Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Have you ever had to wrestle with a right versus wrong issue or a damned if you do/damned if you don’t matter until your energy source is absolutely depleted?  I don’t know what it would be like to be the leader of a nation like ours and be faced with the potential need to send courageous military women and men into a battle where almost certainly lives will be lost.  I think it’s a pretty safe bet that I will never be elected president and have to make such a decision, but I believe Barak Obama is a compassionate person who feels the loss of each life.  I believe the same of Secretary Gates, which I could never have said about his predecessor.  I picture these leaders literally agonizing over war-related decisions, and by the way I think US military leaders should stop making known to the American public and secondarily to the rest of the world their recommendations for troop counts. 
    In any case, I’m asking you if you’ve been in an agonizing situation about what you needed to do at some point along the way.  If you have, you will have a greater understanding of what Jesus went through in his wilderness experience--that critical period when he had his last pre-ministry wrestling match with temptation about how he would invest his life and the gifts he knew he had.
    The story of Jesus’ wilderness temptations is usually told, in my experience, as a factual story with Jesus literally out in the desert areas separated from the hubbub of routine life hassles.  He is confronting a set of struggles in determining how he should serve God. 
    The thought that the wilderness event might not have been a literal forty days in the desert kind of thing was originated by someone other than I, but I don’t recall from whom I first heard about the possibilities.  Still, I liked the idea that Jesus was wrestling with, agonizing over the possibilities of what he could become, what he should become as someone compelled to spread what he believed about God.
    The people who see Jesus as this being who knew from the get go exactly what his life would be about at every juncture--never wondering or wavering--have been reading too many fictionalized accounts of Jesus’ life not based on the actual evidence we do have, limited though it may be.  Jesus struggled in his life; he struggled at many points, through many dilemmas.  By no means was he always satisfied with the options available to him.  So, whether in the physical Judean desert or in the depths of his being, Jesus confronted temptations so real they were personified.  He could see temptation drawing him to be someone that didn’t ultimately suit his call.
    So temptation, whom the Gospel of Luke calls “the devil,” said to Jesus who had no food readily at his disposal, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”  This was a twofold temptation.  On the one hand it was a temptation for Jesus to showcase his miracle-working skills; that is lucrative in every age.  There are always people who want to see an act that appears to have been caused by forces beyond human forces--call it faith healing, call it magic, call it what you will.  On the other hand, this temptation was a temptation to use his God-given skills for his own purposes, and Jesus understoodd his mission as being for others, not for himself.  Thus, he refused to do what temptation coaxed him to do on the grounds that a human being can’t live on bread alone meaning that even if he turned the stones into something to eat his fuller hunger wouldn’t be satisfied.  He would still not have settled in his depths what it was he had to do for God’s cause. 
    Next, temptation taunted him with fame, with the very simple changes he could have made in his message that would have brought the glory for all he was able to do with his God-given abilities to him; then, maybe, he’d be as famous as Billy Graham’s son, Franklin.

...the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.”  Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve God only.’”

    Finally, the grandest temptation of them all.

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘God will command God’s angels concerning you, to protect you.’ and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”   Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Temptation personified tried to get Jesus to call God’s hand.  “Let God prove what God’s adherents claim God can do...what God must do.” 
    Jesus said, “No way.  My role is not to turn God into a side show by making promises that God will do this or that on demand!  I will be grateful whenever I’m aware of a gift from God, but I will never put God to a test!”
    Now we have this little story all nice and polished up--almost like a pageant.  It’s even neatly organized in to three acts or scenes.  There’s a prologue and an epilogue.  Except for the fact that the chorus has been omitted, this would have made Sophocles smile--knowing that the influences of Greek drama had lived on beyond him. 
    The temptations escalate, if you will, and the most audacious of the three, the final one, is to dare to put God Godself to the test--to take what is good from God and try to force God to act in order to save face. 
    If someone has convinced me that God protects God’s people from all harm--unless they have some hidden sin somewhere--I can believe that all my sins are cleaned up (if I had any, of course) and give God a chance really to show God’s stuff by lying across the Amtrak tracks so that God can miraculously rescue me.  Chances are, the only ways God would be involved in that caper would be to classify my entrance into heaven as a “psychiatric admission” and to comfort my bereaved family and friends.
    One of my favorite hymns during my growing up years was one that a few of you could probably sing along with me.  The tune was catchy and in a major key.  Peppy is good sometimes, my friends, for no other reason than that it’s peppy.
    In time, as you know, I became a spoil sport and began to try to understand the words I was singing; this has made life complicated for me and for all of my parishioners since.  Silverside folk have suffered most of all on this count, and yet you still allow me to wear my hair long without penalty.

Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse.
All your money talents, time and love.
Consecrate them all upon the altar. 
While your Savior from above sings sweetly

Trust me.  Try me. 
Prove me saith the Lord of hosts and see
If a blessing, unmeasured blessing, I will not pour out on thee.

That is blatantly testing God--peppy or not.  That is blatantly putting God to the test.  The advice, the directive of this hymn is to give generously to God’s causes and then sit back and anticipate the blessings that are sure to come to you.  Giving to try to get something in return is not only a very bad reason to give, it is trying to force God to have to bless you.  My conviction is that God doesn’t play that game.  Giving in search of rewards is wrong all the way around.

    Gideon was an ancient Hebrew judge who was tapped by God to become a military commander.  He was a judge in a small berg somewhere, happy with small-tribe life when God, according to the book of Judges, puts him in the national and international spotlights almost as quickly as John McCain did Sarah Palin.  Gideon put God to one of the most famous tests ever--as far as I know--recorded. 
    I have loved the story of Gideon from the time I was a kid growing up in the Sunday school program of the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads although, with some adult insight and a broader reading of the Bible, I have learned that not everything about Gideon--notably his putting God to the test--is exemplary.  Theological offenses aside, however, Gideon is a likable guy--as honest and earnest as the day is long, and since he came along very early in humanity’s efforts to learn about one and only one God, we won’t be too critical of his faux pas.  What we have to be critical of is the person today who has the means to know better than to put God to the test but who still keeps trying it. 
    Gideon, as I said, was a judge in a small tribe, and I say “small tribe” rather than “small town” because his people were still largely nomadic at this point in their political and geographic evolution.  He was not a part of the more prominent tribes, and he was perfectly content where he was.  Think Mayor Holmes in Elsmere for a reasonable modern-day comparison.  Dick was the mayor of Elsmere--the first mayor of Elsmere thirty-something years ago.  He loved what he did in the small berg where I now live.  Just think of God’s calling Dick to move, all of a sudden, from the Elsmere mayor’s office to Pentagon to take charge of some military hot spot such as Afghanistan.  I think Dick could have brought world peace through his humor had he been given this opportunity.
    Gideon was called into service by God at a very dire time in the life of his people--not just the people of his tribe, but all twelve or so tribes that made up the whole of ancient Israel.  The sad, but widespread, belief was that when something bad happened to the nation, God had caused it as a punishment on the people; conversely, when something good happened to the people, God was pleased with them.  The interesting thing was that, many times, when God punished the people, God immediately gave them some bonus to help them deal with the extra burden their punishment would lay on them. 
    You may remember that when Eve and Adam were ashamed of their nakedness, as soon as they ate of the forbidden fruit, they tried to cover their nakedness with leaves and such--which is how poison ivy was first discovered...just kidding.  But God, as upset as God was with them when God cast them out of the Garden of Eden, made more substantial garments for them out of the hides of animals who began to die when death was introduced into paradise as part of the punishment for sin brought into what had been paradise.  Though required to face their punishment, God eased part of their pain.  Similarly, when Cain killed his brother, Abel, and God punished him for his crime, God still put a mark on him so that other humans could not try to put “an eye for an eye justice” into effect. 
    In Gideon’s time, the writer or writers of the book of Judges tell us that his people on the whole had failed God and that God had given them into the hands of yet another set of enemies.  That time, it was the Midianites, and they were formidable foes indeed--ruthless and bloodthirsty.  Their attacks were incessant.  If they saw the Hebrews trying to re-start life somewhere such as by planting seeds for a garden, the Midianites would come immediately and rip up the ground and seedlings. 
    When the Hebrews cried out to God for help--which is a bizarre notion to me:  asking the one who punished you to ease the very pain that she or he caused--God seemed in the book of Judges more than willing to assist.  The help for the whole struggling nation was Judge Gideon, from the clan of Abieezer in the tribe of Elsmere...I mean, Manasseh. 
    Gideon is reluctant but accepts because he wishes to honor his God.   Before he accepts his appointment, however, Gideon had to get one thing cleared up in his mind.  When the angel, the messenger, of God came to him to give him the news, the messenger began by saying, “The Lord is with you, mighty leader.”     
    Gideon said, “Is that a fact?  If God is with us, as you say, why in the world is all this horrible stuff happening to us?”  That is the sixty-four thousand shekel question!  Good for you, Gideon!  Once he got started he couldn’t stop!  He had some questions to which he wanted answers
...where are all God’s wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.
Just so you know, neither God nor God’s angel answered the questions, but God did promise Gideon that he would be the sure fire winner in the battles against Midian.  Gideon believed what he was told and went ahead with setting up his office at the Pentagon.
    Before long, the time for the first battle engagement was upon him, and Gideon remembered that God had promised him victory.  Gideon also remembered, however, that there were questions he had about some unanswered divine promises that no one had ever explained to him so he did what anyone with a legal mind would do.  He asked for proof.  He dared to ask God for proof; he blatantly put God to the test.
    God had told him he would win the battles, to go forward and fight those Midianites.  Gideon smiled and nodded his head and said, “I will absolutely do that if...IF you will be so kind as to give me a sign.”

