Sound of Silence

 

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

Periodically I feel as if I am standing with Elijah outside the cave on Mt. Horeb. His life is a bit more dramatic than mine. He has just killed all the prophets loyal to Queen Jezebel. The Queen has sworn to find him and to kill him. He has run away to save his skin. His path has led him to a cave on the Mountain of God. He lodges there. He waits.

He hears a voice. The text says “the word of the LORD” came to Elijah. The voice asks him what he is doing there. He rants: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts. For the people of Israel have forgotten your covenant…killed your prophets…I am the only one left and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells him to go outside the cave and wait; the LORD is about to pass bye.

Elijah waits. A strong wind rises, tears and breaks rocks. But God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, and then fire. Rock shattering wind, earthquakes, and fire are great images for the presence of God and God’s presence is often associated with all three. But this time God is not found in them.

Then Elijah hears something. The hebrew is translated in different ways. He hears the sound of something like a soft breeze. Some texts name it “a thin silence,” others “a sheer silence.” This silence is not the sound of emptiness. It is the silence of presence. When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave; he knows he is in the presence of God.

Someone once said that if we are to embrace the spiritual life we eventually have to become comfortable with periods of unknowing and silence; we enter into a relationship with God who enters into a relationship with us, and yet always remains beyond our knowing. We use many words, and our words are important. Yet God remains beyond our words.

It sometimes happens that the images we have of God, the knowledge we have accumulated, the stories we have cherished begin to crumble. The things that moved us, inspired us, comforted us, begin to feel empty. We may feel as if we are loosing our faith, or that our faith was unreal. The truth is not that the stories and images are not good or helpful, or that our faith was or is unreal. It may simply be that we are moving closer to the one who is spoken of in the stories, but is so much more than the stories. The stories, the words, the images must give way to the reality of the living God.

Thomas Merton underscores the importance of this for our religious practices. He writes:

“If there is no silence beyond and within the many words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious idolatry. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the truth only in silence and Love. Where this silence is lacking, where there are the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet.” (Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, p. 20)

It is so easy for us to fall in love with the busyness and activities of the church. We need to be careful that we do not fall in love with our own busyness and our own words, and forget that God is the center of all that we do. There are times in which we must stop, be silent, and listen to God, who meets us in silence. The stories we tell, the images we use, the words, are important. Even the work we do. But at some point, like Elijah we must stand outside the cave on our own Mt. Horeb. There we discover the presence of the One who meets us in silence.

Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

A New Mind

Jesus Christ Crucifix

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Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom. 12:2

With this verse Paul makes a transition from writing about theology, ideas about God, to a discussion about how Christian people are to live. Finally, to be a Christian is not primarily about our ideas about God, but about a way of life informed and inspired by the reality that God has come among us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul writes to be Christian involves a transformation of the mind, so that one is able to see, know, discern, and one hopes actually do, what is the will of God.

Paul writes that the mind is to be renewed, made new, brought alive. The mind here is not something located in our brains, the thing we think with.  It is the center of our selves. It is the seat of our personalities. It is where our feeling, thinking, and willing come together. To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is a call to be completely changed and made new, from the inside out. Only through and inside that process, can we begin to see what is good.

Robert Barron, in The Priority of Christ, identifies three different transformations that the Spirit works in us: from fear to trust; from arrogance to humility; from autonomy to service. He suggests we are converted from fear to trust as our faith in God becomes a source hope and confidence in life as a whole. We move from arrogance to humility as we wake up to the fact that we are not the center of the universe, and the servant love of Jesus takes root in us. We move from autonomy to obedience as we realize that serving the love of God in this world brings much more joy and satisfaction than being a servant of our desires. (As Bill Coffin wrote: there is no smaller package than a person all wrapped up in him or her self.)

Paul writes, and I would affirm, that apart from that transformation, we are not able to see or do the will of God. We can only operate out of our desires, experience, and prejudices. Our biases act like glasses through which we view the world. We have our buttons and people tend to push them. This is why Jesus warns us not to try to take a splinter out of someone else’s eye; we have a bean in our own, clouding our vision. Jesus and Paul promise that God will cleanse our eyes, transform our minds, enabling us to see more clearly what is good and pleasing to God. Paul places that before us as the ongoing transformation within the life of a believer.  It is the work of the Spirit within us. It is our challenge to work with and not hinder that work.

Life in church is one important way that we help each other become transformed people. Regular weekly worship, time in prayer and reflection, time serving others, sharing in Christian conversation, all are vehicles through which the Spirit touches and renews us.  I am grateful to each and every person who has helped me in my faith walk. It is my prayer that we continue on this wonderful path together.

See you in church,

Pastor Bill

Moving Toward Easter

c. 1632

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“Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!” Luke 23:42

I remember visiting a woman I in a nursing home many years ago.  It was my first visit with her. I introduced myself saying: “Hi Mrs. Smith, I’m Pastor Bill, the new associate at your church.” I will never forget her response. She turned toward me with tears in her eyes and said: “How good it is that someone remembers my name! How good it is that someone from outside this place remembers my name!”

