Shuck and Jive

Sunday, August 29, 2010

War, Drugs, Collapse, the Usual

In my sermon today I noted that seven more U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan over the weekend. I wondered allowed, why are we over there again? Well, here is one possible reason:
"Implemented in 2000-2001, the Taliban's drug eradication program led to a 94 percent decline in opium cultivation. In 2001, according to UN figures, opium production had fallen to 185 tons. Immediately following the October 2001 US led invasion, production increased dramatically, regaining its historical levels....

In other words, intelligence agencies, powerful business, drug traders and organized crime are competing for the strategic control over the heroin routes. A large share of this multi-billion dollar revenues of narcotics are deposited in the Western banking system. Most of the large international banks together with their affiliates in the offshore banking havens launder large amounts of narco-dollars.

This trade can only prosper if the main actors involved in narcotics have "political friends in high places." Legal and illegal undertakings are increasingly intertwined, the dividing line between "businesspeople" and criminals is blurred. In turn, the relationship among criminals, politicians and members of the intelligence establishment has tainted the structures of the state and the role of its institutions including the Military."
That quote is from I Run My Own Damn Thinktank who I found via the Unrepenantcowboy.

The original article is by Michel Chossudovsky, who is warning that is the U.S. is preparing for World War 3 by targeting Iran.

Michel Chossudovsky is an award-winning author, Professor of Economics (Emeritus) at the University of Ottawa and Director of the Centre for Research on Globalization (CRG), Montreal. He is the author of The Globalization of Poverty and The New World Order (2003) and America’s “War on Terrorism” (2005). He is also a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. His writings have been published in more than twenty languages. he can be reached at the website

His latest book was released at the end of July,
The Global Economic Crisis: The Great Depression of the XXI Century.

Read the Preface

Finding Wisdom--A Sermon

Finding Wisdom
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

August 29th, 2010

Gospel of Jesus 2:27-28

Jesus said:
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
seek—you’ll find;
knock—it’ll be opened for you.
Rest assured:
everyone who asks receives;
everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 19. Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10; Thomas 2:1, 92:1, 94:1-2.

Is it true?

Is it true that we will find what we seek?
That doors will be opened to us if we knock and if we ask we will receive?

I suppose it might depend where we are seeking,
at which door we are knocking,
and from whom we are asking.

Not only that.
But Jesus seems coy as to what it is we are seeking,
where we want to enter,
and the specific question we are asking.

Jesus is tricky that way.
He doesn’t spell it out.

I can think of a number of examples in my own life in which doors remained closed,
questions were not answered,
and things remained lost.

I’ll bet you can as well.

So, is it true? What is Jesus really saying?
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
seek—you’ll find;

knock—it’ll be opened for you.

Rest assured:

everyone who asks receives;

everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened.

Is it true?
Let’s ask another question.

The choir sang the song What a Wonderful World.
It was originally recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1968 in the midst of racial and political tensions and the war in Vietnam.
Here are the lyrics to the first verse:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Is it true?

We can certainly find evidence that it is not a wonderful world.
Here are some top stories from today’s headlines:
  • A volcano erupts in Indonesia.
  • Ground beef is being recalled over E. Coli fears.
  • 17 million Pakistanis have been affected by the floods.
  • Seven U.S. troops have been killed over the weekend in Afghanistan in a war that seems surreal. Who are we fighting and why again? And…
  • Glenn Beck has positioned himself as the new leader for America’s Christians.
I’ll stop there.
And yet the song continues:
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
The song has been used in a number of films such as
Good Morning Vietnam
Bowling for Columbine, and
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

In these films it is used ironically with the soundtrack playing under scenes of bombing, violence, and in the case of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth exploding.
The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin' hands, sayin' "How do you do?"
They're really saying "I love you"
Clear Channel radio added this song to the list of songs not to be played after the events of September 11th, 2001. The concern was that there would be something inappropriate about this song at that time.

But that is the point of the song, isn’t it?

I think Louis Armstrong’s song was in the spirit of Jesus.
The settings are parallel.
In the midst of crazymaking, oppression, and fear,
Jesus spouts his almost maddening, even inappropriate optimism:
Ask—it’ll be given to you;
seek—you’ll find;
knock—it’ll be opened for you.
Rest assured:
everyone who asks receives;
everyone who seeks finds;
and for the one who knocks it is opened.
He was speaking to people who never find what they seek,
who always have the door slammed in their faces,
and who are ridiculed for their questions.
Yet Jesus says it anyway.

That is the via positiva.
It is the way of awe, wonder, and trust.
The via positiva is not a spiritual path that one travels when all is rosy.
It is the path one travels when all is uncertain.

The via positiva is not a denial of the news headlines.
It is living everyday in the midst of the headlines and noticing the rainbow anyway.

It is learning to live lightly.
It is learning to float.
It is learning to survive.

In Jesus’ lifetime he knew that changes were coming.
He was preparing his followers spiritually and psychologically for these changes.
In that respect we live in a similar time.

You have to be able to live lightly.
You have to be able to float.
You have to be able to trust your instincts.
You have to trust that you will get what you need when you need it.
If you don’t get what you need, you didn’t need it.

There is no place for what
"should" be

or for entitlement
or for a desire to cling to what is slipping away.
All that causes is panic.

Ask, seek, and knock is radical trust that we will receive what we need.
The via positiva is the most important spiritual path in terms of being able to keep your wits about you.

We need to keep our wits about us because we have role to play.
We have to be the midwives for a new era that those being born today will inherit.
They will need to learn how to float and we will need to teach them even as we have no idea what we are doing or what we should be doing.
We will know in time.

