Shuck and Jive

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Blessings at Year's End

This is from Howard Thurman.  I post it for you on this last day of 2011. 

Blessings At Year's End

I remember with gratitude the fruits of the labors of others, which I have shared as a part of the normal experience of daily living.

I remember the beautiful things that I have seen, heard, and felt—some, as a result of definite seeking on my part, and many that came unheralded into my path, warming my heart and rejoicing my spirit.

I remember the new people I have met, from whom I have caught glimpses of the meaning of my own life and the true character of human dignity.

I remember the dreams that haunted me during the year, keeping me ever mindful of goals and hopes which I did not realize, but from which I drew inspiration to sustain my life and keep steady my purposes.

I remember the awareness of the spirit of God that sought me out in my aloneness and gave to me a sense of assurance that undercut my despair and confirmed my life with new courage and abiding hope.

Religion For Life in Today's Johnson City Press

Thanks to Madison Mathews and the Johnson City Press for this article in today's Faith Section, "Faith on air:  Weekly radio show takes look at religion and society."

Religion is a complicated thing. Talking about religion and how it ties to various aspects of society is often even more complicated. But a new half-hour program on WETS-FM/HD will explore the role religion plays in society and how it intersects with social justice and public life.

The weekly program, “Religion For Life,” will be hosted by the Rev. John Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian of Elizabethton. It begins airing on WETS Thursday at 8 p.m.

Shuck said the show is designed to be an educational program that looks at religion from an academic perspective rather than a sermon-based program. In each episode, he’ll interview local and national figures from a variety of religious traditions and perspectives.

“So in some cases it will be how people of faith or a religion or spirituality are motivated to do good things and sometimes it’ll be a more academic analysis about how religion affects things,” he said.

Those effects — both the good and the bad — will offer a variety of talking points to be discussed during each show.

Initially, Shuck was approached by Teresa Keller, manager of Emory and Henry’s WEHC-FM, to host a religious-themed program for their radio station. After talking with both Keller and WETS director Wayne Winkler, Shuck decided to broadcast “Religion For Life” from the station in Johnson City.

The program will be re-broadcast on WEHC in Emory, Va. on Mondays at 1 p.m.

Although Shuck has been in the ministry for nearly 20 years, he started out as a radio broadcaster in Seattle and Boise, Idaho. He’s excited to have an opportunity that will allow him to utilize both his training in broadcasting and work within the ministry.

“I’ve often thought about ways to integrate these two loves of my life — broadcasting and religious study and religious issues — and, so, it seems like a great way to do that,” he said.

The first episode will feature a discussion with Anthony Flaccavento of SCALE, a private consulting business dedicated to catalyzing and supporting ecologically healthy regional economies and food systems, about building local and sustainable economies.

Other upcoming programs will feature discussions with author Sarah Sentilles, whose book “Breaking Up With God” recounts her disillusion with the church and its patriarchy; local activist Jennie Young, who has been working on informing Tennesseeans about the effects of mountaintop removal mining; and Mazen Alsaqa, a Christian refugee from Iraq who now lives in Michigan.

Shuck said he hopes discussions with these people and others will allow him to present listeners with people whose religion inspires them to do good for the world.

“Religion, however, in practice, does not always lead to the good. I will also present voices who provide a critique of religion especially when it leads to violence, exclusivity and injustice to others and to our Earth. Sometimes, it is the people who are not religious who show us what true religion is to be about,” he said.
“Religion For Life” will broadcast on WETS every Thursday at 8 p.m. and re-broadcast Sundays at 2 p.m. Podcasts will be available at

For more information on the program, visit Shuck’s blog,, the program’s pages on Facebook and Twitter or at

Bookmark, subscribe to, and otherwise read my new blog, for all the news about upcoming programs and how you can listen via live streaming or download podcasts.

Friday, December 30, 2011

New Blog for Religion For Life

I put together a new blog for Religion For Life, check it out at  That blog will be strictly about upcoming shows and what not.  

The broadcast begins Thursday, January 5th.  My first guest is Anthony Flaccavento of S.C.A.L.E.   

He is an incredibly bright, articulate, and visionary person.   The program will focus on building local and sustainable economies.

Thursday 8pm and Sunday 2pm on WETS, 89.5.
Monday 1pm on WEHC, 90.7.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Religion For Life on WETS and WEHC

I am hosting a new radio program on two local public radio stations, WETS in Johnson City, Tennessee and WEHC in Emory, Virginia.   Here is the press release:


The role of religion in society will be explored on a new program, a joint production of public radio stations WETS-FM/HD (89.5 MHz) in Johnson City, Tennessee and WEHC-FM (90.7 MHz) in Emory, Virginia. Religion For Life will be heard on WETS Thursdays at 8 pm with a rebroadcast Sundays at 2 pm.   It will be heard on WEHC Mondays at 1 pm following "Fresh Air"

This half-hour educational program will focus on the intersection of religion and public life and religion and social justice. The locally produced program will feature interviews with local and national figures from a variety of religious traditions and from a variety of perspectives, and will address the effects of religion – both positively and negatively -- on public life. 

The host of the program is the Reverend John Shuck, a Presbyterian minister for 19 years and currently the minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, Tennessee. Prior to entering the ministry, Shuck was a radio broadcaster at stations in Boise, Idaho and Seattle, Washington. 