She was the last surviving member of her nuclear family. Her children lived a number of states away and did not get to visit with her very often. It was so important to her that she had not been forgotten, that her church, someone from her church, someone from the outside world remembered her, and called her by name. She was not forgotten.

One of the most celebrated attributes of God is that God remembers. In the third chapter of Exodus God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6) God remembers all three. God remembers their names. God hears the cries of Israel. God has not forgotten them. God will redeem them. (Ex. 3:7-10)

Many years later, when Israel is in exile in Babylon, when the people of Israel feel abandoned, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Isa. 49:15-16) The people of Israel have not been forgotten. Their names are carved in the palm of God’s hand. God will redeem them.

From the cross a thief cries out to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” (Luke 23:42) Jesus responds: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) He will not be forgotten. From the cross Jesus promises redemption. He will not forget.

There is a real difference between dis-membering and re-membering. To dis-member something is to take it apart. It is to separate the parts from the whole. To be dis-membered is to be removed from the group, the community, to be cast off, to be forgotten. The work of Jesus is re-membering. Jesus remembers, restores, redeems, makes whole.

The Gospel is packed with stories of Jesus going to, touching, healing, and remembering people who have been dis-membered, cut off, pushed to the margins of society. He touches lepers and cleanses them. He hears the cry of the poor and the blind. He heals the sick, claims prostitutes and tax collectors, remembering that they too are children of God. One of the earliest Christian hymns (Phil. 2:5-11) celebrates that Jesus takes the form of a slave, the most oppressed and forgotten of all people, so that no one is lost, or left behind, or forgotten. From the cross he promises to remember the thief crucified next to him.

We are living in tumultuous times. We can begin to feel as if we are forgotten. But the good news of the Gospel is that we are not forgotten. We are moving toward Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday, and ends with the celebration of Easter. It is the story of how far God goes to remember and restore us. Jesus goes all the way to a place so dark it is called the place of the skull. He even enters the grave, the darkness of death. And God remembers and raises him from the grave! His victory is our victory! God would have it that no one is forgotten or left behind. And that is good news!

Pastor Bill

When Religion Gets Dangerous

The canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke &...

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Again something in the news disturbs me, and I am sure I am not alone in this.

Briefly, for the first time in many years under the direction of the Taliban, a public execution by stoning took place in a village in Afghanistan. (To read the article go to: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/world/asia/17stoning.html?_r=1&th&emc=th) The act was celebrated by those who want to embrace Shariah law. Appropriately it has been condemned and denounced around the world. Clearly I count myself among those who would call this nothing less than the evil that it is.

As a religious leader, what concerns me is how we respond to these kinds of reports.

There is a push to identify all of Islam with this violent fundamentalist culture. That is simply not true. Islam is as multifaceted as is Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism etc. I am sure many in the Islamic world are also appalled by the repressive violence of such acts.

There are some who would use this incident to validate their assertion that the Koran is an inherently violent text that inevitably leads to this kind of ideology and culture. That is also simply not true. I have not read the Koran in many years, so I cannot speak to its texts. But I do know that the Bible is also filled with texts that can and have at times been used to justify the same kind of intolerance and violence. The Bible has been (miss)used to justify colonial expansion, genocide, slavery, repression of women, antisemitism, etc.

Read again Joshua and Judges. Read the texts in which people of faith are called to slaughter their enemies and destroy their cities in the name of God.  Read how those who refuse to do so are condemned and even put to death. Read through Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and take note of the number and types of behavior that are subject to death by stoning. Read the Gospel of John and note how it can and has been used to justify antisemitism, and the worst kind of violence against Jews.

If we assert that the Koran is an inherently violent and repressive text, we would have to say the same thing about the Bible. That is what some are saying who claim that all religion is a dangerous thing.

We need to remember that the scriptural texts come to us from ancient, tribal, and often quite violent cultures. We do not need to embrace those cultures in order to embrace God who is revealed in and through these texts. The hard work is to become good readers of scripture. That is a life time project.

The Koran and the Bible are also filled with texts that call for peace, compassion, tolerance, justice, care for the poor and the marginalized, and recognize the greatness of God who is rich in mercy. I believe the nature and will of God is revealed in those texts that stand over and against the self-justifying intolerance and violence of the surrounding cultures.

The reasons for the different ways in which the scriptures are used or abused, be it the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads or other texts,  are found in the readers, not in the texts themselves.

In this latest news report I find a call to stand  against, not Islam or the Koran, but all forms of rigid, repressive, intolerant fundamentalism, in whatever religious system it appears. That stance inevitably leads to self-justifying violence. In this age in which we see so clearly the destructive nature of religiously motivated intolerance and hate, we cannot let it get a toe hold in us.

I am a Christian. I follow Jesus Christ, who when a group of men cornered a woman caught in adultery and handed him a stone, asking if they should stone her to death as the Bible commanded them to do, he replied: “Let the one amongst you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” They all walked away. (John 8:1-11) He taught that we are to love our enemies, not slaughter them.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that he came preaching peace, breaking down the dividing wall between peoples. His way is the way of peace. His commandment is to love, radically, compassionately. That, my friends, is the path that pleases God.