Shuck and Jive

Thursday, June 30, 2011


I did a little updating of the sidebar today, especially my blog lists. Blogs (and websites) I check occasionally are listed under the following headings...
  • God Talk
  • LGBT
  • Peace and Justice
  • Post Petroleum
  • PC(USA)
  • Tennessee/Appalachia
  • Just Good Folks
If you are a blogger I would be happy to link to your blog if you will reciprocate. If you already do link to me and don't see yours listed, let me know. It is an oversight.

If you don't like the category you find your blog listed, let me know and I will switch you to another.
I put blogs and sites into categories that make sense to me even as blogs (including mine) could often be listed in more than one category.

Near the top you will find links with pictures to sites that I think are especially important at the moment as industrial society will make (willingly or unwillingly) the transition to a post petroleum reality.

You will find links also to my church and to news sites and other things I find interesting.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

From Fear to Transition

I am enjoying the Transition Network website. I found a film there, Transition 1.0. It is a positive, hopeful film about people who are aware of what we are facing and turning their fear to community action. I hope to show this film to as many people as I can and maybe we can turn Johnson City or Elizabethton into a Transition Town.

From the film:

Here's how to get started:
  • Organise a public screening of this film.
  • Gather audience contact details and invite them to a meeting.
  • Download and follow the Transition Primer.
  • Learn from other initiatives.
  • (It should feel more like a party than a protest).
Your midnight movie.

In Transition 1.0 from Transition Towns on Vimeo.

Thank You, Janet

Rev. Janet Edwards, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians, blogs at A Time to Embrace. Janet in good faith has been trying to reach out to those who disagree with the church's decision to change ordination standards. She is a kind and gracious person and sincerely wishes to build bridges. She has been following the spirit of our denomination's leaders, who wrote to the church:
However, as Presbyterians, we believe that the only way we will find God’s will for the church is by seeking it together – worshiping, praying, thinking, and serving alongside one another. We are neighbors and colleagues, friends and family. Most importantly, we are all children of God, saved and taught by Jesus Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.
You can read her letters here on May 19, 27, June 10, 21. You can judge her tone and comments for yourself. I think you will find her to be respectful. Some of her interlocutors have been respectful as well.

Then, there is James D. Berkley:

Posted Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I find it pathetically comical that Janet Edwards continues to blather on mindlessly about God’s will, as if Mateen Elass has not thoroughly skewered her wretched “logic” and debunked her baseless assertions. Does she fail totally to recognize her own public humiliation? Has she no shame about being intellectually and theologically had for lunch? Janet Edwards co-moderates More Light Presbyterians. I hope some of her friends and colleagues of greater perception can quietly advise her to cease making the organization look so intellectually bankrupt. Surely Ms. Edwards’s maddeningly shallow chatter cannot be the best that More Light Presbyterians can offer into the marketplace of ideas! I recently read on a bumper sticker my earnest caution to Ms. Edwards: Don’t believe everything you think.
James D. Berkley
Bellevue, Wash.

A Snarky Guide to Peak Oil

I liked this so much, I am putting it on my sidebar.

I found A Snarky Guide to Peak Oil at Transition Voice via The Energy Bulletin. This is a great article that presents the situation with a spoonful of sugar and some helpful things to do so you don't merely brood.

Why not start to educate yourself about peak oil and then begin to prepare yourself, your family and your community for a future where energy is much more expensive? We recommend connecting with Transition, a worldwide movement helping people and communities to use fewer fossil fuels and become more resilient.

If you can find a Transition group near you (and there are about 400 of them around the world, with nearly 100 official groups in the US alone) you’ll make new friends while doing things like insulating houses, planting community gardens and working with City Hall to start a local clean-energy utility. Even if peak oil doesn’t hit your community hard for years, using less energy and less stuff will save you money and make you feel good right now.
Good advice.

Calling Them Out...

It is hard to keep up with my church peeps and their letters to the editor. If they keep writing them, I'll keep reading them, and maybe their ideas will make a difference! I so admire these three individuals for their passion, intelligence and insight. They are tired of our elected leaders playing cowardly political games rather than doing what is right for our seniors, our youth, Earth, and the people of Tennessee. They are calling them out by name.

All three letters are in the Johnson City Press:

This first is in the June 24th paper from Judy Garland regarding Medicare:

Whatever the complicated issues regarding Medicare cost, one thing is true. Medicare and Social Security are the two most liberating, most humane programs we have freely given each other. These were Democrat inspired, and Democrats know it’s critical they be preserved. Neither party denies that cost must be addressed but approaches couldn’t be more different.

Republicans fought both programs from the beginning and have been philosophically opposed since. It’s that “socialism” hang-up in their DNA that just can’t celebrate how liberating both programs have been.

It fits that, sensing tea-party-inspired blood in the water, they acted in character. Their allegiance to profit-obsessed free market concerns explains their “solution.” Put Medicare under the auspices of the health insurance industry. Simple. Through a system of vouchers, seniors are on their own to find coverage in the private sector.

It’s a poorly disguised ploy to phase out Medicare with yearly voucher adjustments tied to overall inflation, not spiraling health care inflation (up 7.3 percent this year, I understand).

