Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Team Zach Attack

In honor of her brother, my amazing daughter ran a half-marathon in Nashville on November 10th.   Here she is at mile 12.

She has some pretty amazing friends who ran with her as well.  Trista, Amber, and Beth to Katy's left.  Tiny Tim (Tom of Tom, Michelle, and Coop) is to her right.   Katy's Aunt Lora to the right of Tiny didn't even train.  She just showed up by surprise from New Jersey and ran.   She is Wonder Woman.

Coop and Elvis cheered.

 Here is Lora at Mile 12.  Still smiling.

Here is the family.  Coop, Tom, Lora, Katy, Michelle, Lovely, and me.  No, I did not run.  I break a sweat when I drive 13.1 miles.   OK.  Maybe next time.  If the run is like 50 yards or so...

Team Zach Attack.    

God and the Future of Faith

Author Margaret Atwood once quipped:

I like that comparison by Margaret Atwood.  The God you find in church is imprisoned.     If you want God in the wild, get out of the church.    Does the wordplay assume, however, that there really is a God in the wild?    Is there a God that is more than a story or even stories about God?

Bishop Spong said that modern science has rendered God homeless and unemployed.   Cosmology took away his residence and evolution his paycheck.   He is not "up there" and he doesn't have a job.   That is a funny way to put it, of course.  What science has taught me is that there never was a home and a job for God in the first place.   God is an invention.    My quip, while not as clever as Margaret Atwood's is, I think, more real:

"Story is to storytellers as God is to churches."

Without the storyteller there is no story.  Outside of churches (and mosques, synagogues, ashrams and what have you), there is no God.     If Margaret Atwood thinks her god is more wild, natural, or real than the church's god then I would just say:

"Story is to storytellers as God is to Margaret Atwood."

It could be that for Margaret Atwood, God is another word for Nature.   I think that way at times.   God and the Universe are one.   God is Nature.  Nature is God.  But if God is something other than Nature, then it appears that God is a fictional character whether God is in the Bible, the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Unconscious, in Margaret Atwood's imagination, or in yours or mine.  
Once someone made a snide comment to me about my church.  She said,

"I think the people at your church worship trees more than God."  

I held my tongue even as I wanted to reply: 

"Well, at least the trees are real."  

Of course, once the story is told it takes on a life of its own.  It takes different forms.  It is shaped, renamed, added to, subtracted from and on it goes.   Such is the case with God.  But God whether capitalized or plural has always been a fictional character created in the imaginations of human beings.    God has no existence outside of the stories about God.    The stories of God and of the gods are our creations.  God is our creation.  We should own that.  

I utter that blasphemy with a straight face.   I understand that for many, this is hard to take.
It seems to me that God in the Bible (or in any other book modern or ancient) is a fictional character in a collection of stories.    If you are convinced that God is more than that, than I would challenge you to show me.  Show me one thing that God does.  Then I'll show you your imagination at work.

More and more people are realizing this.  I happen to like stories about God even as they are all fiction.   I should clarify.  I like some of the stories.  Some stories about God are simply toxic.  They are as toxic as the people who tell them.  As fiction, they tell me about the tellers of the fiction.  As our ancestors told fictional stories about God, they made meaning.   They told about themselves whether realizing it or not.

I am not convinced that we need the middleman, that is God, to make meaning.   This is part of the change that is happening within the church, not just my congregation, or just the Presbyterian church, but other denominations, too.   This is a change that is happening throughout human culture.   We are in a time of transition.  This transition could last for many decades, centuries even. 

As more and more people come to recognize that our stories of God are human creations, we will have decisions to make.   Do we abandon the church or whatever other sect houses our stories when we discover that the church's God is fiction?   Might there still be value in the church and in its fictional tales?   Some say no and are heading off into the wild.   

Others think there still is a purpose for the church.   God is extra baggage and we can do good in the church without God.  Maybe we need to base what we do on new poetry.   We can make up some new stories.   We can also tell the old God stories with new twists.   Perhaps a mix is in order.   Of course some of the more toxic God stories are not worth saving.   We may draw wisdom from a variety of places.   A crucial place is science.  

According to Phyllis Tickle, it is a great rummage sale and we are on a great adventure.   Phyllis Tickle calls it a great emergence.   She is my guest this week on Religion For Life.    It is all part of my "future of faith" series.   

Join us! 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Reading, Blue Christmas, and Dolly

I have been reading about suicide.   I have a list of books on the sidebar.    It has been helpful as I have read from those who have lost loved ones from suicide and the unique grief that accompanies this devastation.  Mental illness is devastating.   Christ, why couldn't he talk to us?   Maybe he did and we didn't hear.   I am learning about psychic pain.   I'll never know it though.  I will never know it as he felt it.   It is devastation, both his pain and our grief.   Now his pain is ours.  It isn't the same kind of pain, though.  He couldn't talk about it.  I can.  Some days, however, I just sit.  Now and then I catch myself staring mindlessly.  

