The Well in the Desert

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Have you ever experienced rejection?

If you’ve ever been a sixth-grader at a school dance, chances are you have.

“Eww, I’m not gonna dance with you, you dweeb!”

It’s a hard thing to go through, especially when you’re a kid. Those painful memories stay with you forever. Those of us who have kids of our own or care for other people’s kids know that crestfallen look in their eyes when they come home from school. We remember what it was like to be that age and experience rejection. It’s like our body still remembers the feeling of that knot in the stomach. We didn’t know how to fix it then and we don’t know how to fix it now. The best that any of us can say is that, by the grace of God, we got through it. So, when we see the kids we care about going through it right now, our heart goes out to them. Knowing that we don’t have any way to fix it (or even answers as to why it’s happening), all we can do when we see that look in their eyes is put our arms around them and say, “I’m so sorry.” We know that it’s just puppy love, but it’s real to the puppy. We know that our love for them can’t take away the shame of rejection, but we hope that somehow, it will help them get through it.

If we’re honest, we grown-ups can admit that we still feel that same pain sometimes. It might not come from the same sources (e.g. a twelve-year-old calling me a dweeb today will not phase me much), but there are certain things that other people can say or do that take us right back to feeling like that sixth grader at the middle school dance. It’s like the worst kind of time-travel. People can say things to us like: “I don’t have room in my life for a relationship with you… We don’t feel like you are a good fit for this position… Not tonight, I have a headache.”

It hurts, doesn’t it? And even though we are now adults facing adult situations, the pain we feel is still rooted in that childhood experience of rejection. Our brains may know the difference, but our bodies and our hearts do not. That old pain is still with us: the pain of not being chosen or wanted.

In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard the story of Hagar and her son Ishmael, two of the Bible’s most famous underdogs. They were two people who understood better than most what rejection feels like; what it feels like to be “not chosen” in ways that really matter.

Hagar and Ishmael are not “main characters” in the biblical story by any stretch of the imagination. They are the supporting cast, they are “extras” in someone else’s story. In this part of the book of Genesis, Sarah and Abraham are the main characters; they are God’s “chosen people.” God appeared to Abraham and said to him, “You shall be called the father of many nations. I will bless you and make you a blessing to all the nations of the world.”

Now, there was a problem with this arrangement because Abraham and his wife Sarah were already too old to have kids. And Sarah, being a very rational and practical person, came up with a solution: “I have this slave-girl, Hagar. She’s young enough to bear children. Here, Abraham, you go ahead and have a baby with her, so that God’s promise can come true.”

And this is where things get complicated. At this point, the biblical story almost starts to look like a “reality TV” show. Jealousy and rivalry set in quickly. Hagar and Sarah never seem to get along after this point.

First, Hagar does have a baby with Abraham and names him Ishmael. And Sarah is jealous of Hagar for this. Later on, after Sarah does have a baby against all conceivable odds, she decides that she doesn’t need Hagar anymore, so she tells Abraham to break up with Hagar and send her packing.

It’s interesting to note that Hagar never has a say in anything that happens to her. She is Sarah’s slave: an object who just gets passed around and used like a piece of property that can then be disposed of when she is no longer needed. Sarah and Abraham were the chosen people, but Hagar and Ishmael were leftovers… afterthoughts.

Sarah comes across as pretty heartless in this passage. Abraham fares a little better, but not much. The text says that he is “distressed” (we might say “stressed out”) by Sarah’s demands. After all, Ishmael is his firstborn son. He loads them up with as many supplies as they can carry, but it’s not much: a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. And then he sends them out into the desert, knowing that he will never see them again and they will most likely die there.

Out in the desert, Hagar’s water runs out pretty quickly. And here she is: all alone in the desert with a baby and no water. She’s been used, abused, and eventually abandoned by the people who were supposed to take care of her.

She keeps going for a little while: as long as she can, which is obviously not long in a place like that. But eventually her strength gives out. She knows what will happen next: she and her son will die out here and their bones will probably never be found.

If there is anyone in this story who is lower-down and worse off than Hagar, it’s Ishmael. He is just a baby at this point. He owes his very existence to this twisted situation. He didn’t ask for any of this. You could say that he never even had a decent shot at life. The playing field of opportunity was never really level for him. And now, because Sarah and Abraham, God’s chosen people, were acting so petty and hard-hearted, he was going to die.

This is where Hagar reaches her breaking point. She can’t go on, so she gives up and throws in the towel. Above all, she can’t bear to watch Ishmael die, so she abandons him: she sets him down under a bush and walks away. She can hear him crying behind her, but she won’t turn around. It’s too late for them. It’s over.

