Shuck and Jive

Monday, May 31, 2010

40 Days and 40 Nights

And 40 million gallons later, there is no stopping the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. From today's Johnson City Press:

There is still a hole in the Earth, crude oil is still spewing from it and there is still, excruciatingly, no end in sight. After trying and trying again, one of the world’s largest corporations, backed and pushed by the world’s most powerful government, can’t stop the runaway gusher.

As desperation grows and ecological misery spreads, the operative word on the ground now is, incredibly, August — the earliest moment that a real resolution could be at hand. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. For the United States and the people of its beleaguered Gulf Coast, a dispiriting summer of oil and anger lies dead ahead.

Oh ... and the Atlantic hurricane season begins Tuesday.
The New York Times has a helpful map with estimates of how much oil is spurting forth. The last time this happened, the leak wasn't plugged for ten months:
The largest accidental spill of all time was also in the Gulf of Mexico. Ixtoc I, a two-mile deep exploratory well, leaked at an estimated rate of 10,000 to 30,000 barrels per day for almost ten months until it was capped in March 1980. The total amount spilled was estimated to be 140 million gallons of crude oil.
For Memorial Day, in addition to soldiers, I will also remember our winged, finned, multi-legged, and hard-shelled relations who gave their lives for America's energy needs.

PFLAG Tri-Cities at Blue Plum!

I am looking forward to the Blue Plum Festival in Johnson City this weekend. It is a big celebration downtown with a lot of great music and great food.

For the third straight year
PFLAG Tri-Cities will be at the Blue Plum. We will be in the covered gazebo in Majestic Park.

Come by, say hello, pick up a brochure, get some skittles and rainbow stickers (but of course!)

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Looking for a Guide--A Sermon

Looking for a Guide
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 30th, 2010
Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4; 22-31
John 16:12-15

One of the hymns in our hymnbook begins with this line:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou are mighty;
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Religion capitalizes on that feeling of being alone and lost. Life is uncertain. We don’t know the “right thing” to do or the "best" decision to make or the "correct" path to take. Life is cold, dark, and barren. Or has Thomas Hobbes put it, "nasty, brutish, and short." How nice it would be if there was someone to guide us through.

We long for someone to take our hand and lead us. Wouldn’t it be helpful if a cloud moved just ahead of us during the day and a pillar of fire by night to lead us along and show us where to go? A voice to tell us what to do and to say? Or maybe there is a bright star we can follow that will lead us to the Messiah?

I remember singing a camp song as a kid, I’m Using My Bible as a Roadmap:
I'm using my Bible for a road map
The Commandments they tell me what to do
The twelve disciples are my road signs
And Jesus will take me safely through

There'll be no detours in heaven
No rough roads along the way
I'm using my Bible for a road map
My last stop is heaven some sweet day

I'm using my Bible for a road map
The children of Israel used it too
They crossed the Red Sea of Destruction
For God was there to see them through
There is something comforting about knowing that we are on a path and that there is a guide leading us to a final destination.

Most of religious belief and practice is based on that notion that there is outside of us, external to the universe, often supernatural, something or someone that has a purpose and destination for our lives. It is no wonder that Rev. Rick Warren’s book, A Purpose Driven Life, is one of the best selling books ever.

We long to be told what to do.
Show me the answer.
Tell me what I should do with my life.
Give me direction.
What is my purpose?
Help me discover it.

The assumption is that there is an external purpose or Google Map made just for us, if only we could find it.

There are many folks who claim to have just that Google Map and who will gladly tell you what to do.

We call them preachers.

Jesus had a name for the preachers or religious leaders of his day. He called them “blind guides.”
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
Jesus is saying that these people don’t know anything more about life than anyone else. More often than not they focus on the wrong thing and miss what is important. Strain a gnat and swallow a camel.

The question becomes, who are you going to trust?

One of the things that has been dawning on us as we have been contemplating the vastness of the universe, and the indifference of life on Earth as it evolves without any need of interference from an outside guiding force,... that maybe there is no outside meaning.

Instead, meaning is what we make it.

That has always been true. We haven’t always known it.

Every story in the Bible and in any religion is human made.
  • Human beings created the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.
  • Human beings created the story of Krishna speaking to Arjuna on the battlefield.
  • Human beings created the story of God creating the heavens and the earth.
  • Human beings created the story of the Risen Christ appearing before the disciples.
Once we realize that all religious stories are made by human beings, the balloon pops.

This doesn’t lessen the value or the importance of the stories. It shifts them. Rather than be external realities, they become internal creations. Now we are contemplating, marveling, and celebrating human creativity and imagination. The stories of God or of the gods are our stories projected outward.

A philosopher who I have come to appreciate is Don Cupitt. I discovered him through the Jesus Seminar. He writes in very clear language for non-professionals. He calls himself a radical theologian. In his book, The Meaning of the West, he writes:
In religion and philosophy there is a perennial dispute between two parties. There are those who think that our greatest need in life is to gain security and blessedness by attaching ourselves permanently and securely to something very much greater, stabler and more perfect than ourselves, something that transcends the passing show of existence. I'll call these people the party of metaphysics. They are philosophical realists, for whom our salvation depends upon our relation to something Big out there.

