Friday, December 28, 2012

God and Life of Pi

I love the book and the recent film, The Life of Pi.   It is a delightful story.  I especially enjoy that point in the book when Pi is discovered by his parents and the religious leaders as a Christian, a  Muslim, and a Hindu.   I used this scene in a sermon several years ago when my congregation was reading the Qur'an cover to cover.   Pi is found out and told that he cannot practice all three religions.

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God,” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.

It is the story a shipwrecked boy who survives in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.   The story is told in the first person. It isn't until the end of the novel and the film that the main character admits that the tiger part was a story.  He tells then another much more brief story about other people in the lifeboat who do not survive.   But what is the better story, the one with the tiger or the one that seems more likely?  Such is God.  The author, Yann Martel interpreted The Life of Pi  in this interview:

"Life is a story. You can choose your story. A story with God is the better story."

The Life of Pi is a parable in a sense about God and about faith in God.  It is also about interpretation of reality.   In another interview, Martel said:

"What I was trying to do in this book was try and discuss how we interpret reality - most secular readers will read the book and say 'Ah, okay, there's one story told and actually something else happened, and Pi 'invented' this other story to pass the time, or make his reality bearable. That's the secular. The other one, the more religious interpretation, would just be the story you're reading and that's what happened..."

That seems to me to be a helpful way to to understand God.   God is a matter of interpretation.   Faith is choosing your story.  Would that satisfy orthodox Christians?   Perhaps.  He goes on to say:

"Reality isn't just "out there", like some block of cement: reality is an interpretation. In a sense we co-create our reality. And we do that all the time, every day. One day we wake up and we're in a great mood, the city we live in is a beautiful city, the next day it's an ugly city. That's just the way we interpret things. We're not free necessarily to choose the facts of our life, but there is an element of freedom in how we interpret them."

I loved the book and film and I am intrigued by the philosophy.  It is only with appreciation that I write the following.   I am not sure that I agree at the end of the day that in regards to life that "a story with God is the better story" at least for me.    I come at this with a lifetime of personal experience with God including twenty years in the ministry.

The story of God in my experience has been a story that has silenced other stories.   God vs. science, for instance.   God and hell and sin and punishment, vs. personal growth for another instance.  God and superstition vs. personal responsibility for yet another.      In all of these cases I have had to take leave of God for that which has been for me more real, more beautiful, and more satisfying.

For those who will tell me that I just have the wrong God story, I hear you.   I am glad your God story is better.   But I don't think I am alone in this.  I know I am not.  The God story for many of us, in fact, I might say the dominant God story in our country is a story that is a far worse story than the secular story.
I will take the story of natural selection any day over Genesis 1-3 as a better story.   The God story there includes all kinds of sin and guilt that I am grateful to have left behind.   I will take the story of the Universe that began 13.7 billion years ago and will continue long after the last human being has breathed her last over against the God story of Revelation and of the Second Coming of Jesus.    I like the science story a lot more than I like the God story.    It is the science story that has made the universe beautiful, holy, and sacred to me. 

I like the secular story of Jesus and the Bible more than I like the pious story of Jesus and the Bible.   I far prefer the historical Jesus to the Christ of faith.   I far prefer the Bible as a human product than as the word of God.  I far prefer God as a human creation than humans as a creation of God.   I like some of the stories of God.  Some are interesting.   All are creative.   I see them all as human creations.

That is the whole point of Life of Pi, isn't it?   We get to choose our story.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Here is a picture of our tree from the loft.  It has a bent top like the Grinch's mountain.

Blue lights and tears this year...

Still, a holy and sacred time.   We are grateful for so much.   Merry Christmas everyone.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Another Dream

I just woke up, sobbing.  I haven't done that in a while.   I dreamt about him.  He was back and he was reading.  He was barefoot.   He acted and spoke the way I remember.   In my dream he was reading on the couch.  He looked up with a kind of dazed expression, with his mouth slightly opened, to pretend to be annoyed.   He was reading something for school.  I was so glad he was back in school, but he just seemed annoyed by it.

It seemed as though the first part of his book was blank and he was starting in the middle, like in the middle of the semester.  I tried to talk to him about it, but he didn't want to talk about it.   It was as though he didn't want to let me be too close as if it was too much work to make me understand.  He was reading about the Civil War.  I thought it was kind of strange to be starting so late, in the middle of the semester, but I didn't care since he was with us.   I realized I needed to hug him, so I wouldn't lose him again.  I ran over and hugged him from behind and sobbed to him,

"Zach I love you.  I didn't get to tell you that I loved you before."  

He said,

"Yes, you did."  

The way he said it was so real.  I can just hear his voice, the tone, the inflection.  It was the voice he used when he thought we were bugging him or wanting him to do something he didn't want to do.   He said,

"Yes, you told me.  You told me all the time."   

I insisted.  I held him harder.

