The Dance That Must Be Learned

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA - 2 SAM_3737, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23814211

By Alec Perkins from Hoboken, USA – 2 SAM_3737, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23814211

St. Paul wrote that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” “That’s nice,” I say, but not with much enthusiasm, because deep down I want it to be all about me and this is about some other guy!

But here lies a truth about how the spiritual life works. Woven into the fabric of the universe is the principle of self-giving. What you try to keep for yourself, you lose. What you give away you keep. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it,” as Jesus put it. The idea is repeated so often by Jesus and the biblical writers that we are in danger of taking it for granted.

This principle of self-giving originates in God himself. It is how he is. The Father gives the Son. The Son gives himself back to the Father. The Father and the Son give the Spirit. Giving is the rule of his universe. We live to give. We live by giving. We love by giving.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: “…in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being . . . From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be abdicated and, by that abdication becomes the more truly self, to be thereupon yet the more abdicated and so forever. This is not a heavenly law we can escape by remaining earthly, nor an earthly law we can escape by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ‘ordinary life,’ but simply and solely Hell.”

In the spiritual life, we receive to give, not to grasp. And as we give with one hand, we receive with another. It is a game. A dance. A dance that moves to “uncreated rhythms.” But it is a dance that must be learned. We must learn to give even before we receive, and to receive while expecting to give.

My wife and I recently attended a birthday party at which an instructor led people in a variety of folk dances: the Virginia Reel, a Celtic dance and more. Being good sports but bad dancers, we gave it a whirl (literally). We were taking one person by the right hand, another by the left, constantly moving (sometimes in the wrong direction), receiving to give and giving to receive.

The spiritual life is like this. It will seem as if we are being asked to give before we’ve received, and that is hard for us – hard to trust. But we must. We will be out of position to receive unless we are in position to give. When we stretch out a right hand to give, we will feel God’s grace and love thrust into our left hand. As a person learns to rely on God’s goodwill, the Dance really gets going, and becomes a joy in itself. But refuse to give – get scared and hold on to what you’ve got – and the dance ends; and it ends like a game of Ring-around-the-Rosie: they all fall down.

God gives comfort to one person so that he or she can give it to another, who receives it only to give it away to someone else. When the Dance dies down, God starts it again, from his ever-giving, ever joyful heart. The great ones in heaven will not be those who fasted the most meals or memorized the most verses, kept the most rules or wrote the most books (though some of the great ones may have done any or all of these things). They will be people who have stretched out their hands most quickly and most often to God and to others.

When we are going through trouble, the temptation is to recede into ourselves, grasp at every straw and take care of ourselves. But this is exactly the wrong thing to do. It is in those times, more than ever, that we need to stand up, extend ourselves to others, and join the dance. This is the way that Jesus, the Lord of the Dance and its instructor, taught us.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/18/2017

 

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Living with Courage, Dying with Dignity

What does it take to die with dignity? If one looks at the website of the “Death with Dignity National Center” and “Death with Dignity Political Fund,” one will assume that a death with dignity involves certain standard components, among them: the absence of debilitating pain, the ability to care for one’s personal needs, and the ability to avoid placing a financial and/or emotional burden on family and friends.

I believe that euthanasia laws are wrongheaded for a variety of reasons, but that is not my concern here. As a pastor and a former Hospice Spiritual Care Coordinator, I’m bothered by the idea that a person’s death will lack dignity unless she short-circuits the dying process by artificial means. The implication is that people who die in great pain and those who live without the ability to handle their personal care have lost their dignity.

I think of a red-headed kid named Farmer in our school. He was a few years older than me. He went off to Vietnam and died there, probably in the jungle somewhere, in pain and gasping for breath. They sent his body home in a box. But is anyone going to say that he died without dignity?

Over the years, I have been with many people during the last few hours of their lives on earth. I’ve prayed for them in the struggle. Occasionally I’ve closed their eyes when they’ve died. There was the mother and grandmother, surrounded by family and friends, who whispered her love to all while she still could. An hour or so later, she died.