The other party includes all those who think that our chief need is to be cured of the errors and discontents that rob us of our ability to enjoy life and live it to the full. I'll call these people pragmatists, or even nihilists. They say that we don't need to attach ourselves to some great big saving Fact out there; we just need deliverance from our own anxieties, our illusions and our self-concern. We just need pure freedom and life-skills. p. 31.
Cupitt is of the second party. For him there is no “outside.” The self-evolving universe is “outsideless.” Rather than find our purpose, search out a guide, find our path on God’s great Google Map, we instead create it.

The stories of the Bible are not stories of external realities, but stories of human beings finding themselves, and when we put ourselves in these stories they are stories of our own self-discovery. So in Genesis chapter one when God creates order out of chaos, that is our task. We are the ones to create order out of chaos.

Jesus is the precursor to helping us get this.

The irony is that Jesus’ teaching was so radical that the tradition turned him into a god. This is the last thing he wanted. This is why I think the historical Jesus study is so important. There was a person there who had some radical things to say. We have covered him with mythology and distorted his voice. Part of his radical teaching was to forget searching after an external purpose and meaning. The kingdom of God is not “out there” he said.
The kingdom of God is within you.
Even the Gospel of John, which contains hardly anything that can go back to the historical Jesus, still has Jesus affirm that the external God (Father) is known in us through Spirit. This means, I think, that we need to take ownership for that which we have projected onto God or onto Jesus.

When we project onto God or Jesus love, compassion, justice, strength, Jesus says to us,
“Take it back. You are love, compassion, justice, strength. Don’t say, ‘I am weak but Thou art strong.’ No. You are strong."
Jesus tells us:
"You are your own guide. Claim it.”
I am going to quote Cupitt one more time. This is from his book, Jesus and Philosophy:
In the old mythology, God, confronted by the Primal Chaos, by a free and purely generous act of will chose to conquer chaos and create the world. The Israelite prophets saw the religious problem—namely, the infinite qualitative difference between the Holy God and the wayward human individual—as being solved when God relocates himself within the human heart. Jesus takes that thought and radicalizes it, in order to force upon the individual a repetition of the original creative choice. When I feel that everything is crumbling and I am confronted with pure chaos, I have to make a free, generous and founding choice of life itself. This original choice, a choice to launch oneself bravely out upon the sea of contingent existence, comes from what we speak of as ’the heart.’ By it we live. P. 94
Jesus is the transition between an external God (Father) and Spirit within the heart, the human choice. It has taken us two millennia to get this.
  • We have projected onto God all goodness, when instead we need to claim it and live it.
  • We have said that only an external God can give us meaning, when instead we create it for ourselves as individuals and as a human community.
  • We have said that we need to obey an external moral law that is absolute and revealed to us, when instead it is written on our hearts—in other words we create morality by listening to one another and stumbling through together.
Once the balloon pops and we dare to utter to ourselves the blasphemous truth that we created the concept of God, and that we created the stories about God, then we need to take a deep breath.

It is both liberating and frightening.

It is frightening because we realize that we are our own guides. No one else to blame. No one else to credit.

It is up to us to live life.

It is liberating because someone else’s concept of God no longer has power over us. No one else has power to make us feel guilty or sinful or shamed or whatever. With this liberation comes responsibility to make our world a place we really want to live in.

This liberation is not from goodness or compassion, it is liberation to create as a human family a world that works for the blessedness of all.

Rather than a Bible as an infallible code of law, we create a declaration of human rights. We create a loose-leaf Bible of the wisdom we have gleaned that is on-going and outsideless.

This is from Joanna Macy:
People are not going to find their truth-force or inner authority in listening to experts, but in listening to themselves, for everyone in her or his way is an expert on what it is like to live on an endangered planet.
Is there still a place for projection? Is there still a place for a hymn to “mothering God” or the Divine Sophia or the Great Jehovah or our ishta deva (our chosen deity)? Of course. As long as we are aware of what we are doing. We are getting out, we are bringing forth, what is within us.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have 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." (70)
We are getting it out. It is psychologically healthy and necessary to do so. But we also must remember to bring it back. We are the mothering God, we are the Divine Sophia, we are the Great Jehovah, we are our own guides.

If you are looking for a guide, for someone or something to direct you, lead you, give you a purpose, a reason, and meaning, you are welcome to look all over. You are welcome to join all kinds of spiritual groups, self-help clubs, churches, and so forth.

And when you are finished searching and have learned all kinds of wonderful things, come home and find You.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don Cupitt: Bitterbittersweet

Two of
Don Cupitt's most recent books are on my coffee table, The Meaning of the West and
Jesus & Philosophy. In The Meaning of the West he argues that Christianity has dissolved itself into Western Culture.

"God" has become secular. It is a positive story for both Christianity and the West. Cupitt argues that what our ancestors considered to be God, we now consider to be human beings. We are the big It. Life is It. Life is what you make It.