    “What now?” God asked.

    Gideon said, “A small thing, really.”

    “Go on,” God said.

    And Gideon did:

I am going to lay a fleece of wool on the threshing-floor; if there is dew on the fleece alone [in the morning], and it is dry on all the ground, then I shall know that you will deliver Israel by my hand, as you have said.

Did you get the challenge?  Gideon told God he was going to put a measure of lamb’s wool on the floor of the community threshingfloor overnight.  The next morning if all the ground around the fleece were dry, but fleece damp from dew then he, Gideon, would have confirmation that he could begin the attack confident of victory.
    Next morning, things were just the way he’d asked.  No dew on any part of the threshingfloor, but the fleece was damp as could be with morning dew.  Pretty amazing huh?
    God said to Gideon, “Are you happy now?  So let’s get this show on the road.  Go after those Midianites, General!”

    And Gideon said, “Absolutely, God.  Absolutely.  Just one more tincy wincy thing.”

    God said, “Oh my self!”

    “It’s a small thing, really. A very small thing for such a mighty God who makes such tremendous promises.  Don’t be angry with me, God.  I mean, you made me with this skeptical mind.  So this will settle it for me.  If you will reverse the process and in the morning let there be dew all over the threshingfloor, but the fleece as dry as Eden after Adam, I’ll be on the warpath sooner than you can say, ‘Monotheism.’”
    When Gideon got up to report to the officer’s dining room for breakfast, he found damp ground and dry fleece.  Just what he’d asked God to do for him.
    Two tests of God back to back.  There was another one earlier that we can’t get into today.  But if it is wrong to put God to the test, why did one of the great heros among the ancient Hebrews do it several times and get praised for it?
    Long years after Gideon’s tests, the writer of the Christian book of Hebrews has a list of the great ancient sheros and heros of the faith, and among the concluding words are these:

For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

    “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in God.”  These are words sung originally by one of the psalmists leading ancient Temple worship or maybe sung by the whole community. 
    Now the clever and astute person who gave me this sermon topic, which will close out the current sermon series, caught onto something very important.  Here one of the psalmists recommends “tasting” God, sampling God a little bit--yes, testing the divine waters, as it were; and yet there are multiple condemnations of testing God in any way including the powerful story from the life of Jesus with which we began today.  So what’s it going to be?  You really can’t have it both ways.  It’s one thing to point out inconsistencies on the subject in Judeo-Christian scriptures; it’s entirely something else to live by one or the other.  You definitely can’t live by both.  You can’t taste and see if God is good and, at the same time, participate in the testing of God.
    Well, here’s where I come out on this very thoughtful topic. There is no way to experience God or even to ponder God without some little taste tests.  On a human plane, as a rule, it’s not a very good idea to marry someone you haven’t dated enough to know rather well.  Spiritually speaking, you can never know what God is about without some of your own tasting efforts to see, know, sense, feel.  Another way of saying this is that no one else can do your God work for you.  No one else can think your God thoughts for you.  Wherever you end up in terms of understanding AND relating to God--and I mean two separate realities--is yours to tend to.
    Many parents want their children to have religious education and/or spiritual grounding.  Many of those same parents believe there is something better than what they got, and if they can find that for their children, then all the better.  These are good, strong, nurturing sentiments, and I commend them!  However COMMA:  you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her order Perrier, as the old saying goes. 
    Another issue immediately raised by this taste-test juxtaposition is the necessity of knowing the difference between thoughts about God and experiences of God.  Most of the time, they are not the same--at least not necessarily.  In fact, someone’s thoughts about God or hopes about God may never correspond at all to that person’s actual experience of God.
    An obvious, though sad, example would be the person who believes theoretically, without a doubt, that God is love.  Yet, for some awful reason she or he has never felt that love.   It may be entirely an emotional problem, but with her or his make up no love is felt. 
    It may also be this infernal effort to homogenize religious experience that’s been around almost as long as there’s been religious experience.  Someone appears to be a leader for one reason or another, and others come to envy that leader’s experiences believing that their experiences or encounters aren’t valid until they are much more like the leader’s.  Too many leaders like the fact that others look up to them and rate their encounters with God based on how closely they match up to the leader’s.  That’s a real ego trip for some leaders, and it can also be a great tool for control. 
    You get a leader who claims great emotional uplift during prayer, tells stories of many intercessory prayers answered, and so on speaking to someone who tries so hard but never has such dramatic results; often the person who feels that she or he just can’t measure up gives up and says something like, “God must not want anything to do with me.”
    A much healthier and truer way to experience God is to begin trying in small ways, but in your own way.  If you can let go of the idea that God’s presence is limited to a religious building, or a religious service, or anything connected to the institutional religious entity, you are miles ahead. 
    If God is within each of us, as I believe to be the case, and if God is in every part of the created order in some kind of way, then all the wonders and joys and jolts of life have God in them in some kind of way.  If I’m inspired by something beautiful--a photograph taken by Margaret Walker or Bill Westerhoff, a song sung by our choir, a piano or organ piece Melissa plays, vibrant fall leaves, a smile, an opera or symphony performance without overt religious themes or maybe lacking in religious themes altogether--God is in that beauty in some kind of way. 
    If the words of a friend or a counselor help me through a rough patch, even if no religious words are even spoken, God is in that connection in some kind of way.  And I don’t mean that God gives the supportive person the words; I mean that the presence of God attends healing efforts and processes. 
    If we don’t teach our children and challenge each other to taste and see that God is good, many people will miss out on God because they will never have figured out where even to seek God.   By all means, give God within you a taste! 
    As far as putting God to the test, that’s kind of a joke.  I mean, the thought that God gets caught up in the tests people create for God is hilarious.  You can test God all you want!  God won’t be playing along.  The test will merely be in your mind.
    Ninety-nine percent of the time, the tests people create for God fix things so that what we ask God to give us as a proof is something we want or something that benefits us.  I’ve never heard anyone say or pray, “God, if you really want me to go to seminary, let me get a non-deadly round of the swine flu.”  What I’m much more likely to hear is, “God if you want me to go seminary, get me a scholarship.”  Who believes that God actually says, “OK,” to a challenge such as that?  God says, “If you want to go to seminary, you should go.  Pick out a good one, and don’t go into debt too much!”
    Someone says, “God if you want me to join Silverside Church...”  God interrupts her or him and says, “What do you mean IF?”
    Elijah the great prophet that he was tried to engage God in a test, and after letting him get by with one test, Elijah whined and complained and criticized God, “If you’re the kind of God you ought to be you’d do this.  You would have done that.  You could be counted on to do the other.  You would be big and loud and obvious, and you’d say a nice word about me from time to time!”
    God said to Elijah, “Yeah.  Yeah.  Look, Elijah, trying to create a god in your own imagine has a name.  It’s called idolatry.  You didn’t make me the first time, and you’re not going to recreate me to suit you now.  I’m not in on your silly test, but just for the record if you want to find me, check out the silence..”   Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

“We have too many high-sounding words,” said Abigail Smith Adams, “and too few actions that correspond with them.”  I’m not sure exactly what Mrs. Adams had in mind when she first uttered these words, but I have a hunch that it may have had something to do with liberties of a brand new nation portrayed in lofty writing and speech as extended to all humans, but, in practice, meted out to only a few--and the few happening to be all males.
We have to wonder what the second First Lady in our nation’s history would have to say about the abundance of high-sounding words in the early twenty-first century and the dramatic lack of corresponding action to go along with them.  More words are spoken in the hearing of more women and men than at any other time in the history of humanity.  Technology both invites this and makes it possible.  
Anthony Samad caught my attention when he wrote in “The Black Commentator”:

Every time I hear [certain Republicans refer to their] party as the “Party of Lincoln,” I wince. It is probably one of most factually inaccurate references in politics today. In fact, if you were to measure it against some of the biggest lies ever told, it would be right up there with the great “old lies” like Columbus discovered America and Lincoln freed the slaves, or the new lies like smoking doesn’t kill and “I did not have sex with ‘that woman,’ Ms. Lewinsky!” Save those lies; the... only thing those Republicans have in common with the Radical Republicans of the 1850s and 1860s is the name. It’s like saying the Ford at the turn of the 1900s is the same car Ford makes in the 2000s. Or the Jeffersons of 18th Century (related to Thomas) are the same Jeffersons (related to George) of the 20th Century. Both the face and the mindset are different.

