Original Post Date:  4/30/2006

I heard this excerpt in my adult ed hour at church this morning, in the context of taking comfort in God during the times we are lost in sorrow and despair, even depression.  The scripture we were studying was from 1 Kings, where Elijah finds comfort from God under a tree after fleeing from Jezebel's wrath, and finds himself all alone.  Read the story here.

Some of the comments from the class were helpful to me- that our culture seems to prefer highlighting what is wrong instead of what is right, preferring the critical voice to the voice of praise.  As a result, we oftentimes find ourselves focusing on what is going wrong in the world instead of what is going right.

"A Brief for the Defense" from Refusing Heaven, by Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere.  If babies are not starving someplace, they are starving somewhere else.  With flies in their nostrils.  But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.  Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not be made so fine.  The Bengal tiger would not be fashioned so miraculously well.  The poor women at the fountain are laughing together between the suffering they have known and the awfulness in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody in the village is very sick.  There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.  If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lessen the importance of their deprivation.  We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure, but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.  To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.  If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.  We must admit there will be music despite everything.  We stand at the prow again of a small ship anchored late at night in the tiny port looking over to the sleeping island; the waterfront is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.  To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth all the years of sorrow that are to come.

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Original post date:  4/29/06

I've spent a lot of time over the past months trying to be very compassionate to our brothers and sisters across the theological divide, trying to understand their point of view.

It occurred to me yesterday that while it is very important to keep compassion and love in all of our daily discourse, so is it important to name the things that are putting people in the positions they are in.

Scripture is not the authority for those who would keep women in positions of inequality, divide cultures against each other through religious intolerance, and demonize gays and lesbians with talk of judgement and choice of sexual orientation.  They would claim that it is, but it is not.

They would claim that it is their authority, and I think they would probably even believe it, but it is not the source of their energy and response to the issues facing our world and our church.  Their true authority is coming from something deep and dark within,  from something too terrible for even them to name.  Misogyny, racisim, and homophobia– these are the things which give the authority to those who cannot fully embrace all of humanity.  Fear is their motivation, although it may be buried so deep they cannot realize it even themselves.  That is our broken-ness.  That is our sin.  That is why Christ came for us.  He himself was so different that people were scared of him and as a result he was crucified.  Crucified for this very problem we face today.

I believe this problem is psychological in nature.  The problems facing us are not so much about the authority of scripture as they are about the broken-ness of the lives of the people who so feel compelled to act against those that are different then they are.

In some cases, the fear even runs so deep that they are even filled with self-loathing.  I even read a post today from a few women who, after the election of a women in Texas as Bishop Suffragan, were disappointed because they believe that a women's place is only to serve under a man.  I can only imagine the pain, the self-imposed limits, the horrible lack of self-esteem that a woman must have to make such a statement that so devalues the worth of women everywhere.  God gave us reason- let's use it, for God's sake!!

Of course, the Scriptures are then used as the defense mechanism for the justification of these fears.  In these women's case, they feel unworthy, so they find a reason in Scripture why they should feel unworthy to reinforce their already devalued position.  Instead of looking at the Bible as a whole, instead of tracing the historical relationship of God with God's people over time, how God has, time and time again, valued ALL people, they pull specific pieces out of context.

Of course it has been done before. Historically people have taken the Bible out of context since the Reformation, and before.  But we are learning.  We are growing with God.  And, as a result, our lives are getting healthier.  Our lifespans are increasing as we learn to take better care of ourselves.  Part of that includes understanding that every life has equal value.  EVERY life.  I can't imagine any respected mental health professional would ever tell a woman that she is mentally sound if her self-esteem allowed her to believe she could not perform any duty or responsibility that any man could perform simply because of her gender.  She would need at least a little more internal work.  Again, this is not about Scripture, but Scripture is the victim of the broken-ness.

