Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Folly of God - Sermon June 4, 2016

[The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional is the title of a book by John Caputo. I have been reading lots of theology and philosophy in order to better understand myself as I write my memoir, tentatively titled Faith Before and After.] The text is I Corinthians 1:17-31.

I am 72 and I am writing a memoir.
One reason I am writing my memoir is because I don’t believe what I used to believe.
It is important to me to figure out what I used to believe
how I came to believe it, and what I believe now.
My other motivation is to leave for my 8 year old granddaughter
who doesn't attend church at all
some explanation of what I did as a minister, and what churches used to be like.

My memoir is the story of one man’s life in a mainline denomination
during the last half of the 20th century.
In it I try to explain what I have seen as the essence of Christian faith
when I let all the extra stuff fall away.
A friend in high school asked:
“Is life really complicated, or is life simple and we just complicate it.”
So I ask “Is Christianity really complicated,
or is it simple and we just complicate it?”
Let me just say that my own memoir gets complicated because I have to ask:
What was the Calling that I experienced? What exactly was that call?
Where did it come from? Who is this God we all talk about so much,
with so little understanding and clarity?
At root it may all be simple, but
we complicate things because we think about them,
so I think that life is both simple and it is truly complicated.

Most of my life I have been battling with God,
with the God who doesn’t exist and never existed.
You know that God:
The God who is strong, all-knowing, all-seeing, the judge, the king, the father.
The God I have found is more like the one described by Paul.

One of two essentials of Christian faith is the cross.
The cross is a powerful symbol.
It was the means of execution by which Jesus and countless others
were tortured to death by the power of Rome.
I don't usually give lists in sermons, but here I think I must.
First of all the cross is the way Jesus died, an historical event.
Second, it represents the suffering of a man who was innocent
and all the innocent who have been tortured and killed by tyrannical empires.
Third, the cross is a symbol for all the suffering of the world,
endured by all humans, because we live this life in this world.
Fourth, the cross is the symbol for ultimate integrity,
for Jesus died without violating the principles which he taught,
because he lived and died non-violently protesting the ways of Rome.
And fifth, the cross condemns and declares the end of all violence.
It is wrong for those in power to kill those who aren’t.

Everything else you may have heard or thought about the cross
is probably tacked-on, elaborately created
to make the simple story of Jesus’ death and Rome’s cruelty
mean something else, to serve the agenda of the teller of that tale.
So the cross isn’t about sacrifice,
or paying a debt to God who is offended by our sins.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross willingly; or because God wanted him to do so.
He probably didn’t think he was the son of God,
that he would be rescued, or later be raised from the dead.
He was a fully human man,
brutally killed for preaching that God was above Rome;
that God’s Empire or kingdom was greater than Rome’s.
The cross was not glorious, never was and never will be.
The ultimate contradiction and irony
is a cross made of silver or gold, or encrusted with jewels.

The only possible way we can say any of these things or conceive of the cross
in any of these ways, is with the phrase “as if.”
When we contemplate the deep meaning of political violence and death,
we can say it is “as if” his death was a sacrifice,
“as if” the cross were a precious thing.
All of Paul’s theories about God and Jesus are those of an imaginative thinker
spinning out creative possibilities for us to consider.
Paul did not set out to write scripture;
he was writing, probably verbally dictating,  letters.

The only other essential thing in Christian faith, I think,
is the communion table and our communion around it.
I have said to you here before that
When we eat together and when the symbol works,
our eyes are opened to see Jesus more clearly.
When we are gathered around the table,
we are drawn under the influence of Jesus.
We find ourselves in a similar relation to him
as had the first disciples who ate and drank with him.
The words of his teachings, the stories of his suffering and death,
the promises of the fullness of life,
are given texture and flavor in the sacrament.

If the supper transforms us, we somehow can see God in each other,
and we can discover ourselves called to participate
in healing and restoring the world.

If there is no community around the table,
if there is no exchange of ideas and affections or feelings,
if we wall ourselves off from each other; it cannot work.
But for you who live together as this congregation,
community of sharing each other’s lives is possible.
You probably know Jesus’ idea of church as a gathering,
no more complicated than a table and benches,
with bread and wine on the table.

Now about that pesky idea of God.
Paul says God is foolish according to our usual ways of thinking.
Many if not most of us think wealth and success and nice things are good.
The God of Jesus and Paul doesn’t care about them.
Jesus said that “It is harder for a rich man to get to heaven
than to go through the eye of a needle,”
because the riches don’t get us anywhere meaningful.

We think of God as strong and mighty, sort of like a Hercules or Goliath.
But Paul says the real God’s idea of strong is the cross.
So if Jesus reveals God,
then Christian faith is the oddest possible religion.

