Sunday, August 27, 2006

08/27/06, Sermon

If we were to redefine the church for our times, as Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other reformers redefined the church for their times, we would have to find a center, a core around which the church could coalesce. We would have to form a new identity, reform our understanding of what we are about. Of course, I have a suggestion.

I recommend that we be about what Jesus was always about: Waking up. Paying attention. Being fully present in the moment of our living. I recommend that our chief concern be, not getting to heaven when we die, but developing eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand in the here and now.

I recommend that we take up Jesus’ cause in the service of radical equality, around the table and across the board. Of non-violence. Of compassion and justice even for the least of those on the margins of society. I recommend that we take up Jesus’ practice of putting truth on the table and keeping it there, no matter what. And, his practice of integrity, as in living aligned with what is deepest, truest, and best about us, and being who we say we are. And, his practice of being true to oneself within the context and circumstances of one’s life and letting the outcome be the outcome. Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Loving God, and neighbor and self. Being as concerned for the interests of others as we are for our own. Doing the work we came to do, then stepping back and letting nature take its course. All this follows from waking up.

Think of waking up as being synonymous with growing up. People wake up all the time. People grow up all the time. No one ever wakes anyone up. No one ever grows anyone up. People wake up in the presence of people who are awake. People grow up in the company of people who are grown up. If the most grown up people we know are adolescent in their thinking and living, there isn’t much hope for us. If we want to be more awake than we are, we have to associate with different people. We have to run with a different crowd.

Part of the work of waking up, of growing up, is hanging out with the right people—hanging out with the people who are who we need to be. To do that, of course, we have to have an idea of who we need to be. To be awake, we have to be awake enough to know we are not awake, and know we need to wake up. We have to be awake enough to know we aren’t who we need to be. There has to be something missing, and we have to know that it is missing. We cannot think that things are just fine exactly as they are and wake up. We have to know that things are out of place, not right somehow, out of kilter, off center.

We have to be at the place of asking, seeking, and knocking. We have to be looking in order to see. Of course, some people see without looking, but the Buddha sat for a long time under the Bodhi tree, and Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, adjusting his eyes to the light. Seeing doesn’t come automatically. There are no rules to follow, no recipes to cook up, in order to see. Seeing is like being born from above.

Here’s how it works: Sometimes, we look and see; sometimes, we look and don’t see. Sometimes, we don’t look and see; sometimes, we don’t look and don’t see. See? Sometimes, it takes being shown; sometimes, we see without being shown; sometimes, we can’t see even though we are shown. See?

Or, here’s how it works: If you sit in a chair in a room where the grandchildren are playing, sometimes they will get in your lap. Or, here’s how it works: If you read enough books on photography, and take enough photographs, you will eventually take some photos that you really like and that others like as well. Or, here’s how it works: If you want to be a cowboy, you have to do more than buy a big hat.

Right seeing (and hearing), right thinking, right doing, right being—how do you arrange to have those babies in your life? Not all conversation is the right kind of conversation. How do you arrange that? How do you call people together to say what needs to be said the way it needs to be said? I think you will have to admit, upon reflection, that the important things have a magical air about them. Right seeing happens, for instance, but we do not make it happen. We are not in control of its happening. It comes to us as amazing grace.

There are people who are good company, who are the right kind of people, but they don’t strive to be that way. They don’t work at it. They don’t carry a checklist for right relationship and refer to it during the day. They have a sense for what is right. But they don’t dance by stepping in the black foot prints to make sure they are doing what’s right correctly. They just seem to have a knack for it, for doing what’s right, for being the right kind of people. The people who are most awake just seem to have a knack for it, for being awake. How do we become like they are? That’s the question, isn’t it? Jesus had a knack for being Jesus. How do we become who Jesus was?

The one thing Jesus didn’t do was follow the rules. Jesus did not think about being someone else. Jesus lived a life of transparent engagement with the moment of his living, a life of transparent investment in the moment of his living. Jesus was alive to whatever was before him in the moment. Being awake and being alive are the same thing. We cannot be alive and see the same old things in the same old ways. We cannot be awake and be dead to the moment of our living. Whatever wakes us up enlivens us, whatever enlivens us wakes us up.

What do we need to be truly alive? What is the difference between a prop and a tool? What is the difference between striking a pose, or fostering an image, and living a life? One life does not fit all. As we wake up, we decide of what our life shall consist, and that becomes our life. There are no requirements, no standards, no rules depicting how one must dress and act and believe. There is no Rule of St. Benedict to follow. There is only a loose confederation of people intent on listening one another into ever deepening realizations of what it means to truly live. There is nothing like the power of listening to wake us up. As we wake up, what it means to truly live will be different with each of us, yet, there will be striking similarities among all of us. For one thing we will speak from the heart about things that matter, and be heard.