There’s a list going around claiming to detail the ten biggest lies of 2008.  I don’t know why we have to go back so far as if no lies have been told since, but at the top of that list is:  “Hillary is unfit to run for and serve as president, but she’ll make a great secretary of state.” 
Other than by telling out and out lies, there is such a thing, and we know it well, as a grand promise with too little follow through.  This kind of high-sounding language isn’t technically an out and out lie, but it never becomes fully truth either because the person or persons who spoke of it failed to follow through.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the IUCN, back in April applauded the gathering of the G20, the financial leaders of the countries with the most powerful economies in the world, but in an article responding to that meeting after the fact stressed the point that high-sounding words alone weren’t going to do the trick.  The headline of the article I have in mind read:  “G20 must follow through on green promises.”  Let the words “follow through” ring in your ears!

The G20, meeting yesterday in London, agreed with what IUCN and many others have been saying: the economic recovery must be inclusive, green and sustainable....“There is no doubt that the G20 has used the right words, but look closely and you see a business-as-usual approach,” says IUCN Deputy Director General Dr. William Jackson. “Economic growth, financial markets, jobs and nature do not exist in isolation. Without prosperous natural environments, there is no hope for prosperous economies, societies and people. And the details in the overall G20 plan do not reflect this.”

In the end, my dear friends, feel good words alone don’t do the trick.  The promises made to us that sound GREAT but that are never followed through on end up hurting us more than helping us.  
I once signed a contract for a teaching job with a dean who painted the rosiest picture in the world of that particular seminary and of how my job would be in its context.  The closer I came to packing up my family and moving cross country the more I found out that what the dean had told me, though I trust he had talked himself into believing that all he said was true, wasn’t true at all.  So, I backed out.  The dean was furious; he promised to make sure “everyone”--I was never sure who everyone was--would know the kind of person I really was.  In the end, everyone did know.  He was urged to move on to another job, and twenty years after that incident I was invited back to that faculty.  I can’t name that school, but I teach there every Thursday evening these days.
I would like to brag a little bit here--not about myself, but about you.  A few years ago, our small congregation began a quest to be “greener.”  We started in small ways--such as by printing bulletins on 100% recycled paper and asking gatherers to throw their used bulletins in a recycle bin as they left our sanctuary.  Then, we began trying to do business with green-oriented companies.  We paid for recycling services.  We minimized the use of all paper--even recycled paper--in favor of online communication.
By far, however, the most significant way we have turned our high-sounding words into actions that correspond to them is by embracing the solar panel project.  It is a huge investment for us--even though generous donors have eased the financial burden of the project.  The investment is not just in the solar panels; it is an investment in the future of Silverside Church.  At today’s business meeting you will be asked to support your church’s overall financial needs for 2010 and to support the solar panel project so that it is something in which you take part, so that you own a part of the end result, so that the benefit to our church isn’t just the donors’ doing.
The Apostle Paul taught the early Christian communities that all words were empty, regardless of how high-sounding, unless bathed and lived out in love.  I’ve been in attendance at a few church-related events in my day that lacked love in every possible way.  I hope you have not.
One of the most beloved of all segments of Christian scripture was written by the Apostle Paul and is often referred to as “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  Most people don’t seem to know or to keep in mind that Paul wrote this to the church, among the many to whom he tried to minister, with whom he had the poorest rapport.  This was the most contentious congregation with whom Paul tried to work, and he had less success with this group of people than any that he tried to help.  
I find it intriguing, therefore, that he penned these beautiful words to and for the people who gave him the most grief and caused him to lose the most sleep.  Once when he visited them, they literally ran him out of town, and yet “the love chapter,” though Paul didn’t divide up his epistles into chapters and verses, came along.  This is how it begins:  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1 NRSV).  If I speak the lofty languages of the most polished mortals or even the language that God Godself must speak, but have no love, then my beautiful speech, my high-sounding words, are nothing more than sounds--like a loud cymbal or a gong being played as a solo instrument.  
Can you imagine a cymbal or a gong recital?  Separated from the other instruments whose melodies and rhythms the metal percussion punctuates, the sounds they make are nothing more than abrasive noise. That’s exactly, Paul said, the way it is with would-be spiritual language divorced from loving actions.  

Abigail Smith Adams died October 28, 1818, of typhoid fever.  She was 73 years old.  When Stefan placed this sermon on this particular Sunday, using the list of sermon topics you had given us as those you’d like to hear, we had no idea we’d be so close to the 191st anniversary of Mrs. Adams’s death, but here we are.
The most striking fact about Mrs. Adams may not have been that she was our nation’s second First Lady or the mother of our nation’s sixth president passing along to him as a middle name her maternal grandfather’s surname, “Quincy.”  It was the fact that she was a PK!  A preacher’s kid!  If you want to see a living example of the kind of person a PK becomes, find Marge Grant, and engage her in conversation!  My two PK’s aren’t around very much for you to ask them about life as a PK, but it’s not easy; and it takes a very special kind of person to survive it!  If they’re here and you want an earful, you might try asking them what’s it like.
She was a strong person, though in her young life she had been rather sickly.  She became strong physically and emotionally.  Before her husband became the first Vice President of these United States, he was actively involved in drafting the Declaration of Independence, of which he was a signer.  Trips to Philadelphia often took him away from home.  He was a diplomat, and those duties also often took him from his home.  Abigail had to manage a farm and five children when he was away, and she managed well.  Part of the reason she was successful was that she was so independent and independence-minded.
Her mother was Elizabeth Quincy Smith, daughter of the influential Colonel John Quincy.  Her father was the Reverend William Smith, a theologically liberal Congregational pastor in Massachusetts.  
The Congregational denomination remains today, but just barely.  In early American history, it was robust and frequently showed up in our history in interesting, though sometimes subtle, ways.  Growing out of a reaction against the Church of England, they were separatists--those, like the early Baptists, who believed that there wasn’t enough good in the Church of England they knew worth preserving.  Thus, they’d given up on trying to “purify” it like the Puritans wanted to do; they had to separate and become their own entity.  One of their hallmarks was individual, independent congregational rule; there would be no hierarchy of any kind to tell them what to do.  Thus, it was often simpler for a Congregational congregation to take up causes such as abolition and women’s suffrage than those churches that had to answer to a bishop or other ecclesiastical overseer.  And they did.  Many in this denomination became the core of what we call today the United Church of Christ.  There are only 400 or so congregations holding together the original denomination.
So the Reverend Smith, Abigail’s father, was a Congregational minister.  You already know that he was independent and independence-minded by virtue of his religious affiliation.  He was pastor of the North Parish Congregational Church in Weymouth, Massachusetts, when Abigail was born.  Abigail would remain active in Congregational life, but when the Unitarian movement became a denomination, in part with some liberal Congregationalists leading the way, she and her husband joined in.  Unitarian fundamentals had long been very important to Abigail Adams.
It’s not as unusual as it at first seems for parents to have children who are more conservative than they are--politically, socially, and theologically.  This is exactly what happened with the Abigail and John Adams and their son, John Quincy Adams.  And it made for a great story line in the old sitcom, “Family Ties,” starring Michael J. Fox as Alex Keaton as the ultra fiscal and political conservative to his former hippie parents played by Meredith Baxter Birney and Michael Gross.  
There’s a good record of some correspondence between Mrs. Adams and her son before his presidency, which--by the way she did not live to see--about the trinitarian issue.  President and Mrs. Adams were in complete agreement on the core Unitarian doctrinal claim--namely that there was one God alone with no divisions of any kind, and as remarkable as Jesus undoubtedly was he was not God.  Their son, our sixth President, was a staunch trinitarian despite his mother’s friendly advice.
Writing to her son, John Quincy Adams, on May 5, 1816, she said, “I acknowledge myself a unitarian—believing that the Father alone, is the supreme God, and that Jesus Christ derived his Being, and all his powers and honors from the Father....There is not any reasoning which can convince me, contrary to my senses, that three is one, and one three.”  It is a serious problem for those who raised me and some of those who taught me, but, on this point, I couldn’t agree with Mrs. Adams more.  Trinitarianism robs Jesus of his humanity and turns God into an entity suffering from serious associative disorders.
To say that God revealed Godself in Jesus, which I also believe with my whole heart, does not require that Jesus was God.  In fact, the whole notion of the so called doctrine of incaration is caught in the amazing reality that God does, indeed, reveal Godself through human beings like us.  With all due respect for those in our number who are trinitarians and who stand with John Quincy against his mother on this issue, I’m with her.  This means that I do not worship Jesus and that I do not pray to Jesus; in fact, it was Jesus himself whose teachings I take seriously enough to believe that my allegiance is to be to God and that my prayers, as were his, are directed to God--not to Jesus and not to the saints.  There’s a huge billboard, which you can’t help but see if you’re driving north on I95 that pleads with a saint to protect us and pray for us; it offends me beyond words.
I will pray for myself as Jesus did.  I will pray to God as Jesus did. 
I’m with Mrs. Adams.  Don’t try to tell me that three is one or that one is three.  One is one.
You know, this is one of the substantive criticisms of Christianity by Muslims.  They charge that though Christians deny it, they practice a religion based on tri-theism and not on one God alone.  
The word “trinity” is not in the Bible, you know.  Jesus, in what we have from him, never mentions it.  Neither does Paul develop it although he’s the guy who begins mentioning God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all together at once as sources of blessing and such.  Even in Paul, though, there is no overt trinitarianism.  We always have to keep in mind that Paul never met Jesus as far as we know.  If he did, he never mentions it, and given the tendency he had to brag, don’t you know Paul would have made reference to having met Jesus in every other paragraph he wrote!  
Paul had a deeply moving and deeply defining encounter with the other-worldly Jesus, quite some time after Jesus had departed this earth.  In other words, Paul’s only experience with Jesus was in a vision that came simultaneously with a bolt of lightening that blinded him temporarily and left his eyesight impaired for the rest of his life.  In my church in Baltimore, I had an ophthalmologist who had an ophthalmologist friend who had made it kind of a professional hobby to study this dramatic episode that came to be called Paul’s conversion experience.  The doctor believed that Paul had actually been stuck by lightening and that that explained both his vision of Jesus and his blindness.  
While Paul doesn’t create a doctrine of the trinity, he does establish Jesus as someone who speaks to people--albeit in visions--from the great beyond.  Paul makes his vision the basis of his conversion and call to ministry, but you have to keep in mind that none of the first followers of Jesus--those who knew him in the flesh ever told any stories about conversing with or praying to Jesus once they believed he had left the earth.
The earliest evidence of those in the Christian movement equating Jesus with God is a brief reference in 113 CE by an enemy of the faith making reference to Christians worshiping Jesus as their Christ.  This isn’t strong evidence, but if it is accurate, it at least shows that second and third generation followers of Jesus--some of them anyway--were worshiping him.  This would never and could never have happened with the first generation of followers of Jesus, all of whom were Jewish and who would never have worshiped any human expression of divinity. 
For me the strongest argument against trinitarianism is that none of the first followers of Jesus confused him with God.  The church essentially voted in trinitarianism at the Council of Nicea in the year 325; the vote was hardly unanimous, but the winners came up with this lofty statement:  that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  Abigail Adams, for one, was utterly unconvinced.  