In the early years and early centuries of Christian faith,
the church settled a lot of conflict by creating a paradox,
saying that Jesus was both the son of God and yet fully human.
This is a way of saying “It is as if this man was son of God.”
So this shabby rabbi in a corner of the great Roman empire,
was crucified to show everyone that he was a nobody.
Somehow it backfired and his followers declared him son of God.
The story of Jesus turns everything upside down.
It tells us that we are not supposed to think of God in the sky
or as a power who takes care of us.
The resurrection is meant to tell us of how his teachings lived on,
and how Jesus lives on in our sharing of a communion meal.

God is spirit, and as such lives behind the cross and under the table.
It is "as if" God comes out from behind the cross and under the table
when we remember Jesus
and when we are taunted and haunted by his teachings.

God is that which lies behind the ideals and virtues,
and the unconditional aspirations of humanity
Like forgiveness, grace, and love. Like mercy, justice and peace.
Like communion.

These are not God; they are the cover of the book that hides or conceals God.
This is why we don’t see God. God isn’t really there.
We see the cover, the mask, or the clothing, but not God.
Moses saw a burning bush, but not God.
A burning bush was an image that amazed ancient Hebrews
and masks for the Greeks created personna in theater,
and later the idea of persons in the Godhead for early Greek Christians.
For us I think we can be more direct in describing the indirect:
The spirit is what occurs between and among us.
God is known by the existence and emergence
of forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.

Another image was sent to me on Facebook a few days ago.
Werner Heisenberg was the German scientist
who studied the smallest particles,
and found out that sometimes they exist, and sometimes not,
and sometimes they are in different places, maybe at the same time.
Sometimes they are particles and sometimes they are waves.
This he called “the uncertainty principle.”
It all depends on the place of the viewer.
The quote from him is
“The first gulp you take from study of the natural sciences
will make you an atheist,
 but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

The God Heisenberg spoke of was not the one he ever heard about
in his Lutheran church.
The God that is waiting for us at the bottom or the glass of our searching
is one we do not and cannot know
except by the relational ideals or values
that are most desirable and impossible to fully attain
Forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion
are all relational.
They are the greatest possibilities of what can happen between people.
I see them as existing between the particles Heisenberg studied, and between us,
sometimes there, sometimes not.
The unconditional values are relational because reality at its most fundamental level
is relational.
All we have of a God is these values that are the sometimes visible hints of
what we have called God.
We find them in the teachings and acts of Jesus
and other great sages of the world’s religions.

The parables of Jesus teach about mercy and forgiveness.
Simple sayings like “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies”
make us re-consider the possibilities for peace.
Stories of miracles are told to hint at God,
 so that the stories of Jesus raising Lazarus or someone’s daughter
reveal truths about love,
and the story of the risen Christ appearing on the road to Emmaus
reveals truth about communion with someone
who tells stories of deep meeting, and then disappears.
God is hiding in or behind these teachings and stories.

God is not so obvious and certain as we tend to think,
and certainly not an object or old man as the church has taught us to think.
So theologians have struggled to think of God as Ground of Being,
or the God above God, or “serendipitous creativity.” Wow.
That one says it is as if God is whatever is within the act of creativity,
happening when it happens, unpredictably and surprisingly.

So God is wise, but weak, kind of like a Mother.
So God is Good, like Jesus, but definitely a loser.
So God is Powerful not in might,
but in the power that we can experience only
in forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.
Any God there is worthy of the name is hiding.
We can say "God is here when you feel suddenly compelled to help a stranger,
forgive your spouse, support greater justice in the legal system,
witness to peace, or experience oneness with others in communion."
God is in and under and behind the cross and this table;
God is in and under and around the bread and the drink.
May God be in and under and behind and around and underneath and overarching us.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Preaching Difficult Subjects, Like Racism

A sermon, including: What is jazz? and a story from NPR
Text: Matthew 2:13-23 [especially 2:16]

People often ask why is this terrible story in the Bible?
First, There is no evidence from any source
that Herod had children under two years old killed as is told in this story.
The whole story is a legend, told to make a point, or several.
First, this story answers the question, How did Jesus come to live in Nazareth?
Second, it is a reminder that the power of the Roman Empire,
the authorities, were threatened by Jesus and his teaching.
Preachers mostly avoid this text. Why don’t preachers preach about certain topics?
And why is it that there is so much about politics in the Bible
when we don’t want politics in our churches?
[When we read about Herod or Rome, or centurions, or the crucifixion, we are talking politics.]
This is a sermon with lots of questions.

The whole story is meant to make us think and feel about Jesus as Messiah.
One thing to notice is that Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape Herod.
They took Jesus to Egypt just as the Hebrews had gone to Egypt many years before.
It ties the story to particular passages in the prophets,
since the author of Matthew is always trying to show
that everything about Jesus is the fulfillment of prophecy.

