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William James, the author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, said: “all religions begin with the cry, help!” The Gospel of Mark records the dying words of Jesus of Nazareth to include “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which is itself a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures found in Psalm 22:1. Despite the different paths of faith present in this graduating class and even in this room of friends, I have heard and witnessed the experiences of many that echo this cry.
I suppose it will be hard to find a traditional fundamentalist in this crowd. Even so, the inclination to speak more broadly of the things for which we cannot entirely know for sure does not ever leave any of us. Be what we do know is that in the words of M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is Difficult.” Just listen to the dramatic language of those finding faith, those who are losing it, or those who find themselves on one side wishing for the other. My friends, we can take heart and have courage, life is difficult, but less so when you see vulnerability as a strength and stay open to healing love.
I share this with you as someone who started this program having just washed ashore after a series of spiritual shipwrecks and a considerably long time of being lost at sea – a sea called “unfinished business.” I think I still have the distinction of being the only person to sign up for this class after reading an ad; because at the time, I hadn’t met Gil or Cathy. They don’t run those ads anymore, so I guess you know how that worked out. Anyhow, I am glad that this space exists, as scary as it was for me at first. Not because of anything done or said by people of this class but because of the semi-truck’s worth of religious baggage that I was towing around town. George Harrison in Rising Sun said, “On the avenue of sinners, I have been employed, working there until I was near destroyed. I was almost a statistic, inside a doctors case, when I heard the messenger from inner space, sending me a signal for so long I had ignored.” You see, I didn’t ever intend to open the doors to that space of storage, but life, and yes, perhaps God, have a very interesting habit of blowing up your neat containers (that’s the nice way of saying, life fucks you up, sometimes; but, it often disguises it as various forms of constructive criticism).
I want to say thank you for all that listened to me and most importantly taught me how to listen better. The tools of introspection, of recognizing the complexity sitting next to you or across from you, and of witnessing the longing for oneness and healing in others are great gifts. It was here that I met people who understand how much it could hurt for seemingly loving people to betray you and how isolating it is to be given ready-made, superficial answers to deep questions. But also, I met people who were life giving in their support on the rocky path to working out your life, even if it comes with a semi-truck size shipping container of bullshit. It was here, among you that I learned, as the Beck song goes, to “wade the tides that turn until I learn to leave the past behind.”
Two summers ago, re-carpeting my home office gave me an existential choice. Do I toss out my old dusty, neglected, but seemingly haunted theological library? Do I let go of this once prized possession full of tools I trusted and not look back? And to my surprise, in the weeks leading up to joining this group and in a moment with a familiar spirit’s whisper toward a new trajectory, I heard a distinct voice that propels me even now. Despite our common experience crying out for “help,” I believe that we are all truly offered the gift of presence. The images, words, doctrines, creeds we cling to, often to the point of weaponization, are time bound human symbols of the transcendent powers of life and love. They are the clues that look like the surprising scene of a heart broken parent who melts with compassion at the reappearance of a lost child, of the dramatic quest through self-doubt that ends with loving enlightenment, and with luring images of divine love present within, and not separated by, the joy and suffering of the highest highs and lowest lows of our lives.
As I reflect on the lessons learned through the various speakers, I am still drawn back to the roots of all Abrahamic faiths. The origins of such being a story of creation, separation, exile, and faithful rescue. Far too many, take only parts of this story, the parts that make it easy to turn the narrative into one obsessed with control that dehumanizes its perceived enemies. And, we must be careful as we go forth because inside all of us, we still can perpetuate this type of oppression, even while standing in any faith tradition, ancient or newly forming. However, I speak today as one inspired by experiences with a transcendent and immanent godly love for all. This vast love flows from an intimate and ongoing relationship with creation, demands its redemption, and announces our vocation as caretakers of the gift of life itself. May this vocation bless our physical world, support those we love, and compel us all to reach for those unloved and liberate those who live in present separation and exile because of oppressive attitudes, governments, philosophies, and yes, even oppressive theologies.