And then… in that moment… the moment after all hope is lost, hope finally begins to dawn. That’s when God finally decides to show up in this morbid scene: not alongside the chosen people, but with the rejected ones; not in the city or the camp, but out in the desert; not with the rugged, faithful, positive-thinking overcomers who soldier on no matter what, but with those who have given up and given in to the worst parts of their humanity. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “It is only for those who hold on for ten minutes after all hope is gone that hope begins to dawn.”

God shows up in the least likely places. In this story, there is a definite hierarchy among characters: At the top there is Sarah, who just doesn’t care. Next you have Abraham, who is caught in the middle of his two wives and sons. The text tells us that he is “distressed” by what is happening. After that, you have Hagar, who is rejected, abandoned, and heartbroken. And finally, at the very bottom, there is Ishmael, who never asked for any of this. This baby is going to die because God’s chosen people are too hard-hearted to see past their own petty issues. (Sounds like the Church sometimes, doesn’t it?)

And where is God in all this? Sitting on heaven’s throne, objectively evaluating the situation? Does God make excuses for the chosen people, justifying their selfishness, no matter what the cost?

Whose voice does God listen to in the end? Not Sarah’s, not Abraham’s, not the chosen people’s, not even poor Hagar’s. Genesis tells us that “God heard the voice of the boy.” Ishmael. The voice that mattered least. The voice that no one else wanted to hear (not even his own mother, in the end). Ishmael was the least of the least in this situation, the one who even the rejects rejected. He didn’t even have words to form, much less a theology for calling out to God and arranging salvation. The only thing that came out of him was the wordless wail of a child who has just been abandoned by his mother.

Rejection. Ultimate rejection which, in his case, meant certain death. And God heard the voice of the boy. God shows up where the pain is greatest and the hope is gone. In spite of the sacred covenant established with Abraham and continued through Isaac and Sarah, God cannot help but reach out to be with these forgotten folk, particularly this baby boy.

God speaks to Hagar his mother and says, “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. I’m listening. Go, pick up your son and hold him close, because this kid has a future. I will make a great nation of him.”

And then, according to the text of Genesis, God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw something: a well of water in the desert. Not just a bottle, like Abraham had given her, but a full-on well where she and her son could drink and drink to their hearts’ content.

According to the text and history, God made good on that promise to Hagar and Ishmael. They learned how to survive out in the desert. They made a life for themselves. Ishmael grew up, got married, and became a great bow-hunter.

He even became “a great nation,” as God promised he would: our Muslim neighbors trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, just as Jews and Christians trace their lineage through Isaac, Abraham’s son by Sarah.

What I take away from this story is God’s special love for the least of the least of the least. God really does seem to have a thing for underdogs. Church teaching has historically referred to this as “the preferential option for the poor.”

God is not neutral or objective when it comes to injustice. God sides with the poor and powerless people of the earth in their suffering. It’s not that God loves some people more than others; it’s that some people need God’s love more than others. God stands in solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world, therefore we, as God’s people are called to do the same.

I believe the Church is called to be a safe haven for our outcast sisters and brothers. We’ve all heard stories of faith communities rejecting certain people, sending them packing, or kicking them out for one reason or another, perhaps sending them off with a single bottle of water to sustain their faith in the spiritual deserts of this world…

I believe the Church’s call in those moments is to be present with those rejected people, like Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. Rather than turning our heads and walking away because we can’t bear to see their suffering, I believe we are called to hold each other close in the darkest hours, to open the eyes that are blind, and inspire our hurting neighbors to believe in a future for themselves that they would not even dare to imagine.

We are not meant to pass out little bottles of water and then send people on their way. We care called to be that well in the desert, where exhausted travelers and fellow rejects can find rest and build a new life together out of the ashes of their rejection.

This is the kind of ministry that North Church has been doing for over a generation. We are the well in the desert. We stand together today, poised at the brink of an unknown-but-promising future, facing new challenges, ready to pursue new opportunities, and certain of this: that God is with us. We know this because we are the poor, we are the homeless, we are the addicts, we are the disabled, we are the mentally ill, we are often overlooked and outcast, we are the freaks and the geeks, we are the queer, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are the rejected ones: and that’s where God lives. Amen.

God-Talk

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The most ancient shrine described in the Bible was a rock.  As the story is told in Genesis, Jacob founded the shrine because of a dream.  Traveling alone, he fell asleep one night in the mountains, with his head resting on a stone for his pillow.  Perhaps it was one of those bright nights when the stars are thick and close, like a spangled quilt thrown over the earth.  He dreamed he saw a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with angels climbing up and down.  “This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven” he exclaimed when he woke.  He set up the stone to mark the place and named it Beth El – the House of God.  Another night, on another journey, Jacob tossed and turned in fear that his brother, whom he’d wronged, might kill him.  An angel came in the darkness and fought him.  Jacob survived the fight but limped ever after, and he gained a new name – Israel, which means “one who struggled with God and lived.”