The story of death surrounding Jesus’ birth
signifies that the child as an adult will be crucified.
Such tragedy so often seems to accompany happier events in life.
And the story holds meaning for us today because it is a reminder to us
of the great tragedy and suffering in life, much of it terrible and pointless.
This story is called “the slaughter of the innocents,”
and there is no shortage of stories in the news of the slaughter of innocents
        – in our cities, on our streets, and in family homes here in the US;
in towns and deserts of Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Mexico, Nigeria,
                        and too many other places.
In the US alone there have been a total of 17000 homicides this year so far.
(We are not the most violent nation.)
There have been more than 12000 deaths by guns so far this year.
We assume that most of the victims were innocent,
but then there was no trial for those who might be considered guilty.
The slaughter of the innocents is real and contemporary; not just in the past or elsewhere.

A few brave pastors did preach on this when it came up in the lectionary
2 years ago just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook, when 20 children were killed.
It seemed more relevant then.

Of course preachers don’t want to talk about gun violence either.
The only times anyone walked out on a sermon I preached was when
I spoke about crazy people with guns when John Lennon was killed,
and again later when Reagan and Brady were wounded.
Why don’t preachers preach on certain topics?
You can imagine.

Fortunately, there is a lot less violent crime than 10, 20, 40 years ago.
And with DNA testing since 1989, 20 men on death row have been released.
They were exonerated from having anything to do with the crimes for which they were convicted.
A lot of innocents have been let out of prison.
300 prisoners have been released from prison after DNA found them not guilty.
They had served a total of 4,337 years in prison.
2/3 were African-American, but Blacks are only 13% of the population. Injustices abound.
How were these men convicted if they were in fact innocent?

One reason might be that prisons are full because people were and are afraid.
Studies have shown again and again, that if you watch local television news,
you will have an exaggerated sense of violence around you.
We fear things happening to our or our loved ones
that wouldn’t actually happen in a million years. [The murder rate is 2 in a million people each year.]
But there are many people in the news business and in politics who want us to be afraid.
Fear is a terrible thing.
The angels tell us Xmas eve, “Fear not.” Jesus grown up tells us “Don’t be afraid!”

One more thing preachers avoid. Preachers don’t want to preach about racism.
Reading American history I have discovered racism is the most prevalent,
foremost, biggest, most important, most destructive, most dehumanizing,
factor in American history and current American life.
Most of us white people don’t want to know this. We want to deny it.
We don’t want to believe that we are privileged,
that we receive favored treatment just because we are white.

I have been thinking a lot about racism because it was in the news
while I was reading books on the history of jazz.
I didn’t think it would be an education in race and racism, but it is.

A big question in music is What is jazz?
[Bernstein in his Young Peoples’ Concerts 60 years ago
        didn’t give a complete answer]
I have learned that jazz started on slave ships and in cotton fields down south.
In the 1700's these slaves found themselves ripped from their homes,
barely surviving terrible experiences on slave ships from Africa,
then living on plantations with strangers.
The slaves on a given plantation were from different tribes.
They all had different traditions, and had to learn from each other.
They had different traditions of singing and drumming,
and so they borrowed from each other.
As they adopted the Christian religion of their masters,
they mostly weren’t allowed to learn to read or to have drums,
so they sang and clapped and danced
to express their experience of God and Jesus and their hope for liberation.
They sang about their troubles and prayed in song.
Because their lives were so bad, they sang about their troubles
and they sang about being happy.
All that sad and happy music became the blues.
After slavery they moved into cities, like New Orleans,
where they picked up trumpets and clarinets
                and other instruments.
They took European music and added their bent notes,
         and flat 3rds and 7ths and 5ths and 6ths.
With the introduction of phonographs and recordings
they created music that drove White people crazy
                 after 1900.
When a few White folks started playing and singing it
similar to ways that the Blacks did,
                  White folks began to accept it.

Nearly every popular song for the past 100 years has
        been a rip off of some Black musician’s creativity.
What is jazz?
Jazz is the music of suffering people from Africa
which expresses pain and joy, given to all of us.
That’s what it is.
It is their lives – distilled, poured out, and drunk up.
None of us can live easily with too much suffering of the          innocents around us, so we need that music.

I end this sermon with a story,
         about Christmas and questions, among other things.
This story was told on the radio program, “This American Life.”
The show was called “Kid Logic.”  The story was told by a father. He said:
It all began at Christmas when my daughter was four. “What is Christmas?” she asked.
So I explained that this was the celebration of the birth of Jesus.
We bought a kid’s Bible and had readings from it at bedtime. She loved them.
She wanted to know all about Jesus. We read about his birth and his teachings.
She would ask constantly what a phrase meant.
She especially liked “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
And we would talk about these old words and what they meant.

One day we drove past a church with an enormous crucifix. “What’s that?” she asked.
I had never told her that part of the story.
So I told her, “That’s Jesus.  I haven’t told you the end of his story.”

I told her how he ran afoul of the Roman government,
how his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities of that time that they killed him;
that they came to conclude that he had to die. His message was too troublesome.

