Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Lord Looks On The Heart...

One day I hopped on the Lake Street El in Oak Park, IL, got off in the Chicago Loop at Adams and Wabash, walked over to the Grant Park bandshell to listen to the likes of Delta Blues legend Sleepy John Estes play a solo set on guitar at the Blues Festival. Then came Bo Diddley and all the Diddleys with two drummers up on risers, back-up singers, dancers; a full-on stage show. His iconic Bo Diddley sound backed him as he sang songs like:
You can't judge an apple by looking at a tree,
You can't judge honey by looking at the bee,
You can't judge a daughter by looking at the mother,
You can't judge a book by looking at the cover.

Oh can't you see,
Oh you misjudge me,
I look like a farmer,
But I'm a lover,
            -Bo Diddley
All these years later, it turns out this is one of the major themes of the Bible: things are not as they seem to those who walk in faith. Consider Samuel sent by God on a mission to find Israel’s next king, for YHWH had immediately regretted making Saul the first king for his people [1 Samuel 15:34-16:13]. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem just outside Jerusalem to the family of Jesse. The folks are fearful at his appearance, and with good reason. Sam had just been sent by God to clean up one of Saul’s failed assignments. The result: “Samuel hewed Agag, king of the Amalekites, in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal [15:32].” When Sam invites them to join him in offering a sacrifice to the Lord you can bet they accepted the invitation. Then the pageant begins. With the Lord whispering in Sam’s ear, Jesse is instructed to bring out each of his sons, beginning with Eliab. Eliab made quite an impression on Samuel, but the Lord cautioned, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

It turns out, according to Walter Brueggemann, et. al., (in their commentary Texts for Preaching), “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” The various ways in which men and women in our and every age are tempted to do just the opposite can be documented in our racism, our sexism, and our various forms of idolatry (love of money, clothing, glitzy automobiles, and the like). It is only when we learn to see beyond that which is most visible that we begin to assess people in terms of their character and their commitments.” Shorthand analysis: You can’t judge a book by looking at its cover.”

Eliab is turned away along with six other sons of Jesse. The Lord says, see if there is just one more son, as if he doesn’t know! Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest little runt of the litter who is out tending sheep. A shepherd. Evidently a good shepherd, perhaps like that other good shepherd of old, Moses. Sure enough, small of stature with ruddy cheeks, in comes David and God says to Sam, we’ll take that one! YHWH instructs Samuel to anoint him then and there, and immediately, we are told, the Spirit of the Lord “came mightily upon David from that day forward.” The rest, as they say, is history, and centuries later another good shepherd is born, in Bethlehem some say, a child named Jesus, son of Joseph who was of the house of David.

St. Paul picks up on this theme writing to the church in Corinth, “so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all…” [2 Corinthians: 5:13]. What the world sees as death is just the beginning of a whole new life, a whole new creation! Or, put somewhat differently, those who, like Paul, “walk by faith, not by sight,” see the whole world in new ways that remain “unseen” to others in this world: “… even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” We can be confident in this despite how things may look at the present time. You can’t judge a book or the world by looking at the cover. We see not as others see, but as the Lord sees: others may look at outward appearances, but those who walk by faith and not by sight, like the Lord, look at the heart.

And when Jesus, that distant relative of King David, speaks of the Kingdom of God, of God’s reign in this world, or what Verna Dozier calls The Dream of God, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky,” he speaks of this Dream of God as hidden, not always visible, but always present and always growing and spreading we know not how [Mark 4:26-34]. Nor is it necessarily the result of our labor. They ways of God are hidden and mysterious. It’s like a seed a farmer plants in the ground, hidden in the darkness of the soil. The farmer sleeps and wakes while the rains come, the sun shines, nutrients in the soil do their work, and the grain sprouts the farmer knows not how until one day the harvest is ready. Like the Corinthians, it may not be readily apparent, but it is coming, and surprise: it is here! Don’t be fooled by appearances, look more deeply into the heart of things. You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover!

It is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that somehow becomes a great bush, so great that the birds of the air can nest in its branches – God’s creatures can find home and shelter out of what begins as the most insignificant tiny seed. Sheltering any and all who come to rest in its branches. Who could imagine such a thing? The Dream of God is like this tiny seed – can we see to the very heart of God’s Dream as it comes to fruition in us and around us? Do we see that we are the shrub in which others come to rest and shelter among our branches? Or, like most mortals, do we look at the world and simply judge the surface of things and people and events? Later Jesus will say, if we only have faith as small as a mustard seed, we can uproot trees and plant them in the sea; we can see how we have misjudged everything looking at the surface and not at the heart of things. If we only have faith as small as a mustard seed!