The divine-human encounter is the rock on which our theological house stands.  At the heart of liberal theology is a mysterious glimpse, a transforming struggle, with the oblique presence of God.  “Theology” literally means “God-talk” and derives from theos (God) and logos (word).  But talk of God is tricky business.  The same Bible that tells of Jacob’s marking stone also warns, “Make no graven images of God.”  God may be sighted by a sidewise glance, sensed in a dream, felt in a struggle, heard in the calm at the heart of a storm, or unveiled in a luminous epiphany.  But the moment human beings think they know who God is and carve their conclusions in stone, images of God can become dangerous idols.  In Jewish tradition, God is ultimately un-nameable, and some never pronounce the letters that spell out God’s unspeakable name.

In liberal theology, at the core of the struggle with God is a restless awareness that human conclusions about God are always provisional, and any way of speaking about God may become an idol.  This is why not everyone welcomes talk of God.  God-talk has been used to hammer home expectations of obedience, to censure feelings and passions.  It has been invoked to to stifle intellectual inquiry and to reinforce oppression.  For many people the word “God” stands for conceptions of the ultimate that have harmed life, sanctioned unjust systems, or propelled people to take horrific actions “in the name of God.”

-Rebecca Ann Parker in A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century (Beacon Press: 2010), p.23-24

Seeing With the Eyes of the Heart

Morpheus, a character from ‘The Matrix’ who introduces people to “the real world” by inviting them take a red pill. “If you take the red pill,” he says, “you stay in Wonderland and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Genesis 50:15-21

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Excerpt from God Has A Dream

Dear Child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional.  It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble.  Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.  And if we are to be true partners with God, we must learn to see with the eyes of God—that is, to see with the eyes of the heart and not just the eyes of the head.  The eyes of the heart are not concerned with appearances but essences, as we cultivate these eyes we are able to learn from our suffering and to see the world with more loving, forgiving, humble, generous eyes.

I have to confess that I really get a kick out of those movies and TV shows whose plots are built around the premise that the everyday “normal” world we all inhabit is a hollow fantasy and the “real” world is way more intense and exciting than most people can imagine.  I went to college in the late 90s and the movie that most exemplifies this idea for people my age is The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves.  In this movie, the “normal” world turns out to be a computer simulation used by evil robots who are trying to control the minds of the human race.  The main character, a regular guy with a boring job in the beginning, turns out to be a hero with super-powers who is destined to save humanity from the robots.

Another example is the TV show Weeds.  This show takes place in sunny, suburban California, where a soccer mom named Nancy is trying to make ends meet for herself and two kids.  But the deep, dark secret is that Nancy is actually selling marijuana.  The show follows Nancy as her life drifts farther and farther away from the world of PTA meetings and white picket fences and into the criminal underworld of gangsters and drug dealers.

What all of these movies and shows have in common is the idea that the “real” world is somehow darker and seedier than the “normal” world.  Wesley Snipe says it like this in the movie Blade: “You better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping! There is another world beneath it – the real world. And if you wanna survive it, you better learn to pull the trigger!”

Sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it?

I think these stories tend appeal to people because they reflect, in a metaphorical way, the experience of disillusionment that everyone goes through in the process of growing up.  When we were young, our parents tried to shelter us from the harsh realities of life.  We do the same for our kids and grandkids.  Are there any good parents who don’t worry about the amount of gratuitous sex and violence their kids see on TV?  I doubt it.  We instinctively want to protect our kids from being exposed to those realities too soon, even though we all know our kids will eventually see them anyway, in spite of our best efforts.

So, why do we try to shield them?  Why, instead, do we bring them to church and enroll them in Sunday school where they can learn the stories of the Bible and the basic beliefs and values of our faith?

There are many out there who argue that we are simply trying to delay the inevitable.  They would say that we are trying to keep our kids locked up in a fantasy world that’s “just a sugar-coated topping” in the words of Wesley Snipe.  They would say that we parents are pining for our lost innocence and therefore trying to prevent that loss from happening to our kids.  Afraid of reality, they say, we try to keep ourselves and our children imprisoned in a fantasy world where everything is fine and everyone is happy all the time.