The Congressional Budget Office predicts that by 2030 under U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan, seniors will pay 68 percent of their medical costs.

Besides that obvious flaw, the premise falls apart on a more sinister level. Insurance companies don’t want sick people and gladly surrendered seniors to Medicare. They don’t even observe the shared-risk principle with the younger population, a far less problematic bunch.

There’s not a more exploitative entity on the planet. It’s responsible for our obscene health care costs, double what other industrialized nations pay for much better health outcomes. But it makes Wall Street happy. Republicans accept the trade-off. Forget peace of mind.

Democrats offered a public option to provide an affordable alternative. Medicare-for-all makes even better sense.

Republicans shudder, conveniently conjure up that “socialism” specter and circle the wagons around Big Insurance. Now that’s obscene. Isn’t it?
Johnson City
The second is from Jennie Young. In a letter published on June 26th, Jennie shames the cowardly legislators who caved into Stacey Campfield's homophobic hysteria:
Considering the source, state Sen. Stacy Campfield’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill came as no surprise. What bugs me is how it moved forward. What’s the determiner for his colleagues as they weigh personal integrity against what they obviously theorize makes for electability?

I suspect most of the Republican senators, including Rusty Crowe, who voted to advance Campfield’s bill, did so for raw politics.

I doubt few believe Campfield’s claim that he knows of teachers who engage students in discussions about homosexuality in the classroom or hallways or anywhere on school grounds. Most intuitively reject the claim that school staff who accept homosexuality’s biological basis have an “agenda” to influence students’ sexuality, as they’re the ones who know it doesn’t work that way.

They’re uncomfortable knowing school nurses and counselors are effectively gagged should a child, emotionally confused by a developing personal awareness, come to them for guidance. Most are troubled that many of these children will find home and church inhospitable, perhaps even hostile, to such as they.

Most consider contrived non-issues wasteful of both time and precious taxpayer funds.

Surely most regret Campfield’s penchant for making the state a national laughingstock.

Republican politicians gave us no positive thing, but those high school students did when they delivered 1,000 signatures and showed up to protest the proceedings. They reminded us that we’ve progressed as a people.

The majority of Americans, including our soldiers, have matured, moving on to that good place where we let each other be. That’s good for our kids, but they’ll get there regardless.

Sen. Crowe owes us an explanation. Was he honest or just another cowardly politician when he, in our name, advanced Campfield’s folly? How hurtful, embarrassing or unproductive does a thing have to be before courage kicks in?

The third is in today's paper. Steve Ferguson shows that our Representative, Phil Roe, plays both sides regarding mountain top removal mining.
U.S. Rep Phil Roe is busy in Washington forging alliances with other legislators and mine industry lobbyists to gut the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate mountaintop removal mining. MTR is one of the worst corporate assaults on American’s mountains, waterways wildlife and mountain communities . Our representative seeks to ease the permitting process and to eliminate federal regulatory powers.

All this at the point when Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, is targeted by out-of-state operators with regard only for the money they can make.

Roe calls EPA regulations “job killing.” The truth is MTR mining uses powerful explosives and huge machines precisely to limit the need for workers. In West Virginia the number of miners has dropped 90 percent since MTR mining became the norm. Areas with the most MTR sites tend to be the poorest and have the worst health statistics.

Roe doesn’t speak openly what he knows about the need for more MTR mining. He defends the mining industry’s clamoring for access to cheaper coal knowing it’s not primarily for our energy needs but for Asia’s. He’s been heard to say that because the U.S. demand for coal is falling and alternative energy sources are coming online, the coal companies have to have access to cheap coal for their bottom line.

We, it seems, must sacrifice our scenic ridgelines, clean waterways and established peaceful communities to the profitability of greedy corporate bullies who are comfortable with imposing violent, deafening mining activity and leaving in their wake miles of scarred, un-reclaimed land and poisoned waterways. That’s their expectation so far and they usually get their way, thanks mostly to malleable politicians.

But if you call Roe’s Washington office, his spokesperson will say he’s against mountaintop removal mining. Playing both sides in never good for the soul.

Johnson City

Monday, June 27, 2011

Presby Aliens Receive Bishop's Blessing

I am happy to announce that the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is an honorary Presby Alien and she has the t-shirt to prove it.

That is Allison Boone presenting our 2011 softball jersey to The Most Reverend Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori. Allison is our team manager and the daughter of Jerry Boone our coach and pitcher.

Our team is a bit unique in the Johnson City church league. Two congregations, St. John's Episcopal Church of Johnson City and First Presbyterian of Elizabethton make up one team.

Bishop Katherine was in Knoxville to consecrate another bishop, Rev. Richard Westbury, this past Sunday. While that duty was certainly important, it paled in comparison to the receiving of the sacred t-shirt.

I am hoping this will give us the spiritual mojo we need for our first playoff game against Mid-City Fellowship tonight at 6:30 at Winged Deer Park. Come and watch!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Life is a Verb--A Sermon

Life is a Verb
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 26, 2011

Selections from Ecclesiastes
Lloyd Geering, Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 2010), 1:1; 1:16; 2:4-9a; 2:11; 2:22-24, pp. 171-192.