Abigail Adams was a true mother of women’s rights in this country.  She believed, and for good reason, that women were being severely overlooked as to their true potential, but she also recognized that part of the problem was the women themselves.  They had been kept in subservience to men for so long that they no longer had any confidence in their own independence and their actual potential.  
Another of her memorable quotes was:  “Well, knowledge is a fine thing, and mother Eve thought so; but she smarted so severely for hers, that most of her daughters have been afraid of it since.”  You may remember that I told you Abigail had been a sickly little girl; as a result she had been educated in her home, and one of the key pieces of literature she read was the Bible.  From all indications, she knew it well, and in this quote she refers to the mythological notion that Eve suffered greatly for having eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the center of the Garden of Eden.  
You may remember in the story that God punished Eve short term and long term, and along with Eve’s punishment the same punishment would come to all women after her.  The short term punishment was terrible pain in childbirth, and the long term punishment was physical death, which, the story suggests, wasn’t supposed to happen to the humans God had created. Indeed, the subtheme in one of the Genesis creation stories is that humans who try to seek all possible knowledge intimidate God, and God, thus, puts a powerful stop to it.  The joy of bringing new life into the world is diminished by unspeakable pain, and the whole human race must die as a result of Eve’s and Adam’s reach for knowledge--though Eve of course gets most of the blame for going first!  Abigail Adams searched for knowledge regardless of the consequences in the male-dominated world. 
On January 3, 1818, writing to her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Adams wondered when humankind would become “convinced that true Religion is from the Heart, between Man and his creator, and not the imposition of Man or creeds and tests.”  She was in part reacting against the claims made by many religious groups that their adherents were guaranteed a place in God’s future and that those not in a particular group were pretty much hell bound.  Abigail Adams wrote that she was “assured that those who fear God and work righteousness shall be accepted of him, and that I presume of what ever sect or persuasion.”
Sectarianism within Christianity has been a largely destructive pattern, and it remains destructive though perhaps not as overtly dangerous in most places as in times gone by.  Sects within Christianity developed when one group believed that it was most correct about the essentials of the faith, was compelled to solidify its claims in some kind of way such as in a creed, and then to include or exclude others based on their response to the creed.  The problems with this practice are so numerous that a whole book would have to be written just to enumerate them.  
Two of those problems stand out for me.  The first is that much about spiritual and/or theological truth can’t be reduced to words and certainly not to words that match the precise experience of the next person.  A connection to God is inherently and forevermore a uniquely personal experience or set of experiences.  This is why, among other reasons, there is no doctrinal expectation or a requirement for any specific kind of religious experience for membership in this congregation.  It is simply not possible for people to match up theological insights and spiritual experiences.  
Anything exterior in the realm of one’s spirituality is ambiguous.  That is to say, no one on the outside watching one say the words to a creed or seeing one perform some good deed can possibly know if that theological affirmation or potential act of ministry is tied to a true response to God or not.  To make it more complex, we can’t always be sure for ourselves if our affirmations and actions are true responses to the God within us or to something more akin to wishful thinking or a desire to please someone about whom we care.  
A creed disallows a spiritual necessity--that is, the chance to rethink and change.  The only thing you can do if you want to make a change in a creedal tradition is to do the mental gymnastics necessary to reinterpret what you may once have taken rather literally as instead a well-intentioned effort that you couldn’t believe if your life depended on it.  
Sectarianism creates formal or informal creeds that don’t allow those who participate with them ever to vary.  Variance in some quarters in our long Christian history has been called “heresy” and has been punishable by torture or death.  
The Jews who disliked Jesus--and there weren’t that many who did--were willing to have one of their own kinspersons killed by Rome because of what they took to be heresy.   Untold numbers of faithful persons died in the Spanish and other inquisitions because of what the in group, the power group, determined to be the necessary norm for belief.  One of the most disturbing stories in the post-Reformation era is the turning of the persecuted into persecutors.  
I point you to the journey of Ulrich Zwingli from powerless to powerful; as I tell you about his story do keep in mind how dangerous it is when there is no law separating synagogue/church/mosque from state.  Like Martin Luther, Zwingli had been Roman Catholic, and when he embraced Luther’s reformational ideals eventually he was part of the new movement called “Protestantism.”  Catholics who had persecuted him remained his enemies, but when he had a hand in establishing the Swiss Reform Church in Switzerland, in the Zurich area in particular, anyone who didn’t go along with his religious ideals also became his enemies.  
As much as the new Protestants were supposed to have hated Roman Catholic ways, they didn’t throw out everything.  Oddly enough, in my mind, they kept infant baptism.  So the new Christian movement, Protestantism, built on the concerns of former Catholic priest, Martin Luther, ended up rejecting most things related to Catholicism, but kept infant baptism as their preferred mode of practicing that rite.  
One group, fellow Protestants they were and a peace-loving group, the Anabaptists, irritated Zwingli almost as much as President Obama irritates Rush Limbaugh.  The Anabaptists, forebears to today’s Mennonites and Amish folk, practiced believer’s baptism by immersion and not infant baptism.
With no separation of church and state in Switzerland, Zwingli’s religious group was essentially in political control as well--not that the Catholics gave up all that easily, but more about that in a minute.  Zwingli ordered the Anabaptists to stop the “godless practice” of baptism by immersion even though there’s not a single instance of infant baptism recorded in the Bible.  Being people of conscience, the Anabaptists kept on practicing believer’s baptism by immersion and protested in the streets that the emerging Protestant leadership was trying to keep them from practicing their faith as they saw fit.  
Zwingli took it as a show down, and he decided to kill off a few Anabaptists to demonstrate how powerful he was and how much he meant business.  At least six Anabaptists were publicly executed by drowning.  Said Zwingli and his cohorts, “Let he who dips be dipped.”
Often, when Zwingli’s story is quickly retold, an important chapter is omitted--the story of his own death.  He came to a horrible end.
As I said before, the Catholics didn’t give up their power easily; they fought to retain it.  Zwingli died while fighting against Catholic forces in the 1531 Battle of Cappel. After being wounded, he was recognized by the Catholics and immediately killed. His body was quartered, which was the standard punishment for traitors, and then burned with dung so that nothing would be left of him to encourage other Protestants.  All of these groups--the Catholics, Zwingli’s Protestants, and the Anabaptists--were Christian groups though only one of three acted it.  Did I mention what a wonderful thing sectarianism has been for the Christian movement?  We have to wonder why Mrs. Adams’s concerns, concerns shared by many of the founding mothers and fathers of our nation, went and still go unheeded.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

    Some things in life we have to do all by ourselves.  The childhood impulse that demands, “I want to do it myself!”, finally comes to us in ways we could never have imagined when we want Mommy or Daddy to step back a couple of paces to let us ease toward independence. Some things in life we have to do all by ourselves.
    It doesn’t matter if we have a wonderful partner, great kids, the best friends ever, and a terrific overall support system; when push comes to shove, many of life’s most pivotal pathways we have to walk alone.
    When I was a kid at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, our youth choir used to sing from time to time:

  Jesus walked his lonesome valley
  He had to walk it by himself
  Oh, nobody else could walk it for him
  He had to walk it by himself.

