Orchard Ridge Summer Preaching Series – Faces of our Faith

Each week will also feature special music.  The names of those musicians are listed.

June 10 Lydia of Acts (Winton Boyd preaching)
June 17 My Very Heart:  Philemon (Winton Boyd preaching); Kythie and Tammy Boyd, vocals
June 24 Judas (Ken Pennings preaching)
July 1 Deborah  (Ken Pennings preaching)
July 8 (Muriel Otto preaching).  Muriel is a pastor at Unity ELCA in Brookfield, WI.
July 15 They Said No: Siphrah and Puah (Winton Boyd preaching); Bruce Gladstone and Vicki Nonn, 4 hand piano duet music
July 22  (Winton Boyd preaching), Mike and Claire Bjork, guitar and vocals
July 29  (Winton Boyd preaching)
August 5 Queen Vashti (Kerri Parker preaching); Dave Allen, jazz piano music -Kerri is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches
August 12 Mary Magdalene (Sharon Goss preaching), Judy Brauer and Steve Holmes, guitar and vocals.  Sharon is a member of ORUCC and a retired UCC pastor
August 19 (Winton Boyd preaching), Trio (Kari Buer, Tammy Boyd, Deb Heilert) a capella vocals
August 26 (Ken Pennings preaching), Paul Hedges piano music
September 2 (Winton Boyd preaching)

Embracing our Spiritual Ancestry (Winton Boyd) 5.13.18

Embracing…audio version

For most of my 20’s, I tried to deny where I was from. Or rather, I tried to deny that I was like everyone else in the town where I grew up. That I was different; and if truth be told, better.

I was raised in a suburb of Minneapolis called Edina. By and large, I had a lovely childhood. When I was young, we lived on the rural edge of the developing part of town. By the time I graduated, Edina had developed into a rising, wealthy suburb. But, what set it apart wasn’t its wealth. It did enjoy what wealth provided – be it the homes, the school, or the high school sports teams. What distinguished it, however, was attitude. For several years, the cheer for the state champion high school hockey team was, “Edina, the team you love to hate.” Another year, fans displayed buttons at the state tournament that read, “Cake for breakfast, cake for lunch, cake for dinner, cake for brunch.” This wasn’t a sarcastic slogan from another school – that was the rich taking on a jeering cheer as their own. With confidence and arrogance.

Into my young adulthood, if someone asked me where I was from and I told them “Edina,” – there would be a subtle or not so subtle eye roll. Every time. Without fail. The town they loved to hate.

And so, as I moved to the inner city to join an urban ministry in a racially diverse church, I simply didn’t tell people where I was from. I tried to distance myself from those roots. I wanted to be from south Minneapolis, or Vermont, or somewhere else simpler that felt more ‘authentic’ to me. I associated being ‘from’ a place as being the stereotype of the place. I wanted to control the direction of an introductory conversation and the way I figured out how to do that was to deny a big part of myself.

Even when we moved from California to Madison when I was forty, I got some of the same eye rolls. By that time – having lived in many places since my youth, and hopefully matured a bit – I finally said to myself, ‘what someone else thinks of where I’m from is not for me to control, or frankly, care too much about.’ Maturity, for me, meant coming to accept these roots as part of who I am. Part of the soil of my faith, my commitments, and my awareness in the world. Part of my gift, part of my challenge, part of the imperfect lens through which I experienced the world. I came to understand that my roots were influencing me in large and small ways. I was trying to own my background and engage in some honest reflection about it in order to understand myself better.

In this spring series of considering voices on the margins of our Christian tradition and even outside it, we turn to words from Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh today. Many of you know I had the opportunity to attend a retreat with Thay, as he is known, in the fall of 2011. It was a week long, mostly silent, and powerful experience. I sought out the retreat for a couple of reasons. First, I thought time in extended silence would be good for my soul. But, secondly, I was more and more aware how many in this congregation and in our progressive tradition in general were exploring Buddhism, mindfulness or sitting meditation practices of some sort.

I loved the dedication of the participants. I enjoyed the hours of silence every day. I looked forward to Thay’s dharma teachings. I grew more comfortable with the long periods of meditation. (I did not enjoy the food or the dust). Thay’s simple but deep words were clearly geared towards an audience of people steeped in western spirituality. He spoke of the Buddha within and the Christ within interchangeably; he spoke of the kingdom of God and joked about the Pope. A week after our experience, he led a similar retreat for Vietnamese people. I wondered how he would frame his words with them.

As the week went on, I experienced an interesting tension. It had to do with the role of one’s religious background in this new spiritual path. Most of the group had roots in the Judeo-Christian traditions – Jewish, Catholic and Protestant. From some of them, I learned about the idea of ‘double belonging.’  A Catholic priest spoke of how he integrated Buddhist practice into his Catholic ministry. A small group of Jews offered a Buddhist shaped Shabbat service on the Friday night of the retreat. These folks spoke of the power of having their spiritual ‘feet’ in both religious streams. More than ‘learning from’ another tradition, they were increasingly identifying themselves and their spiritual practices as both Buddhist and Christian or Buddhist and Jewish.

Thay has written, “How can (our spiritual) practice generate the true energy of love, of compassion, of understanding?…Buddha and Jesus are two brothers who have to help each other. Buddhism does need help. Christianity does need help, not for the sake of Buddhism, not for the sake of Christianity, for the sake of humankind and for the sake of other species on Earth…We live in a time when destruction is everywhere and many are on the verge of despair. That is why Buddha should be helped. That is why Jesus should be helped…Their meeting is the hope for the world. (p.200, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers)

It reminds of something poet Naomi Shihab Nye said in light of her immigrant father. “My father felt like a wanderer, like he was always wandering around. And I’ve always felt like a wanderer, that we have so many places we could explore and learn about… But as you participate and develop relationships in all these places, you begin to ‘claim it,’ as a kind of global passport. Recently, she said, I met a young woman in Kuwait on Skype. She was saying that she was Palestinian; but had never been to Palestine. She was born in Jordan; but had never seen Jordan. She was taken to Kuwait as a baby and raised in Kuwait, and now she was a college senior. And she said, “And I don’t belong to any of these places, and I feel so adrift. And I’m not accepted in any of these places.” And Shihab Nye said, “My hope for you would be that you could find a way to live, a way to be, a voice to use, where you feel at home in all of them.” (OnBeing)

Spiritually speaking – many of us are like this young woman – looking for a place to call home. Looking for a place to belong. Feeling disenchanted or disconnected. Therefore, tapping into new traditions and new practices is a way to explore new belonging. For the sake of love, compassion and the future of the world.   This is as it should be and it is a strong trait in our progressive tradition.

But the other side of the tension at that 2011 retreat consisted of people who spoke very painfully and negatively and even angrily of their spiritual roots. They sought to distance themselves from all that they had learned as children. As they embraced this new Buddhist practice and tradition, they also offered a clear critique of their ancestral tradition.

Thay was just as forceful about on this side of the tension as well. He continually cautioned disenchanted American Christians from running too quickly from their roots.   He challenged us to explore the deep roots of our native faith; suggesting without this depth, we would be of little use to either tradition.

“If you were born in the West there is a big chance you are a child of Jesus and that you have Jesus as your ancestor. You may not consider yourself a Christian, but that does not prevent Jesus from being one of your spiritual ancestors…your (ancestors) transmitted to you the seed, the energy, the love and the insight of Jesus.