In mid January, her pre-school had Martin Luther King Day off.
So I knocked off work that day and thought we would play.
At breakfast I plopped the newspaper on the kitchen table.
The Arts section was on top with a huge drawing of Martin Luther King by a ten year old.
“Who’s this?” my daughter asked. “That’s Martin Luther King,” I replied,
“And he is why you are out of school today, in celebration of his birthday and his life.”
“So who was he?” she asked. “He was a preacher,” I answered.
“For Jesus?” she asked. “Yeah, he was,” I said.

Now it’s very hard to explain these things to a four year old.
It’s the first time they hear anything. You have to be careful how you phrase everything.

So I said, “He was a preacher and he had a message.” “What was it?” she asked.
“Well, he said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about this for a minute and said “That’s what Jesus said.”
“That’s right,” I said.  “It’s sort of like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you.’”
She thought for a minute and then asked, “Did they kill him, too?”

The seeds of Jesus’ life and teaching bear fruit, again and again.
May the result continue to be not only surprising but transformative of our lives.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The People Who Pass - My Gypsy Story

It is time to put this story in print. It is true. I have told it many times but never written it down. I am driven to do so because of Adam Gopnik’s excellent report of the difficulties in France for the Roma and for the French.

In the early 1980's I was pastor of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church on the southeastern side of Trenton, NJ. (It has since merged with a church in Yardville.) This was an urban residential area, not far from the state prison and in another direction not far from the old Roebling steel works and State House, and in another from Little Italy. (I can tell other tales about that, but Janet Evanovich has done well enough with it.)

One Sunday an esteemed Elder of the church asked me about an old Cadillac that had been in the church parking lot for more than a week. He asked me if I could find out who owned it, and let them know that they couldn’t use our lot. The next day as I drove in the parking lot I saw a neighbor I recognized. I asked him about the car. “Yes, I saw people parking the car one day. They went into that house across the street.” I crossed the street and knocked on the door.

A man who looked very much like my mental image of a 17th century pirate answered the door. There were many others crowding behind him whom I could not clearly see. I told him that we needed the parking lot for the people who came to church events and the daily senior lunch. He understood and said he would move it, which he did.

My part time secretary had an office in the back of the church. I had claimed a large room in the basement for my office. I hated being in a basement, but it had a huge old double sided oak desk, and room for an 8 foot conference table. I installed a large chalk board on one wall for planning and teaching purposes.

One day my secretary buzzed me on my phone. The phone only had one line but it was left over from more flush times, so it had a row of I think seven buttons across the bottom of the phone, including an intercom feature. One of the unused buttons I labeled “God,” which drew interesting responses from people of various ages who used it.

“There are some women here to see you,” she said nervously. I said I would come up and talk with them. There were six women. One was grandmotherly. Three were middle aged; one of whom spoke and acted as their leader. Two were high school aged teenagers. All wore multi-colored full-length full skirts or dresses, and a lot of jingling jewelry. All had fanned out down two hallways and were examining all the rooms, offices, and the worship area. I suspected that they were “casing the joint,” but maybe they were merely curious. On my arrival they gathered around me. The leader said “We are here to ask for your help. We have need for a priest.”

“I am not a priest,” I said. “We are not a Catholic Church, but Protestant, Presbyterian. There is a Catholic Church a block away.”

“No. They will have nothing to do with us, nor we with them. We stay away from each other since ancient times. We have our own Christian faith, and you are a Christian leader, so you can help us.” I invited them downstairs to talk further with them, partly to get them away from my frightened secretary.

In my office, the leader introduced the others. “This one here,” she said about one of the teen aged girls, “has been dishonored by a man. We thought he was one of us, but he has betrayed us and insulted us all. He promised to marry this girl, but now he has stolen money and fled. Our men think that he has fled to Chicago, so they have left to get him. They will bring him back to us, and here is what we want you to do.”

“We will pay you well, to come to our place at night. You must wear your robe and vestments. We will have the betrayer bound on the floor. You must pronounce a great curse on him.”

“No, I don’t do curses.” I said many times in as many ways as I could. I explained that I and my church did not believe in curses, but only in blessings. I ushered them out.

A few days later I went to the house where they had lived. They were gone. None of the neighbors had seen them leave or knew anything about them.

Such an encounter tends to reinforce one’s prejudices. My Mother had told me of growing up in Missouri, where gypsies camped out in the fields on the edge of town. People had told her to stay away from them because they kidnapped little children, to sell, or to raise as their own. Only a few years before my enounter, in southwestern Minnesota, there was a story of how a number of cars and vans had parked in a discount store lot, entered the store, cleaned it out, and quickly left. They were not found.

We might think that after some time, maybe several generations, these people would be assimilated into the larger culture. Maybe; maybe not. I have mixed feelings because I love Django Reinhardt.

