human or animal companionship and without telephones or computers--must engage others or be engaged by them. If you sleep with your significant other, your first engagement of the day may be making sure she or he is awake for work, or maybe your first engagement of the day is scolding him for failing to lower the seat. In the high tech age, your first engagement of the day may be reading the news or answering an email. Whatever it is, you’ve expended emotional energy, and let’s hope that most emotionally healthy people are expending those early morning energies on people about whom they care or on processes about which they care.
After rest and initial engagement, there’s probably a need for reflection and regrouping. Part of a healthy emotional life, I think, is giving oneself time to take in. We can’t just be giving out all the time; something has to renew us, refresh us, replenish our emotional energies. You may reflect by reading or by meditation. You may physically remove yourself from the situations where the greater emotional demands are made on you.
Some of you have heard me say that our older son, Jarrett, only slept all night six times during his first two years of life. He wasn’t crying to make trouble for his sleep-deprived parents; he just wanted companionship at various points in the wee hours. (My mother says that is payback to me for all the hours of sleep I cost my parents beginning at birth and continuing until I left home at 18!) Our pediatrician, Dr. Wasser, told my wife that we were just going to have to let him cry it out a few times, and the best way to let that happen, the concerns and uneasiness of parenthood notwithstanding, was to go off into a far corner of the house, shut the door, and drink wine until he stopped. After that conversation with Dr. Wasser, my wife said, “Now I know what God led us to
this pediatrician! We’ll tell the church that the doctor told us we HAVE TO drink wine for the sake of our child.”
Rest, engage, reflect, strengthen. The emotional strengthening process requires me to take specific steps to make me and keep me emotionally healthy and strong. If life has thrown me a curve ball, and my emotional foundations have been rattled, strengthening myself may mean seeking out a counselor. Or there might be a beautiful place where visiting or lingering strengthens you--a very scenic spot or a very quiet place. It could be practically any place, and if it strengthens you, you may need to visit it frequently. The thing is, it’s not coming to you. You have to make an effort to get to it.
The beach is that place for some folks. Whether it’s the sun or the water or the escape, the beach is where you are emotionally strengthened. And you go there intentionally to be strengthened.
My East Tennessee roots from time to time remind me that the mountains renew me like no other place I could ever go. The coolness of the mountains after enduring summer heat below the peaks is exceptionally refreshing. The beauty of fall leaves is no where more vibrant than in the mountains. When I was teaching in Switzerland and had opportunities here and there to go high up into the alps by hiking or riding a cable car or a ski lift, I was mesmerized every time. I haven’t been to my home mountains in a couple of years, and I can feel the need to be there.
The Gospel of Matthew has a little snippet out of a day in the life of Jesus, but it probably speaks volumes.

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone... (Matt 14:23 NRSV).


Often we hear this passage and others like them used to teach and preach the importance of prayer and solitude, and I wouldn’t argue with that. I would point out, however, that prayer and meditation can conceivably take place any where and any time. Jesus in these cases went specifically to a place from where he drew emotional strength. This is emotional nourishment.
In the same way that I left the greater physical exertion to the end of my list of those items that combine to make for optimal physical health, I here have left confrontation to the end of the pattern of emotional rhythm.
Life requires confrontation. The confrontations don’t have to be angry or combative, but all of us have matters we have to deal with in our personal lives and often in our professional lives that maybe we’d rather not have to bring up--confronting a teen about behavior we consider problematic and on the way to destructive; telling someone we have supervised on the job that her or his position has been cut; telling an aging parent that you and your siblings believe driving is no longer safe for the parent or for other drivers or pedestrians. These are the issues for which we save up emotional energy; then we confront, and then we rest again. It’s part of the rhythm of a healthy emotional life.


III.
Assuming that a seeker is living according to a healthy physical and emotional rhythm, the matter of a healthy spiritual rhythm now comes before us. Here’s my proposal. The natural rhythm of a healthy spiritual life: rest, minister, meditate, connect, challenge, repeat.
We begin again with rest.

Jesus, I am resting, resting
In the joy of what Thou art;
I am finding out the greatness
Of Thy loving heart.
O how great Thy loving kindness.
Vaster, broader than the sea!
O how marvelous Thy goodness,
Lavished all on me!
Yes, I rest in Thee, Beloved,
Know Thy certainty of promise,
And have made it mine.


The goal of a healthy spiritual rhythm isn’t the perfecting of naval gazing. Whatever happens interiorly should lead to acts that benefit humanity, the other creatures with whom we share the planet, and the environment itself. Certainly, there’s a sense in which prayer and meditation are legitimate ends in themselves because they are the major vehicles through which we contemplate God and life, but those very discoveries will not allow us to keep silent, will not allow us to sit still. So, I say a spiritually healthy seeker goes from rest to ministry; we are not leaving ourselves out of the equation, but our first efforts are for others known to us who need to be ministered to.
For those of us who try to take our cues from the example of Jesus, this first movement in the rhythm of spirituality being ministry is absolutely on target. Nothing could be clearer than that. If it has to be programmed at first, fine, but the more and more we seek opportunities to minister to others the more natural it feels.
When Jesus had gone through the gut-wrenching experience of identifying and claiming his ministry emphases, he borrowed from the prophet Isaiah and used the words from that ancient prophet to articulate how he would serve others:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19 NRSV).


Anyone who tries to hawk any kind of Christianity as all about the material blessings and breaks that come to those who follow Jesus is utterly fraudulent. There can be no religion based on the teachings of Jesus that has anything at the top of the list of practicing the religion other than ministering to others.
Earlier, I mentioned the Indian poet and playwright, Rabindranath Tagore. I refer you to him again and this moving insight he once shared:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.


The noble eightfold path of Buddhism includes a component known as “right action,” and part of right action is treating others with kindness and compassion. This is the heart of ministry.
Much of what many of us in the Christian tradition refer to as “ministry” is called in some branches of Buddhism “volunteering.”
Buddhism emphasizes how Buddhists should be ready to help the suffering without waiting for an invitation or a directive. When someone is in need, Buddhism through the principle of “Vimalakirti Sutra” calls on the faithful persons to be in those difficult circumstances an uninvited guests. One Buddhist primer has this to say about volunteering:

Volunteers are usually loving and virtuous persons who serve others out of free will, kindness, humanity, and charity. They are devoted to volunteer work that benefits others and the society. Although their services are free, their contributions are invaluable. Most of them are nameless and unknown, but their spiritual rewards and joy are immeasurable. They serve without the expectation of any economic gain. They are truly respectable and honorable!


From ministry we move rhythmically to meditation. In this category, I think of prayer, the reading of devotional literature including scripture and also including literature that draws you Godward whether or not others find it useful in that way. Prayer is certainly in this category because prayer is foundationally about communing with God within us and not about rattling on and on to God and giving God God’s to-do list for today. I suspect that the most profound prayers any of us will ever pray will be wordless--too deep for words.
Richard Valantasis, in his book Centuries of Holiness, discusses this concept in depth as you can gather from this quote:

The history of Christianity and indeed of other religions as well provides evidence for prayer beyond words, a form of prayer that moves beyond the discursive and enters into a direct apprehension and communion with the divine....Here the seeker prays to enter into union with the interior divine presence and to connect affectively and experientially with the divine presence manifest in others, in circumstances, in nature, and in events....This prayer apprehends the divine presence in the self, in society, and in the cosmos directly and immediately, without the intermediary of words (p. 218).