It isn't that I spend each day in a fetal position.  I get things done.   I smile and I laugh.  My life isn't over.   I still have things to do and things still have meaning, although the things that were at one point important to me are less so now.  Nothing is quite so important except for my beloveds.

I haven't been posting much.   I have been setting up this blog and my other website.   I have some catching up to do.  Also, we have been away on adventures over the past six weeks.  I am going to post some pictures from planting the tree at Holston Camp in his memory and from Daughter's half-marathon that she and her aunties and uncle and friends ran in Zach's honor in Nashville.   I have pictures of pictures that I gleaned from my mother's photo albums when I was in Montana. 

Now we are home for a while.

We put up the tree.  Blue Christmas.  Lovely placed blue lights around the house, blue lights on the tree, and blue stockings on the wall as if they are walking down the stairs from the loft to the main floor.

We are Elvis.

I have held a "Tidings of Comfort" service for the past several years around the week before Christmas.   I have called it informally the "Blue Christmas" service.   This will be the first time that I am a "client" as opposed to a "provider."  Gack.

We spent Thanksgiving in Pigeon Forge.   Locals know what that is about.  We had Thanksgiving Dinner at Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede.    
"Y'all don't be fussin' and fightin' this Christmas," 
says Dolly from a big screen over the arena.  1200 people eat at once with their bare hands while the entertainers do tricks on horses and others clown around.   The baby Jesus and all your manger favorites visit from a platform that drops from the ceiling.  I swear Joseph looked like Ozzie Osborne.

Now get this.  This other guy and I were selected from 1200 people to come down into the arena and pitch "hillbilly horseshoes" (toilet seats).   I pitched for my team, the South Pole.   My opponent pitched for the North Pole.

I won.

I received a medal.

This is a true story.

My Lovelies howled.

Zach would have as well.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Clergy Project

Have you heard of the Clergy Project?  This is not to be confused with the Clergy Letter Project.  The latter was founded by Dr. Michael Zimmerman to encourage clergy to support the teaching of evolution.   I am a member of the Clergy Letter Project and my congregation participates in Evolution Sunday.

The Clergy Project is for clergy who no longer believe in the doctrines of the church.   Many of them are leaving the ministry.

I am a member of the Clergy Project as well.  I am not leaving the ministry.  Not yet anyway.   I do not have supernatural beliefs, however.    I posted these eight points on my old blog Shuck and Jive, under the heading "What Presbyterians Believe (Except Me)."

I believe...
  1. in evolutionary theory. This obviously includes human beings. Evolution and science in general have had major implications regarding theology that we mostly ignore or in our worse moments deny.
  2. in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible like all other books are human products (what else could they be?) and should be read as such as opposed to special revelation from a divine being.
  3. that all religion is a human construct. Its primary purpose has been and should be an attempt to find and evoke meaning amidst life's contingencies as opposed to speculation regarding supernaturalism.
  4. that "God" functions as a symbol. The concept of "God" is a product of myth-making and "God" is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, "God" functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
  5. that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another.
  6. that there is no "end" in human time. Earth is four billion years old. Earth was here long before human beings. Earth will spin on its axis and revolve around the sun long, long after the last human being has breathed her last. We will have to find meaning and our "eschaton" in this life.
  7. that Jesus may have been historical but most of the stories about him in the Bible and elsewhere are legends. But he's cool. He serves as a human ideal and a focal point for devotion (like an ishta deva).
  8. that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality.
If many ministers wrote a similar statement they would no longer be in the ministry.  They know that.  That is why they don't tell their congregations what they really think.

I think it is distressing that these intelligent and creative ministers are shut silent in a box of dogma and are unable to share their insights with their congregations for fear of losing their careers. This is a great loss for them, for the church, and for society.

I think it is important for those clergy and laity who do have more freedom to come clean with what they believe (or don't believe).   That is why I am outspoken.   I am fortunate because I serve a congregation that promotes freedom of thought.  Not all are so fortunate.

The Clergy Project exists to support clergy whose insights have moved them beyond the confines of the church.   Their stories are fascinating and important.

I hope to interview some of these clergy on upcoming episodes of Religion For Life

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A New Place for Grieving

This is one of my new blogs. Since I lost my Shuck and Jive [dot] org domain and frankly have moved on in focus and tone, I realized I needed a place to write posts about Zach and about my grief.

This is that place.  I have re-posted from what I had already written about Zach on Shuck and Jive.

I am going to open another website for sermons and articles as well as information about the radio program, Religion For Life.

This blog is for Zach.

I just visited with my parents in Montana.  My mother and I went through her photo albums and I took pictures of pictures.    This is from Thanksgiving 1991 (I think) at my sister's home in Connecticut.

Thanks for stopping by!