Being awake is a function of listening, and being listened to. When we speak, what do we not say? What is the nature of the conversations we never have? We can lull ourselves to sleep by saying the same things to the same people. We will never see anything new if we only say what we have always said. To see things we have never seen before, we have to say things we have never said before. To do that, we may have to talk to people we have never talked to. To see different things, we have to see things differently. To see things differently, we have to say things differently.

“Jesus died to save us from our sins so we can go to heaven when we die,” she said, repeating the line that had been instilled in her by her teacher at her church-sponsored kindergarten. “Why do you want to go to heaven when you die?”, I asked. “To be with God,” was her quick reply. “Isn’t God everywhere?”, I asked. “Can’t you be with God right now.” That was a wrinkle she wasn’t prepared for. Now she had to think. She paused, then replied, “Yes, but in heaven God won’t be invisible.” “Well,” I said. “I prefer for God to be invisible.” “Why?”, she said. “Because I don’t want to see God’s hairy back,” “God doesn’t have a hairy back,” she said. “How do you know?”, I said. She frowned, looking for what to say. “Besides,” I said, “I don’t want to take the chance. So, I’m not going to heaven when I die.” “You have to,” she said, back in the swing of things. “Everybody goes to heaven.” “Not me,” I said. “I’m going to the mountains. Maybe the Canadian Rockies. I’ll visit the Smokies and the Blue Ridge on vacation. And walk through the Sierra Nevada’s for an occasional change of scenery.” “You can’t,” she said. “You HAVE to go to heaven.” “Not me,” I said. “I’m not getting on the bus.” “There is no bus,” she said. “Then how do you get there?”, I said. “You just are there,” she said. “Not me,” I said. “I’m going to the Canadian Rockies.” “Mama!”, she said, calling in the reinforcements. “Pops says he’s not going to heaven when he dies! He says he’s going to the Canadian Rockies!” That pretty much ended the conversation, and I don’t know if it shifted anything substantial in the budding world-view of the five-year-old grandchild, but I do know no one wakes up in an atmosphere in which everyone says the same things about the same things.

We cannot just repeat the old formulas and wake up, and be alive. Having eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand means seeing what we are not supposed to look at, hearing what we are not supposed to be told, understanding what we aren’t supposed to know anything about. Now, this is in direct opposition to the story of the Garden of Eden. Don’t see, don’t hear, don’t understand is the moral of that story. Don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Don’t have your eyes opened! Don’t know right from wrong, yes from no, good from evil! That’s what the Garden of Eden is about. Yet, Jesus comes along saying, “Wake up! Pay attention! Be aware! Have eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand!” And, no one ever talks to us about that fundamental conflict. Jesus saves us by telling us to do the very thing that got us in such trouble to begin with.

You see how it works, seeing? We say things that have never been said, that are not supposed to be said. “I’m not getting on the bus!” “I’m not going to heaven!” “I’m going to the Canadian Rockies!” “The moral of the story of the Garden of Eden is ‘Don’t ask, don’t see!’, but Jesus says ‘Ask, and seek and knock!’, and tells us to ‘Wake up!’ and to ‘Have eyes that see, and ears that hear, and hearts that understand’! How can what’s wrong for Adam be right for Jesus?” We have to look if we are going to see. And say things we aren’t supposed to say. And listen like we have never listened before. And wait for the miracle, the magic, the grace of enlightenment, awakening, awareness, and understanding.

Monday, August 21, 2006

08/20/06, The Six Theses

There are six statements which, if affirmed, will transform Christianity as we know it. They are:

1. Our idea of God is not God. Now, this is as self-evidently obvious as any statement you will ever hear. I don’t know of anyone who would dispute it. It flows from the Bible. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord in Isaiah 55:8 & 9, “Nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so far are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” And, let’s don’t leave Paul out of the conversation. Here’s his take: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Romans 11:33-34A). And yet, and yet…

The church is always speaking as though it is the spokesperson for God, as though its ideas of God are God. The church condemns homosexuality in the name of God. The church proclaims the value of creationism in the name of God. The church declares this, and denounces that, and tells all comers that if they don’t do it the way the church tells them to do it they are going to hell, all in the name of God. It is as though the church IS God. Certainly, it is as though the church’s idea of God is God. But no. Our idea of God is not God.

It get stranger. The church can agree that God is beyond all concepts of God, that our idea of God is not God. But, the church will not allow any new ideas about God. There hasn’t been a fresh idea about God allowed into the church since the Protestant Reformation. There have been a number of fresh ideas—Process Theology, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, to mention three—but, they haven’t found what you might call “denominational sanction.” If you are going to think, and talk, about God in the church, you are going to have to stick with the concepts of the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Apostles’ Creed. Nothing more recent that is permitted. Our idea of God may not be God, but it’s the only idea you’ll hear anything about in the church. Actually living out of the realization that our idea of God is not God would change a number of things, over night.

