Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Seeing God

In John 9 Jesus heals a man blind from birth.  It is a great miracle.  You would think that everyone would be excited.  That the predominant reaction would be joy and celebration.  That people would clearly see divine action.  That they would see God at work. 

Not the way it went.  In fact it is almost as if no one really wanted to believe.  No one wanted to see what God had done.  It is a crazy story – and it reveals all kind of traps that occur, all kinds of things that can get in the way of our seeing God at work in our world.

The first problem is that the people in this story wanted to get the whole situation wrapped up in a nice, neat, logical package.  In fact the first thing that happens, even before the healing takes place, is that the disciples decide to have a “theological discussion” about the situation in front of them.  But it is a discussion with the potential for disaster.  If this conversation had had its way, the healing would never have taken place. 

“This man is blind” the disciples said, “it must mean” (nice cause and effect thinking here), that someone sinned!  Who was it? And they started to try and figure it out.  Now, what’s the problem here?  One problem is that the disciples didn’t really see the man.  They didn’t see the suffering.  They weren’t even thinking about healing, or touching the life of this man.  It was all a theological exercise.  I believe that if Jesus hadn’t been there they would have walked right past this guy, talking theology.  And he would have remained blind, trapped in darkness. 

How often does the church have a theological discussion… and miss the pain and suffering right in front of it?  Too often the church sits around and “talks” theology while people are hungry, cold, trapped by poverty, devastated by addictions all around it. 

What makes it even worse is that so often these discussions reflect our need to have an answer for everything.  We can’t live with uncertainty very well.  We want things concrete, defined.  “If, then…cause and effect.”    But God is too big for that.  We will never be able to understand it all.  It’s simply impossible.  And our attempts to put it all in a box often leads to conclusions that are hurtful, even ugly.  Like believing that if something bad happens, the person must have been bad.  “Who sinned?”

Here is what I think.  The “Why” is not the most important thing.  What is important is that for God everything is an opportunity for God to work and show healing power.  If we are going to see this opportunity become reality, we have to have eyes wide open to the needs around us.  And not get hung up on theological distinctions.  We can’t wait until we get it all figured out.  We just have to see, accept the mystery that is God at work… and we have to, through our prayers, our compassion, our action, bring God into play.

The second issue is really interesting.  Here this guy is walking around saying, “Hey look at me!  Look at what God has done!”  And there are the people going… Nope!  Wrong guy!  Or worse.  By implication.  This is all fraud.  It didn’t happen!

Many were doubtful the healing was real… Sometimes we struggle to accept the ways, the acts of God when they occur?  Why? It pushes us out of our comfort zone?  It didn’t happen the way we thought it would?  God didn’t follow the rules?  We are back to everything having to be something we can understand, or agree with, understand…. God working according to our rules, within the scope of our understanding.

Which brings us to the final oddity in this passage.  The resistance of the Pharisees, based on what they saw as the Law of God.  They were upset because ( gasp) Jesus healed the man….. on the Sabbath :)

This is a pretty important part of the story, perhaps the most important part.  We people kind of like the Law.  It is concrete, black and white.  Easy to follow.  So we focus on law.  In fact we more than focus, we make Law the core of faith.  And in doing so we make things that might have a lot of positive benefits into something negative.

The idea of Sabbath is important.  God took a Sabbath during creation.  And tells us we need one too.  But for the Pharisees it had become something else.  With them the Sabbath laws became legalistic.  In fact they had so many rules about the Sabbath that were so restrictive that it became a day of where people were oppressed, not restored.  The day become almost the opposite of what it was intended for.

Reb Zalman says that one should begin the Sabbath by saying “Today I am going to pamper my soul”.  And then one should cease one’s daily labor, stop doing some things, so that other things can be born in the space created by our rest.  Things like love, prayer, friendship, touch, singing rest.

But here it was all about rules and restrictions and rules were created for almost every conceivable situation.  For example if it is the Sabbath, and your house is burning down, what can you do?