Meditation, again, including spiritual reading and reflection, is the entree at a meal of spiritual nourishment. It’s not the only source of nourishment for, indeed, we are immeasurably enriched when we serve others who have a need, but it’s the main dish.
The next dimension of spiritual rhythm is connection; by this I mean connecting with others not to serve them primarily, but to build community and share common goals. We gather with others to build up and to be built up. Naturally, when someone in the group or groups we connect with has a need, we minister to that person. I also don’t mean to imply that we are unable to grow and be nurtured by the neediest person we ever minister to. I’m talking, though, about intent. If I set out to minister to someone, I’m not expecting anything in return; if someone touches my heart, lifts me up, causes me to press on, wonderful; that’s an entirely unexpected bonus.
When we come together to build each other up, we are not putting ministry to others in the forefront at the moment, but when the opportunity arises we take it; and it becomes a priority. All the clarifying aside, we need each other. Part of the rhythm of a seeker’s life is being a part of a community in which we share in building up and being built up.
Before we get around to rest again, spiritual rhythm also requires exertion--confronting the evil next door and around the world, making right the damage done to people and the environment. We call for peace in a war-torn world. We insist that every human being deserves to have her or his basic needs met for food, water, and shelter. We go to the mat saying that every human being deserves to live in a place of safety, free from threat, and in our own country we call out for full civil liberties for all. And after confrontation, rest. It hard to rest; there’s so much to do, but without rest there will be no rhythm at all.

Sunday, July 19, 2009






I.
In the Middle Ages, European nobles defended their honor in man-to-man battles called duels. One of the early versions of dueling was called “judicial combat,” and many people believed that God would cause the man who was in the right on the issue that provoked the duel to prevail; in other words, the loser was regarded as the culprit in the wrong, and his wound or his death made the point.
Dueling was a bloody habit, and most often one of duelees was left critically wounded or dead. Yet, the popularity of the practice kept it going despite prohibitions by numerous civil authorities across Europe and by the Roman Catholic Church itself. Men were willing to die to protect and prove their honor and, often, the honor of a beloved.
During the Age of Enlightenment in France a very young Voltaire, already on his way to acclaim for his wit and writing abilities challenged a lower noble to a duel in order to protect his honor. It seems that while Voltaire was hobnobbing with the rich, famous, and noble, he was not of noble birth, and some few people in that society regarded him as someone trying to live above himself.
Voltaire was his pen name; he’d been born Francois Marie Arouet. He happened upon the Chevalier de Rohan, a powerful young nobleman, one day who mockingly asked him: "What is your name anyway? Monsieur de Voltaire or Monsieur Arouet?" The nobleman was calling him a commoner.
Voltaire replied that whatever his name was, he was bringing it honor, which was more than Rohan could say for himself. Rohan ordered his bodyguards to beat him up, which they did. Though roughed up on the outside, Voltaire’s spirit was still strong, and he challenged the chevalier to a duel; he insisted on protecting his honor. Not to be bothered with a commoner, Rohan had Voltaire thrown into prison in the Bastille. Honor is a prized possession, and plenty of women and men are willing to do whatever is necessary to make clear with no room at all for doubt that they are honorable people.
Dueling naturally made its way to the so called “new world” where the first recorded duel was fought in 1621. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, among others, condemned dueling, but it thrived. Even some of the clergy tried to stop it. Perhaps the most well-known clergy effort was an illustrated pamphlet by the Reverend Mason Weems called “God’s Revenge Against Dueling.” Not until the Civil War did dueling in the United States begin to decline, but there were scattered instances of it until 1901.
So what is this honor that people have been willing to die to defend? Honor is a combination of honesty, fairness, and integrity all rolled into one. A person of honor exhibits uprightness of character. A person of honor lives by the principles to which she or he claims to cling, and we normally think of these principles by which a person of honor lives as higher, admirable commitments. An honorable person is a virtuous person.
Now, Voltaire seemed willing to die to prove that he and his family were high quality individuals even though they weren’t nobles. I’m not sure I’d recommend that approach, but part of honor to him meant not allowing anyone to diminish his heritage.
Judge Sotomayor has been under fire for her confidence in her heritage, hasn’t she? Her years-old reference to a wise Latina judge has surely, sadly come back to haunt her in her confirmation hearings. Even so, she believes that her heritage of which she is proud and her gender of which she is proud have helped shape who she is as a person and as a professional. I am so glad that she didn’t water that down; she apologized that there was room for misunderstanding, but she didn’t retract. That is honorable.
This statement from Media Matters for America helped me think through that comment:

...when Sotomayor made the “wise Latina” comment, she was specifically discussing the importance of judicial diversity in deciding “race and sex discrimination cases.” Moreover, in criticizing or reporting criticism of Sotomayor's comments, they have also failed to report similar comments by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito regarding the impact their backgrounds and personal experiences have had on their judicial thinking (mediamatters.org).


People who pretend to be what they are not, are not honorable people. Both honesty and integrity are compromised.
My favorite judge, who happens to carry the professional title “Honorable,” says that a judge who claims not to have her or his experiences influence the way case information is understood is at least a bit out of touch with reality. That’s about the most severe critique our Judge Stapleton is apt to make about anyone.
Professor Shannon French has written a book, The Code of the Warrior, in which she shows her readers that warrior cultures throughout history have established codes of behavior that, obviously, are based on that culture’s image of the ideal warrior. These codes have not always been written down or literally codified though sometimes they have.
Dr. French, formerly professor of leadership and ethics at the United States Naval Academy, is now Director of the Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence and Inamori Professor of Ethics at Case Western Reserve University. A code can be subtle, say says--hidden, for example, in the plots of epic poems or implied by the traits of a hero or heroine in ancient literature. Written or not, however, the code of honor is carefully passed on to generation after generation of warriors.
These codes typically are demanding, and Professor French finds them closely linked to a culture’s religious beliefs. It is also not unusual to find the codes connected to elaborate rituals and rites of passage--some of which are death defying and some of which are excruciatingly painful.
Dr. French comes around to refer to these codes of behavior as codes of honor, and with her keen historical eye she finds instance after instance of a code of honor being used by a given culture to hold a warrior to a higher standard of ethical conduct than is expected of an ordinary citizen.
The code is not enforced by the society at large; rather, the warriors themselves demand strict adherence to these standards with “violators being shamed, ostracized, or even killed by their peers.” Doing one’s job to the tee was often a part of a warrior’s code of behavior or honor, and to fail to follow through could cost a warrior--almost always a male--his life. One example given by Professor French is from ancient Rome and the Roman legions. If a sentry fell asleep while he was supposed to be wide awake on watch, and if this nap occurred during a war time, he fully expected to be stoned to death by the members of his own cohort. After all, not only had he failed to do what he was charged with doing, but also what he had promised to do.
The code of the warrior restrains the warrior. It tells him how to act in military as well as in civilian situations. It distinguishes honorable acts from shameful acts thereby establishing honor and shame as the polar opposites on the behavior continuum.
Homer’s hero, Achilles, is compelled by honor to seek vengeance for the death of his friend, Patroclus; yet when he desecrates the corpse of his arch nemesis, Hector, the gods are angry with him. That is over the edge and is not honorable.
Much later, and in real life, the codes of medieval chivalry, required a knight to offer mercy to any knight who surrendered to him in battle. In feudal Japan, samurai were not allowed to approach their opponents in secrecy; honor required them to declare themselves openly before engaging combat. Evidently, too, the Koran with its own sense of honor for warriors directs those engaged in “offensive jihad” not to make use of certain weapons unless their enemies prepare to use them first.