If you are rooted (and only if you are rooted) in your own culture, (only then will you ) have a chance to touch deeply and come rooted in another culture as well. This is very important. (Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, p. 189)

“Is it possible to forget all your roots to become something completely different? The answer is no.”(p.182) (There are many) Americans who bear … wounds and desires…they want nothing to do with their family, their church, their society, and their culture. They want to become something else…Have they succeeded in leaving everything behind in order to become something completely new? The answer is no.”

When these people come (to retreats, they) are wandering or hungry souls… They are hungry for something beautiful to believe in, for something good to believe in…They want to leave behind everything that belongs to their (past faith)…My tendency is to tell them that a person without roots cannot be a happy person. You have to go back to your family. You have to go back to your culture. You have to go back to your church…A tree without roots cannot survive. A person without roots cannot survive either. (p. 183).

Appreciating our own roots can be complicated. Padraig Ó Tuama, Irish author and peaceworker, notes that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus also reveals dubious connections and stories hidden within wild stories. There is Abraham, who thought of killing his first born; Judah the the father of Perez, the younger of twins, whose mother had once been Judah’s daughter in law. There is Ruth from Moab, people long despised. And of course David the shepherd lad, ill considered as a potential king; who later demanded Bathsheba’s body and the life of her husband.

“Bruised generations,” Ó Tuama says. “To honor the lives lived – especially those lives that, while lived, were hated, is a testimony to truth and an understanding of the capacity of shame and scapegoating. It is convenient to tell stories of the past that create a strong distinction between good and evil…but to be born is to be born into a story of possibility, a story of failure, a story of imagination and the failure of imagination. To be born is to be born with the possibility of courage.” Courage and strength from the depth of our bruises and our beauty. (Padraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter, p.49-50)

“Honoring” or “Going Back.” How we understand these ideas is the key. In family systems work, it means to stay connected; to stay in touch with that part of me that has emerged from my past. Sometimes, we can be in conversation and relationship while maintaining our own differentiation. We can stay in touch with the stories and meanings and truths that emerged – both positive and painful – because without a consciousness about how they have both shaped us and continue to live in us – we are prone to feeling lost and uncertain in any new place. Sometimes we can only revisit our feelings of homelessness or cut off – due to estrangement or adoption or other mysteries in our biological and emotional family tree. Honoring, in these cases, may be more focused on staying connected with how that sense of loss lives in us, even today. How it shapes and guides our desire to be people of compassion and grace – for others and the whole world.

Wherever our pilgrimage of faith leads us, this work of engaging our spiritual ancestry is a life’s work. And it is work only we can do.

From my wealthy background, I inherited a sense that anything was possible, that I was worthy of any task I wanted to take on. I also inherited a presumption of privilege that has taken most of my adult life to understand. With this information, I can choose how to use them in my life.

From my evangelical background, I inherited a deep sense of a personal connection to the Sacred. I also inherited an arrogance that God’s interests centered on my interests. Again, the knowledge of both serves me well.

My wealth and my evangelical background are, in the words of Ó Tuama, my bruised generations.

I love the presence of you who are more liturgical in your background. I love that even in your rebellion, you are seeking authentic religious expression; not just something said by rote. I think that together we learn what makes liturgy and ritual come alive is not the precise words or how often we repeat the ritual – but the mindfulness we bring to the ritual.

I love the presence of you who have no religious or spiritual background. I love your curiosity, your questions, and the way your very presence challenges our complacency and invites reflection on practices and attitudes.

I love the presence of you who have a long history in our UCC tradition – because you bring ‘founder’ energy that reminds us we can always create something new.

I love the presence of you who are young, because your lack of knowledge or experience requires that we continue to reinterpret the saints and the songs we’ve used for a new day.

If it is true that our ancestral line is a spiritually bruised one, then of course we as people and as a community are also bruised. But it is into a bruised, often confused, circle of influence that we move.   Might our prayer be that through our lives we offer a story of possibility, a story of imagination and a story of courage.   Amen.

 

 

 

May the Peace of Christ Be With You (Tammy Martens) 5.6.18

Years ago, early in my ministry, I resigned from a pastorate position for two reasons. One, because of deep-seated conflict that existed in the church for decades and, two, because of my inability to know how to help the church work through that conflict. At the time of my departure I thought the congregation was entirely to be blamed for the conflict. But now, as I look back, I can admit that I played a role in the ongoing conflict. And my role had to do with the fact that I was deathly afraid of conflict—and because of that my fear dictated my behavior. I simply did not have the capacity as a leader to help the congregation move towards reconciliation.

There is no doubt about it. Even though conflict is a natural part of our relationships, often we are quite unskilled at knowing how to work through conflict.

Now certainly today I still struggle with conflict, but what has changed for me is seeing God’s redemption story through a different lens. This theological shift happened when I started to understand that the central meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is God’s nonviolent message of peace and reconciliation. Peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the gospel. And to be clear. This is not some “feel good peace inside our hearts” sort of thing. This is a peace that utterly transforms us from the inside out and gives us a way of seeing ourselves as reconcilers and peacemakers. This, I believe, is what the early followers experienced as recorded in the book of Acts. Their experience broke open their image of God and evolved their faith. The story of redemption was and is the story of reconciliation.

To understand this, we need to examine the resurrection stories. As explained in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the resurrection was an extraordinary event. And instead of trying to explain if it really happened or not, I’d like to share some very curious things about the resurrection stories that help me to see reconciliation at the heart of the gospel.

As you know we celebrate Easter on one day of the year. But, according to Adam Eriksen, Education Director of the Raven Foundation and pastor at Clackamas United Church of Christ in Oregon, it’s very important to note that the Resurrection Story was so influential, so life changing for the early Jewish followers of Christ that they made a radical shift in their pattern of worship. They used to worship on the seventh day of the week which was Saturday. But the Resurrection story caused the followers to disregard this command that is found in Exodus (commandment #4) and switch their day of worship to the first day of the week—Sunday, the day that Jesus resurrected. This is mind boggling to me. How on earth did they get this passed through a committee or a congregational meeting? Why did it matter so much to change the day of worship? Adam Eriksen would argue that these early followers were so radically affected by Jesus’ presence—in whatever way they experienced him– that they discovered a new way to be human. They claimed a new identity—they had become people of the resurrection, people of forgiveness, people of nonviolent love. The experience they had so shook up their previous sense of goodness (a goodness based on self-defined morally “good” behavior) and gave to them a longing for a whole different sort of goodness. And from this new identity, they thought it essential to gather on Sundays for worship to stay close to the resurrection story and remember that they were people formed by the resurrection. Throughout church history it was believed that each Sunday is like a “little Easter” when we remember again the resurrection of Christ.

Second, all of the four Gospel accounts have some variations of the Resurrection story. But they are all consistent on one thing. In whatever way Jesus returned, or whatever the early followers physically saw, each Gospel writer reports that Jesus did not return to haunt them or abandon them. Instead he came back to offer them peace and forgiveness. Even though Jesus was abandoned and betrayed to the cross just a few days earlier, he did not come back and muster up a group of new people who would help Jesus get pay back. This would have been the old way of doing things. Instead Jesus stood in their midst and offered them something radically new—he said “Peace be with you.” With these words, an entirely new picture of God broke in. The early followers made the stunning discovery that it was not a vengeful God that put Jesus to death. It was human violence and wrath that led to Jesus’ dying on the cross. And they realized that it was divine love and only divine love that resurrected Jesus. And from this divine love, the cycle of revenge and violence was overcome. The early followers were reconciled to God as their image of God was healed. I think this is what it means to be reconciled to God—to have our image and view of God shaped by non-violent love, not by judgment and wrath.