Upcoming programs include author Sarah Sentilles whose latest book, “Breaking Up With God” recounts her disillusion with the church and its patriarchy. She took leave of the church and let go of a belief in a personal god just as she was about to enter the priesthood.  Another program focuses on local activist Jennie Young, who is alerting Tennesseans about the encroachment of mountain top removal mining. She sees this destructive mining practice as a moral issue and shows how faith communities are taking the lead in resisting it. 

In other programs, Mazen Alsaqa, a Christian refugee from Iraq now living in Michigan, talks candidly about the violence against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and the causes of this violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003.  Shuck also interviews Carol Landis, the chair of the board of directors for the Green Interfaith Network or GINI in the Tri-Cities. GINI is a coalition of faith communities taking an active role in care and advocacy for the environment and communicating accurate, scientific information to the public. 

WETS-FM/HD is a service of East Tennessee State University, and WEHC-FM is operated by Emory and Henry University. Podcasts of Religion For Life will be available at and more information about the program will be available on Shuck’s blog, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Other interviews include 
  • Rev. Jacqueline Luck of the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Gray, TN about Unitarian Universalism,  
  • Anthony Flaccavento of S.C.A.L.E. about building local and sustainable economies,  
  • Sandy Westin of United Religions Initiative about religious cooperation,  
  • Thomas Hill of NYU about peacebuilding in the U.S. and Iraq, and  
  • Carol Delaney, professor emerita at Stanford, about her books on Abraham and Columbus.

If you don't live near our mountain, you can still listen live via live streaming both to WETS and WEHC.  I am looking for interesting people (local and national) to interview for this program.   Contact me with your suggestions.   

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Light of the World--A Sermon

The Light of the World
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Christmas Day 2011
John 1:1-18 (Scholars' Version)

Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true?   
Is that true for you?
Is that true for our world?

We all know about darkness in our world and in our own lives.  You can fill in the blanks regarding specifics.   We know the darkness is powerful.  Whether it be the darkness of greed, war, cruelty, or our own personal sadness and loss.    We can feel lost in the dark and without hope. 

We can even make a religion out of darkness.  Apocalyptic religion is based on the belief that our world is a lost cause.   It believes that the forces of darkness are so powerful that they control the world and that to destroy the darkness, the world must be destroyed with it.   It is a tempting religion for those who have lost hope or who have had engrained in them the belief that humanity is fallen, sinful, and evil. 

I don’t think that was the belief of Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or of other great spiritual leaders.  They saw instead that there is light in this world and that it shines and that it shines in you and in me.   This is not a matter of will or of moralizing or of claims that some people are more special and enlightened than others.  It is a matter of promise and hope and trust.  It is a matter of being in a position to see, of letting our eyes adjust so that we can see enough light to take another step.

During the season of Winter that started a few days ago, we will find each day get progressively longer.  More light each day.   Christmas borrowed from more ancient traditions and placed the birth of Jesus near the winter solstice.     Jesus took on the role of the sun god who brings light to the world.   It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that symbols change and that our sacred stories are borrowed.    It is only when we get literalistic about it and think our symbols are facts or historical events that we develop a tin ear. 

When we allow symbol, myth, and legend to become a kaleidoscope of light, we can see that our ancient stories and symbols are true in a deeper sense than we previously thought and that our various religious traditions are more alike than different.     The symbol of light shining in the darkness is a universal symbol that is as old as the old star watchers who had enough time to spend figuring out the patterns of the night sky and the rhythms of Earth.    

Our modern era based on the magic of fossil fuels gives us light 24-7.  With that we have lost the need and the skill to watch with eyes adjusted and open to the patterns of Earth and sky.   Those who have insight are alerting us that we may be needing those skills again.   

I have borrowed from theologian Matthew Fox and his four paths or four vias.   For each season of the year we honor a spiritual path.    
  • During summer we travel the path of awe and wonder, the via positiva.  
  • Fall is the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.
  • Spring is the way of compassion and justice making, the via tranformativa and 
  • Winter is the path of creativity and imagination, the via creativa
There is nothing absolute about any of that.   I just decided to arrange our celebrations and rituals that way.   I have chosen for this season of Winter, the via creativa, to read the Gospel of John in a new way.    For the next thirteen weeks we will be reflecting on scenes from the Gospel of John from a naturalistic or mystical perspective. 

The Jesus Seminar who looked through all the traditions of Jesus to separate what they thought went back to the historical person of Jesus found virtually nothing in the Gospel of John to go back to Jesus.  That doesn’t mean the Gospel of John is bad or doesn’t have value, it is just that it is a creative, imaginative reconstruction.   

In the Gospel of John, Jesus the historical person was transformed into the cosmic Christ.  This process happened before John, but you really see it in John.     What that means to me is that the author of John felt that he had permission to cast the Jesus story in this way.    If he had permission to tell the story of Jesus in a way that made sense, inspired, and told his truth, maybe we do as well. 