II.
The person who asked me to preach on this topic asked me to describe a Christian definition of honor; I changed the word “Christian” to “seeker” to try to make the application broader. In any case, I’ve described, in everything I’ve said so far, my view of how a seeker would define “honor.” Again. Honor is a combination of honesty, fairness, and integrity lived out virtuously, but there isn’t a passive aspect to it. Honor is lived out with determination and enthusiasm--almost never in an in-your-face way, but still vigorously.
What happens when “honor” becomes a verb? We use that word in English to describe what someone does to show respect-appreciation-admiration for a person or a cause. We also use “honor” as a verb to describe what someone does to defend or preserve the values or the role of someone important to him or her, and we do this both for the living and for those who have passed into the next realm.
One of the most stirring, yet disturbing, stories of honoring another that I’ve ever come across is in Sophocles’ play, “Antigone.” In a highly charged story of convoluted relationships and stunning turns of plot, Sophocles’ fictional characters force those who see or read the play to respond to Antigone’s unwavering determination to honor her brother who has been killed in battle. That makes it all sound so simple, and it’s anything BUT.
Before the era of Jerry Springer, what I’m about to describe to you sounded impossible to most of us, but now we know differently. Oedipus fathered two daughters and two sons with his wife, Iocasta, who was also his mother; but he didn’t know that his wife was his mother until long after the children were born. When he found out what was what, he blinded himself because he couldn’t stand to have to see how people, notably his own children, would look at him. His wife/mother, Iocasta, felt more terribly about what had happened, and even though she didn’t know for a long time that her husband was also the son she had abandoned many years earlier, it was a complicated set of circumstances with which she simply could not live so she took her own life.
Blind Oedipus was in exile, and the kingdom over which he ruled needed a new ruler so there was some kind of deal worked out between the two sons, Polynices and Etocles, not to divvy up the kingdom, but to be the head guy in the whole realm on an alternating basis. One of brothers would serve for a year and then take a sabbatical for a year while the other brother became king.
So Etocles was first up, and he thoroughly enjoyed his term. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he wouldn’t pass the baton to his brother, Polynices, when he was supposed to. Polynices knows of only one way to force Etocles off the throne. He gathers an army and prepares to go to war. When combat begins BOTH brothers are killed.
Their uncle Creon, brother to their late mother who was also their aunt, Iocasta, assumed the rule in Thebes, and delighted with his power he quickly became a right wing patriot. He pronounced that his late nephew, Etocles, who had been on the throne at the time of his death--even though he should not have been--was a man of honor who deserved a full state burial. His late nephew, Polynices, who was supposed to be the king but was never given the power--sort of like Al Franken waiting to be sworn in as the junior senator from Minnesota--was also killed in the conflict, and Creon condemned him as a traitor. Creon heaped dishonor on his late nephew, and in a most disturbing twist to that he made a pronouncement that the body of Polynices must be left where it had fallen. Polynices’ body would be left for the vultures.
Now the sisters take center stage. Antigone makes very clear her intent to give both brothers funeral services fit for men of honor. She will defy Creon’s law in order to do so--regardless of the consequences. Ismene, her sister, is sympathetic, but will have no part of helping her sister bury Polynices’ body. Ismene decides that being a person of honor herself requires her to go along with the rule of the state no matter what they demand. Antigone will honor her brother, a man of honor, with a proper burial regardless of what anyone says and regardless of any potential consequences.
Still caught up with his power, Creon is irate that Antigone has buried her brother, his nephew, against his wishes, and he orders her, his niece, put to death. Antigone has no regrets, and she will face death with her head held high. After some pondering, she decides that she will not let the state take her life; she will take her own life. When she does, her fiance, Haemon--also her cousin--takes his life. Antigone’s fiance happens to be Creon’s son. When Creon’s wife, Eurydice, realizes that her son is dead, she kills herself as well. All of this because Creon’s quest for power took precedence over allowing an honorable man to be honored. Sometimes, honoring a worthy, deserving individual can be costly.
For some eighteen years, the Pentagon has imposed a ban on still or video photography of flag draped military caskets coming back home. The issue is one of those on again, off again topics, but when the war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan began to arrive here in Dover the issue came to the forefront again.
Some say not to show the flag-draped caskets of our heroines and heroes is a way to keep the public in the dark about the fact that many our fellow citizens are dying in these real-life battles that aren’t video games. These folks who are critical of the ban say that showing the public these caskets, though the deceased are anonymous to them, is one of the ways to honor our fallen.
Defenders of the ban say the public needs a tidier view of war. They also say all that matters is how the person’s body is buried and honored when it reaches its final resting place.
President Obama directed Defense Secretary Gates to look into the matter more aggressively, and Gates agreed to lift the ban if the family members of the person’s casket being photographed agree to the release of the pictures or the videos. I think this is a sensible, sensitive solution, and I applaud Secretary Gates’s wisdom in this matter. Indeed, we’d have to say that what is honoring in one person’s mind doesn’t seem honoring at all to someone else so a one-size-fits-all rule probably won’t work well.
I have a wedding coming up soon--not mine, but mine to perform for a couple not associated with the church. They have instructed me to use the traditional vows from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer; they didn’t know that, but I knew that the vows to which they referred were there and had been largely unchanged since the mid-1600’s in England. Now that the Americanized Anglicans, whom we lovingly call “Episcopalians,” have lifted their own ban on gay and lesbian clergypersons, single and coupled, and with same gender marriages becoming legal in more and more states, these idealized words may have to be changed.
One of the words in the vows that will not have to be changed is the word “honor.” The officiants will continue to ask the couple, “Will you honor your beloved?”
How do you honor your partner? I’ll tell you what I think honor is about in a relational context. It’s about behaving in ways that will keep your spouse or partner believing that she or he can be proud of you. You don’t go places in person or online where, if your spouse or the general public found out about it she or he would be embarrassed to be attached to someone who frequented such spots. You don’t involve yourself in alliances, in person or online, that would cause you to be distracted in the least from the great love of your life to whom you have made commitments. Generally, I believe that if we live ourselves as people of honor, we will honor those who have made us first in their lives.


III.
An honorable American died this week at the age of 92--Walter Cronkite. He was called the most trusted person in America. Someone else said that he never let us down. This is high praise, indeed, from a country of critics--people who take delight in finding nothing good to say about whatever or whomever it is they are reviewing, but there will be few if any putdowns of this man that will stick. Cronkite was, without a doubt, an honorable man, and he deserves to be honored in death.
I watched his reporting of Neil Armstrong on the moon; I’m still very moved to remember that moment. I listened to him growing up in ways I am entirely uncompelled to listen to most of today’s newscasters. Long before I could tell you why, I felt I was listening to someone who always told the truth, and I remember the sadness I felt when he retired. “Why should I care?” I thought to myself at the time and many times since, but finding someone who will always tell you the truth, good news and bad news, with a sense of compassion and concern was and remains a rarity; and the truth mattered to me.
I never met Walter Cronkite in person, but I did hear him on Broadway. Unfortunately for me, he wasn’t there in person, but his voice was there--his recorded voice. He was the narrator of the revival of the musical, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” starring Matthew Broderick and Megan Mullally. A wonderful evening for my family.
Martin Luther, who nearly single-handedly, created the stir that would lead to the Protestant Reformation, did tremendous good in his day despite his anti-Semitic biases that require us to keep our admiration in check. Luther could not have known that his hatred of the Jews would, a few hundred years after him, add fuel to the mad passions of yet another German who would not be content to make his hatred of the Jews simply grist for rhetorical diminishment; instead, Hitler, praising the insightfulness of Luther, would begin putting the Jews to death. Yet, this same German monk, Luther, by standing equally as firmly for his convictions in another realm was able to break the yoke of ecclesio-political abuse of the common woman and the common man. Aimed only at the church hierarchy, the empowerment of the peasants, nonetheless, had rippling effects that went way beyond their religious lives.
One of the most stirring of the stories about Luther passed down from friends of Luther and Reformation-era historians is of his required appearance before the Diet of Worms. Taken out of the nutritional world and set into the political world, the word “diet” has a completely different meaning. In politics, the word can refer to a legislative body as it does to one of Japan’s legislative bodies today. It also refers to general assemblies such as ones that were convened now and then in Luther’s day by the Holy Roman Empire.
You probably know that Roman Catholic professor and priest, Martin Luther, started this whole thing by challenging the pope to debate on 95 theses, posted also for the public to read on the castle church door in Wittenberg in whose university he was a professor of scripture. You may not know, however, that when the Vatican got these challenges, the Pope rebuked Luther not just in a general way, but in a specific manner. Nearly three years after Luther had made the challenges, the Pope, who was Leo X, came back with a scathing condemnation titled “Exsurge Domine.”
The pope demanded that Luther recant what he had advocated. Charles V was the last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire appointed by the Pope, and it fell to Charles to take Luther to task politically. Remember that there was no such thing as separation of church and state in that time and place and that the civic leaders were often Catholic clergy and if not Catholic clergy then Catholic laypersons sold out to the pope as the highest authority.
The Diet of Worms is where Luther was called to answer to the papal dressdown and where he was expected to recant, pleading the equivalent of temporary insanity. This is what Charles and the papal representatives gathered in the small town of Worms expected. In English, the spelling of the city is w-o-r-m-s, but the “w” is correctly pronounced as a “v.” Worms. By the way, almost every term when I test my humanities students on the eras of renaissance and reformation, I give them a true or false question worded something like this: Martin Luther liked to eat worms. One or two every term mark it true.
Man of honor in this area of his life, Luther is said to have delivered one of the most stirring speeches in the history of the church. Here is Heiko Oberman’s translation of what has been attributed to Luther speaking to some of the most powerful men in the world:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason--for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves--I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.


