advent 3a: chucking the wrench

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Advent / Christology / Gospels / Jesus / Lectionary / New Testament / Religion / Year A
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It’s a Saturday in the middle of winter, and the heating system in your church breaks down. It’s cold outside, and somehow seems even colder inside. The air stings, and the pews are frigid. You can’t imagine having sweet little old ladies sitting on them tomorrow, but you don’t want to cancel church again. It’s been a snowy winter.

The HVAC company van rolls into the church driveway, and the technician gets out with a clipboard and a toolbox. It’s the weekend, so labor is going to cost you time-and-a-half, but you have no other option.

He heads into the furnace room, and proceeds to take the equipment apart to diagnose and repair the problem.

After being there for several hours, you know that the technician is feeling your anxiety. He’s feeling pressured to get this thing fixed for the morning. There isn’t any time to have a part ordered. This thing needs fixed today.

With tension in the air, you walk into the furnace room, and ask the technician, “Are you the actual repair man, or should I be waiting for someone else?”

He backs away from the furnace and looks at you, as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”

Replay that story again, but this time from the perspective of the HVAC repair guy. It’s Saturday. You wanted to be with your spouse and kids. But, here you are in this church trying to work a miracle on this machine that has so much neglected routine maintenance on it, it’s not even funny. You know that they have church tomorrow, and so you’re trying to fix it with what you have, instead of putting in an order for a new part. And, after several hours, the hapless minister—who’s been hovering like an anxious mother bird—insults you by asking if he should be waiting for someone else to come and actually fix this thing.

The fact that you didn’t chuck your wrench at the minister’s head should land you on a list for the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is what John the Baptist does to Jesus. Jesus has been preaching, and healing, and exorcising, walking on water, and raising people from the dead… and John sends his disciples to ask Jesus:

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I wonder if John sent them there—to the person that he knew very well was the Messiah—because he wanted to put his own disciples in the position where they could question him. He pushed them to push God.

His disciples weren’t to be the kind that just sat quiet and still, and did what they were told. No, they were the kind of disciples who questioned everything and anything. They stood in the long line of people who dared to ask God what in the world He was up to. Like Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and Habakkuk, and Job—John the Baptist’s disciples were going to learn how to walk up to God and ask God a question.

Because by doing so they would learn that God welcomes such things. In fact God yearns for such attention and willingness to engage in a real relationship. God would not throw a wrench at them. God would love them.

And, by forming his disciples in such a manner, they would follow in John’s footsteps, preparing the way of the Lord wherever they went.

advent 2a: a turn of repentance

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Advent / Gospels / New Testament / Religion / Status / Temple / Year A
Calligraphy by Rick. Watercolor on paper.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

As John bellowed these words you had been clapping and whistling, chanting and laughing with the crowds—jeering at the sad faces of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The crowd was electric with John’s verbal lashing, and was merciless with their own taunts.

The long-fringed robes and the broad phylacteries of the religious leaders, which they had put on as a demonstration of the depth of their faith, now clung to them like a jester’s costume.

They had come to see what John was up to, and they had fallen into a trap. They had come to watch him, and yet they had become the focus of attention.

And then… with the laughter and shouting still hanging in their air… John the baptist turned from the Pharisees and Sadducees—the keepers of the Word and the tenders to the Temple—and he turned towards… you, and the people around you. With fierce eyes, lit like from within, he looked you over from top to bottom.

While you had moments earlier joined in on the jeering of the professionally religious, whose faults are freely available for all to see, and who make such easy targets, now you feel those same words stuck in your throat.

What fruit have I bore? Where are my sagging branches, heavy with the fruits of righteousness and compassion? Where have I shown myself to be on the side of God? Where have I been an agent of peace? Where have I stood on the side of the oppressed and impoverished? Where have I shown that the poor in spirit are the ones who are truly blessed?

The stones, lying at my feet… could these stones be shown to be more faithful than I? Children of Abraham?

John the Baptist, seething in anger that his sermon had been used as a means to mock and jeer others—to set them as unwelcome outsiders—looked at you. He turned and gazed over his shoulder at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, standing there stung, like they had just been spanked, and worried that they were about to take another round.

John then walked over to them. He gestured to one of them, and the man took off his phylactery and handed it to John. John strapped it to his forehead. He motioned to another for his fringed-robe, and the man gave it to him. He draped himself in it.

Then he looked across the crowd towards us, and he said:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Advent 1a: you know nothing

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Advent / Jesus / Lectionary / Year A

No, if we know anything these days, it’s that we know so very little.

Our confidence can wither in moments, and everything that we once thought was “up” will be found to be “upside down.”

For the pundits and the pollsters try and lull us to sleep with their braggadocio. They hypnotize us with their numbers, and plans, and historical perspectives. They have their canon laws, their proof texts, and their little prayers that we can read at the end of a gospel tract and rest confident that we are going to be part of that number when the saints go marching in.

But then you’ll be grinding meal, and in a flash your partner will be gone. Or, she’ll be left at the grinding stone by herself, wondering where you went when there was so much work to be done.