2. The church was before the Bible. Of course, the church was before the Bible. Abraham was before the Bible. Moses was before the Bible. The prophets were before the Bible. Jesus was before the Bible. The Apostles were before the Bible. The early Christian Church was before the Bible. The Bible is a product of the church. The books that are not in the Bible are not in the Bible because the church decided that they should not be in the Bible. The books that are in the Bible are in the Bible because the church decided that they should be in the Bible. The Bible is what it is because the church decided that’s what it should be. The church created the Bible. The Bible did not create the church.

The Bible reflects the theology of the church at the time the canon was closed. The Bible says what the church of that day thought the Bible should say. The church calls the Bible “the Word of God,” but the Bible is the word the church thinks God should say. The church filtered the Bible, and only the agreeable words passed muster. When you read the Bible, you read what the church wants you to read. What the church doesn’t want you to read is called heretical. Which is interesting, in light of statement number three below.

Understanding that the church was before the Bible changes the foundation of authority. Now, when the church says, “The Bible says,” we can understand that to mean, “The church says that the Bible says.” Of course, the church will say that God was using the church to select what was to be in the Bible, just as Paul can say that God gives us the government so we shouldn’t complain about the way we are ruled. Neither argument bears scrutiny. Crooked politicians aren’t given to us by God, and the church served its own interests in composing the Bible. So, now, when we hear, “The Bible says,” we can ask in all seriousness, “But what SHOULD the Bible say? What would the Bible say if it were being written today?” Because the church put the Bible together, the church is uniquely positioned to reevaluate the Bible and choose, much like the fishermen in the parable of the net of fishes, what is to be kept and carried forward, and what is to be tossed aside and left behind. Of course, to talk like this is to sound like the worst sort of heretic, which gets us rather nicely to the aforementioned statement number three.

3. Every step forward is a step into heresy. Every doctrine that we embrace with such fervor, and recommend with such rhetoric, and believe with such conviction and certitude was, at one point in the history of religion, rank heresy. Jesus was called a blasphemer and a heretic by the religious authorities of his day. The Apostles and followers of Jesus were persecuted by the Jews in Jerusalem for continuing, and deepening, the heresy of Jesus. Rome considered early Christianity to be heretical and dangerous. The Roman Catholic Church saw the Protestant Reformation as blasphemous and heretical. Heresy is our heritage, and our hope.

We cannot think a new thought about God without thinking an heretical thought about God. We cannot deepen our understanding of God, expand our vision of God, grow in our knowledge of God without changing how we see God—without seeing God differently. Seeing God differently is heresy. Spiritual formation and faith development are possible only for those who can be heretical. Who can stand apart from the way God has been seen and see something more. Perhaps something that calls into question everything that has been seen. As in a God who would have us love our enemies and the least of those who live at the margins of society.

4. The Garden of Eden did not have latitude and longitude. The Garden of Eden was not an historic, literal, actual fact. There was no time of “perfect obedience,” of “perfect innocence,” of “moral perfection.” There was no “before and after.” There was no primordial Paradise from which we were expelled for disobeying God, and hence no Original Sin which requires the atoning death of God’s only Son to patch things up with God and get us back in God’s good graces if we confess, repent, and believe. There was no “fall.” There was nothing to “fall from.” It’s been a mess from the start.

Even as a metaphor, the story of the Garden of Eden overstates its case. The implication in the story is that Adam and Eve are representative of men and women everywhere, and that everyone would do as Adam and Eve did, and sin by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I have two objections to this presentation. In the first place, I don’t think everyone would make that choice. Elijah wouldn’t have done it. Jesus wouldn’t have done it. The Buddha wouldn’t have done it. Gandhi wouldn’t have done it. The Dali Lama wouldn’t have done it. My mother wouldn’t have done it, and my Aunt Lois most certainly would not have done it. I think a large number of us would not have done it.

In the second place, the metaphor declares that it is evil to know the difference between good and evil. That it is evil to be in position to make up our own minds; to decide for ourselves, what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. That it is better just to take God’s word for it. Better, how? Whose idea of The Good is mindless innocence, unthinkingly following instructions and taking somebody else’s word for what should be done and left undone? Eternal childhood, with no cares, no responsibilities beyond being obedient, no questions, no conflicts. Always being cared for and taken care of, without having to choose our own course, make up our own minds, decide for ourselves, and suffer the consequences. Who says that is Good? It sounds to me as though the story was crafted by someone who wanted to be taken care of , or by someone who wanted to be obeyed, as if to say, “If you people would only listen to me and do what I tell you, things would be fine!”

Once we remove Original Sin from the picture, we remove the necessity of the atoning death of God’s only Son, and have to rethink who Jesus was and what the meaning is for us of his death and resurrection appearances. Everything changes when our idea of Original Sin changes.

5. We are the ones who say so. We decide. We choose. We say. We believe what we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing. How do we know? We “take it on faith.” Why do we take what we take on faith and not something else instead? We just do. We decide. We choose. We say.