In religion and philosophy there is a perennial dispute between two parties. There are those who think that our greatest need in life is to gain security and blessedness by attaching ourselves permanently and securely to something very much greater, stabler and more perfect than ourselves, something that transcends the passing show of existence. I'll call these people the party of metaphysics. They are philosophical realists, for whom our salvation depends upon our relation to something Big out there. The other party includes all those who think that our chief need is to be cured of the errors and discontents that rob us of our ability to enjoy life and live it to the full. I'll call these people pragmatists, or even nihilists. They say that we don't need to attach ourselves to some great big saving Fact out there; we just need deliverance from our own anxieties, our illusions and our self-concern. We just need pure freedom and life-skills. p. 31.
Cupitt parties with the second crowd. I tend to as well. I think the first party has a hard time understanding the second party. The second group must be "missing something" I often hear. We need a big Fact--a big God--for It all to matter. But It doesn't matter, not in a big, external, sense. It doesn't have to either.
As the decades have gone by my insistent doubts have gradually made me more sceptical, until I began to reformulate my project. I now wanted to write a fully truthful book about religion, the first ever. I wanted to shed all illusions and self-deception. Before I die, I wanted to look the truth about the human condition full in the face, coolly and without being terrified by it, and having done that I wanted to be able to say Yes to life, living it to the full and making the best of what remains of it for as long as I have it. If I can do this, I will have come to terms with transcience. I will have become more than just a passive victim of our common fate, which means that as over the years I have come somewhat closer to Schopenhauer's view of the human condition, I have come to see my task as one, not of sharing, but of overcoming his pessimism. I don't see our life as governed by 'dark unloving forces', in Freud's phrase, but I do see it as 'baseless, brief, pointless and utterly contingent, and yet in its very nihility beautiful, ethically-demanding, solemn and final'. That was written in 1989; more recently I have coined the word 'bitterbittersweet'. p. 2
I like Don Cupitt. I resonate with him. I like the fact that he keeps at it. He is continually redefining and reforming. I admire his quest to be brutally honest about life and saying Yes anyway. I don't find that to be an easy position. But I do find it liberating even as it can be lonely. With Cupitt, I'll take my truth bitterbittersweet.

Meaning of Life, Part 53

If one takes as a norm for Christianity Augustine, Bishop of North Africa in Hippo in the fourth and fifth centuries, how do my beliefs measure up to his standards? Many of his ideas were reflected in Methodist catechism class.

Do I believe in the literalness of the Bible and explain the differences between the gospel writers with the simple observation that "different eyewitnesses normally give different accounts of the same event"? No.

Can I defend the "just war" theory? No.

Does God work miracles at the expense of natural law? No.

Do I believe in the blood atonement? No.

Do I believe in original sin? No. (And, therefore, baptism is not necessary--at least no for that reason.)

Do I believe in predestination? No.

Should clergy be married? My answer is yes, if she or he wants to be and, even more heretical to Augustine, to a person of either gender.

Should there be a hierarchical ordering of the ministry? No.

Is the pope infallible? Answering as a United Methodist, certainly not!

Is God male? No. ...

....In spite of my differences with Augustine and my later repudiation of affirmative answers to all questions asked of me at the Official Board Meeting determining whether or not I could be confirmed at age twelve, can I still call myself a Christian? Yes.

How can that be? Here is my answer.

I believe in Jesus' teachings and I attempt to follow them. pp. 4-5

--Glenna Jackson, "From Hippo to Hippos" in When Faith Meets Reason: Religion Scholars Reflect on Their Spiritual Journeys.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Just in Time for General Assembly

Network News is on-line in pdf. This is a publication of Presbyterian Voices for Justice, formerly the Witherspoon Society.

This is the preparation for General Assembly issue and it includes interviews with the candidates who are standing for moderator, reflections on overtures coming to GA, plus other news and views. A copy of this issue will be sent to every GA delegate.

Surprise of surprises, editor Doug King even referenced one of my sermons in his piece,
Two Images for Thinking About GA. How cool is that?

I will be admiring General Assembly from afar but making commentary nonetheless. So do check in to Shuck and Jive for the wild and wacky world of Presbyterianism.

By the way, Reese says she really likes the new name and hopes that with the name change I'll stop posting pics of her on my blog.

Not likely.

Christianity and Superstition

I spent 45 minutes watching Parker Williamson of the LayMAN give a history of the downfall of the Presbyterian Church, Christianity and Liberalism: The Church in an Age of Upheaval.

His talk was part of an entire weekend of superstition.

Mr. Williamson talks about how bad The Reimagining Conference was and what an apostate Dirk Ficca is. Parker asserts that we "liberals" believe in a different God and Jesus than he does. I couldn't agree more. I agree with him that the direction of the church matters. His direction is about 180 degrees backward.
I wish Parker was right about how "liberal" our denomination is. We have a long way to go.

The point of his speech was that the PCUSA sucks because we didn't follow the fundamentalist path of J. Gresham Machen back in the 1930s. Machen does have followers. He started his own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and his own seminary after Princeton decided to embrace higher criticism of the Bible.

This begs the question. Why doesn't Parker and Friends join that denomination? If over 80 years ago the Presbyterian church decided that they didn't want the denomination run by fundamentalists why are fundamentalists so surprised at our "apostasy?" And it isn't as though the OPC is the only choice for the superstitiously disaffected. You can be narrow in more ways than one. There are also the PCA, the EPC, and other flavors.

But, hey, if Parker likes being on the losing team, then bless him and welcome.

You know what would be fun? I would love to have a debate with him. I personally think his views on God, the Bible, and Jesus are superstitious, infantile, and wrong. Don't misunderstand. Just because I think I can make a convincing case that his views are wrong doesn't mean I think he should be out of our club. That's the difference between us. He wants the "apostates" out. I want to take the "superstitious" on.

