Friday, February 26, 2016

Process theodicy

So I asked God
especially the One who knows the cross 
pogroms and the Crusades
the Inquisition and witch trials
every forced march
chained, incarcerated people of color 
mass shootings
poverty and ghetto
human trafficking
rape and assault
torture and beheading
genocide and holocaust
horrible evil thing we are capable of.
I asked this suffering Holy One 
“Is the pain worth it? 
This hunger for wholeness
Breath of tenuous life
Joy that’s supposed to come with the morning
but fades by the time we get to work. 
Is it worth it?” 
God replied,
“Don’t know
yet. In the meantime, though,
do me and yourself a favor:
love others as I have loved you.”

A Critical Evaluation of Process Theodicy

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Loving the lost

Psalm 27; Luke 13: 31-35
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 21, 2016

Mosaic from the altar of the Church of Dominus Flavit ("The Lord has wept"), near the Mount of Olives.


--written for my father, a UCC pastor, who died at the age of 46.

We had settled into

our nighttime TV ritual

Magnum P.I. and Nero Wolfe

our favorites.

I was on the couch,

you in your well-worn recliner,

feet up to help keep

fluid out since the pneumonia.

During a commercial

you casually asked me

if I would get you

a pack of cigarettes

out of the kitchen.

I huffed, gave you

one of my looks,

well-honed in sixteen years,

the one I reserve for when

I don’t know what to say.

When I came back into the room

I hurled the heart-attack-in-a-pack

at you, thudded back

onto the couch, arms

crossed, leg over knee.

Now I know what to say.

Next time you want

a pack of cigarettes

get them yourself.

You looked at me, then

at your wife as though

I had unearthed

a hidden truth,

taken off whatever lenses

through which you didn’t see me.

You once took my

little girl rage against

your palms, raised open

like a sparring coach,

small fists slamming

implacable flesh,

the sting of your wedding ring.

If I thought it would save

what life was left

I would have thrown

dozens of them at you,

my love sealed up

in plastic-wrapped paper,

smokes that would

never hasten your grave,

inscribed with that warning

not nearly fierce enough

but just as helpless.

            I would suspect that each of us knows what it is like to want to help someone, to save someone from themselves, but we are powerless to do so. And some of us know what it is like to want to save ourselves but try as we might, we feel inadequate and overwhelmed.

In the movie A River Runs Through It, the father who is also a Presbyterian minister makes an oblique reference to his long-gone wayward son in one of his last sermons:  “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know, who elude us.”

In this morning’s gospel lesson, it is Jerusalem that eludes Jesus.  In Luke, Jesus has a special kinship with Jerusalem, which in Hebrew, depending on the transliteration, can mean “teaching of peace” or “abode of peace” or “whole and complete instruction” and in Arabic, “the Holy”.  Luke’s gospel begins in Jerusalem with the priest Zechariah foretelling the birth of John the Baptist and ends in Jerusalem with the risen Christ instructing the disciples to wait for power, for the Holy Spirit.  It is where Jesus is brought eight days after his birth, where he is found as a young boy asking questions of the priests, where he was brought to the pinnacle of the temple to be tempted for the third time, where he shares the Passover with his disciples for the last time.  There are 90 references to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel while the other three combined mention the city only 49 times. 

Though John and the Essenes had rejected Jerusalem and the temple authorities they believed to be corrupt, Jesus could not give up the city to that fox, Herod and the empire he served.  In Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem we can hear the heartache of God, the sorrow of powerlessness in his voice:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jesus?  Powerless?  What about all those stories of changing water into wine, feeding thousands with a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread, casting out demons, calming storms, healing people of their diseases and infirmities, even raising the dead!  How can Jesus be powerless?

Like any of us, what Jesus cannot do is turn hard hearts into softer ones; compel human beings to love one another and to live in peace.  The blind may see but how wide is our vision?  The deaf may hear but do we really listen?  The lame may walk but in what direction are we headed?  Our sins are forgiven but what have we done with that grace? 

How can God be God, if God is not all powerful?  What use or help is a God who is not all powerful?  Archibald MacLeish, in his adaptation of the book of Job, wrote “If God is God, He is not good.  If God is good, He is not God.”  How can God be God while so much evil and suffering exist in the world?  If God is good and loving and just, then this God is not in control.