The Words of the Proclaimer, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent!
Everything dissolves into nothingness.”

I said to myself, “Look! I’ve greatly increased in wisdom;
I’ve surpassed all who lived in Jerusalem before me.
My mind has absorbed a vast amount of knowledge and

I did things on a grand scale.
I built myself mansions and I planted myself vineyards.
I laid out for myself gardens and parks
and planted in them every kind of fruit tree.
I made myself reservoirs of water
to irrigate the orchard then sprouting with trees.
I acquired for myself slaves and servant-girls
even though I already had a large household
and already possessed cattle, sheep and goats
more numerous than all my Jerusalem forbears had owned.
I amassed for myself such treasures of silver and gold
as only kings and nations can boats.
I acquired men and women singers,
and what delights all men most—mistresses galore!
And so I grew great, surpassing all who had lived before me in

And yet, (since my wisdom remained with me)
when I surveyed all that my hands had done,
all that I had struggled to achieve,
everything was as futile as chasing after the wind.
I had made no gain at all in this world.

What comes to people for all the hard work and mental stress
their occupation has force them to endure in this world?
For all of their days bring pain and grief;
even at night their minds get no rest. This too is futile.
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.

It is summertime! A new season is a chance to start afresh. When we are intentional about observing the seasons we get to start over four times a year.

This is a new season. For the past couple of years I have been designing our worship services around the seasons, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. We have been attaching to each season a path from Creation Spirituality.

The path for summer is the way of awe and wonder. In the Latin, it is the via positiva. The three other paths are the way of letting go, the way of creativity, and the way compassionate action. Theologian Matthew Fox, says that these paths are not ladders to climb but spirals to dance.

I have to say a little about Matthew Fox. I have had the honor of meeting him a couple of times and hearing him speak. I am impressed with him. He is a prolific and creative writer. He is an Episcopalian priest because he was kicked out of the Roman Catholic priesthood for promoting heretical views.

His 1983 book,
Original Blessing, which is an introduction to Creation Spirituality, put him on the wrong side of the church. He challenged the notion of original sin. Fox’s innovation was this: rather than think of ourselves as born into original sin we should think of ourselves as born into original blessing.

That may sound innocent enough. However, when you unravel original sin, (that is the notion that we are all born sinful because of Adam and Eve) then the whole theological superstructure crumbles.
  • If there no original sin, there is no need for punishment, so we don’t need hell.
  • If we don’t have hell we don’t need anyone to save us from hell, such as Christ dying on the cross for our sins.
  • If we don’t need Christ dying for our sins to save us from hell, then we don’t need the church’s sacraments (that is Christ’s presence) to keep that salvation machine going.
  • Before you know it the church is out of business.
You can’t have that. So Matthew Fox was invited to leave the Roman Catholic Church. And he has been doing his heretical thing ever since.

Heresy comes from the Greek word that means choice. The heretic chooses for himself or herself what to believe. The conversation goes like this:
Here is what you must believe.
I don’t believe all of that.
You must believe it.
I choose to believe this instead.
Then you are a heretic. You will burned at the stake at dusk.
The church has done that. It once had power to do that. The modern era, the Enlightenment, was a response to this power and control. The modern era encourages freedom of thought and freedom to choose. In that sense, in the modern era, we are all heretics. We all choose. If we were all examined regarding our doctrine today, the church would be lighting up the sky burning heretics day and night. It is really an anachronism to even talk about such a thing as heresy today. Ideas change so quickly, it is impossible to even keep up.

Old habits do die hard. And our religious institutions still cling to the notion that to be a Christian you need to believe certain things and not believe other things (even as Christians don’t even agree on what those things are). It is helpful to look at our tradition and see that it is far more diverse than it is often portrayed. This includes the Bible itself.

I thought since it is summer, the season of awe, wonder, and blessing, I would honor our heretics by celebrating the most heretical book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes.

I invite you to take home a worship guide for the summer or download it from our website. It will provide the themes for the summer. We are always looking for creative input. If you have a poem, song, dance, a meditation, a children’s sermon, that you think might be of interest, do not be bashful.

A helpful friend in working through the Book of Ecclesiastes is another heretic, Lloyd Geering. There is a documentary about Lloyd Geering’s life that you can watch on Youtube. It is called “The Last Western Heretic.” Geering is a Presbyterian minister in New Zealand. He was tried for heresy in the 1960s. It was a public deal. The trial was televised. He was tried for disturbing the peace of the church by writing that he didn’t believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead. He was acquitted.

The larger story is seen in the title of the documentary, “The Last Western Heretic.” The title implies that we don’t do that anymore. Trying people for heresy is no longer a serious practice. The ideas that Geering brought forth are becoming more and more accepted. Views of the Bible, the person of Jesus, cosmology, God, and so on, have been changing in large part because we view the universe differently than we did in previous times.

Some religious organizations are slower to embrace this reality than others. The truth is dawning on institutions (and the authorities who run them) that if they don't catch up they will lose influence and become little more than antiquities dealers.