  We must walk our lonesome valleys
  We must walk them by ourselves
  Oh, nobody else can walk them for us
  We have to walk them by ourselves.  

Like many words of many songs we sing in church, lots of us pay little attention to the words or, at least to the meanings of the words we sing. 
    For whatever reason, the words and the tune to that song are still etched in my memory, but I still don’t know exactly what the lyricist was referring to.  What was Jesus’ particular “lonesome valley,” and what are our lonesome valleys?  Was the writer referring to the valley of the shadow of death to which one of the psalmists had eloquently referred in ancient Hebrew worship?  Or was the reference to several of the lonely places through which we humans, of necessity, must walk? 
    There’s a big difference between “loneliness” and “aloneness.”  Some of my most painful moments of loneliness have taken place when I’ve been in the company of another person or the company of other people.  Those, for me, were considerably more painful than being lonely when I was actually alone.
    I’m not thinking of honest recognition of help or assistance or support when some sort of honor is bestowed.  I’m not thinking of an award someone receives, and though she or he worked valiantly to achieve it, when the award is acknowledged, the person still is honest enough and gracious enough to remember those people who helped her or him achieve what has come to be regarded as a mark of significant achievement.
    I for one am very proud that our President received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.  He was awakened at 6:00 a.m. on Friday by his staff who shared the news with him.  As I understand the story, the first words he uttered had to do with how humbled he felt as a result of the recognition.  A bit later in the morning, he issued a statement that included his insistence that the award had to be shared.
    Jon Cryer recently won an Emmy for best supporting actor in a television comedy series.  He is one of the stars of the sitcom, “Two and a Half Men.”  When he made his acceptance speech, Cryer said that he used to think shiny awards were a shallow measure of popularity, “but now I realize,” he said, “they are the only true measure of a person’s real worth as a human being.” 
    So what are those momentous human experiences that you must truly go through all by yourself?  No one can ever feel any of your emotions for you and thus can never understand what sadness or euphoria or pride or extreme joy feel like to you; nor can anyone else have those same emotions triggered for them just the way they’re triggered for you or in you. 
    I think the persons who wrote the words and the music for the depression commercial come close, though.  It’s the commercial for a particular medication for depression, and it seems to be on frequently at certain times of the year.  I’m telling you, I can be at the end of the best day possible--beautiful fall weather, a strong financial report from Dean Reese, no crises in either of my kids’ lives, no seizures for my dog, no harassment from my virtual personal trainer, no student excuses for late work that presume my utter ignorance, no technology crashes for any of the equipment on which I now depend for almost everything I do, no theologically or politically offensive bumper stickers--you know, an all around great day.  Even at the end of a perfect day like the one I’ve just described, I can hear the Cymbalta music.  Even before the announcer starts his voice over “information sharing”--telling me about what depression is like and all the people who suffer with depression--I’m gone, my wonderful day down the tubes.  I’m thinking, “Maybe I should consult my health care provider. I mean I thought I was feeling great, but now every sad thought I’ve ever had has been ushered into my consciousness by the lovely Cymbalta music. Maybe I’m depressed too.”  Of course, we live in an age when disclaimers are necessary:  “Antidepressants can increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors in children, teens, and young adults.”  Oh, well!  Please give me some of that!  The medicine magically knows that I’m 55 instead of 25?  And if I’m 24 instead of 34, I could be taking some pills that will make me want to end it all instead of helping me regain my emotional health.  Why take any medicine at all if you want to induce depression?  Just listen to the Cymbalta music!
    Seriously, if I am depressed, no one can feel it for me or feel it exactly as I feel it or necessarily understand anything at all that I may be feeling.  That goes for any emotion.  I may be able to tell a dear friend or a trusted counselor something about how I am feeling deep down inside, but the verbal description can never be anything more than an approximation of the real emotional journey that only I can experience.
    We parents lose both sleep and sanity worrying ourselves sick about struggles our children have to go through on their own.  How we wish we could live through their painful times or carry their hurtful burdens for them, but, alas, we cannot.  Our children must learn for themselves how to manage, practically and emotionally, a host of life’s challenges.
    I suppose one’s own death is the ultimate aloneness in human experience.  Our loved ones can walk with us up to precipice, where earthly life ends and life in the next world begins for those who choose to live on in God’s embrace, but letting go of this world and stepping into the next one is something that we must do alone; there are no other options. 
    The philosophy or philosophical school known as existentialism is by no means a simple list of precepts, but many of the philosophers who can be called existentialists, following Kierkegaard who after his death came to known as the father of existentialism, agree on the aloneness of a human being, every human being, as a common quality of what it means to be human.  At a certain level, all people are alone in the world even though they may be grouped with other individuals.  Efforts to confront and deal with our aloneness in the world motivate people to cope by establishing their values.  Even so, there is a tendency to feel that we may be overtaken by meaninglessness so people must combat that by continually making choices that bring meaning into aloneness and potential meaninglessness.
    Existential psychotherapy operates on the basis of an idea that enough choices about values and meaningful investment of self can check meaningless to greater or lesser degrees and replace it with meaningfulness.  The therapist is, of course, a coach who recognizes at every step of the way that there is absolutely nothing that can be done FOR a client in this way.  She or he is ultimately alone in the struggle to replace a default meaninglessness with meaningfulness.

    Thankfully, our inherent aloneness can be dealt with in such a way that loneliness doesn’t overtake us.  We can choose to be in hosts of different kinds of healthy relationships that bring us meaning and fun and joy.  We can involve ourselves in activities that are meaningful to us--maybe because they make a positive difference to someone else.  We also find that some of those tasks we thought we had to do alone--I’m not talking about those deep down emotional and spiritual pathways we must walk alone--we don’t have to do all by ourselves after all.
    Organizational leaders are always challenged by the tension of doing something themselves or delegating.  Effective delegating is supposed to be a sign of effective leadership, but that implies that you have been given or that you have chosen competent people to whom you can delegate, which we all know isn’t always the case. 
    Some folks don’t let others help them because they feel embarrassed to ask for help, or else they have a self-image issue telling them that if they have to ask for help something is wrong with them; that if they were who they should be, they wouldn’t need to ask for help.  We all need the help of others in certain areas of our lives at one time or another.  I’m sure there have been examples of people in certain places and situations where they fended entirely for who knows how long.  I’m thinking of those people who are lost in mountains or wildernesses and who have to get by on their own until they find their way back to civilization or are found by someone who misses them.  I’m thinking of the so called Dessert Fathers who in the early history of the church, say in the third century, chose lifestyles of hermits in order to give themselves fully and without distraction to prayer and seeking the presence of God. 
    Anyone who teaches knows that there are students who ask for help too much and those who ask for help too infrequently.  There are those who too readily ask for help without trying to do what they might be able to do by themselves if they only tried. Sometimes, in a learning situation, it’s better to go ahead and make the attempt even if it results in an error than never to try to finish on one’s own. 
    I have always wondered what an eaglet feels like when mother eagle decides that it’s time for little eaglet to fly on her or his own--without motherly assistance.  Being carried way up in the sky only to be dropped as a way of being forced to fly seems so harsh!
    Some of us view having to ask others for help as a sure indication that we are not self-sufficient or independent, and while, as children, we said, “I want to do it myself,” as aging adults we don’t want to have to say, “Could you give me a hand?”  There is something in many of us, not all of us, that makes us believe asking for help is a sign of weakness.  There are people who get themselves in all kinds of messes because they won’t ask for help.  Older folks should remember what they taught their children, “It’s perfectly ok to ask for help when you need it.”
    My brother-in-law’s grandmother was one of the great ladies in the community where we grew up.  She, evidently, had no problem asking for help in certain situations, anyway.  Once she was baking and forgot how many pints were in a gallon so she called 4-1-1, “Information,” and asked.
    The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Roman Christians, was addressing the reality that within a single congregation there can be more than one correct view of what is right in a given situation, and he wrote: 

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s (Rom 14:7-8 NRSV).