We say “The Bible is the Word of God and the absolute authority in faith and practice.” Who says so? We do. We say so. We are the authorities who declare the Bible to be authoritative. How do we know? We take it on faith. Why do we take that on faith and not something else instead? We just do. We decide. We choose. We say. We believe what we believe because we believe what we believe is worth believing. That being the case, you would think that we would believe things that would help, not hinder, us along the way. You would think that we would believe things that would create community, deepen connections, foster compassion and justice, understanding and peace, and make for a better world. We certainly have that option. We would be wise to choose it.

6. Ants find the picnic, flowers turn to the light. Yet, we think that without some external standard of moral rectitude we would be lost in a morass of decadence and depravity and abomination—that without being made to be good we would be evil. Never minding the fact that Christianity launched the Crusades, justified slavery, burned the heretics at the stake, and drowned witches, we believe without hell it all goes to hell. We believe we cannot do what is good without being threatened into doing it.

Yet, we are perfectly capable of doing what ought to be done because it ought to be done. We only have to see the need to meet the need. Perceiving the evil we produce the good. Perceiving the good, we serve the good. The awareness of how things truly are is the foundation of transformation. Seeing into the heart of things, we act out of our heart for the good of all. Eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand are not the result of indoctrination, and do not follow from keeping the rules. Seeing, hearing, and understanding lead to lives that are well-lived in the fullest sense of the term. The task is not to blithely obey, but to see, and hear, and understand, and live lives aligned with the deepest, truest, and best that we can perceive and imagine.

That’s it. You cannot embrace these six principles without transforming the church of your experience into the church as it ought to be. The ninety-five theses need be only six.

08/20/06, Sermon

We can make things better by the quality of our living in relation to them. We can change the way the world relates to us by changing the way we relate to the world. We can change the way other people relate to us by changing the way we relate to them. We are the fulcrum, the pivot point, the place of leverage, which transforms civilization. But, we can’t do it alone. In the absence of the right kind of company, we can only do what can be done to escape the toxic environment of poisonous personalities, and search out “the promised land,” where the right kind of people offer the right kind of help in the right kind of way, Sometimes, all we can do is hold on and wait it out.

The man in the ditch was holding on and waiting it out when the Good Samaritan came along. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” “When the flower opens, the bees appear.” But, waiting can seem like forever. And, we can “miss the time of (our) visitation.” We can miss the Messiah by looking for the wrong thing.

“You never know what the tide will bring in,” goes the line from the movie Cast Away. And, you never know what you can use in the work of transformation. So, we have to hold on, and wait it out, and be awake. We have to be alert to the possibilities. We have to be aware that the Messiah comes in many disguises, and is not easily recognized. How many Jews would have guessed that the Messiah would be a Samaritan? Yet, who pulled the Jew out of the ditch and cared for him? The future hinges on such simple things. On such easily overlooked things. On such apparently disposable, throw-away, things. We can miss the thresholds to the future thinking that this is only breakfast.

Every moment holds the key to all the moments that will follow. How we live in this moment, what we do in this moment, colors all other moments. How can we see the moment? Be aware of the moment? Do right by the moment? The moment is the place of transition, of transformation, and WE are the Messiah! WE are the Samaritan! We wait for what is coming to life in us, and through us. The hope of the world resides in us, rides on us, and how we respond to the moment of our living.

There are no tactics to bring into play here. There is no strategy. Here is our life. Live it. That’s the plan. Do what we can with it. That’s the ticket. We’re always quitting because we think nothing can be done with this old life. We think we have to have some other, bigger, better, finer life, with fewer headaches and a lot more possibilities. We think we need prospects. We’re always trying to ditch this life and hook up with another. We’re always hoping for a life in which we can “really live,” and blusing because this life isn’t it. We’re always praying to God to give us a life, and waiting for the Messiah to come.

The Messiah is going to change things, you know. The Messiah is going to change everything. It’s all going to be different when the Messiah comes. The Messiah is going to give us a life we can do something with. The Messiah is going to give us a chance.

We don’t have a chance now. Anybody can see that. Ain’t nothing can be done with these old lives. Why a turtle wouldn’t wear these lives. A cockroach couldn’t survive in these lives. These lives ain’t fit for nothing but waiting out the Messiah.

When the Messiah comes it will all be different. We’ll have a reason to get up in the morning when the Messiah comes. Things will go our way when the Messiah comes. Then we can plant and expect to harvest, harvest and expect to sell. Then we envision an outcome and work to achieve it, and nothing will happen to untrack us or derail us. The children will say, “Yes, Mamma,” and “Yes, Poppa,” to everything we suggest. The bear will eat straw like the ox. The lion will lie down with the lamb. And, it will be just like we always dreamed it would be. When the Messiah comes.

Until then, there is only this old life in this old world. And, anyone can plainly see that nothing can be done on this hard scrabble land until the Messiah comes. The Messiah will make it all worthwhile. Until then, there is nothing much to do but sit. And wait. For the Messiah. Who is coming.

“Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on? Could it be a faded rose from days gone by? And did I hear you say, he was meeting you here today, to take you to his mansion in the sky?”

The church is Delta Dawn, waiting on the wrong Messiah. The thing from which we need to be delivered is not this old life, or this old world, but the attitude that thinks deliverance is an outside job effected by the Messiah who is coming on the clouds with legions of angels to set things right, and roll out the red carpet, and invite us to stroll with him into the City of God and its streets of gold. The Messiah comes to us from within us.

Here’s the deal: We are alchemists of the soul, rummaging around on the garbage dumps of life, turning base metal and scraps of old clothing and pieces of string and plastic into precious stone—turning this old life in this old world into a wonder that Very God of Very God could not improve. We are the Messiah. And the Philosopher’s Stone which turns mere mortals into the very essence of God is the magical source of life, and light, and peace (and all the other wonderful qualities and values that make us god-like), our perspective. We are never more than a perspective shift away from being the Messiah, the Anointed One, God Incarnate. God comes to life in us, through us, in the moment we are living, or not.

And, if we think we can throw this time, any time, away because it isn’t to our liking, because it doesn’t suit us, because there is nothing for us here, because it is only blocking us from what we want, and where we want to be, and how we want to spend your time, we have to wake up! We have to ask ourselves what is the time, the moment, of our living, asking of us? With what are we being asked to comply? Is that a Jew in the ditch over there? Do you think the Samaritan didn’t have better things to do? We must not miss the moment thinking there is nothing in this moment for us. What are we for in the moment? How might we live in this moment in ways which transform all future moments? We influence every moment by the way we live in each moment. There is always more to each moment than meets the eye. No moment is ever “only breakfast.”

We can swing the moment, each moment, toward, or away from, the good. Actually, that is a bit over-stated. Some moments come to us with such momentum that we are steamrolled and overwhelmed, and left wondering what happened before we know what hit us. We can only work in the aftermath of some moments to influence future moments for the good. But, we can apply the influence that changes the future in what appears to be the throw-away moments of our lives. The idea is to live in every moment as though it is our big chance to change the world—as though what we do here and now matters infinitely and eternally. If we are going to believe anything, we should believe in our capacity to bring the Messiah to life in the moment by the way we live in the moment.

Here are the questions: Whose permission do we need to do what needs to be done? Whose cooperation do we need to do what needs to be done? What needs to be done? What is stopping us from doing it? And: What can we do, here, now, with this situation, to enjoy what can be enjoyed, love what can be loved, redeem what can be redeemed, and serve the good? How can we live with this in ways that bring forth the best? What can we do, here, now, to make things as good as they can be?

Here’s the deal: Where do we go with what is carrying us along? Our lives have a certain direction and flow, a certain channel, which restricts our options and limits our choices. We cannot do anything we want to do. We are bound by forces that have no interest in our desires or well-being. What can we do with our lives within the restrictions and limitations of life—within the conditions and circumstances of life? We imagine a life worth living, and then live toward it within the givens and constraints of living Sometimes we meet with cooperation, sometimes with opposition; sometimes assistance, sometimes resistance. Who knows if it will work out, or how? We press on toward the best we can imagine, and see what happens. We live as intelligently as we can manage in the service of our dreams, and let the outcome be the outcome. But, we cannot allow the possibility of failure keep us from trying. We owe it to ourselves to see what our dreams can do with our limits.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

08/13/06, Sermon

Take it as it comes and do what you can with it. That’s my best advice. Life will bust you a good one every now and then. Lie there as long as you have to, then pick yourself up and get yourself going. And, if you wonder why. If you wonder why try. If you wonder why should you even think about giving it your best when it treats you the way it treats you. If you wonder what are you getting out of all this. If you wonder what’s in it for you that you should get yourself up and get yourself going. If you wonder for what do you keep on. If you wonder what is the point of it all. I am here to suggest to you that it all comes down to life, and living, and being alive. We live to be alive. And, if life busts us a good one, then we live in the aftermath of that, as well as we can, to bring life to life and be alive, because being alive is what we are here for, and living as well as we can for as long as we can is what it’s all about.

We cannot do anything about most of the stuff that gets us down. What does that tell you? We can sit looking into the ugly face of the stuff that gets us down, or we can get up and get on with our lives doing the things we can do about the things we can do something about. What’s it going to be? Life is lived on different levels. There isn’t much I can do to impact life on the global level. I can’t do anything about Al Qaida or Iraq. I can’t even impact development in my own city or region. The things I cannot do would comprise a long list. But, I can impact the people whose lives intersect mine. I can bring good to life through the way I live my life. I can be a source of life and light in my world. So can you in yours.

There is a lot we cannot do, but there is no reason to let that prevent us from doing what we can with what we have to work with. We can be a caring, compassionate presence. We don’t have to succumb to despair, and we don’t have to live in denial. We can be very clear about how things are on all levels of life, and live lovingly on our level anyway, nevertheless, even so.