There was my friend who died in the hospital, with her children and grandchildren around her bed. She was restless and agitated when I arrived. I encouraged her family, as I often have done, to tell stories about how they grew up, especially stories about their mom and grandma. It was a beautiful thing to see: the family laughing, crying, sharing one story after another for perhaps forty minutes. I kept looking at my friend. I saw her quiet down. Her breathing became regular, and then softer. She slipped into eternity in the presence of her family, to the accompaniment of their stories of love.

Then there was the man who, when I first met him, treated me like the harbinger of death. But in time he came to accept me and to accept the fact of death’s approach. He began to laugh again. He told friends how he’d overcome his fears. He died in his own home, surrounded by the people who loved and cared for him, in peace.

I think of others. The man who died from complications related to the AIDS virus. The man who smoked a filter-less cigarette, maybe an inch long, around his oxygen hose. Occasionally, the cigarette would flare, and I thought we were all going to meet our Maker. But he listened attentively to the story of God’s love and died a day or two later in peace.

There was my own dad: a two-fisted Marine who never backed down from a fight, but couldn’t beat the lung cancer that attacked him. After coming to faith, he had become gentler and kinder, but he remained as strong as ever. When, a few days before he died, I asked him if he was afraid, he answered (in words I’d heard many times growing up): “I can do this standing on my head.”

There was my own mother, who lingered in her final illness. I asked God to spare her, but her trial continued. And yet she never lost faith or hope. Nor did she lose her sense of humor. She was joking with the Hospice nurse on the day she died.

Don’t tell me these people died without dignity. They lived with courage and died in ways that evoked respect and assured their families of their love. Though I disagree with those who support physician-assisted suicide, I understand their reasons and respect their opinions. But please call it what it is, not by some euphemism that implies that these people, and millions like them, had no dignity when they died.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/11/2017

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Awash

I once asked a retired public school teacher friend what was the biggest change during his thirty years of teaching, from the sixties to the nineties. Without even taking time to reflect he answered: “The language people use – both students and teachers.” He went on to tell me that when he started, one almost never heard a swear word but when he retired, one heard profanity everywhere, including in the teacher’s lounge.

We are awash in a sea of profanity. But it’s not just ugly words, it’s ugly ideas, expressed in crude and even violent language. People call the president of the United States – not just the current one but also his recent predecessors – by vulgar names. Pop stars talk about blowing up the White House, and it seems like everyone peppers their language with expletives.

What’s going on? Do people think that a large dose of profanity will make them seem more grown up? Maybe they think that using vulgar and violent language is the only way to get people to listen to what they have to say.

When I was younger, even the most foul-mouthed people were careful to refrain from using profanity in certain situations. A man (and I say “man” because it was mostly men who swore) would never curse in front of a child—or a woman, or a preacher, or in school. But now, it’s the children (and women, and even preachers) who are doing the swearing.

Of course, many people think, “So what?” A growing number of professed Christians, especially millennials, consider profanity harmless. They say it is just a word, a combination of voiced or unvoiced sounds produced by the vocal tract as we exhale. Yes, that is all it is. And a bullet is just a small piece of lead, adhering to a brass casing with a little black powder in it. But aim either of those at a person, or just fire them at random, and terrible things are going to happen.

It is no coincidence that the current breakdown in civil discourse has occurred at the same time we’ve seen a rise in the use of profanity. The two go together. The same impulse that give rise to one gives rise to the other. In fact, they often occur – uncivil discourse and profanity – in the same conversation.

Profanity not only betrays the presence of anger in the speaker, it is designed to produce anger in the hearer. Profanity, along with contempt (its constant companion), are to anger what nouns and verbs are to English. A person who constantly uses profanity is a person who chronically deals with anger.

The trouble with profanity and the language of contempt is not primarily that it comes out of our mouths but that it has taken up residence in our hearts. With scalpel-like precision, Jesus exposes this truth: “What you say flows from what is in your heart.” Rudeness and vulgarity don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of us.

We don’t want to face this awkward truth. We excuse our rudeness because we are tired. That expletive was a slip, the unkind remark a regrettable mistake. That’s like calling a baby an accident. Maybe we didn’t intend to produce it, but it didn’t fall from the sky and the stork didn’t bring it. We did.

Anger is a witches’ brew, and woe to the person who drinks it. Yet influential people in our society are serving a cocktail of anger and contempt, and urging us to drink it. They tell us that if we are not angry there is something wrong with us. They believe that anger alone can produce the energy necessary to end the injustices that characterize our social order.