There is however, a hunger for spirituality and meaning.
  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What does it mean to be an Earthling?
  • Who am I?
  • What am I here for?
  • What can I do that matters?
  • What is happiness?
  • How do I cope with suffering?
  • Who are we as a species?
  • What are we doing to our home?
  • What choices can I make that will make life more fulfilling for me and for others?
  • What is a just and compassionate life?
  • How can we live sustainably with Earth?
Those are just a sampling of the great questions that we are asking ourselves. We are finding resources for those questions in many places. We are finding resources from secular sources, from traditional religious sources (including other traditions than the one we are most familiar), from esoteric spiritual sources, all over. People are finding that they can give themselves permission to form their own answers to these questions.

They are heretics. God love ya.

I entitled this sermon, “Life is a Verb” to emphasize this search as ongoing and active. We don’t necessarily arrive at the answers to our questions, recite the creed, and go on with our business. Instead many of us keep asking questions because Life is not static. Life is not satisfied by a creed. Life is a verb.

Lloyd Geering’s latest book is a conversation with the author of Ecclesiastes. The book is called Such is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. Geering pretends to go back in time and speak to the author of this book.

He has Ecclesiastes respond to Geering’s questions in Ecclesiastes’ own words. Geering also provides his own translation of
Ecclesiastes that is very readable and insightful. He has a conversation in which he seeks to understand Ecclesiastes from his world and seeks to find points of connection with ours and to recognize where there is not a connection.

I am going to follow Geering’s chapter guidelines for these eight sermons during the summer. Some of the questions Geering explores with Ecclesiastes are
  • What do you mean by “God”?
  • Is life unfair?
  • Is death the end of us?
  • Is it chance or purpose?
  • Why search for wisdom?
Today I am setting it up and asking the first question, “Who is Ecclesiastes?”

Ecclesiastes is a small book in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is twelve chapters. Ecclesiastes comes from ecclesia, a word we associate with church or congregation. Ecclesiastes is the Greek and Latin form of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is literally, “leader of the assembly.” Qoheleth is like a philosopher or a teacher, perhaps preacher or proclaimer.

Whenever I use any of those terms, Qoheleth, or the teacher, philosopher, preacher, it refers to the author of the work which is called Ecclesiastes. I will try to reserve the term Ecclesiastes for the work and Qoheleth or one of the other titles for the author.

Ecclesiastes is all in the first person. It is as though someone put a tape recorder up to him and recorded his most profound thoughts on life. What is life about?

Ecclesiastes has traditionally been attributed to Solomon. Chapter 1 verse 1 says,
“The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”
That sounds like Solomon. Scholars believe, however, that an editor added that verse. In other words, Solomon didn’t write this even as it might have been written in the persona of Solomon. Solomon was king in Israel in the 10th century BCE and this work was probably written 700 years later in 300 BCE or so. Scholars determine that because of writing style and themes that would echo style and themes of that later era.

Qoheleth might not have been King Solomon, but he was a man of means. He had the luxury to write his thoughts. From his own story he had wealth and the resources for knowledge. As we read him we should keep in mind his class which was likely, "super upper." He is also a male and that comes through. He boasts of mistresses galore. He is a person of privilege. He has wealth, power, and access to the resources of his time. He is literate and writes quite well. As opposed to Jesus, for instance, who was likely illiterate and poor.

Is he happy or sad? Someone said to me that Ecclesiastes is a mystic who had a bad day. Maybe he was generally a happy guy, but was feeling down when he wrote this out. Catch him on another day, he might have been happier.

A side note. I remember a teacher in seminary whose name was Karlfried Froelich. He taught church history and had studied under Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian. I remember one day when I became endeared to Dr. Froelich. He told us quite candidly with his German accent:
“Some days I wake up and I believe in God. And some days I don’t.”
I thought now that is real. That is honest.

That is how I find Qoheleth. We may have caught him on one of those downer days, but it is an honest day nonetheless. In an age and time, that is today, when we happy believers are all supposed to put on our fake smiles and just believe Jesus, a little honesty is refreshing.

The thing about Qoheleth is that he never gives up or gives in to easy answers. He begins his work with a refrain that he will repeat throughout:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
The word translated as vanity in Hebrew is hevel which means “vapor” or “mist”. Lloyd Geering translates the verse this way:
“Fast-fleeting,” says the Proclaimer. “Impermanent! Everything dissolves into nothingness.”
That I think is a more accurate translation. Life is impermanent. Life is a verb. He sounds a bit like Buddha. All is impermanent. That is true. As my great, great grandmother said,
“This too, shall pass.”
That is true whether the “this” appears for us good or bad. It will pass. Life is not permanent. No matter how hard we try. No matter how much we worry. No matter what we do, we cannot stop change. Our bodies change. Our relationships change. Our minds change. Things change more quickly than we expect them to change.

So “vanity” is a more negative word than what Qoheleth was saying. He is stating a truth. Life is impermanent. Once we decide to stop denying that reality and stop pretending that life is permanent, then we can be aware of how we might like to respond.

For Qoheleth, impermanence is an absurdity and an insult. What is the point of life if it doesn’t last, if I am not remembered forever? I wonder if Qoheleth might be revealing his privilege here. He can't imagine that a man of means like himself will no more be remembered than the most common person.

