Eighteen Inches Down

There’s nothing wrong with me
a slip on ice won’t fix.
A view up close, from down
below, within the mix.

In woods, a fallen log
homes life in midst of death.
In space, exploding star
births atoms with her breath.

In cloud, I see a shape.
In night is not the dark.
The there is ever here.
At home, shall I embark.

In silence is a sound,
unknown to neural net.
From eighteen inches down
flow words both wild and wet.

I see together hang
the cords unbroken still,
the dangling of the spheres,
not thrust by might of will.

Upon this ground, I lie,
upheld a billion years,
while trust unknown will sound
the song that charms my fears.

There’s nothing wrong with me
a slip on ice won’t fix.
A view up close, from down
below, within the mix.

When God Smacks You in the Head

I’ve been wanting to write more about my recent transition from the Presbyterian Church to the Episcopal Church, but a hectic schedule has not allowed. Hopefully, I will get to that soon. I’m sorry for leaving my readers in the dark, but living life has taken precedence over documenting it.

The transition process has been full of providential coincidences, deepening relationships, and a profound sense of finally settling into a church tradition where I can feel at home.

I have had a steep learning curve in my new job as parish administrator at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek. I’m grateful that the community there has been wonderfully welcoming and patient with me as I learn how to juggle these new responsibilities. I have desperately needed to learn the administrative and financial aspects of church life, which this job allows me to do. Knowing about these things will make me a much stronger presbyter when I (hopefully) return to that role in a few years. I believe I am exactly where God has called me to be for this moment.

At the same time, this new season is not without its own pain and anxiety. First of all, I am still grieving my previous call as pastor of North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I had hoped to remain in that position for much longer than I did. Even after I came to the realization that I was not a Presbyterian, I was determined to stay on for the sake of serving that amazing group of people. Unfortunately, the financial realities made it impossible for me to continue in the call.

Second, the reality has begun to sink in that I am taking a substantial risk by hopping between denominations like this. The Anglican commitment to the historic episcopate (a theological commitment I have come to agree with, btw) means that I will have to re-enter the discernment process for ordination. The process will take several years. And there is the possibility, however slight, that a bishop might look at my situation and not decide to move forward with ordination. My priest assures me that this, while technically possible, is highly unlikely. Nevertheless, the fear sometimes keeps me up at night. I felt it acutely this weekend at the Diocesan Church Development Institute (DCDI), where clergy and parishioners from two Michigan dioceses gathered to learn about helping members grow spiritually, live together in community, and nurture transformative change. I was thinking about how much I love this when the terror struck that I might never again be able to invest my whole life in pastoral ministry, as I have for the last decade.

But God is not without a sense of humor.

Today’s epistle reading at the Daily Office was from 1 Peter 5:1-11. St. Peter writes as an apostle, bishop, and priest (presbyter, translated as “elder” in the NRSV) in the Church. He exhorts the leaders of the Church “to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it not for sordid gain but eagerly.” (1 Pe 5:2)

I heard the following words as if they were spoken directly to me in this moment:

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pe 5:6-7)

And I then I read the following as a promise:

“And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Pe 5:10)

As one trained in the arts of biblical exegesis and church history, I am fully aware of the dangerous situations that arise when one inserts one’s personal desires and fears into the text of Scripture. Furthermore, I know how church bodies work and have come to trust in the process of discernment that happens with the bishop in concert with relevant committees. There are no guarantees that I will ever become a priest in the Episcopal Church. Even if I do, the path will not be short or easy.

But the promise I hear in this text is that my life is destined to reflect God’s “eternal glory in Christ” and I will be given whatever manna I need to make that journey safely. I write these words from a place of faith, knowing that those same old fears are likely to reassert themselves in the next few years, days, or even moments. May God grant me the grace to trust the promise, even as my own heart screams in terror.

Last night, I was venting these fears to my wife at some length (ad nauseum, she might say). I eventually paused to go say Evening Prayer. Reaching down to get a hymnal from the bottom shelf, something must have shifted. There was a noise on the shelf above me and a sudden, stinging pain in the back of the head. I turned around to see what had fallen and hit me… it was my ordination certificate.