Religion, according to these folks, is the ultimate enforcer of the fantasy world.  Karl Marx, the philosopher who founded the idea of Communism, called religion “the opiate of the masses.”  Faith in God, he said, was part of the fantasy world.  The real world, according to Marx, was a struggle to the death between the haves and the have-nots.  Religion, he said, was one of the tools that the haves used to keep the have-nots in line.  Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously declared that “God is dead,” considered virtues like compassion and humility to be part of the morality of the weak.  According to Nietzsche’s thinking, might makes right.  The only real winner is the superman who rises above the masses and imposes his will upon his fellow human beings.  Power, according to Nietzsche, is the only real morality.  It should come as no surprise then, that Nietzsche’s number one fan in the twentieth century was a man named Adolf Hitler.  Nazism was basically just Nietzsche’s philosophy in practice.

Both Marx and Nietzsche (the founders of Communism and Nazism, respectively), as materialist philosophers with a cynical edge, believed they had found the real world beneath the surface of everyday “normal” reality.  Each one thought he possessed the secret knowledge that held the key to history.  And you know what?  They were right… to a point.

They were right in observing that the happy world of easy answers, black & white morality, and “happily ever after” fairy tale endings is ultimately a fantasy constructed by people who want to shield themselves and their kids from the harsh realities of real life.  They were right in observing that many people use religion as a means of enforcing belief in the fantasy, threatening hellfire and damnation to those who question or doubt the fantasy’s validity.  They were right in guessing that truly mature people are those who can face the darkness of reality and see this complicated world for what it really is.  They were right in those things.

But they were also wrong.  They were wrong insofar as they believed that they had fully sounded the depths of reality.  They were wrong insofar as they presumed that this new level of consciousness they had uncovered was the final one.  They were wrong, not because they went too far in their quest for the truth, but because they didn’t go far enough.

As a person of faith, I believe there is another level of reality, of which Marx and Nietzsche were apparently unaware.  The existence of this level of reality can be neither proved nor disproved by philosophy.  Reason can lead us only to the point of possibility, at which point each of us must then freely choose for ourselves what we will accept as the more probable truth.

The world I see beneath the so-called “real” world of harsh realities is characterized by the presence of justice and compassion.  Hindus call this reality “Brahman.”  The ancient Greeks called it “Logos.”  Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout history have traditionally identified this reality as personal and called it “Adonai,” “Allah,” or “God.”

God, so we say, is the one “from whom, through whom, and to whom” all things come.  It is in God that “we live, move, and have our being.”  For us, God is the mysterious “all in all” at the heart of the universe.  And what is the character of this ultimate reality?  We say that it is love.  “God is love,” as it says in the Bible.  How do we know this to be true?  We don’t, in an absolute sense.  We trust it to be true, however, because of what we have experienced in and through the person Jesus of Nazareth.

Looking at the life of Jesus, we experience something that Christians for millennia have chosen to accept as a revelation of God, the ultimate nature of reality.  Because of Jesus, we choose to believe that God is love.  We see it in the way that he drew our attention to flowers, birds, sunshine, and rain as evidence of God’s providential care.  We hear it in the parables he told about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  We feel it in the way he touched the unclean lepers and welcomed outcast sinners to dine at his family table.  Above all, we encounter it in the way that he died: forgiving his enemies and entrusting his spirit to God’s care.  Because of this, we say, “This is love.  This is ultimate reality.  This is what God is like.”  Because of this, the cross of Christ has become the central symbol of our faith.  And, because of this, we refuse to believe that death can have the final word over such love, so we celebrate Easter, the central holiday of our faith.  We tell stories of how, after Jesus’ death, some women came to his grave to pay their respects.  Upon their arrival, they found the tomb empty and the stone rolled away.  Then an angel suddenly appeared and asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen.”

Can we prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these things actually happened?  No.  But we believe them to be true because the love we see in Jesus leads us to believe that “love is strong as death” and is the creative power that gave birth to the universe.  The belief that “God is love” is the ultimate truth that “was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked at and touched with our hands” in the person of Jesus.  We can’t prove any of this.  The truth of it can’t be forced on anyone.  It must be freely chosen.

We are free to choose whether we will confine Jesus and his message of love to the annals of history or see him as our living window into the ultimate nature of reality.  This is what Desmond Tutu means when he talks to us about “seeing with the eyes of the heart” in this week’s chapter of God Has a Dream.

This new way of seeing, Tutu says, changes things.  It changes the way we look at Jesus, the way we look at others, the way we look at ourselves, and the way we look at the world.  Archbishop Tutu says:

Many people ask me what I have learned from all of the experiences in my life, and I say unhesitatingly: People are wonderful.  It is true.  People really are wonderful.  This does not mean that people cannot be awful and do real evil.  They can.  Yet as you begin to see with the eyes of God, you start to realize that people’s anger and hatred and cruelty come from their own pain and suffering.  As we begin to see their words and behavior as simply the acting out of their suffering, we can have compassion for them.  We no longer feel attacked by them, and we can begin to see the light of God shining in them.  And when we begin to look for the light of God in people, an incredible thing happens.  We find it more and more in people—all people.