Anyone else think that would be fun?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Love Israel? Criticize It

This is an important piece by Peter Beinart, Love Israel? Criticize It:

I was raised to love Israel, and I will teach my children to love it. But we don't get to choose what is true. And if you love Israel not only because it is a Jewish state but also because it is a liberal democratic Jewish state, a state that strives to embody the best in the Jewish ethical tradition, there is only one decent response to these truths: fury. If you're not angry, you're either not paying attention or you don't care.
I love Israel. I value its democracy. I value its steps ahead for LGBT rights. It is because I value it that I need to criticize it for its abuses. This is the spirit behind the report from the Middle East Study Committee and behind the overture from the Presbytery of San Francisco.
Recognizing that Israel’s laws, policies, and practices constitute apartheid against the Palestinian people, the Presbytery of San Francisco overtures the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to do the following:

1. Direct the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to send this overture to the United Nations, encouraging them to find that the state of Israel is committing the crime of apartheid and to take the appropriate actions.

2. Direct the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) to communicate this information to the president and the Congress of the United States.

3. Urge its members, congregations, presbyteries, and national staff units, including the Office of Interfaith Relations, to study this matter and to seek appropriate ways to bring an end to Israeli apartheid.

4. Direct the General Assembly Mission Council to prepare study resources, and urge presbyteries to provide opportunities for study and discussion to further educate church members about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Read Beinart's essay in the New York Review of Books, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Meaning of Life, Part 52

I once heard the late Abba Eban, one of Israel's more polished and thoughtful diplomats and statesmen, give a talk in New York. The first thing to strike the eye about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, he said, was the ease of its solubility.

From this arresting start he went on to say, with the authority of a former foreign minister and UN representative, that the essential point was a simple one. Two peoples of roughly equivalent size had a claim to the same land. The solution was, obviously, to create two states side by side. Surely something so self-evident was within the wit of man to encompass?

And so it would have been, decades ago, if the messianic rabbis and mullahs and priests could have been kept out of it. But the exclusive claims to god-given authority, made by hysterical clerics on both sides and further stoked by Armageddon-minded Christians who hope to bring on the Apocalypse (preceded by the death or conversion of all Jews), have made the situation insufferable, and put the whole of humanity in the position of hostage to a quarrel that now features the threat of nuclear war.

Religion poisons everything

As well as a menace to civilization, it has become a threat to human survival. pp. 24-5

--Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Homosexual Coupling -- Woot!

The LayMAN has posted an editorial regarding marriage overtures to the General Assembly.

You can read about
these timely overtures at More Light Presbyterians.

The LayMAN disapproves.

They don't want any gay marriage.

None of the LayMEN want to get gay married.

They don't want any other LayMEN to get gay married.

They don't want any LayWOMEN to get gay married.

If you are Presbyterian, they don't want YOU getting gay married.

If you are a Presbyterian clergyperson, they don't want YOU doing any hocus pocus at any gay weddin' either!

You got that?

And if you are a session member of a congregation, don't you go approvin' any gay weddings in your church.

It would be just too confusing. The LayMAN's brain just can't seem to manage freedom of conscience.
To wit:
These overtures are evidence of a mindset that is comfortable with cognitive dissonance, the idea that logically opposing propositions can co-exist. Mental contortion is required when the effect of these overtures is considered. It would be okay for one church in a presbytery to bless a homosexual coupling, while another church in the same presbytery might reject the request outright on the basis of Scripture. Proponents don’t see a problem with that.
Nope. We don't see a problem with that.

If y'all don't want folks to get gay married in your LayMAN church, send them right over to FPC Elizabethton! We like hosting gay weddings.

We really get into that homosexual coupling and think it is grand.

At gay weddings we read scripture, laugh, cry, and celebrate with the newly married couple. We think that if Jesus were to visit he might turn the water into wine.

We also respect the views of our neighboring Presbyterian congregations. No one is forced to attend.

No one is forced to agree.

These overtures simply remind us who we already are.

That is what makes us Presbyterian.


This Little of Mine

Turn it up. Let it shine.

Thanks, Nancy!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Have You Been To Jail for Justice? A Sermon

Have You Been To Jail for Justice?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 16th, 2010

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

The via transformativa or the way of justice making is the spiritual path we are exploring during Spring. This is the path of the prophet, the activist, the doer. This is the path that invites and inspires each of us to be agents of change. This is the path for those of us who are not satisfied with the way things are but are interested in what they may become.

The icon of the via transformativa in modern times, particularly in this country might be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an advocate for justice, for civil rights, and for compassion. Speeches, marches, and demonstrations were the steps he took on this path. The goal of his transformative vision was for America to be what it declared itself to be, to live out its vision and its creed, "that all people are created equal."

King as a Christian also embraced Jesus's vision that all would be "one".

This path is a dangerous path. It is dangerous in a couple of ways.

Those who travel the via transformativa can if they do not also take the time to travel the other spiritual paths (the paths of delight, letting go, and creativity) end up burned out, bitter, and self-absorbed. Change rarely happens the way we want it or at the speed we want it. That can lead to disappointment and disillusionment, sometimes even despair.