PCUSA Ordination Certificate.JPG

The Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.

The Arc of the Universe

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Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

They say growing up is hard to do.  And I think they’re right.  Because growing up involves change and kids generally like to have a regular, predictable routine.  I remember one time when life interrupted my routine and I had to adjust to a new way of doing things.  It happened at the beginning of fifth grade.  I was having a hard time adjusting to my new classroom, my new teacher, and more challenging homework assignments.

When I finally had all I thought I could handle, I made an appointment to see the school guidance counselor, Mr. Arnold.  I walked into his office with my mind made up.  I had a plan.  I thought I already knew the solution to my problem, so I told him: “Mr. Arnold, this fifth grade stuff is too hard.  I don’t like my teacher, I can’t keep up with the material, and I’m just not happy here.  I’m obviously not ready for this.  I think I just need to back to fourth grade.”

Well, you can imagine what Mr. Arnold’s response was.  When he finally stopped laughing, he told me in no uncertain terms that returning to the fourth grade was not an option.  Then he introduced me to a new word, one that I’ve carried with me ever since.  To be honest, I think he made it up, but it describes so well what I was doing by asking to go back to fourth grade.  Mr. Arnold’s word was awfulizing.  He said, “You’re awfulizing this situation, and no, you can’t go back to the fourth grade.”  And then he explained what he meant by that:  my ten-year-old self was choosing to see only the negative parts of fifth grade and blowing them out of all rational proportion until I convinced myself that the only solution was to go backwards and stay in my old comfort zone.  By awfulizing the situation, I was basically just giving in to despair and giving up on life.  I was refusing to trust that life had given me enough resilience and adaptability to rise up and meet this new challenge.

Despair can be a powerful sedative.  Awfulizing, while cathartic, is an addictive anesthetic that keeps us from feeling our growing pains.  The upside is that it numbs our pain, but the downside is that it stunts our growth.  Evolution only happens through struggle.  Life has to be pushed past its previously known limits in order to adapt to new environments.

This is never easy.  When it happens in the biosphere, there is always struggle and the imminent risk of failure and death.  When it happens in the struggle for social justice, people stand up against powerful and entrenched institutions, like oppressive regimes, unjust laws, multinational corporations, and long-held beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions.  Change only happens slowly and with great effort.  Activist movements often struggle for generations before they reap a harvest from their labors.  They endure persecution, ostracism, imprisonment, and death.  Many lose hope and give up the fight along the way, but those who persevere become the catalysts for our social and spiritual evolution.  For example, who could have guessed on the night of the Stonewall riots that, within a generation, several countries, the president of the United States, multiple states, and even a few religious institutions would recognize the right to marriage equality?

Change happens slowly, but it does indeed happen.  Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Not many know this, but Dr. King was actually adapting the words of the famous 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.  Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways… But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

These words have been a source of comfort and hope to many in the struggle for justice.  But the question arises, How do we know?  How can one be so sure that this universe is arranged in such a way that we can be sure that right will win out in the end?  Well, the short answer is that we don’t.  Philosophers are quick to point out the naturalistic fallacy, a rule (if you will) of critical thinking which states that one cannot derive an Ought from an Is.  In other words, you cannot logically draw a definitive conclusion about the way things should be based on the way things are.  Take, for example, the following popular label on food and drug products: Contains All Natural Ingredients.  We consumers are supposed to look at that and think that, because the ingredients are all natural, they must therefore be good for you.  But we know that’s not true.  You want to know what else is natural?  Arsenic, Plutonium, and Hydrochloric Acid.  These things contain all natural ingredients as well, but I wouldn’t want to put any of them inside my body!  Just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily make it good.

So, how then can Rev. Parker and Dr. King say that the arc of the universe “bends toward justice”?

Well, I think we can start by looking at the facts.  There are certain things we know about the universe that we would almost certainly label as good.  How about the fact that we are here?  We exist.  Most would accept that fact as both true and good.  How then did this favorable state of affairs come about?