Another time in Trenton, a family came into the church asking for cash to get them to New England where they were to work harvesting apples. We were close to I-95, and were targeted by many asking for help. They had run out of gas a block down the street, they said. I asked them to take me to their car. They did. There were several very poor looking children in the backseat with many McDonald’s food bags and wrappers. I checked the gas gauge on the 12 year old GM sedan, and confirmed that it was empty.

As I gave him $10 I realized that the gas gauge was broken, and that these people made their way around the country by telling stories to secure handouts. That was how they earned their living. I was paying for a well told story. OK. Until we can build a better society, this is what they and we have to do. Then I helped organize ministers in the area into a telephone tree for “knights of the road,” so that we wouldn’t get scammed more often than we wanted, and so we could agree on how best to help each individual and family.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Spiritual Presence Sermon – Part II

Spirituality is Relational, NOT Supernatural!

We have the Spirit of God. The Spirit is within and among us. Paul says “You have the Spirit of God’s power and purpose and freedom.”
“You are free from the seductive values of corporate media commercialism and consumerism, of all the things that make for inequality and divide us and distract us from the values that Jesus was about.” That’s what Paul means by “flesh.”

In the Gospel of Thomas we read these words attributed to Jesus when his disciples asked him “When will the Father’s Imperial Rule come?” And Jesus said: “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘look, here!’ Or ‘Look there!’ Rather, the Father’s Imperial Rule is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”

There was a teacher at my seminary who died a few years before I became a student there. His name was Joe Haroutunian. (Joe chaired the committee that wrote the Presbyterian Confession of ‘67.) All of my teachers told stories about him and they urged us to read his book, God with Us (still in print, Wipf & Stock).*

Joe wrote: “The Holy Spirit is not a ghostly presence or being. To speak of the Holy Spirit is not to describe a vertical relationship with God but a horizontal relationship with each other. The Holy Spirit is not so much in us – as among us. We know no love of God for us without our love for one another, no forgiveness of God without our forgiving one another, no faith or hope from God except as we have faith toward one another and hope in one another. We hear no good news from God or from his Son, except as we speak it one to another.”

Others go a step further than did Haroutunian: If we experience in Jesus that God became human, and if the Spirit of God is how we relate to each other, then God is not a being, God is the word we use for being itself, for the life energy and creative energy we know in our living. God is Spirit. God is love. And if we do not love, there is no God. That gives us a lot of power.

So think about this: What is the result of all our interacting, of all our loving each other? Fred Rogers – Mr. Rogers from his neighborhood said – “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” 

And that person gives a part of what you gave to them to others. So what we say and do and give carries the Spirit to others, and a huge web of thought and feeling catches on in the society and can become a dominant thought or feeling of the whole culture.

Mostly it doesn’t go that far, but we do speak of “the spirit of the age.” The predominant thoughts and feelings each year and decade and century shift and change and move in surprising and not so surprising ways. The spirit working between us and among us in all of the exchanges between us makes the culture in which we live.

When we have mystical experiences of the numinous or the sacred in small groups, in congregations, or in mobs, then we have a “transpersonal” experience of “God” or “Spirit.” Then we feel that something is happening or transpiring between us, sometimes between many individuals. Whether it is mystical or not, there is an unseen transaction between people that results in our coming to see things from the same viewpoint or seeing them in similar or perhaps new ways. The result is the transformation, growth, and/or dispersion of a worldview. Thus this “spirit” creates culture itself.

The totality of the culture of a nation, a workplace, or a congregation impacts what and how we think and feel, and what we think and feel then in turn influences the larger culture. It can be good or bad. That is why the culture is such a mixture of wonderful good fruit and awful weeds. This power of Spirit rising out of our interactions, has a dark side because you and I don’t always think and share what is good. Good and bad is in us and in the air around us, affects us, and we are mostly unaware of how we contribute to it.

I have a Lenten spiritual exercise for all of you this week. Think this week about every encounter you have with another person, beginning with your conversations after worship this morning.This includes face to face conversations, phone conversations, emails, and texts. Sit down maybe Wednesday and make a list of the people you have spoken with since worship today. What have you received from the other? What have you given to the other? What do you carry away from that encounter with the other? What effect does it have on you later? Does anyone come back to you days later and say – “You know that thing you said about families (or whatever)? I’ve been thinking about it and how it applies to me.”

That’s the Spirit at work. Spiritual Presence. We can’t see the Spirit but the spirit is within us and between us. The Spirit is working among us all the time and we are part of that work. It is not ghostly or supernatural. Spirituality is relational and transpersonal. What kind of spirit are we sharing and receiving? And the meaning of all this stuff that I have made all too complicated is simply: We should be nice to each other. Your spouse, child, parent, sibling, customers, store clerks, and all. We should be nice. It's catching.
*No photo of Haroutunian is to be found online. H.R. Niebuhr, wrote on the dust jacket of Haroutunian's Wisdom and Folly in Contemporary Theology (1940): "His iconoclasm is deeply religious. His anti-religion is like that of the prophets and his protest against contemporary religion is like that of the early Protestants." This may explain why I like him.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spiritual Presence - Sermon Part I

Twelve years ago I met a religion professor who was about my age. (Paul Allen Laughlin, author of Remedial Christianity and Getting Oriented) He had been ordained a Methodist minister after graduating from Emory in Atlanta. I had been ordained Presbyterian after graduating from McCormick in Chicago.