According to the Mishna, the books that put together all the rules accepted by people like the Pharisees,  putting out a fire was illegal on Sabbath, as was carrying things from one's home.  However, certain exceptions were made. One could carry food out of the house, but only enough to get each member of the family through the rest of the Sabbath. One could not carry clothes out of the house, but one could wear as many clothes as one could get on.  The rabbis differed as to whether or not one could go back into the burning building and put on a second array of clothes. Putting the fire out was not allowed, but if a Gentile volunteered, a good Jew could allow the Gentile to put it out. One could not, however, ask a Gentile for such a favor.

In this case… doing the “work” of making a paste of mud and putting it on a man’s eyes was clearly not allowed. 

But Jesus rejected this mentality.  He said in effect that the law is not at the center
I came not so that the laws will be upheld, but so that the blind may see.  And so that those who think they see, think they have it all figured out, so the self-righteous will realize they don’t get it.  Don’t’ see.  Are in fact spiritually blind.  So that everyone will learn they need God…

The bottom line is this
God wants people to be well
God wants to make whatever needs to happen to happen in order to bring wholeness into our lives

Our only job is to let God be God in our lives
And see God and God’s work in our lives, and in the lives of those around us
We don’t have to get it, be comfortable with it, understand it.. we just have to see it
Amazing Grace… I once was but now I see
I once was blind but now I can see)
I once was a drunk but now….
I once was …. What is it for you?

In his book The Magnificent Defeat Frederick Buechner writes:
“For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a a cosmic intelligence of some kind that keeps the whole show going, but that there is a a God right here in the thick of our day by day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars but in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move around down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also I think, the miracles that we really get.”

God give us the eyes to see!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dog is God Spelled Backwards

He has such amazing eyes
this dog
with the anxious soul

brown and deep they look

am I OK?
Do you love me?
Will you treat me kindly?

And what about my treats?

My heart goes out to my
Labrador friend
And I see in his eyes
My own soul

That anxious
Questioning side of me
Looking toward the infinite
The sacred
And wondering

And yet I know
that the hand
that reaches down to me
reaches out in love

its pierced beauty reminds me
that I need never
be afraid

(In honor of Wrigley, who is visiting for a short while :)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sin and Grace

When I was in the 7th grade I took a class that was supposed to prepare us as young obedient Presbyterians to be members of the church.  Rev. Tesche was waxing eloquent about how we are all sinful and need God’s forgiveness.  I promptly replied, feeling it obligatory to be difficult, “not me.”  I think I am the only Junior High student ever kicked out of Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church, Lakeview, Oregon.

At some level I was offended by all this gloom and doom. By this focus on the negative.  “Why do we have to go there?” I wondered in my na├»ve Junior High mind.  I mean seriously.  Life is hard enough as it is, when you are short, skinny, have a crew cut, clothes picked out by your mother, and ugly black glasses…

I was already down!  I didn’t need any more downers.  I was all too aware of my shortcomings…

Actually, thinking back on it, I think Jesus would have understood.
Think about today’s story, that of the woman caught in adultery.
Think that woman didn’t get her predicament?

There she was, called out in front of the whole village…
I can just picture those righteous men… having exposed her, accused her, shamed her,
now bringing her before Jesus that her humiliation might be complete
And punishment, in this case death by stoning, might be administered

I can see them, strutting, pointing,
I can hear the scorn in their voices…
The snide laughter of bystanders…
I can see the bowed shoulders of the woman
And see her tears

Think she didn’t have a sense of her weakness?  Her vulnerability?

By the way, that scene is replayed far too many times!  I have seen far too many people like that woman in my time.   People crushed and shamed by the church.  I am not alone in this observation.  Philip Yancy, a wonderful Christian author describes himself as a “survivor”, insisting that it was a hard fight, but his faith “survived the church.” “Although I heard that ‘God is love,” he writes, “the image I got from sermons more resembled an angry vengeful tyrant. 