We just need to remember the trust ethic:
We need to trust that we will get what we need when we need it.

The via positiva is in the midst.

In the midst of this world,
as it teeters on the precipice of change,
we have to notice that it is a wonderful world.

In the midst of angst over our children’s future,
We ask, seek, and knock and
we sing this powerful verse of trust:
I hear babies cryin',
I watch them grow

They'll learn much more than I'll ever know

And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world

Yes, I think to myself,
what a wonderful world

Oh yeah
Oh yeah.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Unrepentant Cowboy

I have a favorite new blog, The Unrepentant Cowboy.

He is Don Ford of Belmont, TX. This is his description:
Rancher, farmer, horseman, writer. Ex-convict. Former marijuana smuggler. Aspire to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Don't always succeed. The Jesus I believe in was an outlaw. So hated, he received the death penalty. I don't like organized religion, so don't try to save me. Jesus and Mohammed both worshipped the same God; both would abhor what's being done in their name today.
Here is his latest blog entry about his corn harvest.
There’s a reason farmers use chemicals and genetically modified grains. People want cheap food. Farmers want to make money growing food. Oh, you’ll hear talk about organic this and that or natural this or that. Bottom line: at least 95 out of every 100 dollars worth of food sold in this country is produced by industrial agriculturalists. You cannot grow good wholesome food for those prices. Period. Every goddamned advance in efficiency or productivity over the years has been met with a price cut in the value of the commodity produced....

....But we will have sacks of corn. And it will be good corn. My horses will eat it. So will my chickens, goats and milk cows. And so will I, good Lord willing.
Good stuff over there for the changes that are in the wind.

The Caboose on the Justice Train

Here is rationale for the decision to rebuke Rev. Jane Spahr (pdf file):
The Permanent Judicial Commission, in sustaining the first three charges, recognizes that while the Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr has indeed performed these marriages, which were and continue to be legal marriages, she did so acting with faithful compassion in accord with W7.3004.

These marriages were legal in the State of California, being civil contracts (W4.9001), and are different from same sex ceremonies. The testimonies of those at court clearly demonstrated this difference.

We commend Dr. Spahr and give thanks for her prophetic ministry that for 35 years has extended support to “people who seek the dignity, freedom and respect that they have been denied” (W7.4002c), and has sought to redress “wrongs against individuals, groups, and peoples in the church, in this nation, and in the world” (W7.4002h).

In addition, we call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (G3.0401c)

We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel. In this particular case, in W4.9001 we have inclusive and broad descriptive language about marriage, “Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the well being of the entire human family.” This sentence is followed immediately by “Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.”

The language of the second statement draws on our cultural understanding today of marriage that is rooted in equality. But it is not faithful to the Biblical witness in which marriage was a case of property transfer because women were property. Nor does it specifically address same gender marriage.

Similarly, in the reality in which we live today, marriage can be between same gender as well as opposite gender persons, and we, as a church, need to be able to respond to this reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion.

In regard to charge #3 that Dr. Spahr has “intentionally and repeatedly acted in violation of the Book Of Order in violation of her ordination vows, (W4.4003e) we again recognize that while Dr. Spahr has done so, she has also followed the Book of Order by remembering that our confessions and church is subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. (G2.0200.)

Notwithstanding the foregoing, we are constrained to accept that the following language in GAPJC Disciplinary Case 21812 is authoritative and should be followed until and unless modified: “We further hold that the officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.”

In regard to charge #4, that Dr. Jane Adams Spahr has failed to further the peace, unity and purity of the church (W4.4003g), we commend Dr. Spahr for helping us realize that peace without justice is no peace.

As a commission, we give thanks for the courageous and heartrending testimonies of the married couples who shared with us their great hurt through the policies of our church. We also thank them for the joy in marriage they shared with us that that has brought healing in their lives and in their families through the ministry of Dr. Spahr. On behalf of the church, we ask for their forgiveness for the harm that has been, and continues to be, done to them in the name of Jesus Christ.

We implore the Synod and General Assembly levels of our church to listen to these testimonies, which are now part of this record, to take them to heart, and to do what needs to be done to move us as a church forward on this journey of reconciliation.

Wherefore: It is the express decision of this commission that you, Jane Adams Spahr, are guilty of the offenses as charged herein and recited above in this decision as charges 1, 2, and 3.

We determine that you are hereby censured by rebuke as provided in D12.0102, and we declare as follows:

Whereas you, Jane Adams Spahr, having been found guilty as stated, and by such offenses have acted contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); now therefore, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, in the name and authority of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) rebukes you. You are enjoined to avoid such offenses in the future.

It is the further decision of this Commission that in the event of an appeal from this decision by either party, that this rebuke and injunction shall not be imposed until final determination of any such appeal.

Respectively submitted,
Redwood Presbytery Judicial Commission August 27, 2010
The tone here is to sound as though they are (and perhaps they are) on Rev. Spahr's "side" but then decide that she violated her vows anyway. I contend that the PJC did not have to rule this way. The Book of Order is contradictory and the legalization of marriage in some states is a new and different situation that is not addressed in the Book of Order.

The PJC chose to emphasize one provision over another.

Anyway, the struggle continues. The decision will be appealed and by the time it finally reaches the GAPJC we will be at the 2012 General Assembly. The last GA couldn't even talk about it. Given our track record, I doubt 2012 will be much different. Around and around we will go.