The investment is always in life, in the future. We do not sit staring into the Void. We give life a chance. We live as those who believe in life. At the darkest moment, we shine. We live as lights in the darkness, voices crying, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord of Life!” Our lives are testimonies to Life!

And, if you think it hurts to much to be alive in this world where anvils fall out of the sky and life busts us a good one right on the chops, for no reason, with no warning, just because we happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there is nothing right or fair about it, and you are going to quit in protest, because why keep going when you can lose everything in a blink, I am here to suggest to you that it is about living even amid the ruins. It is about being alive even through the loss of everything.

It is not easy to be alive through the loss of everything. It is much easier to be alive when the humidity is low and the temperature is in the seventies and there are puffy clouds scattered across the sky, and there is money in the bank, and food on the table, and people who love you are all around. Given a choice, we would all choose ideal living conditions. Given a choice, we would not have heart attacks, or cancer, or car wrecks. Nobody asks us. Life just makes its deliveries, and we have to deal with it. How shall we live with the complete loss of everything? Or, with the complete lost of the most important things? What does it mean to be alive then, there? It doesn’t mean what it once meant. Now, we have to be alive knowing. Now, we have to be alive with scars, and a limp, and a wound that won’t heal. Now, it’s a different deal.

But, it is the same challenge: To live even here, even now. To bring life to life, here, now. To be alive within the conditions and circumstances of our lives. “How do we live with this?” is always the question. “How do we live here, now?” is always the question. But, sometimes we have to wait until we are ready to ask the question. After life smacks us a good one, we have to lie there for a while. When life steamrolls us, we don’t pop right back up like a Bozo the Clown boxing dummy. We must suffer what must be suffered. We must mourn what must be mourned. We must grieve what must be grieved. In order to live, we must die. No death, no resurrection. If we want to craft the art of life—if we want to “have life and have it abundantly”—if we want to be alive, fully, completely, unreservedly, in all of the moments of our living, we are going to have to learn to die.

The church has taken dying away from us, and kept us from being alive. “There is a reason for everything,” says the church, implying, that we should dry our eyes and get back to normal. “Let go and let God,” says the church, implying that we should be ashamed to want what we cannot have. “Things always work out for the best,” says the church, implying that we should never think of anything as a loss, defeat, or failure. “God is in control,” says the church, implying that our devastation is invalid because God has a plan and this is just a bump on the way to something grand. “There is always someone who has it worse than we do,” says the church, implying that we should be thankful it isn’t worse. “We must not question God’s will,” says the church, implying that God is behind it all and we have no right to complain. In a thousand ways, the church says, “Stuff it!” to those who suffer. And “good Christians” are those who walk unfeeling through life, denying their pain, and saying they are fine, but their stiff, scripted, robotic ways suggest that they are going through the motions of living and don’t have what it takes to be alive.

“Those who seek to save their lives will lose them,” says Jesus, “but those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel’s will save them.” “You cannot be my disciple,” says Jesus, “unless you pick up your cross daily and follow me.” I’m here to suggest to you that losing our lives for Jesus’ sake and picking up our cross daily means simply having the courage to step into life as it is and be alive there no matter what. The spiritual task is to be alive, but being alive is a lot like dying, because it requires us to live with our eyes open, in the space between denial and despair.
When life plants a big, juicy, wet one right on the kisser, we look right into the ugly red eye of the awful thing that demolished our lives, and live on. That’s what the resurrection is about, you know. Life can go on, somehow, some way. Jesus was raised from the dead. You have been, too. Don’t tell me you haven’t been. You don’t get to be as old as you are without dying and being raised from the dead. Some of you have died and been resurrected a number of times. I know you don’t want to think about it. But, you can’t deny it. Sometimes, somehow, some way, life goes on. That life goes on is as much a miracle as the fact that life is at all.

Resurrection is real even if it is “only” metaphorical. We think it doesn’t count if it is metaphorical. We think it doesn’t count that we have been raised from the dead, some of us more than once, because we didn’t “really” die. Of course, we did really die and we were really raised from the dead, but we discount it because we continued to breathe. We think psychological, emotional, spiritual death doesn’t count as much as physical death. We think waking up is easier than having a corpse come back to life. We have never actually awakened anyone, any more than we have called a corpse back to life, but we all would agree that we should have an easier time with the former than with the latter. I’m here to suggest to you that it is a wash. It is exactly the same degree of difficulty, waking up the living or bringing the physically deceased back to life. Resurrection on either plane is an absolute astounding miracle, and we should be more attuned to it, and in awe of it, than we are.

Sometimes, somehow, some way, life goes on. Our place is to assist and participate in that process, that miracle. We are here, not only to wake up and be alive, but also to serve life, to help others wake up and come to life. And this in spite of the fact that being alive is a lot like dying. It is like dying in that it requires us to see what we don’t want to see, hear what we don’t want to hear, and understand what we do not what to know. We cannot wake up, we cannot be alive, without putting the truth on the table, and keeping it there. And, that’s like dying.