He asked me “What 2 important things didn’t we learn in seminary?” (I think this was while he was playing jazz piano in a bar in Santa Rosa CA.) “I don’t know,” I responded, “I would have to think about it.”
“The first one is World religions,” he said. “Everyone needs to know about them in today’s world. They didn’t seem so important 30 years ago, but after 9/11 we all see how important they are.
“The second one is the common element in every religion, but we didn’t study it: Spirit. Spirit is the lowest common denominator of all religion.”

He was right. After leaving seminary in the early ‘70's the world began changing more rapidly. It became smaller. We learned more about other peoples and other religions. People everyone seemed to be talking about Spirituality.

In Lent people have always had special services and adopted special practices, in order to meditate on the death of Jesus. In doing this we are hoping for a religious or “spiritual” experience; a direct experience of God. That’s the big change in the past 40 years. People don’t want to hear about faith; they want to experience it for themselves.

At a church on Long Island I brought a large canvas labyrinth into the church fellowship hall. Several people who walked it in silence, for the first time, broke into tears, it evoked such strong feelings in them.

I have been trying to recall how I came to faith and what it was like in those early years. I have been thinking of the intense, extended experience of Spiritual Presence I had during the 4 years I lived in Chicago and attended seminary. I can remember the excitement I felt then, and the enthusiasm that was in all of us in the church we belonged to on the near north side of Chicago in 1968 until 1972. I was all excited about my new Christian faith and the books I was reading in seminary. I had a strong feeling of life and freedom and creativity, of energy, and the life force. (I was going through a lot of changes: Going to seminary was a new direction for my life, moving to Chicago was a big change for an Iowa boy, I was facing prison for refusing induction to the Army, and in 1970 our first daughter was born.) I thought of all this excitement as the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of being caught up and surrounded by the power of God. I remember an outdoor festival our church sponsored on the seminary field, on Pentecost Sunday, promoting the freedom and joy of the Spirit.

This feeling of the Spirit is an awareness that God is with us, but not judging us. It is a sense of being open to others and to the future, it is a sense of an inclusive and caring God, and belonging to a community led by the Spirit. It is feelings of awe and wonder at the whole of the universe and in the depths of our personal being. The whole world looked different to me, infused by this great light and energy.

That church at that time was an amazing fellowship and community of people. We were a people with a sense of communal belonging. We cared for each other and each other’s children. We studied together. We cleared out the area at the front of the church so that all of us [as many as 100 or more] could have communion together around the table. We ate together frequently, at church and in our homes in small groups. We went to movies together and discussed them afterward. We were involved in the anti-war movement together. We met with Black neighborhood groups in attempts at racial reconciliation. We raised money for good causes to help others in need. We were a community bound together in following the spirit of Jesus.

We were filled with ideas about things to do and changes to make so that we could be both faithful and relevant. Church life became so intense – too intense. We were making so many changes – you couldn't be sure that anything that happened on a Sunday morning would be familiar at all – that our Session [church council] declared a moratorium on all meetings for six months just to cool things down!

Eventually, people moved away and new people joined. I was ordained in that church and left to be pastor of a small town church where life was very different. I was disappointed to discover that most churches were not like the one I had known in Chicago. I was disappointed to learn how hard and slow it is to bring change to a church. Now I think I better understand what happened in Chicago and what didn’t happen elsewhere.

I think I know now what makes that kind of church, a community of the Spirit, a community of spiritual presence that Paul Tillich wrote about, or the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King spoke of – I think I know how it comes into being.

[to be continued]

What Is the Spirit of Christ?

I have been fascinated by Romans 8:9 for 45 years, so I chose this as my text for March 16, 2014. I had written a paper in seminary (long gone) on “spirit” in the Christian canon. I focused then on Romans 8, because it seemed to me that we used “Holy Spirit” in the same way we speak of the human spirit when we speak of the spirit of God or of Christ. This was no doubt my basic humanistic nature at work. All of this was before the charismatic movement and the great adoption of “spirituality” into the American churches.

I decided I liked the Jesus Seminar’s Scholar’s version, but not entirely (it is a bit clunky), so I translated parts of it my way, with thanks to the textual analysis of The Authentic Letters of Paul, by Dewey, Hoover, McGaughy, and Schmidt. I thought of using the LOLCatBible, but it is too hard to read aloud and understand. Great truths lie within, however.