"No, I didn't tell you enough.  I need to keep telling you."  

I thought if I could keep telling him and keep hugging him he wouldn't go.   Then I woke up.

I feel like I am back in July and he just left.    As I write this, I feel that pain in my chest that I felt for weeks (or was it months?) after he died.   I sobbed when I woke.   The dream was so real.  He was so close.  It is so wrenching, yet it was so good to recall his mannerisms and his voice through the dream.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy Xmas

Our church newsletter is going out this week for Christmas and the month of January. I write inspiring wisdom from "the pastor's computer." The deadline is here and the well is dry. This is what they will get...

Dear Friends,

I really don’t have much to say. I simply don’t have a Happy Christmas or New Year’s wish in me. I am supposed to write a letter for the White Spire and I simply have little more than tears. I grieve for a hurting and warring world, for children in Connecticut, for children in Pakistan, Gaza, and Syria, and for children around the world, and for their parents if they have them.

I grieve my boy. Sorry, but it is just real.

I turn to one I often turn to for the music, words, and passion that capture my heart. These are the lyrics from John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas: War Is Over.” 
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young

A very merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let's hope it's a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas
For weak and for strong
For rich and the poor ones
The world is so wrong

And so happy Christmas
For black and for white
For yellow and red ones
Let's stop all the fight

War is over
If you want it

Blessed Be,

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sandy Hook

I have known of no one who has ever heard of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, outside of my family, of course.   I know about it because my sister lives there.  She and her husband raised their children there.  Their son and his wife raise their children there as well.   I have been to Sandy Hook many times.   Sandy Hook is a pretty little New England village in the town of Newtown.   No one should ever need to know of it.  Now everyone has heard of it.  

My dear little great niece wasn't in school on Friday.  She was home sick.   Otherwise she would have been at school.   Do I thank God for that?   I don't thank or blame God for anything.   God to me is nothing more than an expression that has lost meaning.   Yet I struggle to express on one hand, incredible relief and on the other, wrenching heartbreak for the parents of these children.    Yes, I with my family are so relieved she is not hurt. I am, as is my family, heartbroken for other parents.   That is reality.

I don't know personally anyone there outside of my family.  My family will know them.  They will know the parents and grandparents.  They will know spouses and family members of the adults who were killed.   They will know the children.   As the names are made public they will know them and know friends who know them and they will do what they can to provide comfort, to cry, to express rage, all of it.  The pain is and will be excruciating for a long, long, time.

Long after the news cycle has moved on to other tragedies, this community and my family will find the broken shards of their lives and put them together with courage, compassion, and sheer determination.  They will create new lives and survive this.  They won't get over this but they will live through it and with it.

I am so, so sorry Sandy Hook.     I am heartbroken.

I am also angry.

I am angry at the shooter.  Angry at the world, fella?  If you won't get help then have the decency just to kill yourself, OK?  I am angry that he slipped through whatever societal safeguards are supposed to be in place to help people like him.    I am angry that he didn't get whatever it was he needed so he wouldn't hurt others.  I am angry regarding the stigma and the ignorance surrounding mental illness.  I am angry that we don't have a more descriptive phrase than "mental illness" for whatever it was that motivated him to do this.  We might as well say "demons."

I am angry that people "possessed by demons" can get access to assault weapons!   I am angry at the crazy gun culture in which we live.  I am angry that we let weapons of mass destruction be so available and do nothing but wring our hands when 20 children are murdered in an elementary school.   I am angry that these killing tools are being manufactured in the first place.   I am angry that it is easier and cheaper to get an offensive military style weapon than it is to get mental health care.   I am angry at the people who profit from these killing machines and who spread lies, misinformation, and a warped sense of freedom that it is a "right" to own these children killers.   

I am heartbroken.  I am angry.  Mostly I am afraid.  I am afraid that our culture has taken a path of no return toward a societal death wish.  We have decided that it is more important to protect our right to own weapons of mass murder than it is to protect children from them.   For that, I weep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


The other day after a sermon, I was asked, "Do you believe in God?"  I set up a coffee with the questioner to talk about that and other things.  I am always game for that kind of discussion.    I think we are in a period of time in which questions like that need to be asked and answered honestly and forthrightly.   I think we need to take the time to define the terms and I think we need to examine the "back story" and ask ourselves what is at stake.
What does that question mean?   What really is being asked?   It seems to me if we want to ask someone if they believe in God, we ought to be able to be clear about what we mean by God.   We should provide a definition of God.    Only then does it make sense to talk about belief or unbelief.    We should also define what we mean by "believe" as well.     

When someone asks whether or not I believe in God (or makes statements about their perceptions of my belief), the question and statement are meaningless without definition.   These questions and statements are little more than vehicles for smear, to exercise power, or to manipulate.    When we are speaking about clergy who are supposed to, if anything, "believe in God", even though there is no consensus as to what that means, one can create many scandals without adding anything of value to the discussion.    I think the discussion regarding God is important and worthwhile.   It has to be deeper than either s/he "believes in God or doesn't."