If you have faith as small as a mustard seed/
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed

You can take trees and hurl them in the sea/
You can take trees and hurl them in the sea

The lame will walk and the blind will see/
The lame will walk and the blind will see

Wars will cease with the end of greed/
Wars will cease with the end of greed

Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed/
Loaves multiply so there’s enough to feed

As you sow you shall receive/
As you sow you shall receive

As you pray you will believe/
As you pray you will believe

Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need/
Trust in the Lord, He’ll supply every need

As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead/
As you follow Christ you’ll begin to lead

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Where Are We?

The time has come,' the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'
-Lewis Carroll
Or, as the King of Siam was fond of saying, “Is a puzzlement!” Only one thing is certain as pertains to Christianity and The Church: we are fallen and keep falling. After the rains threatened once again to flood our basement, I took to organizing some of my books and things. I revisited an old friend: The Dream of God by Verna J. Dozier (1917-2006). It is one of only two or three books I ever recommend to people who want to know more about God, Jesus and Christianity. A true prophet and mystic in the tradition of Howard Thurman or James Weldon Johnson, she gets what Jesus and the Bible are all about, much to the challenge and consternation of The Church, that institution that ought to know better, but has consistently fallen to the temptation to control the narrative, and in turn control the Good News.

She begins with Howard Thurman’s summary of The Dream of God: “a friendly world, of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.” One of her many keen theological insights is that in the history of God’s repeated attempts to be in relationship with people there have been not just one, not two, but three Falls. Beginning with the love and vulnerability God. In the words of James Weldon Johnson:
And God stepped out on space
And said: I’m lonely,
I’ll make me a world.
God seeks companionship. As the poem continues, Johnson has God walk around and look on “all that he had made,” and yet, “He looked on his world/With all its living things/And God said: I’m lonely still.
Then God sits down –
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!
-          (God’s Trombones, Viking: 1927)

Of course, despite all the creatures of the Earth, the man, like God, made in God’s image, is also “lonely still,” so God fashions a companion. All is well, but soon comes the First Fall: the first man and woman choose to live another way from the way God had planned for them. Like many such falls, it begins with amnesia and believing a lie. In this case it is that if they would only eat the fruit of the one tree they were instructed not to eat they would be like God. Forgetting they are already created imago Dei, in the image of God, they eat the fruit, are ashamed, and immediately try to hide from God and one another. In Genesis 3, as God’s presence strolls in the the Garden, the primary and really only question for them and for us all comes as God calls out, “Where are you?” It is a question that continues to echo through the ages right down to this present moment in time. Fall number One. We still struggle to answer this one question.

Later, we read in 1 Samuel chapter 8 that the people of God, who have been cared for by God sending them ad hoc leadership as necessary (in the Bible called judges), see that Samuel is grown old, his sons do not follow in the ways of God, and they suddenly demand to have a king like the other nations, not trusting God to provide a new leader. Mistakenly they believe that such a king will not only govern them, but “will go out before us and fight our battles.” Samuel petitions God on their behalf. God points out that contrary to their belief what will really happen is that such a king will conscript their sons to fight his battles, not theirs; he will take your daughters to be perfumers, bakers and cooks; he will take the best of all your produce and land for himself; and take all your servants and animals for himself; and you will cry out, and I will not answer you in that day. But the people insist and petulantly demand a king, and so it is they get Saul, who is endlessly problematic. Then come David and his sons, and it turns out just as the Lord had said. Solomon represents the consolidation of all the goods of the kingdom to support him and his household, and under his son Rehoboham the people revolt. The Second Fall. Believing that kings can save you. You still have to fight your own battles.

Finally, suggests Dozier, nearly three hundred years after Jesus, Jesus who tries desperately and compassionately to return the people to the Dream and the Way of God, the people of God make the choice to embrace the Emperor Constantine and become the Empire. Which is a choice against the “uncertainty, the freedom and the risk of trusting God.” It was bad enough that the Jesus movement became an institution like the church, but now it had become the very Empire and a kingdom like all others, instead of the alternative to such Empires stretching all the way back to the days of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece and now Rome, the very empire that had persecuted the followers of God and Jesus in the first place. The Third Fall.

To this day the church struggles to recover any semblance of the Jesus Movement. It is wise of our current Presiding Bishop to speak more about our being the Jesus Movement than he does of “the church.” As her book continues, Dozier rightly critiques much of what the church became and remains: an institution devoted more to maintenance of its existence than a movement away from earthly kingdoms, repentance and a return to the Dream of God and God’s ways. She sees our baptism as our calling as those chosen for God’s purposes; “that the dream of God for a new creation may be realized. God has paid us the high compliment of calling us to be coworkers with our Creator, a compliment so awesome that we have fled from it and taken refuge in the church. God does not need such an institution. ‘Destroy this temple,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will rebuild it in three days.’ The institution is replaceable. The living body of God’s people is not.”

