I In Them And You In Me

September 27, 2010

I just wanted to let you know that we’re going to do all this again. Next week, as we look at the Book of Job, I want to revisit the Apostles Creed and to see how Job’s own creed stood up to life’s challenges and how we, like Job, are also meant to put our belief to the test. For today, however, I feel confident in simply saying that when Jesus prayed about us he prayed first and foremost that we would be one. He says,
“I ask not only on behalf of these [the apostles] but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…”

And what do you suppose that means?
• Does that verse (found in John 17:20) mean that we must work hard to submit to one single idea about God and Jesus?
• Does it mean that we must agree, cognitively, to think the same thoughts and not deviate from what the institutional church might consider right belief?
• Does it mean that mystically or sentimentally we are after all human beings and that as, Rodkey King once said in the midst of the LA Race riots of the 1990’s, can’t we all just get along?
My answer is none of these, and the reason that I can say that so emphatically is what Jesus says at the end of his sentence in verse 21. He says,
“that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
In other words, we discover our unity—our oneness in Christ—by participating in his mission.

According to the most recent issue of Scientific American,
“A few years ago the city council of Monza, Italy, barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved fishbowls. The sponsors of the measure explained that it is cruel to keep a fish in a bowl because the curved sides give the fish a distorted view of reality. Aside from the measure’s significance to the poor goldfish, the story raises an interesting philosophical question…”

Now, the writers of this specific article are none other than the famous physicists, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Modinow, and for them the big question is “How do we know the reality that we perceive is true?” And I like that question. I think it’s a good question.
But here’s another one: why do the good people of Monza, Italy care so much about the feelings and perspective of the bewildered goldfish? You see, here’s where I believe the mission that you and I share with Jesus matters. Jesus tries in so many innovative and provocative ways to get us to imagine the world from the perspective of the other, the other person—in terms of the leper, the widow, the orphan, the prostitute, the criminal, the assault victim, the Samaritan and the outcast—and perhaps even from the perspective of other creatures—in terms of the sparrow, the dove, the serpent, the fox, the lion and the lamb and yes, the goldfish? Mark 16 has this intriguing version of the Great Commission that goes like this: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (v. 15). And how might we do something like that? Well, Philippians 2:4 says that if you want to know the mind of Christ “consider the interests of others.” Start there. Start in that place between your own perspective and the possible perspective of another creature in the world. We are meant to be one, not in terms of seeing everything the same way, or in saying everything in the same way, but in terms of going out to meet those visions and to listen for those words.

I love that scene in Brigett Jones Diary, when Brigett is trying to better herself by practicing her conversation style. She hears about the conflict in the country of Chechnia and repeats the name of the country to herself aloud. Later, at a dinner party, she brings it up with a man who is just interested in having sex with her. He says, I couldn’t give a rip about Chechnia. That is, he’s not even willing to entertain the perspective of people who are so very different, because he’s too obsessed with his own needs being satisfied. Brigett, however, is not that kind of person. As a publishing house representative she goes on to introduce a new book on the subject to an audience of famous authors and literary critics. The tagline for the publication is The Greatest Book of Our Time, and as Brigett says that tagline aloud she sees Salmon Rushtie and Lord Acher, who are also great authors and feeling her words from their perspective, she says, this is The Greatest Book of Our Time except for your books, Mr. Rushtie, which is also very good.