    John Donne, seventeenth century poet and preacher:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Donne’s justifiably famous poem isn’t by any means a reminder that all humans must experience death.  Rather, his “for whom the bell tolls” image is a reminder that when any human dies, all the rest of us humans die to some degree.  Every time the bell tolls, as it did in his culture to notify the town or village that a death had occurred, the ringing, pealing announcement was a twofold announcement:  a member of our community has died, AND some of humanity in which we share has, with this individual, died as well.
    Whether we are asking another human being for help or not, we are tied to every other person through our common humanity.  Try though we may--with our attitudes and ism’s--we cannot disown any other human as a part of the human family.  Diplomacy, foreign policy, and classroom management would all be rather instantly revolutionized if everyone would simply admit to the truth of this self-evident reality. 
    In our diverse congregation, there are those who think of God as an impersonal force as well as those who think of God as personal to the degree that God’s love is actively displayed and dispensed.  There are those who wouldn’t dare ask God prayerfully for help. Then there are others who think that seeking God’s leadership, support, presence is, for them, a rather natural way to live.  When I say “seeking” I don’t mean to suggest that God has to be asked to help us in some way that God hasn’t figured out until we give God the instructions for what needs to be done from our point of view.  God’s love and the power of God’s love are givens in how the universe operates, in my view.  Prayer isn’t trying to coax God to do what God hasn’t yet done for whatever reason; instead, prayer is me opening myself up to the reality of God’s love wherever that may lead me.
    Even so, sometimes those prayers are our cries for help.  Recognizing that God isn’t the great rescuer--and certainly not the cause of our difficulties--we still reach out to God, some of us still reach out to God, as a way of affirming that God’s love can help us if we keep opening ourselves up to the divine reality within us. 
    It’s perfectly ok, as far as I’m concerned, to seek God’s presence in a tough situation and even to seek God’s “help” as long as we recognize that God doesn’t act on, God doesn’t force Godself on unwilling or utterly passive subjects.  “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” is, to me, an ideal prayer of this type.
    Behind all of this for me is the recognition or the belief that God, to be blatantly anthropomorphic, expects me to do all that I’m capable of doing before asking for help--recognizing all the while that God’s involvement is an inward thing, not anything outward.  God doesn’t drop food out of the sky, for example.  God doesn’t invent improved chemotherapy drugs.  God doesn’t show up at someone’s hospital bed for a little face to face chat.  God, I believes, lures gifted humans to perform such tasks.
    Have you ever heard the expression, “Put wings to your prayers”?  It’s a good expression, and it means that prayer doesn’t imply passivity on the part of the person who is praying.  Some pray-ers seem to think that their prayers are some sorts of spiritual dictating and delegating.  Once they’ve given God God’s orders for the day, they don’t worry about the problems because their prayer, they believe, has effectively assigned God to the task.  This is about as wrong a view of God and prayer as anyone may concoct. 
    Yet, a renewed sense of God’s presence of which I become aware because of a prayer that speaks my desire to claim and respond to God’s powerful presence within me may be just what I need to be able to get through a frightening or a sad or confusing or hopeless part of my journey.  This is the image at work in my mind when I hear the spiritual that I came to love even more when I heard this song sung in a New Orleans context during my years of serving the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church down there.  Some songs just can’t be sung anywhere as well as they can be sung in New Orleans!

  Precious Lord, take my hand
  Lead me on, let me stand
  I'm tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
  Through the storm, through the night
  Lead me on to the light
  Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

  When my way grows drear, precious Lord, linger near      
  When my life is almost gone
  Hear my cry, hear my call
  Hold my hand lest I fall 
  Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

    I grew up in a conservative religious tradition in which personal salvation was central to everything for which we stood and to our very reason for being as persons of faith and as a church.  At the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, we wanted everyone affiliated with our church to “get saved,” meaning to come to personal faith.  This was necessary for several reasons--two in particular:  one, to make life in the present better than it would otherwise have been; and two, to be kept from an eternity in hell.  Many services were directed toward encouraging the unrepentant to make this kind of personal decision. 
    We had nearly as intense a concern for those out in the community who were not affiliated with our church or with any church; we had “witnessing teams” who went out knocking on doors and passing out tracts and asking perfect strangers if they were right with God. When I was only 16 years old, I was one of those who went out to places assigned by my pastor to knock on the doors of strangers and ask them if they were saved or lost.  Imagine some of the looks I got, a 16 year old kid knocking on doors in a trailer park and asking people two, three, and four times my age about something as serious as their relationship with God.  I got cussed out a few times, but no one ever laughed in my face.  The most receptive folks were those who’d been drinking their Pabst Blue Ribbon talls.
    Generally, our church hosted two one-week revival services a year, one in the fall and one in the spring, for the express purpose of trying to draw the “unsaved” into an environment where they could seriously consider the matter of their individual, eternal destiny.  Sometimes local pastors who were friends of our pastor would serve as our evangelist, but sometimes we’d bring in a professional evangelist--someone who did this kind of preaching for salvation as his (always a him at Beaver Dam Baptist Church) profession.  You could tell the difference between the sermons preached by friends of the pastor and those preached by the evangelism pros.  The pros were more polished, and years later I’d learn the obvious reason why:  they had only about twenty sermons that they preached over and over and over again.  Naturally, an intelligent person improves with sufficient practice, and some of these were intelligent.
    Here’s a verse that must have been used tons of times by the preachers I heard growing up--both the regular pastors as well as the guest evangelists.  It’s from the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Christians in Ephesus, chapter two verses 8 and 9.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9 NRSV).

Now, our pastors were seminary trained, but no one ever explained the linguistic details of the passage I just read to you.  In English, the word “you” is both singular and plural--not so in many other languages, as I’ve mentioned recently in another context.  If you’re addressing one other person or a room full of people, you say, “You,” to them, and it works as a singular or plural form.  In the South, we usually try to help people along with our you-plural forms, “you all” and “you’ens.” 
    In the Greek, there is no need for colloquial assistance because the forms differ.  “You” singular and “you” plural are distinct and different forms.  In what I just read to YOU ALL, the “you” forms are plural.  In other words, “For by grace YOU ALL, the whole bunch of you, have been saved through faith, and this is not the doing of YOU’ENS by yourselves.”     Hold that thought.
    On the one hand, salvation is a very personal kind of thing because it involves an individual’s embracing of God, and surely there are countless ways to do that. While it, thus, must be intensely personal, there have always been those in the Christian movement who haven’t seen the fullness of salvation as being anything privitistic at all, but rather communal.  Ultimately, then, having a personal connection with God is significant, but it isn’t fully what salvation in a broader, fuller sense is about.  Salvation in its essence is about the process by which whole communities, nations, humanity as a whole find their rightful place in connection to God.  Salvation, in this sense, boggles the mind, and it should!
    Lately, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Right Reverend Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori, has been stirring things up by calling the notion of individual salvation “a Western heresy.”  I wrote briefly about my reaction to what she said in the most recent newsletter, and I also made this a part of one of our recent Wednesday evening discussions. She intially dared to make this statement to leaders within her denomination attending their annual meeting earlier this summer.  Bishop Schori insists that salvation requires a getting right with our neighbors by promoting  and doing justice.  She also says that it happens communally and that it’s a gift from God, not something we can earn no matter what we do.
    Well, Bravo, Bishop Schori!  I think she’s onto something big.  If not for the creed and infant baptism, I might ask Council to consider the idea of dual-alignment with Episcopalian denomination! 
    Now this necessary interdependency with others scares a rugged individualist like me.  I always hated group projects in college and seminary, because I always figured out I could do better on my own than with a group that might have a slacker or two in it.  Yes, getting paired up with a brain or a star could help, but all things considered I preferred to take my chances alone.  If I were going to go down, I wanted it to be my own fault and not the fault of some goof for whom a “C” grade was plenty adequate. 
    Corporate or communal salvation means that we are saved or not as the whole human race; and I’m not liking some of the people I’m thinking about who are humans as far as we know and who by virtue of being human have something to do with moving humanity either closer to or further from the gift of salvation.
    The grace is that my individual choice to be embraced by God gives me confirmation that salvation is mine, but never in its fullness at this time or at this point in history.  We all must move it along through doing justice and striving toward peace and eradicating the isms that kill our sisters and brothers in the family of humanity.  Indeed, salvation in its fullness is a gift of God, but a gift is of no value unless it is received and put to its intended use.  Salvation--both the foretaste we experience when we affirm the loving God within us and the full and final deliverance of humanity from all that has attempted to harm humanity and keep it from the realization of its intended destiny is destroyed.
    Some believe, for obvious reasons, that the fullness of salvation can never come in this world as it is and, therefore, that salvation is only fully realized for the whole of humanity when human history comes to a close.  That’s too pessimistic a view for me.  Even so, we’re not there yet, and we’ll never, as a bunch of independent agents working as if others didn’t matter in the process, get there all alone; we must depend on each other to get us and our world where we need to be.
    Now, since local churches, most of them, are constantly feuding about something almost always nonsensical, and since denominations are often involved in heated debate about whether or not the core theological and social affirmations are too liberal or too conservative and who gets to try for salvation and who must be consigned to hell, and since various whole religious movements condemn all of those who don’t function under their umbrella how in the world--and I mean, “in the world,” literally--can even those who consider themselves people of God help move humanity closer to its ability to claim and become what God has intended from the beginning?  It looks rather bleak, doesn’t it?  I can still be optimistic because of the power of duality. 
    One of things we are finding out is that institutions no longer define us religiously, and in other ways, as they once did.  I may find that I have more in common theologically with someone who is not in my religious group than I do with others who name the same group I name as theirs.  I can tell you that Rabbi Ed Cohn and I differ on very few signifiant theological issues, and where we differ we do not create barriers or assign one another to an eternity separated from one another.
    People are more important than institutions.  People are more important than principles.  People are more important than prejudices.  And I need those very people.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