Where are we? What this remarkable woman saw as we have it in the stories in our Bible is that we are called to a possibility “other than the kingdoms of the world.” She recognizes that we do need what she calls “resting places where the story is treasured and passed on in liturgy and education. There must be those islands of refuge where the wounded find healing; the confused light; the fearful courage; the lonely community; the alienated, acceptance; the strong, gratitude.” But, such resting places and islands of refuge do not necessarily need to be what we traditionally think of as churches. They might be, but they need not be, churches as we know them. There can be other forms of community, resting places and islands of refuge that do not require the maintenance of structures that no longer serve our calling as coworkers with our Creator.

I suspect it all begins where her book ends, by first admitting and confessing that we have failed the Dream of God. The Good News, wrote Dozier: “The terribly patient God still waits.”

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Right Now! Right Now!

Right Now! Right Now!
Gotcha! We may as well admit we live in an era of “gotcha.” And not in the positive sense of, “Oh, I get where you’re going with this!” But rather, in the sense of, “Ha! Finally caught you. It’s all out in the open now! You’re going down this time!”

Just this week two women, two commediennes, Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, stepped in it and have been seriously “gotchaed”. The world decreed, “You cannot behave this way, at least not in public.” And like the traffic slow down that results from drivers wanting to see what’s happening on the other side of the highway, causing no real impediment to reaching your destination, but just some peculiar human desire to closely observe someone else’s misfortune, we all watch on cable networks or twitter or memes on Facebook or whatever other “platform” of choice so as not to miss one ounce of whatever “gotcha” is on display today; whether on the left, on the right, or right down the middle. We may as well admit it: we are fascinated, entertained and even hoping for someone or other to be taken down in a “gotcha” moment.

In chapters 2 and 3 of Mark’s Gospel there’s a whole lotta “gotcha” going on. Authorities monitoring Jesus’ behavior are obviously threatened. There’s a new authority in town and he does not seem to play by the rules. Which in the context of first century Israel is cause for serious consideration since Roman Rule already has everyone walking on eggshells. Any minor infraction of Roman Rule results in reprisals against not only individuals, but can be meted out against the entire community of Israel. Then there are Israel’s rules for themselves, with their own authorities making sure people don’t raise the attention of Rome while also not breaking any of the Rules of the Covenant. It’s all very complicated. Always has been. But the Jewish authorities in Jesus’ day, by and large had the well-intentioned safety of the whole community as their concern. The examples of the Empire’s brutality are too numerous to number, and lined the roadways, the Via Romana, with troublemakers hanging on Roman crosses.

A primary example: Sabbath. Shabbat. This was God’s gift to the slaves God had liberated from bondage in Egypt - a day off. Slaves work 24/7 and never get a day off. God said, enough of that. Even I need a break once a week, so do  you. You are my people, my beloved community. Take a regular day-off. Do not work for one whole day. In chapter 2 of Mark it is Shabbat. Jesus and his friends are passing through a field helping themselves to some grain. Now this was in a sense prescribed in God’s shrewd economic plan outlined in Torah: farmers were to leave the corners of fields un-harvested as well as two rows along the roadside so that strangers passing through, resident aliens, foreigners and others without resources such as widows and orphans, could gather a little grain to make a cake or a cracker for the day’s provision. The authorities, who consider this plucking of grain to be work, observe this behavior of Jesus and his band of merry men and call, “Gotcha! You are not to do work on Shabbat! Tell them to stop.”

Now we may as well observe that it is highly unlikely that the very authorities tasked with keeping Shabbat and other observances in their proper lanes would themselves be out and about exerting themselves to witness this grain plucking, but that is beside the point. The point of the story appears, in part, to uphold a long standing rabbinic saying: The Sabbath is given for you; not you to the Sabbath (b.Yoma 85b). Jesus reminds them of how once upon a time David ate the Bread of the Presence from the Temple on Shabbat (never mind that Mark gets all the details of the story mixed up). He then reminds them of their own wisdom re Shabbat, and moves on. Moral of the story: Don’t play Gotcha with Jesus. He can play Gotcha too!

Then comes the rest of the story. Chapter three begins, “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might cry, ‘Gotcha!’”  And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to the assembled crowd, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. No one answered him. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The authorities withdraw to plot and scheme a more successful Gotcha moment. Note, Jesus “does” nothing. The man stretches out his hand.