Most Sundays as part of our worship we share in the passing of the peace. It is a beautiful time of saying hello, shaking hands, and making a human connection. But it’s much bigger than that. Do we realize that when we offer the peace of Christ to those sitting near us, we are offering a peace that leads us from rivalry to acceptance? A peace that leads us from revenge to forgiveness and reconciliation? A peace that begs us to see that there is no wrath or judgment that lives in God. This is the peace of Christ we offer to each other.

This transformative peace that lives within us helps us to see ourselves as active agents in the ministry of reconciliation. And one of the first things we do when we understand our role as reconcilers is we agree to the task of honest self-examination. Richard Blackburn, who is the Executive Director of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center shared that the mediation process that they lead is only successful when churches and people agree to the difficult task of self-examination. He approximates that only 1/3rd of the churches agree to do this hard work of self-examination. Working through conflict requires that we see the part we play in the ongoing conflict. If we can’t do that, then reconciliation is virtually impossible. Self-examination is so necessary because when conflict exists, often our emotions can get the best of us. When we are angry and hurt, we often are not doing our best thinking and before we know it we have dug ourselves into a conflict that seems impossible to resolve. Self-examination helps us understand our shared human condition and the propensity we all have to self-righteousness, which can lead to intense negative feelings and even hatred when we are in conflict. In the Order of Worship, I introduce you to John Paul Lederach who wrote the book Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians. He shares how easily our conflict can move us down the slippery slope of making enemies. (slide 4)

Three easy steps in creating an enemy:

  1. Separate ourselves from the person. We begin to see in another person, not the sameness we share, but the differences between us and we attach a negative judgment to these differences. We imagine that the other person is completely bad and that we are completely good.
  2. See ourselves as superior. Superiority is the qualitative opposite of what we see in the example of Jesus emptying himself. He sought to bring compassion by being like others and recognizing his sameness. When we feel superior we believe we are not only different from but better than the other person. We raise ourselves above them and take the position of God.
  3. Dehumanize the other person. When we dehumanize the other person we rob them of being created in the image of God. I would add that this leads us to verbally abuse others, slander them, and seek to hurt them.

And Lederach is clear. This process of creating an enemy can happen in a matter of minutes. Lederach knows because he has recognized this in himself. And he is someone who has worked as a reconciler in 25 countries across five continents.

What I love most about Lederach’s work is his passionate belief that we are all called to the ministry of reconciliation. He shares that reconciliation is understood as both a place we are trying to reach and the journey that we take up with each other. Conflict provides an opportunity for God to speak.

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself/herself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Oh, how God believes in us so much!

May the peace of Christ be with you. Amen.

Different Ways to Pray (Winton Boyd) 4.29.18

Today’s entire worship service was steeped in the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye.  For this reason, we’ve included all the poems used in worship.  As you prepare to read this sermon, it would be good to spend a few minutes just reading the poems.

 

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,

stepping gently, looking two times north and south,

because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.

No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo

but he’s not marked.

Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.

He hears the hum of a boy’s dream

deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.

from Red Suitcase. Copyright © 1994 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

Kindness

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

and then goes with you every where

it is I you have been looking for,

like a shadow or a friend.

Kindness from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye

We continue our journey through the season of Easter by listening to voices outside the Christian faith. Today we celebrate the writing of Naomi Shihab Nye. I love that we can hear her words in multiple ways. Susan will read one more in just a minute.

Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived in Ferguson, MO for a number of years when it was a new suburb! Her father was a Muslim Palestinian refugee and her mother a Missouri Synod Lutheran of German background. Her experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, (and) our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.”

“My poems and stories often begin with the voices of our neighbors, mostly Mexican American, always inventive and surprising. I never get tired of mixtures.”

(All of my introductory quotes from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye)

Jane Tanner in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “Nye observes the business of living and the continuity among all the world’s inhabitants…She is international in scope and internal in focus… With her acceptance of different ‘ways to pray’ is also Nye’s growing awareness that living in the world can sometimes be difficult.”

Victoria Clausi summed up Nye’s approach. “Her best poems often act as conduits between opposing or distant forces. Yet these are not didactic poems that lead to forced … moments. Rather, the carefully crafted connections offer bridges on which readers might find their own stable footing, enabling them to peek over the railings at the lush scenery.

Finally, Nye told Contemporary Authors, “I have always loved the gaps, the spaces between things, as much as the things. I love staring, pondering, mulling, puttering. I love the times when someone or something is late—there’s that rich possibility of noticing more, in the meantime…Poetry calls us to pause. There is so much we overlook, while the abundance around us continues to shimmer, on its own.”

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,

a fine method, if you lived in a country

where stones were smooth.

The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,

hidden corners where knee fit rock.

Their prayers were weathered rib bones,

small calcium words uttered in sequence,

as if this shedding of syllables could somehow

fuse them to the sky.

 

There were the men who had been shepherds so long

they walked like sheep.

Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—

Hear us! We have pain on earth!

We have so much pain there is no place to store it!

But the olives bobbed peacefully

in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.

At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,

and were happy in spite of the pain,

because there was also happiness.

 

Some prized the pilgrimage,

wrapping themselves in new white linen

to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.

When they arrived at Mecca

they would circle the holy places,

on foot, many times,

they would bend to kiss the earth

and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

 

While for certain cousins and grandmothers

the pilgrimage occurred daily,

lugging water from the spring

or balancing the baskets of grapes.

These were the ones present at births,

humming quietly to perspiring mothers.

The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,

forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

 

There were those who didn’t care about praying.

The young ones. The ones who had been to America.

They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.

     Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.

They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,

for the twig, the round moon,

to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

 

And occasionally there would be one

who did none of this,

the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,

who beat everyone at dominoes,

insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,

and was famous for his laugh.

from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (Portland, Oregon: Far Corner Books, 1995).

As we considered this series, it struck me that Nye’s poetry might help us explore our complex and uncertain relationship with prayer. One of the reasons I love our approach to Sunday School here at Orchard Ridge UCC is that we are teaching them at a young age that faith, and prayer, are embodied, tactile experiences.  Children are invited to pray with zen sandboxes, candles, wooden bible characters, books and sharing. We’ve moved away from the model that suggests the only way to pray is with hands folded and heads bowed. That’s one fine way rooted in our history, but by itself it is pretty limiting.

But for many of us, if prayer is not that form, or if it is not the presentation of a list of needs for our lives and the world to a God somewhere out there or up there – we are not exactly sure what it is. We may experience a personal connection with the One we call God, but many of us understand God to be much less anthropomorphic, more illusive and complicated to name.

In this kind of environment, there is much to ponder and much to noodle around when it comes to the experience of prayer. So, at a minimum, if you get nothing else today, I’d invite you in these moments to reflect on your own ‘experience’   with prayer. Not your theological opinion, but your lived experience.

The poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye invites us to consider prayer not head on, but slant. She names a truth many of us know – that life is lived in the spaces, those ‘gaps, and spaces between things’…our ‘staring, pondering, mulling, puttering.’