So what does all this say to clergy who have lesbian and gay parishioners who want their relationships acknowledged in a sacred space? It says (reading between the lines):

"Don't wait for us to get it right. We never will either judicially or legislatively until long after the wind is blowing in that direction. The church is and always will be the caboose on the justice train. Go ahead, clergy and sessions, do what your conscience dictates. When we rebuke you, recognize that is part of your calling. We crucified Christ after all."

Friday, August 27, 2010

Spahr Found Guilty on 3 of 4 Charges

The Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Redwoods Presbytery ruled that three of the four charges against Rev. Jane Spahr have been sustained and the fourth not sustained.

The last charge was not sustained by a unanimous vote. The first three were sustained by a 4-2 vote.
Here is the text of the charges and the ruling in red:
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) charges you, JANE ADAMS SPAHR, a minister of Word and Sacrament, with the following offenses:

1. On or about June 20, 2008, you, JANE ADAMS SPAHR, did commit the offense of representing that a the Marjorie Taylor and Sherrie Ann Holmes, were married under the laws of the State of California in effect at that time, and thereafter signing their Certificate of Marriage as the person solemnizing the marriage. This action is in direct violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (GAPJC) in its Decision and Order in Disciplinary Case 218-12, Jane Adams Spahr vs. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “…officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W-4-9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.” (Sustained)

2. You, JANE ADAMS SPAHR, persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience concerning the aforementioned authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order, in that during the period between June 17, 2008 and November 3, 2008,, when same sex marriages were valid and lawful under the laws of the State of California, you represented that no fewer than fifteen such additional ceremonies you performed were marriages of the same sex. (Sustained)

3. By intentionally and repeatedly acting in violation of the above-referenced authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order as set forth in Disciplinary Case 218-12, you, JANE ADAMS SPAHR, failed to be governed by polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in violation of your ordination vows (W-4.4003e). (Sustained)

4. By publicly, intentionally and repeatedly acting in violation of the Book of Order, you, JANE ADAMS SPAHR, have failed to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church (W-4.4003g).
(Not Sustained)
Rev. Spahr was censured by rebuke and enjoined to avoid such offenses in the future.

The full text of the decision is on the website of the Presbytery of the Redwoods. Go to box on the right side under announcements. It is in a pdf file.

This is disappointing to say the least. Just before the decision was rendered a post on the Presbyterian Outlook site was circling the Twitterworld that compared the actions of Rev. Spahr to those of Jesus who healed on the Sabbath. The author writes:

As I read today's note in the LA Times about Jane Spahr to be tried by the PCUSA, I couldn't help but think of the text for this past Sunday, Luke 13:10-17, Jesus setting a woman free from 18 years of affliction, and doing so on the Sabbath, to make a point (he and the lady could have waited 24 hours) - healing is what the Sabbath is all about.

And then the synagogue leader weighs in - scolding folks, "Hey, we've got six days for work, and if you want healing, come on those days, but the Sabbath is for rest - keep it holy - no work!"

And that's when Jesus lays into the leader and his gang, "You hypocrites. You wouldn't treat an ox or donkey this way - you lead them to water on the Sabbath, so why deny the water of life to this woman on the Sabbath? What better day is there for revealing the love of God and the freedom therein?"

While Jesus stood on the intent of the law, the leader clung to the letter of the law. And according to the law, the leader was right and Jesus was wrong.

So, here we go again, arguing about our laws.

And missing the point of the kingdom of God.

Jane Spahr is technically wrong, if that's the tact we wish to take. Jesus was wrong, too, and someone might have told him, "Wait 24 hours. Then do your healing. No one will be offended, the law will be maintained and everyone will be happy."

But Jesus didn't wait, because love and mercy and forgiveness and hope can't wait.

So ... we'll drag Jane into the mud of our own foolish little world of rules - rules that keep people bound - hungering and thirsting for a better day.

We wouldn't treat a dog this way.
Rev. Jane Spahr did the right thing. Sometimes doing the right thing gets you in trouble with the religious authorities. It is time for more clergy to do the right thing. I am convinced that Rev. Spahr will not “avoid such offenses in the future.” I don’t think Jesus would either. Neither will an increasing number of clergy. I count myself in that number.

Please sign the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience.

Tony Feathers Tonight!

I hope you can come to see Tony Feathers in concert at First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton tonight at seven p.m. It is a benefit for the Edisto Island Open Land Trust in memory of Nancy Herrin. Read about him.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pride Week at ETSU. PSF is Proud.

ETSU is starting its Fall semester and I am the volunteer staff for the Presbyterian Student Fellowship. I am enjoying it. We are going to be on campus tomorrow at the "Sidewalk Sale" handing out pens, information cards about our ministry and smiles. We are putting up these fliers around, too. I think we have a unique ministry based on relationship building, open-ended questions, and inclusivity. If you know of a student at ETSU who needs a home away from home and a place where everyone knows your name, check out the "Pres House."

Here is the news I sent out today with all the details! Click the flier!

  • Open House this Sunday from 6-8 pm
  • First Night Tuesday, August 31st from 7-9 pm
  • Bowling at Holiday Lanes, Sunday, September 5th at 8 pm
Find PSF:

"A Church Out There For All of Us" --Trial of Rev. Jane Spahr

I wish I were in California listening to the testimonies at the trial of Rev. Jane Spahr. I wish the entire church could hear them.

Rev. Spahr officiated at 16 same gender weddings in 2008 when marriages were legal in California. Many of the couples are testifying at the trial as to what it means for them to be married in the church.

This is from the
Bay Citizen:

David Hanson and Jeff Owens of Santa Rosa were married twice — the second time in a church by Spahr in 2008.