When we put truth on the table and keep it there, we know what the deal is, and live anyway, nevertheless, even so. We say exactly everything that can be said, and allow nothing that is said to keep us from being alive in the moment of our living. We look into the ugly red eye of the awful thing and live on. In so doing, we live as witnesses to the power of life, to the possibility of life, to the reality of life—abundant life, pressed down, over-flowing, yes, unending, infinite and eternal, coming to life in us and through us into all the world. We are here to serve life, to bring life to life in ourselves and others. That means living on in the face of all that would destroy us. Not just breathing on, LIVING on—with zest, and passion, and enthusiasm—with our heart in what we are doing, exhibiting grace, and mercy, and peace, being good company, and loving one another in every moment.

Of course, we don’t do that automatically, naturally. We do have to lie there for a while. But, eventually, we are able to pick ourselves up and step back into life as those who are sources of life in the land of the living. It helps, while we are lying there, to have someone serve us as the source of life. This is the proper role of the church as the community of life. We resurrect the dead. We keep the spark of life alive. Primarily by being alive ourselves. Primarily by putting truth on the table and keeping it there. By saying everything that can be said. By seeing what is and what also is. And, by believing in the power of life over death.

Death does not cancel out life. Life trumps death. Life can go on, and on, and on. Life does not have to quit just because it’s hard. Dying is easy, living is hard. Yet, there is a resilient core to life that takes it all in stride. We only have to find the core. When living takes the life right out of us, can we believe that life exists beyond our ideas for life? On terms other than our own? Can we open ourselves to the life beyond what once was our life—beyond our idea of life? Can we touch the core of life, the heart of life, and be raised from the dead? And LIVE on?

Monday, August 07, 2006

08/06/06, Sermon

The first I have to say is about the importance of being alive. Joseph Campbell says the influence of a vital person vitalizes. If you are going to be anything, be alive. The life of a person who is alive brings to life those who are dead. Our primary obligation is to life. Our first responsibility is to be alive. We cannot do anything until we are alive.

Spirituality is about being alive in the fullest, deepest, truest, best sense of the word. Abundant life and spirituality are one thing. If you ask me “What does ‘spirituality’ mean to you?”, I’ll ask you, “What does ‘being alive’ mean to you?” Being alive is a spiritual experience. So is being dead, if it is experienced as being dead. Anything is a spiritual experience if it experienced to the core, to the heart. Being dead with no awareness is not a spiritual experience. It is being dead. We can be dead, or we can be spiritual. And, the more alive we are—the more conscious, aware, mindful we are of being alive—the more spiritual we are.

What are the things that bring us to life? Those are the things that make us spiritual. They are spiritual experiences. Spiritual practice is the practice of being alive. If you are looking for a spiritual practice, practice being alive. Spend time with the things that bring you to life. Incorporate them into your life on a regular basis. Do the things that infuse you with life. Go where the life is. Live to be alive.

Where are you most alive? Where have you been most alive? What are the things that assist you in being most alive? That prevent you from being most alive? Here is a spiritual test for you: Are you mostly alive or mostly dead? Where do you go to be most fully alive? Where would you go to be most completely dead? Where do you spend most of your time—in life-giving or life-depleting places? Who are the people who give life to you? Who are the people who take life from you? With which category of people do you spend the most time? How spiritual do you think you can be without moving away from death and moving toward life? Without doing the things that bring us to life?

Ah, but, here’s the thing. We can trick ourselves. Fooling ourselves is what we do best, you know. And, shooting ourselves in the foot. That’s also what we do best. We do some things which we think we are most fully alive doing, when, actually, they are just compensation for not being very much alive at all. We grab the gusto, and seek the thrills, and push the limits, in order to feel something because we are mostly dead. We confuse the rush of almost dying, literally, with being alive because we are practically dead, spiritually.

In doing the things that bring us to life, we must also do the things that bring others to life. There are two things in particular that enable life—full life, over-flowing life, abundant life—to be lived in ourselves and in others: Seeing and Hearing. Jesus, the man who was “the bread of life,” the man who came “that we might have life and have it abundantly,” lamented, one might think, throughout his career, “they have eyes, but do not see, ears, but do not hear, and hearts that do not understand.” The barrier standing between us (and others) and life is not-seeing, not-hearing, and not-understanding. Remove that, and life flows joyfully unimpeded through us all.

Of course, there is a nasty little catch to all of this. Removing the barriers that keep us from seeing and from being fully alive is like dying. Seeing means seeing things we don’t want to see. When you are mostly dead, anything can seem like life. We might think we are most alive eating chocolate, or drinking beer, when, in fact, we do those things just to take the edge off being dead. We cannot kid ourselves. To be spiritual, we have to be alive, and to be alive we have to be awake. This is the second thing I’m going to say. We have to wake up.