If there is one thing that we know, it’s that we have no idea what’s going on.

But, that’s ok. We don’t need to be in the know.

All we need to be is awake. Prepared. Ready.

For what? God knows what.

You know nothing, John Snow.

Maybe we’re getting ready to shoot up into the sky. Maybe we’re ready for that little mustard seed in us to sprout suddenly into the greatest of trees.

Maybe we’re waiting for something as silly as a child being born in a manger.

Who knows? I don’t.

But, I can be awake.

2,000 years later and I’ve finally figured out the Lord’s Prayer! (maybe) (ok, not really)

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Jesus / Lectionary / New Testament / Prayer / Year C

West Virginia SunriseIn the Gospel of Luke the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus gives them a shorter-than-we’re-used-to version of the Lord’s Prayer.

There’s a jillion sermons and books and journal articles and videos and blog posts about the content of the Lord’s Prayer, how important it is, how similar it is to other ancient Jewish prayers of Jesus’ day, etc.

But, here’s the thing… I think we might just possibly be barking up the wrong tree. At least in Luke.

I mean Jesus is known for not directly answering a questions asked of him, or doing exactly what is asked of him. People ask him what they must do to inherit eternal life, and he says, “What do you think?” People ask him what the greatest commandment is, and he asks them what they read in the law. His mother informs him that the party has run out of wine, and says that it’s none of his business…before changing the water into wine.

So, I find it a little curious that the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he just spits out a six line prayer like that’s all there is to it.

If you asked someone to teach you how to fly a jumbo jet aircraft, and they told you about six knobs and levers to pull and twist, and that that was all there was to it, you’d might be a little skeptical.

If you asked someone how to make wonderfully flaky and buttery puff pastry, and they gave you a short ingredient list and then told you to throw it all in the oven for a little bit, you’d want a little more detail.

If you asked an artist how you could paint like Van Gogh, and they told you to get some paint and while making a sunflower on a canvas to apply the paint thickly, you wouldn’t be too impressed.

So, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and he gives them a short prayer? That’s it? Really?

That wouldn’t even work today. If someone comes into my office, asking me to teach them how to pray, they aren’t going to be satisfied if I hand them a card with the Lord’s Prayer stamped on it. They are going to want more.

Jesus and his first century Jewish disciples had lots of prayers. Prayers for when they woke up, prayers for when they sat down to eat, prayers for when they had messed up… They were not short on prayers.

So, what’s going on here?

I wonder if Jesus isn’t punking them. Not so that he could embarrass them, of course, but so that they might have the fortitude to go deep and keep going there.

Peter Rollins tells a great tale in his book Insurrection about a man who desperately runs up to the home of the town priest and bangs on the door looking for help for a family that’s about to get evicted. The man tells the clergyman with great emotion that this is a great family, that they are very trustworthy, that they’ve never, ever been late with their rent before—and if they don’t come up with the full amount today that they will be out on the street by evening. The priest says, yes, of course he can help. But, just before setting off to the church for the discretionary fund checkbook the priest asks the man, “By the way, how do you know the family?”

The man replies nonchalantly, “Oh, I’m their landlord.”

The guy is asking a favor from someone, and yet he also has the power within himself to do something about it.

Knowing Jesus’ predilection for answering a question with a question, and for responding with unconventional responses to requests, I wonder if this isn’t what Jesus is doing here. As if Jesus is really saying,

You want to know how to pray? You want to commune with the Force that set the sun, moon, and stars in the sky and put the planets on their courses? You want to step into the Presence of the One who knit you together in your mother’s womb, and whose glory stretches across the universe? Well, here’s a few nice words to get you started.

Everything you need to know is within you. But, you’re going to need more than this. And, you’re going to need more time than we have this morning.

And if it doesn’t work the first time, or the 1,578th time—just keep at it. Be persistent. Be in it for the long haul. 

Ask, and keep asking. Knock and keep knocking. But, keep your words down to a handful, because the real magic happens when you listen. 

Do this, and you might just be surprised at the doors which open, and the gifts you receive.

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book review / Religion / Science

I’m on sabbatical right now, and one of the books I’ve read is How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newborn, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. And, it was so good that I immediately bought their new book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain!

This is my third short video on this book, and this video is summary of their findings on anger.

Summary: What Does God Look Like?

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book review / Religion / Science

I’m on sabbatical right now, and one of the books I’ve read is How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newborn, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. And, it was so good that I immediately bought their new book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain!

This is my second short video on this book, and this video is summary of chapter five. Look for subsequent short videos on aspects of this important work.

Introduction: How God Changes Your Brain

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book review / Religion / Science

I’m on sabbatical right now, and one of the books I’ve read is How God Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newborn, MD and Mark Robert Waldman. Reading it was a paradigm-shifting experience. And, it was so good that I immediately bought their new book How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain!