What is at stake regarding "belief in God?"   We can talk about the problem of God from an intellectual or rational point of view.   What really drives us, I think, is the emotional and intuitive affect that belief in God has on us.    Those who believe in God may experience presence with their deceased loved ones, courage, hope for the future, reduced anxiety about their own deaths, a sense of not being alone, peace, a focal point for prayer, belonging, a sense of duty, and so on and so forth.    If belief in God gives you that and more why would you want to think critically about God?   Why sow seeds of doubt?   As they say on the farm: "Why look a gift horse in the mouth?"

Clergy who bring critical thinking regarding these matters into the pulpit are not received well.   At least for the most part.  Clergy learn this early.   No clergy person wants to be perceived as mean or cruel.   It is like the boy who lives next door who who tells your boy that there is no Santa Claus.    Your boy comes crying to you.  As a parent you get your dander up.   The neighbor kid is cruel, you think.   Or is he?   Eventually, your kid is going to learn that Santa Claus is a hoax.    Someone has to be the "bad guy" who tells the truth.   You have just passed on the dirty work of truth telling to the kid next door.   He's not to blame.  He is the messenger.      Clergy do not want to be the messenger regarding critical thinking about God.  They are paid to reinforce belief.

Here is the problem.  It is getting harder and harder to keep this belief going.     God critically examined logically leads to atheism.    Religious creeds about God are incredible.   David Galston in his recently released book, Embracing The Human Jesus:  A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity, writes in a footnote:

"I think we live in an era of post-atheism.  We have to accept  the conclusions of atheism and move forward with new forms of human spirituality that are not inconsistent with our best knowledge about the origins of life and the nature of the universe."  p. 216, n. 1.

David is my guest on an upcoming Religion For Life.   He has started a community based on humanistic principles.   It is in a sense, Christianity without God, which is the title of a marvelous book by Presbyterian clergy person and scholar, Lloyd Geering.

In the interview David elaborates on the phrase, "post-atheist."  Post-atheism accepts the conclusions of atheism, but then takes the next step and imagines and enacts religious practice without recourse to supernatural intervention.    If God is a human construct and religion a natural phenomenon, what might a practicing faith look like?    I think that is an exciting challenge.   David Galston offers some interesting possibilities from his own community, The Quest Learning Centre for Religious Literacy, in Hamilton, Ontario.

We have begun to imagine a Christianity without God, a Christian atheism, or a Christian post-atheism.   This would be a functioning, practicing community birthed by Christianity that carries within it the "DNA" of Christianity, including for many the use of Jesus as a wisdom teacher.    Of course, many Unitarian Universalist congregations have taken a similar path.  Now more and more historically Christian congregations are likely to explore this path as well.    Many of these call themselves, "progressive."

What about the emotional pull of "belief in God?"   What about all the good stuff belief in God gives you?   Is that all lost?    Perhaps not all.    If one cannot intellectually believe in a supernatural being who answers prayer, connects us with our deceased loved ones, intervenes to meddle with natural processes, and provides a vehicle for our consciousness to survive death, then it would seem to be a challenge to sustain "belief in God" on the emotional level anyway.   

I am not making an argument in this post for atheism.  I don't need to do that.  That conclusion has been available for a long time.   The church has lived in denial of it, but it is the intellectual reality of our time.  I am arguing for the church to embrace rather than hide from what we know intellectually.   I am also making the case for a post-atheism that draws from science, art, and the humanities, as well as our religious traditions.

What if we made the choice to internalize, both within ourselves and within our communities, the values and the feelings we previously projected onto God?   In other words, what if we brought God home?   If God is a product of our storytelling, then the qualities that we have given to God may be available to us.   After all, we made them.   "Believing in God" would mean the following:  Make hope happen.  Make courage and compassion happen.   Make love happen.   Make peace happen.  Enact prayer.

When our children are thrust with tears and dashed hopes into the reality of "a-Santa Clausism," the cure and the care for them is "post-Santa Clausism."  That is we encourage them to become Santa.  Thus they learn to grow up.   Santa becomes a symbol for generosity and joy.  Developing generosity and joy within is a pretty good trade off for belief in a supernatural being who is supposed to do all that for us.  That is what it means to "believe in Santa."

Perhaps something similar might be at work with "belief in God?"

It is food for thought.  Don't execute the messenger!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas Without You

Zach and his cousin, Gavin, last Christmas. 

I just can't believe Zach won't be here.

The Answer Is No

No, I am not going to get that done by then.

No, I am not doing that again this year.

No, I am not going there this time.

No, I do not know what I am doing.

No, I am not going to fix your problem that no one else cares about but you.