How are we going to wake up, see into the heart of things, realize what is truly important, and live so as to serve it, express it, on the earth? Answering that question is the full scope of the spiritual journey, quest, path, life. That is all there is to it. Spiritual development has to revolve around the process of waking up, not indoctrination. We wake up more and more. We are always more or less awake. No one is ever awake, completely, fully, absolutely. There is always more to see than has been seen, more to know than is known, more to realize than has been realized. You would think Buddhism would be fully aware by now, but it took the Women’s Liberation Movement to wake Buddhist monks up to the fact that, in their temples, the female monks cleaned up after the male monks, did the cooking and the “women’s’ work.” The more we think we see, the less we see that we don’t see.

Spiritual development is about seeing more. How do we see? How do we see more? How do we wake up? Jokes, plays on words, and stories of other people getting, and not getting, it—as in the parables of Jesus—are ways to “do” spiritual development. Wrestling with contradiction and paradox—as in the Zen conundrums, or koans—is a way to “do” spiritual development. Enhancing our creativity deepens their awareness. Conversation that raises more questions than it answers nurtures a spirit of inquiry and play. How do we wake up? How do we develop eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand?

There is no body of information the communication, the impartation, the learning of which constitutes spiritual development. There is no content. There is only process. It is not what we see or hear but how we see and hear that is at the heart of spiritual development. We cannot just tell people the truth and let that be that. We have to teach people to live truthfully, with their eyes open, catching their own inconsistencies and incompatibilities, and bringing themselves into an ever-increasing awareness of, and alignment with, what is truly important.

What are you going to tell people to wake them up? Are you going to shout, “Wake Up!”? If you shout really loud, do you think that will do it? Are you going to say, “You are so stupid!”? If you say that enough, do you think that will do it? Here’s the deal: We cannot wake others up without being awake ourselves.

How are we going to wake up? Where are we asleep at the wheel? How are we going to live as those who are awake? As those who are waking up? Being awake is a matter of living truthfully. And, that means putting the truth on the table. If we are going to take up the cause of truth, we have to take it up truthfully, and that means seeing what we don’t want to see, and hearing what we don’t want to hear, and, yes, living like we don’t want to live. Will we listen through the pain of hearing what we don’t want to be told? Will we see through the pain of seeing what we don’t want to be shown? Will we understand that hearing and seeing will require us to understand things we don’t want to know? And change the way we live? So that everyone might have life and have it abundantly?

Julie Lapham says we pay a price for putting truth on the table, and we pay a price for keeping truth off the table. There you are. What’s it going to be? What price are we willing to pay to have life and have it abundantly? How truthfully are we willing to live? That is the question which is at the heart of the spiritual journey. We cannot be more spiritual than we are truthful. And, that means putting truth on the table, keeping truth on the table, saying what is and what also is, and simply allowing things to flow from there.

Things happen when nothing is forced to happen, or kept from happening. Things happen when we see what needs to happen if the atmosphere allows them to unfold according to their own time. Create the right environment, and the right things will happen. Create the right attitude and spirit, and the Messiah will come. And, the Messiah will be one of us.

We keep the Messiah from coming when we try to compel the Messiah into being. When we try to force the issue. When we try to instigate “the end of days,” for instance, we keep the same song playing forever. When we have an agenda, a plan, an idea of how things should be, we interfere with the idea that things have for themselves, and create artificial worlds with plastic people living scripted lives on heavy medication and illegal drugs to hide from the fact that they live in a wasteland with an emptiness inside and an ache for something more that won’t leave them alone. What do we do? Nothing. Wait. Be still. Find the center. Look. Listen. Wait.

When nothing is forced or prevented, things begin to stir. Without an agenda, we are open to the possibilities. Free from having to act, we can wait for the time to act. Not knowing what to do, we can see what to do. Not having a way, we can be led along the way. Having no desires, our needs are met.

This, of course, is not the American Way. The culture requires an action plan. We have to micro-manage our lives. Take all contingencies into account. Be prepared for everything. Think Tank our way to happiness ever after. The war in Iraq came out of a Think Tank. So did the Edsel. In this culture, it is hard to get far enough away from the thinkers in order to see and hear. It is hard to know what to do as long as we think we know what we are doing. The way is not the American Way.

To find the way, we have to be un-American. We have to do the one thing no red-blooded American would consider doing: Nothing. We have to wait and watch, sit and listen. The first thing is to see. Everything flows from seeing. The way becomes obvious to those who dare to see. We cannot see what cannot be said. This is the third thing I have to say. When we cannot talk about the emperor being naked, we cannot see that the emperor is naked. What can’t we talk about? What cannot be said? What is it that we cannot comment on? If we hope to see, we have to say everything. We have to create an atmosphere in which everything can be said. We have to talk about it all. The heresy in that kind of environment is not saying something that can’t be said, but saying that something can’t be said. The more we say, the better we see, the better we see, the more alive we are. There you are. The path to abundant life. The spiritual journey. All wrapped up and laid in your lap.