I have had two pivotal, pastoral conversations about abortion in my career; and two only.  Both of those conversations were initiated by women who had decided to have an abortion years before they engaged me in conversation about their complicated decisions.  My now ex-wife and I were never in a position to have to ponder an abortion decision so I have very limited firsthand experience with those who have had abortions.  Neither of my conversations were with people considering abortions; again, both were with women who’d made the abortion decision long before they chatted with me, and each was just checking in with her pastor to make sure that she had made the right decision in going along with life and not hating herself.  These are conversations I’ll never forget.
One woman came by to say that after putting this behind her, long before she ever moved to the city where we both were living at the time, it had come up again in a kind of cruel way.  A church near where she lived, a Baptist church as it turned out, converted its lawn into a mock graveyard with numerous little tombstones erected.  A sign the church had put up read, “Remembering aborted babies their mothers want to forget.”  
She said that early in her college career, at one of those party schools (What’s the number one Party School in the nation now?  Del State?  Penn State?  One of those I’ve never heard much about!!!), she had a wild weekend and several weeks later found out she was pregnant.  This was not in an era where there were great worries about STD’s, and no one had ever heard of AIDS back then.
She knew that there was no way she could support a child, and the father of the child laughed in her face when she told him what was going on.  She didn’t have the kind of relationship with her parents that would have allowed her to trust them for either emotional or financial support so she chose abortion.  She still believed this was the right decision at the time, but driving by this church every day pierced her heart.
The other woman, different church and different city, came to talk to me because she’d had to make the decision based on clearcut testing that showed her her baby would be seriously impaired for life.  She and her husband already had several kids and financial challenges meeting all their needs.  There was no way she could care for a baby who would always be a baby while taking care of the kids she already had so she had an abortion.  Sadly, her holier than thou husband told her that while he would always love her she was going to hell for what she did.  She knew I didn’t believe in hell, and she was inclined to agree with me, she said, but she just wanted some reassurance.  It still breaks my heart to think of what her husband put her though with that hell remark.
I’m a huge Alice Walker fan.  I think her masterpiece, “The Color Purple,” in all its incarnations is one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever encountered.  Because of my love for the novel and the movie and the Broadway musical, I grew interested in Alice Walker’s biography.  There is an abortion chapter in her life too.  
She was a student at Sarah Lawrence College when she got pregnant, and she seriously considered suicide as her solution.  In fact, she slept with a straight razor under her pillow for three or so nights in a row, thinking that before the night ended she’d know the time had come to take her own life.  
Alice knew there was no way she could financially support a child.  She was  fearful of disappointing her parents and the church folk who had believed in her and supported her in her decision to get an education, which few poor Black kids from south Georgia in her generation could even dream of.
She recalls thinking about how sad her parents would be when they learned that she had committed suicide, but she thought that they’d be less sad when they found out why she’d done it.
I don’t want to rais little girls in our culture who grow up to believe, largely because of their religious instruction, that a suitable response to having had abortion is to end their lives.  Thankfully, Alice’s friends and her poetry and a supportive professor, Muriel Rukeyser, got her through.  
Ironically, having heard so few people talk about abortion in personal conversation with me, I have heard more than my share of heated public rhetoric on the subject largely because, for some unknown reason, the only churches that have ever called me to serve them full-time as a pastor have been in predominantly Roman Catholic cities where Archbishops and in one case a Cardinal were the most influential persons on any religious issue that came up.  I’d like to thank DELAWARE TODAY for suggesting that, at least in 2009, someone other than a Roman Catholic was the most influential person in the field of religion in the state of Delaware!  I don’t know if the anti-abortion rhetoric is more heated in predominantly Catholic areas or predominantly religious “right” Protestant areas.  When I grew up in the Bible belt, I never heard a word about abortion from the pulpit or in polite conversation--literally, not a word.  I’d bet that those growing up down there today cannot make the same claim.
A woman in our church was surprised with a post-menopausal pregnancy, so the story went, and her doctor was convinced that with her preexisting health issues the delivery could take her life.  She had an abortion, and none of the whispered conversations that I heard--and there were plenty of them--criticized her or diminished her in any way or called her faith into question.  It was discussed as a horrible tragedy, a huge loss for her family, and that was that.
Going back about three and a half years, a Dutch health official spoke out, and not in whispers, about the need for mandatory abortions under certain circumstances.  No law passed in response to what she had to say, but her call was heard around the world.  Marianne van den Anker said that the reality of unwanted children and what typically happens to them are all the motivations she needs for insisting that legal measures be taken to require contraception as a first line of defense and abortion as a followup if contraception doesn’t work.  
The mother of two young children, she told local reporters in Rotterdam that in her professional role she is required to deal with abused children.  Everything she has ever tried to do to stop it has failed, she explained.  She named three groups most likely to bring unwanted children into the world--unwanted children being the most likely to suffer abuse, but not the only ones by any means.  The three groups are teenage parents, drug addicts, and parents who are mentally handicapped.  
Van den Anker said that unwanted children from these kinds of parents run a higher than usual risk of suffering serious child abuse--in particular:  violence, neglect, and sexual abuse.  Abused kids who survive the abuse can become abusers themselves, and it is her view that many of the kids who become a part of a gang were unwanted babies who grew up in loveless homes. 
There are those within the US American democracy who wonder aloud if mothers having multiple children they can’t afford or can’t care for otherwise, should be required to have an abortion.  Mandatory abortions for Welfare Mothers is frequently discussed and promoted; some who push for it are racists, but not all are by any means.  They are concerned about unwanted children and the clear inability of such mothers and often absentee fathers to provide for the children they have; much less to provide for more to come.

The mentally unbalanced woman who had children and then had octuplets with the assistance of medical professionals, which got her tons of media attention but no additional capacity to think or reason, would be a prime candidate for a required abortion if abortions were both legal and moral under such circumstances.  Thankfully the media stopped fanning the flames that were giving her the attention she desperately craved.  I feel for her kids.  Of course, she will probably be next up on “Dancing with the Stars”; they’ll take anybody.
I am not here today to try to change your mind on this subject, if you’ve already made up your mind--or even if you haven’t yet made up your mind.  I have nothing to gain by increasing the number of people around me who agree with me; my only concern is that a woman who feels that she must terminate her pregnancy have the freedom to make that choice--and without criticism or condemnation.
Let me make two points before we go any further along in our thinking on this highly controversial issue.  First, what I believe about the morality or immorality of abortion does not make abortion either moral or immoral.  The same principle applies to legalities; a nation may enact a law either allowing or forbidding abortion, and that law would make it legal or illegal in that context; but the law cannot determine whether or not the abortion is moral.  Second, abortion as it’s debated in the United States today isn’t about abortions being forced on women against their wills, but rather about a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion if she feels that she is physically or emotionally incapable of going through with the delivery and/or of caring for and rearing a child.  I know of no law in any democracy that ever, for any reason, required a woman to terminate a pregnancy by means of abortion.  Some say that mandatory abortion is enforced under certain circumstances in China, North Korea, and Vietnam.  Despite some debate on the issue, I don’t think any woman in the United States is about to be required to have an abortion so, again, we’re back to the right of a woman to make that choice.  Abortion is being forced on no one.
I will discuss several reasons I have for believing what I believe and preaching what I preach.  Let me be very up front about the fact that unless someone accepts all of life as sacred, and thus affirms the sanctity of life across the board, their opposition to abortion on the basis of the sanctity of life is utterly unconvincing to me.  I will listen to anyone who is a so called pro-life person if she or he opposes abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, and war-killing.  The murderer who ended the earthly life of Dr. George Tiller certainly does not believe in the sanctity of life.  He may oppose abortion on some other grounds, but he is disqualified from using a sanctity of life argument to support his position.  
While we’re on the subject of the sanctity of life, let me clear up something about the Bible and the sanctity of life.  Opponents of the pro-choice position often try to bolster their position by appealing to the Bible and, in a closely connected way, to the sanctity of all of life--well, all of human life.  There are a few exceptions to what I’m about to say, but, generally, the Bible doesn’t teach or promote the sanctity of human life.  The Bible is a very violent book often portraying God the Creator as determined to rub out a life or lives by means of executioner’s cruelty.
       The whole rationale for the great flood, in which only Noah and members of his family and some representatives from the animal kingdom were saved, was that God was so disappointed with how humanity relatively quickly became evil after the initial creation that in God’s anger God killed off all other humans and animals on the face of the Earth.  If you were to interpret that flood story literally, you’d have several problems, but one of them would be that among those killed by God would have been mothers-to-be carrying the unborn in their wombs.  
From the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them (Gen 6:5-7 NRSV).