There is so much wisdom in her poetry how we live as prayerful people.

  • Through kneeling and raising one’s hands
  • Through formal and intentional pilgrimage, and the daily pilgrimage of our lives
  • In a way that includes the disinterested, the disengaged
  • In a manner that embraces the deep awareness which prompts us to carry the fragile child AND the acceptance of sorrow as the ‘other deepest thing.’
  • Mindful that it sometimes includes words, but is usually rooted in committed action
  • Did you notice how few of her descriptions used overtly religious language – dreaming wistfully of bleached courtyards, fragrant buckets of olives and thyme, the mystery of lean faces, a great laugh?

It’s all prayer; it’s all prayerful living. If Nye writes from an embodied multi cultural life experience, she reminds us that prayer or prayerful living is complex and nuanced; and centered mostly in our awareness and openness to the movement of the Spirit. Whatever formal structure it has must be supported by this deep awareness to have real meaning in our lives.

In this context, weekly worship offers some practical support, but maybe not in the way we’ve often described it. First, it can re-center us into this life of prayerful awareness. Through music, preaching, joys and concerns and informal connecting – we remember who we are in this world. We remember what animates our Spirit and what connects us to the holy.

But secondly, worship can also be practice – whereby we seek to name the gaps and spaces that are holy. We do this not because they only happen in church – but rather because practicing here helps us see and experience such holiness throughout the rest of our week.

Author and former Episcopalian pastor, Barbara Brown Taylor, comes at this idea as she describes the transition from a Christian faith centered on of believing to a Christian faith rooted in “beholding.”

If we think in historical terms, she notes, then beholding came first, as many who encountered Jesus in the flesh, experienced things that they had never experienced before.

  • They “beheld his glory” without knowing what it was all about, and they followed him without being able to explain to their adversaries why.
  • Believing in Jesus meant trusting him, even though trusting him meant deviating from central aspects of their belief systems.
  • Those who beheld him did not behold the same thing, either.
  • Some beheld a human messiah, while others beheld God incarnate.
  • Some beheld a faithful Jew, while others beheld an anti-Jew…

“If it is true that the most important things in life cannot be explained, then is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common?” Might we allow …”God to go on challenging and refreshing our beliefs through what God gives us to behold.” (Beyond Belief: Beholding Christ, Christian Century, January 13, 2004)

The invitation of both Nye and Taylor, I think, is to live more fully into our progressive faith tradition. As such, we are invited to cease talking about prayer in terms of ‘good and bad’ or ‘right or wrong.’ We approach it less through words and more through awareness, less through formal patterns and more through compassion for the world around us. Less as ‘outsiders’ to a faith defined by belief and more as those who embrace a ‘beholding’ faith.

What Nye’s poem, Different Ways to Pray reminds when and is that if we give up on organized religion, including prayer, because some have shaped religion into a tight and confining box – we cut ourselves off from a long history of beholding life and God that may be a resource to us today.

If we too casually embrace ‘I’m spiritual’ as though we can do it by ourselves – we fool ourselves into thinking we do not need the power of community. If we are going to grow in our ability to behold the holy, to behold God in our midst, we need others who are practicing, struggling and rejoicing in that ancient practice. Of course, if being religious means creating systems of belief that become litmus tests for spiritual maturity, none of us want that. However, if being spiritual, or religious, or a Christian means beholding the divine in the world, such beholding only deepens in community.

And let’s remember that no word suffices to describe those experiences. If nothing else, progressive religion at its best has long cherished the inadequacy of language. Where Taylor said ‘dumbfoundedness binds us,’ we can also say that ‘inadequate language to hold all of life’ binds us even more.

To quote Nye,

We’re not going to be able

to live in this world

if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing

with one another.

 

The road will only be wide.

The rain will never stop falling.

 

The sorrows we know inform what it means to be alive, to be kind in large and small ways, and give us the heart to behold Grace in ways that transform us.

And so – in this place and in this community, let us pray. Let us in these next couple of moments call to mind the ways we have beheld holiness this week. Whether in moments of sorrow, or joy; in community or in solitary silence. Let us bring these moments to mind, offer a word of gratitude, and a plea that through it all, we would well up inside with kindness to all – near and far, known and unknown.

 

Prayer of Response, by Dan Rossmiller

Gracious God,

As we prepare to go out into a noisy, often confusing world, we thank you for quiet spaces, and the gentle poets who inhabit them.

We thank you for their different way of seeing and sharing the subtle nuances of everyday moments, caught in time, and the way they fill in the gaps and spaces we so often overlook as we hurry about our busy lives.

Be with us here in our church community as we re-center ourselves, each in our own way, and invite us into your story and your poem.

Be with us and strengthen us as we go forward. Help us to appreciate both sorrow and compassion, to see and experience what is holy in the world, to behold Grace in ways that transform us and to radiate kindness until (next) we gather here again.

 

Prophetic Faith in a Time of Climate Change (Winton Boyd) 4.22.18

What is more important (than) to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for all (humanity)? What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God. (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Abraham Heschel, pp. 235-50)

 I have set before you life and death, therefore choose life. —Deuteronomy 30:19

 Audio version of sermon (4.22.18)

I was sitting together with friends recently as one of them, a therapist, began talking about how we live with the pain of our past. She used the phrase; “we have the chance to metabolize our pain into something new.” We can convert that pain into something more life-giving. I had never heard that word metabolize used in that context. After she used it a second time, I asked if the use of the word ‘metabolize’ was now part of a psychological lexicon, to which she said no; but that her clients found the image helpful.

But I loved how she went outside her discipline to shed new light on it; how she used biology to open up psychology.

That’s what I hope we can this Easter season as we listen to voices outside our Christian tradition – shed new light on our own walk in the way of Jesus. Or to put another way – to metabolize the resurrection!

Therefore, we return again today to the work and writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Two weeks ago, I introduced this 20th century, Polish born Hasidic rabbi. As a prime contributor to a renewal in Judaism in the late 20th century, he also offered a prophetic voice to issues of justice in his day. His role as a prophet seems especially apt on this celebration of Earth Day. So, while he wrote and marched primarily around the issues of Soviet Jews, Civil Rights and Vietnam, his understanding of the prophetic role of people of faith speaks to the heart of our ‘green spirituality’. His words speak to the heart of our role as environmentalists in an era that either denounces climate change (on the one hand) or that often speaks grandly about the need for change with little behavior to back it up (on the other hand).

The prophets of the Hebrew Bible, first and foremost, reminded God’s people of what they already knew. “Remember” was a common imperative.

For Heschel, one avenue to ‘remembering’ was standing before God’s creation in awe. “The prophet is imbued by the grandeur of divine presence… (He/She) is one who feels fiercely. (p. 63, 62, Essential Writings)

Creation Care emerges from a deep life of spirit, the correlation of our heart with what is breaking the heart of God’s people and creation. I remember years ago being in a conversation in the conservative Central Valley of California with clergy on all sides of the Open and Affirming issue. As opinions were being shared and argued, one more traditional clergy said, ‘Human sexuality is not an issue for us, it is a matter of life and death.’

His implication was that the pro-lgbtq clergy were casually embracing the ‘issue of the day.’ I’ll never forget my colleague, Frank, who instantly leapt up and leaned across the table so his face was inches from the speaker and said, ‘we can disagree with each other on homosexuality, but don’t you ever, ever, suggest that being Open and Affirming is NOT a life and death matter. Because for me, it is.”