We may have our own responses to him. Perhaps we have asked those questions ourselves. It is good to hear him out. Ecclesiastes did make it into the Bible. To me, that says that there is room even in our tradition for the skeptics to have their voice.

Sometimes you have to ask the hardest questions and go behind and beyond the platitudes. The skeptics and the heretics have provided that path. They are the ones who have been the models for honest, real searching. We don’t have to accept their answers. We don’t have to accept the conclusions of Ecclesiastes or Lloyd Geering or Matthew Fox or even Jesus himself. Their gift is to show us how to search and how to be honest and real.

There are times in which Ecclesiastes does get down.
“It is better to have not been born”
he says on one occasion. Then he comes around again. As you read him you experience his mood swings. Whatever he is, he is always real. He comes back again and again to this advice, which all in all is pretty good advice:
The best that any of us can do
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.
Life is a verb.

Live it!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Love and Marriage

Daily News

Amendment A Has Passed. Now What?

Before voting had started regarding removing the ordination barriers in the PC(USA), former moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow started a "presbymeme" in which he asked people to make a blog post about why they were planning to vote in favor of the amendment. It is such old news that he has since changed blogs and his post has evaporated. Here was my response.

One of the questions Bruce asked was,
"What should the Presbyterian Church focus on after Amendment 10a passes?"
My answer? Peak Oil.

The voting is over. Amendment A has passed. I am happy about the result. I think that equality and justice are important realities to shoot for both at the top and on the far side of Hubbert's Curve.

Now I think it would be helpful to talk about the most significant event our civilization has yet to face. When gasoline is $10 a gallon few people will be driving to attend our Bible studies. The size of the Book of Order, the status of the Belhar Confession, or the latest Twitter gadget will be of little significance if unemployment is 30% and rising, our cities are forced to schedule brownouts, and supermarket shelves are more empty than full.

If you wonder where I get these ideas, I invite you to click any of the links on the sidebar. On the front page of today's Johnson City Press, we read that the International Energy Agency made a desperate move by authorizing "the biggest ever release of reserve oil" that will reduce prices about a dime a gallon at the pump for the summer months. Sixty million barrels of oil will be released. Industrialized Planet Earth injects that amount into its veins every 16 hours.

Half the oil will come from reserves in the U.S. Refiners who turn crude into gasoline will be able to bid on the extra oil and have it shipped to them from the salt caverns along the Gulf Coast where it is stored.

The IEA said high oil demand and shortfalls of oil production caused by unrest in the Middle East and North Africa threatened to “undermine the fragile global economic recovery.”
We have "emergency" oil reserves for emergencies. Saving a dime a gallon for summer driving is hardly an emergency. I highlight this story to illustrate how desperate we are. We will do whatever crazy thing we can to keep this economic monster at bay for another couple of months. We are most certainly "fragile".

This is difficult to address. I don't want to talk about it. It is too much. It is too scary. Yet if we, clergy--the ones "called" to talk about important stuff--don't address it then it would appear that Oil is bigger than God.

Is it true then, that
"In oil we live and move and have our being?"
Perhaps our religious institutions including the PC(USA) are little more than petroleum products. While that may be true,
I say we are human beings and are more than our institutions. While we may serve at present Petroleum Man's Church, we have more depth. We are strong enough to face what will come with open eyes.

As we enter this
catabolic "stair step" collapse as John Michael Greer calls it, when we fall into a period of crisis and collapse then have a period of stability and small recovery followed by another crisis/collapse, and so on like descending stairs, people, in their desperation might turn to us for something. In addition to supernaturalistic platitudes, it would be helpful if we offered some kind of legitimate psychological, spiritual, communal, logistical, and physical support. I wish I could say that my community and I have a plan. But we don't. Do you?

There are certainly justice issues surrounding this. The wealthy will still be wealthy. The powerful will find a way to make money going down as well as they did going up. Why do you think the rich and famous are making sure their pie slices will get larger as the pie gets smaller? The laws at both state and federal levels are being changed right under our noses in preparation for this future of decline.

Not only that, but the relaxing of environmental laws and nuclear safety regulations and the invention of crazy Earth-hating ideas, are on the rise.

I can't think of anything more important for us to care about than Peak Oil Justice. Maybe as Petroleum Church (USA) collapses there will be some green shoot that comes up from the slime.

We have plenty of resources within our tradition to speak to our time. The Bible contains plenty of stories and themes about rise and fall and shoots sprouting from stumps. But we cannot seem to apply these stories to our current situation.

Perhaps the scriptural voice is overpowered by the myth of American exceptionalism.
Not us. We are not subject to the same fate as civilizations in the past. We are different.

When this myth is coupled with the myth of progress (technology will save us) any discussion of limits and overshoot is heresy.

We are onward and upward forever and ever. We are ever-evolving, ever-improving, growing, growing to the stars.

We need some different stories. We need to find a way to celebrate conservation. We need to celebrate the use of human brain and muscle power as opposed to machine power.

Human life will be more fulfilling when we simplify and use far less. We need to celebrate the spirituality of less.