This path requires great humility. We are not omniscient so we cannot see from all points of view. We must keep ourselves centered and open to different voices.

Martin Luther King is an example of one type of action. But we travel the via transformativa in many ways. Whether we teach minds, care for bodies, work as public servants, care for our loved ones, whatever we do, we are bringing some kind of blessing to Earth and to life. We are all activists. We all travel this path as we travel all the paths. We are a blessing or a vehicle of blessing to others. That blessing, that love has to come from some where.

The activists among us and within us, are those who need the practices of meditation and laughter just so we don't take ourselves too seriously. The activists and the doers are the ones who need the inner peace workshop we have coming up next weekend. Or something like it.

We may not think we do, we might like to think of ourselves as Iron Man or Iron Woman but really we are made of blood, flesh, bone, and feeling. We are tender, wounded, beautiful human beings and each of us needs nurture and care. So we do have to be conscious and mindful about taking that time to engage in those practices that nurture our Spirit, whatever those practices might be for you.

So, you activists, if you need a note from your minister to give yourself permission to take a mental health day consider this the note. Earth needs you. Allow Earth to care for you too.

It is no fun fighting for justice unless you have fun.

One danger of this path is burn-out. But it has also been said that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Earth needs those who will take risks and act on behalf of compassion and justice.

The via transformativa is also dangerous in that there are forces that resist transformation. These forces are powerful, entrenched, ruthless, and intent on maintaining the status quo. It doesn't matter what institution you are trying to transform, these forces of inertia are present. When pushed too hard, these forces bite back. This is why Martin Luther King and those who demonstrated and marched for civil rights found themselves on the wrong side of the law time and time again.

In 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. From his jail cell he wrote what is arguably the most articulate and passionate defense of civil disobedience ever written. It is called the Letter From Birmingham Jail. King wrote:
I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
If you count seminary, I have been in the ministry for more than twenty years. In all of that time, on the front burner of our denomination has been discrimination against gay and lesbian people. It is written into the constitution. We have had studies and votes and fooled around and fussed about and quoted the Bible, good Lord have we quoted the Bible (mostly misquoted I should say), and we still don’t have justice. I know we don’t have justice because I get emails from young people whose parents have not accepted them because of religious convictions.

There is no solution to this except to remove the discriminatory laws. There is no way to satisfy the principles of justice and equality on one hand and to satisfy those who want to keep some people as second class citizens on the other. The moderates tell us we want peace. We want to keep everyone at the table they tell us. There is a difference between the peace that comes with justice and the peace that comes with the oppressed simply keeping quiet.

King understood this too. This is from his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:

"I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
There will be tension at the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which happens to meet over Independence Day this summer. We need to remove the discriminatory language. The time is now. To quote again King from that same letter:
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Until that time when discrimination is written out of our constitution, some of us will defy that discrimination and treat all people with equality and dignity.

We will have fun and be stylish while doing it. If you know how to knit you might help the cause by
knitting rainbow stoles for our General Assembly commissioners.

When I think of the call to the via transformativa I think of the late Howard Zinn. He said:
Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.

Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.

That's our problem.
One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is of Paul and Silas in prison.

The story from Acts is filled with supernaturalism. There is a great deal of fantasy and hyperbole, but there is a likely a kernel of history. Paul gets thrown in jail because of this verse which is central to Paul’s theology and philosophy. It is Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
All great reformers (Buddha, Jesus, Paul and so forth) challenged inequality. They challenged racial inequality, gender inequality, and economic inequality. Paul was thrown in jail because he challenged the ways of Empire that profited from these inequalities. The historical Paul was not about religious superstition. Nor was he about being passive in the face of social inequality. Paul was framed by later writers who wrote in his name. The historical Paul regarded women in leadership as equal to himself, regarded slaves as free, and challenged all rules that made distinction between ethnic groups.

No wonder he was thrown in jail. The communities he started and fostered challenged the way Empire did business. Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have helped us discover the historical Paul. I recommend their book, The First Paul.

Acts is filled with supernaturalism. It has its own spin on the story. In the words of Dominic Crossan it hides as it reveals. For all of that it does capture the joy of disobedience.

While our heroes, Paul and Silas are in prison they are neither bummed nor grumpy. They sit in jail and they sing loudly. Raucous songs they sing. They sing for freedom. They sing from joy. No jail can hold this joy. The via transformativa must be fun. Don’t take this path if you are not going to enjoy it.

In that spirit, the late, Molly Ivins gets the last word:
“So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

How Big Is This Leak?

BP released footage of the oil leak.

BP has been saying this is 5,000 BPD (barrels per day). NPR reports that estimate is too low by an order of magnitude. It could be 70,000 BPD. Gail the Actuary at the Oil Drum invites you to get out your calculator.

Presbyterians, Change, and Eaarth

By the end of the day, some folks at the Presbyterian headquarters in Louisville will get the word that their job no longer exists. The General Assembly Mission Council is determining how they will respond to a 13.2 million dollar decrease in revenue over the next two years. This marks the sixth time since 2002 that national staff has been cut. According to the Presbyterian Outlook:

National staff members losing their jobs – the staff was told in meeting this week that the number will be about 45 – will get the news from their supervisors that afternoon.