“Both weddings were very special and very memorable, but the church wedding, it felt more established, it felt more real — we are really a married couple,” said Hanson. “As I became an adult, I stopped going to church at all. Janie has showed me that there is a church out there for all of us.”

That is why Rev. Spahr, many of my other clergy colleagues, and I extend a full welcome including weddings for gay and lesbian couples in the church as ministers with all the holy mojo we can muster. It is why the church needs to praise and thank ministers who do this work instead of taking them to church court.

"Janie has showed me that there is a church out there for all of us."
This particular story has a fun ending:
Hanson, who has been with Owens for 17 years, testified that he didn’t want to get married until he saw Spahr officiate at a ceremony for their friends. That changed his mind, but it would be another two years before the first wedding. The reason? “We were wedding coordinators — it had to be perfect, Hanson said. Even the elders on the commission, officially known as the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Redwoods Presbytery, laughed at that remark.”
If you think clergy and congregations need to be free to provide pastoral care for all their members, you might consider putting your name on the line and sign the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience. Anyone can sign, but we are particularly looking for Presbyterian elders, deacons, and clergy.

At stake is a church for all of us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Imagine There's No Heaven

I placed this quote from Don Cupitt in Sunday's bulletin as a reflection piece.

It is from his book,
Emptiness and Brightness:

It is the philosopher’s job to question all the things that ordinary people take for granted. And in the last century or two this has often meant having doubts about God in particular. Anyone who has had a vivid and strong conviction of the objective reality of a loving personal God, and then loses it, finds himself or herself suddenly plunged into an equally vivid and strong conviction of being utterly alone in an infinite, cold, empty darkness.

This is the Nihil, the Void, and if one is unprepared for it, it is like being damned or like being severely depressed. When in this state one cannot imagine ever being able to escape from it. But in time most people do escape and find they can congratulate themselves on having learned a few useful lessons.

First, many of most of people’s religious and moral tenets are comfort-beliefs, clung to as a defence against the Void. Such beliefs are defended fiercely: it is a sin even to question them. But any serious interrogation of one’s own basic convictions risks discovering that some of them are just comfort-beliefs and must be got rid of….

....Serious religious thought today risks the Void all the time—so much so that in the end one is sure to be taught the great mystical and Buddhist lesson: it is necessary to make a friend of the Void….

....I contend that in time we can learn to love the Void. We can learn to love the Empty, free-floating, foundationless, outsideless contingency of everything….learn to love life and simply…float. pp. 70-71
I enjoy the writings of Don Cupitt. I have appreciated his willingness to search honestly and take nothing on "faith." For him, "taking it on faith" can be the same as living in denial. He doesn't take any theological belief including God on faith.

My recent post in which I expressed some hunches of my own achieved a good level of energy in the comment section. I tend to think that believing, wishing, or hoping that our consciousness will survive our own deaths is a comfort belief.

I don't think life after death is true. Nor do I find it particularly comforting. Further, I don't think that the message of Christianity has to be or always has been about surviving death. At its best, Christianity is a life philosophy inspiring us to do justice and to live compassionately, joyfully, and hopefully,
this side of the grave.

I also find a belief in life after death oppressive and worrisome. After giving it up, I find life much more liberating. I, like many, was raised in a religious tradition that emphasized life after death and going to heaven and avoiding hell. There were things that one needed to believe in order to get to heaven or be saved. The bodily resurrection of Jesus comes to mind. I remember hearing many an Easter sermon stressing that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead and that one needed to affirm that in order to be a Christian.

Of course there were other requirements as well, such as accepting that Jesus died for my sins. If I didn't accept that doctrine I would die in my sins which meant an eternity of hell. I left that long ago. I am happy to have done so.

I became a Presbyterian as an adult. The Presbyterians have an interesting theory. The theory is that there is nothing anyone can do to make it to heaven as it all has been fixed. God has already elected who will be saved and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Of course the flip side is that God has predestined the non-elect for hell. But not all Presbyterians believe in the flip side.

The idea that it is all fixed is helpful. I kind of like it. With it, there is no need to worry about one's state in the afterlife as you can't do anything about it anyway. What do we do? Live justly, compassionately, joyfully and hopefully in the present. You are free from obsessing about the afterlife, so you can devote energy and time to this one.

Because the weeds of Arminianism (one must do something to be saved) continually taint the crop, many Presbyterians don't understand their own unique philosophy.

I think that letting go of the idea of an afterlife altogether is the logical next step for Presbyterianism. We already have the idea that there is nothing we can do to get there, so giving up the "there" makes perfect sense. It fits with our understanding of our 14 billion year old universe and the evolution of all of life including human beings.

Imagine there's no heaven. It isn't hard to do.

Well, it might be a bit hard at first, especially if we have had it drilled into us and if we still regard it as a comfort belief. But when we let it go, we may discover that this life is a unique experience we will never have again. At death, we will sink into whatever consciousness we had before birth, which of course is no consciousness. It will be done.

But, if you are reading this, it isn't done yet. You have breath today. What will you do with it?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience

Officially, Rev. Jane Adams Spahr is on trial this week for officiating at wedding ceremonies for 16 same-gender couples. But Rev. Spahr isn't on trial, really.

Today the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is on trial. It is on trial for its treatment of its own people and for its treatment of ministers and congregations who care for them. It is time for our denomination to recognize and stand for equality and to recognize loving same-gender relationships with all the legal and spiritual status God has given them.

In light of the change that needs to happen within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), deacons, elders, and ministers have the opportunity to stand for marriage equality and to stand with ministers who risk being taken to church court for doing what ministers are supposed to do.