So it is with gays and lesbians.  The conservatives have tapped into the fear of even some moderates- fear of those that are different, fear of that which is not understood, fear of sex stemming from our puritanical roots, fear of losing control, fear of losing power.  If you look at the propaganda of the right, you will find stories playing into these fears, describing how gays are "plotting to take over" (fear of losing control/power), gays are promiscuous (fear of sex), gays do strange things (fear of those that are different), and so on.  It usually doesn't matter to what degree the allegrations are true, and there are usually no counterpoints to show the "normal" majority of gay people who have more in common with their straight counterparts then different.  Of course, since being gay is not about sex but is about sexual orientation, and most of us no more choose to put our sex lives on display then straight couples do, even the one significant difference between us is, in reality, muted, but amped up by the fears of the conservatives.

And so, as the fears abound, fears pile on fears, anxieties arise, and Scripture is used as a justification to feed them.  What happened to these people that they are so scared?  Why can they not let go, accept the overwhelming love of God, love of self, love of others?  Why are they so focused on the sin of others, instead of the sin and broken-ness of self, and the healing that Christ offers?  The irony is that they assert that Inclusive theology has lost focus on sin and brokenness.  I say that they have lost sight of their own brokenness while focusing too much on the perceived brokenness of others.  "First remove the log from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your neighbor's eye" (Mt 7:5).

Of course it is dangerous to generalize.  I realize that there are varying degrees of brokenness, and there are probably those who earnestly want to believe in a God of love instead of a God of judgement but have been taught along the way that it is impossible because of Scripture.

I also write these things not in order to demonize those who use Scripture as a justification for exclusion, but as a way to have compassion for them.  I believe, understanding the inner torment that must go in, say, for the women who don't believe that they are qualified to do anything more then be subserviant to a man, that it is much easier to be compassionate and understanding of these folks.  Granted, they make it difficult sometimes.  There are folks on both sides of the aisles that do that, and some days I am one of them.  But compassion and understanding are the keys to love, and love one of the keys to hope, and without hope we are lost.

I think I can say that I love these people, because I know how hard it is to let go of that brokenness inside.  It takes years of hard, gutwrenching work with a professional and good guide to go on that journey with you. 

What I cannot do, though, is say that it is ok for them to codify intolerance into law, secular or canon, based on these fears.  I will work with all my heart, mind and soul to prevent that, but I know in my heart that it won't happen- at least for very long.  God won't allow it, and I do have hope in that, because God is not a God for the few, a club for the selected.  God is a God for all of God's creation.  It is in God that I trust, not just in God's Holy Scriptures and our (in)ability to interpret them, and knowing that gives me great joy and hope that we are moving forward down a wonderful road on a beautiful journey with our loving Creator towards something bigger than we can possibly imagine.  Glory to God!

Original Post Date:  4/26/2006

I am a part of a parish who professes a very strong belief in the prophetic tradition.

My understanding of the prophetic tradition is best summed up in the two main slogans of the United Church of Christ's outreach campaign:

  • God is still speaking.
  • A quote from Gracie Allen:  "Never place a period where God has placed a comma."

Somehow, even though it is what my parish professes to believe as a community, every time a reference from the pulpit is made to God talking to us, or listening to God, or the ability to communicate with God through a real, albeit prayerful, discernment process there is almost always at least some laughter from the congregation– as if the preacher were attempting to make a joke.  In my mind it feels as if there is some element of the congregation which is thinking "God?  Talk to me?  Preposterous!  I'm not Moses!" 

Maybe people think that God is too big, to impersonal, to removed, to care enough to interact with them in their lives.  My experience is that being closed to the possibility is enough to prevent the experience.

I like this poem by Wislawa Szymborska, The Laboratory

Did it all
happen in the laboratory?
Beneath one lamp by day
and billions by night?Are we a trial generation?
Poured from one beaker to another,
shaken in retorts,
observed by something more than an eye,
each one individually
taken by forceps?Or maybe otherwise:
no interventions.
The transformations occur on their own
in accordance with a plan.
The needle draws
the expected zigzags.
Maybe until now there was nothing interesting in us.
The control monitors are seldom switched on,
except when there's a war, and a rather big one at that,
several flights over the lump of clay called Earth,
or significant movements from point A to point B.Or perhaps thus:
they only have a taste for episodes.
Look! a little girl on a big screen
is sewing a button to her sleeve.The monitors begin to shriek,
personnel comes running in.
Oh, what short of tiny creature
with a little heart beating on the inside!
What graceful dignity
in the way she draws the thread!
Someone calls out in rapture:
Tell the Boss,
and let him come see for himself!