There is no sanctity of life here.  
What in the world the animals did to anger God escapes me.  And how could children not old enough to make decisions with moral or immoral bearings have angered God sufficiently that God would have wiped them out?  And the unborn, how could they possibly have deserved to have been destroyed by God, or is it simply a frustrating fact of life that whatever happens to the pregnant mother happens to the fetus as well?  Isn’t that why there are such cruel realities as fetal alcohol syndrome and
babies born with AIDS?  In any case, there is no regard for the sanctity of life by the Creator of life in the flood story.  
My dear friends, God was no more responsible for the flood that is spoken of in Genesis and in the writings of other neighboring cultures from the same era than God was for the recent floods in India and the Philippines.  God had nothing at all to do with the deaths of some 150 people in India and nearly 300 in the Philippines.  Biblical literalists must explain why God would do such horrible things to any people--especially the helpless.  I can guarantee you that some of those who died in those floods were pregnant mothers and, of necessity, the unborn.
God is portrayed in various ways throughout Hebrew scripture; sometimes God looks pretty good, but sometimes you want no part of such a dangerous deity.  The Bible doesn’t deal at all with the concept of elective abortion, but if, as many on the religious right claim, the Bible forbids abortion, then why in the world is God Godself sometimes presented as a killer of the unborn or as an advocate for killing the innocent?  
If someone wants to argue the morality or immorality of abortion, fine; but she or he had better leave the Bible out of it--especially if she or he wants to argue a biblically established sanctity of life.  I do think God values all of life, but I can’t get that if I believe everything literally that I read in the Bible.  The flood story is only part of the problem.  
The story of the Exodus--meaning the exodus of the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage--is wonderfully redemptive and uplifting if read from a pro-Hebrew point of view.  If, however, read from an Egyptian point of view, God looks exceedingly cruel.  Ultimately, to force the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel of Israel go, God murders the firstborn sons in all Egyptian homes.  One of the psalmists remembers that divine act with appreciation:

For I know that the Lord is great; our Lord is above all gods.  Whatever the Lord pleases he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth; he makes lightnings for the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.  He it was who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, both human beings and animals (Psa 135:5-8 NRSV).

OK, so God says slavery makes impossible the sanctifying of life for the slaves, but is it necessary to kill the children of those who enslave others to make them stop what they’re doing?  God is so powerful and so ingenious, why doesn’t God deal with the Pharaoh who ruled over the Egyptians dictatorially?  How is murdering innocent children, even if the children are the children of our enemies, proof of sanctity of life?
I could go on and on with this, but I will stop with one more example.  Menahem was one of the kings of Israel that I’ll bet most of you have never heard of, but he was there in the line.  And on his way to the throne, he slammed some enemies of Israel who were naturally taken to be enemies of God as well in ways that revealed a complete absence of respect for human life.  This could be someone’s special Bible verse for the day:

At that time Menahem sacked Tiphsah, all who were in it and its territory from Tirzah on; because they did not open it to him, he sacked it. He ripped open all the pregnant women in it (2 Kings 15:16 NRSV).

Abortion must never be taken lightly, must never be taken casually even by those who advocate abortion rights and by those who perform and assist with the abortions.  Those of us who favor abortion rights, or, as some call it today “reproductive justice,” must be touched by the sincere anti-abortion folks whose hearts are ripped out at the mere thought of an utterly innocent fetus being aborted with no chance whatsoever to experience life and any of its promise.  I think this compassion is well placed for many opponents of the pro-choice position.  I can’t imagine how anyone could approach an abortion, even when medically advised, without some sense of the thought of loss of the life-potential.  This alone to me makes the practice of abortion-as-careless-birth-control disturbing, to say the least.
Even so, and whatever the reason for seeking an abortion, the mother carrying the fetus must have the freedom to make all calls related to anything having to do with her body.  This is not just a democratic right, but, more importantly, a human right.  
I have serious problems with cultural and religious movements that discourage or forbid both birth control and responsibly elected abortions.  I wonder how in the name of sanity it could be better for a child to be born into a part of the world where the chances of death by starvation or thirst or disease are nearly 100% than to have been aborted by a mother who made the difficult choice not to put a baby through certain suffering. 
The Gallup Polling organization has been asking US Americans since 1995 whether they are pro life or pro choice.  Consistently, more have said that they are pro choice.  In May of this year, that changed, and the Gallup people reported that 51% of those asked said they were pro life while 42% said they were pro choice.  Lots of politicos are wondering how with a pro choice President elected by an overwhelming majority his constituents now increase their pro life perspectives.  The verdict is still out on that one.
There’s an organization I’ve known about for a few years called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  Its founder and CEO is a clergyperson, and its motto is:  “Pro Faith.  Pro Family.  Pro Choice.”  The organization’s agenda catches my attention:

The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice brings the moral power of religious communities to ensure reproductive choice through education and advocacy.... The Coalition was founded in 1973 to safeguard the newly won constitutional right to abortion. The Coalition founders were clergy and lay leaders from mainstream religions, many of whom had provided women with referrals to safe abortion services before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. The founders believed that there would be at most a ten-year struggle to secure the right to choose. In fact the struggle is far from over. It has changed and intensified, and the stakes are growing....While our member organizations are religiously and theologically diverse, they are unified in the commitment to preserve reproductive choice as a basic part of religious liberty.  Our rational, healing perspective looks beyond the bitter abortion debate to seek solutions to pressing problems such as unintended pregnancy, the spread of HIV/AIDS, inadequate health care and health insurance, and the severe reduction in reproductive health care services. We support access to sex education, family planning and contraception, affordable child care and health care, and adoption services as well as safe, legal, abortion services, regardless of income.

One of my concerns with the politicizing of this whole abortion rights debate is the subtle and sometimes not so subtle effort to make the abortion decision a non-medical issue.  This is to say that there are those who want to have us all think of the abortion pro-cess as unrelated to the health of the mother carrying the fetus as if it’s just like any other moral or ethical issue that can be decided in an entirely theoretical setting.  This is impossible.  The would-be mother can very easily have her physical and/or emotional health compromised by carrying a baby to term.  Many of us wish contraception or adoption could solve the situation, but it doesn’t at all, and we can’t have people trying to block abortion as if the mother-to-be’s health is of no consequence.  
Speaking of those who speak against abortion, I think male-led debates on this issue are unacceptable on several levels and reveal a gender bias against women as incapable of deciding an issue even though it’s something that no man will ever experience first-hand.  The ladies should be debating this one.  
Similarly, supposedly-celibate men AND women, in and out of religious orders, have no right to be at the forefront of this kind of debate.  This is a discussion for child-bearers to debate.  Debate, I said; not decide.  The decision still should be, must be, made by the woman who is pregnant and who should have every right to decide what to do about how to deal with a pregnancy once it has been confirmed.  
We wish all unborn children would be born with robust health.  We wish all unborn children would be wanted and born into loving homes.  We wish all unborn children would be born to parents who have a measure of common sense, responsibility, and at least a handful of basic moral values.  We wish all unborn children whose birth parents decide not to raise them could be placed in loving adoptive homes.  We wish no unborn child would ever come into the world only to be abused. 
We wish no pregnant mother ever had to hear an obstetrician say, “If you carry this fetus to term, the birth process could kill you or the baby or both of you.”  About half a million women around the world die during childbirth every year.  More mothers die during childbirth in Sierre Leonne than in any country in the world--2000 mothers dead for every 100,000 deliveries; Afghanistan loses the second highest number of mothers giving birth--1900 mothers dying during every 100, 000 births.  Iceland has the lowest rate; most years, no mothers in Iceland die during childbirth, and in the United States--because of the excellence of prenatal care available to some of our citizens and because many have chosen abortion in the face of bleak news--11 or 12 mothers die out of every 100,000 deliveries.  Sadly, without an abortion option, that number would be much higher for US Americans.  
The religious right, not all of them but probably most of them if we can go on what we hear them saying, wants the American public to believe that to be religious, i.e. to be in good with God, is to be anti-choice. It’s a bit ironic, therefore, that religious leaders were working toward legalizing abortion for years before Roe v. Wade. In the 1960’s, clergypersons around our country became horrified by the injuries and deaths suffered by women as a result of illegal, unsafe abortions.  The Reverend Howard Moody, an American Baptist pastor in New York City, and Arlene Carmen, Moody’s church administrator at Judson Memorial Church in Union Square, organized the Clergy Consultation Service there in New York.  This was a network of clergy, the first of its kind, who agreed to help women gain access to safe abortion providers. Similar networks would develop across the country and provide thousands of referrals for abortions that were necessary but illegal--prior to the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
The issues are freedom, health, and life.  I hardly see how we can deny those to any woman.