No, I do not think people are especially kind this time of year.

No, I don't believe this, this, this and that.  I am sorry that my theology ruined your Christmas.  But, hey, we have something in common.  My Christmas is ruined, too.

No, I am not over it.

No, I am not my old self.

I doubt I ever will be.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Weeping Cherry

On October 28th, we planted a tree in Zach's memory at Holston Camp. The director, Craig Bell, set that up for us. Zach had a good summer there as a counselor in 2006. One of our church members, Samantha, who was a camper when Zach was a counselor wrote a nice tribute to Zach and read it. We sprinkled some of his ashes.  

A couple of Samantha's friends joined us as we honored Zach's memory. 

"Zach's" weeping cherry is the first one you see as you come to the memorial garden that is in front of the office.   More photos are on Zachary's Memory Page. This is what Samantha (in the dress) wrote.  It was very sweet:
Zachary Shuck was a son, a brother, a friend and so much more. He had an amazing heart that he always shared with the world. Never would you find Zach without a smile on his face and with a hug waiting for you. He shared his smile and spirit with many youth in 2006 when he was a counselor here at HPC. He was loved by fellow counselors and campers alike. He made a point to know every camper and to let each one know they were special and perfect just the way they were. He never had a bad thing to say about anyone but he was not shy about speaking out when someone was mistreating someone else. Just his presence could make my day better and his laugh was contagious. He could not see you for years and when you’d run into each other he would shine his smile, know your name, and start off a conversation like you’d been close friends for years. I am so honored to have known Zach. He touched many lives in a positive way and mine was one of them. We honor and remember him today with this tree. He may no longer be with us physically but he will always be remembered for his shining smile, his heart and his compassion for others.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Silliness of Prejudice

Don's request for transfer was refused by a vote of 27-64.   Don rocked, however,   To turn away a minister with obvious gifts, experience, and deep faith because of prejudice (sorry, but however you look at it, that is all it is) reminds us that we have yet a long way to go.     Don with his wisdom, compassion and cane, reminds me of Gandalf!   He inspires me.    If you would like to send an email to Don, you can find his email address on the left sidebar of our church's webpage.  I am sure he would love to hear from you!

By the way the picture below is from the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade in Kingsport in January of 2012.  Don had marched with King in Memphis during the garbage workers' strike.  

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Don Steele, will be examined Tuesday, December 4th, at the presbytery meeting.  Welcoming a minister with 42 years of experience should be automatic.  There should be no exam.  It should have been an easy decision by the Committee on Ministry. 

But prejudice is irrational and silly. 

Here is Don's statement of faith and personal journey.  

Here is the speech I plan to give at presbytery. 

The Rev. Dr. Don Steele has been a Presbyterian minister for 42 years.  

When he was ordained, I was eight.  

He has a Ph. D. in Ethics and Spirituality.   Somewhere along the line he learned the difference between right and wrong. 

He has served as a minister of congregations across the United States from West Virginia to New Mexico.    How many sermons do you suppose Don has preached in 42 years of ministry?  How many weddings?  How many Bible studies has he led?  How many cups of coffee with parishioners struggling with issues and with confidences that he will take with him to his grave?    How many prayers has he shared with parishioners in hospitals and in homes and in his study?  How many funerals in 42 years?  I know of one important one at least to me.   This summer he held on to me while I held on to the body of my dead son.  He was there with my family in my home.  He was there as we sent Zach to his final rest at the crematorium.   Don is still there for us.  What does it take to be a minister?   You tell me.

He was the dean of the Doctor of Ministry and Continuing Education Programs at McCormick Theological Seminary.    In addition to administrative duties he taught master’s level and doctoral level courses.

He taught ministers how to be ministers.   There is no one in this room who is more qualified to be a PCUSA minister than The Rev. Dr. Don Steele.   

Already in this presbytery, he has been working.  He was responsible for distributing a $10,000 grant on behalf of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to flood victims in Washington County.   He serves on boards in Carter County for those suffering domestic violence and poverty.  He serves with me in my congregation.  I ask him for advice.  He knows what to do.  He has experience in the ministry.   It would be silly not to welcome him with trumpets into our presbytery.

Prejudice is really a silly thing.   When you prejudge people without knowing them you miss out.   It’s a waste.   We are not missing out in Elizabethton.     Whether you decide to miss out or not, that is your call.   It won’t affect us and it won’t affect Don.

But it will make the presbytery look kind of silly.

Even still, we will be here.   We will welcome and celebrate and be blessed by the gifts and skills of those who land on our doorstep even if they drive from Johnson City, Kingsport, Bristol, Morristown, and Meadowview, VA to be with us.   The denomination is moving in the direction our congregation has been charting.   If you would like to join with us in this bold adventure of following Jesus we would love to work with you.  

Call us.  We would love to help congregations get over this stifling and silly prejudice.