Paul is also very difficult to understand. He is both an ancient writer and perhaps the first modern one. I see him essentially creating Christianity by spinning out one idea after another in order to explain his own spiritual experiences of “the Christ,” and to find meaning in his life. He didn’t always mean what we think he meant. His referents were other than ours. The deeper problem perhaps is that Protestants today can barely read Paul except through the lens of Luther’s reading and projection of it into all the churches of the Reformation. This has sent us down many rabbit trails. Here we go:

1 Those who are in solidarity with the anointed Jesus are no longer under a sentence of death.
2 For the rule of the spirit of life that was in the Anointed Jesus has liberated you from being ruled by the seductive values of this world and death.
3 God did what the law of Moses – weakened by the conflicted character of earthly existence – was incapable of doing: God sent Someone with God’s own character, but who was a participant like us in an earthly life with all its seductive corrupt values.
God sent such a One to condemn that corrupting power, and those corrupting values of our worldly life.
4 This fulfilled in us the just requirement of the Mosaic law so that we
live not according to the ambitions of a self-serving earthly life, but according to the purposes and power of God’s Spirit.

8 It is not possible for those who are pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement to please God.
9 You are not pre-occupied with worldly self-advancement but with God’s spirit of power and purpose.
Anyone who does not have the Spirit that was in the Anointed One does not belong to him....
14 All who are led by the spirit of God are the children of God.

You will notice that “flesh” here is not about our bodies, or sexuality, or personal failures. Flesh is about our human nature that drives us to get a leg up on our neighbors and make profits from them. It is the root of all that consumerism, warfare, inequality, and other nasty things that are common to this worldly life. Sin is our failure to live up to God’s values, or even our own ideals.

[Sermon to follow; to be continued]

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

911 – A Review of Freefall – The Basis for Many Conspiracy Theories

I have watched the Freefall: Explosive Evidence -- Experts Speak Out DVD, a presentation of arguments for why the investigation of the 911 collapse of three buildings should be re-opened, and why what the official investigation said could not have been true. It is well produced. I agree with the first part but not with the second. I will explain this and why I think so many do not accept the official version of those events. Then I will conclude with my own thoughts on why there is so much controversy over the events.

First I need to say that as the “911 truth” movement grew, I tended to agree with them. I signed petitions asking for further or re-opened investigations because I thought Giuliani and the Bush administration blew it. I am counted among the large number of people who doubt or have questions about 911. But –

911 was a unique and tragic event. It was another event like the JFK assassination. Almost no one could have believed beforehand that these things could happen as they were explained. These events shook us up. In these events we learned to distrust our military, intelligence and police agencies, officials and experts of all sorts, and the media that reported them. Someone on the DVD says “We know we’ve been lied to about other things, so we must have been lied to about this.” I understand this feeling, but it is not a logical, scientific conclusion.

Immediately after 911, I think that not only the public, but government officials and experts were shaken. At first we thought maybe 10-20,000 people must have died. It was weeks later that the actual number of ~2,744 became known. The attitude of officials was: We must look like we know what we are doing, like we know everything that has happened and how and why. We must respond quickly with decisiveness and purpose to serve the public good (and preserve our political positions). Therefore, a massive hunt for survivors and then bodies or body parts was launched. A plan for removal of debris was set in motion. Even the piles of girders and other debris in NJ were offensive to the public. (I saw numerous stories about this on TV news.) There may be body parts in the debris, so let’s get rid of it. Sell it off to China. People are upset, so let’s launch a huge program to sell people cars at unheard of bargain prices. (Throughout the fall and winter, car sales surged.) Let’s get those who done it, so a massive bombing program against the Taliban in Afghanistan was planned and (literally) executed. This made sense even to many if not most liberals and Democrats. (It was easy to make war on a primitive country like Afghanistan without seriously weighing the morality of it.) What I am saying is that many of the mistakes made in the initial investigation are understandable in the context of the events and the aftermath.

A conspiracy is a secret plot. There are many such plots in business, government, churches, and all manner of organizations. They usually involve only a few people, otherwise they are easily uncovered. There usually is a paper trail and phone and email records. When the assassin(s) or perpetrators die in the event, suspicions increase greatly, because there is no one to question or confess. There is not necessarily a conspiracy behind every botched investigation and every complicated evil deed. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

“There is no satisfying scientific study” someone says on the DVD. I understand and accept how that could come to be. There is a lot of science to consider. The means to conduct such investigations are difficult after the fact. There will be disagreements among experts. A full investigation would cost many billions of dollars, and still would likely be judged incomplete or inconclusive by many.

I had trouble last month with the drain for my washing machine. It began to back up. The drain had been problematic before. It is a gray water drain system only for the kitchen sink and the laundry. It used to gurgle in the kitchen when the laundry was being done. A plumber installed a simple PVC “vent” on the drain pipe into which the washing machine drains. Now it seemed not to be working. So I went online to read about plumbing codes and practices and solutions re laundry drains and vents. Wow. There are multiple forums on the web on which hundreds of plumbers argue about such things. Many plumbers with opposing viewpoints claimed “It is just a matter of simple physics! Here is what you do and how you do it!” Only they disagreed. On one extreme are plumbers who require a vent on every drain in the house; on the other are those who argue that in Europe and Australia there are no such vents and no problems. Others argued over how long the vent pipe had to be and where in the line it should be installed. No agreement. I concluded that science isn’t exactly science or what I thought it to be. There is a lot that is not settled.