If you are an deacon, elder, or minister in the PC(USA) please consider signing the Minneapolis Declaration of Conscience. The goal is 1000 signatures. Here is the statement:

1. We believe that the restrictive definition of marriage as "between a man and a woman" is binding of our pastoral discernment and unduly restricts our conscience. Such a definition does not find congruity with the established legal definitions in five U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and numerous countries in the world.

2. We recognize an individual clergy's pastoral discernment in making decisions relating to same gender marriages according to individual congregational needs, regional law, individual conscience and Biblical conviction.

3. We recognize that restrictive language hinders our pastoral care duties to members in full standing and shackles our liberty in Christ. Such language makes us choose between the new openness we are called to (G-3.0401) and enduring unscrupulous charges made in the courts of the church. We are either a church for all people or we are not (G-4.0401-3).

4. We believe that binding our liberty in Christ in matters to which we believe the Spirit of God is directing us runs counter to our confessional and reformed heritage, which calls us to encourage covenant faithfulness and love rather than thwart it.

5. We believe that Christ's teaching, the Pauline witness, and our confessions guide us to reject binding our consciences against actions that we find to be counter the Spirit of God.

6. We call on people of good faith to cease from using our church courts to promote schism for their definition of purity.

7. We believe that Sessions should be able to approve the use of their church buildings for all marriages, especially since they will know the people requesting services of marriage better than those in higher governing bodies. A national policy ties the hands of the local Session, and diminishes their church's ministry of pastoral care.

8. Therefore, we cannot and will not abide by overly restrictive ecclesial/liturgical definitions of marriage continued by the 219th General Assembly out of scruples.
As of this writing, we have 19 signatures. 981 more to go!

Sign here.

Food Industry is a Bad Egg

Michael Pollan, author of The Ominvore's Dilemma was on Anderson Cooper 360 yesterday.

He was interviewed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta. I watched it last night. I was shocked to see that the interview that is now on Youtube cut out the part of the hidden camera in the chicken houses.

It cut out the part of the description by Pollan of what happens to these chickens (their beaks are cut off and they never are allowed to move or stretch their wings).

And it cut out the part where Gupta held up a piece of paper in which a square was drawn about 5 X 5 inches that shows the space these chickens live in for their entire lives.

What is up with that, CNN?

Thanks to I did find a podcast of the entire show that you have to download. It supposedly starts at 21:25 although I haven't had success so far in downloading it. If someone can find this interview or even a transcript, do let me know.

If people see the entire interview they will think again about their eggs.

I wrote about this egg recall a few days ago.

It is time to pay attention to what we are eating and how the animals are treated.

"As A Matter of My Conscience" -- Rev. Jane Spahr

Rev. Jane Spahr goes on trial today for marrying 16 same-gender couples. These weddings were legal in California at the time.

There is quite a bit of media coverage.

I especially enjoyed this editorial, Why Rev. Jane Spahr Should Be a National Religious Icon.

Imagine being persecuted for celebrating love. Sound like the spirit of a Shakespeare tragedy? If only this were a story of fiction. Meet Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, a retired Presbyterian minister in California. Today, Rev. Spahr will be hauled into a Presbyterian court, and put on trial for potentially violating the constitution of the Presbyterian Church. What did she do that was so heinous?

She married 16 same-sex couples in California in 2008....

...."As a matter of my conscience," Rev. Spahr says, she "cannot be a part of … people being seen as second class or less than. I have seen the violence it has done...."

....Whatever the result of this trial, one thing is clear: Rev. Jane Spahr should be celebrated as a national religious icon. In a day and age where the national religious figures that get all media attention do so because they blame Haiti for bringing on their own earthquakes, or because they accuse President Obama of being a Muslim, or because they fight like hell to demonize immigrants and LGBT folks and those considered "the other," it seems like our national consciousness could use a woman like Rev. Spahr. (emphasis mine) [Read More]

That's the truth. Do read the entire editorial.

Ray Bagnuolo and Will McGarvey suggest that Rev. Spahr is not on trial at all. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is on trial as to whether it has moved beyond hypocrisy, bigotry, and superstition.

The trial itself will be interesting. The Presbyterian prosecutor will put Rev. Spahr on a scale. If she weighs the same as a duck she is made of wood and therefore a lesbian.

Presbyterians are wise in the ways of science.

Get the latest buzz

  1. on Twitter hashtag #revjanie,
  2. That All May Freely Serve
  3. and Rev. Jane Spahr Charged (Again) By Presbyterian Church

Monday, August 23, 2010

If There Is No Life After Death, Are We To Be Pitied?

I have been thinking again.

That's a problem.

I have been thinking about life after death. The Apostle Paul wrote:

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19)
I wonder if most people feel that way (regardless of their religion). I wonder if most people think that it is pitiable if there is no life after death. If it is true that my consciousness is wed to my body and when my body dies so will "I" is that a bad thing? Does that make my existence pitiable?

If most people believe that what does that say about the human race and our future on Earth? I wonder if we have reached a point in human consciousness of incredible despair because we cannot face the inevitable void. I wonder if there is a collective drive toward human extinction because we have not adequately been able to come to terms with mortality.

It seems to me that the task of religion, at least for some of us, is not to hide from the void but to embrace it. I think there is only this life. But we don't need pity. We need to embrace our mortality.