That pope wanted Luther’s conscience to be captive to him, as was expected of all Roman Catholics, laypersons and clergy alike. An infuriated pope or at least his minions planned to kill Luther, and had Frederick of Saxony not had Luther kidnapped and whisked off to what amounted to house arrest at Wartburg Castle, Luther would barely have outlived his speech. Luther was no idiot; he well knew that in this much hot water with the pope he might well be executed, but his honor made him blatantly honest regardless of the cost.
King Achashverosh was the King of Persia and thereby the ruler of the expansive Persian Empire. He was celebrating his third anniversary as ruler, and he ordered his exceptionally beautiful wife, Vashti, to appear before his drunken male crew dressed seductively--maybe wearing ONLY her crown. She refused.
Well, folks, you know you can’t refuse the king. He could have had her killed, but his chauvinistic pals talked him into having her banished so that the other women in the empire wouldn’t hear about her disobedience and try it in their homes! King Achashverosh agreed that having Vashti quietly sent away without explanation was the best course of action.
Of course, he had to find a new queen so he sent word out to all 127 provinces in the Persian Empire that he was sponsoring the most elaborate beauty contest ever conducted. Finalists would be put through a twelve month training and treatment program before being presented to the king for final selection of one queen.
The Jews were among the many subservient people to Persia so Esther applied without letting anyone in the selection process know she was a Jew. A year later, she was the one--the Queen of Persia. She still didn’t tell anyone about her Jewishness, which defined her ethnicity as well as her religious commitments.
Not until her Uncle Mordechai discovered a plot to have all Jews in the empire exterminated did Esther really think much about who she was. Her uncle pled with her to tell the king the whole truth and hope that his love for her would compel him to forgive her for not making known her ethnicity sooner and call a halt to the planned holocaust, which couldn’t have been carried out apart from his approval.
If Esther took the risk of initiating conversation with the king she might be well received, but she might also be executed; that was the law of the land, and no one was exempt from it. The beautiful young queen with everything to live for if she just keeps her mouth shut the way she had already done so well puts her life on the line in the hopes that she may save the lives of her sister and brother Jews. Uncle Mordechai would be lost without the niece whom he had raised because both of her parents had died when she was a child; yet, he asked Esther to consider the possibility that “for such an hour as this” she had found herself in a place of potential influence.
The king receives her with openness. He hears her story and realizes that he had been duped into believing that the Jews were evil and needed to be done away with. He claims that he can’t undo his decree to exterminate the Jews, but he can minimize its potential destructiveness by allowing the Jews to take up arms to protect themselves from the king’s own armies. They do, and, as a result, their lives are preserved.
Esther was an honorable woman. She could have said, “Too bad for all the other Jews. I’m not upsetting the pomegranate cart!” She was willing to lose all she had gained, though, on the chance that lives could be saved. She could have lost her life speaking up for those who had no voice. Honor!

Sunday, July 12, 2009






I.
The bottom line on the attempt to understand God is that it’s easier for us to envision God as a glorified human being. It’s too iffy, we think, to allow God to be the spirit that God is, the mystery that God must always remain even when we’re at the pinnacle of our grasp of God. We want something more concrete, something more predictable, and so we propagate one of the grandest idolatries in human history--the absolute anthropomorphizing of God. One or two of the TOP TEN, the Ten Commandments I mean, forbid--presumably in God’s own words--any human act of trying to create or conceive of God as any kind of human form. Certainly that commandment was directly concerned with the actual building and shaping of an object, an idol, but the principle applies to mental images as well. Hear those commandments, the first two of the Big Ten, as it turns out:

Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:1-6 NRSV).


So, the first commandment is, in all likelihood, a henotheistic pronouncement. At the time these commandments were collected, the developing ancient Hebrew religion that would become Judaism wasn’t yet fully monotheistic in its outlook. It wasn’t as if Abram, later Abraham, one day said to himself, “Juggling all these deities is wearing me out. It’s worse than a harem! From here on out, I choose to believe in only one of them; YHWH’s good!!” Then, on the basis of his conviction, all the other ancient Hebrews joined in and agreed and then repented of their polytheistic panderings. No way!
If Abram were an historic figure, and there’s a good deal of debate about that, my guess is that he agonized over the possibility that he and those who had reared him had been all wrong. Surely, it was a gut-wrenching struggle for him to own his belief that there was only one God. Sharing that view with others more than likely brought ridicule to him and condemnation. He was the butt of jokes: How many Abrams does it take to a get camel to drink? None! Any camel is smarter than that kook!
Only slowly did other Hebrews embrace monotheism, and that occurred as a process. If polytheism were the starting point and monotheism the end point, the long intermediate segment of the process was henotheism. Henotheism is the belief in the supremacy of one deity without denying the existence of others. So, long before the Hebrew God, YHWH, was regarded as the only God there is, YHWH was taken to be the most important among many. The move, then, is polytheism to henotheism and then, maybe, to monotheism.
By the way, because Hebrew monotheism lasted, most of us think it was the only monotheistic movement in history, but Else Miller showed me a couple of years ago that this is an incorrect assumption. Ironically, at about the same time Abram may have been pushing his monotheistic agenda, there was a strong monotheistic movement in Egypt. We’re talking 1300-plus years before Jesus was born.
The cult of the sun god, Ra, grew in importance until it had evolved into absolute monotheism, scholars of religions tell us. The cult of Ra taught that, in the beginning, Ra had created himself from a primeval mound. The myths explained that he shaped himself in the form a pyramid and then created all the other gods. Ra was referred to as Aten or the Great Disc that illuminated the world of the living as well as the abode of the dead.
By the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten the foundations for monotheism were in place, and he became a zealous monotheist, devoted to the one god, Aten. Akhenaten proclaimed Aten the supreme state god, symbolized as a rayed disk with each sunbeam ending in a ministering hand. Other gods were abolished. All of their images were smashed; subjects of the Pharaoh were forbidden to speak names of the deities who were now regarded as nonexistent. The formal study of vocabulary did away with the plural form of the word “god.”
For hosts of reasons, that once strong monotheistic movement didn’t last, but it once existed. And we have to wonder, because of the connections between the Hebrews and the Egyptians if Egyptian monotheism helped Hebrew monotheism along.
After making the point that YHWH is either the only deity there is or, at least, the only one to be concerned with, there follows commandment two, which is an utter prohibition of making human or animal or fish or fowl or sun or moon or tree or mountain images to represent YHWH. There is no material object, animate or inanimate, that can represent the only God or the main god. That makes sense.
Of course, we don’t believe that God really spoke these words audibly or inscribed them into stone tablets with a divine finger, but there is something to the notion that God cannot be materialized; trying to make God an upscale uberhuman is exactly one of those efforts, and verbal and mental images of God are parts of it. I must not build an image of anything in the created order to represent God; by the same token, I must not conceive of God or speak of God as if God is a grand version of something created--a humanoid with human emotions, for example.
Now, if you’ve never sampled a God without human emotions, I can tell you that it’s not nearly as potentially enjoyable or comfortable as having a god you think you know well enough to predict and control. God as grandmaw or grandpaw is a lot more fun and a lot more comforting than God the great mystery who is wholly other than humanity in essence.
Hold onto your seats, though! Christian thinkers are nothing if not thorough, and we have a doctrine for this issue. You may never have heard of it. I didn’t hear of it during any one of my three degrees in the study of religion. I’m not sure if our sister and brother monotheists, Jews and Muslims, have a comparable doctrine, but Christians definitely do. It’s called Divine Impassability. Sometimes it’s discussed with a related doctrine called Divine Immutability. To summarize the Impassibility doctrine: God is without passions or emotions. Immutability, the next door neighbor, says that God doesn’t change; God can’t be irrational, can’t have emotional ups and downs, can’t be one thing to one generation and something else to the next generation. If God doesn’t change at all, then God must not be affected by emotions. God can’t suffer, but neither can God rejoice. God doesn’t flinch when God carries out acts of judgement and punishment--which folks who believe in this kind of thing have as a part of their understanding of God. God cannot be vulnerable, according to the doctrine of Divine Impassibility.
With a Bible filled with references to God’s emotions, it’s very difficult to defend Impassability, though many have tried. It has the advantage of making God into the solid rock who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God doesn’t go all to pieces when there’s a crisis like, say, a tsunami or the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Who wants a god who is blubbering and too emotional to pay attention?
On the other hand, who wants a god who doesn’t seem to care that someone died tragically or that a selfishly structured economy put yet another set of parents with three kids out of their home and onto the streets? A god who is unaffected (un-AFFECTED too!) by crises and horrors isn’t much of a god to many of us, but there are those who want a god with a constant stiff upper lip, a god who is “unresting, unhasting, and silent as light.”