The minimalist composer John Adams wrote a piece of music called Christian Zeal and Activity. It is a ten minute stretched out slow, meditative orchestration of the tune for Onward Christian Soldiers. The score instructs the conductor to place "sonic found objects" into the composition. Adams’ own 1973 recording inserted a radio talk-show conversation about God. Edo de Waart’s 1986 with the San Francisco Symphony inserted a mixed and manipulated tape of a sermon on Jesus healing the man with the withered hand. Overlayed on top of the sonorous music comes a scratchy recording that sounds something like this:
I believe that , and I believe that Jesus is present in this room by the holy spirit right now, right now … Right here in this room, right now, right now! And he wants to meet every need, right now … Now what’s wrong with a withered hand … Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? Healing all that were oppressed by the devil, I believe that … Why would Jesus be drawn to the man with the withered hand, right now, right now … And I believe that same Jesus is present by the holy spirit right now, and he wants to meet every need right now, right now … And he wants to meet every need … Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand of a man that was in the synagogue? And I believe this story has a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live, right now, right now! Now what’s wrong with a withered hand? Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? Now I believe Jesus not only healed this man in the synagogue with a withered hand but has said “Take up your pallet and walk!” right now, right now … What’s wrong with a withered hand? Well a withered hand cannot hold on to anything … Jesus walked in. Jesus always moved by divine appointment and he had an appointment … Someone had a withered hand and he’d, make it whole, right now, right now …. Jesus is present in this room by the Holy Spirit … now what’s wrong with a withered hand? Why would Jesus be drawn to a withered hand? A withered hand cannot hold onto anything … Jesus is here right now, and Jesus always moved with divine appointment.  And I believe this story has a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live, right now, right now!

Listening to the mesmerizing preaching as de Waart re-mixed and realized it got me to thinking. Who is the man with the withered hand? Those being left behind; those having trouble holding on to anything: the poor, the unsupported LGBTQ community, women who are harrassed and violated, lives and families destroyed by the opioid epidemic, immigrant families torn apart, people fleeing violent war-torn and violence countries, homeless veterans, all homeless people, teens with mental health problems, victims of gun violence. We are all the man with the withered hand, trying desperately to hold on as we watch a world that seems to be broken and falling apart right before our very eyes; as there seems to be no moral compass on the horizon. We are all the man with the withered hand trying to hold on to something, anything, in a world in need of healing.

No doubt the story is meant to convey many things about the source of ultimate authority, about such hubris as to think we know exactly what God would want in any given moment, about how to best protect the community of God’s people, and how to “properly” observe Shabbat. But if, as the itinerant preacher in de Waart’s rendering of Christian Zeal and Activity insists, there is a message for you and me even down here in this year in which we live it very well may be just this: we desperately need some Sabbath time ourselves, which does not mean going to church. For in church we do “liturgy;” which translated means “work of the people.” Church is work. Church is doing. Sabbath is Sabbath. Sabbath is not doing. And yet, we tend to believe we have so many important things to be doing that we cannot afford to take one whole day off a week when the truth is that we cannot afford not to!

More to the point, the time is now for a larger Sabbath, a more far-reaching Shabbat, as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as the world: We need a Sabbath from playing, watching, and reveling in so many endless games of Gotcha. Right now, right now! Gotcha is just an evil waste of our time drawing us away from living in the spirit of life and love - God’s love. A love that seeks us and pursues us even when we are at work being our worst selves trying to play Gotcha all the time. Playing Gotcha all the time withers our hand and we lose our grip on our dignity and the dignity of our society. A withered hand cannot hold on to anything. We need to stop, right now, right now. Stop doing, stop being so clever, stop trying to revel in the misfortune of others, stop Gotcha, stop doing and start Being. Right now, right now, right now….

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Toothbrush and The Telescope

The Toothbrush and The Telescope
Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it's a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future,
Faith and hope and charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three.
That's a magic number.  Bob Dorough, Schoolhouse Rock

The Trinity. The ancient, mystic, magic trinity, dwells within the heart of the universe. Like a three-legged stool. So much more stable than a four-legged stool. We had a four-legged stool from Wieboldt’s we got with our six books of Green Stamps. It was always at the kitchen counter, and it was always wobbly! Three legs would have solved it. Anglicans have a three-legged stool: Scripture, Tradition and Reason. Because three is a magic number.

It is perplexing to the rest of the world, most especially our monotheistic neighbors like Judaism and Islam, that we Christians understand our one God to have three personas, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and yet is one God. Yet, Hindus have a trinity out of their 330 million gods and goddesses: Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). And yet, most Hindus believe in one god, Brahman.

Exploring the known universe, we speak of matter, dark matter and dark energy. That’s funny. The “known” universe. We speak so confidently of the known universe, just as our various and sundry world religions speak so confidently of our God and gods and goddesses. As if we know the universe. As if we know God.