Let me tell you a story: it takes place on a planet where a race of life forms has learned how to extract a vital resource from its environment.  The downside is that the extraction process gives off a toxic gas that poisons the atmosphere.  These life forms, with wanton disregard for anything other than their own immediate needs, willingly pollute the atmosphere of their planet for generation after generation until the air is saturated with poison.  Yet, even then they continued their pollution.  They kept going until the vast majority of life on their planet had been eradicated.

This sounds like a sad beginning to a dystopian science fiction story, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  There’s a lot more science than fiction in this story because it happened right here on our planet about 2.4 billion years ago in what scientists call the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE).  In the GOE, anaerobic cyanobacteria figured out how to extract hydrogen from water molecules.  The poisonous air pollution that resulted from this process was a toxic gas known as oxygen.  We don’t think of oxygen as pollution nowadays because we need it to live and breathe, but there was a time when it caused our planet’s first pollution crisis.  The fact that we are here now, breathing oxygen, is a testament to life’s amazing capacity to endure and adapt.

They say, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”  You could say that’s certainly true in our case, where we now depend on oxygen for our very survival.  We could say that one era’s pollution is another era’s air!

Life is amazing, isn’t it?  The universe has taken almost 14 billion years to produce the people sitting in this room right now.  You and I are sitting here as the end-result of billions of years of evolutionary success.  Of course, we can’t say that it was all good, but I think most of us would agree that something must have gone right along the way!  We’ve gone from single-celled organisms to fish, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to primates, to humans.  We are the heirs of a vast evolutionary inheritance passed down from generations of ancestors leading all the way back to the stars themselves, in whose furnaces the atoms of our bodies were forged.

We’ve come so far, across eons and light years, to sit together in this room today.  That’s quite a pilgrimage!  We’ve overcome so much strain and adversity.  The odds were (exponentially) against us ever getting here in the first place, but we beat the odds.  We are here.  We have overcome.  In the words of Dr. King, we have hewn “out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” a precious jewel set into the ring of our being.  Our very existence on this planet is a testimony to hope.

Other ancestors have testified to this hope as well.  I’m thinking primarily of our predecessors in the liberal religious tradition: the Universalists.  They were the great prophets of hope.  They were the first to jettison doctrines of hellfire and damnation from their religion.  They refused to give up on anyone because they believed there is hope for all.  They taught that there is a place for everyone in this world and that all things will eventually come together for good.  Rev. John Murray, one of the founders of Universalism in America, once said, “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men [and women]. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage.”

Liberal Universalist faith was founded on hope.  We are gathered here this morning as heirs of both the evolutionary and the Universalist legacies of hope.  We have more reason than most to draw strength and courage from this faith.

Sure, we can’t guarantee that any particular struggle for liberty or justice will immediately end in our favor.  No one can promise that.  But it seems, based on our scientific and religious history, that life itself can be trusted.  Life endures.  Life adapts.  Life overcomes.  This tendency seems to be woven into the fabric of the evolutionary process itself.  To put it in human terms, using symbolic language:

When we stand on the side of love, the universe stands with us.

“The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

This assertion, far from being a justification for fatalism and inaction, has the capacity to fill us with hope, strength, and courage.  When Desmond Tutu’s church in South Africa was once invaded and surrounded by a SWAT team during Sunday services, he stopped his sermon, calmly looked around, smiled, and said, “Since you have already lost, I would like to invite you to come and join the winning side.”  At this, the congregation erupted with joy and began dancing… right out into the street where more soldiers were waiting, weapons at the ready.  Not knowing what else to do, they stepped aside and let the dancers pass by unharmed.

Desmond Tutu’s faith that equality and justice would win out over evil in the end was the source of his amazing strength to keep going when the cause itself seemed hopeless.  His faith proved stronger and more enduring than the powers of Apartheid.  The strength of life itself flowed up and out through his heart, mind, and body as he committed his whole self to the evolution of the human spirit and society.

My hope this morning is that you and I might choose to trust life and embrace the faith of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, and Theodore Parker.  May we come to know and feel the long, gentle arc of the universe, bending inexorably toward justice.  May we draw strength from this hope and rise again to meet the challenges of injustice, trusting that, no matter what happens, life will overcome.

May it be so.

Be blessed and be a blessing.