Linda Valentine, the council’s executive director, acknowledged to the council on May 13 that “these are painful, difficult times” and that both the lives and livelihoods of people who have served the church for years will be affected.
The national organization is being hit hardest. But regional levels are changing as well. Following the retirement of our youth and young adult director, Jim Kirkpatrick, our presbytery decided not to replace him. This decision followed the painful reality that projected income for our presbytery had dropped significantly.

That is why volunteers in the presbytery are picking up the pieces of Jim's job and why heretics like me are leading Presbyterian Student Fellowship at ETSU. I come cheap. As in free.

In the meantime, a task force has been selected. According to our moderator this task force will meet over the summer to

"determine which programs, ministries, and committee activities are most relevant and vital in fulfilling our vision and mission" as well as "to insure that we are adequately funding our most critical programs".
So who gets the prize for being "relevant", "vital", and "critical"? It isn't as though we have been wasting money. It is all relevant, vital, and critical.

We are in the midst of change everywhere. The Presbyterian woes are just one small symptom of what is happening all over the globe. The Presbyterian story is a metaphor for change. There is no one to blame over this. In fact, I think to try to do so causes us to miss opportunities for responding to change.

To put it bluntly, we have built a global economy and a global civilization with over six billion people by the exploitation of fossil fuels. That wasn't a bad idea. It wasn't an idea at all. It was the serendipitous creativity of cultural evolution. It has been a wild, magnificent ride. We are living at the pinnacle of the highest level of consciousness Earth has experienced in four billion years.

And now, production of fossil fuels is at or near (in some cases past) its peak.

So, creative humans, what should we do?

The foundations are shaking. Change is inevitable. This change will be huge. So what is our response? So far it appears that we are continuing to prop up old ways of doing business that are no longer working. The oil leak that the engineers cannot even figure out how to stop is the inevitable result of continuing to do things the old way. Cheap, easy to find oil is gone. Drilling for oil is risky, dangerous, and expensive. We can expect more and more disasters like what happened on the Horizon.

The alternative to off-shore drilling is very expensive gas at the pump or dangerous adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere to compete for the remaining global supply. In time, this will happen anyway. Another alternative is a collective global effort to power down and build local infrastructures. This is true for both ministry and civilization.

The whittling away of the national structure of the Presbyterian Church and even of the local presbyteries is the way of the future. Soon those who live will live locally. Local ministries, local food production, local energy sources, and limited travel will be our realities in the coming years. We should be transitioning now.

It isn't all bad. It isn't just shitty change. We might get to know our neighbors better. The air could be cleaner. The food could be healthier. Oh, and we should keep the internet. This is from Bill McKibben:

Which is why, if I had my finger on the switch, I'd keep the juice flowing to the Internet even if I had to turn off everything else. We need cultures that work for survival--which means we need once more to pay attention to elders, to think hard about limits, to rein in our own excesses. But we also need cultures that work for everyone, so that women aren't made servants again in our culture, or condemned to languish forever as secondary citizens in other places. The Net is the one solvent we can still afford; jet travel can't be our salvation in an age of climate shock and dwindling oil, so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to substitute. It will need to be the window left ajar in our communities so new ideas can blow in and old prejudices can blow out. Before you had to choose between staying at home in the place you were born, with all its sensible strictures, and "going out in the world" to "make something of yourself." Our society--restless, mobile, wasteful, exciting, and on the brink--is the product of that dynamism. We can't afford to indulge those impulses anymore, but it doesn't mean we need to shut ourselves in. pp. 205-6
My heart goes out to all those at the national Presbyterian offices who will be losing their jobs today. My heart goes out to everyone everywhere who has lost his or her job. Change results in great suffering. We are all in this together.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stop This Execution in Tennessee

Gaile Owens is scheduled to be executed in Tennessee this Fall unless the governor commutes the sentence to life in prison. I have signed an on-line petition to commute her sentence. You might be interested in doing so as well as writing a letter to the governor. Check out her story first.

Friends of Gaile
The Tennessean

Some are against this execution because they are against the death penalty.

Regardless of one's view on the death penalty, this case is exceptional. She was an abused woman. She hired a man to kill her husband. He did. She wanted to plead guilty and receive life in prison and was not allowed to do so.

This execution should not happen.

Perhaps we can stop it.

Here is how

Meaning of Life, Part 51

Here is more good stuff from Stephen Batchelor's, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.

I rebelled against the very idea of body-mind dualism. I could not accept that my experience was ontologically divided into two incommensurable spheres: one material, the other mental. Rationally, I found the idea incoherent. Yet this is what I was being asked (told) to believe. I could not accept that, in order to be a Buddhist, I had to take on trust a truth-claim about the nature of the empirical world, and, having adopted such a belief, that I had to hold on to it regardless of whatever further evidence came to light about the relation of the brain to the mind. Belief in the existence of a non-physical mental agent, I realized, was a Buddhist equivalent of belief in a transcendent God.