It may be better to say we are known by God. Or, we are known by the universe. And that it is all of one piece. Joni Mitchell, in her anthem to Woodstock summed it up about as well as can be done:
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year-old carbon
We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught up in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

We are all made of the same stardust, billion year-old carbon, just as we all breathe the same air. Which, as Richard Rohr and a group of Biblical scholars, suggests, is the origin of the Judeo-Christian God’s “proper” name, Yahweh – meant to approximate the sound of breathing. Therefore, the unity that holds us all together, the breath, the spirit, the wind of Life that animates us and gives us life is One, just as our material selves are made from one single element: billions of years-old carbon, if Joni would allow me to amend her fundamental insight into the mysterious glories and oneness of Life itself. When it comes to Life as we know it, we are all one. Every time we breathe in and out we say God’s name. We are one in our breathing.

Which oddly enough is what is meant by the ancient formulation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Hopelessly male centric unless one chooses to think of the Holy Spirit as the feminine dimension of the godhead. There is no proving this anymore than we can prove that there is only one universe. That early expositor of what it means to be known by God, who wrote a letter we call First John, tried to simplify it: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them…we love because God first loved. Then along came popular songs, the Top Ten followed by the Top Forty, and movies, and music videos, and all notions of divine love were reduced to adolescent romance, so far from the Divine Charity St Paul invokes: faith, hope, and charity, abide these three, but the greatest of these is charity. The King James got this just right. Charity is love for others. Charity is doing helpful and useful things for others. It means knowing others. It means living in community – a community where some shred of a sense of “the common good” remains. At its best, the Christian Trinity represents a Community of Charity dedicated to the Common Good. It’s a kind of representation of what “thy kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” might really look like: a Holy Family if you will.

The Toothbrush and the Telescope. Evelyn Underhill in her tiny book The School of Charity recalls a metaphor from the American naturalist, ornithologist, marine biologist, entomologist, explorer, and author, William Beebe (1877-1962). When trying to get in touch with our “spiritual equipment,” we need not be thinking of our own needs and shortcomings, but rather to look up and out at the vastness of the One Reality, an ever-becoming universe which is the very source, as Joni Mitchell observed, of every atom and cell of our life. In his book, Nonsuch, Beebe, “whose patient study of living things seems to have brought him so near the source of life, says, ‘As a panacea for a host of human ills, worries and fears, I should like to advocate a law, that every toothbrush should have a small telescope in its handle, and the two used equally.’”

Underhill continues, “As far as the life of religion is concerned, if we always used the telescope before we used the toothbrush – looked first at the sky of stars, the great ranges of the beauty and majesty of God, and only then at our own small souls and their condition, needs, and sins – the essential work of the toothbrush would be much better done; and without that self-conscious conviction of its overwhelming importance, and the special peculiarities and requirements of our own set of teeth, which the angels must surely find amusing! ‘Where I left myself I found God; where I found myself, I lost God,’ says Meister Eckhart. Our eyes are not in focus for God’s Reality, until they are out of focus for our own petty concerns.” (School of Charity, p.9)

She later says, “We have been shown the sky of stars, enchanting and overwhelming us; and now we realize we are living the star-life too!” (Ibid p.77) Which takes us back, I suppose to the mystery of three, and Joni Mitchell who as she grasps the oneness of our life and the life of the universe imagines that were we all to grasp the mysterious glories of Life we might see jet-plane bombers turn into butterflies above the Nation. We are all Nicodemus in John chapter 3, who after Jesus talks of the wind blowing us where it wills, not vice versa; Nicodemus who exclaims, “How can these things be?” How indeed.

Yet, long before Nicodemus, way back in the year 742 BCE, a young man named Isaiah stands before the throne of Yahweh; Yahweh, who just the hem of his robe fills the Temple as Seraphs hide their eyes and feet while flying with the remaining two wings, singings what is perhaps the most ancient piece of song in recorded history, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Woe is me, declares Isaiah, for “I am a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips!” A seraph flies over with a live coal, touches it to Isaiah’s mouth and suddenly his lips are clean, his guilt and sin is blotted out, and when the Lord asks, “Who shall I send?” to the people of unclean lips, Isaiah, quite unexpectedly blurts out, “Here am I; send me!”  God does not send the qualified. God qualifies those who are sent.

We are all Nicodemus. We are all Isaiah. We are all living among people of unclean lips and the One who set all of this in motion, seen and unseen, calls to us, loves us first, so that we may abide in God’s love, that we can become those people who bring words of hope, faith and charity to all those who are mired in the needs, worries and shortcomings of our puny, little individual and corporate lives, and become those who help us all return to some sense of the Common Good.

Bob Dorough, concluded his Schoolhouse Rock reflections on the mystery of the number 3:
A man and a woman had a little baby.
Yes, they did.
They had three in the family.
That's a magic number.

We are called to look deep into the 13 billion years ago and counting mysteries of the universe; to allow ourselves to be energized and blown upon by the Spirit that come from we know not where and sends us we know not where; to ponder the humility of God to be born as one of us, to dwell among us, to suffer as one of us; and realize just how far we are from being humble. There are three in the Holy Family. And that, sings Bob Dorough, is a magic number.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Pentecostal Fire Power!