I knew Frank was the father of a lesbian daughter, I knew how many pastoral conversations he had with LGBTQ people, their parents or their siblings as they sought to find a life giving way in the in the midst of California’s conservative Bible Belt. Frank was a leader in the Open and Affirming movement, in part, because he ‘felt fiercely.’  Without such embodied truth, our words and actions have little heft.

When it comes to Creation Care, author and spiritual elder, Joanna Macy says it another way – we must reconnect with, and name once again, the truth that this planet is holy. She suggests this awareness may come from one of three sources;

  • our grief for our world that contradicts illusions of the separate and isolated self,
  • breakthroughs in science,
  • or inspirations from the wisdom traditions of native peoples and mystical voices in the major religions . . . that remind us again that our world is a sacred whole in which we have a sacred mission.

Our opportunity in these days, she says is that these three rivers—anguish for our world, scientific breakthroughs, and ancestral teachings—flow together.

From the confluence of these rivers we drink. We awaken to what we once knew (we remember): we are alive in a living Earth, the source of all we are and can achieve.

Feel fiercely, fall in love again, and reawaken. The beauty of having a celebration of Earth Day is not to introduce us to the need for climate advocacy and care. It is to revisit what we know deep in our bones. It is to return to what we so often feel but can’t articulate in words.

In a few minutes, we’ll sing again this canticle to creation by Sara Thomsen (2016)

Canticle of the mourning dove,

Angels in pine and spruce

Fox and the bear and the moose,

Listen to the choir above

Gloria in excelsis deo, Gloria in excelsis

Heron delivers the homily,

Incense fills the air

Cedar boughs in prayer,

And I am lost in reverie

As a survivor of the Holocaust, and as a religious minority, Heschel understood sustaining this fierce feeling is difficult. Dreams are worn down, enthusiasm is deflated, and cynicism takes over. He saw it in the grind of the civil rights movement.

His high view of God comes to bear. “To us of this generation who have walked through the ruins of aborted dreams and desecrated ideals, the question is:  How does the road sign read: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Or: To despair is to betray; at the end (God’s) mercy will prevail.” (p.75)

He noted that we faced the twin pressures of callousness and indifference. “To speak about God and remain silent on (Climate Change) is blasphemous… God is filled with compassion, concern and pathos, whereas the tragedy of human beings is their indifference and impartiality; the root of sin is callousness.”

He himself was no stranger to this indifference and callousness. Arnold Eisen notes “…The man who lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust must have been plagued by doubt as to God’s presence in the world. And I think that he was able to speak of it nonetheless because of experiences of God’s presence in his life that contradicted… the massive evidence for God’s absence from the world.

So there wasn’t certainty available, but there was experience and there was faith.” (https://onbeing.org/programs/arnold-eisen-the-opposite-of-good-is-indifference-sep2017/)

I love this – no guarantee of certainty but an appreciation for experience and faith.

Of course, this shaped Heschel’s view of religious faith.

“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

Let’s let that sink in. We take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. Doing more than we understand in order to understand more than we do.

I think this has practical application to how we maintain a prophetic voice on this Earth Day.

It is to work diligently, but also creatively. To be what Heschel called a “spiritual effrontery.” Creative dissent, he said, is not simply repudiation, it offers a vision.” (p.103)

This is why we need to photographers, the artists, the poets and the dancers and their love of creation. It is why we need gardeners and moviemakers. It is why we value Celtic spirituality and Native American religious life, with their deep connection to the earth. We celebrate Earth Day because our lives need celebration and joy and praise! I remember years ago Tammy and I hosted Norma Wirzba, a noted environmental theologian, for lunch before an Ecumenical Earth Day Event titled, Food, Faith and Earth Day. When Norman asked Tammy if she was coming to the afternoon event, she noted that the spring time was a busy season for teachers, so on this one day of the week when she wasn’t teaching, “I think I’ll celebrate Earth Day with my hands in the garden.” Norman loved it!

It is to pray while recognizing the limits of our prayer language. Last week, I listened to a lovely Irish man, Padraig Ó Tuama, from the Corrymeela Community in Northern Ireland share about his morning prayer ritual. His daily prayer concluded with the phrase, “I greet God, and I greet the God who is more God than the God I greet.” (https://onbeing.org/programs/padraig-o-tuama-belonging-creates-and-undoes-us-both-mar2017/)

To live with a creative prophetic vision is to do so with the deep trust that the Spirit will give us strength, creativity and understanding for the long and critical journey.

On this Earth Day may we remember the promise of life given to us on Easter; may we cherish the power of all God’s creatures and creations to help us fiercely feel justice into being; and may we face the discouragement that is sure to come with a leap of faith, a leap of hope, and a leap of vision for what can be.   Amen.

 

Audio version of Tammy Boyd leading the congregation in “Canticle of the Feathered Ones” by Sara Thomsen.

 

God Out of the Box (Ken Pennings) 4.15.18

At ORUCC, we use a lot of theological terms that make some of us cringe, but make others of us smile, depending on where we are in the movement toward metaphorical understanding.

Audio Version of Sermon

Given the rise in intolerance in American society towards those perceived to be different or other, it seems fitting to explore what some leading voices outside the Christian faith might offer us on our journey of hope and grace. Last Sunday, Winton shared the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This morning, I’ll be sharing insights from Deepak Chopra, born in October 1946, from a Hindu background, an American author, public speaker, alternative medicine advocate, and a prominent figure in the New Age movement. Through his books and videos, he has become one of the best-known and wealthiest figures in alternative medicine. Chopra studied medicine in India before emigrating to the United States in 1970 where he completed residencies in internal medicine and endocrinology.

I’m going to move into Deepak Chopra in a round-about way. I’m going to start with the teaching of one of the greats from within the Christian tradition, Marcus Borg. Recently, in Java & Jesus, we discussed one of the chapters from Borg’s books, Convictions, in which he shares an experience quite common to most of us in the Progressive Christian Church, a movement through the stages of pre-critical naivete, critical thinking, and postcritical affirmation.

Pre-critical naivete is a childhood stage in which we take for granted whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us is true. For instance, if they say the Bible is true and Christianity is the only way, we take it for granted.

Eventually, we begin to wonder how much of what we absorbed as children is really the way things are. We move into a stage of critical thinking in which we question what we once so readily believed.

The third stage, postcritical affirmation, begins with the realization that some truths, especially religious truths, can be expressed only in metaphorical and symbolic language. This stage does not abandon critical thinking but integrates it into a larger whole. In the stage of postcritical affirmation, the great stories of religion, including the miracle stories of the Bible, yes, even the resurrection of Christ, can be seen as true even though not literally factual.

Borg applied this triad to his memories, conversions, and convictions about salvation. For young Marcus Borg, in the stage of pre-critical naivete, salvation was about believing in Jesus and going to heaven when he died. The other possibility, of course, was hell. Salvation asked the question, “Where will you spend eternity?”

Critical thinking led Borg to his conviction that Christianity is not primarily about heaven and hell. Rather, salvation in the Bible is seldom about an afterlife, but mostly about transformation this side of death. Christianity and salvation are mostly about this life, not the next.