Gil threatened to write our statement if any of us tried to get up and extemporaneously give this speech. He seemed confident that he could imitate any of us, and I would love to hear what he thinks I’d say in three to five minutes. But until that happens, here’s what I have. A Steely Dan voice once said, “I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long, this brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be.” We came here each in our path of pain and longing and have found each other. Our cries for help may have been the initial cause of our introduction to a deep relationship, but they are not the end. Imagine, if you can, a world where a silent, loving friend catches every tear shed. Every anxious, sad heart has many deep listeners who stand the test of time. And, a place where everyone seeking the presence of the great mystery can find what I hope to find, love and light, and the fulfillment of the promise that God is in all, and all is in God. We’re never alone, that is the great lie because if we look around, we can see how the cries of others, the unfinished business of our personal religious experience, and the simple ads placed by retiring priests are the invitations to create the world in which we wish to live. By the way, I kept the library, but I also await the day those books take their place as prequels for a new world and presence that is beyond our creeds, symbols, and even our wildest imaginations.
Now, I hope you can excuse me; I have some ads of my own to place.
June 2, 2019
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I was randomly assigned to read a total bummer today as part of the church’s legionary schedule. The day’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. It is the conclusion of the story of David and Bathsheba. The story is known well enough to be a cross-cultural anecdote thousands of years later. David and Bathsheba is the story of a ruler’s complete misuse of power, the abuse of a woman, and the disgrace and murder of a soldier who, up to that point, had only shown bravery and loyalty to that king.
In the power of myth, a story like this speaks past its own context. It is a total bummer to read because the actions of the ruler bring destruction to many innocent people just as that leader sits enthroned in his self-righteousness. Yet, with the destruction of a marriage and a soldier’s life appearing to evade detection, the prophet Nathan is sent. You see, what has been covered up has been seen, and it is displeasing. Very displeasing.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David.”
I imagine Nathan was afraid of this type of confrontation. Who dares to speak against the Lord’s anointed? Some religious leaders, more in love with power than the truth, will tell you never to speak back to a leader. Who dares to accuse a great person of a terrible wrong? Who dares to speak truth to power? I imagine that Nathan could have just let “Kings be Kings.” But he didn’t. Prophets take risks, but their confidence comes from the truth and the good of the Kingdom - not from the approval of their kings.
“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan breaks the ice with a story of a wealthy man who needs to care for a guest and steals a poor man’s only lamb. This angers David. He swears that the man will pay and pay dearly. His righteousness is deluded because he thinks Nathan is telling a story and not giving an analogy. David’s anger is an example of reaction formation. His decisiveness to punish is an attempt to reduce the anxiety of his scrambled, inconsistent, and thoroughly selfish leadership ethic. With such power and such a perspective, evil thrives.
“Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”
Nathan’s message connects with crystal clear clarity. David end’s the passage with “I have sinned against the LORD.” The Second reading for the day from Psalm 51 is related to this episode. The Psalm is said to be a prayer of David’s for mercy, for confession, and for a new and clean heart.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5 And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10 Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
Today, Psalm 51 is a popular worship song called “Create in Me in a Clean Heart.” I cannot read it without hearing the tune. I also cannot read it without feeling sadness because of the truth it speaks about the ongoing human experience. Hierarchy and rulers may be inevitable facts of civilization, but they need not be evil. They need not abuse the powerless. They need not be beyond rebuke. But when they are, even the God-ordained leaders and hierarchies cannot cover up their misuse of power. Something is watching. Always watching.
Prophets exist to speak the truth to power, even when it terrifies them. But at the moment’s when truth and justice meet reaction formation, the Leader’s true heart cannot be covered up. Will they confess and seek mercy? Will they restore the wrong delivered? Will they prevent future misuses of power? Or will they continue cloak themselves in self-righteousness and continue to damage those that they are supposed to protect?
I read a total bummer today in 2 Samuel and Psalm 51. Despite reconciliation and forgiveness, abuse of power has its consequences. David, King of Israel, wasn’t the first time something like this occurred, and it won’t be the last.
May all who hold power know that what is covered up is still seen.
May we all make space in hearts and mind to hear the prophets who are sent to speak truth to power.
May the confrontations with the truth restore leadership to its God-ordained purpose of justice.
May this ancient story stop being so very familiar to us all.