He is right.  All too often the church is a wasteland where the language of “should and must” predominate.  I don’t have to give you examples because you know exactly what I am talking about.  So often the church is the House of Fear, full of the language of Law.  Full of bitter people trying to control their own lives, and the lives of those around them.  “Obey!   Be Accountable!  Do this!  Don’t do that!  Follow our rules or go to hell.” 

So it was here.  The religious community was out for blood.  They looked at this woman and saw a person worthy of scorn.  A sinner.  A person to be judged. Jesus saw this woman too.  What did he see? He saw the fear!  The humiliation.  The shame.  And he saw more! (We will get back to that).

And he said nothing, at least at first,  He knelt and played in the dirt.  And then he turned to those haughty accusers and simply said “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And no stones came.  Not one! Instead they all left, beginning with the accusers, the elders, until only Jesus and the woman are left.  And Jesus says to her, Has no one condemned you?”  She said, “Neither do I condemn you, go your way!”  And think about this.  Jesus never asked her if she were sorry!  He didn’t ask her if she repented.  He asked for nothing from her!!  He just forgave her, even before she asked for forgiveness.

Wow!  Some people struggle with this.  “But what about God’s justice?” they ask?

Therese of Lisieux, recognized as a “Doctor” of the church because of the truth and depth of her spiritual life, wrote these words.  “I hope as much from the justice of God as from his mercy.  It is because he is just that he is compassionate and full of tenderness…. FOR GOD KNOWS OUR WEAKNESS.  He remembers that we are dust.  As a father has tenderness for his children, so the Lord has compassion for us.  I do not understand souls who have fear of so tender a friend … What joy to think that God is just, that he takes account of our weakness, that he knows perfectly the fragility of our nature.”

The short way of saying that?   God knows what he can expect.
He knows we will slip and fall
That we will make a mess of things….
And he chooses to love us, and forgive us
Because that is the way our God is!

Don’t believe it?  We see it in Jesus, right here in this story.  And in so many others.  Sinner litter every pages of the Gospels.  There are sinners, sinners everywhere!

But that is not what Jesus sees
He sees people who need to be loved and forgiven,
And whom IF loved and forgiven have an immense capacity for God.

I have no idea what happened to the woman in the story.
How the rest of her life turned out.
Maybe she became and wonderful woman who shared the love of God with others.
Maybe she went back to doing what she had been doing.
Maybe her life ended up somewhere in between.. a little bit of good, a little bit of not so good….

But I do know this…  From that moment on her life was lived in a different context.

In the context of compassion.
First she came to understand God’s compassion for her
I am not sure she understood it all, could get her head around this amazing episode
I am sure there was a side of her that still said, “I am bad. I don’t deserve this love”
But I hope she God a glimpse of God’s compassion and could hold on to that, at least a little

Then, I hope, she learned to have some compassion on herself
As I said, I am sure that she had a lot of negative thinking going on in that head…”I don’t deserve love.  God thinks I am trash.”  I hope that Jesus helped her alter that thinking.

And finally, I believe she might have had the ability to have compassion
And having self compassion, I hope she then had the ability to have compassion on those around her.
Compassion on those upright, miserable elders
Compassion on the men who wanted to use and control her
Compassion on the women around her who judged and scorned, but who, in their hearts, were also fearful, and hungry for love.

You know, it is a lack of compassion that is killing us.  It is a lack of compassion in dealing with our enemies that perpetuates wars.  Remember the images of people in the middle east celebrating terrorist attacks?  And of drunken Americans celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden?

It is a lack of compassion that allows human beings to torture other human beings
That allows genocide in Bosnia.
That allows one out of five American children to go to bed hungry, while politicians talk about class warfare.