Anger doesn’t end injustice. It merely replaces old injustices with new ones. This is what St. James knew when he wrote, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because man’s anger does not produce the righteous life that God desires.”

It is love that ends injustice, not hate. Evil will never be overcome by evil, only by good. And no witches’ brew of anger and contempt (and the four-letter word incantations that go with it) can produce that.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/4/2017

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Should the Church Support a Political Party?

America is more sharply divided than it has been in my lifetime, and it is not just a political divide. It is an ideological one, and it has led to an almost compulsive distrust. Few on either side show respect for those with whom they disagree or even listen to their opponents and try to understand their positions. The result is an exceptional level of animosity not just in the houses of Congress but in homes across America.

Where does the church fit into this picture? One only has to ask the question to discover that the ideological fault line runs through the church too. Depending on which side of the line they find themselves, Christians are accusing their brothers and sisters on the other side of racism, xenophobia and greed or of biblical unfaithfulness, theological dishonesty and infidelity with an ungodly culture.

Evangelicals sided overwhelmingly with the Republicans in the last election, and the mainline churches cried foul. They sided with the Democrats, so much so that Professor Will Willimon (once a United Methodist bishop) could call his beloved Methodist Church “the Democratic party on her knees.” Which should we choose? Should the church side with Republicans or Democrats, with the right or with the left?

Neither. It is not the church’s job to side with political parties. Her allegiance belongs to the kingdom of God. I hasten to add this does not mean that Christians should drop out of political engagement. Rather it means that Christians should use the political parties insofar as they promote justice and people’s wellbeing. They should use the parties, not be used by them. The church must not allow itself and its gospel to be coopted.

The church’s position is roughly equivalent to the Free French (aka “The Resistance”) during the Second World War. Their goal was to see a democratically-elected government, free of Nazi interference, established in their homeland. The church longs to see the kingdom of God established on earth.

People who join the church are not joining a religious club or a theological society. They’re joining The Resistance. They are ordinary men and women who know that things are not the way they are supposed to be in the world and, more importantly, in themselves. They are willing to change and to be change agents, and yet they are not committed to change; they are committed to their King. They have sworn allegiance to his kingdom.

The people who belong to Christ – who have faith in him – are his operatives in hostile territory. Their job is not to set up a kingdom – the king will do that. Neither are they tasked with subduing the people around them. They force no one to follow their ways.

The job of a Resistance member is simple: always keep communication lines with headquarters open and, when a communication is received, follow orders. They gather regularly to send communications to headquarters, to be encouraged and to receive instructions. But when they leave their gatherings they do not leave the Resistance. Instead, they go into their schools, into their places of work, into public settings and private homes and work for the Resistance; that is, they obey their leader. They make car parts and study history and teach elementary kids and drive trucks and wait tables; they do the kinds of things they’ve always done – that everyone else does – but unlike everyone else, they are always awaiting instructions from their leader.

Their work for God’s kingdom will have political ramifications, sometimes very large ones, but they are not working for political solutions. They’re working for their king. They may at once be more conservative than the traditionalists and more radical than the progressives, but not because they subscribe to an ideology but because they obey a king. They refuse to allow their political party affiliation to overshadow their primary identity as God’s people.

Such people often side with a political party, at least in the U.S. But when their party loses an election, they are not crushed. When it wins, they are not euphoric. They cast their ballot for a president, but they’ve thrown in their lot with a king.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter

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Faith, and the Complexities of Being Human

According to the Pew Research Center, while “the vast majority of Americans still believe in God … there are strong signs that many are less certain about this belief than in years past.” Pew’s research is dependent upon what is known in probability theory as “The Law of Large Numbers,” which states that, given a large enough number of trials (in this case, surveys), the results will be close to the true value.

Pew’s research requires interviews with thousands of people to obtain a result that is representative of the general population. But what if, rather than asking 1,000 different people about the state of their faith, they were to ask the same person about the state of his or her faith 1,000 times, say over a period of ten years?

I suspect that there would be times when the person was “absolutely certain” (to use Pew’s language) of God, and other times when he or she would be less certain, or perhaps even doubtful. Such a result would be in line with our experience of faith and the complexities of being human.