Check out my short video intro to the book, and look for subsequent short videos on aspects of this important work.

psalm 137: scraping the sides of the human condition

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Babylon / Captivity / Current Affairs / Hope / Old Testament / Psalm / Theology

abandonhope

I’m on sabbatical right now, and my “main” project is about creating a robust spirituality of hope. Below is small piece of this project, which is still very much in process. 

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.

When the Hebrew Bible wants to deal with pain, it turns to poetry.

Psalm 137 is one of those poems that scrapes the emotion off the sides of the human condition. It starts with weeping and it ends with white-hot anger.

While surveying the deep despair of the Babylonian captivity it sets sail directly into the midst of the storm.

And, as a part of the Book of Psalms it becomes not just a song for a particular time and place, but an example of what one can do when in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Blind optimism isn’t the faithful move. Looking for silver linings isn’t healthy or holy when someone has been knocked on their back by a crisis.

Truth can have a cold, dull edge to it, but at least it’s real. When it cuts you, at least you know what it is that you’re feeling.

The Israelites, captive in Babylon, acknowledged their brutal reality by weeping, and by hanging up their harps.

You can imagine a scenario where they might have just wanted to forget about it all. Where they might have succumbed to the temptation to just let it go and sing the old songs.

You know, to make the kids feel better.

To help everyone feel a little more at home. To forget about the bad times, and just move on. To find the silver lining in this new city, with its new rivers.

But, no.

They wept. They publicly displayed and abandoned their instruments of song.

Even when their captors asked them to sing one of their old songs, they refused. Those songs would not be sung here, because those songs are about a life there, and that life is no longer.

To sing here, now, would be an abandonment of reality.

After the horrific terrorist attack on the nightclub in Orlando, I visited the makeshift memorial outside the Stonewall Inn – the epicenter of the LGBT community in New York City. There were so many candles that even on a cool, breezy night, the air was thick with their warmth and scent.

Amidst a heavy police presence, people just stood there, or sat on the park benches, holding onto one another while quietly sobbing. The heat of the candles and the emotion caught me off guard. I had been carrying a weight around with me all day. It was the sadly all-too-familiar weight of sadness and anger and bewilderment over how in the world this kind of evil was even possible in the world.

But, it wasn’t until I was in the middle of a group of people who were actively grieving that the emotion inside of me came bubbling to the surface.

I sat there wondering if these quietly mourning people were mourning because they knew people who had been among the 49 victims. I wondered if perhaps they had been to that nightclub. If they had some personal connection to the madness.

But, their connection was probably the same as mine: we are all human beings, and one of our own had committed an atrocity against several dozen others of our own.

And all we could do is weep. And remember.

The drumbeat of Psalm 137 thumps against amnesia.

We sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget it’s skill.

Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord.

The act of remembrance is a defiant one. It’s says that we will not just wipe the slate clean. We will not simply move on. We will carry this thing around with us, in our hearts, and in our souls. Remembering says that this thing that broke us will not be put in a drawer and forgotten, but rather we will graft it into our identity. It will become part of who we are.

And this is the existential move against fear. When we choose fear, we put the boogeyman in the closet or under the bed. We take it off the table and try to pretend that there is nothing to see here.

Remembering takes what could be feared and sets it out for all to see and says “now what are your going to do?”

And this all but guarantees that sadness will not be the end of the line. There will be more.

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy be the one who pays you back for what you have done to us. Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock!

It’s amazing that these verses are actually in the Bible. Truly.

Most churches never read them. The lectionaries which guide the Sunday readings of many Christian denominations cut off psalm 137 before we get to the nasty bits.

And, I get it. I really do.

It takes a mature faith to be able to pray the end of this Psalm. It takes a faith imbued with gravity.

But, to excise these words is to excise anger from the human condition. It denies what is there anyway.

It denies the truth.

To willfully ignore the end of Psalm 137 takes the language of searing anger out of the language of prayer. It says that anger isn’t something that we say to God. We leave that at the door.

Yet, to leave it at the door is, I think, precisely what allows us to so often act out of our anger. By keeping anger out of sight, festering in the recesses of our minds and on the edge of our culture, gives it a power that it doesn’t deserve.

Wanting to dash your enemies’ babies against the rocks is about as angry as anger gets.

But, by speaking it – by speaking the truth of what it is that you’re thinking and feeling – a release valve is set off, even if just a little bit. By saying it out loud, you might even hear yourself, and realize, “Ok, that was a little out there. I might need to tone that down a bit.”

Personally, I love that these words are in the Bible. Their very presence gives permission to acknowledge the full spectrum of human emotion, and to bring that spectrum to God, and among the gathered People of God.

These words keep religion from being bland politeness, and keep it tethered to the truth; what’s real.

If for no other reason than we can get past the anger, and what’s behind it, so that the better angels within us can find their voice. So that we don’t stay in the twisted whirlpool of hatred and anger, but so that we can move on to some form of compassion and grace that is still rooted in the truth that this thing happened, and because it happened I have been shaken to the core, and because the core of my being was shook I was able to choose the better way forward.

So weep. Hang up your harps. Remember. Cry out, and hold nothing back.

Choose truth.