Yes people make mistakes.  Yes people act in hateful ways
Yes some people take advantage of the welfare system
We can always focus on what is wrong with the other….
But that is not what Jesus does

With a realistic love, he sees us as we are
As we squirm in our own shame and our own self-awareness of our limitations and our failures
He kneels in the sand and writes in the dirt…
And then says… “does no one condemn?”  “Neither do I”
On with the journey!

Donald Miller tells of a time when a church he was part of came alive.  What made it happen?  Great preaching?  An amazing ministry?  No 

This situation was this.  The church was stuck.  Very stuck.  It had started up and gotten to like 30 people.   And it was stuck right there. 

Then the pastor came into a prayer group, discouraged.  Don says the prayer group “felt like an AA meeting gone bad.”  Finally the minister said he thought they needed to just “start loving people who were very different from “us”.  He suggested they should live what he called “missional lives” and intentionally befriend people different from them.  He said he was talking “about loving people just because they exist”.  All kinds of people.  Homeless. Goth.  Homosexuals. Poor.  Drunk.  Sinful (whatever that means).  He said they just needed to notice people WHO NEEDED TO BE LOVED.

Isn’t that what Jesus does her?  He just loves someone different from him. Really different.  Someone many were not prepared to love.  He just loved her…Isn’t that, in the end, the core ministry of the church?  To just love people who need to be loved?

So happened to that little group of 30 who decided they just wanted to love? Within a couple years it had grown to 500 people.   They stopped trying to sell Jesus.  Sell righteousness.  The law.  And they just loved people who needed to be loved.  And people responded.

Brennan Manning poses and important question in his book the Wisdom of Tenderness….In a moment of naked honesty he says, ask yourself.  DO I wholeheartedly trust that God likes me…no loves me because theologically God can’t do otherwise.  And do I trust that God likes me not after I clean up my act and eliminate every trace of sin, selfishness, dishonesty, and degraded love; not after I developed a disciplined prayer life and spend 10 years in Calcutta with Mother Teresa’s missionaries; but in this moment, right now, right here, with all my faults and weaknesses?

Well do we trust in that love?  And then, as those who are loved, do we pass it on?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Help my unbelief!

Thinking is a dangerous thing
And as I wander down the road
Assailed by the beauty of your creation Lord,
My thoughts besiege me
And I find myself in a place of sorrows

There is so much I want to be true
I want to be generous and not greedy
I want to be kind and not indifferent
I want my staff to be happy
I want my church to grow
I want to be attentive and not scattered
I want work to be stable
I want to have been a better father
I want to be disciplined not impulsive
I want to be attentive and not scattered

I want
I want

And as I wander this profound sense is there
That I can’t do this
I can’t make it through the next day
I can’t deal with the gap of suffering
Between what I want, and what I have

I know I should believe
I a minister, of sorts
Certainly a flawed and vulnerable sort

I want to believe
But mostly I’m just confused
And maybe Lord
That is just where I am meant to be
With a profound sense that I can’t do this
Can’t make it through the next day
next hour

Without you
Lord I believe
Help my unbelief! (Mark 9:24)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life in the context of God's love

There she stood
Alone in the dusty road
Fingers pointing
Voices condemning, scoffing

An object of shame
According to the law
The church pronounced
She deserves to die!

A single man stood in judgement
He looked and he saw
In that bowed form
All the longings of the human heart

A hunger for love and affection
A desire to be wanted above all others
By somebody, anybody

He saw the loneliness
And despair

And he knelt
And drew in the sand

And then simply said
You are forgiven
Go and be the child of god you were created to be
Go and love
And hope
Go and give
As compassion has been given to you

They are everywhere Lord
These broken people
Put down
The objects of scorn

Battered and twisted by passion, greed,
Drugs, anger, hate and abuse

But they are also us
Each of us stands in the dust
Worthy of judgment

And yet to them
And us
Come the words
You are forgiven…
Go forth
trust in my love
and go

From John 8

Monday, October 17, 2011

Receiving and giving

I just read the familiar story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  We all know how the story goes.  About how Jesus was teaching out in the countryside, and about how he goes on and on, kind of like some preachers you might know, until it is meal time, perhaps past meal time.