This experience comes to mind when I hear the experts who argue about whether the buildings came down in freefall or not, and whether a jet fuel fire can be hot enough to melt steel, etc. I think that no one was there who can tell us. There is no video showing what needs to be seen to make the necessary conclusions. It may be that no building has collapsed from a fire, but it is also true that no buildings like the twin tower ever were targeted by 767's loaded with fuel. So we cannot know. There will always be in such events “evidence omitted.” There will never be “unbiased scientific evidence and witnesses” considered to satisfy everyone. Yes, there was evidence not considered, and evidence too quickly destroyed. This is more likely because of incompetence in responding to a huge and unique event, than it is because of a conspiracy to withhold evidence.

Building 7 has always puzzled me. The questions are many about this, but now there are websites and videos showing pictures of the back side of the building that were not much seen in the years immediately after the event. A great deal of material from the towers landed on this building and tore into the back side. Also, the pulverized concrete and metal that blew out sideways at street level directly tore into building 7. There are recordings and testimony from many firemen and others on the scene that make it clear that they knew the building would fall sometime that day. There are at least as many engineers and architects who accept the way they fell as there are who don’t. I watched another video on a website that shows calculations that do not show free fall as if there were nothing to impede the falling. I for one do not expect “hesitation” when 40 and more upper falls are landing on floors below. The normal course of the buildings falling looks to me as it should, once one considers the damage.

A logical jump to quickly state a conclusion is repeated. What we saw “could only have been a controlled demolition.” From this the supposition is made that someone could get access to the core of each building unseen, and set demolitions. One statement got my attention: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Had to have been explosives.” Several witnesses concluded that it must have been what they thought it looked or sounded like: explosives. At the end of the video one witness considers many claims and concludes: “To me it means explosion.”

In the last third of the DVD, there is a lot said about psychology and emotion that explains much to me:
“It is difficult for us to come to terms with the official conclusions.”
“We were secure and then we weren’t.”
“We respond to such events with fear and anxiety.”
“There are a lot of things that are not as we think or thought they were.”
“It had a traumatic impact on all of us.”
These things are exactly true. What we conclude as a result is another matter. A narrator says “If we open Pandora’s box it challenges all the things we believe about the world.” Definitely. I think our view of the world was changed forever that day. But not in the direction of not believing that 19 extremist Muslims, mostly Saudi, trained in Afghanistan, pulled it off.

I have great respect for David Ray Griffin. I read and used some of his work about process theology. He is right about empire and American exceptionalism. Sadly, he contradicts many things about which he wrote in the decades before 911. He used to be suspicious of notions that science could solve all problems. Now he thinks he knows how buildings do or do not fall.

One person says “We couldn’t believe it (both the event itself and the official report) Why do people have so much trouble hearing our challenges - our truths?” Another says “We need to educate other people about this!” They are upset that everyone doesn’t agree with them and contradict their newly adopted worldview. As a trained Biblical student and theologian, I thought of great Biblical and other historical events and how they have been seen by different folks after the fact. I saw the church fill up with people in the days after 911 and then empty out. The rise of the “nones” and of atheists in the decade following are a direct response to the event. As a nation we are living most visibly within what Bellah called “the Broken Covenant.” I preached about how our implicit sacred contract had been broken: America was great. We had an agreement with God. We would fight to defend Jesus and the American Way (our version of the Kingdom of God or the Beloved Community), and God would protect us. After 911 it was easy to see that no one protected us from all the potential evils in the world. And we were blind to see that we created or set up the event by how we had treated Muslim, middle-eastern peoples in the last century.

The pleas are made in the DVD: “There is no trace of 1000 victims; why don’t we know? There needs to be identification!” Yes, 1,000 were pulverized or vaporized. Their remains will never be identified. What about our identification? Who are we now? This is a deep, existential problem that we are doing nothing to answer! O yes, we are. We are challenging the official narrative of what happened, and this is something.

“We need to heal; we need justice; we will never forget!” Yes. “Science can solve this!” No. “We have to have a new investigation; we have to know what happened!” We know enough but we will never know it all. We are very bad at living with ambiguity and uncertainty.
Ed Asner narrates a 15 minute documentary on this DVD in which the following logic is given:
The fall of the buildings looks like controlled demolition.
Controlled demolition requires months of planning.
Therefore, the 911 events (not the hijacking of airplanes, but the fall of the buildings) were planned and carried out after much planning and preparation.
I've seen the theories here about thermite and I am not convinced.