 Fire Power!
Charles Lloyd, the world-renowned tenor sax, flute and virtually anything like a woodwind virtuoso, who gave us Forest Flower at Monterey Pop, and Billy Higgins, the quintessential west-coast jazz drummer and sideman for literally hundreds of recordings the past fifty years or so, worked on an extended suite in the months leading up to Higgins’ death in 2001. It is a varied and extraordinary musical meditation titled Which Way Is East (EMC recording, 1878/79). Both musicians play an array of instruments and sing.

The music is written and played from the perspective that Billy Higgins is leaving this world. In the booklet that accompanies the two-CD set, there is a conversation between Lloyd and Higgins as Higgins lies in bed. The end of this conversation about their musical collaboration goes like this:
Higgins: With my instrument (the drums) it’s like I have to support so many people, so the creator keeps me around here longer, just because he knows I got a lot of stuff to do. And with the drums being the whole bottom, I got to do what I got to do, so I don’t even question it….

Lloyd: We come through here, we sing our song, nobody knows us, and we’re gone.

Higgins: Anything you do, if it is in the spirit, it’s going to be right. So, you submit to the point where it’s not coming from me, it’s going through me… Hey, man! I’m tellin’ you, that’s a whole suite right there! That’s two guys, just two guys sittin’ on top of the mountain. You talkin’ about the journey’s end – the journey’s just beginning.

Lloyd: Can I say something to you in all sincerity? This is one of the greatest joys of my life – because what we have been able to do, to share it with you – and for you to peep that it’s real and that it’s blessed … I mean, it just encourages us.

Higgins: Let me tell you something, please…let’s please…this might be the last time we do this. It made me understand a lot of what I’m trying to do…but for us to be able to do it at the right time, in the right space…What we doin’ is getting our fire power to be able to do this on any level. We got to keep workin’ on this music….

Lloyd: Do you mean to tell me you’re going to get up off the bed and come back to work on this with me?

Higgins: I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you.

This sums up the major themes of Pentecost. Pentecost, like jazz for musicians, represents a collaboration: a collaboration between God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the rest of us. And as Billy Higgins says, “Anything you do, if it is in the spirit, it’s going to be right. So, you submit to the point where it’s not coming from me, it’s going through me.” This is the essence of the Christian life. This is life lived in the Spirit. We submit to God’s spirit to the point that it is not coming from us, it is going through us.

And there they are, Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins, like Jesus and the disciples, coming to the end of years of collaborating in the life of the Spirit and the life of Truth, whether expressed in ministry or in music, reflecting on what the end of the journey is like.

And Higgins, like Jesus, says this end of the journey is in truth just the beginning of the journey. This may be the end of this form of the journey, but “what we doin’ is getting our fire power to be able to do this on any level… we got to keep workin’…”

Fire power! If that isn’t Pentecost Acts Chapter Two talk I don’t know what is! We keep on working on this thing we call faith and discipleship, kingdom living and life in the Spirit, so we can get our Fire Power together to be able to do this on any level. So it is with Jesus and us, his disciples, his Pentecostal companions. Jesus says that he and the Father are sending us the Holy Spirit to continue the work that he does.

On Pentecost we do well to remember just what it is Jesus does: teaching people, feeding people, healing people, raising people from the dead, blessing people, gathering people together (especially sinners, outcasts, the lame, the sick, the blind, prostitutes, tax collectors, children, women, fishermen, shepherds, all kinds of people), challenging people, encouraging people, and generally finding new ways to reach out to new kinds of people. Note the common denominator: People. All his work involves people.

To continue the work that he does, we need to reach out and involve ourselves with people, all kinds of people. As we say in our Baptismal Covenant, we need to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. Even as we have first been loved by God in Christ.

This love will be hard work and requires all the Fire Power we can muster. For it also means striving for Justice and Peace for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being. Not some people, not a lot of people, not most people, but every human being. Jesus says we can do this.

In chapter 14 of John Jesus says something even more remarkable. He says this Holy Spirit we receive in our Baptism, this Fire Power, will enable us, empower us, lead us to do even greater works than he does, “greater works than these!” People will know we know the Risen Lord Jesus if we do the work he does and greater works than these. What an amazing promise! What an awesome responsibility!

Now Jesus is saying all of this because the disciples are hoping he won’t be leaving them. Or, like the tradition that grew up around all that Jesus said and did, they were hoping at the least he would come back and show them how to keep doing this on any level.

He replies, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of what I have said to you. Peace, shalom, I leave with you; my Peace, my shalom, I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The hearts of the disciples must have leapt at these words. Our hearts leap even now.