There is another story in the Bible of a person who was able to look past his own disillusionment and “see with the eyes of the heart.”  I’m talking about the story of Joseph, from the Old Testament book of Genesis.  Joseph, you may remember, was his father’s favorite son.  This fact made his brothers green with envy to the point where they faked his death and sold him into slavery.  Later on, Joseph was falsely accused of rape by his boss’ wife and ten thrown into prison to rot.  Much later, after a few providential run-ins with royal officials, Joseph was freed from prison and appointed to what we might call the Vice Presidency of Egypt.  It was at this point in the story, in the midst of a severe famine, that Joseph’s brothers show up again, this time groveling and begging for food, not realizing who they were talking to.  This would have been the perfect opportunity for revenge.  No one would have blamed him for holding a grudge, but that’s not what happened.  In this story, after telling his brothers who he was, Joseph wept with them and forgave them.  He said to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”.

Joseph knew all about disillusionment.  His fairy tale dreams were shattered at an early age.  He was well aware that, beneath the world of his childhood dreams, reality was a lot more complicated.  However, unlike Marx, Nietzsche, and the producers of those movies I mentioned, Joseph never stopped searching for that presence of justice and compassion at the heart of the universe.  I think it’s pretty clear that he must have found, or at least glimpsed, what he was looking for.  Somehow, he was able to look past the darkness and into the light beyond.  This way of seeing with the eyes of the heart brought Joseph to the point where he was able to forgive those who had done such unforgivable things to him.  He was even able to see the hand of providence at work at work in his circumstances, saying, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

Desmond Tutu tells us the story of another modern-day Joseph who was able to overcome injustice and let it shape him for the better.  He writes:

Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, eighteen of them on Robben Island breaking rocks into little rocks, a totally senseless task.  The unrelenting brightness of the light reflected off the white stone damaged his eyes so that now when you have your picture taken with him, you will be asked not to use a flash.  Many people say, “What a waste!  Wouldn’t it have been better if Nelson Mandela had come out earlier?  Look at all the things he would have accomplished.”

Those ghastly, suffering-filled twenty-seven years actually were not a waste.  It may seem so in a sense, but when Nelson Mandela went to jail he was angry.  He was a young man who was understandably very upset at the miscarriage of justice in South Africa.  He and his colleagues were being sentenced because they were standing up for what seemed so obvious.  They were demanding the rights that in other countries were claimed to be inalienable.  At the time, he was very forthright and belligerent, as he should have been, leading the armed wing of the African National Congress, but he mellowed in jail.  He began to discover depths of resilience and spiritual attributes that he would not have known he had.  And in particular I think he learned to appreciate the foibles and weaknesses of others and to be able to be gentle and compassionate toward others even in their awfulness.  So the suffering transformed him because he allowed it to ennoble him.  He could never have become the political and moral leader he became had it not been for the suffering he experienced on Robben Island.

All of us are bound to become disillusioned in the process of growing up.  That much is inevitable.  What is not inevitable is how we will respond to our disillusionment.  Will you halt your search for truth with those cynics who say “God is dead” and “might makes right”?  Or will you continue to follow the living Christ ever deeper into the heart of reality where you can experience firsthand the love of God giving birth to the universe?

My prayer is that we would all choose to see with the eyes of the heart, that we would all come to know this eternal love for ourselves, and that we would all be forever transformed by that experience.

 

 

 

Reverence for Reality

Photo by Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team

I’ve often felt sorry for Abimelech.  He strikes me as a stand-up guy who got the short end of the stick.  We first meet him in the 20th chapter of the book of Genesis.  He’s named as the king of the Philistines who lives in Gerar.  One day, a rather attractive woman moves to town, supposedly with her brother.  She makes a splash on the social scene and turns the heads of some very well-placed individuals.  Before long, she’s dating Abimelech himself, who is quite taken with her.  Little does he know that she too is taken, but not in a good way.  The woman’s “brother” turns out to be her husband who is using her as part of a con-game that they’ve been running in several different towns.

Abimelech, an apparently decent fellow who’s not into that sort of thing, demands an explanation.  Abraham, the brother-husband, replies, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place”.