Thinking critically about salvation as metaphor gently led Borg into the third stage of postcritical affirmation, where he no longer cringed each time he heard the word “salvation,” because the word was packed with new meaning.

When I was hired at this church nine years ago, I was a bit stuck at the stage of critical-thinking, and hadn’t yet moved into the stage of postcritical affirmation. I remember a conversation with some of you when the topic of salvation came up, and I retorted, “I don’t need a Savior. I’ll save myself, thank you very much!” I’ve softened into the stage of postcritical affirmation where I don’t bristle hearing the term salvation. Like Borg, I have packed the term with new meaning, and realize that I do, in fact, need salvation every day — salvation from all that binds me or blinds me in this life.

Many of us in this congregation have journeyed through these three stages to be able to use certain theological terms without cringing, because we’ve packed these terms with new meaning.

A few examples:

  • Prayer – Is prayer about prying open the hands of God to receive a blessing for ourselves or others? Is prayer about coaxing God to help us in our times of need? Is prayer about crossing ourselves at the free-throw line so our team will win the game?

No, most of us are moving toward a new understanding of prayer. Prayer is about aligning ourselves with the divine, expressing ourselves openly and honestly before God in a loving trusting relationship through all that we think, feel or do. We pray through our breathing, our yearning, our laughing, our crying, our waking, our sleeping, our working, our playing. Our very lives, and even our deaths, are our prayer to God.

Some of us who once cringed at the idea of prayer now enter into prayer expectantly because it’s packed with new meaning.

  • Faith — Is faith about believing with absolute certainty? Claiming certain promises without question or doubt? Knowing that our interpretation of Scripture is accurate and true?

No, most of us are moving toward a new understanding of faith. Faith is about living non-anxiously in the uncertainties, ambiguities, and perplexities of life. Faith is affirming the “all is well” of the universe, seeing the divine in every aspect of creation.

Some of us who once cringed at the idea of being a person of faith now gladly self-identify that way.

At ORUCC, we use a lot of theological terms that make some of us cringe, but make others of us smile, depending on where we are in the movement toward metaphorical understanding. Because we are not all at the same place in our use of metaphor, it’s important for us to explain what we mean by the words we use. And take it from me, as a former fundamentalist Baptist, I’m not sure some of us ever will be completely free of the cringe factor.

We use one important theological term more often than any other – God.

What do we mean when we use the term God?

This is where the wisdom of Deepak Chopra may become meaningful and helpful to us.

I’m quite sure that Deepak Chopra, in his critique of institutional religion, has moved from a pre-critical naivete to a postcritical affirmation when he writes “Religions draw into tight camps where their God is the only true God, for racial, tribal, political, and theological reasons. I find none of them justified” (page 91).

“To see God without illusions, we’ve had to overturn conventional religion. We had no choice. Religion does its worst because of lower-brain responses (fear of punishment, us versus them, the need for security and safety) mixed in with tribalism, cultural mythology, childhood fantasies, and projections. The whole mélange was unhealthy. More to the point, it wasn’t God” (page 206).

In Chopra’s opinion, God has nothing to do with the divisions of people racially, tribally, politically, or theologically. Instead, God is much more than, much broader than, any god of institutional religion. This is God out of the box!

Chopra writes, “(God) cannot be put in a box. As curious as this sounds, it’s the most important thing about God…Quite literally, to find God, you must go outside the box” (page 145).

And he writes, “The reality of God is hidden behind a fiction of God” (pg. 74). Our job, then is to move beyond any fiction of God, much of which is found in our own Scriptures, to discover the reality of God.

Chopra summarizes his God-view on the last page of his book, The Future of God (which our Progressive Christianity Discussion Group read a couple years ago):

  • God is the intelligence that conceives, governs, constructs, and becomes the universe.
  • God is not a mythical person – God is Being itself.
  • God exists as a field of all possibilities.
  • God is pure consciousness, the source of all thought, feelings, and sensations.
  • God transcends all opposites, including good and evil, which arise in the field of duality.
  • God is one but diversifies into the many – God makes possible the observer, the observed, and the process of observation.
  • God is pure bliss, the source of every human joy.
  • God is the self of the universe.
  • There is only God. The universe is God made manifest.

 

In this summary, Chopra packs the term God with new meaning. God is the intelligence or mind of the universe, Being itself, the field of all possibilities, pure consciousness, the source of compassion and every human joy, the self of the universe. In other places, he writes that God is Wholeness, Oneness, Brahman nature or Buddha nature.

 

“When you reach higher consciousness by any means, you no longer separate what is good for you from what is good for everyone. Humanity contains Buddha nature (the source of compassion); the world contains Buddha nature; the cosmos is nothing but Buddha nature” (page 118).

Is this what some of you mean when you use the word God? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it’s something to think about!

Certainly, we, with the apostle Paul (I Cor. 13:11-13), long to move beyond our childish reasonings, see more clearly than we might see in a dim or cloudy mirror, and more fully apprehend and reflect all that God is.

What may be more significant to us than Chopra’s view of God are his ideas about the human path into God.

He writes, “A seeker is searching for God, reality, and the true self all at once” (page 165).

“The journey to know God begins where words fail us” (page 147).

 

“You face only a single choice: to align yourself with wholeness or not” (page 228).

 

“Empty your mind of all opposites. Since God has no opposite, what you will be left with is Oneness. The way it works is something like this. A crisis has arisen, and people are rushing around in a panic. The crisis could be anything – a hurricane, a bank failure, a political upheaval. You are tempted to join in the rush, but you tell yourself, ‘God isn’t found here. God isn’t the crisis or the solution but both. God isn’t action or inaction but beyond both. God isn’t panic or calm but beyond both.’ By examining every detail of duality, you stop being attached to mental constructs and the emotions they arouse” (page 208).

 

We must open our minds to “a God who is all things, (who) can’t be only good, loving, peaceable, and just. Whether we like it or not – and mostly we really hate it – we must make room for God’s participation in the bad, painful, and chaotic parts of life…. Once your mind begins to wrap itself around an all-inclusive God, one who simply is, you are truly escaping illusion” (page 154).

 

To know God, “Go beyond the shadow play of appearances, and reality will greet you, as Rumi says, in ‘a world too full to talk about.’ Enter the realm of all possibilities.” (page 222).

 

So what is our path into God, according to Chopra?

  • Search for God, reality, wholeness, and the true self all at once.
  • Empty our minds of opposites; examine every detail of duality; stop being attached to mental constructs and the emotions they arouse. For instance, drop the illusion of our own goodness or someone else’s badness.
  • Open our minds to the God who simply is, including all that is good and all that is bad.

 

And if we have trouble walking that path into God, Chopra encourages us, “Your present self, in its un-awakened state, isn’t your enemy or a cripple or a failure. It is Buddha waiting to realize itself. It’s the seed of wisdom needing to be nurtured” (page 121).

“Every step forward contains a hint of Buddha nature” (page 121).

One of our members reflected on these optimistic words and wrote, “No matter how old we are or how successful or unsuccessful we have been in our lives, the seed of wisdom is there — just waiting to be nurtured and developed.  How wonderful a concept!  I can start to nurture that seed at any time.  I CAN realize my true self!”

I don’t know what you’ll do with Deepak Chopra, perhaps read his book, The Future of God, and decide what’s relevant for you.