There are a few things of which I am not convinced:

  1. I am not convinced that anyone's consciousness will survive or ever has survived death. This goes for immortal souls, resurrection of bodies, reincarnation, you name it.
  2. I am not convinced that humanity or any other species is "to be pitied" for our mortality.
  3. I am not convinced that believing we are immortal in some form or another will make us more loving, happier, and kinder.
  4. I am not convinced that religion must promote theories of immortality in order to help people live meaningful and productive lives.
I also have a few hunches:
  1. I have a hunch that traditional religious language can be helpful when understood as a metaphor for the quality of life. (Resurrection becomes a symbol for the serendipitous joy of being able to start over, discover a new lease on life, affirm hopefulness in difficult situations, etc.)
  2. I have a hunch that religious bodies (such as churches) would be more helpful and more healthy if they allowed for open-ended questioning among leaders and participants (as opposed to expulsion, fear of being called a sinner, heretic, and in some cases fear of being sent to hell for openly questioning and doubting cherished beliefs).
  3. I have a hunch that we will need more and more thinkers, ritualists, community-builders, therapists, and ministers to help people embrace their mortality rather than put hope in an afterlife as traditional religious dogmas become increasingly incredible for more and more people.
  4. I have a hunch that if we developed a religion that helped people to embrace their mortality rather than deny it, we would become healthier in mind and in body and appreciate more the sacred quality of life.
That is all. Carry on.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Emptiness and Awareness: A Sermon

Emptiness and Awareness
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
August 22nd, 2010

Thomas 97:1-4 Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”

In the mid 90s when the Jesus Seminar published their work on the sayings of Jesus, they called their book The Five Gospels. In Sunday School we learned there were four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. What is this fifth gospel?

It is the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not in the Bible. It was discovered in 1945 in a collection of documents found in clay jars near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This collection is thus called the Nag Hammadi Library. Thomas was discovered with a number of other documents dating back to the fourth century. Apparently, these documents had been hidden away for safe-keeping.

The document that has stirred the most interest is the Gospel of Thomas. It is a collection of sayings of Jesus. The language is Coptic. It is divided into 114 sayings or logia. Some of these sayings are very much like, almost identical to, the sayings of Jesus in the canonical gospels. Some of these sayings are similar to them but with significant differences. Other sayings are completely unfamiliar.

This is why Thomas is interesting. The big question is this:
Are the sayings of Jesus found in The Gospel of Thomas independent of the sayings found in the canonical gospels, or are they dependent upon them?
If dependent, then Thomas tells us little about Jesus. The author copied sayings from the canonical gospels, changed some of them, and simply made up the other sayings a century or more after Jesus.

However, if they are an independent collection of sayings of Jesus, they may be at least as valuable as the canonical gospels in going back to Jesus. We may have found a collection of sayings of Jesus that we haven't known about for 1600 years.

One would think that the church would celebrate this finding. How fascinating to find out more about our hero, Jesus! But that hasn’t been the case. The church on the whole has been defensive. It has called this document pejoratively a Gnostic heresy and claims that it is a distortion of the teachings of Jesus.

Other scholars are saying, not so fast. These sayings could very well go back to Jesus or be as legitimate as the sayings in the earliest gospel, Mark, and perhaps Q, a source for both Luke and Matthew.

Of course we can imagine why the church would be defensive. After all, there would be a great deal of paperwork involved. You might have to republish the Bible, rewrite the creeds, change your picture of Jesus.

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus doesn’t die on the cross for your sins. There is not a lot of doctrine in Thomas. You are to find your own path.

Steven Davies in his book, The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom, writes:
Thus, to understand the text to be as it appears to be, an early independent list of sayings attributed to Jesus that has no generative connection with any other known piece of Christian writing, seems to be the most reasonable alternative. Accordingly, it is about as valuable a source for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as are the synoptic Gospels, and considerably more valuable than the Gospel of John. P. xx.
The Jesus Seminar determined that Thomas was an equal authority to the canonical gospels in regards to sayings that might go back to the historical Jesus and view Thomas as an independent source. The Seminar, ended up being, in my view, somewhat conservative regarding the sayings in Thomas that were unique to Thomas.

Only two sayings, the parable of the empty jar, and the parable of the assassin were given pink votes. In part this is due to their methodology. Multiple attestation requires that a saying be found in more than one independent source to be authentic. By that criterion, anything unique to Thomas would not likely make the cut. However, by that same criterion, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son wouldn’t make the cut either as they are found only in Luke. So the seminar still might have harbored doubts about Thomas, in part because of canonical boundaries and perhaps because they were haunted by that old Gnostic bugaboo.

I personally regard Thomas as authoritative as the canonical gospels regarding the sayings about Jesus. I think we should include it in the Bible. I think to do so would break the iron clasp of dogmatic theology upon the church, would make us more aware of the diversity of early Christianity, and give us more insights into the person of Jesus.

What do we make of this parable of "The Empty Jar"?

We all know the feeling of this woman, don’t we? We all have similar stories. We lose something valuable. When she gets home we know she must have been angry with herself, possibly in a panic. She didn’t just drop a loaf of bread out of an otherwise full grocery cart. This jar of meal could have been all the food for her and her family for a week. This is a serious loss.

Where does Jesus come off saying this is like the kingdom of God? This is a negative story, bordering on the tragic.

Perhaps it is symbolic. Perhaps we are to regard it as a metaphor for emptying oneself and one’s mind. I have used that idea in today’s liturgy with the saying from the 11th chapter of the Tao Te Ching.

Even so, I am not so sure. It seems perhaps a little too clever and hip. It feels like I want to make Jesus a Buddhist. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But…

Some fellows of the Jesus Seminar thought the parable of "The Empty Jar" it was a spoof on the Elijah story where the woman’s jar never runs out of meal. Again, clever. It connects Jesus’ parable to the Hebrew scriptures. It is like the spoof of the mustard weed being compared to the cedar of Lebanon. The kingdom of God is more like a weed than a tall cedar. The kingdom is an empty jar not a full one. Perhaps.