Since it is Christmas it is a good time to tell the truth, or at least to be honest about what we think is truthful.   To regard Jesus in a first century way as a supernatural being who comes to Earth, dies for sins, comes back to life, and goes back to heaven in the sky with the promise that he will come back again, is less than compelling for many of us.    If we don’t find it compelling it isn’t because we are bad or that we don’t have faith.  It is that we don’t live in that world and the symbols of that world don’t translate easily. 

That supernatural story fits the Gospel of John’s world.  He lived in what he thought was a geocentric universe and he saw the gods inhabiting the heavens and breaking into the world.   The scandal of John’s gospel is not that Jesus was a supernatural being and so forth, but that all of that elevated language was attributed to Jesus, as opposed to say, Augustus. 

Jesus was a nobody who was executed by the government as a criminal.    The elevated supernatural god language and miracles and what have you is not the scandal or the interesting part.  That all of that was applied to Jesus is the interesting part.  That is the scandal.  It can be life-changing if we let it.

I have been a minister for nearly twenty years preaching on these same texts and talking with people.  I find the same thing again and again.   We have been told all our lives that faith is about believing stuff, virgin birth, miracles, Jesus dying and rising, and that God is a supernatural being.    We end up wondering what is the least amount of stuff we have to believe and be OK.   I say none of that stuff matters.    Defining faith as belief in impossible things misses the point.   At least I think so.     

I see Jesus as John presents him as the myth of the authentic human.   Jesus 'shows us the Father" which I take to mean Jesus shows us how to become human, how to become real and authentic, how to live a life that matters.    That we can live a life that matters takes a great deal of faith. 

Here is the deal.  If Jesus represents the light that comes into the world at Christmastime, a light that the darkness does not overcome, what kind of light is that?   Further, if Jesus said that we are that light, what does that mean for us?  What does it mean to be light in the world? 

What I know of the historical person of Jesus is that he stood up for people who were put down.  He was accused of eating with sinners.   He knew that sinners were more fun.   He lived courageously.  He saw the wool that was being pulled over people’s eyes by those who were in charge.   He challenged the pretensions of the elite, and he told people who were nobodies like him, that they mattered.

“You are the light of the world,” he said to them.   

He talked about sharing, giving your coat and your shirt, going the second mile, turning the other check.   He said to give to those who beg from you.   He said live life as a passerby and travel lightly.    He talked about loving neighbors and loving enemies and forgiving people who wrong you.  He congratulated the poor.   He valued fairness, mercy, and compassion.  

The world said that is no way to run a government.  He said it is in my world.    He got on the wrong side of somebody and ended up being executed along with thousands of other “disturbers of the peace”.   

Then something strange happened.   His life and teachings touched a nerve, warmed a heart, transformed a mind, and people who remembered who he was and what he stood for wouldn’t let him go.   They decided to live his vision of a life that matters.   They felt his presence with him when they decided to live counter to values that they saw as darkness and injustice.     They felt empowered by the light of compassion and hope for the least of these.     They collected what they remembered of what he said and did.   They made a bunch of things up, but in many cases they were good things.  They attributed miracles to him because that is how they honored people then. 

After years had passed his life was put in story form.  The gospels were written including the Gospel of John.  The scandal of John’s gospel, like the others, is that they saw in this counter-cultural figure, this social prophet, this teacher of a strange kind of wisdom that the elite called foolish, they saw in him the way the world could be and really is at its heart.   

They decided that this is the light. 
This is the light that is in the world. 
This is the light that darkness cannot overcome. 
It is the light of joy at every child’s birth.   
It is the light of compassion for those who hurt in mind, body, and spirit. 
It is the light of concern for those mistreated.
It is the light of truth for the lies that are told to keep the powerful in power. 
It is the light of laughter. 
It is the light of delight in simple things like lilies and sparrows. 
It is the light of friendship. 
It is the light of simple decency. 
It is the light of Christ.  
It is in us.  
They decided to live the light.
It will never go out as long as we never forget who we are. 
That was their faith.  

That is the light we celebrate at Christmas. 
Light was shining in the darkness,
And darkness did not master it.

Is that true? 

My faith says yes it is true.
That light may be little more than a single candle.
But it is enough light to take the next step. 

A book about Christmas that I particularly like is Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  I have taken a number of passages from it during this season as prayers and reflections for the bulletin.    Howard Thurman died in 1981.  He was influential in the life of Martin Luther King.    Thurman understood Christmas and its symbols as well as Christmas as a symbol.     I will let him have the last word on this Christmas Day.
The symbol of Christmas—what is it?  It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding.  It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live.   It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life.  It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.    P. 3  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I Will Light Candles This Christmas

Merry Christmas, Beloveds.

Where ever  you may be this holiday I wish for you deep peace and joy.  

If you are in the area, I invite you tonight to participate in our Christmas Eve service at ten p.m.  We will have candlelighting, music, dance, poetry, and story.   We will take an offering to be divided between the Shepherd's Inn, Food for the Multitude, Community Day Care, and Assistance and Resource Ministries. 

On Sunday, Christmas Day, join us for worship at 11 a.m.  We begin the via creativa with a ritual to embody the Light! 

If Christmas finds you in a time of unease in mind, body, spirit, or relationship, I light my candle for you. 