The God of the Hebrew tradition, from whom peace comes through a healing justice, the tradition from which Jesus came, is the God that gives humankind free will, the free choice as to whether we will follow and love.  God cannot be in control and love without condition at the same time.  Unconditional love by definition is not coercive or manipulative.  God continues to reach out to us again and again, hoping this is the day we choose peace, justice, and love—that this is the day we confirm our wholeness, our belovedness.  What looks like God’s futility and weakness is the love through which God saves us.  When we choose something other than this love, this is what the Church calls sin.

Jesus promised to save us from sin, but as blogger Stan Wilson writes, where did we ever get the idea that Jesus would save us from suffering?  Jesus could not save Jerusalem.  He didn’t heal everyone or feed everyone or solve all their problems.  What he did do was to show those around him how to love freely and willingly and not give up, even so far as to spread his wings over us wayward chicks and die on a cross.  

Being church doesn’t mean we spread our wings so far as to save everyone from disaster.  The church is not a social service agency, a therapy group, the Red Cross, or as Karl Barth put it, an ambulance on the battlefield of life.  We are powerless to save.  But we are not powerless to love.  The rest of that movie quote:  “[We] can still love—we can love completely without complete understanding.”  We may not understand or accept the motives or choices or actions of others.  All of these may cause us pain.  But by following Jesus we have chosen to give ourselves over to love—a love which may or may not save another, a love which will bring us face to face with suffering and pain.  Yet if we give ourselves over to it entirely, this love will transform our lives.

Here we have the first three of the twelve steps:  we are powerless to save ourselves or another; we acknowledge that a power, a love greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity; and we surrender our lives into the care of this power, this love that our lives would be changed.  Jesus himself learns this surrender in the garden the night before his execution: not his will but God’s will be done.  And on the cross, even though he could not save his beloved Jerusalem, Jesus said “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”  His mission to love, to forgive, and by his actions, to bring humankind to the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God—this is the success that looks like a cross.  Even so, we are still coming to this awareness, each generation learning what it means to surrender to the teaching of peace, to the holy.

Where in our own lives do we feel powerless?  What about the life of this church confronts our sense of powerlessness?  What is it about ourselves or a loved one or this church that eludes us?  How might we as church surrender to the power of God, which is love?  How does our relationship with Christ and with this community of faith save us?  How might we as church be a part of bringing to others the awareness of an intimate, compassionate God?

During this Lenten season let us ask ourselves how we as individuals and as a church might love completely without complete understanding, and how the teachings of Jesus would help us do this.  So let us take the first step.  Let us trust and believe that we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  Wait for the Lord; be strong and let our hearts take courage; yes, wait for the Lord!  (Psalm 27: 13-14)  Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Wilderness days

Luke 4: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 14, 2016

            “Not a lot of hotel selection in the desert, so I was thankful when I saw their shimmering vacancy sign. Baggage lady was cute but utterly unhelpful, constantly flirting with other hotel guests.

            “Hit up the bar, asked for a Guinness, and they didn’t carry it!  The bartender said they haven’t had it since 1969!  What the heck, buddy!  Very disappointed in their draft selection.

            “Noise level was atrocious.  In addition to people constantly welcoming me, there was a beast loose?  Staff assured me they were stabbing it with their steely knives, but I’m fairly confident that did nothing to help.

            “Took forever to check out, their systems are ancient.  The guitar solo was nice though.”

            So said Tony V. in his review on  When Jesus walked into the desert, he wasn’t checking into the Hotel California, or checking out, for that matter, but rather getting ready for what would be the rest of his short life.  Just before this part in his story, Jesus had his baptism in the Jordan River, as preparation for his vocation as a rabbi.  In the Jewish faith as in many others including Christian, the use of water represents change and transformation.  The Spirit alighted on him like a dove, and God called him ‘beloved’.  Now the Spirit is leading Jesus into the desert, and we don’t hear God’s voice at all.

            In the season of Epiphany, which begins with Jesus’ baptism, God reveals Godself in a way that shows us that God is light.  In the season of Lent, which begins in the desert, God reveals Godself in a way that shows us that God is in the dark:  in ashes and in solitude, in silence and in absence.

            Getting into Lent is like an encounter with every hard thing about being human.  No wonder we don’t like it or look forward to it.  God desires that we would see the worst about ourselves, so that we could be in community with the one person we can’t stand.  God wants us to acknowledge what it is we use to feel safe, so that we would face our lives without illusion.  God invites us to look our inevitable death in the eye, so that we would live knowing that we are powerless against it.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Repent, turn away from sin, and believe the good news, which is, that God intends you for wholeness.”