Humans are, from a Christian theological perspective, complex. They are multifaceted or, more properly, multilayered. Humans don’t just have bodies. They are bodies. And yet, they are more than their bodies. They are also mind. But they are more than their minds; they are also souls. And soul itself is transcended in spirit. Each human being is, as G. K. Chesterton once described the Church, “larger on the inside than … on the outside.”

What this means, when it comes to faith, is that a person’s confidence in God (or at least his or her awareness of it) can increase or decrease in certainty, depending on where the person is in his or her development. That person’s development depends in turn upon a great many factors, not least of which is God himself.

Because people are multi-layered, a person can believe one day and doubt the next. But that’s not all: he can do both almost simultaneously. He can be traveling the highway of faith one moment and fall into a sinkhole of doubt the next. That sinkhole, however, is not something outside himself, but a place in himself where faith has not yet developed.

The classic expression of this is found in the Bible itself. A concerned father brought his ailing son to Jesus and pleaded, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responded, “If you can? Everything is possible for him who believes.”

“Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

There can be no doubt that the father’s faith was real, but almost in the same moment he appeals for help with his unbelief, which was also real. There was room in the man for both, and there were significant patches of his interior landscape where faith had not yet taken root and grown.

As someone who has been privileged to accompany people on their spiritual journeys, I’ve seen the same kind of thing happen many times. Our experience of faith is not static but dynamic. We are not human beings exactly (at least, not yet) but “human becomings.” From where we look out of ourselves today we may not see God, but if we travel a little further in our “becoming,” we will. While the discovery of areas of unbelief can be troubling, it can also be helpful. It allows a person to choose faith, to act on it, and see it grow.

The dynamic nature of belief is not only exhibited in religious people, but in all people, even atheists. Around the next corner on the highway of doubt a solid rock of belief might be blocking the way. Elizabeth King provides a good example in her Washington Post article titled, “I’m an atheist. So why can’t I shake God?” Likewise, David Bowie described himself as “not quite an atheist… There’s a little bit that holds on.” Even Richard Dawkins runs occasionally into those places where his doubts are cast into doubt.

That’s the nature of being human. But it is the nature of God to help humans to believe even in the midst of their unbelief.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/21/2017

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The Gap Between the Self We Imagine and the Self We Are

There is more to any person than he or she realizes. As C. S. Lewis put it in the sermon he titled, “The Weight of Glory”: “You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

Thinking of the beauty and complexity – the richness – of a human life, I recently shared these words at the funeral of a retired teacher who was part of our church family:

“You knew Barb, but God’s knowledge of Barb exceeds yours to a greater degree than yours exceeds that 151 word obituary [that appeared in the paper]. Barb was deeper than you realize; a deep mine, filled with rich treasures. The things most people noticed – her compassionate spirit, her hospitality, and that ever-ready giggle – were like primroses and daffodils growing around the entrance to the mine. Barb herself knew only the main shafts, but God knew the treasures that were buried in the depths.

“Or knows. I’ve been speaking in the past tense, but God knows us in the present.  “He is not the God of the dead but of the living,” Jesus said, “for all are alive to him.” Barb is, I believe, more alive now than she has ever been; more alive than you or I. And those treasures that were hidden in her are still present, waiting to be discovered. You see, when God designed Barb, he placed within her a magnificent store of treasures, even though he knew that only a fraction of them would be discovered in this age. That pleasure of discovery will still be ours … and hers … and God’s, and there will be an eternity to admire and enjoy them. That’s how God planned it.”

There is often a large gap between the self we imagine and the self we are. The audio file linked below is about closing the gap – growing closer to our true selves.

http://lockwoodchurch.org/media

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Holy Communion

What happens at the Communion Table is rich and full of mystery. As people try to sort through the various explanations – Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Real Presence, Zwingli Memorialism, and more – they sometimes miss a simple but powerful truth: the Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal. First century participants would certainly have understood that, but it is all too easy for us to miss it. The covenant aspect of Holy Communion is consistent with any of traditional views but one can hold those views without regard for the meal’s covenant roots.

Here is teaching that might help make sense of what we do when we come to the Lord’s table. Just click on this link http://lockwoodchurch.org/media  and then click the sermon titled The Resistance.

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