II.
I daresay that more people have been drawn into the Christian faith by a compelling lesson or sermon or song on the love of God than by any other means. Sadly, threat of hellfire and damnation probably run close behind, but I believe that love of God is the main draw.
If my assumption is correct, I would further venture to say that the most stirring verse in the New Testament through which Sunday School teachers and ministers of music and and preachers of the gospel have encouraged their charges to open themselves to God is John 3:16. Many of you know it, probably in King James English, by heart:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.


Sadly, the love that is proclaimed here has at least traces of Jesus’ death as sacrifice. Sadly, too, the verse has frequently been treated as, at least in part, threat rather than wisdom or instruction.
With the right kind of clarification, though, it can be a very inspiring verse letting seekers know that God loved the world--the whole human population, not just the Jews--so much that God appointed and anointed Jesus--not to be a sacrifice, but rather--to be a sentinel of the good news of this love. People who trust that the message of God’s love is true will find their way to real life and can stop worrying about dead ends, which the absence of love inevitably gets us to.
Though messages about an angry, punitive, condemning god abound, the proclamation of the love of God has inspired the masses especially in song:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;

O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure
The saints’ and angels’ song.


Of the themes that men have known,
One supremely stands alone;
Through the ages it has shown,
’Tis His wonderful, wonderful love.

Love is the theme, love is supreme;
Sweeter it grows, glory bestows;
Bright as the sun ever it glows!
Love is the theme, eternal theme!


The king of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
And he is mine for ever.

Where streams of living water flow
My ransomed soul he leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow
With food celestial feedeth.

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me,
And on his shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.


The assumption that God emotes is found throughout the Bible and in conversations about God all over the place. There’s a verse in Proverbs that we learned in the children’s department of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, and we often said the verse together when we gave our Sunday School offering. “God loveth a cheerful giver”--Second Corinthians 9:7. We didn’t know it at the time--meaning it didn’t register with us kids, nor did we care that this was Paul’s word to the Christians in Corinth. What Paul didn’t say to the Corinthians, and what none of the Sunday School teachers explained to those whom they taught, was that God also loves a noncheerful giver; in fact, God loves the out and out miserly just as much as God loves a cheerful giver! Oh wait! That is IF God loves at all. We haven’t decided on that for sure yet.
If God is going to be allowed to have emotions described by human beings who envision God as a more advanced version of one of them and not Mystery Spirit, God’s going to get credited with feeling just about anything and everything. Think about the signs members of the Westboro Baptist Church carry around the country, protesting anything that is affirming of gay folk. I’m pretty sure all of you have seen the signs on newscasts, which read: “God Hates Fags.” If you already have that one, there’s a newer one, which would make a nice companion to the first; it reads, “God Hates Fag Enablers.” It’s a real shame this group keeps “Baptist” in its name as that makes most people in the world except a few Baptists think this is precisely the kind of hatemongering that describes any person or group calling itself “Baptist.”
A goofball named Fred Phelps is the pastor of this so called “church,” which is about nothing more than hatred. And as your frustration with this “Christian community” mounts, remember that they have a Bible filled with references to God hating this or that. The church’s website is “godhatesamerica.com.” Yep, you heard correctly: “godhatesamerica.com.” The reason God hates America, they say, is that America has forsaken God by refusing to execute known homosexuals and by electing the antichrist to be our President. They protest at the funerals of fallen military women and men because they were fighting to protect this country that they say God hates.
They offer to sell a book or a booklet titled ‘GOD LOVES EVERYONE’--THE GREATEST LIE EVER TOLD, and in this book they will show you 701 proofs that God hates most of humanity. The preoccupation with hatred in this group, spurred on by the Bible’s references to a God who hates, is a matter that should get our attention.
Paul, writing to the Romans this time, recalls words that had been put in the mouth of God. I find this highly disturbing:

As it is written,“I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.” What then are we to say? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom 9:13-15 NRSV).


There’s a clip in the middle of the book of Proverbs that doesn’t sound so proverbial:

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to God:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family (Prov 6:16-19 NRSV).


This kind of theological thinking has always been an attempt to justify a god who is in control of everything and who blesses some while cursing others; it’s an awful way to look at God. I use it here to demonstrate that there’s a biblical conception that God feels mercy (or not) and that God feels compassion (or not).
On a happier note, there’s a word from one of the psalmists:

May the glory of the Lord endure for ever; may the Lord rejoice in God’s own works (Psa 104:31).


It’s good to see God happy now and again, huh?