If the folks who are laughing believe God to be the creator of a system that creates the expected zigzags, or something similar, then maybe the idea of God acting in our lives would seem preposterous.  Maybe also, then, the idea of Scripture becoming a living, breathing, document, for others could seem impossible.

I believe God is there always, talking to us, interacting with us, showing us the way.  God is there, giving us encouragement, living with us and taking delight as the little girl learns to sew.  The same God is encouraging us to move forward on our journey, wanting us to learn to do more with God's help- just as the Israelites did not see how their survival would be possible in the wilderness, God provided.  So God expects us to listen, trust, and be open to new possibilities in God so that we may have wonderful new experiences through God.

Looking backwards, being closed, believing that through our own resources alone we have the answers– in my experience these things do not yield a fruitful journey.  Instead, they yield only wondering in the wilderness, and falling away from God with a self-reliance in the place of trust in God.

My new prayer

April 21, 2006

Original Post Date:  4/21/2006

Jeff's four-legged stool of spirituality:

  • Trust
  • Surrender
  • Service
  • Love

Wondrous God of Love and of Light, may I live each day with enough trust in you and your abundance, lord, that I may surrender control of my life to you, and in so doing step out of my daily fears of failure, of pessimism, of not being able to make a difference, of apathy, and of being "too busy."  In so doing, let me live in your service, doing nothing that does not please you, and actively doing the things that do please you.  Let me do this in love, my God, knowing that in so doing my love for you, my community, and myself will deepen beyond comprehension.  For you are the source of our hope, our joy, our peace, and the love which sustains us all.  Amen.

Communal Living

April 20, 2006

Original Post Date:  4/20/06

Acts 4:32-35 (Common Lectionary for Easter 2B)

"The whole congregation of believers was united as one–one heart, one mind! They didn't even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, "That's mine; you can't have it." They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.

"And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person's need."

What a wonderful passage this is!  Everyone so united in community, in love, that they were caught up in the Spirit and not afraid to let go of their belongings; not afraid of what they might lose in that process; but instead focused on what they would gain.  It was a community of abundance instead of scarcity, of trust in God instead of fear of an unknown future.

Isn't that what the resurrection message is about?  Knowing that we don't have to be afraid, that Christ died for us so that we might live– and that knowing this we can live not in fear but in grace?  It seems to me like this early community got it.  In our capitalistic society of profit first and people later, of haves and have-nots, of value based on wealth and power, it seems to me like we are so far from this model.

But I wonder if there is also more to this story?  Doesn't it also apply to truth?  To love?

It seems to me that we also so often live in a state where we want to claim our own reality, our own experience as the exclusive truth.  Too often we say "that's my truth- you can't have it" and close up instead of trying to become one with the community by sharing those experiences, by living a common life through our participation in it.

It is so easy to go into our suburban houses, close the door, and be solitary with our own reality, our own truth, leaving the hard work of reconciliation to someone else.  Or the opposite– to stand on the streetcorner with a bullhorn, trying to explain to everyone else why our reality is "more true" then theirs is, leaving no room for reconciliation.

With love, I have heard the phrase "God's love is bigger than we would like."  How true!  Isn't our tendancy, at some time, at some place, to say (even if only deep inside) about God's love: "that's mine," thinking that somehow we are "more" entitled than "them"?

Imagine then, being in a community "united- of one heart, of one mind."  Sharing in God's grace; trusting God fully enough to release our fears and to release our possessions; to give love freely; to participate fully in the world around us with eyes wide open; and to thank God every day for the abundance she has provided.   I believe it is a world available to us now – and a world available without going off to join a commune.  I believe it only requires trust– active trust– that God is there, God is participating actively in our lives, and that we seek actively to understand where that participation is so that we can learn to relax fully into the comfort of our creator.  By doing this, after all, the early Christian community not only had their own individual needs met ("Grace was on all of them, …not a person was needy"), but also served God through service to their neighbors.  God loves us so much, I believe, that he wants to achieve individual peace, communal peace, and peace with God all at once.  What a wonderful God!