Does this mean he will get back down here with us and keep on doing these things with us? “I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you.” Always, until the end of time. Which, because God is eternal, is all of eternity for those who live their lives with God.

We are here on this Earth to get our Fire Power together so we can continue to do the things that he does and greater things than these. On any level. At any time. At any place. It is an endless, timeless, eternal collaboration. To be able to do this at all, let alone at the right time and in the right place, is our greatest joy! On Pentecost the journey’s end is the journey’s beginning.

“Anything you do, if it is in the spirit, it’s going to be right. So you submit to the point where it’s not coming from me, it’s going through me.”

It’s going through us. Jesus’ Fire Power is going through us.  In His Name. With His Spirit. Today we begin getting our Fire Power so we can do this on any level!

We can do this, and more, because in Pentecost, in Baptism and in the Holy Eucharist Jesus says to us, “I didn’t say I would be there, but I will always be with you…You may think we’re talking about the journey’s end – the journey’s just beginning!”

Saturday, May 12, 2018

See The Son Rising!

See The Son Rising
“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”

I recall vividly, sitting in the basement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in a small, darkened theater, Kirk Alan Jr sitting beside me. I looked around at the handful of people watching and listening to the film-loop of Jimi Hendrix singing and playing these words of the Nobel Laureate. All the faces were white. I mused as to whether Hendrix ever imagined a roomful of white people sitting in a basement on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland, OH  spending their Saturday morning watching him play this one song over and over and over again. And then I try to imagine while looking up at the screen, listening to the soaring guitar riffs, wondering, wishing, hoping with the poet Dylan if there is indeed some way out of here, when suddenly two men in white appear beside us asking what is perhaps an equally good and important question, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Yes, why do we? When it’s all right here all around us, and still none of us know what any of it is worth.

The power of music and poetry always fascinates and surprises me. The importance of asking the right questions also fascinates and surprises me. For instance, Eric Bazilian penned these words to impress his girlfriend:
If God had a name, what would it be?
And would you call it to His face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory
What would you ask if you had just one question?
And yeah, yeah God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make His way home?
Just trying to make his way home, back up to heaven all alone.
Nobody calling on the phone,
'cept for the Pope maybe in Rome.

It worked, by the way. She married him. The power of poetry and questions. So, according to the Gospel of Luke, dedicated to Theophilus, Jesus tried to make his way home sometime late Easter Day or evening, while the book of Acts, also dedicated to Theophilus, says it was forty days later. Scholars have no idea who Theophilus might have been, but the Koine Greek translates roughly, God Lover, Friend of God, of Beloved of God. It may be a stretch, but I like to think it is therefore addressed to anyone who is or would like to be a friend of God, be he or she up there, out there, or right here. These books are dedicated to us – all of us, because, of course, he was and is and always will be one of us.

The end of Matthew’s Gospel places God-Jesus right here, always, to the end of the age. So, which is it? Did he lift-off on a cloud leaving the disciples intently watching, wondering, What do we do now! Or, as Matthew contends, is he wherever two or three gather in his Name, here and now till the end of the age? Does he say, Stay here in the city until further instructions from the Spirit? Or, does he say, “You will be my witnesses starting here in Jerusalem, all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!”

Thanks to the power of poetry and questions, it is all of this and more! Faith is nothing if not shot through and through with paradox and irony! I can almost hear my beloved liturgics professor, The Reverend Thomas Talley cackling, “Of course, sillies! He is here AND he is up there – this is not a problem for a God who wants to love us and seeks nothing more than our love in return – which means a love for all that he has created – seen and unseen -  including loving  the earth and all its resources, our neighbor, all neighbors, and our enemies, here and now.”

No need to find a way out of here. Here is where we are meant to be. It’s not meant to be easy. Loving one’s neighbor is one thing. Loving our enemies is quite another. Yet, the God who was, is and always will be one of us believes we can do it. Still, pondering his Ascension often leaves us feeling alone and not up to the task of such love. Early followers obviously felt the same way. Why else would the final words of the whole Bible be, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” We want him back. To show us how once again Even though he promises he is with us always in the bread and the wine. He is with us always as we find ways to love our neighbors AND our enemies. He is here with those who struggle in our cities. He is here in our singing and in the people we meet.

We watch the Son rising, trying to make his way home, on up to heaven all alone. Even he does not want to be alone. Which is why, I imagine, he is still here to the end of the age. The power of poetry and music makes it all possible all at once.