You see, my sense from today’s passage is that there’s more to this than good manners or trying to be polite. In his prayer to the Father in John 17, for example, Jesus says,
“The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Jesus here uses the Greek word for glory which is doxa, and doxa has nothing to do with a supernatural glow of light or a psychic energy force-field. The glory that Jesus has—we also have been given and it relates to the weightiness of relationships. I don’t know if you’ve ever thrown a medicine ball or been the recipient of someone else throwing you a medicine ball, but the weight can surprise us. I don’t know if you’ve ever had another person faint in your arms and had to assist another person whose been injured off the field, but the weight that we experience in those moments is more than just the effect of gravity. What we feel is the glory of God that’s been given to us “so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Now, here at Latah Valley, we do believe in the Apostles’ Creed. We do believe in God the Father Almighty… in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… We do believe in the Holy Spirit and how the Spirit shows up in and through and beyond “the holy catholic church.” But, according to the prayer that Jesus prays, each of these beliefs must be expressed in ways that put those beliefs to the test. Next week, as we ponder the book of Job, we’ll see how surprising resilient and flexible and tenacious our beliefs are. But for now, let me relate this account of an experience that poet W.H. Auden had in 1933:
“One fine summer night… I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleague, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we were certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because thanks to the power I was doing it—what it meant to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience… My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it…”

W.H. Auden says “I felt their existence…” and “rejoiced in it.” And reflecting back on the experience he later wrote, “And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of that experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.”

You see, at the root of everything is not what you and I believe or what we assume the Apostles’ Creed mandates that we believe. It is this. It is what Jesus mentions in his obscure prayer: “I in them and you in me…” May this cosmic dance continue and draw you in.

Amen.

TO ENTER LIFE BALANCED

September 13, 2010

Last week, as you may recall, the father of a troubled and demon-possessed child, cried out for help. The help he sought, however, wasn’t simply that Jesus might cast out the demon and stop the little boy’s seizures, but that Jesus would help the father’s unbelief. “I believe,” he exclaimed in Mark 9:24, “help my unbelief.” And, you see, as we ponder that statement today, centuries later, we need to recognize two things about the belief claims that we make in the life of the church and in the world at large. First, no one believes in a vacuum. No one who says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty” can really mean what he or she says without acknowledging a basic human need. And second, any Christian understanding of God the Father Almighty must be balanced with “and in Jesus Christ… who was conceived, born to the Virgin Mary”—and therefore, as a fetus and infant and young toddler, is vulnerable to all the stuff that any human being might face. Moreover, any Christian understanding of the Maker of heaven and earth has to be held in tension with “and in Jesus Christ… who suffered… was crucified, dead and buried…” In other words, the power and authority of God comes to perfect and unique expression in the suffering servanthood of a particular Palestinian Jew, named Jesus. And so, when you and I consider and reflect upon what we belief and how we believe it, balance is critical. Without balance in belief, people like us will not only stumble ourselves; we will likewise cause other people to stumble. And in this morning’s passage, Jesus makes a point of emphasizing that very real possibility and the dire consequences involved:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed…”

Now, before we go any further, I need to offer two illustrations of what being imbalanced looks like.
For a literal example, I’m remembering a time that our family went crabbing in Alsea Bay, Oregon. We caught a bucket full of Dungeness and returned to the dock. Some of the crabs weren’t big enough and so, unfortunately, the marina worker had to toss them back into the water. The place where he tossed them was this big dark hole in the midst of this huge wooden pier, and as Philip stood on the ledge of that abyss, as he jumped around clumsily, without paying attention, he came in contact with my hip. My hip knocked him into the hole of dark water, into which we had just seen the marina worker toss out the crabs, and for all we knew they could be thousands of angry crustaceans down there. So, as quickly as Philip fell into the dark water he came out, completely drenched. That’s how important it is to keep your balance. And that’s how easy it is to cause someone to stumble.
And even more so, when it comes to our faith in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. What we’re after is balance.
“When I was six years old, a little girl in my Sunday school classed died. I remember looking over the edge of the casket, lined with white satin and fresh flowers… The sun came down through the gothic filigree of stained glass windows, illuminating her profile and she was the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen, and she was on the way to the grave. There was enormous silence in the sanctuary; and her mother’s shoulders were heaving, and her father had an arm around her mother, holding her together. At the pulpit the minister in his pale grey robe… told us not to despair because the little girl was escaping this vale of tears to a land of eternal peace and happiness. And I thought ‘If it’s that great, why don’t we all go! And why is everybody crying?’ And when I got home, I asked my mother, ‘If God does everything, why did he do this?’”