What I plan to do:

  • Try perceiving and addressing God using Chopra’s language. See if it works for me.
  • As often as possible, confront dualities and move toward wholeness, oneness & connectedness with all people, all creation and all that is.
  • Be patient with myself when I fail. The Buddha is within me waiting to reveal itself!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Boydseye View – Pastoral Search Process (4.11.18)

A Boydseye View

It was nice to get a report from moderator Susan Watson after Sunday’s congregational meeting that a new search committee was approved; and to hear they met with Associate Conference Minister Joanne Thomsen on Monday. It is a great group with an important task, and Sara Roberts is an able and trusted leader who will make an excellent chair.

Those of you who were at the congregational meeting know I was not there; nor will I be at any forum and/or meeting called by the Search Committee in the coming months. My role, and the role of Ken Pennings and Tammy Martens, is to keep the wheels of ministry and service for the whole church moving forward. It is to work alongside and in support of our Moderator, Susan Jane Watson, the Leadership Team and each of our five Ministries as they organize, plan and implement various programs and initiatives.   If the Search Committee needs pastoral support, they will be well served by the Rev. Thomsen. She will be their point person for the very well thought out UCC search process; and the pastoral support for them in their role throughout their period of work.

Over the course of the summer, we’ve invited three other pastors to preach here in July and August. These three are Sharon Goss (ORUCC member, retired UCC minister), Muriel Otto (a newly ordained UCC pastor serving Cross of Life Lutheran Church in Brookfield), Kerri Parker (former pastor at McFarland UCC, now Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches).   Their voices, their preaching styles, and their leadership will offer us alternative models to the three clergy you know best.

Administratively, Office Manger Debbie Bauerkemper has notified the Leadership Team that she will be retiring at the end of January 2019 (in all fairness, she told us this before I made my decision). A small mission team has been formed to work on replacing Debbie, including reviewing the structure of her position and the best use of our administrative dollars. The goal is to have a plan for a new position(s) by early fall in order to hire someone to shadow Debbie as she does the year-end financial work in December 2018 and January 2019. It goes without saying that there is also attention being given to capturing and documenting the ‘institutional memory’ that both Debbie and I currently carry in our heads.

While it is still taking shape, it is my hope that my preaching focus in the fall will offer me a chance to reflect back to you the blessings of this congregation, it’s ministry and it’s possibilities going forward. While I have left two previous congregations in my career as an ordained pastor, this departure process after 20 years of ministry is a new one to me; as it is for most of you. I hope we can walk this journey with appreciation, honesty, humility and hope. And let us do so as a people of prayer. Please pray for Tammy and me (and Kythie) as we pray for you throughout these months.

Adjusted Schedule for April 15 – Due to weather

Our 9 a.m. programs have been cancelled

We WILL worship at 10 a.m., childcare provided.

Civil Rights Tour information session will be rescheduled for April 22 at 11:15 a.m.

 

Awe and Confession (Winton Boyd) 4.8.17

This is the first in a series of sermons inspired by voices outside the Christian tradition.  Today, we begin with the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Audio version of Awe and Confession by Winton Boyd

One of the joys of our Dane Sanctuary Coalition has been the chance to work alongside committed activists from several Jewish congregations. Later today, I’ll be part of a panel at one of them, sharing a bit of our process to become a sanctuary congregation in 2017. In late December, I had the chance to meet with 3 leaders from this group to outline the questions our congregation faced and the things we were learning. After thanking me for meeting with them in the week leading up to Christmas, they jokingly asked if I might become a Jew so I could join them as they went through their discussion process. What a gift to even be able to joke, what a gift to share a common quest with a tradition that many of us know so little about. The beauty of these interactions, whenever they come, remind us how valuable it is to see the world from a lens different than our own. To relish the beauty of another tradition, another set of terms, but a shared passion for justice. Conversations and relationships like this have led to the creation of a sermon series this spring in which we’ll be exploring thinkers and theologians outside the Christian tradition, including Jewish writers, Buddhist leaders, and women poets.

Today we explore some of the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was born in Warsaw to a long line of Hasidic Rabbis. He studied philosophy in Germany but was expelled back to Warsaw during the Nazi reign. He escaped Poland just weeks before the Nazi invasion and settled in the United States.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, his writings contributed greatly to the spiritual renewal of Judaism, especially in this country. He looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet – calling on the word of God, challenging Jews to attend to issues of justice.

At the same time, he was passionately interfaith, once called the ‘apostle to the gentiles.’ He raised a prophetic challenge to the social issues of his day, including marching with Martin Luther King, and protesting Vietnam. He appears beside King in several of the most iconic photographs of the civil rights era – including the march to Selma and protesting Vietnam at Arlington National Cemetery.

Protesting Vietnam at Arlington National Cemetery

It’s impossible to condense his lifetime of work into a couple of sermons, but amidst the craziness of our time, his almost forgotten voice is one that can help us gain perspective on the now.

In today’s terms, Heschel would be described as a social liberal and a theological conservative. What this means, I think, is he had a high view of God; and a Holocaust informed view of humanity. He knew the power of destruction within the human spirit. Together, this shaped how he imagined us moving forward on pressing social issues.

“Stand still and consider the wondrous works of the Lord,” Heschel often quoted from the book of Job in the Old Testament. The problem, he reflected, is our sense of wonder is declining, and as it does, our humanity deteriorates and also our ability to be aware of God’s presence.

His faith was shaped by a simple truth. “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder.” (Heschel, Essential Writings, p. 46) Or, “the beginning of wisdom is the awe of God.” (p. 57) Regardless of how theistic our faith is, how ‘personal’ our sense of God is in our lives, I think we can appreciate that reverence for a Spirit of Life that is greater than us is crucial to a full life.

This, however, was coupled with Heschel’s belief in the way the human ego prevents us from understanding God. “I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, conceit; the end of embarrassment (is) a callousness that (points to) the end of humanity.”

He continues, “(our) world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas….I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom everything in the world is crystal clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty…The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret appreciation.” (p.56)

While this statement was written in 1964, I can think of no truer or clearer statement of our current predicament. Oh, that we would remember what it is like, as a culture, to be embarrassed, or to see our pettiness; to confess our small mindedness.

Said another way, “prayer begins where our power ends.”  It is only in our recognition of human limits that we can draw on sacred and divine power. It is only in being sufficiently ‘embarrassed’ that we can live into the challenge, the divine demand for action. (p. 48)

 

Peter Marty, in this week’s Christian Century magazine, nuanced this sentiment even more. In response to yet another school shooting (are we ever going to be sufficiently embarrassed by these shootings as a culture?), he writes, “A similar pattern emerges every time … The coverage moves in to explore the shooter’s motives; we combine guesswork and curiosity as people puzzle over how such a dastardly act could happen. Good people don’t do this kind of thing, the reasoning goes. Only bad ones do.

This thinking helps feed the narrative that God makes only two kinds of people. One kind is righteous and can be trusted to behave honorably regardless of what they have in their hands. The other is unrighteous and cannot be trusted for any good.

Marty continues, “The problem with this crude dichotomy is that it rests on a naïve view of human nature. If only evil people committing evil deeds could be separated from the rest of us, we might be fine. ‘But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’   Reinhold Niebuhr said that often evil is not done by obviously evil people but by righteous people who forget the limits of their righteousness.