No fear of God?  That doesn’t seem to be the case.  First of all, I should explain that I tend to cringe at the word fear being used in this sense.  The actual Hebrew word means awe or reverence.  We, on the other hand, tend to associate it with dread or terror.  Abraham was insisting that he saw no reverence for the sacred in the house of Abimelech.  Yet, Abimelech seems to be a rather spiritually sensitive person.  One might even call him a mystic.  He hears God speaking to him in dreams and responds without hesitation.  If anything, Abimelech comes across as a much more spiritually centered person than Abraham the con-man.

Abraham saw no reverence for the divine in Abimelech.  I propose a theory that it was actually Abraham’s own prejudice that prevented him from seeing the truth about the kind of person that Abimelech really was.  Abraham was accustomed to seeing “foreigners” and “outsiders” in a certain way.  Abraham thought that he, as the exalted ancestor of the chosen people, was the sole-possessor of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” about God.  As a result, he was blind to the reality of reverence in Abimelech’s life.

Don’t we do this all the time?  We get used to seeing things in a certain way.  We come up with interpretive schemas that we impose on reality in order to categorically organize our perceptions of the world.  We want to know who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “saved” and who is “damned”, who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys”.  This is a natural way of looking at things (especially for kids) but it causes problems for adults who know through experience that life is never that simple.  If we stay committed to such binary thinking in the face of more nuanced evidence, prejudice closes our minds and hardens our hearts against reality and reverence.  We fail to keep in step with what God is doing in the world and end up becoming the worst versions of ourselves.

Especially in this fast-paced and interconnected world of the 21st century, it is incumbent upon us to remain open to the varieties of reverence we may encounter in those who are different from us.  When I walk into a situation or relationship with the assumption that God is neither present nor active in another person’s life, I am more likely to misconstrue God’s presence and activity in my own life.

Through openness of heart and mind, let us maintain our reverence for what is sacred and celebrate together the incredible diversity we find in this universe.

Journeying on by Stages

Abram's Altar

It’s no secret that I’ve been part of several different varieties of Protestant church: Baptist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, Presbyterian…

All this time, I’ve been longing for a tradition, something bigger than my little self, of which I can be a part.  Each time I land somewhere new, I think I’ve found it, that is, the place where I will finally put down roots and stay forever.  And each time, I end up leaving after a few years.  I’m beginning to think my ecclesiology is not as strong as I once thought.

I tend to leave each tradition with a keen (and perhaps overdeveloped) sense of what is wrong with it.  My most severe criticism has been reserved for the one tradition that, during my youngest years, shaped me more than any other: the Baptists.

I graduated from a private Christian high school in the Bible belt that was run by a Baptist church (watch the film Saved! for an idea of my high school experience).  I got to see the very worst of the Baptist tradition there.  Theologically, they were the sweaty-brow, pulpit-pounding, Bible-beating, hellfire-and-damnation preachers for which the American south has become famous.  Their commitment to ignorance was the foundation of their stupidity.

At no time was their hypocrisy more apparent than during my senior year when the pastor of that church sexually assaulted a student and the church covered it up.  Meanwhile, that student’s mother (who happened to be a teacher at the school) was fired from her job.  Later that year, another student was expelled from school because she was caught drinking at a party.  The administration defended their actions, citing “discipleship” and not “evangelism” as the institution’s raison d’être.

After that experience, the one variety of church that I intentionally avoided was Baptist.  To me, they represented the very worst of dogmatic and legalistic Christianity that was devoid of any mysticism, relationality, or intellectual integrity.

More recently, as I’ve been exploring what it means to believe and live as a self-identified liberal Christian, I have been basking in the light of several authors whose lives and words have touched me deeply.  Specifically, I am referring to Howard Thurman, Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  These icons of liberal Protestantism have touched me deeply with their commitment to everything I thought was lacking in my experience of the Baptist tradition.

And then it hit me: these four men had one thing in common that had eluded my consciousness until now.  They were all Baptist ministers.

Delving a little more deeply, I discovered a whole new perspective on the Baptist tradition that I hadn’t noticed until now.  Apart from the die-hard fundamentalists among them, Baptists are (and have been for four hundred years) committed to the power of freedom.