This is a letter that could have been written by any person who’s been taught to recite The Apostles’ Creed. But, at this point, we need to be very cautious. Much depends upon the response we give, or the response that we assume God might give. On the one side, there’s the matter of God’s Greatness. God is great. But how? Jesus, in hearing that his disciples had argued about who was the greatest, has this to say,
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (v. 35).
Now, if this is the type of reverse-paradoxical advice that Jesus shares with his disciples, I wonder what it suggests about our belief in God today. That is, could it be that God the Father Almighty has humbled himself as the Greatest Suffering Servant of every time and every place? And if that’s true, then why is it that we search for him and identify more with those who dominate than we do with those who are being dominated?

“Shape it into what you want it to be!” The voice rang out from above my head, but it arrived at precisely the same moment as the right hand of my teacher. In the class that I’m taking at Clay Connections, this guy named Kyle is really cool. He has this laid-back style about him that I love and he never tries to impose his authority. In the time that it took me to make one over-sized coffee mug, however, he made five ornate goblets. I was wondering how I might get to be that great at making things like that when my lump of got all out of balance. You can tell when your clay is out of balance and off-center when the cup that you’re creating whirls off the wheel and into the oblivion of the outer trough. It was then, in that helpful moment, when the voice came from above and the right hand, pushed my own hands tighter onto the clay. “Shape it,” he emphasized, “into what you want. Slow. Steady. Pressure.”

So, then, slightly embarrassed, I tried again. I tried to apply the pressure and make another coffee mug, and as I did, I glanced around the room and noticed some of the others in the room with me. There was a teenage girl with a prosthetic leg, below the knee. She was making a vase. Opposite her, in a wheel chair was a paraplegic man with a big red beard, who used his own operative limb to press the clay into the form of a prayer labyrinth.
O God, shape me… shape us… shape this obstinate world into what you want. I’m praying that prayer to myself a lot these days. And in today’s passage I hear God’s response:
“… it is better for you to enter life maimed…”
“… it is better for you to enter life lame…”
“… it is better for you to enter life with one eye…”
You see, if there were ever an example of how not to take the Bible literally, but take it seriously, this is it. Jesus in these verses of Mark 9 is not advocating for self-mutilation. Jesus does not want us to sever our own limbs. But listen. What is a hand that refuses to be shaped by God? It is a hand that works to control and manipulate and force while the hands of Jesus are pierced with nails. What is a foot that refuses to be shaped by God? It is foot that walks over and upon others without noticing who they are or where God might be leading them. And finally, what is an eye that refuses to be shaped by God? It is a way of seeing the world as revolving around your own need for security and safety.

Now, if any of those spiritualized anatomy parts are your parts, cut them out. Find the balance of believing in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ. Find the balance and enter life.

Amen.

I Believe… Help!

September 7, 2010

I Believe… Help!

Mark 9:14—28

I believe…

That simple statement, as you may know, can get a person into a lot of trouble. And by trouble we’re talking life and death kind of trouble. We’re talking the emotional turmoil, physical injury, mental confusion kind of trouble. We’re not this morning focusing on the kind of belief that people can take or leave—the belief in Santa Claus, the belief in Big Foot, the belief in the Loch Ness Monster or the belief in alien spaceships from other planets.