I Will Light Candles This Christmas

Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.
--Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spong and Universal Consciousness

Our Thursday study group (Thursdays with Jesus) finished reading John Shelby Spong's, Eternal Life:  A New Vision, Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.   His thoughts were well-received by most of the group.   Some hadn't read him previously.  We watched a few on-line videos of his speeches and interviews when we discussed his book.  

I have great admiration for him, so much so, that I even named my dog for him, "Shelby."   He takes seriously modern scholarship, challenges outdated dogmas, and is a strong advocate for equality.   The church could use more like him in my opinion.  

In this book he takes on the issue of whether or not there is an afterlife.   Most of the book is a fun deconstruction of religious claims.   He rejects supernaturalism, theism, eternal rewards and punishments and much more.   He advocates living fully in this life.  At the end of the book he embraces something he calls "universal consciousness."  With this concept he says he believes in life after death.   He writes:


The goal of all religion is not to prepare us to enter the next life; it is a call to live now, to love now, to be now and in that way to taste what it means to be part of a life that is eternal, a love that is barrier-free and the being of a fully self-conscious humanity.  That is the door way into a universal consciousness that is part of what the word "God" now means to me.  This then becomes my pathway and, I now believe, the universal pathway into the meaning of life that is eternal.  p. 204

I agree with most of what Spong writes especially his deconstruction of religious supernaturalism.  I do find myself befuddled regarding this universal consciousness business.    If I had him in the room with me I would ask him to explain to me what the difference is between universal consciousness and no consciousness.

Beginning January 5th we will be reading, Deepak Chopra's The Third Jesus.  I have never read anything by him so I am looking forward to the adventure.  

If you are interested in stimulating conversations, order the Chopra book and join us Thursdays from 10:30 to noon at FPC Elizabethton.


Gospel of John from a Naturalistic Point of View

The worship guide for Winter is on-line.   Read it in pdf.    With this you will know what the services will be like for the next 13 weeks.   If you have a creative idea to go with one (or more) of the services, let me know!  Here is the prelude:

The path of creativity and imagination is the result of the dance between awe and sorrow. From the darkness ignited by wonder comes creativity. We know two truths. It is amazing to be alive and life is painful. We know that we are and that we are not. Life is here. Life is temporary. 

What words can we find, what language can we borrow that can express what it means to be alive? How do we both cheer and grieve? Religion is designed to help give us language. What of our religions and their symbols? What are their limits? What do we do when the language we have inherited has become stale? What permission do we need to challenge what we thought was absolute? After we deconstruct and let go of images that have become cracked idols, what will we create? Welcome to the via creativa.

Moving beyond religion, what about life? What about your life if I may ask? What will you make of the awe and the pain? What are you creating or what is being created in you? Can you give yourself permission to read an old text in a new way? Can you allow yourself to make an error? Are you afraid you might get God wrong? What would happen then? What energizes you? What is important? For what or for whom do you live? Are you on an adventure? If not, why not? Can you create your own life? The via creativa says you can.

During the Winter as the days get longer, we will acknowledge creativity and imagination. To spur this creativity, we are going to read an old text in a new way. We are going to read the Gospel of John from a naturalistic or mystical point of view. In this view, Jesus is a human being who was a mystic and had elevated sense of self-awareness. 

As with many figures who are larger than life, stories get told and written. The Jesus Seminar concluded that virtually nothing that Jesus said or did in John’s gospel went back to the historical Jesus. John’s gospel is a reading of Jesus, a creation by its author who lived perhaps as much as 70 years after Jesus. This vision of Jesus has been read as a supernatural being who comes down to Earth, performs miracles, dies for our sins, rises up from the dead, and flies off to heaven to return someday. If we believe this story we go to heaven. If not, oops, off to hell. The story for most of us has long lost credibility.

But as a parable for the authentic life, it has meaning. This season we are going to try some different readings and we will refer to some thinkers who see new possibilities in this old story. John Shelby Spong, author of Eternal Life, A New Vision: Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell will spur us along as will Walter Wink, author of The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man.  Both books are in the library. 

We will read Jesus and the Gospel of John in a natural and mystical way as opposed to a supernatural and dogmatic way. In this reading Jesus will be a parable for the authentic life. He is what it means to be an authentic human being, the Human One. Rather than be different from us, he is the real us. 

The point is so what? What does that mean for me and my life or for all of us and the life of our planet? How might we become authentic?  Hopefully, these worship services will ignite our own creativity. It should be fun.

Saving Tennessee's Mountains

I am honored to be a part a congregation that takes an active role in environmental justice. Here is an article in the Elizabethton Star about a church member, Jennie Young, raising awareness regarding mountain top removal strip mining. 

 “We will lose our mountains, adding our own number to the 500 already blasted away,” Young said. “We will poison our waterways, and who knows the human impacts on the communities at the base of those mountains. There are already 18 surface mines in the state, mostly small and most, excepting Zeb, Leach, Double Mountain, Bull Ridge, Mingo and Cross, still with their tops.”

However, Young noted that eight new permits are currently in the pipeline.

Do read the whole article and forward it to friends.  Please join us at the Bonnie Kate on January 2nd and fight for our mountains!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy X-Mas: The Iraq War Is Over

The Iraq War has finally ended

What were we fighting about again?