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain--A Sermon (originally posted September 30, 2012)

Tracing Rainbows Through the Rain
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

September 30, 2012

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
--George Matheson

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
--Psalm 139-7-12

George Matheson was a Scottish theologian and preacher whose career spanned the latter half of the 19th century. He died in 1906. He was a liberal thinker who attempted to integrate faith with modern science. In 1885 he wrote a book entitled, Can the Old Faith Live with the New? or, The Problem of Evolution and Revelation. In it he argued that accepting evolution would not undermine the faith.

That was 1885.

He wrote a hymn, O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go. A line from that hymn is the title of today’s sermon.

This is what Matheson said about the hymn:
"The hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a day spring from on high.

There has been much speculation regarding the “severe mental suffering” that he was feeling. One story suggests that his suffering was due to a lost love. He wrote this hymn on the occasion of his sister’s marriage. At one point in his life he was going to be married. During that period of engagement he learned that he was losing his eyesight. There was nothing the doctors could do. His fiancĂ© broke off the engagement saying she couldn’t live her life with a blind man.

He went blind while studying for the ministry. His sister took care of him during the years. Now on the eve of his sister’s wedding, who knows, perhaps feeling the sadness of his own loss during a celebratory time, he wrote this hymn.

Others speculate that it was the anguish of perhaps losing his faith in the light of modernism and science, particularly the theories of Darwin, that inspired the hymn. We don’t know. All we have is speculation and projection of our own mental suffering onto him. Matheson himself said something happened that “was known only to myself.”

It is a beautiful hymn. I never really paid much attention to it. Rarely have I selected it for worship until about a year or so ago. After Zach’s death, these past three months, it has been close to me. This is the third verse:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

This is the heart of the via negativa,
that spiritual path of letting go and letting be.
It is a path.
It is a path of trust that loss and the accompanying pain
is not the absence of the Sacred but a path to the Sacred.

Thus rather than bury the pain,
or hide it,
or deny it,
or be ashamed of it,

this path is an invitation to embrace it,
to name it,
to write a song about it,
or a poem,
to talk about it,
to walk with it.

The hope is that in so doing,
we can move through it and beyond it
and in the experience be touched by the Holy.

This is the path of Krishna:
“If you get rid of your ego and become like a hollow reed flute, then the Lord will come to you, pick you up, put his lips and breathe through you and out of the hollowness of your heart, the captivating melody will emerge for all creations to enjoy.”

This is the path of Jesus:
“After he called the crowd together with his disciples, he said to them, “If any of you wants to come after me, you should deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow after me. Remember, if you try to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for the sake of the good news, you’ll save it.”
 And from the Gospel of Thomas:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

Both Krishna and Jesus are offering invitations to trust. Neither is glorifying pain or suffering. They are not calling us to throw pity parties. They are inviting us to acknowledge what is real and offering the hope that staying with it and going through it will be the path of wholeness or wholeheartedness.

That trust requires heart. The word for courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. This pain, this darkness, this rain, feels endless. It feels as though there is no possible good to come of it. It feels wrong, inappropriate, unjust, sacrilegious, even to hope or trust that there is a rainbow to trace.
I don’t want a freaking rainbow, I want my son back. I want my husband back. I want my mother back. I want my life back the way it was.

The open heart also known as courage is the willingness to live with that inner conflict, name it and not judge it. It is what Matthew Fox calls it, “cosmic anguish.” It isn’t tidy. It isn’t pretty. It is real.

But what if we weren’t able to feel the cosmic anguish? What if we quickly hid it away? Remember the song by the Beatles, “Hey, you’ve got to hide your love away.”
We don’t want to see that. Put it away.

We are a culture that demands that everyone be upbeat.

My first radio job was in Mountain Home, Idaho. It was a little AM station that played country music. We played records on the turntable. I read the news, the agricultural reports, and the town gossip. After I was there a few months, the station was bought by a Mormon family. They were nice folks. In fact, they were very upbeat. They changed the call letters and we had to identify ourselves as “Country Sunshine.” We disc jockeys had to play two upbeat songs for every slow song. That isn’t easy to do with country music. You have to really search for those upbeat ones. Not only that, but we were required to turn up the speed on the turntables to make the songs sound even more upbeat.

No rain allowed at 1240 AM Country Sunshine.

I get it. No one wants downer people. No one wants to listen to bummer man.
Hey, you’ve got to hide your grief away.

We know that.
We know that we need to put on the game face,
clean up and do our duty.
Fake it until you make it.

We need to know that there is a price for that. If we don’t recognize the cosmic anguish and if we are not attentive to what is behind the game face, we may not resolve our grief. For the sake of surviving this culture, we may stay on this side of our pain and never pass through it. It can forever haunt us. The via negativa is the spiritual path that invites to make time and to take time for those feelings that we may have buried or hidden. We give them their due so that we can let them go.

I am grateful today to and for George Matheson, that on June 6, 1882, he took off the game face that he needed to put on for his sister’s wedding, and for five minutes allowed his hollowed heart to hear the music of Spirit and put these words to pen and paper.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from Thee;
I lay in dust
       life’s glory dead,
And from the ground
       there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.