As soon as you split the world in two parts--one physical and one spiritual--you will likely privilege mind over matter. Since mind--even an impermanent Buddhist mind--survives bodily death and is the agent of moral choice, then it is not only more enduring and "real" than mere matter but also the arbiter of one's destiny. The more you valorize mind and spirit, the more you will be prone to denigrate matter. Before long, mind starts to become Mind with a capital M, while matter becomes the illusory sludge of the world. The next thing you know, Mind starts to play the role of God: it becomes the ground and origin of all things, the cosmic intelligence that animates all forms of life....[p. 38-9]

....I realized that what I found difficult to accept in Buddhism were precisely those ideas and doctrines that it shared with its Indian sister religion: Hinduism. Rebirth, the law of karma, gods, other realms of existence, freedom from the cycle of birth and death, unconditioned consciousness: these were all ideas that predated the Buddha. For many of his contemporaries, such notions would have been uncritically accepted as a description of how the world worked. They were not, therefore, intrinsic to what he taught, but simply a reflection of ancient Indian cosmology and soteriology. [p. 100]

Batchelor discovered that for the historical Gotama, the supernaturalism (rebirth, gods, karma, and "Mind") is not essential. Many are saying the same for Christianity. For the historical Jesus, the supernaturalism (the miracles, heaven, hell, salvation, and "God") is not essential.

More and more are beginning to articulate a Christianity (and a Buddhism) that is natural, not supernatural. May their tribe increase.

Jet-Pak Jesus

One of the weirdest days of the church year is Ascension of the Lord. Forty days after Easter Jesus puts on his jetpack and heads off for heaven.

Carl Sagan quipped that if Jesus were traveling at the speed of light even after 2000 years he still would not have left the Milky Way.

To commemorate his heavenly flight, here is Jesus
on a pole.

And away he goes!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Uncertain Faith

I am thoroughly enjoying Stephen Batchelor's Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It is the story of his life with Buddhism.

What I find interesting is the parallel between his experience with Buddhism and my experience with Christianity. I find in him a fellow traveler who discovered Buddhism as I have discovered Christianity to be too dogmatic and suffocating even as they don't have to be. The problem is both traditions are too insistent. Both are certain that the way they define the world and the place of humanity within the world is the way it is. There is no room for growth.

Both traditions say the opposite of course. They affirm questioning as far as it goes. Eventually you are expected to come around to the right way of thinking. You hit the glass ceiling of dogma. "You cannot doubt this (whatever this might be) and be a Christian/Buddhist."

This is what Batchelor says of certainty:

The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks. p. 65

Is it possible to have an uncertain Christianity?

Here is an interview with Stephen Batchelor about his book:

Rush In Africa

One of our FPCE peeps just graduated from ETSU and is now on a plane to Africa. Eileen Rush graduated with a journalism degree on Saturday, came to church Sunday, and will be in Uganda in less than 24 hours. Why? In her words:

I feel so ready for this adventure, for this time in my life and for the service I hope to give to the Ugandan and Sudanese refugees in the Namuwongo slum of Kampala. I'm ready to stand on the porch of Father's House, my eyes dancing with the waters of Lake Victoria. I'm ready to reach out my hands, open my heart and do my best to lift others up.
Follow her blog, The Adventures of Eileen Rush in Africa.

And if you are the praying type, say one for her (and her just slightly worried family) will ya?

We are all cheering for you, Eileen!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Join us on the Virginia Creeper Trail

Join us on Saturday, May 15th for our Annual Creeper Trail Ride!

Take that exhilarating 17 mile ride down from White Top Mountain to Damascus, and you’ll see just how beautiful the southern Appalachians are!

We will be using the Bike Station and bike rentals/shuttle is $24 and shuttle only is $15. If we get enough we can get a better rate. We will meet at the Bike Station at 9 or earlier, then shuttle up for the ride. For more information, contact Charles Sheffey. You can also visit the Creeper Trail Guide online!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

When the Spirit Says Do: A Sermon

When the Spirit Says Do
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 9, 2010

Acts 16:9-15
John 14:23-29

May you have a blessed Mother's Day.

Mother's Day is a day of interesting challenge for those of us who prepare worship services. It is not technically a church day. My father dismisses it as yet another day the stores made up to sell us stuff. My mother kind of likes it, though. She knows she will get phone calls for sure.

I have found that it is one of the higher attendance days. For some reason Mother's Day inspires people to go to church. On the other hand, some people avoid church particularly on Mother's Day. We should be aware of why that is so.

Churches have tended to use Mother's Day as a platform to promote particular values and roles for women. You know, the godly woman. Author Anne Lamott, herself a mother, wrote a piece for Mother's Day, entitled "Why I Hate Mother's Day."

She wrote:
It celebrates the great lie about women: That those with children are more important than those without.
She goes on to say:
I hate the way the holiday makes all non-mothers, and the daughters of dead mothers, and the mothers of dead or severely damaged children, feel the deepest kind of grief and failure. The non-mothers must sit in their churches, temples, mosques, recovery rooms and pretend to feel good about the day while they are excluded from a holiday that benefits no one but Hallmark and See's. There is no refuge — not at the horse races, movies, malls, museums. Even the turn-off-your-cellphone announcer is going to open by saying, "Happy Mother's Day!" You could always hide in a nice seedy bar, I suppose. Or an ER.
I do love the way Anne Lamott writes about painful things by making us laugh. I think it is important to acknowledge that this day can be a particularly painful day especially in a religious setting. If there is anything the church does well is lay on the guilt. We can make you feel guilty for just getting out of bed and using carbon. Think of what we can do with Mother's Day.

As with everything, we can try to ignore it, avoid it, fight it, or transform it.