Walter Shurden has articulated the Baptist commitment to freedom in terms of four central values (I have lifted the following summary from Wikipedia):

Soul freedom: the soul is competent before God, and capable of making decisions in matters of faith without coercion or compulsion by any larger religious or civil body

Church freedom: freedom of the local church from outside interference, whether government or civilian (subject only to the law where it does not interfere with the religious teachings and practices of the church)

Bible freedom: the individual is free to interpret the Bible for himself or herself, using the best tools of scholarship and biblical study available to the individual

Religious freedom: the individual is free to choose whether to practice their religion, another religion, or no religion; Separation of church and state is often called the “civil corollary” of religious freedom

Needless to say, this discovery has sparked a reconsideration of my theological roots, dare I say it, the tradition in which I was raised.  Upon further reflection and research, I came to another realization about my heritage:

Apart from the high school I attended, my experience of Baptist churches via the ones I attended as a child was an experience of very moderate to liberal Baptists.  My parents, who I would describe as moderate in most respects, brought us to two different Baptist churches during my youth: First Baptist Church of Melrose, Massachusetts and Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  First Baptist of Melrose is where I have my earliest memories of church.  Binkley Baptist is where I received my first Bible in the third grade.  Both of these churches are American Baptist, formerly known as Northern Baptist, a much more diverse and moderate denomination than its southern counterpart.  Binkley Baptist is also affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists, a very liberal denomination that split off from the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-1980s.  That same church made waves decades ago by hiring an openly gay minister before it was popular, even among mainline Protestants.  Upon close re-examination, I would say that my perspective on my Baptist roots is shifting dramatically.

Having just completed my transition to the Presbyterian Church in the last twelve months, I’m not looking to make another switch.  However, if one were to ask me what I see God doing in my personal life right now, I would probably point to the way in which my relationship toward my Baptist heritage is being redeemed in my own memory.

For the last several years (before this process began in earnest), I’ve even had recurring dreams of returning to Binkley.  One involved making my way down a snowy path through the woods behind my childhood home and arriving at Binkley in order to talk with their pastor.  In another dream, I was worshiping in their sanctuary on a Sunday morning, but the internal arrangement of the church (pulpit, pews, etc.) was 180 degrees opposite to what it had been when I attended there.  Those are striking images, considering what I’ve been talking about here.  Could it be that this internal redemption of my denominational heritage was an unconscious work-in-progress for several ears?

All of this material came up in my mind yesterday during my personal devotions.  I was reading a passage from Genesis 12, where Abram is called away to an unknown land under divine guidance.  The voice said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  He had no idea of where he was going.  All Abram knew was that he would be blessed and would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

You would think that this would be the beginning of a long epic that ended years later with his arrival in the Promised Land.  However, such is not the case.  We read in the text that Abram arrived in the Canaan by the end of the next paragraph.  That seems rather anti-climactic and counter-intuitive to me.  Where was the author’s sense of story and adventure?  Odysseus took fourteen years to get where he was going, Abram took a paragraph.

But then I noticed something else: Abram’s journey did not end with his arrival in the Promised Land.  It was only beginning.  He continued to live as a nomad in Canaan, moving from place to place, “journeying on by stages,” as the text says.  And at each stage along the way, he set up an altar.  He acknowledged the sacredness of each patch of earth and gave thanks to the One who had called him in the beginning, guided him thus far, and promised to bless him until the end.

As it was with Abram, so I believe it is with me.  Perhaps I have been in the Promised Land all along, still living as a nomad, traveling from place to place and church to church.  Perhaps that sense of tradition and belonging for which I yearn has been with me the whole time.  Maybe it is only now, as I am being led to embrace the part of my heritage I have despised most, that I am finally able to see my real tradition.

I build an altar here, acknowledging the sacredness of this patch of earth called ‘Baptist’ and blessing the One who brought me to and through its territory.  I do likewise for the other theological provinces I have visited: Evangelical, Charismatic, Emergent, Episcopal, and Presbyterian.  I do not know where my journey will lead me from here, but I look forward to exploring the land that is being shown to me and experiencing the mutual interflow of blessing between myself and all the families of the earth.

The Gift of Diversity

This morning’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.

The text is Genesis 11:1-9.

Who here has seen the movie (or read the book) Jurassic Park?

It was one of the epic stories of the 1990s.  Scientists find a way to bring dinosaurs back to life and put them on display for tourists.  How is that possible?  No problem!  They cloned them using dino-DNA from prehistoric mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree sap.  How do they control the dinosaurs?  No problem!  Genetic manipulation makes it so that the dinosaurs can’t reproduce while high-powered electric fences keep them safely contained.  However, those who are familiar with the story know what happens next.  The genetic manipulation doesn’t take and the dinosaurs start breeding.  Then a power-outage deactivates the electric fences.  The tourists’ initial wonder gives way to terror as they are chased and eaten by hungry prehistoric predators!

The scientists of Jurassic Park thought they had the answer to everything.  They thought they had absolute control over their situation.  But life turns out to be just a little bit more complicated than the scientists expected.  Their control gives way to chaos.  In the end, Jurassic Park is a classic story about human progress gone wild.