See the Son Rising
See the Son Rising
See the Son Rising
He is here

He is here in the city
He is here in the streets
He is here in our singing
He is here in the people that we meet

Alleluia Alleluia he is here
Alleluia Alleluia he is here

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Come Sunday

Come Sunday
What happens when the Spirit moves within us and among us? That’s really the question that lies at the center of all the New Testament Scriptures. That’s the question that was in the hearts and minds of those who knew and who followed Jesus. And often what happens is that things once considered settled are up-ended and made new. Old orthodoxies are challenged as the Spirit reveals new things, new ways of being human; new ways of living life in the Spirit; new ways of understanding and living in the broadness and boldness of God’s love – a love which we say surpasses all understanding, and yet. And yet, in our institutions, in our lives, in our churches, we codify and fossilize our understandings of God’s love and God’s will. This only makes us immune to the ongoing unfolding of the Spirit of God’s love and God’s will and God’s purpose.

Just ask The Reverend Carlton Pearson, an evangelist hand-picked by Oral Roberts to preach and teach the Word of God. Pearson started small and over time pastored one of the largest churches in Tulsa, OK. Higher Dimensions Family Church grew to an average attendance of 6,000! Then as he continued to read and meditate on God’s Word he felt the Spirit moving him to question and challenge what he found to be fear-based dogmas and theologies that run counter to the stories of radical inclusion found in the gospels and most especially the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. He wrote a book called The Gospel of Inclusion and began to question the concept of Hell as being not a place, but more of a condition, even part of the human condition, and perhaps what one might pass through on our way back to God’s all-inclusive heart of love. People began to leave his church, and his peers at the Joint College of African-American Pentecostal Bishops branded him a heretic. I heard him on NPR’s This American Life, and a new movie, Come Sunday, documents his rise, his fall, and finally his new ministry, the Expanding Consciousness Network.

The Tenth Chapter of the Book of the Acts finds Peter summoned to leave Joppa to meet with one Cornelius, a soldier in the Imperial Roman Army, and his family. Cornelius is described as a “devout man who feared God….gave alms generously to the people and prayed daily.” The Spirit visits Cornelius in a vision and urges him to call for Peter. Peter, who three times betrayed even knowing Jesus. Peter, a fisherman who was devout in the ways of Israelite religion. On his way to the home of this centurion of the Italian cohort, Peter has a dream in which he sees something like a large sheet with all kinds of non-kosher animals which he is told to eat. His tradition tells him to refuse, but he is told, “‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.”

He arrives at the home of Cornelius with companions from Joppa. They go inside where the household is assembled. Peter says, ‘You know as a Jew I ought not meet or eat with Gentiles, but God has shown me I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ Then he taught them all he knew about God and Jesus, beginning with these words: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.”

Then it happened. A new Pentecost. “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.” His companions cannot believe it. The Spirit was moving among Gentiles. Not just Gentiles, but those affiliated with the very Imperial forces that were already persecuting the new community of God’s people. Peter had been prepared by his dream for all of this, but his companions could not believe what was happening: the Spirit was moving beyond the old boundaries and orthodoxies. This was truly new and no doubt disturbing. Yet, this is the work of the Spirit. As with Carlton Pearson, there were councils and courts who were not happy with this new thing being done. Yet, this is the nature of the Spirit.

“It is the nature of the Spirit to remain unbridled, bringing to bear the intentionality of God in the most astonishing and unexpected ways. If those who were the bearers of the gospel then were unprepared for the Spirit’s fresh initiatives, how much less prepared are we? If Peter and Peter’s friends could be astounded, what—we may ask— might the Spirit have in store for us?” [Texts For Preaching, CD Rom Edition, John Knox/Westminster Press, Brueggemann, et. al.]

Carlton Pearson makes clear, as the new thing the Spirit was working in and through him began to unfold, it was terrifying. New understandings and situations often are. Ultimately, however, it was freeing. If we are to learn anything from the Book of the Acts, it is this: the seeming unpredictability of the Spirit is, in the end, faithful and predictable! Like Peter’s companions, or Bishop Pearson’s congregation and peers, we may not be prepared for what the Spirit has in store for us. Yet, our constant reading and meditating on God’s Word assures us that “the Spirit is motivated only by the same love for humankind for which Christ died. So that the Spirit’s seemingly astonishing movements are all quite consistent, expressing God’s love for this world in ways that we, limited by our own frail powers, could never do. And so, our astonishment at the Spirit’s power is accompanied by joy over the Spirit’s love.” [Ibid] As Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

The documentary about Carlton Pearson is named after a song by Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, Come Sunday. It is a song for our time and place even today:
Oh, dear Lord of love, God almighty, God above,
Please look down and see my people through.

I believe the sun and moon will shine up in the sky
When the day is grey it's just clouds passing by.

He'll give peace and comfort/ To every troubled mind
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday, That´s the day!

Often we feel weary / But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret / He will hear your every prayer

Lillies of the valley / They neither toll nor spin
And flowers bloom / and spring time Birds sing

Often we feel weary / But he knows our every care
Go to him in secret / He will hear your every prayer

Up from dawn till sunset / Man work hard all the day
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday, That´s the day!