Moving Forward

April 19, 2006

Original Post Date:  4/19/2006

I've been thinking lately more about reason.

For me, I think, the last few weeks of trying to use reason to "win" the argument of inclusion has not been helpful on my own spiritual journey.

My guess is that reason really does not do much good in the debate about inclusion.  Those who have their minds made up on either side of this debate have their reasons for their positions, and any logical or illogical argument presented seems only to further entrench their position deeper into their respective corners.

In the process of debating, the exchange sometimes becomes vitriolic and unhelpful for moving forward.  While perhaps it is possible that the discussion moves the "silent middle" forward in their thinking, my guess is that those folks are probably tired of the issue altogether and would rather discuss something else.

Maybe the better way forward is just to live out the message of the Gospel.  By living in love, by showing those who are living in places where they cannot feel the power of Christ's message because of the scars of their experience with the institution of the church that it is possible to come to the table for healing, by reinforcing to them the message that God wants them to participate as fully equal humans in this glorious creation, by proclaiming the truly Good News that "Christ stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace," (BCP, p. 101), it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks.  It matters that we show to the "disenfranchised" of the church that God loves them and that they can be made whole in Christ.

If we do this, the "toothpaste will be out of the tube," so to speak, and once that happens it is very hard to put back in (I think it is already out).  The actions of the General Convention, will reflect accordingly in the fullness of time- maybe this year, maybe not- but it will happen.  The bitterness and hatred of exclusion will not prevail because God will not allow it to prevail.   Trusting God and working hard, we cannot lose hope.

Maybe bitterness and exclusion doesn't really even justify a response, other than the response of deep love and inclusion.

Look at that.  Lent is over and yet another epiphany.

Original Post Date: 4/14/2006

Sitting in our customary three-hour Good Friday service today, I was, as usual moved.  I felt somehow like lately this Lent I have missed the point.

Following in Susan Russell's call to "keep Epiphing" through Lent, right up to the end I did just that.  I realized, sitting there, listening to the crucifiction story, pondering the broken-ness of my life and of the world around me, that Richard Hooker's three and sometimes four-legged Anglican stool really misses the boat for me.

Jesus didn't die on the cross so that we could reason better, one with another.

Jesus didn't die on the cross because of tradition.

Jesus didn't die on the cross in order to fufill scripture, although that was a nice by-product.

Jesus didn't die on the cross in order to gain experience– I'm sure it is an experience he would have liked to have avoided.

Jesus died on the cross for love. 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…"  John 3:16a

Maybe we need a fifth leg of the stool?

Without the love of Jesus, reason does us no good.  We can talk, debate, and discuss all we want, but the premise of all those discussions, the underlying foundation has to be the inclusive love of God or it is for naught.  Logic and reason do not lead to singular outcomes and also do not factor in the "human-ness"- the compassion- of situations and issues, and so we need love to "tilt" us in the right direction.

Without the love of Jesus, tradition is meaningless.  We can go to worship week after week, but without love as our foundation it is superficial.  It cannot give us what we need; we won't be empowered to take the action required of us as disciples of Christ.

Without the love of Jesus, Scripture is just words.  We can read but not discern.  We can wander but not find a path.  We can listen but not hear.

Without the love of Jesus, experience is but a memory;  faint and distant, too remote to use in our spiritual practice.  It is love that keeps the memories of our communal experience alive, the pains of our communal failings deep-felt so that we remedy and do not repeat them (hopefully).  It is love that binds us and holds us together so that our shared experience makes us the Body of Christ.

On second thought, maybe love isn't the fifth leg of the stool.  Maybe love is the seat of the stool, holding all the other legs together.  It keeps them firm and solidly in place so that no leg may fall, and holds us up steadily as we rest our weary feet.

May the love of God which passes all understanding be with you, your families, and all of us on this day of Christ's sacrifice.