This morning, we read from another classic story of human progress gone wild.  It’s the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  The story begins on a positive note.  The human race exists as one family with one language.  They are explorers and inventors who bravely probe the depths of human creativity and ingenuity.  They settle new territory and develop new technology (i.e. bricks).  All in all, it sounds like a pretty utopian society, kind of like the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek.  But the Bible, it seems, is a bit more realistic than Star Trek.  It doesn’t take long before this “masterpiece society” develops a dark side.

The human race quickly gets ahead of itself in verse 4, saying, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves”.  That’s quite a leap, isn’t it?  One day, they’re inventing bricks and the very next day, they’re building downtown Manhattan, complete with skyscrapers!  There’s no small amount of arrogance that comes with this new idea.  Their new skyscraper will have “its top in the heavens”.  Humanity literally intends to lift itself up by its own bootstraps.  Also, they intend to “make a name” for themselves.  They want to be feared and respected.  By whom?  We don’t know.  Theoretically, this group comprises the entire human race.  But that’s just one more reason why we’re not reading these stories as literal and historical fact.  They’re stories that are meant to tell us something about who we are and who God is.

What’s the reason for this sudden and huge undertaking?  Why build this urban metropolis?  The people tell us why in the second half of verse 4: “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  They’re afraid.  They’re afraid of being scattered.  The flip side of their arrogant pride is a paralyzing fear.  Do you know anyone like this?  Some big and tough person whose macho attitude is just a cover for feeling afraid and insecure?  Bullies like this are everywhere: from high school locker rooms to corporate board rooms.  They’re all motivated by fear.  In fact, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we can all identify with that impulse to hide our fear with pride.  It’s no different for the humans in this story.  Their big building project is motivated by fear.

The ironic thing is that this fear becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  The text tells us in verse 8 that, in the end, “Yahweh scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth”.  The very thing they feared is what they brought upon themselves through their efforts to relieve their fear.  It’s kind of tragic, isn’t it?

But is “scattering” really so bad?

In order to answer that question, we should first look at the reason why God decided to do it.  Everybody was safe, happy, and getting along with each other in Babel.  Why not leave well enough alone?  God gives a hint in verse 6, saying, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”  Now, that might not sound so bad at first, but think about the kinds of things that humans tend to do when they get together and make big progress on big projects.  Midway through the twentieth century, humanity unlocked the secrets of the atom.  The very next thing we did was make a giant bomb and use it.  We then spent the remainder of the century living in the shadow of the mushroom cloud, terrified of nuclear annihilation and “mutually assured destruction”.  That’s the kind of thing that human beings do when “nothing that they propose to do [is] impossible for them.”  So God, interrupting this progress-gone-wild and scattering the human race, was actually saving people from themselves.

Also, according to the text of Genesis, “scattering” itself may have been part of God’s plan for humanity from the beginning.  In Genesis 1, God says to humanity, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”.  God says it again in chapter 9, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”  And yet again, only six verses later, “And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.”  Is it just me or is God sounding like a broken record here?  Do you think maybe there’s a point that God is trying to make here?  Yeah, I think so too.

I think God is trying to say, “Hey everybody, get out there!  Go out into this amazing world and be who you were meant to be!  Don’t let fear hold you back!”

Traditionally, the invention of languages in this story is thought of as a punishment for the human race, but I’m not so sure about that.  I see it as a blessing.  God sees human beings imprisoning themselves behind walls made of brick and fear.  God is a like a mother eagle who gives her little birdies a push out of the nest in order to teach them how to fly!  The push out of the nest in this case is the confusion of languages.  In other words, God challenges humanity to become who they were meant to be by giving them the gift of diversity.

In many ways, things aren’t so different for you and me.  We build our own protective “towers” of ideology.  Whether you’re fearful about the economy, social justice, church attendance, or family values, the temptation is the same: to imprison yourself behind the brick walls of arrogance and fear, blurting out easy answers in convenient, bumper sticker-sized slogans, and surrounding yourself with people who talk like you, look like you, think like you, and believe like you.

Enter God.  God sneaks behind the walls of your tower of terror with this brilliant gift of diversity.

Through this gift, God shows you that life is far more complicated than your easy answers would have you believe.  Through this gift, God meets you with the realization that you really don’t understand the human being sitting right next to you at home, at church, or in line for the voting booth.  And if you ever hope to understand that person, it’s going to take a long and difficult process of patient listening.

But if you can rise to the occasion, if you can receive God’s gift of diversity, and if you can accept God’s invitation to embrace real unity rather than simple uniformity among your fellow human beings, you’ll discover that being “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” isn’t so bad after all as God leads you out from behind your walls of fear and into this amazing world and the fruitful life that God has always meant for you to have.