R. Crumb for Christmas

Our congregation had its annual Christmas dinner on Sunday.  It is always a fun event.  The congregation gave me a gift.  Readers of this blog are aware that I have been preaching from the myths of Genesis through the Fall.  You can find those sermons here and the audio on our webpage.   

It is fantastic.  All 50 chapters.  He doesn't leave out a word.   He uses a combination of translations from King James and Robert Alter.  These ancient earthy stories come alive when illustrated in graphic novel form.  Even the genealogies are interesting.  

The problem with the Bible today has to do with its thick veneer of piety.   Crumb's Genesis strips that veneer away.  What shines through is ancient story filled with unabashed patriarchal myth, sex, violence, and ancient superstition.   It is fascinating literature.    

He did his homework regarding scholarship of Genesis.   I highly recommend it. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Myth of Power: Two Josephs--A Sermon

The Myth of Power:  Two Josephs
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Today I finish my sermon series on the myths of Genesis.   We have been working our way through these patriarchal myths through Fall.  We finish with the story of Joseph, Jacob’s favored son from his favored wife, Rachel.     It is a long story in terms of Biblical space.   It spans 13 chapters.   It took only eleven chapters to get from the creation of the universe through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the scattering of the people at Babel up to Abraham.     But it takes 13 longer chapters to tell the saga of Joseph.

When we get to Joseph, God, who is a literary character in our text, becomes more removed from daily life.    He doesn’t swoop in sending fire and brimstone down on bad cities.  He does not negotiate like he did with Abraham, or wrestle with people like he did Jacob, or walk in the garden in the cool of the day as he liked to do with Adam.   By the time we get to Joseph, God is distant.   He is not directly involved in human affairs.   He acts behind the scenes.  He communicates through dreams. 

Joseph dreamed that his brothers would one day bow down to him.  They didn’t like his dreams.  So they sold him to some traders and told their father he had been killed by an animal.    Joseph’s dreams came true.  He became the most powerful person in Egypt next to the Pharaoh himself thanks to dreams.   

He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh about the seven skinny cows eating the seven fat cows.   Joseph said the dream meant that there would be seven fruitful years followed by seven lean years.  So he engineered a plan to store up grain when the sun shined and sell it to all the poor saps who didn’t get in on the dream.    Those saps included his brothers who during the lean period came to him to buy grain.  They bowed down to him, not recognizing who he was.  After a lot of manipulation, Joseph finally revealed himself to them.    He said to them:
“And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
This is the heart of the patriarchal myth, brothers reconciled.     Patriarchal mythology is not all negative.    It resides in the hope that brothers will make amends and live in peace.    Joseph has his father and brothers all come to live with him in Egypt.     The irony is that Joseph is the one responsible for buying up all of the land and the wealth in trade for this grain.  Through this process the people lose their land and become slaves.   This eventually leads to the slavery of his own descendants.     That is the setting for the next series of stories, with a new hero, Moses. 

We are familiar with another Joseph in our scriptural tradition.  He takes the stage at Christmastime.  He is Joseph the wife of Mary and according to the mythology he is the surrogate father of Jesus.     In Matthew’s gospel, angels communicate with Joseph in dreams.    The angel tells Joseph to take Mary as a wife.   Later when Herod kills all the boys under two years old, angels communicate to Joseph to escape to Egypt and then to return when all is safe.   This is an echo of the Exodus story, where Pharoah tries to kill the Hebrew boys and Moses is hid in the bulrushes.    

These are birth of hero stories and divine providence stories.    It is more than coincidence that both characters are named Joseph and that they are dreamers.    They both participate in this divine plan of salvation.   The dreams are about providence, destiny, and power.    I am going to talk more about power in a bit. 

I should say something about the virgin birth.    As far as the gospels are concerned, it is a minor event really.   It is like the pagan birth of the hero stories.    Miraculous births were common in mythology.      Why was Augustus such an incredibly gifted and powerful ruler?  Well, he must have been born of a god.   Stories were created of his miraculous birth.

In the Hebrew tradition as well, a miraculous birth indicated the hand of God’s providence.     The birth of Isaac was miraculous.   Isaac was born to Sarai who at 90 was long past child-bearing age.    Moses, too, was miraculously destined to be a hero.   The whole point of these myths is to call attention to the hero or to divine guidance.    The storytellers, Matthew and Luke in particular wanted folks to know that Jesus was important and used the storytelling device of miraculous birth to make that point.    

Christianity made much more of the virgin birth than was warranted in the texts.  It became a doctrine of faith.   The reason it was important for Christianity is because of the sin of Adam and Eve.    According to the dogma, because they disobeyed God they brought punishment upon themselves and the entire human race.  Their sin is passed down through procreation.     

The Virgin Birth allows the hero, in this case, Jesus, to save the world from sin because he is not tainted by sin.  He is the seed of God who is planted in Mary’s womb.   This is pre-modern patriarchal procreation.   In this understanding, the woman contributes nothing to the child.   She is the fertile ground, the vessel, the oven.   Jesus is thus the son of God in a literal sense. 

Christianity ran with that.   From the Apostle’s Creed to the Fundamentalists at Princeton in the early 1900s, belief in the virgin birth was an essential of the faith.    Fundamentalists today still insist that unless you believe that the virgin birth is an historical event (as opposed to a legend) you can’t be a true Christian.    O.K.  Others of us think the whole notion is rather silly.   Although we still like to sing Christmas carols.  