We might as well celebrate using less fossil fuel energy. It will be our future, and that future is now.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Such Is Life! My Summer Sermon Series

I finished the worship guide for summer. This will cover the Sundays from June 26 through September 18th. You can download the guide here. Summer worship is going to be based on the
Book of Ecclesiastes. We have great guide in the person of Lloyd Geering.

Geering's latest book is called Such Is Life! A Close Encounter with Ecclesiastes. Geering provides a new translation and has a "conversation" with the author of Ecclesiastes.

Who was the author of Ecclesiastes?

Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon. Modern scholarship disagrees. It places authorship around 300 BCE by an anonymous philosopher who writes in the persona of Solomon. The philosopher, Qoheleth, challenged conventional wisdom, especially conventional theological wisdom. From the perspective of most biblical authors, he would be considered a “heretic.”

There is no covenant with YHWH. “God” for Qoheleth is what we might call “Nature” and in some cases, “Luck”. There is no justice in this life. Wisdom yields sorrow. Death is the fate for humans and animals alike. Nothing lasts. The reader experiences the mood swings of Qoheleth. Yet amidst the despair over the impermanence of life, he affirms

“that nothing is better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. Indeed, it’s possible for all people to eat and drink, and find satisfaction in everything they do.”
Join us this summer as we spend some time with the biblical heretic, the author of Ecclesiastes.

Check out some of Lloyd Geering's other works

You might be interested in this article by Geering in the
Fourth R, How Did Jesus Become God and Why.

Other articles by Geering in the
Fourth R include, "Is Christianity Going Anywhere?"

And an informative history on the Israeli-Palestinian question: "Who Owns the Holy Land?"
I have made a few posts about Lloyd Geering as well:
You can watch a documentary about Lloyd Geering on Youtube, "The Last Western Heretic."

Nazareth, North Dakota: A Review

Now and then a publicist will ask me to review a book. If I think it is interesting I will. Two things piqued my interest about the novel, Nazareth, North Dakota.

The first is that I am familiar with North Dakota, having grown up in neighboring Montana.

The second is that the novel is a contemporary retelling of the birth and life of Jesus (up to his baptism).

Part of the fun is guessing who the characters in the novel represent in the Bible. There is a list at the end, but readers are advised to read the novel first before checking out who's who. I obeyed. It was more fun that way.

It is not a "Christian" book. What I mean by that is that the author, Tommy Zurhellen, does not want to get you "saved" or to imprint evangelical morality upon his readers. He is telling a story of characters that have a loose connection with their biblical counterparts.

At one point some local preachers are discussing Jan (John the Baptist):

"Point is, this Jan is a rabble-rouser, pure and simple."

"This is North Dakota," the man replied with a chuckle. "All we got is rabble."

Ben Runkle had been listening. "Excuse me," he said, rising slowly from his seat, leaning his arms on the pew in front of him. "If I'm not mistaken, Elijah was a rabble-rouser. Jonah, too." He licked his dry lips and drew a long breath. He carried the hangdog look of a man who'd spent a life telling people what they didn't want to hear. "But what if it's true? What if this Brother Jan is truly a prophet, sent by God?"

Pastor White laughed. "You can't be serious."

"Brothers, we all say we're men of god. We say our job is to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah on earth. But what if the Messiah did come from a little town in North Dakota? Would we even know it?"

"Trust me, reverend," Yarbrough said. "Nothing good ever came out of Nazareth."
The descriptions ring true. We all know the preacher who has "carried the hangdog look of a man who'd spent a life telling people what they didn't want to hear."

The framework is the biblical legend. The real story involves the characters themselves. It is a life of cigarettes and alcohol, of crooked sheriffs and heavy metal. It is the life of folks getting by in North Dakota with all the quirkiness, disappointments, and moments of grace that small town life offers and withholds.

Nazareth, North Dakota is a fun, first novel. Read an interview about the book with the author here. I look forward to the sequel.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Good Life--A Sermon

The Good Life
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 19, 2011
Trinity Sunday

A Trinity

Of three in One and One in three
My narrow mind would doubting be
Till Beauty, Grace and Kindness met
And all at once were Juliet.
--Hillaire Belloc

Gospel of Jesus 17:1-14

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge, 1999), pp. 73, 75. Mark 8:35, 10:1, 23, 25; Matthew 5:42; 6:24; 10:39, 16:25; 19:23-24; Luke 6:30, 34; 9:24, 12:16-20; 17:33; 18:24-25 John 12:25; Thomas 47:2; 63:1-4; 95:1-2

And from there he gets up and goes to the territory of Judea and across the Jordan, and once again crowds gather around him. As usual, he started teaching them.

Jesus advises, “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

Jesus said, “If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back. If you lend to those from whom you hope to gain, what merit is there in that? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to get as much in return.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “I swear to you, it is very difficult for the rich to enter Heaven’s domain. And again I tell you, it’s easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into God’s domain.”

Jesus said, “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”

Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”

With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

With what are you left if you regard the Trinity as a metaphor?

What remains if you leave behind the notion of Jesus as a supernatural being?

What do you have when you separate the myth from the man?