He concludes, ‘sorting through the thicket of self-righteousness is complicated. Self-criticism can be tough to engage. Admitting individual wrong is hard. We fall in love with our moral positions.’ (Christian Century, April 11, 2018)

 

At our Thursday meditation group we had a conversation on some of these same kinds of topics and wondered if life was a mystery or if it was messy. Or both. A ‘messtory.’

On this first Sunday after Easter, it is good to remember how much mess and mystery existed in our crucifixion and resurrection stories.

If the faithful way forward combines awe and confession ( a ritual response to Heschel’s ‘embarrassment’), what does awe look like in our life? When and where do we tap into it? How intentional, in the midst of busyness, are we in paying attention to and soaking in the awesomeness around us?

On Easter Sunday, I stood in the freezing cold just behind this window at 6 a.m. In the dark, the one thing that was clearly visible was the full moon. It was magical and quite honestly, made getting up that morning worth it. I did not linger (the windchill was 8*), but I was blessed with the gift of appreciation in those quiet few seconds.

Your awe probably comes in different ways (like from inside).   The real question is, how do we create space in our lives for it?

It’s one of the reasons I love church. Gathering together – here and in the many other places we gather – can be a discipline in finding awe – if we allow it to be. Last Sunday, as with every Sunday, I felt a deep reverence watching all kinds of interactions among God’s people. Broken people, all of us, finding connection and finding solace in community. The wondrous works of the Lord are all around for those who are looking.

Of course this kind of awe can be found everywhere. The daily, practical question is, ‘how can we remember to look?’

And if we are one of those prone to finding fault with ourselves before anyone else, how to we remember to find awe in our own creation? In a lovely talk on Wednesday night about non violence and the environment, Activist and priest, John Dear, invoked our need for kindness – starting with kindness towards ourselves and moving out to others. I think the same could be said for awe. If we are not in awe of our own life, it will be hard to feel true awe in others or in God’s creation. So, for some of us, the first prayer can and should be, “instill me with reverence, God of creation, for how you created ME in your image too.”

Sometimes awe takes the form of deep appreciation for where life has brought us amidst the uncertainties or struggles.

Having an April Fools joke played on me last Sunday, under the direction of Julie Mazer and the children she works with, helped me cherish the amazing path my life has taken in this congregation and among many waves of children. I cherish the blessings, the challenges, the history, and even the future. And even as I cherish that in just a few minutes you will be moving forward by naming a search committee to replace me, I was struck by Heschel’s reminder – ‘prayer begins where my power ends.’ J   The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret appreciation.

And what about the other side of Heschel’s balance? What does confessing our small mindedness look like?

I think something I need to confess is the way I have minimized the need for confession. Like many of you, I’ve often thought the worldwide church overdoes flagellation and sin, and needs to rebalance with appropriate blessing and affirmation. And I do believe in original blessing. But have I swung too far? Have I, as liberal and progressive Christian, placed too much confidence in humanity – and even worse – in our brand of humanity? Have I forgotten how small our imagination is at times; have I too often equated our imagination with God’s and thus made those with ‘other’ kinds of imaginations the ‘evil’ ones?

The beauty of our progressive faith is our willingness to embrace the complexity of the God within the limits of the human ego. Use whatever words you want, but how can we help each other maintain this balance between originally blessed and forever sinful? Possessing the divine spark of wonder and light; while also capable of incredible destruction. Each one of us.

It is my hope that Heschel’s call for the both/and of Godliness and Godlessness within us will be an antidote to the temptation of smugness. Not a day goes by when we read or listen to the news that we aren’t invited to a feast of self-righteousness. I hope we can help each other – by our humility and honesty – remember to confess, to pray, to turn to wonder and mystery when hearts can’t understand. But it is also my hope that together we can share awe, remind one another and everyone we meet of the beautiful mysteries of life and spring and humanity and love.

Spring Preaching Themes

Given the rise in acceptable intolerance, it seems fitting to explore what some leading voices outside the Christian faith might offer us on our journey of hope and grace.  Throughout the spring, we’ll be exploring voices from other paths.  The list is by no means exhaustive.  It is not meant to be a primer on other religions.  Rather, we’ll explore the writings of a few folks that seem pertinent to our time and our walk.

April 8

If You Want to Know God, Sharpen Your Sense of the Human (Winton Boyd preaching)

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was Jew, a rabbi, an early civil rights advocate, and a believer not in theology but ‘depth theology.’  Rabbi Heschel was born in Warsaw to a long line of Hasidic Rabbis, he studied philosophy in Germany. Expelled back to Warsaw, he escaped just weeks before the Nazi invasion and settled in the United States.  His writings contributed greatly to the spiritual renewal of Judaism. But he was passionately interfaith, once called the ‘apostle to the gentiles.’ He raised prophetic challenge to the social issues of his day, including marching with MLK, and protesting Vietnam.  

Heschel calls us to balance ultimate questions with awe in our lives.  It is in the intersection of meaningful questions and awe that we experience God.  The beginning of wisdom is the awe of God.  

“Prayer begins where our power ends.”

April 15

God Out of the Box (Ken Pennings preaching)
“The reality of God is hidden behind a fiction of God” (“The Future of God,” by Deepak Chopra, pg. 74). With the help of Deepak Chopra and Marcus Borg (“Convictions: How I learned What Matters Most”)), might we move beyond human words and ideas about God into the Reality of God Godself?

April 22

Prophetic Faith in a Time of Climate Change (Earth Day) (Winton Boyd preaching)

We will use the words of  Rabbi Heschel again.  He focused on the issues of his day – the plight of Soviet Jews, echoes of the Holocaust, Civil Rights, Vietnam.  His words, however, still ring true for our time.

“The prophet is (one) who feels fiercely.” 

“To us of this generation who have walked through the ruins of aborted dreams and desecreated ideals, the question is:  How does the road sign read: Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Or: To despair is to betray; at the end (God’s) mercy will prevail.”  

“A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”

“To speak about God and remain silent on (Climate Change) is blasphemous… God is filled with compassion, concern and pathos, whereas the tragedy of human beings is their indifference and impartiality; the root of sin is callousness.”

April 29

Different Ways to Pray (Winton Boyd preaching)

Naomi Shihab Nye was raised raised by Missouri Synod Lutheran mother and Palestinian father, writes with a global view – about joy and suffering, immigrants, opening ourselves to the wider world.   We will explore the Sacred through some of her poetry, including “Kindness” and “Gate A-4”

May 6

Learning to Play a New Game (Tammy Martens preaching)

The beginning of reconciliation comes from the generosity of The Forgiving Victim. We are invited to accept a new identity from the Forgiving Victim and be drawn into this new way of being human–by living out the Gospel of reconciliation. As we move into the possibility of being forgiven, we no longer need to define ourselves over and against others.

May 13

Jesus and Buddha As Brothers (Winton Boyd preaching)

We will use some of the wisdom of Buddhist teacher and master, Thich Nhat Hanh.  

May 20

The Inner Music of Prayer (Pentecost) (Winton Boyd preaching)

On Pentecost, we’ll return to Rabbi Heschel.  

“There is a story about someone who gazes through a window at people jumping and moving and thinks they are mad.  From the outside prayer and religious observance are difficult to understand. Only when the inner music is perceived can the religious expression begin to have meaning.”   

How do we nurture our own ‘inner music of prayer?’  What are the ways we get back in touch with the deep streams of knowing and being within us?  If we haven’t ever listened to them, how do we develop that practice?