It could be that as we also know a bad event can open us up to something unexpected. Over the weekend my lovely and I saw the film, Eat, Pray, Love. The main character played by Julia Roberts gets divorced and is of course feeling awful. She is filled with worry and self-doubt. She goes to the bookstore and buys a couple of books with these titles: Who Moved My Cheese? and From Crappy to Happy.

Maybe that is what Jesus is doing with this parable. Jesus is saying in effect:
Don’t cry over spilled milk, or in this case, spilled meal. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Yeah, this sucks, but hey, this could open new horizons for you. From crappy to happy.
Am I getting annoying yet? We have heard those clich├ęs so often. Yet it is true that when we get to the point that bad events are not only bad events we can find in them opportunities for change and growth and even unexpected joy. Maybe that is what Jesus is talking about. Maybe.

My hunch is that your wheels are turning. You are trying to figure out this parable. Perhaps that is the point.

The challenge of the Gospel of Thomas is trying to figure out what it is about. It has no plot. It has no easily identifiable theology or ideology. The old pejorative dismissal that it is a Gnostic heresy is being challenged by many different scholars today. But it is hard to find in it any overall structure or meaning. While individual scholars have claimed to find a pattern or a theology, there is no consensus regarding that.

Steven Davies suggests that that should give us a clue. He says that Thomas is a collection of sayings in no particular order. He further suggests that it was designed not to offer a plot or a theology but as a collection of individual oracles. He says that Thomas was used for “random oracular divination.” He writes:
Its purpose is to determine the answers to an individual’s questions by reference to an established set of statements, verbal or non-verbal, which are presumed to be of supernatural origin. Those statements, to be functional, must be indeterminate in meaning and so applicable to various situations. P. 157
Think of a set of Tarot cards. You go to an expert with your problem and the expert turns over cards and with you interprets an answer.

If you have ever read your horoscope in the newspaper, read a fortune cookie, been to a psychic, had your dreams analyzed, meditated, read your Bible, or even gone to church to hear a sermon, with the hope, perhaps even expectation, that you might get a Word or insight from something outside your own mind, you are in familiar territory. The fundamental difference between any of those things is whether or not you trust their authority.

Davies suggests that Thomas functioned like that. He compares it to “the Homer Oracle”, a collection of 216 sentences. There are instructions that go with it on how it is to be used. 216 is an interesting number. It is six cubed. If you were to roll three six-sided dice there are 216 possible combinations. The idea of the oracle is that you roll the dice and you land on a saying. That saying is the Word for you. You work that. It is ambiguous enough for you to spend a great deal of time interpreting it, perhaps with the assistance of an expert.

Davies says that Thomas was like that. He also suggests that we have numbered the sayings incorrectly and that are 108 sayings, not 114. One hundred eight would be half of 216. You could use the dice with Thomas too.

Regardless of the method, this collection of the sayings of Jesus would have been understood as a collection of random divine oracles that would be used under the proper circumstances to help a person work out their problems or questions.

That does not mean that Jesus meant them as such when he uttered them. He may not have uttered all of them any more than he uttered all the sayings attributed to him in the canonical gospels. But the collector saw them as such and created this document with this in mind.

Many people read the Bible in this way. The idea of the lectionary is based on a reading for a particular day. You read it listening for what Spirit may say to you. Thomas may have had a similar function. In order for it to work, you need:

1) To trust that the oracles are authoritative (ie. sayings of Jesus, a spirit-intoxicated prophet).
2) Each saying to be open-ended and ambiguous enough to allow for interpretation.
3) A randomness factor so that neither the client or the diviner chooses the oracle, but is seen as "chosen" for the client.

So back to "The Empty Jar". What does it mean? Wrong question, if we think we can find a definitive, objective meaning. The right question is what might it mean for me today? Take this parable and work it. Live with it. Let it question you as you question it. Allow your question or problem to be spoken to. Trust that no one can give you the right answer but that you can discover it for yourself. The Gospel of Thomas can be a tool to help.

During our meditation time this morning, I asked each of you to focus on a particular problem or question with which you were wrestling. Now, bring it to mind. Let this parable speak to it:
Jesus used to say, “The Father’s Imperial rule is like a woman who was carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking along a distant road, the handle of the jar broke and the meal spilled behind her along the road. She didn’t know it; she hadn’t noticed a problem. When she reached her house, she put the jar down and discovered that it was empty.”
What say you?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mercy Now

A friend turned me on to this song by Mary Gauthier.

It is called Mercy Now.

I thought you should hear it so I found a version on youtube. You can download or purchase the cd here.

It made me cry.

Crazy Hysterical Christians

I received this email yesterday from a true believer. It was accompanied by several photos. According to the e-mail they were photos of Muslims at prayer in New York City.

Here is the text of the e-mail:

A Christian Nation cannot put up a Christmas scene of the baby Jesus in a public place, but the Muslims can stop normal traffic every Friday afternoon by worshiping in the streets. Something is happening in America that is reminiscent of what is happening in Europe. This is Political Correctness gone crazy. Scary! Isn't it?