Since we are celebrating the via transformativa, the way of justice-making and compassion, let's see what we can do with Mother's Day. I first realized that it was possible for church communities to transform Mother's Day into a day of justice-making and compassion when I visited a church in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I was just out of seminary in my first call and was attending a conference for new ministers in Stony Point, New York. We attended worship at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry. It was at the time, and I suppose it still is, a progressive, social justice type of church.

It happened to be Mother's Day. Above the entrance to the church, an old stone building, was a huge banner. The banner read:
Celebrate Mother's Day: End Racism.
I thought now that is a different idea than simply giving out a flower arrangement to the mother who has the most children. It was an interesting congregation. In the fellowship hall you could have coffee and sit around tables writing letters to your congressperson. The social justice committee supplied the paper. Obviously, this church ten miles north of the city was helping the larger community be aware of issues of racial and economic injustice. The message was if we are going to be about motherhood, let us work for justice for all mothers.

Before Hallmark turned Mother's Day into a sentimental money-maker and before the certain forms of Christianity turned it into a so-called "traditional values day" Mother's Day was all about social justice.

Julia Ward Howe in response to the horrors of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 began a one-woman peace crusade. She issued a manifesto of peace. It is considered to be the original Mother's Day proclamation.
In 1872, she went to London to promote an international Woman's Peace Congress. She began promoting the idea of a "Mother's Day for Peace" to be celebrated on June 2, honoring peace, motherhood and womanhood.
Julia Ward Howe's proclamation is worth repeating at least in part on Mother's Day:
Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.
Now that is the via transformativa. That is path of passionate and compassionate action.

Julia Ward Howe was inspired by another woman, Ann Marie Jarvis.
Ann Marie Reeves Jarvis, a young Appalachian homemaker who, starting in 1858, had attempted to improve sanitation through what she called "Mothers Friendship Day"… She organized women throughout the Civil War to work for better sanitary conditions for both sides and in 1868 she began work to reconcile Union and Confederate neighbors. Ann was instrumental in saving thousands of lives by teaching women in her Mothers Friendship Clubs the basics of nursing and sanitation which she had learned from her physician brother James Reeves, M.D.
It was the daughter of Ann Marie Jarvis, Anna Jarvis, who started Mother's Day as we know it today. She wanted a day to "honor mothers, living and dead." In 1908 in Grafton, West Virginia, the first Mother's Day Service was held in Andrews Methodist Church.

It appears that Mother's Day is a natural for an Earth-centered spirituality, a spirituality dedicated to justice, peace, and compassion.

In Hebrew the word for compassion is rechem. That same root word is translated as womb. Compassion is literally womb-love. That is not sentimental. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution does not lead to sentimentality. There is no sentimentality, no Hallmark Card love, for womb-love. It is fierce protection for the brood. You don't mess with a mama's babies of any species. That is the sense of protective compassion that our ancestors projected onto God or Goddess. Womb-love is divine, fierce, strong love for all creation.

Men also can experience this womb-love and act from it. Jesus embodied and taught this womb-love and invited his disciples, male and female, to embrace it. Perhaps that is the peace he gives "not as the world gives" in today's reading from John's gospel.

If "the world" is the normalization of civilization with its standing armies, with its dualism of matter and spirit, male and female, humanity and creation, with its economic abstractions that divide us from one another and from Earth, exploiting others and Earth's gifts, then womb-love is the peace the world does not know.

Womb-love comes from as Julia Ward Howe said, "the bosom of a devastated Earth" outraged at the abuse of Earth and its life, and in response, rising up and protecting the vulnerable, giving voice to the silenced, in-spiriting our lethargy, opening our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts.

Womb-love is creativity birthed within us, all of us, that surprises us, changes us, moves us, and takes us places we would have never imagined. This is the creative Spirit in Acts that we read about today. The characters are almost passive. They are not. They are active, but responding to the real actor. The actor is Spirit who calls them to action. They follow.

This is the language we use when we are caught up in something that is bigger than individuals or even the sum energy of individuals. When creativity synchronizes toward something beautiful we feel as though we are acted upon. That presence of Spirit is so present and active. All we can do when the Spirit says do, is do.

This creative feeling can happen in destructive ways to be sure. That is why discernment is so vital as well as keeping that circle of conversation as large as possible and giving voice to those without voice. The via transformativa is the shaping of that creativity toward justice and compassion for all of Earth and its life.

The via transformativa is the spiritual path of action.

Since it is commencement season, a quote that will be heard--and should be--many times this year comes from a commencement speech given by Albert Schweitzer. He told a graduating class:
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.
Schweitzer is a good example of someone who embodied womb-love. After finishing his major work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, he left the formal study of theology behind. His real study had just begun. He followed Spirit, the womb-love he learned from Jesus, to Africa in order to heal bodies.

I am good for celebrating Mother’s Day. Perhaps like the church in Dobbs Ferry, New York, each of us can make a banner for the way we see Spirit or womb-love at work on Mother’s Day.

Celebrate Mother’s Day: End racism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End sexism.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: End war.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Heal bodies.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Hug a tree.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: Promote dignity.
Celebrate Mother’s Day: (You fill in the blank)…

Whatever Mother’s Day might mean for you, let it also be a reminder that womb-love is real and within you and is embracing you and is inspiring you to embrace with fierce tenderness all of life.