Many would say,
“Not much. The magic is the mojo.
Why even bother with Jesus if he was just a guy,
just a slob like one of us,
another stranger on the bus.”
Others, like the late C.S. Lewis, feel quite strongly about it and say that Jesus if not Lord was either a liar or a lunatic. To quote Lewis from his book, Mere Christianity:
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
Those who object to Lewis’ conclusion might offer a fourth option. In addition to lunatic, liar, or lord, the fourth option is legend. In this view, the stories of Jesus’ divinity and miracles as well as some of the words attributed to him were later additions. He was “framed” so to speak. If his teachings and deeds were a painting, the frame of the church has been supernaturalism.

The nice thing about going to an art gallery and seeing paintings in their frames is that the observer has the freedom and the autonomy to interpret and to make up her or his own mind on the matter. I argue the same is true for Jesus. Far be it for me to tell you how you must view him or to pretend to offer the “correct” way to view him.

Back to my original question.

With what are you left when you strip from Christianity the miracles of Jesus?

A church member and I were talking about that a few weeks ago. The church member said that if we strip away the supernatural from Jesus we are left with a moral code that is impossible to keep.

As I was thinking about what this church member said, I thought no wonder the church decided to turn Jesus into an object of devotion. It is far easier to express belief in him than to do what he said.

In some circles the teachings of Jesus have been framed in such a way as to be the opposite of what Jesus said. I am sure you have heard some believers say that it doesn’t matter how good you are. You can be a moral superhero but if you don’t believe in Jesus, down the chute to the fiery furnace for you.
  • Of course, here is the thing. What if there is no fiery furnace?
  • What if there are no streets of gold either?
  • I am not saying for sure either way. I don’t know.
  • But what if our decision as to whether or not to lead a virtuous life,a good life, a moral life, has nothing to do with whether or not we will be judged eternally for it?
  • What if we had the choice each day to be good for goodness sake?
  • What if there is no stern Santa making a list of who’s naughty and nice?
  • Would we do it?
  • Would we seek the good?
Over the past couple of years, I have been preaching on the red and pink sayings and deeds of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar distilled in their collective quest for the historical Jesus. I have preached on his parables and aphorisms and have tried to offer my assessment of who Jesus was and speak of the values he held.

The red and pink sayings and deeds are those things they voted as more likely than some other sayings and deeds to be voiceprints and footprints of an actual guy who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago.

I am nearing the end of that project. I will close this series of my sermons on Jesus with this collection of sayings in today’s bulletin.

It is easy to see that these things are not easy to do.
Give to everyone who begs from you.
Really, Jesus? Really?

Common wisdom says we aren’t to do that because they will just spend it on liquor. Knowing that makes me feel a little better when I pass them by. That moral code is a piece of cake if you know how to spin it.
Jesus said: If you have money, don’t lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won’t get it back.
Really? That’s just un-American. Of all of the teachings of Jesus, is there any that we have more blatantly defied and ignored than this one? The whole thing--our whole world-- Industrial civilization itself and its globalized economy--is based on lending money at interest. It is the basis for economic growth. Yet as we read and hear the news, we can see where our economic philosophy is leading us. In the future, our descendants, should they survive us, may discover that Jesus was right after all.
Jesus said, “No servant can be a slave to two masters. No doubt that slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and disdain the other. You can’t be enslaved to both God and a bank account.”
On that score, we decided that what Jesus really meant was that the size of our bank account is evidence for how much God has blessed us. The bigger the bank, the better the blessing.

You know, all this money stuff is too complicated. Jesus was out of his field here. The important thing to know is that what Jesus really cared about was sex, and who shouldn’t be having it.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce, that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
That guy ended up dead, but he did have a good investment strategy, don’t you think? His portfolio was in order. Sure there is that death thing, that whole impermanence and transient thing about life, but if we don’t take that into account, if we bracket that, the strategy of building bigger barns makes a lot of sense, right? If we ignore death, then building bigger barns is a good plan.
And Jesus said: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”
I don’t think Jesus left us with a moral code. I also don’t put much personal stock in Christian supernaturalism. Whatever happens after death is out of my control anyway. I don’t insist. It is just how I see it. The only thing for which I have any control, and that is limited, is what I do in the present.

I don’t think Jesus provided us with a moral code for which we will receive a grade as to how well we followed it. He didn’t give us a code so we could compare ourselves with one another and judge accordingly.

I think instead, he gave us a poke. His parables and aphorisms, even the way he lived his life was a prod, a poke, and a push. He wasn’t giving us a list of things we needed to do to be good or to avoid so we won’t be bad. He was an observer of people and of life. He saw the things that people valued. He poked.

He said,
“Are you sure? Bigger barns? Really?”
It seems that Jesus wanted to point out a truth:
  • Life is short. What are you going to do about it?
  • Those people you have around you won’t be there forever. What are you going to do about them?
  • Is your goal to make a good living or to make a good life?
  • Do you know the difference?
He challenged authoritative structures and conventional wisdom. He exposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and the cruelty of those in power. He criticized our economic ideas for the frauds they are.

He poked and prodded then.
Now 20 centuries later, he pokes and prods us today.