Looking at the crowd Jesus tests the disciples.  “Wow, look at all those people!  Where are we going to find them all something to eat?!”  The disciples pretty much freak out.  Obviously no Subway, or McDonalds or Burger King there.  “Jesus” the disciples reply, “we are in deep trouble.  There is no food to be found.  And even if we found a place to buy food… to feed this crowd?  That would take half a year’s wages!!!!”  

Jesus is not flustered at all.  He takes what food there is… five barley loaves and 2 fish, and he starts to hand it out to the gathered crowd  (Now we get to the critical part, the outcome), and everyone is feed.  More than that!  There is food left over.

And that is point of the story.  Jesus can feed people.  He can feed people until they are full, stuffed, sated.  He can full people up, and still have more to give! Now why is that important?
Because we as people are chronically empty, hungry

Wayne Muller notes that most houses today have a working thermostat that regulates the work of the heater, ensuring that it pumps precisely enough heat into the house.  When this devise determines that the house is warm enough, it tells the furnace that “enough is enough” and the furnace stops putting out heat, until more is needed.  Without a thermostat the heat would just keep heating and heating and would never know that it has done enough.

According to Muller our thermostats are broken.  We are people who are always hungry, who never have enough.  I like that image.  But I look at it a little differently.  We are never at the point of “enough” because we have gotten things dreadfully wrong.  We are pumping cold air into our house in the dead of winter, the system set on air-conditioning, rather than heat.

We are looking for fullness in all the wrong places
We are looking at jobs, money, power, success, status, things, sex,
We are look at a plethora of external things
Thinking, hoping, that they will fill us, give us a sense of ease
Make us happy

But they don’t.  The more we have, the more we want
The more money we have, the more we want.  Why do you think that the 1% of the American population we hear so much about continues to want to accumulate more, even at the cost of pushing other people into poverty?  Why do you think we are driven, always, to have more, do more, get more?

Because none of that stuff actually fills us!  No matter how nice our house, how amazing our car, how prestigious our job, how big our bank account, if those are the things we are relying on for a sense of fullness and satisfaction… we are always left wanting.

If we want to be full, we have to let Jesus feed us
Feed us with his spiritual food
With his love, his forgiveness, his acceptance

I know I know
That doesn’t seem very tangible
Or practical

I mean we need money.
We need houses, clothes,
We need our stuff……….

But one author puts it this way.  Our treasures, our possession, houses, responsibilities, our “stuff” our “toys” are simply tools, the “hows” of our life’s deeper purpose.  And like all tools they are subject to loss and impermanence.  And if we don’t know why we need them.  Or how we are to use them, they are kind of useless.   Oh look, I have a hammer?  Why do I need this?  Oh look, a “power saw”   Brahaaaa.. Wait, what am I going to do with it.

They “hows” are not very useful without the “whys”  And according to this author, and I really like this, the”fruits of the kingdom” are the ultimate why of our life journey.

To love and be loved
To forgive and be forgiven
To serve others
To share what we have been given

These are the “whys”, biblically speaking
Our journeys are about receiving and giving love and forgiveness

And only Jesus can give us the love, the forgiveness,
And the power we need to be able to live in the world
As loved, forgiven and empowered people

Only Jesus can give us the ability to relate to the world
To our jobs
Our fellow employees
Our loves
Our children
Out of fullness and not emptiness and need

I thought a lot about a “take home” lesson for this passage, beyond the  obvious, that Jesus could do miracles.  I finally came up with this one
Which is amazing in its simplicity

We have to receive to give!

As long as we are hungry, our actions will be affected by our hunger
Our love for the man or woman in our lives will be tainted by our hunger, our need, and may become something that is not healthy or good, but controlling, manipulative, and graspoing

Our work may be tainted
Our efforts for the church
Our giving may be tainted by our hunger and may be efforts to get, rather than things we do for God and others.