This is NYC on Madison Ave

This is an accurate picture of every Friday afternoon in several locations throughout NYC where there are mosques with a large number of Muslims that cannot fit into the mosque - They fill the surrounding streets, facing east for a couple of hours between about 2 & 4 p.m. - Besides this one at 42nd St & Madison Ave, there is another, even larger group, at 94th St & 3rd Ave, etc., etc. - Also, I presume, you are aware of the dispute over building another "high rise" Mosque a few blocks from "ground zero" - With regard to that one, the "Imam" refuses to disclose where the $110 million dollars to build it is coming from and there is a lawsuit filed to force disclosure of that information - November can't come soon enough.

This is in New York City on Madison Avenue, not in France or the Middle East or Yemen or Kenya.

Is there a message here???? Yes, there is, and they are claiming America for Allah. If we don't wake up soon, we are going to "politically correct" ourselves right out of our own country!


"For evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing." - Edmund Burke
There you have it.

Christian hysteria.

When people send me these e-mails, I respond by asking them if they have checked their facts. Usually they haven't (or they don't believe in facts). For the rest of us who still think facts are a good thing, check Snopes:
  • These photos are of an annual event, The Muslim Day Parade, not a weekly one.
  • They have a permit from the city.
  • They have held this annual event long before Obama ever was around (1985)
The hysteria by fundamentalist Christians is reaching a fevered pitch. What do you think rational, sane people can do about this?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Egg on Their Faces

I see in the news that 380 million eggs have been recalled due to a salmonella outbreak. That's an egg for every American with a few million left over.
(CNN) -- The salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of 380 million eggs was preventable and will likely grow, according to federal officials.

Hundreds of Americans likely have become ill from tainted eggs in recent months, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said Thursday.

From May 1 to July 31, a total of 1,953 cases of Salmonella enteritidis were reported. (read more)
It will be tempting to say this event is unusual. It will be tempting to cover our eyes and ears and tell ourselves that factory-produced eggs are normally healthy and good. We say the same for factory-produced beef, chicken, pork, and corn by-products.

We tell ourselves the government and the factories from which vats of meat are mass produced are perfectly normal and good.
A lot of money, energy, legal fees, and media reporting will go into propping up that illusion.

Do you know what is in your food?
Do you know how it is made and from whence it comes?

Here is a film that should scare the salmonella (and E. coli) out of you. It is called
Food, Inc. and was nominated for an academy award.

I knew things had changed and were a lot different when we raised most of our own food on our small farm in Montana.

But I didn't realize the extent of our situation until I saw Food, Inc.
We need to be aware and we need to make some changes. The biggest change is being willing to look behind the curtain.

If watching a film like this is too disturbing for you so you would rather not...

...then that is the reason we are screwed.

The industry relies on the comfort we get from the illusion. It is because we refuse to look in the kitchen and are squeamish to look beyond the packaging of our eggs, meat, dairy, and everything else that this has blindsided us.

The industrialized food factory is unjust, unsustainable, unhealthy, and on the verge of collapse.

Know where your local farmer's market is?
Check out local harvest.
Time to go organic.

Visit the Presbyterian Hunger Program for ideas and resources.

Hat tip to Jennie for the quote of the day:
“A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.” --Saul Bellow

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Waiting for the World to Change

The wait won't be long...

Via That All May Freely Serve

What is the Best Country in the World?

Newsweek answered that question for us.

It is not the U.S. We rank eleven.

Of course, Monty Python has known the secret for a long time.

Finland has it all.

Presbyterian Student Fellowship at ETSU Starts Sunday!

Classes begin in a couple of weeks at East Tennessee State University. Campus ministries are starting as well including the Presbyterian Student Fellowship.

Since our director, Jim Kirkpatrick retired, our presbytery has had to make do. The
presbytery decided it didn't have the money to continue funding the position.

What do you do when you have no money?

You ask volunteers who look like this to mold young minds.

Um, yeah, that would be me. Homely, but scrappy.

We are one of the most scrappy ministries on campus. We are not well-funded or super-hip like all the big fancy campus ministries, but...

We have a house!

That's cool!

1412 College Heights Road.

We have a blog!

We are on Facebook!

We send out slick e-mails. Do subscribe.

We have food.

Every Tuesday night, we have a meal at seven p.m. followed by a program. We bring in guests. Check the blog for some programs we put together last semester.

Possibilities for this Fall include an International Peacemaker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as one of our local friends, Lynnea Hunter, who has been a YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) with the PCUSA this past year in Belfast.

Students will pick the programs.

In fact, we will do that this Sunday, August 22nd at 5 p.m. at the campus house.

Planning is open to all ETSU students interested in Presbyterian Student Fellowship. I'll provide pizza and we will brainstorm our programs for the Fall semester and include other fun things and service stuff too!

Bring your ideas! We are here for you, the students.

We are a place you can hang out, do laundry, use the computer, find friends and a home away from home.

Most importantly, we accept everyone.

Even people who look like this.

We are inclusive. Everyone is in the circle. You don't have to be Presbyterian or even religious. We are big on questions not answers.

Sometimes you need a friend to lean on. I am available by appointment (Facebook or e-mail) for counseling or conversation at the campus house, Earth Fare, or other coffee shop.

Here is the calendar:

Sunday August 22nd, 5 pm. Semester Planning. All students are welcome. We are at the ground floor. We will figure out who is who and what we want to do.

Thursday, August 26th, Move-In Day, 7:30 am - 1 pm. The deal here is that we wear our PSF t-shirts and help folks move in to the residence halls.

Sunday, August 29th, 6-8 pm, Open House. We need something big for this. Ideas? Well, then, come on the 22nd and help us plan.

Tuesday, August 31st, 7-9 pm, First Night. We have a meal and a welcome to start the semester.


Contact me on Facebook or e-mail!