III.
There are several ways we can come at trying to deal with the problems associated with giving God emotions. One has to do with confronting the habit of anthropomorphizing God. Realizing how limited language is, we still make a conscious decision not to give God appendages or behaviors or feelings that functionally humanize God.
This way of solving the problem has us eliminate all mental images of God and all language that tosses around human attributes for God. We can no longer refer to God’s hands. We can’t attach any emotions to God and speak for God in making them known. We have to stop it altogether.
If this is the approach I choose, I am also going to have to grapple with some assumed emotions on God’s part that make praising God and bowing before God necessry. Let me tell you what I mean by that.
The whole concept of praising God is an outgrowth of an image of God as a lofty ruler who feels the need to be honored at all times by his subjects. Praise reinforces the notion that God is above us spatially speaking and must always remain so. We’ve been taught to think in terms of entering a church sanctuary as coming into the presence of God--as if God is any more present in a room at a church than God was present in the car on the way to church or in the busy bars in Trolly Square on Saturday night.
Caught up in that flawed way of viewing God is the generations-old practice of entering into the presence of a dignitary with caution, care, and quietness. When Esther, if you’re familiar with that book in the Hebrew Bible, became the queen, even with that much privilege, she still could not come to the king unless he called for her. If she took the chance of coming into his presence without having been called, he could either motion her in or, and there was only one other option, have her sent off to be executed.
Surely there’s a way for us to express our reverence for the Life-Source, Life-Force, God without acting like we have to tiptoe in so as not to awaken or otherwise anger God. Those kinds of assumptions are destructive to a proper understanding of God.
God does not feel the need to have everyone bowing and scraping around. This is clearly a trait we have superimposed on a severely anthropomorphized god,.
Some of the great hymns of praise and worship are on my list of all-time favorite hymns. I love the music and have, in the past, loved the words, but thinking carefully about the words is a wake up call; and those who visit with us at Silverside not knowing our concerns with progressive theology may think we take the message of the hymns in question literally.
Here’s an example. The tune, LAUDA ANIMA, is nothing short of stirring every time I’ve ever heard or sung it. “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” has words by Henry Francis Lyte set to that music, and if you don’t think about the words too much it might be fine.

Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;
To his feet your tribute bring;
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
Evermore His praises sing;
Alleluia, alleluia!
Praise the everlasting King.


As long as you don’t engage your left brain, you’ve got a magnificent hymn on your hands, but if you start thinking, you’ve got trouble. This is one reason many faith groups don’t think--about the Bible or about hymns. In this hymn God is a sovereign, and we are God’s lowly subjects. Having us grovel must please God.
We bring our offerings--though Lyte intentionally chose the word “tributes,” which are taxes paid by a subservient people to the one who rules over them, and tributes aren’t paid voluntarily. They are paid because they are demanded; they are required.
Everything that is right about us now got that way because God corrected our failures and flaws. By this image, we bring absolutely nothing to the relationship. We are completely lacking, completely needy, and completely helpless to fix ourselves. Only the great healer to whom we pay our tributes can give us any real worth.
Is this really how God looks at us, feels about us? I don’t think so, not for a second, but I’m trying to remind you that this is an image shaped in our minds by the songs we sing.
I can’t help being reminded of the hilarious scene in the Broadway musical, “The King and I,” where Mrs. Anna in getting used to life is Siam learns that her head may never be above the King’s, no matter what. So if the King is sitting, a subject must be kneeling, and the further down the King moves, the lower the subjects must move until, finally, they have their faces in the dirt.
Mrs. Anna chews the King out! Of course, he isn’t present while she’s telling him off. It’s a soliloquy.

Ev'rybody's always bowing to the King!

Ev'rybody has to grovel to the King!

By your Buddha you are blessed,

By your ladies you're caressed,

But the one who loves you best is the King.
All that bowing and kowtowing

To remind you of your royalty

I find a most disgusting exhibition

I wouldn't ask a Siamese cat to demonstrate his loyalty,

By taking on that ridiculous position.
How would you like it if you were a man

Playing the part of a toad?

Crawling around your elbows and knees,

Eating the dust in the road!
Toads! Toads!
All of your people are toads!
Yes, your Majesty,

No, your Majesty!

Tell us how low to go,

Your Majesty.
Make some more decrees, your Majesty,

Don't let us up off our knees, your Majesty,

Give us a kick, if it please your Majesty,

Give us a kick if you would your Majesty.


Recently, several denominational groups have gotten together for their summer meetings. One denominational exec was happy about his group coming together and about another group with whom they were having some meetings. He began his welcome by saying something like, “God is pleased. The heart of God is gladdened.” He had no way of knowing that. If God had feelings, and if God had feelings about that meeting, God might have been uneasy that denominations keep meeting independently of other groups within the faith. Or maybe God might have been bored; maybe God, given a choice, wouldn’t have attended the meeting. We can’t put our feelings on God as if they are God’s feelings.
Describing aspects of God with parallels in human experience I think is fine as long as we understand
we’re using metaphorical language. I can happily give up the need to think of or speak of God’s hands or feet. I don’t believe in God’s wrath or God’s patience or impatience.
I suspect that there is an emotive aspect to whatever God is, but I don’t think it has any of limitations human emotional makeup may have. Process theologians believe God is affected positively and negatively by human behavior. I lean in that direction with them. I don’t believe there is anything negative or destructive in God’s being, in God’s emotional makeup. God is love, and God is love in God’s way.
I understand that when I say anything about God’s love, it’s at best a parallel to human love. The way I love isn’t the way God loves; of course, getting back to last week’s sermon, it all depends on who God is. In any case, for me God loves in an entirely extraordinary way.
Out of love grows compassion, encouragement, the desire for wholeness, the impulse for peace. Wherever we see these at work, there is love; there is God.
Do I believe that God, the great Mystery, feels? I do. As a human being feels? Certainly not, but in God’s way; in a way that ONLY God can.
Amen.

Sunday, July 05, 2009







I.
I believe the first response to my invitation of you members and friends of the church to name several sermon subjects I’d be willing to preach on was the one I’m preaching on today. It came into the office as a question: “Do you know that God really does exist?” So, that is our sermon subject for today. “Do I know that God really does exist?”
Uh, no....so that’s it for the day. Let’s head on into the coffee shop!
JUST kidding--about the end of the Gathering, not about my answer to the question! I don’t know for sure, and neither do you know beyond the shadow of any doubt, that God exists.
An atheist believes that there is no God. An agnostic believes that there isn’t enough evidence one way or another to prove the existence of God. A theist believes that a God or gods exist with a leaning toward affirming a single personal God who created the cosmos. A deist believes that a God exists and did the work of creation, but then took a leave of absence from which the deistic God has never returned; in the mean time, it’s up to humanity to make sure the world works well.
Now, if I insist that there is no way I or anyone else can prove the existence of God, doesn’t that make me an agnostic? It would--except that I believe that there is a God even though God’s existence can’t be proven so it is impossible to classify me an atheist or an agnostic. Atheism and agnosticism are respectable positions to hold in the God debate, and I have plenty of friends who hold to one of those positions; there are some of each in the Silverside family.
As I try to explain some of my views on the existence of God today--coming down somewhere on the side of a belief in God--I do not wish to diminish those who differ with me on the subject. I am not smarter or more enlightened than an atheist who is unable to believe in God or than one who doubts the existence God and, thus, embraces agnosticism. At the same time, I am not ashamed or embarrassed that I affirm the reality of God; I don’t think those really smart people who deny God’s existence are either more correct or elite in their thinking than folks who say, “I can’t prove it, but there’s something there.”
A few tidbits about this discussion--this discussion being as old as humanity, in all probability.


*My affirmation that God is real has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not there actually is a God. The whole of humanity can deny that there’s a God, but if there is, then the views of the masses change nothing about reality. The whole of humanity can insist that God is, but that doesn’t mean God is. The reality of God cannot be settled with a vote.


*If God is a reality, and I fail to or am unable to believe the correct facts about God--whatever those might be, that does not send me to hell in the next life; nor does it make God angry at me or disappointed with me. (Stay tuned next Sunday when we’ll talk about divine emotions!) There is no penalty for failure to believe or to absorb all the right beliefs about God; one reason this is so is that no individual or institution knows all there is to know about God. No one can create a required list of facts to believe about God.


*If God is a reality, God doesn’t rain down blessings including special protections on the believers while dumping curses and tragedy on those who don’t get it right.