The other day my Lovely asked me if I experienced the magic of Christmas.  I lied to her and said I didn’t.    But I really do.   I love it.  I love it all.   I do love the stuff of it and the busy-ness of it.   I love the music.   I love the mythology and the legends.  There really is something magical about it.  There is a feeling that something might break in to our mundane existence at Christmas.    

At Christmas, if we allow ourselves to get beyond our “bah humbugs”, we notice that maybe people are nicer than we give them credit for being.    And maybe we are not so bad ourselves.  Perhaps there is hope for humanity after all.   There is something beyond us that we cannot see or touch that is on the side of goodness.   Therefore we can trust.

I also like the radical message of hope for the powerless in the Christmas texts.    Mary when she learns she is pregnant sings a song with some very radical lyrics.     Listen to this:

My soul extols the Lord,
Ad my spirit has taken notice of the low status of his slave girl.
So behold, from now on every generation will congratulate me.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is his name,
And his mercy will come to generation after generation
Of those who fear him.
He has shown strength of this arm,
He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
--Luke 1:46-55 Scholars' Version

Sounds like she was part of the Occupy Nazareth movement.

The scandal of Christmas is not that Jesus was son of God.    Images of the son of God were seen everywhere.  The Roman Imperial cult was filled with son of God propaganda.   Lest there be any doubt, Caesar was the son of God and he had the standing armies to prove it.    That is what a son of God has—power.   Power to fund armies.  Power to move populations from one place to another.    Power to build.  Power to destroy.  Power to feed and power to let starve.    

The scandal is not that Jesus is son of God as if that is something supernatural.  No, the scandal is that Jesus, the nobody,
the one without any army,
who wrote nothing,
who held no office,
who owned no property,
who was nobody in his own lifetime,
whose legacy is
welcoming and offering dignity to the marginalized,
pointing out and poking fun of the hypocrisy of the elite,
and resisting evil with non-violent transformative love,
that nobody who was tortured and executed by authority of Caesar, the son of God,
was the son of God.    

That is what the gospel writers claimed.  And everyone laughed at them for making up such preposterous stories.   These stories  weren’t preposterous and scandalous because of the legendary material, such as the virgin birth or other miracles like walking on water, turning water to wine, and rising from the dead.   Those stories in that culture were a dime a dozen.   Those stories were preposterous and scandalous in the gospels because they were attributed to a peasant not a king—to Jesus and not Caesar—to the 99% not the 1%. 

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.   It asks us where is divine power?  Which side will we take?  Where is the sacred?  Where is the holy?  Is it found in the powerful, the wealthy, and the 1 percent?    Are the powerful ones those with the most weapons?  Are the powerful ones those who control buying and selling?   Are the powerful ones those who have the politicians in their pockets?   Are they the sons of God? 

In a world in which divine favor was seen as power over, it would be obvious who the son of God was.  It sure wasn’t Jesus.     The scandal of Christmas says no, not Caesar, not the 1%.  It is in the 99% that we see holy, sacred, liberating, transformative power.    It is power with.     I am not making this up.   If you think it is not seemly to be political at Christmas then listen to Mary, the virgin mother of God:

He has routed the arrogant, along with their private schemes;
He has toppled the mighty down from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

You know those politicians who love to court the “Christian vote” and wear their Christian jewelry and hold up their Bibles while they allow corporate greed to destroy our mountains, I say to them, “Merry Christmas.   By the way, whose side is the son of God on?”

The scandal of Christmas is a choice.  
The choice is not whether or not to believe that Jesus was historically and biologically born of a virgin.    
The choice is where do we want to put our energies. 
To whom do we want to share our lives?    
It isn’t about judgment and heaven and hell.  
It is about what is sacred for you and what matters.   
Where will you put your energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? 
Where do see sacred power?  
Power that shares, strengthens, liberates, and sustains. 
Power for everyone including Earth and our more than human relations.   
Christmas is that magic time.
It is time to allow that sacred power to be born in us.   

It is in the interests of the powerful to turn our religious texts and traditions into superstitious trivia.       That is why I sound so critical of Christianity.    Much of it is superstitious trivia.   Despite that, I find that its message, its scandalous message is far deeper and far more interesting than believing in life after death or supernaturalism.  It is about the possibility of living a life that matters here and now.  Not a big life, just one that matters.  In fact, Jesus, more than anyone, was one who didn’t matter in the scheme of things.   The story of Jesus is the story of a non-person who is every person who was no person.    

Historically, we know virtually nothing about him, but his legacy is the legacy that giving your life to good things is a good thing.   Jesus, the son of God wasn’t great.    Augustus was great.   Jesus was instead good.  

That is the calling isn’t it? 
To be decent. 
To be good. 
To be on the side of those who are hungry and without health care. 
To be on the side of our mountains, trees and streams.  
To value intelligence over greed.  
To think of the future in terms of generations of lives not just next quarter’s profits. 
To provide a decent wage for decent work. 
To not blame the poor for being poor.   

Being good is a powerful force.