I believe…

The story is told about a little boy who had no one to play with. His parents, however, had given him a bat and a baseball, and while watching him safely from the kitchen window they sent him into the back yard to practice. So, without a team or a pitcher’s mound or a home plate or an umpire, the child imagined these things. He believed. And he said to himself, “I am the greatest hitter in the world.” With that statement of belief, he then threw the ball up into the air and swung with all his might. He missed. And adopting the persona of the umpire, the boy said, “Strike One.” He threw the ball up again and swung and this second time he also missed. “Strike Two,” said the umpire. Well, at this point, the boy became a little nervous. He had already declared his belief in himself as the greatest hitter in the world, and now he could see his parents watching him from the window.
With fear and trembling, he then threw the ball up into the air a third time. He swung… and missed. The boy-umpire, hesitating a second or two, then reluctantly announced, “Strike Three! You’re out!” And with that unequivocal and emphatic judgment ringing in his ears, the boy slumped over his bat and sighed. For another minute he thought to himself silently. If he hadn’t believed in himself as the greatest hitter it wouldn’t have hurt so much. And then, without any warning, he turned to his parents who had come onto the patio. He turned to them and shouted, “Mom…Dad… I just struck out the greatest hitter in the world.” “That’s okay, honey,” said the mother. “You’ll get him next time,” said the father. “No,” replied the child, “You don’t understand. I just struck out the greatest hitter in the world and that means, I am the greatest pitcher in the world!”

Now, you see, some might call that kind of belief delusional. Some might refer to it as childish. Some might think of it as cute or quaint. Some might even shrug their shoulders and say, “As long as it’s not hurting anybody…” But imagine, if you will, the way what I believe and how I believe it truly does begin to hurt. And imagine how that potential harm increases as I mature and as I express my beliefs in countless ways.

Maybe you’ve heard the sad news on Facebook, but as of July 30th Anne Rice has “quit Christianity.” Notice, however, that the famed author did not quit Christ. She did not renounce believing in Jesus. But after returning to the faith of her childhood, and after navigating this amazing journey, from Queen of the Damned to Called Out of Darkness, Anne Rice did not want to be associated with the harm that Christians inflict upon the world. And so, she proclaimed, “in the name of Christ and in the name of God…” I’m out.
Now the reasons that people like Anne Rice make these decisions are complicated and nuanced. But what I’d like to emphasize is that merely saying the words, I believe, is not the end. It’s not the culmination of a journey into the church, but it is a cry for help for the church as it struggles to embody what it claims to believe.

“Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!”

You see, this is the honest truth of how every human being comes to belief and expresses that belief:
1. I believe because of a perceived need, because of an inability to remain self-sufficient;
2. I believe because I care about that need and because I’d like to invest at least a part of my life in satisfying that need.
3. I believe because I have reasons to conclude that this need can be met.
4. I believe because others, whom I respect, also believe.
5. I believe because I am weary with opinion polls and arguments and a series of overwhelming choices most of which are decided by the whim of the crowd.

For example, about the time that the father of the demon-possessed child makes his desperate cry for help—about that time, the followers of Jesus had been engaged in a nasty argument. Apparently after their failure to cast out the demon on their own, the disciples couldn’t resist. That is, rather continuing their focus on the basic human need—the need that will give rise to faith—they thought, ‘At least we can win this argument…’ And that, you see, is when Jesus comes in.
“You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.”

Two weeks ago I found myself in a very difficult situation at the Trappist Monastery, near Portland. For a period of about twenty-four hours straight I had remained silent. I had remained silent while participating in prayers with the monk. I had remained silent while walking along the trails of St. Teresa and St. Bernard. And I had remained nearly silent during breakfast and lunch, but not dinner. At dinner I introduced myself to a young guy, named Jeff, who had recently graduated from Saint Mary’s in California. Jeff’s father had been a Quaker and his mother had been a Pentecostal, and now after his exposure to the professors at college, Jeff had become Roman Catholic. Here’s a brief snippet of our dialogue:
“I believe that Christ is fully present in The Sacrament.”
“Yes, I believe that too.”
“Yes, but the way that I assert the presence of Christ is something you do not share.”
“That’s true. But listen to what you’re doing. You’re placing your assertion over how Christ is present over and above his actual presence, which we both believe.”