*There have been a few people down through the ages who think that they have heard the audible voice of God; that would definitely prove the reality of God, wouldn’t it? A few others have been convinced that God has spoken to them in a dream or through a spiritual giant like Cubby Culbertson who serves as a catalyst of God’s word to those who, for a variety of reasons, don’t hear God directly for themselves. Then there are countless people--and this is much more true of moderns than ancients--who believe that God speaks to them inaudibly frequently. Most ancients couldn’t have imagined that any deity would have spent a great deal of time constantly communing with individuals.


Many great thinkers through the ages; since the advent of Jewish monotheism, which naturally led to Christian and later Muslim monotheism; have attempted to articulate proofs for the existence of God. Many of these arguments are painstakingly thought through; without a doubt, they have brought many people to a place of being able to affirm the reality of God. I have to tell you, though, that I’ve never read or heard a one of those rationales that was in the least convincing or compelling to me. I’ve been intrigued by the kinds of proofs that some of these thinkers use, the evidences to which they point to support their conclusions; some of these thinkers are seriously smart people. Even so, none of the finished arguments for the existence of God or so-called proofs for the existence of God have ever helped me believe in God.
The wonders of nature, which some apologists use to prove that God MUST exist, don’t do it for me either. Not that I can be un-awed by our amazing world, but I don’t think the beauty and the intricacies of life in and of themselves INITIATE a belief in God for most people. I won’t say that it has never happened, but I will confirm that it hasn’t worked and doesn’t work that way for me. What has happened for me is that after having come to belief in a God who had some role in the creation of our habitat, I can look at nature as confirmation of a perspective I already owned.
I decided not to have this sermon be built upon or around the endless famous arguments for and against the existence of God. Maybe I could look rather intelligent for half an hour or so if I were to tick some of these off to you, but no; not today. Mostly, in the sermon, I will be grappling myself with the issue and trying to move to some sort of conclusion that suits me; where I end up or how I travel may not suit you at all. That’s a great Silverside thing; you don’t have to agree with my methods or my conclusions, and I don’t have to or need to put my stamp of approval on your theological convictions or the ways you came to hold them.
That said, I will make reference to one of the great philosophers who, like many of us, truly struggled with the subject of whether or not God is real. I speak of Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist.
Kierkegaard insisted that the works of God or the deeds of God are not immediately evident as human beings consider life and the world. He said that what one person would call an act of nature, another person would call an act of God. This can all be innocuous enough until tragic events in nature come along--such as plagues, pestilences, and earthquakes. Some may still affirm that God willed and was at work in these disasters, but others cannot; and the matter of God’s morality or immorality then have to be considered. It’s very messy.
Kierkegaard didn’t believe that the existence of God could be proven period, and all the ways people try to prove it have serious flaws. Let’s say we want to prove God’s existence by pointing out God’s good works; even if God did the good works, which would be completely impossible to prove, the works can’t technically confirm God as real any more than Napoleon’s deeds, after Napoleon has passed out of this realm, can demonstrate that Napoleon existed. Things happened; those can be confirmed, but there is no way those living after Napoleon can use what occurred to prove that he lived.
Similarly, to try to use historical events as proof of God leads to problems. Kierkegaard said that if you need events to prove your point, you’ll never have a complete proof on your hands because out there in the future history is still happening; history is still underway, and since all events are in some way interconnected, meaning one thing leads to another thing and another and another, if we try this approach we are always sitting around waiting for final confirmation.
Kierkegaard was absolutely convinced with Hegel that existence cannot be a predicate. In regard to the existence of God, then, one assumes; proof simply is not possible.


II.
The debate or discussion about whether God exists has to take into account--although it often doesn’t--what God is. There are so many definitions or understandings of God across time and across the world today that when someone we don’t know uses the word, “God,” without clarification there’s no way for us to know what that word is supposed to be referring to.
You might think that identification of God with a particular religious movement--such as Isalm--would clear it up, but it doesn’t because within each religious movement there are multiple, often contradictory, understandings of who God is and what God is about. Honestly, they cancel each other out. What I mean by that is if Pat Robertson’s view of God is correct, then my view of God is wrong; BOTH simply cannot exist. The god of George Bush and the god of Barak Obama can’t be the same one god unless the one God is schizophrenic.
The very different ways God’s attributes are emphasized in ancient Hebrew scripture compared to Christian scripture leave the ancient Hebrew god looking, for the most part, enraged, capricious, moody, and war-prone. In the time of Christian scripture, God is seen through the eyes, mostly, of Jesus who lived love and gave God the credit; and Paul who was astounded by the grace of God, which he embraced because of what he learned about the teachings of Jesus.
To be fair, there were no wars going on during the time most of the New Testament was being written. There was only one big battle, and that was when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70. It was over very quickly, and there is very little reflection on where God is when war is ongoing. There were wars around every corner during the hundreds of years when Hebrew scripture was being compiled. Even so, there’s a general difference between how the ancient Hebrews who first envisioned monotheism viewed God--as loving sometimes, but easily given to tantrums and terror--and the God about whom Jesus taught whose love is the clearly the most dominant trait. As a result, there are those, past and present, who look at the whole collection of Judeo/Christian scriptures and say that the two groups couldn’t have been talking about the same deity. If God is THIS, then God can’t be THAT.
Monotheists struggle to find a way to explain the dramatic differences in God when comparing Hebrew scripture and Christian scripture, and the Koran, for that matter, brings its own twists to an understanding of God. A widely held Christian explanation is that God changed after Jesus’ death because it was THE great sacrifice, THE pivotal act of pouring out blood from a living creature, that caused God finally to let go of the divine anger that had been building up since humanity first began to defy and frustrate and anger and disappoint God, shortly after humans were created. This is the foundation of a hard core version of the Christian doctrine of the so called atonement.
This is where we get the idea that Jesus had to die for human sins in order to appease an otherwise violent and inconsolable deity. Because of human failures of various sorts, God, they say, couldn’t even look upon humanity with love any more, and the only way to break that “divine” desire to inflict pain on errant humanity was to see and smell such a great blood sacrifice that God’s anger would forever be appeased. One such sacrificial animal was significant enough to accomplish this, and that was Jesus, God’s own unique child.
The hardcore version of the doctrine of atonement glorifies ruler abuse of subjects as much as it glorifies child sacrifice. It forces human beings in all generations who want to find their way into communion with God to focus pathologically on all their failings and sins, and even long after the execution of Jesus, which in reality was a criminal political act and not a theological act at all, would-be adherents are taught to feel guilty forever because it was their sins too that got Jesus crucified to the cross.
I don’t know how many of you watched the Bill Moyers interview on Friday evening with the three theologues who are teaching this wildly popular course at Union Seminary in New York on the proper responses of progressive or liberal Christians to the current crises in our country--economic, moral, and so on. It was a great 45 minutes for me. Moyers who is brilliant speaking with the three teachers of this course that is being taken by students across the world: Dr. Cornell West of Princeton University, and Dr. Gary Dorrien and Dr. Serene Jones of Union Seminary. We look forward to making arrangements to welcome Dr. Dorrien to our church in the spring, but I didn’t work this note into the sermon to do advance publicity. I wanted to mention it because Dr. Jones who is President of Union Seminary--the most liberal seminary in the land--is a former professor of theology from Yale and clearly attached to the John Calvin Reformed branch of Christianity, which is utterly sin-engrossed. She spoke zealously of sin. I didn’t enjoy that because in order to have sin, you have to have a God somewhere who is offendable; and I don’t think God is offendable. God is not a petty, shortsighted, self-absorbed human being.
This sin-engrossment is where we get glorification of the cross in Catholicism and much of Protestantism. The cross as a reminder that trying to do good in this world can backfire and cost you big time is a good thing. The cross used to stress that Jesus died an unspeakably horrible death because God insisted on it as a trade off for hating humanity is a terrible use of the cross and calls into question how much and in what ways an individual or a congregation or a Jesus movement can or should use the cross--Rome’s equivalent to a noose or an electric chair today.
There are many other grotesque views of God that have prevailed, and what hosts of people have said--what most of us would say--is, “If that is really who God is, I want no part of it.” Or, we might well say that absent any clear evidence of a god, these are the kinds of horrible stories that humans concoct--revealing that there is no God.
I’m not sure how far the debate about the reality of God can advance since there is no agreement on terminology. What we have for the most part are affirmations and refutations about certain alleged attributes of God. Given the deeply ingrained, culturally biased ways God is and has been understood, I have a hard time seeing any way ever to have a real debate on the existence of God versus the nonexistence of God.
Semantics here is a HUGE issue. Some people discount a belief in God based on their view that there is absolutely nothing supernatural. There is no supernatural realm they say so there is no supernatural being or beings. That could be the case, and if it is, what if God is not supernatural? One of the ways I think of God is as life-force, life-source. Some pantheists conceive of God as everything that is; they have a God-is-everything-everything-is-God theological/cosmological framework. Similarly, and I don’t think all of those who hold this view are necessarily theistic in their outlook, there are those who essentially equate God with Universe; if God exists, the Universe in its vastness and mystery is God. We obviously have the Universe here, but that doesn’t necessitate a belief that God is connected in some kind of way.
I am not a pantheist. I’m a panentheist. I believe God is the creative force that brought the world and all life forms into being, and I believe, thus, that there’s a spark, at least a spark, of the divine in every created thing--including living entities as well as what we designate as inanimate objects. Unlike a pantheist, however, I think there is more to God than can be contained in the material world--not because the material world is in any way tainted or unholy or beneath God, if you will.