The two Josephs have a common theme.   That is providence.    Through their dreams both are guided by Divine Providence.    I don’t always know what to make of Divine Providence.  I am suspicious because it is so trivialized.   God led me to score this touchdown.   It can be used to justify the status quo.    In the Christmas story, in Joseph’s story, in Mary’s story, and in Jesus’ story, Providence is on the side of the poor and the hungry.    Providence is on the side of those who have been put down.  

Providence means that there is something beyond us that we do not know and cannot touch and see, but yet it guides.   Intellectually, I am not sure I know about that.  But my heart says, “Yes.”  There are times when we feel urged, called, and guided.   There are times that I know what I need to be doing and that it wasn’t my own doing that put me here.    Most of the time I don’t know.  I don’t have a clue.   I just show up.

You may wonder what your life is to be about, what it is you want to be.   It could be a transition time for you.    Enter the magic of Christmas and the magic of the Winter Solstice.  It is one of those times when the fabric between the divine and the human is thin, and that we might get a notion, a dream, a nudge, a word that all will be well and that the Sacred is guiding us,
so we can trust,
and try to be on the good side. 


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Annie at D-B

Another Christmas treat.  My lovely is the musical director for Annie playing at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport.  I saw it last night.  They did a great job.   I mean really good!  Check it out 2 and 7 p.m. today and 2 p.m. tomorrow.

The musical is strangely relevant taking place as it does in the Depression.  The scene of the homeless people calling out Hoover reminded me of the Occupy movement.   It ends with the hope of a New Deal for Christmas!

Tickets are $8 at the door.  

Christmas/Solstice at FPC Elizabethton!

If you are near our mistletoe, join us this week for our Christmas/Solstice celebrations.  It begins tomorrow with worship at 11:00 a.m. for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. 

I finish my series on the myths of Genesis with a comparison of Joseph of Genesis and Joseph of Matthew. Two Josephs. Two dreamers. The myth of providence and power. Our bell choir will lead music. We have a lot of Christmas carols to sing! Here is the rest of the schedule

December 18--Sunday:    Christmas Dinner and a presentation by the youth entitled, "Christmas In Elizabethton 2011."    Dinner at 5:30!

December 19--Monday:    Tidings of Comfort at 7 p.m.  A special service to acknowledge the "blue" in Christmas.  

December 22--Thursday:   Winter Solstice celebration.  Elaine Kolp will lead us in a ritual to welcome the Winter Solstice at 6:45 p.m. 

December 24--Saturday:    Christmas Eve celebration with music, story, candlelight.   The service is at 10 p.m.

December 25--Sunday:     It is a special service when Christmas falls on a Sunday.    It feels--dare I say it?--magical.  The service is at 11 a.m.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Telling the Truth for Christmas

Here is a noble challenge to my colleagues in ministry.   The challenge is not shrill or insistent.  It is a noble challenge, take it up if you feel like it.   The challenge is to tell the truth this Christmas.  Not my truth.  Not John Shelby Spong's truth.  Not Al Mohler's truth.  Your truth.

Tell the truth during worship on this upcoming Fourth Sunday of Advent or Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (that conveniently happens to be on Sunday this year) about the Christmas stories.  What do you really think of them?    The challenge is to come clean. 

Here are a few questions to get you started.
  1. Do you think Jesus was born of a virgin?   
  2. Do you think a star stopped over the place where Jesus was?  
  3. Do you think wise men followed this star from the east?
  4. Do you think angels are real and that one of them spoke to Mary?
  5. Do you think angels told shepherds about Jesus?
  6. Do you think the Hebrew Prophets (ie. Isaiah) predicted Jesus' birth?
  7. Are these stories historical or legendary?
  8. What do you think? Where do you stand?
I am not saying what to think.  I am offering a challenge to tell the truth as you see it.   If you believe that Jesus was born of a virgin and the angels and shepherds and star and wise men tell pretty much what happened then go ahead and tell the church folks that on Christmas.   I bet your folks would like to know.    I know I did.  I wanted to know what my minister thought about these stories.  I rarely got a straight answer (except from fundamentalist preachers).  

Al Mohler and his type rely on the timidity of educated mainline clergy.  Mohler and his fundamentalist friends know that we are so scared of our congregations and of somehow offending them that they can get away with their bullying (by saying "a true Christian will not deny the virgin birth" and other bizarre crap) and know that rarely will it be challenged.   

If your seminary experience was anything like mine and my guess is that it was, you learned biblical criticism of the historical-critical variety and you also got the message that you shouldn't talk about it with your people because it might hurt their faith.   You might have heard something like, "Don't take away something without replacing it."  Whatever that means.   Or you heard, "Just tell them the story and they can come to terms with it by themselves.  You'll please everyone that way."  

I call BS on that.  I think people deserve to be treated like adults. They deserve to know where we stand and how we understand the texts about which we teach and preach.  I am not saying that there are not valuable nuances in legendary material and I certainly enjoy Christmas carols as much as the next person.    I don't always tell the truth.  I fudge as well.  Although I do it less than I used to.  

The challenge could have consequences.  I lost my last church for telling the truth as I saw it not only about the Iraq invasion or LGBT rights but because of my views on Jesus, too.  People were especially pissed about Jesus.  I have lost members in my current church for being honest about my views.   But we are doing OK.    I don't regret any of it.  