Insightful people who poke and prod us are hard to take. Our human tendency is to react to them out of extremes. In the case of Jesus, we crucified him then turned him into a god. He is either lord or lunatic. We’ll do anything to avoid having to deal with what he actually said.
Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will forfeit it, but whoever forfeits life will preserve it.”
What did Jesus mean by that? I could give you my opinion, but it would just be my opinion. He pokes and prods us to take his statement seriously.

What is the good life?
What is life for?
What am I hanging on to that I need to let go?
What do I want to preserve?
What do I need to forfeit so I can do that?

The freeing and frightening thing is that no one but no one can answer those questions for you but you.

To life!

Blessed Be.

Friday, June 17, 2011

What Presbyterians Believe (except me) Part 2

I am uncomfortable with this question:
What do Presbyterians believe?
My answer tends to be,
"Well some Presbyterians believe some things some of the time. Others believe other things some of the time. Just ask a Presbyterian."
I am not particularly happy when I read magazines with the title:
What Presbyterians Believe
I strongly resist those blanket statements. It doesn't relate so much to the content of what the authors or editors might believe, it is the assumption that everyone believes or should believe these things. I raise my hand and say,
"I'm a Presbyterian and I don't necessarily believe that."
That is the spirit in which I made my last post on this topic What Presbyterians Believe (except me). I don't write to be obstinate or to say that I have the absolute truth or that my views are more important than the views of another or to call attention to myself. I am simply an individual expressing my autonomy and my views at this point in my life. That is why I use "I" statements.
"I believe."
Nor do my statements constitute my last or only word on the topic. Many of my views seem to contradict each other. They probably do contradict each other. I say "yes" to my ordination vows even as I struggle with their content. I say "yes" to my (most recent and official) faith statement even as I find myself changing.

I don't find this work easy or finished.
I likely always will be seeking and my theological views likely always will be changing. I hope that I will seek and change until I die. As a minister, yes a Presbyterian minister, I respect and encourage that same freedom and autonomy in others. You have the right to speak and own your truth. You also have the right to change. As I often tell couples who come for counseling,

"You will change. When you do, don't forget to tell your partner."

In t
he 2011 Special Issue of Presbyterians Today, the editors reprinted a 2001 article by Cynthia L. Rigby, Jesus is the Way: Presbyterian theology affirms the uniqueness of Christ.

Dr. Rigby is an excellent professor. I was in her precept at Princeton when taking a course from Dr. Migliore on Karl Barth. She was getting her Ph. D. at the time and was the teaching assistant.

I respect her views even as I don't share all of them. It really isn't her views with which I quibble. It is the blanket statement about what Presbyterians believe. To illustrate, she writes:

Presbyterians believe that Jesus Christ is "fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, without confusion and without change, without separation and without division." This statement dates all the way back to the fifth century (451 to be exact) and is known as the Chalcedonian Definition.
That statement from 451 doesn't even make logical sense. It is a contradiction. Not that there is anything wrong with contradictions, I make them myself. This statement from 451 was a political compromise. It isn't a statement of absolute truth or Divine proclamation.

Human beings decided this.
Whether the means of decision were violent, manipulative, or a democratic vote, human beings made it up. I doubt they were even as democratic as the Jesus Seminar when it votes. I certainly don't think they were any more or less divinely inspired than the Jesus Seminar (or than you and me).

Human beings made decisions in 451. They didn't all agree. There were losers. There were people who didn't win "the vote" that day. Were they wrong just because their view didn't win the day? As Dr. Rigby writes:

The people who wrote the Chalcedonian statement were, like us, trying to figure out what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is divine as well as human.
What does "divine" even mean in 451 let alone today? I think we need to know how our ancestors wrestled with decisions. We can respect their efforts. We can criticize their efforts. We can learn from their process and their decisions. We can honor our tradition but we are not beholden to their provisional conclusions. Not all Presbyterians believe these statements, nor in my view, should we be required to do so.

The statement,
"Presbyterians believe ______________" is not a statement of truth or even agreement. It is a statement of power. This is not the power that enables truth seeking but the power that restricts and coerces.

One may argue that Presbyterians have the right to do that. They have the right to make their own rules regarding belief and to include and exclude through their own means of power management. That is true.

My question to the denomination is whether or not we wish to be that. Is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

  1. going to sequester itself in a self-imposed grotto of ancient theology and impose it on all of its leaders and thinkers or
  2. is it going to be open to the challenges of our time and encourage change and truth seeking?
My suggestion as to a way forward is not particularly dramatic. It follows a trend that many within our denomination have already been taking. That has to do with how we approach creeds and confessions. Are they
  1. statements of belief to which we must adhere or
  2. are they streams of tradition from which we are free to learn?
Are they
  1. tests of faith or
  2. testimonies to faith?
In our vows, candidates for ordination are asked if they will be "guided" by our confessions. That sounds like option two (if "guide" allows the freedom to choose differently). But when I read articles that state what Presbyterians believe, that sounds too much like option one for my conscience.
How will we approach our tradition?

As I see it, this is the struggle the PC(USA) is facing at this time.
I recommend option two.