III.
There’s this other important cherished Christian affirmation called the doctrine of the incarnation. This doctrine is a huge problem for Jews and for Muslims, the other two groups of monotheists in the world. The doctrine of the incarnation has to do with the concept that God became flesh in some way, and the variations on the doctrine have to do with the extent to which God became flesh and what the enfleshed God did while enfleshed.
Jesus, of course, is the one the doctrine points to as the entity in whom God was incarnate. This is mind-blowing to ponder.
Some groups have said that it’s impossible by definition for a deity to be a become human, and one variation on this way of thinking says that Jesus was always fully divine but while walking on earth appeared to be human; his humanity though was an optical delusion. In addition, much of what he did to “appear human” was kind of silly; for example, when Jesus prayed, he appeared to be praying to God, but since he IS God, by this way of thinking, he’d have to have been talking to himself or to the two-thirds of himself that are less himself than is the third that is him primarily. It’s bizarre.
Other groups say that Jesus was fully human and somehow had divinity infused into his humanity; one theory is called adoptionism, which holds that God adopted the human Jesus and bestowed divinity on him probably at his baptism. He may have had special powers and privileges as a divinity-infused-human, but the divinity didn’t take away his humanity. For example, he still felt pain; he still suffered and died.
Some versions of this doctrine of incarnation so fully equate Jesus with God that there is literally no difference between the two. This view has led to Jesus worship. It had made his life on earth a sham, and it has caused perspectives on who God is to be so anthropomorphized that we have to wonder how many Christians will ever let God go back to being what God is--some kind of non-human, nonmaterial spiritual mystery.
With a Jesus who is fully God, it doesn’t take a lot more work to develop a doctrine of the trinity--a tripartite godhead, in which God the Creator and God the Son and God the Spirit are separate though singular aspects of the divine essence. Christians who hold to the doctrine of the trinity, and not all do, insist that the monotheism they inherited from Judaism is in no way compromised by trinitarianism, but critics--and some of them within Christendom--beg to differ. The critics--Jews, Muslims, and other Christians--say that what trinitarianism has created is tri-theism, a three-god-religion, which seriously undermines the whole foundation of monotheism in the first place. If there is a God, monotheism ensures that God has no peer and that there are no others like God to be found anywhere in all of creation.
So, today, I’m answering the question, “Can we really know that God exists,” with a, “No.” We can’t know for sure because God can’t be proven. Someone may assume the existence of God, as I do, but no one can prove it beyond a doubt. I am also saying today that the mass confusions about who God is or might be make it nearly impossible to have a reasonable, intelligent discussion about what the “unproven God” is like.
Judeo/Christian scriptures are not a very good place, really, for proving the reality of God; the reason is that in the cultures in which Hebrew scriptures were being produced and in the world in which Paul was spreading the teaching of Jesus, multiple deities were affirmed. The object there was not to convince people that deity could be reality, but rather that there was only God. In Jesus’ world, the Romans who ruled were polythesists, and the Jews among whom Jesus worked most closely took the theory of one living God as a given. So, no one writing the materials that would become Hebrew or Christian scripture felt any need to prove that God exists; their challenge was to prove that there was only one deity!
By the way, the word, “atheist,” got its start as a pejorative noun used by the polytheists to make fun of the monotheists who, laughingly, believed in only one deity. The Greek word, atheoi (αθεοι), literally meant “no gods.” Such a thought was nearly beyond the comprehension of the Greeks with their powerfully attested collection of deities. “Hey, Stelios! Look at that guy over there! Have you heard about him? Don’t laugh too hard, but he’s an atheist! Can you believe it? The fool has only one god!”
Psalm 14:1, as we read together a few minutes ago, is often translated into English as something like, “The fool has said in her or his heart, ‘There is no God!’” That’s a pretty good rending kinda sorta, but we need to help it along a little bit.
“Fool” in the psalm used, probably, in ancient Israelite Temple worship doesn’t mean anything at all close to what modern Americans mean by the word. We think of someone who isn’t too smart or, at least, someone who isn’t smart enough to act on her or his wasted intelligence. For the particular psalmist who wrote this psalm, the word meant “evil person.”
A more literal reading of the verse in context would be, “An evil person has said in her heart, in his heart, ‘God is not.’” Since the utter denial of all deities would have been next to impossible for the ancient Hebrews, the likelihood is that we have a kind of idiom here in which this, one of the several Hebrew words for God or gods, refers to godlike behavior; specifically, in context, righteousness. So, evil people say in their hearts that there’s no such thing as godly behavior, righteous behavior in this world.
If the reality of God could be proven, there would be no need for faith, and, yet, faith is touted right and left in scripture. Admittedly, faith is as misunderstood as God is, and there are so many ways of trying to define what faith is as well as how to find it or how to use it that clarity about it simply doesn’t exist. Whatever faith is, though, if understood enough even to be in its neighborhood, it is not certainty.
In Christian scripture, “faith” (πιστις) is belief+, belief PLUS. It is very close to trust, but while God is the object of my trust or the entity in whom I believe, the energy of faith and the efficaciousness of faith rest with me, not God. I can trust someone who is not trustworthy, and I can even trust someone who isn’t real. Just think about the powerful story of the Wizard of Oz if you don’t believe me. I can believe in someone who isn’t real without being mentally ill.
Here’s the thing, my fellow seekers: we’re not supposed to be able to prove the reality of God, and even if we should have a confirmation moment that God is a reality, tomorrow God will be sensed, if at all, in a new place, in a new experience. As you know, I assume the existence of God, and I also believe in the importance of prayer; but prayer at its heart must be my earnest effort to commune with God, to search in my interior for God today, and not a time for me to unload my to-do list on my god, the errand boy or girl.
I think a model of finding God, claiming the find, and then resting on one’s spiritual laurels for the rest of one’s earthly life is not only lazy, but also completely out of realm of how a potential connection with God is supposed to work. Whatever God is, if God is real, God is not a possession to own, not an unchanging object, and not a powerful mental exercise or experience that never needs to be repeated.