In fact, I think that many people have the same doubts as we do and are looking for someone to validate them.   They have outgrown their childhood religion with its magic potions, virgin births, and unicorns and are searching for an intelligent evaluation of their tradition.   For sure, some folks don't want you to go there.   I think it is those folks who have kept the church from maturing.   

I do think there is a danger of handing this rich tradition over to the fundamentalists.   I think we should fight for our tradition.  We do so by telling the truth about how we understand it. 

That is my challenge if you care to take it up.  Tell the truth this Christmas.   In the words of Mary:

Me, I'm just a small-town woman, 
a carpenter's wife, Jewish mother, nothing 
special. But listen, 
whenever I told my baby a fairy tale, 
I let him know it was a fairy tale. 
Go, all of you, and do likewise.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Virgin Birth Is Fiction

This is why Christianity has virtually zero credibility.  Enter Al Mohler:
This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.
This much we know?   Seriously?  

The "Virgin Birth" is medieval superstition.   It was based on a translation error and a patriarchal understanding of where babies come from.   The virgin birth is a quaint leftover from a pre-modern past.  Yes, at Christmas, we sip our eggnog and we sing lovely carols with lines such as this:  "Lo, He shuns not the virgin's womb."   But only the most tone-deaf and gauche literalist would think we should take that legend literally.   

Nothing takes the magic, delight, and hope away from Christmas as much as someone who mistakes legend for history.   It makes Christianity nonsensical and it makes Christians dumber.   To insist that everyone needs to be as stupid as you in order to be a Christian is the raisin in the plumb pudding.

For Christmas Eve, I think I will share with the folks Phillip Appleman's poem, "Mary" that concludes with the following:

Me, I'm just a small-town woman, 
a carpenter's wife, Jewish mother, nothing 
special. But listen, 
whenever I told my baby a fairy tale, 
I let him know it was a fairy tale. 
Go, all of you, and do likewise.

Fighting for Our Mountains

And it is a fight. Big Coal has big plans to destroy Tennessee's mountains as they have done in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is time for Tennesseans to become informed and to be effective at resistance.

The vast majority of people in Tennessee are against mountain top removal strip mining. The politicians need to know this and be threatened with loss of office if they do not comply with the wishes of the people. We need to find ways to communicate with politicians and coal executives on a personal level that this is not a Christian thing to do. Most of these Big Coal people are "church going" folks and it will be "church going" folks who convince them that Jesus is not about destroying mountains and habitats and livelihoods.

In other words, get the word out to churches.

Thanks to the Bonnie Kate Theater in Elizabethton, the word is getting out. There will be a special screening of the documentary, The Last Mountain at the Bonnie Kate January 2nd at 7 p.m. Here is the Facebook invite.

A special screening of the Academy Award™- nominated documentary "The Last Mountain" will be given the Historic Bonnie Kate Theater in downtown Elizabethton on Monday, January 2nd at 7:00pm.

Introduced by special guest, Honorable Kent Williams, R-District 4 — Carter County.

Sponsors and Supporters: The Elizabethton Star, Bonnie Kate Theater, Reedy & Sykes Architecture and Design, The E.D.G.E. Ministries, First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, the Green Interfaith Network, Inc. (GINI), and more.

"In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal.

The mining and burning of coal is at the epicenter of America’s struggle to balance its energy needs with environmental concerns. Nowhere is that concern greater than in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where a small but passionate group of ordinary citizens are trying to stop Big Coal corporations, like Massey Energy, from continuing the devastating practice of Mountain Top Removal."

That battle is coming to Tennessee. We need to fight it, and we need to fight it before Big Coal gets one more mountain. No other state has attempted legislation to stop MTR mining BEFORE the irreparable damage is done. We have that opportunity, thanks to the Scenic Vistas Protection Act. That bill was defeated in committee, thanks to the efforts of Ron Ramsey, who, with donations from Big Coal of almost $200,000 to his election campaign, held the bill in committee for 3 YEARS until he had the legislature he needed to kill it.

The fight isn't over. The bill is being reintroduced when the Tennessee State Legislature returns in mid-January. We need to get the word to our legislators that we expect them to work for the people of Tennessee, not the coal interested of Texas and West Virginia.

Eastern Tennessee once again stands at the door of history. We have the opportunity to drive this effort to save our scenic vistas, protect our natural resources, and protect the health and welfare of the people of East Tennessee.

Our people beat Ferguson at Kings Mountain. We can beat Big Coal on all the others.

Take action by downloading and distributing this action packet.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No Gays in Presbyworld

The big 5,000 member First Presbyterian Church of Orlando decided to split the sheets with the rest of us sinners and move to a fantasy church where only heteros are allowed to ride the merry-go-round.

It is not official until the congregation votes to leave and take the presbytery's property for themselves.

The FPCO website says, "In preparation for the congregation's vote regarding The Session's recommendation that FPCO be dismissed from the PC(USA) in order to be received into the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, scheduled for Sunday, January 29, 2012 at 10:00am, we ask that you please take a moment to check the status of your membership at FPCO."

FPC Orlando says, "So long, PCUSA, and thanks for all the fish."