            Wholeness means accepting the light and dark, joy and sorrow, the capacity to do good and the capacity to do evil and everything in between; to allow God and ourselves to see us as we are, all of it, the whole truth, and know deep down in our bones that God calls us ‘beloved’.  Wholeness, realizing our belovedness, is our vocation, our calling, who we’re meant to be.

            But who does the Spirit call to get at the truth but the devil.  What we call the devil, the Jewish tradition calls the ‘accuser’ or the ‘adversary’.  Actually, I like to imagine it was a wizened old rabbi, who lived in a cave out in the desert, one of Jesus’ oldest professors, Dumbledore with an attitude—a crabby, cantankerous, wise-as-a-serpent kind of guy who knew what could be Jesus’ fatal flaws, along with the trouble he was heading for.

            “My poor dear boy, you’ve been fasting for a long time.  Think you’re hungry now?  Who do you think will feed a penniless peasant like you?  Come on, how about a little magic?  Why don’t you just turn these stones into bread?  It’s a long way between here and Jerusalem.”

            “It takes more than bread to really live.”*

            “No one is going to give three figs about this kingdom of God you’ll be preaching about.  They want to know who’s in charge, who’s going to throw the Romans out on their ear, who’s going to do away with the wicked and reward the good.  Nobody cares about their souls!  I’ll give you power over human lives, and they’ll worship you for it!”

            “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God.  Serve God with absolute single-heartedness.”[i]

            “You’re not going to have a single place to lay your head.  No one will take care of you.  You’ll be sleeping on the ground, in the rain, walking in the stinking heat.  And you know how this is going to end, don’t you?That’s some God you’ve got there.  I thought God would send an angel army to defend you, lift you out of trouble, even keep those precious feet of yours from stumbling.  Where’s God’s power in that?”

            “Do not answer temptation by tempting the Lord your God.”

            This accuser, this adversary offers Jesus security.  Jesus chooses uncertainty.  Instead of safety, Jesus decides to live with risk.  When given the opportunity to seize power, Jesus opts for weakness.  These are the foundation of Jesus’ ministry.  At his most vulnerable, famished, and exhausted, Jesus finds his bedrock and it is unshakable.  But to us it sounds like even more wilderness:  uncertainty, risk, and weakness.

            And yet this is precisely where the Spirit calls the Church to be—in the desert, the wilderness, on the margins.  Uncertainty, risk, and weakness are our calling, our vocation, who we’re meant to be, how we’ll find wholeness, and realize our belovedness

            Of course it doesn’t feel that way.  After all, what’s so wrong with wanting some security and safety and maybe a little power to influence the communities we live in?  What if someone left this church a million dollars?  Think of all the good we could do.  We could build a dozen Habitat homes.  We could give the Empowerment Center everything they need and then some.  We could establish a college fund; help provide more mental health services and substance abuse programs.  Plus we’d put some aside to take care of this old building and ensure it would be here for our great-grandchildren.  How bad could that be?

            Fr. Richard Rohr writes that “we can only be tempted to something that is good on some level…Temptations are always about ‘good’ things, or we could not be tempted…Most people’s daily ethical choices are not between total good and total evil, but between various shades of good… .”[ii]


            Security, safety, and power are good in many ways.  But they’re also seductive, sounding like so many political campaign promises.  As followers of Jesus they are also wonderful hooks for our egos.  We are tempted to rely upon our own limited wisdom and think ourselves sufficient.  It can be all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, safety, and power.  And so Jesus, having been led by the Holy Spirit, does not quote God’s commands in his responses but draws on the wisdom tradition of his faith.

            Acknowledging that life is uncertain, that Love entails risk, and that we are powerless to save even ourselves, let alone anyone else, is what can restore us to wholeness in these wilderness days.  When we pray “thy will be done”, what it means is “not my will”.  I don’t know exactly what God’s will looks like on any given day.  But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t look like mine.  My will is often conflicted with fear and struggle as much as it is full of hope and faith.

            I’m not sure why, but casting our lot with God and being utterly dependent on a power we cannot see feels like defeat to us human beings, like we’ve failed somehow.  As if we’ve moved back in with our parents.  In the basement.  But then again, we’re Church, the Body of Christ, where success looks like a cross. 

            “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, turn away from sin, and believe the good news, which is, that God intends you for wholeness.” Amen.    

[i] Eugene Peterson.  The Message.  Colorado Springs, CO:  NavPress.  1993. This quote and the one above.*
[ii] Richard Rohr.  Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent.  Cincinnati, OH:  Franciscan Media. 2011.