The point, you see, has become the argument over belief without the basic human need which gives rise to faith in the first place. Listen again to Mark 9:25,
“When Jesus saw that the crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!’”

What’s important here is the sequence. Jesus responds to the father’s statement of faith and attaches it to the specific human need before the crowd arrives with the latest and greatest argument.

In Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, a Portuguese missionary of the late 1500’s has been sent to Japan. He has been sent there to baptize and to offer the Sacrament and to be a priest for the peasants who are being persecuted for their faith in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. The authorities, of course, would like nothing better than to discredit and wipe out the religion of these western invaders. And to that end, they commission a tradesman to make a plaque, upon which is engraved the face of Christ. With this visual sign their intention is to force every Christian, but most especially every Christian leader, to step upon the face of their supposed Lord and Savior. Moreover, the ruthlessness of the Japanese interrogators reaches its pinnacle in this moment. As the main character has been asked to renounce his faith by trampling upon the face of Jesus, his captors threaten that if he doesn’t the peasants whom he serves will be put to a slow and excruciating death. Then, as the father is praying for help—help for his unbelief—there’s a voice.
“The Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world” (p. 171).

Just two days ago Sheryl and I prayed for Ian, as he started college at Pacific Lutheran. We prayed for him and left him there, over 400 miles away. And today, you see, it occurs to me that I have experienced something that God already knows too well. God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth—that One in whom I believe—already knows about he separation and the distance. He knows. He knows and because of the love that he demonstrates in his Son this Father will believe enough for both of us.

Amen.

Trappist Time And Silence

September 1, 2010

Dear Latah Valley friends and assorted others:

I have returned after a month on “Sabbatical.” Actually, not really a Sabbatical in the true sense of the term. My activities included a week’s vacation in Cannon Beach, OR (finally got Sheryl in the ocean!); a teaching stint at the NCD Pastors Conference in Tampa, Fla (not sure my idea of keeping health by acknowledging “wounds” a’la Nouwen jived with the majority); a vision quest with Ian, who goes off to Pacific Lutheran this week, and Philip, who is doing the football camp-regimen and finally a time with the Trappist monks in LaFayette, OR, near Portland!

Here are some scribblings that came out of the retreat experience–that is, Vigil at 4:15 am, Lauds at 7:15, Daily Hour at 12:30, Vespers at 5:30 and whatever prayers happen at 7:30 p.m… In between, I took to the copious trails on the vast and verdant property.

Monks make effective use of moss
Upon every chant they must hang
a modicum of mildewed manna
Antiphonal Psalms do
the rest.

*

No knives to spread the natural peanut butter
Searching through spoons and forks
Silently
Silently
Silently
Hey, check the kitchen drawer!

*

What’s the name of that bird that swoops
down upon the tadpoles in between verses 19
and 20 of chapter three?
The frogs don’t know it when they croak.

*

A self-conscious breath strides through these vines
that draw blood from my ankles and upper arms.
The exhale at last makes a clumsy incision
on the trail, a cut that can’t be reversed.

Swift shadows–perhaps creatures–flee before my plodding spirit.
To them, to the dwellers who tremble in furs, feather and flesh, I say,
‘My next approach will be totally unannounced and absolutely
devoid of all nostrils.’

Finally, in addition to various books and articles on poetry (thank you, Tony Hoagland), I read through the newest book of Diogenes Allen, Theology For A Troubled Believer. I still love the way my old prof. writes. And the teaching went well with the novel, Silence, by Shusaku Endo, which I also started and now have just finished. Whew! Talk about Missional theology! Listen to this quote of a Portuguese missionary priest who apostasizes when confronted with the suffering of the peasants who have converted. Rather than listening to their moans and groans he gives in to his Japanese captors and tramples upon the image of Mary and Jesus on a plaque. Writes Endo about the eyes of Christ as they are being stepped on: “In sorrow it had gazed up at him as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’

Ouch! And Peace!