If would be God’s people
We have to let God feed us.
Then and only then can we truly give

There is a powerful mystery at work here. In the scandalous idea that we must first seek to receive before we seek to give.  Seems backwards somehow. First we give, we invest, we obey, we do all this “good” stuff, and then we receive.  But no…first we receive.  We let god love us, feed us.  Then out of that fullness we give

Then and only then can we be people who are not only full
But are able to pass along the food of God
To the hungry people around us

Friday, October 14, 2011


There are faces all around me Lord
They come before me
As I wander around the beauty of your creation
And spend time with your children
House by house
Kitchen by kitchen

Young faces, firm and flushed with health
Old faces, tired and lined
Other faces
Angry or sad
Hopeless and empty

These faces Lord haunt me
They cry out

One face cries for help,
As cancer eats at the body below it

Another face cries for peace
And as story of anxiety and concern spills forth
A story shared over coffee and cookies

A face cries for forgiveness,
As it spills forth anguish
About children who are struggling

I collect those hurts and wounds
I cannot help it
They are given to me as a gift
And I am asked to carry that hurt in my heart

And at times I am weighed down by the load
Slowly pressed down by the precious burdens
With which I have been gifted.

Help me to remember lord
That those hurts are not mine to keep
or solve
Only mine to carry gently
And place in your healing hands

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Lines on God's face

In his book "Blue Like Jazz", Donald Miller, an Oregon author, starts a chapter with these words:
I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the
wind and the water, and I wondered how beautiful
that was because it meant you swim in Him or have Him brush your face
in a breeze.  I am early in my story, but I believe
I will stretch out into eternity and in heaven I will reflect upon
these early days, these days when it seemed God was down a dirt road,
walking toward me.  Years ago He was a swinging speck in the distance; now He
is close enough I can hear His singing.  Soon I will see the lines on His face

I love the spirit of what Don is talking about here. Think about what these images reflect.  The word I would use to describe the theme embodied in this images rings clear to me - intimacy.  Not just intimacy, but growing intimacy.
In the image of wind a water we have the concept of a God who touches us.  More than touches us, caresses us.  Not with physical hands, but with presence.  With the wind of the Spirit.  With power and love.  There is something intimate about a caress.  The light touch of fingers across skin.  We sometimes think of God as being heavy handed.  But God as wind and water reminds us that God has a gentle, an oh so gentle touch.

Then there is that image of the man walking down the road.  Once far off, barely visible, vague, than increasingly closer, increasingly clear.  Until one can see "the lines on His face."  That one who slowly becomes so familiar.  As God moves toward us, and I believe God always does, and as we move toward God, as hopefully we do (although I am not sure how that happens -  my guess is it happens in a different way for different folk), then the gap closes.. God become clearer, more familiar.  And we find the closer we get to God the more real God becomes.  Moving from vague wanderer, to mysterious singer of songs, to that wrinkled grandparent like being who draws near and loves us as only a parent, or better yet, grandparent can love us :)

And what is amazing is that this caressing God, who chooses to move toward us on the road of life, will ultimately draw closer still, and become a part of our journey, and ultimately a part of us.

And that is when our lives really begin to change

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

love is

What is love?
It is that feeling we feel
When we look at another?

Is, a many would say, a verb?
A choice to act in loving ways?

Some would say that love is God
But who has seen God?

Ah yes
That one, that strange man from Galilee
Who seemed so scandalous
So flagrant
So dangerous

And yet he was God
With us
and he was love

and in his love we
see that love sees with eyes that are unique

in love there is passion, yes
in love there is a hunger for
common places

things enjoyed

there is friendship

but above all there are eyes that see the other
as wonderful, unique

not seeking those things

not seeking value
but giving value
endowing the other
with all the loving creating power of God
with that beauty and wonder
simply because there is love
that kind of love

Thank you God, for loving us that way